Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Versatility

I like these internet toys. Apparently:

I write like
Kurt Vonnegut

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!



Wow. I am proud of that, a fine writer. So how about something else, a bit of academic writing:

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!



Never read anything by him so I wouldn't know. So let's try another piece:

I write like
Dan Brown

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!



Shit! Quick, delete it this instant. The shame, the shame. Slap another passage in to take the taste away.

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!



Who? Well what about trying something else.

I write like
H. G. Wells

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!



There, that is more respectable, even if some of his politics were a bit dodgy.

Consistently male I suppose, but then I did a bit of cheating and found that Emily Bronte writes like James Fenimore Cooper, George Eliot writes like Charles Dickens as does Thomas Hardy, Thackeray and, I suspect, most 19th Century English novelists. Let's go earlier. Mary Shelly writes like Mary Shelly, but Laurence Sterne writes like Robert Louis Stevenson. Daniel Defoe has the style of Jane Austen. A little more populist perhaps, Agatha Christie writes like Arthur Conan Doyle. Oh well, so it goes ...

Thanks to Shuggy for helping me waste an odd half hour.

Your health!

Abstinence is a killer. Time magazine reports on some new research:
But even after controlling for nearly all imaginable variables — socio-economic status, level of physical activity, number of close friends, quality of social support and so on — the researchers (a six-member team led by psychologist Charles Holahan of the University of Texas at Austin) found that over a 20-year period, mortality rates were highest for those who had never been drinkers, second-highest for heavy drinkers and lowest for moderate drinkers.
So eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow the teetotallers die.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Relatively embarassing

After evolution and climate change, there is another global conspiracy for the right to challenge, the Theory of Relativity. Yep, theoretical physics is a liberal atheistic plot. Here is the clincher:
"Barack Obama helped publish an article by liberal law professor Laurence Tribe to apply the relativistic concept of 'curvature of space' to promote a broad legal right to abortion".
If you can bear it, you can read all about it here.

Are you sure it isn't April 1st?

Thanks to DJG

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Scandalous

From the Daily Mail (photo caption)
Struggling: More than 100,000 seven-year-olds is unable to write properly
I blame the teachers.

Thanks to Julie

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mooning

It is the August full moon tonight, a special occasion here. I am just back from the front with ringing ears where there was the big(ish) full moon party with a very loud and rather incongruous Greek heavy rock band. The last number ended abruptly when the electricity blew and we all trooped off into a quiet, beautiful and, of course, moonlight night.

The radio plays songs about the moon all day. Here are two, in a different vein to the music I have just been blasted with, one melancholy:



The words in translation (and another version) here

And one lively:



Words and translation here

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Life and debt

Via Will and John comes this talk to the RSA by, and this interview with, David Harvey. Both seem particularly pertinent as I sit here in a country that is experiencing a severe economic downturn before returning to one that appears to be locking itself into a masochistic political economy, perhaps showing that, after all, corporal punishment in public schools did do them some harm.

What I liked about this talk is that Harvey is keen to break away from the idea being peddled, not least by some Greeks themselves, that the current financial crisis here is the result of cultural failings. Though the Greek state is hardly a model of efficiency and effectiveness, Harvey looks beyond this to systemic economic factors and, in doing so, challenges many of the other conventional explanations of the crisis.

His main argument is that this is not a series of crises, but a single one that keeps cropping up in different countries across the globe. It is located in the central contradiction of neo-liberal economics. The search for high profits to drive growth derives, at least partially, from the reduction of labour costs, mainly through eroding the power of labour in the market place, thereby adversely affecting the level of demand. So, with earnings stagnant, growth and consumption was maintained through the injection of credit and the invention of ever more complex new financial products to sustain that credit. Thus, when the bubble burst, the crisis appeared to be a problem of indebtedness, easily susceptible to moral arguments about spendthrifts, rather than one rooted in declining real wages - a classic crisis of under-consumption.

Harvey is a Marxist, though certainly not a dogmatic one, but the theory of under-consumption is not solely a Marxist theory. For example, here is the mutualist anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, writing in 1846 about the displacement of labour through mechanisation.
What a system is that which leads a business man to think with delight that society will soon be able to dispense with men! Machinery has delivered capital from the oppression of labor! That is exactly as if the cabinet should undertake to deliver the treasury from the oppression of the taxpayers. Fool! Though the workmen cost you something, they are your customers: what will you do with your products, when, driven away by you, they shall consume them no longer? Thus machinery, after crushing the workmen, is not slow in dealing employers a counter blow; for, if production excludes consumption, it is soon obliged to stop itself...
Proudhon was reiterating the views that were also to be found in early liberalism, especially amongst radicals. You can find concerns about under-consumption in Adam Smith, though one of the most persistent and obsessive liberal economists to warn of the dangers was Charles Sismondi (1773-1842).

And this is what interests me, early liberal economics certainly contained some orthodox thinkers such as Jean-Baptiste Say, but much writing is hedged with caution and caveats, whilst radical liberals were overtly critical of orthodoxy and made what they saw as the right of the workers to the full value of their labour central to their thinking. This spawned a whole range of political ideas, not just socialism, but radical liberalism, individualism, co-operation, mutualism and anarchism as well. With the revival of neo-liberalism in the latter part of the Twentieth Century, that critical liberal tradition was ignored and a new, utterly-self confident, version of corporate driven, turbo-capitalism emerged, claiming, somewhat dubiously, to be the true heir of classical liberalism.

If Harvey is right, and certainly the main empirical planks of the argument are all there, then the resolution of a crisis brought about by inadequate purchasing power in the economy through a policy designed to lower that purchasing power further seems hardly wise. From here in Greece, the signs are not good and even the bond markets seem to be opposed to human sacrifice. All of which highlights the increasing interest in the benefits of equality as well as the maintenance of living standards for the many, rather than the massive enrichment of the few.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Eleni

She's one hundred years old now. Eleni was my neighbour until old age forced her to go and live with one of her sons in Volos. She is back in the village at the moment, staying with another of her sons, so I dropped by to see her.

There were hugs and kisses, she is always pleased to see me. I think she appreciated us as neighbours and liked us around the place. Her hearing and vision isn't great, but though frail her sense of humour is buoyant and she rocked with laughter at my wild gestures that tried to convey some sort of meaning that my Greek language could never manage to do.

There is no flash on my mobile phone so the picture isn't great but that didn't stop her son trying to get me to take a photograph of the barbecue being built on their patio. They were trying to sell me one and thought I could show the photograph around. Sadly, it was too dark so the builder rushed to his car, stood in front of the barbecue, took a picture, showed it to me and then put his camera away. I think he missed the point.

At the moment I am reading about another Eleni, the mother of the author Nicholas Gage. She was tortured and executed for the crime of protecting her children during the final stage of the Greek Civil War. It is a brilliant, complex and harrowing book. And then I think that the Eleni I know was in her thirties when the Nazi occupation began, with its mass starvation and appalling hardships, closely followed by the brutalities of the Civil War. I wonder what she has seen during her long life, I will never know.

Still, she survived, gave birth to four sons and lives on. As does Greece, now a democratic nation, though facing new troubles. May Greek democracy too survive this unnecessary economic onslaught and leave the horrors of the Twentieth Century buried in the history books, never to be re-enacted.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What I did on my holidays

I suppose that after the hard grind of relaxing in Greece for a couple of months, the wedding in the Czech Republic was just the tonic I needed. And what a wedding!

Most tourist will be familiar with Prague, but Olomouc is less well-known, incomparably quieter and has a beautiful centre, ringed with hideous Stalinist architecture. Everywhere there are reminders of a troubled history. The Second World War memorials carry the unfamiliar dates of 1938-45. For Czechs, the war began with the dismemberment of their country and the start of the German occupation after the Munich agreement. Then there are the remainders of the Communist past; the murals at the railway station and, above all, the clock.

The town hall has hosted an astronomical clock since the fifteenth century. It has been remodelled frequently, the last time was in the 1950's. As the defeated German army left in 1945, someone, in an act of spiteful vandalism, fired a shell at the clock leaving it wrecked. And so it was rebuilt, this time in the style of Socialist Realism, a unique piece of Stalinist kitsch. Here it is as it was before the war and today.













Every day at twelve it gives its full performance in front of a small knot of observers. There is a YouTube video of it in action here.

Elsewhere, the city is studded with extraordinary Baroque churches, as political as the clock. They were built to mark the defeat of the Reformation in the Thirty Years War and flaunt the resulting Catholic ascendancy. One monument, the Holy Trinity Column, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, stands across the square, glaring at the clock.

Walking around a city you often get the sense of its past from the neglected and the run down, rather than from the celebrated tourist highlights.

A street scene or, in this case, a simple doorway gives a sense of faded elegance that contrasts with the crumbling concrete of badly built apartment blocks from the Communist era. It made me wonder about Stalinism as an aesthetic failure as well as a political catastrophe. Catholicism in Europe was associated with reaction, illiberalism, authority and control yet still produced some magnificent art. But perhaps the sheer ugliness was just the product of the times, when public architecture became particularly joyless the world over.

Then there was the wedding itself in a spectacular church on a hill overlooking the Moravian plain. If the outside wasn't imposing enough, the interior was wildly over the top, like Liberace on speed.

As a hardened cynic, even I was blown away by such a magical scene for a wedding. I could forget my antipathy to the iconography and wallow in pure sentimentality in a church full of seriously hungover people, at least the ones from England. That certainly is a bunch who know how to party. Late nights on the town for a couple of days before the event had left their mark, but they were only training sessions. It was time for the reception.

It started impressively enough with a waiter slicing the top off a bottle of champagne with a sword and the custom of smashing a plate on the doorstep of the restaurant that the groom has to sweep up with a dustpan and brush. It then turned out to be a fifteen hour extravaganza of food, booze and dancing to an ageing Rock 'n Roll band, playing the standards sung in Czech, either side of a disco featuring naff 70's and 80's pop music. The place was bouncing when this one came on. And then there was all that gorgeous Czech beer.

I had never been to the Czech Republic before. The one thing that struck me most was how orderly the country is. Even if there is no traffic, nobody crosses the road unless the pedestrian crossing lights allow. Small groups of people stood patiently by the side of empty roads waiting for the clicking sound made by the crossings to speed up, meaning that the lights had changed to stop the non-existent cars. The museums only allowed you to pass through them in one direction and stern attendants were everywhere to ensure that you did as you were told. In restuarants and bars plates and glasses were cleared away the second you had finished. Sunday night was near silent and the city centre was deserted apart from a few tourists. Yet the clubs stayed open late and served up huge quantities of alcohol and the bars and restuarants certainly didn't bother with healthy eating options and portion control.

It had been an unforgettable weekend; noisy, rowdy and incredibly drunken, spent with people who I like immensely in a remarkably beautiful place. Yet on my return to Greece, as I sat on the bus taking me down the peninsula, just behind the driver who was talking on his mobile phone and smoking a fag out of the window as he manoeuvred round hairpin bends, I enjoyed the culture change; friendly, informal, occasionally fractious, anything but organised though it still works and somehow more comfortable, like sitting in your favourite chair. I had been away and I was coming home.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Away

I am setting off this morning for the Czech Republic to attend a wedding. I shall be here for a few days, with the urge to do some sightseeing no doubt conflicting with the odd hangover. So all you will get here is ...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sizzling in summer

One of the great pleasures of summer in Greece is being able to use the barbecue regularly, especially if friends come round to share a meal, talking and drinking until late in the warm night air. All types of meat, marinated in lemon juice and olive oil together with fresh herbs picked from the garden, taste wonderful cooked over charcoal, as does fish, bought the same day from the sellers at the front. Aubergines and peppers are beautiful too, grilled and sprinkled with salt, vinegar and oil.

But what is this? A study has found that this is really shocking behaviour.
Beer, ice-cream, crisps, Indian takeaways, chips and anything in batter: normally, it's a particular food type that gets blamed for helping the British to pile on the pounds. But now a whole style of cooking and eating has come under fire for encouraging obesity in the UK.

Research shows that Britons consume more than the recommended daily intake of calories in a single barbecue meal, with men often eating more than 3,500 calories and women more than 2,500.
Oh no! Douse those coals immediately or at least follow the report's advice. Replace those sausages with a "tofu kebab or mixed green salad with harissa dressing" or at the very least "exercise portion control".

So who carried out this research, which University or research establishment was involved? Er ... the study was "conducted by Boots and the Tony Ferguson Weightloss Programme" who just happen to have a new range of expensive diet products to sell to the guilt-ridden.

There was one consolation at the end of the piece,
However, the Boots research indicates that any advice on sensible alfresco eating habits is likely to be ignored: it found that although a third of those questioned (2,000 adults) were aware they eat more food than usual, 41% chose to forget how many calories they were consuming and ate as much as they wanted.
Bravo for the 41%! Anyway, I always exercise portion control at my barbecues, the portions are vast.

Friday, August 06, 2010

An advocate of peace

It is hard to add anything to this statement.
Mohamed Abu Muailek is a 25-year-old Palestinian, believes that Palestinians should seek co-existence with Israel. Mohamed is in jail and facing potential execution by Hamas. Once a militant, he is now a strong advocate of peaceful coexistence. He used to fire rockets from Gaza into Israel. Then, partly because of an internet friendship with an IT colleague, Mohamed changed his mind. Deciding that violence was wrong, Mohamed became a dissident, and argued the case for peace and co-existence with Israel. Hamas have jailed him and he is facing a likely death penalty.
The campaign website is here and a report of the experience of the film-maker, Paul Martin here.

Anyone prone to romanticise Hamas, please take careful note.

Thanks to Helena

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Lost in translation

Waking early this morning, I did some web surfing and ended up on a Greek blog post listing some of the best moments of summer. Because my Greek is very, very rudimentary, I was lazy and used Google Translator. Here are some examples of what it came up with:

"The crowing of a misguided from the hot cock in a ill-afternoon hours"

"The repeated echo of a distant and allegedly festival is induced by the moods of the wind"

"Crack due to the unplanned rush of impatience forks when the waiter leaves the table dish with tzatziki"

And my favourite:

"Can meet again in passionate love of your vacation last year and I recommend your child"

Some advice - use a dictionary.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Shocking

You learn something new every day if you read the papers.
If we look at the industrialised world, basically 90% of all deaths are caused by ageing.
Well I never.

Politics and anti-politics

From over the pond - the Aegean that is - a reader based in Turkey drew my attention to this catchy paragraph from Peter Oborne's book, The Triumph of the Political Class.
"The only Cabinet minister in Blair's 1997 administration known to have had any experience of work in the commercial sector was John Prescott, a ship's steward in the '50s. He was later joined by Alan Milburn, who used to run a Marxist bookshop called Days of Hope, better known by the spoonerism Haze of Dope"
There is a lot to unpack in such a short passage. It is part of a common-place argument that politicians are distanced from 'real life' and have no understanding of the 'real world', being locked in a parallel universe of their own making. The argument isn't without merit, but in one sense it is a truism. We all live lives proscribed by the boundaries of class, gender, region, ethnicity, occupation etc. and do not have an intimate understanding of the lives of others, though we can try and learn and the failure to do so is a major contributor to bad management and poor policy making.

Yet there are other difficulties with the specifics of Oborne's comment. Anyone coming into government will of necessity have been an MP for some time and so politics will have been their full-time job for quite a while. Then what does he mean by "the commercial sector"? Private industry? And if so, why is this experience more valid than the public sector or the professions? And, of course, there is a neat, snobbish dig at Prescott in there too. But even taking it on its own terms, there is one major problem with this statement. It isn't true.

The claim that no-one apart from Prescott in the 1997 Cabinet had any experience outside politics seemed so unlikely that I did a bit of checking on the internet. It took less than an hour and this is what I found.

Margaret Beckett was a metallurgist for AEI, soon to become part of GEC. David Clark worked in forestry and was a lab technician in a textile mill, then became a mature student and university teacher. Nick Brown worked for Procter and Gamble. Frank Dobson worked in industry, but for the then nationalised Electricity Generating Board. Gavin Strang was an agricultural scientist.

Several cabinet members had experience of local government, the most notable being David Blunkett who had run Sheffield City Council, possibly a better preparation for a ministerial post than being a management consultant.

There is another side to the "commercial sector" as well. Unsurprisingly, the 1997 Cabinet contained four former full-time union officials, including Prescott. Day-to-day working in industrial relations is certainly an education in the only too real life experienced by many of the electorate!

The biggest single group was lawyers with seven in cabinet, does their work not count as "commercial"? There were two former adult education tutor-organisers as well and three University lecturers. Clare Short had been a civil servant and, given the new government's interest in the Third Sector as part of their Big Society fad, they might be interested to know that Chris Smith had worked for a housing charity.

There was no-one from senior business management or from the financial services sector, but are they any more representative of 'real life'? Anyway, given the overwhelmingly Tory ethos of business management, it would be odd to expect to find anyone building a career as a Labour politician from it. And though the ministers were all middle class professionals, quite a few had come from working class families and were the beneficiaries of the post war expansion of educational opportunities. Rather than being narrow apparatchiks, they had rather a wide range of experience and impressive academic qualifications.

It is always fun to point out where sloppy research undermines an argument, but I think that more important things are at stake. The book is riding a current wave of anti-politics, which I consider highly dangerous. It takes various forms; 'they are only in it for themselves', 'they are all the same', and other associated generalisations. Of course, if you ask people to expand on this and be specific they usually can't. This is because of a slippage between scepticism and cynicism.

Politics, as a means of managing our public and collective interests, is a necessity. It never goes away. I am deeply depressed about the awful level of current political debate, the dominance of an elite consensus on political economy and on the quality of political leadership. However, this is very different from a rejection of politics in itself.

Anti-politics is cynical not analytical. It is a blanket condemnation of politics and an expression of contempt for politicians, whatever they do or stand for. In itself, it posits no alternatives and has no analysis. There is the strange Tea Party anti-political movement in the United States, but perhaps the most egregious recent example is the Greek Sect of Revolutionaries whose first proclamation announced, "We don't do politics, we do guerilla warfare". Nobody knows what they stand for. I doubt if they do. Often this is an impulse that can be exploited by the populist autocrat who declares himself to be 'above politics' (the ultimate oxymoron for a politician), sometimes it can lead to the demand for a 'top businessman' to come and sort things out. Demagoguery replaces the building of movements, alliances and the representation of interests.

My deep disappointment with New Labour knows no bounds, and as for the new lot ...
It would be a huge relief to see politicians shunning conventional wisdom and media stereotypes in favour of good research and pursuing principles instead of exercising their own cynicism through media-driven populist measures to be nasty to whoever is the latest folk devil. However, we do need to be able to explain why we think like that, rather than simply hug the comfort blanket of anti-political sentiment. Intelligent politics is the answer to anti-politics, it can be just as critical, but with reason and, most importantly, it offers us alternatives.

Thanks to John