Archive for March, 2007

How stupid do they think I am?

Saturday, March 10th, 2007

February 9th 2007

My wife and I went to see Rich Hall at the Leeds City Varieties after fighting our way through the snow storm of the century (actually a bit of sleeting but the media coverage this weather front attracted was just preposterous). The City Varieties is an old fashioned theatre tucked away behind some concrete and glass shop fronts in the city centre. As we took our seats we could look round the building and see it was in desperate need of a refurbishment. My wife said it must be over twenty years since she was last in it and nothing seemed to have changed apart perhaps from the layer of grime being a bit thicker.

Rich did his adequate routine (in future more ire please Rich) and at the end he remembered he had to make an announcement. He got out his bit of paper and read out that the theatre had got lottery funding to refurbish the place but that they needed to collect a million pounds or something to activate it. We were then asked to dig deep and give money on our way out.

I did no such thing of course. It didn’t make any sense to me. The theatre is a commercial enterprise. It puts shows on with the intention of making a profit. If it is successful it makes a lot of profit and so can upgrade its facilities if it cares to. If it doesn’t make a profit it goes out of business and is bought by a property developer.

Let’s leave aside the sentimentality of the quaint old theatre in the city centre for a moment and consider another business.

Let’s say Chelsea football club want to refurbish their stadium. They get lottery approval but have to raise ten million pounds themselves. The billionaire owner of the club doesn’t want to spend any more money because the club is already in the red. The players, on six million pounds a year each, don’t see why they should contribute, after all, the punters come to see them, not the other way around. So it is the punters who are asked to subsidize a loss making business, owned by a billionaire who would like to make a profit so he can buy another expropriated oil field or whatever. Presumably, when the stadium is refurbished, it will still be owned by the billionaire and because it is now a great facility he can increase the entrance fee to the punters who watch the matches played in it. This is like improving your home out of your own pocket then the council saying, “Nice place, we will charge you more for living in it.” (I’m being ironic here people).

This is the principle at work. How stupid do they think I am?

But wait, it gets worse. The people leaving the theatre were under the impression that their one pound would be matched generously by the lottery fund, as if the ‘lottery fund’ was some kind of eccentric old philanthropist giving money away because it had become meaningless to them. The thing people forget to ask is ‘where does this lottery money come from?’

Hey, you’re a genius, you worked it out – the lottery of course. And who puts the money into the lottery in the first place? The poor suckers who can least afford it but dream the most of a big win. The vast majority of these people are unlikely to ever see the inside of a theatre nor enjoy its productions.

The lottery is a profit making business; Camelot, who run the lottery, don’t just do it for the thanks they get. Who is paying for all this? The punters. They pay for everything. And they are being asked to pay again. Probably ninety percent of that theatre audience has bought a lottery ticket at some time, so the lottery money is their money as well. I’m surprised the theatre doesn’t ask its customers to volunteer their time as well in scrubbing the walls (but bring your own brushes).

I won’t even start with scam they have going in opera. I would burst a blood vessel just thinking about it.

Epidemiology

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

I was doing a caricature gig in a part of the world that is considered ‘red necked’ around here. Sure enough, everyone seemed rough and smoked as if it was going out of fashion (which it thankfully is). The funny thing was though, as I was doing the drawings, I noticed a common trait in most of the faces.

One of the definitions of beauty is symmetry – generally, the more symmetrical a face is, the more beautiful we consider it. Well the faces I was drawing this evening singularly lacked that quality. They were nearly all lopsided in some way.

What does that tell me?

Learning to climb

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

I took my own advice and I decided I would learn a new skill, so today I attended a taster session for wall climbing.

I remember as I waited for my instructor and looked through the window into the hall where the forty foot walls towered above the ground I thought, ‘well I’m not going up one of those today’.

When it comes to sports I have always been average at everything (I remember my first attempt at water skiing and the instructor being astonished that I was immediately upright and remained so for the entire lesson) and I am reasonably fit so the paces the instructor put me through did not trouble me overmuch. The most difficult thing to overcome (surprise, surprise) was my lack of confidence regarding the security of the harness and the competence of the belay operator. Once I was satisfied that these would not fail I quickly and enthusiastically attempted all the increasingly difficult stages my instructor introduced me to and before I knew it I was up one of the forty foot walls.

The very last climb was the one that tested me. I could only use certain colour handholds during the climb and some strenuous moves were required near the top. The sense of achievement on having done the climb was just… I was going to use some extravagant adjective here but actually it felt just.. natural. My body had been stretched, my mental faculties had been challenged and my burning limbs confirmed my legitimacy on this earth. I was alive and I was doing what living things had been doing for billions of years on this planet; I was exulting in my grasp on life itself.

I will sleep well tonight.

Society is a reflection of the brain

Tuesday, March 6th, 2007

As I was cycling to a nearby town a compelling analogy formed in my brain (why do all my best ideas occur when I am exercising?). I had spent all morning interrogating various blogs for information I was particularly interested in. This particular morning I had found a rich seam of ideas and theories which were relevant to my current thinking, it was so rich in fact that I could barely read a few sentences before another fascinating link was offered to me and I was torn between jumping straight to the link or continuing reading the current page.

The analogy was this. If I were a scientist in the seventeenth century and I was particularly interested in gases say, I would seek out other scientists interested in the same subject to discuss various ideas or theories I might have. This would have been difficult to accomplish I should imagine. You would have had to live in a large city that was a centre of learning. You would have had to know many people and attend whatever scientific meetings were held (how would you find out about them?). When you did eventually meet someone who was on the same wavelength as you, their ideas would have to be that much different to yours to precipitate discussion and ultimately insight into the subject to develop new thinking. It would be a long and slow process but this is how it must have happened, remember Newton’s quote about standing on the shoulders of giants.

So it is with the internet and blogs today. With one mouse click I can meet a completely new person, half way across the globe, who is interested in the same ideas as me. And they in turn could link me to another idea – one that I was totally unaware of – which looks at the issue from a new perspective. The speed of idea generation is phenomenal; no wonder technology is advancing exponentially.

But then I also saw the brain working this way. The brain has various centres of excellence if you will, which are connected to each other with trillions of connections. If I develop a new skill (because I am interested in learning that skill, say flint knapping) the brain has to create new pathways and make novel connections to master the skill and these connections will be relevant to the knowledge I need. A by product of this is the potential for new ideas. By learning a new skill, I have created a new set of connections in the brain which promote further development either accidentally (hey, if I can create a flint blade I can create create other tools) or deliberately – I’ve created an arrow head, I just need to make the arrow and flight feathers now.

Also it has been documented that the centres of excellence in the brain can adapt to take over delegated tasks from other centres that can no longer function because they have been damaged in some way.

Maybe the whole of civilization is just a huge model of the brain and its workings.

The romance of maintenance

Monday, March 5th, 2007

January 22nd 2007

The UK suffered a battering recently, as did most of Europe, from a fierce storm. Where I live, high up on the edge of a large valley, the house roof is terribly exposed to westerly winds and most years see me up on the roof replacing or slotting back into place one or two dislodged roof tiles. This year, the storm ripped off several tiles, taking with them part of the wooden baton that they were screwed to. Unusually the tiles were smashed this time, such was the force of the wind.

I considered getting the repairs done on the insurance but such was the extent of the damage nationwide that finding an available tradesman would be like searching for an honest politician. I also recalled the last time I had a job done on the insurance less than three days earlier.

A less severe storm had preceded the big one and this one had broken off three brackets from a section of guttering which was then left just flopping about in the wind. I managed to find a roofer who could secure it before the forecasted big storm hit. This they did and incredibly the guttering survived the big storm. It was only when the rain came that I noticed water was pouring from the middle of the gutter like an incontinent drunkard. When I got a proper sight line on the guttering I could see the roofer had simply screwed the brackets onto the barge board where they had been hanging, which of course was well below the level of the rest of the guttering. This meant that in the middle of the guttering there was a ‘v’ shape where the water collected and overspilled when it filled up, making it useless. When I rang the roofer about it he wasn’t in any way apologetic, he simply said the whole lot needs to come down and be put up ‘properly’ at a three fold cost of the original repair. Needless to say, his invoice will not be paid until I have a satisfactory repair.

But this just illustrates the problem with sub contractors; finding a good one is like panning for gold. And when you find gold, everyone quickly learns about it and wants a stake. Consequently, consciencious contractors are always too busy to do the little jobs. And so I thought, let’s have a look at the roof.

I had already replaced the smashed tiles as a stop gap but the rain that followed the storm exposed a couple of leaks in the roof and I needed to fix them as soon as possible so instead of chasing overworked tradesmen who would only do a half assed job anyway I decided to do it myself. I bought the wooden baton to replace the one that was ripped off.

When I had taken off half a dozen tiles so I could get to the damaged baton I noticed the roof felt didn’t have any overlap in a number of places and was also badly perished in others. This meant fitting additional felt to cover the gaps. The roofer probably wouldn’t have bothered to do this or if they were prepared to, they would have exhaled loudly and insisted that to do a ‘proper’ job the whole lot would have to come off at a cost that would have necessitated me taking out an IMF loan. After a couple of hours, the roof felt was reinforced, the baton was nailed into place and the tiles slotted home. The mortar filling required on the gable end would have to wait until spring to be completed but when I was putting the tools away and hanging up the ladder I felt a peculiar satisfaction in having completed this work. It was a kind of liberation.

Although it made sense to get the repairs done through the insurance (that’s what I pay it for), in truth, I did the job myself because I liked doing it. I found it empowering like being able to make fire without matches. I wasn’t dependent on other people to do essential maintenance. I also knew what a good (or bad) job I had done and thus had a fair idea of its longevity. And although I consider myself to be a cerebral worker, just having ideas is not enough. The ideas have to be connected and made to work. With a physical problem, you can study it, formulate ideas on how to overcome the problem then engineer a solution.

To devise a solution that you can then implement and see it finished and working is one of life’s true pleasures.

Man, those Victorian engineers must have had a blast.

Slavery in the modern world

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

Negro portrait
Jan 18 2007

A couple of news items on the television tonight which prompted these thoughts.

The Premiership football league here in the UK has just brokered a new deal for the television rights of its matches with the rest of the world . In this deal, the club that finishes at the bottom of the league will receive thirty million pounds. For coming last.

Wow! That’s almost as good as some of the deals the CEO’s broker for themselves when they are sacked for incompetence. Their golden handshake can amount to as much as one hundred and twenty million pounds. The ironic thing is, most of these CEO’s get hired shortly afterwards – “he got himself £120 million for being incompetent!? That’s not incompetence, that’s genius! Let’s hire him.”

Then a story that involved global warming. The story crystallized an issue I had been mulling over for some time ever since the USA refused to ratify the Kyoto agreement. This is a hypothetical scenario I have been playing out in my mind although, in truth, it is not that far from reality.

The USA – still the biggest global polluter at the time of writing – refuses to do anything about global warming. The rest of the world does what it can to reverse the effects. What results can there be?
Either, the world is saved and so the USA can continue on its insatiable, mindless devouring of the worlds resources whilst the rest of the world subsidizes its materialistic excesses,
or,
the world is not saved and everybody goes back to the stone age because one country decided to be utterly arrogant and self centred. So the world pays for one countries intransigence and greed (this is equally applicable to a nuclear scenario).

Another example. Say a river rises in an industrialized country and flows through a neighboring country that is less well developed. Now say that industrialized country pollutes the river or dams it so that the water received in the neighboring country is now deficient in some way; what can the that impoverished country do? The true answer hinges somewhere on the question ‘how powerful is its military?’

So the news story that I heard tonight was about an island tribe that lives on a remote atoll in the tropics. These people have no cars, no power beyond a camp fire and most of them have never left the island because there is no transport and even if there were, they couldn’t afford to use it. Their carbon footprint is practically zero. Yet they are losing their home because the rest of the irresponsible and dissolute world has precipitated a sea level rise that will drown their island. Where is the justice in that? What happened to their human rights?

I have heard it said that slavery was (and let’s not forget, still is in some countries) the worst crime committed this millennia. So how would you feel if you went to the mall and bought a slave to do all your dirty work? And then when you had destroyed their health because of all the pollutants you had subjected them to, you simply dumped them in an unseen landfill to fend for themselves whilst you return to the mall to pick up another serviceable slave. How would that feel?

Well, that’s what we are doing today, only we are committing an even worse crime, one so insidious it doesn’t even give off a whiff of corruption. Enslaving a group of adults from a particular tribe is not enough, today we are enslaving entire nations, disenfranchising them, making them destitute.
“How can we be so unthinkingly irresponsible?” I hear you ask.

Didn’t you buy an SUV, a long haul air ticket? Didn’t you change your mobile phone for the latest version even though the one you got rid of was perfectly useable? There is your modern slave trade, right there in the high street, conducting its despicable trade under the guise of beneficial globalization.

It is something I have long since suspected – despite all our pretensions of civilization and sovereign law – there is no justice in the world and that inevitably, might is right. Leonard Cohen wrote a song called ‘Everybody knows’ and in it he laments, “Everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost.”

If everybody knows, why don’t we band together and rise up into a fist of indignation and smash this injustice?