Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to everyone. Let's make it a good one, work hard and have a bit of luck, keep reminding politicos and bureaucrats who's really in charge, drink, smoke, eat chocolate or play sport to your heart's content, think for yourself, do what you want but be considerate to others, and take responsibilty for your actions. It's the road to freedom and fulfilment.

Your humble blogging hedgehog is off to Malta for a few days, with Mrs Hickory. It's more rabbit country, really, but the idea is to walk a lot and see a few unusual things. Normal service will be resumed around the 7th.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

'I shall never make another prediction'

It'll be fun to look back at this in a year's time, and have a good laugh at all the things they got wrong. Almost all of them I expect, the prediction business being a tough one. Or it would be if anyone bothered to check back later on all the things that largely self-proclaimed experts tell us pompously will undoubtedly be so.

The big question is, did these farsighted, nay omniscient, Guardian experts smoke vultures brains before making their predictions? I just have, and I now know who will win the general election and the Grand National, but I can also tell you what name Gordon Brown will adopt after his sex change when he enters a Carmelite nunnery for the rest of his life. (It's true, it's true, I saw it all painted on the sky in letters of fire and ice). Obviously I have to get to the bookies before making any of this public, but if I haven't been locked up I'll try to remember to give you all a few tips.

What Could Gordon Have Done?

Should Akmal Shaikh have been executed? Everybody seems to asking this question, so let me answer it as well.

I don't oppose the death penalty on principle, since a society that can't choose how to defend itself from the thugs within and without it isn't free (the EU has banned Britain from reintroducing it, which is, as I have doubtless said before, an act of tyranny). But it is only justifiable for those convicted of murder, and only when explicitly recommended by a jury* after a fair trial (for some value of fair). So know, I don't think he should have been put to death, whatever the truth about his content to the crime and his alleged mental state.

The Chinese government, like others which execute drug smugglers, bases its action on the fact that the quantity of heroin carried by Shaikh could have killed or destroyed the lives of thousands of people (much like the Chinese Communist Party, but I don't think they'd see the parallel). And it is clearly their belief that it a crime heinous enough to justify execution. In Britain are they no offences punished in exaggerated fashion because of social beliefs? Not trying to do cheap cultural relativism, but I find it instructive to try to understand the why behind these things, and the obvious answer in the case of China- that it's useful for political repression- seems to be wrong here.

The position of Gordon Brown in the matter must have been entertainingly intractable. A desperately unpopular populist, he knew people wanted him to call the Chinese government all sorts of names and threaten them with nameless dark deeds, or offer to exchange Shaikh's life for some trade or political concession. The first two of these things might have been popular but they would have been wholly ineffective and probably counterproductive. Brilliantly, he waited till after the event to say them, alienating the Chinese when it was too late to make any difference. Similarly he would have been almost literally gagged by the Foreign Office to prevent him making any kind of offer. It must have been tempting, but the price would inevitably have been far too high to contemplate. This explains why the Miliband being is now going around with diplomatic Tourette's, repeating 'this will not affect our relations with China, we will continue to engage with China...' Of course we will. From my position of complete ignorance of how diplomacy works, it is clear that China matters, and that the Foreign Office could not possibly negotiate with Akmal Shaikh's life, and the last thing they wanted was Gordon sticking his oar in.

An unfortunate business, but in many ways an interesting spectacle.

*Juries are much less corruptible than judges, and tend to have a greater sense of justice and equity. It was juries that forced the abolition of capital punishment for all but murder, by refusing to convict on capital offenses that they didn't think should be. But they were not refusing to convict for capital murder. The decision to abolish it completely was Parliament's alone. And now not even they have the power to bring it back.

UPDATE: Charles Crawford does know about diplomacy and gives some interesting background. George Walden, in between his opinions, also has some useful thoughts to add.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Interesting Places

The C/Bailén in Madrid crosses the C/Segovia by means of a viaduct (known as the viaduct of Segovia, not to be confused with the aqueduct of Segovia, a magnificent Roman structure in the city of Segovia, not the street) the current manifestation of which was built in the 1930's. There has been one there since 1874, a simple thing, but serving its purpose. It's a well-known ornament of the central, historic part of Madrid, serving as a backdrop for stories (Pérez Galdós's Misericordia makes use of it, for example) and for life in general.

It's also known for suicides. It seems to be an ideal spot for disenchanted lovers or incompetent gamblers to end their troubles on the tarmac beneath. A couple a month, regularly, over the decades, have taken this route to eternity.

Now, however, they will have to find another way, or maybe have another go at life. Recently the authorities decided enough was enough, and erected glass panels along the rails, effectively preventing further mess on the asphalt of the C/Segovia. The intention is laudable, and the result a qualified success, but it removed a little piece of romanticism from the heart of Madrid.

Talking of interesting places, I offer you Bir Tawil, probably the only place in the world which is not claimed by any government. It lies between Egypt and Sudan, and because their claims for other, more important areas of land are given legitimacy by reference to one or other settlement, judgement, long-term de facto situation, neither can claim Bir Tawil without reducing the legitimacy of its general claim. It's a desert area, and given the nature of government in southern Egypt and especially Sudan, I imagine the few people who live there are not too bothered about the lack of dustmen and state-funded clinics. Not having a bunch of thugs strutting about with machine guns making it very clear that your life, property and livelihood depend on their drug-crazed whim must be a positive relief, even if life there is rather tougher than for most of us.

As an option for a libertarian Utopia, though, it has a few problems, mostly connected to being in one of the driest parts of sub-Saharan Africa, but also because, once you get a lot of people together, especially people with ideas, who don't have to worry overmuch where their next grain of rice is coming from, some will start trying to order the others around, and those others might soon be feeling nostalgia for the Sudanese Liberation Front. People are undoubtedly a problem.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Cadena Ser to the Galleys

A court in Madrid has sentenced the controllers of the radio station Cadena Ser, Daniel Anido and Rodolfo Irago, to 21 months in prison for revealing secrets, specifically the membership of the Popular Party of a number of private individuals. Before commenting on the judgement itself it's important to know who the players in this little drama are.

The Cadena Ser is part of the Grupo Prisa, a vast media empire whose main purpose is to make money, of course, but it does this (or more recently, it doesn't) by sucking up to the socialist leaders and and presenting everything from the current point of view of the left, tending more towards the hard left than the centre left. El País is the major newspaper of the group, though they have others, and it's not at all bad as the written press goes, provided you know where it stands politically. The main radio station is the Cadena Ser, and it's a ghastly thing, resolutely anti-PP, anti-America, anti-Israel, anti-Church, anti-family, anti-freedom in anything it doesn't approve of. It is so ridiculously and homogeneously right-on and 'progressive', even in the sports programmes, that you could forget there is a very large number, possibly a majority, of perfectly normal people who don't share those values and opinions. In fact I haven't listened to it for years, but it clearly hasn't changed. That is, after all, it's function.

So we have a vast, very powerful, monolithic, socialist media consortium, owned and controlled by Ignacio Polanco (the son of the founder) and Juan Luís Cebrián (ie, not a board of directors or a large group of shareholders, but by two men) which uses its power to spread its message and its message to maintain its power, and tries to silence or criminalize any media which it can stigmatize as 'right wing' (this is left wing capitalism at its most unpleasant, dangerous and hypocritical.). Two men with direct responsibilty for the content of one of its main media have been jailed for invading the privacy of a number of people (for political, not journalistic ends). It is very tempting to raise a glass to that judge on the grounds that running such media should be an offence in itself, as I'm sure they would if it were directors of ABC who were jailed. But in order to evaluate what it means for the rest of us there are other things to be considered.

As I've said before somewhere, I don't like the idea that freedom of the press is different from and supeior to the freedom of expression that the rest of us should enjoy, or that journalists should be allowed to do what the rest of us can't. Any argument about this case should be based on freedom of expression, not on journalistic privilege. (Journalists are employees paid by private companies to create a product that will make money, they are not the saviours of the world. The first amendment to the US Constitution mentions freedom of the press explicitly, but it does so in order to include the written word in the provision for freedom of expression, not to protect journalists. I would like to hear from a legal expert on this, but historically it makes no sense the way it is now interpreted.)

The judge said that the main thrust of the article, about alleged corruption in the local Popular Party involving 'irregular' membership, was a matter of legitimate public interest, but that naming people as members of the party, and revealing other personal information about them, was an illegal invasion of their privacy. This is not a question of protecting the powerful, as they were not public figures, just 'ordinary' party members, but rather of protecting people from having personal information indiscriminately revealed for political, commercial, or any other motive.

The sentence does strike me as a bit harsh, though in any case it will be appealed and I very much doubt they will go to prison in the end. But holding people to account for their actions is an excellent thing. Freedom of speech, unlike freedom of thought, cannot be absolute, and identifying and defending the limits is both extremely difficult and vitally important if we genuinely wish to be free. We can't expect governments to do it, they don't care about our freedom. The judge here may or may not have correctly identified one of those limits, but he has attempted to apply the right criteria in the application of the law, and we can be certain to here more of this story, which will keep the ideas present in people's minds.

Part of the sentence, by the way, prevents them from working as journalists for a period of time. I can't find a link to the sentence itself, so I don't know how that is defined, but when I do I imagine it will be worth discussing in its own right.

Apologies for not offering unconditional praise or condemnation, and for not setting the whole thing out in three simple sentences. It isn't simple, but it is important.

Monday, December 21, 2009

In Praise of Rain

Rain is mostly an unpleasant thing to experience. It's usually ugly and depressing to watch, accompanied by cold wind, and very uncomfortable to be out in, requiring heavy clothes, hats and umbrellas, trying to protect clothes that cost money and need to look right where you're going (and perhaps expensive hair in the case of women) getting wet anyway and spending hours with a disagreeable sense that you are rotting from within and that the pneumonia virus is making itself nicely at home.

I grew up in one of the dryest places in England, but even there it seemed to chuck it down every other day, winter and summer. And on the northern coast of Spain, where the climate is similar, though a bit milder, rain is generally seen as a nuisance.

Down here in the south however, it's very different. Rain is a blessing, something rarely seen, and even more rarely is it the right sort of rain at the right time. It's been raining on and off fror days and looks like going on all week. Most people have some link to the land, a house in the country or a smallholding their grandparents still live on, or a family house in a small village they once came from, and everyone understands the importance of rain. the land is very dry, hard to get any sort of crop from, and what does grow needs a lot of care and luck to grow in relative abundance. If it doesn't happen the wine is poor, the wheat fails, the olives are out-competed by Greece and Italy and the economy of the region suffers. It's true that we're not going to starve, and you can always buy wine from somewhere else, but there is still a deep connection with the country, even here in the city, and we welcome this kind of rain without complaint.

Another reason we need the rain is to fill the reservoirs. Towns are a long way apart down here and if you run out of water the nearest place that has an excess could be hundreds of miles away and with no pipeline or canal joining them. It's years since they cut the water off at night here, but it still happens in some places in Andalucia, and it could happen here again if circumstance demands it. People are well aware of this, and so rain is good news.

There are times when even an Englishman can take pleasure in walking in the rain. Warm summer rain when you're wearing old comfotable clothes and shoes you don't care about, and you don't have to be anywhere but where you are, and are in the right company in a place that suddenly looks intensely green and pure, under a sky that lours, looms and wuthers, changing shape and colour moment by moment, painting pictures in the air that invite you to stand and watch them for hours. Now that's what I call rain.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Catalan Democracy

In Catalonia the regional Parliament has taken a step towards banning the bullfight in the region. They have approved for Parliamentary process a private initiative with 180,000 signatures. It still has a long way to go, and may not make it. Fan though I am of bullfighting, I am a much bigger fan of democracy, and if the elected representatives of the people are genuinely responding to the popular will then I would accord it a cautious welcome. But...

They probably aren't responding to anything of the kind, in fact. They are responding to a pressure group which has been very active in getting forms signed, but it is true that bullfighting has never been popular in Catalonia. Now there is only one active bullring in the whole region, a magnificent one, it's true, and it is only used a few times a year, but there has never been serious opposition, just lack of interest.

That this is all political manouevring and points-scoring is shown by the fact that it is the 'corridas' they are trying to ban, which, as I say, have little support in the region, and not the 'correbous', a local tradition involving bulls on ropes in the streets, goaded and attacked by the people, or thrown into the sea. That is a popular custom at festival time, and they daren't touch it, despite being at times genuinely cruel, which the bullfight really isn't.

No, the cause of this little rant is not the possible demise of bullfighting in Catalonia, but the disturbing fact that the Parliamentary vote was held in secret. That tells you all you need to know about democracy in Catalonia.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Unusual Phonology

Many interjections, especially expressions used to express emotions with no further syntactic support, sometimes contain phonological features not present in the normal language (I say this apropos of nothing in particular, but I've been collecting examples and the subject strikes me as interesting):

Tsk- used to indicate disapproval, often ironically, contains no vowel and has a voiceless affricate not found in normal English, /ts^/, although it is common in some languages, for example Czech. The only affricates regularly found in English are the sounds of 'church' and 'judge', although some pronunciations of /tr/ and /dr/ are identified as affricates;

Uh-oh- to indicate that a problem has been spotted, exhibits tonality, since there must be a marked drop in pitch from the first to the second syllable in order to express the intended emotion; in fact the meaning may be said to be more in the tone than in the phonemes. Tonality is very common in the world's languages, and exists in the great majority of the languages of Asia and Africa. It is much less common in the Indo-European languages, especially in Europe, though Swedish exhibits some tonality;

Whew- to indicate relief, usually begins with a bilabial fricative not present in normal English;

Uhhr- to indicate horror, is often pronounced with an ingressive airstream, a method of phonation not found in normal English, and very rare indeed in any of the world’s languages. Nearly all sounds in nearly all languages are pulmonic egressive, which means that the air is pushed out of the mouth by the lungs, but several other ways of making sounds can be found here and there ;

Chkchk- to encourage a horse or express fondness for an animal, is a post-alveolar or palatal click, found only in the Khoisan and a few surrounding Bantu languages, and in Damin in Australia. Damin is a constructed ceremonial language spoken by initiated elders of the Lerdil tribe, who live on Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It is notable, remarkably so, for being the only language outside southern Africa to have click consonants;

Tut-tut- to indicate disapproval, is often pronounced as a dental or alveolar click.

As I say, hardly the pressing issue of the day, but there we are. All links are to Wikipedia, because it describes the phonemes pretty well.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Faith, Belief and Climate Change

I am not qualified (very few people are) to assess the extent of our knowledge about the effect of industry on global climate or the changes which might occur over the next hundred years. I'm not going to pretend that I have a position, a conviction or some deep insight which those who understand these things have missed, and as it's easier to ask questions than answer them, that, after a few initial onservations, is what I'm going to do.

Everyone wants to have an opinion on this matter, and, in the absence of any real possibility of analysing the facts, most people have a position in which they like to place themselves with regard to what they perceive as the orthodoxy. They don't actually know in any sense. The politicians are doing what politicians do, the journalists are doing what journalists do, some scientists are doing things they shouldn't, and people are talking a great deal of nonsense, which is their right and privilege. But there is no black and white here, in fact it is as far from being black and white as it is possible to imagine.

If you read a site like Real Climate, it becomes clear that much of what is known is only tentatively proven, and what it might mean is very hard to interpret. Scientists collect data, and in this case the data are especially difficult to gather, and extremely hard to construct any meaningful interpretation from. It is known that only a few thousand years ago much of Europe was too cold to be habitable, and that this occurs in cycles of very sudden onset. It is also known that over the last few million years the Earth's atmosphere has at times been unbreathable by creatures like us. It is perhaps the fear that it could happen again on a short time-scale, and that very little is known about how these changes come about, that is behind the dramatic claims made by some, and the exaggerated and dangerous solutions proposed by our leaders. The motivation of the usual bunch of thugs who have travelled to Copenhagen to smash things and threaten people in the streets is not a mystery, of course.

There are believers and unbelievers, and most of them adopt a position of belief or unbelief in the same way that they choose a religion, or a football team, or an opinion on the philandering of Tiger Woods. They is, they do so almost arbitrarily, depending on who has told them what and how it made them feel. They will then defend that position passionately regardless of any evidence. They won't be swayed by facts because they didn't know or understand the facts in the first place, so new facts will also be ignored.

We like certainty, and we like to feel part of things. Likewise we don't understand most things, so we choose anyway. It is similar to the case of evolution vs. creationism. The vast majority of people who say they believe in evolution do so because they think they should, because they accept the authority of those who say it is so, or they don't want to be associated with the fundamentalist times that creationism seems to attract. But they don't believe in evolution because they understand the information gathered and how the theory was developed from and tested. Their belief is as much a matter of faith as that of the creationists. Richard Dawkins may view with satisfaction the figures that say that a great majority in Britain believe in evolution, but it is because he is a better seller of snake-oil than others, not because people have seen that his snake-oil is of better quality.

A woman called Aminatu Haidar has been on hunger strike at Lanzarote airport for nearly a month, since she was deported from Western Sahara. She is an activist for the independence of the region, which is administered by Morocco, a situation not generally accepted by the population, who seem to favour independence. (It genuinely seems to be a large majority that desires this, not just the self-appointed spokesmen of the Frente Polisario).

Haidar claims that she simply wishes to go home, but several solutions have been offered, and rejected by her. She appears to be prepared to die, and for her to die in Spain would be a serious problem for the Spanish government. her real motivation seems to be to cause the governments of Morocco and Spain to reach an agreement favourable to the independence of Western Sahara, and she is keeping herself and her country in the news until she achieves something.

The government, on the other hand, cannot suddenly change the nature of its relations and agreements with Morocco, which have social, political and commercial importance far beyond the life of this one woman, but she is old, and pacific, and wants to go home, and has the overwhelming support of the Spanish press and public, so ministers are tying themselves in knots trying to give the impression of acting decisively, but without actually doing anything which commits them to confronting Morocco. It's fun to watch.

People have chosen an opinion on this, strongly held, on the presentation of Haidar by the press, and possibly on the superficial rights and wrongs of the case, rather than on the wider truth, and the consequences of following their inclination. It is no different, in essence, from the other cases.

In Praise of Evil

"Mr Aloysius Crancey

23B Montmorency Terrace

London EC4

Mj Patrick Bromley

Rue de La Conche 12, 4ºA


12654 Cedex


Dear Mr Clancey,

I thank you for your recent letter, though I find it confusing and, in many ways, dispiriting. You ask my advice on certain matters, and in so doing you show that you will never understand them. I shall, however, attempt to explain my position. If you cannot yourself make use of it, and your manifest self-doubt suggests you cannot, you might be able to pass it on to others.

One does not seek evil, Mr Clancey, one is Evil. (Evil with upper-case E is noun, not adjective. I hope you understand the difference. I précis my leaflets here.) Ideas of the devil are a distraction. Those who pretend to worship a personification of Evil will never become Evil, though they might become evil. To seek it outside yourself is to waste yourself. It is to doubt your ability and your courage. Evil is in all of us. It only exists within us. It can only be found within us. To become Evil is to discover what is within oneself. It is very important to understand this. You Are Evil. But you reject yourself. You refuse to be Evil. I repeat, You Reject Yourself. Do not personify, do not compare yourself with others. That is the way of the worldly and the weak. It can never lead to satisfaction.

As to what Evil is, that can be called a theoretical matter, susceptible of being studied and learnt. In the end, however, it must be understood within us. It is not enough to internalize a series of definitions. They must cause the Evil within you to resonate and desire to express itself.

Dispense again with the idea of Evil as the opposite of good. Good is an invention of man to justify his cowardice. Nothing more. It is then turned into some form of force, or being. Again this ridiculous urge to personify. It is a typically stupid failing of common humanity. They could all rise above it of they wished, but they do not. Given the chance to be Men, they choose to be animals. There is no hope for most of them, they have determined the course of there life, and they prefer it to be empty of all purpose.

Dispense also with the idea that Evil is selfishness. Dispense, rather, with the term, and the importance that is given to it. The Evil consider self, certainly, but because to do otherwise is simply to cringe in fear of oneself, one’s weakness, and one’s mortality. (Mortality, incidentally, is an essential part of our humanity. We should celebrate ours and, especially, that of those who fear it. It is doubtful whether we could be Evil were we not mortal. This is a point on which I have not reached a definite conclusion, and which is, of course, irrelevant to us, but I rather think not.)


Evil, then, is nothing more than the use of our will, our courage, and our character to the highest possible extent, free of the limits man imposes on himself, free of fear and weakness, free of the inventions of irrational cowards, designed to serve those weaknesses, free of the customs they let themselves become used to and accept as absolute laws. The greatest exponents of Evil, those who have come closest to complete understanding of themselves, rarely commit acts at all. When you exist almost entirely as pure Evil, there is no need to express Evil externally. Such people, I am not yet of that number, do not share themselves even to the extent of doing Evil to others. They have no such need.

You further ask why Evil should be considered the purpose of our existence. Here you show more promise, in that one who asks the question is on the way to understanding the answer. Existence is suffering. The possession of a body and a mind, of senses and emotions, means that most things will be unpleasant. Most people do not know how to limit suffering, but can only complain and hope it will not become unbearable, as they fear death so much. If there is so much suffering in the world it is necessary that there be those who inflict it, and to make the conscious choice to cause suffering of all kinds, to reduce as far as possible the pleasure someone can take from life, is to control suffering, including one’s own. To despise the suffering of others is to give value to one’s own life. To cause suffering enhances that value and the understanding of that value, and reduces the suffering we experience ourselves. It is the only way to give ourselves purpose. Real purpose, that is.

I say reduce the pleasure others take from existence as far as possible, because there is a limit. We do not want them to value death more than life, for then they would cease to suffer, unless, once that state is reached, we can deprive them of death, while perpetuating in them the desire to die. This requires great skill, and, except on occasions, in individual cases, is usually best not attempted. And so, I repeat, there is a limit to the practice of Evil. To the attainment of Evil within ourselves, however, there is no limit. This is why the greatest of us refrain from action altogether..."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Idle Thoughts from the Mountains

Monday and Tuesday are holidays here, making a nice long weekend. Regular readers won't be surprised to learn that I'm in the country, with a group of friends. It's very cold at this time of year, especially at night, being at around 1000 metres up and completely isolated, and heated by a fire in the kitchen and another in the living room, which is fine as long as you keep them burning nicely and don't move more than about 8 feet away from them. There was a thick fog yesterday morning, which rolled in and out again today, and there was frost on the ground, meaning that there aren't any mushrooms worth searching for.

The beer is cold, the company excellent, the country crying out to be walked through and become part of, we had bread crumbs for lunch (cooked over the fire with a little oil and mixed with fried peppers, 'chorizo', which is a kind of spicy sausage, 'morcilla' which is dried blood stuffed into the intestines, something like black pudding or haggis, and pork with the skin still on. Some people add grapes, pomegranate seeds or other fruit. If it all sounds rather hard to digest, it is, but there's nom need to go anywhere in a hurry.

In the circumstances it's difficult to care much about politics and politicians, civil liberties, education, stupidity or any of the other things I like to rant about here. I offer you therefore, a small selection of names that, for different reasons, I would rather like to have been called.

- In first place, without doubt, is the Spittal of Glenshee. Not having done the research, I can't say who he is or what it means, all I can say is that it's a Scottish noble title of clannish origin. The pleasure of being able to introduce yourself as the Spittal of Glenshee is surely worth all the ribbing you would have to take at school.

- Then there is Markhtoum al Markhtoum. He's the brother of Sheik Mohammed of Dubai, and like him, very big in horseracing as well as in oil. He has a name which has always struck me as being so majestically sonorous as to virtually finish, by itself, any conversation into which it is introduced. I'm sure you could win a lot of arguments just by saying, 'I am Markhtoum al Markhtoum' with sufficient finality.

- In third place is Lt-Col Sir Ethelred Dimwitty-Smythe. I speak from memory, but I recall that Bill Edrich claims to have bowled to this chap regularly in the member's nets when he was a lad on the ground staff at Lords. It is, perhaps, a name you could tire of, but there is undoubtedly something wonderful about it.

Just a little sampling of something completely frivolous which I allow my mind to play around with from time to time. Normal ranting will be resumed around Wednesday.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hedghog Origami

My spiny alter ego's underwear fetish is becoming distinctly worrying. He used to pinch the odd item that had fallen to the floor, to line his nest or because he finds the smell comforting (I've never liked to ask) but now he tries to steal socks directly off the foot, which means late at night you have to hop up and down and run about while a crazed erinacid tries to bite your toes. It's all part of the great tapestry of hedgehog co-existence, I suppose, but they didn't warn me about that bit.

In broader hedgehog news, a Frenchman called Eric Joisel makes hedgehog origami. The link shows the result, and gives a not very good description of how to fail to make it. His own site does a better job, but I imagine its not easy to replicate. I'm not goint to try, just admire a man who can spend much of his life working out ways to represent shapes in folded paper, and presumably think it time well spent.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What Should Children be Taught?

So what should children be taught, then?

The answer depends very much on what the purpose of education is, of course. Governments think that that purpose is to drill into them the tenets of fashionable orthodoxy, deprive them of the tools for independent thought, and prepare them for the role that the state thinks they should perform in society, I have argued that the state should limit its role to providing the means whereby children who could not otherwise have a proper education can achieve it, and leave the doing to others.

Education should be concerned with the individual, not with the construction of a given model of society. As such, children need to learn many things, understand why they are so, how we know them to be so, and the wider context in which their truth becomes important and related to other things. A generation of young people who have been allowed to learn to think, to understand the world about them and to develop a deep desire to be more than they are and a sense of how to bring it about would not only stand a much better chance of being successful, fulfilled and happy, but would also be likely to create a much wealthier and more successful society around them (although not necessarily the one that our great political thinkers believe they should create).

I suggest they should learn (and by that I mean be helped to understand, not just waffled at) the following as a starting point:

- That the world is a tough place, and their life will largely be what they make of it. They need to know that and to know how to make something of it.

- Numeracy, to a high level, including statistical analysis.

- Literacy, to a high level, to be able to acquire and process information easily, and to formulate and express a wide and complex range of ideas. And to enjoy what other people have cretaed.

- History/geography/biology, with the purpose of understanding the world they live in.

- Mathematics, not only for its own sake but as an essential tool of thought.

- Philosophy, not a history of ideas but an understanding of the reasoning that led to them. Another system of thought, which helps them to recognise when they are being fooled, or are fooling themselves into believing something which may not be true.

- Plumbing, electrics and bricklaying because they are very useful, save money and give a practical understanding of another part of life.

- Sport, both team and individual, because unless they learn not only what discipline is but also the practical benefits of it, they will not have the strength of will to do what they want to do.

This is, as I say, just a starting point, and I welcome further ideas. Chikldren waste years of their lives in schoold. If that time were properly used, in a few hours a day they could, by the age of 15 or so, be far better prepared for life- their own life- than 99% of what comes out of our schools today. And not as automata, but as happy, self-confident, productive people, fully prepared to take on the world. The rest, of course, would be up to them.

It is obviously important to stop trying to make education compulsory. Trying to force people who don't want to be there to turn up at school from time to time does nothing for them whatsoever other than to label them as delinquents, waste a huge amount of resources, waste the time of those who do want to make the most of their chances, and the energy and enthusiasm of the teachers who might have helped them to do it. Yes, it would probably create another kind of social problem, but in that case we should address that new problem when it arises, not pretend that ruining everyone else's educational opportunities is any kind of solution.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Terrinches Relived Again

I've written about Terrinches before, so I won't go through it all again. It's a little village in the SE corner of the province, very near Jaen, the Sierra de Alcaraz and the world's finest olive oil. I go there every year at the same time with more or less the same people, to celebrate someone's birthday. It's always a good party, but, unlike some of the group, I like to take an occasional break from the consumption of alcohol, good food and idle gossip, during which I wander through the neighbouring landscape, frightening the sheep and freshening up the blood for the next meal.

This year I came across, the cleanest, fattest, healthiest and juiciest-looking herd of sheep I think I have ever seen. I wonder what a farmer gets out of such exaggeratedly meticulous care. Good wool, good meat and good milk I imagine (the best cheese down here, and it's very good, is made from ewes' milk), but it surely can't be worthwhile economically.

I ran* through the next village and out into the country on a path I didn't know which goes down into the valley some way, then levels off. To get back you have to do it the other way round, which isn't so much fun. Mountains, green hills, water, olive trees, wide open skies, all the kinds of stuff which were made for us to live in and enjoy.

*The term 'jogging' is terribly passé. We super-fit, 'I shall never be middle-aged' types run.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Internet Cutoff Laws

From the EU Observer 24-11-09:

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - EU telecoms chief Viviane Reding has warned that the European Commission would take action against Spain if the government moves to cut the internet access of content pirates.

"Repression alone will certainly not solve the problem of internet piracy; it may in many ways even run counter to the rights and freedoms which are part of Europe's values since the French Revolution," information society commissioner Reding told a conference of the Spanish Telecommunications Market Commission (CMT) in Barcelona telecoms on Monday.

Viviane Reding has warned that internet cut-off runs counter to EU telecoms law

"If Spain cuts off internet access without a procedure in front of a judge, it would certainly run into conflict with the European Commission," she said.

This month, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, representing the member states, came to an agreement on a wide-reaching package of telecoms laws that included a provision that outlawed internet access cut-off without an official procedure.

Some internet civil libertarians feared at the time that the language in the agreement was still too soft to prevent such laws, but it appears the commission has taken the ball and is running with it.

"The new internet freedom provision now provides that any measures taken regarding access to and use of services and applications must always respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens," Ms Reding reminded the Spanish CMT.

Apart from the obvious fact that Europe has never had anything resembling common values either before or after the French Revolution (a long period of bloodthirsty tyranny, a kind of proto-communism, which it rapidly became clear was not going to work, to the extent that on several occasions a return to absolute monarchy seemed a better bet), the values held by the EU are not good, and are not what she would like us to think they are. On the other hand, she defends the idea that only a judge can decide to cut off your connection, which is as it should be.

El País reports the same news this way:

El dicho manido "cambiarlo todo para que nada cambie" se escenificó hoy en Estrasburgo. El Parlamento Europeo dio luz verde hoy a la controvertida directiva que regula el acceso a Internet. Al final no hubo sorpresa, y la enmienda pactada el 5 de noviembre entre el Consejo y la Eurocámara sobre la regulación de las restricciones a la conexión a la Red, sin necesidad de una procedimiento judicial previo, fue aprobada casi por unanimidad con 510 votos a favor, 40 en contra y 24 abstenciones.

The bolded line says that the decision by the EU Parliament was to allow countries to cut people off from the internet without any judicial procedure, not at all what Miss Reding was suggesting.

La Razón (which has since removed the article) is not happy that each country will be allowed to interpret the reasons for cutting people off and the process by which it is done in its own way. The paper mentions the highly restrictive laws passed in France, and just recently in Britain, but not the proposed law in Spain. It cites the text (I can't find a link to the complete text) agreed by the Parliament as saying that such measures must be 'necessary and proportionate', that their must be a 'fair procedure', and that the defendant must be heard. Which means a campaign to whip up a storm about whatever they want us to fear and a bureaucrat with a clipboard and a stopwatch who will give you five minutes before ticking the box he had intended to from the start. No need for a magistrate, no defence, no justice, no problem.

With regard to the new internet law in Britain, Boing Boing has this (and more, follow the link) to say, and he seems to know what he's talking about:

The British government has brought down its long-awaited Digital Economy Bill, and it's perfectly useless and terrible. It consists almost entirely of penalties for people who do things that upset the entertainment industry (including the "three-strikes" rule that allows your entire family to be cut off from the net if anyone who lives in your house is accused of copyright infringement, without proof or evidence or trial)

So it's bad. £50,000 fines if someone in your house is accused of filesharing. A duty on ISPs to spy on all their customers in case they find something that would help the record or film industry sue them (ISPs who refuse to cooperate can be fined £250,000).

But that's just for starters. The real meat is in the story we broke yesterday: Peter Mandelson, the unelected Business Secretary, would have to power to make up as many new penalties and enforcement systems as he likes.

In Brussels it’s all about power, of course. And in Spain, at least, it’s the latest in a series of concessions to the SGAE. Or, more accurately, of kowtowing to a few superannuated singers and second-rate actors who constantly whine that people don’t buy their work and so must be forced to pay for it anyway. The SGAE is the pseudo-private arts union/quango that inter alia lobbies to defend intellectual property rights and administers the royalty money that comes in from indirect sources. I’m a member of it, in fact, but I’m a writer and the government doesn’t listen to us (we don’t appear on the television enough).

They have recently persuaded the government to put a specific tax on any object which can be used for copying anything which might support someone else’s intellectual property- computers, photocopiers, MP3/4’s, e-books, CD’s and DVD and a number of other things. You have to pay it whenever you buy any of these objects and it goes to the SGAE who do things with it according to arcane rules which don't appear to include me.

This is not about child pornography or terrorism. It's about politics, as usual, and (once-)fashionable actors and singers and their demands, and such things, for our leaders, are much more important than basic freedoms, judicial guarantees and like trivia.

It is right that people should be prevented from gaining financial benefit, and causing financial harm to others, by claiming as their own work which is someone else's, but that is very different from copying something and selling it cheap to someone who would not have paid the price the creator was asking. And very different again is copying something to share it freely with friends, which is like lending a book or inviting people round to listen to music or admire a new painting. But some people who have power because others listen to them have made a fuss, to protect their income and their sense of self-importance, and that is a more important reason for controlling the internet than child-molesters and terrorists. Not that they won't try to control the internet anyway, it must be terrifying for those who want to rule over us, but they can't think beyond the next morning's headline, and it will be the egos of aging crooners that will cut us off, not the desire to protect us from criminals. Sad, really. Fortunately it's quite easy to ignore all this. All they want is the headlines, the result doesn't matter to them.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Barroso on Democracy

Barroso is quoted here on the subject of an EU tax controlled entirely by Brussels (via Open Europe):

"We have promised it to the parliament, the programme with which I was elected was to look at possible 'own resources' and this is in the programme that was adopted by this European Parliament."

Well, of course, whatever deal he cooked up with the lot he wanted to appoint him to the job, he wasn't elected by the people who will have to pay that tax, which rather reduces the legitimacy of his position. Taxation without representation, anyone?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Thought on Those CRU Emails

The release (by whatever process) of communications and data from the Climate Research Unit at Norwich has been covered by half of my blogroll, it appears. (And a few who aren't on it, but probably should be.) I am not going to attempt any kind of analysis, not having the time (I don't know how anyone else does, either, but some clearly do) nor the competence. By the way, the response at Real Climate is an attempt to brush it aside with a general 'that's just the way scientists talk' kind of bluff. It isn't, and a much better explanation/defense is required, which may yet be forthcoming, but so far I haven't seen it.

But one thing that is clear to any real scientist is that these communications are not about science, but politics. Science is the search for a certain kind of objective truth, and must be carried out in accordance with certain procedures, which include transparency, collaboration, openmindedness and freedom from preconception, if it is to have any chance of identifying that truth with some confidence. Another thing that science does, as part of this search, is to quantify ignorance.

Scientists do not work in a vacuum. In Universities they are subjected to very considerable political pressures, they experience personal pressure from their own professional ambition- to publish more, to be respected by their peers, to get a better post; industrial scientists are under commercial pressure from their companies; all are human, and instinctively want the world to be a certain way. It's when they fail to recognise this in their work that they stop doing proper science. Their are extracts from the communications which clearly indicate that the unit was, at least at times, prepared to sacrifice the truth to the pursual of some other purpose, apparently social, political or personal, and that is not science.

Those who have done some analysis of the data (which the CRU has never wanted to publish- see transparency above) suggest that it wasn't quite what it seemed either (see preconceptions above).

As I say, I'll let others do the work, and they'll do it much better, but it is worth remembering what science is and what it isn't.

David Thompson; Real Blogger

Blogging is a compulsive, almost addictive thing. In the same way that for an alcoholic the next drink is always the one that will make the world a perfect place, to a blogger it is the next post that will set the blogosphere alight and provide that sense of having written something that justifies all the work (not to mention the narcisism).

Blogging also becomes highly competitive. You see that other blogs have more traffic, more comments, more backtracks and even get noticed in the real world and you wonder about the cause of the injustice. Then you compare your writing to theirs and you begin to understand, possibly.

David Thompson's blog is what this one wants to be when it grows up. Magnificent images (passim), putting my little snaps to shame. Fine writing, taking apart the ignorant, empty pronouncements of the idiots who run too much of the academic world, as opposed to my meandering rants (try this, this and especially this). Showing up in all its naked pomposity the worthless, infantile, self-absorbed junk vomited out by so many of our supposed artists (try this one, or this one). Denouncing the very real consequences of political ideas still fiercely defended on theoretical grounds by the willfully perverse, stupid or evil, and doing so in a way that might even get him listened to by those responsible for those evils.

So while I work on making this a little better, I shall be reading David Thompson every day, and I suggest you do the same.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

More Jobs for the Boys

Watching the media and polictical circus surrounding the appointment of the President of the European Council and High Commissioner for Strutting around Self-Importantly and being Ignored by Barak Obama, one is struck by the total lack of concern for democratic accountabilty and 'bringing the EU closer to its citizens'. A major purpose of the exercise was supposed to be precisely that, to try to persuade us all that we created it ourselves because we wanted to and that we it is a structure through which the people express and carry out their will. it has now degenerated into the usual horse-trading, power-sharing, bullying and Buggins-ism, with no reference to or consideration for the poor citizens who are paying for it with their money and their political freedom.

All completely predictable. They haven't answered Kissinger's question, either, which was also meant to be an important purpose of all this. I don't see the Kissinger's of the world calling the number of some harmlessly obscure Belgian ex-postmaster general when they want to talk to 'Europe'. I don't imagine they take much notice of Barroso either.

So a couple of corrupt or failed non-entities will be appointed because the ones who will decide it are concerned about the stability of their own little social world and their own position in it. We do not matter. They could not have said it more clearly. And nor could the press, which is mostly too busy claiming to be able to interpret the games politicians play to defend our freedoms as it claims to do.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

That Education Stuff; Why do we do it?

(Leg-iron has a long post on education, most of which I broadly agree with. It's not especially relevant to this post of mine, but it's worth a read.)

If government ever understood the purpose of education it has long forgotten it. And it is probable that the state never did know or care why it was a good thing to make sure children were educated. (Or even what education is.) Governments have always used education, as they use everything else, to defend their own interests. (That is only to be expected, since it's what we all do, but it means that we need to make sure that the government's interests coincide with our own, and the People are not very good at bringing it about.)

The early presence of the state in education was intended to compete with the church, or in some cases with other private bodies that were getting too powerful. It has at times been used directly as an excuse to increase taxation, and it has for decades been an idealogical tool controlled for the purpose of indoctrinating the young. Everyone is constantly trying to indoctrinate the young into having one or other set of beliefs, moral principles, traits of character, strengths, weaknesses, philosophical handles, etc, and the state often loses the struggle, but it doesn't stop trying, and education, real education, is lost along the way.

So what is the point of education? What is it that someone, whoever, should be doing for children?

It is generally agreed that the main idea is to prepare them to take their place in the world. What that place is depends partly on the world and partly on the child, which in turn depends on the formation they have received. Children need to learn basic literacy and numeracy, but that won't get them far on its own. They need to understand the world they will be taking their place in, they need to be physically strong, to have strength of will, intellectual curiosity and the analytical tools to satisfy that curiosity. The world needs them to be able to contribute to making it a better place, and they need to be able to make a living, with as many options as possible, and to be happy and fulfilled. The last one is notoriously tricky, but I think we can be certain that filling their heads with rubbish, exhorting them to know their place, pandering to their (quite natural) indolence, and generally depriving them of any real knowledge, enthusiasm or aspiration is not the way to do it.

The ten or twelve years that children are in full-time education should be sufficient to achieve all of these things several times over. If it happened, they would all have to compete with each other, of course, as we do now, and some would win and some would lose, but the world they lived in, and helped to create, would be a much better one for all of them. Yet large numbers emerge knowing nothing, with no concept even of knowledge or ambition or satisfaction, having had their childhood wasted and their future ruined by ideologues, incompetents and tyrants.

I am completely certain that that is not what education was invented for, and it would be an excellent thing to recognize this, and at least try to work out what the real end of education is and think about how to achieve it. But first you have to know how to think, and ideologues don't think, they only believe.

"Is This Going to Involve Getting Up"

Thus does Garfield, wisest and most human of cats, encapsulate the abyss that separates our plans and aspirations from reality. Idly wondering how to become richer, more successful, happier, better-looking, fitter, more powerful and all the other things we know we could and should be, it seems so easy. But putting it into practice. Ah, now that's another matter. There are always distractions and excuses, it's not our fault, the world is against us, we have too many other things to do.

Legions of fat people lie on sofas eating Mars bars and whining that no one understands them, and that nobody will give them a magic pill that will let them be simultaneously lazy, greedy and thin. They could try the tapeworm, I suppose. Or they could buy a bicycle, but that, of course, would involve getting up.

Or those who don't progress at work because everyone has it in for them. Is it possible that if they were more punctual, more cheerful, more diligent and more imanative, took fewer days off sick and acually did what they were paid for they might find a greater spirit of co-operation from their bosses, but that, of course...

Most of us have a thousand unrealized plans, dreams and schemes. Unrealized because we 'don't have the time.' We have little trouble making time for watching TV, gossiping idly with friends, drinking beer, lying in bed half the morning and going to the footie, but for the things that we repeatedly tell ourselves and others are important to us, and to our sense of personal fulfillment, we just 'don't have the time.'

But Garfield was funny and he really didn't care. If you do care, stop moaning, get up and do it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Lisbon and Those Democratic Provisions

The EU Observer makes a big thing about one of the supposed democratic initiatives in the Lisbon Treaty, while at the same time explaining how such freedom must be greatly constrained in case we get carried away by the sheer joy of it.

Article 8 of the Lisbon Treaty, in the section grandly entitled 'Provision on the Principles of Democracy, says the following: In all its activities, the Union shall observe the principle of the equality of its citizens, who shall receive equal attention from its institutions, bodies, offices and agencies.

This has, of course, nothing whatever to do with democracy, so it's not a good start. The unfortunate people of the late Soviet Empire were not only promised, but probably actually received, equal attention from the agencies that were busy destroying their lives, simply because as far as their leaders were concerned, they were all equal. None of them mattered. The next sub-section is ominous as well:

1. The functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy.
2. Citizens are directly represented at Union level in the European Parliament.
Member States are represented in the European Council by their Heads of State or Government and in the Council by their governments, themselves democratically accountable either to their national Parliaments, or to their citizens.
3. Every citizen shall have the right to participate in the democratic life of the Union. Decisions shall be taken as openly and as closely as possible to the citizen.

4. Political parties at European level contribute to forming European political awareness and to expressing the will of citizens of the Union.

1. The Union is clearly founded on the principle of sharing the power among unaccountable bureaucrats and friends of friends, regardless of the public good or the public will, and grafting on a few elections and referenda here and there, the results of which can be freely ignored.
2. MEP's are not directly elected by the public, nor do they represent them.
3. There is next to no meaningful democratic life to take part in.
4. Political parties are private organizations of free people and as such will do as they damn well please. To attempt to define and control the role of political parties is highly totalitarian.

An important point about this and many other articles in the Constitution/Lisbon Treaty is how it makes perfectly clear that there are two types of people in the EU, the rulers and the ruled. Any real democracy at least pretends that the leaders have been temporarily and conditionally given authority by their fellows in order to perform certain necessary functions. The EU makes no such pretence.

Consider point 3 a little further, and then look at Article 8b:

1. The institutions shall, by appropriate means, give citizens and representative associations the opportunity to make known and publicly exchange their views in all areas of Union action.
2. The institutions shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society.
3. The European Commission shall carry out broad consultations with parties concerned in order to ensure that the Union's actions are coherent and transparent.
4. Not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.
The procedures and conditions required for such a citizens' initiative shall be determined in accordance with the first paragraph of Article 21 [actually Article 24] of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

Civil society doesn't mean you. Don't imagine it does. It means groups specially created or allowed to exist by our leaders, and paid by them with our money to lobby them, the purpose being to justify what they have already decided to do. You are merely a citizen. You don't count. Point 4 appears to introduce a mechanism for any of us to initiate legislation, but this is of course quite the opposite, being in fact an excuse to ignore us even more thoroughly than they do now. As the article gleefully makes clear, there will be so many problems with verification and uncertainty about the number of signatories from each country that any such petition can easily be rejected by an apparatchik long before it is in danger of sullying the exalted hands of a commissioner. Even if you manage to find a million people in a dozen countries who will not only sign to say they agree with but will give you vast amounts of personal data to support verification. Even if you can couche your intention in such a way that it appears to be required for the purpose of implementing the treaties. Even if you get past the army of paperpushers looking for a flaw in the presented paperwork. Even if you manage to reach the stage where the Commission can no longer avoid taking a look you will have achieved precisely nothing. Six months later you will become the proud possessor of a letter with a laser-printed fascimile signature telling you that the Commission doesn't feel your legislative initiative is appropriate and that, due to the nuisance clause in the standing orders they will not consider any proposal on a similar subject for at least 15 years.

No one is going to go through all that for nothing. Except for one reason- publicity. The press would certainly become interested but they are also easily nobbled by the powerful, and you might find yourself the victim of a mob rather than a popular hero. On the whole I think we can say that the provision is yet another of those decoys the EU likes to create, something to point to when there fundamental lack of democracy is pointed out.

There was a time when you went to see your MP, or wrote to him, repeatedly if necessary, and he would ask a question in the House or take the matter up somewhere, or you wrote to the relevant minister, and encouraged others to do the same and if enough people showed enough interest something might be set in motion. There was a time when the people's represenatives represented them- however imperfectly- but they understood that was their job. There was a time when legislation could be enacted by the will of the people, brought before Parliament by their elected representatives, with no need for mechanisms and constraints to be set out at length in endlessly interreferential protocols.

The provision is of such bureaucratic complexity that it is clearly designed to be impossible to fulfil, and thus those who rule us without our consent can remove themselves even more completely from the foulness and impurity of the world which we mere citizens must inhabit.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Another Freedom Gone

Tomorrow it will become illegal in Spain not to give a series of personal details to your mobile phone company when you buy a phone. This information will be available for the government to use to check up on who you talk to, but it will be collected and stored by the companies, so in the end it will mean the prices will go up as well.

The information you give or ask for when you enter into a contract is surely a matter for you and the other contracting party to decide. The government need not usually be involved, either in determining what information should be asked for and certainly not in having access to that information. But they do so love to get involved, don't they, especially if someone else is paying (which someone else always is).

In the case of a pre-paid phone the company doesn't even need to know your name, but it has been decided by our betters that we can no longer enjoy the freedom to speak to whoever we choose without having the fact recorded in perpetuity and used against us later on the whim of some official. So from tomorrow you can't have a phone unless they know exactly who you are and where to find you. (In fact, you haven't been able to for some time; tomorrow is just the last date for giving all that info to the phone company. After that, you're a crook.)

This has been justified as part of (go on, guess) the fight against terrorism, because pre-paid, anonymous phones were used in the Madrid bombs in 2004. When I say justified, I mean the minister genuinely seems to believe that if they hadn't been able to use pre-paid phones the murderers would have given up and gone home.

It's just an excuse, of course. They do it because they can. It shows very clearly that the only reason we are not obliged to register every contact we make, every conversation we take part in, every friend we have, is that our masters haven't worked out a way to make us do it without paying a higher political price than they are currently prepared to contemplate.

I'm not paranoid, but I think it's a bad idea to imagine that people who want power over you and/or an easy life at your expense can automatically be trusted with your time, money or freedom. Experience suggests otherwise.

On another matter, the Spanish Communist Party has a new leader. This should not be significant, as they have only two MP's, and that's because of PR but El País thinks it is. They used to have rather more, but now they shouldn't matter. They used to have more because they made a big thing about some of their leaders being jailed by Franco and how they fought against him. Some of them were indeed jailed, but a lot of people liked to claim they had been jailed by Franco a posteriori, it was a badge of legitimacy in the transition, whatever the real reason for being in jail (v. Jesús Gil y Gil).

They Communists like to make themselves out as being brave fighters against Franco and an important part of the transition to democracy. Their role in the transition consisted of allowing themselves to be legalized, and though it is true that they opposed Franco, there was a democratic opposition which did far more, while the communists postured and offered- or rather tried to impose- a tyranny far worse than the one that already existed.

Said new leader talks the usual cobblers. I've written about it here, but I can't be bothered to translate it. He's not worth it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Attitudes to Education

Among those who take any interest in education and the role the state plays in it, there are a few positions which probably cover most of the ground:

- Education should be completely controlled by the state so that children are only taught what the government of the day wants them to learn (transmitting any of your own values to them is treason against Progress).
- Education should only be done by the state because otherwise wealthy children will have an advantage. The desire to see other people forced to fail rather than aspire to something better yourself is an extraordinarily common mental affliction.
- Education is the responsibility of parents but should be provided by the state etc, and exclusively controlled by it.
- Education is the duty of the state/government/society to all children who want it and can’t get it by other means, and only state education is the business of the government. Probably the middle class default position.
- F*** off and leave my children alone.

Your position on this depends as much on your circumstances and background as it does on your politics. More so, probably, since those who actually have a choice, such as Labour MP's, almost invariably prefer to lay themselves open to charges of hypocrisy than to deprive their children of an opportunity. It would be better still if they did neither, but at least they recognise openly the importance of education, while trying to deny it to others.

Most people who understand the importance of education, which means most of the well-educated and not a few of those who were not so lucky, do everything possible to find the best school for their children, moving house, lying, pretending to be Catholic, and so on. Those who have the money use good private schools, or private tuition as a supplement, and those who have the time and the capability educate their children themselves, rather than trust anyone else to do it. All of this makes perfect sense to anyone who is not blinded by ideology.

State schools exist for those who are not able to provide for their children themselves. It is unlikely in any case that the standard will be as high as a privately bought service, and the politicization of it guarantees this absolutely.

The standard is almost certain to be lower because state schools do not usually attempt to achieve high standards. Their aim is generalised middlingness, and far more effort is spent on finding ways of pretending to attend to those who cannot or do not want to learn than on stopping them from preventing others from learning.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Real Life

If work is the curse of the drinking classes (and it most certainly is), then real life is the curse of the blogging classes. Real life has intervened this week, resulting in limited blogging. There are many things I dislike about the world we live in, and many I should dislike far more if I were unfortunate enough to have to find out about them. And so I am happy to have real life distract me from other, minor matters this week, especially the particular kind of real life that I have experienced these last few days.

La Cueva de Montesinos

In the Lagunas de Ruidera, in the rocks above one of the larger lakes, there is a cave known as the Cueva de Montesinos. I have mentioned it before, but until this weekend I had never gone further in than the entrance. It is a karstic formation, consisting of a narrow passage leading down to a chamber with a raised floor surrounded by water and contained a great deal of clay of high purity (it is said that the Romans mined clay here and there was a kiln and buildings on the spot whose foundations can still be traced), and a roof of iron-lined rock, on which patterns of crystallized calcite deposits make patterns which can be interpreted (with some imagination) to tell the story of the cave itself.

Don Quijote visited this cave, spoke with the spirit of Merlin, who had enchanted it, and with the Lord of Montesinos, and other spirits, and came out the next morning with tales of visions and promises and predestination. Sancho was sceptical from the start, and Don Quijote himself later admitted more or less that he had made it up, but the cave, which already had a legend of enchantment, became famous around the world, and is visted for that reason, more than for its geological interest, which isn't great.

In these days of micro-inspection, ultra-regulation and obsessive concern of authority with everything except that which actually benefits the country in general and allows the individual to make a living, where it is forbidden to burn rubbish or stubble, requiring it to be packed up and thrown away, where it is forbidden to maintain any kind of animal except in accordance with rules dreamt up by people in offices in Madrid, where farmers are told what they can grow, when, where and how, and where the market is manipulated by Brussels in order to prevent them from earning a proper living, where all economic activity can be shut down on the orders of an urban bureaucrat if certain animals or birds are reported to be on your land, where the local and national socialist governments think all land is really theirs and you are just their servant, to keep it looking pretty for the people who they allow to walk all over it, or to have it taken from you if they decide to build a road or a new town hall, in these days, I say, it is refreshing to be shown the cave by the nephew of the old game-keeper at the farm, who has been showing it for thirty years, as his father did before him, with a handful of torches and asking only for 'la voluntad'.

He knows every rock, every pattern, every angle, every story, and he knows where every foot should be placed to avoid the danger of tripping in the dark or falling into the water below. And he describes it all, bringing to life the cave, the book, the colours, the minerals and the rocks themselves. The cave has a story, a mythology, older than Cervantes, Don Quijote has a story, there to be read, and the guide himself has a story, in which he has become the rocks he has spent his life observing and describing, reading and writing his own story in the figures on the wall.

Above, a hare issuing from a magic lamp, and below, the reclining Dulcinea.