Skip to Content

Pathfinders: Ready, aim . . . Press Enter

You'll know by now whether the UK retail industry's fear of the worst Christmas profits for 30 years came true or not. Hopefully workers can draw some comfort from the thought of all those skinned fat cats and broke brokers, though it's little enough comfort when you're wondering which of your children to sell to pay the stupendous gas bill this winter.

Ever ready with expensive and impractical solutions most workers will never be able to afford unless they win the Lottery, New Scientist suggests we all go off the grid (5 December). Certainly, given suitable location and a few tens of thousands of pounds, you can install your own wind, water, solar and geothermal systems and forever laugh in the face of price increases and power outages. But when you can't even afford a bit of miserable lagging in your loft, such helpful suggestions don't cut much ice off the inside of your windows.

Still, for the rich among us who matter, there's another reason for turning your stately pile into a self-sufficient domestic fortress with solar-powered electric fences and heat-seeking laser turrets. If the current economic downturn keeps going down, and the unemployment figures keep going up, you'll be wanting to do more than keep the heat in. You'll be wanting to keep the poor out.

Could things get that bad? Well, quite possibly. The world is going through a process of technological convergence which globalisation and the information revolution are making possible. In itself this might be a good thing, and would greatly assist in the establishment of global non-market socialism. But this is capitalism we're talking about, and one should never underestimate its ability to turn a triumph into a disaster.

The very fact of convergence means that not only are the world's financial systems vulnerable to cyber-attack, but so are its power systems. One concerted hack offensive could stop an entire country in its tracks and turn all its lighting and heating off. Needless to say, the rich men in their self-sufficient castles won't be bothered, but pity the poor man at his gate.

Yet surely nobody would commit such a monumental act of vandalism? Oh really? Guess again. China, it seems, have been sponsoring hacker groups for years, for the purposes of espionage and industrial sabotage against rivals, and are arguably in a position to paralyse the UK or USA (Guardian, 21 November). At a time when global trends are pointing to the decline of US unipolar dominance and the emergence of multipolar power factions, cyber-attack of this sort is not only more likely, it becomes an almost irresistible option. After all, pressing that button doesn't seem half so difficult as pressing the nuclear one. True, you may kill people through denial of service, but it's not as if you're incinerating millions.

Note Imperfect

Strange but true, a binman on his rounds found two bins stuffed with £10,000 in £10 and £20 notes, the bizarre catch being that they were all cut up into one-inch squares (BBC Online Magazine, 5 December). What was needed, explained a self-styled puzzle expert, was a scientific system to reassemble the notes, which the binman will be allowed to keep, as they have not been claimed. "When I read the story . I was very tempted to give him a call and offer my help", said the expert. We just bet he was.

Apparently note destruction is not unusual, and every year the Bank of England receives returned notes to the value of £40 million, which have been burned, water-damaged, defaced, ripped, cut, chewed or eaten. Is there some campaign of money vandalism going on that we don't know about? Be that as it may, our scientific advice to workers would be slightly different from the puzzle expert's. Why not start the New Year by cutting up all the other notes too, and not bothering to stick them together?

Balls to the Gamers

"First, you need to buy genitals. You start off with no genitals and then you buy some. These objects can do all sorts of things. You can have ones that ejaculate at the right moment." Thus Adrian Mars, technology journalist with the suitably other-worldly name, explains virtual anatomy to us (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/ 7729207.stm)

If you're thinking of joining the throngs of people involved in that desperate exodus from reality known as 'online gaming' and you feel up for a bit of slap and tickle, you need to bear in mind that escapist virtual reality is even more capitalist than capitalism, and that what nature normally provides for free has to be bought and paid for. Still, at least you get to choose size, colour and special functions. Be warned though, this kind of cyber hanky-panky has already resulted in one real-world divorce, as Mrs Avatar 'walked' in to find Mr Avatar on the sofa with Ms Streetwalker Avatar polishing his proud purchase. But then, the aforementioned couple met and married in the first place via an online chat-room, so perhaps there is a kind of internal symmetry going on after all. When you think online gamers can't get any sillier, they do. If only all that imagination could be turned back towards the physical world, where the real balls-ups are taking place.