Despite a hardy laptop, I've still managed to break mine. Photo: AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. Brown
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I chose a laptop that even Nasa couldn’t break. Somehow, I have managed to break it

Nasa only has to worry about the fiery immolation of its crew, should anything go wrong. They do not have to take into account the treatment you give your machines.

Everything is decaying. A few weeks ago, my laptop screen suddenly developed a horrible black blot in the upper right-hand corner. This was unsightly and unsettling at once: like an electronic canker. It signalled the end times for my trusty Lenovo, a machine that has suffered much unintentional abuse at my hands. My friend Toby-who-is-not-Toby-Young is also my computer guru and he chose the model for me: he thought I would like the keyboard (and I do; everyone else’s is rubbish compared to it) and he also knew it was going to take a pounding – these are the machines that were used on the Space Shuttle (and, I think, in the International Space Station).

As he pointed out, although they are not the lightest of computers, and every ounce added to a payload that needs to reach escape velocity has to be considered, their durability and fixability – you can fossick around in its innards in a way that Apple won’t tolerate – made them Nasa’s laptop of choice.

“However,” he added, “Nasa only has to worry about the fiery immolation of its crew, should anything go wrong. They do not have to take into account the treatment you give your machines.”

This is quite true, and sobering. I don’t know quite how I do what I do to my laptops, because it’s not as if I take them on country walks or anything, but they do tend to attract a lot of detritus. The last time Toby had to take it apart to fix something he looked, mesmerised, at the exposed circuitry. Or rather, that which could be seen beneath the layers of tobacco ash, foodstuffs and other unknown and unknowable oomska (to use Uncle Monty’s excellent word from Withnail and I). Some of the more filthy-minded of you may be speculating about any bodily secretions that might be in there, but all that there would be is saliva – when I read something funny, I snort and a fine spray of spit dashes against the screen, which means that every so often I have to dampen a tissue with gin or something and give it a thorough wipe.

It may have been this that contributed to the screen’s ongoing demise. Things have developed since that first ugly blot: another one, and then the sudden appearance of an interesting cross-hatching of lines which rendered, at first, a fifth of the screen unusable; it is now two-fifths. The blots have now made friends and joined up, and their pattern is exactly like something you’d expect to see in an abandoned factory in a pane of glass through which a stone had been thrown, but, interestingly, in one of those ways that computers use the visual tropes of a world they have replaced (such as the stylised envelope denoting mail), there is no actual hole in the screen; it just looks like one. Spreading lines indicate that the process of decay in the screen has not yet come to a halt.

This machine has its tricks: sometimes a key will stop working, unless you jab at it again and again, making my texts look like Oulipan exercises, like Georges Perec’s novel La disparition, written without the letter “e”, but then the toast crumb or whatever it is dislodges itself and all works again. I did have an external monitor the size and weight of a television screen and I used that for a bit, until it decided it didn’t want to speak to my computer any more; so I am back now to a reduced screen.

It is not so bad. I can’t watch films any more, which is a pain, but the tiny screen YouTube offers squeezes in OK; and although I have to do a lot of fiddly stuff to be able to see the whole screen, for the main part what goes on the right-hand two-fifths, as you will know, is a selection of miserably second-guessed adverts, post-horse-bolting suggestions to buy a book on Amazon that have already been looked up, and offers to meet and marry women from entirely unsuitable demographics.

Also, a new computer would cost me money, which I do not have to spare, as I mention from time to time. However, I do realise I am on borrowed time with this machine. This is a lesson that life teaches you fairly comprehensively about itself as you get older, and in case you were missing the point, you get to watch others around you, who were older to start with, get even older than you. Things in you and in them fall apart, and yet, while there is still some life, some functionality, you don’t want to chuck them out, or see them go. I’m not talking about computers now. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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