Moral Instincts Don’t Scale

Excellent idea that I never thought of before…

The first half of this bloggingheads video is about Paul Bloom experiments showing how very young babies have a well-developed moral sense. In the second half of the video, Paul & Bob discuss how well our moral instincts and emotions like justice, anger and empathy work in our everyday lives but how badly they scale up to interactions between nations.

It’s all good

lesmisI saw Les Misérables on stage with my wife-to-be on one of our first dates and read the book soon after. I watched it again last night with my daughter after a twenty-something-year gap and I think I spotted something new about the story that I have not heard mentioned before. I even went to check the SparkNotes to see if this was some obvious theme that only I was missing but… nope. No one else noticed it but me.

When anyone mentions Les Mis, there are a few themes that immediately pop into your mind: it’s very long and tedious; it’s sentimental kitsch; the songs are awful; the story is an entirely predictable tale of redemption for Jean Valjean; the scene on the barricades is totally unnecessary and out of place.

All those things are true but I think there is something quite profound about how the characters interact with each other. All of the characters (*with one possible exception below!) are very moral according to their own particular version of morality. Of course, since it’s a liberal play/book/movie, all the ‘good guys’ subscribe to liberal conceptions of morality: everyone deserves a chance; kindness will be repaid; poor people commit crimes out of necessity.

But if that was all there was to the story, it would be a very shallow fable about a very liberal morality — we all get to cry for Fontine and boo at Javert — but I suspect that there might be more to it. We have all been missing something quite shocking.

Everyone in Les Mis behaves quite morally—according to their own understanding of right and wrong. Even the baddies.

Jean Valjean gets off to a bad start but learns the power of love and earns his redemption many times over.

The priest believes that everyone deserves a chance and gives Valjean his at great cost to himself.

Fantine gives up every sliver of self-respect to keep her daughter alive.

Javert believes in the Rule of Law above all and it matters not at all to paladin-types like Javert that Valjean has done good in his life. Valjean has broken the law and must be punished. Javert is willing to devote his whole life to bringing Valjean to justice.

The anarchists on the barricades believe the government is corrupt and should be overthrown. The soldiers who gun them down have the opposite view.

The slut-shaming women that get Fantine fired from her job believe that sexual impropriety and non-traditional families are Very Very Bad and should be punished. The Slut-shamers’ beliefs are probably shared by a majority of People Who Consider Themselves to be Morally Upstanding.

The photo that got Ashley Payne fired from her teaching job.
The photo that got Ashley Payne fired from her teaching job.

The foreman who actually sets Fantine on the road to self-destruction is following an ethical code that has held sway for most of human history and has only recently begun to retreat from the mainstream. In the glorious 50s that conservatives love to reminisce over,  most young women would have been suffered the same fate as Fantine. Even today, young teachers can be fired for inappropriate Facebook photos.

The only exception to the ‘everyone is moral’ rule is, of course, The Master of the House but I bet, if you asked him, even he would say that all those other conceptions of morality were invalid and that the only proper behaviour is to look out for your own interests.

[* OK. That last one is a stretch. The Thénardiers are quite evil]

It’s quite something that all these conceptions of morality still have their champions 150 years after Hugo wrote it all down for us. Will we ever figure out which one is correct?




Compassionate Conservatives

I wish it were possible to stay out of the culture wars. But then I go and read something like this:

Halfway through my pregnancy, I learned that my baby was ill. Profoundly so. My doctor gave us the news kindly, but still, my husband and I weren’t prepared. Just a few minutes earlier, we’d been smiling giddily at fellow expectant parents as we waited for the doctor to see us. In a sonography room smelling faintly of lemongrass, I’d just had gel rubbed on my stomach, just seen blots on the screen become tiny hands. For a brief, exultant moment, we’d seen our son—a brother for our 2-year-old girl.

When you vote for laws that restrict abortion, these are the women whose lives you are affecting.

Texas has a new law that requires women to have their baby described to them before they are allowed to have an abortion. Read on to hear what happens when politicians insert themselves between patients and their doctors.

“I’m so sorry that I have to do this,” the doctor told us, “but if I don’t, I can lose my license.” Before he could even start to describe our baby, I began to sob until I could barely breathe. Somewhere, a nurse cranked up the volume on a radio, allowing the inane pronouncements of a DJ to dull the doctor’s voice. Still, despite the noise, I heard him. His unwelcome words echoed off sterile walls while I, trapped on a bed, my feet in stirrups, twisted away from his voice.

“Here I see a well-developed diaphragm and here I see four healthy chambers of the heart…”

I closed my eyes and waited for it to end, as one waits for the car to stop rolling at the end of a terrible accident.

Divided We Fall

I hate the culture wars even or, perhaps, especially when my side is winning.

There are so many interesting points to make for and against a federal mandate that employers provide insurance coverage of contraception.

For example,

  • Using insurance to pay for an entirely predictable cost makes a nonsense of the idea of insurance.
  • Unplanned pregnancies create an economic and moral burden for the individuals involved and for society as a whole. It’s in society’s best interests to minimize that burden by making contraception freely available.
  • The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. The constitution mentions neither healthcare in general nor contraception in particular.
  • It’s empirically more effective and efficient for government to provide free healthcare. Countries that pay for healthcare centrally pay less than the United States pays.
  • It’s asinine that health coverage is tied to employment status.
  • It’s not fair that much of the cost of contraception falls on women.
  • It’s ridiculous that contraception requires a prescription.
  • The less regulations, the better (cetera paribas).

The least interesting point is that forcing employers that happen to be associated with religious institutions to follow the same rules as all other employers might violate the establishment clause.

I especially resent the suggestion that my opinions on all of the above points should align with the opinions of everyone else who wears the same colour tie as me but the main reason I hate the culture war is that it is used so effectively as a tool to divide us.

I don’t want us to be divided and I wish that congress had more of a tradition of allowing free votes on cultural issues the way the UK parliament does.

There are enough issues of substance related to the economy and foreign policy without turning every issue – whether the death penalty is effective or fair, whether it is appropriate to shove probes into vaginas before women are allowed to have abortions, whether we should ban people from marrying each other if they have incompatible parts, whether you are safer in a national park if everyone is packing heat and whether or not you like country music – into a red or a blue issue.

I’m not saying that politicians shouldn’t have an opinion on cultural issues; I’m saying that we shouldn’t pretend that their opinions on cultural issues should be determined by their opinions on the appropriate level of taxation or their views on invading foreign countries.

Google Makes Little Girls Cry

#occupygooglereader is a cry of from the heart of Reader readers everywhere who quietly enjoyed the trickle of articles shared by friends real and virtual on Google’s wonderful RSS Reader.

It was a a small feature and I bet no more than one in a hundred used it. I liked to tap the little share with note button at the bottom of articles that moved me in some small way. I had no idea whether anyone ever saw my notes but it felt good to write them. My notes were messages in bottles bobbing insignificantly in an ocean of comment but were terribly meaningful to the lonely guy who scrawled them and tossed the bottle into the retreating tide.

It was obvious the Google would do away with the share feature on Reader as soon as Google+ appeared on the horizon. I looked forward to it even. Bottles tossed in the ocean are romantic and all but how much efficient for the guy on the island to get a modern communications pipeline with hangouts and +1s and circles?

Long before circles were the preferred shape for social exchange, I had a little debating circle going with a small number of close friends. We covered many of the trending topics of the day – Invade Iraq? 3-1 against! Impeach Clinton? 3-1 against! – and we covered all the greatest topics in the history of thought. We covered philosophy, science, theology, economics, politics everything – intelligent design? 3-1 against! The Basis of a Sound Society? Ah! Sadly, we never resolved that one.

Come to think of it, we were often 3-1 against. The 1 once requested reinforcement from an old college buddy but we turned him down (3-1 against!). In the end, real Social Networking (capital S capital N) killed our little circle and after 6 or 7 years of passionate remonstrations, our clamour faded to silence.

Through an accident of history, my official social networks coalesced into very distinct circles. Twitter is all about software craftsmanship; Facebook is for long lost nieces, schoolmates and pirates; Linked In for former colleagues. I haven’t really figured out what Google Plus is for yet but I have a secret wish that it’s for serious debate. I even created a circle for it but my Debating Circle is so far unsullied by any actual debate.

Google+’s circles seem perfect for debates. If you debate on Twitter, who knows which frothing wingnut or moonbat will join in and no one wants to discuss moral philosophy with their crazy uncle on Facebook. I tried it once with the frothing wingnut sister-in-law of a friend of a wife in South Dakota (the sister-in-law, not the wife) but in the end the wingut’s head threatened to explode with anger and the friend shut down all the fun for fear of losing her inheritance.

It’s funny to watch debates on Facebook as it’s probably the only place in the world where wingnuts actually hang out with moon bats on a regular basis. The debates get quite surreal quite quickly. With just one Extropian or Randian on your friends list [and don’t we all have at least one of those? -ed] and the discussion will go asymptotic before it even gets started. Facebook is the new polite society where you can’t discuss sex, politics or religion and anyone who does is instantly flagged as moral leper to be shunned by the righteous and the clean. Google+, with its tidy little boundaries seems like the perfect breeding ground for a self organized leper colony and I live in hope that, one day, the disease will take hold.

I expect that much of the outrage among fans of the share with note button on Reader comes from the sense of loss of a safe place to talk passionately about important topics free from self-censorship for fear of offending someone. If we are all reading Conor Friedersdorf, there is a good chance that we have sympathy for his arguments or at least care enough to disagree passionately without causing or taking offense.

I let loose freely on my blog but, even here, there’s always a nagging doubt that someone will take umbrage at an overlooked subtlety or you’ll cause outrage in an over-sensitive boss or sister-in-law when they find out that you are a secret pirate [present bosses and sisters-in-law excepted of course! -ed].

It’s not just that Google deleted a safe venue for debate that causes the sense of loss that the#OccupyGoogleReader people are feeling. It’s the fact that Google has snuffed out countless little debating circles that have grown organically over the years. They can reform their networks on Google+ but they won’t be the same. Even switching from one Google+ account to another, I will probably lose about half of my network. My new network will be more refined of course, without the tyre-kickers and the people that added me to their circles before they got bored with clicking the you might know these people button but I still resent Google a little bit more today than I did yesterday.

But I don’t resent Google nearly as much as the next group of aggrieved netizens that I’ll mention here.

Imagine yourself as an eleven year old girl.

You’ve been flirting with and over GMail and Buzz for a couple of years now. You have just started middle school and your real life social network just got much bigger and more exciting. Girls in middle school represent the very pinnacle of human social interaction and you are a child of the cyber age so it’s natural that your virtual life would reflect the one you live in meat-space. Your killjoy parents think you are not ready for Facebook so gmail and Buzz are the only social games in town.

One day you come home from school for a fresh round of flirting and middle school bitchery on the interwebs and you notice – quelle horreur! – that Buzz is gone!!! OMG!!1! :(((((((((((( What’s a modern little girl to do??!

But wait! What silver lining is this? Google wants me to join Google Plus!!! There’s a banner right there that says so!! Oh happy day!! :-))))))

My dad has told me a 100 times that I shouldn’t enter personal information on the interwebs. He even has a fake birthday for that very purpose [29 feb on a leap year. It’s surprising how many sites that breaks! Even my own employer’s! – ed]. But this is Google. They have a very important looking notice that says I mustn’t lie or bad things will happen. What can it hurt to break my daddy’s rules just this one time and type my real date of birth just once…..?

This is what happens.

You get a scary notice that Google has taken away all of your friends. All of your fun; all of your LIFE. All gone. If you were an eleven year old girl and Google just shut down your social life, what’s the first thing that you would do?

You would cry.

Can you imagine what it’s like for a girl just starting middle school to lose her online presence? Ever had your WoW account hacked and lost everything? Ever lent your gameboy to a cute little mexican girl at a football game and have her delete 6 months worth of your pokemon adventure? What if your Flickr account got deleted? I was eleven-years once. I would’ve been devastated and I wasn’t even an eleven-year old girl.

Google is in a tough spot. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) doesn’t allow web sites to collect data from kids under 13 but, as surely everyone except the congress-critters who passed the law knows, the law is a nonsense.

In fact CR found that over 5 million of Facebook’s 7.5 million-plus underage were as young as “10 and under.” … That’s not the worst of it. CR also found that underage kids using Facebook were unsupervised by parents. The site claims ‘not wrongly’ that this exposes them to “malware or serious threats such as predators or bullies.”


Telling middle school kids that they can’t interact with their friends online is like telling the tide not to come in. King Canute himself would have known better.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Some people wanted that law.

“We urge Facebook to strengthen its efforts to identify and terminate the accounts of users under 13 years of age, and also to implement more effective age-verification methods for users signing up for new accounts,” Ioana Rusu, the regulatory counsel for Consumers Union, wrote in a letter to Zuckerberg.

We need a modern Canute to demonstrate the futility of ineffective laws. They are worse than futile. They teach kids that the law is to be laughed at. Everyone else already knows.

Google could have done better though.

Their message doesn’t say

We are sorry but those nasty democrats in Washington made us forbid you from using Google+… but carry on using Gmail which you and 99% of your eleven-your old friends have been using for years to communicate with each other and with your teachers and soccer coach and piano instructors.

It doesn’t say

We are taking away GMail and Google Docs but we’ll give you half an hour to download your contact lists and your homework projects so you don’t have to cry some more on Monday morning when you explain to your teacher that Google ate your homework.

Wait! What? You didn’t read the terms and conditions? What are you? Eleven-years old?


It says

You do not meet the age requirements for a Google Account. This account will be deleted in 28 days unless the birthday you entered was incorrect and you submit proof that you are 13 years old or older.

Forget the sugar and spice. Little girls these days are 90% social networking and 10% pictures of ponies. Google just cut out a big chunk of their hearts.

Google, like most technology companies, probably has little designer teams with persona profiles pinned to the wall. Personas, for the uninitiated, are representative archetypes of a user population.

They have names like Chuck and Beryl…

Chuck works at the hardware store and lost the use of both his thumbs in a bandsaw accident so he needs the channel selector to respond to a whack with his fist.

Beryl is forty two year old secretary who thinks an email is not a proper email unless you attach an Excel spreadsheet…

Personas are a great way to get inside the heads of your users and imagine how they see your products. Full-ceremony personas come with a life history and a profile photo and a list of their favourite charcuterie. Design teams have earnest conversations about how Jennifer will only click buttons with rounded corners because they remind her of that Laura Ashley dress she wore to Aunt Mathilda’s wedding.

Google needs a new persona. The profile picture will be of a little girl crying big, cheek-sopping tears because Google took away all her friends.

Chelsea used to be a fun-loving cherub but, these days, she just cries. Chelsea loves playing with dolls and talking with her friends about ponies. She doesn’t use gmail any more though because we took it away and made her cry.

They’ll update the persona over time. In 20 years, it will a picture of a bitter, thirty-something woman who still refuses to use Google+ because of that one time that Google took away all her friends. The marketing people will come up with some cheesy category for them like

generation lost – the generation who carry iPhones and use Bing and Facebook and drive Oracle self-driving cars because they still refuse to use Google products because they still remember that one time, 50 years ago, when Google ripped out a piece of their soul.

Maybe they could work it into one of those cute logos? The second ‘o’ could be a sobbing little girl in pigtails, the ‘e’ could be a teardrop and the descender of the ‘g’ could represent the happiness draining away from every little girl’s life.

In all fairness, I should note that Google did provide one way for our sad little girl to escape from social purgatory. If she can persuade her parents to lie about her age – and type in a credit card number for authentication – she can come back into the Google fold.

I swear the button to commit this sin was an eye, winking.

Who is Stealing from Whom?

I am a bit of stickler for intellectual property respect. That’s a trait, I am proud to say, I have passed on to my children. I glowed when one of them opted to buy the latest Phoenix Wright rather than play the pirated copy that his friend acquired. The Ace Attorney  himself would be proud too.

I get funny looks sometimes when I ask about fair use of stock photo images that I have bought (bought!) … and why would anyone pay $10 per month for Rhapsody when all the songs in the world are just sitting there for free on the internet waiting to be taken? The whole population of Malta (and China? and India?) thinks it a sign of mental illness to pay for anything that can be stolen for free.

As someone who makes a living from intellectual property, I feel a certain solidarity with people whose livelihoods are slowly leaching away into the pirate-infested deeps of the Internet. A couple of deep blemishes tarnish my otherwise squeaky-clean self-image though and I need the world to change a little to help me restore my faith in myself.

Firstly, don’t make it so damn difficult to comply with your rights and regulations. I’m not too good at dealing with bureaucracy. Make it easier for me to do the right thing. Maybe y’all could embed urls or licenses in digital images. Blogging software and browsers could do something smart with them like show attribution info and link back to the copyright owner.

Secondly, and this is the biggie, someone needs to clean up the cesspool in which sheet music swirls – and I am talking about the so-called legitimate sellers here, not the tab sites.

The tab sites are a soggy morass of pirated content with their gossamer-thin chemise of this is for private study only covering their shame.

And my shame.

But they are not the real criminals.

Every now and again, I decide I would feel so much better to pay for a piece of music  rather than download it for free but each time I see the price tag I conclude that the merchants are bigger pirates than the pirates are.

Five bucks for I Just Can’t Help Believing! How can they possibly justify that?

It reminds me of those third world markets where the shops have an outrageously marked-up price for locally-crafted kitsch when the exact same crap is on sale out in the street for a twentieth of the price. They can dismiss the vast majority of the market because one sucker keeps them in rice and beans for a month.

The market for sheet music is a sucker’s market. But, just as iTunes – despite the best efforts of the music industry sharks – made it easier to be moral than to sin, maybe someone out there can bring some sanity to the sheet music business.

Steve? Larry and Sergey? Jeff?

I read, the other day, that, compared to the software industry, the entire music business is relatively tiny. One of the tech titans could buy up the whole thing with spare change the way Russian billionaires buy up English football teams.

How about if a consortium of leading Internet companies – Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Baidu, Amazon etc. – jointly bought the entire music industry, and promised to license its content to anyone on a non-discriminatory basis?

Google Should Buy up the Music Industry

Sheet music on my Kindle or iPad? How awesome would that be? I’d be sending you 99c every couple of hours, Jeff. Just make it easy for me to do the right thing. I’ll pay.

The Law of the Land

The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called “universal jurisdiction.” Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution.

Ronald Reagan’s message urging the senate to ratify the convention on torture.

I’ve long been a fan of They host one-on-one debates on politics, education, science, the arts…everything. Their gimmick is that the debaters must be civil and address each other’s points. A refreshing change from the shoutfests on Sunday morning tv.

About one in ten debates is very good. This, between Glen Greenwald and David Frum, is one of the best. Frum blathers a little but that’s understandable. Greenwald is scarily good.

Watch the debate.

On United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the United States reaffirms its commitment to the worldwide elimination of torture. Freedom from torture is an inalienable human right, and we are committed to building a world where human rights are respected and protected by the rule of law

George W Bush

Betraying Lolita

Spoilers Ahead!
Before I read the book, I had always understood Lolita to be a sexually precocious teenage girl who seduces an older man.

In this scenario, Humbert is technically guilty but it’s still possible to have a little sympathy for him. It’s only our prudish modern society that frowns on sexual relationships between middle aged men and teenage girls. In classical times, they were celebrated as the very pinnacle of erotic love. Humbert was just unlucky enough to be born in the wrong era.

But Nabokov makes it very clear that this interpretation is absolutely mistaken.

Humbert himself, as narrator, describes how he is sexually attracted only to very young girls who have not reached puberty. It’s only in his perverted imagination that Lolita flirts back (she was asking for it, yer honour). Lolita is twelve.

During Lolita’s long imprisonment as Humbert’s sex slave, he rapes her repeatedly while persuading himself (and, in his role as narrator) the reader that Lolita is a willing and equal partner. When she refuses some of his more depraved advances, he bribes her by raising her allowance to two dollars (and later steals it back).

Lolita, the book, is a tale of child abuse, plain and simple and Nabokov makes no apologies for that. The story has no moral value and no moral lessons for the reader. It’s almost as though Nabokov is saying “Look! I am such an awesome writer, I can write this book about paedophilia and you’ll still enjoy it.”

I didn’t enjoy it.

A sucker for punishment, I watched the movie last night.

Jeremy Irons’ Humbert was still a depraved pervert but his Lolita was a more willing partner and much further into puberty than the girl in the book. It was easier to feel a little sympathy for this monster. The movie made it almost seem like a tragic story of forbidden love.

Maybe it’s the difficulty of reproducing the unreliable narrator device on film – or maybe it’s just harder to portray child abuse – but I feel that the movie betrayed the premise of the book in a pervion as depraved as Humbert’s. If the movie Lolita were as young as the book Lolita, there would have been outrage – as, I assume, the author probably intended.

The blog where I snagged the book cover captures the issue succinctly by comparing the various covers that have graced the book over the years.

Which of these books is about a man who preys on little girls?.

I think you’ll agree, it’s this one:

Sting may have struggled to resist the girl who stood too close, but the famous book by Nabokov is about a pervert.

A Beautiful Mind

Whenever we hear a story about someone who has suffered a tragedy or illness that leaves them in a bad way physically, we have that conversation. The one that goes “I wouldn’t want to live that way. Just have me put down.” I always have the same response: as long as I can still think, I will want to go on.

And if I can’t think? I’ll go on anyway because a) I have nothing to lose (I can’t think, remember?) and 2) How do you know I can’t think? Maybe I really can think but just can’t communicate what I am thinking?

I expect the state of Ebert’s face leaves a lot of people thinking “I wouldn’t want to live like that” but those people are missing the most beautiful part of Roger Ebert. He is absolutely one of the most powerful writers on the planet and I feel privileged that I can read his blog every now and again (but cheated that I only discovered it in the last couple of years).

Even when Ebert is writing about something as trivial as a movie, his words are magnificent but he rarely stays on topic long enough to merit the lowly title of movie critic. More often he writes about himself – which is to say, he writes about me. He wields his pen like a time machine transporting me magically into my memories. To memories of burning shame – or burning pride – or of quiet moments of reflection that repeat, reprise and return.

Mural in Prescott Arizona

Today, Ebert started with the madness in Arizona but he was soon telling me about that time a bunch of midshipmen from Dartmouth drove down to Torquay with our consorts from Stover Girls School – me with the blackest girl i ever kissed  – and reminding me how it’s a mistake, if your grass skirt is homemade, to go commando.

But his important topic for today was how the deepest lesson you must learn, as you metamorphose from child to man, is to learn to imagine what it is like to be someone else.

Ebert’s example, as always, is mine.

That brings me back around to the story of the school mural. I began up above by imagining I was a student in Prescott, Arizona, with my face being painted over. That was easy for me. What I cannot imagine is what it would be like to be one of those people driving past in their cars day after day and screaming hateful things out of the window. How do you get to that place in your life?

I often wondered, seeing pictures of those brave first students who calmly smashed through the racial barricades in Little Rock, what was it like to be those people?

Liitle Rock High

Not Elizabeth Eckford. It’s easy to imagine being her – just like it’s easy to imagine being Neil Armstrong making his giant leap for mankind, or Geoff Hurst making sure it really is all over now.

What was it like to be the girl behind her with so much hatred for someone she does not even know?

What was it like to be that guy who was so offended by the idea of black people and white people eating lunch together that he poured his drink over them?

The Lunch Counter

What is it like to be so afraid of catholic school children walking on protestant streets that you need to throw bricks at them?

Holy Cross


But what about the people in those cars? They don’t breathe that air. They don’t think of the feelings of the kids on the mural. They don’t like those kids in the school. It’s not as if they have reasons. They simply hate. Why would they do that? What have they shut down inside? Why do they resent the rights of others? Our rights must come first before our fears. And our rights are their rights, whoever “they” are.

Ebert’s story starts with the town in Arizona that commissioned a mural for their elementary school and then made the artist lighten the faces after a local politician complained on the radio. It ends long ago with a story from his own life.

One day in high school study hall, a Negro girl walked in who had dyed her hair a lighter brown. Laughter spread through the room. We had never, ever, seen that done before. It was unexpected, a surprise, and our laughter was partly an expression of nervousness and uncertainty. I don’t think we wanted to be cruel. But we had our ideas about Negroes, and her hair didn’t fit. Think of her. She wanted to try her hair a lighter brown, and perhaps her mother and sisters helped her, and she was told she looked pretty, and then she went to school and we laughed at her. I wonder if she has ever forgotten that day. God damn it, how did we make her feel? We have to make this country a place where no one needs to feel that way.

John Newcaso was the first black kid I knew and I am happy to count him among my 7 year old friends. If my memory serves me well, he was an orphan and newly arrived from Africa. He was very popular (perhaps because he was the only one who could throw two punches in a second – Hey! We were seven! – or because he held the record for longest flight for a paper aeroplane even after we all copied his design) but we made fun of him because he wore a brace on his legs.

I wonder how he remembers us?

Was his first year in cold, dreary England tremendous fun because he had so many friends and lashings and lashings of ginger beer? Or hell because of our relentless teasing? Or maybe it was just my memory cleaning up the darker corners? I hope not.