The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Meme infection

I've been book-tagged by Thomas Knapp. Here goes:

1. Total number of books I own: At least a thousand.

2. The last book I bought: Portraits and Pamphlets, by Karl Radek, (London, 1935). I picked this up in a second-hand bookshop a couple of days ago for four pounds. Soviet journalist and soon-to-be Moscow Trial victim Radek on Stalin, intellectuals, wreckers etc. Irony of history - no, the bitter and twisted sarcasm of history.

3. The last book I read: Russia's War by Richard Overy.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me:

On the Nature of Things by Titus Lucretius Carus, translated and introduced by Martin Ferguson Smith, Sphere Books, London, 1969 (Rome, circa 59 B.C.)

The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin, sixth edition (1872), with a foreword by George Gaylord Simpson, Collier Books, NY, 1962, 1967.

(As with the Lucretius, it's the only edition I've read.)

History of England by Lord Macaulay.

Discovering the Scottish Revolution by Neil Davidson.

The Poverty of Theory and other Essays by E. P. Thompson.

5. Tag five people and have them do this on their blogs:

Charlie Stross (Declined.)
Farah Mendlesohn
Kevin Carson (Responded.)
Ellis Sharp Responded.
Cheryl Morgan (Declined.)
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Friday, May 27, 2005

Cold Fury of Reason

Special mention of a new addition to my blogroll: Arthur Silber. He's one of the good (i.e. real) libertarians. You may not agree with everything he writes, but he's always worth reading, and often surprising. He's also consistent, and persistent.
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Scientist's Apprentice

The Jurassic marine crocodile Metriorhynchus was a lithe and elegant beast. We know a fair bit about it, including that it sometimes suffered from arthritis. You can see the fossilised femora, one of which has a rough knob at the end, where there should be a smooth one. I've held these stone bones, or a pair very like them, and grimaced at that ancient agony myself. For a few months in 1976 I knew almost all there is to know about Metriorhynchus; I had read the textbook references, looked up the articles on which they were based, and looked at many of the specimens on which the articles were based; I saw the original display-drawer of laid-out bones of the beast's hind foot in the very arrangement that I'd seen drawn in a dozen places. And I found, or thought I found, that the standard drawing was wrong, and with it much that we think we know about the Jurassic marine crocodile.

The question I was trying to answer, for a final year Zoology undergraduate dissertation, was this. Crocodiles spend most of their time in water but can walk, indeed run, on land. Turtles have a laborious trek up the beach. Most marine reptiles couldn't manage even that. A Mososaur or an Ichthyosaur is as marine-adapted as a dolphin. And like a dolphin, they gave birth to live young. They still laid eggs, but the eggs hatched inside. One famous fossil is of an ichthyosaur at moment of giving birth.

Now, your Jurassic marine crocodile, right, is sort of betwixt and between. Its legs look like flimsy flippers, very unlike the sturdy hind leg of a modern croc. On the other hand, or leg, their foot bones aren't the almost undifferentiated platter of tarsals that you see in the old ichthyosaur. You can tell them apart and fit them together. They articulate, but (you might think) a bit pointlessly, because the whole palm or foot was completely flat. And, and, there is no evidence at all that Metriorhynchus laid its eggs anywhere but on land. But looking at that floppy foot, you fancy Metriorhychus mums-to-be had a hard time of it up on the mud-flat.

So, with the telling vagueness that's the dead give-away of a bad extinction story, a just-was story you might say, this amphibious condition was hand-waved to as their fatal flaw. Perhaps because my tutor had a doubt about this, and certainly because the Hunterian Museum contained a good few specimens, I chose to investigate just how far the marine adaptations of Metriorhynchus had actually gone. In particular, I looked at whether there might be more to the articulation of the foot than met the eye.

The Hunterian Museum is quiet, with the sort of hum that might be an aural hallucination. The smell is of locusts and wild honey, like John the Baptist's menu. The windows are like in a church. There is armour and parchment. There are vases and mummies. Every length and lath of wood is polished to a force-field sheen. Around the hall are galleries where minerals and fossils lie under sloping glass. And under these displays are drawers that glide out, in memory, as if on wheels. They are full of detritus and shards labelled in india ink and held together with varnish and Sellotape.

In a corner of one of these galleries I had a table and a chair, and on that table I laid out bones taken from the drawers, and looked at them and puzzled over them, and doodled them, and fiddled with suspending them from bits of thread, and read all about Metriorhynchus when I wasn't skiving off and reading about something more exciting, like the Portuguese Revolution or The Outcasts of Foolgarah (by Frank Hardy. It's a great book.) I took more than one girlfriend to see that table. Come up and see my fossils. It wasn't much, but it hardened them for the experience of seeing my bedsit. (Mouse footprints in the frying pan lard. Trace fossils! No, they weren't impressed either.)

Anyway, I checked all the specimens I could find, including in the basement of the Natural History Museum where they keep the stuff not on public view: the dragon's egg, the Woking Martian, the Piltdown skull; and, more excitingly, the above mentioned bones of the arthritic crocodile and the original reconstruction of the hind foot, in a little tray lined with indented baize. I drew it and made notes. All the bones were flat, and the foot was a flat paddle.

Then, back at the Hunterian, I started pulling out the drawers and rummaging through the bits. Ribs mostly, teeth, bits of jaw. In among all the rubbish I found a calcaneus - a heel-bone. It wasn't flat, like every other Metriorhynchus calcaneus. It was the same shape as the calcaneus of a modern crocodile. I think I may have found an astragalus as well - the next bone down - but that doesn't matter, because ...

The heel-bone is connected to the foot bone, and these bones lived. Because they weren't flattened, you could see the planes where they articulated, like facets. And when I looked again at the other bones, I could see that they were all flatter than they should have been, and they all had lots of tiny cracks, just as if ... just as if ... they'd all been crushed under tons and tons of mud.

The Jurassic marine crocodile hadn't had a flat foot after all. It's just that the bones of the standard specimens had all been flattened.

So, with black thread, black cards, and Blu-Tac, I and the Museum supervisor (who was keen, and helpful, and a fine photographer) I put together a new reconstruction of the hind foot and photographed it. The new view of the foot was of a proper foot, not a paddle. It was a foot that could push, not just flap. And in the nick of time I typed the whole thing up and got it to the office on the dot of five on the final day. And my dissertation passed, and was filed in the vaults of the Zoology Department, where it probably remains.

Every picture of Metriorhynchus is still wrong.
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Does Capitalism Exist? Did Socialism?

Somewhere in the vast archives of the Journal of Libertarian Studies the question is posed: Did we ever leave the state of nature? Now, I can't be arsed looking it up, but as I recall it the obvious question is asked: given that, you know, these social contracts we hear so much about were never actually signed and even if they had been they are not binding on us (who never actually signed them) ... what ethically differentiates our situation from that of the postulated savages in the imaginary state of nature? Nothing. (OK, apart from our lives being less nasty, brutish, and short, but hey.)

A similarly bracing perspective-shift can be seen some recent post-Marxist examinations of the world we actually live in. Moshe Lewin, in his new book The Soviet Century, analyses (with a mass of empirical and archival material) 'formerly existing' socialism as a bureaucratic statism, a domain not so much of a 'new class' as of a very old one. Chinese sociologist Qin Hui, drawing on his own extensive investigations and lived experience of Mao's 'socialism' and Deng's 'capitalist restoration', comes to a similar conclusion - and finds political inspiration for dealing with it in Marx, Plekhanov, the early Lenin, and Robert Nozick. (Lenin and Nozick! Studied by a Chinese social democrat! Who knew?) The late Andre Gunder Frank, towards the end of a lifetime's research on capitalism and socialism, concluded that neither actually exist. He argues both capitalism and socialism are in fact - as they are in theory - ideologies, or (to extrapolate that insight) are indeed mere illusions, which obscure the reality that we actually live in a world system and (in our most personal relations of family and gender) a household system, each of which long predates such fancies, and in which relations of power over-ride and physically exploit the supposed relations of production as imagined by the ideologues of (both) systems. The persisting 'pre-capitalist' relations, as well as the bureaucracies of actually existing socialism and the state interventions of actually existing capitalism, are thus their defining, rather than deforming, features. What if, in short, the theoretical imperfections of each system are the system(s)?
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Both Barrels

It seems that Democratic Party supporters have never heard a politician speak like this and they're over the moon about it. (Via.) Real libertarian and recovering Objectivist Arthur Silber is more restrained, but still wildly enthusiastic:
Wonderful. Simply wonderful. And Mr. Galloway made the nominal opposition party, the Democrats, look exactly like the pack of sniveling, spineless cowards that they are. I doubt they even understood what they were hearing.
Even Hitchens made some show of being impressed, while admitting
a small bias here: on spotting your own correspondent, Mr Galloway shouted that he was a "drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay and useful idiot", some of which was unfair.
Unfair? Hitchens has found his Deutscher.
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Sunday, May 15, 2005

From 'Another World is Possible' to
... 'Another World War is Possible'?

Impossibilists-turned possibilists From Despair to Where? have posted a talk on the possibility of a future war between the EU and the US, and made a curious observation:
I wish I could say that I've been shocked at the response of numbers of comrades to the subject of this paper, who seem to think such a war would be a good thing, but unfortunately it isn't a surprise any more.
Indeed not. Left-wing enthusiasm for the next world war is something I've been expecting for a couple of years now, blogged about, and written about in my SF novel Newton's Wake. If there's anything surprising, it's that it should show up first in the ultra-left milieu (which is, I'm guessing, that of Despair-to-Where's comrades). But as the old saying goes, you first notice a rising breeze by the shaking of the smallest leaves. And the ultra-left is - no disrespect intended - a very small leaf.

So perhaps it's appropriate that they should be the first of the new pro-war left. To be so ultra-left that you regard the Spanish Civil War as a mere inter-imperialist squabble must make one feel a little lonely sometimes. To reconnect with your own imperialist heartland must be quite a rush. How tempting it must be to finger the power-switches of the popular front and the people's war. And before you know it you're waving them about, happy as a baby with a buzz-saw.

P.S. (16/5/05) To clarify: From Despair to Where? dissociate themselves completely from the views referred to above. You might be relieved to hear that everyone at the meeting expressed surprise and disgust on hearing that some of [the speaker's] comrades were looking forward to the next world war. [ ... I]t's certainly not a view shared by us or anyone we know. Glad to hear it.
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Delenda Est

I'm actually shaking after coming across (via) this portion of a transcript of Seymour Hersh, talking on May 10, 2005 about how the mother of a returned soldier found the Abu Ghraib pictures on her daughter's computer:
She sees a file marked 'Iraq.' And she hits it, and out comes 60 or 80 digital photographs of the one that The New Yorker ran of the naked guy standing against a cell in terror, hands behind his back so he can't protect his private parts, which is the instinct. And two snarling German dogs -- shepherds. Somebody said they're Belgian shepherds, perhaps, but two snarling shepherds, you know, on each side of him. And the sequence -- in the sequence, the dogs attack the man, blood all over. I was later told anecdotally, I could never prove it. I am telling you stuff that is not provable -- I mean, at least -- that there was an understanding at least in the prison corps population that the dogs were specially trained to hit the groin area, which is one of the reasons there was so much fear of the dogs.
You know how this stuff ends? It ends with your cities in rubble, your capital occupied, and your leaders hanged.
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Gigs, forthcoming

Tomorrow (Thursday) night I'm doing a short reading at the Assembly Rooms, George St, as part of the launch of the Radical Book Fair (details at Word Power. On Monday, I'm reading from Newton's Wake and the forthcoming Learning the World at Stockbridge Library for the Festival of Scottish Writing.
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Respect, man

Well, they did it. To my amazement the British electorate, by some miracle of something - text messaging, website wizardry, the wisdom of crowds, or pure luck - managed to slash Labour's majority without letting the Tories in. And Respect have their first MP, George Galloway, who said the words that will be replayed when this election is history: 'All the people you killed, all the lies that you told, have come back to haunt you.'

One thing I did get right was the strange death of socialist Scotland. The Labour vote was down, and the SSP vote crashed.
0 comments | Permanent link to this post

Monday, May 02, 2005

Another rant on the election

Election? What election? If you don't live in a key marginal you could well not notice it's happening. Just yesterday, the first placards appeared on the lamp-posts around here. (Edinburgh West is a Lib Dem shoo-in.) Almost all the attention is going on the swing seats and the floating voters. The total contempt of the parties for their voters could hardly be more obvious. Thus taken for granted, many voters may be tempted to stick it to the bastards. And especially to the bastards who're most responsible for the degradation of British politics: Tony Blair's Labour Party.

Tactical voting. Protest voting. Not voting. They're all feasible ways to punish Labour with a reduced majority or a hung parliament. There's no risk of the Tories getting back in, so why not?

For some strange reason, we're hearing this from two - no, make that three - camps. We're hearing it from the liberal left, we're hearing it from the far left, and we're hearing it from the Tories. And we've heard it all before. For the 80s and most of the 90s the Lib Dems and the far left between them managed to keep the Tories in power: the Lib Dems (or Liberals and SDP, as they were) by dividing the anti-Tory vote, and the far left by dividing the Labour party.

Never again.

Never forget: Tories lie. Tory voters lie about how they intend to vote, and Tory politicians lie about what they intend to do. I don't trust the polls, I don't trust the liberal left to carry off complicated schemes, and I don't trust the Trots to ... well, anything. I don't trust Labour either, but that's a given. The best way to win Labour back for the working class interest is to crush the Tories, to give them not the faintest hope of a revival, to have them crying in their coffee on Friday morning, asking where it all went wrong and looking for backs to stab.

Paradoxical as it sounds, the best way to defeat Blair is to vote for a party he doesn't believe in: Labour. Anything else is pissing in the wind.
0 comments | Permanent link to this post