The Good Samaritan

I was late. I’d had “one of those days” when nothing seemed to go right and now I was on my way to Abingdon for an important appointment. The fuel guage was hovering on the empty mark. I’d seen it lower, so I decided not to detour to the petrol station for a quick pit stop, I’d press on and make up some time.

Big mistake. No sooner was I heading out of Didcot than an unfamiliar stuttering of the engine told me how terribly wrong I was. I quickly had to find somewhere to stop and turn the car round, and wasted more precious fuel waiting for gaps in the traffic, then got stuck behind some slow-coach doing 25mph in a 30mph zone. It was just the wrong speed, it meant I had to stay in third and rev the engine to keep the fuel flowing – but I was using petrol up too quickly. After several hundred yards the car was kangaroo-ing more violently as the tank drained.

Then I ran out. The Tesco filling station was in sight, but could I push it the rest of the way? Should I walk? Or phone a friend for help? I sat there for a couple of minutes and pondered my options. I tried to restart the engine a few times, maybe just one more dribble of petrol could get me there? Traffic was streaming past but fortunately I wasn’t a serious obstacle. I got out of the car just as someone walked up and asked if I needed any help, I said I was out of petrol. I was wondering to myself if he would be willing to help push the car, I didn’t know how much help some chap who presumably was walking by could be.

“I’m parked up over there,” he said, pointing a little way up the road. He’d been driving past going in the opposite direction, had noticed me stuck by the side of the road, pulled over and walked back. I was impressed. He offered to drive me there to fetch some petrol back. I gratefully accepted the offer.

Then it got worse. On the way I suddenly realised I had no cash or credit cards on me because I’d changed into a suit, leaving them in my other trousers. I told you, it was that kind of day. “Don’t worry, I’ll sub you,” he said cheerfully and without any hesitation. We’d already shaken hands and exchanged first names, but I fished around in my pockets and found a card with my name and address on it. At least he’d be able to contact me and I’d be able to pay him back. “Don’t worry about it,” he said.

We got to Tesco, they had a cheap petrol can, we filled it, he paid, we drove back to my car and filled up. The car started first time and off I went. But I’m grateful to the Good Samaritan. He was driving on the other side of the road from me, in heavy traffic, he’d had the presence of mind to notice a car stopped on the other side with the four-way flashers going, had sufficient consideration to pull over and walk back and offer to help. He drove to the petrol station, wasn’t phased by me not having any means to pay, bought a can and paid for the petrol, took me back and waited to make sure the car did indeed start.

Thank you, Steve.

A New Golden Age Of Technology

It used to be said that one of the “benefits” of war was the great leap forward in technology that accompanied each. So for example, the technology to build long range bombers to carry death and destruction to enemy cities in distant lands was used after the second world war to carry holidaymakers to those same destinations. We can’t imagine a world without mass air transportation now. Similarly, the cold war race fostered America’s defense advance research projects agency out of which emerged the Internet. We can’t imagine a world without that either. Each war throughout history has examples such as these and as periods of development each stands out for furious inventiveness compared with peace time lethargy. It remains to be seen what “benefits” we may derive from technological leaps due to the war on terror, such as drones and the data mining of vast amounts of individual personal communications.

But are we living today in an era of extraordinary technological progress that used to only occur during times of war? Science fiction writer Madsen Pirie thinks we are. If you read his blog here, you will see regular posts highlighting such advances. Today’s is a case in point: “A fusion breakthrough releases more energy than it takes to achieve it.” As he explains and as I certainly remember, nuclear fusion as a source of limitless energy has been promised for decades, with “promise” being the operative. It has seemed at times to be akin to the ancient goal of turning base metal into gold or the pursuit of perpetual motion. But it draws ever closer to realisation. The latest news is that for the first time genuine fusion has been achieved that produces more energy than was used to initiate it. It’s only been achieved on an experimental scale and I can see it would take a decade or more to scale it up to production, but this is a significant step nonetheless.

I think we really are living in a golden age of technology. Medical technology has advanced beyond recognition; people today are living longer with diseases that not long ago would have quickly killed them. Aircraft and road vehicles travel further on less fuel than we could have imagined only a few years ago, and in much greater safety. SatNav has transformed the way we travel too. And when once it took months to have a very basic telephone installed in your home, we now carry around mobile phones that have more power than a desktop computer of just a few years ago, but in addition they are connected to the Internet and they take better photos than a top of the range camera used to do. Even something as mundane as shopping has been transformed with supermarkets that have fresh produce brought from all around the world where you can wander round ‘ringing up’ your own purchases as you go and paying for them at an unmanned till with a piece of plastic or, even, your mobile phone. The greatest advance in technology, however, has to be social. Google, Facebook and Twitter have changed the world. People everywhere can interact as never before, in ways we are still struggling to comprehend and in ways that are literally revolutionary. Twitter in particular has been the precursor or the igniter of popular uprisings that have toppled governments making a texted word more powerful than tear gas or bullets. Now that is technology at its best and it is happening without the impetus of a war.

There are many technology posts on Madsen’s blog that are well worth reading. He is also president of the Adam Smith Institute so a lot of his posts also concern economics and the free market, and you might also enjoy his eclectic range of moral and social topics.

Lincoln: An Oscar contender

Right from the first minutes I was reminded of Richard Attenborough being interviewed about “Ghandi,” a film he’d spent most of his adult life planning to make. He went to India to negotiate filming on location but the authorities seemed more preoccupied with how Ghandi was to be portrayed. Who would play him was a big issue, he was such a revered figure they felt no-one could or should represent him; that to have him ‘played’ by ‘an actor’ was almost an affront to his memory. They suggested he could be represented by a point of light that would move about on screen. Attenborough was scornful, “I hadn’t spent thirty years of my life,” he said, “trying to make a film about bloody Tinkerbell.” And that’s what it felt like I was watching. Lincoln was portrayed with such reverential awe that he might well have been played by a point of shining light.

Fortunately, the film is not a bio-pic telling Lincoln’s story from cradle to grave. It focused specifically on the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment and the few months of manoeuvring and power-politics required to pass it in what turned out to be a nineteenth-century version of The West Wing. Like that landmark TV series, the film was well written, tight and focused, and the masterful acting and high production values saved the day. Daniel Day-Lewis was outstanding as Lincoln, and while I had read some criticism over his high-pitched voice I found he sounded convincing and real. Indeed, the awe and reverence on the faces of the actors around him may simply have been their admiration for his performance.

All-in-all it was a compelling and engrossing film of Oscar-winning standards. Up until the closing scenes, that is, when we see Lincoln lying on his bed surrounded by his closest advisors. Upon being pronounced dead, the scene fades and a burning candle flame fills the screen. Then, through the flame, Lincoln appears and delivers his second Inaugural address. Bloody Tinkerbell after all. Aaron Sorkin would have done a better job.

Shouting “Fire!” in the Middle East

Comedians are often pioneers of bad taste, it’s almost a challenge for them to see how much they can offend. But ask Ricky Gervais how that worked out for him when he ran a couple of jokes recently about “mongs”. And have we ever heard from Michael Richards (famous as Kramer on Seinfeld) since he used the “N” word on stage? Or indeed shock-jock Don Imus who referred to a women’s basketball team as “towel-headed hos”. The list of comedians causing offense is long.

Actually, that last one is the most interesting. Imus was sacked from his job with CBS but when he appeared on Al Sharpton’s radio show to discuss his remarks, he said this:

“Our agenda is to be funny and sometimes we go too far. And this time we went way too far. Here’s what I’ve learned: that you can’t make fun of everybody, because some people don’t deserve it.”

Nicely put.

I don’t believe that freedom of speech is an absolute that must be defended regardless of circumstances. The oft-cited limitation is that nobody has the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre.

So it must also be true that nobody has the right to make gratuitously offensive remarks about the Prophet Mohammed.

“Some people don’t deserve it,” said Imus.

Given the sensitivity of some Moslems and the apparent ease with which they can be sent out onto the streets to riot, that has to be pretty close to shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre. Some of them are volatile people and these are volatile times, you just know what reaction that is going to provoke. You know people will be killed in consequence. But if you believe it is their own stupidity that makes them so sensitive and their own stupidity that drives them onto the streets and their own stupidity to kill people of their own faith in retaliation for someone else making offensive remarks, maybe you also believe it’s okay to make jokes about “mongs”. I can’t agree with you.

I do not believe the motives behind making the “Innocence of Muslims” have anything to do with free speech, and it does not deserve to be defended on those grounds. Frankly, it does not deserve to be defended.

(For the record, it seems the offensive nature of the film is entirely in the post-production sound dubbing which completely changed the nature of the film the cast were led to believe they were appearing in. The producer has to bear full responsibility.)

Carbon Lifeform Offset

In order to counter the effects of politicians on the environment I am proposing that we introduce a “carbon lifeform offset” by creating a market to trade in carbon lifeforms. The more harmful the lifeform the greater the offset to be earned by “trapping” it.

This would be accomplished by building stockades in remote places where the highest-polluting carbon lifeforms could be rounded up and sent. This will neutralise their harmful effects on the world and generate millions of dollars in offset revenue for companies that trap them. A good place to build these stockades would be in the deserts of Arizona, but we could get off to a good start by locking the gates at Westminster Palace and not letting them out. We would have to be vigilant against attempts to tunnel out, but the chances of them getting themselves organised enough to manage that are frankly slim.

However, where there is a market there will be those who seek to exploit it and so we will need to consider measures to prevent the creation of additional unwanted politicians. This might be accomplished by psychometric profiling to look for anyone with a high self-importance factor combined with a low threshold for humiliation, or by organising “sting” elections where those who enter as candidates self-identify themselves as politicians and can safely be trapped and traded.

This would leave the rest of us free to deal with the real problems facing the world.

To read a little about the inanity of carbon trading, please see this article in the New York Times: Profits on Carbon Credit Drive Output of a Harmful Gas

Next proposal: Bankers’ bonuses to be paid with jars of Marmite

Do the Greeks know something about democracy we don’t know?

They gave us democracy, it says so in the history books, but look what we’ve done with it since. We’ve created bloated governments that tax the life out of us, wrap us up in red tape and all too often run rough shod over our civil liberties. Part of the “problem” in Greece is that everyone hates the government; people don’t pay taxes and they ignore pesky laws and regulations when it suits them – which is almost always. That extends to those in government too, it seems.

Maybe they’re reminding us how democracy works?

Maybe if we believe in small government and low taxes we should live the dream too?

Maybe the “problem” is really the “solution”?

However I don’t believe that rioting in the streets is the way to go. It’s self-defeating. You can get yourself beaten over the head with police batons and choke on tear gas ’til the cows come home, but will those who run the EU be in the slightest bit inconvenienced? Not a bit of it. The EU is institutionally immune to criticism. It has a president nobody votes for and a cabinet full of wastrels splashing tax-payers’ money around with abandon. There is no accounting either literally or morally, and certainly not electorally. The EU is a travesty of a democracy and Manuel Barroso has as much democratic legitimacy as Vlad the Impaler.

The reality is, there is no democratic redress available to us.

We are all Greeks in this Tragedy.

At last: something about the Olympics I like

It’s been a bumpy ride for London 2012. The joy of being chosen as host city for the Summer Olympics was utterly erased by al-Qaeda carrying out the London bombings the next day, killing 52 innocent people in a series of suicide bombings on the London transport network. It’s incredible to think that was six years ago. I think it has had a lasting effect on anything to do with the Olympics with little of the original joy remaining. Now it seems, it is a grim exercise in preparing for the games, calmly and efficiently. Which has been done, I have to say. I’m highly impressed with the state of readiness of the stadia and the infrastructure with a year still to go. A far cry from the shambles that marked the Commonwealth Games preparations in Delhi last year.

But everywhere is that ghastly logo. A genital wart, ugly and disfiguring. Then there was the arrival of China’s Olympic torch from Beijing, escorted by a gang of heavy-handed minders causing pandemonium on the streets of London. And more recently, we have the ticketing fiasco. Possibly a million people turned away empty-handed, including the mayor of London and several gold medal winning Olympians. And not just turned away, but kept in the dark. Even the lucky ones who have been allocated tickets have no idea what tickets they have been sold.

And today the design of the Olympic torch that will be carried around Britain and Ireland has been revealed. I think it is stunning, I love it. Finally someone is displaying the creative flair that this country has such a rich heritage in. A pity it has that awful logo on it, but it doesn’t detract one jot from the beauty of the torch, that’s a measure of how perfect it is.

A close-up of the torch in the centre, with full length pictures at left and right

Boycott FIFA’s sponsors and have a fan-led Soccer Spring

It’s hard to see that there is anything positive to be found in the fiasco that is FIFA right now. Only the whistle-blowers who went to Chuck Blazer and showed him the $40,000 in cash that Mohamad bin Hammam tried to bribe them with come out with any credit. Jack Warner, who seemed to be acting as facilitator, and bin Hammam were suspended and then Blazer was in turn sacked and reinstated. Sepp Blatter who has for decades presided over a secretive culture of back-room deals sails serenely on, winning a further term of office as president by default because bin Hammam had withdrawn after the bribery scandal hit the world’s media. Even the English Football Association come away looking clueless and out of their depth because all the other delegates rallied round Blatter. Well, of course they’d rally round him, it’s a magnificent gravy train they’re all on and he’s the train driver.

It’s the way they rally round that’s interesting. In each case during the so-called Arab Spring, the despot has a coterie of loyalists who in many cases are more hardline than the despot himself. At some stage there is a tipping point where members of his inner circle desert him, or gather their courage together and tell him he has to go. That happened in Tunisia and Egypt, but it’s not happening yet in Libya, Syria or Yemen. If we substitute brown envelopes stuffed with cash for tanks and bullets, might we have a parallel between FIFA and certain Arab countries? How can Blatter be deposed? Will his coterie turn against him? Can we look forward to a Soccer Spring?

We can, because there is a further element involved: The sponsors. Adidas, Coca-Cola, Emirates, Hyundai-Kia Motors, Sony, and VISA pump many millions of dollars into FIFA and they do it for one reason only: to win favour with the world’s consumers. Withdraw that favour and their money is wasted. Worse, if association with FIFA is seen in a negative light it could even be damaging. Just look how quickly sponsors withdraw from any event that is suddenly a PR disaster. This FIFA fiasco is a PR disaster of major proportions, we just have to let the sponsors know.