Wednesday, 27 February 2008

I've got two legs

At work I operate with two monitors. I always wondered what sort of crazy people would do that and consigned it to pit of things done by graphic designers and software editors. I actually need to access enough documents simultaneously these days that I could probably do with another.

The number two is quite interesting because it's all around us, not just my visual display units but my eyes, ears, nostrils, nipples, legs, arms and other assorted extremities...ahem. There are two magnetic poles, two sexes, two terrestrial BBC channels, two premier league football teams in Manchester...okay the last two aren't so interesting. Early man would have associated with the number two as that was the number of large celestial light producing bodies in the sky visible with the naked eye, the Sun and the Moon. In fact much of our understanding of the world comes from contrasting things with their polar opposite; good from bad, dark from light, sweet from sour and so on. This is a key tenet of structural semiotics if anyone's interested.

So, two is quite interesting but that makes three even more so because in many early cultures it simply did not exist, counting schemes went one, two, lots. In early Mesopotamia they used the word 'es' for three but it didn't mean three it just meant plural, just as we would add an 's' on the end of words for pluralisation, it worked in the same way. Even better were the civilisations where numbers greater than two were counted in combinations of one and two. In Australia, for instance, the Aranda used 'ninta' for one and 'tara' for two, three became 'tara mi ninta' and four was 'tara ma tara', any more than four and they were back to 'lots'. There are similar examples from Ancient Egypt and China but I fear I'd only be getting repetitive.

I'm by no means ignorant of technology but computers generally baffle me. They have one great advantage over us in that they do not have to conceptualise numbers which we do if they are to 'mean' something to us. We're not so good at dealing with the abstract, and even then numbers greater than five or six become difficult to conceive. The fact that we see the world still with such binary vision leads me to the conclusion that we've not evolved as far as we give ourselves credit and strangely I find it comforting.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Barack Obama is a homosexual martian

I also understand that he's a gypsy paedophile, a former member of the KGB and the love child of Fidel Castro and Michael Moore. He actually flew the first plane into the trade centre and is single-handedly responsible for most unsolved murders across America.

I'd like to take this opportunity to congratulate Hilary Clinton on taking campaign tips from Rupert Murdoch, it's about time sister.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

The Age of Enlightenment -- Turning Back the Clock

I've always been rather intrigued by the Enlightenment; I idolise people like David Hume and Sir Isaac Newton. Aristotle was a clever chap but his understanding was of his time. Theology grew as a means of adapting Aristotle to fit with Christian teaching, a job completed almost entirely by Thomas Aquinas and from that point on to challenge Aristotle was to challenge the church and those that did faced sever consequences -- one doesn't have to look much further that Galileo Galilee for evidence. Isaac Newton changed all of this, his empirical approach to understanding meant that knowledge could only be attained by experiment and with this science advanced and so came about the industrial revolution and it seems that we haven't looked back since...but I'm not so sure.

One of the recently unearthed and translated novels from the great author Alexandre Dumas is called 'One Thousand and One Ghosts'. Written at the height of the 1848 revolution it is a dark tale in which a group of diverse companions sit at dinner and tell what are ostensibly ghost stories. The guillotine is a good symbol of the Enlightenment, the scientifically designed, horrifically efficient machine for death. It represented all our new understanding of anatomy -- understanding that was hard to come by before the enlightenment as dissection was prohibited by church doctrine and as such inscribed into law. Dumas' ghost stories represent an adverse reaction to the Enlightenment, a return to spirituality and mysticism as an antidote to the science that brought about the reign of terror.

Richard Dawkins seems to be the champion of the new movement back to the enlightenment. I respect many of his beliefs; I am an atheist, I think astrology is a pile of nonsense, that psychics pray of the desperate hopes of the bereaved and so on and so forth but what he represents is something echoed around many universities -- that disciplines can only survive if they meet these 'scientific criteria'. This seems to signal the death-knell for many social sciences that cannot conform, my cherished subject of semiotics being one thereof.

Science does not have all the answers and Richard Dawkins would never claim that it does; it is a vehicle for attaining 'knowledge' and it presents a shifting understanding that adapts with new evidence and understanding but it never presents our full picture of culture or the human experience. As Dawkins states, we do have an amazing ability to find patterns in the random nature of universe, it's almost all we can do to separate our existence from that of the animals we eat or the insects we tread on it's the basis upon which we search for and 'find' meaning in life -- the question remains would you want a life without meaning. Perhaps ignorance can be bliss.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

The functions of insurance or socialism for beginners

I was recently reading a rather dull document, I wont reveal which one but it suffices to say that it was produced by the CII, the Chartered Insurance Institute. There is one passage in particular that I shall copy verbatim:

"the basic concept of insurance is that the losses of the few are met by the contributions of the many. The premiums paid by many insureds form a common pool of funds, from which valid claims are paid. For each premium paid, the insurer accepts the risk of a considerably larger claim being made against his funders, should misfortune strike the Insured."

It makes a lot of sense -- insurance is essentially a risk-transfer mechanism and the losses of the few are met by the contributions of the many. Now if I make a valid claim against my insurance company my fellow assureds are not going to accuse me of stealing their premium money but this is exactly what happens with welfare.

The concept of welfare works in the same way as insurance, let me take the NHS as an example. As a whole British society make a small contribution to the running of a health system so that the when people are sick, which will only be a small proportion of society at any one time, they can get treatment without any additional outlay. The very same risk-transfer systems are in place but for some reason this becomes much more contentious.

Neither system is perfect and it comes down to the issue of incentive; an insurance company has to make a profit in order to justify its existence and this striving for profit means that not all valid claims will be met and not all risks will be taken hence why in America sick people cannot get health insurance. The NHS's problem is the polar opposite in that it is so large that it becomes almost too expensive to work out what expenses are justified, in other words (following the analogy) many 'invalid claims' get paid.

I'm not going to try and convince you that there are no problems with a nationalised health service but if you view the expenditure of tax dollars as being theft then don't take out insurance either as they operate under the same principles. Taxes or premiums are essentially the same it is incentive which makes the two operate differently and for me the choice between the two systems isn't a hard one to make.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Vote for Paolo

I was sorry when Edwards bowed out of the race for the Democratic nomination. Even though I knew he wouldn't win you still hold out to hope and now I could not choose between Clinton and Obama, in fact to be blunt I would vote for neither were they standing for election here in Britain but then my politics are slightly to left of mainstream America. Choosing a political party is always something of a compromise; you're never going to find a party that exactly matches your beliefs unless you start one yourself which got me thinking -- what would a Paolo Party do in America? Here is a manifesto of ten policies, five domestic and five international by which you can imagine. They are in no particular order:


1. Nationalised healthcare. You have a healthcare system in which being ill makes it harder to get about putting the cart before the horse. I cannot imagine the resentment that must lie in poor neighbourhoods where people cannot afford medical insurance but see billions of dollars spent fighting wars overseas. I would also contemplate nationalising the pharmaceuticals too as a connected issue.

2. Political Funding. The funding of political parties should be done by the state. No longer should elections be fought on the basis of which party has the biggest fighting fund, nor should there be question marks over political decisions in which there are clear vested interests. Lobbying should also be replaced by active consultation -- it is only right that government decisions are informed, but not bought.

3. Liberalize - I've never quite understood the matching of economic liberalism and social conservatism in America, but yes, social liberty should be championed. Legalise gay marriage, marijuana (taxed of course), prostitution in brothels (properly regulated), stem cell research. I'm sure there is more to add in this section but they all relate to a fourth issue:

4. Decouple church and state: you're supposed to be a democracy not a theocracy and religious practice should never be made to seem a civic duty. This also ties into an international aim of giving aid to charities who promote birth control as a means of halting the progress of aids in Africa. Personally I'd rather save lives than 'souls'. This also ties into an important policy:

5. Separation of power: Politically appointed judges are an appalling breach of the principle of separation of the executive and judicial branches of power. Politically appointed or elected judges will always have the question hanging over their heads as to whether the decision they make in any given case is on political grounds. Judges should apply the law that is their only function and their appointment should be on the grounds of their legal competence by an independent panel.


6. Torture - whether you do it yourselves or use extraordinary rendition to get someone else to do it for you it's never right and can be justified on no grounds, that is an absolute. This means closing down Guantanamo by the way.

7. No more chequebook diplomacy - Either aid is needed or it isn't, threatening to withdraw aid to swing a decision at the UN is wrong on so many grounds, not to mention the undermining of the entire international law system.

8. Get the troops home - Iraq needs to stand on it's own two feet, whilst the troops are there America will always seem a divisive force.

9. Come into the fold - on the build up to the first world war Britain held itself in what she called 'splendid isolation'. America's relationship with the rest of the world of recent years in respect of the middle east, climate change, African debt and so on, has appeared unilateral and isolationist. Lead through consensus not arrogance or self-interest.

10. Be a force for good - you don't need to look much further back than Roosevelt for inspiration on this one.

Ten ideas off the top of my head -- would I get elected? No, I doubt I'd get a single vote but that's what Paolo's America would look like.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Fragile minds, fragile music

Sometimes when Tchaikovsky was conducting he would cradle a hand onto his head from the fear that it might drop off -- I'm rather fascinated by fragile and vulnerable musicians and pieces of music that, without being weak, feel like they exist on the edge of evaporation. This is a homage to three fragile musicians:

Tim Hardin

Peter Green

And finally Nick Drake