Archive for December, 2005

I do not KEA

Tuesday, December 13th, 2005

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?

Friday, December 9th, 2005

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

Thursday, December 8th, 2005

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

Tuesday, December 6th, 2005

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

Tuesday, December 6th, 2005

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

Sunday, December 4th, 2005

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

Sunday, December 4th, 2005

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!

Saturday, December 3rd, 2005

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

Friday, December 2nd, 2005

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

Thursday, December 1st, 2005

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?