Thursday 24 January 2013

Moore's Flaw

"Let's suppose that back in the 1980s I had said, 'In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopedia and a new version of UNIX. It would have sounded utterly pathetic."

Jaron Lanier, from You are Not a Gadget

"Productivity in North America must be through the roof: The Internet is boring on Wednesday...the things that make the Internet amazing – Reddit, Wikipedia, Cheezburger, – are all going to be unavailable for the day."

Andrew Steele, The Globe and Mail (see here)

My Gran was born in 1910, in the same week that the first production Model-T Ford rolled off the assembly line. The week that she died, aged 96, a spaceship, which had been launched some months earlier from earth, successfully landed a probe on one of the moons of Saturn and beamed back live pictures to the handful of spectators not too busy massaging their Facebook profiles to notice. She was born in England, to relatively affluent parents but, during her lifetime, flushing lavatories, electric lighting, telephones, cars, airplanes, space rockets, nuclear bombs, antibiotics, genetic engineering, central heating, air conditioning, washing machines, refrigeration, television, computers and, oh yes, the internet were either invented or went from being the preserve of the fabulously wealthy to facts of everyday life. Well, OK, not the nuclear bombs but she, unlike me, was alive when the first one was exploded in anger.

I'm 44. When I was a few months old, my mother held me up in front of the TV as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and fluffed the most famous punchline in human history. A few months later, I was flown to South Africa in a 'jumbo jet' - Boeing's iconic 747. All of the stuff that had transformed the lives of ordinary people since my Gran's birth already existed, except the internet and nothing has come along in the years since my birth that has unambiguously improved the lives of all whom it reached. Ask yourself - and do try to be honest - whether you'd rather give up Google or flushing lavatories. Would you put up with walking to the end of the garden in mid-winter and shitting into a stinking hole in the ground in exchange for access to a search engine that returns, in response to a search query, the Wikipedia entry least irrelevant to what you wanted to know?

'Fuck off, Grandad!' You might well be thinking if you were born after 1985 or are an unusually naive 30-something. 'We have iPads and GPS and mobile phones and Wikipedia and online shopping and texting, and...and...and lots of other cool stuff that your generation couldn't even have imagined.' True, but we did have books, maps, a global telephone system, encyclopedias written by experts, mail order catalogues, conversation, a vocabulary that didn't include the acronym LOL, a world before emoticons and hundreds upon hundreds of hours that we didn't yet realise we ought to have been filling letting our wives know that we were on the train home or re-tweeting the thoughts of some long-haired twat in recovery from sex addiction or maintaining a paranoid watch on the popularity of our online avatars.

Do you remember Space Invaders? It was a computer game that involved shooting down alien spaceships before they landed and destroyed you. How pre-teens today would snigger at the hilariously primitive graphics. These days, with a Wii or X-Box, you can play games that involve shooting down alien spaceships before they land - in colour! That's progress for you. I remember being immensely jealous of a friend, whose father was richer than mine, who had a digital watch. The watch on my wrist now still tells the time (though I have to interpret the analogue symbols to read it) but it is also water-proof to a depth of 250m. The Land Rover Defender that I drive has a top speed of 85mph. My washing machine takes about an hour to wash a load of clothes; my dishwasher takes more than two hours to wash my dirty plates. The air in my house is heated by steel vessels filled with hot water. I use a stiff-haired brush to scrape the shit that sticks to the porcelain sides of my toilet bowl, despite regular applications of Harpic's 'best-ever' toilet cleaner, which kills 99.9% of germs, leaving only approximately 1 million of the little buggers per square millimeter.

At school various teachers tried to introduce me to calculus (discovered by Newton or Leibniz, depending on whether you are German or British, 17th century), relativity (Einstein in the early 20th century), quantum mechanics (various geniuses of the early 20th century), the theory of evolution (Darwin, mid 19th century), genetics (Mendel, mid 19th century), molecular biology (Watson & Crick, mid 20th century) and various pointless disciplines such as history, foreign languages and theology. Unfortunately I never mastered the language of mathematics, my greatest intellectual regret. Had I done so, I might very well have gone the way of all nerds and gotten into computers.

The high school I attended has two famous alumni. Nigel Dempster, who went on to become a gossip columnist for the Daily Mail, and Alan Turing, who invented the computer, won the Second World War for the Allies (by decrypting the 'unbreakable' Enigma code), laid the foundations for artificial intelligence research and died by his own hand, having been offered the choice between jail or a series of hormone injections to cure his homosexuality which, let's face it, does rather overshadow his undeniable achievements. The computer that Turing used to help him decrypt Enigma was a behemoth, with valves in the place of transistors, which did not yet exist. Ever more powerful computers have been achieving ever less consequential results since then. A computer built by IBM, for example, beat the best human chess player at a game of chess, not by playing chess well but by systematically evaluating trillions of possible consequences of each move and selecting the one least likely to result in a loss, according to the rules of chess. No-one asked Deep Blue to do something really difficult, like ignite a passion for chess in a nine-year old or copy a captcha code into a website but, if they had, we would still be waiting for DB's answer, several quadrillion calculations later. It is worth noting that, whereas everyone thinks they know that Turing broke Enigma with the help of a computer, they believe it was Deep Blue, not the computer's programmers, that defeated Gary Kasparov.

Enter Gordon Moore, who famously and innocently noted in 1965 that the processing power of computers seemed to be doubling every couple of years. To everyone's initial surprise, this rule-of-thumb turned out to be a remarkably accurate predictor of future computing power. It applies to this day (48 years later) and the rule-of-thumb has become 'Moore's Law'. Moore himself is blameless in all this. He was simply pointing out an unnoticed trend and speculating that it might continue for a few years, which it has indeed done. No-one can have failed to notice that the lowliest chip in your iPhone dwarfs Turing's behemoth in raw computing power.

If you are well educated and intelligent, it is highly likely that you are also an atheist. This is generally fine and dandy but, when contemplating your own extinction, it's a bummer. One ingenious group of atheists has come up with an elegant solution - the prospect of an afterlife without god. The chief prophet of this movement currently (until he dies, which won't be long now I'm afraid Ray) is Ray Kurzweil, who believes in the approach of the Singularity, when computers will become so capable that they will not only relieve humans of the burden of work, they will make us immortal, by allowing us to upload ourselves into substrates not subject to biological death, where we shall live forever in a virtual reality far more satisfying than our messy, biological lives. I really hope this comes true and I shall be first in line for uploading.

The problem, though, is that although your dishwasher can do more calculations per second than Alan Turing did in his life, it's hard to miss the fact that it still takes a couple of hours to wash your dishes and even the most utopian of Moore-istas would probably not argue that your dishwasher could have won WWII, given half a chance. You can still fly to South Africa overnight from the UK, as you could when I was born and you can still go to the moon in a week (or you could if we still knew how, which we don't because all the engineers who did it last are dead or senile). You can still call anyone on the planet and hear their voice, you can still drive from Cairo to Cape Town, if you can get 30 separate visas and avoid being beheaded en route by Muslims irritated by the number of Predator drones overflying the Caliphate's airspace these days. And you can still take a shit, wipe your arse, flush the toilet and walk away.

Moore's flaw - again, nothing to do with the man who's name has been associated with the trend in computational power - is the absurd illusion that doing more calculations per second has anything to do with the quality of human life. Almost everything that is good about life in the 21st century is due to innovations made before anyone still working today was born. Unless we crack artificial intelligence, which is as likely to destroy us as liberate us, I cannot see anything on the horizon likely to emancipate our species from its legacy as the ape that invented plumbing.

Saturday 12 January 2013

Who was worse, Rachel Carson or Mao?

If there were an SI unit of evil, we'd probably call it the Mao, because the single syllable of the Chairman's name is quicker to enunciate than its two-syllable competitors 'Stalin', 'Hitler' and 'Pol Pot'. Historians will doubtless quibble endlessly about exactly how many deaths are directly attributable to Mao, but let's agree, for the sake of argument, to set one Mao equal to 45 million deaths. On this basis, assuming a linear scale, Hitler registers 1.2 Mao on the Genocide Scale, if you attribute every death in World War II to his actions, or 0.25 Mao, if only civilian deaths are included. Stalin registers about 0.2 Mao, depending whose statistics you believe and Pol Pot comes in at a risible 0.04 Mao.

'Yada, yada, yada', I hear you say, what about Rachel Carson? Her book, Silent Spring, arguably led to DDT being banned almost everywhere in the world and, as a result, millions of poor, voiceless human beings have died unnecessarily of malaria. According to the WHO, about 655,000 people, 90% of them Africans, die annually from malaria. Assuming that DDT was banned in 1980, on average, Carson scores nearly 0.5 Mao, a very respectable effort for a lesbian environmentalist.

The British politician Dick Taverne must have been reasoning along these lines when he wrote:

'Rachel Carson is a warning to us all of the dangers of neglecting the evidence-based approach and the need to weight potential risk against benefit: it can be argued that the anti-DDT campaign she inspired was responsible for almost as many deaths as some of the worst dictators of the last century.'

It is difficult to dislike Taverne, not least because, according to Wikipedia, 'he is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and ...on 15 September 2010... along with 54 other public figures, signed an open letter published in The Guardian, stating their opposition to Pope Benedict XVI's state visit to the UK.' Any enemy of the Kiddie-Fucker in Chief (KFC) is my friend. Submitting, however, to a lecture by a Liberal Democrat politician arguing for the evidence-based approach is a bit like consulting with the Bush Administration on best practice in obtaining evidence from suspected terrorists. Neglecting unfavourable evidence is what politicians do, usually in the service of advancing their own careers. If it's evidence I want, I'll go to the scientific journals responsible for publishing studies in the relevant field, not to my MP.

Alerted by - who else - my friend Spike to the minor industry that exists to discredit Rachel Carson, I was curious enough to read the post he sent me (see here). The author of this essay argues that Carson was a fraud, deliberately overstating the risks and understating the benefits of DDT; she ignored contrary evidence and, to the limited extent she was right at all, she wasn't original. The blog on which the essay was posted makes the following claim for itself:  

'spiked is an independent online phenomenon dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, luddism, illiberalism and irrationalism in all their ancient and modern forms. spiked is endorsed by free-thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, and hated by the narrow-minded such as Torquemada and Stalin. Or it would be, if they were lucky enough to be around to read it.'

Wonderful aspirations. A quick dig around the site unearthed several essays that I'd wholeheartedly endorse, for example this entertaining celebration of insobriety and this exceptionally sensible comment on the child abuse witch hunt currently in vogue among stupid people. I think, tentatively, therefore that the essay analysed below is an aberration.

The author, Pierre Desrochers is, according to a footnote, co-editor, with Roger Meiners and Andrew Morriss, of Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson, published by the Cato Institute in 2012. The Cato Institute aims 'to increase the understanding of public policies based on the principles of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace. The Institute will use the most effective means to originate, advocate, promote, and disseminate applicable policy proposals that create free, open, and civil societies in the United States and throughout the world.' The story heading its home page currently begins: 'The policy landscape is strewn with proposals for stricter gun control in the wake of the tragedy at Newtown. Would any be effective, or able to survive a court challenge?' Some relevant articles linked to immediately below are: 'Homicide rate was already declining'; 'Why I still support the right to bear arms' and 'Face it: guns are here to stay'. These claims are all arguably true and deserve serious debate but this is not the time or place. For the minute, it is enough to point out that Desrochers is affiliated with a self-avowed pressure group that does not obviously embrace the evidence-based approach; that, indeed, says it will use the 'most effective means' to achieve its ends. Fair enough, but let's not make the mistake of expecting balance.

Desrochers characterises Silent Spring thus:

'Even by popular-literature standards, Silent Spring can be legitimately characterised as vintage technophobic muckraking in quality literary clothing.'

It's difficult to see how 'quality literary clothing' is a vice, even in 'popular literature'. Would Desrochers have had fewer problems with Silent Spring had it been rendered in atrocious prose? One is reminded of the bleeding hearts who bewail the fate of animals shot with 'high-powered rifles'. Would they rather the rifles were low-powered? Quality literary muckraking, Silent Spring certainly is - muckraking is the entire purpose of the book. Carson assembled evidence that DDT is soluble in adipose tissue and therefore accumulates in predators at the top of their food chains. Famously, the eggs of Peregrine Falcons became too thin to bear the weight of incubating parents and their populations collapsed. Controversially, she claimed, on the basis of insufficient evidence, that DDT is carcinogenic. What Desrochers presumably finds most objectionable is that she further claimed that many individuals and companies with a vested interest in DDT's commercial success downplayed the evidence for these problems with its widespread use. The evidence-based approach is a wonderful thing, when the evidence suits your ends but, when it inconveniently suggests that your product might be a dangerous, persistent poison, evidence becomes a dirty word.

Carson did not publish Silent Spring in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Had she done so, she would have been held, by her reviewers and the journal's editor to a higher standard of evidence. Statistics are thin on the ground in Silent Spring, as they are in the Bible ('the meek shall inherit the earth, p<0.05), Hansard (vote Liberal Democrat, make the world a fairer place, p<0.05) and other works of advocacy. Carson was making a case, not a scientific argument and she did so spectacularly successfully. Even, or especially, her strongest critics are keen to point out that she successfully inspired the campaign that eventually led to DDT being banned in most countries around the world, though she herself was long dead before it came to pass (she died in 1964; DDT was banned in the USA in 1972 and in most other countries by the early 1980s). Unless you are prepared to subject your own claims to the rigours of peer review, you had better stop whining - Desrochers - that your ideological opponents have better arguments and go on a creative writing course, or something.

It is amusing to note that Desrochers castigates Carson for relying on 'anecdotes claiming bird populations were collapsing', while seeming to place great store by the results of the annual Audubon Society bird count and the musings of 'US Brigadier General James Stevens Simmons', writing in 1945 in the Saturday Evening Post. With great respect to the amateur birders of 1950s North America, drawing any reliable inferences about trends in bird populations from the sparse data available is fraught with difficulties as this piece of bona fide science (that's stuff published in a peer-reviewed journal, chaps, not the Saturday Evening Post) makes clear. The current consensus among researchers in the relevant fields is that Carson was absolutely correct to assert that DDT accumulates in adipose tissue (indeed there are several molecules in each and every one of you and in your children); DDT was indeed responsible for declines in raptor populations; some studies suggest that DDT is carcinogenic in humans at levels actually prevalent in the environment whereas other studies find the opposite. On this last point the jury remains out.

Was Silent Spring technophobic? Personally, I agree with Desrochers that it was. As he says, 'Besides, she further argued that, because they were ‘man-made’, synthetic insecticides ‘differ sharply from the simpler insecticides of prewar days [that] were derived from naturally occurring minerals and plant products’, and, because of their ‘enormous biological potency’, they had ‘immense power not merely to poison but to enter into the most vital processes of the body and change them in sinister and often deadly ways'. It is genuinely feeble to argue that an insecticide derived from plants is somehow 'better' than one derived from crude oil. The environmental movement makes this absurd mistake every time it claims that 'organic' food is better than the alternative (unless you are prepared to publicly sanction compulsory sterilisation, why don't you shut up until you can explain how to feed the current and forecast world population using 'organic' farming methods) or that GM is a terrifying technology, with unpredictable consequences, that we must avoid at all costs.

Luddites can, and I hope will, go hang. But in what possible sense is it technophobic or 'anti-modern' to argue that new technologies be evaluated on their merits? Every time a pharmaceutical company seeks permission to launch a new drug, it is required to jump through an incredibly expensive series of hoops, demonstrating that its product is safe. No doubt there would be many more drugs on the market, more cheaply, if this regulatory oversight were abandoned. But who seriously advocates that? If you are a woman, would you take Thalidomide to control your morning sickness?

If we can agree that creating a few paraplegics is a price worth paying for freedom from all government interference then we can probably also agree that DDT should be reintroduced. I'd like to see Desrochers and Lord Taverner outside the House of Commons, under a banner proclaiming their faith in the evidence-based approach, advocating the reintroduction of DDT. After all, think of all those lives that would be saved. Isn't it morally equivalent to allow an evil by avoiding taking action to prevent it and actively enacting the evil? While they are at it, perhaps they could agitate for resuming manufacture of PCBs? Although I suspect they wouldn't need my help, they might consider citing this recent review study, which even-handedly concludes that DDT may or may not be carcinogenic. Desrochers is particularly annoyed at Carson's espousal of the precautionary principle ('Indeed, her outlook paved the way to the ‘precautionary principle’ that helps to retard the adoption of superior (or at least less damaging) technologies that would have benefited people and the environment.'). It's a good point. I don't know whether Desrochers has children or not but I wonder whether he'd agree that it is anti-modern to argue that I'd rather not let a maybe/maybe-not carcinogen accumulate in the liver cells of my children, while we conduct further research.

Coming back to the central claim of Desrochers' feeble article and Taverner's embarrassing outburst: Carson is a sinner or possibly even a monster, because single-handedly she brought about the banning of DDT and therefore millions of avoidable deaths from malaria. Is this true?

It is surely a point too obvious to need labouring that the most effective insecticide on the planet was not banned virtually globally because some tree-hugger wrote a book but because the evidence suggested DDT is dangerous. The most one can possibly claim for (or against) Silent Spring is that its author discussed the evidence in a way that made it impossible to ignore. Interestingly, Desrochers devotes most of the first half of his essay to the claim that Carson wasn't original and doesn't deserve her status as an icon of the environmental movement. He needs to make up his mind - was her message powerful and influential, or was she a plagiarist, without an original bone in her body? If the latter, why are libertarians getting so excited about the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring? If the former, please stop wasting our time with infantile attempts to claim that someone else was first.

Assuming - a large assumption - that Carson was indeed original and is indeed uniquely responsible for the banning of DDT, does she really bear comparison with Mao and Hitler? It seems to me a moot point whether a life 'saved' (that is, obviously, a death deferred) in the current generation is worth a dozen (or even one) as-yet unborn child poisoned. If there are legitimate grounds for fearing the latter, is it not incumbent upon civilised human beings to consider the rights of unborn children? Whether DDT is carcinogenic or not is not known. If Desrochers and Taverner give a shit about evidence, they will at least admit that much. They could be devoting their energies to promoting less-toxic alternatives to DDT, other approaches to curing malaria and attempting to drape their writing in 'quality literary clothing', but I'm not holding my breath.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

A quiet drink or two

A [Home Office] spokesman added: "Those who enjoy a quiet drink or two have nothing to fear from our proposals."

BBC news (see here)

A Nazi spokesman added: "Gentiles have nothing to fear from our proposed 'final solution'"


What about three drinks? Or what if, while slightly inebriated, you raise your voice in defense of your opinion that the Home Office has exceeded its democratic mandate? God help you if you get shit-faced and take a piss against the walls of the Palace of Westminster.

According to Nick Triggle, Health Correspondent for the BBC, "ministers are proposing a minimum price of 45p a unit [say £4.20 for a bottle of plonk] for the sale of alcohol in England and Wales as part of a drive to tackle problem drinking...The Home Office said the consultation was targeted at 'harmful drinkers and irresponsible shops'...Research carried out by Sheffield University for the government shows a 45p minimum would reduce the consumption of alcohol by 4.3%, leading to 2,000 fewer deaths and 66,000 hospital admissions after 10 years...The number of crimes would drop by 24,000 a year as well, researchers suggested."

There are precious few reasons to remain in Blighty; the only reason I'm still here is inertia. The BBC is no longer a candidate reason. Having fingered the wrong man, in its pursuit of witches (aka paedophiles), it has become incapable of speaking its mind.

It is regularly claimed that I live in a free country, where I am encouraged to do anything I please that isn't specifically prohibited under law. Even were this absurd claim true, which it is not, there are so few enjoyable activities that are still legally sanctioned that I might as well report to Stalin.

If I take my seventy-something-year-old Mum to the pub for lunch, she has to skulk off to the car park whenever she wants a fag. If I am curious about the experience of being high on any drug other than alcohol or nicotine, I had better be careful that the pigs aren't watching. I suppose that I should gratefully acknowledge my freedom to teach infants that they are damned unless they 'agree' to be baptised before they die, but strangely enough that's a right I've never been keen to invoke.

We must take a stand. We must state clearly that we do not care how our government thinks we should behave. We must smoke in pubs (sigh, I shall have to take up smoking, which I hate); drink to excess; abuse illegal drugs; have sex with 15-year old girls and boys, with their consent; treat members of barbaric, palaeolithic cults with contempt; hunt foxes if it pleases us to do so; and force our loathsome politicians back into the shadows where they will once again feel at home.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Life. Part IV. A New Hope.

Just discovered I've been divorced for three months. No-one had thought to tell me. This is almost funny; in fact, I expect that years hence I'll laugh when I recall the moment my ex-wife broke the news that we hadn't been married for some time. In the moment, however, it felt like a slap in the face, not a punchline. Way-hay, I'm a bachelor again. If I weren't so fat that I can barely see my own dick in a mirror, an (occasionally) functioning alcoholic and in possession of a negative libido (I have been whiling away the evenings watching 'Dexter', an American TV series about a serial killer and I relate strongly to the eponymous anti-hero, who has found the perfect girlfriend in a woman traumatised by a previous abusive relationship into an extreme aversion to sex), I am sure that this situation would open up vistas invisible to the species Bridget Jones referred to as 'smug marrieds'. As it is, I can't think of this as anything other than Very Bad News. Perhaps the worst I have ever received.

Love is the most bitter of the many poisoned chalices that an uncaring universe has bequeathed to us, her most self-important creation. Or is that just me? When I reflect back on my life, it is blindingly obvious in the brilliant laser beam of hindsight, that love has caused me far more pain than hate, anger, guilt, shame and remorse combined. The fierce love I bore for my father caused us both anguish that ended, with his death, only for him. The less complicated love I bear for my mother causes us both great distress still, because neither of us knows how to express it. I loved my first wife so intensely that I was unable to enjoy life away from her and, when my love for her burned out suddenly and unexpectedly, the result was a year of abject misery for her and me. Unrequited love, which followed, hurts more than any physical pain short of torture but perhaps it leaves fewer scars than requited love gone bad. And then came true love - ah, true love - how exquisitely crafted it is to cause the maximum level of suffering that a normal human being can bear without breaking.

When I survey my friends and acquaintances, I can't help but notice that my experience of love is not unique. In fact, it seems to be almost universal. Everyone I know seems either to be enduring a miserable relationship, or not enduring it, causing misery of a different sort. A few gay friends seem to have avoided this love-trap but probably I just can't read their relationships accurately. The unconditional love that almost every parent bears for his children causes, of course, more agony than any of the other loves one is required to endure in an average life, and I can't help but wonder whether childless relationships - gay or straight - are not happier. Every misery that my father inflicted upon me must have felt twice as awful to him. When my young son told me that there were only two things he is 'sad of'; when mummy forgot to bring his pirate costume to school one day and the fact that I don't live with him any more, I sincerely wished I'd never been born.

I'd like to say that I'm done with love. That I'll stomp on the treacherous little turd's head the next time it shows itself. But the truth is I am hopelessly, forever, in love with many people and I will go to my grave lamenting all the pain those loves - requited or not - have wrought. 

Saturday 24 November 2012

Old friends

I was driving my schoolfriend Chris to Chippenham station this afternoon. Mis-guideldly, I suggested to my kids that they sing to Chris a song I'd taught them as infants, beginning 'God is a cheeky monkey...' Louie, one of Pieter's friends, was also in the car and he responded with 'Our God is a great big God (see here). Chris, sandwiched in the back seat betweeen Pieter and Louie, extemporised and suggested the alternative lyrics, Our God is a great big God, and he spends a lot of time on the bog.'

This suggestion was well received and resulted in much discussion of whether God is too fat to fit down the chimney at Christmas. We wondered, collectively, whether, if God farted continuously for the whole month of November, he might be slim enough by December 25th. In the end, we decided it'd be safer to rely on FC to deliver presents and let God take care of the hymns.

I wondered whether God the Father might have been a tragic mis-translation of God the Farter and his accomplices The Bum and the Wholly Shit but the kids had no opinion on this subject. Goodness, it's hard work undoing the damage we pay other people to do unto our kids.

The land of the blind

One shiny wet nose! 

Two big furry ears! 
Two big googly eyes! 

Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury

The captain is a one-armed dwarf
He's throwing dice along the wharf
In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king
So take this ring... 

Tom Waits

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king and, in a car with two occupants, the former zoology student is instantly promoted to resident expert on all matters ursine, when a bear appears unexpectedly on the road less traveled ahead.

'Holy crap!' says Spike, 'It's a bear!' Which is as succinct a description of our situation as you'd expect from a former student of English Literature. Moving with the grace of a ballet dancer and at the speed of a striking cobra, Spike hits the power window button (on his side, not mine).

'Um, will it charge the car, or anything?' he asks. I know less about bear biology than I do about foraminifera, say, but I have discovered in life that it's not what you know that counts, it's the conviction with which you express your opinion.

'No.' I said, authoritatively. 'It's just curious. We're probably the first human beings its ever seen.'

'What do they eat?' Asks Spike, evidently less impressed by my fund of bear-lore than I am. 'Um, vegetables, I think, and worms probably. Humans too, but rarely.'

The bear seems to be curious. It swiftly retreats from the road into the forest but I can see it examining us, peering out from behind tree trunks, evidently frightened, but not enough to vanish.

This is a magical moment. Neither Spike nor I had seen a wild bear previously in our 80+ combined years of globe-trotting and neither of us expects to see another. There are only a few thousand bears left on Hokkaido, or perhaps only a few hundred (see here for an impeccably researched article on the subject), and the more I think about it, the luckier I feel for having encountered one. Our bear is a beautiful animal, with dark brown fur and a honey-coloured collar and face.

It's a particularly bad time to be a bear in Hokkaido, though perhaps there has never been a really good one. To stray into a town, where the dustbins overflow with bear food in the way that Israel allegedly did with milk and honey, is tantamount to suicide. The news-starved providers of content for Japanese domestic TV dispatch reporters to cover the bear hunt and its inevitable death, at the hands of police marksmen. Terrified civilians are interviewed: 'How is this possible? I mean, I have a baby. The bear might have eaten her. Why isn't the government doing something?'

Spike suggested, and perhaps on this occasion he is even right, that the reaction of most Japanese citizens to our encounter would have been horror or revulsion or a demand for a detachment of paratroopers to be sent immediately to kill the beast. Spike and I spent most of our time together in Japan seeking out roads that no sane native of those islands would voluntarily travel. On the occasions when our attempt to drive such roads wasn't thwarted by an impassable steel-and-concrete barrier, we encountered virtually no other traffic. It is a bizarre experience, traveling in one of the most populous nations on earth, to find oneself completely alone, barely a dozen miles from the nearest 7-11. If you had a puncture out there, you'd either starve to death or walk out.

When we were students together, Spike introduced me to Tom Waits. I quoted the line at the head of this post in an essay on optimal foraging theory, written in my final exams, and I've been looking for an excuse ever since to deploy it again.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

As good today as it's always been

Driving through Bradford-on-Avon today, I passed an enormous truck, heading in the opposite direction. 'Hovis', said the words on the side facing me, 'As good today as it's always been.' The advertising genius who came up with this slogan is destined to go far. The claim is impossible to challenge. Competitors or consumers who say that Hovis makes tasteless, chewy, steamed dough can hardly complain, unless they are prepared to admit that Hovis, once-upon-a-time, made bread. Fans (are there any over the age of ten?) can congratulate themsleves on their judgement and a small percentage of the mindless majority might possibly be persuaded to defect from Allinson.

The only reason I am writing about this is that I have a good Hovis story, told to me by a bloke who was, at the time, very senior in Rank Hovis McDougall. One evening, after a few glasses of wine, he told me that RHM had participated voluntarily in serious discussions with the government of the day about reducing the amount of salt that British people consume in their ordinary diet. It turns out that, for most people, bread contributes more salt in absolute terms than any other dietary component. According to my source, RHM offered to reduce the amount of salt it used in bread manufacture by a certain, quite large, percentage and the government negotiator went away very happy.

What Hovis did then was very clever. The 'master bakers' - I swear that is what they are called - were instructed to reduce the amount of salt per loaf in all the 'own label' bread they produced on behalf of supermarket chains (how could the customers complain?) and increase, by a smaller amount, the salt per loaf in Hovis. Salt is what makes bread taste good. Result? Government ecstatic and consumers defect in droves from own-label bread and start buying Hovis, which now tastes better and generates much higher margins for RHM. The subversive/anarchist in me warms to any tale of authority being shown the finger in this way and I have had a soft spot for RHM (but not Hovis) ever since.