Wednesday 25 February 2009

Tantalising Utopia

On several occasions, I have outlined a model for the sort of society I not only hope will emerge from the crisis and collapse of the Capitalist order, but which I actually believe WILL emerge.

That, I guess, is an act of faith. A belief that the outlook I have is correct. That progress is governed by evolutionary laws and that therefore, the society I dream of is not just the one I HOPE will emerge, but I believe that the underlying positive qualities of the species as a whole and it's ability to adapt and change in a good way will outweigh it's negative more primal instincts and that we will rise to the challenge.

And I've used the term Utopia for that vision. I've described it as a twenty second century Utopia.
In this, I think, both myself and Marx would agree. One of my beliefs- perhaps arrogantly- is that if Marx were around today, he'd be nodding his head at some of my writings and agreeing. Occasionally, he'd correct me on what he meant, but also he'd be saying 'Well, these are things I couldn't have foreseen, so you've taken that point further than I could have done'. Overall, however, I think he'd be relatively pleased at my interpretation of his theories. Glad perhaps, that SOMEONE bothered to understand them properly.

Because the vision of Utopia I describe, is of course the one that Marx was talking about. The collapse of Capitalism and the state of things as they stand, again, is what Marx was predicting. Nevertheless, we now come to something else that Marx described- the dialectic conflict.

Because if one looks, one clearly sees that the Utopia I describe- and actually the one which I think most fits Marx vision- has many, many features which show the blending of the thesis and the antithesis to create a new synthesis. It's actually a communistic system which delivers GREATER individual freedom than Capitalism does. Because it involves the pooling of resources to FREE humanity. It actually retains many of the good points of Capitalism.

And several commenters in the past have suggested that such a society would then be static. That there would be nothing to strive for.

This of course, would not be the case. The new thesis- the Utopia that was being perfected, would now itself show up as glaringly imperfect. Just not in ways that can quite be comprehended yet. That isn't to say that the synthesis won't be correct. The 'Utopia' will be better suited to drive human needs forward and improve quality of life. But in doing so, it will create NEW challenges, a new antithesis. Challenges that one day it will be unable to meet itself. And a new structural change will become increasingly needed. Another radical shift in the human way of doing things. A new and better Utopia, even more perfect will be seen to be possible, and my so-called Utopia described on this blog in the past will seem- backward. Flawed. Archaic. Anachronistic. Inefficient. Unable to answer the challenges of the twenty third and twenty fourth centuries.

It will no longer be Utopia. Or it will be, by our standards. But it's dystopian edge will have started to show. But it will reach a point where not overhauling it, allowing it to carry on will no longer lead to an INCREASE in human prosperity, but a DECREASE in it. We'll be back to where we are now, in relative terms. Of course, in a sense we won't be. Quality of life will be much higher than it now. But it just won't be improving any more and the danger of it slipping back to what it is now or even lower will be present.

What Marx understood was what economists and historians of the nineteenth century were dimly starting to understand, the basis for my historical series on human systematic development. That revolutions aren't merely political, they are phasal shifts. The eighteenth century was a phasal shift. Human systems were not up to meeting the challenges facing them. Human knowledge was capable of aspiring to more than the system could deliver. The wildest dreams of humanity could be achieved, just not as things were.

Let's not forget, it WAS achieved. Look at the prophets of Liberal Capitalism. If John Locke could have seen the London of 1900, he'd have thought Utopia had come. The system of living brought about by the societal changes of the Capitalist era, had created a society that was Utopian- at least in England- by seventeenth century standards. What Locke could not have foreseen was the new challenges that would bring, why it was that such a system could not continue forever. Why even it's pinnacle, the Utopia of Capitalism was on the wane.

Monarchy and Mercantilism were not up to delivering the changes needed in eighteenth century Europe. If you wanted to create a Europe where people could have freedom of conscience, where people could enjoy increased living standards, where people born had a good chance of themselves living to adulthood, where the old and the sick were cared for, a huge expansion of the system of production and distribution needed to take place. And that could only take place by vastly increasing the ability of individuals to partake of this system. A system at least had to be devised whereby expansion of the infrastructure could take place unhindered and those involved had real decision making power. A degree of efficiency needed to be a part of it. Government and power could no longer be tied to possession of huge landed estates. A system of circulating resources with ease needed to be established and one in which planning of the overall whole was in the hands of those involved.

Royal trading monopolies and grants to nobleman of tracts of land were not going to turn the American wilderness into teaming states of human civilisation. Telegraph lines were not going to be laid down across the Atlantic if only the king is allowed to use them.

The change that was needed was a system which expanded the amount of people involved in decision making processes and removed constraints on expansion of the infrastructure. So the long terms goals of Capitalism were clear. More infrastructure, better infrastructure, more say by more people on how things are done, get as many people involved as you can in this group effort. Work smarter, not harder. And the more we build up, the more of our efforts we can afford to spend on things at one time we couldn't have.

What Marx realised was that all these changes were good. Amazing changes that would change the world for the better. But would create new problems unforeseen at the start. And in themselves would not be the ultimate answer.

Because at the start, these ideas only mattered in Christendom, or what had been Christendom. The Utopia that was being envisaged was just the West. But of course, the thrust of this change would be to create a global society, Marx could see that. And then the limits would be reached.

What Marx foresaw was that at the end of it, a very unequal infrastructure would exist. In the West, there would be no need to expand it any more. Indeed, the problem would be in finding people work to do, because Capitalism had started off by getting people to sell their labour at a fixed rate. But technology would mean that as time progressed so much more was produced from their labours that the system produced far more goods than could be bought by the people who produced them. Because they weren't being paid a share of the produce, they were being paid in tokens relevant to how much it cost to produce those goods a very long time ago. So most of the profits of this system would consist of unused tokens, or more accurately, would simply be guzzled up in interest payments by the banks who funded the whole thing. The banks indeed, would have become a block on human progress because over the years they would have increased their share of the world at everyone else's expense. No wealth could be added any more to the economy, because there was no more territory. No more consumers. Improvement would always be possible, finding better ways to use what was in position, but there were no longer any new markets to bleed dry. So the banks would now be bleeding everybody. Every year, everybody not in a position to lend money would get poorer and those who could, richer. A perpetually increasing relative poverty gap.

Also, the infrastructure would have been unequally set up. Skewed. In the West, it would serve the people, to produce and distribute to them. In other parts of the world, that would have been secondary. The first concern was to bring goods to the west. Development of those regions for the benefit of the people would happen, but only secondarily. And once the limits of the expansion were reached- would feeze.

By the way, did you know Africa only possesses ONE railway route that doesn't lead from primary material rich areas to the coast? Only one railway line exist that was actually built to unite places inland and was built without shipping materials in mind.

The Russians paid for it in the seventies. It links Zambia to Tanzania.

So the last places to be developed would possess an infrastructure whose prime purpose was to export their materials outward. And lack many basic services that those who designed their infrastructure possessed. A global caste system would now exist, to replace the old one. Those in the west would all feel equal, that life in their countries was good. No class system, apparently.

But there would be, globally. A global Aristocracy- the corporations- a small global bourgeoisie- the western citizenry- and a huge global underclass. Still peasants, basically. The west would have become all middle class, everywhere else would all be peasants. And this of course, would be a highly unstable world. It would be France before 1789, but on a global scale.

And of course, the real point is, when the bourgeoisie realise that they don't lose out from the change. The peasants or the proletariat will indeed get much richer. But without the bourgeoisie getting poorer. Because the systematic change in view will lead to a better SYSTEM. Better at producing and distributing. It will be more efficient.

Which is where we are now. Or getting there.

So, the Utopia of the twenty second century. Will it be delivering an improvement?

Yes. I think when we have abolished money and put in place an equal infrastructure across the globe, we will look at the token system anew. And we will divide production in to two parts.

One part, we'll call taxation. The amount of work the citizen has to do to reach tax freedom, basically. Now of course, right now, most of the work we do is pointless. Unnecessary. It simply serves to move tokens around. So what this change will mean is that the value of work, from the point of view of the citizen, will be increased. The cost of everything won't have the cost of millions of hours of superfluous labour factored in.

So we'll work out how many man hours are needed to provide a subsistence life, in twenty first century terms for all. To pay for all things we now pay for out of taxation. And to provide housing and food. The cost of everything that you HAVE to pay for now. What we'll do, is we'll allocate ALL of that, to taxation. And then work out how many hours a week everyone actually has to work. My estimate is that it's about ten hours.

As for the rest of what you spend your money on, I guess we'll pay tokens to people for any surplus they put in. Though of course, those tokens will actually be entitling one to a share of the surplus. So people will get considerably more value for their efforts. If you want lots of goods, do lots of extra hours, or do something for which the tokens awarded are more, learn a skill. So it would still have the incentives of Capitalism. The more you put in, the more you got. What we'd simply be doing is better managing the basic bit. Everyone putting in equally there, a flat rate. Ten compulsory hours to keep the fabric of society to the standard we want it. Then with the rest, go buy CDs, or a boat, or just beer if you want.

The logic of this change is of course, the vast amounts of free time. To gain luxury goods and materials won't involve much work. with things as they stood, there would be no point in ANYONE working forty hours a week. They'd acquire far too many tokens to be able to do anything with. Since no one could buy bits of the infrastructure any more, the point of acquiring more tokens than you yourself could ever spend, would be limited.

So a new dynamic would enter human thinking.

Nowadays, when we say a project will cost too much, what we mean is we can't access the basic resource which governs everything. Man hours. Because everything else depends on that. If you have the human energy free, you can do anything. When we say 'Terraforming Venus isn't doable under current levels of technology in anything less than a few centuries' what we mean is, we haven't got vast reserves of free human energy.

Of course, in a world where everybody does ten hours work a work to ensure that everybody lives in greater comfort than most people do today and then another ten hours a week on average to satisfy their individual needs for material goods and other comforts, then things change.

Human society might well say; what we can now afford to do is double the compulsory output. To twenty hours a week. People are still not going to be working anywhere near as much as their ancestors were. But we'll be producing twice as much.

What do we need to do that for? Why the need for such a vast increase in productivity? Well, because we can. Because most people would see that now the point has been reached where all technological development is exponential. Working to live isn't a burden. Working to acquire the good things in life isn't that much work either. Fixing the contribution to the species at twenty hours means that the combined efforts can lead to improvements and projects not before thought feasible. The doubling of the power of the species, basically.

So it propels an advance that only this new system could provide. Democratic Communism now leads to colonisation of the solar system becoming practical. Mankind can devote as much time to doing all the things it once couldn't afford as it does to all things that today are considered the basic essentials.

Problems such as overpopulation and the like disappear- temporarily.

And by our standards, Utopia has been reached.

By 2200, everybody does twenty hours compulsory work, everybody lives in comfort, almost all basic work is handled communally. Everybody lives as an individual within their communities and everybody works extra hours to buy the good things, the surplus luxuries of the system. Pleasure.

Because humanity can afford it. It can afford to sit around and think 'Titan, next year, what do you think? How long would it take to terraform that? Thirty years, maybe? If that?'

So when would the point be reached when something radical needed to be changed? What challenges could destabilise this system?
When would it start to reach hurdles that could only be overcome by overhauling large parts of the human way of life?

Marx of course, never got that far. Marx predicted the challenges that the current phase would not be able to meet and the flaws which would undo it.

Is it possible to see the challenges the new system will throw up?
Yes, I think it is. At the start of course, they won't be flaws. They will be necessary features of it, things that will drive it, just as Interest drove Capitalism. And I don't think Marx could have seen- from where he was standing- the challenges the next two centuries- assuming of course Utopia happens- will bring.

And what the NEXT phasal shift will involve.

Is there much point in speculating that far ahead?
Yes, I think there is.

But not in this post :)

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Mixed Feelings

I suppose I'm in a wierd place now. It's been a wierd couple of weeks. On the whole quite positive, amazing in some ways. I think I came into 2009 on a real downer and yet now I feel quite uplifted in spite of recent events.

Yes, in a sense the future looks daunting. I think I'm starting to see that. But I have faith in it. I believe.

Some of you, of course, have been a part of that. There are several people over the last couple of weeks I owe a huge debt of gratitude to, for being there. You know who you are. You've been the difference.

I've made one very good new friend and also remembered a very important old friend who I had neglected. And now I've had a chance to remember just how good a person they are.

People have been very nice.

And I don't forget things like that.

I'm actually one of those people who've gained more faith in people over the years. As a teenager, I was firmly of the opinion that everyone lets you down in the end. My opinion on that has changed radically over the years. Some people truly are worth their weight in gold.
And will never let you down.

On the whole, I do think one is right to trust people until proven wrong, rather than take the reverse view.

Which is why I'm in a wierd place.

It has happened that someone in my life who I thought the world of, someone I had over a long period of time, come to regard as one of my closest friends, has demonstrated that that friendship meant nothing to them. And I'm surprised by how hurt and rejected I feel. It isn't a nice feeling, and I guess I'm lucky in a way it happened now, when I have so many positive vibes to counteract it, rather than a few weeks back when it would have been truly devastating. Of course it is still devastating, but right now I guess I'm kind of cushioned against the blow.

I think what surprises me is how I feel about it. Hurt? Yes. Pride dented? Yes. Blow to self esteem? Naturally. But angry? No. No.

And that's one thing I'm glad of. That I am capable of viewing things in perspective. When I was a child, I might have got angry about it. But now I just feel 'They don't value me like I thought they did. I wish they did, because I still think the world of them.'
Because I do, actually.

I guess I realise that whilst I'm hurt by them right now, badly in fact, I didn't value them for no reason. At many times in the past they made me feel quite valued and gave a lot to me. Otherwise they wouldn't have come to mean so much to me. I don't believe that the basis of our past friendship was a lie.

And I'm not one to turn my back on someone who meant that much to me either. I say meant, but that implies it's past tense. I should say, mean.

I believe that one day we could be friends again and I wish for that very much, but unfortunately it's never as easy as forgive and forget. They are already forgiven, but it takes a while to forget. The forgiveness is not bearing a grudge, the forgetting is hard because the hurt is still raw.

I guess the way I feel about it is that I have a kind of fantasy event in my mind. That one day in the future I'll be throwing a party to celebrate having achieved the sort of success I dream of. And everyone important to me would be there. All the people I write about, everyone I knew at uni, everyone I know socially, ex-work colleagues that I got on with, even some of you lot maybe. And they'd be someone I'd want to be at such an event.

And if it was to happen next month, then they wouldn't be.

That's the situation. And I don't want it to be like that.

It feels like a bereavement.

Hugs and kisses, people, love you all loads.
Thanks for being here.

Joe xxx

Monday 23 February 2009


In one very important sense, Jack Kennedy was a very lucky man indeed.

A very, very lucky man.

I often wonder what the judgement of history might have been to Tricky Dicky Nixon had an assassin's bullet claimed his life in late 1972. Would history have been different? Not much, I daresay. Only our perception of it. The way we viewed Nixon's presidency would be different. Because now we view it through the prism of Watergate, a prism which perhaps magnifies the failings of his presidency and invalidates his successes. Nixon, we are all agreed, was the worst President there ever was. Well, until Dubya turned up.

If we hadn't got Watergate to remember him by and our lasting images of him were of the wounded President being carried off to die, we would perhaps sing his praises, as the President who committed to ending the Vietnam war. And the President during his tenure the Moon landings happened. He broke the eleventh commandment, and we will remember him forever as a liar, a charlatan and a perjurer.

It is a funny thing about assassinations. Several things seem to happen with them.

Only four American Presidents have ever been assassinated. It's interesting to note that there are no conspiracy theories whatsoever regarding Garfield and McKinley. Perhaps because even most Americans have forgotten them. Their assassinations are memorable only if you're in a pub quiz and the question 'Name all four US Presidents that were assassinated' shows up.

Again, there are no conspiracy theories regarding assassination attempts on Presidents. There are, likewise no conspiracy theories regarding the attempt on the life of John Paul II, numerous ones regarding John Paul I and his sudden mysterious death.

In other words, the more memorable the President is and whether or not the attempt to assassinate succeeds, the more likely the simple explanation is viewed as unlikely. Kennedy was just too important for it to just have been a lone gunman. And yet with Reagan, no one doubts it. Because Reagan didn't die.

It seems to be a recognised phenomenon that psychologically we expect great events to have complex causes. Kennedy's death shook the world. So a lone nutter took a pot shot and got lucky, but no one quite knows why, just isn't the explanation that satisfies. Or that Diana was killed by a drunken chauffeur speeding to evade the paparazzi.
I don't know what to make of the numerous theories regarding his death. The theories have become part of the legend. The Kennedy Dream. That he was killed because he was so close to changing the world for the better. The conspiracy theory allows people to believe that it is the assassins of Kennedy who ruined America. That Camelot was on it's way, that Kennedy's new America was stopped in it's tracks. The hope and optimism of his inauguration cut short and then America plunged into TV screens depicting napalm bombs, agent orange, civil rights protesters being beaten, drugs, generation wars, a nation at war with itself. Had Kennedy lived, it might not have happened.

It is, in my view, a rather pernicious myth. And one I hope history will correct. Not so much because I think it unfairly honours a fraud and a charlatan, but because by giving undeserved greatness to a man because he was murdered before history could judge him fairly, it has deprived a worthier man of the praise he truly deserves. One of the greatest US Presidents of the twentieth century has been dismissed and unrecognised as the great statesmen he was.

Lyndon Johnson.

Let us take a look at what Kennedy MIGHT have been remembered for, had he served as US President until 1969.

Well, we might have better remembered his rather sordid family history. The only real difference between Al Capone and Joe Kennedy was Joe Kennedy didn't have people killed- or at least no one has ever proved he did, so he managed to work his way into respectable society and become US ambassador to Germany. Where he was quite pro-Hitler. So Kennedy was essentially the son of a Pro-Nazi bootlegger. Not, of course, that the sins of the father should affect the son, but Jack Kennedy's death has made the Kennedy family, the name itself, American nobility almost.

Kennedy is remembered for resolving the Cuban missile crisis. Funny that we now glorify him for managing not to get us all blown up and forget it was his fault in the first place things got that far. He launched the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he pretty much let Castro know he wasn't going to give up till US marines had removed Castro and put Batista back, it was his fault therefore if Castro turned to Ideological friends for nukes and it was Kennedy brought it all to a stand off.

So- no marks for Kennedy there. The man almost caused a nuclear war. Had he not been shot, I'm sure that's how it would be clearly stated, all of the time. Rather than this bizarre idea that we should be grateful he wasn't even more inept and somehow see that as a virtue.

Kennedy promised a man on the Moon. And it happened. Of course, Kennedy didn't make that happen. And it has been suggested that Kennedy's stated aim of a man on the Moon by 1970 may not have happened if the American people hadn't treasured it as a way of honouring him. An effort was made to keep to it. But would he himself have managed to keep to it? Or was it all hot air?

The real challenges Kennedy would have faced, had he lived, he never had to. And hence the myth has arisen that he would have handled them better than Johnson did. Not only is there no evidence for this, I believe it's a gross distortion of what the likelihood would have been. Johnson was not a man of fine words and phrases, but he was a man prepared to make tough choices and put people before personal aggrandisement in a way I don't think Kennedy really could.

Johnson is blamed for escalating the war in Vietnam. It is sometimes alleged Kennedy wouldn't have done. I'm not sure why. Kennedy seems, on the basis of the his early presidency to have been quite happy to throw out military threats and send troops in first and engage brain later on. I really don't think he would have been able to escape the desire for military posturing. It could have even have escalated more if Kennedy had lived.

And the civil rights movement. Kennedy was certainly a man for making the right noises on the subject, but I'm not convinced he was as personally committed to it as Johnson was. Johnson actually sympathised with the civil rights movement in a way Kennedy didn't. Johnson made it a priority, I doubt Kennedy would have done. Kennedy would have continued to talk the talk, but would never have walked the walk. He would have lacked the strength of resolve to deal with the racists in his own party, such as George Wallace in Alabama. He'd have tried to be all things to all men and the transition would have happened later, but far less peaceably.

My view is that Johnson left America in a far better position than Kennedy would have left it. Thousands more Americans returned home from Vietnam than might have done had Kennedy lived, thousands more never went. And African Americans gained equal treatment perhaps a decade sooner than they might have done, and without a national situation that could have developed into a South African style state of emergency, all of which, I believe might have come to pass as none of Kennedy's fine words got turned into action and the two faces of JFK were seen to be increasingly at odds with eachother.

By being shot, he escaped being shown up as the all style and no substance con man that he was. And that might sound a hard thing to say about the dead, but all historical figures die and the manner of their death shouldn't entitle even the sinners to sainthood. He wasn't a martyr and his presidency achieved nothing more than the creation of a myth, a fantasy presidency that never happened, but by which all subsequent presidencies would be judged.

It allowed a lucky accident, it caused the unsung, ignored and undervalued presidency of Lyndon Johnson to happen. An amazing stroke of luck that America hasn't got round yet to acknowledging.

So when I see people comparing Obama to Kennedy, I sincerely hope not. Because Kennedy is not the way to follow. What plan is that? Just run as long as you can getting plaudits without doing anything and hope you got shot so no one will notice?

I believe Obama is more than that.

Because we had our version of Kennedy here. Had he been shot after three years, we'd be writing hagiographies of him now. St Tony. Had he lived, we'd never have gone into Iraq. Tony would have stood up to Bush. Tony wouldn't have allowed British citizens to be tortured in Guantanamo Bay. If Tony had been in charge, Britain would be in a better position when the recession struck. Our streets wouldn't be filled with gangs of youths knifing eachother because Tony promised to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Education would have got better, hospital waiting lists gone down, it would all have happened had Tony lived.

Only he did live, and we know it didn't.

Somewhere, perhaps, is an alternate universe right now where a blogger just like me exists, writing a post on just how unfair it is that Nixon is held up as the greatest American President ever, just because he managed to get shot. That actually, Nixon was a bit dodgy, that really, Nixon is lucky he got assassinated, because otherwise he could even be remembered by history as being ALMOST as useless as that smarmy geriatric with his face fixed in a permanent plastic surgeon's grin, the former US President from 1961 to 1969, renowned for the sex scandals that plagued the latter part of his second term and for the American loss of National pride that took place under his term of office.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Seventeenth Crushed Sunday Memusetica

Judd has really gone to town this week and decided to do a survey to find out which of us bloggers are perverts. I'm not sure who is marking this, but anyway, here we go;

1. Is there anyone of your friends that you would ever consider having sex with? Moot point. One has to be careful with these sorts of things. One can find things are never the same afterwards. Generally, I try not to.

2. Sex in the morning, afternoon or night? Afternoon, actually. Seems to be peak time for me. I'm not a mornings person.

3. What side of the bed do you sleep on? The side nearest the wall.

4. Have you ever taken your clothes off for money? Not directly, no.

5. Have you ever had sex in the shower or the bath? Yes.

6. Do you watch/read pornography? Yes.

7. Do you want someone aggressive or passive in bed? Depends. Never forget, the submissive is the one with the power.

8. Do you love someone on your blogroll? Several :)

9. Would you choose love or money? Depends how much money.

10. Your top three favorite kinks in bed? How about we leave some things to the imagination?

11. Has anyone ever gone beyond your personal line of respect sexually? Yes. There are some things I just don't do. In some ways, I can be quite a prude.

12. Where is the most romantic place you have had sex? These sandstone caves that used to be home to hermit monks once.

13. Where is the weirdest place you have had sex? My exe's car. In the car park of the company I worked for. Right in front of the security camera.

14. Have you ever been caught having sex? Yes. Frequently.

15. Ever been to a bar just to get sex? Bears. Woods. Pope. Catholic.

16. Ever been picked up in a bar? Bears. Woods. Pope. Catholic.

17. Have you ever kissed or had sex with someone of the same sex? Yes to the first, no to the second.

18. Had sex in a movie theater? No. Don't think I have.

20. Had sex in a bathroom? I think we've had this one.

21. Have you ever had sex at work? Well, yes, but not during my responsible working life. When I worked in a hotel, I did, several times.

22. Bought something from an adult store? Yes.

23. Do you own any sex toys? No.

24. Does anyone have naughty pics of you or are you on film? The advent of the picturephone means yes, I'm afraid.

25. Have you ever had sex with someone and called them the wrong name? Yes.

26. Do you think oral sex constitutes as a form of intercourse? No. And I'm sticking with that.

27. What's your favorite sexual position? Call me old fashioned, but I find that the ones that people tend to use most are the ones that took off for a good reason.

28. What's your favorite sex act? Is the real purpose of this meme to find out who's a real pervert? Generally, I'd say SEX is my favourite sex act.

29. Have you ever had sex with more than one person at a time? If you're a man, it's not technically possible. Though in the sense I think you mean it, then, yes.

30. How many Sunday Stealing players do you think will not post this meme this week? I would say some will just not see it this week. Others will embrace it cheerfully.

Friday 20 February 2009

What IS Britishness? Or What Was it?

In 1965, the Canadian Prime Minister, Lester Pearson made a major concession to the French speaking people of Quebec.
He changed the national flag of Canada to the one we are all familiar with today, the Maple Leaf flag. Probably one of the better known and obviously recognisable national flags in the world.
It's a striking flag.

More instantly recognisable than the flag which had preceded it.

Nevertheless, not everyone was happy.

The state legislatures of Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia all responded by adopting provincial flags with the Union Jack in them.

Of the three, the anger at the flag change was strongest in Ontario. Because in Ontario, the history of what Ontario started is, is not forgotten. For over two hundred years now, the descendants of the rebels of 1776 have stared across Niagara Falls to see, fluttering in the wind, the red ensign. The descendants of the loyalists have flaunted their descent from those who stayed loyal to the crown. And whatever Lester Pearson decided, the people of Ontario had no intention of letting their southern neighbours forget. That on Crossing Niagara Falls, a part of the Americas was entered that stayed British.

And so the Union Jack flutters still above the turbulent waters of Niagara Falls, a reminder that the second largest country on the globe was founded by those who walked away from the American Revolution.

History as rewritten by Mel Gibson in The Patriot omits it, history tend to ignore the fact that the American Revolution was a civil war. In some states, both sides were evenly matched. And at the end of it all, there was a mass exodus. The loyalist exodus. Those who refused to stay in a land where rebels who had treacherously allied themselves with the French of all people, were now in control. It was just too much. After all, only a few years before, they'd been fighting the French. To these loyalists, the triumphant rebels weren't just Un-British, they were Un-Amercian. The loyalists had American accents as much as did the rebels. They were Americans through and through. it was just that they couldn't accept not being BRITISH Americans. And so they decamped by the thousand. They headed north. The British- themselves- had beaten the French only years before and Canada was now British. In part of it, the part now called Quebec, many French settlers lived. But the rest, what is now Ontario, was unsettled. They could live there.

And there were so many of them, that right from the start the exiled loyalists outnumbered the French settlers. Ontario became the new hub of British North America. The roots of Canada as we know it, are in the rejection of America. For the settlers of Ontario, the great victory was the British victory against France in the seven year war, the victory that made North America British and drove out the French. They were merely carrying on the American identity that their rebellious countrymen had turned their back on.

Of course, in a sense, one might argue it's stopped being relevant. I doubt any Canadians today see themselves as British. The interesting question is- when did they stop?

And one realises that really, the point is that what has actually happened is that British identity has ceased to exist. At some point between the second world war and the early seventies, a huge retraction in what the term British meant collapsed, leaving many high and dry and confused.

We do not realise half the time, I think, how massive a sea change that was. Nor was it envisaged. Something happened that nobody foresaw and nobody really noticed it happened.
Because everybody started doing it. The term British stopped meaning the Commonwealth and simply started meaning the United Kingdom. And it was a two way process. It wasn't planned and there isn't a legal point which defined it. It was a change in attitudes.

One notices it most with Australia. But the Dominions generally are a case in point. When i was younger I was always puzzled when Canada became independent. Because I had read it became a Dominion in 1867. Yet there it was in twentieth centuries maps of the Empire. so through both world wars, it was counted as British. As was Australia. When did they stop being counted as British?

Answer; they didn't. Not on their own. They're still Dominions today. What happened was how we saw Dominions changed. All the colonies have become independent now. But what no one foresaw, seemingly was that the Commonwealth would cease to mean British. The only difference is that in the nineteen thirties the inhabitants of Commonwealth countries believed that they were in the Commonwealth and that was what made you British, not living the UK. Canadian was British and England was British. They didn't see being British as implying subjugation, quite the reverse. They weren't ENGLISH, they were British. Dominion status made them equal partners to the founder nations, England and Scotland. A bit like Alaska didn't see being upgraded to a full US state as stopping them being Alaskans.

The Second World War was a major change, especially down under. After all, the Second World war was brought on Australia for no other reason than that it WAS part of the Commonwealth. In those days, all dominions unquestioningly joined in the wars of the Mother Lion. It was just how it worked. In a sense, I think the Second World War was the watershed moment for Australia in terms of thinking of itself as being a country. Up till then, I still think it had seen itself much as a US state sees itself. It's people were British first and Australian second; after the war that changed.

But I think perhaps a major sea change we fail to understand is the effect the collapse of Empire had on the Indian subcontinent. Asian immigrants here have had a hard time. There has been this sense that they're not British, they don't belong here. And yet...

Most British Asians came here in the sixties and seventies. To a foreign country, you might say. Certainly most of the 'native' British thought so. But where was their native country? Their parents had been, so often, loyal subjects of the White Emperor, George V, King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Emperor of India.

It would be interesting to do a study of motivation behind the first generation of British Asians. And see how much of a factor independence was in their migration. How far perhaps, the desire to stay LOYAL to a tradition, their own history even. Especially in Pakistan which had so radically changed. British India lasted a long time. It seems a little perverse to ignore that if one wants to talk about Indian traditions, the Raj was a very long lasting tradition. Many British Asians might well feel that the British India was the more traditional India. In other words, that the culture of British Asians is no less a British culture than the culture of the English. After all, the cultures of the Indian subcontinent were part of the Empire for so very long.

Is the Image below Indian tradition?
Or British tradition?

So Tebbit's cricket test is daft really. British Asians never pretended to be ENGLISH. They do however perhaps feel that they were British before 1947 just as they were Indian before 1947. Now they just want to carry on preserving their true Indian culture, but India is turning it's back on what to be Indian means. But surely in Britain they'd value that distinctly Indian culture, which was and surely is still a proud member of the British federation of unique cultures? Surely the English don't mind having the Indian culture side by side with it? We're all British cultures after all? These Congress types, Indira Gandhi and her ilk, they don't see that. That by destroying our British roots, they destroy our INDIAN traditions.

That, in my view was a certainly a factor in how many first generation British Asians felt. They're loyalty isn't to Britain the island, but to that old traditional concept, British India. They have recreated it, the India their grandparents knew. Is it wholly a coincidence that the parts of our cities they have made their own are in fact those places infected with thirties imperial architectural style, where nineteen thirties borough councils initiated the colonial buildings of the Raj? Small Heath probably looks more like nineteen thirties Delhi than Delhi does today.

The BNP and their ilk are perhaps foolish to call themselves loyal to Britishness. Because those they denounce and tell to 'go home' came here perhaps, to keep home alive. The India they loved was the India they have built in our cities, Indian but British. What they showcase is just as British as the white suburbs down the road. If the BNP really understood the idiocy of their rhetoric, they'd stop flying the Union Jack. Because it belongs just as much to the Sikh in his full ceremonial dress as it belongs to the Anglo-Saxon sterotype.

The racist thugs have forgotten that it is they themselves who don't get what British was. British Asians remember what it was, and what it was will always include them. As it includes Afro-Caribbeans, as it includes Hong Kong Chinese, as it includes all the descendants of about a quarter of the world's population, people of almost every single ethnic group who for good or for ill had their fates mapped out for them by membership of a polity that flew the Union Jack.

The people of the British Isles suffer from an ignorant lack of history in believing themselves the sole heir to this polity, believing that only their ancestors were part of it. And that they therefore, are the sole heirs to the symbols of its past. And perhaps that's why those symbols now seem somewhat degraded and a touch dirty. In the hands of these people, the Union Jack has attained an odour not dissimilar to the Swastika.

Perhaps we really do need and end to the United Kingdom. Once this strange unit, this dregs of Empire that exists goes and we give Ireland back to the Irish and this unhappy marriage with Scotland ends we give the Union Jack a proper funeral, and fighting over who and who isn't British becomes pointless, we'll see what Britishness was.

It was part of a family. Part of a development in world history, one of a new kind of polity, a benevolent Empire, a Roman empire of it's time, not just a plundering and subjugating empire, but a group of people with a deal to offer. A deal so many peoples across the globe accepted. The deal was;

'Join our family. You won't be our equals at the start, but it's damn site better than what you've got. Join our family. You'll live longer, have schools, have railways, have hospitals, have roads. And laws. No tyrants, no castes, no human sacrifices. Yes, we'll be the masters, but we're going to give you the tools to build things up yourselves. So it won't always be like this. Of course we're here because we want something. But consider this like a training a programme. We're going to train you up to make your country like ours. The freest country in the world.'

And no, it wasn't all fair. A lot of it was full of stupid fanfare and patronising attitudes. And worse. It had a dark side in many ways. And I think if the bit we're proud of is all the conquering we did, we miss the whole point about what was good about it.

We allowed everyone to take part in it. We wanted them to.

Do you know when the first Asian MP was elected to Westminster?

And he was elected for the Tories. For a London seat. Finsbury, I think.

That's what was good about it.

It was only racist in the sense that to start with it was one or two races- English and Scottish- selling the deal. But the deal was about a better world, a better way of living. Progress, Democracy, Freedom, Laws.

Ultimately, it hoped for peaceful, democratic world government.

So who really, are the heirs of Britishness?

Not just the people who still live in the islands where the idea started. Pretty much everyone is.

Britishness is multiculturalism.

Britishness was the ideal of many different races retaining their own unique cultures and blending them, it was about finding the best of all worlds, but ultimately always believing in the right of people to rule themselves. It was the idea that people make governments, not government makes peoples.

It's not a birthright. It's a dream.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Emotional Incontinence Versus the Spirit of Martyrdom


I frequently discuss with people how we define good and evil.

I'm fairly satisfied with my definition of good being the drive towards harmony and efficiency, towards greater human happiness.
And I'm fairly satisfied with my definition as being primal instincts that corrupt that objective.

Neither are static concepts, as I have argued. They evolve. What is good in one epoch, may be evil in the next. And vice versa.

But as far as we humans are concerned- now- we can fairly and safely say that good is logical and evil illogical. That isn't to say that evil cannot present itself as logical- the Nazis did- but one must remember that that logic is flawed somewhere. There is a logical fallacy hidden in the argument of evil at some point.

And I realise of course, that one of the cardinal errors of our age is to present emotional decisions as being inherently good. The logic is flawed.

If we had two extreme human beings, one totally devoid of emotions and one totally devoid of logic, which of the two would be evil, in the sense we know it?

Which of the two would be more likely to be, say, a serial killer?

Hardly the first. To be a serial killer, you would have to have emotions. Ones that drove you to kill indiscriminately. You would also need to lack logic and control over your warped emotions.

So the point about evil people, the point about the most dangerous individuals that society keeps locked up in the most high security criminal psychiatric units is not that they lack emotions. It's the reverse. The problem is that they are what I call 'emotionally incontinent'.

Which is what they are. Essentially, that is the difference between people who are a force for ill in the world. The ability or otherwise to make rational decisions.

An emotionally incontinent person is incapable of that.

We have emotions for a good reason. We evolved them to enable us to make decisions. Our shrewlike ancestors had no social structure and no logical methods of making decisions, no way of communicating to eachother the store of experience they had built up. So those survived whose internal chemistry prompted them to do certain things. Run when a predator appeared. Mate when they found a partner. Eat when they were hungry.

One thing we humans have evolved, for the most part, is the ability to communicate to eachother systems of doing things which work and create greater efficiency and harmony. These chemicals are primitive things, their logic is short term and often unrelated to the complicated intricacies of our existence. Our shrewlike ancestors didn't sit at desks analysing spreadsheets. So our emotion of boredom isn't in fact much use to us. Had we been designed by a benevolent creator, he'd have made us find spreadsheets fascinating. Sadly, we weren't and therefore we don't. Throwing blue tack round the office is much more fun, but far less useful. So our emotions are largely useless here, yet we manage to get our heads round the fact that we have to suppress our instincts to some degree.

Without emotions to guide us, we probably wouldn't get too far. After all, it is our emotions that drive us. However, as rational human beings, we are capable of ordering our emotions into systems we believe will work best and give us the ultimate payload; the greatest long term happiness of the greatest number. That is our highest goal, the one which, by common consensus, we are all continually striving for. Sure we want to tweak it along the way to deliver moments of personal short term happiness, but most of us appreciate that it's a balancing excercise.

And what makes us good- or bad- people, is our ability to control that system of balances.

Without being able to feel at all, we would be incapable of empathy and incpable of conceiving of the greatest happiness of the greatest number and therefore, we would not ever be able to form a harmonious part of the whole. So yes, capacity to feel and emote is perhaps a crucial part of being a good person.

But in itself, it's not enough. A person incapable of feeling is by and large neither good nor evil- they are neutral. Totally disassociated from the world. They cannot give, either positively or negatively.

It is my belief that the main evolutionary development taking place in humanity as civilisation as it stands, is an emotional one. The ability to be an empath, basically.
The ability to control one's own emotions, to be able to connect one's own emotions to a group emotion and to suppress emotions at will.

I say that, because it is my belief that significant numbers of us can do that and significant numbers of us cannot. And it is, to some degree, a major part in our development.
I say that, because I realise that a major part of my character is defined by the fact that whilst I clearly can be a very passionate person with quite powerful strength of feeling, I can at will totally suppress almost any emotion I choose. This, of course, leads to allegations from those who haven't that sort of control to accusations that every emotion do show is fake.

Which they're not of course. I react spontaneously generally, but I also seem to have a switch I can press at will, which simply shuts off emotions which might be a danger to me.
People sometimes say 'Why did you lash out there, but you didn't react at all to such and such?'
The answer would seem to be that I have in instinct beyond the instincts. It's why I've never been in a physical fight, never been hurt physically, but yet still manage to convey the impression of someone you don't mess with. I have this instinct which know when it can release my anger and when my anger will potentially get me killed, or would ruin my career, or even ruin a friendship. I really seem to only get angry when it is in my interests to do so. Which leads some to say my occasional temper tantrums are all an act.
It's as if my internal workings are capable of assessing the environment and know when to disable the function which would release anger.

I can't control the emotions I feel. I can't create emotions that don't exist. What I can seemingly do, is disable them. Pretty much at will. I realise that not everyone can do this.

But of course, I did it in gaol. I switched my entire emotional framework over. It wasn't switched off, just for two years there were a whole range of emotions that were disabled. Whereas others seemed to be enhanced. I suppose one could say that whilst in there I heightened the ability to switch emotions on and off at will.

But I believe I could always do it, from adolescence onwards. And I know many people who can. And I think it's the main distinction between those of us who can and those of who can't. I even have a theory as to how this ability forms itself in terms of psychological development. Because all the people I know with the ability have several things in common. A reasonably high IQ. My theory is that it is kind of a neotonous development in some ways, but the mechanics of it and why I think evolution favours the survival of this mechanism, will have to wait till another post.

Haydee, I think, possesses it.

One major implication, of course, is that for someone with this switch a statement such as 'You can't help who you fall in love with' is not true. I can't make myself fall in love with someone, I can't make myself be attracted to someone. But I most certainly can decide NOT to. I can do that bit.

I suppose, of course, this does majorly affect one's outlook on life and the people one has sympathy for and why. I find it almost impossible to have sympathy for people I see as being emotionally incontinent. People who seem incapable of using logic to control and moderate their emotions. People who seem to lack that 'override' function.

And I suppose it does lead to some confusion, in the sense I've often been accused of being a cold blooded heartbreaker. One woman in particular devotes her life to believing I feign my entire set of emotions for no other purpose than to hurt women.

The reality, of course, is different. I most certainly am a sensuous individual, beloved of experiencing life to the full. But I'm also a person capable of cold, logical, dispassionate thinking when the need arises. I know when to over-ride my passions.

I cannot create sentiments that are not there, but I can over-ride almost any sentiment I choose, if I believe that to be the right course of action.

The problem with the woman in question- with the greatest possible respect- is emotional incontinence. The inability to weigh up her own emotions against the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number. An inability to over-ride emotions and analyse things logically and objectively.

One thing I've noticed is that my over-ride function in terms of attachment to someone is quite efficient. It really does seem to governed by matters of logic. If my mind tells me that it is unwise to be attracted to someone for various reasons, then the over-ride function will simply kick into play.

From my point of view it has to be said there is nothing more horrific than realising that someone is obsessed with you to the degree that their feelings are having a malevolent effect on the wider world but really is incapable of over-riding those sentiments in the interests of overall human happiness. I guess to me I still find it hard to grasp that there are people out there who can't simply press that switch inside them and simply over-ride their sentiments.

For example, my feelings to Haydee. If I really wanted to, I could switch them off. I don't. Because I don't want to. That I guess is kind of the point. The emotion is a nice one and I don't see it as being harmful. So I don't want to switch it off. Not really. Sometimes I tell myself I should, but the will isn't there. With sufficient will, I could do it. In a matter of hours.

I couldn't, of course make myself love someone if I didn't. I've tried that, it doesn't work. But one can decide to simply stop being attracted to someone. Simply suppress the sentiments.

But- and here's the oddity, though if you think about it, isn't it- when you succeed in successfully suppressing an emotion, you get an emotion all of it's own. As a kind of reward. And actually, it is more powerful than any other emotion there is.
I suppose that's only natural really. Our own systems have to give us some kind of reward to incentivise us. Otherwise we wouldn't do it. That's how the switch works. It's what makes us want to press it when our brains tell us it's right to do so. And why why we don't press it otherwise, why we trust our normal emotions for the most part. Because if we wrongly press the switch, we don't get that special emotion that we only get when we're right to press it.

And I realise this what the emotionally incontinent lack. That higher emotion. It is, in my view, the highest evolved of all human emotions and the ability to feel it isn't present in all of us.

But in today's world, I would say it's presence or absence, is fast becoming- if it isn't already- the defining characteristic between good or evil.

You get it every time your head suppresses your emotions for reasons of the head. It is the only emotion that proceeds solely of the head. And yet you feel it. It flows through you, not like a wave, not passionate, not stormy, but calm, tranquil, it is still.
The world stops and whilst you feel it, you feel that you transcend your pathetic organic form. If there is a God, that is when you are close to her.

It is the sense of total mastery over your emotions.

I know not what to call it.

Except it is the most powerful inner peace that there is.

And the rare moments in life we get to experience it, it exceeds any feeling we can ever experience.
So I pity the emotionally incontinent that are incapable of being able to experience this highest and most beautiful of all feelings. Because to be able to feel it all all, your feelings and passions do indeed need to be strong. That is what makes the sense of stilling so perfect. It is like walking across a perfectly still ocean.

The triumph of head over heart, the sublimation of the organic, the ascension of pure reason, the joy of feeling at one with the greater unity, that at this point, whilst you feel like this, you see with the eyes of the universe and not through the skewed and warped perception of organic matter.

The spirit of martyrdom.

Saturday 14 February 2009

Here Be Dragons

I think it's a shame in some ways, that the general human populace has lost interest in our universe.
By which I mean, the rest of it, the stuff beyond our atmosphere.

Back in the 1960s, I think everyone truly believed we'd soon by on Mars. Because we'd made it to the Moon. The fact that going to Mars is a whole different ball game to going to the Moon seems to have passed everyone by. It's like comparing crossing the Irish sea in a yacht to crossing the Atlantic in a yacht.

It was exciting. We'd got off our rock. Not only that, people were now seeing close up photographs of Mars and Venus. We'd sent probes, we were seeing real pictures. We had sketch maps of Mars before, but they'd been drawn using the telescope. Now we had maps constructed from close range photographs. The Moon, Mars, well, it was all space, we were up there now, next stop the Andromeda Galaxy.
We all got too excited and carried away too quickly.

But it will come, of course. Only now it doesn't seem so exciting. We seem to be more realistic about now, perhaps a bit too realistic. And sadly, people don't seem to realise any longer just how fast our expansion of our world is moving.

One looks at maps of Earth in the eighteenth century. No one really had a clue what the west coast of America north of California looked like and what sort of land, if any at all lurked around the South Pole was anyone's guess. And where did the Nile rise? No one knew. They just put pictures of dragons and mermaids in the blank spaces.

And of course, our knowledge of our star system is still a bit like that. Up until recently, we've been able to name the larger objects orbitting quite close to us, but only recently have we really known much of what these places were like. The Moons of Saturn have entered the human kingdom now, because we don't just know they're there, we have pictures. And maps. Not very good ones yet, but in time they'll get better.

And I guess we're more realistic. We've reflected a little on how big space is. My guess is by 2200,the Moon will have several thriving cities, Mars will be the new California and even Venus will be part of the human culture, albeit maybe only just opening up to settlement above and beyond scientific bases. The regular human sphere will have expanded, it's boundaries will no longer be this sphere, but the asteroid belt. And perhaps we'll be starting to consider the first manned missions to the Gas Giants. And by this time, of course, the moons of every gas Giant will all of them have been as painstakingly mapped as our Moon is today.

But of course, we'll still be looking out, even then, knowing we still, even then, have barely touched the Sun's realm.

Because over the last couple of decades, our knowledge on that has changed. Our perception of it has changed, because our probes have gone so much further. And our theories too.

When I was a child, we were taught that after Neptune was the ninth planet, at the edge of the solar system, 'The edge of the sun's Kingdom', they taught us it was. A bit of an odd planet, because though beyond the Gas giants, it wasn't very big. Perhaps as big as our Moon. And beyond that, comets. No one really knew quite where they came from, but somewhere out there, following their strange orbits, out to the edges, then back in. And then....?

Nothing till Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years away. And really, there wasn't much more to say than that. And what did we know of other stars? Sometimes how far away they were. How big, what sort of composition, how old they were likely to be. But that was pretty much it.

That has radically changed now. Because we know so much more, not only about this system, but about ALL systems. We can see so much more of this star's domain, but also see things about other stars that tell us things aqbout this one.

Firstly, we've brought a whole now region of the solar system into our knowledge. We had guessed it was there for a long time, but now our vision can see into it. The Kuiper belt and the scattered disc. This swathe of space stretches out about four times the distance from the Sun to the edge of Neptune's orbit. And we now know that Pluto isn't an oddity, a strange planet at the edge of the sun's kingdom, it is the NEAREST of several similar bodies, dwarf planets, that live in the Kuiper belt. We know of four, and one of those is bigger than Pluto. There are likely to be more. One could say it's a bit like the asteroid belt, only it's much, much bigger and the objects in it are much, much, bigger. Bigger than asteroids, but smaller than planets. Hence, dwarf planets. And Pluto is just one of them.

None of this was known when I was a child.

And beyond that, we now suspect we actually come to a real edge, a border region where there is actually a kind of wall, a zone called the heliopause. This is caused by moving outside the direct reaches of the Sun's gravity into the galaxy outside. Because everything on one side is pulled by the Sun and carried with it, everything outside can escape. So there is likely to be a sort of solar windbreak effect. We can actually see this in some neighbouring stars, so we can expect to see it with our own. Again, this is all new knowledge. Of course, we can't as yet confirm this by direct observation in our own system, but it's only a matter of time.

But it's the beyond that we're really starting to open up to our vision. Beyond lies a vast outer circle, perhaps stretching out a quarter to half a light year in radius.
It was first conceived of decades ago and christened the Oort cloud. The vast region where comets spend most of their time when not on their occasional sojourns into our bit of the solar system. Here was the place comets spent most of their time.
We still can't see this region and so it is still all pure speculation, but we've got some more interesting theories.

The first part, is that since the early nineties, we've started to split that disc into two. A much smaller inner disc, perhaps less than ten percent of the Oort cloud where the vast majority of the comets come from called the Hills cloud. The edge, for all practical purposes of the Sun's realm. With the Oort cloud itself being home only to a few unusual comets long range comets, irregular visitors to our tiny region of space.
This means that we can expect, if this is so, to one day in the not too distant future actually have photographs of the home turf of the comets. It must surely be an interesting region of space, unlike anything we've conceived of up till now. A kind of vast debris belt, formed of matter hanging on at the outskirts of Sol, like moths circling a lamp. The Hills cloud is something our probes and our telescopes will see into soon. The Oort cloud may well have to wait a longer time.

But the more interesting possibility, is what several scientists think may lie beyond the Oort cloud. And if it does, it answers a lot of questions.


Myself, I'm actually reasonably convinced by the Nemesis hypothesis. I expect us to identify Nemesis in the next decade or two. It's something our knowledge once didn't expect, the very fact that the theory exists, is a product of knowledge only accumulated in my lifetime. And that's why I find the concept so exciting.

Firstly, the fact is that binary systems, or even threesome star systems, are not uncommon. Stars that orbit in pairs. Stars with connected gravity. They move together. Sirius is one. We see one star, but in fact it is two, very close to eachother. The travel together. In fact, it seems that stars on their own without at least one companion star, are the exception, not the norm.
Planets too. We once thought they could only exist in stars that lacked a companion star. Now we know that not to be so. Part of the reason we thought that, was because we believed our on star to be a solitary star. But several of the planets we have identified in the last decade or so as possessing planets, have been binary stars.

So apart from the fact that this star system is NOT a binary star system- a system like this could exist in orbit around one member of a binary star system. We know that much.

But then of course, we learned something else in the eighties. We learned that the dinosaurs were extincted by a meteorite, maybe fragments of a comet. Not only that, mass extinctions are a regular feature of life on earth. Not so often that life hasn't otherwise got along fine. But often enough to radically change the flora and fauna at periodic intervals.
How often?
Well, roughly every twenty six million years. It's pretty much that precise. Sometimes it's clearly greater than others. Sometimes we're lucky, we only get a bit of debris. But other times, we get a huge downpour of debris. Consensus is, something seems to disrupt the paths of comets by slicing through the Oort cloud every twenty six million years.
And one lead theory is- the Sun has a companion that we can't see. Or haven't seen.

It's always there, but every twenty six million years, it gets too close. Don't worry, we have another thirteen million years.

A red dwarf companion to the Sun fits the bill. If it exists, then it is about half a light year to a light year distant.
So why haven't we seen it?
The suggestion is, we have. But we don't know it. That it is there. But how can we not have seen it when it's so near?

Well, a star's brightness doesn't tell us how near a star is. Sirius is bright, because it's nearby. Proxima Centauri is nearer still, but you can't see it with the naked eye. It's a fairly unremarkable star, our nearest known neighbour. We estimate star distance by seeing if they move relative to us and by how much. They nearer they are to us, the more they appear to move, basically. So we can actually estimate to an amazing degree of accuracy how far all our nearest neighbours are to us.

There could be a red dwarf we've listed as being very far away. Very far away, but relatively bright. We've listed it as far away, because it doesn't appear to move much. But in this case, we're wrong. It doesn't appear to move, because it is moving with the Sun. Yes, it orbits the sun once every twenty six million years, but in terms of time as we know it on a day to day level, it pretty much holds the same position with regard to the sun and will hold it's position in the sky with far greater constancy than any other nearby star.
If Nemesis exists, and it is a red dwarf, than there is no way it isn't already in our star catalogues. It's there amongst the numerous lists of red dwarfs our telescopes have seen and marked as too far away to be of much interest. Just another red dwarf with a catalogue number.

I find the idea exciting, because it stands a good chance of being true. And it's a fascinating tieing up of unanswered questions. The dinosaurs extincted because the Sun is part of a binary system. But the idea that we ourselves are part of a star system of the type we once thought COULDN'T have planets is quite a turnaround in human knowledge.

I actually do find it quite exciting, in a way. The idea that really, in terms of our star and mapping out the domain of our own star, we're still at the 'Here be dragons stage'. There's a vast realm out there to discover, the Empire of Sol, our star.

And that's before we even start to think about Sirius and Proxima Centauri.

Note: I've tried this out at Crushed's holiday home. To see what it looked like. I'm actually not UNimpressed

Saturday 7 February 2009

Clade and Grade- Part One: Re-interpreting Life

I thought I'd take advantage of this period of being gagged but not bound to write about our current system of looking at life and some of the errors it leads is into thinking.

There are two ways of viewing the so-called family tree of life. The older form, popularised by Ray Lankester, emphasised 'Grades'.

For example, we talk of mammals having evolved 'from reptiles'. In other words, our ancestors passed through a reptile stage. Some stayed put, and some moved up a grade. We then talk of man having evolved 'from apes'. Again, it implies that our ancestors moved on from being apes, while other apes stayed put.

It is, of course, misleading. Because when we then say 'reptiles appeared in the late carboniferous', we tend to look at existing 'reptiles' and see them as having been there, when we were not. We look at a Chimpanzee and think of him as having been around millions of years before we were.

So the grade approach can mislead. Besides, it focusses so often on arbitrary external features. After all, the only way to distinguish a mammal from a reptile is that a mammal is a warm blooded amniote with fur, the reptile is a cold blooded amniote without fur.
Classification of the amniotes is flawed in this regard. Mammals and birds are amniotes with certain features, all those without 'stay' at the reptile grade. It is a bit like Baldrick's famous dictionary definition of a dog as 'not a cat'.

Recently classificaation has moved to cladistic definitions, sorting animals into groups based on evolutionary relationship. In many ways, it has failed to reach popular conception yet, certainly at the end of the tree where it is most pertinent. Because we have historically looked at the tree and graded it 'like us' 'less like us' 'not like us at all'.

But oddly, there does come a point when perhaps the grade approach is the correct one. When we can actually say 'the descendants of this organism that did this are QUALITITIVELY different from it's ancestors and those of it's descendants that didn't. In other words, it is a new form and we are right at this point to say that this particular organism around today WAS around when we weren't.

But we need to get to grips first with what we mean by life.

To begin with, there was no mystery to that- it was just what caused it. Living things were things that seemingly did things; grew, reproduced, died- without a motor apparently driving them. There seemed to be a ghost in the machine somewhere, because the driving motor wasn't identifiable.

So plants and animals were alive. They were DOING things, but how they did them, was a mystery. The force was unseen.

Now, of course, we know the answer. Metabolism. The curious trick whereby life manages to create chemical reactions without combustion. It's a clever chemical reaction. It is exactly the same as all change, all movement anywhere. It is an electromagnetic reaction like fire, but without the flames.

But- here comes the wierd thing- now we know that, we have a problem. Is our definition of life then, anything that is driven by a metabolism?
No. Now we no longer know how to define it. Because we accept that this process must have started BEFORE metabolisms. A metabolism that didn't replicate, will have died. So the start, was the replicator. Metabolism came later.

And where do we classify viruses? Right now, we classify them outside life. We debate whether to expand the definition of life to include them. Mainly because they are no cellular forms. Just free standing proteins, if you like. But they replicate. The thing is- you can create a new virus in a lab. So if we include viruses as life, we then find that the statement that man can create life becomes true. Only- it isn't, in the sense we can't actually replicate the process that resulted in US being here.

In fact, including viruses as life only emphasises the qualititive differences between us and the virus.
But the real point is, we have long since gone past the point where the tree of life is tenable. Bacteria are not in fact our long distant cousins. Components of our cells are. That's the point. Multicellular life is not related to unicellular life, the cells of multicellular beings are.

I would say, let's start at the begining, but in subjects such as this, that's not always helpful. So let's in fact start at the end. Us.

We are the species Sapiens of the Genus Homo of the family Hominidae of the order PRimate of the class Mammalia of the phylum Choradata of the kingdom Animalia of the Empire Eukarya.

Let us start with our species.

We are the only species in the genus, so we don't spend too much time thinking abput the relevance of species.
Generally, lifeforms are described as being members of the same species if they breed true in natural conditions.
The point is, usually members of the same genus but different species CAN breed, though not always create stable hybrids. Lions and Tigers CAN breed and have been bred in captivity.
Indeed, very often the only thing that marke off a separate species is they don't choose to breed and will never do so naturally. But biologically they usually can.
By which I mean, we probably wouldn't be sexually attracted to Homo Erectus women if they still lived and therefore wouldn't as a whole choose to have sex with them. But we probably COULD have done and such unions WOULD have produced children.

Species in the same genus are usually far enough away to not be sexually attracted to eachother, but sex between them is biologicaly feasible.
So species, really, has significance only for studying cultural populations. It isn't the true biological boundary between lifeforms.

The genus is the most useful identifier of a distinct lifeform. But in fact, family is useful too. The animals in the Felid family are all basically cats. The animals in the canid family are all basically dogs. And the animals in the Hominid family are all basically apes.

One is tempted to reccommend scrapping the latin specfic for the common descrption of a lifeform and restricting it's usage merely to zoologists, breeding experts, etc. And adding the colloquial English form of the family in front of the genus as the common identifier of the group.

Thus both dog and wolf would become Dog Canis, while the fox would become Dog Vulpes. The common cat would become Cat Felis, whilst the lion and the tiger would become Cat Panthera.

And what would it mean for primates? Well, the Hominid family contains us, the Chimps, the Gorillas and the Orangs. Gibbons form the family Hylobatidae, which now has more than one genera.
What would we call these?
Well, there is only a problem if you want to continue denying the obvious. I would say the answer is, stop calling the Gibbon an ape. Then the common Gibbon can be Gibbon Hylobates.
And then the Hominid family become...

Ape Pongo (The Orang Utan), Ape Gorilla (The Gorilla), Ape Pan (The Chimpanzee) and Ape Homo (Man).

Personally, I find this categorisation much more helpful. And honest, in that it puts Homo firmly amongst the apes- not descended from apes, but one of them. Which is what Homo is, a genus of ape.

Moving to having Family and Genus as the key identifiers, rather than Genus and Species is far more helpful, I feel.

Now we come to Orders. To be honest, the Orders are in total disarray at present. Modern research has shown that many orders, especially in the mammalian class, were not actually composed of related creatures- or that they were more closely related to creatures in other orders than ones in their own order. The Order Insectivora is no longer recognised, for example. We now have a plethora of mammalian orders, seemingly because we designate every order as consisting of mammals that have formed seapate lineages from the start of the Paleocene. In no other class do we plump for so recent a divide.

So I would argur for re-merging of mammalian order to form a smaller number of larger orders, based on true genetic relationships.
Of course, some of those new orders would surprise many not familiar with recent advances in genetic knowledge.

The basic division of the Mammals in Montremata, Marsupiala, and Placentalia would seem to be sound. However, I would agree with those who suggest that the Xenarthra (Sloths and armadillos basically) are so distantly related to the rest of the Placentalia, that they should form their own division, consisting of two orders, whilst the rest of the Placentalia, the Epitheria, form another division with extant orders as follows;

Archonts- Includes us. The whole of the current order Primate, plus the Tupiaidae (tree shrews) and the Colugos, or flying lemurs.

Glires- The old order Rodentia, basically. Lagomorohs were sparated in the last fifty years, Glires simply recreates that.

Cetartiodactyla- Already treated as one order. The even toed ungulates (ruminants, pigs and hippos) plus the whales, basically)

Chiroptera- Bats.

Zoomata- Quite an unusual order, since it contains animals that don't appear related, but in fact are. It is a merger between the Carnivora (dogs, cars, bears, seals, walruses, weazels, pandas, racoons) the Pholidota (spiny anteaters) and the Perrisodactyla (horses, tapirs and rhinos).

Erinaceomorpha- Hedgehogs.

Sorincomopha- Common shrews, moles, solenedons, etc.

Afrosoricidae- Golden moles and otter shrews

Macroscelidae- Elephent shrews.

Tubelidentata- Aardvarks.

Paenungulata- Elephants, dugongs, hyraxes.

It will be noted from this system, that several orders consist entirely of creaures that are a bit shrew like. Naturally. The basic ancestor of all these orders was a bit shrew like. So we should expect that. When we look at a shrew, we are looking at what the early mammals looked like. So looking like a shrew doesn't really say what other mammals a shrewlike thing is related to.

But a tree shrew is OUR type of mammal, and an Elephant shrew isn't. In this classification, the general term shrew now acquires a different meaning. It means 'basic mammal who most closely ressembles the common ancestral mammalian form'.

As to where we put the extinct order of mammals? Well, the Creodonts and the Cimolesta clearly belong to the Zoomata. The Toxodontia and the Litopterna are the only ones now seemingly without a place. My guess is that the term Notoungulata used to group them together is still valid in this scheme, they would appear to have been divergent fot at least as long as the Archonts and the Glires. As to the Condylarthra, I don't know. But at some point surely, that mystery will be solved.

Now we move to the next level, the problem of Class. Here I have to agree with the Cladists, the classification of the chordates suffers a major problem. Though only one. Fish are no longer treated as one class, because it isn't contentious splitting them up into classes which reflect their evolutionary relationships.

And modern Amphibians clearly ARE closer related to eachother than they are the three classes grouped together as Amniotes. It is the classification of the amniotes that is woefully misleading.

Because the common ancestor of the mammals and the 'reptiles', we call a reptile, but all it's descendants have changed, it's just in different directions. To classify these descendants correctly, we actually have to look at different distinctions than we are prone to do.

The problem starts with our ancestors, creatures we call 'mammal like reptiles'. This is misleading. They weren't mammal like, because they had no fur and laid eggs. Nor were they ancestors of reptiles, all their living descendants are mammals. In fact, reptile like mammal would be more truthful. They looked like what we call a reptile, but actually they were on the branch of the tree that led to us.

So where do we put their fossils? Mammals or Reptiles?

In fact, there is a clear way we can distinguish between all amniotes, a basal distinction that separates them right the way back in the Permian.

Skull structure. Mammals have synapses, the rest don't, the rest have variations. And the Testudines, or tortoises, turtles and their kin are different again.

So we can fairly classify the amniotes into three groups. One of those groups contains all mammals and no other living creature that isn't a mammal. So in a sense we could keep calling that class Mammalia. Except it leaves those curious acestors that we call mammal like reptiles when in fact they are reptile like mammals in a strange place.

Cladists group mammals and mammal like reptiles together as Synapsids and I don't think it would be wrong to call the class containg them Synapsids and dispense with the term Mammalia. There are viviparous creatures other than mammals for a start and for another, being viviparous is not even a distinguishing feature of existing mammals. Fur is. But perhaps it would be more appropriate to describe the Class Synapasidae as 'Amniotes possessing synapses, the extant members of which class all possess body fur'.

If one then elevates the Testudines to a class in their own right, we are now left with the Sauropsidae, the remaining reptiles and birds.

What a curious mismatch. Or is it?

Not, perhaps, as much as first appears. There are still two basic divisions here, though I think it is hard to justify birds as a class in their own right. Birds are the sole survivors of the Saurischian dinosaurs and we are actually seeing now that many members of that order possessed feathers, though they couldn't fly. It seems that feathers were originally evolved for other purposes, perhaps for warmth and for mating purposes. Birds are in fact related to Crocodiles and one can see the ressemblance if one looks.

One is tempted to create two classes out of the Sauropsidae;

Archosaurs- Including all birds, crocodilia and the extinct orders of dinosaurs.

Lepidosaurs- All remaining reptiles, including Ichythosaurs and Pterosaurs.

Of course, one could go through the whole so called tree of life doing such alterations. And yes, I guess that's where biological classification is going.
But do we need to look at more serious revisions?

Do we need to look at serious clarification of what we mean by life and perhaps remove that term from out thinking altogether?

Put simply, is relating man to bacteria like trying to put quarks in the periodic table?

That is what the next post will look at.