Monday, 22 December 2008

Joy to the World

So here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody's having fun (apart from those who are having raging family arguments or weeping lonely, bitter tears into their Christmas tipple of choice). And there are plenty of things to celebrate, even if you're not convinced that the Christmas story currently being retold in pulpits all over the planet is strictly accurate in all (or, indeed, any) respects.

Firstly, at these latitudes, the short days and long, dark nights of winter can drag the spirits down, so the old pagans celebrated getting past the shortest day by making December 25th a feast day, the birthday of the unconquered sun. The Christians later appropriated the date as the birthday of the unconquered son of God, but whatever your excuse for the party, I reckon that the start of the long journey towards brighter, sunnier days is worth marking and I'll gladly raise a glass of Christmas ale to that.

Secondly, I'm pleased to witness an improving trend in the quality of the Christmas lights with which local authorities seek to lighten the darkness of our high streets. When I was a kid, I seem to remember the Christmas lights always featuring the every-colour-of the-rainbow collection of bulbs favoured by the Brits, which are presumably intended to be cheery, but always seem to me to just look gaudy and tacky. These days, there seems to be a trend towards a more restrained, continental colour scheme of one or two colours, often including a lot of white lights. I'm all for it - in my opinion this really is a case of less being more, as the effects you can get with a limited palette are far more satisfying than a frantic clash of fairground colours. I remember on a few occasions in recent years actually stopping and being quite moved by the transformational beauty of some displays - I might almost use the word "magical". This year, Olney and St Albans deserve special credit. I'm afraid that here in Newport Pagnell, they're still hanging out strings of multi-coloured stuff which looks about as magical as traffic lights, but I live in hope that the onward march of restraint and taste will reach us before many more Christmases have come and gone.

Thirdly, the TV has an off switch, which is very useful in the UK when we come round to the annual broadcasting event called, I think, "the Queen's Peach", or something of the sort. This seems to consist of some old dear delivering a series of uninspiring platitudes, rather in the style of Radio 4's Thought for the Day. Even if you lose control of the off switch, be thankful that there is probably another room in the house you're in or, failing that, several trillion things you could be daydreaming about which are more interesting than paying attention to the regal drivel on screen. Yes, the human imagination is a wonderful thing.

Fourthly, take a look at the picture at the top of this post. It's 40 years since crew of Apollo 8 became the fist human beings to truly slip the surly bonds of earth and go into orbit round another celestial body. The mission happened over Christmas 1968 (launched December 21st, splashed down December 27th). The crew were also the first humans to see the sight of their home planet, not massively dominating half the sky as it does from low earth orbit, but as a small, bright, far-off bubble in the immense blackness. If you want to feel a sense of wonder at Christmas, try that image for size. Nothing could compare with being there, seeing our home world so far-off and tiny, knowing that you were further from home than anyone had ever been in the whole of history, but through the TV broadcasts and the colour pictures published later, much of the world shared the experience. Millions, perhaps a quarter of the people on Earth, saw Apollo 8's Christmas Eve transmission from lunar orbit - countless more have seen that first astounding colour image of our bright, blue, distant planet. As mission commander Frank Borman said at the end of a definitely-not-boring Christmas broadcast, "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, and a Merry Christmas to all of you, all of you on the good Earth".

Speaking of interesting Christmas speeches, the Pope's end-of year address to Church leaders is one of the funniest things I've heard all year - if you're in need of a good laugh, the Daily Mash's version is a masterclass in how to parody a speech so batty it seems to defy satire. Does your heart good.

And finally, one of the most joyous things a human being can do is to just muck around. So I've enjoyed listening to a guy mucking about on a piano and coming up with some favorite Christmas songs played in minor key, or as he calls them Evil Christmas Carols. It's not a strictly accurate description, as they're not all carols, but hey, it's Christmas and it made me smile. So have a merry one, one and all.

Thursday, 18 December 2008


That old tease, Archbishop Rowan Williams, has titillated New Statesman readers with the enticing prospect of thew Church of England finally getting its lardy butt off the gravy train and being disestablished, not before time.

I grew up in a disestablished Church; I spent ten years working in a disestablished Church; and I can see that it's by no means the end of the world if the Establishment disappears. The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh Synod, it didn't have to be nodded through by parliament afterwards. There is a certain integrity to that.

No problem with that - it's about time for the church to stand on its own two feet (or kneel on its own two knees, as it tends to do when chatting with the hypothetical Almighty). But then the famously labyrinthine workings of the Beardy One's mind turn the idea over and spoil a simple statement thusly:

At the same time, my unease about going for straight disestablishment is to do with the fact that it's a very shaky time for the public presence of faith in society. I think the motives that would now drive disestablishment from the state side would be mostly to do with . . . trying to push religion into the private sphere, and that's the point where I think I'd be bloody-minded and say, 'Well, not on that basis."

If the pious old twit wants to bloody-mindedly defend the privileged position of of an established church against all comers, then bring it on - I think he'd have maneuvered himself into an indefensible position and would be toast before evensong. Unfortunately, I think he's pontificating in the certain knowledge that politicians have more important things on their minds right now (the economy, stupid) and few currently have the time or stomach for giving the State a long-overdue chuchectomy. So there's no immediate prospect of a stop to that stream of state-supported auld blather about how without "the public presence of faith in society", we'd all be doomed to unreflective lives of empty, swinish materialism. Which is a load of hooey - you don't need to be indoctrinated by unquestioning religious faith to have compassion, curiosity or creativity, to do good, to feel awe or to seek meaning in life. It's about time for a quote from the late Arthur C Clarke again, so here are two:

...the only things in this world that really matter are such imponderables as beauty and wisdom, laughter and love


Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral*
A questioning mind and lack of reflexive piety does not equal shallowness, your Beardiness.

* NB - I really must get those words added to my will - I remember my dad's funeral and the preacher retrospectively asserting that dad certainly had at least some fuzzy sort of religious faith, when for the life of me, I never heard him say anything of the sort. Made a mockery of the whole thing.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


Tuning into the news is still a grim experience, but some things can help to put the current state of the world in perspective. I'm just looking at an old postcard featuring a black and white picture of a ship. The message isn't anything special, viz:

Dear Ronnie,

Hope you will soon be well again. Brian send his love and will write to you again.

Love from auntie

It was sent to my dad, then a boy of eleven, some time in 1941 (the exact date on the postmark is obscured). At the time he was in Lincoln County Hospital, recovering from a burst appendix - a serious condition which could have caused potentially fatal peritonitis. Times are hard, but I imagine it was harder in those days - born into a world in the grip of the great depression, topped off by a world war, then ending up in hospital with a life-threatening condition in the days before the National Health Service. Now that is an insecure world. So maybe I should be a bit more upbeat over a few depressing headlines.

My dad survived, (although I think he missed a lot of schooling due to an extended stay in hospital), and I found myself wondering about the fate of the ship on the postcard, the destroyer, HMS Icarus. The name wasn't a good omen, recalling the boy who flew too close to the sun and fell to earth. A quick Internet search revealed that HMS Icarus didn't suffer a similar fate, but survived service off Norway, in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean to be paid off and broken up for scrap in 1946. During her service career, she served in Atlantic and Russian convoys and the Dunkirk evacuation. She was also responsible for sinking two U-boats and participated in the destruction of two more. So the Icarus story wasn't the tragedy I'd feared, although she was almost on the scene of one of Britain's greatest naval tragedies. In May 1941, the battlecruiser HMS Hood was struck by a shell from the Bismark. One of her magazines exploded and she sank in about three minutes. There were only three survivors from Hood's crew of 1,418 men, picked up by the destroyer HMS Electra. HMS Icarus was on the scene shortly thereafter, but could find no more survivors, just debris.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Kitchen Nightmares

No, it's not a post about Gordon sodding Ramsay, I'm pleased to say, but about a little gem I just found in a magazine devoted to the therapy "Emotional Freedom Technique" (EFT). I'm not sure how EFT is supposed to work, but the magazine describes EFT as "complementary" and carries adverts for an association of people dealing in"meridian energy therapies", so my bullshit detector has already started ringing at a deafening volume.

Still, EFT World Magazine was worth a glance for one little nugget. In the magazine, one Gary Williams, an EFT practitioner describes, how he freed a client from a distressing affliction using EFT techniques and the following affirmation:

Even though I have this overwhelming fear of baby sweet corn inside, I deeply and completely accept the way I feel.

I know it's wrong to find hilarity in other people's problems, but that's the funniest thing I've read all week.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008


The last couple of times I’ve visited Glastonbury, I’ve had lunch at a rather good vegetarian café. The food’s better than the salty, processed mush which often passes for food in the UK, the atmosphere is relaxed and there’s an attractive courtyard garden round the back which is perfect for sitting out in on a sunny day.

I’m not a veggie myself, but I do understand the motivations of some vegetarians. There’s a lot of cruelty and suffering involved in packing the supermarket shelves with affordable meat. In terms of food production in a hungry world, you can produce a greater quantity of food by arable farming than you ever will by trying to turn the equivalent amount of plant material into animal flesh. Finally there are the health benefits of eating more fruit and veg. This is where I do part company with the veggies (especially the pale and sickly looking ones) – a lot of us would benefit from eating more fruit & veg and eating rather less meat, but cutting out meat (not to mention eggs and dairy) altogether doesn't seem like a good move. Meat & dairy are good sources of protein and iron and I’m not convinced that it’s easy to keep well whilst abandoning the omnivorous diet our bodies have evolved to run on.

Still, two out of three good reasons to go veggie ain’t bad. I just wish that a lot of the other stuff being promoted in Glastonbury was as understandable as vegetarianism. The café I’ve mentioned is surrounded by shops selling books on ley lines, crystal healing, faries, homeopathy, colour healing and a host of other unlikely-sounding subjects. The small ads in the shop windows are for services such as angel readings (whatever they might be), reflexology, tarot readings, feng shui advice, clairvoyant services, Chakra balancing and astrology.

I’ve no doubt that a lot of the people offering and consuming these volumes and services are sweet, gentle, fluffy, would’t-harm-a-fly people, but I still can’t escape the conclusion that what they’re getting involved in here is a load of gibberish.. I’ve tried dipping into some of this stuff, just to try and find out what people are getting out of it, but it leaves me completely baffled.

Flicking through Whispering Winds of Change by New Age Guru Stuart Wilde, for example, I read that the average speed of humanity circa 1700A.D. was lower than it is today “perhaps hovering at twelve thousand cycles per second”), but the band of separation between the highest and the lowest was not great. By 1960, apparently, human and etheric metaphysical vibrational speeds were spread over a much broader band of between twelve to fifty thousand cycles per second. “Etheric” apparently refers to the electromagnetic field produced by the human body. According to Wilde, you can train yourself to see the etheric energy field surrounding people by concentrating on your peripheral vision and tilting your head slightly. If you want to try this at home, dusk is allegedly the best time to see etheric energy. Oh, and it’s also important to remember that the vibrational speed is only a hypothetical speed – “of course”, Wilde points out, the real speed must be much higher, since “light oscillates at the very high frequency of about 1015 cycles per second” but apparently we don’t need the real speed to understand the concept - “a hypothetical speed will do.”

Make sense of that if you can. There are a few places in the book where he expresses himself a bit more clearly – at one point he suggests that by the simple measure of abolishing all taxes we would all be a lot richer. At least it’s a bold, simple and easily grasped idea, although I suspect that economics of running a functioning state without any form of revenue might be a little more difficult than he seems to think. Come to think of it, he might have been suggesting that we should allow the state to collapse and let the evolving Planetary Group Soul take over its functions – I can’t say for sure because after a immersing myself in this stream of New Age Speak for a little while, I was losing the capacity for rational thought.

What a very strange set of things for any sane person to believe in. I’m indebted to a number web sites and blogs for tirelessly picking though a lot of this sort of stuff so I don’t have to – Ben Goldacre’s splendid Bad Science Column is always a welcome antidote to the tide of nonsense and I was impressed by a fairly recent post at I Kid You Not with some thoughts on visiting a New Age shop.

Why do people believe in this stuff? I don’t know, but we don’t live in an ideal world. I’m guessing that belief in an “alternative” set of values and beliefs is the reaction of people unsatisfied with society as it is, with its meaningless jobs, unsatisfactory relationships, relentless commercialism, atomised society, eroding civil liberties, the obfuscation of democracy with spin and manipulative half truths, environmental degradation, poverty, war and injustice. Not a bad impulse – I wouldn’t give you tuppence for anybody who didn’t want the world to be a bit better than that. But what seems to have happened is that somehow rationality has taken the blame for all that’s wrong with the world and abandoning critical thought has become the “alternative” prescription for everything that’s gone wrong. And that’s profoundly worrying, because critical thought and trying to see the world as it really is, are absolutely necessary for anyone who wants to change things for the better.

Knowing what’s really going on is the best start if you want to change things. An example from the recent history of ideas springs to mind. When autistic spectrum disorders were first identified, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts developed a theory to account for the symptoms. They hypothesised that autism in children was caused by cold, perfectionist parents, who didn’t emotionally nurture their offspring. There was even a shorthand term for a parent who “caused” her child’s autism – the “refrigerator mother” (sorry mum, but it's all your fault). A plausible enough theory for the “open-minded” to accept. Unfortunately, it proved to be dead wrong.

The precise causes of autism are still not well understood, but subsequent research has shown the condition to be caused by physical problems in brain development, perhaps associated with mutations and the interaction of different genes. Although researchers don’t know exactly what leads to these effects, it’s now as certain as any fact can be that the problem exists at the level of the physical structure of the brain and has a genetic component. The current understanding of the true basis of Autism only emerged in the 1970s and slowly began to come into the mainstream thereafter, although the syndrome had been recognised since the 1940s.
So, for at least 30 years, parents who were distressed by their childrens’ strange behaviour, who were struggling to understand what was going on, trying to communicate with and support their child were being consistently mis-diagnosed. They were having the agony of being unable to interact with their own children compounded by being told that the problem stemmed from their own lack of parental affection and intimacy. All in the name of a theory that turned out not to stand up.

Compared to some new age explanations of the world, the “refrigerator mother” theory wasn’t particularly wacky – especially given the fact that the tools needed to uncover the true explanation of the condition weren’t available when autism was first identified as a condition. If a theory which has a ring of plausibility about it can be so damaging and counterproductive, what hope can we have from the scribblings of new age gurus whose respect for critical thinking seems to be non-existent? However benevolent your intentions, subscribing to any weird theory about the world which floats your boat isn’t a neutral act. If what you believe in, or cause other people to believe in, is factually wrong, or plain bizarre, then acting on it at best won’t change this unsatisfactory world of ours for the better and at worst could cause the sort of distress suffered by those so-called “refrigerator mothers”, labelled and stigmatised by psychoanalytic gurus who were utterly confident in their particular pet theories.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

A very good night

I've not blogged for a little while - there's been loadsa stuff going on which has taken up what little spare attention I've got and may continue to do so in the near future, so posts may be quite sparse and /or truncated for a while.

Meanwhile, in the big, wide world, some significant things have been going on. Although I'm naturally a bit suspicious of smooth presentation which may hide a lack of substance, I was coming round to the idea that Barack Obama's rhetoric had a bit more substance behind it than I'd given him credit for as we came up to election day. When he won, I was swept up in the general tide of optimism and goodwill. Now the dust has settled, I still think it was an excellent result. Maybe I'll be disillusioned, but I hope not.

I think one good reasons to be cheerful about the President-elect is the fact that he can string a sentence together and doesn't appear to be embarrassed by the fact. I share Orwell's view that there is a link between clarity of thought and clarity of expression - I agree wholeheartedly with this New Yorker article that the night of the victory speech was "a very good night for the English language."

Combine that with the powerful image of a black person* finally accepting the top job in a country founded by people who believed that all men were created equal, but still kept slaves and where the civil rights movement is a comparatively recent memory and it was also a very good night for America.

Finally, consider the fact that this guy has lived abroad, knows the wider world and knows that non-Americans, too can just be regular folks trying to get on with their lives and that adds up to a very good night for the world.

* mixed race, if you want to be pedantic, but don't tell me he's not black enough to know that all folks haven't been treated equal, however they were created.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Compare and contrast

I'm still not sure that when Barack Obama says he stands for "change" I really know what that would mean in concrete terms. But, unsurprisingly, if had to choose between him and the other guy, I'd vote Obama anyway. Now I've found a better reason for wanting him to win (originally seen on The View From No. 80:

Well said, Sir - most of the stupidities of our age could have been avoided had the proposals in question been "subject to argument and amenable to reason."

Speaking of the stupidities of our age, compare the eloquence of the passage above with this classic observation from Sarah Palin:

Where does a lot of that earmark money end up anyway? […] You've heard about some of these pet projects they really don't make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.

And did you hear the one about the Canadian practical jokers who phoned her up, pretending to be the President of France and and a couple of his aides? The killer quote from the merry pranksters has to be this one, explaining what happened when they called her staff:

We started making phone calls at the beginning of the week .... We realized it might work, because they didn't know the name of the French president; they asked us to spell it.

If Obama doesn't walk this one, the world (or at least a significant portion of the Western Hemisphere) must have gone utterly mad.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

How to avoid huge floating things

There seem to have been a lot of big floating things in the news lately. Like the Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska's mega-yacht for example. As it says here:

Your bog-standard superyacht now costs between £40 and £70 million depending on the interior specification. The running costs tend to be about £5 million a year for the bigger vessels. “It's roughly £1 million a metre,” says Jamie Edmiston, of Edmiston & Co. “For that you get helipads, swimming pools and spas as standard.” The oligarchs want more. “They don't just want a slide for the children, they want a submarine,” says one broker.

Seduced by the jet-set glamour of it all, it looks as if those smart political operatives George Osborne and Peter Mandelson failed to spot the obvious danger signs. As anyone who goes to the cinema could have told them, only Bond villains own that sort of floating lair and people who are unsuspectingly lured on board inevitably find themselves getting hurt. George and Mandy really should have listened to Shirley Bassey.

Such a cold finger
Beckons you
To enter his web of sin
But don't go in!

You said it, girl.

Of course, like most ordinary people, I have nothing to do with big vessels like that. Well, that's not strictly true. Most of the stuff I've ever bought has come here on board something even bigger than an oligarch's yacht. I'm talking about container ships, which have been in the news recently because the shipping lines, like everybody else, are sailing into an economic storm:

Late last year, users of major European container ports kept complaining about one problem. Volumes of containers arriving at ports such as Rotterdam and Antwerp from Asia were rising so rapidly that ports were struggling to cope.

This year, ports can only wish for such problems. Drewry is predicting growth of only 4.1 per cent, and Eivind Kolding, chief executive of Maersk Line, the world's biggest container shipping line and part of Denmark's AP Møller-Maersk, says that volumes are currently shrinking against the same months of last year.

It's strange how invisible these fleets of vast container ships are, especially as the ships are among the biggest vessels on the planet. Consider the Emma Maersk, pride of the Maersk Line and the largest container ship in existence. 397 metres or 1,300 feet long, powered by the world's largest single diesel unit (the ship's engine alone weighs 2,300 tons). Yet I was hardly aware of the ship's existence. She's not to, my eyes, at least, a particularly beautiful ship and the photographs I've seen hardly convey an impressive sense of scale, but how can you not be aware of such a colossus? Especially as it was built in little Denmark, known to the rest of the world for beer, bacon, Sandi Toksvig and open sandwiches (although not necessarily in that order) - you'd think if they'd built the biggest object of its class in the world, they'd be shouting their achievement from the rooftops.

A book called How To Avoid Huge Ships recently came third in The Bookseller magazine's recent competition to find the oddest book title of the last 30 years (first place went to Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers) and most of us, it seems, avoid them by not giving the subject a moment's thought. Yet the container ships and their sisters, the oil tankers, which can get even bigger, are the largest self-propelled objects ever constructed by the human race and play a vital role in keeping our civilisation going. There's no practical reason for me to know that the tanker Knock Nevis is the biggest ship in the world by length (the Batillus class supertankers, which have now all been scrapped, beat it in terms of tonnage), but I just feel it's the sort of thing anyone who takes an interest in the world around them ought to at least be aware of.

Maybe it's just me - obscure and perhaps irrelevant facts often delight me, especially as distractions from harsh and uncertain times. I did come across details of another class of vessel this week, which has no relevance to anything in the news, but they just looked so weird I felt I had to share the discovery. Re-reading Neal Ascherson's book Black Sea recently I came across a reference to the Russian Tsarist navy's circular ironclads, shallow draft vessels developed to defend coastal waters around the Crimea in the nineteenth century. They sounded rather extraordinary, so I looked up some details on the Internet and they look as every bit as strange as they sound - flat as pancakes, chugging through the shallows like steam-powered lily pads - see for yourself here and here.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Best before

I was in my local Co-Op in Newport Pagnell the other day and and they had a display stand full of reduced mince pies. Reduced, because the "best before" date was October the 27th. Okay, I thought, I guess you don't only have to eat mince pies at Christmas. But no, there was the word "Christmas" in large, friendly letters on the packaging.

I don't know who buys these things, but it's that sort of thing which destroys the Christmas spirit for me. I don't do religion, but I do actually like some aspects of the old midwinter festival (Christmas, Yule, Saturnalia, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, whatever you choose to call it) - some of the carols have cracking tunes whilst Christmas lights, atmospheric ceremonies in churches smelling of old stone and incense, blazing plum puddings, the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl singing Fairytale of New York and even mince pies (at the right time) are quite jolly. What I don't like is the way Christmas has grown into an enormous bloated monster which dominates the final quarter of the year and is makes inroads into the third quarter.

What I'd really like is the sound of carols on the crisp air, candles and Yule logs just for a week or two in the dark days of December. What I positively refuse to do, despite the marketing, is give any thought to Christmas until we're well into November. The sight of Christmas tat in the shops just annoys me when we've not even put the clocks back or done bonfire night yet. Usually I'm already got bored with Christmas by early December.

And have you seen some of the rubbish that gets bought and sold over the Christmas season? Like a plastic reindeer that shits chocolates. Just think about that for a moment. Some person or people sat down and dreamed that up. Then, that person or people pitched the idea to a manufacturer, who bought the idea. People spent hours, days and weeks of their precious time on this earth designing this product. Then they sent the plans to China, where they produced thousands of the buggers and shipped them half way across the world, using up tons of our finite, irreplaceable petrochemicals in producing the plastics and transporting said product across mighty oceans. All to produce something which will amuse the feeble-minded for about a millisecond before being consigned to the attic or landfill for eternity. And they called the late Roman Empire decadent...

Not an original or unusual viewpoint, I'm sure, but I just felt the need to release my inner miserable old git....

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Moving on

Today dawned drizzly, dank and depressing. It didn't help that Radio 4's Today programme's opening headline was a story about rapidly worsening unemployment figures, with worse to come, just to darken the mood (that was their lead story before the latest figures had even been published for heaven's sake). Not that I'm directly affected at the moment, although (like millions of others) I have plans which aren't exactly helped by the massive economic storm clouds presently obscuring most of the globe.

So I've decided not to dwell on what's going on with the economy. Nor will I harbour a grudge against the over-paid twits who have so spectacularly trashed so many ordinary people's dreams - even if an enraged mob were to arrange for them to be horse-whipped in the street, I wouldn't join in, firstly because hatred is an ugly and self-destructive state of mind, and secondly because quite a few of those alpha-male freaks would probably enjoy it in a Max Mosley-ish sort of way.

Instead, I'll just ponder some of the more interesting comments and lessons from the almighty mess - see here, here and here. And then move on, with a song in my heart and a tune on my lips....

There. Now I've got closure, a couple of other things I noticed today. Firstly, in a branch of W H Smiths, I noticed they had a entire shelf of books labelled "Tragic Life Stories" - not a category I'd previously felt the lack of, but I suppose it takes all sorts. Second, a company that my workplace does business with described themselves on their letterhead as installers of heating and solar systems. I must admit to being impressed - even the Magratheans from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy could only manage to produce custom-made planets. These guys, though, install of whole solar systems. Wow! If there's a market for those babies then the economy's as far from being screwed as Cliff Richard...

Monday, 13 October 2008

Warning - adult material

There's a passage I vaguely remembered from Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, which popped into my head whilst listening to reports of the global financial services industry going up in smoke. Bonfire's not one of my all-time favourite books (in fact it's not even my favourite Tom Wolfe - I enjoyed The Right Stuff far more), but it does have at least one brilliant moment.

That moment concerns the main character, Sherman McCoy and his relationship with his young daughter, Campbell. Sherman makes his unspeakably well-paid living doing fantastically intricate and, to most people, abstract things with bonds on Wall Street. Campbell tells her father in clearly awestruck terms that her friend MacKenzie's daddy makes books for a living and has eighty people working for him. She then asks Sherman what he does for a living. As a big beast on Wall Street, Sherman McCoy knows that what he does is more important than the activities of some small-time printer, but finds himself at a loss, floundering hopelessly as he tries to explain investment banking to a seven year old. Needless to say he can't find anything to say about what he does for a living which impresses her.

Sherman's wife, an interior designer gets involved in the discussion, not taking Sherman's profession as seriously as he thinks it deserves. A bit of a domestic ensues, with Sherman laying into his wife's job (she's an interior designer). Her reply to this attack contrasts the self-importance, insane complexity and sheer unreality of most of the "work" done on Wall Street or in the City with work done in the real world:

Well at least you're able to point to something you've done, something tangible, something clear-cut .... something real, something describable, something contributing to simple human satisfaction, no matter how meretricious or temporary, something you can at least explain to your children. I mean at Pierce and Pierce, what on earth do you tell each other you do every day?

It's a great The Emperor's New Clothes moment, where a child's directness cuts through the self-important adult bull. Perhaps there's something in the idea that any job you can't explain to a child isn't a proper job. People use the term "adult material" to describe porn, but I think that the description applies equally well to the world of high finance and financial services, too abstract and wilfully wrapped in layers of obscure and arcane complexity to engage the mind of a child. Come to think of it, if you published magazines for and about the whizz kid traders who, until recently, made fortunes out of all this tortuous financial complexity, you could call them Playboy, Hustler, Loaded or Nuts - the titles would be just as apt for money porn as they are for the top shelf market.

The abstraction, over complexity and lack of a direct, child-like perspective is, I think, important. The root of the whole crisis depended on people getting caught up in an almighty tangle of complex deals, which they still haven't been able to wholly unpick.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

You can't just throw money at the problem....

I was going to do a post last night, inspired by all the economic turmoil / rescue stuff all the newsreaders were getting so exited about. But I was a bit tired so we just ate a nice dinner, drank some red wine and watched some telly instead. Just as well, really - I was going to call my post International Rescue, but I see that this morning The Sun nabbed that headline. Yes, I'm finally beginning to think like a Sun headline writer, an admission which makes me feel grubbier and less human than I'd ever thought possible.

Recent dramatic action by governments hosing down crashed and burning banks with gazillions of our money had me reflecting on the nature of these bankers and hedge fund managers and the like. Most normal people, having screwed up so completely would be rather sheepish and have the odd iota of gratitude for those who'd saved them from complete annihilation. Yet Radio 4 always seems to find one of these people to come up to the microphone and whinge on about how it was all the regulator's fault for not saving them from the results of their own actions, or how governments had done "too little too late" to help the banks deal with the consequences of their own bad decisions.

Clearly, these people are financial titans who can rise above such petty human emotions as shame or gratitude. I'm struggling to find a down to earth analogy for such superhuman feelings of entitlement and awesome capacities for blame-shifting and I'm imagining a weekend sailor. A rather overconfident weekend sailor, who sets to sea in an unseaworthy boat, without bothering to take a chart and without tuning in to to the weather forecast which would have warned him of stormy weather ahead. Heedless, he sails into the approaching storm, to be tossed about like a cork. Up go the distress flares and the lifeboat battles though the surf to save Captain Catastrophe.

Members of the lifeboat crew fight their way on board the stricken vessel. In the cabin, they find Captain Catastrophe, impatiently drumming his fingers on the (empty) chart table, ostentatiously looking at his watch.

What time do you call this? I let off those distress flares over an hour ago. Look, I'm a very busy man and I really don't have time to sit in all day just waiting to be rescued. And don't start giving me some pathetic excuse about force ten gales. Anyway, you've already made me late and I don't want to waste any more of my valuable time, so let's get on to this lifeboat and get home. Now where is it? What? There? You sent that thing out to rescue me? What the hell were you thinking of? You couldn't swing a cat in it. I've seen bigger toys in my bath. This rescue is a complete joke and you are really beginning to piss me off. Listen, when I want to be rescued I expect it to be done by professionals, not by a bunch of clowns who bring me this sorry excuse for a lifeboat. Just look at it - where the hell is my private cabin? Wi-Fi enabled conference suite? Bar? Cinema? I'll tell you where; nowhere. And you know why? Because you bunch of pitiful losers have screwed up, big time. Nobody tries to palm this sort of crap off on me and gets away with it. Call yourselves a lifeboat crew? Not any longer. You're fired!

Clearly, unimaginably, eye-wateringly colossal shed-loads of cash are just not enough to satisfy our poor, needy little pan-national megabanks, so I'm wondering what more could be done to make them feel good about themselves. Then I remembered a lovely little phrase. Ever since the glorious Reagan-Thatcher revolution we've heard a pithy little slogan from the ideologues of the unchained free market - "you can't just throw money at the problem." Education? Well, throwing money at it won't help, obviously. The National Health Service? You'd just be chucking your money away. Pensions? No, no, no, just wasting taxpayers' money - we're all self-reliant now, and able to provide for our own old age, thanks to the wonders of financial services. Help for the industries and communities destroyed in the rush to de-industrialisation? That would just be propping up failing industries - financial services again, my boy, now that's the wave of the future, no more state-supported lame ducks in today's dynamic Britain.

That's it! Money isn't the answer - you can't solve this problem by throwing money at it. By Jove, I think I've got it! But if money won't help, how do we save our banks from hurting themselves like precious but clumsy toddlers let loose in the big world? Maybe our politicians have to think outside the box here and provide a few of those things that money can't buy. Personal services. Now let me think, what would an international hug-a-banker task force look like? I think the national leaders would have to play to their strengths. Obviously, America would have to take the lead, maybe with the President doing that motivational speech thing which Americans do so well and which corporate execs love. But which President? Well, up to the election George W would do a fine job - his mangled speech and thought patterns don't seem obvious for a motivational speaker, but just think of the effect on the listener - after five minutes of listening to Bush mangling the English language, the most obtuse Banker would feel like a sophisticated amalgam of Carey Grant and Einstein in comparison. Confidence restored, job done.

After the polling, well, if Obama gets the gig, he'd be a natural for the more traditional sort of motivational speech - lots of soaring abstract generalisations backed by a driving soft rock soundtrack - the suits would lap it up (note to speech editor - delete all references to "America" and replace with "Citibank"). If McCain lands the job, he might find the inspirational thing a bit more challenging, but he could always deputise the job to Sarah Palin, whose chirpy moose-brained streams of gibberish could instill a warm feelings of effortless superiority in any half-sentient being.

What about our own dear leader? I wouldn't recommend Gordon Brown for the more personal form of personal services - if there's an element of interaction and reassurance needed, he might just ruin it with one of his scary not-quite-smiling grimaces, but he could always make himself useful in the background by polishing the bankers' Mercs, Rollers and Lexuses.

And if you've got a flash, shiny car, obviously you'll need someone to drive you around. Step forward Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, bewitchingly squeezed into a chauffeur's uniform. Because I think a lot of these fabulously wealthy and powerful men (and they are mostly men) would go for that. After all, bossy uniformed women speaking German certainly did it for Max Mosley.

I'm sure that other world leaders could chip in to increase our bankers' feelings of confidence and well-being - M Sarkozy could flit about dispensing fine wines, canapés and the occasional wafer-thin mint, whilst the Icelandic President must have loads of time on his hands now that the banks have turned his entire country into an ungovernable basket case, so might as well devote all his free time to dabbing the bankers' poor, stressed foreheads with little silk hankies dipped in eau de cologne or soothing lavender oil.

Like they say, you can't just throw money at the problem. So can we have ours back please? Ta very much.

Then I woke up....

Saturday, 4 October 2008

I do like to be beside the seaside

Confined to barracks today with a dose of the exhausting lurgie which toddler Tom brought back from nursery in the week, appeared to shrug off in a day or so and passed on to both his parents, reducing them to apathetic snivelling wrecks (no mean feat - it usually takes a week at work to do that to us). Surfing the net to keep my flagging spirits up, I stumbled on two images of bathing machines, originally found on Dark Roasted Blend.

The first photo was taken close to my birthplace in Scarborough, towards the end of the nineteenth century - long before I was born, although in my current poorly state, I feel as if I'm old enough to have been there in person. I like the Scarborough picture because it's rather strange and beautiful, a scene from a truly lost world; the bathing machines in which Victorian bathers preserved their modesty whilst changing in and out of their voluminous swimming garments, and in the distance, the ghostly sails of the fishing fleet dissolving and dwindling into the past. Only the sand and the sea remains.

The second image stirs rather different feelings - it's the personal bathing machine of His Majesty, King Alfonso XIII of Spain (Order of the Golden Fleece, Order of Charles III, Order of Santiago, Supreme Order of the Clueless Jug-Eared Inbred Parasite, etc, etc, etc). It's a vast, ornate juggernaut, like an architectural wedding cake, trundling down to the sea on two railway tracks. It's both an extraordinary object that seems to belong in some steampunk science fantasy and a monument to the pampered excesses of a King whose inept and extravagant reign in one of Europe's most unequal and poverty-ridden countries paved the way to to a Spanish Republic and exile in Mussolini's Italy. Even when Franco had demolished the Republic and put the wealthy, the army and church back in charge, Alfonso was, apparently too useless, to be invited back - Franco's rule turned into an interregnum, whilst he tried to bring Alfonso's grandson Juan Carlos up as a good little Falangist, to ensure the continuation of his vile little dictatorship. Fortunately his cunning plan for the succession a complete failure and the monarchy is now mostly a constrained appendage to a liberal democracy - although the Spanish Royals are still inclined to fly into a petulant and litigious strop when the citizens of said liberal demoracy display less servile respect than their "betters" expect as their due.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Ship of Fools

I freely admit to not fully understanding the current financial turmoil, although I suspect that a lot of it might have been avoided if some of the major players in the City and Wall Street had admitted in good time that they really didn't know what the hell they were playing at, either. But there are a couple of interesting comments on the fallout from the huge mess here and here.

History - we don't seem to learn from it, do we?

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Hurray-hurray-hurray! suffering and dismay!

It's been a grey, drizzly and uninspiring day. The news seems almost all bad - even the tabloids have gone all panicky and apocalyptic over the economic news - I noticed the Sun on the news stands today had abandoned the usual tosh about immigrants eating our swans or some manufactured confrontation on a reality TV show, to wail that it was the "blackest Monday on the markets" (in my humble opinion they should have gone for "even blacker" - once you've used "blackest", you've got nowhere to go if things get even worse). When the economic outlook is so bad that even celeb-obsessed gutter journos at the Sun are putting the economy on page one, we're probably all doomed.

At least there's a little silver lining to the universal trans-global gloom. I notice that it's not only the global economy that's looking like a car crash - apparently the public pronouncements of the know-nothing red-neck creationist idiot and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin have an air of burning rubber and twisted metal about them, too. So refreshing to see that idiocy doesn't always triumph, but sometimes receives the mockery it so richly deserves. Here's the Toronto Star observing her embarrassment with semi-detached Canadian amusement. Perhaps she could come over here and help Dave Cameron out - heaven knows, we could do with a laugh, too.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Murder in Little Steeping -a novel by Mavis Enderby

I'm quite fond of places that sound like people. I once moved to Leighton Buzzard, partly because I liked the name - it sounded to me like the name of a Dickensian villain - a sinister doctor or an avaricious lawyer, perhaps. Now I'm living on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, which has the character of a very confused economist, created out of an unlikely mixture of DNA from Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes. Just down the road, we seem to be back in Dickensian territory (or perhaps Thackeray World), graced as we are by the presence of several minor but self-important aristocrats, such as Husborne Crawley, Marston Moretaine, Clifton Reynes and Yardley Gobion.

I know I'm not the only person to have a soft spot for places that might be people - the comedian Boothby Graffoe takes his stage name from the eponymous Lincolnshire village. He's not a comedian I'd I'd make a particular effort go out (or stay in) to listen to, but I like the name. So I was rather pleased to read, in the Feedback column of this week's New Scientist, that a Lincolnshire road sign reading "To Mavis Enderby and Old Bolingbroke" has been defaced, (or possibly improved) by some local wit adding the words "the gift of a baby son."

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Funiculì, Funiculà

Just back from holiday, which in the end involved pootling around the bits of Somerset and Devon within a few miles from our holiday cottage - anything more ambitious would have been a bit too much with a lively two year old in tow. So no visit to Bristol and the S S Great Britain this time.

I did see a bit of nifty Victorian engineering on a smaller scale, though. The little seaside town of Lynmouth, which I hadn't visited before, is connected to the pretty neighbouring resort of Lynton up the hill by a funicular railway, built in the late 1880's. I like the elegant simplicity of the design, powered by nothing more than water and gravity. The railway has two cars, each with a ballast tank filled with water (gravity fed from the West Lyn river). To set the thing going, the ballast water is let out of the bottom car, which becomes lighter than the top one and is pulled up by the weight of the descending heavier car. Once the two cars have changed places, the top one is topped up with ballast water, the bottom one is emptied of water and the process repeats. More technical detail here.

The principle is almost the same as the funicular in Scarborough, where I grew up (the Scarborough funicular was the first to use water as a counterweight), but the Lynton-Lynmouth example is even more elegant as it needs no additional power source - in Scarborough, the water had to be pumped uphill, whereas in Lynton-Lynmouth, gravity does all the work. More on funicular railways of the UK here.

Mention of funicular railways inevitably has me humming Funiculì, Funiculà, that jolly rousing Neapolitan celebration of the now-defunct Vesuvius funicular railway. Here's a stirring rendition by, of all people, the Moscow Male Jewish Capella.

Speaking of curious musical fusions, and for no other good reason, here are the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain with their version of the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

And on one more musical note, as we were driving home from our hols, I caught one Tim Minchin performing on Radio 4's Loose Ends. I wasn't previously familiar with Mr Minchin's work, but his song If I Didn't Have You made me laugh like a simpleton on laughing gas. Warning - if you're of a romantic disposition, stick your fingers in your ears - this ain't Stevie Wonder. If not, snort with unseemly laughter here.

Friday, 19 September 2008


Feeling busy, stressed, not enough time? I know I am. Now you know who to blame - the Chronophage a fearsome beast, featured on a new clock, just unveiled outside the library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. No blogging likely in the next week as I'm on holiday, but any other absences or anything else I don't get round to doing can be safely blamed on the fearful Time Eater. It's a disturbing reminder of little time we all have, but I feel strangely better for having an external personification of the things that the less charitable might blame on my laziness or poor time management. You see, it's really not my fault...

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Excuses, excuses...

Off on hols soon and busy trying to get various things sorted before departure, so blogging has been light to non-existent recently. Meanwhile, here's a very silly ad for oil which I missed the first time round (didn't have a telly for most of the 1980's & 90's).

Tuesday, 9 September 2008


I see they're thinking of resurrecting I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue. Not sure about that idea - I think that Clue without Humphrey Lyttelton would be like Irish coffee without the whiskey. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised to be proved wrong but unless we witness of the second coming of Humph, I think it'd be better to lay Clue to rest and move aside for something new.

Less sorely missed than Humph by a factor of several zillion is the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il who failed to show up at North Korea's 60th birthday bash. Nobody knows what's become of him. What a pity -and it looked like such a swinging party, too. And there was I, just thinking about him at the end of my last post. Spooky.

Beware the Robin's curse...

Monday, 8 September 2008

Pick and mix

A mixed bag tonight, rather like the old pick and mix counter at Woolies, First off, all of human life (at least the seedier side) can be found down the Old Bailey. If you had hours to spare, you could waste them pondering the follies and wickedness of mankind at the searchable edition of the Proceedings of the Old Bailey 1674-1913. Strangely compelling stuff.

Over at Dark Roasted Blend there's an interesting article on the S S Great Britain's big sister, that wonder of the steam age, the Great Eastern. The Dark Roasted Blend article draws on an another intriguing article by John H Linehard of the University of Houston, comparing and contrasting the Great Eastern and the Titanic:

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed the Great Eastern, was the greatest artist ever to work in iron. He was remarkably thorough, and the Great Eastern reflected that care. It was to be a passenger liner, and no cost was spared in making it safe. It had a double hull. It was honeycombed with bulkheads that created almost fifty water-tight compartments.

The Great Eastern was overdesigned and inefficient, but it still provided transatlantic service for two years. Then, in 1862, an uncharted rock in Long Island Sound tore an 83-foot-long, 9-foot-wide, gash in its outer hull. But the inner hull held. And it steamed safely on into New York Harbor.

The Titanic was another matter. Transatlantic service was now lucrative business. Bit by bit, safety standards yielded to commercial pressures. The Titanic's hull boasted a double bottom, but it had only a single wall on the sides. It had fifteen sections that could be sealed off at the throw of a switch, but the bulkheads between those sections were riddled with access doors to improve luxury service. It didn't have enough lifeboats. Why did everyone think it was so safe? Well, its luxurious beauty was seductive. Historian Walter Lord said of the Titanic, "The appearance of safety was mistaken for safety itself."

When the Titanic grazed a North Atlantic iceberg in 1912, it suffered nothing like the continuous gash in the side of the Great Eastern. Instead, rivets popped and its plates parted from the hull over a 250-foot length. Without a double sidewall, that let in enough water to sink it within a scant two hours and forty minutes.

Fascinating stuff - the whole of Linehard's article is here.

It is better, I mused a post ago, to be able to elect (and eventually kick out) an idiot than to have no say at all in how you're governed. If you're unfortunate enough to live in North Korea, it seems, you get the worst of both worlds - no vote and a tyrant who's also a world-class idiot. Step forward, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, spoiled brat, ludicrous playboy and serial human rights abuser.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Two cheers for idiocracy

I see that the creationist Sarah Palin went down a storm with her "keynote" speech to the Republican National Convention and is perhaps on her way to securing herself a place in the annals of American idiocracy alongside such political heavyweights as Dan Quayle and George W himself. Although my disrespect remains fully intact, I'd better qualify my remarks by making it clear that I think everybody has the right to a say in how they are governed and if the majority favour a blundering dunderheaded troglodyte, then they have an absolute right to choose the said troglodyte. And, of course, to vote him or her out if they come to their senses.

That's democracy - not pretty, but better than a system of government where those in power rule by fear, deception and force rather than by the consent (at least to some degree) of those they govern. I made a lazy joke in my last post about how scary it would be to have this know-nothing from a frozen offshoot of the Bible belt with her finger on the nuclear button. But looking at recent history it becomes apparent that the very worst man-made tragedies have been unleashed not by elected idiots, but by unelected dictators - no democracy, I think, has ever killed so many as Stalin in the great famines and purges of the 30's or Mao in China's own famines of the 50's and the Cultural Revolution which he unleashed in the 60's, (mostly, as far as I can see, to defend himself against those Party elements who actually realised what a disaster he'd unleashed in the previous decade). So no cheers at all for unrepresentative government.

So when I'm rude about democratically elected politicians, I do mean it, but I do also acknowledge that having the option to throw the bastard out and to be as rude about them as I want to be without being censored, locked up or forcibly, and perhaps permanently silenced by a bunch of heavies is way better than the alternatives on offer by more authoritarian forms of rule. At least two cheers for democracy, even when you can't stand the dork who got elected and three big, hearty cheers for the freedom to be disrespectful.

And here's another controversial opinion on a topic of great importance - my son was watching CBeebies the other night. Whilst we were waiting for In The Night Garden to come on, they played an episode from the new series of Andy Pandy (well relatively new - I think it was made in 2002 - I mean the one which wasn't made in black and white with the strings showing). Goodness me it was terrible; a bored sounding narrator, really pointless, stupid new characters like Missy Hissy the snake and Orbie the ball. I don't know who thought that remaking the series was a good idea, but they were wrong, wrong, wrong. It's not even as if the original was that great. Give me Iggle Piggle any day.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Dumb and dumber

For those who've made a living poking fun at President George W Bush, the sands of time are running out fast. Sadly, for Humphrey Lyttleton, they've already run out - but here he was on top form taking the mick out of the man whose intellect and rhetorical gifts were, amazingly enough, deemed sufficient for him to blag his way into the top job anywhere.

The good news, for those who like to savour the absurdity of the richest and most powerful characters in the world's richest and most powerful country, is that the Republican vice presidential candidate (potentially a 72-year-old's heart beat from the presidency) apparently believes that the world is only about 6,000 years old. To carry on with a running theme, we may not know whether the neanderthals were brighter or dumber than most of us, but I suspect they might well have been brighter than someone who might be getting her hands on the nuclear button. Sweet dreams, everybody.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Think Different

Still thinking about the fate of our (possibly) more talented neanderthal cousins, I don't think I used one of the best metaphors which was, almost literally, under my nose. It is a truth universally acknowledged among those who care about such things, that early versions of the Windows OS which I'm using at this moment were way behind what Apple were doing in terms of user-friendly user interfaces back in the '90s. For your average non-techie user, the choice should have been a no-brainer. But Microsoft eventually triumphed, not because its system was was easier to use or technically superior, but due to Microsoft's foresight in dealing with software licenses, which meant that there was just way more stuff to run on PCs than Macs. In this way, the PCs simply out bred the Macs. The neanderthals - don't think dumb, think different.

Talking of thinking different, something which isn't new but is new to me. The Danish software company Specialisterne is employing people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder to improve the quality of its software testing. Instead of seeing difference as a problem, the company is harnessing the special skills of people with ASD -("motivation, focus, persistence, precision and the ability to follow instructions") with, according to the radio interview which alerted me to this story, considerable success. The company are apparently looking to start up an operation in Glasgow. More about this splendid organisation here.

Sadly there are some people who think different but not - in my humble opinion - in a good way. After recently writing a few complimentary things about what religion can inspire people to do, I came across a deeply depressing article in the Guardian which reminded me why I'm definitely not religious. The article was written in defence of the Shi'ite practice of self-flagellation, a form of devotion to the memory of Imam Hussein, the Prophet's grandson
(in case you missed the case, a man was recently found guilty of child cruelty after forcing two boys to beat themselves during such a ceremony). It's the sort of activity which would be laughed at if anybody outside a "faith community" indulged in it. Yet, according to the writer, the spectacle is

keenly watched by onlookers, children and adults alike, who, though they have seen it all before, continue to be mesmerised by the sheer spectacle of it – the display

I'm not a fan of Max Mosley and his antics, but at least he didn't take kids along to share in his unconventional jollies. But it seems that any activity, however bonkers is OK if it's an expression of faith, and the warping of young minds with such nonsense seems to be a parental right of the Godly. Dreadful.

It's a a crazy old world out there, sure enough. Like the man said:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

My perfect cousin

Back to the blog after a Bank Holiday spent visiting family and I find that more distant relatives have been in the news. There's been a trend in more recent years to rehabilitate our evolutionary cousins the neanderthals from their original "nasty brutal and short" image, but the general assumption still seems to be that they died out and we survived because they were in some way inferior - maybe their brains, although on average bigger than ours, were less highly convoluted. Perhaps the anatomy of their vocal tract, not preserved directly, but inferred from their skeletal structure didn't permit the range of complex language sounds produced by Homo Sapiens. Whatever it was, we're here and they're not, ergo we were better in some significant way.

Interestingly the latest piece of research on the stone tools produced by the neanderthals and by humans just like us living at the same time, suggests that they may not have been out competed at all. Their stone technology, argue the authors, was every bit as good as ours, perhaps even a little better. Why, then, did they perish when we survived? The theory is that they just happened to be a small group of folk, living in the challenging, marginal environment of ice age Eurasia. The conditions were against their population expanding, whereas modern-type humans coming out of the tropics, lived in a more benign environment and were simply able to out breed them, even though they may technologically and intellectually have had the edge.

It's an intriguing theory. It may, of course be dead wrong, but it's not unusual to find that being in the right place at the right time can count for more than actually being better. We think of life and nature as a quest for perfection and our culture, from the Olympic Games to advertising encourages us to think that being the best is all that counts. But in real life, good enough and on time often beats a more efficient solution which can't be made to work, or doesn't have the right resources behind it. Think about the VHS v Betamax videotape format war, which many feel was won by the technically inferior product - or even the emd of the Second World War, when the Nazis' sophisticated rockets, jets and Tiger tanks counted for nothing against the allies' almost endless supply of workaday kit such as Sherman and T-34 tanks.

So, just maybe, we are actually the second-best species of humans on the planet - the really bright guys hung on until 25,000 years ago but got wiped out by the challenge of maintaining a viable population in an extreme and hostile environment. Unlike Kevin in the Undertones' famous song, our perfect cousins just didn't survive to prosper, be envied and, presumably, excel on University Challenge.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

In the news

Considering the extravagant displays of poor sportsmanship to be seen in any number of Premiership and international football matches, I'd have thought that Usain "Lightning" Bolt's celebrations after his astonishing and effortless-looking sprint victories might be excused. Jacques Rogge doesn't seem to think so. Then again, there are a few pointed words for M Rogge here - and quite right, too, IMHO.

Elsewhere in the news, the Russian show of force in Georgia continues. The con incidence of the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring may be just chance, or maybe it's a sign that Czarist, Communist or Capitalist, the huge autocracy at the heart of Eastern Europe has always put its faith in the strong man and feared the "virus of freedom".

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Alexander The Possibly Quite Good

I see that the Alexander Technique has received a positive write up in the British Medical Journal. Despite my scorn for "complementary" and "alternative" quackery, I'm quite prepared to give the Alexander Technique the time of day - there's nothing ostensibly risible about the benefits of good posture/movement and not damaging your body by putting it under unnecessary strain - any workplace training video in manual handling demonstrates what damage you can do by, for example, lifting things incorrectly. The converse, positively getting into good habits of posture and movement could well have benefits. After all, we're not talking way out crazy stuff about crystals, auras, healing energies or homeopathic infinitesimals.

So, just to prove that, although sceptical about unproven treatments, I'm not completely closed-minded, the picture above is of a group of people on an Alexander Technique Course in Spain a little while back - a group including yours truly.

I don't know if it really works or not, but it felt good and there might be something in it - the jury's out at the moment but whereas I'd be truly astounded if someone produced convincing proof for the benefits of homeopathy or crystal healing it wouldn't amaze me if the Alexander Technique had real benefits beyond the placebo. Not yet Alexander the Great, but interesting territory on the edge of conventional therapy, as opposed to the wilderness way beyond reason....

Tuesday, 19 August 2008


Loads of stuff to do and little time to blog ATM, so here's a real oldie, but one which always makes me smile - as does this one, featuring an ex-Goodie and of Springwatch guru...

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Smart cookies

The discovery of cookery may have been a necessary step in the creation of all subsequent human culture, it says here. Highly speculative, but food for thought...

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Religion - Devil's advocate

Religion, especially the organised variety, doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. But does it have anything going for it? On the face of it, yes. It's been the inspiration behind some of humanity's great works of architecture and art. From the surreal mud mosques of Mali to William Byrd's Ave Verum Corpus, works dedicated to the glory of religion can astonish and move even a crusty old humanist like me. The cathedrals of medieval Europe, the gilded pagodas of the Far East, the gospel music of the American Deep South, the geometrical marvels of Islamic architecture, Milton's Paradise Lost, Nkosi Sikeleli Africa, the Parthenon; it's a list which could go on and on.

As important, maybe more so, is the sense of community and fellowship which people can experience at their church, temple, mosque, whatever. In our self-centred, atomised western world, this valuable feeling of community isn't something to be lightly dismissed. In a country where you probably live miles from your family and hardly know your neighbours, a sense of belonging would be a valuable addition to many people's lives and religious congregations often provide that. Furthermore, there are plenty of religious people are just genuinely nice people - perhaps being socialised by a strong community can make them so.

So, what's not to like?

Well, my problem is with truth. As most religions believe themselves to be in possession of a very special truth - The Truth - this should be, along with humility, one of religion's Unique Selling Points. The trouble is that if you can't accept that central truth, then by definition you don't have faith and aren't religious - and that's where I am. There have always been a few who questioned the claims of religion, but in the last couple of centuries, the evidence that the creation myths of the world's religions aren't truthful accounts of what actually happened has become overwhelming.

Speaking as someone from a culture where Christianity has been the dominant faith, obviously Darwin V Genesis has been the big match. It isn't the triumph of Darwin alone which conflicts with the narratives of Christianity. Think about the size and age of the universe, according to the best estimates patiently put together by generations of scientists. The Universe of the Bible was a large place, but of comprehensible size and old, but of an age which could be grasped in terms of the generations of men and women. Within that framework, it would be possible to believe in an earth that was at the centre of the universe and in a God whose chief concern was his earthly creation. Now that we know that the size of all human civilization is an almost dimensionless point in great gulfs of time and space, it would seem a tad presumptuous to postulate a God who created everything and yet keeps us under his special care. In the words of Arthur C Clarke, "if there are any gods whose chief concern is man, they cannot be very important gods."

As if that wasn't enough, there have been generations of pesky Biblical scholars, picking apart our sacred texts, pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions, suggesting that Gospel Truth ain't necessarily ... well ... true. In fact the documents have all the hallmarks of texts written amended and developed by fallible humans rather than direct dictation from on high.

Some religionists - often the more "liberal" and sophisticated ones, don't have a problem reconciling all of this with faith. The bits which have been thrown into doubt or dis proven are, they say, beautiful metaphors. The bits which are currently un-provable or un-dis-provable are, they say the real Truth. I almost prefer the wilful blindness of Biblical literalists, determined to ignore any contrary evidence to the literal truth of Genesis to this level of intellectual dishonesty.

So, although there are many things which religious people have, which I actually admire, the central tenet of their religion is the sticking point, along with all the accompanying baggage of faith trumping observation, empirical inquiry, questioning or anything else which isn't literally a prejudice (pre-judging an issue in the absence of evidence). It's a bit like the placebo effect - good things can happen though believing alone, but that doesn't actually make what you believe in true. In fact, I did a bit of a sneaky thing in including the Parthenon in my list of religiously-inspired architecture - although religious people find it hard to accept dismissal of their own spiritual beliefs, they find it quite easy to dismiss those of past believers, whose beliefs, presumably just as deeply held, are no longer in fashion. To quote Arthur C Clarke again, "No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the non-existence of Zeus or Thor — but they have few followers now".

Along with many religious people I believe that there is more to life than our society's current obsessions with making money, shopping and celebrity. But whatever that "more" is, I don't think it's the sugar pill of religion.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Galloping Gertie

Learning the hard way - amazing old footage of the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge here.

Monday, 11 August 2008


Almost certainly yes, but Arthur would have been amused by this.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Tutor and tutorial

Goodness me, but I'm tired. Passed Cardington again last night on the way to see the flying proms at Shuttleworth, a flying display with light classical music, courtesy of the Guildford Symphony Orchestra and fireworks to finish. Enjoyed it, but it would have been even better without the high winds and driving rain, which kept a lot of the planes on the ground and all of the audience wet and shivering. Still, Dunkirk spirit and all that.

One of the planes which did manage to make it into the air was the venerable Avro Tutor, as featured in this YouTube vid (it's currently wearing the rather snazzy silver colour scheme with red and white sunbursts on the wings, rather than the yellow shown in the hanger shots).

Whilst there, I was asked about the origin of the roundels worn by British military aircraft. It would have taken too long to explain in the cold and wet, but it is an interesting story. Strangely enough, the origins of the symbol can be traced back to the French revolution - this Wikipedia article on the cockade sheds some light on the prehistory of military aircraft markings, whilst this interesting blog entry brings the story up to date.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Humble pie

I saw a sign in the back window of somebody's car today which I liked very much. "Caution" it said "I drive just like you."

As I've commented before, we're all more fallible than we'd like to admit, so I rather appreciated the refreshing humility of the sign. Humility's not a very fashionable virtue - in fact it seems to have had rather an image problem ever since Uriah Heep, which is a shame since we humans are imperfect creatures who we could use some occasionally.

The only people who consistently talk up humility these days seem to be the religious. Humility, as clerics of all religions like to say is almost a Unique Selling Point for faith. Politicians, business people, scientists, journalists, salespeople, they tell us, are constantly bombarding us with arrogant certainties, but only religion can offer the wisdom of true humility. A sales pitch which could easily win me over ... if it wasn't such utter brain-sapping nonsense.

The "humble" people of God are, let's not forget, those with absolute certainty that they are in possession of The Ultimate Answer To The Question of Life, The Universe and Everything. These are the people who not only know, without a shadow of a doubt, that God exists, but exactly what He wants those of us in this microscopic corner of His creation to do with our lives; some of them know exactly what He wants us to eat, who we should sleep with, how much of our time we should spend praising Him (because, despite the fact that he's omnipotent and omniscient, He apparently suffers from low self-esteem and needs a lot of support and positive feedback) and what punishments will, or should be meted out in this world or the next for disrespecting Him (whatever other attributes He possesses, His followers certainly seem to think He has self-esteem issues coming out of His ears).

Me, I'm on the side of those who still have the humility to doubt, reflect and think - the sort of people you don't see too often in pulpits.

That was part 2 of an occasional series about the problems I have with religion...