Margaret Box to her Dad – December 16th 1918

Margaret Box, my Great Aunt, trained as a nurse, and went out to serve in Serbia with the Elsie Inglis Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. She had been working near Skopje, but at the time of writing this letter she was on her way to Sarajevo.

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Dec 16th 18

My Dear Dad,

Our 3 days trip has lasted 10 days & have have had a most enjoyable voyage. The weather has been & still is perfect & so warm. We have appreciated the complete change of living too for a little while &now we are going back to our old style ! The last 2 days have been very gay. I think we have had our Xmas festivities. We have been out to tea & lunch on other boats & yesterday we went ashore & climbed a bit of mountain.

We expect to leave by train tomorrow morning & I suppose we shall soon arrive at our destination & it will be quite strange to start nursing again & I wonder how long we shall stay there !

This country is wonderfully beautiful. We picked huge snowdrops yesterday & ferns of all varieties. I saw lots of different leaves such as cyclamen, columbine etc & in the spring the flowers must be lovely.

I hope you got my letter with post cards safely. We reckoned it ought to take about 10 days to get home. We have not the least idea how or where we shall get letters here. I should think it will be a good many weeks. I hope in about 2 months to send you another newsy letter as I think some of the Sisters are going home then. Their time will be up & they have promised to take anything home for me.

This afternoon we have been ashore & had a glorious walk thro’ orchards & woods to such a pretty town. Oranges grow there now & roses & large blue campanulas wild . It has been a perfect day, very warm & the water is like a pond. It was very windy when we arrived on Saturday morning & the sea was quite choppy.

We are to get up at about 5 o’clock tomorrow morning & start off on our travels again. They say we are going through gorgeous scenery, but I have seen so much already my brain is overflowing with it, and the sunrises & sunsets are so brilliant & so many colours you would not believe it was possible. I will write later & tell you about some of the people we have met on board, their departures & destination we mentioned in one of the daily papers, but they did not mention us !

Please tell mother not to bother about the tartan tie as I hear they are very difficult to get so I will write to Miss Willis for one.

I am wondering what you will be doing at Xmas. I suppose the family will be very scattered. It is most unXmaslike out here. We were told it would be frightfully cold & snowy, but evidently it has not begun yet. I find I like the sea so much & we find the Navy life so well that several of us are thinking of joining it !!

It is very strange that the ships Dr. on one ship we visited here was a student at Guy’s when I was there. I did not recognise him as he has shaved his moustache off, but he remembered me. Of course we talked Guy’s but neither of us had much news of the old place.

Very much love to all

Your loving daugher

Margaret

Notes

Her father’s notes say ‘arrived 24/12/18’ and ‘answered 29/12/18’

Margaret had asked her mother for a Gordon Tartan Tie on her letter of the 3rd of December.

How do we decide ?

This is very much a work in progress, which I intend to refine, but published in this incomplete form to link other posts into a wider context.

Choices can be tricky – important ones always are, and for each choice we (as individuals, groups, societies and humanity as whole) make there will be an alternative which we did not take.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

The Road not Taken by Robert Frost

Ethics

With great power comes great responsibility

Peter Parker

Ethics, as I am using it here, is a huge field, containing philosophy, religion and politics.

Individuals, Groups, Nations, Humanity

Finding the right balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the group has always been hard, and is becoming harder as the world grows more complex.

Science

Scientia potentia est (Knowledge is Power)

Francis Bacon (attributed)

Any decision which is incompatible with science will ultimately go wrong, because the science tells us about the world as it is, rather than the world as we might like it to be.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman in Cargo Cult Science

Science can not be used on its own for some big decisions.

It is strongly hinting that we can not both continue to burn fossil fuels, and avoid climate change, but does not in itself say which option is ‘better’.

Economics

The Golden Rule: He who has the Gold makes the Rules

I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country… corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.

Abraham Lincoln

Economics is another decision support system, helping us to decide how to allocate resources. As a nation, should we spend more on the NHS, or Education or the Arts – and if we say ‘yes’ to all of these, what do we cut, or do we (there is no magic money which comes from ‘the government’)

To paraphrase William Jevons, “Money‘s a matter of functions four, A Medium, a Measure, a Standard, a Store“. In supporting decisions it is its functions as a Measure – i.e. a way of comparing the economic values of two things at the present time, and as a store, which can be thought of a way of comparing the value of having one thing now against something else at a later time.

Pure economists tend to work with a hypothetical ‘economic man‘, who makes rational choices, based on economic self interest, however most real life people blend economic with ethical and scientific considerations.

How do They decide ?

If we can take a set of circumstances, and apply some combination of Ethics, Science and Economics, to work out what the response to some situation should be, then others, such are governments and corporations are, explicitly or implicitly doing the same.

If we examine the decisions they make we can work out how they actually weigh, for example the science which suggests that Climate change is a danger, against the economics which suggests that increasing air travel will bring prosperity.

All politicians claim to be working to benefit those who voted for them, and the question is, does examination of who actually benefited from their policies, once they have been implemented, match the claims ?

This is why transparency in the decision making process is so important. We should not expect perfection from politicians, or any decision makers, but if we, and they need to be able to show their reasoning, as part of a reasoned feedback loop.

Do we decide ?

I am not talking in the deeper sense, of do we have Free Will, discussed in an interesting way in ‘Is God a Taoist ?‘, but in the more pragmatic sense that access to information shapes our ability to make rational decisions.

A decision implies that there were some set of choices, and that one of those was picked. If the choices do not exist, or we are not aware of them then no decision is possible. It is easy to look at some other person, or group, and say that they are making poor choices, but they may not be aware of, or have access to alternatives.

This is where diversity interacts with decisions – or lack of them. If the only food available is burger and chips, because that is all that is available where you live, or you are not aware of alternatives, then you do not have a choice.

In an Internet context, if you are only aware of the products of the big monopolies – as is quite likely for most ‘real’ people, then there is not really a choice. For example Excel has become synonymous with spreadsheet, and Zoom with Video Chat. Although, for example Hoover is often used where we mean Vacuum Cleaner, we do actually know that in that case there is a choice, and we benefit, when we go to the shop to purchase one from range of options available.

The reasoned feedback loop

The reasoned feedback loop is central to human progress. Feedback loops are everywhere, but the key element introduced by people is the Reason step. It is core to the way that science works, and engineering, and good (I wish I could think of a better word here), legal, moral and political systems.

In such loops things are in some state, which is examined, and reasoning is applied to do something, to get to a new – intended to be better – state. This seems very abstract, so I will supply some examples to show what I mean. I will also point out where access to information is important in this.

Science

To many non-scientists, the role of a scientist is to know things, but real science starts with not knowing something, but wanting to find out. Scientists start off not knowing, for example if there is a connection between smoking and cancer, or where the energy that powers the sun comes from. They perform experiments, or apply statistical tests, and reasoning, and the end state is an increase in human knowledge.

The success of this process depends on open sharing of the information and reasoning used make the new discovery. Usually these are published in scientific journals, for fellow scientists to see if they can reproduce the results, and examine the reasoning.

This process is international, as spreading good knowledge helps everybody, thus Chinese scientists published an article on ‘A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin‘ in the scientific journal Nature on 3rd February 2020, which is available to anyone to read (note that Nature is normally a subscription publication – that is how they make their money, but they make some articles Open Access). The link to the article came from the excellent Medical Student COVID-19 Curriculum which itself is being improved regularly.

Accurate measurement and good data is essential to all science, and in medicine this is particularly the case, which is why I support the Cochrane foundation – which promoted evidence based medicine, and the All Trials campaign, which pushes for the results of all drug trials, not only the favourable ones, to be made available.

Applying the Reasoning stage is particularly important in the face of a global pandemic. Denying it exists, or humanizing it leads to worse outcomes. An epidemic is the bad kind of a positive feedback loop leading to the bad outcomes, and rationally applied strategies can push towards the good outcomes, as described in ‘Is Coronavirus a Catastrophe


The Law

I shall use the British system here, as it is the one I am most familiar with, and because – despite it’s flaws – it is the result of many people over a long time trying to do The Right Thing.

The Law is not perfect, change can be frustratingly slow, and implementation often fails to match the ideal, but potentially it uses the same process of a reasoned feedback loop as science does.

British Law is made by Acts of Parliament, proposed, discussed and voted on by elected MPs. These discussions are publicly available in Hansard. They are not the most exciting reading, but these parts at least are public.

When there is doubt about the meaning of a law, this is decided by the Court system, refining this through the appeals system until a final judgement is reached. To make these judgements the lawyers use Hansard to try to work out what Parliament intended by the law, and the judgement of previous courts (precedent), to try to make the law as fair as possible. Most of the body of ‘case law‘ is in legal libraries, not published on the Internet, but, for example the British and Irish Legal Information Institute does make many cases available.

Parliament should (and usually does) take existing case law into account when passing Acts which replace previous laws.

Systems where knowledge important to bits of this process are hidden from wider view tend to work less well, as there is more chance that some key information will be missed. If the information is not available to decision makers (for example if their primary source of information are biased lobbyists – and there is no way to review the accuracy of what they have been told) they will make poorer decisions.

The Internet

The Internet, the core part, which should be distinguished from the things which run on top of it, is another example of the effectiveness of open decision making and transparency being used to drive progress. The ‘laws’ of the Internet are a set of documents called Requests for Comments, and they most important of these are published by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The final versions of these can be found on the web site of the RFC Editor. Those which are Standards are produced by IETF Working Groups, and the discussions which lead to the final documents are openly available (and open to public contribution).

In general for something to be a Standard there must be at least two interoperable implementations.

The guiding principles of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) an guiding committee of the IETF, is that ‘The Internet is for End Users‘ making the ethical framework explicit.

Feedback

This article reflects on and in some cases restates some of the points in Diversity and Regulation.

In the spirit of the article I welcome thoughtful feedback, either through comments, or via Federated Social Media to @JohnLines@mstdn.io