Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Nige and eBay

I am growing concerned about my friend Nige's addiction to eBay. He once bought a suit there so cheap that I assumed he was in danger of perishing in a raging plastic inferno if he ever went near a naked flame. Now, this latest from him:

"Well I've just won a pair of shoes (clown-size natch)on eBay for £14.50.
Brand new, really rather nice, but saddled with the embarrassing brand name Hotter Comfort Concept. 'The most comfortable shoe you'll ever wear' - I'll be the judge of that, Mr Hotter..."

It is alarming to observe that mighty mind engaged in nothing higher than bargain hunting. And I don't like the sound of this Hotter.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Hidden Virtues of Apple

A couple of months ago I wrote a Sunday Times article about Apple computers. I was celebrating their 30th birthday. Reactions to the piece - which was broadly favourable since I have just returned to Apples myself with delight - introduced me to an underworld of Apple chat on the net. As I said in the article, Apple faith is a religion. Here was yet further evidence. Anyway I just received this from Julian Lawton (blogs underJules / Jules LT), a worthwile correction to a point I made.

Bryan - just a quick comment on your article on Apple's birthday. Firstly, like your web pop one, I have to say that I liked it - it helps explain something to the general reader. Anyway, one of the comments in your Apple piece is 'Apple systems are much moreopaque than Microsoft?s, going to greater lengths to conceal the machine?s inner workings'.
I'm not sure whether you mean the hardware or the software, but if it's software then that is really no longer true.
For a long time it was - for software developers like myself, Apple Macs were systems we admired, and maybe used for DTP, but unless you were in the business of writing Apple software, you wouldn't buy a Mac. Even back in the 80s, that was true, with hobbyist programmers preferring the likes of Atari and Commodore systems. After Jobs left even that admiration declined. Those of us looking for the sort of innovation Apple were known for looked towards Sun, Next and BeOS - notably all Unix derived systems.
Like yourself, I started hearing good things about Macs. My father is an art teacher, and has never got on with PCs (a step backwards). I was aware that Apple had acquired Next, and that the new machines were based on Unix. I was also aware that Powerbooks were beginning to show up more and more amongst IT pros, and the people who owned them had good things to say.
From the point of view of a degree-educated software developer, it's a dream machine. Most of us know Unix - well enough to get nitty-gritty with the OS X Terminal from day one. Not all of us are so committed as to use Linux. (From a car maintenance point of view, I like the fact I can diagnose what it going wrong and understand what is going on inside my car - but I am not the kind of person who wants to spend my weekends rebuilding cars for the sake of it).
I can get much further 'down' in terms of taking a look at what's going on than I can with Windows - and of course each Mac comes with all the same tools that Apple's software developers have access to. This is a huge change for Apple (To program the first Macs you needed an Apple Lisa).
The news is taking some time to get round developers, but it is beginning to - I notice Mac's turn up more and more in demonstrations and technical books, and colleagues at work express an interest when I mention I have one. They are 'intrigued' rather than dismissive.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Youth's a stuff will not endure

You may note two very critical comments appended to my entry about the Cannes Film Festival. You may also note that I published them - I don't have to. They are not, in fact, about the Cannes entry but about an article I wrote in The Sunday Times on the development of pop music through the net. I shall put this on my Selected Articles imminently to clarify matters. Both comments remind me of the perils of writing about youth culture in any form. People always complain that you've got it wrong without actually explaining how or why. John Dodds, for example, is demonstrably wrong about prespending on marketing and PR in the case I described and, therefore, Lazy Hack must be wrong in agreeing with him. The Guardian article is okay but is just an insider account that seems to me to miss the point which is that the net is driving a structural change in the business. This is all I wished to explain as vividly and amiably as I could to the general reader. I suppose these complaints are an aspect of the understandable paranoia and protectiveness of youth. Trust me, I've been there. But, as I was born when dinosaurs roamed the earth, it does get a bit wearing to have to endure the same old blind chipiness over and over again.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Do Not Go to the Cannes Film Festival

I just returned from a 24 hour visit to the Cannes Film Festival. At Nice Airport, I demanded the smallest car Avis had in their garage and got a people carrier. The girl - she being French and I English - was delighted. Luckily I had bought some cool shades. These may have persuaded the people on La Croisette who stared in horror at my family monobox that I was, in fact, one of them and had merely totalled the Ferrari.
At a horrible bar, I paid 4.50 Euros for a small glass of American Budweiser - the nastiest drink ever offered to a gullible world - and watched the passing Eurotrash freak show in a condition of mounting paranoia and alienation. Where, I wondered, is the US Sixth Fleet when I really need it? Buddies, we don't require you to make beer, just to upset the French.
I had a film ticket and was told I had to go up the red carpet into the main auditorium. But, of course, I could not because I was not wearing a papillon - bow tie. Happily, a lady appeared with a bagful of papillons. I paid 15 Euros. This bought not just the tie but the services of the lady who put it on for me. "Merci," I scowled.
So, suitably dressed, I went up the red carpet. I was greeted by "security" who asked to look at my bag. And that's what they did - looked at it, didn't open it or anything. Then, 90 minutes into this fiasco, I discovered I was in the wrong place. At least six men had told me it was the right place. I was taken to the right place but the right place would not let me in because, in a deeper sense apparent only to the Gallic imagination, I was actually in another wrong place. I had to go outside and stand in a queue. I need not have bought the bow tie, I need not have climbed the red carpet. Sporadic scuffles were breaking out. We were all deranged with anger, having endured nothing but casual and inept brutality. Police and the "security" didn't care, they had the state behind them. France, I concluded yet again, is a communist country in all but name and, after a long career of attending nasty events, I can confidently announce that the Cannes Film Festival is the nastiest of the lot.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Free Will and Me

The huge - both in numbers and in length - response to my free will and quantum theory article and blog entry has been startling. I am beginning to lose my grip on what the arguments were about. Plainly, my will is less free than it was at the beginning of this process. I have, however, just discovered a potentially intriguing blog to devoted to these matters. Here it is. The title alone is wonderful, derived as it is from a Borges story. I recommend the site to soothe your woes and reconcile you with your freedom or incarceration, whichever seems more convincing.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Free Will and the Quantum

I have taken the, for me, unusual step of putting my latest Sunday Times article straight on to the Selected Articles on this web site. I have done this because of the intelligent and curious responses that the piece has already inspired. I shall add these as comments to this entry as I get permission from the authors to do so. What is apparent is that the issues raised by the furthest reaches of speculative physics have a special urgency to certain types - either scientific or philosophical - of imagination. People want to know if they are free or want to be sure they are not. As I say in the article, this is the theology of our time.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

At Westminster

The second thought experiment is this: what is all political journalists were banned by their editors from going to Westminster? This came to me while delivering a lecture to a bunch of MPs, peers and others - don't ask. It struck me that hanging around this rather small and self-important place was no way to cover politics. In fact, whatever they are covering there, it can't be politics. Politics is what happens to actual people, not the soap opera of the House of Commons. Labour has been so absurdly successful because it has blinded the media to this obvious fact. As a result, they can say what they like and nobody will check whether their words are either true or effective, only what impact they have in Westminster. For the last decade, we have been perusaded that politics is what happens among MPs. That can't be right. I do dimly remember political journalism about the real world. But, then again, I am fantastically old.

Sickness as Sin

I have been straying from the thought experiments theme, so, luckily, two just came to me. A GP once told me that 90 per cent of the people who came through his door were either not sick or suffering from something he could do nothing about - say, a cold or flu. I think the problem is that, in childhood, many people are rewarded for being sick. I was and, as a result, I often feel ill for no particular reason, probably out of self-pity. The reward in the NHS is free treatment and a conversation with a nice doctor plus all those interesting magazines in the waiting room. We should switch this round and punish children for being ill, making it clear that this is a shameful state to be in. In later life, they would be ashamed to go to the doctor. If that GP was right, this will not make a bit of difference to the actual health of the nation and it would lower health care costs enormously. So what if sickness were a sin?

Monday, May 08, 2006

Fat Japanese

I am grateful to Wired magazine for this:

"Interactive romance novel meets management sim in Maiden Love Revolution! The PS2 game, a best seller in Japan, starts with a snack-happy ex-beauty queen who wants to get back to her dating weight. Players assume the role of 220-pound Hitomi Sakurakawa as she struggles to slim down - mostly by restricting her diet. To advance, Hitomi must count calories and increase her exercise. The game keeps stats on her progress and ultimately rewards her conformity with a boyfriend."

One cannot help but admire the directness of the Japanese. You want boyfriend? Get thin. No self-esteem issues there, no pretending there is some inner, good Hitomi. There is just a computer game and, at the end of the process, just a boyfriend. The phrase"dating weight" is , of course, a delight, but an American one, I think. People used to like fat girls, will they ever again?

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Keith Richards

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears have been troubling me ever since the news broke that Keith Richards had fallen out of a coconut tree. Having once interviewed Keith (For Vanity Fair! Never again. Cheque late. Edited by man in bad suit and worse grasp of prose. Fact checkers horrible. Etc.), I can confirm the general consensus that he is a nice bloke. Furthermore, he was a fine patron of the late great Gram Parsons. Enough said. But it wasn't merely the fact that yet another sound man had tumbled out of a palm that bothered me. It was a nagging feeling that the death of Keith would, somehow, be one death too many. Of course, we all want celebrities to die, that is what they are for. A periodic culling of a dozen or so would be no great loss. But the whole point of Keith has always been that he is unkillable. He can, as Phil Kaufman, road manager to both Parsons and the Stones, put it to me, "eat nails and piss rust." The wondrous pharmacopeia that has coursed through his veins over the years has produced a man who appears to be made of an aged and indestructible combination of wood, leather and the strange metal things that hang from his hair. But I suppose that's the point; unkillable Keith will finally be terminated by something stupid like a fall from a palm tree. Even so, it wouldn't be right. I'd like to imagine my own last words would be something along the lines of, "At least Keith's okay."

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Of course, one's primary motive in voting in the local elections should be to damage Gordon Brown. Logically, therefore, one should vote Labour to shore up Blair. Brown has, characteristically, launched his own helpful initiative on election day - here - to make things worse for poor dear Tony. Subtle, he isn't. At the last general election I voted Green on the basis that they were probably more right than anybody else. My old friend, Nige, voted Tory on the equally sound basis that his personal motto was "Back not forward" and his primary political principle was, "Always vote for the Jew." Being, technically Jewish myself, I was sympathetic. Politics is now more interesting than it has been for a while, but not inspiring. One feels like a ghoul, staring at the blood and mangled metal of a car crash. It does not put me in voting mode. Nice day though.

On the Tube

The London Underground system has begun to talk to me. Drivers make continual announcements to the passengers. One launched an attack on the Evening Standard as the train paused at a station, Oxford Circus I recall. With him on that. In the lift at Covent Garden, a cheery voice welcomed me to the fresh air and fun to be had above. The Tube even talks to my phone. At Bank, you can Bluetooth-connect to a Nokia ad to get a map of the area. As Gram Parsons so presciently sang, the man on the radio won't leave me alone. This is strange. A large percentage of the passengers can't hear any of this as their ears are stopped by the white buds of iPod. And the rest don't know whether to look at each other and laugh or pretend to have heard nothing. Silence is plainly no longer an option for anybody. I suppose if you can hear things you're not dead and not alone. But The Tube used to be a place of consoling alienation, of wonderful anxieties when the train stopped a little too long between stations. I'm beginning to miss that.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Beckham and Blair

My brother lives in Spain and is a partly deranged Real Madrid supporter. He remarked recently that opposing teams had now got the measure of David Beckham. They knew how to play him, how, therefore, to neutralise him. Is this what has happened to Tony Blair? We know his style and tactics all too well. We see through him. Is this what is the basis of his present travails? We have got the measure of the man.