Sunday, December 27, 2009

Destruction, the Past and the Future

In The Sunday Times I wrote about the world in the noughties, compulsively destructive artist Michael Landy and science and technology in the next decade.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

On a Donkey

You waste your time wondering what it's all about until, one day, it rides past you on a donkey and you don't notice. Luv 'n' peece, guys.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Norfolk roads have been made beautiful and unfamiliar by the snow. No, that should be 'beautiful but unfamiliar'. The beauty of Norfolk lies in being Norfolk. But snow neutralises. I drive down lanes overhung with branches bending under the white weight that could be in Russia or Scandinavia. It's thrilling but wrong. One of the most perfect poems I know was written about this strange nothingness of snow. Here it is.

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The Copenhagen Triumph

I am, frankly, baffled or, indeed, frankly baffled about the generally negative response to the Copenhagen global warming thing. Here in Norfolk it is apparent that it was a raging success. It demonstrated the power positive thinking. They issue a statement along the lines of 'we don't like you, global warming, go away' and, bingo, just like that it went away. And, yes, that is Denis the Menace, explicably, on the side of that shed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

All About the Love

I just downloaded Killing in the Name by Rage Against the Machine. I hope you will too. It's not my normal sort of listening but anything to help pause the Simon Cowell juggernaut. Apparently he said the campaign to knock his latest accessory, Joe McElderry, off the top of the Christmas charts was 'cynical'. 'Yeah, right,' said Ironic Daughter, 'like X-Factor's all about the love.'

Seb and Kirsty Miss the Joke

Just now I caught a moment of Sebastian Coe on Desert Island Discs. He was remembering walking to the hall where the host city for the 2012 Olympics was to be announced. His mobile rang, it was the Prime Minister - Blair, but it could just as well have been Brown. Blair asked who had won. Coe said the announcement hadn't been made. Blair said, 'Yes, but who's won?' Neither Coe nor Kirsty Young found this funny, I burst out laughing. Blair's natural assumption was that the whole thing was rigged, that an elite knew something the poor proles didn't. Amazing business, politics, it never does what it says on the tin.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

BA and Union History

It seems to be quite a high life working for British Airways. The management has put all the evidence out there in the Daily Mail. This changes the image of the dispute. Now it looks as though BA staff are more like the printers in the good old days of Fleet Street.
A tear springs to my eye when I remember how they used to pour oil on the web (paper) so that it broke and halted production. Or how a printer violently smacked my hand when I accidentally brushed some lead type. Or how a rather pathetic machine printing out City prices - I was once a financial journalist - was examined by union bosses who feared it might jeopardise their second keystroke monopoly. Or how we'd slave all day to put the paper together only to see it all lost in some petty power play. Or how people named Mickey Mouse could pick up pay packets. Or how 'Old Spanish Practices' could keep whole families in non-jobs. Or how journalists got threatened and beaten up when Murdoch moved to Wapping. Or how a whole industry and culture existed in a state of permanent blackmail. Good times.
Then there was Jack Jones, once thought to be the most powerful man in Britain, who was passing Labour Party documents to the Soviets. There was Arthur 'combover' Scargill saying the miners won just because they had a strike. There was Tony Benn, condemning violence but only away from the picket line. I could go on for pages and pages.
I hope nice Mr Woodley of Unite remembers those times as clearly as I do. I am not entirely convinced that he does.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Higgs Omen

Oh the Higgs Boson could be found by the Fermi Satellite and not the LHC. This seems to be yet another omen of the end of Europe.

You, Robot

'The hard question, of course, is how we could tell that a robot really was conscious, and not just designed to mimic consciousness. Understanding how the robot had been programmed would provide a clue - did the designers write the code to provide only the appearance of consciousness? If so, we would have no reason to believe that the robot was conscious.'
Hmmm. How do I know you are really conscious? Tentatively, by introspection - I am conscious and you are like me therefore you are conscious. More persuasively, by extrapolating that phrase 'like me' - we are empathetically joined at a fundamental level, I know me by knowing you, not the other, introspective, way round. Neither of these would work with a robot. Assuming we knew it was a robot, we would be aware it was not like us at all so neither introspection nor empathy would work. This would not be helped by examining the software. What would software designed to mimic consciousness look like? We have no idea and the programmer's earnest assurance that his work was designed to produce consciousness would be meaningless. Anyway, what is it about consciousness that provides moral status? This is the gist of the Singer/Sagan article. Very little of what I do is conscious, does that mean that everything else has no moral status?
None of which, for the moment, matters. The development of artificial intelligence remains hopelessly stalled.
'For example, the failure of artificial intelligence to produce successful simulations of routine common sense cognitive competences is notorious, not to say scandalous.'
Jerry Fodor.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The British Love of Petty Authority

I've noted before some disturbing anti-freedom trends in Norwich, one of my favourite cities. Now there is this. Little people - employed by the unelected and unaccountable company EventGuard - dressed in a little authority will be able to stop, question and harass me and even have access to police files. At least some policepeople have seen the light. People should not get questioned for photographing Westminster Abbey. Glory be. By why are the British so appallingly keen on having their freedoms restricted? We seem to welcome every misery-mad prodnose and epauletted fool. 'Security' is the key. But what is that and where does it end?

Two Good Things

Thanks, Frank, for this clip of the sublime Jacques Brel on fear. Only a Belgian could so thoroughly out-French the French. Then there is this - the perfect scam. At last it feels like Christmas.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


In The Sunday Times I write about the power of prizes.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Danny and the Laffer

Great Danny produces one of those perfectly satisfying arguments. The Laffer Curve is meaningless because its reverse is also true. The Fink, as he is also known, really is one of the sharpest knives in the hack box.

Man in Space

When I was talking to Chris Rapley about that warmist piece, he said he had worked with the astronaut Bruce McCandless. Rapley was very moved by this picture from 1984. It shows McCandless in orbit wearing a Manned Manoeuvring Unit. It is extraordinarily beautiful, perhaps because its content and form are one. The awkward angle between man and horizon and the way his left foot just crosses the horizon line reflect the precariousness of the situation. Also McCandless is made anonymous by the mass of machinery and protection required to keep him there. He could be a machine and yet, poignantly, we know he isn't. Rapley pointed out that he was untethered. If one of the tiny rockets on the MMU had stuck open, he would have been pushed beyond rescue and would have died slowly. Then there are the millions of dollars and man hours required to keep him there. Heroic and humbling, it is, I think, the greatest of all space pictures.

Killing Gays

Some Ugandan politicians want to kill gays because homosexuality is 'not natural in Uganda'. In this, they appear to have been encouraged by American advocates of conversion therapy. Both the Ugandans and Ahmadinejad in Iran, where being gay is a capital crime, identify homosexuality with Western influence. Leaving aside the savagery of the application of such ideas, what is striking is the sheer weirdness of the ideas themselves. Homosexuality is normal in the sense that a consistent and quite high proportion of the population has always been gay. What has also been consistent is persecution. Homosexuality was illegal here not so long ago. The new element here is the idea that it is a colonial import. At one level, this will be a cynical, neo-Nazi attempt to direct popular discontent towards a clearly defined minority group. (In this context, it is significant that in the video clip conversionist Richard Cohen goes to such lengths to gloss over the fact that he suggested in his book that race was a factor in homosexuality.) But real conviction does seem to be involved, a belief that there is some specifically national state of heterosexual purity which is in danger of being polluted by Western influence. It is, I suppose, the very concept of purity of any kind which causes people to kill.

Roguette Versus Warmism

There's a slightly world's-gone-mad feel about reading an article by Sarah Palin in the Guardian of all places. The Alaskan roguette says Copenhagen is a bad thing because, though there is global warming, it's cyclical and nothing to do with human activity. This is possible but there's no evidence for it whereas there is an awful of of evidence that people are warming the planet. There is, however, evidence for disastrous groupthink at the University of East Anglia, so the Divine Sarah goes with those emails as her Exhibit A. Thus the Wasilla Ice Queen and de facto Republican Party leader is advocating a diplomatically and globally suicidal policy - a Copenhagen boycott - on the basis of an irrational conviction that most of the scientists in the world are wrong and she's right. Nothing new there then. But it does, once again, raise the question of why global warming denial is such a right wing thing. My own suspicion is that it's all part of the process than began in the eighties when the right started to abandon conservatism in favour of some very anti-conservative ideologies - notably neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism. Prior to that, it was quite natural for conservatives to be environmentally sensitive. But the brutal reductionism of the new ideologies had no time for inconvenient externalities like the planet. So now the right wears anti-warmism as a badge of ideological purity and this, in turn, encourages the left to think of warmism itself as an anti-capitalist agenda. Gaia is right to be pissed off. Humans are such idiots aren't they?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Discuss 20

'Shakespeare? I'd rather stick pencils in my eyes!'

Jeremy Clarkson

Discuss 19

'It is impossible to convince a person of any true thing that will cost him money.'

'First Theorem of Science' - either George Chapline or Robert B.Laughlin

On Being Right. Again

I received some criticism for saying 'Actually, er, bollocks' about Nigel Lawson's interesting thoughts on recent global temperature trends. It is true, I was somewhat disrespectful to a former Chancellor of the Exchequer. But, on the other hand, actually, er, bollocks.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Politics and Madness

It has long been my view that if you spend too much time in political - in the narrow sense - circles you go mad. I now fear for the stability of uber-blogger Iain Dale and David Davis. Commenting on Copenhagen etc, Iain quotes an article by Davis in The Independent. Davis says some blandly sane things in the paragraph in question, but also this: 'It is simply unacceptable for one side to describe the other as deniers, with its deliberate holocaust connotations....' Oh dear, poor DD. I've call them deniers without ever once thinking of the Holocaust. In fact, I don't believe anybody in their right mind would. 'I hope everyone can agree on that,' says Iain. Well, er, no.

Class and Bonuses

I noticed at the weekend that Brown's depressing class war gambit - to which Cameron badly over-reacted - has somehow got entangled with bankers' bonuses. This plays into the hands of those in the City who are desperately trying to preserve their income by gambling with our money. Ah, they can say, it's just the politics of envy, people don't understand the real needs of the economy. Actually, the real need of the economy is to reduce financial services to an afterthought and thereby free up the rest of us to get on with making stuff and prevent us becoming the next Dubai. The point is that issue of bonuses is not moral, it is practical. Bonuses encouraged people to take risks they neither understood nor cared about and those risks brought down the banks, put people out of work and made us all poorer. Nobody disputes this and yet, somehow, nobody talks about it any more. On both sides of the Atlantic the financial systems are returning to the status quo ante. This is plainly suicidal so why is it happening?

Europe's Good Life

In a long article that should, in fact, be two articles - it has two quite distinct themes - Jared Diamond remarks:
'Western Europeans have lower per-capita consumption rates than Americans, but enjoy a higher standards of living as measured by access to medical care, financial security after retirement, infant mortality, life expectancy, literacy and public transport.'
This is all true and makes me drift vaguely to the left. But then I drift equally vaguely to the right when I remember that Europeans enjoy this standard of living at least in part because America has paid for her defence for the past 65 years. Finally, I drift vaguely towards Machiavelli. Politics is politics. Europeans took America's defence gold and built herself a better life. Europe 1, America 0.
This will end, however, and so, drifting vaguely towards the future, I find Europe needs a new trick.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Stewart Brand

In The Literary Review, I review Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Dawkins' Converts

There are many reasons not to go to Richard Dawkins' web site - excremental design is one - but I forced myself after a chance remark somebody made to me. This was to the effect that he had taken to publishing edifying tales of grateful people who had been converted to atheism by the wisdom of St Richard. And so he has. I know people keep pointing out that this new atheism is just old time, evangelical religion by another name, but I didn't realise Dawkins had so heartily endorsed the idea. I wonder what they'll do with his bones when he dies.

Discuss 16

'No-one wants advice, only corroboration.'

John Steinbeck

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Bernie Madoff

In The New Statesman I review Adam LeBor's book on Bernie Madoff.

Geeks/Nerds - The Backlash

I saw a TV ad for Intel. It showed a nerd/geek playing a practical joke on a colleague. This involved changing a term in an enormous calculation on a glass sheet. They fell about laughing and a caption triumphantly announced something about their sense of humour being different from ours. Here's a similar ad. Meanwhile, there's a Windows 7 campaign showing ordinary 'users' coming up with bright ideas for the OS and being applauded by geeks/nerds. I resent the term 'user'. It's ugly and implies a degree of contempt, but it seems now to be unavoidable. More importantly, what freak, deep in the bowels of Wintel, thought that such ads would make people feel good about their products? Basically, the ads are condescending, treating 'users' as serfs of the geekocracy/nerdarchy. Their actual intention was, I think, to humanise the gerds/neeks. But even if they achieved this, the outcome would be negative. The point being, as Apple knows, we're not interested in what these people are like, we are interested in what they make. But then advertising as a whole seems to have moved to a different planet. Ditch the nerks, I say, apart from anything else, they all look as though they smell.

Why the Falling Pitch of the Blue Whales' Songs?

I don't know but I think we should be told.

Manchester City - the Zen Team

I honestly thought I had cracked my team's tactics - keep drawing, at least you're not losing. It's the sort of thing City would do as it represents a characteristically perverse change from their ancient tactics of keep losing and then suddenly win by a freakishly large margin. But then they do this. There's always been a Zen quality about City supporters. They know the pursuit of meaning and purpose is largely futile. It gives a kind of peace.

Tiger Woods and PZM

Leaving aside the stark horror of the fact that he was driving a Cadillac Escalade, the curious case of Tiger Woods, that pesky fire hydrant and the golf clubs is all about his moral status. I don't mean vis-a-vis his family etc, I mean with regard to his sponsors. However, help may be at hand. I suppose adultery is a consumer good and worthy of promotion. Perhaps if Tiger also issued a statement saying that science was a world view and not a method, he could get P.Z. Myers' amiable physog on the covers of his drivers.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Capitalism and the Fake Tan

I'm pretty sure this solves the whole crisis of capitalism/unemployment problem. The fake tan problem, however, remains a tough nut to crack.