All posts by NickM

About NickM

I type words into a diary. I also live on a planet in this universe.

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.

Broken Quotient

A day in which karma enjoyed a merry repast. I awoke in relatively good spirits, which is somewhat surprising: I had engaged in a dishonourable skirmish last night with my pillow. It was one of the continuing internecine battles in the war betwixt my head and the wretched pillow’s treacherous lack of comfortable support. It mocks me, this foam buttress. It taunts me, reminding me that my attempts at defection to one of its fellows always ends in a sullen return to the default, but still inadequate, downy disappointment. It seems that I cannot find a pillow which does not soon induce bellicose punchings, rotations and eventual ejections these days. Perhaps it’s a part of ageing. Maybe grey ear-hair will emerge next, and a predilection for butterscotch. Perhaps I should try one of those Nasa-spaceage-memory-pillows-for-the-year-2000.

Even so, a productive day, including throwing half a room into the council tip, and attending the Finchley Lido’s gym, whose chlorine fumes make exercising there tantamount to enduring a mustard-gas attack. So, homeward, a bit of telly slumping was called for. I mean, what with the manual labour and the gym, it was warranted. Sunday afternoon. Egg. Toast. Tea. Recorded plebtickler. Prostate-cancer-threat-reducing pomegranate. Nowt better. So I turned on the telly. And the sound seemed a bit muffled. Never mind. I turned it off and back on again. Upon hissing back to life, it revealed a stroboscopic image, scrolling, distorting, twisting and generally refusing to depict the stable figurative reality so desirous of one’s average screenful. Fiddling with cables helped not. Neither did kicking the thing. Or punching it. The cat tried to bat the coruscating image, but to no avail. The set is officially broken. This annoys me, as I was just congratulating myself the other day that my telly was better than Neil Levine’s, whose set is a flickering disgrace, its 60hz of epilepsy-inducing shame at odds with any vestige of geekhood the man professes. Only parents and district nurses would put up with a small 60hz set, surely? Ah well, evidently, some deity in charge of internal competitive gadget hubris decided to fiddle with my fate.

Still, with every broken telly, there beats in the heart of any true geek the happy realisation that repair is, thankfully, too costly to consider. Three cheers for the throwaway society, in which that hit of the purest crack Neophylia is never more than one blown capacitor away. As far as I can tell, I should get an LCD HDTV-ready set. Should last a year or two before it breaks in some gratifyingly necessary way, so I might then purchase the next one which, by then, will have lasers and talk like Kitt the Car.

With today’s bit of household entropy, then, the forces of order in the Manichaean duality ensconcing any Burnt Oak terrace required some balancing. And, lo, it was so. With loudspeakered instructions from Victoria’s dad in Leeds, spanners and an unhelpful feline, we were able to repair a leaking and cold radiator in our bedroom whose repair otherwise would have necessitated a plumber with his concomitant callout fee. So, one bit of household technology broken, another unexpectedly repaired. And the plumbing money saved might just help me to stretch to one of those new Sony tellies advertised with the coloured bouncing balls. The advert, apparently, was created with real rubber, and not CGI thereof. They really did release a dump-truck full of bouncy balls atop a San Francisco hill and filmed the ensuing Brownian-like cascade. Hooray.

Rubbish people

What with the relative preponderance of Rubbish People anon, it is of little surprise that I encounter them with intolerable frequency as, I’m sure, do you. My most recent experience with the crud at the bottom of the dredgepit was on a Thameslink train home last night. A plump young woman with scraped-back hair and piss-yellow plastic earrings was gabbling voluminously with her equally sans-elegance friend. Accompanying them was the former’s scrapenhaired and bepainted daughter, of about eight years.

Because they were Rubbish People, of course, their conversation was broadcast to all and sundry. I am well aware that when arguing with, say, a Coxall, my train-party can be a vocal lot too. Even so, for every tut of a Daily Mail reader, we’ve also received interested comments or amused raised-eyebrows from our involuntary court. And when one is with Coxall, make no mistake, one is holding court, be the venue a Eurostar First Class Carriage or the Brixton KFC (wherein he loudly, and without due consciousness, recounted the original name of the swarthy dog in Dambusters. A terrifying moment, as you might imagine).

But this Thameslink group was no court. They were not discussing old films, the finer points of predicate logic, nor the failure of Third Person Shoot-em-ups. Instead, the horrible estuary that sloshed into our unwilling ears contained an unedifying semantic sludge which testified to no less than the mother’s approval of and connivance with a schoolyard bullying in which her daughter was the primary effector:
“You were righ’ to kick that stupi’ li’lle cah! She was askin’ for it! I don’t care if ‘er dad died – she shouldav ‘ellped ya wif your ‘omework when you asked, snotty bitch!”
“Yeah, she was so fat and I kicked her in the stomach an’ nobody likes ‘er stupid fuckin’ slut!”
“Too righ’! Tell your teachuh’ that if she ‘as a problem wif’at, I’ll kick your fuckin’ teachuh’ in the gob an all!”

The mother, of course, then lit up in the non-smoking carriage. No, she didn’t self-combust, sadly, nor become illuminated with a sudden-found divinity, but lit up a particularly nasty filterless cigarette, and with her exhaust jet, took particular care to ensure her child had the best chance at lung cancer a mother can give without shoving asbestos down their darling’s throat. Everyone else on the train pretended to be in a parallel universe of stasis, except for another Rubbisher, an Adidas tracksuited fool who was yabbering on his mobile phone about just how very drunk he had been recently; clearly he had the deep need to communicate how inherently entertaining the mere acknowledgement of same must be. Ooh. Alcohol. I think he mentioned that he’d been sick on a doorstep. Classy! A real man, to be sure, whose very sinews are masculated by ethanol.

At moments like these, I have to admit to a certain eugenic tendency; but nothing nasty and Nazi – all I ask is a plusperfect-ontology machine, so that I can flick a switch, and such people would never have had come into existence in the first place. It could be dangerous, though – my itchy finger would be flicking the switch at every annoying sneeze and unconvincing drawl, possibly disrupting delicate social ecosystems in ways I can’t imagine. After all, the abolition of wasps would probably similarly cause all sorts of calamities in the more acceptable links on the Golden Chain of Being. In the world of my switch, the Nice might simply become swathed in Rubbishness; social darwinism, I’m sure, adhering to some equivalent of Le Chatelier’s Principle. Still, one can imagine.

Another switch-worthy occasion happened on another recent train-journey, this time to Hastings to watch some incendiaries. At one of the London stops, a group of physically and mentally disabled people (spazzes and mongs in old parlance) were wheeled onto the train by their minders. They sat near us. One could feel the tense bristling of every member of the carriage on their entry. The care-ed had clearly been out for an exciting day in London, and were still keyed up. One of their number could only express his excitement by the frequent exclamations, at the top of his voice, of “gayyyy!”, intermingled with “harrry??!!” (possibly reflecting the name, if not the proclivity, of one of his minders). The timbre was that so fluidly mocked by any school-child and, I have to admit, I began to find it funny. I’m sorry, but I did. I enjoyed each outburst for the fact that it was clearly an expression of some sort of exuberant pleasure, and that it was so deliciously disrupting the social norms of the train carriage, but in a refreshingly harmless way that a bunch of, say, boozy football fans isn’t. The increasing frequency of the outbursts was proportional to the number of displacement activities performed by the other members of the carriage: conspicuous newspaper ruffling, loud snack engorgement and, my particular favourite, an increasingly urgent discussion between two elderly passengers about rose-cuttings, supinely “unaware” of the hail of “harrryyy!” and “gayyyyyy!”s that fell through their horticultural safety net.

The disabled entourage eventually alighted at Tonbridge (poor them), and I was mildly disappointed to see them go. I certainly would not have flipped my ontology switch on any of them, who seemed to be enjoying life despite their hindrances, and committed none of the wilful Wrongness so abundant in the truly Rubbish. A stop later did, however, reveal candidates prone for a finger-flipping nothingness. A group of scratter-teens slunk on to the train, stinking of cheap fags and cheaper meths. More than one of them had about them that bad-skinned, peculiarly eyelidded, protruding-front-tooth gawpy idiocy that gives visible testimony to the last time his family’s DNA had adequately been refreshed – probably during the Norman invasion. They had about them not just the normal teen abundance of listlessness, but some deeper existential mire, as if each one of them had constantly to contend with the fullsome disappointment that shall be their summation unto death. Poor souls. My switch would be a mercy.

The practicality of an ontological button, sadly, is forked by the two prongs of immoderacy and impossibility. Something marginally more attainable has been suggested by my friend Verdurin. In his Grand Plan, the scratterish and unentertaining, the dully bovine and the fecklessly nasty proleish shall be deported. Here’s the genius: rather than banish them to some barren island on which they have no desire to live, let their exile be on a barren island which they’ll enjoy – Tennerife. True, there’ll be some negotiation necessary with Spain. Perhaps we could swap for the silly rock about which they’re so obsessed. Once ensconced by their Canary Paradise, each Rubbisher could enjoy a charmed life, even subsidised by the non-Rubbish People. They could live lives of simple Shaz and unencumbered Trev. Utilitarianism never tasted so sweet. But what to do with all the Rubbish people who don’t happen to people the Underclass? Mustique, perhaps?

Radio Four: I’m A Lady!

The sighing puffy newsweasel Michael Buerk has whinged that there are too many ladies in his media life. He’d like them to go away. He claims that the BBC is infested with ladylike effetery, powdered lavender in the newsroom and St Ives Apricot Scrub in the editing suites. Perhaps he’s the victim of reactionary osmosis from his Moral Maze coterie. One might nevertheless accept that an over-abundance of one gender-role within a radio station’s output, say, will become cloying. I’m talking about gender roles here, mind you, not any specific fleshy entity who may or may not play out those roles. It’s the ideology about which one is concerned, and not whether the idiot who brandishes it happens to have convex or concave genitalia.

My University tutor, Professor Vivien Jones, whipped it into us that in her seminar room at least, she would countenance no “essentialist” differences between the sexes. Genders (or “genders”, as she termed them, even when speaking) were merely societal roles, as arbitrary as a preference for cheese-and-onion over salt-and-vinegar. Anyone who claimed anything different, and Prof Jones “problematised” their arse all the way to Otley. Now, of course, the woman was a daft old bat (probably the hormones), imbued in wishy-washy Post Modern nonsense, but she did have a point, albeit more obvious and dull than her high-falutin’ lit-crit jargon would have led one to believe. I wouldn’t go as far as her in brushing la difference completely under the nurture carpet. I would argue that there are clear biological evolutionary vortices (weaker bodies, the burden of the children and the like), which make women, in general, more put-upon than putting. Nevertheless, the full variety of Women’s cultural manifestation in ancient societies makes it clear that we have the merest snippet of a very contingent doily in our conception of what it is that makes a “lady”. However flimsy and tattered it is in the emancipated West, we do still have that doily. Many modern women reject the more pernicious idiocies entangled in its frills, but snip at the curlicues that suit them when cynically useful: the victimhood, the hopeless dizzyness, the faux-naive attempts for conciliation, the stab-in-the-back sisterhood, the pretence at technological helplessness and so on. So, whilst one should never assume a woman has anything of the doily about her, the doily remains a handy accessory for any woman – or, indeed, man – to flap about their person at will.

Now, if the societal roleplay of ladyhood is to be deplored in its excesses, this is not to say that “masculinity” is any more essential or necessarily admirable. The beer-mat of contigent masculinity is, if anything, pressed out of even more a-posteriori material than the doily. Try calling Taliban men, who are wont to wear eyeliner, sissies, and see where it gets you. Maybe they didn’t want women to wear cosmetics in Afghanistan because they wanted to keep all the Revlon for themselves. Our notions of masculinity are utterly confused. There is as much that is hideous and arbitrary in our British beermat of masculinity as there is in the doily of ladyhood. Anyone who disagrees needs only take a sordid peep at the “lads’ mags”, those blockheadedly titled journals of deep tits and shallow desperation.

So, we can accept that having too many ladylike ladies about the place would be as tiresome as having too many laddish men, not to mention laddish ladies and ladylike lads. Where, specifically, might we grant Buerk a limited point? At the moment, it seems that Radio Four has one gaping fixture which has been papered over for so long with a crusty old doily that nobody dare mention the obvious: that its time, surely, has come and gone. Yellowing and peeling, it flaps its way through every weekday, and spins around in tedious circles on Saturdays for bad measure. Women’s Hour has always been a hateful and dull programme. I pity anyone who has the turgid gumption to manufacture a good word in its defence. Wrapping presents to raping peasants, all womanhood is here, the wretched programme seems to boast, its spiteful ghetto inhabited by only the most despicable cretino-leftist Highgate dangly-earingers. The smug, upper-middle class media world that the programme inhabits, with its two presenter hags, reveals the dingy old doily in all its infamy, but perhaps woven from Guatemalan hemp-rope. Don’t be mistaken into thinking it any less a doily: the programme wants to eat its cake (literally, in the case of its hefty main presenter, the USS Jenni Murray) and have it: the veneer of a modern, emancipated woman is pasted onto the parody of Victorian victimhood: Murray signals that a sob-story of such victimhood is on the way when she starts purring in what she imagines is a sympathetic burr, but actually sounds like lashings of fat emphysema on toast. And the “serials”? As worthy as lentils and twice as dull, usually about some drab 18th century consumptive prigette, or some colourfully ethnic woman there to confuse us with a contradictory demonstrations of the wonder of her culture, to whose ancient “could-teach-us-a-thing-or-two” wisdom we must genuflect, whilst despairing its repression of her. Away with it and its pernicious reactionary tinge. Women’s Hour must go. No self-respecting woman would enjoy listening to that jumbled washing-up of a programme, because its confused and narrowly-proscribed conception of a woman shows no deep respect for the diversity of female experience, let alone human. The removal of this dull fixture from the schedules will be a start at reclaiming Radio Four from its own backside. Only a start, mind: don’t get me going on Hudson and Pepperdine.

All is Superstition

We like to think that science has provided us with descriptive and predictive tools. The world acts in specific, predictable ways. The more we discover the pattern of this predictable uniformity, the more “science” we have. Certainly, we can’t accurately determine the weather at next weekend’s picnic, but we can determine the time of sunrise tomorrow morning, that a particular pool of water will freeze at zero degrees Celsius, that the electron has a charge of minus one, and that every individual shall die.

From where do we derive these “certainties”? They are a product of Inductive Reasoning: we take a specific example, and use our knowledge of the way systems operate to place its behaviour in a more general context. We rely on Inductive Reasoning for every scientific advance and for every meaningful observation of the Universe. Is it, however, any more than a combination of memory and faith: memory of certain patterns in the past, and faith that these patterns will enact themselves again? Certainly, even a shallow thinker can demolish claims that the sun certainly will rise tomorrow: what if a comet smashes into the planet? No planet: no sunrise. What if some freak event in the sun’s core leads to its astonishing extinction? No sun: no sunrise. This is, indeed though, a shallow criticism of Inductive thought, as all it does is to find possible but improbable reasons why a prediction might not be fulfilled. The Inductive Reasoner will then object in turn, claiming that Induction only ever promises probabilistic results. It makes no absolute claims, but can talk about being “reasonably sure” about certain postulations, and even then, only with provisos. Such a proviso might include stating that comments about the certainty of the sun’s rising are to be predicated on there not being undetected comets or undiscovered instabilities in the sun’s core. We can’t find the truth, in other words, but we can make a damn good estimation of it.

For a deeper criticism of Induction, we need to determine the implications of any claim that it operates within a system of probability. Here, we get caught in a circular argument. If something is judged probabilistically, we determine whether it shall recur by fitting its machinations into our current understanding about the uniformity of the universe, and in our belief that certain events will only happen with certain regularity therein. Furthermore, we tacitly accept that nothing fundamental has changed in the Universe to invalidate any further predictions. We’re saying, therefore, that something has a certain probability because, firstly, we have evidence that it has been such in the past and, secondly, we have faith that it shall be such in the future. So, if we say that Induction allows us to find the truth to a certain degree of probability, we’re spinning in a loop – Inductive Reasoning works because.. we have faith in the Inductive Concept of probability which.. requires induction as a “proof”!

Your immediate reaction might be to jump to the Theory of Probability’s defence: in a closed set – for example, with the toss of a coin – surely it is senseless to doubt that getting “heads” in the fair flip of a properly balanced coin shall always be 0.5. Certainly, there’ll be localised pools of improbability (a run of heads or a run of tails) but, averaged out, the universe plays fair, and one should receive heads with a probability of 0.5.

But, again, what is the basis of this Probabilistic certainty? That a balanced small metal disc reacts in a certain way under a predictable gravity field. One knows the way gravity works. One knows the way coins react to being thrown. One can test this empirically, or simulate it. The long-run results are always the same. What room is there for doubt? The answer is: you are basing upon absolutely nothing other than faith your assumption that the universe shall retain its uniformity. Your brain is wired up to find patterns and to guard them jealously. But try to find a reasoned argument why gravity should continue acting the way it has thusfar. Why should the electron retain its charge of minus one? Who gave you that cast-iron guarantee? “Oh, but it has been for billions of years, it’s not going to change now!”. Really? Whence the confidence? One day, I’ll remind you, a Universe suddenly just popped into existence for no particularly discernible reason. At its birth, the rules we take for granted today were nowhere to be found. We might feel in our gut that the Universe is unlikely to change capriciously, but this is nothing more than faith-based hopefulness. We have no rational evidence for this belief. We can count on billions of observations, and millions of predictions, and the models we derive therefrom, but we can never know what tomorrow brings. Maybe gravity has a universal halflife, and is about to turn off. Who knows? Not you. Not anyone. Is it unlikely? You cannot meaningfully say one way or the other. Not until it has happened.

Despite that your mind and gut might suggest otherwise, the universe hasn’t made a pact or bargain with you. Anything can change, just like that, and no prediction is anything more than a hopeful psychological blanket. At the end of the tale of Noah, God promises in His display of the rainbow that He shall never again act in such a randomly destructive manner. The story’s yearning for some Absolute basis upon which to build future civilisations and the discoveries upon which they depend is palpable. “O, Universe”, it seems to cry, “you’ve had your fun – now stop flapping about and guarantee us a bit of stability”. Now, the scientific method and Induction act as our rainbow. But no God is going to make us any promises. We’re just a bunch of superstitious apes mistakenly assuming our little games of spot-the-pattern can give us a God’s eye view of totality. Chicken Little was right: the sky might, indeed, fall down, and nobody can meaningfully suggest otherwise. So, what is a rational soul to do? Seize the day, I suppose, and just enjoy the ride, as trite as it might seem.

The Joy of Palette

One reason to remain alive is to appreciate flavours; more significantly, to appreciate one’s ability to learn the point of new flavours. I’m sure you’ve had that experience of suddenly realising that a food you hated when a child suddenly becomes palatable. Food that once represented a veritable Myra Hindley to your juvenile tastebuds just decides one day to reveal itself as nothing more than a misunderstood aunt after all. Olives, blue cheeses and wine all represent such revelations in my case.

Olives came first. I remember being hungry one day, and finding little more than a bottle of the said salty fruits in the parental fridge. Rather than reject them, as I would have done previously with barely a conscious thought, some new maturity this time led me to take their insolent, beady glistening as a challenge. I don’t think I necessarily actively “liked” the first one; but I could no longer call it an enemy to my sensibilities. It was playing with me, teasing me with its odd, savoury, uncompromising adulty weirdness. My tongue wasn’t merely a submissive gimp in this little bit of role play – no, it took on the olive for all it was worth, decoding for the first time the aesthetic “meaning” behind the flavour. What once was little more than harsh white taste-noise suddenly revealed its grand purpose. For want of a better phrase – a far, far better phrase – the olive’s “flavour narrative” unfurled itself. “Ah! Gotcha!” And from that moment on, olives were understood, no longer “other”. My mouth, tongue, brain and stomach knew what to do with them, and I finished the whole bottle. I got their number.

A similar thing happened to a work colleague, Paul Smeddle. A group of we techies went to dinner after some server prodding. We happened to be in Nandos, the Portuguese/South African peri-peri chicken joint. I must demand that you buy a dish of olives, if you ever happen to pass. They are plump and pickled with pimento and garlic, and are amidst the least disappointing little dishes you’re likely to encounter. Paul’s palette was still, I’m afraid, Saul. It hadn’t travelled on its road to Damascus (a prominent olive producer, don’t you know), and so retained the common distrust of the fruits, coming out with the usual violent rejections thereof. Of course, we enlightened souls could not bear to be in the presence of one yet so unwise in the ways of the Savoury, and decided to lead him down a forceful epiphany. So, after the usual group-of-males cajoling, he tried one. He professed not to be impressed. No more was said on the matter. We had tried, and that’s what’s important, after all.

Some months later, I saw Paul take out his lunch in the office. This included a punnet of bright green olives. He gobbled them down, voraciously, with the rigour of the convert. “Yes, I have to admit”, he confessed, “that my taste at Nandos planted the seed of doubt, which bloomed into a full-grown reversal and eventual craving. I’m now addicted”. I hope you’ll agree that helping someone to appreciate something in the same aesthetic terms with which you had learned to appreciate it yourself represents a most joyous pinnacle of human empathy. You might forgive me, then, for some of my happy smugness in welcoming Paul to the fold.

More significant for me even than olives was my coming-to-terms with, and my eventual complete craving for strongly flavoured blue cheese. My young palette enjoyed the creamy sweetness of a cheese, with at most the tangy civility of a good Cheddar, or the crumbly tartness of a worthy Cheshire. But striate my curds with salty blue fungus and streak my whey with pungent green spores, and you’d have made yourself a nemesis in me. Then, one day, I suddenly liked them. No grand overture, fanfare or final cadenza prefigured this. Just like that, I realised that ‘pongy cheese” was good. Go figure. Smelly, blue, green, ripe or runny, I appreciated the point of what was previously perceived as just another noxious perversion, to be filed under poop and puke in the “avoid” lobe. Yuck became yum in a period of time short enough to alarm me. After all, if my dearly held aesthetic opinions could be thrown asunder in the smack of a lip, with years of passionate and proudly staunch revulsion now chucked aside like an old toy, suddenly devoid of the childhood meaning which gave it worth, what certainties could I rely upon? What else of me would dissolve?

The ancient Philosophers talked of the Ship of Theseus, as a way of discussing what might be meant by “identity”. In the tale, a ship, over time, begins to rot away. One plank replaced. The ship still retains its identity as the Ship of Theseus. Two, three are replaced further, still no problem. What happens when half the ship’s timbers have been replaced? And, finally, when no part of the “original” ship remains, in what way is it still “that” ship? In what sense, if any, is the ship still to be identified as the Ship of Theseus? As I continued to shed aesthetic opinions, God, accents, skin cells and memories, what part of the Ship of Nick (or Nicholas or Nicky as it would have then been, to make the point further) would have remained? Maybe this is why people cling on to their strange little dislikes and petty little habits. They provide some constancy of self, an identity we hope survives, sturdy against the buffeting of time and our mere mortality. But despite this all stolid intransigence, most of us just can’t help getting old enough for olives.