Thursday, May 31, 2012

On Marriage and what it is, is not, or might be

Mainly because I haven’t bothered to do any research, I’m not very clear on what it is that is being discussed/argued about.

There is nothing to stop a homosexual couple from getting their friends together and having a party, registering themselves as a civil partnership, and thinking of themselves- and describing themselves- as married. For what it's worth, I would think of such a couple in the same way they think of and describe themselves, even without a registration or ceremony, as I do with other couples. (I don't know any gay couples who described themselves as married, but if I did I would follow their lead. This might be moral laziness, but I am certain I would think of them as married first, and only then begin to won
der whether it was really true.)

I thought of myself as married, and was often referred to, and referred to myself, in those terms, long before I underwent an expensive and (to me) meaningless ceremony. You are as married as you think you are.

Presumably there is some difference in the legal relationship between the parties. In which case there are better ways of dealing with the problem. The law could do something so profoundly at odds with its normal instincts as buggering off and allowing people to do what they want, but that isn’t likely to happen. But given that marriage means many different things to different people, it would be a lot simpler to let people decide when they are married and register the fact (for tax/inheritance/child guardianship reasons it is useful to have clarity as to who is married and who isn’t).

Society/the state has no busy saying what marriage is, it is a hangover from the old days when other people thought they had to give you permission to do things (not a lot has changed).

There are different ways of being married. There are many people who could not imagine marriage to have meaning unless it was performed, or at least confirmed, according to the rites of their religion of choice. There are some who think of marriage as something permanent, and considered themselves as married even after their other half has had a judge say that they arenoy any more, or even after he/she has married someone else. The fact that two people can consider themselves married to the same person suggests that there is no single understanding of what marriage means, and no obvious reason why any one authority should have possession of the term.

There are people who do not consider others married unless they have inspected the circumstances and found them in accordance with their own views and principles. Claiming that your understanding of marriage is the only one that counts is quite impractical, since most other people won't care and will just ignore you.

So coming back to the original point, I don't understand why some gay couples are so keen to submit voluntarily to more than they have to. But since some undoubtedly do so wish, is it simply that they demand that other people treat their unions with the same seriousness which they treat their own, which seems doomed to failure, or is there in fact some important legal distinction between marriage and civil union, meaning that they are missing out on something?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On Freedom of Expression Again

The Spanish Cup Final was played on Friday. The result doesn't matter (I'm trying to forget it) but some of the circumstances surrpunding it are worth commenting on.

It was played between two teams from areas with a strong sense of their own historical identity and considerable popular support for some form of independence from the rest of Spain.

The Cup is known as the King's Cup, and before that it has had various names, all of them directly referring either to the Head of State or to Spain itself. Despite which both these teams, and their fans, are very proud of the fact that they have more Cups than any other team, and they, and their supporters, probably take it more seriously than any other clubs.

Between them these two teams contribute about half the Spanish side at the moment, and have done fairly regularly over the years, a fact of which both the players concerned and the clubs are also very proud.
In 2009 the same two teams met in the Final (we lost then, too), and before the match the clown who led the Catalan communist party organised a protest outside the ground against the King, who was present, against Madrid, against the world in general, I suspect, for laughing at him, which stirred the fans inside the ground to whistle in protest against the entrance of the King and the playing of the National Anthem. I imagine the said clown was hoping he could provoke violence, rather than just a peaceful and momentary protest, but he failed, as usual, and there was no trouble at the game.

A few days before this year's game the President of the autonomous community of Madrid (where the Final was played this year) declared that if there was a repeat of the whistling this year the game should be suspended and played in an empty stadium. I don't know if she has any authority to do such a thing, I rather doubt it, but it an exyraodinarily tyrannical statement to hear from a centre-right politician in a democratic country.

She clearly has no idea of what freedom of expression means. She was, I imagine, taken to one side and told to shut up before every football fan and every lover of freedom in the country decided never to vote for her or her party again.

Worse still, she mumbled something about it being an offence to insult the King or the Anthem. If this us true the law needs changing quickly. Remember we are not talking about violence or the threat of violence, merely the expression of a sentiment against something some people disagree with. Crimilalising opinion is where it all starts to go downhill.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Jurando Bandera

There was a ceremony in the square last Sunday, a kind of 'Jura de Bandera' for civilians. I had never heard of such a thing before. They seemed to be mostly young people, and they made a weekend of it, as they were out in evening dress on Friday.

It turns out not to be such a new idea, though I don't know how old it is. The ceremony I am familiar with was carried out at the end of miltary service, and consisted of the soon-to-ex-soldiers parading around the barracks square, filing past and touching the national flag, listening to the colonel, the captain, the sergeant and some local politician droning on interminably about duty and country, and swearing to be eternally available to the nation in time of need before going off to get drunk and trying to forget the whole ghastly business.

In any case I assume it's for the young. But it looked just like the military ceremony it imitates, and there were soldiers there, a military band, and groups marching in formation with rifles and machine guns. One of them had a saw, rather than a gun, in a holster on his back. Why, I wonder? In fact I have just seen there was a whole group with tools- axes and picks- as well as the saw. From an engineering regiment, perhaps.

Military service was finally abolished in Spain about 12 years ago, so the patriotic youth no longer get the chance to swear allegiance to the flag while dressing up and having their photo taken for the local newspaper. The girls never did, of course, nor did those who were not suited or who found a way to slide out of it. I haven't found much on the origins of the civilian version, but I understand it is quite old. WHat surprises me it that there should be any demand at all for such a thing. But there is, and the human tapestry just got richer.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Mediaeval Market

I probably write about this every year, but it’s fun and provides good photos. There is an organization of market stallholders who dress up in gingham and funny hats and sandals and go around the country passing themselves off as mediaeval artisans. The result is a lot of fun for everyone, and presumably they make a living of some kind.

They were here at the weekend, just as the summer arrived (it’s been 95º for the last week, and I don’t think it’ll cool down again until October. These things look better in the sun. In fact, everything looks better in the sun.)*

Most of the traders make and sell things which you really could imagine seeing on a market stall in the 14thC. There was a smith, with arms like iron bands, who had a charcoal-fired forge and an anvil, and made horseshoes and other things which you might need at a moment’s notice. He really made them, and you could really use them. (Unlike the ‘Fair Trade’ tent set up in the square a couple of weeks ago where nearly all the stalls were filled with over-priced junk, since the product on sale was self-satisfaction rather than anything material, the craftsmen at the Mediaeval Market are genuine tradesmen, offering well-made articles at a sensible price to people who actually want them. It’s one of the reasons the right-winger in me enjoys it; it’s free trade as it used to be.)

It’s not often you see a tent full of birds of prey in shop window in the high street. Is there some law that forbids a man to keep hawks unless he wears a leathern dress and is surrounded by bunting of chivalric design? Well, I don’t know, but I do like to see an eagle owl lazily turning its head to frighten the life out of some child who hasn’t understood what he’s messing with. (If you’ve never seen one, they’re over three-four feet tall and they take an indiscriminating approach to anything smaller than themselves. They just call it all lunch. We see them on the farm occasionally).

A popular exhibit is the mediaeval instruments of torture. Pain is big, especially other people’s pain. I suspect many of them are invented, but they look good, unless you are a potential customer, of course.

There are stands selling imaginative wooden games and puzzles made of rope. And an area with activities and games made to look Victorian, if not exactly mediaeval.

Smelly food in tents is another thing that apparently characterized the middle ages. In any case we like smelly food here. Our sausages are supposed to be detectable from hundreds of yards away when you burn them a bit, and our cheese only needs to be taken out of the fridge to get the attention of passers-by. So a lot of people like to eat smelly burnt stuff in tents at this time of year, because it’s fun, and easy, and cheap.

There was a lot of food. Cheeses and cured meats and sausages made the way they have been made for centuries, and very good they are. We have the fridge stocked with stuff. Homemade cakes and breads, sweet and savoury pastries, and chewy sweets of many colours. A sort of Arab tea tent with a hookah and long tubes for filtering coffee, which was atmospheric and fun. There were stalls selling leatherwork, woodwork, glasswork, needlework and novelty soap (there is always novelty soap, everywhere). There was a fair amount of snake-oil on sale. I imagine the situation allowed them to make claims for their leaves and things which they could not otherwise do.

It’s a travelling circus of a particular kind. One day it will be no more, just because whoever is getting the thing going will run out of energy and no one else will feel inclined to carry on. Or someone will have a better idea, or the public will stop finding it fun, or some ambitious politician will get his place on the list by making a fuss about the quality control of the cured meats and the hygiene of leather overalls. While it lasts it is worth remembering how much fun it is, and what it consists of.

*I should have kept my mouth shut. My morning run was rudely interrupted by hail.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Viva la Libertad de Expresión

Since I am usually held to be a card-carrying capitalist with special baby-eating privileges I’m expected to be strongly opposed to the 15-M ‘indignaos’ marches being held around Spain. I’m not opposed to them at all, in fact. I have many times defendedthe right to freedom of speech and opinion, to peaceful protest, and to strike, even- especially- when I disagree with the way they are exercised.

I don't know why the right gets blamed for 'trying to suppress freedom of expression', though. In my experience it's the left that believes only opinions they agree with may legitimately be held or expressed.
(Note to self: stick to the point, this is not a political rant.)

I believe in freedom. I dislike any kind of control or restriction. Which doesn't mean that some such controls and restrictions are not necessary, but there have to be very good reasons and they need to be questioned always.

There is no but here. If we cannot say what we think we are not free. Their freedom is my freedom.

There were perroflautas, hippies, wanderers, unemployables, civil servants, professionals, most of them young. There were many placards with different messages. some I agree with, some I don't. some were serious, some trivial. The ones you can see in the photo have banners calling for 'Real Democracy Now'. This was how it started a year ago, at the time of local and regional elections here. People were begin to realize and to get exercised about the fact that the system of closed lists that has always been used for these elections puts enormous power in the hands of (often unknown) party controllers, and almost none in the hands of the demos. It's not a good way of doing representative democracy. In this I agree with them completely. The mostly unemployed younsters who joined them added their own grievances, mosly picked up, I would imagine, from a variety of sources in which their own experience didn't figure too highly.

There is also a reference to the cost of higher education and why should their parents have to go begging to pay for it, one that says 'Long Live Iceland', for some reason I don't understand, and another that rejects the presence of private companis in schools. I haven't heard much about this process in education, but several hospitals in the region have had their management placed in the hands of private companies, the idea being that these companies know what they're doing and how to do it more efficiently than the monolithic civil service, and what we want is better and cheaper services. It might not work, but if it doesn't, that will surely be the time to protest, not before it has had a chance to work.

There were half a dozen relaxed-looking policemen, in normal uniform. no trouble was expected and i don't think there's been any. in madrid and the other big cities it's likely the usual ignorant extremist thugs, some of them not so ignorant, just scum, will join in (apparently not, there seems to have been very little violence around the country), but it doesn't tend to happen here. Here people say what they want and that's that.

They should have, and thankfully do have in this country, the right to hold and express their opinions, whatever they are.

They marched through the streets, at times obstructing the traffic. Despite their distrust of politicians and authority in general, I wonder what would have happened if someone had refused to let them block the street in that way. I suspect they would have said indignantly that they had permission and you couldn't stop them. You also wonder, when they blame the banks for everything, if they would rather go without the house, the business or the car that they or the parents used a bank to finance, or to sacrifice their parents pension on the altar of ideological purity. Perhaps not. But hey, how many of us are coherent in everything? And in any case, there is no coherence clause attached to freedom of belief and expression. Just as there is no intelligence clause. Nor should there be a morality clause, although it seems there sometimes is.

There were drums, there was dancing, there was laughter.

They had fun, they made their point, which won't be explicitly heard by those they were mostly talking to, but an impression is left and they will have achieved a little of what they wanted. And no one was hurt or more than mildly inconvenienced. The way it should be.

It's not freedom of speech we right-wingers object to. It's mob violence. Some people can't tell the difference.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Bad Night in a Bad Inn

St Theresa of Ávila described life as a bad night in a bad inn. If you expect eternal paradise afterwards, I imagine worldly existence can seem rather inadequate, but to most of us it is all there is. Which doesn’t stop us making ourselves far more miserable than is strictly necessary.

I happen to derive pleasure from knowing and understanding things. Reflecting calmly on my deathbed, if I have that extravagance, I might well look back and wish I had bothered less about the higher arithmetic and Sanskrit poetry, and spent my time having children or saving the whale or just gossiping about nothing with people I had spent my life close to. It is perfectly possible, although I cannot know it now. I will know when I am there.

I don’t expect to agree with the Saint of Ávila, who seemed to suggest that we should be glad to die and get out of this ghastly place. I rather like it here. Perhaps I shall go somewhere which is much better than this, but in any case I want to believe that I haven’t wasted my life. How can I know what is waste and what is not waste?

Memento mori. If I remember my Latin correctly this is an injunction to remember our own mortality, with the implication that if we do so we will have a greater sense of proportion about ourselves and our lives. That is, we will value ourselves less and our time on Earth more.

I am constantly aware of my own mortality, and of the fact that, however much time I have left, it is less than I had yesterday. An astonishing number of people seem completely unaware of the fact that one day there will be no more days, and they spend their time in ways that are not only unproductive and apparently pointless, but are quite clearly unfulfilling, even by whatever standards they might have themselves.

I know people who can spend an entire day in some combination of heroic sleep, inane entertainment from the television, and inane and ignorant conversation about nothing. Such people are not at all unusual, I understand. In fact, it appears to be those of us who do things we do not have to do, things that are more difficult and require more effort than is strictly necessary, who are considered strange. Do they feel, at the end of the day, that they have lived it to any purpose? Presumably they would not even understand the question, because if you can seriously ask it, the answer must be no.

Remembering that one day you will have done all you can ever do, regardless of what you have and have not done, is a good way of making the most of the day, and of feeling some form of satisfaction at the end of it. But does the same thing apply to life? Can we know what we will care about at the end? Probably not. But I am almost certain that, unlike the Saint of Ávila, I shall not be glad to see it go.

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Question on Superstrings

I have been reading Brian Greene’s book ‘The Elegant Universe’, on the theory of superstrings. If nothing else, he has a remarkable gift for getting complex scientific ideas across without simplifying them into uselessness or distorting them into falsehood.* He also know a lot about theoretical physics, having been involved in doing a lot of it for the last 30-odd years. The book leaves out the mathematics, of course, the point of it is to be useful to people who don’t have a background in maths, but its explanation of the concepts is clear and fascinating.

I have a couple of simple and possibly stupid questions about the superstring theory:

Is the theory- the physical ideas and the mathematical physics of it- a description of something real, or just a way of making it possible to talk about it and manipulate it mathematically?

Is it, in fact, possible to tell the difference?

It’s strange to think that, when I was studying Mathematics and Astrophysics at UCL back in the mid-80’s, these ideas were actually being developed in the very building I was drinking learning in. We undergrads didn’t get to much about hear about it, though. We learnt some of the mathematical tools to handle it (I recognised much later) and we learnt from people directly involved in the latest research in other fields, but we were resolutely taught quantum mechanics on the one hand, and general relativity on the other. There was no suggestion that far below, creatures with white skin, thick glasses and an inability to talk to women without giggling were trying to fix the rather serious problem that, as we learnt, and indeed discovered for ourselves, they can’t both be true. I don’t believe I had about superstrings until much later, when I was no longer involved in mathematics.

*Many people seem to think that if they can find an analogy or argument that appears to be coherent, it must automatically be a) true and b) what they were trying so express.