Saturday, 26 October 2013

Unforeseen or Unforeseeable?

Ever since I learned that exercising on a treadmill generates ten times more energy than it consumes I have become obsessed with the idea of feeding all that excess gym-power into the National Grid: I just need someone to do it. If Thomas Edison were still alive, I am sure he would sort it out. He was a prolific inventor but, more to the point, he understood the commercial importance of delivering new inventions to the world. For example, not content with his part in the invention of the electric light bulb, he went a stage further and invented power generation and distribution systems which enabled us all to use it - since when we have been eagerly burning all available fossil fuels in order to generate ever more gigawatts of electricity.

In doing so we have created the problems of global climate change and increasingly expensive electricity and, unless we resolve them, future generations will be living in a retro stone-age. Meanwhile, in modern-day Britain, the benefits of Edison's invention are already unaffordable for the least well-off whose current dilemma is whether to heat or eat.

One of our prominent politicians last week made an ill-advised attempt to help the poor by promising that, if his party wins the next election, energy companies will be obliged to fix their prices. Within days the inevitable happened: one by one, the energy companies raised their prices. This clearly demonstrates the folly of showing one's hand - a tactic which the politician in question will no doubt avoid in future.

More importantly, however, it demonstrates the rise of 'retail politics', whereby ideology-based policies are eschewed in favour of populist measures aimed at winning votes in the short term. Votes must be won, but the net effect of this behaviour is that governments are reluctant to commit to long-term planning, especially in respect of controversial or "difficult" issues. Short-term political expediency trumps the more noble purpose of long-term governance for the benefit of society as a whole.

Power generation is a case in point. It is an infrastructural necessity which society has come to depend on, yet there is an ambivalent approach to providing for it. Politicians, shy of the high-cost, long-term commitment required, look to the private sector to take it on, but the acknowledged necessity for reducing carbon emissions is a crucial part of the equation and the corporations have too much invested in the present fossil-fuel system to be entrusted with its demise.

Cleaner, renewable energy sources are feasible but, having failed either to commit significant public funds or to encourage private investment in developing the technology required for delivery, Britain's government has been backed into a corner. It has just announced an eleventh-hour decision to return to nuclear generation - a technology which we pioneered in the 1950's but which, due to circumstances entirely within our control, we have since lost. Consequently we are obliged to offer generous inducements to others to provide it for us.

And so it comes to pass that our nuclear stations will be built and operated courtesy of the sovereign investment funds of other countries. Our government has absolved its responsibility for the nation's infrastructure; corporate profits will determine price and availability; renewable alternatives will wither for lack of investment and we will accumulate a pile of nuclear waste which will be someone else's problem in the future. It's a worrying example of party politics at its least effective.

What a pity that Thomas Edison is no longer around. He died in 1931 but before he went he said:

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that. I wish I had more years left.”

Saturday, 19 October 2013


Having just spent the best part of two days trying to figure out software and computer networking 'issues', I have cut my losses and made a call to an expert. He is coming tomorrow to sort it all out. Those who work from home will be familiar with this dilemma: whether to spend time in order to save money or to spend money in order to save time. Those in salaried employment, meanwhile, will be more familiar with the concept of taking a coffee break while the IT department gets to work.

Of course it has never been necessary to understand how technology works in order to use it. Most of us drive cars, operate computers, make phone calls etc. without an inkling of the underlying electro-mechanical principles on which the technology functions. We accept the fact that someone, somewhere has invented a device which makes life easier for us and, if it goes wrong, there is someone, somewhere who knows how to fix it. Advice in this matter is offered in this pithy, early-industrial-era rhyme:
Lord Skinflint tried to fix his electric light
It struck him dead - and serves him right
It is the duty of the nobleman
To provide employment for the artisan
...which is also an unflinching endorsement of the economic theory known as "trickle-down".

But the accelerating pace of technological advance is so rapid that we are challenged simply to keep up with its inventions. There was a time - not so long ago - when we had fixed-line telephones and communication was simple, if limited. When the bell inside the handset rang you would say "I wonder who that can be?", pick it up and respond politely to whoever was on the other end (of a very long cable). Nowadays, if the landline rings, it is easy to guess who is calling: during the week it will be a marketing call; on a Sunday evening it will be an ancient relative who is still under the impression that landlines are owned by the Post Office and that it is cheaper to use them after six pm.

I am never intentionally rude to elderly relatives who call, but pre-recorded marketing pitches are fair game: since machines have no feelings I usually say something nasty and slam the phone down. But the other day I did pick up in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon because I was expecting a pre-arranged call. I said "Hello" in my friendliest tone, only to be answered by a brief silence and a recorded "Goodbye" which, eerily, had about it the unmistakable smirk of 'Gotchca!'

I think technology was trying to tell me something about etiquette for, while we may pride ourselves on being quick to adopt all the devices it offers, there is a degree of uncertainty about what constitutes polite behaviour in their use, especially concerning phones. When, for example, is it more appropriate to send a text than to make a phone call? Is it socially acceptable to respond to email and texts when in company? It has been argued that these questions will be resolved in due course: etiquette takes time to develop and become adopted because it is a complex amalgam of social interactions. There is no downloadable app for it. Or perhaps there is? If so, it is surely based on the principle that etiquette is nothing more than manners, and what defines manners is a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.

But there is another thing that lags behind technological advance: vocabulary. Phones, for example, now make all kinds of alerting sounds but we still say that they ring. It's about time we found a new verb for that so, if you have any suggestions, I would love to hear from you. Just give me a bell.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Painting by Numbers Never Worked.

Last week, at Tate Liverpool, I saw the exhibition Chagall, Modern Master. Chagall’s paintings are recognisable by their dream-like qualities: people and animals float above landscapes; perspectives are distorted; colours evoke mood and there are visual references to his home town, Vitebsk, Russia. His images are varied but his style is so constant and distinctive that it has become a successful ‘brand’. (Witness its ubiquity in the gallery shop where it shifts the merchandise: mugs, place-mats and tea-towels are all given the dreamy makeover - and the designer price-tag).

Although I have always been attracted to his paintings as objects of beauty, I have been flummoxed when it comes to interpreting their meaning. I found it helpful, therefore, to have been given some background information about the man and his times. I learned that his Hasidic ancestry had left a profound mark upon his work, that he travelled to Paris where he was exposed to the influences of Cubism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Orphism, Simultanism and, most sinister of all, Suprematism. For me, however, it boiled down to the gratification of discovering that the romantically involved, gravity-defying couple depicted in one of his better-known paintings represents the artist and his wife, Bella.

On the wall in front of me is one of my brother’s paintings - one which needs no explaining to me. It’s a landscape – a view from where he once lived, high up on the side of a valley in West Yorkshire. It shows the buildings down in the valley petering out into the fields above on the opposite hill, all painted in tones of green, brown and grey - except for an intriguing and apparently random sliver of red in between a chimney and a wall.
I mean to ask him about that sometime. Why is it there? Is it a painterly device which works on the viewer in a subliminal way? Or is it simply a smudge of background colour that escaped his attention in the finishing?

Assuming the latter is unlikely, the painting benefits from its presence in a way that defies layman’s logic. A seemingly misplaced splash of colour contributes to the imaginative evocation of the landscape, not a precise depiction of it and, in doing so, demonstrates the artist’s ability to interpret a scene while eschewing logic.

But artists, as we know, are licensed; and as I look up at it now I am conscious that I cannot employ any such license in the process of writing. I write not to make an impression, nor even to make myself understood. I write to make sure that I am not misunderstood. Choosing the precise word, the right phrasing and timing are all critical to ensure the elimination of ambiguity. The written equivalent of a random sliver of red is likely to alter the meaning of a piece - as in “eats, shoots and leaves”.

I am not suggesting that the process of painting does not involve rational thinking (I have no experience to call upon) but, if it does, it is trumped by creative visual expression. On the other hand, I am not so sure that the process of writing should rely entirely on thinking, remembering Niels Bohrs’ famous admonition “No no you’re not thinking, you’re just being logical”.

Chagall lived through troubled times – the First World War and the Russian Revolution - but, by judicious migration, avoided harm and continued to work as an artist into the 1960’s. He lived and worked in St. Petersburg, Paris, Moscow, America and the south of France but, after all that, his paintings consistently bear his stamp: evidently you can take the man out of Vitebsk, but you can’t take Vitebsk out of the man and his ‘brand’ will endure.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Let's Change The System!

We were having lunch with old friends in a city-centre restaurant when 50,000 people marched past the window waving banners and chanting slogans. It wasn't unexpected: the marchers were left-wing people taking the opportunity to make their views known to the right-wing people who were staging their annual party conference here. If the right wing's choice of venue - this city which has always been a bastion of The Left - was an attempt to convince us of their credentials in respect of inclusive democracy, it missed the mark: they may comprise the majority of our coalition government but their agenda is widely regarded as being elitist. Their stated "policies" are transparently cynical ploys to capture votes so as to strengthen their grip on power: which is, unfortunately, par for the course with the party political system.

Later, while sweating out my lunch-time indulgence with 30 minutes on the cross-trainer, I convinced myself that the proprietors of the gym ought to devise a way to harness my energy by wiring the machine to an electricity-generating turbine. That way they could help save the planet - or at least refund part of my membership fee as a Kwh credit. But, to be realistic, that would be beyond the remit of a business which exists not to benefit humanity generally but to make profit for its shareholders specifically. Which is, unfortunately, par for the course with the capitalist system.

It is an endemic problem: that factions, interest groups and cliques seek to run things for their own benefit, often at the expense of others. On a small scale things can be made to work fairly: the family business, the parish council, the cricket club and so on may be persuaded - or prevailed upon - to get along with their neighbours. But when we scale the entities up the stakes get higher and neighbourliness disappears in a mist of greed-fuelled rivalry.

Two recent events illustrate the argument. On Monday Silvio Berlusconi, a convicted tax-fraudster and megalomaniac, attempted to bring down the government of Italy, not in order to rid his beloved nation of an evil, repressive government, but simply in order to further his personal, political aims. And the next day the Federal Government of the USA was shut down by a Republican faction that refuses to accept legislation that will allow 20 million fellow Americans access to health insurance. Such attempts by political interest groups to wield power, regardless of the cost to society as a whole, should alert us to the fact that the current system of democratically elected national government is in need of revision.

When I first heard of the concept "global village" I was enthused with idealistic dreams of international understanding and co-operation, free interchange of people, goods and ideas and the end of war. It seems I was too hopeful. What we actually have is a "global market", control of which is the ultimate goal of trans-national corporate entities. The efforts of national governments to regulate this process are increasingly ineffectual. Given this, and the fact that the pursuit of factional interests renders national governments unfit even for the purpose of representing the interests of their populations as a whole, it is surely time to revise the role of national government.

Here's a start: more than half of the world's  people now live in cities, many of which depend not on the economy of their host nations but on the global market. These cities would be better served if they were freed from the shackles of party politics and allowed a meaningful degree of self-governance.  Their transport systems need to be efficient, their housing needs to be adequate, healthcare, welfare and policing need to be provided. These are not matters of party politics. These are neighbourly necessities, best taken care of by consensus.