Monday, December 16, 2013



     The following brief biography was originally published at the website of the CNT of Puerto Real in Spanish. The original Spanish version can be found there under their 'Biografias' section.

     Joan Peiró, glass worker, anarcho-syndicalist intellectual, and Minister of Industry during the second Spanish republic, was executed by firing squad on July 24, 1942 at Paterna (Huerta Oeste, Valencia). He was born on February 18 in the working class district of Sants in Barcelona. He began work in a Barcelona glass factory at the age of 8 an d didn't learn to read and write until he was 22. He continued to work in the glass sector and along with other compañeros founded the Glass Cooperative of Mataró, a thing he never abandoned.

     In 1907 he married Mercedes Olives, a textile worker, with whom he had three sons (Juan, José, Llibert) and four daughters (Aurora, Aurelia, Guillermina, Merced). As he explained his union militancy began in 1906, and he began to hold positions of responsibility from 1915 to 1920 as Secretary General of the Spanish Federation of Glaziers and Crystal Workers and director of La Colmena Obrero (organ of the unions of Badalona) and El Vidrio (publication of the federation of glassworkers).

     Because of his intellectual acuity he later became editor of the newspaper Solidaridad Obrero (1930) and the daily Catalonia (1937). Very influenced by French revolutionary unionism he began taking on positions of responsibility in the CNT after the Sants (1918) Catalan Regional Congress. Thanks to his capacity for work, organizing skills and prestige he held the highest offices in this organization.

     At the Congreso de La Comedia (1919) he defended industrial union federations which were rejected at the time (in favour of geographical During the 1920s he suffered the repression unleased by the state and the employers and was arrested and imprisoned inSoria and Vicoria. In 1922 he was elected General Secretary of the CNT. During his term the Conference of Zaragossa was held where the resignation of the CNT from the Red Internation Federation of Unions was approved and membership in the reconstituted AIT/IWA was accepted.

     At this same Congress, along with Salvador Segui, Angel Pestaña, and José Viadiu, Peiró defended the "political motion" which was widely criticized by the more orthodox sections of the organization. He settled in Mataró in in 1922, and in 1925 he guided the establishment of the glass workers' cooperative that he had previously intended to organize. Under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera the CNT was outlawed, their offices closed and their press suspended. Many militants were arrested and Pieró was imprisoned in 1925, 1927 and 1928. In the last year he was again elected Secretary General of the CNT.

     He criticized the UGT for their advocacy of  "mixed commissions" during the dictatorship and also Pestaña with whom, however, he agreed on other matters. He also criticized the more anarchist union sector, and despite the fact that he joined the FAI he was never militant in it. On the contrary he defended a more syndicalist mass organization and opposed the action groups that a minority of militants controlled. In 1930 he signed the "Republican Intelligencia" manifesto and received much interal criticism which led him to withdraw his signature. He defended industrial federations up to the 1931 CNT Congress in Madrid where he won mass support against the FAI theses.

     At this Congress he supported the presentation of the "Position of the CNT Towards the Constituent Cortez" proposal which defended the idea that the proclamation of a republic could mean an advance for the working class. The proposal was adopted with some modifications despite the opposition of some FAI sectors who saw it as support for bourgeois political machinations. Also in 1931, along with 29 other prominant CNTistas among them Angel Pestaña, he signed the Treintista Manifesto which analyzed the social and economic situation of Spain and criticized both the republican government and the more radical sectors of the CNT.

     The reaction to this led to the expulsion of Pestaña from his position on the national committee of the norganization and the schism of the Sabadell unions. These later gathered others who formed a bloc called the "Opposition Unions". Although Peiró participated in this split he had no outstanding responsibility, and he tried to build bridges to avoid the final rupture.

     Reunification occured in 1936. After the fascist military rising Peiró served as vicepresident of the Antifascist Committee of Mataró, sending his sons to the front. He defended the entry of the CNT into the governments of Catalonia and Spain and proposed a state form of a federal social republic when the war ended. Along with Garcia Oliver, Federica Monteny and Juan Lopez he was one of the four "anarchist" (my emphasis-mm) ministers in the government of Largo Caballero where he was Minister of Industry.

     In this position he drafted the decree of expropriation and intervention in industry and designed an Industrial Credit Bank. Many of these projects were annuled or diluted by Negrin. With the fall of the Caballero government he returned to Mataró and the Glass Cooperative. He also dedicated himself to giving lectures on his steps in government and publishing hard articles against the PCE for its actions against the POUM.

     In 1938 he re-entered the government now headed by Negrin although not with the rank of Minister but rather as Comissioner of Electric Energy. He upheld an "anti-defeatist" attitude and proposed a certain revision of anarchosyndicalism in light of the development of the revolution and the war. He crossed the French border on February 5, 1939, and was briefly held in Perpignon from where he went to Narbonne to reunite withy his family. Later he moved to Paris to represent the CNT on the Coalition for Spanish Refugees with a mission to free Spanish CNTistas fromFrench concentration camps and facilitate their transfer to México.

     He tried to flee after the Nazi invasion but was arrested when he went to Narbonne. e was returned to Paris where the French authorities issued a deportation order so as to remove him from Gestapo action and thereby go to the unoccupied zone and from there to México. He was, however, arrested again by nazi troops and taken to Trier (Germany). In January of 1941 the Francoist Ministry of Foreign Affairs  requested his extradition. This happened on February 19 of the same year in Irún, violating French and international law. He was transfered to the custody of the Security General in Madrid where he was interrogated and suffered maltreatment (he lost some teeth).

     The start of the trial was exceptionally delayed, and he was transfered to Valencia in April 1941. In December of that year a summary trial opened at which Peiró had statements in his favour from institutions and people of the new regime (military, falangists, clergy, judges, prison officials, businesmen, rightists and even a future minister under Franco, Francisco Ruiz Jarabo).

     Even so his repeated refusal of the government proposal to be head of the Francoist unions determined his sentence. In May of 1942 the prosecuter presented his charges. A month later Peiró was assigned a defence lawyer by the military. On July 21 the death sentence was pronounced. On July 24, 1942 he was shot along with six other CNTistas at the firing range of Paterna. Some of his published works include The Path of the National Confederation of Labour (1925), Ideas About Syndicalism and Anarchism (1930), Danger in the Rearguard (1936) and From The Glass Factory of Mataró To The Minister Of Industry (1937) and Problemas y Cintarazos (1938).




Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Spanish Syndicalism (1) CGT Strike in Unipost


      The following is a translation from a Spanish language article at Rojo y Negro, the organ of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union the CGT. I have had to rather "freely translate" as the particulars of Spanish labour practices are quite different from here in the Anglosphere. Any mistakes are my own responsibility.


     The stoppages will be for 24 hours (from 00:00 to 24:00) and Saturdays, Sundays and holidays are not included. The schedule is as follows: December 13, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 27 and 30 and the 2 and 3 of January 2014. If the dispute is not settled we reserve the right to call further stoppages which will be conducted according to applicable legal provisions.

     There are two principle objectives of this strike. On the one hand the breaches of agreement on the part of management, salary cuts and non-payment of summer bonuses. (Such bonuses are a regular part of Spanish labour On the other hand an end to layoffs.

     Thus the CGT, having consulted both general assemblies and workshop assemblies, has decided to carry out the strike to show important solidarity with the workers to carry it out.

     We want to thank those who have expressed their support in favour of your decision and we want, secondarily, to encourage the rest because everyone together will have more force and power to achieve the objective marked out.

     We also inform you of the suspension of the December 2 hearing by the High Court about the pay cut that we applied for in August 2013. It was going to address three charges of non-compliance and misappliance, one of them not cited by the works council, on procedural grounds. To avoid a full trial it was decided to postpone the hearing until January 28, 2014. On that day the hearing will hear the complaint of unpaid summer bonuses. At the same time some unions have been in negotiations with the company and have reached a possible agreement to agree to the suspension (of the This is something the CGT does not agree with given the negotiating intransigence of the company.


Monday, December 02, 2013


Teresa Mañe Miravent - Mother of Federica Montseny

     The following is a translation from Spanish. The Spanish original is available at the Biografias anarquistas section of the website of the CNT Puerto Real. Any errors of translation are entirely my responsibility.

     Born on November 29 1865 in Cubelles (Garraf, Catalonia) - until recently believed to be in Vilanova  i la Geltrú- the educator, activist and anarchist propagandist Teresa Mañe Miravent, better known under her pseudonym Soledad Gustavo. Her wealthy family ran the Garden Hotel in Vilanova i la Geltrú, known as the "Three Girls Hotel" as the three daughters of the family were busy attending to customers. Her father was a staunch supporter of federal republicanism and was proud of the relationship he maintained with Pi i Maragall. Teresa began studying teaching in 1883 in Barcelona and in 1886, with the help of the freethinker Bartomeu Gabarro of the Federalist Democratic Centre, opened the first secular school in Vilanova. She was a member of the Confederation of Lay Teachers of Catalonia. During this period she collaborated in El Vendaval with the federalist republican tendency. Through contacts with freethinkers she met José Pujals Lunas, Teresa Claramunt, Tarrida del Mármol, Pere Esteve and other leading anarchist militants. She participated in propaganda tours and public events and collaborated on the libertarian publications they edited (La Tramontana, El Productor, La Tormenta, etc.). In 1889 she won a prize at the Second Socialist Contest in Barcelona for her work 'Free Love' and became a spokeswoman for anarchist ideas along with Ricardo Mella, Anselmo Lorenzo and others. Through a poetry reading at a secular funeral she met Juan Montseny whom she later married in a civil ceremony on March 19, 1891, shortly after such marriages were legalized.

     The couple settled in Reus where Montseny came from, and they opened a coeducational secular school and both became teachers. Teresa's sister Carmen also lived with them in Reus, sharing all the difficulties of their anarchist activism until her death. Montseny wrote a pamphlet in defence of prisoner Paulino Pallas who had been arrested in connection with the September 24, 1893 bombing of the Cambios Nuevos in Barcelona. Montseny was arrested for this, and Mañe began a campaign for his release. Once released, however, he was rearrested in 1896 as part of the 'Trial of Montjuic'. From his cell in Montjuic Montseny wrote letters to the press, with various pseudonyms, proclaiming the innocence of the accused. Mañe was responsible for taking these letters from prison and mailing them to the press. She also made the necessary arrangements to achieve the release of all detainees. It was from one of his signatures to these letters that Juan Montseny became Federico Urales. Montseny was released but was exiled to London, along with Teresa Claramunt and Tarrida del Mármol. Mañe joined him in 1897 and found work as an embroiderer. In order to reopen their case they returned clandestinely on November 28, 1897. Montseny lived in Madrid and Mañe in Vilanova. In a short while she, along with her parents, Lorenzo and Antonia, and her sister Carmen they also moved to Madrid. While they lived there her parents died, and her daughter Federica Montseny was born in 1905.

     While in Madrid the couple edited La Revista Blanca (1898-1905) and later Tierra Y Libertad (1902-1905). Mañe performed the function of administrator even though this was not legally permitted to women at the time. In 1901 she spoke, along with Azorín and Urales in a series of conferences at the Madrid Ateneo on "The Future Society" in relation to anarchist ideas. In addition she actively participated in campaigns for the defendants in the Juarez Trials and the Mano Negro case. She participated in a tour of Andalucia in this defence camaign, staying at the home of Rosa Sanchez. The couple also actively assisted in the defence of Francisco Ferrer i Guardia wrongly accused of responsibility for the events of La Semana Trágica. When a legal conflict with Arturo Soria, the creator of the 'Ciudad Lineal of Madrid whom they accused of fraud and deception, broke out they left for Catalonia in 1912. Their intention was to found an academy in Barcelona's Horta district, but the boycott of local reactionaries led them to devote themselves to living on a farm in Cerdanyola. There Mañe did a lot of translations (Louise Michel, Cornelissen, Labriola, De la Hire, Mirabeau, Praycourt, Sorel, Marguey, Lichtenberg, Lavrov, Donnay, etc.) and copied texts for theatre companies.

     In Catalonia they once more edited La Revista Blanca and Tierra Y Libertad. They also set up various other publishing projects: 'La Novela Ideal'  which published two novels, eventually 600 in  total with a circulation of 50,000 copies; 'La Novela Libre' with more extensive stories and a circulation of 30,000 copies, the monthly 'El Munda al Dia' and a new journal 'El Luchador' which lasted until the civil war. Mañe was responsible for managing these journals while Montseny and her daughter wrote articles, novels, memoirs, etc.. Little by little the leadership of Federica became evident, and Mañe faded into the background. During the Civil War colon cancer began to undermine her life. In 1939 the family crossed the border into exile in France where they parted from each other. Mañe, ill, broke her leg and was taken by ambulance to the hospital of St. Louis of Perpiñán (northern Catalonia) where she died alone of cancer on February 5, 1939.

     Teresa Mañe published numerous articles in La Revista Blanca and in its supplements and extras. Her contributions may also be found in other anarchist periodicals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: 'El Corsario', 'Los Dominical del Libre Pensamiento','El Obrero', 'Redención', 'El Cosmipolita', 'Justicia y Libertad', 'El Trabajo', 'La Tramontana', etc.. Of her works we can highlight 'The Future Society' (1889), 'Las Preocupaciones de los Despreocupados' (1891 with Urales), 'Dos Cartas' (1891), 'A Las Proletarias' (1896), 'El Amore Libre' (1904), 'Los Diosas de la Vida' (1904), and 'El Sindicalismo y la Anarquía: Politica y Sociologica' (1932) among others.

Saturday, November 30, 2013


The Dark Side of Christian History

The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Ellerbe: Morningstar and Lark, Orlando Florida, 1999 ISBN 0-9644873-4-9

     This is the sort of book that I had to force myself through. It was not so much the purported subject matter but rather the author's not-so-well-hidden agenda. This is not an overview of the crimes of the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches except insofar as these can be slotted into Ellerbe's real purpose. This purpose is to argue against Christianity and for pop-religious New-Age "spirituality" with a thin veneer of corrupted feminism. The author makes her intentions abundantly plain in the Introduction for fostering "sexism, racism, the intolerance of difference and the 'desecration' of the natural environment". It would be hard to find such a crystal clear expression of trendy leftism outside of the academy. Social class is conspicuous by its absence. So is the concept of hierarchy in general, the role of government and individual freedom (beyond sacred differences deified by a subculture). There is a vague bow to "self-determination" but no indication that this might extend to the infidels outside of the politically-correct charmed circle. It almost certainly doesn't.

     The author genuflects in her introduction to the fact that there were "alternative Christianities" in the early centuries of the Church. As might be expected from the blindfolded world view of the 'New-Age' she lavishes particular praise on the Gnostics. She also mentions the Essenes. As might be expected her knowledge of these theologies is incredibly superficial, probably drawn from other neo-mystic books that bear the same resemblance to reality as Stalinist propaganda does. The Gnostics, in the majority of cases amongst their crazy-quilt writings, were far more "anti-nature" than any orthodox theologian could ever be. Despite the lies of the orthodox their beliefs were quite ascetic, and their "hidden knowledge" consisted of an over-elaborated mythology the knowledge of which was supposedly the key to escaping the inevitably corrupt world. I know...consistency and facts are part of that great evil "science" that also has to be abolished for the dreaded New Age to dawn. Ellerbe gets well into this later.

     The author goes on to belabour the misogynist nature of early orthodox Christianity. No doubt true, but the Christological content of the early disputes is simply ignored. It's of no interest to her purpose. The economic interactions of Church and state in the Roman Empire are slighted in favour of ideological argument (or assertion). This assertion continues through the first part of the book, and the author's only digression from passing over heresies other than her favourite ones is a condemnation of the Church's disapproval of Origen's idea of reincarnation. There is little doubt that this is part of the author's ideology/theology. We also get a discussion of sex, free will and compulsion/authority though, once more, innocent of what the people at the time considered important. History is supposed to be history, not an ideological "read-back".

     Ellerbe then passes on to medieval times. She states rather than proves that it was the influence of the Church that led to the decline of the West in this period. Sort of extending Gibbon way beyond his wildest ambitions. She goes so far as to say that the practice of "bleeding" in medieval times was due to "the Monks". Go figure ! She mentions many of the "sins" of the medieval Church and misses many more. No doubt Christianity was not a "creative force" in this period, but the author implies that it was responsible for the vast picture of western decline. Barbarian invasions are, of course, irrelevant. The reality was that Christianity and its influence were contradictory , as the Marxists are fond of saying. Some of its actions were beneficial and some were malevolent. Such fine distinctions, however, escape the author.

     The author cites the monumental corruption of the medieval Papacy, something that is well established. The very corruption of the Renaissance Popes, however, was progressive in its own way. The logic of the times also dictated that the Papacy become a secular power, and many of its crimes were for "reasons of state" rather than the abstract motivations that Ellerbe likes to move in. In the end the Church was pretty much a mirror of the secular powers that it alternately fought and allied with, no better nor no worse. The atrocities that happened were typical of the age and might have been worse under some other sort of ideological "guidance" such as that of a more Gnostic Church. Ideology at the time was very much subservient to power politics.

     Ellerby passes a severe judgement on the Protestant Reformation. She denounces the common Protestant theories of free will (or lack thereof) and original sin without recognition of the disputes within Protestantism about such matters. She dates, strangely enough, the concept of an unitary God as opposed to a multiplicity of saints from this era. The veneration of saints is identified with the pantheistic, many faced. view of divinity that she favours. Yes, it is a bit of a stretch. She also notes the supposed rise of a more severe asceticism  which presumably is connected to the ideas of predestination and denial of free will. Once more remember the Gnostics that she has a superficial acquaintance with for how it could have been worse.

     In Chaper 8, The Witch Hunts: The End of Magic and Miracles" the author really hits her stride. Whatever she imagines the "witch craze" was actually a reversal of early Church opinion which opined that most of what was called "witchcraft" was ignorance and superstition. Pretty true actually, though such "witchcraft" was considered orthodox when properly covered with a Christian veneer. The campaign against "witchcraft" was never so extensive as the author imagines.

     The Inquisition played a prominent role in the "witch hunt". Whatever the author says however, the main motive behind this was self-interest and bureaucratic expansion. The so-called "witches" only came into the purview of the 'Holy Office' during its decline when it was running out of real victims. The author (deliberately ?) refuses to examine the extent of the Inquisition's dealing with "witches" and how they compare with its total business. She relies only on anecdote and insinuation. Whatever Ellerbe's sympathies the mass of Inquisitorial victims were "heretics" rather than "witches" if for no other reason than that the estates of heretics were a better source of plunder. I guess, however, that this would spoil the author's narrative of a contest of ideas as opposed to one of interests.

     In Chapter 9 Ellerbe makes her purpose quite clear again with the title 'Alieniation From Nature', Uh huh ! She makes the ideological assertion that a Christian view of the world as "sinful" (once more a step down from her beloved Gnostics) led to some sort of "separation" that became a leitmotif of western society. Oh well, I guess that the vast majority of people who lived in rural areas until recent decades were "obviously" alienated because of this presumed ideology. Just to be obvious the author u8ses this opportunity to sing a little paean to pre-Christian paganism. This was supposedly "non-alienated". Yes, I'm sure !

     The author moves on to the modern age in Chapter 10, 'A World Without God'. In this chapter the author outdoes any of her Jesuit opponents by attempting (and failing in my opinion) to twist facts and logic to say that the modern science that has disproved so much of dogmatic religion is itself a mere development of said religion. Yes, it is quite a stretch, and an accusation that sticks much more to New-Age religiosity than to any secular viewpoint. But if logic and facts are "bad things" and (cough, cough) "alienating" then you can "prove" anything you so damn well please.

     Of course we come face to face with the usual chintzy mystic "proof" of such a thing via a misinterpretation of the quantum world that the author has only a child's version of. Sighhhh ! It seems to occur pretty well everywhere in such a world. The author quotes a person named E.H. Walker to this effect;

     "...the universe is 'inhabited' by an almost unlimited number of conscious, usually non-thinking (oh, non-thinking consciousnesses - mm), entities that are responsible for the detailed working of the universe"

     Once more, uh-huh. God, or gods if you like, as cosmic obsessive compulsives. Ellerby fails to see the humour is such a statement. For those who are interested you can look up this "authority" that the author quotes. For instance you can see his tax-dodge "Cancer Institute" via 'Charity Navigator' where the "fund-raising" expenses are quoted as $10,149,158, the cost of "Administration" (mostly his widow actually) as $457,040 and the tiny, little beast of "programs" at the end as $290,174. There again you can look Walker up on Wikipedia. This long time US military researcher no doubt did his research in an "ant-sexist, anti-racist respect for 'difference' and the natural environment" manner. It has to be true by the worldview of the author because he is "spiritual". I hope his victims in the Third World appreciate such a refined soul.

     I guess the reader can estimate how much I disliked this book. From the opening when she presents her opinion that controlling people through "dictating and controlling their spirituality is the most (sic) insidious and damaging slavery of all" her agenda is quite clear. In a backhand way this book presents a bare-bones account of the "dark side" of Christianity, but the historical facts are treated superficially because of the much more important (to the author) need to fit them into her ideology. It would have been better to present a more thorough history rather than spend effort in trying to hammer square pegs into round holes.

Monday, November 25, 2013



The RNA World: Third Edition. Raymond F. Gesteland, Thomas R. Cech and John F. Atkins eds., Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Cold Spring Harbor New York 2006. ISBN: 0-87969-739-3

     In the beginning was the nucleoside, and the nucleoside was of the tribe of base and the tribe of pentose. And it was null and void, and then "let there be phosphate" was said in the beginning.

     It is almost orthodoxy that prior to modern life whose genetic information is contained in DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) there was a world in which RNA (ribonucleic acid) was the basis of life, both in terms of information storage and in terms of the catalysis that is presently done by protein enzymes. I'm presently reading a book with various aspects of this "RNA world". The subject matter is far ranging and presented by an assembly of authors. It's indicative of the progress of this field that even a book published in 2006 may be out-of-date in many things. Yet, some things still hold true, and many speculations remain just that.

Chapter 1: Setting the Stage: The History, Chemistry and Geobiology Behind RNA by Steven A. Benner, Mathew A. Carrigan Alonso Ricardo and Fabianne Frye

     This introduction is a review of RNA chemistry. It also states the two basic hypotheses of the RNA world. One is the "RNA first" theory where early organic chemistry would lead directly to oligonucleoside chains that were genetically capable. The other hypothesis is the "genetic takeover" theory in which RNA only later became the repository of genetic information when it "took over" this function from a previous self-replicating system. There is good evidence, working backward from present biochemistry, that RNA was an earlier form of genetic control. The second theory is more speculative.

     By also working backwards from molecular phylogeny it is also pretty well established that protein synthesis via translation was present in the early eubacteria living near 2 billion years ago. This means that the RNA world was a thing of the past by then. There is strong evidence that ALL present life descended from a last universal common ancestor (LUCA) that had well established translation system. There are, however, systems of duplicate proteins/genes which could have predated this LUCA.

     "Moving forwards" from the origin of Earth gives another perspective on the beginnings of genetic control whether by RNA directly or by genetic takeover.Many alternatives to our present DNA and RNA with different bases, different systems of polymerization or different sugar backbones have been synthesized and investigated.

     The authors of this chapter go into a number of possible catalytic and autocatalytic mechanisms using the concepts of nucleophilicity and electrophilicity. They begin with the synthesis of ribose from formaldehyde (presumably already present on an early Earth) via the formose reaction in which glycolaldehyde (3 carbon) is an end product. Another carbon of formaldehyde can pair with this to form a four carbon sugar as can another glycolaldehyde to form a pentose such as ribose with the production of another formaldehyde.

     Both formaldehyde and glycolaldehyde are naturally present in the interstellar medium. While much of this reaction is autocatalytic there is a problem.The ribose formed such a reaction itself takes part automatically in further reactions to form a complex mixture of products known affectionately as "brown goo". This has led several proposals of ways in which ribose could be stabilized. It has also led to theories about pre-RNA alternatives such as peptide nucleic acids or non-sugar backgrounds for the primordial genetic system.

     One way in which ribose may be made more stable is if the original reactants are phosphate esters of glycolaldehyde. The result is a pentose 2,4-diphosphate. An alternative mechanism is via stabilization via 'minerals'. The most quoted example is borate, B(OH)3 which forms a complex with two hydroxyl groups on ribose. Or with glyceraldehyde which can then combine with glocolaldehyde to form a pentose.

     Borate salts are often soluble in water and are found in deposits from evaporate water. [Think the Borax 20 Mule Team from Death Valley Days.]. Such evaporates may be found in dry valleys such as Death Valley or in a 'playa lake' (a high pH incompletely evaporated body of water). Could Death Valley really be "Life Valley" ? Borate deposits in China from Archean time show that such systems were present in Earth's past.

     One of the difficult points of this perspective of ribose synthesis is step 1, the reaction of formaldehyde to form glycolaldehyde. Once the latter is formed the reaction then becomes autocatalytic. Even though glycolaldehyde is present in space the reaction for its formation is kinetically unlikely. This, however, may not be an insurmountable problem given enough deep time.

     The necessity of water throws further complications in the way of nucleic acid synthesis. First of all the bases adenine, cytosine and guanine are all unstable in water at pH 7 and 37 degrees. Similarly the sugar-base bond and the phosphate ester bonds are prone to hydrolysis in such conditions. The modern genome survives because of continued enzymatic repair. Water, on the other hand, is generally considered necessary for nucleic acid base pairing.

     The authors suggest that an alternating dry-wet environment such as that of alkali lakes might be a possible place where RNA chemistry could become stable. They also mention formamide as an alternative solvent other than water. This liquid is also most likely to be found in a desert environment.

     This chapter ends by stating the authors' preference for an 'RNA-first' model as most consistent with our present knowledge. This is supported both by the ribose chemistry that they review and by information of models of other possible genetic polymers.


Saturday, November 23, 2013



     The immense weight of China dominates much economic prognostication these days. Will it overtake the USA and become the dominant power of this century ? What are its strengths and weaknesses ? In the November 18 edition of Time Magazine Michael Schuman looks at this question from the perspective of China's need to learn innovation. Not simply to produce. This is one area in which it is well behind the USA, to the great comfort of American apologists.

      China is facing a period of transition and needs to adjust.

     "China is a victim of its own success....The country can no longer rely on making lots of stuff; China has to invent things, design them, brand them and market them. Instead of following the leaders of global industry, China has to produce leaders of its own."

     China has taken steps to address the needs of its new stage of development, but it has a long way to go. Chinese labour is no longer the dollar-store market of the world. Chinese firms are beginning to outsource to other countries. The author looks at one instance, that of Speciality Medical Supplies who tried this year to shift production to India. Their Chinese workers revolted and held the American manager hostage in his office for six days. Tsk !

     Labour costs in Mumbai would have been 75% less than in Beijing. Wages in China are growing, courtesy of demographics and a shortage of skilled labour. Companies such as toymaker K'NEX are even beginning to "reshore" production back to the USA as other financial factors put pressure on the shrinking labour-cost advantage of China versus America.

     There is also the problem of China's slow adoption of cutting-edge technology. The failure of China's auto industry to make an impression in world markets is illustrative. Failure to adapt has resulted in a 49% rate of initial defects in Chinese-made cars. Ooops ! China has overtaken South Korea as the world's largest shipbuilder, but its vessels are built on older models while the Koreans have moved on to the lucrative markets of supermassive container ships and vessels for energy exploration.

     What innovation there is in China generally builds incrementally on existing technology rather than groundbreaking ideas. The Chinese educational system is good at skill-building but poor at instilling creativity. Chinese engineers tend to be conservative and every concerned about possible consequences of failure. Especially when new ideas are involved.

     China is also notably deficient in marketing. As the author says; "Chinese executives are too fixated on their production and not enough on their customers.". This may be a hangover from the Marxist mode of management, and new Chinese entrepreneurs are indeed trying better ways to sell their products to the world. Jazzed up with a veneer of the exoticism of Chinese culture.

     China lacks management skills, and those who have them can often command relatively huge salaries. Some firms have responded by making their businesses top heavy. What they lack in quality they try to make up for in quantity. Perhaps this managerial over-oversight is also a Marxist leftover.

     Yes, China has had almost miraculous economic growth, but there are many problems that still hold the country back. This article is a good overview of some of them. It's valuable even though it is replete with "evidence" that is only anecdotal.

Friday, November 22, 2013



     Good old Time Magazine. It struggles on in the internet age, devoting more and more of its pages to bite-size "factoids" that rival websites for speed of transit through the intellectual digestive system. Each and every article has to be illustrated - over-illustrated. Colour and highlighting adds to the illusion of ethernet illusion, and the layout owes much more to Facebook than to any school of journalism. I love it, and I'm a long term subscriber who has lived through Time's evolution.

     Every once in awhile it digs up some true gems, and the November 18 edition is no exception. I have to admit that the inevitable long feature articles on the personalities of US politics (Is there any US politics that is not personality-based as opposed to issue-based ?) are eminently skipable. Even for Americans who live in that soap opera. Even Canada's entrance in this contest, good old Rob (Fat) Ford gets a mention. His cameo is splayed across an insert that is 1/2 title, 1/4 photo and an incredible 50 word run on sentence that has almost as many errors of syntax and punctuation as I have fingers.

     Enough of such trivia. The true meat of the issue comes in the back pages. 'The Mysterious Provider of Sushi' is a five paragraph article that it, amazingly, too three people to write. Do the mathematics. Time looks into the murky undersea world of the dreaded "Sushi conglomerate". Who controls the uncooked fish market in the US ? Hold onto your chopsticks; it ain't the Yakuza. Far worse by several orders of magnitude.

     The "Codfather" of this piece is none other than the Unification Church - the Moonies. Nowadays they go by the name of the "Family Federation for World Peace and Unification". Obviously a play for the American market with the buzzword "family" bit. Or could there be another connotation to the word "family", most familiar in places such as Palermo ? Poor Japan. The Koreans have struck back.

     Under yet another alias the Moonies market the morsels to the masses in the USA. The moniker - 'True World Foods'. Cough, cough and triple pneumonia cough. No kidding. The Moonie managers lack a sense of humour or they'd realize the irony of this.. TW denies its connection to the Moonies, but court documents show otherwise. Time found it hard to penetrate further as TW's New Jersey headquarters' phone system didn't work, and phone calls to their New York office went unanswered.

     Time surveyed a selection of 70 restaurants across America, and True World was the supplier for 48 of them. TW counts 7,500 restaurants as customers in the USA. Their uncooked tentacles in this field make the Washington Post coup look trivial.

     Look out Time. Any more raw exposées, and you may find a fish head in your beds. As for me this revelation has spoiled my sushi mania for at least a short while.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Russia in Revolt


     'Russia in Revolt: The First Crack in Tsarist Power' by David Floyd. Macdonald Library of the 20th Century, Macdonald and Co., London 1969

     Good old history light ! The Macdonald Library of the 20th Century is a series of brief books about outstanding events, personalities and trends in that century. The series ranges through the alphabet from 'The Anarchists' to 'Woodrow Wilson'. All are heavy on pictures and light on text, each one readable in one day. Despite their brevity they can be very useful introductions.

     This volume examines the events of 1905 and 1906 in Russia, the "rehearsal" for the Revolution of 1917. It begins with a backgrounder on the personality (or lack thereof) of the Tsar, Nicholas II, who came to the throne in 1894. He was supremely arrogant despite lacking anything to be arrogant about. His lack of sense and disconnection from his people was exemplified by his handling of events during his coronation in Moscow in 1896. Close to 2,000 people were trampled in a stampede due to poor crowd control. The coronation went on as if nothing had happened, and it was followed by a gay evening party at the French Embassy.

     Count Sergei Witte, later Minister of Finance and then Prime Minister, remarked acidly on the events of that day and on how Nicholas was the tool of a series of disastrous advisers;

     "His Majesty would not tolerate about his person anyone he considered more intelligent than himself or anyone with opinions different from those of his advisers"

     Witte was called upon to pull Nicholas' chestnuts out of the fire more than once and promptly dismissed when crisis had passed.

     With a coterie of flattering courtiers and his wife Alexandra (herself under the bizarre influence of Grigori Rasputin from 1905 on) as his main "advisers" Nicholas was in charge of a vast and varied country that was undoubtedly the most difficult European state to govern. The system of government rested on the Ministry of the Interior which controlled a network of Governor-Generals, Governors, and a byzantine network of numerous police forces that interfered in much of the daily life in Russia. This system exercised a rigorous censorship, and was the heart of a program of  'Russification' directed at the non-Russians who constituted a majority of the Empire's population.

     Count Witte (Minister of Finance 1892-1903 and Prime minister 1905-1906) wrote about the nobility who surrounded the Tsar;

     "The majority is politically a mass of degnerate humanity, which recognizes nothing but the gratification of its own selfish interests and lusts, and which seeks to obtain all manner of privileges and benefits at the expense of the taxpayers in general which means mainly the peasantry."

     Leave out the last phrase, and this would be a pretty apt description of most politicians.

     Witte felt that Russia's interests would be best served by rapid industrialization. His main opponent in the government was Vyacheslav Pleve who rose through the ranks of the police to become the Minister of the Interior in 1902. An assassin's bullet relieved Witte of this problem in 1904.

     Meanwhile opposition to the autocracy had begun to grow in the zemstvos, local elected municipal councils and also in the dumas in urban areas. Both were elitist groups. Illegal political activity was carried on outside of them by the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), strong amongst the peasantry, and the Marxist Social Democratic Party which recruited mainly amongst intellectuals and workers. Both the countryside and the developing urban areas were rife with discontent.

     The author describes the vast economic changes that Russia was experiencing. The rural areas were chronically economically stagnant which retarded progress. All segments of the Empire's population, from the landlords to the poor peasants, experienced problems. Periodically the government would pay attention and set up investigative commissions. The state, however, refused to admit the need for radical reform. Lacking any incentive or ability to improve their production peasants responded by migration to the cities or to new lands in Siberia. The number of landless peasants increased, and a rural proletariat developed.

     In contrast to the rural areas Russian industry forged ahead. Foreign capital, especially from France and Belgium, flooded in. Technique improved, but living and working conditions were "appalling". Economic crisis also came to Russia in the late 19th century. This was followed by spontaneous strike waves which culminated in a general strike in 1903. Unrest was also spreading to the peasants.

     The cauldron boiled over with defeat in the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-1905. By the beginning of the 20th century expansion of Russian influence in Europe was unlikely, and the government turned to the Far East. The defeat of China in the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese war opened Manchuria to Russian penetration. Russia built the Chinese Eastern Railway across this province. In 1898 the Russians also obtained a 25 year lease on the Liaotung Peninsula and the right to build another railroad from Harbin to Port Arthur on said peninsula.

     Other European powers objected to this expansion, but Russia offered seemingly sincere promises to withdraw in the (indefinite) future. Russia also began to expand its interests in Korea which the Japanese considered an area of their own special interest. The Empire refused to compromise with the Japanese, and in February of 1904 Japan broke off diplomatic relations with Russia. On February 8 they attack the Russian fleet at anchor in Port Arthur with torpedo boats. They returned four days later to finish the job. The Russian fleet was severely damaged and was trapped within the heavily mined port.

     Despite the racist overconfidence of the Russian government Russia was at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the Japanese. The Russian military command was divided. The cautious Kuropatkin advised avoiding pitched battles, but it was not until October 1904 that the Tsar finally agreed to remove the reckless Alexeyev from the theatre of war. Later the Russians were defeated both on land and once more at sea. In the Fall of 1904 the Russian Baltic Fleet departed to the other side of the world. It was destroyed in May of 1905 at the battle of Tsushima. Meanwhile the Japanese had taken Port Arthur. In August 1904 the Russians were defeated at Liaoyang despite outnumbering the Japanese. The Empire's troops retreated to the north where a stalemate of exhaustion and lack of supply for both armies resulted.

     The war ended in August 1905 with the Treaty of Portsmouth. Count Witte negotiated for the Russian government. He returned home to a country in chaos. The 1905 Revolution had begun.

     While the Imperial government was entertaining fantasies of a "little victorious war" (Pleve) the workers were facing rising prices and falling employment. In a typically Russian surrealistic scenario workers in St. Petersburg were initially led by the priest Father Gapon who was actually a police agent. This "police socialism" that was meant to contain proletarian demands got a little out of hand.

     At the close of 1904 the owners of the Putilov Engineering Works in St. Petersburg some of their more radical workers. This brought the entire workforce out on strike. By default Gapon's 'Assembly of the Russian Workingmen' assumed leadership, and on January 22 he led a procession to present a petition to the Tsar at the Winter Palace. Unknown to them the Autocrat of All the Russias had already decamped. Also missing was the infamous Plave who had been assassinated the previous July. The police did nothing to prevent the various workers' contingents from assembling, but they laid a plot to intercept them and suppress them with the army's assistance. Brief orders to halt were followed by gunfire from the troops. Gapon, following the Tsar's example, promptly fled. The crowds, however, reformed and made their way to the Winter Palace. Here as elsewhere in the city they were met by volleys of gunfire.

     In the end an unknown number of people were killed. Official reports said about 130. Journalists produced a list of 4,600 dead and wounded. Illusions about the Tsar were shattered. As Witte, who witnessed some of the events, said;

     "There were hundreds of casualties in killed or wounded, among them many innocent people. Gapon fled and the revolutionaries triumphed: the workmen were completely alienated from the Tsar and his government."

     Despite his nonchalance about the events Nicholas was actually persuaded to "do something" by General Dimitri Trepov, the Governor-General of St. Petersburg. The Minister of the Interior Prince Sviatopolk Mirsky decamped (a common Russian habit) and was replaced by Alexander Bulygin. The Tsar agreed to meet with a delegation of "responsible workingmen". They were read a little sermon and sent to the kitchens for a free meal. Soon after the revolutionaries assassinated the Governor-General of Moscow, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Presumably he didn't decamp fast enough.

     Unrest spread throughout the towns of Russia.Strikes multiplied. The Putilov works remained on strike, and they were supported by most of the town - even the professional and business classes. Nicholas ignored his advisers when they suggested he call some sort of representative congress. Eventually the Putilov strikers returned to work, but in the countryside strikes continued. They were the most violent in non-Russian areas of the Empire. The most significant struggle was at the textile centre of Ivano-Vosnesenski, "Russia's Manchester", where the workers set up the first Soviet. Peasants had begun to seize estates. Landlords decamped.

     Army discipline began to crumble. Aeries of mutinies occurred, all the way from Warsaw to Vladivostok. The most famous of these was the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin in the Black Sea Fleet. A protest at the quality of food served in the seamen's mess escalated when the Admiral in charge ordered 30 of the protesters shot. The firing squad refused the order, and in the end most of the officers were "decamped" overboard. The sailors were at a loss about what to do. They sailed for Odessa where there was a citywide strike in progress. While there the Navy sent the rest of the Black Sea Fleet against them, but when the Potemkin sailed out to give battle the other ships turned tail and "decamped". The Potemkin's supplies were running low, and they set sail once more for Constanta in Romania where they found refuge and internment.

     The political opposition also became more organized. In both the provinces and the Zemstvos the liberals called for a Constituent Assembly. The social democrats wasted most of their time in internal squabbles, but the SRs were quite active, both alongside the liberals and independently of them.

     When Witte returned from the peace treaty negotiations in September the Tsar had no choice but to call on him to hopefully restore order. Despite his efforts the peasant rebellion grew, and the government was helpless. Non-Russian minorities agitated for their independence. Egged on by a painfully slow demobilization more and more army units mutinied.

     Over and above this the industrial workers did what no other class could do. Encouraged by the partial success of a general strike in Finland they began a general strike in Moscow in October 1905. This spread along the railway lines to St. Petersburg and Kharkov. Soon it had spread throughout the Empire.

     "The strike then quickly became general, spreading throughout the empire, so that by the last days of October the whole railway system, which then amounted to more than 40,000 miles of  railway was at a standstill, and life in most large cities, especially those with an industry of any importance, came to a halt. Even Peterhof, where the Tsar was staying at the time, could be reached only by sea from St. Petersburg, and it was from there that, as usual in time of trouble, Nicholas summoned Witte."

     Would Witte's efforts be enough ? By this time the idea of the Soviets had spread. The first St. Petersburg 'Soviet of Workers' Deputies' met on October 25, 1905. The initial count of deputies rose from 30 or 40 to 562 at the height. The first Izvestia was its bulletin. Other cities followed the example. The Soviet alternative power, especially in St. Petersburg, grew through most of November 1905.

     Witte applied all his skill. He managed to persuade Nicholas, reluctant as he was, that the only sensible course was to make concessions. On October 30, 1905, the 'October Manifesto', drawn up by Witte and his ally Alexei Obolensky, was signed by the Tsar. It promised the beginnings of representative government and civil liberties, but it was (deliberately ?) vague on detail.

     The Manifesto was denounced by the revolutionaries as an exercise in deception, hiding future brutality and repression. Events were to prove them very much correct. In the aftermath of the Manifesto, despite continued existence, the Soviets withered. Further strikes were poorly observed. In the end the Soviets abandoned calling for them.

     Witte saw his opportunity. On December 9 he had Nosar, the President of the Petersburg Soviet, arrested. The Soviet elected a Troika to carry on his work, but didn't act further. Heartened by this Witte, on December 16, had whomever he could locate of the entire membership of the Soviet (about 200) arrested also.

     The Petersburg Soviet expired, but there was one final clash. Those members of the Soviet who had escaped, along with the Social Democrats and the SRs, called for a political general strike. It met with good support especially on the railways. On December 20 a general strike was called in Moscow.

     The Moscow Soviet, still in existence, essentially controlled the city. The loyalty of local military units was doubtful. The government arrested whatever strike leaders they could. Street battles began between strikers and police. The authorities didn't dare to call in the troops.

     Petersburg replied by sending more reliable units to Moscow. The Muscovite workers, especially in the Presnya district, fought valiantly even though outnumbered. The support expected from the rest of the country was feeble. The Soviet decided to end the strike in the waning days of December. The military and police killed hundreds. Thousands were exiled to Siberia, and much of Moscow was reduced to rubble.

     The Revolution was over. The government proceeded to a mopping-up operation in the rest of the Empire. By the end of January 1906 most of the rebellions had been suppressed. The parliamentary aftermath was anticlimactic.

     The new Constitution promised by the October Manifesto was despised by the nobility, police and Church. The leftists were openly skeptical. Only the liberals in the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) Party, under the leadership of Pavel Milyukov, tried to make it work. In the first elections in March there were severe property qualifications for the vote. The Social Democrats and the SRs boycotted the election.

     Meanwhile the government, despite Witte's objections, pushed through a number of measures designed to hamper both the elections and the new Duma. In May Witte resigned after doing the ungrateful Tsar one last service, negotiating a 2 1/2 billion franc loan from France that saved the Russian state from bankruptcy.

     Despite the Tsarist efforts the new Duma was elected with a large peasant bloc that unexpectedly sided with the left against the reactionaries. The Cadets held the largest voting bloc. The right was greatly outnumbered.

     The new Duma convened on May 10 and promptly passed an 'Address to the Throne' that was basically the full program of the Cadets. Nicholas refused this request, and the Duma voted no-confidence in his government. The deadlock lasted 73 days, and on July 21 the government dissolved the Duma. Attempts to hold an 'alternative Duma' in Finland became the occasion for the virtual suppression of the Cadets.

     A new Prime Minister, Peter Stolypin, called new elections, but the second Duma was even more left wing than the first. The Social Democrats and the SRs abandoned their boycott and with the support of another faction, the 'Labour Group', they consituted a large body to the left of the Cadets. Stolypin dissolved the second Duma and tightened the electoral laws even further. It worked. The 3rd and 4th Dumas were solidly conservative and lasted from 1907 to 1917. Autocracy had been preserved.

     The book ends here. It appends a chronology, index and a list of suggested readings. All three are welcome additions. This book is a good brief introduction to the events described and is well worth the read.




Sunday, November 17, 2013


     Snakes belong to the suborder Serpentes in the order Squamata (the scaled reptiles). There has been a considerable controversy over their evolutionary origin. The two basic theories are 1)they evolved from terrestrial burrowing reptiles and 2)that they evolved from aquatic reptiles and are closely related to the extinct mosasaurs. In both cases the loss of the legs would aid rather than inhibit mobility. The paleontological evidence is equivocal. In 1997 Michael Caldwell of the University of Edmonton reported a 100-million-year-old fossil of an aquatic snake that retained its hind legs. In contrast others reported a 90-million-year-old fossil of a terrestrial snake that also retained vestigial legs. Molecular studies find little similarity between snakes and living mosasaur relatives such as the Komodo Dragon.

     In a recent brief report in Science Magazine (Science 8 November 2013: Vol. 242 no 6159 p683a- available behind a paywall at Science ) a novel way to approach the question was described. At the 73rd annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology researcher Hong-yu Yi told of how she looked at previously ignored evidence - the anatomy of the inner ear. She CT-scanned the area in question in 10 modern snakes, both aquatic and terrestrial. She also look at 9 modern lizards for comparison.

     In aquatic species the semicircular canal of the ear protruded relatively far from another local structure, the vestibule. The canal protruded far less in land dwelling snakes and lizards. The difference is because of the relative freedom of head movement of the aquatic species.

     She then scanned the preserved skull of a 85-million-year-old fossil snake called Dinilsia. It fell within the terrestrial range. While the evidence isn't definite (criticisms were voiced at the meeting) it adds weight to the hypothesis that the ancestors of snakes were land-dwellers.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Measuring ghosts

     A recent article in Science Translational Medicine asks the question "Can We Measure Autism ?" To my mind this begs the question, "is there really something called "autism" that we should be trying to measure ?". The authors Isaac S. Kohane and Alai Eran inadvertently make the case in the negative. They first of all note the controversy that recent changes in the "psychiatric Bible", the DSM, have provoked. To their credit they mention the "changes in funding" behind some of the debate, though they stop short of a robust criticism of the "mental illness complex" as a money making industry. They also mention how the DSM classifications "strike at the heart of our own identities as autonomous human beings" without going on to criticize the whole enterprise as a method whereby some people exercise power over others. Finally they admit the obvious, that mental health "diseases" simply don't have the "robust and definitive" criteria that is demanded in other fields of medicine.

     The authors, however, are reformers rather than abolitionists. They lay out a series of criteria for diagnosing autism spectrum disorder (the present fashionable name). These would include 1)agreement of the key features of a disorder/disease, 2)agreement on how such features are to measured clinically and 3)a pathway from such measurements to a clinical label that provides useful information on both prognosis and treatment, including estimates of the effectiveness of such treatment. They admit that, "Until recently, ASD diagnoses did not meet most of these criteria.".

     Are the more "recent" criteria any better ? The authors go on to honestly admit that even "expert" (let alone the way that autism is usually diagnosed) ways of diagnosing (labelling ?) autism are wildly variable, and they admit the possibility and even likelihood "do not impart sufficient diagnostic or prognostic accuracy to be clinically useful". Mind you these are the efforts of the recent experts. They also admit the "remarkable individual differences" in response to such interventions. Without, of course, ever invoking the need for evidence based medicine. What is the natural course of the so-called disease if people don't work on it and its carrier ? What is the natural rate of recovery ?

     The authors mention the large body of research in real scientific fields about the supposed causes of "autism", and they edge close to saying that supposed "co-morbidities" may in  fact reflect that autism is, in fact, many different things masquerading under a label that is-my opinion- financially convenient for a large number of "people manipulators". They also state that verifying such research will require a much larger data analysis than has been done to date. The authors have great hopes that the diagnosis of "autism" will be improved through a thorough analysis and combination of the objective signs being investigated (as opposed to the subjective way that the label is presently applied). Their hopes are that coming to a diagnostic decision about autism will more closely resemble real medicine like the diagnosis of heart disease where many lines of evidence are considered. They do, however, admit reality, that "the multimodal approach remains untested".

     Kohane and Eran end their editorial with their vision of a wide data connection net that might actually make autism diagnosis an objective and useful enterprise. They, as reformers, make their bows to the various institutions which presently profit from autism - "research, clinical care, school, home". After mentioning holy four they give an afterthought to "individuals, with their consent". The mind boggles at the thought of a child or adolescent facing such a gathering of power having enough will and guile to escape their kindly embrace without bringing down the inevitable punishment hidden behind the mask of caring. It is significant that they end their essay by calling for data sharing amongst the holy four. The "patient" is left out of the loop here.

     I have to admit that the reforms being proposed can seem quite attractive. They are, however, fitted into a mindset that accepts both the power of this branch of the psychiatric industry and some underlying reality to the label presently being used. While not being an expert I can read the studies being done and recognize some glaring problems with them. An historical scepticism seems in order. I have an old medical book from the 1930s in my library that parses out over 20 different forms of the mental disease called "masturbation". The idea that there was no such disease would have seemed perverse (pun !) to the author. Nowadays the author himself would be the perverse one.

     Psychology and psychiatry are not sciences in any non-ideological sense of the term beyond some rather basic findings. These are where real science is done in these disciples. The rest is very much smoke and mirrors, the smoke coming from the burning of huge piles of public money and small piles of private money spent by those who want to fill their time with useless and usually painful pursuits. The way I see it "autism" is very much like the label "schizophrenic". Both labels conceal a reality of many, many, many different real diseases under a useless generalization. I don't doubt that both schizophrenics and autistics contain large populations that do have legitimate diseases, but the popularity of a catch-all label impedes both diagnostic and therapeutic efforts to deal with these matters. For instance many labelled "autistic" may indeed have gastrointestinal upsets. BUT giving them a secondary diagnosis of autism means that the real problem remains unaddressed. The signs become the focus rather than the cause.

     Ignoring real diseases and "treating" things that are nothing but misplaced words is like putting problems down to demonic possession and imagining that rituals of exorcism are some sort of "treatment". There is finally the question of whether there is anything wrong at all in at least some cases. I'm not of the opinion that labels like autistic or schizophrenic don't disguise at least some real medical problems- many not one. There is, however, the example of masturbation that I mentioned above. In that case the whole intricate system of medical (and popular) superstition was utterly false. How much of what is now described by psychiatric labels is also totally imaginary ? How much is also much better dealt with by literature or philosophy rather than "medicine" ?

     That is the sort of question I would like to leave with the reader. That is why I think that attempts to reform a modern witchhunt by increased rigour are very much asking us to "measure ghosts".

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The sickening first response of government to disaster


     Typhoon Haiyan is perhaps the most devastating weather event to ever hit land. More than 10,000 people have been killed, and the full details are still very much uncertain. The Philippines has had more than its share of natural disasters - and man-made ones as well. What I find particularly disturbing and unfortunately quite typical is the first priority of the Philippine government to the events. As quoted in today's report in Al Jazeera the President of the country used a photo-op visit to one of the areas affected to make the following "promise".

     "We have around 300 policemen and soldiers who can rotate and restore peace here. Later tonight there will be several armoured vehicles from our army arriving to show the strength of the state and stop those who started the looting here"

     Full stop ! This is not the abnormal reaction of some Third World state. The pattern was the same in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the USA. To a government the first thing that it cares about is its own ability to rule. Secondly it cares about the property of the favoured classes. Humanitarian concerns rank a distant third.

     In the aftermath of natural disasters the initiative of people on the ground and in nearby areas is far more important in relief than state-sponsored "help". This has been shown over and over. The statement from the Philippine President shows what the state is most concerned with. The so-called "looting" is an absolute necessity for people faced with hunger and other needs in the wake of tragedies. The first concern of the government is to hinder their ability to survive and to command that they will have to wait for the fullness of time when authority sanctioned aid may or may not arrive. The forces of authority will, however, arrive in a timely fashion.

     The savage nature of government is laid open for all to see by such statements and actions.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

What is Anarchism: An Introduction

     By Donald Rooum, Freedom Press, London 1993 ISBN 0 900384 66 2

     It has been many years since I have read a non-historical introduction to anarchism. There are a great number of them, and to my mind they should live up to certain criteria. One is that they should be neither too short, "leafletly", nor so long and encyclopedic that they risk boring the casual reader. They should also present a wide enough vision of the many facets of the ideology without becoming bogs down in trivia. They should have a number of "hooks" to catch the interest of a varied audience.

     They should, of course, be well written and attractively laid out, not bowing to the gods of illiteracy and mess that periodically become popular amongst a minority who claim the anarchist label. Coherence is a must, a task made easier by excluding some of the more exotic blooms that nestle under the anarchist umbrella. Any introduction should be just historical enough, and attempt to place the basic ideas within a chronological narrative.

     They should both answer time-honoured objections to anarchism and present a vision of a future society that could be attractive to a reasonable person. A good introduction should be free of both trendy academic jargon and also of rhetorical overkill. Both faults repel people who are outside of closed social circles.

     How does this slim volume measure up ? First of all it should be mentioned that Rooum is more of a collator than an author. His contributions consist of an introduction and one essay on 'Selfishness and Benevolence'. He has chosen to fill the bulk of the book with excerpts from historical anarchists of note: Kropotkin, Malatesta, Rudolf Rocker, Alexander Berkman, Colin Ward and others. Despite this the book is definitely not an attempt to put anarchism in an historical context. In his fourfold division after the Introduction the author tries to select brief pieces that are, in his opinion, relative to the public presentation of the ideology. The four chapters are 'Anarchist Approaches to Anarchism', 'Anarchism and Violence', 'Arguments For Government Answered' and 'The Relevance of Anarchism'.

     This approach may or may not be useful. The selections "generally" are pertinent to the headings, and I'm sure that Rooum's long career as a publicist for anarchism has made him aware of some of the questions that repeatedly reoccur. What the author misses, however, by avoiding an historical approach is probably the greatest argument for the possibility of anarchism, an objection that definitely comes up again and again from many different quarters. This is that anarchist societies have existed, albeit briefly, in modern times in both Ukraine and Spain. Simply put, that which has or does exist is not "impossible".

     Unfortunately Rooum ignores what the vast bulk of what effective anarchism has been in practice - anarchosyndicalism. It is notable that the only essay by a syndicalist, 'Socialism and Freedom' by Rudolf Rocker, has little or nothing to do with syndicalism. It is a criticism of the Leninist conception of socialism rather than a presentation of an anarchist alternative. Flogging the corpse of the commies is something of a motherhood issue in our times. It is also significant that the only reference to the syndicalist side of anarchism is a short segment in the Introduction where Rooum is basically critical of the idea.

     The lack of a historical narrative detracts from both the utility and the coherence of the book/pamphlet. As mentioned the excerpts vary in how relevant they are to the purposes of the author/editor. How does the book measure up as simply a presentation of ideas and ideology ? Generally not so bad. Anarchism is such a diverse trend that it is naturally hard to find ways of fitting it into a popular presentation. The author, however, makes a good go of it in elucidating the "bare bones" of the tradition on which pretty well all anarchists agree. Neither too short nor too long. He tries to dispel some of the more common popular misconceptions about the movement. He is generally successful in this, and his language is refreshingly free of jargon and purple prose. He avoids the all-too-common lefty fault of "argument by insult". The presentation is properly modest and reasonable. In general the items quoted are well written and add to the points that Rooum wishes to make.

     A caveat- Rooum is obviously of the "permanent protest" school of anarchism. He does, however, at least give rather catholic mention to other trends in anarchism that are more "optimistic". He is quite realistic and honest about the strength, or lack thereof, of anarchism in his own place and time. His situation in late 20th century Britain may both explain and excuse his slighting of the more effective forms that anarchism has taken elsewhere and "elsewhen".

     Is this a useful introduction to anarchism ? In many ways yes. It certainly helps to clear up many of the myths that have accumulated in both the public and the academic mind. It does this in an admirably popular, clear manner. Rooum is a good example of what Orwell thought that political writing should be like. Because of its limited scope, however, it could not be used as "The Introduction". All that being said one should congratulate the author for a tightly argued and accessible presentation of at least one of the aspects of modern anarchism. The book, however, is not the Holy Grail of an accessible intro to the total neophyte. BUT is a good supplement to other efforts and well worth reading.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Syria- A Short History


By Phillip K. Hitti, Colier Books, New York 1961
This book is an abridgement of the author's previous work 'History of Syria Including Lebanon and Palestine' (1951). Before the present 'Arab Spring' and the subsequent civil war in Syria this country wasn't of great interest to the average person. This had not, however, always been the case. In the past Syria and its Lebanese gateway had at time been very much in the centre of events.
     The author opens with a brief synopsis of Syria's history, and continues with an overview of its climate and topology. There are five general zones in the land. Despite the general misconception Syria is far from being an unremitting desert.
     Hitti begins with the prehistory of the area and goes on to the Semitic origins of the population. This was shared by the Babylonian Empires and the Phoenicians. Syria from the beginning had the misfortune of being a crossroads for empires and migrations. On the other hand the country's position lent itself admirably to commerce. Its language, Aramaic, became a lingua franca of not just the area itself but also of the Persian Empire.
    A gradual infiltration of Hellenistic influences began shorty before the conquests of Alexander the Great and accelerated thereafter. This continued with Greek colonization and the Seleucid Empire, but crumbled under subsequent Roman, Partian and Arab pressure and the persistent rebellions of the Jews. Pressure developed from the Arab Nabateans with their capital at Petra south of the Dead Sea. Under Pompey in 64 BC all of Syria was organized into a single Roman province. The area was rapidly becoming an agricultural/horticultural centre. An important textile industry developed, and the area remained prominent in international trade. Syria's upper classes remained Hellenistic from the time of Alexander until the total victory of Islam in 633-640 AD.
     The Muslims fanned out in all directions from what they had made their Syrian base. They went southwest to Egypt and east to Mesopotamia and Persia. The newly conquered populations often welcomes the Arab armies as being an improvement on their previous rulers, and they certainly proved more tolerant than Byzantine Christianity. Soon, however, factions developed within Islam. Under the first caliph, Muawiyah (proclaimed in 661) Islam split between Shia and Sunni. The Sunni capital of Damascus was able to assert hegemony, but the split became a lasting source of conflict within the Islamic world.
     The caliphate pressed eastwards into Central Asia and westward across the North African littoral. The northern frontier, however, remained blocked as the Arabs and Byzantines fought back and forth across Asia Minor. The Arabs reached Constantinople twice, but were unsuccessful both times.
     Shortly before his death Muawiyah appointed his son Yazid as his successor thereby introducing the dynastic principle into the Caliphate. This became one of the reasons why Muawiyah has been unpopular amongst subsequent Muslim historians. Before this time Islamic traditions came to refer to his predecessors as the "righteous Caliphs".
Despite almost unrelenting internal conflict under this Umayyad dynasty the Muslim Empire reached its maximum united extent. Victory came in both the Indus Valley in the east and in the west where a Muslim army of only 7,000 defeated a Visigoth horde of 25,000 in Spain in 711. The conquest of half of Spain was accomplished in 6 months. The advance was halted more because of petty dynastic jealousies than for military reasons. The Sunni/Shia schism persisted, and the Shia developed an ideology that was possibly more totalitarian than the Sunni and certainly more bizarre.
     The end of the larger Umayyad caliphate came about because of this division. In 750 Damascus was captured by the Shiites, and the Abbasid caliphate was established. One of the heirs of the Umayyads escaped the inevitable slaughter and made his way to Spain where he established an independent caliphate in Cordova.
     Under the Abassids Damascus lost its central position in Islam, and the capital of the new dynasty was established in Iraq. The new caliphate was considerably more bloodthirsty and theocratic than the old. It was also more oriented to Persia as opposed to Arabia where Mecca and Medina sunk in importance along with Damascus. Syria and other Muslim provinces proved restive under the new caliphate in Baghdad, but the Abassids were successful in repressing this discontent.
     The rule of Baghdad is often represented as a "golden age" of the Islamic Empire, based upon the growth a an extensive literature in translation. Much of this translation was accomplished by Syrians. At the same time in Syria itself Aramaic was evolving into an unique dialect of Arabic.
     The Abassid dynasty died a slow death, undermined by Turkish conquests. In 877 Ahmad ibn-Tulun, a Turkish deputy governor of Egypt marched into Syria, and the area became a frontier for Egypt. After years of war the Caliph was forced to recognize both the independence of Egypt and its suzerainty over Arabia. Meanwhile the Fatamid dynasty arose in present day Tunisia and rapidly extended its rule eastward to include Syria. Just to emphasize the back and forth nature of the times the Fatimids were also Shiites, though of a much more tolerant strain than the Abassids.
     The subsequent history of Syria was once more a never ending succession of dynastic conflicts which ended with Turkish rule. By the time of the Crusades Syria was partitioned between the Egyptian Fatamids and several petty Turkish emirates. Meanwhile a storm was rising in the West. Following a Papal call in 1095 150,000 crusaders set out for Palestine in 1097. The force, once the Byzantines were (gratefully !) free of it fractured as various leaders hove off to establish their own states. The First crusading horde descended on the eastern Mediterranean littoral. The heart of Syria itself was never conquered, but divisions amongst the local Muslim statelets left the invaders free to sweep on to Jerusalem. There the "soldiers of the Cross" perpetrated a massacre that left a black mark on history.
     The history of Syria itself and the so-called 'Holy Land' was bound up with alternating periods of alliance and opposition between 'the Franks' and the local Muslims. This was ended with the growing power of Egypt's Saladin of the Ayyubid dynasty who rapidly became master of Syria as well. He then moved on to retake Palestine. Christian attempts to recover lost ground failed. Meanwhile in Egypt the Ayyubids were replaced by the Turkish (more or less) Mamluks. These rulers checked the Mongol invasion which had swallowed up the eastern area of Islam.
     A lasting effect of the Crusades was to shift the Middle Eastern balance of power from Shites to Sunnis. The political chaos of the era and Mamluk rule ended being disastrous for both Egypt and Syria. Despite the persistence of some commerce the population of Syria fell to 1/3rd of its previous level. The Mongol khan Tamerlane took both Damascus and Aleppo, and in 1402 he defeated the Ottaman Turks at Ankara.
     Internal strife ended Tamerlane's brief empire, and Syria became a bone of contention between the Ottamans and the Mamluks. Meanwhile in Persia the Safawid dynasty came to power. In 1516 the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks and in 1517 occupied Egypt itself. They were to remain in control of Syria for 400 years.
     The Ottoman Empire reached its height in the reign of Sulaymin I ('The Magnificent') when it stretched from Morocco in the west to Mesopotamia in the East. It also took in most of the Balkans. Syria failed to prosper under the corrupt rule of Ottoman pashas (deputy governors), and the central government in Istanbul cared little as long as tax farming gave sufficient loot.
     Trade withered as the 'age of exploration' allowed western commerce with the Orient to bypass the Middle East. What little trade there was was increasingly dominated by foreigners - Venetian, French and English. The western barbarians had returned. The French were most successful, and much later they went on to govern the area as a protectorate. Ottoman rule was punctuated by several rebellions, especially in Lebanon, and once more Istanbul paid little attention as long as taxes were collected. In 1860 France occupied the Levant.
     European ideas and culture gradually penetrated the area in the course of the 19th century. The economy began to expand. Western culture spread. Population grew. A worldwide pattern of emigration developed as the Lebanese sought their fortunes elsewhere. In the homeland ideas of democracy and nationalism took hold. Syrian nationalism developed as part of pan-Arabism. In the areas that it still held the Ottoman Empire became more and more repressive. The unpopularity of the Turks led to the dismemberment of the Empire after WW1. Non-Turkish areas were ceded by the Ottomans, but by the treaty of Serres (1926) Turkish rule was replaced by the French mandate over the entire Syrian area. Independence was put off to some unknown future. The French proved to be as unpopular rulers as the Turks had been. Pushed to the limit by the treachery the population rebelled in 1925-1927.
     World War 2 gradually eroded French control, and the French grudgingly ceded more power to the locals. In 1948, however, the state of Israel was created and was supported by western powers. This led Syria to a growing friendship with the USSR.
     This book ends with the creation of the short-lived United Arab Republic with Egypt's Nasser as head of state. The more recent history is very much the story of the Arab-Israeli wars and the coming to power of the Assad rulers. The present civil war in Syria is the stuff of current events, though the friendship of the regime and Russia continued through many vicissitudes.
     I found this book very interesting as it dealt with many subjects of which I had only a passing acquaintance. I don't know if others would also enjoy it. To some degree it clarified the matter of the various Muslim caliphates, something I have always found confusing. It helps that the author has constructed a good balance of government and social history, and such matters can be set in a firm basis of socioeconomic reality.
     The book lacks any attempt to draw "general lessons" from the history except for perhaps a highlighting of the persistence of custom and economic interest under the surface changes of politics. The writing is clear and coherent. There are, however, only two maps included, insufficient in my opinion, and there are no other illustrations. This makes for what some might find to be a rather dry narrative. Still the book has its attractions.