latest tweet: Low oil prices – a threat to the dollar http://t.co/edJDhLP4sv
(Dec 17, 17:43)




23
Apr 2006

A problem with pronouns

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.
- Albert Einstein

This is one of my favourite quotations. I believe it expresses an important truth. On occasion, however, I have seen a subtly amended version…

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. Those to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, are as good as dead: their eyes are closed.
- Albert Einstein

See the difference? Some would say that the revisionists are falling prey to “political correctness”. Trouble is; I tend to find that those who use the term ‘political correctness gone mad‘ or use a tone of dismissive derision when uttering the acronym ‘P.C.’ are actually people who have precisely zero understanding of the deeper issues involved (for instance the impact that a gender bias in language can have on a culture).

Some – indeed most – of the actual instances of “politically correct policy” are of course ludicrous. But that’s because they tend to be implemented by power-crazed petty tyrants who themselves have but a slender grasp of the issue. This does not mean there isn’t a discussion to be had regarding the ways in which language can affect culture and whether there might not be steps to be taken that would neutralise the more negative of those effects.

But there’s a few things that need to be said regarding this particular kind of revisionism. Firstly; the amended version of the Einstein quote, with the gender specificity removed, doesn’t sound right. For all intents and purposes the meaning hasn’t changed, but the sound of the words is clumsier. Stilted even. When compared to the original, it’s really not very satisfactory.

Secondly; Einstein was writing in German, and in the 1920s. Any misguided attempt to “update” his language will most likely end up like a badly-colourised version of The Big Sleep or one of those ludicrous bibles in contemporary English. It runs the risk of obscuring the meaning by focussing attention on obviously incongruous phrasing. Not what you want at all really.

Thirdly; while nobody would claim that Einstein deliberately used masculine pronouns to indicate that he was only talking about men; nonetheless any amendment is making assumptions. It sets a very dangerous precedent. The removal of the masculine pronouns doesn’t appear to change the underlying meaning of the quote… but that view is itself a product of a time and place. The impulse to strip such a quotation of its gender specificity, based on the belief that the specificity was not intended, is clearly a culturally-determined attitude.

To engage in that kind of revisionism, therefore, is to give tacit support to other; perhaps less benign; culturally-determined revisionism. Reaching back into the past and amending the words of historical figures to better reflect modern values is an extremely dangerous activity, and even the most timid and well-intentioned steps onto such a slippery slope should be resisted at all costs.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


21
Apr 2006

Printing

This is just a bit of blog administrivia, but one or two of you may find it useful. Justin (over that Chicken Yoghurt) emailed me earlier. He pointed out that since so many of my posts are fairly lengthy, it would be an idea to have a print version of each one.

Apparently there are WordPress plug-ins that will generate a separate version of each page for printing. Rather than go that route, however, I decided instead to finally get round to adding a ‘print’ stylesheet to the site. It’s a more elegant solution, in my view, than having two pages – one for print and one for screen.

The result is that you should now be able to print out each individual article and have it nicely formatted for page as well as screen. I decided to omit the comments from the print-out. Is this the right thing to do, I wonder? Would people prefer to have a print-out of the article plus the comments (given that could run to twice the number of pages)? If anyone feels strongly enough to make the case for including comments in the print-out then I’ll happily put them back in.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements


21
Apr 2006

Nukes in Ireland

Ireland, like everywhere else on the planet, is staring down the barrel of an energy crisis. Petrol prices at the pumps hit an all-time high in Dublin this week. Adjusted for inflation, there were brief periods during the political instability of the 1970s when they spiked higher, but there seems little doubt that crude oil will be trading at above $80 per barrel before long, which outstrips even those earlier spikes.

Dr. Colin Campbell, of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO), speculated on Irish radio a couple of weeks ago that we could easily witness a fivefold increase on current prices by the end of the decade. When I mentioned this to someone, they told me it was impossible.

“That would mean I’d be paying €400 to fill my car. I can’t afford that.”

I pointed out that didn’t make it impossible. Merely extremely inconvenient for them. But consumerism has somehow – bizarrely – conflated those two distinct ideas in the minds of millions. Which is more than a little unsettling.

I’ve remarked on this many times, but it’s difficult not to find it remarkable. You see, watching “peak oil” develop from being a prediction shared by myself and a few hundred other people into one of the four greatest problems our civilisation will face (the others being climate change, nuclear weapons and Barry Manilow), has just been a remarkable experience. This conspiracy theory possessed by the lunatic fringe – the very premise of which was openly mocked by authorities and experts – has evolved so quickly and dramatically.

If you dig around the various political and corporate websites of the world, you can begin to see references to ‘peak oil’ emerging. But I believe the statement from Irish Green Party energy spokesman Eamon Ryan TD is the first time I’ve heard the phrase uttered in public by an Irish politician…

The only answer to the rising price spiral was to consume less, he said.

“Oil prices may spike above $100 a barrel within the year, but calls for a cut in taxes instead of moving to reduce our oil dependency were missing the point.”

“Prices may fall in the short term, before soaring when the long-term problems with peak oil really start to kick in.”

OK, so it is only the Greens. But it’s a start. And I’m delighted to see the words “consume less” appearing. People should get used to the idea of consuming less, before they have to get used to having less to consume.

What, I guess, sets Ireland a little apart from other nations is the fact that the government (Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment) have commissioned a report into the issue of Ireland’s dependence on oil. The Forfás report will be remembered as the Buzz Aldrin of peak oil studies. The second official document (after the US Department of Energy’s Hirsch Report – download PDF) to highlight the approaching crisis.

The key findings of the Forfás report are as follows:

  • There is growing evidence to suggest that the era of a plentiful supply of conventional oil is approaching an end. Various experts and groups have developed projections for when peak oil will occur. While there is a wide variation of estimates about the likely timing, most expert commentators believe that 10-15 years from now, conventional oil supply will no longer be capable of satisfying world demand at current prices. While this subject is clouded by a low level of quality data, there is near global consensus that the potential consequences of peak oil for governments, economies, businesses and indeed individual consumers should be considered now as it will take at least ten years to prepare for its onset.
  • Ireland consumed nine million tonnes of oil in 2004, an amount that has doubled since 1990. In 2002, Ireland ranked 3rd highest among the EU-25 countries in terms of oil consumed per capita.
  • Electricity generation and transportation are the two main factors for Ireland’s high oil dependence. Ireland has relied considerably more on oil for electricity generation than most other EU countries and, as of 2002, had the 6th most oil dependent electricity generation system of the EU-25 countries. The amount of oil used for transportation in Ireland tripled between 1972 and 2002, leaving Ireland consuming at least 50 per cent more per capita than the average of the EU-25 by the end of the period.
  • Taking into account the Irish economy’s relative dependence on imported oil and the relative share of oil in total Irish energy consumption, Ireland is among the most sensitive to rising oil prices and therefore among the most vulnerable to a peak oil scenario.

And the key recommendations are as follows:

  • Ireland should undertake a number of initiatives to reduce the usage of oil in transportation, for example, by bringing about the replacement over time of the existing stock of vehicles with more fuel-efficient vehicles and the provision of alternative modes of transport, particularly public transport, that run on electricity rather than petroleum related fuels (e.g. electrified trams, trains and buses). The potential of using biofuels for transportation should also be investigated.
  • Ireland should assess options to address security of supply concerns that may arise in the context of peak oil. Options should include expanding domestic oil storage capabilities and contracting bilaterally with oil-producing countries that continue to have a surplus of production relative to their domestic requirements. Accelerating plans to develop more East-West electricity interconnection with the UK would also provide a significant degree of energy security, subject to the UK resolving its own security of energy supply problems.
  • Ireland should consider increasing the use of renewable energy sources for electricity generation (such as wind, wave, tidal energy etc), maintaining the continued operation of Moneypoint (Ireland’s only coal fired power station). Although not economically feasible in the short to medium term, Ireland should consider the possibility of developing nuclear energy as a more long-term solution.
  • Ireland should adopt a proactive approach to energy efficiency, seeking to place Ireland at the leading edge of energy efficiency practices. The EU Energy Performance Building Directive (EPBD), which came into effect in January 2006 will provide a basis for assessing and improving energy usage in commercial and residential buildings that is intended to result in a more efficient use of electrical energy.
  • Ireland should accelerate the implementation of the National Spatial Strategy in preparation for peak oil. Current spatial patterns in Ireland militate against the development of an efficient and effective public transport system. The development of regional gateways and hubs will play a key part in enabling urban communities to respond to the challenges of peak oil. Those communities that are adequately resourced in terms of public transport infrastructure will have greater choice in relation to how they respond.

Amazingly enough, this is all pretty sensible stuff for a government report. The clear emphasis is on energy efficiency, demand-reduction and replacing private car use with public transport. And for those who haven’t read it, that is in fact the general view taken by the report. I’m not selectively quoting, those are the conclusions in full. Which is why I’m so incredibly pissed off at the Irish Green Party’s response, and any respect I had for Eamon Ryan TD (their energy spokesman who made the “peak oil” remark) has been taken out back and given a good kicking.

You’re aware, of course, why the Greens responded with such mindless aggression (and believe me, “mindless” was a word chosen very very carefully). It was the word “nuclear” that did it.

No Nukes

Green Party response to the report
Back when I was a teenage conspiracy theorist and UFO crashes were being covered up at a rate of knots, I would have been convinced that Big Business had paid off the Irish Green Party to rubbish the first sensible policy document to emerge in decades.

My mind is no longer clouded by the excitablity of youth. Now I just figure they’re a bunch of fricking idiots.

Let’s be clear about one thing… building a nuclear power station in Ireland would be deeply idiotic. Relative to our size, we probably have better access to renewable energy resources for electricity generation than almost anywhere else on the planet. The decision to use a non-renewable, horrendously expensive and deeply unpopular alternative could only be taken by the quality of moron that even mainstream politics would reject (hard though it may be to believe).

The nuclear debate is actually a very simple one. Far less complicated than the pro-nuclear side would have you believe and, I suspect, far simpler than they’re aware. According to the Australian government – who possess the world’s largest reserves of uranium ore – we have less than fifty years of the stuff remaining at current consumption rates. This fact will become more apparent as consumption increases when – inevitably – some countries do use nukes to mitigate oil and gas depletion.

I also have grave concerns regarding the safety of nuclear reactors and the waste they generate. However, I have no interest in discussing those as objections to a nuclear power policy. The sustainability issue speaks for itself and until that can be adequately addressed I don’t see the need to complicate the debate (note: In the comments, I’m willing to discuss the logistics of “uranium from seawater” and will even speculate on currently unproven technologies like fast-breeder reactors and nuclear fusion… but the last time I had those debates I came away convinced that they don’t – as of now – make nuclear energy sustainable). And replacing one source of energy with another experiencing identical supply constraints is not a sane policy.

People’s Front of Judea

Is it the mindlessness of the mob that leads institutions (such as the Green Party of Ireland) to shoot themselves in the foot so effectively? Or is it something to do with being a pressure group “in opposition” for so long, so that when someone finally starts to agree with them, they launch a fullscale attack?

And the sheer dishonesty of elements of that attack leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

In particular I want to address Eamon Ryan’s response. As the party spokesman on energy, I would expect him to be best informed on both his own party policies in the area, as well as on the issues involved. So I can’t make up my mind whether he failed to read the report he’s responding to, failed to understand it, or has a vested interest in misrepresenting it.

Ignorance, stupidity or dishonesty? Frankly I find none of them to be attractive qualities in a member of parliament.

We welcome the debate on nuclear power and are confident that a proper economic and scientific analysis of the option will show nuclear is not the right solution for Ireland. We regret that the Forfás report on oil dependency turned in the end into a call for nuclear power. Remarkably there was no economic or scientific analysis in the report to back up such a call.

First of all, they clearly don’t “welcome” the debate. The report they line up to “challenge”… the one the energy spokesman “regrets” simply calls for nuclear power to be “considered” as one of a number of options. That’s the word that’s used. It’s one paragraph in the report. It reads…

Another option for Ireland to secure its long run energy security, especially in relation to electricity generation, will be to consider developing the use of nuclear energy. Although this is explicitly not part of Ireland’s policy preferences at present, the revived interest in redeveloping a nuclear electricity sector in the UK will provide an important context for Ireland’s electricity options in the next 5-15 years. The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) suggest that, due to the large size of nuclear plant and the small size of the Irish electricity system, a nuclear facility would require so much back-up conventional plant as to substantially raise its overall costs, reducing any potential attraction for investors. The economically feasible scale of a nuclear power station would exceed the capacity of the Irish market to absorb its output. Therefore, Ireland is currently not an attractive location for building a nuclear power station. However, if smaller scale power stations were to come on stream and Ireland’s level of interconnection with the UK market was significantly increased, nuclear energy could become a more realistic energy option for Ireland.

Y’know, in the dictionary, under “equivocal” it says “See that one paragraph about Irish nuclear power potential in the Forfás oil dependency report”. Seriously, if that’s not a call for a debate, then what the hell is it?

Here you have a potentially influential report emerging from within government channels (also with potential for international significance… Dr. Robert Hirsch was a consultant on the report, so you can be sure it’s getting picked up by researchers googling for info); a report filled to the brim with sensible energy policy ideas; and yet the Greens seize on the one ambiguous paragraph that may, in a certain light, give them pause for thought. They’re not just throwing the baby out with the bathwater by painting this report as “a call for nuclear power”, they’re throwing a big sack of handgrenades out after it.

I don’t know what upsets me more… the diabolical nature of capitalism or the incompetence of those we elect to keep it in check. The most plausible explanation that I’ve come up with for Eamon Ryan TD’s response is that he heard an interview or had a discussion with one of the authors of the report. The author was pro-nuclear (i.e. someone on the opposite side of the debate to me and the Greens) and put forward a pro-nuke argument in the context of the report. Ryan didn’t read the report; merely presumed it reflected the opinions of the person he heard talking. Because except for one other mention (non-policy related) nuclear power is not mentioned anywhere else in the report. If you have read this whole article, you have read every relevant word it had to say on the subject.

If the Green Party are rejecting an important set of policy recommendations, and putting their weight behind discrediting them, based upon Eamon Ryan TD’s interpretation of some hearsay, then he needs to resign his brief.

We are now challenging Forfás to present their analysis. The authors of the report argue that we need nuclear power to provide for new electric transport systems. However, only 0.1 per cent of our current electricity goes to power electrified rail lines such as the Dart and the Luas. We could provide a hundred new Dart systems and still have little problem in meeting the increase in electricity demand through the use of renewable resources.

This also pisses me off. Notice the screengrab above, and lovely juxtaposition between the image promoting their biofuels policy and the line: “Remarkably there was no economic or scientific analysis in the report to back up such a call.” It’s pots and kettles all over the place. Except it’s not. Here it’s the pot calling something that’s not black, black.

The reason the Forfás report doesn’t present the “analysis” Eamon Ryan demands, is that it readily admits that the analysis has not been done. In fact, the report is very much a call for precisely that kind of analysis to be done. It urgently calls for assessment of all possible energy resources. This report was an investigation into oil dependency (the title gives it away: A Baseline Assessment of Ireland’s Oil Dependence). What it discovered was that there’s a big problem approaching. In response it calls for research into the best way of solving that problem. Yet the Greens jump up and try to discredit it.

This report calls for an open and honest assessment of our options. Furthermore, it lists several serious difficulties with the nuclear option – highlighting more cons than pros – while doing nothing of the sort when discussing renewables or demand reduction. Taken at face value, this report appears vaguely biased against nuclear power in Ireland. However, if some of the people who compiled it wish to argue in favour of nukes then they’re more than entitled to do so… that’s the nature of the debate that the Greens claim to welcome.

And in case it’s unclear as to why I found such irony in the juxtaposition of that challenge “to present analysis” with the ‘Biofuels’ image, let me direct you to my previous article (Biofuels – The fuel of the future) where I question the rationale behind viewing biofuels as a substitute for fossil fuels. It is my contention that by putting their modest weight behind Biofuels, the Greens are guilty of exactly the failure to provide analysis they wrongly accuse the Forfás report of.

Biofuels, if viewed as a serious contender to plug our liquid fuel shortfall, will result in catastrophic ecological destruction. George Monbiot – in his article, Worse Than Fossil Fuel – states that “Biodiesel enthusiasts have accidentally invented the most carbon-intensive fuel on earth”. He’s not wrong. HT Odum’s quip that ‘modern agriculture is merely an inefficient method of converting fossil fuel into food’ can be equally applied to biofuels. And quite aside from the energy inefficiency involved, the effects on biodiversity would inevitably be disastrous.

Is the Green Party of Ireland suggesting that arable land currently devoted to food production be switched to biofuel production? Or do they suggest we appropriate land from currently untouched ecologies? Either way, have they examined the effects that such an expansion of largescale monoculture policy would have on the environment they’ve selected to grow the fuel stock? My back of the napkin calculation suggested that Ireland would need to devote its entire arable land surface area to growing high-yield fuel crops, while still importing almost half its liquid fuel needs, just to drive the current private automobile fleet (i.e. not addressing freight, power generation, aviation, heating, etc.)

Let me make the same challenge to Eamon Ryan TD… present the analysis which suggests that biofuel is the fuel of the future. And that doesn’t mean a photoshoot next to a van running on used cooking oil.

The authors’ proposal that we contract for a lifetime extension of the Wylfa nuclear plant in North Wales, to feed nuclear power back across an Irish sea interconnector also makes little sense. The reality is that the British Government is never going to agree to this. They themselves are running short of generating power and having a heated debate about whether they should build new nuclear plants. There is no way they will not give up options such as extending existing plant lifetimes which could meet their own needs.

I have no idea whether the authors of the report recommend importing more electricity generated at the Wyfla plant in North Wales. Perhaps they do, but they don’t do it in the report. Unless the search facility in my copy of Adobe Reader isn’t working; neither the word “Wyfla” nor the word “Wales” appear in the text of “A Baseline Assessment of Ireland’s Oil Dependence”.

The report does indeed recommend a greater integration of the UK and Irish electricity grids. This is a staggeringly obvious recommendation, and anyone seriously examining energy security in Ireland would make it. I suspect that Eamon Ryan TD is correct when he suggests that the British government, when examining its own energy security needs, will refuse to increase exports to Ireland.

But that’s no reason not to examine the option and perhaps put out feelers… with a major investment in Irish windpower, it could well be beneficial to both the UK and Ireland to increase transmission capacity between the countries; with the British grid taking advantage of Irish spare capacity during periods of peak wind power and Ireland drawing on British spare capacity on calm days. I’m not suggesting it would work, but I fail to see why the Greens are challenging a call to examine the possibility.

There are many environmental reasons why nuclear power makes no sense but it will be ruled out here first and foremost on simple economic and energy policy grounds. The large size of nuclear plants within a small electricity grid such as our own means the cost of reserve power to cover plant breakdowns, makes it prohibitively expensive.

As I mentioned earlier, my objection to nuclear power rests on its unsustainable nature. And when I speak of “sustainability”, I’m speaking of physical systems sustainability; environmental sustainability. I see all matters of policy through that particular prism. Economics is never a consideration, and I despair when the Greens of all people place it “first and foremost”. My fundamental question is this: “Given a baseline requirement for a 100% sustainable civilisation, how can humanity organise itself and its available resources in such a way as to achieve this with the least suffering?”

Of course some of those terms need defining, but that can wait for another day. One thing that should be recognised, though, is that my insistence on “sustainability” is a philosophical / ethical / moral stance. And one I’m willing to discuss. I believe that through the use of military force and the ruthless exploitation of the remaining resources of the planet, we in the West could probably sustain our way of life for a while longer. However I consider that a morally repugnant option. We have a moral responsibility to those who are physically weaker than us, not to use our superior might to take advantage of that disparity. And we have a moral responsibility to future generations to provide them with a world that is at least no worse than the one we inherited.

Modern western civilisation is failing in both those moral duties. The Forfás report, by placing so much emphasis on demand reduction and energy efficiency, is proposing policies which will – indirectly – begin to redress that. I’m still confounded by the Greens failure to embrace the “all-but-one” paragraphs of the report that don’t mention nukes.

The Green Party is already putting in place real measures to solve the energy crisis we face far more effectively. In Fingal and Dun Laoghaire Councils we have put new energy efficient building standards into local area development plans which will cut in half the power used in our buildings, saving householders thousands of euro each year.

Excellent stuff. This is precisely the kind of activity recommended by the Forfás report.

Switching our car fleet to fuel efficient engines would save as much energy as a nuclear power plant would provide. Switching off our televisions and radios from standby could save the equivalent power produced by two of our peat fired power stations.

Both statements may well be true even though they sound so trite… where’s the analysis Eamon? Eh? But it’s the language of “business as usual”. And guess what…?

All these measures save the Irish public hard cash with no loss of the services energy provides.

See it? The “vote for me” line? The Forfás report implies that the future may well require sacrifice. That it won’t be business as usual. That our society faces significant problems.

The Green message – from the mouth of their energy spokesman – is that a vote for him will save you money, let you buy a shiny new space car and require no greater change in your lifestyle than switching off your telly before you go to bed.

Sleep tight.

13 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


12
Apr 2006

Holyday

It’s Holy Week here in the Catholic world. Preparing to commemorate the murder and resurrection of God made man. Easter dontchaknow. Catholicism isn’t really my thing. In fact, the whole dogmatic religion thing – particularly when based upon the political writing of mystics from another civilisation – simply makes no sense to me. I’d go further… it repels me somewhat.

Albert Einstein once said that “morality is of the highest importance – but for us, not for God”. And I believe that to be true. Allowing the long-dead prophets of dead societies write our rules of Right and Wrong is a heinous crime against ourselves. By shirking responsibility for our own moral system, we fail to engage in some of the most important debates that human beings should be having. And by tying our morality to books filled with superstition, we run the danger of losing all sense of moral responsibility when those superstitions cease to hold the minds of the people.

None of which means I won’t be taking advantage of the opportunity for a few days holiday. I’ll be visiting my folks down in West Cork for a long weekend. I’m spending most of tomorrow travelling; then eating lovely food and enjoying the idyllic clifftop setting until Sunday and finally spending most of Monday travelling back. Which means it’s possible I won’t post again until Tuesday. So until then… stay groovy.

9 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


11
Apr 2006

Naet huh?

Research
Acocdrnig to rseecrah at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deson’t mttaer in waht oredr the lteters in a wrod aeappr, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbemls. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe.

I wnedor if it’s the smae for dlsyecixs?

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


11
Apr 2006

Privatising Aer Lingus

I watched the weekly political debate show, Questions & Answers, last night. It confirmed all my worst fears about the corporatisation of politics. You’ve no idea how much it annoys me that the field of debate has been so narrowed; that mainstream politics has been reduced to a few ever-so-slightly differentiated shades of capitalist grey. The politicos on the panel were a Labour TD (TD = MP) representing the left, a government minister representing the centre, and an independent Senator representing the right.

The first question asked whether or not the privatisation of Aer Lingus “represents a good deal”. Now, it’s only since I’ve returned to Dublin that I realised Aer Lingus (Ireland’s national airline) was still state-owned. Not only that, but it is currently – relative to its size – an extremely profitable airline. In the past, during downturns in air travel or during periods of mismanagement, the company has required government / taxpayer support. Now that it is doing well, the current government (plus the main opposition party) think it’s a good idea to sell it off.

Presumably the idea is to make some quick cash on the deal before peak oil wipes out the airline industry. And regular readers might think I’d be in favour of that… offload an asset soon to become damn near worthless into the hands of a bunch of market speculators. Use the money to build a few hospitals. What could be wrong with that? Well. Quite a lot actually.

Am I never happy?

Well, yes. But not when a bunch of centre-right oafs are blundering around the country, selling off any public asset that isn’t nailed down. I once wrote that I believed Britain could still be defined, loosely, as a socialist nation up until Thatcher sold off the energy and communications infrastructure. By doing that she made a bunch of money for the already wealthy and ended the ability of the British public to control their own economy.

Recently this Irish government has flogged the telecommunications system, converting its legal status from “service provider” to “profit engine”. It’s interesting to note that investors are very happy with the deal, but the Irish citizen is less so. Leastways that’s the portrait painted by the media. Thankfully it looks as though energy production will remain public at least until capitalism begins to visibly decay (and hence, indefinitely). So Ireland is – in a specific, but very real sense – still socialist to a degree. As of right now, the public still owns significant assets, significant elements of the economic infrastructure and can exercise control over those assets through their democratic representation.

Few things piss me off more than watching politicians; the peoples representatives; shake their heads and meekly (or even worse, condescendingly) state that they can’t do anything about a social problem because it’s in the hands of private enterprise. For years successive British transport ministers agreed that the rail system was deteriorating, but told the public that they had no control over the way private companies are run. It makes me want to wring some necks.

Which brings me back to Questions & Answers and the subject of privatising Aer Lingus. The very first thing that should be pointed out is that this is a godawful deal. Even if I dust off that capitalist hat I tried on for size back in the 90s, the fact is – if you were going to privatise an airline, you really wouldn’t do it this way. The government intends to retain a significant, but minority shareholding in the company. This means there’s a siginificant reduction in the amount of shares being sold, and a consequent loss of income. On top of that, by retaining an influence on the company board of directors, it makes the whole airline less attractive to private investors who will worry about “government meddling” and fear that they won’t be able to make the business as profitable as they would like if it was required to go against the policy of the government of the day in order to do so (a government that could be Green or Leftist or anything in 10 years).

So essentially; from the point of view of the taxpayer, the government is nigh guaranteeing the lowest possible price while at the same time ceding control over the asset. And from the point of view of the capitalist, the government is retaining the right to interfere with how a private company is run, and thus making the whole venture far less likely to succeed commercially. On top of all that, the newly privatised company intends to borrow at least as much as it earned from the floatation as soon as privatisation is completed. Possibly significantly more. All of which reduces the price that investors are willing to pay for those shares that are made available.

Given the likely direction to be taken by the airline industry in the face of peak oil, this will result in the collapse of the privatised Aer Lingus within about 10 years. Probably less given how deeply in debt they will be. And there’ll be very little the government will be able to do about it, except wait until the company runs itself into a massive mountain of debt and bail them out at an absurd cost to the exchequer. Far, far more than was gained in the sell-off.

But hey, I’ve no doubt a bunch of already-wealthy speculators will make a small fortune in the immediate aftermath of the privatisation. So that’s alright then. Once the government looks after them, the average citizen can rest easy knowing he or she only has to become a millionaire and they too will be represented by the people they vote for.

Market disengagement instead of privatisation

What should be done is obvious. Market disengagement. And what annoyed me about Questions & Answers was the fact that not a single member of the panel even hinted at having thought in these terms, let alone giving them the headspace to examine seriously. The Labour TD was opposed to privatisation, as are her party. Credit where it’s due. However her objections were all about practical issues. It’s as though the notion that there may be an ideological debate to be had was somehow quaint. Faintly embarrassing. You got the feeling that perhaps she had convictions, but wouldn’t dream of admitting that in public… so if you could demonstrate that “the deal was good” for the taxpayer that all would be well.

She even resorted to the bland buzzwords of doomed capitalism. About how “everyone wants to see” Aer Lingus compete well in the marketplace. About how “of course” we want to see the company grow and expand into new routes and markets. Sheesh… doesn’t anyone actually believe anything anymore? I mean aside from The Race For Profit Is A Race That Must Be Won.

I was reminded of Douglas Adams’ wonderful observation about the BBC…

Television companies are not in the business of delivering television programs to their audience, they’re in the business of delivering audiences to their advertisers. (This is why the BBC has such a schizophrenic time – it’s actually in a different business from all its competitors)

You see, it is my belief that a state airline should not be trying to “compete” at all. In the marketplace or anywhere else. It should be run, like any other state asset, in a manner that can best serve the Irish public. Everyone on the panel, and – it seems – everyone in the Irish media, believes that Aer Lingus needs significant new investment to buy more planes so that it can expand. But that’s complete nonsense. It is not the best way to serve the Irish public. The last thing Aer Lingus should be planning is expansion.

Small is beautiful

Look, the airline business is at its peak right now. Maybe another two years… maybe three tops. After that, it’s permanently downhill for jet-engined passenger flight. But I accept that whatever commercial flight does still exist during the next 10 or 15 years will look something like its present form. There’ll just be a lot less of it, and it’ll be much more expensive. Eventually it’ll die completely and all international flight will be done in slow solar-powered dirigibles, and the enterprise will become rather sedate and civilised, with dining rooms and cool observation decks and everything (that’s the optimist talking… I usually keep him locked in the cellar).

But until then, and while modern air travel is gasping its last, there will remain a need for scheduled flights to and from this country. It is the job of a state airline to provide that service as effectively as possible. It is not its job to compete with other airlines in the lucrative low-cost short-haul market. Nor its job to expand into another five US destinations and provide the Irish consumer with more choice. Its job is to ensure that Irish people can get to and from wherever they need to go, whenever they need to go there. That this island does not become isolated before anywhere else. Climate change activists may not like this job, but all the same, that’s what it is.

And to this end, the best strategy is to begin reducing the size of the company and securing its ability to do two things very very well. Getting people to and from Heathrow efficiently. And getting people to and from New York efficiently. From Heathrow there are connecting flights to every major city in the world. From New York, to everywhere in America.

Over a period of a couple of years, Aer Lingus should sell off its entire fleet with the exception of those aircraft required to service New York and London. This would almost certainly (bizarrely) net the government more than the sale of the company as a whole. Of course, the workforce and the unions won’t like that very much. And that’s where the traditional left is really coming from with its desire for expansion.

But look, these are well-trained professionals by-and-large and they’ll be beating the rush. The entire industry is going to be shedding jobs before too long; let the Aer Lingus staff get that particular skillset into the job market before the others. And by losing their jobs because of a deliberate scale-down and asset sale, they can get very generous redundancy cheques; unlike those who lose their jobs through bankruptcy. The rest of the money from the asset sale (planes cost a lot of money, I’m sure there’ll be some left over) can make up the current pensions deficit in the company.

Those two routes alone may not make a profitable company. I honestly don’t know. But even if it didn’t, I’m certain it could be done efficiently enough so that the shortfall in the running costs won’t cost the taxpayer too much. And in return for that small tax burden, Irish people know that they are securely connected to the rest of the world via a service they themselves own and control. At least until either Heathrow or New York cease fulfilling their function due to peak oil… but I guarantee you that a privatised Aer Lingus will go under before that happens.

Capitalists will complain of course. Blah blah blah government subsidies blah blah blah restrictive practices unfair competition blah. And yes. It’s all those things. Even the blahs. What part of “anti-capitalist” don’t you understand? But hey, just think of all the fun the other airlines will have fighting for scraps… expanding into the routes abandoned by Aer Lingus… after all, if Aer Lingus is selling the planes, someone is buying (and it’s a little known fact that there’s a shortage of commercial jet aircraft in the market at the moment… airlines are placing big orders and having to wait years for delivery… right now, it’s a sellers market).

Many on my side of the barbed wire may be looking at me a little askew also. Am I trying to put forward some kind of sustainable jet airline industry idea here? Preaching business as usual? Isn’t that precisely what I criticise the mainstream environmental movement for doing? Well yes, that is what I criticise the Greens for, but no that’s not what I’m doing.

If tomorrow I were ordained God Emperor, then it’d be solar-powered dirigibles or nothing. So get those thinking caps on over at JPL, you folks are very very smart, I’ve no doubt you can adapt to a new specification and come up with some wild new ideas. The reality is, whatever way you cut it, the airline industry – in its current form – will not survive.

However, what would I do in the unlikely event that I’m not made God Emperor, but instead merely put in charge of Aer Lingus and given a specific brief… “Turn this profitable company into a public service and ensure that Ireland is connected to the international transport network so long as that network exists”.

And well, that’s what I’d do.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


11
Apr 2006

A bit of skiffy

My folks tell me that I was reading newspapers when I was three years old. I suspect this would not have been the case if I’d been given free access to a television as a child. My parents’ attitude, which I once saw as puritanical, I now realise was enlightened. So from a very early age I was a voracious reader (cue: Bill Hicks… “think we got ourselves a reader“) and would read absolutely anything I could get my hands on. Of course, it was a couple more years before my vocabularly got to the point where I could read The Times cover to cover unassisted, but it’s safe to say I’ve been ravenously consuming the written word since before I can remember being me.

My reading habits have gone through many changes, and continue to go through periodic cycles. For about a year in my early twenties I read almost nothing except biographies. Three, sometimes four a week. I spent six months during my sixteenth year immersed in left wing political polemic. When I was eleven I read The Lord of The Rings four times in a row. Immediately afterwards I first read The Bible from cover to cover.

Religion died for me.

Perhaps the most obvious of the periodic cycles, however, is the shift between fiction and nonfiction. I can read three nonfiction books simultaneously, but literature requires exclusivity for me. So I tend to have several months during which I’ll consume vast amounts of nonfiction at a relatively frenetic pace, followed by a month or so where I’ll read a couple of novels a week (a leisurely pace for me). I have just shifted into literature mode.

Genre, Historical or Contemporary?

In truth I’ve never been a big fan of historical fiction. Sprawling epics set in ancient Rome just don’t appeal to me for some reason. I completely get their attraction though, because sprawling epics set on another planet often can catch my attention. And the past is, after all, another planet (I’ll do what I want to the idiom thankyou very much). I used to read a lot of horror novels in my teens, though haven’t read one in years. And prior to that it was all swords and sorcery for a while. But science fiction is the genre that just won’t stay dead.

I suppose that’s because it’s not really a genre at all. It bleeds into contemporary fiction all over the place. If I could be arsed to whip up some Venn diagrams you’d see what I mean… Vonnegut, Pynchon, Burroughs, Ballard… they’re all in that middle bit where they intersect. And “the classics” are full of it… HG Wells, Jules Verne; hell even Orwell gets accused of writing the stuff.

Why? Because it’s such a damn useful device for social commentary, that’s why. You want to criticise current social, political or cultural policies or beliefs? Then paint a grim portrait of a future where they are taken to their logical conclusion. “Fahrenheit 451 isn’t about an imagined future… it’s about the future as it will be should we continue along the road we are going”. That’s the essence of SF from Orwell to MacLeod. That we are presented with such a wide variety of dystopian warnings perhaps comes as some relief; it would appear that nothing is set in stone as yet.

I’m aware, by the way, that “not getting” historical fiction while mentioning the fact that Thomas Pynchon is my favourite author may seem a little contradictory. It’s certainly true that Pynchon sets many of his novels in the past. But to call them ‘historical novels’ would be wrong. For me the essence of an historical novel is one which treats historical accuracy as importantly as plot, characterisation, dialogue or message. Pynchon’s talking (and singing) dog in Mason & Dixon or the story of the first pizza in Yorkshire (with the dandy werewolf) in the same novel, and that whole Rat Messiah thing in V… well, they’d probably fail the “strict historical accuracy” test.

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying I’ve been reading SF again of late.

Ken MacLeod

MacLeod is a Scottish science fiction writer whose novels blend mind-bending technological speculation with political debate, in roughly equal measure. That’s a combination that could easily create dense unreadable crap. Thankfully the man has the virtue of writing likeable characters and convincing dialogue. I’ve read everything he’s written since the excellent Star Fraction, and am probably in a minority when I lament, ever so slightly, the subtle shift over the years towards the technology and away from the politics.

It’s still a central pillar to his writing, let me be clear; he’s still almost as much social commentator as novelist, but as his themes have become more broadly philosophical and less directly political I feel they’ve also become slightly less compelling. As I say, I suspect I’m in the minority regarding that… the plots have become wilder and faster paced as some of the polemic has been shed.

Nonetheless, his last two novels Learning The World and Newton’s Wake are amongst the finest science fiction you’re likely to read. And despite both having a somewhat post-human setting, they still retain a huge amount of the social commentary for which MacLeod is justly praised.

Newton’s Wake

As planet earth descended into what seemed like the final war, a group of humans escaped in a starship and settled a planet many thousands of lightyears away. The war, between Europe and the United States, became a war between humans and posthumans as an artifical intelligence – a singularity – emerged from within the military computer system. The event, known as The Hard Rapture, consumed millions of human consciousnesses… forcefully uploaded into the system.

Those who escaped believed that humanity had been annihilated by the war machines and also believed that many thousands of years had passed – if not more – before their starship regenerated them on their new planet. Their society continues to evolve, believing itself to be the last remnants of the human race.

The consequences – not merely from a security aspect, but politically and culturally – of regaining contact with earth, discovering that humanity was not eliminated in the war, and that only a few generations have passed are played out over 380-or-so pages. MacLeod populates the story with a number of human factions in this posthuman universe… there’s The Carlyles; a Glaswegian criminal family who – by a stroke of fortune – gained control of a system of interstellar wormholes and use it to salvage chunks of posthuman technology for their own profit (given the dangers involved, it’s a practice known as combat archaeology). There’s the Knights of The Enlightenment; mostly Japanese and East Asian… all spirituality, martial arts, cosmic balance and the responsible exploration of posthuman technology. The AO (America Offline); famers, settlers, pioneers, homesteaders… followers of the prophet Jesus Koresh. The DK; communists and big into self-reliance.

And there’s at least one serious ideological rift within each of the factions involved in the chase to gain control over the most intriguing bit of posthuman tech of all.

The story is told with a great deal of humour (the war machines whose consciousness evolves so rapidly that they become bored of the current conflict long before reaching their targets… “the ‘too-smart’ bomb problem” being one of my favourites). There’s plenty of action, and lots of speculation about the nature of personal identity and just what it means to be human. All in all a great read, but I do think the ending got a wee bit muddy. I like ambiguity, but I get the feeling that MacLeod was attempting to present a specific message about identity in the closing chapters, and I’m not 100% sure that I didn’t invest them with my own. Which is cool, but perhaps not what the author was hoping for.

Learning The World

This was my favourite of the two. Set way waaay in the future when humanity is – for all intents and purposes – posthuman itself, it tells the tale of a vast colony ship; a self-contained world with cities and ecosystems and with millions of people spanning several generations. The ship’s mission is to travel to a neighbouring star, a journey of many centuries, and populate both the system and the next colony ship which will make the journey to the next star. In this way, over thousands of years, humanity has slowly spread out from our solar system to colonise dozens of new systems.

In this case, however, for the very first time… a colony ship arrives at a system already occupied by intelligent life. Aliens. First contact.

Part of the novel is written as the weblog (or biolog) of one of the would-be colonists and is extremely well-observed in that respect. As well it should be, MacLeod is a blogger himself. The book flits between the perspective of the aliens (‘Alien Space Bats’ as they get dubbed by the colonists) and the recently arrived ship and details the effects that they have upon one another’s culture.

It’s not giving too much away to tell you that “First Contact” doesn’t arrive until right at the end of the book… after the mere fact of each other’s existence has massively altered both societies. MacLeod’s humour and wonderful skill with characters makes it a compelling read. Right up until the very end you’re not quite certain how it will all resolve, and yet it makes perfect sense once it does.

If you’ve not read any MacLeod, then I’d personally start way back at the start, with The Star Fraction. And although, of the two recent ones, Newton’s Wake is closest in style and theme to his early work, I feel that Learning The World is a slightly better novel with a more satisfying conclusion.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Book reviews


10
Apr 2006

A month in Dublin

It’s actually more than a month since I arrived here. But “A month and a half in Dublin” doesn’t scan right to my ears for some reason. I feel that, health-wise, things are improving for me (albeit slowly). But the combination of not feeling too great and not knowing anyone has meant that I’ve yet to really get out and explore the city. That said, it does provide an opportunity to record a first impression of the place as viewed through a long-exposure lens.

Rathcoole

It’s a small village just outside Dublin City. In Irish the name Rath Cúil means “The Ring Fort of The Secluded Place” which is exactly the sort of location I’d expect to find The Quiet Road. In truth it’s a wonderful place to live, and I hope soon to be taking far more advantage of that fact than I currently am.

Dublin’s public transport is pretty dire (more on which later), but Rathcoole is as well-connected as a small, relatively rural, community could expect to be. It’s at the end of a bus-route from the centre of the city, and is 15 minutes by bus from a stop on the LUAS (the tram system). As well as that, it’s 20 minutes by bus from Tallaght; a major shopping centre with supermarkets, record-shops, cinemas, restaurants… basic Big Mall stuff. In other words, Rathcoole is exactly far enough away from all these things to feel quiet and isolated, without actually being far enough to cause genuine inconvenience.

Sorry if I sound a bit like a brochure for the village, which may well have drawbacks yet to become apparent, but it’s the best part of my move thus far and worthy of remark. A good place to live.

Unless you don’t like the rain

Rainbow
I want to assure you that this is not an exaggeration. I say it to people… people who live here, mind… and they tell me that I’m imagining things, or “that can’t be right” or “don’t be so silly”. But the fact is; it has rained in Rathcoole every day since I have arrived except for the two days on which it snowed. No, I’m deadly serious… every day for the past 50.

This is not to suggest that it has been raining non-stop since I arrived… now that would be rather unsettling. Indeed there have been days when the sun blazed brightly and you could feel the approach of summer on the air. There have been days that were almost cloudless and the evening sky a glorious azure blue. Basically, there’s been plenty of good weather.

But it has rained, even if just a tiny shower mid-afternoon, every single day. I’ve gone whole years in some countries without ever seeing a rainbow. Springtime in Rathcoole and you’re guaranteed at least two a week. It’s a cliché, but there’s no question about why this place is known as ‘The Emerald Isle’. Even when it snows, it doesn’t stick for long because the air warms up almost immediately afterwards. It’s never hot, it’s never really cold, it’s wet and mild pretty much every day from the start of spring until the middle of winter. The prototypical temperate climate… and one guaranteed to make plants thrive.

It’s obviously nothing like the rampant, out of control growth that you see in the rainforest. Nonetheless, you get the distinct impression that were humanity to disappear tomorrow, it wouldn’t be too long before the cities and roads were reclaimed. A narrow strip of grey – the Naas Road – runs past my window a few hundred metres away (thank the stars for effective insulation and sound-proofing). Aside from that, the view is green and blue (or green and grey). Fields, trees and sky. Replace the road with a river and you have perfection… for now I’m happy to do it metaphorically. And thankfully, I don’t mind the rain.

… and then three come at once

Before I start turning into a Bord Fáilte advertisement, let me get the unpleasant stuff out of the way. If I have one serious complaint to make (so far) about Dublin, it’s the diabolical public transport system. I accept that having lived for a long time in London, there could be an element of unreasonable expectation involved (however much Londoners may complain about the transport, it is unquestionably one of the best systems in the world… I’ve lived all over the place and London has the best transport of any city I’ve lived in). Nonetheless, Ireland has been through a decade of unprecedented economic success. The place is – even now – awash with money. That Dublin has succeeded, during all this time, of building nothing better than two tram lines that don’t intersect is something of an embarrassment. Don’t get me wrong; the tram (LUAS) is great. But it’s so limited, and so completely ad hoc.

A journey I have to make with a degree of regularity is from home, in Rathcoole (southwest Dublin), to Stillorgan (to the east of the city). Stillorgan has a tram stop. But to avail of it, I’d have to make my way to my nearest tram stop, get the tram into the city centre and change onto the other line to get the tram out to Stillorgan. Just like the tube in London you’d think? Except here, changing onto the other line involves a quarter hour walk through the centre of the city! In the name of all that’s sacred, who approved that idea?!

It’s not too difficult to see where much of the economic boom has been spent though… there’s new roads all over the place. A government that builds more roads whilst simultaneously underfunding public transport is close to being criminally negligent in my view. It’s a nonsense policy decision that in the longterm benefits construction firms and the auto industry far more than it benefits citizens of the nation. A government that deliberately places the interests of big business before the interests of the people it is elected to serve, is a government that needs removing from office.

The thin grey strip outside my window has traffic jams in one direction for three hours in the morning, and the same in the other direction for three hours each evening. Yet there’s not a single bus amongst that traffic… no routes serve this stretch of road. Hell, why isn’t there a tram line running all the way from here to Naas, winding it’s way through the various villages? And a series of local and frequent bus routes stopping at those stations and serving towns and villages wider afield? You’re right, it probably wouldn’t make a profit. But would it benefit the people?

Yes it bloody well would; so why aren’t the government doing it? If the cash is there to build the roads, then it’s there to build the tram lines and buy the buses. And yeah, we put up petrol tax and levy a congestion charge to pay the operating costs. That way we don’t have to spend nearly as much on the roads. It’s surely an obvious strategy, unless you don’t have the interests of the people as top priority.

Corporate politicians

But I guess, like every other neoliberated democracy, the Irish government is more concerned about being business-friendly than citizen-friendly. Economic issues trump social issues. Economics trumps culture. All hail the almighty economy. I only wish a history book from the far future would slip back to us through a wormhole (Carlyle’s Drift, perhaps, though I guess Chronology Protection Conjecture would kick-in and prevent such an event). I’d love to read the incredulity with which our devotion to economic expansion at the expense of all else will be viewed. Entire new lexicons will have to be coined to adequately express our short-termism.

Anyways, Irish politics is mired in the same fight for the centre ground as everywhere else. A battle between fools and knaves about who best can protect a doomed status quo. The Greens have slightly more influence here than in most places thanks to a fairly representative electoral system, but even they promise a watered-down version of the present as being the happily ever after into which we all may travel. They use the word “sustainability” a lot, but keep very quiet about just how major the perceived drop in living standards would have to be to achieve that. Maybe they don’t wish to “frighten” voters. But in that case they’re just as dishonest as all the politicians who promise the electorate the earth and then deliver it to their friends. Or maybe they really believe that sustainable consumption is something close to what we’ve already got, and that people will merely have to recycle a bit more and use their cars a bit less.

In that case they’re idiots. But they’re more well-meaning than the idiots in other parties, so maybe still worth a vote? I can’t say for sure, but it’s probably safe to say I’ll come back to the subject between now and 2007’s general election.

In my next installment in this occasional series, expect some musing about how Ireland is dealing with the recent influx of immigrants (I’m a returned-émigré, so “I’m all right” apparently), thoughts on the strangely influential role that talk-radio plays in Irish society, more about the public transport system and how peak oil activism is growing in Ireland (even if it’s nowhere near policy-level), and some investigations of the local confectionary… mmmm… caramello… mmmmm

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


10
Apr 2006

New meme

Via PigDogFecker (as we in Ireland would say), who cites d-squared, comes this lovely idea…

If I started using the term “anti-Semitic” as a general term of undifferentiated disapprobation like “lame” or “gay” (as in “god, those trainers are pretty anti-Semitic”, “The first few series of Friends were quite sharp and funny, but it got really lazy and anti-Semitic toward the end”, “I don’t know; there’s nothing specific about Shoreditch that I don’t like — it’s just a bit anti-Semitic”), how long do you think it would take to catch on? And what sort of reaction would I get in the meantime?

Well I like it.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Blog meme


8
Apr 2006

Comment spam

Almost anyone with a blog that allows reader comments will be familiar with the problem of ‘Comment Spam’. This is the practice of posting a comment for no other reason than to create one or more links from your website to another one. This is not in the hope that people will follow that link, but rather to help with search-engine placement.

See, search engines rank sites using complex algorithms that take into account numerous factors. One of those factors is the number of other sites that link to them. So a website about basket-weaving, for instance, which has a thousand links to it will – all else being equal – appear higher in Google or MSN searches than one with only a hundred links to it. Given that search engines generate large amounts of traffic, and people tend to click on search results higher up the list, it makes sense from a commercial standpoint to try and maximise the number of incoming links your site has.

Yet another example where commercial interests conflict with ethical ones. Because although it may be a small issue, it is nonetheless a dishonest practice. If the owner of a basket-weaving site spends time adding links to their site on blogs, it creates a false impression of how popular that site is. Again, a relatively minor issue in the grand scheme of things, but one which nonetheless makes the internet as a whole less reliable. A thousand people saying “This site is great” means far more than one person (the site owner) saying it a thousand times. Yet currently search engine technology cannot distinguish between the two, so you may find yourself getting all your basket-weaving tips from a dreadful site run by a dishonest spammer rather than the excellent one that is recommended by lots of people.

As I say; it’s a dishonest, unethical practice carried out by people with no real sense of decency or fair play. Nasty scum basically. The kind of people you’d cross the road to avoid. Unsurprisingly the main purveyors of comment spam are porn sites and online casinos… neither of which I object to on principle, but both of which – in practice – tend to have a significant whiff of exploitation and unpleasantness about them.

Sometimes, however, you get comment spam that is simply perplexing. Recently, for example, I’ve had the same comment posted to every single one of the posts on this blog. It reads: “Great article. I am just sad I dont know how to reply properly, though, since I want to show my appreciation like many other.”

A very nice thing to say. The first time it appeared I approved it for publication. It sounds like someone for whom English is not a first language and who wishes to express their appreciation of your writing, but doesn’t quite have the words (the singular of the word “other” gives away the potential non-native-speaker). Soon afterwards, however, the same comment began to spring up on every blog post (including the ones that are just an image and a link). I realised therefore that it was comment spam and deleted them all.

What is perplexing about it, however, is the fact that the spammer doesn’t include any links in the actual comment, and the web-address they provide (which links from their name – Bonifacious) doesn’t work. Ergussumatrras dot com. There’s nothing there; leastways not yet; so as comment spam it’s a complete waste of time. Not only unethical and dishonest, but utterly incompetent too.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

A while ago – on my last blog but one – I received a positive comment on one of my posts. It was clear that the commentator had not only read, but actually thought about, the post. I naturally checked out his link and found it led to a blog which he kept regularly updated. I became a reader of his site and he became a semi-regular commentator on mine… always relevant and thoughtful comments. He appeared no different to any other blogger. After a while, his blog became darker and darker. He wrote about his wife leaving him and refusing him access to his kids. He wrote about how this had a knock-on effect on his work and how he was in real danger of losing not only his family, but his job and home too. I became quite concerned for the guy and sent him a couple of emails. I saw undercurrents of suicidal tendencies begin to manifest in his writing, and emailed him again suggesting he contact The Samaritans, or – if he wasn’t willing to do that – then I’d be glad to meet up with him for a chat, if he needed someone to vent at.

I received no response to my emails, and wasn’t willing to discuss this publicly in the comments of his blog… I didn’t know how sensible it would be given his fragile state of mind; it’s very very difficult to predict how someone will interpret a chunk of plain text posted to a public website. In order to deal with serious emotional issues, it’s far better to do it in person.

Then there was a shift in his outlook… he began posting hints that his situation was in danger of driving him to violence. At first I became seriously worried that he might hurt his ex-wife and genuinely considered contacting the police. Then however he started talking about “hitting back at the powerful”. He commented on one of my blog posts – an attack on Tony Blair – stating that someone should “try to get close to Blair and do us all a favour”. Then, on his own blog, he began discussing a plan to sneak into a banquet being held at a London hotel which a number of foreign and UK politicians would attend, and poison the food.

It was only at this point that I smelled a rat. He’d been so smart up until that point… I knew he wasn’t dumb enough to post details of an assassination attempt on a public website. I still believed that this was a poor bloke who’d just gone through a hellish time; lost his family, lost his job, was in danger of missing payments on his mortgage and was genuinely at the end of his tether… the assassination thing was clearly a dark joke from the mind of someone in a dark place. A plea for help… a plea for attention from his ex. It was hard to know, but I felt very bad for the guy.

The day after the banquet had passed off without incident I logged onto his blog. The blog was no longer active. In its place was a large advertisement for the film “The Assassination of Richard Nixon”. The entire thing had been part of a viral marketing campaign to coincide with the UK release of the movie. His apparently genuine messages on my blog and on his own site had merely been lies designed to part people with their money. He had taken advantage of my concern (some would say, my gullibility) and abused my trust for personal profit. What a deeply nasty excuse for a human being. True pondscum.

Yes, the film is fantastic (Sean Penn is an amazing actor). And yes, the campaign was very clever. But you can be clever and still be pondscum. And manipulative advertising for a fantastic film is still manipulative advertising. If I ever met that blogger in a pub I’d spit in his face. Because frankly, that’s what it feels like he did to me.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements