Thursday, September 29, 2005

B., R. & C.

I am lamenting them before they have lived
The black sash, the slow walk, the downcast eyes.

I am bringing them gold.
And plastic things.
I am calling it the life they will lead.

I am telling you about my soul
I don't have language
I am telling you about an empty vessel

I am telling you about hopes, dreams
and nothing substantial
I am telling you about having and holding.

I am lamenting them before they have lived
I do not know how to free them

I am lamenting them before they have lived
I do not know how to be with them.


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Condoning torture

Condone is a peculiar word. It looks like a verb, a word of action, but more often than not, one condones something by doing nothing.

We rightly abhor torture. We do not condone it. We oppose its use (although one feels that some in the government oppose it on the ground of lack of effectiveness rather than because of any moral scruples.

The Lords will soon decide whether to allow evidence extracted by torture in court. An earlier hearing by the Court of Appeal found that it was admissible so long as it was not done with our knowledge and we did not condone it.

But if we allow it in our courts, we are without question condoning it. We are nodding to the torturers and saying, it's okay for you to do it, just not for us. We are saying do it but don't tell us about it.

Terrorism poses a threat to us. It's particularly frightening to have enemies who do not see civilians as bystanders who might be damaged in the pursuit of their goals but as the targets of their actions. They are painted as implacable enemies, who want to destroy our "freedom" but of course this is worse than an exaggeration. They have political goals (which may not be acceptable to us).

But there are many threats to our lives in this life. Some we barely even care about. You're still many, many times more likely to be killed on the roads than by a bomb.

And the notion of an implacable enemy who is trying to destroy us is nothing new. We faced one in 1939. We threw our human decency down the pan then too. We murdered countless thousands of Germans and more Japanese. We argued that we had to destroy their warmaking power but we know that we also terrorised them. There were no factories in the city centre of Dresden. We wanted them to taste our resolve. We wanted them to know we could outhate them.

We should not condone torture. It's despicable. And we should throw out evidence acquired by torture without a second glance. Let's make our stand against those who want to hurt us but let's not become worse than them and let's not pretend that we are fighting a noble cause just because we're letting someone else do the dirty work.


There's worse. There's nothing to add to Simon Jenkins' masterly arsekicking, except to note that I personally could be convicted under Clarke's new act.

How's that? I have many times expressed the opinion that the 9/11 attacks had cause, although I deplore their commission (just as I do the expression of violence against civilians in any form). Saying something has cause does not mean you think the cause justifies it, I should point out, only that you think that it was not simply the act of spiteful madman who hate Americans, and perhaps that you can understand that a demonstrative attack against New York is not necessarily demented but an effective weapon in a war that has continued for some time. It should go without saying that there is little difference between the destruction of the World Trade Center and the destruction of Hiroshima, for instance, except that one was perpetrated by murderers on behalf of a state, the other by murderers on behalf of an ideology (or a people, a cause, depending on how you like at it). Both had the intention of causing terror among the populations they were aimed at; both were committed in pursuit of ultimately political goals.

I have also noted that the 7/7 attacks had, in part, the intent of persuading the UK to leave Iraq. I firmly believe that that were we not occupying southern Iraq, London would not have been bombed.

Now I doubt that many Islamist nutters read this blog, but if one does, and if he says, I felt that it was worthwhile pursuing this plan to persuade the UK to leave Iraq by bombing civilians because bloggers have expressed the view that that is our aim, and that encourages me in that those bloggers understand our purpose, while the government denies it, well, am I not in breach of the act? And if said nutter lists some blogs that have expressed the views in question -- no more than suggesting that that is the aim of the nutters, remember -- I can be jailed for five years because of it.

Alarmist? Maybe. But every time the government passes repressive legislation, we say "they'll use it in a way they claim it wasn't intended, to harass activists, to lock up political opponents, to crack down on unpopular views", we are told we're just being alarmist. And it happens.

Monday, September 26, 2005

What I'm doing...

Lovin' it.

I know that having a wellspring of positivity is what a psychowhatsit would call manic-depressive disorder but it feels like a wave, sometimes, that you can surf right onto the beach, step off the board, give a big, cheesy smile, wave "Hi kids" and stride off into the sunset.

It is not being in control. Being in control is depressing. It means your life lacks possibilities if you are able to rein it in. It is not caring about being out of control. I'm dangerous when I feel like this. I could make inappropriate friendships. (Well, they feel appropriate to me.) Some of those have taken me years to shed.

But fuck, I'm good to know if you don't mind someone who won't shut up.

It's good timing for me because I am taking my driving test tomorrow. And if I didn't feel good about it, I would probably run away from it, be too nervous to succeed and so on.

I would also be drowning in the way things are in my life. But I'm realising that just inviting everyone who thinks I owe them something just because they deign to acknowledge my existence to fuck off if they don't like it really does work for me.

I prefer take it or leave it. I think I'm worth it. I prefer I can't stop and carry you, walk for yourself, because taking on your burden drags me into the ooze.

Listening to Interpol.

They are often compared to Joy Division, but where Joy Division were bleak, Interpol are joyous. Joy Division were about the heart, the edge of oblivion, looking into the abyss and having look back at you. Interpol are about desire. One is inward; the other looks out.

I have also been listening to the Editors, another band compared to Joy Division. The comparison serves only to illustrate how low on imagination, thoughtless and lazy music critics are. The Editors are actually Play Dead reincarnated. If you're not a connoisseur of eighties Goth (and so few are, darling), you are scratching your head, but it's all there: underdeveloped riffs, "meaningful" lyrics, deep but not soulful voice. Interpol are different; they have a lot more arse. The Editors wouldn't know an allusion if it bit them but Interpol aim for the evocative. Still, I like the Editors. They're earnest and I prefer earnestness to "archness", that particularly British knowingness, fed by read but not digested books, that strays way too close to knownothingness. Yes, I'm talking about Franz Fucking Ferdinand.

Masturbating lying down.

If anyone has a theory why it works, I'd like to hear it. All I know is that it does.

Learning statistics.

I know, but you're asking the wrong question. You don't mean, why would you want to? You mean, why would I want to?

It's obvious why I'd want to. Francis Bacon is said to have known everything there was to know, in his day. That's impossible now, but you can at least know what people are banging on about. I edit books on statistics without grasping any of it. That has to stop. And I want to be able to understand when I read the newspaper what is actually being said. It all started with opinion polls. I wondered what the basis was for considering them a good means of working out what the population would actually do.

And I'm curious, now I think about it, could we make decisions not by referendum but by survey? How could we model a survey that worked?

I'm assuming a system of government that wasn't self-interested and didn't feel the need to rig the survey. Yes, such a thing is not likely to exist ever (although the Ottomans came close with their boy tribute by creating a class of administrators whose interests were entirely the same as the state's).

Thinking the best.

I probably don't have more than the average evil shitheads in my life, appearances notwithstanding. Anyway, I have to start liking people more. It's too lonely to work every day in my basement and think that the outside world is hostile.

Faith in people is not easy but I've always had it. I put their errors and omissions down less to venality and more to lesser sins, such as laziness, complacency or ignorance. Perhaps that's why they so often disappoint me. I ought maybe to adopt a more vigorous misanthropy and cheerfully join the throng on equal terms. But it's not what I feel and they never yet, that I know of, made a cure for feelings that didn't give you a hangover.

Nine songs

There's fucking and then there's fucking. There's porn vid fucking, in which guys with very big cocks fuck pneumatic chicks for hours on end and everyone involved pretends to be enjoying it. There's Hollywood fucking, in which guys whose cocks you don't see fuck skinny chicks for hours on end and everyone involved pretends to be enjoying it. And then there's the fucking you and I do, in which guys with cocks that they worry are not big enough fuck chicks who worry that they're too skinny or not skinny enough for a few minutes and everyone involved pretends to be enjoying it.

Nine songs has the last kind of fucking. What seemed like several hours of it. And some guy buggering about in Antarctica. The sex is real, which makes it unwatchable. It certainly isn't a turnon. The relationship is real too, which makes it unwatchable too.

You cannot help feeling, why bother? Why bother making it, why bother watching it? A guy pulls an unlikeable but "mad" (read self-obsessed and needy) chick and has some uninventive sex. In between times they go to some pisspoor gigs. Sounds like my twenties. Sounds like all our twenties.

It might be of archaelogical interest a thousand years from now, when women have worked out how to eradicate us and they're curious what fucking looked like (although they'll be wondering why we make such a fuss about it). But art is about illuminating life, showing you ways of looking at things that give you new understanding. Nine songs doesn't even try to do that. It simply shows you what you already knew, in exactly the way you already knew it. Even the fucking is boring, although it's gruesomely real, and you are well advised not to watch the DVD when the vicar's round.

The music sucks too and the whole notion offended my sense of justice. If your idea of a good night out is a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club gig, you don't deserve any sex and you'll likely get what you deserve.

Friday, September 23, 2005

What I'm thinking today

I do not have answers.

When I was younger, I thought I could see clear answers to a lot of it. Maybe I could. Maybe experience only muddies the clear waters. Maybe though wisdom is learning that what seems clear is not.

I don't know which maybe is true, if either. Perhaps clear answers are better for you; perhaps they are better structures for thinking, for feeling, for being. Perhaps not. Perhaps the pursuit of life is about becoming confused and trying to sort it out.

You are not loved if they love the act. You are only loved if they love you.

I hold this belief tenaciously. I know I would be loved more if I acted more. I know I could do that and I wonder whether the satisfaction of more but lesser would outweigh that of less but greater. Why do I want someone to peel back my skin and look inside? What do I think they would see? Why not give them what they actually want?

The Buddha teaches that suffering is the outcome of attachment. I understand that and I believe it is a deep truth. The greatest attachment is to ourselves.

I know all this. But knowing is not feeling. Intellectually, it all makes sense but there is something in me that clings on to wanting to be unravelled. Maybe it is the small boy I once was, some dream of his that I never fulfilled (one of the many to be sure). Maybe I should not be beholden to him.

Maybe I should give more. I would get more. But I concern myself with quality, not quantity. I am confused whether I really want the former. It is not fulfilling me. Pretending it does gets me nowhere.

I do not know how to live because I do not know how to die.

I am afraid to die. I am afraid that I will have achieved nothing. I know it is meaningless to achieve anything but we do a lot of things that are meaningless.

I am afraid to die because I love living. I love the sound of the wind in the trees. It is as simple as that. Who would not fear losing this? Put aside the diverse torments, the politics, relationships, fears, dreams, loves, hates and all that shit, and isn't it just fucking wonderful to have air, water, fire and earth to be in?

Sometimes I am listening to a record and I'm thinking, a time will come when this will be the last time.

But you cannot live like that. You cannot live if you are afraid. I realise it is a huge stumbling block to life. I suppose that's why it was invented.

If you fear failure, because you fear it will mean you did not achieve, you fear beginnings that can end in failure. You fear everything.

How did I ever have children? How did I ever manage to have something that I could so tremendously fuck up? Did I not fear that I would in the end be judged as a bad father?

I suppose I was confident that I wouldn't be, although I don't know why. Or I was convinced that it was too important to let fear hold me back. Now, if that was true, why isn't anything else important enough?

I am not frightening.

I can telephone strangers. They will not snigger at my voice or refuse to help me. I do not scare children and dogs when I approach.

No, really, I don't.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

What I'm listening to...

Looking out the door I see the rain fall upon the funeral mourners
Parading in a wake of sad relations as their shoes fill up with water
And maybe I’m too young to keep good love from going wrong
But tonight you’re on my mind so you never know

When I’m broken down and hungry for your love with no way to feed it
Where are you tonight, child you know how much I need it
Too young to hold on and too old to just break free and run

Sometimes a man gets carried away, when he feels like he should be having his fun
And much too blind to see the damage he’s done
Sometimes a man must awake to find that really, he has no-one

So I’ll wait for you... and I’ll burn
Will I ever see your sweet return
Oh will I ever learn

Oh lover, you should’ve come over
’cause it’s not too late

Lonely is the room, the bed is made, the open window lets the rain in
Burning in the corner is the only one who dreams he had you with him
My body turns and yearns for a sleep that will never come

It’s never over, my kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder
It’s never over, all my riches for her smiles when I slept so soft against her
It’s never over, all my blood for the sweetness of her laughter
It’s never over, she’s the tear that hangs inside my soul forever

Well maybe I’m just too young
To keep good love from going wrong

Oh... lover, you should’ve come over
’cause it’s not too late

Well I feel too young to hold on
And I’m much too old to break free and run
Too deaf, dumb, and blind to see the damage I’ve done
Sweet lover, you should’ve come over
Oh, love well I’m waiting for you

Lover, you should’ve come over
’cause it’s not too late

Vale Simon Wiesenthal

It is my belief that denying the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators in the Second World War justice would have been tantamount to denying them a voice. It would have made them the silent ghosts of the reconstruction. Forgiveness was not an option.

Some things just cannot be forgiven, the experience of South Africa and Rwanda notwithstanding (although I compare the common people of Rwanda to the common people of Germany, also culpable and also largely forgiven).

I know there are questions whether the six millionth killing really is any worse than the first, in other words, whether scale makes a thing worse in anything other than degree (although, in asking the question, those that ask it must consider the intention of the act, which was to seek to make a people not exist); whether there is not a point to say enough is enough (just as some argue that the calls for justice for the POWs held by Japan in WWII have lost their force with time); whether the Nazi-hunters have any place in a world that has learned to reconcile itself to its sins.

I do not have answers to those questions but I do have a deep admiration for the life work of Simon Wiesenthal. Quibbles about his mistakes or this case or that do not diminish the truth that he was a man of enormous stature, fearless integrity and courage that I wish I had and can only deeply respect when I see it.

I doffs me cap to him and spit in the eye of those he brought to justice and, worse, those who tried to protect them. They tried to silence a people and destroy their memory. He fought for their lost voices to be heard.

All went to plan

Footage that shows that the 7/7 bombers carried out a dry run has led to the usual alarmist stuff about "sophisticated planning". I note in particular Home Secretary Clarke claiming that the bombmaking showed sophistication in planning. I don't agree. The recipe for the bombs used is readily available on the Internet (go look for yourself), the materials are fairly easy to come by and those who give the recipe explain the precautions you need to take to make it. I'm not saying there was not a bigger organisation involved, nor that there might not be other bombers. I am simply saying that we should not allow our conclusions to preced our investigations and take severe and repressive measures that may turn out not to be merited.

What particularly worries me is that the Aussie government gleefully watches what is done in the UK, and frames its own repressive legislation. It is able to create a climate of fear by insisting that we face the same threat (which we probably do, which is why it is so important to be clear on the scale of it, because the measures purport to meet the threat and no more). As S noted in my comments, the UK's measures have been used to attack animal rights activists and the worry is that any legislation will be used with a scope much broader than is widely publicised.

Of course, it's true that we do face a threat to our lives. No one is asking for the nature of it to be minimised. Far from it. Minimising the danger posed to the US is what led to 9/11. The authorities were more or less asleep at the wheel for that. It's important to note though that a threat like 7/7 almost cannot be prevented from eventuating. Ultimately, if a guy really wants to blow something up, he will be able to. If we guard trains, it will be a library. If we guard libraries, it will be Tesco's. We cannot guard everything. Life would be untenable.

But there are other threats. My chances of being blown up by a suicide bomber remain vanishingly small but my chances of being detained for not holding the right views are much greater.

I am also placed at more risk by flat denials of the truth that our involvement in the Middle East presents a casus belli but that is a quite different issue.

My views on justice apply: we defend the worst because they are the line in the sand. We are on the other side of them and we know that if we protect them, we are also protected. Give up their liberties and we give up our own. I don't trust the likes of Blair. He's a liar and a cheat and he doesn't care about me or mine. I am unhappy about putting my life in his hands and doubly so about trusting him with my freedom. The same goes more so for John Howard.

Jago's comment on "On metaphor" in full

I hope Jago won't mind that I reproduce his email to me in full below. He intended it as a public comment so there's no breach of whatsit.


I started to think out an answer and realised it would turn into a short book.
Yes there are rules, of course there are. I learnt them at school - but what I
realised then was that I only understood them or, if they were badly taught, I
understood what the teacher was meant to be saying, because I already had a good
working knowledge of the rules, and was developing a meta-understanding of that
working knowledge. The unfortunates who didn't have these things were never any
the wiser for the teaching - you can't teach grammar to those who don't already
know it. Then in 1968 or 9 I heard Chomsky at Birmingham. I think in fact
Chomsky would probably go for [you look [actually difficult to translate -"your
appearance is" as in "you look nice". But that is a weak translation.] [You
look / A dog looks]. And the difficulty of translating "look" in that sense
reveals where transformational grammar, or at least where I lost track of it a
long time ago, has nothing to say, in the area of semantics. I think the rules
of language rest on a much larger substratum of whatever it is that meaning is.
This substratum predates language in evolutionary terms, though clearly the
evolution of language has gone hand in hand with the evolution of the substratum.
We know roughly in what part of the brain the surface forms of language are
processed, and where they appear to contact the substratum of meaning, but where
that substratum is, as far as I'm aware, we haven't a clue - yet. Maybe I too
could blog this, but I have other purposes for my blog, partly to try and get
away from the radical earnestness, this kind of thing, which is my curse as a
writer. Maybe we could do a cooperative blog on this specific area. Oh good,
now I've burnt the tea.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

On metaphor

I generally steer clear of metaphors unless they're thoroughly dead. It's best that way because you wouldn't want one to rear up and bite you. I admire the American mode of writing. I write tight, allowing the reader to create their own picture and keeping the pace up. But I do know how to use a metaphor and I will carefully deploy a clever image if I feel the urge.

The key to imagery in writing is plausibility. If I write "the tree, like the spreading arms of a father", the reader thinks "yes, that sounds right", because a tree's trunk can remind you of a father's chest and the big branches spread wide as his arms do. If I write "dog barked as though it had been kicked in the throat", you can hear the tone of the bark, scratchy and high I would have thought. One imagines that the writer has seen a tree and thought "spreading arms", heard a dog and so on. Either the writer has a notebook or has its mental equivalent.

I read a particularly fawning review of Zadie Smith's new book, On Beauty, in the Guardian Weekly. I often take exception to reviews of English writers, because they forget to mention that the writers are all too often shit. Smith is no exception. She pushes stereotypes around in comedies of manners of the kind Malcolm Bradbury used to knock out, but without Bradbury's wry humour and careful prose. In the review, Merritt praises Smith's "imagery". I consider it one of the greatest failings of English authors that they indulge in "imagery" and think they would be greatly improved if they eschewed it.

Merritt quotes this image in particular: "Tom turned away to gulp his laugh down like an aspirin". Recalling what I said, I ask myself whether Smith had ever seen anyone swallow a laugh and thought "that's just like eating an aspirin", and I thought, well no, she couldn't have. Because they are nothing alike. The reader is pulled up short. Instead of thinking "what a clever image", they think, if they think at all, which I am not sure Merritt bothers doing, "that is wrong". I realise that Merritt thinks Smith is clever for having used an image at all! She doesn't care that it's nonsense.

But it gets worse because Smith did not, as you might suppose, write "Tom turned away to gulp his laugh down as though it was an aspirin", which would, even if it is a poor metaphor, at least be correctly expressed in English. No. She didn't even say "like it was an aspirin", an illiteracy in any formal writing (which includes novels unless they are written in a very colloquial style) but so common these days as almost to pass.

It is primary school stuff. The elements either side of "like" are being directly compared and must be similar in nature (and generally in grammatical form as a consequence; one must take care to understand "feel like", "look like" are not misanalysed -- each elides the copula in their second element: "you look like a dog" says "you look like you are a dog" or "you look like you would if you were a dog"): this is why we call these things "similes". "He had hair like corkscrews" says his hair was just like corkscrews, it physically resembled them. You can separate the elements and compare them directly: hair/corkscrews. The idea can be extended, so that it's not impossible to say "I love you like crazy": love you/(I am) crazy, but a careful writer will prefer "as though" (it is the formal illiteracy I mentioned and see below where I discuss this further, or not, because I realised that I had forgotten, but you will find a little note). So what could Smith be comparing?

Is she saying the laugh resembles an aspirin? No. She would have had to write "gulp down his laugh like an aspirin" and then we would be laughing at how infelicitous to compare a laugh to an aspirin given that they are entirely unalike. "Like" can only compare like things, not things that are not alike at all.

Is she saying Tom is gulping down his laugh in the same way an aspirin would? This would be the sort of structure we see in "He beat his wife like a Tartar". Again, this is a solecism, although not a terrible one, and should be rewritten "He beat his wife as a Tartar does/would". We could just about forgive it in the name of nippy writing (if Smith made any attempt in her laboured prose to be "nippy"). However, aspirins do not gulp things down, so we can discount that.

Is she saying Tom's turning away is like an aspirin? This is how the sentence appears formally: turned away to gulp down his laugh/ an aspirin. This would be a horrendous error in English, because the two elements combined are not only not alike but are not even the same parts of speech! We would be begging for the gerund, and you can't often say that.

No, she is meaning to say that the gulping down of the laugh is like the gulping down of an aspirin. It would be clumsy to write this (although it is grammatically correct): "Tom turned away to gulp down his laugh like he gulps down an aspirin" because when we are describing actions, we more often do it by comparison to things they do not resemble; in other words, we say that what someone is doing is like something they are not doing but if they were, would look the same. We say "Tom turned away to gulp down his laugh as though it was an aspirin".

We are taught this as children. Use "like" to compare a thing to another thing it actually does resemble. Use "as" to compare things to another thing that it does not resemble but is in some way like. The laugh is like an aspirin in that each is gulped down in the same manner. How easy is that to understand? (The note I meant to add in connection with "love you like crazy" is this: one can say "He laughed as though mad" but one cannot say "he gulped it as though an aspirin".)

Why didn't an editor pick this up? I would have corrected it without a second thought. I would have told the author to lose the stupid metaphor too, of course. I'm a good editor but I'm not the only one. Surely a writer such as Smith would have the best her publisher can offer.

Even Merritt noticed that the book had been poorly edited: "Again, as with White Teeth, there is a sense that the book could have benefited from more stringent editing purely in terms of length and narrative movement."

(Of course, Merritt's "purely" is a sign of her unwillingness to be critical of a writer who is so feted. The most she is prepared to say is that the book is far too long and far too slow (that's what Merritt is saying, albeit in the strangled prose that smothers her review).)

Well, the truth is, one supposes, that when you are longlisted for awards for books no one has actually read, as Smith was for the Booker, it doesn't really matter whether you're actually any good and you are certainly saleable enough to get your way with your editor, or even not to bother having one. Anyone who reads this blog and has a long memory will remember my deconstruction of the opening paragraphs of The Autograph Hunter, which were spectacularly badly written. I find it hard to believe Smith even is edited. Perhaps some poor soul does try to turn this shit into sugar, fighting valiantly with Smith, who, if you ever have the misfortune to read an interview with her you will soon realise, is arrogance personified, horrified by the writer's insistence on grammatical failures that most of us -- the literate among us, I mean -- have learned to put right by grade six. I write this blog more tightly than Smith does her prose. I'm not quite as hot as she is though.

People wonder why books don't sell any more. They think it's because litfic is too dry and doesn't have the nip of genre work. They suspect that litfic is all about showing off and not enough about telling stories. That's all true, of course. Our literary heroes wrote stories that rocked and, although they showed off, they did so by spinning webs of words that drag you in, caress you and make you believe. (Smith is compared with EM Forster and you can't help thinking if only!) But the biggest reason, I think, is that the quality of writing is pisspoor in every way. The worst of it is that books no longer resemble life. The characters are lazily put together and are not credible (because in the main writers such as Smith write about themselves and because they lack any capacity for self-criticism, they lack insight), the writing is purposely difficult (and all too often poorly constructed) and the reader is left with the feeling that the book was not for them but for the writer, who lives in a world that the reader has never seen and cannot understand. Surely, the reader must be transported, you are saying. Yes, they must, but it is the similarities between the place you are taken and home that make a work illuminating. Seeing yourself and your world reflected that makes a piece of art compelling. And if a book is not compelling, why would you read it?

Monday, September 12, 2005

Secret justice is no justice at all

Why do free nations grant their citizens the right not to be arbitrarily arrested and detained?

In the dark old days, when the only rights a person had were those he could win with his sword (I use the masculine pronoun advisedly, because women had near to no rights at all), the authorities, such as they were, could punish opposition by simply locking it away. Because there was no means to compel the government to explain why it had done so, short of rebellion, it was an effective way to silence dissent.

In short, the right to be free from arbitrary arrest underpins the right to free expression. (It is also true that the compulsion upon a government to present you when it is served a writ of habeas corpus prevents it from extrajudicially murdering you without anyone's knowing. If the government cannot answer "let us have the body", you can be sure it has disposed of the body in question.)

Those who join insurrections against their native state may well be traitors, they may well be criminals, and they may well be too dangerous to allow liberty. But we have processes to determine that, freely and openly. We do it in a courtroom where the evidence is presented for all to see, where a jury of your peers -- and as a citizen, even an insurrectionary, has other citizens as his or her peers -- decides your guilt. This serves us. This protects us from capricious authorities that might take it upon themselves to pursue justice that is personal to them (making the authorities unequal before the law, of course, because they have recourse to systems of justice that others do not).

This is wrong. We have said it many times before: if we are fighting for "values" in a "noble cause", we have to ask what those values actually are. If they do not include the right to protection from arbitrary arrest and equality before the law (if you bring a suit against someone at law, you cannot generally claim that your evidence is "secret" and therefore cannot be heard in public -- it should not be forgotten that equality extends also to the government, who are our servants, not our masters, and are also bound by the law in the same way we are), what do they include?

Friday, September 09, 2005

I doffs me cap

I was going to blog the failed reconstruction effort in Iraq but what's the point? We are drowning in I told you so's. Most of the money has been pilfered and two years later, the Americans have still not rebuilt what they destroyed. They should have let the UN do it, as we urged. The UN is incompetent, run by buffoons and full of shit, but even it could have managed to get the water back on in Baghdad.

Instead, I wanted to tip me hat to Shane Warne. Now he's a fat knacker and a poor excuse for a husband, but I have a policy of not allowing the person to impinge on the performer and he is a prodigiously talented performer.

On a pitch with no turn, a belter, begging for runs from even half-competent batsmen, he bamboozled England's batsmen, making monkeys out of good players.

I remember the first ball he bowled in a Test in England -- what cricket fan doesn't! The look on Gatting's face was priceless. He not only could not believe he had been bowled, but could not understand it. Neither could I, but I enjoyed it. The sheer joy of watching someone who excels at his art transcends narrow nationalism and thrills us. And he kept doing it. That summer he tortured our hapless batsmen, reducing confident players, who had thought themselves a good chance of winning the Ashes, to nothing.

And yesterday, on a day when even McGrath could find little to celebrate in the pitch, and Tait and Lee were being carted to the fence like village team piethrowers, he murdered us.

If we fail to win this match, and the Aussies keep the Ashes, Shane Warne will have beaten us. And if you love cricket, you'll join me in saying that it's a pity that men must age, and that he won't be back to make monkeys of us once again.

Laugh like raindrops

I miss S. She was like poetry. It doesn't always make sense but you like to have it in your life.

She has a laugh like raindrops dancing on a dusty pavement. But you cannot negotiate with the mad or with those who cannot speak in a language you can understand. You mime at each other, sure that you are making yourself known, but each expression brings its own chance of being misinterpreted and, lacking a common tongue to explain it in, can collapse into noise, the signal wasted and unknown.

She has no belief in herself, which she ought to because it would have merit, but an overweening belief in what she does, which she ought not to because it does not always.

I know, I should not talk about her. But I am safe because she will not be listening, and even if she overheard, she would not understand or even try to. And I know, I should not think about her. I should blow away the dust from my hands and put my hands to some better task. But I miss S and how can you forget sunshine when the day is clouded over?

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Christian Republic of the United States

"We need common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God."

Article VI of the United States Constitution:

" . . . but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Perhaps Chief Justice Roberts will give us a thesis on the difference between those views?

The Constitution of the United States does not mention a god. It is an agreement among men (and latterly women). Americans rightly love it because it solidly grounds and protects their freedoms.

Say goodbye to the Constitution. It was good while it lasted. Enjoy your theocracy!

Sinking feeling

Another brilliant article from Gary Younge, who has in recent times found a power and purpose in his writing that have left behind his tendency to whinge and made him a strong voice in the progressive world.

When Mrs Z asks me, how come they're still rescuing people so long after the disaster, the answer is plain to see. Everyone who is being hauled from buildings is black. You can't help feeling that if it happened somewhere a bit more whitebread, the cavalry would have roared in at T plus five. (Those of the cavalry who aren't getting their arses blown up in Iraq, that is.)

A day has to come when Americans stop pretending to themselves that blacks choose to live on welfare and realise that restitution for the crimes of the past is not a question of a million-dollar payout but requires the creation of a place where you don't drown because you're black or die in the desert because you're brown, and your nation's dream is shared by all, not just the lucky few who Uncle Tom it all the way to the white man's shoe shop.

Mourning Rehnquist

Vale shithead antisemite antiwoman corporate whore.

Ave shithead profundamentalist antiwoman corporate whore. I don't know whether Roberts hates Jews, but I do know he's a disaster for America.

Not just a lickspittle of the rich, and a diehard party man who helped Bush steal the 2000 election, which he is now being rewarded for doing, Roberts is young. He will blight Amercian law for a generation. Even when America wakes up and kicks the disgusting regressive fuckheads who've stolen power to the kerb (when that will be is very much in the scales because the Democrats are determined to crash and burn again -- wake the fuck up, guys, you cannot get Hillary elected, her road-to-Damascus conversion to rightism notwithstanding), they will still run up against a regressive Supreme Court led by Roberts. They'll be begging for Al-Qaeda to take out the whole bunch of them.

Monday, September 05, 2005

"No one's coming to get us"

MR. BROUSSARD: ...that have worked 24/7. They're burned out, the doctors, the nurses. And I want to give you one last story and I'll shut up and let you tell me whatever you want to tell me. The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, "Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?" And he said, "Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday." And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night.

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. President...

MR. BROUSSARD: Nobody's coming to get us. Nobody's coming to get us. The secretary has promised. Everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody.

How Chertoff could sit and listen to that and not hand in his badge is a fucking mystery.

Oil stories

While there is no truth in the accusation flung by creationists that evolution is a belief and not a fact, it's important that science does not indulge in dogma. I learned something interesting the other day that made me stop and think about that.

Mrs Zen asked me how oil is formed. I said, well, it's made of the crushed bodies of prehistoric sea animals and land plants -- plankton, ferns and the like -- that died and sank to the seabed, and then were covered with mud, which became rock and pressed the animals' remains so hard that they were transformed into oil. I realised as I was saying it that I was doing some handwaving, so I went to look it up.

I was astonished to find that there are competing explanations for the provenance of oil. The first, and most widely held, theory is the biogenic theory of oil's origin. It's more or less as I described to Mrs Z. The animals were crushed into a type of rock, which under pressure from layers of rock on top of it is transformed into oil. The oil seeps through porous sedimentary rock, until it is trapped by harder rock into reservoirs, which we drill into and exploit. (Oil shales and the like are types of rock that have not completely undergone the process.)

However, some geologists, mostly Russians, propose an abiotic theory of oil's origin. (Google "abiotic oil"; add in "Thomas Gold" to narrow your search a little -- Gold popularised the theory.) In their theory, oil is continuously created in the depths of the earth, as rising hydrocarbons are attacked by bacteria. They suggest that the biogenic theory has difficulties explaining why there is oil -- or hydrocarbon precursors of oil -- in deep strata (it should only be in relatively recent rocks; the biogenic supporters say that the same seeping that forms the reservoirs we tap allows the oil to slide down to deeper layers through faults, which is very plausible), why it is found in nonsedimentary rocks (same explanation), why it contains certain impurities that suggest bacterial infection of the kind they suggest (the biogenic side suggests that not all oil has the characteristics the abiotics claim it should have), why are some reservoirs refilling when they are supposed to have been pumped dry (all sorts of explanations, too much to go into here), why do we keep having to revise reserves upwards (biogenic side points out that oil exporters and petrol companies simply lie about reserves), where sufficient animals came from. They note that the chief supporting evidence for biogenic origins is "it looks like the constituents of animals". It doesn't take a genius to point out that things can look like each other without actually being each other. The minus column for the abiotic theory is dominated by oil's containing the unmistakeable signs of the organisms it once composed, along with some problems of magma chemistry that the abiotic theory would struggle to resolve, and the reproducibility of the organic processes that probably made oil.

Like all great scientific questions, this one seems to have a relatively easily solution: if the biogenic theory is correct, there should only be oil where the right conditions pertained at the right time in the past; if the abiotic theory is correct, there should be oil everywhere in the planet in some measure. As a side note, it's of course best that the abiotic theory is right. If it is, we need not fear the end of oil, because there will be lots more. If you are thinking that the growing popularity of the abiotic theory has something to do with peak oil's approaching, well...

Naturally, it's perfectly possible that both answers are right. But probably only one is right, and the correct experiment would exclude the incorrect explanation (which is the scientific way). (Where there was an analysis of hydrocarbons found in deep drilling, the isotopic breakdowns have not matched that of economic natural gas. This is reasonably close to a conclusive disproof. At the very least, abiotic theory supporters would need to find isotopic matches in abiotic hydrocarbons in other deep drills to keep their theory alive.)

Your textbook at school doubtless, like mine, said "oil was formed from prehistoric animals who were crushed". It is the majority view (the enormous majority view) but it is not an eternal truth. It is a comfort that we know that if we did drill holes across the earth's surface and we found oil everywhere, we would abandon the biogenic theory (eventually -- paradigms sometimes only shift gradually). Probably. We'd probably actually adopt both as explanations, because the biogenic theory is so compelling and plausible. (Noting the reasons I give for keeping the biogenic explanation, I remind myself that science deals in explanations, approximations, models that work, and not pronouncements about how things are -- although often it does translate into the latter. It's the very tentativeness of science that religious bigots prey on. They know we won't claim to have eternal truths and they have no qualms in doing so. But on the other hand, it's clear that science, as well as having difficulties in being "right", struggles sometimes to be "wrong". It is, however, useful to remember that many questions in the natural world are not easily settled by single observations but by the accumulation of evidence.)

The other thing I learned is that there is a process to make petroleum from its constituent materials, which Germany used in the second world war, when it could not get hold of any oil (and South Africa uses today). I don't know at what point it would become economic (in other words, when its price per gallon would be lower than the petrol extracted from oil's) or if it ever would (the Germans, having no choice, were willing to spend large on it, but I'm not sure they ever were able to make useable quantities). You don't hear a great deal about it, so presumably it's not viable.

While writing this poast, I happened to find an article on disproofs of the abiotic theory. I like the checklist in particular. Well, widely accepted hypotheses are not always con-jobs.

"Let the niggers drown"

In the world's greatest nation (TM), the rich ran away while the poor were left to swim or die. The leader -- a word entirely debased by the incumbent president, a man who could not lead a conga if he had the road pointed out to him -- strums his guitar as thousands die. The world looks on horrified as New Orleans descends into chaos, the government stumbles and people die in the streets, their bodies left to rot. The most poignant moment will be hearing the mayor break down in tears, begging the clowns who stole power in the US to do something. They have at least finally done what they specialise in: sending in troops to shoot the locals.

Why can't they rescue them? said Mrs Zen, as we watched pictures of the people stranded in New Orleans. Sadly, they spent all their money killing Arabs, I pointed out to her.

This would not happen in our nations. We have strong societies, despite the depradations of neoliberals, and our disaster plans run a little deeper than scratching our arses and wondering whether there's something we can bomb to make things better. Our societies have their divisions and inequalities, but we do not, would not, leave the blacks to drown as we leg it to higher ground. (How can you be content to live in a nation where inequality is *so* entrenched that when some are whining that they have to pay prices for petrol less than half what we pay in Australia, which is half what you'd pay in the UK, many -- seemingly all black, if the pictures we're seeing are anything to go by -- cannot afford to buy a car? This means they are entirely excluded from one of history's most notable credit booms, when banks are practically shovelling it out of the door. Of course, we know, many *do* have cars, but have nowhere to go: no family to stay with, no place where they feel they can get food and shelter. That's not actually a better reflection on America.) We do not cut taxes for the rich and then spend whatever we raise on guns, so that we no longer have money to prevent our cities from being destroyed by the weather, which we know will from time to time turn sour on us. (Yes, England is occasionally knocked for six by storms, but they are rarely bad, and we rally very quickly. When the '87 hurricanes destroyed the power grid in southern England, it took a day for the water tender to arrive at my university. America knows to expect hurricanes.) We pitch in and show our "bulldog spirit" when the chips are down. We have not so structured our societies, so managed our world, that the locals' first thought in a crisis is to steal a TV. (The regressives will of course be thinking that this is just what blacks do when the coppers aren't around -- show me a rightist who isn't a racist in his heart! Racism is largely what drives their beliefs in the first place -- but the rest of us realise that if you exclude a group of people sufficiently from the good life, the society you are part of, you cannot be surprised when they act as though they are not part of it when the hammer falls.)

"I am absolutely disgusted. After the tsunami our people, even the ones who lost everything, wanted to help the others who were suffering," Sajeewa Chinthaka, 36, as he watched a cricket match in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

"Not a single tourist caught in the tsunami was mugged. Now with all this happening in the U.S. we can easily see where the civilized part of the world's population is."

Even the third world thinks the US is the third world.

And I am still awaiting an explanation of how the market, which can automagically resolve all the world's ills, is going to fix this one.

Friday, September 02, 2005

More lies blown away

7/7 nothing to do with Iraq? Yeah, right.

It hurts that people who live among us, are part of us, are so alienated that they feel it is okay to kill us. It almost hurts more though that our leaders are willing to lie to us about them, and their motivations. It doesn't fill you with confidence that they know what they are going to do to fix it. Not that we have much confidence in them in the first place.

Vale, Professor

I pay my respects to Joe Rotblat, a tireless campaigner for peace and nuclear disarmament. A man who had the guts to walk away from the Manhattan Project, which he had joined because of his great fear of a Nazi bomb (his wife disappeared in the war, and he believed she was a victim of the Nazis) and left because that rationale, which he later came to question, disappeared with the surrender of Germany.

I worked for Rotblat for a couple of years. I wouldn't describe him as a nice guy, although he could be charming and certainly inspiring for many in the antinuclear movement. He was though a good man, a figure of integrity and honour, and a fierce intellect, with an understanding of physics and an ability to explain it that was astonishing. The world could do with a lot more like him and I give thanks for his long, productive life.

Smirk while the south swims

Still, it will be a consolation to the people of New Orleans that their city was sacrificed in a "noble cause". The new FDR cut funding for flood protection to pay for his Middle East adventure. The irony is that the war had the aim of securing resources that when used will increase the pressure on the climate.

Sadly, as is his wont, the smirking one ignored the Cassandras who told them that even a regular hurricane would inundate New Orleans, just as he ignores the consensus of the world's climate scientists that we face increasing negative consequences, perhaps disaster, from greenhouse gas-driven global warming.

Drowned world

I told you so is the most painful of phrases. These days we count it in corpses. Glee does not reside in it.

We expect to see the Third World under water. Bangladesh is regularly inundated, garnering little attention from the West. Perhaps we thought that even if the Cassandras of global warming's effects were right, only dark people in faraway places would drown.

A couple of weeks ago, a study reported that the permafrost at northern latitudes had begun to melt. Ice that formed in our prehistory has disappeared. In Alaska, there are reports of trees falling over because the ground has softened. We may yet look back at the thawing of the permafrost (whose name, even, suggests that we expected it to last) as the tipping point, the crisis that saw the runaway train of global warming go over the hill.

What will it take for America to wake up? Its response to the decline of oil is to burn more coal. Its answer to the problem of greenhouse gases is to try to make coal "clean". Coal is not clean. Even if it didn't contain sulphur, burning carbon in any form cannot be made clean with our current technology, if it ever could. And coal cannot fuel your SUVs in any case.

Many of the world's great cities lie on their nation's coasts. Few are quite as vulnerable as New Orleans but neither are they set up to withstand flooding. Even those that are, such as London, which was vulnerable to the tidal bore in the Thames in the past, do not have defences against a significant rise in sea levels. Building them would be an enormous engineering task.

New Orleans will be rebuilt. The hundreds of thousands of refugees will return and set their homes to rights, resume their business and life will begin again. We'll put it down to just another particularly bad hurricane (but don't we seem to be having a lot of them in recent times?). Meanwhile, in the northern Atlantic, the ice continues to melt into the sea, slowing the North Atlantic Conveyor. If it shuts down -- and it might -- there would not be time to build defences on the northern European seaboard. Will we wait until central London is drowned before we take steps to fix the weather that we have caused?