Friday, January 30, 2009

A Good Hedgehog Knows His Duty

As the world's only blogging hedgehog, I feel a heavy responsibility to promote concord, understanding and tolerance between species. This is best done by example, I have always felt, and so I record graphically my attitude to this chap, who has for some reason chosen to share my sleeping space. I do like to stretch out, shuffle, snuffle, yawn, and generally make the most of the room I have, but I will put up with having my freedom curtailed if it helps to make the world a better place. The look on my face in not disdain, or disgust, but stoic, welcoming, and, I admit, slightly superior, acceptance. As for the other chap, I couldn't tell you what he's thinking, but it looks as though I'll be forced to find out.

"I Believe in Free Speech But..."

No you don't. Not if you add that but. You believe that people should say freely what you have decided it is correct for them to say, and be punished (by others) for daring to say things that have not been approved by you. You can make that argument, certainly, but you cannot claim to be defending free speech.

This chap makes mention of this article in the Guardian, in which someone called Julie Bindel makes an argument that is a fine example of how not to make such an argument.The central point she is trying to make seems to be that a clause to be added to a new law will not do enough for the rights of homosexuals. On that point I have nothing to say, and on the broader point arising from it I would only say that if homosexuals need special protection from violent attack then I see no reason why the matter should not be addressed. But Ms Bindel does not clarify what her broader point is. She suggests at different times that a certain group of people (it doesn't really matter who they are) should have special protection (I say special because it goes beyond that afforded by society/government/the state to other people) from violence, verbal abuse, professional and social discrimination, and even from the opinions of others. These are such vastly different cases that anyone who fails to distinguish them can make no real case at all.

Some obvious points. "I am all for freedom of speech, as long as it does not favour one person or group over the other." Someone who can say this does not believe in or understand free speech. She also shows that she does not understand sin (the word sin carries its own context with it; sin is that which is contrary to the will of God) or Christianity. She describes Christians in so many words as bigoted, and also uses the word fundamentalist in implicit reference. Aside from the fact that this is, broadly speaking, false, (and deeply offensive) the most devout believers in the Church's teaching on homosexuality (which, like on every other point, speaks of loving the sinner) are the least likely to go out gay-bashing.

But people, some people, she tells us, must be protected from discrimination. I fail to see why it is anyone else's business whom I employ and how I choose my employees, though there is certainly room for argument, and public employees are a different matter because of who is hiring them (ie, not the person who is paying them). An employer hiring for his own business spends his money wisely, and if he doesn't it is his problem and no one elses.

Where the argument completely loses its way is where she implies that there could be a list of words, phrases and sentiments that it will be permitted to use. This is so patently illiberal as to be totally execrable, but it is also an impossibility in any society whatsoever, even a tyrannical one. This does not seem to bother Ms Bindel in the slightest. It is unclear whether she feels that by forbidding people to express certain beliefs and ideas she can stop the beliefs from causing offence, or whether she thinks that if people can't say something they will stop believing it, I suspect the latter. Someone should tell her it doesn't work like that.

She argues from ignorance, and her proposals are ludicrously flawed. She uses her platform in a national newspaper to complain that some other unelected people have a powerful voice, which rather undermines her indignation. She does not distinguish between homosexuality, a generally unsought attribute of a person, and its physical expression, a matter of choice. This point would probably not be relevant to her argument or to my analysis of it, except that it is often confused, and religion and other beliefs are presented as a choice, and therefore something that you can help. This is at times held to reduce the need of religious groups for the protections given to racial groups. It is at least arguable that, given the unshakeable tenacity with which many ideas, beliefs and opinions- religious, political, moral, social, personal or of other types- are held, and the general poverty of the motives for such beliefs, religion etc are no more a matter of choice than homosexuality is.

The comments to the article remind me very much of why I have stopped arguing about Bigfoot, but for that very reason they provide a further lesson in knowing more or less what you think but not why, showing again that opinion and belief are not so much a matter of choice as we like to think, and Ms Bindel assumes.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Intelligent Discussion on the existence of the Sasquatch

Is there such a thing as Sasquatch? What do you mean by Sasquatch? That thing in Canada that looks like a sort of ape? Half-man-half-monkey-ish thing, yes, you’ve seen the pictures. But aren’t all the pictures fake. Well, some of them are, apparently, but others not necessarily, and there’s a video. There’re all fake, it’s obviously rubbish, some people will believe anything. But you can’t be sure it doesn’t exist, can you. You can’t prove it doesn’t exist because you can’t prove a negative. So if you can’t prove it’s true it must be true. But you can prove a negative. Canada’s big enough to hide a lot of things. How would an ape/monkey/hominid get into Canada, anyway? Same way we did, Bering Strait, land bridge, all that, comes and goes, lots of monkeys in South America. Been there millions of years though, not just come from Northern Siberia. But they could have done, more recently. It’s all rubbish, there is no Sasquatch, no Yeti, no God, no creation, and the Moon landings were faked (err). But how much is there really of Canada? Not enough to hide an unknown hominoid. Just because you’ve never seen it. But if they’ve got a name for it it must be something. Maybe not in Canada, somewhere else. If it was there someone would have seen it. They have but no one believes it, they just say there can’t be any such thing. They said that about the coelacanth. And that other thing, what’s it called? Do you still put you old teeth under the pillow, then? But it could be, you never know, do you? I’m not saying there are, but there’s pictures… Faked, all of them, there’s always people who’ll believe anything.

To listen to this kind of conversation is at tedious at the best of times, which is why I never discuss Bigfoot except with people who know what they are talking about.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Nothomyrmecia macrops

Back when Hickory was little more than a robust sapling, I used to listen to shortwave radio broadcasts from around the world. As I write this memories arise of propaganda from the Voice of America and the Voice of Russia, of Radio Free Europe reminding the world what communism really meant from some hiding place in Yugoslavia, catching up on the work of the latest ex-pat American poets at the Cafe Radost in Prague, learning the intricacies of political life in Slovakia, hearing a pretty good country music show from Radio Jordan, occasionally catching the Columbian football on Radio Caracol (and I thought Spanish commentators got excited) hearing live the announcement of the death of Kim Il-sung on Radio Pyongyang, transmissions in French from Central Africa with interviews from the market-place or tales of the search for a new water supply. Before the Internet it was the only way that you could directly enter the lives of people from all over the world, without the mediation of journalists from another culture and with motives of their own.

Everyone who listened to shortwave back then will remember Radio Australia. I think it no longer reaches Europe, but the pleasure of hearing the weekly music show by Lucky Oceans, who never played a song that wasn't worth hearing, and the well-made documentaries about the life and history of Australian towns never dulled.

If the title of this piece means anything to you, you are probably an entomologist, or perhaps you too used to listen to Radio Australia. This is the story of an ant, and of Dr Bob Taylor, the man who (re-)discovered it. Nothomyrmecia had been recorded near Balladonia in Western Australia by a collecting party in 1931, and there was particular interest in the highly primitive social structure of the colony, and they appeared to confirm that ants had evolved from wasps.

The exact location of the site was not recorded by the party, and for decades entomologists searched Western Australia for Nothomyrmecia. It was in 1977 that Bob Taylor was with a group that set out for the area to continue the search. In Poochera, South Australia, 700 miles from Balladonia, they made a stop, and Dr Taylor chose to contemplate a clump of trees, on one of which there was a single ant. He ran back to the camp and, with truly Archimedian passion, declaimed, "The bloody bastard's here. I've got the Notho-bloody-myrmecia." In this way Bob Taylor made his life worth recording.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Truth and Where to Find It

The word truth, and the concept of truth, are both much abused. But some uses of the word are not intended to deceive. They clearly refer to a concept that is not truth in the normal sense and they do not hide the meaning they denote.

In bullfighting there is an important quality of 'verdad' which refers to an absolute sincerity in the intention of the movement performed, and a determination to do things properly and with no trickery. Verdad may be a general quality of a bullfighter, but it is more commonly applied to a particular action, or series of actions. I vividly remember the death of the banderillero Manolo Montoliú in 1992, his heart pierced by a bull he got too close to because to place the banderillas properly in that bull that was where you had to be. It was said repeatedly, and truly, that he had died of 'verdad'.

A very odd place to find the word truth is in quantum physics. As I vaguely recall (trans: I can't be bothered to do any proper research), one of the first properties of subatomic particles to be verified was connected to angular momentum and so was called 'spin.' But the subatomic world is a very strange place and particles don't spin in any way that makes sense to us. The confusion caused by the name was such, even among physicists, that when further properties were discovered they were given purely abstract names that could not be misinterpreted in any physical sense. So we have charm, beauty (now known much less beautifully as bottomness), truth (also referred to now as topness) and strangeness. Presumably Keats and Bacon are being remembered in some way.

Wikipaedia now has a very good article on attempts to identify the truth (to which I haven't contributed, though I might). I'm not sure about the reference to 'professional philosophers'- the idea seems to lack truth- but other than that there is much worth reading.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


The day before we went to Prague at the beginning of this month, the remaining hamster (a Russian dwarf, Phodopus sungorus) aging and rather doddery, chose to escape from her cage and sit in the chip fat. Emergency showering and blowdrying, which she seemed to enjoy very much, incidentally, were not successful, and she went the way of all flesh the next morning (the dustcart, since you ask, we have daily collections here).

Returning from Prague, Mrs Hickory wanted a replacement, of course, and so we, fresh from seeing inspiring statues and hearing heroic tales of the great saints and leaders of Bohemia, the only question was whether he should be Wenceslao, Wenceslas or Vaclav; Spanish, English or Czech. He ended up Spanish, and Wenceslao joined our little commune, squealing, creeping around at amazing speed, squeezing through anything bigger than the eye of a needle, and disturbing the hedgehog, who doesn't know what to do about him (Crispulo is an insectivore, and though also partial to fruit, nuts and cat food, he draws the line at small furry animals. Since he can't eat it or shag it he regards it with suspicion. Wenceslao on the other hand seems to enjoy his company, as when he gets out he goes to the same bed. They sometimes curl up together.)

All of this makes the cold, dark, damp days more pleasant.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

In Praise of Chaos and its Ordered Understanding

If you think you know what chaos theory is, keep reading. If you think it has anything to do with butterflies, keep reading. If you think it is anything to do with dinosaurs, keep reading. If you think it is a type of randomness, keep reading. If you think you know what a fractal is, keep reading. If you have never heard of Mandelbrot and Julia, or of non-linearity, if you think continuously discontinuous is something Donald Rumsfeld gets laughed at for saying, keep reading. And above all, if you think Chaos Theory has anything to tell us about human relations, the future or the meaning of life, you should very definitely keep reading.

Insofar as the Hickory Wind is about anything much beyond my ramblings, it is about truth- the nature of truth and the ways in which we deceive ourselves and others. There are many scientific theories that are used symbolically by writers, journalists, culturalists and ‘ordinary people’, as though they were directly applicable to and descriptive of other areas of activity or thought, or just to the world in general. This usually comes from ignorance- a failure to understand the theory itself, the limits of its reference and the nature of scientific, or of rational thought. False analogy is an error so common in the reasoning even of people who imagine they know how to think that it is scarcely worth pointing it out most of the time, but certain errors of the type outlined influence the way of interpreting the world of very large numbers of people, and should be challenged, identified and corrected.

Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, the general theory of relativity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Darwinian evolution are some of the main tools by which people who do not understand them try to make sense of the world about them. They are, in effect, using words as totems to give the world a shape they can be happy with. They are not using the ideas themselves, since they have no inkling of what they really mean and they do not realize that they are quite useless when applied outside their areas of reference. I intend to write about all of these in time, but today it is the turn of Chaos Theory.

Chaos Theory is essentially the mathematics of dynamical systems that are sensitive to initial conditions. Specifically it deals with systems of functions in which an arbitrarily small change in a variable produces a change in the result that cannot be held within a determined limit. This is what is meant by continuously discontinuous; it happens at every point. It doesn’t mean that the result is not defined by the starting conditions; the result is completely defined, but changing them very slightly can cause a very large change in the result. Many physical systems can only be modelled by such mathematical systems, the weather being the best known example, and since the initial variables in a physical system cannot be precisely determined, the results are necessarily unreliable over time or space.

The beauty of mathematical chaos does not lie in anything it supposedly tells us about the uncertainty of nature and the lack of determinism in human life- such interpretations are utter nonsense. Chaos is an old word and an old idea; mathematical chaos is a precisely defined concept which only tells us anything about mathematics. And the beauty is in the expression of the ideas behind it, the transformations that can be done with it, and what it reveals about the abstract world of numbers. It also helps us to create some lovely images, but the beauty I refer to is different. It is an aesthetic response, felt directly in the soul, uplifting and immensely satisfying, as the contemplation of any kind of physical beauty may be. Intellectual beauty is no different.

Non-linear dynamics can describe, often with great simplicity, systems that until recently were inaccessible to analysis, many believed to be irreducibly complex. It is simplicity and elegance which are the key to mathematical beauty, but also the efficiency and precision of that elegance, without which you merely have a drawing by Van Gogh, not a sunflower. The psychobabble and cultural studies mob prattle about chaos, but in order to learn anything about the world you have to create a model for the system, and do the mathematics. That’s the hard bit, and it’s much easier just to waffle. After all, the people who listen to you won’t notice.

My purpose in this and, I hope, subsequent posts, is not to tell you you're thick, but to suggest that there is much more to understand than you might have realized, and that it can be understood (try the links). And above all, perhaps, to dispel the idea that these theories, theorems, tools, methods are in any sense philosophy. It is this misunderstanding that causes the most trouble.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Why the Palaeolithic Continuity Hypothesis is Probably False

I discovered, via comments on this piece at Language Log, a highly speculative and almost certainly wrong theory known as the Palaeolithic Continuity Hypothesis. It proposes that the branches of the Indo-European family did not spread across Europe and Northern India from a small area in Eastern Europe or Western Asia, but evolved in situ from the Upper Palaeolithic and have since changed little.

Mario Alinei is a fool with a dead horse that he has invested too much in to stop flogging, or to recognise as nonsense. Some of his statements are quite ridiculous, he cites very few references for his sweeping remarks and much of the bibliography is his own jottings. He does not understand the difference between genetics and linguistics and his knowledge of both is rather limited. He keeps talking about the Proto-Indo-European people, as though linguistic continuity implied genetic continuity, and he interprets the archaeological record, which has nothing to say about language, in quite ludicrous ways to support his theory. It seems that he simply doesn’t appreciate the extent of his ignorance.

The reason I say he is a fool, or rather that his theory is nonsense, since I have no intention of attacking him personally, is not that I am qualified to assess all the details of it- I am not. Some of his assumptions and conclusions are demonstrably false, even by me- Rumanian is unquestionably a descendant of the Romance of the late first millennium A.D, for example, and Vedic Sanskrit is equally unquestionably related both to Greek and Latin; language change and evolution is clearly observable over thousands of years, and continues to occur, in ways that allow predictions to be made and hypotheses to be tested.

However, on the whole I am not competent to evaluate his ideas. His theory is clearly nonsense because of the arguments that are used to defend it. He uses straw men, in the shape of Maria Gimbutas, the Neolithic invasion and others, to attack the whole idea of IE spread in recent millennia; he and his supporters use their failure to understand laryngeal theory as an argument against it; they dismiss as absurd data that they do not wish to have to face; they wave their hands about (as when claiming that certain ideas are discredited, without giving any reference). In short, he is clearly more interested in defending the theory that it took so much effort to construct, than in testing it and discovering the truth. That is invariably a sign of someone who cannot be trusted, and it is not science.

His starting point is to attack the idea that Europe was invaded by Indo-European hordes about 5,000 years ago, who, between bouts of raping and pillaging, replaced the original populations and spread the Indo-European language. This idea has indeed been cast into doubt by archaeological and genetic evidence, but the evidence from language itself is quite clear. The language spread and as it spread, it changed. Language does. It does not need a large population movement to alter the range of a language over the lengths of time involved here. He seems to think that the lack of evidence for large population movement proves that the languages must have been there already.

It has to be remembered that in the absence of defined boundaries, written laws, state continuity and probably any sense of language as a symbol of group or personal identity there is no great difficulty in the movement and division of languages.

The concept of language families, an evolution of language, language family trees, a kind of speciation of language, predates ‘On the Origin of Species’ by a century or so. Darwin took some of his terminology (though not, I assume, any significant aspect of the theory itself) from linguistics, not vice versa.

But enough of this. A man who does not explain his position properly, who does not make set out clearly the data that have led him to it, who does not, before hypothesising anything at all, acquire all the available information, who does not listen to comments but rather attacks the commentators, who confuses ideas so manifestly and talks only to himself and to a close group of collaborators, is unlikely to produce anything worth listening to, or identifiable in any sense as truth.

From here, “Although most IE specialists are still reluctant to admit it, this chronology, as well as the scenario behind it, can now be considered as altogether obsolete.”

No explanation of why he considers it obsolete when he says himself that most specialists still accept it.

“There is absolutely no trace of a gigantic warlike invasion, such as to have caused a linguistic substitution on continental scale, as envisaged by the traditional IE theory” There is absolutely no need for such an invasion. It was once suggested and has now been shown to be unlikely. There is no controversy here.

“It represents the first claim of uninterrupted continuity from Paleolithic of the second European linguistic phylum, thus opening the way to a similar theory for

IE.” The first claim, and probably not the last, but not actual evidence of anything, whereas there is a lot of evidence that Finnish and Hungarian were brought from a lot further East. In the unlikely event of it being true, it provides a model for similar theory for IE, but only a model; that is, it could show one how to construct such a model, not provide evidence to support it.

“On the basis of these converging conclusions, a Paleolithic Continuity

Theory (PCT) on the origins of the Indo-Europeans, as well as on language

origin and evolution, has been proposed” All of these conclusions are his alone, as is the theory that he coyly suggests ‘has been proposed’, before citing himself. Thus is his argument constructed.

“Language and languages are much more ancient than traditionally thought.” He tells us off the top of his head, no references.

“Consequently, also the record of their origins, change and development must be mapped onto a much longer chronology, instead of being compressed into a few millennia, as traditionally done…” Again, apparently because he says so. “ While traditional linguistics, by reifying language,” (wtf) “had made change into a sort of biological, organic law of language development… the new, much longer chronologies of language origins and language development impose a reversal of this conception: conservation is the law of language and languages, and change is the exception, being caused not by an alleged ‘biological law of language’, but by major external (ethnic or social) actors, i. e. by language contacts and hybridization, in concomitance with the major ecological, socio-economic and cultural events that have shaped each area of the globe (Alinei 1996).” Linguists consider that language changes where it can be observed to change or where change can be deduced. And it is an observable fact that language changes over the centuries, with no need for wars, revolutions, or economic or ecological upheaval. This is, I repeat, observably true. Change is the norm, because of the way language is learnt and used. At least he quotes a reference this time, even if it is his own book.

It goes on, and gets worse- “Archaeological frontiers coincide with linguistic frontiers: The complex of language and dialect frontiers in the Western Alps,

respectively between German and Neo-Latin in Switzerland, between Franco-

Provençal and oïl in Switzerland, between Franco-Provençal and Occitan in

France and Italy, and Gallo-Italic in Italy, coincide with the frontiers separating, in

the different Alpine areas, the Cardial/Impresso-derived cultures of the Italidspeaking

area from the LBK-derived cultures in Germanic Switzerland. More

precisely: on the one hand Cortaillod corresponds closely to the Franco-

Provençal dialects, Chassey to Occitan, Lagozza to Gallo-Italic dialects; on the

other Pfyn and Rössen corresponds with the Alemannic, Swiss-German dialect

area. More over, on the Ligurian coast and the Piedmont Alps, the frontier

between Occitan and Gallo-Italic dialects corresponds to the prehistoric frontier

between Chassey and the VBQ culture of the Po Valley.” Between 2,300 and 1,300 years ago, the Romans and the Germanic tribes dynamited the linguistic panorama of Western Europe, rendering meaningless any attempt to interpret Palaeolithic archaeology in linguistic terms.

The point of all this is not to attack Mario Alinei, nor to make any particular point about IE linguistics; it is to provide a model of a badly constructed argument, a series of them in fact, designed not to explain or test a theory, but to justify a belief. It is not science.

Friday, January 16, 2009

I Remember All My Life

Few of the people who think they are important have such a profound and undisguised contempt for democracy as Peter Mandelson. He seems to be under investigation yet again for corruption in public office, if not actual fraud. That is only what we expect of such people, although twice being removed from the cabinet for being too corrupt even for Tony Blair’s government is quite an achievement.

A former communist who campaigned to leave Britain defenceless against the (very real) threat of annihilation by his friends in Moscow; a long time opponent of the EEC who joined the gravy train as soon as he found it expedient; a man who has built his career, and to a certain extent his life, on openly and unashamedly deceiving the people he is supposed to serve; who still tries to tell ‘ordinary people’ what to do as though he had some authority to do so; whose achievements as an EU commissioner largely consist of failing to close the Doha round of trade agreements and using overt protectionism to raise prices and damage producers, not only here but in the third world also; a man who rejoices in snooping and spying and bossing, but using deceit, force and the old boy network his privileged upbringing provided to hide information about himself; who doubtless spent his youth referring to Peers as parasitic anachronisms and was instrumental in removing many of them for not being elected, but is now happy to sit there himself, by virtue of the decision of an old friend, because it is now expedient for him to do so, and the public are never going to vote for him again.

The single most despicable, and certainly the most anti-democratic act of this man’s entire career was, I think, resigning as an MP. Having disgraced himself again and being finished in democratic politics, he realised that the only people who have ever voted for him, whose representative he was, the people of Hartlepool, had no further purpose, and he abandoned them for Brussels, where all the corrupt national politicians end up as long as they have been careful to know a lot about those they leave behind. No one to be responsible to, no electorate to please, you write your own press reports with a virtually unlimited propaganda budget, you become very wealthy at the tax-payers expense, since those who are meant to stop you don’t seem to care, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether you actually do your job.

There are many like him, but most of them at least pretend to care about democracy and freedom. Mandelson makes no attempt to show anything but contempt for other people. Buy hey, one day he’ll be eaten by worms. He doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, neither do I, but you can’t have everything.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The claret was good at lunch

The universe is mostly run by private industry- the mathematics, the gravity, the thermodynamics etc; but human society has been constructed and is controlled by civil servants. It is the only explanation. The weather, of course, is in the hands of the trades unions.

Financial Advice, Anyone?

Does anyone know a good tax haven? Not that I have a lot of money, but if I paid less tax I would have a little more. What is it people have against so-called ‘tax havens’? I don’t intend to pay any more tax than the government can sting me for, and neither does anybody else, whatever they say; even recognising that some things are better paid for out of a collective fund, I’m not going to contribute more than I have to when I have no control whatsoever over how it is spent and what my own personal return will be. And neither are you. Admit it.

It is easy to understand why politicians dislike places with low tax, of course- people take themselves, their companies and their money there, and confiscatory governments can’t get their hands on it, but to claim that there is anything morally wrong with taking less of people’s money than some other country is twisting reason a little too far. In theory nations set taxes at the rate necessary to cover their spending without depressing growth. In practice, politicians being what they are, it doesn’t work quite like that, but the fact is that some governments have discovered it is in their interests to keep taxes low, and they do so. I cannot see what is wrong with this, nor why we should not take advantage of it. But then, I’m not a socialist.

So, any advice?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Apparently There is some Unpleasantless in the Near East

Last night a group of young people passed by under the balcony, shouting slogans in favour of Palestine and abuse against Israel, and carrying painted sheets explicitly calling the Israelis Nazis. There were only about twenty of them, all around 18-20 years old. It was not clear which organization had inspired them to do this, as I could see no distinguishing sign. It is highly unlikely that they would have done it without someone encouraging them, but I cannot say for sure. That sort of this is usually caused by the Communist party or the far left trade unions, but I say this only as background.

They screamed at the local government offices for a while, briefly blocked a zebra crossing, and then wandered off down the road shouting. They did not seem to be looking for trouble, but they could easily have caused it; there attitude was highly offensive and confrontational, although they didn't seem to realize this. They weren't expressing a desire for peace, either, they were demanding 'Freedom for Palestine.'

If anyone had asked them, I am quite sure they would have displayed complete ignorance and blind prejudice in their opinions and attitudes, but they seemed to think they had a perfect right to express that ignorance via abuse and (minor) public disturbance. Long live free speech, but as I say they could easily have caused serious trouble and it is highly unlikely they would have accepted any responsibility.

I realize I have made a couple of assumptions that I can't be certain of, but this is not a rant about the young. I like the young and feeling strongly about something is a good starting point for learning more about it. (We have all been young, and most of us have been stupid.) So no, this is not a rant.

But what I don't understand is who they think is listening to them. The UN and the EU have issued declarations calling for a ceasefire, which have, quite naturally, been ignored by both sides. Not even the declarers would have expected anything different, but in such cases bureaucrats and diplomats call it a success if they have agreed on the wording of the resolution, and got on the television; results don't matter to them. So if the UN was well aware that it was speaking to the deaf, who did a bunch of kids down here think they were likely to influence by parading through the streets calling people names? I doubt they even got on the television.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

When School's Out Forever

These people have recently been asking readers to imagine what things commonly accepted today might be viewed with jaw-dropping or at least head-scratching incredulity in a hundred years time. (I can’t link to the actual post, as my IP address is on a list banned by their server, according to the 403 message I keep getting. I don’t know what I’ve done to them; I assume it’s an error which will resolve itself in the fullness of time).

Anyhow, one of my first thoughts was abortion, generally accepted unquestioningly in the West, but I am convinced that it will go the way of slavery in the next 50 or so years. It resembles slavery in a number of ways, particularly in the arguments used to justify and normalize it. It is likely this view will change substantially, because they do, and also because the West is only a small part of the world, and as it changes internally, and its interactions with the rest of the world change, there will be changes in the, mostly irreflective, social consensus on this and many matters. Comments on the thread in fact discuss the possibility, even the likelihood, that in a hundred years sex and procreation will have been completely separated by scientific advance, and the debate will become otiose. This is an interesting idea, but it isn’t what I wanted to talk about.

Another thing that should disappear is schools. All the implicit bases of the state education system in Britain, Spain, (and other countries as far as my knowledge goes, which isn’t very far) are wrong. Education is treated as something that can be given, whereas in fact it can only be received. By which I mean that if you do not value education and do not want to be educated, you won’t be, whatever anyone tries to do. It is a privilege that only hard work can make the most of, but is presented as a right that can be passively acquired by anyone. There is an assumption that education must be done socially, in large groups. This has often been done for convenience, but is not in any way an essential characteristic. It is common to hear it said by people who should know better that only schools socialize children and allow them to mix with and get to know a wide variety of people (understand types of people). Even if this were any part of the purpose of education, which it isn’t, it isn’t true anyway. Schools are highly artificial social environments, unnaturally homogenous in most respects.

Education policy, and again I refer particularly to Britain and Spain, is largely based on benighted sociological or pseudo-psychological theories constructed by people who are far removed from any practical knowledge of how children learn, and why they need to learn things. The results, and the recent Spanish education law is a prime example of this, are an immensely long and turgid list of aspirations, supported by blather and dogma, which are utterly impracticable and which, even if put into practice as stated, would achieve very little indeed. It is a ghastly mess, written for purely political reasons by people who neither know nor care about the education of children. Its details will be largely ignored; indeed, I teach teachers, and few of them have any idea of the law beyond what I tell them. This would be a good thing, but institutionally the organisation of schools must appear to reflect the law. Also, most teachers lose sight of what education should be, and develop a civil servant mentality. This leads to the next false assumption.

Education policy directs most of its attention, and requires that most of the resources, in attention, time and money, be directed, to those who don’t want education or are clearly incapable of benefitting from it, to the virtual exclusion of those who would get most out of it. The assumption is that intelligent, diligent, responsible, ambitious children and their parents will learn anyway, by some undefined process which works regardless of what the school does for them. There is sometimes a further assumption that hard-working, ambitious, responsible children do not deserve to have anything done for them. Government is hopeless at most things. It is especially hopeless at providing a framework within which children can receive a proper education, one which will be useful to them.

It is not in fact very difficult, but anyone who has the power to decide what people should and, perhaps more importantly, should not be told, quickly sees indoctrination rather than learning as the point of the process. And they become convinced that the purpose of state education is to prepare children to be good servants of the state. This is best achieved in large institutions, and carried out by servants of the state who have little authority of their own, in accordance with a closed set of rules which are determined from above and may not be questioned.

This is quite apart from the treatment of schools as childminders, somewhere to dump the children several hours a day while their parents are doing other things (it may be convenient but it has nothing to do with education.) The result is that children spend many years of their lives doing nothing but sit in classes, do homework and go to bed early, and the knowledge they acquire at the end of this process rarely, if ever, justifies this huge waste of their childhood.

I said it is easy, and so it is, though it requires the willingness to address other problems that such a great change would bring. It will not be governments that change these things. Government education policy comes from meaningless theory designed by committee and political consensus, and is designed not to address the future needs of children but to perpetuate its near monopoly on the indoctrination of the young. It will not give up that monopoly easily. It is small private initiatives that will transform the way children learn, imaginatively using the possibilities that new technologies and other results of our great wealth and comfort offer us. State education will eventually be forced to follow. I sincerely hope that my great-grandchildren will need me to explain to them what a school was, and I believe it might happen.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Many Saints of Bohemia

Mrs Hickory had the excellent idea of going to Prague for a few days in the new year, and there we have been. Fascinating place, full of magnificent buildings, structures generally, idiosyncratically and tastefully decorated houses, churches and synagogues of varying quality, filled with paintings, reredoses, images and frescoes of much interest. There is not a lot I can say that isn't better said by others, but the cold is quite bearable if you wrap up properly, the quantity of live music is quite unbelievable (Mozart, Janacek, Smetana and Dvorcak of course, but also Vivaldi seems very popular, and then there are all the jazz clubs with live acts most nights) and there are dozens of small galleries exhibiting painters, sculptors and photographers, many of them well worth a look. Impossible to be bored in Prague.

They have a lot of saints who led interesting lives and had surprising deaths; St Wenceslas was murdered by his brother for reasons that are still obscure; his grandmother St Ludmilla was strangled by her mother-in-law out of jealousy; St Sigmund had his own son strangled for political reasons; St Vitus was boiled in oil and thrown to the lions, but they had to cut his head off before he stopped moving; St Adelbert was thrown into the river because he had heard the king's confession; then there was St Cyril who probably created the Glagolithic script used for Old Church Slavonic (an attractive and curious script it is) and St Methodius who might have created the Cyrillic alphabet, credited to Cyril. St Agnes was of royal birth but gave it up to found a convent of which she was abbess. A woman worth having a pint with.

It looks like a Western city, a successful, lively Western city. It has shed the poverty and the indolence that communism imposed upon it, and become a place where it is worth living, and where work and ideas are rewarded. An example of many things, and a lesson which too many will not want to learn.