Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Results Just in from Havana

Fidel Castro and his gang are going through that regular farce they call free and democratic elections. I don't suppose you've noticed, because it won't change anything whatever about the government of Cuba, and there won't be rioting on the streets. No one in Cuba cares except the propagandists, and no one outside Cuba cares because the media thinks it's far more fun to denounce as fraudulent eclections in certain other countries, where they might well be, or even when they are genuinely democratic but the wrong person wins.

Even a megalomaniac like Fidel can't control everything by himself, so there is a National Assembly made up of delegates from all the regions which notionally has both legislative and executive power. This is Fidel's democratic fig-leaf.*

The candidates are not all overtly Friends of Fidel, though the majority invariably are party members of proven loyalty. In any case, only the Communist Party is allowed to campaign, and any candidate who deviates from the basic message may find they have problems not only getting elected, but also getting work or housing, and is likely to find all kinds of social problems arising around them.

The government dosen't take chances, even after controlling very carefully the selection of all but a small minority of the delegates to the National Assembly. It still retains the power to ignore its decisions and rule directly by decree, which is how most things are done in practice.

We are informed by the electoral commision that over 8m people voted, representing 95% of the electorate, and that turnout was over 92% in every province. We can already begin to smell the rotting fish. These numbers already have the rotten smell of tractor stats.

In a few days another assembly will be formed and the long-suffering Cuban people will have the pleasure of knowing that, not only are they paying for this farse, but they will be told repeatedly that when the assembly rubber-stamps the decrees of the government, it is freely expressing the will of the people, and they will have to accept that that is their will or there will be trouble. Cubans who have escaped say the same as those who were finally released from tyranny in Western Europe used to say, that psychologically one of the worst things for normal people was having to pretend that every act of government repression, designed only to further its own ends and increase its domination, was in fact your will and in your best interests, and having to say this out loud to some apparatchik who knew it was cobblers and who knew that you knew it too.

Anyhow, there have been elections in Cuba, in accordance with its constitution, which we will have a closer look at some day.

*Although tentative comparisons can be made here with the EU Parliament, in the case of the EU the fig-leaf has a real function, in that waving it in the direction of the people really does serve to make the whole thng look a bit more democratic. In the case of Cuba, the rest of the world barely knows it exists, and doesn't care, and the people it is supposed to represent and defend know perfectly well that it is not on their side.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Baltasar Garzón

The name may be familiar to British readers with long memories. He's the judge who tried to have Augusto Pinochet arrested in London, and almost confused the House of Lords into allowing his extradition.*

He is simply one judge at the High Court in Madrid, which has jurisdiction throughout Spain, and has held that position since 1988. He is an investigating magistrate, a figure that does not exist in UK legal tradition, and so acts to a certain extent as a prosecutor in his own court. These courts, like all courts in Spain, do not use juries, the judge determining the guilt or innocence of the accused. This sounds rather odd and open to abuse, but it's an old system that continues to work pretty well in democracy, and Spaniards are often very opposed to the idea of juries as an anomaly.

Garzón has been known for over twenty years, firstly for his investigations into international drug mafia, and into the GAL, a bloody and incompetent anti-terrorist plot hatched at a high level in the government of Felipe González. Several ministers and police chiefs went to prison but amazingly González himself managed to avoid being assciated with it. Garzón had earlier been became a minister of state in that same government, but left and returned to the High Court after a year.

In the 90's González's government attempted to attribute to itself jurisdiction over any act, anywhere in the world, that it considered criminal, if it involved Spanish citizens in any way, or if the national courts in the country concerned were not taking action. This led to attempts to arrest Pinochet, Henry Kissinger and other people. He quickly discovered that, although he was authorised to act by the law of Spain, other nations objected to him marching and trying to boss their own courts around. After a series of failures, the idea of universal jurisdiction was, in practice, discreetly abandoned. (Not that it's necessarily a bad idea, but, applied unilaterally, it was never going to work. Also, it was ideologically motivated, and there are to many contrasting interests for it to be taken seriously.)

He has, more recently, tried to investigate certain actions from the early years of Franco's government. There are various problems with this, so let's try to separate them out.

One problem is legal. He claims that he has authority to investigate because of, among other things, the Law of Historic Memory, passed by Zapatero in 2007. (A disgraceful piece of legislation whose purpose is to legislate certain truths which it would be illegal to question, to refight the Civil War, to polarize the country and to permanently stain the Popular Party with the blood of the victims of another era). Others suggest that, not only does it deny jurisdiction to his court, but that he was well aware of this when he opened the cases, and it is this that has brought him before the Supreme Court on a charge of 'prevaricación', basically abuse of position. The Supreme Court has determined that there is a case to answer. I am not remotely competent to discuss the legal aspects of the case, and I'm not going to try, but this is not simply a political persecution. (For what it's worth, I can't see him being convicted, and the case seems to be rather weak, but it's important to realize that the case does at least exist.)

Another problem is that he is an overtly political figure, a member of a hugely corrupt socialist government, and very selective in his choice of targets for prosecution. The PSOE orchestrated spontaneous displays of support for him yesterday in Madrid and some other places, which has had the effect of preventing any real discussion, in the press or in the bars, of the legal merits of the case, turning it into one more football match.

A related but distinct problem is historical. Much of the past was left undisturbed during the transition to democracy, and much of what happened during the years of dictatorship was explicitly made subject to immunity. The reason for this was to avoid damaging the transition with constant recriminations and attempts at revenge. Politicians and social activists are petty, short-sighted, vindictive people in general, and many would happily have jeopardised the chance to create a successful democracy if it meant they could get their own back on someone they disliked. The fact that Spain very quickly did become a stable and free country, which could very easily not have happened, is a testament to the judgement of the people who made that decision at the time. The fact that serious crimes may have gone unpunished is a small price to pay for the country we now have.

It may be fairly safe to attempt to revoke or ignore that immunity now, in the sense that it is not going to place that freedom and stabilty in danger, but it is politically motivated (at least on the part of the government) and rather pointless. And it leads those whose families were murdered by the communists, and there were many thousands of innocent victims seized and killed out of hand for the crimes of being religious, or middle-class, or owning land, or simply being disliked by the local republican commander, to ask why nobody seems to care about justice or historic memory for them.

It is divisive and intended to be. A weak leader is trying to fight old battles in the hope that the natural supporters of the left will group around him. Poor leadership, but good politics I suppose.

*The case against Pinochet isn't relevant here. He was undoubtedly brutal with those who opposed him, and the fact that the regime he overthrew had ceased to be democratic, and that he won a referendum on remaining in power, then left when he lost the next one, doesn't confer democratic legitimacy. On the other hand there are far better candidates for creative justice than Pinochet.

**Yes the photo is of yet another abandoned railway line. It's not an obsession, you know, not at all. I just find them fascinating and in their way, objects of great beauty.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Iron King Once More

The railway line running north to Madrid has two older sections, long abandoned and removed, but with the route remaining visible. They are two sections if considered in time, several if we only look at them in space.

Twenty years ago when the high speed trains came this way they completely replaced the older stock on the line to Madrid and Seville the track was completely relaid. To the south and east some older trains still run and their lines runs in parallel with the new line. To the north there is only the high-speed service and so the old line is gone.

But not forgotten. In several places between here and the river the route was straightened and flattened to avoid the through trains' having to slow down, and where the old line diverges from the new the bed is still there. Not the track, nor the sleepers, but the sharp purple gravel that is used as a base, the trees and weeds that line the sides all the way along, and the cuttings, gulleys and banks that take it through the surrounding, lightly undulating land. You can walk along it for some distance- and I can never resist a railway line- imagining the trains, the sounds, the people, the events, the hopes and dreams that moved along that track for over a hubdred years.

The part before the river is destroyed now, a golf course was built there and the landscaping removed all trace of the old line, until you reach the water, where the old bridge still stands, and the banks that lead to it on each side are now paths, dirt tracks used by cyclists and walkers, the gravel gone, and all trace of the trains. Only the rails, which have been left on the bridge itself, inform the unknowing of what it once was.

But nearer the town, eighty years ago the line ran past grazing the western ring road, not the eastern as it does now. Not a lot of people know this, but about 4 kms of track was shifted to the other side of the town and the path the line had been built on is still there. You can still walk along it, from the place where the new line diverged from the old right into town, and along the ringroad it used to run by, through the park where the old station still stands, until it eventually connects, well outside the town to the south, with the more recently dismantled track and finally with the new AVE line.

There are still a few buildings left; apart from the station, now used by the gardeners, I've found at least two old storerooms which have been turned into houses, one on the road, one out in the country. You have to know what you're looking for, but they're there. The iron king leaves his mark, always. You can't easly destroy him.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Things I Shall Probably Never Do

There are a number of things I should like to be able to look back on in my old age, if I have one, to consider as satisfactory reasons for having lived. We all have to die, it may be tomorrow, most of us will live pointless, forgotten lives and we like to look for ways to imagine that we will matter to those who come after us. We won't. Doing things won't change that, but it might help us to believe that what we do at a particular moment will justify the rest of our life. I've written books and I've planted trees, and neither of them is close to being a good reason for having lived. I haven't had children, so I can't comment, but observation suggests it doesn't work either. So here are a few ideas that I still have some faith in:

I want to ski-jump from a bigger hill than has ever been conceived. A K-1000, at least, some symbolic quantity like that.

I want to break the record for banzai parachuting. Google it. It's real, and possibly the single most magnificently crazy thing that has ever been devised.

And I want to climb Everest, solo and without oxygen. 'Because it's there'. Reinhold Messner and George Mallory may not matter much to most people, but they existed, and they did what they did.

I should like to understand the Astadhyayi to the point of being able to construct a coherent mathematics in terms of it, and to represent the work in terms of that mathematics. It is itself one of the outstanding monuments to human achievement, and to describe it in a mathematical metalanguage based on itself would surely be a genuine satisfaction. Turning it into comic opera would, I think, be overdoing it a bit.

That's about it, really. To do these things, to have done them, would give me a great sense of satisfaction, I think, and would be something to look back on. Since the chances of my ever doing any of them are close to zero I shall have to get on with the normal business of life- bit of work, bit of fun, boundless optimism and escape to the country when reality and politics get too tedious. It could be a lot worse. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to buy a parachute...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Australopithecus Sediba: Why Every Bone is Good

Another new hominin has been published, in Science, discovered by Lee Berger and his team in South Africa some while ago, and now revealed to the world. The article is here, and is worth a look if you share my interest in where we come from (I realize not everyone does, some people are odd like that).

Southern Africa means we expect it be Australopithecus africanus, and indeed it has been assigned to Australopithecus, but has been called Au. sediba, a new species (sediba means spring in Swahili, I am informed, and it was found near one). As to why it's not Au. africanus, why it hasn't been placed in Homo, what it actually is and what it tells us about human evolution, I will leave it to John Hawks, who is the man to go for this stuff, and, to a lesser extent, these people, to do the honours.

Why is so little known about human origins? Why does every new set of bones seem to belong to a new species, and to require a severe restructuring of the family tree of our species?

I said something about that here, but now I want to offer an explanatory metaphor. Imagine that the origin of man is sewn into a tapestry of great richness and beauty, several yards on a side, filled with images and designs picked out in a great variety of colours and the most exquisite detail, coming together into a complete and coherent whole which can only be truly appreciated from a distance of many feet. Imagine that in front of that tapestry is hung a white sheet. Every so often a pin is stuck through the sheet at a randomly chosen point, leaving a tiny hole. An observer is permitted to look through these holes, moving from one to another as he wishes, but is not allowed to move the sheet aside, and cannot influence in any way the rate at which the holes are made or their placement.

We are in the position of that observer, trying to conceive what the great picture might be from a few tiny glimpses, randomly distributed in time and place, and with almost no clue as to what may connect one image to the others. Every new piece of information gives us new ideas about the great picture, which can only be tested if the next pinprick just happens to come in the right spot.

One day we will know more than we know now. That's about all you can say.

Monday, April 12, 2010

How it is to be Polish Today

The dramatic and spectacular story of the plane crash that has killed much of the Polish government and many of the countries military leaders has many elements to attract the attention of the press and the reading or watching public: an aircraft crashing to earth, destroyed in a massive fireball; a three-figure death total; a large number of prominent people killed, even though they were little known outside their own country; the possibility of suggesting that the Russians were behind it; the poignancy of the motive for making the journey. All this things make terrific theatre for journalists pandering to the people of countries far removed from the daily lives of the Poles. That's what the press is for, especially the television.

But how has the average Pole reacted? Actually, I don't know, since the only Polish newspaper I found in a language I can understand is not at all informative, and I haven't rooted around enough to find Poles blogging in English. The upshot of this is that this post is an exercise in imagination, a series of speculative contrasts between what the press would have us believe is happening in Poland and the likely truth.

Bear in mind that if Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson were to be killed in the company of the chiefs of the general staff and the head of the human rights commission we would be unlikely to go into mourning. A brief sense of the suddenness and drama of it, but, these are people we don't know personally, who mean nothing to us, and there are dozens waiting to take their place. The same thing could be said of the hypothetical extinction of Zapatero and company; it's not the end of the world.

But Poland is a young democracy, apparently fairly stable, and the current government seems to have been doing a good job of entrenching the stability and prosperity that is needed in Eastern Europe. The speaker of the lower house becomes acting President, according to the constitution, and must call elections with a short period. In theory continuity of government is guaranteed and there is no power vaccuum, but the President, at the very least, was a figurehead, providing leadership and and symbolic unity, which is of enormous importance in the circumstances Poland is in. There will be a period of fear, concern that the whole thing might fall apart, which we in the west would not feel.. The politicians and the press, all those who think of themselves as the leaders of the country, will be doing what they always do, acting as though they were the centre of the universe and everything they feel is echoed by the people, but the real people will see it differently. What matters most to them is not the death of a man, but what it might mean to the economy and the society they depend on for their livelihood and their happiness.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Art Against the Clock II

I've done quick painting competitions before, but they have them in different places and I take any opportunity to walk somewhere new.

Mrs Hickory was painting outside a village only a few miles north of here, but next to an area that I'd never explored before, so while she worked, I walked through a kind of mountain pass, beside a river, where there were occasional cows, the odd bull, and quite a lot of young calves.

They cross them with fighting breeds here, to give them greater resistance, so you come across the odd surprise on the tracks (the most important thing to know about fighting breeds is that the cows are just as dangerous as the bulls).

I ran out of path on the way back, when I tried to take the other bank of the river, and I had to ford it, which meant a balancing act on slippery rocks on the riverbed and and fighting the current snapping at the ankles. It was a warm, sunny day, and it wouldn't have mattered much if I'd fallen in, except that the modern walker carries his phone, his camera and his GPS, none of which are keen on water.

The camera survived, as did the other equipment, so here are a few photos of the area and of the paintings people produced. Mrs Hickory didn't win, in fact she wasn't very happy with what she painted, but the point was to spend the day in the country and have a bit of fun, and that we did.

This is about Chris Grayling and B&B Owners

Well, I’m a bit late on this one, and it’s not really about Chris Grayling because I don’t know who he is, but by popular request I add a few lines on the vexed question of whether the owners of cheap hotels should be able to exclude homosexuals from their premises.

The simple answer is yes, of course they should, and it has to do with the very basis of freedom. To attempt to control the reasons for which people may or may not enter into agreements with each other, and by inevitable extension, to arrogate the power to determine, a posteriori, what those reasons were, is a serious attack on the freedom of the individual.

A few clarifications. Obviously if a booking has been accepted, a contract exists, and it’s too late to start adding conditions, unless the guest turns up in an unacceptable state. We’re not talking about that case. Nor is it a question, as some people have suggested, of allowing hoteliers to ignore the law. The question is about what the law should be. Also, if I were travelling with gay friends (yes, I have them, and I travel with them) and they were refused entry to a hotel or a bar for being gay I would be distinctly annoyed, but it’s a long way from feeling deeply my, and their, annoyance and discomfort, to making a law against whatever is deemed to have caused it. We are faced, every day, with people, situations, ideas, phrases, images, things, which we disagree with, which we don’t understand, which are disagreeable to us, which we would rather did not exist. To try to legislate them away is a possible last resort if it is absolutely necessary, but it’s a very bad place to start if we have any real regard for freedom.

Once the emotive idea of ‘banning gays’ is turned into ‘the freedom to decide who you do and do not wish to deal with,’ which is what the argument is actually about, it becomes a lot clear. Not as clear as it should be, though, because a surprising number of people seem to have the idea that businesses should only be allowed to function, on sufferance, subject to rigorous constraints, after they have abased themselves sufficiently in begging permission to be allowed to exist. People were freely exchanging goods and services, making all parties wealthier, thousands of years before the sort of interference we tend to think of as normal, and the governments that do it, were ever thought of. Such restrictions are unnatural and, beyond ensuring that contracts are honoured and that goods are more or less as described, they create severe costs to the seller and no benefit to the buyer, since all such restrictions raise prices.

All businesses restrict the nature of the goods and services they offer to those they have chosen to specialise in. Most then restrict themselves further for a great variety of reasons, usually, but not always, commercial in nature. Similarly, many businesses deliberately limit their customers, for reasons that are not always commercial. We normally see no reason for shops, manufacturers or whatever to justify the way they limit their own business. In fact, we rarely even notice. And just because our attention is drawn to a particular case, and we disagree with the motives given by the owners for running their business in a particular way; just because the very existence of that decision of theirs may be a source of inconvenience or offence to some people, we should not imagine that the right thing to do is to try to ban it.

Our freedom depends on other people’s. We should respect it, and understand the benefits it brings us.

Monday, April 5, 2010

On Bicycles and the Ship of Theseus

I have a bicycle that's like the Ship of Theseus. In fact, one could say that I have had an infinite number of such bicycles. Or you could say that I have had just two such bikes, for reasons that will shortly become clear.

I started regularly about ten years ago, as a way of getting around the countryside faster and seeing more of it in a given time (regular readers will know that I spend a lot of my spare time moving through the world in search of beauty). And it's another form of exercise which nicely counterbalances the beer, trimming off my stomach what I put on it, or in it, over dinner the day before.

What has this to do with Theseus, you may wonder (again, regular readers, or at least the more patient ones, will know that we'll be getting there eventually).

I bought a mountain bike, suited to the dusty, rocky hill paths that most of my journeys take me along, and I was away. There was a problem with the bike, however. When in high gear and going uphill or otherwise forcing the mechanism severely, it tended to slip, as though the chain were slipping on the rear gears, or the whole pinwheel were slipping on the wheel shaft. I tried evrything, changing all the parts of the transmission several times. The problem alway recurred, to the bafflement of the mechanic. Since I weigh nearly 100kgs, and work the bike very hard, I also changed most of the other parts over the course of three or four years, until there was hardly an original piece left. Was it the same bike? We shall have to ask Heraclitus, but whether or not it was the same bike, it always had the same problem.

At one point I threw the whole thing away, and bought a new one, most parts of which have also been replaced over the last five years, including the entire transmission several times, and I still have the same problem. This why, despite Heraclitus, I consider it to be still the same bike.

The only piece which is common to all of this infintely multipying bikes is, of course, me, your humble blogging hedgehog. I am big, but there are bigger people who ride bikes. I ride hard, but there are people who ride harder. Perhaps the solution to the problem of the Ship of Theseus, or Trigger's Broom as it's known to English philosophers, is that it's the interested observer who, by giving an identity to the object, also gives it continuity, despite any material changes, however drastic, which might take place.

Or perhaps I should buy a better bike. This last possibility, however, even if it turns out to be true, lacks beauty, and so I prefer the former solution.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

On The Reliability of Oral Tradition*

For a couple of weeks I’ve been trying to put together some thoughts on the role of oral tradition in human society, with no success. This failure has been caused by the need to do a great deal of research before pretending I know what I’m talking about, and then to sift through the data, theories and speculations of others to try to make sense of it all.

It occurs to me that I don’t have the time to do this, nor, given the amount of rubbish written on the subject, do I have the interest to work my way through it all, so I offer a kind of stream of consciousness piece, a random, swirling collection of thoughts that come into my mind when I think about the question, and which are just as likely to be nonsense as much of what I have read.

A friend of mine, who does know a lot about narrative tradition, and has done the research, happens to be preparing a lecture/paper on this very subject, including cognitive and neurological aspects, but I shan’t pinch his ideas, so you’ll have to make do with mine.

We like to hear stories, to be told stories and to a lesser extent to create stories. Stories entertain us, they help to pass the time. Stories help us to escape from life, to believe that somewhere, better, more fun lives are being led, and to imagine that one day we might be part of them. Those who create stories can have a great deal of power. Those who control the creators of stories can have a great deal more. But stories were not invented to be used as a tool by those who sought power; that would, I think, be too great a conceptual leap for human intelligence to make, dangerous as it is to rule out such possibilities. No, the desire for stories, for ornamental falsehood, is instinctive to the human mind, and I want to consider why this is so, and how this instinct serves us, and serves to control us.

As I have said many times before here and in other places (the pub mostly, and also in my unpublished collected works) we need to believe things to be true, but we are not very good at seeking it out, and we are often afraid of what it might turn out to be. So we invent things we would like to be true, and we call them truths. Often we do not invent them ourselves, but rather we take them from others, who may not be telling us their real beliefs, but giving us stories that it is useful to them to have us accept as true. Most people cannot distinguish truth from belief, or understand that there are categories of truth, each applicable to a different type of understanding.

Anyhow, oral tradition. One of the original uses of story-telling, as shown by primitive tribes even today, is to provide a sense of identity, to describe the origins of a people and establish a foundation for its behaviour and customs, including its concept of right and wrong. In the absence of recorded history- a very recent phenomenon and still limited in geographical range- the imagination of some of the tribe provides a past, a sense of superiority and justification, of possession, both of the tribe with respect to other tribes, and of each individual within the tribe. The hierarchies quickly learn that these stories are a way of creating truth and reinforcing their authority, of instilling courage in the warriors and fear in the underclass, and they are used as such.

The enemies change, the sense of self changes, what the present requires of the past changes, the leaders change, the fashion for entertainment changes- even around the tribal camp-fire- new traditions need new stories. New story-tellers give new stories or new twists to the old stories, either because they want to make them their own or because they are genuinely interested in the creative process. In this light, when you look to the politics of modern industrialized nations, the uneasy conspiracy between journalists and politicians to create an apparently coherent narrative that they can call the truth is not at all surprising. It's not even much more sophisticated. Sadly, we don't require them to try very hard to fool us.

Stories that are not written down will change very quickly, from generation to generation or more quickly still as events require, and no reliance whatsoever can be placed on the factual accuracy of stories that are told even about the supposedly very recent past. Although they purport to represent truth, they exist for quite different reasons than the transmission of any objective truth, and mean nothing whatever from the perspective of academic history.

Once they’re written down, or put into verse, with metre and broader structure, they are more likely to be preserved in something closer to the form they had when first written or versified, but they can still change, and of course, we can know nothing of their pre-literate history.

The essential elements of an oral narrative are, of course, the characters, not as names but as symbols, of qualities or institutions, mainly, and the events, which are also symbolic. Once it is in writing or in verse, the structure becomes as important as, or more important than, the symbolism of the story, and much harder to change. If the original context is lost, which will always happen eventually when they are put into writing or verse, and can happen even with oral transmission in some circumstances (for example, when the story is held to be beautiful in itself, and is deliberately preserved without change for long enough for the reason for its having that form to be forgotten) it is then no longer its transparent narrative symbols which are open to manipulation through direct change, but the interpretation of events and symbols whose originally meaning is no longer clear.

This, broadly speaking, is why oral tradition matters, how it is used and abused, and why it is not history.

*The title of this post has been changed on the advice of someone with taste.