Monday, December 24, 2012

Surely it's not Christmas again?

I like Christmas. I always have. Wherever I have been and whoever I have celebrated it with I have always found an atmosphere of genuine goodwill, happiness and the desire for peace. My good fortune, no doubt. Others will have less happy experiences to tell of, but for me Christmas brings the expectation of human warmth in the depth of winter, and as such I look forward to it and enjoy it like a child.

So whether you will be celebrating the birth of Christ, just having a day off with your family around you, or quaffing Scotch and muttering 'bah, humbug' to yourself and random passer-by, I wish you the very best, and I hope you will enjoy these days as I intend to.

To help the enjoyment along I offer a selection of songs about Him who will be born this night. First a confused attempt to reconcile faith with alcoholism, resulting in a sore head and increased existential angst.

Then, on a happier note, we have Bobby Bare with the definitive Christian football waltz (a limited genre, but a fine one nonetheless) requesting that Jesus 'drop kick him through the goalposts of life

And finally, Terry Allen picks up a divine hitchhiker late one night. As they say in Hollywood, it doesn't turn out as planned... The line at 3:18 is a classic that still makes me laugh out loud.

Hope you enjoyed that. Once again to all who have taken time to read any of my ramblings, and especially to those who have commented on them, all the best for a very Happy Christmas.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Crowd Control and Self-Fulfilling Fears

Up  to the minute as ever, I’ve been wondering about the enquiry into the deaths at Hillsborough stadium in 1989, and the context in which it happened. To pick the enquiry and the report to bits would take a great deal of time and effort, so it’s a good thing for me that it isn’t my intention to do it. It would be both lazy and cynical to think that, just as at the time, and in the prevailing mood, it was easiest to blame the fans, now, when the public mood has changed, and everyone in a position of responsibility that day is dead or retired, it is easiest to blame the police. Lazy, cynical and possible false.

It is likely that none of those who died that day were directly responsible for the events that led to their deaths. It is not my intention to suggest otherwise. But one day it was going to happen, because of the culture in which football was played, and to a certain extent still is.

Football fans had for decades been accustomed to behaving like animals. The more they behaved like animals, the more they were treated like animals, and the more they were treated like animals, the more they behaved like animals.

I used to go to Highbury in the mid-eighties, and I saw the fans herded like wild dogs from the station to the ground, between lines of police, screaming abuse and making threatening gestures at passers-by. I saw them howling like crazed apes at opposing players, opposing fans, and each other, even when not much was happening. We ignored the lines and walked like human beings towards the gate, were greeted with a ‘good afternoon, sir’, which we returned, showed out tickets, allowed ourselves to be apologised to for having our pockets patted, and were invited to go in and enjoy the game. The police took no notice of us. Because we did not invite them to treat us as animals.

The cages that caused the deaths at Hillsborough were still there in part as a result of the brutish, sub-human thuggery of Liverpool fans at the Heysel stadium in 1985, who caused the deaths of 39 Italian fans simply because they realized that they could.

The decision to open the gate at Hillsborough was taken by the police to prevent a mob forming outside the ground, because they knew very well what a mob like that was capable of. I repeat, one day it was going to happen. In this the clubs and the league are no different from the trades’ unions and other organizations that call violent gangs out onto the streets in the knowledge that there will be trouble, and then wash their hands and pretend it’s someone else’s problem.

It should have been dealt with decades before. Grounds should have been shut, points deducted, clubs relegated even, when the fans didn’t behave. It would have meant legal battles, some clubs, the unlucky ones or those that didn’t take their responsibilities seriously, would have gone to the wall, the press and the public would have been against them, calling it an over-reaction. It would have taken courage, political and commercial courage, which is why the politicians and the FA were never going to do it.

I’m a teacher, and perhaps I see things differently from many people, but the idea of treating people as inhuman, even when that is how they see themselves, is disagreeable to me. The intention should have been to rescue the humanity of the fans, from themselves, rather than accept them at their own estimation, as wild animals. Football could have become what other sports are, entertainment, fun, rather than tribal warfare.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On Freedom Again (Part 3)

We use force all the time. We shout others down, we intimidate and cow them, we create authority for ourselves and exploit it. We take advantage of our size, strength, intelligence, obnoxiousness or whatever. It’s how we get on in the world. It’s how the world works. It’s how we are here at all. If we can’t do it we pretend that it’s a bad thing and try to get others to stop doing it. But we try to place limits on our use of force, and to reach collective agreement about how it can and cannot be used.

In Britain, and to a certain extent in these countries mentioned, and to a much greater extent in many of the miserable polities that still exist around the world, our freedom of ideas and expression are at the mercy and whim of others. In many places those in power will simply decide a posterior if they will let us get away with something or not, a decision which will depend on how they consider it might affect the solidity of their power. In Britain it will depend on the current interests of politicians, the need to hide something else, the desire to make an example, simple stupidity, and, of course, the size of the hysteria whipped up by the press for its own ends.

We should not imagine we have any solid defence against an accusation for something we said. The law does not protect us, and is not intended to protect us, not in Britain. It is intended to be flexible. Indeed, not just flexible but malleable, ductile, and slippery. It cannot be known in advance who may have to be thrown to the wolves, and who may need to be appeased, so you can’t tie your hands too much.

The irritating thing about this is that as often as not you end up defending the right of a bunch of shits to show themselves for what they are. But that is the price of freedom. You have to let other people have it, too.

Freedom of thought, opinion and speech are not the natural state of man. Our instinct is to prevent people from doing things we don’t like or understand, or from saying things we don’t want to hear. The fact that it is better for all of us to let the people we don’t want to hear speak, is a lesson learned slowly, and only by some of us. Those of us who value the right to have our own ideas, and not have to hide them from the government, recognise also that other people must be allowed the same privilege or it can’t function at all. It takes constant vigilance and constant effort to defend a situation which some of us understand to be good. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

On Freedom Again (Part 2)

We assume that the law is based on principles that do not exist, in the sense that they are not generally accepted by society as the basis of law, and are rarely if ever directly acknowledged in law (the first amendment to the US Constitution is unusual not only because it exists, but also because it is still interpreted by courts to mean what it appears to say. Perhaps because this is so well known in the free world, people in other countries tend to assume that their governments recognise and respect that right, and that the law in these areas takes it into account as a basic principle. Most do no such thing. In Britain there is no such principle governing the law, and no such principle has ever existed socially or culturally.

The Lisbon Treaty (The EU Constitution forced upon us to replace the one they couldn’t make us swallow) incorporates the Charter of Rights of the EU, which says this:

Article 11
Freedom of expression and information
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.

Which seems clear-except the last part- but is routinely ignored, and is no guarantee of anything.

The Spanish Constitution says:

Art. 20. 1. Se reconocen y protegen los derechos:
a) A expresar y difundir libremente los pensamientos, ideas y opiniones
mediante la palabra, el escrito o cualquier otro medio de reproducción.
b) A la producción y creación literaria, artística, científica y técnica.
c) A la libertad de cátedra.
d) A comunicar o recibir libremente información veraz por cualquier
medio de difusión. La ley regulará el derecho a la cláusula de
conciencia y al secreto profesional en el ejercicio de estas libertades.
2. El ejercicio de estos derechos no puede restringirse mediante ningún
tipo de censura previa.

4. Estas libertades tienen su límite en el respeto a los derechos
reconocidos en este Título, en los preceptos de las leyes que lo
desarrollen y, especialmente, en el derecho al honor, a la intimidad, a
la propia imagen y a la protección de la juventud y de la infancia.

Which is fine, but has it ever been truly tested? In fact, I can’t think- offhand- of any case here like those which are regularly highlighted in England, where people are jailed for making tasteless jokes or wearing t-shirts or unfashionable opinion on facebook.

The point is that in Spain the principle is recognised in the Constitution, and is respected by the courts and governments (yes, Lord Copper, your friend’s qualification is appropriate). While in Britain there is no law and no social agreement on the matter, and the EU despises freedom and ignores its own rules on the subject.

Having said that, one of the things I often argue about with people here is the illegalization of the Basque separatist party Herri Batasuna/Euskal Herritarok/Batasuna. They are, more or less, the Sinn Fein of the Basque Country (except that it has always seemed to me that Adams and co. are the dog, whereas Batasuna are the tail). This group is, among other things, the voice of Eta, and most of its leaders, and quite a few of its supporters, clearly take pleasure in the murder of innocent people that is done in the name of their ideas. But it is the murderers you lock up, and possibly those who deliberately make the murders possible, but not those who support their ideas without committing crimes. Left-wing supporters of Basque independence, even those who treat the lives of their opponents with contempt, are entitled to hold, express and defend their opinions, to associate with others who share them, vote for representatives who share them and attempt to persuade others to share them, as is anyone else.

When I am supreme ruler and universal tyrant, there will be no freedom but mine, because I shan't need other people's freedom. Until that moment arrives, I will defend their freedom as I defend my own, because their freedom is my freedom.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What is an Intellectual?

A word that is thrown around freely by anyone who thinks, suspects or wishes that someone else should be taken seriously. Most people seem to use it of those who appear on TV and give their opinions without swearing or stabbing their finger in anyone’s eye. A more robust characteristic is that they are people who can introduce into debate ideas that have not been prominent in the popular press in the previous 48 hours. When used carefully, the term is applied to people employed in non-technical areas of academia, and to those who work in the arts in almost any capacity.

Those who analyse these things more closely tend to describe an intellectual as someone who deals with ideas as such, rather than with the practical consequences of ideas. Mathematicians, engineers and so on, whose intellectual formation and the concepts they use in their work involve a higher level of understanding and rigour than most TV pundits have, are not generally considered intellectuals. Philosophers (itself a very broad concept), high-brow critics, and the more analytic members of the arts fraternity, on the other hand, do not get their hands dirty, are not concerned with the reality derived from the ideas whose existence they affirm, turning them over in their fingers and pronouncing authoritatively, dogmatically even, on what they should mean.

Fair enough, I’m not going to claim that the word must only be used to mean what I think it should mean. The problem comes from the fact that the greatest intellects in the world today, those whose enquiries, in many different fields, have made, or could make, the greatest difference to human understanding, including of itself and its society, are unknown to the general public (in which I include the popular press) and their contributions to thought and knowledge are neither known nor understood.

It may be said, quite fairly, that it requires no explanation to understand that an engine works or a bridge stays up, while to appreciate the purpose of an abstract idea requires more than observation. On the other hand, mathematicians don’t seem to count as intellectuals, although there are few disciplines more abstract than mathematics. (In the interests of full disclosure, I used to be a mathematician).

At the most basic level of selling advertising, the press requires ‘intellectuals’ to give some impression of seriousness to their own opinions, but they need something that is easy to understand and that will resonate with the readership, or they will lose them. Thus, real intellectuals are not a lot of use. Or rather, those who are not able to speak so that normal people can understand and be interested by them are not a lot of use.

Why then do we expect the kind of people who are thought of as intellectuals to explain practical things about politics? Or do we want them only to tell us how to feel good about ourselves because we believe the right things and others don’t, and then everything will come right by magic?

Of course, what I’m looking for is a definition of intellectual which will clearly include me, but, even when I make the rules, I’m having trouble doing it.

Monday, December 10, 2012

This Story Needs a Title

My grandfather remembered the first moon landing. It wasn’t so long ago, you know. He died in a hospital bed, and my mother was with him. He didn’t know she was there, and it was only chance. It could have been any one of us. We took turns. The last one of us he knew was there was probably me. When my mother arrived he was already unconscious.

He never talked about the moon landing. Only a couple of times on New Year’s Eve when he’d been mixing his Guinness with my grandmother’s sherry. My mother said he used to talk about it a lot. When they thought it was a great moment in the history of the world. They thought the moon was the future. It wasn’t their fault. To them it was mysterious. And any mystery must be important. They thought you should die with your family around you. There used to be tribes that ate the bodies of their parents. They thought there was a reason for it.

Then we discovered what the moon was for. It’s hard. A part of you wants to say goodbye, and then, when it’s your turn, you don’t want to go. You cling to the old ways, the old ideas, the things our grandparents believed. It’s easy to understand why they believed them, but now we know they were wrong, and you have to accept it. It’s part of being a person of your time. We know what they didn’t. We know more about how things should be. To reject it is to belong to another time, to live with the dinosaurs. Oh, and to be wrong, of course.

The moon is dead. Geologically and biologically dead. No atmosphere, like a really bad party. It was obvious really. We just took a long time to realize. The Earth, on the contrary, is young. And the world belongs to the young. It’s obvious, really.

There are those who whisper that there’s been a misunderstanding, that the world belongs not to the young, but to the living. There was a time when it was like that, but as everyone knows, it was just a step on the way, a short period while the forces of reaction and sedition got used to the idea or were made to stop confusing the matter. Then it was the dying who were sent here as well as the dead. Then the old, over 80 they started with. But old age is a relative thing. A few people are still young at 90, some are old at 60. It was a matter of judgement. The people who did the judging were often criticised, so in the end they made it simpler. Over 60, because some are old at 60. Those who were still young at 60 had the chance to prove it, and it turned out that most of them were not as young as they thought. The world belongs to the young.

Some of those who came here were not even 60, but age is relative. When you have nothing to offer your family, and no friends to help you, and you’re more a hindrance than a help, and your company is boring, and you smell a bit and talk too much about the past, then you’re old, aren’t you, regardless of the years you’ve lived? And now it’s my turn.

I made it to 58 before they decided I had to go. Not bad really. I can’t complain. I had a good family, but my friends were sent off first, my wife never even made it here, and my children feel that I can’t make proper use of my property anymore, not as much as they could, so they asked the tribunal to review me. All fair and right, just as it should be. But it’s Hell here. Completely alone. The workers receive you, process you, then they put you in your cell and wait for the hunger and thirst to take you. They’re made of clear plastic, the cells, something incredibly strong and transparent. You can see the sky and the Earth. It makes you wish you were back there.

I didn’t know it was like that. On Earth we thought there must be some other way, quick and painless. It’s what they tell you, or what they let you believe, anyway. Now I think about it, I don’t know that I ever heard it mentioned. People don’t think about this place, and the people who come here. We don’t matter anymore, do we? The world isn’t like in my grandfather’s day, when they thought they could talk to the dead, and visit them, and ask them to watch over them. Now we know the truth. I’m not one of them anymore. I’m one of us.

But it’s hard when your time comes, it really is. You want to stay, you say that you’re still young, that you deserve to stay with the living. Old people are selfish, we used to say. And it’s true. Now I’m old I’m selfish myself. I’ll be gone soon. Dead. A few days more, and it will be over. I already feel weak, and tired, and my mouth is drier than I ever imagined it could be, and my head hurts terribly. Just a few days more.

The workers have a hard time here. Lonely and miserable, with no real comforts, and their families and friends, if they still have any, a quarter of a million miles away. They’re paid a pittance, but it doesn’t really matter as there’s nothing here they could spend it on. They can’t produce anything and what we send over from Earth is just the minimum required to keep them alive. They’re only allowed back occasionally, and briefly, under supervision, and permissions are often cancelled at the last minute. In fact hardly anyone on Earth has ever met a moon worker, not until they come here. It’s odd, in a way. At the time we discovered the purpose of the moon, we discovered the purpose of the Welsh.

If they knew I was writing this, they would make me lie here forever, instead of pushing me into space in the direction of Sirius. That’s what they promise to do, so that one day we’ll wake up on the ancestral home of man. You have to believe it, or you’d go mad. If you don’t believe it, if you don’t understand why it’s right, you don’t deserve to go to Sirius, and they just throw you out into the moondust. I can see a lot of bodies out there, there must be a lot of people who don’t believe. But I do. I know it’s right. It’s just a bit hard to take when it’s your turn. A few days more…

Saturday, December 8, 2012

On Freedom Again (Part 1)

Oh God, here we go again. What is freedom, and why does it matter? No, stop there. What is freedom? That’s a big enough question on its own for a Friday afternoon.

Why ‘should’ that bloke be allowed to make bad jokes about a dead girl? Why ‘should’ that Muslim be allowed to wish that British soldiers would die and burn in Hell? It is not immediately obvious that it is in our interests, or in some sense ‘right’, to accept, as a matter of principle, that others may think and say what they wish.

In any case, ‘accept’ does not mean ‘cravenly refrain from all reaction’. It means that our reaction should be constrained to expressing our own thoughts in the matter. We are perfectly entitled, indeed to some extent we are obliged (with freedom comes responsibility, and that responsibility can pertain not only to the person who exercises freedom, but also to the one who allows it to be exercised), to respond to positions and ideas we disagree with and dislike. We are entitled to attack, dissect, analyse, dismiss, the position of someone we disagree with, to attempt to prevent others from being influenced by it and to mitigate the harm we think it might do.

In other words, we are entitled to talk to each other about our ideas and beliefs, to exchange opinions and to persuade.

Why should we not try to forcibly prevent people from saying, or believing, things of which we disapprove? There are clearly two arguments to be made, one moral, one practical. The history of humanity- and doubtless its future as well- is full of the gruesome wreckage of attempts to stop people thinking things that somebody doesn’t like. One of the most basic lessons of history, a lesson still unlearnt by many people, and largely ignored by those who can obtain power, is that people who are free in a number of important ways live happier, longer, more satisfactory lives. Deprive them of that freedom and you deprive them of that happiness, comfort, satisfaction, and in the end of life itself. Who are you to do that?

Why is it right to shut people up, by force, or more commonly to bully others into doing it, because we don’t like what they say. It is very tempting to remove from our presence things we dislike, and so we find ways to justify doing so. We create notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and we attribute them to something greater than ourselves, ‘God’ or ‘our humanity’ or some such thing, to invest them with an authority which we ourselves do not have. In doing so we are still savages throwing rocks at the neighbours for coming too close, but more rational, nobler savages.

The freedom of others is our own freedom. If we recognise and defend the freedoms of others, we expect some kind of reciprocity. If we recognise and defend the freedoms of people we dislike to do things we disapprove of, we place a value of that freedom which is more than the value we can obtain from it, we state that it has intrinsic value greater than, independent of, the benefit we, personally, may extract from it.

On the other hand, stopping people from hearing something someone says, by force or abuse of authority, is not considered good by those who believe in freedom.

If we like the rule of law, and it seems to be good thing, there needs to be clarity in definition and interpretation. Many people will disagree about what a specific law should say, but on the whole we like them to exist. They keep other people in check, and we know what consequences our actions are likely to have. (Legal consequences. I assume we are sufficiently socially competent to know how people around us might react to the things we say and do. They are also likely to be limited, whereas the state has long arms, great patience and a thirst for blood.)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Reaction to Ayn Rand

Does the world need another amateurish review of Atlas Shrugged? Why try to write a review of a book that has already been examined from every possible political, literature, personal and critical perspective? Why write about a book that is of no interest to anyone who hasn’t already heard about it? Er, because I'm a blogger with nothing better to do just now. Not a good reason, I know, but it'll have to do.

Anyone who hangs around libertarian blogs hears references to John Galt, Ayn Rand, and the book. There comes a point where you think you might as well read it, rather than take your opinion of it from anyone who happens to comment on someone else’s blogpost.

Firstly, it is a very long and boring book. Very long indeed, and extremely dull much of the time. There is no real story, everything, every character, every conversation, every event, is driven by the need to make a particular statement, or to allow something to happen. As literature it is pretty much worthless. I don’t think it ever aspired to literature.*

It does, however, articulate its ideas very well. It is a refreshing, uplifting, dynamic read, reminding you constantly of how those with small minds and hearts drag down those who might contribute, albeit by chance, to the greater benefit of mankind.

The great problem of life is always other people. The leeches and moochers of Atlas Shrugged are a caricature, but they represent deeply influential currents of belief in most developed countries today. It is hard for many to understand that ‘sharing the wealth’, ‘sharing the jobs’, however good and just this sounds, requires that someone create the resources we are all going to share. If those who are capable of doing it don’t get the biggest share, or at least, if they are given no hope of getting a significant share, they simply won’t do it. And there is nothing to share out, fairly or otherwise. Wealth does not grow on trees and when the usual people stop its creation they look around desperately, wondering where it’s gone. The answer is that it was never there. They refused to let it exist, and they can’t make it themselves.

I say it is refreshing and uplifting even though it offers no solution to the problem. The book’s response to the situation is so fantastic as to be inconceivable. It wouldn’t work, even if it were put into practice. After all, in those countries where creators of wealth are not allowed to exist, they are still blamed for the resulting poverty. Even so improbable a strike as Ayn Rand describes would not change the minds of those who don’t want to see. In the current economic crisis, governments, with the help of the press, have successfully sold the myth that there isn’t any money because the banks have taken it all.

No, the book is refreshing and uplifting because it repeats, relentlessly and unapologetically, the message that some people create wealth, while others only consume it. The creators of wealth do not have to exist. In a sufficiently large and free society they will probably exist if they are allowed to. But it is a matter of chance.

*Years ago I read ‘We, the Living’. I read it as a novel, a literary novel, before I knew that Ayn Rand had any greater significance to some people than that of a writer who had lived the hell that was Stalinist Russia and could articulate the horror dramatically and poetically. I remember it as a novel that was good on its own terms, a story well told, regardless of the background which was, I now realize, the main reason for writing it.

I have also just read ‘The Anthem’, which has a political and philosophical message. The book is mostly that message, but it is told through a story, a genuine literary creation. It’s short, and worth reading for what it is.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

On World Peace

How would you work for world peace?

I shall fight the urge to comment on the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU. I doubt there is much I can add that hasn’t been said (not that that usually stops me, but I shall resist the urge*). But I will ask, and completely fail to answer, a question ignored by the process, though not perhaps by Nobel himself, who essayed a form of answer: how do you contribute to world peace in any way that could mark you out for recognition or awards?

“…one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

I have long wondered what Nobel meant by ‘peace conferences’. It is probable that he lived in a world very different from our own, and it was possible to imagine that if leaders of nations, or their favoured officials, could be persuaded to sit down together, peace would result from it. Despite the incompetence and corruption of that perpetual peace congress that is the UN, despite the failure of NATO, the EU and similar organizations to keep absolute peace in the areas they try to control, despite the abject failure of many meetings convened for the specific purpose of ending or averting conflict, the fact is that at least they exist, to an extent perhaps unimaginable a century ago, and that a significant number of people cannot conceive of a war breaking out in the country they live in, suggests that things have improved in the presence of such congresses.

Economic growth and the material comfort it brings are undoubtedly important as well, as is a fair bit of luck, but I think our Alfred, casting an eye about him today, would be fairly happy that he had identified a way of bringing some improvement to the world in general.

The abolition of reduction of standing armies is a trickier matter. The negotiated death of the arms race, and the subsequent ending of the Cold War, certainly made the world in general a much more peaceful place, and I think Nobel would consider this within the scope of ‘reducing standing armies (not that those responsible for it were ever recognised by the Nobel Committee). So one up to Sir Alfred.

The dissolution of the Japanese and German armies after WWII led to unprecedented peace in Western Europe and the Far East, but it was an expression of the desire of those countries and their peoples (in the case of Germany at least) not to start further conflict on the scale they had previously been responsible for. The reduction in the standing army was a consequence of the fervent desire for peace, not the direct cause of peace. A scoreless draw there, I think.

And then there is the contribution of armies to peace, something which Nobel could probably not imagine. The idea that armies could prevent conflict rather than be the cause of it by their very existence is unlikely to have entered his head, as it was obviously indisputable at the time that war was caused by armies. I might be misjudging the times, not being remotely expert, but I assume the thought process was something like that. Now an Army, in the sense of a body of men trained and disciplined for certain rôles requiring controlled authority, can contribute to the peace of their own or more frequently other nations.

And then there is the Fraternity between Nations. Hard to define, harder to quantify, but how would you work to achieve fraternity among nations? Much as I hate to admit it, we have to let the governments help us out on this one, not because they are likely to be any good at it, but because they can very easily stop it happening. The global trade, comfortable lives (in some countries at least) and cheap travel that freedom and stability have brought about lead to an increase in understanding and knowledge about people who are not quite like us, and a (slightly) reduced desire to kill each other unthinkingly.

Governments, the press, others with a voice and some kind of control can very easily persuade us (for some value of us) to hate some given ‘them’, and frequently find it useful to do so. They have a harder time persuading us to like ‘them’, usually having to resort to abuse and the law. In fact, you would think from reading the papers that no one would like anyone at all if we weren’t forced by law to pretend that we do.

But the fact is the more we travel, the more we surf the internet, the more we expose ourselves to news, entertainment, food and other artefacts of culture from around the world, the fewer the obstacles to that fraternity which Nobel wanted. There is surely a case for awarding the prize to Bill Gates, Tim Berners-Lee, Freddy Laker, Michael Ryan, or some combination of little-known people who have made communication around the world so much easier. Or from a slightly broader perspective, to the world’s major banks, which have, over the last century, made investment easy, with the result that we have the prosperity that has allowed bars to fraternity to be broken down. A serious suggestion, though perhaps not a popular one.

It has often been observed that free, wealthy countries don’t go to war with each other. To bring about peace and fraternity we should try to bring about freedom and prosperity. We know now how to do that, although there are many who don’t want it to happen.

*In consequence of which the whole of paragraphs 2 and 3, much of paragraphs 4 and 6, and quite a lot of the introduction, have been struck out.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Panta Rhei

There is a bar in Córdoba which is like Heraclitus’ river. Or rather perhaps, like all rivers as described by Heraclitus. You can never, strictly speaking, visit it twice.

I live in a town not so far away, and I have been there many times. It’s not a disco or a jazz club. It isn’t filled with drunks with smelly armpits crying in their beer, or prostitutes pretending to be something else. It doesn’t smell of overused oil and there is never football on the television. It provides food but only symbolically, for show rather than nutrition. It serves coffee in the mornings, wine at midday and strong liquor in many colours at night. It always smells clean and slightly evocative. We might call it a cocktail bar. It is many things, but it is never any of the things you expect a bar to be.

You can hear the music, but you can hear yourself speak as well. You don’t have to dress up to go there, but you do anyway because if you didn’t it would be like going anywhere else. The lighting is sufficient to see the beauty of the women, but too dim to show their flaws. They serve beer, but only out of bottles, and no one would dare drink it after nine in the evening.

Despite being recognisably the same place, and retaining a very distinct feel, which is what takes me back again and again, every time you go there it has changed. The art discreetly hanging on the walls, the tone of the ceiling, the play of the lights on the walls, the nap of the light rugs, the refined shoots of Brazilian bamboo or bonsai behind the bar and in the alcoves, are different. The faces are not the ones you remember. Their clothing changes only slowly, with the seasons, with the fashions, but the people are never the same. The music is always exactly suited to your mood, but you only notice when you hear it that your mood has changed since you were last there, and so has the music.

The barman remembers you, of course, and he knows what you want before you order it. Which is odd, because I’d swear he’s not the same one as last time…

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Press Freedom and all that

The press like to think they are special, that they safeguard democracy, that they have specific rights and freedoms that set them apart from ‘ordinary people.’ The government is looking for ways to control the press, and ‘abuse’ is a good excuse to do it. They could just the laws they’ve already made, but apparently that isn’t enough.

That they are so looking is clear, I think. The Internet frightens them because it gives enormous power to people who are not themselves.

The freedom of the press is the freedom of all of us. Not because they use it well, in the interests of public freedom. They do nothing of the kind. Newspapers and broadcasters are large, often international corporations who want to make money, like anyone else. Journalists have a living to earn and frequently an ego to stoke. The way to make money from journalism is, as with any other business, to find a market and give it what it wants. This may mean sex and celebrities, turgid book reviews, fluffy tales of the columnists daily life pretending to be news, ill-informed ranting disguised as background or comment, support for one or other powerful interest, pictures of the footy, or even intelligent, well-researched stuff about things that actually matter. The point is that the customer does not demand truth, and so the seller has no interest in providing it.

There is a myth that the practice of journalism in the US is protected by the First Amendment. This is a myth that Hollywood is quite happy to perpetuate. (In Hollywood land journalists are always good and brave, while pharmaceutical companies are always evil. I wonder why this might be.) At the time that Amendment was passed the press as we know it did not exist. The text was intended to specifically extend the protection of speech to the printed word. It does not make journalists special.

It’s important to the rest of us that journalists, the press in general, have no more nor  less freedom than the rest of us, because they are the rest of us. We are all free to write about the world and the people around us, or anything else we choose. In Britain and other civilized countries we still are free to do it. A journalist is surely nothing more than someone who thinks of himself as one. There are plenty of people who call themselves journalists but only ever give their own opinions, or restrict their output to material that is not, by any definition, news. Likewise, many people who provide genuine, researched news stories, many bloggers, for example, do not think of themselves as journalists, and are not recognised as such by others.

A journalist, I suspect, is someone who is paid by a (large) media company to produce content for it. This has nothing to do with the public interest, freedom or anything else. The fact that the government would rather like to control them (and Cameron’s spokesmen are denying it, which tells you all you need to know), combined with the fact that they themselves would like to control those who are not them, suggests that this is just more power games, politicians and big business arm wrestling over who gets what part of our money.

The danger is not from a mild regulation of the press, but from the inevitable trade-off, the distinction between what ‘licensed’ journalists are allowed to do, and what the plebs are permitted.* The freedom of the press is our freedom, not because they defend us, but because it allows us to defend ourselves.

*There seems to be some semi-legal protection for ‘official’ journalists who refuse to disclose the sources of their information. The rest of us do not have that privilege. We don’t want the gulf to widen.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Some Curious Facts about the Origin of the Lakes

I have written again and again about the lakes, and I return to them because I keep discovering new things to enjoy and to learn about them. Every summer I find new paths, new hills, new places to enjoy, even new villages which I bring within my range by starting earlier and riding harder.

And then there are the eternal spots on the banks, where the water is at its best, high points on the hills, from which the views are at their most spectacular, the people-less woods filled with croaking frogs, or squirrels jumping from tree to tree, the quiet places that seem to breathe slowly and calmly as though the world did yoga there.

There is always more to discover, and more to learn. And recently I’ve been trying to find out a little more about the geology of the area, because people ask, and I like to have answers.

The whole region is formed from limestone rocks. An awful lot of geology seems to be about calcium, water and carbon dioxide*, in fact:

The geological formations of Ruidera are, chemically speaking, based on the process of precipitation and dissolving of the carbonates (essentialloy calcite). The conditions for precipitating and dissolving of CaCO3 depend on the relatively high level of Calcium Ca2+ and (H2CO3) ions, or of the carbonate (HCO3-) respectively in the water. The dissolution of a calcareous sediment or of limestone in water with a given level of CO2 can be described by the following reactions:
·        Ca2+ + HCO3-  --> CaCO3 + H+.                
·        H2O + CO2 --> H2CO3  y CaCO3 + H2CO3 --> Ca2+ + 2HCO3- 
The chemical process of dissolution or precipitation of CaCO3 depends, among other things, on the following factors:    
·       The carbon dioxide (CO2) content. 
·       The pH of the water: A low pH value favours the dissolving of  CaCO3, and vice versa.  
·       Temperature: The dissolution of  CaCO3 in pure water decreases with an increase of temperature. 

It turns out- I finally got round to looking up the history of the area- that the current lakes are only about 10,000 years old. Our ancestors knew only the river, and earlier there were similar formations at higher levels, the remains of which can still be seen rising above the banks in some places. The Cave of Montesinos, which Cervantes riffed on brilliantly in the Quijote, and the Grieta del Toro, were once part of that system, but are now 100m above it.

The most curious thing, it seems to me, is that, while the banks of the lakes are being eroded away by the water**, they are also being created by it. The karstic formations which form the banks and the divisions between the lakes in much of the system are deposited directly by precipitation of the calcium compounds from the water, which is very rich in them, presumably from having come down from the mountains to the east which are made of them. So while the gentle flow is widening and deepening its own channels and basins, it is also building them up around it. Which will win, over time, will, I imagine, depend on the rate of flow and the exact concentrations of minerals and carbonates in the water. History suggests erosion will win.

*My previous experience of geology, derived from walking in the hills with a friend at University who was studying the subject, suggested it was mostly about drinking beer and whacking things with a hammer before laughing maniacally and jotting strange figures on maps. I now realize there is more to it than that.

**Although they are described as lakes, they are part of the river system, and there is a continuous, though usually very gentle, flow throughout the system, enough to coause erosion over time. And karstic rocks are very soft.

Monday, November 12, 2012

In Which My Phone Forces me into Philosophy

Not the Answer, but a Nice Try

I found a note in my Google calendar this morning. It popped up as a reminder on the phone with today’s date and the words ‘Find Meaning of Life’. Between ‘Buy new socks’, and ‘Phone insurance about drain’, I had remotely prompted myself to resolve the mystery of our presence in the universe.

I was rather surprised by this. I have no memory of placing this reminder in the calendar, nor any idea why I should have chosen, presumably some time ago, this particular Monday morning to begin the search for purpose.

I am not nagged by the sense that my life is without meaning. In the end, it probably is, but I’m perfectly happy with it. So far the only sign of mid-life crisis I have observed in myself is the increasingly urgent desire for a microlight aircraft, which is likely to remain unfulfilled, because apart from the price of them, Mrs Hickory would have to take a bottle of Valium every time I went up in it.

My life is not empty, I barely have time to analyse the things I’m not doing because of everything I am doing, and I have no idea what the message refers to. Perhaps it was a book, or the Monty Python film, that I wanted to hunt up, or a reference to something I half-remembered reading or writing long ago. Or maybe Cupertino intervened. I shall probably never know.

But I have, as a result, spent the day distracted by the responsibility I had accidentally given myself. Until I finish the task, I can’t tap the screen to illuminate the green tick which decrees it done, and it will keep appearing, day after day. Tomorrow I shall try again. The answer must lie somewhere. If there is one, that is. I hope so. I have a green box to tick.