Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Voice part 2

Remember a couple of weeks ago I wrote this? Well that was part one of 4 (or maybe 5, I don't know yet). Here's part 2.

He blinked a couple of times, adjusting to the painfully bright sunlight. His ears filled with the bright chirping of birdsong. The happy shouts of children pierced the air. As his eyes became accustomed to the glaring sunlight, he saw the green, leafy park that he knew so well. In the distance he could just hear the dull roar of traffic, undermining the playful sounds of nature, impinging on the little slice of paradise in which he stood.

He was standing on top of a small hill which overlooked the park. In front of him was a large, flat, green sea of grass, bordered by trees. Two such trees formed goalposts for an impromptu game of football. The players dotted the ocean like dingies in a race. Over to the right and slightly closer to him was a small play area, with slides and swings and a climbing frame over which a few small children swarmed. A short distance away, their cautious mothers sat on a picnic table and chatted, keeping a wary eye on their oblivious offspring.

It was a scene he was used to. He had lost count of the number of hours he had sat on the very grass he now stood on and relaxed, at peace with the little patch of forced nature, a frozen point in time, surrounded by a city which was always rushing headlong into the future. He looked to his right, expecting to see Emily standing beside him, beaming at the joy of those playful children. He felt a pang of sadness and snapped out of his nostalgic wonderings into better memories.

“So is this why you’ve bought me here? To remind me of the time we spent together? I don’t need any reminder.” He addressed the air, but he knew the voice was there. He didn’t think he could get away from the voice.

The thunderous laughter drowned out all the other sounds. “Don’t you think I know you better than that? I brought you here to show you something.”

“And what’s that?”

“Turn around and find out. I can’t tell you what you need to know, I can only bring you to places to show you.”

He turned around. The top of the hill was better covered with trees and provided ample shade on days such as this. Beneath each of the large trees, squatting in the dark shadow cast by the leaves of the tree, people sat. Sometimes in groups of three or four, chatting and laughing. Sometimes couple, lying down together, faces so close they could almost touch, smiles so broad that faces split in half. Sometimes just one person, lounging on the blanket of grass, resting their back against the tree, maybe listening to music, or simply watching, eyes barely open, as the birds sang them to sleep.

It looked like a scene he was used to seeing, except for one glaring anomaly that stood out to him, despite the fact that it was ignored by all the happy people. He was not sure whether he noticed it because it was so different from everything else, or because it was what the voice inside his head wanted him to see. Under one of the trees, not far away, someone was not revelling in the glory of the summer’s day, but rather sat, head in hands, shaking with heavy sobs.

Without thinking he moved over to her; the long, familiar golden brown hair and the delicate hands with painted nails told him the sobbing creature was female. He did not need to see her radiantly beautiful face with her bright green eyes glistening like jewels to know who it was.

“Emily?” His voice quivered, close to breaking down and sharing her tears.

“She can’t hear you” the voice was softer now, yet it still filled him mind, tormenting him.

“They why show me this?” he could not summon the emotion to shout, all he had was being poured into sympathy for the woman he knew, that deep down, he still loved from the bottom of his heart. Regret and guilt subdued his voice to a tired, dejected mumble. “I know she’s upset, why are you showing me this?”

“Look closer.” There was sympathy in the voice now. He wasn’t sure how genuine it was.

He got down on his haunches as looked more closely at her. He dared not touch her. His voice had done nothing, he was not expecting his touch to do anything more. He looked at her slender arms; they seemed paler now, lacking the natural tan that comes to one who loved nature as she did. Despite the summer’s sunshine, she was ghostly pale. Her anaemic complexion was not the only thing amiss. As he examined her arms, he saw the ends of pink scars, standing out like throbbing veins as they curved around her forearm. He gasped and as he did he inhaled the thick cloud of alcohol that hung like a pall around her.

Tear ran down his cheek and he fell forward, catching himself on his hands. He rocked back and forward. Sobbing for pain he’s caused. He could hear the distant laughter of the voice inside his head.

The scene faded and his room returned to him, the shafts of light still penetrated the sides of his curtains and the voice still cackled maniacally inside his head, sharper now, almost painful. Warm tears flowed from his eyes and rolled down the side of his head.

“So what was the point of that? Why are you putting me through this?” he spoke through strangled tears, trying to remain strong in the face of his tormenter.

“For weeks now you’ve been running from what you did. It’s time you stopped running and face the consequences of your actions on other people.” The voice was calmer now, there was no sign of the sadistic pleasure it had taken not a few seconds ago from his suffering.

“How do I even know that what you showed me was true?” there was silence, but for some reason, as he drifted off again against his will, he was sure the voice was smiling.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

playing in the image of God

The news broke this week that Scientists have created the first Synthetic living cell. This was done by recreating the DNA of a Bacterium cell and transplanting it into a host cell which has had its natural DNA removed. Although the DNA created was an exact replica of an existing cell, this breakthrough raises the possibility that DNA could be purpose-built to perform specific tasks. This means that we could, hypothetically, create new forms of synthetic life with a specific purpose.

This is not to say we will be creating synthetic humans in the near future. The breakthrough was made on bacteria DNA, which is far simpler than one human, plant, animal or even fungi cell, let alone entire organisms made up of billions of cells with different purposes and functions. While it is hypothetically possible, it would take decades before science was able to artificially create a human being using synthetic DNA.

Scientists think that this development could lead to a new industrial revolution because of the potential of this new technology to custom build organisms to serve a specific purpose by engineering its DNA. It has been speculated that bacteria could be created to produce new vaccines, new fuels and absorb CO2 in the atmosphere, reducing mankind’s impact on Global Climate Change. Indeed Dr Venter (the leader of the project) had already collaborated with pharmaceutical and fuel companies to design Chromosomes for bacteria which would realise the potential of this technology.

We should be sceptical however. No doubt the technology has great potential for good, but it also has great potential for bad; if we can create vaccines, we can also create diseases, if we can create fuels, we can create explosives. If history teaches us anything, it’s that mankind’s capacity for good is at least matched by our capacity for evil. Great innovations and technological advances are almost always followed up by a corresponding increase in our capacity to slaughter each other. I’m not saying we should not use this technology to better our lives, but we must be wary that we do not use it to end them. Technology is amoral, the way we apply it dictates whether a new technology is evil or good.

There are those who object to this new technology on principle. It has been claimed that, in creating synthetic life, we are ‘playing God’. Perhaps they fear that such hubris will lead to our downfall as a species. This is not a great work of tragedy however; it is unlikely that God (should he exist) will become jealous of our newfound power over his creation and bring a disaster of biblical proportions upon us for our pale imitation of Him. Indeed those who cry that we are ‘playing God’ at every biological advance (the same accusations were thrown about when we first cloned an animal) profoundly misunderstand what it is to be human.

The concept of ‘playing god’ means, at heart, manipulating our environment. It means adapting the world around us to suit our needs rather than adapting to the demands of our environment. This is something that mankind has been doing since the beginning of civilisation. Ever since mankind began to settle in permanent settlements and grow food rather than simply catching it, we have been ‘playing God’. Agriculture and animal husbandry are no different in nature from genetic engineering and creating synthetic DNA. We have been manipulating nature by selective breeding and farming for thousands of years. ‘Playing God’, ironically enough, is fundamentally human.

What sets us apart as a species is our ability to manipulate the world around us, out ability to ‘play God’. No other species on the planet is capable of adapting its environment in the creative and original ways that we can. What makes mankind the most successful species on the planet is not our ability to adapt to it, but our ability to adapt it to us. We make our lives better by making our environment better suited to our needs. We are able to do this because of our unique capacity for rational thought. We do not simply act according to instinct, but can act against our instincts to make the world a better place.

The concept of ‘playing god’ is profoundly human, which is hardly surprising given that we make God in our image (or vice-versa if you swing that way). This new scientific breakthrough is the latest chapter in a long history of ‘playing God’, a history that defines humans and sets us apart from every other animal on the planet. This history, however, runs in parallel with a long and ungodly history of mass slaughter. Our capacity to ‘play God’ bring out both the best and the worst in people and we must remain ever vigilant that we do not use our great capacity for self-improvement to make ever more efficient ways of killing each other. This technology should be used to improve our lives by further manipulating our environment; it should not be used to destroy lives by the same means.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The Voice, part 1

After the intense politics of the last few weeks I feels I should do something a little different. This is the first part of a new story I'm working on. Overall it should take 3 of 4 entries of about this size. It's a bit dark and weird, but that's the point. Hopefully not too cliché?

He ran through the endless corridor. He knew there was no point, that it would catch him eventually, but he ran anyway. Every few second he had to slow to throw open the doors which blocked his way. He could hear the doors splintering behind him. It did not need to slow down to open them.

Sweat matted his hair and trickled down his face. He could feel a drop balanced on his nose, waiting to be thrown off as he ran. For some reason it was excruciatingly hot in the never-ending corridor and the further he ran the warmer it got. It occurred to him that he might burn to death before it got to him. Listening for the next crash as the doors exploded into splinters convinced him otherwise. With a grunt he tried to pour energy that he didn’t have into his flight.

“You can’t run forever, boy” the voice boomed. “You can’t run from something you created.” The voice was almost inhumanly deep. So deep that he could barely tell where it was coming from. It seemed to reverberate around the corridor, seeping from the whitewashed walls and ringing around eternity. It was so loud that it deafened him, burned his ears and pulled him to a staggering halt.

Collapsing against the next set of double doors, he closed his eyes and waited for death to take him.

His eyes snapped open.

The room was dark but for the thin shafts of light piercing through the cracks in the curtains. He could see the black outlines of the furniture, barely visible in the ill-lit room. He shivered, partly from the cold and partly from the memory that was, thankfully, already fading in his mind. He shifted on the bed and shivered more; it was cold with sweat. His hair was matted with the cold perspiration and his pyjamas clung to his body.

Sighing, he dropped his head back onto his pillow and stated up at the whitewashed ceiling, glad that his ordeal was over. It had been the same every night every since that day so many weeks ago. He had come to see it as his punishment; no more than he deserved he supposed. That did not stop him from fearing sleep.

Tonight had been different however; tonight he had lost the race. For the first time he’d stopped and it had reached him. For the first time, he woke up afraid.

“You should be.” The voice echoed around his head. His mind exploded in pain at the sheer volume of the voice. It was all he could do not to scream. He turned even colder.

“Who are you?” he asked the deathly silent room.

“Who am I?” the voice replied in that same painfully loud boom, but with a hint of amusement that was even more terrifying. “I don’t have a name. I’m just a voice inside your head. I’m you.”

“You’re not me. I don’t torment people, I don’t drive them insane. You’re–“

“Ah, but you do, don’t you? Don’t you think you’ve tormented Emily all these weeks? Don’t you think you’ve made her life a misery, driven her insane by what you did?”

“That… That’s different. I didn’t mean to, I…” he trailed off and the voice laughed as sleep took him again, tears rolled down his face.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

where do we go from here? (Lessons from History 5)

So if you were following the election results flood (or should I say trickle) in on Friday morning, you’ll know that the Tories won the most seats, but not enough to have a majority, the Labour party lost out big time, coming a comfortable second and the Liberal Democrats had a poor night as well, winning fewer seats than last time, despite getting more votes. This means that we have a Hung Parliament for the first time in 36 years.

The last one was in 1974, when Harold Wilson’s Labour won most seats, despite polling fewer votes than Edward Heath’s Conservative party, who had been in power since 1970, when Heath won power from Wilson. As is constitutional, Heath tried to form a coalition with Jeremy Thorp, the leader of the Liberal Party, who has polled a lot of votes, but typically not many seats. Thorp demanded electoral reform, which Heath was unwilling to grant, so resigned. Wilson became Prime Minister, but at the head of a minority government. The Liberals did not even have enough seats to form a coalition with either party and guarantee a majority, so any government was inevitably unstable. On this occasion Harold Wilson battled on in a minority government until October, when he called another election and won an outright majority.

This is one of the only occasions in British history in which we’ve had a hung parliament because of the nature of our electoral system, the others are even less like the current situation. In 1929 the Labour Party again won most seats with fewer votes than the Conservatives. Wikipedia is sadly silent on what happened as a result of this election however.

Nevertheless the current situation is unique in British electoral history. With the LibDems doing relatively poorly however it is not as complex as it could have been. If we leave aside the 20 or so seats which belong to small parties and look at the three main parties, we have a situation whereby any coalition would have to contain the Conservatives because a Liberal Democrat/Labour coalition would not have enough seats to form a majority. They would then have to scrounge around for votes from the other parties and maybe even a few errant Tories. This would inevitably be very unstable and deeply unpopular with a public who resoundingly voted against Labour. For Brown to go on a Prime Minister have lost an election would be an affront to democracy. Just as in 1974 the incumbent Prime Minister cannot realistically form a coalition. Had the LibDems done slightly better and won enough seats for a Lib/Lab coalition to work, Clegg would be faced with a very difficult decision. As it stands he has only to decide whether to leave the Tories high and dry, or to form a coalition with them.

A Conservative/Liberal Democrat alliance looks most likely at this point; however there is the option that Cameron could try to go it alone as a minority Government, as Wilson did in 1974. They would be left with trying to scramble around for enough votes from Labour, LibDem and smaller parties to get legislation through. Most likely this would be a temporary solution with another General Election very soon. Indeed if the two previous examples of a Hung Parliament teach us anything, it’s that another election is sure to follow soon enough; it is almost a certainty if Cameron tries to go alone it will. The problem he faces is that, with the recession and the massive budget deficit, he will have to make major cuts in spending without corresponding cuts in taxes. This is likely to be unpopular with people, so he may not get the support he wants to be able to call and election. It would be better for him to form a coalition and so spread the blame for the cuts, rather than taking it all on himself and making his party unelectable for a generation.

This leaves us with a Con/Lib coalition, unless the Labour Party wants to form an alliance with the Tories, but I find that unlikely. The trouble is that there is a lot of differences of opinion between them; the LibDems will insist on electoral reform, which the Tories don’t want, their views on the economy are very different, as are their views on immigration. They will have trouble reconciling their differences, but if they do it will mean that the government will not only have a majority of the seats, but also the majority of the votes if you add together the Tories and the LibDems. That’s not something that has happened in a very long time.

One of the major reasons for Clegg agreeing to a coalition with the Tories is that (if it works) it will show that a coalition can be made to work. One of the major arguments against PR is that coalitions do not work and will lead to indecision and political horse-trading. A Con/Lib coalition could create a socially liberal, economically conservative party in line with the old fashioned Liberal party, which actually forms a good and decisive government. This would show the country that a coalition can work. It would take some of the best politicians in Westminster to make such an alliance work, indeed I don’t even think the best politicians in Westminster could make it work, but it would be lovely if it could happen.

Most likely we will see a loose, sketchy Con/Lib coalition which would struggle with indecision and political horse-trading for 18 months or so until the Tories feel comfortable enough calling another election, by which time the Labour Party will have imploded and the Tories will gain a decent majority. It will be back to more of the same old politics with no hope of electoral reform and no real change. Despite all the excitement the status quo will be restored within 18 months and Politics will become dull again. Then again we can but hope that our politicians aren’t lying to us and we’ll end up with some real change this time, we could also hope that the sun doesn’t rise tomorrow morning.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

How about the others?

So the election is next Thursday, and we all know about the three main parties and what they want to do (or at least we do if we’ve watched the televised debates, which we should have done), but what about the other parties? Politics is dominated by the big three, but at the last election 8% of people voted for other parties, which accounted for 29 seats. Granted most of these were in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where specifically Irish, Scottish and Welsh parties have a large degree of support, but I don’t really care about them because they’re just not silly enough. So here’s a rundown of some of the more extreme and just bonkers parties that you might have the opportunity of voting for on 6th may.

The Greens
Ok, not that extreme or bonkers, just very left wing and environmentally conscious. They are trying to stress however that they are not just about tree hugging; they are trying to be serious politicians who deal with all the issues. From looking at their policies however, I can only conclude that they live in some strange dream world where there hasn’t just been a global financial crisis and we don’t have a huge budget deficit. It’s spend, spend, spend and I can’t help but wonder where the hell they plan on getting all that money from. It’s not like it grows on trees of anything.

Because every civilised country needs its fair share of racist bigots who want to throw out all the immigrants and ban minarets. At least we’ve not elected them like Switzerland has. Basically they’re nutters who are trying to make themselves look respectable by having some almost reasonable policies mixed in with all the racist bigotry and ignorance. As you can see here, they almost sound reasonable when they’re not mentioning foreigners. Don’t be fooled though, as I’ve said before, the BNP are built upon a false premise of Britishness.

The Communist Party
As well as having a party of bigoted fascists, we also have a party of mad commies. I don’t think I really need to spell out what they want to do, if you’re unsure I’ll give you a hint – “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. Their manifest can be found here if you really want to know, but it’s not all that interesting, better to read the Communist Manifesto, as in the original, and assume that they essentially want to do that.

The Libertarian Party
A party that is actually quite close to my heart. They’re all for freedom, as in absolute freedom, both economically and socially. That is to say they want to all but dissolve government and leave it as little more than a police force, a military and a jury. Their end goal is to create a society in which there is no government as such, which they are trying to achieve by getting elected into government.

The Pirate Party
I really wanted this party to be all about Britain regaining control of the high seas by challenging the Somali monopoly on piracy, but no, it’s all about bootlegging (so that’s a misnomer right there). Essentially they want to make it legal to do things we all do already, like put music from CDs onto MP3 players, or recoding a program. They also have some great ideas about frees speech and privacy, but it’s still not a lot to run an election in.

The Christian Party
These guys actually have some interesting policies. However they seem to think that this is a Christian nation, not a secular one, a bit like the BNP. Ok that’s unfair, they’re not like the BNP, but they do want to impose Christian education on schools and impose Christian values on society. They’re not all bad, but the fact is church and State should be separate.

The Monster Raving Loony Party
Sorry, the Monster Raving William Hill Party, because they’re being sponsored by William Hill, the online betting site, William Hill. These guys are exactly what they say on the tin, absolutely bad-shit loco. See? Entertaining. They hold the UK monopoly on weird for the election, which is a shame because it would be great to have more parties to laugh with rather than at.

This is far from an exhaustive list of all the slightly bad parties running in this election. A full list can be found here. Even if you do vote for one of these weird and wonderful parties, do at least vote. No matter how bad our electoral system, or how pointless it would be voting for anyone but the main three parties, at least exercise your democratic right. You could even go into the ballot box and spoil your ballot of you wish, people have died for less.