Saturday, 28 June 2008

Britain’s unwritten constitution

This is as close an approximation as I could manage of the assemblage of precedent, pageantry, mythology and phantasm that is Britain’s unwritten constitution. Drawn for the Times Higher Education Supplement many years ago. See also the previous post for more constitutional comedy.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Republican rebate

Francis Sedgemore wants his money back. 66p for a royal freak show, with a tawdry magic act in support, no thank you.

Yes, we could do better, or worse. In The Frogs who wanted a King, a 1922 animated short by  Ladislaw Starewicz, the foolish frogs ditch their democracy and demand a king. Their deity supplies them with a regal log, but they are not satisfied and demand a king with more life in him, so the almighty sends them a stork, and it's snip-snap, frogs for lunch.

Now the current monarch of G.B.&N.I. &c. is more log than stork, so I'm not so worried about being eaten, it's more all the accompanying wooly thinking, the muddled magic of selecting before birth a particular poor mortal as symbol of the state, that seems infantilising of the citizenry, psychologically dangerous even.  Far safer and saner to go for complete log, rather than human playing the part of log.

Constitutionally this would make little real difference. We need a wooden statue of the Q. with rubber stamp signatures and seals and all, to be operated according to the normal political controls. Then the human currently playing Q. can retire without fear of hooded axe murderers, mechanical choppers, or other irrational endings.

What's that you say? You want an elected head of state? A sure recipe for national embarrassment I fear, best stick with wood.

Update: see also the following post for more clearheaded constitutional cognition.

The Beau Hunks’ back room boy

Piet Schreuders, the back room boy of The Beau Hunks, has returned from another of his adventures excavating the lost cities of 20th Century popular culture. Along with fellow researchers Mark Lewisohn and Adam Smith he arrives with a revised and updated version of their book The Beatles’ London. And he’s got a film to show, demonstrating the sort of in-depth investigation this discipline requires.

But you mustn’t think that Mr Schreuders' work in the field of Beatleology is monomania. He is a leading expert in numerous other areas of pop culture archæology. His voluminous researches for The Beau Hunks on the works of composers Leroy Shield and Raymond Scott are outstanding examples of his dedication, as are his efforts in the restoration and re-issuing of long out of print Dutch Little Golden Books

His day job is doing layouts, or as the hoity-toity ones call it, graphic design. And of course, the summit meeting point of these fields of research and layout is the information graphic. Mr Schreuders has an extensive collection of a particularly fine form of information graphic, the Dell Mapback paperback designs.

Also in the field of paperback art, he is responsible for a fine book on that old master of jacket art, James Avati, written with co-author Kenneth Fulton. Incidentally the book features a very fine information graphic on the evolution of paperback cover design.

One of his most complex projects integrating meticulous pop culture archaeology with information graphics must be his reconstruction of Main Street, Culver City, California, as it was recorded in the late 1920s in Laurel and Hardy short films. The results of this research were presented in print in issue 19 of the occasional magazine Furore, and as a digital 3D model in the TV documentary De Bril van Piet Schreuders

More power to him!

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Two Quakers

A few posts ago I referred to John Runnings, a Quaker and peace campaigner. He began his activism in the 1960s campaigning against the Vietnam War and against nuclear weapons.

In the late 1970s he first became involved in non-violent civil disobedience as part of the campaign against the Trident submarine base in Bangor, Washington. During this time he met Gene Sharp, author of The Politics of Nonviolent Action and other related works, who helped give shape to some of John Runnings' growing doubts about the peace movement. In his pamphlet Discovering the Obvious he quotes at length from Sharp, including this passage:

Peace groups have been willing to settle for things far short of abolishing war: witnessing to one's piety and purity - and the stupidity of everybody else; witnessing to being a "holy remnant" or the only sane people around; struggling for the rights of conscientious objectors to war. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these things. The point is not that. But they serve as substitutes for serious efforts to abolish war as such. Peace groups oppose a particular war and try to speed up its end with no confidence whatsoever that, even if successful, the military systems will thereby be weaker. Peace groups oppose the development of a particular weapon or a particular piece of technology - without that necessarily being a vehicle for reversing the whole dependence upon military hardware and military weapons. Or advocates of peace support giving all of the world's weapons to one government - a world government - or support the army of the other side - and call that anti-war activity!! Or peace workers support universal negotiated disarmament when there is no historical evidence that that has ever worked or ever will. Or peace workers settle for some measures of arms control and arms regulation which - although they may help and may prevent a particular outbreak, or destruction, or attack under certain circumstances - can easily be broken and leave the military system more or less as it is.

John Runnings described his own doubts about the strategy of the anti-war movement as follows:

During the years with the peace community I had occasion to pass out anti-war literature on the streets of Seattle. And it was not uncommon to have someone respond to what I was doing this wise, "It is all right for you to take advantage of the freedom of speech that we enjoy in this country to disparage the United States for their part in the arms race, but the Russians are going all out to match and exceed our arms build up. Who is protesting in Russia? Why aren't you there?

And I had a tendency to read into this protest an implicit expectation that if I were to do such a protest in Russia that I would be sent to Siberia for a long, long time and that my loyalty to the U.S. was questionable, and that I had a partiality for the communist philosophy.

The easy answer was that it was more convenient to protest in Bremerton than in Moscow and that we were responsible for our government and the responsibility for protesting arms in Russia was with the Russians. 

But I was not at all satisfied with this answer . I felt that the conservatives had a point here that we were refusing to look at, that we were making a political contest between Americans and Americans on how to reduce the military threat between Americans and Russians.

Runnings' conclusion was that anti-war activists should seek to implement an alternative to war by challenging military borders through non-violent direct action. He viewed war as the inevitable result of there being no global civil law, only treaties between military states. 

He was as good as his word, and in 1985 went on to leaflet on the streets of Moscow before being deported, (in a 100 seat Aeroflot jet with no other passengers,) then to physically attack the Berlin Wall several times, and carried out repeated "political invasions" of East Germany, entering the DDR without permission, and with as much publicity as he could organise. On an early attempt he was injured by East German border guards and jailed for three months. During later events he found that East German forces treated him with increasing care and expeditiousness as they sought to rid themselves of him with the minimum of fuss.

I first came across John Runnings' writing when looking for online material on another Quaker, author Jan de Hartog.

In Discovering the Obvious, Runnings writes at one point about de Hartog's novel The Captain. The title character is Captain Harinxma, skipper of a Dutch ocean-going tug in the Murmansk convoys during the Second World War. From the brief claustrophobic description of London during the Blitz to the relentless brutality of the Nazi attacks on the convoys, the book is a powerful account of overwhelming fear. 

John Runnings obviously admired the novel greatly, as did I when I read it, but when it comes to de Hartog's pacifist conclusion, Runnings the peace campaigner parts company with him. He writes:

[De Hartog] knows certainly that civilization is an ongoing commercial and political contest for the goodies of civilization, and it's also lawsuits, black eyes, spitballs and cheating. Nor is it an issue of peace and war. If we define war as contest, all life is war. We are at battle from the time the doctor slaps us on the rump to the time we wrestle with the diseases of old age. Peace, the absence of strife, is not an achievable goal. There can never be an end to war defined as strife, until there is an end to breathing. Life, in a sense, is an anti-peace campaign to escape death and boredom. At issue is the kind of war. We have a form of non-military war that is so much a part of us that we do not recognize it as such, and this, of course, is civil law. In contrast to military war it is called peace.

Runnings finds Captain Harinxma's solution to the unmitigated brutality of war, his decision to disengage, unsatisfactory. He continues:

In the natural world there is no such thing as fairness, justice, mercy or murder, or lunacy for that matter. And while some other species may share with us the emotions we call love and hate that may prompt them to violence or accommodation, they are subject only to the rewards and penalties of natural law. So if you disengage when you are being pursued by a bear in the natural world you accommodate to the bear's right to eat you for lunch. The military contest is a contest in natural law and the victorious state is going to eat lunch. And the defeated state, having been forced to disengage from the contest, is going to be the lunch.

We can have an end to military war and natural law as soon as we bring the rules of civilization to the militarily imposed divisions that define international states. War, as I have insisted before, is a contest in the terror of slaughter and destruction to determine, when all other means of conflict resolution have failed, which of the political entities so engaged will write the terms of the peace. If it could be determined at the beginning of the fight who would win, those that were sure to loose could surrender at the beginning of the contest and save the cost of the war and avoid the slaughter and destruction entailed. There is no doubt an untold number of wars that have been avoided when a nation faced with superior strength surrendered before the war started. Any war can be stopped as soon as one side is prepared to take the penalties of disengagement. The penalty is that by so doing one says loudly that one can be pushed around. And there are those among us who would rather die than be pushed around by military threat.

(...) if all of the members of the Allied Forces became offended by the slaughter and destruction and disengaged from the war, it would be the German High Command who would levy the penalties. The Allies suffered six years of the carnage because they did not want to take the penalties of disengagement and slaughter and destruction as de Hartog's story suggests. For a while it might be said it was a choice between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as opposed to Oranienburg, Buchenwald, and Dachau, more importantly it was a contest between invading dictators and defending democracies in the context of natural law. We do not need to see peace in terms of de Hartog's poetry to find disengagement to become lunch for the Nazis an intolerable option.

Many years after Harinxma's decision, "not to shoot back" whatever the consequences, he is writing to his son who is now contemplating joining the Air Force. And because Harinxma's author is culturally programmed to see the slaughter and destruction of war as the problem, rather than the absence of civil alternatives to natural law, he steers his son into the labyrinth of moral considerations, detached as they are in war from the supporting institutions of civil law for moral behavior as follows:

"So I cannot sit mutely by while you try on your first Air Force uniform in front of the mirror blissfully unconscious of the fact that to volunteer for the military training is to sign a pact with violence, and hand the ultimate moral decision - to kill or not to kill - over to a faceless committee of men who, by their very training and indoctrination, consider genocide a legitimate means of settling human disputes."

With apologies to Jan de Hartog, I think this is inaccurate and unfair. Hitler was using illegitimate means of conflict resolution. And the "faceless committee" is in charge of the illegitimate response that is the only option, since there is no legislature at the international level by which a legal, or a legitimate, response might have been pursued.

We are not charged with murder if we can show reasonable proof that we had to kill to avoid being killed. The protection of civil law not being available we are allowed to protect ourselves as best we may. The state of war is evidence that protection of civil law is unavailable. And had the Allies disengaged because of their repugnance to the horrors of war it would have been Hitler's concepts of peace and justice that would have prevailed rather than those of Churchill, Roosevelt, Truman and other Allied leaders.

Here the issue that de Hartog raises is not how to change natural law into civil law, but rather on how the individual may avoid getting into a situation where doing violence to another person is required by the situation. It is clearly the fault of our cultural heritage that this marvelous intellect writes a superb portrayal of war, and the horrors of war, to conclude with so paltry a solution. For there are vast quantities of literature, ancient and modern, authored by persons of undeniable intellect and integrity in support of this pathetically inadequate approach to the abolishment of military threat and military strife between peoples.

It would have been interesting had there been a conversation between these two. I suspect that Jan de Hartog would have had some sympathy with John Runnings' point of view, for his books do not shy away from the primitive and visceral qualities of life that Runnings points to. Despite his pacifism, he wrote about war with power and imagination. He matched spirituality with feverish sensuality and sexuality, and described religious faith as much in terms of psychology as of divinity.

I wrote a few words in praise of de Hartog in my contribution to Normblog's Writer's Choice series. More Jan de Hartog posts here.

The top illustration on the theme of Roman gladiators is from the Times Higher Education Supplement, April 1, 1994. The lower image is a dustjacket for The Captain, illustrated by John O'Hara Cosgrave II.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Animals think they’re pretty smart

A couple of sketches for an unproduced project at Jim Henson's Creature Shop, London, from 2000. Above, acrylic on paper. Below, ballpoint and colour pencil on paper.

Motive 3

Following my earlier post on motive, and its sequel, which questioned the importance placed on motive by many of the anti-war point of view, here is something that may explain the persistence of the motive argument.

Grant McCracken notes the frequent uses of phrases such as "I am deeply troubled" or "I am deeply saddened" in political debate, particularly in the Democratic Party. He writes:

In our culture at the present moment, claims to emotion are proof of good intentions, and a certain purity of motive.  We are more trustworthy when in the throes of an emotional event.  Speaking from the heart is a good thing.  And when we say we are "deeply saddened," dude, we are so deeply trustworthy that a political party would be entirely wrong not to embrace what we have to say.

He goes on to look at this in relation to arguments by sociologist Viviana Zelizer on our culture's distinction between matters of commerce and matters of intimacy. He concludes:

I wonder if the parties are not separating in a kind of continental drift with this as their impulse.  It is does parse quite neatly.  Democrats are the party of feeling. They care about the world.  They feel its pain.  Republicans, by contrast, are hard hearted bastards who don't or can't care.  All that matters to them is commerce. 

But strategically, isn't this a problem?   Can the Democrats afford to take this position?  It is all very well to claim the emotional domain, but does this leave them open to the charge that they can feel the issues but not manage them?  In the final hour, American voters, those swing voters in the middle, they don't care so much about charisma and the promise of change, as they do about trust.  Being the party of feeling how can it not indeed feel good.  It looks like the side of virtue. ( And for all I know, it is the side of virtue.)  But strategically, it is an expensive place to be.  It lays claim to authenticity but sacrifices, perhaps, the claim to competence on which every election finally depends.

It seems to me that the near-obsession with motive regarding the invasion of Iraq, and earlier wars too, is an example of this problem of being overly concerned with whether leaders' hearts are in the right place, rather than with focusing on actions and their consequences. The cultural aversion to mixing commerce and matters of intimacy described in Grant McCracken's post also relates to the unwillingness of many to consider the possibility that actions with selfish motives may have wider positive results.

Read the whole thing here.

Earlier related posts: Motive, Motive 2, Re-fighting World War Two

Friday, 20 June 2008

Transcontinental Internut Moviemaking Madness

Uncle Eddie and his internet friend Jim have made a film together apart, by which I mean they've never met, separated as they are by a continent, and the fun was all done via internuttiness.

Eddie plays the romance novel reading lady, as well as her dog, and Jim is the burglar. The music is all Raymond Scott of course.

The two scallywags had got in touch after Eddie wrote an earlier post featuring some of Jim's very funny films. One of my favourites, below, is a masterclass in funny walks. More Jim films here.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Blood and soil

Territorial monkeys, another THES drawing from 1994. This one was commissioned to illustrate an article by Professor Denis Cosgrove, Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, on geography and politics, landscape and national identity.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Outlaw the bomb?

Norman Geras, and then Francis Sedgemore, comment on a proposal from David Krieger to make illegal the possession of nuclear weapons.

They both notice the stark absence of any practical proposal on how to enforce this measure. As the current preferred instrument to prevent the use of nuclear weapons is the threat of nuclear retaliation, it would seem that an effective sanction to enforce a law against possession would need to be something rather substantial, certainly something greater than the proposed penalty for the unauthorised detonation of a nuclear weapon in the Irish Republic.

Both Norm and Francis find it hard to imagine a world where such a thing is possible, but that won't stop me trying, at least for a couple of paragraphs. The neatest solution would be a global political union with a universal civil law, as described at length here in the unusual writing style of peace campaigner John Runnings.

Failing that, we would need a law that would work in this world of competing nation states. A measure to make illegal the possession of nuclear weapons would have to include worldwide open access to weapons inspectors. I don't believe any power that felt themselves under threat would put their security solely in the hands of the IAEA, so instead inspectors from any country would have to be allowed into any other country. This is beginning to get problematic.

Every country would need to have the right to use conventional military force against any other country breaking the law. This could not be conditional on agreement by the Security Council or some other international body, as from past experience that would give no guarantee of security to a state threatened by another state breaking the law. Every state would need the right to an equivalent of citizen's arrest, that equivalent being pre-emptive military action against a nuclear threat.

This is too much, I hear someone shout! There has to be some order, we can't allow a free-for-all! Very well, include the Security Council, the IAEA, or some other international arbiter populated by competing interests, but don't expect a country believing itself to be under threat of nuclear attack to wait for the result. They'll go to war if they think they have to.

I suspect the outcome of such a measure, were it even possible, might be a massive increase in conventional arms spending, a race to develop more destructive conventional weapons, and greater instability.

For all the strangeness of his writing, the eccentricity of his costumes, and his sometimes doubtful thinking during the Gulf War, I feel John Runnings may have been right in suspecting diplomatic treaties between military powers, trusting instead only in political union to end war.

Monday, 16 June 2008

What big eyes you have, Grandma

The new French edition of Charlie Bone that I've illustrated includes twenty-one line drawings as well as the cover painting. Here is a twenty-second drawing that was surplus to requirements, showing nasty Aunt Lucretia and mean old Grandma Bone.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Re-fighting World War Two

Further to this earlier post, more on the strange characters on the left as well as the right who argue that the world might have been a better place if Britain and America had never gone to war with Hitler.

Harry's Place has a post on Pat Buchanan and his alternative reality view of WWII. There is a bizarre attempt by him in a TV interview to somehow portray WWII as Churchill's fault, despite the fact Churchill wasn't even in power when Hitler invaded Poland and Britain consequently declared war on Germany.

Martin in the Margins rounds up some reactions to that new book by Nicholson Baker, and clarifies the contemporary context of this craziness.

Snoopy the Goon works through the consequences of Nicholson Baker's wishful thinking about how war between the Nazis and Britain, France and the US might have been avoided. If Baker is correct and war on the Western Front was avoidable, then Hitler would have been free to use the totality of his war machine against the USSR, and would consequently have had a much higher chance of winning. What then, asks Snoopy?

“For me the answer is quite simple - I wouldn't have been born and somebody else would have had to respond to Mr Baker's well meaning drivel."
. . .

As Martin points out, the reason it has become necessary for some on the left to join revisionists on the right in pursuing this line of argument is that the fight against Nazism is the classic example of the necessity of being prepared to use force to defeat mass-murdering despotism. For those who argued against the use of military force by Britain and the US to defeat the Baathists in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Milosevic in the Balkans, WWII is a problem. If it was right to fight Hitler, why is it wrong to fight these other mass-murderers? 

There are a number of arguments that are used to counter this problem.

One: 'They're not on the same scale as Hitler and don't threaten us'. The argument of scale, while strictly speaking true, seems poor when the numbers of victims of Saddam Hussein's Baathists are set out. For Afghanistan the 'no threat' argument is demonstratively untrue to all but a disturbing number of conspiracy theorists.

Two: 'But this current war is not being fought for humanitarian or democratic motives'. The motive argument is shallow and irrelevant. Actions and their results matter, not motives. A decision to go to war will usually be determined by self-interest. There is such a thing as enlightened self-interest. And yes, financial self-interest is not incompatible with the greater good. Victory in war depends on economics. If too great a share of the world's resources are controlled by totalitarian despots, that constitutes a threat to democracy, and while it may not in itself justify war, it is a legitimate factor to consider. (Argument two is also answered here, in the paragraph on 'war for oil'.)

Three: 'But World War Two was not fought for humanitarian or democratic motives'. Enough already, see argument two above. (Argument three also answered here.)

There is a fourth argument, one beloved of 9/11 conspiracy theorists, which deals with WWII by trying to give the role of the Nazis to the US, an argument that attempts to equate the errors of the GW Bush administration on treatment of prisoners to Nazi war crimes and babbles about 9/11 being 'Bush's Reichstag fire'. But in its eighth and final year in office, the Bush administration can still be overruled by the US Supreme Court, and is still checked by a strong opposition in Congress. Look back to the events of the first few months of Hitler's rule of Germany, where their actions in parliament were backed by violent acts of terror on the streets, where all political opposition was outlawed, and where the Nazis gained total control of all aspects of the state, eliminating any separation of powers or independent rule of law, and the comparison is quickly shown to be ludicrous.

There is another grim aspect to the fourth argument, in that it seeks equivalence between the mass-murderers who now detonate bombs in Iraqi marketplaces and WWII's underground resistance to Nazism in Europe, but the European WWII resistance movements didn't carry out indiscriminate bombings of civilians. The comparison is as sick as it is dishonest.

Perhaps then it's a sense of the fragility of these arguments that lead some to the ultimate move of attempting a revision of the history of World War Two. But in this they find themselves on even more uncertain ground, and in most awkward company. If their initial standpoint leads them into such difficulties with historical fact, mightn't it be wiser for them to retrace their steps and re-examine their original assumptions rather than go ever deeper in trying to reshape reality into a more convenient form?
. . .

A couple of themes seem to recur in these attempted revisions: a focus on the mass-bombing of civilians by the Allies, and attacks on the belligerent and less than wholly democratic character of Churchill.

On strategic bombing of civilian areas, I have great sympathy for the argument that this was not just morally wrong but also militarily disadvantageous in terms of diversion of resources and psychological effect. I am also aware of how death tolls from Allied bombing have been in some cases exaggerated.

To support a declaration of war and the aims of that war, it is not necessary to support every action carried out in the name of the war. Wars are complex, containing a multitude of decisions, carried out by a multitude of individuals. Of course it is possible to support a war, and at the same time argue against a particular action, even more so if one believes that the action is not just disproportionate but detrimental to the aims of the war.

On Churchill, he wasn't perfect, he wasn't the first choice of most of the backbenchers wanting to replace Chamberlain, but he was finally their only option. He showed the necessary forcefulness to overcome appeasement when others wavered. As Prime Minister he was head of an administration that governed by cabinet, and he assented to being overruled by the Cabinet when his was the minority view.

Update 16 June: it continues, Hitchens on Buchanan's book.

Update 23 June: Meryl Yourish responds to Buchanan v. Hitchens with facts, and Harry's Place responds with the West's secret weapon, Daffy Duck.

Update 28 June: A follow up from Martin in the Margins.

Update 11 July: from But I am a Liberal : Buchanan Pimps Book on Nazi Radio

Update 17 August: Victor Davis Hanson and Christopher Hitchens on WWII revisionism, a highly recommended video in five parts.

Related, Sultan Knish traces Buchanan’s views on Putin. In short, it seems Buchanan thinks Munich 1938 was so good that it should be a model for relations with Russia too. (I disagree with some of SK’s other points of view, but this post I like.)

Saturday, 14 June 2008


Having spent years on monumental charcoal portrait heads, and having stacked all that remain on their own Easter Island on the landing at the top of the stairs, she took out a colour pencil and a notebook, opened it and drew, turned the page and drew again.

Image from StairCaseNotes.
Copyright © Susanna Jacobs.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Charlie Bone

Above, just arrived from the printers, my cover for the new French edition of Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo, published by Gallimard Jeunesse. The book is available from Amazon France.

Below, process, process, process.

Rough sketch, acrylic on paper.

Character studies, pencil on paper.

Beginning final art, pencil and Daler Rowney liquid acrylic on Fabriano 300g HP watercolour paper.

From drawing to painting, Liquitex heavy body acrylic.

Nearly . . .

. . . done!

Lots of line drawings inside too.


Tuesday, 10 June 2008

This is not a rolling news service

David Thompson reads The Guardian so that I don't have to.

I used to read it, in the days when they were a bit clearer on the need to stop murderous dictators. In those times however, the story was of the West's failure, a tale that fitted very well with the paper's world view.

I still read The New Yorker, but not every issue. This story I'm glad I saw, Lawrence Wright on dissent within the radical Islamist movement. He's written a lot of other good pieces for the magazine in recent years. An interesting one in connection with the most recent article is a short item from 2006 on the relationship between Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the main Al Qaeda leadership. Longer articles by Lawrence Wright that stand out in my memory are a profile of Al Qaeda second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri from 2002, and an article about how Islamic terrorists use the Internet from 2004. 

The debate within Islamism on the use of violence, described in his most recent piece, takes place in part via the internet as well as in books, pamphlets and newspapers. Another old New Yorker article underlines the centrality of media networks for Al Qaeda, a 2006 article by George Packer on David Kilcullen. The centrality of media networks to Islamist terrorism suggest that dissent within the movement may be highly significant, in that it can spread via the same means.

Also written by George Packer in 2006 was The Lesson of Tal Afar, about a successful US counterinsurgency operation in one town in Iraq in 2005. That operation served as one of the models for the surge of 2007, and the officer in charge of it, Colonel HR McMaster, is interviewed in a clip available here. Highly recommended viewing.

Friday, 6 June 2008


From Life magazine, 21 December 1936, a second one of Boeing's new prototype YB-17 bombers crashes. A crash of the same type the previous year killed two crew members.

An investigation revealed that nothing mechanical had gone wrong. The crash had been due to “pilot error,” the report said. Substantially more complex than previous aircraft, the new plane required the pilot to attend to the four engines, a retractable landing gear, new wing flaps, electric trim tabs that needed adjustment to maintain control at different airspeeds, and constant-speed propellers whose pitch had to be regulated with hydraulic controls, among other features. While doing all this, Hill had forgotten to release a new locking mechanism on the elevator and rudder controls. The Boeing model was deemed, as a newspaper put it, “too much airplane for one man to fly.”

That account is in a New Yorker article from last year by Dr Atul Gawande. He goes on to tell of how these accidents led to the introduction of the checklist as an essential tool to fly complex aircraft safely. Dr Gawande argues that modern medicine has entered its B-17 phase.

Substantial parts of what hospitals do—most notably, intensive care—are now too complex for clinicians to carry them out reliably from memory alone. I.C.U. life support has become too much medicine for one person to fly.

So could checklists do for medicine what they had done for aviation? It wasn't certain, medicine is even more complex than aviation.

In 2001, though, a critical-care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital named Peter Pronovost decided to give it a try. He didn’t attempt to make the checklist cover everything; he designed it to tackle just one problem, the one that nearly killed Anthony DeFilippo: line infections. On a sheet of plain paper, he plotted out the steps to take in order to avoid infections when putting a line in. Doctors are supposed to (1) wash their hands with soap, (2) clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic, (3) put sterile drapes over the entire patient, (4) wear a sterile mask, hat, gown, and gloves, and (5) put a sterile dressing over the catheter site once the line is in. Check, check, check, check, check. These steps are no-brainers; they have been known and taught for years. So it seemed silly to make a checklist just for them. Still, Pronovost asked the nurses in his I.C.U. to observe the doctors for a month as they put lines into patients, and record how often they completed each step. In more than a third of patients, they skipped at least one.

Read the whole New Yorker article here.

There's a shorter follow-up piece for The New York Times here.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Goodbye Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley, not going gently. Oh, he was great. More video here.

The New York Times has audio clips here of Bernard Weinraub interviewing Bo Diddley.
Following the Cold War theme of the previous post, do you know the song Mr Kruschev? Bo Diddley had a ditty about the current wars too, not recorded unfortunately, called My Eagle is Pissed - that would have been good to hear.

See also: Harry's Place

Sunday, 1 June 2008

What’s he building in there?

Here's the Danish daily Berlingske Tidene from the 2nd of February 1950, with news of Truman's decision to put the H-Bomb into production. For the hobbyist wishing to try their hand at making their own, the paper includes plans and instructions. Please do remember however that the penalty for detonating a H-Bomb is just as severe as that for setting off an A-Bomb.

See previous post on this topic.

Testing, testing

So you've built an atomic bomb in your secret laboratory, now to find a quiet spot away from prying eyes where you can try it out. A remote uninhabited island off the coast of Ireland maybe? Ahh, I wouldn't try it now, boyo. You're in danger of a serious fine in the District Court if you do that sort of thing round here. You might even get twelve months in jail. Oh, we take this kind of malarkey very seriously, so we do.