Sunday, 28 October 2007

On Wine and Scientific Committees


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

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

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

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

Whatever the state of human evolution, it certainly appears to be lagging in Queensland.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Decline and Fall

As I stood in my front room clutching my Wii remote and throwing punches ineffectually into the air I couldn't help reflecting that while technology liberates us, it ultimately emasculates us. In Victorian times strapping young chaps like me would have manfully strode down to the coal face and spent the day chipping away at it with a giant pick axe. We would have undertaken this task for the vast majority of our lives before suffering an excruciating but dignified death from tuberculosis. This was known as the nobility of labour. Sadly there seems to be little nobility in slumped Internet browsing, deleting penis enlargement emails from your inbox and writing long boring sales proposals.

In old Victorian prints, the man of the house sits at the head of the table, the adoring eyes of his family fixed upon him as he contemplates a letter. When I get home, I stand at the head of the television set and contemplate how best to defeat my e-adversary, the perfidious 'Eric'; a character in Wii boxing who bears more than a passing resemblance to Admiral Tojo. For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, the Wii is the latest games console from Nintendo.

Instead of just pressing buttons on a normal controller you have to actually perform the 'real world' action, swinging the remote like a tennis racket for example, or jabbing with it to throw punches. The trouble with Wii boxing is it is seriously hard work and only a couple of rounds is enough to build up a healthy sweat. Vanquishing virtual opponents takes at least half of the effort of normal boxing but produces none of the street credibility, as I have discovered on those occasions when I have boasted to my colleagues at work. There may come a time when achieving a record breaking time on Super Monkey Ball hurdles is seen as great an achievement as running the London marathon but that time is assuredly not now, unless of course you live in South Korea.

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

Katie and I’s recent excursion to the United States roughly coincided with the latest terrorist attacks on the U.K. Whilst this led to lengthy delays at the airport it did at least afford me the opportunity to spout stoic Churchillian rhetoric from a safe distance. I can help thinking that what with Comical Ali, the detonating doctors and the hate preaching mouse of Hamas this country is faced with the most unhinged adversaries since the days of the Mad Mullah.

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

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

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