Monday, September 28, 2009

Things I Don't Understand


There are some things which I find very hard to understand. Roman Polanski, who has been on the run for many years after being convicted of raping a child, has finally been arrested and is awaiting extradition to the US. His crime is one that most people find horrific and deserving of severe punishment, yet his work has been feted and he himself has received little but adulation over the years. Now, not only the film world and the more general luvvie/liberal tendency, but politicians, including national leaders, are clamouring for his release. It was a long time ago and he is now an old man, and it could be right to, at least, bear these facts in mind, but the idea behind some of the criticisms I have seen of his arrest is clearly that he should be freed because it's the Americans who are after him, or because he makes films and is therefore not subject to the normal rules. This is incomprehensible.

I don't understand how people who think of themselves as leaders or formers of opinion, and claim to legitimately occupy the political or bureaucratic posts they hold, can claim that having two referenda in Ireland is compatible with democracy, whereas holding one anywhere else would be pandering to populism. Call me an idealist but when governments act in accordance with the will of the people we have democracy, and when that will can be freely expressed in the knowledge that it will be acted upon, democracy has triumphed, whatever the will actually expressed. But in the EU (and in other places, too) democracy is when the people want what they are told to want; otherwise it is anti-democratic for their elected representatives to listen to them (and usually the work of 'right-wing extremists'). The Irish have been forced to vote again, a means has been contrived to ignore the stated will of the French and the Dutch, and no one else will be allowed to make their desires in the matter known in a politically embarassing manner (the will of the British people is perfectly well known, which is why Gordon Brown refused to honour his promise).

The sudden change of mind by the boss of Ryan Air suggests that he expects favours from the commission next time he wants to expand his company. The commission used our money to pay for flights to Ireland for people who promised to canvas for a 'yes' side, and also to publish a propaganda supplement in an Irish paper yesterday. These things are against the spirit of democracy, against the rules of referenda in Ireland, against the commissions own rules on these things, and quiet possibly illegal. None of this will bother them, but it ceratinly bothers them when someone who is not an Irish citizen, or is not on Irish soil, dares to manifest an opinion against the treaty. Then it becomes 'unacceptable interference', 'scaremongering', neo-colonialism', 'xenophobia', and the usual abuse and shouting down.

I also don't understand why there is an almost universal assumption that José Manuel Zelaya was illegally deposed by a military coup in Honduras. Without wishing to defend anything categorically, I must say the position of the de facto government is worth hearing. Zelaya acted unconstitutionally by trying to change the constitution to prolong his term. The fear, I suppose, was that he was trying to do a Chavez, or at least a Morales, and that this would not have been good for the country. When the decision of the supreme court was confirmed, Parliament (in which his party has a majority) voted to remove him from office. His removal was carried out by the army because, again under what appears to be a well-made constitution, that is the body to whom such tasks are entrusted. No government or media source that has shown an interest seems to recognize these facts.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Of More Bridges and River


About 12 kms South of here there is a river, little more than a dribble much of the time, and barely even that this summer, but even when there is no water there is a sense of coolness and green, a ribbon of green that winds through the dry, yellow-brown land.

It is not a prodigy of natural beauty, but it has as certain interest, and is worthy a look for several reasons: firstly, at least it is green and wet, and there isn't much of that here; secondly, there is a farm there, a large collection of rather dilapidated buildings which have a certain charm and a strong smell of sheep; thirdly, there is an old railway bridge there, an iron structure, though of less aesthetic and technical merit than the one to the North; and fourthly, and most importantly for those who like that sort of thing, just beyond the river the old railway line sweeps away from the new, which carries straight on through a hill, just at the point where the old one sweeps back and climbs the same hill, using it as a natural bridge to pass over the new, then describing a curve out on the other side, and coming back to run beside each other again. This manoeuvre was required at some point, because when the finally separate, the old line goes West, while the new goes South, and the solution is clever and beautiful (again, if you like that sort of thing).

As we rested before starting back, the sheep came by, hundreds of them, stirring up a dust cloud that made them almost invisible as they wandered away, in the general direction of their barn. They had, presumably, finished eating, or the shepherd had decided it was getting too hot.

We returned yesterday to another couple of bridges which cross the river to the North. The one in the picture is long disused, and it's chief interest is in the visible remains of the mill that was once there. On the other side there are areas of peat, which can burst into flame unexpectedly and needs to be treated with some caution as you cross it. There was no water at all there, although there was further along, nearer the tail of the reservoir. Even so, the riverbed was green.

An old man on a bike said that he remembered how, as a child, he had seen the water rushing along in a torrent two metres deep, threatening to burst the banks of what is now just a dry trench. When I am his age, I shall probably remember it, too.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Remembrance of Things Past

Looking at old photographs of places you have known is like seeing pictures of friends as children- you have a sense of familiarity but it doesn't quite fit your ideas. Comparing old photos and old maps with the present state of things is a temptation very hard to resist (I am, for once, with Oscar on this).

Returning to the point (for there is one) I discovered a collection of 19thC maps of my old home town that I'd forgotten I had, and that was the afternoon gone, of course. It is fascinating to discover which roads are no more, where people used to think it mattered to get to on foot, and how many brick factories there are (there's no stone in that area, and the brickworks go back to the Romans).

There are old railway lines, old factories, old farms, old wildernesses, old houses which have been replaced by newer shops, old churches destroyed by Philistines and, in this particular case, an old swimming pool in the bend of the river which I am not quite old enough (or lucky enough) to remember.

There are those who do not become excited by the sight of what once was beside (even if only mentally; in fact, especially if mentally) what is now, but such people are hard to understand. The comparison of what those who came before us thought they needed with what we think we need now is quite extraordinarily fascinating. How did people construct their mental world when, physically, it was different from ours?

The place to go for old photos around England seems to be Francis Frith, who sells books and individual prints, and for old maps Alan Godfrey is a good source.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Found Hiding Under a Stone on a Distant Beach- Good Journalism

While trawling through the dismal collection of derivative waffle, breathless excitement, self-important posturing, profound ignorance, schoolgirlish gossiping, opinionated dogma and general crassness and tedium which our media offer us these days instead of news (and probably always did) I came across this, from the Guardian. It happens to be about a subject I am interested in, which is why I read it, but I was captivated to find an article written by a person of intelligence, who understood the subject of his text and had taken the trouble to find out, analyze, contrast, put in context and structure the relevant background and opinions on the story, who was telling a real, if rather specialized, story, for those who might want to know, and not retailing an anecdote in the hope of grabbing someone's attention, who places the facts at the centre of the story, and quotes the opinions that matter, rather than smearing his own all over the thing. You actually learn something from reading it.

It is not the Platonic form of newspaper articles, let's not get carried away, but it is so much better than anything else I read yesterday that I tip my spines to Ed Pilkington for having given me genuine pleasure and done his job as it should be done.

The article, for those who haven't clicked the link, is about a new production of Tosca at the Met, by Luc Bondy, to take the place of Zefferelli's, which they've been doing for 20 years. This is a bit like getting Vivienne Westwood to do out the Long Room at Lord's, and at the premiere on Monday the audience expressed its displeasure with some zest. Here's the NYT on the same subject.

For what it's worth, I've only seen the Zefferelli on TV, and the sets seemed a bit overdone, though the interpretation of the libretto is very satisfying (I mean it feels right). I don't like the sound of what Bondy has done at all, but it might need to settle down, stop trying to be clever, and get to know its audience.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why are My Eyes on the Front of My Head?


One of the problems with understanding evolution, and genetics in general, is that it is offer explained in the language of teleology. This appears to be an unconscious habit, but it confuses the learner and does not reflect the current state of knowledge.

A few days ago I spoke about a man who talks nonsense about human evolution, and who should have known better, since he is a man formed in the sciences, not some cultural studies/lit crit type.

Máximo Sandín has clearly decided to join the ranks of unreason because he thinks it will help him defend his beliefs with regard to great apes and animal conservation in general. Perhaps he also wants to get back at the international academy for not recognising him as a genius. And, as I said in the original post, he's just not as bright as he thinks he is.

He has no excuse. Plenty of people do have an excuse, however, because of the habit of saying that Homo erectus had a pronounced zygomatic arc because it had to chew hard foods, that a thick skull is to protect from blows, that a rabbit has big ears so that it can hear predators and zebras developed stripes to confuse lions. None of this is true, because no organ or characteristic or phenotype has a purpose beyond the use that an animal puts it to. They arrive by chance, by recombination or mutation, and they can be passed on down the generations. If they offer a significant survival advantage it is possible that, over a very long period of time, those with the new characteristic will outnumber those without, because they use it to live longer and reproduce more.

These changes come about by chance. They were not planned, conceived, created in response to some purpose. These characteristics do not develop because they are needed, but because those who have them happened to survive, while the rest got eaten. A group of Miocene equids did not sit around a table and say, 'Hey, let's paint ourselves black and white. That'll get the lions going.' It just happened, and they find it useful.

I'm not saying anything new or revolutionary here, just pointing out one source of misunderstanding. After all, if there is a purpose, there must be someone or something that can both conceive the purpose and bring about the means of achieving it.

GP RIP

Thirty six years ago today, Gram Parsons made a prat of himself for the final time, at the Joshua Tree motel in the desert of California. The mess he made of his life is a pity, as he could was from a wealthy family and could have done anything he wanted, and his finest music was made a few months before he died. But his family was also very messy, and drugs and music were a way of trying to turn it into something better.

Death, on the other hand, froze him in early youth, and froze his music at a point that has served as a reference for many more successful singers and songwriters. He gave us Emmylou Harris, the Eagles, Wilco, The Byrds, Sheryl Crow and countless others. I'm pretty sure he also influenced the origins of punk, but maybe we aren't so grateful for that.

The stories are well known, hanging out with Keith Richards, joining, transforming and leaving the Byrds, opening for the Grateful Dead, fighting with everyone he ever sang with, walking out on record companies, taking off on the motorbike without warning, and dying with an icecube up his backside and having his body stolen and burnt in the desert. But the songs were what mattered, and they still are. Who can listen to $1000 Wedding or Brass Buttons without getting goosebumps?

Sharper readers of this blog will already have noticed I'm a bit of a fan. If you are too, let us bow our heads and put Grievous Angel on the CD. If you're not, or don't even know what I'm talking about, normal service will be resumed shortly.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Yves Cortez


This chap is an amateur who tried to turn Romance lingüístics on its head and didn't understand why the experts ignored him. For those of you who read Spanish, here is the blog post that made me think about him, and below is the comment I posted there (The blog is mostly about Palaeoanthropology and I 've only just discovered it, but it looks interesting).


"No es dogma, sino una teoría avalada y respaldada por gran número de estudios a lo largo de décadas. Es muy poco probable que haya errores tan fundamentales como pretende Cortez. Aunque Yves Cortez hizo bien sus deberes y pretendió presentar un argumento creíble, hay mucho que no comprende o no sabe valorar. Las lenguas romances no descienden del latín clásico (literario) y mucho menos del latín de tiempos de Julio Cesar, sino del latín popular del fin del imperio occidental. Este tampoco es un idioma oculto, sino que está bien atestiguado en muchos escritos, de tipo popular además de culto u oficial.

Decir que el vocabulario de las lenguas romances no es latino es muy extraño, y el ejemplo que pone para demostrar lo contrario es, francamente, absurdo.

Las lenguas tienden a simplificarse en cuanto a su gramática, fenómeno bien documentado en muchos casos, y con la pérdida de desinencias llegan cambios en el orden de palabras y una mayor rigidez de la misma. El latin vulgar del siglo I ya había perdido ciertas formas verbales que usaba la lengua clásica, y tenía un perfecto y un futuro con auxiliares, como el español y el francés de hoy. En cambio, las terminaciones del pasado imperfecto en español sí corresponden a las del latín, así como las terminaciones de los superlativos, p.e. (los primeros ejemplos que se me vienen).

El latín sí tenía artículos. Como todos (probablemente) los idiomas, tenía artículos demostrativos. Los artículos indefinidos de las lenguas romances vienen del número unum, y los definidos de los demostrativos 'ille' etc (ya los usaba el latín vulgar para este propósito).

Los juramentos de Estrasburgo están escritos en romance común, una especie de latín sin casi sin desinencias y vuelto muy analítico. Naturalmente un hispano-parlante lo lee con relativa facilidad.

Conozco el libro por comentarios, reseñas, extractos publicados por el propio Yves Cortex, etc; por eso me limito a responder a los puntos concretos citados en este post. Pero lo he hecho sin consultar ningún texto, gramática o estudio. No ha hecho falta.

Por la misma razón los expertos (no lo soy) le han hecho poco caso, porque les es obvio de entrada que su tesis es errónea.

Disculpa el comentario tan largo, pero acabo de descubrir este blog (a través de anthropology.net) y veo que tienes mucho que decir. Sería una pena que perdieras más tiempo con este asunto."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Hickory Roadkill


Hedgehog news has been fairly light recently, but I have to mention this, and I must say I'm not entirely convinced. I enjoy bad taste as much as anyone, and as a libertarian (on my own terms) I wouldn't dream of legislating anyone else's soft toy collection, but this is a bit near the knuckle. Personally I've learnt to look both ways and I'm considered pretty bright as hedgehogs go, but I've seen too many of the brethren end up like this to laugh too heartily.

Oh well, it's all good, clean fun.

Tip of the spines to Danny Finkelstein at the Times

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Máximo Sandín

This chap is a biologist, a lecturer in the anthropology of human evolution in the biology department at the Autonomous University of Madrid. I mention this not just to give an idea of who he is, but to show that he is supposed to be a specialist in the development of Homo sapiens, and that he works in the science faculty at a serious university. Which just goes to show that it isn’t only in the humanities departments of the Anglosphere that you can find unreason.

It’s fairly clear that he is just not very bright, and should probably have gone in for something less intellectually demanding. He can’t get a complete grasp of the literature, having to construct his arguments from very general, hazy (and inaccurate, as we shall see) notions interspersed with odd details to which he attaches too much importance.

He claims that he does not publish in English language journals because he doesn’t want to pander to the Anglo-Saxon dominance of cultural assumption, and he specifically says that words like ‘fitness’ and 'selfish' cannot be properly translated into Spanish. This last point is true, but quite immaterial. There is no Spanish word which covers all the acceptions and connotations of the English word ‘fit’ and its derivatives (though his own suggestion, 'pringao' is a particularly inept translation, and he seems to think selfishness is, in English, held to be a positive quality), but it’s easy enough to explain the idea in any context, and people working in the field of human evolution understand the term perfectly in that context. There is no ambiguity, whatever their native tongue (because they understand the idea, not the word used to name it). Sandín gets grandiosely, and rather foolishly, Whorfian on this point.

I suspect he doesn’t publish in the more prestigious journals because they don’t accept his submissions. And since he doesn’t seem to do any real research, just churn out articles musing about how Darwinians are wrong and why doesn’t everyone listen to him instead, this is perhaps not surprising.

He states, and it seems to be a cornerstone of his faith, that the Australopithecines were not ancestors of man or a dead branch on the evolutionary line that led to Homo sapiens, but the ancestors of chimpanzees (Australopithecus africanus), and gorillas (Paranthropus robustus). He doesn’t explain satisfactorily why he thinks this is the case. Apparently it’s just obvious, no real evidence is needed. On the other hand, he brushes aside the detailed analyses of anatomical structure which allows the experts in the field to distinguish between the hominid lineage and the other ape lines. It is hard to imagine why he thinks he is the only person to have noticed their glaring errors, nor what those errors supposedly are, since he doesn’t say.

He refers to ‘Darwinism’ in much the same way that creationists do, as though it were some kind of idealistic belief defended against all logic by a powerful clique. This is typical of the closed and limited mind; it reduces ideas it cannot understand in detail to simple beliefs, and attributes them collectively to the body of people he imagines oppose him. These are straw men arguments, since the people who work in the field do not ‘believe’ in this sense at all; they observe, they tabulate, compare and contrast data, they interpret it in so far as seems reasonable and safe, they construct hypotheses which they then test by designing further experiments or, in this field, usually by what chance leads them to discover. Qua scientists they do not ‘believe’ anything at all.

Our knowledge about the history of evolution has grown enormously since the publication in the mid 19thC of the work of Darwin and others, and continues to grow, constantly altering the proposed reconstructions of our own and other lineages. It is well understood by palaeo-anthropologists that what is known is a tiny fraction of what there is to know, and geneticists are likewise aware that they have barely begun their work. Nevertheless, there is much that is known to be true, including the fact that species evolve.

It is worth reading both ‘On the Origin of Species’ and ‘The Descent of Man,’ if only to have some understanding of the extent and conscientiousness of the research Darwin undertook before setting out the theories that he derived from it. It was not some vision that came to him in the night and which he and his acolytes down the generations have worked to impose on a blinkered academy, but a source of information and ideas which have all been tested and added to down the years.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Norman Borlaug

To my shame, I had never heard of this man until he died a few days ago. Many people do seem to know a lot about him and have noted his passing. I quoted a few weeks ago the words of Jonathan Swift, ‘Whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind, and does more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.’ It turns out that Borlaug was one such man. He used a combination of science and an understanding of the places and the people he was trying to help, to dramatically improve crop yields in Asia and S America, and to a lesser extent, Africa, saving hundreds of millions from starvation, and improving the lives of billions. Few people in the history of the world have done as much. Possibly no one at all.

He only had limited success in Africa for the usual reasons; the stupidity and evil of those who might have helped, had they not been seduced by bad science and worse politics. More and better informed comments on the man, his work and on those who still try to make others starve in the name of ill-conceived ideals will be found here, here, here, here, here and here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Three Hares in a Window


At Long Melford in Suffolk there is a magnificent church, interesting in its own right and truly magnificent for what is no more than a small village. Those who know the area won't be surprised to learn that it's a wool church, and it owes its size to the two merchant families of the village who competed with other in ostentatious piety over several generations. The stone is inlaid with flint, which is also typical of the churches of the area.

It was built in the 15thC but the tower was badly damaged twice and the currently visible structure is from the late 19thC. It actually encases the old tower rather than replacing it, so the stairway that takes you up to the bells and the roof is part of the 18thC tower which replaced the original. It has eight bells on the frame, again a very large number for a country church, and both the bells and the frame are original. There is a large Lady Chapel, built later on the end of the church, in a different style and slightly separated from it. A bit strange, it looks.

The views from the roof are worth the climb, and some of the stained glass is very interesting. It includes the only known example of the three hares symbol in stained glass. The following is pinched from Wikipedia, which seems to sum it up pretty well:

The symbol features three hares chasing each other in a circle. Each of the ears is shared by two animals so that only three ears are shown. It has a number of mystical associations and is often associated with fertility and the lunar cycle. However, its precise origins and significance are uncertain, as are the reasons why it appears in such diverse locations.

The earliest occurrences appear to be in cave temples in China, which have been dated to the Sui dynasty (6th to 7th centuries). The Three Hares also feature in 'roof bosses' (carved wooden fixtures) in the ceilings in almost 30 medieval churches in Devon, England (particularly Dartmoor), as well as churches in France and Germany, in 13th century copper coin, found in Iran, dated to 1281.

I don't know why it's there, nor what it's supposed to mean. A reference to the Trinity, perhaps. But it's quite small, like a saucer, and the hares are not complete, nor is it part of any narrative. It's just on its own, another curiosity in a curious building.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

When is a number not a number?


The other day, it seems, some magician 'predicted' the lottery results. I'm surprised no one's tried it before, actually, given the interest the lottery always seems to attract. From the article it would appear that the trick was well done, impressive and entertaining, and the audience liked it.

How did he do it? Well, I wouldn't know, of course. There are two basic types of prediction trick, one in which you control the outcome of the event (pick a card, any card) to get the result you want, and the other is when you delay the prediction until after the outcome is known. I think we can assume this Brown chap didn't rig the lottery, and in any case, when it's the outcome that is fixed you make the prediction in advanced, whereas he only made his prediction after the draw.

As entertainment it seems to have worked, which is the point of magic, and people who know rather more about these things than me have discussed how he might have done it. That isn't why it caught my attention. I was interested, rather, in the explanation the man himself gave- he said that he had asked a number of people in the audience to make predictions and had then taken the average of the numbers. He described this as the 'wisdom of crowds' and compared it to guessing the weight of a pig.

Now, if a hundred people who are used to dealing with pigs, guess the weight of a pig that's standing in front of them, the average of the guesses is likely to be close to the true weight of the animal. But this, as Mr Brown is no doubt well aware, has nothing to do with predicting lottery numbers, for two reasons:

firstly, and most obviously, the crowd has no knowledge of the numbers that willm be drawn, and thus has no wisdom it can possibly pool to give some kind of approximate answer;

secondly, and much more interestingly, the numbers in a lottery draw don't represent quantities, they are simply abstract symbols, with no relation between them or between any instances of their being drawn. Their sole purpose is to be different from each other so as to serve to distinguish the balls. The lottery organizers could have used colours, or regular polygons, or the outlines of fjords copied from a map of Norway, or or pictures of songbirds, or of names taken at random from the Basingstoke telphone directory. It is as meaningful in the context to speak of the average of these numbers as to refer to the average of those people from Basingstoke- there is nothing it can mean that is relevant to the problem.

Derren Brown is an entertainer, and apparently a good one; this explanation was part of the misdirection which allowed him to pull off the trick. I just wanted to spell put why the 'explantion' he gave is rubbish.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Summer is Well and Truly Summed

Summer is far from over here, it is still 90º in the early afternoon, there is barely a cloud to be seen for days on end, the birds sing in the trees, the dormice screech at dusk and chase each other all around the garden and up into the trees (specifically the males chase the females, just to make it clear), and it is still a great place to wake up in the morning and decide what to do in.

But the sun is setting earlier, the wasps are dying and Hickory has a living to earn, so tomorrow I shall return to civilization to prepare for work. The last lake has been swum in, the last morning glimpse of the countryside through the opening shutter has been taken, the last cold beer has been drunk against the rosy backdrop of the last Manchego sunset. The last scorpion has been removed from the shoe, the last sandwich of ants and clay has been consumed, the last drying t-shirt has been rescued from the middle of a juniper bush, the last punctured bicycle tyre 20 miles from home has been repaired, and the city awaits.

Readers of this blog aren't likely to notice much difference, except that there will be photos once more and I might show some signs of knowing what's going on in the world. Or there again, maybe not.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The art of seeing- a draft

Once, while in the country with Mrs Hickory, I stopped, looked fixedly at something off to my left, took a few steps towards it, and then drew her attention to the curious structure of the distant sewage works, rather than plucking and presenting her with the rose growing beside the path, which is what she thought I was going to do, and which I hadn’t noticed. A certain friction ensured, even though it was a particularly interesting sewage works.

How often are you walking down the street and someone you’re with says ‘Wow, look at that,’ and then has to tell you all about it because ‘that’ has already disappeared. Or you hear lines like ‘it was just after we passed the car crash/Paul McCartney/the girl in the purple bikini/the pink elephant… what do you mean “what pink elephant?”’

It isn't easy to see things as they really are. Or even to see them at all. We tend to look at tiny details, missing their place in the whole, or to interpret a general impression as though it were both real and applicable to everything contained within it. Seeing is a skill, an art if you like, that can be developed with practice, but which some will always have to a higher degree than others. What does it consist of, and why does it matter?

One of the things that makes a good football referee or cricket umpire (add sport to taste) is the ability to see, in real time and from wherever it happens to catch him, the truth of an action, while the rest of us will have to wait for the third slow-motion replay to begin to get an idea. Not that they are always right, of course, and it doesn't stop us shouting with absolute conviction no matter how often we have been shown to be wrong. We tend not to learn that what we think we saw is not necessarily what we did see, and that we can, sometimes, be shown unequivocally to be wrong.

Politicians, by which I mean here those who govern in general, must have an ability to let details stand in for the overall truth. Of the information which they would need to be able to act properly, even if were just in their own interests, there is much that is invisible, much that is not just unknown, but whose importance or very existence is unknown, and there is in any case far too much of it to assimilate into a model for the construction of policy. They see a few things, persuade themselves and us that those are the significant facts, and proceed from there.

In the experimental sciences, it is very important to know what you are looking for, and how to recognise it. Policeman and journalists need to possess a certain degree of observational skill, to see things others might miss, and to see them as they are. Both are, presumably, trained in this.

Artists must have this skill. No amount of training can do more than enhance slightly the ability to observe that an artist must have. Seeing in this sense is much more than using the eyes; it is using the mind, the intelligence, some special instinct, the soul if you like, and experience, too, to see more of what is there, and more than what is there, to see it more clearly in relation to other things, to understand its place in the world, to perceive how it might be understood by others, to determine how to give it a form of expression, and a meaning that is worth expressing and makes sense within the world that an artist creates with each work.

I’m not suggesting that only some august body called ‘artists’, different from the philistine plebs, are blessed with this arcane gift. Some people make specific use of the art of seeing, others don’t seem to think it matters. But it does. A simple walk in the country is made much more enjoyable, much richer, if you are more aware of what’s around you, in the sky above you or on the horizon, circling, in the trees, hiding behind bushes or under stones or in the wheat, watching you or smelling you from a distance, waiting to see which way you go. As you move through the countryside you will always be seen by far more things than you can see yourself, probably far more than you can imagine, but it is worth trying to balance it up a bit.

In the office it pays to notice how people dress, how they are feeling, how things change, and whether it’s sudden, which gives you a clue as to why, and tells you a lot that may be useful. This is also true in marriage, it goes without saying.

As the title says, this is just a draft, but I post it now because otherwise I never will.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Some Bloke Thinks You Should Listen to him (again)

Michael Moore thinks capitalism is evil, apparently, and so has made a film that he hopes will be a commercial success in order to tell us so. We can tell he wants it to be a success because he has spent a considerable sum marketing it.

It might help if he knew what capitalism was. He thinks capitalism is evil because 'it lets some people get rich while the rest are not.' That is, of course, its greatness. The free movement of capital, along with freedom of production and of trade, and minimal state interference, is what allows societies as a whole to become wealthy, meaning the poor become less poor and more rich people exist. Michael Moore is one of the rich people, and he has become rich (or perhaps merely wealthy, but compare him to a Puerto Rican barman in Harlem if you want to know what inequality means) and he has been able to do that because the country he lives in is not some socialist tyranny but a place where people are free to do many things, including investing their own money as they see fit.

Wasn't this film a gamble, by the way? Despite the money (whose?) invested in it, it might be a flop. There could be losses. Shouldn't this sort of thing be confined to the roulette table? Dirty capitalist. Shame on the man.

OK, so he's just one more self-important little hypocrite, and God knows there are plenty of them, but I have a feeling he'll get a lot of attention, and be taken fairly seriously, when the film comes out.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Joaquín Sorolla

One of Spain's greatest painters, and certainly the greatest of the modernists, is little known in England. Joaquín Sorolla was from Valencia, but worked all around Spain, seeking inspiration in the activities of its people, its regional festivities, and particularly, the light on its beaches. He also painted in Italy, France and the US, where he was very popular.

His paintings are full of light, life and movement (his father-in-law was a pioneer of photography and influenced the way he observed scenes). There is often an area of the painting that is more detailed than the rest and which stands out as the focus for that reason. His composition is very carefully structured but apparently effortless. The faces even of minor characters in his works contribute to the expression of the whole, reflecting their attitude to their in it, each having personality of its own. His portraits likewise are not of some bloke or some old dear sitting in a chair, but of unique individuals, perhaps of his invention, but people with life and feeling, and with something of interest to the viewer. Many of his paintings have one or more characters looking at the viewer, smiling, giggling, looking surprised, even nudging someone else and pointing, as though the painter were there in front of them.

There is currently an extensive exhibition of his work at the Prado, including many paintings never before shown in Spain. Mrs Hickory has long been a fan, so we ventured along. Take a look at him, in the flesh if you can. He was not one of the crowd, he was very definitely one of the greats.

Particle Accelerator Porn

There I was, planning a post on the awfulness of the British press, as if anyone needed reminding, when the Telegraph came up with this beauty- an article which perfectly encapsulates everything which makes our media in general into objects of contempt. Go and have a read, but it comes down to this: teenage girl in Australia comes up with worst excuse in history after being caught shagging in the toilets.

The thinking goes something like this: It isn't news, but it's got sex in it, so we'll pretend it is. Then we'll take it seriously because we are, like, a 'serious newspaper'. We can't show a picture of the girl, not even a link to the video [you can feel their collective tongue hanging out at this point] so instead we'll show a suggestive picture of the Large Hadron Collider [you really do need to read the article]. Then we'll waffle retrospectively about impending doom, that'll get the punters in.

Because that's the problem with the press. They don't do the job they self-importantly tell us they do. Journalists love to claim that they are brave souls, manning the ramparts of freedom and single-handedly defending the rest of us against tyranny. A few, truly brave souls, around the world, have, on occasion, done that, usually paying with their livelihood, their freedom or their lives. But such people were only incidentally journalists; journalism was a tool by which they tried to do what they felt they should.

Journalists spin yarns for money and a sense of position. They are the working man's court dwarf, hired entertainers, peddling gossip, anecdote and derivative blather. And their own opinions, of course, which are so much better and more important than other people's. Truth, relevance, importance, freedom, knowledge, understanding? No, thanks. Selling newspapers and getting your name known is what matters to the press. It isn't that journalism has been corrupted, it is in its very nature to be like this. It started that way, as trading in tittle-tattle, and it has always been that way.

How to find real news, and who will actually man the barricades should the need arise, are a couple of questions I'm still working on, but the Telegraph is not the answer to either of them. Nor is the BBC.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Why is this man in charge of the government?

There are quite a few contenders for the reference in the subtitle of the previous post, but one I had in mind was Gordon Brown. The man is clearly mentally ill, and has been for years. And he is not a leader of anything, not of the country, and not of the Labour party. Who would look to Gordon Brown to guide them in moments of doubt, to define their beliefs, guide their actions, give them that sense of justification and confidence that true leaders inspire in those who follow them? Who has ever thought, 'We need Gordon to get us out of this, to think of something fun, to tell us what to do, to make it all possible?'

No one. Ever, I should think. When Gordon sat round with his friends as a lad, assuming he had any, did they turn to him instinctively when they were bored or they wanted to try something rdaring? Was he the one whose company people sought, whose group they tried to get into, whose clothes they copied? Was he the first to get the school tart behind the bike sheds? The first to get a nipple piercing? The first to ride a motorbike down the High Street late at night? Was he captain of the rugby team? Has he ever been acknowledged as a leader by anyone who didn't expect a payoff?

He is a plastic leader, the kind who the real leaders have allowed to call himself leader for the day, and then have to tell him what to do, the kind who is grudgingly allowed to decide the teams because it's his ball, the kind who doesn't realize nobody is obeying him, and they are only listening to him for a laugh, like Sancho Panza in the Ínsula Barataria. That is the man who is supposed to be running the country.

I mention this now because Not Born Yesterday has a detailed and careful post on the subject of Brown's fitness to govern, not a politically inspired rant or the ramblings of some bloke in the pub, but a series of observations and argued interpretations leading to a tentative conclusion. I found it via Old Holborn, to whom a tip of the spines. It's worth reading carefully, not least for the speculation about the role of the Tories in his continued presence.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

British Rail- The Other National Embarassment

Hickory has been in England for ten days or so. This shouldn't have prevented blogging but circumstances have conspired to prevent it. But service is now resumed.

Circumstances can be irritating little buggers. And so can British Rail, or whatever that incompetent bunch of worthless penpushers and moaning jobsworths call themselves these days. Spain, as a nation, has often been accused of lacking sophistication in one area or another, sometimes rightly. Certainly, their approach to running the railways is refreshingly unsophisticated, rustic even. The train leaves at the time printed on the timetable and arrives when it says it will. On the (very rare, in my experience) occasions when this doesn't happen, they give you your money back. A simple idea, I think, but British Rail wants no truck with such simplicity.

I hope there is a special circle of Hell reserved for those responsible for running trains in Britain; 'managers' and those blokes who appear on television saying how wonderful their service is will spend eternity waiting on the north-bound platform at Aberdeen, with an icy gale blowing through and the café, waiting room and toilets all locked, for a train which is always 'expected shortly', but never comes, which should take them to a meeting which may change their lives, but which they know, in the hopelessness of their burning souls, even if it were finally to turn up, when Heaven and Earth have passed away, would only dump them in Inverness.

The station staff and ticket inspectors will spend their days being forced to listen to junior devils with monotone speech droning on about how bad the hours are, how no one appreciates the difficulties of devilling and how you can't get proper, sharp pitchforks these days, before apologising for the inconvenience and laughing maniacally. All of this will take place in the old latrines at Euston Station, which for years were supposed to be good enough for the rest of us.

I mention this deep loathing of British Rail because, while over there these last few days, one of the highlights, the highlight in fact, should have been having a few beers with a couple of old friends, both of whom I had lost touch with for years, and one of whom I have still not actually seen since we got in contact again. The skunkfelching cojones-munchers at BR decided that this was a bit much to expect, and that I would just have to wait till next year. The details of how exactly they chose to mess me around can easily be imagined by anyone familiar with this Stalinist bunch of gropecunts, as can the precise degree of regret they felt about it, and of responsibility they accepted.

As someone once said, and he might well have meant BR, 'I wish they all had one neck, and I had my hands on it.