Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Bundling of Ideas

There is a short cut we humans like to take when we need to classify patterns of thought which I call the bundling of ideas.

To highlight the concept I want to use an ancient example because it contains ideas most of us are not too familiar with. My example is from about 500AD in Byzantium when the Emperor Justinian ruled with his queen Theodora. In those days the selection of emperors was somewhat chaotic and Justinian came from left field. His wife was a courtesan or possibly a circus acrobat, not necessarily what you'd think of as queenly material. However these two made quite a pair. Justinian seriously expanded the empire which up until then had been in decline. Theodora caused some scandals partly because she favoured elaborate wigs and the clergy at the time believed good Christian women should cover their heads lest angels, looking down from above, be tempted to lust.

At the time there was a hot theological debate going on about the nature of Christ. No, this wasn't an ivory tower thing. There's an account by someone of the time who refers to going to buy some fish and getting into an argument with the fish monger. There were riots. Everyday people were passionate about this issue.

And the issue itself? It came down to whether Christ had two natures: human and divine or one nature: a combination of human and divine. Would that keep you awake at night? Me neither, and I'm Christian. The first view was called Duophytism and had been endorsed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The second view was called Monophytism and regarded as heresy, except in Egypt and parts of Syria where it was widely accepted. Most Christian churches today are at least nominally Duophyte but I'm not sure anyone cares that much.

The Empress Theodora seems to have been a Monophyte and her husband, Justinian, spent a lot of effort tryng to reconcile the two while holding firm on the position of the Council of Chalcedon. So people easily understood that Theodora was Monophysite and Justinian was Duophysite which was a little simpler than the truth.

Then there were the chariot races. These were the big sport of the time, everyone supported one of the four teams: Blue, Green, White and Red, though the last two were smaller and often teamed up with the others. So we can mostly consider the Greens and the Blues. Who you supported affected everything, including how you dressed and who you hung out with. And if you were Blue you were Monophysite, Green you were Duophysite, as well as a number of other political and military views. The people you knew well supported your team, your views, everything.

It probably wasn't quite that simple and there are always blurry edges to these things, but the factions were real. It meant that just by looking at someone, the way they were dressed, you could tell who their friends were, their position on a subtle theological question (which was really important) and whether they supported the Empress or the Emperor.

This is what I mean by the bundling of ideas.

We still do this today more often than we ought, and unbundling the ideas is like unpicking a stubborn knot. Take the notion of left and Right. By convention if you are left wing you support the following:
  • Gay marriage
  • Evolution
  • Worker's unions
  • State ownership
  • Lots of laws
If you are Right wing you support:
  • Traditional marriage
  • Creationism
  • Laissez-faire economics
  • Private enterprise
  • Fewer laws
Or do you? That's the problem with this bundling. People make assumptions. We have a minor party here in NZ which is right wing economically but has been left wing socially until fairly recently. Then, because it is a right wing party, it attracted other right wingers who were more socially right wing and shifted policies a bit to accommodate them. But those new people arguably only joined it because they assumed the bundling aligned with their own ideas. There is no real connection between social right wing ideas and economic ones that I can see.

In some parts of the world announcing you are Christian will label you as economically and socially right wing, anti abortion and pro gun ownership. In other parts of the world the same announcement will label you as a left wing radical, probably pro abortion and supporting gay marriage. You can see that, in these days of world wide communication over the internet, it is easy to say exactly the same thing to a lot of different people from different places and backgrounds and get very different results.

Sometimes people are more helpful. I saw an avatar yesterday that included a Bible, a gun and a US flag. There's a bundle that is probably fairly explicit, though I might have that very wrong. Do I really know this person's position on gay marriage? Abortion?

The answer is to be not too lazy about assumptions, try and be polite to everyone and try to make your own position clear without being too tedious about it. You might also ask yourself if you actually do hold the views you think you do, or did they just arrive in a bundle with something else?

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Interesting family connections.

I spent a pleasant afternoon hunting down some details about my long dead grandfather and the results are IMHO pretty interesting.

Anyone with any history has heard of the 'Great Depression' of the 1930s. Several countries associate it with a great leader who implemented Keynsean economic initiatives to rescue their hard pressed populations. In the USA it was Franklin D Roosevelt, in Britain it was Ramsey McDonald. In New Zealand it was Michael Joseph Savage. Working class homes here often had a photo of Savage on their wall and the man was looked on as an economic saviour. It helped that he was a quiet, modest sort of person and came to power around the time radio was widespread so his voice was heard in every home in the country on a regular basis.

But my research is not about Savage, it is about his Finance Minister Walter Nash. Nash obviously played a key role in any economic decisions and eventually became Prime Minister after Savage in 1957.

The family story I was following up on was that my grandfather, John Stych, was a friend of Nash. My mother told me this, and I think she said she recalled him coming to the house. She also said that her father had written to Nash when they were in dire financial straits during the depression and they all believed this letter was responsible for the introduction of a sickness benefit.

There were employment schemes at the time whereby the government made work for men (always men, actually) so that they could support their families. But my grandfather was too ill with tuberculosis to work. I gather the new benefit made all the difference.

I wondered if there was any truth at all to this story and I find there is, at least a little. There's no evidence that my grandfather wrote to Nash, but he certainly knew him, and quite well.

Walter Nash and his wife Lottie
Nash arrived in New Zealand in 1909 from Birmingham and he lived in Brooklyn, Wellington. He was a Sunday School teacher at St Matthew's Anglican Church and he was a member of the Church of England Men's Society (CEMS). He wore a CEMS medallion on his watch chain for much of his life.

He bought part shares in two tailoring shops, a business that eventually went bad and in 1913 he moved to Palmeston North and worked as a commercial traveller for a wool and cloth merchant.

So we have Nash in Brooklyn between 1909 and 1913 and involved in the Anglican Church. John Stych also lived in Brooklyn and was also a keen Anglican. Initially the family attended St Peter's because St Matthew's was not formed until 1909, after that they are recorded helping out there at church fairs etc. John's sister taught Sunday School at St Matthew's but John himself taught at St Peter's. That's him in the third row from the front, 4th from the right. He was, however, very close to the Rev R H Hobday, vicar of St Matthew's.  Hobday got him into missionary work in Africa and he gave his address when he returned on furlough in 1916 as c/o Rev Hobday, Brooklyn because his family were dispersed by then.

Since these two, Stych and Nash, were so involved in the same church they would have certainly met. Not only that, John's parents came from Birmingham, so there would be a connection on that level as well. John's father died in 1904 but his mother was still living and also attending St Matthew's.

John Styche's CEMS medallion
Then there is the CEMS connection. I have no family information suggesting John was a member of the CEMS but they typically wore a small Celtic cross on their watch chains, as did Nash. Photos of both John and his brother William show a similar cross on their watch chains. I even have John's cross in my possession. I only recently learned it was his. I should add that the CEMS was also something Hobday was very interested in.

There was a CEMS meeting in 1915  at St Matthew's with a lecture on "The Foundation and Principles of Socialism" by Mr H E Holland, presided over by Hobday. Holland was a key figure in the Labour movement, and the first leader when the Labour Party formed the following year. John was in Africa at this time and Nash would have been in Palmeston North by then. But this meeting throws light on the intellectual climate of the CEMS meetings at St Matthew's under Hobday.

When he returned from Africa John worked as a 'traveller', which normally means commercial traveller, as did Nash and both were involved in the textile industry at some points. John was a draper's assistant and we already noted Nash owned a tailor shop. The CEMS seems to have worked as an old boy network to some extent with members helping each other find employment, so it is quite possible John used that network to find work, and also possible Nash was part of that.

Finally in February 1921 Nash was convicted of importing seditious literature. John's brother Thomas was similarly convicted in early April. The circumstances are different: Nash was working as a publisher's agent in Wellington and said that the literature reached him as samples which he did not intent to circulate. Thomas claimed the literature had been thrown to him from a boat (he was found with the material on Hobson Street wharf in Auckland). Neither story sounded likely to the respective judges and the men were convicted and fined.

These two cases may be unconnected but the fact that they occurred so close together in time and that Thomas Stych and Nash may well have known each other too is interesting. The police at the time would, of course, have seen no connection. Thomas Stych was also convicted of refusing to serve in the army during WWI, something many of the founding core of the Labour Party shared.

This got me thinking about my grandfather's time in WWI. He returned from Africa in 1916 and he offered himself for service and was pronounced unfit. We don't have any information as to just why he was unfit. In Africa he had suffered from blackwater fever but he had several months to recover by then. The officer who signed this off was William Longhurst, his future brother-in-law. John subsequently went back to Africa to resume his missionary work. In practice he was seconded into helping administer the steamers on Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi) which were by then under the control of the British Military. I don't know what his thoughts were about serving in the army, but he seems to have managed to avoid it one way or another.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Madura Perspectives Revisited

You can now run the Madura Perspectives Manager demo online from OpenShift. The details of just what Madura Perspectives Manager is can be found here. Once you've logged in (admin, admin) it looks like this:

The rest of the demo script is in the previous post and I won't repeat it all here.

The last few days we have been making some minor tweaks to the Madura Perspectives Manager. MPM is an awkward beast to explain but easy enough to demo... provided I can get you to build it and set it up yourself. So maybe not so easy.

The problem is the bundles, and I solved that yesterday. I'm going to explain how here. Madura Bundle are jar files that load into an application dynamically, ie while the application is still running. If you know about OSGi you'll be nodding about now and maybe wondering why I don't just use OSGi. Good question. But not for this post.

Madura Perspectives Manager loads entire sub applications from bundles as described in my earlier post and the bundle manager normally works by scanning a directory for bundles it can load. It does this every few seconds (configurable, of course) and while this can work fine in a real environment it doesn't play too well with CloudFoundry which we use to host our demos. Even if you install it yourself you'll need to edit the directory location and copy the jar file bundles into it. A bit clumsy really.

What OpenShift would be happiest with is storing the jar files inside MongoDB or similar and they happily support that kind of thing. This would work fine but it seems a lot of messing about for a demo, so we bypassed that and kept it simple. The bundles are stored in the relevant Github projects so we modified the bundle manager to pull bundles from a list of URLs. It doesn't show the dynamic-ness of the bundle management, but it does show everything else.

This has got me rethinking some things about that dynamic-ness. The rule is that if you add a new bundle then users who are already logged in will not see it. So if you are a user working in sub application A and there is an update to A then you will not see it, and the application you are using will continue as normal. This is what we want, we don't want users disrupted by new versions in mid flight.

Once you log out and back in you'll find the new version of sub application A. Naturally the people who worked on the update of that sub application have made sure any work you saved under the old version is compatible with the new one.

It is actually possible to do two other things as well.

You can delete a sub application. I'm wondering if this is ever a good idea, though. Deleting a sub application is supported by the bundle manager but in practice it screw up anyone who is using it, so the plan is to modify the bundle manager to simply disable deleted applications  rather than actually unload them. That means that newly logged in users will see the option, but it will be disabled.

You can actively decide to pick an older version. Let's say the bundled sub application you are using generates a quote for some complex product you want to sell a customer. The customer worked through a quote with you yesterday and you gave him a price good for a month. This morning, when you log in and look at that quote, you find the price has changed. This is because marketing have just released their new pricing plan or rules or numbers or whatever. It is all bundled into the application and the latest application gives you a different price.

But that is okay. If you are able to select from all the versions you can get the one you want. In fact if you fetch that quote from a database you can have the system automatically pick the right version for you based on the date on the quote. We haven't added this feature into the Madura Perspectives Manager demo, it is complicated enough, but it is certainly a natural extension and easy enough to implement.