Sunday 31 August 2014

The bureaucrat's prayer

There, with its great red hands on the knees parted beneath a white and flowing robe, sat Power — his deity; and a silent prayer, far too instinctive and inevitable to be expressed in words, rose through the stagnant, dusty atmosphere:

“O great image that put me here, knowing as thou must the failings of my fellow-beings, give me power to see that they do right; let me provide for them the moral and the social diet they require. 

For, since I have been here, I have daily, hourly, humbly felt more certain of what it is they really want; more assured that, through thy help, I am the person who can give it them. 

O great image, before thou didst put me here I was not quite certain about anything, but now, thanks be to thee, everything is daily clearer and more definite; and I am less and less harassed by my spirit. Let this go on, great image, till my spirit is utterly at rest, and I am cold and still and changeless as this marble corridor.”

John Galsworthy - Power (1908)

Saturday 30 August 2014

Sponsored narratives

Almost all public narratives are sponsored. For centuries life was dominated by narratives sponsored by religious and political elites, although the word sponsored is perhaps a little mild for those rough and ready days.

The only other narratives must have been private local narratives conducted in the home, in the fields or the alehouse away from censorious ears. Mostly forgotten now.

These days the situation is much the same. Virtually every public narrative is politically or commercially sponsored although that particular dividing line has become blurred. Sponsored religious narratives are less common than they were. Sponsored academic narratives may or may not have political or commercial backers, but this is a complex area.

Sponsored narratives aren't necessarily false or even misleading, but sponsorship casts a shadow over their veracity. It corrodes the altruistic possibilities of human discourse, inserts covert sympathies, manipulates emotions and loyalties, inserts the levers of power into the very heart of our language. 

Sponsoring a narrative isn't purely a financial matter though. Money certainly comes into it, because publicity comes into it, but so do the endless subtleties of social caution and that ingrained fear of new ideas we all know too well. Above that we have the advisory phone call, the discreet lunch, the country house party, the raised eyebrow, the nudge, the wink and the old school tie. 

Even Marxism soon became a sponsored narrative after the Russian revolution. Many fell for it and quite a few wormed their way into UK governments. As working conditions improved, socialism morphed into just another sponsored narrative. Sponsored by unions, powerful bureaucracies, charities and well funded pressure groups. Eventually sponsored by government itself - all governments of whichever political hue.

So perhaps we who immerse ourselves in the fascinating possibilities of unsponsored narratives are not likely to achieve much apart from a few pinpricks. The reason is obvious enough – it’s why narratives are sponsored in the first place - to ensure that most people only encounter them.

For example the BBC only broadcasts sponsored narratives. I’m sure this accounts for its servile treatment of the Royal Family and why it still broadcasts shows such as Songs of Praise. In spite of the BBC’s left-leaning political sympathies, vague sympathy for the monarchy and the C of E are still sponsored narratives. On the whole, republicanism and atheism are not.

For the same reason, the BBC was bound to broadcast the orthodox global warming message simply because this is so obviously the sponsored narrative. In comparison with Big Green, climate scepticism is an unsponsored narrative, although there are hints that energy policy debacles may yet change all that.

UKIP too has problems with sponsored narratives. The supposed racism of UKIP voters is clearly a sponsored narrative, as is the fruitcake meme. UKIP will have to do something about that, most likely by avoiding genuinely radical reform. In other words, by avoiding unsponsored narratives and by easing its way towards more sponsored narratives. UKIP will have to become mainstream in order to become mainstream

Sponsored narratives are fact of life. We’ll never get away from them.

Friday 29 August 2014

The day I met the Queen

Actually, as far as I know I’ve never met the Queen unless she goes around in disguise. In which case she could be the woman with the ugly dog but I don’t think so. Yet what if I did meet her unexpectedly in an informal setting?

Imagine a gentrified provisions shop out in the country somewhere. Instead of driving past we stop for a little smackerel of something. While we’re mulling over a tempting cheese counter, in walks this little old lady in a headscarf. By the way, speaking of cheese, never buy Stinking Bishop – it’s outstandingly unpleasant.

To continue. Something tells me the headscarfed one is Her Royalness, so what do I do? Now as I’ve never met the Queen, I’m not primed with the peasant’s section of the royal protocol manual (73rd edition), such as no high fives and no backslapping bonhomie.

However, even without the manual I’m sure I’d dredge up some kind of appropriate behaviour. I’d be suitably polite and deferential of course - and not just because the big chap next to her might have a machine pistol tucked into the waistband of his trousers.

The point I’m making with this absurdly improbable scenario is that I’d still manage to dredge up certain behaviours I’d never actually used before. So if I’ve never used them before, where did they come from?

Lots of places obviously – TV for example, but maybe the most interesting answer has to do with our repertoire of behaviours. We’re pretty good at adapting to circumstances, even those we’ve never come across before. As we all know, we only need a degree of similarity to something we’ve already encountered and off we jolly well go.

We do exactly the same thing when our beliefs are challenged. It doesn’t matter how good an argument might be. If it challenges our belief we can dredge up something to meet the challenge and send any would-be challenger packing. Always.

We all know this but many folk still seem to assume that belief is somehow a matter of rational choice. Supposedly we weigh our options using reason as our trusty guide. Absolutely ludicrous notion but there we are. Take a look around if you don't believe me. No, belief is a fixed repertoire of behaviours, a standard way responding to certain verbal or written challenges.

I imagine those challenges are mostly blogging or chatting in the pub or office, but the point is the same. Belief is part of our repertoire of behaviours, essentially no different to my repertoire of possible reactions to meeting the Queen.

It’s only when we understand this that we introduce the possibility of scepticism, that strange ability which seems to bring free will within reach. For habitual sceptics, the response to many challenges is not wholly automatic. Beliefs can be challenged. 

Not many and not easily, but the possibility isn’t completely closed.

Thursday 28 August 2014

The Pottery Cottage murders

Not far from yesterday's Beeley Moor walk is Eastmoor, where the Pottery Cottage murders took place in 1977.

The Glasgow Herald April 28th 1977

Four shots were fired by police marksmen at an escaped rapist, William Hughes, before he stopped a frenzied axe attack on his hostage Mrs Gill Moran, and collapsed dead an inquest was told yesterday.

The shootings occurred after a car chase through Derbyshire and Cheshire, which ended when Hughes crashed at a police roadblock.

The Chesterfield inquest was on Hughes who escaped while being taken from Leicester Prison to Chesterfield Court. And on Richard Moran aged 36, his daughter, Sarah, and Mrs Moran's parents, Mr Arthur Minton, aged 72, and Mrs Amy Minton, aged 70.

The four members of the family were found by police in their home at Pottery Cottage, Eastmoor, where they had been killed by Hughes...

...Hughes suddenly cried, "Your time is up" and raised an axe above his head. Inspector Pell said he fired at Hughes's heat [sic] but Hughes began to attack Mrs Moran. Two more shots did not stop Hughes. Detective Constable Nicholls then fired one shot and Hughes collapsed. 

The jury returned unanimous verdicts of murder in the case of the Morans and the Mintons, and justifiable homicide in the case of Hughes.

So given the tragic circumstances, as good a result as could have been expected - Billy Hughes shot dead. Had he survived he could still be alive today as capital punishment was long gone.  

Yet Moors murderer Ian Brady is still alive, the man and his grotesque crimes still festering on in the public memory. In my view this is a worse outcome than in the Hughes case. How can that be? 

I think there are cases where certain crimes are so appalling that they must be given a decent burial. I know the arguments, we all know them, but there are cases where the only thing to do is consign them to the past. 

One cannot do that for surviving friends and relatives, but the crime itself can consigned to the dismal history of human wickedness. If that means burying the perpetrator then so be it. 

Wednesday 27 August 2014

The road to Sheffield

Had a fine walk across Beeley Moor today. We reached the moor via the adjoining and delightfully named Gibbet Moor above Chatsworth. Imagine trudging across high moorland on a bitter November afternoon only to have a moorland gibbet cheer you on your way.

Beeley moor is like that even though the gibbets are long gone. At least I think they are. The moor is attractive in summer but even then there is something a little grim about the place. An extraordinarily atmospheric area even on a clear day. I love it.

Today the heather was out in force and the views excellent with very good visibility. Not easily captured on a photograph though - the superb expanse of it under a vast sky.

The moor is steeped in history from Hob Hurst's House to a number of old guide stoops such as this one directing travellers towards Sheffield. 

These stone guideposts, or 'stoops', were set at intersections of packhorse routes, were required by an Act of 1697. Beeley Moor is particularly rich in examples. They fell into disuse in the second half of the 18th Century as Turnpike roads superseded the old packhorse routes.

Is that a local hand I wonder - with three fingers?

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Islam and the youth bulge

I suppose by now we’ve all read as much as we choose to read about the beheading of James Foley. Horrible of course and as far as one can tell Mr Foley accepted his appalling fate with a dignity his murderers perhaps did not perceive.

As for the wider message, I’m not sure there is one apart from a certain resigned acceptance that this is something the world has to deal with without itself falling in love with extreme violence.

There is however a strong temptation to condemn Islam as a whole and a corresponding temptation to regret that it ever took root in this country. As an atheist, these are temptations I am less and less inclined to resist.

When I see the faces of those young men sucked in by the insane rhetoric of older men, I’m reminded of the theory of the youth bulge. Certainly the pattern fits. If sound, then we may presume that Muslim violence is something which will decline due to demographic change. An excess of stupidly frustrated testosterone will have drained away. Maybe time will tell.

As for the present, I get no sense of fear in the wider population. No sense that terrorism actually manages to terrorise anyone but those in the direct firing line. Instead I get a sense that traditional Islam is failing to deal with an increasingly materialistic and secular world where women are not chattels and ancient books are merely ancient books. Failing because it has no orthodox response to these trends.

This inevitable failure plus the crazy young men and the evil-minded old men have come together in a particularly ghastly way. So it will continue, but not forever.

In which case, Mr Foley did not die in vain. His death was even heroic because it represents progress. Any failure of naked barbarism is progress. The world is changing and his death reminds us that his murderers belong to the past. A savage past but not frightening – simply because it is the past.

It may well point to a future where, within a couple of generations, the Islamic extremes we see today are gone. The old men have passed away; the crazy young men are now old - those who contrived to survive their own stupidity at least.

If so, there is not much to be gained by accommodation or appeasement. It won’t work and may even delay the slowly grinding wheels of social change.

Saturday 23 August 2014

Bomb the Ban

From Wikipedia. Sort of.

We saw a group of fancy dress hippies today but they didn't quite look the part. 

Crikey I've added a link to the word "hippies" just in case.

But their clothes weren't quite right, they weren't quite right and there wasn't a hint of that round-shouldered scraggy look I still remember so well. The main giveaway was their CND flag. 

It was upside down.

Friday 22 August 2014

A sense of community

From Wikipedia

Here's an interesting quote many folk will have come across at one time or another.

He could not see, it was not born in him to see, that the highest good of the community as it stands is no longer the highest good of even the average individual. He thought that, because the community represents millions of people, therefore it must be millions of times more important than any individual, forgetting that the community is an abstraction from the many, and is not the many themselves. 

Now when the statement of the abstract good for the community has become a formula lacking in all inspiration or value to the average intelligence, then the “common good” becomes a general nuisance, representing the vulgar, conservative materialism at a low level.
D.H. Lawrence - The Rainbow (1915)

Such a common word isn't it? Community. What could be nicer than to be part of a community? Yet a community binds us together in a way which may be benign or oppressive, but is too often merely political. 

Community. A community facility. A community resource. A community organiser. Wasn't Obama a community organiser? Or maybe a community organizer. Sounds grim to me. Not a job I'd relish. 

Unfortunately Lawrence was right. The idea of community has become a formula lacking in all inspiration or value to the average intelligence.

We've forgotten that bit haven't we - the inspiration? We've sucked the human juice out of a useful notion and made it dull, mechanical and more than a little unhealthy.

Thursday 21 August 2014

Climate and the bourgeoisie

An early low-carbon bourgeois
From Wikipedia

To my mind the orthodox climate narrative is obviously political, not a scientific discovery about the future. Equally obvious - it was designed for maximum bourgeois appeal. So what is the attraction of such a superficially alarming narrative?

As we all know, the orthodox climate narrative is wrapped around an apparent threat to bourgeois comforts via drought, floods, rising sea levels and many other catastrophes. Sounds scary, but the mitigation part of the narrative holds out a juicy promise of unlimited future comforts via sustainable energy.

Admittedly one would have to be gullible to swallow the sustainable energy guff, but that is what feed-in tariffs are for - to create a misleading sense of familiarity with wind and solar. Familiarity is half the battle. Add in a green badge for saving the planet and the job’s mostly done.

Saving the planet by developing clean, everlasting energy sources. What else offers more appeal to the bourgeois sense of entitlement? What else offers such balm to the uneasy modern conscience?

The up-front demands are minimal. A spot of recycling, some curly light bulbs and a Toyota Prius on the drive. No neighbour can beat it for quietly sanctimonious swank.

Not only that, but the potential rewards are enormous – nothing less than a life of permanent comfort. Because it’s sustainable isn’t it? That’s the carrot. Beneath the sanctimonious shroud-waving, the climate narrative has a deeply selfish appeal – deferred gratification on a humongous scale.

No wonder the Guardian and the BBC push it with such sanctimonious relish. No wonder they react with such swivel-eyed malice towards anyone who might threaten the dream.

Many climate sceptics seem both angry and confused at the casual dumping of scientific integrity by the climate narrative. I think this is because the rewards so covertly offered to the climate faithful are hugely underestimated. Apart from five centuries of scientific progress the sacrifice is not excessive for those able to afford their energy bills without undue stress. Yet the supposed gains are disproportionately colossal.

Seth Pecksniff is alive and well. These days he recycles his Waitrose wine bottles, pops his old trousers in the charity bag and drives a Toyota Prius on mileage allowance.

The attempt has been made, and wrongly, to make a class of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie is simply the contented portion of the people. The bourgeois is the man who now has time to sit down. A chair is not a caste. But through a desire to sit down too soon, one may arrest the very march of the human race.

Victor Hugo - Les Misérables (1862)

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Beneath the social construction

Beneath the social construction, that complicated marvel of a structure, there are excavations of all sorts. There is the religious mine, the philosophical mine, the economic mine, the revolutionary mine. 

Such and such a pick-axe with the idea, such a pick with ciphers. Such another with wrath. People hail and answer each other from one catacomb to another. Utopias travel about underground, in the pipes. There they branch out in every direction. They sometimes meet, and fraternize there. 

Jean-Jacques lends his pick to Diogenes, who lends him his lantern. Sometimes they enter into combat there. Calvin seizes Socinius by the hair. But nothing arrests nor interrupts the tension of all these energies toward the goal, and the vast, simultaneous activity, which goes and comes, mounts, descends, and mounts again in these obscurities, and which immense unknown swarming slowly transforms the top and the bottom and the inside and the outside. 

Society hardly even suspects this digging which leaves its surface intact and changes its bowels. There are as many different subterranean stages as there are varying works, as there are extractions. What emerges from these deep excavations? The future.

Victor Hugo - Les Misérables (1862)

I like this quote. Social change is the result of a kind of disjointed undermining. Even the miners have little idea of consequences, however fanatically they dig away down there.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

The power game


Clean Technica reports on the Westermost Rough offshore wind farm.

The United Kingdom celebrated the installation of its first 6 MW wind turbine over the weekend, having erected the first of 35 Siemens 6 MW turbines at the Westermost Rough offshore wind farm in the North Sea.

The Westermost Rough offshore wind farm is a joint venture between DONG Energy and its partners Marubeni Corporation and the UK Green Investment Bank.

Is that this Marubeni Corporation?

Marubeni Corporation, a Japanese trading company involved in the handling of products and provision of services in a broad range of sectors around the world, including power generation, entered a plea of guilty today for its participation in a scheme to pay bribes to high-ranking government officials in Indonesia to secure a lucrative power project.

And this Marubeni Corporation?

In January 2012, Marubeni Corporation agreed to pay a US$54.6 million criminal penalty to settle multiple US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) charges relating to its work as an agent for the TSKJ joint venture. The TSKJ joint venture comprising Technip, Snamprogetti Netherlands, Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) and JGC Corporation hired Marubeni to bribe lower-level Nigerian government officials to help it obtain and retain contracts to build liquefied natural gas facilities on Bonny Island in Nigeria. TSKJ paid Marubeni US$51 million which was intended, in part, to be used to bribe Nigerian government officials.

Of course I am not implying or suggesting that there is anything questionable about Marubeni Corporation or the Westermost Rough project.

Monday 18 August 2014

How to be overweight

After a recent visit to a Little Chef, I've been wondering just how easy or difficult it is to be grossly overweight. I'm sure keen weight watchers know the answer to this already, but how many extra calories do you need to put on the pounds and keep them there? has a calculator which I'll assume is reliable, so I began with a BBC report taken from the ONS which says the average English male in 2010 was 38 years old, 5ft 9in tall and weighed 13.16 stone.

Okay, so the calculator says he should consume from 2090 to 2700 calories per day to maintain that weight depending on how sedentary he is. Let's take to 2400 calories for someone who is mostly standing.

Next I doubled the average guy's weight from 13.16 stone to 26.32 stone. That sounds pretty hefty to me. Going back to the calculator our not so average Englishman should consume from 3100 to 4000 calories per day to maintain his new weight, again depending on how sedentary he is. Let's take to 3550 calories for someone who is mostly standing - although that may have become less probable.

So to maintain double the average weight, our average Englishman needs an extra 1150 calories. That's not much more than a Medium Italian pizza from Pizza Hut

From the same source, the average woman in England weighed 11 stone and was 5ft 3in tall. Let's assume she's also 38 years old. So to maintain double her average weight, our average Englishwoman needs an extra 960 calories. 

To my considerable surprise, maintaining a such a huge weight as 26 stone possibly isn't that difficult. It only seems to be a pizza a day. Doesn't seem enough to me but I'm not an expert on these matters. I've never had a weight problem but I do enjoy pizza.

Sunday 17 August 2014

Heat and light

We recently returned from a week in a Norfolk cottage, a converted stable where the main living area was also a kitchen diner. The place was comfortable and pleasantly warm in the evening. 

In fact I noticed the room temperature always rose slightly during the evening even though we never turned on the central heating.  According to the room thermostat, the temperature tended to rise from about 20°C in the early evening to about 23°C by 11pm.

Initially puzzled, I eventually realised that the light bulbs were not the energy saving type but old fashioned incandescent bulbs. They were opalescent candle bulbs so the difference wasn’t immediately obvious. Seven 40 watt bulbs were pumping a little less than 280watts of heat into the room as soon as we switched on the lights.

At this time of year with darker evenings and summer fading away, it’s a useful effect I’d forgotten as we’ve used energy saving bulbs at home for years.

As the room thermostat was in the living room, it will only switch on the heating when the heat from the lighting becomes inadequate. Even then, it will only top up the heat from those old fashioned light bulbs.

It’s not always simple, this energy saving lark.

Saturday 16 August 2014

WiFi and Hurricane Bertha

In the unlikely event that my lucubrations have been missed, my excuse is that I’ve just spent a week on holiday without web access. 

Yes the place had WiFi as advertised, but this was a cottage in North Norfolk where WiFi seems to have some kind of local meaning.The phone signal was feeble too, so we enjoyed a whole week with only TV available to keep tabs on the outside world. Quite relaxing actually.

I took the above picture of Hurricane Bertha from the Norfolk Coast Path. The old girl was still impressive even in her dotage – had us running for cover anyhow.

More later.

Friday 8 August 2014

A horror of being wrong

From Wikipedia

Some people, and I think I’m one of them, have a problem with being wrong. It manifests itself as a certain lack of robustness when it comes to attacking almost any social malaise or political stupidity. Almost always there are caveats. Almost always arguments are less robust than they could be. Note the almost.

I’ve been reading reams of G K Chesterton lately, mainly because I think he illustrates the problem very well. He understood the art of argument, the need to ignore the inevitable weakness of any standpoint and play to its strengths. The need to have a robust standpoint in the first place. Take these three quotes as an example.

Surely, when all is said, the ultimate objection to the English public school is its utterly blatant and indecent disregard of the duty of telling the truth.

But no English school-boy is ever taught to tell the truth, for the very simple reason that he is never taught to desire the truth. From the very first he is taught to be totally careless about whether a fact is a fact; he is taught to care only whether the fact can be used on his “side” when he is engaged in “playing the game.”

England is the country of the Party System, and it has always been chiefly run by public-school men. Is there anyone out of Hanwell who will maintain that the Party System, whatever its conveniences or inconveniences, could have been created by people particularly fond of truth?
G K Chesterton - What's Wrong with the World (1910)

I don't find it easy to write in this robust manner because what Chesterton says isn’t true - there are glaring holes. To begin with, Chesterton himself attended a public school - St Paul's School. So where does that leave his own attitude to truth?

On the other hand, a disproportionate number of our political elite slither out of public schools and adapt to a culture of routine lying like ducks to water. In other words there is at least some connection between habitual lying, carelessness with facts and public schools.

The trouble is, I would not find it easy to ignore the caveats as Chesterton so blithely and persuasively does. The cynic in me says that is because Chesterton is doing exactly that of which he accuses the political classes. Yet it works. The point is made and it lingers - as it is supposed to linger.

But all sorts of things go through our heads, and some seem to linger, and some don’t.

Thursday 7 August 2014



I don't know where I picked up on the Seasteading Institute, but some big ideas are still out there.

The vision of seasteading is an urgent one. We can already see that existing political systems are straining to cope with the realities of the 21st century. We need to create the next generation of governance: banking systems to better handle the inevitable financial crises, medical regulations that protect people without hindering innovation, and democracies that ensure our representatives truly represent us.

Seasteaders believe that governments shouldn’t be like the cell phone carrier companies, with few choices and high customer-lock-in. Instead, we envision a vibrant startup sector for governments, with many small groups testing out innovative ideas as they compete to better serve their citizens’ needs.

Currently, it is very difficult to experiment with alternative social systems on a small scale; countries are so enormous that it is hard for an individual to make much difference. The world needs a place where those who wish to experiment with building new societies can go to test out their ideas. All land on Earth is already claimed, making the oceans humanity’s next frontier.

I may be too sceptical, but somehow this idea feels both impractical and designed for wealthy people. I'm not even sure if I like the idea - in fact I don't. Will there be hills and valleys and wayside pubs? I think not. And what about meals? Somewhat fishy I presume.

I'm sure Captain Nemo's version was better, but I also detect a note of... not exactly panic but something close to it. Currently, it is very difficult to experiment with alternative social systems on a small scale.

Indeed it is and we aren't likely to improve that situation by shoving everything into the grubby paws of EU and UN bureaucrats. 

Wednesday 6 August 2014

A Moral Principle gets wet

Tarr Steps - Exmoor

A Moral Principle met a Material Interest on a bridge wide enough for but one.

“Down, you base thing!” thundered the Moral Principle, “and let me pass over you!” 

The Material Interest merely looked in the other’s eyes without saying anything. 

“Ah,” said the Moral Principle, hesitatingly, “let us draw lots to see which shall retire till the other has crossed.” 

The Material Interest maintained an unbroken silence and an unwavering stare. 

“In order to avoid a conflict,” the Moral Principle resumed, somewhat uneasily, “I shall myself lie down and let you walk over me.” 

Then the Material Interest found a tongue, and by a strange coincidence it was its own tongue. “I don’t think you are very good walking,” it said. “I am a little particular about what I have underfoot. Suppose you get off into the water.” 

It occurred that way.

Ambrose Bierce - Fantastic Fables (1899)

One of Bierce's many word cartoons where the reader supplies their own image. A great alternative for those who can't draw. My mental image for Bierce's two chaps on the bridge is in the style of a Punch cartoon by Sir John Tenniel. For me it maintains the vintage aura.

Mind you, although there is a vintage aspect to Moral Principles fighting Material Interests on a bridge, the outcome is bang up to date.

From Wikipedia

Tuesday 5 August 2014

A light dies down

It is certain that up to a point in the evolution of Self most people find life quite exciting and thrilling. But when middle age arrives, often prematurely, they forget the thrill and excitements; they become obsessed by certain other lesser things that are deficient in any kind of Cosmic Vitality. The thrill goes out of life: a light dies down and flickers fitfully; existence goes on at a low ebb — something has been lost. From this numbed condition is born much of the blind anguish of life.
G K Chesterton - What's Wrong with the World (1910)

It takes a certain kind of observer to see this kind of social issue, to identify it as an issue and present it cogently. It requires a sceptical cast of mind grounded in what is rather than what ought to be. A degree of detachment from approved social narratives.

Our weird culture has become obsessed with what ought to be as opposed to what simply is. A frantic political correctness is on the march and doesn't know when or where to stop and look around. Our supposedly technical and rational culture has meekly succumbed to swivel-eyed hysterical posturing.

The delicate flowering of each individual human spirit becomes a feared strangeness, unwanted. A thing to be covertly damned from every secular pulpit and quietly rooted out from our fanatically domesticated garden where nothing grows naturally.  

We grow up in our feverish, artificial civilization, believing that the real, satisfying things are complex and difficult to obtain. Our lives become unnaturally stressed and tormented by the pitiless and incessant struggle for social conditions which are, at best, second-rate and ultimately disappointing.
G K Chesterton - What's Wrong with the World (1910)

Chesterton had his allegiances too, his treasured notions none could challenge, his core beliefs of right and wrong. Yet he also had a sceptic's eye, a genial observer's eye unclouded by fashionable enthusiasms. A century later we haven't quite lost his gift, but in spite of his enduring popularity we never learned Chesterton's lessons. And really - it's not as if they were even new.

Yet I think what he didn't foresee was how the evolving world of electronic communication would become a tool of mass propaganda. How the spread of information could so easily we turned into the spread of misinformation.

In his day, the great concern was the power of newspaper proprietors.  What he probably didn't foresee was the kind of large scale collusion we see in mass communication. It isn't merely the narrative-weavers, but our own failure to understand the pitiless and incessant struggle for social conditions which are, at best, second-rate and ultimately disappointing.

Perhaps for most of us, the light dies down too early.

Monday 4 August 2014

Raise a glass to the prophets

To my mind, one of the greatest blights on the intellectual landscape is the wannabe prophet. The guy with a pocketful of adjectives who claims intimacy with the future. The prophesy bit may well be buried under a few layers of technical froth, but it’s usually visible to those who take the trouble to look.

Frustratingly you can’t check everything emitted by pseudo prophets because links are absent or not quite relevant or there are just too many to check. These latter prophets seem to hypnotise their acolytes into a kind of stunned acquiescence. The prophet squirts out a morass of comfy cant which moulds itself tightly around acolyte prejudices. It’s like watching a snake snacking on a kid’s hamster.

When tackling the prophet issue I find it’s a good idea to stick to two key mantras as a protective armour against becoming hopelessly lost in their rhetoric.

Mantra 1 – the future is unknown and unknowable. There are a few clues and regularities but these are mostly common knowledge available to all. Such as night following day.

Mantra 2 – prophets have been with us forever. They are a feature of the landscape like rocks, trees and babbling brooks. Some of their guesses are bound to come good through sheer breadth of coverage, but in those rare cases I just pause for a moment and remember those monkeys typing out Shakespeare’s plays.

There are exceptions of course. Some writers such as G K Chesterton have been remarkably prescient about social and political change simply because he was an adept people-watcher and a profound sceptic when it came to novel social enthusiasms.

So who are the prophets these days? Well they swarm through the environment, economics and politics like locusts. Too many to count. Their numbers are so vast because it’s a popular pastime for the inflated ego, but there are prophets who manipulate the future too. Their prophesies come true because in a sense they make them come true. These are the guys who know how to spin desirable illusions.

If it had existed it did exist. And if it did exist, it was worth having. You could call it an illusion if you liked. But an illusion which is a real experience is worth having.

The new prophets have money, lots and lots of money. Their illusions have depth, subtlety and richly persuasive narratives. They also have professionals – employees whose job it is to promote illusions, weave them into the complexities of daily life, hide their origins and their purpose from the vulgar gaze.

Prophesy has a major weakness though, its tendency toward the scare story or doom mongering. Illusion weavers seem to have an ineradicable fixation with a notion that people must be manipulated by pessimism – only rarely by optimism. Hence the scare story as the narrative vehicle of choice.

D H Lawrence, G K Chesterton and Thomas Hardy all wrote about it – how individuals, families and especially societies so often conspire against the flowering of the human spirit. How inevitable it is that free spirits be brought back to earth – sooner or later.

The guy with the placard saying Prepare To Meet Thy Doom, he’s the handy figure of fun, the butt of a thousand cartoon jokes, but he’s not the problem. Never was.

So those who sit in offices, those with digital placards destined to be woven into our lives by professionals – maybe we should treat them as figures of fun too. Maybe we should despise them and raise a sardonic glass to their antics, because in the end their manipulations are perhaps susceptible to a genial determination to get on with life and enjoy it.

Certainly, we would sacrifice all our wires, wheels, systems, specialties, physical science and frenzied finance for one half-hour of happiness such as has often come to us with comrades in a common tavern. I do not say the sacrifice will be necessary; I only say it will be easy.
G K Chesterton - What's Wrong with the World (1910)

Sunday 3 August 2014

It is not illegal to publish lies

Imagine an app which tells you when someone is lying, whether verbally or via the written word. 

At a deeper level it would parse any narrative or even a conversation and tell you if it has anything to say about the real world. In ambiguous situations it would parse linked references and comments to come up with some kind of consensus, although we know how dodgy consensus can be.

Yet suppose the app went a little further and learned your favoured sources, weighing its conclusions accordingly and adding a caveat to that effect. Maybe it could run on something such as Google Glass with a simple traffic light indicator for initial impressions - red, amber or green. Green? How’s that for irony?

A little fanciful perhaps, but the bits and pieces are coming together. Imagine what the security services must be up to already, reading all our emails, blogs and comments. Or try the BlaBlaMeter as a rather more down to earth example. Imagine how profoundly the app would affect everything from commerce to politics, from art to song lyrics to a history lecture. It would be a game changer like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

For example.
Some decades ago I read a review of Erich von Däniken’s book Chariot of the Gods? If you haven’t read it, the book purports to present evidence that alien beings visited Earth in ancient times, leaving traces of their visits. 

The book is trash and after I’d waded through it I recall one review which pointed out something which has stayed with me ever since – it is not illegal to publish lies. Not that I'm accusing von Däniken of anything but wholesome veracity you understand.

However, apart from certain fairly well defined circumstances such as libel, it’s not illegal to publish lies. In some cases it may be illegal to publish the truth, but that’s another issue.

Over the years, probably as a distraction from official lying, commercial advertisers have been made to ply their trade within a regulatory framework designed to weed out the more egregious lies. Oddly enough this is not the case with many other areas of life. Iraq and WMD for example.

For some reason it is perfectly okay for politicians, governments and NGOs to pump out material which is a farrago of lies and misinformation from start to finish. 

Would we have it otherwise though? I suspect not because free speech, such as it is, is far too precious for us to take any more risks, particularly regulatory risks. Perhaps a viable alternative to official truthfulness could be some kind of veracity app. The trouble is - it might work.

Saturday 2 August 2014

Death by charcoal

‘I take back my word,’ cried Julien, springing to his feet; ‘I shall not appeal from the sentence of death, if by poison, knife, pistol, charcoal or any other means whatsoever, you seek to put an end to, or to endanger your life.’
Stendhal - Le Rouge et le Noir (1830)

I was momentarily taken aback by Stendhal's reference to charcoal as a tool of the would-be suicide. Only momentarily though - I soon had to ditch some delightfully daft images of sketching oneself to death.

Of course it's the carbon monoxide generated by burning the stuff in an enclosed space. What I didn't realise was that Stendhal's readers must have been familiar with charcoal as a painless way to go. Wikipedia suggests the charcoal exit has been popular in the Far East for some time.

In November 1998, a middle-aged woman in Hong Kong committed suicide using this method inside her small, sealed bedroom. As this method is not listed in Tsurumi's Complete Manual of Suicide from 1993, she may have invented it herself; she had a chemical engineering background.

In order to prevent charcoal burning, the Hong Kong Government replaced the traditional countryside charcoal barbecue with an electric grill. Some non-government organizationsworked with charcoal retailers to promote the message of "treasure your life" by putting "seek help" labels on the charcoal bags.

Obviously the subject has lots of scope for tasteless suggestions, especially now the issue of assisted dying has been raised again. 

Friday 1 August 2014

Progress by precedent

Modern Tories have only the dullness of defending situations that they had not the excitement of creating. Revolutionists make a reform, Conservatives only conserve the reform. They never reform the reform, which is often very much wanted. 

Just as the rivalry of armaments is only a sort of sulky plagiarism, so the rivalry of parties is only a sort of sulky inheritance. Men have votes, so women must soon have votes; poor children are taught by force, so they must soon be fed by force; the police shut public houses by twelve o’clock, so soon they must shut them by eleven o’clock; children stop at school till they are fourteen, so soon they will stop till they are forty. 

No gleam of reason, no momentary return to first principles, no abstract asking of any obvious question, can interrupt this mad and monotonous gallop of mere progress by precedent. It is a good way to prevent real revolution. By this logic of events, the Radical gets as much into a rut as the Conservative.

G K Chesterton - What's Wrong with the World (1910)

The most dispiriting thing about such quotes is surely their age. Over a hundred years old and still relevant today. Governments of all hues still fail to reform the reform. As Chesterton pointed out, it is a good way to prevent real revolution and no doubt that's the point.