May 2009

Some Bowie for the weekend

OK, so the weekend is half done, but it’s a bank holiday over here, so I have an excuse. Anyhoo, I’m still going to post this for your delight and delectation. It’s a Bowie video. A 1997 live performance of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, reworked radically in a drum-n-bass meets discordant guitar stylee.

The Man Who Sold The World. Live, 1997.

I was listening to some Bowie earlier today. I had him on random play, and at one point African Night Flight found itself shuffled up next to We Prick You. The former is the gloriously weird second track from 1979’s Lodger (it’s one of his best vocal performances, which — given that it’s Bowie we’re talking about — is really saying something). The latter from 1995’s 1.Outside.

It was seamless. And I thought to myself how incredibly fortunate it is that Bowie, against all the odds, got a second wind. As a glance at this Last.fm page will show, I listen to far more of David Bowie’s music than anyone else’s. Even if you add on David Byrne’s solo stuff, Talking Heads are quite a distant second. And while Last.fm only lists the stuff I play here on my PC, I’d wager that my mp3 player has an even bigger Bowie-bias.

Sadly though, by the time I discovered Bowie (the mid-80s) he appeared to have passed his peak. Having single-handedly invented half of the sounds being made during the 1980s, he decided to take a mountain of cocaine and rest on his not inconsiderable laurels. The man fell to earth. The singles were still great (Let’s Dance, Loving The Alien, China Girl, This Is Not America, and so on). He hadn’t lost his touch for writing a great song. And that voice… well, so long as he still had that, everyone desperately wanted him to keep making great records. All of which made the sad mediocrity of the albums so much more difficult to take.

And there the story should have ended. Nic Roeg got it right.

Except he didn’t, did he? Bowie should have got fat and complacent. But instead he got creative again. And started doing unexpected things. And despite having spent the eighties lambasting him for his predictability, the music press hated him for it. How dare he not be written-off when they said he was. First came Tin Machine and The Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack. Both of which deserve some serious reappraisal, incidentally. Then Black Tie, White Noise which is no Lodger, but it is an album by someone who gives a shit again. What the hell was he up to?

None of these, though, could prepare anyone for what happened next. He only called up his old mate Eno, and went and made an album that’s just as good as anything he did in the 70s. OK… not just as good, but a truly worthy heir. Which, technically, shouldn’t have been possible. When 1.Outside came out, I felt like he’d realised that there was a whole bunch of us who’d simply been too young first time round. Listen to that album with open ears. Play it loud, give it your full attention and it opens out into something dark and thrilling and genuinely wonderful. It’s not quite Low, but it sits comfortably beside it… wrapping itself around that same corner of your soul that’s never been the same since Warszawa.

Seriously, if — like most people who appreciate genuinely good popular musics — you think Low is an extraordinary album, then do yourself a favour and play A Small Plot of Land (track 4 off 1.Outside). It’s coming from the very same source. Albeit with rather more control and self-referentiality. But I think we can forgive David Bowie the occasional knowing smile.

Most people couldn’t have returned from The Serious Moonlight Tour. But Bowie wandered far further into the wilderness than even that. He went all the way to The Glass Spider and still found his way back. Nobody else could have done that. But, of course, Bowie is the coolest man on the planet (what with being from space, or another dimension, or something), so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

In fact, he’s been able to treat the world to another decade of great music. Three of his post-80s albums get regular play on my mp3 player.

And I got to experience it first hand. No, I wasn’t at Hammersmith in July 1973, but I embarked upon an epic winter hitch around the UK in pursuit of the 1.Outside tour (granted the vibe was rather different — more post-apocalyptic industrial decay / less glittery space operatic). But it was utterly incredible. Sure sure, it got a bit psychotic at times, yes that’s true, but it was one of the great defining times of my twenties (a 36-hour hitch in a blizzard with a massive speed comedown… me and Justin, we didn’t have Vietnam, or The Somme, or the beaches at Normandy… we had the Severn View Motorway Services). I may have to post the full story of that hitch one day. It’s an epic voyage into the Heart of Darkness complete with angels, demons and Cliff Fucking Richard.

The above video, so you know, is the version of The Man Who Sold The World played on that tour. Clearly you won’t get the same shivers down the spine that it gives me, but I hope you dig it.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Media » Audio, Video

May 2009

A glance around Europe

With the European elections almost upon us, I figured I’d present a quick round-up of what stories are being covered by the media throughout the continent. Based purely on a single, unscientific glance at what currently has the most “related stories” on that country’s google news page. Given that this can literally change from minute to minute, it’s hardly something to which a lot of meaning should be attributed. So fair warning, and on with the round-up…

Britain: Julie Kirkbride and Margaret Moran to quit at next election

Two MPs locked in high-profile battles with their constituents over expenses claims ended their parliamentary careers within 10 minutes of each other yesterday when Tory Julie Kirkbride and Labour’s Margaret Moran announced their intention to stand down at the next election.

I myself have been preoccupied with the expenses katzenjammer of late, so I can hardly blame Britain for it’s preoccupation. I’ve found it endlessly fascinating from the standpoint of group psychodynamics as well as psychologically interesting on the level of individual MPs. See, I have some theories about the nature of political power and the effect it can have on both groups and individuals. And this scandal is like a public demonstration of my views. All wrapped up in a thick blanket of genuine absurdity… with moats and duck-islands and claiming back unpaid taxes on expenses. I think it’s fab. But while lots of people are speculating about the impact this will have on the election results, there’s not many people actually discussing the elections themselves.

Well… excluding all the talk about how well the ultra-nationalist BNP might do. The elections are being covered from that angle, sadly enough. I don’t see the BNP as quite the threat that many view them as. Not because I don’t think they’re reprehensible. They are, and I do. But because I think they’re incompetent. If they were to get an MEP or two, I suspect it would result in the party splintering within a couple of years. Of course, I want to see them do badly. But I think a small taste of power could do serious damage to them. Clouds and silver linings and what have you.

France: Scientology on Trial in France: Can a Religion Be Banned?

As a fiercely secular nation, France has always had an awkward relationship with religious groups. Officials often find themselves struggling to strike the delicate balance between maintaining church-state separation and honoring the right of citizens to express their faith. But in the current case against the U.S.-based Church of Scientology, authorities have abandoned their usual attempts at fine-tuning religion’s standing in French society — instead, they want to ban Scientology from France altogether.

I’m doing something of a disservice to the French here. The elections have a media profile (according to my own unscientific assessment of the google news sites) slightly higher than the scientology trial. Sarkozy appears to be talking tough on crime because of the rise of the far right. So we’re unlikely to see a Gallic drift leftwards during this election. Isn’t it weird how the far right so easily sets the agenda for the centre right, but for the past three decades the centre-left has been steadfastly distancing itself (policy-wise) from its ideologues? I’m (honestly) not making any value judgment there; it’s just an observation.

Germany: Opel talks break down in Berlin

All-night talks in Berlin about the future of Opel and Vauxhall have broken down without reaching a decision about who should buy GM’s European unit.

It’s all about the economy in Germany, but it’s not really feeding into the elections all that much with the whole nation, government, opposition and population united in their frustration at General Motors. Seems like they were in the process of signing the contracts that would allow the German government to begin financing Opel when someone noticed that a GM representative had scribbled “oh, and another €300m as well. Plees.” onto the document in crayon.

Greece: Greek pair develop swine flu on return from visit to the Capital

The country’s health minister yesterday said a 21-year-old man had been confirmed as having the virus after his compatriot, also 21, tested positive on Tuesday. A third man, who had been travelling with the infected pair, tested negative for the virus.

The Greek media is focussed equally on the elections and swine flu. They seem a good deal more concerned about the virus than anywhere else in Europe. Hard to tell why as they’ve not had a disproportionate number of cases. As for the elections; it’s a familiar story. The party in power is being accused of corruption and running the economy into the ground. A backlash is expected. In this case it’ll be a lurch to the right. All depends on who is in power really. If Pasok was the party of government, then the lurch would be leftwards. Greek, Dutch, Irish, British, German… we are all of us an unimaginative lot when it comes to casting our ballot.

Ireland: President calls for Ryan report prosecutions

President Mary McAleese has said she believes there should be criminal prosecutions as a result of the Ryan report into institutionalised child abuse.

Here in Ireland, understandably enough really, the focus has been on the Ryan Report. Seems the institutions of the Catholic Church have managed — somehow! — to emerge from the Ryan Report looking even worse than anyone imagined. It’s harrowing. My own time with the Christian Brothers (one of the congregations covered by the report) contained nothing remotely close to the severe and sustained abuse revealed in the report. But I’ll never forget the atmosphere of the place. The constant threat of “the leather” keeping us all in line. It’s perhaps unsurprising, so, that in a time when the nation is reliving its collective childhood trauma, the media aren’t as interested as they might be in the European elections.

Italy: Berlusconi’s popularity slides as Letizia mystery deepens

The Italian newspapers have been preoccupied with one subject and one subject only: the relationship between prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and a young woman from Naples called Noemi Letizia.

OK, seems like the Italians don’t really have their eye on the ball right now.

Netherlands: World scrambles to find response to North Korea

The major powers were last night scrambling to find a credible response to North Korea’s increasingly brazen sabre rattling — one that would punish the renegade Communist regime without triggering a second all-out war on the Korean peninsula in little more than half a century.

For reasons I can’t explain, the Dutch are far more worried about the whole North Korea thing than anyone else in Europe. Leastways if my glance at google news Netherlands is anything to go by. They are waaay more preoccupied with news from Pyongyang than they are with who they’ll be sending to Brussels. Let’s all hope they’ve got their priorities wrong on this one.

Poland: Polish shipyards sold after rules breach

The government agency in charge of disposing of two of Poland’s shipyards on Thursday signed an agreement selling the bulk of their assets to Netherlands-registered United International Trust. The yards were forced into liquidation by the European Commission, which found they had received illegal government aid. The Commission ruled that the yards had to be broken up into smaller units, which were offered for sale via auction.

The Polish media seems to be talking about the elections alright. And like in Germany there’s a heavy emphasis on the economy (hardly surprising in the midst of a global recession). The shipyards story is really the first time that Pawel Public has had a decent excuse to get pissed-off with the EU, so it’ll be interesting to see what kind of effect this has on the polls.

See what I did there?

Spain: Brilliant Barcelona outclass Man Utd

And as Ferguson grimly accepted the truth that Manchester United were dismantled by Barcelona, additional pain came from the knowledge that he knew what was coming and still his Premier League champions were ill-equipped, tactically and technically, to deal with it.

The day after Barcelona wins the Champions League probably isn’t the best time to do a quick survey of what’s happening in the Spanish media. A closer look, however, would seem to suggest that in truth, the Spanish media are all over these elections. There appears to be a national debate underway between the socialists and the free-marketeers. The outcome of this debate will doubtlessly heavily influence the kind of MEPs that’ll be making the trip between Spain and Belgium.

Either that, or the Spaniards will just vote against the government like everywhere else.

Anyhoo, that’s it for now. I know that only covers a small number of the nations voting, but this was only a glance around Europe after all.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2009

The best thing ever…

… no really. This is what the internet is for. (via)

I know it’s easy to say this now, but I dreamt of a website very much like that a while ago. Absolutely beautiful. Requires speakers, a broadband connection and enough time to truly appreciate where you can take it.

my life’s work, she said, is the impact that this has

4 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Audio, Video

May 2009


This is one of those posts about blog trivia, so will be of limited interest to many. But I thought I’d do one in honour of my spam filter having just caught its 100,000th piece of spam. Actually, when I logged in just now, Akismet told me that I’d had…

100,014 spams caught, 1,476 legitimate comments, and an overall accuracy rate of 99.882%.

I have no idea how that compares with other blogs of a similar size (i.e. very low readership / traffic) but it seems like an awful lot to me. Sadly the actual one hundred thousandth piece of comment-spam was one of those “loads of question-marks” comments — indicating, I suspect, that it was submitted in a typeface my browser can’t process. This is given further credence by the fact that it links back to an Israeli website selling cheap “Nutraceuticals and Functional Foods”. So I’m guessing that my 100,000th piece of spam was in Hebrew.

Try explaining that to someone from the 19th century.

The 99,999th spam was also for cheap drugs. In English this time. So if anyone needs any amoxicillin, I can send you the link.

The 100,001st spam, on the other hand, was an example of my favourite kind. The classic nonsense poetry spam… “I so understand, in last paragraph just whole salt and is stated”.

This can be reformatted thus…

I so understand,
in last paragraph just whole
salt and is stated.

Ain’t that the truth.

Meanwhile my incoming traffic is still heavily google-based. I’d say at least 60% of my readership is of the “search, click, glance, back” variety. I’d like to think that I manage to snare one of those a month as a regular reader… but even that may be optimistic.

And there are three topics which, via a variety of different searches, account for the majority of those google hits. First up (and this pleases me) are people searching for “CO2 per barrel of crude oil” or some variation thereof. The next largest group are those who come looking for the techno-viking video. I’m not even in the first 10 results for that. Which means people are skipping over 10 perfectly good links to a video in order to watch it on this site. Ten or fifteen of them a day. Which is odd I think. And the third biggest draw is the “Dublin to London by bus” post. Like the CO2 emissions thang, that’s quite a useful post, I guess, so it’s nice to see it getting readers.

Some questions that — according to google — people thought they’d have answered here. And, in case they return, the answers…

Is psychoanalysis harmful?
In general I would say, “no”. But it rather depends on the analyst.

What is the authority principle of Freud?
I have no idea. I suspect you are referring to the ‘Reality Principle’ (though I’ve never heard it referred to as the ‘authority’ principle). The definition provided by Wikipedia is nice and concise, while there’s a longer extract from the Dictionary of Psychoanalysis over at answers.com.

Why is windows genuine advantage suddenly popping up?
Don’t ask me, I gave up trying to understand Windows a long time ago. “Weird stuff happens”. I suspect there’d be a measurable drop in global stress levels if Microsoft used that as the tag-line for Windows. Kind of like a big “Don’t Panic!” sign.

Who has the biggest balls?
In Britain it’s clearly Lord Goldsmith. As for elsewhere? I really couldn’t say, but if you turn off google’s safesearch filter I suspect you could have an unforgettable time trying to find out. Or for a slightly different take on the matter, you could check out Flight of the Conchords and their sugarlumps.

What are 3 countries besides the usa that are have placed bans on smoking?
There’s a whole bunch of them, each with slightly different levels of prohibition (though only in Bhutan is the actual sale of tobacco illegal).

I think my favourite search term of late, though is “marijuana found in the antarctic“. I’ve searched myself and can’t find what the person might have been referring to.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

May 2009

The Local and European elections

The next couple of weeks will see two sets of elections here in Ireland. There’s much evidence to suggest that the electorate is going to take an opportunity to kick the living crap out of the government. There’s also some evidence that the left might pick up more support than usual. Ireland is traditionally more socialist-leaning than many countries (certainly than the UK or America) and with the spectacular collapse of the Celtic Tiger and sudden return to high unemployment, the drift away from the centre-right is inevitable.

That said, the big winners are still likely to be Fine Gael, the main opposition party. Though politically indistinguishable from the governing party, Fianna Fáil, they will be seen as the best way of bloodying the government’s nose. Because there’s no doubt that the big losers will be the parties of power, including the Greens… having thrown in their lot with the centre right, they are not in a position to capitalise on the fallout from the recent economic anarchy. Labour and Sinn Féin could do very well, especially in the Locals.

[Aside: I will admit to a chuckle when I read about how Sinn Féin MPs at Westminister have been claiming the absolute maximum in expenses despite refusing to participate in parliament (they cite a moral objection to swearing fealty to the Queen which every MP is required to do prior to taking office). Of all the parties involved, they are probably the only one who can legitimately claim to be representing their voters by bringing the British political system into disrepute.]

Anyhoo, Sinn Féin have become the “Will they? Won’t they?” force in Irish politics south of the border. Their policies don’t appear to be quite as unsavoury as some nationalist groups (more Plaid Cymru, less BNP), though the fact they renounced guns more recently than some other Irish parties still puts a lot of people off. A local election during a time of unprecedented public disillusionment with the government could prove to be their springboard towards a larger role in Irish political life however.

All the same, I have a fundamental problem with nationalism, and while many of their policies are attractive I do find the emphasis on “Irishness” to be a little disconcerting. I’m Irish myself, but I’ve spent most of my life as an emigrant and only returned a few years ago. Also, while my partner is an Irish citizen, she is naturalized and didn’t start life that way. So I find some of Sinn Féin’s language a bit exclusionary at times. Again, don’t confuse this with BNP-level stuff; it’s not; but it’s far from ideal.

That said, maybe the leftwards drift will be less pronounced and wash up at the feet of Labour. The Irish labour party didn’t follow Blair’s New Labour in having a complete conversion to free market princples, but nor can they be considered traditional socialists. They have tended to be in favour of the privatisation of public assets of late, though they’ve re-adopted some of the language of the left now that it seems like it might be in vogue again. A fact that generates a somewhat sceptical glance from this direction.

I don’t imagine there’s going to be many big surprises in either the locals or the Europeans. Large loss for Fianna Fáil, smaller loss for the Greens, large gains for Fine Gael and Labour with the chance of Sinn Féin picking up plenty of local council seats as well as one MEP. Also a small increase in the number of socialists and independents gaining council seats.

As for me? Despite being a ‘traditional’ Green voter, the Greens lost my vote by supporting and perpetuating a government that spent the best part of a decade overseeing an orgy of capitalist excess. I gave them my voice and they allowed it to be effectively silenced in return for not much at all. I suspect, therefore, that I’ll try to help an independent socialist on to the local council and see if I can’t do my bit in sending Mary Lou to Brussels. It’s hardly ideal, but I’d be a fool to pass up the opportunity to help give this government a slap.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2009

Final (?) thoughts on the expenses scandal

Over in Britain, the MPs expenses palaver continues to shock and amuse in equal measure. Not because of the (relatively trivial) sums of money lost to the treasury, but because of what it says about those in power. It’s sneaking a peek behind the curtain, so to speak. And it has revealed some genuinely sordid and unsavoury behaviour. Better yet though, have been the confused attempts to mitigate it, to explain it away. They have revealed a group of people utterly disconnected from those they represent. So disconnected, in fact, that they don’t realise waving personal cheques around on national TV isn’t entirely appropriate right now.

Or take Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, who appears to defend the lax expenses rules (in an article in The Independent) by insisting that MPs don’t get paid enough. The public, it seems, do not believe MPs are worth paying what Dorries insists they’re worth. As a result, they naturally had to find some other way of getting the money that Dorries says they’re worth.

Except, as Tim Worstall points out, this isn’t an entirely sound defence, as it amounts to:

You wouldn’t give us more money so we took it without you knowing.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. When I was in industry, I never felt as though I were getting paid enough. And I mean that in all seriousness. This isn’t just a piece of rhetoric. I did not feel as though my actual value to the company (my contribution to the bottom line) was in any way proportionately reflected in my salary. As a result, I felt little guilt about using company resources (in the form of paper, printing and photocopying) to publish a few small-circulation zines.

Here’s the point though… if I’d been discovered, I would have — justifiably — been held to account. In truth the infraction was so small and my value to the business large enough that I could probably have retained my job if I’d been contrite enough and made amends and gave guarantees that it would never happen again, etc. etc. But there’s no way around the fact that I would have been in hot water. It’s not like I didn’t know the salary when I took the job.

Dorries then goes on to suggest that by shining a light on the expenses of MPs and telling the British public where their money is being spent, newspapers are guilty of a “McCarthyite witch hunt”. That MPs are being subjected to “a form of torture” which may even drive someone to suicide.

Interestingly, there may be something to her concern. Public humiliation is one of those strange pressure points that can trigger extreme behaviour in some people. And I suspect there might even be something to the idea that the kind of person who is most susceptible to public humiliation would be drawn towards a career in the public eye. That’s just idle speculation though, and there’s probably not much to be done about it. It’s certainly not a reason to overlook petty corruption in politics. Being neurotic sadly does not exonerate you from all wrongdoing.

I only wish it did.

Amongst the revelations during the McCarthyite witch hunt, is the eyebrowing-raising fact that even within the current climate of hostility towards the perceived privileges of power, David Cameron managed to forget how many houses he owns. It boggles the mind. Not just that he said (to paraphrase) “two… oh wait, I think it’s four”, but that once this scandal became a national obsession he didn’t spend ten minutes every morning in front of a mirror rehearsing his answer to “how many houses do you own?”

Is he just thick?

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2009

Mothership Connection

As an addendum to the last post

Because, quite frankly, one Parliament / Funkadelic video just isn’t enough
HQ and Fullscreen the thang!

UPDATE 24-05-09: As Gyrus points out in the comments to the previous post, these P-Funk videos are but small parts of a larger whole. Check out The Mothership Connection for some amazing music and visuals.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Media » Audio, Video

May 2009

Some links and a video

Here’s a round-up of some of the blogging that’s caught my eye lately…

I’ve known Merrick for about 15 years now (a fact that makes me feel terribly old… were the St. Rock’s Day Parties really that long ago!?) He’s a good enough friend that I’ve been able to overlook his psychotic hatred of donkeys. A hatred I brought to public attention here, and which may well merit a blog-post of its own some day. His sustained attacks upon one of the few champions that these poor, downtrodden animals have in their cold world of suffering, are essentially the equivalent of eating donkey steaks every day, washed down with a nice warm mug of donkey blood. Vegan? Schmeegan!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending Chris de Burgh as an artist. He’s really not very good, but the first couple of albums have nice tunes on, which is more than you can say for Huey Lewis. Am I right?

Anyhoo, Merrick’s writing (except on the subject of donkeys) is wonderful. And his blog really is one of the best out there. I want more people to visit it as his posts deserve nice long chunky comments threads. While most British bloggers have been having a pop at the British National Party and their leaflet campaign, Merrick’s post on the subject is the one you need to read (British jobs for Polish workers). His post on the MPs expenses brouhaha — Levelling the expenses playing field — is also excellent (and I’m not just saying that because it quotes me a couple of times) and contains the best solution I’ve heard yet regarding the controversial Second Homes Allowance. Just make MPs eligible for housing benefit in London. It is, after all, enough. Isn’t it?

JG Ballard. 1930-2009

JG Ballard
Although it was a wee while ago, I’d like to take a moment to mark the passing of JG Ballard. He had a huge influence on my intellectual development. The Atrocity Exhibition hit me like a freight train in my first year at university. I went on an all-Ballard diet for a while and, having read pretty much everything he’d written up until that point, emerged somewhat freaked out… my dreams, ever-after, have often taken me to landscapes that could only be described as Ballardian. Or would “Ballardesque” be better? Have we established that yet? Anyway, another person who was profoundly touched by Ballard’s work is my friend Gyrus. His short piece, Ballard dies, is worth a clickthrough.

Other thoughts

Also worth your clicks are David Byrne’s musing posts on the internet, resource depletion and socialised medicine (Senigallia — You Get What You Pay For) as well as his latest post… on… well… buildings and food (The Best). OK, so it’s mostly just “food” but the line was too good to pass.

Oh, and in the spirit of my recent, Where’s Scully when you need her? post, check out Sellafield robots stealing nuclear waste. Is this the end for humanity? over at Nuclear Reaction. Run for the hills!

And here’s something for the weekend. Enjoy…

NONE more funky.

9 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Video, Opinion

May 2009

It's not your brain, it's just the flame

Fame is weird. It makes very little difference whether 10 people know you or 100 people know you. But when a million people know you, everything changes. And nobody can remain unaffected by it. Though some carry it better than others.

I’ve met a fair few people over the years who have attained, or had thrust upon them, varying degrees of fame. Mostly, due to circumstance, musicians. I was struck by how there is a palpable burden associated with it. I’m not talking about wealth or talent or anything like that… I’m talking specifically of fame. Of being known (or more accurately, having a specific, and more than likely distorted, version of yourself known) by a significant proportion of the strangers you meet. Needless to say, for most, there are compensations that ease the burden and they can achieve some level of balance as individuals.

But the downsides are there and sometimes can’t be ignored. The biggest downside is paranoia. Fame breeds paranoia like rabbits breed… well, smaller rabbits. And it can breed arrogance. Serious, megalomaniacal arrogance. Which is a really crap combination. As a result, some of the famous people I’ve met have been extremely difficult to like.

And no. No names. It’s one thing to comment upon the public work and utterances of a person — that’s as much up for grabs as any other part of culture — but blogging behind a real person’s back seems wrong to me. On the other hand, it’s probably fine to say positive things about the people you meet.

Take Eric Clapton for instance. On the two occasions I met him back in the 90s, he was just about the nicest person you could hope to spend time with. His music isn’t really my cup of tea, and the media has made him out to be a bit of a right-wing reactionary. So I was — unjustifiably — expecting him to be a bit of an arse. He wasn’t. And I — quite rightly — felt like a bit of an arse for my prejudice. He was like the coolest uncle you could possibly have. Someone who’d seen a bunch of stuff that you were unlikely to ever see, but could communicate it to you without ever seeming condescending or aloof.

Of all of the well known people I’ve met though, nobody carries fame half as well as Julian Cope. I’ve no doubt it’s caused him his fair share of problems, but he’s worked hard to put it to good use. Most don’t. He’s getting radical, idealistic and subversive messages out into the hands of — well, he’s not selling like Coldplay, but his voice carries further than most. And at the same time he’s remained one of the most likeable, decent people you’ll have the good fortune to bump into. Intelligent, funny and frighteningly well-informed.

A description that also applies to Dorian Cope, his wife and recent addition to the list of bloggers. Her blog, On This Deity, sets out to be

An alternative “On This Day”, On This Deity aims to bring light to and celebrate culture heroes, outsider icons, beloved immortals and symbolic events in history. I might not be able to commit to a daily entry, but will attempt several-times-weekly!

So far it’s been excellent. A wonderful blend of the personal and the analytical. Writing filled with insight and humanity (e.g. 18th May 1980 — the Death of Ian Curtis or 13th May: “Poetry is in the Streets” as One Million March in Paris, May 1968). I recommend it as a worthy addition to any discerning blogroll. See also Merrick’s shout.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2009

Awww… it's a little nuke

Over at U-Know! someone posted a link to an article in The Guardian from last November (Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes). The article discusses a technology under development by Hyperion Power Generation in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It’s essentially a small nuclear reactor capable of powering tens of thousands of homes and costing a relatively modest $25m.

A quick search on google news reveals an article on Reuters as recently as this week (Hyperion Has a $100M Valuation for Mini Nuclear Power) which includes the paragraph:

Although nuclear power produces radioactive waste, it doesn’t release greenhouse gases and it has vocal supporters in the new administration, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu. So it’s not so far-fetched for investors to see the potential of Hyperion’s nuclear option.

Now those two articles and a reading of Hyperion’s website (mostly marketing bumpf investor relations) are the extent of my knowledge on this subject, so I don’t know enough about the specifics of their solution to offer a considered critique of the actual technology. However there are some generic criticisms of this approach to energy production that I feel are valid and worth highlighting. All the same, I’m flagging this post in advance as a “first thoughts / first impressions” thing. OK?

And on that basis… yikes!

Small enough to be transported on a ship, truck or train, Hyperion power modules are about the size of a “hot tub” — approximately 1.5 meters wide. Out of sight and safe from nefarious threats, Hyperion power modules are buried far underground and guarded by a security detail. Like a power battery, Hyperion modules have no moving parts to wear down, and are delivered factory sealed. They are never opened on site. Even if one were compromised, the material inside would not be appropriate for proliferation purposes. Further, due to the unique, yet proven science upon which this new technology is based, it is impossible for the module to go supercritical, “melt down” or create any type of emergency situation. If opened, the very small amount of fuel that is enclosed would immediately cool. The waste produced after five years of operation is approximately the size of a softball and is a good candidate for fuel recycling.

Perfect for moderately-sized projects, Hyperion produces only 25 MWe — enough to provide electricity for about 20,000 average American sized homes or its industrial equivalent. Ganged or teamed together, the modules can produce even more consistent energy for larger projects.

The Hyperion team is committed to helping make the clean and safe benefits of nuclear power — benefits that could assist in solving the worst of our planet’s problems — available in even the most remote locations. We hope you will enjoy learning about Hyperion through our web site!

“Nefarious threats”? They make it sound like they’re securing the place against attack from Dr. Evil. Or that we live in a world where the worst thing that could happen is Terry-Thomas might show up and attempt to do something dastardly. Poor copywriting aside, I believe that passage from their website, coupled with some of the claims being made in the media, should raise some serious concerns.

Thousands of little nuclear reactors encased in concrete, scattered all over the world, maintained and secured by the lowest-cost local contractors? There’s a whole bunch of things wrong with that.

First of all, this commits us to a heavily industrialised future which I’m not sure is a sensible decision (i.e. one in which uranium mining and processing is done on a scale that rivals the modern oil industry — how this squares with the claim in the Reuters piece that “nuclear power […] doesn’t release greenhouse gases” is anybody’s guess). I’m not suggesting we abandon technology or automation or electrical energy; merely that we need to scale our usage of these things back dramatically if we wish to use them sustainably. Be far smarter and more selective in the technologies we adopt or continue to use.

Secondly, the waste management issues just give me the head-staggers. It’s one thing having a few secure, essentially semi-militarised, locations where the waste is produced and stored. Even that’s problematic in my view. But to handle a massively distributed network (“available in even the most remote locations”) with a reasonable guarantee that none of the stuff ever ends up in the local reservoirs? Significantly increasing the amount of highly toxic waste we produce when there are alternatives? Future history books will view such decisions as criminally negligent… beyond reprehensible and into pure evil. Always assuming there’s going to be history books chronicling our times and crimes.

Thirdly, I’m always worried when the person selling the technology creates a huge straw man regarding security. What’s he trying to distract us from?

‘You could never have a Chernobyl-type event – there are no moving parts,’ said Deal. ‘You would need nation-state resources in order to enrich our uranium. Temperature-wise it’s too hot to handle. It would be like stealing a barbecue with your bare hands.’Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes, The Guardian

I’m not too worried about someone weaponising this stuff. North Korea’s already done that, and depending upon how the next few years go in Pakistan, some seriously hardline Islamists may get their hands on that technology too. Also, I’m not so sure that we can rely upon Israel to pursue a rational, evidence-based foreign policy and even the countries we view as being a relatively safe pair of hands are more than capable of rationalising a pre-emptive strike one of these days. So the “scary people with nukes” cat is very much out of the bag.

What worries me isn’t a nation state getting hold of this stuff and weaponising it, but a less organised bunch of psychos getting hold of it and poisoning wells and water-tables for several generations. See, I’m not sure exactly what part of “stealing a barbecue with your bare hands” would have prevented the September 11th hijackers doing so if it was part of their mission. For me the security risk of these things is a dedicated group of nutters — some of whom, perhaps, work for a local concrete supply company? — who don’t care about getting their hands burnt, metaphorically speaking. Unfortunately it seems there are plenty of people who’d be willing to expose themselves to a lethal dose of radiation as they steal a bunch of uranium “softballs” from one of the more remote clusters of these things.

Even if powdering the stuff and dumping it into a handful of municipal reservoirs was demonstrated to only raise the risk of childhood leukemia by 0.5% in those areas, how soon before you’ve got a bunch of ghost-towns? Ghost-cities? Millions of families won’t make a level-headed and rational assessment of the risks when the headlines scream “Radioactive Reservoir! Al Qaeda dumps uranium in Dallas water supply!”

The whole thing is fraught with the kind of “What Ifs” that just don’t enter the equation when you recommend a combination of renewable energy and a reduction in consumption.

But I’d be interested in having those “What Ifs” answered and I’ll look out for more information on this over the coming months should it start to gain credibility. Maybe this is the magic space dust we’ve been waiting for.

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