The Samovar

December 27, 2006, 11:30 pm
Filed under: Politics | Tags:

Might make this a new feature.

On the one hand…

An official inquiry was launched last night into claims of widespread abuse of House of Commons and Lords dining rooms by Conservative MPs and peers…

On the other hand…

The Serious Fraud Office has dropped a corruption probe into a defence deal with Saudi Arabia, after warnings it could damage national security.

Nice to know the government has its priorities right.

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The penultimate multilemma
December 27, 2006, 11:24 pm
Filed under: Film

Following on from The Ultimate Dilemma, which was considered to be a bit narrow, is the slightly less significant but wider question – which is the most over-rated film? Please use the IMDB top 250 films list to identify candidates. I’m going with (in no particular order):

  • Citizen Kane (IMDB 23rd best film) – read my review here.
  • Silence of the Lambs (IMDB 27th best film) – how did this joke of a film ever get mistaken for something serious? I mean seriously, I’m having an old friend for lunch??
  • The Shawshank Redemption (IMDB 2nd best film) – for consistently being number 2 on the IMDB rankings. It’s not a bad film, but it’s nothing special. It’s based on a Stephen King story people!

Anyone who suggests Dr Strangelove will be in trouble, I warn you now!

Christmas pudding mayhem
December 22, 2006, 12:51 am
Filed under: Food

Hmm I said I wasn’t going to find time to do any more blogging before Christmas – but this is necessary for posterity.

This year I have been asked to make a very large number of puddings – not for Christmas day itself but for all the social gatherings and what-not around Christmas. After perusing my best pudding cookbooks (Heston Blumenthal, Michel Roux, Gordon Ramsay, The River Cafe) I’ve decided on the following:

  1. Walnut, Almond, Chocolate and Amaretto tart
  2. Prune and Armagnac custard tart
  3. Lemon and Passion Fruit Tartlets

This will use:

  • 800g butter
  • 350ml cream
  • 1kg caster sugar
  • 10 vanilla pods
  • 18 eggs

It is going to be a very, very fat Christmas – and that’s not even including the Christmas pud and mince pies.

Five questions
December 21, 2006, 4:00 am
Filed under: Activism, Anarchism, Manifesto, Politics

Have been busy with work stuff recently which is why there have been so few posts on this blog. This will probably have to be the last one until the new year.

A group of mainly – but not wholly – US political activists have recently created a new organisation, The International Project for a Participatory Society. I highly encourage everyone to look into what they have to say. Their shared idea of what is wrong with society, how it could be better, and how to achieve this feels to me like the best prospect for the left. They do not have a grand philosophical structure like Marxism, but they do have some extremely powerful and insightful ideas (the concept of a participatory economy being probably the most important). Their way of looking at things is instead practical, but still idealistic (a good thing in my opinion).

In this entry, I’m just going to indulge in a little ‘meme’ inspired by something on their site. They asked each of the members to submit responses to five questions – you can see some of them on the site already – and even though I’m not a member and not as yet involved in the IPPS, I thought I’d write my own answers to their questions. Please do write your own too, and don’t feel constrained by writing it in the same way or at such length as I have.

And so, without further ado…

(1) Could you please identify what you think are the core defining features and institutions of society that need to be changed i.e. economic, political, cultural, gender/sexual, ecological, etc.?

First and foremost is capitalism, loosely defined. Certain things about capitalism seem quite unambiguously wrong, and it underlies many of our other problems. This shouldn’t be a surprise – a capitalist society prioritises the pursuit of profit and wealth over everything else. This is not an obscure point. In a capitalist society, anyone who pursues a different goal – a social good for example – in preference to profit and wealth, simply fails. Competition ensures this. This is a basic structural problem with capitalism, but there are also secondary problems. The enormous inequality that is unavoidable in a capitalist society creates class divisions, and these class divisions in turn create political inequalities, and so on.

So for example, I don’t believe it is possible to satisfactorily address climate change within capitalism. The things we could do to stop climate change impact directly on profits and wealth, and so the wealthy and powerful classes, and the corporations, will do everything they can to stop this from happening. If they didn’t, someone else would. That said, we have to try to address climate change within capitalism because realistically the prospects for a global change of economic system within the time frame in which climate change becomes irreversible are remote, and that’s being generous. As another example, I recently wrote about how our society is becoming – or has become – a surveillance society. Government surveillance isn’t a consequence of capitalism directly, but corporate surveillance and the problems of inequality it causes is.

So capitalism is in some the problem, and participatory economics is a practical and radical alternative. The other aspects of the society mentioned are of course hugely important too.

(2) What are your goals for this change, do you seek to reform them, if so with what changes, broadly? Do you seek to fundamentally replace these institutions with some others? If so what do the replacement structures look like, what are their defining features, of course in brief?

As I said, replacing capitalist economics with participatory economics – or at least something very like it – should be our ultimate goal. This is of course a very long term goal, and in the short and medium term we should seek to make reforms, especially those that are consistent with the long term goal. The other major institution that needs to change is our various forms of representative democracy. At the moment, levels of participation are low, barriers to participation are high, and obscure forces act to cause our democracies to favour outcomes which are not in the public interest. Think about the effect of a two-party system in which both parties rely on donations from the wealthy to survive, how could they do anything but support their class interests?

(3) Who do you think the strategic actors are in achieving these goals i.e. political parties, workers, women, queers, immigrants, particular countries or regions, etc?

Very difficult to predict.

(4) What tactics do you see being centrally used in achieving these changes i.e. voting, direct action, media action, strikes, demonstrations, etc.?

Again, this is not something I feel I have a clear grasp of. Rather than talking about tactics, I want to say a quick word about strategy first. The problem – it seems to me – is that we cannot achieve significant changes without addressing fundamental problems such as capitalism. We can’t do this until there is an enormous change in the way people think about society. The best prospect in achieving this sort of mass ‘consciousness raising’ would seem to be engaging in political activities that can make a difference, however small, on issues that people do care about now, but doing so in a way that is (a) informed by a deeper analysis of society, and (b) spreads the word about this sort of analysis. The idea being that we build a critical mass of people who are aware of this sort of thing.

Actually, I think this point of view is fairly well established and most political groups are doing something like this already. The problem is that we don’t seem to be getting anywhere, which is precisely a tactical rather than a strategic problem. The left is looking more and more irrelevant as time goes on, but the need for a left-wing analysis gets ever more pressing (climate change and conflict in the Middle East for example).

Perhaps the problem is after all that the political activities that people are engaging in are not being connected with the sort of radical analysis of society that the IPPS and others offer. The Green Party in the UK for example, perhaps ought to make more of a point of connecting environmental issues with basic problems associated to capitalism. This is something an organisation like IPPS can potentially address. People are done with Marxism and other such ideas, and the ideas of people in the IPPS have the potential to step into this space.

(5) How do other perspectives, which have different ideas about societal change, fit into your strategy and vision?

Assuming they have a similar analysis of the problems, there is very little problem. We shouldn’t assume that our way of doing things is the best, we just have to do what we can in the way that seems best. The best ideas will – if we are not dogmatic and authoritarian – hopefully win out.

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year and all that!

Antisemitism and anti-Muslim feeling
December 18, 2006, 11:21 pm
Filed under: Politics, Religion

The Telegraph reports that Jews are four times more likely to be attacked because of their religion than Muslims. I found this quite surprising, and I wonder what does this mean for Jews, Muslims and those who are doing their best to fight against discrimination based on religion?

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Brushing up on my Bible
December 14, 2006, 3:20 am
Filed under: Religion

Thinking about religion and politics a lot so I decided to brush up a bit on my Bible. Found a very useful site that goes through it in an easy to follow way.

Here is God taking one of Adam’s ribs and using it to make Eve.


Imaginary – the root of terrorist intent
December 12, 2006, 12:09 am
Filed under: Mathematics, Politics

Via Bruce Schneier, this article describes how the US Department of Homeland Security has an equation used to determine what the likely terrorist targets are. One term of this equation is the square root of terrorist intent. Now, we all know that terrorists’ intent is surely negative. So the threat of terrorism is proportional to the square root of something negative. What does that make it? Yup… imaginary.

December 10, 2006, 7:11 pm
Filed under: Neuroscience

Not many blog entries recently because I’ve been (dare I say it) working… and ill too. Anyway, I found some rather cool visual illusions (not entirely unconnected with work), and I thought I’d share some of the best. Lots more on this page.

None of these pictures are animated. The last one is a little subtle compared to the first two.