Foreign children

My six-year-old daughter attends a state school in London where the children, between them, speak nearly 40 different languages. Over 70% of the new arrivals speak little to no English at all.

After three or four years, their improvement scores are, of course, off the charts. Miraculously, their absolute attainment scores in all areas, including reading and writing English, are by then also substantially above local and national averages.

I am a governor at this school, and beam with pride at what the teachers, parents and kids achieve with relatively meagre resources, all in an environment over-brimming with unselfconscious kindness and tolerance. Walk around the school corridors and you’ll find pinboards festooned with Union Jacked exhortations of “British values”. Turn your head and you’ll see the decorations created for Eid celebrations. Just down the passage, you’ll encounter a display depicting children in their St George’s Day “bakeoff”, replete with red and white fairy cakes. And, next to the dragon, this time not honouring St George, but made to commemorate Chinese New Year, you’ll see the photo of Jewish kids lighting a Chanukiah  in the school hall.

If you want to know why London voted Remain so vehemently, it wasn’t out of some cussed sentimentality or elitist snub; it was because of this sort of lived reality.

So when Brexiters and their xenophobic fellow-travellers stamp on such hopeful flowers, I can’t help but take it rather personally.

 

A Demi Banana Trifle

Trifle
A demi-trifle

I previously outlined an LCHF custard recipe which provides a very useful base for all sorts of good quality puddings for those on an LCHF or even ketogenic diet. The base custard recipe is good in and of itself, with some berries, or accompanying brownies and so forth; however, there’s something very enjoyable in the combination of gelatinous pudding, whipped cream, berries and chocolate. The traditional British trifle has all of this, but often also includes slightly stale sponge-cake, fruit compote and a splash of sherry. Feel free to add LCHF versions of those to this, but in honesty, this is sufficiently rich and fulfilling to preclude the need for such lilly-gilding.

This trifle easily serves 8 to 10 people – more if you’re not particularly greedy. Net carbs per person are certainly below 10g.

Ingredients

  • All the ingredients for an LCHF custard base
  • 350g of raspberries
  • 300ml of whipping cream
  • A square or two of 90% chocolate for grating
  • 10g of erythritol
  • 10g of powdered gelatin

Instructions

Prepare the custard base
  • As in my previous recipe, prepare the custard base. Add 10 or so drops of banana essence. The brand I use is surprisingly strong (and authentic) and flavours the whole custard with bananas without incurring the starchy, sugary cost.
  • Once the custard is mixed and in its final bowl, and still hot, stir in 10g or so of powdered gelatin. Whisk it very well, so it melts and dissolves completely.
  • Leave the mixture for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Put it in the fridge for around 2 hours, until set.

    Jelly with berries
    Custard jelly/berries
  • Once it has set, lay about 1/3 of the raspberries on top of the jelly.
Whip the sweet cream
  • In a separate bowl, pour in the whipping cream and add the erythritol
  • Whip the cream until it forms fairly well defined peaks

    Whipped cream
    Whipped cream
Spoon on with berries
  • Stir in the raspberries (keeping a few back) and carefully spoon the berry-cream mixture onto the trifle base, on top of the layer of berries already there.

    Custard jelly, cream and berries
    All together
Add the chocolate
  • Grate one or two squares of 90% dark chocolate. It goes a long way!
  • Sprinkle the grated chocolate generously on top of the trifle.
  • Scatter on the last remaining raspberries.
    Trifle
    A demi-trifle

     

 

LCHF custard

Sweet isn’t evil

Some see cutting out the carbs as a kind of hairshirt penance: a tight-lipped monastic partner to veganism or macrobiotics. Tears of lard instead of tears of tofu water, but tears all the same.

In reality, you have to work really hard to consider the luxurious possibilities in LCHF deprivation. This is because LCHF eaters are allowed the one thing that simply can’t be emulated in a low-fat, hairshirt diet: the one ingredient that gives food its unctuous satiation, its silky textures and its solvent for so many important flavours: fat. Whatever tricks one attempts, excising fat often leaves just dry, watery sullen petulance. Try a curry without ghee, coconut oil or other fats to carry the spices. Try a dry piece of turkey breast with some steamed broccoli and tell yourself you’re dining like a king all you want, but your fat-lusting brain knows you’re the basest knave. LCHF allows the full bounty of this sating luxury. LCHF’s primary curtailment, beyond the bland starches, usually involves instead a flavour rather than an ingredient: sweetness.

But, hey, the ability to enjoy sweet flavour is one of life’s pleasures; if we can find a way of servicing that pleasure that doesn’t nuke the metabolism, then only a fanatic would have a problem in promoting its use. The sensible use of sweeteners – obviously, not to the degree where the palate becomes jaded or cravey – means that a well-formulated LCHF diet needn’t be one of penance and puritanism, but can include pretty much the full range of culinary experience (sans, perhaps, flaky pastry!) at little metabolic cost.

Of course, artificial sweeteners have abounded for over a century, but some LCHF Calvinists, and Paleo Appeal-to-Nature Puritans abhor them. They’re suspicious that their chemical evilness will somehow creep up on the pancreas and give it a good kicking. There’s actually scant real-world evidence for this, and in the minute amounts people consume them (they’re so much sweeter than sugar that you’re consuming pinheads of the active ingredient at a time), I doubt that most of the popular sweeteners do much – if any – damage.

But I do abhor artificial sweeteners: not for ascetics but for aesthetics. To my palate, most artificial sweeteners taste absolutely disgusting. Some ghastly mirage of “sweet” isn’t sufficient reward for the soapy, throat-catchingly wretch-inducing perfidy I find in every aspartame/saccharine/ace-k/sucraolse mouthful. I’ve mused that artificial sweeteners are actually the most bitter substances in the world, but which some demon has somehow tricked the tongue into thinking are sweet – but the soul still screams the bitter truth. And just to show I’m not being a hippie about this, I also can’t stand except in very limited circumstances the naturotard-favourite, the lovely leafy natural-as-chlamidia Stevia. The Devil’s Liquorice, I call it.

The pretty little polyols

So, what’s left to sweeten without the sting? All my research leads to one obvious choice: the polyols. These are naturally occurring chemicals, some of which the body manufactures itself, that are like saturated sugar molecules. They’re usually manufactured by fermenting corn cobs, birch bark and other delicacies. They’re close enough to sugar that our tongues detect sweetness – a very clean sweetness, usually – but our bodies can’t play lego with them to release their energy like they could normal sugar. Depending on the polyol (or sugar alcohol as they’re sometimes called, resembling chemically something of a hybrid), the body will absorb its molecules and you’ll urinate most of them, unchanged (recycling opportunities!).  Some polyols will get dumped into the gut and get eaten by bacteria, and converted into biome-beneficial short-chain-fatty-acids. If your gut isn’t used to this, it could lead to some gassy distress – your gut gets used to it and this eventually calms down! Some polyols, however, do get a portion of themselves chopped and chipped into sugar equivalents, and then get digested like normal sugars, so they’re not really recommended. Sorbitol and maltitol, I’m looking at you.

Like sugars, there are many polyols, with different molecule shapes and sizes, but the ones which lead to the fewest gastric problems, and are the least digested into energy, are erythritol and xylitol. In study after study, these produce minimal (or no) glucose or insulin spikes. Erythritol tastes about 70% as sweet as table sugar, and looks almost identical. It tastes very clean, but has a slight “cooling” effect when not already in liquid – a bit like mild mint without the actual mint flavour. The erythritol molecule is so small that you urinate out 90% of it. The other 10% sits in the gut as good-bacteria-chow. Studies have shown that so little erythritol reaches the gut that, unlike other larger-molecule polyols, it doesn’t cause gastric distress even in relatively large amounts.

Xylitol is sweeter and more readily available to buy in normal shops than is erythritol, but unlike its smaller-moleculed cousin, it can be metabolised to a small degree (although getting it into our energy systems doesn’t require insulin – it’s complicated, but it does mean that even though xylitol digests into some calories, it’s still ok for diabetics to use without having to worry about any insulin effects). Some people also complain about initial gastric distress when they first start with xylitol, as their gut flora gets used to the new treat. I tend to use a combination of both: erythritol for “bulk” sweetening, and xylitol for more “focussed” sweetness. From all the evidence I’ve seen – and there’s quite a bit of it – I consider erythritol and xylitol perfectly safe for making treats. As a bonus, neither erythritol nor xylitol promotes any tooth decay. Indeed, xylitol appears actually to prevent it.

As it happens, one of the quickest, easiest, nutritious and versatile ways to bring a bit of sweet pleasure to an LCHF diet is an egg custard. Custards are full of great fats, highly satiating, a wonderful base for so much else, and, through richness, self limiting. For those who think sweetness is in itself crave-creating, I invite you to party on with a bag of smoked almonds vs an equi-calorific pot of custard. I’m pretty sure I know to which one you’ll first admit defeat!

Egg Custard Recipe

Making proper egg custard is often treated with suspicious reverence and timorous awe. It’s one of those culinary eggy-initiation tests – like mayonnaise, the mother sauces and so on – which have the reputation of being pernickety, cussed and requiring just the right combination of magic and skill not to jump out of the cooking pot and strangle you. Fortunately, this is obscurantist nonsense. You can avoid the usually-prescribed occult rituals with bain-maries and so forth by following my directions. The key is combining the cold beaten egg and the hot cream not on the stove, but in a separate bowl, and only after vigorous mixing, transferring the blend back to a gentle heat to thicken.

If you don’t mix it enough whilst thickening, or use too vigorous a heat, your custard could separate and curdle. Don’t worry: use a stick blender and force the mixture through a sieve. It’ll never be perfectly silky, but it will remain utterly delicious.

Note that the amount of sweetener used is obviously very individual, so adjust it to your tastes after your first go. Do be aware, though, that what tastes too sweet in initial preparation tastes much less sweet once the custard has had a chance to “set”, and especially if it is cold, or combined with gelatin (in later recipes).

Ingredients

Egg custard ingredients
Ingredients for an LCHF egg custard
  • 600ml (20 fl oz) of cream (I have used 300ml of single cream and 300ml of double cream here, as it makes just the right constituency. In the US, you’d probably use 600ml of so-called heavy cream
  • 5 eggs (of which you will use one whole egg, and four yolks. Save the four whites for meringues or something). The white helps to thicken the custard quickly.
  • 60g (2 oz) of erythritol to sweeten the cream
  • 20g (0.7oz) of xylitol to sweeten the beaten eggs
  • Vanilla extract (enough for 1.5 teaspoons)
  • Optional flavourings (banana extract, caramel etc)
  • Optional gelatin (for creating creme patissiere, panna cotta etc)

You’ll use a pot to heat the custard, a bowl to stir and mix it, a whisk to do the mixing and a spatula to make sure you don’t wash any down the sink!

Instructions

1) Prepare the egg-base
  • Crack one whole egg, including the egg-white, into a large bowl
  • Add four additional egg-yolks into the same large bowl. You can freeze the egg-whites for use in later projects.

    5 yolks one eggwhite
    Five yolks one white
  • Add the 20g of xylitol to the bowl
  • Add the half a teaspoon of vanilla extract to the bowl
  • Add optional flavouring essences, if you wish to go beyond a vanilla custard (eg: banana, caramel etc)
  • Whisk the eggs, erythritol and extract(s) well

    beaten eggs
    Beaten yolks et al
2) Warm the sweetened cream
  • Put the cream into a heavy-bottomed saucepan

    warming cream
    Warming cream
  • Add one teaspoon of vanilla extract to the cream
  • Add 60g of erythritol to the cream
  • Warm the cream under medium heat, constantly stirring well
3) Add cream to the beaten eggs in the bowl
  • When the cream begins to give off steam, pour it into the bowl contain the egg mixture

    combined cream and eggs
    Hot cream and eggs
  • Whisk the cream and egg mixture very well together for about a minute
4) Pour the egg-cream mix back in the saucepan and heat
  • Thickened custard
    Thickened custard

    Add the egg-cream mix back to the saucepan under a low heat.

  • Continue to whisk the heating mixture vigorously for about 5 minutes. Do not over-heat or stop stirring, or it will curdle.
  • You will feel the custard thicken, and it’ll adhere to a spoon without immediately slidling off. Give the mixture a final vigorous whisk and take it off the heat.
5) Pour the custard back into the bowl
  • Done
    Warm custard, ready for serving

    Once the custard has thickened, pour it from the saucepan back into the bowl.

  • Continue to whisk the hot custard in the bowl vigorously for another minute or two
  • Even with care, some of the remnants of the custard will probably have curdled onto the side of the saucepan. Don’t worry! Enjoy the delicious eggy mixture as chef’s perk!

    curdled delight
    Fear not the curdle
6) Enjoy hot or cold
  • You can have the custard hot on berries, LCHF brownies etc. You can also chill it, or use it as the base of further recipes (trifles, ice-creams etc). If you chill it, expect to whisk it a few more times as it cools. You can also turn it into a kind of LCHF trifle, which I describe elsewhere.
7) Optional modifications
  • Once you take the custard off the boil and put it in its bowl, you can stir in 10g or so of powdered gelatin (less if you want it to be more like creme patissiere, more if you want it to be a very firm jelly). Make sure you whisk the mixture well so the gelatin dissolves, and leave it for 30 minutes before putting it in the fridge. It should be fully set after two further hours or so.

    Trifle
    A demi-trifle
  • If you can’t abide dairy, then it’s possible to use coconut milk – but it’s not quite as lovely, I’ll have to admit! If you can’t cope with eggs, then I can’t help you: for me, the egginess of a custard is sine-qua-non!

 

 

 

 

Deconstructing Sir Professor Collins of Statinshire

Many have written about Rory Collins, the man who would have pretty much all of us take statins. He has received even more publicity after his extraordinary outbursts against those who would question this “give statins to all” prescription. His interventions include attempting to over-reach the BMA’s editorial process, demonising those who disagree with him as “killers” and refusing to deal plainly with his manifest conflicts of interest. The fact that his lab is largely funded by the very drugs companies whose pills he works hard to exculpate had to be dragged out of him.
So what is one to make of the man? I considered it in some comment responses I made to other blogs. I distill those responses into the posting here:

Sir Professor Collins is inescapably corrupted. This is not to say that he wilfully and mendaciously manipulates facts and data, nor that he takes bribes, nor any other such gross malfeasance. Indeed, were he this caricature, twiddling his moustaches and cackling manically, he’d be simpler to deal with. The complexity of the truth makes it much *worse* to deal with.

He is corrupted not by any venal, simple sociopathy, easily detected and flushed out, but via deep enculturation. And that systemic infection is much, much harder to expose and disinfect than a single bad apple in an otherwise fresh barrel. He floats in a malignant meme-pool, and it’s not surprising that his whole worldview, his perception of truth and his opinions of those who dare disagree, be discoloured by that murky meme-pool. The pool in question is filled with a number of dark, unprobed, a-priori assumptions, all of which conveniently and “coincidentally” bolster the pharmaco-industrial status quo. Some of these memes derive directly and obviously from his funding sources. After all, they expect a return on their 300 million investment. Other assumptions derive from subtler patriarchal privileges. And a more innocent remnant can be seen as a genuine, if metastasised, desire to defend Enlightenment values against barbarism and dark superstition.

So, it’s not surprising that a man who has spent his whole life literally institutionalised should react like this to those who question both him and the very bases of his institution. Indeed, to try to separate man from institution in this instance is hopeless: it’s like asking “what is the cell – the mitochondrion or the nucleus”? So, he barks angrily not only out of anger, but incomprehension. An attack on his institution is an attack on him. And vice versa. Towered-ivory myopia is a wondrous malaise. His institution prizes a reductionist world-view, distilled into the “sell-a-pill” sine-qua-non notion of medicine so familiar to us all. Any deviation from this word-view, to Sir Professor, is a suspicious deviancy by Dark-Age infective agents. And when a whippersnapper cheekily demands to see the data his paymasters have hidden, safe for his anointed eyes only, he can only interpret such a request as impudence.

Furthermore, his institutions and those in its orbit prize hierarchies and status beyond mere coin. The members of those institutions are keen gatekeepers to “proper” knowledge, to status, and to their own more primal self-interests equally. And so they guard those gates as vehemently as any doberman.

Unfortunately for Sir Professor, the proliferation of the Internet has empowered independent researchers competently to partake in scientific analysis beyond those gates, despite the best intents of the gate keepers. This means that he must suffer impudent little barbarians – like you and me and everyone else here – who nip at his mighty heels and defy his haughty edicts, no matter how loudly he barks back. It must be very confusing for him, suddenly to have his citation-circle intruded upon by such “unwelcome externalities”.

It almost makes one feel sorry for the old dog. Until one remembers, again, the 300 mil or so his organisation pockets from organised crime*

* Before Sir Professor should sue in outrage at my painting his paymasters thus, he should note that I’m merely quoting a founder of the Cochrane Collaboration for evidence-based medicine, Peter Gøtzsche!

The Subjunctive Mood

A while ago, I was asked a question which involved my introducing the subjunctive mood. As it was on the ghastly Formspring service, the reply was difficult to find again. So I provide it here for those who have subsequently asked again:

    Question:

“Why does wish always use the past tense? If, for example, you said “i wish i had the power to change things around here,” you obviously meant you wish you had the power to change the present, not the past. And yet, the past tense is used.”

    Answer:

It might look like the past tense. It might taste like the past tense. But it’s not the past tense.

Let’s talk about moods. People can be in a good mood, a bad mood, a reflective mood. We interpret people’s actions and utterances by taking into account their mood. “Oh, ignore that – he’s just in a bad mood”.

So, people have moods. But did you know that language itself is said to have “moods” too? It doesn’t mean quite the same thing as when a person has a mood, but, as with people, the grammatical mood of the language can make a big difference to its meaning.

The most common-or-garden grammatical mood simply lets us describe things. It’s very matter of fact. It just indicates what’s what. Indeed, we call it the ‘indicative mood’. When I say “John eats cake“, I invoke the indicative mood. I’m simply describing reality as I see it, which includes John’s current consumption of cake. Even if I say “John ate cake” in the past tense, it remains in the indicative mood. The indicative mood describes what it believes to be existing facts about the existing world, whenever they happened to be true. Mood is thus separate from tense.

Another grammatical mood we use is when we want something done. In that mood, we’re not describing an existing state of affairs, but giving orders that are imperative. We thus term this the ‘imperative mood’. Whilst “John eats cake” is simply indicative, “John, eat cake! Now!” is imperative. Sergeant Majors operate almost exclusive in the imperative mood. Every time you give a direct command, you’re engaging in the imperative mood.

There are lots of other grammatical moods – some used in English and some not. Generally, we only call something a grammatical mood when it changes the form of a word in a sentence, rather than just the order of the words. Asking a question in English, for example, is not a ‘mood’ by this definition: this is because we just change the word order around or pop a “do” in front of it. So “you eat” turns into “Do you eat?“. The “eat” bit doesn’t change. So we’re not talking about a “morphological mood” here. In Welsh, though, you actually do change the verb to show you’re asking a question, so that language does, indeed, have a fully fledged ‘interrogative mood’.

So, we’ve talked about how grammatical moods involve the morphing of words to show we’re using that mood. In the imperative, we take the infinitive form of the verb (“to go“, “to run“, “to eat“) and chop off the “to”. So I can say “Go!” “Run!” “Eat!” and I have a full sentence. When we’re issuing commands, we never have to worry about changing that verb to “goes” or similar – the rules of the imperative are simple: chop off the “to” and you’re done.

Let’s see if the ‘indicative’ and the ‘imperative’ are enough to describe most English utterances. We know that most “X = Y” statements are covered by the indicative mood, and we know that most “X, do Y!” statements are covered by the imperative mood. What other sorts of things do we try to communicate? Well, let’s take your example: what if we WISH for something? Are we stating that “X = Y” in the world? Well, no, because if X DID equal Y, then we wouldn’t have to wish for it! So, it’s clearly not the indicative mood. What about the imperative? When we wish for something, are we commanding someone to do something? Nope. We clearly have another mood here, where we are imagining a hypothetical world, not describing a real one. We have actually entered the world of imagination. If I say “I wish X“, I am not saying that X exists or has happened – quite the contrary! I’m saying “X is not true, but I want X to be true“. I am imagining a world where X is true and yearning for it. So we’ve identified a different mood here that’s neither a matter of fact, nor is it bossy. As it happens, we have a fancy Latinate word for this hypothetical mood. We call it the “subjunctive”. It is a subtle and beautiful grammatical mood whose proper use is fading in English, which is a shame, because it’s an elegant way to separate reality from imagination in our utterances.

In some languages, the subjunctive mood has its own special world form unique to itself. Unfortunately, English likes to recycle, and so simply “re-uses” other forms – often from the past tense. Other times, as with the imperative, it simply chops off the “to” from the infinitive. So, you don’t say “I wish I HAVE the power to change things“. The form “have” here seems to show an indicative mood (“I have the power”, as He Man used to say – he could only say that because he was, indeed, in possession thereof!). But clearly, we are NOT “He Man” in your example – hence the wish. So, to show that we’re not indicating a truth, but are actually announcing a desire, we flip the verb into the subjunctive mood – where ‘have’ turns into ‘had’. Ok, it looks like the past tense, but it isn’t: again, don’t blame me for English’s abstemious recycling!

Where else can we see the subjunctive mood in action? Remember the song “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof? Notice that he doesn’t say “If I am a rich man” because “I am” is reserved for the indicative mood. He is in fact a poor man who imagines what would happen if that changed, and so the “am” flips to “were”. Again, it looks like a form of the past tense, but isn’t. Indeed, in that form of the subjunctive, “is, am, are” or whatever ALWAYS becomes “were”. That’s why Gwen Stefani’s horrible remake, where she sings “If I Was a Rich Girl” should now hurt your ears like fingernails on a blackboard. No, Gwen! If you’re imagining a moneyed life, you enunciate your hypothesis with “were”, not “was”! You are not describing something that “was” in the past but something that you wish WERE true but is not. Bad Gwen!

You can only use “was” if you actually believe that something that happened in the past is at least possibly true. But if you’re completely in the world of hypothetical imagination, you use “were”. Here’s an example which makes this clear: imagine someone enters a meeting late and simply sits down without a word. His boss looks up huffily and says “If *I* were late, then *I* would apologise“. (In other words, the boss knows that *HE* turned up to the meeting on time, and postulates a world in which that were not true, and imagines what he’d do in that hypothetical situation). The latecomer replies “If I *was* late, then I *do* apologise” (in other words, the latecomer admits that he may well have been late – this is not simply some hypothetical universe, but very possible describes the real one’s recent past, in which he was inadvertently rude!). I hope that reveals the subtle but useful difference between “was” and “were” in these contexts, and why Ms Stefani needs to be admonished severely. Perhaps she could sing “If I *was* a rich girl, then I have no memory of it, and God knows what happened to the money!“. But if she’s not describing the possible misremembered past, then it should be “were” every time!

The subjunctive mood goes even deeper than this. Indeed, any time you say a sentence with “should”, did you know that you can often use the subjunctive mood instead? After all, “should” imagines a world in which things are different, and so does the pure subjunctive mood. Let’s try it:
God should bless our Gracious Queen” has the “should” lopped out and turns into “God bless our Gracious Queen” in the subjunctive. Yep, all these years, you’ve been uttering a subjunctive in the UK anthem. We’re not ORDERING God to do anything. We’re not singing “God – you’d better bless our Gracious Queen – NOW!“. That’d be rather rude and probably make Him cross. So instead of the imperative, we use the subjunctive and politely postulate a desired world in which God does, indeed, continue to bless Her Majesty. And when you say “Bless you“, you’re using the subjunctive form of “[God should] bless you“. You simply lop off the implicit “should” bit and you have the subjunctive form, expressing a desire.

You could, clumsily but correctly, say “I would rather he should go to church than play his video games“. You’re uttering an opinion of a hypothetical world that you want to be true. As ever, you can use the simple subjunctive form like this instead: “I would rather he go to church“. Just lop off the “should” and you’re there. Note that some people mistakenly say “I would rather he GOES to church“. You can now see that this is incorrect. The “goes” form is reserved for the present indicative mood. You can say “He’s a good boy, because he goes to church instead of playing his video games”. That’s the indicative. You’re approvingly indicating a truth about the existing world. Otherwise, “goes” has no place in a sentence of desire. The subjunctive takes the “should” form instead, which is always “go” no matter to whom or to how many it relates. So, you would say “I would rather I/he/she/it go”. The “go” always remains “go” in the subjunctive, just as if it had the word “should” in front of it. Any time you’re expressing a hope, a desire, a need, a musing or simply stating something which has only happened in the parallel world of your mind, you use the subjunctive mood if you’re an elegant fellow. Let’s imagine that you’re fretting about your slow-eating friend’s being late for a play. So, you leave a message saying “I need that he eat early, in order that we be in time for the musical“. Nobody’s yet eaten when we say this. The musical hasn’t yet started. We’re talking about a hypothetical universe of our desires. And so we use the subjunctive twice: firstly to express our desire for early eating (“he eat“, which could have been “he should eat“) and secondly to express our desire for timeliness (“that we be on time“, which could have been “we should be on time“). Again, some people would have messed up the mood and said something like “in order that we ARE on time”. Again, though, they’re WRONG. We reserve “are” for the indicative here. We can indicate that we ARE, indeed, on time, when we actually arrive punctually, but if the deadline hasn’t arrived, then we can wish we BE on time, and if the deadline has passed and we fail, we can wish we WERE on time. When we shunt the verb to “be” or “were”, we make it clear that we’ve shifted our speech to describing the world of desires rather than the world of reality. And isn’t that a marvellous thing to be able to communicate? Is it not, indeed, the essence of what makes human communication so special? I hope that you treasure the subjunctive and use it well. (there’s one!)

First laugh

I note that Richard Herring has written a post every day for the last seven years. I found this somewhat shaming; I should do the same, of for the same reason that he does – to provide not only a record of the extraordinary, but in the banal, both of which are useful in providing later textured reminiscences.

So, where are we? Baby Judith is just over three months of age now, and is beginning to turn into a person. Last night, in her cot, I watched her laugh. I had not seen this yet, although Victoria claims she has done it before. A significant moment: Aristotle believed that this moment indicated the transition from mere organism to full human.

I have an annoying cold at the moment, which follows last week’s more-than-annoying bout of Noro Virus which I shared with Victoria. Thankfully, because Judith is still completely breastfed, she escaped this ghastly disease. Had she not, she’d have had to spend days in hospital, with IV fluids. Hooray for breast feeding and its magic Just In Time antibody production!

Anyway, a fairly quiet day at work, ended with a Burger King which I didn’t enjoy particularly. There’s something sad about being too ill to enjoy the greasy horror of junk food. Then an underwhelming episode of Lost, a bath and a fairly sleepless night, thanks to the cold and Judith, who has decided that her cot is evil.

A Brief History of Palestine

I began a thought experiment, to determine what sort of narrative must be running through an anti-Israel protester’s head to be able to distill such complex history and politics into a sign like this. The narrative below is, to an extent, a reductio ad absurdum. But then again, for many, it’ll be a fairly benign and relatively truthful explanation of their problems with Israel. For the hard of thinking, the below doesn’t represent the truth, nor the sane views of any individual, but surely encapsulates some of the insane miasma that inspires people to beat up Tesco employees because they “work for Jews/Israel”:

Before the First World War, the Democratic Republic of Palestine was peopled by a peaceful nation of Muslims and Christians, living together in harmony, as they had done there for thousands of years. A verdant proto-Socialist oasis in the Middle East, its capital Jerusalem was a beacon of architectural brilliance and societal tolerance that the war-mongering West could only envy, an envy turned bloodily real in the many attempted Crusades against it. As the most holy city of Islam and Christianity, it remained the cool, calm centre of contemplation for both religions, and welcomed pilgrims from all nations. Islam, meaning “peace”, could never have imagined the evil intents of the new generation of Crusaders who were just around the corner and, worse, the alien agents who would come in their wake to wreak vengeful devastation on this ancient utopia.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the rapacious West, particularly the newly energised United States, could not bear to think of the Democratic Republic of Palestine’s continued existence, a shining challenge to the venal mercantile colonialism so desired by the West and its Banker controllers.

So, after the 1st World War, the United States and the Great Britain took their moment to begin the flaying of the Democratic Republic of Palestine. Britain invaded the country and immediately deposed its democratically elected leaders, imposing a brutal colonial regime upon the unsuspecting populace. But this was not just any old ordinary colonial venture – there was a sting in the Imperial Tale by the name of Balfour.

Lord Balfour, a British war-mongerer, had been desperate to develop new weapons of mass destruction so better to quell the natives in Britain’s repressed colonies. To get them, he needed funding from The Jewish Bankers, and technical help from The Jewish Scientists. So, he payed for this assistance with the blood-money of a promise: that these Jewish interests might devour the British Colony of Palestine.

Now, why should The Jewish Establishment have desired Palestine? After all, Palestine was about as Jewish as a bacon sandwich, and contained none of the precious metals and minerals which historically attract Jewish interest. In fact, their interest was based on some vague “promises” in their bible about the territory, combined with a new form of ultra-right-wing racist supremacist nationalism, which had been born as a brother to fascism: Zionism. Zionism proclaimed that the Jews were, indeed the Chosen People, and thus needed to build a temporal empire from which they could extend their already-significant control. They perceived one significant threat to this: the increasing popularity of the ever-peaceful Islam, which banned usury as part of its proto-Socialist ideals. So where better for Zionists arbitrarily to seek subjugation than in the place where Muslims and Christians lived in such content equality: The Democratic Republic of Palestine! And thus, Zionism had begun its dark ascent, given demonic momentum by Lord Balfour and his declaration that Great Britain would agree to the Zionists’ plundering the Democratic Republic of Palestine under Great Britain’s benign watch.

And so, throughout the 20s and 30s, Jews started swarming, for the first time in history, to the Democratic Republic of Palestine (under British Occupation). Lord Rothschild and others provided the swarm with cash to buy up houses and farms below market rate by making the historical occupants an “offer they couldn’t refuse”. The citizens of the Democratic Republic of Palestine barely had time to recognise what had hit them. For the first time in the Middle East, peaceful Islam and turn-the-other-cheek Christianity had to contend with alien occupants, with alien, Old Testament notions of “An Eye for an Eye” and vengeful smiting. It began to seem as if these notions would infect the whole country – a new disease against which the native aboriginal inhabitants, as ever, had not previously had any exposure, and thus had no immunity.

Then came the West’s next Imperial adventure: the Second World War. The Jews in Germany had been envied for their evident control of the media, politics and the economy, and the Nazis exploited this unease and killed many Jews, along with many Gypsies, Catholics, Muslims and Gay people, in what has come to be termed “the Holocaust”.

The Zionists, ever to find gold in a mire, took advantage of this misfortune and began to encourage Jews from all over the world to descend upon the Democratic Republic of Palestine (under British Occupation). The British, finally realising their folly in allowing Balfour his tawdry deal, tried to repel them, but the waves of Zionists simply continued. Zionist terrorists began to slaughter the native occupants of the land, along with British soldiers and, eventually, used their influence to force the United Nations into ceding the Democratic Republic of Palestine to them, lock, stock and barrel. The world stood by, having been convinced by the wily Zionists to remain quiet out of shame for “the Holocaust”. The Zionists now had attained their wildest dreams, and wildly indeed would they wreak.

The Arab countries immediately made an offer of peaceful coexistence, as was their wont, but the Zionists rejected peace out of hand, flailing out in 1948 to try and annexe even more territory beyond the borders of the Democratic Republic of Palestine. The Arab countries whom the Zionists attacked had been used to living peacefully with their neighbours, and so had not the experience to repel these new invaders. Thus the Zionist, imbued in Old Testament aggression, won the day. They were free to pillage their way through their conquered dominion in a frenzy of ethnic cleansing, slaughtering anyone who did not flee from their newly captured country. The world looked on and said nothing.

The Zionists renamed their conquered territory as “Israel”, which means “The warmongers of God” in their language. They turned the secular proto-socialist democracy into a military theocracy, where only Jews would be allowed to live and work as citizens. Anyone else allowed into the country would, effectively, be a slave without rights.

Thus “Israel” remained an ever-spreading cancer upon the Middle East for the following decades, and the remaining survivors of the Democratic Republic of Palestine had been corralled into concentration camps along its borders, where they were treated like animals primed for slaughter. And slaughtered they often were. Their Arab brothers tried to help them and give them sustenance, but every time this was attempted “Israel” reacted violently and annexed even more land, as happened in 1967 (when the Zionists finally completed their pillage of Jerusalem) and 1973, when they stole Egyptian land.

By this time, even the most craven of Western nations began to realise the true perfidy of the Zionist project, and the UN put out resolution after resolution against the tyranny; but all were cowed into submission by the United States of America, whose strong Jewish Lobby forced the nation into supporting the “Israel” adventure, no matter what harm this support brought to America. And thus did the United States begin to provide billions of dollars and thousands of weapons to the Theocracy of Israel, turning the formerly peaceful Middle East into a seething tinderbox.

As the Jewish/Israel Lobby grew ever stronger (as documented by Mearsheimer and Walt), United States policy became utterly perverted to the will of its supposedly client state. Any powerful countermeasure to Zionist power needed to eradicated, at any cost. Thus, Afghanistan and Iraq were attacked, after fabricating any number of justifications. Afghanistan, because it contained freedom fighters opposed to US/Zionist hegemony, and Iraq because it contained a leader opposed to US/Zionist hegemony – and who happened to have an oil-rich state to boot. And thus, the West began its war against peaceful Islam, always at the behest of the cackling “Israel”, delighted to have such ostensibly powerful lackeys.

Meanwhile, the remnants of the Democratic Republic of Palestine, shoved into the West Bank and Gaza, began to regain consciousness after their brutal beating. And, a Gandhi-like figure emerged: Yasser Arafat. A citizen born of the Democratic Republic of Palestine, he exuded a calm love of peace that nevertheless belied a strength of purpose and a determination that his people might one day be freed of Zionist oppression, to return to their homes, their farms and their peaceful life of productive coexistence. For decades, he battled to liberate his nation, but the Zionists threw everything at him that they could. He would constantly make generous offers of coexistence, and even to split the Democratic Republic into two, so that the Zionists could remain, even though illegitimate and alien to these lands. And the Zionists rejected every offer, no matter how generous. In the end, Arafat, for all his best efforts, died under suspicious circumstances. But even the most reactionary of Zionist-controlled news media realised that here was a passing of someone, like Nelson Mandela, who might be termed a worldly saint. For example, Barbara Plett of the BBC could not help but admit: “When the helicopter carrying the frail old man rose above his ruined compound, I started to cry”. Even the strongest of Zionist brain-washing couldn’t hide the truth to her, and to millions of others, who started to campaign for the Palestinians throughout the world.

But, after Arafat, the Palestinians began to realise, with much sorrow, that turning the other cheek as they had done until now would not work against such a vicious opponent. And, with much regret, they began to fight back with the only things they had: stones, some primitive fireworks and their very bodies. The humiliation of the ghetto, of occupation and of such abject subjugation meant that they could only live to be martyrs, trying to dislodge the enemy by blowing up their very bodies as a cry of rage against their circumstance. Politicians around the world recognised the pathos of this, of freedom fighters who prepared to lose their life in the cause of freedom, but few were prepared to go on the record. The few who did, like Britain’s Jenny Tonge, were vilified as somehow “anti-semitic’.

Indeed, the Zionist had the accusation of “anti-semitism” as one of their most powerful weapons (other than their illegally produced nuclear arms, of course). They would lob this epithet at the most gentle of questioners about the ethics behind Zionism’s genocidal rampages. When “Israel” arbitrarily decided to destroy the Palestinian ghetto of Jenin, for example, an Italian cartoon that responded showing Jews re-crucifying Jesus with a girl asking “mama, why are they doing it to him again and again” was decried as somehow “anti-semitic”. A cartoon of the Prime Minister of Israel eating a Palestinian baby was also, somehow, construed as “anti-semitic”. The cover of a British magazine with a Star of David piercing the British flag with the headline “Kosher Conspiracy” was also determined, arbitrarily, “anti-semitic”. As with any currency, however, it became increasingly worthless by inflation. Soon, even the most sympathetic Zionist-appeasers were to tire of this meaningless term’s constant abuse. It was clear that “anti-semitism” did not exist. What did exist was Islamophobia, a phenomenon the Zionist media refused to report.

In Gaza, one of the Democratic Republic of Palestine ghettos, a group had formed called “Hamas”. This group combined progressive Socialism with the peace-loving attributes of Islam and vowed to regain the nation. Unlike “Israel”, the remnants of Palestine remained stubbornly democratic, and voted for Hamas, who quickly began providing collectivised services to Palestine and fighting back against “Israeli” aggression as best it could. The Zionists responded by building huge walls around the ghetto, and refused to allow any supplies or people through the checkpoints in these walls without substantial harassment, particularly of old women and young children. This frustration in trade brought the ghettos to an ever worse state of decrepitude, which seemed to suit the Zionists fine, because they were preparing for their Final Solution against the Gazan inhabitants – to wipe them and their freedom-fighting Hamas representatives out in one fell genocidal swoop.

In Operation Cast Lead, the “Israelis” began their genocidal attack, in accordance with the brutal Old Testament principles in their bible. They firebombed the ghetto, killed children, smashed schools and hospitals and reduced Gaza to mere rubble, all for the gleeful entertainment of the “Israeli” electorate, whose candidates vied with each other in proclaiming how bloody their further rampage would be, just as they had done years before in their invasion of the Socialist Republic of Lebanon, another thorn in their side for representing Christian/Muslim harmony so close to home.

So we are brought up to date: “Israel”, the most fascist, brutish, dangerous pseudo-state ever to have come into existence proves to be key to every single conflict and conflagration on the planet, be it the collapsed economies of the world (America’s having spent all its money in hoc to protecting the Zionists and refunding the Zionist bankers), global warming and environmentalism (“Israel” has massively distorted water ecology in the Middle East, as well as manufacturing any number of carbon-emitting electronica) and the Disillusion of Muslim Youth (who have no faith in Western Democracy when they see the West’s continuing to kowtow to the genocidal Zionists who slaughter their brothers).

A few brave souls are fighting back: the United Nations, despite its hampering from the US, continues to try to reveal the true extent of Zionist perfidy; leftist organisations like the Socialist Workers’ Party and the University and College Union in alliance with David Duke, the US politician; fearless and selfless politicians in RESPECT and its descendant parties; diplomats who dare speak their minds like Rowan Laxton; and an increasing number of brave protesters who, despite Zionist efforts, have begun to realise the nuanced history of the Middle East and the horror that the “Israel” project has brought forth.

Reduced Shakespeare Company

I note that BBC7 is re-broadcasting chunks of the repertoire of the “Reduced Shakespeare Company”. This troupe has been zanily crunching Shakespeare into hilarious bite-sized chunks for years now, showing in one slick performance after another the full extent of their manifold talents and The Bard’s joyful, timeless humour. Except, of course, that’s bollocks. Shakespeare is terminally unfunny. Frankly, he’s an astonishingly dull hack at the best of times; when he tries to be funny, you want to shove his stewed prunes and hey nonnie nos where the sun don’t shine. The man really was a tit. A racist, sexist, antisemitic, dull tit.

So when a bunch of Yanks try to perform one of his sonnets as rap (ooh, Shakey is kewl!) or pretend that Hamlet was a management consultant or some other sub-“Now Show” arse, it takes something bad and unfunny and metastasises it into something so cringe-worthy that you have to be in a strange position of cowed reverence and pseudy insecurity to pretend it has any worth. I shall discuss the polluting effects of Shakespeare worship soon. For now, it’s enough to get you to promise never to give these desperate stage-monkeys your cash. Just because they’re “clever” is no excuse to frequent them. The world is full of clever dullards. Go and see some modern comic theatre instead. Or better still, forget the dull and dusty medium and see a film. How now, sirrah? Oh, do shut up.

I do not KEA

This evening we went to Ikea to purchase some domestic oddments. This was a mistake. The place is hellish. From the confused car-park to the swarmed checkout cavern, you must avoid it. There is nothing there for you. Once, it might have seemed a refreshing suburban liberation. It might have represented an escape from British highstreets of worn and shoddy furniture on one hand, and heavy and stolid on the other. Then, Ikea swooshed its plywood wand and cast its Swedish spell on a whole swathe of aspirational but parsimonious bourgeoisie. Ooh, look at all that Nordic Style, its funny names, its restaurant, its cheery plastic gewgaws and pine frapped chairs! They evoked some sort of mass-produced sophistication: a Swedish Habitat without the Conran pretentions, perhaps.

Open your eyes. If it was ever like this, it’s nothing like it now. It is nothing less than a con-job, trying to sell you planks for more than they’re worth in a venue designed to the Catholic Church’s plans for purgatory. I visited it on the way home from work,, so I turned up before Mrs Trellis. I wandered about the place, meandering amidst the kitsch and trashy, the pseudo-suave and the Bauhaus-come-deckchair faux-sophistication in the twee stage-set rooms, replete with their hollow plastic televisions regarded by hollow plastic minds. I cast my rapidly descaling eyes over the furniture. The gawping hoardes suddenly seemed like cattle, being tricked into grazing astroturf. I tried to give the pieces of furniture a greater critical appraisal than the average brand-sponged dribblers about me. And do you know what? The great veneered majority of it was utter tat. Cupboards that didn’t quite close. Chipboard that wasn’t quite encapsulated. Metal legs that weren’t quite flush in meeting buckling glass table-tops. The design was pedestrian. The finish was invariably lacklustre and chipped. The material was weary and its construction duncical.

Worse than any specific cut corners (sometimes literal) was the obvious fact that these objects were constructed for the benefit of the machines that hew them and boxed them – for the efficiency of their initial production rather than any variety or elegance in their final use. The cynicism-made-chipboard was palpable. Here’s a company that packages cheap boards with holes in them, adds a chamfer, and ramps up the “we’re stylish” brand to Emperor’s New Clothes heights. It puts them in a cattlepen warehouse of a store and ensures their supplicants have to wait in gargantuan queues for the privilege of purchasing the tat. God forbid one of the richest men in the world should employ a couple more checkout staff at minimum wage so that his wretchedly pliant customers might leave within an hour of joining a chaotic queue. Never mind the abasement of the experience – they’ll still come back in their swinish droves, even when that abasement leads to the savage Tat Riots at Ikea sales earlier this year. If you repeat the word “stylish” often enough, I guess people believe it. They believe it enough to maim. The glassy eyed maimers were there this evening too, in their hateful queue-barging droves. I realised that I would be duty-bound to include myself in this field of hate if I did not vow then and there never to return to this yellow and blue Hades again.

By the time Mrs Trellis arrived, my mood was dark. We were certainly not going to purchase any bookshelves here, with their hateful cardboard-thin backing and wobbly inadequacies. It is far more honest and attractive to place planks of wood between some bricks. If I could not afford a proper set of shelves made up by a craftsman who gives a damn, or from a shop that understands the true depths that the relationship between material, form and design needs to attain, then I would happily continue with said improvised brick-and-plank shelving until I could afford the real thing. Ikea is no the “real” thing. It does not represent a happy mean between style and affordability. It is just mean. Better to keep books in cardboard boxes or strewn across the floor.

Mrs Trellis had, by this time, though, picked up some wrapping paper and a small foot-wiper rug. She decided, by some dint of stubborness, that she would make the purchase, having picked it up, by hook or by crook, even though she agreed it was the last time she would do so. On seeing the mind-boggling queues, she almost lost her nerve. The aeroplane-hangar sized checkout area had about 5% of its available tills staffed, which meant that queues wound themselves into the dank collection area warehouse. How generous. It was as if here was a collection of dull and stupid middle class refugees queuing in some hellish processing centre, desperate for some sort of asylum at the other end. The horrible people with their horrible trollies filled with horrible slabs of horribly veneered horrible MDF. Chipboard is a bunch of cheap scraps of wood bound together under pressure by a thin veneer. Ikea customers are a bunch of cheap idiots bound together under the pressured delusion that they’re better than those who shop at MFI, and equal to craftsmen carpenters because they stick some glued dahls into an ill-fitting hole. If you are one of these people, and persist in defending this apotheosis of dismal post-modern Capitalism, I’ll be happy to sell you a melanin-lined self-assemble clue: Düll-ård.

Energy Crisis?

It seems our oleic free lunch is coming to an end. What oil remains to power our Western carnival shall soon be too expensive for mere burning. Our hundred-year whimsy is coming to an end, and we’re being sent home from the party with nary a Lucky Packet to hand. Peak oil, it seems, has come and gone; that it’s actually happening, after so many decades of prediction, is oddly surprising to us. Unless someone finds some massive new reserves, and soon, we’re in for a fascinating few years ahead.

There are two views on what we can expect in oil’s twilight years – the “oy vey” eschatological pessimism at one end, and the “what, me worry?” eupeptic mien at the other. I know of people who subscribe to both extremes, each with a joyous vehemency. My old colleague, Paul Smeddle, in between learning to eat olives and getting excited about space rockets, was wont to propound his “death of civilisation” Jeremiads. These were predicated on the supposition that we’re running out of oil, there’s nothing to replace it, and nobody’s working on any alternatives that’ll be ready in time. All that we value in the West – our heat, light, transport, plastics, medicine and technology – will come tumbling down, and our civilisation is doomed.

At the other extreme, I know several who believe that The Market Will Provide. We need not worry, because These Things Sort Themselves Out. After all, look at the fuss about the Y2K bug. Look at the Malthusian panic in the 1960s about over-population by the 1980s. Look at the prediction that we’d run out of protein. The latter one is a fascinating panic which, in fact, led to the development of Quorn. None of these panics turned out to be justified, and the ingeniousness of late capitalism provided a bounty for those lucky enough to live in the West.

I feel that neither extreme pessimism nor ludicrous optimism has much rational substance about it. Optimism relies on a secundum quid et simpliciter fallacy. To an extent, so does pessimism. One assumes that some observed machination of our economy, of our character and our reactive circumstances necessarily colours how we will deal with the end of oil. We are offered no such certainty. This makes things interesting.

Certainly, some expectations we currently enjoy will be confounded: no more cheap flights seems to be one of the safest predictions one might make. Enjoy aviation’s supernova while it lasts. Biofuels should allow hybrid cars to remain on the road, and passenger ships to remain afloat. It wouldn’t be that much of a surprise to find trans-atlantic liner travel resume as the less expensive way of traversing the pond. Zeppelins might make a return as well.

Centralised power will probably be primarily fission, initially. Who knows when, if ever, fusion will be viable. Newer generations of power stations should be less costly to build and decommision, and the lack of oil’s bounty will provide a fillip to further efficiency still. This relative abundance of centralised power will allow for the recharging of hybrid engines, or perhaps the mass production of hydrogen as a clean vehicular fuel. It’ll also probably power the trains that will have taken over much short-haul flying. Maglev rail could take over some medium haul over-land routes too, all powered by the nuclear centre and, to an extent, wind, hydroelectric and some biofuel power stations. This central power, then, will have a primary function of producing energy for the connected transport infrastructure, and to produce hydrogen gas.

Homes and small factories could be self-sufficient. Indeed, even now, replacing roof-tiles with modern solar collectors could provide all the energy required for every average household, even in a dim country like Britain. This is not space-age hopefulness, but the conservative possibility of current technology. Certainly, kitting out the nation’s roofs with such technology won’t come cheap, but as oil slides away, we’ll no doubt use the last dregs to fund the production of such facilities – nothing Star Trek, but just mundane solutions which, until now, we’ve had no need to consider on a wide scale.

I’ve a feeling – it’s admittedly little more than faith – that eventually, we’ll stumble on another “free lunch”, be it cold fusion, zero point energy or a similar panacea. Until then, we’ll muddle on, adapting with neither the grace proposed by the optimists, nor with the ineptitude imagine by the pessimists. Our transition from oil to whatever comes next will probably be somewhat anticlimactic. Maybe the years ahead won’t be quite so fascinating at all, as is usually the case with predicted calamities. It’s the unpredicted ones that are interesting.

Lift Lives

Few people feel perfectly at ease in a lift. This is not surprising. We are in uncomfortably close proximity to strangers. We are literally boxed in. There are few available displacement activities. In all, one needn’t be a general claustrophobic to feel specific mild social angst in a lift.

My company has a small office near Canary Wharf on the 33rd floor. I notice little rituals played out by the lifts on every visit. For example, I’ve realised that people often time their approach to the cluster of lifts so that they just miss one that appears already inhabited. This is especially true when they are confident another is on the way. They sort of slope up to the lifts, and suddenly become distracted by their watch, their phone or the plaque on the wall indicating fire regulations. The doors of the “missed” lift close. The deliberator pulls his eyes away from the watch/phone/plaque, waits a moment, and presses the button to summon the next one. There is amusing room for error in this routine, though: sometimes he presses the summoning button too quickly – the full lift he had tried to avoid hasn’t had time to leave, and so “helpfully” slides open. His strategy in tatters, he now has to make a sheepish entrance all the while other pristine lifts are arriving just around him. Sometimes I am he.

Of course, the Docklands Busy-busy-businessman more usually suffers from the Must Get The Next Lift mentality than the Must Avoid This Full Lift angst outlined above. The disease is related to the Must Get This Tube-train malady which afflicts all self-important Londoners. Even when an empty tube-train surely follows a packed sardine tin, Mr Busy-busy must barge his way into the present overflowing carriage, as if the minute’s delay he’d have to endure till the next train pulled up would make a difference worth millions of pounds, lives or Gilts. In all likelihood, of course, the minute he saved on arriving home would be used for little more than giving his scrotum a scratch or staring into the fridge. As with trains, though, a closing lift means urgent panic. Busy-busy runs toward the closing doors, jamming his hand, foot, briefcase or secretary in the gap, piling into the lift as if he’s just hopped on to the last rocket off a dying planet. “Ping”. Another two lifts have arrived in the time he’s performed his self-important acrobatics. He’s impervious to the glares, though. He’s Busy.

Of course, lift rituals continue once one’s in. It is important to stare at the floor number-indicator. The lifts in Canary Wharf have little television screens with, bizarrely, stills of people about to enter private jets. This makes a welcome focal point, and helps to prevent that supreme faux-pas of lift eye-contact. Where one positions oneself in a lift depends on its occupancy, and is fraught with complication well beyond this discussion. The placement matrix is subtle and the product of a highly complex set of innate rules – perhaps more so even than with men at urinals.

When I’m in a lift with a friend or colleague, I like to have some sort of odd conversation with him or her. It is entertaining to watch any other lift inhabitants try to ignore the discussion, or even, if we’re lucky, scowl or smirk. A rare achievement in the monastic cell of the lift. That said, one can find this disconcerting in the inverse: a colleague related to me how a couple of men got in a lift and cheerily waved good-bye to a woman who remained outside the lift. As soon as the door closed, the men suddenly began a leery discussion of the myriad sexual divertissements they’d like to perform with that woman. It became more and more graphic. Fortunately, the lifts in our building traverse the 33 floors very quickly, so my colleague was not present for the denouement of their outburst.

A taboo lift-practice we’ve all performed at some time or other is the quick-close attempt: we enter a lift and hear footsteps. We want the lift to ourselves, so we jab the door-close button repeatedly. The lift reacts slightly too slowly, and the owner of the stepping feet becomes visible. He can see our hand, suspiciously near the close-button. We quickly press the open-button, as if we’ve been desperately trying to get the damn thing open for our poor, lost foot-stepper all along. “Oh, what a relief the door didn’t close before I could hold it open for you, my new deserving friend, thank heavens”, we hope we’re projecting. Our unconscious mind begins its complex simultaneous equation to align us appropriately with regard to this new interloper. The bastard.

Egregiously Etiolated Adjectives

Adjectives. Cheap ways of throwing verbal paint about, but messy. Maybe that’s why German makes you think twice before using one. Mark Twain, in “The Awful German Language” quotes a German student who claimed he’d “rather decline two drinks than one German adjective”.

In English, “good” is always “good”. Dogs can be good. So can bitches. You can eat a good meal, or, indeed, good meals. You can give a good man’s pilchard to a good girl’s stoat. You just slot the word “good” in, and that’s that. In German, you have to worry – or have Angst. First, you need to think about whether the noun being described is male, female or neuter, singular or plural. A different “good” could go before each one.

This is just the first of many considerations you have to make before proclaiming something as good. That’s just the beginning. Is it “a” good man or “the” good man – or is there no article at all? Yes, it makes a difference. So can we say “good” yet? No – not so fast. What case does “good” govern? In other words, is the good man the subject (“the good man ate some cheese”), the direct object (“the dog bit the good man”), the indirect object (“the taxidermist gave the tongs to the good man”) or the genitive (“the Walking Coughdrop visited the house of the good man”). You see, which “good” you use depends on these cases too. So, you have to hold in your head this monstrous flowchart/linguistic junction box, the adjective flying down the tracks, switching at each set of points, until finally, one hopes, it arrives at the correct linguistic platform. Some hope – there are 48 different possible destinations for that adjective, 48 possible linguistic slots that need to be taken account of. Just to say the word “good”. In English, we just have to remember the word “good”. In German, that’s just 1/48th of the way there.

There are lots of languages with morpholoically-realised case, with arbitrarily gendered nouns and the rest, but many have noted German’s peculiar precision in its syntax, its compoundwordaddiction and so forth. There is a way that the language slots together which, at times, out-Latins Latin. One of Mrs Trellis’s colleagues, an Italian, noted this characteristic in German when he learned it. Any Romance language speaker detects it immediately.

Now, I am intuitively suspicious of the Sapir Whorf hypothesis, which suggests an intimate connection between the language we speak and our very perceptions of the world; however, one must wonder at the cultural and meta-cultural effects of this German morphologically-realised pernicketiness. What effect has it had on national character? I wonder this myself, because my brief visit to Germany confirmed that many of the national stereotypes are just that. One seemed to ring true, though: the precision demanded in all circumstances, even when informality or irrelevancy might, in an Anglophone society, render such precision near autistic. An example – one of many examples: the night-train attendant asked when we’d like breakfast served. “So spaet wie moeglich, bitte”, I replied, “As late as possible”. The attendant looked mildly horrified at the implicitness of this all and demanded a specific time be enunciated. Thence ensued a bizarre Dutch Auction, in which I named a time, he claimed that it was too late, until eventually I hit on one that seemed properly balanced for both our needs.

German precision is, of course, renowned in its philosophy, its engineering or, with IBM’s help, in darker logistical areas. There are other cultural effects: German food is “explicit”. Their appreciation of comedy is either “explicit” slapstick or precise, dry and wry. Their philosophy tries to systematise totality in a pernickety way quite alien to the English philosophical school. To speak German, one needs to follow explicit rules instinctively. Too often across German society, this acquiescence to a panoply of petty rules has been noteworthy. Dare one mention the attraction of racial Darwinism to the mindset of a conversationalist whose adjective can fall in one of 48 slots? But no, that’s unfair, unworthy of even a Basil Fawlty. These are all flabby generalisations, but beneath the wobbly tummy is something of a beating heart.

The English and German language have common ancestors. Indeed, even by late Old English, the two languages can almost be considered dialects of one another. English became less anally retentive as time went by, ditching its arbitrary genders and leaving us with only a vestigial morphologically-realised case system (“I/me” and the increasingly rare “who/whom”, for example). German, in distinction, clung on to the explicit and, to an English speaker’s mind, ridiculous extrinsic belts-and-braces redundancy. Did restrictive cultural forces hold German in its waistcoat? Did English start letting it all hang out because of the productive miscegenation of its speakers? Or, more tantalisingly, did the changes in English language spark off a greater cultural effect? In other words, is the difference between BMW and British Leyland explained, in part, by the declination of adjectives, or are those pernickety Teutonic linguistic practices just a component in the greater cultural tendency to precision?

In an interesting twist, many have noted that German’s waistcoat buttons are beginning to pop open, and that the language is starting finally to “Englishify” itself – the genitive case is almost extinct in the spoken language, and the subjunctive mood is becoming ever more restricted – although it is not quite as ghostly as in English yet. The complicated carving of German grammar is tending towards the usefully corrosive effects that have formed whorish English. Will the eventual smoothed pebble lead Mercedes Benz to create anything like the Mini Metro? Alles ist nicht klar. (It could have also been klare, or klaren, or klares, or klarem…).

Turner Thermodynamics

Verdurin and I visited the Turner Prize last month before our Berlin trip. There, we saw a ramshackled shed, a bicycle with a canister of hydrogen, some photos of a quarry, an insipid watercolour of a cactus, a video of a fountain, a video of a Blackpool illuminations windwill, a video of some dancing feet, a video of a watching old lady, paintings of arses, forests and darkly-hued still lives, a room with silver, white and black gaffer tape on the floor, fibreglass birds bestrewn with paint and some handbags with mirror mosaics. Yes, of course it was all banal tat, a veritable Oxfam of an exhibition, but that’s what one expects of the Turner Prize.

My concern this time is not with the “art” (or, indeed, the arses, which weren’t bad), but with the earnest right-on claims made by one of the artists – the artist that this evening won the prize, as it happens. This is the artist whose exhibition consisted of the lean-to shack, the hydrogen-assisted bicycle, the photographs and the painting of the cactus.

His claim for the unifying theme of his work was the usual “Gaia Mother Earth Ooh Capitalism Tsk Consumes Bah Humbug Naughty Business Men” sentimental environmentalism/anti globalisation rubbish. What was particularly egregious about his brand of rubbish was his claim that his trip across some desert or other with his bicycle represented some snub to the inefficiencies of industrial capitalism. You see, his bike was powered with nothing more than hydrogen which, when it burns, produces nothing more than water. He used that water to paint the cactus, another conservative symbol of mother nature in frugal balance blah blah. People were looking at this bicycle with strapped-on canister of hydrogen and nodding sagely, in wonder at how efficient and environmentally friendly and divorced from the evils of global capital this is. Except, of course, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a trick, a lie, an idiocy easily inflicted on the scientifically illiterate arseholes who visit and judge such “art”.

You see, the curators had put up a sign saying that the hydrogen had been “taken from the desert air”. Oh, really? So the solution to our energy problems, then, is to scoop up air from desert regions and run our Happy Cars on it? All that free hydrogen that, of course, isn’t in the air. Yes, there’s lots and lots of hydrogen on this planet. Unfortunately, the reactive little devil tends to be bonded with oxygen (to produce water) and/or carbon (to produce fossil fuels). So, how do we get pure hydrogen from either of these sources? Well, in order to extricate the hydrogen atoms from their tightly promiscuous bonds, one needs to provide energy to break those bonds. Dry desert air has precious little water vapour, let alone free hydrogen. The dangly-earingged twunt who wrote the “scooped from air” sign hadn’t looked at the labelled canister. I had. It was just common-or-garden industrial hydrogen. This hydrogen would have been produced by electrolysing water, or by putting natural gas or coke through an energy inefficient conversion process. As the first law of thermodynamics makes clear, then, the artist would have wasted less energy if he’d just used a standard motorbike and run it on petrol. The picture of the cactus wouldn’t have been so pretty, admittedly.

Now, hydrogen electrolised from water via solar power, say, might have allowed him to make his point. But it wasn’t. He used standard industrial hydrogen, produced not as a part of the renewable energy cycle, but as a part of the non-renewable economy he’d thought he’d escaped: he was using the earth’s finite resources just the same, and probably creating just as much net pollution in the process. And either nobody noticed, or cared, and so allowed his little didactic lesson to pass without realising that its central premise, that which was supposed to be telling and poignant and oh so “aaaahhhh” – was, in fact, utter, total bilge. Scooped from the desert air? You stupid twat! Art? Arrgh, more like!

The Dream Fiddler

I went to see Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm today. I enjoyed it, but what final impression it shall have made on me, I cannot yet say. I have a terrible memory for films. Consider a movie I might have seen a week or two ago: if I had to narrate its story at gunpoint, I’d have my brains blown out. The specific details of a plot leave my short term memory and evaporate. It barely seems to matter whether I enjoyed the film or found it dull at the time – it fractures and dissipates in my recollection just the same. I’ve tried to think of any other aspect of my life where an intensely involving aesthetic activity can leave so little of its detail ingrained in conscious memory. There is only one, and that is when I dream.

Like many people, I don’t usually remember my dreams. When I do recall one, it is just as I slide awake, when I seem to have a yearning to grapple its memory, as if I am about to lose something precious, as though I am compelled to play with the fading textures and other-worldy emotional modes, to linger on the darkening images and wonder at their construction from the brickabrack of my mind. As I gain consciousness, slowly but surely, that peculiarly poignant brook along the border between sleep and consciousness evaporates. Just as surely dissipates my memory of a film after the credits roll.

What remains in my consciousness for any film, then, is just what remains of any dream. Not the story, the narrative, but fractured images, scenes and the emotional seasoning. Most films, like most dreams, leave precious few of these vivid shards. The best films, like the most significant dreams, leave the greatest number of discrete scenes, shimmering in my mind, recalled like an impressionist painting, or perhaps cubist: the clinical sequence will have dissipated, but telling details and a roped-off pervading atmosphere will remain, potent and heady, each shard overlaid on the other to provide the only notion of the totality of recalled experience for that dreamy film or filmy dream.

I cannot, therefore, know whether a film has been “good” in my terms until well after I’ve seen it. If it passes through my system, like glucose syrup or a gulp of water, then it remains fundamentally unaffecting beyond the immediate pep or distraction it provides, and has failed me in some deeply mimetic way. If, days, weeks and months hence, I find the film has left a residue in my consciousness, then it has worked its benign infection, and I consider it personally worthy.

Films that I find deeply involving and enjoyable at the time of viewing can disappoint me later with their scant imprint. Trivial and silly films can surprise me just as much when an embedded splinter of the film suddenly stings without warning, months later. The collection of film shards that hangs in my internal gallery is an eclectic one: the fractured images that glitter, the morsels of emotional intensity, the distilled mise en scene pervades like a heady incense. Visitors to my confused gallery will note the throbbing nostalgia for a past that was not mine as it wafts its way through from Radio Days. Down the hall, encounter the pit-of-the-stomach delight as the synchronised denouement in Fight Club slews past. The mindboggling industrial hell of the chicks on the conveyor belt in Baraka can haunt at a moment’s notice. The Hudsucker Proxy peppers the gallery with vignettes, from the expertly crafted innocence to the monumental clockface so crucial to the film’s conclusion. The tender ambiguity of “Stay Awake” in Mary Poppins echoes the hall with a baleful intensity (the first film I ever saw – my mother tells me that when the lights came up in the house, I burst into tears).

If my mind holds a collection of such impressionistic and expressionist shards from the affective cinema, then one film alone has its own museum wing. That film is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. I cannot think of a movie that has left within me a greater number of images, tropes, scenes, colours, tones, cut-class motifs and enveloping ambiguities. Never mind the film’s grandiose set-pieces, which are all there, but things like the comically grating sound of the telephones, the little office-cubicle in the Department of Records, the leering drunk over the model city, the glass-brick subways, the Stalinist architecture and the thousands of individual moments of brilliance cascade themselves to me eternally. Amidst the tumult is Michael Kamen’s score, whose shattering resonance has not, for me, been equalled in any sound track. Kamen transforms the silly little ditty behind the film’s title into something quite Mahlerian in its heroic tragedy. Almost a complete record of it resides in some deep basement of my mind’s sound archive.

Appropriately for a film that so centrally deals with the ambivalent power of imagination over mundane or painful reality, it lies like no other in my mind as the vivid dream of a film that it is. Unlike a normal dream that evaporates in the morning sun, though, its images can be replenished and its emotional stock can be re-seasoned with the insertion of a DVD.

A History of Achilles-Heel Tickling

Well, that’s been an interesting week. The reaction to my article on the Open Rights Group has made me consider the issues discussed therein with some rigour. So, I am preparing a paper which hopes to detail the strategy that was only sketched in the report. To this end, I send out an appeal to any who might be reading this: I have at hand some historical analogies which seem to demonstrate that our strategy is not just a troll or a Gedankenexperiment, but has antecedents; I am sure there are many other examples of which I’m not aware. If you know of one, please include it in a comment below.

Now, what sort of analogy am I talking about? Specifically, I would like historical examples of where a powerbase has been tempered, subverted or overturned not through Fabian-like lobbying and bourgeois “education”, but either implicitly or explicitly by using the powerbase’s own hubris to destroy itself. In particular, I am interested in examples where a powerbase’s insecurity and greed has led to a bust flush, to its overreaching itself and enacting a reductio ad absurdem. A famous example I (and, it appears, others), can think of in this context is, of course, the 18th Amendment of the American Constitution, whose instigation of Prohibition did more to destroy the Temperance movement that had craved it than any lilly-livered letter-writers and libertarians. As the author of the above link wrote, “it affirms the economic theory, which predicts that prevention of mutually beneficial exchanges fails”. If that theory is sound, and I believe it is, then encouraging a radical “prevention of mutually beneficial exchange” in one fell swoop, rather than in halting increments, is sound. Not only is it extricated from accusations of Trollhood, but is one of the most rational courses imaginable, and enshrined in economic orthodoxy.

Further to this, please send historical examples of the raising of public consciousness through the encouragement of such reductio ad absurdems, where agents specifically catalysed what they realised as the fatal hubristic flaw at the heel of a powerbase.

A powerful example, of course, is the American Civil Rights movement, of which my brother (a Historian specialising in America) has just reminded me:

“The Civil Rights movement, and the rise of white ‘Massive Resistance’ in Birmingham Alabama, with their hosepipes on little kids, strikes me, off hand, as a good example. It was completely misjudged in the TV age, and got those who were uneasy about the end of segregation for ‘practical reasons’ to side with black civil rights leaders. Indeed, the policy of direct action without violence by the civil rights movement was predicated on the hope of an over-reactive, violent police/white counter-measure. This makes the policy of ‘non-violence’ precisely about violence, given that its raison d’etre was to provoke a violent counter response, whose violence would be contrasted to the ‘lack of violence’, and lead moderates who would have supported segretationists on grounds of maintaining ‘stability’ and ‘not rocking the boat’, to move to the side of the civil rights people. In other words, those who hosed the kids defeated their very aims by their actions”.

This is indeed directly analogous. Rosa Parks is the most famous single example of this principle. It was not the “production of press releases”, or “edutainment” which proved monumentally powerful: merely her sitting in the “wrong” seat on a bus, and calculating that the ludicrous official reaction would point tellingly, stingingly and devastatingly at the injustice abroad. The movement had prepared this action well in advance, and had trialled it many times before. No doubt, they would now be dubbed silly agit-prop trolls. Finally, true to form, the official reaction was just as obnoxious as had been hoped, and the rest is, literally, History. Had a proto-ORG been advising Rosa Parks, they’d have suggested contemporary equivalents of setting up a Wiki or contacting her MEP instead. Or edutaining her way through press-releases to freedom.

Fallacies Ahoy!

Last Tuesday evening, a couple of friends asked me how the Open Rights Group meeting had gone. Primarily as a response to them, I wrote the article below. Word of mouth seems to have given it an infamy it didn’t seek, and has led to a surprising number of vituperative comments. Some of the responses are considered and thoughtful. Some are entertainingly disdainful. Those that are sufficiently literate to parse, though, generally suffer from a number of fallacies.

The primary fallacy, of course, is the old favourite: Ad Hominem. “Public school teenage whinging Trot twats” and the rest, implications that none of us “get out”, kiss ladies and so on. No problem with this. Name calling is great fun, and I indulge in it in my original piece; but basing one’s whole “argument” on such outbursts is like serving a meal that consists of salt alone. It gives one logic-gallstones. Yes, I lambasted and attacked, but I also tried to provide a reasoned argument, to provoke some discussion beyond the puerile, even if just a robust counterblast. Amidst the twat-calls, some more analytical repudiation might have been useful.

Ad Hominem was not the only variety of fallacy in this bed of weeds. Danny O’Brien introduced a Straw Man with his attempted parallel of “being nasty to NHS workers”. How saying “Ah, imagine if you were being nasty to people in an organisation of which you approve. That would be nasty” relates to our suggestion that the Media Oligarchies might be made to trip on their own hubristic shoelaces is still beyond me. Perhaps others could explain. Many retorts also begged the question and engaged in the fallacy of the undistributed middle. For those few who managed to provide some actual counter analysis, I shall respond in a combined essay soon. I shall lay out what I think would need to be done in the sort of agit-prop campaign outlined in our gedankenexperiment, and how it might work in a real world. For the rest, fanboydom serves your cause no good. Your uncritical slavering does your Group no good.

The ferocity of the reaction to something that started as no more than a wry gedankenexperiment has revealed to my mind just how hostile people are to anything not shrouded in the current stifling consensual mode. Although I am playing Cassandra to the ORG, I am certainly not claiming some sort of omniscience. Nevertheless, I have helped to found a successful tech campaign which, in its whole existence, consumed about one quarter of one month of ORG’s projected income. If it is not to waste this bounty, ORG had better realise that it is displaying classic danger signs, which my friends and I have seen in several other nascent campaigns. Anyone who thinks that ORG is best served in the nauseatingly corporatist gushing that we saw in the meeting and subsequent retorts is deluded. Lewd comments by fanboys about “enticing ladies” do not bode well. A dismissal of Mr Levine’s pointed question about what comes after the press releases does not bode well. An organisation which thinks that Management Consultants are Big and Clever does not bode well. An organisation that wants to receive 5k a month, and yet cannot run a decent website does not bode well (a higgledypiggledy “blog” using the default template doth not a decent campaign website make). Lots of geeks and numeedjas are, no doubt, too excited by the fact that something is being done to realise that not all “somethings” are equal.

Another fallacy to be sliced into a thousand pieces and buried under the nearest patio is of the “If It’s So Bad, Why Don’t You Do It Yourself?” variety. Well, I have done it “myself” in the past, thanks; however, even if I were the laziest armchair punditing sod in the world, that in itself would not invalidate my criticisms or arguments. These arguments must be bolstered or shot down by logical analysis alone. The “Why Don’t You” idiocy can be illustrated quite simply:
“I don’t like Hitler”
“Well, if you can do better, why not take over a country and run it yourself!”
Idiots.

As it happens, I am ready to put my money where my mouth is. My company is quite willing to support and fund an organisation that truly has a hope. I would realistically have been happy to sign a company cheque doubling ORG’s monthly budget at a stroke, had I thought it had a chance of spending that money wisely. I would have been able to provide a full litany of lawyers prepared to work pro-bono, had I felt they wouldn’t have had their time wasted. I don’t say this in some empty branch-dragging cockery, but as a serious indication of how I genuinely would react to an organisation I felt had the remotest chance of anything other than counterproductive tinkering. I, and those who remain unconvinced, but do not write smarmy reports, will not find ORG the least bit convincing. Sorry ORG, but you, like the AFFS and others before you, just don’t seem to have it in you. To quote Larry Lessig, you’re in a battle with all the money and power in the world. You don’t fight that with press releases and Getting Your MEPs on Board. But, hell, I could be utterly, totally wrong. That would be a truly pleasant outcome. It would, without irony, delight me. Oh, despite it all, you’re probably worth a fiver a month bet. But only when you can at least get your arse in gear at least to receive credit card payments online, as we in CUT were able to do eight years ago.

Faster Food

A couple of my colleagues stayed all night in the office. They were helping to deal with problematic invoices, so we can produce our company accounts. To thank them, I went to the local supermarket to buy a bottle of nice sparkling red wine. At the checkout, I noticed that a woman had a trolley full of ready-meals and other convenience items. She hadn’t purchased any “real” raw food at all. She had no separate vegetables. She had no cuts of meat. She had no grains or pasta. She just had a cart filled with cardboard boxes of pre-prepared chillcooked and frozen miscellany.

It suddenly struck me that I couldn’t remember the last time I had consumed one of these microwave ready-meals. There was a period when I ate them frequently. While I worked at Easynet, a group of us got into the habit of buying some Tesco pasta dish or other at lunch and cooking it in the company microwave. The pasta would go a strange grey colour. It become mildly crispy on one edge, but half melted into the softening plastic container on the other. It was about then that I began to realise that the convenience meal did not quite live up to its promise.

My first step to gastronomic enlightenment was in actually using some raw ingredients. Unfortunately, I tended to spoil these ingredients with Chicken Tonight or some equivalent bottled slurry. With the advent of Mrs Trellis, however, emerged a different notion of food preparation: that it’s cheaper, nicer, fresher, tastier and, well, foodier to produce the stuff manually, so to speak. I was surprised to find that, despite the implications by Kraft Foods and their ilk, such Real Food doesn’t really take that much longer to prepare either. For example, what on earth is difficult about roasting a chicken? Put chicken in roasting pan, stick half a lemon up its backside and wipe on some oil and seasoning. The oven does the rest of the work whilst one watches television, goes to the gym or bathes the locust. Frying a steak is hardly more odious. A pasta sauce? Take a tin of tomatoes, add herbs and seasoning, simmer, and that’s it. And it’s always miles better than the suspiciously astringent Dolmios and their brethren.

The revelation, though, is stew and other one-pot meals and soups. One can purchase ready-meal stews. These consist of expensive punnets of fatty lumps of meat and slimy vegetables in a monosodium glutemate and guar-gum sauce. Sure, it takes just three minutes to heat up in the microwave, but making a real stew is hardly a chore. Just fill a pot with – well, whatever. Add plenty of liquid, including some wine. This is a good way of using up the last dregs of an old bottle. Then let the mixture simmer for as long as one can give it (the longer the merrier). The simmering can happen parallel with all those busy, busy middle class things one needs to do, so it doesn’t really factor in to the convenience equation. The notion that such food is time consuming is bizarre. If we’re going on a run, or to see a film, we sometimes put on a stew slowly to simmer, and consume it on returning. Our time is consumed in doing the things we would have done had our meal arrived in a plastic tray. Again, it’s the oven that’s breaking a sweat, not us. What’s more, we can bag and freeze the inevitable surplus from the pot. We can then consume it on another day, when we don’t feel like taking any time at all in even preparing a fresh meal: voila, our own ready-meal, but without the trans-fatty acids and sodium benzoate.

Yes, this is all rather bourgeois, but it deserves evangelising: extricating yourself from convenience food needn’t be inconvenient. Try giving up the habit for a week, at first, and then a month. Once the Kraft Crack has left your culinary neighbourhood, you’ll never look at another cellophaned punnet of their gloop again, let alone allow it privileged residence in your gut.

Mathy Fashion Faux Pas

I’ve spent a day wrestling with troublesome pennies, and it’s all the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ fault. Bastards.

It’s that fiduciary time of year again for the company I co-direct. As Saturnalian delights begin to engulf the minds of others, we have to help our book-keeper and accountant prepare the end of year company accounts. It’s not a pleasant task. Customers do stupid things, like underpay or overpay, forget about VAT, demand small refunds and generally act the giddy goat against any prospect of an elegantly balanced set of books. When we started seven years ago, I programmed our company’s invoicing and accounting system. This has grown organically over the years, accreting some wonderfully powerful and tailored capabilities, but also a whole lot of silt. I’m not an accountant, and nor is my co-director. Some of our early decisions in the system’s design have required a lot of untangling, but the most insidious problem turned out to be one that neither of us could have predicted; a problem predicated on a lie told us by our maths teachers.

We’re taught much simplistic tosh at primary school. The silly model of the atom, with all those electrons swooshing round their perfect racetracks, is a famous example. Few A Level students quite shake off the faint stench of betrayal on being shown the messy quantum truth. RE lessons ply more insidious deceits, insinuating that there’s ample evidence for a historical Jesus, whatever one’s opinion of his divinity. The one subject where one might have hoped that subjective whimsy be absent is mathematics. Especially in our early years of arithmetic, we assume that we are being fed vital axioms, each pure, wholesome and incorrigible. All those little tools – carry the 1, move it into the tens column, divide this by that. So useful. So firm in a world of flimflam and fashion. So misleading.

We were taught that rounding up or down was a simple matter of deciding the number of decimal places one desired, and then, if the subsequent digit was five or larger, round the preceding number up. If the digit was between zero and four, round the preceding number down. This is how it was to be done. No arguments. No discussion. One Way to Round Them All. No doubt, had I stayed for A Level Stats, the lie would have been revealed. And a lie it is, one which has had material effect all these years later.

My company’s invoicing system does lots of real-time arithmetic. At the press of a button, for example, it calculates our VAT return with up-to-the-minute data. It lets us find out who owes us what at any moment. It shows what services are earning what income. All of these functions, of course, require mathematics. If one is calculating VAT on the fly, one will round the resulting number to two decimal places, which is all the decimal places that money deserves. To make things even easier, the database has a built in rounding function, so it can spit out subtotals, VAT included, without having to do anything fancy in the programming language that communicates with the database. For years, we have been using the system blithely, but over time, we have noticed anomalies creep in. Pennies here and there just didn’t seem to add up. Credit notes didn’t quite to balance out the full VAT-added invoices. Just by pennies, of course, across hundreds of invoices, so nothing particular to worry about. But pennies add up. Slowly but surely, we began to realise that, somewhere in the huge forest of code was some pernicious weed, tangling our data, its vines warping our results just enough to annoy our book keeper. What could it be? My co-director and I read all our code, examined our algorithms and refactored the more knotty areas. Noting seemed to help – the pennies just kept popping discrepantly into what should have been a balanced set of accounts. They constituted a little froth, eventually forming a scum on our financial books.

We pared our code to the bones, until the answer stared us in the face, astonishing in its simple depravity: both the programming language and the database were simply not rounding numbers consistently. Sometimes they rounded up, sometimes down. We did some research, not quite believing that something so fundamental could be so askew, and made the astounding discovery that what we had been taught in school as the incorrigible rule in rounding numbers was just a fashion. A fad. A debate. A whim.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE, sets standards which programming languages and their ancillary libraries follow. Amidst their fiddling, prescribing and proscribing, they decided that our normal school-taught notions of rounding numbers are flawed: why should 5 always be rounded up? It sits in the middle, so why should it not, half the time, be rounded down? Spread the love! So, how does one achieve such ordinal egalitarianism? They decided that, if the number before the 5 is odd, then it shall round up. If the number before the 5 is even, then lo, it shall round down. So, according to the IEEE, 1.5 rounds to 2. And 2.5 also rounds to 2! And what the IEEE sows, our C libraries, perl sprintf functions and MySQL ROUND statements reap. Now, imagine how the IEEE’s capricious juggling affects VAT calculations and the like, which require consistency. Yes, statistically, the IEEE’s rounding produces a “fairer” distribution of roundees. For financial applications, however, such wobbling idiocy is useless. Tellingly, neither the programming language nor the database offered as an alternative the traditional and financially useful rounding as taught at school. We ended up having to hand-write our own rounding functions, and substitute them throughout our code and database query. This wilful lack of such a useful function built in is an interesting insight into standards bodies and the designers who slavishly follow them. In researching this problem, we found we were not the only ones affected by the little bombshell. People are constantly reinventing the wheel in trying to get rounding back to the comfortable certainties of their school days. Language designers and mathematicians have little sympathy. One online complainant received the following retort:
“I wonder whether some people are missing the point here. There is no law of nature which says that 0.5 must round up”.

Could someone please go back in time and tell that to my maths teachers?

Open Rights Shites

This evening, Coxall, Levine and I attended an open meeting of the Open Rights Group, a new UK organisation set in the mould of the EFF. I wasn’t expecting the earth to move for me: we’ve attended too many of these little geek/numeeja run yack-shacks to hope for anything particularly productive to emerge. This evening did its least to confound me.

It was held in a basement in Soho named Zero-One. I say basement, but, naturally, one is encouraged to term it a “creative space”. Said “creative space” was filled with geeks and numeedjas, as well as a scattering of lawyer-types and Earnest Young Men. Overwhelmingly men, of course, the few women who were there either freaks, sociologists or serving the free cheese and wine. Hey – don’t shoot the messenger. A few chairs encircled the basement, but the main floor was bare, to encourage crouching and cross-legged encampment. Oh dear. This was all going to be “inclusive and discursive”, wasn’t it?

Oh dear, indeed: the manageress of the “creative space” started proceedings. Her introduction was little more than an ad for her basement. She then brought on an ex hack, who spouted some trivial nonsense or other, and was excited by the prospect of setting up ever more “wikis” and “blogs”. She, in turn, brought on a jargon-clappy professional “meeting facilitator/consultant”. This was going to be “fun”.

The evening was to commence with a little talk from some Oxford chap or other, followed by a free-fall clustered discussion, in which each cluster was to be provided with its own sticky wall-covering on which to paste their mindstormingly written postcards.

The Oxford nonentity informed us that the Internet was somewhat marvellous, and, gosh, lots of interesting things might become of it soon, what ho, and it’s not just paedophilia and terrorists. The poor fellow seemed trapped in 1994.

The Management Consultant Facilitator then spouted some jargon, and asked the floor for ideas for the discussion clusters. The Earnest Young Men pontificated their banalities. The geeks obsessed about some yawnful minutia. And Coxall suggested we discuss how to win over the “unhosed stupid masses”. Yes, that is the phrase he used and, yes, the reaction from this righton bunch of whitebread nonces was predictable. “Maybe if you stopped patronising them like that…” was the immediate response from one of the Earnest Young Men on the floor.

Thence began the multiple clustering. Levine, Coxall and I have attended so many of these nascent talking shops now that we decided to skip with the usual niceties and begin some good old Trotskyite agitation. We argued that trying to interest people in the potential problems of overreaching anti-privacy legislation, or draconian Intellectual Property laws and the restrictive technologies therefor, was a lost cause. The “unhosed masses” wouldn’t care about these philosophical crampings until they felt the constrictive banding themselves, in their every day lives. We argued for the inculcation of popular anger: to that end, a little DRM here, a little copyright overextension there wasn’t enough. We decided that, rather than allow creative society to die the death by a thousand cuts that is its inevitable fate in a world dominated by multi-billion dollar “content” oligarchies, we should use these monoliths’ huge power and budgets to subvert themselves from within, to the point where their overreaching hubris could lead to genuine polltax-riot intensity anger, and Berlin-wall-sized dismantlement.

Rather than fiddle with legislation to make it slightly less bad, then, or to try to temper corporate excesses with the few thrown crumbs of compromise, a smartly utilitarian organisation would instead encourage the corporate hubris to its reductio ad absurdem extreme, to catalyse rather than inhibit the inevitable Hegelian dialectic’s unfolding.

By analogy, imagine one is piloting an aircraft. One has insufficient fuel to reach an airport. In such a circumstance, it is better immediately to make a controlled crash-landing in a field, than to wait until the plane runs dry and spirals out of control. Similarly, organisations like the Open Rights Group need to realise that, with what will always be considered esoteric domains of discourse, no matter the theoretical “education” one can provide, they have only Hobson’s Choice in how to inculcate change. They need to make this choice wisely, and not to act as unwitting handmaidens to the oligarchies, moderating their ludicrous and unhinged excesses, but rather to encourage the oligarchies to their doom. Only then might a freely creative culture take its first deep breaths of pure air. Until then, it’s a war of attrition no grassroots organisation with romantic aims and – ooh – 5,000 quid a month to spend, can achieve. Idealism against all the money and power in the world? Don’t believe the sentimental penny-dreadful. In real life, the winner is generally preordained.

To this end, we pontificated loudly, and wrote lots of postcards with catchy phrases, like “Throw Pirate Kids in Jail Today” and “Encourage a Media Exec’s Dream, and Let it Become His Nightmare” and “You Prevent Future Forest Fires by Encouraging Present Ones”. I particularly enjoyed the comparison with the Temperance movement in the early 20th century United States:
“What destroyed the Temperance Movement?”, I asked.
“The reasoned debates, pamphlets and lobbying against it, or its achievement of Prohibition, which ludicrous overreaching achieved what decades of petty lobbying could not”? We need to encourage the development of the equivalent of Prohibition in the digital realm. We need to encourage Them to overplay their hand. They must be sung by we sweet sirens finally into the newly exposed rocks of public opinion.

Of course, the Earnest Young Men found this all far too “cynical”. They called the inculcation of anger “negative” and generally became flustered. The British don’t like anti-consensual opinion, and make it known. Levine was trying to argue with a Britwasp, who suddenly stood up, with his Britwasp smirk, flapped his hands about dismissedly and said “I’m Leaving”. He flounced off. An odd effect for Mr Levine, who was blooded by this, as shall become apparent.

Some people were genuinely tickled by our ideas, we Bolsheviks to the rest of the lilly livered Mensheviks in the other clusters, with their spider diagrams and their invocations to “Reach Out to Our MEPs”. Some people were angered. Some wanted to argue against them, but couldn’t find logically cohesive counter arguments beyond fey idealism. “Oh, we just need to educate The General Public”.
“Really”, retorted Coxall, “So we just say ‘Ooh, Mr Public – did you know that copyright might be extended to 90 years’. ‘Gosh, no. Thank you for telling me. Now I’m off to watch East Enders”. The only education is a practical education, a sharp realisation of what their Content Providers’ hegemony means when given utterly free reign. Not “might mean”, note well, but “means”. The public are not good with the subjunctive mood, after all. They need to be given a real and present catastrophe on a plate before they react.

I was pleased to see that one early waverer concluded by writing “Do not amaeliorate bad legislation” on a card, and stuck it up on our wall. He was beginning to get the point. As good Trots, it was not our job to be pooper-scooper to the Corporate behemoths, tempering and tidying their excessive crap, their Ideological Manifestations, if you will, so that they remain just beyond the nose of general public ire.

The public meeting ended, our board full of sardony. Gedankenexperiment? Genuinely useful methodology? Epater le bourgeois? Pisstake? Some and all of the above, probably. But a hell of a lot more interesting than the anodyne pap drafted by the rubbishers in the rest of the room.

There was a quick reconvening to discuss our gestalt meanderings in plenary session. The Earnest Young Men went on again about their blessed MEPs. Some numeeja urged the importance of Edutaining the Public. Edutaining. If this is what the grassroots has come to, please pass the herbicide.

Levine, oddly Bolshy, asked the lady in charge of proceedings what she was actually going to do. She talked excitedly about already getting some press in the Guardian, The Register and ZDNET. Levine probed her further, asking what she was going to do after sending press released thereto. “Send more”. Levine wouldn’t let it lie. “And once you’re finished preaching to the converted?” General hubbub. An Earnest Young Man tried to defend the fair maiden. Levine tried to retort, saying he’d seen this empty posturing so many times before, but the Meeting Facilitator Jargon Man stopped him in his tracks, rebuking him forcefully:
“We’ve heard enough from you. You interrupted Adam there. You’ve had more than enough to say”. Even the audience, who had been Britishly riled by Levine’s daring to piss in Tony’s Big Tent, were somewhat aghast by the vehemency of the putdown. The Meeting Facilitator Jargon Man then ensured that the evening concluded on a tawdry, Partridgesque note by suggesting that, although he’d seen fit to give his “services” for free this evening, perhaps some might consider hiring for their next such event.

So there we have it. Another hot air balloon sets forth for its brief and useless journey. We emerged feeling depressed at how people seem unable in the current milleu to cope with genuinely robust, left-field debate, preferring rather to ensconce themselves in downy administrivia and shallow consensual sweet nothings.

We departed feeling arrogantly intelligent but deflated, a feeling that we’re enduring ever more often after such events. Big-headedness on our part, certainly, but it seems that the educated idiots who attend these things plough their lobotomised troughs with depressing predictability.

Plumbium absurdis

Victoria’s father’s instructions loudspeakered from Leeds on his daughter’s mobile phone allowed us to effect a repair on a recalcitrant radiator which would otherwise have facilitated a hefty callout fee. Hmm. I quite like that sentence. Usually, I agree with Lord Denning’s advice to separate most clauses into their respective sentence; but once in a while, it’s enjoyable to let rip on a full string, juicy for parsing in some translation exercise. “Die Aufgaben des Vaters Victorias ..”

Anyway, the retrospective saving justified my purchasing a Sony LCD “high-def” telly today. And very nice it is too. Lifting the old broken CRT leviathan off its stand led to a heart-skipping moment where I thought that either my foot or the cat would be pancaked, but all ended well. So, working television and working radiator. Sadly, though, not all matters of plumbing can be rectified with paternal invocations, and an engineer had been arranged to attend our moribund water pump. The device has lain seemingly uselessly beneath our bath since we moved in, and has refused to engush our water pressure beyond the old-fart-with-enlarged-prostate trickle we and our guests have endured. The engineer would, apparently, replace whatever PCBs required replacing, fix whatever valves needed fixing, tut about the cowboys who had previously plumbed in the device, and generally earn his callout fee.

I worked from home to facilitate his arrival, and a genial fellow of middle age appearance and demeanour appeared in the early afternoon. A quick tour of the house’s plumbing, questions about stopcocks, and, yes, genuine tutting about the “cowboys” who had plumbed our pump under the far corner of the bath, making it quite inaccessible without ripping off the tub’s fascia. It looked like a crow bar would have to be readied. Before any wanton destruction, though, the gentleman asked whether I knew of any odd switches, sockets or cables in the bedrooms or landing. He kept asking, and, truth be told, I was becoming annoyed with the repetition:
“No, we don’t. I know our bedrooms well, having sought the various power sockets and so on to plug in computer equipment, clock radios and so on. There’s nothing unaccounted for.”
“Are you sure? Do you mind if I take a look?”
Oh, for goodness sake! Still, humour the simpleton, get this stupid quest over with so he can actually begin working on the bloody broken pump:
“Ok, be my guest. You are wasting your time, though, I promise you”.
He immediately found a cable that emerged from the floor of the 2nd bedroom. A cable with a plug at its end. A cable I suddenly remembered discounting some months ago, its having no causal or effective interest to me. I think I have the memory of unplugging it soon after arriving in the house.
He plugged it back in. He turned on the tap. Niagra Falls. He was sheepish, but soon overcame this with the brandishing of the invoice:
“To be honest, I prefer it when there’s a fault, so I can earn my callout fee”.
“Credit card ok?”
“Yes – that’ll be 75 quid, thanks”.
It annoyed me to pay it, of course, but it felt right that my confounded arrogance was suitably fined.

So, working radiator, a nice new telly, and restored water pressure. Bliss. As consummate a way to end a domestically productive day as any. Time to enjoy the new telly. What a pity that the final ever episode of Carnivale sputtered out with so many loose ends. Still, that’s what happens when you get your series cancelled with 6 more seasons of plot left. The final episode, set in the 30s dust-bowl as ever, made me feel encrusted with grime. Agreeable, then, that my bath took just two minutes to fill rather than the heretofore customary 20.