the new ussr [illustrated]
reveries, reminiscence, reflections
Saturday, April 29, 2006
Sanguesa's Romanesque church, with figured portal
Been meaning to write on this for a while now. I’ve often written against religion, or in wonderment about its mysterious hold. Many rejoinders to the non-believer from believers come in sentences which contain the words ‘lack’ and ‘spirituality’, rejoinders which naturally associate ‘spirituality’ with something morally uplifting and good, though such associations are generally implicit and ‘spirituality’ is never clearly defined.
I’m sure many of us know of people who use spiritual language regularly while behaving in their daily lives in the most crassly materialist way. We judge people, rightly, by their actions not their language. On the other hand, there are those who, in my view, have an outlook that I might call spiritual if I were inclined to use that too-loaded term, if only because their concerns are far from material; though they, too, are non-believers.
I’ll use two writers, or rather, two books, to illustrate what I’m getting at. The writers are Jonathon Raban and Cees Nooteboom, and their books are A Passage to Juneau and Roads to Santiago, respectively.
Here’s a quote from Roads to Santiago:
What I myself do or do not believe is immaterial: to the sculptor who transformed the dead stone into a living, rippling stream, the scene he depicted was as clear as it is to me today, across centuries of battles, plague and change. This is still a world that I belong to, by virtue of understanding. The carved figures, the proportions, are almost absurdly naïve, the whole scene is borne by a number of hieratic figures, of Gothic appearance already, elongated by comparison with the other figures: Mary Magdalene, Peter, the mother of Jacob, a gruesome hanged Judas. The damned souls way up on God’s left are thrust backwards into hell, Ensor-like masks and an outsized sheep appear on the scene, tucked away in the stone picture a tiny manikin lies asleep, knights with shields like overturned beetles, Moorish geometric shapes – twenty years have gone by in a split second and here I am again, just as before, gawping like the village idiot for hours on end, like someone who longs to be taken by the hand, petrified, changed into a dwarf, lifted up and placed among the others, to have perched there for the past eight centuries like the rest of them, a carving on a church portal in a forgotten Spanish village visited by no-one.
This passage was picked pretty much at random, and it’s typically untypical. Nooteboom is revisiting an eleventh-century Romanesque church, Santa María la Real, in
I suppose the point is that there’s no real point to this book. It moves from the historical shadows dogging contemporary Spanish politics to the horrors of the civil war to the Caliphate of Cordoba to the hollow mystique of the conquistadores as unpredictably as it moves from Navarre to Aragon to Castilla la Nueva to Galicia, bringing brief life to renaissance artists and medieval battles while contemplating a modest, unchanging corner of the modern world. The effect of such a book is much like that of pilgrimages of yore, a quest for something indefinably enlightening. To some, this wandering and wondering may have nothing to do with spirituality, and I’d be happy to agree, but for those who aren’t so sure, I’d have to say that this is, for what it’s worth, the only kind of spirituality I recognize, the only kind I respect.
And here’s something, also at random, from Passage to Juneau:
Once upon a time, people made their way across the sea by reading the surface, shapes, and colours of the water. On clear nights, they took their directions from the stars; by day, they sailed by the wind and waves. In the Homeric world there were four reigning winds: Boreas blew from the north, Notus from the south, Eurus from the east, Zephyrus from the west.
Wind made itself most useful for navigational purposes by generating swells. Whatever the fickle gusts of the moment, the prevailing seasonal wind was registered in the stubborn movement of the sea. Swell continues for many days, and sometimes thousands of miles, after the wind that first raised it has blown itself out. Islands, because they deflect the direction of swell, can be ‘felt’ from a great distance by a sensitive pilot. As the depth of the sea decreases, the swell steepens, warning of imminent landfall.
Sailing by swell entailed an intense concentration on the character of the sea itself. Wave shape was everything. A single wave is likely to be moulded by several forces: the local wind; a dominant, underlying swell; and, often, a weaker swell coming from a third direction. Early navigators had to be in communion with every lift of the bow as the sea swept under the hull in order to sense each component in the wave and deduce from them the existence of unseen masses of land.
Generally speaking, Raban’s writing is more concentrated, less discursive, but this is just a matter of degree, and a small degree at that. The commonalities are clear; Raban, too is engaged in a solitary, speculative journey, through time as well as across space. In his case it’s the sea, or at least the stormy coastline from Seattle up to Alaska, and, while battling with the weather and his equipment and temperament, he reflects on the sociological differences between Canadians and Americans, the curious transformations and adaptations of the natives of the area, the similar journey made two centuries before by the impossible Captain Vancouver and his disgruntled crew, the early Romantic passion for wild landscapes, the art of Turner, the death of his father, the mundane, compelling mystique of the ocean. Like Nooteboom, Raban is both escaping from and exploring self. A quest for enlightenment and transformation, full of stumbling.
Neither of these texts deal directly with religion, though there are strong echoes. Raban’s father, who died during the trip, was a minister of religion, and clearly a major force for him. Nooteboom’s travels among Spanish monasteries and their denizens remind him of his unhappy education at the hands of the holy brethren. Both are non-believers, but this isn’t dwelt on, their searching takes them elsewhere. In their company, though, I feel a kind of reverence, a worldly reverence.
So this is spirituality to me. Almost the opposite of a church sign saying ‘Jesus is the answer’. It couldn’t have been much of a question. And this is indeed one of the purposes of religion and its chief danger, the channeling of what I would prefer not to call spirituality, its controlling and taming and ultimate destruction, all for the sake of an answer and an end. It’s a personal response, I know, but what really gets my goat about religion, all religion, is how ultimately soul-destroying it is.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
wear the white feather
Not being too much into the history of warfare, I’d not heard of the white feather thing, mentioned in a comment by Andrew Bartlett at Barista recently. I saw the strange remake of ‘The Four Feathers’ starring Heath Ledger a while back, but it obviously didn’t click.
The order of the White Feather was founded in 1914. It encouraged women to badge civilian menfolk of military age (or even a couple of years below) with a white feather symbolizing cowardice.
Being an out and out coward myself, I’ve decided to don the white feather as a permanent piece of apparel. Cowards, unite.
Friday, April 21, 2006
the disarming effects of diplomacy
Iranians paying tribute to their overlords
An interesting piece here on US-Iranian relations. It was written about a month ago, just after the Bush administration released its new National Security Strategy, and before all the kerfuffle of this month, and I think that among other things, it’s a little too face-value-accepting of the stated ideals of the strategy document, which starts thus:
It is the policy of the
This all sounds unobjectionable, but the question is how democratic movements are to be supported, and whether certain kinds of ‘support’ are productive or counter-productive. My view is that diplomacy and open-handedness, as far as that’s possible, will do more to encourage democracy in the Middle East than the Bush administration’s current strategy, which has alienated states and peoples massively and has created a more dangerous scenario all round. It will take a lot of diplomacy to undo the bad reputation the
Monday, April 17, 2006
getting the respect they deserve
in dreams ...
We’ve been having Easter Monday chit-chat today, a half-dozen of us, by the fire, in lieu of beating olives out of the tree, an annual ritual, washed out by the rain this year. We talked religion and politics, those subjects we’ve been aye cautioned to avoid. Of course they’re my life’s blood.
I found myself getting quite emotional about the behaviour of Howard regarding the recent Papuan refugees. I’ve not been following this story too closely, though I was quite intrigued the other day while reading Anthony Trollope’s ‘Framley Parsonage’ to find that the mission to Christianise the Papuans was something of a minor theme in the book. These fictional characters succeeded in their mission – the Christian faith of the Papuans, like that of the East Timorese, being a major reason for their rejection of Indonesian suzerainty.
However, I do know a bit about the situation in Papua, or Irian Jaya. Before I’d heard of blogging I used to send political emails to a group of friends under my alter-ego, Luigi, and here’s a little piece I sent out in February 2003:
Before the Dutch arrived, Irian Jaya, which covers the western half of
In 1942 the Japanese invaded and treated the indigenes with great brutality, introducing labour camps, torture and execution. The allies under MacArthur took possession in 1944, geological surveys were taken, and it was realised that the mineral wealth of the region was far greater than previously thought. By this time the
Under heavy pressure from the
Though a small UN peace-keeping force was stationed to oversee the transfer of power, the reign of terror began with this decision. Sukarno's concern was that the Papuan inhabitants would not, having no reason to, vote for permanent Indonesian control, so he tried to terrorise them into submission. He also tried to resettle large numbers of Javanese into the region. Finally in 1964 he declared there would be no referendum.
Suharto continued Sukarno's policy in Irian Jaya, with the tacit approval of the
The OPM (Organisi Papua Merdeka) or Free Papua Movement was formed in 1965, which gave
My emotion was brought on by recalling that Howard, a few weeks ago, in a doorstep interview, pointed out that the Papuans voted to be part of
Iran v the USA - maneuvring and posturing
What does this actually mean?
But what is the Nuclear Club? According to the above article, only five countries, the
From an Iranian perspective, the current saber-rattling about its possession of enriched uranium (which it claims is entirely for peaceful purposes) must seem profoundly hypocritical, since Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons is an open secret, and the IAEA’s treatment of Israel over its nuclear capability has been very different from its treatment of Iran, which is nowhere near as far down the road as Israel in nuclear terms. On February 6 this year,
Interestingly, considering claims that there’s a plan by the
The 5 NWS parties have made undertakings not to use their nuclear weapons against a non-NWS party except in response to a nuclear attack, or a conventional attack in alliance with a Nuclear Weapons State. However, these undertakings have not been incorporated formally into the treaty, and the exact details have varied over time. The
There is no evidence, as yet, that
Of course, the
Finally, the growing popularity of figures like Ahmadinejad and of political groups like Hamas are a sign that
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
the three monkeys do their thing
Monday, April 10, 2006
some brief notes on cloning and stem cells
Back in the December/January issue of the Oz science mag Cosmos there was a piece on cloning, full of breakthroughs and cautionary tales, all before the scandal in
The article informed me among other things of the first successfully cloned dog, Snuppy, created by the team of Hwang-woo Suk at
First, some points to myself to clarify different features of cloning via Cosmos magazine and this site, among others:
Somatic nuclear cell transfer was the procedure used to clone Snuppy, as well as Dolly, the first mammal known to be cloned, back in July 1996. Snuppy was born in April 2005. The procedure involves removing the nucleus from a body or somatic cell (ie a mature, differentiated cell), and placing it into an enucleated egg cell. The cell is then stimulated to divide and grow. The embryo can be implanted into a female for gestation, or have its development suspended while still at the embryonic stage, to be put to various uses, particularly medical.
Somatic nuclear cell transfer is the procedure central to therapeutic cloning. The egg with the somatic nuclear material transferred into it, is allowed to divide. The resulting blastocyst ‘has an outer layer of cells and an inner cluster called the inner cell mass. Cells from the inner cell mass are isolated and used to develop new embryonic stem cell (ESC) lines’.
The difference between embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and other stem cells is that they’re totipotent in the first couple of days and then pluripotent. In fact, there are three types or ‘levels’ of stem cell, totipotent, pluripotent and multipotent, moving from less specialized to more specialized. Adult stem cells are multipotent, though there’s now a question as to whether multipotent cells can be transformed into pluripotent cells. These are the sorts of issues causing so much excitement within stem cell research.
To return to cloning – the cloning of a dog (out of some 1095 clone embryos) is the most recent of many achievements. Sheep, cows, pigs, goats, cat, mice, horses, rabbits, deer and even a mule, all have been successfully cloned, though primates seem as yet beyond the horizon.
There’s a fair amount of debate, though, about just how successful these clones have been. One of the well-known problems these clones have faced is Large Offspring Syndrome (LOS), especially in the case of lambs and calves, but other abnormalities, some of them not easily identifiable at birth, have abounded. In fact, there’s a question as to whether any cloned animal could be described as normal (a term which consequently has come under scrutiny), though they’ve produced healthy enough offspring. It seems that our tampering with the natural process of reproduction is what’s causing the problems.
One of the pioneers of therapeutic cloning, Rudolf Jaenisch, who has worked more or less exclusively with mice, is one person who believes that a normal clone has never been produced. Further, he believes that the problems of cloning are in principle unsolvable. Work done by his group in 2002 seems to have borne out his claim.
I’ll try to summarise the problem, with the help of Cosmos. It seems that in the natural fertilization process, when an egg cell is penetrated by a sperm cell, the egg ‘reprograms’ the genetic material of the sperm cell (which must be quite specialized in order to locate and penetrate the egg). It’s of course this reprogramming ability that scientists have made use of to create ESCs.
Scientists have learned to assist in this rebooting process. They’ve learned that rebooting requires cell quiescence (that the cell not be dividing). It also requires time for the reboot to be completed before embryonic development. The egg must also be unfertilized.
Yet even with a successful reboot, clone embryos lack the ability to distinguish between maternal and paternal gene sets. This appears to be vital. To quote the Cosmos article:
Although sperm and eggs bear the same genetic code, they carry slightly different instructions as to how that code should be read when they combine – so-called ‘imprints’. For instance some genes, if they reside in the egg, remain silent; if they reside in the sperm, they are read avidly. About 50 genes receive this differential treatment, many of which dictate the growth of the placenta and foetus. The theory, according to scientists such as Jaenisch, is that, because clone embryos cannot differentiate between paternal and maternal gene sets, they read both, rather than ignoring one, with the result that the foetus grows too much. This explanation also gels with the fact that the offspring of clones, which are born through the old-fashioned union of sperm and eggs (and hence receive the proper imprints) are normal.
Now Jaenisch and others may be overly pessimistic about the possibility of overcoming these difficulties, but he’s surely right in pointing out that they must be overcome before we even consider human cloning, quite apart from the various other ethical issues swirling around it. The good news is that, due to work coming out of Jaenisch’s lab, the ethical concerns about the use of ESCs may one day be obsolete. A technique called altered nuclear transfer results in the creation of embryo-like entities that aren’t viable in utero but still yield healthy ESCs. Of course there will always be some objectors, if only on the generalized ground of ‘playing god’, but the field continues to surprise and excite.
Saturday, April 08, 2006
work laws in France and Oz
Don’t want to get too deeply embroiled in the economics of the situation, being thoroughly inexpert, but this rather different look at the current labor pains in
As to the situation here, the obvious difference is that, according to many, the labor market didn’t particularly need reforming, but the ideologues of the government, most notably Howard himself, were determined to introduce sweeping changes. The huge array of comments to Quiggin's brief post here gives an indication of the elite’s responses, both right and left, and it begins to look as if the government has misjudged public opinion on this.
The difficulty in all this is that I do see obvious problems for employers who aren’t able to rid themselves of dead wood, just as I see problems for workers whose job security is at the caprice of their employers. I don’t have any neat answers, but this government is clearly throwing its weight behind employers, with its eye on big-picture profitability and productivity at the expense of ordinary folks’ security. However, as one commentator put it, if the culture were changed in such a way that the stigma associated with being sacked was greatly reduced, as is apparently the case in the
Friday, April 07, 2006
same old same old
Guzman - Fujimori orchestrates Shining Path's most humiliating moment
The Hot Docs slot on SBS is usually well worth a look, and Tuesday night’s program on the fall of Peru’s briefly-beloved ‘Chinaman’ Alberto Fujimori was thoroughly absorbing, even if it was a variation of a story told a thousand times before, of an authoritarian leader instituting sweeping but much needed reforms, becoming increasingly convinced of her/his invincibility, hanging around too long, identifying his own interests with those of the state, arrogating more and more power to himself.
Much of the doc was narrated by Fujimori himself, mixing plausible analysis with outrageous rewriting of history. At first you see him as an amiable paternal figure, but his delusions about himself gradually come clear. He tries to distance himself from his more obviously criminal right-hand man Vladimiro Montesinos, but as the doc points out (and effectively shows), Fujimori was a micromanager, and it was extremely unlikely that he didn’t know and tolerate Montesinos’ profound but often convenient corruption.
As Pinker points out in The Blank Slate, liars are most convincing when they believe their own lies, as so many of them do. National leaders seem far more prone to this kind of self-delusion than wee folk like us. It’s part of the thick hide required to become a national leader, especially in volatile, violent times and regions. There were plenty of moments of hideboundness and self-delusion in the doc, which was fascinating as an example of ‘crossing the line’ between what we now like to call counter-terrorism and terrorism, and all those other lines between enforcing and breaking the law, so much more easily blurred when you as a powerful head of state start to believe you are the law.
I thought one of the more telling moments in the doc came just after the videotape scandal broke, when Fujimori, followed by a heap of reporters, went driving around Lima apparently in a hunt for Montesinos’ video horde (they showed him engaged in a stream of shonky deals), from which he apparently removed a selection that implicated him (Fujimori). It seemed surreal, but if that was what he was up to, it’s a clear indication that he knew full well he was involved in criminality.
I’d certainly lost all sympathy for Fujimori by the end of the doc. He’s now in custody in
Extinction? Not quite – though this site's probably past its use-by.
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
the terrier as terrorist
Bought a book today, Chain of Command, by Seymour Hersh [one interesting response here], which promises to be a ripping read. Reading the intro, was amused by this description of the term muckraker , a term Hersh would happily apply to himself:
Theodore Roosevelt had adapted the term from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress – the man ‘who was offered a celestial crown for his muckrake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor’ – in order to criticize ‘reckless journalists’ [who threatened to expose corporate dealings in his administration].
A more modern endorsement comes from that well-known peacenick Richard Perle. ‘Look, Sy Hersh is the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist, frankly’. Ah, the renovation of language – they used to call them communists.
Saturday, April 01, 2006
brightening and tightening
Having just posted a possible beginning to The Big Lie, I spent some part of last night revising it, after feeling irritated at its long-windedness.
This was a very worthwhile experience, in fact quite inspiring. I won’t put the results here, but they’re good enough to spur me to keep going, to really at last make a proper start with the book.
Though I don’t engage in it as much as some (I often wonder how some of them find time to make a living, or even sleep), so I should theoretically have more time to refine the language, blogging is generally a rush job, with the final product rarely satisfying qua literature.
A few months back I posted a review of a Cibo café, written before I’d even heard of blogging. It was a piece that quite pleased me, and a fellow blogger made a nice compliment about it, that it managed to say a lot with a minimum of verbiage. This is precisely what the revision process, better described as brightening and tightening, is all about, IMHO.
Method: take any piece you’ve posted – it’s usually readable and more or less acceptable as journalism. Don’t be satisfied. Remove all redundancies, rearrange sentences to say the same thing in fewer words. Target commonplace terms, find more striking replacements. Keep going till you feel you’ve exhausted all possibilities, then leave it for a day or two. Come back and go through the same process again. And again. Be ruthless, torture the language if necessary, twist it into unaccustomed shapes, and never underestimate your reader. They’ll get the idea, and be pleased with themselves for having done so, such are the smart-alecky pleasures of the text.