Saturday, March 31, 2007

In The Sunday Times... on the road with Take That and work in fiction and film.
PS. My gambling hell in Monte Carlo is explained by my devoted pursuit of the Thats.

Americans Know Nothing about Beer...

... a thought that came to me while scanning this site with its Top Ten Beer Myths. A waiter in a John Harvard's Brew House in, I seem to remember, Atlanta, once asked me, a look of genuine wonder on his face, why 'you guys' - Brits - ever drank US beer; a beer connoisseur, he could make no sense of our transatlantically depraved taste. Exhibit A is American Budweiser, a thin sharp concoction that must rate as the nastiest drink ever sold. Unless you know better...

Dwayne's World

Deb Roy of MIT's Media Lab is recording the first three years of his baby's life with eleven cameras and fourteen microphones. He is attempting to track language acquisition and hopes to use what he learns to teach robots to speak more effectively. Well, yes, fine, though, given the history of artificial intelligence, this will probably be just one more dead-end. What is interesting about this story is the baby in question. The Wired story calls him Dwayne, though this is a pseudonym intended to protect the child - not very effectively, I would have thought, if Deb Roy is a real name. Roy is also going to some lengths to ensure the security of his terabytes of data on Dwayne's development. He doesn't want 'Dwayne' turning into Truman Burbank, the hero of The Truman Show, whose entire life, unknown to him, is a TV soap. But say MIT security turned out to be as effective as that of the Maxx family. Say Dwayne's development is a worldwide hit on YouTube. Say, before Dwayne works out what's happening, they create an artificial world in a huge dome in Hollywood - Dwayne's World. There he dwells, a happy prisoner, watched by humans everywhere and by millions of robots who talk exactly like him.

Stuck in the Middle

Nikon has this insanely gripping web site that, basically, illustrates the relative size of everything and our units of measurement. As ever, humans are somewhere in the middle, half way from the femto and half way to the light year. We always seem to be medium-sized things. Is this simply an artefact arising from our particular perspective? Would, in this sense, every conscious being conclude it was medium-sized? Or is it, in some way, true? Gordon, you awake?
PS Good grief! Now I stumble on this. Size, evidently, matters.

Friday, March 30, 2007

T.K.(J.) Maxx: the Faxx

I have never quite understood what T.K.Maxx was so, now that it has released 46 million credit card details to the criminal underworld, I decided it was time to find out a little more. The credit card fiasco is, incidentally, not Maxx's only problem. There is also a marshmallow issue in the UK. Anyway, T.J.Maxx, the American store was founded by Tracey Joleene Maxx and the British stores by her husband Trevor Kevin Maxx. Their fortune is built on the sale of classic madras shorts, the garment that defined the twenty-first century's craze for making men look as stupid as possible, brilliantly realised elsewhere by the craze for unstructured jeans mottled with strange, greenish blotches. The Maxx formula of buying up designers' worst mistakes and selling them to the gullible has proved a winner on both sides of the Atlantic. Tracey and Kevin now divide their time between Godalming and Boca Raton. In Boca, the local authority has made madras shorts compulsory in their honour. In Godalming they frequently entertain Sir Elton John and the Beckhams, though so far Gordon Brown has declined all their invitations.

Faye Turney and Brainwashing

Daniel Finkelstein speculates that the Iranians are attempting to brainwash the British hostage Faye Turney. Can they succeed? Last year I reviewed Dominic Streatfeild's history of brainwashing. That book argues persuasively that brainwashing was a myth that, like flying saucers and alien abductions, was born of Cold War paranoia. As with UFOs, the myth was inspired by a sense of technological awe. If we could build nuclear weapons and break the sound barrier, then, surely, anything was possible, including tinkering with the human brain. In fact, as Streatfeild shows, brainwashing proved impossible - unless you count utter destruction of the personality as a successful outcome. That we can do. But we can't engineer subtle and lasting changes of attitude, beliefs and character. On the other hand, are your feelings about Turney different if you saw one of the photographs of her with a cigarette or without? Letting her smoke on camera was, I think, an attempt to brainwash us.

Irish Words

It's the ordinary language that makes me happy in Ireland. I used to know an Irishman who would say 'Anything strange?' instead of the bland English 'Any news?' Hearing the latter, my mind goes black; the former sends my entire life flashing before my eyes. Anything strange? Yes, everything. And, as I left yesterday, one of my hosts said, 'Safe home.'

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Media Pomp and Circumstance

Charles Clarke tells us that at a meeting in Tony Blair's house in 1994 Blair asserted that the 'central factor' in determining the success of his campaign to become party leader would be the attitude of the media. It was, says Clarke, surprising at the time, though thanks to the success of Blair's mediacentric vision, it seems unremarkable now. Mediacentrism, combined with the Blair-Brown feud, has been the determinant of British political history for the last decade. It is the main reason why I struggle to take any interest at all in Westminster affairs, dominated as they are by cretinous manipulations and endless phony inishyativs. In the last couple of weeks I have even found it impossible to read our political bloggers. These are arguments about arguments, debates about nothing. Brown, of course, has been as mediacentric as Blair, but, latterly, more effectively so. His quiet editor-schmoozing continues to earn him far more friendly coverage than he deserves. Clarke, who is running the stop-Brown campaign, calls for an end to mediacentrism after a decade of what he calls 'media pomp'. He is right. The newspapers have been bloated with the power given to them by Blair's 'project'. But can it be done? This is, in its way, the only serious question for the next election. Put another way: can we be governed by wise, independent minds or must we be governed by sleazy PR and marketing apparatchiks?

The Dawkins Cult and Irish Irritation

The last time I was in Ireland a scientist took me aside and asked if I could stop Richard Dawkins coming here. Last night I began my lecture by saying I was not going to talk about Richard Dawkins. I heard cries of, 'Why not?' He seems to irritate the Irish. And I wake this morning to this comment from Kuala Lumpur Chris - 'Dawkins is morphing into a kind of atheist cult leader. I am certain Darwin would have despised him.' His evidence is this. Scary. The Pennsylvania Nonbelievers are an especially disturbing bunch. But take consolation from the fact that Daniel Dennett is to poetry what Jeffrey Archer is to the art of the novel.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dylan's Best

Anyway, a very eager man with a tape recorder pinned me to a wall outside a Dublin radio studio and asked me to name Bob Dylan's best song. I came up with four: The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, I Want You, Sign on the Window and Blind Willie McTell. Is this another list in the making?

Jeff is Everywhere

In a column in The Irish Times on the subject of the Pope's views of hell, Patsy McGarry writes of Dante's vision, 'At its core of nine circles resides the arch-traitor himself, Lucifer, weeping as he relentlessly chews on the bodies of three other traitors, Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. With Jeffrey Archer nowhere to be seen.' Again I am forced to ask: what can this mean?

A Flower for Mahakashyapa

As usual, my first evening in Dublin was spent in intense, learned discussion about life, the universe, Richard Dawkins and everything. My mind is, therefore, quite empty this morning. I shall, however, make a virtue of this by adopting the rules of Zen and the Art of Remarkable Blogging. Read to the end, disciples, and understand that this post is like the lotus flower the Lord Buddha gave to Mahakashyapa. It is that which cannot be said.
PS And, to my amazement, this post about nothing turns out to be my 500th. What can this mean?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Two Nasty Men Sit Next to Each Other Shock

The Northern Irish, like the Chinese, think they are the centre of the world. When a few drunks got angry with me over my coverage of the George Best funeral, otherwise sane and sober Ulstermen kept insisting this was a big story. They did so because they genuinely think that everything that happens in Ulster - population less than 2 million - is of absolute and pressing concern to the world - population a lot more than 6 billion. The same phenomenon is at work with the coverage of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley sitting next to each other. This is, we are told, 'historic'. The fact that these two freaks - who wouldn't, in any half way decent democracy, be allowed within ten miles of any real power - sat down together is not historic, it is pathetic. But, when Northern Ireland is the issue, people lose all perspective.
However, the South is a different country - smart, funny, serious, literate, wise and, these days, rich. I say this because I mean it and because I am about to fly to Dublin to lecture Jesuits - really - and I anticipate two days of pure delight.

McLaren and Rio: Are They Deep? No

The worst football team in the world is a great consolation. Here is something we can lampoon, deride and abuse in the knowledge that we are doing so in the name of both national interest and natural justice. So here is Steve McLaren, the sage of the dugout, on England's miserable draw with Israel - 'There's no problem with their attitude. They wanted to win. They failed to win on Saturday because they didn't score a goal, end of story.' Of course, why didn't I think of that? McLaren has seen into the very heart of things. Jeffrey Archer is not Shakespeare because he didn't write Hamlet. All is explained. Oh and, in the same story, here is that wonderfully distracted player, Rio Ferdinand. Responding to criticism that players paid so much might be expected to perform at least competently for their national team occasionally, perhaps once every ten games or so, he says, ' You don't hear it when people win things. It's only when it goes a bit pear-shaped that people say 'he's too rich', then start looking at the money and saying we're pampered. It's too easy an excuse that people use too often.' Er.... now focus, Rio. You are paid a lot because you are thought to be good footballers who will play well and yet, for England, you never do. Get it?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Elton John: Once Again I Don't Get It

Okay, I've got a task for all you guys. Explain Elton John. To me, he is like Donald Rumsfeld - I don't get it. He has written some pleasant enough tunes, though most of them ruined by Bernie Taupin's appalling lyrics. "And it seems to me you lived your life/ Like a candle in the wind/ Never knowing who to cling to/When the rain set in..." In what way, exactly, does a candle in the wind not know who to turn to when the rain sets in? Elton John is like Andrew Lloyd Webber; he does rock 'n' roll, but he isn't rock 'n' roll. Then there are all those daft clothes and the absurd Mr-Pooter-Goes-To-Bond-Street consumerism. And now he's sixty and holding absurdly grand celebrations in New York. Who is this for? I give up.

Guido Fawkes

My piece on pol blogger Guido Fawkes is in my wife's stupendous, brilliant new magazine SoLondon.

On Not Being Poisoned

We will soon, it seems, have a dipstick to test our food for poisons. This particular anxiety was, of course, created by the 'sell-by' or 'best before' dates stamped on supermarket food. These are such weasel words - why not just 'fatal after...'? I don't need the dipstick, of course, as I have Hans, my vertically-challenged taster who has been with me since childhood and who, when he is not vomiting, plays an excellent game of chess. For Steve McLaren, however, the dipstick will be a godsend.

Woolmer and Iran

Cricket fan that I am, I have been struggling to think of something to say about the murder of Bob Woolmer. I thought of 'it's just not cricket' at once and then constructed a Murder on the Orient Express fantasy in which everybody was guilty. That, however, is much more likely to be the fate of Steve McLaren the next time he forces his way through the angry mobs outside the FA or, indeed, the next time he runs into Wayne Rooney and his Merseyside friends in a dark alley. On balance, however, I have nothing to say since I know nothing, have no expertise and I can't escape with a gag since it's not funny. Beyond continuing to maintain that it's not cricket, I am speechless.
I am similarly at a loss on the matter of the British sailors seized by the Iranians. Here, however, I do note that Blair has adopted tougher rhetoric than Margaret Beckett. Also I am told, possibly reliably, that British and American special forces have been making secret incursions into southern Iran in support of anti-government factions. Putting the two together, I can only conclude what everybody else seems to have concluded - this is big.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

BST: The Machines Take Over

Rising early to prepare for and drive to my gig at the Oxford Literary Festival, I eventually notice that my watch disagrees with my computer clock. My alarm clock had been my Blackberry. Both the computer and the Blackberry had, of course, adjusted for British Summer Time. Until noticing my watch, I knew nothing of this. In time, all clocks and watches will adjust automatically and the arrival of British Summer Time will be known only to the machines.

Israel Holds the Haircuts

Wonderful news for for all true fans of English football. Yesterday's fantastically dismal performance by the assembled haircuts of the worst football team in the world against Israel can only hasten the day when one of two things must happen. Either the entire team, management and FA hierarchy is sacked and the England team starts again or we abandon international competition, the English game having become entirely unfit to produce a national team. The first would be more satisfying, but the second more honest. The crisis is, however, some way off as the football community is still incapable of grasping the obvious - that our players, though good enough when playing for their clubs, are ridiculously over-rated at the international level and utterly devoid of passion, teamwork, imagination and elementary competences when playing for their country. Steve McLaren will, of course, be sacked soon enough. But, without a revolutionary bloodletting at the highest levels, nothing can possibly change as the national team is now little more than an annoying obligation for the clubs and the players, the latter inhabiting the pitch like whining, fidgeting schoolboys listening to a dull sermon. The fans should be besieging the Football Association, which, since you ask, is located at 25, Soho Square, London, W1D 4FA. The square, with its strange, half-timbered hut and badly weathered statue of Charles II, would make an excellent assembly point and fine dining is readily available nearby.

McEwan: Life Imitates Art

In The Sunday Times: my interview with Ian McEwan.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Was That Car Really Blue?

Johns Hopkins scientists have improved the colour vision of mice. How did they know they had done it? With the aid, it seems, of ingenious tests that rewarded mice for showing higher than average colour discernment. The mice became trichromatic - possessing three colour receptor cells - like us, rather than dichromatic like most mammals. But there are also tetrachromats, creatures which possess four colour receptors. There are thought to be some human tetrachromats, always women for genetic reasons. But it is hard to be sure; even though we might detect four receptors, we would have to rely on subjective reporting to establish that they really were seeing colours differently. Visualising what these people would see is impossible, like visualising four spatial dimensions. No picture of what they see is possible since the rest of us would only see it trichromatically. Promising human subjects have been researched. One of their symptoms is their insistence that they are wearing matching clothes when everybody else think they clash. This gives me vertigo. I know our exact inner experiences are inaccessible to each other, but this seems an alienation too far. Tetrachromats, for me at least, would imply a world and even a rationality that is not our own. I'm no longer even sure if that car I was driving yesterday really was blue.

Two Handy Saturday Lists....

... the first is sixteen things it takes most of us fifty years to learn - number three is especially fine. This, of course, has something in common with my world-famous Tolerable Equanimity list. I've never tried this, however. It is a list of designs for rubber band guns. This is all very well, but, in my experience, accuracy is always a problem with these devices. The Gatling Rubber Band Machine Gun would appear to be one solution, though one fraught with collateral damage, if not friendly fire, possibilities.
PS: Oh and here's a list of impossible stuctures, apparently made possible. Where would your Saturday be without my assiduous web crawling?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Sightings of Worried Man in Blue Car

Should you happen to see an aged and anxious casualty of the sixties buzzing round Central London in what appears to be a blue version of Postman Pat's van, it will be me. I have been loaned a g-wiz electric car for the day and I am balancing my green credentials against my need for speed and my self-consciousness in the face of strange looks from other road users. So far, greenery is winning. The car makes me feel strangely light-headed and defiant, though cold as turning on the heater takes 10 miles off the range.

Voltronese: The Germans Fight Back

Kuala Lumpur Chris sends me further news of the progress of Voltronese - English for the globalised, wired, wireless, online, distracted, spoilt and, of course, doomed world. The Germans, it seems, are as alarmed as the French used to be at English's creeping annexation of their language. In particular, they have been fighting the use of the word 'spam' to mean not 'luncheon meat' - a phrase that brings back my childhood in an instant and always make me wonder whatever happened to 'luncheon' - but dodgy emails. There seems to have been some kind of competition to find a German replacement with 'kaufkitzel', meaning something like 'tickle to buy', and 'knacksatz', untranslatable it seems, being strong contenders. But the winner is 'spruch' meaning slogan or saying or, I think, some kind of babble. 'Heidi, my mailbox is full of spruch!' Yeah, it kind of works. Chris also points out that the German word for a mobile phone is a 'handy', which, curiously, is an English word but not an English usage. However, I think the correct Voltronese word should be the Israeli 'pelephone', which means 'magic phone'. I like that.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

PlayStation 3 and the Sadness of Blogging

There are three views of computer games. They are hypnotic, anti-social and frequently violent exercises in futility that leave us, in Eliot's phrase, 'distracted from distraction by distraction'. Or they are contemporary art. Or they are, as James Lovelock would say, desirable, low energy, green technologies that consume our time far more benignly than burning carbon by driving or by flying away on holidays that provide us with escape from everything except the one thing we really want to leave behind - our selves. I reflected on this matter three years ago and concluded the games were 'ontological prosthetics'. Now we have the PlayStation 3. The Ministry of Defence has spent £40,000 on these machines to distract our boys in Iraq and Afghanistan. How odd that they should play shoot-em-up games in between shooting 'em up. None of these games has ever distracted me, but, as I have this blog, I'm not sure I can convincingly maintain a holier-than-thou posture on the matter, though, much of the time, I do. Blogging is not quite as sad as gaming.

The Budget: A Considered View

I feel I ought to post on Gordon Brown's fascinating budget. But I am suddenly distracted by the thought that the two greatest (non-classical) live tracks ever recorded are Emmylous Harris's The Maker on Spyboy and Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1966. Unless, of course, you know better. I'm pretty sure Gordon doesn't.

Trees Are Better Off Without Us

Another page to stare at in wonder. This time it is the 'most magnificent trees in the world'. Your wonder might be tinged with sadness, however, by the stories of the Prometheus, the bristlecone pine, and The Lonely Tree of Tenere. Prometheus was killed by a student taking core samples in 1964. Examinations of its cross section revealed that it was 5,000 years old and thus the oldest tree in the world. The Lonely Tree was in the Sahara and was so-called because it was the only tree within a 250-mile radius. Nevertheless, a drunk Libyan managed to drive his truck into it and now only a metal monument remains. Yet again one feels thing were going really well on this planet until we came along.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Luvvie Rage

I fear for the safety and sanity of Anthony Neilson. Neilson is a playwright and today in The Guardian he attacks British theatre. - 'We've been boring audiences for decades now, and they've responded by slowly withdrawing their patronage.' And: 'The most depressing response I encounter when I'm chatting someone up and I ask them if they ever go to the theatre is this: "I should go but I don't.' A decade ago, I wrote something very similar. I may as well have planted land mines in a school playground. The luvvies were incandescent, their outrage combined with sheer incredulity that anybody could even think such thoughts, never mind express them in print. The climax of this process was the recording of a radio show in which I sat alone on stage while 200 luvvies shrieked incoherent abuse from the stalls. It was, of course, a great boost to my self-esteem. But can Neilson take it? I am available for counselling.

Scooch 3: The Horror, the Horror

Chippy brings us a shocking revelation in his comment on my previous post. It seems that the name of our flag-flying band at the Eurovision Song Contest has seven possible meanings, none of them likely to delight the parents of their burgeoning teenage fan base. Chippy is especially concerned about number 7, as, indeed, am I. Naughty pop and rock names have a venerable tradition - 10cc, The Sex Pistols and Axl Rose all have, shall we say, hidden meanings. But some of the possible meanings of Scooch make the Pistols look like The Partridge Family. And, of course, subverting the dewy innocence of the ESC in this way is an outrage. Somebody should write to the Daily Mail before it is too late.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Things That Are Not What They Seem

So, right then, Scooch had secret backing singers off stage and, ohmygod, they were middle-aged. This isn't the authentic, hard-driving, rock 'n' roll combo we thought it was. At the same time, it turns out a McJob is not, in fact, 'poorly paid and menial', but, according to David Fairhurst of McDonald's chief people office in Northern Europe (can this be right?), it is 'stimulating, rewarding and offers genuine opportunities for career progression and skills that last a lifetime.' Stone me, they kept that one quiet. Anyway, CPO(NE) Fairhurst wants to get the dictionary definition changed. Fair enough if he can just tell me about these 'skills that last a lifetime'. It's all in the wrist I gather.

Brown: Stalinism and Contempt

Excellent. Lord Turnbull, having perused my incisive analysis of Gordon Brown, has emerged from the shadows to accuse him of 'Stalinist ruthlessness' and 'complete contempt' for his colleagues. It is still possible that we may be spared the premiership of this dreadful man. Blair should stay on, spinning those silly inishyativs to keep himself occupied.

3/20: A Day to Remember

Jeff's masterpiece hits the shops today. Two oddities are worthy of note. Apparently, it has eleven points 'that we hope will cause considerable discussion and debate'. This is odd because I can think of at least twelve without even reading it. Secondly, the book is to be launched at the Foreign Press Club in Rome this morning. This is odd because I have been labouring under the clear impression from Jeff's blog that it was to be unveiled by the Pope and Jeff's agent beneath the baldacchino in St Peter's. The good news is that, with this out of the way, God can hold His press conference to refute claims of His non-existence. Naomi, meanwhile, is hard at work chucking phones in the New York Sanitation Department and Jack Bauer has turned out to be gay. March 20th - or 3/20 as it will come to be known - is a big day for us all.

The Inishyativ List

There was another Blair 'eye-catching inishyativ' (Voltron spelling) yesterday. It was something to do with 'truly personalised services', a phrase which has the unfortunate overtone of the tart's euphemism 'personal services'. These would do something or other to make things terribly good and wonderful. Of course, nothing will happen and this particular inishyativ will be forgotten by, at the latest, 3pm, which means many of you reading this will not have the faintest idea what I am talking about. Nevertheless, I feel a list coming on. How many Blair inishyativs have there been since 1997? In particular, how many stupid, entirely ineffective ones? There was, for example, taking hoodlums to cash machines to pay on the spot fines. Blair can do inishyativs because he understands the amnesia of the contemporary electorate and the hermetic parochialism of the Westminster media. The only way to stop him or his successor is to make a list.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Beardy Diego and the Arrow of Time

I've been staring at this, speechless and thoughtless, for some time. It's a family in Buenos Aires that has taken pictures of itself every year for thirty years. Perhaps evading the spectacle of the depredations of age, I note that Nicolas acquired facial hair in 1998 followed by the impressionable Matias in 1999. Moody Sebastian held off until 2003. Daddy Diego was a beardy from day one. Susy just looks scarier and scarier until 2003 and then suddenly seems to discover irony. Perhaps she realised what a morbidly comic project this is.

Voltron the Big Gay Manform Robot

I have discovered, probably long after everyone else, the Wikipedia page of deleted entries. It is a great consolation. The very first is, like my telescope sign, a found poem with overtones of Frank O'Hara in his more playful moments.
'Voltron is about uber l337 robot felines that join together to fight evil the voltron form, wihch is a big gay manform robot that kills so much. i used to have a voltron coloring book when i was little but i dont know where it went. damit it was nice too, tole the whole voltron story all about action. i even made voltron my msn name cause MTV made a joke about a "voltron of crap" this means like a "super conglomeration of crap" or a "network of crap" like MTV. i hope voltron rapes MTV and sets it all on fire to death. ApoC, 2003. so do I.'
I am reminded of a Chinese seller on eBay who, losing his temper with buyer Nige, emailed, 'You sleeping policeman, I drive over you.' A rich seam of imagery in the globalised English vernacular lies waiting for a new Shakespeare.

Blogging Kills Everybody

Chris, my Kuala Lumpur correspondent, sends me a troubling e-cutting. Tunku Adnan, Malaysia's tourism minister, told a media conference, 'All bloggers are liars, they cheat people using all kinds of methods. From my understanding, out of 10,000 unemployed bloggers, 8,000 are women.' Bloggers, said Adnan, spread rumours, disrupt social harmony and 'many bloggers are slanderous and are cheating people with their blogs.' If this goes on, says the minister, 'there will be civil war, the Malays will kill the Chinese, the Chinese will take revenge and kill the Malays, and the Indian will kill everyone.' But why will nobody kill the Indians? Perhaps they'll kill each other, in which case blogging is now threatening to produce a Malaysia populated by one technically gifted but morally questionable Indian killer. It could happen here. My own bet is the last man standing will be one of those Peruvian pipers. They have inner resources.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

In Praise of Sydney

Thanks to Colin Campbell, I discover that tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Since, in combination with the Opera House, this constitutes the greatest urban spectacle of the modern world (photographs do not do it justice), I thought it was worth mentioning.

Scooch, Abba and That Wogan Blunder

Britain being the only country in Europe that can actually do pop music - I know, I know, Abba, but that was some time ago - it is a wonder we do not win the Eurovision Song Contest every year. The reason, I now realise, is that, at some secret meeting, it was decided we would take the piss out of it. Hence the decision - the public phone-in was rigged, obviously, it's a TV trick of the trade - to choose Scooch as our entry this year. It must have taken some effort to find these unknowns in a nation teeming with world famous pop and rock acts. But the choice was inspired. Scooch's air steward routine brilliantly subverted the very idea of pop music by making it so embarrassing that only eurotrash could possibly find it entertaining. (, incidentally, defines eurotrash as 'any rich socialite from Europe who lives or works in the US'. Is this right? I seem to run into a lot of them over here and not all are rich. I feel 'uncultured' is the more appropriate adjective.) Finland, of course, were on to this trick last year with Lordi, but they made the rookie mistake of winning. We, with our mastery of vote rigging, will already have ensured we come well below Norway. One mystery remains: did Terry Wogan deliberately announce the wrong winner?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Trouser is Dead; Long Live the Trouser

I just bought two pairs of trousers. Unremarkable, you might think, but no. These are the first trousers I have bought in years that were not part of a suit and I bought them because of an old episode of Top Gear. I had become lost in a wilderness of jeans, interrupted only by occasional outcrops of suits. Then I found myself watching this ancient TG and I saw not the cars but three middle-aged men all dressed the same: jackets, untucked-in shirts (perhaps not Clarkson) and jeans, unstructured modern ones intended only for the young, whose still intact bodies require no expression or concealment in structured tailoring - witness the boyfriend trouser phenomenon. The spectacle was made even more grotesque by the show's penchant for low camera angles that make the hapless trio look like random piles of fabric. Trousers it is, I thought, and, like Captain Picard, I made it so.

Let's Not Build ANY New Houses

Britain needs 5 million new homes and the property market is gridlocked by a massive shortage supply side shortage. Both of these stories explain almost nothing - or, rather, they explain the wrong things. The problems of the British housing market are nothing to do with shortage and everything to do with our sickly obsession with property. This, initially, drives up house prices. These capital gains become fixed as some kind of law of nature in the national psyche. As a result, everybody must own at least one house, preferably several. This creates an entirely artificial housing shortage which we must then solve by destroying more of the landscape with vile developments - British housing design has never been quite so bad. This is seen as virtuous because the legacy of Cathy Come Home still convinces us that building houses is some kind of unarguable social good. And so we build unnecessary houses, burning carbon on a scale which will offset the effects of all the initiatives of our newly green leaders. As James Lovelock always says, 'Save the planet? We never could save the planet.'

Susan Sontag

I have never, I confess, 'got' the late Susan Sontag. People routinely rave about her brilliance and, so, conscientiously, I read her and find uninteresting prose and simple and sometimes interesting arguments rendered complex and uninteresting by fussy organisation. The same is broadly true of this previously unpublished essay in the Guardian. This time, however, I think there is a genuinely very good essay struggling to get out. The argument - almost buried by the structure - is that there is a conflict between 'the modern' and the pursuit of literary fiction. The modern homogenises - 'The quintessential site of the modern is an airport; and all airports are alike...'- whereas the novel particularises. Furthermore, the modern destroys cultures by globalising everything and offering everything, whereas literature - 'with its invitation to develop the kind of inwardness that resists the modern satieties' - is localised and tentative. This isn't quite right. All airports aren't the same any more than all Gothic cathedrals are the same, indeed their surface similarity dramatises their differences. But the question imperfectly framed by Sontag's conclusion is the big one: is an international culture of the modern possible? Probably not, which is why - and she's dead right here - the pursuit of literature is more important than ever.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Red Nose Day and Immortality

In principle, of course, Red Nose Day leaves me cold, though, in the spirit of the day, I am considering a negative bid for Guido's uncharacteristically charitable offer of lunch with himself and one Katy Taylor-Richards - ie he pays me. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, however, raised the tone of the entire thing with an anecdote on his Thought for the Day this morning. At the funeral of Basil Hume he spoke to the Cardinal's chaplain who told him that Hume took God seriously so that he didn't need to take himself seriously at all. That, said Sacks, was the difference between those two utterly opposed types, the righteous and the self-righteous, a distinction that echoes Marilynne Robinson's observation on prigs. Red Nose Day and all such charity stunts attract the self-righteous, but all true comedy is self-deprecating (I include Guido in this) and all true comedians are righteous. A sense of humour, it is said, helps you live longer. It certainly helps you live better and, if Hume is right, may secure you a place in eternity.

Dave Barry and the Naming of Horses

I have recently discovered that the sublime Dave Barry has a blog. Yesterday he asked with typical wisdom and acuity: 'Why do some women people cover beds, particularly guest beds, with huge barriers made of colorful pillows that are clearly not meant to be slept on and must be removed before the bed can be used as a bed?' Why indeed? And, while I am on the subject of great mysteries of the world, I want to know: why do race horses have such strange names? I seldom seem to hear of one called Roger, Chris or even Dobbin. Instead, to choose at random from today's Cheltenham Gold Cup runners, they have names like Beef or Salmon, Halcon Generlardais, Forget the Past and Kauto Star. Is this how their trainers and grooms address them? Is this how they address each other? 'So, Halcon Generlardais, how's it hanging?' 'Not too bad, Beef or Salmon, not too bad at all. Yourself?'

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Bang Up Job, Love, Cost You 9.3 Big Ones

There was a certain poignancy about two seemingly unconnected stories on the BBC news. One was about some cowboys who had scammed pensioners out of thousands by telling them they needed building work. The other was about Tessa Jowell's announcement to the Commons that the 2012 London Olympics would cost £9.3 billion as opposed to the £2.4 billion promised at the time of the bid. They are coming perilously close to my own forecast of £12 billion. (Mine is, of course, a minimum figure.) The two stories are connected as follows. We are the pensioner, the scamee, and the Olympics boosters are the scammers. The patter goes thus:
'It's a big job, love, the roof's caving in. You need a whole Olympics up there. But, look, I like your face and I can see you aren't exactly one of them Russian oligarchs, I'll do it for £2.4 billion. Can't say fairer than that.'
Two weeks later: 'Bigger job than we thought, love, cost you 9.3 big ones now. Still, it'll be a bang up job and it'll last a lifetime. Well, four weeks tops, but it will feel like a lifetime.'
Where, in the name of sanity, is the Stop the Olympics campaign?

Happy Birthday, Blog

At 5.16pm today this blog will be a year old.
Thank you, thank you, yes, I know, I've been great, oh you shouldn't have, no, no please, no more, oh, wow, solid gold...
I shall be unable to attend the surprise party you have organised as Jeff has pulled some strings at the Vatican and we're going to have a bit of a 'do' in St Peter's. All the people I have befriended from my year of blogging will be there - Amanda, Yvette, Joey, the worst football team in the world, Ed, Liverpool, Gordon, Paris, Keanu, Watt (What?), Donald, Naomi, Guidale, Pasty, Cannes, Polly and many more. It is knowing how pleased they will be to see me that makes today so special.
As Blake would have written, had he had the technology,
'Blog on, blog on, Voltaire, Rousseau:
Blog on, blog on: 'tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.'

The Thoggers: On the Red Carpet

Okay Sand Storm has nominated me for the Thinking Blogger Awards, known in the trade - well, to me now - as the Thoggers. This is what used to be known as a pyramid selling scheme in that I must now nominate five other blogs. They are:
McCabism, Daniel Finkelstein, Guido Fawkes, Wife in the North, Iain Dale. Pass it on.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Transvestism for the Masses

The mind boggles at the desperate ingenuity of marketing people in selling us the same old thing. Welcome to Gap transvestism for the masses. The ad would be more aesthetically consistent, of course, if she ripped off his pants to reveal something lacy by Agent Provocateur. That's how Amanda would have done it.

Joey versus Liverpool

Joey Barton - the footballer who talked sense and the hero of my Dark Side - has been 'arrested on suspicion of assault and criminal damage following an alleged argument with a taxi driver in Liverpool earlier this month.' Again I feel a certain empathy. I always get angry in Liverpool and taxi drivers can be an appalling provocation. Unlike your average brawling, vastly overpaid contender for the worst football team in the world, there is method in young Joey's madness. Doubtless, Liverpool will wring an apology out of him, it is a speciality of that self-important city. But, in time, Joey will triumph with an award-winning autobiography entitled Liverpool: My Part in its Downfall.

Trident and the AK-47

Today Parliament votes on whether to renew our Trident submarines. There will be a Labour rebellion, but, with the aid of the Tories, the vote will be won by Blair. I have no idea what I think about this. Here and here are cogent statements of the two sides of the argument. Both broadly agree that we don't currently need a Cold War type deterrent. But, say the pros, we have to plan for the long-term and our possible rogue state enemies in the medium term - Iran, North Korea - will be unimpressed by our decision to relinquish the nukes. Absurd, says the antis, such arguments could be used to justify anything and we would acquire the moral high ground by abolition. Both sides can be off-putting. Some pros have a nasty, testosteroney, nuke-the-buggers manner. Some antis can be as cretinous as this press release from CND. But both sides, as my examples show, can be impressively lucid - though, in these two cases, Simon Jenkins beats Oliver Kamm who has yet to master the art of sounding as though he's thinking rather than simply making a case. But, as I say, I don't know and it is, in the eyes of Heaven, a fantastically depressing subject. Not as depressing, however as the fact that this year the AK-47, the handiest killing machine ever made, is sixty years old.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Warming for the Chiffchaff

Nige, the man who knows about ornithology, though definitely no twitcher, saw a chiffchaff on Box Hill in Surrey yesterday. It turns out he was one of the first to spot the bird this year. This means spring has started. Global warming? Bring it on. Well, er, I didn't actually mean...

And on a lighter note...

... at least I think it's lighter. Anyway, here are some pictures of the strangest urinals in the world. The one with the photographs of mocking women is particularly poignant.

Escaping the Saudi Cell

Politicians are now engaged in an eco-auction, a green arms race. At the same time, the Channel 4 documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle, will have convinced many that the whole thing is, indeed, a swindle and, for politicians, an excuse to exert power and raise taxes. Great Guido, meanwhile, is evidently bewitched by Sian Berry, the Green Party spokesman, but recovers his composure sufficiently to insist that the whole extreme green agenda is 'anti-capitalist, anti-human'. Guido is right to detect malign forces at work within greenery. In my own article on 4X4s, I made the point that class hatred and sexism were, at least in part, driving the campaigners. And, I would add, sheer priggishness, from which, I am afraid, the lovely Sian suffers. The substantial issue, however, is whether we are making the planet uninhabitable for humans. In spite of my own scepticism of many of the claims of contemporary science, I think we are for one reason. James Lovelock is a friend of mine. Jim is a scientist and, temperamentally, a poet. He is dazzlingly brilliant and, if any eco-sceptic were to spend half an hour with him, they would be, like me, persuaded. But two further points need to be made. It is neither anti-human nor anti-capitalist to point out, irrespective of the science of global warming, that we are wrecking the planet. There are too many people with too much power to destroy. Secondly, real conservatives should and often do embrace environmentalism but I cannot understand why right-wing libertarians and neocons do not do the same. Drastically cutting our dependence on Middle Eastern oil would be a colossal strategic gain, achieving more than the US military can ever hope to do. Defending the burning of oil as some kind of freedom - as libertarians and neocons often do - is simply stupid since it does no more than lock us in a Saudi cell, a comfortable one but a cell nonetheless.

Monday, March 12, 2007

From the Maw of Firefox

Substantial, consoling and inspiring changes have been made to my blogroll. In due course, now that I have retrieved my passwords from the maw of the latest Firefox incarnation, I shall be adding to my Selected Articles.

Microsoft and Immortality

Speaking of sociologists, my first reaction on discovering that Microsoft now employs one is, 'Well, they would, wouldn't they?' There's always been a relentless literalism about Microsoft. Hiring a sociologist to get to grips with social networking is the correlative of Bill Gates's ambition, when I met him in 1995, to put the great paintings of the world on what was then the Information Superhighway. The assumption that a paintings works on a screen in the same way that it works on canvas is similar to the assumption that there is an academic discipline - handily called sociology - that would explain MySpace and YouTube. But, in fact, this sociologist, Marc Smith, seems to be okay. Notably, he says this on the meaning of social networks:
'It's a shift from an ephemeral society to archival society. Six or seven billion humans have come and gone over the course of history, and most of them didn't leave a trace. In the not too distant future, it's likely that one to two billion will leave 5 to 10 terabytes, and in those bytes will be the fine-grain details of their lives: the pictures they've taken, the words they've typed, and the people they've been with.'
This archival society was celebrated last October by project called One Day in History. Then I scoffed at the earnest compilation of trivia demanded by the project. But Smith gives me pause. What the archival society gives us as a species is a chance to remember ourselves. The future, as I scoffingly suggested, may not care. But, hidden in the archival impulse, is always the hope that someone will, that we can leave a trace.

Worst Blog Post Ever

Amanda has emitted her masterpiece, the worst post ever. Remember this woman was, for a while, advising the John Edwards campaign. The post is entitled Daylight Savings Time Sucks. I quote in full:

'In the spring, I have one of two reactions: 'Oh crap, I set my alarm for 6AM but it feels like 5AM! Asshole world,' or 'Oh crap, I woke up when I felt like it and I have lost an entire hour of my day I need to get shit done! Asshole world.'
Today is the latter.'

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Are Mensa Members Thick?

Mulling over this - Why Intelligent People Tend to be Unhappy - I have decided this sociologist has too narrow a definition of intelligence. I think he's talking about the kind of intelligence that advertises itself. Gordon Brown, for example, keeps flaunting his learning, so everybody thinks he has this mighty intellect. In fact, Blair is obviously much more intelligent, his mind being applied to political agility rather than pretending to be smart. For my generation, one way of flaunting intelligence was to be unhappy. I think it began with the black-clad existentialists in Paris. It is, in part, this tendency that Allin has spotted. In addition, he takes things at face value; he notes, for example, that lots of the members of Mensa have lowly jobs. In fact, if you're a member of Mensa you're likely to be pretty thick, having taken the self-evidently dumb decision to join in the first place. And then Allin blows it completely when he speaks of 'the average person whose primary sources of news and information is comedy shows on television.' Good grief, man, what other source is there?

An Encounter with George Osborne

Today in The Sunday Times: fear and loathing in John Adam Street, a savage journey to the dark heart of the technophile dream.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Satisfactions of Little Bill and Mrs Porter

In an essay by Christopher Ricks I read this:
'Cole Porter's wife, asked if her jewels are real, asks back: 'Real what?''
Mrs Porter declines the conventions of the question - after all, diamonds are not the only real thing - and asks instead the prior question, the one concealed by the turn of speech. I find this quite absurdly satisfying.
In Clint Eastwood's film Unforgiven, there is this:
'Strawberry Alice: You just kicked the shit out of an innocent man.
Little Bill Daggett: Innocent? Innocent of what?'
Again I am absurdly satisfied. Little Bill insists on the specificity of innocence because, to him, every man is guilty of something and, therefore, ripe to have his shit kicked out, no matter what he might have just done or failed to do.
I feel a list coming on - of responses that expose prior assumptions. They make me happy.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Lord Jeff: Problem Solved

In his tribute to Ian Wooldridge, 'Lord' Archer compares the sports writer to 'Sir Neville Cardiss'. Er, that would be Cardus, Jeff. But, more importantly, he posts, 'It didn't even worry him [Wooldridge] that I didn't drink.' I'm probably the only person in the world that didn't know this, but, obviously, it explains everything. During the jollies in Rome accompanying the launch of his new book, someone should find a way of lacing his orange juice with a quart or two of Grey Goose. Who knows what creature would then emerge?

The World According to Photoshop

Adobe is about to add authentication tools to Photoshop. These will detect image manipulations. Reuters is working with both Adobe and Canon on this technology; last year a Reuters photograph taken during the war in Lebanon turned out to be doctored. This is important, but it's hard to know where to draw the line. There was the systematic airbrushing conducted by Stalin's goons - see this amazing site - but, at the other end of the scale, there are the routine enhancements applied by any picture desks. I would guess no image in contemporary journalism is entirely untouched. Fashion shoots are so heavily manipulated they should more accurately be regarded as paintings of the models. And, anyway, what is 'untouched'? A camera 'touches' reality and the resulting picture is a highly artificial construct which we call 'real'. This conception of the 'real' is a convention, but, since it is more or less universal, it must be respected - hence Adobe's attempts to police its own technology. But the truth is that Photoshop's unprecedented power has destroyed our faith in the image's claim to authenticity. This means the news photographer must become more like the reporter. We must trust him to do the right thing because we know the technology won't.

A Tolerable Equanimity: The List

The academic, military and industrial advisory board of Thought Experiments: The Blog has deliberated and endorsed the final list of rules for sustaining a tolerable equanimity. These are distilled from your submissions and, often, subtly altered to suit my mood. Here they are, wrung from your deepest, bitterest humiliations:

1)Do not rely on the good intentions of any cat.
2)Never heckle a man with a microwave.
3)Do not attempt to flush cellophane.
4)Do not interfere with shower controls in the houses of others and do not handcuff a physicist to said shower.
5)The insultee should expend 50 per cent less energy on being insulted than the insulter does on insulting.
6)Starship captains: do not beam aboard strange devices of unknown origin or purpose or anything lizard-like.
7)Walk everywhere, but look where you are going.
8)After 45 do not trouble yourself with people you don't like. Also attempt to do this before 45 but you will fail.
9)Insist you are right at all times except when you are wrong.
10)If right-handed, do not push your right arm through a window.
11)Use latex rather than oil whenever possible.
12)In Germany on Sunday expect nothing.

Go forth in equanimity.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Chinese Spitting

My daughter, currently in Beijing, writes of the city's inhabitants: 'They spit, CONSTANTLY. In the street, in taxis (one driver actually opened the car door to make sure his phlegm ... hit the ground with some serious force). And we're not just talking a polite (if that's possible) bit of spittle being produced over a dustbin as some of the better trained trained tramps of Mayfair are often keen to do. Over here it's a lung rattling, nasal blast that can echo for miles, probably days.' Why is this? Can any of my strangely silent Chinese readers explain?

Robbie is Shriven

So Robbie is out of rehab, though his purging continues in the form of an 'after-care programme in Los Angeles'. At the Brit Awards the assumption was that he'd timed his rehab to upstage his old buddies in Take That. Never mind, doubtless his problems are real enough. Celebrities of all kinds now routinely submit themselves to this rite of purging. Rehab has become the equivalent of the Catholic confession, a way of cleansing the self of its evil. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is a retreat, a removal from the world. Either way, it is a religious procedure. Of course, like confession, it is abused. Get wrecked and then go into rehab the better to get wrecked again is the usual formula. There is also a vicious commercial circle involved - the celebs often get hooked on expensive prescription drugs and then have to pay for rehab in expensive clinics. The underlying idea that there is something uniquely difficult about the celebrity life that obliges to endure these constant purgings is, of course, absurd. These people are sick because they have been deliberately made sick or been told they are sick.

PS I was going to post on this and this, but I did not because of the wounding comment of A Girl on Naomi: First Day on the Job to the effect that this blog was like a Frat House. Tomorrow: the make-up tips of the stars.

Al Gore and Hyprocrisy 2

Tom P in a comment on my post Al Gore and Hypocrisy draws my attention to this story. The original story was that, in spite of his public greenery, in private he was happy to plant his own gigantic carbon footprint on his not so little part of the Deep South. But now, it seems, Gore's high energy bills are, in part, explained by a premium he pays to support renewable power. This does not fully answer the criticism. All such offset schemes raises the question: why emit the carbon in the first place? But it does, if true, go a long way to letting Gore off the hook.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Naomi: First Day on the Job

Naomi arrived at the sanitation building wearing delightful Gabbana & McQueen overalls and diamond-encrusted trainers specially made for the occasion by Jimmy Lagerfeld. Deploying her extensive grasp of Zen wisdom, she clapped herself gently with one hand and gave a beautifully wrapped box containing nothing to her supervisor, Al Petrone. 'My reign of terror,' she announced, 'the sole purpose of which was to draw attention to the teachings of the Enlightened One, is over.' Al handed her a mop. She prostrated herself and kissed his Timberlands. 'That's a first,' said Al. 'Of many, I assure you,' replied Naomi, wiping her lips with a 'folded fingerbowl' by Prucci, 'have you read Amanda Marcotte?' 'Not that I know of," said Al, 'now clean.' He pointed to a garbage-strewn, rat-infested corner of the building. 'I don't like your tone, most unenlightened and, like, negative, ' said Naomi as she threw her mobile phone at her boss. Al took out a small device and pressed a button. Naomi at once vomited and fell to the filthy floor. 'Neat, huh?' said Al, 'Got it from the Navy.' 'Back to square one,' sighed the social worker.

Lord Levy and the Hyper-Real

'But doesn't this whole story,' writes Iain Dale, 'illustrate just how rotten to the core this sleazy administration is?' Well, er, maybe, but surely a gigantic pachyderm in the portico is being overlooked here. Assuming this Ruth Turner-Levy document is all that there is to the cash-peerages-cover-up yarn - a large assumption, I know, but it seems to be correct at this point - then the story is stone dead. For some time, it has been apparent that paying for peerages, sleazy as it may be, has receded into the background and the cover-up has been the primary issue. But now the evidence of the cover-up appears to be no more than an account of a meeting, unwitnessed by any third party, which, at most, suggests that Levy was little more than boastful and loose-tongued. The whole episode has been distasteful, but, at this point, does not appear to have been much of a story. I can see two interpretations of what has happened here: 1)a press beat-up and the subsequent Downing Street reaction has over-inflated some routine government nastiness or 2)the nastiness has been more than routine and Blair's people have successfully outwitted the police, press and polBloggers. The cost to them has been the corpse of Levy, but that, by now, must be more or less valueless. There is no story and all that remains is hot air. But then modern politics is always about nothing. John Reid, for example, today managed to lead the BBC news with a scheme to text foreigner visitors telling them when their visa is about to expire. In what kind of depraved civic realm does such footling nonsense come to be regarded by our 'flagship' broadcaster as worthy of any attention at all? In which context, the death of Jean Baudrillard feels significant. He was right, we live in a hyper-real landscape of fantasy. But we must resist these airy seductions, otherwise, as my esteemed commenter CaptainB puts it, 'these people would fear nothing.'

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Me, Me, Me...and Clive

Modesty has its limits, so I cannot resist drawing your attention to this essay by Clive James on my interview with Monica Bellucci. Stick around while you're there. Clive has a great site.

Sustaining a Tolerable Equanimity

The 'Even Keel' headline was a bit clunky, so I've now gone for the above Jeevesian construction to describe our collective rules for the conduct of the bearable life. I will produce the final list in due course, but, meanwhile, just to share with you Malaysian's 'Do not rely on the good intentions of any cat'. My shout of laughter was followed by a melancholy nod of agreement. This is truly equanimity-sustaining advice. There's something wrong with cats.


In October I forecast the merger of Apple and Google. I was, as ever, well ahead of my time. Over skinny triple shot moccachino tchai Kenyan Mountain blend smoothie lattes with beef tips and extra cinnamon, Steve Jobs tells me the main obstacle to the merger was the awkward fact that both company names end in 'le'. Talks now seem to be converging on my Goopple solution.
PS: I discover from Private Eye that Apple gives a 20 per cent discount to members of the National Union of Journalists. Hence, says the Eye, their good press. I've given Apple a good press but I don't belong to the NUJ and I don't take bribes. Oh and Apple is crap. (Just covering myself, Steve.)

Monte Carlo 2

Shamed into action by my cutting remarks about the Monte Carlo casino, ITV has taken its ghastly ITV Play off the air. Of course, in the moral calculus of hell, the casino is superior to the TV channel. It exists, as does most of Monaco, solely to take money off the rich. ITV Play with its cretinous games aspires only to steal from the poor. I am tempted to add 'Do Not Gamble' to our blossoming self-help list. Or perhaps, 'Do not labour under the delusion that you have some special relationship with the workings of chance.'

Monday, March 05, 2007

How to Maintain Your Life on an Even Keel

The strange thing about lists of tips for improving your life is that they are always exactly the same. Here, for example, is the latest recycling of the how to spice up your sex life list and here are the usual boost your confidence commandments. The genre is plainly in a rut, so I have decided to start a How To Be Just About Okay list. The list is in its infancy, so contributions are welcome. Thus far I have:

1)If in doubt, stay at home and read Edward Thomas.
2)Do not attempt to flush cellophane.
3)If you see a Mexican with a gun, get behind something solid. (Advice offered to me by Paul Bowles years ago in Tangier.)
4)Never read anybody any poetry you may, ill-advisedly, have written.
5)Cycle pumps are for inflating cycle tyres and that's it.

The Perils of Self-Belief

Regular readers will be aware of my unhealthy obsession with Amanda Marcotte. This is affecting my mental health. Having subscribed to the Pandagon blog feed, I now find a cloud of rage and despair accompanies me through the day. I also fear I may never be able to travel to America again as it is plainly populated by illiterate lunatics. Anyway, now Amanda has all but pushed me over the edge. She has published a picture. The accompanying post is up to her usual standards - 'Scott, Ari and I each spoke for like 5 minutes and then we opened it up for comments and questions, which I liked the best.' - but the photo is the real show-stopper. Of course, anybody can be made to look like anything in a photograph, but the point is Amanda chose one that made her look as supercilious as possible. She even used the occasion in the comments to boast, 'Being able to pull off yellow is one of my few talents. Why should I give it up?' Is there anything more terrible than invincible self-belief?

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Scorpion and the Frog

I would normally leave this sort of thing to Guidale, but Gordon has asked for my thoughts on cash for peerages, so here goes. With the Attorney General's injunction, it becomes clear that charges may well be imminent. I am inclined to agree with Guidale's suggestion that the leak that led to the injunction came from Downing Street. He says this is because, having accepted the evidence against them is so strong, the staffer(s) at Number Ten want to portray themselves as victims. In fact, I suspect it is more likely they want fatally to prejudice the case; the police saw this coming, pinned the AG against a wall and obliged him to thwart his boss's plans. Either way, it seems the crime here is not selling peerages - a very difficult charge to nail and, anyway, so what? - but the cover-up that ensued. So the big picture is this: Blair does a few dodgy but unremarkable deals with rich donors. This is exposed and a police investigation launched. All of which would have fizzled out but for the fact that Downing Street is so obsessed with news and image management that it rushed to cover up the dodgies, an unnecessary move, but, as the scorpion said to the frog, 'it is in my nature'. This lands them in worse trouble by giving the police a real crime - interfering with the course of justice - to investigate. Unable to learn from their mistakes, Blair's people then continue to meddle by leaking against themselves to the BBC, a move which, once again, makes things worse. The spinners have spun themselves into a dizzy, incompetent stupor. But they are scorpions, it is in their nature. They are too dizzy to remember, if they ever knew, that the scorpion drowns along with the frog.

Lee Smolin and Picture Books

In The Sunday Times I write about graphic novels and Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics, the best book about contemporary science I have ever read.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Faith in Starbucks

It's always funny when big businesses start talking about 'core values'. I remember Hewlett Packard's absurd campaign suggesting the company was being returned to the spirit of the garage in which it began. I think I got one of the printers made in that garage. Now the chairman of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, has sent a memo saying the company should 'get back to the core'. This means, primarily, seeing employees grind beans and ensuring shops are filled with the smell of roasting coffee. Read the usual New York Times's flaccid and overlong account of the affair here. Starbucks is currently growing faster than Macdonald's ever did. Shopping has become a hurried business as one lives in constant fear that any store may turn into a Starbucks in mid-transaction. The authenticity craved by Schultz is plainly hard to sustain in the midst of such an imperial expansion. But is it, was it ever, authenticity? I like Starbucks, it did indeed create a 'third place' as Schultz puts it, though for me, since I work at home, it is more accurately a second place. But its 'authenticity' is a marketing device, no more and no less. Apart from anything else, the idea that one culture's concept of authenticity could work globally is ridiculous. What is interesting, however, is that the appeal of authenticity - or 'core values' - is so strong. Globalisation intensifies the need to believe.

Japan and the Need to Deny

Years ago I was at a dinner party in Tokyo when, suddenly and without provocation, the host stood up and started shouting that the Japanese were justified in their invasion of China. They were doing it to rid Asia of Western imperialists. On the same trip, a man at the Ministry of Education showed me an English translation of a school history textbook. He was intending to prove that the authorities no longer denied that the Nanking Massacre had taken place. And, indeed, the massacre was mentioned, but it was only 'said' to have taken place. The Japanese also persist in taking no notice of foreign protests about the war criminals honoured at the Yasukuni Shrine. Now Shinzo Abe has denied women were forced into military brothels. I know very little about Japan but this need to deny an obvious truth - that the country once fell into the grip of a murderous, fascist regime - intrigues me. We assume it is healthy to face up to our failings and, like the Germans, do what we can to atone. Plainly the Japanese don't, or, of course, they believe their own denials. The question is: does it matter?

Friday, March 02, 2007

A Guest Political Post from Guidale

So far so good for Hugh Grunt, the Tory candidate for Falkirk (Peebles), whose fight against the UKIP-backed smear campaign led by Gwyneth Paltry, chairman of the Dunkeld (South-East) branch should be an inspiration to Central Office, in particular to Jock Nicholson, David Cameron's brilliant new cufflink adviser. It was Paltry, of course, who was caught charging 144 Strawberry Cornettoes to expenses arising from the 'working' weekend she spent with Labour's leadership hopeful Mitt Damon, whose permatanned SpAd Jake Fillemall was forced to resign after Guidale revealed his links to Darth Vader's Death Star Institute for World Domination. Remember it's shop-a-SpAd month at Guidale, no ifs, not buts, keep these scumsuckers on the run. It's Friday and I haven't got a lunch date but at least I'm in Washington with Condoleezza Streep's number two, lissom Holly Bury who hosted a dinner in honour of Jack Kervorkian at the Deluded Institute, the sort of place where I hope one day to find myself standing between Henry Kissinger and Margaret Thatcher at a urinal. Boris Brando has a fascinating piece in tomorrow's Spectator about how dying his hair might improve his posture on higher education. But, of course, he's just another scumsucker who'll be eating leaden death when Maggie seizes back power in her brand new £1 billion Type 45 destroyer.

Kangaroo Avoidance of The Matrix

Yesterday I agreed to take part in a conference with George Osborne about the social impact of the web; today I realise I am not qualified. This story completely threw me. I had been dimly aware of these virtual worlds on the web, but, on first reading, I had assumed that Republican Second Lifers were some sort of pressure group like Pro-Lifers or the NFA. Perhaps, I mused, they campaigned for the old, supporting their wholesome aspirations for a 'second life'. But no. They are inhabitants of a virtual world in which, as in the real one, there are Republicans. The trashed John Edwards' HQ is, of course, also virtual. The imagination reels. In due course, it is clear, there will be no need for the real political world at all. Candidates need not have bodies, they can be party constructs, wooing virtual electorates with their promises of entirely unreal policies. Or perhaps that's happened already. We are in The Matrix. Am I just too old to accept this? Olive, at 107 the oldest blogger in the world, seems to be coping. I, however, might have to resort to this, not that I am suffering from boredom, rather a bad case of future shock. I'm very drawn to the kangaroo solution.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Al Gore and Hypocrisy

The revelation that Al Gore's carbon footprint is embarrassingly large has inspired some gleeful anti-greenery - today this from Stephen Glover. Though pro-green myself, it is clear to me that Gore had it coming. His film was highly autobiographical and, towards the end, made a very strong argument for the incremental effectiveness of taking small steps to reduce emissions, even providing, during the closing credits, a list of the things individuals should do. He put pressure on individuals as much as governments and, therefore, can reasonably be criticised for failing to live up to his own standards. And Glover is right to say the environment has become an easy political power-play. Green campaigners make this worse by issuing suspect claims. Greenpeace has a terrible record in this area notably over the Brent Spar storage buoy in the North Sea. This did not contain the oil Greenpeace said it did and, as James Lovelock pointed out, sinking it in the sea would be environmentally beneficial as iron promotes the growth of fish stocks. Also, anti- 4X4 campaigners, as I showed in my recent article, have overstated the numbers and emissions of these cars and made people think any car is okay as long as it is not a 4X4. All of which is, of course, a massive distraction from the central truth. The earth will not long tolerate our rapacious species. And, even if you doubt this, why should we persist in our dependence on tainted and risky Saudi oil?

YouTube and Self-Esteem

I wrote about self-esteem some time ago, specifically about a meta-study that showed there is no scientific basis for the belief that self-esteem is good for you. Now American research has found an epidemic of narcissism among college students. Curiously it is not just the misguided educational cult of promoting self-esteem that is blamed, but also social networking sites like MySpace and YouTube which 'permit self-promotion far beyond that allowed by traditional media'. This makes sense. Harmless and even benign as these sites may seem, they do encourage a me-me-me posture towards the world - as, I'm afraid, do blogs. All these devices make one aware of a much larger chorus of competing voices than the old networks of friends and families. It becomes necessary, therefore, to shout ever louder. I had previously been thrilled by these developments, but this gives me pause. Self-esteem is frequently highest among criminals and, as the latest report's lead author says: 'I'm concerned that we are heading to a society where people are going to treat each other badly, either on the street or in relationships.' It would be peculiarly irritating to be mugged by a YouTuber who felt exceptionally good about himself.