Friday, 30 April 2010

Democracy - the X we have to bear

DEMOCRACY is practically a religion in the modern West.
Dalton Trumbo, a splendidly “un-American” writer, put some memorable lines about it in his play and film Johnny Got His Gun.
If you’re a rock fan you may have seen a collage of its best bits. They were very neatly edited together to make a memorable video for Metallica’s anti-war song One. In it the young Joe asks his dad (played by Jason Robards): “What is democracy, father?”
At which Dad gets a puzzled, faraway look in his eye and replies: “Got something to do with young men killing each other, I believe.”
Ouch. But there’s more.
Joe asks: “When it comes my turn, will you want me to go?”
And Dad says: “For democracy, any man would give his only begotten son.”
It’s certainly often been the pretext under which the USA, sometimes with its lackey Britain, has set off to wage war abroad. Like the Crusaders waving the cross over their murderous excursions.
But whatever may have been perpetrated in its name, democracy is a good thing, right? Well, maybe.
A week from now we will have a new government, supposedly chosen by you and me.
But it won’t really have been chosen by me – unless the Green Party pulls off the most surprising result in electoral history.
And even then. Because I won’t actually be voting Green, even though it is the party whose principles and policies most closely match what I believe in.
I will instead put my cross by the name of Daisy Cooper, my local Lib Dem candidate.
Not because I’ve been won over by Nick Clegg’s performances in the leaders’ debates – though he has been the most impressive of the three.
But because on certain vital issues – nuclear power, Trident, immigration – the Libs come closest to making sense.
And – this is the key point – I believe they have the best chance in my constituency of preventing a finance and management wonk being parachuted in from somewhere else as Tory lobby fodder.
And rotten though the last Labour government has been in many ways, a Tory one will be worse. Probably far worse.
Change? More like turning the clock back. Though it’s a very long time since we had a government quite so dominated by Old Etonian toffs as David Cameron’s gang.
In one way, though, this election has been something new.
The TV debates have given the impression that the old parliamentary party system is as good as dead. That it’s all about the leaders now, in something like the American presidential manner.
Sadly, the way British politics has changed under the autocracies of Thatcher, Blair and since, that impression is now about right.
There are a few other key figures besides the PM, though. Arguably the most important is the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
We’re constantly told the economy is what elections are won and lost on. So perhaps, in this age of TV popularity contests, we should have a debate among the prospective chancellors.
It has been Alistair Darling’s misfortune to serve in a reactionary government that doesn’t deserve the name of Labour. And at a time when forces way beyond his control have landed him in a series of financial crises, which I think he has handled quite astutely.
He would, I suspect, be bettered in debate – and in No.11 – by the Lib Dems' Vince Cable.
But there is no doubt both of them would wipe the floor with Tory twit George Osbourne.
In fact, if there is one single vital reason not to vote Tory it isn’t the smirking Cameron or even the insane run-your-own-schools-and-hospitals manifesto cop-out.
It’s the thought of Osbourne running the country’s economy. A man I wouldn’t put in charge of the office Christmas lunch club kitty.
But one certain thing about this election is that I won’t play any part in choosing the government.
This will be the eighth general election I’ve voted in, and every time it’s been in a safe seat of one colour or another.
Which means my vote, like most people’s, has been totally irrelevant to the outcome.
In our so-called democracy, the only votes that really count are those of the relatively small number of floating voters in the relatively small number of marginal seats.
In other words, just a few thousand people – probably among the least politically aware in the country – pick the government the rest of us have to live with.


CHANGE – that’s what this election is supposed to be about.
The rise of the Liberal Democrats, through talent show politics, has made a good story for a couple of weeks. But our archaic electoral system is not designed to reflect public opinion accurately.
In a week’s time, I predict:
  • The Tories, with barely a third of the popular vote, will have a big majority.

  • The Lib Dems, a close second in terms of votes cast, will again have a mere handful of MPs.

  • Labour, a distant third in votes, will be back in opposition.

Change? No, just same old, same old.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Heads in the clouds

OVERHEAD the sky was palest blue. As you looked towards the horizon, and therefore through a thicker slice of the atmosphere, it appeared strangely yellowish. In every direction.
And then there was that thin layer of slightly sticky grey dust all over the car in the morning.
Seems the impending General Election isn’t the only cloud hanging over Britain.
But then you know this. Unless you’re one of that tiny handful of unaware folk who turned up at Stansted hoping to travel (and wondering where everyone was), you know the effect an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano has been having on our skyways.
But not everything you’ve read in every paper about this particular airborne, economically toxic event has been quite as informative as it might have been.
You might, for example, have read in one national paper a remark about “waiting for rain to bring the ash down”.
This tells you not about the density of the ash cloud, only the density of the reporter.
To enlighten him a little: Rain falls from clouds. Aeroplanes mostly fly above the clouds. Nearly all the ash is above the clouds too. Rain almost never falls upwards.
Well, that was easy. Trying to inject some reality into most of what you may have seen or read isn’t quite that simple.
Because mostly it’s not so much about what has been reported as what hasn’t – or at least, not widely.
Nearly all the coverage of the Eyjafjallajokull eruption so far has concentrated on the stoppage of air travel. On the effect that’s had on airlines and passengers. And based on the apparent assumption that it’ll all be sorted out in a day or two – a week or two at worst.
Well, OK, air travel is quite big and important in our lives. Most of us have some experience of it. We can grasp what it’s about.
We can imagine what it’s like to be “stuck” somewhere we’ve been on holiday. And right now, most of us probably know someone who’s stuck right now.
(One person I know is holed up in a place called Normal, Illinois – how delightful an irony is that?)
But this temporary local difficulty may be the least of it. Or maybe only the beginning.
Every report that pushes the re-opening of flightpaths back another 12 or 24 hours overlooks a couple of things.
Like the fact that the last time this particular volcano erupted, it went on spewing on and off for months.
That didn’t have much impact on air traffic in 1821-23, but it could make the Stansted expansion plans look pretty pointless if it happened again now.
And Eyjafjallajokull is only a fairly small volcano. What will happen to air traffic when (it’s really not a question of ‘if’) a bigger one blows its top?
Like Katla, for example.
You probably haven’t heard of it (I hadn’t until this week), but it’s a near neighbour of the one now erupting, a whole lot bigger – and followed its smaller chum into action on two previous known occasions.
All of this is another reminder that we are not as big, or as clever, as we like to think we are.
In geological time, the timescale on which things like volcanoes operate, human beings are a pretty recent phenomenon. The history of air travel is the briefest blip.
A blip that could wink out again just as quickly as it turned on.
What will that do to globalisation? To the holiday business? To international diplomacy? To international sport?
Maybe those Kenyan growers of roses and sugarsnap peas who have been so hard-hit this week will have to learn a new life independent of Tesco. And maybe, in the long run, it will do them good to start growing their own food again instead of ours.
Maybe we’ll see a great new age of sail as the age of flight touches down earlier than expected.
Maybe the whole global warming debate will have to be revisited, balancing our (maybe reduced) emissions against the (much smaller) volcanic ones.
And, in passing, perhaps we should note that the reduced weight of polar ice may be a factor in kicking Iceland’s volcanoes back into life. Now or in the future.
Not that unstable Earth has ever needed help from us in deciding when or where to bubble over.
The Eyjafjallajokull eruption is not – as I’ve heard some people suggest – nature’s way of showing us who’s boss.
The fact is, nature doesn’t care about us that much. Or, indeed, at all.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Intelligent life in the skies

ISAAC ASIMOV, the great science fiction writer, once wrote a story about a group of intrepid space explorers landing on a strange planet.
It was a very short story which came to an abrupt, rather sticky end.
The planet was Earth. The explorers and their craft were minute. And the moment they ventured outside they were idly splatted on a wall by a small boy who saw them only as nasty creepy-crawlies.
Which brings me to the point I never got to in my column last week about extra-terrestrial intelligence.
Even if it’s there, and even if it attempts to make contact, can we be sure we’ll recognise it?
We’ve not been terribly good so far at recognising the alien intelligence all around us on our own planet.
Take octopuses. Strange things; spineless; alien indeed to us. But not, as it turns out, stupid.
In fact, they’re clever enough to recognise TV pictures of other sea creatures, including other octopuses, and react to them as if they were real.
At least they do if they’re shown HD pictures on liquid crystal screens. Conventional TVs, which display images at a rate of 24 frames per second, are too slow to fool the octopus’s sophisticated eyes.
The researchers who made this discovery found that a creature which behaves aggressively towards the images one day might cower away shyly the next.
This inconsistency in behaviour is described as “a lack of personality”.
Which seems to me one of those curious cases of scientific jargon meaning the opposite of what it suggests.
In fact, I’d say it’s evidence that the octopus is a sentient and complex individual.
But you’d needn’t search under the sea to find creatures which give the lie to the ridiculous idea that humans are unique in having rational consciousness.
Octopuses have large brains. Birds don’t – yet some, such as parrots, are rather better at interpreting human language than we are at understanding theirs.
I wrote last month about the intelligence shown by some crows. And that prompted a few readers’ observations providing more evidence of corvine intellect.
Ralph Eldridge, a Canadian naturalist, told me about another revealing experiment.
He wrote: “Crows, without training or practice or observing others, were confronted with a food reward.
“To obtain the food the crows had to select, obtain and use a stick of a specific length. To obtain the correct stick, the crow had to select, obtain and use another stick of different but specific length.
“Success required multi-stage thinking and sequenced execution, not just straight cause-and-effect pseudo-tool use.
“Do I need to tell you that the crows ate well and quickly?”
It’s not so long since humans were said to be the only creatures to use tools. In fact, an enormous variety of species do.
Crows don’t just use what’s lying around – they invent and make their own tools. And they make use of their advantages over less skilled or intelligent species, too.
Crows are supposed to be carrion-eaters, not hunters or killers. But consider this observation by my brother, Clive, on the A10 in Cambridgeshire.
“I’ve seen it on three separate occasions in the same place,” he said. “Whether it’s the same two crows, or something all the crows round there have learned from each other, I don’t know.
“You know how crows swoop around in the bow-waves of big trucks? Pigeons can’t do it like crows can.
“Two crows, harassing a pigeon, drive it into the path of a big truck. Crows swoop out of the way, pigeon goes splat. Instant carrion. Crows have dinner.”
Clive adds that his chickens can count chicks or eggs up to nine. And he tells of a crow which played a counting game with him, after listening to him making animal noises for the children in an Indian village.
“When I cawed like a crow, it replied. So I cawed twice, to which the crow cawed three times – and so on, right up to 17, at which point my voice was giving out.
“The crow probably thinks humans are too stupid to count beyond 17. Except I think the crow is probably not stupid enough to think that.”
To that, let me just add one more observation – my own, this time – that demonstrates the ability of rooks to communicate with each other.
I was out walking in the fields near Marlesford when I noticed two rooks engaged in aerial battle with a sparrowhawk. (I’ve often seen other birds mobbing sparrowhawks, and no wonder.)
When a third rook arrived, it didn’t join in but quickly took stock of the situation and flew away, purposefully and straight towards a distant wood.
A minute or two later it was back (I presume) – with about 20 other rooks. At which point the hawk gave up and fled.
There’s intelligent life in the skies, all right. And well within sight, too, if we’re prepared to look.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The truth that may be out there

SPACE is big. You can see that just by looking up on a clear night. And the more we look, and the more sophisticated the tools we look with, the bigger it seems.
Or perhaps the smaller we seem. It just depends, I suppose, on which end of the telescope you look through.
Anyway, it’s so big we surely can’t be the only beings capable of looking up and noticing. Can we?
This is the thought that led, 50 years ago this month, to the creation of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
HG Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898 but the obsession with UFOs and space aliens really took off in the 1950s.
It was essentially a Cold War phenomenon, fuelled by paranoia and a deep sense that post-Hiroshima the world was no longer quite as we had always thought it.
In a strange way, little green men may have seemed easier to imagine – and cope with – than the new but real threats that stalked our lives.
Books, films and comics all rushed to fuel the fantasy.
And where science fiction leads, actual science is sure to be there on some related path.
Stephen Hawking, everyone’s favourite thinker about the truth that might be out there, thinks waving hello to the unknown is foolish.
He points out man’s own lousy record in dealing with less-developed civilisations. Despite this warning, SETI continues to flourish and grow.
You might think scientific minds and resources could be employed on more important tasks, with more prospect of success.
But the whole point about science is that you can’t stop minds inquiring.
And few of us, surely, have never stood gazing up into the infinity of the night sky and wondering.
The particular conditions that allowed life to evolve here were extremely specific and incredibly unlikely to occur in any particular place.
But the number of places in the universe appears to be infinite. And the idea that this is the only planet to sustain life we’d call intelligent is even more unthinkable than the opposite.
Whether intelligence has evolved anywhere close enough to notice us or care is another question entirely.
Of all the possible explanations for all the thousands of UFO “sightings” it seems very much the least likely.
For what it’s worth, my personal estimate of the likeliest causes is: 1 Pure imagination; 2 Natural phenomena; 3 Unfamiliar, but entirely explicable and benign, man-made objects; 4 Things the authorities (probably military) would like to keep secret.
I have some experience of all these types.
My most recent, and perhaps eeriest, UFO encounter was in Rendlesham Forest, of all places.
It turned out to be a collection of balloons that someone had sent up with candles in baskets tied under them. The effect was very pretty despite – maybe partly because of – the initial puzzlement.
More sinister was the red light I, and many other people, saw travelling fast through the sky along the Humber river in late 1978.
It was suggested to me later that it was the afterburn from the testing of a Trident or similar missile. Whatever it may have been, I am certain it was of mundanely terrestrial origin.
If it was indeed military – and, let’s face it, the great UFO mysteries, such as the Rendlesham and Roswell incidents, all seem to take place at or near military sites – then it throws light on another aspect of the search for life in the sky.
Even if ET is out there, he’d have to be highly technologically advanced to notice us, or for us to notice him.
Cosmologist and SETI researcher Paul Davies puts it neatly in a new book, The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe? He says: “It could be that life is common, but intelligence is rare.”
And what might make it rarer still is the awful possibility that intelligence of the kind that can build civilisations and advanced technology actually contains the seeds of its own destruction.
Humanity, after all, occupies a mere blip of time in the history of life on earth. And we are so clever we’ve found any number of ways of making sure that blip doesn’t last much longer.
Global warming? Super-virus? Pollution? Nuclear catastrophe, either by war or accident? Economic collapse leading to world famine? Simply running out of materials and fuel before we’ve properly engaged the alternatives?
We may be back in the area where science fiction melds into fact.
We may also be about to bomb or otherwise blast ourselves back into the stone age, where we could neither see nor be seen by any possible beings from beyond.
And – here’s a thought – it may not be the first time the human species will have done that, either.


SPOTTED on Twitter (not by me), a 12-year-old says: “They should make a phone that attaches to the wall so you always know where it is.”
What a cracking idea. And here’s one from me.
Why doesn’t someone invent a phone that lets you actually talk to another person? You know, using your voice and listening to their reply, like a real conversation.
None of this laborious mis-spelling out of words with your thumb, then waiting for the response to ping back. Actual real-time conversation.
Revolutionary, I know, but it could just catch on.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Cities in fear and trembling

ON the day of the Chile earthquake I was in internet communication with a friend I’ve never met in Hawaii.
From the vantage point of her clifftop home she was able to watch out for the promised tsunami and follow the evacuation of those living by the shore below.
As it turned out, the tidal wave was a bit of a washout by the time it got there, a surge less than a metre high. But the sense of anticipation was palpable even halfway around the world.
Perhaps this, along with the boom in worldwide news media, is why major earthquakes seem to be growing more common.
The Chile quake and its numerous aftershocks following so soon upon the disaster in Haiti have lent an air of doom to the start of 2010.
In fact, according to the US Geological Survey, which monitors quake activity worldwide, the last few years have been fairly quiet. Though this, they say, is just part of normal variation, not a downward trend.
Since 1900 there has been a fairly stable average of 18 major earthquakes (magnitude 7.0 to 7.9) and one great quake (magnitude 8.0 or above) per year.
The recent quake in Chile was magnitude 8.8 – around 500 times the force that hit Haiti and the seventh strongest recorded. The strongest, at magnitude 9.5, was in 1960, also in Chile.
In fact, Chile suffers more earthquakes than any other country in the world. But then it is a very long country, well inside the tropics at its northern tip, the nearest mainland to Antarctica at its southern.
And every bit of it lies on the Pacific rim known as the Ring of Fire – the great line on which 90 per cent of all earthquakes occur.
The magnitude 7.0 Haiti quake was scarcely a major event geologically. What made it catastrophic was that it struck a city full of poor buildings and poorer people.
All only three quakes have killed more, all of them in China, and for similar reasons.
The rise in population, and the rise of cities, explain why six of the deadliest quakes ever have occurred in the last 90 years, two of them in the last six.
And this is why we should be worried.
Some of the world’s biggest cities, including Tokyo (population 35million), Mexico City (21m) and Tehran (8.5m) lie in areas of high earthquake risk.
California lies, like Chile, right along the Ring of Fire. In the most populous and prosperous state in the US, 37m people live with their heads in the sand while the quake-watchers await “the big one”.
But a greater risk may lie to its north.
Peter Yanev is a structural engineer and quake consultant. And his study of recent events has led him to some disturbing conclusions.
He says: “Based on the kind of damage that buildings suffered in Chile, tall structures in the earthquake zones of the United States appear to be at much higher risk than we thought.
“This lesson should be of obvious concern to San Francisco and Los Angeles. But the Pacific Northwest is most vulnerable.
“Just off Oregon, Washington and British Columbia sits the 600-mile-long Cascadia fault, which can produce tremors more powerful than anything we’ve experienced or expect from California’s famous San Andreas fault.”
Not good news for my nephew Matt, who moved to Oregon from New Orleans after surviving the horrors visited on his home by Hurricane Katrina.


IT’S been a long time coming, but I can finally call myself an exhibited photographer.
England were still a few weeks away from winning the World Cup when I went on what I could call my first photographic expedition.
I was eight years old. And I could feasibly trace my love of wild places, mountains, birds and photography to that day on Skye.
Just as I, in common with so many, could trace my fascination with football back to what happened at Wembley the ensuing June.
It was actually on Christmas Day 1965 that I was given my first camera, a simple point-and-click Kodak Instamatic. I took my first photo that day and I’ve been taking them ever since.
In those years I have wielded a lens, mostly for pleasure and occasionally for pay, in 27 countries on three continents.
My first published pictures accompanied a travel feature on India which appeared in the Sunderland Echo in 1983.
More recently I’ve had photos published with my articles in Suffolk and Let’s Talk magazines and of course occasionally accompanying my Evening Star column.
But I’ve never had framed photos on show – until now.
You can now see a few of my pics at Snape Maltings Gallery and in the Pavilion Café in Woodbridge.
A couple were taken in France, but mostly they are from Suffolk, including this one of a wave breaking on Dunwich beach, which is on display at Snape.
I wanted to capture the cave-like shape and structure of the wave as it turned over – a complexity impossible to see clearly with the naked eye.
And that day on Skye?
We’d taken a boat trip from our campsite at Elgol to Loch Curuisk, almost into the heart of the Cuillin mountains. The boatman told us we had half an hour before he’d take us back.
The alternative was a ten-mile trek back over the hills. My parents gave me the choice.
“We’ll walk,” I said.