One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Guilt and Innocence....of what?

All the right thinking (by which I mean Left thinking) folk have been lining up in support of Julian Assange. All well and good. But do they have their causes confused?

On last Thursday's (16th Dec) 's R4 'World at One', Josefin Brink from Sweden's Vänsterpartiet ('Left Party')1 made the good point that a) The exposure of government lies, double-dealing and general shadiness and b) the alleged rapes of two women are separate issues.

She reminded us that there have been numerous cases of famous men being accuesed of rape, and everyone says "Oh, how could it have been him? He's such a nice guy!" Often, though, our hero has turned out to be a rapist, and people find this concept difficult to accept. She stressed that she's not saying Assange is guilty - but there's one proper place to decide the issue: the court.

The general assumption appears to be that the rape allegations have been trumped up by Dark Forces. One of the victims has been 'linked' (whatever that means) to the CIA. All this might be more than conspiracy theory - after all, remember back to when Anti-Apartheid Activist Peter Hain was fitted up for bank robbery by the South African BOSS, with the compliance of the Met?

Now I accept that the Scandiwegian nations aren't as squeaky lean as they like to believe.: a browse through a Stieg Larsson or Henning Mankell novel suggests an underbelly. But I wonder...if you wanted to bang up a troublemaker for political reasons, which jurisdiction might you find most amenable? Britain? Australia? Sweden? Myself, if I were looking for a fair trial (and a clean, non-Dickensian cell), I know where I'd be headed.

There's also a feminist angle missing here. (I note, with mild surprise, the involvement of Helena Kennedy QC. a leading advocate for justice for women, in this case). From the pro-Assange camp, there have been complaints that the Swedish definition of rape is somewhat more liberal than in other countries. I'm struggling to see their point here. Sweden is also - at least, theoretically - more robust than many in prosecuting rape1. If this is the case, the proof or innocence of a case may turn on complicated matters than whether the man can be proved to have held the woman down at knifepoint. There seem from the allegations here to be prima facie grounds. Granted, there appears in Swedes to uncertainty over whether evidence supports rape or lesser molestation charges, but again...this reflects the complexity of the issues and its why the allegations need to be examined in a court. Surely?

Isn't it somewhat disturbing that some of Assange's supporters have been so ready to dismiss the allegations a priori?

1. But note my 'dark underbelly' comments: below the surface, Swedish men are no more reconstructed than any. Stieg Larsson was making a point with the original, Swedish title of 'The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo' ('Män som hatar kvinnor'): Men who hate women.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Was God a Mathematician?

Last night I watched a BBC4 tellything called 'Beautiful Equations' in which the presenter, an artist with no scientific background, struggled to get to grips with the idea that some scientists have talked about the aesthetic quality of equations. I don't recommend the programme to anyone with a basic understanding of science - it was one of those that was more travelogue than science1 - but the basic idea's interesting enough.

Einstein famously said:

"The only physical theories that we are willing to accept are the beautiful ones."

and Paul Dirac:
“God used beautiful mathematics in creating the
There are implications here that the universe is 'constructed' with an underlying, elegant pattern. Neither was necessarily saying that the universe was created by God. Einstein was certainly an atheist who was at pains to make it clear that he only ever used 'God' as a metaphor. Dirac perhaps took the idea more literally - although in point of fact he probably didn't give it much thought. Certainly neither saw any connection between the ordering of the universe and the conduct of our daily lives: they weren't theologians or philosophers.

(Interestingly, there is a school of thought within Islam that wheras only God can fully understand the universe, we have a duty to practice science to gain insight into the Oneness of God. Sometimes this is described as scraping back the surface of the universe to reveal glimpses of the underlying 'greeness' - green being associated with God, life, etc.)

Even so, the idea that science and mathematics reveal the inherent beauty of the universe is arsey-versy, isn't it? It's an anthropocentric notion. The universe is complicated. We are evolved to grub for roots, spear antelope and/or gather shellfish. We're on a par with other beasties in our ability to Comprehend Nature. Granted, we're extraordinarily adaptive by virtue of our faculties for problem solving. Nevertheless, when we bump our heads against the difficulty of understanding the inner workings of the universe, there's no reason to suppose our capacities are any more limitless than, say, a bonobo. We're undoubtedly better at it...but even our best minds can find it awfully hard.

The reason we're better is that, especially over the last 400-ish years, we've come up with some little tricks to simplify the picture. It goes without saying that equations are useful if they allow us to predict the way the universe behaves. But that wouldn't necessarily make them beautiful. A beautiful equation is something like:

E = mc2
...which has the additional advantage of simplicity. It's not only simple in that it only has three terms, but the way it falls out of Special Relativity is elegant. Plus it tells us a lot about the the universe and has various practical applications.

Or take the Dirac equation:

Now, OK, I'm not going to bullshit that I understand the first thing about this, but my understanding is that its a simple, clean expression which, by manipulating its variables, predicts the existence of various particles (e.g. anti-matter) which are experimentally verifiable.

So what these 'beautiful' equations have in common is that they're neat little bundles with the power to tell us a lot about the universe. Einstein's probably wouldn't have caught on if it went 'E=mc2 except in February minus the number you first thought of...' and on for twenty pages. For an example of an inelegant equation, see the Computus (origin of the word 'computer') by which the date of Easter is calculated. Its main predictive power is to explain why nobody ever knows what date it's going to fall on in any given year. The Dirac equation is slightly different. Wheras most people can grap the bones of Relativity after a bit of thinking about trains, watches and flashlights, even particle physicists struggle with Dirac. My understanding is that in deriving it he 'boiled down' some concrete stuff into abstract variables. E, m and c we can get to grips with, but nobody can quite explain the real-world concept represented by Ψ.

Note, incidentally, that not all mathematical descriptions of the world are considered elegant. I well recall my A-Level in Pure Mathematics with Mechanics2. The Pure, I liked. The Mechanics...sheesh!....all those long, long expressions representing the forces acting on a ladder leaning against a wall on a rough surface. The underlying maths was simple (and repetitive) - basically variants on Newton - but it was pure handle turning, without elegant shortcuts. Subsequently, throughout my so-called career, I've worked with people doing various forms of mathematical modelling. While in no way denegrating them, the type of maths they're dealing with is getting computers to spit out anwers using more data and doing morecalculations than humans can get their heads around. It's a matter of brute force rather than elegance.

But wait a minute. In contrasts to the messy maths, there are the beautiful equations which show themselves to be powerful tools for understanding and manipulating the real world. Doesn't the very fact of their existence demonstrate a beautiful order?

It's Douglas Adams' Intelligent Puddle once again, surely?:

"Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!"3

What we've done is to go out looking for ways to simplfy the world, either for good, practical purposes or simple curiosity. Some parts of it we find can be described in nice, neat equations. But these will only be tractable if they'll fit within a human head or can be worked out on not too many sheets of paper or, more recently, in MATLAB.

We haven't discovered an underlying pattern, pleasing in its beauty. It's more that we've found we cen get our heads around parts of it and have been pleased with our ability.

(Btw, when I say 'we', I mean 'they'...those cleverer people than I who've made scientific discoveries.)

Finally: As a further test of Snow's 'two cultures'...can any scientists amongst us tell me why I have a picture of a vase in this post? See last two lines here. No cheating, now!

1 Actually, it was a good illustration of CP Snow's 'Two Cultures'. At the outset, the presenter seemed to have little notion of the idea of manipulating variables in equations, finding limiting values, etc.
2 My school's assumption was that if you did science and weren't clever enough to be a doctor, then you'd be an engineer, so you needed Mechanics. Alternately, if you did Arts and weren't posh enough to be a solicitor, you'd be an accountant and would need Statistics. It was only at university that I encountered - and was good at - statistics, which comprised a large part of my Experimental Design and Analysis.
3 Completing the quote, to illustrate the potentially malign consequences of anthropocentrism (or puddlecentrism):
"...This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."

Thursday, December 09, 2010

A thousand words paint a picture

I've been playing with tag clouds at the gorgeous For thems as doesn't know, a Tag Cloud is a visual representation of word frequencies within a body of text. More frequent words are shown larger. Wordle lets you monkey around with layout, colour, etc.

Here's what it makes of Shakespeare's sonnets. All 154 of them:

And here's Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales.' It was a bugger editing out the footnotes from this one. I'm slightly disappointed that 'shiteth' doesn't appear - but bigge shoute out to 'eke':

The Communist Manifesto:

NWA's seminal 'Straight Outta Compton' album:

By way of comparison, I used to do Bonoboworld. It doesn't have such nice graphical features:
(Hmm. This could become recursive.)
Any ideas for what else we really ought to see clouded?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Genuine Sainsburys photo, from the blog that brought you this.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Going back a bit

As ever...I'll fix the html shortly.
A short while ago I read, and immensely enjoyed 'The Time Traveller's Wife' by Audrey Niffenegger. Others I know have rated it highly too. I'm not necessary claiming that it's great literature - but the convoluted time strand was an enjoyable head fuck. (The film was universally panned, though.)

So I was surprised when two people whose opinions I respect, at least one of whom had read it ( ;-) )1 responded...somewhat negatively. It wasn't just that they didn't like it as a book - there seemed to be a bit more revulsion going on2. It seems the source of the distaste is the ('vile') Wife of the title who ('selfishly') goes all out to conceive a child even though she knows it may suffer by having the same time travelling condition as her husband.

The first thing I have to say is my only thought about the Wife is that she is a little mimsy. (Hiffenegger comes over that way in interviews too). It simply didn't register with me that she was doing something dreadful by having a child, and nobody else I've spoken too commented on that. I don't get the impression that it was a theme or issue for Hiffenegger, either. The having-a-child plot element wasn't, I don't think, in the book for the purposes of either raising a dilemma or showing the Wife in a bad light.

So why the repugnance on one side and blank puzzlement on the other? Is it different worldviews over whether it's acceptable to bring a sick child into the world? Or perhaps its that some of us (like me) have simply demonstrated ethical laxity and failed to pick up an obvious monstrosity. That's what I'd like to explore. I'm not saying that one side is wrong and the other right. It's my view that ethics is (are?) a slippery bugger: many's the time that we can't say for sure what's right and have to accept that others simply disagree. Still - talking about the disagreements can be enlightening.

So here we go...

I want to start with the specific - the book - and then move on to the general - real life.

In the book, The Wife has an overpowering desire for a child (many women do) and suffers multiple miscarriages in her attempts to carry one to term. It gets to the point where The Time Traveller can't bear to see her so distressed and has a vasectomy. Her distress continues until she conceives and bears a child by an earlier, un-vasectomised3 version of The Time Traveller.

Now...if I recall correctly, the Wife's desperation for a child is driven by something more than biology. She knows that she will lose The Time Traveller and wants something to remember him by. So one could take the view that her determination might override other concerns. Such as the concern that the time travelling gene could be passed on to her child. She sometimes sees her husband suffering injuries as a result of his time travel, so she's (arguably, selfishly) weighing up her neediness against a child's suffering.

Except...that's not what it says in the book.

Firstly, note that The Time Traveller seems to have no problem with the possibility of conceiving - or not on the grounds of a child's suffering, anyway. Is he being morally lax? Or is he making a valid decision that a life that contains the same type of suffering as his might nonetheless be worth living. After all there are compensations, like getting to see cool punk bands that you missed the first time around or having al fresco sex with an eighteen year old when you're in your forties.

Secondly (and hear it occurs to me that Hiffenegger might have been addressing the suffering issue after all)...most of The Time Traveller's sufferings are due either to his getting into scrapes because he suddenly turns up somewhere naked or because of the complications of not being able to explain his 'now' circumstances. Plus he can't take any dental work with him when he time jumps. But Hiffenegger fixes that for the daughter, doesn't she? By the time she's ten her condition is widely enough known about to have a name. OK, so it might still be dangerous for a woman to turn up somewhere naked, and maybe she'll get frostbite like her dad - but the risks are reduced. It might mean multiple trips to the dentist, but at least the dentist would understand why. (Although maybe in the US there'd be the insurance issue.4)

And so on to the general.

First I want to deal with the issue of maternal yearnings. The urge to procreate differs from woman to woman (and, indeed, man to man), but on the whole, having offspring is what lifeforms do. We have to accept (surely?) that it's a legitimate urge. I wouldn't call it a 'Right' - after all, some people simply can't have children - but it has to be up somewhere in that territory.

(And note that we don't have to exercise our Rights or right-ish things: some have little compulsion to be part of a well-regulated militia, etc. etc.)

Consequently, on the whole, we don't believe in intefering in peoples' reproductive rights, do we? That's reflected in Articles 12 and 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. As a guiding rule, the decisions of others whether or not to have children are none of our damn business. That's not to say, of course, that we always think people are doing the wise thing by reproducing. Is it wise for a woman who makes her living scavenging on a Lagos rubbish dump to bring a child into poverty, filth and disease? Probably not. But breeding is what people do, and if there's any fault its the wider world for not creating satisfactory conditions for her and her child. Or we might be exasperated at the stereotypical woman on a sink estate who, in a dysfunctional search for meaning and identity, has multiple children who will be brought up in less-than-ideal socio-economic conditions. Or the the Pope-fearing woman who, unlike the majority of European Catholics, follows church teaching and end up with a pew's worth. We don't (do we?) despise these women but understand that they are the victims of circumstance. If their lives were better, they'd tend to have fewer children anyway, but what they're doing isn't usually regarded as immoral.

One small caveat: I realise there is one way in which we think it's reasonable to restrict reproduction. Given the scarcity of planetary resources, I assume we all wholeheartedly approve of China's 'One Child per Family' policy and - modest proposal - would approve of its extension and rigid enforcement in those nations which consume the most resources per capita. (I'll leave that one hanging. It's a whole can of worms and worth a thread of its own.)

Where was ? So far, I think I've been trying to establish that people breed and, in the case of healthy children at least, nobody bats an eye. So are unhealthy children as special case? Is it reasonable to give birth to a child knowing that it will suffer? depends what you mean by 'suffer'. And how much. And whether the sufferer might nevertheless come to find life bearable despite. As Gautama said 'Suffering is inevitable.' But most of us don't take Schopenhauer's5 view that it is 'better never to have been born at all'. On the other hand, most (but not all!) of us would accept that it would be example to terminate a pregnancy on the grounds that an ultrasound scan showed the foetus to be microcephalic. And then there's a middle ground. What if a scan shows conjoined twins? Or a hole in the heart? Or if amniocentesis shows a high chance of Downs Syndrome? All those (potential) children will suffer through their conditions. Interesting questions: Are we compelled to terminate? Are we compelled to have the ultrasound and amnio so we can spot problems before it's too late? I promise you I'm completely, utterly Pro-Choice. I'm the son of an abortionist, after all (my mum was a family planning nurse who provided contraceptive and termination services in Bootle, a deprived, largely Catholic area of Liverpool in the 1970s-80s). On the other hand...we turned down amnio for our own children: we wouldn't have aborted.

So maybe it's a judgement call on how much suffering we're prepared to allow. I'll buy that. But who decides? Is Downs Syndrome bad enough? Is it better or worse than random time travelling? Search me. Shouldn't these issues be judged on a case-by-case basis? Shouldn't the default position be that its the parents who decide?6

Another caveat: parents can get judgements about their children dreadfully, dreadfully wrong and at such time it is reasonable to intervene in defence of the child. (The Univeral Declaration on the Rights of the Child7 has precedence over the UDHR). There have been various cases where, for example, parents and medical staff have disagreed over whether treatment should be withdrawn and the child allowed to die. The point about these differences of opinion is neither side is right. They have to be referred to a Higher Authority, and that's what judges are trained for8. In fact, even if both sides were inclined to agree, in difficult cases, doctors would be ethically negligent not to go to court.

But so far I've only dealt with the 'Shit Happens' cases. The ethical decisions we make when dealing with the happenstances of life are in a different category to our deliberate moral choices. Like when a Time Traveller's Wife deliberately chooses to conceive a child who will likely suffer a medical condition.

Or are they?

Let's allow that The Wife is (selfishly/vilely) privileging her desire for a child over the child's suffering. However, I've tried to establish (to my satisfaction at least - feel free to argue) in the default case where children are likely, as most are, to be born healthy that women are entitled to their own reproductive decisions. Further - even if we could see inside others' minds - their motives for reproduction remain theirs alone. (As a starting point at least. We might have qualms about someone planning to have a child for organ harvesting, sexual gratification, a tasty snack9...). I've also tried to establish that it's damn difficult to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable suffering: at very least there's room for legitimate disagreement. (Hold that phrase: legitimate disagreement. It's OK to disagree ethically - it's inevitable, even.). So if we have a woman who's making a reproductive choice for unknowable reasons but which is hers and hers alone to make, and the acceptability of that choice in terms of the suffering to the child is unquantifiable but is hers and hers alone to judge...well...I guess you can see where I'm going. For myself, I'd have to be pretty certain before I labelled such a decision as vile - there would have to be some pretty obvious extremes. But mainly, these matters demand tolerance - unless one's prepared to be more ethically certain than I ever am.

Let's take a real world example (-ish. I'll not go researching links). There have been cases where congenitally deaf couples have had children knowing that they, too, would be deaf - in fact, some have even advocated positively for their deafness. Are they right? OK - I'm starting to get uneasy myself with this one...but I don't know. (Is deafness more disadvantageous than time travel?). Sure - I'm entitled to my gut feelings...but maybe, just maybe I should get over myself. For example, if I were to discover later that the deaf child turned out to be perfectly happy...could we not say that my gut feelings had been a bit silly?

Time to get philosophical on your asses.

I'm not a big fan of Deontological Ethics which say10 that 'good' is definable by fixed principles, on the obvious grounds that if there are Rules, how the hell do we decide what they're meant to be? Even Kant’s Categorical Imperative requires us to make, I think, quite arbitrary judgements about what is right. I’m not necessarily saying that’s wrong – so long as you’re heart’s in the right place – but we shouldn’t pretend we’re accessing universal principles by so doing. Essentially the Categorical Imperative boils down to Rabbi Hilel’sGolden Rule’ – do as you would be done to. But there’s a big problem with this: What if I don’t want to be treated the same way as you? (“Curse this time travelling! I wish I’d never been born!” ...“Actually – I find its worth all the pain and inconvenience”)

A variant of this has become popular: Scientific or Naturalistic Ethics, the notion that we are all imbued with an ethical sense by nature of our biology. Some, such as Peter Singer and Sam Harris, hold that Morality can be derived scientifically. Singer, for example cites experiments where subjects are example of a train speeding down a track towards a set of points. Down one branch of the track there is someone on the track. On the other there are five. Subjects universally agree that it’s morally legitimate – imperative, even – to operate the points so that the train kills one instead of five. So we’ve established a universal principle. Except…I can see how easily such principles might be overridden. (“What if the five people are Jews?!”) I suggest that all we’ve established is that we make moral judgements, not what they should be.

The suggest that a basic mistake that many people make, not just 'ordinary' people but Deontological Ethicists make is to categorise decisions or actions as 'Right' or 'Wrong'. I don't just mean that people classify various things incorrectly, but that the categories themselves are insufficient. Much of our thinking seems to rest on Aristotelian logic. But maybe on matters of Ethics we need to take a leaf out of the book of Islamic philosophers such as al-Ghazali (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) who categorised the world more subtly - in line with Islamic theology which (contrary to popular belief) doesn't simply categorise behaviour into forbidden/allowed but has various gradations ('ahkam'). Plus, it's probably no coincidence that Fuzzy Logic was invented by an Iranian11.

Then there's Dialectic. Now, obviously as a good Marxist I'm a Dialectical Materialist. But as a way of looking at the world, it's only a means to an end - a way of simplifying problems to the level at which they're tractable. Just so long we realise that the real world is complicated, though, and problems are multivariate. Kierkegård preferred to look at it differently. Complexity is irreducible and the truth is not in the decision one reaches, but in the process of grasping towards it. (There is a good Radio 4 'In Our Time' on this. Highly recommended.). Thus some decisions are to be approached with 'Fear and Trembling.' Plus, see my quote at the end of this post.

Except we do, ultimately, come down on one side or another, both as societies and individuals. As societies we derive laws and societal norms which provide us with an ethical framework so that we don't have to think everything through from first principles every damn time. But note that codification does not confer 'Rightness' on ethical principles. Nor, even in democratic societies does it mean that, having reached an agreement, everyone must nuckle down and agree. All that we mean by a 'Law' is something enforced by power - whether the power of a majority or of a priveleged minority with control over truncheons than anyone else. But so what? What I'm trying to say is that we shouldn't expect an ethical consensus stable enough to provide the basis of custom or law. It follows, then, that there will always be people who dissent from some laws, 'agreed' ethical positions or norms of behaviour. If they carry their dissent into action, we should remember that they are not necessarily breaking a moral code, and when we punish them...all we are in fact doing is exercising our superior power to enforce our norms. In fact arguably society needs dissent - including plain, old criminal nastiness - to remind us what we think.12 However...we should always be aware: We may be wrong.

Getting back to individuals. Yes, of course we all have our opinions of what is Good/Bad, Vile/OK, What I'd do/I'd never do a thing like that, etc. I guess my plea is that we choose carefully the occasions when we elevate what may be mere matters of personal taste to the status of morality.

Or am I wrong? Am I weak-willed hyper-liberal moral relativist with no ethical underpinning? Discuss.

However...we're only talking about a piece of Chick Lit, and one's entitled not to like the characters in books. (I don't like anyone in 'The Lord of the Rings', after all ;-) )

I've rambled enough. I'm a rambling man. I shall leave you with some examples, though. Which of these hereditary conditions would you judge sufficiently serious to avoid passing on to a child?

  • Heart disease
  • Huntingdon's Disease
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Being born in a socially deprived area
  • Dark skin pigmentation (face it - it causes genuine hardship!)

Unleash the footnotes...

1 In fairness, the other person cast it aside as Chick Lit...although I still say they should have read on and not been swayed.

2 "This is not a book that can be tossed aside lightly. It must be thrown with great force." Dorothy Parker. Hmm. I'm currently ploughing through 'The Kindly Ones' by Jonathan Littell. At 980-odd pages, it can't be tossed aside lightly. Even if you did, it would land with an almighty thud.

3 Is 'un-vasectomised' a real word? Never mind - it doesn't make a vas deferens.

4 Yeah, dentistry is costly in the UK too now - although one would expect Time Travellers to get NHS treatment. I've saved a fortune by managing to get on an NHS dentist's list and cancelling my insurance.

5 I'm fairly sure it was Schopenhauer. Could've been Nietzsche. I'm 99.999% sure it wasn't Kierkegård.

6 And, for various reasons, I think ultimately the mother, but I'll leave that subtlety for now.

7 I always use the Plain English version of this. It's lovely!

8 "I could have been a judge if only I had the Latin...the Latin that you need for the strenuous judging exams." - EL Whisty.

9 "Eight pounds and four ounces...Good size for a baby...Damn small turkey, but." Line from a Roddy Doyle book - can't recall which one.

10 Says? Can I have a ruling please on whether Ethics are singular or plural? Or a county in the South East of England?

11 "What have the Muslims given us lately?" "Camcorders and Anti-Lock Braking Systems, Mr Kilroy-Silk."

12 I think there's a criminological theory along these lines, but I'll have to consult the local expert. It sounds like a Jean Genet, Deviance kind of thing.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lies my father told me

We have various pieces of lore in my household:
  • The object to the right is a bear's egg. Yup. An egg. From a bear.
  • The best course of action when pursued by a rhinoceros is to grab hold of its horn, very tight, with both hands and don't let go!
  • Special precautions need to be taken when eating custard creams. They are the most dangerous type of biscuit and should only be eaten under close supervision. 1
  • The way to tell the difference between a rabbit and hare is that one says 'bounce, bounce, bounce...' as it hops along wheras the other says 'boing, boing, boing...'
  • Babies fly around the room when nobody is looking.
  • There are three species of bird: chickens, ducks and pigeons. Flamingos, for example, are a tall kind of chicken.
It is, after all, important for children to learn not to trust their parents.

1 FACT: More biscuit related injuries are caused by custard creams than other types of biscuit!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010


(Bear with me - I'll try and fix the formatting. Blogger has its own ideas)

I'm making Parkin.

For non-UKanians...parkin is a heavy, moist cake containing oats and treacle (= molasses, approximately) that sticks to the roof of your mouth. I don't know why, but it's associated with Catholic Burning Night. So are jacket potatoes, which I can at least understand - you can bake a potato in the embers of a bonfire. Then there's treacle toffee. I don't get this whole treacle/pyrotechnics connection.
Parkin originates from Yorkshire, and they'll doubtless insist that only Yorkshirefolk can make it properly.

The recipe I'm (loosely) following is:
1/4 lb/125g self raising flour
1/2 lb/250g porridge oats
1 tsp. bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
Some finely grated ginger (don't know how much. 'To taste'.) Or you can use ground ginger
1/2 lb/250g soft brown sugar (or I doubt anyone will notice if you use white)
1/2 lb. butter or margarine
1/2 lb/250g treacle, warmed so that you can pour it out of the tin. (stand the tin in some hot water)
1 egg (optional)
Milk to mix into a thick pouring consistency

Sieve the flour and bicarb together. Add other dry incredients and mix. Warm the butter with the grated ginger and mix in. Add the treacle and (finally) the beaten egg. Add as much milk as it needs (it should still be fairly stiff). Pour/spoon into a well greased, shallow baking tin. Bake at 175C/350F for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Turn out. Cool. Best eaten the next day and keeps for ages in an airtight tin
This is all dreadfully approximate, I know, but we're not talking precision baking here.

Probably Yorkshirefolk will complain that it's not proper parkin unless it's made with lard. And gravel.

Etymololgy Corner

Just go go off on a tangent (moi?)...Parkin gives us an opportunity to discuss a couple of etymological factoids. 'Parkin' and its variant 'Perkin' are diminuitives of 'Peter.' (As in Perkin Warbeck, The Bastard Pretender, pictured.

Now, Treacle...that's an interesting one. Originally it derives from θηριακή (thēriakē, “antidote”), feminine form of θηριακός (thēriakos, “concerning venomous beasts”) - i.e. an andidote to snake bites. This morphed into Latin, triaca and Old French, triacle and its meaning became generalised to mean a general potion to ward off diseases or spells (which were more-or-less the same thing). Now. Where do you go to gather the ingredients for potions? Into the woods. And what else do you find in the woods? Honey! And what's a bit like honey? Treacle!

And that's why fire engines are red.

Fascinating, Eh?

So while we're at it, let's do fascinating. When a Roman boy reached puberty, he would be presented with an amulet consisting of a small leather pouch called a bulla to wear around his neck. In the bulla was a fascinum, a small model of his erect penis. Fascinum became generalised to mean any kind of charm. 'To charm' is synonymous with 'to transfix' which is synonymous with 'to fascinate'. And I notice a revival of the word 'fascinator' , which fell out of use but has now bounced back re-defined.

Funny old thing, langwidge.

Monday, November 01, 2010

No sun, no fun, November

(I think the title was originally Chesterton. Not sure.)

I've just taken delivery of one of these things, in an effort to beat the winter gloom.

I've long been prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder, which has always hit me most in November, just as soon as the clocks go back, and mid-January to February. Presumably Christmas distracts me in between. Fuck knows why I migrated northwards! I'm cleary more the Mediterranean type.

SAD used to be regarded sceptically - one of those things diagnosed by American psychiatrists* - but it seems there's some pretty sound physiology behind it:
...the cause may be related to melatonin which is produced in dim light and darkness by the pineal gland, since there are direct connections, via the retinohypothalamic tract and the suprachiasmatic nucleus, between the retina and the pineal gland.
(from Wikipedia)
There is also well documented evidence that its incidence increases moving towards the poles, and of a relationship with bipolar disorder.

Light boxes have come shooting down in price. I got mine for £50 from Amazon. There are all sorts availabe. What you don't want is one of those alarm clocks designed to simulate dawn breaking. (They may work - but they're not the same). You want 10,000 lx of full spectrum light output. Blue lights are available (eg from Philips) , but there's no reason/evidence for them - athough there is some evidence for yellow-green at lower lux, since the human eye is most sensitive in that region.

Experience so far.'s a bit wierd. The first thing you notice is that they make the room seem dimmer, because all the surrounding shadows look more shadowy. Plus the full spectrum light is a little cold looking. My model has a little perceptible flicker at the ends of the tubes, which is not a good thing (could give headaches). Maybe more expensive models are better for that. As for use - to get a sufficient dose you're meant to sit 20cm in front of it for half an hour. That's never going to fit in with my daily routine. Maybe I could manage 10cm for seven and a half minutes (note to non-scientists: inverse square law), but that seems a bit extreme. So I guess I'll have to schlep it in to work where I can sit with it further away for longer. Tcha. It can be a conversation piece.

Apparently I should have started it a few weeks earlier, before the nights really drew in, but better late than never. It's too early to notice results, but I'll keep you posted.

Btw - I once knew of a couple who ended up splitting up over SAD. He was a petrochemical engineer and his work took him to Alaska. But she couldn't get on with the climate and so she moved down to Florida.

She just couldn't stand his lattitude.


End with a song:

* Everyone knows, for example, that American psychiatrists over-diagnose things like ADHD. Oh? Why do we think that? Mightn't it be that over here we underdiagnose?

The knives are out

Regular readers will know about my annual charidee pumpkin-a-thon. See previous examples. Nowadays we do them for Unicef.*

Anyway - here's some of this year's crop. Mwwwwu-wa-ha-ha-ha-haaaa...

Halloween is A Big Thing around here - something I wasn't used to growing up in England (or has it changed there now?). The Scottish variant on 'Trick or Treat' is that the children have to sing a song or (more usually) tell a joke. The adults' job is to try to look amused as they are bombarded with often garbled versions of humour. (This is especially the case with my daughter's Algerian friend. Her English has come on stupendously from a standing start in the year-odd that she's been in the country...but she hasn't quite mastered the intricacies of the inane pun yet. Bless!). We did get a heart-meltingly cute version of 'Hickory Dickory Dock' from a Power Ranger, though. our experience, children will practice their jokes on their parents for about three weeks beforehand. Repeatedly. Endlessly. So imagine our surprise when this year...

...we got a Paki joke.

From an eight year old.

I is one meant to react?

My costume? Sink Plunger. Egg whisk. Head torch........Dalek!

* Speaking of which...this demented eejit is planning to run up and down Ben Lomond 100 times during 2011, hopefully raising some money for Unicef along the way. Please visit his Just Giving page: "In general, it takes about an hour to get to the summit, and 30 minutes back down." !!!!!!! (I should point out that this is someone who runs up and down the Himalayas).

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I doubt you've even heard an Indian elephant break wind...

The word for today is:


This is a Pashto word refering to a unit of or basis for of solidarity, such as kinship, residence, occupation, ethnicity, nationality, etc. Sometimes it's transalated as 'tribe', but that's really an outsider interpretation with colonial overtones. (Irregular noun: We are a nation; You are a people; They are a tribe.) A qawm can cross tribal or ethnic boundaries and can is flexibly deliniated according to context, e.g. Our village vs those bastards in the next village; the villages in this valley vs those bastards over the hill; us Pashtuns vs those bastard Tajiks; All of us Afghans vs whatever bastard Americans/British/Russians/whoever is dumb enough to waltz into our country and reckon they can sort us out.1

Another way of looking at the concept of qawm is from the inside out, as the arena for competition between individuals. This idea has been taken up by anthropologsts - and especially by the NATO military wishing to get a handle on resistance insurgent organisations (Google 'qawm competion' for numerous examples).

From the anthropological view the idea of qawm gives a useful model of group and identity formation. The ties that bind are things like: exhange (people getting together to exchange goods, money, services, social obligations); opportunity for advancement through exchange; enforcement of power arrangements to enforce or protect advantage; solidarity arrangements to protect against competition or power; etc.

And so on to Marx2. I do keep trying to tell everyone that I'm not an Orthodox Marxist3. In fact I'm a pic'n'mix Revisionist. So you want get me dividing people rigidly into proletariat or bourgeoisie nor imagining the world as struggle to the death between the one and the other. I accept that many a self-styled Marxist regime has thought that way (or, at least, acted as though they did), but it wasn't what Marx was on about. ('If all these people are Marxists, then I'm not'. It's a valid criticism, notwithstanding, that if only the man were capable of writing a coherent sentence then fewer people would have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.)

What Marx was on about was the way that economics is the driver for the organisation and progression of society. He concentrated on the conditions within 19thC industrialised nations, hence the qawms that he identified as most important were the proletariat - those who earn their living by selling their labour and the bourgeoisie - those who own the means of production and are hence able to extract surplus value from the workers. The bougeoisie are the normally held to be synonymous with Capitalists - but I find it's often necessary to draw a distinction between them and those those at the top of the heap who make their living by dealing in the abstracted, rarified, slippery meta-commodity of 'Capital'. or 'Kapital' Let's call these über bourgeoisie 'Financiers' or 'Bankers' or whatever.

(Hang on...Did I say 'qawms' somewhere back there? My bad. Marx called them 'Classes'.)

There is conflict within and between classes. Take the bourgeoisie. Unless they constantly strive to keep up with or undercut other businesses, they won't be able to pay back their loans and put food on their families' tables, so they are constantly forced to find ways to lower their cost base - and this will always, ultimately, be at the expense of the workers. Automation. Lower Ts&Cs. Outsourcing to China. (In Marxist jargon, they're 'maximising their extraction of Surplus Value'). And thus, obviously, we have competition - conflict, even - between the proletariat bourgeoisis classes. Amongst workers we have competition which, in times of labour surplus at least, allows wages to be held in check - although if they're canny enough about it, workers can form solidal4 groups to curb excesses/ensure they get the best deal. Or, indeed, businesses can form corresponding associations, cartels, etc.

When it comes to bankers...well...the bourgeoisie tend to feel a class alignment there - they can't afford not to: they're dependent on finance - although various alements of competion apply, from shopping around for loans to the shares market etc. etc. When it comes to bankers...there's a nice, real-life contemporary example of competition in the current stooshie over bankers' bonuses. At the high end of the market, to where all the Capital has gravitated, to gain a competitive advantage, banks have to engage in risky, marginal trading. To secure the services of those best capable of doing this, they have to offer fuck off sums to entice people away from their competition. If they fail to attract the right people, their bank goes under instead of the other guys, busineses collapse, jobs are lost, mortgages are called in, etc. So it's fine to rail against banker's bonuses, but people should be aware that they're intrinsic to the system as a whole. Why not go for broke and oppose Capitalism as a whole?

Oops...I almost fell in to a trap there. While we're here, let's knock something on the head. 'Capitalism' isn't an evil plot by nasty Capitalists. It's not a system designed to do down the workers. It isn't even designed or consciously adopted at all. Capitalism just is5. People compete and exchange. Someone gains advantage. Society is developed and shaped. Some people gain, others lose out - but that's nothing personal. 'It's just business' All Marx was describing is what happens, with particular focus on the industrial phase of societies.

Back to qawms. What I've described so far is something of a 'vulgar Marxist' version whereby people are fiited into defined classes and the heel of the bourgeoisie is forever on the face of the proletariat. It's a particarly British mistake: 'Oh, Marxists are always on about Class, but that's all disappeared.' 6 Of's more complicated than that. 7

If we take the concept of qawm and apply it to Marxist notions of Class and Class Conflict, we perhaps can perhaps see them as somewhat more mutable. If the basis of group/qawm/class identity is competition within and between, the the boundaries will be defined differently dependending on context: different identities for different types or arenas of competition; boundaries shift over time as economic conditions change; etc. All of this explains (obvious) stuff like why employers and employees can unite in a common interest (one needs wages, the other workers); why men can be persuaded to fight in Capitalist wars (better to be on the winning side.)

Something else. Another species of Revisionist is the Eurocommunist. Antonio Gramsci's concept of 'Cultural Hegemony' holds that when powerful class comes to rule a divserse society, its ideas become the norm. Those economically dominant set the rules of play. Seems to me that qawm makes sense of a lot of the stuff about the way people adopt identities which aren't necessarily in their interests.

To my mind, Marx shouldn't be thought of as painting a picture of inevitable conflict. OK - there's a bit of that: he pointed out the worst-case solution whereby the contradictions of capitalism will lead to its inevitable (messy, destructive) collapse. And, yes, he had distinct apocalyptic tendencies - he was a revolutionary manqueé8 who was hideously bad at predicting the onset of revolution. But reall his big idea is that economics - and here we should remember that economics isn't just about money but all forms competition and exchange - is the motive principle of society.

Ideally I'd like to bring Darwin in here. Marx was an enormous admirer of Darwin, whose ideas he cited as an leading influence on Das Kapital. Now, it's been said that 'Economics and evolution are isomorphic'9. If you think about evolution by natural selection, its a matter of competition within an environment leading to speciation. Order arising from a messy, impersonal process. Clearly the parallel with qawm isn't exact here (but when have I ever been exact?) - for example we don't find organisms that are one species one minute and another the next. My point is that evolution - and qawm - and Marxist theory - share the idea that competition acts as an organising principle.

See also genetic algorithms, The Blind Watchmaker, etc. etc.

Arn'tcha glad I've discovered the html tag for superscripts?

1 Cor! While researching this, I came across something about The Only Jew In Afghanistan. See the last line. No facile comparisons, please, to The Only Gay In The Village. In Afghanistan...there are plenty.

2 My 'Alice's Restaurant' moment: "But I didn't come here to talk about that. I came here to talk about the draft...".

3I'll admit that part of my reason for constantly calling myself a Marxist is to wind people up. It's generally been a rod for my own back, though, 'cause so many people get the wrong idea and make assumptions based on very little knowledge of Marx. I shall stick to my guns, though: Marx has made more sense to me the more I've aged.

4 Yes, it is a word. I checked.

5 Here's another way in which I'm not an Orthodox Marxist, I guess. I'm not a revolutionary, at least to the extent that I don't think revolution will cause the overthrow of Capitalism (although it can achieve regime change and social reform). The best we can do put in place measures which steer economic forces one way or another to mitigate against the negative consequences of Capitalism and achieve desirable social outcomes. More wealth accumulation vs More redistribution, etc. etc.

6 "The Class War is over. The working class lost...and the government are charging reparations."

7 As it would be with Marx. He was the first post-modern philosopher, slippery as a well lubricated eel and fond of internal contridictions. Gotta admit, mind, this led to a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of trouble.

8 Unlike yours truly. I'm a revolutionary monkey.

9 That is, one learned person said it to me, but I've no idea who said it originally. If you google 'economics evolution isomorphic' it seems that quite a few people are interested in the general idea. I've a hunch that it might have been John van Neumann.

The Boys Are Back In Town

If you happen to be in London, run-don't-walk as fast as you can away from the RA where they have an exhibition of The Glasgow Boys school of painters. Myself, I'm only in London once every five years or so, but I caught it when it was at the Kelvingrove Museum.

Jaysus, but I fucking hate them. 'Round these parts they're meant to be wonderful and innovative and everything. Well...I'll admit that they were technically accomplished, but innovative they were not. In fact, they were a thoroughly reactionary school, churning out their sub-Millais, 'kaleyard' pictures of romantic peasants, as seen here. I mean...Fuck. Off. Some of them were inspired by the way Cezanne painted light. I'm sure it would be lovely to pick cabbages in the climate of Southern France, if cabbages grew there. But, sorry, now matter how hard you squint, Dumfries and Galloway ain't Provence. (It goes without saying that my objections are as much political as aesthetic).

And then we come to this one. There's a fuzzy line between 'The Glasgow Boys' and 'The Scottish Colourists'. Whatever. But anyone who's ever visited the Kelvingrove with me, and many who haven't, will be aware - will have been told forcefully - that this is my very least favourite painting of all time.* I loathe it with a passion. Jesus fucking wept - I'm allergic to pseudo-Celtic mythology at the best of times, but this is just taking the piss. No need, no need. 'Bringing home the Mistletoe', I ask you. And it's huge!

I really don't know what it is about these fellas and why they're held in such esteem. I guess there's an inevitable tendency for provincial cities to idolise their own, 'World Famous in Glasgow' etc. etc, and since these guys were working at a time when Glasgow was the Second City of Empire (and fifth largest city in Europe), maybe they made a dispproportionate splash simply by dint of Being There. Because - their technical prowess admitted - they really aren't that special. Are they? Where's the originality? Where's the depth? Where's the Art?

The thing is, though, that Glasgow has produced its own innovative artists (as have many other cities). I'm a fairly recent re-convert back to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I'd become blasé about him due to over-familiarity and the ubiquity round here of piss-poor rip-offs. But then you see The Glasgow School of Art** and see the way he uses Japanese references the way a contemporary artist might use Manga or Super Mario, all mixed up with Scottish vernacular, Gothic and Arts and Crafts. Plus he really does have an international reputation. On a recent visit to The Hill House I learnt that one of his tables was once owned by Andy Warhol***.

Plus Glasgow has its own, thriving artistic scene, as do many cities, and crucially one that's not regarded as a stepping stone to London or New York, but as a thing in itself. International artists are attracted there (and not in the same way as they are to Edinbugger where they arrive en masse to choke off the local culture). There's a sense of making local-but-not-provincial art. Elderly Glasgow pedestrian Alasdair Gray put it well: "Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation."

'Fraid I don't get any of that from these boys. Any Fine Arts course can teach the rudiments of painting, and their 'Glasgowness' was merely incidental. It seems to me that their chief skill was to be born wealthy enough to go to art school and settle into a career turning out chocolate box interior decor for their own type.

FULL DISCLOSURE: At home we have this and this on the wall and are looking for a frame for this. Harrumph.

* With the possible exception of Frederic Leighton's 'Flaming June'. Or anything by Edward Burne-Jones or Lawrence Alma-Tadema (especially this piece of crap). In fact, any of that Pre-Rapahelite scheisse with all it's pictures of dopey, swooning women lying around - often in harems or the like - being all lethargic and available. (apologies to JE if she reads this. ;-) )

** Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand once taught at GSoA. For those who haven't heard my story, I was in a bar a while back and the guy next to me waiting to get served was a skinny guy, beige jacket, stripey top, floppy hair. I turned to him and said 'Either you're the world's biggest Franz Ferdinand fan, or you are Alex Kapranos.' 'Can I just stop you there?,' he said, 'I'm Alex Kapranos.' Oops.

*** National Trust for Scotland properties have old ladies in each room, as guides. Ours told us about the table and said. "Mind you - I wouldn't even know what Andy Warhol looked like." Ah, what a terrible thing esprit d'escalier can be. We were half way home before I realised I should have told her "Andy Warhol looks a scream." See also this previous post.

Monday, October 25, 2010

This is the end, my friend.

There has been a bit of back and forth lately between celebrity Catholic, Christina Odone and celebrity moral philosopher, Mary Warnock. The former has written a paper called 'Assisted Suicide: how the chattering classes have got it wrong'. (download) Marnock, meantime, has written 'Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics', which was discussed on R4's 'Start the Week' (prog available online).

Then from The Grauniad comes this debatelet between the two.

To take Odone's argument first, she holds that the 'chattering classes' - a term she says she's using deliberately to emphasise a class-based point* - that legalising assisted suicide will benefit only the monied, educated, articulate while the the poor** will come under pressure to end their lives for the convenience of others. She argues instead for better care for all near the end of of life.

It's a reasonable (and original) point, and I'm somewhat disappointed that Warnock didn't address it directly***. It's a variant of the 'slippery slope' argument, and for euthanasia (although that's a different thing altogther. Isn't it?) there's a precedent for medicalised killing spreading in scope. But I'm not entirely convinced. Assuming a properly constructed set of legal checks and balances in which the views of prospective suicides are sought, there's no reason why the poor should be less capable of expressing their wishes than the wealthy. There are various professions outwith the chattering classes who assist them in doing so daily. Plus that class has the same issues in relation to managing the end of their lives as the 'consumerist élite'.**** Then there's the sad fact that when it comes to palliative care - or medical care in general - the poor get a worse deal than the rich, whether in private or state system. So surely the class argument evaporates if the net effect is a worse end of life? Unless one believes that a suffering life is inherently of more value than an easy death. Which is, I understand, Catholic doctrine - but don't get me started on how that leads down the slippery slope towards fetishising the suffering of the poor.

Incidentally, we should question whether Odone's argument is disingenuous. Note that her paper was published by The Centre for Policy Studies - an outfit not normally regarded as being on the right (i.e. left) side of the barricades in The Class War. But give them their due - even conservatives may, from time to time, have compassion for the poor. It's possible that they are not simply siding with religion on the usual ideological grounds.*****

Interesting, though, that when it comes to her reasoning, it's not the class issue she talks about but her personal experience. Now...there's nothing wrong by being informed by experience - but which is it? The fact that she couldn't stomach helping her father to die is entirely up to her. If she derived satisfaction from her relationship with her desparetly sick and disabled brother than one must believe her. In the context of assisted suicide, incidentally, the latter is a bit of a red herring, except that she uses it to make a more-or-less God-based point on the Catholic belief in the automatic sanctity of human life. So which? Of course, it could be both. If so I guess I could ignore the religious argument about which it's impossible for me to have any opinion other than 'that's irrelevant' and have an honest, secular disagreement about the class issues. But I'll expect to see her (and the CfPS) taking a consistent attitude on class issues elsewhere. Otherwise I'll suspect a smokescreen.

On to Warnock. I read her justifications for assisted suicide as being refreshingly grim. And honest. Lately the public narrative has been taken over somewhat by the Swiss model of terminally ill patients bravely checking in to an appartment and gently slipping away surrounded by loved ones. Well...the reality is actually that the end of life is often shitty - not only for the elderly person but also their loved ones. Warnock regards 'not wanting to be a burden' as just a legitimate reason for seeking death as pain. Or we might consider how poor the quality of care is in many hospitals and care institutions. (And note that, while palliative drugs can remove pain, fixing the psycho-social aspects is harder). 'So why not,' Warnock seems to be saying, 'Just get it over with?'

It's a counsel of despair, isn't it? An obvious counter-argument is that we would not have to consider assisted suicide if we fixed other things. We ought to have better elderly care. We ought to take the burden off relatives, etc. etc. Except - to mangle a phrase - you can't get an is from an ought. If wishes were fishes, etc. And I'm doubtful of a hypothetical causal link: if we allow assisted suicide we won't be motivated to improve standards of care.

So this is where I think Odone has the class argument backward. Let's assume assisted suicide were legal. The poor, suffering the most intolerable health and social care conditions, would be more likely to wish recourse to it. So I will happily join Odone on the barricades to fight for equality - but assisted suicide is not the battleground.

NOTE: It's pretty clear from the above that I come down on the Pro- side. It's not a done deal, though. I have some sympathy for the slippery slope idea and am willing to listen to arguments. My only objection is when it's, per Odone, false argument in which underlying motives are hidden. But these issues are tricky ones and worth debating. It's not a topic in which either answer is particularly pleasant.
Hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way. Whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way. This, gentlemen, is the quintessence of all the wisdom of life.

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

* Note that, despite her own impoliteness, Odone has previously bemoaned the 'stridency' of secularist/atheist commentators, which, the behaviour of some of The Usual Suspects granted, seems to be catch-all religious speak for 'They should shut up.' Interestingly, Warnock has been garnering praise for the civility with which she has been putting over her 'repugnant views', as in this review in Odone's old organ.

** Sigh. I desparately need a better term than 'the poor'. 'The working class' doesn't (ahem!) work. Lower class - meh. But 'the proletariat' just sounds silly.

*** To be frank, I'm not a huge admirer of Warnock. For example, it seems to me that the recommendations of her Commission which were taken up into the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill failed as soon as real life intruded. Like when Diane Blood was unable to be legally impregnated with her dead husband's sperm until she hopped on a plane to Brussels.

**** Those words from the link. I suspect 'consumerist' is a weasel word here. In Catholic circles, there's a tendency to - deliberately? - confuse 'materialist' = 'wants lots of consumer goods' with 'Materialist' = 'there's no such thing as the supernatural'. What's one to do when one encounters the word in a discussion? One has to either let the - deliberate? - misunderstanding/insult pass or go off-topic to explain.

*****Odone herself does not appear to be entirely right-wing herself. Although the Catholic Herald, which she edited, is regarded, unlike The Tablet, as establishment, she also did a stint at The New Statesman. (Now she blogs for The Telegraph - but journos tend to be political whores anyway).

[Personal note: I've had relatives who, I believe, would have wished help to die once they got beyond a certain point. And it's generally assumed that my father, having had a severe stroke, hastened his death by refusing food until diabetes took over. For myself - yes - I'd like the choice, and assistance with a speedy, painless method.]

Sigh. It's all about death today. Reggae great, Gregory Isaacs.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book Rave: Nothing compares to his sister.

It's time to effuse about a book I've just finished: 'Star of the Sea' by Joseph O'Connor'. It's the best book I've read in a long while.

I'd come across it several times in charity shops (my theory is that there's a law that compels every charity shop to stock certain titles. Have you ever seen one that didn't have Pamela Stephenson's 'Billy' biography? I rest my case.) For some reason I mistakenly believed him to be a respected, elderly 'man of letters' types writing Lawence Durrell-y prose, but it turms out he's the brother of baldy warbler Sinead, of whom I'm irrationally fond. (see previous post). I don't know if the siblings are still estranged following disagreements over her allegations of maternal abuse.

I'll not give much in the way of plot summary - you can get that in the usual places - other than that it concerns a coffin ship sailing from Ireland to New York during the famine of 'The Black '47' with a cargo of desperately starving passengers in steerage, more and more of whom succumb each day, and a handful of dysfunctional toffs dining well in first class. Synecdoche, and all that. Episodes over the course of the ship's voyage are interwoven with the back story of the principal characters, which in one case has something of the picaresque.* The characters are well and even-handedly drawn: the English are not shown as inherently evil, some of the Irish are shown to behave badly. Oh - and a murder plot unfolds as the voyage progresses.

What really impressed me are...what I call the 'formal' aspects of the book. I don't know whether that's the proper LitCrit word, but what I like is books which play around with the form or structure of the novel**. SotS uses multiple narrative viewpoints and intersperses real-time with flashback, plus a post-modernistic collage of things like newspaper stories, extracts from the ship's log, etc. These are all held together under the mantel of Victorian chapter headings ('In which we learn of the DREADFUL EVENTS...' &c &c), etchings of famine victims, racist Punch magazine portayals of Irishmen and extracts from letters, newspapers, etc. The book appears to be well reseached***, with lots of sources in the endnotes, so one assumes this material to be genuine. One item that shocked me was an entreaty that the poor of Ireland should do the patriotic thing and hang themselves from the nearest tree.

But we've seen all that multiple-narrative, multi-textured stuff done before. Whats really impressive is the way O'Connor pulls it all together and makes the form crucial to the backbone to the book. I don't want to give spoilers...but there's a reason why one person is aware of the viewpoints and why all the material is collected together, and that reason is central to both his character and (I think) his role in the key event of the voyage.

So basically it's a very gentle, very subtle collapsing wave function thingy, done in a totally unshowoff-y 'look at me aren't I a clever novelist' way.

And did I mention? It's a rattling good yarn!

Next up are 'Fathers and Sons' by Turgenev and 'Oryx and Crake' by Margaret Atwood.

*Get him, showing off his literary terms!

** Provided they do it for a reason. I hated Zadie Smith's 'White Teeth' for a different reason (I found it patronising, bordering on racist, to some of her characters.) But I believe she does clever things with the likes of chapter titles, gives each character she introduces a name starting with successive letters of the alphabet, etc. Well...If I didn't notice, what was the point? David Mitchell also, apparently, uses mathematical structures in 'Cloud Atlas' and 'Revolution No 9'. I shall reserve judgement not having read them...but I understood he did the same in a watered down way in 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet'...and I didn't notice even though I knew in advance. Although I did enjoy the book.

*** O'Connor has said in interviews that he read lots of sources, but he admits in the notes that he took liberties with a few things. One anachronism I caught him out on, though, was frequent references to 'hygeine'. But would this have figured in minds before Joseph Lister? Cleanliness at best, but that was more an aesthetic thing to do with first class not being able to smell steerage.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The thing in the picture is called a Merkin, by the way.

So in a move of staggering irresponsibility, Frau Reichskanzler…sorry…Bundeskanzler Angela Merkel has declared that German multiculturalism has failed

"At the start of the 60s we invited the guest-workers to Germany. We kidded ourselves for a while that they wouldn't stay, that one day they'd go home. That isn't what happened. And of course the tendency was to say: let's be 'multikulti' and live next to each other and enjoy being together, [but] this concept has failed, failed utterly."…
…"Germany should … get tougher on those who refuse to integrate before
opening itself up to further immigration."

Hmm. I wonder when precisely it was that Germany flirted with an active policy of multiculturalism? We note, for example., that it was only with the 1997 citizenship reforms, implemented only to avoid EU-wide embarrassment, that German born, third-generation individuals of foreign background were granted automatic citizenship at birth. This tardiness promoted integration how?

I have problems with this M-word anyway. Leaving aside that it's seldom defined, the insinuation (is it not?) is that multiculturalism was some sort of well-meaning, liberal-left policy. To point out its naivety is not racism, simply part of the ‘reasonable’ debate around immigration alluded to in this article by Slavoj Žižek. Except…I fear that that even if we allow that Merkel et al are engaging in a sincere, philosophical debate, this is not the message they have put across. For "multiculturalism has failed" read "immigrants are a problem".

Which is – surprise – what they, and others, actually think. Merkel must know full well what impact her words will have. But let’s try to tease out why people think like that, and why particularly in early 21stC Europe. We know, from experience, that racism can be exacerbated by unfavourable socio-economic conditions. But the problem is less simplistic than ‘poor people are racists’ – that doesn’t account for the middle class support of the likes of Geert Wilders, the Sweden Democrats, or, indeed, are own, dear British Nazi Party (who, contrary to the lumpen stereotype, draw a fair number of votes from the leafier council wards*).

Germany’s recent history includes importation of Gastarbeiter, especially from Turkey, when their industrial need was for unskilled, cheap (note that word – cheap) labour. (other countries filled the need by similar means, e.g. British importation of Pakistani and Bengali labour). These are the people Frau Merkel wishes had gone back when demand fell**. Meantime, Germany underinvested in the education and social conditions of the children and grandchildren of Gastarbeiter - why invest in an underclass you don’t want or expect to fit in? - and we are left with disadvantaged ghettos. Nowadays, Germany still has skills gap, which they are filling via quotas for skilled immigration (c.f. arrangements put in place by the Labour govt. and carried on by the ConDems). After all, it is much cheaper to suck skilled resources out of the developing world than it educate the disadvantaged in your own country. Adam Smith as applied to the teaching profession: only do those things that you can't buy in cheaper from somewhere else.

So where does this take us? Wellll…(reaches for copy of ‘Das Kapital’) (only kidding! ‘Marxism for Beginners’ is a more manageable read.) What’s being said about immigrants is that they are valued solely for their Labour. (Merkel is saying this pretty explicitly, isn’t she? "…We kidded ourselves for a while that they wouldn't stay, that one day they'd go home..."). In Marxist terms we might call this ‘Commodification’ – the jargon isn’t important, but the point is that the purchasers of the labour commodity (yes, ‘Capitalists’ – but also German society in the round) are only interested in the labour, not in the people who, inconveniently, supply it. So they are welcome to sell their labour within a host country, when the market demands it, under carefully circumscribed conditions, just so long as they don’t bring their thoughts, desires or culture with them. That’s not part of the deal.

And what else do we get from commodification? Alienation. We have to be careful here, though. It would be a mistake to think of a pool of clannish immigrants who are partly or wholly the architects of their misfortune, through their alienated behaviour, like teenage Goths. Alienation is something imposed, something that arises from socio-economic conditions. Yes, immigrants do sometimes look to one another when they have class boundaries imposed on them. Wouldn’t you?

But why should this inward-looking or alleged lack of integration matter? What does it signify? (‘Signify’ in the sociological sense, that is). Well it’s useful for the mainstream society to have a class to look down on, isn’t it? And convenient when that class is identifiable as ‘The Other’. In straitened times, it’s just as comforting for the majority to turn inwards and feel the solidarity of a beleaguered European culture. Kinda shifts the blame, eh?

"Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch! Sie haben nichts in ihr zu verlieren als ihre Ketten."

* There was a survey a while back which indicated people were less likely to sympathise with racist ideas if they lived in areas with significant immigration, but – damn – I can’t find the link just now.)

** There's still a healthy demand for really, really cheap labour, including slave labour. This highly recommended book provides an eye-opening account of the working conditions of migrant and slave labour in Britain. It's not an underground or fringe phenomenon. Many work in the supply chain for major brand names or for the public services.