Meanwhile, Back On The Farm…

Man in this country-town pub has the worst laugh. Every time, it sounds like he’s sneering at someone he’s just kicked bloody. Please stop telling that guy jokes.

Oh God. Radio reminds me that Tony Blair is the EU’s most important diplomat to Egypt. We choose the single former leader who invaded a Middle East country as ‘peace envoy’. Was that supposed to be ironic? A large proportion of the population doubtless sees him as some sort of latter-day Crusader. He mentioned his fears of the Muslim Brotherhood exploiting the situation two or three times. He mentioned democracy, freedom from oppression, and self-determination… about not at all.

Something else I note from the news – Though Ireland is technically not in recession because our GDP is going up, our Gross National Product is  ‘growing’ at a rate of -0.3%. GNP is similar to GDP but represents Irish owned business only, leaving out foreign investment. How can foreign business here be profitable but local ruined? I would suggest it’s because while almost all foreign invest here is in export industries, too much Irish-owned business is about servicing other parts of the Irish-owned economy (in which I include the state sector), making it a house of cards. We need more indigenous export industry.

But you know, that was kind of obvious.

Money CartoonMeanwhile back on the political pitch, Micheál Martin is naming his front bench. Wait, what? Yes – the leader of Fianna Fáil has his own shadow cabinet, even though Fianna Fáil under Brian Cowen is still in government until tomorrow… The party is its own opposition. I mean, officially now. That’s not the way Micheál Martin sees it himself of course. A few days ago he came out with an extraordinary offer: To support a Fine Gael government. He thinks he can actually refuse to go into opposition. Clearly the party is just too used to being in power.

Oh, and stop press: Senator Ivor Callelly has been awarded €17,000 for loss of earnings while suspended from his Senate seat. Reason for suspension? Because the bastard was corrupt. He should be on all the opposition parties’ election posters. This is Fianna Fáil. This is the face of a party that is farming the people of this country like cattle.

Dammit Fianna Fáil, you are going to go into opposition, and you are going to stay there.

Sketch From The Journey Homeward

The MidlandsTravelling through the darkness of the midlands. There could be anything outside those windows. Anything but people. Might as well be in a submarine.

It’s a bus though. I am in favour of trains but you don’t get the low fares at weekends, and since they built motorway all the way to Galway it’s as fast as the train and almost as comfortable. Certainly quieter – this Volvo purrs like a contented fridge. Aside from legroom, the main reason to prefer the train is that it has power outlets. I am actually fine for power – two spare batteries after this one – but in this portable age charging equals comfort, discharging discomfort. Courtesy power outlets should really be everywhere. First pub I went to in Dublin had locks on their sockets. And they charged €4.50 for a coffee, which begins to border on crime. Opposite that National Leprechaun Museum, they were clearly tourist trappers.

What the bus does supply for free on the other hand is Wi-Fi, so I might as well use that instead of my own 3G. Good opportunity to download the new OpenOffice suite… And yet, I still resent the log-in procedure. They want to know my name, my e-mail address, and my impressions of the the service – before I can use it! I was bluntly honest about the last there, but apparently my address is now whynot@lsoaskmydicksi.ze.

Seems to work as well as any other.

It’s a shame because it makes what is a genuinely useful service suddenly feel like a trap. Will they give my details to marketeers? Perhaps it’s all in the terms and conditions, but dammit I’m on a bus, I don’t want to have to read a long document and consult a lawyer. Couldn’t the free Wi-Fi just be, you know, free? It’s not like non-customers are going to be stealing it after all. Not unless they run alongside.

More Art, More Science, More Egypt

The Science Gallery
It's This Shape On The Inside Too

I worried I was unfair to Dublin’s Science Gallery so I went back. I’m glad I did, because I was. There is actually a second floor to the place, it was closed because the exhibition was not completely mounted when I wandered in.

I do have my questions about the art on display in the ‘Visceral‘ exhibition, but that’s no bad thing by any means. I urge you to see it for yourself, there’s thought-provoking stuff there. Thought-provoking as in machines guided by rat neurons and bacterial colonies growing into pictures, so it’s well worth arguing over whether it is art, science, or a load of toss. But I’m glad it exists.

But Back To Egypt

Just a couple of hours ago, Egypt swore in the head of the intelligence services as Vice-President. That hardly seems like a move towards a more democratic government, but it may be a way to transition from Mubarak’s rule with the minimum possible fuss.

It could also be seen as the introduction of military dictatorship in all but appearance, with the army’s man rather than a general in uniform taking the helm. It’s inevitable that the military will be power brokers here; just about everything depends on whether they accept the legitimacy of Mubarak’s orders. The next question is whether the military will then support a transition to democracy. There is the possibility that they would simply create a new dictatorship, and tell the people and the rest of the world that we have to support it or the Islamists will take over.

If we accepted that, we’d be betraying the people of Egypt. This is not an uprising in favour of Islamic rule – and certainly, not of military rule. It’s a rejection of oppression, and it’s up to us in democratic countries to demonstrate to the Egyptians that we too are against oppression.

We are, aren’t we?

Egypt Needs You

Sphinx CartoonIn 2003, the USA, UK and sundry allies invaded Iraq on the pretext of bringing democracy, while simultaneously supporting regimes throughout the Near and Middle East that wouldn’t know democracy if they buggered it with an electric cattle prod. And they did. Egypt was one such of course.

The West had been happy to turn a blind eye to this during the Cold War because previously Egypt had been getting awful close to Russia. Better it be one of our oppressive failed states, right? That stopped making sense after the fall of Communism, but Egypt was somehow converted into a bulwark against revolutionary Islam. Hell, dictatorship is pretty much a bulwark against any sort of change, right? And change is scary. Scary is bad, so therefore dictatorship is good. The logic is watertight. Mad, but watertight.

What we are seeing today in Egypt and across the region is a movement comparable, in both scale and moral significance, to the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe. Social media told the people what the conventional media was forbidden to tell: That they were many, and the government’s minions were few. If we ever needed an argument against allowing censorship of the Internet, there it is.

These people who are angry in Egypt are people like us. They have Twitter accounts. They’re on Facebook. Our governments may have colluded with their government in the past, but we must tell our governments to stop being stupid. You can’t bomb people into freedom. Freedom rises upwards.

We are either on the side of freedom or we’re on the side of oppression. In Egypt right now, Christians are standing guard to protect Muslim protesters at Friday prayer from the police. Check out #Egypt on Twitter. Express your solidarity.

Science In A Gallery Or Art In A Lab?

Exhibit
Science + Art = Weird Stuff in Jars

So I’m in Dublin’s Science Gallery, a worthy but slightly disappointing project. Passing by, you see it has a cool looking café section jammed into a wedge-shaped window on Pearse Street. That must be part of an interesting place, you think. On going in though, you find that the part is the whole¹.

It has exhibitions, yes. I didn’t warm to the one that’s on right now though. Called Visceral, it uses things out of labs for artistic purposes. Tissue cultures, tubes. It seemed to me less science than cyberpunk. According to blurb, this was “challenging work at the frontier between fine art and biotechnology and forms a series of provocations and puzzles around the nature of the living and non-living”. It sounds like exactly the sort of thing I would find fascinating, but I didn’t even feel particularly intrigued. Possibly I just didn’t find my way into it. I haven’t been in much of a mood to explore the interface between art and biotechnology since I quit drinking.

Maybe the disappointment of the place itself put me into a negative mood. I feel like I should be in favour of the thing, it’s just… The title ‘Science Gallery’ had me expecting more. A science museum of sorts, I suppose. Wonders.

Transparent Horse
Horse Inside

What must be said for it though is that it has probably the best gift shop in Ireland. The perfect place to find an unusual present. What do you give to the person who has everything? A transparent horse, of course. Other lovely things included magnetic tape that actually is tape that’s magnetic, Rubik’s cube salt and pepper mills, and great books including a healthy pile of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.

Also it’s one of the rare stockists of Sugru, the multi-purpose polymer beloved of “makers” and other hardware-hacking types. It’s a silicon-based substance that can be moulded to any shape, will adhere to many smooth surfaces, and sets with the texture of tough but yielding rubber. That makes it particularly suitable for human interface things. The name comes from an Irish word for “play”, and I can’t wait to start playing with it myself. My portable hard drive is about to become rugged. And weird-lookin’.

  1. I was quite wrong about this – see here.

All Off To Dublin In The Suit

Ceannt Station GalwayHmm. Iarnród Eireann (Irish Rail) are sneaky. Offer a low fare if you book online, then add an administration fee – for booking online. IarnRyanaireann?

Railway improvement was one thing I’m glad we spent money on while we had it, though we started too late to get enough done and cut corners on the way. I was never really convinced by this Spanish-made rolling stock. Too cheap to buy French. But they’re comfortable, and a hell of an improvement on the old.

So I’m off to Dublin to sort out this lot in Leinster House. Oh OK, to see a girl. The upside of getting up for a train at seven in the morning is seeing the sunrise framed by a beautiful… railway shed. The downside of getting up for a train at seven in the morning is of course that it’s seven in the morning. To me that may as well be a visit to another country where I don’t speak the language. What, shops aren’t open? How does that work – where do morning people buy things?

And I made the foolish decision to travel in my suit. The things you do to impress ladies. Well that’s partly why. I must confess this is the first one I’ve ever owned and it feels like I’m playing dress-up. Plus, it cost a bit and I want to get some wear out of it before suits go out of fashion.

What I should have done is worn the usual combats and hoodie, and carried the suit. Voluminous pockets are a thousand times more practical for travel than tailoring. I could have nipped into the toilets and changed just before the train arrived. Superblogger! But I was worried it would get creased in a backpack.

Wrong idea. When you’re wearing a suit underneath a greatcoat, a portable computer slung over one shoulder, and a backpack that contains your ‘casual’ pair of German army boots, you are a crumpling machine. It couldn’t get more creased if you stuffed it in a horse.

And I feel wildly overdressed for a train in the middle of a bog. On the bright side though – if I turn up in Dublin looking crumpled and overburdened and like I haven’t had enough sleep, I may get interviewed by foreign TV.

Is Climate Change, Bitches

After the breakneck pace of events yesterday, I think a change of topic is in order. Though not without noting in passing how Lenihan attempted to shift blame for the bankers’ bonuses onto Fine Gael and Labour this morning. Suddenly, taxing them is an idea he was all in favour of – but alas his hands are tied by the pesky opposition. There’s no shame in this game.

Microcos Climate CartoonGoing back to Sunday’s tirade against the Greens though: I think it’s probably necessary these days, with the rise of “climate scepticism”, to clarify that I am not on the anti-environmental fringe. I don’t know if I’d call myself an environmentalist. I try to avoid labels that end in “ist”, especially in “mentalist”. But I have friends who are Green Party members – well, until Sunday I had – and I agree with a lot of what they think.

There are extremes of environmentalism I find abhorrent; the “Humans are the worst animal ever and the planet would be better if we all died” lobby. There is a bizarre narcissism to that. How can we be worse than Nature? We’re not supernatural beings. What we are, what we do, is an expression of Nature. We do ugly things, as does Nature. The one difference: We know that they’re ugly.

But I think it is wise to try to upset the dynamics of the planet as little as we can. We should care about biological diversity and stability, we should care about the long-term effects of our activities. This seems the moral, responsible thing to do.

And so there is a movement to shirk off that responsibility. They call themselves sceptics, in much the same way that people who want to promote religion over science use the disingenuous label “intelligent design”. More normally, sceptics are people who point out how widely-held personal beliefs are not compatible with scientific knowledge. These people point out how widely-held scientific knowledge is not compatible with their personal beliefs.

The belief in this case seems to be a sort of libertarianism. To these people, climate change is a hoax perpetrated against them by lefty government, an attempt to force a collectivized tyranny onto freedom-loving individuals. The freedom they seem to particularly love is the one to use up oil like nobody’s business.

Last night the UK’s Horizon did an interesting documentary on the fact that professional science is losing the battle against amateur bollocks. The programme had its faults – it kinda forgot to mention that there might be rational grounds to reject GM crops, for one – but it made the point well that we now live in a world full of people who, when faced with the conclusions reached by thousands of dedicated professionals doing decades of gruelling, intricate research, will say “Yes but here’s what I think”.

So here’s what I think: I won’t disagree that there can be a certain irritating piety to “environmental awareness”. I won’t say that political solutions to these problems are never wrong. But the science on the issue is overwhelming. There is little debate about this in the relevant fields today because that debate has been had already. It was pretty much settled more than twenty years ago. The evidence points to human-driven climate change.

If there is any weak link in the argument, it’s where we extend it into the future and predict disaster. There are a lot of unknowns in the future. However, disaster still seems more likely than not.

So: Most people with actual expertise on the subject think it likely that if we keep behaving as we do it will profoundly change our climate, probably making it far less hospitable to humans, to other animals, and to food production.

We should do something about this perhaps.

It’s not comfortable knowledge. We could rest a lot easier if we were ignorant of the idea that the things we do on an everyday basis could be slowly but inexorably leading to extinctions and floods. Nobody wants that. I understand why some are driven to rebel, to deny that this could be true, even invent great conspiracies of people who have an interest in it being true.

But who has such an interest? If there really is such a thing as a “climate change industry”, it is microscopic when placed next to the other one – industry industry. Faking climate change would be in the interest of a few. Pretending climate change isn’t happening, that would be in the interests of a huge number of people – of very wealthy people.

I know which way I’m betting.

Too Cynical Even for Fianna Fáil?

So why the hell don’t the opposition just get this horrorshow government over with? Why are they dancing around trying to get the Finance Bill passed before the election?

Well it’s not to please the EU, even if they all say it is. It’s not even to calm the markets, entirely. It’s mainly so that the election doesn’t turn into the most vicious, unpredictable free-for-all in the history of the State.

It’s a fantastic political situation. The thing is, everybody hates the Finance Bill. Even the government (if one can still call it that) who wrote it hate the Finance Bill. Certainly the people are going to hate it. It isn’t the sum total of the EU/IMF bailout cuts of course, but it’s enough a part of it to stand for the whole. It will be hugely unpopular politically. So why don’t Labour and Fine Gael kill it dead by bringing down the Taoiseach?

Because of this: If the election is not fought after the Finance Bill, then it will be fought over the Finance Bill. And that will be a gift beyond price to the parties who are willing to campaign on getting the EU/IMF agreement torn up: Sinn Féin, the United Left Alliance, the almost uncountable array of non-party protest candidates that will spring up. If enough of the vote goes to them there will be no possibility of Labour and Fine Gael forming an administration – not at least without some very unwanted help.

So watch, as in the next few days and weeks all the major parties go to enormous lengths to express how much they abhor the bill, while at the same time trying desperately to get it passed. Labour and Fine Gael will want to add softening, voter-friendly amendments. This too will be fun, because they will on the one hand be trying to show they can cooperate (to undermine the desperate FF refrain that they won’t be able to govern together), on the other desperately competing to be the party that hates the bailout most. They will attempt to do this without looking foolish, and they will fail. It’s going to be hilarious.

And to make it worse, if they succeed in reaching a compromise this may present Fianna Fáil with a last minute opportunity to reverse their fortunes. It’s conceivable that a version of the bill could be passed without FF votes – enabling them to present themselves to the electorate as the one party who were against it!

Too cynical, even for Fianna Fáil?

Ha.

~ ~ ~ EDIT ~ ~ ~

Microcos Plebiscite CartoonSo I was wrong? Not at all. You see, the main political parties read this column and – forewarned of the dire alternative – got their shit together.

It’s a perfectly valid theory.

So Fine Gael and Labour presented Fianna Fáil with an ultimatum. Where they really ready to go to the country without the Finance Bill being safely finished? Well, they were ready to act like they were.

And I’m sad really. Because if we had the election first then it would effectively be a plebiscite on the Finance Bill, and thus the EU/IMF bailout deal. You may fairly say that is not what an election is for, but when all the major parties favour one course of action and want to present us with a fait accompli, then I feel rebellion coming on. Politicians should not be ganging up against the public.

But not to despair. There’s still plenty time for operation Stuff The Finance Bill Down The Nation’s Neck to go horribly, hilariously wrong.

Sex With Satan

Well that was the Green Party. I wonder what they’ll do, now that politics is over.

I want to give them credit for bringing this government down. That can go in the ledger opposite keeping them in power for years, even when they were clearly being the worst administration we have ever known. And of course, going into government with them in the first place, when bells were clanging and red lights flashing all around Bertie Ahern.

You could have pulled the plug at any time, but you had to wait until they bankrupted the country first. All in the fond hope that Fianna Fáil were going to let you pass a package of measures that were against corporate interests. And against corporate donations. To Fianna Fáil. Really, Greens?

That can only be called culpable naïvety.

You were the party elected by the young idealistic voter. You forced them to watch while you made love to Satan. Not only have you played a supporting role in the ransacking of the public funds, you have destroyed environmentalism as a cause. In fact I feel like taking a piss in a river right now, to celebrate your demise.

Good riddance.