Friday, June 25, 2010

Of Trade Unions and the Hairiness of Bongo Players

Last night the CSIF were demonstrating under my window. Not that I've done anything to them, but I happen to live opposite the Civil Governor, who gets a lot of this sort of thing (and so do I, of course, but he buggers off and leaves the rest of us to put up with the loudspeakers and whistles). They also marched around the block a bit, to justify the effort of turning up.

This is the civil service union, and they're a bit miffed that Zapatero has cut 5% off their salaries to try to make ends meet. He won't succeed, he'll just make more enemies, but that's politics.

They're a fairly civilized by the normal standards of trade unions. They didn't scream abuse at anyone, intimidate passers-by, smash anything, or look like they wanted to, and they had brought along a group of bongo players who hadn't been told about shampoo to provide some atmosphere, which the more militant unions never think of doing. Despite all this, I rather doubt they had the sympathy of the public, and for good reasons.

There are about 4m civil servants, quite a lot of them unnecessary and many of them lazy and inefficient, since they are not held to anything like the same standards as those of us in the productive economy, and they can't be sacked. They have lifetime contracts and guaranteed pensions, which it is almost impossible to lose. Certainly, incompetence, inefficiency, laziness or there not being anything forf them to do are not considered reasons for dismissal, so while it's not pleasant to earn 5% less each month, that is the absolute worst that can happen to them. There are 4.5m unemployed, who have no salary at all, and millions more have suffered a drop in income rather greater than 5% or, like me, have had to work much harder just to keep up the income level, and always with the possibility of unemployment in the near future (I make my own work, but it's taken a lot more time and effort this year to generate the same amount of work as before).

In other words, the majority of normal working people in this country would love to have the problems that the civil servants are moaning about, and so they were received with less than perfect sympathy. The unions in general are always willing to throw others out of work as the price of their pretensions and demands, but they don't like it up 'em.

I wish I could offer you a photo of the bongo troupe, but the camera battery was exhausted. So it's an old railway line again.

Blogging will be even lighter than it's been recently for the next couple of weeks, as I'm knocking off work and heading for the north and then for the old homeland. On my return I shall be in the country for the summer, so when blogging is resumed it is likely to be both bucolic and whimsical, for which I shall offer no apologies now or then.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

José Saramago RIP

José Saramago has died. He seemed a pleasant enough old bloke, as communists go, but his novels are excruciatingly tedious. If you haven't read them, don't bother. He won a Nobel prize, which should tell you all you need to know. (Although this chap is not like the normal run of Nobel winner, and I was glad to discover him.)

To be honest, I only read two of them before giving up, and I shan't be giving him another chance. His 'Essay on Blindness' is an allegory of something or other that is mildly entertaining in parts, but is mostly dull and ultimately pointless, in that it doesn't seem to say anything. To sum up, the entire population goes blind, one by one. No one knows what to do. Desperate attempts to contain the epidemic lead to isolation, imprisonment, abandonment, violence; law and order break down, basic human instincts, most of them bad, take over. Then everyone starts getting their sight back. One woman never does go blind. I think she's supposed to represent Hope, or something.

A good writer could make an excellent story out of this, but Saramago was not a good writer and he didn't tell stories. The book is a hundred almost identical vignettes of a single image, itself crass and obvious, through which he tries to tell us what is wrong with the modern world (broadly speaking, these are in fact all the things which are good about it, but he was, as I said, a communist).

The Cave is just as tedious. The central image is of a massive shopping centre, so huge it has become central to the life of the whole area. Everyone wants to shop there, because they sell everything you could possibly want at reasonable prices. Everybody wants to work there, because the conditions are good, the contracts long-term and they even have apartments for their staff. All the manufacturers and dealers want to trade with them because they provide a guaranteed market far bigger and more stable than the artesan or small producer could hope to find for himself.

And yet we are clearly meant to think, again across a hundred almost identical scenes, that this is a bad thing and that we should all want to be like the central character, a country potter who can't make a living because he persists in trying to sell to a handful of neighbours things that they don't want. It is better (for you) to starve picturesquely than to make a living (in a way I disapprove of), seems to be the- all too familiar- messaage, and he says it again and again throughout 400 boring pages.

Give the late Don José a miss, I would say.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Queen's English

Real life, in the form of a lot of work and the computer sliding down the curtain have meant no blogging for a while. And even now all I can offer is the worst kind of post, a collection of links and quotes from myself. But anyway, here we are. One of the things I had intended to write about was this, from the Times. (Another, of course, was the football.*)

The Queen's English Society, as you will discover if you take the trouble to peruse their website, are an ignorant, barely literate bunch who think the function of language is to show how clever they are at learning rules, and to express a stupid and sinister kind of nationalism. They have no idea how communication works, or of what English really is, as opposed to how it's spoken down their street and what their old teacher used to upbraid them on years ago. Even if an English Academy were a good idea these would be the very worst people to run it. I even wondered if it might be a send-up of the Plain English Campaign (who seem to have got a lot better recently, by the way, although for some reason they've lost the article), but it isn't. It is actually intended to be taken seriously.

Before I could get round to posting, a lot of other people had already done it: Stan Carey of Sentence First does it here, John Macintyre of the Baltimore Sun does it here (both added to blogroll), and Mark Liberman does it at the Language Log.

Self-quotation time: this is the comment I left at Stan's place:

"‘You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say,’ as Willy Nelson done sung.

Mr Estinel clearly has nothing to say, and so, having little use for the language as a vehicle of communication, he treats it as an exercise in the application of rules, which he doesn’t seem to understand in any case. Contrast his comments with those of Mr Gorman, who does have something to say and expresses it well (though he might express it better if he ignored the advice of the QES- note the self-conscious avoidance of contracted forms).

Another underlying, and quite wrong, assumption, is that children learn to communicate by being told rules in the classroom. They don’t, they learn by observing how others communicate, trying, failing, trying again, and discovering how different listeners interpret their words.

Another little clue for Mr Estinel: context is everything; and I do mean everthing. When (young) people text, tweet, Messenger, Tuenti, scribble postcards or just talk to each other, much of the language they use is not only non-standard and largely incomprehensible to anyone outside the group, but is in fact mostly meaningless. This is because it’s not intended to convey factual information, but simply to express their pleaure at being together."

and this is what I said at You Don't Say:

"I don't think it's worth taking them remotely seriously. Their website is terrible; it's very poorly written, full of errors and clunking style, it's parochial, predictable and ignorant.

Peevology is a lower-middle class obsession. These are poorly.educated people striving for something to feel snobbish about. By all means laugh at them, but don't worry about them.

Or it could just be about money, a modern form of tele-evangelsim."

They sum up what I don't have time to develop in full.

The main reason there is no point in having an Acandemy of the English Language is that no one would listen to it. Where such Academies exist they provide a rich source of discussion for the sort of people who like to argue about these things, and they make life a lot easier for lazy writers of style manuals, but for the vast majority of speakers, including professional writers and communicators, they are a useless irrelevance. Spain has one, now linked to all the other Spanish-speaking countries that have created similar Academies, and I don't think I have ever used its dictionary or its grammar to determine how I express something (even its spelling is prescriptive). I do use usage manuals and historical dictionaries (and I tend to have Mrs Hickory vet anything that's for publication) and I check terms and expressions and stylistic choices against those used in similar kinds of writing, but the Academy can't help because it doesn't tell you how people communicate in a particular context, it just tells you very broadly how it thinks they should.

As I said before somewhere, language is not in danger because we will always find ways to achieve communication when we want to. In communiction theory (a dry field of linguistics that consists mainly of stating the obvious) a number of sub-competences of the global communicative competence are identified, one of which is the strategic competence, whose role is to identify and solve problems in communication. It varies from person to person, naturally, but we all have it, and anyone whose intellectual and social skills are superior to Robert Green's goalkeeping instinctively knows how to do it.

*I haven't watched either of England's games at the World Cup (or Spain's, for that matter) and I can't get too depressed that we haven't been able to beat a couple of teams that don't know one end of a ball from the other. Footie in the summer doesn't seem to matter, even if the cricket is a bit weak this year.

But one thing that strikes me is that someone has clearly made a fortune by convincing South Africans not only that football has always been an inseparable part of their culture, but also that they have always watched it while blowing loudly on an overpriced plastic trumpet. I bet they didn't use them five years ago. A triumph of marketing, but then, there's one born every minute. (And also, football is fun. That's the point of it. It's why we watch it. It doesn't have to make sense or be historically accurate.)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

On Tax Competition

One of the most extraordinary concepts ever dreamed up by that large section of the population, which includes many of the politicians of the developed world, that totally fails to understand how the world works, and even fails to notice that in many places it is working extremely well, in terms of personal freedom, wealth unimaginable only a hundred years ago, and growing up not expecting to lose half your children before they’re five, or to have to go war, or to starve if you lose your job, or to die if you get ill, and who do not understand how all this has come about; those people who heap praise on tyrants and governments and political and religious systems that condemn entire nations to poverty and enslavement, yet point out every minor imperfection in the West as though it were damning proof of the final failure of what has, in fact, created all that is good about living here; those who constantly preach how some benighted and ill-conceived political theory must make such and such a place a paradise on Earth, though they have absolutely no intention of going to live there because they know that in practice they would, like the lucky citizens of those paradises, have none of the things which their own countries, which they criticise so much, have given them, and who want, for their own satisfaction, to make other people obey laws that they themselves don’t expect to be bound by; is the idea of unfair tax competition.

The belief that the purpose of tax is to create homogeneous conditions for commercial investment and activity, to stop some countries from being better places to run a business than others, effectively to discourage the practice of trade, enterprise, employment, innovation, wealth creation, work, and all those things which have made our countries such good places to live in, is an idea so utterly stupid and bizarre that it is not even socialism. It could only be conceived in the twisted minds of bureaucrats for whom real people have no value except as piggy banks that may be rifled repeatedly and without apology in order to keep them in paperwork. To imagine that there is any real meaning, let alone value, to such a concept requires you to treat a perverse kind of equality as an end in itself, the only end, before which everything else can be disregarded (for some reason Neil Kinnock’s obsession with the Eurobus comes to mind) and that the state, and not the person, is the basic unit of humanity, to be revered, and sanctified, and preserved whatever the cost. Fascists, in a word.

Not surprisingly, the cradle of this idea is Brussels, but I genuinely find it hard to believe that even there the phrase ‘unfair tax competition’ can be spoken with a straight face and taken seriously. And yet it is so.

Quote of the Day

"On the other hand, when you train a long-backed macaque to walk bipedally as part of a kabuki drama, [it] develop[s] lordosis and a bicondylar angle."

It always gives me immense pleasure to find such a splendid sentence dropped, completely dead-pan, in the middle of a serious scientific discussion. The writer even pretends not to notice what he has said, not an easy trick at all. It's an interesting article by the way, if you like to keep up with theories on the convergent evolution of vertebra distribution (and who doesn't?)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


To Toledo this weekend, the first time in many years, even though it's not that far away. It's basically a hill almost surrounded by a bend in the Tagus, and it's been a pre-Roman fort, a Roman citadel, a Visigothic village, a refuge from the marauding Arabs and for centuries, the capital of one of the great Empires. It has one of the greatest of Spain's Gothic cathedrals, which in turn contains a number of very fine paintings, including a Caravaggio, an elegant and beautiful rendering of John the Baptist, and works by Titian, Reni, Rubens, Bassano and a lot of El Greco, who is all over Toledo.

It also has synagogues that used to be churches that used to be synagogues, art galleries that used to be churches that used to be mosques, where you can see frescoes partly covered over with plaster, capitels brought out again from under the Mudéjar carvings which had partly covered them, doors cut and closed and recut, moved from place to place to satisfy the demanding ceremonial requirements of the procession of religions that has past through them. There are monasteries with the sort of cloisters that make you want to renounce worldly pomp and pleasure (though perhaps not for long)- like St Juan de los Reyes with its whimsical gargoyles high on the inside walls (see photo for illustation of whimsy).

There is one of the greatest mediaeval fortresses in Spain, the Alcázar. There are lots of alcazares and alcazabas around Spain, and most of them are Arabic in origin, as they should be. This one isn't, despite the name. It's solid, fairly elegant without being in any way beautiful and has a lot of history behind it, some of itinteresting and important.

And there is the river, wrapping around the foot of the hill, winding between green, rocky cliffs and leafy paths, making you wish you were a trout (until you see all the fishermen, at least).

The last time I was there was a few years ago, helping an unscrupulous Irishman to sell dodgy cattle to the unwary (Spanish cattle farmers are very wary indeed, so it wasn't a great success). It doesn't really count as a visit, though. Before that was back in the early 90's and it was raining so hard you couldn't see anything much at all. And then you have to go back to about 1987, and a blistering August weekend while still a carefree student who thought that life consisted largely of drinking beer and holding maps the wrong way up.

There's a high-speed train out of Madrid-Atocha, now, takes you there in half and hour.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Why do we need guns anyway?

Note to those who are saying things like 'I don't see why anyone needs to have a gun.' To intelligent people the words 'I don't know...' or 'I don't understand...' or 'I don't see...' are a signal to shut up and find out about whatever it is they are ignorant of. To Labour politicians, commenters in the national press and random people on the street they seem to constitute rational argument.

'I don't understand it so it must be nonsense', 'I don't know why people do it so it must be banned', are not arguments, they are immensely stupid remarks that disbar people from intelligent discussion.

A dozen people were murdered yesterday in the north of England, a terrible thing which leaves a mark on an area for many years, but it happened because a man went crazy in a particular way. It is an anecdote, not a pattern, and means nothing. More people are murdered with golf clubs and cricket bats than with legally owned firearms.

The best reason for having a gun is the best reason for doing anything: you want to. A world in which we can do what we want unless there is a powerful reason not to let us would be a wonderful place to live. A world in which people act as they wish and answer for what they do. We are not so far from it, in fact. Although we complain bitterly about the restrictions of freedom that exist in Britain (where I am from) and in Spain (where I live) the truth is that both of those countries are much freer than most places around the world. You can do a lot of things because you want to, without having to ask permission, but it is often necessary to ignore those who will tell you what to do. It is important to learn to do it.

Bird had a gun because he wanted one, and probably because he needed one. Apart from the philosophical reasons, there are practical reasons for having a gun which, if you don't hunt or live in the country, you can happily pretend don't exist. By doing so, you expose your ignorance.

There is a need to kill vermin, there is pleasure in hunting, there is a desire to feel capable of defending yourself. This is not some weird stuff that only nutters, provincials and people who don't matter care about. I live in a small city in the main hunting area of Spain. People come from all over Europe and pay good money to hunt here. (We also have Don Quijote but, despite his many merits, he isn't actually real). My brothers-in-law all hunt and a few of my friends, although I don't. I was, however, on the rifle team at my university. I know about guns. I respect them, but I don't fear them.

At the farm we have never been robbed, despite the isolation, because everyone knows that there are guns there and we know how to use them. Some people use guns badly, If they didn't have guns they would have to find other ways of killing people, but the irreflexive reaction to an act of this kind assumes that there is nothing to lose by trying to ban something. And it is wrong.

Freedom is lost, pleasure is lost, life is lost because it cannot be defended. Each of these things is too important to be surrendered so that some politician can score points or some self-appointed spokesman for something or other can feel a glow of satisfaction. If anything happened to my family because Zapatero had forbidden me to keep a shotgun at the farm I know who I would go after.