Monday 28 January 2008

Probably the most reassuringly expensive beer in the world

You know how it goes. Planning a bit of a big Friday night out, you prudently load your wallet with enough cash to get you through the evening, and a bit extra for the rest of the weekend. Stirring sluggishly on Saturday, you rifle through your pockets to find that some blaggard, as well as using the inside of your skull as a mosh-pit, has only gone and taken every last penny. You couldn't have spent that much, could you? Could you?

You could.

For your delectation, ladies and gentlemen, the world's most expensive beer - c.£200 per bottle. Does it taste that much better (even than ordinary Carlsberg)? No. How could it? The taste isn't the point. The beer isn't the point. The point is that people will see you buying it. They will see you walk into that bar and spend £200 on something that, let's face it, isn't what you'd call a long-term investment, and they'll think, "Gosh, isn't that cool? Isn't he cool? What a neat guy." That, at least is the theory:

The quasi-peaceable gentleman of leisure, then, not only consumes of the staff of life beyond the minimum required for subsistence and physical efficiency, but his consumption also undergoes a specialisation as regards the quality of the goods consumed. He consumes freely and of the best, in food, drink, narcotics, shelter, services, ornaments, apparel, weapons and accoutrements, amusements, amulets, and idols or divinities. In the process of gradual amelioration which takes place in the articles of his consumption, the motive principle and the proximate aim of innovation is no doubt the higher efficiency of the improved and more elaborate products for personal comfort and well-being. But that does not remain the sole purpose of their consumption. The canon of reputability is at hand and seizes upon such innovations as are, according to its standard, fit to survive. Since the consumption of these more excellent goods is an evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific; and conversely, the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit.
But for those you who are finding your native "Eat The Rich!" instincts inflamed by this sybaritic celebration of obscene wealth, let me urge you to counter anger with pity:
This cultivation of the aesthetic faculty requires time and application, and the demands made upon the gentleman in this direction therefore tend to change his life of leisure into a more or less arduous application to the business of learning how to live a life of ostensible leisure in a becoming way.
See, if you're doing it right, pissing money away is hard work.

Wednesday 23 January 2008

It'll never catch on...

Global warming is taken sufficiently seriously now that, in the next few years, mankind's collective response to it will wreak some dramatic changes on our way of life. I thought I was prepared for the collective outpouring of sheer human ingenuity this entailed, but I never expected this. A ship, ladies and gentlemen, powered, if you can strain your credulity to breaking point, by the very wind itself.

I know. Tough to believe. Could it even work? Well doubt no more, my friends, because here is photographic proof:

Wednesday 16 January 2008

It's not the principle...

The downside of the excessive Health and Safety legislation by which we're so regularly assured that this country is plagued is that we're not producing enough organ donors. Rather than banning lifeguards at swimming pools, the government's plan is to move from opt-in to opt-out and presume the consent of deceased.

No-one is arguing that this wouldn't work. Even moving to a "hard" opt-in scheme where next-of-kin couldn't override the donors wishes wouldn't produce the same increase in healthy donors that opt-out will, because people are lazy, procrastinate and don't really believe they could die next week. Like writing your will, or telling your wife that you love her*, filling in the organ donor form is one of those tedious tasks that somehow never quite gets done.

And yet, there is opposition (of course). It's a matter of principle, as Matthew D'Ancona points out:
"At the heart of this debate – understandably emotional on both sides – is a basic point of principle. Does everything, including our bodies, belong to the State unless otherwise indicated?"
Why is the heart of the debate the point of principle, and not the lives at stake? What's so great about following principles?

Now, don't get me wrong. The principle that we should limit State involvement in our lives is generally a good one, and there are lots of nice and juicy examples throughout history to tell us why. But that doesn't mean that we can mindlessly apply it to every situation, and congratulate ourselves on making the right decision. In this particular instance, the dilemma for those who want to apply the principle of minimal State interference is as follows:

Do the wrong thing: save 1,000 lives per year
Do the right thing: permit 1,000 preventable deaths.

So why is it so important to stick with the principle? Remember, we didn't find this principle carved in the living rock - we derived it by looking at what happened in other situations, where we saw that excessive State interference led to bad results. But those were other situations. In this situation, there are clearly good results to be had. What is the downside of laying aside the principle in this case? There seem to be two basic answers:

1) We should stick with the principle because State interference is bad. This is just a circular argument: it's good to follow the principle, because it's bad to not follow it. What, in this instance, is the downside of permitting State interference? Could it be that there isn't one, other than temporarily, and in specific circumstances, not following the principle?

2) If we abandon the principle now, it'll be harder to argue for it when we need it. This is just weak. If you can't make a case for, say, freedom of the press on its own merits, without needing to buttress your argument with reference to completely different issues, you might wonder how worthwhile the principle is. And again, your future ideological impregnability is coming at a price of 1,000 lives per year.

Principles are good and useful - while they lead us to good ends. The point at which they start leading us to bad ends is the point at which we should be asking just how universal they are.

*Note to my wife: this is a joke. Also, I love you.**
** Note to self: if you get run over tomorrow, this could just be unbearably tragic.

Silver lining

From the Saturday Guardian's Guide section:

"BBC4 presents proof that the Mesopotamian misadventure has at least brought out the best in film-makers"

It's early days, of course, but can 2008 produce a smugger, shallower or more solipsistic sentence?

Friday 11 January 2008

Experts 1, Pundits 0

A while back, I had a go at Mr Eugenides for pointing and laughing at "idiotic" experts, who then turned out to be completely right. Well, he's not alone: Jeremy Clarkson has recently come a cropper as well. It seems that, when data protection experts tell us that ill-intentioned people can use our bank details and address to steal our money, it's because ill-intentioned people can use our bank details and address to steal our money. Who would have guessed?

Impressively, Clarkson has admitted his error in this regard. What would be even better would be if he took it a step further and realised that people who know about stuff generally know more about that stuff than you do. Including, to pick an example at random, climate change scientists.

Thursday 10 January 2008

Never mind the facts, what's the story?

I was a little premature in the previous post, when I accused Matthew Parris of prominently displaying signs of madness. In my defence, the reason I thought he'd been repeating the same thing for ten years is that he said he'd been repeating the same thing for ten years and I, to my shame, believed him. As it turns out, he'd been doing no such thing. (Detective work by Tom Freeman, who also has a bone to pick with Parris here.)

It's an interesting time to find a (relatively) small error by a journalist, because we've just seen a massive one:

"Hillary is CERTAIN TO WIN. Obama talks well but lacks experience. There's no way he can compete with the Clinton machine OH MY GOD HE'S WON IOWA! Hillary is OUT. Obama will WALK IT. Clinton CANNOT RECOVER from this MAJOR SETBACK! Now she's CRYING. That's the END OF HER CAREER. Wait, stone me, SHE'S ONLY GONE AND BLOODY WON NEW HAMPSHIRE! Is this the end of Obama?"

And so on and so forth. Martin Kettle has an interesting article, admitting a massive collective error. He suggests that the problem is basically twofold:
  • Journalists get wrapped up in the "story" of the day, and ignore everything that doesn't fit that narrative;
  • The 24-hour news-cycle means that political correspondents are expected to provide analysis, but given no time to actually sit down and think through what's happening.

The "what's the story" approach to journalism seems fairly widespread. I would guess that Parris rewrote his history because (for reasons which escape me) it suits him to present himself as someone who's been using "You're a loony" as a substitute for political debate over a decade (instead of just four years). But I think there a couple of other issues affecting political journalism today:

  • Echo-chamber: how much of journalists' info is gleaned from other journalists? With 24 hours of news to fill, and comparatively few actual events to talk about, it must be all too easy both to speculate, and to repeat someone else's speculation as fact. Suddenly, "everybody knows" that e.g. Hillary Clinton's display of emotion was bad news for her campaign.
  • Two-way street: Voters get their info from journalists, who are telling them what voters are thinking. This can give both positive and negative feedback: for example, announcing that Candidate A has won might make Candidate B's potential voters less likely to go out and vote -what would be the point? On the other hand, it seems that Clinton's victory in New Hampshire was partly due to a backlash against the media's dismissal of her chances - especially notable, apparently, among baby boomer women.

So what can the media do? Step back from making unfounded predictions is the obvious answer, but that leaves a lot of airtime and column inches to fill. So here's an idea: stop reporting on politics like it's a sporting contest, and start reporting on the policies and issues. Then the journalists will have something concrete to say, the politicians will have to explain what they actually stand for, and the voters will have some real information to base a vote on.