Monday, 12 April 2021

WE KNOW NOTHING

We know nothing. If the past fifteen months have taught us nothing else it’s this. But rather than feeling downcast I feel excited. We’ve learnt to fast track medical research in a way that has all the scientists I know aghast with admiration and bafflement. We’ve reinvented stuff. We’ve learnt to live without any of the normal social conventions that were believed to hold communities together. We’ve discovered ways of working without unnecessary meetings. And we’ve done all this despite the rule book our experience and the pundits had drawn up being torn up and shredded.

Yes folks,  this is Terra Incognita and I like it.

It gets better.

Last week in Chicago, physicists said they may have discovered a fifth new force of nature to help explain the universe. I’d thought we knew a lot already. It seems I was wrong and that what we know only explains 5% of the Universe.  A very clever scientist said to me “what we know and our theories are not really fit for purpose”. “Like economics?” I asked “no everything is better than our knowledge of economics” he replied.


The UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) said the result "provides strong evidence for the existence of an undiscovered sub-atomic particle or new force".  

That’s great. If these physicists crack the fifth force like they cracked the Covid genome we’ll be flying to Mars by Christmas. But what I like better is that the mystery of life and the possibilities of religious belief or life changing love may be nearer the truth rather than theorems I never understood.

I’m a poet rather than a physicist. I think Keats knew more about forces of nature than John Tyndall a contemporary of his who was eloquent in his views on diamagnetism (yes, me neither). The Victorian romantics were all focused on forces of nature; today more prosaic thoughts seem to occupy our poets. That’s what happens when we think we know a lot. Back in the 8th century the author of Beowulf knew little and frightened people a lot. His epic poem is full of darkness and horror. A bit like Covid really.

We think we’re all learning more and more but there a magical return swing of the pendulum whenever we think we’ve cracked a problem. Diseases that occupied me until recently but are now mostly solved  were measles, scarlet fever, polio, diphtheria: and overseas – yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, sars, swine fever. It’s as if we’ve done GCSE diseases and are now moving on to ‘A’ level. 

We know nothing. But is that so bad? It means we have lots to discover. The idea of space travel takes on a new, less self-indulgent meaning than we’ve heard from our trillionaire friends Musk and Bezos. The importance of learning new things and reducing the nothingness we know has never been greater.

Last week on BBC Radio 4 I heard someone describing the joy of finding a truly dark and light-free place from which to look at the sky at night from which they’d seen a bright star. They asked how far away it was to be told 1.5 thousand light years. “When would the light I’m watching here now have started?” they asked. “Oh I guess” came the answer “when the Romans were in Britain.”

The speed of the vaccine development has changed the possibilities for everything. Science has suddenly got sexy. Enthusiastic scientists like Brian Cox have sharpened our hunger for discovery. Perhaps we’ll soon know more than ever we imagined. 

Perhaps the 2020s will become a new “Age of Enlightenment.”

Eureka!

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

WHY WAS THE THIRD MAN SO FETED?

 Recently I watched The Third Man. I ‘d been looking forward to this great oldie (just like me I chuckled.) An hour and a half later I was disappointed and grumpy. It’s a rather slow and dreary film. Trevor Howard, one of its stars, in that clipped tone of his were he alive today, would have pronounced it “absolutely ghastly.” Yet in 1999, the British Film Institute voted The Third Man the greatest British film of all time.

Is my memory so bad? Have standards changed? Is it as great as I remembered but in the meantime have I completely lost it? Alternatively, is my critical mind now clearer and less forgiving? There’s one great line when Harry Lime (Orson Wells) justifying not being the nice guy and instead profiteering on the black-market killing hundreds with diluted penicillin:

“In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and they had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

A brilliant and memorable joke but the rest is mostly slow.



 

It seems slow because we understand things much quicker now. We are smarter. We are more demanding. But equally we get fixed in our views more firmly and are also more gullible.

Most of my working life was spent in marketing and advertising exploiting such gullibility. In truth a lot of marketing was nonsense. Marketeers behaved like Bishops protecting their fiefdoms and advertising men were quasi-Jesuits preserving myths like the weight of advertising was directly proportionate to sales. Spend more. Sell more.

Not true. The king had no clothes. Marketeers were often shysters like Kevin Roberts the one-time CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi who wrote a book called “Lovemarks” in which he claimed brands were running out of juice and could only be revived by his magic potion. This included the injection of intimacy, commitment, empathy and passion. Pass me the sick bag Doris; this is toxic tosh.

I suspect the banks might have read his book. Marketeers in banking played with intimacy whilst the money men were closing branches and playing with derivatives.

I was once invited to a discussion group of marketeers where I was mugged by a woman who said surely everyone now knew marketing budgets should be invested in good causes and a social media guru who laughingly said soup sales were correlated to illness and that since sick people consumed more soup he was advising Heinz to track flu epidemics and invest accordingly.

Marketing and advertising require rigour, common sense and a sense of humour. Looking back I remember laughing a lot. There’s not much laughter now.   

But this is not meant to be a lecture on marketing so much as a warning on the dangers of mythology. Just as Orson Wells once wove a magical web around his films so marketers (of which he was of course a master) created myths about their work.

Sadly most advertising is dull, intrusive, tone deaf and seldom funny. Similarly with films. Those the critics love are seldom those the punters go for. Like the Third Man, La-La Land was a wow with the critics. It was also pretty ghastly. 

It’s clear that in our frenetic world common sense, lightness of touch and creativity are in short supply. Mark Ritson (Marketing Week) consistently lacks ‘lightness of touch’ but I love how he debunks pretentiousness. 

Read his “The Greatest Marketing Bullshit Of All Time.” It’s a brilliant demolition of marketing mythology. In his rant he uses the term “brandwank”

“Brandwank”! I wish I’d created that. It’s utterly priceless.