Dont buy the Sun.

Dont buy the Sun.
Hillsborough Justice campaign - Remember the 96.

Monday, 17 August 2009

The Return of The Miserable

Those of the opinion (ie practically everyone I know) that my attempt to switch programmes from Educational Studies to History and Archaeology was a tactical, professional and career-related disaster in the unfolding can rest assured that said attempts to switch courses have come to nought. With one stone, two birds have been slain, firstly the impending possibility that the one studying history would actually be older than the things he was studying, is buried, and secondly, the possibilities that I would accidentally turn this blog into a series of increasingly insane rants on matters anthropological and archaeological are fading. I can now quite happily look forward to the forthcoming modules on 'Social and Developmental Pyschology', 'Social Policy', 'The Theory of Learning' on my original course, with the certainty of a simplified life and the sure knowledge that delights above and beyond 'Learning Styles' await. In short, the history department would not let me transfer credits to the second Year, insisting instead that I would have to start a degree again - not something that could be contemplated.

But Learning, of any style is not yet upon us. The return to university is roughly a month in the distant future. However the football season has commenced, an event which has hitherto on these ecribements been accompanied by the annual "A Faint Whiff of Optimism" and similar posts. THis season, not even a whiff remains. The football season has started, and only stony-faced resignation has partnered my football watching up to now. Nevertheless, I fully expect things to buck up a little and that £2000 of my student grant that I bet on Liverpool winning their first league title in 19 years will be money well spent, as long a NEl doesnt find out. Accompanying the start of the new season is a request from a regular correspondent, in that I have been asked, nay commissioned, to provide a quick sketch of
the glory and delights of the organisational nightmare that is European Soccer. This I will do, and, in pursuit of same, the usual journalistic blights that accompany any reportage on football - bias, prejudice, partisanship, fickle opinion and lack of knowledge, will, of course, be thorougly adhered to. I should first of all say, that watching soccer is a joy and a pleasure.

Anyway, back to my unbiased guide. As you all know, Liverpool Football Club are the most successful British Club ever, and have taken part in all the major national and international competitions. They have won the European Championship five times, and overcome greater odds in doing so than any team ever. Fact #1.

Each country in Europe has a system of Leagues, administered by that country's own organisation. Hence, England has the The Premier League, known as the EPA, and 'below' that league is 'The Championship', League One and League Two - essentially four professional leagues. The leagues are ranked so the Premiership is the league that clubs are promoted to (by winning the Championship) or demoted from (by finishing last in the Premiership). All English football leagues have just begun their season, and the season lasts till about May. Each team plays the other teams twice - at home and away- and points are awarded for victory (three points), drawing (one point). The team with the most points in May wins whatever League they are in. Liverpool have done this the most times in the UK, apart from the devil-spawned necromancers from Manchester, who have bribed and cheated their way to a similar number of titles as us, mostly by being in league with Satan. Fact #2.

However, English football also runs a number of Cup competitions. These competitions run concurrently with the League competition, but are open to every team in England affiliated to the English Football League (which is the body that runs, at least partly, the game in the UK). The main Cup competitions in England are the FA Cup and the League Cup. In the modern era, of course, these competitions have become sponsored by major companies, hence the League Cup is now called the Coca-Cola Cup (I think).

These Cup competitions are knock-out competitions whereby one match decides who progresses in the competition. It is because of these competitions that very small clubs like Ferriby United, or Colchester United, might find themselves playing Liverpool, Man U or Chelsea. Sometimes the smaller clubs prevail against the big guys in these competitions, which everyone loves. In terms of enjoyment, the FA Cup used to be by far the most enjoyable competition to follow, even if your own team got knocked out, due to these occasional upsets. Liverpool have never been upset by anyone ever, apart from a few occasions where, out of charity for smaller teams, they have deliberately lost important matches in order to help out the revenue streams of these smaller clubs. Manchester United often upset other smaller teams by hiring US military teams, equipped with massive PA systems on the back of their Jeeps to play rock music loudly outside the other team's hotel the night before a match. Fact #3.

A quick review of the above should then tell you that a team like Man Utd, can be (and usually are), involved in three competitions within England during a single season, playing exclusively English clubs. Each country in Europe has a roughly equivalent system. The way this links to football on a pan-European level is that winners of each competition - Premier league, FA cup and League cup are then ranked within a Europe wide system, so that the first four placed teams in the Englsih Premiership are entered into what has become known as The Champions League. Hence the winners of the premiership in the 2008-2009 season enter the Champions League in the 2009-2010 season, and play against similarly placed teams from the best leagues in the other European countries. For teams winning the FA Cup, and coming further down the league table , there are other "lesser" pan-European competitions.

THe question of which competition is the most important, was until recently, a matter of some debate, but as football has been taken over by global business, the biggest revenues have been obtained from the Champions League. Therefore to the clubs, it is very important to either win their league, or in the case of UK, finish in the top four. Hence, the national leagues have become less important in their own right, and more important as vehicles to "get into Europe", this generating revenue.

To the fans, there is a slightly different picture, because English sport has always been an arena where local rivalries are played out, and over the years, a whole bunch of rivalries have arisen. This means that during each season, the fan will get to indulge in his or her historic hatreds of a specific team at least twice during each season. To the average English fan, I would guess therefore that the league matches are more important than any of the big competitions. This, I would say, is especially true because while a team like Stoke City, for example, has no chance of winning the Premiership, their fans can still enjoy victories throughout the season - whether claiming the scalp of a big club, or 'getting one over' on their rivals. Ethnographic studies have revealed episodes of mass hysteria, delusion and widespread psychosis among Manchester United fans. Fact #4.

ANd what have all these photos to do with all of this. Absolutely nothing, as it happens, except that while I love watching football, I would DO this any day of the week instead:


Thursday, 13 August 2009

The First Dictator

Turkish vacation - Archaeology and Architecture

A hunter, lets call him Mask, is sitting round his campfire, chewing the fat (literally) with his great buddy, Skarra. Skarra seems a bit on edge, a little bit unfocused, distracted maybe.

"What's up, Skarra? You seem a bit on edge. Distracted maybe. Trouble at t'mill?"

"Nah" says Skarra "Everything's ok there, know what I mean, nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Besides which, mills havent been invented yet. Although.............."

"Although, what? " says Mask. He's actually more interested in rubbing red ochre across his gleaming, well-developed muscles than understanding Skarra's woes, but tomorrow they're supposed to be hunting an elephant. Mask cant wait, but it's dangerous, exciting, fun, and essential and it usually gets him sex when he brings home the bacon. Except bacon hasnt been invented yet, but you get the idea. He needs Skarra, his partner to be on his game, no distractions, so he has to get to the bottom of this mood.

Skarra sighs and takes another hit of his mildly intoxicating mushroom drink. He's been drinking steadily for the afternoon. Eventually he answers:

"Well, you know how we work about three hours a day,hunting, and its brillinat fun, and we can go where we want, whenever we want, and we are superfit, and meat tastes great, and we are revered by our tribe and are almost never hungry? Oh yeah, and there's all these festivals all the time and lots of mind altering substances and sex?"

"Yeah.." says Mask, "It's great isnt it?"

"Well" says Skarra " I want to pack all that in. You know that handful of grass that keeps growing near our toilet? Well, I want to chop down all those hardwoods over there and clear the ground, making it level, then get a small wooden stick, chop all the soil up, poo in space I've created and plant the grass. Then I want to pick through all the grass, eat the little seeds and replant only the bigger ones. When the big ones get really big, I'm going to pound them all up and make bread. Then I'm going to eat it."

Mask looked puzzled, but Skarra continued "THat's not all. I'm going to capture a baby Bos Progenitus and grow it and then drink it's milk."

"You mean an Auroch? One of those ton and a half precursors of cows that are among the most dangerous things we hunt? For a start, baby Auroch's drink milk - so where's that going to come from?"

"Oh, yeah" said Skarra "I'll capture its mother as well. build a big wooden enclosure and breed them until they're tame enough to be mild mannered."

It was now MAsk's turn to look distracted, but he just asked "And why are you doing this?"

Skarra looked sulky. "I dunno. Its just an impulse.I think its for the best. For my know...something inside me is telling me to be selfish"

Mask frowned "How long will all this take?"

Skarra brightened " Oh, only about five thousand years. Of course the first three thousand will be pretty hard - we'll get disease, famine and we'll have to work fiftenn hours a day tending the fields, and our longevity will decrease but it will be worth it in the end. Eventually, we'll be able to eat popcorn."

THis scenario, evolutionary biologists would have us believe, is how the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture began. It is also as we physicists say, "Not even wrong". I say 'we physicists' because as a polyglot, and joint third best academic in England, I have recently written a new book, based on Physics' mysteries. The book 'Gravity: What's up with that?' is another myth busting best seller, and presents for the first time a Unified Field Theory and Statement of General Relativity that I read about on Wikipedia. But this post isnt about Physics, so onwards I will drive to the point.

Evolutionary biologists argue that human societies are mainly the result of evolutionary drives. In many ways, this is a re-treading of the interpretatins of Darwinism that gave us "The White Man's Burden" - the notion that 'our' civilization was a pinnacle - the point towards which all human socities aspired. The fact that other societies were not 'us' , automatically labelled them as 'primitive', therefore further down the evolutionary ladder, therefore it was our duty to lead them. Modern interpretations of this are more Deterministic - for example Jared Diamond argues, in 'Guns, Germs and Steel' that the reason the West has 'won' is availability of resources. Implicit in his argument though, is still the notion that IF the people of Borneo had had access to the resources 'we' have, then they too would have built an Empire, had an Industrial Revolution and invented minor celebrities.

Anthropologists have long been sceptical of explanantions that emphasize solely evolutionary forces, for two reasons. Firstly, there is the sheer size of the task that was/still is involved in starting a farm. It is an almost impossible venture, and one who's rewards, even in terms of evolutionary fitness, take generations to appear. It is stretching an evolutionary point quite a bit to ask a gene, the supposed driver of the processes, to 'predict' fitness seven or eight generations down the line. The second reason is the questions of culture - art, religion, painting, bingo, texting : evolutionary biologists describe most of these things as by-products of evolving a large brain - anthropologists dont deny this, but say these 'by-products' have become massively important.

What, then, is the alternate hypothesis? For me, the understanding of the counterhypothesis (although I had already read these hypotheses) came while sitting in an amphitheatre in Tlos, Turkey, when I realised just how big the task of developing the Lycia, Roman, Greek and Byzantine settlements that littered the place had been, and it was a task that had been accomplished again and again. Gazing across the amphitheatre it was apparent that the drives behind creating this type of place were several steps removed from being ascribable just to evolutionary drives, and seeing the place, as opposed to reading about it, I understood just how important the cultures of these people must have been (to someone) in order to undertake these massive tasks.

And the distinction between these cultures being important to the 'people' and to 'someone' is I think, important. Building big stuff might not have necessarily been something that everyone in a society was involved in. Somewhere that illustrates this is Gobekli Tepe, also in Turkey. Gobekli Tepe is (probably) and 11,000 year old Neolithic temple. Catalhoyuk, also in Turkey, is also a Neolithic settlement. WHat is distinctive about both these places is that they pre-date agriculture. THis is important because the development of human society that fits neatly with evolutionary biology is that great monumnets were only built AFTER a successful agrarian society had developed sufficient leisure time to allow skills specialization. Monumental structures from pre-agrarian societies which did not even have their own settled villages paint a different picture.

AT Gobekli Tepe, no food, grain, pollen or material remaons have been found, yet the structure is massive, with beautiful ornate carvings. There are no evolutionary reasons why the place was built - it wasnt shelter, defence and it wasnt lived in. It was, it seems, a symbolic place. And if this is true, then the drive behind building it must have included a large dose of Culture, whatever that culture was.

WHich is where the First Dictator comes in. It is hard for me to imagine moves to settlement, monumnets and agriculture, as being accomplished where Culture was not a significan driving force. In fact, and this is where I usually end uparguing with my scientist friends, I think that human culture overtook and overpowered evolution many thousands of years ago, in development of our society. I actually think that apart from on an individualistic level, evolution is practically irrelevant when considering societal development. In fact, I believe that in many cases, the individuals' evolutionary drives were overruled by cultural drives. And by cultural drives, I dont think that a people's culture was necessarily a nicely democratically agreed, homogeneous set of agreements between a group of people about what was important any more than that would be an accurate description of culture today. Culture can be, and often is, imposed.

WHich is why I think that at some point, about 13000 years ago, The First Dictator was born. If I succed in switching University courses from the current one to 'History and ARchaeology', finding that person will be my principal aim. Even if I have to go to Turkey to do it.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Alternative News

One complaint I have about the news media is the sheer decadence of our current news, with minor 'celebrities' making headline news, horoscopes and topless models in the tabloids and the incredible laziness of the broadsheets. In truth, I think the broadsheets are worse than the tabloids. Firstly, there is the glut of 'lifestyle' pages with their associated endless lists - '10 best winter hideaways', '50 best Bush quotes', and their obsession with 'this seasons' must-do, must-have, must-see, must-cook. These newspapers give the impression that if your life should be a sort-of jigsaw puzzle of "bests". Men should be intelligent film buffs, who ski, bicycle, cook, surf, drive like James Bond, parachute, work out and who have read all of the '100 great novels', while listening to Spanish folk music, and have a collection of something gadgety ( but witty) but are not averse to a bit of a lads night after the football. Women shoud write jokey comments about how useless their 'life partners' re at fixing the car to the 'Comments' section of the feminist Women's Pages, while being great at DIY and gardening, but still like chocolate and cry at "Casablanca" and sing along (ironically now, due to 'Mamma Mia') to Abba, while volunteering in homeless centres (inbetween planning vacation to one of the '10 Places No-One Else HAs Been'), and occasional going on Peace Marches where they attack policemen (even if it is just verbally).

It's easy to dismiss these requirements that the media lay down for us, but I have to admit that I do quite often click on the '10 Best Island Getaways' link. Then I realize that a) I cannot afford it b) I dont look anywhere near as young, or beautifel as the people who occasionally are in these pictures c) I never got to the end of the '10 CD's you must own if your not to be a loser' list before realising I had given Massive Attack's 'seminal' Blue LInes away about ten years ago, and am therefore a loser. In short, the media do have an effect on how we think about ourselves.

CNN, BBC and Reuters, of course, are not the only source of news. With a little seacrhing you can get altenative views on the world, such as this one:

It is of course, the official news channel of North Korea. If you want your news with an old-fashioned flavour, this is it.

THere is also :

THis is the news channel of Kyrgyzstan, surely one of the best named countries in the world.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the Romanian news agency pages, Govt controlled ones, that is, are dense, fact-filled and incredibly boring:

Finally, there is the news from Liberia:

Monday, 3 August 2009

Bum fountains, cellphones and Peak Oil

What features, "In Heaven's name" you may ask, perhaps while contemplating the new brick wall you have just built, or maybe considering what Free Elective to attend during your forthcoming semester, do recycling bins, laptop computers, the humble daily loaf and Turkish bum fountains all share that could possibly lead to a coherent and cogent link between them.

To the idle contemplator who maybe has too much time on his hands now that his cat is fully restored to health (albeit one and three quarter inches 'strong' shorter) the answer is apparent, but to those who have less time on their hands, or other concerns, an explanation may assist. It starts with the Bum Fountain. Those who are dismayed by conversations which literally and figuratively fixate on the anal should give this post short shrift, and turn to Googling long lost schoolday enemies to see if they have been incarcerated, or even worse, become bankers.

The Bum Fountain was new to us all - self, RHB, Grasshopper and Burt on our recent Turkish sojourn. When RHB and I first went to Turkey twenty years ago, Turkish toilets were as the definition in Wikipedia - a ceramic basin on the ground with a five inch diameter hole in the middle. Ablutions were performed by squatting over the hole. At the conclusion of one's business, either a nearby garden hose, plumbed to the sink, or a small water filled basin was utilized to clean the particular effluential areas of one's anatomy responsible for the specific emission. Toilet paper was used only to dry anatomical regions, because Turkish plumbing was not adapted for the large quantities of paper which habitually accompanies human (particularly men's) elimination in the rest of Europe. The toilet tissue was then placed in a small bin. The arrangement was less than desirable. .

Times, however, change, and so does plumbing. We entered our apartment in Kas after a long drive from Dalaman, most of us eager to use the facilities. Throughout the previous twenty four hours, each couple had, I suspect, had whispered conversations, wondering what the little faucet (tap to the English) next to each toilet cistern was. It is also possible that the females of the group discussed the faucet as well, but, as I'm sure I need not emphasize, toiletry discussions between men are limited to "How high can you go", or "You stink". Details are verbotten. No Matter how the answer was derived, by the time we reached our apartment, the mystery had been solved. Each toilet is fitted with an adjustable, aimable nozzle, located near the top of the bowl. After the conduct of one's expellations, the faucet is turned on and a stream of water (that resolves tidily and hygenically into the toilet bowl) performs all the necessary cleaning. Again, toilet paper is used simpy to dry, and is placed, wet, but clean into a small bin next to the toilet.

It is hard to describe, once the correct angles have been discovered, quite how pleasurable the experience is. Simply to say "refreshing" does no justice at all. "Cleansing" struggles at the borders of explication. "Kinda fun" is delivered in exactly the right accent, with a certain intonation captures the event nicely, but in words, fails to indicate just how addictive it is to have the cooling jet of water swoosh...............but I digress - I should by now be talking about laptops, loaves and recycling bins.

So impressed was I by the Turkish bum fountain, that I made it a priority to get one installed in the commode in my abode. Predictably, Googling 'Turkish Bum Fountain' only resulted in a whole bunch of hardcore porn, (that I'd seen before when Googling 'seamen' and 'rope' whilst working on an exhibition called Wind, Wood and Sail for a museum in St John, New Brunswick, so I swiftly moved on in my search) and "bidet" resulted in a whole bunch of ugly, boring devices that try to hide their true function by calling hemselves things like "THE ALPINE" or "THE DAWCHESTER". I was stumped, so I e-mailed our friend Chris. She has connections, mostly Turkish, and some, no doubt, in the plumbing trade. I appealed to her for information on where I can obtain the hardware necessary to install my own fountain. Bending over in the shower just cannot go on much longer, besides, its no fun without the associated bodily function. Currently, I wait her response with hope, but if she does not come through with the goods then there's always a Christmastime trip to Istanbul as a possibility.

"But", I hear you cry, "What in the name of all that is Holy, does this have to do with recycling bins and the humble loaf?" Well, the link is, at least to me, clear, and consists of the information contained in an article in the Independent newspaper today, in which Dr Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency (a research body employed by OECD) reports that we may well already be at, or very close to Peak Oil production. Peak Oil production is the top of the thoerised Bell curve in volume (or barrels) of oil produced. Dr Birol, and his organisation may or may not be correct. However, what is NOT disputed, even usually by those who think that Polar Bears are a bunch of lefty ecomaniacs killing themselves to make a point, is that oil is finite. One day, and definitely this century, the oil wil run out. If humans had, as advised in "Civilization:Why?" (admittedly slightly ex post facto), stayed as hunter gatherers then the prescence or not of oil would not have been a problem. But we unfortunately got organised, got civilised and got producing, making, expanding, inventing and mostly, using. This pathological desire on the part of other humans to have stuff is selfish and inconsiderate, mostly because the consequence, twenty thousand years later, is that I am staring into a bleak future without a Bum Fountain if I dont act soon. As oil gets rarer, transportation costs will soar, making import of the thing an impossibility.

But cars, trucks, trains and planes are not the only potential obstacle in the way of my future anal happiness. Without oil, there is no plastic. Without plastic, there is no laptop computer. No laptop, no Google, no e-mail. The more I thought about it, the more I became alarmed at the number of things, all essentail to my possesion of the Bum Fountain, reliant on oil. Take recycling the package once my Bum Fountain gets delivered, for example. All my recycling bins are made of plastic, so if plastic goes extinct, then there's no more recycling, unless we use clay or wood. The English have already removed all their wood, building Naval fleets, and its doubtful whether the country has enough free space to gro wenough trees to make the necessary quantity of recycling boxes for the 25 million or so households in the country, and still publish tabloid newspapers. Clay, although pleasnat to look at is a tad heavy for the task, I would guess.

Worried about the possibility of being without the aforementioned posterior sanitizer, I spoke to a friend to express my concerns. The friend, (in fact a relative), diplomatically suggested that I was being stupid.

"Your being totally stupid" he said, not unkindly, "Plastic can be recycled, dummy" he said. "All that will happen is we'll get more efficient at making plastic, and then we'll recycle it".

I looked at him . "But oil is a finite resource" I said. That means..." and you'll forgive me here, but I was talking to a Science teacher so I had to make my explanation very simple "... that means...well, finite. Recycling does'nt add more."

My friend looked skeptical "You'll see. Humans are incredibly inventive. We'll have electric cars, and oils from plants. You dont know what your talking about." I have already explained that my friend is a Science teacher and therefore knows everything, especially, as he told me later, Chemistry. I pondered his remarks - humans are inventive - the statues on Easter Island, for example are beautiful and the extinct population that made them must have been incredibly inventive.

So, and I refer to the initial paragraph here, what has a simple by-product of wheat to do with all of this? Well, unfortunately, a simple loaf of bread takes about a pint of oil to produce. This is the combination of fuel for seed transport, mechanical planters, combine harvesters, the plastics in the machines that make the machines that process the wheat after harvesting, the energy costs of manufacture, transport, storage, packaging. This particular pint does not include the oil involved in making the computer that processes the stores' inventory, or the phone that is used to order more.

All of this I'm afraid is what connects laptop computers, recycling bins, Turkish Bum Fountains, loaves of bread - namely oil. In a post-Oil world, if I were to be writing this blog, the likelihood is that I would be pounding on a wooden and ivory keyboard, eating a crude sandwich made from local grass and suffering from a bad back as a result of carrying the lead cans out to the clay recycling containers. My only luxury in life would be my Bum Fountain, but even that would be a leaking pipe made from cat intestines, hand cranked, or possibly an Archimedean screw, slowly raising the cold, cold water to eventually dribble weakly down a bum that is grown chafed and rough because of the lack of proper lycra cycling shorts (yes, lycra too depends on oil). I consider myself an environmentalist, but considering this future, I realise I need to act now, urgently. For the future. Tomorrow, I wont build that wall. I'm going to stay on the Internet for as long as it takes to get a proper Bum Fountain.