Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Oligarchy and freedom - a brief note

The American dictionary Merriam-Webster defines ‘oligarchy’ as: “1) government by the few; 2) a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes, also a group exercising such control; 3) an organization under oligarchic control.” As examples it gives: “Their nation is an oligarchy”, “An oligarchy rules their nation”, and “The corporation is ruled by oligarchy”.

Why do we consistently and persistently refer to ‘Russian oligarchs’ but Western ‘CEOs’?

Any structure or system in which power devolves upwards is an oligarchy by the definition above. Even our ‘democracies’ in countries like the USA and Great Britain, even with American ‘checks and balances’, even with British ‘supremacy of parliament’, even with the presence on our active political stage of maverick representatives who try to keep alive in their minds that they are there to serve the people who voted for them, even with the consensual act of the electorate’s placing an ‘X’ on a piece of paper, even with the prospect of governments coming and going every few years, power nevertheless devolves upwards into the hands of fewer and fewer people – a ‘political class’, a handful of political oligarchs.

I know the above is arguable at best, but what I submit is not arguable is my assertion that capitalist corporations are oligarchies. I have said before that corporations are the least accountable structures since medieval feudalism (the notion that they are somehow ‘accountable’ to consumers is laughably disingenuous). So why not call a spade a spade. Rupert Murdoch, just to give an example, is an oligarch.

Our laws keep these oligarchies in place. Our political constitutions support the upward devolution of political power. Our civil and criminal laws though having a social component are broadly oriented towards the defence of whatever is proprietary. If we desire freedom, if we desire liberty, especially if we want to wrest those words back from people who champion political or economic oligarchy then – will we, nill we – we are going to bark our shins on these laws.

The following linked video is forty-eight minutes of lucid wisdom from the late Murray Bookchin on the subject ‘forms of freedom’, in which he expounds succinctly the democratic structures and movements, mostly suppressed from our history/ies, from which we can learn and from which we can draw inspiration in our drive to achieve real freedom. The lecture was given in 1985.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Diary of a Chief Replicator Technician. (No Smurf porn, just Star Trek)

“Pass me the number seven molecular wrench, honey,” I said without looking up from my work. I needed to keep an eye on what I was doing because I had three micro-clamps and a positron patch in place, and the neutron flow was temporarily in reverse across two junctions in the common matter circuit. Tricky stuff.

Consuela (my Tejana subordinate) rummaged in the tool kit and handed me the wrench. Then the sat back against the bulkhead with her long, Latina legs stuck out across the corridor and blew through her lips.

“I’m bored, Skip,” she announced.

I made a tiny adjustment with the molecular wrench, returned the neutron flow to its proper direction – there, that should hold for now – and relaxed.

“I know, I know. It is boring sitting there while someone else does the work, but shipboard regulations state that each job on the replicator system has to be attended by at least two specialists, even if one of them has to stand around and scratch her bahookie while the other one grafts.”

“Hey!” Consuela objected, and I laughed.

“Anyhow,” I went on. “I just have a couple more tweaks to make and this wee fella will be replicating anything from the Works of Shakespeare to a planet!”

I could make a replicator sing the Marseillaise, and Consuela knew it!

I was just removing the last mirco-clamp and was about to pull my head out of the hatch and secure the cover, when there were footsteps along the narrow corridor.

“You there! Technicians! You’re in the way,” snapped a young voice. Consuela and I stood up to look at whomever it was in whose way we were. I rolled up the sleeves of my overalls just enough to reveal the skull tattoo with the words “Freedom or Death” in Romulan. We were, it appeared, in the way of four Starfleet Academy types. To us they seemed to be little more than teenagers. Two young men, two young women.

“Is this what they teach at the academy these days?” I said. “How to disrupt the most vital work on the ship? How to throw your insignificant weight around?”

The tallest of the group stepped forward, his face reddening.

“Is that how you address superior officers? Stand to attention! You’ll be on a charge for this!”

Consuela began to come to attention.

“As you were, Leading Replicator Technician Sanchez,” I said, glancing over my shoulder. Then I turned back to the young Academy type. “Superior officers? Three Ensigns and a Third Lieutentant in a uniform so new it hasn’t even developed a sweat-wrinkle yet. Four new-aboards who probably don’t know what part of the ship they’re in. Four pips who have yet to squeak. How long have you been on the USS Enterprise – a week? Two?”

“That’s beside the point. You’re insubordinate…”

“And you’re presumptuous. Check regulations, check the chain of command in this ship, check who is answerable to whom. You’ll find that Senior Technical Ranks in the Main Systems Groups are not answerable to Ensigns and Third Louies in Bridge Relief. In fact if anyone has to get out of the way, it’s you.”

The three Ensigns looked confused, but the Third Louie was still black-affronted and stood there with his hands on his skinny hips. I sighed.

“Okay,” I said “Let’s not make this any bigger than it needs to be. You’re new on board and you don’t know how things work. You’re full of Starfleet Academy and probably the applause of graduation is still ringing in your ears. Hey, that’s not a problem, everyone has to start somewhere. I can remember when I was an apprentice technician who had never left earth gravity and didn’t know one end of a gravitational torque meter from the other. We’ve all been there. But the more time you spend here on the Enterprise or any of the other Starships the more you will realise that ‘chain of command’ isn’t quite what you think it is. Okay, tell me – what do you think the most vital functional collectives in this ship are.”

“That’s easy,” said the tall one. “Bridge Command, Astro-Navigation, Main Engineering, and Weapons.”

I shook my head. “Straight out of Year One text book. And totally wrong. Anyone else care to hazard a guess?”

One of the ensigns, a young Vulcan with knitted brows, took a breath and said, “With all due respect to the Third Lieutenant, logic demands that the Scientific Division headed by the Science Officer should be in the first quartile, although strictly speaking it is a sub-division of Bridge Command. Similarly Warp Drive Division, although theoretically a sub-division of Main Engineering. If you insist that the rest of the Third Lieutenant’s selections are wrong - and I have to say the logic of that escapes me, then the Security and Away-Team sub-divisions seem the only remaining candidates of any relevance.”

I shook my head again. “No cigar, Logic-Boy. Anyone else?”

“Communications?” That was a small, slender girl with dark hair.

“Life support? Transporter?” That was her mousy friend.

“Miles away. Light years even. Okay, allow me to give you a lesson, if the Leff-tenant has no objection.” The young man in question turned bright red. Since Standard American had become the lngua franca of Starfleet some greenhorns tended to object to British pronunciation of their ranks. I ignored him and continued.

“As you all know, the working collectives on board a Starship are divided into what used to be called ‘Departments’ but what are now called ‘Divisions’, with an Officer of Commander level at its head. These may contain ‘sub-Divisions’, and both Divisions and sub-Divisions contain ‘Units’ with responsibility for specific duties. These duties are divided into ‘task areas’ and each task area is the responsibility of a ‘Team’. An individual operatives responsibility, whether command, executive, or active, is contained in a ‘Seat’ - one talks about ‘Navigation Seat’ and ‘Helm Seat’ on the Bridge, ‘Energiser Seat’ in Transport, and so on. All fairly basic...

Now, the four most important working collectives on a Starship are as follows, in reverse order. Number four - the Jeffries Tube Maintenance Team, headed by the Senior Jeffries Tube Technician. The Jeffries Tubes is vitally important to any Starship because it gives access...”

“Excuse me,” interrupted the knitted-brow Vulcan, his brows now at ‘purl one, take two together, cast off’. “You just said the ‘Jeffries Tubes is’. Didn’t you mean ‘the Jeffries Tubes are’?”

I shook my head.

“A common misconception,” I said. “The Jeffries Tubes, although grammatically a plural, is always referred to on board a Starship in the singular. It’s tradition, a bit like referring to the ship as ‘she’. Also, when you think...”

“I’ve never got that either,” broke in one of the other ensigns. “Even the USS Richard Millhouse Nixon is referred to as ‘she’.”

“... of it, the Jeffries Tubes is a single system throughout the whole ship. It is a single tubes. One tubes. A discrete tubes. Each segment has a different designation - Port Upper Decks Transfer, Lower Engineering Third Junction, Accommodation Straight-through, Aft Fluke, Gunnery Deck Archangel Moroni Passway...”

“Pardon me?”

“... Don’t ask. Anyhow, as well as giving access to all vital systems and carrying all the major functional trunking, cable, and busbars, the Jeffries Tubes is invaluable when the ship is boarded by unfriendly aliens. They may occupy the whole ship and lock the Bridge Command in Sick Bay, but they never think of the Jeffries Tubes, and the Bridge Command always manage to out-flank them by going through the Jeffries Tubes. Voila!

Okay, at number three we have the Inertia Damping System Maintenance Unit. Now the Inertia Damping System are the...”

“Er... “ interrupted the young Vulcan. “... nothing. Please carry on.”

I heaved a melodramatic sigh and continued.

“The Inertia Damping System are the most important element of a Starship’s mechanical function. Without it even the most sophisticated Starship would have to take several weeks to accelerate even to quarter impulse power if its crew was to survive. It would have to function as nothing more than an un-manned probe.”

It’s truly remarkable how the words ‘un-manned probe’ always cause laughter amongst young Academy types. I allowed the sniggering to die down and continued.

“Number two - the Heisenberg Compensator Maintenance Team. If the circuits on which compensating for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle relied were so much as a thou out of whack, then the whole transporter system would have to be shut down and everything would have to be transported by shuttle. The HC is the thing that stops a transporter beaming your molecules randomly across all points in the Universe simultaneously. That compensation is, of course, impossible, so the HC is incredibly complex and incredibly important. Without it all Away Team work, prime freight transference, etcetera etcetera would be slow, expensive, unviable.”

“I must ask you this, as you’re a technical... person... officer... um...” The Third Lieutenant was now much less sure of himself than he previously had been. “How does the Heisenberg Compensator actually work?”

“It actually works very well, thank you,” I said and went on without a pause. “Top of the list and undeniably the most important working collective on this and any other Starship is the Replicator Maintenance Unit. On this ship that means me – I’m the head of the Replicator Maintenance Unit on the USS Enterprise and I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking she would say that. Well yeah, of course I would. But also it happens to be true. Just look around at everything that isn’t welded down in this ship, and a good many things which are. Where did you draw that tricorder from, Third Leff-tenant?”

“Stores… er… Ma’am.”

“Uh-huh. Logic Boy, your communicator, where did you get that?”

“Stores, Chief Technician Marshall,” he answered, reading the designation on my overalls.

“Okay. All of you, the shipboard uniforms with the Enterprise’s own cuff-flash, where did those come from?”

“Direct from the Quartermaster, Chief,” said the mousy young woman.

“And where did you all eat last?”

“Mess Deck,” they chorused.

“Right. In that case everything you have used or consumed in all those activities has been made possible by the efficient functioning of the Replicator System,” I said. I paused and looked at them.

The Third Lieutenant thought for a few moments.

“So… the Replicator System is… are… er… is…” he faltered. I didn’t help him out. He settled on ‘is’. “The Replicator System is the most important… thingie in the ship, right?”

“Exactly,” I said. “Keep up this standard, Third Leff-tenant, and you’ll go far! Now then ladies and gentlemen. Would any of you like to hazard a guess at the basic principles of replication?”

The mousy one put up her hand, as though she was still in school. “Please Ma’am, it responds to a verbal, visual, or electronic command by searching a database in which is stored the precise, sub-atomic template for several trillion objects and substances and constructing the object or substance specified in the command.”

I nodded and she beamed.

“Yep,” I said. “Straight out of ‘Starship 101’! But can you tell me what it constructs the ‘object or substance’ out of? Anyone?”

They looked around at each other as though reluctant to speak, as though they had an answer but were reluctant to give it, knowing that it would only reveal their ignorance when my follow-up question came. Then the dark-haired young woman piped up.

“Common Matter, Ma’am.”

“Yes, Ensign,” I said. “Full marks. Good old Common Matter. Anyone know what that is? No? Well it’s a kind of soup made from cosmic particles gathered at the forward nacelle scoops and the main saucer scoop.”

They looked relieved that they hadn’t been required to answer, and interested even.

“Look,” I said. “No it bloody well isn’t. I only said that to see if you would be daft enough to swallow it. What ‘forward nacelle scoops’? What ‘main saucer scoop’? Look, here’s a schematic of the Enterprise on this bulkhead – point them out to me. Go ahead. Okay you can’t, because there aren’t any such things, and you ought to know that! But I wasn’t kidding about Common Matter, it exists. Which of you bright sparks is going to tell me where we get it from?”

I looked at them. They were not so much bright sparks any more as they were four pieces of damp kindling. If you have ever back-packed on the planet Monsoonia and tried to light a camp fire you’ll understand the metaphor.

“Oh-kaaaayyy,” I sighed. “Common Matter is the product of every redundant and wasted item that the ship might produce. Anything we don’t need, anything we discard, is converted to its basic sub-atomic nature, compressed, and stored in the Common Matter Tank… right here… see the schematic? It’s maintained by a specialist team, full title the Replicator Maintenance Unit Common Matter Tank Maintenance Team – ‘the Tankers’ for short. They’re headed by a Senior Replicator Technician who reports direct to me. The USS Enterprise is a green ship, it recycles everything it wastes. Even the urine and fecal matter you flush away in the heads…”

There was a silence in the corridor that you could have driven a screw into as what I had said sunk in. The young Vulcan spoke first.

“But that means…”

“Uh huh. You have been eating your own poop since the day you stepped on board.”

I never realised before that people really did turn green with nausea. Of course the Vulcan didn’t, being already green – it’s the copper in Vulcan blood – but his companions now had the same skin tone exactly.

“Er… may we be excused, Ma’am?” said the Third Lieutenant.

“Dismissed.” I said, and they legged it down the corridor. I could hear retching as they fled into the nearest turbo-lift. I hoped they could hold it.

“You’re bloody evil, Marie,” said Consuela.

“What? Why? It’s perfectly true that sewage from the heads goes into Common Matter.”

“Yeah, I know that. It’s more that you’ll now have three Ensigns and a Third Louie saluting all the Technicians in the ship, talking about the Archangel Moroni, and sounding like idiots when they mix up their grammar.”

“By the time they realise they’ve been had, they’ll have grown up enough to see it was all part of their learning curve” I said. “Anyhow, I’ve got news for you – you’ll like this – I booked the Warrant Officers’ Forward Conference Room for oh eight hundred…”

“So what?”

“Well, I also hacked into the electronic diaries for Yeoman Janice Rand and Lieutenant Nyota Uhura and scheduled a meeting for them in the same room for the same time.”

“I just know there’s more to this,” said Consuela.

“Damn right. Here’s the good bit,” I said, not able to suppress a grin. “I also tweaked their personal replicator out-ports so that when they ask for a spray of their favourite ‘Hyper-kitteh’ perfume it comes laced with a powerful Sapphrodisiac.”

Consuela thought for a minute, then said, “I’ll fight you for Uhura.”

“Hold that thought,” I replied.

We picked up the tool kit and jack-and-jilled it down the corridor. Consuela shook her head as she walked.

“Totally, utterly evil…”

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Top Ten

I have been playing around with my site stats, and I thought you might like to know what my most popular pages have been. There are some surprises.

1.  Survival, psychopathy, and Smurf porn was the page which first reminded me that there was a stats facility which would give me details of how many hits a page had had and where they came from. In this case the very words 'Smurf porn' had ensured that this post featured on the first page of Google if you mentioned those words. You could have knocked me down with a feather. I hope the Googlers weren't too disappointed with the almost total lack of Smurf porn in the post!

2.  Smurf porn! Smurf porn! Smurf porn! Well, it worked once...

3.  The 10 best mass protests was actually reproduced directly from an article by Ed Vulliamy, published originally in The Observer.

4.  Свобода або Смерть (3) was the last of three articles I wrote about Ukrainian anarchist leader Nestor Makhno. It attracted a number of long and interesting comments.

5.  The Five Champions was my attempt at writing a 'mumming play', plus further observations about the blackening the face in English traditional ritual. One of the most difficult aspects of this topic has been persuading American readers to separate it from stage 'blackface' entertainment. The post includes clips to some interesting examples of traditional British sword dancing.

6.  Smurf porn: 'Legally Lesbian Smurfs' ... well... okay I had another go, this time satirising mainstream porno. I'm actually surprised this doesn't sit at No.3!

7.  Of Anarchism, Lies, and Sports bras. It does exactly what it says on the tin!

8.  Brain-teasers. I asked three questions, two of which were (slightly) trick questions and the other was a plea for information on a simply matter of physics.

9.  More of Keats and Chapman - one of many!

10.  Brain-teasers and guns, where you will find the answers to the brain-teasers in No.8 and a history of gun control in the UK.

Any of these might be worth revisiting, don't you think? :-)