Harrison Bergeron

Harrison BergeronHarrison Bergeron is a (very) short story by Kurt Vonnegut about an egalitarian dystopia. I highly recommend reading it. However, it also inspired a film which, considering that it was made for TV, is actually rather good. Those pirates among you that plunder the seas of intellectual property might like to see if you can download a copy (as far as I can tell it isn’t for sale anywhere anyway.)

Advertisements
Published in: on May 31, 2007 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

Geoffrey Sampson

The Language Instinct DebateGeoffrey Sampson is the Professor of Natural Language Computing at the University of Sussex. I have had his fascinating article introducing Proto-Indo-European (“Say something in Proto-Indo-European”) bookmarked for some time now but I have only recently bothered to have a look at the rest of his website. There are some great articles there, including “How the British Government classed me as a dissident”, which is amusing but rather depressing in what it reveals about Britain today.

Published in: on May 28, 2007 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  

Stubbington

StubbingtonI have recently discovered that the village in which I grew up has an entry in Wikipedia. Indeed, Wikipedia seems to have an entire category dedicated to villages in Hampshire. Although it certainly has its faults, as any such system inevitably will, I really do like Wikipedia. I grew up in Stubbington.

Published in: on May 26, 2007 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

Brotherhood

CCTVIt occurred to me recently, when contemplating the word freedom and the difference between its original sense and its modern sense, just how clever and appropriate Orwell’s choice of name for Big Brother really was.

When I was 12 years old, I won a public speaking competition with a speech about the dangers of CCTV and its prevalence in the UK. It seems that things have only got worse since. The Deputy Chief-Constable of Hampshire has recently spoken out against the unnecessary use of surveillance, complaining to the BBC that the spread of CCTV cameras to rural villages was threatening to create an “Orwellian situation” and that he doesn’t think “that’s the kind of country that I want to live in.” The increasing surveillance of the UK population has also been reported by Reuters.

Published in: on May 24, 2007 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Money

MoneyPaul the Apostle said, “Love of money is the root of all evil.” On this, as on much else, he was wrong.

There is nothing inherently good about money and there is nothing inherently bad about it either. Money is the most explicit representation of potential in our culture. As such, used wisely, money is an incredibly potent tool for the achieving of one’s ends. Money is dynamic, it is mobile power, it represents the active principle: the desire to act, to exert one’s will in the world. A love of money and the power it brings is entirely in keeping with the ancient free culture of the Indo-Europeans. This notion of mobile wealth is expressed in the Elder Futhark by the rune Fehu. Although the Elder Futhark as we know it today is a reconstruction devised by modern linguists, the uncommonly precise correspondences between the Fehu verses in the extant rune poems and the equivalent letter’s name in the Gothic alphabet (Faihu) all suggest that the reconstructed Proto-Germanic name “Fehu” is highly likely to be correct.

The importance of this principle to the Indo-Europeans is clear. Any examination of ancient European literature immediately reveals two key aspects of their culture, which we might represent by two classes of person: the Warrior and the Trader. In most circumstances, we find both these principles combined in the same person. The famous Viking skald Egill Skallagrímsson wrote, “Björn var farmaður mikill, var stundum í víking, en stundum í kaupferðum.” Which in modern English means, “Björn was a great traveller, sometimes as pirate, sometimes as tradesman.” The Vikings not only raided and pillaged but also set up some of the most extensive trading networks in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. A willingness to venture into unknown territories in order to trade in exotic goods has always been found among peoples of Indo-European stock.

Of particular fascination for me is the Hanseatic League. This was a loose federation of German trading guilds that dominated trade throughout northern Europe and the Baltic for approximately four centuries. Their power, both economic and military, grew so much that in the 14th century they were able to successfully challenge the king of Denmark and to influence German imperial policy. They established trading cities in countries all over northern Europe and managed to win independence for their cities from the nominal rulers of the territories in which they were sited. I am particularly intrigued by the existence of guild enclaves, situated within foreign countries but run according to guild law rather than the law of the country. One such trading post, known as a “Kontor” (Counting-House), was based in Bergen on the west coast of Norway. A couple of years ago I was happy to get a chance to see some of the guild buildings, which alone of all the Kontors are still standing. In just over a month I will be returning for another look at the Bryggen, among other things. There is certainly something quintessentially European about an international trading corporation.

Money also played an important social role in Germanic society as the bond between lord and retainer was symbolised and strengthened by the giving of gifts. This system of mercenary loyalty lasted well into the 19th century with the Swiss mercenaries (and arguably continues today in the form of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard.) In Honor in German Literature, George Fenwick Jones writes, “The old Germanic ideal of service unto death, but only as long as the payments are prompt, lasted until modern times in the ethics of the Swiss mercenaries.”

However, the key fact about Fehu is that it symbolises potential, i.e. the ability to achieve an end, and not an end itself. Money can be used for ill just as easily as for good. A person can harm himself by misusing money just as easily, if not more easily, than he can help himself by using money well. More often than not, harm and destruction come about when money is allowed to become an end in itself rather than a means to an end. In a healthy society, money is a powerful tool used to achieve goals but those goals themselves have nothing to do with money. The goals are determined by the values and ideals of that society’s culture. When money takes the place of an ideal itself, then the adverse aspect of Fehu is revealed.

Fullar grindr
sá ek fyr Fitjungs sonum,
nú bera þeir vonar völ;
svá er auðr
sem augabragð,
hann er valtastr vina.
Fields and flocks had Fitjung’s sons,
Who now carry begging bowls:
Wealth may vanish in the wink of an eye,
Gold is the falsest of friends.

— Hávamál verse 78 (W H Auden & P B Taylor trans.)

Fé vældr frænda róge;
føðesk ulfr í skóge.
Wealth is a source of discord amongst kin;
the wolf lives in the forest.

— Norwegian rune poem

Published in: on May 19, 2007 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Don’t forget the Thespians

The Battle of ThermopylaeMan, to the extent that he wishes to live in a society, cannot be free in isolation. The modern Western concept of the free individual is based on an oxymoron. An individual can be free alone but only when he is genuinely alone. I suspect it is no coincidence that the ideal of “individualism” is espoused most strongly in areas that were recently settled by solitary pioneers. The freedom of a pioneer certainly is a form of freedom in the modern sense of the word, which is a far cry from its original meaning, but I suspect it is a freedom that most people, even those who vehemently defend their love of it, wouldn’t actually want in practice. To the extent that a person argues for a concept in theory that they would not actually support in practice, they are a hypocrite. In serious matters, hypocrisy can be dangerous.

So, leaving aside Captain Jack Sparrow and other sociopaths, a person’s freedom is tied to his culture. He is free to the extent that he is able to participate in that culture. He is free to the extent that he is considered and he considers himself to have a place in that culture. As Aristotle rightly said, “Man is by nature a political animal.”

It is thus in the rational self-interest of a person to fight for the ideals and values of his culture. Well, I suppose it has only been a matter of time before the film 300 somehow found its way onto this blog. The film divides its audience into those who take joy and inspiration from its tale of valiant heroes fighting to defend their culture and those who see it as a malignant promotion of the dangerous and prejudiced “Clash of Civilisations” theory. Those who believe the “Clash of Civilisations” theory to be wrong also seem to adhere to the oxymoronic concept of modern individualism. Those who appreciate the true nature of freedom cannot help but applaud any portrayal of people willing to fight for that ideal. (The film is also stylistically fantastic – if you like Frank Miller’s style as much as I do.)

However, the film also poses a difficult question. Clearly, although it is in a person’s self-interest to fight for his culture, such fighting may well result in his death. From the point of view of the society as a whole this is a price worth paying. If the members of a culture are not willing to die for that culture then the culture will be lost anyway. But from the point of view of the individual, some form of life, even life under a foreign and oppressive culture, may be preferable to death. Can a dead man be said to be free at all, in either the modern or the ancient sense? If not, what does it mean to die for an ideal in the modern world?

Published in: on May 18, 2007 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  

Chorus

The sky grows blue and if I did not know why I would know when;
This melody; fax points belch with holiday;
the jointless seam of everyway;
it’s all over again.
Welcome me with euphony; the line and
tree in harmony;
calling me, far away from then.
Applause on take off, echoes from your comrades;
you’re still alive and so am I;
I know it’s all blood and screams
but from where I lie it’s beautiful;
Don’t get up, I can see.
We’re here too, we’re here too, we’re here too!
We agreed.

Published in: on May 16, 2007 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

9 out of 10 cats prefer not to eat gravel

GraphStatistical analysis is one of those tools that can both efficiently reveal the truth and completely obscure it. It is amazing how easy it is to confuse and convince most people simply by producing some numbers. Even people who should know better sometimes make horrendous mistakes. Given that most people have almost no training in statistical analysis at all, it is not surprising that advertisers and campaigners find it so easy to deceive the unwitting public.

Numbers have a lure of their own. They promise accuracy and simplicity. If I told you that apples might be a bit better than oranges but I’m not really sure, you probably wouldn’t base an important decision on that information. But if I declared with 76% certainty that apples had 127% of the goodness of oranges then, for some reason, it seems that you would be much more to likely go for the apples. (Well, maybe not you, but this appears to be true for the majority of the population.)

The purity of numbers can be a good thing. Careful and accurate statistical analysis can reveal facts that would otherwise be hidden from us. In some cases, particularly in engineering and medicine, this is a very good thing indeed. But in everyday life it just seems to make people easier to deceive.

With that in mind, here are some statistics from the CIA’s World Factbook:

EU Birth Rate: 10 births/1,000 population
EU Death Rate: 10 deaths/1,000 population
EU Net Migration Rate: 1.6 migrants/1,000 population
Iran Birth Rate: 16.57/1,000 population
Iran Death Rate: 5.65/1,000 population
Iran Net Migration Rate: -4.29 migrants/1,000 population
USA Birth Rate: 14.16/1,000 population
USA Death Rate: 8.26/1,000 population
USA Net Migration Rate: 3.05 migrants/1,000 population
World Birth Rate: 20.09/1,000 population
World Death Rate: 8.37/1,000 population

Net migration is the total rate of immigration less the total rate of emigration, it thus reveals the effect of migration on the increase or decrease of population but does not reveal how many people are immigrating or emigrating. I tried to find some figures for immigration and emigration alone but failed. The European Commission has some incomplete and incoherent figures for 2003 but they are confused by the accession of 10 new states to the EU.

Published in: on May 9, 2007 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Correctness

Fat man LOLJerry Jackson was commissioned by Charlie Brooker to create an animated cartoon for his TV show. Jackson produced a short cartoon about political correctness on television. It was rejected by the broadcasters but you can watch it thanks to Google Video: http://www.fat-pie.com/tv4.htm

It made me laugh anyway…

Published in: on May 4, 2007 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)