The most popular game on miniclip.com at the moment is Volcanic Airways. ‘The Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland has erupted, you must escape the volcanic ash and get to safety! Loops get you more points!’ For all those urgent exclamation marks, Volcanic Airways is the slowest game ever – your chubby Boeing drags its bulk through the air at such a leisurely crawl that when the ash cloud finally catches up you can’t help but feel you deserve to be engulfed. The work of the programmers behind the game, though, has been undeniably swift. The internet gaming industry has never been slow to respond to the news. As the presidential campaigns for the 2008 US election ground on, a game called Presidential Paintball appeared:
When I first came to Beijing, in 1999, the pollution made my throat swell up so much that I couldn’t speak. In 2003 I spent a week in hospital here, giving endless blood samples, having various body parts scanned, and answering questions like 'How often do you cry?' or 'Do you ever feel an almost uncontrollable rage?' I never found out what was wrong with me. When I got here this time, five weeks ago, I had such crippling jet lag that I barely slept for three days. Wandering the streets last month, hoping to exhaust myself into sleep, I came to the conclusion that Beijing was a terrible place: polluted, ugly, lacking in style, unredeemed by Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China or the few surviving hutongs. Unlike Shanghai, Chengdu or Kunming, it’s a city I can’t find it in me to like.
I was at a conference in Sharm el Sheikh when Eyjafjallajökull erupted. The only flights out of Cairo were to Tunis, Beirut or Casablanca. Casablanca seemed the least worst option. We touched down shortly before midnight, and I made it to Casa-Voyageurs station just in time for the night train to Tangier, where I met a Moroccan builder heading for Montpellier. He had an appointment with social security; if he missed it, he risked having his benefits cut off.
Travel writers have been in high demand this week, and being one, apparently, I was summoned from Cambridge to appear at the back end of Newsnight to discuss the implications for travel of the volcanic ash episode, along with Alain de Botton. I got there an hour early and was shown into a very small, windowless green-room where all but one space on the two sofas was taken up by three large men in suits. Another man sat on an upright chair. Businessmen and politicians are called 'suits', I now see, because that is what is presented to the world. The suit makes the man work. The head emerges and talks as if programmed by the suit-maker. The suit armours their confidence and ownership of reality. Stiffly tailored, uniform, held together with a tie, a substantial watch and an ever-active mobile phone.
In recent times the usual response to scientific uncertainties about risk has been to apply the precautionary principle. Action is taken to prevent potentially dangerous events when there is no robust evidence about their likely magnitude, or sometimes even about the likelihood of their occurrence. With both Eyjafjallajökull's eruption and swine flu, pessimism and a heavy reliance on a very small number of historical events drove the policy response. It is on record that major damage has occurred on the few occasions when planes have flown through thick volcanic eruptions. In the century before swine flu there were only three flu pandemics, in 1918, 1957 and 1968. So when the precautionary principle led to the roll out of planned policies – zero tolerance for ash and very vigorous controls for the newish flu virus – the science was very imperfect.
The day before leaving for Cyprus, I read an excellent account of the sinister weather conditions of 1783, which Benjamin Franklin surmised were the result of recent volcanic activity in Iceland. I’m writing a book about Vesuvius and this was by way of light research. I was about to leave Nicosia for home when Eyjafjallajökull erupted.
Just snippets today. 1. The bond market doesn’t care who wins, as long as somebody does. Nine out of ten funds questioned by the FT said that there was no difference between the Tories and Labour. But they don’t like the idea of a hung Parliament, because they think it’ll make it harder to tackle the deficit. 2. According to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, there is no correlation between levels of immigration and support for the BNP. Of the ten local authorities with the highest levels of BNP support, nine have levels of immigration lower than the national average.
The head of the Interrnational Air Transport Association, Giovanni Bisignani, has spoken breezily about the eruption of the Icelandic volcano and its consequences for aviation. The problem, Bisignani says, is Europe. 'The decision Europe has made is with no risk assessment, no consultation, no co-ordination, no leadership.' Steady on.
Explosive news. Not about the election, where things were quietish while the debate was digested, and not just about the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which is bringing an eerie calm to those of us who live under a UK airport flightpath, while causing chaos and mayhem all over Europe. There's also the news that Goldman Sachs are being charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The allegations concern the Collateralised Debt Obligations which the bank sold to its customers, and what sorts of shenanigans went on in the course of their manufacture.
Something like this has been coming for months. I’m going to quote something I wrote back in January:
Flying is for happening people and though I try to happen as seldom as possible, sometimes it’s irresistible, which is why I’m booked to fly any moment with RyanAir. First time in eight years, even though the airport’s up the road. But then along comes Eyjafjallajökull, east of Stansted. East in the same way that Krakatoa is ‘east’ of Java, i.e. west. On the RyanAir website I can see the company ‘apologises sincerely for any inconvenience caused by these eruptions’. At least I think that’s what it says. But that doesn’t address my sense of entitlement, which includes the right to travel unimpeded by natural phenomena, e.g. fog, snow, volcanoes, meteorite showers, Canada geese and flying toads.
Here's a screenshot (click to enlarge) taken at 12.15 p.m. today of flightradar24.com, which shows live aircraft traffic over Europe. The single plane in British airspace (over the Isle of Man) was a flight from Vancouver operated by Thomas Cook, destined for Glasgow but redirected to Manchester. The Professional Pilots Rumour Network has ceaseless commentary from its members about what is and isn't going on.
You can watch the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupting here. The last eruption lasted two years. Yikes. All flights in and out of London's airports have been cancelled because of the ash cloud, and after a few hours without the drone of aeroplane turbines the absence has become pleasantly discernible. I've got so used to a plane flying overhead every ten minutes or so that now I notice there are none.
I’m not going to comment on the Tory manifesto until I’ve read it, which won’t be for a day or two since the sodding thing is 118 pages long. (I thought I might order the £5 hardback from Amazon for next-day delivery, but it isn’t available. In fact if you type in Conservative Party Manifesto, the top result is a second-hand copy of the 2005 Manifesto, for £10. Someone’s eye is off the ball.) The launch was interesting, though. Battersea Power Station has obviously negative associations, which rivals weren’t slow in pointing out: as Nick Clegg put it, ‘they’ve just launched it in a power station that doesn’t have any power.’ In fact it’s worse than that, since the power station is a very conspicuous relic, an abandoned shell, a purposeless eyesore which testifies both to the achievements of Britain’s past and the relative deterioration of its present.