Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Christmas is coming, the Paris Agreement and Fracking

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat. Please to put your todger in this old lady's twat. The penguin is so 'superior'; I thought that I would lower the tone for my first interregnal post. I am sure that there are lonely, 'old' (what is old?)  people out there, who would welcome a little bit of kindness and possibly physical affection during this unlikely balmy month. But, I hasten to add, only if they truly desire it. I am not advocating wholesale rape of the retired community here! And so, f**king leads quite naturally to 'fracking', hydraulic fracturing. (Hell, if it was good enough for 'Battlestar Galactica' to use as a euphemism, it surely allows me to make the connection, however tenuous.)

The UK parliament has just made it lawful to frack 'under' National Parks and sites of outstanding beauty or worthy of major scientific scrutiny (159 licences have been issued so far); in truth, anywhere at all. But it is safe to do so? The US and Canada have been doing it for nigh on twenty years so it must be safe; no? Surely, if it gets the UK out of the hole that it has dug for itself with its reliance on Russian-supplied natural gas and the dwindling supplies in the North Sea then this must be a good thing? On the face of it, one cannot argue with the short-term motivations for generating large-scale fracking operations in the UK.


Despite signing up to the recent Paris agreement to limit carbon emissions by 2050 to no more than what is sufficient to increase global warming by less the two degrees, the UK government want to increase the carbon footprint of the nation by fracking shale gas and reduce the subsidies by over 50% to 'greener' technologies. I don't quite understand the logic here. Dissuade people from investing in technologies which might make a positive impact on reducing carbon emissions and, at the same time, make it worthwhile for people to invest in technologies which might increase carbon emissions.

So, is it all hypocrisy? Merely the pursuit of a fast buck?

I can certainly appreciate the short-term argument; what's the point of reducing our own carbon emissions when China and India (probably the largest producers) have no intention of doing so before at least 2030. Fracking might last for thirty or forty years before it becomes uneconomic in the UK, if that. And who cares about the 'Paris agreement' anyway. Almost certainly not the world's governments; it's not in their interests, after all. It's not binding; there is only a review every five years; you don't even have to meet the targets that you set for yourself and there are no penalties if you don't. The pursuit of profit will subsume all and we will be having the same lengthy discussion (read lengthy junket) in five years' time! Kyoto didn't work and, despite the mouthings of politicians keen to be seen to do something even if it is only talk, what's to say Paris will be any more successful. I personally won't be holding my breath.

So, fracking as a short term solution to the UK's 'energy crisis' might well seem attractive. Government can always play fast and loose with our children's future because they know that they will be not around to suffer the consequences.

However there is perhaps a more immediate problem outside of the potential damage to the water table and the blight on the landscapes from drilling platforms, pumping stations etc  in a ring around areas of outstanding natural beauty or value and that is: what are the consequences of pumping vast amounts of water into the shale rock and how do the oil companies propose to get rid of the excess water? One of the consequences of pumping water under pressure into the shale may over time fracture more than the shale and the effects of pumping waste water deep underground, according to more recent research, may be magnitudes greater.

There is growing evidence in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas, at least, that some wells, or rather their waste, have been triggering earthquakes in far greater numbers and at more severe levels than at any time since the US was first colonised by the Europeans. Oklahoma, for example, had four or five +2.9 magnitude quakes until 2008. In 2009, it had 20 and in 2011,over 60; the largest being magnitude 5.7. Even the US Geological Survey has finally begun to sit up and take notice. So what do the UK Government do? Issue 159 licences to frack! On the face of it, it does seem rather silly to say the least.

Of course not all fracking wells and their attendant waste wells will cause a problem; in the US it seems confined to just a few at the moment but that may be a function of time not the volume of water pumped in. At the moment, there seems to be a great deal of uncertainty, especially among the USGS. Wouldn't it be better to wait until more research can be done? Of course, but there was no doubt a very singular reason why the announcement of the licences was made just before Parliament went on holiday.  I leave it for you to judge according to your own level of cynicism.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Atlantis, Plato and the desire for a better world

Last post before going back to the sea for the summer. I hand you over to MG, who I suspect will do the minimum required, a post a month, if that. I sometimes wonder whether I would not be better hanging around the coast and not relying on my friend but it gets a bit crowded around the coast in the summer when all of the other penguins breed and the seals are a constant worry. No, I will rely on the kindly nature of my e-pal and hope that he is up to maintaining my sparkling wit and depth of perception.  So, as a last post this year; how about some Plato?

Ever since Plato first recounted the story for the first time in writing, as far as we know,  probably sometime in the fourth century BCE, the story of a lost continent peopled by a 'superior' race beyond the pillars of Heracles and finally inundated by the sea has captured the imagination of humankind. Although the story was surely meant as just that, a story to illuminate how much more perfect fourth century Athens was than a preceding and apparently more advanced society, still people have sought for a possible reality behind this mythical land of Plato's imagining.

At first it was sought were Plato had placed it; somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Fanciful theories were built up to bolster the view that it somehow made a 'bridge' between the old world and the new; pyramids in Egypt and in Central America (despite their being markedly different in construction and in time) was only one of the more bizzare. However, the gradual acceptance of plate tectonics into mainstream science and the existence of the mid-Atlantic ridge, made the notion of a 'lost continent' buried north of the Azores ever more unlikely. Most were likely to think that Plato had simply made it all up. But did he?

With the growth of 'fantasy' literature after the Second World War, it became clear that whatever fantasy elements were woven into a story, still they had to have some grounding in humankind's experience to obtain relevance. Tolkien's Middle Earth, for example, bears a healthy resemblance, geographically, to North Western Europe (the 'drowning' of Numenor in the Second Age merely recapitulates the Atlantis myth and for the very same reasons) and the societies are heavily modelled upon, although idealised, previous human societies; Frank Herbert's Arrakis is modelled on Arab societies in the North African deserts.  Schliemann's discovery of Troy, pretty much where Homer placed it, lent weight to the idea that an oral tradition, a 'folk memory', only later preserved in writing, could provide the basis on which 'stories' were concocted; the 'Epic of Gilgamesh' is another such story garnering such attention.

As a result, I think, people started to look for some evidence closer to Plato's homeland, which might provide a historical basis or substratum for his subsequent tale. And, in the nineteen sixties and seventies, some were convinced that they had found it; the eruption of the volcano on the island of Thera (now Santorini). This eruption, in a known geologically active region, was massive; it was believed thirty cubic kilometres of rock, ash and magma were vented in very short order. Pumice and ash lie over the remains of the caldera to a depth of forty feet. The eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD was minor by comparision; a mere ten cubic kilometeres but still enough to swamp and bury Pompeii and Heraculanium. It actually gets worse; current estimates favour sixty cubic kilometres of debris for the Thera eruption!

Although some evidence had been found on Santorini in the sixties of a Bronze Age settlement (Akrotiri) around the time of of the eruption, c1650BCE, most who favoured the theory that the eruption on Thera was a possible source for Plato's tale, were led to the conclusion that it was the Minoan Crete civilisation which had been devastated by the resulting tsunami and led to the decline of that civilisation over the succeeding one hundred and fifty years. The 'drowning of Atlantis' was simply put down to Plato's imagination; an embellishment to add drame to the story.

However, excavations have continued at Akrotiri and, like Pompeii, have continued to yield startling finds, which point to a sophisticated Bronze Age community living in the shadow of the volcano. There is evidence of trade with Minoan Crete and elsewhere; the presence of a sea-going, possibly merchant, navy; sophisticated pottery; written language; art in the form of murals on some of the walls of the buildings, preserved as in Pompeii to a miraculous degree, by the layers of ash which buried them for two thousand years. Perhaps Thera was once a 'colony' of Minoan Crete which developed somewhat differently divorced from the main civilisation, although they used the same Minoan Linear A script as the Minoans; perhaps it was a totally independent culture, merely influenced by trade; perhaps we will never know.

However, this much we can say: whatever caldera was there before 1650BCE it is largely vanished. All that remains of Thera is sections of the outermost rim; the central area has vanished, swallowed by the sea.

So, could an oral tradition, or perhaps one in Linear A, perhaps translated into Linear B or some other lost written language, survive to Plato's time; even if it was in a garbled, idealised version? Possibly. We may never have absolute certainty about Plato's source, whether imagination or 'folk legend' or a combination of both, but one thing seems to be certain. Humans will continue to seek after any possible truth in the Atlantis 'legend' and not only because they have an insatiable appetite for their history but because Utopias are forever attractive and no-one believes in Poseiden anymore .

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The BBC Natural History Unit, Predators and the Natural Order of Things (however unpalatable)

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC or Auntie Beeb, as Kenny Everett was wont to call it) garners a lot of criticism, especially of late; mostly due to a notion that it is 'dumbing down' its programming and a 'left-leaning' bias in its political commentary. One cannot, perhaps, dispute the preponderance of 'soaps' and 'reality TV' which seem to dominate the schedules and here is not the place to discuss a Public Sector Broadcaster's, funded by tax payers money, 'left-wing' leanings; if it does indeed have them. Perhaps, its role as a PSB gives it a right to be more 'socially aware' than a commercial broadcaster, primarily concerned with audience viewing figures and the concomitant advertising revenue, has the ability to be. No, what we want to look at today is the 'Jewel in the Crown' of 'Auntie Beeb'; the BBC Natural History Unit.

The success, both in terms of the actual content produced and its lack of (bad) journalistic qualities, deserves the highest of praise; the 'Discovery Channel' is a limp facsimile, only after more advertising revenue and, more importantly, profit! I have been watching the BBCNHUs's latest exercise in superlative 'nature documentaries' recently; 'the Hunt'.

Let's be honest here, humans don't, on the whole, appreciate film or photographs (or paintings, MG would say) of non-human predators going about their business of survival. The cheetah's chase is all very well, providing you don't actually show the point at which it throttles the Thompson's and starts to tear its guts out. Predatory birds seem to be ok so long as they are not tearing the innards from mammalian prey. I can understand this 'sentiment'; I don't much like images of hunting leopard seals or orcas tossing penguins high into the air to dislodge the skin (and feathers) before consuming them or sharing them, as orcas do, sometimes, with their 'pod-mates'.

However, there is an essential disconnect between watching a predator pursuing prey and editing out the kill and subsequent feeding. We, even I, subject to predation as I am, admire the predator. Fashioned in exquisite detail by evolution to pursue and capture its preferred prey, it is often the most sublime and beautiful  manifestation of Mother Nature's wonder that it is possible to observe. The way that the Goshawk flies through the narrowest of gaps in the trees, barely wide enough for its body, let alone its wings, and at high speed too; the way that the lion, leopard or tiger stalks its prey, silently and undetected before pouncing mere yards away; the way that chimpanzees, wolves and Harris hawks use the tactics of ambush, driving the prey towards its inevitable doom; the wave-hunting of seals by orcas and the 'spiralling bubble tactics' of both orcas and their dolphin cousins. These are marvels of Mother Nature, and evolution, and should be documented in their entirety; not just what human observers deem to be acceptable.

For, after all, aren't Peregrine Falcons built the way that they are, and admired for their beauty, because they do what they do?  Stooping at enormous speed to take out fast-flying pigeons. Aren't cheetahs the fastest land mammal over less than 400 yards solely in order to catch Thompson's gazelles which are almost as fast in a straight run but much more manoeuvrable? Is not the 'spider-predating' spider a marvel; to 'out-think' another predatory spider? However, humans don't want images of 'natural predation' on their screens despite the fact that they are most merciless predators on the planet. Humans who kill not only for food but for sport and, ultimately, for nothing except their own transient self-gratification;  so that they can have electricity, cars, iPhones, the Internet and a host of other things too numerous to mention.

Should television, photography, the world wide web show images of what actually goes on; down here at the sharp end of the stick.  The way that the petrels tear apart our chicks; the way that urban foxes 'slaughter' pet guinea pigs and rabbits;  the way that the Japanese murder Minke whales; the way that Halal meat is slaughtered? Perhaps we should!

Humans, at least in so-called Western democracies,  constantly hide behind the dictum: if we don't see it, it doesn't happen. Human society; the proverbial ostrich, its head buried in the sand! But it does happen; every day! If you really appreciated Mother Nature for what she is, perhaps you could better accommodate her view; not just your own! Nature, 'red in tooth and claw', to quote Tennyson, is how it is actually is; not your sanitised, dare I say, wishy-washy, sentimental, version of events. Survival is invariably violent in one form or another. As the great Richard Feynman once said of quantum mechanics (I am paraphrasing here): you may not wish that this is how nature behaves, but it does'. Death is an inextricable part of life and your God, whichever variety you choose, cannot extricate you from that fact. Only the lack of 'human predators', you have eradicated them all, (how convenient) allow you to treat the environment, our planet, us and all sentient life on the planet, other than your own species (and sometimes not even then), as you do.

What the BBCNHU does in this series of the Hunt , and I wouldn't be surprised if Sir David Attenborough had something to do with it, (ever since 'Zoo Quest' he, personally, has held the BBC over a barrel, for whatever reason; he is just great, impossible to ignore). someone has been able to craft, with the expertise and dedication of the cameramen, the most sublime manifestations of the wonders of nature as well as the most superlative of commentary; insightful but not overly scientific, (although, I miss the scientific!) and truly mesmerising

The BBCNHU will. perhaps by its skill, persuade others to appreciate the rich gift which nature gives to us all; penguin, human, seal, orca, wolf or beetle and, perhaps, humans most of all, who kill without thought or sense of the existence of a 'natural order', of 'balance', and who then may come to appreciate, and act upon, that which might, I think, ultimately be lost. Many, too, have much to lose, humans not the least; having gained so much, do you really want to lose all of this because you think that you can exist in isolation.

The BBCNHU, who managed to film the tiger, almost soundlessly approaching through the leaf litter, to snare its prey. The Harpy eagle, so rarely filmed, although he or she did not 'pluck' the monkey from a tree trunk; surely what such immense, powerful talons and feet were designed for. The blue whale hoovering up the krill, never before filmed from under the water, which took two years to film. Such things are the BBC designed for; to educate, to illuminate; to transcend quotidian horizons; to go beyond the mundane of what people think is entertainment.

While the BBC is allowed to go beyond, occasionally, the concept of 'pandering for the masses' on its primary channel, BBC1, and therefore can explore comedy, history and nature on its other 'channels', does that diversity not deserve to be preserved. If the BBC should ever be released from its reliance on the statutory licence fee and forced to become a 'commercial' broadcaster, we will all be that much the poorer!

Thursday, 19 November 2015

So-called Disability, Francesca Martinez, Jessica Thom and Tourette's

I don't care what anyone else would say, Terence Donovan's video of Robert Palmer's 'Addicted to love' is still the best music video; ever! If you doubt me then try playing the track and see how women react. They mimic the 'backing band's moves exactly! They can't help it! It is now as much a part of human culture as the 'Epic of Gilgamesh' or 'Le Discours de la méthode' are. I kid you not! MG is quite proud of the fact that he once saw, live, 'Vinegar Joe' with Robert Palmer and Elkie Brookes, in her 'rock chick' phase,  on joint lead vocals. One to savour in the memory, he says.*

I do so love coincidences. I came across two performers the other day; previously unknown to me. One a stand-up (although sitting down) comedian and one who uses comedy in part to enhance her somewhat surreal, and at times frankly weird, take on life. Both are what humans might term disabled, although they did not seem to be disabled to this penguin; merely different in perhaps more ways than I could count. MG had kindly led me to them and provided typewritten transcripts so that I could appreciate the humour and, sometimes, the seriousness, which lay behind the utterances.

In listening to the sound of Francesca Martinez, the stand-up comedian, I finally began to understand how strange MG must have sounded to his friends and colleagues after he suffered the stroke; "I spoke like a spastic," he once wrote.  Francesca has cerebral palsy, which until the 60's or the 70's used to be called spastic (in the same way that Down's syndrome in the same period was termed mongolism, although why Britlanders should think that the greatest empire known to man in any century should be thought derogatory defeats me) and obviously has difficulty in forming the sounds of BBC received English; she also has some difficulties in motor control which causes her to 'tremble', as she so quaintly puts it, sometimes in an exaggerated fashion, such that she sits while doing her stand-up! 

It would be so very easy to lecture those, those who do not have her 'disability', but she does not; she engages in that most difficult aspect of the art of comedy;the self-observational comedy of someone who is, at a superficial level, unlike, and yet profoundly so like, their audience. The fears, which every human has, of inadequacy, of low self-esteem, of social exclusion are made specific to her condition and yet still retain the threads which binds her specific circumstances to the circumstances of every human being and, thus, to the amusement of all; and mighty funny it is too! I know how difficult it was for MG to engage with others, while he was still aphasic; to get up and parade this before a paying audience requires courage of a very profound nature. One can only applaud her 'bottle' for doing it!

And yet, nonetheless, cerebral palsy is known to hide, often, profound intellects in the shrouds of the inarticulate. Perhaps the most startling revelation was watching Daniel Day-Lewis in his performance of Christy Brown; a mind endlessly trapped in an unresponsive body and what it might mean to a mind so imprisoned.

But what of the mind caught in the discontinuities of Tourette's syndrome?

The mind still functions as it should; there seems to be no impairment to function but, as Jess(ica) Thom would point out, the syndrome casts strange and spontaneous outbursts which may often not have any relevance whatsoever. (I should add that only about 10% of people with Tourette's have a fixation on vocal expletives like 'fuck', 'shit' etc.) Jess Thom has 'biscuit', 'cat' and punching her breastbone to fixate upon, although the occasional fuck or cunt is not unknown..

Quite obviously, this a 'malfuntion' of the brain, and cannot be considered 'normal' behaviour but I wonder just how bizarre it actually is. My brain, and MG's too, often lurches sideways into seemingly incomprehensible discontinuities. How do you got from liver dysfunction to isotopic decay in the same 800 words? This seems to me to be not dissimilar to Jess Thom's 'tics', although perhaps more thought out than the random, involuntary 'tics' listed on her web-site, which seem, often, to me, a manifestation of a mind enraptured by the surreal; not a malfunctioning mind. In going through the 'tics', I find a, albeit perverse, logic in many of Jess' 'tics'; her spontaneous utterances.

Whilst many of them are amusing, some are downright hilarious, many seem profound in a Zen-like way. One cannot but wonder whether these are 'contrived' in any way; they seem so apposite to our existence. I believe Jess when she says that these are spontaneous, that she genuinely has no control over what she says, but is something going on in Jess Thom's brain, which is perhaps explicable in philosophical terms but not necessarily neurological?

A long time ago, back in 2008 I believe, I touched, in this blog, upon Daniel Dennett's idea that consciousness was an evolutionary phenomenon. And how, the emergence of consciousness was a subtle 'battle' between emergent ideas; one eventually winning to become conscious thought. What if, in Tourette's, random thoughts, normally suppressed, they were allowed to percolate to the surface? Not just the one that 'won out' in the battle to gain consciousness? Would that explain the somewhat random pairings of Jess' 'tics'; because some of them seem to have significance. At least to Jess' brain, if not, immediately, to ours.

Perhaps a failure of the 'suppresion module', whatever that may be, is to account for this. We are all, at a sub-conscious level, victims of Tourette's but the brain in most cases has evolved to filter out the 'extraneous' thoughts so as to better be able to filter out unwanted or perhaps damaging thoughts which may hinder or hamper our survival at a species level.

Perhaps we should revel in Tourette's as the real example of how our actual brains work without the self-imposed, instinctive  censorship, which our brains now naturally apply?

* Of course, this is subject to change on a daily basis.. However how awesome is the video to 'Come back and stay' by Paul Young? Rubbish video but you do get a glimpse of  a rare sight of the 'Fabulaous Wealthy Tarts'; got to be worth, at least, a 'high-five'!

Monday, 2 November 2015

Orcas, wave hunting and a plea for understanding

Narrow shave while out fishing this past week for Fjörgen's dinner; or at least I think it was a close shave. I ran into a pod of orcas; big buggers they were, at least eight metres long and fat as hell! We call them, minke hunters, after the minke whales that are their primary target. Fortunatey they didn't seem to be particularly interested in me; perhaps they sought a more substantial meal than one dozy emperor who has a habit of not looking where he's swimming. And that got me to thinking as I made my way back to the rookery.

There are rumours, gossip, within the scientific community, at least among those who study cetaceans, that we could be heading down the road of speciation for orcas; at worst they might divide them up into distinct races. You see, there's a funny (odd not amusing) fact about orcas that you might not know. (I, on the other hand do know; I have to keep my ear to the ice when it comes to potential predators.)

You see, orcas seem to have quite individual hunting styles depending on where they normally feed. The pods in a particular range- area of the ocean seem to have particular preferences for food and particular hunting tactics for ultimately catching their usual prey. They also appear to have quite distinct regional dialects in their calls and, possibly by extension, their means of communication with one and another; they do range, as a species, over most of the planet's oceans and the individual pods only number a dozen or so, although many pods may quarter particular tracts of ocean.

On a particular coastline in Eastern Patagonia, the orcas deliberately chase seals almost onto the beach in pursuit, possibly as a deliberate tactic; the seals having made the shore, they then feel safe only to have a seven ton behemoth suddenly grab them from behind. The orcas then flap and squirm in the tide in order that they can get themselves out into water which is deep enough to support their weight. This seemingly takes years to master successfully. (Some dolphins, I don't know what species, have seemingly learnt this trick also.)

Other pods follow the migrating grey and humpback whales and their newborn up the eastern pacific coastline towards Alaska, ambush them and seek to divorce the calf from its mother by a co-ordinated attack and then drown the calf by submerging it.

Pods that frequent the waters of New Zealand, whose prediliction is for stingrays, have learnt the novel trick of turning the fish upside down, which induces an almost hypnotic, semi-comatose state in sharks and rays, which probably also accounts for the success of the orca in the one observed 'battle' between the two apex predators of the oceans; the orca and the great white shark. (The sperm whales could likely destroy both but it hunts deep and so does not compete.) The orca won by simply turning the great white upside down and waiting for it to fall into 'a trance'! (I think that there is a film on YouTube but don't hold me to it.)

There are also pods which hunt in the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, which have broadly similar tactics. They are primarily fish eaters, although the specific fish that they eat are not the same. They herd the shoals of fish into denser and denser melées until they cannot become any denser and then the orcas strike the shoals of fish with their tails, which effectively stuns them. The orcas can mop up at their leisure. What is perhaps strange is that the Pacific orcas seem to have a distinct 'rallying call' as they attempt to drive the shoal into maximum density, which is not mirrored in the North Atlantic pods.*

And finally, the one that I know best, because Havelock told me so, 'wave-hunting' around the ice floes where seals are to be found, catching a brief respite from the rigours of hunting fish (and penguins). The orcas swin en masse towards the floe to create a bow wave which cascades over the floe and so washes the seal out into the open water where it is easy prey.

Now, this seems to me to be learnt as behaviour; especially as Havelock tells it. He only escaped because the seal and him were put back on the flow and made to endure the terror again; the juveniles were being shown how to do it..

Now, whichever way that you look at it, to generate such a bow wave, at the very least, requires a co-ordination of effort amongst the pod members; maybe natural selection could have worked the magic to make this and all the other techniques work but is it not more likely that, like humans, the orca have learnt to communicate. Even if is it only 'whistle, whistle, squee, hum', "do as I do until you produce the same result'.

It is this fact which makes me undisposed to assigning different species to the various populations around the globe; the orcas are behaving like humans. They educate and care for their young; even, in some instances, their deformed adults, and they communicate a culture to those young, however basic, rudimentary or primitive it might be. They might have diverged genetically from each other, as human being might one day, if you are given the length of time that orcas have,, around 700,000 years but it appears clear to me that orcas have gained their place as supreme 'not-deep' water predators due to their acquired intelligence; not Mother Nature.

PS Is that perhaps why they couldn't get a pod to accept Keiko, the captive orca; he just didn't speak their language? How would you in Iran be accepted if you didn't speak Iranian

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Frieda. women and a fundamental shift

MG writes:
Frieda Petrenko returns to Holby City! Only for a scant one episode a few weeks ago (I am slowly catching up on iPlayer) but she returns! Thank you, the powers that be; thank you! Olga, even with the weight of the additional years upon her, is just simply too gorgeous for words! Might one dare to dream that Fedori might make a more regular comeback into our lives?

MG, may I have my blog back?

Besides Boy and Girl, I have been watching a number of BBC documentaries, mostly about things that I am interested in; the natural world, the oceans and paleontology for example. But I also have been drawn to subjects outside of my immediate purview; who cares about the history of archeaology? (Well, you should! Fascinating stuff!) But the thing which caught my eye was a four-part documentary about women in history and pre-history.

The presenter, and writer I assume, of this was Amanda Foreman, who seems to be an English or History graduate (with a couple of post graduate dissertations) with little or no background in science or archaeology and, I fear, too widely read in Marija Gimbutas and her followers; not to disparage Marija Gimbutas, who I think had interesting, but unproven, or unprovable, ideas.

She casts a seductive caul around the supposed equality of humankind at the dawn of its transition from unthinking ape to cogniscent humans, amenable to settlement not hunter/gathering; how the first human societies gave women equal rights and equal opportunity. The evidence for this is largely predicated on the so-called Earth Mother and Earth Goddess statues prevalent in pre-history and in primaeval sites which show an egalitarian way of community life; Çatalhöyük, which she cites, and Skara Brae, which she does not. Ancient Sumerian 'law' merely reinforces this. There can, however, at least in my mind, be no way that the genesis of life, the birth which only females are capable of, would not engender wonder and a sense of the divine among primitive peoples in the act of giving birth. We have no evidence that the male contribution had any real effect in primitive societies; the notion that sperm and egg needed to coincide was probably alien to 'primitive' peoples; women gave birth through other means, even if intercourse was somehow necessary.

And yet, where did the subsequent notion of male dominance emanate? It appears, almost fully formed, in the laws of Sarkon of Akkad, who conquered the Sumerians and much of the the rest of Mesopotamia somewhere in the 3rd millienim BCE and which later were metamorphised into the Draconian laws of the Assyrian Empire; how women were not allowed to speak 'out of turn'; how women were to be veiled; how women were deemed to be possessions of their land-owning patriarchs; this is not, people, the preserve of Islam, however much the Christian West may like it to be so. It stretches back far into the history of humankind. It is odd, don't you think, that such primitive ideals should be carried forward into the twentieth century when women, in some parts at least, finally got the right to participate in the democratic process?

It is perhaps no surprise, in an increasingly antagonistic and warlike peoples, intent on their own property and their lands, that male, physical strength should come to hold sway, although among more nomadic peoples, females could still hold their own as warriors, albeit as archers; kept out of harm's way, kept out of the melee that was the front line of hand-to-hand combat, where they would have been crushed to oblivion by sheer physical strength. Perhaps that tradition remains alive in the stories of the ancient Greeks and how they subjugated and crushed the Amazon people of the north.

In a largely patriarchal society, from wherever it may have emanated, women were still able, if of the strength of character and to some extent the education, to assert their dominance; could push, force, their way into a male dominated society. Hapshepsut, who ruled Egypt while the son by her husband, but the son of another, still an infant, Thutmose III, languished powerless. Her dominance was so great that successive Pharoahs, most notably Amenhotop II, likely attempted to eradicate her from history by the most brutal means; literally chiseling off her cartouche from every inscription that he could find, although her crime was not that of Akhenatun. Boudicca, although widowed from a king, was able to galvanise a population to rise up in revolt and nearly tore down Roman rule in Britain almost before it had begun; only the disciplined power of the legions, bred to dominance, could defeat her amassed army. The Empress Matilda (Maude) who challenged Stephen de Blois' right of succession to the throne of England and, in so doing, led to the period of English history known as the Anarchy and to the reign and succession of the Angevin kings (and to the banning of the name 'Stephen' from any potential heir to the British throne). Elizabeth I, the last female monarch in the British Isles with true power; her namesake, Anne, Mary and Victoria are/were merely constitutional monarchs. These are the women remembered in the history books. But are there any others?

As Foreman points out; yes there are. The nameless mob of women who marched on the Palace of Versailles and demanded that Louis XVI signed the bill of rights; and won! Olympe de Gouge who maintained, during that same revolution, that liberté and équalité did not only belong to the fraternité but applied to women also and was guillotined for it. (The Jacobins were not about to let a mere woman steal their thunder). Doña Manuela Sáenz, the lover and collaborator of Simon Bolivar, who managed to get herself largely written out of history even while Bolivar gained fame; libertadora del libertador he called her. Millicent Fawcett, a tireless, if moderate, campaigner for women's suffrage who founded Newnham College, Cambridge and opened up university education for women, which was largely denied. Alexandra Kollontai, who sought to move Bolshevik thinking away from a traditional patriarchal view of women and towards a more communal approach to family and children and was consigned to a post as ambassador to Norway for her trouble; Lenin might have been receptive to her ideas but Stalin certainly was not!

But I leave you with, perhaps, the most important woman in all of history; Margaret Sanger. Who she, you ask. In the early 1950s, Sanger encouraged philanthropist Katharine McCormick to provide funding for biologist Gregory Pincus to develop the birth control pill which was eventually sold under the name Enovid and freed women forever from the burden of becoming brood mares. I may be biased but I can think of nothing which enabled women to empower themselves than the freedom which 'the pill' gave to them; to have the enjoyment of sex and intimacy without marriage and the threat of pregnancy. It is surely this which the almost subliminal feminist  movement would ultimately latch upon. Women, finally, had control of the worst inconveniences of their bodies and could strike; not back but out! And this they have done. To the betterment of all humankind.

I can only hope that they will prevail!

Monday, 12 October 2015

Apollo 13, Challenger and towing fees in outer space

When they come to write the history of the twentieth century, what will they write about? The two great, global wars; the Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution; women's suffrage; relativity and quantum mechanics;  the rise of fundamentalism both Christian and Islamic and Marxist; the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA;  the development of antibiotics; the great strides in social welfare and public health; the acceptance that gays exist and must not be stigmatised, to name but a few.  Included in the above litany will surely be mankind's first steps on another celestial body; Armstrong and Aldrin's first 'moonwalk'.

It is, I think, interesting that after Apollo 11 the world's interest waned quite dramatically; how many of you can even name the pilot of the Command Module let alone a single participant in the subsequent missions bar one? Bar one? Yes, everybody knows Jim Lovell. And why? Because Lovell was in charge of Apollo 13 and surely the progenitor of one of the most famous and understated quotes in all of history; "Houston, we've had a problem." And perhaps, only perhaps, Jack Swigert might also be known or remembered as the astronaut who 'mixed the tanks' that led to the disaster, although I don't believe he was at fault.

I have just watched Ron Howard's film of the Apollo 13 'crisis' for the first time; I don't know why I have never watched it before now. MG, who was a teenager at the time, remembers it well; how all of his school friends held their breath and could only pray that NASA could have invented the space shuttle before they did, although they probably wouldn't have had the time to prepare a rescue mission even if NASA had possessed such a craft at the time.

It is difficult, I think, in the wake of 9/11, the events in Libya, Egypt and Syria, ISIL and Al-Qaeda. to understand how the fate of three individuals, who well knew the risk, could capture the imagination of  the entire world; or at least that portion who had access to television. It is difficult, MG says, now to capture that feeling of hope and despair in equal measure that NASA would, somehow, bring those three astronauts home safely despite the odds being stacked so heavily against them.

The film, as far as I can determine, is accurate. Yes, there are a few instances subject to 'artistic licence' but these are minor and do not detract from the assertion that this is an accurate portrayal of what went on in Apollo 13 at the time. However, what is the legacy of Apollo 13?

The legacy is, I believe, Challenger and, to a lesser extent, Columbia. (And Feynman's stunt with the 'O' ring in ice-cold water was true theatre; probably what made him such a good teacher when he wasn't playing bongos or gallivanting around with any woman who would entertain him :)

NASA as an institution became, I believe, so enamoured of its role as the agency that could do anything, hadn't they after all brought Apollo 13 home safely against all the odds, that they thought, subliminally, that they could do anything; fix anything. The Apollo 13 mission was a high point in humankind's capacity for inventiveness and collective cool thinking under extreme circumstances; making something out of what was to hand and in a most limited time. Nothing could ever go wrong that NASA engineers couldn't put right.

I believe that this complacency led to the decision to launch Challenger when a more prudent soul, or one less complacent, would have chosen to delay the mission again. Although with the benefit of hindsight, it is always easy to judge in the aftermath of a disaster, NASA's own risk analysis was seriously awry when calculating the odds for launch or abort.

Without denigrating the prodigious effort made by the engineers, both the time of the incident and at long before (they had already run simulations of similar, possible problems in previous Apollo mission simulations), they had, in my opinion, luck on their side; however, they say that fortune favours the brave!

To end on a lighter, Wikipedia note: 'As a joke following Apollo 13's successful splashdown, Grumman Aerospace Corporation pilot Sam Greenberg (who had helped with the strategy for re-routing power from the LEM [Lunar Excursion Module] to the crippled CM [Command Module] issued a tongue-in-cheek invoice for $400,540.05 to North American Rockwell, Pratt and Whitney, and Beech Aircraft, prime and subcontractors for the CM, for "towing" the crippled ship most of the way to the Moon and back. The figure was based on an estimated 400,001 miles (643,739 km) at $1.00 per mile, plus $4.00 for the first mile. An extra $536.05 was included for battery charging, oxygen, and an "additional guest in room" (Swigert). A 20% "commercial discount," as well as a further 2% discount if North American were to pay in cash, reduced the total to $312,421.24. North American declined payment, noting that it had ferried three previous Grumman LEMs to the Moon (Apollo 10, Apollo 11 and Apollo 12) with no such reciprocal charges.'

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Boy meets Girl, Thomas Nagel (again!) and the difficulty of specifying gender

MG has asked me to point out that he left off at least two in his list of omissions in his last hi-jacking of MY blog; The train keeps a rollin' by the Yardbirds (with Jeff Back and Jimmy Page on dual leads) and Sunshine of your love by Cream. I'm happy to put the record straight. I'm even happier to add my own; Crossroads by Page and Plant in a manic performance on, of all places, a 'Top of the Pops' special commemorating the 1970s!

Well. hello daddy, hello mom, I'm just a. . .  cherry bomb!

I do not know what it is but there's something about Thomas Nagel's paper, What is it like to be a bat?, which draws me back time and time again but, as Daniel Dennett once wrote, it is the most widely cited and influential thought experiment about consciousness. I was reminded of this while I was watching a new, half-hour BBC sit-com about gender-transition (yes really); Boy meets Girl. If it is quite impossible to get inside the head of a bat (or a penguin), how much more difficult is it to understand someone who inhabits, as they see it, the wrong body, whether it is male or female? What defines us in our own minds and the minds of others? How can gender be determined or defined by anything other than the biology of our bodies?

As a penguin, I little more think that I am not male than Fricka thinks that she is not female but it is quite clear that some humans perceive themselves to be other than the raw biology deems them to be. Why should this be so? Undoubtedly, the extreme levels which human consciousness attains, its ability to grasp inchoate and nebulous concepts with ease, surely plays a large part as does the moral relaxation which post-war society drags in its wake. Humans, in the West at least, no longer vilify difference or non-conformity as in the past.

Women are treated equally, or at least as equally as a still-patriarchcal society will allow; being gay no longer condemns one to prison or to a life of secrecy or subterfuge; having a different skin colour no longer, in the main, damns one to be a second-class citizen; bi-sexuality is a now-accepted feature of the human condition. However, and perhaps because it is very hard for the average human, whether gay or straight, black or white, to imagine being in the 'wrong' body, that transgender people still are the almost-forgotten outcasts of human society. It is almost as though human society cannot function unless it has someone to persecute or at least disparage, although at the moment it appears that the Muslims take centre stage in that respect.

For my money, although I have none, the BBC is to be congratulated on daring to broadcast such a programme, even if it does, in one sense, trivialise the issue by presenting it as a simple rom- or sit-com  with all of its attendant ephemerality, stereotypes and farce-like situations; casting a transgender female actor*, Rebecca Root, in one of the two lead roles is also to be applauded. (She is, by the way, at least according to MG, hot as in hot! However, I think that it is only because she reminds him of an erstwhile boss.)

The first episode in which boy meets girl due to happenstance, (does it ever occur otherwise?) to the second 'date' in which all is revealed over dinner in a restaurant is writing and performing of the highest order, although MG points out that the boy seems just too sanguine at the admission that his date 'used to have a penis'. However, as I pointed out in my book, still unpublished, human mating rituals are far more complex than a penguin understands and seem to revolve around how much the person, that you imagine him or her to be, attracts you; physical intimacy only comes later.

Only three episodes have so far been broadcast and physical intimacy has yet to be broached (will it?), although the details of an operation to turn the male genitalia into female genitalia has.  However, the boy's reaction is to pass out, in an art gallery, which is surely farce-like in the extreme; much better was the eventual recapitulation in which the boy's jacket-sleeve was turned inside out which prompted the 'killer' one liner: it's not tartan is it?

It is a fact of the natural world that a species exists only because it is able to replicate; to produce offspring, in the main, like itself. Humans, in part due to bigger and more conscious brains, transcend this undeniable truth about life in a sexual, as opposed to an asexual, life cycle. (I have no truck with supposedly homosexual relationships in other species. Males and females  will fuck anything that moves, or in some cases anything that doesn't move, irrespective of whether it leads to reproduction; all that counts is that the males or females do achieve some measure of reproductive success. What they get up to in their spare time, and lets be honest sex is highly pleasurable and satisfying, is of no concern.)

However we are still faced with the conundrum. What defines male and female. It seems that for humans, as in most other things, it is what goes on inside your heads that is the most important. How else to begin to understand transgender transitions?

* This is no way a judgement; it is merely that actress has fallen out of favour in recent times, at least in print, as a moniker with which to label female thespians.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Riffology, Charles Edward Anderson Berry and how, contrary to Don's assertion, the music did not die.

MG writes:

I have just watched a BBC programme about the 'story' of the 'riff'.  While it may trace its roots back to  Beethoven's fifth, Wagnerian Leitmotivs and Tchaikovsky's 1812 and through the figures of boogie-woogie piano and 12-bar blues, it owes its beginnings in 'popular' music to the guitar of Johnny B Goode and the awesome talent of one Charles Edward Anderson Berry. Who would have thought that a blending of the 12-bar of T-Bone Waker, the honky-tonk of the singuar Johnnie Clyde Johnson and country music woud herald the dawning of a new age in music? Music that was entirely geared to the aspirations, hopes and preoccupations of white, later black, affluent American, later European, teenagers. Although I came late to Berry, I was only born in 1955 and first ran across him when I was about seven or eight, who could ever forget Johnny B Goode, dedicated to his  long-suffering pianist, the same Johnnie Clyde Johnson, No particular place to go, Maybelline, You can't catch me, Roll over Beethoven; even 1977's My Ding-a-Ling, backed as it was with the live, unexpurgated version of Reelin' and Rockin' not the sanistised Bill Haley version, could not queer the patch of his brilliance.

If there are aliens out there somewhere, I hope that they have a better system of communication than we have. To find that the 'Voyager' Berry track, just about beyond Pluto's orbit despite being launched in 1977, means that it will otherwise take another four or five thousend millennia before they can listen to more; that would just be too hard to contemplate.

Most of the usual suspects were there, all of which appear in my own collection whether on vinyl, CD or a download fron iTunes. Some of more obvious.  Johnny B Goode by Chuck Berry and its awesome polar counterpart, Link Wray's The Rumble; a instrumental so menacing, with its overcranked and distorted sound, that it was banned from US radio. Nothing would be heard like it until the birth (or is that the spawning?) of Tony Iommi. Apache by Hank Marvin and the Shadows and its a-few-years-later antithesis, the Kinks You really got me, for which Dave Davies had, perhaps unknowlingly or perhaps not, stolen Link Wray's idea of cutting the speaker cone on the amplifier to get the distortion.

The opening track of Black Sabbath's first LP, which so gobsmacked me the first time I heard it, cranked to 11 on the little record player that we had in our common room in the Sixth Form annexe, that I was prepared to believe the hype about the band's satanic origins. Strangely, the programme then took a minor, or major, diversion into the realms of Robert Fripp and King Crimson. Undoubtedly 21st Century Schizoid Man is a great 'riff' and they showed a glimpse of the 1969 Hyde Park concert in which KC 'blew' the Stones off stage, but King Crimson were never about riffs. Strange phrasing, recursions, variations around a motif, bizarre time signatures every fourth bar, yes;riffs no!

We had the Runaways, with Lita Ford and Joan Jett, with Cherry Bomb and Heart's Barracuda, although no I love rock 'n roll; Nile Rogers and Chic with Freak Out and the hit that spawned hip-hop, Good Times. (I could almost kill Nile for that!) And then, Michael Jackson's assault on MTV; Steve Lukather's awesome riff to Beat It, a video almost as good as Thriller and an Eddie van Halen solo in the middle which, at the time, melted the knobs on your TV.

As synths began to usurp the dominant position in 'lead' instruments and the rock riff got further and further up its own arsehole, when spraying your fingers with WD40 seemed like a good idea, the riff suddenly hit back in Johnny Marr and the Smiths (all jangly like the Byrds), My Bloody Valentine, Thurston Moore and Sonic Youth and the Pixies (all apocalyptic by design and often unlistenable to in my opinion) and finally Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, who, with Smells like Teen Spirit, reinvented the sounds of the fifties and sixties and then the seventies for the nineties.

Quite obviously, the producers of the programme turned off about where I did; I thought Nirvana were enormously overhyped. Only the White Stripes got a mention after that. Still, any guitar and drums duo that can get a football crowd to chant the riff to Seven Nation Army has to have something going for it.

Omissions? Well, it all too easy to criticise, especially in a 60 minute programme, but why on earth did they choose Communication Breakdown instead of Whole Lotta Love in which to frame Page's mastery of the riff. No Keith Richard's Satisfaction or Jumpin' Jack Flash; no Spirit in the Sky; nothing from the entire punk era least of all John Ford's Nice legs shame about the face; no Rezillos and Top of the Pops, just a very brief glimpse of the Clash; no Stuart Adamson and Big Country; no Slade or David Bowie (with Mick Ronson, of course); no Metallica, Enter Sandman, at least; not even Pictures of Matchstick Men or Adrian Gurvitz's tour de force, Race with the Devil.

I have perhaps left the best until the very last. Not because they didn't include it because they did, about half way through, but because somewhere in the world at this very moment, someone is trying to play it. Of course it's Smoke on the Water. (Just remember, guys, and gals, it's plucked; they are not power chords.) Just about the one riff any guitar player must be able to play; most I suspect learnt that first in preference to any other if you took up the guitar in the seventies. At once blindingly simple yet nonetheless capable of awesome power. You didn't have to be Joe Satriani, Carlos Santana, Gary Moore or Johnny Winter; if you could master that riff, in the comfort of your bedroom with a Strat copy and a second hand Vox AC30 cranked to 10, you believed you could be a rock star!

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Unanswered questions, hypothetical questions and the nature of being

It is interesting, don't you think,  to play around with history? What might have happened to Britland if the Germans had taken the risk and invaded, despite the difficuties, in the late summer of 1940. Without a staging ground, the US would have been forced to watch from the sidelines; it is doubtful if Ireland would have given succour to US troops. What might have happened at Waterloo if Blücher had not arrived in the nick of time or that the Spanish Armada have not been so wildy torn apart by the British weather. Or even what might Britland have become if the shield wall had not lost all of its discipline at the battle of Senlac Hill and tried to chase down the Norman calvary intent on the very response which ensued. Would the Falkland Islanders now be under Argentinian rule if Margaret Thatcher had not taken the  (in my view bold) step to send the fleet and chase the Argentinian troops away. There are many such instances of good fortune, blind luck or good or bad tactics at a single given point in time affecting people in profound ways; even to affect entire nations or groups of nations.

And so it is with the cosmos. The initial starting conditions were so finely tuned to provide the universe that we see all around that it is often difficult to think, or believe, that these came about by pure random chance, which as an atheist I must do, although perhaps I should spell that as Atheist to put it on a par with Islam, Christianity, Jainism to name but three 'belief' systems.  Did it have to be that way? Could the emergence of life, so inextricably bound up with those initial conditions, only happen in our kind of universe? And what is life anyway? What might have happened if the electro-weak force was marginally less strong or the strong force marginally weaker? Would the universe be a sea of quarks and loose electrons and photons? Such questions lie at the root of our thinking about the universe and our place in it. Yes, we have gravitated towards thinking in purely scientific terms but we have been pondering these questions for millennia.

Why are we here? Who or what made us? Do we have a purpose? Is there some force or power that guides us? Does fate exist or are we, as many believe, driven by pure chance or happenstance. Essentially, these questions can all be boiled down to a single question; are we the inevitable product of a universe so dependent on its initial conditions? And if so, what made those initial conditions just right for life, whatever it may be.

Of course, the universe may just be an endless and infinite cycle between Big Bang and Big Crunch and the laws do not fundamentally change from one cycle to the next; each Big Bang uses the same laws and rules of engagement as the previous because there are no, can be no, other laws. However, if quantum mechanics is even half right about the way the universe works, then the likliehood of a repeat and exact performance from one Big Bang to the next seems unlikely. Perhaps the God, or Allah or somesuch, that some choose to believe in, is simply infallible and any universe that He brings into being has to abide by His rules and so the universe is entirely suited to life and sentient life at that.

It is considered that the early universe, the first 500,00 years or so, was conposed of only hydrogen atoms, with possibly a few helium ones. Hydrogen atoms are the simplest to make, and nature always seems to produce the very simplest things at the beginning; just 3 quarks coming together through the strong force and a captured  electron 'orbiting' in a shell around them, although no-one, as far as I know, seems to have a cogent explanation of why exactly energy seems to condense in this way and, perhaps, why it does so in a practically, but statisticlally predictable, way. Why does energy even bother to condense? And why did only some of the energy in the early universe take the form of matter? And why, if matter was easy to form given the right circumstances, are there only 92 elements in the observable universe? Why would the universe stop at Uranium? Humankind doesn't. Or perhaps it didn't and anything 'larger' than Uranium just decays so quickly that there is noting now left for us to observe.

It is thought that the density of hydrogen atoms in the early universe, perhaps only one, or maybe two, in each cubic metre of 'space' would be insufficient for gravity to coelesce those atoms together in a high enough density for nuclear fusion, and therefore solar 'burning' to take place.  But, and it's a big but, if molecular hydrogen, two atoms of hydrogen bonding together, were to form in sufficient quantity then this might be enough in the presence of gravity to initiate fusion and thereby begin the cycles of the process of star formation, burn and nova and supernova to create the all of the 92 elements in the observable universe. It is all rather convenient; don't you think.

The universe, however many there may be, we are told is approximately 13.5-14.0 billion years old; the furthest that we can see with our telescopes is about 13.5 billion light years away, which means that the light has been travelling for that amount of time but that is only the limit of our vision; it may be that more powerful telescopes will extend the range of the 'observable universe' beyond a timescale of 13.5-14.0 bya. However, the oldest star in our own galaxy appears to be slightly older as a spectral analaysis seems to indicate a lack of heavy elements; merely hydrogen and a little helium, calcium and carbon, which would seem to imply that it is possibly a 'second or third generation' star, one in which 'supernova created' elements heavier than iron are not present.

And what of dark matter; dark energy? Is the rate of expansion of the universe really accelerating? Not moving at a constant rate, or slowing down, as one might  expect? Is there such a thing as 'anti-gravity' which might explain such acceleration?  Why are there so many more particles of matter than there are of anti-matter? Might anti-matter and dark matter be one and the same?

These are questions to which humans have found few answers. Perhaps they are fated never to find them or perhaps humans wil one day find them because the universe is genuinely anthromorphic; the only observable reality is the one that humans observe. Perhaps aliens would perceive a different universe operating under different laws. Will humankind ever find a workable solution to Islamic terrorism which does violate essential freedoms which humankind has spent the last three hundred years enjoying?

I am, perhaps perversely, optimistic  that mankind and womankind will eventually find satisfactory answers to its many questions; there will always be answers, however bizarre. Only one question will remain unanswered, however long your species remains alive; why are you here? That question is unanswerable; there is no reason!

Friday, 11 September 2015

Embryo research, genetic engineering and unscrupulous physicians

"A worldwide network of science and ethics experts, the Hinxton Group, has said gene editing of early stage embryos would be of 'tremendous value' to scientific research and could have practical applications." (PA, 10.09.2015)

That's a no-no; right? Designer babies? Brave New World? Bene Gesserit breeding programmes? I touched upon this very early into my blog, (here) , but seven years on, I think, maybe, I should revisit it, although my opinion has not fundamentally changed except that I may have softened my attitudes to certain elements of the human race. (Although I have not softened my attitudes towards the murderous bastards who seem to have a rabid desire to thrust their views on the entire world through the medium of terror and slaughter - you know who you are!)

Humans appear to have an instinctive reaction to genetic manipulation; be it cloning, GM crops or 'designer babies'. This is, in part, understandable providing one accepts that it is only recently that 'science-based' manipulation has become possible and, one day, practical on many levels. But to do so misses the point; humans have been genetically manipulating animals and crops for millennia.

How much relation does a domestic dog have with the wolf? Where do Friesans or Herefords come from if not from wild cattle, oxen or aurochs? In what many ways is domesticated wheat different from wild wheat grasses? How many different variaties of rose are there and how are they related to the wild rose whence they came? Humans have purposely, though not necessarily scientifically, been manipulating nature for at least ten millennia and certainly not to ensure the 'survival of the fittest' (in the 'fitness landscape') but simply to make them more docile, more amenable to farming or from pure, unaldulterated convenience. Gene manipulation at the 'genetic manipulation' level simply speeds up a process which mankind has been engaged in, by way of selective breeding, for as long as they stopped being hunter/gatherers.

So, despite protests, there are few grounds for dismissing genetic manipulation by scientific means, gene splicing or replacement, out of hand, although that is what many people do; it is just a faster way to do what humans have always done. But humans? Can you gene splice a human embryo?

There are certainly many religious grounds for asserting that such gene splicing is immoral; God, the god or gods, made man (and woman) and to tamper, at best, shows a lack of respect and due worship and, at worst, is likely to draw down divine retribution for man's temerity in seeking to amend 'God's' will and his perfectionist creation. While many people in the 'West' reject religion and, by extension, religious teachings, much of Western thought, culture and philosophy is founded on Judaic, Christian and Arabic thought by a process of rational rejection or acceptance. Most humans, I would propose, would reject gene replacement or splicing on ethical or moral grounds; it would be simply 'wrong' in their view, much like murder, incest or rape is considered 'wrong' among most in a population. But I would argue that if it were possible to provide a 'cure' for Sickle Cell disease, Cystic Firbrosis, Down's syndrome and all of the other inherited diseases of humans due to 'defective' genes, most people would agree that, in the words of Sellars and Yeatman, this would be a good thing. So why are people so resistant?

Why? Because people fear their very own selfishness and greed! Humans have long known of their genus' inherent, intrinsic, illogical and instinctive selfishness; I am worth more and can do whatever I wish! They know that selective breeding on the lines favoured in cattle or dogs or wheat do not seem to produce a human which is any 'better' than random pairings; two geniuses do not necessarily produce another genius, largely because humans don't actually know what it takes to produce an Einstein, a Michaelangelo, a Feynman or a Rodin.  But gene therapy could be of such use and benefit to those afflicted with awful conditions but, at the very bottom line, humans don't trust other humans to abide by the rules; there will always be somebody who tries to cheat!

Game theory predicts that cheaters will never prosper in a group providing, and only providing, that the others in the group are able to spot the cheaters. The danger to the other individuals in the group arises when they cannot either spot the cheater or have no way of 'punishing' him or her or his and her behaviour. Whether in an evolved, naturally selected group or whether in a human society, there are usually ways to 'punish'. Whatever the ethical decisions that humans take about the ill-wisdom of 'designer babies', would they ever be able to 'punish' sufficiently severely to effectively outlaw and thereby eradicate the practice by default. Most humans, I would hazard, would think this most unlikely. There would always be some unscrupulous physician, politician or scientist who would go against the common concensus; whether from belief or, more likely, profit.

This is what frightens people. The emergence of a genetically engineered race of haves and have-nots, a race of superior and inferior, a race of Morlocks and Eloi, which was not 'natural' but engineered for political, economic or 'social' purposes and which would deny the fundamental rights which humans deem to be of paramount importance and have fought so hard and long to win. A future in which there was a possibility of improvement, of affecting the status quo, of bettering one's status, of finding love in the most unlikely of places. That the human race, or at least a significant part of it,might be consigned to the same genetic restrictions as apply to every other animal on the planet? To be consigned to such a fate with consciousess is probably a human's worst, imaginable nightmare. And so people oppose any chance of alleviating potential suffering in their own species!

Me? As a penguin, I am more sanguine. Let the researchers have a longer leash; let them develop the technology to make 'designer babies', while putting in place ways in which, as far as possible, 'designer babies' cannot be born and trust in humanity's acquired wisdom, scant though it may be.

The atomic bomb was developed at the end of the second world war; Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated its efficacy. However, in the intervening seventy years, there has not been a single case of a nuclear weapon exploded in anger or in conflict, even a small one. This might change, India and Pakistan, North Korea and South, China and the USA, Russia and Europe but I seriously doubt it; wisdom and good sense have long since prevailed. And so I think it will be with human genetic engineering. The mass of people will rise up and overthrow any perpetrators of an attempt to genetically engineer an advanced 'race'; but only because it will be in their interests to do so. Humans are, after all, selfish in the extreme; it's in their genes!

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Multiverse in less than 750 words, crazy ideas and why we should embrace them all

So, as promised a few days ago, some ruminations on the multiverse; the current buzzword in astrophysics. I must confess to being a little confused about why some astrophysicists would be concerned with multiple universes outside of our own; humans don't understand this one at all well let alone the possibiity of understanding others which might be  so totally alien as to be beyond human understanding. However, be that as it may, what is science fiction today might become science fact in the future; just not in my lifetime!

If I understand the big bang theory correctly. this universe originated in a singularity, a point but not a point, which 'exploded' a vast but finite blast of energy which rapidly expanded to form among other things light of multiple wavelengths and 'coalesced energy', matter,  although no-one, as far as I know, has been able to work out exactly why the 'rules' or 'laws' that govern the interactions between matter with itself, matter and energy and energy with itself happen to be the way that they are; they just are! The only thing which can be stated with any certainty is that life, as we know it Jim, would not exist, either here or anywhere else in the universe, if the laws governing interactions were not as they are or at least seem to be. Another issue which seems to await a resoution is how this explosion of energy seems to have created time and space all by itsef, which it seems to have done, although time may be a totally human construct which has no 'reality' in so far as anything appears to be real.

When it became clear that there was nothing particularly special about the star we orbit, among so many type G-type stars, or anything special about the galaxy, among the millions of spiral galaxies in the universe, that we inhabit, the trend was begun which prompted the question; is there anything special about our universe? Quite clearly, to all intents and purposes, it seems unlikely if the answer to first two statements is that there is nohing special about our universe outside of the fact that we are in it. And so was born the idea that our universe might be merely one of many. That 'somewhere' out 'there', there might be other singularities performing their own pyrotechnics and forming their own time and space and which we, in our universe, might never see or experience as they are occluded by the very nature of the differing times and spaces which each big bang would engender but which might still exist in some form.

Such ideas don't lend themselves particularly well to evidence-based science but that hasn't stopped some scientists endlessly speculating on the whichness of the why, just look at string and 'M' theory, and some astrophysicists started to wonder about the ramifications of a supersition of states in a quantum mechanical  universe.

Supersition of states is merely the property of a quantum 'particle' to behave in such a way as to be only predictable in a statistical manner; as though it has a limitless potentiality which can only be realised when the state is actually measured in some way; and what happens when the quantum particle is not 'measured' and so retains its limitless potentiality? This led some physicists to postulate that there might be an infinitely expanding multiverse in which all of the multiple bifurcations inherent in a quantum particle might be realised in actual physical states; Borges' 'Garden of infinitely forking paths'. Each time the quantum particle is measured, the measurement causes the potentiality to be released creating multiple universes similar to our own but not quite the same; mind-boggling stuff, huh?

Of course this lends itself no better to evidence-based science than does its precursor but it is tantalising stuff nonetheless. That there might be multiple copies of ourselves with different pasts and different furtures but forever inaccessible to us is surely a captivating idea and one in which there is a rich seam of 'story' to be mined, although I know of only one book, Robert Anton Wilson's 'Schrödingers Cat', which has considered this worthy of regard. (There well may be others but I am not an avid fan of sci-fi and usually restrict myself to the more well known and 'golden age' writers like Asimov. Dick, Herbert et al.)

So there you have it; the multiverse in less than 750 words! Is it all poppycock? Does the lack of achievable evidence make it a waste of time? Is it time to stop spending public money on so much rotten tripe? Is it about as useful, or practical, as investigations into a perpetual motion machine? Undoubtedly yes, but 'pure' research or speculation with no real long term goal can often lead to new insights or new techniques which can have a more practical value. I am sure that neither Newton nor Kepler thought that their theories would one day provide the mathematical wherewithall to land a man on the moon or an unmanned probe on Titan no more than Faraday or Maxwell would have considered that their pioneering work in electromagnetism would lead to the iPad or iPhone.

So, to all you scientists and would-be scientists out there; keep coming up with crazy ideas. These are the stuff of dreams and everyone knows that, sometimes, dreams can come true!

Monday, 7 September 2015

A-Ha, Michael Jackson and the nature of ephemeral promotion

I caught a programme on the BBC last night, subtitled thank God, about the multiverse and I was going to write about the concept today, but in touting through the various folders on this machine in the station that I use, I came across a copy of iTunes which some newbie had loaded; presumably to fuel his iPod or iPhone to alleviate the tedium of watching us all day.

I have mentioned before that the staff around here don't go a bundle on security but I was thwarted in my attempt to 'crack' the password to access his account; I really must load a copy of the TorBrowser and get a handle on the 'Dark Net' and download a useful 'password cracker'. However, while the newbies insist on being so blasé about keeping their password secure, perhaps I don't need to bother. I found a spreadsheet, not even encrypted would you believe, which listed all of the sites which he, or she, is privy to, complete with usernames and passwords! I have just spent a few glorious hours downloading and watching the music videos which MG has long recommended that I should see; from a-ha to Z Z Top.  I also managed to delete the notifications from Apple concerning the payments made and I hope that he, or she, will not notice what I have done; give me a break here people. If I had money I would buy, but since I don't, needs must!

I decided to purchase, and play, them in alphabetical order. So, first on my list was a-ha's 'Take on me', which, while the music is too 'poppy' for my sensibilities, it is one of first 'pop' videos to feature 'rotoscoping'* and must rank in the top five of any list of the 'best of'. Blending live action with pencil drawings of the two primary characters, it is a masterpiece of plot and artistic interpretation; Morgen Harket (pronounced Mochten Hårctett, I think) is an added bonus for the ladies!

Next on my list was Billy Idol's 'White Wedding'. I'm afraid that wiggling bottoms on leather clad females and a curled lip, à la Rick Pilchard, do not really do it for me but Godley and Creme's directorial pièce de résistance, Duran Duran's 'Girls on film', deserves to be ranked alongside 'Thriller' in the global 'video stakes'. It's very naughty (read lotsa bare breasts on nubile young 'Page 3' models) but encapsulates the very essence of the song!

Sinead O'Connor's 'Nothing compares 2 U' and Imogen Heap's 'Hide and Seek' (which owes a great deal to former) are little gems of a minimalist approach to film-making; just a face for the most part singing the song but done in such a way as to mesmerise; you just can't look away!

A quadrilogy of Michael Jackson, back in the days when he was good, 'Billie Jean', 'Beat it', 'Thriller' and 'Bad', bear witness to just how good an ephemeral, throw-away piece of self-promotion can be. The seventeen minute version of 'Thriller' is still the standard by which all music videos will be, and should be, judged; and most come up very short indeed. Yes, a ludicrous, over-the-top budget does help but one cannot but marvel about what Landis and Jackson (and Rick Baker) came up with; who will ever forget the transformation sequence and the 'zombie' dance? MG is quite proud of the fact that he waited until midnight one evening, in high expectation, for the first showing on UK television, the video was released simultaneously around the globe, and how it was the talking point around the 'water-cooler' for days after; yes, it was, at the time, simply awesome! Nothing like it had ever been seen before in support of a 'silly' 'pop' song.

Strangely, perhaps, there was now a large gap in my alphabetical listing. No Led Zeppelin, I purchased the complete video recordings a long time ago; no Iron Maiden, the 'Powerslave' tour is all that you need; no Mike Oldfield, 'Incantations' should be all you could ever want; no Rainbow. Would you ever want anything else but the definitive band live in Munich?

So, I came to the end of the alphabet. U2 and 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'. Bono might be (now) a complete arsehole but 'Live at Red Rocks' is a band at the height of its power; it's a pity that they waited so long to release the full concert. (Concerns about the sound quality, I understand). Paul Young. With a voice like his, he doesn't need videos, although I noticed in one that the 'girl' is the same one as in the a-ha video; she obviously got around!  There was a little shot of the 'fabulously wealthy tarts', surely the most inept of backing singers, but SO perfect; their backing vocals to 'No Parlez' were SO off-key but so sublime. Paulo Paladino is surely the best bass player of his generation, isn't he? And, finally,  the trio of Z Z Top videos featuring 'the car' and the 'keyring'; 'Legs', 'Sharp dressed man' and 'Gimme all your lovin'. Masterpieces of misogynist, degrading eighties personifications of women but so true to the age. (Has it ever occurred to you that Frank Beard, the drummer, is the only one of the trio who doesn't have a beard?)

My only regret is that I was not able to find a decent video of Big Country at the time of their 'Without the aid of a safety net' tour.  I did find something on Amazon but it was a poor copy of a VHS tape and they wanted £90 (new) for the DVD!

*Rotoscoping: the process whereby a digital representation of the object, or person, is 'deleted' from the frame of film and can therefore be replaced, digitally, by another object or person. A highly skilled and valued job in the SFX industry. I certainly couldn't map the exact contours of a shape with a mouse, although, perhaps, they use graphics tablets; still tricky, nonetheless.

Has anyone else noticed how fucking good Paula Cole's first album is?

Friday, 4 September 2015

Princess Di, the nature of fame and why you should eschew it

So, a little late but, 31st August; the anniversary of Princess Di's death in an automobile accident. Who cares? Seemingly, the media think that many do. Why?

One reason is the outpouring of collective grief over her death; the reasons for which I am still trying to fathom. What was so special about her because she as sure as hell was not special.  Bred, raised, by a 'socially-climbing'  family to be a consort to the royals, whatever the level,  she was as ignorant as a sink-estate adolescent; barely qualified at 'O' level and about as vacuous. (No disrespect to the sink-estate adolescent, who often rise above their socially-imposed limitations.) A consort to a pseudo-intellectual Prince of Wales? No, you are having me on! She didn't even have big bazongas!

No, she was just a socially acceptable womb for an heir to the throne, after Charles. The Royal family despised her but she was a convenient, and willing, progenitor to the line of inheritance. She was all sweet and innocent, although was not, and so the media portrayed her. Butter would not melt in her mouth, although, in truth,  aluminium might have.

She was all that a 'fairy-tale' princess might be; according to the media. However, she was not. She became, or already was, the same conniving, duplicitous, finagling, lying and deceitful individual that the royals, like most in the political arena or most people, have ever been, despite the 'Purdy' haircut. Can someone be so corrupted by those around her? Perhaps, perhaps not. I happen to believe, disagree with me if you will, that she was already the bitch that she became before she ever entered the royal, or political, arena. She was a conniving, manipulative individual before she ever laid eyes on Charles; because that was she was brought up to believe was to her advantage!

She always played to the advantages that were inherent in those initial photographs and impressions  of her; the innocent 'girl', the gauchely naive, the 'Purdey' haircut. Even in later photographs, the face was always slanted, in a coy-like, demure way, in innocence, as though butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. And it was all a lie! Simple advertising. Di washes whiter than white; kills 99.9% of household, and third world, and minefield, germs! And it was always a complete and utter lie! I doubt that she was innocent, although I accept that she might have been forced into it; what 80's chick, and she was seriously hot,  at 19 was a virgin?

Her death was a tragedy but no more than a death in similar circumstance might be deemed a tragedy. She courted publicity wherever she went, whether she was the Princess of Wales or not, and can scarcely complain about the paparazzi's attention wherever she chose to go just because at that particular instant, she didn't want it. Those who court publicity must be prepared for it throughout one's waking life and to endure it with good grace; it is the nature of the beast.

I am well reminded of one of the most influential guitarists of the twentieth century; J J Cale. Not heard of him? Not surprising. He eschewed fame, and the trappings, to pursue his own musical 'vision'. But he inspired countless guitarists with his 'laid-back', minimalist style and is surely the most sublime and rewarding instrumaiists outside the classical genre that you should ever encounter. ('After midnight' people on YouTube, or 'Live at Leon Russel's studio' if you want the full monty!) He renounced fame and all that comes with it for a 'normal' life. Di did not not and she paid the price. Not in the same way as Janis or Jimi or Jim via drugs but nonetheless still in pursuit of that fickle fate; fame.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Moral dilemmas, assisted suicide and a fairly weighty debate

Humans face moral dilemmas throughout their life or, at least, from the time they are old enough to differentiate between right and wrong in some measure. It does not mean that humans do no wrong but, at best, it means that they get to choose between acting in the common good and acting against the common good and that is, at least, something to be mildly grateful for. (I should add at this stage that penguins have no real morality, at least as far as you understand it, because we are so bound up with instinct that is incredibly difficult to go against an evolution-mediated behaviour. We see no logical reason to go against the inclination to always take our turn on the outside of the rookery, where there is no protection whatsoever, when the wind howls like a banshee and the snow forms a carpet on our feathers , although it would be, in a somewhat very selfish, self-interested way, possibly sensible to do so. However this seldom persuades me not to pass comment on your moral dilemmas, great and small; it is sometimes good to have another species' view, I think.)

The Brits are about to debate, in their legislature,  the question of the legality of 'assisted suicide'. The last time that they held a debate on this issue was in 1997 or 1999, I cannot remember which,  and they came down firmly into the 'it is a crime' camp.

Now assisted suicide is exactly what it says on the tin; helping another person to commit suicide, which, in itself, is no longer a crime. How do you punish the successful suicide bid? And to punish the unsuccessful seems to me to churlish in the extreme. A person goes to all that trouble and fails; they surely don't deserve punishment for being inept. However, a number of Brits (about 18) have been travelling to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, to take advantage of the services of Dignitas, an organisation set up with the express purpose of assisting people to kill themselves. (I will deal with the morality of charging people for this service later in the blog.) This, it appears, has prompted the re-opening of the debate about whether or not it should be legal in Britland.

I do not have a problem with suicide per se as long as it does not impact on other people (or penguins), bus, tube and train jumpers please take note, although it is difficult to see how any suicide doesn't impact on friends or family but, at root, it must surely be the 'potential suicide' who must make the choice about whether or not to end his or her life deliberately; it is merely one of the results of your consciousness and your ability to make choices.

However, much of the west's morality is grounded in Judeo-Christian myth and its roots lie very deep indeed. The Christian Church has always described suicide as a mortal sin, it is after all murder of oneself - 'thou shall not kill' - although whether they still deny the right of burial in consecrated ground I cannot say; they certainly used to, going so far as to bury the suicide at a crossroads well outside the town or village. (Shades of Robert Johnson and a pact with the devil who frequents such places, I think). But in a more secular age, this feeling amongst the largely irreligious, has waned to be replaced by a more existential approach, which no longer listens to the pronouncements of Popes and Archbishops.

So where do humans, or rather Britland humans, go from here? If one accepts that the pronouncement of the church, of whatever denomination, have no place in the argument then, it seems to me, to boil down to the rights of the individual. (A slight digression;: humans have no basic, intrinsic rights; only 'socially-agreed rights'. To argue otherwise merely puts humans into a position of a 'God-given' morality and humans, at least in Europe, have fought for centuries to be free of that particular yoke.) I would not presume to offer a rational, or irrational, argument over whether or not someone has a right to end their own life; the decision must be theirs and theirs alone but when you start to involve another human being in your plot to end your life, the waters becomes very murky indeed.

As a 'true friend' or spouse or partner, should not the wishes of your 'loved one' take precedence? (Assuming you have a heart.) Shouldn't you assist them in whatever it is that they want to do? Don't you owe them your compassion for what they deem to be an intolerable situation? Should the law punish you for helping a friend or a partner to attain their life's desire which impacts on (mainly) no-one but themselves? Clearly, most people's (or at least most people's, closest to the would-be suicide) argument would be that it is not wrong and no-one should be punished. On the face of it, I agree.

However, it is seldom as clear-cut or straightforward as that. If, and it is a very big if, only two people are involved and the 'significant other' merely acquires the means to permit the would-be suicide to kill themselves then I see no reason to prosecute. But how does one know that the suicide has not been coerced or, more significantly, murdered, which is a crime? It is very easy to shift along a shedload of paracetamol down a victim's gullet if they are drugged out of their eyeballs with diamorphine or to overdose on that same diamorphine. Enact safeguards, I hear you say. Involve the medical profession or some other respected body. I regret to say that you have just extended the net somewhat wider that my original agreement to the practice took account of.

Medical Practitioners do not, as far as I know, take a Hippocratic Oath but for a hundred or more years, the abiding consensus of the profession has been to 'knowingly do no harm'. Obviously, it is a good adage. Where treatment is possible, treat with the most widely accepted treatment which does no harm even if it means that you will only prolong life for a few days, weeks or months. Otherwise let nature take its course. However, by engaging the medical profession in the personal decision of the would-be suicide, you are in direct opposition to that 'do no harm' tenet and so become embroiled in yet another dilemma; how do you know that the doctor has not been subverted to the 'significant' other's possible intent to murder? You cannot be sure just as you cannot be sure of the 'significant' other.

The basis of Britland law has always been 'beyond a reasonable doubt'.  It is difficult to see how a jury would differentiate between 'assisted suicide' or murder if the motive remains hidden or successfully-falsely professed.

Whilst I have the utmost sympathy for those suffering from terminal, debilitating disease who wish to end their lives, I fear that legislating to make 'assisted suicide' legal opens up a veritable host of cans of worms; and where does it stop? Twenty years down the line, does assisted suicide become the norm, whether the patient desires it or not? (Remember that the King's physician administered what amounted to a 'speedball', morphine and cocaine, to a dying, comatose King George V of Britland just so that it could make the morning, as opposed to the evening, papers. It's in his diaries, people!)

So do I hope that the Brits vote against? On balance, I do. There are many ways of killing yourself, all by yourself, if you truly want to; I don't see why anyone else should get involved.

Finally, as promised, to elucidate on Dignatas. They charge €4,000, or thereabouts, for the privilege of assisting you to die legally. However, the Swiss only deem it legal if nobody gains from the death.  However, Dignatas refuse to openly publish their accounts, although whether they disclose them to the authorities in Switzerland I have no way of knowing, and this must raise doubts; what have they got to hide? Dignatas was set up by a lawyer, and we all know how altruistic and frugal they are, so vastly inflated salaries to effectively 'hide' profit cannot possibly be the order of the day; can it?

Friday, 21 August 2015

Traffic Wardens, a Sense of Perspective and the true value of a sense of humour

I hadn't intended to make any further comments about the state of the Internet after my last post but I feel I must in the wake of a small (non-) news report yesterday and the subsequent comments about it.

The report was concerning the parking ticket received by a UK 'chauffeur' driving a six-door, black (and immaculate) limousine, which was illegally parked in a residential parking space (the Brits are paranoid about their parking spaces) for about eight minutes. (HERE)

Now, the thrust of the story was about how unfair such a ticket was (with its attendant £50-60 fine), given that the 'limousine' (as far as I can make out, a private hire car) was intended to ferry mourners to a funeral; the car was parked a little way down from the funeral director's in a private space but as far as I could determine from the article, it wasn't one of the best pieces of journalism that I have ever come across, it was not owned by the funeral director.

Parking Wardens in Britland get a somewhat raw deal from the average motorist. They are seen as the archetypal 'Jobsworths'; it's more than my job's worth not to issue a ticket. However, it is badly paid, target-driven by the local council and invariably subject to the most Draconian of practices (again enforced by the local council too keen to maintain a maximisation of the revenue stream); it doesn't help that many wardens in major cities are Eastern European or African migrants, eager to obtain gainful employment. Already pissed-off motorists are only too willing, almost avid, to extend their ire over wardens to demonstrations of rampant xenophobia; it is, I must confess, a recipe for ill-informed comment of the highest order. Sad, it is true, but that is state of most of the western democracies. How the ancient Greeks and the Enlightenment philosophers must be turning, spinning uncontrollably, in their graves.

The average Parking Warden is given a very small amount of 'delegated authority' but this is sorely limited but, no doubt, many still exercise a little restraint on compassionate grounds. However, in the case in question, there was little indication, from the journalism, that the vehicle, parked illegally, was involved in a funeral; the 'chauffeur' was not present at all between the time car parked and the issue of the ticket. Therefore the warden could not have been cognisant of that fact that the car was intended for mourners. The warden, however, allowed a 'grace period' of around eight minutes before issuing the ticket; perhaps less, maybe more.

What is the warden to do? If he or she allows someone to park illegally without issuing a ticket, he or she is not doing his or her job, for which, don't forget, he or she is being paid by the local tax-payer; however abysmally. Should the warden run around, knocking on every door, to perhaps elicit extenuating circumstances from somebody or other? Should the warden assume that someone would park in a residential space for no good reason? An emergency? On balance, it is not the most likely scenario; how many able-bodied park in places reserved, quite explicitly, for the disabled? Would that any of us should have the time to go and spend half-an-hour in a, possibly, fruitless search?

So what did the so-called intelligent Brits do? (In some cases without reading, or even basally understanding, the text of the article.) They called for the warden's dismissal. They called on the council to not only dismiss him or her but to waive, without due process, the fine! And there thus ensued a less than polite dialogue (running to 216 comments over a 20 hour or so period) about the pros and cons of the argument but containing little of substance. Most 'cons' were of the belief that the bereaved were entitled to anything; whether it broke the law or not.  Most 'pros' were of the belief that it was the responsibility of the Funeral Director to acquire adequate parking space, which would comply with local bye-laws. ( And which he would no doubt add to his bill.) There was no common ground between the two. And yet, each was culpably guilty of, what the late Bernard Levin called, single-issue fanaticism; the total inability of one side to accept that another contrary view might have some, however minor, merit.

Me? I am amazed that it was possible to get 'worked up' over such an issue when people are subject to the most awful deprivation and conflict. North Africa is seemingly in tumult due to a widespread endemic war between fundamentalists and moderates and migrants are flooding into Europe at an alarming rate (although some may be economic); Afghanistan (or Iraq) is still not resolved; Russia appears to 'be at war' with almost all of its neighbours; China is almost in social meltdown; famine in Africa does not even seem to make more that a half-inch or two in the papers; Donald Trump appears to be leading the Republican nominations race (God forbid!). And the Brits argue over a parking ticket!

Of course (I can hear the protestations from here), the Brit media encourage this kind of mindless, senseless, no-thought activity by feeding a constant stream of worthless garbage to the masses via 'the Sun', the 'Star', the 'Daily Mail', '' etc etc etc. This used to be the land of conquest, of innovation, of success; at one time Britland 'ruled' half of the globe, whether politically or economically. Whatever happened to the population? Perhaps it has always been so; mired in ignorance!

As a antidote to this despair that I feel about humans in general, and mourning humans in particular, MG tells a faintly amusing story about the funeral of his father. It was a modest affair; there were few left alive to mourn him. The hearse, carrying the coffin, turns up with a large 'limousine' to carry his mother and the grandchildren; everybody else had their own car. They open the gate to the communal driveway, all set to move off at a snail's pace, as is customary; the chief mourner leading the cars at a slow, walking pace to allow those on the street time to gather to pay their last respects. Five yards; the hearse breaks down! It took twenty minutes and a phone call to a mechanic to fix the problem; they were of course late for the service! MG pissed himself! His 'gaffer' was undoubtedly having a laugh!

Did he sue for the delay? Of course not! Did he try to extract some 'discount' for the interruption? Of course not. Shit happens, even in the most traumatic events in our lives. Humour is a veritable gift from the gods; use it!

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The legacy of the Internet! How the strong get stronger and the weak.......

I have to be honest and confess, although I have covered the topic in the past, that I grow increasingly fagged off with the arrant foolishness, lack of thought and downright nastiness of a good deal of human interaction with this whole Interweb thingamajig.

I, as a sub-optimal, profoundly ignorant penguin, understand that the web is ephemeral, of little lasting value and transitory. I understand that it appears to have little value attached to it, Twitter is a prime example, but why must it always, repeat always, descend to depths lower than even the lowest common denominator? Is this just a symptom of the dumbing down of discourse, journalism and literature? Is 'Fifty Shades of Grey' or Dan Brown to become the highest pinnacle of achievement of humankind? Is the web to blame or is it, rather, some deep manifestation of a more general ignorance and unreason to which humankind now aspires to? Is the world now too complex for you to think in anything other than 'black' and 'white'; fifty shades of grey notwithstanding. (What a publishing non-event that SHOULD have been - von Sacher-Masoch was much better written, although not without its literary faults, and far more erotic! A juvenile pastiche, and I do mean juvenile, should not have made the author rich!).

You, as a species, are the heirs to Plato, Eratosphones, Aristotle, Socrates, Hesiod, Herodotus, Descartes, Leibnitz, Bentham, Hobbes, Russell, Popper, Planck, Einstein, Feynman, Mandelbrot, Magritte, Picasso, Stuart Mill, Maynard Keynes, Marx and Mao Ze-Dong. You are the inheritors of Virgil, Homer, Pope, Roget, Johnson, Dickens, Scott Fitzgerald, Goethe, Hamsun, Sartre, (A) Huxley and Orwell. You carry the burden of Darwin, Lyell, Chomsky, (T H) Huxley, Gould and a shedload of other characters, far too many to mention, besides. And yet, how many of these have been read by the post-baby-boomer generations, unless forced to by adolescent education and then only to be forgotten as fast as you learned it once the all-too-easy examinations had passed!

Oh, it has no relevance, I hear you cry! This is a modern world; the age of smartphones, Twitter and the Internet! This is the age of technology, the age of limitless innovation, the age of the new and the exciting; long-discarded pronouncements have no place in the modern world. And you may be right. But, in your zeal to encompass all that is new, is novel, you have forgotten a fundamental truth. We, you and I, stand on the shoulders of giants. Humankind possesses what it has, hegemony over the entire planet, only because of what it has built, on what has gone before; it has always been thus.

Ever since Cro-Magnon 'man', with the rudiments of language, slunk out of Africa 40,000 years ago, you have built on the experiences of your predecessors; with the coming of a codified, written script some 4-6,000 years ago, you have been able to impart knowledge without a direct dialogue between 'father and son', 'mother and daughter' etc; and that knowledge is, in part, lasting. It carries through the centuries without loss; or largely without loss. (The [Mycenaean] Linear Script A remains to be deciphered to the best of my knowledge.) And yet, you humans want, as far as I can determine, to forget the wisdom accumulated in the past and wish to, almost, start afresh; as though the preceding 6,000 years had not happened. How else to interpret the past 20 or 30 years?

Predudice, bigotry and self-opinionated beliefs will never be eradicated from the human condition; it is what makes YOU what you are! You may plaster over the cracks in your psyche but you, at root, cannot forget what you are. You are a tribal, self-centred, egotistical species. Just like me; or the whales, the lions, the gnus or the hyraxes. But you possess thought, self-awareness, conscience, faith. Why can't you apply this, as a species, to the world around you?

I have little problem with the concept of 'free speech'. Everyone, whether penguin, human or orca is entitled to their opinion; however perverse. But it seems, from what I read, that, although this may be paid lip service to, in essence, one's opinion is at best ignored or, is at worst, subject to the worst kind of insult and abuse. And this I don't understand.

Still, I read the most awful comments. 'My opinion is worth more than yours'. 'I am right (completely) and you are wrong (completely)'.  'I do not have a cogent argument to convince you, so I will resort to insult and abuse'. 'I do have a cogent argument but you will not listen, so I insult you, your intelligence, your capacity to think'. Why do you this?

Me, I think anonymity. Humans can 'get away' with posting 'acid' because there are no repercussions; no slap, or worse, round the face for your impertinence. You are protected. And this is the main danger of so-called 'social media' which is media but is scarce 'social'. Social implies interaction; there is no interaction in 'social media', which cannot be ignored completely (because you must). And therein lies the rub. (Read Shakespeare, for goodness sake! 'Hamlet', if you need a clue!)

Johnson once said that 'patriotism was the last resort of the scoundrel'; it is difficult to see that, in modern terms, the 'last resort' is unrestrained, unsubstantiated, uninformed vitriol and that is equably unjustifiable.