A Mischief Of Magpies

If the Sun were the size of a beach ball then Jupiter would be the size of a golf ball and a Mischief of Magpies would be as small as a pea.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Apocalypse Not

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's brilliant film 'Amelie' was on television last night. It's a visually stunning, emotionally gripping, wonderfully whimsical story whose very plot is a glorious testament to the power of human virtue. It's this above all, that is so wonderful about it - it's positive, in the best possible way, about who we are, and how we live our lives.

In real life, however, people seem to be increasingly certain that we can't buy a happy ending. Doom-mongers and apocalypse-hunters are roaming the streets, and most significantly Fleet Street. If it isn't avian flu or the threat of terrorism, it's the impending doom we face because of our 'lack of inventiveness.'

I'm not joking. Neither, of course, are they. Still, this 'inventiveness' story appeared in yesterday's 'Sunday Times Magazine.' The writer, Bryan Appleyard, is hardly a writer to inspire great confidence. He penned, for example, an exceedingly stupid defence of 'Intelligent Design', completely destroyed here, and claimed, hilariously, that the 'first immortal human has now been born.' This man, lest we forget, is one of the senior science and philosophy columnists at The Times. I want particularly to rubbish what he wrote yesterday:

'We've taken the past 200 years of prosperity for granted. Humanity's progress is stalling, we are facing a new era of decay, and nobody is clever enough to fix it. Is the future really that black, asks Bryan Appleyard.'

This was the subheading for the column. It is totally erronous - Appleyard doesn't 'ask' anything, because he is already convinced:

'The greatest getting-and-spending spree in the history of the world is about to end. The 200-year boom that gave citizens of the industrial world levels of wealth, health and longevity beyond anything previously known to humanity is threatened on every side.'

See? Not 'asking', 'telling.'

'It's been said before, of course: people are always saying the world will end and it never does. Maybe it won't this time, either. But, frankly, it's not looking good. Almost daily, new evidence is emerging that progress can no longer be taken for granted, that a new Dark Age is lying in wait for ourselves and our children.'

'Almost daily,' no such thing is happening. The statement that 'a new Dark Age is lying in wait' is certainly fatuous - more importantly, it is particularly irresponsible. There is a distinct lack of humanity about Appleyard's argument. In the Spiked! article linked to above, Brendan O'Neill rightly points out:

'The anti-terror warriors also place restrictions on our freedom of movement around the world, bringing in stringent security checks at airports everywhere. Those concerned about a bird-flu pandemic say movement is itself part of the problem, since 'globalisation and global air travel have made the spread of a pandemic, once started, almost instantaneous' (11). It's not enough that we have our scissors and matches taken away lest we try to blow up a flight; perhaps we should stop flying altogether. Where the anti-terrorists panic about evil individuals sneaking on to flights and doing bad things, the bird-flu worriers see all people moving around the world as the potential harbingers of death and disease.'

This is crucial. The amount of panic amongst certain sections of left-wing opinion about the ghastly effects of cheap and affordable air fares is horrific to behold - I stated in that link that 'there is an astonishing, snobbish elitism prevalent in the continual moaning about cheap flights.' I stand by that statement. It is almost always inevitably the case that those moaning are those on the left, who, had they lived in a different time, would instead have been demanding that working people had as much right to see the world as the highest-paid executive. It is an astounding remark on the transformation of the left that the best champions for the working man are free-market libertarians.

This is an important point to make. Appleyard and the avian flu panic merchants speak in the same language about travel, which ties in with his obsession with oil, about which more in a minute, but even more importantly, about people. He may appear to want to help us mere mortals by predicting doom, but in fact he quite clearly has very little time for actual individuals. Here's his take on population:

'By keeping humans alive longer and by feeding them better, progress is continually pushing population levels. With population comes pollution. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming caused by human activity is happening.'

In other words, 'the planet would be fine without all these pesky human beings, except maybe the educated ones like me.' In point of fact, a rising population is a sign of a healthy nation. For all his negativity about population growth, Appleyard neglects the fact that it is vital. In the time of the English Civil War, there were just 5.7 million people in Britain. Today, there are over ten times that amount, and despite this increase, people on average own more land, and they also obviously have a better quality of life and live for far longer. It is this last that makes a growing population necessary - obviously, a society with too many people too old to work is a society doomed to failure. Britain is a country - one of very few in Europe, incidentally - that is managing this well. We certainly do have more old people, and they are a greater percentage of the national population, but we also have a consistently growing population, with the number of persons of working age not declining too dramatically. If Appleyard wishes to collect his (enormous, I'm sure) pension, and more imprtantly if I am to get mine, then he should think about the consequences of his apparent distaste for humans.

To return to the third quotation here from his article, he is right to state that 'people are always saying the world will end and it never does.' Why does he think this is? Well, it turns out that he is a sort of modern-day survivalist who believes that our dependence on oil will cripple us in the short term:

'The first big problem is our insane addiction to oil. It powers everything we do and determines how we live. But, on the most optimistic projections, there are only 30 to 40 years of oil left. One pessimistic projection, from Sweden's Uppsala University, is that world reserves are massively overstated and the oil will start to run out in 10 years. That makes it virtually inconceivable that there will be kerosene-powered planes or petroleum-powered cars for much longer. Long before the oil actually runs out, it will have become far too expensive to use for such frivolous pursuits as flying and driving.'

Some writers bandy statistics around in enough numbers to make sure you don't read them too closely. Others just don't proof-read their work. Appleyard fits into one or other of those categories. Elsewhere in the article, in a sort of sidebox about the life of an even bigger eco-warrior, John-Paul Flintoff, we are told that the world 'currently requires more than thirty billion barrels of oil a year.' Trust me on this one - it doesn't require much more, because these people would be shouting about it if it did. We are also told at one point in Appleyard's article that Saudi Arabia has a 262 billion barrel reserve. Even the meanest intelligence should be able to work out that this means there is nearly enough for another nine years in Saudi Arabia alone, at the absolute meanest estimate, a figure that makes the not-terribly-prestigious University of Uppsala's figures ludicrously low.

It shouldn't really need pointing out that those figure only include Saudi Arabia. They don't include, amongst other big producers, the other OPEC nations, America, Canada or Russia. Flintoff claims that 'new discoveries [of oilfields] are at an all-time low.' Maybe so, but there certainly are new discoveries. In the last year or so, new areas have been found in the North Sea. If we can find new oil in somewhere as consistently picked-over as the North Sea, there's no knowing how much hasn't been found in the furthest stretches of Siberia, or anywhere else where proper, detailed geological surveys are either outdated or nonexistent.

Don't be fooled - these doom-mongers want the world to retaliate back at the human race because of the perceieved injustices we inflict upon it. How else to explain those who expressed cautious approval for the tsunami, or less cautious approval for Hurricane Katrina? Let's let them get on with it - meanwhile, we're doing just fine.

I do think that oilrigs have a certain brutal beauty to them.

But is it Art?

The Turner Prize nominations are out today. It's very easy to be snobbish about the Turner Prize. So I will be: it's a horrible waste of time, effort, energy and money. Forty thousand pounds will be shared amongst the four hopefuls this year, more cash than the vast majority of the UK makes in a year. Now, I'm not one to sneer at modern art just because it's modern art; I'm one to sneer at it modern art if it's intrinsically crap.

For example, Damien Hirst stuffs various animals and mounts them in formaldehyde solution. Very decorative. But is it art? He says it is because it makes us think: "I am going to die and I want to live for ever. I can't escape the fact and I can't let go of the desire."[D. Hirst, 1995.] OK... but for me, films such as Reservoir Dogs and Bambi Meets Godzilla evoke pretty much the same awareness of death, albeit in a slightly less nebulous way - life is hard and then you die. Nobody calls either of them particularly 'artistic'.

Just for the record, here are some of the nominees' work:

Darren Almond: includes a video of himself talking about his grandmother, a picture of a big digital clock in front of a ship, and two aluminium bus stops. No comment.

Gillian Carnegie: paintings. So she's got no chance of winning then.

Jim Lambie: installation art, including a wardrobe painted pink with black spots and three canvases at jaunty angles with black and white stripes on. Think Legally Blonde meets those weird 'magic eye' pictures on a bigger scale.

Simon Starling: a bike supporting the canvas of a watercolour painting of a cactus. And a bit of sky painted on the ceiling. And a shed with a corregated iron roof. Again, no comment.

Call me a cynic, but a shed and someone whittering on about his granny isn't really art as far as I'm concerned. I hope, for the sake of sanity, that the paintings win, but somehow I doubt it'll happen...


There's been a house alarm.. er... alarming LOUDLY since 11:30 last night and it's right opposite my house.
The worst thing is that it's unoccupied (the house, not the noise) so I can't find anyone to murder.

What do you do when there's an alarm-clock-like noise going on across the street and you have reached the point of slitting your wrists? (That was rhetorical, don't answer me - let me tell you.)

...don't you just hate rhetorical questions???

You lie in bed with a pillow on your head.
Sounds uncomfortable. (It is.)

This doesn't work as it severely cramps your style when it comes to breathing. Call me old-fashioned, but I quite like breathing.

Next you lie on your side with one arm over your exposed ear and try not to think about the alarm. All the while you wonder whether home-made earplugs made out of wet toilet paper would get stuck in your ears and would require a hospital trip. And how do you know that you haven't got tinnitus? Please, no. A lifetime of this.. I would rather eat my legs with a spoon.
Oh, and if you've got wet bog roll in your ears, can you hear your own alarm clock?

I didn't try the bog roll thing as eventually method 2 allowed me to sleep for around 20 minutes.
However, I dreamed about alarms.

This led to me waking up, and on the verge of sobbing uncontrollably through sleep-deprived-induced insanity, rang the police. I was hoping that they would jump on their horses and get right over here pronto with a top marksman who would shoot the bastard alarm to oblivion. They would then hunt down the owner of the property with dogs and rip him to pieces before delivering his many tiny twitching remains to my front doorstep in a little box so that I could hang his corpse out in the street as a deterrent.

They told me to ring Environmental Health.

EH said that if I had rung 3 0r 4 hours earlier they could have done something. But now they can't. Because it's nearly daytime.
I don't call this daytime, I don't get a pulse 'til around 11am.
Hang on a second.


Oh, and the other thing they said was that they would ring me back in a bit.

If you see them, can you explain to them that the reason I had rung was because I wanted to go to sleep... not hang around waiting for a phone call? They're missing the whole point. I don't want a nice chat, I want all the horrible noises to go away before I start dribbling and rocking.