Monday, 30 April 2007

1 in 4 mammals to go the way of the dodo

As we sit around commissioning yet more studies on climate change, mass extinction is evidence of how quickly it is really happening (though one look at the 30 degree temperatures in Brussels, and I don't need any further information)... From today's Independent I have learned:

"Of the 40,168 species that the 10,000 scientists in the World Conservation Union have assessed, one in four mammals, one in eight birds, one in three amphibians, one in three conifers and other gymnosperms are at risk of extinction. The peril faced by other classes of organisms is less thoroughly analysed, but fully 40 per cent of the examined species of planet earth are in danger, including perhaps 51 per cent of reptiles, 52 per cent of insects, and 73 per cent of flowering plants.

By the most conservative measure - based on the last century's recorded extinctions - the current rate of extinction is 100 times the background rate. But the eminent Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson, and other scientists, estimate that the true rate is more like 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate. The actual annual sum is only an educated guess, because no scientist believes that the tally of life ends at the 1.5 million species already discovered; estimates range as high as 100 million species on earth, with 10 million as the median guess. Bracketed between best- and worst-case scenarios, then, somewhere between 2.7 and 270 species are erased from existence every day. Including today."

I see figures like that and even the most ambitious political programmes seem like a drop in the ocean...

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Unlikely Pin-Ups

I was amused to receive a link to the 'sexy MSP' website. However, Scotland being Scotland, political pin-ups are pretty thin on the ground and I can only assume that the whole thing is some post-modern exercise in irony. All the same, if I were my friend Shabnum, I would be pretty upset to have been pipped to the post by veteran Nationalist terror Christine Grahame ...I'm afraid I don't fair much better, coming in behind everyone's sexiest grandma, Margaret Mitchell. Pete kindly pointed out that I might move up the rankings with a picture but, given I've always maintained that I look better 'in action' (ie uncapturable by photographic devices) then perhaps it's a blessing in disguise.

In any case, I'm glad that the elections have given all those normally dour souls something to chuckle about - even if it's not the Nationalists' pie in the sky policies, whose sheer lunacy appears to have gone unnoticed by a public whom, if opinion polls are correct, is ready to vote for them in droves. The Lib Dems should be careful not to be forced into coalition with nationalistas. After 8 years in government we're in danger of looking power-hungry rather than principled if we simply take up with them after proclaiming we wouldn't - even if they drop their independence referendum idea.

Not only do their spendthrift policies play to the populist gallery but they are happy to overlook the fact that Scots are extremely generously subsidised by the Westminster exchequer, whose continued generosity is likely to be the only way their promises can be paid for. The irony... Furthermore, the myth of an independent Scotland in Europe, modelled after the success of Irish integration, fails to recognise we would benefit from almost no cohesion or structural funds, which are currently going to the Poles, Bulgars, and Romanians to help them climb out of a Communist era economic blackhole. I think it's a good idea in the long-term, but it's no cure-all and smacks of auld-alliance thinking rather than europhilia per se.

My personal aim is to secure more than 7 votes in my constituency on Thursday - since that's the number of party members we have - to help shore up our national vote. Any fewer and I'll assume I've even managed to make some enemies in my absence from the campaign trail..Fingers crossed!

Friday, 27 April 2007

Unstable Selves: Life in the Global Village

I had lunch in the park with a friend of mine. He's an unusual character - or at least made up of lots of different, and some might say not-entirely-compatible, influences.

His Turkish background makes it difficult for him to be gay. And yet it also makes it difficult for him to feel fully European. As a result of these identity conflicts, we concluded, the idea of belonging anywhere is illusory. Maybe that recognition is why he feels so free to go wherever in the world a job might take him. 8 years in Belgium, he says, is long enough for one lifetime.

As this experience illustrates, anyone who has ever stepped outside their national or cultural boundaries to a meaningful degree will discover that home, which was once so physically real, suddenly exists as no more than tempting nostalgia. Once you start bringing new influences, priorities, and understanding into your life from diverse sources, it is almost impossible to go back - simply because you are not the same person that you were before. And home itself will not recognise you.

So our selves shift over time. Indeed, that is what the transition from childhood to adulthood has always implied. But if that shift occurs in a framework of competing influences, it can create a sense of profound dislocation. Either we stop resisting change, and become creatures of circumstance who exchange costumes and personae with each curtain call. Or we live exclusively within our own little communities. Brussels may be marginally warmer, less efficient, and have better food, say, than the UK, but that doesnt stop many English Exiles from being as determinedly English as ever, since they've never allowed the place they refuse to call home from impinging on their consciousness. Other approaches are never really called into question because they are relegated to the margins.

Both choices, it seems to me, have significant implications for our sense of self. Clannishness suggests that our identity is fixed ad infinitum by the influences - however arbitary - of our childhood culture (in my case this seems even more ridiculous given the fact my parents only moved to the country of my birth by accident) . Chameleonic tendencies, on the other hand, suggest that there is no self beneath the surface, just a system of learned responses to deal with, and render comprehensible, the environment around us - and thus no real value.

The only alternative to this - admittedly nihilistic - vision is synthesis. That is to say, the process of interrogating, weighing and ordering competing influences which are then incorporated into our changing selves in new and unexpected ways. This, in turn, leads to an understanding of the self as a fluid entity which is constantly calling itself into question and renewing itself. But that creates its own challenges. And the most major of those is to be prepared for the isolating effects of an individualism which can divide you from your origins but, as my friend maintains, is also the price of freedom.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

We're all Greens Now

The European Parliament is in the news for once. Not because of what it's done, ironically, but of what it has failed to do. The world's most progressive environmental legislature suffers from the embarrassing position of being the most polluting assembly in the world, emitting 20,000 tonnes of CO2 at the cost of 200 Million Euros annually to the taxpayer.

While some Liberal Democrat MEPs had taken action against the latter disgrace with the One Seat EU campaign (see to add your support - they've already got their million signatures, but it's proved so popular with out-of-pocket citizens they're extending it) the former had not been seriously addressed until this year.
However, now that the world and his wife has jumped on the Climate Change bandwagon - including the EPs new President, despite a reputed preference for high-emittence Vorsprung durch Technik - things are starting to change and an overwhelming majority of MEPs recently voted in favour of a ‘carbon-free’ European Parliament (the Morgan report). This week's publication of a York University study on the environmental costs of the monthly Travelling Circus (see Earthquake Cove: The world's most polluting parliament) will cause the Strasbourg fiasco to rise even further up the agenda.
The French, as ever, are the main blocking forces to progress because they have threatened to veto any attempt to move the Parliament to Brussels on a permanent basis. EU rules state that no changes to the Treaties can be made without unanimity. And of course, the first thing the French got round to putting in the Treaty, when they were still an influential nation back in the 1950s , was that the Parliament should be located in Strasbourg. Changing the current set up, would require the French to vote against their own parliament (and considering they keep selling big buildings and bits of land to expand the complex for 1 euro a piece, it doesnt look like they've changed their mind on that front).

Voila le probleme, as they say in these parts. If we really want to change this situation we - as citizens - must start to make a real fuss and force our representatives to do something about it. Most importantly, if given the chance, we must be prepared to vote for an EU constitution which would move us towards a system of qualified majority voting that could break the French monopoly on the question.
However I have an alternative solution which wouldn't upset the French (and staring out my office window in Strasbourg, looking out on to the river, the Orangerie, and the beautiful city beyond) doesn't seem so bad to me either). We should, in fact, move the whole operation from Brussels to France! See

Now that's good thinking.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

One in the eye for the French, Harold

Boris Johnson must be one of the only europhile Tories we've got. Though he'd have us cementing our connection to the continent in a rather unorthodox fashion. I love the descriptions of John Redwood's proposed polderland to solve the house-market crisis but the English invasion of France as a response to the problem simply can't be topped!

It's A Race to the Finish

My friend has entered me for the Brussels 20k road race. Following a very foolish and not -entirely-serious conversation about wanting to get fit over coffee about a month ago, she went off, and without mentioning her intentions again, secured a number for me - for which I have the privilege of paying 7 euros 45 cents. So it seems that I have approximately 30 days in which to go from wheezing around the park at a leisurely pace to accomplishing a half marathon.

Well, I know we are all supposed to relish challenges and I suppose I do have a stubborn streak...BUT....this seems like a major commitment. Moreover, I'd always harboured ambitions to make it to the age of 28 instead of keeling over on the kerb from dehydration, since this was the age my tarot-reading aunt (whose psychic abilities have been confirmed by a number of friends and relatives) assured me I would meet the love of my life. Having said that, the world being a cynical place, it might be better to die before you give up hope of that ever happening.

However I have discovered of late that I am indeed capable of enduring long periods of unpleasantness. The fiasco over my latest batch of essays (incomprehensible philosophical polysyllables dictated by a German pedant combined with the longest working hours in the history of mankind) which led me to shut myself in my room for the best part of three days reveals this, I think. Therefore, I am quietly confident that if I can cope with Habermas without having jumped out of the window to end it all, then I should be able to muster up the self-discipline to go running around the city. Even if I don't finish the course til the next morning!... Anyone else survived such an experience?

Saturday, 21 April 2007

All Roads Lead to Brussels

Brussels is interesting because it's so mixed up. That is reflected in the people, who come from around the world and are entangled in ways their characters may never suggest. In their relationships, friendships, work environments they are surrounded by different languages and cultures. Or they themselves are the product of these influences - bilingual, binational, or simply strangers in a foreign land.
What you learn from these competing influences, I believe, is the capacity to reflect. It is not possible to be surrounded by difference without calling yourself into question, however hesitantly. You therefore learn to isolate and intrepret your 'normality', and see the influences which went into its construction. It also teaches you the partiality of individual knowledge and behaviour which are determined as much by our cultural environment as autonomous choice or inclination.
Once you accept that certain paths and identities occlude others and that we lack the capacity to reason from a metacultural standpoint it follows that no one person can have absolute knowledge which - if it exists in a form we are capable of interpreting - is dispersed, as were the citizens of Babel. To know one culture, region, village, or even one individual - let alone yourself - is a task we will never fully accomplish. The framework for reflection is only as big as that linguistically defined universe of experiences we have already had.
It is for this reason the collective experience of humanity is so important. Knowledge, in its manifold forms, from the scientific to the spiritual, cannot necessarily be synthesised, though each discipline may reflect the partial truths (but not the full potentiality) of one universal whole.

Rumi, the Mevlana, believed that all religions were dedicated to the same end via different paths - each revealing a different aspect of the deity. Jonathan Sacks, Britain's Chief Rabbi, said something very similar in his book 'The Dignity of Difference' which was intended as an antidote to the clash of civilisations thesis. Because it embodies these contradictions, I found the following passage by white, French, Muslim author Abdennour Bidar, rather poignant:

"Terrible impuisance de l’esprit occidental modern à franchir la Méditerranée ou le Bosphore! L’islam, la spiritualité, la sagesse? Dieu, l’unité de l’existence en une seule Vie universelle? Tout cela faisait sourire ces jeunes esprits élevés dans la conviction d’une supériorité de la science et de la philosophie athée sur la religion, et d’une surprématie de la rationalité occidentale sur la vision du monde “pré-logique” des cultures religieuses! Claude Lévi-Strauss écrit que “le barbare, c’est d’abord l’homme qui croit à la barbarie”. Comme l’Occident m’a semblé barbare, alors, lui qui croit tant être ‘la civilisation’ et rejette les autres dans cette fameuse barbarie imaginaire, née de l’ignorance, de l’incapacité à reconnaître l’intelligence et la culture sous les dehors de la difference".

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Long Live Transparency

The following is a must-share for those of you naive enough to believe that we live in a meritocracy. Which is, incidentally, what is implied when one lays down the conditions for concours or recruitment competitions as an 'equal opportunity employer'. And yet, and yet. All is not as it seems on paper.

I'm not going to go so far as to say these things are totally fixed - sometimes someone, somewhere, with no backing apart from their own CV slips through the net. But most of the time, the preferred candidate is lined up before the first outside applications have been sifted through and the selected few flown to Brussels at their own expense for what, essentially, constitutes a sham interview. Which is ironic considering that 'transparency' and 'accountability' are the watchwords of the day.

Now this is partially the fault of an inflexible recruitment system which mirrors that of the civil service - and thus fails to meet the needs of a political institution which wishes to employ people loyal to certain party principles or members. So I can see how a number of potential recruits could fall by the wayside simply by having no obvious connection to political life.

However sometimes it gets ridiculous. Like when you want to promote someone. Of course, this being European bureaucracy, you can't just reward someone with more money or a higher grade for doing a good job. That's why permanent staff can spend the best part of their working day out to lunch with no negative consequences. You have to find them a better position as and when one becomes available.

Which explains why an advert to recruit someone on 'equal opportunities grounds' appeared one day on a website, more or less specifying the height, weight and culinary preferences of the guy the unit in question wanted to promote.

I feel sorry for those who waste their time and energy applying for these things from outside.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Do Not Compute

The hiatus in blogging is a result of reading too much Jurgen Habermas, whose reflections on discourse ethics have caused my brain to overload. Since the only things to occupy my thoughts recently are a) the constraints on pluralism implied by the concept of deliberative democracy and b) finishing the essay on time, I decided not to clog up the ether with any further reflections on the subject.

However, I would like to link to my photos, which I am putting up on Flickr. Thanks to Nora for the idea...You can see them here or in the links section of the blog

Friday, 13 April 2007

Thank You For (Not) Smoking

Another example of bureaucratic fatuity was brought to my attention yesterday. Returning from lunch with some colleagues we decided to have coffee. Now since coffee and cigarettes go so well together - and my vices are well-known - I was asked if I wanted to make my way into the gas-chamber the Parliament neatly constructed for such purposes last year. We also used to have a smoking section in the first floor cafe, and I naively asked what had become of it, being a much more salubrious spot.

Well, it turns out that the Parliament had banned smoking anywhere in the building, spelling doom for my favoured location. And theoretically, it seems, for the smoking room as well. Technically, smoking is forbidden in any part of the complex - and punishable with some astronomical fine. Yet, 100s of stressed-out smokers can regularly be seen puffing away on the premises. How so?

Well it seems that - faced with a 'Mutiny on the Bounty' situation from the fonctionnaires - the authorities, in their wisdom, decided that if they didn't provide ashtrays in the smoking room and placed large no-smoking signs on the walls, then it does not, technically, constitute a smoking room. Therefore smoking does not occur there so they can turn a blind eye. Impeccable logic, non?

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

To Starve or Not to Starve?

To Starve or Not to Starve? That is the question. It is also a matter of sexual politics. For as Naomi Wolf says, "A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty. It is an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women's history". It doesn't just make women fret continually about how they appear to the opposite sex. But - as any anorexic will tell you - leads to low self-esteem, passivity, anxiety and emotionality: all the characteristics, indeed, of Freud's hysterical, unreasonable female psyche.

Is it true that supposedly free Western women are in fact locked into a spiral of submission as strong, if not stronger, than that exhibited by other, more explicitly misogynist cultures? Fatema Mernissi - a Moroccan feminist and sociologist - gives an interesting exposition of this thesis in her book 'Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems', in which she compares the differening tactics employed in the West and the East to ensure female obedience to male standards.

Now Mernissi is rather controversial, in so far as she views the hijab as a symbol of masculine control of women, rather than a religious duty per se. However, setting that issue aside, she may be right in observing that '"size 6 is a more violent restriction imposed on women" than the segregation (and potential anonymisation) of women in the public sphere imposed by the veil.

At this point most 'women of the free world' would probably throw up their hands and accuse her of talking nonsense. Yet she makes quite a convincing case that most Westerners are caught in a system of 'magic entrancement' where we spontaneously accept subservient positions in relation to men. This is manifested not through rhetoric (which tends towards an empty feminism) but in our subsconscious assumptions which are shaped by a tacit acceptance of 'woman' as the object, rather than subject.

This is evidenced, she notes, by our choice of fashion (determined for, and by, the male gaze), partner (who, in order to be conventionally attractive, should be older, physically stronger, and better paid or educated than we are), or reluctance to age which we combat with cosmetic surgery or increasingly costly cosmetics.

If what women strive to be (thin, beautiful, desired, and yet independent and successful) is the product of the male imagination then there is little intellectual space left to argue for alternatives. The fact that feminism itself is seen by many women today as a dirty word (despite evidence that we continue to be discriminated against, in everything from pay to promotion structures) is surely significant in this regard.

By contrast, she argues that male domination in the East has traditionally taken a physical rather than mental form. Rather than constructing women in their own image, she argues that the act of imprisoning women in a harem or forcing veiled anonymity onto them is less psychologically damaging and offers more hope for revolution, than its Western counterpart - despite the fact that women's rights in much of the Muslim world are so frequently violated.

That is because, in her opinion, Eastern men based their domination on a fear of women and their potential - whereas Western men need not fear a creature of their own creation. Indeed, she says, it is precisely because spiritual equality is underlined in the Qu'ran that men have needed to find ways of forcibly repressing women.

I don't know how true this all is. But I certainly feel that many Western women believe what men fundamentally want is a partner who will 'Soit Belle et Tais Toi', as the saying goes. An intelligent, healthy and successful woman in our society is seen as a threat, and therefore, as ugly - because she is violating male norms of femininity. Just think - Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Cheri Blair. All vilified and mocked in the press for their 'manly' ways. It's as if, when a woman no longer ressembles a fourteen year old virgin she must become invisible - or suffer the consequences.

Something to think about at least.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Bureaucracy and Box Ticking

We British don't understand bureaucracy - with the notable exception of civil servants. And I live in Belgium. Welcome to Hell...

Today I went to get a parking permit for work. Pretty simple, I thought to myself, just bring the documentation and driver's licence and le voila!

As if. I go there and fill in the form, but after standing in a very long queue (while of course the numerous staff at the other - unoccupied counters - sat and watched us wait without lifting a finger: de rigeur in these parts) I discover that as I haven't photocopied said documents I will have to go and do that before the matter is taken any further.

I proceed to the photocopying room to discover that one is en panne and the other has a paper jam, so give up and break for coffee. Eventually I locate another machine in a different part of the building, and have the precious sheafs in my hand at the counter - once again - when I am informed that these are in fact the wrong documents. What they require is a certificat d'immatriculation.

Well, I try and explain that as far as the UK Government is concerned these are the ONLY relevant documents for my car. Whatever this certificat may be it doesn't exist in my possession. But, protests the hapless administrator, the documents you've brought are not the ones our form requires! What to do?

Here is where an element of hope seeps into the seemingly impossible bureaucratic Catch-22 I've got myself into. The guy suddenly gives up. Seeing I'm in for the long-haul (and clearly not in the least bit fussed by the regulations himself) he looks around furtively, sees no one is watching and says - OK, just give me what you've got.

So I am now the proud possessor or one parking vignette. Total time elapsed in its procurement - 2.5 hours. Not bad for Belgium. This thread is to be continued I fear. I'm on such fertile territory!

Friday, 6 April 2007

Resignation Letter of the Year!

I have always wanted to go to a job interview and be entirely honest in response to questions. For example:

"Why do you want to work for this company?" - "I don't really, I just need the money".

"Why did you leave your old job" - "I couldn't stand the manager, the pay was terrible and I was bored out of my mind".

Of course, I am much too much of a sissy to do any of this in real life (though, who knows, maybe my older self will enjoy that sort of challenge). But I was so impressed when my friend Jonay showed me his last resignation letter. Let this be an inspiration to you!

'Dear Manager,

My name is Jonay Pelluz, my pay number is XXX/XXXXX and I have been in Royal Mail working, or what it's really true, trying to look busy when the manager is around, for more than 3 years and when I think about this I am surprised I didn't leave before. I am writing this letter because I want to resign from my job as of 11th September 2006. I suppose at this point of the letter you are thinking why?

I resign because the job is affecting my health, I am going back to Spain, it's deeply boring and I am sick of it. Although, to be honest, I resign because I miss:

The Spanish Tapas,
The Spanish Tortilla,
The Galician Octopus,
The Spanish Ham(onsito),
The Spanish Sun,
My girlfriend,
To have a night out until 8 o'clock in the morning,
And more things that I don't write because I don't think you are interested about them.

On the other hand I have to say, I will miss:
The English beer,
The English barbecues,
The English breakfast,
The English humour,
All my friends in the Post Office,
And my flatmates.

So, take care."

Birthday Blue(print)

How do you celebrate an age like 27? It's just past the prime of youth when no decision seems irrevocable and your chief motivation is adventure. And it's not quite approaching 30 by which time, the world seems to tell us, everything should more or less ressemble how it's going to be in 40 years time in terms of career, partner and favourite hairdresser (or at the very least the next 7, given the current divorce statistics). In other words, now is when life should be solidifying, taking shape.

Instead, what is it doing? Somehow you couldn't make this metaphor up. I wake up on my birthday in the UK, surrounded by the pleasure of the known, and by the time the sun sets I'll be on a ferry in the North Sea with all my worldly goods - minus the TV that refuses to work on the continent -heading towards a castle in the middle of Belgium. For one night. Then on to Brussels where I have to locate my remaining things from a series of different apartments and move into a temporary place in the red light district. For 3 weeks. And then? That's when my 27th year pretty much becomes a mystery to me.

Let's forget 'where do you see yourself in 5 years'. At this present time seeing even 5 weeks into the future is difficult. But maybe that is the point. If anything, for Westerners like myself, 27 is an age where you have to give serious consideration with what you're going to do for the rest of your youth (according to surveys this now lasts til 29 guys - make the most of it!) and make some vaguely coherent outline of your priorities for the future.

How this compares to my sisters in other parts of the world. I was disconcerted to discover, when dining with some Saudi friends the other night, that 25 is most definitely over the hill (even though only one of the women I was with was actually married - that's what happens with intelligent women the world over it seems. No cultural relativism there). Likewise, in my parent's generation, there's no way a woman of my age would be calling herself a girl.

But there we are: you're only as old as your cultural background tells you to feel. My one resolution though, is to learn to reach the G chord on the guitar before this time next year...And K and I are going to learn to knit. If you see this dear, happy birthday to you too :)