Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dale Limosna Mujer...

Washington Irving was inspired to write a collection of stories while staying in the Nazari Palace at the Alhambra; Manuel de Falla (also worth checking out, for those whose knowledge of Spanish music stops at Andrés Segovia and Paco de Lucia) had an entire period based on Granada, the highpoint of which was 'Noches en los jardines de España'; Claude Debussey wrote a prelude celebrating the 'Puerta del Vino', one of the entrances to the area of the Alcazaba; Francisco Tárrega, a virtuoso guitarist, composed 'Recuerdos de la Alhambra,' making extensive use of tremolo, very haunting; at a slightly lower artistic level, Mocedades sang a song back in the 70's called 'Solos en la Alhambra'; and an American friend of mine from 20 years back, who was a better pianist than he was a philosopher, wrote a very decent little 'Alhambra Suite'; I think even the Grateful Dead have had a go at it.

So I am not going to compete with all of these, by attempting to describe what it is like to contemplate and experience the Alhambra. I first went there in 1987, in the middle of August, and I remember the hill you walk up, a guitar shop on a curve the flowers and the fountains in the Generalife, the view of the Albaycín and the Sacromonte from the Palace and the Alcazaba , and the sun, always the sun and the light and the unbelievably high skies. I returned in 2000 with Mrs Hickory, very briefly, and it felt exactly the same. This weekend we were intending to visit the ruined munition works at Barrow-in-Furness but chance took us back to Granada and so I offer you these lines. And these photos. They have been done better as well, but I can't resist it.

Go to Granada, when the sun is shining. Visit the Alhambra, ignore the crowds, walk around it, look at the details of the decorations, the layout of the gardens, the walled terraces that drop in stages down the cliffs into the valley where the water runs between old stone houses that you keep wanting to live in. Go to San Jeronimo, a convent which still has nuns, and a church magnificently decorated with frescoes, paintings and statues from floor to ceiling, most of them worth seeing. And the reredos is also remarkable. In the Royal Chapel behind the Cathedral lie the bodies- you can see the coffins in a crypt beneath the tombs- of Fernando and Isabel, their daughter Juana la Loca and her beloved husband Felipe el Hermoso, and their son Manuel, destined to be King of Portugal but who died in childhood; yet another whim of fate that changed the future of the world.

Go and see it all, when the sun is shining. It isn't absolutely necessary to be in love, but it probably adds to the experience.

From Within the Minds of Moths

One of those minor things which I happen to find rather interesting is found poetry. Perhaps a proper post on the subject at some point. But for now, I came across this on the Language Log and added it to my collection as 'Odor plume flux is accentuated deep within the moth brain.' Then I read the comments and saw that others were well ahead of me.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

This is not a cheese sandwich

In the end, epistemology is just another game. An intellectually demanding game, a fun game, a game that can, on occasions, be important, but a game nonetheless. Donald Rumsfeld was censured by these idiots (and other idiots) for stating something true, cogent, succinct, and, in the circumstances, worth saying. Many people seem to think that anything they don’t understand is gobbledygook. What Rumsfeld pointed out to a group of people who didn’t want to know was that it is precisely the things we don’t realize we don’t know that cause us to be mistaken as to what we do know.

Phillweb defines epistemology this way:

“I use the term Epistemology (from the Greek episteme [knowledge] and logos [word, speech or study]) to refer to the use of logical and scientific methods to explain the nature, origin, and scope of knowledge. In a nutshell, epistemology addresses the questions, "Do you really know what you think you know?" and, if so, "How do you know what you know?" Much of the debate in this field has focused on analyzing the nature of knowledge, the nature of justification, and how it relates to similar notions such as truth, and belief. Epistemologists analyze the standards of justification for knowledge claims, that is, the grounds on which one can claim to know a particular fact.

Methodology refers to the rationale and the philosophical assumptions that inform a particular procedure for the production of knowledge. More specifically, it is (1) a body of methods, rules, and postulates employed by a discipline or field of inquiry; (2) a particular procedure or set of procedures; and / or (3) the analysis of the principles or procedures of inquiry in a particular field.”

It is easy to give examples of unknown unknowns; most people assume that humans have not evolved much recently, but it is likely that the most obvious racial characteristics evolved in the last 40,000 years, lactose tolerance has evolved independently in different populations in the last 15,000 years and there have been significant changes in oxygen transport in the blood in the last 2,000 years. There are doubtless many more details to be learned, some of which will alter dramatically the understanding have of recent evolution.

I am interested in the nature of truth. This is connected to the nature of knowledge. It is not a question of definition, but a reality which is, undoubtedly, hard to ascertain, but much more worthwhile than playing with words.

It is very difficult to agree a definition of truth or knowledge, and in any particular case, even such a definition would be worthless. You do not know what you think you know. There will be more of this.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Cobbler talks Cobblers again

The imbecile with the twisted Grin who tries to run this place has said, in a political context that cannot be explained in a few words, that “The great task (that must be undertaken) against unemployment is education, not cheap sacking.”

It’s not something that gets talked about much in England but here the relative ease with which you can get rid of employees is frequently discussed at all levels and your attitude to it is a sign of your political affiliation. The Union’s only defend themselves, and the people already working who pay their wages; they have no interest in helping the unemployed. Making it harder to sack people makes hiring people riskier and more expensive, and anything that ties up trade slows the economy down. Of course, those who lose their jobs suffer, and unemployment is rising, but penalizing employers for hiring is not the way to stimulate growth. It does, however, play well on the left, and with those who are worried about their jobs. It is easier to understand that sacking people is bad than that making things cheaper for companies will help the situation.

The education policy of the Cobbler, or rather, of those who pull his strings, since he himself is incapable of having or defending ideas, is aimed at the opposition, and incorporates lots of terrific-sounding left-wing ideas which don’t work. I mean children don’t learn that way. I’m a teacher, I know. It’s not difficult if what you care about is that children learn. The people who tell us how to teach do not know and do not care.

The Cobbler will not solve the problems that Spain is currently facing, and one of the reasons he cannot is that he will not renounce the dogma that workers should not be expected to do anything useful or productive, or even to do their jobs, where they exist. Companies, in the minds of people like him, exist to pay wages to ‘workers’. He does not ask where the companies get their ability to pay. But that is something he would not understand.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Few Observations, Absolutely Not Random

Quote of the day, from Cricinfo's commentary on the two-and-a-halfth test in Antigua (I can't find the commentator's name on the quick): "Powell has the heart of a lion, but the consistency of undercooked porridge." You probably need to be a cricket fan, or at least from the Commonwealth, to appreciate that it is true; otherwise it would just be another stodgy metaphor in the best tradition of Sid Wadell. By the way, we're doing well for a change. And Viv Richards must be wishing he'd be born a long way away from St John's.

Rant of the day, from Hickory himself: why do educated people imagine that they are experts on applied linguistics? Read this, including the comments, then this reply, also including the comments, then have a look at these people, who make an appearance. (I cannot believe that John Wells would make such stupid remarks, by the way; he must surely have been misquoted). Almost everything that is said is ignorant, stupid and false. An answer to one of the underlying assumptions behind those articles is this passage, taken from the comments, although not original, I think:

7. Olny srmat poelpe can raed tihs.
I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

GWR, Geneva, Switzerland

I read that as quickly and easily as though it were standard English.

I can't be bothered to explain why most of what is said in those articles and comments is ignorant rubbish, but the idea that unless we all respect some standard of spelling and usage we are all doomed is nonsense, as is the idea that spelling can be magically changed, simplified, opened up or that the authentic role of spelling (and usage) in communication can be the subject of legislation or decree.

Question of the day, from MiniCult: I went to their site intending to laugh at them and quote some self-important mission statement. It is obvious that it is not a serious Ministry, and that its purpose is to spend our money on propaganda, but the website is carefully thought out, and does not reflect the nature of the department itself. It even appears to be worthwhile, until you remember whose money they are spending.

Update: I've found something, though I'm sure I could do better:

"Please note
The contents of these pages are provided as an information guide only. They are not a full and authoritative statement of the law and do not constitute professional or legal advice. Any statements on these pages do not replace, extend, amend or alter in any way the statutory provisions of the Licensing Act 2003 or any subordinate legislation made under it or statutory guidance issued in relation to it.

No responsibility is accepted by the Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for any errors, omissions or misleading statements on these pages."

God Does Not Play Billiards

There was a time when I understood the theory of relativity. It was many years ago but I passed an exam about it so I must have had some idea. By relativity I mean the concept in mathematical physics, introduced and developed by Einstein a century ago, and since tested, adjusted, extended, employed for a surprising variety of purposes, and, of course, much abused by those who think that, because they recognise the word relativity, they understand what it all means.

Special relativity, introduced by Einstein in a paper in 1905, describes measurement in inertial frames of reference. (It was this limitation which led to its being termed ‘special’). It considers the consequences arising from the postulate that there is no privileged reference frame, no absolute state of rest, and that the speed of light is the same for all inertial observers. The consequences include a number that are highly counter-intuitive, but which have subsequently been shown to be correct, in that they are observed to describe physical reality. The predictions derive from the mathematics he developed to construct the model. This mathematics is not especially difficult to understand; what is difficult is to show to what extent it accurately describes the universe, and to devise ways to test its predictions. Not to mention getting your head around what it actually means is happening out there.
General relativity is the extension of this theory to general frames of reference, and is, physically, essentially a geometric theory of gravitation. Mathematically it develops models to describe general co-ordinate transformations, using what used to be called affine geometry back in my day.
There are far better places than this blog to find out about relativity, but the point here it that it is mathematical physics; it is not philosophy. In order to understand what it has to say about the world you have to understand at least the physics, and the basics of the mathematics. It tells us nothing about human relations, morality or our perception of events in our lives. It does not mean that ‘everything is relative’. It means that certain things which most people have never thought about, and which have no relevance to their lives, are not absolute. Many mysteries remain, and they are staggering and compelling, and the truth, and the search for more truth, is much more interesting than the foolish misinterpretation of a word used to name it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I Hate Exams

Exams are the great enemy of learning. They are a false goal, allowing the attainment of objectives to be decreed, regardless of the truth. Students hate them, but come to treat them as the purpose of their studies. Lazy, incompetent, embittered or just worn-out teachers use them as an easy way to justify what they do, or to look tough, as the case may be. And they encourage the (temporary) accumulation of useless information at the expense of understanding. Without understanding much of the information is worthless, is not retained, cannot be profitably employed, and, of course, cannot be analyzed. But it is much easier to order children to study a page of information and test them on it than it is to help them understand what it means, why it matters, how to check its accuracy and how to use it to find out more. And it is very much easier than trying to motivate them to take an interest in learning when the teacher himself has lost interest in teaching.

A good, or even a moderately competent teacher, knows at all times how each student is doing. There is no need to base assessment on exams. But once you do, they become the central purpose of the entire process, and good exam results are taken as a vindication of both student and teacher, and of the education system in general. This in turn encourages their manipulation, which is easy enough to do.

Teaching is largely a matter of common sense, authority (both personal and intellectual), knowledge of the subject, and dedication. Not everyone can do it, but not everyone has to. If you can, you don’t need reams of instructions from people who’ve never done it telling you how to, and if you can’t you should find another job. The 2006 Spanish education law consists of 50 pages of A4. The laws, derived from it, setting out details of aims, methods, attention to diversity and assessment run to 400+ pages for each section of the education system. The law on assessment in ESO, the compulsory section of high school, alone has 66 pages. Most of this is then duplicated at regional level. Very little of this is of any use at all. You either don’t need it or you won’t know how to use it, and most of, despite the length and detail, is vague and aspirational, whereas teaching is an overwhelmingly practical art.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding about cognitive ability that is remarkably common. Many people seem to think that all children are born with the same potential, that they are empty vessels, tabulae rasae, and if the same is written on all of them they will all be clever and successful. It isn’t true. But the belief that it is so, or should be so, is behind much education policy in the wealthier world. That and benighted social dogma. And there is the instinctive belief of legislators that more legislation is the answer to all the problems that the previous legislation created or failed to solve. Much of the Spanish law seems to be aimed at telling teachers who can’t teach what to do with children who can’t or don’t want to learn.

Incidentally, I tend to blame teachers for the mess that is public education not because they are the only ones to blame but because they are the only ones who can change things. Governments are too busy playing ideological games, parents don’t realize that things could be different and children just take things as they come.

There are many things wrong with our education systems, but the love of exams is one of the biggest, and it leads directly and indirectly to many others.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Geert Wilders and Freedom

The summary banning of a Dutch MP from Britain is defended because his presence at a meeting at the House of Lords might stir up trouble. And indeed it might, not least because a Labour peer has promised to send the boys round and cause that trouble if he doesn't get his way. (He denies that specific accusation). There's a deep understanding of democracy for you.

The central concern here is not directly about freedom of speech. The government has stopped Geert Wilders from travelling to and speaking in Britain because it is afraid of the people who hate him, not because he himself is a danger or because it necessarily thinks he should not be allowed to say certain things. He continues to state his views, offer suggestions for the advancement of Holland and to represent his constituents. It is the Dutch government that has decided he cannot speak at all. The British government merely wants him to do it somewhere else. But it is indirectly very much about freedom of speech- the government has banned him because of what it thinks he is going to say. This is not good.

But it is important for Geert Wilders to be able to speak, for an EU MP to be able to travel at least as freely as the rest of us, and for their Lordships to invite whoever they wish to their house. Anything else is the government interfering where no one wants it, which is of course what governments do, but they should always be challenged.

If I am not free to say something you don't want to hear, then I am not free. Larry Flint (I think) used to say of his claiming First Amendment protection, "If it protects me, you can be damn sure it'll protects you." Quite right, too.

So who is Geert Wilders? He is a democratically elected member of the lower house of the Dutch parliament, and leader of the third largest opposition party, the Party for Freedom. He has made a film pointing out how the teachings of the Koran are manipulated by bloodthirsty tyrants. He has not incited violence against anyone, nor caused anyone to suffer by damaging their good name with falsehoods. Nor has he shouted fire in a crowded theatre, despite what some idiot called Milliband seems to think. No violence has resulted from his words at any time, and he does not wish it to; any violence arising from his expression of his opinions is likely to be directed against him, not against the people he is criticising. There is no legitimate reason to criminalize his speech.

You hear of lot of, "His opinions are loathsome but he should be allowed to express them." That would be an excellent position in the mouth of someone who actually knew what his opinions were, as most people who are commenting about this clearly don't. So, go and see the film, read what he says, and what his party stands for, and come back and comment here. Or elsewhere. We welcome communication in general, and constructive abuse in particular.

Maybe you won't like what he says, or the film he has made. Good. Then say so. And be thankful that you can.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

There will, one day, be lemon-soaked paper napkins

There will, one day, be lemon-soaked paper napkins. The statistical probablity is that other civilizations will arise, and the lack of lemon-soaked paper napkins will be resolved. Until that time, there will be a delay, during which nothing will happen, no progress will be made, no advance in civilization will take place, everyone will be kept in a form of suspended animation. Coffee and biscuits will be served every five years, but until there are lemon-soaked paper napkins you may go nowhere, and do nothing, for they are what matter, to you and your children.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Booker Nods

Christopher Booker has made a fool of himself today, and I find it rather sad. There are those who would say he has been a fool for years but I cannot agree with them- his denunciations of bureaucratic tyranny both in Britain and Brussels, and of the hidden aims of the European Union have, on the whole, been well researched and well argued. His obsession with sheep-dip and more recently with wind farms may or may not be misguided, but he has told many stories of how the officials' desire to follow the letter of the law has had terrible consequences which those who make the law did not consider in advance and do not care about when they are pointed out. This is an important task, and one in which he has always had my full support (for what it's worth), but today he has blundered badly, by talking in a strongly opinionated fashion about something of which he is clearly ignorant.

Today he has tried to make a point about supporters of the EU and believers in global warming, by comparing them with those who consider that the theory of evolution is a pretty good way of describing the history of life on Earth. He demonstrates an ignorance of science so complete that I am astounded to discover this about a man whose articles I have been reading for years.

It is true that there are people who use an expressed belief in evolution to identify themselves as atheists and distance themselves from the religious; it is true that many of those who claim to believe in 'Darwinism' do not, in fact, understand the first thing about genetics or biology; it is true that the theory of evoltion is incomplete and is not proven to be correct in all of its details; it is true that there is much that is not understood; but: the 'half an eye' and 'mouse to bat' examples he brings up are perfectly explicable- well known red herrings; he doesn't even define what he means by 'Darwinism'; he seems to be criticising people who cannot explain the theory, rather than those who can; he thinks that the use of the word theory, in connection with a certain idea in science, means that it is untested, unfounded and intuitive, and thus no better than anything else that anyone might produce of the top of his head; he doesn't realise that scientists are the first people to question their own conclusions, and are quite happy to adjust the theory to new information, or to abandon it completely; in the words of someone whose name I forget, scientists accumulate data, construct a theory from it, and then throw the theory against the wall until it breaks, at which point they fix it or make another one; this is not a weakness of science, it is precisely how it arrives at something approaching truth. Truth in this sense is well defined and understood. There is much that is wrong, but there is no falsehood.

It is worth reading the article, as an example of how these things are so easily misunderstood and misrepresented. I don't recommend the comments, unless you enjoy arguing about Bigfoot.

For some, 'Darwinism', 'Relativity,' 'Incompleteness', 'Chaos theory', 'Uncertainty' and a number of other terms derived from science are ususal tools of misinterpretation that can form the basis of a system of belief that gives them a sense of peace and justification. This says nothing whatever about the theories themselves.

Creative Glossogony

I offer the following excerpts from a story that might be mildly humorous, original, or possibly neither. Anyone who wants to read the whole thing can send me an email (it's in the profile):


“Well, they are different, darling, I don’t see how you can get around that, and if we are right then they must be wrong, but that doesn’t mean…”

“Yes, it does, Mummy, it means they can’t really be like us because they are Theroglossans.”

“Bow-wowist is a perfectly good word, dear: it served my parents and theirs. These new expressions are just an attempt to avoid talking about things. And it does matter about the difference- it affects one’s whole way of speaking, we can never be quite the same.”

Myrtle was pleasantly surprised to learn that the near neighbours were Theroglossans. There were plenty around, of course, but she didn’t really know any, somehow. Now was her chance. Having been brought up an Ergoglossan- she thought of herself instinctively as a Hee-hoer- she found it refreshing to find there were people who believed other things quite naturally and more or less sincerely without being struck dumb.

Despite her own frequent doubts, and her casual approach to the whole matter anyway- typical of a cradle Hee-Hoer- she was annoyed to discover in herself an instinctive sense that she was righter than they were. A superiority, as though she were better for being what she was.

She immediately bought a book that claimed to explain what they believed in. She found the whole idea of language coming from animal sounds odd, and had to fight again her instinct which kept telling her it was wrong. She set her mind to open. It actually made a lot of sense, she thought, but her father did not see it that way.


Daddy put down his paper and removed his glasses automatically.

“Nothing undignified about work, my girl, I do a lot of it. And don’t tell me I work in an office; your grandfather was a bricklayer as you well know. He used those sounds every day of his life. Don’t tell me there’s anything unspiritual about that. Animals. What’s so spiritual about animals? They don’t talk, and they never will do.”

“So you see, Daddy, it’s just a different way of looking at it.”

“Exactly. They aren’t like us.”


Myrtle waved her arms about impassionedly. “But Glossogony is just another detail, interesting but not important”

“Don’t let them hear you saying that at the golf club, my love." He returned to his paper, having said all that needed to be said.


Myrtle sat in a slightly unusual café with her friend Sue.

“This is where they eat, you know.” Her excitement remained, or had been reactivated by her surroundings. “Isn’t it wonderfully atmospheric?” Sue looked around, “Whiffs a bit, certainly, but isn’t that the spices rather that the glossology? I can’t see your neighbours eating here, except for a bit of fun, like you. Does their house smell like this?”

“Of course not, they’re… I am not here for fun; this is very serious. I want to find out more about them. We need to understand each other.”

“Yes, well, sounds like a good idea, but how exactly are you getting to know them? By studying Indian cooking? And bad Indian cooking, I suspect. Wouldn’t it be easier on the stomach just to go and talk to them?”

“Its not Indian cooking, well, it is, but the point is its run by Theroglossans, and you get a feel for them.”

As Myrtle’s eyes opened wide Sue’s began to narrow. “But you said the Randers don’t eat like this.”

“Not exactly, they eat normal food, I mean they’ve assimilated our style of cooking and so on,”

“Perhaps because their grandparents were born three streets away.”


“Is it just this lot,” said Sue, having not succumbed to instant liver failure, “or are you interested in everyone whose not like us? ‘Cos there’s this thing my father does on Thursday nights that no one’s supposed to know about. Very popular with all sorts, as far as I can tell. There’s this couple he often sees, pretends he knows them from somewhere else, but who’s he kidding? Where else would he meet Ta-taists socially? Anyway, they’re nearer our age than his, and they don’t mind talking about anything. Except Thursday nights, of course.”

“Ta-taists! I mean, Dramatoglossans, well, I mean of course, why shouldn’t they believe what they want, but it’s a bit farfetched, isn’t it, I mean, Ergoglossianism makes sense, I don’t think I’m the only one who’s right but it’s got to make sense, hasn’t” “And doesn’t it? Why should vocal speech be superior to gesture?” “I’m not saying it is.” Myrtle’s hands began to wave about. “I just think it doesn’t make a lot of sense to bring them both into your Glossogony. It begs the question. After all, gesture is language, isn’t it. That’s my point.” She brought her hands together on the table again. “So you don’t have anything against Ta-taists, then, ‘cos I’d like you to meet them. They’re fun.”

Myrtle felt a terrible jealousy, not to mention a sense of monstrous injustice, that she was taking all this trouble to understand people, and Sue could speak casually of Dramatoglossans as ‘fun’.


She had the inspiration of talking to the Catholic priest who wandered about the town handing out leaflets. An obscure sect, about whom nobody seemed to know much, beyond the fact that there contempt for Glossogony put them outside society. What they actually believed in nobody cared to know, but it was reputed that they thought acts, rather than speech, were the key to righteousness, and that what mattered was to believe in the origin of the division of acts into good and bad. Even this was more than Myrtle knew about them before looking at a reference in an encyclopaedia, but it also said they were usually harmless and their priests tended to erudition. She thought this might give her a different perspective on the matter, perturbed as she was to discover the effort it took her to stop thinking the way she wanted other people to stop thinking.


How did you talk to someone who didn’t just have different glossogonic beliefs, but actually despised speech and considered it the tool of animals, to be used if necessary, but of no moral value? And the pleasantness of his manner was belied by the shocking symbolism of his robes, for they were black, the colour of silence.


"And why do you wear black.”

“It’s just a habit, you know.” His eyes sparkled, but Myrtle missed the point entirely. He went on. “A tradition, I mean. Black is just a colour. It means what you think it means. To us these robes mean I don’t look like anything but what I am. If I wore normal clothes, now, you might be thinking I was a film star.” This time Myrtle got it, and smiled.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

News from Jamaica

England have just made a monumental cockup of the fairly simple task of batting for a day and a bit and setting the WIndies some sort of target. OK it's Sabina Park but they are quite beatable these days and we scored 318 in the first innings. Oh, the memories. For my generation, cricket was Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Clive Lloyd, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts and the incomparable Malcolm Marshall. (It was also Jeff Thompson and the equally incomparable Dennis Lillee, but we don't admit that. For the benefit of non-British readers I should point out that the whole purpose of cricket, if not of life itself, is to beat Australia, not to sit back and admire them.)

The blackwash of 1984, Tony Gregg failing to make them grovel in 1976 (was that a long, hot summer?), the abandoned match at this ground in 1998, Courtney and Curtley taking over from the older boys, two World Cup finals at Lords, and a hundred other memories of watching very magnificent cricket reform in the mind, usually with England on the other end looking like naughty schoolboys. We thought those days were gone, but it seems we can still do it when we try.

Men Fit to be Called Heroes

To call the subjects of this post minor lives is something of an insult, but that's the title I gave to the series and I'm sticking with it. It is quite amazing to see people, not all young, treating the likes of Che Guevara as though he were some great popular hero. Even I was never stupid enough to confuse the ability to impose your will on a large number of people by spreading fear, misery and death, with the moral and personal qualities required to be a hero. Guevara was an intelligent man, a natural leader and probably very brave, and he might have been something worthwhile, but he chose to detroy the people he should have led.

Gerry Adams also comes to mind in this regard. His sidekick McGuinness is little more than a mindless thug, but Adams is a man of high intelligence and great personal courage. He could have changed the world for the better, or at least a small part of it, something very few can do. Instead he chose to sow hatred, destruction and poverty, and reap the rewards of power and self-importance.

But enough of these evil creatures. Humanity has produced truly great men who should not be forgotten. And more importantly, the reasons they were great must not be forgotten.

So I offer you Mohindas K. Ghandi, man of peace, of unshakeable courage, and absolute faith in the rightness of some things and the wrongness of others, who changed the world for the better by his example and his indiscriminate love of all humanity. It is this love of all mankind that distinguishes him from most charismatic men, who reserve their favour for those who are useful to them.

The same applies to someone else who needs no introduction: Martin Luther King, a man who changed the world he lived in by the same unshakeable courage and love of all humanity. He did it by uniting those who disagreed with each other. He united them by showing, through his own life, that he was worth listening to. Each of them achieved far, far more than the tinpot tyrants who gather a group of friends, arm them, borrow or invent a framework of beliefs to justify themselves, and then threaten everyone who disagrees with them with death.

I like to think that the same is true of Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona who joined the Marines and was one of those who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima during WWII, an act that cost the lives of many of his comrades and whose ultimate value is hard to evaluate, but at the time it was of great symbolic importance. He lived his early manhood as he believed he should, with simplicity and without grandeur, answering for what he did and what he believed, and it destroyed him. His heart was too big for his mind. Check out this song for a narrative version of his life.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Unión Fenosa, Endesa, Iberduero... choose your weapon

There is apparently dissatisfaction in this neck of the woods because the electricity companies has been sending out bills that are higher than usual. These companies are de facto monopolies in their regions but prices and services are controlled by law. The government, for whatever reason, has ordered thye companies to bill each month instead of every two months as they have done for many years. They were also permitted to raise their prices by up to 8%, so they did, of course. But also, the government didn't seem to realize that changing the billing system, and thus the measuring system, would involve costs, costs which will naturally be passed on to the consumer. One way of reducing these extra costs is not to measure monthy, but to read as before and estimate the consumption for the odd months, bearing in mind patterns of use and the severe cold of December and January, and pitching it high just in case. Presumably this will be corrected when accurate readings are taken. The government has been urging people to complain about their bills, I imagine to divert attention from their own role in it all. I expect it will all be forgotten in a month.

I don't bother much with the press so this is all extrapolated from a brief conversation with a friend last night. She had a very different motivation, wanting to rant more than analyse, which is not surprising as she had just looked at her bill. I may of course be completely wrong. Since I am sure you can't wait to find out, I shall return to the topic next month (if I remember).

The real point of this is to draw attention to the underlying problem, which is the lack of competition. If your electricty company breaks its contract you can complain and maybe go to court, but if the contract is defined by law, and you have nowhere else to go, all you can do is moan and buy candles.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Art That is Lost in the Wind

I was reminded yesterday, by a dream, oddly enough, of a little-known performing art practised in the Basque country, that of the Bertsolariak. Euaskadi is known, if it's known at all, for having the oldest and one of the most interesting languages in Europe, and for the custom of a handful of its people to kill in the name of the others, even though they keep telling them to stop. But there is much that is beautiful, strange and fascinating in that area, and the Bertsolariak are all of those things.

They improvise songs at public events and festivals, and at competitions specially held for the purpose. These songs or rhymes always follow a set pattern, a strict set of rules governing rhyme and metre. The very sound of them is beautiful.

Improvisation is guaranteed by providing, immediately before the verse is sung, a subject, a word or words, which the bertso must use or address. Or the bertso can be an immediate response to one sung by another bertsolari.

In the words of Juan Mari Lekuona, this what happens next:

"En un plazo escaso de segundos el bertsolari ha intuído y ordenado materiales de su composición, ha elaborado su borrador mental; pero... él concebirá su estrofa empezando no por su principio sino por su terminación final, por el último verso..., (y) monta su estrofa 'atzekoz aurrera' (de atrás adelante), cumpliendose exactamente el axioma filosófico escolástico de que el fin es lo primero en la intención aún cuando sea lo último en ejecución."

"In the space of a few seconds the Bertsolari has conceived and structured his composition, and created a rough version in his mind; but... he conceives the verse starting not at the beginning but at the end, with the final line..., (and) builds the verse 'atzekoz aurrera' (from back to front) fulfilling the philosophical precept that the end is where an intention begins, although it is the last step to be carried out."

It is a remarkable thing to watch, and compelling both to the ear and the eye, as you watch the faces of the singers, searching their linguistic and thematic resources, adapting what they find instinctively to the age old structure of the bertso, and seeking to make it beautiful, and wondering, as all performers do, fearing that this time, they may not make it. It is not a technical exercise, the technical restraints serve to highlight the art. When they're good, that is.

They are young and old, traditional and reformist, and the subjects they are given are very varied, from the land and its people and history to the Working Time Directive and what happens when your computer goes down. Try this:

Enkarterriko Bertsolari Txapelketa: Mikel Petuya irabazle