Archive for February, 2007

Where ideas come from

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

I was idly watching breakfast tv this morning while I was er, having my breakfast. I finished my piece of home baked wholemeal toast, topped with home made plum jam, and the majority of my attention then switched to the content on the tv. The hosts introduced some entertainment guest who I did not know nor had I any wish to acquaint myself with and so I switched the television off.

Then I had one of those little visions that sometimes kick start a joke or a sketch. I had over the past few days been contemplating the encroaching influence of the internet on the recreational habits of the country’s population (nay, the world’s population) and how something had to give; most likely television viewing figures. So as I switched the tv off I imagined some tv producer monitoring the live viewing figures for his or her programme and being able to notice my particular set being turned off, so sensitive was their equipment. This preposterous scenario then led me to imagine a future when only a handful of people would be watching a programme at any particular time and at some unpopular point in the show the last tv would be turned off and the producer would walk onto the set, interrupt the presenters and say, “forget it chaps, there’s no-one watching anymore.”

The crew would then idly read papers, drink coffee and chat until the producer would suddenly scream through their earpieces, “Places everyone! Someone has switched their tv back on!”

Joined up thinking

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

Yesterday I tried to clean the carpet in the dining room.

I had finished decorating the room and thought it would be satisfying to complete the process with a clean carpet. I got out the carpet cleaning machine from the depths of the cupboard under the stairs, dusted it off and attempted to assemble it. I must have used this machine twice in the twelve years we have had it (a house warming present). It has more pipes and tubes than a cow’s digestive system along with other bits and pieces that would be analogous to the evacuating end of the cow.

We had long since lost the instructions and so I had to resort to other methods of divining its assembled form. I used intuition, common sense and memory to fit the pieces together. When I had finished, it looked about right. I filled the reservoir with cleaning solution, picked up the lance with the cleaning head at the end and expectantly turned on the powerful motor. I know what you’re thinking, but no, it didn’t explode into the Trevi fountain, it did the opposite – it didn’t do anything.

No fluids of any kind could be seen flowing anywhere, only a loud motor noise could be heard. The transparent tube that led to the cleaning head remained desert dry. When I switched the machine off and checked the reservoir I discovered it was empty! The machine had simply pumped the cleaning solution into the waste bucket beneath, bypassing the cleaning hose.

I won’t go into excruciating detail about my trials and tribulations but an hour passed with much swearing and shouting and experimenting with different configurations, most of them just a stupid repetition of what I had tried already – why do we do that? Eventually I sat down and thoroughly studied the machine. Using scientific reasoning, I figured out that a hose that led from the reservoir had to connect directly into the cleaning head hose for it to work and not simply dangle loose into the waste bucket which is how I had it. I think I must have imagined some kind of vacuum suction miraculously moved the cleaning solution from the dangling hose into the other hose. It sounds incredibly stupid now but the design of the machine suggested to my intuition that that is how it should have been put together. The correct configuration was counter intuitive because the connecting hose seemed superfluous, it could have been designed much better to my mind.

As I walked into the village later on and reflected on how a lot of design nowadays is counter intuitive and thus difficult to use (especially with digital technology) a horrible realization crept into my consciousness.

I got the feeling that I had been through exactly the same experience the last time I had used the machine. It was such a long time ago that I had forgotten about it but the more I thought about it the more convinced I became that I had repeated the same mistake and come up with exactly the same result. History had repeated itself. The reason I felt horrified was because this seemed to confirm the suspicion that some people have that we are moist robots and that our thinking is limited and rigid. How disappointed I was in myself for being so predictable. I felt like a lab rat.

Well maybe not quite a lab rat because in order to ensure I didn’t repeat the mistake for a third time when I next used the machine, several years hence, I wrote out a note for myself explaining the design fault with the tubes along with a diagram of the correct connection. This I stuffed into the stomach of the machine before I packed it away again into the cupboard.

This made me feel much better as I congratulated myself on demonstrating the defining characteristic of the human species; we can think ahead.

Come to think of it, is a squirrel burying nuts thinking ahead or is it a hard wired instinct that comes into play when the harvest is good?

Name change your way out of trouble

Monday, February 26th, 2007

Here’s a good marketing trick, if a name becomes pejorative, just change it. Gypsies became Travelers. Epileptics became Scope.

But why do names become pejorative in the first place?

I hear thieves want to be known as credit entrepreneurs, as the term ‘thief’ is too victimizing.

Conversational taboos

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

December 23rd 2006

I was chatting with a female acquaintance at a house party about her family’s new car amongst other things. The conversation moved to their old car and she told me they sold it privately to someone they knew rather than trade it in.

“What did you get for it?” I absent mindedly asked, wondering what a seven year old BMW was worth. The look she shot back at me was remarkable. I might as well have asked her what her favourite sexual position was or did she just stick with masturbation these days.

“That’s none of your business.” she replied (about the car).

Earlier we had been talking about her sons entry into a prestigious university and his emotional adjustment to it. Presumably her sons education is none of my business either but she happily talked about that; so why the sudden defensive posture as soon as money is mentioned?

I can guess why this coyness originated. People must have imagined it prevented ill feeling or jealousy if they avoided the issue of comparative wealth. Also, talking about the specifics of a deal could disclose the business acumen of the speaker, thereby alerting the listener to a possible advantage should they ever do a deal with the speaker (a bit like showing your hand in a card game). But surely, talking about your son gaining entry into a top university would generate as much ill feeling, if not more these days, with other parents who’s offspring are not as academically bright – you can always get richer but you can’t make your children any brighter than they are.

This got me thinking about the taboo subjects in Western society and I came up with a short list, they are;

  • sex
  • nudity
  • money
  • the thought of death
  • fundamentalism
  • bowels
  • loneliness
  • There are probably quite a few more but these seem good contenders.

    The evenings minefield of social gaffes continued when I talked with another acquaintance and I told them the story of my mothers recent probate (the legal process after someone dies).

    On investigation we (my brother and I) discovered that solicitors charge a percentage of the estate with regard to their fees – an iniquitous practice in my opinion.

    “How the hell do they justify that!?” I indignantly demanded, warming to the task. Presumably, the same amount of work is involved, whether the estate is worth one hundred thousand pounds or two hundred and fifty thousand pounds and yet the solicitor has the temerity to charge over double the lesser fee. It is like going into a shop, seeing an item and asking the assistant how much the item is and the assistant telling you that that is dependent on the value of your estate. It’s outrageous. And people put up with it! Part of the reason is, I think, that families are understandably upset at the death of a parent and so gladly pass on the responsibility to anyone who has the knowledge to do it. Enter the solicitor. Instead of being compassionate and fair minded, our solicitor sees an opportunity to make a quick buck and takes advantage of the bereaved by employing a charging structure which, had the family not been grief stricken, they would have seen straight through and gone elsewhere with their business.

    I continued with my diatribe by telling another story of a friend of mine who had commissioned a solicitor to prosecute his mothers probate. That was over eighteen months ago and it still had not been finalized. My friend was living in his mothers house and so was in no hurry to sell it. He made the fatal mistake of telling the solicitors this and so they just sit on it until they can be bothered to get round to it (presumably they have already taken their fee).

    I defiantly continued to rage against the greed of solicitors by next explaining some of the costs involved. Typically, I was being quoted thousands of pounds to complete my mothers probate. On one occasion – because I was now ringing round – I got talking to a solicitor who was a specialist in a different field (the probate specialist was on another call) and she talked to me as best she could. I asked her what most of the costs were and she told me the probate form itself was two hundred and fifty pounds or thereabouts and then she made the mistake of giving me the telephone number of the probate office so I could check. This I did and the marvelously helpful woman at the other end told me the probate form was ninety pounds to process and that there was nothing stopping me from doing the probate myself (I like to think she was fully aware of the markup solicitors put on that form).

    Well that was it; if the solicitor is going to put a three hundred percent markup on a form what else are they going to expropriate? And the woman confirmed if we did the probate ourselves, the total cost would be ninety pounds. In total. This compared with thousands from the solicitor.

    In the end my brother did the probate as he was the main executor of my mothers financial affairs (but it took a great deal of persuasion from myself to convince him nothing could go wrong. This is where the solicitors power base is; the learned helplessness of the general public. The law is available to everyone and is not some black art reserved exclusively for the initiated). It took six weeks in total to complete the probate. Compare that with eighteen months and counting for my friend. And most of the work was just straightforward form filling apart from an interview with an official.

    When I had finished my demolition job and silently congratulated myself for brilliantly demonstrating the parasitic nature of blood sucking solicitors, I left a pregnant pause in the conversation for my acquaintance to confirm this view with his, no doubt, similar solicitor horror story but he just stared at me blankly and casually said “my son is training to be a solicitor.”

    The tile fitter

    Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

    24 September 2006

    I had just finished reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and at the back of the book was a little story about our narrator and his friend, a talented violinist, strolling through the mall when the woman hears a piano permeating the hubbub of commercialism. They come upon an Estonian pianist playing Mozart in the middle of the mall. It was the malls way of differentiating itself from other shopping outlets. The concert level pianist was largely being ignored by the thronging crowd apart from our two narrators, one of whom had tears in her eyes from the beautiful music. This of course pricked tears in my eyes as the passage was intended to.

    Later on I was sitting on the patio in the back garden of my home enjoying the warm sunshine and a beer (this weather is definitely unseasonable) and thinking about the story. I realised that the sentiment of the story was disingenuous. The man at the piano was making a noise – that’s it, that was all he was doing. The fact that we interpret it as beautiful music is probably an accident of consciousness, some pattern recognition program hardwired into our brains. He was playing Mozart, a genius we are told, something to be revered and worshipped. The thrust of the story was that the pianist, down on his luck, still played the piano with intense concentration, it didn’t matter that he was in a mall, the music still moved him. I realised that you didn’t need an artist to give this story power, it could have just as easily have been a handy man from the mall replacing a floor tile in a corner somewhere. The handyman could have been putting as much love and concentration into making that tile fit as the pianist was playing Mozart. But would our emotions be similarly roused by such a lowly character?

    I think not. It is merely a writers trick to use such a device as art and passion. I don’t know why we attach such importance to the arts and regard it with such romantic reverence. I guess it must be from all the stories we heard about mad artists like Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath. There seems to be this tenuous connection between suffering and art which probably dates back to thousands of years ago when the shaman of the tribe would get high from weird drugs, suffer physically from the effects but afterwards report astonishing revelations.

    The poignancy of the story was achieved by the pianist being ignored by the shoppers apart from our two protagonists. This is seen as some kind of tragedy. But surely, if the music was any good it would have attracted an audience? Perhaps if he had played some rock ‘n roll he would have fared better. Who is to say Mozart is the pinnacle of musical genius? – if there is one thing I have learned about the arts it is that it is purely subjective; you either like it or you don’t. I accept certain works can be demonstrated to be working on several levels and there are clever uses of this or that device but ultimately is Shakespeare in the dvd collections of most people or even on their bookshelves?

    If it’s any good, people will appreciate it. I remember going to a concert of Ukrainian performers who were visiting England. There was a group of children in the audience who had been dragged along by their Ukrainian parents and were there under duress. The children were, understandably, bored by the procession of minstrels who sang and played a mixture of traditional and comic folk songs. The children rustled crisp packets and crackled sweet wrappers throughout the show.

    Then a pair of identical twin brothers came onto the stage and sang. The term ’sang’ does not do justice to the most exquisite harmonies that issued from their mouths. They were by far the best performers of the show. Not only did I realise this but the entire audience did too, including the group of children who became transfixed by the beautiful sound and never moved a muscle throughout their entire performance. That is the power of beauty. Had the twins sang those songs in that mall of Paulo Coelho’s story I have no doubt that such a crowd would have gathered that security would have had to be called to clear a thoroughfare.

    The fact that no-one was listening to the pianist says more about the unfashionability of pianos and Mozart than it does about the ignorance of the crowd.

    I dare say Mr Coelho would concede that a tile fitter could experience the same emotions as a concert pianist but the fact that he doesn’t use him in his story suggests a certain amount of artifice.

    My secret voodoo habit

    Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

    It is often argued that apart from our technology, we are exactly the same people we were two thousand years ago (and possibly longer) in terms of intelligence and emotional behaviour. If that is the case then it stands to reason that the thinking which resulted in people being burnt at the stake for witchcraft is still prevalent today. Science and education have largely dispelled a lot of superstitions for those people who have access to such luxuries but for a lot of people, witchcraft and voodoo are still the only medical and legal services they have recourse to.

    These very superstitions are still extant in many countries today and their murderous rituals are exported and even conducted (illegally) in ‘civilized’ Western countries. I qualify the term civilized because our thinking is still riddled with fear and superstition; we don’t have witches and voodoo anymore but we do have Al Qaeda and a vengeful God.

    I always wonder what the people of the future, two thousand years hence (if we are still around), will think of some of our beliefs today.

    Superstition is like an addiction; you can cure it with education but you always remain an addict. If the education is tampered with or the unknown entity becomes so great we are overwhelmed with fear, the addiction is always ready to reclaim its victim.

    Quick! Hide my nakedness!

    The tail wagging the dog

    Monday, February 19th, 2007

    I keep recalling conversations I had with some Professional Speakers Association members about goal setting. They were talking about the importance of having goals with a fundamentalist zeal; it was a given, irrefutable. This immediately made me feel uncomfortable. Where there is such conviction there is usually a closed mind.

    Also I didn’t appear to have any goals. I tended to follow my nose; if something interested me I went in that direction. If something even more interesting came along then I would change tack and start to follow that instead. Having a goal suggested you knew where you wanted to be and that you could take a direct route to that place thereby bypassing or missing some interesting places which you might not have considered visiting but would have been of great interest to you. I was also suspicious of the overriding materialistic values inherent in most of the goals set by the majority of the visiting speakers.

    So I asked my fellow members why is it important to have goals. They looked at me as if I was a mad man and actually asked “are you being serious?” “Yes,” I said, “give me your reasoning.” Unfortunately, time constraints prevented them form giving me their rationale.

    From my standpoint though, the problem with goals is that they demand measure – otherwise how can you tell when you have achieved your goals? And that scale of measure has to based on something that is easily quantifiable.

    So what is readily available, that is infinitely quantifiable and perceived by many to be the best measure of success? Money of course. Ultimately the goals set are a disguise for improving your chances of acquiring material wealth. Quite often this disguise is dispensed with entirely and the goals are brazenly materialistic.

    But this is the tail wagging the dog. Goals were originally conceived as a vehicle for self development. Abstract achievements however proved difficult to quantify and so, over time, many people subtly changed their goals to accommodate the use of a yardstick – money. Somehow the introduction of an irrelevant financial measure has completely overturned the concept and the measure has become the goal.

    What do we want from life? The real answer is to be happy and fulfilled but happiness is a complicated phenomenon. We don’t like complicated phenomena, we like things simple in this day and age so it is such an easy assumption to conclude that it is money that is the measure of happiness. Money equals happiness.

    Wrong, wrong, wrong.

    Money increases your options. That’s it. Nothing else. Any sort of emotional or egotistical benefits derived from the ownership of wealth is what that person has attributed to it and as such, are fickle and illusory. Take the money away and what are you left with?

    Money was a means to an end but today we have become so hopelessly confused we see money as the end. If you question the assumption hard enough you eventually get to the truth; why do you want money? To buy things. Why do you want these things? To enjoy them, to make my life fuller. How will they make it fuller? They will make me happy and I will have more free time. Why do you need free time? To do what I want to do, things that I enjoy. Such as? Spending more time with my friends…

    Eventually we have the answer, we hope that having lots of money will make us happier because it increases our options. And so we spend a lot of time in trying to make that money, time that in reality we could be spending doing something that we were interested in. If you are already doing something that you are interested in and it is making money for you as well, then the dog is at least wagging the tail. Money is a by-product of the process.

    I remember reading about a famous astronomer. Such was his interest in his chosen profession that on many occasions he didn’t bother to cash his pay cheque. He had enough to enable him to do the thing he loved the most so what was the point of having any more?
    With the global problems of climate change, overpopulation and resource destruction now more than ever do we need to address our fundamental beliefs about how society should be run and to look closely at our attitudes towards success and happiness.

    A stereotype which nearly took me by surprise

    Friday, February 16th, 2007

    7 June 2006

    My wife insisted that I take a day off today and accompany her and the kids to the seaside, which I did. Whilst we sheltered from a cool wind behind a groyne three people climbed over the groyne to join us nearby.

    The male was in his fifties or sixties and tattooed indiscriminately all over his visible body, almost as if a child had slapped stickers on him with no thought for the overall pattern. Accompanying him was a (dyed) black haired woman in her thirties also tattooed but not as extensively as the man. She was wearing clothes and accessories that recalled to mind the saying ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. Trailing behind was a sombre young girl aged about five years old. The man then went to help some other people, burdened down with prams and children also trying to hurdle the groyne.

    Okay I thought to myself, I won’t classify this group of people too early, they look like a type but with that kindly act, the man had challenged my initial preconception. Within a few minutes however the man had lit a cigarette, the smoke from which drifted in our direction and irritated me. Shortly afterwards the man wandered off to a nearby shop and returned with drinks and snacks for himself and the woman. Our family then moved further up the beach as the wind had dropped and the children wanted to explore other areas.

    Some time later I went for a stroll on the promenade and passed the groyne where the tattooed couple and sullen child had sat. They themselves had disappeared but neatly stacked on the groyne was what I recognized as their litter; polythene cups, empty cans and an empty cigarette packet, waiting to be washed into the sea by the tide. My original classification of these people was confirmed and how disappointed I was. Why couldn’t they surprise me with socially responsible behaviour as they did when they helped those people over the groyne? Why did they conform to the stereotype of intensely short sighted, selfish consumers requiring instant gratification? I was prepared to have my assumptions challenged – I wanted them challenged.

    Maybe they just don’t know other people find their litter offensive. Maybe it has to be pointed out to them this trash simply builds up on the beach making it unpleasant for everyone who wants to use the facility until such time as the council is forced to clean it up costing the taxpayer more than it need to in rates.

    Maybe these people don’t pay taxes and live on benefits which they spend on tattoos and cigarettes.

    Maybe next time I ought to talk to these people and find out.

    What is perfection?

    Thursday, February 15th, 2007

    It suddenly occurred to me as I was walking back from the village that there is no absolute arbiter of anything, especially when it comes to aesthetics. We make it up as we go along. There are arbiters who we bestow authority onto, the most notable being the media. They seem to have the monopoly on what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in just about everything. Why we have done this I am not sure but I suspect there might be a lot of usurping on the part of the media.

    Take beauty for example. Who is to say what is beautiful? And what criteria do they use to reach their decision? I know there is a measurable criterion of symmetry in beauty (which is also a useful measure of life – living things tend to have symmetry). The more symmetrical a face is, the healthier it tends to be and therefore more fit for breeding. Our genes regard breeding fitness as beautiful which explains why several stereotype images such as large breasts in women etc. are attractive to most males, alpha or not (although, in nature, it seems to be the female which decides on the most suitable mate). So a lop-sided face could be seen as less desirable to a mate than a more symmetrical face as it could indicate faulty genes.

    This makes sense. But if two faces are equally symmetrical how do we choose between them? Presumably our genes still guide our choice and they ‘ask’ questions such as; are their genes compatible with ours, do they look a bit (or a lot) like us, is one face imperceptibly more symmetrical than the other? The attractive face has to push certain buttons in the control panel of our primitive minds to get a positive reaction. These buttons can be wired to all sorts of influences including childhood memories. So the arbiter here can only be ourselves – beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    What about art? If we take genetics out of the equation we are in a completely human-made environment. I don’t see how anyone can argue logically why they consider one abstract painting more beautiful than another except from a purely subjective standpoint. I suppose science could show that one painting provokes more brain activity than another but is that beauty?

    What about a popular song? Can it be deduced that a song is ‘good’ because it is popular? If our brains respond to certain stimuli then it must be possible for a song to address those stimuli more successfully than another one which is less popular and so produces fewer stimuli. So a popular song merely identifies more responsive stimuli in our brains. This does not make it ‘good’ (except in the sense that it is good at hitting more stimuli) or beautiful; just popular.

    At the other extreme it might be that rarity constitutes a beautiful quality. We often admire and praise athletic prowess that is rare and considered the ‘best’ in the world but only in certain disciplines, a long distance spitter is not a lauded skill for example (why not?). If it is rarity then any unusual feature can be construed as rare. If it is a rare, perfect symmetry I suppose the best we have as a measure is popular acclaim. If more people find one face more attractive than another then it could be said that “more people find one face more attractive than another” which really is no criterion at all. And beauty is subject to cultural and historical influences; what was considered a beautiful face in the 1700’s in Egypt might be seen as plain today.

    How about comedy? Some comedians are more ’successful’ than others in popularity stakes. This does not mean their humour is universal. No matter how popular a comedian is you will always be able to find someone who despises them; are these people wrong to despise them when so many find the comedian funny?

    My point is this; anyone can say “I am the example of perfection” and no-one can challenge this assertion through any meaningful argument. What we might perceive as inadequate in ourselves has to be measured against something and if that something is a constantly changing illusion with no basis in reality then there is really nothing to measure against and so why do we feel inadequate at all – nay, why does the concept of inadequacy exist at all?

    Better to feel unique and to consider any ‘defect’ as simply our particular adaptation or skill.

    Ukrainian Easter

    Friday, February 9th, 2007

    23 April 2006

    It was a Ukrainian celebration today; Easter Sunday. My family were meeting up at my mothers house. My elder brother and his wife had returned from a holiday in North America the day before and so warned everyone they may not be there as they could be jet lagged. When I arrived with my family we noticed their car outside the house and so they had made the effort despite the jet lag, which was good as it meant the entire family was there.

    Once inside the house it was non stop chatter as everyone had something to report on. I had a beer as I told my brother about the incident with the debtor and he told me a few stories about his experiences in America. It was probably the most relaxed and unguarded get together I had experienced in that house and I became aware of the power of family when it is functional. At that moment I belonged to a family and identified myself with that group of people. It was a natural way to feel and calmed me in a reasurring way. The family is the glue that keeps people sane, motivated and centred.

    It was a good day. There was love in that room and it made me feel lucky.