Monday, December 28, 2009

Windy!


The weather's changed.

Still lots of warm sun and magnificent views though.













Sorry Mike.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The days of the kingfishers

Not from successful love alone,
Nor wealth, nor honor'd middle age, nor victories of politics or war;
But as life wanes, and all the turbulent passions calm,
As gorgeous, vapory, silent hues cover the evening sky,
As softness, fulness, rest, suffuse the frame, like freshier, balmier air,
As the days take on a mellower light, and the apple at last hangs
really finish'd and indolent-ripe on the tree,
Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days of all!
The brooding and blissful halcyon days!

From Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

The unseasonably warm weather continues here as Britain freezes. These are halcyon days - a phrase, like so many, whose origins lie in Ancient Greek mythology.

They are named after Alcyone, who was the daughter of Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. She fell in love and married Ceyx, King of Trachis and son of the evening star. Greek gods were not benign, all-merciful beings, they were arbitrary and capricious tyrants. Alcyone and Ceyx had angered Zeus by comparing themselves to Hera and Zeus himself and so, in a fit of temper, he drowned Ceyx at sea by throwing a thunderbolt at his ship as he was travelling to consult an oracle. His body was washed ashore and discovered by Alcyone who, overcome by grief, first performed the rites of burial and then threw herself into the sea to join her beloved in death. Deeply moved, the gods relented and turned Alcyone and Ceyx into kingfishers. Every December, around the winter solstice, the winds are supposed to cease and still, calm weather prevails as the kingfishers lay their eggs - Αλκυονίδες ημέρες, kingfisher days.

The soft winter warmth gives a sense of calm and peace, but Whitman got his seasons wrong. Halcyon days are not autumnal. They are not a moment of self-satisfied reflection at the end of life. They are a time of rebirth in the depths of winter, of a new life being forged and a reminder of the glories of summer to come - a cause for celebration. And today, for me, they are also a time of gratitude, for feeling incredibly lucky, as well as insufferably smug, about the fact that I am not shivering in a bitterly cold Manchester, even if I have to return there in around a week's time.

Sunday cat blogging


When you put bread out for the birds you might be setting up prey for the local cats. This one cuts out the middleman and just eats the bread.








He has a friend that visits as well - not one with the same vegetarian tendencies though.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

No ... no

Some time ago the Observer gave away the DVD of the 1984 David Lynch sci-fi epic, Dune. They described it as a cult classic. I watched it tonight. The plot is excruciating, the script is terrible, characterisation is negligible, the dialogue is stilted, the acting is awful, and really plumbs the depths when Sting emerges in a homo-erotic pose wearing nothing but a smirk and a pair of tin underpants; it is a messianic, fascistic mess. I feel stunned. I need a drink - I really need a drink.

Scepticism, blogging and science

One of the features of the blogosphere at the moment is the sound and fury being devoted to the topic of climate change. Much of it is uninformed by even a vague smattering of scientific knowledge. A lack of expertise is seldom a barrier to a fervently-held opinion, but this excellent post by Daniel Loxton gives a good guide to what can be reliably tackled by a non-specialist and, specifically, by a sceptic about climate change denial.

Loxton outlines four different scenarios and the contributions a lay person can make in discussing science.
1) Where both scientific domain expertise and expert consensus exist, skeptics are (at best) straight science journalists. We can report the consensus, communicate findings in their proper context — and that’s it ...

2) Where scientific domain expertise exists, but not consensus, we can report that a controversy exists — but we cannot resolve it.

3) Where scientific domain expertise and consensus exist, but also a denier movement or pseudoscientific fringe, skeptics can finally roll up their sleeves and get to work. ... But note that there are two distinct components to critiquing fringe movements: knowledge of pseudoscience (our own area of domain expertise); and knowledge of the contrasting body of actual scientific literature — a literature on which we are not typically expert.

4) Where a paranormal or pseudoscientific topic has enthusiasts but no legitimate experts, skeptics may perform original research, advance new theories, and publish in the skeptical press.
Though the focus is on scepticism, as a general guide to talking sense from a number of perspectives this is admirable and it is worth reading his arguments in full.

Fine art

Two perfect presents yesterday:

First, Sandor Marai's The Rebels.

Second, a Petroula Kostidou calendar.

And I learnt a new proverb;

Ο μουσαφίρις και το ψάρι την τρίτη μέρα βρομάνε

This translates as, 'the visitor and the fish begin to smell on the third day'.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A day of rain

It is quiet, every sound is amplified. The dying log fire is crackling, inevitably a dog barks, roof timbers creak and the wind, which brought first rain and then cooler air after the temperature reached 16C this morning, is whipping up the sea at the front, setting the roar of the waves breaking against the paraleia as the soundtrack to a misty night.

Tonight I cooked a classic Greek dish, simple and bursting with flavour, pork and celeriac stew with egg and lemon sauce, and then started to re-read a very odd and insightful reinterpretation of the history of modern ideas by the late American Historian Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven, subtitled Progress and its Critics. I hadn't picked it up for more than ten years. I am a slow reader and this is a long, questioning book with strengths and flaws. It will last me some time. I will post on some themes in due course.

But now it is time to settle, a small glass of wine in hand, and enjoy the soundscape of a rural Greek winter's night.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Oranges and lemons

A tiny orange tree that was inherited with the house has grown and this winter it produced its first fruit. I peeled it, smelt the heady aroma, bit into a segment and ... eek! It is a bitter orange not a sweet eating one. Another one to add to my collection of sour citrus, to go with the Bergamot and the lemon, both of which are heavily laden. Marmalade anyone?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Off again

Light posting ahoy as I escape to Greece tomorrow for Christmas. So to tide you over, here is a musical interlude.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Automatic ethics

The Guardian has found something else to worry about. Robots. Robot rights to be precise.
But if the robot was designed to have human-like capacities that might incidentally give rise to consciousness, we would have a good reason to think that it really was conscious. At that point, the movement for robot rights would begin.
Discriminate, discriminate:

Saturday, December 12, 2009

In the pink

Terry has alerted me to the latest piece by his formidable comrade, Lauryn Oates. It deals with the position taken by Code Pink, a Canadian feminist peace group, after a visit to Afghanistan to show solidarity with the women there. All was not as they thought.

"... the pink T-shirted women were surprised to learn the overwhelming majority of women do not support a withdrawal of foreign troops from their country."

So their decision?

"... Code Pink would stick to its position of calling for troop withdrawal."

Ah.

At this point it would be easy to lay into them and their branch of feminist pacifism (actually, it would be enjoyable as well as easy), but I am not going to. People who think like this are not bad people. They are idealists, dreaming of a better world, a world free from oppression. It is just that the purity of their dream, their righteous anger and their heroic self-image trumps reality every time. And this is the way that good people can do evil in the world.

I think back to Oskar Schindler. He was a crook. He saved over a thousand people from the Holocaust precisely because his skills were perfectly suited to the organised criminality of the Third Reich. There are times we need crooks with a conscience.

And so in an imperfect world we aren't always helped by dreams of perfection. We need imperfect action for imperfect, though hugely preferable, ends. And as for those people who scrap and cajole, who argue relentlessly to try and win support for those actions, I reckon they are heroes in their own way too.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Apocalypse now

Each time I pass into the zone, I feel that I have entered an unreal world. In the dead zone, the silence of the villages, roads, and woods seem to tell something at me....something that I strain to hear....something that attracts and repels me both at the same time. It is divinely eerie - like stepping into that Salvador Dali painting with the dripping clocks.
This comes from an astonishing photo essay by a Ukrainian woman, Elena ("Good girls go to heaven. Bad ones go to hell. And girls on fast bikes go anywhere they want"), of her motorbike rides around the dead zone of Chernobyl. Make sure that you click all the way through. Stunning.

With many, many thanks to Will the Blogless

Monday, December 07, 2009

Stout and out

I love my body, I love my fat, I love all ... why not?
The first Miss Fat Gay Venezuela contest. Full report and super video here.
"We all have rights, gays and fat people as much as anyone."

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Festive joy


This and many more from Sketchy Santas.

Via Mick Hartley

Popular education

Two of the great instruments of popular education in this country, adult education and public libraries, are at risk. I have written much on adult education, but there is a similar undermining of the library service, both through cuts and the insidious growth of managerial gobbledygook. I mean, how can anyone have faith in a "modernisation review" of the library service that produces such nebulous, glossy jargon as "Empower, Inform, Enrich"? The document, for some reason, includes an essay by the managing director of Starbucks UK asking, "Can libraries learn anything from the coffee shop experience?"* Rachel Cooke in the Observer is scathing. It is worth reading this earlier piece of hers too.

I get the sense that an anxiety about being seen to be modern, leading to obsessions with fashionable notions such as the digital age or the knowledge economy, is obscuring the importance of a commitment to the old-fashioned and intrinsically simple notion of accessible popular education, itself fulfilling a human need and establishing a human right. Then again it does help relegate the importance of an embarrassing, politically inconvenient public commitment in an age of neoliberal political economy.

* My answer would be I bloody well hope not. I refer to the expertise of the man who sells the Big Issue outside Oxford Road Station. Last week he was disappointed that one of his customers had given him Starbucks vouchers for Christmas. "I won't go in the place", he said, "the coffee is overpriced mud. Use the Cornerhouse, you get a lovely latte in there".

Sunday cat blogging


This mighty mog is the latest obstacle to the reunification of Cyprus. A national struggle between Greeks and Turks over cats has broken out.

The cats in question are the "Aphrodite giants", a beautiful, extremely large and gentle-natured creature, and the equally attractive St Helena breed. Unsurprisingly, the Cypriot Feline Society (CFS) is attempting to register the breeds as national cats, but allegations have emerged of a plot to claim the cats for the Turkish north of the country, depriving Greek Cypriots of breeds that have begun to win prizes abroad.

The CFS fears that Turkish Cypriots are keen on cross-breeding the Aphrodite and the St Helena with a Turkish cat and registering the new breeds as Turkish.
I wonder what the cat thinks?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Hysteria

The right wing assault on climate science continues. The argument has a commonplace structure. Take one small piece of evidence, misconstrue it and then build a whole narrative edifice on the misinterpretation, claiming it as proof positive, whilst leaving the originators baffled, struggling to know how to respond.

This is a pretty standard technique for constructing a false argument, has a resonance in popular culture as it is a mainstay of thriller writing, and it certainly isn't confined to the political right. The troubling aspect for me is the way it is being reported in news broadcasts. Unlike Murdoch's Fox News, which allows opinionated star presenters to rant and rave regardless of fact, British news broadcasts are supposed to be balanced. And what worries me is that this notion of balance seems to divorce reporting from the foundation of good journalism, research.

Rather than investigate and present the findings of that investigation, the style used is to take an accusation from whatever source and present it, often in the style of an advocate, to someone who disagrees and elicit a brief response. Either that or they stage a three minute debate between two people of opposite views, regardless of their credibility, and call the process balanced reporting. Often, it seems that the broadcaster's research team has read little more than competing press releases. In the reporting of the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia, I have yet to hear evidence that anyone has bothered to read and analyse them. Climate scientists' lack of expertise in PR has been exposed, throwing them on the defensive, and only now are they belatedly trying to catch up.

So where is the authoritative research? How is balance served by treating fact and fiction as equivalents and truth to be simply a mater of opinion? It isn't as if the truth isn't out there and easily available. The person who put this video together probably had a bit too much fun making it, but it clearly and accessibly deals with the claims in a way that I have never seen on broadcast news.




All of this is not to deny that there is a deeply polarised debate. But it is political, social and economic. Material changes in our environment are forcing us to ask serious questions about how we respond and the nature of the world in which we wish to live, not just about the technology we use. It is a vital debate and by wandering off into the byways of denial, the right is excluding itself. In a perverse way I find that rather gratifying.

Video via here

Friday, December 04, 2009