Thursday, 28 January 2010

On Motherhood and Apple Pie

As my nation shuffles grumblingly and unenthusiastically to a General Election in which the runaway popular choice, "Smack Them All In The Face With A Big Dead Wet Fish", has been arbitrarily ruled ineligible to stand, I am once again doing my little bit to slam the brakes on the democratic Dumb Train assist my readers in doing their democratic duty. Today, we examine an often-troublesome issue in the translation of polspeak.

We think it's absolutely essential that our society agrees on the importance of motherhood and apple pie.

We think it's absolutely essential that we all respect motherhood, and value the small wholesome pleasures like apple pie.

We think it's absolutely essential that we all agree on what constitutes good motherhood, and what is the best recipe for apple pie.

I'm sure we can all agree on the importance of that. Have a Golden Delicious, Ma! You're over your sugar ration for the week, and our Family Health Champion says you wouldn't want to set the littl'uns a bad example...

Friday, 22 January 2010

Nightmare in Ovo

Pickled eggs - by Holme053 at Wikimedia Commons - public domain There are few foods, and especially few British foods, which I have balked at trying - and that goes double for cheap ones. I like - in moderation - puddings black and white. I have cheerfully braved the axle-grease vileness of bread and dripping, the physical and moral turniptude of the atavist ‘throw it down the mine-shaft, luv!’ Cornish pasty, and the succession of ever-hotter and more-acidic curries invented between Brighton and Banff for the condign punishment of lager louts. Suspicious mussel sandwiches have I eaten, and parts of pigs normally surreptitiously sneaked into sausages, and nameless things on pizzas and in kebabs that would make a byakhee blench. Two local delicacies only have long remained resolutely beyond the pale.

One is tripe - and despite growing up on The Fosdyke Saga, I don’t propose to revisit this decision anywhere in the foreseeable. The other has been pickled eggs.

Everybody in Albion’s isle has seen pickled eggs. They leer from their jars, like the orbs of dead dragonets in their piss-pale embalming fluid, through the windows of every proper fish-and-chip shop on every high street. Nobody has ever seen anybody buy them. As far as I could ever tell, their sole function in life was to induce sudden spasms of nausea and hasty doubled-up departure amongst passers-by who were feeling a bit delicate. They are one of our minor national mysteries, and I thought it was about time for me to gird up my loins and investigate.

You see, I like eggs. I like almost everything that can be done with eggs, except for a span of about six months in every twelve years when I randomly and arbitrarily abhor them. My only objection even to poached or cold hard-boiled eggs is that they are are such an abominable waste of tastier potential. I also like salt, and also vinegar, and also a lot. What was to fear?

Reader, I bought one.

Reader, do not do this.

The immediate impression is of stone-cold - say ten degrees below ambient - preternaturally congealed, and faintly undead rubber. As the taste-buds slouch reluctantly into play, the mouth is permeated by a dissavour faintly reminiscent of that bottle of Ch√Ęteau Pis de Chat which no-one ever admitted bringing to the office party, and which was inadvertently disinterred six months later, with results of such evil memory. It can, however, be distinguished from said vintage by its distinct notes of hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde - the former dominating the assault, the latter the aftertaste.

Just as the buds of more sensitive consitutition are commencing to do the funky lemming off the edge of the tongue, the yolk delivers its gustatory payload. The gourmet is almost relieved to discover that it tastes no worse than the perished elastic core of a long-lost and partially digested golf ball. Unfortunately, the hedonic trend is still perceptibly downwards.

At this point the remainder is thrown into the nearest waste receptacle. It immediately hops out, and dogs its hapless victim all the way home, bouncing along at their heels with a hateful dead flubber that will long haunt their subsequent nightmares. Oh, wait, that last bit was from the subsequent nightmares, wasn’t it? I’m sorry, it’s so difficult to tell.

Thanks for nothing, Mr Dagon!

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Broken Wheel

Oh, man. Kate McGarrigle's gone. Cancer, it was, at sixty-three.

She wasn't as well-known outside folky circles as she ought to have been. Her children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, are more famous now. Different styles... Of all that extremely musical extended clan, I love best the works of Kate and her sister Anna. Canadian singer-songwriting duo: bilingual, witty and unpretentious, feather-light and razor-sharp with tunes and words together. Gods! How many of my favourite songs are theirs? I'm not sure there's anyone but the late Kate Wolf who scores higher. Heart Like a Wheel; Leave Me Be; Song for Gaby; Talk to Me of Mendocino; Kiss and Say Goodbye; Complainte pour Sainte-Catherine; and, so help me, Why Must We Die...

If you're not familiar with their work and it sounds remotely like your kind of thing, go straight to Kate & Anna McGarrigle and check it out. Liking Emmylou Harris is probably as good an indicator as any. Hell, go there anyway! There is lots of good stuff there, and all from the horse's mouth.

An excellent place to sample the massed talent of the McGarrigle/Wainwright circle is the warm and wonderfully varied The McGarrigle Hour. Recommended to the skies.

Here is a link to the fund she established against the stinking crab that killed her.

Another one the Gods loved, and all that.

A Libertarian Reason for Recycling

Responsible Writers Recycle Stories.  Image of Universal Recycling Logo, devised by Gary Anderson - public domain There is a lot of Government nagging - and, over on this side of the pond, direct and ham-handed coercion - to recycle every damn thing these days. If a libertarian does not react hard against this out of natural orneriness, their cooler-headed line on the subject is apt to be that recycling will, and should, occur just when it offers people enough value to become commercially viable.

Mostly I've tended to agree with this in principle, though in practice I'm more sympathetic to most kinds of recycling than this would indicate. I do, in fact, dislike environmental damage quite a lot, and am prepared to pony up accordingly when convinced that said ponying will actually result in the desired benefit. Also, there are aesthetic considerations - my inner engineer is deeply offended at the idea of going to all the trouble of something like aluminium production, only to junk so much value by throwing the results into the general trash. Only paper recycling, which on the face of it looks both economically and ecologically dubious or worse, attracts my serious suspicion.

All of this, though, can be handled within the market/voluntary framework so dear to libertarian hearts. My tin can, my rules, no foul!

What is not so obvious is that even libertarians who despise the whole Green movement on principle may have one good reason to recycle. The act of recycling resources may inherently benefit the global observance of property rights, thus moving the world in a slightly more libertarian direction, and making society more civil and markets more efficient in consequence. For the progressives in the room, there are also distributive and democratic benefits: the property rights chiefly enhanced will be those of the poor, and the biggest losers will be dictators and the more ruthless kind of multinational corporation. All this is so far from obvious that I only just thought of it this morning.

Why should recycling (and re-use, and materials conservation) bestow upon us these magic ponies? Not, certainly, by being good works in themselves which necessarily ennoble us.

What they all have in common is this: they all tend to shift resources away from the primary extractive sector, and towards secondary (manufacturing) and tertiary (retail and other services). In a perfect world, this would matter not a button.

If one believes in the resource curse theory, however, places especially endowed with natural resources tend to suffer a corresponding curse, namely that they are systemically crappy places to live. A quick global survey judged by the reader's own standards will suggest how far this is true: by mine, the words that come to mind are, "Pretty darn' tootin'!" A fall in demand for raw resources ought by itself to ameliorate the curse somewhat.

I have a specific reason for believing in resource curses. I think they are a natural consequence of a concentrated pre-existing non-human wealth source, accessible only through massive capital investment, and offering such rewards downstream as to make the incentives to wholly displace and disinherit any property incumbents... alarmingly high. Further, because of the huge amounts of profit and tax revenue at stake in this single matter, administrative and judicial corruption become more likely and virulent. Is that what we see in the world? I think it is. The worse-governed the land of resources already is, the worse these effects will be - unless and until its government becomes actually so bad that not even the heaviest hitters will invest any capital under it at all.

According to this account, we could gain a lot by a move away from large-scale one-time immobile extractive industries with huge costs of entry - towards smaller, more distributed, higher-skill transformation, resale, and re-manufacturing enterprises. If we value the rule of law, the freedom of transaction, and the clipping of Big Government's wings, other things may not have to be as equal as all that.

"Recycle. Re-use. Regenerate property rights?"

Well, maybe!

Monday, 18 January 2010

Wilde Variations

'You must never have a foxtrot with an Oscar Wilde.  Oh dear, no - no, no, child!' (Alma Cogan, personal communication via planchette, obviously board out of her mind.)  Portrait by Napoleon Sarony via Notwist at Wikimedia Commons - public domain. If a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, is an idealist somebody who knows the value of everything and the price of nothing? It might explain a lot.

One thing often mistaken for an idealist is that common type who knows the value of only one thing, and the price of everything else. The correct term here, of course, really being 'fanatic'. 'Fan' or 'enthusiast' are subtly different flavours of the same thing.

What then shall we call somebody who knows the price of only one thing, and the value of everything else? It really ought to be the reverse of a fanatic, but it looks like just another flavour: not an anti-fanatic, but a fanatical anti-. I don't know of any really good neat synonym for this, except maybe 'bigot' - and I'm not sold on that, either.

But if a cynic or idealist each needs only to flip their polarity on one solitary thing to join the big dysfunctional fanatic family, and the fanatic can handily pivot from pro- to anti- upon the fulcrum of their single consuming interest, perhaps it is not surprising that the one so often metamorphoses into the other.

The great temptation when writing is to excuse the hero, as they do things of which one is a fan, from paying the price, because one doesn't know it. Were I of a Wilder persuasion, I should now coin some clever epigram about the way in which this merely transfers the bill into the real world, to be paid at a dubious discount by the whole society of people who give two hoots about one's books.

Instead, I fight doughtily against the ever-present temptation to fanaticism by OH LOOK! SHINY! AND IT'S GOT A FEATHER ON IT!

I wonder where she got that hat - and what she gets out of it? And what it would be like, to be the kind of fellow who thought that was really important?

Over to you again, Oscar!

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

A Fine Kettle of Fish

There is no new thing under the Sun, and not even the students at my school can come up with a truly novel argumentative fallacy.

Last month I introduced my patient readers to this earnest attempt, from a pupil whom I have anonymised under the alias 'Young Socrates':

No she wasn't! I was too!

In fact this turns out to have been previously pinned down by Sigmund Freud, under the name 'Kettle Logic'. He applies it to his own loopy reasoning in a self-justificatory dream, which he compares to:

the defence offered by a man who was accused by his neighbour of having returned a kettle in a damaged condition. In the first place, he had returned the kettle undamaged; in the second place it already had holes in it when he borrowed it; and in the third place, he had never borrowed it at all.

Of course, I never claimed this fallacy was really novel, and I couldn't find any reference to it however hard I Googled, and anyway that post was forged by my evil twin brother Bray. But kettle logic, or kettle defence, is what this particular pot of iffy fish is called. Any pre-Freud denominations welcomed!

Saturday, 9 January 2010

A Sixpence for Our Thoughts

A tanner for turning on.As my diary began to fill up before the New Year had fairly started, a familiar pall of dread began to descend upon me. Many of the things I planned were either good in themselves or designed to lead to good stuff in the near future - but how dreary the prospect of a year so scripted in advance! It is the kind of fence against which I, and maybe a lot of other goat-types too, immediately kick by pure instinct.

On the other hand, I hadn't pencilled in anything that wasn't either absolutely necessary, or else not absolutely tempting. What, then?

I wanted to know how I could free up some space. And, lo, a different way of looking at it presently came to me.

The problem with a full diary is not, really, that a huge amount of one's time is necessarily committed - certainly it wasn't in my case. Rather, it is the drag of seeing so many tasks, projects, chores, and expeditions marching in serried ranks into the future, and desperately looking around for a bit of time to cry, "Whoa!", stop the world and its nagging, and cop one brief bit of translunary peace in which to regenerate one's spirit. (It will, no doubt, be seen at once that I am not presently a family man. Laugh hollowly, who will!)

But the &c.'s aren't really marching in serried ranks at all. They are an open formation, a honeycomb, which mostly occupy only a very moderate proportion of actual life. Their oppression lies in the time the thought of them takes up, before and after: the largeness of their looming, rather than the mass of their presence. If every appointment, dinner date, yarn-spinning, house-hunt, plumbing spree, and trip to Erebor and back again for that left-handed dwarf wrench I need to open the miruvor bottles I promised to get for the Bagginses' plot-swapping party in August, were to take up only the time needed to plan it, do it, and get my leg sewn back on afterwards - why, then, this would be an active year, to be sure, but also a freer and easier one than most.

Also, I would be living in a very comfortable and nearly neat little Englishman's castle, and Three Katherines of Allingdale would be doing the publisher rounds before you could say Jack Featherstonehaugh-Cholmondeley-ffoulkes-Robinson.

It ain't the pace of things, it's the momentum. Not the wave, but the undertow. Give me a sixpence to turn upon - or, for the American-minded, a dime - and I will dance around the world.

Equipped with which brand new reflection on Reasons Not To, amongst other things, Write... I go to my dancing folly again.

First up [looks out window upon vistas of silent whiteness], it's time to go and do a tango with an Eskimo...