Monday, March 30, 2009

Go, Nick

You must all watch this video and then send Nick an email of congratulation. This is a national treasure.

Guido and Anarchy

Great Guido comments on my anarchy post, 'Anarchists like spontaneous order. Not state enforced order.' I sympathise, as with farmers' markets we all long for the real thing, the local thing. But I'm not such a romantic idealist as Guido, not least because, as, again, with farmers' markets, ideals rapidly become corrupted. It shouldn't be forgotten that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century anarchists were Al Qaeda, rather more effective, in fact, in that they managed to kill quite a few prominent politicians. The 9/11 of that time was the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago in 1886, which inspired both new adherents to the cause and intense paranoia among the Euro-American political classes.
The primary illusion of anarchists lies behind that phrase 'spontaneous order'. It implies that there is some natural human condition that is polluted by 'state enforced order'. This is very bad metaphysics. Communism and fascism sprang from human nature, as did the divine right of kings. If there is no god, no intelligent external force, then savage state oppression is as much part of human nature as a self-governing village of organic farmers. We may prefer the idea of the latter but to act on that preference is to descend into political unreality.

Organic Food Doesn't Work

I was on one of those ... what are they called, you know the places where sly country folk rip off gullible urban sophisticates? Ah yes. I was in one of those farmers' markets yesterday and the first thing I saw was some people making a TV show about farmers' markets. You get that a lot in London. Now that we have no economy to speak of, people have taken to making documentaries, often about FMs. Personally, I'm all for FMs - really - but I am always disappointed. Gill was splenetically and amusingly disappointed in one organic joint recently and, having been to the same place, I can tell you he's right. Yesterday, at the FM, I bought one russet apple and one cox and they were both worse than the ones in Sainsbury's. To be honest, I'm almost always let down by organic food. The worst meat I've ever eaten was all fantastically expensive and came from organic butchers. I remember having to listen to a five-minute lecture on the gold-plated pedigree of some steak only later to find it inedible. I suppose this is because 'organic' like 'green' has become just another marketing label used to raise prices and, as a result, the underlying idea has been lost. This is a pity because supermarkets are, indeed, a bad thing and we'd all like to have real markets like the French. The difference is, of course, that the French know about food and we just make TV shows about it.

The Name of Wagoner

I shall miss Rick Wagoner. It is, quoting Martin Amis (I think), such a 'rangey, big-cocked name' that it always makes me laugh. Also it is precisely the right name for the boss of a car company. People should do the job suggested by their name. That would have prevented Jacqui Smith becoming home secretary and left her hammering horse shoes in some village or other. I should own an orchard, I suppose.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Reflections on the Entitled Ass

Quote of the millennium so far from David Simon: 'The premise that The Wire wasn't real because it didn't show people have good outcomes in west Baltimore... I don't know what to tell them. We didn't spend a series in a cul-de-sac with people barbecuing; it was the story of what's happening at the bottom rungs of an economy where capitalism has been allowed free rein. And if he's telling me it's not happening, I want to take his fucking entitled ass and drive him to west Baltimore and shove him out of the car at Monroe and Fayette, and say, find your way back, fucker, because you've got your head up your ass at the Atlantic.'

Anarchists Misunderstand Anarchy

I watched the protest march yesterday from the comfort of a fantastically expensive, boot in the face of the workers hotel suite. Most people were marching under trade union flags - the RMT predominated. It was, therefore, a relief to see one large group bearing the black and red flag of the anarchists. I was puzzled, however, by one of their banners - 'Don't panic, organise'. This can't be right. They're anarchists. It should be 'Don't organise, panic' or 'Don't panic, disorganise'.
And, while I am on the subject, this march was a little, well, vague. I thought it was going to be 'Bankers are bastards, especially that Freddie the Shreddie', under which banner I might have done a spot of light marching myself. But the primary slogan seemed to be 'Jobs, Justice, Climate'. Marlon Brando could get away with 'Whaddya got?' when asked what he was protesting about, but I'm not sure protesting against everything on principle, understandable though it may be, is an appropriate basis for a mass movement.

A Moral Panic

I just turned on the news to hear that the Home Secretary has apologised because she did not realise a television service came with her internet package. Great God! The nation is going to the dogs in a handcart. I blame the ending of conscription and the lack of hanging in schools. Bring back the birch, I say, very fine tree.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Brown IS a Nightmare

I can't get Vince Cable's remark about Brown - 'Gordon Brown has become his own worst nightmare...' - out of my head. It's that 'nightmare'. We often talk about people being their own worst enemy, but nightmare is quite different. It suggests he's become unreal to himself, a grisly phantasm. Or, I suppose, 'living the nightmare' is just the opposite of that footballers' boast about 'living the dream', but that doesn't capture the full power of 'become'. Brown is not living the nightmare, he is the nightmare. Perhaps it happens to us all in the end. My own extremities have lately begun to seem rather spectral and troubling.

Long Live Ink

Not only did David Simon make The Wire, he is also right about everything.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Weekend Starts Here

Have a good weekend, I know I will. I'll be howling abuse at the G20 imperialist running dogs and singing Jefferson Airplane's We Can Be Together. Being a shy type, I missed all this the first time round. Actually, I'm still shy and I'll just be interviewing these blokes in the Dorchester.

Judging for the Guardian

Being a judge of the Guardian Student Media Awards is turning into an uneasy experience. At one point I was asked for my 'top tips' for playing the media game. I obliged but, as my tips show, I felt there was something wrong with the idea of the 'media game'. I then receive the game in question. It is a board game called Media Mogul Mania that forms the application package. 'What will you do to win the game?' runs the teaser on the box which is decorated with a sort of constructivist/pop design involving a man in a suit with a ghetto blaster, a blonde with a giant mobile phone and a red high heel being driven into a male foot. The latter image is blown up to poster size inside the box. The game is elaborately playable - so elaborate that I can't bring myself to explain. Now, of course, this is all marketing and this is, in all probability, how the target audience of students see the media - as a colourful and rather nasty game. But is the Guardian itself entirely happy with this presentation of its business? I'm not. There are many forces currently at work trying to trivialise the media, trying to turn us all into a useful idiot subsidiary of celebrity culture. It is self-evident that these forces should be resisted and that, as part of this resistance effort, young people coming into the media - especially newspapers - should be encouraged to take the highest and most serious view of their work. They can have plenty of fun in the process, but the fun is is not the point of the exercise. And by the way, kids, those who come into the game purely for fun usually crash and burn. So, in a nutshell, I'm uneasy because the marketing of the GSMA plays into the hands of those who would marginalise and, finally, destroy my trade. I shall judge the entries with gloomy, bleak, sober, funless, unforgiving rigour.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Warmists Against Wind 2

Oh dear, the curse of Appleyard has struck the windmill business. (Hat tip, my bro.) Poor old Brown just can't catch a break. Nor should he.

The London Library

Yesterday I worked in the London Library for the first time in years. They have a laptop room now. This is a long way from the days of the Libyan Embassy siege in 1984 - it happened on the other side of St James's Square - when the inhabitants of the Reading Room slept through the entire proceedings. (In fact, I suddenly recall a TV producer friend of mine parked his aged but natty Volvo convertible in the square with the top down just before the siege began. It rained. He went up to a policeman and said he knew the amiable bobby had other things on his mind but could he possibly put the hood up? No, said the AB - this was the eighties.) I had gone to the dear old LL because I found myself losing focus in my study and needed a change of scene. Of course, I ran straight into A.N.Wilson, who has lived there for his entire adult life (he has made a serviceable bed in History (Military) out of shredded copies of the TLS and the staff bring him cocoa). 'Hello,' he said with his usual aphoristic grandeur. Determined not to be outdone, 'Hello,' I quipped back, noting his curious jacket was trimmed with ribbon. On the way in I had seen a small bowl offering free earplugs to members. Nice touch, I thought, but then realised it was because they had the builders in and a man was jackhammering just outside the laptop room, pausing every so often to shout to his buddies - he had evidently been deafened by his noisy craft. I spent the day with two orange sponges projecting from my ears. Luckily, I remembered to take them out and was able to understand every word at a lunchtime screening of a wonderful anti-blogging film.

The Big Guy's Teleprompter

This, a blog by Obama's teleprompter, is pretty funny.

The Man from Peru

Dan Hannan seems to have become viral. For the uninitiated this means he has acquired a protein coat around a small bundle of DNA and cannot reproduce outside the host organism. He seems to have infected the entire internet. He was born in Peru and is a member of the European Parliament, two attributes that would normally ensure a lifetime of impenetrable obscurity. But he delivered a remarkably fluent speech, telling Gordon Brown to his face that he is an economic cynic or illiterate, take your pick. This has made him a hero of the Drudge Report, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and a probable Tory leader who will take the party back to the right once they tire of nice lefty Cameron. What is interesting about the speech for the Americans is that it suggested to the Republicans a form of right-wing rhetoric that gets them off the Bushist hook. Basically, the neocons didn't care about the economy. Cheney said the deficit doesn't matter and, as a result it expanded massively even as, for the benefit of thicker voters, the party kept talking about small government and tax cuts. The evident absurdity of this made it hard to base any political reconstruction on the same rhetoric - of course, they tried but also had to chuck in loads of cultural and moral stuff and, as a result, they ended up sounding as mad as Limbaugh or Palin. Anyway, nobody was - or is - sure that big government spending is not, in fact, the way out of the recession. There's no economic law that says the right or left has any special wisdom on this matter. What Hannan did was clear out the moral and cultural garbage and say it is, indeed, the economy, stupid. He did it with the kind of clean-cut manner that the Americans love and a fluency and articulacy which they seldom hear from their own politicians. Not bad for a Peruvian and absolutely terrible for Brown.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Warmists Against Wind

Yesterday I was staring at a giant wind turbine in Swaffham. Two of them are situated next to a very convenient Waitrose so I often find myself staring at them. I don't, on balance, like them. They are impressive but creepy. They give a mad sci-fi aspect to the place and seem to be passing judgment on everything else. Or perhaps that's just me.
Anyway, opposing wind farms, says Miliband, the Ed one, should be socially taboo. Oooo taboo, get him. Now I am, in Nige's terms, a warmist. It's getting hotter and we're all going to die. But I'm also sceptical of schemes designed to exploit this unhappy fact. Great Jim scoffs at wind power. It's not enough, it needs back-up and we're only talking about it because the energy companies know perfectly well that, unlike nuclear, it won't have any impact on their primary sources of profit. There may be storage solutions that would reduce the need for back-up, but they look pretty improbable to me. Either way, the idea that a serious discussion about future energy sources should be restricted to terms which the boy Ed finds socially acceptable is, not to put to fine a point on it, totally frigging outrageous. There is, young Ed, absolutely no reason to believe at this point that wind power can do anything more than contribute a small fraction of our energy needs. Nuclear will be the answer once we have found our way through this crazy posturing phase. So, little Ed, turn through 180 degrees and leave the room while the grown-ups sort this one out.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Intellectual Recovery

Christopher Caldwell's column started predictably by attacking the 90 per cent tax on bonuses. But then he surprised me. He pointed out that the rage against the bonuses in the US was a middle class phenomenon and that it represents merely the most violent expression of an anger with executive compensation that has been growing for some years. He does not, therefore, simply go along with the banker backlash from the likes of Citi's Pandit the Bandit. They say punishing the bankers will drive them out and destroy the financial services sector. This rather overlooks the point that we'd all be a lot better off now if we'd driven out this generation of bankers some years ago. It's not too late to get on with this. Nobody implicated in the insanity of recent banking history is qualified to demand respect, trust or a part in the reconstruction. They destroyed much more wealth than they ever created. People are still not understanding this because the extent of the change involved has not sunk in. If they continue not to say it, then we shall have the worst of all possible outcomes - a restoration of the same old business model followed by a much more severe crash. This is why I am intrigued by Caldwell's reasoning. Even if only intellectually, it might be a green shoot of recovery.
In the same edition of the FT, I was also intrigued by this leader. It's not the risk maths that was wrong, it's the application. 'The standard risk measures used from the mid 1990's, know as value-at-risk or VAR, was criticised by mathematicians almost from the start for the way it drew inferences about forward-looking risk from past patterns of price movements.' The criticisms - of Taleb, Mandelbrot and others - were much more interesting and fundamental than that. But, hang on, were the criticisms of VAR widely reported? Because, it seems to me, they should have provided a series of FT splashes accompanied by a campaign against bad maths in the banks. This should have been followed by demands by depositors and investors for an independent investigation, government intervention, the banning of the use of VAR, a realistic re-assessment of risk and so on. But nothing happened. Strange that.

From the Weekend Papers

The first five paragraphs of this article are to be read, marked, learned and inwardly digested. They confirm my view people who like cats are mad. Gordon Brown's trip to Chile is to be funded by the Chilean government and Peter Mandelson's jaunt is to be paid for by Policy Network, a Think Tank or Waste of Time. This is creepy. Freddie the Shreddie replaced a carpet because it was the wrong shade of amber. He also banned those pink wafer biscuits as quite inappropriate for the headquarters of RBS. This all rather comfirms my suspicion that Fred's problem was that he didn't understand the meaning of the word 'bank'.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Jobs and Geoff

In The Sunday Times I interview Peter Ackroyd about this translation of The Canterbury Tales and I review a new book about Steve Jobs. Links tomorrow.
Here's Peter and here's Steve.

Friday, March 20, 2009

O, Patricia, Where is Thy Sting?

In my right ear Patricia Hewitt is talking about assisted suicide or 'assisted death' as we now seem to call it. I have to say she makes it sound very attractive.

Google Street View - A Considered Assessment

Well, I had a go on Google Street View. The pictures were taken last summer - we were so young so carefree! I looked at the houses of people I know - the squalor, the squalor! And then, after about two minutes, I did something else. What is this for? I suppose in years to come when somebody gives you their address a picture of their house generated by the Google chip embedded in your prefrontal cortex will appear before your eyes as well as that of the chiropodist they visited the week before to have that pesky corn removed. I can't wait.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Guido Speaks

Guido explains himself: 'Guido wants to depoliticise more areas of human action, increasing the non-political space in our society and culture, for which a necessary precondition is the discrediting of politicians by exposing their venal, self-interested behaviour.' I'm with him on depoliticising things - out of boredom really - but his 'necessary precondition' is a non-sequitur. On the contrary, Guido's enormous success is based on the fact that people are ever more drawn to politics by gossip and scandalous exposes. People love to see Paxman crush a politician and they evidently love to read Guido's tales of cynicism and petty corruption. It is precisely because these things increase the interest in narrowly-defined politics that I find them depressing. No, the way to depoliticise things is to reject career politicians. Too many of our Westminster masters know nothing but politics. They are repeatedly making errors of ignorance and they routinely mistake petty office politics for the real thing. They see Westminster politics in all things and, as a result, they are barely capable of functioning in the real world. Politicians should be well-read, cultivated, thoughtful, active in society and, ideally, they should write or translate poetry. Above all, they should be part-time. Then we can start depoliticising things.

Friztl the Meaningless

Fritzl's change of plea could, I suppose, be an attempt to reduce his sentence, but, as he is certain to spend the rest of his life in prison, this seems unlikely. His daughter, meanwhile, seems to be writing a book. I report these matters because, for the first time I have read a Fritzl story all the way through. Previously I have just glanced at them or, when the case comes on radio or television, thought about something else. This is not because I am squeamish, it is because such stories mean almost nothing to me. I don't draw vacuous conclusions about 'broken' societies nor do I even meditate anew on the human abyss. And I don't expect to learn any lessons from the case. As I said about Mary Bell, the singular extremity of such cases makes them useless as a basis for future policies. Vile people have alway done vile things. Tomorrow there will be another Fritzl. In fact, there are probably thousands of Friztls doing much the same kind of thing at this very moment. Either they get away with it or they don't live in societies with such a voracious media appetite for horror. Catching Fritzl and punishing him might make people feel better. It shouldn't.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ayn Rand: Meditations on a Crock of Shit

Ayn Rand seems to have crept back on to the agenda. I keep seeing her works, invisible not so long ago, in bookshops and free marketeers are suggesting persecuted bankers will do a John Galt. Galt was the hero of Rand's Atlas Shrugged who led a capitalists' strike against socialism, in our present predicament represented by the various government packages and bail-outs. The neo-Randian argument appears to be the same as that of unreconstructed Marxists. The latter said Marx was right but his ideas were never properly applied, the former say the same about Rand's radical free market libertarianism. In other words, we are in our present mess because of the lack of free markets. I have some sympathy with this. As I say, bankers' bonuses were so catastrophic precisely because they insulated bankers from a free market in anything. But, beyond that, Rand is - forgive the technical terminology - a steaming crock of shit. As a novelist she was laughable. The Fountainhead is a rabid tract full of wooden characters - indeed, I have always assumed King Vidor was being rather witty when he cast the supremely wooden Gary Cooper as the hero Howard Roark in the film version. (And I certainly found it funny when certain radical young architects in the sixties and seventies embraced The Fountainhead because of its defence of modern architecture - but then the radical right and the radical left have always been two sides of the same coin.) Meanwhile, Rand's philosophy of objectivism appears to be that of a not very bright fifteen-year-old with issues. Its extension into the economic realm is fatuous. The problem is one of abstraction. People often defend the idea of the free market as something that is in accord with human nature. In a way it is, but not in the way they mean. It is very human to create inhuman abstractions and then worship them and the free market is, indeed, an inhuman abstraction. Like Euclidean geometry, it's a nice, often helpful idea but it is seldom if ever evident in the real world. If I were to take three planks and toss them into the air, the chances of them falling into the form of a perfect Euclidean triangle are close to zero. If I were to toss all human activities into the air, the chances of them forming themselves into a perfectly free market are exactly zero. In both cases, external factors - chance, gravity, friction, wind, the compulsive human desire to use power to rig things in their favour - destroy the possibility of perfection. Or, to put it another way, Rand was, like Marx, a utopian with little grasp of the consistency of human imperfections. The one interesting thing about her current resurrection is that it demonstrates once again the strange and inhuman partnership of the far right and the far left, their complicity in the project of punishing people for being merely human.

Victoria Cut-Up

Feeling in need of a box of cheap chocolates, I went to see The Young Victoria. I didn't mind the clunky expository dialogue - I needed it, I don't remember 'doing' this period at school - nor was I upset by the unconvincing period recreation, nor even did I object to the rather sketchy politics. In fact, I would have rather enjoyed the whole ball of fluff were it not for the fact that it seemed to have undergone some kind of panic-stricken, last minute re-editing. Scenes stopped short, cuts were abrupt and captions were tossed in at random - indeed, one almost collided with the main title caption. (I assume this was not just a problem with the particular print made available to the Cineworld, Fulham Road.) None of the critics I have read have remarked on this and I have no idea what happened, though an attack by a scissors-wielding psycho does not seem out of the question.

The Bonuses - Claw Back Every Penny

So the RBS board pulled the wool - more wool than was already there, that is - over the eyes of Lord Myners to ensure Fred would have plenty of wonga to ease the pain of the searing guilt he must feel at running a bank while knowing full well he was the worst banker in the world. Meanwhile, AIG bonuses give Maureen Dowd another column, though Jim Manzi argues bonuses have become a distraction and, anyway, they are just the way these industries pay salaries. I sort of agreed with Manzi and then I didn't. I'm sure he's right about the distraction. Fred's pensions is plainly being used by government 'strategists' (Mandelson) as a useful populist issue to distract from their own rabid incompetence - as, for example, when they allowed the wool-pulling in the first place. But bonuses are not a minor aspect of this crisis, they are the heart of the matter. as Nassim says, 'The first thing we need to do is to get rid of the vicious bonus system that encourages you to take these hidden risks.' Bonuses made banks unstable because they were paid for short term gains and not taken back if these turned into longer term losses. This point also destroys the free market defence of the practice - since there was no downside, the bonus market was utterly unfree; it was, in fact, corruptly rigged. These bankers did everything in their power to avoid a free market. If this is not understood then we'll just end up in the middle of Nassim's worst case scenario - a resumption of business as usual and, in time, an even bigger crash.

Monday, March 16, 2009

In Two Minds

In Two Minds is a book I could never write. It would be a fictionalised biography with touches of autobiography. The fictionalised subjects would have been Roger Scruton and John Gray, two very great and two very English thinkers. They started at more or less the same place - on the dissident, academic right - and then diverged. They are both vivid and extraordinary characters and both now regard each other with wary respect. I could never write the book because they're both friends.
Yesterday I watched Nature's Great Events and I read this. The first was wonderful and moving in the grand tradition of BBC wildlife TV. It induced respect and awe and, because of the quality of the filming, it showed nature as she is in our absence. The only role we had in this spectacle was to watch and be moved. The Scruton book - I haven't read it and I haven't spoken to him for some time so I'm trusting the reviewer - puts man in a privileged place at the centre of nature. This is an aesthetic point rather than a scientific or political one. It is, at heart, Christian in that it could sustain the idea of man's stewardship of nature. It requires environmental sensitivity, but its emphasis is on humans not nature. Gray regards Christian stewardship and any idea that man is the point of nature as wrong and dangerous. It is these concepts, especially when embraced by secular, humanist ideologies such as Marxism or Neo-liberalism, that have landed us in our current predicament with a warming planet that will, in time, refuse to sustain a human population of anything like the 9 billion to which we are heading. We are neither stewards nor privileged actors, we are in and of nature. We are here, like one of the BBC's cameras, simply to see.
I am blurring boundaries. What Scruton is saying is not precisely opposed to what Gray is saying. The categories are different. Nevertheless, his emphasis would be impossible for Gray and vice versa. Roger is concerned with our differences from animals; John with our similarities.
I am well-placed to write that book I could never write because I have sympathy with both - or perhaps I just can't make up my mind, my default posture. I am in two minds, see? But, on the whole, though I can lose myself in Roger's aesthetics, I am closer to John. I don't think the earth will continue to sustain us and I think that fact raises questions about Christian stewardship and entirely invalidates humanist fantasies of control.
PS And here is Scruton in The Times.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Lebowski and Roth

I have to report two aesthetic experiences of note from my Highland Jaunt - I am omitting the landscape and my new tweed waistcoat. The first was watching The Big Lebowski yet again, hence the headline on my previous post. The second was finishing The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. Nige has been urging me to read Roth for years. He was right do so. This is a masterpiece, one scene after another dazzles, dismays and inspires. From the early moment when the newly ennobled son appears in the full glory of his imperial uniform before his peasant father - 'in the alien and almost unearthly radiance of imperial favour as in a golden cloud' - to the delivery of the news of the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo to an absurd, drunken, army festival - 'a lone sentence made up of huge and very distinct words scrawled in blue pencil' - it is a story of delusion and failure that becomes, through some mighty act of the imagination, curiously consoling. Read it at once.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Dude Abides

I return from a Highland Jaunt across the isles of Lewis, Harris and Uist. More of that later. Meanwhile, read me in The Sunday Times on War Horse. Link tomorrow. Here it is!

Friday, March 06, 2009

Jade Questions

But, before that, I'm puzzled by this Jade Goody story. The media money is said to be going to the care of her children and I don't doubt it is. But there would seem to be a problem. It looks as though Jack the lad may not be at liberty to care for them. So who will? And will Jack be taking a cut of the proceeds? How does Jade's mother fit in? I ask because, on the basis of my probably incomplete reading, nobody else has, perhaps out of deference to the poor girl's plight. Of course, one could say this is none of my business. But, of course, it is because publicity of this kind effectively invites everybody's participation. Anyway, if anybody has any answers....

Sort Out the Fat Duck in my Absence

I may not be posting for a week or so. But, then again, I may. Meanwhile, what's with the Fat Duck? Heston Blumenthal on TV is certainly an odd character but diarrhoea and vomiting seem a little extreme.

New Meanings 7

I have been reading a book in which the word 'storied' keeps cropping up, as in 'Arthur Dwonk, a storied plumber from Milwaukee'. I wasn't reading with a huge amount of attention so I vaguely though it meant someone was very tall. But then I looked it up and this American dictionary blandly assures me that it means someone who is 'recorded or celebrated in story'. Am I the last to know this? Anyway, I don't like it one bit, it sounds too much like a sloppy contraction. In the same book the word 'insanely' also keeps appearing, as in 'insanely great'. This sounds sloppy too, an adverbial hyperbole used at a party by a very boring geek who has only just noticed you are desperately looking over his shoulder to find someone more interesting, an accountant perhaps.


Kettle on Brown - 'At the moment, many voters have simply tuned him out.' Exactly. As I said, we're all sticking our fingers in our ears and chanting, 'la-la-la, can't hear you' or some such. And, Kettle says, he starts too many sentences with 'and'. Bad habit that.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

American Possibility

That Europe-America divide crops up again in Roger Cohen's column. The striking sentence is this: 'Nobody in their right mind would give up the manifold sensual, aesthetic and gastronomic pleasures offered by French savoir-vivre for the unrelenting battlefield of American ambition were it not for one thing: possibility.' This is the balanced, liberal, patriotic view. It's not quite American exceptionalism, but it's close. Unremarked by Cohen, it raises a crucial but probably unanswerable question. Does American 'possibility' exclude at least one possibility - a quality of life to equal that of the French? I'm inclined to think it might, but much depends on how tightly you define 'possibility'.

Drop Dead, Fred

Eamonn Butler is rightly revolted by Harriet Harman's call for mob rule -'the court of public opinion' as she called it. Yes, I'm afraid it's Mandelson's strange distractor, Fred's Pension, again. Great Danny agrees with Butler that he should get his golden 'pot' because a deal is a deal and Harman's law sounds suspiciously like the rule of the mullahs in post-revolutionary Iran. (On his blog, Danny also makes the shrewd point that Fred 'overestimated the marginal value of money'.) In the end, poor Lord Myners signed off on the RBS deal, without noticing or, perhaps, caring about Fred's pot. And now we're keeping Fred in Lafite and S-Classes until he buys the farm - at least 30 years hence, judging by his lean and fit demeanour. But I think there's a tendency in all this to miss the point. Yes, the government screwed up and, yes, it looks as though smirking Fred will come out of this feeling vindicated. But look at what actually happened. RBS was going down the tubes because of some truly idiotic decisions and business practices. Its only hope was the taxpayer and what did they do? They used the confusion as a cover to bung Fred a dirty great pile of wonga. What we need to remember is the appalling grubbiness of this because, if we do remember, we'll demand something very simple - honest bankers. Not much to ask. Is it?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Captain on Af-Pak

Give that Obama has effectively snubbed Brown, one might wonder why he is being accorded the honour of a speech to Congress. The answer, I guess, is Afghanistan where, as in Iraq, almost alone among the nations, we seem to be prepared to die alongside Americans. I'm all for dying alongside Americans. It's worked in the past, but will it work here? Read CaptainB in the Mail if you want the full enormity of what we are taking on - oh, and if you're one of those who recently appeared on this blog to claim Al Qaeda was dead.

Gordon the National Uniter

Gordon Brown certainly brings the nation together. This morning, as one, we clapped our hands over our ears, closed our eyes and chanted loudly 'He's not with me! I never voted for him!' at the spectacle of Brown grovelling to Obama. More than ever, I am convinced I am right- more right than the punditocracy at least - in my insistence that he will be gone by June. Others now seem to agree; this is a very strong piece by Alice Miles in The Times. The cabinet is in disarray - as, indeed, any cabinet would be with Mandelson in it. Something along the lines of Mandelson and Straw working to undermine both Brown and Harman with Darling now slowly but very explicitly peeling off to make his own bid seems to be what is going on. (This is my speculation, I have no special information and this emphatically is not my field.) The more Brown denies any responsibility whatsoever for the present crisis, the more deluded he sounds. People are now massively irritated by this because, even if it were true which it isn't, to keep saying it is so obviously self-serving and beside the point. It now means, in the public imagination, he is placing his own status above that of the unemployed and the impoverished. But don't worry, gone by June.

Jim and Transcendence

In Jim's book he remarks that the human mind is not transcendent. I know exactly what he means and why he said it but I immediately began to wonder if I agreed. What he means is that there is a particular human perspective from which we cannot hope to escape. We cannot become gods. He said it because Gaia theory is anti-humanist (Gaia, incidentally is way beyond a hypothesis now in spite of residual scepticism from the boneheads. They're probably the reason why Jim hasn't got a Nobel for one of the most important and firmly established new scientific ideas of our time. That and the incompetence of the Swedish Academy. And, please, Richard, accepting Gaia does not mean you have to accept Jim's warnings of impending disaster, though you should.) in that it overturns the humanist belief in the centrality of human-created values. We are absolutely subject to Gaia. But the human mind appears to be transcendent, most obviously through science. Science aspires to the transcendent ideal of an objective world view, but, as Jim often notes, we are constantly ambushed on the path towards such a view. So we conceive the transcendent ideal of science even if we often fail to achieve it. This applies to everything we do, we conceive the transcendent. I don't know if that refutes Jim's point or not. Perhaps it just deepens it.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Pundits Are Wrong About Everything

Writing about Jonah Lehrer's book on decision making in The Sunday Times, I didn't mention the findings of Philip Tetlock at Berkeley. He studied pundits and discovered they were, to a rough approximation, always wrong when making predictions. He took 284 pundits and asked them questions about the future. Their performance was worse than chance. With three possible answers, they were right less than 33 per cent of the time. A monkey chucking darts would have done better. This is consoling. More consoling still is Tetlock's further finding that the more certain a pundit was, the more likely he was to be wrong. Their problem being that they couldn't self-correct, presumably because they'd invested so much of their personality and self-esteem in a specific view. (That makes me think of so many people, almost everybody, in fact.)
Tetlock said: 'The dominant danger remains hubris, the vice of closed-mindedness, of dismissing dissonant possibilites too quickly.'
Personally, I am fully aware that I am wrong about everything, a posture which, if applied correctly, would make me right 33 per cent of the time in Tetlock's tests and, therefore, a better pundit than the pundits.

Not the Tamils?

Somebody just said it wasn't the Tamil Tigers. Then who was it?

Frank's Fin

I wouldn't normally draw your attention to this. But you need to read it because it contains the following:
'The mechanism functions like a wing to generate a lift force which is directed forward and turned into thrust,' says Frank Fish, a marine biologist at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

Monday, March 02, 2009

More News from the End of the World

1)Here's what a recession/slump/depressions looks like.
2)Surreally large number of the day...
3)...and the implications of that number...
4).. and yet, for some reason, the Doomsday Clock still stands at five minutes to midnight. (In fact, I'm rapidly losing my faith in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Their timeline says nothing about the Cuban Missile Crisis when they should have been at one second to midnight.)
5)Fred the Shred will keep his wedge. His home address is... no better not.
6)Nobody will ever make anything ever again.
7)When does the Large Hadron Collider get going again? A vacuum metastability disaster looks like a walk in the park compared with this lot.

Comment on the Captain

Captain B calls to, among other things, complain that not enough people are commenting on his blog. This may be because people fear to take him on; his knowledge can be intimidating. So, boys and girls, get over there and tell him what you think about, among other things, Eric Hobsbawm.

Danny Boyle via Ray and Radcliffe

As a result of a horrendous scheduling problem lasting the entire length of my life until yesterday, I always seem to have something to do other than watch Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy. This, considering Kurosawa said 'Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun and the moon', was a pretty serious oversight. Anyway, Kurosawa's right. I am two thirds of the way through and utterly stricken by Ray's ability to sanctify life in its most banal aspects. I was going to make some snide comparison between Ray's India and that of Danny Boyle in Slumdog Millionaire. But then Boyle was all over the news taking his Oscar back to his home town which is... Radcliffe! I come from about a mile north of Radcliffe (near Ainsworth). Much of my early reading matter came from Radcliffe Public Library and I watched Radcliffe play cricket when the Central Lancashire League allowed one professional per team and, as a result, included Gary Sobers, Wes Hall, Frank Worrell and Charlie Griffith. (I remember the latter splitting the head of our opener, Ken Settle, with his first ball, a savage bouncer. There was a splash of blood and Ken went down with sickening finality. But he was okay, he was from Radcliffe where blows to the head with hard objects travelling unfeasibly quickly are a daily event. (If this memory has been distorted, please don't tell me.)) All of which is to say two things - Danny's okay and, if you haven't watched Apu, do so at once.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

For Jim

More empirical evidence of the reality of climate change. As I've said before, it is the empirical evidence, not the climate models, that destroy the sceptics' case. Even sceptic Frank is beginning to see the light through the medium of James Lovelock, a man I am very proud to call a friend. Jim might even convert sceptic Nige with this question: 'When did you last sit down on a warm grassy bank in the sun and smell wild thyme, or see the oxlip and a nodding violent?' Probably a long time ago, the agricultural hinterland required by the cities and, increasingly, by the disastrous political embrace of biofuels and wind farms, will have destroyed most such banks.
I am just reading Jim's latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning. It is the empirical evidence that has convinced Jim that the model-based forecasts of the IPCC are wildly understating the problem. That and the fact that politicians have remade IPCC science into something called a 'consensus', a term that has no scientific use or meaning. Jim wonders why America, home of the world's best science, is so reluctant to accept the full implications of what is happening. He think it's because, as a nation, they are temperamentally averse to the idea of Gaia, preferring to see the earth 'as something that they could improve or manage; they seemed to see it as no more than ball of rock moistened by the oceans and sitting within a tenuous sphere of air'. Greens, of course, he dismisses, as part of the problem, not the solution. Not that there is a solution as such, there is only survival against Gaia's defensive heating. And even survival is probably beyond us because 'I fear that we still dream on and rather than waking we weave the sound of the alarm clock into our dreams.' Yep, that sounds pretty much like human beings to me.

News of Our Leaders

Catholic contraception is the inspiration for Obama's Iraq policy - responsible withdrawal.
Spring is round the corner and everybody's gone Sarkozy Krazy. He recently privately told - Thought Experiments exclusive here - a group of academics that the great thing about being president is the money you can make afterwards, not, he added, that he needed it - flashes flashy watch - now that he was married to Carla. A few weeks ago he said he may not stand for a second term, preferring to bronze on a beach with Bruni.
Eastern European leaders hate being called Eastern Europeans. I can see their point - how about post-communist entities?
Brown is still operated by Mandelson who managed to cover up one of the worst ever weeks of economic news by making us angry about Fred's pot. Cabinet life, you may have noticed, has become much more rancorous since Mandy came back. Meanwhile, Brown still thinks he's in charge, though it is not clear of what.