Monday, 28 April 2008

"The Monday Morning Paranoia."

Does anyone else find it suspicious that the Grangemouth oil refinery strike over pensions has occurred and resulted in frantic panic-buying of petrol just at a point when petrol prices are at an unreasonable high? Why has their union suddenly decided to conveniently strike and goad the people of the UK into buying petrol at 108 pence per litre?

Shadowy conspiracy and worker manipulation by the oil companies or unhappy coincidence?

Saturday, 26 April 2008

"A Slightly Less Inconvenient Truth."

Global warming sceptics are often lumped into lists with Young Earth creationists, Scientologists, and New Age medicinal practitioners: people who can’t accept the evidence that is right before their eyes. The problem with this categorisation is that there is little to no scientific evidence in favour of global warming and so global warming sceptics are starkly different to the other groups. Global warming sceptics actually do listen to the evidence even though that may fly in the face of collective opinion.

It was Karl Popper who stated that science should be made up of bold and novel conjectures which are subsequently refuted. The point was that science ought to be falsifiable, testable, and capable of being proven wrong. Newton’s mechanics were the dominant laws of physics because they accorded with the evidence, right up to the point that their predictions were proven wrong and it was usurped by Einstein’s relativity theory. Newtonian laws were capable of being proven wrong; they were good science.

The problem with global warming as a scientific thesis is that all freak weather events act in its favour. This essentially means that it cannot be proven wrong; the theory is too malleable to be classed as scientific. If it’s too hot, that’s global warming. If it’s too cold, that’s global warming. From the flash floods in England to Hurricane Katrina to freak snowfall, every weather event that appears unpredictable is cited as evidence for the warming of the atmosphere’s temperature. That’s not science because science makes predictions. What is more, all this is correlated fallaciously with humanity’s output of CO².

There is no scientific evidence that an increase in carbon dioxide output leads to an increase in the Earth’s temperature. No evidence of any correlation. Certainly no evidence that the climate will shift as radically as 0.5 of a degree Celsius. In fact available data points to the opposite conclusion. During the period of 1940 – 1970 when industrialisation and hence production of CO² was high following the Second World War, the mean atmospheric temperature of the Earth actually dropped precipitously throughout the thirty year period - see graph above. Only since 1970 onwards has temperature shown an increasing trend and this is nothing new. Earth is a complex and dynamic system: there have been droughts and there have been Ice Ages. Weather is unpredictable as anyone who has used a weather forecast knows. Historical evidence suggest that temperature fluctuation is common; in the period up to 1940, temperature rose then sank following that year; the Romans grew grapes at Hadrian’s Wall when they occupied Great Britain; Tudor explorers wrote of sailing north and finding no sheet ice.

Sure, temperature can be seen to have increased slightly – that fact is pretty undeniable (except in Antarctica where the temperature has actually cooled - see graph below). Habitable, mostly urban, areas have increased in temperature ie. the areas were most people live which leads to more people believing the media and the environmental lobbyist’s unscientific claims about global warming. The temperature increases in urban areas because more people live there and there are clearly more buildings nowadays.

The available data suggests that global warming is either not happening at all or is not human caused. Why the media and environmental groups (which are themselves now billion-dollar corporations and so are not to be trusted giving out ‘impartial’ advice; they have a vested interest) would be so intent on spreading this idea of global warming is incomprehensible: perhaps it’s human anthropocentric arrogance related to humanity’s deep yearning to control things including the weather, maybe it’s just to scare people like the ever-present threat of terrorism, maybe it’s just to make money. Mostly I think people are gullible and maybe they even want to be scared. I’m not suggesting that people like Al Gore are bad, I’m sure they have the best intentions but I think they’re wrong.

Unfortunately for me I’m a fan of Pascal’s Wager and so clear logical reasoning points to me changing the premise of it from the existence of God to the existence of global warming. Simply put, it’s better for me to be wrong and do something (turn off lights, avoid excessive fuel consumption, recycle, etc.) than for me to be right and do nothing. If I am wrong at least I’ll have done something to help and not just drove around haphazardly in a carbon-emitting SUV with all the lights in my house on. Better for me to be a hypocrite and chastise global warming-believers while still doing my bit for the environment than to be a smug git and run the risk of breaking the planet.

Afterword:- It took me ages to find those graphs because I was looking for relatively non-partisan ones; most of the data on climate change is produced by groups which are in the pocket of either big industry or environmental groups and so are quite obviously biased. These are the best I could find (for a lazy Saturday morning).

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

"Tea bags are invaluable in a survival situation - but in a disgusting way..."

I have just returned from a five-day camping trip with some friends up in bonnie Scotland: pitching our tent by the coast and under the snow-capped mountains, walking every day and admiring the forests teeming with life, meeting new people and sharing new adventures. Unremarkably my thoughts have turned to the differences between life in the city and life out in the country.

Spending even a few days out in the relative wilderness brings home how remarkable human civilisation has become and how easy our collective abilities have made our lives. Not having to start a gas stove and walk fifty metres to fill a kettle just to make a cup of bad coffee seems absurdly decadent now. Sitting on a real chair without the wind in one’s face seems like luxury. I never ever appreciated the fluffy softness of a warm cotton towel before. Houses are remarkable inventions; an incredibly sophisticated tool for shelter. After staying out in the country – ‘God’s Country’ – one comes to realise that everything – from entertainment to history to culture to arts to my own beloved philosophy – everything is tangential to pure survival. If one can survive then everything else is just a way of making life more fun along the way.

The difference between life in an urban built-up city area, the centre of civilisation, and life out in the rural countryside, where human settlements began, is exemplified in the people and their differing attitudes. Cities make people cynical; commuting to work surrounded by strangers and being barraged by a constant stream of panic-stricken media strips away the part of humanity that cherishes the presence of other humans in a social setting. People in the city become afraid that everyone and anyone will knife them in the kidneys if they turn their back, let down their guard. Whereas in the countryside, people trust one another. They don’t lock their doors, they wave hello to strangers, they enjoy talking to other social creatures.

A striking example of this occurred just the other day. We spent the better part of the day walking eleven miles along the coast from our campsite in a small village to the next nearest town (which was really nothing more than two dozen buildings). Our intent was to arrive there in time to get the last bus back to our cosy tents and the warmth of the local pub. Unfortunately, in the manner life tends to, it didn’t go to plan. We had misread the bus timetable and missed the last bus by twenty minutes: it appeared we were stuck. Fortunately, in the manner life also occasionally tends towards, a bus going the opposite way happened upon us. One of our party talked to the bus driver who very kindly agreed to take us back to our campsite when he drove the bus home for the night. Free of charge! – although we did end up giving him some money for his trouble. It’s difficult to imagine a city bus driver doing that and it just goes someway to showing the camaraderie of the countryside (at least I thought it did: the random act of kindness touched my blackened heart, long since shrivelled by city-cynicism).

Maybe it’s different for different people; some humans probably thrive on the bustle of the city and the presence of myriad possibilities for recreation. As for me, civilisation is more like a drug: ultimately it’s bad for me but once I fall within its grasp I get hopelessly addicted. In a few days I’ll be watching TV again even though nothing is on, refreshing my e-mail inbox, and distrusting the person across from me on the bus, despite the fact that that is not the person I want to be. Tools and social communities are the blessing and curse of mankind.

It’s probably different for different people but my friend put it best yesterday morning when I was extolling the luxuries of our bed-and-breakfast: I said how great it was to sleep in a warm bed with a mattress beneath me, a soft pillow, and a huge duvet – he simply replied “Yeah, but how sleepy are you today compared with yesterday?” He was right. For all the luxuries of a B&B in a town, I didn’t feel nearly as alive or awake as when I got up to feel the cold Scottish wind blowing in off the sea and the sight of the sun rising over the snowy mountaintops on the distant horizon.

Can city-life really be deemed ‘life’ if we don’t feel alive?

Saturday, 12 April 2008

"Ergonomic Economics."

As much as I hate to admit it, the Nintendo Wii is doing more for the acceptability of video games into the popular lexicon than anything else in video gaming. In the past couple of years Nintendo alone have probably widened their demographic more than video gaming as a medium has in the last ten years. 'Wii Sports', 'Mario + Sonic at the Olympics', 'Brain Training', 'Nintendogs' – all games specifically designed to appeal to the ‘non-gamer’. And they’ve been remarkably successful.

While not possessing the greatest graphics, memory, processing ability, or sheer power, the Nintendo Wii and the Nintendo DS prove to be popular. Their focus on functionality and indeed fun have set them apart from the other major consoles on the market; the Xbox 360 and the PS3. The advantage of the Wii which has made it such a surprise hit is that anyone can pick up a Wii Remote and play: the intuitive controls allow for a game of baseball to be played by swinging the remote as one would a baseball bat. And that makes sense. With the release of ‘Mario Kart Wii’, Nintendo have also proven that their free online service is just as functional and efficient. Within minutes of putting in the game, you can be participating in a race against people from Japan or Europe (it’s yet to be seen how the release of the game in the US will affect the connection service as thousands of Americans inevitably attempt to simultaneously push their Miis into the bandwidth). It works quickly and lets you have fun quickly – that fact (along with the cost) set it apart from the Xbox 360’s own monolithic online service which, on some games, can be an exercise in inept frustration and idiocy.

The Wii’s success among mainstream consumers has shown something about human nature. Whilst there is a select community labelled as ‘gamers’ – serious game aficionados who recognise the PS3 to have the greatest technical computing power but the Xbox 360 to have the best line-up of titles – these people are in the minority. These are the few who recognise the power of gaming and play games for something other than fun (the word ‘game’ in the sense of video-gaming culture is actually something of a misnomer: ‘interactive entertainment’ is probably better but sounds horribly pretentious).These are those who recognise the social philosophy of ‘Bioshock’, the movie-like participatory action of ‘Halo 3’, and the sheer beautiful freedom of a sprawling sandbox title like ‘Assassin’s Creed’ or the upcoming ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’. These are the few, the proud, the gamers.

The Wii has proven that Johnny Public doesn’t care about technical achievement, computing power, or artistic prowess. Johnny Public wants to go home, turn on the console, and be able to easily play a game for fun. Johnny Public wants to be able to have his friends round and for them all to be able to play competitively. The public wants function and efficiency rather than what is technically best. The success of the Apple iPod and iMac show that ergonomic efficiency and ease of use win over technical prowess every time. The Wii, like the iPod, is easy to use, it doesn’t require a lot of thought, and it performs its function. It doesn’t matter to the public that they could be getting more; they don’t want more. They want something that does the job and can then leave it at that.

Some days human beings seem an undeniably complex species, shining out in complicated glory with facets that I could never hope to see or comprehend. And then sometimes human beings seem to be remarkably simple creatures, living simple lives with a few basic desires to be met; longing for nothing more than for things to go on the way they have done. If things must be changed, it must be done slowly. Testament to this is the fact that I have to express this thought in a language that was originally designed for the purpose of telling one another where the ripe fruit was. And, of course, I could live to a thousand and never understand the Truly Great Mystery of Human Civilisation: how on Earth could George W. Bush have got elected not once but twice?

Monday, 7 April 2008

"A-wimoweh, a-wimoweh, a-wimoweh, a-wimoweh..."

Louis Theroux’s documentaries never fail to provoke thought and last night’s episode on African game hunting parks was no exception (it’s available on iPlayer for about six days). There was initial disgust at anyone getting such joy from the killing of an innocent plains animal and the disturbing fact that some of the animals were being breed for the sole purpose of eventually being killed by some tourist from Ohio who only wants to gain a tacky trophy to put above their fireplace and bragging rights to impress all their suburban neighbours with their own facile and primitive desires to go out and ‘be the super-predator’. These animals were breed to die. However the programme eventually presented the paradox that by killing a select few of the animals, whole species were being kept alive: a standard morally utilitarian equation or, as Spock would put it, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

It was also difficult to attribute blame in the situation presented. Whose fault was it that these horrendous ‘murder package-holidays’ existed? The suburban American consumer? The owners of the parks? The African government? In a heartfelt speech towards the end, one of the game park owners lamented their own circumstances stating that his breeding of animals was necessary because “[Africa] is fucked.” Without the commodities of the information age and the inability to take a serious stand in the global economy Africa has had to consume all its own resources, slowly destroying their own continent in order to survive. Were it not for enterprising capitalists who accept the patronage of wealthy Americans, animals like the sable would be extinct. He also rather comically expressed his raw hatred of elephants.

My own humble conclusion is that the owners of the parks were right; the animals have to survive and they provide a service. But they were right for the wrong reasons and perhaps that makes them just as wrong. They seemed to understand that the service they provided for the American consumer (the Americans with the strange bloodlust that Louis couldn’t comprehend and neither could I) was distasteful; maybe they even felt it was entirely wrong to kill these animals – one man in particular showed a real admiration for the grace of his giraffes. But the plaintive cry heard across the plains of South Africa wasn’t the roar of the lion or the bellow of the rhino; it was the sad lament of the capitalist – “I’m just trying to run a business.”

The documentary kept coming back to the theme of money and it really hit home that, in our society, money trumps morality. The catch-all excuse for someone capitalising on something distasteful has become “I’m just trying to run a business”. There’s money to be made from game hunting parks and money represents survival. Circumstances force humans to acquire money in order to survive and so as soon as someone utters the phrase “I’m just trying to run a business”, we can’t begrudge them their shady practices and questionable consumer-satisfying morality. That phrase instantly makes the provider of the goods into the victim – an unfortunate person who only sets aside their moral qualms in order to survive in a capitalist world.

Watching Louis’ documentary, it’s hard to deny that the park owners have saved species’ from the brink of extinction. But they’re right for the wrong reasons and by sacrificing their morality for money, by selling the basic human intelligence that separates them from the animals, they are just as wrong. It’s easy for me to write this – living in Britain with a cosy economic prospect – and I just want to make clear that I’m not indicting the owners in particular but the wrongness of the circumstance they’ve found themselves in: the disgraceful emphasis on money which human civilisation has lead us to and the lamentable capitalist trap that we neatly built around our own heads. The sad world we’ve created where money is no longer a means to an end but an end unto itself.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

"It is spelt with a 'c'."

April Fools’ Day provides a valuable public service of infusing a normally naïve populous with scepticism.

The people of the 21st Century Western Hemisphere are generally trusting and passive. People believe what they read in the tabloid newspapers. People believe the weather forecasters. People believe what they hear when someone speaks with a voice of authority, whether it’s actually legitimate or not. For the most part, people receive and accept the received wisdom of the age: people believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, people believe that passive smoking causes lung cancer, people believe violence in entertainment causes violence in an impressionable public, people believe that they contribute to climate change.

But then, on April 1st, for one day of the year, people take what they read on the internet and in the papers with a pinch of salt. They read that Google are planning to colonise Mars and they raise an eyebrow. They snort derisively when they hear about spaghetti trees. For this one day of the year they don’t blindly accept everything they hear. The public is more wary, perhaps with slightly heightened senses because for today there is the possibility, however narrow, of deception afoot. Individuals drop their naïvely innocent blundering through the world and do some actual thinking for themselves.

Of course this position of scepticism is a worthy position to take. A process of systematic doubt acts as a knowledge filter, stopping false or spurious pieces of information from entering the true epistemological bank of information. Some doubt allows people to refrain from immediately believing something and makes them take a moment, just a single moment, to think about why the Earth has to be more than 6000 years old and how nonsensical it is to posit galactic Douglas DC-8s. It also allows them to question what they’re told, even by people they perceive as authoritative; to wonder whether it’s advisable to follow ‘scientific consensus’ when science is supposed to be about one hundred percept conclusive results and not consensual majority opinion. Any dose of scepticism is a healthy dose of scepticism. Although, a warning from this Philosophical Wanderer must be heeded; down that road lies the borough named Solipsism and, further still, the rocky shores of the Nihilist. Too far down that road, madness lies.

April Fools’ Day serves to makes people aware of their surroundings a little more, breaks them out of naïveté, and makes them less soft. ‘Scepticism’ became a dirty word somewhere along the path of the 20th Century and it’s time for intelligent people to reclaim the word: to proclaim loudly that “no, we don’t believe everything we hear and we want to see some proof before we subscribe to your opinion”. To shout that there are no negative connotations with being charged a ‘sceptic’ and that doubt, for lack of a better word, is good.

Oh, and watch out for these.