Go to it, advanced governments!

Keith Hudson

The UK government, and top American universities, are now beating the bushes for the brightest among the young of what I call the 80-class (those whose children are being generally dumbed down by state schools). The Conservative government is pushing a sluggish Department of Education, and avoiding aggressive tactics by teachers’ unions, in order to carry out its new policy of ‘free schools’ (those initiated by parents but claiming state funds) with teachers who are natural teachers, not necessarily with teacher-training diplomas. Harvard, Yale. MIT and others are increasingly surveying the brightest students at UK state secondary schools in order to offer them scholarships.

The reason is that the various power-groups of what I call the 20-class (generally those who have been privately educated) increasingly need many more numerate, scientifically-trained recruits than ever before in order to keep on running the show. Of course, some of the brightest young people of the 80-class find their way with difficulty into the 20-class via elite universities, new businesses or some specific marketable talent (stand-up comedy is currently fashionable), but many do not, unlike America.

But if the UK is only, let us say, 20% efficient in identifying and helping talent at a young enough age at present, America is far from 100%. Even the college/university entrance SAT exam has been dumbed down over the years and many more parents are having to pay for additional cramming. (America and the UK are becoming more like China in this respect.)

However, as massive debts will have to be paid off (or inflated by money-printing) over the next 10-30 years in Western Europe and America, the 20-class will still have to continue to pay the bulk of the income and corporation taxation needed to keep the 80-class alive, particularly the growing number of young adults without jobs, even if the huge cost of cradle-to-grave welfare is steadily reduced to basic food-, heating- or television-channel-stamps (in order to prevent them rioting in the streets too frequently). If this can be maintained for 30 years or so then the worst will be over because populations will then be slimming down at a fast rate (the rest of the world, mostly within 30 or 40 super-metropolises, doing so a generation later).

But there is one flaw in this pull-the-ladder-up-Jack strategy (unconscious though it may be at the present time among the 20-class). This is that it will work only if the 20-class in the advanced countries get very close indeed to 100% efficiency in selecting the brightest talent. If they overlook more than a few of these, then there’ll be many more groups of self-taught, highly expert Internet hackers than there are now. Such hackers are already constantly able to penetrate the most crucial electronic systems on which we are now totally dependent. Indeed, some poachers-turned-gamekeepers of the hacking world have already said that they are surprised that major breakdowns of whole countries have not already happened. Rumours have it that some hackers have already been bought off by governments and banks. But they will have been the sane hackers.

Governments know what to do — at least in the US and UK where are more than enough clues from advanced genetics research. Twenty years ago it was naively believed that high intelligence was owed to one or two ‘special’ genes. It soon became apparent that hundreds, if not thousands, of genes are involved. After skin cells, nerve development is the first stage in the growing foetus. Probably pretty well all our 20,000+ genes — as they come on stream in the foetus — are involved directly or indirectly in brain development. In short, most healthy full-term babies born without handicaps or seriously harmful genes, are capable in an ideal environment of potential intelligence as high as is necessary in any high-tech economy.

A currency catastrophe (or a very long economic recession) is inevitable. But getting over, or through, either of these will be as decorous as a vicar’s tea party compared with what a malevolent hacker, or group of them, could do. Disruption of electricity in our cities and cessation of financial information between banks for more than a day or two would plunge us immediately into a hunter-gatherer existence — albeit via a generation of savagery as populations thin themselves out accordingly. Go to it, advanced governments, as fast as you can!

A Plague on Both Houses!

The rapidly accumulating evidence of the modern human sciences is now telling us with increasing clarity that the fundamental assumptions of both left- and right-politics are fallacious. Even the wonders of a “mixed economy” or a “third way” — as individually promoted by both Labour and Conservative prime ministers in this country in the last 20 years — have proved to be risible. Differences of poverty, opportunity and political power remain much the same as always in any advanced country whatever type of government, sometimes slightly reducing when great effort and spending is made under a socialist government, more usually expanding when eyes are taken off the ball in so-called free-enterprise government.

The whole debate can be reduced to a simple example in which the observations, large-scale surveys and lab researches of educationalists, psychologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists, geneticists and evolutionary biologists are all in almost total agreement. It is that, at the time of puberty, the adolescent is the recipient of his or her personality and potential skills. He or she is hardly at all the creator of those specifications. The individual has had very little to do with laying down those specifications nor, apart from luck, the way that those specifications subsequently play themselves out and largely determine the experiences and happiness in the remainder of his or her lifetime.

Excluding the luck of a lottery draw or inheriting a million from an unknown relative, there are three main lucks in life. They’re all interlinked but are sufficiently different in their effects that they can be discussed separately. The first is the emotional, informational and cultural environments mainly imparted by parents but also influenced by school-teachers in the early years of childhood. By the age of puberty, any social or intellectual skills not laid down by then will never be fully recoverable in later life, no matter how hard one tries.

The second luck is the nature and abilities of one’s post-puberty peer group to whom the individual now devotes much more attention as, together, they approach adulthood. It is in this period that the individual can now develop and enhance the comparative advantage of his or her best skills, testing them against others in the peer group and finding a role within it. As the prospect of adult life draws closer, friends made in this period are usually friends for life.

The third luck is the nature and abilities of, usually, just one or two patrons (often one’s parents) who have a sufficient span of like social contacts which enable a young adult to finally find an initial lodgement in an adult group which, to a greater or lesser extent, is normally protective of entry by any young hopeful. This third luck also includes the size of the income made available in a particular group, or the intrinsic interest of a job, and also whether that particular specialization continues to be favoured by the changing economic environment.

To summarize:

1. Unless a socialist government interferes in the intimate family life of every child from his or her earliest months and years in the hope of equalizing opportunities then inequalities of personalities and abilities are broadly set by the age of puberty. No amount of good intent by governments can change this.

2. A right-wing government cannot make claims of virtue for its apparent heroes. Those individuals are the product of good luck just as an African child working and dying in a diamond or gold mine is the product of bad luck.

Politics is already in a bad way. It’s not likely to get any better in the coming years as we try to work off the immense private, corporate and governmental debts that the policies of both left-wing and right-wing governments have lumbered us with. The modern human sciences are telling us quite radical things about what we really are like. The new politics will probably be concerned with how power can be confined within groups — where it is more accessible to be pulled down if necessary — rather than between groups as now. I can take this no further. For now, until the findings of the human sciences spread around for a generation or two, I would join the refrain of an increasing number of the young. It’s not very constructive, I’m afraid: A Plague on Both Houses!

The richest man in the world was an exception!

The only sensible form of taxation would be a proportionate tax on the property each of us displays to the public to show the status we claim or, if a notch or two higher, the status we aspire to. Also, because all of us, with very few exceptions, voluntarily buy the most expensive clothes, or car(s) or home(s) we can afford at any particular time, it would be impossible to evade. Even those whose incomes are a total cypher to the taxation authorities but who live in grand houses in beautiful locations and drive expensive cars, and are suspected by the police of being master criminals (at least 200 in England alone, for example), are quite as normal as the rest of us in wanting to display the social status they consider themselves to disserve.

Because the public as a whole defines the culture in which we live, and because each of our possessions on public display has a specific value according to the value system of that culture, then a ‘public-visibility’ tax is by far and away the fairest, too. It is the most ‘democratic’ if you wish. This form of taxation goes back a very long way. In the original so-called democracy of ancient Athens, citizens contributed taxes to build monuments or acqueducts or to go to war according to the number of slaves they possessed and be seen working the vineyards or toiling in their galley-ships and workshops.

It’s no longer the case. We now have a system in which the rich and powerful, using clever lawyers and accountants, drive a coach and horses through the statutory tax system which catches most of us. At some threshold income level an inverse square law applies — the more your income, the less proportionate tax you pay.

The same system is actually nonsensical at bottom because 999 people out of 1,000 don’t realise that, under existing tax law, they’re expected to keep paper documentation of every permanent item they buy. If they ever come to sell the item at a profit then they must also obtain further documentation and declare the balance to the authorities who will promptly apply a tax. Something similar was actually carried out in parts of Medieval Europe when the local Bishop’s tax assessor would enter your house unannounced and count the ornaments on your shelves or the pots and pans in your kitchen. Today, this implied obligation is largely overlooked. Many comfortably-off people buy and sell antique furniture and silverware which can realise substantial profits with no more than a handshake and raw cash to signify the transfer.

More recently, however, the taxation authorities, at least in England, have become worried by the much larger number of people who have taken to buying and selling many more modest items through eBay using PayPal. Working from home, many make quite a tidy income from this, and certainly don’t reveal it for taxation purposes. Because the ingress of PayPal’s currency into a person’s account is via electronically recordable money on a credit or debit card there is, in theory, a way in which the authorities could get at an individual’s income. But this would be an enormous task and take governments’ computer systems to whole new levels of ineptitude.

But what about smart new money via smartphones? This intrigues me. It’s already the case that a smartphone can be used to pay for an item in a shop by merely passing it over the barcode of the item. What when smartphones will be able to transfer money between themselves? Several more primitive person-to-person transfer systems were tried 20 years ago but the trials didn’t reach threshold or there was some technical inadequacy. However it’s now well within reach. In this way a great deal of business could be done, and profits made, without the authorities knowing. Will the authorities clamp down on this? Will they be able to?

It’s doubtful. Using a deep enough level of encryption, and once started with sufficient investment capital, then there is no more likelihood of governments being able to prevent a new invisible currency coming into existence than they have at present in extinguishing the hard drugs industry (in realistic terms, never — as long as hard drugs are illegal). It may well be the case that various mafiosa chiefs (among whom there is often mutual honour and assistance) could actually be the very individuals who would initiate a secret new currency, starting between themselves at high level and then pushing it downwards among their lesser distributors. From there, there is no reason why the new currency shouldn’t percolate more widely.

How could this be done? Quite simply. Start the same sort of bank that got the industrial revolution going in England. If the new secret currency was known, and trusted by its users, to be always redeemable by current orthodox money at convenient locations then it would certainly become popular in due course because it wouldn’t be taxable by the authorities. Individuals would keep ‘two books’ as it were — the orthodox money on which he is taxed and the additional money which, once redeemed, could be spent without the authorities knowing anything about its origins. Who could tell how large such a new currency could grow, or how much taxation would be lost?

And where could the initial 100% bank reserve of orthodox money come from? The mafioso bosses would certainly be a good source. One such, recently arrested in Mexico, had $200 million in cash in his house. This would probably be insufficient investment to set aside as a secret bank’s reserves. But there are plenty more master criminals in the world and, for status reasons, they’ll all be contactable with one another in exactly the same way as legitimate business people compare and contrast their statuses at various events such as at the annual jamboree at Davos.

There’s only one way that a tax-avoidable currency system could be prevented (disincentivized) in the era of the smartphone and onwards, and this is by way of a tax on one’s ‘public possessions’. I recommend this as something to be thought about. The number of extremely rich people who live in ordinary houses and drive bangers, such as Warren Buffet, are very rare indeed. But, just to give another exception to the rule I’ll mention John Ellerman who was, at around 1900, probably the richest man in the world for a period when he owned half the coal mines of England, hundreds of breweries, thousands of other businesses and half the commercial shipping fleet of the world. He would have given the Morgans or the Rockefellers a good run for their money. He lived even more ordinarily than Buffet, in a semi-deteched house in the seaside town of Worthing. His neighbours hadn’t the faintest idea that he wasn’t other than a City of London clerk who took the train every day. But the Buffets and Ellermans of this world are rare birds indeed. Your local master-criminal will have one of the most attractive (and most taxable!) houses in the neighbourhood.

Rely on Z, not B

Without the gold standard, the industrial-consumer revolution would never have taken off with the speed that it did in the 19th century. We’d still be watching lantern-shows, not TV, or riding in horse-drawn omnibuses, not cars. Big international trade could never have developed as rapidly as it did without the frequent transfer of gold bullion back and forth between international banks in order to balance-up what otherwise would have been purely barter exchanges between one country and another. Big international loans were made using gold bullion or coins, not banknotes. Interest payments of those loans and capital repayments were also made in gold. Big banks saved up gold as their reserves, not the banknotes of their own countries, just in case their populations lose faith in their paper documents (which has happened hundreds of times already in this country or that).

The reason for all this was that no country could accurately evaluate the value of the banknote currency of another country. Banknotes of various sorts were useful representations of value but only within their country of origin. Gold (or silver to a lesser extent) was the only currency that was universally recognized as being valuable. Furthermore, because the total quantity of gold hardly changed from year to year, it had attained a value (per unit of weight) that was almost identical (relative to basic commodities) throughout the world wherever goods were being imported or exported.

Because gold is a rare metal, it didn’t matter very much at the beginning of the industrial-consumer revolution how much gold there was in the world. As it diffused between countries as a trading currency, it took on a particular value as the whole world sensed its rarity. Also, because the total weight of world gold is increased from mining by only about 1% a year, its value changes only slightly from year to year. This is why such high reliance could be placed on it when prices were quoted in merchants’ catalogues anywhere in the world.

The above simple facts elude many economists including, I was astonished to learn yesterday, the most influential economist in the world. He is Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the US Federal Reserve (America’s central bank) who decides how many US dollars to print. In reply to a question from a US Congressman he said the dollar (or implicitly any other currency) can’t go back onto a gold standard because there isn’t enough of it! The fact is, as explained above, its total world quantity doesn’t really matter so long as it remains relatively rare and remains in stable quantities from year to year! If a wicked galactic alchemist could transmute half the world’s gold into lead, then the remaining gold would be instantly worth twice as much per ounce or gram. If an asteroid visited us with 160,000 tonnes of gold aboard then the price of gold would exactly halve.

If neither event occurs — or, conceivably, even if one did! — then the central banks of the world — after an initial shudder no doubt! — would continue what they have been doing increasingly for the last ten years or so as the US dollar becomes shakier. Germany, France and Italy would hang onto the large quantities they already have in their vaults. China and Russia, the largest gold miners in the world, would continue to buy gold on the open market, not sell it. Increasing numbers of emergent countries are now buying gold for their reserves. Millions of individuals around the world are buying gold coins as a hedge against what their pensions might be reduced to. Everybody is becoming deeply nervous about the future of the US dollar and the Eurozone euro.

The person who knows more than most about the matter, and is more objective than Bernanke is Robert Zoellick, the now-retiring President of the World Bank. He said in late 2010: “Although text books may view gold as the old money, markets are using gold as an alternative monetary asset today.” We are actually moving towards the re-establishment of the gold standard.

Keith Hudson

Almost Utopia

To be realistic we will never have an energy shortage again. Because great slabs of compressed ocean mud have been repeatedly pushed under the ‘floating’ continental rock for billions of years then fracked methane will always be available for any realistically conceivable world population for any realistically conceivable future. There’ll be few relatively small regions of the earth’s crust where one or more deep strata of shale gas will not lie immediately underneath.

Shale gas will be used for at least 1,000 years because, in the meantime — and particularly within the next 100 years — by far the most of the present excess world rural population will have ended up in the shanty suburbs of the presently fast-growing super-metropolises. There, if the present experience in Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and other countries is any guide at all, birth rates will decline to less than replacement. If the world-wide research surveys of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are any further guide then, if the hovel-dwellers are offered sufficient free or state-subsidized electricity to drive a TV and to receive, or the chance to earn, enough to maintain a minimum carbohydrate diet then they’ll be content. Those newly-discovered mirror neurons of the brain, which so powerfully help us to self-identify with the rich and the heroes we read in novels or see on the TV screen, will do the trick for the vast majority.

Some of the hovel children, by virtue of a decent set of genes, exceptional parents and more than the normal ration of luck at different junctures, will be able to escape and the join the minority who live in the more prosperous parts of the super-metropolises. In this way they’ll be similar to the small proportion of state-educated children in the advanced countries of the West who are nevertheless able to get into the elite universities from which they will almost automatically enter what I call the 20-class.

Because of the lack of consumer goods with uniquely new characteristics (now about 40 years on in the West), we are fast proceeding to a steady-state economy (much to the befuddlement of our politicians and their growing consternation) in which profits (necessary for further investment) will come from innovations that will continue to increase the efficiency of our production systems and infrastructures, not from status enhancing googaws (which, increasingly, will not require people to make them).

If the above sounds a bit Utopian, so it is. Quite besides a currency catastrophe which cannot be far off now due to the increasingly fragile Eurozone, millions of fracking wells in Europe, China and elsewhere will be joining the many thousands which are presently busy in America and supplying cheap methane. What is going to be the reaction of Russia and the Middle East countries which presently supply us with the bulk of our oil and gas? Their economies, almost totally deficient in small and middle industries, are completely dependent on their olefinic exports. Those countries will be creating a lot of trouble, we can be pretty sure.

Getting somewhere sensible at last

Science has already placed a bomb under present-day polar politics — between the left-wing and right-wing orientations that preoccupy (as far as one can see) every country on earth whatever its formal governmental system.

The essential nature of the bomb is that it is being increasingly shown that everybody’s personality and main skills are laid down clearly at puberty. There is nothing any of us can do to change this situation, except to modify this or that aspect from then onwards according to the accidents and circumstances of life. As far as left-wingism is concerned, this means that comprehensive attempts at ‘fair’ equalisation of welfare and opportunities are strictly limited somewhere along the line. As far as right-wingism is concerned, it means that gross inequalities of income and wealth are in no way deserved by the ‘entrepreneurial’ qualities of those at the top of the heap.

The truth of the matter is that we are automatons, or very largely so. Each of us is programmed according to factors quite outside our individual control. In my opinion, freewill must exist — or else we couldn’t possibly consider its possible existence — but how or why or to what extent it operates must remain inexplicable for now, and perhaps forever. It is a problem of the same complexity as the real nature of the quantum world, or the unknown 95% mass of the universe or whether evolution is a random game or is intrinsic to the creation of the universe (if it was created).

As to the automatic nature of our lives, what are the exterior programmes which control it? We are born with a specific set of genes as a random mix from our parents. Many of these genes have sub-optimal variations within them, and these immediately set the first outermost range of limits to our subsequent performance in life. We also inherit an additional, more refined expressibility of many of our genes. These are our epigenetic settings, and these derive from the chemical and psychological environment of our parents. These set a second set of cultural limits to our normal behaviour. Subsequently the partiality given to some of our natural aptitudes by the family in which we are raised from our earliest months and years sets a further inner boundary to our potential abilities. Lastly, and increasingly up to the age of puberty, particular aptitudes are developed under the increasing control of the values of the peer group in which we spend out time.

All the above is carried out by the fashioning of the neuronal networks of, mainly, the rear crinkly skin of our brains (left and right). Skills and behaviours which we can’t possibly carry out at the age of puberty — or do ineptly — are forever denied us for the rest of our lives. From then onwards, the favoured aspects of our personalities and skills are developed further by a surge of millions of new neurons which grow in the frontal regions of crinkly skin. This surge tails off by about the age of 30. From then onwards we are increasingly unlikely to have innovative ideas or to develop new social skills which can place us much higher in the status ranking which pervades in all organizations whether they be hobby groups or large nations or multinational corporations.

The above is what science is now telling us. There may be other surprises still to come which will affect our personalities and skills but they’re unlikely to be major ones because all of them so far are already reducible to the workings of our genes and we can’t go further downwards (save to ask existential questions alluded to above).

As evolutionary biology and neuroscience fill in more details in the years to come, what will this mean politically? It means that in order for everybody to have some status we will gradually have to disassemble the vast hierarchical systems that nation-states have inherited from a couple of centuries of heavy artillery warfare (and the hierarchies that are necessary to run such events). We will have to assemble the sort of groups which co-evolved with the more specific aspects of our personalities for millions of years as primates.

What such a social system would look like — or, indeed, the political mechanics of getting there — is impossible to describe here and now. We may simply note two things. Firstly, this is what science is telling us about how to live with maximum social welfare and efficiency. Secondly, it is already the case that there is a small power group at the head of every significant function of our lives which, overtly or covertly, takes the important decisions. Unless scientific research is snuffed out completely in the coming years then it will inevitably be the case that the growing political demand of the future will be that the well-being and satisfactions already experienced by the small power-groups be translated downwards to us all.

In a vague way as yet, this is called ‘Decentralization’. It is the growing ineptitude of large governments and the growing cynicism of electorates towards politicians which is driving it.

Vacant spaces of power

As we sink deeper into a 1930s-type depression and growing unemployment, particularly of the young, what Western governments ought to fear more than anything else is subversion from within, not riots, marches or street occupations. If the latter become too extreme or untidy they can be dealt with by rubber bullets and water cannons (or even armoured cars and light tanks, such as those Prime Minister Tony Blair caused to be parked menacingly at Heathrow Airport only a few years ago after a fit of paranoia).

No, what’s to be feared are conspiracies by young individuals with a deep and genuine concern for the unemployed who proceed over years to penetrate the highest levels of the power elites. In the 1930s, there was, apparently, a ready-made solution in the form of Russian communism, so there were communist spy cells in all the Western countries. In England we had intellectuals such as Blunt, Philby, Maclean, Burgess and Cairncross (the “Cambridge Five”) and, in America, there were Greenglass, Fuchs, Hiss, White, Silvermaster, Browder and the Rosenbergs. In Europe, the communist parties of various countries became very powerful and, after WWII, some became voluntarily enfolded within the Soviet system while others, such as Italy and France, came close to voting for independent communist governments.

Communism of the former totalitarian, top-down, highly centralized nature of the former Soviet Union or Chinese Republic doesn’t seem to have found favour so far with young intellectuals today, although there was a brief flurry of excitement some years ago about a vaguely similar ideological movement that was known under the ponderous name of communitarianism. But this was, and remains, such a Liquorish Allsorts type of movement without any political consensus between its proponents that it has little direct influence.

But there are stirrings of something similar to Marxism rising again in the Western world. The name of Marx is beginning to be mentioned a little more frequently than, say, ten years ago. Despite the predominant philosophy of the last 20/30 years that “Greed is OK” and the increasing corruption of politicians, officials and the banking sector there is still something about the ideas of communism or socialism that resonates. And, of course, this is likely to be the case. Millions of years of living on the African savanna have, for maximum efficiency and survival, shaped our species into living in small social groups and our genes into giving us quite detailed physiological and psychological specifications. As to the latter we are generally altruistic rather than tyrannical, although strong social stratification came to the fore at times when adolescent boys became too boisterous or if a neighbouring group tried to invade our food gathering territory or steal our pubescent daughters.

This, and a great deal more about human nature, is now known by a still microscopically small proportion of evolutionary biologists. In order to describe ourselves realistically we no longer need the sort of philosophical debate of the last few thousand years, or the political ideologies of the last hundred years or so as highly centralized nation-states came into existence as byproducts of mass warfare (internal or external).

I am not, of course, suggesting that “cells” of evolutionary scientists are going to secretly invade the various centres of political and business power within the elite, or what I term the 20-class, in order to carry out some form of coup-d’etat. But the children of this class, rather than the state-educated 80-class (increasingly innumerate and illiterate), educated in private schools (each competing for quality) are going to be the first to absorb the more realistic notions concerning our evolution, and thus best governance. Indeed, the more successful modern corporations are already paying attention. Able to recruit the creme-de-la-creme of the elite universities, they no longer pride themselves on massive multi-tiered organization charts but are learning to lateralize into smaller specialized groups.

However, the new “movement”, if it is not a conspiracy in the old-fashioned sense, will still keep a low profile for some time yet. Political correctness, which has rapidly advanced since WWII, is still too deep, pervasive and governmentally imposed, to be overcome directly. As always with defunct institutions, the old culture has to start breaking down first. But as almost all advanced governments are already technically bankrupt with no financial solution to hand, save yet more money-printing, we can assume that only those with realistic ideas will be drawn into the vacant spaces.

Keith Hudson

The real Eurozone will emerge

Well, I’ve been wrong so many times in the last two years in forecasting the imminent breakdown of the Eurozone that I hesitate to say it again. This year is new, however, in that the Eurozone is not just one of the three major economic entities which may break down, but the one that Asia and America are now totally focussed on as being the weakest link.

The Eurozone finance ministers are meeting again this morning, despite the “solution” of ten days ago and the sceptical reaction to it. There’s absolutely nothing they can do short of: (a) the over-ruling of 17 different Treasuries by one budget-setting body in Brussels; or (b) a massive bout of money printing by the European Central Bank. The first is politically impossible, or else preliminary steps would have been taken long before now. The second would breach the rules of the Eurozone’s foundation and would cause the immediate eruption of Germany, Finland, Netherlands and Austria.

I can only think that the finance ministers of the 17, and certainly those of the Big Four (Germany, France, Italy and Spain), will be meeting in more or less permanent session from now onwards until the real world finally imposes its own solution.

Keith Hudson

Apple and Microsoft — eat your heart out

We’re now getting very close to the mature PC/tablet/smart phone, though it doesn’t have a name yet. Microsoft’s Surface, announced with the usual euphoria a day or two ago, comes closest. But it’s still beset with one problem. It’s too large. At around 12″ (30cm) x 8″ (20cm) it still needs to be shrunk further so that it’s the size of, say, a small paperback: something that can be comfortably slipped into a packet or handbag but, with the flip of a lid one way or the other, is equally able to be used as a phone or a PC.

Unlike Apple, Microsoft have been clever enough to realize that a keyboard is still necessary on any tablet that claims to be versatile. Even if voice recognition software becomes far more advanced, able to cope with any dialect or timbre, we’re now moving into a specialized age where the written or typed word is required to be more precise than ever. It can’t always be dictated as a one-off. But Microsoft have not yet paid as much attention to the keyboard as they have done elsewhere in their machine.

The problem is our finger-tips. They’re too wide. Thus we still require a keyboard that’s at least 10″ (25 cm) wide in order to accommodate everything we need. Otherwise, we’d be pressing two or even three keys at once more often than not unless we slowed down to snail pace. But we don’t need the keys to be the size of fingertips.

If Microsoft had some biologists among their researchers then they might have solved this problem because Nature has already done it. True, it’s in the visual department and not the tactile. At any one instant of time our eyes see only a small 2 degree cone of sharp vision before they flick elsewhere. Perception tails off steeply outside the cone. Why not the same for sharply sensitized pressure pads? With a smaller keyboard of about 8″ (200 cm) we’d always be impinging on two or three keys but if it responded only to a very small cone in the centre of each jab even the clumsiest person among us would soon learn to type each letter unambiguously.

There we are then. I’ve solved the next step for Apple or Microsoft, or Nokia or any other manufacturer. What’s more, by writing this I’ve prevented any of them claiming copyright and perhaps monopolizing the innovation for years to come as corporations are wont to do.

I’m now going to make a request that I’ve never made before. Could each of you publicise this posting among other lists (or key contacts) as widely as you can? I would like to make sure that the idea is well and truly within the public domain if it is, in fact, successful. Thank you.

Yesterday was Reality Day

Yesterday, an academic who spent his lifetime in relative obscurity became the happiest man on earth. Also yesterday, the career of a banker of world-wide eminence was brought down to something equivalent to a Dickensian boy-clerk.

Yesterday, with the likely confirmation of the Higgs Boson, the world of science may have gained its first chink of light into the workings of the universe, 95% of which, at present, is still a total mystery. Yesterday, with the most decisive rupture yet of the hitherto incestuous relationship between high politics and investment banking during the last century, ordinary folk may have gained their first chink of light into the workings of the currency world — printed banknotes, arcane derivatives, artificial interest rates and all — which has been a closed shop to them so far.

The action of the first, of course, took place at the 27 kilometre circular underground particle-crasher, the CERN reactor, in Switzerland — the most sophisticated piece of engineering in the world, built to the finest tolerances. It cost about $4 billion. The action of the second took place in a small unprepossessing committee room of the House of Commons in London, the most sophisticated financial centre in the world. It cost nothing, apart from a few carafes of mineral water and plastic cups.

Professor Peter Ware Higgs, 83, wiped away a tear of joy when the discovery of his long-awaited sub-atomic particle was announced. Mr Robert Edward Diamond, 61, ex CEO of Barclays Capital, Barclays Corporate and Barclays Bank wasn’t observed wiping away a tear yesterday as his career and Barclays’ reputation was humbled, but he might well do so in private. Indeed, if I were his doctor, I’d probably advise his family to put him on suicide watch for a few weeks.

The immediate effects of the Higgs Boson discovery will be zero for a while before the minds of the 10,000 visiting scientists who make use of the CERN reactor start to chew over the matter. With luck, the immediate effects of the exposure of the Diamond’s negligent management and cowboy antics of young traders at Barclays and about ten other investments banks in America and Europe who’ve affected the movements of $450 trillion and the lives of millions or people and small businesses ought, if there is any justice in the world or any common sense in governments, reinforce the so-far feeble attempts at reforming the banking and financial sector.

We’ll see. At all events, yesterday ought to be Reality Day as regards to two of our deepest instincts and where they take us, the one being our deep curiosity, the other being the male’s need for power and status.

Reviving a boring game

Now that Wimbledon is upon us, I fell to thinking this morning about the future of tennis. At the consumer-supply end, the imminent future is obvious. More and more ambitious parents will exploit their children at younger and younger ages by sending them to tennis academies. Tournament players will get taller and taller. Serves will get faster and faster. The skill differences between the top 100 seeds of both ladies’ and men’s tennis will become more and more wafer-thin. The repertoire of shots, already barely half-a-dozen of them will be increasingly occupied by brute-force forehand and backhand shots played from the baseline, so rallies will get longer and longer. The games will get longer and longer.

At the consumer-demand end, games will thus become more and more boring. And the professionals involved — the players with their necessary teams of coaches, managers, physiotherapists, psychologists, travel assistants, investment advisors, etc — will be such a heavy burden on the game that the whole sector will become financially crippled and will have to contract. It’ll be rather like the fate of symphony orchestras and the classical music scene of the last century. Attendances at the big events will no doubt continue for a long time yet, but increasingly for reasons of social status rather than content — to be seen and, later, to be able to say that one has been there.

Tennis is, of course, a thoroughly enjoyable game and will no doubt persist at the amateur level. Hopefully, anyway. But, as a spectator sport with monstrous ticket prices (and, at Wimbledon, those of the obligatory strawberries and cream), it seriously needs re-jigging in some way. Presumably, it could be done. It was achieved in the case of the King Of All Sports, cricket, with the institution of the 50-over game. Boy, aren’t they fun? This has so much revived the game that even attendances at the more sophisticated four-innings, multi-day matches are now jam-packed. I can think of a way that soccer, increasingly delivering boring drawn games and more fouling, can be revived. Reduce team sizes to 10 or even 9 or 8 players. It needs experimenting with. One of these ought to give more entertaining scope for the rare outstanding talent such as Messi, Ronaldo and Rooney and more exciting scores as well as reducing opportunities for fouls.

As for tennis, I cannot say. I’ve scarcely played the game since adolescence and know little about it. But if I were a greybeard, high up in the Lawn Tennis Association or the International Tennis Federation, I would be very worried.