Thursday, November 30, 2006

For Fraser Brown

People are necessarily treading carefully around the news that Gordon Brown's son Fraser has cystic fibrosis. His daughter, Jennifer, was born prematurely and died soon afterwards. That was, of course, easily described as a tragedy. To describe Fraser's affliction as a tragedy would be to insult the life of a child who may well live for many years. What also cannot be said is that this humanises a politician not known for his approachability and warmth. That involves the child in a political calculus. But, speaking from some experience, what can be said is that the role of the severely handicapped is to remind us that we are all handicapped. The only real crime is not to know this.

More Death

It's hard not to be gripped by the American Way of Death - the embalmed and exposed cadavers, the vast 'memorial parks', the baroque euphemisms, the whole Loved One palaver. And there is something consoling about the fact that this culture has spread to the internet in the form of online memorial web sites. Here is an example, complete with music. Unlike most Brits - including, of course, Evelyn Waugh and Jessica Mitford - I don't sneer at all this as evidence of Yank vulgarity and commercialism. In fact, I think the American attachment to elaborate rites is preferable to our detachment. A very great book indeed - Philippe Aries' The Hour of Our Death - explains why far better than I can. But, in a nutshell, secular society, deprived of the rites of death, resorts to the lonely technological death, free of all consolation. The Americans have their rites, we have our tongue-tied, embarrassed friends and relatives, waiting in quiet desperation for the earliest decent moment to leave. Anyway, while I am on the subject, it seems death is a problem for bloggers and other online hoodlums. They take their passwords to their grave. Their virtual identities, their work, their lives are locked in the immaterial vault of the web. Like ghosts, in fact, or souls in limbo. We need a web Dante to visit them. Oh and Harvard says bacon sandwiches can kill you. Have a good one and, hey, let's be careful out there.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

There's a Divinity That Shapes Our Ends

It's hard not to believe that Hamlet has a point when Allen Carr dies of lung cancer. Carr gave up a 100-a-day habit 23 years ago and went on, apparently, to cure millions of their nicotine addiction. But it's difficult to know exactly what the Divinity is up to here. Qutting smoking and saving others should, perhaps, have saved him from such a death. On the other hand, the message could be that the weed will always get you, so don't even start. Or something. I am more at ease with the death of Jim Fixx in 1984. He was the great prophet of jogging for health - we would rightly call it running now as jogging is a most horrible word, suggestive of an unwise bouncing movement that would inevitably result in skeletal damage. Fixx, of course, died of a heart attack while running. He was 52. Very neat of the Divinity if He is against running on principle. But I think His real point was that Fixx, in his Complete Book of Running, invoked Mao-Tse Tung as an authority. The old mass murderer approved of running. But, if there is one thing of which we can be sure, it is that Mao angered the Divinity more than any other human being. So, if you want to live a long time, don't smoke at all and never say anything nice about Mao. Obviously.

Personally, of course, I Regret Everything

Tony Blair expressed 'deep sorrow' for slavery. He didn't actually say he was sorry. This was wise. If there are going to be apologies for slavery then Africans - chiefs sold slaves - and Arabs - very enthusiastic traders - should also be bowing their heads. And, of course, slavery was finally banned because of the British. Meanwhile, Tim Willis in the First Post suggests the Romans should apologise for their invasion. This may have been 2,000 years ago but the British still haven't recovered from the 'collective trauma' that ensued. In addition, the Romans enslaved 100,000 of us. Willis does not go far enough. To my delight - see this post - we seem to have discovered that Norwegians served in the Roman legions. I have always wanted to wring an apology out of Oslo. But what about the French? They invaded in 1066 and I have had a slight headache ever since. Speaking of which, the Dutch have always made me uneasy. Who do they think they are? And don't get me started on the Swiss. Or the Austrians. I'll apologise for the British Empire - maybe - if they'll apologise for being annoying. And, ohmygod, cake-muffins! Just say it, America. Sorry. And I apologise to everybody I've ever offended in this blog. Except Yvette Cooper. And Ed Vaizey. And Richard Dawkins. And Jeffrey Archer.
*The wonderful headline, since you ask, is not mine but Samuel Beckett's.
**Good grief! And I just discovered this site. Go there and apologise now.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Email Manners and Ed Vaizey

I have just received an email from Ed Vaizey, Shadow Minister for the Arts. It asks: 'Where's your post on the death (and rebirth) of newspapers?' Leaving aside the fact that the post is on my blog in plain sight under the pretty much self-explanatory headline The Death of Print?, I want to draw your attention to the form of this Vaizey mail. His question is posed in the subject line. The body of the mail contains only his name, his title and his constituency (Wantage and Didcot, a jaunty pairing to my ear). This, I find, bloody rude. Emails can be fast and casual, but not one from a prominent politician sent to somebody he has never met. It's like being yelled at across the street - 'Oi, you, where's your post....?' etc. So just to say, 'Oi, Vaizey, get your frigging act together.'

An Important Contribution to the Polly Toynbee Debate

To the Cafe Royal - how often I have dreamed of writing those words! - for the International PEN quiz, dinner etc. I am on the Literary Review - 'An oasis of civilisation amidst the desert of cool Britannia.' B.Appleyard - team, which never wins but always has a much better time than anybody else. One of us, the great and gentle Alexander Waugh, grows increasingly angry at the dim-witted tackiness of the whole affair. PEN is supposedly a noble organisation with noble goals, yet the evening feels like any annual party of any company with a drunken lout recruitment policy. Knowing we are losing, Alexander and I agree that our preferred tactic is to give the same answer to every question - Polly Toynbee. We cannot persuade the rest of our table. During the picture round, however, which requires the identification of fragments of book jackets, a blonde lady from another table pleads with us to tell her the name of one book, any book, represented. We tell her that Philip Roth's The Plot Against America is, in fact, My Struggle by Polly Toynbee. This makes blonde happy. Alexander and I are flooded with a deep inner peace. For one brief moment, we have been true to PEN's highest ideals.

Monday, November 27, 2006


I reported the funeral of Princess Diana. Perhaps I went a little over the top. But I had just 80 minutes to write the piece and, inside the Abbey, only the dead kings would have been immune to some kind of intense emotion. Possibly my report would have depressed political blogger Stephen Tall. It seems internal BBC research has shown that 44 per cent of the population thought that media coverage of Diana's death was excessive and over-emotional. This, it seems, made them feel 'alienated'. Tall himself says he felt 'utterly disenfranchised'. These words are absurd. If such news coverage makes you feel alienated, then you must be pretty alienated to start with. If it makes you feel 'utterly disenfranchised', then your political sensitivities and your language are out of control. Now, here we go again, next year there is to be a charity concert to mark the tenth anniversary of Diana's death. This will re-start the attacks of the hard-ass right on the 'soppy' Diana cult and the attacks of the touchy-feely left on the 'cold' institution of the monarchy and the oppressive class system, yaddy-yadda-ya. I've been on both sides for the purposes of getting through dull dinner parties. In hard-ass mode, I agree that Diana and her entourage were a bunch of flakes. In touchy-feely mode, I accept that she seems to have been tortured. One book I reviewed, however, made me realise that my feelings on the matter were irrelevant. In The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class, Michael Collins shows, among other things, how such mass acts of mourning are a distinct tradition within the London working class. They confirm identity and perpetuate consoling stories of community and solidarity. After reading Collins, I abandoned my posturing. I am neutral on Diana for the simple reason that she was not meant for me. She was meant for people who had much more urgent needs and reasons to belong.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

I Am Not the World's Oldest Blogger

You probably all knew about this guy before I did, but, for me, it is a very consoling discovery. Good ol' Don is the world's oldest blogger. Will I blog on to my nineties? Will Jeffrey? All I can say is that I just bought my first pair of Converse All Stars, clear though disturbing proof, if any were needed, that I am not dead yet.

Jeffrey Archer - I Know, I'm Sorry

You people bring out the worst in me. Maxine, for example, draws my attention to this. He's downright viral this Archer. This is, in fact, odd because his blog is ranked only 2.6 millionth in the world, well below my own obscure and cantankerous offering. He just doesn't post enough, I guess, but when he does.... Consider, for example, the lyrical This Week's News with which he left us prior to departing for Australia. It contains the disturbing report that one prize in a charity auction he is conducting out there consists of 'a box for every day of the Sydney Test.' He can't surely mean....
(For my American readers, 'a box' in cricket is, I believe, the same as 'a cup' in baseball. Or it used to be. I see now they are called Anatomic Abdominal Guards. When did that happen? When muffins became cakes probably.)

Me, Me, Me 2

Two more Sunday Times pieces, I'm afraid. One about management consultants in government and one about a new wave of popular science books. I don't know how I do it what with this blog and all.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


Years ago I was involved in a Cold War caper when the Russian theatre director Yuri Lyubimov defected to the West in the course of an interview with me. To the horror of the management of the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, he sneered at the chinovniki - petty bureaucrats - who meddled with his work at the Tanganka Theatre. After that, in Yuri Andropov's Soviet Union, there was no going back and, in 1984, Yuri was stripped of his citizenship. It was an exciting time for me. I was given strange warnings by a man in a room full of mirrors - 'Very distracting,' he said ominously - and I raced around London with Yuri, his wife and friends, avoiding the rest of the press and the KGB, who, I was assured, would snatch him if they could. Oh and Yuri's production of Crime and Punishment at the Lyric was one of my great theatrical experiences. But all the time I was watched coldly by his Hungarian wife. She blamed me for all this. She had not known he had intended to defect and now she thought she would never see her family again. 'Look what happened to Tarkovsky,' she said to Yuri. Andrei Tarkovsky, that great, great artist, also defected and was separated from his family. He was to die, still in exile, in 1986.
All of which came to mind when I saw some Russian expert on television this morning. He used the word 'liquidate' to describe the killing of Alexander Litvinenko in London. 'Liquidate' is the verbal equivalent of my Cold War capers. I was enjoying the game, but the eyes of Yuri's wife spoke of the horrible reality. Similarly 'liquidate' sounds exciting and James Bondish. But what it really means is the torturing to death by evil people of a man whose only crime was to speak out.

Matters of High Art

You should know that a) I have won a fiercely competitive poetry competition and b) that Big Jeff is giving away his money. In both cases it's about time too.

Friday, November 24, 2006

To All Commenters

I have just discovered that some comments have gone astray. Blame this new Blogger software which promised me greater stability, at the price, seemingly, of lost comments. So, if you have left comments and they have not appeared, email me. They have not been censored. The only comments I don't publish are ones that contain potential libels for which I could take the hit.

Cricket, Also Muffins

On the subject of the first Ashes test, I am speechless. I note this, however, spoken by an English character in the new Thomas Pynchon novel.
'You might not as an American appreciate this, but among the last surviving bits of evidence that a civilization once existed on this island is the game of cricket.'
Pubs too, I'd say, and tweed, possibly also real muffins, not those ghastly American heart attack machines. Look, guys, which part of this sentence - Cake is not a breakfast food. - don't you understand?

The Death of Print?

I am indebted to the ineffable Frank Wilson for drawing my attention to this article from The Atlantic, for me one of the best magazines in the business. The article is inspired by a beautifully-made film - see it here - which presents a vision of the immediate future in which Microsoft and Googlezon (a merged Google and Amazon) fight for control of the world's media. Googlezon wins. Note the old media groups are not involved. So what happens to newspapers? In The Atlantic Michael Hirschorn provides one scenario. They go utterly digital, becoming social networks in which reporters blogs are the hubs. Something like this scenario is exactly what newspaper managements are currently contemplating. It is somewhat comforting for me in that it justifies the role of the writer and my own decision to blog. It is less comforting in that, digitised as I may be, I like newspapers and print on paper. They provide something that cannot be had online - a feeling of contemplation combined with the serendipity of finding something you weren't looking for. However, Hirschorn provides another scenario which, I am happy to say, exactly matches the one I have been propagating at dinner parties, in pubs etc. To quote Hirshorn: 'Counterintuitively, I'd argue that this disaggregation strategy could provide a renewed logic to the printed product. As news itself becomes more of an instantly available commodity, readers will crave an oasis of coherence and analysis ... Online news, microchunked, consumed on the fly, is fast food; the newspaper, fed by its newly invigorated journalist-brands, is the sit-down meal. In this marginally more optimistic future history, the roles of print and digital are inverted. Original news - in the form of stories, postings, and community - begins online, while print offers an intelligent digest/redaction that readers - and not only the elite and elderly - can peruse at their leisure.'
Exactly. Newspapers will go through a phase of trying to turn themselves into iPods and then, finally, return to what they do best - being newspapers.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Meaning of Complexity

Science stories like this always make me suspicious and not just when they are in The Independent. Scientist makes announcement. Journalist asks questions beginning, 'Does this mean that...?' Scientist shrugs and says, 'Well, yes, I suppose so.' Headline announces, 'World Changed Utterly: It's Official.' Anyway, leaving such doubts aside, the gist of this story is that the human genome turns out to be far more complicated than we thought. When Watson and Crick deciphered the molecule of DNA in 1953, there was general rejoicing at the fact that it all seemed so simple. Our blueprint was written in a code consisting of just four chemical letters. This simplicity has since been progressively revealed as ever more illusory. The complexity of the system means that it remains far beyond our understanding. When, some years ago, I interviewed Craig Venter, one of the leading figures in the genome project, he said something startling - 'It's clear from deciphering the genetic codes of viruses, bacteria, insects and humans that this is not something that man could have built. Billions of years of evolution have produced something more complex than the human mind can comprehend. It leaves the window open for some doubts...."
Watson and Crick were militant atheists. They thought their discovery in its computer-like simplicity was a blow against religion. Ironically, it has turned out to be a window on yet further mysteries.

What I Would Never Do

Iain Dale has started an infuriatingly irresistible Blog Meme - list the ten things you would never do. He has challenged a number of bloggers to respond, though hurtfully not me. Picking myself up from this insult, I shall heroically respond with my own list.
1)Shake hands with Bashar Assad. 2)Start another conversation with Harold Pinter. (See here for my reasons.) 3)Morris dancing (obviously). 4)Read the thirteen volumes of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics. (A long story.) 5)Start a land war in Asia. 6)Buy a pair of Hush Puppies. 7) Pilates. 8)Ski. 9)Take part in a marathon dressed as a chicken/horse/duck/banana. 10)Jump and shout with wild enthusiasm when told to do so by a TV show warm-up guy. ( I have been in this situation more times than you might imagine.)
The reverse list - ten things I would always do - is somewhat harder to imagine.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Litvinenko and the Syrians

Of course, there is plenty of plausible deniability available to the Russians in the case of the poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko. It could have been a rogue element within the state or a gangster element outside. The same can be said of the poisoning of the Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko and the shooting of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The old KGB did specialise in the assassination of critics and dissidents and, for any unemployed Cold War veterans, it must be a hard habit to shake. The KGB also trained the Syrian secret service and there have been an awful lot of killings lately of critics of Bashar Assad's regime. This week there was the Lebanese minister Pierre Gemayel. Also in Lebanon there have been Samir Kassir, Rafik Hariri, George Hawi, Gibran Tueni and attacks on May Chidiac and Eias Murr, all open critics of Syria. There appear to be a large number of Soviet-trained killers on the loose busily engaged in murdering opponents of the Russian and Syrian governments. Perhaps they should try to cut down to just one murder a month prior, one hopes, to quitting completely. Anyway, at least I am sure that the nice Mr Assad's hands are clean. After all, he studied opthalmology in London.

Just to Say....

.... how much I agree with Lucy Mangan in the Guardian. Sex and the City is, indeed, a spectacularly horrible show. Mangan says it is about women who 'are marionettes playing out male sexual fantasies dressed as female fashion fantasies.' Personally, I'd go along with Homer Simpson who argued that it is about gay men played by women. Either way, it is a vile, dishonest, exploitative confection. Seinfeld, however, wasn't, so I am saddened by the news that Michael Richards, who played the gigantically grotesque Cosmo Kramer, is in trouble over a racist tirade. Richards' career seems to have gone nowhere since Seinfeld. The co-creator of the show, Larry David, however, went on to make Curb Your Enthusiasm, a masterpiece. Actually, what I really wanted to say was that, Sex and the City aside, American TV comedy has, for the last twenty years, been one of the great consolations of my life. Scrubs is the current consoler. I want to be Dr Cox, some say I am.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Sad Decline in Hack Bullying

I am shocked - do you hear me? - shocked by this story in The Guardian. And appalled. Shocked and appalled. Apparently only 40 per cent of newspaper journalists have experienced bullying. In TV and radio, the figure drops to a miserable 21 per cent. In my day, bullying and being bullied were essential aspects of our training. I dimly seem to remember an exam on the subject. Editors have plainly gone soft and are, therefore, nurturing a generation of whining, unbullied and unbullying hacks. I console myself, however, with the possibility that this article is not entirely reliable. It also tells us that 25 per cent of journalists working in PR have been bullied. Journalists in PR? Oh come on, even I know that's just an old urban myth.

London: What if...?..

Having strayed far and wide, it is time for me to return to the theme of this blog - the thought experiment. So here it is. What will happen when there is another major terrorist attack on London? Let us say it is worse than 7/7 and as bad as 9/11, possibly worse if a nuclear device is used. This is plainly at the almost unspoken heart of our politics at the moment. Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller's alarming speech and Tony Blair's commitment to security - the word was continually used in the Queen's Speech - are both, I think, genuine. It is thought there is an attack coming and it may well be a big one. For David Cameron such an attack would be a disaster. He has been leading the Tories away from its old paranoid ways and has thus been underplaying such threats. In the event of an attack, he would, as a result, not be seen as the man for the job when confronting terrorism. Blair, too, would suffer, since many would blame the attack on an Iraq adventure. Gordon Brown, in short, would be the clear winner. Meanwhile, there would be street attacks on Muslims, particularly veiled women as they are the most visible emblems of difference. These would be made worse by the current opportunist campaigns by the vile Ken Livingstone as these will be seen as encouraging Muslim separation and, therefore, extremism. If Livingstone wants to do any good, he should be quietly persuading the so far inept gang of Muslim talking heads - is there any more stupid, self-serving title than 'community leader'? - to do a better job of distancing themselves from extremism. Internationally, our position will be unimaginably complex. Even a small nuclear warhead - obviously, a stolen Russian tactical device - would immediately project us into a new and unfamiliar world. Would we at once withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan or would we send yet more troops? Both responses have their rationale. I would be interested to hear the thoughts of, among other CaptainB and Dark Heart. In recent days, I have found that, almost unconsciously, I have been bracing myself for this horror.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Welcome Paul/Guido

Right. Paul Staines has left a superb comment on my post below about politics and bloggery. Assuming this is the Paul Staines who is, in fact, uber-blogger Guido Fawkes, this demands to be taken further. In response to my own opinion that politicians are now too debased by journalists and bloggers, Paul/Guido says, 'If our politicians were honest men with noble goals they could not be debased.' Well, yes. But he also dismisses my argument that British politicians are less corrupt than those in most developed countries by saying, 'The degree of corruption is not the issue.' But, of course, it's the issue - how else are we to judge whether they are worthy of debasement, whether there is honesty and nobility? Unless, of course, Paul/Guido is arguing that only absolute purity will protect the political system. Such an argument would, of course, be borderline crazy and, if applied, would result in a very unpleasant world indeed.
Paul/Guido also refers me to a post by Stephen Tall which, in turn, responds to the remarks of Matthew Taylor about the malign effects of blogging. Tall is a Labour apostate and he says the patronising assumptions behind Taylor's argument are why he left. In this, I absolutely agree with him. New Labour does not trust the citizenry and regards them as infants, worthy only of bullying and condescension.
But the deep flaw in Tall's position - and, for some time, it was a flaw in my own - is the failure to recognise that Labour's attitude to the people was the inevitable outcome of its acceptance of the power of the press. Once that had happened, hyper-democratic populism was the only possible political discourse. Everything was to be judged by instant, visceral reaction. Of course, the politicians are at fault in this, but, just as importantly, so are the people. Why did parents not demonstrate outside failing comprehensive schools or patients outside filthy NHS hospitals? Because they too had accepted the new agenda, they were willingly infantilised. Politics for the people, the press, the bloggers and the politicians had become nothing more than a gossip-laden Westminster soap.
Libertarian bloggers, says Paul/Guido, 'want to expand the non-political, non-governmental space in society. ' This suggests a discourse of ideas, debate and real reporting. This would, indeed, expand the civic space. But. of course, that is not what we get, we get a constricted hell-hole of gossip, distasteful abuse and back-stabbbing, all of which feed directly back into the New Labour policy of making sure that real politics can be concealed beneath the daily chatter. They are all inside Labour's big tent, riding the same roundabout. Outside, only a few are anxiously watching the gathering thunderheads.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Me, Me, Me

I have decided to adopt a self-publicising, cross-media personality. So, in case you are interested, here are my latest Sunday Times pieces - meeting Diddy and the literary biography business.

Cancel the Olympics 2

In my previous post on the London Olympics, I suggested they ought to be cancelled because of their environmental impact. Now that the likely cost has risen from £2.4 billion to perhaps £8 billion, the argument for cancellation would appear to be overwhelming. But, meanwhile, Mayor Ken Livingstone, with his usual genius for glib irresponsibility, has, in fact, sealed the fate of the games. Asked how much London taxpayers would now have to pay, he replied, 'I may not be here in 18 months. Any guarantee I give about what happens in 2012 is not worth the paper it is written on.' After some moments of reflection, I have concluded that this is the most vile, stupid, insane, arrogant, contemptible, disdainful, pissy, vain, cheap, disgusting, cynical, evasive, reptilian, low, creepy and - in the case of the last bit about not believing anything he says - true statement I have ever heard from a British public figure. Londoners with their sentimental love of all cheeky chappies will, of course, continue to vote for this ghastly, jumped-up little oik.

Libertarian Blogs and Voter Contempt 2

A friend of mine was a minister in the Thatcher government. He had a chauffeur driven car - a old brown Ford Mondeo. He turned up at an event one night and saw the editor of The Times getting out of his car. It was a new Jaguar. Journalists sit in judgment on the private lives and financial dealings of politicians. But journalists, in Britain at least, are richer and almost certainly more corrupt. (British politicians are almost certainly the least corrupt of any developed nation, whatever bloggers say. If you don't believe me, check out Japan, Italy, France or the US.) Yet it is the politicians who gave journalists this power in the mid-nineties when they suddenly decided that the next day's headline was all that mattered. This compromised both sides of the deal. The journalists accepted the politicians' agenda and the politicians accepted the journalists' power. Neither side was, therefore, able to do its job and neither side showed any concern whatsoever about the effect of politics in the real world. Of course, politicians should be monitored, called to account, jeered at if necessary, but only by a genuinely independent press, not one in thrall to tedious little Westminster games. Bloggers inherited the fatal mid-nineties deal. They, therefore, play this same game and, in order to do so, create this fiction that our politicians are, somehow, uniquely nasty people doing a uniquely nasty job. Insofar as they keep this up, yes, they are debasing politics. Unfortunately, it is the dumb politicians who continue to help them. Politicians look in the mirror, see Caliban and then issue a press release about it. The debased hacks and bloggers caper about in the happy knowledge that they are Caliban.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Libertarian Blogs and Voter Contempt 1

Both George Bush Snr and a close Tony Blair adviser have blamed bloggers for increasing voter apathy and contempt for politicians. Iain Dale jeers, arguing that the disrespectful tone of the blog is the fault of the politicians. All agree that bloggers tend to be disrespectful, anti-establishment and libertarian. I have a problem with the word 'libertarian'. I don't know what it means. Of course, we're all in favour of liberty, but also we all know there must be limits to liberty. Is a libertarian, therefore, somebody who merely gives a conventional banality a posh name? Or is he somebody who believes in no limits to liberty, a full-blooded anarchist? Neither posture is remotely interesting, so why would anybody claim to be a libertarian? It is certainly true that many political bloggers say they are libertarian, but this just seems to be a label intended to give respectability to the fun they are having trashing politicians. And this is where we come to the heart of the matter. But more than one post is involved and I shall now take some time to consider the content of the second.

Lolita: Life Slavishly Imitating Art

'It is known,' the BBC tells me, 'that predatory paedophiles often befriend single mothers as a way of gaining access to their children.' To prevent this happening, such women may be given access to lists of sex offenders. Had this service been available to Charlotte Haze, would she have checked on Humbert Humbert? It is indefinably unnerving to discover that the plot of Nabokov's Lolita is such a commonplace real world event that we can actually make laws to stop it.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Gordon the Memorious

Gordon Bell, a computer scientist, is attempting to preserve every detail of his life . 'His goal,' says Clive Thompson of Fast Company, 'is never to forget anything.' He has designed software called, with distressing banality, MyLifeBits which, has so far collected more than 101,000 emails, almost 15,000 Word and PDF documents, 99,000 Web pages, and 44,000 pictures. 'It gives you kind of a feeling of cleanliness," says Bell, 'I can offload my memory. I feel much freer about remembering something now. I've got this machine, this slave, that does it.' This reminds (!) me of two things. The first is an odd character called Greg Ryker whom I encountered on the Microsoft campus when I interviewed Bill Gates in 1995. Ryker was working on what he called the 'wallet PC' which would record every detail of a life. He was testing the idea with a Psion organiser and a voice recorder. This aspiration to record every moment, rather than let it be lost in time's capacious maw, plainly stems from a fear of death, a fear that the world which is your and yours only will be lost forever. But, like immortality, infinite memory has serious shortcomings. The second thing I am reminded (!) of is the magnificent story Funes, the Memorious by Jorge Luis Borges. As a result of a brain injury, Funes can forget nothing. 'In effect, Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it.' Funes is overcome by detail. He finds it hard to imagine how a creature seen at one moment is the same as a creature seen at another and that both can be called 'dog'. Realising all this, the narrator is 'benumbed by the fear of multiplying superfluous gestures', knowing each would add to the irreducible clutter of Funes' infinite memory. What Funes knew, and Gordon and Greg do not, is that to forget nothing is also to remember nothing. Read the Borges and note the placing of this line, 'The equivocal clarity of dawn penetrated along the earthen patio.' Genius beyond the dreams of technocrats.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

More on Dawkins' God

Terry Eagleton's trashing of Richard Dawkins in the London Review of Books is not in the same league as Marilynne Robinson's in Harper's. Eagleton is an oddity, a wild man of the left with some intensely conservative views and a sporadically brilliant thinker who seldom succeeds in being persuasive or convincing. But, crucially, he knows his theology, which is why it is worth reading this review alongside Robinson's. Robinson, a believer, goes out of her way to attack Dawkins in a straightforward, rational way, picking up on his inaccuracies and taking apart his logic. Eagleton, a Catholic turned Marxist, has no hesitation in attacking Dawkins theologically. This inversion of expectations is strange, though rhetorically effective. Eagleton and Robinson share a distaste for any shallow attempt to pretend that religion is not a serious matter. And this, I suspect, means they share something else - a loathing of the depraved humanist orthodoxy that passes for deep thought these days.

Save the Planet: Cancel the Olympics

Iain Dale, inspired by the Economist, argues that it is pointless to attempt to prevent climate change by torturing ourselves with devices like Mayor Ken Livingstone's £25 London congestion charge on high emission cars. Dale's point is that it would be much more effective use of our time to persuade and/or assist China and India to pursue low emission policies. They are the big new producers of atmospheric carbon with China likely to pass America within a decade. The obvious flaw in this argument is that neither China nor India will listen to us if we do nothing to cut our own carbon emissions. Why should they? So good for Mayor Ken then? Not quite. Livingstone is a big booster of the 2012 London Olympics. This project has, inevitably, slumped into the usual rows over cost and, judging by our experience with Wembley Stadium, I would not be surprised if we became the first country to hold the Games a year or three late. But, of course, we shouldn't be holding them at all. The project will result in massive new emissions of carbon both from the building work and by the Games themselves as athletes and those mysterious 'officials' fly in from all over the world and then fly out again. I bet that the reduction in emissions caused by the new congestion charge will be a tiny percentage of the increase caused by the Olympics. Ken hasn't gone green, he's still Ken, the same old smirking opportunist.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Dawkins and Robinson 2: Understanding Science

Towcestarian, in response to my last post on this subject, says Marilynne Robinson has 'no particular understanding of science'. This charge has periodically been levelled at me ever since I published Understanding the Present in 1992. That book, I now see, was a Robinsonian tract. Obviously, if this means I do not understand the maths of quantum theory or the finer aspects of plate tectonics, then I would have to agree. Usually, however, it means I do not understand some broader issue such as the scientific method and its freedom from ideological bias. With this I cannot agree and, indeed, I generally find I know more about these matters than those prominent scientists who refuse to take philosophy seriously or who lack a historical sense. The whole point of Robinson's position - and mine - is that it is often scientists who do not understand science. Dawkins bases his own position on a degree of certainty and finality about a scientific theory - Darwinism - that is utterly alien to the spirit of science. This is not to say Darwinism is or may be wrong, only that its primacy may well be relativised by later discoveries. In the case of Dawkins' specific interpretation of Darwinism as expressed in The Selfish Gene, this has alreay happened. The absolute centrality of the gene is now widely disputed if not wholly discarded. The greatness of Robinson's essay arises from, among other things, a very profound understanding of the scientific method. She also understands that the institution of science, being a human construction, frequently fails to live up to its own highest ideals. In a nutshell: the ideology of scientism is an affront to the spirit of science.

Microsoft v Apple: The Great No-Brainer

I wouldn't normally do a pure geek post, but this is irresistible. I reviewed a couple of Apple books in The Sunday Times, commenting, en passant, that Apples are the only computers worth having. A reader emailed me to say I had 'fallen for the hype'. Well, let me see. Microsoft has just launched its Zune music player to compete with Apple's iPod. In January it is also to launch Vista, its new operating system. But, it seems, there is one eensy-weensy problem. Vista is incompatible with Zune. Doubtless this will be fixed at once. But for the moment - fallen for the hype? Responded to the idiocy more like.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Dawkins and Robinson: An Unequal Contest

I have not commented on the debate - if that is what it is - about Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion for the simple reason that I haven't read it. What I have just read, however, is Marilynne Robinson's essay on Dawkins entitled Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstasy of Richard Dawkins in Harper's. It's here, but, again, I think you may have to pay. Robinson is a) one of the greatest writers of our time and b) a Christian, a congregationalist to be exact. Obviously, I can't comment on the quality of the Dawkins book, but I can now say he has been responsible for a great work. Robinson's essay is coruscating, a supreme product of the high end of the hatchet job market and a wonderful example of the revenge of genius on, if not mediocrity, then certainly ill-informed prejudice. I wouldn't dare to attempt to summarise it here except to say that it defines exactly a phenomenon I have often observed - Dawkins' deep irrationality. Make your day, read it.
PS: Gordon, see comments, has found a link where you can read the Robinson without subscribing - here.

Rumsfeld 3: Realists versus Idealists

CaptainB, whom God preserve, of Kennington draws my attention to an article in the Wall Street Journal by Michael Rubin. It is headlined Rumsfeld and the Realists, this is the link, but you probably have to pay. Rubin's point seems to challenge my own instincts about Rumsfeld. James Baker and Robert Gates are now leading a new approach to Iraq and the Middle East. Gates and Baker are, in diplomatic terms, realists. This means, in essence, that they do not seek to change foreign regimes, but to engage with them as they are. Idealists - basically, the neocons - believe in making the world better and freer by the application of American might. Rumsfeld was being a realist when he shook hands with Saddam Hussein in December 1983. It didn't work. Iraq and Iran fought on for another five years and then Saddam invaded Kuwait. Rubin gives other examples of failed realism in the region that implicate both Baker and Gates. Bush has pursued the opposite policy with Rumsfeld playing a new, idealistic role. The sacking of Rumsfeld seems to indicate a return to realism, a move which has been welcomed by the left, who, Rubin notes, appear to be suffering from severe amnesia about previous realist disasters. Rubin is, of course, right. Engagement with these terrible regimes has not, in the past, paid off. On the other hand, idealism has also failed. The debacle in Iraq has crippled American global power and seems to offer nothing better than either an electorally catastrophic Israeli solution of perpetual war or a hasty withdrawal and a strategically significant loss of face. Perhaps the real problem is that people get trapped by words. Realism and idealism are mere tribal badges. The wearers of one badge define themselves negatively by their opposition to the wearers of the other. The rest of us can only drift onwards, appalled.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Blogging: Perhaps I'm Just Too Old

This site has just come to my attention. It consists of cartoons of various bugs with brief descriptions of what they do - like, for example, kill you. It is currently one of the big blogs of the world. It is beautifully done by an Australian student. But it is so odd, so strange, that it raises questions like, what do blogs do, what are they for? The answers 'anything you like' and 'everything' seem inadequate. I suppose the technology creates an open landscape in which oddities like this are bound to appear and, for a time, thrive. But is it really that open? Aren't such things inventions of the technology itself? But, hey, what do I know? The young are different.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Heidegger-Archer, a Tenuous Link

Look I know I said we should leave him alone, but the great Jeff just keeps coming back to haunt me. First, the celebrated Guido Fawkes manages to publish a post that actually sounds like Jeffrey Archer on speed, though, if anything, more self-promoting. And then Iain Dale, our other great political blogger, suddenly announces, 'Every few weeks I take a look at Jeffrey Archer's blog to see what he's been up to. It's rather good actually.' (My italics.) Finally, going back to the source, I discover that, after another alarmingly prolonged silence, Jeff has suddenly emitted no fewer than three posts, all, it goes without saying, classics of the genre. Jeff's blog, since you ask, is rated 2.6 millionth in the world, with traffic that is a fraction of even mine. Yet, somehow, it is so there, like Heidegger or Katchenjunga - vast, remote, inscrutable, known by all, yet approached by so very few.

The Purity of Blair

In an otherwise round and round the garden piece in The Sunday Telegraph, Matthew d'Ancona writes, 'The fact is that Mr Blair believes he can persuade anyone of anything, and it is this that is his most tragic flaw.' There is much evidence for this, but it is, in fact, intuitively obvious if you simply watch the man perform. His rhetoric assumes the audience will follow and ensures this will happen by carefully constructed evasions. But, most interestingly, whenever it becomes apparent that it is not working, he resorts to a kind of elaborate shrug intended to indicate that he is the only right man in the room. On Iraq he said he would be judged by God, probably an unprecedented statement in contemporary British politics. Superficially, this would suggest that Blair suffers from the Rumsfeld disease of certainty. But there is a big difference. Rumsfeld's certainties are ideological; Blair's are, I think. spiritual. Being able to persuade anybody of anything leads to vanity. In this state, it does not matter what you say, it only matters that you are saying it. Truth for Blair is Blair. Within himself, he sees an inner purity that guarantees his words, irrespective of what those words are. Failure is only evidence that the world is not ready or good enough for such purity.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Terrorism 2: Kylie's Bum

Kylie Minogue is to return to the stage following her treatment for breast cancer. I wrote about Kylie in the wake of 9/11, my point being that there was something about her that seemed to represent sexy fun at its most innocent and free. As such, of course, it was an affront to the murderous austerity of terrorism. In particular, I drew attention to the profound significance of Kylie's bum - ass, for my American readers. Subsequently, everybody followed this with learned disquisitions on this wonder of nature. I even spent half an hour recording my thoughts about this bum/ass for a TV documentary on Kylie. Doubtless, Kylie's real sex life has been as chaotic as anybody else's, but, in her public persona, she represents a kind of dream of sex as simple fun, as a force that does not threaten happiness and stability. And it IS a dream, of course, but a useful one when nightmares threaten.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Terrorism: Send in the Scary Ladies

Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller is the head of MI5. The name is plainly a cover. Her real name is 'F'. She wears large earrings which contain plastic explosive and her big hair conceals miniature missile silos. Her predecessor was Stella Rimington. She is an obsessive tea-drinker and - see my review of her memoirs here - cannot write to save her life. Rimington was recruited by somebody who whispered, 'Psst.... Do you want to be a spy?' Daggers are concealed in the toes of her sensible shoes and the tiles of her personal Scrabble set can be assembled into a high-powered rifle in 87 seconds. After reading Rimington's dreadful prose with its petit bourgeois fussines - this was soon after 9/11 - my first thought was that we were all doomed. Surely, I thought, we need somebody called 'X' whose existence is officially denied and who kills bad people with a heavy, mahogany-handled service revolver when he is not translating Thucydides into Wolof. Now I am not so sure. I wouldn't like to meet Dame Eliza - sorry 'F' - in a dark alley. And Rimington could extract a confession from me in minutes just by reading me a few pages from her book. So send in the scary ladies, I say. They are the one secret weapon we have left.
'F' says there are 30 current Al Qaeda-linked terrorist plots in Britain with 1600 individuals involved. I, for one, wouldn't dare disbelieve her.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Rumsfeld: The Opposite of Wisdom is Certainty

Otherwise sane and intelligent women used to go weak at the spectacle of craggy Donald Rumsfeld delivering his impatient wisecracks. In conversation with one weakened neocon lady and rummyphile, I realised that what they saw was an idealised image of male wisdom. But, in fact, Rumsfeld was displaying certainty, the antithesis of wisdom. He was certain the Iraqis would fall into the arms of the invaders and he was certain technology made small military units effective against mass insurgency. Behind these certainties was the larger certainty embodied in the neocon view of history - that American liberal democracy was a universal good and a historical end point. (Francis Fukuyama, once a card-carrying neocon himself, pointed out that to impose this certainty by invading Iraq was inconsistent since it defied another neocon belief in the limitations of government. This paradox may not be an argument against the invasion, but it should have modified its strategy.) An invasion of Iraq may have been right, but it could only fail if it was undertaken by leaders too certain to be flexible - ie Rumsfeld. In war, only pragmatists prevail. The issue is, therefore, certainty. Soon after 9/11 I attended a conference in Boston - see my account here - about historical determinism, the ideology shared by both Marxists and neocons. My contribution was to say that only the most hopelessly scientistic thinkers could convince themselves that we would ever be able to establish whether determinism or freedom was embodied in history and, indeed, the universe. It is unknowable. Happily, neuroscience seems to be coming round to this view. Adina Roskies - mysteriously described at The Garden of Forking Paths as 'unstoppable' - argues that no development in neuroscience will ever destroy our sense of ourselves as undeterministic. Her full paper, linked at the Garden, is worth reading. Rumsfeld had a deterministic mindset; it is the single most dangerous mental condition. In this case, it fatally compromised America's ability to do what she does best - deploying the natural pragmatism of her greatest minds to save the certain from themselves.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Sometimes I Scare Myself

On October 30th I posted Rumsfeld: I don't get it. Today I learn that Donald Rumsfeld has resigned. My power is truly alarming. Also I learn that 100,000 blogs are starting daily. One David Sifry of Technorati says, 'The impact of these bloggers on our cultures and democracies is increasingly dramatic.' Thank you, Mr Sifry, I think we both know about whom you were talking. So nice to be recognised.

Scotty Beamed Up At Last

Yeah, yeah, the Democrats did very well and Arianna has found somebody who understands what's the matter with Kansas, but what about this business of space burial? On 6th December a rocket will be launched in New Mexico carrying the remains of astronaut Gordon Cooper, 'Gordo' in the The Right Stuff, James Doohan, Scotty in the original Star Trek series, and 177 others. Previously, I discover, Timothy Leary and Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, have been 'buried' in space. The astronomer Eugene Shoemaker, courtesy of the Lunar Prospector, is the only man buried on the moon. A number of products are available for sending The Loved One screaming into the upper atmosphere and beyond. Space Services - 'a mission of purpose, a commemoration of love, a dream fulfilled, a step into the universe' - offers Earth Return from $495, Earth Orbit from $1,295, Luna Service from $12,500 and the Voyager deep space option, also from $12,500. From Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One and Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death right through to Six Feet Under, the American fascination with the flashy funeral has been a source both of wonder and disgust. I feel both - disgust because it seems so insanely immodest and wonder because it represents a determination to establish rites for the dead that will console the living, rites that secularity has tended to deny and suppress. Personally, I would be happy to be scattered, like Samuel Beckett's Murphy, on the floor of a pub, but then it won't be my happiness that is the issue. And, of course, Scotty should be in space, fixing that fantastically unreliable warp drive for all eternity.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Birds Can Kill Foxes. It's Official

From 1997 onwards the only really funny thing about politics was the Labour attempt to pursue the class war by banning fox hunting. They did not, of course, attempt to ban the working class sport of angling, justifying this, when asked, by some lame arguments about the physiology of fish - they feel no pain etc.. They went after fox hunting because it was perceived to be upper class and also because it was so flamboyantly visible. Finally, eighteen months ago, they got their ban. It has, however, failed miserably and hunting now carries on as before with a few minor modifications. There are 'drag' hunts where a scented trail is used. But, I learn today, there are also hunts which exploit quite absurd loopholes in the law. Notably, the act says, 'Flushing a wild mammal from cover is exempt hunting if undertaken for the purpose of enabling a bird of prey to hunt the wild mammal.' Hunts now simply take birds with them and, if the dogs get there first, well, sorry, officer, it was an accident. Personally, I find the killing of wild animals for sport - fish or foxes - repellent, though I think I would find it less so if the humans involved were equally likely to die. But this attempt to ban fox-hunting has been so hilariously inept and so utterly futile that I think the sport should continue if only to keep the class war going. It is a great consolation and one of our finest tourist attractions.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Arianna Versus Ted

Trying to understand American politics is like stepping out into a blizzard. There are so many more names and faces and the issues frequently seem both exotic and morally overwrought. I had, for example, been vaguely following the story of Ted Haggard - here is the latest BBC account - an evangelical hot gospeller who has been shamed by the revelation that he bought drugs and a massage from a gay escort. Pastor Ted being somewhat homophobic - see this peculiarly scary clip - this is, of course, a good, if routine, story. But apparently it is much more than that. Arianna Huffington's post on the subject expands the significance of the Pastor's misadventures to take in what she sees as the sickness at the heart of the whole Bush administration. (Hellfire Ted has close White House contacts.) 'The fall of Ted Haggard,' she writes, 'is just the latest manifestation of the central disease of President Bush and his cohorts: the pathological refusal to accept reality, and the delusion that reality can be changed by rhetoric.' Is it really? Without defending Bush, Haggard or anybody else, I would point out that none of them can be shown to be deluding themselves. Here is a likelier interpretation: neither is deluded, Bush doesn't believe Iraq is going well and Haggard didn't believe his gay frolics were consistent with his religious beliefs. Both simply find themselves committed by their actions to public postures which they have no choice but to defend and sustain. These cannot be classified as pathological refusals to accept reality, but, rather, as abject submissions to its demands. And neither thinks that reality can be changed by rhetoric, merely than it can be disguised. I may be completely missing the point here, but Arianna's logic does seem painfully stretched. I shall, it seems, never find my way in this blizzard.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

IQ and Africa

At the London School of Economic Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist, is in trouble over his conclusion that low IQ, not poverty or disease, is the primary cause of Africa's problems. In Ethiopia, for example, the average IQ is 63 and life expectancies are in the mid-forties. People are upset about this because it seems racist and threatens to revive the idea of eugenics. In fact, Kanazawa's research is a) almost certainly true and b) unremarkable. I wrote about this subject some years ago - see Selected Articles - and came across the Flynn Effect. This was the discovery by James Flynn that IQ in the developed world seemed to be rising at the rate of 10 points per generation. Flynn had simply given old intelligence tests to new children. His results showed that an average child in 1918 had an IQ of 85 or lower, whereas an average contemporary child would have an IQ of 100 or higher. But this did not really mean that within a few years we would be bumping into waves of Aristotles, Kants and Newtons on the street. It meant that the results of IQ tests are linked to educational and cultural factors. The children who tooks the tests in 1918 would have been found to have an average of around 100, since that is the average the tests are designed to produce. If that is the case, then, as I say, Kanazawa's findings are unremarkable, indeed entirely predictable. IQ is not an absolute measurement, true at all times in all places. It is culturally determined; it measures the ability of an individual to function within the culture that is setting the test. In these terms, it is an amazingly accurate indicator of success in life for inhabitants of the rich nations. Conversely, an entirely African IQ test would probably show Africans were the most intelligent people in the world. But the real point is that the rich world's idea of intelligence is, for the moment, the most effective at delivering goods like education, health and wealth. Africans needs these. If they get them, then, in time, their IQs would rise to the levels seen in the developed world. It is supremely improbable that a phenomenon as complex and diverse as intelligence is determined by race to any significant degree. All of which should not entirely allay the fears of the politically correct left. For, if Africa is locked in low IQ misery from which it can only be rescued by institutional and educational systems developed by the high IQ nations, then a new colonialism would seem to be the most rational and humane response.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Political Correctness

On my post Watching the Defectives - I still don't think I've got quite enough praise for that brilliant headline - Susan, a highly valued regular, comments, 'Can't say you guys are oppressed by political correctness!' I have been thinking about this and I realise I am not quite sure what political correctness is. At one level it seems to be based on the very postmodern delusion that, changing words changes reality - as when US blacks become African-Americans. At another level, it seems to be close to Marilynne Robinson's definition of priggishness - 'it is highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring.' Being PC, in this sense, means simply adopting unconsidered contemporary orthodoxies and, in the case of PC prigs, using these to assert moral superiority. Or, sometimes, PC just seems to be a kind of foggy niceness. None of these seem very attractive or challenging, though all seem, as Susan implied, oppressive. So, yes, Susan, we are not oppressed.

Pods, Blogs, Books and, Now, Phones

My posts on new publishing technologies - here and here - as well as my Sunday Times article on the subject were about, primarily, POD - publishing (or printing) on demand. Using POD, books can be printed and bound only when they are sold. Bookshops could thus be reduced to a series of screens for browsing and a few POD machines into which the customer inserts his credit card. But already, it seems, I am behind the times. A British software company has a system that makes books readable on mobile phones. Some publishers seem quite excited about this as it is seen as a way of reaching younger readers. The words are viewed one at a time, as phrases or as a continuous scrolling line. For me, this might work for poems, but would seem to be an unnecessarily challenging approach to Proust. Never mind, people only read Proust when they are ill, a fact that explains the poor asthmatic's entire critical reception. In addition, of course, healthy teenagers are unlikely to read Proust and are happy to do anything on mobile phones. I also now discover Project Gutenberg, a site that provides downloadable books online and, yes, Proust is in there. The downloads are free. Obviously there are copyright issues, but most of the Gutenberg list seems to be out of copyright. There is, it seems, a technophile obsession with going something about the book, an object which has so far remained stubbornly immune to their advances. As I said in my POD article, this is a good thing if it removes power from the grim chain bookshops and hands it to the content providers - the publishers and authors. But I'm queasy about books on phones. This seems to devalue the word itself.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Ulster: Sentimentality, Violence and Cynicism

The last time I was in Ulster I was covering George Best's funeral. I wrote a slightly bleak piece - it was, after all, a bleak event, suffused with political cynicism. Subsequently I was asked to appear on BBC Radio Belfast to respond to calls for my sacking. I was baffled, nobody in England thought there was anything remotely objectionable about my piece. It was a phone-in show and the first caller, evidently drunk at 9 am, said he was going to come to London and shove my teeth so far down my throat that I would have 'to clean them with a bog brush'. Subsequent callers were equally deranged. Only a couple had the wit to defend me by pointing out I had written no more than the obvious truth. One snivelling politician - 'Sir' Reg Empey - appeared and agreed with the drunks. It was a picture of Ulster in a nutshell, a malign combination of sentimentality, violence and profoundly cynical politicians. All of which is a preamble to this. We are, apparently, planning to give Ulster a special payment of £50 billion over the next ten years if they settle down and agree to a proper, democratic government. That's £25,000 for every man woman and child. In England, Scotland and Wales, we have settled down, but we get nothing. We should, of course, save the money by giving the place to Eire, but they don't want it either.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Watching the Defectives

Britain, we learn, is subject to more surveillance than almost anywhere else. We have 4.2 million CCTV cameras and every one of us is snapped several hundred times a day. Meanwhile, we also learn, that our young people are the worst behaved in Europe. Thanks, so they say, to familial breakdown, we do drugs, drink, violence and promiscuity on a truly monumental scale. It is another paradox. CCTV cameras are supposed to stop these things, but they seem to be encouraging our debauchery. Perhaps we just love being on television. Or perhaps the CCTV wonks just like watching us reeling about the streets, copulating and beating each other up. Either way, I'm in Denmark so what do I care?

Life in France; Death in Finland

Resveratrol, since you ask, is the chemical in red wine which is thought to explain the French Paradox. The French eat far too much red meat and yet have relatively low rates of heart disease, making this not so much a Paradox as an Irritation. Resveratrol, it was decided, was the answer as it appears to protect the heart. Now, it seems, it offsets the effects of over-eating. It also makes one fatally attractive, though this may be something to do with the half bottle of rouge one has just consumed in one gulp in an attempt to dislodge arterial plaques without actually having to exercise, stop eating or, indeed, stand up. This, for the life extensionists I met while writing my book about the pursuit of immortality, was a problem as they were as convinced that drinking was a Bad Thing as they were that resveratrol was a Good Thing. Naturally, therefore, they sucked all the fun out of it by making resveratrol tablets. So the rest of us can drink red wine in the happy conviction that it is doing us good then? No. You have to drink a lot to get enough resveratrol fully to benefit and drinking a lot does indeed kill you as the Finns have discovered. Alcohol kills more Finnish males than anything else. As ever, science leaves us more or less back where we started - uncertain, alone and, as a result, drunk.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Hairdressers in Itchy Hands Horror

Shock, horror, hairdressers can get dermatitis from the chemicals they use. Large numbers of them are already sobbing in toilet cubicles and refusing to come out. 'The disease can cause hairdressers' skin to redden, swell, blister, flake, crack and itch. Staff who contract the disease often have to leave the profession and find other work,' says one Geoffrey Theobald. Ohmygod! Ohmygod! But, no, it's all right. If they wear latex gloves, they'll be okay. Phew!

John Reid: Gratifyingly Weird

Say what you like about our Home Secretary, he does have these moments of entertaining oddness. There was that 'not fit for purpose' remark about his own department, a phrase that has entered the contemporary vernacular. And now he has attempted to inspire our boffins by evoking the World War II legacy of Barnes Wallis (bouncing bomb inventor), Alan Turing (supreme codebreaker) and Tommy Flowers (builder of the first digital computer). Aside to my American readers: I know you think Brad Pitt or Ben Affleck did all these things first and better and that's fine, but not true. Reid was calling for a similar level of inventiveness in the war/battle (the terminology seems to be shifting) on terror. The introduction of the solid, garden shed, bakelite, biscuit tin world of Wallis, Turing and Flowers into our present floating reality is what I find odd and also faintly poetic. I have mocked Reid in the past by pretending he's a great poetry lover, but perhaps it is true. Or perhaps, old Marxist that he is, he pines for a vanished world of hard, real things that worked.