Mar 2006

Oh so civilised

I am annoyed dear reader. Truly irritated. I’ve expressed my annoyance on this subject many times it must be said. But that’s never stopped a blogger before. Besides which, I consider it a collective catharsis. A periodic exercise in group empathy and solidarity… our own little One Minute Hate. Just you and I, dear sympathetic reader. Together we can scream our protest and our refusal. Here on this dusty backroad, miles from any superhighway.

Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.
– George Orwell

Yes. It’s that time again when I rant about marketing. You could set your watch by it. Assuming you’re the sort of person who doesn’t mind not knowing the right time. And just so you know who to blame; tonight my rant is brought to you by the comedian and writer Stephen Fry.

I used to have a lot of time for Stephen Fry. He’s a very witty man… so good at that flattering intellectual humour that rewards you with a warm fuzzy, self-satisfied feeling for being smart enough to get the joke. Funny and sharp and well educated; a winning combination. Something of a modern day Oscar Wilde, as I’m sure has been said a million times.

Tonight, as I sat down to watch the news, my attention was caught by the last few minutes of the previous programme. It was a cookery competition reality thingie. A bunch of wannabe masterchefs prepare meals for a selection of food critics, celebrities and members of the general public. One by one they are eliminated, complete with tense and tearful dismissals until only one remains. And that person wins a billion pounds, or a tropical island, or is made Lifetime Emperor of Angola, or something along those lines.

I had surmised all of that within the first 3 or 4 seconds of switching on the TV. These shows are nothing if not formulaic. Just as I was about to hit ‘mute’ until the news came on, the scene shifted to the celebrity critics. And there sat an insufferably smug and well-fed Stephen Fry lambasting some poor woman for having served him substandard cake. I was instantly reminded of that sickening advert for Nestlé chocolate mints that he did a few years ago. And where once I had felt positively charmed by Stephen Fry’s presence on the screen, now I felt nothing but deep loathing.

What a complete arsehole.

I sought out an image from that advert of his, with which to illustrate this essay, but oddly enough can’t seem to track one down (you’d imagine there’d be a website out there containing stills from every advert ever made… you’d imagine the advertising industry would insist upon it). So for those of you unfamiliar with it, allow me to describe it…

Stephen Fry and Naomi Campbell (the model) host a dinner party. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, their guests are Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Albert Einstein. And together, on behalf of Nestlé, the five of them set about shilling After Eights mints to a public already suffering an obesity epidemic. Absolutely everything about it is deeply wrong. In absolutely every sense. But as those who know me well will guess; it’s Einstein’s appearance that riles me more than anything.

Einstein never allowed his name to be used for commerical advertising, though he received some curious requests […] If he showed enthusiasm for a product, word would get around and he would be approached to endorse and promote it.

Without exception he turned these requests down.

Alice Calaprice (editor and translation supervisor of Princeton University’s “The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein”)

Albert Einstein was not “merely” the zany looking physicist who came up with e=mc^2. He was also a moral philosopher of great worth. He wrote extensively on the subject of global peace, and how it might be achieved. He tackled numerous diverse issues, and always with the characteristic wisdom, balance and insight of a man who simply saw further and deeper than most of us manage. From the Arab-Israeli situation to the best way to educate children and on into metaphysics, epistemology and definitions of the self.

And he also wrote on economics. And on mass media. And nobody capable of spending an hour researching the issue would have any doubts about his attitude to the advertising industry.

Under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

Albert Einstein | Why Socialism?

In that essay – and elsewhere – Einstein calls for the dismantling of capitalism; a system of “economic anarchy” which constitutes “the real source of the evil” in modern society. He denouces “production […] carried on for profit, not for use”. And attacks modern educational methods as merely capitalist propaganda…

This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

Albert Einstein | Why Socialism?

So although Einstein died before television became the cultural force that it is today, it would take a peculiar brand of willful ignorance or denial to imagine that he would have been anything but appalled by the use of his image to sell products (whether chocolates or Apple Fricking Computers). He clearly and repeatedly denounced the use of mass media by private capitalists to “usurp the decision-making processes of individuals” as well as making it “quite impossible” for individuals to “come to objective conclusions” or “make intelligent use of their rights”.

When Stephen Fry decided to take his thirty pieces of silver from Nestlé, I wonder did he have a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”? Or did he know exactly what he was involving himself in? Did he know that Einstein would have been horrified; would have considered it a betrayal of his principles; to have his image used to flog consumer bullshit? Did Stephen Fry know and just not give a damn? Or was he ignorant of Einstein’s views on the matter, and chose to remain so in order to pick up the cheque (because, of course, he needs that money so very much).

To repeat… what a complete arsehole. Though perhaps another line from Einstein might explain it…

With fame I become more and more stupid, which of course is a very common phenomenon.
– Albert Einstein

6 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2006

Down by Law

Yesterday evening I decided to rewatch a movie that I’d seen fairly recently. Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law. I first saw it a couple of years after it came out – back in the late 80s. But I didn’t see it again until a month or so ago when I got hold of it on DVD and was reminded of just how good it is. Despite seeing it only a few weeks ago, it suited my mood perfectly last night, so I thought “What the hell” and dug it out once more.

Down by Law

And it was just as good again. Jarmusch captures perfectly the hazy dreamlike landscape of the American Deep South with some of the richest black and white cinematography ever to grace a screen. And the characters played to perfection by Tom Waits and John Lurie are right out of Tennessee Williams. The lost of Louisiana. And yet, into this dark and brooding world Jarmusch throws Roberto Benigni playing… well, playing “Roberto”.

I’ve been told that Benigni’s humour can be something of an acquired taste, and not necessarily appreciated by all (a fact that amazes me)… but if you like him, as do I, then his scenes in Down By Law are side-splitting. His enunciation of the phrase “not enough room to swing a cat” had tears rolling down my cheeks. And the “I scream. You scream. We all scream. For Ice cream.”-scene is an obvious and gloriously funny nod to the Marx Brothers.

That this effervescent Italian clown should work in a film shot with so much stillness is a tribute both to Jim Jarmusch’s skill as a film-maker and to Roberto Benigni’s genius as a comic. And hearing Tom Waits deliver the weather report as late-night DJ ‘Fat Baby Slims’ is an absolute joy.

I’ve yet to see Broken Flowers, Jim Jarmusch’s most recent film, but I can highly recommend Night on Earth, Ghost Dog and Dead Man. And if you’ve not seen it already, I urge you to check out Down by Law. It’s an exquisite film. Up to and including the fairytale ending.

17 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Mar 2006

Hotel people

I’ve probably spent between 18 months and two years living in hotels. So perhaps it’s no surprise they feature so prominently in my dreams.

It’s interesting how the same dream can go through phases…

… the essence of the dream is always the same though I’m sometimes alone, sometimes with a companion. I’m trying to get somewhere – it’s unclear exactly where – while trying to avoid being seen by certain people. I spot the hotel and decide it would be a good place to lay low for a while… you can loiter in a hotel lobby for a long time without drawing attention (usually in a comfy chair), and hotels have dozens of places to hide. In the dream the hotel isn’t quite a safe place, but it’s safer. It’s a place where I’m at a greater advantage.

I spent several months of my early teens living in the Athens Hilton and then later another spell in the Nile Hilton in Cairo. It always felt like there was intrigue in the air… that a James Bond film was just about to unfold at the top of the stairs next to the hotel casino… or perhaps in the rooftop bar… It was a world full of beautiful, self-confident women and successful, powerful men; a world where the most sumptuous luxuries a palate could desire would be demanded on room service as a snack to eat with a movie; a world of swimming pools and tennis courts and important business breakfasts with Jordanian princes and Kuwaiti sheikhs.

For about a year after returning from Brazil I would dream of grand old colonial hotels crumbling and decaying; overrun with amazonian flora and fauna. It was always night-time in those dreams, and the hotel would be bathed in moonlight, seeping through cracks in the ceilings and walls, splashing off a million shards of shattered chandelier. The air hung heavy with the scent of jasmine.

But recently it’s reverted to a slightly less exotic setting. It’s daylight and I’m making my way through the streets of Chicago. I spot the Hyatt Hotel where I spent four months. Trying not to run, because I know that’ll draw attention, I walk through the revolving doors and into the lobby. The lobby is sparsely populated, and the few people who are there are non-threatening. They’re exactly who you’d expect to find in a hotel lobby. They are hotel people. To my right is the news-stand and beyond that a smaller lobby with comfortable booths and relative privacy… straight ahead is the Atrium Café, currently serving lunch… there’s a hushed stillness to the air and my footsteps make no sound as I begin walking through the lobby.

The hotel becomes a carpeted labyrinthe. I walk through it for a long time, down corridors, past gift-shops and restaurants and bars. Up and down rarely used staircases and through dimly lit lobbies past mezzanine coffee shops. Around me the hotel goes about its business. Ignoring me exactly as it should. All the silent hotel people dreaming of sleep and going about their day. And the far off tinkling of a piano can be heard above the muted hum of the hotel soundscape.

I stayed at a hotel just outside Chicago – a place called Rosemont – for 5 or 6 weeks. The project I was working on required collating and analysing data gathered by a dozen or so field engineers. There were four of us living at the hotel. Four separate rooms. Plus another room which we converted to a makeshift office (the result of our analysis would determine whether or not it made sense to set up a permanent office in Chicago). Another two rooms to house the field engineers who each made regular short trips back to “HQ” to be debriefed and receive further instruction.

I would wake in my room. Walk the short distance to the elevator which dropped me off next to the breakfast bar. There I would choose from a menu and buffet containing every breakfast your heart could desire. I would eat with my three colleagues, and at 8am we would walk the short distance from the elevator to our “office room” where we would work until 8pm (with a sandwich ordered in at lunch). Then it would be back to the room to order room-service and watch a pay-per-view movie.

After work the other three would eat together, with a few beers, in the sports bar. I was seen as a little odd for disappearing as soon as work was over. Me… I just couldn’t spend an evening with the same three people I’d had breakfast and lunch and spent the entire day cooped up in a hotel room with. I need a bit more space than that.

And there’s an amazing sense of space to be found in a hotel room. I mean, these rooms in Rosemont were huge (two big bedrooms and a living area; each with big screen TVs; plus a bathroom and small kitchen… that was one room… like a mini-luxury-flat). But I’m not talking about the physical size of the room.

When you get back to your hotel room after a day working, the time you have in that small box belongs to you in a way that time rarely does. And the space around you expands to compensate. All of the essentials of life are provided for, but you’re coccooned from the real world. The real world may as well not exist when you’re in a Hyatt or an Intercon or a Hilton or Marriott. You’re in a castle outside time. You and all the other hotel people.

The dream continues until I emerge from the hotel through a side entrance. I occasionally become lucid or – more often – wake up at this point… leaving the hotel is leaving a dream.

And finally…

I apologise, by the way, for yesterday’s dreadful joke (the George Bush / bird flu thing). I was trying out a system for styling blog entries by category, and came up with the “NewsBite” category. And that dire attempt at comedy was the first thing that came to hand. I can only hope that my category-styles will tart up better content in the future.

14 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Mar 2006

Breaking News

George W. Bush phone mishap
In an effort to halt the spread of bird flu, George W. Bush has ordered the bombing of the Canary Islands.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2006

Google brings web grinding to a halt

This morning when I clicked on this blog to make sure it was running OK, I received an unpleasant surprise. Rather than appearing instantly, like a website should do over my broadband connection, The Quiet Road instead took the best part of a minute to respond. All the while my browser status bar read “Connecting to www.google-analytics.com…”

The fact is; I don’t need a stats package like Google Analytics for a site like this and I’ve since removed it. I didn’t know that when I signed up for it; I was under the impression that it was merely “a better Site Meter” with a shinier interface. But the fact is, a system like Sitemeter or AWStats is more than enough for a blog. Google Analytics may be of great use to a corporate site, but its polished interface doesn’t do enough to make the information-overload manageable for a small site.

And when something goes wrong (like today… the WordPress documentation is next to impossible to use thanks to Google Analytics) and brings every enabled site to a grinding halt, then all the AJAX interface wizardry in the world isn’t much compensation. It also demonstrates the dangers of such ubiquity. If every large site on the web is Google Analytics enabled, it puts a lot of pressure on the Google tech people not to fuck up.

It’s also putting a lot of faith in the notion that some disenchanted or plain malicious Google tech person won’t ever use that script in the header of all those corporate websites to distribute something destructive or obscene…

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2006

Online dating

I knew it was a mistake to be honest on my profile!

eHarmony is based upon a complex matching system developed through extensive research with married couples. One of the requirements for successful matching is that participants fall within certain defined profiles. If we find that we will not be able to match a user using these profiles, we feel it is only fair to inform them early in the process.

We are so convinced of the importance of creating compatible matches to help people establish happy, lasting relationships that we sometimes choose not to provide service rather than risk an uncertain match.

Unfortunately, we are not able to make our profiles work for you. Our matching model could not accurately predict with whom you would be best matched. This occurs for about 20% of potential users, so 1 in 5 people simply will not benefit from our service. We hope that you understand, and we regret our inability to provide service for you at this time.

eHarmony.com | Advice to Jim

There’s really not much I can add to that, is there? eHarmony.com ask you to fill out a detailed personality profile. It takes a good 20 minutes / half hour. To get to the end and be rejected is a sobering experience. To have a computer offer my personality to a huge database of single women and be told “Ummm… nope… ‘fraid none of them are interested”.

Ah well, I only completed the profile out of curiosity. I went on a computer arranged date a couple of years ago and the one thing I learnt was that I won’t be going on any more of them. Woody Allen actually tried to buy the rights to that date for a scene in a movie. And then there’s speed-dating… someone I know is trying that, and recommended I go along some night. Speed-dating. Can you imagine?

Like 20 short job interviews in an evening; except in each one it’s your soul being assessed, not your academic qualifications. Whoopee doo.

9 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2006

Drug policy

I predicted equal parts infuriating, confusing and enlightening. I was right about the first two.

Questions and Answers

I watched Questions and Answers last night. It’s a fairly conventional political panel show… five people – some or all of whom are politicians – answer questions posed by a studio audience, while a chairperson oversees the debate which develops. It’s a tried and tested formula, giving the public a limited opportunity to express opinion and provide feedback on policy to those who shape or influence it.

The chairperson in this case is John Bowman; an amiable enough man, but with enough forcefulness to take control of the debate when it threatened to drift. He also successfully cut off the politicians when they slipped into prepared party-political broadcasts. Overall he acquited himself well, though he wasn’t ever really challenged by a guest, nor had to deal with any serious arguments amongst the panel. So I’ll have to reserve judgment a while longer.

Incidentally, “well done!” to Ireland’s Public Service Broadcaster, RTÉ (Radio Telefí­s Éireann). I was very impressed when the BBC started to keep their news and current affairs programmes online to download for a full week after broadcast. While the RTÉ site is – in general – extremely limited compared with the BBC, it appears that they keep an archive of weekly broadcasts going back at least two months. Very groovy.

But what about the actual content of the show?

For me it was notable for two things. One, the fact that a government minister made an intelligent and perceptive remark during a debate on natural resources. Most government ministers go their entire time in office without making a single intelligent or perceptive remark on any subject.

The second thing it was notable for was the fact that (always assuming Questions and Answers is representative of mainstream political debate), it appears mainstream debate on drug policy is mired in ignorance and idiocy in Ireland. Even more so than in the UK. Which gives me the head-staggers.

Ignorance and idiocy

Between 1989 and 1992 three of my friends died as a result of drug misuse. In all three cases it was ignorance of what they were taking that was directly to blame. My views on drug policy spring directly from this. And I’m fortunate in that my gut feeling on this issue is backed up by reason and precedent. It’s always difficult when that’s not the case.

In the case of drug policy, however, the issue is so murky – obscured by decades of lies, emotion, bad policy, ignorance, idiocy and vested interests – as to make “reason” quite difficult to recognise. The arguments against a blanket prohibition of drugs can – as a great man once said – be proven on an etch-a-sketch. I have walked intelligent, rational people step-by-step through those arguments and been met sometimes with blank stares, though often with outright hostility. It’s too obvious. Too clear. It kicks the legs from under people. “If that rock-solid truth can be incontravertibly shown to be just an absurd belief, then what the hell’s next?”

The War on Some Drugs is demonstrably counter-productive. Treating society’s relationship with psychoactive substances via the criminal justice system creates vast amounts of preventable suffering, and wastes significant resources. Drugs, when they are misused, can be dangerous. This goes for aspirin as much as heroin. But dealing with any dangerous substance by placing its marketing and supply into the hands of violent criminals is clearly insane. People talk about “controlled substances”. It’s a phrase right out of Orwell. Do people understand, I wonder, when they use that phrase… when they say “controlled substances”… that they are talking about precisely those substances over which we have relinquished all control?

Yes, guns and illegal drugs are tightly bound together in modern Irish society. But that’s only because of that word “illegal” that sits before “drugs”. Guns and aspirin aren’t tightly bound together. Neither (by and large) are guns and alcohol. I wonder how long that would remain the case if we were to introduce alcohol prohibition though? How long before the armed gangsters started smuggling in Russian vodka… or making their own? So it’s vital to bear in mind, when linking “cannabis and ecstasy” to gun crime (as most of the panel succeeded in doing on the show last night), that the actual link is forged by the law.

What lunatic honestly believes that gun-wielding criminals are the best people to handle the importation and distribution of highly addictive drugs? People with a vested interest in getting as many people using as much of their product as possible. Instead, why not take half the money we spend on drug prevention and invest it in safe, clean, medically supervised distribution of addictive drugs at cost price to the end user? In one stroke, addicts have to carry out far less crime (if any) to feed their habit. A huge benefit to society and another massive saving of resources. At the same time, they are getting medically pure drugs and therefore suffering far less illnesses as a result of their drug use. This places a lesser strain on the medical system, and gives the addict the strength to move towards a more healthy lifestyle. And finally, though no less significantly, the addict is purchasing their drugs from a professional trained to offer support, advice and encouragement to seek help in quitting.

Taking drug users out of the criminal justice system then frees up additional police resources to deal with any violent or acquisitive crime still resulting from problem addicts. I’m not suggesting that a burglar escape prison because they’re an addict. Merely that they be sent to prison for their crime. Not their illness.

Because let’s not avoid this point. One day history students will look back at our time and be horrified at the barbarity with which we treated drug addicts. They’ll wonder, idly, why cigarette smokers and alcoholics were spared prison time. The explanation that’ll make most sense to future historians will be that vested interests… the tobacco companies and big drinks businesses… had enough influence to ensure their users avoided the punishment heaped upon users of other substances.

But the fact remains; a heroin addict is sick. In the same way an alcoholic is sick. For some reason though, we think that persecution and incarceration is the best way of dealing with one; while we accept that support and counselling is almost certainly the best way to deal with the other. I can’t imagine the alcoholic who would benefit from a spell in prison as punishment for possessing a can of beer. I can only imagine that person would have a bigger drink problem upon emerging from prison, and will also have probably lost whatever form of income they had prior to their prison time. In other words, by locking them up we damage them. And we damage society.

On last night’s show however, there was apparently universal belief, among panel and audience, that a zero-tolerance prohibitionist approach to drug possession (accompanied by mandatory minimum prison sentences) is the best way to deal with “the reality of Ireland’s gun culture”.

I find it bizarre that so many people can fail to see that the approach used for the last few decades – prohibition – has clearly created the current situation, and will continue to make it worse so long as we keep at it. Albert Einstein once said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. How long before Ireland realises its attitude towards drug policy is insane?

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2006

Travel on the quiet road

Hallo there!

Welcome to my new blog. I’ve already posted a few things; written while I was setting up this place; but this is the official Inaugural Post.

How’s it going so far? Well. It’s probably a bit early to say I guess.

Dublin certainly decided to welcome me in style. Within four days of my arrival, the city erupted into violence. The worst rioting in recent memory.

There has been condemnation from across the political spectrum of the violent clashes between protestors and gardaí in Dublin city centre this afternoon.

The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said it appeared that dissident republican elements, as well as local people, were responsible for the disturbances.

Labour leader, Pat Rabbitte, said the Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, should make a public statement, based on a garda report, about whether reasonable steps were taken to ensure that this kind of mayhem could not be created.

Meanwhile, Mr McDowell has condemned today’s protests. He said the riots were ‘inexcusable’ and ‘an organised vicious attempt to discredit democratic protest’.

However, a small group of ex-girlfriends of new Dublin resident, Jim Bliss, sympathised with the rioters insisting that they ‘knew exactly how they felt’. They commended the city for exercising ‘incredible restraint’ in suffering almost an entire week without an outburst of some kind.

For my overseas readers, let me explain a little of the terminology used in that news item, and introduce some of the participants. Although, can I please remind everyone that this blog will be a process of discovery. I’m new here myself (well, it’s been over two decades since I last spent any length of time in Dublin… and that was when I was twelve years old). And I have no idea who either Michael McDowell or Pat Rabbitte (good name though) are. Nor do I know who “Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny” is (the other prominent politician mentioned in the original news article).

Dublin snow

Day 7: View from bedroom window

But I do know who Bertie Ahern is. He’s The Taoiseach (pronounced ‘Tea-Shock’). That’s Irish for “leader of the country”. It’s a prime-minister-type position rather than a “president” kind of thing. Bertie is leader of the Fianna Fail political party who have a majority of seats in parliament (actually, because Ireland has a more representative electoral system than, say, the UK; Fianna Fail don’t have an absolute majority and are the largest party in a coalition government. I think.)

Bertie has cultivated a “man of the people” political persona. How genuine that is, I have no idea. But I’m suspicious of people who wield a lot of power and pretend to be “just one of the lads”. Power over others is a strange thing. And one of the first changes it wroughts is to stop a person from being “just one of the lads”.

Hopefully I’ll know a little bit more about all this by Tuesday… apparently the flagship political debate show (the Irish equivalent of Question Time) is called Questions and Answers and is broadcast on Monday night. I expect it to be equal parts confusing, enlightening and infuriating.

Also, to clear up the other potentially confusing term… in case you aren’t already aware, the police are called gardaí­ here in Ireland. The singular is garda.

It’s as gaeilge ( “in Irish” ).

As Gaeilge

The Irish have a peculiar relationship with the native language. It was systematically discouraged during periods of British occupation, sometimes to the point of active persecution of those who spoke it. This had two results. Firstly it succeeded in almost killing it off completely. There are now only a few isolated spots in the west of the country where Irish is the first language. Secondly, it succeeded in making it exceedingly precious in the national psyche.

So every schoolchild in Ireland learns Irish as a second language. All of the roadsigns are bilingual. The common names of institutions (the main parliament is the Dáil) and organisations (the gardaí) are often Irish words, and official documents are all printed in both languages.

This is despite the fact that almost every schoolchild in Ireland stops learning Irish after the age at which it’s compulsory, and has forgotten all but a smattering by the time they reach adulthood. So with the exception of a handful of people living in the far west, fifty percent of everything the government produces is all but indecipherable to the public.

Quite aside from the waste of paper… The symbolism of the thing!

What now?

Well I’ve been in Dublin for almost two weeks now, and I still feel very much like a visitor. I’m beginning to wonder whether that’s not just my general feeling about planet earth, rather than any specific part of it.

I’ve not really ventured much beyond the confines of my new house just yet. But now that I’m completely unpacked and moved-in, and the loose ends from England are all being tied up one by one, I expect I’ll be discovering a little more about my new / old home town.

Hopefully this voyage of discovery will generate some interesting stuff to write about. If it doesn’t I can always continue droning on about peak oil and sustainability, or maybe just make some stuff up.

16 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Mar 2006

Nuclear news

Google have a pretty good news service (that link will take you to the Irish page, but there are versions localised for over thirty countries, with more coming on stream all the time). It basically runs a search on a whole bunch of news sites, figures out what’s being talked about most, and then presents a selection of headlines and links to those stories all on one page.

It’s your one-stop-shop for up-to-date news(tm) Or something.

Of course, with such a huge audience, one can only hope that the Google search algorithms work properly and aren’t infected with the political biases of their programmers. Or the people who pay the programmers.

Google China, for instance, is prepared to only present links to stories and news sources approved by the Chinese government. The main argument in favour of this strategy (as I understand it) is that in situations where control is not yours; it’s better to provide access to some information, rather than none at all. Well, firstly, I’m not at all sure that’s true as a point of principle. Secondly and most importantly; in situations where the information is being filtered by a vested interest (i.e. in practice) it’s a load of horsehit.

There is one clear truth of the matter. The Google Corporation is providing its Chinese users with a view of the world tailored to fit the wishes of a totalitarian government. That’s the end result of all the philosophical faux-debate. Google is – in essence – a powerful tool of propaganda being wielded by the Chinese government.

And it isn’t doing this because Google believes the Chinese people might benefit from “some information” (read: “information approved by The Inner Party”). Google doesn’t believe anything. Google is a massive multinational corporation with a legal duty to maximise the return on investment of its shareholders. Google is acting as a tool of Chinese propaganda because it cannot afford to lose access to the Chinese market.

It’s doing it for the money. The thirty billion pieces of silver.

Oh, and all the others are doing it too. This isn’t a Google-only thing. I’m just using them as the example because I have a problem with a corporation whose motto is “Don’t Do Evil”.

Like it’s got any choice in the matter.

Anyways, quite aside from my healthy suspicion of any large news-filtering service; every now and then I glimpse what can only be – if not the political bias – then at least the sense of humour of the programmers, showing through the cracks in the code. How else do you explain this…

Nukes news clipping

I wonder does Thomas Pynchon open the newspaper at the breakfast table some mornings and think “I can’t compete with this. I’m off down the pub.” Where he’s joined by Kurt Vonnegut and the ghosts of Richard Heller and Hunter S. Thompson, and they all shake their heads in stunned horror at a world imitating their art.

“Hey guys, could I trouble you for a minute? It’s just… I can’t believe you’re all here… this is amazing. The thing is… I have this idea for a novel, and who better to get some notes from, right?”

The four look aghast. A wannabe Irish writer with a thing for Joyce wants to run a story idea by them. Richard whispers to Hunter, “I told you this was hell.”

“Well… it starts like this… the USA is run by a right-wing nutter who counts The Lord His God among his political advisors. This guy actually hears the voices, right? One morning there’s an incredibly cinematic attack on America (got an eye on possible movie rights) and he just snaps. Goes completely off the deep end. Wrath of God, End Times. That kind of stuff. He wasn’t psychologically prepared to deal with the responsibilities he faced and retreated from them. He became instead “a tool of God”. Accepting orders from On High.

Within days of the attack he’s pointing the finger of blame. Three almost entirely unrelated nations are labelled The Axis of Evil. And a fourth is quickly invaded.

Meanwhile in Iran, they’re getting a little worried. One of the more progressive nations in the region they had – for over a decade now – been moving slowly away from complete domination by the religious establishment towards something slightly more secular. It was by no means an overnight change, but it was a slow evolution towards a balance. Exactly the kind of process that might stand a chance of succeeding.

Suddenly though, they find themselves branded “evil” by the most powerful man on the planet. Commander in Chief of a military machine so fearsome that the only way to fight it is to allow it to reduce your nation to rubble and then plant booby-traps in the rubble. And to make matters worse, that military machine has begun the process of occupying Afghanistan. The country on Iran’s eastern border.

Of course this is a dream come true to the religious establishment in Iran. For years they’ve been trading on threats of The Great Satan. America was getting ready to pounce. Just you wait. Any minute now. You’ll see.

But America had eight years of Clinton. And while he lobbed cruise missiles once in a while, and periodically bombed places, he never really gave the impression of being about to pounce. Well, I never thought so anyways.

Now though. Not only did the Great Satan pounce, but he pounced on their next door neighbour. All the while making threats to reduce Iran to rubble as well. The clerics had a field-day. And one, frankly, that it’s hard to begrudge them. Nobody likes it when someone says “I told you so”, but you have to acknowledge their right to do so. If they did indeed tell you so.

Then the bloody great satan pounced again. This time on the country that borders Iran to the west. One of the other two countries that the fundamentalist president had called “evil”. The people of Iran started to freak out and demanded that their government protect them. The world’s most fearsome military was busy laying waste to the countries on both sides of them. It’s leader had all but singled out Iran as next in line. People are dying there for crying-out-loud!

We’ve got electricity and hot water and enough good food to eat. Our kids are going to a good school and our eldest is starting university in September. Most importantly though; bombs aren’t falling on our house or exploding in the supermarket next to the school. When it comes to quality of life, that last one is something we really rate highly in Iran.

So here’s the thing. We’re going to vote out the reformist chap who we voted in last time. That guy was always talking about “dialogue with the west”, and you only have to look at what’s happening in the countries next door to realise that brute force is the only language these people understand. I mean, just look at what they do with their P.O.W’s!

In the reformer’s place we’re going to vote for the hardliner who promises to protect us. Yeah, I have a big problem with his views on women’s rights… and I’m even pretty dubious about his whole “hate the jews” thing. But thanks to the fact that bombs are falling next door, our elections have become somewhat single-issue. Can you blame us? We’re going to vote for the bloke who says he has a plan to prevent the bombs from falling here.

And so they did.”

“And then”, sighs the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson, “Iran develops nukes as the obvious method of deterring an attack. After all, it’s worked for everyone else whose done it… big fighter aircraft deals for the boys. But that part of the world is just too goddamn volatile. It’s a tinderbox full of powderkegs. And it doesn’t make sense to put nukes in the hands of them that’s got the Lord Their God as political advisors. So Iran ends up nuking Israel. Or the other way round. Who knows how it starts… maybe political fallout from some inflammatory speech… or maybe some maintenance grunt smoking weed on the job falling asleep on the big red button… after fighting a war on it for best part of a century, turns out pot decided to hit back.

Anyways Iran and Israel nuke each other and then things get a little out of hand. Russia, the US and finally China, India and Pakistan. Hell even the Brits and the French find someone to launch at… no sense missing the party.”

I nod. “And the whole world goes up in smoke”. It’s a weak joke to end on. And I know it. But the weariness in Hunter’s voice has already taken the wind from my sails.

“My dear boy”, says Mr. Vonnegut softly, “it’s too implausible to make good satire and too damn depressing to make good fantasy. Go peddle it to the people who publish Tom Clancy. Maybe you’ll get a look-in there.”

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Mar 2006

Peak oil

About eight years ago I wrote a letter to the UK Minister for Energy (not a top level position by the way… the Minister for Energy reports to the Minister for Trade and Industry; as perfect a symbol of the wrongheadedness surrounding energy issues as you could wish for). In my letter I asked whether he had heard about the theory of “peak oil” and whether the government intended to factor it into policy.

I received a vaguely snotty reply from a chap in the minister’s office (with whom I had a brief, though intense, correspondence) informing me that the minister had indeed heard of peak oil. However people had been predicting the end of oil for generations and always been confounded by new and larger discoveries. There was no reason to expect this to change any time soon. If there were, then oil’s market value wouldn’t be less than 10 dollars a barrel.

A later response from that same ministerial flunky pointed out that The Limits to Growth had predicted the end of oil by the year 2000 and that certainly wasn’t going to happen. Why on earth, therefore, should UK government policy be dictated by people touting exactly the same ideas dressed up in new jargon (‘peak oil’) for a new millennium?

My next letter to the minister contained the phrase “blithering idiot”. It didn’t receive a response.

I’m already mentally composing my first letter to the Irish Minister for Energy. Hell, I don’t even know who that is… and none of my fancy political web links can help me now (dear god, I’ve got to build up a whole new set of politics bookmarks!).

But this time around – less than a decade on – I’m not a lone voice howling from the lunatic fringe. Now I can call upon the New York Times to back me up. Robert Semple Jr. (associate editor of the Times Editorial Board) has just published a long editorial which includes the following paragraph:

The Age of Oil — 100-plus years of astonishing economic growth made possible by cheap, abundant oil — could be ending without our really being aware of it. Oil is a finite commodity. At some point even the vast reservoirs of Saudi Arabia will run dry. But before that happens there will come a day when oil production “peaks,” when demand overtakes supply (and never looks back), resulting in large and possibly catastrophic price increases that could make today’s $60-a-barrel oil look like chump change. Unless, of course, we begin to develop substitutes for oil. Or begin to live more abstemiously. Or both. The concept of peak oil has not been widely written about. But people are talking about it now. It deserves a careful look — largely because it is almost certainly correct.

Robert Semple Jr. “The End of Oil” (New York Times, March 1, 2006)

(The original article is behind the Times PayWall. I grabbed that chunk from a recent Energy Bulletin.)

Yes indeed. That bastion of lunatic fringery, The New York Times, says that peak oil “is almost certainly correct”. This follows hard on the heels of the US Department of Energy coming to exactly the same conclusion (that link is a PDF file by the way).

Ironically, of the two, the conversion of The Times is probably the more significant. The DoE is too ham-strung by political ideology to actually effect change in the system, no matter what those working there may believe or how many reports they produce calling for a “Crash Program” to mitigate the potentially catastrophic effects of peak oil. But The New York Times still has a modicum of influence. If they were to champion an editorial line which made a call “to live more abstemiously”, would it make a difference? Could they force the public, even the administration, to take a closer look at what the experts in the DoE are actually saying?

Rather worryingly though, it’s possible that what the US Department of Energy is actually saying is that it’s waaaay too late to deal effectively with this problem and “heading for the hills” looks like the sensible option. The Hirsch Report (linked to above) was produced by the DoE in February 2005. It comes to the following conclusions…

Without mitigation, the peaking of world oil production will almost certainly cause major economic upheaval. However, given enough lead-time, the problems are soluble with existing technologies. New technologies are certain to help but on a longer time scale. Appropriately executed risk management could dramatically minimize the damages that might otherwise occur.

The Peaking of World Oil production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management (p.66)

Which doesn’t sound too bad. However they also point out…

Our scenarios analysis shows:

  • Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action would leave the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 10 years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 20 years before peaking appears to offer the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period.

The obvious conclusion from this analysis is that with adequate, timely mitigation, the economic costs to the world can be minimized. If mitigation were to be too little, too late, world supply/demand balance will be achieved through massive demand destruction (shortages), which would translate to significant economic hardship.

There will be no quick fixes. Even crash programs will require more than a decade to yield substantial relief.

Ibid. (p.65)

This makes for uneasy reading when combined with the recent conclusion of Kenneth Deffeyes (Professor of Petroleum Geology at Princeton) who claims that:

In the January 2004 Current Events on this web site, I predicted that world oil production would peak on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2005. In hindsight, that prediction was in error by three weeks. An update using the 2005 data shows that we passed the peak on December 16, 2005.

I’m not making any claims for Professor Deffeyes’ data. But I’m suspicious of anyone who remains entirely unperturbed by it. Unless you can demonstrate a reason to believe someone other than Princeton’s Professor of Petroleum Geology on the matter of how much oil is left in the ground (i.e. someone better qualified, or with access to better data, or more dedicated to the subject, etc.) then you have to at least admit the possibility that the guy might be right.

And if he is right, then according to the US Department of Energy, we’re probably twenty years late in starting our preparations for an imminent “significant liquid fuel deficit”. A situation with far more serious implications (I believe) than most people are willing to consider.

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