A Nihilist Interlude

July 15, 2008

Nihilism has been a feature of our culture for a while: this past weekend, I saw Cruel Intentions, a 1999 film which drove the point home.

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This film recasts the 18th century French novel, “Les Liaisons dangereuses” (by Pierre Choderos de Laclos) in a modern setting. Perhaps predictably, the film is set among the superwealthy in New York, and shows the young as amoral, sexually impulsive and overwhelmingly cynical. Cruel Intentions is not quite as amoral as the original; there are redemptive themes of love and genuine sacrifice. However it is worth noting that 18th century France was a regime in its death throes; the world was coming to an end, and the nobility, as shown by Laclos, was apparently more interested in petty intrigues than in trying to prevent catastrophe.

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The film may well have been a small symptom of a civilisational crisis in the making, a Freudian subconscious message of decadence, immorality and decline.

The makers of the film intensified the nihilistic theme by inserting the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” in a lengthy scene at the end in which the corruption of one of the major characters is revealed. In some ways, the entire film is reminiscent of a statement from the French film La Haine, in which a character states that while falling, an individual reassures themselves that they’re all right, and does so until they hit the ground. The characters in Cruel Intentions are introduced just before they hit bottom; we see them trying to bundle the reassurance of trivia around themselves as the dive into oblivion is completed.

The Verve – Bitter Sweet Symphony

Indeed, the Verve may have captured the essence of this “shattering at the perigee” with their music. As Bittersweet Symphony tells us:

‘Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this life
Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to the money then you die
I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down
You know the one that takes you to the places where all the veins meet, yeah
No change, I can’t change, I can’t change, I can’t change,
but I’m here in my mold , I am here in my mold
But I’m a million different people from one day to the next
I can’t change my mold, no, no, no, no, no

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The Verve also are noted for similar anthems such as “The Drugs Don’t Work”, part of their Urban Hymns album, which was first released 1997. Overall, it is definitely peculiar how the film and the album match the spirit of our present times equally as well as the mood of a decade ago.

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The Green PC Option: Build Your Own

July 15, 2008

No matter how efficiently one uses a computer, it is bound to wear out at some point. A colleague of mine has an old Windows XP desktop, and apparently it’s showing its age. I asked him, “How bad is it? Has it completely packed up?”

He responded by quoting “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”:

Ferris Bueller: We can’t pick up Sloane in your car. Mr. Rooney would never believe Mr. Peterson drives that piece of sh**.

Cameron Frye: It’s not a “piece of sh**.”

Ferris Bueller: It is a piece of sh**. Don’t worry about it. I don’t even have a piece of sh**. I have to envy yours.

This is not indicative of a machine that will be running for much longer. It happens; mass produced PCs are particularly susceptible as the incentives of their business are skewed towards using the cheapest, lowest quality components possible. Dell is particularly guilty of this; worse, they make their parts difficult to re-use. For example, their cases are proprietary in every instance I have come across, thus making it impossible to recycle by installing a new motherboard.

Building one’s own PC may not sound like an attractive option: from a green perspective, it may sound hideous as it involves shipping components individually to a supplier’s warehouse rather than shipping a completed unit; however the prefabricated PC is likely to have incured the same transportation costs, if not more. From this perspective, building one’s own may be better than getting a pre-assembled one; at worst, it’s about even.

A second consideration is energy: while some manufacturers are keen to stress their green credentials, choosing one’s one components is a greater guarantee of having a system that is lower on energy consumption. Additionally, if you build your own, it’s a far easier matter to avoid being saddled with Windows Vista, whose processing requirements automatically imply greater power consumption.

A third consideration is cost: manufacturers are charging a premium for assembly, which becomes apparent the moment one builds one’s own. But not only does building one’s own avoid these costs, but because component selection is done by the individual, greater quality of parts can be ensured, and thus the potential longevity of the computer can be extended.

I have gone through the intellectual exercise of putting together a specification of an energy efficient PC; the good news is that the total cost to build one in the United Kingdom is approximately £300. Better still, this estimate assumes there are no parts from an old computer which can be recycled, such as the case or power supply. This cost, however, is exclusive of a monitor, keyboard, mouse and speakers. This specification also assumes use of Open Source software, in particular, 64-bit Ubuntu Linux as the operating system.

The basis of any PC specification is the selection of a processor. It’s not been widely reported, given the obsession with ever greater processor power, but AMD have released a line of low energy Athlon 64 processors. While they are single core processors, and thus not as powerful as the top of the line, they are more than capable of running Linux and doing so very well.

They’re also cheap: the processor I picked, the AMD Athlon 64 LE-1620 costs only £26.90. A similar processor in the United States costs approximately $35. Please note: this ratio of UK costs to American ones is by and large constant.

The next selection is the motherboard. Low energy motherboards have made an appearance; however, a standard one will do to match the processor I picked. Our primary objective in this selection is cost efficiency; the Gigabyte GA-MA69G-S3H motherboard achieves this. It costs £44.57.

Memory is important. Our objective with this choice is to future proof the machine, make it so that it’s not necessary to upgrade it for at least a few years. Furthermore, with the 64-bit version of Ubuntu, one can take advantage of large amounts of memory. A cost efficient way of achieving this is to purchase 2 Crucial CT2KIT12864AA53E 2x1GB PC2-4200 kits, yielding a total available memory of 4 GB. Each kit costs approximately £28.

Another way of achieving energy efficiency is to use a graphics card with a passive heatsink, which tries to diffuse heat from the graphics processor using non mechanical means (i.e., no fan). At the same time, this choice should also provide some level of future proofing: even Linux is making heavier demands on graphics cards as of late by utilising advanced visual effects. In order to balance these two requirements, I picked the Gigabyte GeForce 8500GT 256MB (model no. NX85T256H). At about £40, this is a bargain.

Picking both the hard drive and the DVD-RW drive are a matter of providing future proofing as well as achieving cost efficiency. The SATA standard has proven itself to be faster at data transfers; furthermore, the lack of bulky IDE cables inside the case helps to keep the unit cooler, meaning that an additional case fan is not likely ot be required. As we are running Linux in this instance, a huge amount of storage is not required: the choice for this is a standard Seagate Barracuda, 160 GB drive, with an 8 MB cache. At a flat £30, this is good value. The DVD-RW drive I’ve picked is a Pioneer OEM model, which only costs £18.

Now having defined the heart of the system, we come to the more optional items. The Gigabyte motherboard does come with sound; it’s a matter of personal choice, but I’ve found that onboard sound tends to be less than satisfying. A Creative SoundBlaster Audigy SE 7.1 OEM only costs £19, and has sufficient oomph. The only complication is that the builder will be required to go into the BIOS upon startup and disable the on-board sound so that it defaults to the card.

Wireless internet is another key extra. Ubuntu Linux will work with the following card straight out of the box: the SMC SMCWPCI-G 54G Wireless PCI Adapter. I highly advise getting this, even though it is from a more limited range of suppliers, as setting up a wireless card on Linux can be tricky: this saves the entire hassle, and costs only £13.

If one must get a new case, there are some cheap and efficient options. The Coolermaster 330 ATX Elite is only £27. One can spend a bit extra on getting an energy efficient power supply; however, to keep to our limited budget, I suggest a saving energy by obtaining a lower wattage one. A 400W power supply can be purchased for £20.

Having selected these components, the new PC builder may be wondering how to put them all together. There are a number of guides to doing so; one provided by PC World Magazine can be found by clicking here. Ubuntu Linux, which one can obtain at www.ubuntu.com, has a number of set up guides and a forum to assist with installation. In order to take full advantage of the faster web, as one can experience through using Open Source, I highly recommend downloading the Swiftweasel browser and the latest version of the Opera browser. Word processing, spreadsheets and presentations are all available through the Openoffice Suite which comes bundled with Ubuntu. While it is an adjustment for Windows users, once the change is made it, it is often difficult for the user to imagine why they put up with Buellerian piece of computing excrement in the first place. Furthermore, as this has demonstrated, with careful selections, the user can also have a certain sense of satisfaction in being economical, green and as practical as possible.

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The Best of Times?

July 14, 2008

Spanish Civil War PosterThis has been a tense weekend in a number of ways; if the news is to be believed, the folks down at the U.S. Treasury Department have been burning the midnight oil, trying to ensure the biggest dominos of the American financial system – Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – don’t fall over. If they did collapse, the government would be obliged to prop them up, and the amount of debt the American government sustains would rise to a level that would justify further devaluation of the dollar. This, in turn, would lead to higher oil prices, as the value of the commodity in relation to the value of the currency in which it is priced, would have dramatically changed.

To use a British phrase, it’s a “right old mess”. Prospects for the world economy apart from China and India, are looking bleak: the Economist warned against the sound of consumers’ purses snapping shut. Even Jeremy Clarkson, the Mad King of the Petrolheads, is apparently now dispensing tips on how to conserve fuel.

There are other items which should worry us; a little noticed problem with bees could have a catastrophic effect on world food supply. The mysterious “Colony Collapse Disorder”, by which bee communities simply disintegrate and die, means there are less of the vital insects to help in agriculture. The Guardian newspaper estimates that without bees, mankind would have four years before starving to death; this item was mentioned en passant on a few websites on Saturday.

Knife crime has also been in the press recently; if the weekend news was to be believed, teenagers are stabbing each other with abandon, and without remorse. A young man interviewed on BBC News this morning was asked if seeing victims of knife crime would influence people to stop using them. His reply was “no”.

In short, we have all the ingredients here for believing that things are as bad as they could ever get. There’s war, famine, economic ruin, and societal breakdown hovering like ghostly spectres across Western civilisation, threatening its demise.

It’s at times like these that it’s important to get some perspective, lest we slide down the precipice to nihilism. Believing that everything is wrong and nothing can improve is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if futility marks every action, then there is no incentive to endure.

On Saturday, BBC Radio 4 had a veteran of the Spanish Civil War as its featured guest. Since he was aged 92, it is highly likely he was one of the last. He spoke very simply and clearly, and unlike most presenters on radio, the one on this programme kept mostly silent, so he could elucidate his tale without hindrance.

The Spanish Civil War was one of the low points of the 1930’s, a decade marked by genuine economic collapse, hunger and violence. The democratically elected Republican government was under siege by a cadre of military officers, who called themselves the Nationalists. The Soviet Union allied itself, albeit tacitly, with the Republican side, and the Nazis and Fascist Italy lined up with the Nationalists. The struggle is considered by some historians to be the opening round of the Second World War.

The elderly veteran on Radio 4 was one of the British volunteers who went to fight for the Republic. He described London of the period: there were pitched street battles in the East End between Communists and Fascists. Going to Spain was part of continuing the fight; to get there, he had to endure a long journey, much of it by bus. Some of what he had to do to get to Spain was absurd: he was told, if questioned at the border, that he was a Spanish worker returning home after a fishing trip. Of course, he spoke no Spanish.

The Republican forces were underequipped compared to their Nationalist rivals; the veteran suggested that his gun was part of the refuse from an earlier, probably nineteenth century struggle. Firing it safely was out of the question. Yet, he was sent into battle, and was ultimately wounded. After recovering, he continued to work as a journalist and activist, until the Republican regime eventually fell.

His story turned out well; he ended up as a journalist with the Daily Herald, and had a successful career. He met his wife in Spain. In 1996, he was invited back to Spain by the government to be honoured for his service. However, one cannot escape the sense that as a young man he was operating in a time when the lights were truly going out. Orwell’s idea of a “boot stamping on a human face forever” was very real. Books like Huxley’s “Brave New World” gave us cause to fear mass production. Unemployment, due to the Great Depression, was extremely grim; bursts of optimism, as provided by Roosevelt’s “New Deal” were few and far between.

Yes, things are bad now. However, there is no totalitarian enemy waiting to pounce upon our shores. The skies are not black with bombers. Unemployment is nowhere near what it was; albeit there are pockets like East Glasgow where hopelessness reigns. We have challenges, but we can survive them and overcome them: after all, our predecessors survived much worse. Cutting back on driving and consumption is far less demanding than facing the prospect of being shot or blown to pieces, or even the kind of rationing that was prevalent in previous eras.

It would be wrong to suggest that people didn’t complain back then, however; the presence of a black market during the Second World War was an obvious indication of a lack of acceptance of living conditions. Contrary to what John McCain’s advisors would say, “whining” is part of the natural human condition. Even Karl Marx said that humanity couldn’t progress without the dynamic of criticism; most invention proceeds from the fact that something is inconvenient or uncomfortable. We should complain now about how things are run, but only as a pre-condition for making them better. But at the same time, perhaps we need to maintain a backwards glance, and a little perspective: yes, things are bad, but in contrast to previous eras, perhaps some would say, even our troubled period constitutes the best of times.

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DVD Review: “There Will Be Blood” starring Daniel Day-Lewis

July 12, 2008

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“There Will Be Blood”,starring the Academy award winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis (as oil man Daniel Plainview) has recently been released on DVD in the United Kingdom. Given how the oil crisis has recently intensified, its re-emergence could not be more timely.

The film is loosely based on the book “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair. This book, along with his other novel, “The Jungle” are strong critiques of early twentieth century capitalism; while the story of “Oil!” has been transformed into something that Sinclair would not recognise in terms of plot, his deeper critiques of man’s inhumanity remain intact.

America has a habit of idolising its entrepreneurs. Bill Gates, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, are all seen as men who built the nation. Additionally, the men who scratched out a living on the frontier in the hopes of one day making it big, are also seen positively: they are often lionised as men who tamed the savage wilderness.

“There Will Be Blood” provides an insight into these individuals: frequently they were driven, unhappy men, who could find no solace in success. The film begins with a demonstration of Daniel Plainview’s overriding ambition: despite having broken his leg in a mining accident, he drags himself and a chunk of silver across a wasteland to cash in.

We move on to just beyond the turn of the century, and Plainview is now in the oil business; the drilling is primitive and the oil is collected in buckets, which are hoisted from the bottom of a deep shaft by hand crank. The dangers of this simple operation are exposed: one of Plainview’s associates is killed, leaving behind a small child. Plainview is shown to be measuring up the child, as if he was guaging the value of a chunk of ore or a drilling site; he later adopts him, adhering to the pretence that young “H.W.” is his natural son.

When Day-Lewis’ character finally speaks, his performance becomes even more mesmerising. Not only has Day Lewis managed to bury his Irish brogue completely in a midwestern accent, the tone and pitch of his voice was altered as well; apparently, he was influenced by the late actor John Huston, and this is evident in the warmly gruff, yet insincere tones he uses.

The film gains an additional dimension when the setting changes to his largest venture yet, the oil fields surrounding the hamlet of Little Boston, California. He first scouts out the site with his “son”, pretending to hunt for quail. He pays what he calls “quail prices” instead of “oil prices” for the site. However, there is a caveat: the owner of the site’s son, Eli Sunday, wants Plainview to benefit him and his church, the evangelical if somewhat apocalyptic “Church of the Third Revelation”.

The relationship between Plainview and Sunday, in my opinion, provides the central tension in the film. In a gentler age, we would expect the greedy oil man to be balanced out by the preacher’s voice of conscience. However, this film is too honest for such a relationship to be established. Eli is just as much on the take as Plainview: we see this in his overt demands for money, and in how his ramshackle church improves in dramatic ways through the course of the film. We, the viewers, are left with a choice as to what we prefer: do we sympathise more with the amoral oil man, who at least wears his greed on his sleeve, or with the hypocritical preacher, whose avarice is wrapped in nauseating piety? It is also difficult to avoid understanding Plainview’s point of view: he states to a conman posing as his long-lost half brother, “there are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking”. In his setting, the sentiment is logical.

“There Will Be Blood” reminds us that it is these type of men who built America; because of Plainview and in spite of Plainview, Little Boston is seen to prosper. A dusty, abandoned train station thrives. A fancy restaurant opens. People and work arrive. While this is a work of fiction, one has to wonder how many Little Bostons there were, and how many Daniel Planviews.

The film would be less believable if there were no bright spots of humanity within it; they shine all the brighter because of its overall darkness. They are mainly focused on Plainview’s son, H.W.: while he is made deaf at an early age by a derrick explosion, he learns sign language, and marries his childhood sweetheart. Plainview himself shows occasional sparks of affection for his son, although he says later that his relationship with H.W. was entirely based on using a “sweet face” to get oil leases.

Plainview ends the tale living in a mansion in Beverly Hills; the setting was (appropriately) the home of Edward Doheny, one of the oil men behind the infamous “Teapot Dome Scandal”. Plainview the tycoon is drunk, dissolute, and ill tempered: having gotten everything he wanted, he has no idea what to do with himself.

It would be wrong to think that “hollow men” are a uniquely American feature; similar demons bedevilled British adventurers in India and Belgian conquistadors in the Congo. However, because America is a nation that was built on the frontier, perhaps these frailties are far more exposed: they have not been shunted to a distant corner, beyond the full gaze of the nations which bred them.

Human wreckage may have led to progress in the short run. However, we’re rapidly discovering that the gains they achieved were transient and uiltimately self-defeating: the oil runs out, the damage to the environment remains (one of the more frightening aspects of the tale is how cavalier Plainview’s operation is in treating the land), and we have discovered that we can’t live this way. “There Will Be Blood” demonstrates above all, any nostalgia may be misplaced, and perhaps we should be grateful that this phase of humanity’s development may have reached an end.

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Just When You Think…

July 11, 2008

…President Bush couldn’t shock you with yet another gaffe, he goes and does it again. As yesterday’s newspaper said:

George Bush surprised world leaders with a joke about his poor record on the environment as he left the G8 summit in Japan.

The American leader, who has been condemned throughout his presidency for failing to tackle climate change, ended a private meeting with the words: “Goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter.”

He then punched the air while grinning widely, as the rest of those present including Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy looked on in shock.

The Young Turks had the following take:

Bush Attends His Last G8 Summit – Leaves With A Bang

Whoever is managing Bush’s meds, please up the dosage. Or decrease it.

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Wuthering Prime Minister

July 10, 2008

It was reported in the papers today that Gordon Brown sees himself as a latter day “Heathcliff” from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”.

However, as one newspaper reported:

Andrew McCarthy, the acting director of the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Yorkshire, told The Daily Telegraph: “Heathcliff is a man prone to domestic violence, kidnapping, possibly murder, and digging up his dead lover. He is moody and unkind to animals. Is this really a good role model for a prime minister?”

I suggest his knowledge of Heathcliff probably owes more to Kate Bush than to Bronte:

Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights

But even then, the lyrics state:

Ooh, it gets dark! It gets lonely,
On the other side from you.
I pine a lot. I find the lot
Falls through without you.
I’m coming back, love,
Cruel Heathcliff, my one dream,
My only master.

Come to think of it, hopefully Gordon got mixed up and confused Heathcliff with Cliff Richard.

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This is Not the Enemy

July 10, 2008

The other day, I was wandering around the British Museum, and I happened across the Islamic Art exhibition, which is tucked into one of the building’s many discreet corners.

I happen to have a fondness for Islamic art; as a rule, it tends to stay away from visual representations of individuals, and rather, goes towards “glorification of the Holy Word”, namely the text of the Qu’ran. This can take many spectacular forms, particularly in terms of calligraphy and in beautifully ornate mosaics which decorate mosques from London all the way to Indonesia.

In the middle of the exhibition, there is a small Persian drinking vessel from the 13th century, which has a poem painted in gold letters on its side. My memory of the poem is not complete, but the jist of it goes: “I am writing these words while in the desert, separated from my love. I write this so that as she drinks of this vessel, she will take pity on me and remember me.”

This gentle, if somewhat maudlin, sentiment harks back to an Islam which was noted for public lighting and great libraries, the spread of algebra, and the investigation of medicine, science and philosophy. It echoes broadly with the refined thoughts of Shah Wali Allah, an Indian Muslim thinker in the 18th century, who once advised kings, “the bonds of love are stronger than the bonds of iron”.

Move forward by about three hundred years and here we are, the day after Iran’s military tested a missile that could hit Israel. Hossein Salami, the head of the air force wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said, “Our hands are always on the trigger and our missiles are ready for launch.”

How did we get from there to here? We can dismiss Islam as being at the root of the problem. After all, the closer in history one gets to Muhammad, the more we gravitate towards the civilising impulses of Islam being at the fore. Yes, there have always been extremists, much the same as in any other religion; but it’s clear that the likes of Salami are not approaching genuine Islam, nor replicating its features from earlier eras.

What is it then? Where does did the impulse to destroy on a mass scale originate? The likely answer has more to do with modern Europe than it does with Islam.

The idea that whole groups of people need to be systemically destroyed is a bastard child of the twentieth century, and in particular, Europe. It was not Muslims who built the first concentration camps. It was not Muslims who came up with the idea of “liquidating the kulaks (rich peasants) as a class”. When Saladin recaptured Jerusalem, he did not kill the Christians and Jews, rather, he came to an agreement with them in order to maintain normal life as closely as possible. Going further back, Umar, one of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs”, politely refused an invitation from the Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem to pray with his flock, lest Muslims think they had a right to use their church.

In reality, destroying groups of people for who they are arose from the fever swamps of radical European politics, both on the far right or far left. The likes of Osama bin Laden are merely the Middle Eastern offspring of this ideology, twisted and reinterpreted to fit into their individual context in order to seem authentic. This ideology is no more Islam than Communism or Fascism is Christian.

The underlying structure upon which it is based contains a great deal of intellectual laziness: if we kill the Jews, kulaks or infidels, the world will be perfect, the philosophy states. This totally contravenes the original idea of jihad, namely that it was the “struggle to be human”, and that fight began with oneself. Externalising the struggle to people one doesn’t even know is symptomatic of being unable or unwilling to accept the harder task of internal change, which remains at the critical root of change in the world around us. It is a cop out, rather, a symptom of psychological dissonance: one’s lack of virtue justified by the presence of a particular group, and thus brutality towards that group is justified to create the conditions of virtue.

It’s difficult to tell what the individual Iranians are thinking, which is much more interesting than what the headbangers in their government has to say: opinion polls tend to be a scarce commodity there. Iranians, generally speaking, tend to be proud of their heritage and to the contributions to world civilisation that have come from the Persian Empire and its successors; the rhetoric from the Revolutionary Guard should be discordant to those who are mindful of this past. Regardless, they are not the enemy, and the faith they represent is not the enemy; the enemy, as ever, are the stupid and the violent, who believe the world’s salvation comes from its continued bathing in both stupidity and violence. We’ve had the nightmare of the twentieth century to prove this wrong; it would be a terrible shame if the lesson had to be repeated.

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The Exploding Toilet of the Modern Media

July 8, 2008

Slavoj Zizek, the philosopher, supposedly said that visiting the cinema was rather like watching a toilet bowl in anticipation of it exploding excrement at the viewer. When I first heard this, I took this as just another provocative statement from him, one of his little ways to shock anyone listening into thinking about the world around them. Furthermore, it is certainly true that there is an enormous amount of material that is worth as much as excreta now playing at our local movie theatres.

However, if we move on in our thinking about what is “excretal” from being merely bad to being degraded, it’s clear that Zizek had a point which extends to today’s newspapers.

A fundamental question that should generally be asked is – “what is the matter?” What’s bothering us? On an empirical level, things are bad. There is no getting away from the facts: inflation, recession and environmental destruction are all rampant. Our politicians appear to be impotent in the face of these challenges: the best that Gordon Brown could do was suggest that people at home stop buying so much food…just before tucking into a 19 course lunch and dinner at a summit in Japan, washed down with fine wine. However, serious stories are not the only ones in evidence today: the newspapers have been rocked by a double barrelled set of divorce stories, one coming from Alex Rodriguez, a player for the New York Yankees, who has been accused of infidelity. The other case involves former “supermodel”, Christie Brinkley.

The particulars of both stories are simultaneously sordid and uninteresting; if one cares to read further, there are plenty of news sources to consult, which is precisely the point. “What is the matter?” is reduced to the personal lives of niche celebrities. What makes both distinctly American cases truly bizarre is that newspapers in Britain felt obliged to comment on them as well; the bowl’s overflow apparently crosses oceans.

First, the Times of London, venerable and ancient, commented on the Rodriguez case, even though most Times readers have only the slightest possible knowledge of baseball, let alone any interest in its personalities. All right, supposedly Madonna is somehow embroiled in this, but her residency in Britain is incidental, not central to the case.

More typically, the Daily Mail, always a strange melange of hard right Islamophobia, celebrity gossip and diet tips, reported on the Brinkley case. Presumably it was in memory of her blissfully silent performance in the video to “Uptown Girl”: they thought it best to report on how Miss Brinkley – as she presumably will shortly be again – had not gone out on a date in two years. Whether she was using the Mail as an extended personals column is unclear; I suggest she was ill advised to use the Mail for that purpose, as its readers tend not to be in her target socio-economic group.

The “exploding toilet” in both instances is obvious: people whose lives are enriched with enough wealth to supposedly correct any blemishes and imperfections in the course of life are found to be vulnerable, needy, greedy, lascivious and deceitful. We needed to know this?

Apparently, we do. Otherwise newspapers of wildly varying reputations would not feel the need to “let the pipes burst”. However, if we accept the Freudian thesis that symptoms are messages sent by the subconscious, we should take heed of what this is saying about our society.

It may be saying that we are obsessed with tearing down our icons. There is certain truth in this: who is happier today, the woman with a bit of cellulite and a run in her stockings who has had the same husband for twenty years, or Ms. Brinkley? It depends of course, but there is a case to be made that the woman with the holier than other stockings is more likely to be settled in her relationship, which is a good context for contentment.

It may be saying that we are intrigued by sex. Of course. Even Neanderthal tabloids drawn on cave walls featured large breasted women from time to time; that aspect has not evolved in thousands of years, albeit now the models have “Phew Wot A Scorcher” appended as a caption. Scandals such as this show that people who appear as impervious as marble statues surrender to the indignities of being human, tender or sordid as they may be.

However, it may also be saying that we simply don’t want to think about something more serious. The aforementioned problems of rising prices, declining economic growth and the earth being steadily poisoned are not disappearing. Paying attention to this sort of ephemera is rather like altering the end of Doctor Strangelove to include Slim Pickens reading a comic book as he rides the atomic bomb to certain death.

To be resolutely fair, there are newspapers which have eschewed triviality. These, however, tend to be minority journals, not mainstream ones. Few can escape the lure of broadcasting excreta, nor perhaps, do they have the necessary desire. A disease that the patient does not wish to be cured, cannot be cured; as such it is untreatable, and unlikely to fade.

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Full Wallets, Impoverished Souls

July 2, 2008

In addition to studying towards my Phd, I work in the technology industry as a medium-level manager. My speciality is in managing teams that develop websites. It’s a reasonable job, it pays the bills, and allows me sufficient space for me to do my academic work: however as Legion said in Stephen King’s “Storm of the Century”, “Hell is repetition”. I do keep seeing the same situation repeated over and over, and across companies: there are always the same agendas, the same politics, and the same loud hiss of inflating egos.

The fact that I’ve plucked this particular string to near breaking point does give me a certain freedom. I’m not going to become a director, nor do I want to be. I’d have to lie and pretend bad decisions are good ones far too often in order to get to that level. I’d also have to flatter egos I have no interest in flattering. I get reminded of my revulsion often: I sit at senior level meetings and watch the resulting scrum of directors climbing over each other, trying to make each other look bad in the eyes of the company’s owner, and feel a certain sense of detachment as a result.

An old song sung by Tommies after the First World War often springs to mind as I watch this spectacle:

We fought the war / What was it for? / What was it for?

The managers who are so desperately trying to kill each other are doing it not for some great or noble cause, they’re doing it so they can be uber Senior Director of this and that, in a company that makes obscure widgets in Upper Gobshite, Berkshire. The winners may get a corner office. They may be able to afford a BMW. The mortgage may rest a bit easier on their shoulders. But is it worth engaging in plots worthy of medieval Venice? Is it worth the resulting turbulence in the lives of those who work for both the winners and the losers of this week’s intrigue?

The truth is that this behaviour is the result of a very simple problem: people have problems accepting the idea that they are but a grain of sand in a much wider universe. Puffed up with pride, ego and consumerism, we all are put into a situation where we are encouraged to believe that we are the fixed point around which the world revolves. Advertisements tell us what luxuries we deserve. Magazines tell us how to look like top models. The media encourages the idea that we too can be celebrities. Life should be perfect, is the message. We also envy those celebrities who supposedly have enough money and fame to make life perfect, and laugh at them when they fall: note the attention paid to Amy Winehouse. It’s no wonder that management is trying to kill each other, lurking in the corners of boardrooms with rhetorical daggers – each of them isn’t the manager of the widget production line, they’re Richard III, the President of the United States or Jade Goody.

It’s at this point that I should mention my relative insignificance. I am by no means anything near a model or celebrity. I am unlikely to be wealthy or famous: if some people read the books I have produced and will produce, I will be happy. I am glad that I have had the chance to improve some things for those who have worked for me. My hopes revolve around finding a place at a university to teach and to perhaps leave a legacy of having helped train some talented writers. That said, it is likely that my own presence will be a footnote on the cosmic ledger. But what I can say for my life, is that I am doing my utmost to avoid doing damage to the world around me. It’s a drop in the ocean, but at least it’s mine.

I do wonder how many problems we are facing now come from leading the sort of life that churns with ambition, pretention and ego centricity. The medieval Venetians of the boardroom are likely to grab as much as possible, leaving the price to be paid by other people. It is not just poisoning the morals upon which civilised behaviour is based, this is destroying the planet: if we all just take, and keep taking, eventually there will be nothing left to grab.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a comfortable life. There is something deeply wrong with the idea that we can all achieve magnitude in consequence and prosperity, and that we actually deserve such accolades. Policy likely cannot fix this problem; it is a philosophical, moral attitude, which sadly has been ignored in many environmental prescriptions, because it is so difficult to fix. Perhaps the answer lies in the word “sustainability”, the way things are running now cannot be sustained, certainly. But neither can the human soul.

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Hey, Good Lookin’

July 1, 2008

Honda’s hydrogen fuel-cell powered FCX Clarity is due to debut in the United States this month. Its sole emission is water vapour.

While not all the kinks in it have been worked out, it looks promising – here’s a road test:

First Drive: 2009 Honda FCX Clarity

Refuelling is a problem at the moment, as there aren’t too many gas stations equipped with hydrogen: however as the chairman of Honda reportedly said, there weren’t too many places to get petrol when the Model T first appeared either.

The FCX Clarity bears another similarity to the Model T in terms of options: you can get it in any colour you like so long as it’s red.

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Me And My Blog

Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

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