28 October, 2010
We don't need no education
The British Humanist Association is launching a campaign to
persuade tell people with no everyday religious beliefs to acknowledge that fact on their census returns in 2011 – too many people select "christian" in particular, allegedly as a matter of cultural affiliation (respecting their upbringings rather than current, personal beliefs?) rather than the more accurate "no religion".
Ostensibly, it's a good idea, as the church and government could use inflated data to justify continued state funding which, needless to say, I totally oppose: I support the right to practice one's religion, but solely in private, at one's own expense, and without either state assistance or specific representation in government.
However, though I support the idea enough to publicise it here (I don't really consider it evangelism, merely consciousness-raising; what people do with their new awareness is their business), there's a problem I've mentioned before.
The BHA want people to select "no religion", the only option the census form offers to atheists and agnostics. That's not how I regard my atheism. I believe there is no god: that is my faith. I don't seek evidence or rationalisation, it's enough for me to believe. Yet belief in an absence is NOT an absence of belief – I don't have 'no religion'.
16 September, 2010
Must try harder
Wow. That's scary. And alarmingly familiar.
I certainly have been spending a tremendous amount of time with K (and it's been wonderful!), but I've also been aware of neglecting good friendships, one in particular (though she's similarly absorbed in a new relationship, which is a complication). That can't continue.
5 August, 2010
Content with a shallow identity
Khoi Vinh wishes he'd invented the Tumblr micro-blogging service, not least because he'd change a couple of key aspects. However, I'm rather glad he didn't (dunno why; I haven't even looked at Tumblr, never mind used it), as I disagree quite strongly with his main objection.
Tumblr discourages identity. Or, to be more specific, it promotes shallow identity. Moreso than other blogging systems like WordPress or ExpressionEngine, Tumblr blogs frequently offer only scant few details about their authors. I can’t recall how many Tumblr sites I’ve visited where it wasn’t clear who was behind the posts, what their background was, or what their intent was. Many of these sites are artful, well designed and are actually quite engaging, but I guess I’m old fashioned in that I like to know who’s behind them.
Everyone praises the power of anonymity that the Internet makes possible, and I’m firmly in that camp. At the same time, I prefer it when people use their real identities. It just makes for a better experience. When you post or contribute anything online and you use your real name, and you provide authentic details about your station in life or your passions, it works as a multiplier of the value of your contribution – and for the richness of the network, too.
I really, really disagree. I don't accept that a 'real' name adds any authenticity, or that a pseudonym inherently detracts from what is actually said
So far as I'm concerned, the Ministry is about the content. Only the content. There's no 'About Me' page. This isn't an oversight, and I don't have the vaguest intention of adding one. If you're interested in what I write, great. If you're interested in me, well, tough.
Sorry if that inadvertently seems aggressive, but it's important to me: I'm making certain opinions available, but not myself. If my "intent" is unclear from the text of the blog posts, that may be an inadequacy of my writing, but if it isn’t clear "who is behind the posts", that's entirely deliberate.
It's probably a topic for a different posting, but I also dislike the collectivist assumption that one publishes to 'contribute', as if to some meta-conversation or community corpus. **** "the network" – I write for myself, and for you, the individual reader.
That’s what was so compelling, I think, about the first few waves of blogs. By and large, they weren’t just venues for the publication of content. They also served as outposts for your identity, a representation of who you were on the World Wide Web.
Partly, but with emphasis on that final clause: an expression of who I am online
, almost entirely independent of the offline 'me'. Remember
, the person writing this isn't entirely the one you'd meet in the street, even at the moment of writing, and that's a snapshot of who I was
online. Particularly following the life changes encountered over the past nine months, I'm increasingly disinclined
to defend everything the, for example, 2006 'me' said.
3 July, 2010
It's not about the people
In a comment on a Bad Science article on confirmation-bias in peoples' consideration of scientific research, 'MontanaWildhack' says:
Not being a sciency type, I think I tend to give too much credence to things that claim to be scientific. If it sounds sketchy to me, I try to find out more about the authors of the study, where the funding comes from, etc.
It is a major problem. If one isn't equipped to address the science itself (and I don't mean that as a criticism), it's natural to consider the credibility of the researcher instead. However, I'd argue that that isn't an appropriate, or even acceptable, response. Scientific research is about the methodology and the results, not
about the researcher, nor the funder. 'Bad' people can conduct 'good' research, irrespective of their motivations. For that matter, 'good' people can conduct 'bad' research, too – 'appeal to authority
' is a recognised logical error which applies in both potential situations.
One simply has to address the science itself and (and here's the contentious bit...) those unable to do so are disqualified from expressing an opinion – science isn't a democracy, and lay opinions are irrelevant. Whatever the media might claim in allegedly seeking 'balance', not everyone can play.
And "common sense" isn't adequate, either....
19 May, 2010
I think, therefore I'm someone else again
Yesterday, I mentioned that:
My life has changed fairly radically since November (overwhelmingly for the better, though it's been tough).
I could have gone on to say that that's also triggered a reexamination of this blog. I once said that:
I'm not trying to distance myself from my own writing; I stand by almost all of it.
I'm less sure that's still true: thankfully, I've escaped a rut occupied for far too long, and I'm certainly no longer the 35-year-old who felt able to make that commitment to the 33-year-old NRT.
I'm not about to trawl through the archives deleting/rewriting statements I no longer support, and nor am I about to walk away from the blog altogether, but please check the date of each posting before judging me on its content!
21 February, 2010
Time is relative
If it looks like a crisp winter morning, feels like early morning, passing joggers wish me a "good morning!" and I don't have anything time-specific to do until the evening, does it really matter that it's actually 12:40?
4 January, 2010
Not just for the money
I'm surprised to say it, but it's good to be back at work.
Most superficially, though it's certainly not trivial, this office is the warmest place I've been in weeks; I've been struggling to heat my house to 14°C since New Year (uncomfortable when I'm just sitting reading or at my PC) and whilst visiting Plymouth over christmas I was so cold in bed that I took down the curtains as an extra blanket.
It's also a confidence-boost to have to think cogently and quickly, and be able to do so. Events since mid-November have been somewhat depressing, and it's been difficult to muster any drive to do anything. I have no illusions that that's passed – the next stages are particularly daunting – but so long as I can avoid getting stressed, I think work might help.
30 May, 2009
Just enjoy the books
Why do people want books signed by authors who sign lots of books?
Personal contact? I doubt it.
Writing about an event yesterday, Neil Gaiman says:
I did a signing – I had an hour to sign for 100 people, and somehow managed to sign for over 170 people in the hour, personalising books for most of them. Not sure how I did it, and was braindead when it was done. Saw lots of old friends, too, who all thought that me-signing time would be a great time to chat, and all of them were sadly disappointed.
That's an average of 21 seconds per person: an opportunity to ask a brief question, I suppose, but not really enough for it to be considered and answered.
Collectibility? As I qualified above, there's no scarcity value if an author signs thousands of copies during festivals and multi-national signing tours.
Or is it no more than a self-serving souvenir: a token denoting "I was there; I queued for several hours [people do; Neil frequently encounters signing lines of 700+] and I have a signature to prove it".
Not exactly meaningful. It's a lot like people taking photos of themselves in front of the Grand Canyon or Mona Lisa, rather than appreciating the moment and whole point of being there.
20 May, 2009
Could have told you that
The 'waking edge' of first half-consciousness provided the following this morning. In that instant, it made perfect sense, but I'll let you decide whether it really stands.
Common sense is the ability to react to and process the ordinary.
'Uncommon sense' (okay, the terminology needs work) is the ability to question: to ask 'what if?' or 'does that really follow?' rather than automatically implement the obvious reaction to a situation.
By definition, common sense is, commonly, sensible: the standard, well-rehearsed response will tend to be the most suitable. However, the question still needs to be considered: the self-evident probably is right, but until alternatives are tested (empirically or logically), one doesn't know it's right.
An outcome is the sort of academic research ridiculed by tabloids, producing results the mythical 'down-to-earth common man' could have guessed in a moment. But the intuitive isn't always true: the expected outcome mightn't have been accurate, and rules-of-thumb need to be quantified.
Coincidentally, there's a good example in today's Guardian. Researchers have established that ducks like water, and have been mocked, even accused of wasting £30,000 of public money. Obviously ducks like water – ask a farmer for free, rather than conducting an expensive formal study.
Yet that cursory 'common sense' assumption might suggest that ducks would maximise time spent swimming in a pond, rather than the actual, less-intuitive, result of the research: that they seem to prefer immersion in showers.
And yes, this does have a very practical significance:
Marian Stamp Dawkins, professor of animal behaviour at Oxford, said it was unfair to portray the study as finding out simply that ducks liked water. It had been carried out to find the best way of providing water to farmed ducks because ponds quickly became dirty, unhygienic and took up a lot of water, making them environmentally questionable.
10 February, 2009
My sister's in Belfast at present, for Fellowship exams. They're scheduled to run over a few days; K's dates were Sunday and today, but some of her colleagues finished yesterday and went out to celebrate last night, without having rung K. to wish her well, comment on the exams, etc.
When my mother told me, my response was incomprehension: "so what?". I wouldn't have expected any contact, and I don't think K. had either – until my mother distracted her at a vulnerable moment, instilling a sense of grievance that hadn't remotely existed.
Personally, and I think my sister agrees, I don't give a **** about people "doing the decent thing", or being "nice" to colleagues. I'm not 'nice', and the opinions & platitudes of near-strangers who happen to work in nearby institutions wouldn't interest me. Had I been sitting in a hotel room studying, I wouldn't have answered the phone if it had rung.
The only part of that situation that my mother can comprehend is 'sitting in a hotel room, alone in an unfamiliar city', and considers it "sad" and "terrible".
I really wish she'd kept her outdated, collectivist morality to herself, as this wasn't the time to have a discussion about relationships – or the total irrelevance of relationships – with mere acquaintances. Evidently this insight into a world-view I vehemently disdain irritated me, but more importantly it upset my sister when she particularly didn't need distraction.
[Heh. Just noticed the apparent contradiction in rejecting the myth of 'fellowship' whilst engaged in Fellowship exams.]
8 January, 2009
If it fits
I was in Glasgow today, with an opportunity to wander around the city centre (though I was there for work and hadn't anticipated spare time, so hadn't taken my camera. Argh!), and was reminded of something I've frequently noticed.
Why does the main shopping street of Anytown, UK feature so many, seemingly interchangeable (i.e. none seems to occupy a specific niche), shoe shops? Particularly in a recession, I find it difficult to understand how so many, particularly in close proximity, are economically viable.
12 December, 2008
Need to know
I have a thermometer on the noticeboard next to my home PC, as I have a vague interest in the temperature of the room I occupy most.
My mother has a thermometer attached to the wall outside her kitchen door, as she seems to draw comfort from knowing the temperature that the inside of her house isn't.
I've often found that definition-by-external-circumstances slightly odd, but she might be 'right', in a way. Unless actually measuring it, the temperature of one's environment is a matter of perception: I have no greater need to know that my room is at exactly 10°C than my mother has a need to know her kitchen isn't at 3° – merely that I'm cold and she isn't.
28 October, 2008
I can barely imagine how I was able to write (with a pen, on paper) continuously for three hours for each of ~9 exams in 1993. My Finals were certainly the last time I made sustained use of a pen; I sometimes have to stop and rest whilst writing even a cheque nowadays, as the unfamiliar activity causes cramp.
A side-effect is that my handwriting has deteriorated, as I'm no longer accustomed to consistently forming those shapes. My 'joined-up' handwriting is frequently illegible even to me, so I invariably use all-capitals (thereby decreasing practice of 'normal' handwriting, causing further deterioration – I think I have to accept it's gone).
I actually like my all-caps style. Kept regular, it wouldn't look out of place on the engineering blueprints I admired as a young child (my father was a draftsman, and brought home scap paper for me to draw on; I spent a lot of time poring over the isometric intricacies of piping networks). It works well at the small sizes I favour, and accommodates lateral compression: If I enlarge the first letter of each word (as I habitually do), ICanCompletelyOmitSpaces.
Yet I don't always use it that way. Typing in all-caps is generally regarded as SHOUTING, and the same could apply to handwriting. I hadn't consciously considered that (this Lifehacker article enlightened me), but I have developed a looser, 'italicised all-caps' style anyway, used for birthday cards, personal notes, etc., in which the horizontal strokes of an initial 'T' or 'L' can sometimes encompass the full width of the word. It's been called "arty"; I suppose an ability to interchangeably write in that way and in a neat 'drafting' style neatly reflects my scientist-by-training, artist-by-inclination development.
Point is (yes, I was wondering whether I'd reach one, too): I do have a personal handwriting style. It's just not remotely the same one as I had fifteen years ago, and the transition was abrupt rather than the gradual evolution I might have expected.
23 July, 2008
It's funny that one can travel across the country, encountering the locals' different accents, mannerisms, even general appearences, yet on reaching one's destination, a university, the accents and other characteristics are as familiarly mixed (generic?) as always, exactly as at one's home institution or any other across the UK.
Hmm. Could have done with a couple more full stops there.
23 May, 2008
As I explained years ago, my life is rather 'compartmentalised'.
I don't discuss work issues socially, and have no wish to take personal issues to work; H. never comes up in conversation with my mother, and vice v... (er, no; bad example. Don't ask.), and when I'm with H., life in Lancaster seems a long way away (it is, if we're in Berlin, Paris, etc., but I mean lifestyle, not location). If I'm the product of my experiences, those I've shared with certain people determine my behaviour in their company. That's hardly a revolutionary observation: I'm different in different company – radically, in some cases.
This separation isn't entirely deliberate, but ordinarily I'm comfortable with it. Yet once they've evolved, one can't break out of the compartments at will, and the barriers to casual intimacy can be a bit upsetting.
In the Lakes last month, someone casually asked "if you had to be an animal, which would it be?" If I was with H. or anyone I knew in Aberystwyth in the early 1990s, my answer would be obvious and unhesitating, but those events & associations – that me – never travelled to Lancaster. With H., it's faded to personal shorthand with different/muted meanings, but if I offered that answer in Seathwaite, it'd have seemed odd, requiring explanation of the source and possibly disinterring a 20-year-old me the 36-year-old doesn't particularly like. So I remained silent; another brick in the wall soundlessly slid into place.
The specific example is utterly trivial and isn't relevant; my point is that I had an opportunity to give people I love a deeper insight into the underlying me (or amalgam of mes). And I faltered.
25 April, 2008
Mynydd & dale
Planning my weekend last night, it occurred to me that my mental map of the Snowdonia National Park is fundamentally different to my perception of the English Lake District and Yorkshire Dales.
Apart from specific locations, I think of Snowdonia in terms of its peaks & mountain ridges but only have a rough idea of how its valleys are orientated & interlinked. In total contrast, my mental map(s) of the Northern English national parks are based on valleys, and I have a less clear idea about the relative locations of specific hills.
For example, I think of Cwm Idwal as being close to the Llanberis Pass, as it's just the other side of the Glyders. On foot, anyway – I wouldn't like to have to cycle from one to the other, via Capel Curig or Bethesda.
In a couple of hours, I'll be heading off to the Duddon Valley in the Lakes. In my mind, that's quite a remote location, but I see on the map that it's only separated from Coniston by one ridge (an entirely manageable walk, which I might well do tomorrow) and is only two ridges away from Wasdale, which in turn I normally consider about as accessible as the moon, by bike.
I suspect that's a result of how I've encountered them. My knowledge of Snowdonia developed in my teens and whilst at University, when I was reliant on transport from my mother and various walking groups; I frequently determined routes we took on the hills, but rarely the roads we followed to get to the hills. Those visits were also invariably day trips; I think I've only camped in Snowdonia once.
Conversely, the majority of my visits to the Lakes have been to camp with friends, so valleys have been at least as significant to us as peaks. The majority of my visits to the Dales have been by bike, so again valleys have been important (and hills frequently to be avoided!) and navigation on roads has been far more relevant than on footpaths.
I suppose it's merely an idle observation, but it's also a fundamental aspect of my 'world-view'. One consequence is that I think of Snowdonia as a spiky, fairly bleak area, because I've mainly been aware of the uninhabited uplands, whereas I consider my local national parks to be working landscapes, because I've encountered the villages, farms and people.
20 March, 2008
Show some respect
As you may have noticed, several things annoy me. ;)
A persistant source of irritation is the behavior of Brits in public – as Jeremy Paxman has noted, there's an attitude that public spaces belong to no-one, so each individual can do whatever he or she wants without consideration of others.
I'm particularly aware of this abroad, where I've frequently felt ashamed to be associated with boorish Brits – I've preferred to speak (fragmentary) German to H. whilst in Prague or Madrid rather than reveal my nationality to locals. It was particularly bad in Prague, where the only raised voices, without exception, were English. In Paris this past weekend, we encountered a striking number of small children in public, but the only ones running around unchecked were shrieking in English.
And it's not only 18-25 stag/hen groups or irresponsible parents, either – the BBC reports that over-55s are becoming a problem, too.
5 March, 2008
There's a slight problem with this article and the accompanying comments bewailing the loss of Post Office branches in the current rationalisation programme, with 'the hearts being torn from local communities for the sake of commercial viability'.
All very emotive stuff, and no doubt anathema to the cosy fantasies of little Englanders who dream of a 1950s idyll (which barely existed), of drinking lashings of ginger beer on the emerald village green, chatting to the local policeman next to the red telephone box and the thatched cottage with roses around the door.
Back in the real world, 2,500 of 14,000 post offices are closing because people aren't using them. The romantic illusion of a village with a vibrant community spirit, currently thriving but which will be destroyed when the bustling post office closes, is absolute rubbish. Several of the 'threatened' offices serve less than ten customers per week; in many cases considerably fewer.
I don't doubt that those two or three people, possibly elderly, who'll have to travel 3-4 miles to the nearest remaining post office or obtain the same services by other means may experience rather major inconvenience, but if they're an office's entire weekly customer base, it's ludicrous to retain it. Much as I value individualism over collectivism, the state can't, and shouldn't, afford such extravagance.
Here in the Lancaster area, the remotest two of eight post offices to be closed are to be replaced by a two-day-per week 'outreach' service, but the local newspaper's report exhibits the same unrealistic attitude as the Guardian's.
Mrs Owens said: "The outreach is not like having a permanent shop and post office.
"To go to the village hall to get a parcel delivered just does not feel right. It is not a post office – it is the kitchen of a village hall.
"I can understand the situation the post office is in but a community needs that shop."
It "doesn't feel right"
? Sorry, but 'tough'.
No, it's 'not the same', but the existing situation simply isn't working. The idea that a post office could be a 'communication hub' is an compelling one, but if the community really needed the shop, the community would use the shop, and in far too many cases, that isn't happening.
That's my overarching point: people seem to like the idea of their cosy local post office far more than the mundane reality of an office which stands near-empty for most of the week; they don't use the post office, but find it somehow comforting that it's there.]
[Update 11/03/08: Another BBC article, about branch closures in Wales, summarises some of the Post Office's attempts to minimise the impact.]
28 February, 2008
Not for me, thanks
A thread at the independent Porcupine Tree Forum, on the topic of drugs at concerts, has been running since last August, but I've only just noticed (without intending to be judgmental) that of those members whose profiles state their ages, those writing in an authoritative manner (which isn't quite the same as being authoritative) about the 'mind-expansion' offered by drugs and asserting that drugs are an enhancement to concerts, are all under 20.
I openly assert (not 'admit', as that implies wrongdoing), that I've tried a range of drugs over the years, though nothing illegal within recent memory and I no longer drink. My choice, and I certainly have no moral objections to drugs. However, I found the 'mind-expanding' aspect totally illusory: things might feel more profound in the moment of feeling them, but they're not. Really – they're not. Trust me; I have been there, though I grew out of solipsism fairly quickly.
Likewise at concerts: marijuana and alcohol might be 'fun', but they didn't genuinely enhance the music (for me). I found that I enjoyed some concerts whilst at the concert, but had no recollection of setlists, etc., afterwards, or even whether the music was any good. Cannabis & concerts was very much a failed experiment for me, and as I've said before, I attend concerts to ignore the crowd and listen to the music, not 'to party' or to 'get inside the experience (man)', so I stopped drinking at concerts well before making the decision to stop drinking.
It's the difference between wanting to appreciate the music and remember it weeks later, and wanting to solely live in the moment, for the transitory thrill. I'm not saying one is 'better' than the other, but I choose the former.
The trigger for cutting alcohol out of concerts was a Fish show on the 'Field Of Crows' tour (Liverpool Academy, 05/04/04). I remember the bar, Fish walking on stage... and absolutely nothing else until the walk back to the railway station. What a waste.
Whatever; so long as other people's head expansion doesn't block my view of the stage and I don't have to partake of their drugs (i.e. no smoking in concert venues, cannabis or otherwise), I'm not bothered what they do.
14 February, 2008
I've always been interested in the perception of cold (I'm easily amused).
Specifically, it fascinates me that people of my grandparents' generation apparently believed that 'cold' was a thing, to be blocked out by walls, windows & thick clothes. The reverse is true, of course: 'cold' is the absence of heat, and insulation is to keep heat in, rather than cold out.
Think about that for a moment. They believed that when one touches a cold surface, 'cold' is coming into one's body, rather than heat being drawn out.
Cycling to work this morning, though, I could see their point. Passing patches of heavy frost, it did seem as if they were radiating cold: the leg nearer the frost felt colder than the other, exactly like I was passing the negative of a fire. Weird sensation – easily rationalised, but I can see how people interpreted it differently.
30 November, 2007
At the risk of repeating myself, the concept of 'green sins' really, really annoys me.
Speak of recycling and food miles in rational terms, and we'll broadly agree.
Speak in terms of pseudo-religious ethics, and you can **** off.
There's a beautiful example of woolly-mindedness in the survey results: 15% of respondents wrongly believed that buying fair trade products would diminish their carbon footprints. Aw. Bless.
Of those 'top five un-environmentally friendly "sins"' identified by the survey (for car manufacturer Saab, if that's significant):
- 30% of respondents admitted they should keep a closer watch on domestic energy consumption.
I think I do fairly well. I rarely heat my house, and certainly not unless multiple fleeces and pairs of socks fail – I don't try to reproduce June conditions in December, and never want to be 'cosy'.
- 29% of respondents admitted to using transport when walking is an option.
I don't drive anyway (I can, but my lifestyle doesn't really require a car), but I use my bike daily.
- 28% of respondents admitted to cleaning with non-environmentally friendly products.
The products I buy anyway may well be formulated to minimise their environmental impacts (let's lose the childishly-emotive term 'environmentally-friendly' too, eh?), but I don't specifically chose products on that basis.
- 27% of respondents admitted to boiling a kettle full of water when making only one cup.
That'd be alien to me.
- 20% of respondents admitted to never recycling.
As would that. I recycle everything but food waste and blended plastics, the former because I don't have space for composting (and my table scraps routinely contain meat) and the latter ameliorated by buying less plastic packaging in the first place.
Again, it's the way it's phrased that winds me up, not the underlying, practical substance. I suppose it's the imposed/presumed motivation: all this admitting reads like a slacktivist
parody of catholic confession – empty catharsis and a desire for absolution from the pollster.
Around 60% of Brits claim they are "going green"
As I said, I act rationally, I don't engage with a trendy cult.
More than one third (39%) said they were not prepared to pay any extra for green products or services...
I'd be one of them.
... and 41% said they believed green goods could be made more widely available.
I wouldn't care.
A further 16% said they did not believe green products or services matched the quality and performance of their existing non-green brands.
The majority of respondents (60%) said they were choosing to be greener out of concern for future generations...
Ha! I might be mildly concerned about environmental sustainability, about minimising human impacts on the non-human environment and optimising the human environment, but 'future generations'? **** em!
... but 10% said they were motivated by social image and the desire to look good in front of peers.
what I believe to be the true motivation for far more than the 10% who admit it.
8 November, 2007
Is it a sign of insecurity to begin a blog entry with a question?
How about knocking before entering one's own office?
7 November, 2007
Who's it for?
In a (long) interview with Ridley Scott for the Guardian, Stephen Moss says:
Film can aspire to be art but, equally, art must show awareness of its audience.
An artist who wishes to be popular does indeed need some level of market awareness, but I strongly disagree that art must by definition be audience-orientated. Art may be partially defined as 'that which inspires an intellectual/emotional reaction', but it's not necessary for the artist to preempt or define the reaction nor, therefore, who will experience that reaction.
31 October, 2007
Milking the farmers
In an article about alleged price-fixing of dairy products sold in supermarkets, the BBC quotes an average retail price of 56.3p for a litre of milk, of which only 18.08p goes to the originating farmer. Less than a third – pretty disgusting, really.
I'm all for commercial competition, but I feel that price cuts should come out of the retailers' profits rather than being borne by the suppliers.
Ultimately, the power is in the wrong place. If milk producers formed a cartel and dictated the price at which they'll sell to retailers, somehow I wouldn't mind so much.
If the retailers passed on the increase (absolute, not proportionate!) to customers, fair enough, though I might well favour from the retailer willing to accept the lowest profit margin. And if that means supermarkets, genuinely outcompeting corner shops, that's fine with me – I'm not inherently anti-supermarket.
17 October, 2007
Semantics of stripping
[Now there's a misleading title.]
It's generally considered a bit pretentious to say 'graphic novels' when referring to what others call 'comics', as if being overly defensive. The medium has achieved widespread recognition within the last 15-20 years as 'acceptable' for adults – it's no longer considered only for children and disfunctional obsessives. It doesn't need to style itself as literature, because it just is.
Even within the last week, I've read comments by Alan Moore (link forgotten...) and Neil Gaiman critical of the phrase.
However, there's one simple, overwhelming reason I prefer 'graphic novel': the ones I choose to read aren't remotely comic. I suppose there's a macabre humour in parts of 'Maus', 'Gemma Bovary' or 'The Sandman', but they're not laugh-out-loud funny, and probably wouldn't interest me if they were.
That's no criticism of comics which are comedic – I object as much as anyone to the suggestion that there are 'comics' for the proles and 'graphic novels' for the intelligentsia, and 'serious' doesn't equate to 'better' – but I simply don't seek that type of amusement.
Stated simply, presenting stories as pictures with speech balloons is a medium, not a genre – the form and content don't determine one another. I feel that distinction is clear under the title 'graphic novel', whereas a non-comedic 'comic' is counter-intuitive.
25 September, 2007
Web is web
Somehow it feels odd to be discussing admin issues with web professionals working in very different market sectors, and finding that those sectors are fundamentally irrelevant. Whether one is selling electricity, cigarettes, degrees or missiles* , ultimately, widgets are widgets.
*: I'm not picking those trades at random – their web editors really are present today. Protestors could have a field-day....
14 August, 2007
Sound and fury
Anyone else think it's more than a little pathetic that certain executives need thrones; the self-affirmation derived from fetishistic assemblages of leather, steel and pneumatics?
Presumably they have to have the right car, too, with the right house, the right spouse, the right suit, even the right pen.
****ing drones.... Sometimes I think I occupy a different world.
[Well, that stated the blindingly obvious...]
10 August, 2007
In recent months, I've been experiencing a mental block. I could easily say that "q comprises x, y and z", but in the synonymous phrasing "q ___ of x, y and z" I couldn't think of the missing word.
It certainly isn't possible for anything to 'comprise of' anything; that's just grammatically wrong.
It was a curious gap in my vocabulary which had previously been filled perfectly well. It's happened before (frequently, when I'm tired, but rarely for long), and I know not to force it. It'll pop back if I take it by surprise.
And it has: 'consists'. Simple, but totally inaccessible until a few minutes ago.
2 August, 2007
It's funny that, year after year, one passes vehicles marked 'Motorway Contractor', yet they never seem to be any further forward with that stated purpose – the distances between junctions don't seem to diminish at all.
29 June, 2007
Life's little luxuries
'Prosperity Denial'... describes an unfounded resistance to spending money on minor indulgences, even though one's personal wealth and prosperity allow for it.
A quote from a Psychology textbook? No, it's from 'Local Choice'
, a monthly compendium of adverts padded by 'advertorials', distributed ("free!") to 50,000 Lancastrians to promote local commerce and make people spend, spend, spend. Hard-sell junk mail, really.
I don't want to 'indulge' myself.
This isn't asceticism; what my mother would crudely term 'being miserable'. I see no inherent virtue in self-denial – one might indeed feel 'miserable' if one wanted something yet resisted/denied the desire. However, I don't see any potential unhappiness in not having something one didn't want anyway.
I gain no pleasure, guilty or otherwise from 'indulging' myself, or 'spoiling' myself. Perhaps it's an offshoot of my personal morality: if there isn't anything I 'shouldn't' do (within reason) or buy, then there's no frisson to be gained by 'being naughty'. If I want a CD, I can afford a CD, so I'll buy a CD. There's no "I shouldn't really... oh, go on, then". If a premium-priced crayfish & rocket sandwich catches my eye when I'm choosing lunch, I might buy it, but not as some sort of gift to myself.
I have major trouble comprehending the concept of 'comfort buying': buying to feel better about oneself. Frankly, I think that's pathetic.
It would be utterly alien for me to think "I'm having a bad day; I'll have a frivolously expensive coffee to make me feel better". It wouldn't. The caffeine might have some effect, but not the fact of having spent additional money on myself.
16 June, 2007
Scared and compliant
From a comment at The Register:
There should be a new law/amendment on broadcasting, that any statement which is intended to generate fear, or is capable of generating fear within the population without credible evidence to back up the statement made within the same broadcast medium at the same time, is classified as a terrorist act.
Excellent idea. That might silence the Home Secretary.
7 June, 2007
Stamp on it
According to a proposal by Peter Hain, a candidate for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, reported by the Guardian, "stamp duty could be switched from home buyers to sellers to help young people get on the housing ladder".
That might be a short-term vote winner, but it displays entirely the wrong attitude.
Home ownership is a privilege, not a fundamental right. The right to shelter is one thing, and certainly is an issue of social-provision, but not ownership of that shelter. I fully support state subsidies in the rental sector, but house ownership is an aspirational luxury and a matter between the individual & his/her bank manager – I don't consider that the state has any duty to help buyers enter the market.
Hain is suggesting a very odd variety of socialism: take from the 'rich' (actually the ordinary bourgeoisie) not in order to benefit the proletariat but to assist those at an earlier stage of the bourgeois lifecycle in the acquisition of private possessions (quite literally, to render proles bourgeois).
Compare this to state health care: the NHS would rightfully pay for a hip replacement, but not some non-essential* variety of cosmetic surgery. People need pain-free mobility, but don't need perky nipples. Vanity is a private-sector topic.
That's one issue. Another is the way Hain proposes to help first-time buyers: by obliging existing home owners to make a compulsory charitable donation.
Buying a house is a financial transaction like any other: the seller charges whatever the market will bear, and the burden of meeting that price is the buyer's. Can't afford: can't have. Why should the seller pay any of the buyer's costs? For the 'warm fuzzies' of community-spiritedness? Why should I care whether "young people get on the housing ladder", never mind make a personal donation to that cause?
Apart from that basic illogicality, it seems especially unfair that the same assistance wasn't available to existing homeowners when they were first-time buyers, which means they'd be paying stamp duty twice on the same property.
Hain says that "a move like this would be revenue-neutral, but would be an enormous boost to young people", but consider that again: it would have no effect on government income, as stamp duty would still be paid into the Treasury, but it wouldn't exactly be 'revenue-neutral' for private sellers.
If, if, there's any argument for the government assisting new buyers into the housing market (and I don't doubt it would help the overall economy), how about the government bearing the cost itself by reducing or foregoing stamp duty for first-time buyers, rather than penalising sellers? Oh, no; that simply wouldn't do, would it?
There is a simple way round this for sellers: raise the asking price to cover the cost of stamp duty, so the buyer pays it anyway. I know that's what I'd do.
*: I do mean purely elective cosmetic surgery, of course – I fully acknowledge that there's essential, corrective cosmetic surgery too, which is an entirely legitimate area of state health care.
5 June, 2007
Gentle, undemanding viewing, perhaps, but I can't help agreeing with the Guardian that David Dimbleby's new TV series 'How We Built Britain' is a valid "celebration of Britishness" – far more so than the laboured and grossly misguided efforts of ministers to manufacture celebration in the form of a national day.
The key point is that Dimbleby doesn't emphasise the Britishness; his series is about stunning architecture which just happens to be in the UK. The latter aspect becomes apparent without needing to be stressed. Very British.
For the sake of my blood pressure, I'm not going to rant about the proposed 'Britain Day', but a few brief thoughts:
- It's supposed to be about Britain as a whole, emphatically not only England, so 23 April and the State Opening of Parliament are inappropriate dates. An English 'national' day is of no greater relevance to non-English Brits like me than 4 or 14 July. If, as I expect, the event becomes hijacked by the English, it will actually decrease the (mythical) unity of the UK.
- I don't like the idea of commemorating the dates of military events such as Trafalgar, Waterloo or D-Day. Saying 'the UK is great' is one thing, but saying 'the UK is better than x, and we proved it in blood' is quite another.
- The masses might like an additional statutory holiday (I wouldn't), but I doubt so many will be interested in specific community-orientated events; they'll merely be in favour of an extra day to use as they wish.
- The traits to be celebrated are community spirit and loyalty to the state. **** that.
As I've said before in the context of flags, it's simply not British to affirm 'Britishness'; by its very nature British national pride is understated. It's not something we shout about, and certainly not something to impose on immigrants.
[Update 29/10/08: the idea of a 'national day' has been quietly dropped.]
31 May, 2007
The thrill of the chase
In 1996, Steven Wilson expressed his negative reaction to the pervasiveness of the internet in Porcupine Tree's 'Every Home Is Wired'. More recently, particularly with the release of the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' album, he's been similarly critical of the instant gratification afforded by mp3 players.
At the unofficial Porcupine Tree Forum, one writer has a slightly different, very credible, interpretation:
I don't think he was (or is) against the Internet, or indeed people who waste away their lives on it. Nor do I think he's against iPods.
It's a lament, the mourning of the loss of an experience that he (we) enjoyed - how we'd have to read obscure fanzines, seek out unusual specialist record stores and mail order dealers, scour through thousands of used albums looking for those chance rare finds, excitedly travel home clutching our new-found treasures, and listen to them and digest everything with the sort of passion that maybe weeks, months years of searching for the music results in.
Now its Google, One-Click, answer door 24 hours later, rip to iPod, skip, skip, hey cool, next.
SW is known to be an enthusiastic collector who appreciates the process of obtaining music as well as (I'm not suggesting as much
as) the music itself. However, I've never understood that myself, and thoroughly welcome the 'loss of experience' described.
Apart from the last sentence, of course. Ready availability of music doesn't necessarily diminish or trivialise it, and I can enjoy a CD fom Amazon just as much as one which has been annoyingly difficult to obtain.
More so, in some cases – some music is rightfully obscure.
I think this overlaps with the urge for exclusivity: to be a fan of a band no-one else knows, or to have an album no-one else owns; to be able to self-affirm that 'I'm special, me'. Kind of childish, really.
There's also something almost religious about the 'questing' urge and the thought that anything worthwhile needs to hard-won. And I'm atheist.
Seriously; there's more to atheism than being certain there's no 'higher being'; it's a world-view, with a distinct value-system independently developed by each individual. To me, it's not about living virtuously or deserving anything, and it's about the content of an album, not the means by which it was obtained.
10 May, 2007
"I did what I thought was right."
Personal moral conviction is no way to run a country. **** off, Blair.
7 May, 2007
Wearing one's heart on one's...
Passing the Lancaster Canal at the weekend, I was reminded that a major class of names chosen for modern narrowboats seems to be 'Sanctuary', 'Mon Repose', 'My Life' and other variants on 'I-live-for-the-weekend'. Is there a disproportionate link between owning a recreational narrowboat and being dissatisfied with ~71% (i.e. five-sevenths of a week) of one's daily existence?
Does anyone else find such names deeply depressing? If I loathed my routine life to the extent of advertising the fact in 15cm-high letters, I think I'd be inclined make changes now rather than begrudgingly endure the remaining ~30 years until I retire.
Maybe it's not only narrowboat owners; maybe they're only the visible ones because the 'tools' of other pastimes aren't customarily named. Perhaps if there was a tradition of naming one's car, golf trolley or hang glider, a lot more mundane misery would be apparent.
1 May, 2007
Not exactly me
It looks as if I'll be attending a conference in July, on the theme of 'Next Steps for the Web Management Community'. Apparently, there'll be "a number of plenary talks which will explore the concept of community".
I could give a plenary talk on the concept of community within about two seconds:
"Community? **** that."
I'm going to love the conference, aren't I?
20 March, 2007
The iconic red Routemaster London buses are still running after fifty years, though they've been withdrawn from service on all but a couple of 'heritage' routes in Central London, mainly for tourists. As the BBC reports, certain people would like them to be banned outright, as they're incompatible with accessibility legislation.
I disagree; I don't believe special needs legislation should be abused to impose a lowest common denominator on everyone. I don't believe all TV broadcasting should be 'family friendly' just in case a child is watching (that's the parents' responsibility), and I don't believe national design icons should be banned because a relative minority can't use them. Should the Tower of London be torn down because it has steps?
I'm certainly not saying provision for the disabled should be neglected, but that can't be reasonably alleged here: a small number of Routemasters serve sections of two routes in addition to the normal low floor, wheelchair-accessible buses. There is a slight risk that the first bus to arrive at a given moment (only on those two specific routes) won't be accessible to all, but the next one will be.
Accessibility legislation is about improving quality of life for the disabled, and I fully support that (daily – I am a web designer, after all), but not by deliberately diminishing the quality of life of those without disabilities.
25 February, 2007
Don't be a developer
A couple of (relatively) local news items have revealed a public tendency to jump to negative conclusions.
- Renovation of the art-deco Midland Hotel in Morecambe is taking longer than planned, so the opening date has been postponed. Because of a desire to open at the key part of the season, I believe the delay will be a year.
The official reason is that Urban Splash want to do the job properly/authentically, but the real reason is obviously that they're stalling and want to turn the hotel into apartments with an associated retail development. Obviously – uninformed speculation in the local free paper's letters page proves it.
- As I've already mentioned, Bruntwood, the owners of Afflecks Palace, Manchester have failed to commit to keeping the building open in its present form, though they have tried to speak to the operating company/committee.
Obviously that means the independent retailers are to be kicked out in favour of national chains or the building is to be redeveloped as luxury apartments. That might even be true, but why presume a failure to communicate proves a certain intention without the slightest supporting evidence?
If we dismiss the implied class envy for a moment (I'm indirectly 'related' to a Manchester-based property developer, and it's not solely about prestige apartments, retail complexes and chasing affluent clients at the expense of communities), why do people automatically draw fixed and invariably negative conclusions? Is it media-conditioning and the 'need' to fit a situation into a tidy, simplistic narrative supporting people's pessimistic world-view?
One needs to accept that there mightn't be a neat story, and that x mightn't automatically mean y. This mindset somehow seems related to religiousness: a desire to find meaning in chaos.
It's a loaded statement, but might atheism lead to greater rationality in other areas? If one has understood that there's no divine narrator, and s*** just happens irrespective of some mythical overarching plan, one might be more willing to believe that x means x, and y is an entirely different issue, to be addressed separately.
26 January, 2007
Spreading the holy word too far
Hang on; organic farming is about not using artificial fertilisers, fungicides, pesticides and feed additives in growing non-GW produce, isn't it? Some may consider that links into an overall ethical stance, but it's not a defining characteristic of the basic designation 'organic'.
Food might be organic and ethical, but it's quite possible for ethical food to be non-organic and for ethical problems to be associated with organic food. They're overlapping but independent parameters.
Yet, as the Guardian reports, the Organic Church (okay, the Soil Association) now wishes to withdraw their recognition from produce grown according to their rules but abroad, on the principle that "air travel's bad, m'kay?"
I fully agree that food miles is an important issue, but it's an entirely different issue, and not one in which the Soil Association has any remit.
It could be argued that they do a good job in regulating the very specific parameters of their core business, but it has to be remembered that they merely certify organic food, nothing else, and are certainly not arbiters of overall righteousness.
13 December, 2006
Lingerie retailer Marks & Spencer has hired male assistants for fifty of its branches, specifically to advise male customers on their seasonal gift purchases. It sounds like a good idea, but do you want my advice?
Don't. Just don't. It's too dangerous, and the longer-term consequences of getting it wrong outweigh the transitory benefits of getting it right (and there'll always be a nagging doubt that you didn't really get it right).
As I've mentioned before, there is one way to succeed: by shopping together, with the supervision of the recipient. Perhaps this mightn't be practical for those who celebrate the traditional commercial/family christmas, but I drastically prefer the alternative arrived at by H & I: we don't see one another over the 'core' period of 24-26 December, spending that time with our families. We then do our 'christmas' shopping together during the following week (if H is in the UK at all) or during the January sales. It's almost a matter of each shopping for him/herself and the other paying the bill. Stated so baldly, that sounds unromantic, but somehow it isn't, and it strips away the infuriating artifice of the established system, rendering the whole 'holiday' almost bearable.
Incidentally, please don't blame me for the title. I think M&S coined the phrase.
29 November, 2006
Scotland first, then us
Welsh nationalism is about establishing a separate sovereign country, entirely independent of England yet within the European Union and Commonwealth. I'd better stress that it has nothing to do with 'British nationalism', which is about ethnic purity and right-wing nastiness.
I've always been sympathetic to Plaid Cymru; they're the only party I've ever voted for in an election, as opposed to giving my vote to the least-disliked option i.e. voting against the Conservatives and Greens.
Almost as an extension of that idea, in addition to my pro-Wales opinion, I'd have to acknowledge a very minor sense of being anti-England (note: not pro-Welsh and anti-English – there's a vital difference); i.e. there's an extent to which I'm opposing London's governmental and cultural metrocentricity as much as supporting Welsh independence.
Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, argues that if the Scottish wish true independence (not the 'devolution' cop-out), the central British government has no right to obstruct it; indeed, that it'd be hypocritical to do so. And I agree entirely.
Incidentally, the Guardian's home page promotes the article as 'Simon Jenkins: Let Scotland have its independence', which seems to reveal the usual complacency. Scottish independence isn't a gift to be given or withheld by the Westminster government, it's a right, to be exercised (or not, if that's their preference) by the people of Scotland.
18 November, 2006
..., bought the T-shirt. Er, why?
It's a bit difficult to promote individualism. One can't exactly gather 10,000 people in Manchester's Albert Square for a rally to oppose collective action, and placards saying "Ignore slogans!" wouldn't quite work.
When the 'Individual-i' logo was first launched, I bought a t-shirt, but in hindsight that's about as ridiculous as the rally and placards. Showing support (financial, by buying merchandise, and public, by wearing it) is ostentatious participation in a collective campaign, and hence self-contradictory. Additionally, the design is supposed to read as 'I Support Individual Rights', but the 'I' is the 'Individual-i' icon, and the shirt could read as an invocation to 'Support Individual Rights', beneath a logo, which is hardly in keeping with a 'think for yourself' ethos.
Which explains why I have a barely-worn T-shirt taking up shelf space, mildly annoying me....
I'm slightly joking, of course – individualism isn't about about rejecting collectivism (read what it is about), but it's certainly not easy to sell.
24 October, 2006
The Guardian reports that a 'tougher ethical code' is to be 'imposed on doctors'. Apparently, "misbehaviour at home could mean loss of licence".
What's meant by 'misbehaviour'? Whose definition is to be used?
I totally, totally oppose this. What a doctor does in his or her private life is entirely private, and no-one else's business unless it directly affects his or her job. End of subject.
It's said that:
Public meetings were held across the UK to find out what sort of behaviour from doctors was acceptable and what was not. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, there were strong feelings that doctors ought to behave better than most people. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, there were strong feelings that doctors ought to behave better than most people.
It doesn't matter; the fact public meetings were held is utterly irrelevant. This isn't a matter for surveys and public opinion – society doesn't get to decide how individuals behave in private. Unless such activities are downright illegal for justifiable, entirely practical reasons, of course, but that applies to anyone, not solely medics.
People might well like
to put health professionals on some sort of pedestal, and regard them as authority figures, but people have no right
to that expectation. Medics working within the National Health Service are, arguably, publicly-accountable whilst on duty
. Off duty, they're private individuals, and could do whatever they want.
Beyond the sensationalism implicit in the article's opening paragraphs, the underlying story isn't quite so invasive, and addresses genuine issues of patient protection and acceptable social behaviour.
For example, it's reasonable for doctors to carefully consider the appropriateness of sexual relationships with vulnerable ex-patients, and to avoid viewing p*rnography at work. That's somewhat less alarmist than the Guardian's initial claim that:
A code published yesterday holds doctors to the highest standards of moral behaviour in their private life, with their right to practise at risk if they form sexual relationships with former patients or view pornography.
Society has no right to hold doctors to any
standard of moral behaviour in their private life, beyond that expected of any citizen.
13 October, 2006
More greetings than you could ever want
When buying a birthday card, do you ever feel an urge to be random, and choose a 'get well soon', 'welcome to your new home' or 'congratulations on your pregnancy' card instead?
I get that a lot....
10 October, 2006
At 'This is Broken' [16/04/08: Site dead, so link removed] , the sink layout involving two separate taps, hot and cold, has been cited as an anomalous example of poor design, as if a combined mixer tap is the standard (with the implication that it always has been) and the alternative is an aberration.
Is that really true? Anywhere other than the USA? Having two taps is certainly the norm in the UK – or always was. Oddly enough, I'm not a plumbing connoisseur, and tend not to take especial notice of public/domestic sink configurations, but I'm not aware of mixer taps having taken over to the extent of being considered standard here.
Not that I'd complain if they did; it is a superior design.
This makes me feel old.
Certain innovations define society and individual world-views. For example, there are people – adults – who were born after the invention of the Walkman, who couldn't imagine life without portable music. Those born since the introduction of mandatory seatbelts and airbags would have a corresponding attitude to vehicle safety. I didn't encounter e-mail until I was 21 and the web until my mid-twenties, but some people grew up with them.
Are there really people who never knew a world without mixer taps, too?
8 October, 2006
I was reminded last night that I always spoke of my maternal grandmother as 'my grandmother' or, to my mother, as 'your mother'. I don't recall how I addressed her directly; I'm not sure used any name or title. I wasn't brought-up to use 'Grandma', and 'Nana' struck me as childish even when I was a child; I'd ceased using it by the age of eleven.
Similarly, and for overlapping reasons, my mother is always 'my mother' in the third person and I address her as 'Mother', never 'Mum'. That'd just feel wrong.
Does that imply a certain intellectual distance, even an emotional barrier?
27 September, 2006
Our next intake of first year students arrive this weekend; depending on the Colleges to which they've been assigned, arrival day will be Saturday or Sunday. If I was a Fresher (horrible thought...), I'd definitely prefer the Sunday arrival: one day less.
For those unfamiliar with the UK system, Freshers' Week is an additional period before second- and third-years arrive for the start of the 'real' term, during which there are no scheduled lectures.
I loathed mine, and each year I sympathise with the latest sufferers. It's all so pointless, and is an awful introduction to University life. All the stress of leaving home, then one is dumped in a breeze-block cell with absolutely nothing to do for 60-70% of the waking day (the rest involves excessive alcohol and people one will spend subsequent months trying to avoid), for a whole week.
There are certain administrative tasks to be completed, such as registering for courses and paying fees, but they don't require a full week – a long weekend would be more than enough for the essentials, and the rest could be worked around lectures. It'd be so much better if students arrived at University to actually begin their student life, rather than to endure some sort of Limbo.
Personally, I find it (marginally) easier to meet people whilst doing things and thereby having natural conversational openings, rather than having to force small talk with random strangers. Almost all the longer-term friends I made were people on my corridor or on my course, so the artificial initial 'opportunity' to socialise with others was unproductive.
Donald MacLeod at the Guardian agrees.
Before anyone sneers about 'spoilsports': you're missing the point. I'm not suggesting that the drinking and partying shouldn't happen each evening (though my personal inclination would be to stay away), I'm merely saying it should happen during term time, when there's something to occupy the new students' days too.
21 September, 2006
I think I've almost escaped the herd mentality, but not quite.
I was feeling rather smug that none of these retailers' tricks to make customers spend more would affect me, until I noticed one which has succeeded once or twice. Damn.
[Via Boing Boing.]
29 August, 2006
I knew I was going to say that
Tangentially mentioning déjà vu in the previous entry reminds me that I used to experience it (specifically déjà vécu, the commonest variety) fairly frequently in childhood and in my teens, but much less so in my twenties and into my thirties.
I wonder whether that's a developmental issue; glitches in 'hard-wiring' synaptic networks, perhaps or, more fancifully, suppressing a sixth sense humans haven't quite evolved to use.
26 August, 2006
Scratching the planetary surface
It's a little startling to discover that people one knows and likes in one context can be nutters in another.
In an off-topic area of a music-related web forum, the topic of Pluto came up in conversation, specifically its demotion from full 'planet' status on Thursday. Most expressed understandable regret – some have an emotional attachment to a component of childhood rhymes – but few accepted the IAU's reclassification. Okay, the voting procedure was seriously flawed, and the chosen definition seems less than definitive, but the issues being questioned were more fundamental(ist).
- That whatever the agreed definition of 'planet', a special case should be made for Pluto, totally irrespective of whether it fits the criteria.
I say if they already named it a planet, then it's already considered a planet. Too late to change it now. Anything else yet to be named out there would fall under the new 'guidelines' but I don't see what they have against the little guy that they'd strip it of it's planetary title.For hundreds of years, it was thought that the Sun travelled around the Earth. People died for that definition of the solar system (which can't be said for the Pluto issue). Should we still work to that definition?
Science moves on. As our understanding of disparate factors increase and intermesh, and as additional data fill important gaps, theories and definitions change. Seventy-six years ago, when Pluto was discovered, very little was known about the Kuiper Belt and an an error of categorisation was made. It's entirely reasonable to reassess it now.
Personally, I think the conference compromised too far anyway, to suit personal preferences and invent an artificial niche for Pluto rather than dump it outright. Deciding the result in advance then selecting the parameters to fit it isn't scientific. It's a little like deciding sea water is blue (because everyone knows the sea is blue) then producing a definition to 'prove' blueness is a defining characteristic.
It was necessary to agree on a rational, generic definition of 'a planet', based on scientific principles, then determine which bodies qualified, applying the definition without prejudice, sentiment or reference to existing public habit (and ignoring nursery rhymes about nine planets). Instead, they seem to have taken the reverse approach, of deciding which bodies qualify then contriving a definition around the selected dataset.
- That this isn't an issue for scientists to decide anyway.
Scientists are not Gods or all knowing, that is a fact.If the qualifications and experience of professional astronomers count for nothing, what's the alternative? Popular acclaim? Is this something the general public can decide, perhaps by a radio phone-in? Perhaps a TV evangelist might like to get involved. Keep those donations definitions coming in, folks.
To say 'Pluto is a planet because I think of it as a planet' really means 'Pluto is a planet because I want it to be a planet', which is childish, even petulant. It's totally irrational in a subject where rationality is all that matters. This is simply not a matter of gut feeling or moral conviction. It's not even an especially interpretive issue; it's classifying measured data rather than theorising about processes. Faith doesn't come into it.
I'm afraid I see no way around this: it's an issue for scientists.
I could respect disagreement with the definition, but refusal to accept the idea of having
a rational, generally-applicable definition is... well, I simply can't comprehend that. My mind recoils.
Frankly, the issue of whether Pluto is or is not a planet doesn't especially concern me. What I find rather distressing – and that's not really an overstatement – is that seemingly sensible people whose opinions I valued are suddenly revealed to have the mindset of mediaeval adolescents.
22 August, 2006
It's funny how financial circumstances evolve.
I pre-ordered 'Arriving Somewhere...', the forthcoming Porcupine Tree live 2-DVD set this morning. I had considered whether I'd like it at all (that wasn't a given – I rarely find/make time for concert DVDs, and was underimpressed by the 'Deadwing' album), but the financial cost wasn't even a consideration. At the time of writing, I don't even recall the price or postage, beyond noting they were reasonable; I simply provided my debit card details.
There was a time when I'd have had to save for this set, or undergone a much more rigorous process of deciding whether I really wanted it. As a result, it might have meant more to me.
Similarly, I paid £2,000 into my mortgage this morning, in addition to the normal monthly instalment, to pay it off quicker. Ten years ago, that amount could have supported me for three months or so, including food, rent & bills. It's not exactly disposable now, but its sudden unavailability certainly won't affect my daily life.
I hope it's obvious I'm not merely boasting about being well-paid – some would say I'm not! It's simply interesting to note otherwise unregarded life milestones.
21 August, 2006
Hooray For Fish
'Sometimes I Like To Curl Up In A Ball', <'The Runaway Dinner', 'Dear Zoo: Lift the Flaps'.
If they're the titles, authors of children's books must have access to better drugs than those of the books I read in the mid-1970s.
I'm not entirely joking – there probably has been a societal shift towards surrealism, possibly driven by chemicals.
13 August, 2006
Elitism is nothing to be ashamed of
I'm not an elitist myself, of course – some of my best friends only have one degree.
11 August, 2006
Words matter too
Since you ask: no, Tina, not always.
4 August, 2006
My own business stays mine
I've just remembered something that was probably a formative event, and one reason I'm so open and trusting (yeah, right).
Several years ago, my mother bought a second-hand electric typewriter (I did say it was several years ago). The ribbon supplied was almost used-up, so one of the very first things she did was replace it with a new ribbon – and read the old one. It was the one-use variety, so everything that had ever been written was clearly visible as one continuous line of text.
As it happens, her 'curiosity' paid-off: she discovered a personals ad, and hence that the seller, a work colleague, was gay. Okay; perhaps the seller was foolish to leave potentially embarrassing material in the typewriter, but who'd have expected a middle-aged clerical assistant to go to the effort of reading a typewriter ribbon? It wouldn't have even occurred to me that private messages were accessible, and if it had, I wouldn't have dreamt of reading them. Fundamentally, I have no interest in knowing the secrets of strangers, and respect friends far too much to pry. It's simply inconceivable.
Growing up in an environment where I had the impression nothing was absolutely private, where anything could be open to covert yet casual scrutiny, I immediately learned to keep anything truly personal, and certainly anything potentially incriminating, within my own head.
This might also help to explain my total opposition to non-essential state imposition on the individual's right to anonymity, such as ID cards.
28 July, 2006
My favourite things
I'm slightly uneasy about 'favourites' lists, as the urge to categorise, rank & list is a stereotypically male, obsessive tendency from which I try to distance myself. I feel the process restricts and diminishes the subjects of such lists, not to mention the cataloguers.
What sort of mind is so orderly and potentially closed to wider influences as to be able to think "I like X, more than Y but not as much as Z"? What sort of mind would care? Not mine, anyway. I like X and Y and Z, for themselves and without meaningless comparison.
For the sake of argument, I could say crunchy nut corn flakes are my third favourite food. Would that mean that whenever I eat them, I enjoy them through the slight disappointment that they're not garlic prawns or fish & chips? At 07:30?
Or is it a pointless concept?
This is an extension of the even more (primarily) male desire to list for the sake of listing, or to collect merely to have a collection.
I can understand a desire to go hillwalking to see the countryside, challenge oneself & improve fitness, or to go birdwatching to study and appreciate wildlife, or even to study trains to appreciate their design and engineering. However, I can't understand, nor respect, someone who has 'peak-bagged' 200 UK 900m summits, or logged sightings of 200 bird species, or logged 200 pieces of a specific company's rolling stock merely to say he has done so.
Appreciate each for its merits, don't just tick it off a ****ing list.
20 July, 2006
Wedding thought with feeling
I have the opportunity to attend a wedding reception at the end of next week. My gut feeling, which I've decided to follow, is to not go, but I'm having trouble rationalising that, even to myself.
I'm even a little reluctant to write about it, as there's a risk personally-involved readers might receive two incorrect impressions:
That I inherently dislike such events, and I'd rather not be included in future invitations. Not true. I don't feel that my my instinctive reaction to this one would extend to others.
Therefore, that I'm snubbing this particular couple. Again untrue. We're not as close as we once were, geographically or socially (I don't think we've spoken this year), but J. was my 'evil twin' (or I was his; whatever) in the 1990s & we certainly haven't fallen out. And how could I dislike W.?
It mightn't be precisely the right word, but I 'disapprove' of weddings, intensely but not vociferously. That's not anti-commitment (not something of which I tend to be accused!), it's anti- 'social ritual'. If a couple want to be together, that's great, but exclusively a matter for the couple – it shouldn't be any business of the state or community. The idea that individuals need to obtain ceremonial approval of their private choice offends my individualist values. As an atheist I don't exactly like the religious aspect of church weddings either, but I know that to be empty pantomime, even to most participants, so it doesn't especially bother me.
However, as a good individualist, I acknowledge that others think differently, and if people want the whole marriage certificate, vicar and meringue dress package, it's not for me to impose my negativity on them.
It would be a little too hypocritical of me to attend a church service and nod & smile, but disliking the institution of marriage wouldn't stop me attending a reception.
So it's not that.
I'm a classic introvert, and find most social events hard work. That's not insurmountable, and often I do enjoy myself if I can break the barrier of negative anticipation and force myself to converse. Conversely (heh) it doesn't always work, and empty small-talk with strangers can drive me to inward seething, depression and a swift exit – easy at a College wine party three miles from home, such as last Friday's (I lasted 35 minutes) but difficult when in an unfamiliar city on the wrong side of the Pennines.
That's a risk, but one can't live by fear of what might or might not happen, and on its own, a poor reason not to go. That's not it.
I know almost no-one likely to be attending. I never relish the idea of meeting new people (some thrive on that, but it's just not in my nature), I couldn't cling to the two I definitely know, and the bride & groom would be rather busy. Worse, the remaining people I might recognise would be acquaintances from an earlier phase of my life.
On the whole, it's not those people themselves that I'd rather avoid, it's the associated memories. It'd be all too easy to fall back into the same social roles, especially with dominant personalities, and I don't think I could face that. I didn't like the 1990s me even at the time, and firmly put him aside. That's the acquaintance I wouldn't wish to renew.
That may be the root cause of my instinctive wish to stay away: I don't want to confront myself.
That's not completely it, though – there's a secondary disincentive.
Ordinarily, I'm absolutely fine about Helen & I living in different countries; we're independent people and whilst it's great to exchange e-mails & phone calls almost daily and, er, meet up every couple of months, neither of us would really choose to live as a couple (the fact that I'm uncomfortable about speaking for H. like that merely illustrates our independence). However, for a short period after seeing her, I'm... melancholic (not sure that's the right term), and feel awkward around friends who do live together. I suppose that's to be expected.
As I said, I don't respect formal marriage, and wouldn't remotely wish it for myself. Yet beneath the social artifice, a wedding is a celebration of a relationship (I just don't see why third-parties should be involved) – and a somewhat painful reminder that H. is ~1,800 km (~1,100 miles) away.
3 July, 2006
As seen on TV
Is that really still a selling point? I could imagine that in the 1950s and 60s 'As Seen On TV' implied a certain glamour, even credibility (though I'm not sure of the rational basis for the latter) but I'd have thought the novelty would have worn off by 2006 and potential customers would be more self-motivated.
That's the general point, but a couple of recent examples seem especially odd; items one wouldn't expect to be advertised on TV, nor marketed in those terms.
A few weeks ago, I bought a red pepper (the vegetable, not the magazine) from Sainsbury's, unpackaged but with a sticker attached. Alongside the barcode, the label identified the item (a pepper? really? I thought it was a potato) and stated 'As Seen On TV'.
I'm glad I spotted that. I was about to buy a green pepper, but swiftly abandoned that proletarian mundanity for the veg of the gods (or celebrities, anyway). Jamie Oliver himself might even use red peppers in his cookery, so I simply must, hoping a little of his stardust might rub off. The extremely remote association between my mate Jamie and I (we both cook with red peppers, you know) might make me even more attractive to women. Hmm. Perhaps Jamie isn't the best example.
Similarly, I noticed a shelf banner (if that's the correct term) in the on-campus bakery today, advertising that their sausage rolls are 'As Seen On TV'.
20 June, 2006
Why grumpy, not happy, when sleepy?
Why do I become irritable when I'm especially tired, rather than, say, overly sentimental or tolerant? What is it about sleep deprivation that inspires impatience?
I know myself well enough to stay away from blogs, discussion groups, etc. at certain times (though fatigue impairs judgement, too...) in case I snap at people, but why do I react that way? Cannabis and alcohol used to make me similarly sleepy (I don't consume either nowadays), but they also induced a certain warmth towards others which 'real' tiredness doesn't.
I don't think I'm rude to people, merely curt, and not gratuituously – I respond to genuinely stupid or offensive comments or, in an editorial/admin capacity, breaches of policy/best practice. It's just that I'm 'nicer' about it when I've slept properly, and can more readily ignore issues which are, frankly, trivial.
Is it just me? I doubt it, and suspect irritability is a typical consequence of sleeplessness - but why?
13 June, 2006
Tough times ahead?
When a colleague goes on maternity leave, what does one write in the leaving card?
The consensus seems to be variations on 'good luck', but somehow that seems to be unduly pessimistic. Rather than "great! you're having a baby!", it implies "I hope it's not too awful and nothing goes wrong".
In itself, that's an understandable sentiment, but in the context of a light-hearted, fairly superficial communal card, shouldn't the negativity go without saying? Does Beth want our congratulations, or reinforcement of her trepidation?
8 June, 2006
Writing about how he lost 23 kg in body weight last year, Jeremy Zawodny mentioned reforming his eating habits so that he ate until no longer hungry, rather than until full.
Could this be a cultural issue? There's a common preconception (stereotype?) that when eating in the USA, portions will be massive, so I suppose it's possible to eat until full (and waste whatever's left...). In contrast, in Europe, or at least in my experience here, standard portions are more sensible, and wouldn't routinely defeat a normal person. I've rarely eaten to excess without deliberately going back for seconds or by adding side orders.
I suppose I'm saying that in Europe, one is less likely to be in the position of having too much on one's plate and choosing whether to stop eating; rather, one would have to actively seek more food and keep going.
Needless to say, I'm solely speculating about portion sizes during regular meals – snacking and sedentary lifestyles are different issues.
I'd better stress that this entry is just a thought that occurred to me on reading Zawodny's 'advice' via BoingBoing – it's not a fully-reasoned argument! I'm very aware that it's a partial, maybe naïve observation by someone who's never had a weight problem.
Throughout my twenties I was, if anything, slightly underweight (1.85m and 65 kg) and visibly thin, and in my mid-thirties I'm still on the thin side of 'athletic' (~75kg and more than averagely active). There are are a number of reasons, but the main one, which I might explore in a later entry, is that I have a visceral dislike of excess. Overeating is an alien concept; 'comfort eating' is simply inconceivable.
5 June, 2006
Why is that one would hire building contractors to construct an extension? Shouldn't they be building expanders?
Just an idle thought whilst waiting in traffic.
22 May, 2006
As I've said before, I don't believe in buying locally merely for the sake of supporting local retailers. If corner shops and independent bookshops are out-competed by supermarkets and national chains, too bad; they represent obsolete market sectors which should be allowed to die if they're unwilling or unable to offer something unique.
And that's the key point. Good independent bookshops aren't inherently obsolete, and can provide added value that chains can't, including specialist expertise, individual service and atmosphere.
Some attempt to replicate the national chains' homogenous retail units and promotional tactics without the backing of national distribution networks, influence with publishers and economies of scale. Understandably, they struggle, relying on people 'doing the right thing' by artificially supporting their local bookshops. So far as I'm concerned, merely being small and local is insufficient justification for existence, and relying on customers' charity is an awful business model. Such shops fail.
However, as Stephen Moss, writing in the Guardian, found, bookshops which focus on their strengths and offer a unique environment are surviving, even thriving.
It can't be easy, and wouldn't work for everyone. Specialist is rarely ubiquitous, and it's logical to presume that the days of there being an independent bookshop on every high street are gone. In researching his article, Moss couldn't find a single independent bookshop in central Manchester, and I can't think of one in Lancaster (not counting the specialist sci-fi one, and the less said about that, the better). I don't have a problem with that.
19 May, 2006
Random queries no. 54
One of a series of genuine search engine enquiries which successfully brought visitors to the Ministry. Can I help?
recycling - is it a good solution
Okay, not an amusingly random enquiry, but I want to comment anyway.
No, recycling isn't a solution; there is no single panacea and it's a mistake to seek one, just as speed cameras are not the single solution to all road safety issues. Recycling needs to be only one of a suite, or in fact a hierarchy, of overlapping measures.
Firstly, consider whether it's really necessary to buy an item or use a resource. It's better to avoid unnecessary usage than to use then worry about disposal. Incidentally, by 'necessary' I don't solely mean 'essential for subsistence' – pleasure and quality of life are important too!
Secondly, wherever practical, reuse an item rather than recycling it or throwing it away. Recycling consumes resources, so is less than ideal; buying once and using twice is better than buying twice and recycling twice. Consider this when selecting items. Additionally, try to buy packaging-efficient refills for existing items.
When travelling in Europe, I'll tend to buy a 500ml (plastic) bottle of Coke on the first day, then repeatedly refill it with tap water on subsequent days.
Then, the third choice, recycle whatever you can. At least in Lancaster, there are limited options (the local authority doesn't accept all categories of recyclables), but I recycle metal cans (90% of which are Coke!), glass (I don't drink alcohol, so don't actually use much glass) and all paper, from the labels on cans & bottles to phone books. The only exception is private correspondence. Plastics are a problem, as I have nowhere (practical) to take them, but I prefer to minimise usage anyway.
Finally, dispose of the remaining materials responsibly. If items must go to landfill, try to crush them small first, to take up less space in the council lorry and in the ground. Living alone, I'd be able to put out one bag for collection every fortnight if it wasn't for smelly food waste.
Isn't this all Green Party hippie sh*t? I don't think so. The Greens peddle a pseudo-religion of environmentalist ethics, and I have nothing to do with them, but I regard this as entirely rational. It's not a moral issue of doing the 'right' thing, just common-sense, even long-term self-interest.
14 May, 2006
Who is it for?
A bypass is a higher-capacity road diverting through-traffic out of local road networks (which tend to date from an era when two carts and a stagecoach constituted heavy traffic), hence allowing longer-distance travellers to avoid becoming delayed by traffic lights, tractors in narrow lanes, etc.
It also works the other way: bypasses reduce traffic volumes through small towns and villages for the benefit of the locals, too. The quality of life is drastically improved if the mediaeval market square isn't a through-route for 44-tonne artics, and if children don't have to cross a continuous stream of traffic to get to school.
Despite ridiculing those who unquestioningly follow sat-nav directions, I'm not inherently opposed to the units. However, I am a little concerned that they give members of the herd an illusion of independence.
When traffic on a bypass begins to build up (not necessarily becoming congested, but reaching a point where congestion could be expected ahead), people might seek an alternative route 'just in case' or simply because they want to play with their sat-nav toys. If more than a few people have the same idea, that could generate significant excess traffic on the very secondary roads the bypass is supposed to relieve. Fifty to 100 fewer cars on a bypass would have negligible impact on throughflow there, but could be a problem on smaller roads, especially as the temptation to divert will be greatest during commuter rush hours which coincide with local school runs.
It's a difficult issue. Of course an individual has the right to choose any reasonable route, even on a whim, but out of consideration for others, should that right be exercised so casually?
11 May, 2006
Doesn't frighten the horses
A. was wondering:
Why is women’s underwear, even the day-to-day stuff, seen as naughty and provocative, while men’s is just another item of clothing?
I'm not entirely sure that's true.
I'd agree that there's more 'non-day-to-day' female underwear and limited, er, elaboration in male underwear, but day-to-day underwear of either gender is nothing special (well, to me, anyway), merely utilitarian support and cover. Barring teenagers and fetishists, does anyone find big pants and sports bras sexy?
Don't get me wrong; I do respond to lingerie (as opposed to ordinary 'underwear') in much the same way as any other heterosexual male, but to me and, I suspect, most people, everyday clothes are nothing exotic.
From childhood until I went to University, I was expected to hang out the family's washing, which can only inspire thoughtless familiarity. Doesn't that apply to anyone who grew up with a mother and sister?
8 May, 2006
Sorry to get all wide-eyed and hippie-ish, but isn't it remarkable that we're so blasé about radio and TV broadcasts?
Every second of every day, pictures and sounds are passing through our bodies (well, their broadcast waveforms, anyway). In those terms, it's mind-blowing; two hundred years ago it would have seemed like a bizarre fantasy, yet we accept it as entirely routine*.
Modern life does make sense. Just don't think about it.
28 April, 2006
Imagine we lived in a different galaxy.
Or rather, imagine that the Earth was in a different astronomical (if that's the right term) situation wherein it became known that the planet will definitely be destroyed at a distant point in the future – call it a million years from now.
It obviously wouldn't threaten anyone alive now, but I wonder how it'd affect individual and collective psyches, simply knowing that there will be an unstoppable end point. Would it influence religions? Technological innovation? Mental health?
18 April, 2006
I'm a moderator (administrator, referee & enforcer) of a number of Yahoo! Groups. One of them, devoted to trading unofficial recordings of a certain band, is used to organise distribution of CD-Rs/DVD-Rs and to solicit off-list trades. It's analogous to noticeboard, definitely not a discussion group – communal conversation isn't part of the remit.
One member of the Group died recently, and a family member wrote to have the automated Group e-mails stopped. Unfortunately, the address he/she used (presumably the only one known) resulted in the notification being circulated to all 500+ members rather than just reaching me, the moderator. Obviously, I took the requested action immediately, and the account in question no longer exists.
However, several people have responded to what was plainly a private message published unintentionally. A number of messages of condolence have been posted, via the Group (i.e. to everyone except the bereaved). Why? Who are the messages for?
Even if the deceased person's account hadn't been closed, and even if the family felt some strange urge to read messages ostensibly about music trading, would they really wish to receive trite expressions of sympathy from utter strangers?
I don't understand why the messages would be intended for the rest of the Group, either. As I mentioned, this isn't a Group with the remotest 'community spirit'; it's a noticeboard via which strangers meet to perform transactions, not a chatty forum frequented by close friends.
By a process of elimination, it seems to me that the messages are for the senders, to be seen to be doing the sensitive, 'right' thing, and consequently to make them feel good about themselves. Isn't that inappropriately selfish, and a little distasteful?
4 April, 2006
I really can't be bothered to wait 45 mins to cook something at Gas Mark 4.
Do you reckon a standard domestic gas supply would give me 4 mins of Gas Mark 45 instead?
3 April, 2006
Don't ask, think.
Without wishing to imply Siobhan's postings aren't all wonderful ;) one from last Thursday (which, for various reasons, I've only just read), particularly caught my attention. It's a follow-up to one from Wednesday, so read that too.
To cherry-pick two related points:
'Fairly-Odd' had said: "However, you are their teacher, and they're paying to have you show them things, right?" S. didn't rise to the bait, but I will. Students aren't 'paying customers', and don't have the right to demand 'customer service' from lecturers. Academic staff are not here to serve, nor to spoon-feed.
S. teaches an art-based subject that happens to involve computers i.e. the creative application of technology. Her role isn't to teach people how to use computers, or specific packages, but to teach people how to apply those technical skills in a meaningful manner e.g. not how to use Dreamweaver but how to produce quality web design.
Hence, to be regularly asked about mundane technical details is frustrating, especially those a student could solve for him/herself with a bit of experimentation and by reading the manual/integral 'help' facility. That reduces the lecturer to the most basic help desk technician, answering questions the 'user' simply can't be bothered to research for him/herself.
This gets to the very purpose of higher education, and the relationship between a lecturer and a student. The former shouldn't be telling the latter 'the answer', but, more fundamentally, guiding the latter to find 'the answer' for him/herself; teaching the student (how) to think.
28 March, 2006
Management World is a surreal place. Apparently we have a bunch of architects on a hook at present, waiting to barrel in when we close the book on the pot.
Okay, it's mildly amusing, but it's also indicative of people who can't think, or at least articulate their thoughts, in a manner other than the metaphorical or abstract. It can be frustrating.
10 March, 2006
How much for these warm fuzzies?
The presence of a 'Fairtrade' logo on an item pretty much guarantees that I won't buy it, for three main reasons.
- Retailers feel able to slap premium prices on such goods, for no justifiable reason. There is no reason to think the objective quality of a Fairtrade item is superior, and the extra profit from the higher prices doesn't go to the producers, so purchasers are merely being taxed for their hippie idealism. I don't object to middle-class smugness being penalised, but flatter myself that I'm less gullible.
- I neither share the stated values nor especially respect them – Fairtrade is tokenism, which I don't believe will have a worthwhile widespread effect.
- I object to the morality of others being imposed on me. Maybe it's irrational, but the very fact of being told what to do repels me.
Above all, I'm convinced that a majority of British purchasers of Fairtrade goods do so to be seen
to be acting 'ethically', for complacently self-righteous reasons. It's a lifestyle-image issue, not one of morality. Hence, Fairtrade is no more than a marketing exercise directed at affluent consumers, ultimately exploiting both producers and purchasers.
Prof. Rob Paton of the Open University describes an alternate view, that, even if flawed, Fairtrade exemplifies broader, long-term trends of global governance and social enterprise (see his article for definitions). He may even be right, but firstly, I don't think that justifies participating in a flawed system as a route to 'something better' – fix Fairtrade first – and secondly, discussion of a 'value-based economy' strays into quasi-religious issues of 'right' and 'wrong', and I'm not a believer.
It seems that at last others are starting to question their assumptions, too. This evening the BBC's Money Programme will broadcast an investigation into the market sector. It might be interesting, though I'm conscious that it might just reinforce my prejudices.
Did you know that Nestlé, subject to an international boycott for selling powdered baby milk in developing nations, has Fairtrade status?
26 February, 2006
It's in here somewhere...
These carbon-based data storage/display devices are great for most purposes, but books could do with a decent search utility. Maybe in version 2.
I've been reading 'The Science of Discworld' (Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen, 1999) this week, which alternates chapters of a Discworld story with chapters on corresponding topics of popular science. Following the 'narrative' from the Big Bang to the evolution of the Earth and life upon it, it's a very readable introduction to key scientific concepts. It has no patience with creationism, but isn't strident about that; arguments are clearly made explaining that there's no reason to think external intervention was ever necessary – not saying that intervention was impossible, but that the outcome can be fully explained without it. There are no gaps where the religious could cry "Aha! That has to have been consciously designed!"
Conversely, comparison of 'Roundworld' (us), which functions according to scientific 'rules', with Discworld, which runs on narrative imperative, highlights humanity's need for stories.
Somewhere in the book there's a good analogy which makes the idea of a soul, able to transcend physical death, faintly ridiculous, but without the ability to seach for the word 'eggbeater' I don't have much chance of finding it again.
Hang on; I have a slightly photographic memory, and remember the passage's relative location: top of a left-hand page, itself the final page of a 'science' chapter... found it!
It is curious that the strongest believers in the soul tend to be people who denigrate material things; yet they then turn their philosophy on its head by insisting that when an evident process – life – comes to an end, there has to be a thing that continues. No. When a process stops, it's no longer 'there'. When you stop beating an egg, there isn't some pseudo-material essence of eggbeater that passes on to something else. You just aren't turning the handle any more.
22 February, 2006
Under the headline "Most Britons willing to pay green taxes to save the environment", the Guardian reports that 63% of people responding to a recent poll would be willing to pay new taxes on goods and services that damage the environment, while 34% said they would not accept such price rises. For the record, I definitely would support such measures*.
Was it misleading to say 'most'? Statistically, I suppose it's a fair statement: of the three options ('yes', 'no' and 'don't know/maybe'), 'yes' received the greatest number of votes.
However, in linguistic terms, does 63% really qualify as 'most'? I'd set the threshold rather higher, personally – perhaps 80% or more.
I don't know; it just feels wrong, somehow.
*: So long as it's a tax on usage i.e. a penny on plastic bags or petrol, not a tax on everyone irrespective of individual usage i.e. a penny on income tax. There needs to be an incentive to use less.
14 February, 2006
Herd taste - or not?
This is a bit sad: a US study reported by the BBC found that music fans are more likely to listen to a song if they think other people admire it. People who visited a new songs website gave higher ratings to tunes which had been frequently downloaded.
I'm not sure whether the phenomenon stated is really the one observed. Given a choice of 48 previously unknown songs, it's only natural to start with those that others have already rated highly, then perhaps those rated worst (which probably really will be the dross, perhaps with technical inadequacies). It's quite an investment of time to listen to 48 songs, and one will become tired after the first dozen or so, so those in the mid to low range won't receive the same freshness of attention, or mightn't be heard at all if one gives up.
That's the sampling process, which I suppose could influence one's critical choices, but listening to a song because it's already popular isn't quite the same as liking it because it's already popular. Existing popularity undoubtedly increases the chance that a song will be heard, but once heard, I think the chance of liking it is less deterministic.
I know that I've made a point of adding several of the IMDb top 250 films to my DVD Rental queue, partly to catch up on acknowledged classics which have somehow evaded me until now, and partly to discover what others think I should see. That's 'following the crowd', and choosing films because they're already popular, but it doesn't mean I'll like them.
That seems to be supported by the findings described in the latter half of the BBC article. When the subjects were split into eight groups, and could only see the rankings generated within their own groups, songs achieved very different popularity ranks in different groups. However, quality ratings were less influenced by peer grouping, and the same songs did well (or not) in all groups.
Hence, "success was not relative to the quality of the music" or, the depressing converse:
"It also suggests that even if an act creates high quality music, it might not be successful."
7 February, 2006
The end of cyberspace?
An article in Wired acknowledges that the concept of the internet as 'cyberspace', a virtual destination where people go in order to interact with one another and computers, has become obsolete. Development of Virtual Reality (headsets & gloves) foundered years ago, and immersive alternate realities remained in sci-fi (I don't count the recreational examples of World of Warcraft or Second Life). The distinction between on- and offline activities is fading, and nowadays the internet is simply a facet of everyday, 'real world' life.
The article invites suggestions for a term to replace 'cyberspace', but I'd argue that the very nature of the conceptual change means there's no longer a need for any specific name for 'virtual space'. I agree with Neil Gershenfeld, Director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms (now that's a bad name!), who proposes calling the computer-orientated environment simply 'the world'.
At BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow describes cyberspace as the "place of the mind", a concept with which I can identify.
If I'm participating in an online discussion, or reading a blog entry written, published and hosted on the other side of the world, or indeed whilst writing this, my consciousness doesn't really have a meaningful geographical location. Maybe the concept of 'out there' does still apply.
If so, it predates the internet – If I speak to my father in Norway, via a standard 'land line' phone, just as I have done since the 1970s, where is my mind? My full concentration is on the conversation, so it doesn't matter that my head is in the UK.
Hmm. I suspect one could think too hard about such metaphysics – and then where would one be?
22 December, 2005
I loathe christmas. It's fine for small children, but I'm not a small child, and I haven't liked the standard christmas rituals of presents, food, etc. for at least a decade.
A couple of weeks ago, my sister asked me what I'd like for christmas (at least my family tends to consult about presents, rather than make wildly ill-judged guesses).
"Nothing, or the ability to avoid the whole occasion." I explained that I simply don't enjoy the forced jollity and artifice of it all.
"Oh well, let's all be miserable, then." What? What's 'miserable'? Becoming absorbed in a good book or film? Enjoying a walk or cycle ride in the hills? Appreciating a meaningful conversation with close friends and family? Oh, the misery!
And the converse is what? Resenting the waste of ripping shiny paper off things I neither need nor really want, and which, even if I did, aren't quite the ones I would have chosen for myself? Being obliged to slump in front of an hour-long omnibus episode of some crappy soap (and having to consider that 'quality time'), feeling slightly embarrassed beneath a dayglo pink paper hat (more waste of paper)? Being obliged to drink sparkling pink wine then feeling lethargic for the rest of the day? Being pressured to visit relatives whose very existence is an irrelevance to me (and refusing)? Gasping for air in an overheated house (K's a surgeon with bad circulation, so is accustomed to seriously warm operating theatres and living conditions, whereas I choose to barely heat my house)? Sleeping on a sofabed at least a foot shorter than me?
If I liked anything about christmas, and was consciously denying myself pleasure, perhaps to prove a point, that would indeed be 'miserable'. That's what my sister seemed to be implying: denial of pleasure, and that secretly I like it. Not true. All this rubbish genuinely diminishes my enjoyment, even my quality of life; it is reluctant participation that makes me frustrated and yes, miserable.
I do want to spend time with my mother and sister. Fine. But why should we have to engage in utterly contrived activities? I've mentioned my dislike of the 'forced' aspects of a traditional christmas to my mother, too, and received half-hearted agreement: "I know, but we've got to."
Why? Who made it compulsory, and when did I sign-up? Is the price of enjoyable childhood christmases that one has to endure them for the rest of one's life?
Incidentally, if I attempted to deny others their pleasure, that'd be mean-spirited. I don't, so I'm not. I'd never dream of making a big deal out of disliking christmas, as that'd impinge on my mother's & sister's potential enjoyment. I'll just discreetly minimise my involvement. This is another case in which the NRT writing (ranting) this isn't the same NRT as you'd meet in the street.
20 December, 2005
It's not all about me, me, ME
George Monbiot, writing in today's Guardian, is overtly anti-cars. I'm not, but his diatribe touches on something about which I do feel strongly.
My personal politics can be broadly and simplistically summarised as 'individualist' – I believe that the rights of the individual take priority over the convenience of the state; that the state exists to facilitate the lives of individuals, but individuals don't exist to serve the collective.
However, that's not to the exclusion of wider society:
[Monbiot's article] is about the rise of the antisocial bastards who believe they should be allowed to do what they want, whenever they want, regardless of the consequences. [We are slowly turning into] a nation that recognises only the freedom to act, and not the freedom from the consequences of other people's actions.
It is not just because of his celebration of everything brash and flash that Jeremy Clarkson has become the boy racer's hero. He articulates, with a certain wit and with less equivocation than any other writer in this country, the doctrine that he should be permitted to swing his fist – whoever's nose is in the way.
Hence the limit on my individualism: the right (which I assert) to act independently of collective activities, standards and imposed morality so long as others aren't affected
I don't believe I have the right to play death metal at high volume at 02:00, nor smoke in a hospital, nor ignore speed limits. I don't have children, but I'm entirely happy for my taxes to contribute to the education system. I'd support the renationalisation of domestic energy generation & supply and the transport & telecommunications infrastructures (the railway lines and the wires). Public smoking should be banned, recycling should be compulsory, and taxes should be increased to support social provision, all to improve the lives of individuals within the collective.
These are all 'background' issues; mostly enabling, but a number of moderate restrictions are quite reasonable. Within these limits, I feel the government should leave me alone, and its agencies shouldn't even be able to identify me without my explicit permission, but I do think the limits need to exist.
20 December, 2005
Speed cameras work
I'm not naturally inclined to agree with arch-Green George Monbiot, but his article for today's Guardian raises two valuable points. Though overlapping, I'll treat them as separate topics, and hence blog entries.
The first is to report that the UK Department for Transport has published the results of a study into the efficacy of its speed cameras. Admittedly, it's unsurprising that a report commissioned by the DoT supports the DoT's agenda, but the figures are compelling:
... the number of drivers speeding down the roads where fixed cameras had been installed fell by 70%, and the number exceeding the speed limit by more than 15mph dropped by 91%. As a result, 42% fewer people were killed or seriously injured in those places than were killed or injured on the same stretches before the cameras were erected. The number of deaths fell by more than 100 a year. The people blowing up speed cameras have blood on their hands.
Sorry; that last bit was Monbiot over-emoting, but he has a point. One other statistic: the study claims that speed cameras save the country £258m in medical bills each year.
Of course, there are those who'll claim otherwise, using fatuous arguments about cameras making roads more dangerous, being exclusively and maliciously used for revenue generation (no road safety aspect whatsoever, only revenue), and impinging on people's 'freedom' to drive fast.
It's often said that when one sees a camera, one glances at the dashboard speedometer, taking one's attention from the road. For a fraction of a second. Far less than, say, adjusting the heater or radio. By that argument, speedometers should be banned.
I won't even address the conspiracy theory about cameras not being remotely intended to improve road safety, only government budgets. And they're installed by agents of the Illuminati, right? The same ones who killed President Kennedy?
The third, libertarian point leads into my next posting; for now I'll just remind people that there is no inviolable 'right' to speed; speeding penalties are fines on illegal actions, not taxes on legitimate activities.
The thing that always frustrates me about the anti-camera lobby is that they argue that cameras aren't 'the answer'; that money should be spent on driver education instead. Of course cameras aren't the one single panacea for all aspects of road safety, but how could anyone deny that speeding is an aspect? A small proportion of accidents can be solely attributable to excess speed, but those with other causes are exacerbated by the speed of vehicles involved. There isn't one single factor which will solve everything, in which all resources should be invested. It's not a matter of cameras or greater driver education, it's cameras and education, and police issues, and other factors.
13 December, 2005
Life tip of the day
In my experience, workoholics are no better thought of than those who do a fair day's work then go home and forget about it.
Check your priorities.
12 December, 2005
Mind yer own
As Readers' Editor of the Guardian, one of Ian Mayes' main tasks is to address complaints and publish appropriate corrections. Unfortunately, one issue seems to be especially persistent, as Mayes explains in a recap and progress report.
One point, which overlaps with my views on petitions, relates to the offensive and unproductive nature of coordinated e-mailing campaigns:
Throughout the entire period of my consideration of the complaint I was among the targets of an electronic lobby group....
I did not engage with or respond to this lobby, whose members poured several hundred emails into the Guardian. I did not read more than a tiny sample of the emails directed at me. I consider organised lobbies in general to be in effect – whatever the rights or wrongs of their position – oppressive to put it mildly. In the case of [name omited to deny publicity], those who respond to their Media Alerts are asked to be polite. They do not all manage to follow that advice. I also consider that it is unreasonable to expect me to read the contents of any email bombardment while dealing with a complaint from the principal person involved.
Correspondence from other readers is often lost in the huge volume of lobby email and thus lobbies tend to undermine the complaints procedures in place at the Guardian. Many of the lobbyists clearly do not read the paper.
In summary, if you participate in such a campaign:
- your message will neither be read nor receive a response.
- you will annoy and may intimidate the recipient.
- you will deny other (more legitimate, genuine) correspondents a voice by swamping their contributions within a mail overload which will simply be ignored.
Bandwagons and petulant sheep don't mix. If you are personally affected by an issue, by all means tackle the person or organisation concerned, but speak for yourself, and only
9 December, 2005
To keep her current job, Jack has (regrettably, necessarily) sacrificed some of her principles and is attempting to engage in (or at least respond to) small talk with her office colleagues. She speaks my mind:
I do not care for small talk. I am not interested in the dull minutae of people's lives and the swapping of my own that passes for everyday conversation. I am not sufficiently interested most in other people to find it engaging and don't find myself fascinating enough to relate my own. And that distaste combined with a certain shyness means unless I actually have something to say I am stilted, self-conscious and uncomfortable when made to talk. I'd like to think of it as sexily mysterious linguistic economy but you'd probably call me a snob; we'll settle in the middle and just give me the lazy sobriequet of anti-social and both be glad that this translates to long periods of silence rather than a need to tell you What I Did This Weekend.
Read the whole entry. I also share Jack's view of irrelevant relatives. I haven't spoken to any family member more distant than my parents and sister for years – decades, on my father's side – but the memory of downright boring
family visits no doubt contributes to my ongoing and increasing dislike of the christmas period.
7 December, 2005
I'm no economist, but...
Something's been puzzling me. If traditional high street retailers are anticipating another very poor peak season this year, whereas their online rivals seem to be on their way to a record performance, why don't the high street chains seem to be even trying to compete? Why are CDs and DVDs so much more expensive in, say, Lancaster's branch of HMV than from, say, Amazon?
I can appreciate that the requirement to rent, dress, staff and stock shops will boost prices. I can particularly understand that this will be significant for an individual small, independent shop, but a company the size of HMV has the advantage of bulk buying and its own supply network, so the magnitude of the price difference between HMV and Amazon makes limited apparent sense. An extra pound or so would be reasonable, yet the average price of a mainstream current or back catalogue CD album seems to be around £16-17 in HMV Lancaster and around £10-11 at Amazon. Why even consider buying from HMV?
Wouldn't it be better to make deep discounts (I mean routinely, on all items, not one-off sales of excess stock) and maximise sales at break-even prices, rather than alienate customers and create a section of the population who'd no longer even bother to visit HMV? They might be offering wonderful bargains at this very moment, but I wouldn't know, as I've already been driven away by their usual prices.
23 November, 2005
I don't know how possible it is to really know someone one has only met via an online forum, especially someone exactly half my age and living in Wisconsin, but it's still slightly shocking to hear that someone with whom I've conversed has stepped in front of a train.
Apart from the obvious, the part that's hard to accept is that her online presence remains – there are still several photos of a seemingly-happy 'rock chick', and her website (teen sensibilities and all) is still live.
I have difficulty comprehending suicide anyway – I can't conceive of any problem being that bad or inescapable (and I've been pretty low, occasionally), so my dominant emotion right now is as much anger at Arielle's tragic stupidity (in my opinion) as sadness about her death.
26 October, 2005
I don't know whether there's any specific reason which I've buried in my subconscious, but if I see a child accidentally burst or let go of a helium-filled balloon, so that it's lost, I feel a deep sadness, and probably more disappointment than the child him/herself. The third frame of today's 'Count Your Sheep' makes me feel distinctly uncomfortable; depressed, with underlying anxiety.
It's much the same if I see a child drop an ice-cream cone: I have an extreme empathy with the sense of grief for a pleasure lost by one's own error. It's so bad that if I was in the same situation, I'd rather go without than risk being upset.
Now THAT says a lot about me....
23 October, 2005
A certain online music/video retailer has sent me a claim code for a £2 discount, valid for the whole of October. That might have been a little more meaningful if it had been sent before 22 Oct....
I'd argue that this makes at least as many negative statements about the company (inefficiency in sending it very late, cynicism in making an empty gesture) as positive (generosity in knocking a whole £2 off any purchase in excess of £20 – wahey), and might actually lose the company some customers.
11 October, 2005
Today's Guardian reviews a range of ethical washing-up liquids. Ethical washing-up liquids. For ****'s sake.
I often buy an 'environmentally-friendly' variety of washing-up liquid, in a biodegradable bottle, but if it wasn't readily available at Sainsburys, or was sold at a premium price, I wouldn't. I certainly wouldn't patronise a wholefood hippie shop (other than in the "aren't you a smug little co-operative?" sense of 'patronise') if that was the only source of such a product.
It's simple common sense to minimise one's impact on the natural (and indeed developed) environment, but it's not remotely an issue of ethics. It's doing something because it's rational, not because it's the 'right' thing to do, which conveys a warm, fuzzy glow of pathetic self-satisfaction.
This is one of my biggest problems with Greens. Their objectives often (okay, sometimes) make sense, but not when their messages are expressed in terms of quasi-religious morality, by the self-righteous.
6 October, 2005
A better way?
Support facilities at a certain UK university operate as semi-autonomous commercial ventures. If, say, the English department wanted tea, coffee and biscuits for a conference, they'd have to pay Catering (via an internal transfer of funds), and indeed pay Conferences for a venue. External organisations can use Catering, Conferences, the Photographic Unit, University TV, Graphics, the Bindery, the Print Unit, etc. too, on a more directly commercial basis.
In theory, it's a reasonable system, but in practice it means graphic designers and similar specialist non-admin staff have to allocate considerable time each week to financial admin, and all such ancillary departments are under pressure to prove their ongoing financial viability.
A further problem is that since everything has a price, departments may be tempted to go without, provide for themselves (good for the overall University, I suppose) or go elsewhere.
For example, English might borrow a function room or lecture theatre from another academic department or college rather than pay for Conferences' dedicated facilities, and use their own teabags and kettle rather than buy-in from Catering, and consequently look less professional to visitors than they might if specialists had been involved.
Similarly, when consumer-level digital cameras are so widespread, few would pay £10 (per use) for professional photography by the Photographic Unit, and websites, leaflets, posters, etc. might look a little amateurish.
One result of ancillary departments seeing declining custom and unchanging costs is that they have to increase their prices, thereby driving away more custom, or close. The real flaws in the system begin to be exposed when a batch of professional photography costs £65 (not including printing), or £75 on CD-R. £10 for a blank disc. I don't think so.
If ancillary services were free at the point of use, to internal users, I'm sure they'd be used more, thereby supporting those support facilities and (re)introducing a greater impression of professionalism to the departments' events and output.
Needless to say, I'm discussing the economic model as a whole, not the specific application of it by any one institution. I just wonder how others operate.
Incidentally, I happen to know that the official publications of the University in question are produced in a different way, so are drastically less affected by this internal market. Publications doesn't charge departments for its services, and there's no question of it cutting corners in terms of graphics, photography and printing. Could this be an admission that when it really matters, the internal market is inadequate?
Heh. Thinking about it, this could be extrapolated to free-market capitalism vs. collectively-managed communism, couldn't it? Nah; simplistic and coincidental.
5 October, 2005
I blame the parents
I don't dislike children, but I'm not-so-secretly pleased that I rarely actually encounter any. Still, I can certainly identify with Charlie Brooker's annoyance at 'polite' society's unquestioning indulgence of the annoying little ****s.
Brooker proposes distress flares, but I still think my universal solution applies.
13 September, 2005
Psychology of tea
Imagine you have a little too much milk for one cup of tea, but not quite enough for two. Do you have a good cup of tea now, containing the right amount of milk, and a bad cup of tea later, with too little, or do you have two less-than-optimal cups, each containing not quite the right amount of milk?
No smart-arse dodging of the lemma, please - if you don't drink tea, or don't drink it with milk, presume you do, and buying more milk isn't an option.
I tend to do the latter, though I'm going to experiment with the former.
31 August, 2005
Seeing the sights
It wasn't until I took this photo that I realised that my across-the-street neighbour, with whom I've shared several staring contests, has mismatched eyes, one blue, one yellow. Now I've noticed, via the superior lenses of a camera, it's immediately obvious to the naked eye.
That's a suitable example illustrating the effect I gain from wearing glasses.
My eyesight is pretty good, it's just that each eye focuses slightly differently (once, when extremely tired, I was able to focus on the view from a window and the glass itself, simultaneously). The divergence is undetectable close-up, but becomes noticeable as distance increases. It just means I lose fine details; I can still clearly see people from hundreds of metres away, but not faces from more than 40m or so. I can comfortably drive without glasses, but it wouldn't be strictly legal (one needs to be able to read a standard UK car number plate without hesitation from 20m).
I remember the first time I realised corrective lenses would help me.
I was working on my second undergrad dissertation, on photogrammetry (mapping from aerial photos), and whilst changing lenses in the equipment, I idly held them in front of my eyes and glanced out of the window. Twelve years later I still have perfect recall of the view, from an upper floor of the Llandinam Building (Earth Sciences), UWA to the brick-built Hugh Owen Building (Arts/Library). Brick-built – that's the point. I'd seen that view dozens, maybe hundreds of times, and could see the building clearly, yet I'd never perceived the details of its construction. Having noticed them, I could see the lines of mortar without the lenses.
I suppose I'd call it a 'leap of perception'. Previously, my brain had logged the overall mass of the building and just accepted it without further analysis. The lenses hadn't shown me anything beyond the ability of my unaided eyes. It was as if they improved my ability to not just see, but to observe.
Without my glasses, I might see a tree quite clearly from 30-40m, and appreciate individual branches and even leaves, because I'm specifically looking at them – mentally focused, not just optically. However, I might be totally unaware of a crow perched amongst of them, until it moved, when I'd be able to see it clearly. Wearing glasses, my ability to notice details (pattern recognition?) would have revealed the crow immediately.
26 August, 2005
Shut up or stay at home
Paul Stokes, writing in The Scotsman, shares my annoyance at concert and cinema audiences who talk throughout performances. The article ought to be summarised and printed on the back of concert tickets, or encoded into a text message automatically sent to anyone entering a venue with his/her phone switched on.
The whole point of going to the cinema is to gawp in awed silence at the 40ft-tall projected visions before you, to lose yourself in the wraparound images of the silver screen. The whole point of being in a concert hall, whether listening to Mogwai or Mozart, is to let the soundwaves wash over you and transport you to a different place.
All the chatterers and the texters and the mobile phoners want to do is anchor themselves in the here and now, the everyday, the ordinary. They don't want to go elsewhere with the artist. They want to stick with their mates. Of course, part of the point of going to any event, a concert or a film, is to be able to say: "I was there." There is just no need to say it while you still are.
I do think this is a side-effect of the mobile phone age. Nowadays there's a blurring of public and private space, which I don't regard as an advance.
25 August, 2005
'S for charity
Yesterday, in one of his annoyingly penetrating, innocent-sounding questions, Jacob asked me if I'd shave off my beard for charity (hypothetically). My instant and heartfelt response was 'no way'.
J. expressed (or affected) shock; he knows I don't particularly like beards*, so why wouldn't I exploit the removal of something I wouldn't miss? I didn't have a coherent answer at the time, but here are a couple which occurred to me this morning.
Ritual shaving would be a communal event, for the amusement of work colleagues. "Ho, ho, ho, NRT's done something 'wacky' for a good cause."
**** that. I don't do society's little bonding rituals, and have no inclination to amuse near-strangers at my own expense.
There's also a quasi-religious aspect to the whole concept, which makes me uncomfortable. "If you donate to Charity X, I'll undergo a trivial analogue of martyrdom." No. Just no. I have very limited understanding of (or respect for) real, fatal, religious martyrdom, but I wouldn't participate in something which parodies it.
This is presuming it'd be for a charity I'd be inclined to support anyway, which isn't a certainty.
* I have a beard to avoid the necessity of shaving daily, i.e. I'm 'anti-shaving', not 'pro-beards'.
15 August, 2005
Big Brother says I can watch 'Big Brother'
I fully support the concept of publicly-funded, public-service media, and that each household's contribution has to be verified, but it still feels odd to receive a legal document containing the statement:
Keep your validated licence in a safe place. It is your proof that you are licensed to watch television.
The licence costs £126.50, and is, in effect, a tax from which the BBC is funded (the 50p is the BBC website's share). It's not a subscription for BBC services, though – it's quite possible to only watch the commercial TV networks (which don't receive a penny of the licence fee), whilst still being obliged to pay for the BBC. Conversely, it's possible to listen to the BBC radio networks for free and without the interruption of adverts, as BBC Radio is also funded by the TV licence fee.
13 August, 2005
Ask me to cat-sit while you're away, or to help you move house, or call me if there's a crisis, and I'm there.
However, offer me a bottle of wine or to cook me a meal in thanks, and I'll be profoundly uncomfortable (not just because I don't drink). Invite me to the housewarming party, and I'll make an excuse.
I wish I knew why.
11 August, 2005
Amending the fourth
I'm uncertain about this issue. A 'devout' christian man was dismissed from his job for refusing to be available for work on Sundays. I'm atheist, but I don't believe employers should be able to discriminate against employees on the basis of religion.
I feel strongly that shops and other businesses should operate exactly the same on Sundays as, say, on Wednesdays – in a secular society (by which I mean one where all faiths are accepted, but none have any role whatsoever in public life) no religion's 'special' day should have preferential status.
However, that doesn't automatically extend to individual employees – no-one should be obliged to perform a specific task or at a specific time offensive to his/her beliefs. That's respect for the individual's personal choice, irrespective of my indifference about the dogma behind it. Hence, I feel a shop should be open as normal on a Sunday, but staffed by assistants willing to work on that day.
Yet that identifies my contrary point: rationally, if a person is unwilling to work on a certain day, a company ought to be free to employ someone who will. An employee shouldn't be discriminated against on the basis of religion, but shouldn't receive artificially preferential treatment, either.
The complication is when, as in this case, a company changes its working practices, and an existing employee becomes affected. Should the employer be legally obliged to keep a 'liability'? Should the employee be forced to choose between his/her faith and job?
Though I don't know the specifics of the case, and it seems both the employer and employee could have exhibited greater flexibility, I'm reluctantly glad (?) that an employment tribunal, an employment appeal tribunal and the court of appeal all endorsed the company's action.
10 July, 2005
Nothing to prove
Looby works in the rail industry, and mentioned that the day after the London bombings, fellow staff of Asian origin were notably absent from the staff room before their shifts, instead presumably going straight to their trains to start work.
I don't know if I'd have had a similar courage had the situation been reversed, but I think it would have been better if they'd carried on as normal, and taken the opportunity to make a gesture of sympathy towards those affected, and to dissociate themselves from those who committed these atrocities. I suppose you could say that to do this would be to wrongly acknowledge an affinity between yourself and the terrorists, but just as when the anti-Iraq war march was organised, it's important to display your opposition to both state-sponsored and private terrorism publicly.
I strongly disagree. Asian, or specifically Muslim, people have no greater responsibility than Caucasian christians to dissociate themselves from terrorists who merely happen to be coreligionists, or who happen to have family origins in the same region of the world. One might as well say people with brown eyes ought to make an extra effort, over and above that made by those with blue eyes.
If rail staff from New Zealand had avoided the staff room, would the same implied criticism be made?
8 July, 2005
First: I want to stress that the following in no way diminishes my sympathy for those people directly affected by yesterday's bombs in London.
Overnight, I've received a surprising number of e-mails from near-total strangers, almost all from the USA, expressing support in my time of national distress. Er, thanks (really; the thought is appreciated), but what?
One has to remember that the United Kingdom, despite the name, isn't one homogenous culture; events occuring in London have a somewhat limited impact elsewhere. Personally, I've been to London about five times in 33 years, and regard it with no especial affection. It's obvious that the London-based mass media gave the bombings saturation coverage, but I doubt that there'd be quite so much attention paid if the same events had occurred in Leeds or Belfast.
So, whilst my thoughts are with the individuals affected, it'd be overstatement to call it a national tragedy. We're not 'all in this together' – that's just a media myth. We're not indifferent either, of course; all I'm saying is that this isn't something that paralyses the entire country.
Another consideration is that this isn't so far outside the usual British experience as, say, the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11. The UK has lived with terrorist incidents for decades. This isn't the first major attack in London (though it's certainly caused the greatest loss of life). Unlike New York's Wall Street, the City of London (i.e. London's financial district) is permanently protected by roadblocks, as a response to a major bomb on 24 April, 1993, and nationwide, it's only fairly recently that litter bins were returned to public spaces like railway stations and shopping centres, almost a decade after the Warrington bombing, near Manchester. The risk of terrorist action has been a rarely-considered background to everyday life for as long as I've lived.
Just within my lifetime, and just within London itself, there have been terrorist bombings in 1971 (the Post Office Tower, 1973 (King's Cross Station, as was attacked again yesterday), four in 1974 (Parliament, Tower of London, a club, and the Prime Minister's private home), 1975 (the Hilton hotel), 1976 (a theatre), 1982 (Hyde Park & Regents Park), 1983 (Harrods), 1990 (Stock Exchange), 1992 (Baltic Exchange), 1993 (City of London), two in 1996 (Docklands and a West End bus) and three in 2001 (BBC Television Centre, a post office, and West London). A mortar round has even exploded in the Prime Minister's garden in Downing Street!
Admittedly, yesterday's bombings were of an entirely different type, as the IRA tended to issue warnings, and the indiscriminate murder of civilians rarely seemed to be their active intent.
Finally, please, please don't you ****ing dare to say the UK and USA 'stand shoulder to shoulder in the war on terror'. I'm sure it's well-intended, but it comes across as offensive. Blair's compliance in Bush's illegal and unjustifiable foreign adventure is what got us into this situation in the first place.
6 July, 2005
Is it about the piece of paper?
I seem to start too many entries with "Interesting article in the Guardian...", but, well, there is. This one questions whether it's really advantageous to require a doctorate (PhD or DPhil) as the minimum entry requirement to become a university lecturer in an arts-related discipline such as English. It points out that a student at University College, London in the 1970s was tutored by three of the most eminent practitioners of the century, none of whom had higher degrees (except honorary ones, awarded later).
I don't know what I think of this (not least because my formal higher education was science-based).
It could be argued that a certain amount of academic rigour and technical knowledge is required, but might that instilled by a BA (Hons.) be sufficient? A doctorate might provide the extra, specific expertise to lecture on a certain topic, but that might be too specific to be practical ('Jane Austen's toenail clipping habits, and their role in her writing March-June 1802') and is no greater preparation to teach students or to set and mark exams than that initial BA (Hons.).
Not that the job of 'lecturer' is even primarily about interaction with students, of course. Even in research, though, I'm not entirely convinced that an ability to jump through the specific hoops of producing a PhD thesis is necessarily the best route to becoming a highest-quality practitioner in arts subjects.
4 July, 2005
The very thought...
Anyone agree that graduates from the University's 'Innovation and Enterprise Unit' ought to be summarily culled, quite simply because of the insufferable 'go-getting' chirpiness the title implies?
3 July, 2005
I think I'm joking, but in the several years since it first occurred to me, I've yet to encounter a single situation, in any aspect of human existence, that couldn't be resolved by either landmines or lamination in plastic.
Neighbourhood cats fouling one's yard? Landmines.
Office colleague suffering with hayfever? Lamination.
It's universal, I tell you.
2 July, 2005
Devaluing the language
I promise not to rant about it, but I've just read at a discussion forum that Pink Floyd reforming to appear at Live8 is 'the best news of the millennium'.
If an aging rock band setting aside personal squabbles to perform four songs from their back catalogue qualifies as the best news of the millennium, where would that leave, say, third world debt being set aside, or cancer being cured?
1 July, 2005
Do something meaningful instead
Ha! I think I've been writing for the BBC website in my sleep, under a pseudonym! Either that, or the author of this piece criticising the Live8 concerts has read my mind.
That's a convoluted way of saying 'I agree'.
15 June, 2005
I knew you were going to say that
I believe in telepathy. Or rather, some means of non-verbal communication whereby one knows precisely what someone will say, a fraction of a second before he/she speaks, and which one subconsciously mirrors.
An example: I've just bought a rail ticket, and at the end of the transaction, the staff member and I said "Cheers" simultaneously.
I never say 'cheers'. It just isn't in my spoken vocabulary, and it wouldn't even occur to me to use the word. So why did I?
10 June, 2005
Why 'stags' and 'hens'?
I've just noticed posters around campus advertising a theatre group production of Willy Russell's 'Stags And Hens'. As usual, this triggered a trivial chain of thought: why 'stags' and 'hens'?
'Stag party' makes some sense, but 'hen party' is less intuitive. Then again, more consistent analogies aren't entirely appropriate, either. Stags and hinds? Not really. Cocks and hens? Er, no.
30 May, 2005
A symbol of individual rights
The alert may have noticed an amendment to the main page of the blog: there's a new button on the right of the page.
One of the most fundamental aspects of my world view is that the purpose of the state is to facilitate the lives of individual citizens, but never vice versa. Citizens do not exist to serve the state, and our rights should not be constrained for the convenience of the state. I'm sure it would be useful for government agencies (and private companies) to know who I am, where I live, who I know, where I go, how I travel, what I buy, etc. but that doesn't mean they should. So, no identity cards, no sharing of data between government departments, no national fingerprint or DNA database.
This philosophy is now expressed by the 'Individual-I', a public-domain icon which stands for:
- Freedom from surveillance
- Personal privacy
- Equal protection
- Due process
- Freedom to read, write, think, speak, associate, and travel
- The right to make one's own choices about sex, reproduction, marriage, and death
- The right to dissent
Today, the rights of individuals are being eroded: by government, by corporations, by society itself. This icon – the Individual-i – represents the rights of the individual.
It represents the right to privacy and anonymity in the information age. It represents the rights to an open government, due process, and equal protection under the law. It represents the right to live surveillance free, and not to be marked as 'suspicious' for wanting these other rights.
It recognizes that a free society is a safe society, and that freedom is founded upon individual rights.
We hope to see this symbol displayed proudly wherever individual rights are valued.
12 May, 2005
Thought for the day: be open to alternative approaches, and always challenge assumptions, but having done so, you may often find the established techniques do actually work.
For ****'s sake, don't 'think different'® just to be perverse, merely to appear quirky and to convey a pathetic impression that "I'm special, me."
3 May, 2005
A few days ago, my mother was sorting through old boxes and found some of my childhood toys, specifically the die-cast metal vehicles. She's repacked them for me to bring back to Lancaster (to take up my space rather than her's), and took a photograph.
For some reason, I find it very difficult to study the image – my mind recoils. There are just too many memories here, not so much suppressed as simply forgotten until now.
I haven't seen any of these toys for at least half my lifetime, yet I recognise virtually every item in the image, including the ones only partially visible and also including missing components. I have almost tangible recall of every corner, every detail. It's not that I have negative memories of the toys; so far as I'm able to associate them with any emotional response, it's slight wistfulness about childish escapism and blind terror about advancing age.
That primal fear is bad enough, but there's more: I remember a bathroom suite which was replaced years ago, and a bare patch of garden which was turfed-over decades ago. I remember a friend who I haven't seen since we left primary school to attend different secondary schools. I remember his garden. And his next-door neighbour's. I suddenly, vividly, remember the layout of my bedroom in the late 1970s. From that, I remember specific events – and my memory tends to fixate on the less pleasant ones. I remember arguments, the deterioration of my parents' marriage,... **** – change the subject.
In short, this unexpected rush of memories unsettled me, and further recollections have already been influencing my dreams.
1 May, 2005
Landfill in waiting
Something that Siobhan said, which is worth repeating: if the Greens like trees so much, why do they shove so many leaflets through my letterbox?
Maybe they're trying to be helpful: they bang on about recycling, so provide an example of waste paper for the hard of thinking.
They're missing the point, of course. Yes, the leaflets are on recycled and recyclable paper, but it shouldn't be about recycling. Rather, they should avoid unnecessary use of paper in the first place.
It'd make rather more sense for them to put the same information on a website, where supporters could read it at their leisure on their pedal-powered iMacs without bothering the rest of us.
28 April, 2005
**** family values
The 'ticker tape banner' on the BBC News homepage says that a "survey suggests 85% of British parents want stronger laws on internet pornography".
However, when one clicks through to the story itself, it's more about internet-illiterate parents:
Many parents lack the skills to help their child's internet use... one in five said they did not know how to help their children use the web safely.
That identifies both the problem and solution: parents need to be better educated. Fine.
Yet it doesn't naturally extrapolate to a need for 'stronger laws', for greater online censorship which would affect everyone – the responsibility is on parents to take greater care, not for the actions of non-parents to be restricted merely to accommodate the incompetent. It's for the parents to prevent children visiting certain sites, not for the sites to stop depicting certain content (within reason).
I'm not saying pornography is to be encouraged; I'm making the general point that this proposed censorship is not the answer. As a non-parent, I don't regard children as paramount, and oppose such measures skewing society towards 'family-friendly' mundanity. Parents need to keep up; the rest of us shouldn't be held back.
25 April, 2005
Shoot 'em down
The BNP published its manifesto for the general election campaign on Saturday. They waited until much later than the real parties, to release it on St. George's Day, which gives some idea of their view of non-English Brits. The BBC attended the almost clandestine launch.
I'd like to think it inconceivable that anyone reading this blog would vote for their blatant race hate, but they've added another overwhelming reason to avoid them.
They want to reintroduce National Service: a period of military training and duty, after which it'd be compulsory to keep an automatic rifle in one's home.
Absolutely not, for two reasons. Firstly, the UK has a relatively low level of gun crime, and the fact that ordinary police constables carry nothing more lethal than a baton is a source of pride. Proliferation of military-grade weaponry is an appalling idea.
Secondly, I see no justifiable role for national service in a modern society. Yes, a number of otherwise 'enlightened' nations employ it, but I disagree with the concept. It's fundamental to my world view that the state should exist to serve the individual, never, ever, the reverse.
Neil, who has read the document (I really couldn't be bothered), noted another issue: that they wish to end the alleged left-wing domination of higher education, abolish 'nonsense' disciplines (without defining 'nonsense') and withhold University access until after national service. It isn't even laughable.
Conversely, their plan to withdraw all British troops from overseas duties in order to mass UK armed forces in Kent to defend against Europe (I think they mean France) is a joke – even their fuhrer admits it's no more than an attention-grabbing soundbite.
16 April, 2005
Okay, I'm convinced. Science isn't adequate to explain life, the universe or anything. Religion was always right.
But which variety? Personally, I find Norse mythology far more convincing than christian. As Tim Kreider says:
A universe whose physical laws are predisposed to the existence of life could not have arisen by chance; only a giant and a cow can account for this.
Don't forget to read Tim's 'Artist's Statement'.
[Via Joe Grossberg]
13 April, 2005
Don't leave it too late
As I've mentioned before, another blog I read regularly is Real E Fun, an insight into the life of a non-religious funeral celebrant.
Occasionally one of Zinnia's postings gets past my guard, and I need to be on my own for a while. This was one such powerful entry.
28 March, 2005
Just park it
A couple of hundred years ago, they might have been an appropriate means by which a populace could convey public opinion to their slightly remote lords & masters, but nowadays, with saturation media coverage of even local issues and public policy influenced by polls and focus groups, I don't see the point. I've always thought them an anachronism, but a specific example has arisen.
Recently, Lancashire County Council decided to close Greaves Park nursery school (kindergarten) in Lancaster, but protests from parents obliged the Council to think again. Having taken those views into account alongside other considerations, such as cost and the absolute necessity of there being a nursery school in that location (perfectly adequate coverage apparently exists elsewhere), the Council confirmed the existing decision.
Last week the local paper, The Citizen, reported that parents had launched a petition against the decision, and already had 350 signatures. And? The parents had been heard, and their objections deemed insufficient to counterbalance the other factors. So far as I see, the matter's closed. The Council had to listen, and did, but it didn't have to agree. The Council already knew the decision would be unpopular with some in the local area, so why does the precise number of objectors matter? A vocal minority (and let's face it, 350 from the area's entire population is a pitiful number) can't just keep making further representations until they 'win' an outcome they like; that's collective petulance, or genteel mob rule.
Incidentally, please don't mistake this as support for the Council's decision. I'm commenting on the decision-making process, not the issue itself.
Even if the very concept wasn't outdated, I distrust the accuracy of petitions anyway.
- Firstly, they can be faked (padded with false identities) too easily.
- Secondly, assuming all names are genuine, petitions can be padded with irrelevant contributions. I wonder how many of those 350 actually live in the affected area, or even have children.
- Thirdly, peer pressure could add the signatures of several people who mightn't otherwise choose to contribute. Had this been a secret ballot, I don't believe all 350 would have voted.
It's probably better as the subject of a different posting, which I don't have time to write right now, but I simply don't believe in collective action. I'm not a member of any political party, pressure group or trade union. I feel no urge to add my voice to anyone else's. Irrespective of whether I agree with a petition's objective, I wouldn't sign. I'm vehemently opposed to the introduction of identity cards, and have used
of the negative aspects
, but I won't sign the No2ID
I wonder whether public bodies are obliged to observe any specific protocol about petitions, such a logging their receipt or formally adding them to the documentation of a decision-making process. Personally, If I was a civil servant receiving a petition, I'd politely thank the person making the submission, then dispose of it unopened.
26 March, 2005
Really perceiving words
For those who saw 'Jaws' when it was first released in late 1975, the title itself must have added to the impact – the very thought of a monster defined by its mouth contributing to a sense of unease before the film even began. However, I was four years old at that time, so it was several years before I saw it myself, several years over which I assimilated the title merely as a title – four letters and a typeface which represented a film.
By that I mean I never thought of the meaning behind the word, and it didn't inspire thoughts of literally a maxilla and a mandible containing lots of teeth, articulated by immensely powerful muscles. It was somehow more abstract, the connotation divorced from the literal definition. Mention 'Jaws' and I'd have thought of the film, perhaps the film poster, but not specifically teeth.
Another example would be 'Doctor Who'. The character's creator presumably intended to define a slightly mysterious figure of scientific authority, but I grew up with the name appearing weekly in TV schedules so just absorbed it without question; it was merely the person's name, and it wouldn't have made a significant difference to me if he'd been Prof. Cryptic or indeed Inquisitor Probe (perhaps not...).
The same applies to place names. Mention Blackpool and I think of a tacky seaside resort, not of a specifically-coloured pond. In my mind, the concept of Newcastle as a city in Northeast England doesn't inspire the briefest thought about the age of its defences. Actually, I think concatenation is a special case, but the point still applies.
To go a stage further, if a word is repeatedly seen within a distinctive logo, it almost ceases to be a word, being transmuted (I nearly said 'reduced', but that's inaccurate) to an assemblage of letters in a typeface, conveying a visual impression rather than a textual one.
I'm not sure I'm explaining this adequately; speaking to Helen a few minutes ago, she understood what I was saying, but not why I thought it noteworthy that the 'mental shorthand' conveyed by groups of letters can become separated from their original meaning as words. Perhaps that's just too obvious to a linguist, much like a geomorphologist might understand the mechanism and rate at which a river can erode rock, without realising just how incredible that really is.
Yes, I deliberately ended that paragraph with a preposition. Ha – that'll teach her....
18 March, 2005
And you are...?
I don't know whether it's an aspect of modern working practices or inherent to the industry in which I work (web admin, for the purpose of this entry), but there are people I work with, who have offices in an adjacent building, who I've never knowingly met face-to-face (and I've been in this job for five years). We exchange e-mails, if not daily or even weekly then at least monthly, but I'm not sure whether we've even had phone conversations.
25 February, 2005
Professional or personal?
Disclaimer first: the following does not imply my personal opinion, it's just a chain of thought which occurred to me whilst cycling!
Is an employee required to support the interests of his/her employer? Does he/she need to care about the business in which he/she works? Are these moral issues, or matters of employment law?
If someone maintains a commercial website, and does so to the employer's satisfaction, should it matter to the maintainer whether the organisation produces PhDs or PHD-brand valve gaskets? Should the employee regard his/her products as superior? Does it matter if an employee of 'Company A' personally uses the products of 'Company B'?
Should the employee care whether the company thrives (and consequently make an extra, unpaid commitment of time or effort), so long as his/her salary is secure? Again so long as pay isn't affected, is it reasonable for an employee to actually dislike his/her employer, and (in his/her own time) openly recommend competitors instead?
I'm obviously not suggesting anyone is obliged to enjoy his/her job – that's an entirely separate issue – but if he/she has to work somewhere, does the employee have a duty to promote the interests of that employer ahead of the interests of other companies (or even market sectors), beyond the direct requirements of the role for which he/she is employed?
I suppose what I'm asking is, presuming the professional obligations of confidentiality, working hours and reasonable effort are met, does the employee need to be loyal (overtly, anyway) to the company and product?
If an employer says:
Staff are expected to contribute to setting the goals and objectives of the company and seek as best they can to achieve them [and] ... contribute to the company beyond the immediate responsibilities of their role.
a) is that a reasonable expectation and
b) is it legally binding?
21 February, 2005
Revise that ritual
In 1964, Princess Alexandra became Chancellor (titular head) of Lancaster University. Forty years later, at the end of 2004, she retired, so Sir Chris Bonington is to be installed* as the University's second Chancellor next month. Exactly as in 1964, there will be a service at Lancaster Priory, a procession across town, and a ceremony in Ashton Hall (in the Town Hall). I understand there'll be a drinks reception on campus afterwards. For those who don't know, campus is three miles (5 km) from the city centre.
In 1964, the campus was still largely a building site, and many aspects of the University operated from temporary premises in town, but that's no longer the case - we could easily accommodate a ceremony here (we seem to manage degree congregations each year) and have an acclaimed chaplaincy building. I can imagine there being a compelling argument that a formal event in Lancaster itself symbolically bonds 'town' and 'gown' - I'd fully agree with that justification - but I haven't heard anyone make that argument; it's happening this way simply because it did last time.
However, it's the other aspect which is rather more questionable: why is a religious service involved at all in the activities of an overtly secular institution, and why a specifically christian service in a multicultural society? Forty years ago, the Church of England was a state religion, and church representatives were even involved in the governing bodies of the University, but I'm immensely pleased to say the link between church and state has essentially evaporated and there weren't any religious elements in our 40th anniversary celebrations last year.
So why's it happening? What were the organisers thinking of? Personally, I seriously doubt whether they did think about it. It was done that way in 1964, so should be replicated in 2005. I suppose that's the nature of tradition, but if the precedent (of only one previous installation - this isn't a custom extending back hundreds of years) no longer makes sense, I'd say the opportunity for re-evaluation ought to have been taken.
*: Yes, 'installed', though I don't think plumbers, electricians or telecom engineers are involved.
26 January, 2005
I think, therefore I'm someone else
Siobhan, at Tranniefesto wrote this morning about the unfortunate necessity of writing anonymously. As the blog name suggests, Siobhan has a specific reason for doing so, but personally I write semi-anonymously by choice.
There are several reasons, but I suppose the root of them all is that I have a very clear distinction (in my own mind, anyway) between the author of the Ministry blog, and the person experiencing offline life. Anyone who thinks they know 'me' from the blog is totally mistaken. I'm not sure whether the blog author is simply an aspect of my personality; it's more of a construct. I don't know whether I'm more eloquent in writing than in speech; without question, I'm more expansive (verbose?) here. I suppose it might seem I reveal more here than 'in real life', and this is more 'genuine', but that's inaccurate.
I'm not trying to distance myself from my own writing; I stand by almost all of it. However, the frame of mind in which I write tends not to impinge on my social interactions. Several preoccupations here stay here. If I've posted about a topic in the past, it's likely I'll mention it again if something new emerges; having done so twice, it's likely I'd do so again, seemingly reinforcing a trend which, in fact, doesn't matter to me to the extent it might appear.
I frequently report or comment on current affairs affecting Lancaster or of wider interest, but very rarely events from my own life, or friends and family. The reason I was called in to feed A&A's cats for a week in September might be of vicarious interest (it involved a broken elbow, a baby, and the necessity of transporting horses to Portugal), but it would just feel odd to write about such matters. It doesn't apply to that specific instance, but I'd tend to feel inhibited about expressing an honest opinion, perhaps critical of an acquaintance, who might then read the posting, with or without my knowledge.
One of the biggest disadvantages of the blog is that a close friend is aware of it. Maybe I'm being paranoid, but I think there's been a cooling in our friendship, which I ascribe to that person thinking she has greater insight into the real me, and doesn't particularly like what she sees. I'd argue that's an entirely false assumption, and a source of regret. I like to think there's a distinction between the Neil she knows in person and the NRT of the blog, but maybe that's not as clear as I'd hope.
I don't post photographs of people. I'm very aware that blogging is publishing, and if I'm at a party with a camera, I somehow feel it'd be a betrayal of trust to distribute private moments to the world; more specifically, to those who might recognise participants. If people thought I was taking photos for publication, they'd obviously be more guarded around me.
Helen loathes having her photo taken anyway, which I respect, so don't expect to see her here.
Similarly, I have no intention of ever posting a photo of myself. In part, that's because I wouldn't necessarily want meet some weirdo who's taken offence at one of my rants!
I only write about personal relationship issues very, very rarely, and almost always in a generic, abstract context - some things are simply private, and personal topics are rarely of interest to external observers anyway. Every couple has their own issues and fetishes; I rarely feel inclined to discuss them publicly. Careful readers may have spotted hints, but don't expect more.
It might take professional psychoanalysis to explain, but I am a compartmentalised person.
When I'm with H, I step into that life entirely. Life in Lancaster is remote, and both work and my family are rarely even topics of conversation.
Conversely, when I'm with friends in Lancaster, Helen is rarely mentioned. That's something for a different posting, but summarising wildly, a) I don't think H would get on with some friends, and b) it's sometimes a little painful to be reminded that while everyone else in the room is one of a couple, she's ~1,000 miles (~1,600 km) away from me.
And, in exactly the same way, when I'm writing the blog, I'm not the person you might meet in the street.
25 January, 2005
I like photorealism
A couple of days ago, Siobhan wrote about photorealism in cgi:
The thing is, I've been watching the CGI
world take little steps closer and closer to their ultimate goal - photorealism - and, I must admit, they're getting pretty good at it.
I agree, but think there's still some way to go - lighting and translucency
aren't quite there yet. I think can still recognise most cgi as
Anyway; Siobhan again (slightly edited, for brevity):
But that bothers me... it's all about emulating something that already exists. It's all about aiming for something that's already been established by a different discipline/group.
Digital imaging has a very clear goal. It's trying to get to the point where you can't tell the difference between it and a photograph. And I think that's really, well, lazy to be honest.
That's an interesting viewpoint, though not one I share.
I'm a big fan of photorealism. I was going to end that sentence with "... in cgi", but it's more general than that. If I'm visiting, say, the City Art Gallery, Manchester, I tend to gravitate to photographic exhibitions and the more 'photorealistic' paintings. I do like the atmospheric landscapes of Turner but it's the intricately detailed, accurately realised Pre-Raphaelite paintings which really grab me.
Backpedaling slightly, I also like more abstract and/or synaesthesic (synaesthetic?) work, a lot (including Siobhan's). I suppose it's a matter of the artist's apparent intent. If an artist attempts to make a direct, realistic representation of what he/she sees (or could conceivably see), I prefer it to be as accurate as possible; literally photorealistic, ideally. Plainly, someone like Picasso wasn't trying for that, and I appreciate his work just as much for what it is. I can't think of any artist better able to convey the essential shape of an animal or object than Picasso achieved in his sketches in one line.
There's a second issue, which I don't have time to pursue right now: I don't believe there's inherent value to a specific medium which one shouldn't attempt to recreate in a different medium.
Self-evidently, the 'best' means of capturing a photorealistic image of an object is to take a photograph of it, but that doesn't preclude a highly realistic painting or computer-generated image, particularly if the object doesn't actually exist outside the artist's imagination.
11 January, 2005
Beancounters offers a parody of Kevin Smith's 'Clerks', as if scripted by BoingBoing.
It's very well observed, but I was a little disturbed to realise it highlights a lapse in my natural scepticism.
I like BoingBoing; I read it more-or-less daily. I tend to agree with many of the authors' preoccupations, and think they're the 'good guys' in many (but not all) campaigning issues. That's great, and is unlikely to change, but I think I've been lulled into accepting that an account of a given event tends to be a fair, accurate summary of the true situation because it's in BoingBoing, or that BoingBoing's interpretation of a news item tends to be the correct one. I started to trust.
A trivial example is that when I first visited, I did see that one of the main sponsors of the site, SuicideGirls, is devoted to topless pin-ups for 'the alt community'. That's nothing I personally find offensive (nor attractive, either), so I'd stopped noticing, even whenever a BoingBoing article linked to content at SuicideGirls, which would normally raise questions about editorial impartiality. I don't object to the sponsor, and don't think there's a genuine conflict of interests, what concerns me is my failure to register that there might be.
I must have said this before ('cos it's important to me): whatever your choice of information source, always question it. Question its ability to access all aspects of an issue. Question its assumptions. Question its motivations. Take nothing on trust alone. Visit totally different information sources too, for a different perspective.
9 January, 2005
Sceptical by birth
Writing in the Guardian, Lucy Mangan has a good rant about astrology, digressing into understandable ridicule of New Age 'muck' (her phrase).
I'd be inclined to agree, if not for one consideration: I do think astrology can accurately describe a person's general personal characteristics.
I'm not saying I believe that the configuration of celestial bodies millions of kilometres away predetermine events in an individual's everyday life. That makes no sense whatsoever, and I'm just as scathing of newspaper horoscopes as Ms. Mangan. However, empiricism - basic observation - seems to show that the characteristics ascribed to, say, Taureans are exhibited by people I know personally, who happen to have been born in April/May. For whatever reason, that aspect of astrology seems to work; it's the explanation which seems implausible, not the result.
I can't imagine how the location of an arbitrary group of stars at the moment of one's birth (indoors, in a windowless room, for ****'s sake) could influence one's future personality, but other factors may apply, based on one's birth date.
The timing of hypothetical key stages in an infant's biological development might be important; a child passing a certain threshold in March might be affected in a different way to a child passing the same developmental point in June. Maybe the earth's magnetic field fluctuates. Maybe it's dark matter.
That's nature; there's also nurture. For example, a child born in October would be amongst the eldest in his/her age group in the UK education system, whereas one born in August would be amongst the youngest, with consequent sociological impacts.
I'll get the main counter-argument in before anyone else: self-fulfillment. Knowing the stereotypical Capricorn characteristics, one is bound to spot them in someone born in December/January. Someone born in July might exhibit them too, but one isn't primed to notice. It probably applies in reverse, too. An indecisive person might attribute that trait to simply being a Libran, thereby reinforcing the behaviour pattern.
This is all oversimplifying, but it illustrates that I can't dismiss what we term 'star signs' in the absence of a more convincing explanation, even though I certainly question the relevance of distantly burning hydrogen.
But I'm a Scorpio (sun, moon and ascendant), so I suppose I would say that.
7 January, 2005
Buy! Buy! Why?
I see Marks & Spencer is the latest high street retailer to report unexpectedly poor sales for the christmas period (traditionally the peak of the annual cycle). M&S has been struggling for a while, so I wouldn't read too much into the results of that one firm, but if it is sector-wide, I start to wonder whether there's something systematic.
Might there be an increasing switch (oops - oxymoron) from over-the-counter purchases to online shopping? I suppose that'd be apparent if high street companies with online stores (e.g. Debenhams) perform better than those without (e.g. BHS, who offer a directory of store locations, but no online purchasing), though masked by company ownership - for all I know, the parent company of BHS might have successful web stores under a different brand name.
It'd be good if this was a sign of greater 'recycling' by customers. Previously, if someone bought a shirt, kept it for a while but never wore it, it'd remain in a wardrobe indefinitely. If someone else wanted an identical shirt, that'd be a second sale for the retailer. Now, the first customer might sell to the second via eBay or similar, thereby halving the retailer's potential profit.
It'd be even better if people were becoming less commercialised, but that's rather unlikely.
[Update: there's a similar story at El Reg.]
5 January, 2005
Fake plastic teens
The BBC reports a survey for teen magazine 'Bliss', which found that 40% of teenage girls in the UK (well, 'Bliss' readers, anyway) have considered plastic surgery. I find that somewhat depressing, not only because it's rarely even necessary (the article is illustrated by a photo of Katie 'Jordan' Price, a once-attractive model now frankly grotesque) but because it reveals the slavish devotion of people to false ideals instilled by the mass-media, no doubt including 'Bliss' magazine to some extent.
It's regretably undeniable that minor surgery on, say, prominent ears might be of benefit to some - a degree of conformity with social norms is difficult to fight. Similarly, I'd fully support someone's choice to undergo corrective surgery on prominent blemishes or disfigurements attracting unwanted attention. My criticism is of mere cosmetic social enhancements.
Think. Who are you trying to impress? If certain people can't see past your cup size, why do they matter to you?
Another BBC article linked from this one reports that 'Bliss' ran a very similar survey a year ago, with broadly similar results. I'm afraid I can't help questioning their motives. Are they to be praised for highlighting a social problem, or blamed for sustaining it? Surveys sell magazines, but does the rest of the content routinely combat poor self-image? Do the articles downplay the plasticised freaks, or glorify them?
1 January, 2005
Resolute as always
I don't make New Year resolutions. If one feels a need to modify an aspect of one's life, and considers it important, one should act on it immediately. If the change is considered less urgent or so onerous that one is prepared to delay action until an arbitrary date, one is less likely to have the necessary commitment to complete it.
The converse, date- rather than issue-led approach, which I can comprehend but which is alien to my nature (I'm more inclined to continual self-reflection) is to think "New Year is approaching; am I happy with my life; what do I need to change?" This annual process may be of value, but I'd still argue that it rarely instills sufficient urgency and commitment to successfully make the changes.
I'd happily wish the best of luck to anyone beginning the struggle with his/her New Year resolutions, but if it really is a matter of luck, the long-term prospects probably aren't great!
31 December, 2004
50 things to eat
A while ago, the BBC invited suggestions for the "top 50 things everyone should try a bite of in their lifetime". Here are the results. I've eaten all except those in bold, and would be happy to eat those too, given an opportunity. I've added a few comments, so I hope this entry isn't as pointless an exercise as it might seem initially.
1. Fresh fish. I'd like to eat this more often, but most varieties are too expensive for my level of confidence in my cooking ability i.e. I'm scared of ruining a meal I'd particularly enjoy.
2. Lobster. Yum!
3. Steak. The CJD crisis in the British beef industry didn't dissuade me from eating steaks, as the risk was largely – apparently – limited to nerve tissue and processed foods (cheap burgers, etc.) which might indiscriminately contain it.
4. Thai food. Lancaster used to have an excellent Thai restaurant, Som Siam, offering especially good fishcakes as a starter. Unfortunately, I haven't seen it open within the last year or so.
5. Chinese food. Of the people in Lancaster I'd choose to accompany to a restaurant, I seem to be the only one who likes Chinese food, so I eat it rarely. I do cook it myself, at home, but it's not quite the same.
6. Ice cream. I dislike wafer, so avoid ice cream cones, but ice cream itself is okay.
7. Pizza. I suppose there's no inherent reason to consider a pizza to be junk food, but that's the usual context, and I rarely eat one.
8. Crab. The white, fibrous leg meat is delicious; the dark red body meat is less pleasant.
9. Curry. I'm not sure what's meant by 'curry', but I do enjoy Indian cuisine.
10. Prawns. The variety of prawns commonly available in the UK are from Iceland: small, 'peeled', frozen (possibly multiple times in their route from sea to stomach), and little more than softly-textured carriers of salty water. Not worth the money, and I rarely eat them. Prawns as typically available on the quayside in Stavanger, Norway (my father's home city), are barely comparable: larger, whole (i.e. unshelled), fresh (perhaps frozen once) and delicious. Since I was about ten, whenever daily life became stressful, I was able to think that some time within the following year, I'd be in Stavanger, sitting on a mooring bollard (what's the correct term?) throwing empty prawn shells into Vågen (the guest harbour) as I worked my way through a ~500g bag. On reflection, I've only actually done that 3-4 times, but a buffet/salad featuring a large bowl of unshelled prawns has been a feature of pretty much every trip to Norway since 1978.
11. Moreton Bay Bugs – a variety of Australian lobster. Since I love lobster and prawns (garlic giant prawns are my all-time favourite food, mainly for the texture), I'm fairly sure I'd like these.
12. Clam chowder.
13. Barbecues. That's a rather vague category, but yes, on the whole I like barbecued food.
14. Pancakes. My absolute favourite meal as a child, and still one I like. Yes, as served in my mother's house, pancakes are a meal in themselves. She cooks them one at a time; I have just enough time to collect one from the kitchen, sprinkle sugar and lemon juice onto it, roll it into a tube, sprinkle more sugar and lemon on top and eat it with a knife & fork before another is brought through, then another, then another. I've typically managed eight before surrendering, slightly nauseous. As a child, it was one of the few ways my mother could feed me egg (which I still don't eat, except in pancakes and cakes – never just as a fried, boiled, poached or scrambled egg).
16. Mussels. Whenever available, I tend to choose these as a first course in restaurants.
18. Lamb. I like lamb in the context of a traditional roast dinner, but rarely in Indian meals, stir-fries, etc. Somehow the texture doesn't quite work.
19. Cream tea. I like scones, though I can't eat more than one or two at a sitting – there's something starchy about them. I like strawberry jam (though, as an aside, I don't like to encounter a fragment of whole berry), which, incidentally, is the equivalent of US 'conserve' (with seeds & pieces of the fruit), not 'jelly' (seedless & homogeneous). I like cream, in extreme moderation. However, the traditional cream tea consists of scones with jam and clotted cream, the very thought of which puts me off.
21. Oysters. I know I've eaten them at least once, but don't recall it.
23. Chocolate. I could happily eat a little chocolate each day, but only block-type chocolate, not chocolate -coated 'candy bars'. I favour Cadbury's Dairy Milk chocolate, which European connoisseurs mightn't even define as chocolate at all. I don't like many other manufacturers' milk chocolates, which do tend to taste of vegetable fat, but nor do I like high-cocoa 'plain' or 'black' chocolate. This obviously means I don't buy 'fair trade' chocolate, but that is only because I don't really like the taste, not because of an animosity to the idea itself (unlike organic produce, which I never knowingly buy).
24. Sandwiches. How vague is that?
25. Greek food. I'm not familiar with the full range of Greek cuisine, as I've only encountered elements of stereotypical 'international Greek' food.
26. Burgers. Hamburgers can be excellent, though I've yet to experience a decent one in a fast food restaurant. I'd always thought that food from a UK branch of, say, McDonalds was probably an inadequate imitation of that from a US branch, but when I was in New York in October, I was disappointed to find the burgers are identically awful.
27. Mexican food.
29. American diner breakfast
30. Salmon. In some parts of the world, I understand this is a luxury, but here in the UK, and especially in Norway, it's more-or-less a staple item.
32. Guinea pig. What?
34. Sushi. Only fresh – never bother with pre-prepared, from a supermarket or similar.
35. Paella. One of my earlier memories of 'foreign food' was of paella made from dehydrated prawns, vegetables and MSG added to ordinary boiled rice. Real paella was a pleasant surprise!
40. Australian meat pie. So far as I know, this is the same sort of pie as we have in the UK. Writing this has reminded me that I haven't had a steak & kidney pie for years. I'll probably buy one next week....
41. Mango. I've never really liked mango, and find mango juice nothing special. On reflection, I suspect I've never eaten a ripe mango – they've always been rather hard.
42. Durian fruit. I'd like to try this, as Malay friends have mentioned it, but their descriptions haven't always been favourable.
45. Roast beef. A proper roast beef dinner, with Yorkshire pudding, can't be beaten, but done badly, there's little more disappointing.
47. Jerk chicken/pork. I've only eaten the version I've cooked myself, using store-bought marinades, so I'm not sure whether I can claim to have experienced the real thing.
48. Haggis. Scrupulously avoiding any thought of what it actually is, haggis is reasonably pleasant.
49. Caviar. This may be the only item on the list that I don't even wish to try – why eat fish eggs?
50. Cornish pasty. I can buy something bearing the name from the baker a couple of minutes from my office, but it's rare to find a real pasty – there's more to one than meat, carrot and potato in a fold of pastry.
24 December, 2004
Okay, okay: happy christmas
Last night I was a little shamed by the realisation that although I don't like christmas, other adults, such as Alizon, actually do. I knew that intellectually, of course, but somehow hadn't really assimilated or understood the fact until Alizon and Andy called round to exchange presents. Al isn't ostensibly religious (not that traditional religion has anything at all to do with christmas as experienced by anyone I know), she just likes the experience itself, glitter, artifice and all. I now realise she really likes it, as revealed by the extra effort she put into my present.
We each gave presents the other had requested, but the discrepancy was in packaging. I'd used decent wrapping paper and sellotape, labeled with a marker pen, but Alizon's wrapping extended to fancy ribbon sealed with a chocolate coin and a separate label. I imagine she spent an entire evening wrapping presents; I took ten minutes. In addition to the main present, there was also a gift bag (i.e. the type of bag bought specially, from a greetings card shop) containing tiny slices of chocolate-coated christmas cake. Thanks, Al!
I can report that this year I sent two christmas cards and one e-card, solely in situations where it would have been awkward not to exchange cards. Whereas I used generic Woolworths 20-for-£5 cards left over from last year, so tacky they were thankfully considered 'ironic' (I won't do that again), Alizon, Andy, the cats and the snake gave me a card showing an attractive, suitably secular Alpine view, which by trying too hard to avoid saying so, plainly supports a charity. In short, a 'grown-up' card in return for an empty gesture.
As I've said repeatedly, I consider christmas to be utterly vacuous, to be endured or avoided, and loathed whilst doing so, but I hope that doesn't diminish the enjoyment of others - the loathing is inward, not advertised in the presence of the less cynical. To persistently mock an experience someone enjoys gives the erroneous impression of mocking the person. Alizon does know I'm definitely not a christmas person, but not the extent to which the whole fake experience depresses me - apart from here in the blog, I'm discreet about it.
So, whatever you celebrate, so long as you do celebrate rather than merely obey social convention, enjoy it.
23 December, 2004
What the **** are they FOR?
Thank you. Just needed to say that.
18 December, 2004
No ho ho
I'm not a particularly materialistic person*, so I'm in the happy position of not wanting much. Those things I do want, I can generally afford to buy for myself. I prefer to choose for myself; there are few people I'd trust to second-guess my taste. I dislike surprises.
There are times when I find the right thing for the right person, so enjoy giving gifts, but I dislike the concept of receiving simply because one gave. Turning it into a reciprocal debt devalues the gift, in my opinion. If I give, it's because I want to make the other person happy; I don't expect anything in return. It's a gift, not a transaction.
Secondly, I resent giving/receiving gifts according to social conventions I don't share. If I find a great gift, I want to give it then, not when the recipient just happens to have been breathing for a specific, ultimately arbitrary, number of days. Much worse, why should I, an atheist and secularist, have to conform to a (nominally) christian calendar?
This is also the reason I take only the minimum, compulsory leave at this time of year (the University is shut 24 Dec-3 Jan; if it wasn't, I'd go in), hence saving my leave allowance for a time of my choosing.
Helen is being braver than me this year, and isn't even coming back to the UK. We'll catch-up in the new year, under conditions we'll enjoy rather more. Why pay premium airfares and high prices in overcrowded shops in December, when prices (but maybe not crowds) will decline in January? Yes, we'll buy one another gifts, but by shopping together; it's not a competition.
[Tip for fellow males: the consensus is that this is the only safe circumstances under which it's acceptable to buy a partner lingerie i.e. in her presence, subject to direct guidance]
In short, in terms of the gift giving/receiving aspect, (okay, and many others), I dislike christmas.
This little rant was triggered by the case of my mother's partner. I don't really have a personal opinion of him; we're just not close. He's not someone for whom I'd choose to buy a gift, nor from whom I'd expect to receive one, yet we do exchange presents, purely for my mother's sake.
This year, I really struggled to think of anything at all that I'd like. For a moment I considered requesting a CD I don't want, but which I could save for someone else's birthday, but even for me that's cynical.
I eventually settled on a high-visibility waistcoat for cycling. A desperate choice, as time's running out. If I'm really honest, I don't want it, and doubt I'll use it. When I'm in a more-than-usually belligerent mood, I'm ideologically opposed to the very idea, really. Cars aren't obliged to be painted high-visibility colours, so why should cyclists have to make an extra effort? We're not second-class road users, and I won't behave as such.
I passed this request on to my mother today, and she asked me to buy it myself, to be repaid when I see her next week.
So let's recap. In order to receive a gift I don't even want, from someone about whom I have negligible feelings (positive or negative - don't misread this as dislike), I need to buy it myself, thereby having to brave the peak-time crowds in the city centre, a chore I'd otherwise managed to avoid entirely this year, for something I don't want anyway (did I mention that bit?).
This is all so, so fake. I really despair.
*: I have quite a few books and numerous CDs, but they're merely the carrying media of text and music. I'm not so interested in them as things, to own and hoard.
15 December, 2004
Accurate or intuitive?
I seem to have posted about Firefox quite frequently recently. That's not deliberate - I'm no evangelist. This entry isn't really about specific software, except as examples of more general concepts.
This afternoon I helped a colleague install Firefox. There was a problem importing items from the Internet Explorer 'Links' toolbar' to the Firefox equivalent, the 'Bookmarks' toolbar. Once resolved, an interesting difference became obvious.
The user had numbered a few key items, from 1 to 12, so they'd appear in a specific order in the header toolbar rather than be lost in the overspill sidebar. In IE, the order was as required: 1,2,3,4,... whereas in Firefox the order was 1,10,11,12,2,3,4,....
Strictly speaking, Firefox was more correct, but IE was more intuitive and met the user's requirements.
So, which is better: pedantically correct, or intuitive? I mean in general; I'm no longer talking about the numbers example. This is a fundamental design issue, which applies to everything from web pages to road signs.
Another example would be the issue of web standards compliance. IE is less compliant, but if it serves the needs of users better, does that matter? Should one adhere to strict standards simply for the sake of complying, or provide what people really want?
These are partly devil's advocate questions, of course. Personally I have no problem with the more accurate 1,10,11,... numbering (I'd have used 01,02,03..., which eliminates confusion), and loathe the 'helpful' attitude built into Microsoft products. For me, more accurate generally is more intuitive.
But (and this is an important point) that's just me. People differ, which makes design such an... interesting activity. Which should take priority - meeting current expectations, or educating towards imposed conditions? To rephrase: if standards are a valid concept at all, should they be set at the existing level of the majority, or at a 'best practice' level to which the majority can aspire?
15 December, 2004
Deadwing not left wing
Since it was confirmed that the forthcoming (retail edition: 21 March, 2005; special edition: earlier, by pre-order) Porcupine Tree album will be entitled 'Deadwing', and that it seems the probable cover image will be an eagle with a broken wing (its right), there has been bizarre speculation that the album will be an attack on the US political right wing i.e. the Republican party and Bush presidency.
There is absolutely no reason to believe this. In interviews dating back at least a year, Steven Wilson (SW) has said the content will be material associated with a film he'd like to make/collaborate on, with the stated theme of a ghost story. The track titles of the album have been well-known since June (see the 'news' page at Porcupinetree.com) and suggest no apparent political references.
Without wishing to appear rude, this presumption seems to display considerable self-obsession on the part of some Americans. Why would a British songwriter, in a British band, producing music aimed at a global audience (okay, primarily European/N.American, but not primarily US, anyway), dedicate an album to commentary on a foreign regime? If there are multiple possible interpretations of an album title, why choose an improbable one?
I suppose people like to think the world revolves around them. The USA is indeed a dominant participant in global affairs, but not that dominant. For SW to "jump on a US-bashing bandwagon" (which confuses criticism of Bush with criticism of the USA as a whole, but that's a different topic) would imply he, or any other Brit, cares enough to invest that sort of time, effort and creative energy on the government of a nation thousands of miles away.
8 December, 2004
School run 'costs lives'
And this is news?
UK insurance firm MORE TH>N...
... states that motor accidents at peak times cause 7,000 fatalities and injuries each year, including the deaths of 200 children. The insurance firm estimates that around 12 per cent of all cars on the road during rush hour are taking children to school.
In the past ten years, school runs have increased by 20 per cent, with the number of pupils walking to school falling by 14 per cent.
MORE TH>N claims that 190 deaths could be avoided each year if the number of school runs was reduced by 10 per cent, and will be passing its findings on to the Department of Transport.
However, SafeSpeed, a campaign group opposed to 'excessive' (there's no such thing) enforcement of speed limits claims that...
...official Department of Transport figures show that in total only 171 children were killed on the roads in 2003.
Oh, okay. Only 171 deaths. That's fine, then.
School runs are one of those things which contribute to a background level of annoyance in my daily life. From a purely selfish point of view, I suppose they increase traffic intensity at the time I'm cycling to work (and parents with children aren't at their most attentive to other road users), but I don't really have a problem with that.
My objection is the elevation of empty convenience over necessity. Don't get me wrong: there are valid reasons for taking some children to school by car, such as when a family lives a considerable distance from a rural village school, but these cases are a minority.
Otherwise, it's a mere convenience, a luxury, which can't be justified as sustainable in economic or environmental terms. Parents who nonetheless drive children to school exhibit an attitude of "I and my children are okay, **** you and yours."
Government proposals could stagger the start times of schools in the same locality, so that trips to one school no longer coincide with trips to another nearby, thereby cutting congestion. This might help the symptoms, but really isn't the solution.
Unless there's a concrete reason to travel by car, walk. No time in your busy, busy life to walk young children to school? Make time, or join a 'walking pool' to share the duty with other parents. If it's too far to walk (which, in urban/suburban areas, should only mean secondary schools, and older children don't need parental accompaniment), use a school bus.
Personally, I'd ban parking anywhere near schools, apart from designated drop-off/pick-up areas, for which I'd impose punitive charges, with exemption/rebates for those able to prove the school run is essential. By all means drive children to school if you really want to, but expect to pay a lot for the convenience.
4 December, 2004
I live in Lancaster. I've been here for eleven years. I own my own house.
My mother lives in North Wales, just over the border from Chester. It's almost exactly 100 miles (161 km) or two hours of motorway driving from here.
My father lives in Norway.
My sister lives in Bristol, something like seven hours from Lancaster by motorway, though she's currently renting whilst selling her house in Taunton (Somerset) in order to buy another in Truro (Cornwall). That'll be an eight-hour drive for her to visit my mother; it'll be quicker to drive to Plymouth (Devon), fly to Liverpool and drive to Wales.
However, speaking to K. a few minutes ago, she asked me if I'll be "going home for christmas". That seemed, well, seems, an odd question. I am home; I live in Lancaster. I spend about eleven months of each year here. I tend to visit my mother's house annually, for less than a week; 'my' room there is now a conservatory with a sofa bed.
Yes, I'll be visiting Wales for christmas, then I'll be returning home.
2 December, 2004
Last week I discovered The Literacy Site, a 'click to donate' site of the same style as The Breast Cancer Site and The Hunger Site. A server problem prevented my access to the 'About Us' page, but it seemed a good cause, so I mentioned it in the blog anyway. I then went on to make more general points about the types of charities I do, and don't, support.
According to precisely those criteria, I no longer support The Literacy Site.
I had presumed that each visitor's click contributes towards distributing books in developing nations, but they go to children in the USA instead. I obviously don't have a problem with US children, but as I said last week, I won't donate to charities performing tasks I regard as the responsibility of the state.
In developing nations, governments may struggle to provide even the fundamentals of clean water, sufficient food and a stable infrastructure, so they need all the help they can get for 'secondary' factors such as literacy.
If there are illiterate children in the USA, that is a failing of the education system and government, which should take full responsibility for financing and providing adequate measures. It shouldn't be a charity issue.
If the private sector covers gaps in state provision, the state simply gets away with it, and the gaps progressively grow. Don't apply sticking plasters at your own expense. Challenge the cause of the injury.
28 November, 2004
Browsing at BlogExplosion, my attention was caught by comments by Caitlin at Cat Out Loud, about two groups that, on reflection, do seem to be contradicting themselves:
Vegetarians who eat Tofurkey at Thankgiving. And anti-fur people who wear fake fur.
If killing and eating animals disgusts you and is morally wrong, how creepy is it to mold vegetable protein into the memory of a tiny turkey, in order to imitate the taste of the dead turkey on a few million other tables?
And if you think wearing dead animal skin is morally wrong, why would you want to look like you were wearing dead animal skin?
This is the second draft of this entry. In the first, I agreed with Caitlin, with the caveat that we might be missing something. Since writing that, I've considered it in the shower, and concluded that we're failing to distinguish between cause and effect.
It's quite conceivable that someone might like the appearence and sensation of fur without approving of practices in the fur industry. If it's possible to reproduce the favourable result whilst eliminating the negative source, why not? Solidarity with a fuzzy bunny? (Wrong fuzzy bunny. Ahem). If the manufacture of fake fur can eliminate the (alleged) need for genuine fur, great; buy fake fur. To reject fake fur because it reproduces the real thing seems needlessly ascetic.
Likewise, it might be asked why one would buy veggie bacon, which is supposed to look, smell and taste like the real thing, if the real thing is supposed to be distasteful or offensive. However, if the odour and flavour can be generated independently of the more usual source, I don't really see a problem. If you think fake bacon adequately reproduces the essential characteristics, go for it.
I don't especially like the look and texture of fur clothing - shiny & black do more for me. ;) That's taste, not morality, though - I have no qualms about buying and wearing leather.
I eat meat. If I had to kill for food, my only concerns would be practical, not moral.
25 November, 2004
Solidarity or interference?
Neil reports that a delegation of English students plan to visit Caerdydd next week, to protest against the possibility of Welsh students having to pay top-up fees (as have already been approved for English universities).
I'm scrupulously avoiding expression of my opinions on HE funding itself, but can't support this specific action.
For such purposes, Wales is autonomous, and not subject to the overall UK government in London. That achievement was hard fought (by reasoned debate, not violence!), though is still only a step towards independence (i.e. Wales becoming an independent country within the European Union, as distinct from England as is France; an equal partner, not a vassal).
Some mightn't share that desired objective; fair enough. However, a degree of administrative autonomy does exist already, and demands respect.
This is a Welsh issue, for the Welsh Assembly to decide, hopefully considering the views of Welsh students and universities. Not English students, registered with English institutions - they have as much right to comment as do, say, Polish students studying in Warszawa.
No disrespect to the English or English students, of course - I'd like to think that goes without saying, but will say it anyway!
I just think this is as valid an action as the Guardian's publicity stunt in attempting to influence US voters in Clark County, Ohio i.e. maybe well-intended, but still illegitimate. The English simply don't have the right to lobby the Welsh Assembly on student funding (and vice versa, obviously).
If it's necessary for me to declare my interests: I'm Welsh, and a graduate of a Welsh university, but now work at an English university, though not in a context influencing finances.
17 November, 2004
Blair isn't Britain: revisited
This is a follow-up to yesterday's entry, which alleged that the UK and USA aren't necessarily united in their approach to Iraq, it's merely Blair and Bush who agree; the UK population are being dragged along behind Blair, and it's unsafe to assume we really agree with him.
Jon made a useful comment on that posting, and my reply is of sufficient length to deserve a separate entry of its own.
Essentially, in explaining one aspect, I accidentally obscured another.
It's true that when voting for an MP, most people are aiming to elect a party of government, rather than necessarily the best local representative; my earlier posting was correct on the technical procedure, but I failed to mention voters' intentions.
However, I'd still argue that people voted in the Labour Party, which happens to be led by Tony Blair, not Tony Blair and his party, which happens to be Labour. The cult of personality isn't as strong in the UK as it certainly seems to be in the USA (sorry Jon, I'm ignorant of the Canadian situation). I'm not denying that a party leader can have a major effect on voters' choices, but my unproven impression is that it's only significant if a leader is overwhelmingly liked or disliked, which is atypical, historically. That said, Blair's style of leadership may cause a change of emphasis in future.
To return to my central point, the UK electorate don't necessarily choose a Prime Minister, especially if a party's leader changes between general elections. Most recently, John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher in 1990, and hence became PM. That means he was PM during the 1991 Iraq war, definitely without having been chosen as PM by public opinion.
The Prime Minister isn't even chosen by party members nationwide; there's nothing analogous to a US presidential primary. When the existing party leader is challenged or resigns, a new leader is chosen within a few days by a secret ballot of that party's MPs: an electorate of around 300. There's no requirement for the MPs to consult the public or wider party, though obviously they wish to be re-elected, so would be foolish to totally ignore public opinion.
The accountability of the election process is one issue, the dominance of the individual once there is another. Whatever the mechanism by which he was chosen, his colleagues couldn't have predicted his reaction to the events of 11 September, 2001. It is arguable, therefore, that he didn't have an intellectual and moral mandate to force his personal policies through Parliament in response to those events without genuinely consulting his party or the public. We might have agreed; my problem is that neither we nor our directly elected representatives were asked. To restate: the alliance is between Blair and Bush, not necessarily the UK and USA.
15 November, 2004
Pick a line, and stick to it, unless circumstances alter. If room to manouvre becomes limited, or someone needs a little extra leeway, be flexible, but if someone butts in gratuitously, be prepared to assert yourself.
If those nearby know the path one is clearly going to take, and one can discern theirs, no-one needs to impede others.
If people are forced onto converging lines, it's inefficient for both to dodge, and preferable to be the dodged than the dodger.
I'm talking about swimming in a communal pool, of course.
9 November, 2004
Alone in a crowd - please
In describing interactive viewing/interpretation technology used at an art gallery in Firenze, Italy, Ben Hammersley mentions disadvantages of giving visitors handheld devices or audio commentary players. One of his points surprised me:
... it usually distracts people from each other, ruining the social experience of a museum visit.
Er, good? I certainly welcome anything which decreases my awareness of others in the room; I'm there for the art, not the company.
Even if I visit with my mother or Helen (few others seem to share my interest), we tend to separate and view alone, occasionally meeting briefly to draw the other's attention to items of particular interest. I can honestly say it had never occurred to me to act otherwise. The secondary aspects, of travelling to the gallery, meeting for a 'half-time' drink in the café and discussing the art afterwards, are indeed social, but not the primary activity, of focusing fully on the artwork.
[Update 18/11/04: It seems someone else at the Guardian agrees!]
8 November, 2004
Are 'wish lists', as typified by the service at Amazon, admirably pragmatic, or excessively clinical, shattering the illusion of meaningful gift-giving? I can't decide.
Personally, I prefer to give what someone would really like, and dislike surprises (it's depressing to open a present and find that a genuinely well-meaning friend or relative plainly just doesn't know me at all). In this sense, it would be great if everyone used online wish lists, yet it somehow reduces gift-giving to an impersonal near-transaction, which feels 'wrong'.
I'm being pessimistic, of course; even as I write I'm aware that wish lists can be used as inspiration, as a guide to someone's current interests rather than a prescription.
I suppose another advantage would be when requesting specific items, such as a particular edition of a book or CD, or to ensure a clothes purchaser has one's correct sizes and preferences - could save embarrassment!
I feel a gift should reflect the shared interests of the giver and recipient. If both are interested in, say, the books of Terry Pratchett, a Pratchett-related gift would be appropriate, and the recipient might think of the sender whilst reading (Hi Alizon!).
I also feel that one shouldn't give a gift that the sender actively dislikes, unless the recipient is known to particularly like it. For instance, I dislike flowers, especially roses; I don't have a single flowering plant in my house. Hence, I wouldn't send someone flowers; it just wouldn't be me, and anyone who really knows me would think them an odd, rather insincere gesture. Similarly, I dislike the music of 'Yes' rather intensely, so I wouldn't give one of their CDs, apart from to a particular fan of the band (or a frisbee enthusiast). Even then, I'd think it odd to emphasise our dissimilarity, and would prefer to give something else.
By the way, I'm writing this because wish lists are new to me - I haven't used the services of the linked sites, which were chosen semi-randomly, so can't comment on the quality.
7 November, 2004
Yes, I've bought a mobile phone.
I've never wanted one - still don't - but travelling to Edinburgh for K's ceremony a couple of weeks ago involved joining a train (in Lancaster) which my mother had already boarded in Crewe, then meeting K. when her plane from Bristol arrived later that evening. Organising that, and possibly rescheduling to accommodate transport delays (which didn't actually occur), seemed much easier if we were all carrying mobile phones. Likewise when meeting Helen's plane from Warszawa and coordinating onward travel.
Now I have it, I'll also carry the phone if I'm out on the bike or hillwalking alone, as an emergency measure. Particularly when cycling, I like to just wander, so even I only have a rough idea of my destination and potential route. If anything happened, no-one (in the UK) would know I was missing, never mind where I'd gone, so I really ought to have some means of calling for help.
However, in either case, I can't imagine using a mobile other than when absolutely necessary. I wouldn't send a text message or ring someone just to chat.
I barely use a landline phone, and that's free after 18:00 (or subsumed into line rental, anyway - 4.2p/min if I paid for individual calls), never mind avoidably paying 30-40p/min to make the same call on a mobile.
Likewise, e-mail is free both at home (160 hrs free for £12.99/month) and at work (genuinely free at the point of use), so why would I wish to ****-around with a tiny numerical-to-textual keyboard to laboriously compose text messages costing at least 10p to send?
It's not that I can't afford it, but it would feel like pointlessly squandering money.
A more significant reason is that I feel no necessity or desire to be contactable at all times. If I'm at home, I can make and receive phone calls and e-mails via landline. Likewise at work. Only 1-2 work contacts can contact me at home, and vice versa. If I'm neither at home nor work, that almost always means I'm in a situation where conversation would be inconvenient. Anything can wait. I recently witnessed someone take a call whilst stark naked in the changing room at the swimming pool - who really needs to do that?
The title of this entry is a joke, of course. I don't object to mobile phones, apart from their inappropriate use in public locations. They simply have very little relevance to me. I have a desk-based job with always-on e-mail availability and I'm not part of a mobile-using clique. My friends (apart from H) don't use them (in a social context, anyway) either. This is probably the main reason I thrive without a mobile; as with any form of communication, it requires a consensus between the communicants, and happily the unspoken accord amongst people who matter to me is that mobiles are unnecessary in ordinary daily life.
At the BBC website in September, Jennifer Quinn expressed surprise that it's possible to live without a mobile phone, a 'revelation' which both amused and startled me - are people really that indoctrinated?
4 November, 2004
Growing up in North East Wales in the 1970s and 80s, the very historical walled city of Chester was only about seven miles (12km) away: a regional centre of Roman Britannia subsequently featuring the internationally famous double-decker mediaeval streets, the Rows. American tourists were a common and distinctive sight: large people with loud shirts and voices, dressed inappropriately for the climate and confidently bewildered by their surroundings. A stereotype, of course, and outdated (Chester's not so picturesque nowadays, either, dominated by pub/clubs and generic chain stores, and begging was a problem in the 90s), yet the same stereotyping seems valid the other way round, too: in New York, the Brit tourists are the slobs.
Perhaps it's a fashion thing, with current UK trends favouring ill-fitting, slightly trashy clothes (when will fashion abandon hipsters with visible thongs, a concept flattering literally no-one?), whereas current New York daily wear is markedly more elegant. Perhaps there's an element of familiarity breeding contempt. Well-dressed Americans and other Europeans seem somewhat 'exotic' to me (an overstatement, but I'm tired, so it'll have to do) whereas football shirts and tracksuit bottoms convey a certain negative connotation. Whatever the reasons, the effect is to suggest Brits abroad have negligible pride in their (our?) appearence.
Okay, I knowingly dress down for work, since I cycle-commute in an erratic climate and don't have a public-facing role, so can remain in (relative) scruffs all day, and I don't always bother to change when heading back out to a cinema or pub. However, I never wear jeans or trainers (any sportswear at all, in a non-sporting context, in fact) and if I'm visiting somewhere on foot, particularly with the always-impeccable Helen, a 10-year-old bike jacket and combats (never jeans; I just don't wear them) just wouldn't suffice. Sorry to sound prissy, but one simply has to make some effort.
In a way, I can understand the reasoning that one should wear comfortable clothes which are bound to become a little disheveled and sweaty wandering around a large city or particularly during cattle-class air travel, and one might be reluctant to appear too affluent in potentially impoverished neighbourhoods, but there is a middle-ground. The concept of "no-one knows me, it doesn't matter" is poor reasoning, disrespectful of the host nation and inviting disrespect. It can also be counter-productive: on the overbooked return flight from New York, the slightly smarter couple received an upgrade to business class (and very nice it was, too), whereas other 'obvious Brit' couples/families didn't even get adjacent seats.
C'mon, folks - it's an embarrassment!
28 October, 2004
Goth is not just for Hallowe'en
I see from my referrer logs that a previous entry, 'Why do goths wear stripey socks?' is receiving a lot of hits at present, mostly via Google searchs for 'goth wear' or similar.
I'm presuming this is because non-goths are looking for Hallowe'en costumes. It's kind of patronising, in a way. For many people, goth is a way of life (an overstatement in my case), not merely an excuse to wear PVC once a year (not that it needs excusing, but that's a different matter).
As it happens, I could write about corset shopping in Manchester (not as the primary participant...), but I don't anticipate doing so, so move along, please. Nothing to see here. ;)
Since I'm unlikely to have internet access on Sunday and Monday, I'll take this opportunity to wish everyone an enjoyable Samhain and happy new Celtic year.
25 October, 2004
Less holidays, please
As reported by the BBC, the TUC is lobbying for additional UK bank holidays (is 'bank holiday' a UK-specific term? Statutory public holiday, anyway). At present, the European average is 11 public holidays per year, whereas Northern Ireland has ten, and both England and Wales have eight. The Scottish total isn't reported, and I can't remember their dates. The result is that there's an unbroken period of 117 days between the August Bank Holiday and christmas.
Today is the start of the autumn half-term break for schools; a poll for the TUC found that 40% of 20,000 people would like this to be a bank holiday.
"If this Monday were a bank holiday, millions of hard-working families would be able to spend a day with their children during half-term without taking extra leave," said Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC.
This illustrates one of the main reasons I disagree. I don't have or particular wish to encounter children, so don't require a compulsory holiday at the convenience of parents. Likewise, I'm non-christian, so don't want compulsory breaks coincident with festivals of no relevance to me.
In Europe, only the Netherlands has fewer public holidays, but workers there have a higher allowance of annual leave. That's the better model. I'd much prefer to see all UK public holidays abolished, with that number of days transferred to our annual leave allowances, to be taken at times chosen by the individual (and employer). Hence, theists would remain able to take leave for their religious festivals without their schedule being imposed on practitioners of other religions and atheists, and parents could be off work during school holidays whilst others could take breaks at times of our own choosing i.e. specifically when children are in school.
I presume there'd be a need to divide such additional discretionary breaks over the year rather than let people take one single extended holiday - personal and corporate health could suffer if employees were at work for 10-11 months non-stop then absent for a continuous period of 4-8 weeks. I'm sure a workable system could be devised - quarterly leave, perhaps?
24 October, 2004
This is the story
The first 35 seconds of 'Some Might Say', from Oasis' 1995 album 'What's The Story (Morning Glory)?'. Sublime. Over the last couple of hours I've listened to this intro at least twenty times, (obsessive, me?), and the whole song three times.
For a long time, I was put-off this album and Oasis as a whole by media hype, but I finally bought it in a sale about a year ago, for 'Don't Look Back In Anger', one of my all-time favourite songs. Hype aside, it's just a damn good album, with quality writing and musicianship, and overflowing with attitude. It's a powerful contrast to the more intricate, occasionally even clinical music (no, that's unfair - it's emotive, just differently) I usually choose to hear.
Incidentally, 'Don't Look Back In Anger' is one of the few songs which strongly reminds me of a specific event, partly explaining its particular attraction.
In 1996, the BBC showed a wonderful drama series, 'Our Friends In The North', starring little known actors who have gone on to greater prominence (possibly because of this series): Christopher Eccleston, Gina McKee, Daniel Craig and Mark Strong.
As I explained earlier, weekly TV drama series were important escapism at that difficult time of my life, so the impact was intensified. I really looked forward to each episode, and didn't miss one, a loyalty I wouldn't dream of sustaining nowadays.
The premise was to follow the lives of four friends from Newcastle, from the Sixties to the present day, in nine episodes (1964, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1974, 1979, 1984, 1987, 1995), the end credits of which were accompanied by a contemporary pop hit from each year. As the final episode ended, an emotional moment, the song at number one on the broadcast date was played: 'Don't Look Back In Anger', which coincidentally fitted the context perfectly.
17 October, 2004
No, I'm okay with this, thanks
I fell asleep in front of the TV yesterday evening, waking too late for it to be worth heading out to see Andy & Steve (The Ugly Jug Band) at the Golden Lion. Oops. Still, it means it'll be at least a month since I last consumed alcohol.
That hasn't been a deliberate abstention, just a combination of circumstances meaning I haven't been to a pub for several weeks. I don't drink at home. As it's gone on, though, I've increasingly realised I just don't enjoy alcohol.
Primarily, I dislike being intoxicated. I'm uncomfortable about the loss of control, and uncomfortable if those around me are drunk. Last week, while I was in Edinburgh, I 'missed' a party here in Lancaster. I hear it was 'great fun', with extensive drinking and dancing. I was very pleased to have been invited, but if I'm brutally honest, and steal an Alizonism, I'd rather have eaten my own faeces. Instead, whilst the revellers were languishing in bed on Saturday morning, I was watching the sun rise over historic Edinburgh, having climbed Arthur's Seat (okay, it's only 250m high) before dawn, with a totally clear head. I had a great time, which I'll remember for years, whereas if I'd been in Lancaster, I feel confident I'd have been thoroughly miserable. I hasten to add that that would be no fault of the participants - the company of friends would have been the overriding motivator to even consider attending.
No, intoxication isn't my primary dislike: I detest, even resent, hangovers. My lifestyle simply doesn't allow for 'down time'; if I'm obliged to lie-in in bed on a weekend morning because I can't otherwise function fully, I'm annoyed. As I've said before, I don't find hangovers remotely funny (mine or anyone elses). Contemptible, yes, but not amusing. It continues to puzzle (and inwardly, literally infuriate) me that the socially-expected response when one hears that someone has been hung over is to laugh and tease; the sufferer is also expected to laugh and comically wince, too. This is NOT ****ing comedic! ARGH!
Assuming one can minimise intoxication and avoid hangovers, the fact remains that I don't actually like the taste of any alcoholic drinks. I could like some real ales, but ideally they'd be served in quantities of about 100ml, as the first couple of mouthfuls can be pleasant, but I really don't need the remaining 80% of a pint. This is also the main reason I prefer to buy the first or second round of an evening, as I rarely really fancy a third, and it's less awkward to decline a drink when someone else is buying a later round than to buy that later round but omit myself. Somehow that exposes the unalloyed social obligation aspect and (inaccurately!) implies resentment at having to fulfill it. The result is that I end up buying myself a pint I don't want.
I don't like spirits. I used to think vodka was okay, but having tried Polish zubrowka, etc., the charcoal-filtered Swedish and Russian versions prevalent in the UK don't do it for me at all. Like the flavour of some beers, the sensation of the first swallow of vodka can be pleasant, but subsequent swallows are just a rapid route to drunkenness.
Whisky embarrasses me. I mean that when someone offers me a glass of their 'treasure', their particular favourite, no doubt expensive whisky, I feel awkward declining it, and even worse accepting, as it does nothing for me. I don't particularly like whisky, and the subtleties of a fine single malt are lost on me. I'd much rather the owner savours it himself (curiously I don't know any female whisky drinkers) than waste it on me, yet I feel expressing this would be a barrier to friendship, merely highlighting the lack of a shared interest.
Red wine is okay occasionally, though one glass is more than enough. If I was forced to state a favourite alcoholic drink, it would be fairly dry white wine. Yet I wouldn't rank it much higher than 'passable'. As with whisky, expensive wine is totally wasted on me. I feel confident I could distinguish between a £15/bottle wine and one costing £4.99 (and wouldn't pay less - let's not be foolish about this), but the fact remains that a can of Coke would be preferable to a glass of either.
I doubt I'll remain 'teetotal' (a word coined about 20 miles from here, as it happens), though I don't doubt I could, quite happily, if it wasn't for the social aspect. I can't deny I'd feel foolish routinely ordering Coke in a pub, not to mention paying inflated bar prices for it. It's not that I object to alcohol, and as the price of admission to social gatherings, it's acceptable. It's just that given a free choice of taking or leaving it, I'd have a nice cup of tea, please. A little milk and one sugar, thanks. Lovely.
5 October, 2004
Even as I was doing it, I was surprised by the apparent contradiction in my favourably quoting the following, by Bill Thompson, technology journalist writing at the BBC website:
Many would complain at first, but the benefits to the net community as a whole would be so great that it would be worth it.
In an online context, that seems to make perfect sense, but in 'the real world' I tend to take a different view; I'm opposed to government monitoring, and I'm very unlikely to support any argument based on the concept "for the good of the collective". The state should exist for and be accountable to the individual, never
The distinction is that I believe 'anything goes' so long as no other individual is adversely affected. If you want to worship a deity or engage in homosexual activities (to pick two topics at random), that's entirely fine with me, so long as I don't have to know and non-participants are unaffected. If you want to run through the streets killing people, the needs of wider society clearly take precedence over your individual desire.
Likewise, I don't feel it would be appropriate for online activities to be collectively regulated. For example, if parents don't want their children to visit certain websites, that's for the parents to deal with, and no reason to ban access for everyone else. Yet connecting to the internet from an unsecured computer is a genuine risk to others, so for the benefit of all, a basic level of regulation would be justifiable.
Driving a car without a licence is rightfully illegal, whether due to not having learned to drive (ignorance) or due to having been proved to be a bad driver (negligence). The analogy easily extends to use of networked computers. Once a basic competence (on the part of the computer's software, not necessarily the user's personal knowledge!) has been proved, the user's choice of destination is no business of 'the authorities' or even one's peers.
30 September, 2004
UK tourists to be photographed and fingerprinted as American authorities extend new airport arrivals procedures to all foreigners.Needless to say
, I'm totally opposed to this. When I read it this morning, my gut desire was to cancel my trip to New York next month, but a) that's an overreaction, owing more to petulance than principle, and b) it's already paid for.
I'd object to the government of my own country recording my image and fingerprints - indeed, I do object to ID Cards - so I find it doubly galling to submit to the whims of some foreign regime to which I owe absolutely no allegiance.
I won't rant, honest. However, one rhetorical question: how does US law even permit this? The principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' is fundamental. If law enforcement agencies have a concrete, provable reason to track a specific individual, that's one thing, but contemptuously treating every visitor as a potential criminal, systematically recording personal details 'just in case', can only be adopting the diametrically opposite principle: 'presumed guilty until proven innocent'.
Speaking of presumption, I presume US visitors to the UK will be treated identically. No? Why not?
And no, this posting is not anti-American. I'd object to any regime attempting to make foreigners jump through hoops and show undeserved deference, as if it's a privilege to visit rather than a commercial benefit to the host nation.
28 September, 2004
Recycling boost - well, okay...
"UK launches £10m recycling effort", as the BBC reports. Good news, and overdue, but I have two concerns.
The £10m is apparently to be spent on publicising the topic, whereas I'd prefer to see a large proportion of that being invested in subsidising and 'pump-priming' recycling activities.
Here in Lancaster, doorstep collections of recyclable materials exclude plastic bottles, as the council claims there's no market for them (I wonder if they know about China...). Local recycling companies say they receive insufficient quantities of plastic waste to justify their processing costs. The council can't supply enough plastic, so the recyclers can't justify the cost of recycling plastics, so the council doesn't collect plastic, so the recyclers don't receive enough plastic to make a fair profit... circular logic.
However, if the council collected plastics, at a loss, the recyclers might be in a position to accept the increased quantities, thereby creating a market which the council could supply, at an eventual profit. Government subsidies in the loss-making stage could make all the difference.
Secondly, though I welcome any attempt to educate the public about better use of resources, recycling is only part of that, and not necessarily the top priority.
The very acts of collecting, transporting and processing materials use resources, most obviously non-renewable hydrocarbons. The Guardian, in its coverage of the same government announcement, mentions the estimate that every tonne of glass recycled saves more than a tonne of raw materials. Great, but the glass still has to be collected, sorted, transported to recyclers and melted down for its next purpose. Quarrying and refining raw materials are avoided, which is indeed to be applauded, but the remainder of the manufacturing/distribution stages still apply in full.
It would be better to encourage people to:
- Use only as much as you need, of what you need. Avoid pointless extras and extraneous packaging. For example, if a shop automatically offers carrier bags, decline unless you really need one.
- If you have to buy something, reuse what you can. I can't stress this enough - it's more important than recycling. If you did accept the carrier bag in the previous example, remember to take it to the shop with you next time, so you won't need a second bag. Why store leftovers in containers bought for the purpose, if you already have ice-cream tubs and jam jars in the house? I'm not absolutely certain whether it still happens, but for decades Norwegian supermarkets and soft drink manufacturers have been reusing plastic bottles - empties are returned to the shops and later reappear on the shelves.
- If you do need to buy something, and can't reuse it, then recycle.
- If you need something which can't be reused, nor recycled, question whether you really do need it.
If you do, that's fine; I'm not suggesting some sort of austere 'right-on' lifestyle (I am not now, nor ever have been, a member or supporter of the Green Party)! I'm only proposing a little thought.
26 September, 2004
The waking edge
Halfway between sleep and waking this morning, I knew how to levitate.
It's like voluntarily swallowing; one can't consciously instruct each specific muscle to act in sequence, but once the body knows the knack, it's perfectly straightforward and just happens. I knew, with absolute certainty, that if I stood up and shifted my balance in a certain way, I'd be able to hover. It was so obvious!
Then I opened my eyes, and it was gone.
24 September, 2004
Kicking the underdog
I meandered into the Guardian's Gamesblog a few minutes ago, out of mild curiosity. I like SimCity (1-4), Tomb Raider (2, 3, 4, not especially 5, haven't tried 6 yet) and will probably try The Sims 2 once retailers start to offer it at a discount in a few months. In short, I'm a very occasional gamer, so the fact that there's a 'Playstation vs. the rest' rivalry was news to me. Resident Evil (1-3) was probably my favourite game ever, but I haven't touched a PSX since ~1998.
The point of this entry is a comment on one of the blog postings:
Parallels can be made between Sony and Nintendo in the gaming market and Microsoft and Apple in the home computer market. That is to say, there's a huge corporate entity on the one hand, looking to cement its monopoly and crush all who oppose them, and a small creative entity on the other, barely surviving by their wits and a devoted fanbase.
As I say, I know next to nothing about gaming 'culture', but taking this statement in the abstract, I disagree with the implied message that Nintendo and Apple deserve
support merely because they are the 'plucky underdogs'. That's an irrational, romantic argument; all that matters is the quality of the product.
Market dominance is certainly important, and it's difficult to compete with an entrenched market leader when most manufacturers design for that architecture, but is a Nintendo (or Apple) machine objectively superior
to a Sony (or Wintel) one, on its own technical (and pricing) merits, totally ignoring emotional baggage? If so, fine. It does indeed deserve greater attention. If not, tough; it's been outcompeted, and the fact that the winner was a multinational mega-corporation isn't relevant.
On the whole, I think I live by that tenet. For example, I rarely visit local corner shops, as supermarkets are objectively better suited to my lifestyle and requirements. Could this attitude cause the eventual closure of family-owned corner shops? Too bad; in my view they're obsolete.
Hmm. I'm repeating myself.
20 September, 2004
What's the point?
According to the Guardian, more than a third of the waste paper and plastic collected in the UK for recycling - 200,000 tonnes of plastic rubbish and 500,000 tonnes of paper/cardboard per year - is sent 8,000 miles (13,000 km) to China.
If 25,000 tonnes of used plastic bottles are collected each year, and 10-15,000 tonnes go to China, there has to be a negative effect for the UK recycling sector. I don't have a problem with the socio-economic aspect. If foreign recyclers can genuinely outcompete UK firms, fine; I'm no protectionist. However, that's not at any cost. If foreign firms cut costs via exploitative labour practices or polluting industrial processes (small, low-tech Chinese recycling firms have been known to burn plastics and contaminate rivers), it's not genuine competition, and is unsupportable.
The aspect which makes me despair is that the very idea of exporting hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste for processing thousands of miles away goes against one of the most fundamental objectives of recycling: to minimise usage of resources.
It may make greater financial sense to send a shipping container of plastic to China than to Scotland from England, as a UK plastics recycler says in the article, but there are more costs than money itself.
For one thing, consider the quantity of fossil fuels required to power the ship. A secondary problem is that plastic bottles are a low weight, high bulk commodity, so each container and hence each ship carries a surprisingly low mass of plastic; long-distance transport is one of the less efficient parts of the entire recycling process.
Once processing is completed, what happens to that plastic? Does it make sense to transport it all the way back to Britain, either as pellets for UK manufacturers or in consumer goods made in China? Or should it stay in China for domestic use? The latter might seem sensible, but that leaves the UK as a net exporter; we still need plastic for packaging, so have to make more, at further expense of energy and (non-renewable) raw materials. Is that really recycling?
I'm beginning to rant, so will stop. Read the article, which covers several other aspects I haven't mentioned.
18 September, 2004
It's no use
I've just realised I was simply born to be a goody-two-shoes conformist.
It's never occurred to me, even once, to blow through the liquorice pipe in a sherbet fountain.
8 September, 2004
I posted the following at the official Porcupine Tree discussion forum a few minutes ago, but there's a wider relevance, summarising my attitude to music as a whole, so I'll repost it here.
It's in response to someone who expressed a degree of guilt at 'failing' to find the debut Blackfield album absolutely wonderful (good, but not great), unlike more 'loyal' fans.
I like 'Blackfield'
quite a lot, but I wouldn't call it the best thing I've ever heard in my life! I can't imagine myself 'raving' over any album, really.
Though I might use the word occasionally as convenient mental shorthand, I really don't regard myself as a 'fan' (literally: 'fanatic') of any artist. The term 'critical admirer' was coined at a Jethro Tull forum a couple of years ago, and I regard that as a better description - I have a predisposition to like certain music, and hence certain bands, but I don't buy into personality cults and I don't mindlessly lap up whatever a band deigns to release, uncritically.
I have no loyalty to any band - each new release has to impress me afresh, and I don't feel I 'ought' to like something because it's by an artist whose material I've liked in the past. I'll listen to online samples of the next Porcupine Tree album, then decide whether to buy it - it genuinely isn't a foregone conclusion.
The same applies to other bands. My predisposition towards the music of Jethro Tull was enough reason for me to try online samples of 'Rupi's Dance' last year, but I didn't like what I heard, so I didn't buy that Ian Anderson 'solo' album. The fact I host the Tull Tour History, which features setlists of recent concerts, doesn't mean I have the remotest interest in attending one.
30 August, 2004
This was a digression from the previous posting, but I think it deserves its own space rather than force two topics into one posting and diminish both.
I'd say the user-led approach to information provision is vital in gaining a balanced perspective on current affairs. I very rarely read a (printed) newspaper, or watch TV news (I don't listen to the radio at all, so obviously don't hear the news there either), for two reasons:
- Mass-media news is biased. Pretty much anything that is published/broadcast has undergone a process of interpretation and paraphrasing to meet the constraints of its medium, and hence been filtered through the perceptions (and agenda, if one wishes to be cynical) of journalists, editors and proprietors. The same applies to most online sources, but one can readily read accounts from a range of providers rather than blindly trusting one or two, which merely establish and sustain preconceptions.
- In addition to how news is reported, there's an editorial decision on what is reported, and its relative prominence (front or inner pages of a newspaper, or position in the running order of a news broadcast). There's a mildly infamous example of ITN devoting 7-10 minutes of a 30-minute bulletin to the merits of a new variety of vacuum cleaner, whilst failing to find even thirty seconds to report the deaths of hundreds of people in an incident in Africa.
If one reads news from a range of sources (as facilitated by the internet), in an order of one's own choosing, the external editorial control is, in turn, controlled by the recipient (but remember my previous posting: provider-led information can fill knowledge gaps the recipient hadn't noticed).
There's a very real risk of this degenerating into a rant, so I'll stop (for now) and just say that I do take the cynical view that broadcast news is, at least to some extent, an instrument of social control, distracting dissent with trivia and reinforcing the establishment on core matters: "There was a
[insert traumatic incident] today, but no-one you know was involved and fundamentally all's well with the world, and hey, did you hear about
[insert celebrity]'s boob job? Trust the Government. The Government is your friend. Spend money."
30 August, 2004
Depth vs. breadth
To overstate the obvious, an advantage of the internet is that information provision is typically user-led.
If one wants to know the latest national news, visit Guardian Unlimited, scan through the headlines and read the stories of interest. No need to hunt through pages of less interesting topics, no need for irrelevant sports or finance sections (unless one is interested, in which case they're there).
If one wishes to know the correct spelling or definition of a word, visit Dictionary.com (mentally adjusting for it being American). No need to buy a bulky paper dictionary.
If one wishes to plan a road trip, visit Multimap.com for directions and maps. No need to buy a road atlas which will be out of date almost as soon as it's printed (and certainly not a CD-ROM version - now that is dead tech).
In fact, if one wants to know pretty much anything, just try Google.
Yet this is the biggest disadvantage, too. One can find anything one wishes to know, but what if one doesn't know what one wishes to know? Access to specific information is wonderful, but one needs a wider perspective too, from context and ancillary information.
For example, one might do research online with a view to purchasing a digital camera, and find as much information as one could ever need on, say, lens properties, without realising that on-board image processing and file compression are also important. Reading a print magazine might give much the same information about lenses as the magazine's web site, but in finding the print article, one gets to browse through several other, only tangentially relevant articles and advertisements which give a more rounded perspective on digital cameras and photography as a whole.
Likewise, one might read a Peter Gabriel interview online, but miss the article on The Mars Volta over the page, as in the May 2004 issue of Record Collector magazine. One might read online reviews of the Autumn 2003 Porcupine Tree tour, but never consider it from the point of view of the band's drum technician - unless one happens to read the April 2004 issue of Carbon Nation. In the former situation, an unexpected magazine article might introduce one's newest favourite band (not that it did - TMV do little for me), whereas the latter adds a new angle to an old favourite.
There's plainly a place for user-led searches for specific information, but there's also a continuing need for externally-provided information, or 'provider-led' provision. I make a point of reading web/graphic design magazines, as much to learn, say, specific Photoshop techniques, as to read what others think is significant.
26 August, 2004
Politics and the countryside
In an article about the balance between urban and rural socio-economics, and hence UK politics, the BBC makes a rather challenging statement that:
Farming is no longer a major element of the UK economy.
No evidence is cited, though.
I'd suggest that many of the alleged incompatibilities between government approaches to urban and rural areas are dominated by a small number of high-profile issues (hunting in particular), but this must be compounded by a fact I hadn't appreciated: as shown in the BBC's graphic, the Conservative party dominate rural constituencies (the majority of England, by area; the article says Wales too, but that's sloppy journalism and the Tories hold no Welsh constituencies, so far as I'm aware) but are virtually unknown in the cities, and vice versa for Labour. This means the usual bipartisan political battles become characterised as 'urban vs. rural' conflicts artificially, perhaps by journalists seeking a novel angle.
As a whole, I do feel the article has an over-emotive editorial bias, but a sceptical reader will find several points of interest, which one can interpret for oneself.
I agree with one statement, if not in quite the way the author implies:
But only 2% of the population, according to a recent poll, believe pursuing a fox hunting ban is a good use of government time.
Agreed. Just ban it, and move on. Endless, circular debate is pointless; the issue has already been decided. The author seems to suggest the topic is a poor use of parliamentary time, so it should just be abandoned, whereas the topic is fine, the endless obfuscation and delaying tactics are the waste.
18 August, 2004
Adrian Ramos, artist of the excellent Count Your Sheep daily web comic, tends to include a few comments with each strip. I found myself disagreeing with the sentiments expressed in today's, but also identifying with the comments to a disturbing extent.
I have this thing for travelling. Basically, I've lost my taste for it, because I've never gone anywhere. Growing up, I was never able to take advantage of the travelling opportunities that I had, which weren't many to begin with, while I saw almost everyone I knew pack up and leave. With time, I learned not to dwell much on it. So, I simply say I lost whatever taste I may have had for it once, because honestly, you can only wish to someday eat lobster for so long, before you realize that you're standing in a field of corn.
I really, really must take a holiday.
Like Adis, I was unable to afford to travel in my teens or even throughout my twenties, and childhood holidays were always to the same 2-3 places. Those constraints are no longer an excuse, but I still haven't travelled anything like as widely as my friends. Last year, I took over a week less leave than my annual allocation allows; this year it seems I'll lose closer to a fortnight.
In writing this, it occurs to me that I've never been a tourist. Of the restricted number of places I've visited, it's always been to work or to visit people, so I've lived as/with a local. I've never, ever been into a travel agent to book a holiday; it's always been flight-only, with accommodation already arranged and daily expenses handled as they arose.
A new leaf may need to be turned.
13 August, 2004
What's in it?
Yesterday evening, as an irrelevant aside in a discussion with Jason about the CO2 circulatory system at his workplace (yes, really), I criticised nouveau-hippies for unquestioningly favouring natural remedies over prescription medicines, in all cases and without knowing anything substantial about either alternative. Unexpectedly, J disagreed.
To be absolutely clear: I don't remotely question the evidence that plant extracts, etc. may be appropriate treatments for a large number of conditions, and herbalism is a valid aspect of modern medicine, but I strongly feel their success is because they contain certain chemicals which happen to occur naturally, not because there is some mystical significance to the mere fact that they grew in a field.
If an active ingredient can be specifically identified and synthesised, and the resulting molecules are absolutely indistinguishable from the natural ones, why not use them? The only possible difference is intangible, a disturbing matter of prejudice or blind faith, with no rational justification. It's black & white division into "natural='good', synthetic='bad'" - not a quality judgement of 'better/worse', but a moral one of 'good/bad'. On a practical level, that might have a psychosomatic effect in those who hold such prejudices, but c'mon - really.
Despite his taste for 1960s 'hippy-rock', I was surprised that J, a graduate-level nuclear physicist, would feel otherwise. Unfortunately, we didn't pursue the point, so I still don't know why. It seems he understood my view, and acknowledged that there is scope for illogical extremism, even hypocrisy, citing a mutual acquaintance who relies on amphetamines and ecstasy to work tremendously long days running his business. He was almost hospitalised recently due to physical exhaustion, but was very reluctant to accept a prescription from a doctor, preferring to buy remedies from the local 'whole food' shop.
He'd happily consume illicit, synthetic chemicals on a daily basis, which have had no appreciable quality-control or safety testing, but would reject thoroughly-tested and certified prescription medicines, solely because they aren't derived directly from nature.
NP: The Beatles 'Abbey Road'
29 July, 2004
I've just been challenged for cycling past someone a couple of weeks ago without acknowledging him.
Sorry Jim. I'd never knowingly blank someone, but it's certainly true that when I'm on the bike, I'm genuinely unaware of other road users as individuals, they're simply obstacles. I see a car but not the driver, or a bike but not the cyclist. A face is only relevant in judging the focus of a road user's attention and whether he/she is a hazard; I don't see the person. I doubt I could even comment on the colour of the car or bike as soon as it passes out of my field of view.
The psychological implications are... unflattering, but I'm just focused, honest!
22 July, 2004
I've just bought a laptop/portable computer on behalf of my sister. I thought spending £1,000 of someone else's money would be more enjoyable....
Personally, I wouldn't choose a laptop, both for reasons of usability and value for money - a desktop PC of the same cost would have a rather better specification. Hence, I was researching the purchase pretty much from scratch; I have a reasonable knowledge of PCs, but laptops are new to me.
So far as I could tell, the best choice for K's needs is from Dell; a 2.6GHz Inspiron 1150. A slight complication is that K. has just moved house, so her credit card address won't match her home address yet; Dell won't deliver to her. Instead, our mother will be buying it, it will be sent to that address, and K. will collect it from there. Inconvenient but uncontroversial.
However, the order process includes this section:
Dell is a US corporation, and is therefore subject to all US Export Laws and Regulations. The export of any Dell products or software must be made in accordance with all applicable laws of the United States and local country regulations, including but not limited to, the US Export Administration Regulations. This may require that an export license be obtained, or that certain declarations be provided to US or local government regarding the products being exported.
1) How will these products be used? [Drop-down list ranging from 'Home' to 'Military' use, via 'Nuclear Industry']
2) Where will these products be used?
- These products will be used at the listed ship-to address
- These products will be used at an ultimate destination other than the listed ship-to address
If the ultimate end-user information is different from the listed Ship-To Name, please complete the information below: [name & postal address]
You WHAT!? I'd resent providing such details to the UK government, never mind a foreign regime which has no relevance in this situation. The computer will be built in Ireland and shipped to the UK; that the parent company of Dell UK happens to be a US corporation simply doesn't matter.
If I'd been buying for myself, that'd be it; I'd go elsewhere. As it is, I continued the order, but ensured my own details don't appear on it.
No offence to individual US citizens, but your government has a serious attitude problem. This isn't 'Planet USA'; the USA is only one country of over 260, and I owe no more allegiance to it than to Canada, Vanuatu or Morocco, to pick three at random. Why the US government feels able to impose its whims on foreign nationals who aren't even interested in the USA mystifies, and offends, me.
19 July, 2004
Tilting at windmills
In his column in today's Guardian, Roy Hattersley has come out as a supporter of wind farms, for aesthetic reasons - irrespective of the economic considerations, he quite simply likes the way they look and interact with the countryside. Not the most public-spirited argument, but valid.
I won't elaborate on whether I agree (in this posting, anyway), but Hattersley makes a couple of interesting observations about rural development. They're not necessarily novel, as I've held similar views for at least a decade, but I've never really articulated them myself.
First, they have not been blessed by antiquity. Anything that is old - no matter how ugly - we revere. Watch the heritage programmes that fail to enliven our television viewing and you will hear paeans of praise for the most ghastly buildings whose only merit is their decrepitude. Wind farms commit the unpardonable sin of being built on land that has 'remained undisturbed for a thousand years'.
The disturbance should be judged on its merits, not its age. Quarries that cut great gashes in the hillside look romantic a hundred years after the workings are abandoned. But, before the wounds heal, they are a visual tragedy. So are the prefabricated hutments that replace stone byres and barns half their size. They would offend the eye wherever they were built. If wind farms appeared in towns, they would be said to enhance the urban skyline. They are offensive because they are built in the country.
The country is where a basically urban people believe they can find nature. And the second misconception that prejudices us against wind farms is the notion that nature is something that is untouched by human hand. Men and women are part of nature, too. Bishop Heber - who told us, "Every prospect pleases and only man is vile" - was a rotten theologian. If God made the hills and rivers, He also made the wind farms. And He made them beautiful.
Apart from the religious allusion, I couldn't agree more. Those who complain most about rural development are at best naïve romantics, at worst selfish luddites who'd like their little corner of England (since I'm addressing sterotypes, I might as well characterise them as 'little Englanders' rather than Brits) to emulate some pre-industrial idyll which was pure fantasy centuries ago.
Have another look at these photos. I'd like to think others would agree that engineering structures have a grandeur of their own.
11 July, 2004
I don't believe in selflessness. I don't mean that I acknowledge some people are selfless but don't practice it myself, I quite literally don't believe selflessness exists; it is simply not something of which humans are capable.
I also don't mean that everyone is driven by an urge for self-gratification. This isn't selfishness versus selflessness; I'm saying self-interest is at the root of both. There are infinite combinations of motivations for a vast range of activities, but I believe all, without exception, may be ultimately reduced to self-interest.
Practitioners of certain religions undergo particular actions or hardships in this life, in the expectation of reward in the next or indeed to avoid punishment in the afterlife. Expressed this way, this seems like selfishness through selflessness, but that thought invites digression into a whole different issue, heavily laden with value judgements, so I won't pursue it here!
Take two definitions of 'selflessness', from dictionary.com:
1: the quality of unselfish concern for the welfare of others [syn: altruism]
2: acting with less concern for yourself than for the success of the joint activity [syn: self-sacrifice]
Both can be traced back to a more fundamental level of motivation: an individual may put the interests of others ahead of his/her own because the individual wants
others to succeed - the individual is satisfying his/her own
desire, or sense of propriety.
As noted by Nathaniel Branden in his thought provoking 'Reflections on the Ethics of Selflessness':
Kant taught that any action contaminated by self-interest to even the smallest degree can make no claim to moral merit - only that which is done out of duty can be virtuous.
Yet this is treating the concept slightly differently, erroneously treating 'self-interest' too much as a synonym of 'selfishness'. An individual's decision to perform a duty is still motivated by an attempt to satisfy the individual's interest in duty. Humans operate within communities and society, so it is rarely in an individual's interest to act selfishly - selflessness promotes the interests of the individual.
People might accept certain duties not because they particularly want to, but because they, as individuals, feel it is the 'right' thing to do. This may even mean acting contrary to the individual's own welfare, such as rushing into a burning building to save someone, but the motivator is still that individual's love for the partner or family member, or sense of obligation to do whatever one can even for a stranger.
A person mightn't wish to perform a certain action at all, but does so anyway, for reasons of self-preservation due to a fear of punishment or retribution from others. An extreme example would be a soldier going into battle and killing others, rather than be shot as a deserter.
I'm sure anyone reading this can think of someone well-known as 'selfless'. The first that springs to my mind is Mother Theresa. I very much doubt her work in Calcutta was motivated by self-gratification or a desire for glory, but because she, as an individual, felt it was the right thing to do, and she was complying with her personal and religious morals.
I suppose the only truly selfless action would be an entirely random one, though even that might be ascribed to the individual's whim, so that only leaves totally inadvertent, accidental actions, driven by no motivation whatsoever. That's getting a little abstract, though!
If I was selfish, I'd take the time to refine this argument, but I have work to do (yes, on a Sunday). If I don't study a stack of completed job applications in time for the shortlisting meeting tomorrow morning, the process will be delayed, others will be inconvenienced, and I will be open to (unspoken) criticism. Hence, it is in my interest to post this 'as-is' and read the applications, even though I'm not being paid for the extra time, to protect and infinitesimally improve my position.
5 July, 2004
Not merely because it's there
I can really identify with the first part of Dea Birkett's article in today's Guardian, in which she discusses the differing approaches and motivations of travellers. Some prefer to 'hang out', getting to know a certain area and people well. Others "strike out, eager to reach the next night's camp... miles covered are the measure of a journey's worth."
By extension, the objective of the first type is to qualitatively understand, both the visited location and ones self, whereas the latter group are more interested in quantitative cataloguing and conquering of obstacles.
It's not difficult to see where this is heading: though I definitely rank myself in the former group, Birkett is writing about the differing sensibilities of female and male travellers.
In a way, the stereotype is simplistic, and there are exceptions (my sister has visited many more destinations than me, and I suspect there's an element of 'ticking off' places, visiting for the sake of visiting), just as masculine and feminine characteristics form a spectrum, not moieties.
For example, whilst I seem to feel the more 'feminine' motivation for visiting somewhere, the stereotype would imply I'm interested in meeting and understanding people, which is only partly accurate, as my character tends to be a little more abstract, even clinical; I seek to understand, but not necessarily empathise, or at least not on the superficial level of making casual acquaintances.
A further example of the disparity: in the first sentence of that last paragraph, I can't decide whether the word should be 'feel' or 'experience' - subtly different. If I'm honest, I think I mean both, or something between.
NP: Bass Communion 'InteractiveDJ Mix' (2000)
22 June, 2004
Green Fairy mentions a specific form of poetry, the villanelle, and gives an example. Wikipedia offers a full definition, which triggered a thought.
Does adherence to such a rigid form have any aesthetic merit in itself? Doesn't it degrade writing to a mere technical exercise? "I can write a villanelle, aren't I clever?" Would anyone other than an Eng. Lit. undergraduate even care?
The resulting poem may be beautiful, profound or otherwise praiseworthy, but I'd have to question whether that's in spite of conformity to a restrictive artificial structure, and whether the form itself adds anything to the result.
I suspect many thousand technically-correct villanelles are artistically just plain awful, the authors having stifled true creativity in the laboured effort to meet a strict definition.
Which certainly isn't a comment on GF's example! I'm speaking in general.
16 June, 2004
Swearing in schools
It seems US children start their school day with a pledge of allegiance to 'one nation, under god'. I'd have major problems with the concept of the pledge at all (the state should serve citizens, not vice versa), but in particular applaud the attempt by a pupil's father to remove the religious reference. I strongly feel religion has no place in schools, other than as an academic discipline, to be treated impartially.
The legal argument was that the phrase contradicts the first amendment of the US constitution, which guarantees that government will not 'establish' religion, i.e. separation of church and state is fundamental to the constitution, but is being ignored.
Unfortunately, the attempt to sue institutions such as Congress and the President failed on Monday, when the supreme court dismissed the challenge. This wasn't on the merits of the issue itself, but for the technical reason that the father hasn't established the legal right to speak for the child. Nicely dodged, your honours.
At least this leaves the opportunity for someone else to try....
Incidentally, the Guardian's reporting of the story prominently stresses the father is an atheist, which might partly explain why he took offence at the wording of the pledge, but it's not strictly relevant, and this shouldn't be dismissed as an attack on religion itself, just its suitability in a compulsory part of the school day.
13 June, 2004
Elect to think
In case anyone didn't notice, there were elections across the whole EU, this week for the European Parliament. Many areas of the UK combined that process with elections of local councils, and London (re)elected a mayor, but here in Lancaster it was 'just' the European election.
We (the North West England EU constituency) were one of the four regions participating in the UK's all-postal ballot experiment. Discounting small-scale hassles (wildly hyped by the media) involving ballot papers printed wrongly & hence distributed a matter of hours late and a couple of individual cases of malpractice, it seems to have worked okay, with a projected turnout almost double that of the 1999 elections. That had been appallingly apathetic; I understand the expected turnout is still only 40% of the electorate.
When one puts the constituency into the context of its representation in Europe, the electorate's lack of interest is disturbing.
The constituency stretches 143 miles (230 km) from Crewe to Carlisle, including Liverpool and Manchester, so contains more than five million voters. That's more than 11 entire EU member states. We're represented in the European Parliament by nine MEPs, the same number as the whole of Latvia and a third as many as the whole of the Netherlands.
I'm not going to comment on the party politics, beyond saying that I found it very difficult to allocate my vote; had there been a 'none of the above' option, I wouldn't have hesitated. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of wasting a vote as a protest (though that's still a vote of sorts), so I gave it a lot of thought.
A few thoughts on the voting process itself:
The array of envelopes, ballot paper and instructions were mildly daunting, and I can imagine some being put-off voting. On examination, it was straightforward, but I feel the presentation could be improved.
In short, the process was:
- Sign a declaration that one is the person named on the form, in the presence of a witness who countersigns the form and states his/her address.
- Vote on the ballot paper.
- Place the ballot paper into Envelope 'A'.
- Place Envelope 'A' and the declaration of identity into Envelope 'B', ensuring that a bar code aligns with a 'window' in the envelope.
This is a trivial point, but avoidably foolish: as the image shows, the pre-folded ballot paper was much larger than both envelopes, so had to be folded again. Why not pre-fold the paper to fit the envelopes, or provide larger envelopes? The outer envelope used to send me the whole voting pack was of an appropriate size, so why not the others?
A more serious point, though possibly a little paranoid, is that there was far less assurance of a secret ballot than the usual process of voting in person.
If I attended a polling station, my identity might be checked, then I'd be given an unnumbered ballot paper. Short of fingerprints or DNA testing, there'd be no means of subsequently matching my identity to a specific ballot paper.
In the postal vote, a bar code and serial number on the ballot paper corresponded to those on the declaration of identity, which obviously stated my name and address. The intention was for the election officials to open Envelope 'B', file the declaration, then process Envelope 'A' entirely separately, but one had to simply trust them to do so; I don't.
Not that anyone would be interested in my vote, but I'm speaking in general. It wouldn't be difficult to sideline the votes of prominent people, such as suspected political activists. More worryingly, it would be entirely possible to trace votes back to voters.
Previously, one could have the confidence that even if state agencies had such an intent, the sheer volume of papers would render the exercise impractical, but bar codes can be scanned at a rate of hundreds per hour, and automatically matched to the computerised electoral register.
Hypothetically, a list of those who voted for, say, the BNP, could be compiled and cross-checked against the employee records of local education authorities, identifying teachers who secretly support that distasteful but entirely legal far-right organisation. By exercising their democratic right, such teachers could affect their career advancement. But that wouldn't happen in the good old UK - yeah, right.
Imagine if this facility had been available to the British Government in Northern Irish elections at the height of the violent times. Do you really think they wouldn't have exploited the ability to identify 'troublemakers'?
28 May, 2004
Police have 'right' to take DNA
The Citizen (Lancaster's free weekly newspaper) reports this as local news, but I presume it has to be nationwide: new rules allow the police to take DNA samples and fingerprints from anyone arrested, whether or not they are subsequently charged.
Quite apart from the the issue of treating the wrongly arrested as criminals, as always I object to government agencies having any personal information 'just in case it becomes handy in the future'. If there is a specific investigation for which information is required, I'll consider providing it, so long as a) I retain the right to refuse, and b) it is destroyed afterwards, but I'm not prepared to contribute to a permanent database facilitating blanket monitoring of the populace.
In the same article, a spokesperson of Liberty implies that the DNA data ultimately could be passed on to other agencies such as the NHS or medical insurers; I'm unconvinced that this is a realistic suggestion, but one has to consider now how data might be used in 10-20 years.
19 May, 2004
What WAS it made of?
Plasticine. A non-hardening modelling clay I remember playing with in the Seventies. Though the word seems to have become generic in the same way as 'hoover', it seems the original Harbutt's 'Plasticine' has declined in popularity, as a Google search found very few relevant links. Here's one. Aardmann Animations imply real Plasticine is no longer made, and they should know. Play Doh is another company's version, seemingly going strong, but I'm specifically talking about Plasticine®.
I haven't touched any of it for literally decades, but I have a strong memory of the smell. I've often wondered how Plasticine was made, and the nature of its ingredients, because I've always associated the smell of Plasticine with that of... sewage. Specifically, fresh human and porcine (pig) manure as spread on fields. Seriously; I suspect there's a chemical common to both.
Either that, or my parents had strange ideas about toys. "Of course it's Plasticine, dear..."
15 May, 2004
Another self-referential observation about memory
In 1992 I bought a tape of R.E.M.'s 'Automatic For The People'. I listened to it quite a lot, and associate it with a fairly happy period of my life.
For various reasons, I didn't listen to it often from mid-1993 onwards; once per year until ~1999, if that.
Recently, I took advantage of a '3-for-2' offer to upgrade to a CD copy of the album. The odd thing is that it is instantly familiar; I can remember most of the lyrics, and as one track ends, I can anticipate the beginning of the next track before a note is played - it's as if I last heard it yesterday, not five years ago, and it wasn't even a favourite then.
I have a poor memory for text: I can't quote lyrics, poetry, or lines from films or books. If I understand something, I can assimilate it properly, but if I need to simply memorise abstract information, especially as text, it's a problem. This might partially explain my (apparent) inability to learn languages, and my near-failure at 'A'-Level Chemistry.
In Polish, Saturday is 'Sobota', but dlaczego? It just is; it's not debatable or something to understand, it can only be memorised. Or not.
Usage helps, by setting a context; I don't struggle with "Dobranoc". It's the abstraction that's the problem. If I was working with organic chemistry on a daily basis, I'm sure I'd soon learn the structural differences between an aldehyde and a ketone, but as a frankly uninterested 17-year-old, it just wasn't going to happen.
Oddly, I am able to recall lyrics in the context of their song, just not in isolation. As I write, this sentence I'm listening to something familiar ('Easter', by Marillion) as a test, and can remember the lyrics word-perfectly, about a line ahead of h singing them. At this precise moment, the guitar solo is drawing to a close, and I don't have a clue about the next line... yes; I got it, but not until h was drawing breath for the first word.
12 May, 2004
Catch someone early enough, and he or she will accept anything as normal.
My paternal grandparents both died within a few months of one another at least fifteen years ago, when I was in my very early teens. At that age, I knew very few adults, so I had no wider perspective against which to consider them as rounded individuals; to me they were merely a two-dimensional 'Nana' and 'Grandad', and any peculiarities went unnoticed. For example, my grandfather was William, known to my grandmother as 'Mick'. Her name was Mona, but my grandfather called her, er, 'Mick'.
Only now, in telling Helen, have I realised that might seem a little odd. It's not that I forgot, I simply hadn't questioned it.
12 May, 2004
iPod mini colours 'show personality'
I don't have one. Ha!
Another article which highlights why I dislike Macs (and related products), for purely aesthetic reasons (as a user of a Windows box, I can hardly criticise Macs on technical grounds).
According to analysts, part of the appeal of the iPod mini is its design – and how the colour chosen reflects a user's personality.
The look of the thing means absolutely nothing to me; functionality is all that matters in a music player. If it works well, great; if it does so without being noticed, so much the better.
"But it's gorgeous."
"But it's a ****ing MACHINE!"
Here's another back-reference to a post on this subject.
6 May, 2004
Organic? No thanks.
The subtitle is over-emotive and the tacit approval of GM agriculture shouldn't go unquestioned, but otherwise I agree with every word of this article in the Guardian.
If people want to pay inflated prices for organic food that makes them feel good about themselves (in a psychosomatic sense), that's their business, but I won't be joining them, and utterly reject the ethical, health and environmental claims made for the industry.
26 April, 2004
I'm bad at maths. Present me with a mathematical problem, and I tend to freeze; I just don't know where to start. I have enough trouble changing mental gear from thought to speech, never mind from words and images to numbers.
This morning I bought two new keys for my front door. The second was half price, and the total cost was £5. So how much was the first? Previously I'd have presumed there's an acquired technique of solving the problem, which I haven't acquired, so I'd give up before even starting. Yet I suddenly realised that the total is one whole plus one half, so £5 is 3/2 of the unit price: divide by three, multiply by two, £3.33. Simple!
At school, there were ~180 pupils in my year group, divided into classes of manageable size (~30) according to ability. I was in the 'top set' for all (academic) subjects except Maths. I don't remember how that happened, but once it had, the eventual outcome of my education was predetermined. Whilst the top Maths class grasped concepts fairly quickly, the teacher was obliged to adopt a slower pace with my group, and teaching the bottom set was an exercise in crowd control. Consequently, only the top set studied the full curriculum. After five years of compulsory secondary education, my knowledge of quadratic equations is limited to the name alone.
A second implication was that the different groups sat different final exams: in the middle set, the maximum achievable grade was a 'C'. That restriction wasn't known at the outset. Once my parents and I realised, there was an effort to transfer me, but it was risky. I had a reasonable expectation of managing the 'C', but the higher paper tested topics I simply hadn't been taught, so there was a real risk of failing outright. Since a 'C' was adequate for admission to the next stage of education ('A' levels) and I had no wish to pursue mathematically-intense subjects, I took the safe alternative. I managed it (easily, as it happens), but have been left with limited confidence.
However, I'm beginning to learn that basic logic and lateral thinking have a greater role than I'd previously thought, so maybe I do have a chance. To calculate something like the volume of a sphere (volume of a cone: that's something else I was never taught), one simply must know the formula, so I'm right to give up, but for arithmetic situations like the price of keys, there is hope.
11 April, 2004
A new meme, seen at Neil's World:
1: Grab the book nearest to you, turn to page 18, find line 4. Write down what it says:
"Most tags define and affect a discrete region of your document. The region begins..."
'HTML & XHTML: The Definitive Guide, 5th Ed.'
Boring answer, but that's the nearest book!
2: Stretch your left arm out as far as you can. What do you touch first?
The curtain. A yellow bit.
3: What is the last thing you watched on TV?
'The Tailor Of Panama' (1999). Nothing special, but I was tired.
4: WITHOUT LOOKING, guess what the time is:
5: Now look at the clock; what is the actual time?
13:51. Not bad!
6: With the exception of the computer, what can you hear?
If I listen carefully, I can hear two clocks ticking, but they're almost drowned out by Marillion 'Marbles' disc 1, specifically 'Ocean Cloud', which is currently my favourite track of the new album.
7: When did you last step outside? What were you doing?
About two hours ago, I made the 2-min cycle ride to feed Jack & Millie, A. & A's cats, for the last time in a while, as A. & A. return from Scotland this evening.
8: Before you came to this website, what did you look at?
I saved these questions to disc, and am answering in my web editor (HomeSite) rather than via a website. I don't remember which site I viewed before Neil's (apart from the blogroll of my own site, where you're reading this!).
Before I came to the computer, I looked at the dishes.
9: What are you wearing?
Black 'Porcupine Tree' T-shirt, black combat trousers, black German para boots. You don't want to know about underwear - do you?
If it's more exciting: I'm wearing shiny black leather... boots.
10: Did you dream last night?
I don't remember doing so.
11: When did you last laugh?
Earlier today when I read a BBC report, reproduced by Neil Gaiman (a Mini driver) about a Belgian driver having received a speeding ticket for driving his Mini at Mach 3 (3,380 kmh / 2,100 mph).
12: What is on the walls of the room you are in?
On the walls.... Horrible textured wallpaper painted peach, plus, anti-clockwise from the door:
- A framed print of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice', my favourite painting in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
- A cheap wall clock (though it looks okay) from Ikea.
- A cork notice board, almost covered by postcards, two photos, a cinema schedule and some notes I made comparing Marx and Foucault. Really.
- Two calendars on the same nail. I have the Ted Naismith 'Lord Of The Rings' (nothing to do with the films!) calendar, and the Marillion calendar. Each month I choose which picture I prefer. This month, Marillion won, so covers the LOTR one.
13: Seen anything weird lately?
Not that I can think of, which is itself weird.
14: What do you think of this quiz?
Pretty good. Random, but interesting, and it provokes decent answers.
15: What is the last film you saw?
See Q.3. Before that: 'Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back' (2002). Nowhere near as good as 'Dogma' (1999), which is what made me watch it, though the PVC catsuits were a slight compensation. Ahem.
16: If you became a multi-millionaire overnight, what would you buy first?
Ooh, the first clichéd question. Dunno. Having money is not something I think about. Flippant answer: first I'd buy a can of Coke, inwardly complaining that individual cans are needlessly expensive compared to buying a pack of 24 every few weeks. The first 'big' thing I'd probably buy would be a larger house.
17: Tell me something about you that I don’t know.
Last night I discovered four lumps in my forearm. Yes, I'm concerned. I'm seeing a surgeon (my sister) this afternoon anyway, so I'll definitely mention it to her. I'm (obviously) hoping they're just lypomas - fatty subcutaneous deposits.
18: If you could change one thing about the world, regardless of guilt or politics, what would you do?
This is difficult - I'm struggling to think of something that doesn't sound trite or pretentious, and failing. How about: I'd have everyone take environmental damage seriously, with the consequent radical changes to daily lifestyles, transport policies and industrial practices. If it's part of the same fantasy deal, I'd wipe away the damage that has already been done.
19: Do you like to dance?
No. Just: no.
20: George Bush: is he a power-crazy nutcase or some one who is finally doing something that has needed to be done for years?
I regard the man as a personal risk to my wellbeing. Extremely dangerous, and I can't condemn him enough. I don't have the vaguest interest in US party politics, but anyone, Republican, Democrat or whatever, would be preferable to Bush.
21: Imagine your first child is a girl, what do you call her?
Rhiannon. It's not something I've overtly considered, as I don't want children, but that'd be a good one - distinctive, attractive, but not something she'd be teased about.
22: Imagine your first child is a boy, what do you call him?
That's more of a struggle, for some reason. Something Celtic or Slavic, nothing stereotypically English, and emphatically nothing biblical, on principle.
23: Would you ever consider living abroad?
Hypothetically, yes. As a teenager, I wanted to live in Norway after completing my path through the education system, but I was still at university at the age of 29, when I had no money to re-establish myself and had already settled in Lancaster. I've also acknowledged that the draw of Norway was partly that it was somewhere to escape everyday concerns about relationships, my PhD, etc. - I was escaping from, not going to, and that's not a sustainable reason to move.
On the one occasion the subject seriously arose, when I was between jobs and moving to live with Helen in Warszawa, Poland was a real option, I decided not to, partly because I didn't like the city sufficiently to consider it a potential home (fine to visit, just not to live and work) and I had too much invested in Lancaster as my home; even more so now that I've bought a house.
1 April, 2004
The immigration minister, Beverley Hughes has resigned over the scandal of fraudulent immigration applications from Romania and Bulgaria. So, the minister has gone, which plainly wipes the slate clean and makes everything perfectly fine again. Doesn't it?
I haven't been following every detail of this issue, but I don't really see how Ms. Hughes can be considered personally responsible for the fraud, which was conducted at an operational level rather than as a matter of flawed top-level policy. Presumably those who actually perpetrated the fraud will continue in their jobs as normal.
Putting aside this specific instance, one of the aspects of politics and its media coverage I find particularly dispiriting is the desire to ascribe blame and score points in the adversarial game. Something goes wrong, someone simply has to go. Irrespective of whether a person is genuinely and personally at fault, and whether the consequent disruption to a department's activities is really justified, the mob has to see blood, and someone has to be seen to be sacrificed. Then the story can be forgotten and other issues sensationalised.
Another example: in early February, University of Wales Swansea announced plans to close five departments. The immediate knee-jerk response from the AUT was to call for the resignation of the new Vice-Chancellor. The VC, Prof. Richard Davies, was a Pro-VC of Lancaster University until a few months ago - he's been in his current post for a matter of weeks. Would it make some sense to work with him a little longer, to build a working relationship which might benefit the University as a whole? No, there must be a scapegoat. The departments would go anyway, the relationship between administrators and lecturers would become more confrontational, and there'd be less opportunity for consensual restructuring of the University.
But someone would have lost his job, so that's all okay, then.
16 March, 2004
Least favourite word
No offence to the URL which inspired this observation (http://www.guzzlingcakes.com/, home of the Swamp blog), but I think I've just discovered my most loathed word: guzzle. I can't even bear to explain how the very concept repels me; there's something disgustingly bestial about it.
The word 'posh' also inspires a strong negative response, but 'guzzle' goes way beyond that annoyance; I can only describe it as a visceral repugnance.
Why 'posh'? I associate the word with 'proud-to-be-working-class' f***wits who use it to belittle items or people regarded as 'getting above themselves'; the subtext of "that looks posh" is "who do you think you are?"
My mother uses it too. Though I don't believe she's aware of the connotation, that subtext is all I hear.
14 March, 2004
Recycling drive 'does more harm than good'
This is an interesting article, in The Times, not normally a news source I'd recommend, partly because one needs to subscribe to access archived articles (and it isn't free), so I'll need to reproduce the main points here while it's still available. The piece was published almost a year ago, so will probably vanish soon.
Remember, this is the Times, so all outright assertions of 'fact' need to be moderated to mere allegations e.g. "Incineration produces very low levels of emissions..." should be read as "Incineration allegedly produces very low levels of emissions in certain circumstances...". Anyway; the article, from the paper's Environment Editor, Anthony Browne:
Recycling is a load of rubbish, Britain’s leading environmental scientists said yesterday.
A good emotive tabloid start: a cheap pun followed by a questionable assertion: 'leading' is subjective and unquantifiable.
Overturning decades of conventional wisdom, the scientists, including one of the Government’s advisers, said that official policies to increase recycling were counter-productive, and did more harm than good.
They also criticised environmental groups, saying their recycling campaigns were so misguided they were damaging the environment, and that much of the recycling of plastics, bottles and paper had only marginal benefits. They said more rubbish should be burnt in incinerators - words which reflected comments made last month by top Swedish environmentalists.
Okay, but strip out the sensationalist wording, and consider whether the scientist literally said this, or whether this is Browne's own selective paraphrasing of their exact words.
In a press conference at the Royal Institution in London yesterday, Roland Clift, professor of Environmental Technology at the University of Surrey, and a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution,...
Good build up: Prof. Clift, who has relevant qualifications, was speaking at the premises of a historic organisation (two invocations of 'royal' helps, too), in the national capital. Whatever he goes on to say simply must be absolutely and unquestionably definitive.
... said: “The idea that recycling is a solution to everything is not valid. Recycling glass has marginal benefit, and if you have to transport it large distances, there is no point. Recycling paper is marginal.”
True, and uncontroversial. Only the aforementioned build up makes it appear so.
Note that he says that 'recycling is not a solution to everything', rather than 'recycling is a solution to nothing', which isn't quite the way Browne presents it in the opening sentence of the article.
Britain has one of the lowest recycling rates in Europe, accounting for just 12 per cent of household waste by weight. The Government has a target to increase that to 25 per cent by 2005. But Professor Clift said: “There is a fundamental nonsense in the regulations. The target is based on weight, and gives no incentive to recycle lighter materials, which are often the best.”
So change the emphasis - which I suspect was Prof. Clift's perfectly reasonable point, rather than Browne's initial claim that "recycling is a load of rubbish".
Recycling aluminium, for example, uses just 5 per cent of the energy of producing it in the first place, but because it is so light local authorities tend to concentrate on heavier materials. Recycling paper does nothing to save trees, because all paper in Britain comes from tree plantations. “Recycling paper to save trees is like not eating bread to save wheat,” said Professor Clift.
More plastic should be burnt in incinerators to produce energy.
See what I mean about oversimplified proposals being presented as absolute fact?
I'm afraid the positioning of my annotation distorts the positioning of the original sentence in the article: I'd better clarify that it's Browne's preamble to the following sentence, not a continuation of Prof. Clift's words.
“Burning plastics as an oil substitute saves oil,” said Professor William Powrie, head of the Environmental Engineering department at Southampton University.
I'll take his word for that - it's not a subject I know much about. However, I'm certainly not aware of any facility in the UK that would currently be able to perform this function on an industrial scale.
Incineration [allegedly] produces very low levels of emissions and reduces the volume of waste to be landfilled by 90 per cent.
Sounds impressive, but is perfectly obvious. Ash takes up drastically less space than unburned fuel. And?
Okay, this is a cheap criticism: ‘landfill’ is not a verb. A professional journalist working as an 'Environment' editor should know that.
Professor Powrie said that landfill was not as bad as often thought. “Methane gas can be drawn off and burnt to produce electricity. Britain’s landfills produce enough electricity to power a city the size of Leeds.”
A misleading non sequitur. Methane can be collected and used as fuel, and there might be enough to generate the megawattage described. However, the UK currently has neither the infrastructure nor the power stations to do this.
A spokesman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “The most effective solution is often to reduce the generation of waste in the first place.”
This is the key point, with which I entirely agree: reuse is better than recycling, and better than both is to minimise/avoid usage in the first place.
Clare Wilton, a waste campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: “....”
Oh; who cares what FoE say?
The Labour MP Joan Ruddock introduced a Bill in Parliament last week to almost double the target for recycling.
The location of this sentence in the overall story blatantly introduces a negative spin: having repeatedly proposed the argument that recycling is the wrong strategy, to suddenly introduce a contradictory statement makes it seem the Labour party is ignoring overwhelming scientific advice and acting irrationally.
Note also that though all the experts in this article are mentioned as having high academic qualifications in relevant departments of named universities, nothing is said about Ms. Ruddock's knowledge of the subject, nor that of her advisors.
I'm not defending the Labour party, nor the philosophy and implementation of increased recycling targets, but the unspoken implications in this line of Browne's piece are unfairly manipulative.
Oh, and why mention the MP's party allegiance at all, if not to make a snide point?
“It’s going further in the wrong direction,” said Professor Clift. However, he said that householders should not give up the practice of separating different types of waste. If local authorities developed appropriate policies, such separation would be essential.
13 March, 2004
Prejudicially avoiding stereotypes
Although in themselves perfectly practical and undeniably useful, certain items imply something about the owners. Common examples are shell suits worn by obvious non-athletes, and off-road vehicles exclusively driven in an urban setting. Two others possibly only reflect local fashions, but are items I'd never even consider owning, to avoid the risk of being classified alongside social groupings of which I'm a little contemptuous:
Panniers are an eminently sensible way for a cycle commuter such as myself to transport items to and from work, or to do my weekly shopping. However, I'm not a self-important cycling activist nor a member of the Green Party, so I stick with my rucksack.
A Leatherman multi-tool would be rather handy, to tighten the screws in my glasses for instance, yet the only people around Lancaster who carry such tools are the University's computer technicians (no problem with them) and, much worse, wannabe techie geeks. I'll definitely keep my Swiss army knife!
That's a little unfair: the multi-tools are fine. The objectionable aspect is the little leather carrying pouch, particularly when openly worn on a belt, like a pathetic imitation of a weapon holster.
12 March, 2004
My colleague Helena, speaking about acquiring a large silver & jet finger ring, has just casually described herself as a 'gothically valid magpie'.
What's 'gothically valid'? Who decides what is or isn't valid? Presumably it extends to clothes; how about music? Other lifestyle choices? Opinions? Thoughts?
Maybe it's only me who has a problem with such fundamental desire to conform, but I felt my blood pressure rise at the very phrase.
9 March, 2004
Freak or just independent?
I've just completed the provocatively-named 'Are You A Freak?' Test at OutOfService.com, which has a more sober basis in a study allegedly conducted by two psychologists in the 1970s into individuals' 'need for uniqueness'. As OutOfService stresses, it's a real test, not a typical 'purity'-style web test.
My overall percentile score was rated as 65, indicating higher 'need for uniqueness' than 64 out of 100 people.
However, when split into categories, I don't entirely agree with the interpretation:
Need to be unique 70% : You feel that you need to be a VERY unique and different.
No. This implies a strong awareness of social standards and a deliberate, even pretentious, effort to act against them, merely to be perverse. I don't acknowledge that as being in my character. My world view is my own; if it corresponds to some cultural norms and differs from others, that's simply irrelevant to me.
Need to NOT conform 69% : You prefer to conform to others' standards, but don't mind acting differently occasionally.
No. I respect the standards of others, and don't deliberately offend, but that's basic courtesy, not a wish to conform to others' standards, about which I'm simply indifferent.
Willingness to express dissent 41%: You are typically respectful when you disagree, but are willing to speak your mind if it is appropriate.
That's a fair statement.
22 February, 2004
Matthew Turner points out an apparent contradiction in the dogma of US Republicans and UK 'neo-conservatives': that pre-emptive action is always correct, except when addressing global warming.
As Matthew says, the argument seems about the same:
"something terrible might happen, we're not sure exactly what and whether it will, but the risks are too great to do nothing, and history won't forgive us if it does and we did nothing."
19 February, 2004
Fat tax on burgers proposed
Whoa! Someone has been reading my mind!
As I left the house this morning, I just happened to be thinking about the possibility/viability of people paying for medical services where their condition could be directly attributed to their lifestyle, rather than everyone paying to support the (knowingly) dangerous practices of others.
Smoking tobacco is dangerous. It is unreasonable to claim ignorance of that, yet people continue to smoke. That's their right, but I do feel that in doing so they, personally, should bear the cost of any medical treatment directly attributable to smoking. Obviously, it would be impractical to make a smoker pay for chemotherapy at the time it's required, so the only logical solution would be to tax the activities, to fund any future treatments. I'm too cynical to believe that the existing tax on tobacco products goes directly to the National Health Service (NHS) (rather, it's just a revenue stream for all Government activities), but I'll indulge a little idealism for once, in saying that it should.
Coincident with my train of thought, I see in the Guardian that a Government strategy unit is considering (not 'mooting', and certainly not 'mulling', which is a truly dreadful usage) the introduction of a 'fatty food tax' on, well, fatty foods such as burgers, cheese, crisps and whole milk. As with smokers, the obese and those with unnecessarily high cholesterol knowingly risk their health, yet those with healthier diets bear the costs of treatment for heart disease, etc.
Apparently VAT is already levied on many foods associated with obesity, such as fizzy drinks and ice cream, but burgers bought in supermarkets are exempt, as are foods high in saturated fats such as butter, hard cheeses and full-fat milk. One proposal is that VAT (17.5%) should be extended to these items, but personally I'd like to see the revenue 'ring fenced' for use by the NHS rather than, say, highways, and feel that a specific 'fat tax' would be more visible as a public reminder about the issue.
Lest this be seen as 'holier than thou' pontificating, I am directly affected by this: I eat a reasonable amount of cheese (primarily cheddar), regularly use a spread containing butter (not butter itself, but not a specifically low-cholesterol spread either), and drink a lot of full-fat milk - sometimes a pint (0.47l) per day.
Incidentally, yes, I really do think about things like public policy while I'm cycling!
15 February, 2004
About time, too
From today's online Guardian:
Children will be taught about atheism during religious education classes under official plans being drawn up to reflect the decline in churchgoing in Britain.
Non-religious beliefs such as humanism, agnosticism and atheism would be covered alongside major faiths such as christianity or Islam under draft guidelines being prepared by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which regulates what is taught in schools in England.
Although some schools already cover non-religious beliefs, there is currently no national guidance for what is taught, even though all schools must provide religious education.
The draft plans being drawn up by the QCA will not be compulsory, allowing religious schools the freedom to keep devout parents happy. But they will be regarded as best practice for heads, and are likely to be followed across the country.
A spokesman for the QCA said its guidance would be released for consultation in the summer term, but added: 'It is very much the intention that young people in the context of religious education should be studying non-religious beliefs. There are many children in England who have no religious affiliation and their beliefs and ideas, whatever they are, should be taken very seriously.'
The plans risk sparking a conflict between evangelists, who want to strengthen faith teaching, and secularists, who argue it is becoming irrelevant to modern life.
'The whole thing is terribly biased in favour of religion right now - it's all about encouraging an identification with religion,' said Ben Rogers, author of the report for the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank.
'There are huge numbers of people who are atheists or whose families are atheists and who are coming into a class where their family's view is not acknowledged. You should be able to have a conversation about ethics that doesn't collapse into a conversation about religion.'
While 19 per cent of Britons attended a weekly religious service in 1980, by 1999 that had fallen to 7 per cent - prompting some to argue that RE should be scrapped as a compulsory subject. Secularists say there is little point trying to drum religion into sceptical children at school.
'We're not trying to suggest that nobody should learn anything about religion: it is part of our culture and informs our art and our literature,' said Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society, which has written to Education Secretary Charles Clarke calling for atheism to be included on the syllabus.
'But if you try to teach morality through "the Bible says" or the Ten Commandments, most children won't accept it as they don't believe the religious message. It would be much better if people learned morality by looking at current examples. It's philosophy that we really want to be teaching.'
As the Leader article in The Observer says, this is most definitely to be welcomed, as it accepts the simple fact that British society has become secular in all but name, where church-going is now merely a pastime for a small minority.
No doubt this will be seen as an attack on organised religion, but it's not; religious beliefs have shaped Western society profoundly, and it remains appropriate to keep the subject in the school curriculum alongside comparable academic disciplines, such as history.
However, the impartial study of religions is one thing, and practice quite another. I'm still totally opposed to the practice of religion in schools.
13 February, 2004
Excellent quote from Ursula K LeGuin (one of those sci-fi/fantasy authors I've never felt an urge to read; nothing personal!), in a Q&A session at the Guardian:
Q: Perhaps you feel a bit out of step with your contemporaries?
UKL: Why should a woman of 74 want to be 'in step with' anybody? Am I in an army, or something?
That certainly reflects my outlook on life!
12 February, 2004
Is some music 'superior'?
This topic came up in a moderately heated discussion recently: discounting outright poor playing, accidental bum notes, etc., are some styles of music 'better' than others? The following is a transcript of my views, slightly edited for clarity.
Someone else, speaking of hip-hop:
Playing around with drum machines and Q-Bass is not craft. I can do this. It's easy.
Anyone can put pen to paper; not everyone can write a publishable novel.
To belittle a genre because it doesn't necessarily require advanced technical skills is either missing the point or refusing to accept it. Music isn't a craft, it's an art; it's not the way you do it, it's what you do (to mangle the Bananarama lyric). By the same argument, anyone can take a photo, but that certainly doesn't define photography as automatically inferior to painting.
I don't like hip-hop. I don't see the attraction at all. I feel precisely the same way about (technically-complex) 'prog' - I can respect it as a 'valid' musical form, quite independently of my personal dislike.
An analogy might be, say, da Vinci's Mona Lisa, compared to Tracy Emin's unmade bed.
They're radically different, with different objectives. I don't think it's even relevant to compare them. Is the music of Holst 'better' than that of Ian Anderson? Anderson doesn't operate in the same area of music so there can be no direct competition; there's no common criterion upon which to make an objective judgement, merely personal choice. Plus social convention, but that's a separate issue.
A viewer may prefer one over the other, and in this example, I'd agree with you 100%, but personal taste can only speak in terms of like/dislike, not good/bad or valid/invalid.
Emin's art focuses on sensation (and undeniably succeeds), and on confronting the raw, often disgusting, aspects of humanity existing as animals in an artificial environment; our inability to transend the squalid physicality of our existence. That doesn't mean I like what she does, but I can't accept that it's reasonable to dismiss it.
It's important to remember art is about creativity, not merely technical ability; the distinction is one that has often been used to distinguish art from craft, artists from artisans.
[Contemporary 'Brit-art' is]... rubbish; craftless 'art' made by ambitious skill-less nobodies
See above. Art isn't craft, and ability isn't necessarily skill.
Hip-hop for 80 minutes? Listening music is it?
No, it's not! This is precisely my point. No-one went to Cream, the Ministry of Sound, etc. (major UK clubs) to listen to trance/garage/house/etc. music, they were there for the whole experience. The music fitted the context, and set itself objectives that are simply incompatible with sitting in one's favourite armchair listening to every nuance via thousands of pounds worth of audiophile sound equipment. That's plainly not what it's for, so it makes no sense to judge it in those terms. Experiencing rave music, or hip-hop, or opera, or cajun, or 'prog' are entirely different situations - not objectively 'better' or 'worse', just different.
Really progressive trance. I find it dull.
That's absolutely fine. that's your opinion, and no-one can take that away from you.
No form, no music.
I'd totally disagree. Banging two rocks together can be music.
Not a defining characteristic of music.
The development of the craft of musicianship, the creativity of song writing and music composition, the imagination and spontaneity required in improvisation puts Yes, Tull and all those classic bands in a league of their own.
Some value craft and technical ability above all. Again, that's a standard set by personal preference, which is fine, but with which others might disagree.
They all have a quality of substantial back catalogue that has left the bar too high for most others. So they [subsequent musicians or the media, I presume] lower it....
No, it's an entirely different bar, in a different stadium.
Not to worry; music does not cease to be progressive merely because of some imposed time limit.
Very true. If an artist keeps pushing, and changing, that's progressive.
To go from blues to jazz to 'prog' to folk-rock to electronica to hard rock to AOR to Eastern-inspired rock, all in a unique style, certainly is progressive (and oddly familiar...) [In case anyone misses the reference, it's a summary of the Jethro Tull back catalogue].
To record 'Tubular Bells' is progressive, but to record 'TB2', 'TB3', 'The Millennium Bell', then rerecord 'TB1' isn't progressive - but I like it.
11 February, 2004
Is 'prog' progressive?
This is a distinction of which many 'prog' fans will be aware, and particularly Porcupine Tree fans, but the subject came up in conversation at a Jethro Tull discussion group today, so I thought I'd mention it here too.
Progressive music is that which progresses, adding something new to a particular genre, typically taking that genre in a new direction. Music of any genre can be progressive.
The progenitors of hip-hop defined a whole new genre. The act of definition was was progressive; it changed the direction of popular music. However, once established, hip-hop itself isn't progressive. Likewise, the originators of disco, or swing, or skiffle, whatever, were progressive, though those that followed in the same genre weren't. Fairport Convention were progressive at the start of the Seventies, in combining rock sensibilities with traditional English folk music to father a whole new genre, folk-rock.
'Prog rock' is the name of a specific genre. In this context 'prog' is a label, not a description. This specific genre, also known as 'symphonic rock' or 'art rock' is usually characterised by extremely long songs or instrumentals, with intricate, highly structured arrangements borrowing heavily from orchestral music.
Now the distinction: very little 'prog' is progressive, and progressive music isn't automatically 'prog'. In the early Seventies, bands such as Yes and ELP defined the 'art rock' genre, so were indeed progressive; hence the original label of 'progressive rock'. However, having carved this niche, such bands continued to release further albums in the same vein. All credit to them for finding a successful formula and sensibly sticking to it, but by definition they ceased to progress and 'prog' became just a name. To rigidly conform to an unchanging style cannot be truly progressive; some would argue that 'more of the same' is even regressive.
- Music expanding/transcending any genre can be progressive.
- Only music fitting the specific, well-defined genre is termed 'prog'.
- Music expanding/transcending the 'prog' genre could be progressive, but that's very rare nowadays.
8 February, 2004
I wish I'd thought to set up this site: anti-Valentine's online cards, ridiculing the commercialism and empty gestures society expects for 14 Feb.
I do deplore the idea that having given one's partner a folded piece of shiny card and a quantity of vegetation, any hint of romanticism can be ticked off and forgotten for another year. It's a cop-out, and an example of herd mentality which primarily serves the manufacturers of greetings cards.
Rather than standardised tokens on a predetermined yet arbitrary date, how about something one's partner would really appreciate, at a time of personal significance - and more frequently than each February?
Thankfully Helen is similarly scornful of Valentine's Day; indeed our shared dislike for society's petty rituals is something that draws us together. Don't worry; we'll do something, just at a time and in a way of our choosing, and by choice, not external 'obligation'.
25 January, 2004
Speaking of dieting
I had an interesting conversation with Andy last night, paradoxically over a rich meal at a restaurant.
To freely paraphrase Andy, and probably distort his meaning, he is annoyed by people who make a big deal of being on a diet, who pointedly stare wistfully at food whilst complaining their diet doesn't allow such 'naughty' lapses. As Andy says, if one misses cream cakes (or whatever) to that extent, one should acknowledge reality, eat the cream cakes, and accept the consequences; if denial is such a hardship, it isn't worthwhile.
I view the motivation differently: there is pleasure in denial. To exert self-control makes one feel good about ones self, rather more than the fleeting pleasure of surrendering to temptation, with subsequent self-loathing.
I agree that extending secret, personal satisfaction to vocal self-righteousness is annoying, but I can understand the (subconscious) reasoning.
As an observer, it would indeed be preferable for someone to practice self-denial without trying to transfer guilt onto others, with the unspoken messages "how can you eat that in front of me when you know I 'can't' have any?" and "I'm mentally strong and physically healthier for resisting, but you're weak and foolish for eating unhealthily."
However, I'm aware that some need the approval of others, so feel compelled to loudly point out their compliance with self-imposed restrictions. It's even simply social bonding, an opportunity to receive and give praise from/to friends. Only when explicitly analysed does it appear crass self-promotion; unacknowledged, it seems okay.
Undoubtedly this is only a partial view, by someone who has never experienced a weight-reduction diet; at 1.85m and 70-80kg, and male, I've never felt a need to diet. However, at certain times in my life I've needed such external markers to feel good about myself, and I know that 'worthy' denial can boost self image.
Incidentally, the restaurant, 'The Gatehouse', at White Cross, Lancaster, is normally excellent, but for once I was unimpressed. The batter on the chicken, apple and ginger fritters was undercooked, and the cod in mussel sauce was excessively salty; that might sound picky, but we split the bill as £25 each for two courses and rather ordinary wine, so one would expect better. A pity, as otherwise I'd recommend it.
Also incidentally, happy birthday Alizon!
21 January, 2004
Drivers want road test for cyclists
As a cyclist, I agree with many of the points made in this Guardian article. For a cyclist to ride without lights, or on the pavement (US: sidewalk), or ignore traffic lights, is simply illegal, never mind damn stupid and needlessly antagonistic to motorists and pedestrians.
Cyclists are road users, with most of the same rights and obligations as car or truck drivers. Mysteriously, that sometimes gets forgotten, by car drivers thinking bikes shouldn't be on the roads and should defer to other vehicles (wrong - I daily assert as much right to be there as an articulated lorry), and by some cyclists (to be fair, a tiny minority in my personal experience) thinking they have a pedestrian's right to use the pavements.
We have enough trouble from inconsiderate drivers without giving drivers a reason to think we deserve it; so long as both parties act responsibly, it shouldn't be a matter of opposing sides, just different users sharing the same road.
- If you don't have lights: get some, and either don't take your bike out after dark until you have lights, or get off and walk. An unlit bicycle is a hazard.
- If you don't feel sufficiently confident to cycle in traffic, simply don't cycle at all - the pavement is not a valid alternative. Practice on designated cycle paths or minor roads at quiet times, then main roads when you're ready.
- Traffic lights are not optional for cyclists.
I'm not sure how I feel about the titular premise of the article. On the one hand, it might deter cycle use if everyone needed a licence first. On the other hand, that might be a good idea - inexperienced cyclists can be dangerous, and are as much an annoyance to regular cycle-commuters as to any other road users. That's possibly not entirely their fault, since if they have no training whatsoever, they can't be expected to be fully competent immediately, but to use busy roads as a training ground is a bit too Darwinian!
Hence, I'd entirely support basic training for cyclists, so long as it is basic and not so onerous as to deter casual cyclists. Secondly, I feel it would be appropriate for such a scheme to be funded centrally, as a recognised budget item of transport policy, not a fee payable by cyclists.
I'd also support enforcement of existing rules - why are bad cyclists permitted to continue as they do, unchallenged by the police?
Bottom line: don't ride in a manner which damages the reputation of other cyclists, specifically me.
Oh, and try not to get yourself killed, as bad riding could so easily achieve.
17 January, 2004
It has been suggested that the only valid opinion is impartial objectivity. This seems to translate to an idea that having an opinion invalidates it, which forces me to conclude that the initial premise, an opinion, is by definition invalid. But that's just my opinion, so also invalid.
Someone thinks too much. I suspect it's me.
15 January, 2004
What does your 'friend' wear?
Some people decorate their computers; at work, Helena has a bat soft toy on her base unit and an Emily the Strange wallpaper. My mother's base unit has a plastic cartoon mouse (you know: the symbol of cultural imperialism designed by a dead alleged anti-Semite) attached by blu-tack, and the monitor wallpaper is a photo of (ahem) me, almost hidden by as many desktop icons as she can find. The monitor of Alizon's home PC has a purple fur trim. I don't actually know what H. uses as wallpaper, but her PC is a laptop, so the opportunity for physical decoration is limited.
Both at home and at work, my PCs are entirely plain beige boxes; at present there's a 'Liquid Tension Experiment' CD case on top of my tower at home, and I know there's a 'post-it' pad on my base unit at work. This is my desktop at home, and this is at work. The icons on the latter are those Windows won't let me delete.
[Update 21/06/06: Since I referred to it again in another entry, I took the opportunity to provide an updated screenshot of my work PC. You'll notice that all desktop icons are gone, the system tray is minimised and though there are the same number of icons in the Quick Launch toolbar, Firefox has, quite emphatically, displaced IE.]
15 January, 2004
What about The Opposition?
My disregard for the Mac 'let's be friends' ethos doesn't mean I'm pro-Windows - far from it. With each revision, Windows becomes more obtrusive and downright interfering.
The file organisation interface is extremely annoying: I know where I want to store files, thanks, and don't want to use the default 'My Documents' heirarchy, but it can't be adequately turned off.
I loathe Word. When I'm writing a letter, I know what I want to say and how to format it, so autocorrect, autocomplete and templated page layouts are just annoying; the 'Windows knows best' workflow 'assistance' is infuriating and, for me, pointless, so the only text editor I use is my web editor, Macromedia HomeSite.
Windows and M$ packages are overly 'helpful' in allowing one to achieve what one wants, just so long as one wants to do what Windows does, by the Windows route.
I use Windows itself, Internet Explorer, and Outlook with every single 'assistant' firmly shut off, but otherwise don't use any M$ packages at home, and few at work.
15 January, 2004
The Computer is NOT my friend
Because a computer is central to my job, people seem to assume I actually like computers. That's not the case; I have as much affection for a computer as I do for a screwdriver. It's a tool, simple as that. Do carpenters *like* saws? My interest is in what I can achieve with a computer, rather than having the slightest interest in its inner workings. I have a little more interest in software, as that more directly influences what I can achieve; it is oddly pleasurable to learn something new about Photoshop, but again that's because it opens new opportunities for creativity.
This is one reason I use a PC, not a Mac. I'm not saying 'Macs are bad', I just prefer PCs. Please don't try to drag me into a Mac vs. PC debate; I'm simply not interested in relative performance issues.
I dislike the aesthetic of using a Mac; apparently a selling point, but a major turn-off for me. A Mac is designed to have character, to be intuitive almost to the point of interactivity with its user, to become part of the household and even a companion. My computer is not my friend, it is a soulless machine. It is not a partner in the creative process but merely an inanimate tool.
I found the following a while ago, but unfortunately lost the source:
"... Apple offers not only a viable alternative to Microsoft Windows, but also a computer that one can love and truly enjoy using... the real difference is that the Mac's aesthetic lifts my spirits and enhances my creativity [whilst] the Wintel boxes I've used have been at best aesthetically neutral and at worst aesthetically numbing."
No, no, NO! A clean, inert environment suits me far more; neutrality is exactly what I need. I don't want to relate
to the thing.
Font designer Stanley Morison said that: "Typography is the efficient means to an essentially utilitarian, and only accidently aesthetic, end, for the enjoyment of patterns is rarely the reader's chief aim."
I feel much the same way about my computer: so long as the hardware and operating system assist my productivity invisibly, I'm happy. If the working environment is pleasant, that's a bonus, just as an attractive typeface helps when reading a block of text. I like crisp, efficient Arial, fussy Times New Roman doesn't do much for me (sorry, Mr. Morison!), and I'd rarely consider using 'cute' Comic Sans. To return to the point, Macs convey a fluffy and pastel feel, whereas I'm more of a shiny black latex type. ;)
14 January, 2004
The fast... and the furious
That same article I mentioned earlier discussed speed cameras, the topic that has attracted the greatest number of comments (to date) on this blog. Most have been critical of cameras, but I don't entirely agree, and similarly disagree with the stance of the 'roads lobby', quoted in the Guardian article.
The point of my earlier posting related to the routine logging of number plates, not speed cameras themselves.
The focus of the article is:
Are speed cameras crucial to the country's road safety or a cynical ploy to extract money from the motorist and an assault on personal freedom?
My own view is broadly close to the former, and I have negligible patience with the latter.
The Guardian reports a campaign by The Sun for 'sneaky' cameras to be removed. I'm not sure what is meant by 'sneaky'. Cameras on the exits of blind corners, where they can't be seen until too late? Should drivers exceed the speed limit anyway, particularly through blind corners? I'd say such cameras are entirely justified.
Later in the article:
The opposition groups argue that cameras are deliberately placed where they will generate most money rather than in locations where speed contributes to a high accident rate.
Yes, some cameras are poorly sited, but I believe them to be the minority, and insufficient reason to criticise the majority, or the very concept of enforcement by automated cameras.
The section of the A6 passing the junction with the University's main entrance is level and almost entirely straight for about a mile. Visibility is good, and there are few side roads. Drivers might feel the national speed limit (or greater) would be safe and acceptable, yet there's a 50 mph speed limit, and a Gatso camera about halfway along the straight section, just past the Uni. entrance as one heads into Lancaster. It seems someone thought it an inappropriate location, as the camera was destroyed by fire a couple of months ago (there's a rumour that a fresh camera is inside the blackened case).
A couple of facts to balance this apparent situation: over the decade I've been regularly using this road, I've seen 5-6 police signs requesting witnesses to serious accidents. Something else that high-speed drivers mightn't notice is that one of the lampposts always has fresh flowers at its base; evidently someone still remembers a fatality. The seemingly safe road and inappropriate camera aren't as they seem.
They claim that... speed is not an indicator of safety.
True, it's not the sole factor, but it's a major one, and encountering an entirely different hazard at too great a speed can magnify the consequences. To allege it's not an indicator at all
Crucially, they view fines as a tax, rather than a fine levied to enforce the law.
This is where I really
disagree. Taxation is when a charge is applied to an entirely legitimate activity, such as refuelling a car (fuel tax), using the public highways at all (road tax), buying a house (stamp duty) or shopping (VAT). Driving in excess of the legal speed limit is not a 'right', and is not a legitimate activity. A 'tax' on illegal practices is called a 'fine'. Use of the term 'taxation' by the roads lobby is disingenuous, extending a convenient metaphor to a distortion of the facts, a.k.a. a downright lie.
Like death, taxes are a fixed aspect of human existence; it's impossible to get through everyday life without incurring them. However, speeding fines can be simply avoided: don't exceed the speed limit.
Please don't mistake this for self-righteousness - I've driven over the speed limit too; 80mph is a comfortable motorway cruising speed, and 70 seems reasonable in some cases where the imposed limit is 60. However, I don't regard it as a 'right', and if a speed camera, obvious or concealed, caught me, I'd accept the penalty as fair, as the simple unavoidable fact would be that I'd have broken the law.
Whether the imposed speed limits are correct is an entirely different issue; the cameras enforce the limits, but don't set them. It seems the real point behind the complaints of the roads lobby is that speed limits are too low, so drivers should be permitted to use their own judgement in ignoring the limits. In my view, that's unworkable.
Limits have to be set at a level safe for drivers of all standards of experience, whether a 17-year old heading home from the test centre with his/her brand new licence, or a sales rep who has driven tens of thousands of miles in all weather and road conditions.
Secondly, legal processes can't operate on matters of opinion ("Well, officer, I thought it was safe to go that fast"), especially when misjudgement can be fatal.
There have to be fixed limits; by all means campaign to have them changed, but whilst doing so, one has to remain within the existing ones, or accept the consequences.
"Brian Gregory [head of the Association of British Drivers (ABD), a pressure group opposed to cameras] says the emphasis on speed cameras amounts to an abuse of personal liberty.
"This whole question is about freedom personally and freedom of movement. In my view the motor car has contributed more to individual freedom than any invention in human history," he says. "We are opposed to the reliance on speed cameras because it represents persecution of ordinary hard-working people...""
Perhaps this quote is only a summary of a better-argued position, but as it stands, it's utter rubbish.
Speed limits, and hence cameras, don't prevent the use of cars, nor do they damage this pretentiously lofty rhetorical concept of 'freedom' (his characterisation of speeding offenders as 'hard-working' is interesting - perhaps the non-hard-working don't speed, or deserve to be fined - as is his description of government policies as obeying the 'Goebbels Principle', casually implying fascism. Emotive crap.)
Anyone with the basic qualification of having passed a driving test can drive anywhere on the UK network of public highways; cameras have no effect on that fact.
The alleged 'freedom' seems to be to drive at whatever speed the driver chooses, unrestricted and unquestioned. Presumably the ABD would also argue for the unrestricted use of shotguns. No? Why not? Both driving and gun laws restrict 'freedom' by setting limits on how people can behave. The UK shotgun regulations allow people to own and use the weapons, in a safe manner in appropriate situations. Likewise with speeding laws; no-one is prevented from driving, so long as they remain within the predetermined limits.
What about penalty points and the loss of licences? If someone persistently fails to observe the limitations determined by society, the right to use public highways can, and usually should, be withheld, for the safety of others.
Freedom of mobility is not remotely the same as a right to act irresponsibly.
"The ABD and other groups profess to be interested in road safety, and cite a levelling-off of the year-on-year reduction in fatalities as evidence that speed cameras do not work. According to the Department of Transport, however, they do; its figures for 2002-03 show a 35% reduction in death or injuries where cameras have been introduced. The anti-camera lobby counters that this is coincidence..."
Hilarious! The DoT's statistics are 'coincidence', whereas the ABD's are utterly reliable. Interesting debating technique.
"... an argument refuted by Benjamin Heydecker, professor of transport studies at UCL. "Our studies show that cameras work to reduce death and serious injuries. The anti-camera groups select statistics that fit their arguments.""
Quite. I wonder what they'd make of this one, quoted by the Guardian:
"85% of people believe speed cameras save lives"
8 January, 2004
Intrusive new US visa regulations
From the BBC:
For the American Government there can never be too many checks. Air travel may now be more complex but the US administration is adamant it will not deter visitors from heading to the US.
Some, particularly US citizens, have asked what the fuss is about; it's just a matter of a few seconds, right? Unfortunately not.
The forthcoming change in US requirements means that passports obtained after October 2004 will need to contain biometric data such as an electronic record of the bearer's fingerprint(s) or iris pattern. However, the technology to record and encode these data won't enter use until mid-2005 at the earliest. This means that nationals of the 26 countries participating in the visa-waiver scheme (which is inherently racist in judging most Europeans 'safe' and those from elsewhere as automatically suspicious) will suddenly have to obtain visas after all.
This isn't a trivial matter. For someone in, say, Lancaster, N.W.England, that means a trip to London, several hundred miles away, to queue at the US embassy to obtain a visa for £67 (USA: $120). So that's an entire day and over $200 (visa, travel to London, food, etc.) spent before even starting a trip to the USA.
There's also a security concern: this will significantly increase queues at the embassy. Think about it: a US embassy, in the UK capital, surrounded by crowds of people; could a terrorist target be much more tempting? There's no way I'd put myself in that situation.
Quite simply, I don't have that much of a desire to visit the USA.
The following is a typical US comment:
"An additional fifteen seconds to have your finger prints scanned and your picture taken hardly seems an unreasonable delay to satisfy the government's need to provide security. If you are adamant that you don't want the US government knowing who you are when you enter, you obviously have something to hide and don't belong here anyway."
I don't want a foreign government - any foreign government - knowing more than the most basic details: who I am, and that I am a British subject, protected by that nation. Information required to verify my identity is absolutely fine, so I'd be entirely happy for an immigration officer to compare the photo in my passport with the face of the bearer (by eye or by biometric analysis), to check it's me. Similarly, I'd have no problem with an immigration officer checking my fingerprint against one stored electronically in my passport - so long as no record is kept.
If a computer is used to check the details on a passport against the physical parameters of someone claiming to be me, merely to prove I am who I claim to be, that's fine, but that's the limit of acceptability. If the computer goes on to research more about me or adds my details to a database, I object, and withhold my consent.
What use is to be made of that personal information? Who will have access to it? For what purposes? Where will it be stored? For how long? What accountability is there to me, not a citizen of that country?
It's not that I have anything to hide, it's that I feel no obligation to justify myself to a foreign government - they don't have the right to know, or make judgements on my lifestyle.
Another comment at the BBC website said: "if you've done nothing wrong why be afraid?", but what is the definition of 'wrong', and by whose standards is that decision to be made?
- Is it suspicious that I've visited Poland (ex-Commie, y'know)?
- Does my atheism make me questionable?
- A long (male) ponytail doesn't really conform to good old family-orientated social norms, especially combined with size 10 (US:11, Eur:44) para boots. Does that mean I have to justify myself in some way?
- In the past I've occasionally used cannabis - illegal in the USA; smoking anything seems near-illegal in California!
- I trade unofficial concert recordings (for free) which is of borderline legality.
So, does any of this (plus points I'm unwilling to disclose) mean I've done something 'wrong'?
To paraphrase an admittedly flippant point made at the BBC site: "If you have nothing to hide, get a life."
Of course, all this presumes the new measures are even necessary, but other countries don't seem to agree. As was mentioned at the BBC website:
"Now that the UK government have defended the grounding of flight 223 to Washington, and the actions of the US government in applying additional security checks, can one assume that the UK government will now place similar procedures on flights and visitors to the UK? Surely if it is essential for the US to do this, then it must be essential for us too. So why are the government delaying its introduction? And if it isn't important or an effective deterrent, then why aren't the UK government protesting against the US government's actions?"
I was 'talking' about this in an online forum yesterday, and the point came up in discussion that if (if...) this I.D. verification is okay, it should be applied by and to all nations - including US citizens. Responses were interesting. Some agreed, saying it's only fair, and (allegedly) improves security for all, but one said "they wouldn't dare" and another said "but we're the good guys". Everyone is someone's good guy, and also, almost by definition, someone's bad guy.
5 January, 2004
Bike okay - luckily
For various reasons, my bike (bicycle) is currently stored in my living room, and until today hadn't been used since 23 December. I must have passed it a dozen times in the three full days since I returned to Lancaster, ample opportunities to check it over and ensure it was roadworthy for the first trip to work this year, yet I left it until 08:25 this morning, minutes before leaving. The tyres were a bit soft, and once I was on the road I found that the gears had stiffened (okay, jammed), but it was basically okay. If there had been something more serious, I'd have been very late for work, avoidably. Why did I leave it until the last minute? What does that say about my mind set?
It could be interpreted as laziness, but it's not that I prevaricated, it simply hadn't occurred to me before. Perhaps it says more about an obsessive streak; I was thinking of other things, to the exclusion of all else.
It's never exactly fun to return to an empty house and self-sufficiency after time spent living with loved ones, but I'm not usually that impractical.
23 December, 2003
Cover bands - not here, thanks.
We've been asked to help promote a Jethro Tull tribute band, by mentioning it at the Ministry. Whilst I intend no criticism of a band I haven't heard, that's an important point - I don't think it's reasonable to ask us to recommend a band without having heard them first.
A more significant reason is that I just don't like the very idea of tribute bands.
Thankfully, their popularity seems to be waning, at least in mainstream venues. Last year, I saw dozens advertised, but only a couple in 2003. I'm sure many are extremely competent, accurately reconstructing the music, appearence and even stage act of their chosen original band, but I have a real problem with the lack of originality. If someone is a musician, I'd always encourage him/her to be creative, ideally to compose his/her own music. Covering other artists' material is absolutely fine with me so long as it's reinterpretation, not meticulous duplication of the original; I don't really see a virtue in direct copying.
In November 2002, I saw the Australian Pink Floyd (APF) in Morecambe. Their light show was pretty good, though budget and space limitations meant it wasn't exactly of Pink Floyd-type splendour! The music was note-perfect; absolutely impossible to fault, and the vocals matched Gilmour's and Waters' voices well enough to convince. It was like listening to the CDs, loudly, in public. And that, I'm afraid, just doesn't inspire me. To hear that wonderful and familiar music, then glance up to see it's not Waters or Gilmour on stage momentarily confuses and ultimately disappoints. I really enjoyed the concert, but there was something... missing. The APF were back in Morecambe a couple of months ago. I considered going, but though I think they're excellent in their chosen genre, it's not one I particularly wish to see again.
20 December, 2003
Stumpjumper, at Resurrectionsong.com introduced an interesting concept, new to me though now I've done a Google search, I see it's an established term: functional atheism, as distinct from spiritual, or 'belief' atheism.
It's possible to believe in a god yet generally live according to a secular and humanist belief system, as if there is no god. On this functional level, nothing divides a christian like Stumpjumper from a (belief) atheist like me. Each of us has our own morality, and though we'd definitely differ on its inspiration, the effect is the same. I certainly live according to a fairly strong set of personal morals, though they're not defined by any established theism, beyond the 'background level' entrenched in British culture. Likewise, Stumpjumper says: "When I decide how to act, however, I do so based on what I feel is right, not on threats of eternal damnation. Acting morally and ethically brings forth its own rewards."
Read the post; it's a good one, which I don't want to oversimplify by paraphrasing.
On a slightly different matter, Robin, commenting on Stumpjumper's post, makes an... interesting statement, that:
"Proving the non-existence of anything if pretty much impossible. You may not believe in Santa Claus, but I'd love to see you prove he doesn't exist. Atheism is the height of arrogance and ignorance. To be agnostic is to question. To be atheist is to know (what is not knowable). Atheist have much more in common with fundamentalist than with agnostics. Both are questions of faith. One is something, one in nothing. At least the fundamentalist can make some sort of case for what they believe."
Agreed; one can never absolutely disprove something, but there's always balance of probability, and pushed to it's limit, there's a gut feeling, a belief, a faith. I 'know' that there is no god. To my very core, I am absolutely convinced of that; I have no hope of heaven nor fear of hell. That's my faith, as strong, and as valid, as that of any theist. It isn't agnosticism; I don't question the existence of a god, I'm utterly certain there isn't one. It's one of the few certainties in my life. A genuine theist truly 'knows' there is a god, exactly as an atheist 'knows' the reverse; both are equally correct, for those individuals. I don't claim to have disproved god, and personally I've never encountered an atheist who has made that assertion; it is indeed a question of faith.
16 December, 2003
I'm not going to rant about extraneous packaging of groceries (not right now, anyway...) but it does irritate me when checkout staff put my purchases into a bag without asking whether I want one. I tend to visit Sainsburys (supermarket) by bike, carrying everything in a 40-litre rucksack. Is it really that likely that I'd want a carrier bag too? If there's doubt, why not ask?
I tend to buy meat 'off-the-shelf' i.e. vacuum packed, not over the meat/fish counter. The meat is hence sealed in plastic, on a polystyrene tray. Why, then, do the checkout staff attempt to place it in a second plastic bag, itself to go in the rucksack (or carrier bag)?
Just now, I popped out to the shop on campus, for some late lunch. I bought a sandwich, in a rigid plastic pack, and a bag of crisps, in a, er, bag. Yet the checkout person automatically dropped these two small, sealed items into a carrier bag. Why?
14 December, 2003
Is this a good thing?
When this information was circulated via e-mail at work, I thought it had the characteristics of urban myth, even including 'friend of a friend' references, but having checked the website of the system's manufacturer, it seems true.
For much of its route through Lancashire, the M6 motorway has recently received upgraded signage, including the latest style of variable message signs. It seems these units also feature speed cameras*. These operate in a way that was totally new to me.
'Ordinary' speed cameras detect someone speeding, photograph the number plate, and the DVLA (UK Driver & Vehicle Licencing Authority) database identifies the person to whom a fine or court summons should be sent. The UK also has a 'points' system; in addition to a fine, speeding adds 3 (I think) points to the offender's licence; collect a dozen or so points, and the licence is invalidated. There are various means to resist these speed cameras, mainly involving travelling past them at legal speeds. As A. pointed out to me last night, on a motorway these cameras would be too dangerous, as drivers might be distracted by the camera flash or suddenly decelerate when they spot a nearby camera.
The new (to me) SPECS system works differently. Every single passing number plate is recorded, whatever the speed of the passing vehicle. There's no flash, and since it's a passive system, speed camera detectors won't work.
Some time later, the vehicle passes the next camera, and is logged again. The controlling computer then calculates the vehicle's average speed over the known distance between this and the previous 1, 2, 4, etc. cameras. If this average means the vehicle must have been speeding, an offence is recorded and the normal fine/points penalty is invoked.
This is quite a conceptual leap: logging vehicle registration numbers, and hence potentially logging peoples' locations at a given moment, irrespective of whether or not an offence has been committed. Logic dictates that once they're no longer needed, the data are deleted, but it wouldn't be difficult for the data to be cross-checked against a list of those the police/'security services' would wish to monitor, diverting the information to a different database.
Some would say that's a good thing, keeping suspected criminals and terrorists under observation, but the key word there is 'suspected', not proven, and there's a long history of 'the authorities' illicitly watching entirely legal dissenters - political activists, investigative journalists, even hippies.
Oh; one of those 'urban myth' details that initially made me doubt the whole story: allegedly there's no limit to the number of speeding offences that can be recorded, so if someone blasts past several monitored road sections in a single trip, multiple fines/penalty points will be incurred. There's a story of a commercial traveller who left home with a clean licence and returned at the end of the day having lost his licence, and hence job.
*: to clarify: I mean the gantries include mounting points for the SPECS cameras, in plain view, not that the signs themselves contain concealed cameras!
13 December, 2003
Good start to a family's christmas
Yesterday afternoon my friend A (initial changed) attended her young daughter's school nativity play. Also present were her ex-husband (B), his new partner - and their baby. Bringing the baby was kind of a ****y thing to do, not only hurting A but also (successfully) giving an impression of B as a great father, a paragon of family life.
The daughter (call her C) was due to go home with her father, but as they were leaving, C ran back to her mother; she didn't want to go with B. The shared custody situation, and poor relationship between the parents, meant it just wasn't an option for C to stay with A.
This is so tragic. As A was telling me a couple of hours later, I couldn't think of anything meaningful to say, beyond platitudes. What can one say? No, at the age of 4-5, C won't understand the restrictions placed on the parents. Yes, she will blame A for 'rejecting' her. Yes, there is a good chance that such instances will be remembered in some way, and affect their future relationship.
13 December, 2003
Getting it on for the good of the planet
I don't know if this was intended as self-deprocating levity, or their usual busybody preaching: Greenpeace have published a guide to environmentally-friendly sex. I'm about as likely to link to the Greenpeace website as to that of the British Nationalist Party, so I'll have to reproduce (ahem) a few parts of the guide here, to comment on it.
Are you wondering what more you can do to help the planet?
You take your bike to work...
... eat organic...
- never knowingly, anyway.
... but want to do more.
At long last we have looked into one of humanity’s favourite pastimes and uncovered the passion that can make a difference for our environment. You can be a bomb in bed without nuking the planet.
They had to slip something in about their favourite nuclear bugbear; it's probably in the Greenpeace rules.
1. Turn off the lights. We all have to do our part to stop climate change, energy reduction and energy efficiency are an important part of changing our energy culture. If you want to see your partner, or what you are doing, have sex during the day.
Already my blood is boiling. Who the **** are they to tell me how and when to have sex? Could they be more intrusive?
I presume the guide was written on a pedal-powered computer, during daylight hours (no artificial lighting permitted in the office).
2. Passion for fruit? If you like to use produce to get the blood boiling, make sure it is GE-free. There have not been enough studies on genetically engineered foods to know what the effects on our diets will be, let alone the affects of using it for more intimate activities.
Okay. I oppose GM-agriculture too, partly because of the lack of research and knowledge of its consequences and partly because of the attempts of multinationals to impose GM-food on consumers, ignoring the overwhelming public opposition.
3.Oysters and other shellfish can be potent aphrodisiacs, but our oceans are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate
For shellfish? No. Fatuous argument.
5. Forget the fossil fuel based lubricants like petroleum jelly!
Okay, but for practical reasons, not environmental.
6. Have you got something more than a good time up your sleeve. Could it be polyvinyl chloride? Ditch the PVC and vinyl accessories for your playtime. Instead, opt for accessories made from natural substances like rubber or leather.
Evidently not written from experience (characteristically?). Quite apart from the huge difference in cost, the properties of the materials aren't really comparable.
7. Helping the planet can be an arousing activity. Soap up together in the shower or bath...
... to save water and create passion for more than the environment. More than one billion people do not have access to clean water, it is a luxury, and should definitely be shared with a friend.
And post the saved water to South America? Don't be stupid. There certainly are valid reasons to moderate water usage in Europe/N.America, but that's not one of them. Or are they suggesting an empty gesture, 'for solidarity'?
8. Ok, I’m not sure what you would use them for, never done so myself, ahem, but if you wanted some paddles for something other than rowing, please, for god’s sake,...
Keep your god to yourself, please.
... make sure they are made from sustainably harvested timber.
What? It's not my thing either, but this wouldn't affect my hypothetical purchasing decision.
10. Make love, not war.
Greens annoy me in exactly the same way as religious evangelists - if you believe strongly about something, that's great; good luck to you. But don't try to impose your beliefs on me - I won't play.
There's a person I see around Lancaster and the University occasionally; a work colleague of a friend, but not someone I know particularly well, nor who knows me well enough to tell me how to live, but that's exactly what she does. On meeting her, her opening words are rarely a greeting, but "You shouldn't be doing that". Maybe she (totally) mistakes me for a fellow 'believer' who'd appreciate a quick pep talk, but I find it a challenge to avoid telling her to go **** herself.
12 December, 2003
The Gender Genie
As reported by Nature, academics have formulated an algorithm which, when applied to a block of text, can distinguish the gender of the author. It seems to be based on a weighted count of keywords in the text; for example, the total number of instances of 'because' is multiplied by 55 and added to an overall 'female' total. The final 'male' total is compared to the 'female' total.
As one might expect, someone has used the algorithm to generate an online test; a 'Gender Genie'. Have a go. I tested it with a few blog posts, which overwhelmingly confirmed I'm male; some of the 'male' totals were nearly double the 'female' counts.
The 'Nature' article explains that, to oversimplify, men speak in terms of objects ('informational' style, focusing on categorisation), and women in terms of relationships ('involved' style, focusing on personalisation).
I was gratified to recognise a flaw for myself, before reading that it's something that the researchers considered too ;) The subject of the text must matter - the parameters that categorise (oops) males and females might also distinguish between factual and opinion pieces, or between narrative fiction and non-fiction; the algorithm might be dissecting the content rather than the author. Indeed, the program can tell fiction from non-fiction with 98% accuracy. However, when told the genre in advance (and hence invoking a further weighting, presumably), the algorithm separates male from female with 80% accuracy.
Having run this entry through the Gender Genie, the 'male' total is 1077 against a 'female' total of 253, defining me as distinctly male, or maybe just distinctly impersonal in my writing!
That's after I told the Genie that this was a blog entry. I'm curious about the basis of that division, as it had a radical effect on the totals. Defined as 'fiction', the totals are 'male': 577, 'female': 366, and the same as 'non-fiction': 577 to 366; still male, but by less of a margin.
Interestingly, when I tested it with a couple of Helen's e-mails, it was ambiguous e.g. 283 'male' to 291 'female'. Perhaps it's that the test text was descriptive rather than discursive, but H's degree is in linguistics; perhaps that's skewed her written style.
I know that from the age of 15 my education focused strongly on report-writing and essay-based exams in factual subjects, where the impersonal tense ("It was found", rather than "I found") was the only acceptable mode of writing; it's difficult to throw off a certain precision of phrasing.
10 December, 2003
Argh! I can't feel your feet!
6 December, 2003
Change of fate & the fate of change
Corner shops, newsagents, tobacconists, convenience stores. I don't use them. Apparently they're a dying aspect of British culture, and must be saved. Why? Their day has passed, and society has moved on. If the market doesn't support their existence, the obvious result shouldn't be postponed.
I don't smoke, I don't read newspapers (except the local free weekly which comes through the door), I don't buy individual pints of milk; a local newsagent has nothing to offer me. An individual corner shop doesn't have the purchasing power and supply network of a national a supermarket chain, so the stock is overpriced and less fresh - why buy it? There's a convenience store 3-4 streets away from me at present, 5 mins away on foot, but a whole supermarket is about a mile away, five minutes by bike. I don't see much of a competition.
There's an argument that those who can support their local shop should do so, to secure the livelihood of the shopkeepers. I disagree. If a business is going through a difficult period, such as livestock farmers during the crisis periods of BSE and FMD, I do support them, but where an economic model is obsolete, sustaining it is retrograde.
In such matters, my politics might seem classically Conservative (big 'C', aka Tory), even Thatcherite. At the time of the UK miners' strike in 1984, I was too young to fully appreciate the issues, but the fundamental points I remember are that Britain no longer needed a large-scale coal industry; there were cheaper, cleaner alternatives, so collieries were closing and thousands of people were losing their jobs. It would have been possible for the government to heavily subsidise the use of coal, sustaining an industry that the country no longer needed, to the economic detriment of the UK, but the government declined to do that. The subsequent handling of the matter was very poor, particularly the police's treatment of strikers, but I supported, and still do, the government's overall strategy, or at least my perception of it. Britain didn't need a coal industry of that scale, so it had to be reduced.
What about the unemployed miners? Words like 'regretable' or 'tragic' are inadequate when applied to real peoples' lives, but I genuinely can't think of a viable alternative. The mines could have been kept open, at huge cost, just to give people jobs, but there simply wasn't sufficient market for coal; the UK steel industry had declined, international shipping no longer relied on coal, and power stations had similarly switched to oil. Government regulations, subsidies and management of the nationalised industries could indeed have artificially sustained demand, at huge, and unnecessary, cost. The national economy and population of 56 million (then) would have been at a disadvantage to maintain an ultimately unproductive 'make-work' programme for, say, 1% of the population. At some point, it has to stop. To draw a parallel, in the age of cars (automobiles), the nation doesn't need an industry manufacturing horse-drawn carts.
Is the welfare of the miners more important that the welfare of the country? To the miners, yes. To a web designer in a part of the country that has never had a coal industry, and to those charged with managing the national economy to benefit the nation as a whole in the long term (and I'm fully aware of how naïve that sounds!), I'm truly sorry, but no.
To sacrifice a minority in the short-term to sustain the welfare of a majority in the long-term is a somewhat Marxist concept; somehow I'm more comfortable with that.
This week, one of the biggest insurance companies in the UK transferred its telephone-based operations (customer support, etc.) to India, which directly affected 2,500 jobs in the UK. Fundamentally, I don't have a problem with that. If Indian staff can provide the same level of service as British staff, cheaper (I mean wages commensurate with the cost of living in India, not minimum-wage exploitation), then the company is quite right to outsource.
It's perhaps worth mentioning that I'm speaking of situations where society has moved on, and the new order is objectively more advantageous than the old. Where mere fashion has favoured one alternative over another which is still equally valid, that might be different. An example would be doorstep delivery of milk. When I was younger, milk was delivered to each house every morning (if 04:00 is really 'morning'!), in glass bottles. I missed the point of transition, but nowadays that's the exception; milk is still delivered to some, but there's been an overwhelming switch to people buying milk in plastic cartons as part of the weekly supermarket shopping. That doesn't mean the doorstep delivery system is justifiably dead, indeed it still has many advantages, using reusable and eventually recyclable containers, supporting local dairies, and reducing fuel usage from customers going to supermarkets for milk (since they go anyway for their other shopping, that point is a bit weak). It may be too late, but perhaps milk deliveries could, and should, be saved, unlike corner shops, whose decline is justifiable, in my opinion.
5 December, 2003
The price of fish
Every couple of years, the 'popular media' run a feature mocking celebrities and politicians for being out of touch; for not knowing the price of 'everyday' food items. Yet the whole exercise is flawed. Is it really surprising that the Prime Minister doesn't do his own groceries shopping?
There's also no allowance for personal taste or circumstances - a lactose-intolerant person would never buy milk, and many just don't like tomato soup. Personally, I don't eat eggs at all (as an ingredient already in a cake, yes, but as a fried, boiled, poached or scrambled egg, never), so couldn't even guess at the retail price. Likewise, I haven't bought a standard, mass-produced, sliced white loaf of bread for well over a decade; I tend to buy six-packs of individual bread rolls, and on the rare occasions I buy a loaf, it's fresh and unsliced, so I presume the price is rather different to a newspaper's definition of a 'standard' price.
What about those who do their shopping on a weekly basis, at a supermarket? After a short while, the price of individual items is forgotten within an overall bill at the checkout. I know that I don't routinely read the price on the shelf for the most fundamental items; I need milk, I put it in my basket. Milk is milk; I drink the full fat variety, and buy it in 4-pint containers. There's no price comparison to be done, so I just check the 'use by' date, not the price. I drink Coke (not Pepsi), but buy it in packs of 24 cans at the supermarket, so don't have a clue how much an individual can would cost in a convenience store. I don't buy individual items; it's too expensive. I'd say that's routine in modern British society, so the very concept of these price-knowledge articles is outdated.
So why do the media still run such stories? It's easy to dismiss them as vacuous and at best casually entertaining, but I'm more cynical than that - there's an element of social engineering to it. Such stories emphasise , even invent divisions in society: an 'us' who are honest, down-to-earth and know the prices of food basics, and a pretentious 'them' isolated from real life, ignorant of prices. This might also inspire self-criticism in the readers: "I don't know the price of peanut butter either! How awful." (must conform, must conform).
The newspaper obviously includes itself in the 'us', thereby reinforcing its image as 'of the people', establishing a sense of warmth and trustworthiness. Hence, the editorial voice becomes that of a trusted friend, and when the paper reports a more serious news item, the readers are less likely to question the paper's interpretation of the facts quite as much as they ought. Individually, such apparent trivia are no more than that, trivia, but the collective effect lulls a complacent audience into unthinking acceptance of 'the truth' of more serious matters.
3 December, 2003
Why buy organic?
When the price of organic produce is comparable to that of 'ordinary' food, I'll start looking on that section of the supermarket. While there's a premium based simply on the presence of a Soil Association logo, I won't.
26 November, 2003
Follow up: Socialise, or...
In case anyone's been waiting with bated breath, the missing student has been found, at his parents' home. He's been struggling with his course, and plainly isn't getting the vaguest support from his flatmates, so ran away from it all. It doesn't look like he's returning, or if he does it's rather too late to change degree course, so he might need to take a year out and start something new next year.
I believe this is something on which the UK and US higher education system differs. In the UK, a potential student applies to study a specific subject, such as Physical Geography. If accepted, in his/her first year the workload is usually divided equally three ways, between his/her admitting subject and two others; the student gets to choose the secondary subjects (within slight limitations), but the course units in all three subjects are compulsory. Hence, someone registered to study Physical Geography, and also taking Part One Human Geography and Geology, can't take a course unit in, say, Fine Arts.
In Part Two (years two and three), the student drops two subjects (one of which could conceivably be the admitting subject) and studies one as Major. He/she chooses from a range of course units - but within the Major subject alone.
Some courses are more restricted; Medicine, for example, demands 100% of a student's workload in Part One, so there are no Minor subjects. Other Majors only permit relevant Minors.
The negative side of all this is that sometimes a student finds a subject just isn't for him/her, but can't readily switch. As I understand it, the US system is based on credits, whereby the student chooses individual course units, and builds a degree from credits attained by passing those courses. If a student finds a course unit isn't in a subject he/she wants to pursue, it only affects that unit, and the student needn't take any more in that topic area. Not so in the UK - undergraduates have to specialise.
So, the student is alive and well, if stressed and unhappy. That doesn't diminish my concern at his flatmates' attitude - he's okay, but he mightn't have been. Students do go missing; within the last couple of years a very similar situation concluded with the body of a missing student being found in a ditch, and the two suicides on campus within the last year are just those I know about.
To put it in formal terms, the University, and College, has a duty of care to its students, but the students also have a duty of care to one another.
24 November, 2003
So England won the rugby World Cup. And?
From the online Guardian:
Their dramatic extra-time victory over Australia in Sydney on Saturday prompted nationwide celebrations that will continue until Christmas with a series of events to mark the success.
The team, which yesterday received the congratulations of Tony Blair and the Queen, is likely to be rewarded with a Downing Street reception and a "victory tour" of the capital in an open-top bus.
Okay; fair enough.
The team will also play a celebration match against the New Zealand Barbarians at Twickenham on December 20, and yesterday Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, hinted at the possibility of a public holiday in the players' honour.
A public holiday? That's a bit extreme.
The team are certain to dominate the New Year's honours list, with the coach, Clive Woodward, expected to receive a knighthood and the captain, Martin Johnson an OBE. Jonny Wilkinson, who is in line for an OBE after his drop-goal sealed victory for England with 20 seconds remaining in extra time, ....
What? A knighthood for rugby coaching!? An OBE for kicking an odd-shaped ball? It's a ****ing game! Doesn't this somewhat devalue the achievements of people who really earned knighthoods and OBEs through years, even decades of dedication to improving peoples' live in far more real ways? I genuinely feel this over-reaction, a self-serving gesture on the part of a government desperate to be populist, will backfire, and be seen as laughable overseas.
Yes, there is reason for fans of the England rugby team to celebrate, and I congratulate their achievement, but let's keep it in perspective, eh?
23 November, 2003
Yay! I overtook the dishes!
I cook. It creates dirty pans and utensils. I eat. It leaves dirty plates and cutlery. I leave the dishes to soak, so washing up is much easier later.
Next meal. I wash the pans & utensils I need, and start cooking. While I'm waiting, I wash the rest of the dishes.
I finish cooking, eat, and leave everything to soak.
This means there's rarely more than 1-2 meals of dishes either in the washing bowl or on the draining rack, but there are always dishes either in the washing bowl or on the draining rack.
But not today. Somehow I broke the cycle - washed everything last night, and put everything away this morning.
Trivial? Totally. Oddly satisfying? Yep.
Incidentally, I don't dry dishes. Others have pet irritations about leaving the toilet lid up, or leaving the lid off the toothpaste. Whatever. Mine is tea towels, which merely remove anything accidentally missed by the washing process, and smear it over all the other dishes, whilst themselves becoming damp growth media for household germs. Worse than pointless.
NP: Pineapple Thief: 'Keep Dreaming' (still the .mp3 sample, whilst I'm waiting for the albums to arrive)
22 November, 2003
This Brit's home isn't his castle
In the previous post, I said:
I own my own home, but I'd argue that doesn't define the real 'me'.
That's not entirely true: it highlights a core aspect of my personality. I'm not a natural home owner. So long as there's a roof over my head, with walls & a door to keep me warm & dry and to keep the outside world outside, I don't have the slightest interest in who owns the house, and I have no interest in customising it (a.k.a. decorating).
It all just seems so trivial. When I moved in, the walls of the back bedroom, now my office, were peach/pink; not a colour I'd have chosen, but I haven't changed it, and don't particularly intend to. It simply doesn't matter, and as time progresses, I don't even see it. Similarly, the light fitting in the stairwell is ugly, but I don't make a habit of looking at the ceiling. The stairs are illuminated; end of story.
House ownership is the sensible thing to do. Rather than pay rent to someone else I can pay it to myself in the form of a mortgage, and keep the profits in the end. However, sensible isn't remotely the same as desirable. In my more depressed moments, I'm extremely tempted to sell up and return to rented housing. I'm stopped by the obvious fact that it'd be financially stupid, but I suspect I'd be happier, or at least in a situation fitting my self-image better.
22 November, 2003
Who am I?
On one level, I can be identified as Neil R. T., 32, brown eyes, long brown hair, short beard, a professional designer residing in Lancaster, UK. Identified, yes, but defined? Not really. Inside my head, does it matter what colour my eyes are? I'm certainly not 'Neil' - I respond to it, but don't like or use that name myself.
I don't think I'm defined by my job - I certainly don't define myself by that criterion, and wouldn't wish to be. It's plain that some people who know I'm a web designer consequently fit me into their preconception of the stereotypical computer geek, whereas I don't even like computers and can't stand Star Trek ;).
I'm not a particularly social person, but people fascinate me.
I own my own home (well, the building society owns about 98% of it), but I'd argue that doesn't define the real 'me' - I'm no materialist.
The fact that I'm heterosexual is relevant only in one situation, and to one person (oh, and me!); in social contexts, it probably contributes to the subliminal background conditions, but more overtly just doesn't matter.
I'm male, which self-evidently defines me in physical and social respects, and defines the basis of my thinking more than I'm even aware, but in a very real sense my gender is irrelevant to me - there's no way I could be described as 'one of the lads'; in fact I've occasionally been jokingly accorded the status of 'honorary girl' probably because of my lack of interest in 'blokey' topics and interest in stereotypically feminine (without being female - not the same thing at all) topics like peoples' thoughts and opinions.
Again, these are externally-defined stereotypes, distinctly unhelpful in isolating the real incorporeal, asexual, unnameable inner 'me'.
22 November, 2003
I was contacted a couple of days ago by someone making an excellent observation about certain lyrics in Tull's 'A Passion Play', a particular welcome contribution to my Annotated Passion Play. Having added J. Eric Smith's key points to the website, I went on to visit his.
The thing that particularly struck me was the snappy prose style of a professional writer, in considerable contrast to the obscuring precision of an ex-academic, which I'd naturally fallen into when updating the APP annotations.
Obscuring precision. That phrase came to me in the shower a few minutes ago. Almost an oxymoron, but itself illustrating my point: that I occasionally (often?) compose a sentence in a way that conveys exactly what I mean, but perhaps only to me - I know exactly which sense of a word I mean, and which secondary meaning can be inferred, but those who mightn't think in the same way (or, back in the context of academia, those unfamiliar with the conventions of a certain specialism) might interpret my words differently, or entirely misunderstand, or simply find my written style impenetrable.
19 November, 2003
If you can't not speak, stay silent
I'm not a fan of free speech. By that I'm referring to the 'right' claimed by some that they can say whatever they like, irrespective of whether that hurts or insults the listeners. There's something deeply childish about that attitude, analogous to not being toilet trained - wanting to relieve one's self, so leaving a steaming pile in the middle of the floor.
I was going to say I have a rather greater respect for responsible self-censorship, but I'd go further, as I really regard it as a bare minimum for social interaction. There are many issues on which I feel very strongly, but I like to think I have the ability to restrain myself from commenting in inappropriate situations, or to express an opinion in a civil manner when appropriate.
12 November, 2003
A few years ago, it was usual to go to a pub at least four night per week; not drinking heavily, but it was just the way to spend time, socialising with same group of 8-10. It's difficult to pin down exactly, but perhaps around the time most of these friends turned thirty (when I was about 26), that practice tailed-off; it rapidly dwindled to just Fridays, and occasion Saturdays, and more recently it's not even every week, very rarely with more than 4 other people.
The reasons aren't clear - certain people went traveling for periods of six months or so and never got back into the pub routine, or couples broke up and the new partners weren't pub people; whatever, I'd thought the underlying cause was age and attitudes evolving in a more domestic direction. The pub group certainly seemed to fragment into subgroups who spent the same time in each others' homes.
Maybe I was right - now I'm just about to hit 32 this weekend, I'm certainly not the person I was at 26, and don't feel much inclination to celebrate it in a pub with a large group of people. True but sad.
6 November, 2003
Not much to say about this article discussing hyper-realistic digital human models, other than to offer the link and mention it's a subject that's interested me for several years.
I'd been aware of it earlier, but the concept of 'virtual people' was focused for me when I read William Gibson's 'Idoru' in 1996 (mentioned in the Guardian's article, in fact). The events of that book centre on Rei Toei, an artificially intelligent 'virtual' pop star. A subsequent book liberates her from the metal cylinder of her generating hardware into the internet; a sentience inhabiting the unregarded spare processing power of the world's computers.
That's still some way off reality, of course, but I was also interested by the phenomenon of the ridiculously-proportioned Lara Croft. First a sprite in a computer game, then a cover girl of 'The Face', then the star of 'Lucozade' adverts, Lara began to assume as substantial a presence in popular culture as a typical transitory pop star or minor celebrity.
The animated Lara was entirely a construct with no physical reality, but when one only sees a 'real' person on TV or in a magazine, what practical difference is there to the viewer?
1 November, 2003
Happy New Celtic Year!
I hope everyone enjoyed Samhain - not Hallowe'en, that's the christian attempt to hide and suppress the earlier celebration with the contrived All Hallows Day. In fact, the BBC reports that even mainstream christian groups now go out of their way to force bogus christian meaning into the traditional, secular version of Hallowe'en - pumpkins carved with bible messages, 'Saints and Sausages' or 'Saints and Superheroes' (something of a mixed message there, too) parties.
To quote from the article:
"There is a tendency to paranoia among some Christians," explains Professor Christopher Partridge of University College, Chester. "They have a dualistic world view - if something is not of God then it's of Satan. And Hallowe'en is invested with a lot of negative imagery for Christians - witches and demons etcetera. It just looks evil."
The fact that Halloween has been embraced by modern pagans particularly gives them the creeps.
"The veil between this world and the spirit world is supposed to be very thin at Halloween," says Mr Partridge, "which is a very positive thing in paganism. It's a time for reflection. But to some sections of the church this can look as if they're communicating with dead spirits."
Even if that wasn't paranoia, so what? Why can't Wiccans celebrate their festival in their way, and christians celebrate their contrived version in their way? It's not as if Wiccans evangelise or try to invade situations where they're not wanted - that's the christians.
As I said in another forum yesterday, it's not a belief system I share myself, but for many people, Samhain is a religious celebration; it's just plain rude to cheapen it with plastic bats, and deeply offensive to try to suppress it.
Clarification: Samhain begins at 00:00 on 1 November. It's not 31 October, and 'Hallowe'en' is not synonymous with Samhain.
13 October, 2003
What to write?
William Gibson on why he doesn't write short stories:
"Good ones are to novels as bonsai are to trees. Might as well go ahead and grow the tree. It’s easier to pay the rent with trees."
Good training, though.
NP: Coldplay, 'Everything's Not Lost' (on LAUNCHcast - the first and possibly last time I've listened to an entire Coldplay song. Bland.)
3 October, 2003
Link of the Day
It's link of the day at User Friendly (itself highly recommended) really, but it's worth mentioning here too.
Battleground God - 17 questions which help determine whether your view of religion is rationally consistent, irrespective of whether you're a believer or atheist.
I'm not sure I agree with all the questions, particularly their wording and the logical inferences drawn from the answers, but it's interesting.
For what it's worth, I scored above average for consistent logic, according to the creators' (no, not the Creator's) interpretation. I don't entirely agree with the sole alleged inconsistency, so would have given myself full marks ;) but I can see what they mean: I accept evolutionary theory as correct without absolute proof (no science gives absolute proof), but refuse to believe in a God without absolute proof.
Okay; put like that, I see their point, but it's a question of degree - the balance of evidence and, yes, logic, overwhelmingly supports the case for evolution, whereas the case for the existence of a deity doesn't have anything like the same weight of evidence.