Channel 4 have just launched their election FactCheck website, following up on election issue stories with some cold-eyed investigation.
Already it’s calling Michael Howard on that infamous claim about gypsies abusing the Human Rights Act and Patricia Hewitt on her claim that the Tories backtracked on an increase in funding for childcare.
Journalists? Checking their facts and reporting the truth to the public? Not slavishly following the issue of the day? Calling politicians on policies not presentation? Shome mishtake shurely?
My remissness scales ever higher peaks.
The list of those I am really, honestly about to write, phone or otherwise contact grows by the hour. You know who you are. Actually, I know who you are. Actually, for some of you, I don’t, as the accursed mobile phone has done what I often wished it would, and disappeared.
It contained a number of phone numbers I has foolishly entrusted only to it. I believe I haven’t lost anyone utterly, but you may find you are contacted in a different form than that originally intended (letter rather than phone, postcard rather than phone, yodelling rather than phone).
Ah. Hum. You know, this loss of numbers could be a very good thing. So good that I hesitate to suggest what initially seemed a very good idea: that your mobile (and computer) should not store contact details locally but access a central listing which you therefore only have to update once, and cannot be lost when you lose your phone, hard drive or indeed mind. Perhaps this is already being done, and I just don’t know.
Perhaps I did know, and have lost the reference.
Anyway, I believe I have attained a level of remissness which is no longer pleasant, and therefore cannot remit any more. This means that, according to the jig-jag nature of English, I will attempt to be remitted of my sins by remitting all communications.
One of the categories on the right of the screen here is forteana.
If you haven’t encountered it elsewhere (indeed, if you have), the adjective ‘fortean’ (from Charles Fort) means, very roughly, relating to evidence that is ‘damned’ - sidelined - by the scientific community. Damned because the data do not fit, either because they do not accord with the prevailing models or because they appear so improbable that no scientist is willing to stake their personal credibility on investigating them. This covers all manner of weirdness from frog falls, ghosts and poltergeists, levitation, UFOs, lost civilisations and displaced animals (like big cats stalking the British countryside).
In the 90s I had a few years of being rather too much exposed to that form of eye-poppingly unhelpful postmodernism that had at that point taken a grip on the lower echelons of academia. At that time I thought it might be amusing to compose a helpful article pointing out that most of the main ideas of postmodernism were reflected in the attitudes of Fort himself (d. 1932). In particular, I was struck by his playfulness, his concern for the dispossessed (the ‘unwritten’, the subjected), and above all, the provisionality of all of his suggestions:
“I can conceive of nothing, in religion, science or philosophy, that is anything more than the proper thing to wear, for a while”
I would have called the article ‘An Introduction to Postmodernist Fort’. It would have been quite fun.
I’ve been a reader of the stalwart Fortean Times for donkey’s, and it got me through those curious years in particular by providing an endless cabinet of curiosities. What is so lovable about the Fortean Times is not what it reports, but its tone. It reaches for - and often achieves - a scholarly apprehension of its various subjects that would put a number of the more excitable academic journals to shame. But this is not because it is in any way authoritative. Rather the opposite: its greatest virtue is the way that it is simultaneously serious, amused and utterly undogmatic in any direction whatever. Fortean topics are resolutely those not accepted by science, but what keeps me interested is that its values, at best, are those shared by science at its best.
That’s why I read with no mean pleasure New Scientist’s lead article this week, titled “13 things that do not make sense“. These things include that hardy perennial of the fortean scence, cold fusion. But most of the scientific anomolies listed (like unexplained radio signals from deep space, cosmic constants that aren’t, and that troublesome missing nine-tenths of the universe) are problems of ‘hard’, high-level science.
The spirit of scepticism runs deep in humans. That’s why the extraordinary technical success story that is modern science leaves so many people cold. Science, they say, can’t explain human nature; it can’t explain the mind; it can’t explain love; it can’t explain why we’re here.
Quite. That is part of its strength. Individual scientists may claim answers to any or all of the above, but they will quickly be knocked down if their evidence and theorising is not up to the mark. Scientific thought, as that New Scientist article reminded me, is constantly surrounded not by certainty, but by the buzz and uproar of the unknown. If we are lucky, it even grazes the outer skin of the unknowable.
The strength of the scientific system is not that it has vastly increased the sphere of human knowledge; it is that has vastly increased around that the sphere of human ignorance.
I’ve hit on a new way to suggest wonderful writers and musicians to friends.
Isn’t that gorgeous? Very intuitive too. Wait for the pattern to emerge, or click on one of the items for details. Click on white space to get back to the big picture.
The toy itself is here.
Any recommendations of yours are welcome.
By any measure, things are messy at the moment. There is, I think I failed to mention before, no kitchen. Where the kitchen was is full of wood, sawn, unfinished, stacked up in inconvenient piles that are blocking off access to everything up to and including cutlery. The things the kitchen contained are now piled up in the sitting room, provocatively looking far more bulky than the new cupboards into which they will allegedly fit.
All over the house, in fact, there are piles of things halfway sorted. There are piles of my clothes on the floor where I am writing now, bustled up against my feet, halfway sorted. There are the football tops I recklessly decided it was my turn to wash last Sunday.
Books, too. Small piles of them have started springing up around the place, and I am only now realising that this means despite having five full height bookcases in the house (and, I shudder to think, boxes of books loading up the roof), I have yet again run out of space for books. On top of all this, the consignment of film posters and photographic collages have finally come back framed. I thought getting them framed was the hard part. It was not. The hard part is agreeing where they should all be hung. Right now I am looking at the sumptuous poster of La Dolce Vita that will take pride of place. Somewhere.
Yet the pictures too remain half sorted. I am forced to acknowledge something that any cynical mathematician would tell you. There is no such thing as half sorted. Things may tend increasingly over time to being sorted (or, of course, they may not), but alway, inevitably, until that point they remain unsorted. Let those who think that this is a bad thing continue to think so. For myself, I am enjoying the slow, glutinous process of things happening at their own ineluctable pace.
I am aware that posts have been rather thin for the last few weeks. I could offer a number of excuses.
I could, for instance, argue that work is keeping me more than occupied. I could note, with a whimsical aside, that we are currently without a kitchen, meaning (the horror) that there is an unfortunate amount of dining out and taking up of old dinner invitations being done. I could point to a recent couple of days in Scandinavia as evidence of, well, something other than indolence.
The truth is that, at present, I only have to lift my eyes by ten degrees and I have a sumptuous panoramic view of a building site. With JCBs. With dumper trucks. With flatbeds delivering girders, with drills and white vans and portaloos and machines I can’t even comprehend, let alone name. Reader, when I say that I can see boring machines, do not misunderstand me.
Oh, and there are tea breaks and site surveyors and gothic edifices of scaffolding and huge piles of shuffled earth and bored builders throwing tennis balls at each other and it is all, from this angle, a shimmering, muddy, vision of the best toy set in the world.
I recall the reason that they started to put viewing grilles into those huge blue hoardings used to seal off building sites. They are an iressistible draw. Building sites are the soap operas of the built environment, and they share this similarity in particular: the more closely you follow them, the less appears ever to be happening. Then you miss a couple of episodes, and everything has changed.
I am relentlessly amazed by the things I fail to notice. No, not fail to notice. Fail to take in.
Until this week I had no conception - not a clue - that half of front doors in a street will open the wrong way, including my own.
I am not proud of this, but I am impressed.
I was extremely struck by this sample of what some respected scientists predict will be the next great discoveries.
These were, in headline form:
- The creation of sentient computers that will displace humans
- A serious understanding of the human mind
- The existence of parallel universes
- The changing of the genetic makup of humans
- The discovery of life elsewhere in the universe
- Humans becoming a collective intelligence
- A serious understanding of the mechanism of human emotion
- The end of the individual
- The discovery that ‘God’ is function of the brain
- Understanding the underlying mechanism of the brain
- Machines with consciousness
- The discovery of higher dimensions
- The discovery that the rules governing human nature are simple
Well, a whole number of observations suggest themselves here.
First, all of the predictions fit into the ‘big pattern’ of scientific anti-anthropocentrism: the theme running from Copernicus through Darwin, (Marx, Freud), Einstein and on that we, humans, are not nearly as special as we like to think we are. This is attacked in these predictions from a number of angles: our thoughts, emotions, consciousness, behaviour, sense of the divine, even our self of self, are all set to be explained in mechanistic terms.
The long intellectual history of the slow displacement of humanity from centre stage continues in the other predictions: that there is other intelligent life, that there are other dimensions than ours, that there are even other universes, some containing other versions of us. Just think, thousands upon millions of alternate Earths with a functionally endless number of variations on you. If that massages your ego, think on this: on average, fifty percent of those other versions of you will be better than you.
The next thing that struck me about the predictions was their cavalier nature. Such confidence! Ask a bunch of leading philosophers for their predictions for the field, and you would receive a sorrier and, perhaps, wiser set of answers. In philosophy, after all, the sense of ‘progress’, the sense of a community constructing a great edifice of well-established hypotheses upon which the next generation can safely build, is much thinner. Astonishingly, scientific endeavour is so neatly metricated that news reports are constantly containing secure predictions that a breakthrough in a field (say, medicine) will arrive in a set number of years. No philosopher could or would commit themselves to a timescale for their tentative hypotheses. (The essential difference being that philosophical hypotheses are rarely testable, and hence rarely falsifiable.)
The third thing that struck me was the essential conservatism of the predictions. Yes, certainly the demonstration of any one of these would be enormous news. But each fits quite squarely in a course of larger scientific investigation. Each hypothesis has been around for years; in some cases, as with life on other planets, centuries. These are not scientific mavericks.
I suppose, in the end, I was a little disappointed, not because each of these wasn’t a big, beefy concept with a positively gargantuan hinterland of potential consequences. It must be that I was hoping for something a bit more dangerous, a bit more random. A little more mad.
One final thought. Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the Seti Institute in California, contributed (in part) the following:
It strikes me as likely that, sometime this century, we will build a thinking computer. That machine will run the planet. Competitive pressures will ensure this (if we don’t have a machine running our society, we’ll fall behind those that do). We will no longer be the smartest things on Earth. Our mantle of superiority will be donned by our own creations.
Then what? Will the machines get rid of us? A machine that dwarfs our intelligence might regard us as we regard budgies or goldfish: diverting. Our role as second intellectual fiddle may be to serve as pets for the sentients in charge.
All of this would be dismaying enough if it were merely a science fiction story. But I suspect that the first steps will be taken by mid-century. We could well be the last generation of humans to dominate Earth.
I was reading this on the train. I put the paper down, looked up at the aisles of housing sweeping past, looked around me at this Smartie tube full of shuttling people, and wondered. Hasn’t this already happened once?
Aren’t we, the expressions of our DNA, just bastard machines that were built entirely by little-suspecting germ viruses? Don’t we intellectually dwarf the very things that made us?
Just think of those terrible science fiction horrorshows where a vast, unempathic supercomputer takes over the entire planet. You side with the puny humans. Really, you should be siding with the apocalyptic machine, because that’s you.