29 June 2009

The idea of Italy and quantum theory

Just as important as choosing a good holiday book is timing the finishing of your old book, so you can dip into your new read as the plane prepares for takeoff. For my recent trip to Italy, I mistimed this slightly, and ended up finishing off a book on quantum theory* as I travelled to Verona. So as I jetted off, I was trying to wind up thoughts on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Bosons versus Fermions, and the non-existence of gravity ahead of a weekend of sightseeing and opera.

But actually it was a better complement for the visit than I had thought, as I sat in Verona airport during a 2.5 hour delay caused by, apparently, nothing at all. As you will all no doubt know, there is a contradiction at the heart of quantum theory - whereby particles can not only be in two states at the same time, but in two places at the same time. Furthermore, the whole universe is held together by the balance of matter and anti-matter, particles and anti-particles who annihilate each other upon meeting. To many scientists, the only way to adequately explain the freaky things that happen at the atomic level is the existence of parallel universes.

If this is true, then somewhere there is another Britain made of achingly beautiful cities, serving delicious, cared-for food, with a history for creating passionate art and a language that sings to the soul. Similarly, there is an Italy where transport turns up roughly where and when it should, where you can rely on things to be open when they say they will be, and the prime minister doesn't own half the media. I can go to Italy to enjoy the things that depress me about Britain, and come back in time for relief from the things that would drive me to despair living in Italy. For me Italy and Britain are particle and anti-particle, spinning in opposite directions, locked in partnership as proof of their own identity and, ultimately, their own existence.

* = "Quantum Theory cannot hurt you", Patrick Chown (faber & faber, 2007) - highly recommended.

22 June 2009

House of Paine

Much has been made this year of two anniversaries of Charles Darwin - the 150th of the publication of On the Origin Of Species and the 200th of his birth. And that is as it should be for a truly great Briton and this country's most important scientific work. But another bicentennial anniversary passed recently of the death of an equally important British figure who goes unremarked these days, Thomas Paine. In the 2002 BBC poll of 100 Greatest Britons, Darwin cracked the top ten, whereas Paine reached the giddy heights of 34, just behind David Beckham and Eric Morecambe.

If Paine remains overlooked by his countrymen these days, then he hasn't necessarily fallen far, since his funeral on 8 June 1809 was attended by just 6 people. Having successfully alienated his native land, by his denunciation of the British Monarchy, he proceeded to lose American friends in his adopted country by his outspoken views on organised religion. He made it his life's work to rally against mental and physical enslavement, offending many people in the process through his refusal to compromise his principles.

No doubt Paine would have a wry smile to think how Oliver Cromwell can cut a King's head off, appoint himself dictator, and somehow become treated as the father of modern British democracy, whereas Paine wrote books that are still readable today, that profoundly influenced the direction and tide of the American and French revolutions, as well as bequeathing us the idea of human rights, and doesn't merit so much as a footnote in GCSC history. Cromwell gets a statue in Parliament Square; Paine has a statue in Norfolk.

No doubt those MPs in the Commons tonight, voting for a new speaker to give them a fig leaf of respectability, would feel Paine's fierce glare. And they'd do well to remember one of his more memorable quotes: "Lead, follow, or get out of the way."

17 June 2009

The toughest girl in Belgium

All over the news this week is the story of a girl who got more than she bargained for in a trip to a tattoo parlour. According to her account of the story, she asked for three small stars to be tattooed onto her face, but instead got a whole faceful of permanent ink (story here). Apparently she fell asleep, and the zealous tattoo artist got a bit carried away. A modern cautionary tale, and general sympathetic noises about the cross this girl will have to bear.

I surely can't be the only person who doesn't believe her, and reckon this should be a story filed under "a tattoo is for life, not just for Christmas". I think she changed her mind when she saw the reaction of friends and family, and needs to save face, quite literally. My reasoning is based upon the understanding that tattoos hurt quite a lot. In fact, an incredible amount, from conversations I have had with people who have endured this process of body art. I think I would find it quite difficult to "fall asleep" with someone sticking needles in my face repeatedly.

Or maybe this will be one occasion when someone is sued for not engaging in sharp business practice.

12 June 2009

Please sir, can I have some more?

I had to suppress a laugh when I read today about the government's decision to "outlaw" child poverty (story here). Not content with having failed miserably to meet its own plan to halve child poverty by 2010 (unless everyone wins the lottery in the next 6 months), a new piece of legislation tabled today will make it a government duty to "abolish" child poverty by 2020. Clearly Gordon Brown is now so deluded he believes he can actually make Conservative Party policy.

I think it's a revealing story about the state of mind of the government in two respects. That they recognise they are on the way out, and so needn't fear the consequences of their actions. Why stop at child poverty? Why not make it a government commitment to abolish world poverty by 2020? Or war, famine and bad haircuts? Go the whole hog and say we'll outlaw all forms of sadness by the middle of the next decade - it doesn't really matter.

The second is the by now familiar New Labour approach to a problem - to solve a problem through legislation. That by declaring something illegal, it will make it go away. Does that mean that, come 2020, if there are children still in poverty, they will be like illegal aliens? Squads of police will track down rogue vagrant minors, just like Victorian times.

Mind you, a return to Victorian Values might be on the political agenda by then, with the Tories in government.

07 June 2009

In God we trust fund.

It's nice to have a President of the United States who is actually more intelligent than Osama bin Laden. Although bin Laden certainly holds some idiosyncratic views, his powers of organisation and extra-legal information structures are clearly not the work of a moron. Or to put it another way, he may be mad, but he isn't an idiot. For the last 8 years, a flat-footed George Bush was always three steps behind, not just in terms of locating bin Laden but in challenging his rhetorical appeal along the Arab Street.

And so with predictable timing, bin Laden released a tape to news networks to coincide with President Obama's trip to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Unfortunately, by accusing Obama of sowing seeds of hatred, he clearly completely mis-read the occasion, and Obama's speech, so adept and well-judged, has had the double effect of challenging views AND making bin Laden look like an idiot.

11 September 2001, and its personification in bin Laden, was seen as the greatest political strength Bush had to draw upon. But it was also one of his biggest weaknesses, for if you can embody the evil of Islamism into a single person, you only achieve success once you bring that person to justice, or at least track him down to a zip code. Either way, it means no-one ignores him, and his views are given credence because of the way he is treated by his enemies.

By expanding the picture to engage across the range of related issues, you take the focus off bin Laden. If you get Israel out of the West Bank and Syria out of Lebanon, bin Laden becomes irrelevant. Maybe the popular uprising in Pakistan against Taliban influence is a sign of things to come? Suddenly bin Laden becomes what he always was - an overindulged rich kid with absent father approval issues and too much time and money on his hands. Maybe he has more in common with Bush than I thought.

05 June 2009

Press for change

Hoff Limits doesn't tend to make political predictions very often, mainly because we don't want to look silly when the opposite happens within 48 hours. (But since when has looking silly stopped us commenting in other areas?) However I would stick my neck out to say that rumours of the Prime Minister's demise seem, in my humble, greatly exaggerated.

Today, the Fourth Estate is predicting the fall of Gordon within days, as the third Minister in as many days quit his cabinet, though this time the now former Work and Pensions Minister directly challenged the PM to resign. Some journos, clearly giddy with excitement, were even suggesting this was as pivotal a moment as Geoffrey Howe's famous parliamentary assault on Margaret Thatcher in 1990, that did for her reign as First Among Equals.

However, I would offer two observations to suggest why this isn't so:

1) I reckon that, until news of his resignation hit the headlines, less than 10% of the population had even heard of James Purnell, never mind that he had a job in government. Frankly if you'd have asked me at the start of the week, I probably would have suggested it was a chain of estate agents.

2) When Geoffrey Howe thrust his dagger into the PM, he was resigning from the post of Foreign Secretary. The other parallel that comes to mind is Norman Lamont's lament that John Major's administration was "in government but not in power" that summed up the situation with devastating accuracy. Lamont was speaking from the position of ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer. So far the occupants of the great offices of State are holding firm to the PM. Not least because of the absence of credible alternatives.

The conclusion I would come to is the media is now bored. The expenses scandal not only was tremendous fun for the print media, led by The Daily Telegraph, they actually felt important again. Now this story has finally run out of gas, only the distraction of a General Election will maintain their status as worth listening to again.

03 June 2009

Just say yes

Today I was stopped in my tracks by a bus side-panel ad in Camden:

The simple, startling message points to a website for Release, an organisation that campaigns for changes to UK drug policy. It is part of what I hope marks the start of a challenge to the hegemony of the madness that is the War On Drugs and the misery that is its consequence.

As a piece of creative, it is stunning - the simplicity of the execution is perfect because the message, in just four words, is powerful. Its implications resonate long after the meaning of the sentence has registered in the brain, because it is at odds with twenty years of contrary messaging from well-meaning but myopic War On Drugs warriors.

Or as advertising legend Bill Bernbach once said, "the most powerful element in advertising is the truth."

The hardest word

"SORRY" was the theme of a recent London Evening Standard advertising campaign, to promote its relaunch under the new stewardship of Alexander Lebedev. It was a mea culpa admitting to having been, amongst other things, too negative in its coverage, and promising a new approach to its journalism in the future.

One tradition that seems set to continue without any apology is the indecent rush to be first to publish pictures of ordinary people caught up in news events. Frequently evening billboards will announce: "Crash victims: First pictures", as though the very act of publishing the image of hitherto unknown people is especially newsworthy, helpful or adds to the story in any way. It is the print version of an invitation to a rubber-necking or Victorian freak show: be the first to gaze upon old holiday snaps of someone you don't know who is now dead.

Something about this approach seemed particularly sordid in yesterday's coverage of the tragic story about a suicide couple who leaped from a cliff, unable to cope with the death of their child. "Beachy Head Suicide Boy: First Pictures" leered the ES publicity machine. I don't know what I am supposed to do with this advertisement - I wasn't going to buy a newspaper, but the prospect of seeing the image of a dead child before I get home is simply irresistible? Similarly irresistible is the conclusion I must draw that the Evening Standard is somehow applauding itself - basking in the glory of its own prurience, and asking us to endorse this with a purchase.

Sorry, indeed. Plus ca change...