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Showing posts from February, 2010

Facing Up to the Falklands

In today's Observer Nick Cohen offers a lucid and dignified confession (here) that most of the British Left, himself included, were wrong in 1982 to oppose Thatcher's military expedition to liberate the Falkland Islands from Argentine invasion. He goes on to discuss the US neocons' support for Argentina in that conflict, and explains clearly how the Left bamboozled itself with an anti-imperialist rhetoric that had more to do with visceral hatred of Thatcher than with common sense (what was the Argentine junta doing if not imperialism?) The Left has never recovered from the political damage it suffered then.
The main point of his article is that the current spat over Falklands oil is unlikely to lead to war, but that if it does the Left should support Britain, and that he believes that this time the Obama administration would too. I applaud this display of realism but must confess to one nagging suspicion. His entirely-correct line of reasoning vis a vis the Falklands campai…

Predator: the Next Installment

In a previous post here I expressed my admiration for James K Galbraith's 2008 book "The Predator State", in which the US economist describes the way a cabal of politicians, bankers, businessmen, bent union officials and downright gangsters hijacked the social democratic state institutions created in the aftermath of World War II. The levers that Roosevelt's New Deal invented with which to regulate the economy, in these corrupt hands became shovels with with to loot the public purse.

When I reviewed this book for Political Quarterly (Volume 80 Issue 3, pp443-5, July 2009), for an instant I wondered whether its argument represents some sort of paranoid conspiracy theory, perhaps because I'd just been reading James Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy. However Galbraith's sober and lucid arguments, illustrated with impeccably sourced statistics, soon convinced me otherwise. Events since then (only a year ago) have further reinforced that conviction, that Galbrai…


This is my favourite among the photographs I've taken so far this year. As always it was the light - strong winter sun, low in the sky - that made it happen, rather than anything that I or the camera did.
It appears here only to test the blog-posting feature of Flickr, not because I propose to use this blog as a gallery

meshes, originally uploaded by dick_pountain.

Dirac and Beauty

Nobel laureate Paul Dirac, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, has been a hero of mine ever since my teens. He was one of a mere handful of scientists whose grasp of theory was so strong he could predict the existence of something unknown in Nature (anti-matter) that was subsequently found exactly as he'd predicted. Recently Freeman Dyson offered a favourable review of a new Dirac biography by Graham Farmelo, in the latest New York Review of books, which contains some very thought-provoking ideas. Toward the end of this review Dyson claims that Dirac left a three-fold legacy to physics: the astounding discoveries of his fertile period 1920-33; a doctrine of mathematical beauty expounded over the remaining 50 years of his career; and a profound distaste for philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics (which I vigorously share).

Here is Dyson on the second phase: "The second legacy is summarized in a statement that Dirac wrote at the end of his life: 'If you are…

Going Cold on Warming

Ian Katz, in a thoughtful Guardian article (Case for climate-change science) suggests today that climate activists will need to start again and make the case for climate change from from scratch, thanks to recent scandals involving the IPCC and East Anglia University, the unusually cold winter and the failure of Copenhagen talks. I'm sure he's right, but I wish him lots of luck in the attempt, as I don't believe a significant political movement will be mobilised around climate change any time soon.

That isn't because I deny the reality of the Greenhouse Effect - on the contrary I've been a "believer" in it (that's to say one who's aware of and accepts the scientific evidence) for 20 years or more. The problem is that climatic systems are so complex that no current (or foreseeable) climate models are good enough to produce the kind of cast-iron predictions needed in politics to convince people. The adoption of the term "global warming" wa…

Gates famous at last

Bill Gates, co-founder and chairman of the software giant Microsoft, for a while the world's richest man, has finally achieved true fame - he appeared on Jon Stewart's Daily Show last night. (Actually it was his second time on the show, but the first was so long ago that Stewart was not yet the radical chic fame-maker he has become.)

Gates is a fascinating figure, a multi-billionaire capitalist with a canny business head who is nevertheless entirely unfitted for power in the Society of the Spectacle. However much he spends (or doesn't spend) on his haircut and clothes, he still looks like a physics postgrad, and his performing skills are still those of the seminar room rather than the TV studio. Jon Stewart was visibly awed by Gates (as well he might be), who described his work since retiring from the day-to-day running of Microsoft, the most important part of which is investing his own millions into malaria vaccine research.

Since malaria kills more people than just abou…

Que Sarah, Sarah

I don't usually find the strain of environmentalism espoused in the pages of the Guardian very persuasive, too clearly descended from a long tradition of British Puritanism, principally concerned with feelings of personal moral superiority and showering blame onto unrepentant sinners. I shudder at the sort of new world imagined: soya gruel, donkey carts and hempen tee-shirts with your carbon footprint printed on them... 

However at least one of these columnists, George Monbiot, has recently revealed a new depth and passion in his critique of contemporary capitalism. It appears that public reaction to the recent "Climategate" emails shook Monbiot deeply, revealing the true depth of malevolence among climate-change sceptics, and a desperate desire among the public of affluent nations to delude themselves that business as usual is possible after all.

Personally I'm a climate sceptic of a different kind: I think it's pretty certain that the amount of carbon dioxide w…

The Avatar Effect

Took young grandson to see James Cameron's "Avatar" in 3D today, through the blinding snow. Was expecting to be bored, except perhaps by the special effects, but was totally gripped all the way through. The special effects were indeed staggering, probing a whole new level of virtual realism, but the story line surprised by not being so crypto-fascist as most American sci-fi blockbusters have been  (StarWars, Dune, Starship Troopers, Armageddon, Independence Day etc. etc). Sure it's simplistic, melodramatic, romantic - just as popular story telling has to be. The surprise is that it over-simplifies in an anti-corporate, anti-imperialist direction for a change.

The US Right is furious - this is a product of Murdoch's Fox don't forget - with lots of websites telling people not to go and see it (some chance). One of the milder comments is "Cameron needs to stop making anti American films. The United States invades foreign countries when necessary" [from…

Don't be a Tourist

A most obstinate fact that faces any would-be critic of modern Western society is that social changes over the last half-century that constitute the so-called  "consumer society" have been accompanied by a considerable levelling of social (and to lesser extent economic) barriers between classes. We live in a more demotic culture than ever before: MPs and television presenters sport regional accents; air travel is no longer the preserve of the upper classes; a wide swathe of social classes aspire to consume luxury goods and services once the preserve of an elite (fuelled until recently by cheap credit). Deference toward social hierarchies and institutions has been vastly reduced. This is a real effect, not mere smokescreen, even if it hasn't so far been accompanied by equivalent reform to democratic institutions.

There's been a corresponding increase in snobberies of various sorts whose purpose is to maintain signs of social superiority in the face of this levelling …

Spectacular Christmas

posted 21 Dec 2009 11:40 by Dick Pountain

If any more proof were needed that Guy Debord died in vain, all the faked fuss about which mediocre pop record would be the No 1 hit this Christmas provides it. In the same week that the Copenhagen talks ended in failure, journalists who claim to represent the opinion of the nation's youth are seriously claiming the victory of Rage Against the Machine as some sort of act of resistance: the purchase of one record owned by Sony has triumphed over another record owned by Sony, and in the real world nothing has been changed (not even Sony's balance sheet). I don't think this is what Gramsci meant by cultural hegemony, but it is very much what Debord meant by spectacle. If you want a symbolic Christmas act that has real purchase on reality, how about roasting the X-Factor judges with apples in their mouths?

Not so Relaxed?

posted 12 Dec 2009 20:38 by Dick Pountain 

Alistair Darling's bonus supertax appears to be upsetting people in the City of London. Tim Linacre of brokers Panmure Gordon said "This piece of legislation was cobbled together over a weekend. It is politically inspired and economically illiterate. It is vague, unclear and nobody knows what it means." On the contrary, I know what it means, and so I believe do a lot of other people. It means that a Labour chancellor, standing at the steps to the scaffold for his government, has briefly re-acquired sufficient balls to hurt the people who've been looting the public purse for private enrichment for so long. Vince Cable has called the tax "an embarassment". There's truth in both these critical comments: the tax is politically inspired (hoorah), and it is too an embarassment, if that means the opposite of "intense relaxation"...

In Memoriam: Nina Fishman

posted 11 Dec 2009 00:14 by Dick Pountain   [ updated 14 Dec 2009 20:01 ] 

Nina Fishman, who died on Dec 5th, was a well-respected historian of the British labour movement and a much loved friend of mine. In the late 1970s Nina led me back from a wilderness of post-situationist disillusion into realistic left politics; Nina shamed me into overcoming my adolescent contempt for opera and introduced me to some of the best musical experiences of my life; in 1987 I helped Nina organise the first attempt to use tactical voting to unseat the Tories (it took two more elections to catch on); Nina launched the political supper club that supplied a bunch of North London lefties with mental stimulation for a decade. Before succumbing to her final illness, Nina completed her political biography of Arthur Horner the great miners' leader, to be published next year by Lawre…

Scabs and Abscesses

posted 12 Dec 2009 11:03 by Dick Pountain

Bill Clinton is the last source I'd expect for the most useful political distinction I've heard in years, but he supplies exactly that in "The Clinton Tapes" by Taylor Branch (excellent review by David Runciman in 17 Dec issue of London Review of Books here). Clinton told Branch that his most successful and satisfying foreign policy initiative was the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, while his greatest disappointment was lack of progress over Israel/Palestine. He explained the difference thus:

" Peacemaking quests came in two kinds: scabs and abscesses. A scab is a sore with a protective crust, which may heal with time and simple care. In fact, if you bother it too much, you can reopen the wound and cause infection. An abscess, on the other hand, inevitably gets worse without painful but cleansing intervention. ‘The Middle East is an abscess,’ he concluded. ‘Northern Ireland i…

Warm and Cold Lies

posted 5 Dec 2009 17:44 by Dick Pountain

Lies and deceptions have always been potent political weapons, from the Trojan Horse all the way to the Zinoviev Letter. They are not the sole preserve of either Left or the Right, despite what adherents of those two wings would have you believ. We all know how Stalinism distorted the truth and rewrote history, the faces that disappeared from the photographs. However during the last decade lies have become a particular speciality of the Right, culminating in the deceptions used to launch the Iraq invasion, but most hilariously illustrated by the Bush neo-cons references to "making our own reality".

It's in this context that you should judge those recent leaked emails from climate scientists. It may be the case that believers in the reality of Global Warming have been "fine-tuning" the data to make their case look stronger. The sceptics' side prefer the newer, Bush/neoco…

Fear and Loathing in the Bagging Area

posted 26 Nov 2009 16:07 by Dick Pountain   [ updated 26 Nov 2009 16:27 ]

Dont'cha just love supermarkets' self-checkout machines? Whether they were invented to cut staff jobs or to speed customers' exit, they fail on both counts thanks to their crummy user-interfaces. On approaching the one in my local Sainsbury it offers a choice between "Start" and "I am using my own bag". Hmm, tough call, do I prefer to get out of here or do I prefer to brag about my green credentials? Obviously the latter, so I press it and end up staring at a button called "Done", while a female voice nags me about foreign objects in the bagging area. A helpful assistant presses "Done" for me in order to start the transaction. There appear to be more assistants helping people self-checkout than there are on the till…

Crooked Crux

posted 26 Nov 2009 13:38 by Dick Pountain   [ updated 26 Nov 2009 14:16 ]
The events of the last year offer a lot of support to a popular view that all politicians, bankers, journalists and perhaps businessmen in general are crooks. No doubt this comes close to being true in some parts of the world, but for us in the developed West it's a counsel of despair that cannot survive closer inspection - if all politicians were in fact real crooks then they would never have allowed the press to disclose their petty expenses fiddles, nor rolled over so supinely once discovered.

Nevertheless an article in the current New York Review of Books called "Illicit Money, Can it be Stopped?" ( makes for deeply disturbing reading. The authors,  Eva Joly and Raymond Baker, explain …

Fat Harvest

posted 22 Nov 2009 16:45 by Dick Pountain   [ updated 9 Dec 2009 03:04 ]

The Guardian ran a far more macabre fat-related story (peru-gang-killing-human-fat). A Peruvian gang has been arrested for murdering people to harvest their body fat and sell it on to the cosmetic surgery industry as an anti-wrinkle treatment. Now fans of Chuck Palahniuk's "Fight Club" (and David Fincher's excellent movie of it) will recognise this as one of its more bizarre and incredible plot devices - our heroes steal waste human fat from liposuction clinics and make it into luxury toilet soap to sell in smart shops. Did the Peruvians get the idea from the movie, did the movie get it from the Peruvians? Is the story even true? The gang is supposed to have been operating in an area where the Shining Path guerillas are active, so it might just be black propag…

Fat in Fire

posted 22 Nov 2009 12:18 by Dick Pountain   [ updated 9 Dec 2009 03:04 ]

What a fuss about Kate Moss's anti-eating quote that "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels". Knives are out, accusations fly that Moss is pandering to the "pro-anorexia" lobby, and by implication is almost a murderer. The whole furore is just one more example of the hysterical moralism that's spreading through all levels of our society: carbon footprint; paedophilia; anorexia; you name it. Witches and communists are really old hat I'm afraid.

What really interests me about this row though is a huge reversal it reveals, if you examine the quote closely. Throughout most of human history hunger has been a pain, a punishment even. Voluntarily giving up eating was the province of ascetics, mystics, martyrs and political dissidents, and it was consid…

Quantum of Dumb

It feels as though the media reporting of science hit an all-time low this week. This morning the Guardian had the following headline about the Hadron Collider restart on Friday:

Cern prepares to resume 'big bang' Particles will begin whizzing around Large Hadron Collider again on Friday following explosion
Not just one but two references to bangs, to cater for those readers who believe it's going to blow us into another dimension, and the nicely ambiguous placement of "following explosion". Last night BBC 2 showed the worst "Horizon" I've ever seen (which is the more heartbreaking since it had been getting steadily back to form over the last year). They let that "nice Alan Davies" - who'd made a fairly amusing Horizon with Marcus du Sautoy about mathematics last year - have another go, this time to explain the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Then they chose the two most eccentric-lookin…