Friday, 31 October 2014

Dolt or liar?

Humans select. We have to select whenever we choose to focus on A rather than B or C or D or...
We select...
and in selecting we omit...
and in omitting we lie by omission...
because we must select...

If the intent behind the omission is good, then we forgive the partial truth of keeping the focus on A and by implication we forgive lying by omission. We don’t even think of it as lying, but in an important sense it is. It is far too common to relax our guard and call it something else.

Take a gander at this video from a few days ago (h/t Bishop Hill) where Andrew Neil nails Elizabeth Truss to the wall. She is Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and needs to lie by omission to avoid mentioning the lack of global warming in an open and explicit context.

Neil’s key point, that the lack of global warming is significant, is not particularly contentious on either side of the climate debate. Unfortunately Ms Truss has a climate policy to support and Neil keeps on pointing out the elephant in the room.

Is the minister a dolt, a liar, both or something else? My inclination is to dismiss her as a liar and a grossly over-promoted dolt, but maybe that’s not entirely fair. We have a culture of lying because lying by omission is built into our need to focus. We all do it. I do it and so do you because we must focus and to focus is to exclude.

Yet it is still lying unless the focus can be taken as read or is otherwise made explicit. Ms Truss doesn’t want it to be explicit, so we are left with deliberate lying. Or she is a merely a dolt. Or both.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

FU Power


Fradley University in Staffordshire recently announced an internal joint venture between its Sustainable Engineering Facility and its Green Genes Department.

Briefly, the university envisages a radically new form of power generation called the Fradley University Sustainable Eco Green Gender-Neutral Anti-Racist Diverse Power Initiative, snappily condensed to FU Power. It is based on genetically modified hamsters.

The Green Genes Department has been tasked with using the very latest genetic techniques to splice elephant genes into hamsters to create giant one ton hamsters, the biological engine of this exciting new energy source. David Cameron is said to be very interested.

The huge new eco-hamsters will be used in specially engineered power generating treadmills designed by the Sustainable Engineering Facility.

As the eco-hamster rotates the treadmill, it turns a high efficiency turbine to generate electricity, effectively converting hamster food into sustainable power. An interesting wrinkle in this ambitious project is to modify the hamster gut to tolerate low grade cellulose materials such as straw, dried vegetation and even old books.

“Apart from their main feed, we hope our hamsters will consume old books to help with our demanding new recycling targets,” confirms project director Dr Baz Broxtowe during our brief chat in the university dining hall.

“Books?” I ask.

“Yes books - absolutely. Of course we are thinking of books nobody reads these days such as most of the university library. Also books such as old Bibles, encyclopaedias and those great thick novels by Dickens and that Russian guy, Warren Peace.”

“What happens when the eco-hamsters get too old to work the treadmills?” I ask.

“Great question,” Dr Baz replies with enormous enthusiasm. “We intend to recycle them into Power Burgers for local schools. Should be a very acceptable addition to the school meal.

“I’m not sure if schools...” I begin but Dr Baz is on a roll.

“Because our current eco-hamsters are still far too small and much too dozy to work the treadmills we’ve pushed things along and already come up with a few recipes to ease the pressure on project timescales.”

“Really?” I reply, peering anxiously at what I assume is a beef burger.

“Yes. How’s yours?”

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Insights in Tracey Emin’s bed


Have you ever noticed how much human wisdom is fragmented into detached insights? Many insights can't be stitched into a coherent whole because they don’t quite work in all circumstances. Important pieces are always missing from the jigsaw. Piecemeal and incomplete often seems to be the only way.

Yet that doesn’t stop some people from carrying on as if their opinions are a kind of cosmic superglue, as if they are the binding principle. The magic glue is an agenda, allegiance or prejudice which usually comes down to Me. I am the magic glue. Me. Me. Me.

Yet detached insights are one of the most fascinating features of human life. The very existence of blogs and blog readers illustrates that.

It’s like mapping an infinitely complex and infinitely vast terrain. Features are observed and mapped, but a definitive map is never drawn, never can be drawn. The joy of mapping lies in doing it. Forever exploring. It’s one of life’s inexhaustible delights.

Fragmented insights aren’t how we build societies and institutions though. Social life needs fixed maps even if they lead to the most bizarre attempts at social or political navigation. Our need for social structure is not entirely compatible with our search for truth because of the fragmented nature of so many important insights.

Yet after centuries of effort we have managed to bind many physical insights into maps of reality. We call it science and when it comes to mapping physical reality it has no compare. Science may not cover every aspect of our lives and we still have climate science to deal with, but has proved its worth as a means to combine numerous physical insights into reliable maps of reality.

To my mind the arts seem to have taken on board the success of scientific insight to the detriment of artistic insight. As if there is no such thing as artistic insight so anything goes. As if the artist no longer dares hold a mirror to reality because science does that too well. So instead we get stunts, hyperbole, political posturing and some truly ghastly celebrities.

Yet there is obviously such a thing as artistic insight because we’ve seen it for centuries in everything from Shakespeare to political caricature, from literary satire to the subtle suggestiveness of the visual arts.

We don’t see it in Tracey Emin’s bed though.

Monday, 27 October 2014

The robots are coming


It is often said that robots, computers and automation will eventually destroy great swathes of employment. There will be little left for humans to do as the machines take over. 

Fear of automation has been common since the Luddites of course, so how should we react to these concerns? 

One response is that new businesses will spring up as old ones die, providing new goods and services as the old ways are automated into oblivion. Human ingenuity is boundless it is said. Nobody should bet against it.

Certainly human ingenuity deserves great respect for its sheer fecundity. Economic optimists have been right so far, although millions of unemployed in the eurozone may have a different perspective. 

Perhaps as the future is unpredictable we may as well extrapolate from the past and remain optimistic. It’s healthier for one thing.

And yet...

Suppose we turn the question around and ask how many worthwhile human activities there are and how many are suited to financial transactions. If the number, however inexact is limited, then we’ll eventually run out of worthwhile things to do for money. We’ll have to base at least some new businesses on things that in one sense or another aren’t worthwhile.

Well that's not new either. Patent medicines for example, psychoanalysis for another. So perhaps it doesn't matter anyway. It all depends on how we choose to define worthwhile activities, how relaxed we are about creating new needs for the sake of creating new needs, whether exploitation really matters if the exploited are happy.  

If customers can be found then maybe it's not for anyone else to judge. Tattoo studios? Nail bars? Recycling? TV soaps? War?

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Putting the clock back

Well here we are again - we've wound the clocks back an hour. Fortunately many are now radio controlled, but the absurdity of it grates.

Grey dusk falls an hour earlier, the lights go on an hour earlier and yet again our sanity is called into question. Why bother? What difference does it make?

Yes we all know the arguments, but they don't amount to anything worth discussing. Hours of daylight are not changed by a single millisecond. It's as daft as trying to change the climate by buying a Toyota Prius. Who on earth would do that?

Friday, 24 October 2014

Work till you drop?


The other day my wife and I were chatting about work and the enormous impact it has on our lives. Where we live for example. The house we are in now is the first we ever bought without location being dictated by my job.

Going back much further, my family has links with Derby stretching back to the nineteenth century when two of my great grandfathers moved there to work on the railway. One was a teacher from Ireland. Presumably the railways offered better prospects for an educated man.

It isn’t just where we live though, the greater impact is on our lives. Making the best of holidays, scrambling to get things done at the weekend, wondering if a career change would be worthwhile, scraping ice of the car windscreen every winter, office politics, meetings, training courses, job vacancies to fill, presentations to sort out, reports to write.

Even the most routine work must have an endlessly complex and sometimes malign impact on the most productive years of our lives, on who we are and how we react to the outside world. Even our habits of thought. Work uses up our energies and talents, squeezes the best years out of our system into the unimaginably vast pool of things we do for money.

Much of it isn’t malign of course. We all learn about life simply because we learn about people and institutions, the limits of freedom and the need to do something with all those years of productive life.

I have few regrets in spite of my generally negative take on modern bureaucracy. I had it easy though. I’m not one of those destined to work for fifty years or more before a pension becomes payable. Payable to the survivors that is - a number of my erstwhile colleagues wouldn’t have made it.

So where next with the world of work? 

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Ever Decreasing Circles

Number 11, 1952

Written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, Ever Decreasing Circles was a popular BBC situation comedy running through four series from 1984 to 1989.

The main character is Martin Bryce, an obsessive middle class suburban fusspot married to Ann, his loyal stay at home wife. Martin’s orderly existence is continually threatened by Paul Ryman, the witty, charming and effortlessly capable next door neighbour.

To my mind Martin says something about the modern world, but I can’t tell if it is what Esmonde and Larbey intended. He is a figure of fun, a caricature of the domestic control freak nobody ought to like. Yet Martin is also a decent and honourable man, painfully so in many episodes because he is not unaware of his oddities and failures.

So why would anyone set out to make fun of a decent and honourable man, especially as his controlling behaviour is so risible and so often unsuccessful? Martin may be silly, but he is no bully and no threat to anyone.

For example.

In one episode (Jumping to Conclusions) Ann has to write an essay on Jackson Pollock for her Open University course. Martin decides to help her – it’s his contribution to steering her towards a more fulfilling life. True to his character, Martin has a rock solid faith in his wife’s intellectual abilities in spite of his equally firm faith in his capacity to direct those abilities.

After about a second’s consideration, Martin’s contribution is that Jackson Pollock couldn’t paint. He airily assumes Ann will follow this line in her essay simply because it’s so obvious to him that Jackson Pollock couldn’t paint. Ann, being more modern, is bemused by Martin’s dismissal of Pollock and her bemusement is later shared by neighbour Paul who offers clandestine help in writing the essay.

Martin finds out about the clandestine help and assumes Ann is having a fling with Paul. He packs his bag and leaves her a note saying he has gone for good and hopes she will be happy with Paul. The point here is that true to Martin’s character, he genuinely hopes Ann will be happy. His love for her is essentially selfless and in its bottomless decency probably beyond most of us.

Not only that, but in the grand scheme of things it is by no means obvious that Jackson Pollock’s work was anything more than a series of worthless daubs. Martin has a point, but not one suited to the world of Ann, Paul and presumably those who made the programme.

It’s a fascinating contrast. The unsympathetic yet thoroughly decent Martin isn’t allowed to add a single atom of cultural value to the modern world. He belongs to a narrow, blinkered and culturally impoverished past and it is no surprise that he fails so dismally to see Pollock's artistic merits.

Of course situation comedy characters are two dimensional and bolted together for the laughs so we shouldn’t read too much into their construction. It’s not as if decent characters haven’t been used for their comic potential either. 

Even so, there is a dark side to our willingness to laugh at Martin Bryce.