Friday, November 27, 2015

the aunties *

The only time I ever visited Newfoundland was when my mother and I flew to England for a lengthy visit with family. This was so long ago that Toronto's airport was still named Malton after a nearby town; you walked out on the runway to climb a staircase to your plane while your friends and relatives stood on the roof of the terminal from which they could wave and shout last minute advice; the planes all had propellors which made the landing at Gander, Newfoundland necessary. Why, my younger readers may be asking themselves? Well, it was because the flights that were slow and took ages required refueling before making the big leap across the Atlantic.

There were several reasons we went at that particular time, one of the main ones being that my mother wanted to attend the wedding of her younger sister - a second marriage that would, hopefully, be a happier one. Back then, even in England, second marriages were rarely celebrated in churches and this one was no different. But after the ceremony at the Registry office they had a wonderful party - one that spilled out of the saloon bar at the local pub onto the lawn. The aunties danced.

Ah, how sweet to remember those bygone days when people could be silly without the risk of hearing the next day that videos of their antics had gone viral on youtube.

"Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business."
~ Tom Robbins

* faded pictures of fading memories

Friday, November 20, 2015


Am I alone in thinking that all times past were more innocent? Even this time a week ago appears to be much more naive a period than now. Then there are those much earlier eras in my life when the world was fresh and alive with possibility in every moment. One of the great delights of the few short years I lived in England was making journeys away from London. While I spent some months in Paris at the latter part of that time, in general, my lack of fluency in any language other than English made long stays in European cities difficult. It may be hard to imagine now but tourism in the mid-60s was mostly limited to the well off who could afford high fares and to stay in places that catered to their needs - including mono-linguists. Not to say there weren't already lots of students adventuring in groups, but I wasn't one of their number and hitchiking to India by myself didn't seem wise.

So, instead, I often travelled to out of the way places in England by train, sitting in little private compartments like this one whose door would open onto the platform and an inner door to the corridor where you could stand at the windows to watch the other side of the countryside pass by. As a fan of Alfred Hitchcock movies that weren't very old at the time, the confined space on board heightened the feeling of drama, intrigue, romance and adventure - all played out at high speed as the train made it's relaxing kacunkachunk rattle over the sleepers. Being a witness to the world and yet remote from its troubles was a boon to maturing - a little, at least.

It turns out I did all that at a very good time because within a few more years most of those railway lines between idyllic country towns had been torn up and sold in order that highways could be built instead. A very similar thing happened in North America with the promotion of the interstate highways and airline travel. It could be argued now that high speed rail lines in Europe and Japan have done much to destroy a more relaxed and humane way of getting from one place to another. Then again, I'll admit to always giving equal merit to the journey as well as the destination.

“My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing,
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.”
~ Edna St. Vincent Millay

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

stations along the way

While there may be some things I can draw a bit better than others I'm not sure architecture is among them. Still, among my favorite memories of living in England are the great railway stations of London. Paddington, King's Cross, St Pancras, Euston, Charing Cross, Victoria,  Liverpool Street, and Waterloo are names and places to remember for their names alone, never mind their grandeur. Sometimes I'd visit them just to enjoy the atmosphere - cavernous sheds, seemingly endless platforms, and always lots of interesting characters. Other times, the best ones, were the days when I had a ticket and a place to visit somewhere along one of the lines.

Here's a story told by Terry Jones about something that happened to Douglas Adams at a large railway station around the time I lived there:

Early for a train, Douglas bought The Guardian, a cup of coffee and a packet of biscuits, and sat down at a table, putting the folded newspaper down so he could do the crossword. The packet of biscuits was in the middle of the table.

There was another man already sitting at the table and this man now leant calmly across, tore open the packet of biscuits and ate one. Douglas said he went into a sort of state of shock, but — determined not to show any reaction — he equally calmly leant forward and took the second biscuit. A few minutes later, the man took the third and ate it. Douglas then took the fourth and tried his best not to glare at the man.

The man then stood up and wandered off as if nothing had happened, at which point Douglas’s train was announced. So he hurriedly finished his coffee and picked up his belongings, only to find his packet of biscuits under the newspaper.

Somehow, I can't imagine that happening at an airport.. or maybe not anywhere now.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

a fawlty assumption

This one didn't work out quite the way I'd hoped but it's enough to give a general idea of the time I went up north (north being the little village of Eastgate in Co. Durham) to visit my grandmother. I'd been in England, living on my own in London, for a couple of months by then and a visit was already overdue. What was I? 18 or 19, perhaps? Goodness knows, I thought I was about as grown up and sophisticated as a girl could be. My grandmother was probably 80 or maybe a bit older by the time I arrived on her doorstep - the first we'd seen of each other since 1958 when my mother and I had spent 3 months traveling the country visiting family. Naturally we'd been in Eastgate a lot. My granddad had died two years before so she was on her own in the two storey cottage they'd shared in retirement.

So there I was back with my grandmother for what I'd imagined would be a relaxing few days of quiet teas, long walks, and early bedtimes that would let me unwind from my busy life in the south country. What happened instead is that I'd hardly got in the door that evening before she put on her fur collar and her sparkly earrings, refreshed her lipstick and perfume, and hustled me out the door and around the corner to the local pub. My grandparents had been publicans among their many occupations over the years and had always been well loved in the area. So, unsurprisingly, just about everybody from the village and roundabout was there waiting for us to arrive, including the village bobby.

Now I never was much of a drinker, but people were buying rounds for my grandmother and me and the only way she was going to get another glass of blackcurrant brandy was when I'd finished what was in my glass. Nanna enjoyed her drink as much as a good joke and there were plenty of both going around the tables that evening. As it got later I comforted myself with the knowledge that soon the landlord would call 'Time!' and everybody would finish their drinks and go home. I'd had a very long train ride and a bus trip to follow so I was tired to say the least. Finally I heard the little bell ring and the landlord's call for last drinks. The policeman left. Five minutes later he was back wearing his comfortable clothes and the party continued for three more hours.

I could tell you some stories about some of my grandmother's exploits but it's late now and I should go to bed. I'm not the woman my nanna was. :)

Saturday, October 31, 2015

elektronik kinder Hallowe'en


I can't remember having done a Hallowe'en post before but I just can't resist showing you the children of the Kinder der 1. Klasse at GTS Lemmchen Mainz-Mombach school performing Kraftwerk's 1977 number The Robots, while dressed in homemade cardboard costumes. Truth to tell, I got a tear in my eye when they started to sing.

Kraftwerk was a great band and did a lot to introduce electronic music to the world at large, although Raymond Scott's Manhattan Research Project probably started the whole thing. Anyhow, maybe you remember them yourself - if not, and if you're wondering about The Robots here's a performance they did a couple of years ago.

Remember to wear some reflective clothing when you go out to trick or treat.. and don't eat too much candy.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

future then and now

For some time I've kept a copy of an essay titled 'In Praise of Idleness' written by Bertrand Russell in 1932. Famous in life as a philosopher, mathematician, historian and political activist, as well as being a Nobel Prize winner, I'm sure he needs no introduction here.

A few days ago I came across an interview on Vice Magazine called: The Man Whose Job It Is to Constantly Imagine the Total Collapse of Humanity in Order to Save It. That man is Vinay Gupta, a philosopher, engineer, computer programmer, and one of the world’s leading thinkers on infrastructure theory, state failure solutions, and managing global system risks. Whereas I'd never heard of him until a few days ago and generally don't have a high opinion of modern futurism I found his reasoning to be most humane.

Part way through reading the interview with Vinay Gupta, having by then determined it resonated in a very profound way with what Bertrand Russell had written 83 years ago, I decided to try pulling pieces out of both compositions and setting parts next to one another to form a conversation. Maybe this was a silly thing to do (both originals are far longer and provide a more complete view of the individuals thoughts) but the following dialogue is the result that I hope you'll enjoy. That there can be such mutual philosophical reinforcement across so many decades I find very reassuring. With apologies if it's too long:

Bertrand Russell: I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.

Vinay Gupta: A global minimum standard of living is the way to go here, and it's cheap to produce if you think of it as "manufacture and distribute for free" rather than trying to hand out cash and hope people will buy what you want them to buy.

BR: First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.

VG: Nobody will admit that we are apes with ape problems. Everybody is carrying around the essentially colonialist fiction that we are in some way more than the other animals, and once that error is made, our heads fill with imaginary needs and imaginary stories. We can pretty much perfect the happy ape level of consciousness in this world, and all that it's going to cost us is our history of over-complicating all of this with our pre-evolutionary mythology about the nature of humanity.

BR: From the beginning of civilization until the Industrial Revolution, a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family, although his wife worked at least as hard as he did, and his children added their labor as soon as they were old enough to do so. The small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by warriors and priests. In times of famine there was no surplus; the warriors and priests, however, still secured as much as at other times, with the result that many of the workers died of hunger.

VG: What if the objective isn't to level out the game between winners and losers, but to make life as good as possible for the losers? If we accept that most people will be losers at some point in their lives, how do we design a good life for losers, for the mediocre, the untalented, the unlucky – for every single human being, no matter how "undeserving" they may appear to some means-testing meritocratic aid bureaucracy. This is "decentralisation" certainly, but not in the usual sense that people use the word.

BR:  A system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impress upon men's thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system, and, being pre-industrial, is not adapted to the modern world. Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.

VG: Refugees, homeless people, disaster victims, migrants, all these people often face the same basic challenges: staying warm, staying cool, avoiding hunger, thirst, illness and injury. For those of us left scrambling in the dirt – that's a billion people today in the slums, and another two billion barely making a living on tiny little mud hut farms all over the world. For those people to make a decent life, that has been my goal.

I don't know how to fix inequality. But I do think we can – with safe, available, even cheap technology – stamp out nearly all of the suffering that poverty causes. As Gandhi said: "Poverty is the worst form of violence."

BR: Of course the holders of power conceal this fact from themselves by managing to believe that their interests are identical with the larger interests of humanity. Sometimes this is true; Athenian slave-owners, for instance, employed part of their leisure in making a permanent contribution to civilization which would have been impossible under a just economic system. Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labors of the many. But their labors were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And with modern technique it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.

VG: People who have to leave where they are because staying will get them killed aren't necessarily fleeing political oppression or war any more, now we have to increasingly contend with climate-induced famine and economic factors. Where are these people going during the period of their dependency? They've largely abandoned jobs, and their savings won't last long. Where are they to go in the short term, and who is to house and feed them.

The truth is that we could solve that territorial problem right now pretty easily if we made an all-out assault on solar water desalination: all the dry coast and most of the desert in Africa, America and especially Australia would become habitable if there was abundant, affordable fresh water. So colonising the desert areas would be a big win. There's a huge leap of imagination to take our existing physical resources and purpose them into this kind of pseudo-utopian project, but it's only a leap of imagination. We have all the technology, right here, right now, this very day. It seems to me that the obvious solution would be for the oil-rich Gulf States to take them in en masse – build a couple of new cities instead and do some of that "make the desert bloom" stuff in Saudi Arabia, and settle a few million people there. Problem solved.

BR: Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war (wwi). At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or Government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since. The significance of this fact was concealed by finance: borrowing made it appear as if the future was nourishing the present. But that, of course, would have been impossible; a man cannot eat a loaf of bread that does not yet exist. The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world.

VG: When we admit that the allegedly-temporary status of "refugee" is actually the permanent status of "displaced, never to return" maybe we could start to design a lifestyle that works cheaply enough for the international community to continue support, while at the same time producing a high standard of living to the point where refugees have some real utility. My proposal, along those paths, is that we turn the refugee camps into universities. If we won't let them get jobs and work, let them get PhDs on the internet and become huge academic centres of excellence. There is no problem in this world that access to 150 million more educated human beings would not improve. At a technical level, we can certainly build as many temporary cities or countries as are required, at very reasonable prices, but surely we can do better than shoring up these broken legal fictions.

We need a legal replacement for the "refugee" concept, in the age of people being forced off their land by climate crises. All the rest comes from that. Global citizenship?

BR: Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

exotic space Crow

Crow, having all the advantages of being either a material or immaterial being depending on his mood, recently sojourned to one of the more exotic locales in our galaxy. You can see him here in the company of an otherworldly friend enjoying the sights on a moon of a gas giant planet that circles a star a few parsecs away from Betelguese - which is not the name the locals happen to know it by.

On his return he was amused to see the news that a strange phenomenon has been discovered by scientists monitoring the Kepler Space Telescope. The light pattern they saw seemed to indicate a big mess of matter circling the star (KIC 8462852 in astronomer speak) in tight formation.  This would be no big deal for a young star – things get pretty messy during the early stages of solar system formation.  The problem is that KIC 8462852 is not a young star, it's much older than our Sol and considerably larger too, and scientists seem to agree that all the potential explanations in terms of conventional physics and natural phenomena are found wanting. One astronomer, Jason Wright of Penn State University, blithely noted that the light pattern observed was consistent with a “swarm of megastructures”, and after examining the data more closely cautioned, “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”

Oops. That was the point where lots of people began to remember the Kardashev Scale* - the classification of possible civilizations depending on energy usage that basically looks like this:

Type I civilizations control all available energy on a single planet.
Type II civilizations control all available energy in a solar system (for example, using Dyson spheres).
Type III civilizations control use all available energy in an entire galaxy.

I'm pretty sure we can't build a Dyson Sphere yet but surely that will come soon now we've got Google Glass and the i-Phone 6S.

Crow: Hold on just a moment there. Your Earth doesn't even count as a Type I civilization yet. You can scarcely predict the weather more than a few days in advance, never mind control it. The only space travel humans have done is a couple of brief forays to the moon decades ago and every so often one of you goes to sit in the Space Station. You spend incredible amounts of energy and resources bickering over idiotic political boundaries and ideological differences. Environmental problems and global resource depletion are beginning to wreak havoc with our climate and infrastructure.  In 1965, Buckminster Fuller said that you had all the necessary technical knowledge then to create a globally sustainable civilization for everyone on the planet to live like billionaires. So why haven’t you?

Ah well, it's more likely than not the scientists haven't discovered a Type II civilization. Who says beings so far beyond human would even want to spend the time and energy to convert the power of an entire sun, never mind using up every scrap of material in the solar system and beyond as raw material for such a construct? Humans can only think like humans, after all, and you lot have barely begun to communicate with the other sentient beings that share the place with you. If you think about it for a moment there's a distinct possibility that advanced civilizations could decide that moving out into space in the traditional expansive convert-the-universe-into-computronium agenda is not be the best way to go.

Maybe they all got smart enough to enjoy the worlds where they evolved. Cold, dark, airless, vast and empty space may not be the right environment for living beings of any category. So far the machines you make seem to be much better at exploring and sending back news of what has been found. How likely is it anyway you will find a place better suited to you and us, your friends and co-residents?

Perhaps there is an advanced alien race that is enclosing their local star. If they plan on coming here next you people might be best off turning off the lights and staying very quiet.

God thought to hide his secrets in a secure place. ‘How about on the moon’ he reflected. ‘But then, one day human beings could get there, and it may be that those who arrive there would not be worthy of such knowledge. Maybe in the ocean or deep underground?’ But that again was dismissed for the same reason. Then the solution occurred to him – ‘I shall put my secrets in the inner sanctum of their own minds. Then only those who really deserve it and seek it will be able to find it.' **

*Nikolai Kardashev, Russian astrophysicist, Doctor of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, and is the deputy director of the Russian Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
Not Kardasian - an entirely different kind of scale.

**Told by a tribal ayahuasca user.