Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Global education or the death of the individual

Murdoch himself, returning to London, spoke at a conference of chief executives. The Times recorded: "Mr Murdoch detailed a vision whereby almost all children would be provided with technology such as specially designed tablet computers. He said that through such advances, 'You can get the very, very finest teachers in every course, in every subject, at every grade, and make them available to every child in the school – or if necessary, in some cases – in the world.'

"Mr Murdoch said that News Corporation, parent company of the Times, would help to spearhead this change by growing its business in providing educational material. He said he would be "thrilled" if 10% of News Corporation's business was made up of its education revenues in the next five years."

[Joel Klein] now plays a key role in controlling the controversial management and standards committee (MSC) that is house-cleaning at News International by handing over journalists' incriminating emails to the police.

Until Murdoch's UK operation has been fully cleansed of its hacking toxicity, the way will not be open for Klein to resume his education projects, and his formerly close political links with Gove. But the end of the process of "draining the swamp", as one MSC source put it, may now be in sight.

It is all too depresingly of our time that it should be thought that encapsulated exposure to what is universally rated the 'best' should be superior than live interaction. Never mind diversity; never mind process and the lived life; this is 'world class'. How about 'life class' instead?

The Brewing of Soma

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow Thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

Whittier ends by describing the true method for contact with the divine, as practised by Quakers: Sober lives dedicated to doing God's will, seeking silence and selflessness in order to hear the "still, small voice" described in I Kings 19:11-13 as the authentic voice of God, rather than earthquake, wind or fire.

Europe's new Jacobins

It is one of life's persisting ironies that those who believe in the perfectibility of the world through human agency, whether it be moral, social or economic, almost always come to the conclusion, sooner or later, that the rest of the world needs to be shown, forcibly, the way.

It might therefore be, only superficially strange, if tolerance and democracy found themselves more at home amongst those who rely upon superhuman intervention for our salvation, although the Christian church, in its various incarnations, has been able to resort to social and political tyrannies regardless of whether it relied on faith or works.

The Jacobins assumed more and more power during the spring of 1793, with the support of the Parisian mob, which overawed the Convention, culminating in a coup at the end of May. They were to hold power until the summer of 1794, and they repeatedly purged the Convention of those they held disloyal to the Republic, ending with a widespread program of execution, the Reign of Terror in their last months. Robespierre, generally the spokesman for the successful faction, had great esteem for his reputation as "the sea-green incorruptible", and set up the slogan of the Republic of Virtue, until the Jacobins' last purge, 9 Thermidor, July 27, 1794. Although some eye-witnesses said Robespierre was shot by a soldier, some historians state he attempted suicide; in any event, his lower jaw was shattered. He was executed the next day on Thermidor 10, July 28, 1794.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The last bonus

We are repeatedly told that those who run banks and other great enterprises require to be paid enormously because their jobs are so tremendously demanding and those who can do them are so few. I suspect that there are actually quite a number of people who could do them, and the evidence suggests that both the CEOs and the star traders often fail to perform above chance and that they can commit egregious errors, even when warned of their possibility.

Yet to pay such individuals truly exceptional amounts of money helps create the impression, to the impressionable, that they are truly, almost Platonically, exceptional people. For the rest of us, to fall in with this view of the world and to give the idea that we are all to be placed into the positions for which we are pre-eminently fitted, there has been created the panoply of ever-expanding competitive formal qualifications. In education and training, as in the economy, ranking and rating supplant judgement. Such a system favours those who can operate it, either as candidates or providers (witness the recent fuss here about our now privatised secondary education examining boards training teachers how to get the best out of their systems), but, beneath it, privilege and favouritism persist.

This is the new 'world-class' status to which we must all aspire (or, in the case of many labourers in the vineyard, sink) lest we perish. The result, amongst the people generally, is to detroy the hope of good fortune (a necessary element of social content always), the belief in an accommodating society (it is no accident that it is in supposedly meritocratic societies that social mobility has declined), and the faith in the nation as a legitimate and effective expression of collective choice (as para-governmental international agencies and trans-national corporations increasingly dictate terms to states). Across Europe the extremist tendencies flex their muscles in dark and disreputable corners, and Molotov cocktails are a growth industry.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Trees and The Land

I thoroughly recommend The Land: an occasional magazine about land rights (rights here in the widest sense), whose current issue is devoted to trees and forests. Some articles can be found on their website, but for the bulk of it you need to pay £5, or, better still, support it with a modest £18 subscription for five issues.

I post a scan of the short editorial:

Those who might be impatient for a future issue on grass could meanwhile acquire a copy of Graham Harvey's The Forgiveness of Nature: the story of grass, which is also fascinating. All of his books repay reading.

Peace in our time

The European Community, and its earlier predecessor forms, was seen as the great institutional healer of European wounds and the preventer of a repetition of the armed conflict that had twice devastated the community of European nations in the course of the twentieth century, giving the world, amongst all the other benefits of European expansion the new acme of total war.

The evidence of this international, or increasingly (and by stealth) supra-national, enterprise was seen in the new political axis (one could dare to use the word, with all its ironic historical freight, deliberately) of Germany (originally West - there was a rival European resettlement under way for a while) and France, harmoniously united in political and economic self interest contre les autres. The lion indeed had laid down with the lamb - just don't ask which is which.

It was a convenient fig-leaf of history written by the victors (in different senses). There has been plenty of evidence that the old emnities and national resentments of Europe have not disappeared, even whilst new nation after new nation came knocking (and sometimes knock, knock, knocking) at 'old Europe's' door.

France and Germany may have been the twin historical geo-political rivals in Europe, but, despite all the passion, all the suffering, all the sorrow and the pity of three armed conflicts, it was not the French who had most suffered at, and loathed, the hands of the old Germans. (If they had, it might not have been such a prolonged and tortured process for France to come to terms with its relationship with Nazi Germany.) As Europe totters under the weight of international financial make-believe, we see that clearly now.

Is this the beginning of the end not just of Greece in the Euro-zone, not just of the Euro, but of the European 'Union'?

Other unions have perished in our time.

One thing is certain: it is not the end of 'old' Europe, with all its flaws and splendours. Perhaps we cannot have one without the other.

Sunday, 19 February 2012


Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamd of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

On the face of it, the idea that the sins of the world can just be 'taken away' appears banal.

That the complication of the idea should lie in someone, at once 'the son of man' and 'the son of god', taking on responsibility for those sins beyond number and accepting a hideous physical punishment and death to 'redeem' mankind, past and future might seem to add a degree of repellancy and absurdity.

That all mankind should, from birth, not only be guilty of those sins, but unable by their own decisions or efforts to atone for them, might seem the final unacceptability to anyone of refined intelligence and sensibility.

Yet people whose intelligence and sensibility lead them in that direction also wish to appreciate directly within themselves the cultural significance of Salisbury Cathedral, Bach's St Matthew Passion or Byrd's Three Part Mass.

The Passion and the Mass unite sublime expressions of the most abstract of the arts with the most explicit and world-contaminated art of words. I do not think the two can be divorced in an understanding or valuation of those works. I do not mean that one necessarily has to accept, as the creators accepted, the beliefs that lie within them and largely motivated their authors, but unless one is prepared to value and enter into those beliefs in some meaningful sense, I think the appreciation must always remain shallow.

The art reveals a validity in something which, at an abstract level, appears unacceptable. I do not think one can say, how wonderful it is that something so beautiful and expressive can be constructed on the basis of something that is simply untrue or does not exist. The two cannot be separated.

So, whilst the question, Does God exist? seems to me to be worthy of the sixth-form debating society, I do not think a mere sense of 'wonder' at 'religious' art suffices to make one a sophisticated inheritor of our common culture. Not of course that the opposite necessarily applies.

Saturday, 18 February 2012


The UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has warned of a new 'Cold War' and arms race in the middle east if Iran's nuclear ambitions are allowed to go unchecked. It is of course now conventional wisdom in some quarters that the real Cold War was a raging success, ensuring the peace of the world for decades and banrupting the evil empire, thus enabling western governments and business to lead the ex-Soviet peoples to the standards of democratic government and economic benefit that they now enjoy. But such advantages are not to be allowed to the lesser breeds: for them, Israel, the US and UK on on the verge of thinking a hot war would be preferable.

In the US a Moroccan man has been charged with attempting to carry out a suicide attack at the Washington Capitol. He had been under investigation for over a year by the FBI and supplied by them with a fake explosive vest. It would appear he had no more reliable source of supply.

The UK government has revealed that in 2009/10 it paid out £2 million in compensation and costs to 40 child asylum sekers wrongly detained in adult facilities. Under previous procedures a single immigration officer could decree the age of an undocumented minor.

The Chairman of RBS has defended the bank's chief executive, who recently declined an almost £1 million bonus but is about to receive £600,000 worth of shares arising from an earlier bonus award ("These were announced last year and endorsed by 99.2% of our shareholders"), by explaining that Mr Hester "is doing one of the hardest jobs in the world" - even harder, he almost said, than gaining asylum in this country as an unaccompanied Afghan minor, winning the Ubekistan presidential election with over 90 per cent of the vote, developing an Iranian nuclear bomb, or blowing up the US Congress. Mr Hester "is being paid at the low end of the range." Earlier Mr Hester had told journalists in his office that he had considered resigning after the fuss over his bonus but had decided that would be "too indulgent". "One doesn't need it. No one in this room, none of you – even if you're not on the same salary as me – no one is starving and by those standards one can't win this discussion."

Meanwhile, at the Sun, Rupert Murdoch has 'lifted the suspensions' of journalists who have been arrested but not charged. How high can you get?

Friday, 17 February 2012

Deft phrases

Lehman's was not thought to be 'too big to fail'. It was, after all, not particularly big. Our undoing lay in its interconnectedness. Now Greece is clearly seen as something of a minnow, but the world's leaders have learnt about 'contagion' and have been busily erecting 'firewalls'. Is our phraseology still smarter than our thought?

Firewall needed
The impression made by Greek fire on the west European Crusaders was such that the name was applied to any sort of incendiary weapon, including those used by Arabs, the Chinese, and the Mongols. These, however, were different mixtures and not the Byzantine formula, which was a closely guarded state secret whose composition has now been lost. As a result, to this day its ingredients remain a matter of much speculation and debate, with proposals including naphtha, quicklime, sulphur, and niter. Byzantine use of incendiary mixtures was also distinguished by their employment of pressurized siphons to project the liquid onto the enemy.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The language of Luxembourg

"Further technical work between Greece and the troika has led to the identification of the required additional consolidation measures of €325m and the establishment of a detailed list of prior actions together with a timeline."

Jean-Claude Juncker

No translation available.

Amost unbuttoned: Jean-Claude and friend. Did he talk in phrases like that with Mr Putin?
 Central banks across Europe have a collective nightmare. It is of the day Greece defaults on its debts, and the Aegean Sea is awash with small boats in which fleeing Greeks huddle with suitcases full of euros. Guards patrol the border in an attempt to prevent the flight of capital. Things get ugly and there are shootings, captured on film. Despite the best efforts of policymakers in Athens, Brussels and Frankfurt, it proves impossible to contain the panic, which spreads to Portugal and Ireland, the other two countries going through tough austerity programmes in return for bailouts from the EU and the IMF.

It is to forestall a Greek domino effect that the European Central Bank has flooded Europe's banks with cheap money over the past two months, easing funding concerns and bringing down interest rates on Spanish and Italian bonds.

A woman threatens to jump after her employer, the Labour Housing Organisation in Athens, was labelled for closure. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/EPA
"It's quite obvious studying their statements and their leaks," said a government source, referring to officials in Berlin, "that they are pushing for default. They want to get rid of Greece and then Portugal and create a smaller eurozone that will be closer to their interests. They start with leaks and then put them on the table as proposals."

"We're not going to play the proud Greek and do anything that would jeopardise our situation, but this latest leak that the program might be delayed until after elections made him [Venizelos] really angry," said the insider. "They say these things and then the markets react violently and then we've got another crisis. Every time we try to heal a little wound another one comes along."

A roof over their heads (USA)

'Nationwide, house prices have plunged 30 percent in nominal value since the peak and 40 percent in inflation-adjusted terms.  In wealth terms, declines in housing prices have reduced homeowners' equity by more than 50 percent in total across the U.S. since the peak of the housing boom, wiping out more than $7 trillion in household wealth.  More than 12 million or one in five households with a mortgage are now underwater.  This has led to decreased spending; some estimates suggest that households reduce spending by $3 to $5 every year for each $100 in housing value lost.  In total then, reduced consumer spending ranges from $200 to $375 billion annually related solely to the dropping value of residential real estate.  On top of that, we have to add the spending lost by savers who have seen the return on their fixed income investments plummet to near zero.  This has a ripple effect throughout the economy; less spending means lower sales for corporations which results in lowered investments in both mechanical and human capital (i.e. jobs).  Since the housing construction sector is intimately related to housing sales, it has suffered the most.'

'The year-over-year drop in unemployment is the one "bright" spot in the State of the Union. The headline U-3 unemployment rate has dropped from a seasonally adjusted rate of 9.4 percent in December 2010 to 8.5 percent in 2011. While that is marvelous news for those individuals who actually regained employment, the broader U-6 rate (which includes persons that are unemployed, those who are marginally attached to the labor force and those who are working part-time for economic reasons plus those who are marginally attached to the work force) is still a rather high 15.2 percent, down from 16.6 percent one year earlier. Part of the drop in unemployment is related to a drop in the size of the labor force, which has reached its lowest level since the early 1980s as shown here.'

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

'Phos ye cat'

Edward Lear and Foss
‘I am become like a periwinkle in the wilderness, with an owl for his dessert. It ain’t pleasant at 63 … I shall have recourse to the society of my Cat, & walk up & down the terrace.’

Greece to the lions

'Among [European] policymakers, there is a mounting sense of resignation that Greece is unable to meet its side of the bargain to facilitate the bailout, as well as a growing confidence that the eurozone is now in a much stronger position to weather a Greek default than when the crisis erupted two years ago.'

'But European exasperation has been fuelled by the consistent failure of Greek leaders to supply details on how a €325m funding gap is to be closed and by the same politicians, particularly the centre-right leader, Antonis Samaras, refusing to guarantee in writing that the deal cannot be revised following elections in April.'

The age of Belphegor

In demonology, Belphegor (or Beelphegor, Hebrew: בַּעַל-פְּעוֹר‎ baʿal-pəʿōr) is a demon, and one of the seven princes of Hell, who helps people to make discoveries. He seduces people by suggesting to them ingenious inventions that will make them rich. According to some 16th century demonologists, his power is stronger in April. Bishop and witch-hunter Peter Binsfeld believed that Belphegor tempts by means of laziness.[1] Also, according to Peter Binsfeld's Binsfeld's Classification of Demons, Belphegor is the chief demon of the deadly sin known as Sloth in Christian tradition.

Belphegor originated as the Assyrian Baal-Peor, the Moabitish god to whom the Israelites became attached in Shittim (Numbers 25:3), which was associated with licentiousness and orgies. It was worshipped in the form of a phallus. As a demon, he is described in Kabbalistic writings as the "disputer", an enemy of the sixth Sephiroth "beauty". When summoned, he can grant riches, the power of discovery and ingenious invention. His role as a demon was to sow discord among men and seduce them to evil through the apportionment of wealth.

Belphegor (Lord of the Opening) was pictured in two different fashions: as a beautiful young woman or as a monstrous, bearded demon with horns and sharply pointed nails; the former form, according to most sources, was his earthly disguise when invoked by mortals. According to De Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal, he was Hell's ambassador to France. Belphegor also figures in Milton's Paradise Lost and in Victor Hugo's The Toilers of the Sea.

According to legend, Belphegor was sent from Hell by Pluto to find out if there really was such a thing on earth as married happiness. Rumor of such had reached the demons but they knew that people were not designed to live in harmony. Belphegor's experiences in the world soon convinced him that the rumor was groundless. The story is found in various works of early modern literature, hence the use of the name to apply to a misanthrope or a licentious person.

Getting it straight

Shock Horror!

Does Richard Dawkins exist?

Following the non-divine revelation that Richard Dawkins cannot recite the full title of Darwin's Origin of Species whilst standing on his left leg and rubbing his stomach (or even from a sedentary position), research has revealed that 96 per cent of those who claim to believe in the scientific method and scientific, non-religious explanations of the universe read their horoscopes at least once a month.

Commenting that non-believers clearly do not know what they believe, the Archbishop of Canterbury has denounced the 'monstrous regiment of sham rationalists', the waste of divine resources, and called for the 'dismantling of the tyrannical apparatus of the scientific state', the expulsion of 'so-called scientists' from the House of Lords, the compulsory baptism of all infants, and a change in the judicial rubric from 'beyond reasonable doubt' to 'beyond divine displeasure'.

Professor Dawkins was unavailable for comment.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for the Public Understanding of Insignificant Facts about Religious Experience has discovered that a truly shocking number of Professing Christians (we are all Professors now, whether we will or no - at least when sat down before the Office of the Unholy Inquisition) is unable to distinguish between Beelzebub and Lucifer, and, worse still, cannot name the first book of the New Testament. Had they, like me, been sent by their parents to Sunday school for a few years in their impressionable youth (Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man' Baltasar.) they might have learnt the little rhyme 'Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Acts and Romans follow on,' and thus been assured of eternal salvation (or at least the eternal ministrations of Professor Dawkins) from then on.

Lucifer - the bearer of light

Fear not! I have faith the miraculous Mr Gove is on the case. Perhaps Addison and Steele would have done it better. In his old age, one of the favourite books of Edward Lear, who knew a thing or two about nonsense, was Addison and Steele's Spectator.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012


Edward Lear to Thomas Baring, First Earl of Northbrook, Viceroy of India, 1872:

Does your Excellency know that in various places in your Empire the Dobies fill shirts, drawers, socks, etc. with stones, and then, tying up the necks, bang them furiously on rocks at the water's edge until they are supposed to be washed? Surely, no country can prosper where such irregularities prevail.

Lear was a personal friend of Thomas Baring and travelling in India as his guest.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Greece confronts its nemesis

We are all Greece's inheritors

Greece turns a corner

A society poised for recovery?

The Greek parliament has accepted the terms of the further austerity package on which the next European bail-out depends.

There are still other hurdles to be passed before the funds are actually made available. the eurogroup of finance ministers must approve; the Bundestag must approve; an agreement must be concluded with the private creditors.

Additionally the Greek government has to give an undertaking to its European saviours that the measures will be irreversible and implemented by any future elected (or unelected) Greek government. A general election is scheduled for April.

If those hurdles are cleared the great bulk of the 130 billion Euros of funds will be held in an account to which no Greek has any access and used directly to pay interest on Greece's international loans.

Unsurprisingly international markets are rallying despite growing violence, anarchy and suffering on the Greek streets. The new package will be insufficient to free the economy from the debt burden and enable it to escape from economic shrinkage.

Light at the end of the tunnel
Everyone knows that, but in the meantime, until the next crisis is reached, international interests will continue to profit, whilst the Greek economy and Greek society is cordonned off in a kind of ghetto. Greece is, in international or even European terms, a small economy (and 'Europe as a whole is in external balance and should be able to solve its own internal problems'), but wealth can still be extracted from Greece, and the radical failure of its finances could unravel the knitted sleeve of international banking and finance.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Knowledge shall set you free

What can be at once more gratifying and more frustrating than viewing a book online?

There on your screen is some book from a distant library that for reasons of remoteness, rarity and cost one would probably never be able to hold as a physical copy. The pages turn, floating across your screen, in an unreal, cinematic fashion, remote, efficient. There is an electronic equivalent for flipping through the pages and the finger stuck in page twenty-seven. Now this page, now that; never quite convenient.

The screen is both a window on vast possibilities and a cruel restriction: always a window, never a door. There is somewhere, unseen, ungraspable, a logical step-by-step equivalent of the tottering pile of books on your desk.

We have recreated our own - far superior - version of the medieval chained library.

Hereford Cathedral library

Saturday, 11 February 2012


Sachinidis added: "The consequences of disorderly default would be incalculable for the country – not just for the economy … it will lead us onto an unknown, dangerous path."

A calculation is a deliberate process for transforming one or more inputs into one or more results, with variable change.

The English word derives from the Latin calculus, which originally meant a small stone in the gall-bladder (from Latin calx). It also meant a pebble used for calculating, or a small stone used as a counter in an abacus.

A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over.

No direction home

Meeting her was like stepping into the tales of 1001 Arabian Nights.

Bob was charismatic: he was a beacon, a lighthouse, he was also a black hole.

I must have been a real schmuck to write that. I look back at that particular one and say, of all the songs I've written, maybe I could have left that alone.

The new generation causing all the fuss was not driven by the market: we had something to say, not something to sell.

Friday, 10 February 2012

The science of the mind

Weather at war

'Few in the civil sector fully understand that geoengineering is primarily a military science and has nothing to do with either cooling the planet or lowering carbon emissions (Report, 6 February). While seemingly fantastical, weather has been weaponised. At least four countries – the US, Russia, China and Israel – possess the technology and organisation to regularly alter weather and geologic events for various military and black operations, which are tied to secondary objectives, including demographic, energy and agricultural resource management.

'Indeed, warfare now includes the technological ability to induce, enhance or direct cyclonic events, earthquakes, draught and flooding, including the use of polymerised aerosol viral agents and radioactive particulates carried through global weather systems. Various themes in public debate, including global warming, have unfortunately been subsumed into much larger military and commercial objectives that have nothing to do with broad public environmental concerns. These include the gradual warming of polar regions to facilitate naval navigation and resource extraction.'

Matt Andersson
Former executive adviser, aerospace & defence, Booz Allen Hamilton, Chicago

The Guardian 10 February 2012

More and more minimum

After the Greek government held out to almost the last moment, as politicians, who had in their own minds accepted new austerity cuts, wanted to demonstrate to the public their extreme reluctance to do so, the 'troika', the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, now have their own turn at brinkmanship in refusing to activate the latest stage of the 'bailout' until the Greek government provides 'proof' of its intention to implement the new cuts (or perhaps even the old ones).

Whatever the scepticism, it is beyond reasonable doubt that the Greek public are suffering severely from the austerity already imposed upon them. It is often reported that part of the new programme demanded is a cut of twenty per cent in the Greek minimum wage. It is seldom reported what the current minimum actually is. I believe it is rather less than half that in the UK. The argument in Greece is that the cut will stimulate economic growth and hence employment. This is one that we heard here several years ago when the UK minimum wage was first introduced and it was claimed it would destroy jobs, but it largely fell away as a false fear. Different circumstances perhaps.

A table and a picture

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

To find the mind's construction

I read recently that scientists had made significant advances in artificially interpreting the electrical activity of the brain as speech. This is said to have great potential benefits, and clearly it may, for those people who are deprived of the physical ability to speak in circumstances of medical emergency.

It may have less benefit, and even potential danger, for the far larger group of humans who do still retain the ability to speak, and everyone who can communicate in some conscious and effective manner, but scientific advances are usually promoted by the identification of some plausible minority social advantage whilst the larger social and cultural implications are blithely ignored. As scientists always say, it wasn't they who dropped Little Boy from Enola Gay.

From another report:

Soldiers could have their minds plugged directly into weapons systems, undergo brain scans during recruitment and take courses of neural stimulation to boost their learning, if the armed forces embrace the latest developments in neuroscience to hone the performance of their troops.

These scenarios are described in a report into the military and law enforcement uses of neuroscience, published on Tuesday, which also highlights a raft of legal and ethical concerns that innovations in the field may bring.

The report by the Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science, says that while the rapid advance of neuroscience is expected to benefit society and improve treatments for brain disease and mental illness, it also has substantial security applications that should be carefully analysed.

The report's authors also anticipate new designer drugs that boost performance, make captives more talkative and make enemy troops fall asleep.

"Neuroscience will have more of an impact in the future," said Rod Flower, chair of the report's working group.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Heath Robinson - furniture designer

The new fix

A new security patch for the planet - or is it a patent?

I fear this is exactly the way we, or they, are headed: 'saving the planet' (like saving the world, or anything else, before it) is to be, not a corrective, but the triumph of the ways of thinking and acting that have got us to the state we are in and from which we seek salvation. It is to be the latest, greatest way of spending, and making money. It will be brought to us by the (pardon the irony) elect. I'm sure Goldman Sachs, those workers of God's work, will be in on it somewhere - in fact, if you follow the links, I think you find they are.

Meanwhile, here in the UK, we may not have Bill Gates's billions (we've already given them to him after all), but we do have the rich tradition of Heath Robinson to draw upon. Our very own SPICE, Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering, has plans to use a balloon to lift a a 20km long hosepipe which can inject particles into the stratosphere to reflect some of the sun's energy so reducing warming of the Earth's surface. It's not a joke. Sponsored perhaps by Hoselock Killerspray.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Beyond reasonable doubt?

I have long thought that in this country, if you have the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time you can get yourself put into prison, perhaps for a large number of years, on the flimsiest of evidence, supposition or prejudice (the latter even in the minds of the judiciary).

(Messrs Jekyll and Hyde gave some attention to the meaning of that word 'reasonable', as in 'beyond reasonable doubt' - so strangely unrelated to 'beyond reason'.)

For the near-comfortable middle classes, such as myself, that is a disaster that may only descend out of the blue in the most exceptional cases, but for large minority sections of our population being in the wrong place at the wrong time is a near permanent condition.

Gander sauce with all the trimmings

One of the reasons the international financial markets are said to be dubious about the economic prospects of Greece is that it has few flourishing industrial sectors.

Greek shipping is successful but brings little economic benefit to the country because the ship owners have structured their businesses to ensure that profits are retained in foreign countries. Hardly behaviour of which international financiers would approve.

Greek tourism is said to 'lack infrastructure'. Cue international development enterprises led by billionaires, flamboyant or crespuscular, with top dressing of star architects. See Aberdeen, or Bulgaria. Certainly the Ace of Trumps could never be accused of hiding his light under the scantest bushel, and is now too busy saving his own country to spend much time degrading Aberdeenshire. Is our noble Lord Gherkin crespuscular? One cannot think so, neither in Bulgaria nor here - although someone with potential profits at stake may need to work into the night if they are to overcome the massed ranks of the RSPB (the Conservative Party with binoculars) against the creation of the 'Thames Hub' or 'Boris Island'? Perhaps one of our architects might be persuaded to design something similar to beef up that Greek infrastructure for the returning northern European tourists once the Euro resurgent rises giddily above the Drachma reinvented.

Undeveloped Greek coastline

Virgin Greek countryside
Delapidated Greek public building in need of foreign investment

Greece - step this way?

Saturday, 4 February 2012


The Beethoven Frieze was created by Klimt for an exhibition in 1902 and is now permanently installed in the Secession building where it was originally presented in Vienna. This exquisite reconstruction was created using the same techniques as applied by Klimt himself as the original Frieze, a masterpiece of 20th century art, underwent restoration. The Frieze celebrates the unification of all arts – painting, sculpture, architecture and music - and is a prime example of the “Gesamtkunstwerk”, the concept of the total work of art pioneered by Richard Wagner and influential in Vienna around 1900.

The exhibition recreates the sophisticated world of Klimt and his patrons in Vienna around 1900 at the juncture between art, architecture and design, when this intriguing figure was at the epicentre of a cultural awakening sweeping the city. It explores the relationship between Klimt as a leader and founder of the Viennese Secession (founded 1897) and the products and philosophy of the Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese Workshop, founded 1903) – a highpoint of 20th century architecture and design. Klimt played a critical role in the Viennese Secession, a progressive group of artists and artisans driven by a desire for innovation and renewal. The work and philosophy of the Secession embraced not only art but architecture, fashion and the decorative objects and furniture of the Wiener Werkstätte, demanding the emancipation of fine and applied art in stunning environments.

The world we have lost


Among the curiously mingled impressions left by to-day's great ceremony in London, that of the immense dignity and sincerity of the nation's mourning stands out most sharply. The funeral procession, although of great length, was extremely simple in character and, considered purely as a pageant, would have been comparatively unimpressive. Its greatness lay in the vast unison of a human feeling which it evoked and in its power to clothe what was probably the most representative crowd that London ever assembled in one grand garment of simple mourning. The scene of to-day will never be forgotten by those who regarded it.

Nothing could have been more worthy of an honoured monarch and nothing more creditable to her country. When one considers the emotional sympathy of the great crowd and all the massed effects of military pomp and royal dignity, of thousands of men stepping slowly to the measure of solemn music, of the mingling of pride and pathos, triumph and pity, grandeur and humility round the dust of one simple lonely woman – then, indeed, one may realise the significance of to-day's scene. Greatness and power win great and powerful tributes; success levies its tax of admiration and envy; but love alone wins love. The coin in which England chose to pay her last duty to Queen Victoria was the pure gold of silence and perfectly natural behaviour.

It was in no sense a sad occasion – it was far too solemn to be melancholy. Hours before the pageant passed its route was packed and lined with the greatest multitude that any living person has seen in London. From on all sides people poured towards the scene of the procession; the sound of wheels was silent and the streets resounded only with the tramping of feet. At points such as the railway stations and Buckingham Palace the crowd seemed to expand into seas of living faces. In the time of waiting the people talked quietly and cheerfully among themselves, interested in the forming up of the troops, and ready to be amused in a quiet way by the little incidents that enliven such intervals. There was no false restraint, no attempt to beat up artificial emotion. It was a silent crowd; indeed its supreme characteristics were its blackness and silence. People were silent because they wished to be silent, because the magnetism of the hour was upon them, and its solemnity. Shutting one's eyes, it was the seashore that seemed to sound – not the busy city with its clamorous voices and roarings.

Over London there hung the light mist of our winter mornings, and the sun shone like a dim, far-off lighthouse, with its intervals of eclipse. When the dead Queen's body was borne past, the silence simply deepened – that was all.

Manchester Guardian, 4 February 1901

Friday, 3 February 2012

Plum Flower Valley

Sha Tin paddy fields 1960
A friend writes:

Once, several lifetimes ago, I used to walk at the weekends over Lion Rock and down the other side into the the tiny fields of fruit bushes and vegetables with their low banks of earth. I'd wander the same way more or less through this network and on past the the only tea-house, all clattering with mahjong tiles - the only building between the mountains at my back and on the tiny settlement of beaten tin huts a couple of miles away. It was a stop on the railway which came straight through the mountain with that lack of respect for our Great Mother that is the hallmark of engineers anxious to prove it can be done. It was called Sha Tin, which means Sand Field, a new name for a made-up place. I used to go further to the edge of the water and then I could call across to get a passing junk to pick me up and take me the almost-mile to the other side. There was a communist village there, all old-style houses and banana tress in front. The narrow valley behind was dry with great rocks and a rough steam ouring down, its energy a little depleted in summer. Kingfishers crisscrossed the stream, flashing blue and white, as it seemed. I loved the place. Now Sha Tin has over a million people and high rises cover the vegetable fields of the place that used to be know as Plum Flower Valley. Shen Zhen existed then, I think, but I never saw it. Twenty miles down the track, maybe less.

I would go back to writing my monthly reports that showed how China had nowhere to go but towards US. I'm afraid I might in a distant, proleptic manner have contributed to that much greater outpouring of concrete. personally, I like earth.

Sha Tin panorama today


It is a truth universally acknowledged, some might say, that modern shadow banking is a menace to the proper functioning and oversight of our financial and economic system.

We appear, more widely, to have something akin to shadow governance, But a small example of that, in this country, and what we quaintly call its dependencies, is the British Crown.

While, in previous centuries, the monarchy wielded real, substantial and avowed power and privilege, various rising sections of society displayed extremely vigorous and ultimately effective opposition. Yet, now that it has declined into a kind of genteel Disneydom, any hostile preoccupation with it is generally regarded as impolite or immature.

I used to have some sympathy for that notion, although my chief objection to full-blown republicanism was always the dreadful necessity to elect a president, but now it seems to me that the lingering and near impenetrably obscure constitutional prerogatives of the crown, and the remaining prestige or fascination of the monarchy, create an attraction between it and those who naturally operate in the shadows - which future monarchs, born in a different time and themselves accustomed to a role with even less constitutional clarity, may not be so effective in restraining.

'The night cometh when no man can work.'

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Give me your tired, your huddled masses longing to be free

Critics have accused the government of paving the way for a selective immigration policy whereby only the wealthy will be able to marry who they want from abroad, and only migrants earning more than £31,000 a year will be able to settle in Britain.

They'll just have to go to America. Has our government decided we do not need more corner shops and restaurants, or future Mr Noons?

Smart wheeze

The Treasury has asked Whitehall to review all the tax affairs of top civil servants after it emerged that the head of the Student Loans Company (SLC) is paid via a company without tax being deducted.

The SLC's chief executive Ed Lester has his £182,000 salary paid gross to his private service company, potentially saving him tens of thousands of pounds in tax.

The arrangement, entered into in 2010, was disclosed in a HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) letter obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Exaro News and BBC Newsnight. Ministers will be dismayed if it is seen that they have been presiding over a system in which senior civil servants have been able to minimise their tax payments, at a time when the rest of the country is being urged that we are "all in this together".

Bish bash bosh

Admittedly, the current focus on Fred Goodwin's ex-honour appears to be a cynical political distraction from matters of real general concern, but he was given his knight batchelorhood, I understand, for 'services to banking' and in the light of what has since transpired, and the FSA report, no-one can seriously argue that he deserves any distinction much greater than the 'been there, done that' tee shirt.

He has the consolation of retaining (at least for the time being) his honorary degree at the University of St Andrews.

There is, in recent reaction, the unmistakeable sound of the closing of ranks, like that of the sound of the old fashioned cinema seats going up as everyone rises to escape before the credits roll.

The real answer might be to abolish the whole rotten system of state honours which our erstwhile prime minister tried to prop up by admitting a sprinkling of lollipop ladies to its ranks (lower of course).


Some of my best friends are architects, as one says - well, I know a few - and so I hope they will forgive me for what may appear to be 'architect bashing'. (Don't the bankers deserve a break?) I am in fact in awe of architects, who know so much and, sometimes, can do so much, but what I criticise is more their position in society, and I am acutely conscious that, in this respect, furniture 'designer-makers' are in no position to start calling any kettle black.

We all, these days, in our modest, if destructive, occupations, aspire to the status of artists. Perhaps as 'genuine' 'artists' (note the separate inverted commas denoting a complete breakdown of connected thought) have turned to the contemplation and arrangement of the mundane ('artists' as 'arrangers' as in 'flower arranger' or, more sinisterly, as 'fixers', as in relieving the rich of their money?) there has ceased to be any policeable boundary between 'art' and artifice (not that there was in centuries past).

Architects, as the inevitable hand-maids of Mammon, whose adherents have long dominated (after the public functionaries) the honours lists, for services either to making money or to giving some of it away in their comfortable maturity, have certainly got their feet, and other parts of the anatomy besides, into the pantheon, to the extent that they too are now the recipients of buggins-turn knighthoods and peerages.

It used to be, when I was young, just the musicians who were thus honoured by the establishment, bringing a discreet sprinkling of culture into the grown-up world, as the captains of industry snored at the opera - music being largely a safely abstract form of art. (Thus Victoria gave us Sir Arthur Sullivan, but that unpleasantly acerbic W S Gilbert remained plain Mr.) The visual arts were a little riskier but at least there was the academy to ensure a supply of properly respectable practitioners among the riff-raff. And literature - well it was always plain what that was talking about (more or less), though the recently published list of refusniks has shown a good many modern-ish writers to have declined honours. (I didn't notice any architects there.)

The trouble with architects as artists - and their work is now routinely praised or condemned in terms of a kind of lax art-speak - is that their oeuvre is so much at our feet, or in our face. We cannot avoid it in the way that we can decline to enter the gallery (the modern art asylum) or open the book. In times past, partly for that reason, architects (even the modernists - amongst themselves) subscribed to an order, or something approaching an agreed aesthetic and visual vocabulary. No longer so - at least not deliberately.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Open to the public

Shenzhen, the Chinese 'settlement' on the border with Hong Kong, which, in the past (when the earth was flat), before Den Xiaoping declared the backwater a Special Economic Zone in 1980 (which astrophysicists have recently identified as the date of the Big Bang - which led of course to all those Big Bucks) was a fishing village of junks and paddy fields, is now a city of more than ten million population (think of where those people have come from) with the third largest 'container' port in China (think of what is 'contained').

It is now the recipient or host to British architect Terry Farrell's (think of the Thames-side extravaganza for MI6, those kind purveyors of mystery travel and entertaining quiz nights for British citizens and others)) first skyscraper, which will rise to 100 floors.

This monument to the possibilities of physical and spiritual displacement is to have, at the top, above floors of offices, a 250-bedroomed hotel, which 'is all rounded off with a delightful sky lobby, rather like a vast and ultra-modern birdcage, with a bar and terrace open to the public.

There will of course be the regulation architect's indoor garden to compensate for the fact that in the space of a quarter of a century we have left no room for plants - those refugees of our civilisation - on the 'ground floor'. What can be sadder than those container-bound 'mature' plants dragooned into service by the architects, star and earthly, of buildings from Portcullis House onwards. Future archaeologists, peering at the physical detritus of our lost civilisation (unable to decipher the quaint technology of our electronic communications), will doubtless nominate us as the 'container people', and whilst earlier peoples mystified their remote successors with a plethora of what we can only term 'ritual pits', we shall have left behind a generous scattering of 'ritual towers'.

But to return to Shenzhen in the here and now, the space inside this glass tip is taken up by an egg-shaped pod several storeys high containing small private spaces, some perched on balconies, where guests can sit, drink and take in jaw-dropping views of Shenzhen and beyond.'

Which public will those in the 'small private spaces' in 'egg-shaped pods' be allowed to let their jaws drop at, as their expensive drinks approach their mouths?