Saturday, 31 May 2008

Strange places

I don't know anything about the strange igloo-type house in the top photo. It's just a place I walked past in the hills of southern Spain a few years ago. It appealed to me and I think it's quite cool.

The second image is an extinct volcano in the Canary Islands. I like the almost perfect symmetry.

The third is a dramatic shot of Heidelberg castle in the evening, looking suitably imposing.

Friday, 30 May 2008


A short post tonight. I was made redundant recently and today's my last working day with the company which has employed me since early 1989. There are other things in the offing, but it's a moment to stop and reflect - it's a long time.

In 1989 Margaret Thatcher was still PM. Today, we're looking back at ten years of New Labour (although not forward to another ten years, the way things are going). In the USA Ronald Regan was making way for President George Bush the First. Mikhail Gorbachev was president of the Soviet Union - if you were around at the time, did you predict that he'd be the last one, and the USSR would be dissolved without a world war two years later? Nelson Mandela was still in prison in Robben Island - who then knew that he's be released a year later, or be president of a post-apartheid state within five years. Tim Berners-Lee at CERN was coming up with something he called the World Wide Web.

A different world - the wider world and my little life have changed hugely in 18 years. So next time you turn on the radio and think you're tuning into the same old same old, consider this - things do change and the future will almost certainly not be like the past.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

You know how little while we have to stay...

My mention of Linda Smith in yesterday's post prompted a few melancholy thoughts about loss. Mostly, I only grieve for the personal - the loss of people I know personally, the death of a dream, the inevitable sadnesses which go with life and death.

I'm not generally one of those people who's particularly touched by the passing of a high profile celebrity who I've never met and and can't claim to know. I don't think I'm heartless - I'm sure that the friends and family of the famous person are devastated and I feel a moment's sadness for them, but in a world of six billion people, you can't cry for everyone and the loss felt by those those close to the famous person is no more or less than that of millions of others bereft of someone they love just as dearly but who never made the headlines.

The loss which you only notice peripherally when glancing at a short paragraph on the inside page of a your free paper ("local mother dies after long illness") is just as real and raw as the death of somebody whose obituaries fill the TV news broadcasts and national newspapers - cause for a brief twinge of regret and sympathy, but no more, assuming you actually want to find time to pass your own life doing something other than mourning the passing of every stranger on Earth.

Occasionally, though, I do hear of the death of someone I've never met and feel a genuine sense of loss, when that person's work has inspired, amused, enlightened, or in some other way enriched my life. Inevitably, as I get older, I find that some of those who I've never met, but who made my world a brighter place are slipping away. Here are five from this century who left a gap:

Stephen Jay Gould - died May 20th 2002

An evolutionary scientist and writer of popular science books, he also had extraordinarily broad mental horizons, informing his books with his eclectic knowledge of and interest in history, the history of science, music, baseball, popular culture, literature and religion.

But it he wasn't just a polymath - he was also a an independently minded and very compassionate man, whose greatest service to his field of evolutionary biology was perhaps to point out forcefully that evolution is just a mechanism we see producing results in the natural world and not, as some more over-enthusiastic evolutionary psychologists have tried to argue, applicable to human morality, something which we should have the empathy and intelligence to work out for ourselves from first principles.

Erudite, endlessly curious and humane he was a bit of a renaissance man. I didn't always agree with him (for example I don't buy his idea that science and religion occupy wholly "non-overlapping magisteria" and should coexist quite happily without coming into conflict), but have always respected his courage (physical as well as moral, when facing cancer) and the sheer kindliness of the man.

John Peel (John Robert Parker Ravenscroft) - died October 25th 2004

To a rather gloomy late 1970's teenager who didn't quite fit in, discovering the John Peel show on Radio 1 was a revelation. A disc jockey who wasn't an over-excited dimwit filling the space between records with mental candy floss was a rare find in those days. Urbane, witty, avuncular, with a mind which went off on lots of interesting tangents, he also played music which you might not have always liked or understood, but which had flashes of strange brilliance. I remember lying in bed the first time I heard him play Laurie Anderson's O Superman and thinking "what the hell is that?" but enjoying the fact that it was eerily unlike anything I'd ever heard.

I'm still not very musically knowledgeable and my tastes have probably become dull and middle-aged in a way that Peel's never did, but his enthusiasm and persona were always a benign presence in the background of my formative years, like a wonderful virtual uncle, as I'm sure he has been to many other teenagers who discovered him at various points in his long and varied broadcasting career.

Linda Smith - died February 27th 2006

Voted the wittiest person on Radio 4, she was just an effortlessly funny performer. She combined having strong views (humanist, left-of-centre) with having a down to earth personality and warmth, which saved her comedy riffs from being rants. A sparkling antidote to the dreary pomposity of our PR-ridden age, she was sadly missed following her early death from ovarian cancer.

Arthur C Clarke - died March 19th 2008

It was the early 1970's. I'd already been incomprehendingly excited as a child by Thunderbirds, Star Trek and watching the moon landings, I'd been bought a copy of a magazine called Speed and Power, chiefly aimed, in those gender-stereotyped days at boys, which dealt with such fascinating topics as aeroplanes, fast cars, boats and rockets. At the back of the magazine was a science fiction short story by Arthur C Clarke, called Summertime on Icarus.

It was a relatively simple story. What gripped me at the time was the combination of imagination, strangeness and reality. Tiny Icarus, with it's airless skies, impossibly close horizon, dreamlike microgravity and infernal temperatures is an utterly alien place. Yet it's also a real place, described in precise detail. Not only real because Arthur C Clarke's imagination could make the non-existent come to life (although he could do that, too). But real in the sense that it actually exists out there, indeed Icarus is a place which humans could visit with existing technology (if anyone wanted to spend the money on such a project).

It's this combination of the imaginative with the reality of how awesomely strange the universe actually is, which gripped me. I devoured subsequent short stories in Speed and Power and went on to read Clarke's short story collections, novels and non-fiction. That experience gave me something infinitely valuable - a sense of perspective, of how miniscule my life, my experiences, my home planet, everything I know is, in comparison with a universe which is incomprehensibly huge and ancient and full of mystery. Excitement, awe, a little fear, a little pride that humans have been able to use reason to throw some light on a little part of that enormous mystery. Although Clarke was a secular humanist and so am I, I guess the feeling does have almost spiritual overtones - I may not do religion, but that doesn't mean I'm not occasionally overcome by feelings of wonder which transcend the construct I call "myself".

Humphrey Lyttleton - died 25th April 2008

I don't know a lot about jazz - I like a handful of pieces, but am shamefully ignorant about the form as a whole, so I can't say a lot about him as a jazz man. But as the long-standing host of I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue, he was just about the world's finest exponent of deadpan humour and wicked comic timing. In a world which sometimes seems to have precious little to laugh about, providing so many years of hilarity was a gift beyond price.

For some we loved, the loveliest and the best
That from his Vintage rolling Time hath prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to rest.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Cooking doesn't get any tougher than this...

I'm not really one for cookery programmes on the telly. You might see the odd thing you'd like to try, but I tend to get bored watching other people cooking a succession of dishes - cookery's a hands-on activity and I'd rather be doing than watching, so a good cookery book or a recipe printed off from a web page or scribbled down on the back of an envelope is more use to me than half an hour of Masterchef. Occasionally, I might see something which might inspire me to try new things - Anjum Anand's Indian Food Made Easy, for example, but that's an honourable exception.

I'm not altogether crazy about the presenters either - I think Heston Blumenthal has a bit of entertainment value, and find his affable mad scientist approach to food refreshing, although the lack of dry ice, centrifuges and vacuum pumps in my own kitchen makes emulating his recipes rather difficult.

But most celebrity cooks either irritate or bore me, from the shouty short-tempered authoritarians to what the wonderful and sorely-missed Linda Smith once described as the "aggressive blandness" of Delia Smith. There's something in me which can't quite settle down and pay attention to Delia - I think it's the same part which starts to fidget and daydream if I find myself having to attend some sort of Church service and sit through a sermon. I must admit though, that she did have a point in her last series which was intended to help people who can't cook or think they can't find the time produce quick and easy meals.

She's right to point out that a big gulf is opening up between two food extremes. At one end of the food spectrum are the sort of people who enter Masterchef, with their complicated and elaborate creations sweated out in the heat of a high -pressure professional kitchen. At the other extreme are the people who have grown up with ready meals and takeaways and hardly know how to cook the most basic of things. I remembered being a bit taken aback to hear someone in the office, who normally lived on takeaways and food prepared by his mother, announcing proudly that for an extra-special date he'd actually cooked an entire meal himself. It became clear from subsequent comments that the "cooking" actually involved heating up the various elements of a Marks and Spencer ready meal.

I think Delia's right to fret about the shrinkage of a third middle group - those of us who can cook pretty comptently as needed, but see it as a useful life skill and relaxation, rather than some sort of competitive activity done only to impress. Looking at Masterchef and similar cookery contests, it's easy to see how they would terrify someone who's never been taught to cook. If that was your only exposure to cookery, nobody would blame you for thinking that it was a fiendishly complicated art, in which you're constantly racing against the clock and where the smallest slip can lead to disaster and humiliation.

Although she's not my cup of tea, if Delia's series adds a few more recruits to the middle group who can cook a bit and don't get too stressed about it, that's got to be a good thing. The same goes for Nigella Express, another recent series with a similar manifesto.

I wasn't recruited into the middle group by a celebrity chef. The first thing which turned me into a day-to-day cook was almost certainly having a mother who cooked most things from scratch. Although I did hardly any cooking when living at home as a child and teenager, I'm sure that just having someone around who could cook had an influence on me - I may not have paid much attention at the time, but the process wasn't completely mysterious to me. Then I went away to University. As it happened, the college canteen/refectory produced some fairly mediocre food when I first arrived, so after a week or so I decided that I needed to learn some basic cookery.

I turned to a paperback copy of Katherine Whitehorn's Cooking in a Bedsitter, a cookbook for beginners, chosen more or less at random. It turned out to be a very good choice. I can hardly remember any of the recipes now, but that wasn't the point. It was a wonderfully down-to-earth, practical guide to cooking for the complete novice. It didn't assume that you had a lot of fancy equipment to hand, maybe just a ring and a couple of pans. The message was simple and useful: this isn't rocket science and you don't need a lot of elaborate gear to get started. Just a good sharp knife, a chopping board, those couple of pans, wooden spoon, a few store cupboard basics and you're away.

I started cooking on this basis and soon found that the basic processes weren't too hard. There were a couple of self-explanatory section headings - I think they were "cooking to stay alive" and "cooking to impress". I started by cooking to stay alive, no pressure there, didn't worry too much about exact quantities or authenticity, as advised, and just got a feel for cooking. Before I knew it, cooking became second nature and has been ever since.

The big lesson is that if you relax and don't stress about it, it's probably not too hard. And ignore the prescriptions of celebrity 'experts". There were fewer TV chefs in those days, but I do remember reading some old blather from Clement Freud at the time, railing against "idiots who throw handfuls of dried oregano" into some dish or other. Whatever it was would probably have been better with fresh herbs, but if you've only got a limited supply of stuff in your store cupboard, then use your own taste and imagination to decide what will go with what, and if you think it'll taste OK, just go for it. And if it turns out to be a mistake, you can learn from it and do better next time (if you're just cooking for yourself, nobody else needs to know anyway).

Delia may be the human equivalent of beige (to steal another Linda Smith-ism, originally used about Tim Henman), but she's right about cooking for beginners - relax, cheat a bit and just get on with it - and whatever you do, don't worry that you can't do the things they do on Masterchef. The fixation on high-profile celebrity chefs really is a case of the best being the enemy of the good.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

I don't normally do cute, but...

My general attitude to "cute" photographs of children and kittens was summed up by an old post in the Chase me Ladies, I'm the Cavalry blog, entitled "I was unamused by the kitten photos". Nevertheless, here's a picture of my son with a flowerpot on his head.

My only excuses are lack of time (it's straight up to bed for me after this short post at the end of a busy day) and the fact that this really was a completely un-posed shot - the little monkey just climbed up on the table and put the pot on his head spontaneously - the camera only happened to be around because there was a group of his little contemporaries visiting at the time.

The odd thing is that he normally hates having things on his head - putting a sun hat on him is a nightmare, as he rips it off at the first opportunity, then slowly and deliberately places it on the ground as if that's where, as any fool should know, it belongs. I don't know whether the mucky face adds to or detracts from the cuteness (the dark substance is either soil or chocolate, substances which he consumes with equal relish).

In future I will try to keep any outbreaks of excessive cuteness to a minimum.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Emissions control - we have a problem

Listening to today's news, I've been hugely impressed to hear about a group of people successfully doing something difficult and complex. I was less impressed to hear another group of people talking about doing something about a difficult and complex problem - and coming up with what seems to be an unworkably difficult and complex solution.

The difficult and complex thing was actually achieved by NASA's Mars Phoenix lander team, who successfully landed their probe on the Arctic plains of Mars. It's an immense technical achievement - anyone who thinks it's an easy thing to do should consider the number of failed attempts to land probes on Mars - the former Soviet Union made several attempts but never quite managed it, whilst NASA lost the previous probe intended to explore the polar regions of Mars - hence the fact that this probe is called Phoenix. Not to mention our own plucky little Beagle 2 probe, lost somewhere in the Isidis Planitia basin on Christmas Day 2003. All in all, I think that more than half of all Mars missions (landers and orbiters) have failed.

Although it was a difficult task, they did it and as I post, Phoenix is unpacking its chemistry set in preparation for a little lab work on a frozen plain 680 million kilometers from Earth. At mission control and various other locations all over the world where the probe was built, tested and launched, where the experiments were devised and built, where the mission was planned, there must be thousands of people whose sense of job satisfaction and achievement is currently soaring into the stratosphere like a rocket. Congratulations and good luck to 'em all, I say.

Back in Blighty, our Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee has been looking at the problem of climate change, and has come up with what looks to me like an unworkably complex system of personal carbon credits, which people would be supposed to trade in order to concentrate their minds on saving carbon and, they hope, the planet. For once, H M Government have recognised a money pit before they have dropped any cash into it and rejected the idea - for now, at least.

Climate change and related problems are difficult, that much is certain. But it's about the only thing about the subject which is certain. A tiny minority of experts say that climate change caused by human activities doesn't exist at all. The majority feel that the evidence for human-generated change is overwhelming, but exactly how serious the situation is and how to tease out the signal of what we as a species are doing from the noisy background of fluctuations to which the climate has always been subject, are hotly debated.

I don't have the expertise or depth of reading in the subject to have a strongly-held view on how serious man-made climate change is. I tend to believe that the majority of climate scientists who believe they've detected changes are probably right. I don't have the training or knowledge to comment on the degree of seriousness, but tend towards the precautionary principle - if we're not sure what we are doing, or how serious the consequences may be, best to try and minimise our impact on the atmosphere to be on the safe side. We've only got one planet (there are others, but take a look at the pictures from Mars - even if we could send a few shiploads of colonists there after trashing our own planet, Mars looks, in estate agents' jargon, "in need of some renovation" before they could move in).

If those were the only considerations, I'd be a bit of a wishy-washy fence-sitter on the subject. But potential climate change isn't the only problem with fossil fuels. They're also finite. We know that we've used up a lot of the stuff in the ground and nobody knows how much is left, or how hard it will be to get out.

Most of the world doesn't even know how much we've already got out of the ground - there are rumours that the Saudis have been overstating their oil reserves for years. The exact figures and dates don't matter - we might reach 'peak oil' in five months, five years or fifty years - heck, we might have already got there for all that I know. What does matter is that the stuff which powers our civilisation, that keeps those of us in the First World relatively comfortable, that powers most of the food production which feeds most of the world is a dwindling resource. If it runs out before the human race has come up with practical alternative methods of generating energy, then we'll be faced with a catastrophe which will make the acts of terrorism which have panicked so many governments in recent years seem like a minor detail - not a few hundred or thousands of deaths, but millions of our six-billion-plus global population dying of hunger, whilst the lives of many others will be miserable and filled with poverty, hunger hardship and insecurity.

Things would getting bad even before such an apocalypse in a world where the last of the energy resources are held by some of the most unpleasant and oppressive regimes on earth think about all the oil in Saudi and Iran, for example, or the way that the relatively liberal, open societies of Western Europe are becoming dependent on an increasingly authoritarian Russia for gas supplies - we are not in a good place, people.

So, serious climate change or no, I'd definitely come down on the side of those who say we need to change our ways. But individual carbon credits? I just can't see it myself.

Firstly, the bureaucracy involved would be immense. At the very least, we'd probably need a database with details of every household in the UK to keep track of people's credits. The government's record in managing IT projects has been pretty uninspiring, to say the least - cost over-runs, systems not delivered in time or on budget, lost data.... Best not to go there at all unless you really, positively need that database.... The committee tacitly admitted that government IT delivery would be a fatal problem, by suggesting that the system was outsourced to private companies, on the grounds that private business was good at running big databases - the example of supermarket loyalty card schemes was cited.

I'm not convinced that moving the IT into the private sector is any guarantee of success here. A supermarket runs a customer database out of self-interest - to market to customers, to tie them in to shopping at that supermarket. A private contractor selling a service to the government is also acting out of self-interest - it will want as much of the taxpayer's money as it can get out of the deal. Profit is the bottom line - the system will be only as good as it needs to be to get the business, as the contractor isn't a direct beneficiary of it being any better than adequate. If this was provided by the private sector, I suspect that it would be either a huge drain on the public purse, or a clunky system provided by the lowest bidder. Both, if we're really unlucky.

The carbon trading system would be flawed at a far more fundamental level than this, though. At one extreme, you could make it simple - a straightforward carbon allowance for every adult and child, to be traded as if each had an identical carbon footprint. This would make the administration easier, but would be grossly unfair, taking no account of, say, pensioners who stay in most of the day and need to keep the house warm, families with young children, who need to use a washing machine almost daily, people living in areas where there is not suitable bus or train service which they could switch to instead of making a car journey. You could adjust the system to take account of such factors, but that there are so many variables that you would end up either going for a relatively simple system which is unfair to many people, or one which is fairer, but horribly complex.

And would the trading work in the real world anyway? We've seen enough examples in recent months of financial institutions getting involved in complex and sophisticated trading, which all seemed to be going swimmingly for a time, until they became mired in their own complexity and fell apart, with institutions having to admit that things had gotten so complicated that they had no idea what liabilities they had taken on.

Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and moving towards alternatives is probably more important than anything else governments, companies and citizens will have to do this century. It's a real future of civilization issue, even if you don't assume that the fossil fuels will cook the planet before they run out. But it strikes me that carbon trading's a dead end. The alternatives? Well, there are things like better planning of communities - trying to keep residential areas, commercial and industrial areas within reasonable distances, investing in public transport and cycle routes to connect the places people need to move to on a regular basis.

But mainly, I think it's a technical fix - somehow we need to eke out what remains of our non-renewables by moving to much more efficient ways of using them and develop new, sustainable, safe and affordable alternatives. Politicians can't legislate to create such breakthroughs, but what they can do is create an environment where the only people who can get us out of this mess - the scientists and engineers - have the best possible shot at it. In the UK we've been particularly bad at undervaluing these people, whilst throwing money at gamblers in the financial services industry who have lost billions for shareholders by getting involved in deals so complicated that they had no real idea what they were doing, then demanded billions from taxpayers to save them and the rest of the economy from the consequences of their actions.

Never mind the dodgy deals which nobody can understand, or trying to trade your way out of a mess. What we need to invest in are the technologies which might be our only hope for saving civilization as we know it. Invest in science eduction, engineering apprenticeships, R & D grants, doing whatever it takes to build, grow and support a science and engineering base which might actually get us safely to a post-fossil fuel world. Putting some real money in that direction instead of chucking it away on a Northern Rock - now if the committee had come up with something along those lines, the government might have been right to listen to them.

Of course, there's no guarantee that the right technologies are out there waiting to be discovered. If not, we're probably doomed, but I'm more optimistic - there are people out there with the imagination, intelligence and technical brilliance to put a mini laboratory down on the frozen polar regions of Mars. If we had more people like that, I think we could crack the coming energy crisis, too.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Education v shouting

I've said almost all I want to about the arrogant, bullying, foul-mouthed persona adopted by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay on TV (it's probably mostly an act, put on in the belief that TV which doesn't involve people shouting at one another is boring, but that's beside the point). One other point did occur to me after writing down my previous rambling post on the subject.

Ostensibly, the reason why professionals or experts like Gord Almighty stand in judgement over lesser mortals in these sort of shows, is because they know lots of stuff which they can teach people who are starting out. At least in part, their role is to educate. Think for a moment how we try to educate our children. I would be willing to bet that there have been few educationalists, at least since the Victorian era, who would advocate moulding their charges' minds by fear and deliberate acts of petty humiliation.

Here at the Gradgrind Academy for the Training of the Lower Orders, we believe that in order to successfully educate a child, that child's spirit must first be thoroughly broken by sarcasm, belittling the child's first imperfect efforts at self-improvement and displays of terrible anger, delivered with a stern, unforgiving countenance. Only when the sin of pride has been wholly driven from the stubborn breast of the ungrateful wretch may the work of moulding this sinful human clay begin.

I don't really think that's the best way to educate anybody. What it is, is a way to dominate them, bend them to your will and make them docile and compliant. Which is why these sort of techniques are beloved of tyrants. It's education in the sense of "political re-education" - i.e. forcing your ideas down your opponents' throats not by force of argument, but by undermining them and then rebuilding them in your own image (as fictionally portrayed in Nineteen Eighty-Four, when the interrogator O'Brien breaks Winston Smith down in order to rebuild him as a model citizen who loves The Party).

So educationally, I think these programmes are pretty valueless. The other educational deficit which they encourage is the bad example; not only are Gordon Ramsay and his like not effective at spreading what skills and experience they may have to offer, but the are probably all too effective at spreading their lack of social skills, lack of emotional self-control, bullying and general rudeness. If you're bothered about children behaving anti-socially, I'd humbly suggest that Gord is setting something of a bad example.

Saturday, 24 May 2008


The prize for best-looking vegetable in our veg patch this year so far goes to the chard (it's often known as Swiss Chard). As you can see, it's the ruby variety, with a rather attractive contrast between the bright red stalks and the lush green leaves. A bit like mini rhubarb. We've got a couple of globe artichokes there as well, which may look spectacular later in the year.

Mind you, although the artichoke may look more dramatic later on, I don't think it combines being edible with being good-looking quite so efficiently as the chard. After all, you can eat all the bits of the chard which appear above ground. Your artichoke, though, is a different beast entirely, consisting of tiny gobbet of squishy edible stuff, surrounded by a massive gothic edifice of spiky inedibility.

So, the chard, with it's balanced scorecard, is still out on top IMHO. But then, I'm no expert - please don't be mislead into thinking that I'm some sort of chard guru, with an almost mystical attunement to the Way of Chard, attained after years of hard study self-sacrifice and meditation. I've eaten the stuff about two or three times, am growing it for the first time and can make no claim to an easy familiarity with things chard-releated.

In fact, I'm not even quite sure about the best way to eat it. I don't think I'm going to be on the phone to my mate Gordon Ramsay for recipe ideas any time soon (not after my last post, anyway), but there is, unsurprisingly, lots of stuff about chard on the internet. Treat the leaves as you would spinach, it says here, either cooked or raw in salads. The stalks are, apparently, rather good sautee'd with garlic.

I also learn that "Swiss" chard is no more Swiss than the cuckoo clock. It's a cultivated descendant of sea beet, native to the Mediterranean area and the "Swiss" name is thought to derive from a Swiss botanist called Koch, who gave the plant its scientific name (beta vulgaris) in the 1800s. I've not checked these facts exhaustively*, but have no reason to believe that they are deliberately misleading parts of an elaborate international conspiracy to hide the real Truth about chard (I'm pretty sure that the black helicopter buzzing around earlier was only the cops checking out the traffic on the M1).

Anyway, there will be time enough to admire our chard before harvest time comes around. Unless, of course, it get nobbled by slugs, before it's time comes. The horror!

* after a few minutes of searching, the only botanist called Koch I could find was German, but sometimes even I give up and think life's too short to look everything up...

Friday, 23 May 2008

Purging the bile - thinking about unpleasantness

This is partly an opportunity to share a chance photo I took of a broken sign in a supermarket car park which seems to tell an unintentional story.

The complete advertisement is completely uninteresting - just a bland, brightly-coloured inducement to buy a phone contract, so you can chatter to your friends about stuff you've just bought, the fact that you're on a train, and other episodes from the incredibly fascinating story of your life and every day to day event in all it's minute and tedious attention to detail... And was it a Thursday or a Wednesday? Or, oh, no, it wasn't though. Oh, who cares anyway because I do not or whatever.

The broken version is much darker and more compelling. It makes me think of Cherie Blair on the phone to a journalist, gagging to blurt out some embarrassing revelation about Gordon Brown which she's been dying to shout from the rooftops. Or the office gossip, sitting at the centre of a web of petty intrigues, working tirelessly to make your daily grind just that little bit more futile and depressing.

It's an example of nastiness being just a bit more wicked and intriguing than the bland and inoffensive. You can call it the cuckoo clock theory, after the Orson Wells quote from The Third Man:

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

The cuckoo clock theory is based on a notoriously dodgy "fact" - as any Internet fact-checking wonk would love to tell you, the first contemporary description of a cuckoo clock comes not from Switzerland, but from Bavaria. So far, so what, you may say, but what annoys me about the cuckoo clock theory isn't the factual error, but the way so many people have picked it up and run with it, their thought processes presumably running something like this:

Being nice to people is like so ... lame and BORING!

So, that must mean that if I bully people a bit and I'm rude to them all the time, I must be, y'know, REALLY INTERESTING!

No. Wrong. An example. I was flicking though the channels a wee while back, when I was unfortunate enough to come across Gordon Ramsay being a complete gobshite to some poor American restaurant owner who'd been desperate enough to ask for the Great Man's advice about how to run his business.

Now I've no doubt that GR is a better cook than this guy. He may well know more about how to run a business. But there he was, sat at his table like Lord Muck, the waitress bringing him his meal, being perfectly polite and asking him if he wanted anything else. His response? "A sick bag." Now call me a skeptic, but I very much doubt whether the food was actually so foul that it would make any normal person vomit. The dish might have been bland, the flavour combinations ill thought out, the ingredients not the best, who knows. But unlikely to be actually inedible. What we had there was just an all too common example of a celeb throwing all his toys out of the pram because he could, like a toddler in a strop.

Toddlers do this stuff because they crave attention and don't know any better. Adults still like attention, but ought to know better. Unfortunately, in out increasingly infantilised culture, they often don't. And in that infantilised culture, a lot of people seem willing to spend their free time watching these emotional retards bullying, shouting and swearing at people lower down the pecking order. I believe it's called reality TV.

At this point, (assuming anyone else ever reads this, which is not a foregone conclusion), somebody's probably thinking something along these lines:

For God's sake, stop being so namby-pamby. I'm sick of not being able to say anything in case I upset someone's precious little feelings. We'd be in a right mess if the people who actually knew what they were talking about kept their traps shut because they're too frightened of offending somebody. And heaven knows what a mess the world would be if every stupid idea and hare-brained plan thought up by an idiot went right ahead, because nobody had the guts to tell it like it is.

To which I would say, excellent point, well made. What I'm criticising here isn't the right of every human being to speak out when they have good reason to think that something is wrong, factually incorrect, a bad idea, badly thought out or executed. That seems to me to be a fundamental right - once we've lost the freedom to point out that the Emperor hasn't got any new clothes, we know we're in a seriously bad place.

Where I think reality TV and the culture of bullying have got it seriously wrong is in making a category mistake. The right to criticise and argue is important, because examining the ideas and information we have might actually help us to make better decisions and understand the world we live in. But programme makers also know that we are attracted to the dark side - that a bit of malice, spite and bullying raises the emotional temperature and adds a bit of excitement. What we end up with is two things going on at once, namely:

1. expert tells amateurs where they're going wrong, people try with varying degrees of success to do better, sometimes even proving the experts wrong

2. important, unpleasant, powerful person rants and raves at lesser mortals, shouting, swearing and bullying them for the benefit of their own obscenely bloated ego / the TV cameras / both

To me, 1. seems OK, if limited - if you're doing something wrong, or reality isn't the way you fondly think it is, you probably need to be told, possibly forcibly. But remember, it's only TV - if your critical thinking is limited to passively imagining you could have done better than that idiot on a reality TV show, then it probably isn't doing you much good, other than making you feel better about yourself. Despite the name, "Reality TV" isn't reality. It's artificial. Philosophers may argue about what reality is - I'm not going into that debate, but I'd suggest your own life is a good place to start looking for it.

2. might be a bit exciting - a bit of anger, conflict and all that. But do so many people really have to get their jollies from watching other people being humiliated? And would it really seem so amusing if your real-world boss started treating you like that? Or if the other kids in the playground started treating your child that way? Or if some tin-pot official with a bit of authority in this or any other country started making people's lives a misery just because he or she could get away with it?

I don't have a problem with people speaking their minds, criticising others, telling the truth as they see it, no matter who might get offended. I do have a problem with bullies who owe their position to putting others down, throwing temper tantrums and rule by fear. Not to mention TV companies encouraging this behaviour and packaging it as "entertainment". And what I have most of a problem with is one posing as the other - humiliating someone "for their own good" in the guise of providing useful advice. That's just despicable.

If you still feel the urge, feel free to watch Gordon Ramsay, Alan Sugar, et al parading their famously swollen senses of self-importance and unsightly lack of adult temper control for your televisual delectation. I'll just continue to make free with the "off" switch and assert my right to think of them as a bunch of sociopathic arses and go off and do something a little more interesting with my free time.

There - I feel better already. Splendid!

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Poem of the day

I love BBC Radio 4's In Our Time. I know it marks me out as a sad ex-Look and Learn reader who really ought to get out more, but just watch me not care; it's still great, in my humble opinion. Name me another radio or TV programme which you could tune in to at random and find yourself learning about topics as diverse as the Black Death, Newton's Laws of Motion, W B Yeats, the Multiverse, the Statue of Liberty, the court of Rudolph II of Bohemia, The Charge of the Light Brigade, the Nicene Creed, genetic mutation or the Fibonacci Sequence? And that's just in the current series. It's a national treasure, I tell you.

Anyway, the other week I was listening to In Our Time's discussion of the Library at Nineveh, an archaeological treasure trove of over 20,000 cuneiform tablets , providing a window into the lost world of the Assyrians and Sumerians. Perhaps the most significant discovery from the library was the text of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Ever since listening to that programme, the opening line of John Masefield's poem Cargoes popped back into my head my head and I've not been able to get rid of it since. Here's the first line of the poem - and the rest:

Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rail, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

I think this is what George Orwell called "good bad literature", or something if the sort. Tum-te-tum rhyme scheme, hazy nostalgia for a lost golden age, almost doggerel. But it's still "good" in the sense that I can't get it out of my head and I find myself savouring the opulence and exoticism of the language.

I wonder whether Masefield was being ironic when he contrasted the exotic cargoes of the distant past with the 'cheap tin trays' of his contemporaries? In the real ancient world, only a tiny, aristocratic minority would be swanning around the ziggurat roof-gardens with peacocks, ivory and sweet white wine (not to mention apes - I'm getting visions of an Assyrian Michael Jackson in a bronze-age Neverland here). The vast majority were peasant farmers with next to nothing. I think those peasants would have been astonished at the material well being of quite ordinary people in Masefield's time - cheap tin trays and railway tickets only seem commonplace when you've got even more yourself. The nostalgia is misplaced, but you can't help warming in it anyway - I feel much the same way when I listen to Kate Rusby's splendid cover of the Kinks' The Village Green Preservation Society - I don't feel nostalgic for "china cups, antique shops and virginity", but I kinda warm to those things when listening to the song.

Someone has commented that the poem's first line is questionable, since Nineveh is 200 miles from the sea. I don't actually have a problem with that, since the city was on one bank of the Tigris and I imagine that a quinquereme might have a shallow enough draft to navigate the river. I do worry about anachronism, though - Nineveh was razed to the ground by the Medes in 612BC, whereas Wikipedia tells me that the quinquereme was invented in the Mediterranean towards the end of the Peloponnesian Wars (431–404 BC).

I enjoy the last verse of the poem as much as the first - I can almost see the spray breaking over the bow of the little steamer and taste the salt spray in on the cold wind. In my mind the March day is bright and the sky over the white-capped breakers is blue and filled with scudding cotton-wool clouds. I get a strange feeling of pride in the dirty, plucky little ship, busily chugging along, like the impish black tug in The Fighting Temeraire.