Saturday, December 31, 2011

On Things that Socks Do

St Sebastian Despairs of Finding his Other Sock
It may be true that there is nothing interesting to say about socks, but I shall do my best. Most of the time they get on with their basic functions of keeping your feet warm, stopping your shoes rubbing, distinguishing one 15-year-old girl from another and marking you out as an Englishman when wearing sandals at the beach, but when left unsupervised they will enjoy themselves in quiet and surprising ways which mostly involve playing tricks on their erstwhile wearer.

It is in the nature of socks to be two, but their ability to become one, and sometimes three, between one look in the drawer and another, or between going into the washing machine and coming out, is well known. I have at times found the missing pair in the pocket of a pair of trousers, up the sleeve of a shirt, in the machinery of the washer itself, nested inside another sock, and many have never appeared at all. But it isn’t just that they get lost. They also have the ability to multiply. Where once there was a pair suddenly there will be an extra one, inexplicably (and rather uselessly). Lost socks will reappear the next time you do the washing, caught up in something that wasn’t even in the machine the first time. Douglas Adams would have made a fine job of failing to explain this.

The other day I ran across the best trick I have ever seen performed by a sock. One of the pair had teased out a loose thread from itself, tied it around its own instep with a complex knot (we hedgehogs don’t join the Scouts, so I can’t say exactly what type), trapping the leg of its pair (which went into the machine separately) inside it. If socks were interesting in themselves, and I accept that they may not be, this would be positively Fortean.

One of the reasons I know I’m happy is that I can take pleasure in being frustrated by the behaviour of socks.

Friday, December 30, 2011

A Christmas Tale of Sorts

A student of mine is a doctor, a gastroenterologist, and he spends much of his time doing endoscopy, which consists of sticking tubes into whichever hole is most appropriate for reaching the troubled organ. These tubes are quite remarkable; they can light, see, cut, slice, sew, seal, burn, and deliver various types of instrument or bits of plastic for opening, closing or healing all kinds of vessels in the body. Quite, fascinating it is, and it's done with the precision of a module landing on Titan, through a control panel which wouldn't look out of place in the cockpit of a fighter plane.

He was on call on Christmas Eve, and had to go to the hospital at 11 in the evening. A bad time, because on Christmas Eve everyone has dinner with the family over here. It's as big an occasion as lunch on Christmas Day. But these things happen, he said, he's used to it.

The emergency was an old man whose oesophagus was blocked. He needed emergency endoscopy to remove the blockage, after which he was pronounced fit and sent home.

The point is that my student described it as a normal Christmas Eve call- grandad, having had to spend all year eating yoghourt and baby food, is determined to have a proper dinner with his family that day, and is reminded why he was told to stick to the baby food in the first place. Just an anecdote- surprising to me because it wasn't surprising to the doctor- but an example of how the human spirit can be both stronger and weaker than the flesh. On the whole I found it an optimistic tale, and not only because one day we may all be that man.

Monday, December 26, 2011

On the Drinking of Meths

If this blog has failed to notice Christmas, it's because the blogger has been rather busy noticing it in person. The suckling pig was excellent, the beer suitably cold, the presents perfectly chosen and the company very agreeable. The weather has been cold and sunny, making it possible to run and ride enough to make room for the piglet, and to avoid the preparation of it. In short, Christmas as it should be. I hope readers can all say the same.

And now, in the interests o fbalance, a post about the observation of human misery.

The highest expression of human desperation is to me the drinking of meths. When exposed in London to all kinds of human life, including all kinds of human suffering, the lowest of the low, those so far lost to any possibility of a return to humanity and happiness that they could not remember being human or conceive of becoming so once again (that's how I imagined it) were the meths drinkers.

I saw them regularly in Euston Square. I wouldn't even call it misery. My impression, rightly or wrongly, was that they were beyond any experience of emotional suffering. It was a world I could observe but not imagine, as it was so far from my understanding.

The image of figures that had once been people, sipping purple fluid from glass tubes or some makeshift container, a barely discernible vapour rising from the surface, is fixed in my mind, so firmly that it is almost certainly not real. But they were there, on the grass under the trees when it was warm, on the benches when it was cold or wet. And not only in Euston Square, though that is where I remember them.

To drink meths, I imagine, indicates a resignation from life more complete than any other act, even suicide. Taking one’s own life requires an act of will, and the recognition that one could continue to live, even that one’s life has some value. The meths drinkers have nothing, and they know they have nothing. They eat at times, a few crumbs abandoned by the birds, just a reflex when the discomfort is too great. Most will not live long enough to need to eat. Their existence consists of the only pleasure that remains to them, the consumption of industrial spirit, which they know will quickly drive them mad and damage their organs beyond repair, will destroy what is left of their humanity, will reduce their human relations to being with people like them and attempting to articulate abuse at each other. They have renounced their humanity, because they believe it has renounced them. They are the most hopeless group of creatures have ever come across. I don’t believe any of them could ever have been returned to anything resembling a form of normal life.

They belonged to another world. In fact, they created another world within ours, surrounded themselves with an aura of remote horror, and allowed us to surrender that space to them. People will sit next to tramps and filthy, bloodied drunks on benches, if there’s nowhere else.They won't sit with the drinkers of meths. No one will join their world. They exist on another plain, that the rest of us do not want to be part of. We are happy to leave it to others to experience.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

On Marriage and Intellectual Contortions

I recently expressed an attitude to marriage, which boiled down to 'share your life with whoever you want, celebrate it as you wish, and call it anthing you choose, but leave me to do the same and don't go on about it all the time, I'm not interested.'
I came across an article the other day that spoke about a woman's attitude to marriage and how she changed her mind. Although it was from the Guardian, and she still writes for them, I saw it in an EFL textbook. It doesn't appear in any online archive, to confirm that it is complete and is really what she wrote, and in any case this post is not an attack on her but an analysis of a particular way of thinking, so I won't give her name (I’d probably misspell it, anyway). The quotes are from the article as it appeared in the textbook.
She first sets out her youthful attitude to marriage, a combination of distaste for the dull, repetitive life she saw her mother and other women lead, reinforced by political indoctrination via books and a feminist gang at her university. She saw marriage, everyone's marriage, as an enslavement imposed by a patriarchal hierarchy, an unnecessary, even evil, social invention.

So, she might lack a little perspective and contrast, not to mention observation of how real people experience marriage, but her position on the matter is admirably clear. And she hasn’t finished.

Ah, yes, the ‘I don’t understand it, nor why people do it, therefore it is wrong and must be stopped’ approach to argument. Blinkered, certainly, but, as I say, perfectly clear.

Then she falls in love.

Truly heartening to see the moment of revelation. The rest of already knew that, but it’s good to see she has realised her error, and come to understand the reality. Now she will humbly renounce her previous beliefs and asked to be welcomed into the fold of the enlightened.

She could just have asked someone, but in any case her eyes have been opened, which is what matters.

Precisely, that is exactly what motivates most people to get married and have a big bash to mark the event. She has finally discovered why people get married, and that it has nothing to with the patriarchal imposition of servitude or anything else. They do it because they want to.

No, it isn’t, but we´ll let that pass. She has now understood not only why people get married but also why they often do it in church, in a ceremony whose basic traditions have not changed for generations. Except that she hasn’t.

There then follows a list of all the things which she won’t be doing, specifically so that her marriage will be a special kind of thing, unique to her, not like all those other marriages that is so much resembles. Her reasons for getting married, and doing it in a traditional way, are powerful, personal and feminist. Other people still marry because they are crushed beneath the jackboot of something or other.

I have a sneaking suspicious that it won’t be entirely free from pomposity or smugness, but that would also be a way of making it ‘ours’, so I wish her the best. She may have six children or be divorced by now, but I wish her well anyway. I hope she made her wedding ‘theirs’, and their marriage, too.

It’s just a shame that having been moved, by completely genuine sentiments, to marry and to do so in a particular way, she fails to recognise that it is exactly those sentiments that move everyone else to do the same thing. She could have dispensed with all that junk she learned at University and rejoiced in her new understanding of humanity. But no, her marriage must be special, different, free, unique.

Like mine. And yours.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Of Clocks and a Victim of Time

The Spanish Royal Clock Collection is one of the largest in the world, spread cross a number of palaces that have housed the king and court at various times. A representative selection is now on display at the Palacio Real, and it’s worth a look if you’re in Madrid.

Hildeyard's Clock of the Four Faces
There are two aspects to a clock, the technology and the art. Once the technology reaches a kind of plateau, as it has now, it is mainly the designers who make a difference, creating attractive and innovative pieces and giving the customers what they want, which is not necessarily the same thing.

After the perfection of the regulator in the early 18thC it was up to the artists, enamellists, sculptors, goldsmiths and jewellers to attract the attention of kings and other moneyed patrons. The result was a considerable amount of Baroque horror, whimsical allegory expressed in thick gold plate, but also some beautiful and original craftsmanship.

There was a long-case regulator clock with no face, and the clock on the pendulum itself, an elegant, striking piece by the Woolls brothers and the master Abraham Matthey, a beautiful skeleton clock with a helios pendulum and moon phases in blue ceramic, a curious clock on the end of a barrel carried by a negro, with too much gold for my taste, but the balance of the piece was perfect, almost like a Greek marble (this was by Michel Francois Piolaine).

The star of the show, at least in my judgement, is a four-faced clock by Thomas Hildeyard (a London clockmaker), quite magnificent, and a wonderful clock, as in a thing that ticks and tells you the right time, rather than a gallery piece. Every part of it has function, as well as beauty.

I blogged about the Viaduct of the Calle Segovia a couple of years ago. It’s just down the road from the Palace and, as we left, we saw an unnecessarily large number of police cars and ambulances, with more arriving. There was potential suicide on the viaduct, the latest aspirant to a large and growing association of the depressed, the disillusioned, the disappointed and the mad. He was between the plastic protective panelling and the parapet. There were policemen and paramedics everywhere and more arriving but no one seemed to know what to do. The police were instinctively keeping everybody back and the ambulance staff seemed to be giving each other moral support. You expected Denzil Washington to sweep in in an ostentatious but unmarked vehicle and for everyone to suddenly relax. We waited as was seemly, but in the end I don’t know whether he completed his final act of self-expression, or is lying in a hospital bed being talked at by experts and reflecting on where it all went wrong. Time, you see, changes everything, but it is responsible for nothing. It just passes, we take care of the rest.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Runway Runners

We don’t have much to boast about here, nothing much to put us on the international map. We briefly had the best handball team in the world, but it was sold this summer to a club in Madrid. All we have left is the new stadium which the ratepayer (me, that is) owns most of and can’t find a profitable use for. We like to make a fuss about Don Quijote even though he never came anywhere near the place, and we had the National Treasury and the HQ of the Inquisition back in the 16th C, but they were sent to Madrid as well. Thus the decline started.

We do, however, have one of the longest airport runways in Europe.*

It was supposed to be Spain’s first private airport (but guess who owns it now). One of the ideas mooted during the long, painful and ultimately still birth of the project was to use it as a depot for intercontinental airliners that have to rest for several days between flights while being thoroughly checked for missing wings and so on. Parking would be much cheaper than at Barajas.  A bright idea in its way, but no one was interested. It did get us 4kms of paved pachydermus leucos, though, and thus the Runway Runners were conceived.

Running is a boring business. Good for the cardiovascular system, great for making a little room for the weekend beer, and excellent at showing you how death is more to be welcomed than feared. But bloody tedious. It needs to be livened up. As I discovered by chance, one foggy evening, climbing the fence and running the entire length of that useless tarmac with a stopwatch in your hand, pursued by salivating Alsatians gives it just that bit of spice that makes all the difference.

I had to share the experience, naturally. It’s not something you can keep to yourself, and it’s much more fun in company. So I told a select few running acquaintances who were looking for a new challenge, and the Runway Runners were born.

Most airports do have actual planes in them, doing the stuff that planes do on airport runways, and they have security of kinds that most normal travellers know nothing of. It all takes planning, timing and the carefully measured assistance of a hipflask. It’s easier at night, and in some ways more fun- most things are at night. Whatever the people who plan the security protocols have in mind- protecting the public, covering their backs, exercising naked power, or just having a laugh- the actual blokes in uniform just want to get paid and go home. Especially the night shift. They put the leaner, fitter, brighter-looking ones on during the day. The fat and hopeless work at night when they can’t be seen and, let’s face it, no one ever breaks into an airport, do they?

Until now. Oh, the exhilaration. The tang of burning diesel and the freshly discharged contents of chemical lavatories in your nostrils, the wind from the exhaust of a 747 in your hair, the pulse pounding in your temples as for a moment the end of the runway seems to be getting further and further away (they are all different lengths and whoever’s turn it is to do the research always forgets to tell anyone else, and so we are running blind, not knowing exactly how our strength should be spent), the happy thought that there’s always someone slower than you (which is why we let Pablo ‘El Cojo’ join the club in the first place, of course) and the knowledge that if the police finally get to you they’ll probably treat it all as a big laugh (or possibly not).

I feel younger since I started the club, fuller of joie de vivre, esprit de l’escalier and moules mariniere. I drift over waters of the deepest blue and seduce diaphanous maidens by the light of the full moon. The club has no rules, except that I am the Law. We shall soon go international, intercontinental, and, when NASA finally builds a landing pad on the moon, interplanetary. We have no limits. We can do what we will.

*This despite the fact that we don’t have an airport in any but the purest technical sense. We have a fenced area with a control tower, flashing lights, terminals, baggage belts, posts for the police and customs to have a quiet fag between shifts- all the paraphernalia you associate with an airport, and the runway, of course. In many ways it looks just like an airport. But there are no staff, no passengers, and no planes. It’s a model of an airport, very useful if you want to show someone what an airport looks like, but it’s not going to let you fly anywhere, which is the defining feature of an airport, I should have thought.

NOTE: It’s possible that some of the above is not entirely accurate.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On Gay Marriage

Gay marriage is once again a thorny question, I see.  But marriage is what you want it to be.

The Church of England seems to have a bit of trouble knowing what it believes in. It should be telling its followers the will of God so they don't get any nasty surprises when they die, but either they simply don't know the will of God, and have to make it up as they go along, or they are just one more social organistion jockeying for influence by following a trend and calling it leadership. Either way, you wonder what use the CofE is to those who seek moral guidance. The Catholic Church at least makes it clear that it's passing on the Boss's orders and if you don't like them you can take your chance with Him.

Marriage looks far too much like people giving other people permission to do what they want and to think of themselves in the way they choose. I dislike the very idea of marriage as a social ritual. Marriage is not about other people, it is a matter for the contracting parties.

Nearly all societies have taken it upon themselves to ritualize union in some way, and to reserve the right to give permission before permitting or tolerating overt sexual union and breeding, with the consequent restriction of freedom of all involved. The desire of gay couples to have the government determine whether or not they are married strikes me as a bit perverse. Why would they want to have their freedom restricted in this way? Presumably it isn't all about tax or inheritance.

Where’s the problem? It doesn’t fit the church’s idea of what marriage is, but it doesn’t matter. It needs to fit the couple’s idea of what their mutual commitment means and how they choose to make it public, if indeed they do. I would rather the state got out of the marriage business and left people to define their own unions. Not everyone will take your union as seriously as you do, but the law can't do anything about that. After all, it is likely to be the one of the most important things in your life, whereas almost nobody else actually gives a damn.

This has got a bit confused and rambling. In short, though I like Marriage as state, at least the way I'm experiencing it at the moment, I reject the idea of marriage as paperwork. I only got married because i was already Married, and should I cease to be Married I may or may not do more paperwork to become unmarried, but at that point it will no longer matter. This post is therefore written from the perspective of one who doesn't understand why people who have never had to bother with the paperwork are so keen to be allowed top do it. I am quite certain I'm mising something; the question is, is that something more than trivial?

Is it possible that we have reached such a state of dependence that we think nothing is real until a government official allows it to exist?

Forget politics and marry your horse if you want to. After all, you are as married as you think you are.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Reactions to Losing the Election

A sadly familiar fact of political life is the far- and not so far- left rattling their sabres and threatening violence on the streets as soon as they lose democratic power.
The Socialist party and the unions are already blaming the new government for the mess that they have left, and making threates.

The leader of the outgoing Socialist  party calls for 'opposition on the streets' against the cuts in public spending in Castilla-La Mancha, made necessary by the incompetence and electorally motivated profligacy of José María Barreda, the previous president of the region.  Barreda himself was already making cuts, long before his end, as he realised that he couldn't keep his promises, but he was stopping building work, road works and the like, throwing thousands of ordinary working men and women onto the dole. María Dolores de Cospedal has at least sought to place the burden on the shoulders of contracted professionals (the chemists, who are heavily subsidised, have not been paid for months, for example, and your humble blogger lost his cushy little number teaching a course at the University. Hey ho.)
By the way, there is an idea out there that politicians would have to pay more attention to the will of the people they represent if we knew where they had a pint in the evenings. Well I do know where Barreda has a drink at the weekend, we often go to the same bar, adn it doesn't seem to have brought us any closer.

This is the same story in more or les the same words but from a leftwing newspaper.

The communists are feeling puffed up because they've got 11 seats- they were down to two last time, and so the leader draws himself up and calls upon his mob to get onto the streets. It really does sound very familiar.

The workers' unions will join them, of course, and organise much of the dirty work. They know that when they call a strike they are legitimising violence, thuggery, threats and criminal damage on a large scale, but they do it anyway, because they earn a lot of money and get on the TV for doing it, and then they deny that the violence is anything to do with them. I have yet to see a union leader who genuinely knew how to look after the interests of the workers who paid him.

The outgoing government of Zapatero, which has lost and no longer has any legitimacy, has used its last few days (this isn't like England where the loser packs his bags the same night)

This is just politics as usual, of course. None of it will help anyone, nor achieve more than headlines and broken windows, but I suppose it has to be done. It is, like so many things, part of being human.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Open Sesame

I was introduced to the story of Ali Baba and the forty thieves by a recording from the records section of the public library, back in the early 70’s. It was told by an American actor with what sounded to me at the time like a very broad accent, and an exaggerated and inappropriate prosody. It was part of a series of what could loosely be termed ‘fairy tales’, which we listened to repeatedly, told by the same man, or by a number of people with similar voices. At the start of one of the stories he said, “A legend is a story so old that no one really knows how true it is”, which continues to serve me as a working definition. It also has good metre for an opening line.

I used to hear Open Sesame as open sessally/sesserly, as though it were an adverb, describing a way in which something should open. But I would also think of it as meaning opening in a sesserly manner, so it was an adjective too.

Close sesserly sounded all wrong of course, because it had the wrong number of syllables, and because it was too clearly a mixture of order and password. Open sesserly sounds like it’s all a password (even though I analysed it mentally as an imperative + adverb, it was an unconscious syntactic analysis, and made no attempt at semantic deduction).

Then when he forgot the password and could only remember it was the name of a grain, I was completely confused because I didn’t know that sesame was a grain, or indeed anything at all except a meaningless codeword. It was sometime later when I came across sesame seed buns, and discovered that it was a real plant (though not actually a grain).

In other news, Rahul over here suggests a way of comparing great Test batsmen. It needs some refinement, so such readers of this blog as are both cricket fans and familiar with optimization strategies in statistical analysis might like to pop over and help out. In any case, it’s a good read.

There isn’t any particular point to this post, nor anything especially relevant about the memory, but I don’t know who Jeremy Clarkson is, so I have to talk about something else.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The World Core Curriculum

It isn’t at all clear that schools as such need to exist, and it is certainly unnecessary for all children to go to school. We may assume that there are some things, many things, which children need to learn, and which a significantly large number cannot learn directly from their families. Which doesn’t mean they can’t learn them at home or elsewhere. The modern world should have changed completely the way education is carried out, but a combination of lack of imagination, the desire of governments to monopolise the minds of the young, and the demands of teachers’ unions, have meant that little has changed. It is simply not necessary to herd children into buildings and environments that are often unpleasant, to waste many hours a day throughout their entire childhood being instructed in things they do not need to know, and failing to learn the things they do. Attention is invariably focused, and the law tends to encourage it, or even require it, on those children who cannot or do not want to learn, and those who do or can must educate themselves as best they can from the scraps that fall to them.

There is no real purpose to the continued existence of schools as such. There is no defensible excuse for denying children half their childhood for no reason, or for failing to do what you promised to do when you forced them to sacrifice their freedom 8 hours a day.

Even so, the World Core Curriculum Movement is not intrinsically wrong to try to identify the things that it is useful for children to learn, but the conclusions they have reached are, to say the least, open to question.

It is clear that they start with the more or less unquestioned assumption that government is entitled to fill the heads of children with whatever it thinks fit. Further assumptions transparently inspiring this curriculum are that nothing much will change in the world other than what they want to change, that more or less everybody is soft-left and progressive like them, and most importantly, and dangerously, that the purpose of education is to make the young fit the role-shaped holes that their betters imagine they can create in society. They are pure utilitarians, sort of modern Fabians. Other than that their list is little more than a collection of all the things they can think of that children might be taught.

There is no apparent recognition that societies differ greatly in their requirements and possibilities, and that children differ greatly in their abilities, interests and aspirations. There is no apparent recognition of the fact that what it is useful for children to learn and what society might need them to know are not necessarily the same thing. (If the main purpose of education is to allow one to make a better living, you need to be educated in the things that are likely to be most in demand, taking into account your own aptitudes, but society changes, partly in response to the effort, the interests and the skills of the people who happen to make it up at any given moment.)

They matter because they are influential. This is not some insignificant groupuscle wittering away to itself, it’s being used already.

    Point 1 -- Our Planetary Home and Place in the Universe
    Point 2 -- Our Place in Time
    Point 3 -- The Family of Humanity
    Point 4 -- The Miracle of Individual Life

Yes, they call it the Tetrahedron, because they’ve split it into four points. And in the original document there is a tetrahedron drawn above it in case you missed the significance.

These four points are all very well, by all means encourage children to marvel at the universe and our place within it, but it’s only the start, surely?

If you click the link you will see that the entirety of the Miracle of Human Life section could be scrapped- it’s not school material- and the rest of it is a basic primary school curriculum of the ‘getting to know the world around us” type. Well, perhaps not basic, but most of it is fairly elementary “who I am” stuff. All kinds of things that go beyond knowledge, all the things we acquire this basic knowledge in order to be able to do, the cognitive skills required to use it productively, and to change the world for the better, are summed up in one throwaway line that looks as though it wasn’t even finished properly:

  + Teaching to question, think, analyze,
synthesize, conclude, communicate

The following point I do find interesting, though, even if they have chucked it in a dusty corner of the list:

  + Teaching to focus from the infinitely
large to the infinitely small, from the distant
past and present to the future

It is rare to find people who appreciate the importance of a very broad temporal, geographical and social perspective on the universe, so bonus marks for that.

But it lacks imagination and ambition, it focuses far too strongly on ideas of civics and citizenship, of the ‘know your place’ variety, and it will, I strongly suspect, be implemented by the people like these, and like those described here. And it’s coming soon to a school near you, if it hasn’t already arrived.

They are planning for tomorrow with yesterday’s ideas, and it isn’t going to work.

Monday, November 28, 2011

La Laguna de Caracuel

A body of water, about 1200 yards long and 600 across, surrounded by hills, just south of the village of Caracuel. There’s water around here if you look for it. Not enough, or not the right kind to irrigate the crops and provide drinking water everywhere without a great deal of infrastructure, but I leave the engineering to those who understand how to do it, pay my taxes (rather grudgingly) to pay for it, and thus have the luxury of seeing water aesthetically rather than functionally. Only the farmers worry about it these days, since the engineers and the taxpayers have done their job well enough for the rest of us.

Caracuel is a tiny village with no apparent purpose, except that it’s at just the right distance from here to do a bit of cycling to. Now it’s like many such villages, a good place to come from, or better still, for your parents to come from. That way you get to grow up somewhere more interesting, but you have a house in the country to go to for quiet weekends. Once you’ve passed 30 you appreciate that.
There is a castle on a hill above the village, a small Moorish construction that is mostly ruined. It’s probably worth the climb up a least once, but is probably visited mostly at night by the young who can doubtless find a number of uses for it. As did the Arabs, I expect.

The lake was covered with coots. Hundreds, probably thousands. Ducks of several kinds, small white herons which are very common here, and a few hawks of the kind that like voles and fish and are often found near water, but mostly coots. The photo shows this clearly.

We take what we can get here, so collections of waterfowl have good entertainment value. And the road is hard on the knees, but sweet on the eyes.