Tag Archives: news

Channel hopping while Rome Burns

This post was drafted at the end of July after a two month spell of hot, dry weather. It has been sitting around since then, waiting to be posted but always being pipped by something else. By coincidence, I finally published it on the same day as the Stern Report, which blows my argument out of the water rather.

Is this it, do you think?I spent a lot of my early teenage years reading the apocalyptic Science Fiction of John Wyndham, in fact reading a lot of apocalyptic Science Fiction altogether, and pleasantly dramatic and terrifying stuff it was too. In the 1980s Ben Elton did a more modern version of the same thing.

And now here we are, where we all knew we would eventually arrive, though we all hoped that we’d somehow manage to change trains before we got here; on the verge of the apocalypse.

It’s ok, so long as you don’t look down.

  • War – check
  • Death – check
  • Famine – check
  • Pestilence – not quite,
    though Pratchett and Gaiman updated him quite brilliantly to Pollution, in which case – check.

You see, what none of the writers of apocalyptic SF got right was the tone of the times. They predicted mass hysteria in the face of global catastrophe in the style of a hapless citizenry fleeing invading Martians in Welles’ War of the Worlds, but we are mundane little creatures and no-one correctly predicted the banality of our current news reporting.

Orwell would have managed it. A lot of the dystopia in 1984 gets its power from the mundane banality of the world he describes, but he was looking at politics not climate change. If Orwell had been 15 years younger, and had an engineering or scientific background, he would have described just the sort of news reports we hear every day: Scientists say that we are on the verge of the 6th exinction, but first, the Cricket.

The cold wet August this year, September’s rush towards the autumnal equinox and October’s mild storminess means that most of us have forgotten just how hot and dry the summer was. However, I got an extra frisson of helplessness late in July when I heard something new on the radio: for the very first time I heard a prediction of a food-shortage in the West as a result of global warming. Un-nerving enough, you’d have thought, but the thing I found really disquietening was that it was not presented in those terms. As it turned out, normal service was resumed in August when it rained for most of the month. So that was all right then.

You see, in the news broadcast there was no drama at all. Blink, and you’d have missed it. It comprised the last two lines of this online report from the BBC on that most English of subjects the weather. It was entitled UK heatwave subsides for weekend which ends:

Current conditions combined with a cold and wet spring mean production of some crops has fallen by up to 40%.

Broad beans, potatoes, baby carrots and peas could be some of the produce in short supply over the next few weeks.

But remember that you read it here first, in those two lines about peas and baby carrots: maybe not this year, maybe not next, but there will be food shortages here in the West because of global warming. We are all doomed.

And next, Celebrity Love Idol.

9/11 – Five years on

Like everyone else I guess, I’ve spent a lot of the past week or so trying to take some sort of stock of the last five years, so I looked up something which I posted in a largely British and American web community on the 12th September 2001. I remember it as being incisive and insightful, but re-reading it now, I find that it was over-punctuated and over-blown. However, it did contain some interesting analysis.

It is useful to have even 5:5 hindsight, so here are the main points, annotated, re-punctuated and mildly paraphrased:


The cry goes out “how can these evil people kill innocent victims?” but Muslims everywhere are being threatened and attacked in response, and those angry responses show us how come innocent people get killed. I am not a Muslim …but I do remember events like Tripoli, and the innocent people killed there. As a direct result, NYC and DC have been attacked, and MORE innocent people are killed. … the dead of yesterday were not the first, and neither will they be the last. (Statement, not threat).

Hardly prescience, but even so I’m astonished and shocked by the estimate of 72,265 dead as a direct result of 9/11, which has been reported in The Independent.

The next section discussed some unsympathetic reactions from Brits who were referring to our long history of Northern Irish terrorism, and it is curious how irrelevant these comparisons now seem. The most interesting part of it reads:


… The other thing that Ireland and the shift from Imperialism since 1945, has done to us is made us aware that we are not inevitably and inviolably correct just because we are British…

That is a lesson that the current American regime, and I suspect a majority of the American people, have yet to learn about themselves. Ach, there are only so many apocalyptic visions I can manage in one evening, particularly when I’m comparing those of five years ago with those I have now; please feel free to insert your own here.

The next section is worryingly prescient:


There is a difference between saying … “the US has been arrogant, and responsible for … atrocities…” and saying “the US deserved to to be attacked in retaliation for those atrocities”. Some people are hearing the former, when often what is being said is the latter…

It feels like fewer and fewer people are hearing words clearly, which is increasingly worrying considering the laws designed to monitor and control us which have been introduced since 2001.

One thing which concerns me in particular these days is the danger involved in using the word “understand” in the context of young radicalised Muslims being sickened by the war in Iraq. “Understand” means “comprehend”, but it is often assumed to mean “endorse”. I absolutely can understand the reasons why young Muslim men become radicalised – the mechanisms are fairly straightforward and could probably be replicated in a lab if one could still conduct unethical psychological experiments on students for $25 a day. They are broadly the same mechanisms which produced the inrush of foreigners to fight in the Spanish Civil War. I do not endorse the terrorists’ actions, but I do think it is vital we learn to comprehend them. The only way to deal with terrorism in the long-term is to make it irrelevant, and you cannot do that if you refuse to understand it.

The next section commented on double standards and perspectives but could not find any conclusions:


… The old joke about learning languages says: I am a freedom fighter, you are a member of the resistance, he is a terrorist. Let us be clear: the US has given … unofficial support to groups who have been considered terrorists…

The final section was the most important at the time, but the least coherent. It paraphrases down to:


[What the terrorists have done is taken the initiative, so that the only thing the American psyche is capable of is reacting to events; it is the terrorists’ game and the Americans are now playing by their rules.]

The best response would be to do something outside the world view of their attackers. Usually one only gets outside a world view by being outside the times: this is … ‘the historical perspective’ and it is easy to be wise after the event. But we are IN these events…. and … the only thing that will work is something the terrorists do not expect, but I do not believe that the US is capable of doing that.

So… five years on, my opinions have not really changed other than finding that Northern Irish terrorism has become irrelevant.

I am trying to assess whether or not the events of the last five years have been better or worse than I expected. There is a rule of thumb, though I forget who it is credited to, which says that we tend to over-estimate the short-term effects of a technology, and under-estimate the long-term effects. I think I fell into that trap. The final line of the piece I wrote five years ago presupposes a tactical nuclear response by the US, which was clearly an exaggerated prediction. But in the long-term our prospects are worse than even I thought, and the long-term has just begun.

I find the estimate of 72,265 casualties shocking in both senses; I’d have guessed the figure at 10,000 or so. It is clear that the West’s young Muslims are becoming radicalised even faster than they can blow themselves up, and I am disgusted by the exploitative cynicism of a leadership and a priesthood which can manipulate young men into committing suicide in that way, while the leaders and the priests carry on regardless. That is something which I find hard to understand.

What leaves me sick with fear is that we are still only a dozen yards or so down this particular Cresta Run, but there really is no way to slow down or stop. All this, and global warming too.

Internet natives

Lord Saatchi the other day described people under the age of 25 as Net Natives and people over that age as Net Immigrants. He didn’t mention the third category of Net Pioneers which is how I’d describe myself, though I was a pioneer who arrived on the East Coast and settled down to a douce and limited life in New England in the 18th century, rather than a pioneer who went shooting and whoring their way out West in the late 19th. I should probably abandon this metaphor while I still can.

What interests me is the quality of ideas which the Net Natives have. I’ve been lagging behind the netgeist, sitting in a rocker on my virtual front porch making quilts and admiring my picket fence, so it was a week or so ago that I became aware of Alex Tew’s Million Dollar Homepage which is genius, what used to be called a killer app (remember them?) and is an idea that could only exist online. Oddly enough, on the same day I heard about Sandi Thom‘s arrival as a Punk Rocker with Flowers in her Hair; Sandi web-enabled the idea of let’s put the show on right here in the barn in a way which was of orders of magnitude more effective more quickly than anything Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland ever did. Only yesterday I read about Kyle Macdonald’s One Red Paperclip. Macdonald, like Thom, takes a real-world idea and transforms it online. The pages I’ve linked to explain their stories.

These are the ideas of people who feel instinctively that the web is a place of boundless possibilities. None of them got rich quick, all three worked extremely hard for their suppers. But they fundamentally get the Internet. I had been going to say they understand how the Internet is qualitatively different from what came before, but I am not sure that they do. I suspect that they can no more imagine what it was like before the Internet, than I can imagine what it was like before electricity.

Truth, stardust and comfort blankies

We should be able to do it now. We should be able rise above superstition, supposition and woolly thinking. We have arrived at the once-in-a-species chance to combine wisdom with knowledge and transcend both.

For the first time in our history we have the data. We really do know things. We have researchers and academics finding things out and publishing them as if their jobs depended on it.

We are also joining the gaps between these pieces of knowledge to some extent. Climatologists train as mathematicians and physicists first, but climatology also draws on the skills of botanists and archaeologists and palaeontologists and zoologists and lepidopterists and… well you get the idea. Not just climatology. Bristol University provides a taught Masters in Archaeology for the Screen Media. The list of connected specialities is huge.

And finally, we have methodologies. There were many seminal innovations in the 20th century: the internal combustion engine, flight, digital computing, penicillin, genocide, but the one without which none of the others would have had any effect is the development of methodologies. It was the development and application of manufacturing processes which enabled the Model T to roll out of the factories in Detroit in its hundreds of thousands. It was the development of a methodology for genocide which meant that six in every eight European Jews were killed in the 1940s.

The relevant methodologies though are the ones for generating information, for finding hard data and separating it out from theory, hypothesis and speculation. So, not only do we know stuff, we have reliable ways of sorting out true stuff and sifting out the plausible stuff, putative stuff, speculative stuff and down right wishful thing.

The ostrich-eye view

However we have not outgrown our comfort blankie. We prefer the warm cosiness of superstition and woolly thinking to the hard realities which face us and – and this is the really unforgivable thing – we tell ourselves we are looking at the evidence and drawing our own conclusions. We are doing nothing of the sort. We lie.

There are examples of this all the time. I once heard a taxi driver saying “75% of all cars on the road are red: if you think about it, it’s true”. The fact that he had failed to look through his windscreen and see that three in four cars are not in fact red was worrying enough. But the fact that he thought he had gone through a verification step pushed me off my mental cliff. What on earth did he think he was doing when he ‘thought about it’? What did ‘thinking about it’ mean to him?

This happens in commercial environments too. I recently distracted a meeting for five minutes by trying to understand if the statement “20% of balls are blue” meant “20 balls in every 100 are blue”, or if it meant “each ball is pie-bald and has a blue patch covering 20% of it”. Eventually the person I was asking the question of snarled “it’s just an expression” and I had to bite my tongue not to reply “no it’s not an expression, it’s a number”. I paraphrase, but I still say he was talking bollocks.

It is this intellectual laziness and moral cowardice that enables intelligent, educated and otherwise thoughtful people to believe in medieavalisms such as astrology or crystal healing or spiritualism or tarot cards. It’s incredibly simple to demonstrate astrology – just run the thing backwards. Collect data on people’s personalities and the events of their lives, and get an astrologer to tell you where the stars were when each person was born. You could limit them to a specific year if you felt generous. If astrology works, you should be able to run it backwards as well as forwards. You could take the same approach for tarot readings. If homoeopathy has more than just the placebo effect, then it should be demonstrable. It isn’t, and one has to conclude that it doesn’t.

Actually, homoeopathy is a case in point. The less a person engages with the methods and concepts of evidence based-medicine, or experimental and evidence-based science for that matter, the more likely they are to accept homoeopathy on trust. (Mind you, the only evidence I have for this is anecdotal and my argument is deductive – but this proves my point – we can now validate and categorise both the data we use and the conclusions we draw from it). What is worrying though is that the reasonably well-educated and predominantly middle class patients of homoeopaths believe that their faith in homoeopathy is worth as much or more than the evidence-based practice of medicine, despite the fact that medical science actually is curing more people year on year and this information is readily available. There’s none so blind as those who won’t see.

Stepping up to the line

By contrast, one of the most fascinating programmes on British radio at the moment is In our Time with Melvyn Bragg. Lord Bragg made his name in literature, humanities and the arts; he is nobody’s fool and no kind of intellectual slouch. However, he struggles with some pretty simple mathematical and scientific concepts whenever the subject is outside his own cultured fields. Fair play to him, he tackles the subjects and tackles them well. But it is astonishing to hear someone as polymathic as Bragg flounder in the midst of really very simple science. And then one realises just how innumerate and scientifically illiterate even the most educated and cultured of us are and – even more worryingly – that this is not seen as any kind of problem.

Almost half a century ago C P Snow argued that someone who does not understand the second law of thermodynamics is as uneducated and uncultured as someone who hasn’t read Shakespeare. He also says “if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.”

The madness of crowds

On top of that, we don’t get it. We all feel entitled to an opinion in this democratic age. Like the taxi driver, we do not realise that we cannot think. We all feel that our opinion on – for example – evolution is as valid as the next person, even if the next person is a geneticist or an anthropologist or a palaeontologist and we aren’t. In fairness, the failure is in our education system where people are encouraged to ‘think for themselves’ without being taught how to think critically or being given the basic tools of analysis. This is the downside of democracy. We dumb down to our lowest common denominator. I am not going to argue against democracy: as Amyarta Sen points out, it is the only demonstrable safeguard against famine for a start.

Looking further up the slippery pole, we glimpse our leaders, chosen by us mainly from graduates who studied humanities or social science or business or law. It is not just that they are ignorant. The thing that gives me the great big hairy heebee-jeebies is that they believe that they are ‘informed’ and that being intelligent is enough. They do not accept that some subjects are too technical, too specialised or just plain too hard for the lay person, no matter how intelligent, to grasp, and that some things simply cannot be paraphrased. We are being led by people who just don’t get it, and who don’t actually know that there is stuff to get.

However, I do believe that responsible government requires our winsome elected leaders take and act on the professional advice of specialists even if we don’t like it. Interestingly Thatcher was the political leader in the 1980s most alert to the challenges of climate change. She was a scientist and understood the methodology, even if it had been decades since she’d actually done any chemistry.

Our bad

We are failing the great moral test of our times and retreating into the comfort of a new mediaevalism, surrounding ourselves with ideology and doctrine and the warm and righteous certainties of fundamentalism. We have the chance to rise above all this, to step into reality and claim our inheritance as intelligent and wise children of the stars.

Instead we are sitting in the dust, looking for comfort by casting runes, and that will bring about the ruin us all.

Football fever

It seems fairly clear that one of the underlying attractions of football is that it enables men to express emotions. But I also wonder if there’s a deeper purpose of enabling men to feel emotions in the first place. I remember a Geordie explaining to me once that choosing your team was more important than choosing your wife because, after all, you can divorce your wife. He meant it, too. In the Radio 4 Programme The Choice, Michael Buerk interviewed a man who had decided to give up his Manchester United Season Ticket. It was an odd and fascinating radio programme, because Buerk quite clearly did not understand the magnitude of the moral and ethical choice facing this man. (Interestingly, that is one of only two episodes of The Choice not described in detail on the BBC website.)

Then of course there’s Bill Shankly who once infamously said that football was not a matter of life and death, but that it was more important than that.

So – it doesn’t take great powers of observation to see that men get really worked up about football.

What I find myself wondering, now that the New Man of the 1990s is old hat, is whether or not the appeal of football is that men can feel emotions about it.

Aborting girls – India’s missing million

More than 10m female births in India may have been lost to abortion and sex selection in the past 20 years, according to medical research.
BBC News, 9th January 2006

Abortion, feminism and post-imperialism – let’s not waste time with easy subjects, eh?

For the record, I believe in a woman’s right to choose. I believe that abortion below a certain time limit is neither murder nor infanticide, that it is the killing of a potential human being. (Read Carl Sagan’s astonishingly good essay in Billions and Billions for the most lucid discussion on when that time limit should be, and why it should be set at that point). I believe that every human being has the right to have been wanted by its mother – that every child should be a wanted child.

I respect the rights of others to hold different opinions, but to be honest, that debate is circular, unilluminating and stale.

What I am finding challenging is the fact that my mildly feminist pro-choice stance leads, it seems, to an estimated million female foetuses being aborted in India over the last 20 years.

That really challenges my feminist sensibilities. How can my logic be right if it selects against the eventual birth of women in that way?

I’ve debated this with a couple of people, one of whom has pointed out that the decision is not necessarily a sexist one, it may be an economic one. In India’s society girls are more expensive than boys. But ultimately that raises my feminist concerns as well.

It’s a circle I find hard to square: on an individual basis I believe considered, controlled, safe and legal abortion to be every woman’s right, but then I look at the demographic in India (and presumably in China too) and find my thinking to be profoundly challenged.

I desperately want it to be wrong that so many women are missing from India’s population. I want an easy answer, that puts me in a nice warm spot on the moral high ground. Hell, it might even be nice to pontificate smugly about baby-killing.

Instead I sit with one of my inner-feminists saying “every woman should have the right to choose” in one ear, and another inner-feminist wailing “but 1,000,000 missing women can’t be right” in the other ear. They do it in a caring way, with sisterly solidarity, vegan ice-cream and synchronised menstrual cycles, of course. Every now and again I give them a copy of Diva to go away and read by themselves, and I get some peace for a while.

But, flippancy aside, it is a challenge I find deeply troubling.