The List

Commercial CartoonIf you want to loudly use the word Fact! in your advert, you can’t also say that your product kills 99.x% of “all known bacteria including the flu virus”. Bullshit like that brings you awfully close to… The List.

The list? My unshopping list. Like a shopping list, except of the things I don’t want to buy. The saying is that one half of all money spent on advertising is wasted – only nobody knows which half it is. Well, I intend to show them. The wasted half, is the half that annoys me.

Advertisers you see know that if you remember the product, you are more likely to buy the product. It’s true. All other things being equal, we’ll prefer the brand we’ve actually heard of before. Why wouldn’t we?

Advertisers also know that if an advert annoys you, you’ll remember the product. And that is true too, obviously.

So some of them come to the conclusion that if an advert annoys you, you will remember the product, and so be more likely to buy the product. It’s just logical, no?

No. Because what they forget is, I will also remember that it annoyed me.

I reason that the purchase price of the product pays the advertising agency. If I bought it therefore I would actually be paying a team of professionals to irritate me – indeed, to keep coming up with inventive new ways to irritate me, actually do research into finding what really gets right up my nose. What rational person wants to pay for that? Hence the list.

It’s not a real list of course, I don’t write them down. I don’t have to because – hey – I remember them.

And I will boycott products that I actually like. You’ve got to be firm here. They stay on the list not merely until they stop broadcasting the offending commercial, but for as long as I feel they deserve. There’s a brand of low-fat spread I didn’t purchase for ten years because in 1988 they promoted it with a white man rapping badly. Really, that’s at least a decade’s worth. Some – a certain Australian retail shouting chain for example, an online operation that is not fussy about what cars it buys – will be on the list until one of us dies.

What products are on your list?

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?

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.

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.

Ireland’s Olympus

Pretty pretty petrol pump

Wow. I’m not sure what kind of weekend you had here, but I don’t know when I’ve been hotter. No actually I do. It was at the Hoover Dam. I’ve just been in the warmest place I’ve ever known, with the sole exception of the Nevada-Arizona border. Seriously, I’ve been to colder parts of Africa.

Yet this was Carlingford, County Louth. I can’t quite explain how but I ended up at a festival of Celtic culture there, helping to keep a three-year-old from wandering about. When you consider that we were watching Highland Games, with such events as hammer throwing, caber tossing and hurling weights backwards over your shoulders, you can appreciate how important it is to keep your three-year-olds from wandering about. The sports might be odd but the athletes were spectacular; some of them were so broad they’d be taller lying on their sides. And of course, all in skirts. Yet it was one of the smaller – I believe his name was Ray O’Dwyer from Tipperary – who threw a hammer one hundred feet that day, a new Irish record. Though when I say smaller, you have to remember that’s relative. He would be about four times the size of me.

Huge dudes in frocks

Apart from the Highland Games there was some Scottish dancing and a local pipe band. If it wasn’t for a bit of Breton dance it would’ve been a Gaels-only affair. Alongside all the culture there were – thank God – some of the usual funfair kid-distractors, including a “Safari Train” decorated with some really quite astonishing caricatures.

Fun for all the family, if your family is racist

When it finally cooled we went to PJ’s, a lovely old pub that has survived being extended without completely losing its character, and applied after-sun cream in lavish quantities. Later we went to a concert of Breton music in a converted church, most of which I spent outside attempting to talk the aforementioned small child out of screaming. So if you were passing through Carlingford and happened to see a man holding a struggling, yelling child in a graveyard, there was no need to be worried. He shut up eventually.

Noon the following day I was sitting out drinking beer, not so much burning in the sun now as catching light, when one of those things happened – I met an old friend I’d lost touch with six or seven years before. We went for dinner to celebrate in Magee’s Bistro, which was really good and not expensive. I had the frogs’ legs because I’d never tried them before, and my love of nature compels me to taste it all. Frogs legs, it turns out, have a flavour just like snake.

Oh all right, between very tender chicken and good squid. Nice, but I don’t think I’ll eat them again. There was something too sad about the way they came in little pairs.

My friend's front wall

Turned out my friend owned a cottage not far from the village, so we stayed the night there. What I didn’t realise until the morning is that it was right on the sea. I mean, like other houses are on the street. When I awoke it was high tide – and the sea was up to her front wall.

Her garden shed

Which was low and white, like a wall in Greece. And the sun was like Greece. And the sea. When my other friends – and the small child – arrived the tide was out again, and we walked across Dundalk bay chasing crabs and picking mussels. I’m cooking those mussels for dinner now. Sometimes the world is perfect.

Project ’06 Revisited

Fish on Parade
Typical Day in Galway's Pretend Fish Market

If you’re like me you probably thought last summer’s Project ’06 was a triumph. The energy and sense of community that the Festival had in its heyday was back in force. This was surely the way forward.

And like me, you would be wrong. Project ’06 was a complete failure.

The point of the Project was not to show that great things can be achieved when people work for free, or even that there is a huge amount of good stuff going on that the Festival doesn’t include. We already knew that. The point was to change the Arts Festival, to make it again the vital force it once was.

What the Festival originally achieved is pretty much taken for granted now, but it changed Galway. Culture really can make a vast difference to a location. You have to remember that in 1978, Galway was on no part of anyone’s cultural map. The John Hinde postcards called us “Gateway to Connemara”, and that faint praise was painfully true. The only reason most visitors even passed through here was because we had the only bridges south of Cong.

That changed, and it was changed by artists. People mostly in third level education, at NUI,G and GMIT (then UCG and the RTC), who decided they could put on the show right here.

Druid pioneered it, proving you could be from Galway and still be famous around the world. But the Arts Festival made Galway famous in itself, changing its image from a dowdy, decaying place forgotten by everyone except Americans searching for the graves of their ancestors into somewhere people wanted to be and to live. Even when conventional industries were folding, Galway had new ideas and opportunities that kept the economy growing.

In recent years though, the Festival’s role has changed fundamentally. It still does an excellent job of bringing global quality performances to Galway, but that was only a part of the original point. It was also expected to help the cultural life of Galway develop. Not only is the more tourism-orientated Festival of today not so good at promoting Galway-based arts, it has reached the point where it’s actually becoming harmful to them. At the one time of year when local performers and artists might be able to make some decent money, venues and equipment are unavailable to them. Of the little money there is available from sponsorship and government funding, a huge wedge goes to international acts that are already better funded in their countries of origin than we dream of.

The main request of Project ’06 was that a small proportion of funding and facilities be ring-fenced for the arts in Galway. The Festival however seems unreceptive to the idea, apparently unwilling to become directly involved. They would prefer if something like Project ’06 continued as a “fringe” festival. But that would do nothing about the current competition for resources, and it ignores the fact that a huge voluntary efforts like ’06 are not possible every year.

Besides, Galway’s artists should not be the fringe event in their own city. That would be to miss the whole point. A Festival that’s all about bringing in great acts to watch is just more television, another thing to be passively consumed. The reason the Arts Festival was once great is that it wasn’t something just happening here. It was something Galway did.

Project ’06 – Galway Rennaissance

Giant Boy
Image by Barnacles Hostels via Flickr

It was a hell of an achievement. I’d been saying for years that the Arts Festival had lost its magic, yet in a trice it was restored. And when I say a trice, I mean a huge amount of work by the volunteers and organisers of Project ’06. In that lay the secret ingredient the official festival had been running out of: Community involvement. I had come to think that Galway had got too big, rich and cynical for that to work anymore, but apparently the goodwill is still there to be found.

So how did the official festival lose it? Not because it was actually bad. On the contrary, it’s admirably professional and quite famous. But I think that as it grew successful it came to more clearly benefit the tourism industry, less clearly the arts themselves. Galway stubbornly remained a place where very few could actually make a living from art. People who had contributed for art’s sake began to feel that their effort had gone to profit someone running a hotel or a bar, who might be quietly laughing.

The Festival grew to have very little to do with the city, to the point of becoming a stop on some international circuit, the kind where the singer has to glance at something taped to the mike stand before saying “Hello Galway”. Less like something we do in other words, more something done to us. And all because the crappy had been forgotten.

Yeah, the crappy. The un-glossy. The not thoroughly polished. The slightly shambolic. I’m not singing in praise of unprofessionalism, but there needs to be a place for people to try, to learn, to take the risks. Only there can the real magic happen. The thing that turns out to be important is almost never the one that comes pre-approved and ready-reviewed. That might be entertainment, but it’s unlikely to be art.

Project ’06 was that sort of place, but it’s a one-off. How can that spirit be kept alive? Paul Fahy suggests that Galway is big enough for a fringe festival now. Paul did his time as a volunteer and he knows what he’s talking about in community arts, but I’m not so sure about this idea; it seems to put the onus on the powerless. There is an enormous gulf between the influence that the Arts Festival has and what grassroots volunteers can muster. The opportunity to bridge it lies almost entirely in the hands of the Festival. And it is what the Festival needs to do if it is to remain a dynamic part of the cultural life of Galway, and not become just some uppity version of Race Week.

The official Festival needs to get back to its roots again, and become… less glossy. More about encouraging and facilitating local potential. And if that means spending less on international greats and more on stuff that’s not quite ready for primetime, then so be it. An atmosphere of goodwill and fun on the streets is worth any number of globally famous acts.

No Alternative to the Arts Festival

This is a Galway Hooker
This is a Galway Hooker. Get over it.

Back in March I told you about a competition to name a new Galway-brewed beer. I didn’t enter myself, there seemed no point. I predicted on the spot that no name except “Galway Hooker” could possibly win.¹

You can now get Galway Hooker beer in a few pubs around town. It’s good. As an ale, it’s a (very distant) relative of Smithwicks. There are some key differences however, chiefly the same as those between a chemical factory and an actual brewery. Hooker has a smoky, hoppy flavour that balances the bitter and the sweet. My Japanese friend Kiyoko thinks it has a slight bouquet of berries, but she’s a girl. I think it makes you drunk. Having tested it extensively though, both by itself and in combination with other drinks, I can attest that it is easy on the head the next morning. Both Neachtain’s and Roisin’s got though their supplies ahead of schedule, so it seems to be going down okay.

Any problems? Well, that name guys… Gag names compel people to make the obvious jokes, and that gets tedious fast. I just hope that doesn’t put too many people off.

Speaking of homebrewed solutions, Project 06 is looking good. We are carefully assured that this is not an alternative, rival, or fringe to the Arts Festival. Nobody wants to tread on toes. But it needs to be said – Project 06 is what the Arts Festival was meant to be.

The official Festival is spectacular and highly professional, but at some point it got out of scale. Once, most of the emphasis was on bringing locally created art to the people of Galway. Now it seems to be more about attracting people from overseas to come and see art that is also from overseas… Part of the tourism industry, in other words. Once too it acted as a bridge between Galway and the world stage, telling people “Yes, we can do it here, you can aim that high”. Now you need to be pretty famous already just to step onto that bridge. Arguably it actually competes with local arts.

Project 06 goes back to the original idea, attempts to create a festival with a more local, community feeling. To this end they have found an amazing number of small but useful venues all over town, in places you’d never expect art to occur. A huge amount of effort and material has been volunteered. Yeah, like the old days. I think this speaks volumes about the level of respect and admiration Galway has for people like Ollie Jennings and Padraic Breathnach.² It may all be a bit dreamy and idealistic, sure. But it was dreamy and idealistic the first time.

  1. It’s the name of a traditional Galway boat design. (See pic.)
  2. Founders, respectively, of the Galway Arts Festival and Macnas street theatre company.

This Is Your Brain On Screen

IBM has a really interesting – and just slightly scary – plan. In cooperation with Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, they want to simulate the human brain.

They’re building a computer model. This is not the same thing as Artificial Intelligence (AI), programming a machine to act human. That would be a ‘top down’ approach; trying to understand how the mind works by looking at what it does. Instead this is ‘bottom up’, simulating the nuts and bolts of the brain, its biological wiring, its cells, even its molecules.

Which is quite an undertaking – in fact it is hard to exaggerate how big the task is. The brain is often described as the most complex thing in the known universe. Complexity is a thing that’s difficult to define but easy to perceive. Looking into the back of a TV, you’re instantly aware that it’s more complex than say a food mixer. Basically it looks more tricky to fix. The parts are small, numerous, and connected together in many different ways. Perhaps that’s the most intiuitive shorthand measure of complexity – the number of different ways that the parts of something interconnect. The human brain has far more connected parts than any other thing known, certainly more than any computer. Even Japan’s Earth Simulator, built to model the climate of the entire planet, is nothing compared to the brain of an average person.

It’s no surprise therefore that they aren’t trying to do the whole thing at once, or anything approaching that. They are starting with the best bit though: the neocortex (also called the cerebrum), the outside layer of the brain that’s most recent in evolutionary terms. It’s not unique to us, but it is far more developed in humans than in any other animal and appears to be responsible for what we experience as thought.

Even alone though, this is still far too complex for current technology to tackle. All they’re hoping to simulate right now is what’s known as a neocortical column. This can be described as a single ‘circuit’ of the brain, one of its processing units. The whole neocortex contains about a million of these. And for the moment at least, they only plan to model it on the level of its cells; to get down to the molecules that make up the cells will take vastly more computational power again. Yet even this is an immensely ambitious target. To model just one circuit of the brain in this (relatively) simple way will require four whole modules of Blue Gene – the technology IBM used to take the title of world’s fastest supercomputer back from the Earth Simulator.

So how far are we then from modelling the whole brain? Well assuming this first stage succeeds – it won’t be easy – all they really need to do is scale it up. Vastly. These four Blue Gene racks would fit in a normal kitchen. Four million? They would take up a golf course, and require the energy of five medium-sized power stations.

When you consider that your actual brain fits inside your head and runs reasonably well on sandwiches and cups of tea, you realise what a gap there is between nature’s technology and our own.

What’s the point then in going to all this trouble when a brain can be made much more cheaply using just two humans? If the object were to create machines that think, this would clearly be a madly inefficient way to go about it. But that’s not the object. The fact is we know amazingly little about how our own brains work. Simulating a part of one, even a solitary neocortical circuit, will teach us so much about what is really going on in there. Modelling allows you to find out why something is the way it is, because it can show you what would happen if it were different. The beneficial applications of that are obvious; as we see how it works, we gain greater insight into why it fails – what causes schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, autism, the things that plague our minds.

But though it’s always good when research has palpable benefits, I think we need no  such excuse when it comes to researching the structure and function of the brain. To know ones own mind – that is surely a philosophical imperative.

(For more fun with human brains, see the comic strip)