Sunday, October 25, 2009

Enjoy Your Blogging While Ye May

I sometimes wonder if, one day, we will have to explain to our grandchildren what blogging was. How, in the very early days of the Internet, before a benign and enlightened government taught us that freedom of speech and thought were not a natural thing so basic to humanity that anyone who was denied them would risk hunger, poverty, violence, prison or death to try to obtain them, but a gift that they gave us on the condition that we use it responsibly, and only exercise it with permission in order to agree with the truth as decreed by those in charge, there were people (whisper it, I was one such) who said what they thought, who had unlicensed ideas, who discussed whatever they wanted with others around the world without asking leave of anyone. People who believed that what they thought and what they said was no business of anyone else's, and defended their words not with reference to law but to reason and humanity.

Our grandchildren will not believe us. And when we have assured them that it's true, they will think we were wrong to take such liberties, to think for ourselves and try to persuade others of things that we had not been explicitly instructed were right. Blogging will become a dirty thing, practised by zealots, traitors, seditionaries and paedophiles.

This is what the Righteous could achieve. They would farm our minds, they would give us a little licence only so that we might find new ways of beautifying their truth.

Friday, October 23, 2009

God Bless Matrimony

There are many reasons why I hope Mrs Hickory never notices my many imperfections. One of them is that I would hate to have to go through all this again. (Click on the picture).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

All Your Childz is Belong to Me

Yes, it's time for education and home-schooling again. A lot of people are getting excited once more, mostly the usual busy-bodies and desperate Labour MP's, and this has been causing comment around the blogosphere. The Devil and His Ecclesiastical (or Orological) Eminence have have had their say, and if you follow the comment threads you'll find others who are very bothered, too. Today Leg Iron picks up on what is, on the face of it, another extraordinary advance into what should be private and personal territory.

I've been putting a few ideas together with the intention of writing a great long post on the subject that nobody would bother to read, especially when you have Extreme Shepherding to entertain you. Instead of which, I've decided to divide it into a series of short posts on different aspects of the matter, and which will build into a longer post (in the hope that some of you will read a few bits, at least).
I don't claim to be an authority, and what I often in this first section are not supposed to be my credentials, the purpose is to explain my interest and my perspective. Everything else I say on the subject needs to be read with this in mind.

I have been a teacher for over twenty years; most of my work has always involved teaching, in various forms and settings, to children of all ages, to adult professionals, in private schools and specialist academies. I have for many years taught teachers, too, preparing them for the government exams which allow them to take up places in the state schools, as a result of which I have written books about the Spanish education system and education law. (Yes, my life really is that exciting.) None of which makes me an expert on anything, but it does give me a continued interest in the matter of education and a variety of perspectives from which to form an opinion.

I am also a human being, a political animal in the Aristotelian sense, a libertarian of the 'bugger off and leave me alone' kind, with a severe dislike of being told what to do, a professional who has no need of charity and is in good health, and an ex-reader of the Telegraph who is frequently irritated to discover that the Guardian is a better newspaper. I also have no children of my own, so the ones I introduce in the debate are hypothetical.

The Greatness of The Human Spirit

My prayers tonight will include the imprecation 'Dear Lord, please, please let this be real.'

Centuries of training young Englishmen to be terrified of women has paid off handsomely in the arts and the sciences, the military and politics, in exploration, adventure, fashion and sport. Now it pays off in a way that is rather hard to define, but is clearly what all the rest was leading up to, an activity which is far beyond anything covered by the term 'eccentricity'.

It is so magnificiently pointless, so sublime in its single-minded dedication of time, money, resources and creative energy to an end that is- though brilliant on its own terms, and without doubt jawdroppingly impressive- a towering monument to nothing, a staggeringly wonderful example of everything that is not meant by 'cool' that it gives me immense pleasure to know that I share a universe with these people.

And so I give you 'Extreme Shepherding'.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Thoughts for the Day

Quote(s) of the Day: Really. I do not want a woman who looks like A-level biology homework... Nobody seems to mind women who are so thin that if they ever produced enough hormones to give birth, the baby would weigh more than them... From leg-iron, and there's other good stuff, too.
My own position on this is hardly revolutionary- I like women to have a bit of flesh, to be soft. And I like to be healthy and feel good, I imagine other people do, too. To be constantly hungry and lacking sugar is not a good thing. They say the money's good, though.

Research of the Day: This isn't really new, and if it were I wouldn't be quoting the NYT, but it's a good introduction to an important detail of mammal evolution. Tip of the spines to John Hawks, as usual in these things.

Worthless heap of shit of the day: Arnaldo Otegi, bloke pushed to the fore by the smarter ones to take the rap for leading an (illegalized) front for the Basque terrorist movement. Make no mistake, they are murdering scum; they are the equivalent of Sinn Fein, with the difference that they are controlled by the terrorists rather than the other way around. He's just been arrested again for being too stupid to exploit the freedoms that democracy affords him and that he would deny to any and everyone he doesn't like. (Terrorist spokesmen are expected to be bright enough to use their enemies' morality against them). Since he is thick, thuggish, short, fat, ugly, with terrible hair and a grin that is worth serious investment in bricks, it gives me great pleasure to see him behind bars, a situation which he has repeatedly shown he is psychologically incapable of tolerating. Despite my reservations about the use of the law against people with unfashionable opinions who have not themselves done any quantifiable physical harm, I would love to plant a boot in his face.

Observation of the Day: The state has a duty to provide an education for your children if you cannot do so yourself, assuming a certain GDP etc; this does not mean that the government owns your children or that it has any authority to indoctrinate them, nor that you may not transmit your own ideas and values to your children. I have written about this before, and shall again. I would never entrust my children to the state.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Journey to the Alcarria

The weekend took me to La Puerta, a village in the province of Guadalajara. It’s a place no one really knows much about, so let’s add a little context. The city of Guadalajara is fairly near Alcalá de Henares, home of Cervantes and seat of an old and prestigious university, which is itself not far from Madrid. The province broadly corresponds to the old region of the Alcarria, which is known to Spaniards for two things only- everyone keeps bees, and Camilo José Cela wrote a book about it.

La Puerta is up in the mountains, and has about 100 inhabitants, though as it was a holiday weekend and the weather was good there were rather more on this occasion. It’s on the river Solana, a tributary of the Tagus (which later flows through Toledo and comes out at Lisbon). A lovely village, in a little valley between two great crests of rock. It’s easy enough to walk or climb up them and see the village, the valley and much of the surrounding area. Cela mentions it in his book, sending one of his characters there, and giving a brief description of the place.

On the slopes above the hill there are a number of small caves, natural entrances used for keeping barrels of wine, because the temperature is very stable throughout the winter. They also become impromptu bars at the weekend, when the tasting begins.

The rocks are lit up at night, giving a glow and a majesty to the whole place. The other picture is of an old stone bridge over the river, simple and elegant.

I remember the beehives, mostly home-made, from logs, pipes, paint pots and barrels, placed in protected spots on the mountainside. I remember the juniper bushes offering their berries to passersby, and the unwary might not notice that this variety is poisonous. I remember the bright sun and the great green landscapes, brilliant greens unlike the colours of the land down here. And I remember the Breasts of Viana.

Hickory being a happily married hedgehog pays no attention to non-proprietary breasts, but these are a different matter. A pair of conical hills, rising to over 1100m (3,600ft), topped by a pair of 60ft high karstic rock formations, each with a flat top about an acre in extent that you can walk on if you have the nerve to climb up the side.

We climbed the Greater Breast, to 1133m, to see the views on all sides, of La Puerta and the villages of Viana, Trillo, Azañón and Gargoles, of the nuclear power plant with its columns of steam casting long shadows on the tops of the trees. Green hilltops, houses lost in the mountains, the path of the river Solana visible as it wandered through the valley marked on both banks by cypress trees, and the curves of the Tagus bordered by mud; you can see it all from up there.

It is said that the Moors built a castle, a watchtower for the whole of the Alcarria and part of Cuenca, but the only remains are of an ‘aljibe’, an underground water tank. And it is said too that they still graze sheep there, driving or hauling them up somehow and leaving them to fend for themselves all winter. There is grass, after all, and there’s nowhere for them to go.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Satire RIP

I won't be the only one to say this, and it probably doesn't matter much, but the awarding of the Nobel peace prize to Barak Obama is a decision so inexplicably perverse as to invite speculation as to its motivation.

The prize has been a joke for decades, quite impossible to take seriously. When not giving it to terrorists or to failed politicians reduced to grandstanding, they are honouring people for being worthy in ways that do not seem to fit with the terms of the prize. And then there is the truly incomprehensible, as in the case of Al Gore and now Obama.

It's worth remembering what those terms are: According to Nobel's will, the Peace Prize is to go to whoever "shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses".

A certain leeway is to be expected, but the award has probably always been interpreted in quite different terms, as a chance to influence world events and/or express a personal opinion on them. The giving of the prize to Yasser Arafat can be interpreted as a hope that he would bring a relative peace to the Near East by not killing anyone for a while, and to Jimmy Carter as a desire that after years of running around like a headless chicken he might actually achieve something useful. The award to Aung San Suu Kyi was an attempt to draw world attention to the situation in Burma, and that of Mother Theresa a reward to one of the world's great women (despite the sniping of worthless windbags like Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ali, who discount 60 years of selfless and tireless work bringing kindness and relief to the suffering of Calcutta because the way she did it was not idealogical pure enough for them) for sacrificing her entire life to the service of others. Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank was an imaginative choice, recognising the huge importance of prosperity in the achievement of peace, and a very successful plan to increase it where such work was urgently required.

But Al Gore, Barak Obama? What have they ever done that could possibly be interpreted as contributing to world peace? What has Obama ever done, full stop? Ronald Reagan brought about (didn't just preside over but actually brought about) a huge reduction in the world's nuclear arsenal* and effectively ended the Cold War and its very real threat of Armageddon. But no prize for him. (It could be argued that Gorbachev got Reagan's prize). Even George Bush significantly reduced the remaining nuclear capacity early in his presidency, got rid of an evil dictator and persuaded several more to retire quietly and tend to their rabbits rather than wage war on the world. No prize for him either (not that he deserves it).

But Gore, that other worthless windbag, and Obama, an uninspiring leader whose sole supposed merit is being a good orator (and that is highly debatable) and who has not actually done anything whatsoever? Inexplicable, unbelievable.

He could have done himself an enormous favour by turning it down, declaring himself unworthy. It would have been honest, and genuinely inspiring, if he had said that he hoped to be a candidate in twenty years time, but that now he had work to do.

*Something this chap doesn't seem to remember

Update: Well, no, not surprisingly I'm not the only one to comment on the absurdity of this, and I'm not the only one to think he would do himself a great favour by declining it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Ardipithecus ramidus

In 1994 remains of a previously unknown hominin species were discovered in Ethiopa. This is common enough in palaeoanthropolgy- in the areas of Africa which have a geological history conducive to the preservation of fossils (mainly Ethiopia, Tanzania and part of S Africa) new remains are discovered fairly regularly. The find named Ardipithecus ramidus consisted of a few teeth, which were quickly analyzed and which suggested a new genus, and an unusually complete skeleton, poorly conserved, which Tim White has been working on for 15 years. He has now published his results, which is what everyone is excited about.

We can be certain of several things, vg: the press will make a complete mess of trying to explain it to the public, since they are looking for a story to tell, and there is no story, only a series of facts which suggest other possibilities, attempts to fill in the gaps, and at the moment the story of human evolution is mostly gaps;

there will be people who say, 'look, they don't know, they admit they were wrong.' To most people, belief is more important than knowledge, and truth means what they believe to be, rather than what is. To many such people, the knowledge that our understanding of human development has changed will come as a great relief, as they will feel justified in inventing a story of their own, or borrowing someone else’s that they happen to like;

there will be many, the great majority in all probability, who have no interest in the subject whatsoever;

there will be some who will take what understanding that can get of the subject and will then bore people senseless at every opportunity, with greater or lesser precision and powers of exegesis. Your humble blogging hedgehog is in this last category. Be warned.

So how has the analysis of Ardipithecus changed our knowledge of the subject? Well, if you really want to know, the best place to go is the original papers published by the team that is working on the bones. Registration is free and easy, and worthwhile if you have more than a passing interest in the subject. Here, here, here and here you will find experts summing it up, criticising, interpreting, suggesting new avenues of research and generally mulling the whole thing over with an expertise I cannot hope to match.

But briefly, Ardipithecus ramidus had abducting halluxes- opposable big toes- which suggest it climbed trees using all four limbs. But the pelvis and the craneum strongly point to its being bipedal on the ground. It didn't walk like apes do now. Since it comes from fairly near the chimp-human split, this suggests that the last common ancestor might have had a locomotion more similar to ours than to modern apes. It appears, from this and other characteristics, that chimpanzees and gorillas may have evolved much further from the LCA than was previously thought. They might, in fact, have evolved further than we have ourselves. It is this aspect of the work that is going to bet the press and the public excited, and it is what will most impinge on our understanding of ourselves.

There'll be plenty more in the next few weeks. Watch this space. Ot click the links.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Art Against the Clock

I've mentioned before that Mrs Hickory is of the artistic persuasion, spending many hours in a lab coat that used to be white, staring at a canvas on which some image which exists on a photograph in front of her, in the flesh or just in her only mind is slowly taking shape. At such times she mutters incomprehensible things about the fusing of perspective, the tonality of the brushstroke and the habit of a particular yellow to dry too orange. She constantly asks my advice about technical and aesthetic points- heaven knows why, but I try to be helpful.

A friend of ours organizes and helps to sponsor a speed-painting competition, where you take your canvas and have a few hours to produce a picture, which is then judged and prizes awarded. Many of the participants are professional or semi-professional artists, so the competition is pretty stiff, but I persuaded Mrs Hickory to take part, mainly as a new challenge and to get her a little exposure, but also because the exhibition and judging are held in a hotel attached to a vineyard, whose owner is very generous with the entertainment on these occasions.

While she painted, I offered moral support and attempted to answer her agonized questions intelligently, but I also took the bike for a couple of hours and went along the riverbank. There were painters everywhere, sometimes two or three at the same spot, pointing in different directions, their attention having been caught by different aspects of the same bit of countryside.

A few painted views of the hotel itself, and a couple went inside and painted details of the dining area and the bottles in the cellar. The winners were fairly predictable, since all of them are well known in the province and their styles are instantly recognizable, but everyone pretended not to take it too seriously.

The photo is of the winner, Ángel Pintado, with his painting. A quiet, shy chap you would never notice in a group, but his works sell for thousands.

Addendum: I realize the photo isn't very good, but that's the way it was.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Constitutional Metatext

Talking of Constitutions (I was, anyway) I recently mentioned that the Constitution of Honduras is an interesting document. It looks as though it was written with some understanding of what people will do to get power, and what they will try to do with power once they have it. Having seen what has happened around them over the decades, they are right to worry. That they have been able to produce something that states its intentions clearly, and puts the individual ahead of the state, is a considerable achievement. Constitutions are as Constitutions do, as my grandmother used to say, but the spirit is right. It starts like this:

"We, elected representatives by the sovereign will of the Honduran people, meeting in the National Constitutional Assembly, calling on the protection of God and the example of our great leaders..., carrying out the aspirations of the people who entrusted us with our mandate, approve this Constitution; may it strengthen and safeguard a State of Rights to ensure a society that is politically, economically and socially fair... and favours the conditions for the development of each person to their full human potential... in justice, freedom, safety, stability, pluralism, peace, representative democracy and the common good."

I like the feel of it, not only because of what it says, but because the way it is expressed suggests to me not horse-trading and obscurity, but a genuine common understanding of what a country should be, and a clarity of purpose.

It continues:

"Sovereignty vests in the people, from whom all the powers of the State proceed. The State exercise power only by representation.

The supplanting of popular sovereignty the usurping of the constituted powers are tipified as acts of treason... confirmed actions of this kind are invalid. The people are entitled to resort to armed resistance in defence of the constitutional order.

The possibility of alternating the Presidency of the Republic is obligatory."

It was these points they got Zelaya on. He tried to change the Constitution other than by the established mechanisms in an attempt to prolong his term of office.

The EU Constitution/Lisbon treaty is a dog's breakfast, the product of negotiations between bickering bureaucrats, worthless on its own terms as a document by which to govern the countries of the Union, and less than worthless in its contempt for democracy, freedom, justice or even just the practicalities of the Civitas.

The new Bolivian Constitution, just passed by referendum, is more poetic, but does not inspire in me any confidence for the future of that country, especially since Evo Morales remains in power. Try a few lines of the preamble:

"In days long gone and forgotten mountains were raised, rivers ran, lakes were formed. Our jungle, our woodlands, our highlands, our plains and valleys were covered with greenery and flowers. We filled our Mother Earth with different faces, and we understood the plurality of all things and the diversity of creatures and cultures...

Fulfilling the mandate of our people, with the strength of our Pachamama [a kind of mother goddess] and giving thanks to God, we refound Bolivia. Honour and glory to the martyrs of the liberation and foundation..."

It is pompous, florid, self-important and, despite a few nods to the will of the people, it is clear that it was written by people who think they know best and intend to do things their way. We shall see which nation is, in the end, better served by its bits of paper.

Democracy at Work

I was once told by a Catholic theologian that God gave us freedom so that we could obey him in the best possible way. To do anything else is an abuse of His great gift.

Today the Irish will vote on the Lisbon Treaty for the second time, having got it wrong the first time. In the eyes of our masters in Brussels, the purpose of democracy is so that we can spontaneously agree with them and tell them how wonderful they are. Anything else is an abuse and means we must be put in our place.

There have been many occasions over the years when the EU has been unable to prevent referendums. With the collaboration of national governments it has developed a successful strategy of ignoring them or rerunning them until the right answer is given, which is then set in stone. The Irish themselves were told to vote again when they rejected the Nice treaty.

The Lisbon treaty is a deliberately complicated rehash of the Constitution, and it looks like what it is, the sort of mess that only a committee of bureauctrats who speak two dozen different languages and have no interest in, or even knowledge of, the people they claim to act on behalf of could possibly come up with. It is a hideous, unworkable mess, in which everyone has inserted their own favourite aspirations and desires and principles, with no regard whatsoever to practicalities, contradictions, realities or the will of the electorates.

Even if it were desirable in theory, it is utterly unworkable, but that doesn't bother them. The main purpose of the treaty is to create more and more important jobs to which national politicians who have become unelectable or embarassing to their national parties, and who know where the bodies are buried, can be appointed so that they can take vast sums of our money and pretend to be important. I have been saying for years, and shall continue to bore people by saying, that Tony Blair has had his eye on the job of President of Europe since before he became Prime Minister, and he needs this treaty to make it possible.

It is worth remembering that the Spanish and the Luxemburgers approved the Constitutional treaty in referenda in their countries. They were not asked to vote again on the Lisbon treaty because 'it's basically the same thing.' The French and the Dutch, who rejected it, were not allowed to vote again on Lisbon because 'it's completely different, not something that requires popular approval at all. Their rejection was ignored. The reason France and Holland voted in the first place was to give a veneer of democracy to the ratification process by holding referenda in a few 'safe ' countries which could be relied on to give the right answer. That trick backfired and it was decided not to allow the people to make any dcisions ever again, as they could not be trusted. They couldn't get around the Irish constitution, however, a problem which the Lisbon treaty takes care to solve.

Many things provided for in the Lisbon treaty are already being enacted, and it is almost certain that, even were the Irish to reject the treaty again, or the Czech President refuse to complete ratification, or David Cameron keep his promise, the things that matter to Brussels will be implemented anyway. The rest will, in any case, be largely ignored whatever happens.

Thos who rule us, in Westminister and Brussels, know we don't want them to do the great majority of the things they do. They know this very well, which is why they have made certain over the years that they don't have to listen to us. Today in Ireland democracy and freedom will once more be mocked.