Let’s be Frankenstein about the economy

Partially recovered original transcription by M. Shelley, ethics board stenographer.

Proceedings of medical board of inquiry, October 1818

Panellist 1: Thank you for giving up your time to come here today, Dr… ‘Fronk-en-steen..?’

Frankenstein: It’s Frankenstein, we’re not doing a Mel Brooks spoof here… [whispering from lawyer]… er whatever that might be. [To lawyer: ‘Really? 156 years?]

Panellist 2: Yes… moving on. Can you please describe the nature of your work?

F: I was employed by the Monsanto corporation…[whispering from lawyer]

P2: Strike that comment from the record please, Miss Shelley.

F:…er… by an anonymous benefactor, I mean, to investigate the reanimation of dead tissue. Strictly for medical purposes.

P1: And can you describe the results of your experiments?

F: They were all published on my blog

P2: Come on Doctor, no one actually reads anyone’s blog. [Panellists, Frankenstein and lawyer all look to one side of room whilst raising eyebrows or performing other comic mug, for some reason]

P1: For the sake of proceedings, Doctor, can you perhaps briefly summarise?

F: My experiments were going extremely well, all of the body parts were working well together and my creation was growing stronger by the day. It was… superhuman.

P2: And then what happened?

F: The creature became destructive, a danger to all around it. It was only a matter of time before it caused some sort of catastrophe.

P1: There are reports that you may have inadvertently transplanted the brain of a psychopath into the creature, Doctor?

F: Well, where some see a psychopath, others might see a strong leader… it’s true, the brain was taken from a place with a track record for psychopathic behaviour.

P2: And what measures were taken to put things right?

F: Well of course, we tried the obvious things, reason, begging, cajoling… but the creature ignored us, it was… drunk on its own power, becoming ever more callous and destructive.

P2: And this is what led to the fire?

F: It had to be destroyed, you see. Utterly destroyed.

P1: This is our concern, you see, Doctor. This seems extreme. Expensive. That’s why we put out the fire, at great expense, I might add, and saved your work.

P2: Very expensive. Could you not simply replace the brain? Make some modifications?

F: No, no… the paradigm is wrong… corruption is inevitable, a limitation of nature. You can’t concentrate that much power in one place, you see.

P1: After so much time and investment, surely this can be made to work? We cannot allow so much effort to be wasted.

F: No, not wasted. We have learned so much. We must heed the lessons, find different solutions to the problems that we were addressing, working with nature, not seeking to control it.

Panellist 3: [Clearing throat] Excuse me, gentlemen, but it seems to me that we’re straying from the issue somewhat. This is in danger of becoming a convoluted metaphor.

F: Yes of course! The world economy! That’s what we’re really talking about! Grown too powerful, too prone to corruption and misuse by unprincipled men… to make way for a more benevolent system we must…

P1: That’s quite enough of that, thank you Doctor.

P3: It seems clear to me that stricter control needs to be exercised. The Doctor’s creation will need to be carefully monitored if its great strength is to be of benefit to all.

F: You’re mad! Mad I tell you! It will destroy you all! [Dragged from room by burly guards]

P1: A regulatory body.

P2: And the press?

P1: We need a positive spin. The creation needs to be seen as essential, so that however monstrous it might appear, we cannot do without it.

P2: Will the public believe that?

P3: As long as we make the whole thing seem sufficiently complex. Smoke and mirrors, gentlemen. Fooling most of the people, most of the time is enough.

P2: And you’re sure that we can’t be found out?

P3: As long as we exercise a little caution. And I’m sure that Miss Shelley’s discretion may be relied upon…

…Fragment ends.

Ebola – your questions answered.

In response to the entirely imaginary deluge of questions from concerned and almost equally fictional readers, I’m pleased to hand over the reins of today’s canter into the wandering paths of Ramblingshire to Dr Augustus Felch MD, PhD; head of Unexplained Gunshot Injuries, No Questions Asked at Abdul’s 24-hour Veterinary Surgery and All-Nite Takeaway, Wolverhampton. Dr Felch has been an expert on tropical diseases since last month’s ‘House, M.D’ boxset marathon and, in the light of an unexplained delay to this month’s ketamine delivery, is willing to answer your more frequently asked questions.

Q: Where did Ebola come from?

A: Way down deep in the middle of the Congo, a hippo took an apricot… no, wait, that’s Um Bongo.

The virus is named after the Ebola river, in what is now the DRC, near where the first outbreak was recorded, much in the way that Hepatitis is named after the Hepatitis Sea where you shouldn’t swim with an open wound. Evidence suggests that bats are the reservoir hosts, leading to widespread accusations against Batman and Dracula, one of whom already has a bad name, as the bridging agents to humans. It is more likely that the consumption of fruit bat, considered a delicacy in parts of Western Africa and a valuable source of supplementary protein by many of the private contractors providing school meals in the UK  (fortunately, the word ‘fruit’ is enough to put off most schoolkids) is to blame for transmission to humans. So far Kentucky Fried Chicken have yet to categorically deny using fruit bat in their restaurants.

Q: How is Ebola caught?

A: Ebola is transmitted through the body fluids of infected sufferers, particularly blood, faeces and vomit. Kentucky Fried Chicken have yet to categorically deny that these are three of their eleven secret herbs and spices.

Q: How likely am I to catch Ebola?

A: It depends how well you’ve cooked that fruit bat you’re eating.

Q: Can I get Ebola on the NHS?

A: Not at present. Ask your private healthcare provider. They’ll do pretty much anything for profit.

Q: I read in the Daily Mail that ISIS might use Ebola as a biological weapon. Should I start avoiding dark-skinned people on principle?

A: As a Daily Mail reader, you probably already are.

Q: Are the governments of the Western World prepared for an outbreak of Ebola?

A: You’d think so, given what they paid me to… what? Oh, yes, good point.  According to the Guardian:” Four major NHS hospitals are on standby to deal with a possible Ebola outbreak. …London’s Royal Free hospital …has the most sophisticated specialist high-level isolation unit in the UK, with two containment beds. Under NHS plans, further specialist equipment would be transferred from the Royal Free to units in Sheffield, Newcastle and Liverpool in the event of a larger outbreak”* so we’re prepared for up to two people to get it, after which precautions extend to spreading it to further hospitals across the country. Nothing to worry about there, then.

Q: I’m the CEO of a large, unethical pharmaceutical company, might I make a few quid out of this?

A: Almost certainly. If you’ve no objection to funding from the military or tobacco industry, crack on. Ignore the conspiracy theorists. They’ll always make trouble whatever you do. After all, it’s not like anyone suggested that drug companies were profiteering during the swine flu scare, or anything.

Q: Should I be worried? Is the world going to come to an end?

A: Yes and almost certainly yes. But probably not from Ebola, or not from Ebola alone. There are more infectious diseases and faster mutating ones – simple influenza is a far bigger killer than ebola. Ebola isn’t going to wipe us all out. Probably.

There are plenty of sources of existential risk and if you look at the biggest, the thing they have in common is us. It’s our greed, cupidity and stupidity that will end us.

Q: I’m terrified now, what can I do?

A: There are several easy steps to minimise the risk to your family. You can strive towards a more equal, enlightened society. Insist on proper education, get your news and opinions from somewhere other than the gutter press, educate yourself properly about healthcare, lobby your elected representatives to spend more on healthcare and less on warfare, lower your ecological footprint to help preserve resources and biodiversity… but that all sound like hard work, doesn’t it. So if you like you can go back to watching reality TV and let the world slide slowly into the hell that you’re contributing to…

Oops! It looks like it’s time for the good doctor’s own medication. So sorry to have to cut that off. In next week’s blog we’ll be asking leading economists of the UK and US why their grandchildren’s trust funds are invested in firms providing services to Morlocks and Eloi. Until then, stay healthy.

*http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/08/ebola-what-is-risk-in-uk

Where’s my flying car?

“Phasers to stun, prepare to beam down.” Gut sucked in, crouched ready for another universe saving bout of unlikely fisticuffs, William Shatner delivers another slice of the future direct to the wazzock lantern.

I loved Star Trek as a kid. Star Wars, too, and Tom Baker’s iconic Dr Who – the idea of climbing aboard a space craft or Tardis and blasting through space and time – fantastic.

The old Star Trek series now is an interesting window on what we thought the future might look like. When I was a kid I thought we’d have a moonbase, floating cities and robots. I thought that the year 2000 would bring technological miracles untold.

Science has let me down. I was promised a flying car, soaring freely above a technological paradise. Damn you, Tomorrow’s World.

Don’t get me wrong – there are ways in which the technology of today has outstripped the prognostications of Harlan Ellison and some of the other incredibly talented writers who penned Star Trek episodes. But if you’d asked me as a kid, which of the marvels available to Captain Kirk I thought would be best to have in the future… the transporter, the phaser… the last thing I’d have picked would have been the communicator. It was a flip phone. It didn’t even have Internet.

OK, wait, we’d not thought of the Internet (well, we had, of course, Ellison for one had cast the joined up machines as tormentor-god in a couple of stories, including the superbly chilling ‘I have no mouth and I must scream’) but even so, the communicator was just a phone with no wire, a walkie-talkie, basically.

I’m grateful for my smartphone, of course. It’s a marvel of the age and has aided me immensely in turning my life into an unmanageable barrage of ceaseless, disparate vocal and textual discourse, an electromagnetic schizophrenia navigated with the semiautonomous twitching of my right thumb.  But I want a transporter –  I’d rather beam into work and avoid the Bristol rush hour every day. Rather shower, change and step out of my home here and meet friends for a beer in California with no more effort than stepping into a public phone box. Brilliant as my Nokia is, getting badgered by charlatans offering PPI advice is a poor substitute for geolocational omnipotence. It’s like asking for a lift to the station and being offered a sandwich instead. Even if it’s a really good sandwich, it’s not getting me to my destination.

The somewhat less fatuous observation here is that the futuristic, online world of wonders that I inhabit is just as much a special effect as the Enterprise’s photon torpedoes or William Shatner’s toupee. The dark, satanic mills that blighted our green and pleasant land were supposed to have been done away with by gleaming, white, robot-buttling, matter reconfiguring technology. But my shoes are still made on the same crappy machines in the same filthy factories, it’s just that the consumptive urchins coughing up the fumes are in the Phillipines, making more room on the Dickensian streets of England for drug addicts and the people that our politicians make homeless. My clean nuclear fusion is too much of a financial risk compared to sponsoring a war to suck up a little tried-and-tested oil.

So it turns out that if I wanted a glimpse of my future choices, I should have been reading Orwell and Huxley, as if I’d eschewed Shatner’s flashy gadgets and pined for Newspeak, Soma, unending consumption and manufactured wars I’d have been tickled pink by now.

Soon, of course, Google will be driving my car instead of me. I expect every journey will be punctuated by regular thirty second stops alongside billboards for Google’s sponsors. So even if I do get my flying car, I doubt I’ll ever be free.

Letters from Lithuania

Wow. When I look back on the last travel-oriented blog that I wrote it strikes me that I need to get out more. Especially when I write this on a work trip. Ho hum…

But not humdrum. Welcome to Vilnius – capital of Lithuania.

In all honesty, so far I’ve seen precious little of it bar a couple of conference venues where I’ve been talking to groups of educators about technology in UK schools. It’s an odd gig; I’ve been simultaneously translated which means that I have to try to stick reasonably closely to a script, talk slowly and avoid jokes, colloquialisms and digression. I know what you’re thinking. I did my best, OK?

I arrived in Vilnius to an overcast evening that was way warmer than the fur-hatted Eastern-bloc freezer I was expecting. I seem to have brought winter with me, though, as I was checking into my hotel the mercury started to sink and I strolled out on Thursday evening into what seemed to be a commendably enthusiastic attempt to start winter in earnest.

I’m staying in the Old Town section of Vilnius which has its share of handsome buildings and boulevards. There are upmarket shops and restaurants and you could be in any small European city: square cobbles, understated shop signs and incomprehensible traffic signs. Further out and there’s a little more evidence of how things used to be: older buildings showing signs of disrepair, parts of Lithuania remind me of Half Life 2. I’m hoping that the Combine don’t arrive before my flight tomorrow.

I’ve been well looked after so far by the British Council. A friendly but, I think, slightly overworked lady named Dangoule has seen me from venue to venue at a frantic pace and translated to IT support, cab drivers, cafe owners and delegates with questions, whilst helping me to learn more about Lithuania. English is spoken by most people here to an extent but any sophisticated ideas that need conveying in limited time are best expressed in Lithuanian. It’s a pleasant sounding language: similar to Polish and Russian but seeming to have a slightly more singsong quality. I’ve learned to say one word, so far, a thank you that sounds like ‘achoo’. I either appear very polite or allergy-stricken…

My guide told me that the language is very direct and that this can make the people sound impolite. When my cab driver said “Get in the car,” in his Russian-gangster accent I can see how it would sound a little… over assertive? Apparently, though, that’s just the way of the language. I wonder if our slightly more circuitous ways of asking sound absurdly pretentious to Lithuanians? Do we sound like characters from a Bronte pastiche: “I wonder, sir, if it might please you to consider making my day all the finer by accepting my humble invitation to consider stepping into my automotive device?”

Plain speaking aside, it seems a friendly city. Strangers have smiled at me in the street and everywhere I’ve been the staff have been cheerful and helpful, if, it has to be said, not exactly chatty. Socially though, it seems different. In a tapas bar down the road from my hotel, the room was awash with animated conversation and laughter and, I was pleased to note, almost devoid of people staring at phones and tablets and taking selfies. I was also pleased to discover some rather splendid dark beer.

So, tomorrow I get to be a tourist, to walk the streets of Vilnius and try to find its psychogeography. Hopefully, the city will remain as friendly as it has seemed so far.

Lithuania is on the move, I’m told by my hosts. Keen to be seen as a big player on the international scene, to bring in investment.

I hope that, in moving with the pace of the rest of the world, it doesn’t lose too much of its own identity. This is a small city, as a capital, only around half a million people. That’s not much bigger than Swindon. If I’m to wander out on a cold evening in the Old Town district in search of food and friendly strangers, I know where I would rather be.

Neil out.

An open letter to the people who keep posting open letters to Sinéad O’Connor, Miley Cyrus and their ilk*.

Dear fans of Miley, Sinéad and other oft-telephotoed purveyors of fleeting distraction: I’m sure that the ladies in question appreciate your concern and support for their respective plights.

Far be it from me to detract from the global significance of a young woman in the music business doing something mildly provocative and another, slightly older and less famous woman publicly offering an opinion. It’s not as if anything more important has been happening. I mean, there’s war and poverty and injustice and the like but they’re so boooring… but there’s not been anything more noteworthy happening in the knockabout, laugh a minute world of celebrity. Unless you’re in North Korea, of course, where pop sensation Hyon Song-wol has been executed by firing squad. Oh, and she’s the ex-girlfriend of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un. But, you know, keep watching a video of a naked former child star on a demolition ball.

Edward Murrow misquoted Marx in describing television as “the opiate of the masses”. He’s be hard to come up with a metaphor for popular culture tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow –  “It is the chloroform soaked rag, smart blow to the back of the head, three years of brainwashing and overdose of Ketamine of the masses.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that a cabal of evil, middle-aged white guys are secretly conspiring against you to hide the truth of the world while they rob you blind. If only they were – we’d have something to fight against. The truth is infinitely more depressing –  any opportunistic ne’er –do-well with something shiny to wave at you can distract you long enough to steal your wallet, watch and one of your kidneys before you even notice.

Yeah, yeah, it’s another self-important rant about what’s important. Where’s the harm in a little twerking controversy anyway? Well – nowhere. Depending on your precise taste in entertainment it’s either: fine, not sufficiently arousing, an offence against decency or a slightly rebellious young woman celebrating her sexuality. Nothing wrong with any of those and no reason not to devote a few minutes of your day to it.

But is it really more important than the massacre of entertainers in North Korea? More worthy of comment? Couldn’t we try to do just a little to influence our media not to pander to the lowest common denominator? Could we maybe choose to buy one serious newspaper and one less glossy magazine full of half-naked women who’ve been hand-picked, polished and electronically modified to make people feel sufficiently inadequate to buy a mask to hide behind?

There’s a line in the bible when Jesus defends his disciples for eating with dirty hands and says that “it’s not what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles him, it’s what comes out of it.” (I’ve gone a bit thought for the day here…) Not without relevance here. There’s nothing wrong with having a look, a laugh or a gasp at anything going on in the world. What you choose to focus on as your topic for discussion and what you choose to ignore – those are the things that point to what’s in your heart.

Sinéad, Miley and the rest of you: you have a rare position – public attention is yours and you could make a greater difference to so many people by taking an interest in something other than your own fame and encouraging people to look at a wider world.  Until you do, your cavorting, your spats and your open letters are “a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.”

___

*It’s a little known fact that Miley and Sinéad adopted a baby ilk together before they fell out over twerking. It’s the accent. A similar thing happened to Bono, I hear…

Beating the meat crisis.

New EU classification guidelines for labelling meat.In response to the recent series of what government are now calling ‘faux-pas’ over the content of some food products, the following labelling system will now be adopted for all foods combining meat, meat substitutes or carpet remnants disguised as meat.The new labelling will contain simple codes indicating the meat content of the foodstuff concerned, along with a colour indication of the price bracket that the product fits into:

Green – showing that the meat is considered economically viable for school meals, prison and hospital food, the elderly and the working classes;

Orange – showing that the food is suitable for special occasions, such as your daughter coming first in a show jumping competition (if she doesn’t come first, of course, you should just eat the horse.)

Red – showing that the food is only really affordable by royalty, foreign owners of premiership football clubs and those politicians not eating green category food on grounds of having been recently awarded a custodial sentence.

Meat

*- The animal and the cigarette. You can’t be picky at these prices.

** – Soylent Green is people! Just kidding¥. Even Lidl don’t do that. Yet. Probably.

***- Animals that are classified as four-legged; does not include careless spiders, Siamese-twin pigeons etc.

¥ – Soylent Green never contained people. The word Soylent is a portmanteau of Soy and Lentil. The author of the book was appalled that the film went with cannibalism as a plot device.

The parable of the tightarse and the public health care system.

1. And Jesus spoke unto them saying: “Here, you’ll like this one.” 2. And the disciples gathered and Jesus told them: “There was a wedding in the small town of Theus , for the daughter of an important man. 3 And he had invited both rich and poor, to show that he had the common touch. 4 As the party went on, a very rich merchant was desperate for the khazi and made his way to the stairs. 5. But the stairs were blocked by a poor man who had collapsed and was in need of medical attention. 6. ‘Get out of the way, I’m touching cloth here’ said the merchant, for his need was great. 7. But the poor man could not move and asked the merchant if he would pay a doctor to help him. 8. ‘But why should I pay for your healthcare?’ said the merchant.  9. ‘You and your rich friends, the wealthiest one per cent of the town could put aside enough money to pay for healthcare for everyone who lives here,’ replied the poor man, ‘I mean, just doing the maths on the fly, the net wealth of Theus is estimated at 54 trillion shekels and you’ve got about 40 per cent of it. A good public healthcare scheme has been estimated to cost about 1-2 trillion shekels in real terms over ten years, or maybe 200 billion shekels a year. You could easily set up an investment that would yield that annual sum. Everyone would have healthcare, taxes would go down and you lot would barely feel the loss.’ 10. The merchant was puzzled by this. ‘Yes, but then we’d have less money.’ He said. 11. ‘But you would still be unimaginably wealthy, with more money than you know what to do with and no way to spend it in a lifetime,’ said the poor man. ‘If you claim to love Theus so much, shouldn’t you be willing to do something to make it a better place?’  12. ‘No, sorry, I’m just not getting you,’ said the merchant, climbing over the poor man and continuing on his way. 13. ‘I hope there’s no paper in there!’ cursed the poor man but the merchant did not hear him, such was his hurry.” 14 When Jesus finished the story, the disciples looked a little nonplussed. “But Lord,” they said, after a while, “what is the point of this story? Shouldn’t the rich man have helped the poor man? Or at least suffered some terrible curse?” 15. “This story shows us that the world is an unfair place and that it is difficult for the poor to influence the rich.” Said Jesus. “That’s a valuable lesson.” 16. And the disciples said, “but God will restore justice in the end, though, of course?” 17. “Er, yes… God… right,” said Jesus, somewhat shiftily. 18. And one of the disciples said, “ Hmm… it’s not one of your best parables, is it, Lord? I think we should go with the one about the prodigal son on Sunday.” 19. And Jesus said: “Good point. Now, doesn’t Mrs Lazarus live round here somewhere? I’ve got a brilliant idea for a practical joke.”