Archive for the ‘Ideas’ Category

What is pornography?

Monday, March 9th, 2020


What is pornography?

As soon as you read that question I suspect most of you would have intuitively formed an answer. My guess is you would classify pornography as images of a sexual nature that you wouldn’t want your family to know you enjoyed.

My next guess is that the word, ‘enjoyed’ took you a little by surprise: if you were ever asked such a question in polite company you would, of course, deny that you enjoyed such a thing as pornography.

The paradoxical thing about pornography is that it is simultaneously denounced and desired: when used in public the term is pejorative and yet pornography exists purely because many people from society privately desire it.

Let’s look at the people who desire it.

I once read a startling statistic that claimed over fifty percent of all Internet traffic is dedicated to pornography. Such traffic is not created by a small group of perverts satisfying their lusts.

Human beings are sex machines. After puberty, most of us are subject to powerful sexual drives – it is, after all, the fundamental reason we are all on this earth. Sex should be as natural as breathing or sleeping and yet our society has chosen to largely hide that drive or to sanitise it to such a degree that the only time we come across it is via a movie or marketing. Why is that?

Human society is built on rules; it can’t function without them – in the UK we all agree to drive on the left hand side of the road to facilitate traffic flow. The bigger and more complex a society becomes, the more its members are asked to behave in increasingly predictable ways. This allows certain systems and processes to operate smoothly and on a level that allows other layers of complexity to develop on top.

Sex, by its very nature, requires participants to ignore other things going on around them. It has an urgent immediacy that demands gratification. When a couple fall in love the sex urge is extremely powerful and dangerous within them. People who would normally consider themselves to be law-abiding and even prudish can find themselves performing all manner of outrageous acts once under the thrall of love.

And here lies the paradox: sex that excites demands a loss of control while society demands predictable order. The more order demanded in a society, the more extreme its pornography will be.

This inverse rule can also be observed in strict hierarchies: the higher up someone is in the official administration, the greater will be their desire for loss of control (and their positions of power usually allows easy access to opportunities). Stories about government ministers being prone to drug taking and participating in disreputable sexual practices are unremarkable due to their regularity.

Pornography is a subjective term. Only the individual can decide on the criterion – what is pornography to one is art or eroticism (or just plain sex) for another. I recall learning about the excavation of a Roman villa during the Victorian era: some of the mural images were vandalised by the outraged archaeologists because of what they depicted. This in itself is a fascinating philosophical puzzle: whose crime is the most heinous – the Roman hedonists unashamedly illustrating their practices or the Victorian archaeologists destroying evidence?

And everyone has an innate sense of what is acceptable in pornography. I’m sure many online searches for pornography by curious users have thrown up something that the searchers would regard as criminal, obscene or revolting. Porn exists at the very limits of the pale. Significantly though, it has to remain on the right side of it.

Society is in constant fear of disorder – that’s why one of the first buildings a society constructs is a prison. A human being in the throes of orgasm is a person out of control that is why sex is suppressed by nearly all human societies.

Pornography is like Revolution: it is a novel state of lawless abandon that bestows a sense of power on the participants.

The argument against billionaires

Tuesday, February 12th, 2019
Photo: Filip Czech

Photo: Filip Czech

In mathematics, infinity is considered an abomination. If a mathematician gets the result of infinity she will nearly always assume that the result is wrong and that there is an error somewhere in her calculations.

In my opinion, economics should cultivate a similar aversion to extreme numbers for society to function in an orderly fashion.

I recently expressed an opinion on social media that billionaires shouldn’t be allowed to exist in society. Someone asked me why not? Here’s why.

A billion pounds is a lot of money. It is so much money that an individual would find it impossible to spend even a fraction of it in any meaningful way (we can explore the definition of ‘meaningful’ elsewhere). The choices left are to do nothing with the money or to spend it in a meaningless way (hey, how many luxury yachts can you sail in at any one time?) neither of which does much good.

The favourite neoliberalist argument is that anyone should be allowed to acquire as much money as they possibly can without limit. This argument relies on extreme capitalism – winner takes all. However, this position also requires belief in the reverse process – loser gives back everything and this clearly doesn’t happen in our society. The financial crash of 2008 demonstrated this. In that period, many private banks should have failed but they were given public funds to keep them in business. A government intervened for the good of the majority (a collapse of the economy was bad for everyone it reasoned). So if the government is there to limit the failures of financial institutions why doesn’t it also limit the successes of them? You can’t have private profits and socialized losses unless the system is dysfunctional.

They ‘earned’ it.

No entrepreneur made their fortune all by themselves. They didn’t build the roads that transported the goods; they didn’t educate the workforce that allowed logistics; they didn’t even make their own clothes that they went to work in. Society is a shared system. Individual members cooperate to make it work. The idea that one person had an original idea and single-handedly transformed that idea into a best-selling product is nonsense: chances are, their own education was provided to them for free. Thus, every successful person owes something to the society they belong to.

Say a billionaire wants to acquire yet more money (needless to say, at this level money is merely a numbers game for egomaniacs) and the easiest way for them to do that is to exploit oil fields in the Amazon rain forests, say. With their limitless resources they could pollute the environment with little cost to themselves to maximize their profits. And because they live elsewhere, they don’t need to care about the pollution. And even when their exploitation becomes so extreme that the earth is uninhabitable, they have enough funds to research the possibility of them blasting off in a rocket to Mars to escape the chaos. Is this acceptable?

Okay, I’m being facetious here (but only ever so slightly), the point I’m making is, money equals power. Say a billionaire wanted his own personal army – is that okay? If not, why? Then say they wanted nuclear weapons for their army – who or what is going to stop him? If countries come together to oppose the move then clearly they consider it unacceptable. Why? What’s the difference between a billionaire and a government? Would it have anything to do with perceived restraints on government decisions?

So let’s say the world gets its first trillionaire (remember, our system is winner takes all so we could end up with one person owning everything). That’s more money than the entire GDP of many countries. One person controlling this amount of money is essentially the equivalent of being a Roman emperor – unlimited power with no brake on anti-social behaviour. Ethics is the first thing to be abandoned in this scenario. How can that be good for a society?

It is incumbent on all governments to look after all the people that it governs. That means sharing the wealth to some extent. How hard would it be to devise a robust tax regime that was progressive with a cut-off point that reached a maximum tax rate of 100%? If an entrepreneur was genuinely concerned about ‘helping the world to connect and share’ then once they had reached a personal wealth of several hundred million (or whatever threshold was deemed acceptable) then they wouldn’t mind working for ‘nothing’ would they?

Even if a billionaire wasn’t an egotistical psychopath, and instead was a perfectly reasonable, responsible human being, they wouldn’t need to see homeless people in the richest cities in the world to remind them that society is unfair and needs balance. Remember, money has enormous economic power. Imagine Bill Gates pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into a charity based in an underdeveloped country. Imagine how that sudden influx of money is going to distort the delicate market structure in that economy. Even with good intentions, a billionaire making unilateral decisions can cause mayhem.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, October, 2018.

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018


The weather forecast was for a freakishly warm day with unbroken sunshine and judging by the business of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park car park that Wednesday morning, many of the visitors believed they were in for a cracking day.

Mitch had arranged to meet his friend Bill outside the gift shop entrance with the suggestion of spending a leisurely day walking around the splendid grounds of the park.

Mitch arrived first. He decided to wait just outside the entrance to the main building so that he could enjoy the sunshine. He sat on a bench opposite the car park and kept an eye out for Bill. He wasn’t too concerned about keeping a constant look out because he was sure if he didn’t see Bill, Bill would spot him. Mitch was not easily missed. He was a large man: six feet four inches tall and weighing nearly sixteen stones. He was dressed in a horizontally striped, blue and white rugby shirt, salmon pink trousers and light brown deck shoes. His thick grey hair sprouted like unruly cauliflower on his head. A pair of tiny but expensive binoculars hung around his neck.

Within a couple of minutes he heard his name being called – Bill had arrived. Mitch turned and saw a man walking towards him who was wearing thick-framed, dark glasses and a black Stetson hat. His most distinctive feature was his handlebar moustache: it grew so thickly on his upper lip that it seemed to flow out of his nostrils in a flood of bristles and could easily be mistaken for a fake one that he’d clipped to his nose. Mitch assumed that the moustache was carefully dyed every month because a sixty-year old man sporting such uniformly black facial hair seemed unlikely. In their long friendship he’d never thought to ask him if he did dye it. Bill’s black headgear was matched with a beautifully tailored black shirt, a black leather waistcoat, black jeans and black boots. A blood-red neckerchief set off the whole ensemble. All that he was missing to be the archetypal bad guy from a Western movie was a six-shooter hanging from his hip.

There was a firm handshake between the men; arthritis hadn’t attacked either of their hands yet.

Mitch said, ‘I suggest we go anti-clockwise today, just for the hell of it.’ Bill shrugged his shoulders in a carefree manner and they commenced their walk around the park.

The first new piece of sculpture they encountered consisted of three piles of sandstone blocks, stacked in such a way as to form rectangular structures.

‘Oh dear,’ said Mitch.

‘What’s up?’ asked Bill.

‘I feel a rant coming on.’

The massive structures towered above them as the two men strolled around the artworks. Each block of stone varied from the size of a washing machine to a double bed. The stone was not worked in any way other than being cut roughly into rectangles by big machines and drills. The one response it did evoke in the men was a childish urge to climb the structures using the easy handholds and footholds offered by the gaps between the blocks but a prominent sign instructed visitors to resist such a temptation and just in case they couldn’t read, a thin rope around the sculptures created a border of forbidden territory.

‘Is this art?’ asked Mitch.

Bill stroked his moustache in a dastardly manner. ‘There’s no such thing as art, as you well know, Mitch, only artists.’

‘As a child I grew up near a sandstone quarry which I often explored on boring Sunday afternoons. This…’ and he waved his arms vaguely at the blocks, ‘could be lifted straight from that quarry. In fact, you’d get more appreciation of stone by standing at the foot of the rock face in the quarry where they’d been cutting the slabs off than by standing in front of these things. What is this supposed to do for the viewer?’

Bill offered, ‘Maybe the art is contained in putting the stone here in this open field miles away from any quarry and then stacking the blocks into a geometrical design?’

‘Okay, but how is this different from standing at the foot of the cliffs on the Jurassic Coast with the sea behind you and observing all the different layers of rock? In fact, how is it any different from admiring a dry stonewall – the exact same criteria apply: stones in a field, stacked geometrically in a pleasing pattern. The wall even has a bloody purpose!’

‘So the wall can’t be art then. Isn’t it playing on the standing stones idea from ancient times? Shall we read the notes?’ Bill looked around for the plaque or sign that would probably explain the inspiration for the piece. Or not.

‘Sod that! You know my policy – if I have to read a great long thesis to understand what’s going on, I’m not interested.’ And as if to emphasise the point he cried, ‘Come on, let’s go!’

They walked up the gently sloping field towards the Long Gallery discussing the state of modern art when Mitch had a thought: ‘I’m beginning to suspect that the human race is starting to outgrow the idea of art.’

Bill burst out laughing. ‘You can’t be serious,’ he managed to say between guffaws. ‘The human species is defined by its creativity. We’re the only species that creates art.’

‘I’m not denying that but what if art is becoming a useless appendage, like a human appendix? It would naturally atrophy and drop off. We’re still evolving as a species – maybe art is at a transitional stage?’

‘And what would it be transitioning into?’

‘I’m not too sure, into something more contemplative, more thoughtful. Like Zen.’

Long Gallery

When they reached the Long Gallery there was another installation they hadn’t seen before erected on the grass bank by the corner of the building. It consisted of sheets of metal stacked on top of each other as you might find in any steel fabrication warehouse that was run by a foreman with bad OCD.

‘Oh dear,’ said Mitch. This time Bill didn’t ask what the problem was, he already knew. They had a look around the Long Gallery but Bill felt the need to hustle Mitch out of it as soon as possible as the artworks were having a deleterious effect on his mental health.

They walked up onto the ridge of the hill known as Oxley Bank that commanded a splendid view of the old Bretton Hall and the surrounding countryside. From one angle they could make out the M1 in the distance with ant-like vehicles crawling backwards and forwards along a black line in the landscape. Both men sat on the bench that had been positioned to take advantage of the vista and looked on in silence. Bill took off his Stetson, untied the red neckerchief from around his neck and wiped his sweating forehead with it. The climb and his black clothes in the burning sunshine had made him sweat profusely and his clothes felt uncomfortably clammy. Mitch peered through his binoculars at the horizon at nothing in particular; he just liked the power of being able to see into the distance.

‘Do you want to take a look?’ he asked Bill.

‘There’s nothing much to see, the heat is making the horizon too fuzzy.’ They both stared at the view in silence again. Mitch gave a satisfied sigh before he said, ‘Beautiful. Let’s continue.’

As they made their way through the trees along the ridge, Bill said, ‘Hang on, I want to have a look at the Goldsworthy piece,’ and he walked down a short little path that led to the boundary wall adjacent to a field. Jutting out from the wall was an enclosure built in the same style as the wall. When Mitch joined him and they looked over the enclosure wall they could see a deep pit about ten feet in depth and suspended in the void was a tree trunk lying horizontally. It was held up from the ground by being built into the surrounding stonework as if it were growing through the walls in an unnatural manner. The piece was old now and the tree trunk was starting to rot heavily which detracted from its weird configuration.

Tree with stones around it.

‘Look,’ said Mitch, ‘again; we can see this allusion to nature. I know Goldsworthy works with natural materials anyway but why do artists refer to the natural world? Is it because most people are becoming so divorced from nature that they need to be reminded of it?’

‘It’s funny,’ said Bill. Mitch looked at Bill in an expectation of a conclusion to this statement but none came. Bill noticed Mitch’s puzzled look and said, ‘I mean, this configuration is like a funny joke, an elaborate joke that makes me think: “huh?”’

‘I sometimes think that about life,’ said Mitch.

They came to the end of the ridge and started the slow descent that led down towards the lake. A familiar artwork greeted them in the trees: Speed Breakers by Hemali Bhuta.

Speed Breakers

‘Oh dear,’ said Mitch.

Both men stared at the bronze tree roots poking out of the ground.

Mitch continued: ‘these were probably quite funny when they were installed—and I’m going by your definition of “funny’, Bill, because shiny, bronze coloured tree roots would look odd. But these are so dirty now they’re indistinguishable from real roots so lots of people wouldn’t even notice them, they might even trip over them and not realise they’re supposed to be art.’

‘Lots of people do get tripped up by art,’ Bill quipped and looked pointedly at Mitch who noticed the look and said, ‘I’m serious – art has lost the plot.’

A hundred yards further along Mitch became animated and his voice boomed through the trees. They’d come across ‘Seventy-one Steps by David Nash: an artwork that did exactly what it said on the tin.

Seventy One Steps

‘This one gets me every time! Remind me, Bill, what is the one definition of art we can all agree upon?’

Bill sighed and resigned himself to the little exchange they always had when descending these wooden steps: ‘Art should be useless.’

‘Exactly! So how can this be art? They’re steps aiding a descent down a hill.’ He suddenly froze and his expression went into ‘screensaver’ mode then he burst into animation again by patting his pockets and muttering: ‘I’ve had an idea, I need to make a note of it and I’ve forgotten my notebook.’

‘Use your phone.’

‘I left my phone in the car.’

‘Use mine,’ and Bill produced his smart phone from his jean pocket.

Mitch hissed and made the sign of the cross with his two index fingers. ‘Keep your devil works away from me. I only interact with dumb phones. Serves me right for not remembering my notebook. What sort of writer forgets to carry a notebook at all times? I’m going to trust my memory, I’m not senile yet,’ and he gave up looking for any writing materials.

‘What’s the idea?’

‘Good thinking, Bill, it will help me remember the idea later by talking about it now.

‘It’s occurred to me that contemporary art came into being as a revolt against representation. Human forms and shapes from nature were out and abstract concepts and shapes were in. It was fun for a while – making jokes and puzzles but now contemporary art has run out of ideas, it’s cycling round to return to representation. What has happened is that the natural environment is becoming rare. People in cities have forgotten what trees looks like and how wonderful they are so artists are now trying to remind them of it. As more of the natural environment is built upon and lost, the art we will go to admire will be real flowers and trees that will be “exhibited” in places like this park. I mean, look at that Penone piece over there…’ They stared at a distant sculpture that looked just like a dead tree with a boulder stuck in its branches. ‘That’s a very good reproduction of a tree. It begs the question, why not just have a living tree there instead that’s even more realistic than the artwork?’

As they crossed over the bridge above the weir at the end of the lake, Mitch was vocally exploring the ramifications of his thoughts in a stream of consciousness – he was enjoying himself. On the climb back up the open grassy hill to the main building they came across another new piece of sculpture.

Metal Box

‘Oh dear,’ said Mitch. ‘Oh dear, oh dear.’

They were looking at a large sculpture of rusty metal framework about the size and shape of a HGV. The interlocking, square-sectioned steel beams resembled the skeleton of a high-rise building before any floors or walls are attached, except in the sculpture, none of the beams made any engineering sense. It was more like a giant puzzle.

Bill considered the piece. Finally he said, ‘Well, it must be art because it’s definitely useless.’ All that Mitch could do was mutter, ‘oh dear, oh dear’ over and over again.

As they walked back to the gift shop Mitch told Bill about a strange incident he witnessed the previous summer in the park.

‘I was walking by the lake at the other end and there was a young chap protesting. Here’s the funny thing though, he was dressed all in black with a polo neck jumper, black beret and dark glasses. He looked like a typical French avant-garde artist from the sixties. He had a placard that said “THIS IS NOT ART” and he had a scarlet rope pegged up to run completely around himself so the public knew they weren’t allowed to interact with him – except he interacted with them by shouting philosophical questions at them. I’ve never seen so many park wardens in one place with all their walki-talkies crackling at the same time. Judging by their unease I guessed it was some kind of unofficial stunt – probably by a performance art student. It was a good joke though and it got me thinking: I’m not the only one who thinks contemporary art has become a parody of itself.

‘No, I’m going to feed off the decaying carcass of modern art by writing a story about it. When we get to the shop I’m going to find a scrap of paper or promotional leaflet and scribble this idea down using a pencil that’s for sale in the gift shop – they can be hoist by their own petard!’

Eventually they reached the main building and on a counter Mitch found a white leaflet printed on matt cartridge paper with lots of blank sections. Inside the gift shop he found some pencils for sale and borrowed one to write his idea down for the story. As he scribbled, his thoughts seemed to tumble in on themselves and, as if in a hall of mirrors, they reflected back into infinity. He thought about the graphite in the pencil: he knew from history that at one time, it was only available from two places in the world, one of which was in England. Then he thought about the wood encasing the pencil – wood that came from a living tree that has been sculpted into a hollow case to hold the graphite. He marvelled at the thought that some people might buy the pencil and then sketch trees with it on paper that was produced from dead trees. How ironic and perfect would that be, how useless an activity?

Lazarus Corps

Monday, August 7th, 2017
Photo: John Pratt from Unsplash

Photo: John Pratt from Unsplash

The ten thousand strong crowd had been waiting nearly an hour for the show to start. Most of them were absorbed in their phones, staring vacantly at glowing screens that threw an eerie light onto their faces.

Rancid, the PR intern from the production company organising the show, was standing near the stage and looking at his own phone, monitoring the social media comments being posted by the crowd. They were using the #malariadeathring hashtag – and most of the audience were clearly becoming pissed off at the delay but were trying to be amusing about it in their comments.

The delay in the start of the show was being stage-managed. With high overheads and punitive financial penalty clauses in the venue contract should anything go awry, the entire show was designed to run like clockwork. It was Rancid’s job to gauge whether the ‘rebellious’ attitude of the tardy band was returning any dividends. A debrief after the show would discuss the efficacy of the tactic and decide whether to continue with the practice or not at future events.

Rancid checked the time on his phone, the show was going to start about…now!

The background music yielded to a swelling bass tone of menace that got louder until it was at concert hall level and reverberated in Rancid’s chest. He looked up from his phone at the vast stage, empty of people but festooned with equipment poking through the shallow layer of dry ice like skyscrapers piercing cloud cover. A column of light was falling onto the stage like a biblical portent. The audience, as one, raised their phones into the air to video the moment.

From the side of the stage emerged a lone figure walking towards the spotlight. It was a young man with long dark hair as lustrous and bountiful as a woman in the prime of her reproductive years. He was wearing a loose-fitting white poet shirt tucked into brown leather trousers that were accessorised with an ornate buckle belt – the aficionados in the audience immediately recognised it as the silver Zuni Navajo Concho belt made famous by its wearer.

The figure reached the pool of light drilling into the stage and as he stepped into its beam the audience could clearly see Jim Morrison. He stood silently for a few seconds allowing the audience to take in the extraordinary detail of his clothes, hair and belt. A huge screen above the stage relayed the live moment. Then he spoke to the crowd in a husky drawl, “Ladies and gentlemen… Malaria Death Ring” and with that he turned and walked off the stage the same way he had come.

To the cheers of the audience, the members of Malaria Death Ring emerged from the centre of the stage on a hydraulic riser. They were face-painted and costumed so exotically that they made Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band from their acid days of the ‘60s, look like a team of bank clerks on their first day at work. A distinctive intro chord was struck and the show began in earnest.


Countless months before the show, the production team had their regular meeting at the record company headquarters. They sat around the clear glass, boardroom table.

“Siobhan, who do we have introducing the band on the 5th?”

Martin asked this question while scrolling through his digital tablet. Siobhan was on the other side of the table flicking her dyed hair away from her face. The others at the table all looked at her.

“We’ve currently got the President of the United States as the introducer.”

“Which one?” asked Martin.

“Donald Trump,” answered Siobhan.

“Isn’t he getting a bit…clichéd?” interrupted Hugh, a young, handsome man sitting next to Siobhan “I mean, how often can he say ‘this is the best band, you’re going to see the best show’ before it gets too predictable? Besides, I’m reliably informed that Donald Trump is going to be introducing ‘Horse Blood’ on the same night in Birmingham. Surely we want to be a bit more exclusive than that?” He looked at Martin for support. Martin continued to peer at his tablet.

“Who told you that?” asked Martin still looking at his tablet.

“Peter Pinkjacket,” said Hugh.

“Pinkjacket! He’s a coke-head; you can’t trust anything he says!” yelled Siobhan.

Martin quickly looked up from his tablet sensing a time-wasting spat between his two team members. He addressed the five people at the table. “Reliable or not I think it’s worth looking at other options anyway. This is a big gig for Death Ring as it’s the album launch so it might be worth exploring something… unusual. Andy, do you know of anything being developed that we might be able to use?”

Andy was the technical expert with his finger on the digital pulse of innovation.

“I hear Jim Morrison is going to be available soon,” he suggested.

“Whooa! He would be cool!” said Mike, the creative executive.

“Really? Any idea how much he would be?” asked Martin.

“It wouldn’t be that much more than Donald Trump, but there would obviously be a premium for exclusivity. The downside is the quality wouldn’t be quite as good as Trump, as the archive footage is so poor. Comparatively.” Andy added.

Mike said, “But it’s been so long since anyone saw him in the flesh it wouldn’t matter. To the people in the audience he would be real enough. And, as we own The Doors back catalogue it could generate sales from curious onlookers who haven’t heard of him.”

“I’m liking the idea of Jim Morrison more than Donald Trump,” said Martin as he glanced at Siobhan, “Morrison has more…gravitas than Trump and Mike is right, we need to consider the trade off between the extra cost of the avatar and the possible revenue from fresh sales. See if you can fix that up, would you?”

Siobhan made a note on her phone.

Later, at around midnight, Siobhan made a video call to Leee from Lazarus Corporation.

“It looks like we’re going to run with Jim Morrison, Leee, do you know if the avatar will be ready for the 5th? We just need him to say ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Malaria Death Ring!’”

Leee was suitably rock ‘n roll; with a shaven head and dark glasses. He responded from his sunlit office in LA, “Yep, he’s just about ready for a trial run and he looks beautiful. We’ve rendered him in his prime at about age twenty-two. You’ll be the first to have him.”

Yeah, after some American outfit uses him first, thought Siobhan.

“Fabulous” said Siobhan “consider this confirmation. I’ll send the official request through in about fifteen minutes.”


In the old days, living celebrities would open a show for a band in person but this entailed so many problems with egos, riders, and reliability issues that an exasperated executive came up with a novel idea.

He got the idea from a development first seen at conferences. A speaker, who was many thousands of miles away, would be projected onto a stage during a live event. To the audience it looked pretty much as if this speaker was in the room, not in a studio on the other side of the world. They could even conduct a Q&A session with them and still maintain the illusion of reality.

It was only a small step to imagine a pre-recorded message given by a celebrity being projected onto a stage but this still involved getting the cooperation of the celebrity in the first place and pandering to their narcissism.

Then some digital artists armed with fast computers and lots of start-up funding took it one step further. They had seen the online videos that mocked certain politicians with mashed-up broadcast footage of their old speeches. Fast and clever editing made the politician say or sing outrageous things that the public understood to be nearer to the truth of what they meant.

What these digital artists did was to create a believable hologram of a living celebrity purely from footage that was available online. A hugely sophisticated algorithm could visualize new scenarios based on the known mannerisms of the subject. A programmer could then feed in any body movements and dialogue that they wanted into the programme to generate a convincing hologram of the celebrity on a stage at a live event. The result was the current fashion of having a big name introduce an act. The day of the indistinguishable avatar from the real celebrity (at least viewed from a distance) had arrived. Algorithms had revolutionised the entertainment industry. Real celebrities were a pain in the arse. Avatars were the future.

The celebrities on offer were growing by the month – alive or dead. However, the older the celebrity the more expensive they tended to be as the processing power needed to resurrect them was higher due to the paucity of material and the poorer quality of recordings.

Having a celebrity introduce an act with the line “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome x” was just the right length to make the process commercially viable for medium sized acts. And once they had been generated, smaller acts could purchase a licence to use the same file but with a slight alteration for whatever name they required the avatar to speak.

Of course, the first time this stunt was pulled, the celebrity in question was outraged at the appropriation and lawsuits were quickly filed but once the lawyers started to look into the case many loopholes and omissions were revealed. The technology was too new for the old law. The originators argued that they weren’t pretending that the actual celebrity was opening the show; they were completely upfront that a counterfeit was being displayed. The lawyers weren’t even sure if the image fell under the legislation designed for artworks or not, it was a lawless frontier.

Such were the vagaries of the case that it was quickly thrown out of court and the celebrities suddenly realised what it must feel like to be a production worker in a factory and witness the introduction of a tireless robot that could do your job far more efficiently. Overnight, celebrities got increasingly shy about appearing on any media that could record them walking, talking or even cutting a ribbon with a pair of scissors. Old media started to get deleted from video sites and lobby groups were putting pressure on the legislators to protect the rights of the unfortunate celebrities.

But by that time the innovators had already banked terabytes of data ready to analyse and render into their new compliant ghosts.

It wasn’t too long before filmmakers started to look at the costs of creating a full-length movie using digitally reproduced actors based on real actors – but these new actors wouldn’t throw a tantrum, get coked up in their trailers or even age over time.

Some gossip columnists enjoyed the shadenfraude of celebrities losing status and earnings due to the avatars. Writers felt especially smug; they were in a position of renewed status as the spoken lines that the avatars delivered became more important than the celebrity.

That didn’t last long however as the ‘deep learning’ algorithms managed to become creative and start churning out copy that humans found amusing, dazzling or moving based on what the audience had previously found amusing, dazzling and moving. The algorithms even learned to apply context and topicality to their output.

Then Bill Hicks got his own show. It was a brand new show and completely written by algorithms. The show even used the name of Bill Hicks as the owners of his estate realised it was useless fighting the onslaught of new technology and they might as well take a slice of the pie through licencing agreements rather than go hungry.

The show was a smash. The persona of Bill Hicks lent itself beautifully to some of the surreal imagery that the algorithm conjured up out of its mathematical processes and it even managed to come up with a routine that included some self-referential jokes about artificial intelligence being too clever by half for dumb humans.

All the creativity in the show was machine generated and the only thing left for humans to do was to market it and consume it.

Had he been alive, Bill Hicks would have got high on the irony.

Would Richard Dawkins accept a knighthood?

Saturday, January 2nd, 2016


In this article, John Gray surmises that Richard Dawkins feels a knighthood is the least reward he should receive for his efforts in trying to rid the world of religion (it’s a supposition, not based on any fact). In my head I pictured Dawkins kneeling before the queen to receive the symbolic sword strokes and it was like a scene from Hell, an abomination of all reason and moral rectitude.

Why was I so appalled?

Dawkins has spent a considerable part of his life demystifying the imagined authority of a fictitious being and urged others to reject the dominion of this entity called god. His chosen method of achieving this is the encouragement of ruthless logic, empirical reasoning and the scientific method. But in this image of him kneeling in front of the queen it seems he rejects his own life’s work and submits himself to the power of someone who uses superstition to the same extent as the fanatical followers of god. Not only that, but in evolutionary terms, the organism dispensing the imagined nectar of privilege is, intellectually, far inferior to Dawkins on account of coming from a diminished gene pool due to excessive in-breeding.

The hypocrisy is surely self-evident.

Ultimately, Dawkins’ crusade against god is due to the misuse of power by His earthly representatives. The power of god (via these leaders) to create conflict in the world is at the core of his evangelical zeal; especially as he believes the ‘wisdom’ to be found at the fountainhead of most religions is man-made and false.

Whether god is real or not, the Church has enormous power, which is real. The power is derived from the willing supplication of its followers to donate their time and wealth to the sect’s existence just as in a colony of ants or bees. It is apparent that a lot of the ‘wisdom’ in religion can only be man-made (the idea of intercession in Catholicism, for example) and so some of the high priests within this religious group know that the game is actually power on earth, not in the promised after life.

A monarchy employs the same power structure as the church. The same kind of voodoo is employed too – the robes, the crowns the sceptres… they didn’t arise by chance, they are there to impress the uneducated, and to overwhelm any urge for individuality or autonomy. The monarchy has enormous power—regardless of whether the king has divine right to rule or not.

In the past, the establishment was made up of the church, the monarchy, the armed forces and the state. God was a useful cement to stop these factions from warring with each other. God was equally useful to justify wars with other nation states when it suited the leaders.

Today, this establishment structure is pretty much still intact. Here is the oath that the armed forces uses when signing up new recruits today:

“I (insert full name), do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.”

Note their promise to god is to protect the queen and her heirs, not anyone else.

These elements in the establishment are inextricably linked and they rely on subjugation to maintain their power. God acts like a mortar for the triumphal arch of the establishment over the awed and subjugated people. If you take god out of the mix, then the establishment will become unstable as the different factions seek power for themselves rather than share it.

Using ruthless reasoning, it becomes an unavoidable conclusion that the concept of god runs like an artery through the entire body of society.

Humans, by their unique evolutionary advantage of consciousness, can decide how they live unlike ants that have no choice. The structure of human society is due to choice not inevitability.

Dawkins can’t have it both ways: either we have no choice in how society is formed and run or we do have a choice and we can reject its injustices—all of them. The monarchy is only one step down from the belief in god; its rationale for existence is as shaky as gods own. It should be rejected.

How to bury a king

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Leicester and York are arguing over who is going to have the privilege of keeping some bones of a dead human being. They have employed lawyers in fact to argue for both of them, which means that parasitic members of society will be the main beneficiaries in this stupid affair.

The human being in question is allegedly Richard III (hey, just because some authority figure tells me science has proved that the bones are ‘special’ doesn’t mean I have to believe it) so the bones are a tourist attraction and could generate quite a bit of revenue. But who has them?

Here is my win-win solution.

The inspiration for the solution is Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal. The original was lost and so several replacements were created and housed in art galleries around Europe. Which is the original? All of them.

Yep, that conceptual art business isn’t so useless after all.

Instead of only one city benefiting from the bones, why not have both of them benefiting? Have an exact copy of the bones made by highly skilled specialists (so you pay craftspeople rather than endlessly arguing parasitic lawyers) and then have the original bones and the copy involved in an elaborate randomly generated switch around (more pay to useful people for devising this).

After the switch, each city is assigned one of the packages and no one knows which one has the original bones.

The bones are then buried and tourists will have to visit both sites in order to satisfy themselves that they have definitely visited the original bones. A tourist trail could even be created by the very novelty of a deliberate duplication of artefacts, thus more revenue could be realised than was originally envisaged by having only one genuine site for the bones.

This is genius. Thank you, Marcel Duchamp.

‘Car Journey Theme Park’

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

As many family excursions mostly consist of sitting in a car watching featureless motorway go by I had an idea for a new theme park.

The theme park is actually a car park that has wrap-around screens for each parking bay. The screens show city centre car journeys of places like Paris and London for fifteen minutes. The impression then, is of a car journey but with interesting scenery. When the ‘ride’ is over the cars simply shuffle along to the next bay which shows a different location.

This would save time and pollution and make people feel comfortable in familiar surroundings. Anyone want to fund the scheme?

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” Buddha*

Saturday, March 9th, 2013

The recent death of Hugo Chavez spawned a veritable plague of news articles in the Mainstream Media about the man and his life. Most of the obituaries and reports followed predictable patterns—the capitalist press reviled the man and his reputation and the left wing press praised his humble origins and the benefits that he brought to the poor of Venezuela (I’m generalising here).

So, an unbiased member of the public being told all this has a dilemma (assuming that they access more than one news outlet)—how do they interpret such seemingly contradictory stories? Was he a good man, a despot or what?

Here’s a little true story that distils the problem.

One day at work I was looking at a book that had a picture of a lion feeding on its kill. The angle of its front leg was such that it was easy to imagine that leg as a human arm pinning down the carcass. Almost thinking out aloud I remarked to a co-worker at this similarity and extrapolated how the theory of evolution could come about. This co-worker (who I knew to be a Christian) then revealed his fundamentalism and said that actually, in the books he owned, creationism was the true explanation for the variety we see in the natural world.

As I had been educated in a secular school, science and the scientific method was my dominant frame of reference for checking the veracity of any theory. This only worked of course, if the subject matter lent itself to such a method. Even then, it appears that quantifiable results can be disputed within the scientific community. So simply quoting one book against another doesn’t really help if you’re trying to drill down to any sort of truth.

And as soon as the discussion enters a realm of subjectivity, then the fragile model of the scientific method becomes useless. Economics, for example, is often seen by most people as some kind of science due to the number of university courses available and government advisors mentioned in news reports. The reality is that economics is far closer to religion than it is to science and politicians have ‘faith’ in different belief systems whether they be the teachings of Keynes or Hayek or whoever.

Which system is best is impossible to verify due to the complexity of human society and the massive ambiguity of what ‘best’ means. But that doesn’t stop those people who benefit the most from a particular belief system from promoting that version of the religion, especially if they have the means to do so.

I have long since realised that in the game of news reporting merely deciding which story to report is a political act—one story is more important than another based on which criteria? Even a seemingly ‘neutral’ story immediately runs into trouble once the bare facts are given. The Hillsborough story for example, is that 96 football fans died in a crush. But as soon as the obvious question of “why did they die?” is asked, the propaganda begins.

Propaganda is designed to promote one idea over another and it is conducted most fiercely by those who have the most to gain (or lose) from an idea being accepted.

I said the story about my co-worker was a true one. You don’t know whether it was true or not; I know it’s true because I was there but you just read it here as a story and so if I was duplicitous for whatever reason, I could say that it was a true story even though I made it up. I would do this because it might discredit a rival idea which threatens my belief system.

Coming back to Chavez, I’m told by the media that this person used to exist (I never met him so I don’t even know that basic fact for sure). I’m also told that he believed that the moon landing never took place (what is this information supposed to tell me?). Some stories claim that he was a revolutionary who helped the poor and other stories that he wrecked the economy. Some stories claim that he brought a huge number of people out of poverty.

The one thing that I can be certain of from these stories is that someone, somewhere is frightened of what Chavez represents —and that is all that I can really divine about the man.

Ultimately, propaganda is about preserving or acquiring some kind of privilege. The media is a battle ground of ideas and, like any other human invention it is a continuum of extreme positions. Rational, unbiased reporting is simply one extreme position in the scale of things, like the ideal that everyone is born equal and has equal rights. From my personal experience, encountering extreme positions in the real world is extremely rare.

Here’s my thinking … Apparently, the unbiased news is that Venezuela has huge oil reserves (so I read). The world is addicted to oil (I know this because I have to use it myself). Having oil therefore, is a privilege for those addicted to it. Who gets that oil is down to a battle of ideas first. Then, if lobbying doesn’t work for the more powerful groups who are bidding for it, a physical battle usually comes second. My guess is that the West somehow needs to ’save’ the people of Venezuela from people like Chavez. How best to do that?

*Sounds great. If only it were true.

A universal language

Friday, September 28th, 2012

This precipitated this tweet by Jon Beech.


Later, in the bath, I reflected on the implied criticism of the tweet and found myself in interesting territory. What is wrong with a universal language? If everyone has their national language but their second language is always English, what is so bad about that? You could travel to most places in the world confident that you would find someone who spoke enough English to communicate with.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not precious about the English language (although I am grateful that it is my first language which saves me the trouble of learning it) I could comfortably contemplate Mandarin as being the universal language.

A universal language has been tried before; Esperanto which tried to preserve everyone’s national pride by  bastardising most of them and in so doing pleased no one. Unfortunately it simply wasn’t useful enough in the real world.

In the global economy of today it pays to learn the languages that will give the most return on your investment. If I was to spend the time and effort in learning French I would only be able to use it productively in France (yes, yes, I know that in certain parts of Canada it would be useful). I could speculate that in ten years time Mandarin might become the global language but that predicates on so many precarious economic factors and its inability to adapt itself easily for digital use argues against it.

No, you learn the language of current global usage. If the dominant language is English then so be it, that is what you will learn. I am aware that Spanish speaking peoples outnumber English speaking people but the truth is that the spheres of influence in the world use English as the first language.

But I digress. My point is that a language is not a currency, it is not an ideology foist upon a defenceless people by some superpower. It is a tool, like an axe, which can be used for many purposes, some good, some not so good.

One of the few examples of a universal standard that I can think of is 16mm film, still in use today. This was developed by the Nazi’s to aid their propaganda machine. So successful were they in establishing the medium that at one period during the sixties and seventies, you could take a 16mm film anywhere in the world and you would be able to find a projector to show it.

But 16mm film is just a medium, it is not an ideology. Anti-fascist films can be made on it too. Language is just the same.

Incidentally we have gone backwards in the technological ease of showing moving images. There are so many formats and protocols for digital video that if you take your .MOV file burned on a dvd, chances are it won’t play on someone else’s branded laptop.

The orbit of health

Friday, September 21st, 2012

I’m going to make a prediction here which hopefully, in decades to come, some astute researcher might point to and show that I anticipated a medical breakthrough by a good slice of time.

Of course, I’m just guessing but it’s a guess based on empirical observations and extrapolation.

As far as we can tell the entire universe operates on basic laws and thus conforms to predictable behaviour. Out of these laws has resulted our solar system with many planetary bodies orbiting the sun. There are countless other such solar systems in the universe.

Here on the earth we have life forms that regulate their life cycle based on the rhythms of the moon and the orbit of the earth around the sun. On a smaller level, insects are more profoundly influenced by electromagnetic forces than gravitational ones. Gravity and electromagnetism are elemental forces that have existed since the dawn of time and indeed, possibly shape time itself.

It makes sense therefore that humans are influenced by the more subtle consequences of these forces as well as the more obvious ones. My assertion is that we are influenced by them on a much more profound level than hitherto appreciated.

I have noticed that during my years on this planet I have been visited by various minor afflictions that are cyclical in nature, seeming to flare up every few years. Naturally I tried to discover if there was a contributory factor or factors which could explain the flare up but neither me nor the doctors could find any. By improving my general health overall – by observing hygiene rules, avoiding processed food, exercising regularly etc. – I have managed to minimise the affects of these cyclical ailments. However, there are still certain subtle manifestations in my general well-being such as my mood which seem to ebb and flow in some kind of cycle irrespective of anything I do.

Unfortunately I have not kept a record of the intervals of these phenomena nor the severity of them so I can’t prove in any epidemiological way that there is a regular ‘orbit’ of them.

We are made of star stuff so it makes sense that our organisms bow to the forces of the universe. Our biorhythms might one day be as predictable as the tides of the oceans.