Monday, March 28, 2011

On Marching, and on Talking about Marching

How to know the truth about the demonstration in London the other day? There were people who marched peacefully, some with sensible banners, some not; some of them were there for ideological reasons, others because they expected to be affected personally by the ‘cuts’; others were there to attack people and smash things, because it’s fun. They advertised their type and their intentions by hiding their faces and looking thuggish.

All news media have a number of ends which conflict with the search for truth. They instinctively look for some kind of narrative, something they can use to catch the attention of the reader/viewer. There has to be a complete story, and also it must fit into some other popular narrative of the moment. Then there is the ideology of the reporter or of the organization they work for. There is always an ideology lurking somewhere, a point of view they want to find confirmed by what they are seeing.

Another thing they instinctively try to do is define types, to keep the story comprehensible. This means labelling. Hence the term 'anarchists' is applied to a bunch of thugs who were clearly there for the fun of smashing things up, the sort of thugs who are always attracted by these protests. I very much doubt they knew the first thing about the government’s economic policy, or what anarchy is, or had any thought of achieving anything except a release of adrenalin and the expression of their generalized hatred.

As to what the rest thought they could achieve, or why they were there, well, that’s why the story is hard to tell. They all had a slightly, or widely different understanding of what they were opposing and why, and how much influence they could really have on things. Most of them were not aware of the exact state of their own ideas on these matters, let alone that of the whole group. They were only interconnected in any way in very tiny groups, there was no great number of like-thinking people. The marchers themselves wanted to believe it, hence the uniformity of banners and slogans.

There probably was no complete, coherent story on Saturday, and certainly one that could be told. There rarely, if ever, is. There were thousands of stories, many part of and contributing to the greater story, though not all in any meaningful way. Each photograph, each interview, each description, tells a single, tiny story, which may not even be true itself, as the search for completeness and justification exists in the telling of the little stories as well as the big ones. And then we are told, or it is suggested, or we are left to imagine, that that tiny story is not only true in itself, but is in fact the big story, the ‘what the march was all about’ story. And, of course, it isn’t.

It is possible to imagine that there is a truth behind the march (or anything else for that matter) but even if there is, no one is able to tell it, and I very much doubt that anyone is trying to.

The organization of events of all kinds has changed. It's easier than it has ever been to organise sales, parties, picnics, protests, riots, even revolutions, as we are seeing now in the Arab world. It's easy to change things on the fly, to keep the information moving where it needs to be, and to keep the momentum of idess and objectives flowing. Mobile phones, text messages, twitter and all the rest of it has changed the world. The rioters are more dangerous and desctructive, and I wonder if the marches are not more pointless than ever.

Note: this post is not about the march, or even about the media. It’s about truth and the limits of perception. I wasn’t at the march, or within a thousand miles of it. I haven’t read all that much, and I haven’t watched any videos. I condemn the violence of the thugs, naturally, and would probably disagree with the stated motives of the organizers, if I looked closely enough at what they were. But I’m not a UK taxpayer, so I will not be directly affected.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Richard Stallman

Until a couple of weeks ago I'd never heard of Richard Stallman. In another couple I expect I'll have forgotten him again, but for the moment he is exercising a part of my mind that I really need for other purposes. Mostly his ideas, but also the man himself.

He is the guru of free software. Free as in speech, not as in beer. He was lecturing in these parts last week and I would very much have liked to hear him, but real life intervened as it so often does. But I do a bit of work at the computer science faculty so I've been asking them all what they thought of him. What follows is a distillation of what I gathered each of them

Stallman is indeed a guru, an evangelist, a proselyte for free software, and he dresses and acts the part. He is a performer, playing the role he he has made for himself at all times, but he is also a genuine eccentric. He has no house and 'lives without money' (in fact, of course, he allows his followers to 'gain merit' by housing and feeding him and paying his expenses; he doesn't live on the streets). His call to change the economic model which dominates the software market is aimed at both the producer and the consumer of software, and is based partly on the belief that such a change would be good for both producer and consumer. He recognises that people are entitled to make a living by producing software, and that many of the benefits we enjoy from the advancement of ICT (the contribution it has made to healthcare and communications, and hence to general quality of life, is often not fully appreciated) would not have come about in other circumstances, but he considers it a great evil that companies hide the source code of their programmes. By doing this other people are prevented from using it, adapting it, improving it and from knowing what the originator is using it for. This seems to be his biggest beef- that unless the code is available for inspection the consumer doesn't know what is really happening inside his computer and how much information the company is gathering (not that most of us would know anyway, but he thinks someone should be able to check up).

Microsoft is, therefore, evil. Not because Bill Gates has made a lot of money, but because he hides the reality of how his programmes function, and only shows the customers what they want to see. If all software were free, that is, if the code could be freely accessed, altered and reused by the consumer, the market would be equally, if not more, competititve, greater benefits would accrue, and we would all be freer (and, one imagines, more spiritually pure).

This has been the shorter Richard Stallman. I hope I haven't misrepresented him or his ideas. I don't pretend to be able to evaluate them but he doesn't sound like a nut (well, maybe just a little bit, but his ideas sound reasonable). One of the questions I asked everyone I spoke to was whether he was in touch with reality, in the sense of knowing what real people want from their software and what it is that makes them change their behaviour. Everybody answered yes.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hickory on High

We are everywhere. We are huge. And there is nowhere to hide.

A hedgehog-shaped flock of starlings taken by Neil Bland at Leighton Moss nature reserve in Silverdale.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Auto da Fé

A court in Barcelona has ordered that a number of books be burnt, apparently for being written by Hitler and his henchmen. The symbolism of this would seem to have escaped them.

There is more background to this case than I can dig up, and all the links I have found are in Spanish, but the essentials of the case are these: a man called Pedro Varela who runs a bookshop in Barcelona has been jailed for selling Mein Kampf. He is not a pleasant character. The world would be a better place if he took a more relaxed attitude to diversity in his fellow man (and if he learnt a bit more history) but to lock him up for it seems a bit much. He doesn't appear to have practised or incited violence, and he is convicted only of spreading genocidal ideas, which refers again to the selling of books.

One important point in this is that the Supreme Court declared that Holocaust denial was not a criminal offence, though they took years to make the decision. On the other hand, the Law of Historic Memory brought out by Zapatero's government is a blatant attempt to legislate the truth, which is not a good sign in a democracy.

The exact reason for the destruction of the books is not clear from the article. There is a possiblility of some other motive than they themselves are illegal (there is a reference to his 'haber editado y distribuido en España sin autorización de sus titulares' which I find opaque- specifically the last two words), but the order for destruction only applies to the books related to the case, and the case is about spreading hate, not copyright or anything like that.

I don't defend Nazi ideas, neo or palaeo, as I don't defend communist ideas and the exaltation of leftwing tyrants, and I don't defend the spokesmen of the Basque terrorist movement. But I do defend the right of the people who hold them to exist, to think and speak, for the entirely selfish reason that if their right to do so is not respected, how long will mine be? And also because I like arguing with them. If it weren't for such stupid, unpleasant peoplr, how would I get to think that I'm good and clever?

(More for my own reference than the readers, I link also to this short article with a very long comments thread in which the 'home team' defends its heroes by shouting abuse and threats at those who disagree with them. Despite a few intelligent contributions, it descends into a slanging match between totalitarians who have made no attempt to listen to each other, and would just love to have the power to switch the other side off.)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Watermelon Wine

The need to make a living tends to interfere significantly with the living of the life that it's supposed to make more comfortable, an observation which has struck many people before me, and was probably not original when Ugg the caveman was moaning about how having to go out hunting interfered with the jolly lunch he was planning. It's still true, though, and Hickory, who among other things, writes books about Spanish education law (yes, it's as fun as it sounds), has just been commisioned to do another one, which will pay for the beer but makes ranting a bit trickier. And, so, instead of what would probably be a rather tedious over-analysis of that much-noticed fact, and in place of anything a bit meatier, I offer the reader a few things that have flitted through my mind in the last few days.

That great Southern poet, Tom T. Hall, the Storyteller, observed that "ain't but three things in this world that's worth a solitary dime, old dogs and children, and watermelon wine".

I dare say he knows what he's talking about, but I would add one, or more, or none, or remove them all, or not understand the question, depending on the moment. One thing, however, I have found to be worth more than anything else, worth doing, that is, worth spending part of your life on- and it is the contemplation of beauty.

There is beauty in the natural world, and in the creations of man, and in many an abstract concept, there is beauty in ideas, in words, in sounds, in the chance disposition of objects on a surface, in the night sky, in the feel of a wind on the skin, in patterns of numbers and how they interact, and an unquantifiable number of other things we perceive.
There is always time to notice beauty in what is around us, and it makes all the other things we have to do a little more purposeful.

And now, can anyone tell me how to make watermelon wine...?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

No Coffin Should be Without One

From John Hawks, quoting this paper (emphasis mine):

Only one other ancient burial site is known for Beringia: Ushki Lake 1, in Kamchatka, Russia (34–37) (Fig. 1). Ushki Lake 1, Level 7 (Ushki L7) (~13,000 cal yr B.P.) contained an adult burial associated with bone beads in a rock-lined ochre-filled pit separated from the house structures. Ushki Lake 1, Level 6 (Ushki L6) (~12,000 cal yr B.P.) is roughly contemporaneous with USRS Component 3 and contains two unburned burials of children within two separate houses (35, 36). One child burial contained ochre, a pendant, a mat of lemming incisors, and numerous microblades and wedge-shaped cores (the second burial is undescribed) (35). Thus, the USRS burial context is more like Ushki L6 than L7.

I have informed Mrs Hickory that, before she spends the insurance money, I wish her to lay me to rest on the finest mat of lemming incisors that Siberia can produce.

And talking of John Hawks, this post will be particularly interesting to fellow glossogony buffs.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Couple of Frenchmen I Should Have Met Before

Hickory is a hedgehog who tries to spread a little culture over his spines from time to time in the hope that a bit will stick. To this end I have been in Madrid this weekend taking in the work of Messrs. Gérôme (Jean-Léon) and Chardin (Jean-Baptiste Siméon) the Frenchmen of the title. The first was at the Thyssen Museum, the second at the Prado.

I had never heard of either of them, something I find hard to believe given the quantity and quality of their work and the fame that each enjoyed in his lifetime. Perhaps they have become deeply unfashionable, or perhaps my ignorance of painting is even greater than I imagined. In any case, I didn't know them, and now I do and, as usual, I shall share my impressions with the readership.

Gérôme is characterized by a love of colour, allegory and human flesh. He lost a post because his nudes were weak, so he worked at it hard and, as we can see, got the hang of it pretty well. You need to when you want to paint classical scenes as allegories of great human emotions, feelings, failures and triumphs. There is a lot of detail, of clothes and other decorations especially, picked out against fairly generic and two dimensional backdrops. He uses any excuse to apply areas of bright pastel shades- pistacho, mustard, sky blue, salmon, corinth- to a work and to have them "enter into challenging dialogue", or scream and shout at each other, which is what they do. And he likes patches of very high illumination, a strip on a sleeve or a shield, a face in the sun or a jar in the light of a flame, which often don't reflect very faithfully the supposed source of light.

The draughtsmanship and composition are largely classical, sometimes original, sometimes uninspired. Wellm we all have good and bad days. He uses a wide range of themes, and as well as what is noted above, he liked images of battles, and soldiers, especially the Turks. He had a Bashi-Basouk period, and you can't say that about many people. His faces are sometimes very striking, although his figures, other than the nudes (the Pygmalions, the Harems) are mostly not.

The use of colour, I noticed, is always justified somehow by the narrative of the painting, it's never completely arbitrary.

Chardin dedicated much of his time to still life, stressing dead hares and rotting fish more than one would have thought necessary. There's some good stuff in there, but you have to like still life. Many people don't. A lot of the compositions are obviously out together from things he found about the kitchen, or occasionally the bedroom. Then he tried experimenting with 'scenes from the study, the boudoir, the atelier and the nursery complete with impish children and monkeys instead of people.' He became fun for a while. Then it was back to the fruit and the bloody hares. Worth taking a look at if you're in Madrid, but it requires some work on the part of the observer. Gérôme is easier viewing, but then he sprinkled naked women about rather than deceased game. Chardin said, apparently, that he wasn't originally looking to capture the details, but that  he wanted 'to stand back and represent the mass of form, the curves, the tones, the light and shade, of the composition'. I think we can say he achieved it.

Friday, March 4, 2011

I Don't Give a **** About Spain

A sort of minor philosopher, the kind the press calls an intellectual because he dresses up his political observations in long words and obscure, contradictory concepts (I do him something of an injustice, but you know what I mean) caused a stir a few years ago by saying something like that. He spoilt it by clarifying that what he was interested in was the State. I don't care about either, and this is why.

Spain is a historical, geographical, political and cultural entity, which has been great for its power in the world, its wealth, its art, and is now great as an example of a democratic transition to a free and stable society in a world which would often rather not believe that such goals are attainable.* These aspects of the many Spains that there have been in the world and in time are worth appreciating, and I appreciate them. Nevertheless, I say that I don't give a whatever about Spain.

What matters to us individually, and what should matter to us collectively, and what the leaders of towns an dcountries should seek (they´ll always exist, in one form or another),  is freedom, prosperity and general welbeimng. happiness is our own business, but health depends to a great extent on the economy, which depends a great deal on politics. It's true that freedom is not something everyone knows how to use well, there are many who are irresponsible with it, or frightened of it, but the absolute minimum we should expect of any government which aspires to acceptablility is to recognise that we feel and think and believe and, to some extent, that we do, whatever we want.

Spain, the State, democracy, the EU, any ideology or system of government, are good or bad in so far as they let us have freedom, prosperity and health. If they don't, they are worthless. Fidel Castro justifies the existence of the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, his ideological police, a political police that doesn't even bother to be secret, whose function is to terrorise the people by random acts of violence, because the revolution is good for Cubans and so must be defended at all costs. So he impoverishes, imprisons and brutalises the people for their own good. Such incoherence is no surprise in such evil scum as Castro and Kim Jong-Il, but we expect a little better of our own leaders, be they left or right.

And at times we are disappointed. (They disappoint me much of the time, it's trye, but that they should disappoint me in this is especially disappointing). The EU considers it necessary to remind its staff that their job is to work for the good of the Union and its citizens, and not for themselves. It's no bad thing to remind them of theat, and our own civil servants as well, but the words in bold are disturbing, however natural they may sound. The EU should have no other function than to benefit those of us who form part of it. When its existence becomes an end in itself we are all likely to lose.

The same with Spain. If Cataluña (for example) were to go its own way, the rest of u swould be no less free, nor would it change the role of 'Spain' in defending the circumstances in which we can live well. Spain has been many things, and the condition of its inhabitants has never depended on geography or the constitutional order. The current Constitution, although it seems to serve us well, is not the only way in which that end could be attained, and it is not good to become obsessed with defending every last detail of it.

To criminalise political ideas in order to protect an ideology is to fail to understand freedom. It's very easy to use the force of law against Batasuna, instead of defeating their ideas openly by free debate, or even accepting them if they represent majority opinion, but where does it lead? As well as Batasuna, I would be delighted to criminalise the Communist Party, and others would do away with the Popular Party, or nationalise the Bernabeu to grow marihuana or organic vegetables. But if there is a Spain I care about as a concept, a Spain that I would miss, it is the Spain which defends the right to be different, to hold and express social and political opinions, and to accept or reject those of others, to do what you want peacefully without having to justify oneself constantly or defend oneself from those who want to forbid actions and ideas they don't like.

This is the Spain that is worth defending. But that Spain, which is this one, is not an ideology; we have made it ourselves, and we make it every day. We have no fixed limits or borders, we are not defined in documents signed by presidents or kings in expensive and selfimportant ceremonies. We change all the time, in many ways, and it doesn't matter. Nothing is lost. What matters still remains.

*Who knows what will happen in the Arab countries that are busy revolying against the tyrants who control them? The lazy, racist left takes for granted that 'muslims aren't ready for democracy'. They said the same of Spain, Argentina, Portugal, Chile, the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania etc, and all of them (that is, both the people and the political leaders, working together and for the good of everyone, wonder of wonders, but it can happen) showed that the desire for freedom was linked to a desire for tolerance and a co-operation which allowed the creation of a free and stable society to be the main goal. Other nations have had the chance, and have failed. We shall see what happens.