Monday, November 22, 2010

Prettiness and Beauty, and the Difference Between Them

I post this because of a chance remark made by a commenter on this thread at the Language Log, responding to a comment of mine: 

Prettiness is not a degree of beauty. It is a distinct quality, one that few know how to possess, and few to recognize. Prettiness is beautiful, as innocence is beautiful, courage is beautiful, but it is not beauty.. The beauty of a beautiful woman is debilitating. It produces in the normal man the same effect that any apparently impossible challenge will. A sinking of the heart. A surrender. It can only inspire great men to great things. Beauty has caused men to create music and poetry in imitation or homage, it has caused countless acts of bravado, some epic, some heroic, many destructive, it has filled minds to the exclusion of all else, it has ruined characters, emptied pockets and ended lives but it has never caused love. Prettiness alone speaks to the heart, and our humanity responds to it alone. Prettiness alone, the prettiness of the girl in the bar, can make an ordinary man want to go out and conquer Persia. It is not consciouness of beauty that makes us human, but of prettiness. Without it there could be no human love. It is what we are meant to see in our children. It is not the reasoned sacrifice of one soul for another in the name of God, nor the unthinking protection of an animal for its young. We need more than instinct, which we think we can control, and less than the love of God, which we cannot attain. So we have prettiness which can inspire anyone to anything.

Spanish has no word for 'prettiness' as I have described it, and it is  likely that few languages do, which means it is not a concept universally understood, but even so I am prepared to defend my interpretation.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What the Stephen Timms Case Might Lead To

This may be a bit premature, but a blogger never lets a good rant go to waste. The chap who has been arrested for publishing the names of MP’s who voted in favour of the action in Iraq has not, of course, been arrested for any such thing, but for incitement to murder. Whether he is in fact guilty of this is another question entirely, but it is being suggested that Stephen Timms was attacked because of the information provided on the site, not because of the incitement. It is not so far from there to suggesting that votes taken in Parliament should be secret, for security reasons. Someone will suggest it very soon. I would bet a large sum of money. Let us consider this suggestion.

The voting records of MP’s are a matter of public record because anything else would be a negation of democracy. It is utterly inconceivable that, for any reason at all, the public should be unable to know how our representatives have voted and what they have said. Whether, that is, they have in fact represented us (mostly they don’t, of course). If the government is simply going to announce that new laws have been passed there is no point whatsoever in having a Parliament.

A secret vote would mean individual MP’s taking decisions which affect everyone in the country, raising taxes, introducing yet more indoctrination into the education system, determining what we may or may not sell to each other and in what conditions, telling the people of Northern Ireland or Gibraltar whether they can or cannot be British, sending men to die in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then pretending that they haven’t done it, that it was someone else. The death of democracy has been declared rather too often already, but that would indeed be the end. If our elected representatives are scared to do the hugely responsible job that they have begged to be chosen for, then they must stand down and let someone with a proper pair of cojones do it in their place. As I have said here many times, their security does not matter any more than that of the rest of us; what matters is that they represent us in Parliament and hold the government to account (that is, stop it doing things, in particular taking our money, ans sometimes make it do the right things, whatever they are).

As I said, this may be a bit premature, but I offer these thoughts anyway. And when the idea is mooted, as it will be, I’ll dig it up again, repost it and say ‘Ahaah!’

Even Educated Piggy-Banks do it

This advert has appeared on a roundabout on the edge of town. Momio is an investment company of some sort, and the slogan says 'let your savings reproduce'. I forbear to pass judgement on the idea, leaving it to the reader to decide whether the average person would be more or less likely to give them money after seeing this hoarding.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Homo caballoferrensis and Homo viaverdensis

Cool and cloud, the threat- or promise- of rain. Not a day for going too far, but a Sunday morning is not for sitting indoors staring out of the window, so we went along the old railway line for a few miles, which is what hundreds of people do at the weekend, whatever the weather.

The old railway line, and stop me if you've heard this before, was taken up and the track in that section turned into a footpath 20 years ago when the high-speed line was built to Seville and the route altered slightly. Straightened out, really, and flattened, as some trains don't stop. I know I must have gone along it by train in 1987, on the way to Córdoba, when I had never heard the name of the town I now live in. Now I know every tree, every bush, every stone on the path, and, I could almost say, every face that I pass as I move along it.

When we go together Mrs Hickory runs and I walk beside her. My legs are very long while her hips are quite a bit nearer the ground, so it works very well. And I'm used to walking fast.

Everyone is there. At times it is thick with familiar faces; I meet friends, clients, barmen and shop assistants from places I regularly spend money, faces that are only familiar from the path itself, people I say hello to because I've always said hello to them, and neither of us remembers why, or if there ever was areason, people who say hello because they think I'm someone else, and people you don't say hello to, but who represent groups that are also part of that 'everyone' who is there: Chinese, South American, Morrocan and Rumanian immigrants- now that's real integration- the old, the young, the fat, the thin, the fast, the slow, the fit, the ones who want to be fit, the ones who don't realize they've left it too late, the ladies who chat, the ones who promised the children yesterday when it seemed like a good idea and the ones who pretend to be walking the dog. They're all there.

It drizzled a bit, we analysed the patterns and colours of the clouds and the fields, we said hello to a couple of horses in a field beside the path, and we went freely through the land that was for a hundred years the domain of the iron king.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Apes and Wikipedians

In a previous post I said that I wouldn't be prepared to argue with a judge about the difference in semantic scope between the use in technical, legal and general contexts of the word 'murder'. The reason is that a judge is very unlikely to see that, beyond the highly charged and specific meaning that it has in his field, it might be used by other people at other times in a rather looser sense.

This is a very common problem, as can be seen from this comment thread on the Wikipedia article 'Ape'. It's very long and it all gets very confused, they start again several times and they still haven't reached any kind of conclusion after all these years. Note that nobody, at any point, is arguing about the taxonomy of Homo sapiens, the entire dispute is about the meaning of the word 'ape'. Most of the participants assume that the way they use it is the only correct one, and that anyone who suggests otherwise is a bit stupid. At different times a couple of reasonable people, who have seen the problem, try to explain it and to mediate. They are shouted down, lose their tempers themselves, and get banned.

The debate is complicated by the fact that many of the participants have a profound horror being seen to pander to creationsim, and so will not recognise that in general use people tend to mean non-human hominoidea when they speak of 'apes'. This is a simple matter of fact, but since most of the major contributors are involved in the field of hominid research they are used to using 'ape' in an inclusive sense, and do not realize that most people don't.* Add the fear of God and they come across as rather stupid, blinkered people.

As I said, the argument is not about what humans are; it is purely about the meaning of the word 'ape'. Few of the contributors appreciate that context is everything, and no attempt is made to establish what the context actually is. Such is the absurdity that the slanging match has reached that the more benighted of them have refused even to countenance a clarification in the introduction, explaining the sense in which the word is used in the body of the article, because to recognise that some people might understand it differently might be seen as pandering to fundamentalism. In other words, the inability to see beyond their own idiolect has led to an encyclopedia article refusing to define its own name.

Specialists often fall into this trap, of not appreciating that words which to them have a technical meaning are used by others in non-technical senses. This is true even of words that were coined for specialist fields and then leak into general use, and it is much truer of words that were taken from common language are applied in particular fields to clearly defined concepts.

No, I didn't get involved in the row. I saw immediately what the problem was and that no one was going to listen however carefully I explained it.

*Even this isn't true. I'm not an expert in any relevant field, but I am a very interested amateur in palaeoanthroplogy, and I read a lot of papers by experts and specialists, researchers and academics working in the field who are fully au fait with the state of our knowledge of the origin of Homo sapiens and have absolutely no religious axe to grind. On many occasions it is possible to read the phrase 'apes and humans', or to see 'ape' used when the context clearly shows that they are excluding humans. They are quite obviously not trying to suggest that woman was made from man's rib, they are just relaxed about the whole thing and only specify more precisely when there is a need to be unambiguous.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On the Press and the ECHR Again

The last post got a bit bogged down in side issues, and the point of it may have been lost. In reporting something that is of great interest to many people, the press- or such of it as I became aware of- didn't try to tell us what the ECHR decision meant, what it was based on, why it affects Britain, or what the government can do if it thinks it is in danger of being made unpopuylar by it. Instead of interviewing the lawyers involved in the case, or calling on legal experts to comment, they interviewed the man who had started the process, a criminal deprived, like all serving criminals, of the right to vote. He was much more interesting than said lawyer would have been, undoubtedly, but he was unable to explain anything, and merely repeated three or four pat phrases he had learnt, uninformative and largely inaccurate. We learnt nothing about the case, but it was good television. And that's the problem. The media are not there to defend us from tyranny, as they claim. They are there to get an audience, and will ignore what is important, and even what is true, in pursuit of what might be interesting, and therefore popular. So they end up harping on the colourful character instead of the one who can tell us something useful.

An error which I too of course, committed, but then I don't call myself a journalist, or pretend that my self-important witterings are vital to the future of freedom. So, a fail to Andrew Neil, the BBC, the Mail, and a few others. The press will never be what it likes to think it is. And neither should it be. I just wish they wouldn't take themselves so seriously. They are largely empty vessels, peddlers of pontification and gossip, making a living like the rest of us. Their trade has no more or less value than that of a dealer in watercress.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Of Prisoners and the ECHR

CLARIFICATION: This post is about a decision by the ECHR and its very poor coverage in the press. In preparing it I watched a couple of interviews with John Hirst in which he came across as a thoroughly unpleasant type, otherwise he would not even have got a mention here. Having a love of the truth, and not being entirely stupid, I checked the facts carefully; he was indeed convicted of manslaughter, not murder, as I made perfectly clear in the post. His complaint is, therefore, groundless. I also linked to his own blog, and to another article in which he talks about his crime, so that his own views, and not just mine, are available to those who may read the post. I regularly do this with people I criticise. The links are still there below, and I now add another, which, while not in his own voice, seems to provide background to his mental state.

However, I simply do not have the time to go to England and argue the toss about the meaning in common use of a term that has a powerful legal connotation with a judge who is unlikely to be sympathetic to such an argument. Also, while I haven't the least concern for the sensitivities of John Hirst, he is not important to the matter I was discussing. I have therefore removed the subtitle of the post, changed one word in the second paragraph of the first question, and edited question 4 very slightly.

I did not, and do not, accuse John Hirst of murder. I stated quite clearly that he was convicted of manslaughter. I then make a point about the meaning of the word murderer in general use, a point irrelevant to the subject of the post, but nevertheless a true one. Below is the original post, with the changes described above:

Media Studies 101- Mid-term exam


Compare and contrast:
Up next- Dull but worthy human rights lawyer explains why section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, Articles 10 and 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, are relevant to (Application no. 74025/01) CASE OF HIRST v. THE UNITED KINGDOM (No. 2) or...
Up next- Unrepentant axe-killer bangs on arrogantly and  inarticulately about how he’s got more rights than you and we all get to jump up and down frothing at the mouth.
Journalist with iffy syrup follows the finest of journalistic traditions and chooses the second option above. As a result he gets good viewing figures but we learn nothing about the case.
Should the government-
a)      arbitrarily ignore a decision based on a process to which it has been legally committed for 60 years, because said decision is unpopular or morally wrong
b)      question through the procedures of that court the grounds for the decision, which may well confuse human rights with civil rights, or for some other motive
c)      withdraw the UK from its commitment to the legal process and the treaties which set it up, so it is no longer bound by such decisions
d)     obey the order of the court, in accordance with the rule of law?

John Hirst  beat an old woman to death with an axe because she got on his nerves. This appears to have been an impulse but he remained in the house watching her die rather than help her (this was clearly established at the trial). Legally speaking, he was convicted of manslaughter. But murder is not just a legal term. As a term in common use it is frequently used to describe other situations in which one person kills, or is responsible for the death of, another, as well as in relatively trivial matters such as the eating of meat, the holding of bullfights or the practice of abortion. Murder as a word and a concept is ours to use and define, it does not belong exclusively to the courts.

Comments- The decision does not give prisoners the right to vote (something which doesn’t bother me very much, anyway). It enjoins the government to clarify how the removal of the franchise is applied in each case. Parliament can decide to deny the vote to prisoners serving a sentence longer than some lower bound, it could set out crimes which carry the loss of the franchise as an integral part of the punishment, it could instruct judges to pronounce on the retention or loss of the vote when sentencing a particular individual. There are many possibilities, some indistinguishable from the present state. I think we can be sure that, however Parliament clarifies the situation, Hirst will be in a group that is excluded. He can’t vote at the moment, by the way, because he hasn’t actually served his sentence, he is only out on licence.

The decision, btw, was made by the ECHR, which forms part of the network of the Council of Europe. It's nothing to do with the EU, and is in some ways not entirely useless. If it were the EU looking at the matter, the commission would simply have decreed that prisoners be allowed to vote. They don't go in for democracy, sovreignty, representation, the rule of law or legal process. (Discuss)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In Which we (Fail to)* Explain Fractional Reserve Banking (but possibly explain something else)

Talking of set theory (as I was yesterday in the introduction to the post), the intersection of the set of regular readers of this blog with the set of people who know less about economics than me is also likely to be very small indeed. In any case, those who know something about economics may well find the following painful reading. It derives from an attempt to explain the subject to myself while cycling up a tall and steep mountain:

If I lend my friend Sam €10 (I don't seem to have a pound sign) to buy a blouse she's seen in Zara and wants for Friday night but she only has a Saturday job and won't have the money before then, she gets her blouse and I am out a tenner, at least until Saturday.

Or am I?

Later, feeling peckish, I go down the road to the market to see my friend Tony at the chicken stall. Let me have a chicken, I say, and I'll pay you on Saturday, because Sam's going to give me €10. Ok, he says. Now Sam has her blouse, I have my lunch, and that €10 has been spent twice.

My friend Tony, on the strength of the sale, is feeling chipper and buys some earrings for his wife, who is made happy by them, and in consequence she makes Tony happy.

The €10 has now been spent three times, everyone involved has what they wanted and is happier because of it. But money has not in fact been created. My original €10 has not become €30. What has been created is liquidity. A chain of possibilities has been called into being, virtual money, a chain which collapses back on itself on Saturday when Sam goes to work, gets paid, gives me €10 which I pass on to Tony, and he puts them back in the account he took them from. Now there is are just €10 again, sitting in Tony's bank, but the goods that have changed hands, and the happiness caused by those exchanges, are real and continue to exist.

The key to all this is confidence. I am sure that Sam will pay me back, and Tony knows I'll pay him. (If he really wanted he could get me to sign soemthing, but in fact his knowledge that I will have the money and will give it to him is worth more than a piece of paper.) But what if he doesn't have that certainty.

What if he thinks €10 is too much to give on credit? For whatever reason. He tells me he can't let me have a whole chicken, but he can do me a leg. A leg is not lunch, so I give him the money, Sam doesn't get her blouse, Amancio Ortega doesn't get a bit richer and his employees get a slightly smaller bonus. Tony gets his money, but he sticks to it, so his wife doesn't get her earrings, and Tony doesn't get... whatever he might have had.

Or perhaps I munch a chicken leg so Sam can have her blouse, but, because I may have to go hungry, I decide that if Sam really wants her blouse she can pay me back €11, instead of the €10. I have put a price on my inconvenience, my risk. Either way, the lack of confidence of one or other of us has left us all without the things, and the contentment, we might otherwise have had. Liquidity has been lost.

And that, boys and girls, is the idea behind fractional reserve banking (er no, it isn't*), the multiplier effect, and the fact that greedy bankers can't get rich, and much less cause a recession, unless there are lots of other greedy people squealing for money they might not be able to pay back. Welcome to the economy, boys and girls- we're all in this together.

Is any of this even remotely accurate?

*Mark Wadsworth, in the comments, patiently explains that I haven't said anything about FRB, which is a different matter entirely.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sanskrit Literature

The intersection of regular readers of this blog with lovers of Sanskrit literature is, I should imagine, very small indeed, but even so I draw the attention of such people as may exist to this wonderful blog, which I have just discovered and added to the blogroll. It needs no further comment, I think, but that isn't going to stop me rambling on, of course.

I discovered Sanskrit literature by chance, as I imagine most people do. I bought some books because I wanted to learn how the language worked, really to compare it with Greek, Latin and (later) Lithuanian. I found a language of fascinating beauty, and an extraordinarily rich literature comparable to the Greek, and far superior to the Latin. For those who've learnt a bit already, here is a blog that provides a short extract, aphorism, image or poem each day, to add a little colour to your mornings, and to enrich your understanding of the world from a source you probably know nothing of- over three thousand years of a wholly different people trying to understand and explain the world.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Of Lakes, The Dead, and Random Thoughts

A few thoughts on things, some bitter, some sweet, some whimsical, some mildly interesting, perhaps, some will never be written because it's nearly time for dinner, but, while some believe that a blog post should be a self-contained, internally consistent and coherent piece setting out and explaining an idea or series of ideas from start to finish (who are these people?) others say that if a post doesn't end like this... it isn't a blog post at all. Whether any of this this is relevant I couldn't say. I once met a chap in a pub in Hampstead High Street who believed he was Peter Cook*, so it's hard to say that belief tells us anything about what is, or what should be.

In any case, today is All Saints' Day, which is a holiday over here. It's a family day, there's nothing public about its observance (ie the government doesn't use it as an excuse to spend our money enjoying themselves or doing propaganda), and most people just use it to relax with their families and many take the chance to visit the cemetery and remember their dead.

Florists make a fortune on Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and All Saints' Day, opening all over the previous weekend and on the day itself, and by the cemetery there are stalls covering the entrance road with bright colours and the chatty banter which all market traders use to enliven the business of standing around for hours flogging plants. It's not a sad occasion, unless you've lost someone in the previous year. You meet everyone there, and can catch up with a bit of news, or arrange a dinner party over the hallowed ground containing the late Aunt Prado or whoever.

You have to fight your way along some of the paths, past the bored children who have turned into oblivious statues while they wait for their parents to stop yapping to someone they've met or gawping with artificially serious expressions at the tomb of a grandparent they never met; past the middle-aged spinsters diligently scrubbing down the marble and cutting all the flowers to exactly the same length because it's a way of looking and feeling useful; past the groups of gypsies crowding around a massive structure typically involving life-sized rococco angels with vacant faces, random religious symbols at odd points on the 10-foot high tombstone, giant photos of the deceased, and more flowers than you would have thought could be possibly be attached to the last resting place of cousin Eduardo without bringing the whole thing crashing to the ground. Gypsies have large familes, they take their late relatives very seriously indeed, and they have execrable taste in the paraphernalia of death. To an observer of human nature a cemetery on such a day is a fascinating place. It was warm and sunny as well.

To the farm this weekend. A bit damp, but the waterlands are greener than ever. The waterfall crashes as never before and the wind that plays with the surface of the lakes creates livelier and more interesting patters than usual, and the birds that live there are happier now that the people are gone. They don't care aboutr a bit of wind and rain, and they have the insects and the fish to themselves. The place has a different beauty in autumn, a rougher, tougher beauty, a manly attraction that the sun-worshippers don't know how to see.

On another note, I saw this at the EUObserver. I make no claim to be an economist, but I know bollocks when I hear it, and this struck me as A-grade whiffle designed to make us think it's more than blinkered political ranting. At the very least his assertion that George Osborne is 'emasculating the welfare state', by increasing its budget by slightly less than a Labour government would have done, is a hysterical exaggeration and not a good premise on which to build any kind of argument if you want to be taken seriously. I ran it by someone who does know about economics and he confirms that Irvin is essentially a Marxist, in the sense that he simply cannot understand the function of markets, and that nothing he says should be considered economics, only politics.

Addendum: This is from the Indie, a magnificent example of a vacuous space-filler column by a tedious woman who's been recycling the same stuff for many years, commented on by dozens of people, none of whom has a clue what they're talking about, but is going to give their opinion anyway, because they can. Q: How do you make politics out of drinking water? A: When you have newspaper columns to sell. That's all the rest of us need to know.**

*Oddly enough, he knew this belief to be false, despite his profound belief in its truth, and despite the fact that he really was Peter Cook. These statements are not logically incompatible, though they may not in fact be true...

**I'm something of an obsessive about water, in fact. I  am convinced that most people would feel better and their organs would last longer if they drank much more water than they do, but I tend to bore my friends with this, rather than writing columns in newspapers and accosting strangers in the street. And I know something about the subject, unlike the commenters at the Indie.***

***I'm rather disappointed in the Indie. The Telegraph is little more than a comic these days, the Times doesn't want anyone to read it, the FT requires you to pretend to be three different people to get to the interesting bits, and the Guardian is the Guardian, which leaves the Independent as the only paper worth reading. Rather disturbing, really. And then you discover it is also full of utter rubbish.

Deborah dearest, if you don't want to drink water at a particular moment, then don't. No one is going to force you. It isn't actually a problem. But of course, you have a column to write, and nothing to say...