Monday, January 30, 2006

A Mountain Out of a Molehill Over Danish Cartoons

"The fracas over the cartoons is a sad testament to the impotence of the Muslim world. That clerics and leaders of Muslim countries gain any sense of power over this issue is a reminder of how powerless they really are and also a reminder, as if we needed one, of the moral bankruptcy of our self-appointed moral guides. It is no wonder that these same moral guides have gone on a power trip over cartoons – after all, clerics in Egypt have been arguing over whether married couples can be naked during sex."


Saturday, January 28, 2006

with a little help ...

I try, these days, to minimise the amount of work my liver has to do to separate the toxins from the good stuff, but I'm not evangelical about it - as far as I'm concerned, what you do with your own sacred temple's your own affair. what I do find interesting, though, is the imposition of value judgements onto the users of different categories of toxins according to the arbitrary rules of the day. obviously, the market for cocaine caters to a better class of person than that for skunk and crystal, and this is reflected in the price differential. but this price - inflated by the considerable retail markups that reflect its trading risks on the black market - is obviously worth paying to those who can afford it. people don't ingest these toxins because they're bad people, but because they're a nice way of getting high so long as you can afford it. it's actually no worse or better than any other brain-blasting activity based on freedom of choice, except that it's usually illegal. coke, especially, seems to be a most attractive toxin, providing an exquisite high with few side-effects. only the most delusional devotees of hypocrisy as an exercise in spiritual transcendence would argue that a cocaine habit is 'worse' than any other.

the only reason that we don't have to get our alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine fixes on prescription is that these three particular addictive toxins were adopted, some time ago, as the officially sanctioned reality-bending chemicals of choice, and became instrumental in establishing an excise franchise of such magnitude that government became, essentially, dependent on it. still is. the annual tax revenue from the legitimate sales of tea, coffee, tobacco and booze is staggering. without it, clearly, western democracy would sink without trace. bring it on, I say.

the tacky tabloid shock-horror response to the discovery that x or y - film star, rock musician, or model - has developed a drug-dependency problem has become such a paltry cliché that it's all but lost its value. very, very few people seem to manage to get through life without a little help from our pharmaceutical friends, be that in respect to pain-relief, depression-relief, or limp-dick relief, and far more people than are prepared to admit to it have a dependency problem with same pharmaceuticals. that the vast majority of crimes of violence are alcohol-related, or that a huge portion of the NHS budget is devoted to the relief of pulmonary, bronchial, and cardio-vascular problems directly attributable to smoking is far less sexy news than the fact that x or y have, thanks to their vastly inflated earnings and concomitant VIP admission to the sucker-bait market of unlicensed pharm retailers, developed a dependency on coke or angel dust or whatever. I mean, who cares? who - really - cares?

context is all. the supposedly pharm-free are all in possession - albeit mostly unwitting - of one of the most potent in-house drug-manufacturing facilities imaginable: if you want to point the finger point it no further than at your own neck, since that pesky thyroid gland is responsible, over the course of a lifetime, for regulating the injection into your bloodstream of enough home-made psychotropic substances to kill a prize ox. and, without ingesting a thing, there's not a man jack of us who's immune from the dependencies they promote: from the seratonin highs of falling in love to the adrenaline-rush of facing physical jeopardy, our hormones are the mood-altering tails that wag the dependent dog, and there's not a thing we can do about it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

number please

on a whim, I signed up to the SETI@home project the other day, so our downstairs computer (the boys computer, actually, but they say they don't mind) is now one of half a million or so which is lending its spare processing capacity to help crunch the numbers collected in Puerto Rico at the Arecibo telescope and analysed in Berkeley at the University of California.

SETI has been actively listening for twenty years or so, on and off, and there's still no peep from the deepest darkest reaches of outer space, but you never know - one day that computer downstairs might be the one to flag a spike in the 1.5 gigaherz band that signals the start of a download that ends with, erm, Jodie Foster dropping into a wormhole and meeting an alien in the form of her dead dad ... or something ...

there seem to be only two ET stereotypes: the aggressive invader and the hands-off benign super-intelligence. the one comes with a black exoskeletal carapace and/or big slanty eyes in a noseless ovoid head and abducts us in our sleep to conduct excruciatingly invasive experiments on us up there in orbit on the mothership before wiping our memories somewhat inefficiently and returning us to wander around naked in West Hartlepool or Paris Texas at three o'clock in the morning, and the other wafts around humming in a vaguely melodic language comprehensible only to maths nerds and deaf French movie directors and wearing shimmering things in Steiner colours whilst androgynously assisting us with our homework, helping us get over the deaths of our pets and/or parents, and reconciling warring nations. both are transparent mutations of the figments of the same mindset that saw incubi and succubi and angels around every sexually repressed corner in the Middle Ages and fairies and hobgoblins more recently, so I'll have no truck with either of them. and, to be perfectly frank, although I think that a universe as big as this one we find ourselves in is quite likely to have spawned a few more examples of intelligence other than our own (there has to be something more intelligent than this, please god, there just has to be) I skirt just this side of deep scepticism about the likelihood of our ever encountering it.

the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence proceeds in the shadow of two predominant theories, the one as optimistic (about there being something Out There) as the other is pessimistic:

the Drake Equation sets out the industry-standard variables for calculating just how many intelligent civilisations are likely to populate our galaxy (the consensus is about fifty).

the Fermi Paradox, however, can be summarised as follows: the belief that the universe contains many technologically advanced civilizations, combined with our lack of observational evidence to support that view, is inconsistent. either this assumption is incorrect (and technologically advanced intelligent life is much rarer than we believe), our current observations are incomplete (and we simply have not detected them yet), or our search methodologies are flawed (we are not searching for the correct indicators). in other words, if they were really out there, the skies should be teaming with the buggers, so where da fuck am they?

in order to register the existence of an extra-terrestrial intelligence, we have to aim our Arecibos at a likely wedge of the cosmos and then sift through a wide spectrum of EM signals, analysing these for anomalies - spikes which might originate in a source other than a known astrophysical phenomenon or the doppler-shifted red noise of background radiation. we can 'listen' in this way to the limits of our telescope's range - almost as far back as the big bang. obviously, however, (unless we suppose the physically impossible - that there was intelligent life around before the big bang) there is actually no point in 'listening' this far: our chances of discovering an intelligent source signal are much better if we concentrate on much closer distances - in astronomical terms - distances more congruent both with the time-period involved in the development of our own form of intelligence, and more amenable to the eventual possibility of physical contact.

the closest possibilities - in astronomical terms - namely, the theoretical planetary orbits of Alpha Centauri and Barnard's Star - 'only' five light years distant - have already been examined and found to be unintelligent. if intelligence is to be discovered, it will not be found any closer than ten light years or more distant - and most probably much, much more. our galaxy alone is ninety thousand light years across and three thousand light years thick. if, then, a signal were to be received from somewhere in our own galaxy, the possibilities of subsequent communication between us make terrestrial snail-mail seem like high-speed broadband: at best, a twenty-year wait between our reply and 'their' next packet, then another twenty-year wait for the next reply to our reply, and so on. then, assuming that this went well for a few transactions, someone would have to decide whether or not to send out an exploratory team, and this is where it all begins to get a bit sci-fi.

the actual sci-fi solution is perennially the same - the hyperdrive (allowing faster-than-light speeds) and the wormhole gate (allowing instant transmission from one part of the universe to another). neither is available yet, nor even remotely possible (the one disregards one of the fundamental laws of physics, the other is still theoretically possible, but requires a power source akin to the energy released by the fission processes at the heart of a star to achieve). so crawling across inter-stellar space at a best possible speed of a tenth the speed of light is the only realistic option. therefore, the most optimistic estimate of the journey time (one way) for this first contact exploratory team is a hundred years - probably much more. given that this isn't going to happen - even if a first signal were to be received tomorrow - for at least a hundred years, that gives us plenty of time to consider the logistics - not to mention the economics - of such a mission. however, given that the universal lack of government interest in things cosmological is reflected in the ever-decreasing funding of astronomy - NASA is somehow hanging on in there by the skin of its teeth, but SETI is exclusively financed by private donations - it's overwhelmingly likely that the only possible source of funding for such a project would be a consortium of the kind of billionaires who, traditionally, have spent their billions on developing cutting-edge technology in order to develop their personal power base and win prestigious international acclaim by winning prizes for racing around the world in one way or another - people like Howard Hughes, Rupert Murdoch, or our own Richard Branson - a consortium, in other words, of unscrupulous assholes whose company any sensible person would travel far indeed to avoid, and whose claim to being representative of the human race verges on the tenuous, if not wildly presumptuous, if not hysterically funny, if not tragic.

the SETI project has been criticised for being more religion than science, but actually it's an art work - something profoundly senseless and yet essentially meaningful - an artful attempt to reconcile the human need to find meaning in a convincingly meaningless cosmos with the awful suspicion that there is none.

it would be tremendously exciting to get confirmation - even if only in the form of a few anomalous EM signals repeating in a sequence unequivocally associated with intelligence rather than accident - of the existence of the galactic neighbours. it would radically alter our relationship with our world to know - as a matter of science rather than belief - that we were not alone in the universe, although, party-pooper that I am, I have huge misgivings about how we might react to that knowledge.

consider, for instance, the global hysteria that the discovery of a signal would instigate if, at the same time, it were discovered that the alien signallers were actually approaching us, that they were en route rather than planet-bound. the world would, I'm afraid, instantly be divided into two camps, roughly corresponding to the adherents to the two ET stereotypes mentioned earlier, and, fairly obviously, the doomsayers would dominate (in a straight fight between the fundamentalist militias and the hippies I'd bet on the guys with the big guns and the crewcuts, wouldn't you?). so even if ET's ETA were set at two or three hundred years in the future, that event would become the High Noon of global civilisation, and, in the name of planetary security, provide a fine excuse for multinational fascist shenanigans on a scale undreamt of by all the tinpot dictators since Genghis Khan.

by far the likeliest scenario, however, is that there's going to be no result - no contact - and that, sooner or later, we'll come to accept the fact that, whereas we're probably not alone in the universe, the chance of our ever meeting our neighbours is virtually non-existent.

not a sexy result, but as necessary, probably, to the next stage of maturation of our species as separating from our parents is necessary to our maturation as individuals. so long as there's a lingering belief that someone or something out there - a god or a fairy godmother or an ET - will be coming along sooner or later to bail us out of this mess we've made down here, then we'll continue indulging in the sort of prevarication that makes cleaning the oven instead of filling in our tax returns seem trivial - excusing ourselves, basically, from rolling up our sleeves and getting down and dirty on the most urgent of the tasks in hand, namely, taking full individual responsibility for our collective historic bad behaviour and taking the appropriate steps to improve it.

now there's an alien thought

Monday, January 16, 2006

Bush Has Crossed the Rubicon by Paul Craig Roberts

"Many people fighting to strengthen the executive think they are fighting against legitimizing sodomy and murder in the womb. They are unaware that the real issue is that America is on the verge of elevating its president above the law."

Sunday, January 15, 2006

give or take

clearly, Marx's suggestion as to how we might more equitably distribute the planet's resources amongst its inhabitants (from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs) is so alien to the prevailing global economic and political ideologies that it (the idea) has had to be progressively demonised to the point that it (the idea) is now almost synonymous with that other braindead idea - the invention of our zombie neocon overlords - 'Terror'.

that there is no nation called 'Terror' on any known maps at which we can point our cruise missiles has become entirely ignored - an invisible obstacle to this entirely irrational, ongoing war. in pursuit of this fiction, H C Andersen's invention of a tailor able to con an entire empire into believing that only his invisible materials were sufficiently extravagant, and sufficiently exorbitant, to clothe an emperor was amateurish in comparison to the ongoing industrial smog-machine of lies and disinformation that has been billowing from the collective arses of the Capitol and Westminster for the last four years.

that there might be, in these egregious corridors of power, the tiniest wisp of real concern for or compassion with those desperately trying to survive their impoverishment and dispossession either through forces of nature or forces of arms or market forces or forces merely of accident is so unlikely as to be ludicrous.

millions - possibly billions - of world citizens have been deprived of the information upon which they might make an educated choice about their economic and political futures because of the hysterical - primarily American - paranoia about socialism. just as Soviet Communism (which, in its devolved post-Revolutionary form of Stalinist dictatorship bore as little relation to the revolutionary proposals of those nineteenth-century European socialist thinkers as does American football to English rugby) had erased from the history books all mention of its opponents, so this so-called free market globalism - a system dedicated, supposedly, to the proliferation of choice in the market place - has restricted choice amongst the fundamental economic ideologies to that of one only, all others having been touched by the devil himself.

as is always the case in the field of capitalist economics, there is no rationale to any of this other than the self-interest of the stakeholders. despite all that queasy self-justifying stuff about wealth-generation and trickle-down effects, the laws of capitalist economics are absolutely indistinguishable from the laws of the jungle - the overriding interests of the zealots of acquisition are totally inimical to any inclination to altruism. the kindness displayed by the wealthy towards the poor - the foundations, the scholarships, the bequests - is no more than facile PR masking some heavy-duty fringe-illegal tax evasions. obviously, a nation which was truly concerned with the welfare of its less fortunate citizens would not need to request anything more than a reasonable (and affordable) tax deduction from the earnings of its more fortunate to make provision for their support. in the absence of any such administrational concern, and in the context of the degradation of the semantics of 'left' both in liberal economics and in governance to the point where it means little more than moderating the more extreme manifestations of naked greed in the markets, 'charity' is nothing more than a routine portfolio adjustment.

the age of revolution is long gone - neither the opportunity nor the means nor the intellectual spine remain, despite the fearsome universal weight of mass disaffection with our beloved leaders - and, such was the effectiveness of the lessons drawn from its (historically) momentary rocking of the geopolitical boat by the emergent clusters of reactionary power, so successfully have those agencies insinuated into the collective unconscious their sophistries and their monopolistic vision of economic progress (a vision predicated on the frankly insane assumption that the planet's finite mineral resources are infinitely expoitable) that unforeseen catastrophe would seem to be the only possible foreseeable engine of radical change - just as the KT boundary extinction event did for the dinosaurs of the Jurassic, so only some equally random armageddon analogue will do for the dinosaurs of the city.

the only reason why capitalism has emerged as top dog in the litter of possible scenarios for a global post-industrial economy is because it's the most aggressive - capitalism and the industries of war being co-dependent, locked together, forever, in a macabre dance of death. and aggressive, by definition, is all about winners and losers.

thing is, no-one wants to be a loser, but, under capitalism, ninety-nine percent are. they have to be. that's how it works. that's how the numbers work. that's why something like 3% of the world's population owns something like 95% of the planet's wealth. that's 'own', as in 'mine - fuck off - try taking it off me if you think you're so smart.' that's how we're persuaded to buy lottery tickets, even though the chances of winning are worse than being struck by lightning.

I doubt that more than a handful of people outside the specialist forums of professional economists and students of economics could name as many as three alternative economic systems to capitalism (Wikipedia lists thirty-nine). such options as the gift economy, or potlatch, for instance, which sustained the entire Native American population until it was displaced by the 'take' economy of the white immigrant invasions, are now regarded, if regarded at all, with ridicule and contempt, in much the same way as we have come to consider that other iconic victim of specicide, the dodo.

disastrous as it might be (and it is - it most certainly is) for the health of the planet and for all but a fraction of its citizens, the mixed economy version of capitalism is embedded for the long term. just how long that term proves to be is in neither the hands of the gods nor the politicians nor the insurance companies, none of whose provisions will be worth a can of beans once the real, non-compliant shit hits the fan. tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

ipod pas

until this morning, I was about to become a member of the iPod tribe. it being my birthday this weekend, pennies had been saved, share portfolios adjusted, surplus assets in various off-shore tax-free havens disposed of, and redundant body parts promised to a very nice gentleman called Gerald in Nottingham, but then fate came along, as it does, tipped us upside down, dangled us by the ankles, and emptied out all of our pockets with a lively chinking of haemorrhaging coinage, and - hey presto - my dream of owning a lovely white icon of cool disappeared in a cartoon bubble-bursting *pop*.


I really really wanted an iPod. I really didn't need an iPod. but I really really wanted one. for why? for no better reason than that of everyone else who's realised the fantasy and joined the tribe - because it's cool.

there are, probably, a few people who've found the umpteen gigabytes of mobile storage space in a wallet-sized minimalist white box a heaven-sent boon - people whose work, perhaps, benefits from their being able to say to someone - you know, that track from the Carl and the Klingons debut album that sounds exactly like track four from Led Zeppelin III - and then being able to provide concrete evidence, there and then, at the touch of a little white wheel. but these people, let's face it, are both few and far between and, not to put too fine a point on it, rather sad.

no, the point is, not what's on it, but simply the owning it, and, by so doing, belonging to that special tribe of people whose taste and discernment is en-branded in the brand. except that, to judge by the sheer numbers of thirteen-year-olds who are sporting the post-Christmas white earbud look this year, it's actually become as exceptional and distinctive to sport an iPod as to wear Nike trainers and chew gum. any brand of gum.

whatever it is that accounts for this triumph of brand-marketing is irrelevant. of course, the design and the interface and the sound quality, compared with the closest of its competitors, is miles ahead. of course it is. it's an apple. but, actually, if, like me, what you want is occasionally to enjoy the experience of music playing inside your head at a really good sound quality - whether you're on the move or not - no mp3 player is ever going to hold a candle to a good CD player - it's in the nature of the compressed sound-file to degrade the sound quality in the compression. absolutely the only practical argument for opting for an mp3 player over a cd player is the increased storage space. and, whereas I can see that it would be nice, if, say, I were about to embark on a three-year-long backpacking trip around the world twice to be able to include in a space no larger than my wallet the entirety of my cd collection plus the option of an ongoing multitude of catch-up downloads, I can't see that I'd ever find that particularly useful, since, even when I spend the entirety of a year in my own home, I never listen to more than a fraction of the cd's in my racks, and, more often, find myself listening to the same cd, not to say the same track, over and over again for weeks, if not months at a time. the fact that I could, if I so wished, listen to anything at all - and, at the current 60 gigs that's seriously possible - would, in my own case, be paralysingly prohibitive. there is such a thing as too much choice.

actually, I find the idea of filling a 60Gb iPod a tad scary - just how much music, how many photographs, how many videos does a person need to carry around with them?
which segués neatly back to that 'want' versus 'need' thing: of course no-one 'needs' that, but needing is not the point - wanting is. wanting to fill that cool white rectangular icon of cool with the stuff that makes it yours - that defines you, that characterises you, that displays your taste out there on that discreet coloured screen - that distinguishes you from that dork in the adjacent seat on the tube who's listening to Status Quo, for godsake!

the iPod is the ultimate bling on the urban armour - that defensive psychic overgarment that everyone who inhabits a city is obliged to don before leaving their home or risk utter madness at the sheer mayhem of the sensory assault that begins the moment they open the front door.

so if, like me, you're fortunate enough to live somewhere where the drive to anywhere is through fields and hills rather than through concrete canyons, it really doesn't make any sense at all to want to detach your senses from the matter at hand. indeed, I find myself less and less inclined to listen to music in the car at all, preferring to listen to the endlessly entertaining (if increasingly daft) interlocutions of my inner voices.

so have I talked myself out of my disappointment?

have I fuck.