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.