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The Diary of Humphrey Clarke

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Farewell Livejournal Nov. 12th, 2008 @ 10:02 am


Greetings all.

Just to let everyone who still reads this rubbish that I am no longer updating this particular blog. I much prefer the blogger interface and it is proving a bit of a hassle to cart my posts over.

My random musings blog has moved here:

http://humphreyclarke.blogspot.com/

I am also a regular contributor on Science, History and Religion here at Quodlibeta :

http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/

On the nature of things Sep. 15th, 2008 @ 02:32 pm
And so the recession is finally upon us like an apocalyptic tidal wave, sweeping along with it all the property shows, home improvement magazines and ‘buy a new place in the sun’ paraphernalia that has been ubiquitous over the past decade. In much the same way the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah must have gossiped excitedly at drinks parties about the meteoric rise in value of their riverfront property, oblivious to the deluge of fire and brimstone sweeping up behind them. Despite innumerable warning signs, the collapse of the sub-prime market and the accompanying economic downturn were not expected by many people and were met with incredulous disbelief. My theory is that this is due to a secular reinterpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. With the arrival of Christianity, it came to be believed that history had directionality and a predetermined goal, which was human salvation. In the enlightenment this idea was hijacked by intellectuals like Rousseau, Saint-Simon and Comte who instilled the belief that civilisation is moving towards some kind of a global society based on science. In the 21st century, having shorn the past and future of its metaphysical significance, people seem to believe that history’s goal is to increase the value of everyone’s house, ever onwards and upwards till we reach some glorious utopian future where the British middle class are enthroned as the privileged aristocracy of Europe, all the menial jobs are done by Polish wage slaves and everyone owns a second home in Bulgaria and the Algarve. In pre-Christian Europe and eastern cultures, human life was understood as a series of cycles and history was seen as tragic or comic rather than redemptive. I would argue that in terms of economics this view is of considerable merit. Events such as the ‘South Sea Bubble’, the ‘Dot.Com’ boom and the ‘House Price’ revolution can best be understood as a series of tragic-comic cycles with people becoming overexcited and irrational about the value of their over inflated assets, only to be brought back to reality with a resounding thud once the market begins its customary plunge. The nature of the economic asset changes, whether it be shares in non existent companies, barrels of oil or bricks and mortar; but it is usually accompanied by the same cycle of greed, volatility and hubris; and finally nemesis, decline and eventual collapse.

The central tragedy of my life is that people are always phoning me up to ask me questions on topics I couldn’t care less about. Perhaps the best example of this occurred a couple of years ago when the office switchboard number was mixed up with the information line for Marks and Spencers travel insurance. As a result I was subjected to a torrent of enquiries from holidaymakers looking for information about their potential coverage and eligibility. When I told them that I couldn’t help them they sounded deeply wounded and had enormous difficulties coming to terms with the fact that they had the wrong number. Above all they were extremely resentful, as if, despite not being an employee of Marks and Spencers, I should at least have the decency to find out something about their travel insurance to pass on to them, or that I had fooled them into calling me through some piece of Machiavellian trickery. If anything I should be the one who is justified in feeling aggrieved. I would have few complaints if my number were to be advertised as ‘The Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow hotline’ or the ‘Battle of Stalingrad information desk’, as then I would have something to say to people. As it is, people assume I must be the world authority on such matters as ‘the availability of parking spaces in the vicinity of Edgware high street’ or ‘the layout and topography of British motorways’ but are loathe to question me about things I actually have some knowledge of. Unfortunately tedious information is the currency of the universe.

Testing my patience Sep. 2nd, 2008 @ 09:45 pm
As some of you might be aware my wife is an American citizen and therefore regarded as suspicious and ‘foreign’ by the U.K’s bureaucratic establishment. As penance for this we have had to undergo many hardships, including queuing up with the asylum seekers at UK Customs and immigration in Croydon and having to shell out vast sums of money to get permission from the state to marry, live in the same country and, most ignominiously of all, to take the UK Citizenship test. This vile assessment contains such questions as ‘How much does a colour TV licence cost?’ and ‘What percentage of the UK’s population are Catholics?’. I find it hard to see why knowing the extent of the UK’s Catholic community is in any way a useful requirement for being a fine upstanding citizen. The only scenario I can envisage is if I happened to be reincarnated as Oliver Cromwell and charged myself with exterminating the ‘ungodly papist religion’. One wouldn’t mention this in the citizenship test of course because it would almost certainly fall foul of the new laws governing incitement to religious hatred; especially ironic given that our constitution and national identity were mainly founded by inciting religious hatred. All one had to do in the 16th century to be a good citizen was to own a well-thumbed copy of ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’. In the 21st century the only things you really need to be able to call yourself British are an unquenchable sense of self-loathing and a hatred of ones entire history and culture.

The most infuriating part of the test is having to shell out for ‘Life in the United Kingdom, a Journey to Citizenship’, the official government booklet which has all the questions and answers. On the first page The Home Secretary, John Reid’s ugly bald head stares back at you with a short forward written underneath. I regard the first paragraph as a personal insult. It reads

‘The first edition of this handbook became a best seller when it came out towards the end of 2004. Some people will have bought it out of interest, or a wish to know more about the United Kingdom’s history or institutions. And many more will have obtained it as a study guide for the new tests for knowledge about life in the United Kingdom, which we brought in during 2005 for people who want to become British citizens’.

Well yes, it is a best seller, in the same way that Chairman Mao’s little red book sold between 5.5 and 6 billion copies, partly because if you failed to produce it you were liable to be belaboured around the head and genitalia by Red Guards and sentenced to years of hard-labour. It’s certainly no cause for self congratulation.

To me the citizenship test is oddly reminiscent of some of the first IQ tests, which the United States brought in at the height of the worldwide Eugenics movement during the 1920s. These were drawn up in order to allay fears that the "American" gene pool was being polluted by a rising tide of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, who were thought to be ‘imbeciles’, ‘feeble minded cretins’ and ‘moral defectives’. Upon the ‘discovery’ by H. H. Goddard that all immigrants, except those from Northern Europe, were of ‘surprisingly low intelligence;’ tight immigration laws and IQ testing were enacted in the 1920s. These tests were also influential in some states for legitimising forced sterilization of ‘defective’ individuals who had scored badly. The tests themselves that were introduced were very crude and culturally specific; immigrants tended to do very badly indeed. Sample questions included ‘who won the baseball batting title in 1925?’ and ‘Which one of these is a stop sign?’. As a result 87% of Russian immigrants and similar numbers from other nations were found to be feeble-minded, a result so ludicrous even H. H Goddard couldn't believe it. Eventually the same test was introduced to estimate the intelligence of the armed forces and so many of the people serving were found to be imbeciles and idiots worthy of sterilisation – a lot of them war veterans - that the test was immediately ditched.

I move that the present day UK citizenship test be similarly scrapped, and in this particular incidence the only person that should be sterilised is the Home secretary.

Our place in the Cosmos Aug. 6th, 2008 @ 09:39 pm

The great paradox of humanity is that all the greatest of our intellectual endeavours are perversely mirrored by a crippling diminution of what it is to be human. Having emerged by a slow, bloody march from the primeval slime of the earth we are informed in gloating terms of our complete and total insignificance. Copernicus banished the earth from the centre of the universe, Darwin told us our closest ancestors were ‘damn dirty’ apes and Freud told us we all secretly fantasise about sleeping with our mothers; although that last vignette might tell us more about the scale of his cocaine habit than the state of the human condition. We should remind ourselves that all these facts are only unsettling because they are viewed through the ghastly prism of our species’ inherent sense of self-loathing. Perhaps disgusted by its capacity for greed, hate, genocide, and inclination towards such perversities as sado masochism and the covert sniffing of other people’s under garments, Homo Sapiens has a peculiar capacity to see itself in terms of some destructive virus, unworthy of existence and something to be abhorred. Even our predominant vision of the afterlife isn’t some Olympian paradise where our spiritual doppelgangers parade themselves majestically in the company of the gods, but one where we grovel submissively in front of a celestial super-being who then chastises us for the worldly activities of our sex organs. Some segments of humanity look forward to a glorious utopian future, but in my experience the vast majority look forward longingly to the next apocalypse, whether it be via nuclear annihilation, a seven degree increase in global temperature or an angry swarm of killer bees.

In the 1980s the cosmologist Carl Sagan released the TV series COSMOS, a show which aimed to bring the light of scientific truth to the world but ended up being a shameless rehash of enlightenment mythology. In one episode he claimed that the Medieval natural philosophers were conceited for suggesting that the sun and all its planetary bodies revolved around the earth. ‘How could then have been so arrogant!’ he said with the kind of smugness which accompanies the abuse of hindsight. Sagan clearly never bothered to read any history of science but if he had he would have realised that in the medieval worldview the earth’s position at the centre of the universe was not in any way celebrated. In fact it was universally believed that the centre was by far the worst place to be. According to the accepted cosmology of the period our miserable sphere was located at the bottom of the celestial hierarchy, considered too unworthy to be part of the heavens due to its imperfect and sinful nature and with hell and purgatory placed at its core. Our planet stood in dismal contrast to the heavenly firmament above, a realm of perfection derived from Plato's Theory of Forms with the realm of God beyond. Out of all celestial bodies our earth was emphatically the Middlesborough of the Cosmos.As Michael de Montaigne wrote:

"The most wretched and frail of all creatures is man and withal the proudest. he feels and sees himself lodged here in the dirt and filth of the world, nailed and riveted to the worst and deadest part of the universe, in the lowest story of the house, the most remote from the heavenly arch"

 The Copernican revolution, rather than knocking us from our celestial pantheon, rocketed us up to join the lofty heavenly firmament above. Consequently, if you read through the literature of the time you rarely find people complaining about being dislodged.

Nor, by any stretch of the imagination, was Copernicus the hard-headed rationalist of popular myth.  This becomes immediately apparent when reading De revolutionibus, which reads more like something one would find in the ‘Spirituality and New Age’ section of Borders than a scientific textbook. The aim of Copernicus was to demonstrate that the heavens worked in a way consistent with their creation by God – ‘The wisest and most orderly workman of all’. Like many Christian humanists of the time he dabbled in pagan ideas, in particular the occult writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistos or "the thrice-great Hermes", a syncretism of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. Influenced by Platonic mysticism, Hermeticism placed considerable emphasis on the source of light, the sun as an object of worship. In De revolutionibus 1:10 Copernicus says:

At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the sun. For in this most beautiful temple, who would place this lamp in another or better position than that from which it can light up the whole thing at the same time? For, the sun is not inappropriately called by some people the lantern of the universe, its mind by others, and its ruler by still others. [Hermes] the Thrice Greatest labels it a visible god, and Sophocles' Electra, the all-seeing.

It is considered likely by historians that Copernicus took Hermeticism and the notion of ‘divine simplicity’ as his main sources of inspiration. This is consistent with the fact his model raised some serious problems -for example, if the sun is at the centre of the universe, why doesn’t everything fall into it- and owed more to aesthetics than anything else.  Copernicus’s explanation for this was that ‘earthly things’ tend to fall towards earth, solar things tend to fall towards the sun, Martian things tend to fall towards mars and so on and for forth. What he meant was ‘I haven’t a bloody clue’, thus demonstrating a good scientific theory doesn’t always need to make any sense, nor does it have to be inspired by reason


Hubris and Nemesis Jun. 30th, 2008 @ 07:29 pm
Commentators reflecting on the massacres committed by the communist regimes of the 20th century were fond of quoting the 16th century proverb ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. What is true of Marxist genocide is also true of plastic pot plants. Whoever masterminded the decoration of the lobby of the contemptible 1960s office building I work in was in all probability motivated by feelings of human solidarity and desired to create something that would infuse the buildings inhabitants with something akin to a state of spiritual nirvana. This, they reasoned, could best be achieved by creating a display of fauna in the entrance hall that would bring Mother Nature’s wonders to an otherwise soulless patch of concrete. Something was lost in the execution. Instead, following a series of compromises, the space was populated with a series of grotesque plastic trees, which resemble cast-off props from ‘Day of the Triffids’. Over the years the dust has accumulated so that this ghastly spectacle has even lost its kitsch appeal. Far from attracting onlookers towards its beauty and away from the boxy architecture of the building its blackened forms present themselves as a forest of death. The ghastly display fulfils the same role as the decaying victims of medieval hangings, chilling onlookers with its spectacle of decay and forcing them to reflect on the transience of existence.

Recent events have forced me to reflect on the plausibility of robot sex slaves. If, like me you follow the scientific press with a sort of horrified fascination, you can hardly have failed to notice the surge in wildly speculative literature regarding the imminent symbiosis between man and machine. This trend is best embodied by the figure of David Levy, author of such titles as ‘Love + Sex with Robots’ who claims that by 2050, machines will be able to serve as human like lovers and ‘not just mechanical sex slaves’!?!. He predicts that within the next four years advanced robots will be sold as sex toys and will possess sensors and electronic speech abilities to make them seem real, when a human touches their ‘sensitive zones’. All this gives you some idea of what St Augustine was talking about when he spoke of ‘the sinful soul that made the flesh corruptible’ from which arises ‘incitements to vice and, indeed, vicious desires’. Leaving ethics to one side for the moment, I find myself worrying that the introduction of this additional household appliance might result in a number of nightmare scenarios, such as returning home to find your mechanical husband embedded in your fridge in an act of ill-conceived copulation. It also requires a tremendous leap of faith just to trust a computer to take care of my sales proposals let alone let it in close proximity to my genitalia; especially if it is running Vista. Another commentator, Kevin Warwick of the university of Reading has gone in a slightly different direction, claiming in his book ‘The March of Machines’ that by 2050, if current progress continues, the robots will have taken us over. Presumably in this scenario, the tables will have turned and the remains of humanity will be subjugated and bred as sex slaves to the robots, thus leaving David Levy with egg on his face. These are the consequences of hubris.

Happily the current state of play in artificial intelligence gives one no reason to worry about such alarming predictions. In the preface of Mark Tilden’s book ‘Junkbots, Bugbots & Bots on Wheels’ he recalls the story of his attempt to make a robot butler for his household. Having designed such a complicated and expensive machine he was bemused to discover on returning home that it had been outwitted by his pet cat which had walled it in with play furniture and left it spinning hopelessly in circles. If this anecdote is any indication, the robot menace of the future will more resemble the Daleks than Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘The Terminator’, with our mechanical counterparts capable of unspeakable evil but unable to climb the stairs without falling over. It also proves the maxim that if you really want to create artificial intelligence you would be better off having kids than fiddling with wiring and AND gates.

And so big brother has returned to our screens, a show I affectionately refer to as ‘chewing gum for the eyes’. Many people elucidate a sort of dripping elitist contempt when they hear that this programme has returned for its latest season. This I think is misconceived. Television never has been and never will be intellectually stimulating and long may it be so. Having said this, I am slightly concerned about the values it promotes, or perhaps brings to the surface. For example, it has become clear to me that amongst Big Brother contestants, being rude to someone’s face when you don’t like them or ‘telling it like it is’ is considered a virtuous act. Whilst talking behind someone’s back is considered shameful, actively confronting the object of your displease and lecturing them on faults in their personality is the height of good manners. Things have obviously moved on since Lady Troubridge’s rules of etiquette.

Once you accept this as a guiding moral principle, Adolf Hitler begins to look positively virtuous. His 1926 work Mein Kampf - or to give its original title ‘Four and a half years of struggle against lies stupidity and cowardice’ - is a perfect illustration of how one should ‘tell it like it is’, detailing his intentions to overthrow the shackles of the Treaty of Versailles, wage war against France and destroy the ‘Judeo Bolsehvik’ regime in the east to create the desired living space for the Aryan master race. No room for ambiguity there. This book by the way was not the publishing flop of folklaw. It sold over 10 million copies by 1945 was translated into many languages including Braille; it also caused alarm in 2005 by topping the bestseller list in Turkey following a flurry of sales. Despite these explicit intentions Stalin remained convinced that the Nazis would remain pre-occupied with the west and even admired Hitler for his brutality, remarking ‘What a great fellow! How well he pulled this off!’, when news came of the night of the long knives. Hitler for his part described Stalin as ‘one of the greatest human beings since , if only through the harshest compulsion he has succeeded in welding a state out of this Slavic rabbit family (Kaninchenfamilie)’. Its strange to contemplate that in another reality these guys could have been drinking buddies.
Other entries
» The rotten fruits of progress
‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ wrote Dylan Thomas while contemplating the slow decline and death of his father, ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’; but the bard was guilty of failing to practice what he so eloquently preached. The man who famously declared that ‘An alcoholic is someone you don't like, who drinks as much as you do’ stumbled into the Chelsea Hotel in New York on the 3rd of November 1953, uttered the immortal words ‘I've had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that is a new record!’ and expired at the tender age of 39. Reciting poetry boisterously in the pub and drinking yourself to death strikes me as a singularly ill conceived method of halting the dying of the light, in fact, its more akin to replacing every light fixture in your abode with Tesco ‘energy saving’ bulbs and then grumbling incredulously as one by one they fizzle into impotence. I tried this the other day in a brief moment of eco-religiosity and was subsequently returned to the dark ages as the purchased lightbulbs burned with the kind of feeble effervescence one would associate with manufactures assembled by downtrodden wage slaves in some god forsaken corner of the Orient. As a result of this, the eighty watt bulbs have been returned to their fittings where they will remain proudly until the day of revelation when the prophesies of Al Gore, Lord Stern and the IPCC will be fulfilled and the earth’s population will be purged for its eco-sins. The world may be engulfed in floods, tidal waves, swarms of insects and whatever new cataclysm is cooked up in the tabloid-esque pages of ‘The New Scientist’ but at least I will be able to find my pants in the dark recesses of my bedroom.

If like me, you were brought up on comic strips from the 50s like Dan Dare pilot of the future, where men in spaceships with improbably geometric chins did battle with the Mekon of Mekonta and travelled to faraway galaxies in search of adventure, you will probably feel more than a little twinge of disappointment at the news that our latest step in the march of progress is to send a flimsy robot to Mars equipped with a drill – not to conquer the Martian microbes in some glorious neo-colonial escapade but for the unglamorous task of looking for ice. Aside from the prospect of using this minuscule portion of the Martian Ice sheet to create the world’s most expensive dry martini, this story has nothing of the high drama and epic adventure which earlier writers expected of the 21st century. Even browsing the science journals merely hastens the onset of disillusionment. ‘Enlightened’ 18th century philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot scorned the medieval scholastics of the Middle Ages for their turgid debates on the nature of the trinity and the number of angels that could feasibly dance on the end of a pin - and yet, among the most popular scientific theories at the dawn of the 21st century are that our universe is part of an infinite multiverse in which multiple copies of Elvis exist, that human beings are ‘nothing more than’ blindly programmed sex robots infected with mind viruses and, amusingly, that the universe is shaped like a doughnut, and will presumably meet its apocalypse when it is finally spotted by a universe shaped like Homer Simpson. All these make the metaphysical musings of figures like St Thomas Aquinas look positively sane and one is tempted to reach in disgust for Occam’s Machete.

According to the over enthusiastic science fiction writers of yesteryear such as Issac Assimov this was to be the time when machines finally achieved human like properties, acting as our trusted servants and making the course of our lives effortless. Well here we are in the 21st century and the closest object I have which resembles this vision is my Wii Fit and accompanying balance board. This rather paternalistic object mocks my portly frame, labels me as obese and make me insert pre-programmed excuses into my ‘weight chart’ when I consume one two many bevies at my local. Its rather like inviting a 17th century Puritan into your house and then having him chastise you while your perform sit-ups. As a result I am racked with guilt when I over indulge in life pleasures. My customary pint of Stella and accompanying packet of salted peanuts on a Friday night turns to ashes in my mouth when I reflect that the following morning, ‘the machine’ will reprimand me for my gluttony and instigate an overly harsh weight loss program. Such are the rotten fruits of progress.

When the word ‘balderdash’ is mentioned to me it conjures an image in my imagination of an elderly and eccentric character from a P.G Wodlehouse novel, who might possibly use it in the context of an unusually heated discussion at the dinner table or perhaps a dispute with his gardener. It is a quaint and seldom used expression, a remnant of Olde England, I certainly wouldn’t have expected it to be used by the world’s most unhinged oriental despotism. And yet, last month the North Korean ‘news’ agency released this gem of a statement:

“…the U.S. let loose a spate of balderdash against the DPRK, terming it "closed" and "highly militarized society" and "dictatorship." The U.S. had the impudence to find fault with the supreme headquarters of the DPRK and slander the Korean-style socialist system centered on the popular masses”

It is gratifying to see that whilst in the country we insist on polluting our own language with vulgarities, the international appeal of English is such that words which fall out of favour here are being resurrected on the other side of the planet, albeit by the axis of evil.

I was amused to see that there is a new book out written by the last surviving member of Hitler’s bunker entourage. According to the book, Hitler was always playing humorous japes on his colleagues. His favourite victim was Herman Goering, who was notoriously fond of awarding himself medals and designing his own uniforms. Hitler was fond of recounting how Mrs Goering found her husband waving his Field Marshall’s baton over his underwear in the bedroom and asked him what he was doing. "He replied: "I am promoting my underpants to OVERpants!". Evidently Hitler was so proud of this joke that he had medals made from gold and silver paper for Goering to wear on his pyjamas.

Reviews of this new contribution to our understanding of the great dictator were far from impressed by his sense of humour, but its worth recalling that Hitler was a comic genius compared to Lenin. In 1920 the pompous British Philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell spent five weeks in Bolshevik Russia as part of a Labour party delegation. The delegation naively expected to find a socialist utopia brimming with milk and honey and with contented workers spontaneously breaking into choruses of the Internationale. Russell first realised all was not well when a ragged group of what he presumed were beggars turned out to be distinguished mathematicians keen to pay homage. Lenin granted Russell an audience as he posed for a portrait sculptor. At first Russell thought how friendly and jolly he was. But a question cropped up about Communism and agriculture. Lenin described with gusto how he brought about a vast improvement in agricultural practices by inciting the poorer peasants to murder the richer ones – “and soon” added Lenin “the poorer peasants hanged the richer ones from the nearest tree. Ha Ha Ha!”. He then broke out into a fit of ghoulish laughter, oblivious to the fact he had just committed something of a public relations faux pas. Russell returned home in disgust to denounce communism in his ‘Theory and Practice of Bolshevism’, perhaps reflecting that on the whole it is not a good idea to meet ones heroes in the flesh.
» Tidal Waves and Eco Towns
Like many of Suffolk’s native-born sons I was secretly hoping that the apocalyptic tidal wave approaching Norfolk’s east coast last week would perform the same function as the biblical flood, sweeping our rivals to the north into the icy waters of the North Sea as punishment for their many vices. The tsunami approaching the East Anglian coastline we were told, would be a ‘deadly tidal wave’, ‘bring the worst flooding in 50 years’ and cause ‘extreme damage to life and property’. In the event all we were left with were a few small puddles on the landward side of our flood defences, not to mention a chorus of angry voices in the media, demanding to know why East Anglia had not been annihilated as advertised. Perhaps they should adhere to the ‘Michael Fish’ rule, which is that when the media predicts a disaster, it rarely happens. It is only in cases where the onset of disaster is overlooked, such as before hurricane Katrina and the 1987 hurricane that events seem to unfold to their worst potential. Instead of doing this, the worlds press and the public at large adopt the scattergun approach, so that a new disaster is predicted daily in practically every newspaper column and water cooler conversation. The explosion of Yellowstone park, the rupture of the San Andreas fault, the submergence of most of England due to sea level rise and, most chilling of all for the general public, the prediction that house prices might actually fall to fair and realistic levels. Possibly the most entertaining of these predictions was contained in Gary Blevin’s book ‘666 the final warning’ in which he claims that Ronald Reagan was the Anti-Christ and will return to cast us all into the lake of fire, aided in this task by the Aliens, super computers, free masons, and barcodes. Implausible perhaps, but far more entertaining than ‘The Stern Review’ and less self-righteous than the ‘IPCC report on climate change’. At least he got the Ronald Reagan bit right. The scientist’s reaction to last weeks non-catastrophe was to proclaim that we had been extremely lucky and that more of these types of events to come over the next century. If by ‘these types of events’ they mean massive media hype followed by a less than damp quib, then I’m inclined to agree. I won’t be shelling out for a wetsuit just yet, unless of course it’s to protect myself from all the psuedo-scientific dribble in the media.

I believe it was Winston Churchill who said that it was a sad day for humanity when we swapped the horse and cart for the motor car. I can’t help thinking that western civilisation suffered a similar blow when we stopped building things in factories and switched to an economy, which, when you break it down, is based on typing utter gibberish to each one another in the form of memos, meeting minutes, sales proposals and tenders. Certainly we are better off, more prosperous and happier than we were during the days of the industrial revolution, but whilst there was honour and nobility in chipping away at a coalface or spinning cotton, there is little or no nobility in trying to discuss your organisations attitude to ‘change management’ or outlining your ‘Prince 2’ influenced approach to project management in a series of confused and long winded sentences.

So who to blame for the fact that linguistic atrocities are now not only acceptable but crucial if you want to get ahead?. For my part I blame modern philosophy, in particular existentialism, for if you attack the whole concept of meaning you rehabilitate the meaningless and allow it to become acceptable, in fact the very boundaries of acceptability are stretched to breaking point. An ill-conceived Olympic logo that looks like Lisa Simpson performing oral sex on a hoodie becomes “unexpectedly bold, deliberately spirited and unexpectedly dissonant, echoing London's qualities as a modern, diverse and vibrant city….inclusive ... for everyone, regardless of age, culture and language". A repellently ugly disused brutallist car park in Gateshead becomes ‘an incredible sustainable structure…an iconic cultural and architectural landmark’. And then, in one of the 21st centuries great ironies, the previously discredited new town movement returns as ‘eco towns’; ‘family friendly’, ‘carbon neutral’ dwellings, ‘built using timber, solar thermal panels, double glazing, insulation and biomass boilers that do not use fossil fuels’. Of course, reading all this you might have thought that these new settlements the government are planning would be designed to recreate the old settlements of England such as Cavendish, the village I grew up in. Timber framed houses, close knit buildings, shops within walking distance and all designed using the wonderful and varied vernacular architecture of Britain. Wrong. A cursory glance at the website of the firm which is building ‘Northstowe’, the first ‘eco town’ in Cambridgeshire, reveals that these new settlements will have more in common with the dreadfully designed new towns and London overspill estates of the 1960s and 70s than any vision of olde Albion. To add insult to injury, this town will be built in the middle of rolling countryside, since disused airfields seem to count as brownfield sites. What’s more disturbing its that by the looks of the architectural renderings you will have to be a lobotomised cardboard cut-out to actually live there. A look at the planned Cranbrook settlement in Devon reveals similar architectural folly, with the public buildings looking as if they have been designed by an artistically challenged toddler. So if I do have an apocalyptic vision for the future it is this. Future settlements in the UK will look like they came straight out of an Ikea catalogue, they are unlikely to be carbon neutral as people will still have to drive to get into work and the whole thing will be one expensive disaster, a deformed and hideous sacrifice to the New Labour god of ‘eco-sustainability’. Our one hope is that the predicted East Anglian tidal wave finally makes an appearance and washes the whole ghastly mess into the ocean.
» The wonderous animal kingdom
One of the worst features of the modern age, and something I have touched upon in some of my most recent posts, is the relentless rise of scientism. This is the process whereby scientists wearing white coats, and with a long list of impressive sounding letters after their names, periodically emerge from their academic institutions in an attempt to quash the superstitious notions we hold about this world of ours. Of course this is understandable. Spending the majority of your life staring at the reproductive activities of microbes is apt to produce a cynical and materialist attitude in most people, but what gets my blood boiling is the sheer arrogance with which these self-proclaimed know-it-alls come to their conclusions and then issue an incredibly patronising press release. This in turn is treated as gospel by an uncritical media and splattered all over my early morning copy of the Metro.

In 2005, for example, a Mr Steve Morris of the university of Bristol decided to try and quash all rumours that elephants are fond of getting drunk. In the March/April 2005 issue of the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, Morris wrote that there was nothing in the biology of the elephant to support the stories from both Asia and Africa of elephants getting tanked in the wild. "People just want to believe in drunken elephants," Morris concluded. Oh really!. In October 1999 the BBC reported that elephants had run amok in the Indian province of Assan drinking a villages entire store of rice beer and killing four people in the process. A one off perhaps, or perhaps not. Last month, according to officials, a group of delinquent elephants entered a village in Meghalaya, uprooted several huts and drank the locals rice beer. Having got well and truly steaming on the stolen booze, they then electrocuted themselves to death during an inebriated attempt to topple an electricity pylon. One can’t help thinking that perhaps the cause of preventing the Asiatic elephant’s extinction would be better off if they were exposed to the BBC’s new hard-hitting "Alcohol makes you feel invincible when you are most vulnerable" campaign which is currently polluting my television set and disturbing highly-strung individuals the length and breadth of the country. Another inescapable conclusion is that when considering the drinking habits of elephants it is probably better to ask one of the locals in the remote parts of the subcontinent than a stuffy academic from Bristol with a chip on his shoulder.

Of course it is all to easy to anthropromorphise our cousins in the animal kingdom, but its hard to ignore the fact that in a series of bizarre incidents which I intend to document, animals have proved themselves akin to, and even superior to humans. In 2004 a black bear was found in a drunken stupor near a campsite in Washington State surrounded by empty beer cans. He had apparently broken into the camper’s cooler boxes and used his teeth and claws to pry open the beer cans. This in itself is not unusual, what was remarkable about the incident was that the bear had only drunk the local Rainer brand of beer and had rejected the mass market Busch beer, which is, I am reliably informed by my American spouse, a beverage barely fit for consumption, akin to Carling or Fosters. Interesting then that, whilst much of the general population of this country prefers to drink mass produced rubbish than good honest bitter, a bear’s tastes are significantly more refined and they would doubtless be more at home at a Campaign for Real Ale gathering than a piss up on cheap lager at the students union.

Cause for comfort then when observing the bears of the Pacific Northwest. Less so, I’m afraid when considering the recent activities of monkeys, which seem to be more keen on emulating the activities of Liverpudlian yobs than sticking to their normal habits of grooming and tree climbing. "Can the [tourism] minister deploy game rangers ... to deal with the monkey menace?" pleaded local representative Paul Muite in Kenya's national parliament last month, "These creatures have clearly shown that they have no respect for women". In Kenya the harassment of women by Monkeys is becoming so bad that they have been forced to dress like men. Upon seeing women or children the monkeys will habitually approach them and make obscene gestures, pointing at them lewdly and touching their private parts. Thing are no better in Delhi where encroaching development has disturbed the local monkey population to such an extent that they ‘assassinated’ the deputy mayor. In other incidents over the past few years the monkey have run riot in government departments, ripping open files and attacking bureaucrats, even killing people with flowerpots. One can understand their anger, a monkey’s views are rarely taken into account during planning applications. I believe it was Jean Paul Sartre who reprehensively said after Black September that “terrorism is a terrible weapon but the oppressed poor have no others." Presumably then the same principles apply to monkeys as the poor blighters have no weapons besides the occasional hurled stone, the odd flowerpot and the ability to gesticulate offensively at their own member.

In some ways then, animals act better than humans, in some instances worse and in others their experience mirrors ours to an uncanny degree. In early 1999, the combination of a television set and the late arrival of a series of wildlife tapes caused a family breakdown amongst a group of Orang Utangs. The TV was installed in the Leningrad Zoo in Russia so that the apes could learn their native skills. Sadly the tape arrived late, and in the interim the father of the group became addicted to dubbed American soap operas and pop videos. "Before the TV appeared, Rabu never took his eyes off his lady," explained Lena Goroshenkova, a zoologist at the ape house "But then they put up the TV and he's been glued to the screen ever since." The normally raucous feeding time was been transformed into a quiet television dinner and even the frantic swinging around of Rabu's mate Monika did not distract him from the set. It just goes to show, sadly, that with the impressive attributes of intelligence, deep emotions, linguistic ability, and self-awareness also comes the ability to waste the aforementioned attributes in mindless pursuits such as watching reruns of ‘Sex in the City’ and ‘The Fabulous Life of Celebrities’ on TMF. Somewhere in the distance, creation weeps.
» On Wine and Scientific Committees

One of the principle faculties you are expected to possess in order to claim membership of the upper middle class is an ability to pick out a fine wine. Unfortunately, I am decidedly ignorant on the subject, but I do have a better than average grasp of human history. Hence when I am despatched by my spouse to Londis to pick out some red wine for the evening ahead I invariably stick to familiar ground and plump for a bottle from the country with the worst record of human rights abuses. For someone like me who is woefully uninformed when it comes down to understanding the complex soil and climate variations that combine to produce a decent bottle of merlot, this approach has serious merits. Having shifted the logic of purchase, those once incomprehensible rows of bottles arrange themselves into some kind of order. Should I pick out a Chilean red because of the crimes of General Pinochet?, or are these outweighed by the apartheid era embroiled in the South African cape wine or the Aboriginal genocide encapsulated in the fruity Australian red?. Or perhaps I shouldn’t be drinking anything at all seeing as I am already over my recommended weekly limit of 21 units.

Last weeks news that this recommended safe units of alcohol limit was a purely random figure plucked out the air by a pompous scientific committee comes as no surprise. My science teachers at school were some of the most loathsome human beings I have encountered, and their illustrious counterparts in the research labs and universities seem to follow this pattern. So far, in my lifetime, these kill joys have proclaimed the non-existence of God, launched into dire tirades concerning the evils of alcohol, tobacco and obesity and, as the pièce de résistance, demonised us for destroying the world with our gas guzzling motorcars, our resource wasting refrigerators and our callous abuse of our TV’s standby function. They remind me of the 19th century lay preacher who decries his congregation every Sunday for their rampant sinfulness and vice. Strange how, despite our supposedly post-theistic modern perspective, the old Christian concepts continue to re-emerge. The capital vices of lust, gluttony, sloth and greed continue to be denounced -although this time for scientific reasons and for the good of our decaying health service- and the concepts of the carbon footprint and carbon offsetting closely mirror the Calvinist concept of original sin and the pre-reformation practice of paying money to the church in exchange for the forgiveness of sins. The worst of the scientists currently whore-ing themselves out the media is probably the odious Richard Dawkins, Darwin-fundamentalist and the author of ‘The God Delusion’, a man so obnoxious that he makes even a committed atheist like myself want to convert to Catholicism at the next opportunity and spend the rest of my life burning bread in the toaster in an effort to create a visage of the Virgin Mary.

Often it is not the evidence itself that is the problem, it is the way that evidence is assembled into a self serving conclusion and packaged for the media in a series of simplistic sound bites. Take last Friday’s Times for example which led with a huge image of earth and a series of apocalyptic headlines. ‘Humanity's very survival' is at risk, says UN’ read the header although beneath it was the intriguing fact that the ‘the world’s population has grown by 34% to 6.7 billion in 20 years’. In my experience these pronouncements from the UN are usually about as objective and reliable as a North Korean press release. If the iguana population were to surge by 34% we would in all likelihood describe them as thriving and not be suggesting they were on the brink of extinction. This preceded an ‘Earth Audit’ section in which dire facts such as ‘Ten million children under 10 die’ (global infant mortality has actually halved since 1960) sat somewhat uneasily alongside such titbits as ‘Annual income per head has grown by 40% to US$8,162’ and ‘Farmers produce 39% more from their land than in the 1980s’. The overall message however, was of doom and gloom accompanied by, thanks to the new internet enabled feature whereby readers can comment on newspaper articles, the usual displays of panic, outspoken ignorance and unbridled joy from those who don’t particularly like being Homo Sapiens and would prefer it if they, their relatives and the rest of the species faded into extinction. Under the online version of the article a sub-literate commentator, Mr John Hanson of Cairns had written

“Know doubt, Darwin's theory of evolution, is correct, perhaps homo sapiens, if they dont adapt to a very different world, will need to go the way of the Dodo like many other species, that have gone before……when homo sapiens eventually die out , perhaps some new form of life on Earth, will be slightly more cleverer.”

Whatever the state of human evolution, it certainly appears to be lagging in Queensland.
» Decline and Fall
As I stood in my front room clutching my Wii remote and throwing punches ineffectually into the air I couldn't help reflecting that while technology liberates us, it ultimately emasculates us. In Victorian times strapping young chaps like me would have manfully strode down to the coal face and spent the day chipping away at it with a giant pick axe. We would have undertaken this task for the vast majority of our lives before suffering an excruciating but dignified death from tuberculosis. This was known as the nobility of labour. Sadly there seems to be little nobility in slumped Internet browsing, deleting penis enlargement emails from your inbox and writing long boring sales proposals. In old Victorian prints, the man of the house sits at the head of the table, the adoring eyes of his family fixed upon him as he contemplates a letter. When I get home, I stand at the head of the television set and contemplate how best to defeat my e-adversary, the perfidious 'Eric'; a character in Wii boxing who bears more than a passing resemblance to Admiral Tojo. For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, the Wii is the latest games console from Nintendo. Instead of just pressing buttons on a normal controller you have to actually perform the 'real world' action, swinging the remote like a tennis racket for example, or jabbing with it to throw punches. The trouble with Wii boxing is it is seriously hard work and only a couple of rounds is enough to build up a healthy sweat. Vanquishing virtual opponents takes at least half of the effort of normal boxing but produces none of the street credibility, as I have discovered on those occasions when I have boasted to my colleagues at work. There may come a time when achieving a record breaking time on Super Monkey Ball hurdles is seen as great an achievement as running the London marathon but that time is assuredly not now, unless of course you live in South Korea.

I believe it was Samuel Johnston who said “If you are tired of London, you are tired of life”, a soundbite that has been echoed many times since by the London Tourist board. Of course such quotations must always be seen in their socio-historical context. In the London of Samuel Johnson’s day there were public executions to entertain the masses, barber’s shops doubled up as brothels and the average worker drank eight pints of beer or more during his shift. Nowadays the beer is vastly over priced, the barbers shops have all become trendy salons and the kind of people you used to execute in the olden days are all living off dole money in Hackney. Even if these miscreants were to be rounded up and executed for the public’s viewing pleasure there would no doubt be a hefty entrance fee for the venue, and the organisors would charge extortionate prices for front row seating and glossy programs to cover “budget over-runs“ during the construction of the scaffold.

Katie and I’s recent excursion to the United States roughly coincided with the latest terrorist attacks on the U.K. Whilst this led to lengthy delays at the airport it did at least afford me the opportunity to spout stoic Churchillian rhetoric from a safe distance. I can help thinking that what with Comical Ali, the detonating doctors and the hate preaching mouse of Hamas this country is faced with the most unhinged adversaries since the days of the Mad Mullah. Of these, Farfour the mouse has proved to be the most entertaining. As someone with an overactive imagination I have often wondered what would happen if Islamic fundamentalists were to take over Cbeebies. Luckily Hamas have set up an experimental TV station called ‘Al-Aqsa’ which broadcasts in the Gaza strip and shows programs such as ‘Tomorrows Pioneers’, a show in which a Micky Mouse lookalike with a squeaky voice preaches hatred of Israel and the America to small children. It’s also true that the BBC news preaches hate against Israel and the US on a regular basis, but at least it is aimed at a more mature audience and doesn’t suggest that resistance with AK-47s and grenades is a wholesome activity for young children. In the past, other Palestinian children's programs have used the Mickey Mouse image to incite radical activities and praise suicide attacks. Unsurprisingly Walt Disney has been too timid to sue for copyright infringement. Having appeared in six episodes of the program, the writers clearly made a creative decision that they had taken the character of Farfour as far as they could and in the last episode he was martyred by a land grabbing Israeli official. Hamas has recently revealed Fafour’s replacement, a six foot tall jihadist bee on string called Nahoul. By the sounds of it, they hired the same voice artist. To me this highlights the problem with fiction; some of the most interesting things in the real world are simply too crazy to make up.

The green contingent has been attempting to bring about the downfall of many things recently, among them my budget flights to the U.S to see the in-laws, my electric kettle and the standby button on my TV. They are now beginning to get their teeth into bottled water, a largely useless product which is sold by spreading paranoia about the domestic supply, rebranding it as a valuable lifestyle accessory with trendy sounding names like ‘Dansai’ and ‘Volvic, and by making unsubstantiated claims of purity. Last month the green party representative in the London Assembly urged the city to give up bottled water saying “Selling water in bottles and burning massive quantities of fossil fuels for its transportation does not make economic or environmental sense.....it's about your mindset and understanding your carbon footprint”. I have been attempting to understand my carbon footprint over the past few weeks and have come to the realisation that whatever steps I take to make my lifestyle carbon neutral, they will always be counter balanced by carbon atrocities such as my wife leaving the iron on for 12 hours yesterday, Live Earth acts taking long haul flights between gigs, or those 10,000 trees which the band Coldplay planted in India to offset the production of their album and which died shortly afterwards turning into carbon emitters.

It came as great amusement therefore to see that the recent flooding in this country and accompanying disruption to the water supply has caused bottled water to fly off supermarket shelves at unprecedented levels. If the recent weather can be attributed to global warming then it seems that this most recent green drive was thwarted by the climate itself. Good to know Gaia has a sense of humor after all.
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