Thursday, 31 December 2015

Coffee and Donuts, a short story

Coffee and Donuts, or, the Love Song of Julius Artemis

At nine I get restless and go out into the city to walk and brood. Mine is an energetic kind of brooding. I take my earphones but I don’t put them in.

In the stairwell of my building is a stroller which has been abandoned there for months. I can never avoid noticing it. I think it’s a metaphor for something, but if so, it’s something I don’t want to know. I let the door close behind me, and move along.

At the station I pass a group of children. Adults, really, but children nonetheless. I don’t want to dislike them, but I have no choice.

I board a train as six thousand loud people get off. They seem confused about the way transport works, or perhaps just too happy to care. I have never been that happy, but I have been that drunk. Or is it the other way around? I hate them because they are loud. No. I hate them because I am not drunk.

As I get off the train a man stands, talking to a woman. Or rather, she talks at him. He is writing on his phone. Over his shoulder I can make out the title: New Year’s Resolutions.

I leave the train and walk through the heart of the city, the boring part without any pubs. There are policemen on horses. Do the horses aspire to this work? Or would they rather be eating hay in the countryside. I envy a horse’s sense of simplicity, its easy happiness. Maybe one day I will buy a dog, and get high off its happiness.

I miss clubbing, being out, getting drunk, getting loud. I don’t miss the cold waits for buses, the sore feet, the sore head the next day, the empty bank account. But I miss the high, the sense of euphoria, the girls I sometimes talked to, the energy of dancing.

I walk up past the Duke of York Monument, into Piccadilly Circus. It’s pretty on the way, but so what? A set of buskers are drowned out by people singing Hare Krishna. I could never be like them. It seems the key to happiness really is ignorance. But don’t tell the Buddhists.

I go in and get donuts and coffee, and take the last seat left, a stool by the window. I watch a drunk man holding two cans of Carling try and talk to people. I consider talking with him, in the part of my mind which permits such things. I mark it down as curiosity, ignoring the truth. Someone has grafittied the window, and the paint drips down in bars, and I look through them out into the world. Girls walk by in short dresses.

Coffee and donuts£7.32. Worth every penny.

The dark lights of Soho. The strip clubs and dirty bars. I consider going in one, but I am saving money. Hell, I’d do it just for the human touch, but I am saving money. I am always saving money. But one day… When did I become that man? I turn away from the door, pull my hat down and walk away. Outside, girls stand around talking to the bouncers. Are they the dancers, or are they clubbing? It’s hard to tell the difference.

I like the girls except when they talk. Some of them are beautiful, but just so inane. A horrifying combination. Do I tell myself I could have picked up more, if the conversation were better? I doubt it, that’s not the art. And I was never an artist anyway. Do I sound like a prick? I guess I am one.

I walk on through the racketing streets, stop and pretend to be lost, move on; in and out of lights and shadows. I head into the tube, where’s it’s warm and bright. A couple on the platform embrace. Her dress is bright blue, her legs long, her hair blonde. I try not to stare, and then the train arrives.

The trains are dirty, but you get used to it. I could say the same thing about myself. I follow the train home, and enter the stairwell. You know what. It occurs to me that life is a series of trade offs. Opportunity cost of living. If it’s the best we can do, it’s the best we can do. Maybe there’s value in decision, but tonight it’s hard to see.

I hate this city. Or is it just the people? All the good people have left or are leaving, and I am still here, walking the streets. Heading for donuts and coffee. It’s an event. What a joke. I am the man I used to pity.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Karma police

Karma, as it stands, has two main definitions, the first being some kind of autonomous cosmic principle which rewards or punishes people in their life according to good or bad deeds in a previous life (one already begins to wonder what the fairly neutral first life would be like), and the second being roughly the same, but without the bother of previous lives. I had an interesting discussion around this recently, which stemmed from my observation that those who profess to believe in karma, and who comment on the misfortunes of others with reference to it frequently, both with a sadistic glee when things are going badly for others, or a similarly gloating promise of misfortunes to follow; well, these said commentators aren’t so quick to admit that they deserve whichever misfortunes befall them or their loved ones, and instead will often blame the vicissitudes of fate for their problems.

So, there is an inconsistency here. My personal belief is that karma lies along the lines of wishful thinking, without any real evidence to support it, like the idea of Gaia, or heaven. The nature of past lives makes any actions therein unknowable, at least by any reliable methods that we currently possess, and so blaming someone for things they may have done to explain what may amount to bad luck seems like an overly moralistic high ground which cannot be defended.

The basic problem with the idea of karma (in regards to the past lives definition especially) is that it is unverifiable. There is no way of telling if it's true because the notion of balance is vague and hard to quantify. One man’s justice is another man’s cruel and unusual punishment. People are often very quick to judge, to dole out punishments such as bodily mutilation for rapists and beatings for those who beat. Do we imagine that some disembodied principle without an understanding of what it means to be human has a better idea of what is right for us than our own justice systems? The idea of a disembodied force being responsible for the workings of human justice doesn’t sit well with me.

Add to this the element, in many cases, of karma carrying over from supposed past lives, and the idea loses all coherence in terms of being a claim that can be tested. I don't think this bothers a lot of the people who believe in it, but that's just my way of thinking.

Even if you believe that we have only the one life, problems remain. We can all think of examples of people who have lived relatively blameless lives, and then suffered terrible catastrophes. Unless the karmic principle acts disproportionately in regards to small sins, and in that case it doesn’t seem that its influence could be considered to be in any way fair, as in generally supposed. Similarly, there are bad people who have committed horrible acts without ever paying for them in any meaningful way. Jimmy Saville springs to mind, as does history’s most infamous example, a Mr. A Hitler. These men used the escape hatch of death to escape from their retribution.

Further, karma as a motivator for morality doesn't really fit with human behaviour, in the sense that, if one finds out a friend has been in a car accident, or is seriously ill, or was robbed, one doesn't immediately think 'well, they probably deserved it'. Rather, one feels sympathy for the person who has been affected. And one sees a millionaire making even more money from a business venture, one does not think, ‘good for him, he must have been really good to deserve all that wealth.’ Well, I know I don’t, anyway.

According to karma, all those people who are poor or starving or sick or in horrible accidents, deserve no sympathy. They deserve it. Isn’t such an attitude a little sickening? A little judgemental?
 There’s also the idea that those who do good are rewarded, similar to the idea of being good and earning your way into heaven. Both these ideas have as the motivation for good acts, the promise of a reward. This seems a little childish to me. Surely the motivation for an act is the right-or-wrongness of the act itself. Blessed are those who help others without expectation of karmic reward in this life or the next.

If karma is real, then logically, nothing that ever happens can be 'bad' in absolute moral terms, because it's all compensation for previous acts. (This then creates an odd cycle of bad behaviour causing bad effects, which often causes more bad behaviour, and so on.) If this is the case, then karma effectively negates the need for its own existence.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone who believes in karma thinks this way, but it is the logical conclusion of the belief system they hold. Nor am I saying that many of the people who spout these sayings have not considered the ramifications of such a system of reward and punishment. Humans are wired in such a way that we often assign meaning to things that just isn’t there, or we assume that things revolve around us in a way that they really do not. Karma is another manifestation of the way our brains work, a desire for (what we see as) justice, and a way of bringing order to a chaotic world which doesn’t care about us one way or the other. ‘Bad’ things happen, and ‘good’ things happen, and life goes on. It is all too easy to interpret an action or event in the way that we want to, and as any action or event can be fitted into the framework of karma, the whole system becomes meaningless.

I suppose I could be wrong. I guess if I am I might have some misfortune coming my way. But then again, maybe I was an excellent person in my past life. In which case, pay up, karma. Papa needs a trip to Brazil.

Friday, 27 November 2015

London vs. NYC

I’m currently in my third trip to New York City, and the attraction of the place hasn’t diminished with time or familiarity. In fact, it has increased. It’s one of the few cities I’d consider moving to, if such an option were available; I’m sure that if I did live here, certain things would start to grate, the same as in any other place, but it’s a risk I’d be willing to take.

So, I have concocted a list comparing my adopted city with my the one I’m visiting, to see if it is indeed all that, or if I don’t take some of the good things about London for granted some of the time. Having only been to NYC as a tourist, elements of the below will necessarily be extrapolated or based on things I’ve been told or read, but it’s still a fun exercise. Here goes (in no particular order):

Public transport: London has the tube. The original, the o.g. (or should that be the u.g.?). NYC has the subway, as do many other cities following that idea. The tube is a victim of its own success - many of the problems it faces in expanding and increasing capacity come from the fact that it was built so long ago, with smaller tunnels than are now generally used, as well as narrow platforms. This, coupled with the sheer amount of cabling, sewers, and miscellanea under the city, making increasing capacity difficult and expensive. The subway is more spacious, the carriages bigger, and there is more track. They also have express trains, which is fantastic. Still, I feel like the underground, and buses, are better, for the following reasons.
  1. It’s cleaner. NYC subway stations are dirty, and homeless people abound (more on this later).
  2. There is more information. The schedules are easier to understand, and there are live boards telling you how long your train will be at every station. The information at bus stops is really good. The subway is ok, but elements are really confusing.
  3. Oyster cards are easier to use and more durable than Metrocards. And, they work on other forms of transport.
  4.  Etiquette. Though people on the tube are rude, people on the subways here are downright aggressive.
  5. In London, we have tube lines that actually run from east to west. NYC needs to up its game in that regard.

London: 1 New York: 0

Crime: though it’s a lot better than it was, parts of New York are still very unsafe. Add to that the existence of guns, and the safety factor decreased a little. I feel more uneasy in Manhattan than I do in London, and not because I am a tourist. The police in London are amazing, nice to deal with, and more willing to engage with the public. I guess that’s easier when you’re not in a city which needs to have stickers on police cars advertising rewards for information leading to prosecution of those who kill cops.

London: 2 New York: 0

History: how much do I really need to say about this? NYC is a fascinating place, with a lot of interesting historical sights, but London is over a thousand years old.

London: 3 New York: 0

Art/culture: Both cities have great museums, both contribute a lot to the world in terms of their artists, musicians, cultural festivals and institutions. I’m going to call this one a tie.

London: 3.5 New York: 0.5

Green space: One of the things I love about London is the amount of greenery. It’s hard to walk around the town without coming across a park or square, most of which are open to the public. London has nothing on NY in terms of the sheer size of Central Park, but the total green space must be higher. NY has great squares and open spaces, but the grass areas are often fenced off. Oh, and in London you can see deer.

London: 4.5 New York: 0.5

Travel: From NYC you have easy access to the East Coast of the US, as well as across the continent, up to Canada, down to Mexico and the Caribbean. You can also reach South America. From London you can get to Europe easily, with all that that entails, while Africa is within easy reach. London has five airports, New York three. This one all depends on what you like, so I’m calling it even.

London: 5 New York: 1

Food: Ok, so, London does Indian food well, Asian food well, Caribbean food well. New York has amazing delis, pancakes, soul food, bagels. This is another very subjective one. Both cities are chock full of international cuisine, with plenty of variety. However, NYC has all night diners, which I really love, and they also have way better candy. Let’s face it, Haribo sucks. Peanut butter M&Ms rule.

London: 5 New York: 2

Heathcare: The NHS versus an insurance-based system where you can be sued for any reason at all? As much as people critique it, the NHS is beautiful. Long may it last. Nuff said.

London: 6 New York: 2

Sports: Having not been raised with it, I don’t really like the American system of moving teams around. How can you cheer for a franchise, only to see it bought or sold, and shifted to another town? Or, be happy about a new one coming in? Maybe that’s just my mindset, not being used to such a thing. In terms of fanaticism, of the sheer loyalty and energy, which comes from football, London wins hands down. But then, you have all the anger and violence which is the flip side of that coin, so it’s not cut-and-dried.

In terms of the actual sports available, again, it’s what you’re brought up with, mostly. I’ll always love rugby, cricket, and football more than NFL, baseball, and hockey. However, as I can see it from the other side, too, I’m calling this one even.

London: 6.5 New York: 2.5

Employment: Let’s not pull any punches: employment law in the US is shit. You get two days annual leave, as compared with at least 20 in the UK, and you can be fired without notice for no reason at all. Parental leave is barely any better. There’s no job security, and workers are often treated badly.

London: 7.5 New York: 2.5

Weather: New York gets colder, no doubt, but it also stays clearer. You get sunshine even on freezing days. The cloud cover might make it warmer in London, but it also makes it more sombre. And in summer, NYC has long, hot weeks. In London, if you see the sun you dart outside and take your shirt off, because tomorrow it might be raining again.

London: 7.5 New York 3.5

Layout: Again, in this category, London suffers from its success. It is weighed down by its history. London in often held up as an example of how not to plan a city. The strange nature of the streets might be called charming, but it also might be called confusing and inefficient. NYC is well-designed, easy to navigate, and even the street names make sense.

London: 7.5 New York 4.5

Welfare: The social welfare system in the UK, while not without its problems, is far superior to that in the US, which is not really a system to speak of. Homelessness here seems, to me at least, to be rife, and there isn’t a whole hell of a lot of support for those who are down and out, or to prevent them from becoming down and out. I admit that I don’t have a lot of back up on this one in the form of facts and figures, just what I have seen with my own eyes. I also know that London is worse now than before the Tories got in, but still, the support systems in the UK, some of which I have used, make me award the points in this one to London.

London: 8.5 New York 4.5

Nightlife: this one is harder for me to gauge, having hardly scratched the surface in NYC. I can bet it has a lot going on. I love the pub culture of London, too, and the nightlife there is exceptional. The sheer variety of music available, as well as live venues for music and comedy, is amazing. Both cities have excellent stage shows and theatre, too. A share of the points.

London: 9.0 New York 5.0

Atmosphere: This last one I added in, to try and convey the feeling of the place. London has atmosphere, but not in the same way as New York does, or maybe I’m just so used to it I don’t notice anymore. New York feels, well, like you’re in a movie. It feels alive, even at three in the morning. This category is an odd one, but New York takes the points for me.

London 9.0 New York 6.0

So, there you have it. London wins by three. Fairly comfortable in the end, even if some of the categories are boring, or I have left out others you might consider important. Or even if you disagree with my assessment. I think there’s a lot about life in London to love. Would I still take a shot at living in New York, though? You bet your ass I would.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Capital punishment

A tricky issue, even after you realise I am not talking about being forced to live in Auckland rather than beautiful Wellington. No, what I am talking about is the death penalty. Widely decried by advocates of human rights, and others who believe the justice is simply too flawed to allow such extreme measures to operate without error, my own thoughts on this issue are relatively unequivocal. I consider myself to be of a modern sensibility in many things, and liberal in many ways, but when it comes to the death penalty, I am decidedly pro. Let me tell you why, while also thinking about some of the arguments around the issue.

First is the idea the capital punishment should never be used, from a moral standpoint. This seems to me to be based on either one of two premises. First, that killing is morally wrong and that we, as reasonable, evolved beings, should eschew it. The second is the idea that there is no action which anyone can commit which deserves death. To take the second of these first, I believe that this is simply untrue. There are many actions which, if committed, warrant the forfeiture of a person’s life. Each crime will need to be judged by its merits, but acts like those committed by Josef Fritzl, Anders Breivik, or David Berkowitz, to name but a tiny few, would fall into this category. I am sure you can think of your own examples.

The first issue, that killing is morally wrong, seems fair enough on the face of it, but fails when put to the test. Let me propose a scenario wherein a police officer is facing off against a terrorist who had planted a bomb under a school bus full of children. The terrorist has his thumb over the switch, and the cop must decide whether to shoot, knowing that the only shot he has is a head shot. Does he pull the trigger?

Of course, even if your answer to the above hypothetical is yes, you might still argue that shooting a man in the heat of a battle is much different to holding a man for years and then executing him in cold blood. I would not disagree on this point, but rather point out that the argument shows that killing is not always wrong, from a moral standpoint.

Next, suppose we have a situation where the policeman missed his shot, the children got cooked, and the terrorist got arrested. Does this man deserve to live? More to the point, is it worth society’s time and expense keeping him alive? That money could be better spent elsewhere. Rehabilitation, you say? Let me tell you this, rehabilitation is not always possible and, with regards to the protection of those in society, should not always be attempted. Now, I am not fit to judge individual cases, but it seems to me that it would be downright irresponsible, in terms of the risk to future buses full of children, to try and ‘rehabilitate such a man. Nor has he earned such an opportunity by his behaviour.

So, again the question: why keep such a man alive? He is now nothing more than a drain on the resources of society. I don’t mean to suggest that human life be measured solely in terms of productivity, but the ninety-year-old who has been a peaceful member of society all her life has earned the right to care until the days she dies. Our fictional terrorist has forfeited such rights.

Now, there is another issue: not all cases are as black and white as the one I have described. What about human error, or corruption? Certainly mistakes happen, or are made to happen. Shouldn’t we hold back on using capital punishment just in case?

This argument is a good one, and the relative strength of it will depend upon the country to which it is being applied, there being different levels of trust in the justice system and its officials, in various places in the world. That said, I don’t believe this is a reason not to implement the death penalty. One reason for this might be that fifty years spent on death row could be considered a worse fate than a quick death, but this is of course a subjective view. Another point though, is simply that the penalty should be applied is some cases. Some people deserve to die; the world is better without them in it. As long as the correct checks and balances are in place, I believe that capital punishment is not only an option, it is the only option in some cases. Granted, we must be very careful about how and when the penalty is used, but this should not stop the pursuit of justice, merely direct it.

Revenge is not justice, I also hear shouted at me. This is true. However, sentencing, when applied by a trained and appointed judge, is not revenge. It is merely the system at work. A careful, unemotional, and reasoned examination of the facts of any crime may lead others to the same conclusion.

Perhaps you’d think differently if it were you wrongly accused, you say to me. Perhaps. But if I were able to rearrange the justice system from my own selfish perspective, it would not necessarily be that pleasant for anyone who wasn’t me. These issues must be decided without personal prejudice, as far as possible.

And that’s all I have to say about that. I think there may be other problems I have not anticipated. Feel free to let me know. After all, it’s not like I’m going to kill you.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Haters gonna hate

So, England were dumped out of their own World Cup in the group stage, becoming the first host nation to suffer that ignominy. People began their analysis: should Robshaw have kicked for goal against Wales, rather than going for the five points? If England had beaten Wales, did their display against Australia show that they were not capable of winning the trophy? Maybe three points would have been the right thing to do, especially if you are the kind of person who thinks that watching endless kicks at goal is entertaining (if you are, there’s another sport you might like), or if you prefer your sport sensible. But the game isn’t always like that. A friend of mine said that the problem wasn’t was with the decision to go for the line-out, but with the execution of same; I agreed at the time, and I agree now. Captaining a team takes balls, whether you win or lose, and fortune (usually) favours the brave.
That same friend loves to quote Theodore Roosevelt: ‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…’ I tend to agree. Sometimes you try and you fail, but that failure is more than any armchair critic will achieve.
When England played Australia in the final in 2003, I was watching the game at a Dunedin pub with a friend of mine, and when I went to the bathroom during the break, everyone was chanting Waltzing Matilda. I confess I was surprised. Why cheer for a team that might be described as our nemesis, from a nation that regularly bests us in sporting endeavours and then struts around like a proud pigeon? This was odd to me, but to everyone else it was normal. England are to be hated.
This time, he level of bitterness and vitriol levelled at the England team by my countrymen and women borders on the absurd. Knowing what I know now, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the Kiwi response to England’s premature exit, but I was. The press have scarcely been less scathing than the land of social media, where the gloves come off.
True, it’s embarrassing to go out in the group stages, and true, bad performances can be critiqued, but I would love for somebody to explain to me exactly the reason behind New Zealanders’ hatred of England Rugby. (The phenomenon extends to Australia and South Africa, too, in that they also hate the English.)
Several theories have been put to me about this, many of which are possible, if unreasonable. The first is the English as the villains of history, the Evil Empire which laid waste to the globe and its various native peoples. Putting aside for a second the question of what this has to do with sport, let’s pull this one apart:
1) The idea of an English empire is fallacious. The empire was British, that is inclusive of Welsh and Scots. And yet these nations are viewed much differently. Anyone who believes that British ships were crewed solely by Englishmen out for blood and gold needs to re-examine their history.
2) Empires do bad things, but they also do good things. Democracy, roads, welfare and health care don’t create themselves. Is it too obvious to have to point out that many countries would not exist in their current form if not for empire? That the people of the colonies are descended from the people they dislike so vehemently?
3) If hating a country’s team because of what the country did in the past is the done thing, where is the anger for Germany, France, Japan, and Spain, among others? I don’t need to go into any details about the actions of these nations, but if we’re playing the historical blame game, let’s lay all our cards on the table.
4) I mentioned the treatment of aboriginals to an Australian, remarking that in New Zealand we’d treated the Maori much better. He told me that it wasn’t Australians who carried out those acts, it was the British. True enough. So if these acts weren’t committed by anyone currently living, why the resentment to people who are alive today? People don’t hate the Australian team because their ancestors raped and pillaged a nation, so why apply that logic to anyone else? Hating someone for what their great-great-grandpa did is just plain ridiculous.
5) Modern moral superiority is a strange but understandable thing. People feel like, having had all the benefits of a liberal and comfortable upbringing, they nonetheless would have been exemplars of morality in times gone by (a morality that would have been looked upon strangely by many of their contemporaries, note). But your beliefs and moral, unless founded upon solid logical principles, are as flexible as the time and place you are born. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
Dislike of empire is a ridiculous reason to dislike a sports team, but that doesn’t mean there is no truth in the motivation nonetheless. It ties into the idea of a fierce independence, of a country at the bottom of the world forced to survive on its own, and which has done a hell of a job at it. New Zealanders do not like to feel like they belong to anyone, and the idea of still being ruled (even if almost nominally) by someone else’s Queen irks many people. Maybe this is part of it, too.
Then there’s the idea that people who play rugby here are all posh kids, rich kids. Hell, maybe that’s mostly true. If so, could the attitude towards the team be attributed to an aggressive egalitarianism? Or is it just that we hate those with more money than we have? If that is the case, then the All Blacks will be in for some scorn in the near future. Those dudes get paid these days. Or maybe it’s just the ones with rich daddies who’ll be in trouble. To me, the level of dislike aimed at the England team seems disproportionate to the dislike that might be said to accrue when hearing someone with a grammar school accent speak, but there might be truth in this aspect also.
There are other possibilities, of course. An idea that the country when invented the sport and gave so much enjoyment to the world should perhaps be better at it. This doesn’t necessarily hold logically, but then again, since when is hate logical? Or the idea that the team are some kind of threat to our rugby dominance, that even by daring to challenge us they commit some kind of affront? Singing over the haka? Outrage! How dare you drown out our efforts to intimidate you? Let’s face it, when it comes to rugby, Kiwis are often arrogant. We win a lot, sure, but why be dicks about it? Haven’t we learned anything from those obnoxious Man United supporters? And if we’re talking threats, maybe let’s focus on South Africa and Australia, the two teams most likely to beat New Zealand on any given day.
So what’s the answer? Why the hatred towards a sports team? I really want to know. Is it good old-fashioned racism? If so, will someone have the balls to come out and say so?
I have lived in England for ten years. I have family and friends here. I have lived and worked with people who are kind, generous, and loyal. I have met countless English people who speak very highly of New Zealand and its people, and who do us the courtesy of speaking about our home and our teams with respect. Maybe it’s time we did the same.

Saturday, 5 September 2015


At the end of the month, and after seven years which have seemed both quick and slow, I am moving out of my flat. To say that the experience is one of mixed emotions is accurate; though the idea of leaving has been a goal for me for some time now, it will still be hard to leave behind not only the memories of times enjoyed and people loved, but also the potential for something similar in future.
My plans for leaving were both impulsive and long-held. There comes a time, living in a shared house, when the little things start to get to you, I mean really get to you, and that is the beginning of the end. I consider myself to be a laid back person, most of the time, and so the be annoyed and frustrated on a regular basis is something which I consider detrimental to my character. And so, several years ago, in crept the thoughts of a smaller place, and quieter life, perhaps even a place all my own. These tentative plans were frustrated by an unstable work situation, then delayed further by a long period of unemployment; now that I am finally through those times, it seemed right to begin thinking seriously about my next step.
So, I began to plan. I made a list of local letting agencies, scouted areas which I thought might be ideal, put together information in one of my beloved spreadsheets. I thought and considered and planned. Then, a thought occurred to me, namely a step which would be of immense help in putting together the deposit necessary for a new place. My brother had offered to let me stay in his spare room for a few months, while I was out of work, and I thought perhaps it would be good to do that anyway, as a spring board to a new place.
Then, a twist. A flatmate who’d been living at my brother’s place had to leave, and would I like the room? I thought about it for a while, but it seemed instinctively to be a good idea. The value was good, the location amazing, and I would be able to move quickly without worrying about a deposit. Add to this another key feature, namely, I’ll be able to spend more time with my brother, in a way we have not really done since he moved to London. The time we spent recently, hanging out with my Dad when he visited, reminded me of the value of family, and maximising that wherever possible. After all, in a few months or years I may be gone, across the city, or back to New Zealand, and this time seems all the more important in that light.
So, like I said, at the end of the month I am moving. There are many things about the place that I will not miss: the mess, the food left out overnight, the dishes ‘left to soak’ for days on end. The inability of people to understand how to recycle or how not to slam a door. Being woken at three am to carry a drunk person into the house, or the casual loud conversations outside my door at the same time of night. The landlord who is ok, but who makes you feel guilty for asking him to fix anything, and who doesn’t seem to understand the concept of wear and tear. The water from the shower leaking through the ceiling (via the smoke alarm). Weird and wonderful flatmates. Mice.
On the other hand, there are lots of things to which it will be hard to say goodbye: the easy familiarity of a Friday night in, the crazy joy of a Saturday night out, the comforting chatter of a hungover Sunday morning - all with people I would never have met had I not moved in. The outrageously good parties, and ‘Winter denial’ barbecues. The freebies that people would give up or leave behind. The in depth and interesting conversations about anything and everything, the raucous stories and saucy details. Generally, the friendship and camaraderie. Weird and wonderful flatmates. Oh, and my room is pretty cool, too, despite the squeaky bed. I mean, who doesn’t love having their own shower?
The area itself has gone from grimy and dodgy, to upbeat and dodgy. Where once kebab shops ruled the roost - well, kebab shops still rule the roost, but hipster cafes are beginning their inroads. The character of the place has always been its charm, and I will miss the shops and pubs around this way, as well as the back streets and by ways I have come to know so well.
But, life is change, and I am looking forward to new places to explore and new pubs to stumble home from. Many of the friendships I have made in my flat will stay with me forever, as will many of the odd memories. As I leave it all behind, I can’t help but ask myself, would I have had it any different? Well, maybe some of it.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Police brutality

My friend and I recently had a very interesting discussion about the situation in the US with regards to alleged police shootings and killings of black men (and women) during arrests or in custody. She raised some good points and it got me to thinking. Just yesterday another story was posted on line, but in this case the young man survived. Recently, I saw an article that shows the extent of the problem. TL; DR: ‘in the 31 days of March [2015], police in the United States killed more people than the UK did in the entire 20th century. In fact, it was twice as many; police in the UK only killed 52 people during that 100 year period.’
Now, the first issue I have heard raised is the media, and the problem of not seeing footage in its entirety, or seeing it heavily edited, so as to make the police look bad. It’s certainly true that you can’t believe everything you see in the news, and that the media often portrays things according to how partisan the publication is; but I don’t believe that bias in and of itself wouldn't stop the footage appearing, given the ease with which uploaded material is available now days. Would a reputable news outlet mash up footage to obscure the truth? Hell, in this day and age, maybe.
Also, it would be odd if the footage showed a particular angle (such as the cops doing their job perfectly, or indeed the opposite), and no news station aired it. Such footage would be useful, given the partisan nature of many stations and publications previously mentioned. It’s been said that the media only report the bad police actions and traffic stops, and to a large degree this is true, but it’s also logical. The incidents where nothing happens are not reported, because nothing happening is not news. Still, it would be good if there were a more positive focus sometimes (and there are networks which do this).
Secondly, I do believe gun control saves lives. At the very simplest, if no one has a gun, then no one gets shot. That much seems apparent. I don't suggest that this would be easy to apply in the US, but if it were, it would work. There are a lot more points to this argument, but for now I’ll leave it at that.
I’ve also heard it said that, if you’re not committing a crime, you won’t get accosted by the police. This line of thinking is both not always true, and dangerously close to excusing brutality on the part of policemen (and women). It’s not always true because, apart from the fact that a person's guilt or innocence is often meant to be determined after the fact (i.e. in court), there are examples of people who have been beaten or killed for committing no crime. And these people were often black. It's true that there will be some instances where race doesn't play a part, but there are definitely some where it does. The black community feels victimised and devalued, and I can understand why.
The problem with the idea of obeying the law in any situation only works if you are protected by those who enforce it. The US is a country which, despite having protections for all colours and creeds enshrined in law, has often failed to enforce them. After abolition, freedom of employment and education were granted to all, but it took many more years for this to become a reality for black people, and it’s still the case today that discrimination exists. This is why people like Rosa Parks and MLK have had to do what they did. I think there may be some frivolous or over-hyped brutality cases against police, but to attribute all such claims to these causes seems highly unlikely. I don’t think it’s true that the majority of minorities (if such a phrase may be allowed) want to feel victimised by the people meant to protect them. Certainly Rodney King didn’t.
Similarly, there is the issue of resisting arrest, confrontation, disrespectful behaviour, and downright violence towards the police. It’s true brutality occurs less when people cooperate with the police, but non-cooperation is not an excuse for brutality. Non-cooperation is simply an excuse for legal and acceptable limits of restraint and control. And yes, sometimes police must draw and fire their weapons if the situation calls for it, but the key is knowing when to do so. I don’t say it’s an easy thing to handle every day, but it is the job they have chosen. Brutality is, by definition, illegal. The police are trained to know and understand this truth.

I guess though, that in the end I will never really know what it is like to be a young black man pulled over by a policeman. In some cases, I am sure the cops were right to shoot. But not in all cases. And if there is a chance that there are cops who fall into the latter category, they need to be exposed and charged.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Boat People

People are drowning and there’s not much I can do about it. How does that make me feel? Well, it’s good material for journalists, if nothing else. You see, I am not really a good humanitarian. It’s easy to write about being a humanitarian, but much harder to actually get out and do something. I am the apathy of modern man, I am the lifestyle which already has enough stress and strain to worry about such things as massacres and tsunamis. I just don’t have enough empathy in me.

So, I have decided to examine the boat people crisis from a completely amoral perspective. The perspective that many of us have and pretend not to have. This will not be pure opinion, and nor will it be diatribe; I wish to look at the problem a step removed from emotion. Let’s see what happens.

So, the problem, as it see, consists of two main parts. Firstly, (parts of) Africa suck so much that people are willing to risk death by drowning or starvation or shark, simply to not be on that continent any more. This is no small motivating factor. The second part of the problem is that (despite what may be said) Europe has no want or need for boat people. Europe is ‘full’, its infrastructure strained, its cities crowded, its denizens tired of being relied upon to police the world.

From this perspective, the easiest thing to do is nothing. Boats sink, people go away, problem solves itself. A more practical approach is to sink the boats, just to make sure. A lot of these modern warships have guns, too. A bullet costs a lot less than a detention centre.

Another solution would be, just to fix Africa. If Africa is nice, people will want to stay there. I mean, how hard could it be? Just because efforts have been ongoing for the last fifty years, doesn’t mean the problem is insurmountable. A lot of the mess was caused by Europe, so logically Europe could help clean it up.

What else? I suppose we could make Europe an unattractive destination. If we mess up Spain and Italy and Portugal and Greece until they’re indistinguishable from the Sudan or Libya or Egypt, then staying or going becomes a moot point. We can do this either directly or indirectly. The direct way involves bombing cities, destroying infrastructure, and generally allowing corruption and dictatorships to exist wherever they spring up. (On this last point, we’ve already got a head start.) The indirect way is almost easier. We simply open our borders to as many people want to come here, and that way the services, hospitals, housing, roads and son which currently exist will very quickly become overwhelmed and unfit for purpose. Also, the angry religious people who don’t like us will come, spreading fear and destruction and murder and their own version of the law.

I’m not really sure what other options there are, from an amoral perspective.

From a moral perspective, the situation is still complicated, although, if you value human life, it quickly becomes apparent that the right thing to do is to pluck people out of the sea and save them from death. But then what? What happens to these people? Does anyone have a reliable estimate of just how many people are making the journey to Europe? How much food and water and housing do we have, and it is enough? Do we give it to them before we feed and clothe and vaccinate our own citizens? We could probably spare some of the tons of food we throw away every year, despite it being edible, and I understand there are still a lot of places where people don’t live, but maybe those places are empty because people can’t survive there.

Do we send people back to Africa, possibly to death by bullet or starvation? Do we conscript them into an army to fight Isis? Do we tell them that maybe they might want to try and fight to make their countries better, the way millions of people before them have done, instead of running away? How could you tell that to a man whose family means more to him than anything in the world?

I have a lot of questions, but not many answers. And, like I said, I’m not really doing anything to help solve the problem. My ‘fix Africa’ idea hasn’t really taken off, and so I’m not really sure what else can be done. But I have bills to pay, and global warming to stress about, so I’ll worry about the boat people another day.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Evolution of Thought

It is my belief that there are a few major changes which will need to occur in our ways of thinking, as individuals, and as a species, if we are ever to reach the next level of our sociological development. And by ‘next level’ I mean a society with fairness and equity for all its members, that is, all humans worldwide; an almost ‘Star Trek’ level, which is neither as silly nor as unachievable as it sounds. Perhaps eventually a ‘Human Charter’ will be drafted, taking the Human Rights Act, and incorporating also a social philosophy of compassion, and responsibility.

So, I have listed the ways in which I believe we must evolve our thinking.
  1. Religion – In terms of the way it presents obligations over others, religion will have to go. A softer spiritualism may remain, may even be necessary. A system of thought which is regressive, and values ignorance over genuine freedom of thought, is not conducive to a world which seeks to evolve and improve.
  2. The primacy of the human over the idea. – People have rights. Ideas do not have rights.
  3. Racism – As a general term, to mean a realisation that although differences will always occur, these must cease to be used as a differentiating mark between us, we must treat each other based on how we behave. It makes no more sense to judge a person’s character on the basis of their colour as it does to do so based on their eye colour.
  4. Sexism – similarly to the above, women, and persons of what I might call ambiguous sex or gender (which are not the same thing), must be afforded the same rights, pay, and opportunities as men. Women must be enfranchised and given control of their bodies.
  5. Sex - attitudes to sex, and consent, must alter, to the extent that others do not seek to determine what constitutes normal or proper activity for others; this is, within the limits set by consenting adults.
  6. Countries – whilst people’s pride in their origins should not and cannot be removed, the idea of strictly-defined nation states with borders will need to end, as will the idea that people can be defined or categorised so easily. This will only be possible once all the world has been raised to a roughly level standard, so that borders may be drooped without fear of a flood of immigrants looking for the benefits more developed nations provide. There will always be a necessity for local laws, customs, and governments, but this will be more a global federation with smaller powers for cities than anything approaching nation states.
  7. Money – the usage of money will have to evolve and eventually be replaced by a system of credits. The accumulation of money (and things) will cease to be the driving force in human lives. The quest to be better than we are must become our unifying goal.
  8. Things – this will require perhaps one of the hardest changes to the human mind set imaginable, i.e. the removal of greed, and/or the removal of the materialism which comes with modern capitalism.
  9. Crime – the mind set of the vast majority of the human race will need to cease to glamorise (certain types of) crime, and instead embrace a system of rules which is to their benefit. If this can be done, many of the problems which currently occur can be overcome. We may look to and enhance the ideas of current societies in order to facilitate this, taking those things which work well and applying them elsewhere.
  10. Government – hand in hand with the above, governments (such as they may be in the new system) will need to be transparent, democratic, and free of corruption. This will enable the buy-in from the people which is needed to authorise any system of fair governance. Only when people can see that a system of government benefits them and, broadly speaking, serves their best interests, will they embrace it fully, nor should they do otherwise.
  11. Power – as touched on before, the desire to impose one’s will or way of thinking on others must be changed. Taste must not dictate legislation. Human lives and desires will never completely match each other, and this is to be accepted and understood.
  12. Philosophy – a legal, social, and moral school of thought geared towards compassion, but also towards the responsibility of the individual, while also championing the rights of each individual to live in the way they feel is best for themselves. A social conscience is desirable and necessary.
  13. Ecology - a respect for nature, of which we are a part, and a striving, with our economics, technology and resource usage, to live amongst and share the planet, and protect it from harm. Unless the methods of farming are radically altered, meat consumption will also become a luxury rather than a daily necessity.
  14. Children – along with a new attitude toward the planet must come a realisation that its resources are not infinite, and we must temper our reproduction in a responsible fashion. I have written about this before so do not need to go into more detail here.
  15. The cult of celebrity - which is by no means a modern disease, but which has in our time, reached new levels of absurdity. Merit, or talent, as elements of praise and reward, must become the norm. Idiocy, obnoxiousness, and arrogance should be pitied and despised.
  16. Class - the idea that one can be born into positions of wealth and power, and responsibility, must end. This is true not only for the more obvious cases, such a modern royalty, but also in the unending cycle of the prevalence and pre-eminence of families and groups of people, whose interest lies in precisely the opposite direction to that which I am suggesting. A change in attitude to inheritance must also prevail; if the concept of money goes, so goes the ability to be given much without earning any of it.
  17. Mental illness - the stigma around such conditions needs to be removed, and replaced with the same compassion we show to those with physical problems. The body and the mind are intertwined, but out attitudes to afflictions of the one sort are often alarmingly primitive.
  18. The self, and selfishness - I suppose the central theme of this blog is the idea that people are able to consider their actions in relation to others, which sounds simple but sometimes seems much less common than could be expected. There is value in a sense of self-worth, but this is most true when taken in conjunction with a considerate estimation of the needs of others.

Some of the concepts I have mentioned are here now, and many communities on Earth have embraced them, or begun to do so. Others are longer term goals. All are intertwined. It seems that, in short, we must change much of how we currently live, and defy much of what we consider to be our nature. This is difficult, but not impossible. As to whether it can ever be truly achieved, well, I guess that is up to us.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Unspoken Problem

Go to any news website right now and take a look at the problems which are occurring in the world. I am willing to bet that a good proportion of them are due to the same root cause, and yet it is a cause which is rarely discussed in any solid or serious terms. I am talking, of course, about people, and more specifically, about the fact that there are, in essence, too many of us.

I want to put forth the argument that expansion for the sake of expansion is not only illogical, it is also morally unjustifiable. First of all, there is a simple mathematics at work here. You have an area (or a planet) with finite resources, resources which are necessary to human survival. You also have a number of people who may potentially inhabit said area. The fact is that each human requires a certain amount of resources over the course of their life in order to stay alive, and even more resources in order to thrive (the definition of thriving varies from place to place, but I’ll ignore this consideration for now). Therefore, to live comfortably, the amount of humans in any one area cannot go beyond a maximum, or you find yourself with such problems as overcrowding, drought, starvation, lack of housing, and these problems lead to crime, war, and conflict.

Because the resources of any one place cannot be said to be infinite, we need to consider the amount of people who may live comfortably (or even uncomfortably) in any one area, by considering the amount of (existing or potential) water, food, housing, and other resources available to them. If we fail to do so, we invite famine, conflict, and general human misery.

This is not idle speculation. As I have said, these problems are already occurring, on not inconsiderable scales worldwide. It is therefore, in my opinion, not only illogical, but also irresponsible and arrogant to continue to pump out humans without taking these problems into account. A change in attitude is required in order for us to avoid or mitigate the aforementioned issues.

Other challenges loom. The way we operate as a species is now threatening, and has for some time, the existence of other species on the planet. We have already caused the extinction of species like the Dodo, the Moa, and the Tasmanian Tiger. Whereas in the past we may have been able to claim ignorance of our effect on these animals, in the future we will have no such excuse. Even when we do not directly hunt a species, we may still cause its decline by the way we operate, due to factors like habitat fragmentation and deforestation, as is evident in the jungles of south-east Asia, and the plight many of the threatened species there.

Let me be clear here: this planet is not ours. We act like we own it, but in reality, we share it. To allow other species to be destroyed, whether by action or inaction, as a result of our economic pressures or, more simply, our garbage and pollutants, is criminal. Furthermore, if the moral imperative were not enough, we are pushing the planet to the point where it will become much less suitable for supporting human life, as well as the life of other species. This is a problem which must be addressed.

Now, we have begun to change our ways. New technologies and new ways of thinking are beginning to solve problems, clean things up, and make living conditions better for millions of people, and other species. But it is my opinion that even if science can save us from ourselves, it still does not stand to reason that we should keep filling the planet up with people indefinitely. There is only so much space. There are environments and places we should keep free of human influence, both because they are home to other beings, and also because of their importance to the way the Earth’s ecosystems work. These places should not be destroyed or corrupted. Other forms of life would perhaps assert its right to exist in the strongest terms, were it capable of doing so. As it does not have such capability, we must speak and act on its behalf.

So, next is the question of what can be done. We have seen some experimentation (for lack of a better word) in this area, in the oft-quoted One Child Policy implemented in parts of China. The policy is not without its exceptions, controversies, and challenges, but it speaks to a reasonable concern among leaders that indefinite population growth is neither sustainable nor desirable. There will be no one policy suitable to all places and peoples, but I would say that, in a general sense, a change in attitude is required to avert both human misery and conflict, as well as global catastrophe. This I believe to be a logical extrapolation from available information, rather than scaremongering or general misanthropy.

The moral imperative lies with governments, and individuals, when deciding how to behave. In the same way that responsible leaders will need to balance the pressures of day-to-day life for those they lead, with the problems of environmental damage and the threats arising therefrom, so they will need to begin to examine attitudes to procreation, and the idea that more is better may simply have to be abandoned. This will not be easy. Attitudes are based on any number of things, from one’s own childhood memories, to religious or superstitious convictions, to social attitudes. Still, change must come, or change will be forced upon us by the simple pressures of resource limitation. We will either succeed, or we will suffer.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Online vigilantism

Recently I have noticed an increase in the number of ‘name and shames’ occurring online, for anything from annoying people on the tube, to outright accusations of criminal activity. While I believe that social media has a part to play in the prosecution of justice, much of the way these types of things are handled at the moment gives me cause for concern. In particular, the presumption of guilt before such has been proven, and the implicit or explicit incitement to a sort of mob justice that follows.

One example occurred on May 12, in which a man was accused on Facebook of taking photos of children. The man later responded to the accusation by saying he was taking a selfie with a picture of Darth Vader as a joke to send to his children, and is taking legal action due to the damage to his character. Full story.

I have seen examples of people accused of theft, assault, and other crimes. My concern is that these posts, which essentially side step the provision of innocent until proven guilty, will encourage violence against people who may not deserve it (or even against those who may). Consider the following hypothetical scenario: a photo of a man is posted online, accusing him of, say, child abuse. It is well known that emotions run high in such cases, and the community take matters into their own hands, and deliver the man in the picture of a beating. Now, consider the following possibilities.
  1. The wrong picture was uploaded, and the wrong man takes a beating.
  2. The person who was beaten looks similar to the man in the photo, but is not the man in the photo.
  3. The person is the man in the photo, but suffers from mental impairment, and would not be able to be held legally responsible for his crime.
  4. The man in the photo catches a beating, but it turns out the child fabricated the story. 
Even if the person is guilty, and in the eyes of many ‘got what he deserved’, does this give us the right to provoke such action? Even if the man is never attacked, how would he be expected to get a fair trial after such a witch hunt? If accusations are smeared all over the internet, we have reached the stage where, often, accused equals guilty?

I am not saying I feel particularly sympathetic towards certain criminals, nor that they do not deserve certain punishments. What I am saying is that the protections we have built up in law through centuries of trial and error (if you’ll forgive the pun) exist for very good reasons, and it might make sense to think twice before posting accusations of criminal activity online. Hell, it might make sense to think twice before shaming anyone online. That fat, sweaty guy on the tube might have a medical condition. The stinky kid on the bus may have been pushed into the mud by bullies at school. The point it, once it’s out there, it can’t be taken back, and that is a bigger step to take on someone else’s behalf than many of us seem to realise.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Lessons from my Mother

I have a confession to make. Recently the third anniversary of my mother’s passing came and went. I don’t know the exact date. I haven’t gone out of my way to forget it, but nor have I committed it to memory. The reason being, I prefer to think about her life.

That being said, it’s hard to ignore the thoughts that roll around this time of year, and as some of them have occurred to me, I decided to create a list. My mother taught me a lot, both purposely and simply through her example, so here are some of the things which come to mind.

Never be ashamed to get involved. Whenever there was a holiday, play, school event, or what have you, Mum would take to it with enthusiasm. She wasn’t worried about whether others would laugh; she’d happily look silly in order to make things fun for her kids or others.

Creativity is important. When we were young, we were always allowed and encouraged to muck around with paints, crafts, cooking, old clothes. All things which encourage creativity and art in a young mind. Once, we played astronauts in the lounge and Mum brought us green milk to add to the alien effect. I’ll never forget that.

Self-esteem. Let’s face it, I was a gloomy teenager a lot of the time. Hell, I can still be a gloomy adult. Still, my mother was always telling me to believe in myself, and be positive. I didn’t see the importance of it at the time, as is often the way, but now I do.

Permanence. During your childhood, your parents are ever-present. Though I availed myself less of the opportunity than I could have (due to aforementioned teenage gloom), Mum was always ready to lend an ear, and, also, to offer sound, practical advice. She was also exactly what you want when you’re sick: someone to sympathise and bring you soup. Even now, I still miss my Mum when I am ill.

The fact that being a parent is a pain in the ass sometimes. If you look at the amount of my mother’s pottery or sculpture that my brother and I broke, it might represent the amount of hard work and frustration she put into us over the years. (My Aunty Es had a similar problem I am sure.) Despite that fact that I’m pretty cool, I threw the odd strop, and I know my brother and sister were no angels. Behind all this, though, as a child knowing you’ll always have a warm home to come home to no matter how many windows you break is something more than special.

Words can hurt. I think back to one or two things I said when I was younger, which upset my Mum, and I feel ashamed. There is a lesson in this, and it’s one I try to remind myself of regularly.

Practicality is important. From my Ma, I learned the basics of cooking, cleaning, laundry, and she pushed me to learn to drive and to get my first job. These things laid the foundation for some of the every day things I do, taught me to be confident and independent, and to stand up for myself. My Mum also showed me that life isn’t fair, and you have to accept this and battle on when difficulty arises.

A system of belief requires conviction. Though she didn’t realise it, an independence of mind (some results of which she might regret) was instilled in me. While young, my thoughts about how people should be treated, how they should behave, and a tentative moral philosophy, were developed by watching and listening to my mother.

There are worse things than a dignified death. My mother’s last days must have been frustrating, even maddening. I don’t know how she stayed calm, but throughout her decline, that’s what she did. She always seemed peaceful. This is a testament to her strength of mind and heart.

Now, I’m not saying she was a saint, and there are definitely one or two things which I found frustrating, like a double standard when it came to talking in the lounge while the TV was on, or a stubborn streak of her own from time to time. But I can forgive these things when it comes to my Ma, because the good far outweighs the bad. I am sure there are other things that are lost in time or overlooked, but the home life, and the later support I received have given me many reasons to be grateful.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

The Internet Generation

My generation is lucky. They are the first to have access to the internet, and they have avoided being the first to be born with the internet available. The children who are born now, I think their attitude to the internet will be different to ours, and different to their parents. I say this because we are now witnessing a generation of children who will ‘grow up online’, so to speak. We have millions of children who already have a substantial online presence that they did not create, and in which they had no say. Their parents have uploaded pictures of them, posted videos, added status updates telling the world about their misadventures and bowel movements. Formerly, these embarrassments were the domain of stories from parents at parties, and the occasional polaroid of a baby in a bath or with cake all over their face. Now, it’s all out there for the world to see. Children have email addresses and facebook pages before they learn how to speak. It’s like everyone is growing up a child celebrity, but without the money to insulate themselves from the negative aspects of being in the public eye.

Why is this so bad? What’s the harm in a few baby pictures online? To that, let me posit the following scenario. A man trawls the internet looking for pictures of children, because he finds them exciting. Sure, your privacy settings are high, but are your friends’? That video they shared is now in the hands of Pervy McNasty. Even if it never goes further than that, that’s a chilling thought. But keep in mind it could go further than that. People know how to find you, to get your address, to figure out where your children go to school. It’ll probably be ok. But you never know.

There’s also the problem of privacy. There are things I don’t want people to know, both from my childhood and as an adult. These things, I have a right to keep to myself. If I start dating a girl, I don’t expect her to be able to find my baby pictures online immediately. That kind of thing can wait.  Similarly, she doesn’t need to know all the gross things I got up to (and have no memory of) when I was a two-year-old. That’s information I keep to myself.

I’m not saying never share anything. After all, parents will always be annoyingly proud of their children (despite the lack of any real achievement thus far - call me when they win a Nobel prize, would ya?). But think about what you put online on behalf of a person who is going to have to live with that online presence, with photos and pictures and information about themselves which they did not choose to make public. Even if the information is mild and inoffensive, it’s still information about a person which they had no say in posting. And have no doubt, once it’s online, it’s public.

The only advantage that today’s children will have is that they will understand what it is like to have their whole lives smeared across the internet before they even knew what the internet was, and they will be more considerate than their parents about what they choose to post. At least, that’s the hope. We’ll have to wait and see.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Meaning of Life

What is the meaning of life?

To begin with, I need to stress the importance of meaning as a human concept. This may be disputed, by those who claim that meaning is generated outside of the individual, but as you will see, this belief can be incorporated into my theory of meaning and how it is created.

Events and actions do not have meaning, outside of human interpretation. ‘Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.’ One need only visit a sporting event to understand how an individual event such as a goal or try can have a vastly different meaning for two otherwise similar human beings. Any occurrence is assigned meaning by a human brain, framing that occurrence within the context of its own values and beliefs. Value judgements about the triviality or importance of an event, its morality or lack thereof, are not possible without the observer to apply them. When the last human on Earth dies, who will be able to point to an event and say this is bad or good?

So, people acquire meaning through experience, through the values and beliefs they are taught (directly or indirectly) by those around them and by society. Systems and structures of meaning, whether one creates them consciously through study and thought, or accepts them passively through the teachings of others, become the pillars of our lives; they affect the way we feel about an event, and direct how we act in any given situation.

As Sartre said, we are ‘condemned to be free’. We have the burden and the gift of deciding the meaning of our own existence, each and every one of us. And this determines how we act; our lives are our own responsibility.

Some individuals allow their values and sense of purpose to be defined for them by a teacher, or invisible man, or other entity, and thus defer the decision of meaning to a moral authority they perceive to be greater than themselves; but nonetheless this act, in itself, is a decision of a kind. We cannot escape the fact that we must choose the meaning of our own lives, even if that choice is to embrace someone else’s rules and values.

(Indeed, we cannot stop ourselves from creating meaning; we begin to assign human motive to other living things, and even vast inanimate things like the universe, simply because to do so is instinctive, almost automatic. The current theory around our willingness to assign motive to things like storms and computers, is that it is the remnant of a survival trait which prompted action on our part where otherwise we might have failed to act appropriately. If we perceive a landslide is trying to kill us, it makes the situation much more immediate, and the required action much clearer. However, we can now see how it can be flawed to reason in this way.)

It is also true that a meaning can and will change for a person during their lifetime. You do not value things now the same way you valued them as a chil,d and your ideas about what is important have changed as you’ve assimilated new information (whether accurate or not) and undergone new experiences. Thus, meaning cannot be defined as a universal statement or even feeling. It is unique for each individual, and indeed for each time and place in that individual’s life. This is because of the nature of the universe, and of human existence; which is to say we are in flux.

If we search for absolutes, which you might realise by now is a risky thing to do, we can only say: change is the only true constant. The only permanence is impermanence.

It is not logical to expect that meaning can ever be expressed in absolutes, even for an individual. Instead, we find meaning in the search for meaning. (If this seems paradoxical, consider the fact that at the end of our lives, we die. We do not sit down to sum up our lives and describe the meaning of them in a neat package, or if we do, we inevitably find multiple ways to express the truth of our existence, such as it has been at various points over the course of the years. And others who examine our lives from the outside will find their own ways of interpreting and understanding them.) We constantly rediscover our own meaning as we go through the inevitable changes life brings. The goal is the struggle. The destination is the journey.

So the answer to the question, ‘what is the meaning of life’ must ultimately be another question: what do you think it is? The answer is the question. But your answer is yours alone.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Football vs football

I really do enjoy a number of different sports. Having relatively recently been able to watch a decent amount of NFL in a way which was hitherto unavailable, I have enjoyed a good deal of American Football too. Thank you, Sky Sports. Now, part of the reason people who are used to watching rugby or football (aka soccer) often struggle with the US version of the same name, is that it is just so stop-start. I mean, the stoppages are built into the game, from turnovers, to flags, to quarter breaks, to the two-minute warning. Now, I propose no solution to this issue, nor do I insinuate that such a solution is necessary (to say nothing about desirable); no, my point is to analyse the relative 'value', in terms of game time to non-game time watched, provide a comparison.

What I mean is this: say you are sitting down with a beer, about to watch a game, and you find yourself wondering, 'just how much crap am I going to have to watch during the course of this match?' By my use of the highly-technical term 'crap', I mean anything that isn't the game itself, such as advertisements, punditry (informative or otherwise), or the players standing around waiting for something to happen or arguing with the referee. I admit that I am going to be dealing in averages and imprecise figures here, since rugby uses a stopped clock, players argue with a referee for differing amounts of time, and NFL games don't all have the same length. This is a necessary evil, but I think I can give enough of a picture to provide some satisfaction. I am also assuming the aforementioned beer-wielding man turns his TV on at then precise moment a game begins, ignoring things like anthems, cheerleaders, or the haka. For the purposes of this article, I will also ignore games which require overtime or extra time.

1) Football (aka soccer):

A football game is scheduled for ninety minutes, with fifteen minutes for half time. There is also added time in either half, but since this added time is intended to compensate for stoppages during play itself, I am going to use ninety minutes as our basic figure, and add the stoppages to the 'crap' category. I am going to assume an average of six minutes of added time per match, that's three minutes per half. Therefore, if a match is watched completely, the viewer has ninety minutes of sport time, and twenty one minutes of 'crap' (fifteen minutes for half time plus six minutes for stoppages).

This leads to a ratio of 90:21, or 30:7. This can also be expressed as 4.29:1, and it means that for every four and a half minutes of sport the man (or woman, let's be fair) watches, he also has to watch a minute of crap.

2) Rugby (aka rugby union)

Rugby is only eighty minutes to football's ninety, and what's more the play clock is stopped during breaks in play or when the video referee is being consulted, making things a little more tricky to calculate. With the problems around the modern scrum, I estimate this stoppage time at around four minutes per half, for a total of eight minutes. A rugby half time is ten minutes, for a crap total of eighteen minutes.

This leads to a ratio of 80: 18, or 4.44:1. Pretty similar to football, and if you take into consideration the fact that in rugby you don't have to put up with scenes of players falling to the ground in agony only to be fine again moments later, or surrounding the referee to complain about a decision, rugby creeps ahead in the watchability stakes (but that's another argument).

3) American Football (aka gridiron)

The duration of play time for an NFL game is 60 minutes. The half time lasts 12 minutes, and the quarter breaks each also involve short stoppages of 2 minutes. So far that's 16 minutes. However, I'm going to take a different approach on this entry, because the timekeeping in an NFL game involves both the game clock and the play clock, and the many rules are too complicated for me to go into here. What I want to do is compare the play time (60 minutes), with the average duration (slightly over three hours). Therefore, the crap total is about 120 minutes (i.e. 180 minus 60).

This leads to a ratio of 60:120, or 1:2. This means that for every minute of play an NFL fan watches, he or she also watches two minutes of crap. This is a far smaller reward for effort (if by effort you assume I mean couch time), than either of the previous two entries. I believe this accounts for much of the difficulty in selling the NFL to a British or European public.

Now, as I have mentioned, American Football is built around the system of plays and downs, and this is part of what makes the game so enjoyable. However, if some of the extraneous viewing could be weeded out, it might make it more palatable to those who have grown up watching more fast-paced games (which is certainly on the NFL's agenda, at least in the UK). Dammit, I said I wasn't going to look at solutions. Oh well, I got drawn in.

In closing, I enjoy all the above sports, and more, and of course there's more to a game than how many ads you have to suffer through, but I do feel that generally speaking, the less crap involved, the better.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Count Your Fears

What are you afraid of? Are your fears personal or universal? Temporal, or infinite? Is there any fear you can have which is not shared by at least some of your fellow humans? I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.
  1. A fear of being forgotten, of having never mattered. Of knowing that no matter how hard I try, my art may never be recognised, and when I am gone, all that will remain of me is slowly rotting bones hidden beneath cold earth. That I may never achieve what I hope to achieve.
  2. That fear Number 1 is what I deserve, that it is my lot as a human. That my art is mediocre, not worth saving, not worth remembering. That I am ordinary.
  3. That all art is vain and nothing lasts forever. The loss of my work. The idea that, when my work is lost, and all those who knew me have died, I will be truly gone.
  4. A violent death. A painful life. Broken bones and surgeries. Illness and atrophy.
  5. That fear Number 4, of mere pain, will prevent me from living, from taking risks, from doing things which will thrill and excite me.
  6. The loss of cherished loved ones, family and friends; or their ire, disgust, or disregard. A life of solitary confinement, alone and ignored by friend and foe alike.
  7. That I will take risks and fail. That I will never know glory. That I will be damaged and discarded.
  8. That I will be injured and become trapped in my own body, unable to move or escape, unable to stir the hand that would provide the consolation of death and nothingness. That my mind will fail me and I will forget everything I am, all my memories washed away like stones worn down by the sea.
  9. That death is the end. That life does not prevail. That there is nothing more than here and now. That I will never see my loved ones again.
  10. That death is not the end. That there is something more, unknown and unknowable. Possibly more beautiful and brilliant than can be conceived, possibly more terrifying and horrible than can be imagined. That eternal suffering is real and palpable. That I may be divided from those I love forever.
  11. That I have wasted time, dallied, idled. Made excuses for laziness, spurned the gift of life with TV and boredom. That, knowing this fear, I do little to alleviate it.
  12. That I will die without ever really knowing true love. That I will never find it, am not made for it; that I will simply be unlucky and  never trip over it or dare to grab it. That I may try for it in vain. That I have been in love and not dared to realise it, or to speak it aloud, scared of what it might mean.
  13. That I am weak. Physically, intellectually. That there is evil in my mind I cannot fully control; that I am subject to basic biology which will betray me. That I am wrong about all the important things, despite my efforts to follow the evidence.
  14. That God is real. That he is real and is as evil, petty, and malicious as many of his followers would have you believe. That he hates us as much as his treatment of us on Earth would lead me to believe.
  15. That I fear too much, and it takes up too much of my time, so that at the end of my life I will look back and say ‘what a waste of energy that could have been spent on living’. That I worry about things I can control instead of changing them. That I worry about things I cannot control.
  16. That there are things I cannot control.
  17. That we humans will destroy ourselves. That we already have and we cannot see it. Lacking the will to ask the hard questions, that we do not see what we are and what we are capable of, where we came from and where we might go. That our nature will lead us to ruin, when it could have led us to the stars.
  18. That society will fail and justice be trampled by blind men of perfect faith or perfect self-interest, discarding compassion; and we will lose all that precious thought, all that we have gained through the labour of discovery accumulated over countless years of sweat and setback and the smallest of triumphs, day by day. That we will cast away all beauty and reason in the face of blind instinct, dogma, or prejudice.
  19. That we will be destroyed before our time by a universe cold and uncaring, without even the chance to say goodbye to things that really matter, to those we really love.
  20. That we humans behave so badly that we deserve to be destroyed. That our evils outweigh our acts of kindness. That everyday people of good conscience are nothing against the power of the machine-like indifference to both human and non-human suffering which seems to drive the world along. That we will someday be treated by other species the way we treat our fellow humans and fellow species here on Earth, that is, with contempt, disregard, and annihilation.

Your turn.