Friday, November 27, 2009


In a week that, by common agreement, appears to have been another good one for the banks, I found myself digging out some notes I made of a discussion on the BBC Today program (25 September, 2009) This involved a bunch of bankers, hedge-fund managers and financial journalists discussing what had changed since the 2008 banking crisis.

By common agreement the answer appeared to be 'not very much'.

And when considering whether there is anything that can be done to lessen the chances of future banking catastrophes, there was similar unanimity in agreeing: yes there is - we could return to a system that enforces a separation between high street (commercial) banking and investment (casino) banking. The idea being that, if investment banks were aware of the fact that next time they mess up there isn't going to be anyone riding to the rescue, they might have a healthier attitude to risk.

A system of this sort was originally established in the USA by the second Glass-Steagall Act (1933) in response to the 1933 Wall St banking crisis but was repealed again in 1999 after prolonged lobbying from the banking industry. And the rest (as they say) is history.

So why aren't we putting it right?

The answer, it seems, is that the banks don't want to do that; they think it's best to leave things as they are. We doesn't come into it.

Reader: That's all perfectly clear but what's worrying me is this business of taking notes of the Today program. Isn't that just a little bit unusual ?

"For goodness sake darling - please try to be a bit more careful; you've got marmalade all over my notes again!"

Omnivorist: Hahaha. Don't worry I don't make a habit of it. It's just that on that particular morning I remember feeling deeply shocked by the realisation that nowadays we are ruled by the banks. Up till then I'd believed I was living in a democracy.

Reader: Bless

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On not seeing the Anish Kapoor exhibition

I went to London last week to stay with friends and to visit some galleries and museums.

At the Royal Academy I bought a ticket for the Wild Thing exhibition (Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Eric Gill) but stumbled accidentally into the first room of the Anish Kapoor show - which I didn't realise was on.

I found myself in the room containing the piece called Shooting into the Corner but which might equally appropriately be titled: Meat Gun. My initial reaction was something like my mother's response on seeing Antony Gormley's sculpture of a lone, abandoned foetus in an empty room, namely: 'Oh dear'.

But I didn't have a ticket and was politely directed to the Wild Thing exhibition which was good but - on reflection - pretty tame.

And then last night I watched a TV program about Anish Kapoor's Royal Academy show (Imagine, Winter 2009: The Year of Anish Kapoor, BBC1 Tuesday, 17 November) and - it's clear - I'm going to have to go back to London again and see it for real.

But I'm not beating myself up about it. After all, a lot of Modern Art is pretty hard to take seriously - and especially so when endlessly talked about, analysed etc. It was pretty much the same last night as I watched Alan Yentob appreciating some of Anish Kapoor's earlier sculptures from the comfort of my sofa. "It's quite disorienting in a rather interesting way", said Alan and I thought 'Here we go again - another disorientation opportunity. I just can't get enough of them.'

But then, about halfway through the program I did start to get interested and to recognise something of substance, something capable of stirring up the sediment and bringing the machinery back to life. And this is what I thought and what I now want to go and check out on the spot.

I found myself intrigued by all of Anish Kapoor's work (as experienced on the TV screen) but some of them, like the huge concrete wormcasts set on wooden pallets, invoked strong, somewhat disturbing feelings but no words.

The pieces that led me to a sense of discovery were the highly-finished ones - smooth, curved objects, either mirrored or painted in high-gloss. Like all sculptures they are physical objects but I sensed that they are intended to be perfect - or as close to perfection as a real physical object can be. And the point of this perfection is to enable us to see, not the sculpture itself, but something else - either the world reflected (in the case of the mirrored objects) or an abstraction - a void, hole or tunnel, an idea.

Anish Kapoor made a huge mirrored sculpture in Chicago called Cloud Gate (popularly known as the Bean). People love to touch it and are encouraged to. It is polished afresh every day.

It's good to be surprised.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


(Reproduced, with minor modifications, from the April 2007 edition of Horsley's Over the Wall magazine)

I’ve been reading in the papers about this carbon offsetting business.

It works like this. Say you want to fly to New Zealand for your summer holiday, then on top of your air fare, you pay someone to plant about 15,000 trees. Over the next 50 years the trees will patiently soak up the carbon dioxide you are about to squander on your antipodean adventure, with the result that you can enjoy your holiday in the reassuring knowledge that you are ‘on the side of the planet’.

Apparently this is big business all of a sudden.

So not to be left behind when it comes to cutting-edge ideas, we at the Omnivorist Institute have been giving the matter serious thought and, after a number of tough meetings with business types, venture capitalists and the like, we are proud to announce: the Omnivorist Carbon Offsetting Scheme.

And the good news is this: there is no need to change your lifestyle; no need to put on the hairshirt of environmental contrition, nor the heavy woollen stockings of ecological correctness.

No. Leave it to us; we at OCOS are experts at this sort of thing.

For a small fee, we will compensate for the wasteful and embarrassing excesses of your own lifestyle with carefully matched periods of indolence or discomfort undertaken by our team of professional associates.

By way of example: a cheap return flight to Lanzarote is offset, at our end, by 4 hours dozing in a hammock; for which the fee will be £50 – enabling you to come home, not just stress-free and with an impressive tan, but confident in the assurance that you are ‘carbon neutral’.

That summer evening barbecue, which might otherwise have been marred by torments of guilt, can be enjoyed with a completely clear conscience, safe in the knowledge that, for a modest outlay of £15, we have people willing to spend an uncomfortable night in the open, in a state bordering on hibernation.

So go ahead, turn up that patio heater – we have it covered.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Science and religion

The recent case of the man who successfully argued at an employment tribunal that his commitment to green issues has the status of a philosophical belief as opposed to being based on mere scientific fact, prompted this wonderful piece of wit from David Mitchell (The News Quiz: Radio 4 06/11/09).

"I like the idea that his sincerely held beliefs in the environment are accorded some respect. What's annoying is that the way something gets more respect is to make it more like a religion; that people's essentially delusional beliefs in omnipotent beings is something you've really got to respect and not sack them for, but that an opinion based on science you can ignore. That seems to be the wrong way round."

Friday, November 06, 2009

Carbon Trading

It seems carbon trading is in the news again; it's a rum business to be sure.

For starters there's the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). It provides a way for rich countries to fund projects in poor countries in exchange for carbon credits, provided that the projects wouldn't have happened anyway.

This last bit is known as the additionality criterion and it's fraught with opportunities for abuse.

In China for example it appears that companies producing refrigerant gases can earn more money from selling the carbon credits associated with cleaning up their own pollution than they can from selling their main product - leading to a perverse incentive to build extra refrigerant plants whose sole purpose is the creation of a valuable cleanup opportunity.

If we're going to have additionality, it seems only reasonable to include the complementary principle - what one might term abstentionality. This would be a way of earning carbon credits by agreeing to stop doing something really bad that otherwise you might carry on with.

Since the way these mechanisms work is by first establishing a baseline defining normal behaviour, perhaps we should all go mad buying massive, inefficient cars and de-insulating our homes on the grounds that the more outrageous our behaviour now, the better the deal we will be able to reach later for agreeing to improve it.

Anyway, if this is the way things are headed, I want in. After all, I'm capable of emitting a bit of carbon dioxide and I think it's only fair that I should be allowed to choose what I do with it.

It's given me an idea. Watch this space.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Spooky digital clocks

These days it seems that every time I look at a digital clock it's either 4:44, 22:22 or some other time where the digits are all identical.

I don't mean every single time of course - that would be seriously creepy. No, I mean like once a day. Certainly more often than you'd expect.

Let's do the sums:

In the case of a 12-hour clock the number of distinct time displays is 12 times 60 - or 720. Of these, the ones with identical digits are 1:11, 2:22, 3:33, 4:44, 5:55 and 11:11. So in a 12 hour period you expect to see one of these 6 single-digit patterns 6 times for every 720 looks at the clock (or 1 in 120). For a 24-hour clock, we can add 0:00 and 22:22 but the other numbers only come up once, so we have 8 cases out of 1440 (or 1 in 180).

In either case it means that to see one or more of these patterns every day suggests that I look at the clock more than 120 times in a 24 hour period. Not counting the time I am asleep that works out about once every 8 minutes.

Surely I can't be doing that!

Perhaps you'll understand now why I find it all a bit spooky.

In fact it has given me a really good idea for a low-budget horror movie:

Scene 1: Man rolls over in bed. Sleepily notes the time (2:22) on bedside clock.
Scene 2: Alarm clock rings (5:55) on the display. Daylight filters through the curtains. Radio announces tragic motorway accident.
Scene 3: Man driving through city, stuck in slow-moving traffic. Clock on car radio shows 3:33. Suddenly a panic-stricken man claws frantically at the car door - face pressed to the glass etc.
Scene 4: Man driving along motorway, lost in thought. Clock says 4:44. He doesn't seem to notice.
Scene 5: Motorway. Man peers through windscreen. Strange lights ahead. Clock says 6:66 !!! Cue Psycho music. Man's mouth formed into silent scream. Screeching of car brakes, rending of tortured metal.

Cut to credits against background of flashing blue lights etc etc.

If you've read this far, it's probably too late; you're going to start waking up and noticing it's 4:44. Aaagghhh !