Friday, October 31, 2008

Robert Crampton, Great Wakering and fan mail

posted by Brit, in Bryan's absence

If you're anything like me, you'll occasionally be troubled by an attack of Great Wakering on a Saturday morning.

And if you're anything else like me, you'll have discovered that Robert Crampton's Beta Male column at the back of The Times Magazine offers an excellent remedy, being light in tone, insightful but unpretentious, and above all, just the right length. I always enjoy Crampton - a naturally funny, likeable, columnist. He's the kind of fellow you'd like to go for beer with, so he'd make a good US President. It's a real drag when he's away and a substitute fills in for him.*

In fact, I enjoy Crampton's column so much that I once wrote him an item of fan mail (ok, I emailed it). This, I realised, was only the second time I've ever written fan mail in my life; the other instance being a letter to John Barnes, the Liverpool footballer, in about 1988. I did once have a letter published in the Hamish's Hotshots page of Roy of the Rovers, but that was just to win a football boardgame which turned out to be rubbish.

Crampton sent me a very nice reply but I got sweet FA out of Barnes. (I did encounter 'Digger' years later however, and in unusual circumstances - but that's a story for another day.) If you have any fan mail confessions/yarns, you could do worse than get them out of your system here.


Hallowe'en story

A colleague of mine yesterday recounted a tale from her youth. I re-recount it here for your benefit.

She and a gaggle of friends were trick-or-treating their way around the estate (not today's nice middle-class 5-year-olds-accompanied-by-mums kind of trick-or-treating, but the old skool intimidating teenager kind).

At one house, known to them to be occupied by a single, oldish gentleman, they were greeted by a handwritten sign pinned to the front door: "Trick or Treaters round the back". An arrow pointed to the side alley leading to the back garden. Hooting and sniggering and feeling safe behind their plastic Hallowe'en masks, the youths scuttled round to the rear of the house... Whereupon a bucket of ice cold water was unexpectedly emptied on their heads from an upstairs window. The trickers had become the tricked. Shrieking and cursing, they ran off, returning shortly after with a quantity of black paint. This they hurled at the man's front door and walls.

Now, some twenty years later, my colleague says, much of that black paint is still visible. The oldish man is now old. He has never attempted to remove or cover the defacement. She passes it on most days as she walks her own children to school.

I draw no particular moral or conclusion from this story; I simply give it to you as it was given to me. Make of it what you will.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Weighty Americans

posted by Brit

Apparently there's some sort of election looming, so America is much on our television screens. Simon Schama has a somewhat lopsided and smug but deepish history going on, and Stephen Fry has a somewhat lopsided nose and a snug but shallowish Sunday night travelogue. (Shallow Fry for an hour? There's a joke in there somewhere - I'm sure Ian Russell could do something with it. Find it yourselves, please. )

Fry's programme ostensibly aims to capture the true America behind the myths and the cliches and the prejudices. People are always trying to do this. But what we mostly see is a lot of Stephen Fry 'gamely trying his hand' at things for which he is physically and mentally unsuited. It's enjoyable enough if you happen to like the company of Fry, which I mostly do. His only significant insight though was: "Whatever you try to say about America, the opposite is also true." This is correct, and explains why everyone can always find something to fall in love with in the States. Unfortunately, the opposite is of course also true, so it also means that anti-Americans can always find something to hate and America can never win. (For example, liberal Europeans sneer at America's Bible-bashing conservatism and sexual prudishness; whereas Islamic fundamentalists conversely hate it because it's all porn movies and Baywatch).

Neither Fry nor Schama, however, has thus far managed to make one particular stunning observation about Americans. It is one which has struck me on many occasion, and it is: their extraordinary interest in, and ability to estimate, weight in pounds. Show an American a truck, or an Agnostic Bus, or the Conservative Party front bench, and he will immediately tell you that "it weighs about 2,200 pounds" or whatever. American crimewatch appeals will state that the "suspect had a shaved head and weighed 190 pounds", whereas British ones would surely only mention "medium build". Similarly, at any kind of American zoo, farm or wildlife display, somebody will always ask the on-hand expert: "Scuse me ma'am. How much does that animal weigh?"

Nods and low whistles of appreciation will invariably greet the answer.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Dylans

posted by Brit

Dylan Thomas pops up again, (as he is wont to do with surprising frequency). Thomas is meant to be a Marmite poet. Except that like so many things you're supposed to either love or hate, I can't make up my mind.

Nige skewers his style with a brilliant (and Thomas-esque) description of: windy bardic utterance, relentlessly sexed up with thick impasti of alliteration and assonance, stretched wildly out of shape by its eye-rolling, exalted urgency.

Undeniable really. But there is a real linguistic genius there, too - of the type shared by the other Dylan during his golden period. There's no perfected framing or craftsmanship - instead, the Dylans mostly sound like idiot savants channelling raw, purple material straight from some crazed Muse, with no ability to edit or control. The consequence is that they walk a terribly narrow line between brilliance and drivel. This provides both the appeal and the derision.

That said, here's a Dylan Thomas poem that falls the right side of the line. Supporting the genius theory, he published it when he was 22.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Kasparov for a quid

posted by Brit, in Bryan's continued absence

Because nobody ever predicts anything accurately, it's no surprise that Tomorrow's World never told us that all the great technological minds of the early 21st Century would choose the mobile phone as the medium through which to express their genius.*

The other day I downloaded Garry Kasparov's Chess game to my phone for a quid. A quid! A fiendishly complex chess-playing engine! On my phone! The download took about 30 seconds. 30 seconds! I felt like a transhuman.

Needless to say, I can't beat Garry at Expert level. Depressingly, I can't beat him at Advanced or Intermediate either. We're about evens at Novice. (I can trounce Beginner, but there's no real joy in it). I like chess - I have even read books about it and sometimes have chess dreams like the guy in that Nabakov novel - but I find I just don't have the right kind of brain to be in any sense a serious player. I can't remember openings beyond about 3 moves, I struggle with combinations in the middle game and I drag out endgames to embarrassing lengths even when well up. My game relies heavily on a sort of instinctive positional sense which is often wrong. In fact, the only noticeable way I've improved since the age of 12 is that I'm much better at knowing when to resign.

Chess brilliance is intriguing because it is innate and manifests itself in the child prodigy, as with maths and music. Unfortunately, the cerebral space taken up by chess brilliance rarely leaves room for anything else, and in some cases great players are otherwise absolute pond life.

Not so Kasparov - he's a great player and a great man too. I don't know how much of my quid actually went to Garry, but I don't begrudge him any of it.

* Yeah, sorry about that sentence.

Boris saves capitalism

posted by Brit

Boris has a jolly good Borissey sort of go at the media's Credit Crunch crisis-mongering. Since we must always have a crisis of some sort, I rather favour the Credit Crunch - it's a nice, old-fashioned economic one, where we can all pull together and have a good tut-tut at a vague set of people who are (or at least were) richer than us. I rate it well above anthropogenic global warming, knife crime, bird flu, Islamic fundamentalism and the Y2k bug. Mind you, apparently some idiots still think Marx is the answer.

Dead Set

posted by Brit

As I predicted on this very blog, there are signs that a better world is on its way.

E4 aired the first episode of professional cynic Charlie Brooker's Dead Set (unusually indistinct title that, in these literal days of The Man with Testicles instead of Ears, or Louis Theroux Meets Some Rednecks and Takes the Mickey Out of Them by Pretending to be Naive and whatnot).

You don't need to watch Dead Set particularly - all you need to know is that it turned Big Brother into a vicious, visceral zombie gore-fest featuring real ex-contestants and Davina McCall.

Television ate itself a long time ago - the final coffee and after-dinner mints being the series of Celebrity Big Brother won by a fake non-celebrity. With Dead Set, television began puking itself up again.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Transhumanism 3: Because somebody is wrong on the internet

posted by Brit
For reasons unknown - perhaps because of the sheer weight of lunacy, the Transhumanism 2 post has malfunctioned. Perhaps it will come back, I don't know, but the debate was still raging.

Please feel free to continue it here, though I can't see why there's still any argument over whether transhumanism is a utopian project.
Surely Peter Burnet ended that one by asking the key question: if there's no project, why aren't they just medical researchers?

(cartoon from

Inmate takes over asylum

posted by Brit, in Bryan's absence

Bad luck: you've got the substitute. Bryan is taking a rest to allow his Blogger's Elbow to recover, and is leaving me in charge of Thought Experiments for a few weeks. I am deeply honoured. Those non-bloggers amongst you can have no appreciation of just how big a deal it is to leave your site in the hands of another. To get an idea, try to imagine the feeling of entrusting your beloved only child to the care of a stranger for a month, then multiply it by a billion.

Now, I'm something of a veteran these days - this being my third blog - but nonetheless I can't deny a certain thrill of stepping out onto the 'big stage'. Never before have I been faced with quite such a large audience of intellectuals, misanthropes and eccentrics. I feel like a semi-pro footballer who, after years of slogging around the foot of the Ryman's League Third Division, suddenly finds himself playing for a club, say, near the top of the Ryman's League First Division.

Naturally, Bryan has left a vast and detailed set of Blogsitter's Instructions magnetstuck to the fridge for me, and naturally I will ignore them. I am, however, well aware of my duties, which may be summarised as follows:

First, do no harm. That is, at least do not leave Thought Experiments in a worse state than would be the case had it merely been silent for three weeks.
Second, do not libel Jeffrey Archer.
Third, do not be so brilliant that the readers refuse to allow the host to return.

The first two present tough challenges. I'm not too worried about the third, and obviously neither is Bryan since he has insisted that I clearly indicate that my posts are not written by him. Rest assured, then, that all posts marked 'by Brit' are by me and only me and do not represent the views of Bryan Appleyard. If something I say offends or annoys you, please do not email your vile and ignorant abuse to Bryan. Nor, for that matter, to me. If you have to send it to someone, for goodness sake let it be Jeffrey.

So I have my blogsitting duties, but remember: it is also incumbent on you, the loyal Thought Experiments reader, to carry on contributing with your wise, witty and consoling comments. So just because you're lumped with the weird, tweed-sporting substitute teacher while Mrs Appleyard goes off to have a baby, you still have to behave. Bryan will be watching. In turn, I will do my best to keep you entertained with thought-provoking, topical and penetrating posts. Failing that, I can always fall back on links to The Onion and caption competitions. Don't worry, it's not for long...

Forget Me, Read Brit

Suffering as I am from a degree of blog exhaustion, I am now taking about three weeks off. There may be the odd emission, but nothing regular. In the interim I have handed Thought Experiments over to the erudite and combative poet Brit. Nige may also be involved. Readers will not easily forget Brit's rows with the transhumanists. I was very grateful to him for taking them on, having myself lost the will, as it were, to live. Brit, I am sure, will be a success, but, as I have told him, if not I can always sell what's left of this blog for kindling. Three weeks from now it will probably all we have left to cook and heat our homes. So, for the moment, good night and good luck.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


For, I am sure, no very good reason, this story about Karl Rove reminds me of this song by Randy Newman.

Go, Nick

As ever, Nick Cohen asks the right questions.  I particularly admire the sentence,  'Those naive souls who worry about political - oh I don't know - decorum then watched open-mouthed as within weeks of allowing the super-rich to pass him round like a half-drunk bottle of Cristal, Mandelson returned to Whitehall and demanded restrictions on the employment rights of working mothers.' Mandelson, I was once told, is a little too fond of Duchesses.

Friday, October 24, 2008

More News from Planet Paltrow

Picking my way through the battlefield that this blog has become, it is with some trepidation, though also with a philanthropic desire to, in the argot of our American cousins, 'lighten up' that I bring to you the latest new from darling Gwyneth. She is taking on Nigella now - 'This week brings easy, delicious, healthy (EDH) options for breakfast, lunch and dinner....' There follows some EDH recipes which look quite nice if, to my mind, a bit too American. Next week: 'We talk to some very cool doctors about how to achieve general health, well-being, detoxification and weight loss.' Let me guess - exercise, meditate, drink too much water and eat less. 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Stubble 2

And, on the subject of yesterday's invasion, the record number of hits on a single day on this blog is held by Nige with his thoughtful and erudite post on stubble. It was another Andrew Sullivan link. Stubble has been on my mind lately - not the best place for it - because I was recently in an office where every - and I do mean every - man had stubble. Furthermore, all the stubble seemed to be exactly the same length. This clone-effect began to give me a strange, Stepford Husbands feeling. But it also made me realise that I had no idea how men maintain stubble. (Is it just right the right length once every three days, meaning that those office workers had, somehow, synced themselves? If happening naturally, this would make stubble the male equivalent of women's periods. Or perhaps they had all agreed to shave on the same day - more likely but more disturbing.) Turning on the TV that very evening - here the coincidence draws us towards The Twilight Zone - the first thing I saw was an ad for this. So now I know. I am, like Nige, anti-stubble, though I suppose it is not quite so offensive on the young. On anybody over 30 it gives the clear impression of a night spent in the cells.

Transhumanism 2

The quietude of the floral retreat that is Thought Experiments was disturbed yesterday by a noisy debate breaking out on the matter of transhumanism. The entire population of America flooded into our garden, all because of a link from Andrew Sullivan's mighty uber-blog. 
So, to continue the debate - transhumanism is a utopian project and it is, in this light, that it should be assessed. Every age has one or many utopian projects. All fail, often leaving behind a pile of corpses. Transhumanism may seem more firmly based as it relies on science and technology which, alone in human affairs, do show signs of progress. Our accelerating power to transform the world will, inevitably, give us the power to transform ourselves. All sorts of enhancements will occur, not least enormously increased life span. This may not be possible but there are good reasons for thinking it will be. 
Transhumanists may claim a social, political and moral neutrality that distinguishes them from previous utopians. In fact, this is, in part, a consumerist idea - you buy medical immortality much as you would buy a pair of shoes. More importantly, it becomes absurd as soon as you imagine its application in the real world. Many religious people might accept it - I've met a few Christian transhumanists - but more won't. To most Muslims, for example, this will be a very ideological project, one based on western values. In other words, the apparent simplicity of the transhumanist ideal is an illusion. It is based on a facile idea of what people are and what they want and on the assumption that this one project, unlike all others, need not cause fundamental conflict.
Also it is irrational to think humans can stand outside themselves in order to produce a better human. What would he/she be like - Bill Gates, Wallace Stevens or Mother Theresa? We may talk of increased intelligence (though there is currently no consensus on what intelligence is) but without any idea of how it would be used. Furthermore, as Brit so wisely points out in his comments on the previous post, transhumanists ideas of the self turn out to be incoherent. Transhumanists say they can fix that, but they offer to do so by changing me into something that is not me. I will be killed and replaced by another being they will call, for the sake of argument, Bryan Appleyard. He will be an imposter.
In short, humans are fallen and, given our record, the first transhuman creation will probably be a better soldier, perhaps more able to withstand torture. Or, of course, an empty, grinning creature, made happy by the buying of shoes. Oh no, they're already here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Oh to be home again/Down in Ol' Virginny

Reading this I suddenly realised what has begun to depress me about the American election. Jonathan Martin concludes his post on the rise of Obama support in Virginia with the words 'Ol' Virginny is dead'. I don't want Ol' Virginny to be dead, not least because of the most beautiful song by that most beautiful band, The Band. With the now evidently catastrophic Palin play, the Republicans attempted to mobilise the so-called 'base'.  This involved talk about 'real' America being found in small towns inhabited by Plumber Joes, the underlying assumption being that the authenticity of these places was predicated on Republican values. This was nasty cynicism by people who didn't give a damn about small towns. Equally nasty, however, was the Democratic response which involves, basically, pouring scorn on small town America. (They'll deny this but the tone is unmistakeable.) An old and once lethal gap opens between metropolitan and rural America. I like both, but, if pressed, I'd vote rural. It's where America is most different from Europe and it's where homemade music-making of every kind is most alive. And it's certainly not, in my experience, the repository of the 'values' dreamed up by the Republican (and feared by the European) elites.

Osborne and the Deadline

I have nothing to blog about. I'm embarrassed about the Osborne affair because it is now becoming apparent that I missed the story. Not only, when in Corfu, did I eat at the offending Taverna, I also watched the Deripaska yacht bobbing about near the Rothschild peninsula. Yep, I missed it. This is depressing but not as depressing as the realisation that all this means we are back in the world of Mandelsonian/Rovian politics. I shall cheer myself up with thoughts of Henry Twynam, journalism student and tree surgeon He emailed me asking for help with an article on The Deadline he was writing. I replied:
'The deadline saves my life. It is the great advantage the journalist has over the creative writer. It means he must deliver and, once he has delivered, it is, more or less, all over. The greatest moments of my career have been when I made a tight deadline - 3000 words on Diana's funeral in 80 minutes sticks in the mind. Or, once, turning a 1000 page government report in a regional paper splash in half a hour. Deadlines should be your friend, they are a gateway to (temporary) freedom. Editors lie about deadlines to make you deliver early. Do not challenge their lies, deliver. Deadlines order your material and your work. Only so much can be done in the time given, this determines what you do and how you do it. Actually, they should be called livelines, they are so life-enhancing. That way we can reserve 'deadline' for the big one - otherwise known as the flatline.'

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Another Atheist Cock-Up

The atheists have screwed up again. Having had one of the great dumb ideas of our time - the atheist bus - they produce what is, in fact, an agnostic bus. 'There's probably no god.' Can't these people do anything right?

God Bless America 3

I thought you should see you should see one of Keith Olbermann's rants on MSNBC. They always made me happy when I was in America. We can't have such things here, of course, we just get the mosquito whine of incomprehension and pointless panel debates that Newsnight has become. A little pungent, literate, unchallenged opinion on television would brighten all our lives.

Transhumanism Rising

I've always been ahead of my time, it's a curse. The transhumanists I met and wrote about in my book are going mainstream with an online magazine - H +. Transhumanists believe in the technological transcendence of our biological limitations, most obviously the limitation of life span. The death of more than 100,000 people a day is, they say, a catastrophe that will, soon, be preventable. Thinkers like Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama and Bill McKibben have attacked this idea, arguing, in essence, that death is an essential aspect of our humanity. For transhumanism's response to this see Joe Quirk's heavy irony on page 41 of H+. What I like about transhumanists is their naked, unapologetic radicalism. Like Mustapha Mond debating with the Savage in Brave New World, they simply ask, what's so great about human life as it now is? If, for example, human immortality makes all your art meaningless, so be it, Shakespeare was all predicated on suffering we no longer have to endure. What I don't like about transhumanists is the fact that they simply refuse to understand certain arguments of their opponents - like the idea, best advanced by Bernard Williams, about boredom not with the things of the world but with oneself, or, as Roger Scruton puts, the soul grows tired of inhabiting the body. Also their technophilia is oppressive and naive. Much of the magazine is just gadgetry with attitude. And this is Dave Pearce (page 14): 'For a very different kind of selection pressure is at work when evolution is no longer 'blind' and 'random', ie when rational agents design the genetic makeup of their future offspring in anticipation of its likely effects. In that sense, we're heading for a post-Darwinian transition - ultimately to some form of paradise-engineering.'  In the midst of the current crisis, the idea of humans engineering paradise seems more risible than ever. (Or perhaps we can simply engineer out the gene set that created credit default swaps.) In spite of which, transhumanism is a coming thing, a future faith. It's time to burnish your best pro-death arguments.

Monday, October 20, 2008

More Doom

I gather the credit default swap market - $62 trillion (it's so hard to think of anything below a billion as real money these days) - is going to be the final derivative nail in the coffin of our rapidly fading prosperity. Meanwhile, doubtless, we will be told we're over the worst, there's light at the end of the tunnel, appropriate measures have been taken etc.. History doesn't repeat itself, only human folly does that.

Plant Posts

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for informing us that a plant is now blogging. We can't understand it, of course, not because it's a plant but because it's Japanese. This probably makes it seem smarter than it actually is.

Beware the Killer Docs

This story is profoundly misleading. In listing the causes of death in the UK, it misses out one of the biggest killers - iatrogenesis. In America doctors have been established as the third leading cause of death. Of course, you can cook the figures to conceal this by saying the cause of death was the condition that was being treated rather than the treatment. British medicine may not be quite as lethal as the American system tends to lead to massive over-treatment. Nevertheless it is probable that iatrogenesis is almost as big a killer of Brits as it is of Americans. But, typically, we will conceal this fact. Be warned: like banks, hospitals aren't quite what they seem.
On the other hand, it's good to know they're being told to be not quite so keen to pronounce their victims dead.

The Aliens Are Here

I told you I was right. In fact, that was going to be my epitaph. Now it's going to be 'It's okay, I don't know I'm dead.'

Sunday, October 19, 2008

God Bless America 2

Two American things have just made me very happy.
1)Randy Newman on Desert Island Discs. A man with soul and artistry to spare.
2) The Coen brothers' Burn After Reading. I seldom read film reviews; I assume they are being sniffy about this wonderful film simply because it comes after No Country for Old Men. Never mind, Burn made me light-headed with happiness. It's about both the opacity and the triviality of human motives and it just gets funnier and funnier. I am currently fighting the impulse to go and see it again today.


I have just stumbled upon what I can only describe as the greatest web site in the world  - a project to put the whole of the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica online. This is claimed to be the finest of all encyclopaedias. Having flicked through it for the last 15 minutes, I am inclined to agree. Of course, the real fascination of these little essays, these elegant, Edwardian (I know, I know, he died in 1910, but I am guessing most were written before his death) summaries of lives and events, is what is not included. Modernism is, I think, unnoticed except as a development in theology. Joseph Conrad, for example, is praised for his 'vigorous English style and the vivid description of exotic scenes', not for his formal innovations. Henry James is called 'a modern of the moderns', but 'modern' here seems to be synonymous with 'contemporary'. The big thing missing, the gorilla in this heavily furnished, panelled drawing room, is the Great War, the terrible lens through which we must see 1911. To our imaginations, its absence hangs like a black cloud over every entry. These writers were living in a kind of paradise, a climax of western civilisation before the cataclysm of the twentieth century. The entry for the recently dead Edward VII - a popular, fat, randy rogue - is poignant - '...  it remained for her (Victoria's) son to rehabilitate the idea of English kingship by showing how the sovereign could be no less constitutional but personally more monarchical.' And then the roof fell in.

Baader-Meinhof and Modern Terrorism

In The Sunday Times, I write about the terrorism of the Red Army Faction  - led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof - in Germany  in the seventies. Stefan Aust's book The Baader-Meinhof Complex has been updated and there's a film of the same name produced by Bernd Eichinger. You have to see it. It is, mercifully, an anti-romantic view of these killers, but at the same time, the paranoid psychology of the group once the killing starts is entirely convincing, almost understandable even though their belief that Germany was, once again, becoming a fascist state is madness.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Capital of the Human Race

Henry James on London in 1888: 'It is a real stroke of luck for a particular country that the capital of the human race happens to be British.' What, now, is the capital of the human race?

For Andrew Lahde

I'm not sure I could talk to him about art or the finer points of epistemology, I'm not even sure I'd have him round to dinner, but you've got to hand it to Andrew Lahde, when it comes to the financial crisis, he just gets it.
'All of this behaviour supporting the aristocracy only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America..... Meanwhile, their lives suck... what is the point?'
Having made  a return of 870 per cent last year, Lahde is getting out of the hedge fund business to spend more time with his money. 

Friday, October 17, 2008

Fill Your Boots

A little ray of sunshine - the man who is always right says buy shares.

Who Knew?

1)Hmmm so our first nationalised bank is now the most aggressive repossessor. Tricky and about to get a lot trickier.
2)Aspirin doesn't prevent heart attacks and strokes. Low dose aspirin makers have called for a government bailout. 'Total black swan, guv'nor, we done nothing wrong.'

Chip off the Block

Read this or I won't let you read this.

Justice and Junk

Andrew Hill in the FT on the matter of the bonuses of bankers etc - 'The US and the UK have two objectives: to curb future recklessness and - a less worthy aim - to punish past excess.
So I get hold of a written-off car. I patch it together to look like new, even though its chassis is held together by duct tape. I create a fake registration and sell it. I would, if caught, be charged and imprisoned. My pleas that everybody else was at it and, anyway, the car registration documents were too easy to fake are rightly ignored.
Or I am a banker. I buy in a load of very dodgy mortgages. I turn them into shiny new securities. They are held together by duct tape, but they carry the credit rating of my bank. I then sell them. If caught, my pleas that everybody else was at it - the Nuremberg defence -  and, anyway, government regulations were too lax are wholly accepted and, even though my actions have helped impoverish the world by $50 trillion and have thrown millions out of work, punishing me is not regarded as 'worthy'. In fact, you'll give me billions to keep me afloat because, having effectively turned all banks into one bank that cannot be allowed to fail, I have you over a barrel.
There is only a slight moral difference between 'chopping' a car and securitising bad debt. The buyer of my junk bond is likely to be smarter and better informed than the buyer of my car. But, against that, there is the fact that I don't really care any more than he does because it's all about bonuses and the chances of either of us getting caught before the year end are slim. Our shareholders are the real suckers - and the pensioners, and the dispossessed and the unemployed.
There is a pragmatic argument against pursuing mortgage 'choppers'. This is that we need these clever guys to get the system up and running again. This is like saying we'll keep the car crook out of prison because only he can help us fix the insurance/car registration system. The truth is that the City boys made such a gigantic mess of things that their judgment and experience are effectively worthless. 
There's also a political argument. Pursuing the bad guys is likely to intensify the social tensions from which we will suffer over the next few years. An amnesty is the safest solution. There is some merit in this.
My point is that, irrespective of who, exactly, was guilty of what at the regulatory and political level, nobody can seriously doubt that the banks and assorted other companies were guilty of this. In strict juridical terms, pursuing them is entirely worthy and, in fact, obligatory.  Even in political terms, it will have the beneficial effect of making banks much more cautious in the future - precisely the outcome we are now pursuing by other means. But I can see that, except in a few cases, it won't happen and I know why. This crime is just too big to prosecute.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hot News from Planet Paltrow

A troubling bulletin from Gwyneth.  Under the heading 'Be' she tells me, 'I am interested in spiritual disciplines within different religions and schools of thought. I thought it would be inspiring to periodically ask a question to a group of thinkers from various traditions on the subjects that often confound me.'  The question that confounds her today is, 'I have a friend who see the world in a pessimistic light. This person is highly suspicious of people and situations, and sees, as well as experiences negativity at most turns. Why is this and what does it mean? What can be done to help someone of this nature?' Well, it's sweet of you to think of me Gwyn, but I'm afraid the ensuing psychobbable from Deepak Chopra and others does not really float my boat. But never mind - 'Next Week. We'll be enticing you to MAKE some utterly delicious vegan pancakes, quick Asian tuna sandwiches, and a dinner you can prepare in ten minutes.'

Everybody Hates Me

I am reeling from Susan's accusations that I am obnoxious, insensitive, name-dropping and astonishingly egocentric and from an email sent by one Bill Anderson - 'Why do you fall for every third rate huckster who comes along? Surely you can't believe all the tosh you write. Do your editors/owners expect it? You could make decent living writing sensible stuff. Why for instance do you hate science which you clearly don't understand?' Okay, Bill, I'll come clean - it's the chicks, they go weak at the knees for science-hating, huckster-loving tosh writers. Decent livings and sensible stuff just don't cut it, chickwise. All of which has left me unable to post on the big issues of the day - the onrushing depression, the presidential debate, an excellent piece by the saintly Frank Field and crazed Amy's rant at the devil. Oh and I could be pointing you in the direction of this. But I can't, I'm sulking.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Wire and the Lie of an Ending

I finally made it to the last episode of The Wire. It was a mess, poorly paced and an uneasy mix of urban rhapsody and rushed plot points. But, of course, it didn't matter. The Wire at its worst is television at its best. And great moments flooded from the screen: Snoop facing death by checking her hair, Cheese telling the drug lords, 'There ain't no back in the day, nigga. Ain't no nostalgia to this shit here. There's just the street and the game and what happen here today', Bubbles, as ever, condensing the suffering of the world, Bunk's cigar after he'd cuffed Chris Partlow, the fake wake for McNulty when they all roared 'I'm a free-born man of the USA!', McNulty's speech to the lying hack on the Baltimore Sun, Carcetti's epic disbelief at the serial killer scam, Omar's death at the hands of a child, Rawls looking massively uncomfortable in the uniform of a state trooper, Marlo suddenly asserting his identity, 'My name is my name', Marlo returning to the street just to smell its cold lethality (real shiver there) - I could go on for hours and just about this one sub-par episode. But perhaps it wasn't sub-par. Perhaps the whole point is that The Wire is uncomfortable with endings because endings are lies. The same returns, life goes on and, as the little neighbour boy says, ' Nothing is revealed.' The Wire is one of the great works of art of our time.

A Better World is on the Way

I have decided to regard the impending split of Madonna and Guy Ritchie and the ending of the WAG circus that was the worst football team in the world as favourable auguries. Yes, you read it here first, a better world is on the way. Of course, neither of these events can be said to be caused by the financial meltdown, but there is such a thing a synchronicity and, anyway, causation is a only convenient illusion. Both the Madonna-Ritchie union and the inane shenanigans and haircuts of the England team before the arrival of Fabulous Cappuccino were aspects of the empty and, as we now know, lethal world of easy credit. The fatuous unreality they represented was the correlative of the absurdity of believing a credit card was not real money. This kind of celebrity was - I hope - a product of the same stupidity that produced the long con of securitised bad debt. Nassim - see this fine article by The Fink - has written of 'cash borrowed from destiny'. The celebs borrowed fame from destiny and - please, please - it's payback time. The virtues of the new world will be seriousness, hard work and great wit. People will say interesting things that will be reported by well-read and sensitive journalists. Horrible magazines will be closed by the thousand. Marketing budgets will be slashed. Wayne Rooney will be photographed reading G.L.S.Shackle. Nassim will win the Nobel and give it back. Newspapers and television will race upmarket. The Wire will be an A Level subject. Tabloid newpapers will offer their readers the works of Dickens. The children of Holland Park School will not shout outside my window because they are too busy reading Edward Thomas. Shops assistants will greet customers warmly and then help them to buy stuff. Banks will be boring and engineers interesting. Newsnight will introduce a policy of listening to what people are saying. Jeffrey Archer will apologise for his prose and Horace Engdahl for his stupidity. God will find Dawkins. In summary: the lion shall lay down with the lamb and all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


And, incidentally, amidst the encircling gloom as people clutch desperately at the straws of old, deluded gods - von Mises, Friedman, Hayek, Marx, Mandelson, Brown - it may be worth drawing your attention to one of the most unjustly ignored of all economists,  G.L.S.Shackle. He didn't think we made rational choices, nor that probability taught us anything of value about the real world. But Shackle is not taught so Nassim was entirely justified in telling a vast audience at the London School of Economics last night to drop their study of economics and take up dentistry - 'a robust science'. There wasn't a bat squeak of dissent.

The Brown Swan

My lunch with John Gray and Nassim Nicholas Taleb was off the record, but I will mention one incident. We took a long walk through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park afterwards. Nassim and John were deep in debate.  'That,' I said to Nassim, pointing at a rather dingy, brown swan, 'is not a black swan, it is a juvenile.' 'Bryan,' replied Nassim pityingly, 'I am not interested in actual, physical swans.'

Monday, October 13, 2008

Market News

An overheard trader who had lost 50 per cent of his net worth: 'It's like getting divorced but you keep the wife.'

Slump Chic 2

And, of course, the song of the oncoming Angry Decade of destitution and want is Kinky Friedman's Sold American performed by Lyle Lovett.

Slump Chic

Yes it's time to come up with style notes to get through the next decade of bleak, grinding austerity. There will be a new fashion for ugly, miserable names that evoke the most hopeless days of the thirties or late forties. The Perkins family of Acton have show the way ahead. They were going to call their new daughter Britney, like everybody else in their street, but have now decided on Doris in deference to the age of abject poverty on which we are now embarking. 'If we have a boy next,' says dad Brad Perkins, 'it's got to be Reginald. In happier times, of course, we would have called him Depp.' Enid, Edith, Gladys, Oswald and Hubert are said to be high on the nomenclatural hot list.

Brown: Five More Depressing Years?

Waves of grim foreboding sweep the nation this morning. The cause? This column by Paul Krugman in The New York Times - 'Has Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, saved the world financial system?' Eeeek! You read it here first - we could be in for another five years of the grim Scottish ascendancy and, as Wodehouse so sagely observed, it is never very difficult to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine. Gordon always has a grievance. I saw two clergymen in a cafe at the weekend, one a bishop I think. 'Bring back Tony Blair," said the bishop, 'we miss him.' 'Oh yes,' said the other, 'dear old Teflon Tony.' It's come to this.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Numerical Superstition

Money - I know it's so last week, but one must try and keep up. Reading The Sunday Times splash online, I came to the comments at the end. Wayneo from Boston says, 'Next low for the Dow is 7380. If that low does not stop the blood flowing, then next low will be 6350.' There are few things more satisfying than the spectacle of superstition masquerading as knowledge. There is no evidence for Wayneo's assertion. Indeed, this kind of thinking about markets  - I think it was called chartism  - was pretty thoroughly discredited when I was a financial journalist 30 years go. But Wayneo, probably an economist, is hypnotised by the possibility that numbers in themselves have power over the future. In various forms, there's a lot of this kind of thinking around at the moment. It is the purest superstition. You see, prediction, as Niels Bohr so wisely observed, is very difficult, especially about the future.

A Must Read for the Middle Classes

In The Sunday Times I used Joanna Hogg's exceptional film Unrelated as an excuse to meditate on the condition of the middle classes. In fact, I'm slightly less sympathetic to the ol' bourgeoisie today than I was when I wrote the piece. In the interim I have endured one of those all too common conversations with a member of the rural middle class. This involves me being bright, funny, full of anecdote and, above all, profoundly interested in my interlocutor's life, work, family, opinions etc.. I'm good at this, it's a hack thing. He/she talks gaily about him/herself. But, on the matter of me, only one subject comes up - the house where I live. Once it is established that it is not the Great Hall at Little Bastard or Bugger's Manor, Buggerston under Slob, that it is, in fact, merely quite a nice place on the river, and that I am, therefore, emphatically not an occasion for the urgent activity of social climbing, general schmoozing and mutual grooming, I am at once consigned to the file marked 'inessential' and all that remains is for Mr/Mrs Interlocutor to bring this conversation to an end. 
The next time it happens I shall cause a scene.
(The picture shows a member of the English middle class enjoying himself.)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Nassim on Newsnight

With fabulous incompetence, Newsnight failed to understand the mind of the most important thinker on the current crisis, my pal Nassim Nicolas Taleb. He was in the studio, to his left a female economist and, on the big screen, 'an economist in a tie' (Nassim's words) in Washington. The economists were so implausible, so full of themselves and so smarmy that I feared for my lunch on Monday. Nassim was quivering with anger and, at one point, clutching his chest. He's my lunch. John Gray will be there to - it's the crunch lunch. Anyway, the implausible economists poured empty words over everything while angry Nas tried to explain that it was all meaningless because the most important first step was to ditch all the nonsensical models of risk dreamed up by the quack econs and statisticians employed by banks. This is the point. Salvation - and, come to that, happiness - lies not in bailouts but in a humble acceptance of how little we know and how vain are our self-important attempts to pretend otherwise. This was Nassim's message. It went unheard. On the floor of the bourse the brokers roared on like beasts.

Friday, October 10, 2008


After years of prompting from John Gray, I have finally started reading George Santayana.
'A creature whose actions were predetermined might have a clearer mind. He might keenly enjoy the momentary scene, never conceiving himself as a separate body, or as anything but the unity of that scene, nor his enjoyment as anything but its beauty: nor would he harbour the least suspicion that it would change or perish, nor any objection to its doing so if it chose. Solipsism would then be selflessness and scepticism simplicity.'
This evokes Edward Thomas's 'short-lived happy seeming things', thus forming one of my previous connections into a satisfactory triad.

Crisis News

1)Gordon Brown's obvious glee is one of the more alarming aspects of the crisis. Now his rescue scheme - not a patch on mine - is being embraced as the best plan for the world and definitely superior to that of the curiously thick-necked 'Hank' Paulson. Brown's survival as leader suddenly seems to be a fait accompli. The danger now is that he will win the next election. We must in these troublous times have the courage to think the unthinkable.
2)The Guardian quotes a fund manager - 'If one bank holds down pay, then staff will leave and go to one that doesn't. And if London become badly paid then there will be an exodus to Mumbai, Shanghai and Dubai.
So, let's be clear, if we pay bankers less they'll emigrate to various cities ending in 'ai'. Sounds like win-win to me.

My Bank Rescue Package

1)Sit in the choir of Norwich Cathedral.
2)Say nothing.
3)Do nothing.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Not Just a Pretty Face

At last, an email from Gywneth Paltrow. The clouds lift.

'Ah, fashion... the fun frivolity that can really cheer a girl up. I used to spend a lot of time looking at fashion, reading about fashion, generally being bemused by fashion. Then one day I had children and it all kind of went out the window. For a few years I was basically in sweat pants and I didn’t mind it. It's a fine line, however, between being comfortable and being demoralized by being frumpy all the time. Just because I no longer had an hour to stand in front of my closet and try to figure out what to wear, did not mean I had to don the same high school t-shirt from the day before. As I started to get back into the world of work, I needed to wear something easy and chic that did not require a lot of planning or accessorizing. It is here that I did return to high school, but this time for a clothing concept: the uniform. Below you will find how the concept works. The key to it is realizing what works on you personally. At some point I figured out that following trends is not always the way to go, you have to know what works on your body and have confidence (not always easy) that what is flattering is fashionable. I want clothes that move easily from a winter's morning making pancakes to the school run to a meeting to homework to a dinner party. These are the basics I am wearing right now for easy, fuss-free dressing. I’ve paired the basics together for three very different but wearable outfits that can be amended for any occasion.'

--- Gwyneth Paltrow

Election Intuitions 2

On the other hand, absurdity is such an enduring human characteristic. I love the interviewer's question at the end - 'Where y'all goin'?' Quite.

Election Intuitions

This more or less confirms my own intuitions about the implausibility of John McCain. Of course, Sarah Palin doubly confirms them. Shock at the Palin spectacle is not, as some have suggested, about either misogyny nor class. It is simply shock. I'm all for a bit of folksy wisdom, but not when mouthed by a puppet of simpering aspect, low cunning and zero intellect. Obama has turned out to be more of a machine politician than one would like, but not voting for him would now be an absurdity.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

On Pesto

There was a time when Paxo was instant stuffing and Pesto was an Italian sauce, usually involving basil. Now, of course, Paxo is the alarmingly languid Newsnight anchor and Pesto is the Business Editor of the BBC, possessor of a troublingly fixed gaze. Some say he has lately become pure energy. Pesto has taken over from Paxo in our imaginations. He is now the national emblem of the end of the world. He also has a blog which, yesterday, sent bank shares though the floor. He works very hard so he must be middle class. But what do we make of Pesto? I am undecided.
Hmmm others have their doubts.

Quelling Cads

The Times  on reckless drivers in 1901: 'There is no turning a cad into a gentleman, but there is such a thing as making even cads fear the law.' Basically that's what is happening to the City boys today.

More Word News

'Hard working'. This has been widely used in the American election - hard working taxpayers/middle classes etc. Now I notice Guido has fallen for it - 'the hard work of Britain's 28 million taxpayers.' This is empty flattery. Any large enough human sample will contain approximately the same proportions of hard workers and soft slackers. Being a taxpayer or middle class does not mean you are necessarily hard working. Rhetorically, it's a way of smuggling in a consoling sense of entitlement, as in, 'I am middle class, therefore I work hard, therefore I am entitled...

Conservative Socialism

I'm inclined to agree with Jonathan Freedland - 'Democracy has to assert itself once more - and tame this beast'.  (Well, obviously I don't agree with his use of dashes. No punctuation at that point would have improved the drama of the payoff.) As I have said before, this is the climax of the free market right's abuse of power, just as 1979 was the climax of the unionised left's abuse. Then we needed a touch more capitalism, now we need a tad more socialism - exactly what we are getting. Republican congressmen spit blood at the very mention of the word, but that's because they confuse communism and socialism. In fact, socialism, meaning the acceptance of a common good that may occasionally trump naive conceptions of freedom, is an unremarkable idea. This is elementary stuff for those not corrupted by political tribalism and it's certainly not in conflict with true conservatism, which is nothing if not pragmatic. Unfortunately, you can count the number of true conservatives in this world on the fingers of one hand.

The Glorious People's Democray of Yookay

With the Atlantic Alliance between the PRA and the Glorious People's Democracy of Yookay about to be renamed as Warsaw Pact 2, it is good time to reflect on the mighty, bloodless revolution that brought capitalism to its knees. Well, in fact, I'll leave it to Nassim. Basically, it seems, we handed capitalism over to imbeciles, people who thought they could shuffle dud mortgages into triple A paper and nobody would ever find out. Now it turns out that British affluence  and the supremacy of the City of London were dependent on a pile of realtors' property details. It was like asking Foxtons to educate our children. Funny old world eh?
PS And, incidentally, you may remember that on September 16th I quoted John Gray on the likely outcome of the crisis - 'It will end with a different world. And not for the first time....' We were both mocked for being apocalyptic. Three weeks later it is apparent that we were, not to put too fine a point on it, right.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Word News

1) I was just about to write the phrase 'for example', decided it was over-used and was going to employ 'for instance' instead. I didn't, however, because, somehow 'for instance' sounds vulgar, even illiterate. Why is that?
2)Almost everybody on television news shows now starts answers to questions with the word 'Look'. I think this comes from America, at least that's where I first noticed it. Fox News is now a blizzard of looks. But 'look' is now definitely over here. For me, it is a touch brutal, as in 'You are completely wrong, now listen to what I have to say, you ignorant clod', but it's probably just a nervous tic as in 'I really don't know what I am talking about, but I'd better sound as confident as I can'. You get that a lot at the end of the world.

On Links

Commenting on Tina Brown's new Daily Beast, Gapper observes, 'Sometimes I get the feeling that journalism will end us as endless links to other things...' The same thought came to me when, while writing an article for The Sunday Times, I found myself trying to add a link. Blogging is, of course, all about links. I can only keep posts as short as I do by using links for information that might otherwise fill a paragraph. I don't have to say 'tin-eared, bestselling author Jeffrey Archer...' etc etc, I just have to do this. But Gapper's phrase 'endless links' raises a theological issue. If the links are endless, where is the ultimate content? One can imagine a link-lined future in which aged thinkers resurrect the Cosmological Argument - where is the Prime Mover, the link that is not a link, the supreme self-sufficiency? All links will be seen to link to God.

Monday, October 06, 2008

A Failed Post on the Death of the Self

Ho, ho, ho. What's the difference between a pigeon and a banker? The pigeon can still put a deposit on a Ferrari. Evening Standard apparently. Anyway, what with Mandy the drama queen and the world still crashing about our ears, I've quite lost my thread today. I woke up intending to write a post on promissory materialism, an aspect of eliminative materialism. I meant to do it because it is, I think, the most profound intellectual issue of our time. If EM is successful, common sense psychology will be dead, an event that would be in the words of my hero Jerry Fodor, 'beyond comparison, the greatest intellectual catastrophe in the history of our species....' Imagine our inner world vanishing with the same bewildering rapidity as our money. The Bundesbank would have to underwrite our sanity as well as our deposits. But that post eluded me. Perhaps tomorrow.

Mandelson the Food Stalker

My culinary connection with Peter Mandelson is getting out of hand. First, there was that mysterious crab salad. Now I learn he dripped pure poison about Brown into the ear of George Osborne at the Taverna Agni in Corfu. This was in August. I ate several times at that very Taverna in July. (It was very nice though, as in most Greek restaurants,  the fish tended to be overcooked, a particularly heinous crime when halibut is involved.) The truth is out: Mandy is a food stalker and I am his latest target.

An Ugly Head Rears

Economic crises expose buried and frequently ancient tensions. In Europe we seem to be confronted by the very ancient but not so deeply buried tension of nationalism. 

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Bad Cars

I see Jerry Clarko endorses my own insight into the fabulous ineptitude of the Chrysler Sebring. He says it's the worst in the world, I say it may be the most dangerous - its lateral instability is downright scary. The poor quality of American cars is, indeed, a wonder to the rest of the world. But as I also said, the day of the decent American car may not be far off. I have high hopes for the Chevrolet Volt.

Nailing Mandy

The great Danny confirms this Sunday Times story and nails Mandy for playing fast and loose with the old actuality. Perhaps my first intuition was right and he is Brown's Palin after all.

Is Mandy Brown's Palin? And Besses o' th' Barn

Posting has been proving impossible this weekend. I've lost the will. Mandelson's return? A mistake probably, but why did he have to wear a fuschia pullover under his suit? Also there seems to be a lot of analysis based upon his twin role - political and economic. With Mandelson the personal is political and economic and everything else. The political columnists are being as naive as they always are. Financial crisis? The fault of Clinton? Well, maybe, but parti pris monocausalities are not persuasive. Sarah Palin? Her debate performance, widely said to be a triumph, was grotesque, condescending, dumb, but she can act, no doubt about that. In fact, come to think of it, is this the post I have been looking for  - is Mandy Brown's Palin? No, here's the real post. I just heard Dear Lord and Father of Mankind sung on Radio 4's Morning Service and I realised that hymn formed me. For some reason, the line 'Beside the Syrian Sea' and the last three lines - rolling thunder followed by a whisper, always an effect gloriously overstated by our school organist - lodged so firmly in my imagination that, thereafter, I was consistently distracted from coherence and ambition by the effect of words. Some moralistic will to resist this distraction was probably the reason I never became a proper writer. And, finally, the Wikipedia page on this hymn links to a performance by the Besses o' th' Barn Band. Trains in my childhood all seemed to stop at Besses o' th' Barn and, each time they did, I chanted this strange and wonderful name quietly to myself. But the thing is, I never got off to look around.