Saturday, December 19, 2009


Inmos was a state-funded semiconductor company set up in 1978 and hurriedly sold-off by the conservative government under Margaret Thatcher in 1984. The company retained its identity until 1994, when it was fully assimilated into SGS-Thomson - a european multinational.

The years in between proved to be an exciting and special time - at least for those of us who were there - and earlier this week a number of people met up to celebrate the fact.

There was no cabaret, there were no smoke machines, no self-congratulatory whooping. As this was the first such reunion ever (in this country at least), most people were content to meet old friends, to share stories and to catch up on current news. I had a great time myself - as I am sure others did too. We have Claire Maudsley to thank for organising it all.

As Iann Barron - one of the three founders - said in a short welcoming speech, although Inmos is commonly considered to have failed as a profitable enterprise it fostered a microelectronics culture around Bristol whose influence is felt to this day. As the old company slowly collapsed in on itself it sent out spores that grew into new start-ups: some flowering spectacularly before withering away, others growing into significant companies in their own right.

See The Inmos Legacy by Dick Selwood to find out more, as well as the Wikipedia entry on the Transputer to see what it was that kept us at work late into the evening and - on more than one occasion - through to the next morning.

For me, one of the most remarkable facts about those years was that - not content simply to design the Transputer (a groundbreaking, microscopic, computing machine) - we decided we might as well design everything else we were going to need, while we were at it: a new computer language (occam), the software used to design the chip, the operating system, the computers on which that software ran, the communication network, text editors and so on - everything.

It's not like that anymore.

Ah ... but things were done differently in those days. Your modern silicon chip, for all its staggering power and complexity, is a cold and soulless thing. The devices we made were lovingly shaped out of the living crystal, their datapaths as beautiful as fine oriental carpets, microcode as rich as any tapestry. And we secretly carved our initials into our work (a practice long since outlawed) and emblazoned the corners with depictions of mythical beasts, peculiar to our secret guilds.

I was talking to an old friend at the reunion. He told me how his daughter, home from university, had suddenly confessed that she had no idea what he did at work and would he tell her. He explained that he had been engaged for a number of years in designing the devices used to construct wireless networks. His daughter looked puzzled. "But that stuff just works, doesn't it?" she said.

If you stop to think about it - it's a great compliment.

Friday, December 18, 2009

On seeing the Anish Kapoor exhibition

So I did get to see the Anish Kapoor exhibition in the end. Three of us travelled to London from our village and made a day of it.

Strangely though, it was the TV program 2 weeks earlier that gave rise to my more philosophical musings about the exhibition. The thing itself was more along the lines of a fairground - what with the funny mirrors and the firing of the meat gun every 20 minutes.

Some of the objects were so greedy for space that people had to pick their way around them. Others, like the huge mirrored surfaces, conveyed a different message. Through reflections (and reflections of reflections) of people and of architecture, they created all the space you could possibly want.

And then there was that massive wax stool, forced slowly and steadily through the graceful arched portals separating a line of galleries.

Now what was that all about, I wonder?

Monday, December 14, 2009


Is Simon Cowell the British Berlusconi?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Just one more ...

The news that 29 senior managers in the UK Border Agency are to be paid bonuses averaging £10,000 each as a reward for, to quote the immigration minister Phil Woolas: 'delivering what the government is asking them to do', leads me to speculate on their baseline job description:

You will be expected to carry out your duties with no worse than mild to moderate incompetence. With respect to negligence or serious professional misconduct, there must be no more than one such episode in any 12 month period. Patronising behaviour, verbal abuse, sexual harassment and non-physical bullying will be tolerated, provided these are kept within reasonable limits and can be shown to be compatible with corporate goals.

And finally, at at time when many ordinary working families are facing unprecedented challenges to their security and standard of living, you will be expected to lead and motivate a team of 25,000 front-line staff by fostering an environment of mutual respect and shared values.

Reader: I thought you said you were going to cut down on this kind of thing?

Omnivorist: I know. It's just ... I get this sort of red mist.

Reader: For goodness sake! Try and get a grip on yourself.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A sad day

I awoke this morning to the news that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to investigate claims of data manipulation and scientific fraud from within its own ranks.

Don't get me wrong: I don't believe for a moment that there is any substance to the accusations, but to say that the situation is serious - with the Copenhagen Climate Summit just days away - would be an understatement. To all intents and purposes the Copenhagen summit is now dead. Even if effective agreements can be reached in Copenhagen, back in the US Senate they will face something resembling an angry nest of hornets.

What is certain is that we are witnessing the successful culmination of a calculated, well-funded and professional public relations campaign. They will teach courses on it in future years (though they might have to get a move on, I guess). You can see how it was done here.

And with regard to my recent post - in which I tried to belittle the climate change sceptics - I now see that as somewhat naive. Dismissing climate change sceptics on the grounds that they lack scientific credentials is about as pointless as criticising a bunch of thugs, hired to break up a town-hall meeting, on the poor quality of their debating skills.

It seemed (to me at least) that the climate change issue could be argued in terms of science alone. After today it is clear it has to be fought politically.

See the DeSmogBlog for further background on the role of lobbying and PR in the climate change debate.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Admirable self-restraint

A government minister has told bankers "to come back into the real world" after Royal Bank of Scotland directors threatened to resign over bonuses
(BBC 03/12/2009).

I'm not going to say anything about this. I'm beginning to bore myself with blogs about bankers.

Reader: Well thank goodness for that. Maybe we can move on to the interesting stuff now.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Lead balloon

It was beginning to look like the USA had a monopoly on barmy climate change sceptics but now, with the news that BNP leader Nick Griffin is to represent the European parliament at the Copenhagen summit, it's gratifying to see us making a real contribution of our own at last.

Oddly enough, I feel a certain anticipatory pleasure at the sight of the sceptics clambering aboard their lead balloon. There's something about their style that suggests they consider the whole climate change issue to be nothing more than a matter of argument - with Reality, Nature or whatever you want to call the stuff out there, waiting patiently in the wings - ready to fall into line with whichever side comes out on top.

Friday, November 27, 2009


In a week that, by common agreement, appears to have been another good one for the banks, I found myself digging out some notes I made of a discussion on the BBC Today program (25 September, 2009) This involved a bunch of bankers, hedge-fund managers and financial journalists discussing what had changed since the 2008 banking crisis.

By common agreement the answer appeared to be 'not very much'.

And when considering whether there is anything that can be done to lessen the chances of future banking catastrophes, there was similar unanimity in agreeing: yes there is - we could return to a system that enforces a separation between high street (commercial) banking and investment (casino) banking. The idea being that, if investment banks were aware of the fact that next time they mess up there isn't going to be anyone riding to the rescue, they might have a healthier attitude to risk.

A system of this sort was originally established in the USA by the second Glass-Steagall Act (1933) in response to the 1933 Wall St banking crisis but was repealed again in 1999 after prolonged lobbying from the banking industry. And the rest (as they say) is history.

So why aren't we putting it right?

The answer, it seems, is that the banks don't want to do that; they think it's best to leave things as they are. We doesn't come into it.

Reader: That's all perfectly clear but what's worrying me is this business of taking notes of the Today program. Isn't that just a little bit unusual ?

"For goodness sake darling - please try to be a bit more careful; you've got marmalade all over my notes again!"

Omnivorist: Hahaha. Don't worry I don't make a habit of it. It's just that on that particular morning I remember feeling deeply shocked by the realisation that nowadays we are ruled by the banks. Up till then I'd believed I was living in a democracy.

Reader: Bless

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On not seeing the Anish Kapoor exhibition

I went to London last week to stay with friends and to visit some galleries and museums.

At the Royal Academy I bought a ticket for the Wild Thing exhibition (Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Eric Gill) but stumbled accidentally into the first room of the Anish Kapoor show - which I didn't realise was on.

I found myself in the room containing the piece called Shooting into the Corner but which might equally appropriately be titled: Meat Gun. My initial reaction was something like my mother's response on seeing Antony Gormley's sculpture of a lone, abandoned foetus in an empty room, namely: 'Oh dear'.

But I didn't have a ticket and was politely directed to the Wild Thing exhibition which was good but - on reflection - pretty tame.

And then last night I watched a TV program about Anish Kapoor's Royal Academy show (Imagine, Winter 2009: The Year of Anish Kapoor, BBC1 Tuesday, 17 November) and - it's clear - I'm going to have to go back to London again and see it for real.

But I'm not beating myself up about it. After all, a lot of Modern Art is pretty hard to take seriously - and especially so when endlessly talked about, analysed etc. It was pretty much the same last night as I watched Alan Yentob appreciating some of Anish Kapoor's earlier sculptures from the comfort of my sofa. "It's quite disorienting in a rather interesting way", said Alan and I thought 'Here we go again - another disorientation opportunity. I just can't get enough of them.'

But then, about halfway through the program I did start to get interested and to recognise something of substance, something capable of stirring up the sediment and bringing the machinery back to life. And this is what I thought and what I now want to go and check out on the spot.

I found myself intrigued by all of Anish Kapoor's work (as experienced on the TV screen) but some of them, like the huge concrete wormcasts set on wooden pallets, invoked strong, somewhat disturbing feelings but no words.

The pieces that led me to a sense of discovery were the highly-finished ones - smooth, curved objects, either mirrored or painted in high-gloss. Like all sculptures they are physical objects but I sensed that they are intended to be perfect - or as close to perfection as a real physical object can be. And the point of this perfection is to enable us to see, not the sculpture itself, but something else - either the world reflected (in the case of the mirrored objects) or an abstraction - a void, hole or tunnel, an idea.

Anish Kapoor made a huge mirrored sculpture in Chicago called Cloud Gate (popularly known as the Bean). People love to touch it and are encouraged to. It is polished afresh every day.

It's good to be surprised.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


(Reproduced, with minor modifications, from the April 2007 edition of Horsley's Over the Wall magazine)

I’ve been reading in the papers about this carbon offsetting business.

It works like this. Say you want to fly to New Zealand for your summer holiday, then on top of your air fare, you pay someone to plant about 15,000 trees. Over the next 50 years the trees will patiently soak up the carbon dioxide you are about to squander on your antipodean adventure, with the result that you can enjoy your holiday in the reassuring knowledge that you are ‘on the side of the planet’.

Apparently this is big business all of a sudden.

So not to be left behind when it comes to cutting-edge ideas, we at the Omnivorist Institute have been giving the matter serious thought and, after a number of tough meetings with business types, venture capitalists and the like, we are proud to announce: the Omnivorist Carbon Offsetting Scheme.

And the good news is this: there is no need to change your lifestyle; no need to put on the hairshirt of environmental contrition, nor the heavy woollen stockings of ecological correctness.

No. Leave it to us; we at OCOS are experts at this sort of thing.

For a small fee, we will compensate for the wasteful and embarrassing excesses of your own lifestyle with carefully matched periods of indolence or discomfort undertaken by our team of professional associates.

By way of example: a cheap return flight to Lanzarote is offset, at our end, by 4 hours dozing in a hammock; for which the fee will be £50 – enabling you to come home, not just stress-free and with an impressive tan, but confident in the assurance that you are ‘carbon neutral’.

That summer evening barbecue, which might otherwise have been marred by torments of guilt, can be enjoyed with a completely clear conscience, safe in the knowledge that, for a modest outlay of £15, we have people willing to spend an uncomfortable night in the open, in a state bordering on hibernation.

So go ahead, turn up that patio heater – we have it covered.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Science and religion

The recent case of the man who successfully argued at an employment tribunal that his commitment to green issues has the status of a philosophical belief as opposed to being based on mere scientific fact, prompted this wonderful piece of wit from David Mitchell (The News Quiz: Radio 4 06/11/09).

"I like the idea that his sincerely held beliefs in the environment are accorded some respect. What's annoying is that the way something gets more respect is to make it more like a religion; that people's essentially delusional beliefs in omnipotent beings is something you've really got to respect and not sack them for, but that an opinion based on science you can ignore. That seems to be the wrong way round."

Friday, November 06, 2009

Carbon Trading

It seems carbon trading is in the news again; it's a rum business to be sure.

For starters there's the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). It provides a way for rich countries to fund projects in poor countries in exchange for carbon credits, provided that the projects wouldn't have happened anyway.

This last bit is known as the additionality criterion and it's fraught with opportunities for abuse.

In China for example it appears that companies producing refrigerant gases can earn more money from selling the carbon credits associated with cleaning up their own pollution than they can from selling their main product - leading to a perverse incentive to build extra refrigerant plants whose sole purpose is the creation of a valuable cleanup opportunity.

If we're going to have additionality, it seems only reasonable to include the complementary principle - what one might term abstentionality. This would be a way of earning carbon credits by agreeing to stop doing something really bad that otherwise you might carry on with.

Since the way these mechanisms work is by first establishing a baseline defining normal behaviour, perhaps we should all go mad buying massive, inefficient cars and de-insulating our homes on the grounds that the more outrageous our behaviour now, the better the deal we will be able to reach later for agreeing to improve it.

Anyway, if this is the way things are headed, I want in. After all, I'm capable of emitting a bit of carbon dioxide and I think it's only fair that I should be allowed to choose what I do with it.

It's given me an idea. Watch this space.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Spooky digital clocks

These days it seems that every time I look at a digital clock it's either 4:44, 22:22 or some other time where the digits are all identical.

I don't mean every single time of course - that would be seriously creepy. No, I mean like once a day. Certainly more often than you'd expect.

Let's do the sums:

In the case of a 12-hour clock the number of distinct time displays is 12 times 60 - or 720. Of these, the ones with identical digits are 1:11, 2:22, 3:33, 4:44, 5:55 and 11:11. So in a 12 hour period you expect to see one of these 6 single-digit patterns 6 times for every 720 looks at the clock (or 1 in 120). For a 24-hour clock, we can add 0:00 and 22:22 but the other numbers only come up once, so we have 8 cases out of 1440 (or 1 in 180).

In either case it means that to see one or more of these patterns every day suggests that I look at the clock more than 120 times in a 24 hour period. Not counting the time I am asleep that works out about once every 8 minutes.

Surely I can't be doing that!

Perhaps you'll understand now why I find it all a bit spooky.

In fact it has given me a really good idea for a low-budget horror movie:

Scene 1: Man rolls over in bed. Sleepily notes the time (2:22) on bedside clock.
Scene 2: Alarm clock rings (5:55) on the display. Daylight filters through the curtains. Radio announces tragic motorway accident.
Scene 3: Man driving through city, stuck in slow-moving traffic. Clock on car radio shows 3:33. Suddenly a panic-stricken man claws frantically at the car door - face pressed to the glass etc.
Scene 4: Man driving along motorway, lost in thought. Clock says 4:44. He doesn't seem to notice.
Scene 5: Motorway. Man peers through windscreen. Strange lights ahead. Clock says 6:66 !!! Cue Psycho music. Man's mouth formed into silent scream. Screeching of car brakes, rending of tortured metal.

Cut to credits against background of flashing blue lights etc etc.

If you've read this far, it's probably too late; you're going to start waking up and noticing it's 4:44. Aaagghhh !


Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Social mobility

Guardian letters - 04 August 2009

For centuries this country has drawn on the ranks of the privileged when recruiting to top positions – only casting the net more widely when the demands of either empire or industry could not be met from the favoured source. Thus the increase in social mobility following the second world war was a direct consequence of post-war industrialisation, the technical demands of the cold war, the emergence of IT and so on.

Though social mobility appears to have been on the wane for 25 years or so, we seem only recently to have woken up to the fact. Could it be that there is some sort of link with the widespread loss of confidence in financial services, together with a growing awareness that, in responding to climate change, we face a scientific and engineering challenge of enormous magnitude?

I think we might see social mobility increase again, but I don't think it will owe much to Alan Milburn's report, however well-intentioned.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Natural gardening

(The latest Wormwood column from Horsley's Over the Wall magazine)

As far as the garden is concerned, Mrs Wormwood and I are keen proponents of what is known as the Natural Look.

Let me stress right away however that the creation of a truly natural garden entails hours of research, planning and execution. Not everyone will have the time or interest to explore this highly-specialised activity.

Take the lawn for example. While most people content themselves with a flat, tightly-cropped surface comprising a single species such as a fine-bladed fescue, we opted instead for a more sophisticated, distressed finish in which a rich diversity of grasses and small flowering plants are interspersed with patches of bare earth. Starting with a conventional lawn, that in essence served as our blank canvas, transformation to the present mature state called for patient attention over a period of several years.

A similar degree of care has been lavished on the boundary wall of our property which is just nearing completion and in which we have explored a different set of ideas. Here the underlying theme is a crumbling stone wall over which a delicate filigree of ivy, brambles and goosegrass has been skillfully woven into a single rich mat. The effect we were striving for and which, without undue modesty, I believe we can claim some success in achieving, is reminiscent of the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and in particular that great masterpiece of William Holman Hunt: Our English Coasts.

As far as the beds are concerned, we really let ourselves go here - playing with the idea of paired plants, in which individuals of one variety are set-off against a denser companion serving as a backdrop. Thus: foxgloves in a sea of nettles, comfrey bedded in ground elder and rose bay willow herb swaying gracefully over a cushion of chickweed.

As is the case with so many other areas of life, goals that are worth attaining don't come for free. To become a natural gardening expert calls for clarity of purpose and a willingness to let go of cherished patterns of behaviour.

'I think the idea sounds great' I hear you say, 'but I don't know how to take the first step.'

Well I've got great news for you and thousands of others like you: the Wormwood Wildgarden Workshop ( - an intensive, hands-on tutorial that will teach you all you need to know about converting your own garden to the Natural Look.

Cost £50, Chairs provided. Bring a bottle.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Why I joined Greenpeace

These days, when buying coffee, I always reach for the Fairtrade brands. On an individual level, it's a ridiculously easy gesture. My hand wanders over the various labels; the prices aren't all that different and, as far as taste goes, well frankly I'm not sure I'm able to tell one brand of coffee from the next. So I choose the Fairtrade and notch myself up a tiny bit of moral credit. Multiplied a few million times however, small gestures can add up to a powerful economic force, encouraging sustainable agriculture and fairer rewards for growers - at least that's the idea. To be honest, I know very little about Fairtrade accreditation and how it's integrity is protected. I simply take it on trust. It's a similar story with the Soil Association, the Forestry Stewardship Council, the Marine Stewardship Council and so on.

And so this morning, I found myself putting my name to a standardised, pre-written email from Greenpeace urging shoe manufacturers to stop using leather sourced from Amazonian cattle farms. One part of me considered this a bit pathetic. After all, until this morning, I hadn't given the matter much thought and anyway, who's going to pay much attention to a thousand identical emails, each sent at the mere click of a mouse ?

My misgivings arose partly from conceit, from the thought that an educated person like myself should be capable of a more significant initiative, something along the lines of a finely-crafted letter that, through a combination of dazzling argument and heart-rending descriptive prose, would result in an immediate change of heart on the part of the recipient shoe manufacturing company (tears of repentance in the boardroom etc etc).

But that's to miss the point entirely.

Viewed in isolation, the decision to put one's name to an email (standardised or otherwise) is somewhat meaningless. Meaningless, that is, unless accompanied by an equally easy, yet highly meaningful commitment to exercise judgement in deciding which products we buy.

For collective action to be effective it must be focussed with laser-like intensity. Continue to do such and such and we won't buy your products; do so and so and we will. It is in orchestrating such collective behaviour by consumers, that campaigning organisations like Greenpeace appear to be most effective.

So I have joined Greenpeace and I'm content to put conceits to one side and to act with others in putting my name to their campaigns - well most of them, I imagine. That occupation of the Brent Spar oil rig, back in 1995, was a bit of a mistake I reckon. If sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic, as Shell originally proposed, it would have made a great artificial reef and wildlife sanctuary.

But then, I don't intend to surrender my personal judgement entirely.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Faith in natural justice restored (somewhat)

I promised myself I would leave off writing about Sir Fred Goodwin and his pension windfall. It tends to get boring after a time - a factor that has undoubtedly played a part in Sir Fred's own resolve to maintain an unbreakable clutch on the money.

All the same, on hearing recently that paparazzi are being offered large sums for photographs of Sir Fred enjoying his millions my interest was rekindled. What a wonderfully apt (if somewhat mild) form of retribution.

Go for it guys!

As for the public interest argument: I consider it entirely reasonable to see how our money is being spent.

Monday, March 02, 2009


(Another piece from Horsley's Over the Wall magazine)

As far as football is concerned, everything began to go wrong for me around the age of nine.

We had just started playing football at school and had to provide our own boots. While my friends all turned up in flashy black and white footwear, newly available in the shops and known as Continentals, my mum decided to buy me a good, solid pair of brown leather boots of a style resembling a miner's boot with leather studs nailed to the bottom.

It was not long at all before I became aware that my boots had a name. My boots – as my friends were quick to point out – were of a type known as Old English. Just the job for kicking over dustbins, but distinctly limited when fancy footwork was called for.

For a while I was tolerated in the team for the knack I had of crippling the opposition. One nifty kick to the shins with my Old English was sufficient to bring the first-aid box out. But there was no getting away from it; from the day my mum bought me those boots my footballing days were doomed.

And worse than that: I failed somehow to develop into a normal, healthy football supporter.

Ask the football enthusiast to explain the meaning of life and you'll get a clear, concise and direct answer. Ask me the same question and I'd be forced to admit to you that I'm not absolutely sure. Shameful, I know - but true.

Many's the time I have envied my football-supporting friends. They live on an exhilarating rollercoaster of emotional extremes. For them, every winter Saturday culminates in either ecstatic happiness or bleak despair – whereas for me, one Saturday is very much like the next.

No, there's no escaping it: the person who is indifferent to football is a figure to be pitied.

So mums (and dads), when you take your child to buy their first pair of football boots, buy them the Mizuna Morelia - hand-stitched from genuine kangaroo leather and endorsed by some of the world's top goal-scorers. They may cost as much as a weekend for two in Paris but it's a small price to pay for your child's psychological wellbeing.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Bottomless pit

There were a lot of abandoned mineshafts around where I grew up in the north of England - chilling vertical holes, lined with millstone grit and quite often completely unprotected by the usual fences and skull and crossbones signs.

Being of a somewhat philosophical frame of mind, I found it difficult to resist peering cautiously down into the inky depths while terrifying myself with the thought of how very easy it would be to pitch myself in. Far better to lob down a sizeable rock and count the seconds before it hit the bottom with echoes either of deep water or the sharp crack of shattered stone. The depth of the shaft was then readily calculated by means of the familiar formula: depth (in feet) equals 16 times the delay (in seconds) squared.

Except that occasionally there was no sound from the bottom but only a succession of ever feinter scrapes as the plunging rock grazed the shaft walls. The inescapable conclusion was that these were bottomless pits and it was a good idea to move on and, above all, to resist any further thoughts of having a second look down.

Come to think of it, bottomless pits seemed to feature quite strongly in my boyish imagination. Of course, the real explanation was that the stone had simply thudded softly and inaudibly into the pile of dead sheep and old mattresses at the bottom of the hole.

Anyone who's tried writing a blog will immediately know what I'm talking about ...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Seeds of corruption

It is commonly accepted that society works largely by consent. Though we have laws to regulate how we treat one another, the myriad of transactions that people engage in on a daily basis are conducted, for the most part, in a spirit of trust. It's not that dificult to imagine the state we'd be in if everyone acted with unrestrained selfishness and suspicion. Mercifully, as it turns out, most people are prepared to work conscientously in exchange for reasonable rewards and to treat other people much as they'd like to be treated themselves.

This is what is so damaging about the news of Sir Fred Goodwin's £650,000 annual pension: it is an injustice so flagrant, an insult of such obscene proportions that it has the capacity to serve as the definitive outrage for hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of ordinary people.

To argue daintily about contractual obligations and so on is - frankly - to miss the point, as the core issue is the glaring discrepancy between the simple facts as they have been revealed and any sort of rational and just basis for human society.

This has become a big story now and one that I believe the government should take very seriously. The true, long-term cost of this scandal is likely to dwarf Sir Fred's pension pot (£16,000,000) which - let's admit it anyway - is peanuts compared with the losses (£24,000,000,000) incurred by RBS under Sir Fred's stewardship.

If I were a car-worker threatened with redundancy, a postal-worker about about to be privatised on the brink of an economic depression or someone trying to steer a small business through a cash-flow crisis, I'd be tempted to view the whole Fred Goodwin debacle as giving me carte-blanche to do whatever I consider would best serve my own selfish interests - and God help us all, if that should come to be the common view.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Clearly the Home Office is in something of a dilemma when it comes to the classification of ecstasy. Downgrade it to class B - as the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommends - and they'll be accused of sending the wrong message to the semi-moronic underclass they clearly think makes up the younger portion of the electorate. Leave it in class A, alongside heroine and crack cocaine and they'll end up looking like some sort of hysterical supernanny.

Allow me to make a suggestion: leave ecstasy in in Class A but move all the other substances currently in class A into a brand new class - class A-star or triple-A+ or whatever. (They understand this kind of thing in India incidentally, where hotel lobbies etc routinely designate certain areas as reserved for VVIPs; or in Spinal Tap with the amplifiers that turn up to 11 - for that EXTRA li'l bit - know wha' a mean?).

Keep making everything more and more evil - that's the right message; that's the sort of language people understand.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Why bankers need bonuses

At today's meeting of the Treasury Committee former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive, Sir Fred Goodwin said (in defence of bonuses) that if bankers felt they were not paid enough, they would leave.

Yes ... ? So .... ?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Respect the Geek

Though I don't exactly consider myself a geek, I have to confess to certain tendencies in that direction.

I don't believe I could have spent the last 25 years of my life writing computer programs AND considered it fun for more than 50% of the time AND chosen to use this sort of language to register these facts, were it not for the likelihood that, when it comes to my place on the autistic spectrum, I turn out to be somewhere near the blue end.

All the same, when it comes to geeks, I'm nothing special. It's true, I enjoy mathematical puzzles, I have a small stamp collection and read tool catalogues but I also like paintings and other forms of art and have been known, at times, to hold strong political views. Being only a minor geek; being merely ... geekish, I think of myself as a kind of channel between the two worlds: the geek world - the world of knowledge, of delight in detail, discipline (in the monkish sense) and uncomplicated friendships and the other one, the world that most people seem to want to belong to - the world of flamboyance, fluffiness, studied-incompetence and clumsily-constructed explanations.

Of course, it's common knowledge that geeks score very highly when it comes to complicated technical matters. Such things could be said to constitute their principle source of pleasure - which is fortunate for the rest of us, as it should be clear by now that it's the geeks who are keeping the whole show on the road. You only have to think for a short while about what keeps the electricity on, your mobile phone working, about having at television AT ALL, to realise that neither you, nor anyone else you know has the faintest inkling about how it all fits together.

You might expect the geek to demand a very high level of reward for carrying out these critically important functions, but you'd be mistaken. A liberal dress-code, freedom from petty distractions and a plentiful supply of pizzas are generally sufficient to keep things ticking along. And while honours and public acclaim might seem entirely reasonable expectations - to the geek sensibility, simple acknowledgment of the true state of things would be recognition enough.

Sadly, even the most modest level of respect is rarely forthcoming. It's as if awareness of the fact that our daily existence rests in the hands of train-spotters and dungeon-quest experts is too much to take on board - with the consequence that geeks are all to often the object of derision; their harmless enthusiasms riculed, their awkwardness in social situations mercilessly mocked.

This would all be terribly sad were it not for the fact that geeks have a characteristically geekish way of getting their own back. It draws on a shared, esoteric knowledge of a geek sacred text - Douglas Adams: A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Amongst other tales, the book recounts how the inhabitants of the planet Golgafrincham, on resolving to rid themselves of a third of their population they consider completely useless, concoct a story that the planet is shortly to be destroyed in a great catastrophe. They persuade all the hairdressers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, management consultants, telephone sanitisers and hedge-fund managers to board the B-Ark - one of three giant Ark spaceships - and promise them that everyone else will follow shortly in the other two.

And so it was that in the various offices and research centres where I spent a good slice of my life engaged in geekish pursuits, the unwelcome interference of opinionated, self-important people would be met by a knowing exchange of glances and by the quiet intonation of the simple mantra ..... B-Ark.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Obscene bonuses

As far as the payment of bonuses to bankers is concerned, I am a lot less bothered by the thought of someone being able to afford themselves a private ski lodge in Aspen, Colorado than I am by the principle of rewarding failure. The thought that the money I have recently paid in taxes might contribute to paying an ill-deserved bonus to someone whose only noteworthy qualities are in the self-esteem department is a real annoyance. However, the really pernicious thing about city bonuses is that they have incentivised destructive behaviour - behaviour that under a more rational assessment would be considered perverse and ill-judged.

For the heart of the financial system to have been compromised to the extent that is has been over the past two decades almost beggars belief. To argue that to continue to reward failure is somehow justifiable on the grounds that it is necessary to retain and motivate the best people would be laughable if it weren't simultaneously reckless.

There's nothing inherently wrong with paying large rewards - but banks should be absolutely clear as to exactly what it is they are rewarding.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Luxury Trends

I was shocked yesterday to read of the decline in sales of luxury handbags.

We might be going through a bit of a sticky patch at the moment, but when all is said and done, we're talking about handbags for goodness sake - not luxury yachts. You can't tell me that the sort of person who was prepared to pay £11,000 for a Burberry handbag last year is any poorer today - or at least not in any way that makes sense to the rest of us.

No - there's something else going on here. I suspect the reason for the decline - and it's not just handbags. Apparently the blight extends to watches, haute couture, lamborghinis and so on - is that it's no longer quite 'cool' to be seen flaunting this kind of stuff. On a more day-to-day level - who hasn't glanced at the suddenly ridiculous 4x4 in the supermarket car park - all smoked-glass and bull-bars - and quietly thought: 'Loser!'

Incidentally, while researching this piece, I came across the web page of something called The Luxury Institute -
(motto: The Knowledge of Luxury, the Luxury of Knowledge)
to read that: 'As the luxury industry enters 2009, some luxury executives look like deer caught in the headlights.' Lovely touch that - how, even in metaphor the luxury executive feels compelled to enlist the help of a superior animal. Rabbits in the headlights might be good enough for the rest of us but for the luxury executive only the finest deer will suffice.

I can't resist just one further quote from this priceless web site:

'... we now also expect many discredited Wall Street executives to turn a new leaf in an effort to save family legacies and reputations and get into the high-end philanthropy game (my emphasis). It's not much fun for kids to have the wealthiest parents in private school when everyone knows they made their money in a Ponzi scheme that brought the world economy to its knees.'

Quite. I couldn't agree more; it must be absolutely frightful for them.

So brace yourselves for photo shoots of celebrities, dressed in the latest recycled clothing, doing a stint on the soup kitchen:

'In times like these, we must all share the pain, blah blah.'

That should serve to set the overall tone. The wannabes will follow.