I’m spending this week at

I’m spending this week at a summer school on Complexity in Social Science held in Baeza, Spain. I’ll post some more intellectual stuff later but in the meantime here are a few photos…

The landscape here is stunning, with thousands and thousands of olive trees.

But we are doing loads of work as well. People are from all around the world and from lots of different disciplines so every lecture is fascinating.

All the participants are presenting their work in sherry fueled poster sessions each evening.

And as then the sun goes down we head off for cervezas and tapas.

[I’ve been sitting on this

[I’ve been sitting on this post for a little while, mulling over how it fits in with recent events.]

At the weekend I was invited along to the Progressive Governance Conference held in London and attended by centre left politicians and thinkers from around the world. It seems to have incurred the wrath of most commentators (Larry Elliot’s piece is one of the funniest) and I wouldn’t claim that it was perfect, but I think it did serve a purpose that has been overlooked. I’ll come back to this later.

The event started out as a complete farce with a computer glitch leading to a good proportion of the delegates not having passes to get into the building. I’ll tell you this, progressives can get pretty aggressive if they have to queue. I felt incredibly sorry for the poor stewards who had to deal with us — at one point I thought they needed more protection than the world leaders.

I was expecting the venue to be pretty swanky but other than the professional looking white and red stage and backdrop that the speakers used it was quite a drab and plain looking room. I suppose there are only so many places in London that can be adapted for the security but it did feel a bit like a bad wedding reception. The tinny piped classical music didn’t help. What made it interesting for me was that it was my first time seeing many of the characters of the centre left in action. As I sat down for the first session I realised the well tanned and very trim looking guy on the row in front of me was Alistair Campbell.

The first session on the Friday evening was less than scintillating (Blair’s speech wasn’t his finest) but Bill Clinton added some buzz on the Saturday morning. He didn’t speak from the podium, instead using a handheld mic and outlining what he thought were the challenges for the centre left in dealing with the White House’s current inhabitant. He has a lot of good ideas for solving immediate geopolitical problems, but I suppose I came along looking for the vision thing and he didn’t quite deliver.

As with most conferences, the interesting stuff took place on the fringes. Quite a few things from the weekend have stuck with me but one comment from a delegate has made me think. He said “It always amazes me how huge decisions are dependent on the quality of the personal relationships between the politicians involved.” He’s the kind of person who should know, so I thought about it some more.

Politics isn’t logical. Leaders are human beings and when the stakes are so high they rely on trust to make decisions. When they get together (as they did at the weekend) they are subliminally asking “Can I trust this person? Is this someone I can count on in a crisis?” In an uncertain, interrelated, complex world it becomes even more vital that the top team know each other. We now place greater demands on our elected officials, wanting them to deal with hugely complex tasks like terrorism, global environmental disasters, and diseases that spiral out of control in days.

At a time when our formal methods of global governance remain underdeveloped, we rely on the informal channels of diplomacy to maintain peace and prosperity. That’s why these conferences have value, they allow global leaders to develop trusting relationships with people who are basically on their team.

The reason the weekend was slightly uncomfortable for Tony Blair was that he’s been seen talking to players on the other team. Although nobody close to him would ever admit it, my reading is that his choice to work with George Bush was an attempt to hug him to death. He realised there was real potential for all communication between global leaders to break down, for trust on the global stage to be ripped to shreds. He took a gamble that the amount of trust he had built up with other world leaders would allow him to be the bridge between progressives and neoconservatives.

The gamble has proved to be more risky than he calculated. The moment he took the decision, there was no way back. Blair staked everything. He knew he could not survive going back on his word to Bush. Although he would be welcomed back with open arms by the left if he were to say he got it wrong, an unfettered Bush administration would almost certainly wreak havoc in the rebuilding of Iraq, the treatment of Al Queda suspects and potentially in other countries on George Bush’s axis of evil.

All this has been crystallised by Blair’s Congressional Medal ceremony yesterday evening. Just ask yourself what would have happened if Blair had stood up and denounced Bush? It makes you realise the consequences of an about turn by Blair could be very severe indeed. All he can do is hang on, slowly trying to build up trust between progressives by hosting a meeting of them in the UK, by refocusing on domestic policy and praying that the Democrats can get back into power in Washington.

I’ve got a feeling that when history comes to be written and the word ‘neoconservative’ is seen like other fallen despotic empires, we may thank Mr Blair for his Schindler-like role in dampening its effects.

Pat Kane alerts us to

Pat Kane alerts us to a strange new phenomenon that will surely take only a few days to reach London. Basically Flash Mobs are gatherings coordinated by email or mobile phone in a random place at a random time selected by someone who starts the whole thing off. The most recent New York event got over 200 people to turn up on the balcony of the Hyatt Hotel and then clap for no reason for 15 seconds. Needless to say, the security guards were a bit bemused. The point of it all… well, there isn’t one.

Read more at Wired.

So I went to my

So I went to my first ever local Labour party meeting last night. No beer, no sandwiches, just six of us in a slightly dank community hall with a couple of rather sorry looking goldfish in a murky green tank for company.

But it wasn’t all that bad — the people were great and obviously wanted to ‘do something’. We talked about how to get more people involved, how to get ministers to visit some of the great local projects that are underway and who we needed to talk to to make sure we were in touch with each of the major communities in our ward.

We also went through a consultation document from the national party about ‘transport and sustainable communities’ which turned into a really good discussion about the interrelated nature of local problems. Watch this space to follow the rise and rise of Springfield and Cazenove Ward.

Some time with Feynman

Richard Feynman was, without doubt, one of the most interesting men of the twentieth century. Nobel prize-winning physicist, strip club frequenter and bongo player extraordinaire his scientific life began as a researcher on the now infamous Manhattan project to build the nuclear bomb and ended in 1988 when he died after a long battle with a rare form of cancer.

I’ve just finished Leonard Mlodinow’s lovely little book Some time with Feynman. It’s the story of Mlodinow’s first year as a postdoc student in 1981 at Caltech where he found himself in an office just next to both Feynman and another Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Man. Murray and Feynman didn’t really get on — in their manner, their philosophy and their physics they could never agree, although there was a begrudging respect for each others’ genius.

Mlodinov had arrived at Caltech as an astoundingly bright young thing with free reign to find an area of research of his choosing. The trouble was he wasn’t sure he was up to the job and if he was, he didn’t have a clue which problem of theoretical physics he should attack. The book is the story of the young researcher’s conversations with the dying and by that time famous physicist about the biggest questions facing any scientist.

He really has captured the essence of Feynman and packaged it into a great little book. If you haven’t come across the curious character of Richard Feynman before, it’s a great read, but if you’ve read some of the other biographies of the great man (like James Gleick’s Genius), you’ll still get something new. More than that, it’s a wonderful explanation of why scientists (in the broadest sense) do what they do.

Click here for more info.