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Monday 13 September 2021

Ninja Laser Robots Stole My Belly

Over the years, this blog has featured a veritable cornucopia of topics great and small. I've covered why babies are useless, the reasons hurricanes are over-rated, why radio astronomy is pretty, how there are no whales in Boston, and there has been many an over-lengthy monologue on why philosophy is awesome.

But there's one thing I've never said a word about, and that's fitness.

"But Rhys !" you surely say, "That's because physical fitness is about as interesting as a documentary about hippo vomit."

You're not wrong. While I do like walking up a good mountain, exercise for its own sake is abominably, frighteningly dull. I'm never going to munch on a carrot as a healthy snack because that is just all kinds of nasty. I'm not adverse to expending physical energy so long as it serves a clear, enjoyable purpose, like walking across a nice glacier or seeing a lovely solar eclipse. Or even just a good view of a bunch of trees. But simply expending energy for its own sake... urrrrgh, no ! That's as bad as deliberately choosing a kale smoothie when a perfectly good chocolate milkshake is available. It's just not me.

Now, back in the day I'd be walking the dog for a good hour each day. In Wales. Which is to say, a country where flat land is at a premium and you have to be very careful getting up each morning in case your house has fallen off a cliff. And since I didn't eat particularly much, I was probably closer to being described as "scrawny" rather than "normal".

For all sorts of reasons, this has shifted over the years. I've come to enjoy eating and (especially drinking) out, and the feasibility and terrain for dog walking has changed markedly. So very, very slowly, things have... enlarged.

Me last summer sinking into a black hole behind our institute, after eating too much goulash.

Last Christmas things reached a tipping point. At 81-82 kg, I was a good six or seven kg over a healthy BMI : not awful, but not good either. And I just didn't like the excess flab that was building up. Nobody said anything (hah, they wouldn't dare), I just didn't like it. So I decided to do something about it the only way I know how : obsessively and with technology. Which, coincidentally, is also literally the exact plot of The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Though the end results are quite different.

Prior to this I'd been discovering the wonders of virtual reality on my Oculus Quest. Having heard that such devices were being used for fitness, and finding that the training dojo in Vader Immortal could leave me sweating profusely, this seemed like a sensible way for me to go.

It also helped that Shirley bought me a TickWatch Pro for Christmas. With a built-in heart monitor, it can track your heart rate and calories burned during any sort of exercise program you care to try. Why does this matter ? Because then you have data. And you can very easily monitor data in a way you otherwise can't for physical appearance. You have quantifiable, measurable, objective goals you can either meet or miss.

See, a lot of people I know go running or whatnot (BORRRING !) to lose weight, but, with one or two notable exceptions, I can't say I've ever noticed any change. And I knew full well that if I tried to do something really dull with no obvious, visible benefits, I'd pack it in in about twenty minutes. But give me some objective numbers to follow, and the lack of immediate reduction in the protruding gut might not have me throwing in the towel after a week or two.

Meaningless counters aren't always so meaningless.

So, in the first week of January, with as much knowledge of fitness as I have of snail physiology, I set about devising a daily exercise program. I began by deciding to monitor my weight systematically and as scientifically as possible. That is, I would only do so at the same time on the same day each week, to minimise natural variations. And I'd only do so once per week, avoiding the temptation of the sort of constant-checking-for-important-email-every-five-minutes to which I routinely fall victim*. I'd monitor my activity using my watch, recording the calories and average heart beat for each exercise session.

* Later, I did give in to this temptation, but I only graph the data weekly.

I started with a 30 minute session of Vader Immortal every lunchtime. The story element of the game doesn't involve much in the way of moving around, but the training dojo is another matter. This is under-rated as an exercise game, as you're kept moving rapidly around to hit targets from all directions and at different heights. There's a natural tendency to swing your arms forcefully even though you don't really need to, and the easiest move to avoid getting hit is (by far) to squat or duck. You can minimise this by making the smallest movements possible, but only to a certain extent - and you can't escape the need for speed. So although not really designed for it, it's definitely useful.

This is from the third game, but I find the one in the first game the most challenging.

It must be said that this is terrific fun. You start with the same primitive training drone that Luke starts with under Obi Wan's tutelage, then progress to a whole series of robots firing laser and wielding lightsabres of their own. You get the characteristic "hmmmmmm" and "pssssshhhhh ! sounds and some nice haptic feedback to convince you you're holding a proper laser sword. And things generally respond as well as is physically possible given that they have no physical substance. It's a simple game, but in terms of quality I would rate it AAA.

"And this is gonna help me defeat the Empire ?" "No, I just thought you were looking a bit tubby."

Initially the 30 minute session was more than enough for me. That was about as much as I could comfortably handle.

Over the first three weeks my weight seemed to be going down very promisingly, dipping under 80 kg. I had no preconceived idea as to how fast this should be, but this felt great ! For a miniscule time commitment to doing something I actively enjoyed, things were dropping very nicely.

I began to very gradually increase the intensity and duration of the sessions. After four weeks I increased the length to 40 minutes and started on more challenging levels (the dojo has 40). The calories I burned went from ~300 to 400 per session. Yet, despairingly, my weight seemed to level off at a bit over 80 kg. After five weeks, this was very unsatisfying.

Crucially though, I enjoyed what I was doing. I was having a lot of fun blasting stuff with a lightsabre. So I didn't stop the process - I escalated it. 

I really like VR archery games, so I bought one called Holopoint that's specifically recommended for getting a workout (the much more popular Beat Sabre doesn't appeal to me - I found the demo a bit lifeless and I don't understand what the hype's about). Like Vader, Holopoint involves hitting targets coming at you from all directions - but there's a good deal more movement involved. Each time you shoot a target, it explodes and fires a projectile straight at you, forcing you to immediately either sidestep, duck, or otherwise swerve out of its way. This naturally encourages you to keep in motion at all times, so that the projectile is aimed at somewhere you've already moved from. You can't shoot and then fire, you need to fire while already moving. And the area in which you can move is very much larger than in Vader Immortal.

These extremely crude graphics recently got a massive overhaul. It now looks a lot less cartoonish and more detailed, without being distractingly detailed.

Like Vader, you get a variety of targets, from simple cubes to samurai warriors and annoyingly sneaky ninjas. The virtual world doesn't have the physicality that Vader does, but it's again simple, easy to learn - and demands a whole other level of strenuous exercise. In Vader you squat and swing your arm. In Holopoint, you're going a bit mental.

It must be said that Holopoint is at first very frustrating indeed. Initially, I could play it for maybe 20 minutes before I was just too exhausted to continue - and I'd feel the effects for hours afterwards. Getting past level 6 is pretty darn tough, and reaching level 16 took frickin' ages. The hardest part to learn is how to rapidly load and fire consistently, and in the first few days I was extremely irritated by constantly fumbling at a critical moment. Oh, and you only get two lives per level, and checkpoints are limited, so if you foul up you can't just try again immediately. By design, this game is difficult. At times, this does become annoying.

But it works. My calories burned went to 400, 500 per session. Six weeks in I switched from a hybrid Vader-Holopoint combo to pure Holopoint, increasing the duration to 50 minutes. Calories burned became 600-700. My average heart rate stayed at a steady 130 BPM, although looking back over the records things got a lot more consistent. I learned how to move in such a way that things became more unconscious and less tiring.

(Later on, I also started jumping and squatting in response to specific targets. This definitely helps, as does deliberately trying to play as though things were much more urgent than they were, e.g. shooting targets as though they would explode more quickly than they actually do. Of course, you can also dial Holopoint back and play with much smaller body movements - the flexibility is a very nice feature. I play using flexible "rules" of my own : if I start feeling exhausted, or I'm in danger of losing a level, I reduce the intensity.)

By the middle of March, though, I was still 79.5 kg. But no matter, I was having fun. I continued to increase the intensity and duration. Whereas at first 20 minutes would have left me exhausted for hours, now I could manage a full 60 minutes and recover faster. So I was optimistic that something was improving, even if the flab wasn't falling as fast as I would like.

Around this point I decided I should graph my weight :

It's a fallacy that the vertical axis should always start from zero.

Which was both good and bad news. Just from reading the list of numbers I'd had no real clear idea of the overall trend - it was hard to say if I was seeing a genuine steady decrease, or just fluctuations in the noise. The graph made it inescapable : things were heading in the right direction. Slowly, perhaps, with an average loss of 0.15 kg per week, but nevertheless steady and continuous. I'd been initially fooled by the sharp post-Christmas drop (look at those first three points !), but overall things were positive. And it was probably a good thing I waited this long to graph it, because it's only at around week 12 that the trend starts to become really clear. Before that, things would have looked a lot more ambiguous. This clear decrease was a big morale boost, and I was very surprised by just how darn linear it was.

Still, this felt very slow. If you Google stuff like VR fitness, you'll find all kinds of outlandish anecdotal claims about massive weight loss that seems more on a par with what you'd expect from amputation than exercise. Maybe some of them are even true, but I wasn't experiencing such huge improvements.

Two key things, however, were that I could monitor everything, and I was still very much enjoying the process. Being able to show that I was indeed expending significant amounts of energy doing an activity that I was both good at and enjoyed was hugely important in continuing.

So in mid April I upped the ante dramatically, adding a 40 minute session in the morning in addition to my lunchtime hour*. And that made the world of difference. Having stalled on Holopoint's level 27 for the longest time, I managed to complete the full 30 waves - at first by luck, but then it started to become routine. I made the top 10 on the scoreboard, the best result I've ever achieved in any game ever (I'm currently number 5). And I increased the morning run to a full hour. Then I really started to notice the difference : where 20 minutes had once left me feeling dead for the day, now two hours was no burden at all. My average heart rate during the sessions increased to 140 BPM and I was burning 700-800 (even 900 on occasion, though that was overdoing it) calories each time.

* With hindsight, I could have increased the intensity/duration a lot more rapidly than I actually did, but the advantage of doing it so slowly was that I barely noticed any increased difficulty.

I also started Googling stuff. It seems that it does take a while for the effects of exercise to filter through - it takes time to both lose the weight and increase muscle strength. While in some sense it's simple (more energy consumed = more weight lost), in others it's not : muscles have to heal, which requires gaining weight initially. And while it seems that actually lighter exercise is more efficient at burning fat, the total amount of fat burned (which is what's relevant) it always higher in more intense exercise. Different levels of intensity consume different proportions of fats or sugars, but in terms of weight loss and sheer amount of fat burned, more is always more. 

Basically the mantra seems to be, "do as much as you can, as often as you can, as hard as you can - but no more than that". At one point I found that I'd reached a point of too much intensity, where things were so tiring I'd simply have to stop - consequently I'd burn less calories than a longer, gentler, more fun session. So I dialled it back a notch, sticking with a steady pace I could happily maintain rather than a more demanding one that I couldn't.

This worked. My weight began to fall very much more rapidly :

Around week 25 I thought things might be plateauing, but this was just the effect of statistical variations. It's really important to remember that one can hardly see week-by-week changes, but recording the data is essential for discerning long-term trends. Also, I noticed no pattern in the weekly wiggles whatsoever - the human body is just darn complicated, so trying to ascribe a particular cause to any given data point (e.g. "it must have been that pizza I ate") is a fool's game, and one would do well to avoid it.

During all this I'd made minimal changes to my diet - and I really do mean minimal. I'd eat one toastie for lunch instead of two. I'd eat a couple less snacks. I'd drink a bit more juice. And honestly, that's it. No kale smoothies. No munching carrots. No replacing bacon with broccoli. And of course, no deadly dull morning runs, or gym subscriptions, or anything really horrible like team sports (urrggh !). Just doing an activity that I enjoyed when and for as long as I enjoyed it.

If I can do it, then dear reader, I assure you that you can do it do. Maybe it's more efficient to lose weight by changing your diet, but that isn't going to work for me. The better solution for me may be less efficient, but so what ? It's one I can actually do and actively want to do instead of feeling like a chore. I don't wanna kick a ball around. I wanna shoot robots and ninjas. I don't want to feel like I'm doing exercise, I want to do something I'd enjoy anyway. Get that right and the rest is easy.

So efficiency can go hang. The point is to expend as much energy as possible, not expend as much energy as fast as possible. As pointed out somewhere, it takes the same amount of energy to get from A to B by walking as by jogging. Sure, jogging is faster, so you can burn up the energy more quickly, but if it's so tiring that you won't do it at all, it's far better to walk. 


At week 22 I hit a just-about-healthy BMI according to the NHS. I'd also dropped a jeans size. Not until week 32 did I hit a perfectly healthy BMI level, however. Had I upped the exercise routine earlier, I could probably have hit my target a couple of months earlier without too much bother.

From my smartwatch app, my initial exercise routine looked like this :

30 minutes of Vader Immortal's training dojo. It felt intense at the time.

My latest routine (of which I try to do two each other workday ) looks like this :

About 40 minutes of Holopoint and then 20 minutes of Ninja Legends, which I've just recently discovered. I note that my watch's accuracy isn't perfect, and spikes which are anomalously high or low are quite common.

Eventually I'd like to reduce this back to an hour a day, or ideally every other day. Currently it's twice every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (my home office days) and once on Tuesdays and Thursdays (weekends are rest days, which are important). This means I don't get as much time for blogging or other free activities as I'd like, which is a bit of a burden.

Finding the sweet spot, the equivalent of neutral buoyancy, is a challenge. In the last few weeks a variety of factors beyond my control (pulling a muscle in my side, the light breaking in the hallway - which messes up the Quest's tracking - the need to avoid exercise after vaccination) conspired to reduce my routine significantly. Yet overall, the trend kept going down just as steeply. Exactly how this works is hard to say, and nutrition, I've learned, is darn complicated. One of the interesting things that everyone seems to agree on is that the lost weight escapes, just like a car or a plant, through breathing, and a little bit through pee. Which is to say you can't try and poop yourself thin - either your exercise/diet is working or it isn't.

Annoying, when after I returned from my holiday I'd gained 3.5 kg back, despite walking the dog each day, though I did also indulge heavily in much-missed British snacks. I regret nothing. Still, the search for a sustainable minimum continues.

Let's finish with a word on economics. A full-price Oculus Quest version 1 cost ~£400. Gym prices in the UK seem to be around £20 per month, so £240 per year. In the Czech Republic things are (surprisingly) more expensive, with £360 yearly being more typical. The Quest 2 is also substantially cheaper at £300. So purely as a replacement gym - if all you want to do is lose weight and don't care about lifting heavy objects - the Quest is competitive. Factor in that you can use it whenever the hell you want, don't have to deal with other human beings, and of course it can do an awful lot more than just exercise games, and it becomes a thoroughly good investment.

My take-home messages :

  • Losing weight is difficult. It's a long, arduous process. If you don't find a method you continuously enjoy, it isn't going to work. For me that's fighting through wave after wave of ninja laser robots. For you it might be making a tastier salad. Go with whatever works.
  • By the same token, efficiency is over-rated. Like the Orion nuclear pulse propulsion drive, waste isn't always important if you've got plenty to throw away. I can sustain battling ninjas indefinitely, and that's more important by far than the fact that guzzling kale smoothies would probably be a lot faster.
  • Do not worry too much about weekly variations. It's the trend that's important, and you're not going to be able to discern that until at least two months in, unless of course you're doing a much better job than I did.
  • You now have a good economic health-based justification for buying that fancy VR headset you've always wanted. You're welcome.

Friday 10 September 2021

Expedition Cardiff

We now interrupt our special features to resume our regular service...

That's right, a TRAVEL POST ! WOOOO !

For obvious reasons, it's been 18 months since I was last in the UK. This is by far the longest I've ever been away. Although living a gilded cage is incomparably better than living in a dung heap, it's still... not ideal. I love working from home, and long may this pandemic-induced trend continue. But that doesn't want to mean I want to be literally caged up here forever.

Travelling in times of a pandemic is a bit different to normal. The worse part wasn't the new procedures themselves, but the disorganised mess of figuring out exactly what the regulations are in the first place - both on the Czech and British sides. In the end I had to email both governments to determine what I should do, because both had confusing instructions though for different reasons. The British had a nice, clear website with, easy-to-follow, contradictory instructions and webpages that were updated out of step with each other. The Czechs had a horrendously over-complicated flowchart that was plastered with random symbols for some reason. Fortunately, somewhat incongruously, both responded promptly and cleared up this mess very easily.

The procedures I had to follow were :

  • Book flights. EasyJet have not yet resumed their Bristol service, so this meant a Ryanair flight through Stansted and a National Express bus to Cardiff. This was all very cheap, but added an extra 7 hours (!) to the journey. And the extra complication of finding the different route in the first place, of course.
  • Get a negative test result within the 72 hours preceding travel to the UK. This meant searching for a host of testing centres until I found one that definitely gave me the required documentation. I paid the equivalent of about £20 for this, which I found out on the day that I needn't have done since two tests per month are covered by Czech health insurance.
  • Book a test for day 2 after arriving in the UK. This was relatively easy since the Welsh government insists on using one particular supplier, but it cost a stupidly expensive £88. Which is utter bollocks because that's the same price they used to charge for two tests.
  • Fill in the UK's passenger locator form, which is easy but needlessly tedious. For some silly reason you can't do this until the last two days before you leave, which is irritating and pointless. The Czech equivalent on the way back asks for all the same information but can be completed in a small fraction of the time simply because it has a better, more concise layout. It also doesn't try and make you feel like a criminal in the way the British one does with its constant veiled threats.
  • Print out all this documentation plus my EU Digital Covid Certificate (a.k.a. vaccine passport), in order to avoid the need for 10 days of self-isolation. This meant a trip to the office on the day of departure.
All this made me considerably stressed. I'm far more sympathetic now to people who complain that things are complicated : individual steps really aren't complicated at all (the concept of the "amber list" is hardly the double slit experiment, for goodness sake), but combine the whole mass with different, constantly-varying rules for different countries and overly-elaborate government websites and actually yes, it is rather unpleasant. Why can't there just be a simple web-based form ? Input your country, vaccination status, etc. and have it spit out the customised rules for your travel, with warnings about what to do if the status were to change. It ought to keep an unpaid government intern busy for all of twenty minutes. Like, say, this one.

(Incidentally, I thought long and hard about whether to travel at all. In the end, since me and my whole family are double-jabbed, and I would also be tested, the risk seemed to be as low as possible. And given the unpredictable nature of the restrictions and the virus variants, it seemed like there was no better time - the thought of another 18 months is frankly unendurable.)

Well, I'm pleased to say that after becoming increasingly anxious in the final few days (not least because I would have to leave Shirley and the dogs behind), as soon I got to the airport everything went as smoothly as possible. "Be early", they said. "It's very busy right now", they said.

It wasn't. It was deserted. If it had been any more deserted there would have been tumbleweed rolling through and a creepy-looking dude playing a banjo.

It took me all of 25 minutes to get through check-in and passport control. Hardly anyone was using the non-Schengen terminal so the passport queue was non-existent, and the check-in was mainly slow only because everyone else seemed to be travelling in groups. The extra documentation didn't seem to matter much at all in terms of extra time taken.

This helped put me much at ease covid-wise*. Apart from a couple of choke points, social distancing at the airport was maintained by default. And in those exceptions I was always with my fellow passengers, who would necessarily be similarly double-jabbed and negative tested. They were all wearing masks too - I can't say I saw any covidiocy in the airport at all.

* What I would have done if my pre-departure test was somehow positive I know not. Melt, probably.

So my two and a half hours of waiting in an empty airport was rewarded with a very pleasant and mostly empty flight with a very nice view of the clouds.

At this point I kind of relaxed exhilaration took hold. I became acutely aware of just how important the trip really was. The sense of relief was palpable. The anxiety vanished and elation took hold. No amount of Zoom calls or the like can ever replace in-person contact; for the first time in a long while, I could actually appreciate how marvellous the ability to fly around actually is and not just whine about the restrictions of budget airlines or the inconvenience of the experience. When you're choosing to fly a few times a year, these things do become problematic. But when you can't do this any more, when you're prevented from seeing friends and family for eighteen months, these pressing issues become the utmost trivialities.

I'd left in the midst of a protracted discussion about some philosophy crap. At times, as perhaps any good discussion should, it had become rather heated. And I just remember thinking very clearly how anyone able to spend their spare time having a philosophy discussion ought not be quite so angry that the other fellow is a twit, but simply marvel and rejoice at how fortunate they all are to be able to have such a discussion at all. It's marvellous, really.

Of course, such a feeling in unsustainable. You can't continuously, actively appreciate everyday occurrences, it'd drive you mad. But it's a nice feeling while it lasts.

I remember seeing some cynical twattery back at the start of pandemic about how we should let the airlines fail. Well !

I mean, seriously, just fuck off.

What in the hell the aim of letting the airlines fail was supposed to be I'm buggered if I know. I mean, sure, they may have some very unpleasant characters, but are all their staff profiteering capitalist oppressors ? Really ? Every stewardess ? Is every passenger taking a cheap flight a climate-change-denying consumerist moron who just wants to get blind drunk and wave their gonads around on a foreign beach ? Like hell.

Cheap travel is wonderful and we should celebrate it. Yes, we should probably not fly ten times a year if we can avoid it, and yes, we should actively seek alternatives and use carbon offsetting (I paid for mine) whenever we have to fly, as well as investing in non-polluting vehicles for the long term. But we should also not forget just how important it is to see the world, and most of all to be able to see our far-distant families. All you cynics posting anti-social-media memes on social media, forever hypocritically banging on about how we should talk to each other more instead, well, let me tell you, there is no more important human connection than seeing one's family in person. Anyone ranting about the evils of cheap travel is a vacuous twerp who ought to go home at once and rethink their life.

That said, Ryanair's carry-on policy is a bunch of bollocks, because you can easily get a bag at least 50% larger than advertised under the seat in front of you. That was a concern I really could have done without.

Anyway, I landed in Stansted and disembarked swiftly. Like Prague, it wasn't even remotely close to its apparent usual capacity. I celebrated my repatriation my gorging myself on a Wispa Gold, some angel slices, a packet of Monster Much and some Ribena. Say what you will of British food, our confectionary is as good as you'll find anywhere. Not posh, to be sure, but perfectly decent.

I had to hang around outside the airport for a while but this was fine because of my prolonged state of exultancy. I walked the length and breadth of the car park twice just to pass the time, which is a dull place but I didn't care. Then I got on the bus and went home.

The number of other planes I saw at the airports was about the same as the number of cars in the car park.

The bus trip was about as exciting as you'd imagine being on a bus until 2:30am could ever possibly be. The only excitement was the 50 minutes in the Victoria coach station. Now the bus itself had all of six other people aboard, so as covid-safe as is reasonably possible. But the station was full of maskless idiots, which annoyed me quite a lot. So I waited in an empty section and ate another angel slice, which was delicious. And then I went home.

The next day I had a pint of something in an actual pub and it was delightful.

For the next three weeks, mostly I did homely things like walking the happy little dog :

With side cast of herons, kingfishers, fish, moorhens, a fox, and a great big hedgehog. It was lovely. I felt little need to do anything special, that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted normal. And I got it in spades, which was fan-bloody-tastic. My mum made scones and a great big chocolate cake, which is about as homely as you can get.

I thought about putting the jam on first on one and second on the other, just to really annoy the internet, but I was hungry.

Once, I did technically visit a nightclub when running into some physicists. But this really was a technicality : in fact it had been converted to an outside sit-down bar. There was no music at all, and certainly no dancing, just people sitting around at picnic tables getting drunk. That level of interaction I'm covid-comfortable with; an actual nightclub I would certainly shun for some considerable time, covid-passports aside.

Unlike many previous trips home, this one featured exactly no astronomy at all. But I did do an experiment - to wit, testing these super-fancy whiskey glasses that Shirley insisted were amazeballs. If you read the website, they talk about "bio mimicry" and "standing waves", which has all the classic hallmarks of bullshit. I mean, what sort of animal is suitable for bio-mimicry for the purposes of drinking whiskey ? If they look like anything, it'd be a sort of cone jelly, and I imagine that most of them have the same level of whiskey knowledge as an American I once met who introduced himself as being Scotch. But Shirley ordered them (far cheaper for me to bring them back in a suitcase than get them shipped to Prague), and she said we should test them. So a friend and I did just that. Thoroughly.

No no, thoroughly.

That bottle was full when we started, and it was emptier still by the time we finished.

In fact we tested four different glasses with a single malt. At first, we were both resolutely unimpressed. The Talisker glass gave a much stronger smell and flavour immediately. The shot glass, well, it's a shot glass. The Penderyn glass was delicious. The Norlan glass, however, was devoid of smell and tasted positively bland.

After continuing to sample the whiskey from the various glasses, we were quite convinced that the "bio-mimicry" had failed as spectacularly as you'd expect when you put a cone jelly in charge of a complex chemical research project. But then... we decided to let it breathe for a few minutes.

Well ! I suppose I have to re-assess the whiskey-appreciation skills of the humble jellyfish. The other glasses did something, but not very much. The taste and smell from the Norlan glass, however, was transformed. What you get is a massively richer, more complex flavour, very much smoother and without the harshness of the alcohol. We still don't think the glasses do the pseudoscience crap described on the website, but blow me they're doing something - and doing it well.

Our final extremely drunken assessment was something like the following :
  • The shot glass is only to be used by Ian McShane in the wild west.
  • The Talisker glass gives the best results if you absolutely need to drink your whiskey as soon as possible. It is also the most satisfying to hold.
  • The Penderyn glass is the best if you're the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty in the 18th century and are having an important meeting to plan a mission to measure longitude. It gives the most smokey results by far, but loses all of the other flavours.
  • The Norlan glass is easily the best under all other circumstances. They're expensive for glasses, but not as expensive as the Borg-assimilated pumice infuser they sell (whatever the hell that is), or the £450 it'll set you back for a box and four glasses. They're pretentious twats, to be sure, but they doing something right.
  • Drambuie is completely unaffected by any glass as it overpowers everything.
I also took advantage of Amazon Prime actually working properly in a country with next-day delivery and got the Hollow Crown trilogies on blu-ray. And wandered around an actual physical bookshop buying books and a delicatessen buying high quality cheese. Wales may not be France or the Netherlands, but we absolutely do world-class cheese.

This is Cardiff's city hall, not far from where I bought the cheese.

Which I feel was a very productive day.

I made indulging my evil consumerism easier by finally getting around to setting up Google Pay, so now I can not just pay for things with my phone, but my watch. Madness, I tell thee, but convenient madness. Though I was tempted to go a bit mad with buying more books, I also wanted to take some more of my old ones back with me. This involved a lot of unpacking and sorting from storage.

Afterwards I re-packed them in carefully labelled boxes, so next time it should be a lot easier.

And I can read them all in comfort thanks to finally, after four years, getting new glasses. My prescription has only changed slightly, but it took a lot more getting used to than I was expecting. It's a very strange sensation. Everything close just felt immediately clearer and bigger. Everything far away seems a bit sharper. But everything in the middle distance had (and this has diminished but still not completely faded) a different feeling of distance, as though I'm not quite properly able to judge how far away it is. This goes away instantly when I take them off, and I find it very strange how mere lenses can change such a fundamental part of my literal world view.

And finally, my mum has been on an Ancestry binge and has traced part of the family as far back as 1807. Here, for instance, is my great grandfather Edgar Smith, who was on the Welsh rugby team back in 1907-8:

We already knew about him though. More interesting are these fine figures, who we believe are my great great great grandmother and grandfather.

We don't know much about them, except that surely great-great-great-granny is very likely to be haunting someone somewhere. Incidentally, I re-read Dracula before I bought all those new books. Just thought I'd mention that.

The highlight of the records are my paternal grandfather's letters to my grandmother during the war.  Here he is somewhat later (right), with his father at his chemist's shop.

In the war he served aboard the tank landing ship HM LST 3504, renamed HMS Pursuer some years later, on a mission that went through Egypt, up to India, and eventually to Sumatra. His letters were limited as to what he could day, though the route of the ship could be quite well-traced. He talks about landing troops at one point, but that's about the extent of the military content.

I found them a hugely interesting read. He died when I was very young so I don't remember him all that much. The letters are... a warts-and-all view. He talks about the "wogs" and "coolies" and "dirty Indian villages", as well as breathtaking scenery and other places which are basically hell on Earth (Port Said in Egypt is apparently a "godforsaken place"). There's also a deep homesickness, something I can certainly empathise with, a burning desire to return to family and home. That was particularly poignant for me after so long away. And there's also a very deep affection for my grandmother. Racist, yes, but that doesn't detract from their other aspects. 

And of course there are the amusing anecdotes. Like making a hammock for the ship's dog because dogs get seasick, something he was particularly insistent on because he knew my grandmother wouldn't believe it. Or being granted special and exclusive privileges to play the ship's piano, or trying the "American drink" Coca-Cola for the first time and thinking it was "OK, nothing special". My personal favourite part though :

I also had an air mail from your mother with a lock of Keith's hair [that being my uncle, then five months old]. The lads in the mess saw and pulled my leg unmercifully. They said that it came from an entirely different part and not from Keith at all. You can guess what they meant. Anyway they were only jealous.


There are many mysteries in the letters. We don't have my grandmother's correspondence at all, so we're only getting half the story. We don't know anything much about the enigma that is my grandfather's brother. According to the letters he did something he should be ashamed of but we have no idea what, or if this should be read ironically. We don't even know how he died, since my grandmother gave completely contradictory accounts ranging from "torpedoed in the war" to "had a lorry accident". Ho-hum. And we don't know what crisis was happening that prompted my grandfather to insist that "we'll get through this", which feels quite different from the usual homesickness.

Even so, what we do have is a treasure trove. God knows what future archaeologists will think when they dig up old computers and uncover Facebook. Probably they'll run like hell.

Thursday 8 April 2021

A Mostly Modern Utopia (II)

Run, naked people, RUN !

Why don't we live in paradise ? I mean, accepting that the garden of Eden probably wasn't an actual thing, what with how talking snakes and magic fruit tend to be a pretty open declaration of symbolism. We weren't cast out by some big feathery dude with a flaming sword. Well, probably.

A more promising reason is other people. Plenty of people are jerks. Or at least, there are enough horrible people around to spoil it for the rest of us - or, to refine it even further, there are enough people behaving awfully in the wrong situations to cause everyone else to have a miserable time of it. Even worse, most people don't see themselves as behaving like jerks, so there's a fearful symmetry as to which side believes the other was in the wrong. If we could only realise when we were at fault, there'd probably be no problem.

Any Utopia must therefore have some way of dealing with this. Plato's solution was to put the philosophers in charge, either directly or by having them write the laws. Either way, through extraordinary effort and natural characteristics, an elite Philosophy Squad could be formed who would be genuinely fair and objective. A benevolent tyrannical oligarchy would, he thought, not only keep the arseholes in line, but to a considerable extent even stop them becoming arseholes in the first place, through the wise application of justice. 

The Star Trek solution is quite different. It says that first and foremost it's an abundance of resources which we need, that it's easy to be a saint in paradise. Granted there are important extenuating circumstances, like a massive world war and the kindly tutelage of experienced aliens, but that's the core of it.

What about the twentieth century's prophet par excellence, H.G. Wells ? Last time we saw how people live their lives in his A Modern Utopia (from 1904), which is to say : freely and largely equally. His powerful World State acts not so much as Plato's oligarchy, but more like a global welfare service. It's there as a safety net, providing work and money for all those who need it. It provides an explicit lower limit on poverty, and I've argued it implicitly applies some form of upper limit on excess. In this way everyone lives in comfort - no-one hoards excessive resources which could be better used to help those in need. Indeed, "help" is very much the name of the game, presuming that motivation should always be from the carrot and never the stick. An abundance of resources does play a role, but nowhere near the extent of Star Trek. Distribution, not sheer quantity, is what's most important.

This still leaves the problem of fantastic jerks and how to manage them. Wells has given his fictional citizens every possible opportunity and resource needed for success. How, though, does he propose to deal with those who abuse the bounties of his latter-day Eden ? And just as importantly, who's in charge of running this generally quite pleasant (if animal-deficient and child-abundant) world of welfare ? How does he suggest to stop the leaders from running amok ?

Trouble in Paradise

Oddly enough, beach holidays don't feature in AMU.

Let's start with everyday criminal activity. Wells has a distinct utilitarian streak, seeking to maximise the happiness and freedom of every member of the community. To this end, he notes that prohibiting certain actions is actually the best way to minimise the interference from the state - it is not a linear process whereby more law = less freedom. After all, the freedom to shoot everybody amounts to the "freedom" to get shot, i.e. idiocy.

Prohibition takes one definite thing from the indefinite liberty of a man, but it still leaves him an unbounded choice of actions. He remains free, and you have merely taken a bucketful from the sea of his freedom. But compulsion destroys freedom altogether. In this Utopia of ours there may be many prohibitions, but no indirect compulsions — if one may so contrive it — and few or no commands.

This is a bit simplistic, as there are some conditional obligations that people have to meet. But the intention to minimise this is clear. For this, certain prohibitions are essential. Importantly, he notes that this balancing act is a quantitative question, not a qualitative juggle between which rights are more important : you are always going to have to sacrifice some, the question is how many and to what degree, not whether you should do it at all.

In truth, a general prohibition in a state may increase the sum of liberty, and a general permission may diminish it. It does not follow that a man is more free where there is least law and more restricted where there is most law. A socialism or a communism is not necessarily a slavery, and there is no freedom under Anarchy. Consider how much liberty we gain by the loss of the common liberty to kill... Carried to the absolute pitch the right of free movement ceases to be distinguishable from the right of free intrusion... there are no absolute rights and wrongs, there are no qualitative questions at all, but only quantitative adjustments.

Which is perhaps better illustrated by a brief return to wealth inequality. Give a man opportunity for growth and things may get out of hand :

Very speedily, under terrestrial conditions, the property of a man may reach such proportions that his freedom oppresses the freedom of others. Here, again, is a quantitative question, an adjustment of conflicting freedoms, a quantitative question that too many people insist on making a qualitative one.

In essence, it's not, "should you be allowed your own house ?", which would be a qualitative question, it's only a matter of "how large a house should you be allowed ?", which is a quantitative one. There is no question that you have to prevent people from harming others. The goal is the greatest freedom explicitly for the greatest possible number, not to give extreme freedom to some at the expense of a few. Thus does Wells neatly avoid any utility monsters (it helps that freedom, unlike happiness, is objectively measurable).

Wells does allow people to have bigger, better housing that others... it's just that this level of luxury might be overdoing it. He also says that beyond a certain level you have to share - you can't have extensive private gardens, or at least they have to be open to the public most of the time.

Utopia, like virtually any civilisation, bans killing, theft, assault, and general violence (unlike Plato, who allowed citizens to beat each other up from time to time). While Utopia may have somewhat less personal privacy than Victorian England, still there is an undeniable need to prevent trespassing - to allow people to be alone when they want to be, and allow people to freely associate with those they choose. You can seclude yourself, yes - you just can't hide yourself away in a sprawling country estate with multiple houses and its own woodland, for example.

But the main reason for less privacy is not so much about wealth inequality but simply because there will be less need for it. Utopia will have a much greater tolerance and understanding of harmless individual quirks. No-one will judge you harshly for wearing a great big hat or for being a bit rude or routinely dressing up as a Wookie. There will be less need to shut yourself away, but nothing preventing you from doing so if you choose.

But while Utopia has infinitely more freedom than either of Plato's visions, it too has limits. The vast majority of the discontent of modern society, Wells hoped, would be dealt with given the extraordinarily greater living conditions on offer, coupled with the drastically lower levels of stress and fear. Even so, this does not account for every social problem :

There remain idiots and lunatics, there remain perverse and incompetent persons, there are people of weak character who become drunkards, drug takers, and the like. Then there are persons tainted with certain foul and transmissible diseases. And there are violent people, and those who will not respect the property of others, thieves and cheats... All these people spoil the world for others. They may become parents, and with most of them there is manifestly nothing to be done but to seclude them from the great body of the population. You must resort to a kind of social surgery. You cannot have social freedom in your public ways, your children cannot speak to whom they will, your girls and gentle women cannot go abroad while some sorts of people go free.

So soon as their nature is confirmed, must pass out of the free life of our ordered world. So soon as there can be no doubt of the disease or baseness of the individual, so soon as the insanity or other disease is assured, or the crime repeated a third time, or the drunkenness or misdemeanour past its seventh occasion (let us say), so soon must he or she pass out of the common ways of men.

Which is somewhat snobbish, and this description of people with diseases being undesirable is an example of Well's Victorian tendencies showing - which I've largely excised here. However, I highly doubt that Wells, if pressed, would say that diseased people ought really to be treated like criminals. There's a certain casual thoughtlessness throughout the text which I guess is more stylistic than any genuine hatred of sick people, though of course as to what bad character means... he definitely feels at his most Victorian about that.

In the TV show Brave New World (which I've just started watching and I never read the book), certain elements of society are condemned to run theme parks in the Savage Lands, where the locals run wild and free and tourists come to gawk at the unenlightened ways of their ancestors. At least Huxley thought of this as a dystopia - not so sure about Wells.

Yet in other ways Wells was clearly progressive. The state would allow abortions, but never capital punishment. The exile of the malcontents was intended to be genuinely compassionate and enormously better-minded than the prisons of his day. As with his views on feminism, it's worth accounting for just how different this was from the accepted standards :

You must seclude, but why should you torment ? All modern prisons are places of torture by restraint, and the habitual criminal plays the part of a damaged mouse at the mercy of the cat of our law. For my own part I can think of no crime, unless it is reckless begetting or the wilful transmission of contagious disease, for which the bleak terrors, the solitudes and ignominies of the modern prison do not seem outrageously cruel. If you want to go so far as that, then kill. Why, once you are rid of them, should you pester criminals to respect an uncongenial standard of conduct ? Into such islands of exile as this a modern Utopia will have to purge itself. There is no alternative that I can contrive.

And this is a thorny issue indeed. It does not matter how perfect a society you have, how much freedom and opportunity is given, there will always be the villainous, the powermongers, the bad actors, for whom this is never enough. There will be those who want to destroy the system - any system - for the sheer sake of it, not because they feel unfairly treated. Very occasionally, their skill will match their ambition : they will have the power of persuasion and the analytic intelligence needed bring forth their desires, but not the wisdom needed to realise that their idea is utter shite. Thankfully such people are rare indeed, but their propensity for damage is enormously disproportionate.

Actually plenty of people want really stupid things. Fortunately only a small fraction, but alas not zero, want stupid things and yet are somehow intelligent enough to actually get them. 

It's these people I think any Utopian system must take special care to guard against. The ordinary malcontent criminals are easily dealt with. We don't need to resort to literal islands as Wells proposed : our current system is, in fact, more than capable to restricting criminal activity to the point where we don't daily fret about it*. For my part I suspect that the much greater wealth, freedom and equality afforded to a Utopian citizen, coupled with a more reformist-mindset prison system, would be more than sufficient to reduce typical crimes to a virtually negligible level. It's a perfectly solvable problem.

* Of course, this is what makes it particularly awkward to reform. The current situation has serious flaws, but it is not so awful that the average citizen has any great desire or need to see it changed. I would suggest that any Utopia would necessarily be somewhere where these "broken toaster" problems are pro-actively fixed rather than waiting for the point of total failure.

No, crime is not the main issue. The real problems stems from people being generally very good at deciding how to live their own lives, but usually poor at making decisions that affect others : and yet they all too often desperately want to do so. They want to tell other people to live different lives despite their different choices having no impact, harmful or otherwise, on their fellow man. In the "moral matrix" parlance, it's the idea of purity that causes the most difficulties : that there are some behaviours which are inherently wrong, regardless of consequences. We shall return to this later.

It was the best of Wells, it was the worst of Wells

If Utopia is not for absolutely everyone, just who is Utopia for ? Given the era in which it was written, it would not be at all surprising if the answer wasn't "white people". Thankfully this isn't the case at all. As Utopia requires freedom of movement, freedom of communication, freedom of culture, and freedom of opportunity, so its freedoms must be extended to essentially everyone or they're worthless. Wells might have had a backward view of women, but he still gave them equality of opportunity. And though he said nothing whatever about sexual orientation, he was explicit in stating that said freedoms must be for all races.

As you've no doubt noticed by now, Wells was a eugenicist. He thought that desirable and undesirable traits could potentially be bred into or out of the human stock. This idea has been rightly tainted and despised through its association with the Nazis, but... wait ! Don't chuck out Wells just yet - there are some serious caveats to Well's interpretation. Wells hated Nazis and Nazis hated Wells, for good reasons.

While eugenics is a recurring theme in his Utopia, it is hardly a foundational principle, still less a cornerstone of its society. Wells was not equivalent to modern-day technocratic Utopians who see a single technomagical marvel as being The Solution. Indeed, there's one supreme exception to his eugenical tendencies (which we'll look at in the next section) which almost mocks the very idea. So while constantly present and generally annoying, it's not actually crucial, or even very important. A lot like Tesco or Piers Morgan, really.

Certain people do tend to make me... more sympathetic towards eugenics. Just sayin'.

And while Wells was clear that he didn't want undesirables to breed, he explicitly stopped far short of imposing any restrictions on such occurrences whatsoever, preferring tax breaks for the "right sort" of married couples to have children. But most importantly of all, Wells makes no link of any kind between heritable qualities and ethnic race. He thought there were good and bad characteristics, not that there were good and bad races.

However, there is one brutally shocking statement that Wells makes which I feel duty-bound not to shy away from :

There is only one sane and logical thing to be done with a really inferior race, and that is to exterminate it.

Not so very much later this was put into horrific practise. As with the reduction of animals, this highlights all too clearly the danger of a "rational" society becoming over-confident, of not realising that its "facts" are often more the result of subjective interpretation than pure objective analysis. Without careful guidance, science is easily perverted en masse into pseudoscience. And he also says that the worst thing about slavery is not what it does to the slaves (which is bad enough) but how it corrupts the masters. This is a distinctly Stoic leaning which I reject.

But if we were to decide here that Wells was just another racist Victorian, we'd be sorely mistaken. Wells was certainly no Wagner or Luther, foreshadowing the Nazi atrocities - in fact he spoke out strongly against them and they burned his books. And while this particular passage feels distinctly uncomfortable, I hasten to add that Wells elaborates that no such "inferior"* races exist : every people of the Earth would have a place in his Utopia, even if his descriptions of some of them are rather unpalatable to a modern audience. "Negroes are very clever at cricket", he says...  these days that alone would put him in the broom closet with everyone's racist uncle. 

*Which he does not properly define. What about, say, orcs or Daleks ? Some wholly irredeemable creature of pure malice ? Maybe. I for one don't wanna go there.

See, the rest of the chapter is a thoughtful and passionate  - often vitriolic - dismantling of the whole idea of racism. Wells shows not merely why the concept is immoral, but also how it arises and why it is so absolutely flawed.

The natural man does not feel he is aggregating at all, unless he aggregates against something. He refers himself to the tribe; he is loyal to the tribe, and quite inseparably he fears or dislikes those others outside the tribe... When we think of the class A as desirable, we think of Not-A as undesirable... It is part of the training of the philosopher to regard all such generalisations with suspicion; it is part of the training of the Utopist and statesman, and all good statesmen are Utopists, to mingle something very like animosity with that suspicion. For crude classifications and false generalisations are the curse of all organised human life.

Wells argues that such tribalistic generalisations are natural, generally unconscious, and pervade all walks of life - even, for example, botany. He even notes that he himself is not immune to this implicit bias, unable to prevent himself from quite wrongly believing that the English imagination is "in some mystic and impregnable way, the best" (but he is at least consciously aware that this is wrong). And he could see that the then-current state of affairs was to destructively exaggerate these natural tendencies. In his most prescient passage :

The natural tendency of every human being towards a stupid conceit in himself and his kind, a stupid depreciation of all unlikeness, is traded upon by this bastard science. With the weakening of national references, and with the pause before reconstruction in religious belief, these new arbitrary and unsubstantial race prejudices become daily more formidable. They are shaping policies and modifying laws, and they will certainly be responsible for a large proportion of the wars, hardships, and cruelties the immediate future holds in store for our earth.

Say what you will of him, his prophetic insights demand he be taken seriously.

His major line of attack against racism is that it confuses ethnicity with culture. He doesn't deny that some cultures are superior to others, even if he finds none entirely perfect or any entirely without merit. But he does deny, most vehemently, any racial superiority, even flirting with the idea that no real sort of race exists :

Save for a few isolated pools of savage humanity, there is probably no pure race in the whole world... Were the Jews to discontinue all intermarriage with "other races" henceforth for ever, it would depend upon quite unknown laws of fecundity, prepotency, and variability, what their final type would be, or, indeed, whether any particular type would ever prevail over diversity. 

Diversity among individual "races" dominates to the extent that there are no real averages. This comes very close to declaring race to be a societal construct :

The average Chinaman will never meet the average Englishman anywhere; only individual Chinamen will meet individual Englishmen. Now among Chinamen will be found a range of variety as extensive as among Englishmen, and there is no single trait presented by all Chinamen and no Englishman, or vice versa.

And furthermore, the openly racist bigots get short shrift from Wells. He rejects the pseudoscientific claims being bandied about, citing other studies the would-be "scientific" racist ought to read instead, concluding :

For my own part I am disposed to discount all adverse judgments and all statements of insurmountable differences between race and race. I talk upon racial qualities to all men who have had opportunities of close observation, and I find that their insistence upon these differences is usually in inverse proportion to their intelligence.

At most, racism may claim to be a self-fulfilling prophecy (as my grandmother once said she wouldn't want to be black because of the way she'd be treated) :

There is really not an atom of evidence an unprejudiced mind would accept to sustain any belief... that the children of racial admixture are, as a class, inherently either better or worse in any respect than either parent. It may be that most "half-breeds" are failures in life, but that proves nothing. They are, in an enormous number of cases, illegitimate and outcast from the normal education of either race; they are brought up in homes that are the battle-grounds of conflicting cultures; they labour under a heavy premium of disadvantage.

Wells gets positively angry about the whole deplorable edifice of racism, and, lest that "conflicting cultures" comment should disturb the modern reader, writes with conviction that so-called "intermarriage" in Utopia will be normal and unremarkable. He is acutely aware that many of his contemporaries will angrily reject this, thinking intermarriage a disgusting thing, but remains steadfast in his own conviction.

You would not like your daughter to marry the sort of negro who steals hens, but then you would also not like your daughter to marry a pure English hunchback with a squint, or a drunken cab tout of Norman blood. As a matter of fact, very few well-bred English girls do commit that sort of indiscretion. But you don't think it necessary to generalise against men of your own race because there are drunken cab touts, and why should you generalise against negroes?

If you are not prepared to regard a world-wide synthesis of all cultures and polities and races into one World State as the desirable end upon which all civilising efforts converge, what do you regard as the desirable end-? Synthesis, one may remark in passing, does not necessarily mean fusion, nor does it mean uniformity.

In spite of all the pageant of modern war, synthesis is in the trend of the world. Modern war, modern international hostility is, I believe, possible only through the stupid illiteracy of the mass of men and the conceit and intellectual indolence of rulers and those who feed the public mind. Were the will of the mass of men lit and conscious, I am firmly convinced it would now burn steadily for synthesis and peace.

The coarser conceptions of aggregation are at hand, the hostile, jealous patriotisms, the blare of trumpets and the pride of fools; they serve the daily need though they lead towards disaster. The real and the immediate has us in its grip, the accidental personal thing. The little effort of thought, the brief sustained effort of will, is too much for the contemporary mind*. Such treaties, such sympathetic international movements, are but dream stuff yet on earth, though Utopia has realised them long since and already passed them by.
*I do not understand why there is such a common trend to insist that any current bad thing is inevitably getting worse "these days". Perhaps it's just because we don't notice all the problems of the world when we're young, so as we grow up with labour under the unconscious assumption that the problems didn't previously exist. Always remember : stupid people existed in the past, and most trends wane as well as wax.

If eugenics is mentioned frequently but of little real import, the same cannot be said for racism. Eliminating it is absolutely fundamental to Wells' Utopia - not just for equality for its own sake, but also for the end of war and the necessity of peace. If Wells could hardly be called "woke" (a term I despise), he had at least managed to grasp many realities that his contemporaries simply refused to. While we might find many faults with some of what he had to say, that does not deny his valuable contributions also.

How to rule the world

Overall, I like Wells' vision a thousand times more than Plato's. It has great concern for personal liberty; citizens are genuinely free, not manipulated into being so. It uses the state as an agent almost entirely of help rather than hindrance. It gives everyone a fair start in life and a virtually equal means to enjoy the primary benefits that the world has to offer. But what we've seen little of so far is how the whole thing is run. What keeps Utopia well-governed ? What prevents ideologues from rising to power ? What keeps the rulers making sensible choices and not being held hostage to human frailty ?

Here I think Wells does quite well on theory but poor on implementation. I like very much his preference that you bloody well should ask what your country can do for you - that's the whole purpose of having a country. The whole point of a powerful state is not that it should exercise itself as a hive mind, as some demi-god to which individuals need sacrifice themselves for the greater good, but the exact opposite :

From our human point of view the mountains and sea are for the habitable lands that lie between. So likewise the State is for Individualities. The State is for Individuals, the law is for freedoms, the world is for experiment, experience, and change: these are the fundamental beliefs upon which a modern Utopia must go.

This is how state power can be successfully married to civil liberties, how patriotism does not go hand in hand with nationalism. A strong state does not require a weak people, as Lord Shang thought, not does a powerful government automatically mean Orwellian overreach. No ! A strong state exists only to serve individuals. If you do more for your country than your country does for you, then things have gone very wrong indeed.

Wells would surely disagree. Instead, help your country only insofar as helping the state helps the individuals within it. Never serve the state for its own sake : that way leads quickly to totalitarianism. But equally, existing as a parasite or attempting to damage the state for its own sake is no virtue either. 

Furthermore the state must be moderate. Again it is a quantitative not qualitative question : both socialism and individualism are useless in their extreme forms, but there is no doom upon us that we have to take either of those ideologies to such absurd levels.
The State is to be progressive, it is no longer to be static, and this alters the general condition of the Utopian problem profoundly; we have to provide not only for food and clothing, for order and health, but for initiative. 
As with Star Trek, a paradise that is static and dull, that satisfies all material wants but provides no ability to change and to grow, is no real paradise at all. The difficulty, of course, is how to allow progress and development without degenerating into chaos - or the risk of chaos, with all the fear that results and leads to a perversion of the ideals. Perception of a problem all too often begets a problem, just as perpetual pessimism leads to fatalism and a lack of attempt to change things that could actually be changed very easily.

I for one would quite like the pygmy tyrannosaurus of the first panel. It's both adorable and a useful deterrent to any would-be troublemakers. But let fear take over and Dino get bigger, and you've got problems.

At a very basic level, in Wells' world this desire for progress leads to the need for a greatly expanded University system. In his view, research in his own day was a thing that happened by lucky chance more than design :

In Utopia, however, they will conduct research by the army corps while we conduct it — we don't conduct it ! We let it happen. Fools make researches and wise men exploit them.

I think that last sentence would be better reversed, but no matter : 

In Utopia, a great multitude of selected men, chosen volunteers, will be collaborating upon this new step in man's struggle with the elements. Every university in the world will be urgently working for priority in this aspect of the problem or that. Reports of experiments, as full and as prompt as the telegraphic reports of cricket in our more sportive atmosphere, will go about the world...  a thousand men at a thousand glowing desks, a busy specialist press, will be perpetually sifting, criticising, condensing, and clearing the ground for further speculation.

This at least actually has come to pass, probably excessively so. Research is if anything now overly-competitive, to the point of recalling Wells' earlier quote that nothing done in a hurry is ever done well. We have become too reliant on crude metrics; a good dose of leisure would, I think, improve research quality quite considerably. Even so, overall the progress of research and development has unquestionably been on a massive upward streak for the last century, so if it is hardly optimal, then it's also still far above mere adequacy.

But research is quite a different arena from politics. Wells is implicit but unmistakable in the need for toleration, with the narrator in his story being accosted by an annoying chap who whines endlessly about nothing. You're definitely allowed to criticise the state. Criteria for punishment appears very much to be action, not speech. Wells omits any discussion as to how information is to be managed; we might draw reasonable inferences from his quantitative-not-qualitative philosophy, but nothing explicit is said about what the newspapers can and cannot say. I suppose that given the everyday state of affairs is supposed to be some damn pleasant, Wells presumes that no special precautions are needed.

AMU is written in a very strange style, featuring seemingly pointless interludes in which random characters appear just to whine pointlessly and loudly at the luckless reader, as well as a protagonist who's an obnoxious dickhead. Only towards the end did I realise that Wells is trying to be implicit, to say that Utopia must be able to tolerate and to some degree satisfy everyone, not just those who would voluntarily sign up to it. 

More disappointing is the system of government. Here Wells most closely aligns with Plato. While citizens are allowed enormous social freedoms, their political freedoms are severely regulated. Like Plato's Guardians, he firmly favours the rule of a wise elite. The major difference being that joining his "samurai" order is, unlike the state-assigned membership of the Republic, to be strictly voluntary. You have to pass entrance exams and, like the Guardians, obey far stricter rules than the general populace, designed to make power highly unappealing for its own sake. You have to want to be a ruler.

Typically, the samurai are engaged in administrative work. Practically the whole of the responsible rule of the world is in their hands; all our head teachers and disciplinary heads of colleges, our judges, barristers, employers of labour beyond a certain limit, practising medical men, legislators, must be samurai, and all the executive committees, and so forth, that play so large a part in our affairs are drawn by lot exclusively from them. The order is not hereditary  we know just enough of biology and the uncertainties of inheritance to know how silly that would be — and it does not require an early consecration or novitiate or ceremonies and initiations of that sort. The samurai are, in fact, volunteers. Any intelligent adult in a reasonably healthy and efficient state may, at any age after five-and-twenty, become one of the samurai, and take a hand in the universal control.

Practically all political power vests in the samurai. Not only are they the only administrators, lawyers, practising doctors, and public officials of almost all kinds, but they are the only voters. [Not quite true - Wells allows voting rights for everyone over the age of 15 when it comes to local building planning permissions, so that all locals get a say in the appearance of their area.]

If anything Well's samurai appear to be more extensive than Plato's Guardians. Yet Plato's system was very much a totalitarian meritocracy, with the state body politic having absolute control over its own membership (to which end it would interfere in its citizen's private lives from birth). And, unusually, Wells suppresses his eugenic tendencies here even further in favour of a pure meritocracy. The voluntary nature of membership is a significant difference from Plato's scheme.

There are further safeguards against totalitarianism. The one major exception to the political rule of the samurai is the "supreme legislative assembly" (I'm not sure if this means the court or the parliament), whose members must be at least 10% and at most 50% non-samurai. While membership of the samurai is to be for life, excepting cases of expulsion for deliberately breaking the rules, terms of individual offices are to be for three years, whereafter the local samurai vote to decide if there should be a new election to replace the current incumbent or not. This then blends democracy, meritocracy and sortition all together, even if democracy plays a rather distant fiddle to the others.

So while the state itself is supreme, the will of the state is not arbitrary or capricious. It is pseduo-totalitarianism at best, where civil liberties are guaranteed precisely because of the loss of political freedoms. Is that a price worth paying ? I think it just might be. If I could live my life however I chose and the only penalty was that I had limited political rights unless I chose a professional career in the voluntary nobility.... if the system really worked like that, if the admittance process only admitted those genuinely concerned for both welfare and freedoms, if it had strong guards against corruption... then it might be acceptable. For what else is the point of a political system but the guarantee of the freedom and contentment of its citizens ? What kind of tyranny is it if membership is voluntary ? So, if it works as intended...


But would this be the case in practise ? Not bloody likely. Where the samurai most resemble the Guardians is their puritanical rule of austere living :

The samurai control the State and the wealth of the State, and by their vows they may not avail themselves of any of the coarser pleasures wealth can still buy. Acting, singing, or reciting are forbidden them, though they may lecture authoritatively or debate. But professional mimicry is not only held to be undignified in a man or woman, but to weaken and corrupt the soul; the mind becomes foolishly dependent on applause, over-skilful in producing tawdry and momentary illusions of excellence; it is our experience that actors and actresses as a class are loud, ignoble, and insincere.
Hypothesis : Wells would have changed his mind had he ever met Brian Blessed.
Nor may the samurai do personal services, except in the matter of medicine or surgery; they may not be barbers, for example, nor inn waiters, nor boot cleaners. No samurai may bet. He [or she] may insure his life and his old age for the better equipment of his children, or for certain other specified ends, but that is all his dealings with chance. And he is also forbidden to play games in public or to watch them being played. Certain dangerous and hardy sports and exercises are prescribed for him, but not competitive sports between man and man or side and side. Alcohol, drugs, smoking, betting, and usury, games, trade, servants [are forbidden]. 
Our Founders made no peace with this organisation of public sports. They did not spend their lives to secure for all men and women on the earth freedom, health, and leisure, in order that they might waste lives in such folly.

Which is a taking a reasonable proposition to a silly extreme. Power corrupts, so allow it the additional trappings of wealth and pomp and you're on a slippery slope indeed. And the real-life system of allowing parties to choose their own candidates, with far more regard for who-knows-who than who-knows-what, produces some utterly preposterous choices. So making the conditions of power unappealing for the sake of personal material or other crude gains is not at all reasonable. Frank Herbert suggested much the same, saying that power acts as a magnet to the corruptible.

Yet... the more unattractive you make power to the ordinary people, the more extreme the ideologues you'll attract. Look, I hate sport. I think football is one of the most tedious ways of travelling very slowly forwards in time that has ever been devised. At least with watching paint dry you're not supposed to find it interesting, but football ? Some guy kicks a ball in a net and legions of fans get public orgasms. Doesn't make a lick of sense to me... but I wouldn't go so far as to say footballers can't do politics. That is plainly silly.

With Well's puritanical approach, sure, you'll get the dedicated servants. But I also think you'll equally get the diehard lunatic fringe. Much more worrying than the restrictions against personal wealth* are the rules forbidding perfectly normal pleasures. It would seem that - in effect - the samurai are only allowed to relax by solving Sudoku puzzles, making them peculiar in the extreme.

*In our own world, Isabel Hardman (and I agree) argues that such restrictions make a career in politics virtually impossible to ordinary people. Wells' system doesn't have such a concern, since everyone lives comfortably and has enormous protection thanks to strong worker's rights.

I mean... I'm sure this guy is a lovely chap, but is he likely to know anything about nightclub management or gynaecology ? I think not.

Wells' approach to preventing corruption is simplistic bordering on absent. Each year the Samurai are required to take a long holiday in the wilderness :

For seven consecutive days in the year, at least, each man or woman under the Rule must go right out of all the life of man into some wild and solitary place, must speak to no man or woman, and have no sort of intercourse with mankind. They must go bookless and weaponless, without pen or paper, or money. Provisions must be taken for the period of the journey, a rug or sleeping sack — for they must sleep under the open sky — but no means of making a fire. They may study maps beforehand to guide them, showing any difficulties and dangers in the journey, but they may not carry such helps.

This discipline, my double said, was invented to secure a certain stoutness of heart and body in the members of the order, which otherwise might have lain open to too many timorous, merely abstemious, men and women.

Sounds lovely, but the hell does wilderness survival have to do with political acumen ? Bugger all. I say give 'em a proper, relaxing holiday instead. Send 'em to Ibiza, or for a nice camping trip, or on a tour of European museums - something they might actually enjoy. 

Or get them to laugh at hilarious salad as stock photography suggests is apparently the most fun anyone can have by themselves. Just let 'em do something better than survival training.

The problem is that Wells is not cultivating a meritocratic elite, but a bunch of stuck-up snobs. Wells may have nicely avoided this particular trap for the general populace, but he's doubled-down on it for the rulers. They cannot possibly understand lives they have not lived, so how can they properly represent the people they claim to serve ? No, such a weirdly-selective bunch of high society will most likely serve only the interests of itself. The aim of utter dedication to the state is laudable, but the actual effect will be, I think, to create a powerfully insulting filter bubble. There's nothing wrong with choosing to relax by purely cerebral pleasures, but to enforce this for the rulers, who are supposed to feel as well as think... no, this won't work. If you think Tories who claim expenses for cleaning their moat were out of touch, well... things could be worse !

(Incidentally, I've had some very angry responses to this, including being called an arrogant, entitled fascist for daring to suggest we should have more ordinary people in politics. Another insisted I was obsessed with getting normal people into politics regardless of ability. Neither of these is even remotely true, and I'm genuinely baffled as to where the attitude comes from.)

The way I see it, diversity in politics is desirable for several reasons. It's inherently a good thing to understand the job you're supposed to manage, hence a purely political caste* is a mistake - this results in being proficient in useless rhetoric without the knowledge to back it up. It's also good to bring together different elements of background knowledge for the sake of the unexpected insights that can result. And it's also a solid indicator that you're genuinely hiring meritocratically : it matters not one whit if a candidate enjoys philosophy or prostitution so long as they're good at the job they're employed to do. If your entire team consists of straight white males aged 30-55, then it's a pretty decent warning sign that you're doing something wrong : not necessarily in the hiring process, but equally possibly in the educational process. For there is no reason to suppose - none whatsoever - that such a demographic would be uniquely skilled at anything very much.

* Which is to say, having some career politicians is hardly fatal, and probably beneficial. It's good to have people around with strong experience of the system. It's only being dominated by such a group that would be a mistake, just as much as if politics were to be run purely by scientists or yachtsmen or glamour models.

Because this point seems to get people awfully cross for some unfathomable reason, let me expound further. I'm all for ensuring that politicians don't get treated like royalty or amass vast amounts of personal wealth as a result of their tenure. I'm all for qualifications. Even restricting who can vote based on their knowledge of very basic political facts... sure. I don't see how you could have a Utopia in which people vote on issues on which they know absolutely nothing. 

But that's exactly the point. If this elite is so bizarre as to forbid singing, let alone alcohol, acting, hairdressing, smoking, watching sports... that's not going to result in a elite group of hardcore saints, but a bunch of loonies who favour their own raving ideologies above anything else. You aren't going to get better politicians by forbidding them from singing silly football songs (although for a very strong counter-argument, see Matt Hancock's karaoke). It is extraordinarily difficult for some to accept, but I don't think politicians are a uniquely awful brand of people. Rather they're relatively normal people in extraordinary circumstances, and if you or I were in their situation, I doubt we'd do all that much better. 

There but for the grace of god... what I'm getting at is that we sometimes judge politics in a very warped way. There are plenty of ways to find fault with Matt Hancock without going in to his personal life, just as there was plenty wrong with Ed Milliband besides the pointless bacon sandwich. 

An extreme view espoused by a professor of mine is that there are no true geniuses, only ordinary people with peculiar interest levels. This I think is not the case, but it does get at a fundamental point : most experts are basically normal people, not diehard ideologues. So if you want expertise-driven politics, forbidding ordinary pleasures is not the way to go about it. Take Jacob Ress Mogg*. I know a hell of a lot more about astrophysics than he does**, and I guarantee you I'm less of a snob. Expertise would benefit politics; snobbery harms it. And expertise comes from many sectors, including but certainly not limited to the academic arena. You want a mixture of high-minded political theoreticians and factory-floor workers - limiting the selection to one or the other is self-destructive.

* Literally. Grab hold of him and then please put him somewhere where he can't cause trouble.
** I'll go further. Boris Johnson may be able to quote the original Latin, but I'm pretty sure I have more understanding of what Cicero was actually talking about than he ever does.

Or to put it another way : pick any random dude off the street and there's a fair chance he'll have all the mental prowess of hamster that's jammed itself into a toaster. There's nothing noble about running a café or clothing outlet or a fish farm... but neither is there anything shameful either. You don't want literally totally ordinary people running the show - that's dumb - you want people of extraordinary abilities but of ordinary professions.

From another perspective, I recently heard an interesting left-liberal view defending the right of American politicians to appoint judges. It was quite rightly pointed out that the voluntary nature of joining the police has resulted in some very clear problems across the pond, which more oversight might well help with. In the UK, by contrast, having judges be self-selected by the judiciary has in my view done a bang-up job of avoiding the corruption which plagues Westminster, and I don't see how any sensible judicial system could possibly work with politicians appointing their own oversight. You don't have to presume that people are inevitably corrupt, but you do have to presume that the system may be abused.

The voluntary nature of the samurai then... well, maybe. But the methods Wells proposes to ensure they're of sound moral character - no, definitely not. Wilderness survival skills, abstinence from drunken football songs - these things are not guides to morality at all. Some much more direct test is required.

What's especially strange is that Wells does identify potential malevolence : the "base" class of people, as he puts it, who are prone to cruelty, concealment and bias (incidentally his personality classes are not hereditary, again making the eugenic tendencies prevalent elsewhere seem all the stranger). Yet while he designs a "research army" with a publication system basically identical to the one we actually have, in order to allow the flourishing of intellectual creativity, he says little at all about how the dangers of the "base" are to be avoided. I can only suppose he thought that such people would be really, really bad at camping trips, thereby letting natural selection work its magic.


Wells didn't have The Definitive Answer, no ultimate method by which a true Utopia could be brought about. But he did, I think, have several lesser answers, some valuable contributions to what would be necessary for a Utopian existence :

  • The state exists primarily to foster individuals. Its main purpose is a safety net to ensure distribution of resources such that no-one ever begins in or reaches hopeless squalor or poverty. There is more than enough for everyone, and it is stupid to insist that anyone should ever struggle to survive unless they actively choose to. 
  • The secondary purpose is to prevent individuals interfering with each other whereby they could cause each other financial or moral calamities. It does not forbid or discourage private enterprise, nor intrude on purely personal matters that do not affect the state in any way. But it does prevent outrageous levels of inequality, and it must restrict practises of attacking opponents rather than aiming for self-improvement of individuals (and presumably corporations). The Utopian capitalist must improve his product, never attack his competitors.
  • The state must be for everyone. It cannot discriminate on grounds of wealth, class, gender, race or any other extraneous factor. Everyone is entitled to a certain minimum level of dignity, no-one is allowed excessive personal hoarding, and the only discrimination is based on post-training merit : positive when determining roles, negative when employing unavoidable restrictions.
  • The world cannot be static. As novelty is a key part of personal life, so continuing research is a key factor in state success. It continually seeks better solutions, better distribution of resources, just as individuals are entitled to seek out new experiences and are so given tremendous freedom of self-determination.
The balancing act would seem to be that it needs to give everyone enough freedom that no-one (except the criminally malevolent) can complain of any restrictions, but not so much that they can interfere with each other. Self improvement is the key goal.

The system is then neither capitalist nor communist but has aspects of both, an admirable effort to blend cooperation with individualism. Your personal freedom to grow through your own efforts is very much of the capitalist, individualist mindset. By your own virtues and hard work you have the right to earn more, to find better ways of doing things that will improve your lot in life. But you don't have the right to use your resources or abilities to undermine your competitors : you must actually compete with them, not supress them. The simple maxim here is "no cheating". And you are free to fail. If you do so, you'll still end up in a situation from which recovery is eminently possible - a further and powerful encouragement to innovation. This deep concern for worker's rights and basic human dignity is strongly socialist, after the modern European fashion rather than that of Soviet Russia. In some ways it's both capitalism and socialism on steroids, a worthy attempt to blend the best of both worlds.

Personally, I like this very much. The details ? They're pretty shite, but as for the basics I think Wells was really on to something here. The daily life he describes (taking some modern liberties of interpretation) is so free and so comfortable that I cannot imagine anyone who actually lived it objecting to it. You're largely free to do as you will and so is everyone else. The state helps everyone and hinders only those seeking to harm others.

The organisation is what I find less than convincing. It's a good effort, but the voluntary nobility and shoddy character management offers little in the way of safeguards against corruption. The stated goal is all well and good, but the proposed method would, I think, lead instead to a truly Communist hell-hole. Wells describes the need for a vast database of citizens in order to properly manage the state, a reasonable enough proposition, but offers nothing to say how this wouldn't be abused besides, "because it's Utopia". And he says :
If we are to have any Utopia at all, we must have a clear common purpose, and a great and steadfast movement of will to override all these incurably egotistical dissentients. Something is needed wide and deep enough to float the worst of egotisms away. The world is not to be made right by acclamation and in a day, and then for ever more trusted to run alone. It is manifest this Utopia could not come about by chance and anarchy, but by co-ordinated effort and a community of design...
But he does not say what this common purpose would be. 

I think there are two key questions that remain unresolved. First, is our tendency to desire relative success a psychological universal, or is it only a cultural thing ? If for example we all have material success, will we simply shift our metrics to other areas, like prestige and power ? Or, worse, is avaricious greed such a part of our nature that people will always and relentlessly seek to to remove any limits imposed on them, even if they're there for their own good ? If either of these is true, then Wells' system is damned in the extreme.

Second, how do we ensure persuasion without stifling criticism ? Why are people sometimes so very easily led into abject stupidity, and at other times they furiously dig their heels in to prevent perfectly sensible, beneficial, intelligent change ? Much has been written about persuasion, but this particular point I don't think has been satisfactorily addressed. 

And there are thousands of other questions of course. How do we guarantee efficient organisation ? A state stifled by bureaucracy is useless. Are there some general trends as to when we should seek egalitarian networks and when we should prefer strict hierarchies ? What would be the effects of a true UBI ? And... how, given that working harder does give an advantage, do we prevent people from voluntarily working such long hours that few can compete with them ?

So my own Utopian design - the Grand Duchy of Rhysyland - will have to wait for another day. But Wells has made some important contributions : a vision far more liberal than Plato and less magical than the Federation. Not bad for someone with questionable views on cricket.