Monday, 19 October 2009

Losing the plot

I had a worrying episode of absent mindedness today. I was out with my three year old son when an elderly lady became quite smitten with him (he is rather a fine looking child, though I say so myself). After telling me what a delightful little boy I had, she went on to tell me he had lovely strawberry blond hair and asked whether I thought he'd keep it. Being rather sparse and shiny on top myself, I told her that baldness usually skips a generation, so he had a pretty good chance of keeping his fetching locks.

It was only several hours later, at dinner, that I realised that her comment was nothing to do with the fact that I was bald (which is the sort of personal remark you wouldn't expect from someone of that generation), but she was simply asking whether I thought my son would retain his current hair colour as he grew up. I clearly need to get out more before I completely lose the knack of making small talk...

We're all in this together 2

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the bank...

Royal Bank of Scotland, the same people who sacked 15,000 staff worldwide last year, are set to hand £4bn in bonuses- mainly to its investment banking arm....

Remember that, following last year's bail-out, 70% of RBS is owned by the taxpayer. That means that the taxpayer will foot the bill for 70% (£2.8bn) of those bonuses.

Two weeks ago, at the Conservative Party conference, George Osborne showed us where his priorities are as he reminded us that "we're-all-in-this-together", unveiling his urgent plans to reform incapacity benefits that would save "more than £1bn over the next Parliament".

This is while 65,000 homes will have been repossessed by the end of 2009, and while tens of thousands of people are seeing their final salary pension schemes slashed and mangled because of City investments going tits up.

At RBS they're all-in-this-together alright.

Courtesy of Hagley Road To Ladywood and The Independent on Sunday Risks nationalized, profits privatized, bubbly all round in the board room ... are you feeling the warm glow of solidarity yet?

Sunday, 18 October 2009


Kids nowadays – rude, gobby, no respect. Are the people who say these things right, or are they just a bunch of crabby old whiners?

I reckon that some of these views are just unreasonable grumbling by people who’ve forgotten what it is to be young, demanding a return to the days when children were cowed by fear of adults and respected grown-up’s ability to enforce their authority by force. Perhaps a golden age of civility never really existed. Here’s the case for the defence, put by Oda, a rather good* blogger I who recently stumbled across:
“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for
authority, they show disrespect to their elders…. They no longer
rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents,
chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their
legs, and are tyrants over their teachers.”

“The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have
no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all
restraint. They talk as if they alone knew everything and what passes
for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for girls, they are
forward, immodest and unwomanly in speech, behaviour and dress.”
Quote: Well, both are commonly attributed to Socrates.
Some things never change.

Maybe, then, we just need a bit of perspective before deciding that we’re sliding into a new age of barbarism. There is, however, some anecdotal evidence that things may have changed for the worse over the last few years. A lot of what I hear and read from teachers suggests that trying to maintain order and teach has become an uphill struggle in recent years. Teachers from abroad, in particular, tend to complain that British kids are more surly, uninterested and disrespectful than children back home.

Of course, there may be other factors at work here – lack of support for teachers when they try to take a firm stand, trying to work in a state of permanent revolution, where new teaching initiatives come and go and targets are constantly shifting, the focus on league tables and the pressure to teach to the test rather than just teach. Maybe the kids are no worse than they were, but they now sense that teachers are weakened, under stress, undermined by their superiors and no longer valued as anything more than production line workers tasked with turning out economically useful human widgets at the lowest possible cost.

In such a competitive, test-obsessed atmosphere, maybe kids are getting the message that “the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on … trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each others’ heels” (that was how John Start Mill described an ideology fashionable his time which is still, alas, alive and kicking today). Not a great environment in which to nurture respect, consideration and empathy.

There are some kinds of respect we could do without. I don’t think we need any more respect for authority, which as often as not is the same as respect for power or for the prejudices of those with power. It’s one-way respect without dialogue - “'shut up', he explained”, as someone once wrote.

A more useful sort of respect simply consists of a bit of basic empathy and recognising that other people have rights and feelings. It’s the opposite to the celebration of “trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each others’ heels” as humanity’s natural state. As always, The Golden Rule (“do to others what you would like to be done to you”, or at least “do not do to others what you would not like to be done to you”) is a good rule of thumb.

Here’s another post from Oda with a thought-provoking anecdote about respect:
So I went on a bus. And accidentally went ahead of an elderly gentleman.
I said accidentally, because that was what it was. The bus-stop was full of people, I had forgotten my glasses, and I was late for something. This man then started to yell at me. This is fair enough, I did after-all cut in before him. I said something apologetic, told him I hadn’t seen him, and let him move in ahead of me. But he continued to yell.
Apparently i am personally responsible for all that is wrong with the youth of today with their bad manners, teen pregnancy, drinking, skiving, and lack of respect for the elderly.
Wait a sec… Respect for the elderly? This man was in no way old enough to have fended off the nazis singlehandedly, had a far as I was aware not himself produced any of my textbooks, was from his vocabulary not much to look up to in the form of intellectual capacity, had just said that I was going to get drunk and then pregnant ENTIRELY based on my age and an accidental queue-jump, and he demanded respect. Not as a human being, but as a member of a group(Of which there are some members have the greatest respect, but that is by the by), and that his belonging to this group gave him the right to publicly insult members of another group. Due to a hierarchy of status and inherent worth between them.
No matter which groups are considered more or less worth others, and no matter how old the person having these opinions are, I have very little respect for that sort of thinking.
Of course, I could have confronted him with these opinions and drawn lined between his group-hierarchy way of thinking to far less pleasant systems of discrimination, and thus challenged his world-view, perhaps brought a new perspective to him, or have his opinions explained clearer, put in a context…
Some would say that this would be cruel to an old man who is set in his ways and who will never change his ways of thinking. Or in other words that his opinions are of little importance since he is going to die soon anyway, so we might as well humour him. That would be respectful to the elderly.
So I showed him that respect.

Good point, well made, I thought.

*Well, very good in English. After a bit of time with Google Translate, I might also be able to offer a valid opinion on the bits written in Norwegian.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Pea lunacy

I found myself watching Masterchef: The Professionals last night. Well, not quite watching it, more being aware of it happening, in a room where someone else was watching. One bizarre moment caught my attention, though. A grumpy Michelin-starred chef was explaining exactly how one of his dishes had to be prepared and presented. The individual peas in this dish, he said, must be peeled. Ordinary people just take the peas out of the pod. This man had decided that in a “fine dining environment”* if you don’t remove the membrane from around every individual pea, you might as well sling the whole dish in the bin.

If a chef can insist, with a straight face, on the importance of every pea on the plate being peeled, some might call him a driven perfectionist. I’d call him a madman with borderline OCD. I love food and I admire skilled, imaginative cooks but, for crying out loud, get a grip. Life really is too short to peel a pea.

*Michel Roux junior could be considerably less irritating than the average celebrity chef if he would only stop repeating the poncy expression “fine dining”.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

I wouldn't be surprised

France has the best quality of life out of Europe's biggest countries, while Britain has the worst despite having the highest incomes, a study says.

I've no idea how rigorous this study is, but it contrasts with years of hearing British politicians subjecting their continental counterparts to tedious lectures on how they need to modernise, deregulate and become more like Britain. Maybe the British way of doing things wasn't that impressive after all - perhaps all we've been doing is running furiously round like hamsters in a wheel just to stay in the same place - so much for Anglo-Saxon "efficiency":

It revealed that Britain had the highest net household income ... but much of this is spent on a higher cost of living.

And of course, those high incomes are taking a battering:

The report warned that Britain's quality of life was likely to fall further because of the recession, which has pushed unemployment to nearly 2.5 million and will likely result in public spending cuts.

Read more here (originally spotted by The Null Device).

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

We're all in this together

The shadow chancellor told the party conference in Manchester: "I want to make this absolutely clear - you're all in this together.

"Me? I'm err... Well, I'm fine actually. I've got a safe seat, a really super pension, two large houses and considerable personal wealth. You, on the other hand, are deeply, horribly, terrifyingly not fine."

As reported in The Daily Mash. As usual, they get to the heart of the matter, rather than faffing about like most "serious" political commentators.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Street art

There was an interesting programme on the radio recently about graffiti - I was busy and missed most of it, but it got me thinking. There are heated arguments over whether graffiti is mere vandalism or whether it can be considered "street art". I don't think there's an absolute right or wrong answer to this one but, on balance, I think graffiti's a bad thing.

The "street art" argument has some merit - there have been works of graffiti which display genuine skill, wit and artistic merit, works of imagination produced by people whose parents didn't have the resources to put them through art school, people defiantly expressing their individuality and imagination in an indifferent world which doesn't value their talents.

Leaving artistic merit aside for a moment, though, I can't help thinking that a lot of the major fans of "street art" are relatively privileged people, slumming it. Admiring street art may increase your edgy cool factor by several orders of magnitude down the the fashionable bar where art school wannabes, or in media creative types go after a hard day's thinking outside the box (or as graffiti artist Banksy put it "think from outside the box, collapse the box and take a [expletive deleted] knife to it").

But I suspect that most of the middle class people who fervently promote "street art" have the luxury of having their exposure to it controlled. For real poor people, living in run-down areas, outbreaks of graffiti are probably less welcome - spray-painted tags are just another ugly assault on an already bleak and depressing environment, along with dumped refuse, vandalised bus shelters, boarded up windows and other signs of neglect and decay. There are a lot of people whose street cred is tied up with a love of street art, but who go home every night to clean, well-furnished homes in clean, prosperous neighbourhoods and who wake up in the morning to find that nothing around them has been torched, kicked in or spray-painted in the night.

As a rule, I don't think that graffiti improves a neighborhood and I'm pretty certain that most people who can afford to live somewhere which isn't covered in graffiti, do so. An American advertising executive once said that no scene had ever been improved by the presence of a billboard (which is why few advertising executives live in neighbourhoods commanding a view of a massive advertising hoarding). Likewise, I can't think of many neighbourhoods which would be much improved by a rash of spray painted tags. In both cases, it's just unwanted visual noise, which most people don't want to see, in much the same way as they don't want to hear the local teenagers' taste in rap amplified to painful volumes via the open windows of some boy-racermobile pimped with an earsplitting sound system.

Sometimes a piece of graffiti can make you stop and smile for a moment - I remember some skilfully-painted murals in London featuring trains and the cryptic line "far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere". But I wouldn't want to see it coming to a wall near me soon.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Jane Austen improved

As Neal Stephenson pointed out, the standard excuse for using emoticons is to convey the "tone of voice" which may be missing from mere written words. Let's try to improve a famous passage by adding a conversational cue by smiley:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife ;-).

I think we can all agree that the passage is a lot easier to understand now, isn't it? :-P (that, by the way, is meta-irony, or somthing of the sort).

Friday, 2 October 2009

Smiley happy people

I'm feeling middle aged. In fact, I'm just about as old as the smiley face, first designed by one Harvey Ball in 1963 whilst working as a freelance artist for a life assurance company. Like me, the smiley has irritated people ever since, although unlike me, the smiley symbol has become known to millions, both in its original form and as in its online incarnation as the emoticon :-) or :), along with countless variations on the theme.

As far back as 1993, Neal Stephenson was waging war against the unstoppable tide of emoticons. I fear it's a lost battle, but like the Spartans at Thermopylae, at least Stephenson had a few choice and pithy words to say before being overwhelmed:

The online world has its own cliches and truisms, none so haggard as the belief that reliable written communication is impossible without frequent use of emoticons, better known as the "smileys." Emoticons are nothing more than characters that look like a face when viewed sideways. The original smiley is :-), but there are innumerable variations, such as :-0 ;-) :-( 8-) :-{) :-{)>, and each can signify anything from facial hair to a particular emotional state. Emoticons are the electronic equivalent of spin doctors: commonly inserted at the end of a sentence that is meant to be interpreted as sarcasm, or, in general, whenever the writer fears his or her prose may be about to jump the iron rails of literalism.
With the eerie uniformity of airport cultists, emoticon users all proffer the same rationale for the smiley tic: since the streams of ascii characters flowing across the Internet (usually described as "cold," "mechanistic," etc.) cannot carry body language or tone, the missing cues must be supplied through punctuation. The tendency of writers to bungle their attempts at sarcasm, and of readers to bungle the detection of it, invariably leads (so the argument goes) to hurt feelings, which in turn leads to network "flame wars" in which people insult each other in extravagant terms that would never be used face- to-face. Irony, it seems, is like nitroglycerin: too tricky to be good for much, and so best left in the hands of fanatics or trained professionals.
Never addressed by such people is the question of how humans have managed to communicate with the written word for thousands of years without strewing crudely fashioned ideograms across their parchments. It is as if the written word were a cutting-edge technology without useful precedents. Some hackers actually go so far as to maintain, with a straight face (:-I), that words on a computer screen are different from words on paper--implying that writers of e-mail have nothing useful to learn from Dickens or Hemingway, and that time spent reading old books might be better spent coming up with new emoticons.
Splendid stuff -read Stephenson's article in full here.