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Thursday, April 30, 2009

So it's not just being a grumpy old man

I was very sad to hear about J. G. Ballard's passing. He's my favourite modern writer by a long way, and I'm very sad that I didn't discover him earlier in life. I hadn't really thought that deeply about why I like his work so much and why I find his books so thought-provoking. But an article in The Spectator contained a potential clue:

Ballard was always, pace Hobbes, a little pessimistic about the human condition — the traditional disposition of the thinking conservative. I wonder if we will ever see a British writer with such a breadth of imagination again?

[From J.G. Ballard was a man of the Right — not that the Right really wanted him | The Spectator]

I mentioned before that my personal confirmation of Ballard's greatness came when I got deja-vu visiting a place I'd never been to before purely as a result of his powers of description and imagination, but I can now see that something in the bleakness of his vision resonates with me.

Ballard's descriptions of the buildings, the executive cars lined up out side them, the trees partly hiding the landscape, are so perfect that my brain slipped out of gear for a moment as it tried to come to terms with the fact that I hadn't actually been there before.

[From Citizen of the World (Well, Woking): May 2008]

Since I'm going to be spending a lot of time on planes over the next couple months, I'm going to be reading a lot of Ballard, so my tone may be somewhat bleak. But hey, we're living in his world now.

In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.
[posted with ecto]

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Good citizens

It looks as if things really are worse than we might have thought. Unemployable history lecturer Gordon Brown and provincial solicitor Alastair Darling were, for unfathomable reasons, put "in charge" of the British economy and they have managed to completely destroy in a decade. It took much longer for Stalin to ruin Russia's economy, didn't it?

So what should a good citizen do? Should we flee and leave the people to the fate they deserve having put the lunatics in charge of the asylum or do we stay and try and make things better? It's a difficult question. A quick review of the history of this century seems to indicate that Labour governments are a bit like biblical plagues: they come along from time to time and devastate the economy, then move on. But this time it might really be different: the land may never recover from this visitation, or at least it may not recover within my children's lifetimes, which is the same thing as far as I'm concerned. There is only one course of action open to the patriot: independence, as soon as is practical. We must be freed from the crushing yokes that are the legacy of Danish and French invasion. The experiment is over: we want a free Wessex, and we want it now. I can't see an alternative.

The problem, for normal middle class people like me, is that we're going to be paying vastly more tax to support the public sector (a public sector which is, by the way, planning to spend four billion pounds on management consultants over the next four years) and getting vastly worse services. Only the super rich will be able to send their children to good schools, take foreign holidays (now that the government is putting up the air ticket tax it will cost us £240 in tax to go to the US) and afford imported consumer goods. The tragedy of universal suffrage means that the half of the population dependent on the state can block any kind of action that might try and bring the budget back under control, so if you're not super rich or working for the government (or in a position to capture part of the national revenue through economically senseless political action, such as farmers or songwriters) you don't have much of a future.

In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.
[posted with ecto]

Sunday, April 19, 2009

And I thought they were the Utah jazz

What an odd pair of facts I came across while leafing through that excellent publication Prospect today. Apparently, Utah is the US state that consumes the most online pornography (according to New Scientist). Surely it is not entirely coincidental that Utah also reports the highest level of well-being. There must be a lesson here for government policy. If one of our national goals is going to be to increase well-being, then we need to step up broadband deployment and simultaneously block all attempt at internet monitoring, filtering and recording. Perhaps the Home Secretary could appoint someone to advise on the topic?

In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.
[posted with ecto]

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Celebrity views

According to a newspaper that I was reading on a plane, the actress Gwyneth Paltrow thinks that shampoo causes cancer.

"The research is troubling; the incidence of diseases in children such as asthma, cancer and autism have shot up exponentially and many children we all know and love have been diagnosed with developmental issues like ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder]."

[From Gwyneth Paltrow slammed by experts over shampoo cancer claim - Telegraph]

She says that childhood cancer cases are growing exponentially (they're not, incidentally: in fact the rate hasn't changed for a decade) because of the "environmental toxins" in shampoo. I don't know about incidence of ADHD (or, as some people call it, "busy parent syndrome") but I strongly doubt a shampoo-related link. Anyhow, the newspapers reported a leading expert in the field (an actual scientist) as calling her views "loopy", as I'm sure they are, and saying that you "may as well ask someone on the Underground" about the causes and incidence of childhood cancers. On this I'm sure he's wrong: the average person on the Underground may well have stupid or uneducated views on the subject of childhood cancers, but they are unlikely to have such loopy views. This is because the views of the celebretariat are much loopier than the views of merely uninformed people. I'm not having a go at the noted actress Ms. Paltrow. While she is

the daughter of noted film director Bruce Paltrow and Tony award-winning actress Blythe Danner,

[From Gwyneth Paltrow - Biography]

her success has been earned entirely on her own merits. I don't really know much about her, except that she was OK in Iron Man. Oh, and I never liked Coldplay, and she is married to one of the band members, Mr. Chris Martin, who is on record as saying that

I think shareholders are the greatest evil of this modern world.

[From Coldplay's frontman turns on 'evil' shareholders - News, Music - The Independent]

He doesn't mean the shareholders of EMI, who paid the band millions of pounds for a five album deal, of course, but shareholders in other enterprises who put AIDS, climate change, genocide and ethnic cleansing into the shade. So he clearly has some pretty loopy views too. But I'm not picking him out either. I'm just making a general point about the loopiness of celebrities views.

Now, it's easy to imagine the launch pad for loopy opinions in these privileged and distant lives. They have no natural dampers for their mental oscillations. If you are an A-lister, you spend your days surrounded by flunkies who reinforce your opinion that you are the centre of the world. They cater to your every whim. You control every aspect of your environment. Whatever you want -- whether it's a bath of champagne or a belief in aliens -- there are people around you to make your every whim come true. In the circumstances, why would you listen to science, when all that science tells you is that you are not the centre of the world. Worse still, rationality may kick in the door at any time, shouting out awful truths: "you're not special, you're lucky" or "you only got this job because of your famous Dad", or similar undermining messages.

Ultimately, I suspect that there is a fundamental and irreconcilable problem with science, though, which is why they have no interest in engaging with it. Science tells that A-listers that they are going to get old and die and until science has a more positive message for them, they'll continue to channel long-dead Native American spirit guides rather than pick up an issue of Scientific American.

In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.
[posted with ecto]

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Been there, took the t-shirt

I had to go into the City on the Thursday of the G20 meeting in London. I was asked to "dress down", like many bankers, to avoid trouble with the G20 protestors. So I borrowed some clothes from my son and set off. When I got to my destination, near Cannon Street, we checked in at reception, then I put on balaclava and dark glasses. The other visitors didn't bat an eyelid as I stood there in full riot-ready gear, reading The Daily Telegraph.

Anarchy in the UK

Fortunately, when my host arrived he appreciated the joke -- I don't think I'll be asked to dress down again. Anyway, a bit later on, in full bobo disguise I went down to Bank to join in the mass demonstration. I was going to demonstrate in favour of the sirens on police cars in the UK being replaced by the music from the Benny Hill show. When we got there, there were about 20 "demonstrators", about 200 journalists and about 50 policemen. Nothing was happening at all. But I did get moved on by a policemen, who told me I couldn't demonstrate on the pavement, so I claim that my disguise worked.

Whaddya got?

As my friend Pete pointed out, it was a bit like the point in "The Great Escape" when Gordon Jackosn's character gets caught out by the Gestapo agent because he answers him in English. This, incidentally, is actually based on a real event...

Gordon Jackson (MacDonald, Security). This is a compilation of George Harsh and Tim Kirby-Green (both security) and Bernard Scheidhauer (Bushell's escaping companion). Harsh was one of those transferred to Belaria just before the escape, but Scheidhauer, a Frenchman, partnered Bushell. It was Scheidhauer, used to speaking English in the camp, who inadvertently answered a Gestapo agent in English, a mistake which led to he and Bushell being caught. This is shown very clearly in the film.

[From Real Great Escape - The Movie]

Anyway, when the policemen moved me on and I wandered off, Pete pointed out that I'd left my British Airways Gold card on my rucksack. Drat! There was nothing much going on, so we left. I thought the bobos were booboos, a kind of protest theatre troupe rather than actual protestors. The whole thing was a group affectation as far as I could see, and I noticed a similar conclusion from one of the Spiked reports on the same.

For the time being, anti-capitalist protest looks very much like a lifestyle affectation. It has an inherently unstable character, which can one day target a rich, high-profile banker and a week later take strong exception to the building of a power station. In many respects, this form of lifestyle protest represents the mirror image of the consumerism that it so despises. Anti-capitalism has become a brand with about as much content as KFC or FCUK. This is about playing at protest.

[From A caricature of a riot | spiked]

Exactly. It reminds of when I used to go to festivals for the weekend to play at being a hippie: which, I have to say, was pretty good fun.

In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.
[posted with ecto]

Thursday, April 02, 2009

What have you got?

Remember "The Wild One"? Almost the archetype for movies of teenage rebellion, released at the time when teenagers were invented, the film (which, amazingly, was banned in Britain until 1968) features Marlon Brando. It also declares the fundamental cannon of the newly-invented teenager.

As he and his boys are guzzling beer and dancing with some of the ladies in the bar, one female dance partner questions Johnny:

Hey, Johnny, What are you rebelling against?

While tapping out a jazzy beat on the top of the jukebox, he raises his eyebrow and drawls his amorphous reason for rebellion:

What've you got?

I was listening to the radio earlier on, and the reporter was somewhere in the society talking to a group of G20 protestors. They were fairly clear on what they were against (everything, essentially: nuclear weapons, meat, war, capitalism, climate change etc etc) but not clear on what they were for. I guess that's unsurprising, because they are in favour of all sorts of different and mutually exclusive things. I was mingling with the bobos (*) in the City today, by the Royal Exchange, and they certainly did have an interesting range of banners.

(*) This is my new word that I learned from a French person yesterday. He called the protestors "bourgeois bohemes" (in other words, middle class kids out for some adventure) or "bobos" for short. It's perfect.

In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.
[posted with ecto]