Wednesday, February 27, 2008

[some smart-arsed blogging title like "Maxed Out" or something...]

You remember that Max Gogarty thing a few weeks ago?

To summarise: some 19-year-old guy was planning on blogging his gap year experiences (P.S. I'm kind of technically on a gap year and I'm also 19 years old) through The Guardian.

Guardian Unlimited and CiF being what they are his first post (which was to a reasonable standard, certainly better than my own scrawlings) was soon inundated by sneering comments.

The usual hazing then turned into a flaming of thermonuclear proportions as it emerged that Max Gogarty was the son of The Guardian's travel writer Paul Gogarty.

I read Max's blog post after reading Andy Pietrasik's response at the time and my immediate response was anger directed not at Max himself, but rather at the troops of anonymous drones who spent their day writing venomous comments about the Gogartys, The Guardian, and how this was as foul a piece of nepotism as the world has seen since James Murdoch was appointed CEO of BSkyB (and I'm not just saying that 'cos I didn't get the job).

I even wrote a blog post about how annoying I find the majority of the commenters on CiF (which I didn't publish because I felt it lacked panache).

But now I've changed my mind. I've decided I find the majority of commentators in The Guardian more annoying than the idiots who comment on CiF.

There's something about the London-centric, hand-wringing, do-gooder, middle-class, Radio 4-listening-to, we-should-be-in-charge, Save the Polar Bears, Gordon's All Right Really, pompous, Oxbridge, media intelligencia that really sets my teeth on edge.

But what exactly is it that I find so irritating? I listen to Radio 4 and I like London and I think Gordon's all right really. So why do I find Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot and David Aaaaronovitch (or however many as he has in his damn name) so irritating?

Maybe my irritation stems from the fact that I feel I ought to be tribally loyal to these loudmouths in the face of the Richard Littlejohns and Melanie Phillipses of this world and my rejection of their values constitutes a heretical offense.

Maybe it's because, like all bloggers, deep-down I secretly long to be a London-based urbanite intellectual?

Or maybe it's because intelligent bloggers like Chris Applegate at qgwhlm whose views I respect and agree with also think this is damn nepotism and so do random but pretty good blogs that Applegate points to here like The Last Bus Home.

Although I broadly agree with Rafael Behr that this constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment targeting an innocent I also agree with CiF commenter oniongravy here. This storm in a nanocup does demonstrate one of the little faultlines in the UK today - that between those who live in London and write articles for quality newspapers (and most of the crap newspapers as well) and everyone else.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Like most young people I'm used to being told that "things aren't as good as they used to be" or that the world's been going to Hell in a hajib since 1968.

Usually I dismiss this as fairly run-of-the-mill middle-aged-ness but occasionally I come across a genuinely thoughtful observation of how Britain has changed. This article at The Times by Minette Marrin doesn't actually contain any but it does discuss the effect of the belief that things ain't what they used to be has on people, specifically middle class (ugh) people.

I seem to have lost my thread....

OK: here it is again.


The state or the government, civil service, and public bodies in general are there to do their damn job and provide services effectively using tax appropriated from workers, companies, and tariffs.

The state is certainly not there to define moral values. The legislature obviously has to bear in mind commonly held moral beliefs and ethics but it has no place in defining them.

Judicial bodies have some say in the nature of morality and what constitutes legal behaviour but judges again have to bow to commonly held beliefs about what is right and wrong when they make their decisions.

The people who define what is right and wrong are the people. Individuals have to make choices in how they behave, and as it doesn't make any sense to discuss individuals without discussing society (the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was quoted out of context on that one) then larger groups, tribes, and communities have to be brought in to chew the fat and make relative judgments on morality.

The state, in the form of the executive government, bureaucracy, legislature and judiciary have a small role to play in this process but in a democratic state should bow to the will of the majority.

So any discussion of "Britishness" is useless (i.e. this blog is useless, but I mean any serious discussion of Britishness --- actually now I come to think of it taking the piss out of the debate is probably the only thing everyone has in common when it comes to discussing Britishness, so in a way I suppose taking the piss is British...).

Forcing an ethical structure on groups of people from outside or from the higher power of the state or church is counterproductive and generates resentment and conflict.

"Shared values" are exactly that. If everyone in Britain suddenly took a liking for wanking-cherub-style water-features then we would say that Britishness was about liking wanking-cherub-style water-features.

In other words, "Britishness" and the "shared values" of the British people are defined by the British people as they are now, not by Gordon Brown or Minette Marrin or Paul Dacre or any other politician or commentator.

Of course these people are fully entitled to express their opinion as to what Britishness ought to be, and I'm fully entitled to complain about their pomposity and presumption.

'Cos it's freedom of speech, innit?

Call Centre

I recently got a job at a call centre. Working there is not quite the drone-like existence portrayed by the minions in Terry Gilliam's brilliant movie Brazil (I know it's a different context/background/type of drone-ishness but I wanted to use this clip):

Also I won't get the opportunity to practice my Eric Cartman-esque sales technique (we're not allowed to swear at customers):

[Damn Viacom took down the video!]

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Watching Felix Dennis

It seems that Dennis Publishing is setting up a new venture: Bash the Boss.

Currently I'm thinking in terms of a website that reviews companies by virtue of how good they are to work for.

Or it could be a little game where you score points for punching your boss in the face.

Whatever, I wish the good people at Dennis Publishing every success.

Friday, February 15, 2008


Who you are affects what you see as important and what opinions you have.

Recently there has been a debate on the comments pages of the main newspapers concerning Gordon Brown's obsession with "Britishness" and our "shared values."

It occurs to me that for the men and women of letters who, unsurprisingly, occupy the op-eds, editorials, and comment pieces in the mainstream media what matters are words, descriptions, names, titles, laws, treaties, phrases, syntax, semantics, symbolism, narratives, stories, and speeches.

If electrical engineers had such a powerful channel of communication then they would undoubtedly place more importance on practicalities such as how the national grid is set up, electrical component efficiency, and all manner of other eeng topics.

That is not to say that they would only talk about these topics, just as some commentators (most notably the excellent Johann Hari) occasionally deign to discuss practical topics.

Businessmen will opine on business matters, scientists will opine on scientific matters, and bloggers will rant about anything that takes their fancy (and perhaps occasionally stumble across something worthwhile in a million-monkeys-on-a-million-typewriters sort of way).

My point is that different people will always have different perspectives, as well as different ulterior motives.

Britishness is not something I personally give a damn about. I appreciate the arguments as to why Britishness is considered important but I still feel that it is being seized on as important not because it actually is but rather because it lies within the intellectual comfort-zone of the sort of people who write in newspaper editorials.

[Meta-commentary: damn, this came out all wrong. I'm pretty exhausted on account of having just come back from a week-long training junket, more on that and my new job later... Also I'll discuss Ubuntu later as well...]

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Ubuntu Linux

As of today I am officially an Ubuntu Linux user. So far everything works very well.


Your move, Mr Doctorow...

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Review: The Meaning of the 21st Century by James Martin

The basic thesis of this excellent book is that the 21st century will be a transformative era in human history, the book is partly in response to Lord Martin Rees' Our Final Century.

Unlike Rees, Martin is optimistic about human-beings surviving the 21st century. Martin feels that although the challenges are huge and there will be the potential for catastrophic failure (in the form of the human race ceasing to exist or civilization simply collapsing) we will still be able to tread a path to a better world.

James Martin believes that the trends in economic, demographic, technological, and social change will lead humanity into a period of history that will seem like white-water rafting after centuries of relatively smooth sailing.

Advances in areas like computing, nanotechnology, high-bandwidth communications, low-CO2 emitting power generation, genetic engineering of foodstocks and human beings, transhumanism, biotechnology, direct brain-computer links, and human augmentation will cause tremendous change and offer great promise.

But while this is happening there are also huge problems to be dealt with in the form of environmental degradation, climate change, collapsing of world fish stocks, overpopulation, nuclear war, bio-war, terrorism, failed states and poverty stricken "fourth world" countries.

After this transitional period we can build an ever more wonderful and exciting civilization.

Martin has faith in the idea of technological ingenuity and entrepreneurism solving many of the problems we are faced with.

The book reads rather like a series of slide presentations cobbled together. It's enjoyable to read and doesn't tax the mind with high-falutin' concepts (the book is apparently based on a TV series).

But I feel in his haste to make everything explicable and easy to understand Martin has left out some of the innate complexity in what he suggests.

For example his suggestions as to how to solve the problem of the development of dangerous technologies (genetically engineering viruses; cheap, portable nuclear bombs) are based around the precautionary principle, an idea I'm not entirely comfortable with.

The precautionary principle is applied when scientists are concerned that a particular line of research will lead to the creation of an immensely dangerous weapon. They will make a decision to stop pursuing that line of research.

The most obvious example is a smallpox virus, modified so as to be resistant to any vaccines that exist

The problem is that science thrives when there is a back-and-forth of knowledge and information. The precautionary principle would threaten that. If scientists decide to "hold back" in acquiring and disseminating knowledge and discoveries then the scientific community could become balkanised and fractured.

More seriously, just because one group of researchers (or their financial backers) decide to obey the precautionary principle doesn't mean there will be others who would seek their own advantage in the inaction and withdrawal of their competitors.

It is also likely that such a group will carry out their research in secret, without the overview and transparency required when dealing with potentially dangerous areas of research.

Any weapons or dangers that do emerge would then be completely hidden from everyone else, making the developments even more threatening and dangerous.

And if these weapons were used then none of the reputable and precautionary-principle obeying researchers would have the knowledge required to counteract the problem.

Although I believe advancing technology will render our current concepts of privacy irrelevant Martin is too keen to advocate extending state-control in the pursuit of terrorists.

However the vast majority of what he says makes sense. He is in favour of pebble-bed nuclear reactors, he is in favour of reducing population by educating and liberating women. He wants to extend to poor countries all the benefits and advantages of prosperous liberal democracies.

The book positively vibrates with buzz-words. One of the better ones is "eco-affluence". This is the idea that we can live happy and prosperous and enriching lives without destroying the environment. "Eco-affluence" will soon be picked up by politicians and used to describe an ideal situation for humanity.

He also discusses the idea of the singularity and non-human-like intelligence. NHL intelligence is distinct from "traditional" conceptions of AI because it concerns evolutionary programs, programs that try vast numbers of possible solutions to problems and select from those that work, learning techniques, pattern recognition and data mining.

In fact it concentrates on what computers have potential for and leaves human minds to do the stuff we have potential for, in conjunction with our computer helpers.

In conclusion, this is a must-read for everyone, particularly if you need a basic primer on where we're going as a species, the challenges we are faced with, what the opportunities are, and what human civilization will look like 92 years from now.

Monday, February 04, 2008


News that a new exam - the "pre-U" will be introduced in 2010 has me wondering what has to be done about education.

Education is an area where the genetic, biological, or innate predispositions of individuals come into conflict with the liberal desire for equality.

I have difficulty with the idea of intelligence, but I understand that "IQ" does correlate with financial success and other measures of success to a certain degree.

The difficulty is that it is arguably in the benefit of the "collective", or of society, to reserve the best education for those that will benefit most from it.

On the other hand you have the ideal of "comprehensive" education. It is often argued in support of comprehensives that they allow for everyone to access high standards of education (ideally) and therefore everyone achieves highly, not just those at the top of IQ/innate ability tables.

Someone who favours the "bipartite" system of elite grammar schools and comprehensive schools existing side by side would point out that many comprehensives (mostly, I understand, in inner-city areas) do not have particularly high standards of education.

A proponent of comprehensive schools would point out that comprehensive schools cannot be truly comprehensive if there is an elite alternative in the form of grammar schools or private schools.

In addition there are many comprehensive schools that are surrounded by middle-class families with "sharp elbows" that have bought homes with the strategic purpose of getting their kids into a "good school." These are hardly comprehensive, as poorer families are excluded because they can't afford the houses in an area with good schools.

This issue is also mixed up with ideas of class that are too prevalent in the UK. In somewhere like Germany or Sweden a plumber can look a physician in the eye without all the terrible overtones of class and status that plague us here in the UK.

To get back to the issue of pre-university examinations. I don't know if they are a good idea or not.

That's it.

What - you wanted me to construct some elaborate for/against argument and then plumb down on one side or the other?

I don't know the answer.

Why is it so difficult for journalists, commentators and politicians to admit, just for once, that they don't know?

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Systems of Thought

The way I tend to view the world is in the form of a hierarchy of systems.

  • At the most basic level everything is composed of waves, particles, and the forces that cause them to interact. It is at this level that the much-vaunted “theory of everything” will work. Other rules that work on this level are quantum physics and thermodynamics. This level is often referred to as “physics.”
  • At the next layer of complexity everything is composed of molecules that interact in various ways. This level is often referred to as “chemistry.”
  • Above we find the interactions of discrete cells in biological systems to create everything from neurons to connective tissue; from ivory to limestone.
  • The next level consists of the creations of the human mind. This is everything that exists by virtue of human beings manipulating the layers below. Tools, engineering, electrical devices and artificial artefacts all fall into this category. However not all of the things at this level are material: some are expressed as patterns of information in material. Things like language (both human and computer), philosophical concepts like truth, beauty, morality and law, systems of rules and interactions.
  • Above this comes the interactions between minds and the creations of the human mind. Politics and economics come into play at this level. So does literature. The difference between this level and the previous level is vague. Should “law” be considered something we hold within our minds or is it something we have “created” and that is held externally?
  • Above this level is the sum of human endeavour. This could be described as “culture.” It is what Kevin Kelly might term “the Technium.” It is our civilization. It is where the Singularity will happen.

Friday, February 01, 2008


This is brilliant.

From the BBC website:

"A man has started a two-and-a-half year walk from Bristol to India without any money - to show his faith in humanity.

Equipped with only a few T-shirts, a bandage and spare sandals, former dotcom businessman Mark Boyle is set to cross Europe and the Middle East."

The ideas of the "freeconomy" sounds a lot like anarcho-socialism promulgated in Ken MacLeod's The Cassini Division and Charles Stross' Accelerando (also available as a download here).

These are brilliant books, but the fact that someone is willing to experiment with a real Manfred Macx lifestyle is excellent.


After having thought about this for a while I realise why I am a filthy capitalist and why what Mark Boyle is doing is admirable but ultimately less-than-optimal.

Human beings will always trade and exchange goods and services. All money does is create a communal illusion of the value of a piece of paper or plastic that allows transfer of goods and services to be more efficient.

As a reformed Catholic I am also tempted to point out that freeconomy falls foul of the general question: "what if everyone behaved like this?"

In other words, if everyone decided to up sticks and travel across Eurasia with nothing but a pair of sandals and a can full of B.O. then pretty soon civilization would collapse and millions would starve as a result.

This is why anarcho-communism/syndicalism/socialism doesn't stand a chance. As a very general rule co-operation tends to be of a self-interested nature.

The ethic of reciprocity works. There may be an evolutionary basis for morality. This is heavy stuff.

Anyway good luck to Mr Boyle. I imagine he will be treated as a sort of mendicant monk.

Theatrical Stuff this Week

On Monday and Tuesday this week I saw Shakespeare's Henry IV part 1 and part 2 at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

I strongly advise everyone to see these excellent plays. I admit that when it comes to Shakespeare I find the language a little difficult, but when the acting is of such high quality understanding roughly what's going on is fairly easy.

Falstaff, played by the wonderful David Warner, was particularly entertaining.

I also suggest any readers who do visit Stratford patronise the Chaucer Head Bookshop, now the only independent second hand bookshop in Stratford.

On Friday I went to the Impro at Playbox theatre company, which was absolutely splendid.