Friday, September 26, 2008

The Imagination Trap

Oops, forgot to blog this last week, as my brain has deserted me to sing in a 5-brain boy band somewhere out in the Middle East. The best quote in the news recently came at the very bottom of a relatively minor article. Hear me out on this one, cos it's all to do with The Matrix, really.

Why was it good? Because it cuts through the crap and continuing delusion present in our economy, and in our perception of the economy - what we're spun, what we want to believe like in some boringest X-Files episode where Mulder and Scully have to investigate a spooky ISA.

That it's from the French Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde, probably says something. Talking about the French economy being in relatively decent shape, she points her laser eyes straight at the problem, and gives it a megawatt dosage of cold truth:

"I think we have let this world of fantasy and virtuality overcome reality... There have to be more principles, more discipline and a bit more reality," the minister says.

Rock on. And you see where the Matrix comes in yet? Here in the UK, we jump on the bandwagon and go blaming house price crashes, credit squeezes and giant supernatural entities. These are all just effects. House prices went up because cash was made available and everyone started buying houses.

Why did everyone buy houses? Because everything else has lost value. We saw the .com bubble get pricked at the turn of the millennium and went "oh, better get back to something physical". A re-direction of financial energy from the simulated to the "real", only the value of that reality was still "simulated", because it was driven by Returns, not by Actual Worth.

And why did everyone dive into the .com bubble, like a big swimming pool made of bitty custard? Because it was easy to inflate the value of it. It was new, exciting, and resources were unlimited - in economic terms, it offered unlimited growth. (Paradoxically, this also meant infinite supply too. Which means zero value. Aha.) And that omnidirectional growth was important when we pretty much have what we need. Even if what we have is badly-grown supermarket food and crap ad-riddled television.

So this is where we are. We make our cash from making cash, and we've sold off everything else. Business is the business, feedback is the feedback, and as Baudrillard points out, the more we lack/destroy something, the more we try to re-create (and profit from) those re-creations. Facebook re-creates community. "Web 2.0" re-creates creativity and production. Housing bubbles re-create a sense of worth.

If we're to get out of this trap, then pumping more imaginary numbers into the system won't fix anything in the long term, because we're still dealing with life on the imaginary level, and unlike South Park, imaginary things do not leap out and become real when terrorists say so. Christine Lagarde is right. We need to escape the Matrix. We need to start re-asking: "What is real value?"

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In Science's Name, get over it.

Yesterday Professor Michael Reiss quit as director of education at the Royal Society following the suggestion that creationism should be "taught" in science lessons. No wait, not "taught" - "discussed". Unfortunately, a fervent bunch of disciplinary fanatics jumped on this, and twisted into the idea that scientists should approve creationism as some kind plausible alternative canon. The fanatics? Other scientists.

Look, science, I don't know who you are, but some of us don't actually have the time of inkling to trail through a quadzillion papers a year to work out just what we should believe. If you want to do that, that's fine with me. But don't start waving fists at other people - including other scientists (because "scientist" is actually a practitioner role, not a spiritual dedication) - just because they might have their own understanding of the world, right? It's a big floating vessel called a censorship, and it's what you have a go at the rest of the world/history for, so you'd probably better just Watch Out unless you want the rest of the world/future to laugh at you like they all did in secondary school.

The Royal Society, to their fearful credit, re-iterated (in the 9th paragraph) that: "if a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not, in any way, scientific."

Discussion is good. Ideas are good. Science is not art. Science is argument. Belief is individual. How we got here is nowhere near as important as how we behave. Including seeing things from another person's point of view.

P.S. There's a hugely interesting discussion to be had about free debate vs the reputation of a society, but I can't be bothered to have it right now. To the pub!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hurricanes from Space

The Big Picture has some fantastic photos of hurricanes from orbit, prompting 2 questions:

1. What's with personifying Big Weather by giving them names? Does anthropomorphising them help us come to terms with the sheer amount of power present in them or something?

2. Can we stop going head-to-head with nature now please? I get that steady feeling that we'd lose.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Following the Lewes Pound

It'll be interesting to see how the new Lewes Pound currency does. Lewes residents will be able to get 10% off at its launch over the next 2 weeks, i.e. get 22-pounds-worth of Lewes cash for just £20.

The main advantage of local currency is that the local economy is tied more closely to the population; the Lewes Pound unites Lewes business and survival with a local shop culture. In other words, sustenance, trading, ambience and sociality are all linked together. Compare that to the fleets of clone towns around the UK, where the "shop culture" or "ambience" is totally un-unique (or "ique"). Money given to the hydra-head of any chain store flows directly out of the local community - in other words, away from you, and from the people you know. The chances of getting it back in are not necessarily low, but the opportunities to control those chances are completely out of your hands.

What'd be really interesting is if you could get prices down as a result of setting up those local links - effectively being able to give people a discount if they were using local currency, because it costs businesses less. Economists will see this as the opposite of Economies of Scale, and so it wouldn't make sense from that point of view. But with the Costs of Scale rising sharply (namely transport costs), maybe the advantages of a satisfied community get closer to the advantages of Economies of Scale.

Of course, currently that's like comparing cabbages and cows - chain stores don't do community or happiness, and community satisfaction doesn't measure well numerically. Places like Lewes and Totnes - places that value their community while it still exists - are well placed to take advantage of their local attitude in the face of rising global costs.

Philosophy vs Profit. FIGHT.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Rule #1: You do not talk about Knife Club

The latest response to knife crime is to censor pupils from talking about it:

"The exam board is writing to schools to advise them to destroy the copies of the anthology - and says it will send replacements not containing this poem."
Get that? Our own fear of encouraging The Bad Things is actively preventing us from thinking about how to get rid of them. In other words, We Are Scared of Trying To Solve The Problem.

In a way, this isn't new - governments have taken the same stance on hacking tools, for example; tools are dual-use, and can be put to defensive and offensive objectives. A risk-and-fear-driven culture has meant that these tools have generally tended towards being banned, or controlled to the point of being effectively banned.

The difference here is that we're not talking about tools. We're talking about talking. Words, therefore, are seen to have the same power as artifacts, and the pen is just as mighty as the sword.

Both pen and sword are nothing but temptation, and therefore must be removed from sight.

Of course, the irony is that not talking about something just makes it all the more inspiring, tempting, arcane and curious. Hushing up talk of violence will lead to more actual violence, in the same way that a culture that represses talk of sex leads to more sex-based marketing, and more teenage pregnancies. We have elected not politicians, but an attitude, and that attitude is driving us underground more and more every day.

To be honest, I'm getting to the point where I can't be arsed to rant about this crap any more. Britain England needs a serious makeover if anyone with half a brain is going to take it seriously. We are bankrupt fiscally, emotionally, and philosophically, and this void has been filled with notions of material gain and covering your own arse. That the FTSE 100 is still hovering around the 5500 mark shows just how much we've come to rely on optimism and delusion rather than pragmatism.

Is it worth getting angry about a class of people that just spit in the face of good advice? I can't help but think that good energy is being wasted arguing and ranting, when it could be spent on coming up with a more solid, more satisfying way of life.