Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Amundsen was cool, but Scott was smarter.

It's an eternal rule throughout history that there are the cool guys and the smart guys. The former get the fame, the glory and the girls, the later get the critical acclaim, but usually only after they're dead.

Take Elizabethan playwrights. Kit Marlow was the cool one, drinking, wenching and spying like the Renaissance James Bond he was, but the only play of his people know now is Moll Flanders, and that's only because of the bonking. However in the years since Marlow died his violent and mysterious death, the quiet chap from Warwickshire has overtaken him to become the best known writer of the era.

Then there are the Romantic Poets. Byron and Shelley were clearly the cool guys who got the girls, but it was Keats, scribbling away at home, whilst longing futilely for Fanny, who had the real talent.

I could go on, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles? Oasis and Blur? Bill Gates and Steve Jobs? Tony Blair and Gordon Brown? Okay, maybe not the last pair, but I'd be forgetting the date.

Today it is 100 years since Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, and in so doing forever confined Captain Robert Falcon Scott to the category of Great British Looser, where he joins Eddie the Eagle, Fred Goodwin and the England World Cup 2018 team.

Using skis, and techniques learnt from the Inuit, Amundsen dog sledded to the pole in double quick time, then sailed back, eating his dogs as he went. Scott meanwhile clanked along with all sorts of impedientia, including some particularly useless diesel tractors. No doubt about who was cool one.

It's not as if he was a real chav - although he did ski there in Burberry overalls - but Amundsen was essentially a day tripper, who returned home with little more than a few picture postcards. Scott's party meanwhile were a fully tooled up scientific expedition. So in the scientific stakes it's Norway Nil Point.

Although Scott never made it back himself, a lot of his samples did, and they were, and still are, amazing discoveries.

Firstly there was the Edwardian version of Frozen Planet - the first movie film of Antarctic creatures ever recorded. Film of Weddell Seals and Killer Whales was truly ground breaking, - and none of it was shot in a Dutch Zoo.

Then there were the Emperor Penguin eggs he found. Nobody had grabbed an egg before, and whilst he didn't get them back to base himself, they were later recovered from the igloo where he left them. Skins collected by Scott have also been used as a control sample to measure the prevalence of DDT in the Antarctic.

Perhaps his most important find of all though was one of the fossils that he had with him when he died. This was of the fossil of a 250 million year old fern called Glossopteris. It is named after the Greek glossa meaning tongue, because of the shape of its leaves, not Glossop, meaning wettest town in England.

That a tropical fern should turn up in such a frozen wasteland was extremely interesting, and gave the scientists a hint that the wild theory of an Austrian ecologist might actually be true. Eduard Seuss had found fossil of Glossopteris in South America, Africa and India and so postulated that they had all once been a single supercontinent he named Gondwanaland. The discovery of the fern amongst the ice was the killer proof that his theory needed.

Dr Seuss also gave us the phrase 'the biosphere' by the way, and can claim to be the smart guy who ultimately got a lot less fame than far cooler fossil hunters Marsh and Cope, and has the additional burden of a less serious near-namesake.

Scott's expedition doctor also carried out research into the previously little known field of  penguin sex. Unfortunately what he found, which included homosexuality and necrophilia, came as rather a shock to this Public School boy. 'There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins,' he wrote.

He made his notes in Greek so that the 'uneducated' could not accidentally read it, and all mention of sex was then removed from his subsequent book on penguins. The saucy bits were privately circulated in a privately publish pamphlet called The Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguin. Funnily enough you can't buy it on Amazon.

Unlike Scott, the prudish doctor survived, but only by spending a winter in an ice cave with five other men eating seal blubber. We are assured they did not not engage in any penguin-like activity .

In the short term Scott's death was a good career move, making him more famous than his Norwegian rival, but being liked by the Establishment pretty much did for his reputation come the 1960s.

Dying perhaps isn't the great career move for explorers that it is for pop stars, and I doubt we would like Brian Cox any more if he'd frozen to death whilst making Wonders of the Universe. But whilst poor old Scott may not get the Boy Scout badge for planning expeditions, we should give him some credit for science he brought back.

So lets here it for old Scotty. He may not be cool, but he brought back the goods.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Egypt: What the Army Did

So Egypt has finally managed to have a democratic election. The Islamists did rather well, but didn't dominate, and look set to remain split between an allegedly moderate Muslim Brotherhood and the extremists of

So was this a triumph for the army, the care taker rulers since Mubarek was toppled?

Yes and no.

But first, who actually are the Egyptian Army? This isn't an easy question to answer, as the army is at least three things.

Firstly, at the bottom, it really is the nation-in-arms. This is a difficult thing for us Brits, with our small mercenary army, to get our heads round, but if you listen to the veterans of WWII speak you get a flavour. A large army in a rural country like Egypt is part of the social fabric. The police, trained by Mubarek, Saddat and Nasser to defend the state, might be mindless, brutal thugs doing the regime's bidding, but the army belongs, at least in part, to the people.

Next, the army represents one of the few meritocracies in the country. Egypt is poor and only superficially modernised. Real opportunities are few and generally go to those with connections. The army is one of the few genuine meritocracies in the country, where a man with talent can rise to the top - or almost.

Ability alone might get you a prestigious command of an Armoured Division on the Israeli border, but to get to the real top in Mubarek's Egypt you needed to be an expert in taking and receiving bungs. And these people are still in charge.

What this means in practise is difficult to say, but I expect the Generals to come up with some sort of deal which gets the Muslim Brotherhood into power - but keeps them out of gaol. I imagine it will also mean that if protests continue the Police will continue to be the agent of repression, but that the army itself will be kept safely in the desert.

It's not all bad news, Egypt could still be a model Middle Eastern state, the Muslim Brotherhood could lead the way in showing how Islamism is compatible with democracy, and the corrupt old Generals may just fade away into oblivion.

However the high food prices that triggered the Arab Spring haven't gone down, the hopes of the protesters have not been realised, and the kleptocracy is still there, so we're not out of the woods yet.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Global Warming Report Agrees With Climate Change Denier

Another month another report on climate change, this time by the Berkely Earth group. More famous for anti-war protests in the sixties, Berkley is also the home to a university apparently.

The Berkley Earth Surface Temperature Report (BEST) discovered that the earth is indeed warming and that this is not a quirk of poor quality or badly placed weather stations, nor of the encroachment of cities into the vicinity of the experts thermometers.

Interestingly this tallies with the results of climate change denier Anthony Watts, who launched his project four years ago. His tireless volunteers toured the country identifying badly cited weather stations. This pioneering study then allowed the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to recalibrate the surface temperature record of the USA, chopping out all the dodgy weather stations. Their result was that this led to a slight increase in the recorded warming.

You'd expect Mr Watts to be delighted that a major research group has confirmed his findings, but rather inexplicably his opinion of BEST is that it "the study’s methodology was flawed because it examined data over a 60-year period instead of the 30-year-one that was the basis for his research and some other peer-reviewed studies. He also noted that the report had not yet been peer-reviewed and cited spelling errors as proof of sloppiness." Spelling mistakes by scientists? Unhaerd off!

The report also coincided with a second leak of hacked emails from East Anglia's Climate Research Unit. The point of the leak appeared to be to show that climate scientists hid data that didn't agree with their pre-judged opinion of the science.

This is a view endorsed by Mr Watts, a gentleman who would clearly never do such a thing himself.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Top 5 Films About Trade Unions

The result from UNITE has come in and so it looks like we're all strike for the biggest strike since the seventies. So to mark the occasion I've decided to look at how cinema has dealt with trade unions. Once again there will be no films from the last fifteen years as I haven't watched any films in the last fifteen years.

Films are funded by benevolent Capitalists to provide entertainment for us proles, and so perhaps it's not surprising that some of the greatest roles in the movies have been trade unionists, such as Martin Sheen as Carl Fox in Wall Street, Raúl Juliá as Chico Mendes in The Burning Season and.....errr.....well a few in Ken Loach films obviously and ..... erm.

Okay, lets try again.

Films are funded by evil Capitalists in order to extract as much money as possible from gullible proles, and so it's not surprising that most of the portrayals of trade unionists are negative.

So here we go with the best of the worst.

5. Carry On at Your Convenience (1971)

Trade unions were alluded to regularly in the Carry On franchise, such as in Carry On Cleo when the eunuchs are reported to be striking over of loss of assets.(Groan)

This film finds the team appropriately located in a toilet factory where the local union boss is a buffoon who calls strikes so he can watch football matches, and whose gullible members nearly bankrupt the firm by following him out. Given the someone plebian nature of the Carry On audience this was a bit of an own goal and the film was a flop.

It's not exactly awash with jokes, unless you count the first screen appearance of the mighty Morris Marina car, a vehicle whose history is so inextricably linked with union intransigence that if this was Product Placement it was a grave mistake.

4. On the Waterfront (1954)

It could have been a contender.

A film about why it's good to be a police informer by a Director who snitched on his colleagues to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

The Longshoremen trade unionists in the film are shown to be a violent, corrupt and, thanks to some dubious casting, posh.

3. I'm All Right Jack (1959)

Newly demobbed soldier Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael) takes a job in his uncle's factory where, being upper class, he shows how lazy the other workers are by doing twice as much work as anyone else.

This prompts trade union leader Fred Kite (Peter Sellars) to call an all out strike. When Kite evicts Windrush from his house for being a scab Kite's wife leaves too, leaving this working class hero unable to feed or cloth himself.

So a real hatchet job on the workers then, redeemed only by being a very funny and not entirely unrealistic portrayal of industrial relations at the time.

2. The Life of Brian (1979)

In the great pantheon of Trade Union leaders there must surely be a place for Reg (John Cleese).

Committed to Jewish freedom, he is broad minded enough to acknowledge the achievements of the Roman oppressors. Tragically unable to join the suicide mission to kidnap Pilate's wife due to a bad back, he fearlessly leads the Judean People's Front in their war with the People's Front of Judea whilst campaigning for his friend Stan's right to have a baby. A dedicate democrat he refuses to be drawn into action before due process has been followed, even though this costs the life of comrade Brian.

A real hero.

1. The Man in the White Suit (1951)

No, not Martin Bell, but Alec Guiness as the man who invents an everlasting fabric and so brings the wrath of both trade unions and management down on his head.

Eco-warriors have long suspected that the Holy Grails of sustainable technology; renewable energy, cars that run on water, politicians with integrity,  etc, have all been suppressed by those with an interest in the status quo and this is the film that fuels that paranoia.

The deliciously black King Hearts and Coronets prevents this becoming my favorite Ealing Comedy, but it's pretty damn good. Guiness is now mainly remembered as the older version of Ewan MacGregor in Star Wars - a film he hated - but his Ealing days were his best.

They really don't make them like they used to.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Top 5 Unlikely Jobs for a Movie Hero

The anti-hero has a long cinema history, but surprising thing is how conventional most of them are. Gangsters, with their family values, their business-before-morality ethos and casual attitude to violence represent the modern Western world view far better than most conventional heroes whilst Rambo, whilst something of an outsider in his first film appearance, soon turned into such a caricature of America military intervention, even helping the Taliban on his third appearance, that he was beyond satire.

Robert de Niro playing a plumber in Brazil is more the sort of thing I'm thinking of, although he wasn't the hero so can't count. Neither does it count if the hero's job has no relevance to the plot, so serial killer accountants, yuppies and the rest can't be included.

So having fixed the rules to ensure the films I like are in it, here is my Top Five.

5. James Mason as an IRA man: Odd Man Out (1947)

The IRA had turned up in films since, such as in John Ford's The Quiet Man and David Lean's Ryan's Daughter.

But whilst the Innisfree IRA cell appears to do little but drink Guinness (not an unrealistic portrayal I believe) and the Kirrary lot do appear to be actually fighting for Irish independence, James Mason's character is neither a harmless drunk nor an effective freedom fighter. Instead he is wounded whilst engaged in nothing more heroic or patriotic than a fairly petty robbery.

This then starts a journey through a strange demi-monde that is clearly a loosely disguised Belfast. Director Carol Read is today better remembered for The Third Man, but Odd Man Out is arguably as good, although its main competition would be a James Cagney gangster film. Perhaps Cagney does baddies better than Mason, but it's still a cracking performance.

4. Boris Karloff as a Monster: Frankenstein (1931)

Those who know the literary Frankenstein know the Monster as a bright chap with a lot to say for himself, but movie versions have always been more physical and less cerebral and Karloff's Monster is definitely in this tradition.

I suppose I'm pushing it to claim being a monster is actually a job, but if it was Karloff's Monster could probably expect his P45 in the post as he soon turns out to be the most human character in the film.

3. Jean Reno as a Hit Man: Léon (1994)

Having disallowed gangsters for being evil Capitalists, and so not antiheroes at all, I'm going to make an exception for hit men, especially Léon as he doesn't even appear to be making any money out of the job.

Leaving aside questions about his relationship with an under age Natalie Portman - and the pot plant - Léon appears to be a regular guy from out of town who has found a rung at the bottom of the social ladder doing jobs the local won't, in this case killing people.

He lives in poor housing, the police pick on him and he has no friends. So if you pretend he's a migrant worker and not a hired murderer what you have is social commentary. Plus a lot of dead bodies.

2. Gregory Peck as a Lawyer: To Kill A Mocking Bird (1962)

Hollywood likes courtroom drama, but it's rather indifferent about lawyers.

We're not really too bothered about whether or not Sam Bowden gets the chop in Cape Fear, whilst Erin Brockovich got a film made about her because she wasn't a real lawyer. Otherwise the hero is usually in the dock or the jury.

Atticus Finch though is different. Noble, moral, courageous, and a paragon of old style values he chooses to work within the system to reform it. As a result his client is fitted up for a crime he didn't commit and gets killed, which perhaps tells us something about trying to oppose institutionally racist organisations from the inside.

1. Jimmy Stewart as a Banker: It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

Yes a banker.

True, it was a long time ago, before the wide boys in braces arrived on Wall Street, but it was only fifteen years after the Great Crash.

It's hard to imagine a remake now. Not only is there no-one of the calibre of Jimmy Stewart to play the lead, but I doubt anyone could imagine a banker being saved from committing suicide by a Guardian Angle showing what life would have been like without him.

I mean, what would he show? The out of work cocaine dealers and Porsche salesmen? The lower property prices? The pensioners enjoying their annuities? It just wouldn't work.

Perhaps the remake then could feature the Guardian Angel as the antihero? A sort of Guardian Demon who goes around persuading well adjusted and happy stock brokers to leap off bridges?


Mr Spielberg? I have an idea for you.......

Monday, 31 October 2011

My Top 5 Horror Films

I suppose I don't really like horror films.

I certainly don't like slasher movies, which rules out 99% of what usually goes into lists of best horror movies.

I also think that it's impossible for any sane adult to actually be scared in a cinema, unless you're watching Sacha Baron Cohen, but then you're scared for him.

However I admit it's possible to pretend to be frightened if you fancy the person you've gone with - although my dates have never been very impressed with this sort of behaviour.

So here's a rather eclectic mix of films that are technically 'horror' but on the whole wouldn't frighten a neurotic toddler.

Number 5: The Haunting (1963)

Four people spend the night in a haunted house and very little happens.

It may be a moot point when 'subtle' turns into 'boring', but for my money the original version of The Haunting works. It's a haunted house film by the books, but by not over-egging the pudding you do get mounting tension and something worth thinking about.

4. Night of the Demon (1957)

Okay, so who else knew this film was sampled on Kate Bush's The Hounds of Love?

The film suffered a bit in the making, including the insertion of an actual demon over the objections of the writer. However what emerged is still a pretty good and atmospheric tale of black magic - or self delusion.

The main interest though is Niall MacGinnis playing a character that is clearly based on Alistair Crowley. The moral of the story: don't mess with Ritual Magicians.

3. The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

If you've never seen this, please try and track it down.

Basically the H.P.Lovecraft society decided, on a minuscule budget, to make his classic 1928 short story as if it was a contemporary silent movie.

The result is a little strange, but very effective. The effects are cheap, but the design work is good and the lost city of Ry'leh is an Expressionist delight whilst limitations in the acting department are disguised by the format. You actually believe you are watching an eighty year old film.

2. The Wicker Man (1973)

Most pagans regard this film as a documentary with a happy ending, and we'd all move to Summerisle tomorrow even without the service offered by the landlords daughter.

This is Hammer House of Horror's finest moment and it's a British as a wet Sunday afternoon.

Apart from Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward acting their socks off, Paul Giovanni's sound track is the highlight.

1. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

More Gothic than a weekend in Whitby, Bride is James Whale's masterpiece, the best of a run of films in the thirties that include Bela Lugosi's Dracula and Boris Karloff's Frankenstein. Karloff was always the better actor, and Frankenstein's Monster the better villain.

The two were to team up for the almost as impressive Expressionist sequel, Son of Frankenstein, but Bride is the better film by a whisker.

It's camp as can be, but visually it is an absolute delight.

You can interpret it in as many ways as you like; Christian analogy, gay metaphor - or just a lot of fun.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

New Sci-Fi Blog

I've decided to create a new blog for all my Sci-Fi stuff.

It can be found here

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Liam has shot our fox

Let me be quite clear, I wish Liam Fox hadn't gone...... because it was just starting to get interesting.

Really interesting.

Not that I mind the demise of a far right minister, but by jumping before he was pushed we may never get to the bottom of what looks like a scandal designed by Central Casting.

Lets also be clear about why he went. It wasn't because he had been helping an old chum feather his nest, nor was it because he's secretly gay. Instead it seems Fox was the conduit for the loony tunes US Neoconservative movement into British politics.

The Neocons, the force behind George W Bush and the invasion of Iraq, have largely morphed into the Tea Party; a wonderfully named movement that to US patriots suggests heroic men tipping horrid English herbs into Boston harbour, but to the rest of the world summons up images of Mad Hatters and March Hares.

Behind both though stands money, lots and lots of money. That's why this is more than about bungs to flat mates - Werrity is very well paid by his US backers and doesn't need any favours from HMG.

Fox's charity, The Atlantic Bridge, was wound up on 30 September, just before the scandal broke, which is a bit of a miracle of timing. By going into voluntary liquidation it has also avoided having to answer any awkward questions from the Charity Commission.

With Thatcher as its patron and Gove, Hague, Osborne and Grayling on the board Atlantic Bridge was no more of a charity than the Monday Club. But what's perhaps more interesting are its friends on the other side of the pond.

It was funded by Lehman Brothers for one thing, and Karl Rove and many other less charismatic US right wingers, pop up to speak to it, receive awards from it or give it money.

Atlantic Bridge also worked closely with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Koch Industries funded Climate Change denial front group.

I could go on, but I think the get the point.

The question is though, what were they after?

Money obviously, but was this just for personal gain, or where they after more serious political change, the sort of paradigm shift that would open up Britain to big US corporations. Convenient was it not that Fox, formerly Shadow Health Minister, was hanging around with the sort of Neocons who regard the NHS as the spawn of Satan just at the Tories introduce legislation that will pretty much see off the idea of universal public health care?

Which leads on to the next question; was Fox running a parallel foreign policy here, or was it merely convenient for a Prime Minister leading a coalition with the LibDems to have this stuff done at arms length? A Prime Minister who has also previously warned about the dangers of too much lobbying?

By resigning he is clearly hoping nobody will ask these questions, which must not be allowed to happen.

We are pretty cynical about our politicians in the country, and most people will probably just regard this as a scandal about personal financial gain and possible sexual high jinx.

When it comes to the Tories though, we are possibly not nearly cynical enough.

More on Atlantic Bridge and their Neocon links here.
Here's Greenpeace on ALEC and Climate Change denial.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

What we did for Greece

So should we bail out the Greeks then?

Or rather should we bail out the banks who've got themselves in up to their necks in bad debt, a lot of it owed by Greece?

Well I guess it's a bit like the question of whether you should give your pocket money to the bully who's dangling you over a railway bridge. In principle no, but in practise....

What's interesting I find though is how little is being said about the debt we owe Greece. This I can only put down to the tragic decline in the study of the Classics in our schools.

The Romans conquered the known world thanks to their Classical education, and so before we sent out our sons and daughters to carve out an Empire we gave them a thorough grounding in Latin and Greek history. What else would a future District Commissioner in Utter Pradesh ever need?

An unintended blow back from this policy was that whenever things got a bit sticky at the bottom of the Balkans, we tended to side with the guys who spoke Greek.

It all started in 1821 when the Greek speakers, who'd carved out a nice role for themselves in the bureaucracy of the Ottoman Empire, launched one of their regular uprisings and for once actually made a bit of progress.

The revolt inspired the Classically educated Brits and so Romantics and demobbed officers from the Napoleonic Wars made their way over to the Peloponnese. Lord Byron went, and died shortly after arriving, and the rebel Greek Navy ended up being commanded by Lord Cochrane, a former Royal Navy officer and the model for Jack Aubrey from Master and Commander.

Many of those who went to help though ended up a little disappointed to find that they weren't standing shoulder to shoulder with modern Leonidas's. Instead of fighting to the last bullet, the rebels often as not didn't even fight to the first bullet, and battles often consisted of no more than just shouting insults from cover.

The climax was equally bizarre. Worried that imperial rival Russia was going to gain from the insurrection, a joint British and French fleet was sent to lend moral support to the Turks. Instead it ended up obliterating the Turkish fleet in an action that was the last to be fought purely by wooden sailing ships.

An independent Greece then emerged, and to show how independent they were they were given a Bavarian king. When they did a stock take they found a few things missing though, including the Parthenon Marbles, which had been given to Lord Elgin by the Turks just before they scarpered.

As a Balkan nation they took part in the confusing series of wars that eventually triggered the First World War. Greece was a late arrival in the conflict and for most of the war did very little. After the defeat in Gallipoli the British and Australian forces regrouped in Thessaloniki where they spent the next few years camped out in the sunshine in what must have been one of the easier postings of the conflict.

Greece then sent a delegation to the Versailles conference where they presented a grandiose vision of a Greater Greece, which included a huge chunk of what is now Asiatic Turkey. That there were very few Greeks in these new areas, and many of them were lukewarm about the idea, was overlooked by the British and French leaders. They were committed to dismantling the defeated Ottoman Empire and thought they may as well give as many of the bits as they could to Greece, and so the nation emerged from the war twice as big as it went in.

The new country didn't last very long though, thanks to Kemel Ataturk and resurgent Turkish nationalism, and Greece retreated back to its original borders.

However just as it appeared that modern forces were now sculpting the former Classical world, history repeated itself and Greece soon faced the return of an ancient foe: Rome.

Mussolini and the Italian King didn't agree on many things, but they both shared a low opinion of the Greeks. The Italian army, woefully prepared for war, crossed the Adriatic only to be soundly thrashed by the underrated Greek army and, just as in North Africa, Hitler had to send German troops to bail out his fellow dictator.

Churchill meanwhile was as romantically attached to Greece as Byron had been and sent the Eighth Army across from Africa to help. The intervention was a disaster and the British Army soon had to be rescued by the Royal Navy. Some, notably General von Manstein, have claimed that this diversion delayed Operation Barbarossa just enough to save Russia, but the evidence seems scanty. Others have point out that this diversion occurred just as we were about to kick the Italians out of Africa. This allowed Rommel and his tanks time to save the day and bat the Desert Rats all the way back to El Alamein.

Greece suffered far more under German and Italian occupation than it ever did under the Turks, and its a now nearly forgotten fact that the first shipment of food aid sent by Oxfam was to Greece, in defiance of the Allied blockade, although it didn't stop 100,000 people starving to death. All told eight percent of the population died, a million were homeless and a third of the nations wealth was destroyed.

The Greeks themselves fought back, with the most effective resistance fighters being the Communists. As the Russians advanced the Greeks then fought themselves with the Germans as bemused onlookers. The Communists gained the upper hand and with the Red Army on the way it looked like Greece would join the rest of Eastern Europe in the Soviet sphere of influence.

However Stalin didn't actually want Greece and so Churchill sent in British troops again, this time to fight the people he had described months before as "gallant guerrillas containing thirty enemy divisions" but who were now "the miserable Greek banditti". With the help of rearmed collaborator Security Battalions the EAM and ELAS were driven out of Athens and soon Greece was standing shoulder to shoulder with old enemy Turkey as a bulwark of NATO.

Indeed so keen was the west to save Greece for democracy that when a military dictatorship took power in 1967 it took Britain a whole 24 hours to decide that torturing fascists were better than Godless communists and agree to recognise the regime. In the end the Turks helped oust the Colonels, by delivering a stinging military defeat in Cyprus.

When democracy was restored the way was open to join the European Economic Community, as it was then called. Greece was soon at the heart of the European community of nations, and that's where the problems started.

Once again Greece was the victim of the kindness of its friends. Instead of a left leaning rural nation channelling the spirit of the ancient world, they saw in her an industrialised democracy with a neoliberal market economy waiting to burst forth.

Waived into the the Eurozone despite some distinctly non-neoliberal domestic policies, it took the Credit Crunch to reveal the ghastly mistake that had been made. Worse, rather than just letting the country go bankrupt, drop out and relaunch a devalued Drachma, which would allow them to offer cheap holidays and consumer goods to rebuild their economy, they are being forced to stay so that our banks won't go bust.

So we've sent them our Romantic poets and taken their marbles, failed to save them from the Nazis but rescued them from communism, ignored their foray into military dictatorship and allowed them to blag their way into a club they can't afford.

You could say that the West has been pretty good friends to Greece, but they might well reply that with friends like us, who needs enemies?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Abortion (And Unleaded Petrol) Prevents Riots

No I can't prove it to level of statistical significance, but then again neither can anybody else who has put forward their various ideas on how to make our underclass behave themselves and stop helping themselves to free consumer goods. However at least my theory has some peer reviewed research behind it, which makes it stand out slightly.

The reason I post such a obviously shocking claim is due to the miles of column inches being given to Cameron's 'Supercop' Bill Bratton. Bratton is everywhere these days, and in a curious trans-Atlantic about face he is now about the most liberal commentator on the riots going.

Take last Sunday for example. Whilst the supposedly serious Daily Torygraph had "Police to Adopt Zero Tolerance" as its headline, the usually more rabidly right wing Daily Mail had an article by Bratton saying Zero Tolerance was a meaningless phrase coined by Jack Straw and that the solution to the riots is better race relations. It's a bizarre day when liberal England has to import US cops to teach us about the value of social cohesion.

But Bratton's claim to fame is not his take on structural racism, but his aggressive action on gangs and his adoption of the Broken Windows of crime prevention. Nothing worng with either if done properly, but how effective were they really?

Firstly we have to be clear we are looking at relative reduction in crime here. Even after having Bratton for years the chance of getting yourself topped in LA is still about four times the UK average, whilst the City still boast a good thirteen hundred or so street gangs.

However lets assume for the moment that with legal guns and massive inequality, Bratton wasn't going to achieve more than a relative drop in crime, and look at what he achieved: six straight years of crime going down and a 27% reduction in the murder rate over five years. Well done Mr Bratton.

But then crime went down over the USA as a whole during this period, having peaked in 1991. Why is that?

Now the problem you get with this sort of thing is that the amount of data you need to wade through is just phenomenal, so I'm not going to offer my own cod theories, but just quote the academics who have the skills to dot he job properly.

And the answer is that, whilst Reagan's attempt to put every black American in prison has had some impact, the main reasons for this are the legalisation of abortion in 1972, and the banning of lead in petrol from 1986/7. 
The link with abortion is fairly dramatic. Those foetuses aborted in 1973 would be reaching 18, the peak age for committing crime, in 1992 - the year in which crime started to fall. What's more, the states that legalised abortion before Roe versus Wade saw crime peak earlier. Also, research carried out on women who were denied abortions in Sweden from 1939 to 1941 found the 'unwanted' child to be more likely to commit a crime (Forssman, Thuwe 1966).

The link with lead in petrol meanwhile is so clear, and so obvious, it need no explanation. Brain damage doesn't make for well behaved children.

So how should we deal with the recent unrest? Well, the evidence from those that know appears to indicate that progressive social and environmental policies are the way forward.

But then, as the Dunning-Kuger Effect shows, those who don't know tend to shout loudest.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Seven Decades of Science Fiction Books: The Eighties

The eighties, now this is when I started reading sci-fi, so there are going to be some real favourites here. And it was a pretty good decade to get the sci-fi bug really. As well as new books we also had new sub-genres, which is a sure sign of rude health.

Firstly the graphic novel really came of age during this decade. Perhaps they should have their own category, but personally I'd rate Alan Moore's V for Vendetta (1982-5), The Ballad of Halo Jones (1984-6) and Watchmen (1986-7), and Neil Gaiman's Sandman (1989-96) as up their with the best novels.

Given how visual the graphic novel is it's a bit of a surprise that the film versions have only been mediocre, but I suspect perhaps that's because people underestimate the subtlety of a good graphic novel. They may have pictures, but they still require you to have an imagination, whereas cinema doesn't.

A genuine new sub-genre was Steampunk. It's difficult to say when this began, but the novel that brought it to my attention was The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. A menagerie of weird and wacky ideas including sinister stilt walking clowns and an attempt to catch a body-swapping werewolf by opening a hair removal clinic. It really has to be read to be experienced.

Then there was Cyberpunk. I suppose an unbiased list would give this decades award to the book that begins "The sky was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel." Not really my genre but still, great book. And those of us who've grown up with the Information Revolution sometimes forget how new ideas like this are. When I were a lad sci-fi computers were, at best, avatars of HAL from 2001. The one in the original Star Trek seems little better than a Sinclair Spectrum. Arthur C Clarke may have said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but it took William Gibson to show us how close we were to that point. This may not have been the first cyberpunk novel, that may have been Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad, serialised in New Worlds in 1969, but it in the book that popularised the genre.

Another novelty was in Bob Shaw's The Ragged Astronauts , about a binary planet with shared atmosphere, hence interplanetary travel could be accomplished in a balloon.

Rather more complex was Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer. Set in a future where the galaxy has been colonised but the earth has slipped back into medieval barbarism, the titular hero is a Journeyman of the Guild of the Seeker After Truth And Penitence. The layers of deception laid down by the author are Byzantine in their complexity and nobody is as they seem.

Another almost winner is a novel in an unlikely location for a science fiction story; a wood in Kent. This is Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock,a place that is it not only bigger on the inside than the outside, but also a place where myths take physical form.

I read the book whilst living in the woods of Newbury during a record cold winter, which probably increased its effect on me a touch, but it is a magnificent and thoughtful book. Alas I have to admit that although you could make an attempt at explaining all this by means of Relativity and Jungian archetypes, I have to ultimately classify Mythago Wood as fantasy and not sci-fi.

Gosh that's a lot of worthy winners, and I haven't had time to mention Carl Sagan's Contact, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaiden's Tale, Greg Bear's Eon, Frank Herbert's Dune and many others.

Instead I'll skip straight to the winner; Consider Phlegas by Iain M Banks, the first of his Culture novels.

It is difficult to describe how much I love these books. Firstly here is top notch space opera, lasers, battles, robots, The Works. Secondly we also have something that has largely disappeared from the silver screen - an optimistic, liberal future.

Banks's Culture is a strange beast. It is not only Post-Scarcity, it's also post-human. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat has been ditched in place of the Dictatorship of the Artificial Mind. It clearly works, because Banks says it does, but does beg some interesting questions. Do the controlling Minds really have the best interests of human being at heart?

And what do those humans (and not quite humans) actually do? Banks describes their spaceships in details. Communist from the inside and Anarchist from the outside, they skip merrily about his stories. However as we only ever get to hear about how the Culture interacts with other civilisations we don't learn alot about the daily lives of its less adventurous denizens. Oodles of sex and drugs are clearly on the menu, but its not clear how they avoid the pointless debauchery of Brave New World.

But most of these questions are for the future for in Consider Phlegas we are catapulted into the middle of the best space war since Bob Heinlein passed on as the Culture takes on the Idirans, a bunch of space faring warriors who make the Klingons look like a bunch of boy scouts.

We have not yet seen a film version of any of these books, which is probably fortunate, but thanks to his non-sci-fi output Banks has at least received the critical acclaim he deserves, and which previous writers have been denied. As a book of the decade Consider Phelgas could well mark the high point of the genre.

Winner: Consider Phlegas by Iain M Banks (1987)

Seven Decades of Science Fiction Books: The Seventies

In the sixties the sci-fi novel had managed the quantum leap to serious literary style, but still nobody took them seriously. Still it was a strong decade for the genre.

In 1970 Larry Niven gave us Ringworld, an artificial habitat the size of three million earths. Unfortunately it's an idea bigger than his imagination and instead of a thriving civilisation of several trillion people we land in an almost abandoned desert, which is a bit of a disappointment.

Another big concept novel is Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke, a welcome return to top form by the British master. Once again though the idea is bigger than novel and once it's all over we are not much wiser about Rama or its designers.

One writer who could take the Big Concept and run with it though was Philip José Farmer, who in 1971 gave us To You Scattered Bodies Go, the first of his Riverworld series. Here we had everyone who had ever lived brought back to life and youth for some unknown reason on a specially made planet whose surface is a 20 million mile long version of the Mississippi.

Eventually pretty much everyone would turn up in Riverworld, from Herman Goering to Jesus. Framer himself even has a cameo under pseudonym. The series would run to five books and an anthology of short stories and although such high concept stuff often disappoints in the final real, Farmer does a pretty good job of bringing it to a conclusion. Basically the Buddhists were right.

Meanwhile back in Blighty John Brunner had two more classics left in him. Sheep Look Up gives us a vision of environmental apocalypse with corrupt corporations, a compliant legal system and a President chosen because the "public obviously wanted a figurehead who'd look good and make comforting noises."

Then he wrote Shockwave Rider, which looked at the social effects of technology. A natural disaster reveals the truth, quickly suppressed by the authorities, that people are actually happier with less gadgets. The hero then sets out to destroy the corrupt system by means of a computer program that reproduces itself - the first computer virus in sci-fi. I'd dearly love to give Brunner an award, but I will once again have to pass him over.

Another writer from the sixties still knocking them out was Philip K Dick, and this decade he produced A Scanner Darkly and Flow My Tears The Policeman Said. The latter is set in a future police state in which a television star wakes up an finds he no longer exists. Boy, aren't there a few people I'd like that to happen to in real life.

Another author I feel guilty about not manging to give a winners medal to is Ursula Le Guin. Having started strongly in the sixties, in the seventies she gave us The World for World is Forest, which is Avatar for grown ups. She also wrote The Lathe of Heaven , a moral tale about being careful what you wish for, and Eye of the Heron, a feminist view of both men who oppress by violence and those who choose to get themselves beaten up by opposing them.

Best of all she wrote The Dispossessed, a political novel that compares a planet split between capitalism, with the anarchists who live on its moon. It's clear where the author affections lie, but fair play to her she gives her opponents a fair hearing and her capitalists are environmentally friendly whilst the authoritarians do seem to actually be trying to be a Dictatorship of the Proletarian. However its the anarchists who are the interesting ones. Two hundred years into their experiment centripetal forces are threatening to create hierarchies and everyone is still dirt poor.

But my winner is neither a grim prediction of the future or a meditation on political realities, but something completely differnet. Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is really a radio show, but it turns into a decent book (or decent pair of books really as it makes very little sense without The Restaurent at the End of the Universe.

I started my review of the decade by discussing authors who went for the Big Concept, and you don't get many bigger questions than the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. You also don't get many better answers than 42.

Winner: The Hichhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams(1979)

Seven Decades of Science Fiction Books: The Sixties

Now its getting really hard. Heinlein, Clark and Asimov were still busy, the former writing his best stuff. But there were new kids on the block, and a very new style of writing.

At the heart of this revolution was a British magazine called New World's, especially after Michael Moorcock took over editorship in 1964. It never made any money, and was funded by the success of the Elric books (and apparently by the regular sale of dirty jokes to Playboy magazine written by Christopher Priest), but it helped launch a whole galaxy of sci-fi greats; J G Ballard, Brian Aldis, Harlan Ellison, George R R Martin, Norman Spinrad, John Brunner and Philip Jose Farmer. However when it comes to the best book of the decade I'm torn between three Yanks and a Brit.

Firstly there's Kurt Vonnegut, maybe not Slaughterhouse 5, but the rather better Cat's Cradle. Having survived the fire bombing of Dresden whilst a POW and then been sent to search for survivors using candles made from victims of the death camps, Vonnegut has a certain view on life. However he leavens his grim stories with ironic humour. He also introduced us to the world's best science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout, but unfortunately he's fictional so can't win.

Then there's Ursula Le Guin. Best know for Earthsea, her science fiction books are at least as good. Her debut novel, Rocannon's World, gave us Lord of the Rings in space, and The Left Hand of Darkness, and everyday tale of life on a planet of gender-shifting humans in which the king gets pregnant.

The final American is Philip K Dick. Drug addled and by the end of his life arguably clinically insane, his books resemble the decade as a whole: brilliant and revolutionary, confusing and conservative all at the same time. Unlike some of the space operas and nuts-and-bolts sci-fi stories his tales of warped realities and fractured identities have aged well and are as unsettling and believable today as when they were written. His stand out stories of the decade include Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book that became Blade Runner, and The Man in the High Castle, an outstanding alternative history (or is it an alternative reality?) story.

The token Brit is the scandalously underrated John Brunner. He wrote a lot of mediocre storied for money, but he also wrote four absolute classics and in the sixties these were Jagged Orbitt and Stand on Zanzibar . The first gave us a twenty-first century America where arms manufacturers and racial tensions had stoked an arms race in personal weaponry, whilst the second gave a grim vision of the world in the year 2010. This is a planet straining under the weight of 7 billion people, a place characterised by random spree killings, anti-technological eco-terrorists, an obsession with cosmetic beauty treatments and powerful corporations.

Picking a winning out of these is going to be tough.

Whilst I was planning this blog I was sure Stand on Zanzibar would be the winner. If sci-fi is about predicting the future then the winner has to be Brunner.

However he is typical of the decade only in so far as he represents that strand of the New Left who still clung on to rationality whilst everyone else went to discover themselves by meditating in an Ashram in California.

But if sci-fi really reflects contemporary themes then it's got to be Philip K Dick. Picking his best book is difficult, but my personal favourite is The Man in the High Castle. Alternative history, life in fascist state, five overlapping sub-plots, a book-within-the-book and a meditation on the nature of reality, Philip K Dick shows us why this was the decade that the sci-fi book grew up and became serious literature.

It was also massively ahead of it time. Psychedelia, opposition to the Vietnam War and the whole counter-culture thing were years in the future in 1962. So Dick isn't just a product of his time, he is, as much as Jack Kerouac and the Beatniks, a foretaste of the wackiness and rebellion that was to come. And it was to be quite a trip.

Winner: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (1962)