Where There Were No Doors

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

Thursday, June 30, 2005

The news in brief

Spain legalises gay marriage. Yay Spain!

Schoolboy killer ate lobster in New York as parents lay dead. But what colour socks was he wearing? Eh? Tell us! The public has a right to know!

Growth slows as consumer spending grinds to a halt. It's still not sunk in yet, has it?

Won't be long though... Unocal Bid Shows China Needs Oil For Growth.

Vietnam Bird Flu Death Toll Rises. I'm never quite sure how much I'm supposed to be worrying about this.

Bobby Brown Invites Himself Into Your Living Room. But this would worry me a lot.

And finally, am I the only one who thinks "Freedom Tower" is a dreadful name? Too much fortress, not enough beauty.
Full post...

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The public smoking ban: No exemptions

I've got a new bit up at The Sharpener.
Full post...

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Me! Me!

Whoa... between work and peak oil, it's all a bit full-on around here just now (excellent Brian Eno album notwithstanding). Work-wise; I've just finished one of the projects I've been doing, and am on the final furlong of another one. Having my PC explode really knocked the stuffing out of my schedule though, and it'll be another week I suspect, before I'm completely caught up.

On top of that, there's been another couple of (non-work) incidents which have really made the past week a major hassle. I'll not bore you with the details... let's just say that I'm very stressed just now, and I could really do with a holiday that's not going to happen. Arse.

And if that wasn't bad enough; my writing really suffers when I'm stressed (yes, yes, cue unfunny comment about how I must be very stressed all the time, then). My already meandering style becomes wildly unfocussed and I end up following connections from tangents off tangents and covering six different subjects in the space of a few paragraphs.

Hell, this entry started off as a response to a rather silly "Superhero" blog meme that's doing the rounds, and it's only now - in paragraph four - that I'm getting round to even mentioning the thing!

But what the hell, it's not like you have to read any of this. Not unless you've had your eyelids surgically removed prior to being strapped into a chair in front of an IMAX screen displaying my blog in real time of course.

However. If that is the case...... Well..... I'm sure you'll soon come to agree that it's for the best.

Anyways, via the very groovy Justin at Chicken Yoghurt comes the Superhero Meme Thang (note: as an example of just how unfocussed I am at the moment, let me point out that when I popped over to Chicken Yoghurt to cut'n'paste the questions on the Superhero meme post, I stumbled upon this post about my peak oil article and spent 20 minutes reading the comments and composing a really rather unsatisfactory response). Hmmmm...

The Superhero Meme (or: One Day I Shall Create A Real SpiderMan! Even If I Have To Subject Another 30 Teenagers To Horrible Deaths By Radiation Poisoning And Spider Venom)

1. If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why? (Assume you also get baseline superhero enhancements like moderately increased strength, endurance and agility.)

This is quite easy actually, as I wrote some short stories back in the day, featuring a superhero with the power to bestow spiritual enlightenment on people (his name was "Karma Man" - obvious David Bowie reference - hey! I was a lot younger). Of course, I'd want to leave out the whole Dorian Grayish back-story.

Each new issue of the comic (or film in the franchise - depends how big we're aiming here) would have me tackling some ruthless dictator who is desperately trying to escape being zapped into a fulfilled and centered human being. The ongoing plot arc would involve me and my crew tracking down Bush and Blair who have gone to ground and control an army of hideously mutated soldiers... created by extracting the souls from inmates of Guantanamo Bay (using a fiendish device developed by a crazed scientist funded by the Christian Right)... and who, because of their lack of souls, are therefore immune to my superpower.

(In the original stories the mutants were created by kidnapping pot-heads and using the device on them... but I thought I'd spice it up a little).

Yeah, that's definitely the superpower for me.

That, or the ability to transform mustard into ketchup. Either one really.

2. Which, if any, 'existing' superhero(es) do you fancy, and why?
I'm very glad to see that - according to the self-appointed arbiter or these things (internationalhero.co.uk) - that kick-ass pagan witch Willow is considered a superhero. And rightly so! She's a hero, and she is rather super. As I may have mentioned before - I have a bit of a thing for post-Season 4 Willow. Whatchagonna do? Gorgeous and powerful with more than a hint of gothy darkness, and yet she's a computer geek with a really high IQ at the same time!

Also, the whole season 6 thing with the dark magicks / drug addiction metaphor and psychedelics and the fact that she ends up as The Big Bad, tortures a misogynist rapist murderer to death in a very full on manner and then almost allows her grief to destroy the universe...? All I can say is "Wow!"

Which, if any, 'existing' superhero(es) do you hate?
Can't say that any of them have ever gotten a reaction beyond "irritation", perhaps - at a stretch - "mild dislike". I was never too enamoured with the cape and lycra brigade. And reserve particular contempt for any of them who namecheck their nationality (Captain America, Captain Britain, Capitao Brasil, Capitan Italia, etc.)

What would your superhero name be? (No prefab porn-name formulas here, you have to make up the name you think you'd be proud to mask under.)
As mentioned before, Karma Man is an ace name in my view. That said, I'd also like to adopt the King Mob moniker for a while. King Mob is an anarchist superhero whose actual identity changes from time to time. There was a King Mob in the 1880's... another one in the 1920's, and so on... the most famous of them all, of course, is the most recent incarnation... the one depicted here. And it'd only take three years of intensive combat training to bring me up to speed really... I'm a natural at everything else required (cough, cough).

Is there an "existing" superhero with whom you identify/whom you would like to be?
Well, I guess the King Mob thing kind of applies here. Of course, I haven't yet shot or blown up nearly enough people to truly identify with him, but there's still time.

(anyone who doesn't relish the ambiguity of a superhero who is a cold-blooded murderer in the name of his self-selected "higher cause" can stay in their capes and silly pants).

Pass it on. Three people please, and why they are the Chosen Ones...
Well, I dunno about this; it's a terrible burden to lay on someone. But lay it I shall.

Even though he only posts about once every two months (i.e. he won't respond to this), stoatie over at Kerosene Oyster Hell would write something very funny in response. And I imagine that L at Random Speak would also write something amusing. I'd also be interested in reading Peter Cuthbertson's response (though for different reasons).
Full post...

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Another Day on Earth

I just thought I'd take a short break from work (yes, on a Sunday!) to recommend an album. It arrived yesterday morning in the post and I've been listening to it most of the weekend. Another Day on Earth is the new album from the remarkable Brian Eno (it can be purchased directly from the enoshop) and is the first full album of songs he's done since 1977's Before and After Science (though he collaborated with John Cale on Wrong Way Up a couple of years later, and has done sporadic vocals on several of his albums since then... Nerve Net and Drawn From Life, for instance, both featured his voice in one form or another).

I'd been eager to hear this album since I'd heard him describe song-writing as the "last great challenge in music" during an interview with Alan Moore on Radio 4. How would he rise to the challenge then?

"Very well", is the answer. "Very well indeed".

If you're a fan of Brian Eno then you will love this album. I'm a big fan of his instrumental stuff, so I've got hold of - and dug - all his recent albums. But given that I play his vocal albums an awful lot (or "the early, funny stuff" as we refer to them in this flat... a prize of a big fat spliff to the first person to point out the reference), I've always hoped that he'd do a few more.

The glorious piano and strings of How Many Worlds and the understated, simple unaffected vocals, make it one of the best songs he's ever done. And it doesn't feel at all isolated on an album that covers plenty of bases.

If I have one criticism it's that I think he overuses vocal effects every now and then. Although that said - as is the case on And Then So Clear - just when you're thinking "turn off the vocoder Brian, and let's hear you sing!" his own voice begins to emerge subtly from within the effects... it's a very lovely 'machine to human' transition which places the earlier effects-laden verses in perfect context.

Another Day on Earth is an excellent album which deserves a longer review than I currently have time for. It also deserves a far bigger audience than I suspect it'll get. If (as is the case with a friend of mine) you "just don't like his voice" then this album is obviously not for you... but I recommend you check out Ambient 4: On Land (the best of his non-vocal stuff in my view).

However, if you do like his earlier vocal albums, then you will love this. I don't believe there's a man on the planet who can play a recording studio as an instrument the way that Eno does. And when you have that behind some amazing songs... well... I don't imagine there will be a better album this year.
Bone Bomb
my body so thin
so tired
beaten for years
ploughshare to bomb
so hard

bone bomb
bone bomb
bone bomb

my town so dusty
so dry
buildings pushed over
lives heaped together
young girls dreaming of beautiful deaths
popstar pictures above their beds
above their heads...

everything stolen
except my bones
now I am only bone
I waited for peace
and here is my peace
here in this still last moment
of my life.
Full post...

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Hate all Religions! Now!

Go on! Hate them I say!

(just thought I'd get some last-minute incitement in)

Here in the UK there's a plan to pass a law against incitement to religious hatred. Now, I think it's a very bad idea to legislate these things. But those who wish to introduce this can make some very powerful arguments in their favour, and I've yet to really hear someone successfully argue against them. So, as Devil's Advocate, let me make the case for this law...
  • Currently in the UK, Christians can claim protection from "incitement to hatred" (under the blasphemy laws) and Jews can claim protection under the incitement to racial hatred laws (as can Sikhs). Now it's true to say that Islam is not being singled out... Buddhists and Pagans don't get protection either. However, it's also true to say that in the current cultural context, Moslems might feel that they are being treated unequally under the law, and - at least in some senses - they are right to feel that.
  • The claims that this law will abrogate "Free Speech" were made prior to the introduction of the incitement to racial hatred legislation. Bernard Manning and his ilk still ply their trade. The BNP still exists and still campaigns vigourously (much to the dismay of many). The law ended up giving ethnic minorities a weapon to use against extremists; it didn't stop Jim Davidson from making dreadful television or performing to packed houses of meatheads (so arguably it didn't go far enough)
In other words, the current legal framework arguably discriminates against moslems - given the current political and cultural situation (i.e. there isn't a widespread attempt to demonise Buddhism in certain areas of the media). And that's a situation which must surely be addressed, in the name of defusing intercommunity tension if not for the basic fairness of the thing. It seems very unlikely that we will repeal the racial incitement and blasphemy laws, so this is the only practical method of redressing the balance. And those worried that the law will limit free speech will have to demonstrate how the racial incitement laws have done so (at least to the detriment of society).

Let me reiterate that I'm playing Devil's Advocate here... I oppose the law. But I oppose it on the basis that religions are ultimately a set of beliefs that 95% of us in Western Europe can choose to retain or abandon once we reach adulthood. Therefore they should get no more protection from the law than the belief that the world is ruled by a talking marshallow called Gerald who lives in a shed in Preston.

(A less absurd belief system, I would argue, than Islam, Christianity or Judaism.)

But that opinion is unlikely to be very representative.
Full post...

Thursday, June 09, 2005

You've heard it all before

Or at least most of it... assuming you're a regular visitor and have been reading my blog entries about peak oil. As evidence of the usually rather tenuous justification of blogging (that "it provides a space to test out drafts of articles") I present you:

Peak Oil: Beyond Optimism and Pessimism

Last time we hung out, my friend Merrick was badgering me (you'll only get the pun if you visit his site) about knitting a few of my recent blog entries into a "proper article" about peak oil, and also the wider issue of how we (as human beings) often fail to address problems by denying their existence.

The trouble was there was a lot conspiring against me getting this done. Firstly I'm trying to write an introduction to Peak Oil for The Sharpener group blog. But it's a very different stylee... with graphs and tables of data and stuff. A technical primer rather than the more philosophical piece that the blog entries suggested.

Secondly I have more work at the moment than I usually do, and that's making plenty of claims on my time. And thirdly I found it very difficult to see these various blog entries as a cohesive article.

Merrick, however, decided that it was worthy of a few hours work and (based on the fact that we had collaborated successfully on stuff in the past) did all the work for me and churned out a half-decent article from a quarter-decent series of blog musings.

He's that kind of person.

Also, I have pictures of him "servicing" the Australian rugby squad.

And because Merrick edits the political / environmental activism section of Julian Cope's website (U-Know!) the article now has a considerably larger audience than my little website. Which is groovy.

So yeah, thanks Merrick; nice one!
Full post...

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

What a wanker

I have so much work to do (thanks to losing three and a half days to a computer meltdown) that I really don't have time for any blogging this week. Not even this little entry.

But I just can't contain my indignation and needed to vent it somewhere.

In today's Guardian the current Tory leader Michael Howard (yes, he's still hanging around; like a particularly bad fart in the elevator of British politics) writes about climate change. The basic thrust of his article is that Tony Blair is crap (after all, you wouldn't expect the tory leader to address something as important as climate change without turning it into a petty party political point, would you?) and that "the tories and the US have done better than Blair on climate change" (to cite the subtitle of Howard's piece).

I was recently asked why I never considered taking a more active role in politics. Now, the fact is; at various times I have been very active politically - albeit outside the mainstream. But the questioner was really asking why I chose not to get involved in democratic politics. There are many answers to that question (not least being that pot-smoking intellectuals are unelectable by a public that laps up Big Brother... on some levels I'm an élitist, you see, which is a terrible crime in a world so eager to embrace the decline of human culture). But Michael Howard's article in the Guardian illustrates another very important reason why I could never enter the political arena.

If I were an MP I would feel honour bound, next time I was in the same room as Michael Howard, to walk up and give him a slap. Then say "that's for the 'climate change' piece, you wanker". It'd be like finding yourself in the same room as Bryan Adams. To not give him a slap for that Robin Hood song would make you slightly less of a person.

Michael Howard is a liar. Oh, he's a fairly good politician and I'm sure he can demonstrate the veracity of every specific claim made in the piece. But the broad implication of the piece - that the tories are worthy protectors of the environment - is nonsense of the highest order.

Hands up anyone who believes, that on any individual issue (like building a new runway, bypassing another town, widening another motorway) the tories would ever allow ecological considerations to trump economic ones? OK, so I see a couple of tories with their hands up... but they're just being contrary, even they don't believe it for a second.

The last tory candidate for London Mayor ran on a "Friend of The Motorist" ticket. Seriously. That was a central plank in the rather unsavoury Steve Norris' campaign.

I also love Michael Howard's subtle attempts at historical revisionism. He mentions the fact that Thatcher paid lip-service to the environment and then speaks of the "Conservative-led dash for gas". Don't you see? Thatcher's assault on the coal-mining industry was all about the environment!

Bonus points to those of you who feel like slapping Howard just for claiming that a "dash for gas" is a sensible environmental policy*.

I'm also stunned by Howard's implication that the US's refusal to sign up to the Kyoto Accord is evidence that the Dubya Administration doesn't believe the Accord goes far enough! No, he doesn't say so explicitly, but by tying the refusal to sign with the fact that a number of US States have individually decided to limit emissions, there's no doubt that's the idea he's suggesting.

Also, after suggesting that Kyoto's problem is simply that it's not tough enough for the Americans, he then - a few paragraphs later when you've hopefully forgotten his dissing of the Accord - proudly announces his role as environment minister in 1992 in creating "the framework convention [that] provides the basis for the Kyoto protocol".

Bonus points for those of you thinking "jeez... if you're going to try to use doublethink as a rhetorical device, Michael, at least have the good grace to hide it a bit better".

Here's the thing... theoretically (using efficiency gains and what-not) the economy could continue to grow without stressing the environment any further; and theoretically could even continue to grow whilst easing the stress it places on the environment.

However, in practice it does not, and never has, worked that way. Indeed; in practice there's no real evidence that it ever could work that way. In practice it comes down to a decision to deliberately shrink the British economy in order to help reduce the severity of human-induced climate change. That is the only solution with enough probability of success to make it worth pursuing.

Is Michael Howard suggesting that the tories would choose to abandon economic growth in favour of environmental responsibility? Of course he's not! Hell, even the Greens - with their manifesto commitment of "full employment" - wouldn't dare suggest that. No, Michael Howard is playing pathetic political games, and using a vitally important issue to do so. He's trivialising climate change by making it a debate about whether the tories or Blair have had the least imperceptible effect with their environmental policies.

I was an active environmentalist during the last tory government... the last time they were in a position to implement environmental policy. I haven't forgotten what they were like.

Michael Howard needs a serious slap.

* unless you use that gas to build a truly sustainable infrastructure rather than just to grow the economy to the point where it'll have to burn vastly more coal when the gas runs out.
Full post...

Monday, June 06, 2005

A bad weekend

I am very very fed up indeed. Annoyed, tired and frazzled round the edges.

My plans for the weekend were very simple. Both in the sense of uncomplicated, and in the sense of "not much to ask of the universe". I was going to spend Saturday working for a few hours, writing a blog entry and chilling out in front of a DVD in the evening. Then on Sunday I was going to roll a couple of pure grass spliffs, sit somewhere pleasant in Westminister - with a view of some architecture - and get high while reading a good book for a couple of hours. Then I'd trundle off somewhere pleasant for a meal before going to see Sin City in the evening.

OK, so it's fairly mundane... and would probably be significantly improved if it wasn't just me on my own... but all in all, an easy enough weekend to achieve you'd imagine.

Except that within an hour of switching on my PC on Saturday - just as Merrick called, asking me to take a look at something he was emailing over (so I'm blaming him squarely for the entire debacle) - I smelled a faint whiff of burning in the air. I might not even have noticed it had it not been for the fact that my computer decided to make a tiny "pop!" noise and then power down completely.

For me this is a nightmare scenario. I can't do my job without my PC. And right now I'm in the final week or so of two separate projects; both of which have been ongoing for a couple of months and both of which are now in the final "hectic" phase.

My first reaction was to go watch 15 minutes of television news in the hope that it would (like an estimated 5.6% of all computer glitches) "sort itself out". But deep down I knew this wasn't one of those situations. I'll spare you the gory details... but what was to have been five days in Amsterdam at the end of June; has become a bunch of wires and circuitry in the corner of my room which does roughly the same thing it did the day before it went "pop!" (albeit faster now, what with Moore's Law being what it is and all).

And what was to have been a very simple and pleasant weekend become one of remarkable complexity and no little unpleasantness. Bollocks.
Full post...

Thursday, June 02, 2005

I can see you!

Talk about your surveillance society!

I should point out that I currently earn a crust building fairly complicated bits of the interweb (I hasten to add; for - by and large - rather groovy people... charities, NGO's, the fluffier bits of government; though, I admit, with the occasional higher-paying client). This means that I do know more about the web than your average blogger, and can make use of it in ways that many website owners probably can't.

That shouldn't, however, in any way lessen the implications of the fact that merely by visiting my site once (for a single second), I can learn a huge amount about you. Almost none of us (me included) take precautions to hide our tracks on the web. After all, we're not all quite as paranoid as we perhaps should be.

You see, I decided to look beyond the "what did they google to find me?" stuff in my site stats, and actually work out how much information a single user leaves behind them when they click a link that leads here. Using only information provided by all three of the free site statistics plug-ins that I tested; I chose three visits at random from the past 24 hours.

Here's what I could find out using this information, a search engine, and a freely downloadable piece of Shareware called AY Spy:

Visit 1: Arrived via a search on google that was clearly not aimed at me. The visit lasted 3 seconds (clearly long enough to establish this was not what they were looking for).

Visit 2: Arrived via a link on someone else's blog. The visit lasted 20 minutes (long enough for the person to read the most recent Big Brother entry, the comments on it, and then refer to the comments on the previous Big Brother entry).

Visit 3: Arrived via a bookmark in their browser. The visit lasted over an hour and they read the three most recent entries.

Within 4 minutes I had tracked down, on each of these people:
  • their name and address,
  • at least one phone number,
  • at least one photograph.

Sleep tight.
Full post...

Dreamflesh blog (and other news)

My good friend and flat-mate is soon off for a month's carousing on the west coast of America (ostensibly to attend an academic conference and interview some people for a book he's working on... but it's really about the carousing), and has decided to resurrect his blog in honour of this event. I suggest therefore that you shuffle on over to Dreamflesh. I also recommend noting it's presence in my blogroll thingie and clicking it often.

The other recent entry on the blog links is Merrick's mp3 blog, Dust On The Stylus. As well as being one of the most tireless activists around on all manner of groovy issues, Merrick is an enthusiastically opinionated walking music encyclopaedia. There are obviously genres and subcultures in which my historical specialisation trumps Merrick; but as an all-round muso I would have to admit that he probably wins out. Which is a pretty full-on thing to say; even if I do say so myself.

While in the news, all manner of mad shit is happening...

Deep Throat

The identity of Deep Throat (Woodward and Bernstein's informant on the Watergate story) has finally been revealed as Mark Felt.

Unlike - I suspect - most people, I had heard Felt's name before (by virtue of being a bit of a Nixon-buff) but that's about all it amounted to. If you'd asked me; "Who was Mark Felt?" a few days ago, I'd probably have said "wasn't he one of the FBI guys who investigated Watergate?" (he wasn't by the way. At least, not directly).

That said, I noticed one interesting bit of trivia that perhaps others have missed. In one of Nixon's biographies - The Arrogance of Power by Anthony Summers - Mark Felt is mentioned only once:
Just two weeks after the [Watergate] arrests, again in the Oval Office with the tapes running, Nixon and Colson twice discussed the notion of faking a break-in at his own party headquarters to make people think the Democrats were as guilty as the Republicans of this sort of activity...

No such phony break-in ever took place, but a similar one may have done. Three months later, in an apparent break-in at the office of the president's California physician, Dr. John Lungren, cash was ignored, but a file containing Nixon's patient records left disordered on the floor. Haldeman and an aide then called the FBI at the highest level fifteen times, urging that the bureau issue a press release on the case.

Assistant Director Mark Felt turned down the request, saying it was a matter for the local police. Such was the persistence of Nixon's men, though, that Felt came to suspect someone at the White House..."
That single mention of Felt isn't particularly unusual, except that it just happens to occur on the same page (within a few paragraphs) as this line: "Two young Washington Post reporters named Woodward and Bernstein, however, were already boring towards the truth."

My theory is that Summers knew the identity of Deep Throat but agreed to keep it secret (for one reason or another). However he couldn't resist leaving a tiny pointer in the text of his book. Something that would only ever be noticed by people who already knew. A very very exclusive private joke.

Peak Oil

Also in the news, Exxon Mobil say "Ohhhhhh shit!" with regards to peak oil. Actually, the whole peak oil story flared briefly in the mainstream media recently. Even USA Today had a piece on it. Of course, the story was dead by the following day and most people will forget they ever read it. Especially as it contained this mind-blowing section:
Princeton University geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes predicts "a permanent state of oil shortage."

According to these experts, it will take a decade or more before conservation measures and new technologies can bridge the gap between supply and demand, and even then the situation will be touch and go.

None of this will affect vacation plans this summer - Americans can expect another season of beach weekends and road trips to Graceland relatively unimpeded by the cost of getting there. Though gas prices are up, they are expected to remain below $2.50 a gallon...

And there are many who doubt the doomsday scenario will ever come true...

"This is just silly," said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research in Winchester, Mass. "It's not like industrial civilization is going to come crashing down."
I honestly don't know which is more distressing... the onset of the collapse of industrial civilisation or having to read that "Americans can expect another season of beach weekends and road trips to Graceland" in a news item discussing it.

Clash of civilisations

Meanwhile Iraq and Afghanistan continue to see violence on a level that suggests to me at least, that US policy in the region is succeeding perfectly. As soon as the violence dies down, it will be impossible to justify the presence of more than a quarter of a million heavily-armed US troops in a peaceful and stable foreign country.

Hence all the koran-flushing and prisoner-humiliation and Laura Bush's Middle East trip and what have you (incidentally... please read my thoughts on emergent intelligence within institutions prior to criticising this allegation; you will almost certainly continue to disagree with me, but at least then you'll be attacking my real argument and not one you made up). People criticise Rumsfeld and Cheney and Wolfowitz and Perle and even Dubya (who shouldn't really be expected to think about such complicated things) because there was no credible "exit strategy". Can't you see them meeting up at the Crawford ranch and laughing long and hard about that? "Exit Strategy!?" squeals Cheney to the others, "For God's sake folks! We've only just arrived!"


And the French and the Dutch have decided to torpedo the EU constitution. I can hardly blame them to be honest. I mean, when even a pro-European integrationist like me felt decidedly lukewarm towards the document, what hope for convincing entire populations? Especially when those trying to do the convincing are generally the least trusted people within society.

Ah bollocks to it anyways. I see this as potentially being the first serious fracture in the European programme. Frankly I'd rather hoped we'd get a little further down the road before the fragmentation began. Unless something is done fast (and it's by no means too late just yet) the euro could be fatally damaged by this, and that would be a tragedy in my view. The last thing Europe needs to be dealing with right now is a completely artificial financial crisis. There are far more important things to be focussing on.

And you should pop over and read George Monbiot's latest article. I would argue that you should be doing that by default, of course.
Full post...

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Big Brother 13 (episode 2) - Abstract Analysis

My last post was written in rather a hurry. I had a plane to catch that evening and only enough time to explain one of the reasons for my deep loathing of Big Brother... the name. But on the subject of Reality TV my hatred runs deep and has many facets. And now that I am returned from my weekend in God's Own Country, I shall expound further (you should also expect an episode 3) upon just why it is that Reality TV represents all that is wrong in modern popular culture. Why it's so much worse than anything that preceded it... tabloid newspapers, soap operas, even pro/celebrity golf tournaments... all were but omens of the Great Crassness to come. Mere prophets.

I'll also take the opportunity to respond to the comments made on the last post and explain why it is that those who agreed with me are - on this subject at least - individuals of rare and valuable insight.

Anyone who expressed a dissenting opinion can expect a visit from The Bastid Squad.

The decision to call the programme "Big Brother" is - as I mentioned previously - offensive and morally reprehensible. It insults those of us who really care about Orwell's work and consider it important, and it insults the memory of George Orwell. Most importantly and insidiously however; it neutralises the power Orwell invested in those two words.

There is a curious fact which I assume most of my readers have noticed (you're smart folks, even if you're sometimes wrong) but which I'd still like to comment upon. And that is the disconnect between the power of words within our culture, and our cultural acknowledgement of that power. Historically (and here I am speaking of pre-mass media) there has been an acknowledgement of the power of words within culture, even in those pre-mass media times when words had - arguably - far less power.

There is a line in one of the Carlos Castaneda books attributed to Yaqui shaman, don Juan Matus, "Words are tremendously powerful and bestow great power on those who control them" (quoted from memory). And you only have to look to Norse Runes or magickal glyphs or sacred texts ("I am The Word made flesh") to grasp the full power that human beings have invested in words down through the ages. And don't imagine for a second that this was some weird superstitious belief that has been dispelled by the cleansing light of rationalism. Words are still causing wars and breaking hearts. They have lost none of their potency, but now this power is no longer acknowledged. If it were, we would never tolerate our environment being saturated with a mass of commercial advertisements... Words of Power, fifty feet high, crafted by experts in the art, and designed to manipulate us into performing some function (buy our product, fly to our country, call our number, give us your money). As the power of words increased; thanks to more effective communications technology; so this power was downplayed by those who controlled it. And those who control it are institutions, not individuals. I shall explain the significance of this presently.

[Aside: I hope at least one of you grasps the full cultural context of the Castaneda quote...?]

The excellently named Oscar Wildebeest points out that:
The people who planned and who make [Big Brother] (I've worked for them in the past, but not any more) didn't think about Orwell beyond pinching the title - which is part of the problem.
The thing is Oscar, although I completely accept the literal truth of what you say, I don't think that's anything like the whole story. I don't for a moment envision the producers of Big Brother as intellectual heavyweights sat around in deep chairs drinking brandy, smoking Cuban cigars, debating semiotics and contrasting the shifts of perception induced by Finnegans Wake and The Ticket That Exploded. I suspect that we might live in a more enlightened culture were that the case, as you pointed out with your acknowledgement: "which is part of the problem" (though I could also see it getting a bit sinister quite frankly).

Now though, I'm going to get a little bit more abstract than I normally do on this blog, and explain why I think it is that our culture has actively ensured that the crass morons who shat on Orwell's memory were propelled into a position to do so.

in-tel-li-gence (n.) 1. The capacity to acquire and apply knowledge, especially toward a purposeful goal.

One of the books that really influenced me when I was a philosophy undergraduate was The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul, composed and arranged by Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett. It's a collection of short pieces (some current, some historical) on the mind, intelligence and cognition. The book overall takes no single position and I don't think there's a single piece within it that doesn't provoke thought (even if that thought is "that can't possibly be right... and I'm going to work out why").

Hofstadter's own piece "Prelude... Ant Fugue" discusses, among other things, the idea of "emergent intelligence"; i.e. that intelligence (of one kind or another) can spontaneously emerge within an extremely complex system. I remind people that I'm using the specific definition of "intelligence" cited above, and not to make the mistake of applying to this idea that fuzzily indefineable, personality-based notion of intelligence prevalent in common thought. Hofstadter, as might be assumed from the title of his piece, uses the example of an ant colony to illustrate the phenomenon.

I think it's probably fairly uncontroversial to suggest that ant colonies exhibit emergent intelligence, and that my readers understand what is - broadly speaking - meant by that. The behaviour of the whole is clearly co-ordinated, yet it's apparent that no individual ant "understands" what is going on. The intelligence does not reside within the ant; but within the colony. In this way, the ants are analogous to the neurons in our brains, and the chemical signals used to communicate on an ant-to-ant basis analogous to the electrical signals between neurons. Of course, the overall needs of an ant colony are relatively few and so well-defined that no greater level of intelligence emerges than that required to fulfill a few basic functions. Certainly there's no reason (or as the more aggressive evolutionary biologists might say, "no historical opportunity") for anything other than the most basic intelligence to emerge from the colony.

I'm probably becoming a little more controversial when I suggest that individual human beings, when working on a project, can themselves be analogous to neurons, or individual ants, within a larger system. And if that system is large enough and complex enough, intelligence can emerge which is entirely separate to, and out of the control of, those individual human neurons. What makes us different to the ants and neurons is that our own individual intelligence has become so complex that limited self-awareness may allow us to grasp a rough idea of what's going on "one level up".

I see this kind of emergent intelligence in numerous human institutions (armies and large corporations being the two most obvious). However, individual corporations and armies are themselves merely part of a larger culture. And the complexity of that culture is on a scale far larger than any ant colony. Not because of the numbers involved, but because of the unpredictable nature of the individual neurons and their mode of interaction (a set of mutable, yet constantly evolving, languages).

For some of my readers I'm probably slipping from "controversial" to "downright objectionable" or even "clinically paranoid" when I suggest that the intelligence emerging in modern human culture is struggling to assert greater control over it's individual human constituents. If our individual neurons began to develop (sometimes incredibly destructive) agenda of their own, we'd have medical science working at full tilt trying to get them back to servicing us.

So human culture, having become so complex, is evolving mechanisms to make individual human beings more predictable. I don't consider this a Bad Thing in principle, though I suspect many of the people I know would do. However in practice... it's a complete mess.

There's an intermediate level of complexity involved in human culture; one I mentioned earlier; and one which does indeed seem to have an analogue within other forms of intelligence. The primary drivers of modern culture are institutions, not individuals. Massive global corporations control the production and dissemination of information, entertainment, art and - to a large degree - everything else that can be considered "human culture". I recall attending the Tate Gallery's wonderful William Blake exhibition (several times) a few years back. Glaxo Wellcome were the corporate sponsors. I hate the fact that I still know that.

I'm not entirely sure how well the analogy is going to hold up, but I wonder if our various corporate-military institutions can't be viewed as personality traits? I'm not suggesting that our culture has developed "human-like" intelligence. Far from it. But there are broad traits; aggression / passivity, suspicion / trust, conservativism / willingness to change (plus many others - not all of which are simple dualities); which can be seen even within "less complex" intelligences. I'm fairly certain, for instance, that one could safely categorise an army as "aggressive" without falling into the trap of anthropomorphism. There is a non-controversial sense in which the behaviour of an army as a whole can be viewed as aggression.

Even in the most genuine and justifiable of humanitarian peace-keeping missions, the actions of an army will be aggressive rather than passive. In those situations, that may be precisely what is required (I am by no means suggesting that aggression is somehow "negative by default"... I favour an extremely aggressive social response to the peak oil situation for instance).

[Aside: I dislike the word "proactive" as I usually hear it being employed as Newspeak for "aggressive". A way of neutralising the negative connotations of the word "aggression" often in situations where those connotations should be highlighted. And even when those connotations aren't entirely relevant, they should remain present as a cautionary influence.]

I would argue that by arriving at a complex system with such enormous and unpredictable levels of internal competition and aggression, the intelligence which has emerged is inherently unstable. What must be an overwhelming impetus to establish control over it's constituent parts is strenuously resisted by the very design of the system (though I use the word "design" in a very loose sense there).

However, in certain instances, such as when the needs of the culture to instill greater predictablity into individual human neurons happens to coincide with the needs of each corporate-military intelligence to do the same, then a positive-feedback loop is initiated and you get dangerous cultural memes (like "Big Brother") extinguished or neutralised.

The conclusion is more than the fact that globalised culture is impossible to exert reliable control over. It is the realisation that our culture is actively trying to exert control over us in ways that (a) may be against what we believe to be our best interests; (b) may actually be against our best interests as individuals; (c) are likely to be largely unknown to the majority - or even all - of us; and (d) are almost certainly the product of an "unstable" intelligence.

So while it may be true that not a single one of the producers of Big Brother ever thought to themselves "I shall help neutralise the potency of Orwell's words in order to ease along the advancement of corporate-military social control systems", it doesn't actually mean that wasn't a deliberate intention all the same.

Coming soon...
Big Brother 13 (episode 3) - The Television Always On
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