Saturday, 22 December 2007

Stephen Fry

I quite like Stephen Fry for many reasons too many to enumerate or perhaps more accurately more than I can be bothered to discuss but he does have a handle on why people like him:

Anywho, I was recently talking to somebody, somebody elderly and the subject of Stephen Fry came up for whom I expressed my admiration. His response was 'Oh I don't like that Stephen Fry, no. Isn't he gay for a start?' I replied that I also believe he likes Wagner -- the joke, that one's tastes in partner is as relevant to me liking them is as their tastes in opera, was lost on him. I raised my eyes to another companion who later said to me 'forgive him for the gay thing, he's old'.

I do rather find it ironic how one's prejudices become more acceptable the longer they have been held.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Life immitating art...poorly

That video is of 'Possente, possente ftha' from the first act of Aida by Giuseppe Verdi. It takes place at the temple of Vulcan where the high priestess performs a ritual dance in order to prepare Radames, recently chosen by the god Isis to lead the Egyptian army, for battle against the Ethiopian invaders. It is one of my favourite bits of the opera and for an opera that is so markedly in the Italian style, this seems the most Egyptian. In all probability the Ancient Egypt of Aida is not remotely close to reality as it fulfils our more Western fantasies of military conquest and sexual exploit. That's all rather uninterestingly obvious but what is more interesting is how it makes us to relate to Egypt today.

Gustave Flaubert died about ten years after Aida was first performed, the same year that the Suez Canal was opened which seems more than a mere coincidence considering who it was that commissioned the piece (the Khedive) but any link is denied. When he visited Egypt he commented that it 'seemed like an immense stage set made expressly for us'. I may be guilty of over-interpretation but I take that to mean he found Egypt to have the characteristics of a set, a caricature, over the top and just unreal. On the other hand the American music critic Gustav Kobbe saw Aida as the real deal saying that it was 'as distinctively Egyptian as if he [Verdi]...had unearthed examples of ancient Egyptian temple music'.

There is a wonderful book by the French author Joris-Karl Huysmans called 'Au Rebours' which roughly translates to 'Against Nature'. It centres on the life of this reclusive aesthete called Des Esseintes. In one of the most notable and amusing of the novel's episodes the protagonist decides to visit London so he studies the maps, and readies himself for the journey. When he reaches Calais he stops and has lunch in an English cafe along a quayside, he is served by English waitresses, drinks warm beer and eats pies. After this experience rather than go ahead with the journey he returns home, he feels he has experienced the best that England can offer and by actually going to London he would condemn himself to a bad time, it could only be a failure.

I don't want to go to Egpyt, I know that makes me sound as mad an aesthete as Des Esseintes but I prefer the Egypt of Verdi, the reality could only be a disappointment.

Thursday, 22 November 2007


I get a number of Americans visiting this website who have usually stumbled across the website while searching for something I've mentioned in passing or for something quite specific which google has taken keywords from a number of different articles and assumed that what I have to say is somehow pertinent for what has been searched for. Anywho I certainly don't have anything pertinent to say about thanksgiving as I simply know nothing about it except that it seems like Christmas part one but without the gifts.

Here is a parting thought for the season:

Friday, 2 November 2007

Train travel

This evening I took the train from London up to the romantic Yorkshire town of Doncaster, and if you're not from England then please take the word romantic in it's most sarcastic sense. For years I've associated Doncaster with one thing, Thorpe Marsh power station. As you drive South down the A1 motorway you know you've reached Doncaster as you see the hideous row of six cooling towers visible for many miles around. The reason I was travelling is that I am spending the weekend with my father, a necessary chore due to the proximity of his birthday -- that is my story.

On the train I don't really like to be disturbed as it's a great chance for reflection. Reflection of a country you don't know, of the things that plague your thoughts and of your fellow passengers. At other times life goes on around you and you are so caught up in your own affairs that you give them no thought but on a train, or even better, on a plane you're all heading the same direction, for one moment in time you are a bit part in the plot of a story you don't know. I like to dwell on the possible stories of the people in my carriage; the eldely couple in the seat adjacent to my own could be on their way to spend a weekend with their grandchildren or perhaps escaping away to celebrate an anniversary; the young professional looking woman in front with the horrendously vibrant pink I-pod and the black attache case be off on a business trip to sell the idea of her new line in fluffy hippo shaped chamois monitor cleaners to the buyers of a Northern department store. Most likely, at 7pm on a Friday evening on a train leaving London they are commuters heading home after a hard day at work but then that's not my story so why make it theirs?

I got off at Doncaster as I mentioned before, but that was not the first stop, the previous one was Grantham. Marcel Proust liked to read train timetables, especially late at night if he could not sleep and thanks to his severe problems with asthma there were many nights when he could not sleep. He was even said to have enjoyed a train timetable more than a good book and to a certain extent I can see his point as when you have little more to go by than a name and a time you can't help but fill in the blanks yourself and there is little which has a greater aesthetic effect on you than that which you have helped create as nothing engages you more. Cumbria is a good place to start in England if you want romantic sounding names, try Aspatria, Whitehaven , Bassenthwaite, Appleby-in-Westmorland. I don't live in Cumbria, alas, and the only thing to fire my imagination is Grantham which sounds hard, industrial and bleak. I don't know anything about the place but I know I don't want to go there.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Deskilling society

There will be many legacies of this Labour government in the UK and around the world whether that is a legacy of peace in Northern Ireland or war in the near and the middle east. On a more local level I would argue that there is a legacy of deskilling or deprofessionalising of key public service roles for what can only be economic reasons.

Deskilling is usually associated with the introduction of technology into a profession that usurps many of the skilled tasks rendering jobs simple tasks that can be performed by an unskilled or semi-skilled workforce. Deprofessionalisation works in a similar way in which skilled tasks are passed to semi-skilled workers because they cost far less and can be employed in greater numbers. In the UK the instances of deprofessionalisation have grown greatly under Labour. In schools we see the growing use of teaching assistants which by 2005 had grown in number to 95,460, twice the number as there were when Labour came to power, whereas the numbers of teachers has fallen. Teaching assistants are not trained teachers, they are paid considerably less and yet they cover teachers in periods of absence and have powers of discipline over students; they are teachers on the cheap, teachers lite if you will.

In the police we have 'community supports officers', that is to say members of the public working in uniformed roles. They don't have any powers of arrest over that which any member of the public has but they do have statutory powers of stop and search, to seize property, issue fixed penalty notices for traffic or public order offences. Once again they have a fraction of the training and receive far less money for their work. In healthcare we have the growth in the powers of nurses including their movement into the field of diagnosis. With the NHS direct phone service and the new NHS walk-in centres you see or speak to a nurse alone for a diagnostic session, there is the possibility to speak to a doctor further down the line and only if you get a referral from the nurse but most people are dealt with by someone who has had yet again a fraction of the training or medical knowledge, and of course receives a fraction of the pay of a fully qualified doctor.

This weekend has seen the story hit the news that nurses will be given the power to decide whether or not a patient should receive a resuscitation attempt. In a typical media way the story has been blown totally out of proportion and people are scared and confused which is what the news does best. That particular story is probably more of a power play between some doctors who would like to have complete medical control and NHS managers who are trying to bring down the costs of a debt-ridden health system but what is the bigger story is that it is endemic of a growing trend. I simply don't trust a nurse to properly diagnose me, a teaching assistant to properly educate a child or a community support officer to police a street and these are just examples because there are many more in the social services and pharmacology for instance. We are heading towards an age of profound mediocrity in which we are not willing to pay to have skilled public services.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

No news is no news.

I don't watch much television these days, my time away from work is too precious but in my time I've seen a lot of news programmes and I'm always struck by the redundancy exhibited, especially on rolling news station. Charlie Brooker can probably better tell you about the problems of rolling news including the paradox of live reporting in which the journalist on the scene knows less about what they're reporting on than the people in the studio:

Redundancy, that is something that gets up my nose and you see it all over the news. As an arbitrary example whenever a child of school age dies in a tragic circumstance we are told that they were very popular and that always struck me as odd and it's not because it's not true because it might be but it's said because that's what is said in these circumstances - it's lazy journalism and it adds nothing to our understanding of what has happened, it is verbal diarrhoea. This, I must admit, is a minor complaint when compared to pointlessness and news do that in spades. News about the royal family, about the lives of celebrities, pathetic "awww" stories like the skateboarding poodle who rescues a family of four from a house fire by smashing down the door with the help of a co-operative movement of farmyard animals -- okay I might have made that one up but you get the idea.

Things could be worse and Fox news shows why. In England at least the news shies away from opinionated and overtly politicised presentation of news but what agencies like Fox do is blend the lines between reporting and politics. Seeing the O'Reilly Factor is the most spine-chilling experience I've ever had and the thought that anyone would turn to him to inform them on what happens in the world is a scary thought. When news attempted to enter the sphere of entertainment it went wrong as there is the pressure to fill every hour with drama, gossip and scandal to keep people watching.

On Good Friday in 1930 something incredible happened -- nothing. In a BBC news bulletin it was announced that nothing newsworthy had happened that day so they played ten minutes of classical music instead. I want that, I want a news organisation unafraid to say that there really isn't anything worth talking about, who hire journalists capable of thinking and presenting the news in a balanced way -- would it be entertaining? I bloody well hope not.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Razors and detergents

I think I've entered a stage of profound nihilism. I didn't begin that way, I mean who does? There aren't many newborns out there questioning whether they really are, as their parents (well, anyone remotely genetically linked to the thing) will undoubtedly put it, 'the prettiest child on the planet' ignoring the fact that they look like either Winston Churchill or Paul Daniels, or even worse some perverse hybrid of the two). No, life does this to you, it starts as malingering doubts, you hear that santa stuff isn't true, the bible stuff doesn't hold much water and you find yourself being manipulated from day one. Manipulated? 'Stories' on how to share toys with your friends, how to eat all your greens, all that arse gravy that is fed to children in the name of a bedtime story, if that's not a cynical ploy to manipulate behaviour through the medium of entertainment then I don't know what is.

Anywho, I digress, as tautologous as it sounds life lead to cynicism and that is the surest path to nihilism where all 'knowledge' seems unfathomable because nothing is ever as it seems. Now to the subject in hand, razors and detergents. I dislike shaving, show me someone who doesn't (okay, other than a xyrophiliac -- smart arse) but there is a holy grail in the razor world which is the 'close shave' in which after shaving it appears as if the continuity of your skin has yet to be breached by the merest nanometre of hair. For a number of years I used the Gillette 'Sensor Excel' which when it came out was 'the closest shave a man can get'. Since this product hit the market there has been the 'Mach 3', the 'Mach 3 Turbo', the 'Mach 3 Power', the 'Fusion', the 'Fusion Power' and most recently the 'Fusion Power Stealth' which still claims to give the closest shave a man can get -- why on earth should we believe them? Compare:


With soap powder it is the same, the key message is that they shall get your clothes the whitest white. Well if that is true why would there ever be the need for any other product? If the pinnacle in dirt removal has been achieved where else can you go? I do not deny that products get better but in claiming that whatever they sell at any given point as being the closest thing there is to perfection they make any future product seem redundant or make any future claim of a similar kind seem untrue. Also compare:


Language is a strange beast, 26 characters, hundreds of thousands of possible words, frillions of new and conceivable ideas and yet we see the same ridiculous verbal detritus rehashed in some new form with every new product selling an idea they know is false and we know is false. We live a life of mutual bullshit -- this is why I am a nihilist, or am I?

Tuesday, 22 May 2007


If you have ever wondered what the fallout would be, so to speak, of a nuclear weapon on a urban area then you must watch this film. Despite being over twenty years old it is chilling and certainly puts Britain's recent decision to renew Trident into some sort of context.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Hilbert's Hotel

I've written about a few eccentrics on this blog and David Hilbert is another one. Hilbert was a German mathematician and geometrician and heavily involved in number theory. One of his students committed suicide after struggling with a problem set by Hilbert and he was invited to speak at the student's funeral. At the side of the grave he addressed the crowd and explained that the problem he set was actually quite simple, the student simply looked at it the wrong way. Hilbert's Hotel or Hotel Infinity was an illustration created by the mathematician to highlight the problems created by dealing with infinity as a number and I shall try and describe it to the best of my abilities.

Imagine, though don't worry if you can't, an infinite hotel with an infinite number of rooms numbered 1,2,3,4... and so on ad infinitum, and when you get there to check-in you find out that it's full despite the fact that the neon 'rooms available' sign is flashing outside. So you call for the manager and he reassures you that despite being full, he can still accommodate you all that is required is that the guest in room 1 moves to room 2, the guest from room 2 moves to room 3 and so on leaving everyone with a room and room 1 vacant for you. An infinite hotel is quite impressive so using the wireless internet in your room you log onto myspace or facebook and spread the word. The next day a thousand people arrive at reception eager to see this amazing hotel and again the manager has no problem in fitting everyone in. Everyone is shifted a thousand rooms, so you in room 1 are now moved into room 1001.

The next day an unexpected party arrives, an infinite number of holiday makers stop off at the hotel on their way to Legoland Windsor, it is frightfully popular. To fit this rather large number of new guests, the manager moves the person from room 1 to room 2, room 2 to room 4 and room 3 to room six and so on leaving an infinite amount of odd numbered rooms available for the infinite number of new arrivals. Now can you imagine staying at an infinite hotel, the queues for the lifts are, well infinite, room service is lamentable and you are sharing the bandwidth of the wireless broadband with an infinite number of other computers so you can appreciate that many guests are rather disgruntled and the next day all the guests in the even numbered rooms pack their bags and leave though despite going down to 50% capacity, the hotel still has infinite guests.

The last twist of the plot is that the chain who own the hotel close down an infinite number of infinite hotels and send all their guests to the Hotel infinity for accommodation. The manager becomes desperate for a solution, how do you accommodate an infinite number of infinite numbers of guests? So he asks his guests for some help, since you've observed everything that has gone on from the beginning you propose a solution. Remembering that you've only got people staying in the odd numbered rooms you move them into the even rooms, then the first person from the first hotel goes into the first empty room, room 1, the second person from the first hotel and the first person from the second hotel get the next two empty rooms, rooms 3 and 5 and the third person from the first hotel, the second person from the second hotel and the first person from the third hotel get the next three empty rooms and so on until everyone has a room.

Despite having 100% capacity in an infinite hotel with infinite turnover, costs are infinite and despite the accountant's good work at securing a low rate of tax, the liability is still infinite. The manager brings in his accountant to explain the situation and comes away reassured because even paying infinite costs and an infinite tax bills, he'll still be left over with infinite profits. David Hilbert's illustration leaves you with the question of whether there is an infinity which is bigger than another infinity. The answer to this question came from another German mathematician, Georg Cantor whose diagonal theorem apparently proves the existence of larger infinities but you can research that one for yourself. The Open University did a film of Hilbert's Hotel with Susannah Doyle (the scary black haired one from 'Drop the Dead Donkey') as the lead and it is well worth watching if you ever get the chance.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

The Golden Ratio

When I studied Philosophy at A-Level we were given a talk by a composer and he brought the golden ratio to my attention and it is one of those things, like pi for instance, that just blow your mind away. The ratio, 1:1.61803, is not just a mathematical constant but is a ratio that can be found in nature and art with such frequency that the Romans titled it 'sectio divina' or 'the divine section' and it is one of the supposed proofs put forwards for the teleological argument for the existence of God (otherwise known as the argument from design).

The golden ratio, also known as phi after the Ancient Greek mathematician who seems to have discovered it and applied it in the construction of the Parthenon, can be found everywhere. Take your fingers for instance, the ratio from the largest bone to the middle bone is phi, so is the ratio between the middle bone and the smallest bone. You also find phi in the arrangement of branches on the stem of a plant, in the growing points in a plant (the distance the shoot grows before it is strong enough to support another branch), in the replication of patterns in leaves, it has been found in the proportions of chemical compounds in crystals. It has even been found as the proportion of drones to the population of bees in a beehive.

The reason it was a composer who lectured on this subject was because phi has been found in Mozart. His piano sonatas which are often conveniently split into two parts can be found to contain phi in the proportion from from one movement to the other. Phi can also be found in the ratio between key changes in Debussy's 'Image, Reflections in Water'. More recently Shostakovich applied the golden ration to his music though from memory it seems to have not produced that pleasant a piece. Leonardo da Vinci incorporated phi into his work, the Mona Lisa being being a prime example of its exercise. The golden ratio, for many, is the key to beauty. Leon Battista Alberti, the fifteenth century Italian architect, believed that beauty was a matter of proportion and that if a body was divided up into 600 parts beauty would be ‘a Harmony of all the Parts, in whatsoever Subject it appears, fitted together with such proportion and connection, that nothing could be added, diminished or altered, but for the worse’. The proportion which he believed would secure a harmony of all the parts was phi.

We humans have an incredible ability to see patterns everywhere, phi really could just be another example of this talent at making order of chaos or it could be one of the keys to unlocking our understanding of the universe. As an aside, Pythagoras was evidently spooked by the discovery of the golden ratio because he worked to keep it secret, its discovery was punishable by death.

I haven't written any especially political entries on this blog partially so that I don't alienate any potential readers but also simply because there are enough political blogs on the net at the moment that adding another doesn't seem a worthwhile exercise. Nevertheless I feel it is important to highlight the joint campaign by the Amnesty International and the Observer Newspaper against censorship on the internet. I've been aware of this campaign for some time now but the reason I've decided to blog on it now is because I was particularly incensed to learn the news last month about Youtube banning videos that mocked the King of Thailand. Lèse majesté laws are of themselves a shocking abuse of power and are the last resort of pathetic despots and egomaniac dictators, but that Youtube acted to support them is particularly atrocious.

You can join the campaign by doing any or all of three things. You can sign the petition at the website, you can also publish fragments of censored information onto your website or blog as I have done on the right hand side of this blog, or you can blog on the subject of internet censorship and highlight the campaign. I'm sorry if that sounds preachy.

Monday, 30 April 2007


Like millions of children the world over I was forced into studying Pythagoras and his familiar theorem of Euclidean geometry which states that in a right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the two opposite sides. Pythagoras' influence in the field of mathematics is undoubted and given my ineptitude in that particular field I shall say little more about it, what interests me about this ancient philosopher is how he inspired a form of mysticism as bizarre and influential as the Homeric poems. Quite little is known of his early life other than to say that he was born on the island of Samos around 532 B.C. and lived under the despotic rule of the tyrant Polycrates. He was a genuinely odd chap, Bertrand Russell described him as 'a combination of Einstein and Mrs Eddy'.

Pythagoras wrote on a number of fields from Mathematics and logic through to metaphysics and religion. It is important to remember that he came a couple of hundred years before Aristotle, the man who was responsible for the categorisation of different spheres of thought, physics, metaphysics and politics. Therefore the early, pre-Socratic philosophers wrote on anything and everything, they truly lived up to the etymology of the word; philo sophia, the love of knowledge.

Pythagoras was the St. Francis of his time in that he preached to the animals which is quite understandable when you understand that one of the central tenets of his religion (yes he began a religion) was the concept of the transmigration of souls, or metempsychosis for those of you who are familiar with Joyce's Ulysses. In his time Pythagoras' religion exerted considerable authority and became responsible for unusual rules, for instance:

  • One must always abstain from beans (not even Aristotle could understand this one, he mused that perhaps the reason Pythagoras ban their eating was that they looked like genitals.
  • One must not break bread or eat from a whole loaf.
  • One must not let Swallows share one's roof.
  • One must never look in a mirror besides a light (probably a sign of the general mathematicians fear of the concept of infinity).
  • On rising from bed one must smooth out the imprint that the body has left, etc...
There were some more progressive sides to his religion, for instance in his society men and women were considered equals. Property was held in common (Plato wrote a book on Pythagoras, now lost, perhaps he was inspiration for 'the Republic') and the advances made by that society were considered as a result of collective rather than individual achievement, I like him all the more already. Mathematics provide axiomatic truths and form the basis of our understanding of ourselves and the external world. There are elements in Newton's Principa mathematica which can be directly traced back to Pythagoras so he is one of the giants upon whose shoulders modern science stands, the fact that he was something of a loon makes him all the more endearing.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

All That's Left

I promised (or should I say threatened) in a previous post that I would discuss the word sinister and it is certainly a word that merits consideration. Anyone who has studied basic Italian will know that the Italian word 'sinistra' means 'left' and that belies the Latin origins of the word. Sinister, meaning 'giving the impression that something harmful or evil is happening or will happen' appeared with its current meaning in 'late Middle English' but it came from the Old French word 'sinistre' and the Latin word before it 'sinister' and as I hinted, it simply meant 'left', as in the direction.

The word took on its modern meaning in the Middle Ages and came about from the idea that the left side was unlucky and it is an idea that pervaded most cultures. When you spill salt you throw it with your right hand over your left shoulder and that came from the belief that you would blind the devil who perched there. There is also the superstition that if one gazes too long in the mirror that the Devil will appear, again on your left shoulder. In some different Arab cultures the left hand is the unclean hand and its use is forbidden for many practices. Also, let us not forget that in the Bible that God's favourites sit on his right hand, not his left.

In case there are any right-wing people out there who'd like to use this to deride your left-wing antagonists then I hate to disappoint but the left/right division in politics has a different etymology. It dates back to the French Revolution where the more liberal parliamentarians sat on the left side of the assembly chamber and the conservative members sat on the right; a tradition I understand which is still upheld in the French National Assembly. Whilst I'm on the Subject of French politics, vote Ségolène Royal on the 6th of May.

Friday, 27 April 2007

The Plants of Shakespeare

In the book 'Mouse or Rat?: Translation as Negotiation', Umberto Eco conducts an experiment to expose the shortcomings of Alta Vista's automatic translation tool, Babelfish. He took a phrase then, using Babelfish, translated it into Italian and then took the results and translated them back into English. For instance, the phrase 'The works of Shakespeare' becomes 'Gli impianiti di Shakespeare' which, when translated back into English became 'The plants of Shakespeare' (at least that was the result Umberto Eco got, I actually got 'The systems of Shakespeare').

The problem faced by such translation tools is that they cannot discern context. When you have a language such as English which is full of homonyms, context becomes essential for identifying meaning, therefore, when Babelfish conducts its lexicon comparing exercise quite often the wrong meanings are applied to homonyms and this is exaggerated further when additional languages are introduced, leading to some humorous results. Umberto Eco used a chapter from Genesis to prove his point, but to reserve some semblance of originality, I shall use a different text and shall instead give it the rather difficult challenge of the opening paragraph to James Joyce's Ulysses:

"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: Introibo ad altare dei. Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called out coarsely: Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!"

I'll save you from the proceeding steps except to say that I first translated it from English to Dutch, from Dutch to French, from French to Greek and finally from Greek back into English and this was the result:

"Stately, myeloejde's Buck Mulligan they have come out stairhead that bol is reported foams in that they put a mirror and one crisscross scheermes. Dressinggown yellow, ungirdled, has been supported softly behind by generous air of morning. It has kept in the cover bol and intoned: The notice you raise the contralto National Electrical Company van Introibo. Orders, below stairs that I wrap sombre and grof it has detected it has called: Bol in the cover, Kinch! Bol in the cover, you horrible jesuit!"

For one last piece of online editing I put it through the fantastic Pornolize tool (which you can see at work in all its glory here on the official biography page for Tony Blair, watch out for the foul language though):

"Stately, myeloejde's Buck "Muffdiver" Mulligan they have come out stairhead that bol is reported foams in that they put a mirror and one crisscross scheermes. Dressinggown yellow, smacked, has been supported softly behind by gebangs air of cocksucking. It has kept in the cover bol and intoned: The notice you raise the contralto National "Bastard" Electrical Company van Introibo. Unclefucks, below thrusts that I wrap sombre and grof it has gangbanged it has blowed: Bol in the sex fighting cover, Kinch! Bol in the fingering cover, you horrible jesuit!"

The exercise certainly shows that Babelfish is no replacement for the careful and considered negotiation between a skilled translator and the original text, where faithfulness to the text does not require an exact word for word translation. But it also shows you how adept one can be to the art of procrastination.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Did Plato invent Communism?

I first read Plato's 'Republic' back in 2002 after being prompted by this wonderful person called Yasmin. Two things struck me about the book, the first was the Socratic dialogues at the beginning which blow the mind, the way he makes you question the basis upon which we rest our most deeply held beliefs is incredible and you can appreciate why someone who asked such penetrating questions would make enemies. The other is the question of communism.

I shall start, as I often do, by examining the etymology. The word 'communism' first appeared in the middle of the 19th Century in France in the form communisme and that probably came from the Old French word commun (meaning common) and from the Latin before it with communis. I think I'm right in saying that there is no equivalent word in Ancient Greek so if Plato did invent the concept of communism, he certainly did not create the word. Since we are talking about a utopian belief, that is a word which is also worth considering, especially since Sir Thomas More's treatise 'Utopia' is also touted as a possible birth of communism. Thomas More's usage of the word utopia seems to be the first in English and it comes from Late Latin and from the Greek words before it, ou + topos, literally meaning 'no place' which seems rather apt given the subject.

So, word histories aside, you might be wondering what is it that makes me draw the comparison. In the 'Republic', Plato argued for a Commonwealth, a society in which the community would take responsibility over many of the social aspects of life, from the provision of education and healthcare to the ownership and distribution of property. Almost everything was to be held in communal ownership, including children (who were to be taken away from their parents and cared for and educated by guardians) and women (although I'm not too sure I understand the specifics about the communal ownership of women so it's probably best to gloss over that aspect of his philosophy).

There are, however, some caveats to examine. Plato's utopia of community ownership did not apply to everyone in his society, but was reserved to his 'guardian class'. There is another, almost sinister (now, the word sinister has a fascinating history but I shall write about that some other time as I can see eyes begin to droop) aspect to Plato's philosophy. It is clear from his words that his political philosophy was not one that he believed the masses would necessarily choose, and that didn't particularly bother him. Plato believed in the idea of a elite ruling class. He envisioned philosopher-kings who would be enlightened rulers and act in the interests of his people, even if they did not agree that their actions would be in their interests. In other words, Plato's social system would be enforced on its populous and his guardians would be the police force which has to be the precursor to despotism and authoritarian rule.

I don't know enough about early Ancient Greek scholars to argue conclusively that Plato did invent the concept of communism, but it is certainly true to say that some of the ideas that exist in his 'Republic' have helped form that school of political philosophy. Plato seems to be a great example of someone who has exhibited such an extreme belief that he is neither communist nor fascist, but displays elements of both and it is true; when you go so far off one end of the spectrum, you end up on the opposite side.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007


Today I have decided to talk about Diarrhoea , well not the unfortunate phenomenon that is a rather unpleasant bowel movement but rather the word. Diarrhoea in British English, or diarrhea in America English (well, they do always like to be contrary) is a lovely, almost onomatopoeic word. As you would imagine its etymology is Ancient Greek and literally meant through-flowing. The Germans have a fantastic word for that particular anal effluence which is 'durchwahl' which literally translates to throughfull. From the original Greek word you get the suffix 'rhein' which entered archaic German as 'Rhine' after which the river is named, a name which means that which flows.

There is something lego-esque about Ancient Greek in that words are all made up of their component prefixes and suffixes, if you understand the basic components; the language's atoms if you will, then the molecule-like words become intelligible to you even if you have never come across them. Understanding the ancient languages is like cracking the genome of modern language, surely a worthwhile exercise.

Friday, 26 January 2007

Jeremy Bentham

If you've read any of my other posts on this blog you will probably have noticed that it is the quirkier sides of philosophy that I enjoy discussing and there are few philosophers quirkier than Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was the proverbial renaissance man, he wrote masses and masses of volumes (not all of which have been published yet although UCL are working on it) on a wide variety subjects from writings on jurisprudence, economics and social theory. He designed a jail called the panopticon (you can see a picture of this in Foucault's 'Discipline and Punish'...or you can just google it, the choice is very much yours) which has influenced their design to this day. He is probably most famous as being the father of utilitarianism a philosophy which I doubt needs any introduction. If it was not for Bentham then arguably we would not have had John Stuart Mill or John Austin.

Bentham is one of those eccentrics that only England seem able to produce, Marx labelled him as a "pu
rely English phenomenon". He had a pet pig who would sleep on the end of his bed. He had a teapot called 'Dick' (or 'Dickey') and two walking-sticks called 'Dapple' and 'Dobbin'. He was said by J.S. Mill to have been frustrating company as he always had to be right, no matter what. In a rather macabre fashion Bentham petitioned London City Council for permission to replace the shrubbery that ran along his driveway with mummified cadavers arguing that dead bodies are "far more aesthetic than flowers". The irony is that embalming was to be a striking feature of his legacy.

Jeremy Bentham was influential in the creation of University College London. Before I go on I must is
sue the familiar warning that the stories I'm about to tell are apocryphal and sadly in this case there is a great chance that they are untrue. The picture is of what is known as the "auto-icon", it is Bentham's embalmed body with a wax head and glass eyes. The reason that a waxed head is used is that there was an error in the embalming process leaving his face without much feature and for a while his head sat between his legs on display, this much is true and you can visit him the next time you're in London. The stories go that when the university's college council meets, that is body is wheeled in and that his attendance is marked in the minutes as "present but not voting". Another story goes that the 'Auto-Icon' proved too much temptation for students at UCL and on one occasion he was found in a locker at the railway station in Aberdeen.

Personally I don't like the hedonistic style of Bentham's utilitarianism or the positivist jurisprudence he espoused but one cannot escape the fact that he was massively influential in the Enlightenment and beyond and the fact that he was such a character makes him quite endearing. I must also mention here that I quoted Bentham in my university application form because for some reason I was harping on about 'natural rights' which Bentham had occasion to call "rhetorical nonsense upon stilts". That verbosity is something which is characteristic of his prose and makes him an entertaining read.

Friday, 5 January 2007

Room 101

Room 101 was George Orwell's proverbial 'hell on earth'. In Nineteen Eighty-Four it was a facility utilised by the totalitarian state to expose the citizens to their worst nightmares, a torturous punishment used to deter resistance and break morale. For Winston, Orwell's protagonist, his greatest fear was to have his face gnawed by rats.

"'You asked me once,' said O'Brien, 'what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is the worst thing in the world.'"

It is understood that Orwell took his inspiration for Room 101 from his time at the BBC in the 1940's. Broadcasting House at Portland Place in London contained a room 101 which served as a conference room, however there are suggestions that it did more than that. The BBC was a national broadcaster and this was during the Second World War. The BBC were rather sensitive about those who worked for them during this time and kept files on their staff, supposedly in Room 101. It has also been suggested that the Personnel Department would bring prospective staff to Room 101 to interview them as to their political beliefs. One can begin to see how the rather sinister history of the room acted to inspire Orwell's creation.

Orwell was a generally unpleasant person, anti-Semitic, homophobic and apparently anti-Catholic, his redeeming quality seemed to be that he was a democratic-socialist who championed liberal governance, he even fought alongside the republicans in the Spanish Civil War against Franco's fascist forces (you have to love a little alliteration). His less desirable personal traits aside, it is the betrayal of that last principle that disturbs me the most. In the late 1940's George Orwell took a job with the Foreign Office for a department known as the Information Research Department. His job was to provide a list of people whom he thought to have communist leanings. Orwell duly provided notebooks containing eighty-six names, mostly fellow journalists but also included the actors Michael Redgrave and Charlie Chaplin. For me, at least, it seems a betrayal of the message of his work.

The BBC have taken light of the history of room 101 with a show by the same name hosted by the wonderful Paul Merton. The idea is that celebrities will come on the show and list the things they dislike with the aim of having them consigned to Room 101. Things put into R00m 101 include Okra, Spike Milligan's House (at the request of Spike Milligan), 1975 and Portsmouth (again at the request of Spike Milligan). What would you have put into Room 101?