Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Brian Aldiss' definition of science fiction

More still too ill to post filler today.
Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science) and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould.
From Aldiss' Billion Year Spree.

Does that work for you as a definition?

Pollen Beatty and his new solar powered BFF, Robot Redford

As I am too ill to post anything sensible, here's some robotic-insectioid bonding.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

How information distortion works - starring the Birmingham Mail and Guido Fawkes

I'm carrying no particular candle for Birmingham City Council, but this is a great example of how something actually pretty reasonable a council does gets frivolously reported by the local media, and then downright distorted by a prominent blogger with an ideological agenda. 

I've never caught one of the classic 'loony left council' stories as it evolved, so this is exciting and disheartening all at once.

Two days ago the Birmingham Mail ran an article on the news that councillors were being offered some leadership coaching and Myers-Briggs personality testing. A service which senior officers already have access to, by the by, and sounds about as mainstream as it gets.

It's worth saying - if you didn't know already - that Birmingham is the largest local authority in Europe - with a 3.5 billion pound budget despite the cuts. I don't know about you, but I'd like the people running this behemoth to stand a better than average shot of being more than competent and emotionally intelligent. I'm not hugely fond of Myers-Briggs, from personal experience, but I'll forgive indifferent methodology if it gets results.

And we're not talking huge sums of money in those terms either - £1,600 per person is quoted in the article.* 

While the Birmingham Mail article appears at first sight reasonably balanced, it's showing its silly-season hand from the first paragraph by suggesting councillors are visiting 'shrinks', conjuring up the cliche of Sir Albert on the couch of some pipe-smoking wooly-jumpered intellectual.

An anonymous councillor ticks more psycho-cliches by suggesting you don't have to be mad to work in politics but it helps...

One said colleagues’ personalities were already known – as “generally narcissistic, controlling or both”

And then the story brings in the sceptical Councillor Philip Parkin (Con, Sutton Trinity) for the pull-out quote, who doesn't quite seem to know what he's being asked to comment on.

It seems slightly crazy. I’ve a problem with being pushed into stuff like that anyway. I’ve also a feeling that subjecting me to psychometric training might come up with some disturbing results.

Dude, it's mainstream executive coaching. No-one's going to ask you anything about your oedipal complex.

I'm sure the journalists LOL'd their way to the printing press with this piece - and to be fair to them it is quite droll.

But I came to the article via blogger Guido Fawkes, who needs no introduction here. He glossed the article in the Mail a little like this:

Labour-controlled Birmingham council have called in psychiatrists so councillors can undergo “personality tests”, presumably to make sure they are loony lefty enough. £1,600 of taxpayers’ money will be spent on the Carl Jung-inspired sessions.

Do you see what he's done there? Psychologists become psychiatrists, executive coaching becomes personality tests, and the stuffy respectability of Myers-Briggs becomes Jungian psychology (and while M-B is inspired by Carl Jung, he's also associated with a wide range of ideas from the respectable to the decidedly New Age, not to mention downright wacky).

And that's information distortion.
An executive coaching programme you could make a case for one way or the other becomes by misinterpretation and insinuation an impractical left-wing boondoggle.

C'mon people - we can do a better job at raising the standard of public debate than this.

*Some of you might think that's a grand and a half that could be spent on people in need. And you have a valid point, but there's enough frivolous expenditure reported in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs column to make the counter-argument that it's the vanity spending we should be clamping down on, not investment in leadership.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Spirit Level will gird your bleeding heart in math

To appropriate a metaphor from Isaiah Berlin, some books are foxes, skipping playfully from idea to idea, while others are hedgehogs, patiently developing a single argument or theme through its pages. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level is the second kind of book – a veritable Spiny Norman of a text – remorseless in its patient defence of equality.

Many of you will already be familiar with its central argument: that relative differences in income in a society are the key factor explaining health, social and environmental problems across the developed world.

Or, to put it another way – unequal societies such as the US and UK have more stress, distrust and illness compared to more income-equal countries such as the Scandanavian nations and Japan. The Spirit Level evidences this at length in graph after graph, plotting different issues against pay, slowly winding up its hedgehoggy haymaker for the intellectual knockout blow.

If the book sounds a bit like the ultima ratio regum of social democracy and the case for welfare done right, you might well have a point. But, using Japan as an example, Wilkinson and Pickett are at pains to say that relative equalities of income are perfectly compatible with a social or market-driven rather than a state-led solution. They are much more concerned with ends not means. In as far as they prescribe at all, the authors tend to see hope as lying with the co-operative movement and alternative forms of business.

The Spirit Level isn't designed to win literary awards, though it's clear, accessible and ensures readers aren't scared off by the stats. As such, I have to admit it doesn't appeal to the part of me that responds to melodrama more than means, modes and medians.

To progressives, it may also feel like exhaustive proof that the Pope is indeed 99.9999999999999999% Catholic. And boy, do Wilkinson and Pickett have a scatter graph to show you about the toilet habits of bears.

But then, you're not the readership this book needs, are you? You get it already. Rather, this is a book for use in the winning of arguments. 

A book made for making your case in political debates, in councils and ministries and for strengthening policy reports. A book to give to your economically libertarian but socially liberal friends to show them that, at the very least, the invisible hand doesn't create healthy societies of its own accord. 

A book which girds the bleeding heart in math before going to battle. 

And as such, a book which will ultimately be judged by its impact on the world rather than on your shelves.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Teetering on the brink of the metrosexual apocalypse: Michael Moorcock's The Final Programme

Is it time for a Michael Moorcock revival? Granted - Elric, his existential riff on swords 'n' sorcery has never been really out of fashion. But to reduce his body of work to an albino with a black blade is to diminish a far more varied and interesting writer.

His pulp fantasy homages - not just Elric, but Corum, Hawkmoon and more - increasingly look like a bridge from the old weird to the new, keeping the uncanny alive through the high noon of Tolkien's imitators. While in other books such as Warlord Of The Air, Moorcock both foreshadows the steampunk boom and provides a ferocious auto-critique of his own Victorian preoccupations.

But today, we're concerned with The Final Programme and Moorcock's status as one of speculative fiction's foremost prophets of catastrophe. Like his New Worlds compadre J G Ballard, his work confronts us with apocalypse after apocalypse. 

Unlike the Sage of Shepperton however, Moorcock gives the impression of revelling in The End; if the world is making its merry way over the final cliff, why not be the Pied Piper?

And pied piper, holy fool, party-hardy Prospero - these are all accurate-yet-partial descriptions of the anti-hero of The Final Programme, Jerry Cornelius. His is an alternate Cold War world in which existing certainties have collapsed and the moral order has been superseded, where technology seems only able to precipitate disaster and the arts to celebrate the end. 

And Jerry is a man whose response to civil collapse is to hold a season-long swinging sixties party as a new form of social organisation.

If this makes him sound like some kind of Nietzschean Austin Powers, it's not altogether far from the truth. This dandy, sexually flexible assassin and playboy wanders through spy thriller scenes - glamorous international locations, underworld plots, secret lairs and the like - obsessed with love and revenge. 

His nemesis (and antithesis) is Ms Brunner, a vampiric computer programmer and authority figure who wants to calculate the answer to everything in the titular program. Shades of Deep Thought, perhaps...

Moorcock has a serious, bleak point to make about the impossibility of sustaining life in a society seemingly in love with death, but The Final Progamme is also a great deal of fun, as sixties London frantically frugs its way towards the Eschaton.

And while the book is inevitably rooted in its own mid-sixties cultural moment, its exhilarating nihilism is still both a challenge and an inspiration to anyone seeking to make anything anew amid the febrile wreckage of the old.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Organisers: something transformative this way comes

Ever since I joined Friends of the Earth, I've been itching to be involved in developing something transformative.

Of course, you hope that every campaign, every piece of work you do with a local group is the Hail Mary pass, the sudden end-to-end touchdown that every quarterback tries for. But what you more often get are a series of small triumphs, the incremental changes, the quiet treasures which sustain you in your working life.

Not everything can be another Big Ask in spirit or in practice.

But I think this Organisers project could be. 

This might look (and walk, and quack) like a new voluntary role for the grassroots. After all, that's what it ostensibly is.

Yet take a step back, and another one, and I see something else. 

I think this gives us, the grassroots, an opportunity for collective culture change - evolution if you like - towards something really exciting. 

The Organiser as change agent could allow us to combine the best of what we do now, the sheer political savvy which is still our biggest asset, with lessons from the decentralised environmentalisms of the past decade like Transition and Climate Camp.

Plus - I get to plan all of this with some lovely colleagues, and then develop it collaboratively with interested local group people and more. Bliss!

For the official project news, go here. But as Uncle Eric says, feel free to ask me any questions you like here. And stay tuned for further strictly unofficial reflecting on this blog about the best thing I've gotten involved in for a long time.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Has fish had its chips? A flyer I designed for Marinet's over-fishing campaign

You should go watch the excellent short film about over-fishing from Mallabar Film and Marinet, with whose kind permission I took the still for the image in this flyer.

Download the flyer here.

And definitely go sign the petition the film and the flyer are both promoting.

See also, in very much an unofficial not-my-day-job capacity: the overwhelming force of General Cod.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Dial A for Activism

As this weekend it's BASECAMP, our new annual event for local activists, here's the flyer I designed for to promote our team's work there.

Why I am not there? Time off for good behaviour (after working the last five conferences)? Nah, I'm going to run some workshops at the Wilderness Festival next month instead, and I could only commit to one major event with work this summer.

Having just moved house a fortnight ago, I'm grateful for the break from event mania, although it does feel slightly strange not being there and I've been following proceedings from afar via Twitter.