18 March 2009

Onward Christian Firemen

It's not often that Hofflimits finds itself at the centre of a breaking news story, but today a government building caught fire at the end of Chancery Lane, where I work (story here). Hopes rose in the office, as flames became visible amid the plume of smoke, that we would be evacuated from our building - enabling us to enjoy the early Spring sunshine. Sadly this proved not necessary, but as I was leaving the office the cordoned-off street was deserted except for fire engines, plus a vehicle I didn't expect to see.

Parked up directly outside the front door was a Salvation Army Response Vehicle, which struck me as odd. I was trying to imagine what kind of conflagration would require brass band music to bring it under control. Maybe they are the real 4th emergency service, although on the one occasion I had to dial 999, I don't think I was asked whether I required Police, Ambulance, Fire Brigade or Redemption from eternal damnation.

17 March 2009

Reality bites

If the upheavals of the recent economic downturn have made you question the very nature of reality, there is good news this week: reality does exist. It has been officially proved by two teams of scientists working independently, who have proved that things do exist even when no-one is watching them. And it's all down to resolving something called Hardy's Paradox (bear with me - it does get exciting).

Hardy's Paradox, as you will no doubt remember, centres on the interaction between matter and antimatter - that when a particle meets its antiparticle, the pair will always annihilate each other in a burst of energy - positing that in some unobserved cases the particle and antiparticle could survive. But since they are unobserved, we'd never know - so far, so Stephen Hawking.

This week, Osaka University in Japan demonstrated what observing an unobserved phenomenon looks like, by achieving the impossible: probing reality without disturbing it, which is the quantum equivalent of not really looking at something. By pooling data on a series of partial results of encounters between two photons, they could get a glimpse of the whole - and they discovered reality is not quite what we thought it was.

The outcome of all this sub-atomic fiddling was the distribution of photons was not what was expected. In some cases, the number of photons was less than zero. Given the present state of world finances, that does indeed sound like a version of reality that everyone can understand: when no-one was looking there was lots of it - as soon as we looked, it turned out there was less than we thought there was.

16 March 2009

White wine and cornflakes

Even before the recession I had a rule about buying supermarket wine of paying no more than £5 per bottle, safe in the knowledge that there will always be something decent being discounted each week, as long as one is not fussy about the country of origin. This usually leads me to interesting creations from the New World, some highly successful discoveries, and some pretentious ways of describing plonk.

This week saw a bottle that normally retails at close to ten quid come within the orbit of my pricing policy, from an Australian vintner called Tempus Two. Ignoring the obvious frippery designed to make it look different - metal label, beer bottle-style cap instead of cork - I was drawn to the copy for an example of the vapid art of wine marketing.

Apparently the contents are a "vision" that seems to be disarmingly honest: "It's all about a combination of new wave winemaking techniques and innovative packaging". 'New wine in new bottles', you might say. It contains "lifted" aromas of passion fruit, kiwi fruit and, oddly, musk. So if the taste of deer on heat is your thing, how can you enjoy this drink? Apparently the "crisp frizzante finish" is perfect "for enjoying at brunch, lunch and dinner", which is helpful to avoid accidentally serving it at breakfast.

07 March 2009

The Code of the Worcesters

The idea of town-twinning, I presume, is a post-war phenomenon, where the elders of various European cities earnestly developed opportunities for teenagers from one European country to try to have sex with with those of another, in the name of mutual understanding. An attempt to get the younger generations to throw off the prejudices of their elders, created by wartime enmity, by getting to know foreigners as humans rather than cannon fodder. This noble aim of eliminating national stereotypes and name calling has been highly successful, as anyone who has attended an international football match recently will know.

I took part in one of these exercises, but felt sorry for the German teenagers whose reward for entertaining us in Goch was spending a week in Andover, a place guaranteed to inspire feelings of, at best, disappointment in the hearts of overseas visitors. But I can't imagine what feelings would be inspired in the souls of children from the city of Worcester at the exchange prospect they are facing: Gaza City.

The town council has unilaterally decided to twin itself with the beleaguered middle eastern city, presumably out of a sense of solidarity for its helpless citizens. It is a nice example of the pompousness of British local government that somehow they are making a meaningful contribution to the Middle East peace process. I particularly like the way they arrived at this process; according to the Council transcript of the meeting, there were two motions to decide this. The first motion was: "That the City of Worcester twin with Gaza City". This was quickly changed to: "That the City of Worcester invite the Twinning Association to consider a twinning arrangement with Gaza City". I admire the self-importance of the first motion - decision made as performatory utterance - that just by saying Worcester would be twinned with Gaza City, that would make it so. No doubt Secretary of State Clinton and Tony Blair were holding their breath on the outcome of that meeting.

On the other hand maybe there is something comforting about this insight into Town Hall life. In many countries around the world, people enter local government for venal reasons - and local politics is a byword for graft and corruption. If this insight is typical, it would seem the main motivation for taking up office in the UK is a need to feel that your little burgh is making an impact on a larger stage, and you are with it. Self-aggrandisement may not be the most noble quality, but at least it doesn't cost us anything - an important consideration at a time when every penny in the public purse counts.

02 March 2009

It's prayback time

In these difficult days, we all deserve a little indulgence. Or so the Catholic Church would have us believe, as news breaks that it is returning to the Medieval practice of selling time off in purgatory in return for a little of the folding stuff (story here). After all, if a Southern Baptist like George W Bush can have a "crusade" and various Muslim sects can claim jihad, then why not?

These Indulgences are a way of re-focusing the faithful upon the need to do good deeds, to show, according to the church's Manual of Indulgences, a "greater zeal for the exercise of charity." To the outsider, a number of these so-called acts of charity do look remarkably self-serving: visiting churches, praying for the pope, pilgrimages to saints' burial sites. And, of course, the whole idea of an Indulgence is to turn Christian works into self-interest, to spare the sinner less time among the fires of damnation - theoretical capitalism as spiritual enlightenment, as it were.

Perhaps it is most appropriate the Vatican is exploring these ideas at this time of great financial testing. During a crisis brought on by loose controls on credit and easy borrowing, what better way out for believers than buying space in heaven on the opposite of interest-free credit: pay now, buy later.