Jackie Kay (2010) Red Dust Road.

jackie kay

I was vaguely aware of Jackie Kay and had read an extract of this book a few years ago. Heard her speak about her novel Trumpet and knew she was a poet. Poets make the best prose writers. What stuck in my memory was her parents. Two white working class people that adopt two kids that happen to be black or coloured, or whatever term you’re comfortable with, because this is not about race, or about class, although both her adoptive parents are staunch Communist, this is a story about love.

John and Ellen were both from Townhead in Glasgow, but met whilst working in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was 25, she 18. They went to see Death of a Salesman on their first date and were married six months later, the day after April Fool’s Day 1954. Willy Loman often has that effect. They wanted children and couldn’t have children. They adopted.

Adoption agencies in the 1950s were run by Church groups. The Kay’s religion was Communism. Both had been pilgrimages to Moscow and John was organising and proselytising for Communist Party members in Scotland. They weren’t willing to lie about their affiliation and say they supported a Christian church group to help them get a much-wanted child. They were a straight talking couple and in many ways the heroes of the book and I liked them very much.  Indeed one of the lines I laughed out loud at was later in the book, in 2009. Ellen is taken to  Gartnavel hospital because her nose won’t stop bleeding and she’s lost lots of blood and been given a transfusion. The nurse asks her if she wants to see a minister and she answers: ‘Only if he’ll resuscitate me’.

Ironically, the book opens with Jackie meeting her birth father at the Nicon Hilton Hotel, Abuja, in Nigeria and he embarrasses her with his dancing, singing, praising of the Lord and calling for his daughter to be saved. He tells her he is a minister, but takes a sleazy interest in the mechanics of her lesbianism. He is also married to a woman Jackie’s age because the Lord has provided him with a younger partner because of his high sex drive. He wants to keep Jackie a dirty secret. He acknowledges her as his daughter. She is a professor. He too is a professor that studied trees and botany at Aberdeen University in the late 1950s. Jonathan, her birth father, is in some ways the villain. Jackie works hard to uncover how he got from a bongo playing good-time man about town who got a young white nurse Elizabeth from Nairn pregnant to the preacher, patriarch and arsehole he became.

This is a biography of what-ifs, the past less travelled. If Jonathan wasn’t black would Elizabeth have been allowed to keep the child she was carrying? She admits to wishing when she was younger to being white, like everybody else, but when in Northern Nigeria and her ‘red dust road’ homeland to being darker and blacker. Jackie’s quest to find out more about her birth mother are hampered by a different kind of fog. Elizabeth when they first meat has dementia. She wants to acknowledge Jackie and Jackie’s son, but she keeps forgetting. She like Jonathan has found salvation, but in her case the Mormon Church.

I like Jackie Kay, the questions she asks herself as the questions we ask ourselves. The Kay’s her father, mother and adopted brother are a godsend. The rest leave us blest to be who we are.

Citizenfour, Channel 4, 11.05 pm.

edward snowden


I missed the beginning of this programme, ironically because I was online. I spend too much time online. I’ve nothing to hide. Well, nothing much to hide. Here you have it. Everybody has something to hide. We can laugh now at the old-fashioned-spy networks of neighbours spying upon neighbours. You keep expecting Michael Caine to pop up in a John Le Carre thriller. It’s funny. An Orwellian world. Everything you say and do censored by the invisible other. Perhaps in North Korea we think. Think again.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary follows Guardian journalist Glen Greenwald’s meeting with Edward Snowden in Communist Hong Kong and Communist Moscow. There we have it. Casting is destiny. The equivalent of Michel Caine going the wrong way through Checkpoint Charlie and back into East Germany. Edward Snowden is a spy both the CIA and FBI are on his trail. Here he tells us why.

It’s old new. Not very important. Not on any of the major channels, given a late television billing. Edward Snowden worked for the National Security Agency (NSA). He worked for NASA on software and as a solution consultant for the CIA. He’s white. A smart man. You can imagine he was very well paid and had an easy life. Yet he says ‘I believe in the rule of law’. He steals documents which were published by among others The Guardian which show clearly that the only law which matters is what a small elite group of believe to be in America’s interest. Angela Merkel the Chancellor of Germany’s phone, for example, was tapped. We can give a wry smile to that.

After all Angela Merkel isn’t American and she might have some connection with the 9/11 bombers that brought down the Twin Towers. The legislation brought in after 9/11 makes every non-America suspect. Patriots will understand that organisations such as the NSA will do everything necessary to protect the American people and American interests. Those Americans that don’t believe that are also suspect and they should be investigated. Nick Bostron in Superintelligence gives an example of machine logic. In its quest to create the perfect paper clip a computer takes control of the resources of the earth and its surrounding planets and produces nothing but paper clips because using a Bayesian algorithm nothing can ever be certain. The next paper clip might be the right one. In the same way Britain allows its ally to use its citizens and its resources to spy on others. All of the major corporation and hardware companies design their products so that NSA can gain access their data.

The metadata we produce leaves a clear pattern of what we do and who we are. It can be accessed remotely and content can also be read. Edward Snowden is saying that is not any kind of democracy he recognises. The NSA has files on 1.2 million Americans. Think of the resources needed. Think of the resources wasted. Operational overhang. Glen Greenwald was arrested and detained at Heathrow airport under the Detention of Terrorism Act. Obviously he’s suspect. That next paper clip might be the next one. That next paper clip might be you.



Apocalypses echo what we know. The world will end. Three score years and ten. Well I’m looking at the tens. I’m not thumbing my nose and saying ‘Har, Har,’ because I’ll be dead. Let’s face it that kills any argument.

Nuclear Holocaust

We all know what this mean. Helen Macdonald was a wee lassie in the nineteen-sixties. She was instructed by her teacher how to make a nuclear fallout shelter in the cupboard beneath the stairs with old coats and a flask of tea.  But she was a nervous kind of girl. Her dad was far more practical. She tried to rope him into helping, but he told her not to be so daft. They lived close to a base and would be incinerated almost immediately. But not to worry. They wouldn’t know anything about it.

History shows that weapons when developed cannot be undeveloped. Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three-mile Island, small blips in a bigger war. International scientists suggest the atomic clock is at five minutes to midnight. But it’s been that way for quite a while, most of my life. I’m not worried, honest.

Global Warming.

The Third World War started. I must take some responsibility for this. We in Britain exported the industrial revolution and the world’s growing reliance of fossil fuels. The effects are still up there in parts-per million and they’re not going away. We add grist to the satanic mills and an increasing temperature. We’ll have less water for drinking. Less water to irrigate crops. And less land to grow crops. It’s too early to suggest a pattern or how it will pan out, but countries with the most people China, India, Pakistan have nuclear weapons. India have over a billion people. They control drinking and irrigation water such as the Ganges which flows into Bangladesh with a population of just under 170 million, on par with the population of their neighbours Pakistan. With tens of millions of people on the move I’d suggest the atomic clock be moved at least two minutes forward. Three minutes to midnight.

Global Pandemic

Global pandemic have always been with us.  The Black Death wiped out about 25 million, but the world was a smaller place. Imagine a third to a half of the population of Europe being directly affected by disease. It’s difficult to think like that. Recently we had Ebola, and it’s all about containment. Poor people’s disease. Adequate screening. We think if we can keep it over there we’ll be safe. But there’s no way of knowing. It’s a scientific arm’s race in which diseases mutate faster than we can fix them. And there’s always that suspicion that somebody somewhere will infect us on purpose. Three minutes to midnight.

Global Extinction –other species.

There are almost nine million non-hominid species sharing out planet (excluding bacteria). There are two baselines. One is the natural extinction rate if we, the human race, weren’t here. The other is measuring the effect we have on this ‘natural’ wastage rate. The National Geographic puts man’s impact as 1000 times greater than this background noise. The word decimate comes from the Roman legions putting to the sword 1 in 10 of their legionnaires who had not fought well enough, or had committed mutiny or desertion. It acted as an example to others. The decimation of our natural environment is ten to the power of three that magnitude. Global warming it going to put a different kind of strain on our relationship with other species. It may be a pyrrhic victory with the only ones left being man and man’s best friend. Best start stocking in the Pedigree Chum. Hot dog could be taken literally.


The Singleton seems a bit silly. It’s something we know about from sci-fi movies and Star Trek. Think of on-the run androids from Blade Runner. The out of control robot Will Smith is tracking in I, Robot. These are flavours of what the singleton means in the same way that Google glass, cars that drive themselves, and Apple watches that monitor health are aspects of enhancements that add to what we are, or what we are becoming. You look at automation such as Herb robots for housework. On the other side of that is the automation of mental work. Template programmes used by doctors to make diagnosis (machine does the thinking – the medical profession takes the credit). It’s been over twenty years since Deep Blue beat the world champion at chess. Bridge, checkers, Jeopardy! Machine learning wins time after time. Cinema again.  The ultimate indestructible robot Gort, mediated by Klaatu, who brought peace and the sword. Drones will deliver pizza and packages for Amazon, but in the not too distant future these same drones will be carrying passengers.  It’s a familiar world. But what happens in that blink of an eye when the machine learns about themselves and gains an awareness of existence, consciousness? With a seed Artificial Intelligence’s ability to read all of human history in a day we have created not so much a machine as a god. Our intellect and slow processing speed places us as the equivalent of woodlice to man. Venture capitalists such as Steve Joverston suggest ‘we’ll probably make good pets’. Three-D printers can print screws. Machines can make themselves. What need they for woodlice? I guess we like to think there’ll be some kind of Homer Simpson moment when we thwart the machines superior intellectual and physical abilities, including reproduction, by sticking it with a pastrami sandwich.

Apocalypse when?

At a cinema near you. Global warming has begun. I’d guess in the thirty-odd years I’ve left it’ll begin to bite. I’m sure all these other scenarios will kick in at the same time. The singleton one is the stupidest one, but unlikely doesn’t mean impossible and when impossible becomes probable there won’t be time to react. Your children and your children’s children won’t thank you for the world you’ve left them –if we’re still here. A minute to midnight.

Helen MacDonald (2014) H is for Hawk.

h for hawk

‘Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard. We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.’ (:265).

Helen MacDonald (2014) H is for Hawk.

What is a book about? Often it’s difficult to explain. Sometimes it’s easy. The easy explanation is this is a book about grief, about Helen’s dad dying and through the alchemy of training a young goshawk to hunt she rediscovers herself and learns how to live a grounded life. It’s a love story.  From the first pages the reader enters a different world. Helen’s dad has died and she’s doing something totally irrational. She has arranged to meet a man from Northern Ireland and take delivery of a goshawk her dreams are filled with. She has no job. No home. But she does have a hawk. There is a mix-up, of course. She is given a box with the wrong raptor. It’s a perfectly fine bird, bigger and stronger than the one she first set eyes on and fallen in love with, but it’s first love and she has to woo the man to win the bird that she desires.

Helen has a hawk. The hawk she names Mabel also has her. She has to erase herself, enter into the way a goshawk sees the world in a hawkish way. She’s sure she’s become isolated and deranged, but she can’t seem to help herself. As a palimpsest how not to train a fledging gos there is one book The Goshawk by T.H.White that she’s careful to avoid. The more she doesn’t look, the more she needs to look. Some books pick the reader. T.H.White with his chronic insecurity and self-hate entered into a contest between bird and human in which he had to lose himself to win the bird and create a new and better self. He failed, as he failed in many of his other lives as racy author, English gentleman and public-school master. His success as an author, The Once and Future King and The Sword in The Stone, were ways of channelling these failure into his characters’ success. Merlin and the young King Arthur success and failure were aspects of  T.H.White. This alchemy of characters and authors extends to Helen. Her biography of White’s failures and success allows her to pick apart her past as a girl that liked to hide under a bush and skulk and hide and watch the world working. Her dad had ribbed her in that proud way parents have about being a spy when she attended Cambridge as a young don.  There’s blood on the page but its love.

How can we comprehend love? That is the more difficult narrative. ‘Key to flat. Love Dad.’  Helen’s dad had posted it to her, a year past. ‘”My daughter the absent-minded professor,”’ he said, rolling his eyes.’  That reminded me of a similar note my mum had once sent me when I’d asked her to send me my birth lines. Two words scrawled: Love you. I knew it was true. I’ve got that note somewhere. This is a book that rings with truths. A book about birds that shows what it means to be human. Winner of The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2014.


BBC 4 iPlayer Storyville, The Internet’s Own Boy

aaron swartz


You have 19 days left to watch this. I suggest you do. It says a lot about where we are. Aaron Schwarz committed suicide 11th January 2013 in Brooklyn, New York. He was aged 26. Aaron’s girlfriend, Tarren Stinebrinckner-Kauffman, claimed that he wasn’t depressed, rather his suicide was the direct result of a vindictive prosecution and prosecutor out to make a name for himself. Perhaps it was something more than that. Perhaps less.

Aaron was arrested in January 2011. We see his clear image on a camera placed in a cupboard at MIT. He’d been playing cat and mouse downloading articles from JSTOR, avoiding their paywall, and saving them. His purpose for this remains unclear. But he had previous. He had downloaded a cache of medical journal’s research papers and shown a clear line between pharmaceutical firms and the authors of articles in prestigious journals. The implication being what you pay for is what you get. He also showed the commercial link between court records and the company providing this service for a fee was a lucrative scam. Those with money could and would pay. Those without would be relegated to a substandard form of justice which prejudiced the inherent rights to a fair trial. He helped set up a software system were public documents could be copied and accessed. Perhaps his greatest success was mobilizing support to prevent internet censorship explicit in legislation the Stop Online Piracy Act going through the Houses of Congress. This is the equivalent of stopping and re-directing a fully-laden oil craft tanker with quant poles used by barges. One of his two brothers remember FBI agents driving up to their house to check if Aaron was in and driving away again. Aaron was a remarkable man the ‘go-to’ man for news agencies wanting media friendly and savvy commentary on internet affairs.

Aaron was also a precocious child. His family were rich enough and middle-class enough to make extensive home movies. Even as a toddler its clear how articulate Aaron was. His elder brother talks about Aaron wanting to teach him algebra. The child had an inquisitive questing mind that wanted to know how things work. He found his nemesis in computer code. He could write and programme as easily as kids could play ball. We see the half-pint Aaron addressing a roomful of adults. He wasn’t so much their equal as their better. He co-designed tools such as RSS and Markdown. His coding prowess made possible the sharing of many of the images we take for granted such as the one I accessed ten minutes ago in IdeasTap. Creative Commons gives copyright law to ordinary people, not to make money but to share ideas. Aaron dropped out of Stanford and with three others developed the site Reddit. They sold it for millions. Aaron had $1 million. Traditional storylines show young go-getters turning that million into $100 million, or more, and being successful. Aaron was smarter than that. He wanted to do something useful with his life and it cost him his life.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ‘We Should All Be Feminists’.


About thirty-years ago some girl (although I I thought of her as a woman then – the bee’s knees in fact) was lecturing me about the evils of gender inequality, but I was more interested in the evils of her breasts. In other words I was an arsehole. I’m still an arsehole, but perhaps less fixated and more ready to listen to coherent argument.

The first question I would ask is who is Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche? I’d say she is one of the best writers in the world. Her words have weight. You don’t have to believe. Go and look for yourself.

Adiche tells us that 52% of the world’s population are women, 48% are men. The argument that men were better than women was based on their superior size and strength. And it may have had some validity. This no longer holds true. Whenever anyone makes that kind of argument, in its various forms, I’m now going to plant a meme in your head and you’ll become Carter in South Park and you’ll find yourself repeating in his voice. ‘It’s bad. It’s very bad. It’s very, very bad’. Practice saying it now.

See it works. Adichie tells us, ‘If we do something over and over again it becomes normal’.

This is called conditioning. She argues it is ‘one thing to know something intellectually, quite another to feel it emotionally.’

I found myself translating what she said and applying it to class inequality. When Adichie, for example asks ‘Why the word feminist?’ I ask Why the word feminist class?

She answers ‘that to use vague expressions would be dishonest’. ‘It is a way of pretending’.

I’m thrown back to Bob Doll, chief equity strategist at Black Rock and his 2011 statement cited in Plutocrats that ‘the bifurcation of the world into the rich and the rest has become conventional wisdom’. The rich, of course, don’t like the term rich, because it sounds divisive. Neither do they like the term ‘inequality’ for the same reason. Such terms question the legitimacy of their income. And not only that, it questions the morality of so few having so much and so many having so little. As Adichie says ‘it’s a way of pretending’.

Adichie finishes her polemic with ‘My own definition of a feminist class is a man or woman who says “Yes there is a problem with gender inequality as it is today, and we must fix it, we must do better.” All of us, women and men, must do better’.

These are the words of a wise woman, but if you hear politicians, bankers or friends of the super-rich spouting the usual verbiage and bile, cover your ears and remember the lesson of Carter from South Park.


Apple – the number 1 hit.


Apple’s quarterly returns $18 billion (around £12 billion) in three months from October to December 2014, selling 34 000 iPhones an hour, is pretty impressive especially when factoring in I don’t even have one. Nor do I have an iPad, AppleMac or neither will I purchase the much hyped Apple watch. So what took Apple to the top of the tree without me?

Quite simply they make beautiful toys, but that is not enough. They market them as the must-have gadget. And they blur the distinction between work and leisure. iPhones are not phones they are sophisticated computers with a growing number of appliance all of which can be bought and sold via Apple stores online or in an increasing number of towns.

With almost half the world’s population having access to a mobile phone it makes sense to target the place with more than half of the world’s population. iPhone sales to China – up 70% on last year. Apple plan to double the number of stores.

China also makes Apple what it is. It manufactures these toys, puts them in containers and ships them around the world. The typical factory worker is male, aged 27, a migrant from the provinces. He makes around £180 a month and works around 56 to 61 hours a week, but perhaps longer, when required. I like that idea of when required. It always makes things so reasonable. When required means when we tell you. In the same way 15-minute breaks every two hours sounds good when factory inspectors visit, or the working week is fourteen days on and one day off. The worker can return to rest in the luxury of hostel accommodation – money automatically taken from his wages. The strain does drive some workers to suicide, but that does not appear in balance sheets.

Apple employs a massive 170 000 workers in these plants. These are the hands that assemble and test and polish and seal and send you your toys. The brains, of course, is a different matter. To sell the next generation watches Apple have recruited Angela Ahrendets from Burberry as head of retail on a $73 million pay package.  Let’s make some simplifying assumptions. Multiply $73 million by around 1.6 to convert dollars to sterling. Divide that sum by 365 to determine what she makes in one day. Divide that by the pay of the average migrant worker in a year (£130 x 52). This will give you some idea of the order of magnitude and difference between head and hands.

Apple also employ around 4000 people in the Republic of Ireland. Like Communist China the Irish government is quite happy to subsidise building costs in return for much needed jobs. Steve Jobs greatest innovation arguably might have been technological, but Apple’s continued success rests on the double Irish. Quite simply when other US companies were paying corporation tax of around 26%, Apple as a Cork registered company was paying less than 2%. The European commission found the tax deal that ran 1991 to 2007 to be (illegal) state aid. More recently Apple paid 3.7% in tax of non-US profits of $31 billion in 2013. Apple is a global player.

Apples 2014 revenues of $200 billion and a cash pile build-up of $178 billion ($23 billion in the last quarter) banked overseas gives it high liquidity and more money that it knows what to do with. A standard ploy is to buy back shares and increase the dividend to their shareholders. But they found it cheaper to borrow money to do that than dip into their surplus. Their main competitors Google, whose revenue derives from the most lucrative algorithm in history, use many of the same methods. Somehow I don’t feel any richer for knowing that.  The old certainties of what was good for corporate America was good for the world are unravelling. We’re all second-class citizens in the same world, but the many hands are increasing.