Wednesday, September 29, 2010

One Day We Shall All Be Philosopher Kings

Imagine an entirely mechanised world, an industrial society in which all production, distribution, services and commerce were performed by automata. Even the maintenance and oversight of all this machinery (and I use the world in a very loose sense) is automatic. It is, I think, possible to conceive of such a world, or at least a country.

No one would work, no one would invent anything new, there would be no innovation, no increased productivity, so no further progress would occur, but by hypothesis we have reached a stage at wish further progress is not considered necessary. There would, presumably, be no money, because nothing would be exchanged. People would simply be provided with what they needed, according to some classification determined by their age and health, perhaps.

This would be healthy, comfortable society to live in. It would have no inequality, except that caused by the phenotype lottery. But would it be a nice place? I think not.

It would be rigidly totalitarian. Someone has to organise the distribution of goods and services, or tell the machines how to do it. And they need the power to stop anyone finding a way to live outside that system, or it would all break down. (That someone won’t be you or me, don’t imagine it will.) There would be almost no art, no competitive sport, little or no social interaction would be permitted. Such a society would practice eugenics pitilessly, to reduce inequality and unequal demand on resources (which are assumed to be abundant, but unequal demand would produce disharmony, and so would not be allowed).

There would be rebels, who either would or would not be eliminated. It wouldn’t matter whether or not they were stopped- they would exist, and between them and the means used to try to control them, life would be unliveable. I think I’d rather work.

I throw out these ideas with no serious reflection whatever. It just crossed my mind.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On Mellow Fruitfulness

We have a long Autumn here. In fact, apart from the leaves slowly turning brown and falling from the trees (and the most abundant trees are coniferous in any case), it's more a long tail of summer. It's still warm and sunny most days and will probably stay that way until the beginning of November.

The atmosphere is always strange at this time of year. Everyone is back at work. The rhythm of life long ago returned to normal in the city and the holidays are a distant memory, but it's still uncomfortably warm to be working and the mind is flooded, unbidden, with images of beaches, open country, quiet, cold beer and a total absence of telephones and alarm clocks. Only when it starts to get cooler and clouder in mid-November does the mind truly resign itslef to the task of working its way through the winter.

Meanwhile there are the weekends, and the rucksack, and the country. There are the birds and the water they live on, and the fishermen who spend their days immobile, immersed in silence, and the breeze that moves the leaves and the grass and the surface of the water and the stray wisps of hair on the people who pass, and the paths that link all this together, and the greatness of the world that contains them and the way it feels to be lost out there somewhere in the middle of it all.

The way you knows is Autumn here is that you can walk around or sit out at midday without burning your flesh in five minutes, and, although there are few leaves, there is a carpet of acorns, and groups of pickers harvesting the grapes. The cycle of the seasons is different here, but it still changes, and it's good that it does. Except that by the time Winter arrives, I'm already thinking of Spring.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What did Castro Really Say?

Jeffrey Goldberg has caused something of a stir by chatting to Fidel Castro* and reporting a few things he said which are rather at odds with the his professed reasons for destroying his country over the last fifty years. Whether Castro is now just a senile old man, he is trying to cause trouble for his brother, he has always believed this and no longer cares about telling the truth, or Goldberg has misinterpreted him, is hard to say, but there have been echoes in the world of Spanish-speaking communism which have not reached the ears of the English language press, and it is these that I wish to comment on.

His statement that Israel has a right to exist is surprising enough, but the most remarkable thing in the articles is his statement that 'the Cuban model doesn't even work for us any more'. Well, of course, the Cuban model never did work, we all knew that, even, I suspect, Castro himself, but he was not going to give up power and his beloved revolution just because it was a failure, so he spent decades pretended that it worked.

After the article was published, Castro backtracked and tried to claim that he had not meant that at all, but rather that the US model no longer worked for America. Not very convincingly, it must be said. The communist press in Cuba (I've lost the link to the article in Granma) and leading communists in Spain (this unpleasant character**, for example) have tried to present this as an invention of Goldberg and his colleague (he is a practising Jew, after all). Goldberg responds that he is interpreting nothing, and that Castro used that exact phrase.

To me the interesting question is why he said it. Was it just a reflection that the world is changing, and for once Cuba is changing with it? Did he mean that it had always been wrong, or only now? There are signs that things are changing. Some political prisoners may be released. Some private enterprise will be encouraged to employ the hundreds of thousands to be removed from the state payroll. It's a very long way from freedom and prosperity, but it's start.

*Goldberg defends his fairly relaxed view of Castro by, among other things comparing him with what he replaced. It's a good point, and I have often argued with leftwingers in Spain that the alternative to Franco was not some nice cosy democracy, but Stalin, and it is in that light that that period of history- though not necessarily the man himself- must be judged. But firstly, were the early years of Castro's dictatorship really better than the last years of Batista's? And secondly, if true it might, in hindsight, justify the uprising. It doesn't justify the fifty years of continued tyranny, just as the the very real danger of communists in Spain did not justify Franco's decades of oppresion.

**Pascual Serrano is a communist journalist who appears to hate all Jews who don't hate themselves, and who manages, like most of his brethren, to see a small and temporary reduction of the great overall wealth in America as the definitive failure of capitalism, whereas 50 years of grinding poverty in Cuba do not reflect the failings of communism at all. And he doesn't know what America means in English, either. One of his stupidest criticisms of Goldberg is that he 'confuses America with the United States'. Serrano is also responsible for this organ, from which the image above, clearly a constructive and measured critique of Goldberg's articles, and not at all a venomous piece of juvenile anti-semitism, is taken.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

There is no Spirit of the Tax Law

'Hecha la ley, hecha la trampa', as they say over here.

It is an empty concept, not applicable to what is no more than a complex series of instructions about how to do paperwork.

Nick Clegg thinks we shouldn't be using accountants to help us organize our accounts and tax liabilities, because it's a bit much, apparently, to expect Parliament to make laws that actually say what they mean. Therefore we must do what they want us to do, not what the law says we can do. When he talks about avoiding our liabilities, of course, what he means is discovering whether liabilities are less than we thought. Since that is to our benefir, we pay people who know about these things to do it for us.

Tomorrow he will call for the abolition of the legal profession because they make it harder for him to put people in jail.

He might follow that by criticising those who use private medicine and private education, because we show up the incompetence and poor value of the schemes he runs, and we might gain an advantage over the poor souls who have to use state services. But, of course, that's already party policy and has been for years. Like Labour, they despise people who take responsibility for their own lives. Unlike Labour, they pretend that they're on our side, going so far as to call themselves Liberal and Democratic when they are nothing of the kind.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Who is Bidisha?

Why does this woman get to write columns in major newspapers? The answer is simple; she sells. I can't imagine why, but if she is offered a platform it's because the editors think it will make them money. That's the point of newspapers. They are businesses, and they sell us what we want. Government-run papers are even less trustworthy than the private ones, so we'll have to put up with it.

So what does she use this privileged platform, in a journal with a proud tradition of being a free voice in difficult circumstances, for? To express her hatred of men and to call for the suppression of ideas she doesn't want to hear, of course. Even when they only exist in her head. Just in case.

Men, it appears (all men, everywhere) are beastly, and they must be stopped from being beastly. By a form of magic, apparently. If men are deprived of the words they use to be beastly with, they won't be able to be beastly any more. I think that's how she sees it working.

If her silly little campaign to ban words and 'tones of voice' that she doesn't like were to succeed- which it won't, naturally- she would continue to justify her proudly unrepentant hatred of anyone with a penis, but she wouldn't have to listen to anything that might upset her. But someone will be listening, ready to use her ideas against others, and eventually against her. It is weak and whiny creatures like this woman, moaning that someone must do something about things she disapproves of, who give totalitarians the excuse to suppress freedoms and control the rest of us.

There are men who are a danger to women, who beat them, who rape them, who kill them. It is the rest of us who try to stop it happening, and who help to catch and punish those we can't stop. Wha has Bidisha done to help the real victims of bad men? Perhaps a lot, I have no idea what she does, but writing this article has, as she says, 'made her feel better afterwards, but hasn't changed anything in the wider world.' No, it hasn't, has it? But I suppose it pays the mortgage.

Go and do something useful. I call her weak because her attitude in this article is weak, but she is probably capable of doing far more than hectoring people to ban words. We all like the sound of our own voice, but that is not the way to change the world.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Indus Script- Is It Or Isn't It?

Brawling scientists, Hindu nationalism, Markov chains, mysterious ancient symbols that one man believes he can interpret... there’s a Dan Brown novel in there, I think. There’s certainly a fascinating story, which I shall attempt to explain.

The Indus Valley scripts are associated with a people about whom little is known except that they lived in that area around 4,000 years ago. Where they came from, where they went, whether they sliced their tomatoes along the equator or through the poles... these are things which may never be known. And the language they spoke is also unknown.

A lot of people, for many different reasons, would like to think they know the answers, and to this end a lot of work has been done to analyse the symbols that have survived on a number of clay artefacts, a few thousand symbols in a few hundred inscriptions, most no more than three or four symbols long.

The script is unknown, as is the language that it encodes, and, given the scarcity of information that can be extracted from such a small amount of data, that is not going to change unless a bi-lingual tablet turns up identifying is as an already known language.

It is far from certain that the symbols represent language at all. That is a point which might, at some time, be determined, but so far it is still in doubt. It matters (to the people who care about these things) because writing was probably developed independently in only three or four places in history. If the Indus script encodes a language, it would be another one, and it would mean that the Indus Valley civilization was literate. This matters not only to linguisticians and historians, but also to various flavours of Indian nationalist.

Back in 2000 Michael Witzel and Steven Farmer wrote a paper demolishing the pet theory of N. S. Rajaram, who claimed to have translated these inscriptions, in the course of proving that the Harappan civilization used domesticated horses. It is generally believed that horses were introduced to that area much later. You wonder why Witzel and Farmer even bothered with the witterings of someone who clearly doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about, but it served as a warm-up for their 2003 paper, with Richard Sproat, which attempted to show that the Indus script could not be a language, and more generally that the Harappan people could not have been literate.

Last year, Rajesh Rao and others used a technique involving Markov chains to try to detect the sort of structure they thought the inscriptions would have if they really were language. They measured the conditional entropy (a term pinched from physics but the concept is well defined in information theory and computational linguistics) of the script, in a way that they describe in the notes to the paper.

The entropy measured for the script was in the same narrow range as the (very few) real language scripts that they analysed in the same way, and far from the values of the control scripts they tested, which were artificially produced, one to have very rigid structure and the other to be almost completely random. They thus announced that this was evidence that the Indus script was a written language.

But is it? They have no way of knowing how significant the presence in that narrow range of the entropy values is. Without analysing a far larger number of natural scripts that do and do not encode language, it is not clear that any script that is used to encode information in a real situation can fall outside that range. It is easy to construct, and indeed to find, scripts which that do not represent language, but which fall in that same range. It may well be that any script that contains sufficient structure to contain information, whether or not it is given linguistically, and is employed by a real person, will tend to be in that range. The paper does not consider what the result actually means, or if it means anything at all.

Richard Sproat answered with a paper of his own, which was answered by Rao, and reanswered by Sproat. They was also a bit of vigorous debate hosted by Rahul Siddharthan at this (excellent) blog, and Mark Liberman at the Language Log got involved as well. Rob Lee et al have tried to apply the same analysis to the Pictish inscriptions, with similar results.

Sproat descended into anti-nationalist ranting, more it would seem from exasperation than from lack of arguments or from axe-grinding. Though he has made a heavy professional investment in the illiteracy of the Harappan civilization he is clearly a serious scientific researcher (and so is Rao).

Rao et al have now expanded on their previous work, fleshing out the background and context of their results in order to give their method much greater interpretative power. The matter is far from decided, and when the scientists finally agree, one way or the other, is when the nationalists will take over the fight. It promises to be fun.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When Terrorists Stop Killing

You may have heard that ETA, the bunch of mindless, blood-stained thugs we have in this country instead of the IRA, have declared a ceasefire. The reasons for this are not easy to establish, as there are many possibilities.

They are weak, perhaps very weak. They have lost the support of their friends in Ulster, and probably of their friends in Libya, over the last few years, the French government has been co-operating properly for a decade or so, so they have nowhere to tun to, the courts have illegalized their political mouth-pieces and they are having trouble keeping their favourite recruiting grounds poor, making it harder to get people interested.

It may be all of these things or none, but they have been much weakened over the last few years, they have lost their leaders several times and the government has refused to contemplate negotiations (at least publicly). So this is probably an attempt to gain some public support for 'dialogue', by which they mean 'give us what we want'. They thought, years ago, that they might be able to force some kind of Blairite 'peace process', but there are many differences, and not only the will of the government to surrender.* In the Basque Country there is no opposing bunch of blood-stained thugs turning the streets into a battleground, and, outside the few towns and villages that they still control, it's a wealthy place, and a pleasant place to live. It's not hard to ignore the terrorists, it's not like they're on every street corner.

So the ceasefire is probably an act of desperation, and will last precisely as long as they think it useful to keep it, and, as on other occasions, it will be broken without warning, so there isn't really a ceasefire anyway in any meaningful sense.

In any case, the regional and national governments, instead of fawning over the 'reformed' terrorist and pretending that this somehow made them wonderful, democratic and people you can do business with, basically told them where they could shove it, and that unless they disbanded themselves and surrendered all their weapons they would continue to hunt them down (they've just got a few more of the scum, a day or two ago). ETA complains that the government is not entering into the spirit of the ceasefire, and is told what it can do with itself and its mother.

The Basque government is new, and very different from the old one, but in Madrid we still have that buffoon Zapatero, so his reaction to it has been surprising, and heartening. One day we will see the end of that particular mob. There will be more of course. There's money to be had in terrorising people, and all the bas girls like a man with a loaded gun.

*I imagine it's a pleasant change for the people of Ulster to live in relative peace and not be controlled by gun-toting friends of Gerry (or Ian) all the time, as it is to see a bit of money returning to the place, and it's not up to me to say whether the price of that peace was too high, but it certainly was very high.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Education is a Privilege

Schools have become associated with many things which have nothing to do with their original purpose.* It is accepted that they serve a variety of functions and that that is what they are for and it can't change. There is a general, unexamined assumption that schools are places that look after your children while you do other things (work, go shopping, get pissed and so on); there is a further assumption that society needs somewhere to keep its perverts happy (this is true, although we pretend it isn't), and that if we shove children in rooms with people who have studied something they will learn and make something of their lives. That's not the way it is.

Most children never understand the point of school, and think they are wasting their time. They are. They accept the idea and as soon as they are free, they do whatever they can. Which will not have been the original purpose of their 'education.' Teaching, showing the young what they could be if they wished, the things it is worth understanding, is a much more difficult business than most people realize. And teaching is controlled by the unions.

Today's lesson- it shouldn't be compulsory. There are many children who can take no benefit from education, or who don't want it. Teach the ones to whom it can be useful. That's a good start.

*Real life is a great nuisance. The curse of the blogging classes. But I also know- because I read a lot of blogs as well as writing them- that no one cares why a blogger is not writing, they want to read what he writes. So I offer minimalist blogging, but it is at least blogging.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The End of Summer

Summer is pretty much over. Most of you will already have noticed that, but to me it doesn't so much mean I have put the t-shirts and shorts away- it's still hot here- as that I have to do some work again.

I have no children, cars or expensive hobbies. My favourite activity is walking in the country, which is what we did when we all lived in caves and the price hasn't gone up. I do like good food, though, I like a decent roof over my head and I like to travel regularly. All of which implies that I can live comfortably without collapsing from stress every five minutes, but I do have to earn money most of the time, and that time has come again.

So we're back in the city, with its comforts and its inconveniences, the people, the noise, the shops, the friends nearby, the restaurants, the single, poor and poorly-used theatre, but Madrid, Córdoba and Seville are not far away, and so on and so on...

In short, real life has crept up on me and whacked me with its weapon of choice, which I suppose we could say is time, or more prosaically, the bills. It means I get to catch up on the news, and find out waht's been going on the last couple of months, and maybe write about it, rant about it, make perceptive comments on it, misunderstand it, expose the shallowness of my thinking and the narrowness of my vision, and just possibly, change the world a bit. In short, I shall blog. Oh, and I shall also live.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Simple Answers to Simple Questions

Yes, those people in Florida are entitled to burn the Koran. It is not a crime. It’s important to realize that in the US they are free to express themselves in that fashion.

No, they are not destroying knowledge. Other copies exist.

Yes, it is an infantile act.

Yes, it is likely to cause harm to happen to people who were not involved.

Yes, Hilary Clinton is perfectly entitled to criticise the reverend and ask him not to do it.

I hope they are not stupid and childish enough to carry out this act, but they are free to do so, and it matters that they can. It also matters that the people who are waiting to be offended by it realize that they can do it and no one can stop them except by persuading them not to.

There are deeper, much more complex matters involved, but these questions need to be clearly understood before the rest can be seriously considered.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fun with Rabbits

The one who walks on his hind legs has been hogging this a bit lately, so since he's off somewhere doing that stuff he does I'll take the chance to have a word. I've complained before that he will insist on making me share the house with fluffy, furry things. It's bad enough having to share it with him. Well, there's this rabbit.* There's a photo of him somewhere around here. He's not too hard to get along with, as he gets spooked by the spines, so he doesn't get in my way much, but he's a long beast and you find him lying across doorways or in interesting corners all the time. He eats my chocolates, too.

Anyhow they started letting him out into the garden. He's not very bright, and a bit wobbly in the backbone, by the look of it. It took him two days to stop running back inside every time he saw a pigeon. But he got used to nosing around, eating flowers, playing with dry leaves, digging a bit in the sand, sitting on the cool grass, and started feeling really big about it, acting like he owned the place. Till he found a gap by the gate-post and got out onto the mountain. Started thinking he was the king of the countryside, sprawling on the ground like a lion that's just eaten the last local hunter.

Of course, he's never heard of a fox, or an eagle, and he doesn't realize he's a great white lump against the brown earth. You can see him from miles off. He was lucky that it wasn't one of those that found him first. It was the gamekeeper's Landrover. A huge creature making a tremendous noise that suddenly appeared in front of him. He lost that serene superiority he'd been working on rather quickly. The point of these toy rabbits is that they're small and fluffy and can't run. Well, he suddenly remembered his ancestry and ran like a greyhound. Down the hill, through the hole into the garden, inside the house, to the darkest and deepest corner of the storeroom, where he spend the rest of the day. I think he's lost the urge to annex continents to his great majesty.

So, I had a big laugh, and I'm still number one around here. Result.

*Hedgehogs don't do semi-colons.

On the Charming of Crayfish

I have spared my public endless repetitions of my thoughts on the beauty of the local lakes and the pleasure of walking around them, because most of what can be said about it is already in the archives and, even though they may well be more interesting than my rantings on politics, education and associated matters, you can only say the same thing so many times before running out of words, and probably readers.

It should be possible to write a new post every time I go to see one or other part of that area, which is most days- after all, I go so often because every time I experience something new- but much of it is impossible to put into words that would make sense when read by someone else. I could baldly state what I have seen, I could try to explain why it was worth going there yet again, but it would hard to get someone else to understand it- not least because these things are so fleeting and ephemeral that even I can scarcely remember what is what that I felt, let alone put it into words. I could, of course, just make things up, but what would be the point of that?

Yesterday, however, I persuaded Mrs Hickory to come with me, since it’s not quite as hot as at the height of summer, and we saw a couple of things that are highly unusual (another reason she came with me is that a couple of weeks ago a group of deer trotted across the hills and down a valley a mere 50 yards ahead of me, and she was very jealous because she hasn’t seen any yet).

The first thing was an eagle owl. As we rode up a hill path between trees on the way to the lakes, it emerged from behind a tree 15 yards ahead of us, lazily spread its wings, rose into the air and flew away. These things are enormous, they can have eight foot wing spans, and this one must have been around six feet across, and to see one so close up is unusual and rather startling. If it took fright, or had had one of those days, it could pick you up and smash you against a rock. Fortunately, it was either an equable bird or it just didn’t think of it.

Later, at one of the more popular bathing spot we took a refreshing dip. We were alone when we arrived, except for a Russian waitress wiping down tables with studied concentration and, I suspect, considerable boredom. She needn’t have worried, as a group of thirsty cyclists soon appeared to chat her up and keep her busy, and other groups kept turning up in cars until by the time we left there were some thirty people trying to pluck up the courage to jump into the water, or just milling around. One of the millers was surviving the tedium engendered by said milling by hypnotising crayfish.

He assured me that, by holding them upside down and stroking their heads carefully and repeatedly, he could send them to sleep, and this he did to one he pulled from the water. He left it standing on its head, completely motionless for several minutes before it seemed to come back to life and wandered off towards the water. Definitely the oddest thing I have seen for some time.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Education and David Willets

It appears that David Willets, a well-educated man who is generally held to be intelligent, has said that universities should mentally knock a few points off the exam results of middle class applicants, in some kind of levelling exercise to get (yet) more state school pupils doing degrees. He talks about ‘balance’, and picking students on ‘potential’ rather than ‘performance’. He doesn’t use the expression ‘social justice’, though he might as well. He is, of course, talking nonsense, but then, he is a politician, a member of a highly unstable government that isn’t at all certain that it has real support among the electorate. (The electorate isn’t too sure, either).

Good universities did choose students on a variety of criteria, including what Willets presumably means by potential, as much as on exam results. They held interviews and entrance exams which were intended to tell them much more than what A Level results alone could. Then they made specific, personal offers of places to students. They were more or less prevented from doing this by Labour governments who thought it benefitted the wrong sort of people. Now we have a government that wants them to start doing it again, but only if it benefits the right people, who are, broadly speaking, the sort of people whose votes they can’t count on but think they might win over. Why is he wrong?

Is it a good thing that all those capable of getting a degree in a serious academic subject, and thus increasing their options in life and having a chance of being more successful, which in turn will be good for the country as a whole, should not be prevented from doing so by their parents’ lack of money? Most certainly it is. You don’t have to be a socialist to recognise that.

But reducing inequality by shooting the rich doesn’t work. As Willets obviously realizes, state education is, in general, very poor. There is much variation, and some good schools but large numbers of children in Britain with the potential to do well have to more or less educate themselves as best they can, forced as they are to put up with classmates who don’t want to learn, teachers who can’t teach and an education system that structured and operated for the benefit of politicians and trade unions rather than for the children (or the taxpayer who foots the bill).

It’s a mess, it leaves millions of children with empty heads and no hope of anything but drudgery or crime and it needs to be completely recreated from scratch. Denying any kind of decent education and opportunity in life to generations of children, deliberately condemning the poor and unfulfilled to remain that way for ever, purely for reasons of ideology, is one of the highest crimes of British socialism against the people it claims to represent. But pretending that young people who do not know things and have not demonstrated a particular competence have in fact done so is not the solution.

And David Willets is well aware of this. He simply wishes to shift the blame onto the universities, which the great majority of people haven’t attended and treat with distrust, and to avoid having to do anything meaningful, which would be difficult or, worse still, ‘brave’.

The whole idea of education needs to be completely dismantled, depoliticised and rebuilt. What it is for, how it should be paid for, what forms it should take, now and in the future, who should do it, and how to deal with the problems caused by people who don’t want it.

To be continued...