Thursday, 25 February 2010

Triumph of the bland

David Runciman's talk on the politics of three London Olympic Games at Queen Mary College last week was amusing and enlightening. In 1908, Anglo-American relations became strained - the English felt the American's habit of training was unsporting - and the organisers kept the prices high to deter dangerous crowds of the wrong sort of spectator.

In 1948, the tone was one of austerity (athletes had to hire towels if they didn't bring their own) and restraint. The malnourished English took a perverse pride in the fact that the national anthem was only heard five times (opening and closing ceremonies, and three gold medals), compared to Berlin in 1936, where Deutschland Uber Alles and Horst Wessel had rung out continuously.

The 1948 Olympics were also the last Games where medals were awarded for artistic endeavour. The quality of entries was mixed, to put it politely: no medals were awarded for music, and the sculpture that won gold was a heroically anodyne piece by Gustav Nordahl called Homage to Life (photo, right, Bengt Oberger).

Runciman compared this inoffensive couple to the heroically striving ubermenschen whose representations triumphed in Berlin in 1936. A retreat to the bland was understandable if not inevitable given the horrors of the previous 12 years. Together with an irreparable fracturing of consensus on what constitutes 'good' art, nervousness about the appropriation of sporting iconography by fascists signalled the end of art as a competitive Olympic activity.

Even today, sport-inspired art tends either to the heroic or the apologetic, to the apotheosis of man and the spirit of '36, or to mushy statements of universal brotherhood (see Invictus, though I doubt I will). The International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne manages to combine both (photo, above left, IOC/Juillart). Leni Riefenstahl casts a long shadow.

Friday, 5 February 2010


To the right is a graphic that appeared in the Guardian last weekend, to illustrate a story about flood risk and global warming:

The larger map is pretty familiar: it sets out the flood risk that would arise from a two-metre rise in sea levels (at the upper end of projections for this century).

The smaller map, which seems to have inundated most of eastern England, is less familiar. Reading the small print, it becomes clear that this is a map of a truly cataclysmic scenario. The complete melting of the polar ice caps would release a staggering 33 million square kilometres of water into the sea, and this could result in a sea level rise in the order of 84 metres. So it's farewell to Norfolk.

But the qualifications pile up. This outcome is "very unlikely - and probably only possible many thousands of years into the future." So, like global pandemics, asteroid collisions and exploding supernova stars, this type of sea level rise is not really something we can do a great deal about now.

You have to ask why The Guardian chose to print this map. Following the failure of the talks in Copenhagen, it is very tempting - even for those of us who broadly accept the scientific consensus - to stick our heads in the ever-warming sands, declare that the problem is too monstrous to tackle, and enjoy the sunshine.

A debate in the Observer today quotes a former chair of the IPCC as saying, "Unless we announce distasters no one will listen." But conjuring cataclysms like this doesn't help; in fact, it plays into the hand of those who argue that the threat is exaggerated, or a trojan horse for a green re-engineering of society.

It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

Browsing survivalist websites recently (don't ask), I clicked on a banner ad for Hardened Structures, and specifically for their '2012 Shelters'.

The 2012 Shelter sounds like a serious piece of kit. The website tells us: "As a specific Threat Event, the anticipated catastrophic effects resulting from 2012 are far greater than the anticipated effects from WMD’s, anarchy, climate change or any of the other specific Threat Events for which we have developed mitigation designs ... most engineers and scientists agree that for a fully protected 2012 shelter the following threats must be mitigated;

  1. 3-Bars Blast Overpressure of 45 psi
  2. Force 10 Earthquake in successions
  3. 450 MPH winds
  4. Extreme Gamma & Neutron attenuation from a 100 megaton air burst detonated 20 miles away
  5. Solar Flares with 1,000,000 volt EMP
  6. Flooding (complete submersion for 100 hours)
  7. Extreme External Fires at 1250 F for 10 days
  8. Magnetic Pole Shift
  9. Radiological, Chemical and Biological Weapons
  10. Forced Entry and Armed Assaults
  11. 12’ of snow and 10’ of rain
  12. 500 lb Hail Stones or flying debris at a speed of 100 mph"
Usually I find that ignoring TV for six weeks keeps you safely insulated from the Olympics, but some people are clearly determined to take no chances. 900 days to go, and counting.