Devil's Kitchen Comment

The less sweary writings of The Devil's Kitchen

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Wither Great Britain?

Over the last year or so that I have been blogging, I have read a vast variety of opinions about the state of Britain and its place in the modern world. I have read the views of economists and politicos from across the spectrum and I would like to distill all of this knowledge into – and I apologise for the term that I am about to use – my vision for the future of Britain.

The current outlook

The people of Britain are a little bit confused. Many commentators remark upon the arrogance of the British people, which they blame on the fact that the people have not realised that Britain is no longer the world-striding colossus that she once was in the days of Empire.

“The thing is, this ‘thirty years of hurt’/cheating-foreigners-robbed-us/we-didn’t-actually-lose psychosis is merely a minor symptom of a deeper malaise: the failure to accept that we, as a country, no longer stride the world stage like the mighty planet-fucking colossus we were in our days of empire.

It’s this insecurity that leads people like Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to use phrases like ‘punch above our weight’ when talking of our role in world affairs.” Justin McKeating, "ChickenYoghurt"1

Our place in the world

Britain is one of the tiniest countries in the world and one of the more isolated, in relative terms; sure, that has been a boon in many ways, both in repelling unwanted invasions and in leading to the necessary construction of what was once the largest and most powerful Navy in the world.

And yet we have one of the largest, most stable and most profitable economies in the world, and we do influence world affairs to a far greater extent than is warranted for a little island at the tip of north west Europe; much of this influence is conferred upon us by virtue of our alliance with the world's only remaining superpower (it certainly isn't because of our role as the EU's whipping-boy) but also because it really wasn't so long ago that we ruled a significant proportion of the globe.

Despite what many commentators will try to tell you, we are not universally hated around the world for it: remember those ecstatic parades, the signs saying "the British are here to save us" in Sierra Leone, when we finally decided that we had a responsibility to help our old protectorate? Remember when 90% of the population of Gibraltar voted to remain British, when the Labour government was negotiating with the Spanish to return the rock? And I remember talking to one of the staff at school who was born on the Falklands: she recounted the euphoria when the Falklanders realised that the British were not, as expected, going to leave them to the tender mercies of the Argentinian junta.

Many foreigners still have a concept of Britain that is very much at odds with what the media would have us believe; for sure, many of them are disappointed with the reality, but they believe that the British stand for honour, fair play, politeness, tea and cricket.

Reasons for the malaise

Part of the problem is that Britain, as a nation, has lost its way. A skewed view of our Imperial past - predicated mainly, but far from exclusively, by those on what might roughly be designated “the Left” - has emphasised the guilt that we should feel about the more unsavoury bits of our occupations has all but eclipsed the pride that we should feel about the benefits that we brought to many of our territories (it is interesting to note that the world's largest commercial or utility employer in the world is the Indian Railway2, which was built by the British).

The emphasis on the guilt for our colonial past has led to an almost irrational desire never to act unilaterally; we seek always to be seen to be supporting the actions of another power, whether that is the United Nations (UN), the United States of America (USA) or the European Union (EU).

In the end, this has been damaging to the British psyche: where once we were the masters of the world, now we are seen merely as servants of the interests of other world powers - interests which are often of no or little benefit to ourselves, e.g. The Iraq War.

Things not to do

Many seemed to be surprised when the lion's share of the Iraq rebuilding contracts went to US companies whereas, in fact, anyone could have seen that it was only natural: the US was acting entirely in its own interests, as one would expect it to do. If we are merely to be the obedient dog of the US, then we should not be surprised that we are only thrown the scraps from the feast-table. So, clearly, although it is advantageous to be generally supportive of the USA, we should not expect materially to benefit from doing so slavishly.

Equally, Britain does not benefit from her membership of the EU, which is a protectionist, isolationist entity: a federation of countries who – to a large extent – have turned their backs on the events of the rest of the world. The complicated system of quotas and tariffs impose severe trade penalties on those outside the federation, and artificially inflate the price of goods to those inside: in this way, the EU impoverishes both its own citizens and those with whom it trades.

An opportunity

Britain's empire and consequent influence was built on trade, for it was the private British East India Company3 that first started to exploit the riches to be found in the Indian subcontinent. Although the company was dissolved, in 1874, and its assets appropriated by the Crown, the company had already enabled Britain to become one of the most important and influencial trading hubs in the world.

I believe that the opportunity to become so is present once more. Whilst the ability to trade all over the world has become far easier than once it was, the various power blocks have become more protectionist, attempting – usually unsuccessfully – to shelter their indigenous industries from what they see as the predations of developing countries. Countries reliant on heavy industry, Germany for instance, have seen their economies stagnate whilst we in Britain have an advantage. For, whatever your personal opinion of her, Margaret Thatcher realised that there was little point in attempting to protect British industry from cheaper worldwide competitors. Painful though it was for those in those industries, and as unpopular as it made her, Thatcher withdrew state support and Britain's heavy industrial companies withered away.

Whilst other countries still cling to their old ways, we in Britain have already gone through the pain of conversion to a services-based industry and are thus ready to engage with the rest of the world on a level that is almost unknown, at least amongst our EU partners.

The next step

The first thing that we must do is to extricate ourselves from the EU. At present, our membership of this organisation costs us a net £6.5 billion (and will shortly cost us even more) and this money could be better used within this country.

So, firstly we should withdraw from the EU and become merely a member of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA)4, such as Iceland, or – better still – withdraw completely and use our market purchasing power to leverage a favourable deal from the EU. This will return total financial and political autonomy to the British government.

We should then open immediate dialogues with the Commonwealth and developing countries, with the aim of negotiating special trade deals, the core of which should be totally free trade. We will not impose penalties on goods entering Britain, whilst we shall be able to access growing markets all around the world. As more and more of our economy becomes based on the exchange of information and technology, so it will become easier to sell those skills into these developing markets.

The economic benefits

With a reliable trading partner and, through us, access to markets over the entire globe, the economies of the developing world should become more stable and, more importantly, sustainable. It is to be hoped – and I would say that it is inevitable – that whilst the economy stabilises then so will the political systems. As I wrote in my comment on the Middle East5, in most cases the development of both tend to go hand-in-hand. In this way, we will be helping to ease the misery of those whose woes we consistently fail to cure merely by the short-term solution of patronising charity.

Thus, our practical attempts to enrich ourselves can also be put into a moral context, and one which may confound those for whom the pursuit of wealth is automatically commensurate with the destructive exploitation of people. By indulging in free trade, we will eventually enrich both ourselves and those unfortunates who are staple items on our news services.

The social benefits

I believe that this great work would allow the people of Britain to regain that sense of purpose which has so deserted these isles over the last century or so. It would, if you like, tap into the “Blitz Spirit” and help to bind our peoples together. Involvement in what I term The Great Project would allow people once again to feel pride, rather than the ersatz, racist jingoism which is all that the resurgent BNP offer, in this country. For economic incentives, whilst undoubtedly effective (especially when present as disincentives), are not the only thing that people need to provide a motive to act: they need – if you like – a spiritual motivation, to feel that they are doing well by doing good, as Tom Lehrer once put it6.

For, as a famous religious figure once said, man cannot live on bread alone.

  1. Justin McKeating, a.k.a. ChickenYonghurt, England vs delusions of grandeur: what’s the beef?,

  2. Wikipedia, The Indian Railways,

  3. Wikipedia, The British East India Company,

  4. Wikipedia, EFTA,

  5. Wanabehuman, The Culture, Star Trek and the Middle East, and also on this blog,

  6. Tom Lehrer, The Old Dope Peddler,

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared, in a more vituperative form, at The Devil's Kitchen.

Special Circumstances In The Middle East

The Middle East is highly technically advanced, but does not seem to have developed the same political and civil freedoms that we in the West tend to take for granted. This situation is something of an anomaly: but why has it happened?

An Outline of The Culture

If you have never read the Culture novels of the science-fiction writer Iain M Banks, can I heartily recommend that you do so? The beauty of these novels is that The Culture themselves are effectively omnipotent and thus, unlike many low-grade sci-fi novels, the technology becomes utterly unimportant in terms of narrative. The stories always come down to the nature of the people involved – and many of those characters who are proactive are not, themselves Culture citizens – and politics.

Most especially, they deal with the Culture organisations known as Contact and Special Circumstances. These organisations might be roughly equated with the Foreign Office and Foreign Intelligence respectively; they are organisations that, logically enough, deal with the "contacting" of civilisations that are usually, but not always, less advanced than The Culture's own.

The Culture and Star Trek's Prime Directive

The Culture's usual principle can be broadly equated with the first part of Star Trek's Prime Directive, which states the following1.

“The Prime Directive dictates that there be no interference with the natural development of any primitive society, chiefly meaning that no primitive culture can be given or exposed to any information regarding advanced technology or alien races.”

Where Contact (C) and Special Circumstances (SC) differ in this philosophy is in the second part of the Directive.

“It also forbids any effort to improve or change in any way the natural course of such a society, even if that change is well-intentioned and kept totally secret.”

In contrast, C and SC will interfere to try, as they see it, to improve societies. The subtle way in which they occasionally do so, often over the period of many years, can be easily illustrated in Inversions, a novel that would only be recognised by those who have read other Culture novels and who would recognise the protagonists as being from that society; at other times they are less oblique, as in The Player Of Games or Use Of Weapons. And very occasionally – despite the Culture's sophistication and the almost limitless ability of the Artifical Intelligence “minds” who plan SC's strategies the development goes hideously, disastrously wrong: in Look To Windward, SC's well-meaning intervention leads to a bloody civil war on the planet Chel. Whatever happens, the Culture – unlike Star Trek's Starfleet – believes that active intervention is better than benign neglect. They will intervene to mould a society in the way that they think is best for that particular culture. (It is interesting, from a political point of view, that the Culture should be described as anarchist socialist civilisation)

Real-world political systems

To come back to modern politics, with a few exceptions, the most powerful and richest societies on earth are capitalist democracies, with democracy (in whatever form) being the operative word. The main societies that buck this trend are China (which I intend to discuss in a later post) and the oil-rich nations. These are, in general, the nations of the Middle East, which incorporate Iran, Iraq, the United arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, amongst others.

All of these nations are – or in Iraq's case, were – essentially dictatorships; totalitarian governments (which dictatorships always end up being, even if the original aim was not to be so, e.g. the Roman caesars) as rich as these are rare. Why should this be so?

The politics of innovation

In "free" countries, which are generally represented by democracies of some sort, the dissent that leads to innovation is allowed. Since there is a mechanism for removing an administration politically, that government has little to gain by oppressing its people; the people would simply vote them out of office (fingers crossed for the next British general election). Therefore, it is in these governments' interests to ensure the relative happiness of their peoples which, in capitalist societies, generally means ensuring that individuals have enough money to buy those things that make their lives more pleasant.

In order to be able to buy those things, innovators must invent them. Innovators are often mavericks, people who do not conform to societal norms (or at least their views do not). Think, for instance, of Gallileo or Newton. Is it any coincidence that the greatest technological and scientific advances – the ones that lasted – were made in the most "free" societies: Britain, one of the first European democracies, led much of the technical, scientific and engineering innovation for a couple of centuries.

The economics of innovation

And it is not enough to allow the innovators to innovate: there must be freedom of people to invest in those innovations as well. Isembard Kingsom Brunel, an engineering genius, would be almost unknown had his financiers not had the freedom to back him. If you want an example of how this might affect the development of a society, ask yourself how many totally original concepts were actually brought to fruition by Stalin's USSR.

Totalitarian regimes, in contrast, cannot allow this questioning of the status quo: once people start to question the nature of the world around them, they then start to question the way in which they are governed; and then, of course, whether those that govern them are the most suitable people to do so (again, China seems to be unusual here, as Boris Johnson MP discovered on his recent trip2). Thus, totalitarian regimes are pretty much characterised by their suppression of free speech as a tool for attempted suppression of free thought (a concept thoroughly explored in Orwell's 1984, especially as regards Newspeak. The theory was that, if one removed the language of rebellion, eventually the rebellious thoughts themselves would become impossible to express and would cease to occur at all). When unorthodox ideas cannot be communicated, let alone financially backed and developed, then innovation does not – cannot – happen.

The end result of this is that, in Europe at least, technical innovation has had to go hand-in-hand with political development. As people have become more free, so more inventions have been realised, the easier (and cheaper) people's lives have become and thus the richer they have become. To tie this together in the most elementary sense, in the West, how rich people have become has been intimately tied in with how "free" they are.

The Middle East

In the Middle East, this has not happened. Why?

The Middle Eastern countries that I have cited are all, in essence, totalitarian regimes. These regimes should either have been toppled years ago, or they should—much like most of Africa—be living in the direst poverty. Why are they not? And how is it that these regimes are not only poor, but are also strong players on the world stage, rather than political and economic irrelevancies like the majority of the African nations? The answer is simple: oil.

The West's reliance on carbon fuels started with the industrial revolution, and was initially predicated on coal. However, with the expansion of the British Empire and the discovery of oil – which was not only easier to extract than coal, but was also easier to store, transport and use – those coutries with oil reserves were suddenly sitting on vast reserves of what was known as "black gold". When the Empire contracted and, eventually withered away, the regimes that took over those reserves were suddenly immensely rich. And those riches they obtained power.

Power, control and innovation in the Middle East

It is not difficult to prove the maxim that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely", and this is what those potentates now had. With a bastardisation of Islam to use as a tool of easy populace supppression, the ruling parties were able to entrench themselves in their towers; but this was only possible as long as the flow of oil continued.

Furthermore, however, they have not have to invent anything. All of the inventing has been done by the Europeans, and the oil-rich countries are able simply to buy all of the innovations that they need. Thus, in these countries, technical development has not had to go hand-in-hand with societal or political development. People have things to buy and, largely speaking, they have the money with which to purchase these goods. Where they do not, Islam's promise of a better future (or after) life in return for abstinence in this one – a principle largely shared by Christianity but more harshly proscripted in the radical forms of Islam, such as the Wahabiism endemic in Saudi – is able to keep the people subjugated, if not happy (although it could be argued that what religion actually does is to make people happy with what would otherwise be considered a rather inadequate lot).

In relation to The Culture

How does this relate to The Culture of Iain M Banks? In this way: the West's thirst for, and reliance on, oil could be considered equivalent to a catastrophic intervention in a totally separate culture, thus entirely affecting their development by artificially accelerating their technical advancement without forcing upon them the need to develop either culturally or politically. Thus we end up with totalitarian regimes that are effectively all-powerful within their own spheres of influence and, by virtue of the fact that the West is reliant on their oil, immune to anything but the most stringent, i.e. military, action by the only power that might practically remove them. One could look at it as being similar to an alien culture giving the atom bomb technology to the Nazis in 1936 or, more pertinently, to William the Conqueror.

Oil and the failure of political development

In conclusion, the failure of the Middle East to develop the "freedoms" that we, generally, take for granted in the West, is entirely down to the fact that we need the oil that comes out of their ground. This is, surely, one of the most compelling arguments for finding alternative sources of power; for as long as we need oil, the Middle Eastern countries will not develop culturally or politically because – and I apologise for borrowing a biological term here – there is no selective pressure for them to do so.

What we in the West must face is that our continued thirst for oil will keep on advancing the ability of these countries to be able to buy the technology that we invent, some of which may well be a threat to us or those we attempt to protect, e.g. the current worries over Iran's nuclear development and the concomitant threat to Israel.

Securing freedom

If we truly wish the peoples of the Middle East to be free (and always assuming, of course, that they wish to be so), then we must divorce ourselves from our oil needs. Simple military intervention, as has been clearly demonstrated in Iraq, will not work. No, we must totally eliminate, or at least severely reduce, our oil consumption.

With the oil props knocked away, those societies will start to collapse into economic ruin. At this point, we must employ the Prime Directive and not influence the way in which the society develops. Or in this case implode.

By that point, our strategy for rebuilding these countries must be clear. It will mean a more subtle intervention, with the West playing the part of The Culture rather than that of George Bush's Star Wars Empire. Let us simply hope that we have learned enough by that time not to end up having to Look To Windward...

  1. Wikipedia, The Prime Directive,

  2. Boris Johnson MP, CHINA,

Useful links:

  1. Wikipedia, The Culture,

  2. Wikipedia, Galilleo,

  3. Wikipedia, Newton,

  4. Wikipedia, Brunel,

  5. Wikipedia, Newspeak,

This article originally appeared on Wanabehuman, and was edited from an article that first appeared at The Devil's Kitchen.

The Drive For Space

As those who have seen the realisation of Moore's Law know, the capabilities of computers have grown at a massive rate; but are we using these advantages to their full potential?

I remember the days...

I bought my very first Apple Mac setup in the summer of 1997: the machine was the third most powerful that Apple made at the time, and cost a horrendous amount. It was certainly true, in those far-off days, that Apple Macs were far more expensive than their WinTel counterparts, but this was partly because Macs used high-quality components.

Of the various things, the most notable were the SCSI (Small Computer Systems Interface) hard drives; these were notable because they were one of the main features that gave Macs their edge in the graphics industry. They had far shorter seek times, spun faster and the SCSI bus had a far higher throughput rate than the rival ATA drives; this was particularly useful since Photoshop uses hard-drive space as a type of “virtual RAM” (operating memory) and so the faster the drives, the more smoothly Photoshop runs.

However, SCSI drives have one massive disadvantage: the cost. I recently bought a 160 GB Ultra-ATA internal hard drive for £40 (ex VAT): a SCSI drive of 147 GB costs £240 (ex VAT). Once Apple made the leap to ATA drives, the machines became considerably cheaper, and hard drive capacities increased (the Photoshop performance decrease was offet by faster chips and cheaper RAM).

My original Mac had a 2.1 GB hard drive: now my main hard drive is 80 GB.

Spacial conundrums

And it is not enough. My second drive (120 GB) is nearly full, and soon my files will spill over onto the two extra 160 GB drives that I have installed. Sure, I work in print: my files are huge, but that is not the issue: the problem is with the size of the applications.

At the present time, I have fewer applications than on my first system, and yet my Applications folder and the attendent Application Support folder total 14 GB, seven times the size of the hard drive on my original Mac! My old System Folder is about 350 MB: the new one is 1.2 GB, three and a half times bigger.

Hard drive space has increased, and the cost per megabyte has dropped enormously, especially for Mac users: but are we really making the best use of this space? Or is it, in fact, the case that those writing the code are becoming sloppier; are applications becoming “bloatware”?

The same sort of thing is happening in terms of RAM (Random Access Memory). This too has become much cheaper, and yet useage has increased exponentially. My original Mac had 64 MB of RAM, my main one is now runnning 1.5 GB and I know that I really need to up that amount. When Apple released Mac OS 8 in 1998, there was a massive row about the about of RAM that it required: up to 20 MB. In the intervening years between System 8 and System 9, RAM prices have dropped: System 9 is currently using 140 MB of RAM.

Lessons to be learned

If resources are made available, then they will be used, and not necessarily in the most efficient way. Because RAM and hard drives have become so cheap, we have become more careless about how we use them. Yes, applications have become more advanced, but have they improved so much in ten years that they justify the amount of hard drive space and memory that they use? I would say not. But hard drives and RAM are cheap (and far easier to install than they once were) so does it matter? In theory, I suppose that it doesn't, but it does teach us some interesting lessons about the market, I think.

These resources have become available to the end user because the price is very low: because the price is low, programmers know that their customers can afford to buy the upgrades, and so they add more "pretty" features and are less concerned about efficiency of use. Now, imagine how that works when the service that the customers are "buying" is "free"...

Cross-posted at The Devil's Kitchen.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

A Dream

My dear, I had a dream last night, although it was—truth be told—more of a nightmare.

I was, for some reason and in what purpose I know not, engaged in a project. The duration was two weeks and, though we were not together (and yet I still desired you), you were with me in that place. The location was strange and in Wales, two facts which may not entirely jarr in the imaginations of those who may read this. It resembled a cross between a mediaeval walled town and the Schloss Adler of Where Eagles Dare.

Curiously, the central courtyard was covered, though internal windows let onto it. These windows were dirty, dusty, but with the occasional spyhole rubbed through the grime, by occupants within or without I never thought to determine. We all slept in beds and bunks spread haphazardly through the courtyard, although you were only ever passing fleetingly through that place.

We talked as we have in recent times, as friends but with the spark of electricity flowing between us. And yet never could I seem to allow myself to understand what I felt. But then the screams started, from one of the rooms beyond the windows; screams of ecstasy, cries of sexual lust.

And I knew it was you.

We would go out by day, and perform our duties to the project. And when we came back you would disappear to your room, and within minutes those terrible sounds of your pleasure with another would insinuate itself into the bright air of our dwelling. It took some days before I could summon up the courage to sidle to one of those blank eyes, to see what...

In the end, I didn't need to sidle; I walked, dreading that which I might see. Thoughtlessly, I rubbed, with my hand, a spyhole in the dust, that I might see into the room.

The man whose crotch you were carressing was strapping on red gloves, lacing them like boxing gloves although they were fingerless. He was naked to the waist and you were lavisciously kneading and stroking the bulge that was all too obvious through his shiny, red shorts. Every now and then, you would stroke a hand down your own breasts, making movements that I knew entailed you stoking your hard nubs through you grey, high-necked jumper.

I was in shock, my love felt stronger than ever, my jealousy and desperate sadness almost palpable in my throat. And then you looked up. And then it truly became a nightmare, for the look upon your face said, "I know what I am doing to you." You looked at me, whilst exciting your odd companion even more. Your face was terrible, and your eyes told me that you were doing this to hurt me, displaying the wanton sexuality, that whore in the bedroom that every man secretly wants, in order to gut me; your eyes burned into mine as the cruel smile spread across your thinly, so-good-a-kisser lips.

That old smile that I had always known as beautiful, that had—in moments of shared jokes and whispered love yous (always uttered as though slightly ashamed of the fact)—transformed your face into a palimsest of joy, was now perverted into something evil, a sense of triumph when you realised that it was I gazing at you through the window. "You were never eough," you said in my head, "See how sexual I can be now that I have found a man that truly turns me on." You bent over him and, as I looked, and held your gaze as you ran your hand up his leg, under his shorts, and then opened your mouth and lowered your head to his crotch.

I turned away, unable—and unwilling—to watch, glad that the project was nearly over and it was only then that I found that I couldn't leave. I was not pinned to the spot, or anything so dream-prosaic, but I found that there was no way to the station. No one driving there, and it too far to walk. As everyone started to leave, I wondered how it was that I should be left there; you, me and your Welsh boxing friend...

I had to wake myself up.

Welcome to DK Comment

Good Lord! A good review for The Devil's Kitchen at First Foot!

At first I was slightly put off by all the vernacularisms, and I labelled TDK as a bit of a thug, to be honest. A thug with his heart firmly in the right place, albeit. But reading through the whole blog, I very much like this man. Intelligence, wit, scathing contempt for socialism/Nu-Labour, and yes, a degree of self-deprecating humility too, in places. I would buy this f*****g c*** a pint!

Which leads me neatly into what I was originally going to say: I am aware that, for some, the swearing is a bit strong. I also know that many enjoy it. This blog is written very much in character—the character of someone who is really fucked off—and, as such, it allows me to let off steam. I also suspect that many of my readers come here because they enjoy the ranting and raving: it is, of you like, my selling point.

The Devil's Kitchen has featured in both The Guardian and The Telegraph, but each time featuring words written by somebody else. Alas, my sweary style is far too indelicate to be published.

And, just occasionally, I am moved to write articles that are a little more serious—more philosophical—and they tend to get lost amidst the maestrom of rage. Given the imminent release of Nightcap Syndication and Scooptwords plus, of course, Timmy's success in this field, it has occurred to me that doing the odd article that is fit to be put in a family paper might—just might—bring in a little cash.

To this end, I have started up a new blog, Devil's Kitchen Comment: the first new article to appear on there is an edited version of my Britain Should Be Great post.

In future, when I write more considered pieces, they will be posted here at DK Comment. Enjoy!