Shame – a double-edged sword

April 26, 2015


Shame may restrain what law does not prohibit. Lucius Annaeus Seneca


Facebook is where you lie to your friends. Twitter is where you’re honest with strangers. Anonymous


A spreadsheet doesn’t make you feel shame; going to church does. Nassim Nicholas Taleb


In the summer of 2000 Dr Yvette Cloete came home one day to find that the word “paedo” had been daubed across the front porch and door of the house she shared with her brother in the village of St Brides, south Wales. What was behind this attack on her property? Cloete was a specialist registrar in paediatric medicine at the Royal Gwent hospital. So the attackers must have confused her professional title with the word “paedophile”. The background to this bizarre incident was a campaign by the News of the World to name and shame paedophiles in the community. Shame is indeed a powerful force.*

This incident came to mind when I was reading Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which investigates the consequences of public shaming.  It is important to put this in a historical context. The classic expression of public shame is the pillory, a device according to Merriam Webster was “formerly used for publicly punishing offenders consisting of a wooden frame with holes in which the head and hands can be locked.” The word has been documented in English since 1274 and indeed it remains in our language as a verb meaning to expose to public contempt, ridicule, or scorn.

The pillory would be set in a place where it could be se seen. It was designed to be a public. It was a warning not to transgress societal norms. The people being shamed were not generally outsiders – they were those who you lived amongst. On the one hand you could engage in what humans find a pleasurable activity, but there was always a threat lurking underneath – there but for the grace of God go I. It was not until 1837 that the pillory was formally abolished as a form of punishment in England and Wales. And the stocks would remain in use, though extremely infrequently, until 1872.

Now we are modern and can laugh at those barbaric medieval types. There is no doubt we have made enormous scientific and economic progress. But morally are we really better? We no longer have the pillory, but as Ronson shows public humiliation is still very much alive. Many of the shamed could be like us. Once their transgression has been revealed, they are torn apart by the baying masses. Justice has been democratized. We, the silent majority can now have our say. And we are using this power to find other people’s faults. Like in medieval times we are defining the boundaries of normality by stigmatising those outside it. Once again shame has become a form of social control and public entertainment.

Ronson cites a number of cases. Justine Sacco Director of Corporate Communications for IAC, an American media and Internet company. It was 20 December 2013 and she was flying from New York to South Africa. On the stopovers she took advantage to tweet:

“ ‘Weird German Dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.’ — Inner monologue as I inhale BO. Thank God for pharmaceuticals.”

“Chilly — cucumber sandwiches — bad teeth. Back in London!”

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”  

It was of course this last tweet that set things off. The anger soon turned to a shaming frenzy. Sacco was now unreachable on an international flight, oblivious to the fate awaiting her:

“All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail”

Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands” and “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”

But I think she was clearly making a satirical comment. There is a long tradition of using provocation as a satirical weapon. Jonathon Swift suggested that the Irish eat their own children as a solution to famine. Randy Newman argued that short people had no reason to live. South Park has been doing offensive stuff for years. Sacco was not very good at it, though.

Ronson points out, this was in many ways this modern internet shaming is worse than being trolled. Trolls are a minority. Sacco was being attacked by the social media mob. When Caroline Criado-Perez was being threatened with rape for suggesting that Jane Austen be put on the Bank of England £10 note, she had a support network. A Sarah Palin or Jeremy Clarkson will always have their defenders. But someone like Sacco, who had 170 followers, had no one defending her. What’s more it was open season for the mob. One of the tweets about her was:

Somebody(HIV+) must rape this bitch and we’ll see if her skin colour can protect her from AIDS RT.”

This commentary escaped censure. This is what Ronson is uncomfortable with, even though he admits he has done his share of shaming. Sacco did indeed lose her job. Ronson spent two years interviewing people like Justine Sacco. There are some fascinating cases here such as Jonah Lehrer Mike Daisey and Lindsey Stone – I can strongly recommend this book. Like we saw in my post about trolling people are much crueller on the Internet than they are in the real world. Are we creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland?

I am ambivalent about shame. I can see what Ronson is getting at. Shame is always going to be a double-edged sword. We have seen the negative effects it can have. Sometimes shame is all we have to hold the powerful in check. This is what the Nasseem Taleb quote. The bank manager who has abused his position would perhaps be a little more circumspect, if he had to sit with his neighbours in the pews on Sunday. Anonymity can be extremely dangerous. I wouldn’t want to get rid of shame altogether. Members of the Spanish royal family are involved in an embezzlement scandal. The country’s former economy minister has been accused of tax evasion. Multinational companies systematically avoid paying taxes in the countries where they make their money. We should not underestimate the power of shame in these cases.


*This case is more interesting than I thought. There was indeed a minor incident in 2000 but this was then hyped out of recognition, taking on a life of its own. As a piece in the BBC puts it:

The irony is that some in the media, in challenging the scaremongering over sex offenders, indulge in some scaremongering of their own. They raise fears about violent tabloid-reading protesters who will attack, hound and destroy a paediatrician – which seem to be just as unfounded as the fears about thousands of paedophiles stalking the land.”

The origin of trolling

April 26, 2015

I had always thought that the word trolling had its origins in the sense of ugly dwarf or giant dates to 1610 and comes from the Old Norse word troll meaning giant or demon. But while researching this pot I came across an alternative explanation on the How Stuff Works website:

While the word troll might conjure up images of billy goats and hobbits in your mind, the Internet variety doesn’t really owe its name to the monsters of fairy tales and fantasy. Originally, the Web version of a troll alluded to a fishing technique. In fishing, to troll is to pull a fishing line behind a moving boat in hopes of coaxing a fish to take the bait. Web trolling is very similar — trolls try to lure unsuspecting victims into responding to pointless or rude questions or statements. The goal for the Web troll is to get the victim riled up as a joke. But usually the troll is the only one laughing.

But is it reading?

April 19, 2015

Audiobooks go back to the mid 1930s. They were first given to First World War veterans. This quote from The Times in 1936 shows one blind ex-soldier’s enthusiasm:

The person who thought of the Talking Book ought to have a monument three times the size of Nelson’s. This is how I enjoy my Talking Book. Every night about 10 o’clock I make the fire up, draw my armchair near then I switch on the Talking Book. Don’t you think that is real luxury? Not being able to sleep much and being very poor at Braille you can imagine how useful the Talking Book is to me.”

The first audiobook was Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In those days they were known as “talking books”. Such books were recorded on 12-inch shellac gramophone records, with each side lasting 25 minutes. Instead of the then standard 75 rpm, records could be played at 24 revolutions per minute, so that more narration could be crammed onto a disc – each side of the record could hold 45 minutes. Nevertheless, this meant that a normal book would require ten double-sided records.

People had been recording literature since the invention of the phonograph in 1877. Thomas Edison had wanted to use it to record Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. Had it ever been recorded, this would have been the first audiobook. But recording an entire novel on wax cylinders, which could only record four minutes at a time, was out of the question. The progress of audiobooks has always been dependent on technology. In the 1980s it was the Walkman and the car cassette player which gave them another massive boost, attracting the interest of book retailers, who saw their commercial potential. Now it was possible to hear your favourite books on the go. The possibility of multitasking is what makes audiobooks so attractive to me. Like podcasts they have transformed what used to be mundane tasks such as commuting, exercising, cleaning the house or cooking into something more pleasurable.

There was, however still one problem. A long book required a lot of cassettes. Only when the MP3 player came around did this problem go away. Now with file compression you can fit various unabridged books on one device. Gone are they days when you needed 30 cassettes to hear all of Gone with the Wind. The leading company today is, which is now a subsidiary of Amazon. According to Wikipedia, Audible’s content includes “over 150,000 audio programs from leading audiobook publishers, broadcasters, entertainers, magazine and newspaper publishers and business information providers, amounting to over 1,500,000 hours of audio programming.”

Audiobooks pose a problem of definition. Should you refer to readers or listeners? I tend to say I read a book, before correcting myself and saying I listened to it. Whatever term you choose, there is nothing easy about an audiobook. Indeed it could be said that the audiobook demands more concentration than the printed version. Traditional reading gives you the freedom to go at your own pace, stopping to savour a passage, or skimming to reach the end of the page. You can’t do this so easily with an audiobook. And if you happen to get distracted, it’s not so easy to find exactly where you were. It is often necessary to listen to segments of an audio book more than once to allow the material to be understood and retained satisfactorily. I don’t normally listen to them in bed, as I am normally out cold after ten or fifteen minutes.

Storytelling began as an oral art, after all, and there is something profoundly satisfying about hearing a book read aloud by a talented narrator. There is something immersive about the experience. Charles Dickens used to go on tour reading from his works. However, our aural culture is very different to Homer’s time. Many books were not created to be read aloud. Harold Bloom, the literary critic favours deep reading:

Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear,” said “You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.”

In the end I think the two ways of enjoying books are valid. I went through a phase where I was listening to a lot of them. However, since I bought my e-reader I have gone back to having the text in front of me. With all the wonderful podcasts available I just haven’t found the time to listen to so many. But I remain a big fan. Anything that gets people interested in books should be welcomed.

A video of of a talking book record player

April 19, 2015

Here is what he explained on YouTube:

This is an American Foundation for the Blind spring driven “talking book” record player that will play at either 24 rpm or 33 rpm. This is an earlier model from the mid 1930’s and these machines were loaned out to blind persons for the purpose of listening to talking book records. Even though the turntable portion is spring driven, the player uses a conventional tonearm / cartridge and the electrical output from the cartridge directly drives a pair of headphones. As you can see, some idiot removed the original tonearm and replaced it with a tonearm from a much newer player. I would like to find the correct tonearm for this player so that I can properly restore it.

The politically incorrect guide to historical nicknames

April 12, 2015

I have recently been reading The Good, the Bad and the Unready, a look at “the vainglorious, unfortunate and sometimes downright insulting names that pepper the history books.” The author of the book, Revd Robert Easton (childhood nickname Ridiculous Robert) has spent years gathering together the best and worst nicknames given to the rich and powerful over the centuries, and The Good, the Bad and the Unready is the result of this labour of love. He looks at such figures as Charles the Silly, Fulk the Surly, Hugh the Dull, Malcolm the Maiden, Olaf the Slippery, Pepin the Hunchback, Peter the Ceremonious or Wenceslas the Worthless. Here is a selection from the book, supplemented with other stuff I found online:


This has got to be one of my “favourites”. It’s a name that intimidates you. Living in the middle of the fifteenth century in the province of Wallachia in southern Romania, which at the time was a vassal under Turkish suzerainty. It was a brutal time and Vlad, who called himself ‘Dracula’, meaning ‘Son of the Dragon’, was the most bloodthirsty prince of all. He ruled the province three times. The six years of his principal reign, between 1456 and 1462, mainly involved fighting the Turkish forces of Mehmed the Conqueror and constantly crushing rebellions by the Saxon citizens of Brasov. During this period he allegedly put 20,000 people to death.  He was ruthless in his determination to remain in power. Easton describes his methods:

 He loved to watch people being boiled alive in copper cauldrons. He delighted in peeling the skin off the feet of Turkish prisoners, covering their wounds with salt and then bringing goats to lick their soles. Once, some Ottoman ambassadors refused to remove their turbans as a sign of respect for him, so he had their turbans nailed to their heads.

But it was for impaling that he was notorious. The mechanics of impalement are not for the squeamish. A sharp stake is thrust through the victim’s rectum, and then forced through the body, emerging either through the eye or throat. The stake is then planted in the ground, leaving the victim to die in agony. Vlad is said to have impaled some 100,000 people in his lifetime. Although this figure is surely an exaggeration, he was one of the crueller rulers in this book. Once again truth outdoes fiction and the life of Vlad is far more chilling than anything Bram Stoker managed to think up.


The wife of Philip I, king of Castile, certainly lived up to her name. When she met her husband-to-be, Philip the Beautiful (Felipe el Hermoso), it was love at first sight. They immediately summoned a priest to marry them on the spot. As Easton describes it, the declaration of their union had barely left the minister’s lips before the couple raced into the royal bedchamber to consummate their marriage. However Phil was an incorrigible womanizer with a bevy of mistresses. When he died still in his twenties, Joan simply went completely and utterly insane never going anywhere without her husband’s corpse. She would be confined to a nunnery for the rest of her life.


In Flower of Scotland the Scots like to sing about the lesson they gave to Edward II at Bannockburn:

Those days are past now

And in the past they must remain

But we can still rise now

And be the nation again

That stood against him

Proud Edward’s Army

And sent him homeward,

Tae think again.

But with his father it was a different story. This is where he acquired his nickname. If he were around today, he would surely make short shrift of Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and their ilk.


Compared to Lady Wu, Livia, the wife of the emperor Augustus was Mother Theresa of Calcutta. Arriving at the court of the Tang dynasty in 638 she joined the ranks of junior concubines. She was just 13. Yet, her insatiable imperial ambition led her to reach the heights of the Tang dynasty. She began by strangling her own baby and framing a rival for the murder. She was then able to wu the new emperor, Kao Tsung, eventually becoming his favourite concubine. However this was not enough for Wu, who wanted more than being a mistress. She would not stop at anything including:

  • poisoning a sister, a niece and a son
  • forcing another son to hang himself
  • having four grandchildren whipped to death
  • ordering the execution of two stepsons, and sixteen of their male heirs
  • killing four daughters-in-law, one by starvation
  • executing 36 government officials and generals
  • overseen the slaughter of 3,000 families.

After getting to the throne in 660 the new empress set about exacting revenge on her opponents. The former empress Wang and the senior concubine were singled out for special treatment, being flogged, dismembered and then tossed into a vat full of wine to die. As the emperor was frequently ill she was the real power in China. She is actually said to have been a skilled ruler, bringing peace and prosperity to the country.


After a visit to his Scottish territories in 1098, Magnus was so impressed by the native attire that he decided to copy it after getting back to Norway. He would often be seen, of an evening in Trondheim, in full Highland garb– kilt, sporran, the works. His subjects, impressed by the manliness of being so scantily clad in Scandinavian climes, gave him the abovementioned nickname. In a visit to the Isles fifteen years later, he wasn’t so lucky; he lost his life in a skirmish while foraging for food in a bog, his bare legs knee deep in mud.


On New Year’s Day 1540 King Henry VIII set off to Rochester to see the woman who was to be his fourth wife. Having seen Hans Holbein’s painting of Anne of Cleves, Henry was eager to meet his new bride in the flesh. Unfortunately the woman he saw bore no resemblance to Holbein’s portrait and Henry saw a distinctly equine appearance, giving rise to the Flanders Mare epithet. Henry did actually marry Anne although the relationship was not consummated. In fact, she was probably lucky to be divorced. Henry’s settlement was generous – he provided her with two houses, a substantial retinue and £500 a year. Indeed she would outlive both Henry and his last wife, Catherine Parr. The minister who made the match, Thomas Cromwell, of Wolf Hall fame, was not so fortunate – he was beheaded just six months after the meeting.


In 1584 the 27-year-old Fyodor I was crowned Tsar of Russia. He was the unlikely son of Czar Ivan IV, better known as Ivan “The Terrible”, (or “The Awesome” as he is known in California). In English he is generally known as Fyodor the Bellringer due to his strong faith and inclination to travel around Russia ringing the bells at churches. However, in Russian the name “Bellringer” is hardly ever used. His reign was not a happy one. He was apparently as they used to say at my school a bit of a bungalow – not much on top. He was the ruler of Russia in name only; his duties were carried out by his wife’s brother and trusted minister Boris Godunov. As Fyodor died childless it was Godunov who would later succeed Fyodor as Czar. Fyodor was the last of Rurikid dynasty and Russia would into the catastrophic Time of Troubles.

Narcisstick and other new words

April 12, 2015

Here is another selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:


A bride-to-be who, while planning her wedding, remains calm, relaxed, and easy-going.


The improper or ignorant use of scientific or technical language to make a false or impossible claim seem more believable.


The theories and experimental methodologies of physics applied to food, cooking, and eating.

gig economy

The economic sector consisting of freelancers who take on a series of small jobs, particularly when those jobs are contracted online using a website or app.


A TV or film genre that features stereotypical depictions of rural people, particularly those from the American South.


The excessive consumption of information.


The act of a man sitting with his knees spread widely apart, particularly when this crowds people next to him or prevents someone from taking an adjacent seat.


Pejorative name for a selfie stick.


An educational certification obtained by taking quick, highly-focused courses over a short time.

slow journalism

Journalism that eschews instant articles and superficial opinion in favor of a longer-term approach with a focus on in-depth investigation, considered analysis, and effective storytelling.


A fact that many people do not believe.


Deliberately doing nothing.

Ryanair and the end of glamorous flying

April 5, 2015

The days when air travel was a glamorous experience have long since vanished. In a previous post, Surrender your dignity: a sceptic’s critique of airport security, I pointed out the indignities heaped on hapless passengers with the post 9/11 security measures. But that is not the whole story. We also have the rise of the low-cost airlines. No frills, no food, not even peanuts, no reserved seats, little legroom, surcharges if you fail to print out the boarding pass or your luggage is too heavy and the cabin has become like the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. What went wrong? It’s nothing like these adverts from the 70s and 80s:

This intuition, however, is wrong. Today’s flights may lack full-service meals, but airline tickets are cheaper than ever if you adjust for inflation and costs. In the past airlines competed over the meals they offered; now they compete on price. Flying may not be as glamorous as it once was, but more people than ever are able to afford it. Today I am going to defend low-cost airlines.

It may be a cliché, but the saying “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” (TANSTAAFL) very much applies to the flying experience. TANSTAAFL is about the fact that even if something seems like it is free, there is always a cost, no matter how indirect or hidden. When you fly, you are paying for the ride on a plane. There are also the extras – food, luggage. None of this is free. Basically Airlines can deal with their customers in one of two ways:

  1. Charge people who use these services individually.
  2. Charge everyone, even those who don’t actually use the services.

Carrying baggage is a fascinating example of how the airline industry works. Carrying baggage on to a plane has costs. First of all, the plane is heavier, requiring more fuel. Then there are the time aspects. Customers who have a bag under their seat and a bag in the overhead locker will take longer to get off the plane than the ones who simply have a bag under their seat. What’s more they hold up the passengers who didn’t avail themselves of the overhead lockers. The difference may just be a matter of a few minutes, but the low-cost airlines have a business model based on fast turnaround times at gates. They need to fly more people more often. Passengers carrying bags slow the airlines down. When flights are on time, you avoid a lot of costs and logistical problems; there will be fewer missed connections and lost bags. The bottom line is lower ticket prices for the consumer. So when airline advertise that they carry bags for free, that is bullshit; nothing is free.

The dismal science provides an interesting framework for analysing consumer tastes. Economists talk about stated preferences vs. revealed preferences. The idea is there is often a discrepancy between what people say they want and what they actually choose. This concept is illustrated in this economics “joke”:

Two economists walked past a Porsche showroom. One of them pointed at a shiny car in the window and said, “I want that.” “Obviously not,” the other replied.

People will say they want one service, but when offered that service, opt for another. Consumers may say they want good service, but when faced with spending their own money, will tend to go for lower quality service at a lower price, rather higher quality service at a higher price. In a poll that came out this year budget Irish airline Ryanair came fourth in a poll of the most hated brands. However, last year it made a profit of €523m.

In America there is a similar scenario with Spirit and Virgin America. Spirit, which is the U.S.’s answer to Ryanair, is regularly voted the worst airline. Virgin has gone for a different business model. Virgin America’s model is quite the opposite. Inspired by flying’s golden age, they want to offer high-quality in-flight service. This does not come cheap and Virgin’s tickets are consequently more expensive. They will regularly top the customers’ “best airline” lists. It is obviously a wonderful business. There’s just one small problem until recently they have losing money hand over fist. In 2014 Virgin America did a bit better, reporting an $84 million profit excluding special items. What about the detested Spirit? It is the U.S. airline with the biggest profit-margins, showing huge growth in 2014.

Both models are valid if they can find a market. What we should not do is compare both services without looking at the price of each service. A BMW is better than a Picasso, but not everyone can afford or will want to spend the extra cash. Deregulation has become dirty word these days. But I would argue that the deregulation of the airline industry has been a great boon. Curiously, it began under Jimmy Carter, and the late Teddy Kennedy was one of its prime movers. Pan-Am is dead, Long Live Ryanair! (Until something better comes along.)

Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza

April 5, 2015

I like this guy!