Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Monday, January 31, 2005

Free and Fair

Parliamentarianism, that is to say public permission to choose between five political opinions, flatters those many who like to appear independent and individual and like to fight for their opinions. In the last resort, however, it is a matter of indifference whether the herd is commanded an opinion or allowed five opinions. - He who deviates from the five public opinions and steps aside always has the whole herd against him.
- Friedrich Nietzsche
(The Gay Science, 1882)
Even when representative democracy works the way it's supposed to, it's still a crap system. And frankly, it's a long time since it's worked the way it's supposed to in any election that really mattered.

A system which takes as it's starting-point the assumption that a majority opinion has, in some sense, greater validity than a minority opinion is flawed right from the start. The "rightness" of a particular policy is not dependent upon (or even related to) the proportion of people who can be convinced to register support for it. There is no inherent reason that a course of action is correct merely because 99% of people believe it to be so.

Of course, democracy doesn't claim to "get it right" in the sense that "two" is the right answer to "what is one plus one?" The claim made by democracy is that it gets it right from a moral standpoint... that the will of the majority is the just and fair way to proceed. There is no fairer way of doing it, so it's: "the right thing to do", rather than: "the right answer".

Except it's not. Nothing of the sort. If 51% of people can be convinced to nuke the other 49%, there's not any sane sense in which that can be described as "right". The uncomfortable truth is that on many - perhaps most - of the important issues facing the world today, the majority opinion is wrong. And that's not only my personal judgment talking... you can "prove it on an etch-a-sketch" as a great man once said.

Take religion, for instance. According to this source (whose strict accuracy is besides the point; it's clear that the world's religions follow a population distribution of a kind similar to this) Christianity is the largest single religion (with about a third of the 6.2 billion currently living human beings professing faith). This means - on the extremely important issues of God, the soul, and the afterlife - 4.2 billion of us have got it wrong. That's two thirds. The majority. Just plain wrong.

And if those of the Islamic faith are right... that means 78% of us aren't. Almost 5 billion people!

If the world's religions were to submit themselves to the UK parliamentary system, we'd have Christian New Labour facing Tory Islam across the house. Meanwhile the Buddhists and Hindus would form an uneasy alliance and occupy Charles Kennedy's domain. And that's it. Jews? Shut up. You ain't represented. Nor you Sikhs. Get used to it. As for the rest of you... Rastafarians, Unitarians, Neo-Pagans, Shintoists...? Forget it. None of you even warrant an individual reply.

Scientologists? Ha ha hah ha a-hah hah ha.. .. .. .. listen scientologists, we let you put Kilroy-Silk in Brussels for comedy reasons, don't imagine it was anything more than that.

Veritarse more like.

See... the majority opinion can't be right on this very important point because there is no majority opinion. And even if there was...? Even if Christianity accounted for 51%...? Would that mean it'd be right to declare Jesus Christ as Lord and demand all others submit to His Laws? Of course not. Though no doubt there's plenty in Alabama would think otherwise.

You can, with justification, point out that the existence of the Christian God is not the kind of thing that gets decided democratically. Democracy is simply a process by which group decisions are made. Even the most fervent democrats don't claim that reality itself is decided by voting (well, excluding deluded Straussians... but they tend to be democratic in name only).

And that's completely true of course. But the point I'm making is that majority opinion cannot be relied upon as our sole source of sociopolitical guidance. Judging by the evidence of global economic development, the vast majority of people on the planet - if given the choice - will opt for a high-impact, high-consumption lifestyle. How much of the desire which informs that choice is implanted by marketing is of course a source of concern. And - as the Nietzsche quote suggests - the choices facing people, even in the democracies of the world, are often strictly controlled.

But even so; if offered the choice between a political party which promised to clamp down hard on unnecessary energy usage (for example) and one which promised a free SUV for all...?

I dunno. Maybe I'm just cynical.

All of this begs the question though... "Well Mr. Smarty-Pants, how would you do it?" And naturally the answer is: "Very very differently".
Full post...

Change Agent

Here's the real deal: China is the last industrialized nation of the cheap energy age. Its factory production is keyed to the continuation of regular supplies of cheap oil. It has little oil of its own. In order to continue to pretend it can keep "growing" -- if that's what you call its current state of pathogenic hypertrophy -- it will have to do two things. 1.) embark on a military adventure to establish hegemony over oil producing regions, and 2.) replace the prime customer for the avalanche of cheap "consumer" goods that its factories churn out.
- Jim Kunstler
Read the entire piece at Clusterfuck Nation: Change Agent.
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The Children of Iraq

Some powerful images.

The Children of Iraq

(via Culture Cat)
Full post...

So who's the quiet bloke?

It's just struck me that I've not really said much about myself on this blog. Aside from that whole pothead thing just now. And I wouldn't want anyone to think that was my sole defining feature. This site's been running for a month now and I've not really introduced myself. Which is a bit impolite really. Also, as I make no bones about following a political diatribe with - say - an album review, or a film review, or perhaps a description of getting stoned with a High Court Judge, then it probably makes sense to know a little bit about the author. Set the context, if you will.

I'm living in London at the moment, and have done (on and off) for a while. But I'm not from here... not even from England (bloody immigrant!) and I've lived and worked all over the place. Right from when I was a kid my family were moving around the world. Then after university in London I did some moving around of my own. I've built a factory in Saudi Arabia (not with my bare hands, you understand? I did the various schematics) and I've dismantled one in Berlin. Dismantling an entire factory in Germany containing six production lines, 30 miles of very complex pipework and almost 4 miles of conveyor; labelling it and reassembling it in a way that makes it 15% more efficient in Ankara, Turkey is a very complicated process. Unsurprisingly.

And those were just the first couple of projects I co-ordinated.

See... I have this spookily intuitive grasp of complex systems. It's just something I can do very easily that seems to take most people a lot of effort. Give me the basic rules governing a particular system, show me the schematics, and I have a knack of being able to make it more efficient. As talents go, it's not exactly a hoot at social gatherings. But the engineering company I worked for exploited it to the fullest. And for a whole bunch of semi-rational reasons I willingly allowed them to. Apart from anything else, my ego was being given the massage of its life, however high the pressure got. I knew I was doing something that only a handful of people could do. Like it or not, that makes you feel very good (See also: Point No.4 below).

I worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week for 90 days. At which point my US visa expired and I took a week's holiday in Amsterdam before returning for another 90 days. I did that 3 times. Halfway through the fourth, just as the project was reaching a successful conclusion, I realised that what I was doing would either kill me or turn me into an arsehole.

At heart I'm a hippy for god's sake! I can't help it, that's where my head's at... but I found myself co-ordinating a project with a budget of more than 60 million dollars... having to choose which factories got closed down and which ones kept employing hundreds of workers. I unearthed irregularities in generator contracts that eventually sent two men to jail. They were just scamming the system for a few thousand dollars. I was just identifying inefficiencies in the system. They were a blip on a graph, how was I to know?

A distribution centre in one of the most deprived towns in America got the chop. It housed, among other things, the main service depot of the Mid-West truck fleet. The depot was moved. A lot of people lost jobs. Every now and then the name of that town pops up in a media story about deprivation in America (it's near the bottom of a lot of lists of statistics, and near the top of a lot of others) and I think about my own personal contribution.

Of course, it was all just Excel Spreadsheets to me. Pivot tables and incremental variable adjustment. Abstract shit. And I was good at it.

And of course, if I were my father (who has done things of a similar and larger scale pretty much all my life) then I'd be focussing on the other things... things like the fact that the 60 million dollar project was a rescue package for a company that was just about to file for bankruptcy... all those jobs were lost anyway... because my project was successful more than half of them were saved. And that's good right?

No it's not. Because you get shot from both sides... because saving those jobs represents the continuation of an unsustainable and destructive way of life. Another cog in the great capitalist engine, consuming resources (albeit in a very efficient way, now) and churning out consumerist nonsense that's both unnecessary and bad for the health.

So if you're like me, and not my dad, you end up with the worst of both worlds. Fretting about the specific places in which you had a negative impact and then feeling like you sold out to The Man where ever you've had an apparently positive one. You'd never imagine I was reading Bukowski at the age of 12 whilst attending a strict Catholic school, would you?

And of course my globe-trotting hasn't all been in business class. I spent a few months in the Amazon doing a little bit of nature conservation but mostly just hanging out with a psychopath. I took ayahuasca with a native shaman there. I once helped out a great Taoist teacher who had been unintentionally spiked with a lot of acid. I sat all night with him, helping him deal with his first (and absurdly massive) dose. Here was a great and wise teacher who - for 12 hours - needed my guidance. He had come to a new and treacherous path, and I was the person at hand who was most familiar with that path. Leastways that's how I was seeing it... but then, I was on acid at the time too. A lot of my more arcane phraseology has its roots in that long slow conversation. A couple of years later I took peyote in Southern USA and turned into a being of pure light.

Aaaaaaanyways, such experiences have a tendency to make you question the validity of a lifestyle that is defiling the planet in the name of the transient thrills of consumerism.

Which is not to say I'm about to descend into cod-psychedelic philosophy. Those days are long gone. And I'll never be 23 again. Besides, how can I say "All you need is love" when I really believe that "All you need is love, AND a centralised global authority to manage essential resources in a just and equitable fashion, AND about a thousand other things, but an Oil Depletion Protocol would be a good start".

I think even John would've had trouble making a great song out of that.

So what else? Introductions can be a bit tedious I suppose. But it's far preferable to those interminable "100 things about me" lists that seem all the rage with the cool kids these days. All the same, I shan't drone on much longer... I should really get back to writing about why the world needs someone like me in charge. So... in the interests of tedium-prevention and brevity... I'll finish this post with a list of eleven really interesting things about me. And in the interests of keeping things interesting, exactly one of these interesting things is not true.
  1. I once got myself accidentally embroiled in a bar fight and ended up being shot at. Luckily the gunman was very drunk and missed by (geometrically speaking) almost as far as it's possible to miss and still be recognisably firing at someone.
  2. In Leningrad (as it was then) in my mid-teens I was interrogated, at times with some menace, by the KGB. Nasty threats were made.
  3. During the three months I spent in Cairo smoking hashish and pretending to be an international playboy, my bedroom balcony had a view of the Giza pyramids on the horizon, the Saqqara 'step-pyramids' in the foreground and overlooked the Nile.
  4. I have a father who - at one point - was considered probably the best in the world at what he did (he's retired now). I am in my mid 30s. The chip on my shoulder is scheduled to have completely disappeared by my early 40s if all goes to plan.
  5. I was once in a serious accident in a stolen car. At the hospital I told them I'd fallen out of a tree. They believed me.
  6. I have written and destroyed three books. No copies of them exist any more. I currently have an unpublished volume of poetry on my hard-drive.
  7. I have an IQ which once made a psychoanalyst wince. Actually fucking wince. "People in that sort of range often have certain associated difficulties". No shit doc! And I'm paying you to tell me this? Don't tell me to count my blessings... the ability to do differential equations hasn't yet compensated for the anxiety attacks.
  8. I was attacked by a shark while diving in the Red Sea. Despite it being 20 seconds of absolute terror, I only suffered one single scar... so small that it's impossible to convince anyone it's a shark bite.
  9. I became vegetarian at the age of 16 for environmental and ethical reasons. About 18 months ago I decided to eat fish again for health reasons. This is causing an internal dilemma that I've been fastidiously ignoring but which will have to be resolved before too long.
  10. I've never been a believer in party politics and have abstained from voting on all but a couple of occasions. In almost all cases (the one exception being when I was ill) I have made a point of going to the polling station and spoiling my ballot with a slogan of some sort. The only times I have voted were for Ken Livingstone as London Mayor... on the single issue of Congestion Charging.
  11. One day in the late 80s I had breakfast in Africa, lunch in Europe and dinner in Asia. This was not done deliberately. The day just turned out that way.
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"Bloody pothead!"

That has never been yelled at me by an ex-girlfriend as she slammed the door behind her and walked purposefully out of my life. But I often feel that - by this point - it really should have been. The trouble is, I'm just too amiable; and ex-girlfriends have never walked out to the sound of a slammed door. Well, except K, but that was because the door had this wonky handle that meant you had to lift up the latch and slam it really hard to get it to close. So I don't really count that.

In fact for me the "being dumped" process has always involved long periods of a strange indeterminate status that seemed to entail being "officially" not together, but actually doing everything exactly the same as before. Up to and including living together for a further six months... which was weird. But also, in retrospect, the right thing to do at that particular time. Sometimes people know it's time to move on, but need a little time to gather the energy to do it.

Which has what exactly with being a "bloody pothead". Well, nothing actually. I just wandered off on a bit of a tangent is all. I'm apt to do that.

But I am a bloody pothead. I know this. These days, even when I'm not smoking pot, I'm still clearly a pothead. I'm The Dude from The Big Lebowski but with petrogeology and theoretical physics instead of bowling and Julianne Moore. It can be a heady state of being at times, let me tell you. I was a pot smoker back when I was doing the whole high-powered corporate thing, but it was only after I fucked off that perfectly good career in favour of being an amiable man that I truly became a pothead.

I tell you this apropos of nothing. Merely another nugget of information to allow you to better understand the perspective this blog is coming from.

And hopefully - just like the United Nations post - it will also wind up the right wing nutters who stumble across this place. Either through the Next Blog button, or via the links from the comments section of a number of right-wing blogs that I've just spent an hour and a half commenting on. I mean, I'm an amiable guy... but there are limits!
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Sunday, January 30, 2005

Long Live the United Nations

The importance of the United Nations during the next 30 years cannot be overstated. Forget all the allegations of corruption and inefficiency. Forget the criticisms about how toothless it is, and about how the interests of the powerful are always served at the expense of the weak. Instead recognise it for what it can be... a meeting place where every human being on the planet is represented. The government of every nation (well, theoretically) is represented there, and they represent (even more theoretically) their people.

And so the United Nations must be protected at all costs from those who wish to weaken and discredit it. It needs streamlining and refocussing of course, but there is no other forum for smaller nations. For the weak. Right now nobody listens to them, and that needs to be changed. But how much worse will it be when they no longer even have the ability to speak?

The solutions to the problems we face over the next few decades will involve a radical scaling-back of the project of globalisation and international trade. Most of the work to achieve this must be done on a local level. Local sustainability must be the underlying philosophy. But at the same time; if we wish to replace global systems with local ones in a just way, then a degree of global co-ordination is required.

The United Nations is the only institution which can be moulded into fulfilling that function.
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Saturday, January 29, 2005

Curiosities Volume II - Brian Eno

Album Cover: Curiosities Volume 2, by Brian Eno

This arrived in the mail this morning.
(you too can grab one from the Enoshop)

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Friday, January 28, 2005


I was going to just make this a Quick Link in the right-hand column, but Buffyology is, quite frankly, far too impressive a site for such casual treatment.

The show Buffy The Vampire Slayer is, for me, a high water mark in television history (the high water mark? very possibly). Yes, yes... I know what you're thinking, and I too spent a couple of years believing it was "Beverly Hills 90210 with monsters" and giving it a wide berth as a result.

I was wrong. And if you believe that, or indeed believe it to be anything other than a high water mark in television history, then you too are wrong.

One day (perhaps that day will be very soon) I shall explain why this is the case, and just why it is that someone like me - who lists Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce as his two favourite authors - should consider an apparently throwaway piece of TV pop-culture as being one of the first true pieces of "televisual literature" (for want of a phrase that either doesn't exist, or escapes me).

But that day is not today. Instead I will merely remind those who are already fans that if they ever need to settle an argument on the subject, then Buffyology is the place to go.
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A lesson from Wonko

One of my favourite characters in all of literature is a little celebrated minor character in the fourth of Douglas Adams "Hitch-hiker's Guide" books, So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish. His name is Wonko The Sane.

One day Wonko (who had yet to realise that he was "The Sane") had occasion to buy a packet of toothpicks. As he was opening them, he noticed that printed on the side of the package were instructions on how to use a toothpick. He had an epiphany.
It seemed to me that any civilisation that had so far lost its head as to need to include a set of detailed instructions for use in a package of toothpicks, was no longer a civilisation in which I could live and stay sane.
- Wonko The Sane
(So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish)
So Wonko did what exactly what you'd expect the last sane man in the world to do... he built an asylum to house civilisation and went and lived outside of it. He pitched tent on a beach in California and built four walls around himself. He then decorated his side of the walls to look like the outside of a house, complete with front door leading back in to the outside world. This house he named "The Asylum" and Wonko The Sane continued to live blissfully on the one patch of the world outside of it.

And in case his resolve should ever weaken, Wonko had a plaque placed above the door of The Asylum engraved with the words which had driven him out...
Hold stick near center of its length.
Moisten pointed end in mouth.
Insert in tooth space, blunt end next to gum.
Use gentle in-and-out motion.
There are few people I identify with more than Wonko The Sane, notwithstanding the fact that the totality of his existence is about two pages of text in a funny British science-fiction novel. My hazy fantasy of renovating a farmhouse in the West of Ireland is really no more than a version of Wonko's perfectly valid and justifiable reaction to a world that has quite clearly gone stark raving bonkers.

Whether it be instructions on toothpicks, the fact that a stage musical of David Blunkett's life story is in the works, or the state of world politics, there is no scale or arena in which humanity isn't outdoing itself in its absurdity. Wonko's realisation was a simple one... he wanted to remain sane. It doesn't really get much simpler than that. He understood that your sanity is measured against how well you can function within your society. But he also knew that his particular society was quite insane, and to truly function in it, he would have to allow it to drive him mad too.

So Wonko remained sane by stepping outside his civilisation and closing the door behind him. No longer part of an insane society, his sanity is no longer judged by how well he functions within it. And he himself is free of the exhausting struggle to remain sane in a world that needs instructions on a pack of toothpicks. He is a Yossarian-like character; aware of the absurdity of his position, but equally aware of his lack of choice in the matter.

Wonko is a taoist monk as written by Douglas Adams. His philosophy of disengagement, for all its apparent absurdity, is a well-trodden route towards peace and enlightenment. It isn't - of course - the only route. And any taoist who tries to say otherwise on this blog will get a knee in the serenity from me. The only thing I can't stand is a dogmatist. Dogmatists and fanatics. Death to them all! That's my unbreakable rule: "death to all dogmatists and fanatics!!"

But even though on some fundamental level I am Wonko. Even though I honestly believe that disengagement from our insane, suicidal consumer culture is a valid - perhaps even the most rational - response to our times. Still... my concern is that at this moment in history it's probably a terrible mistake. That our times do not allow for it. Wonko's response ceases to make any sense if he starts to build the walls of The Asylum straight in the path of an approaching tidal wave. He can't live outside The Asylum if he's dead. And all he's achieved is a particularly pointless and inefficient suicide.

There's a phrase I'm fond of (mostly because of the comedy value to be got out of saying it in a silly voice). That phrase is: "We are living in the End Times". It's got a great biblical ring to it. But I believe it to have a major element of truth to it. All civilisations rise and fall, and it appears to be common to all civilisations that those living inside them believe theirs to be eternal. They are the exception to the rule.

Western capitalism, spearheaded by the American corporate ethos, has got to be the real exception though, right? Haven't you heard of "sustainable growth" after all? Well, in the The Death of Capitalism - Part 2 (coming soon) I shall explain why sustainable growth is an illusion, and why that illusion is going to be shattered far sooner than most people imagine.

The implications of this are enormous. The widespread collapse of global markets, currencies and financial institutions is just around the corner. Modern humanity when put under such strain, and faced with such cataclysmic circumstances are apt to make stupid decisions.

Decisions from whose consequences there can be no disengagement.

Leaving civilisation to collapse is like pitching a tent next to an oncoming tidal wave. I've arrived at the conclusion that the only course which transcends despair and futility is for the smart, forward-thinking, switched-on people to try and influence the decisions made over the coming years.

For self-preservation if for no other reason.
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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Welcome home

Well, in order to keep up the reciprocal "I scratch your back, you scratch mine" arrangement that we've had ever since murdering one another's bosses, I'd like to welcome Ryan home from his South American odyssey and recommend readers check out his blog for some well-written and forward-thinking perspectives on world events and ting.
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The Death of Capitalism - Part 1

We are in the final years of our civilisation. By the year 2030 the Age of The Consumer will have ended forever. The great project of global free-market capitalism and international trade will be a memory, kept alive only by the movies and books which (one hopes) will bewitch and outrage future generations in equal measure.

It's a measure of just how important the next couple of decades will be - and the decisions we make collectively during those decades - that the very existence of those future generations is yet to be guaranteed.

The end of a civilisation can be cataclysmic. And one that spans most of the globe could be particularly so. With the weapons we have at our disposal, plus our tendency towards violent and aggressive resolution of conflicts of interest, it is not difficult to visualise the next 20 years as a series of escalating wars expanding to more and more corners of the planet and employing ever more diabolical weapons. Could the human race survive a global war that saw nuclear, chemical and biological weapons deployed on a large scale?

Probably not. Especially with what we've already done to the climate and atmosphere.

But there are other options available to us. The future is as yet unwritten. There are potential solutions to the problems posed by the end of capitalism. Those solutions require us to act responsibly and with self-sacrifice, on a scale larger than we've ever done before.

And history is in fact littered with examples of entire populations making sacrifices for a greater good; indeed the outpouring of assistance for those affected by the recent tsunami is one small example of just that. All the same, history is littered with other stuff too... I wonder if my faith in humanity can stretch so far as to imagine us striding responsibly into our future of diminishing wealth. Can our civilisation be convinced to willingly end its lifestyle of profligate consumption? Or will it fight tooth and claw against each of nature's imposed limitations?

Tony Blair made a remarkable statement in a speech today to the World Economic Forum (see the World Social Forum website for more information about the issues covered by the WEF). He said this (and read the wording carefully... you can be sure it was chosen that way):
... if we put forward, as a solution to climate change, something which involves drastic cuts in growth or standards of living, it matters not how justified it is, it simply won’t be agreed to.
- Tony Blair
Let's be clear about something... Blair is not talking about the refusal of a bunch of cigar-chomping executives in dimly-lit boardrooms. He is actually - mind-bogglingly - saying this. Though in less words and without the obvious satire. He is acknowledging that even if it is justified, in fact, "it matters not how justified it is" any democratic government which implements voluntary cuts in economic growth and living standards to safeguard a future beyond the next election, will see themselves removed from power by a party promising to rescind those cuts.

I'm not entirely sure what's to be done about this serious flaw in representative democracy. Except perhaps give me supreme power to make all important global political and economic decisions. I'd sort stuff out sharpish. Mark my words

By now the more astute among you will have noticed that I've yet to provide any actual evidence that capitalism is on its death bed. I've just asserted it, and assumed that you're smart enough to have come to the same conclusion independently. How many bloggers have such faith in their readership? I know you're intelligent enough to know I'm right.

But there's always one isn't there? Some young conservative who stumbled across this website via the Total Perspective Vortex of the Next Blog button. Or perhaps one of the new breed of liberal (though they do, paradoxically, have some claim on being the original breed) who speaks in reasonable tones about the universal benefits of free trade whilst somehow managing to ignore the fact that this directly contradicts their stated aims of social progress. Neoliberalism and modern conservatism are, from a psychological perspective, two very similar strands of the same neurosis. The primary difference being that the former hates Daddy whilst the latter does not.

They both adore kooky Uncle Milton though.

The surreal World Of Milton

"Take the Nobel name off the economics prize," say relatives

by Jonathan Thompson Observer (London), 2 December, 2001

It is a name synonymous with peace. But with the centenary celebrations of the Nobel prizes beginning this week, a dispute has broken out between the custodians of Alfred Nobel's estate and members of his family.

Peter Nobel, the great-grandson of Alfred's brother Ludwig, along with three of his cousins, have questioned the legitimacy of the economics prize and demanded that the Nobel name be dropped from the award. They claim it was "never in Alfred Nobel's will and is not in the spirit of his prizes". Their stance has angered the Nobel Foundation, which administers the prizes, and threatens to overshadow the festivities.

The economics award has always been separate from the other five, which are given for outstanding contributions in the fields of literature, peace, physics, chemistry and medicine. Unlike these, economics was never mentioned specifically in Nobel's will; that prize was established in 1968 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Riksbank, the Swedish central bank. Peter Nobel and his cousins are now arguing that it should be named the Riksbank Prize to reflect its heritage.

They claim that Alfred Nobel, an idealist and inventor who has no direct descendants of his own, was highly sceptical of economics, and the existence of this award is an insult to his legacy.

The Nobel Foundation has sided with the Riksbank. "This is a non-issue," said Michael Sohlman, executive director of the foundation. "It is surprising because Peter Nobel is claiming that the family never agreed to this award, but I have very clear documentary evidence from 1968 showing that they did."

Mr Nobel said: "I am going to ask Mr Sohlman to produce these documents. I have never heard of their existence before and I would like to see the wording before I make any decision. The most important thing is to make a distinction between this economics award and the Nobel prizes."

Milton Friedman won the Nobel/Riksbank Prize for Economics in 1976. As one of the world's most well-respected free-market economists, and certainly the best known of them, Friedman has become - in many ways - an intellectual figurehead of modern free-market capitalism. This is why so many economists get all arsey and defensive when you poke fun at the silly man and his silly ideas.
Ecological values can find their natural space in the market, like any other consumer demand. The problems of the environment, like any other problem, can be resolved through price mechanisms, through transactions between producer and consumer, each with his own interests.
- Milton Friedman
(p.32, Economists and the Environment, Carla Ravaioli; Zed, 1995)
Back in the days when humourless rightwing economist and blogger Oliver Kamm still allowed comments on his site, I referred to Milton Friedman as a "kook" in a discussion with Oliver on a completely different website. As a result I was instantly banned from ever commenting on Oliver's site again. Needless to say, this pleased me immensely.
Of course. Take oil, for example. Everyone says it's a limited resource: physically it may be, but economically we don't know. Economically there is more oil today than there was a hundred years ago.
- Milton Friedman
That's as may be Milton; but - once you make two or three logical jumps - what that statement is really telling us is that economists should never be allowed make important decisions. When the physical wellbeing of our civilisation depends entirely upon a plentiful supply of cheap fossil-fuel energy, then it makes sense to listen to the geologists, who tell us that there's a little over 2.1 trillion barrels of the stuff less now than there was 100 years ago; rather than listening to the economists who tell us there's more of it about.

Because when it comes to what really matters... our physical wellbeing and that of our environment... the economists simply don't have the faintest idea what they're talking about. Not a sausage. Devoid of anything remotely resembling an idea in fact.

Economics is a map of past human behaviour. That's all. And none of the equations that get thrown into economics textbooks can change that. It's not a predictive science like physics or geology. Economics can tell us nothing about the future unless the future is guaranteed to be a lot like the past.

And in reality, it's guaranteed not to be.

(Tune in soon(ish) for Part 2, in which Jim rants a bit more about economics and then explains what the future holds by outlining the physics and geology behind why global capitalism is about to come to a grinding halt. In Part 3... if he's feeling nice... Jim tells the world what's to be done about it all).
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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Some random thoughts about spam

I get a lot of spam. Lots and lots and lots of it. Thankfully though, the junk mail filters in both my email client and webmail service are top notch. So surprisingly enough, as the amount of spam has increased, so its nuisance value has decreased. I tend to only see 4 or 5 pieces of the 200+ junkmail messages I receive every day.

Except, of course, when I choose to glance through my junkmail folder once a day to make sure I pick up any (extremely rare) "false positives". It is then, as I scan the subject lines of 150 bizarre and unsettling marketing pitches, that I catch a glimpse of the person the online marketing industry thinks I am. And it's a deeply unflattering portrait they paint.

Does anyone buy a mortgage from a company that spells it "mor.tGaage"? Really? And why am I going to trust a credit-card company that offers a "100% monnneys back gaurentee"? The only people who purchase financial services from a mor.tGaage broker are morons. That may sound harsh. But it's clearly true. So assumption number 1 is that I'm a moron.

And it's all downhill from there.

I'm not a prude. Far from it. Like every survivor of Christian Brothers schooling I had plenty of issues about sex. Thankfully though, I fell in with a very bad crowd in highschool and an even worse one at university. I've still got plenty of issues of course... don't get me wrong... falling in with bad crowds brings it's own set with it as it happens. But they tend not to be about sex any more. Life's too short to have hang-ups about your own body or about getting sweaty with your special lady (life's greatest gift after all).

I mention this so you'll understand that porn spam is not the kind of thing that's likely to phase or offend me. In fact, if it wasn't for the - quickly discovered - fact that all porn spam is for sites featuring unappealing women in ugly poses, then I might actually take an interest in the junkmail. But 99% of all porn spam is from the online equivalents of Razzle magazine. And even back in those heady days of the early 80s when - as a delinquent 13-year-old - I would shoplift from the top shelf by quickly shoving a magazine into the fold of a newspaper that I'd then pay for at the counter (the real skill, incidentally, wasn't getting the porn... no, the real skill was lifting a Mars Bar off the counter along with the newspaper, right under the eye of the shopkeeper)... even back then, I'd rather leave the shop empty handed than sully my discerning 13-year-old fantasies with Razzle.

It goes without saying that I hate junkmail as a matter of principle. But aside from that, my major complaint about porn spam - until lately - has been how crass and unappealing it all is.

Lately a change has occurred however. And it's one that, to be blunt, has done my head in a little. Perhaps my email address has been sold onto a particularly sordid list? Or perhaps particularly sordid sites have only just begun spamming? Or perhaps someone who doesn't like me (do such people exist?!) signed me up to a dodgy site? Whatever the answer, there's a junkmailer out there who thinks I'm interested in some really disturbing stuff. Illegal stuff. Very nasty and violent illegal stuff.

One subject line in particular made me double-take. It described something that, had it appeared in a David Lynch movie, would have made me go "ooooohhhh, now that's a bit strong there David". But seeing it in the context of a junkmail... a random mail-out advertising images for titilation and masturbation... it actually shocked me.

And the fact that I was shocked shocked me. Because it takes a lot.

I'm trying to understand what's going on inside the head of today's 13-year-old boy who receives a piece of junkmail with that subject line. And it's pretty scary stuff. Me? I was reading Bukowski by the time I was 13, stealing porn and emerging from the twisted darkness of Catholicism. So I was far from sheltered... but it seems to me that kids in a world where extreme sexual violence is being openly sold as entertainment are going to grow into adults with an even bigger set of neuroses and hang-ups than my generation have. Which doesn't bode at all well for the future.

I wonder though, do women get lots of spam for breast-enlargement and only one or two for penis-enlargement? Or does everyone get the same spam, and there's just a lot more desperate men?

Which reminds me, it's time to take my pills.
Full post...

Lilac Junction

As you can see, instead of composing sparkling nuggets of wisdom for you to read and then pass off in conversation as your own, I have instead spent a little while giving the site CSS a bit of a makeover. Not that the template provided by blogger wasn't very lovely. It just wasn't me.

And this is?

Well, it's a variation on a theme that I've been mucking about with for a while now. So in that sense, yes. But at the same time I can't say as I'm too enamoured with the colour. But the choice of colour scheme was actually outside my conscious control. It was chosen by a recurring dream I've been having lately.

The dream is located in a strange complex of buildings with the vibe of a large American shopping mall, though clearly it's in London as there's a tube station in the complex. Anyways, the dream geography is a lot like the Brent Cross shopping centre in North London (I used to obsess about the psychogeography of the place when I lived close by... on a hot sun-bleached summer Sunday afternoon it's possible to tour an alien city without ever leaving the maze of steel and concrete that makes up Brent Cross). But the Brent Cross of my dreams has major differences... there's far less decay and far more shiney plastic. In that respect it's very reminiscent of the Oakbrook Center near Chicago.

I've spent at least a half dozen nights in this place during the past month or so. I get very vivid dreams you see - often unnecessarily so in fact - and a few of those are recurring... or rather; I have a number of recurring themes and places in these very vivid dreams. This mall complex is new however, and though I won't bore you with the details of the dreams, I was pleased to awaken this morning with a new piece of information about the place.

It's name.

As I got off the tube at the station last night, I remember thinking to myself - a little startled - that I might have gotten off at the wrong stop. I turned to another passenger to find out whether or not I was in the right place. The man reminded me a little of my old Physics teacher in Athens, Mr. Cominos... "Excuse me", I asked Mr. Cominos, "is this Lilac Junction?"

"Yes." he replied. "Yes, it is."

It only struck me this evening that the very first shopping mall I can remember, was the first big one to open in Dublin when I was a kid. It was called "The ILAC Centre".

So this new CSS template is entitled "Lilac Junction". I was originally using Douglas Bowman's "Minima". The simplicity of that template makes it an excellent starting point. And although, to be honest, there's almost nothing left of the original; thanks and respect are still due to Douglas for his template. Cheers!

Normal blogging shall soon resume once I've finished "dream-branding" the site. That could take a wee while, so bear with the glitches (and if you can be arsed, drop me an email should you encounter any). I have a gmail account, and if you put bliss.jim before the 'at' symbol then your bug report will reach me.

Some links to keep you busy

Via John at Uncarved comes this rant on Beyond the Implode. Sadly I have to admit that - much to my shame - I do have a degree in philosophy and am actually still secretly (so don't mention it to anyone if you happen to be speaking to them) a bit of a fan of Camus and Sartre and even of some of the less trendy French theorists... like Irigary. All the same, a great rant.

Then, via Nick Barlow, comes the Headline Of The Week: Ringo Starr to Save the World in Cartoon Series.

The British National Party.

A review of Jared Diamond's book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive by groovy forward-thinker Steward Brand.

The best journalist working in mainstream media is George Monbiot. This is one of my favourites of his recent columns: America's War with Itself.
Full post...

Sunday, January 23, 2005

... got the tee-shirt

Souvenir tee-shirt: Tsunami Phuket. December 26, 2004

I won't try tell you what to think about this.
Draw your own conclusions.
(received via email from Joel)

Full post...

The Sunday Papers (a primer on recent UK politics)

Ah. Sunday morning... wake late with a yawn. Quietly - so as not to disturb her - get dressed and dash out to the High Street. Buy two coffees, a selection of pastries and three of the chunkier Sunday papers. Hurry home (almost, though not quite, get scalded by hot coffee), deposit coffees, pastries and papers next to the bed. Undress. Climb back into bed. Wake her up with very cold feet. An hour or so later, reheat coffee in microwave, roll a Sunday morning joint and get pastry crumbs and colour supplements all over the sheets.

OK, so maybe you don't do caffeine, or p'raps you don't dig weed, or maybe your special person is a 'him' not a 'her'... but supplementary details aside, there can be few among us who do not crave at least that much normalcy in their lives. Whatever it is we spend our weeks doing; one thing unites all members of modern society... and that's our universal vision of the ideal Sunday morning.

Now I'm aware of course that such a bold and definite assertion is the sort of thing that attracts naysayers. Some smartarse will insist upon posting a comment about how it isn't the "universal vision of the ideal Sunday morning", 'cos their ideal Sunday morning involves scuba-diving down Everest on a surfboard. Or something. But you're fooling nobody mate, and every other reader of this blog is looking upon you with scorn and derision. Even if they say otherwise.

And rightly so too.

Anyway, this explains why I tend to be grumpy on Sunday afternoons. I've not had that kind of Sunday morning for way too long. Sunday offers little promise for we single folks and is a day best spent wrapped in a duvet thinking dark thoughts about happy couples and fretting about the direction our life is going in. Which means that even when I can be arsed to drag myself out of bed before noon on a Sunday, the closest I'm likely to get to 'The Sunday Papers' is to fire up a couple of news websites whilst deleting porn spam.

It's just not the same.

Though it is still possible to work up a good bout of righteous indignation at the news whether delivered by hardcopy or on screen. Mind you, the first thing I encountered when browsing The Guardian (as ya do), was the following headline... "Testicle torn off by ex lover". What maniac reads that story? Seriously, who could possibly be clicking that link? I spent 5 minutes wincing just from reading the fricking headline. Who in their right mind needs to know the details!?


And then something caught my eye. Oh happy day. It's so rare for there to be good news in the news. But there it was in black and white... the glorious continuing collapse of the Tory party. I do, of course, understand the dangers of a parliamentary system which fails to provide an effective oppostion to the ruling party. But even so. It's just impossible not to laugh.

If I'd known; while Michael Howard was pushing through his right-wing agenda as Margaret Thatcher's Home Secretary; that one day he would be leading a comedy version of that same party into a singularly disastrous third successive electoral defeat... well, it wouldn't have made the right-wing agenda any more palatable, but it would have made grinning and bearing it a little easier.

Of course what makes the whole tory-farce-thing merely a grimly amusing media spectacle, rather than the cause to celebrate that it should be; is the bitter irony that the left-wing party who kicked ten shades of shit out of the tories have continued most of that right-wing agenda uninterrupted.

For those unfamiliar with UK politics, the past 25 years went something like this...

The tories/Conservatives spent a decade and a half (under Thatcher and her minions) turning a traditionally socialist-leaning nation with an incredible welfare system in need of a major overhaul into a corporate capitalist enclave with a crappy welfare system in need of a miracle. They effectively removed the power of labour unions and sold off almost all nationally owned industries and services to private investors.

During this period the Labour Party was reinventing itself almost unnoticed. This party, historically an offshoot of the Trades Union movement was - obviously - the traditional party of "the working class". It was a resolutely and unashamedly socialist party. But someone, somewhere within the party made the politically astute realisation that enough people had - by now - bought into the capitalist myth to make a socialist party unelectable for the near future.

But if Labour could be something other than a socialist party...? Well, it'd be easy to capitalise on public disenchantment with the tories. They'd totally lost the plot by this point. Having spent so long in power they took it for granted and appeared to completely forget why they'd been elected. A whole bunch of them were implicated in corruption charges, ultimately some ended up in jail.

So forces within Labour started to shift policy towards the right. This culminated in Blair's NuLabor. A young, revitalised political party calling itself "Centre Left". It had celebrity endorsements and it promised Change. And Other Good Stuff Like That. It was a landslide waiting to happen. And it happened in 1997.

Then, the theory goes, Labour sheds it's NuLabor disguise. Ha Ha! We're Socialists after all. And we're going to tax everyone who voted for us, and use it to buy crack for inner city single mothers! The unions start to flex their muscles again and the nuclear subs are dry-docked. Meanwhile the tories have a period of rebirth, and so the pendulum continues to swing back and forth.

Except the theory turned out to be wrong. The pendulum didn't swing back. NuLabor wasn't a mask. It was the real deal. Even within the socialist party, socialists had become a minority. A sometimes vocal one; but a minority nonetheless. NuLabor really was a business-friendly, private-capital-friendly Centre Left Party.

And then something amazing happened. The political strategists of NuLabor saw a unique opportunity. The tories were in just as much disarray as Old Labour had been in the 80's. Now, one way to exploit the lack of effective opposition is to ram through as many of your extreme policies as possible. It's what's always done. Certainly it's what the tories did.

Think on this: if Labour had announced the re-nationalisation of the rail, energy and communications infrastructure in late 1997 they could have achieved it. They had the mandate. They might well have fucked it up, but they could have achieved it. Instead they continued the project of privatisation, and got still more distant from the unions and still closer to the bosses.

Because the other way to exploit a lack of opposition is to consolidate the centre ground. Adopt all of the popular policies of the opposition while they do the whole post-disaster, pre-rebirth squabbling thing. Then when they finally sort themselves out, they don't have an alternative vision to offer people. The centre has been lost. This makes the party less attractive to both moderates, and those on the extreme fringes, who only tend to remain in a nominally Centre party so long as it offers them a real chance at power.

And there are two ways for an opposition party to handle this situation. The first would have been to appoint Michael Portillo - young, talented, good-looking (for a politician), very charismatic, charming, and possibly gay - as party leader. Then fight tooth-and-nail for the centre ground. This battle will always be won by a dynamic opposition, rather than the incumbent party within a couple of electoral cycles. The electorate gets tired of the same faces, and the uncontrollability of world events plus human fallibility means that even the most well-meaning government will end up doing something to get them chucked out of office.

But the tories didn't go for option 1.

Nope. They went for the other one. They decided instead to consolidate their hold on the right wing. They appointed a series of less and less likeable leaders to connect with disenchanted party members. Specifically those members thinking about switching to fringe parties and lunatic cults. And it's got to the point where it's almost as if they're doing it deliberately! Few people would have believed that there existed three men on this island with less charisma than John Major. But there were. And the tories found them, and have appointed all three as leader since 1997.

The party has turned shooting themselves in the foot into an artform. Eventually ending up with Michael Howard... one of Thatcher's main minions! When people are fed up with the current leadership they want a change. They are not dumb enough to decide to change back to the last lot they desperately wanted a change from. Though clearly the Conservative Party thinks they are.

All the while a third party, nominally "liberal", has been chipping away at the support of both main parties. They are essentially a business-as-usual alternative so haven't been able to make much progress.

I'm thinking of starting my own political party.

So yeah. That's the situation with UK politics. NuLabor will get re-elected in a few months time despite being wildly unpopular, simply because you have to be insane to think that Michael Howard would be a step forward. More NuLabor isn't a step forward either. And everyone knows that too. But they don't like having the piss taken out of them, and that's what the tories are doing with Howard. By stubbornly refusing to change, they have ignored the message they were sent in 1997, and in doing so have commit suicide. Tragic.

But it's so very very funny as well. Arrogant fuckers.

The rest of the news was uniformly depressing. You don't want to hear about it.
Full post...

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Julian H. Cope

Just got back in from seeing Julian Cope at the Festival Hall. He played two sets, separated by a set from US band Comets on Fire. It's probably impossible for me to describe exactly how much the gig rocked without coming round to your house and breaking some of the furniture. To say "it rocked like a bag of bastids" would be overestimating even the renowned capacity to rock of bastids in bags.

That said, it's hard to know precisely how much of the evening's rock was provided by the bands, and how much was provided by my spectacular miscalculation of the quantity of cannabis chocolate constituting "a decent enough dose". And of course, there was also the point - quite early in the evening - when I mistakenly assumed the cannabis had reached it's apex, and decided it'd be a good idea to eat a few mushrooms.

As indeed it turned out to be. A damn good idea.

Comets on Fire were like what would have happened if Credence Clearwater Revival had discovered speed instead of pot. And I can't begin to tell you how good a thing this turns out to be. Let anyone who doubts the transcendent power of guitar music be placed into a small venue with Comets on Fire and they shall be reborn. You get the feeling they watch the Bill Hicks "Play from your Fucking Heart!" bit before coming on stage.

I kept getting distracted by gorgeous women. And the incongruity of a bloke with his hand in a wooden box stood off on one side of the stage.

The last 8 or 9 hours of the gig was Copey's second set. Just one long guitar-drenched fractal haze of gorgeous women, thundering rock, blasphemy and Reynard the Fox pissing in a German helmet. Or something. It was fucking weird anyway.

Which is what you want from your Julian Cope gigs. At the very least.

The set was heavy on his recent music... as well it should be. Plenty from the new Citizen Cain'd album (which I've not gotten round to yet), as well as lots of the Brain Donor and LAMF stuff. No bad thing. Well... I say "lots". To be honest, I'm not the best judge of that.

It really is all a bit of a haze, so you're fooling yourself if you expect a proper review or anything. By the time Comets on Fire had left the stage, I was just about as wankered as it's possible to be in a place like the Festie Hall and still have it be all pleasant and groovy.

I stood on the footbridge in the cold for an hour or so after the gig... being a little too spaced to deal with the tube and way too spaced to deal with the whole post-gig, back-stage, drinking thing. Exactly spaced enough, in fact, to not notice an hour passing as I watched the lights of London across the Thames.
Full post...

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

An uncannily fortunate occurrence

This evening I experienced a stroke of good luck of such inyerface obviousness that I can only take it as an omen of some kind. It's only a small thing, let me hasten to assure you. I didn't stumble upon a cancer cure while cooking up meth, or suddenly realise how to bring about world peace via an epiphany during a game of Risk ("Don't you see!? We put all the world's armies on Papua New Guinea!") No, it was the specificity of the thing rather than the thing itself which sent little shivery tingles down my spine.

About half an hour ago I was browsing amazon.co.uk and idly typed "Takeshi Kitano" into the search box. I have all of his recent films, and I've been meaning to get the first two on DVD for a while now. I saw them ages ago, and - though his films have gotten progressively better in my view - the first couple are still excellent in their own right.

So I clicked on Violent Cop and was pleased to see it marked down to £5.97. Bargain, thought I. But then I noticed that it was listed as "usually dispatched within 1 to 2 weeks". There's something inside me balks a little when I'm asked to wait a couple of weeks for something to be hand-delivered to me, when there's a good chance I'll walk past shops during that time which stock the thing. Even if it does cost a bit extra. There's a weird nexus of time, money and convenience being traded off one another in a way that makes me vaguely uncomfortable.

Anyways; bugger it, thought I. I'll try Boiling Point instead. This time I was delighted to notice that it is "usually available for dispatch within 24 hours". But at almost 20 quid? It's a film I want on DVD alright, but I could almost guarantee that Cavern Records on the High Street would be selling it for roughly the same price, if not a fiver cheaper.

Bah! I reached for the pot pipe to chill out, and ignore my disappointment at coming so close to the retail-rush but not quite achieving climax. Only to discover that I'd run out of matches. Bastid bloody things! So despite the freezing cold and the scary drug-crazed pitbulls that The Daily Mail insists are out there, I was forced to venture out and buy some matches.

Cursing my general ill-fortune (in a way that someone who's just made the decisions I'd made has no right to do) I stood in line at the cornershop. It's a typical Asian convenience store, of which there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, around London. One of the usual fixtures in such shops is a DVD or video rack containing about 2 dozen very bad films... straight-to-video Kevin Costner movies and their Asian equivalents. Above the rack in this shop was a sign that read simply: "Any 2 for a tenner".

Of the two dozen on the rack, 22 were straight-to-video Kevin Costner movies and their Asian equivalents. The other two were Boiling Point and Violent Cop.
Full post...

In certain cases

Juxtaposition of headlines: Torture may be used in certain cases, says US official. Alongside story about jailing of Abu Ghraib soldier
It seems that Abu Ghraib hadn't been designated one of America's "certain cases". Though Specialist Charles Graner claims he was told otherwise while there. I find this line (from the linked news article) a little puzzling:
He said he was only following orders to "soften" detainees for questioning, but prosecutors said Graner was a sadist.
See... I don't quite understand the reason for the word "but" in that sentence.

The whole world is by now aware that Charles Graner is a sadist. We've all seen the images from Abu Ghraib. The open, genuine smiles on the faces of the torturers and the jocular thumbs-up next to victims of abuse. Unless there's a deliberate deception going on, then it's fair to assume that the people in those photographs are sadists parading the victims of their sadistic behaviour.

However, I fail to see how that is incompatible with Graner's claim that he was only following orders to "soften" detainees for questioning.

One assumes that military "specialists" sent to oversee the preparation of suspected terrorists for interrogation have been psychologically profiled by some very secretive agency. And now that we live in a world where the United States has decided that torture is justified in "certain cases", it hardly seems likely that specialists like Graner are being selected for their great empathy and compassion.

If the US is claiming that torture is legitimate then it's probably safe to assume that they're hiring a bunch of sadists to do it for them. The sort of psychos they can just cut loose and leave swinging when pictures emerge.

Graner should be in jail for a lot longer than 10 years. "I was only following orders" isn't the most convincing of defences... hasn't been since the 1940s really. But if you believe - as do I - that Graner was indeed "following orders", then it stands to reason that those who gave the orders... those who hired the sadist in the first place... should be punished equally.

Somehow I can't see that happening though.
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Monday, January 17, 2005

More thoughts on advertising

Possessions, outward success, publicity, luxury - to me these have always been contemptible. I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for every one, best both for the body and the mind.
- Albert Einstein
There was a time when I had a great deal of respect for a certain Mr. Stephen Fry. Comedian, author and generally witty guy, his blend of surrealism, dry satire and high-brow intellect definitely made him the thinking-person's funny-person of the late 80s / early 90s. Then, however, he did an advert for a rather dodgy multinational food company.

It's always sad when an established artist decides to quit their career to become a corporate spokesperson. It's doubly sad when they choose a corporation like Nestlé, who are the subject of an international boycott because of - amongst other things - their marketing practices.

But Stephen Fry went even further. The advert he agreed to star in (alongside model, Naomi Campbell) involved a fantasy dinner-party, and made use of clever video-editing technology and archive footage to put Fry and Campbell at the table with - amongst others - Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein.
Einstein never allowed his name to be used for commercial advertising, though he received some curious requests... If he showed enthusiasm for a particular product, word would get around and he would be approached to endorse and promote it. Without exception he refused all such requests.
- Alice Calaprice
(Administrator of the translation of Einstein's papers, Princeton)
It's one thing to accept the corporate shilling, even if that corporation is implicated in policies which are linked to hundreds of thousands of deaths...
Marketing practices that undermine breastfeeding are potentially hazardous wherever they are pursued: in the developing world, WHO estimates that some 1.5 million children die each year because they are not adequately breastfed. These facts are not in dispute.
But there's something particularly sordid about accepting the corporate shilling in order to help that corporation sully the memory and image of a truly great man. The Einstein estate currently employs a Californian advertising company to "protect and market" the image of Albert Einstein. Selling that image to corporations (presumably in return for cash) against the beliefs and wishes of the man himself, now dead and unable to argue is hardly "protection". In fact, I'd call it immoral and contemptible. And anyone involved in producing those adverts must bear a share of that.

A willingness to ignore the wishes of any person and exploit their image to make money after their death is despicable (which is what Nestlé, Apple and - recently Madasafish - have done, and is also what Stephen Fry, Naomi Campbell and Harry Enfield have done). To do so with the image of one of the greatest thinkers and humanitarians in history is unforgivable.

I wonder when we can expect to see Mr. Fry and Mr. Enfield spliced into a scene with Ghandi in order to sell SUVs? Or are they just waiting for Mandela to die so they can do that one?

This subject has become relevant again thanks to the news that the Broadcast Acceptance Clearance Centre, the UK body that regulates what may - or may not - appear on television have just banned an advert starring Harry Enfield and "Winston Churchill". There was a belief that "too many people will find it [the Churchill advert] offensive". So it's been banned. As has an advert starring Harry Enfield on his own, explaining why the previous one was banned.

I don't believe that anyone's image should be used for advertising purposes after their death (unless they specifically agree to it whilst still alive). Even that bigotted arsehole, Winston Churchill, should be protected. But when the Broadcast Acceptance Clearance Centre clears another advert in the same campaign starring Enfield and Einstein (a man who made it very clear that he didn't do commercial endorsements), the whole thing stinks to high-heaven of double-standards.

So screw you Madasafish! Screw you Harry Enfield! And screw you Broadcast Acceptance Clearance Centre! You're all a bunch of contemptible, soulless fucks willing to shit on the memory of a great man in order to line your already over-stuffed pockets.
Full post...

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Outrage over Harry's Nazi gaffe

Is it possible that I'm the only person in the world not quivering in "outrage over Harry's Nazi gaffe"? Well, there's me and Fergie. Fate makes for strange bedfellows, I suppose.

Make no mistake; I find the institution of The Monarchy absurd and, philosophically speaking, utterly contemptible. But if you Brits want to remain "subjects of The Crown", that's your look-out.

On the other hand, I have nothing but sympathy for Harry right now. The kid is 20 years old - barely out of his teens. He's grown up under a microscope. His mother had one of the most public deaths in history, and he has spent his teens hearing whispered stories about the sordid private lives of his parents (note: everyone's private life is "sordid" when recorded on the pages of a tabloid) including conspiracy theories about how his father arranged to have his "mad" mother murdered. He was born into incredible luxury, but had the sort of restrictions placed upon his adolescence that I (for one) simply would not have tolerated.

He's unjustifiably wealthy, and that can't be denied. But he's also got to be a pretty fucked up kid.

Which is not to say that's he a lovely chap really, and the swastika thing was just a bit of a lark. I just think that if I'd had his life, then at his age I'd probably be a bit angry at the world as well. I'd probably be looking to kick up a bit of a stink, get in trouble and embarrass my family too.

The only thing I find really repellant about the whole story is Tory Leader Michael Howard telling us that Prince Harry needs to come out in public and "tell us himself how contrite he now is".

No Michael. Fact is, Harry needs to spend no more time in public at all. He needs to renounce his title, take a wodge of cash and lie low in Monte Carlo (or somewhere else he won't stick out like a sore thumb) for a couple of years. He needs to spend this time chilling out and seeing a very good therapist. Then, having grown a beard, got a false name and kept his face out of the papers for two years, he needs to set off round the world on his own (or with a couple of mates) with a backpack, a couple of grand in travellers cheques, and a vow not to use his credit card except in real emergencies.

That's what Harry needs to do. What Michael Howard needs to do is fuck off.
Full post...

10 random songs

I understand it's a blogging cliché and all, but it's hard to resist doing... y'know... that thing where you put your music library on shuffle and list the first ten songs that get played. With 5,786 tracks to choose from there's great potential for inappropriate juxtaposition, as well as a good chance that I'll be hearing at least a few tracks for the first time in several months.

All You Need Is Love
The Beatles: Track 6 from Yellow Submarine
Oh, I ask you! What an opener! Bloody wonderful.

Bat Macumba
Os Mutantes: Track 12 from Everything Is Possible
Keeping on the late-60s acid vibe, Brazilian psychedelia of supreme strangeness. Lovely.

Strays of The World
Prince: Track 10 from Crystal Ball - CD2
Oooops. Things have taken a serious turn for the worse. It's possible this is only the second or third time I'm hearing this song. Let's just say, this is not Prince's finest 5 minutes. Kinda mad though. Goes completely apeshit at the end.

Good Vibrations
The Beach Boys: Track 21 from A Brian Wilson / Beach Boys compilation CD done for me by a friend
What more can be said about the staggering loveliness of this song? Except to point out just how fricking weird it is too! Seriously, just listen to it like you're hearing it for the first time. It's so unlike almost anything else you can mention... so gorgeous and strange all at once.

Brian Eno: Track 3 from Apollo - Atmospheres & Soundtracks
I've just about all of Eno's recorded output on my CD rack (and hence on my hard-drive and portable mp3 thingie). So it's hardly a surprise I find myself enveloped in this warm, rich and languid soundscape right now. Less "country music in space" than other parts of Apollo and much more of an "Ambient 4: On Land - organic" thing going on. Which will only mean anything to other hardcore Eno fans.

You're Wrong Night
Bill Hicks: Track 13 from Rant in E-Minor
Five minutes of Bill insulting his audiences... these days I can't listen to Bill without thinking just how much his voice is missed.

Oh My Love
John Lennon: Track 7 from Imagine
A short, lovely song of the "John loves Yoko" oeuvre. Very nice.

Spare Ass Annie
William S. Burroughs: Track 2 from Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales
Gloriously messed up tale from the pen of Burroughs, voiced by the great man himself and put to the music of The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. There are moods when I can think of no better definition of perfect music.

Can't Stop
The Boomtown Rats: Track 8 from Tonic for the Troops
Spikey and full-on... one of the lesser tracks on the Rats' best album. But nice to hear it again all the same.

Slim Slow Slider
Van Morrison: Track 8 from Astral Weeks
Aaaaaahhhhh.... there's no better album to end on. Seriously. Astral Weeks may just be my favourite album. In the world. Ever. I wrote a piece about it recently on a website that no longer exists. I might repost it here sometime if I can be arsed.

Anyways, that's another blogging stereotype fulfilled. Sorry.

As a result, though, I've wound up listening to Everything Is Possible by Brazilian band Os Mutantes which I probably wouldn't have otherwise. Take what lessons you wish from that.
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Satan's clever attacks

Dear Lord, I pray that you will keep me alert to Satan's clever attacks and help me to depend on you to conquer him.

I read that little prayer several times a day. It's printed on a little card stuck to the edge of my monitor... next to the breakfast-cereal sticker of Winnie The Pooh. You can see it in the image below.

Satan's clever attacks!

I was raised Catholic. And though my folks aren't heavily religious, they are regular church-goers, and decided that a Christian Brothers Catholic school would best suit my academic development. This meant that although my home life wasn't particularly religious, my school life was.

Irish Catholicism has its own atmosphere to it. I've lived in Spain, and in Greece. In both those countries the dominant christian church (Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy respectively) also had their own unique atmospheres. Different smells, different colours... the interplay of light and shadow altered strangely by geography and history. The curious echoing of new accents and languages. But still it's the Catholic churches and schools of Ireland whose atmosphere enfolds me when I think of religion. And I suspect it always will be.

Which is why I keep that little prayer on my monitor as a constant reminder. When I call to mind a memory from my days with the Christian Brothers, and I feel that dark, icy chill of intolerance and repression running down my spine, I read the words before me and remember just how tragically absurd the whole business is.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The truth about Tony and Gordon

Political news in Britain is rarely more than journalists repeating misremembered alcohol-sodden secrets to one another and then writing it up as being from a "Westminister insider". In fact, there's a couple of tabloids that will quote you as a "Westminister insider" just for standing next to Guto Hari on a station platform for a few minutes. I know this for a fact as it happened to me only last week. It's no surprise, therefore, that political journalists get it so very wrong, so very often.

There is a current example which is providing me with no end of mirth at the expense of the chattering classes who believe themselves to be "clued up" as to the relationship between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. NuLabor, it is said, has become split between the Brown and Blair factions. There are differences of opinion as to how wide and how serious the rift is, but you can count on the fingers of one toe the number of political pundits or journos or "insiders" who'd deny that a power struggle is indeed developing within the party. And all the pictures in the world of Brown smiling alongside Blair's golden boy, Alan Milburn don't seem to be able to dissuade commentators from that belief.

What happened - say the commentators - is that Blair and Brown made a deal. The deal basically ensured that Blair received unwavering support from Brown and his faction, in return for an agreement to step down before the next election allowing Gordon Brown to sweep to power as the new nuLabor leader.

All very obvious, right? Everyone in the party trots out the line about how the leadership isn't decided by secret deals. But all the same, the party mainstream would like a smooth and stable leadership transition, and not the kind of circus the tories put on whenever they assassinate a leader. Almost everyone would expect Brown to win any leadership contest anyway... so why not - for the sake of party unity - let them sort it out quietly between themselves?

Well... for a start because it's a lot more difficult to back out of a free and fair election result than it is to renege on a secret deal that everyone had been loudly denying even existed. Right Tony?

It's the perfect political drama. Secrecy, intrigue, betrayal, and plots to subvert the democratic process... all set against a background of war, suicide and questionable intelligence. Real cloak and dagger stuff. Right?


All you sillies have got it wrong. I alone have got the real skinny. News from the horses' mouths as it were. There never was a deal. It was a bet.

The details of the bet are still murky. Only Gordon and Tony know all the ins and outs. But unfortunately they were both completely wasted when they tried to explain it to me. It all got a bit incoherent and eventually degenerated into an argument over who got to keep hold of the remote control, as it apparently "always" does. I made a joke about the symbolism of that. They both just glared.

Aaaanyways, Tony started telling me how boring domestic politics had become now that the tories had surrendered. It turns out, he'd always planned to step down a full year before the next election and allow a democratic transition. "I fully expected Gordon to win of course, but that's just a statement of the fucking obvious, not a clandestine deal!" were his exact words to me. But seeing as how there was no opposition to shout at, the only thing to do now was run the country. And that was just no fun. No fun at all.

So to spice things up they snorted a couple of lines of coke and devised a needlessly complicated and paranoid wager. As there was no chance of losing the next election, they could pretty much fuck around however much they wanted. And so... Blair wins the bet if he can remain Prime Minister until May 2009 whilst deliberately adopting a series of increasingly absurd policies (from a list agreed by the two men at the start of the wager).

Meanwhile Brown must do his best to undermine Blair, but is only allowed use a select few excruciatingly subtle and passive-aggressive techniques to do so. At all other times he must be 100% behind party unity. Gordon descended into a fit of guffaws as he tried to explain the intricacies of the bet... but I must admit that I didn't find any of it worthy of a guffaw. Though it did raise a chuckle or two. Especially when he pulled up short and - with a look that was half bewilderment and half suspicion - asked "What the fuck am I on about?" and then fell off the sofa.

Blair called him a jessie.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Why in the name of god would Blair invite me round to Number 10 when he and Gordon are having a smoke and watching telly? Well, it's funny you should ask...

A few weeks ago I got a call from Sonia. Sonia's a friend of mine from way back, who now works as a call girl. She once told me that she probably made in a week twice what I made in a year. I told her she was selling herself short. Anyway, I hadn't spoken to her in a while but it turns out that she tends to be a regular up at Downing Street these days. Usually her clientele comprises foreign presidents and prime ministers, but every now and then there'll be a call from either Gordon or Tony. It's not the best work in the world, but the lights are off, they do wear paper bags, she gets to choose the music, and the money is putting everyone she's ever met through college.

On one particular day she got a call from Tony who told her that the Downing Street "Man" had buggered off on holiday with his family to Disneyland. Bloody typical, complained Tony, who then wondered whether she, Sonia, happened to know where himself and Gordon could score some weed? "We only need a quarter to last us til Marty gets back".

Sonia didn't, off hand, know where to score some weed but figured the easiest way to find out would be to phone one of her old pothead friends. Which is why my phone rang.

"Aw jeez, Sonia", was my initial response, "I'm just an old pothead. I don't grow or sell the stuff. Every now and then I'll get some skunk in, but really... that's about it. My rabble-rousing days are over, and I like a quiet life now. Man! even the idea of rubbing shoulders with that Downing Street crowd...? Y'know, that's pretty hardcore Sonia... those boys surround themselves with gun-toting heavies and shit. That's a fucked up scene."

She agreed, and she sympathised, and asked me did I know anyone else who might be up for it. I suggested Johann, but she told me that Gordon Brown had pledged to "personally strangle that fucking maniac" if he ever saw Johann again. So, after much hmming and hawwwing, I agreed to get the weed from Johann Rissle and deliver it Downing Street. Johann lives in Amsterdam, so getting hold of a quarter ounce of quality skunk involves walking into a cafe and buying it over the counter. Hiding the cannabis in a condom, he then kidnapped a child and forced him to swallow the condom. Then he sealed the child in a container enroute to Portsmouth via Sao Paulo. Thankfully the child had enough food to survive the ordeal, and spent his time cultivating the cannabis plants which had grown in the fertile topsoil of the container. Johann was no fool; he'd given the child food, halogen lamps, a diesel generator and some books on horticulture.

By the time the container arrived in Portsmouth it was simplicity itself to harvest and dry a quarter ounce of this potent bud. The child - Sven - sold the rest of his stash and bought a ticket home to Holland with the proceeds. There he sold his story to a tabloid and became extremely wealthy. A 'made for television' biopic is due out next year, "Container of Courage".

Meanwhile I'd been told to phone Tony's direct line when I'd got hold of the stuff. Just say you're "The Man", said Sonia. He'll know who you are.

I did as she said, feeling decidedly self-conscious at all this melodrama. "Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!" was the line going through my head when I heard Blair answer. "Hallo!" he said cheerfully. "Ummm... hi there. I'm The Man."

"Oh right", he said quickly, "just hang on a second will you?" He cupped his hand over the mouthpiece, but I could still hear him clearly call across a room, "Cherie, I think it's for you... the man in the crotchless spiderman outfit that you wanted between 8 and 10 tonight". He returned to the phone conversation, "When you say 'The Man', are you the crotchless spiderman, or someone else?" No Tony, said I. I'm The Man who has your quarter ounce of pot. Shall I drop it over?

Which is how I ended up getting high with Gordon and Tony (neither of whom can hold their smoke) and discovering the truth behind their apparent rift.
Full post...

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Celebrities and adverts

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

So begins the most famous chapter of Dante Alighieri's most famous poem. I've always felt it instructive that it's soon after losing "the straightforward pathway", that Dante finds himself in hell. That opening triplet could be straight out of the teachings of Gautama Buddha. ('Though it should, of course, be pointed out that Dante is rarely that insightful again throughout the rest of the poem; concentrating - as he does - on imagery rather than insight). And of course Dante was far luckier than most. Led by his guide Virgil, he was merely on a tour of the place, from which he was able to bring us back an accurate map.

I have to admit, my own involvement with The Divine Comedy (and in particular The Inferno) doesn't spring from any particular fascination with pre-Renaissance Italian literature. Indeed it's quite rare for anything written prior to 1600 to spark my interest; so it took William Blake's illustrations to draw me into Dante's madcap medieval world. Recently though, it has become clear to me that The Inferno has been rendered out of date. An unfortunate state of affairs, as Blake's glorious series of images is now, sadly incomplete.

Deeper even than the foul-smelling hole inhabited by the falsifiers, Beelzebub has ordered the construction of a brand new level of hell. Originally built for an obscure 19th century French writer, it was renamed recently in honour of Dennis Hopper. Just after that car advert in fact. And they've had an extra ocean of boiling filth installed in anticipation of his arrival.

For as you've no doubt already guessed, this new level of hell is reserved for those who have deliberately and callously shat upon their own great works despite knowing just how genuinely important those works are to others. People who publicly betray the ideals with which they once inspired many.

Now, every human life is littered with compromise. We all know this, but we also accept that there are compromises that you just don't make. When a wealthy person becomes a spokesman for the automobile industry they are making a compromise too far. They're selling unrestrained environmental destruction and the worst form of consumer capitalism imaginable. It is - in every sense - a dishonourable activity to be involved with, unless you've been pushed into it by fear of starvation or incarceration (the Willie Nelson 'get-out' clause).

All the same, car advertisements aren't enough - on their own - to get you into this new deeper land within the Nether Hell. Not even Mr. Sting, for example, will be falling quite so far into the pit. It was using footage from Easy Rider which got Dennis Hopper his express ticket to the deepest depths. There are those of us who still view art as important, y'see? Those of us who still see it as an expression of the human soul. So when an artist takes something that has inspired people for many years and defiles it on television... six times a night, every night for two months. Well, it's worse than any video-nasty. It is the pornography of despair (to borrow a phrase).

There are people (it was before my time) whose late teens were heavily influenced by Easy Rider and its portrayal of freedom. It did for these people what Kerouac's On The Road had done for their older brothers and sisters. Which is not to say it made them go out and take off around America on a Harley (not all of them anyways), but it broadened horizons, opened new vistas, and generally made them realise life held more promise than they'd previously thought. There was a sacredness to those memories. A sacredness that could be revisited whenever the film was shown.

But Hopper transformed it into a sales pitch for car culture. And now those memories are tainted. Once you've seen those adverts it is impossible to watch Easy Rider without seeing a rich, smug Hopper overtaking his young outlaw self and dismissing him with contempt.

I remember reading in the mid-90s about U2 turning down a 35 million dollar deal for the use of a single song in a single car advert. I remember reading Bono saying how difficult it had been to turn it down. Not because he'd like a quarter share of the 35 million. But because of what that money could do. Who can possibly argue that the world would not be a better place if a car company had 35 million dollars less, and an AIDS charity had 35 million dollars more? And could Bono justify being so precious about his music to deny that occurring?

I guess the recent U2 endorsement of a consumer electronics device means he's changed his mind about the answer to that question. Many of the folks I know have a tendency to dislike U2, and Bono's attitude in particular. I, on the other hand, dig their music and I've always found it difficult to question the motives of someone who can turn down 35 million dollars because he didn't want to tarnish one of his songs. I also appreciate the fact that U2 have pointedly only allowed the use of one particular new song for the commercial. There's been no time for that song to build up any emotional resonance with people.

David Bowie, as with U2, seems destined to escape damnation for his crimes of corporate co-option. Whenever "Heroes" begins trying to sell me a pension plan I simply mute the TV, avert my eyes and silently vow never to use that particular company. David Bowie is extremely rich so he doesn't get to use the Willie Nelson get-out clause. One also suspects that most of the money from the adverts is going to Bowie and his shareholders, rather than - say - famine relief in Darfur... so he doesn't get to use the Bono "whole ethical grey area" thing. And he has control over his own publishing rights, so he can't play the Paul McCartney "Michael Jackson is a total bastid!" card.

No, with Bowie it's a rather unique situation. He's just too damn cool, y'see? And his music is way too entwined with my memories of youth to ever manage to untangle it. Plus, well... the fact is, he's the one person in the whole world who I'd be genuinely star-struck in the presence of. So it's just not possible to visualise myself haranguing David Bowie for selling "Heroes" to a marketing campaign... potentially compromising not only the song, but also the wonderful 'shopping mall' scene in Christiane F.

In reality, any encounter with Bowie would involve me just standing there gibbering until my knees went from under me, and from a prone position in the mud, I might just be able to splutter the words "You're David Bowie!" before he made his exit.

Robert Smith and The Cure, on the other hand, should be investing in asbestos pants. People fell in love to that music, Robert! Don't you get it? It's not just yours any more! That's the price you pay for being an artist. If you're just a fucking jingle-writer then you don't have the right to trick us into loving your music and making it important in our lives before revealing just how little value you place on it. Is it a sick joke? "You know that song I wrote that brings tears to your eyes? Well, I've sold it to a corporation who plan to manipulate that emotion in order to sell you more products."

Thanks Bob. 'Cos that's what the world needed right? Another way for corporations to manipulate our emotions.

Of course, it's not only disgraced artists who find themselves destined for this new land off Dante's map. Germaine Greer's recent plummet from respected author, cultural commentator and academic to... well, to Big Brother contestant shocked even me. The woman who - for millions of people - defined the popular feminist movement is now endorsing one of the most disempowering elements of our society; the cult of celebrity. Her achievements have qualified her to join an exclusive club. And she must be so very proud that in the eyes of the nation, writing The Female Eunuch is considered on the same level as being Channel-4s eccentric horse-racing commentator.

Celebrity has become an end in itself for Germaine Greer. Her quip about anal sex before entering the house was the final straw... as unimaginative a way to garner empty controversy as is possible. Anything and everything that Greer now says is stripped of meaning for so many of us who had before held her in such high regard. And how long before the rot spreads? Before her entire life's work is re-evaluated from the perspective of "TV's pet anarchist"?

Look people! Watch the feminist perform! See our latest dancing fool. See her turn tricks on cue. Listen to her try to shock us! Bored now? Hey watch the eccentic horse-racing man perform! See our latest dancing fool. See him turn tricks on cue. Listen to him try to shock us! Bored now?

Update (11/01/05 18:09)

Germaine Greer has just walked out of the Big Brother house. Her reasons for quitting are as incomprehensible to me as her reasons for agreeing to do it in the first place. She was dismayed by the publicity-seeking agenda of her fellow celebrities (says the beeb). Pardon? Let's get one thing clear before it gets lost amidst the excuses and justifications... there is only one point to Big Brother. The programme does exactly one thing; it puts the lives of the participants into the public arena for discussion. That is all.

It's function, therefore, is precisely to give publicity to those taking part. So the only rational and justifiable reason for taking part in a reality television show is to further a publicity-seeking agenda.

Let me conclude by highlighting this paragraph from the BBC piece. It demonstrates, far better than any earnest lecture from the likes of me, exactly why Germaine Greer's short stint on Celebrity Big Brother was such a fucking travesty...

Other celebrities to walk out of a reality show TV include Sex Pistol John Lydon, former EastEnders actress Danniella Westbrook and ex-E17 singer Brian Harvey who all left I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here.
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