Archive for April, 2007

Pay people to get fit

Monday, April 30th, 2007

It occurred to me there are a lot of government health warnings on various products regarding health issues but no actual financial incentive for maintaining good health. Here was an opportunity I thought for some governing, forward thinking, radical administration (i.e. it will never happen as such a thing doesn’t exist) to make a positive contribution to the well being of people in society.

As they have scrapped a lot of the tax incentives for moral rectitude (marriage allowance for example) why not introduce some tax incentives for health associated issues?

For example, if you can complete an obstacle course under a certain time each year, you would be awarded a tax rebate of £1000 or whatever the figure might be that was deemed motivational enough. This would encourage slobs to consider exercising again and maintaining a certain level of health and fitness.

The course would be tailored to various age ranges so a reasonably fit and healthy person could complete it without much difficulty, but an obese, binge drinking, twenty-cigs-a-day person would more than likely drop dead at the penultimate hurdle. This could still be good as it would save the National Health Service a fortune in not having to look after them in their failing years.

Or how about a no claims discount off your tax bill for not visiting the doctor or hospital? That might prevent people from visiting the doctor when they really need to get something checked out but you get the idea. Use the language people understand; money.

So what?, Copernicus.

Friday, April 27th, 2007

I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the paucity of scientific facts amongst the younger people of our society. He told me a story about a famous moment in the popular television programme ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’. One of the questions asked which planetary body orbited the earth. A couple of the choices were the moon and the sun. The contestant didn’t know and guessed the sun. I found this hard to believe so my friend told me how he also found this incredulous and conducted a little experiment in the office where he worked.

With exactly the same question that was used in the programme, just less than half his office colleagues didn’t know the answer either, most of them being in the 18 – 30 age range. We tut-tutted this appalling state of affairs then concluded that most of the people who didn’t know, didn’t care either.

Today I recalled that conversation and I considered why the youngsters should care. I couldn’t find any good reasons apart from the satisfaction of knowing. From their point of view it has no relevance to their lives; they don’t need that knowledge unless they intend to send something into orbit. From that standpoint, science could make the announcement today that they had discovered life on another planet 20 million light years away and the youngsters would say ’so what? What relevance does that have to my life of work and spend?’

Then I made the leap to Copernicus. He announces to the world that actually the earth revolves around the sun and everyone at the time goes ’so what?’ It didn’t change anything about the way they conducted their daily lives.

Except of course the church did not say ’so what?’. they said ‘WHAT!?’ And we know why that was, don’t we?

The church had set itself up as the organisation that had all the answers. And one of their answers was that the earth was the centre of the universe. Any evidence that contradicted one of their pronouncements threatened to undermine all their authority. The mistake they had made was pretending that they had all the answers. If they had simply said they didn’t know what happened before man appeared or what happened after death then they could have said ’so what?’ to Copernicus’ announcement and continued to be the guiding moral principle in a lot of peoples lives.

The paradox is that it was the churches very certainty that made it so attractive to so many people who lived in uncertain times. This claim to knowledge gave the church incredible power, especially as they could mete out eternal damnation, which reinforced its position in society.

The danger with inflexible dogma however, is that it is bound to break at some point.

Give a man a fish…

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

I’m sure most people are familiar with the saying, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Show him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’

I often wonder why they stopped there. I suppose they think that is enough; he’s not starving anymore, job done.

I’m also sure a lot of people are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – we need to secure our food and shelter requirements before we can consider less urgent matters. But once we achieve a certain level of security and our basic needs are met we discover a human being is more than just the basic survival requirements. We have intelligence, curiosity and creativity which, if they are not occupied by the challenges of mere survival, need other challenges to replace them, hence culture, art and civilisation.

So to show a man how to fish is not enough. Where is he supposed to get his fishing line from, his hook, his bait? Let’s take the principle to its logical conclusion, teach the man the philosophy behind fishing; why it works, why there are fish in that particular place, how fishing was invented by observing nature and extrapolating from it. Then teach him perhaps the most important lesson of all; fish are a finite resource.

Do this and not only does the man eat regularly but he can also work out how to build a shelter, create sustainable communities, produce art and develop wisdom.

Let’s not be miserly in our gift of knowledge. Let’s offer the complete set of tools for total empowerment.

Reality television that kills

Thursday, April 19th, 2007

I can understand the media’s (and ergo, the public’s) fascination with the person who shot dead students at Virginia Tech (I won’t use his name for reasons explained later), but surely they must be able to see what they are doing?

In the past, dissidents were publicly executed by the ruling power. This only served to turn the dissidents into martyrs and inspire future dissidents. History shows very few powers learned this lesson. Those that did, quietly removed their opponents with very little fuss and ‘disappeared’ them so that their friends and followers did not even know if they were alive or dead. This tactic kept general Pinochet in power for seventeen years.

The media seem to be making the same mistake as the enraged historical rulers who publicly nailed their opponents onto a tree which would inevitably, only sprout further branches of revolt.

The self-filmed video footage they aired of the gunman bore a striking resemblance to the videos we see of Al Qaeda suicide bombers, where they rant their diatribes against the rest of the world, brandishing their weapons. As I watched these clips and surmised that they were being broadcast globally I envisaged the thought processes of someone who’s mental state was precariously close to that of the Virginia Tech gunman.

“Hey, look at that, a nobody can become a huge celebrity overnight! All they have to do is make a home video, then exceed the previous record for the number of people killed in a crazed shooting.

Where’s the nearest gun shop?”

The Virginia Tech gunman even made reference to the Columbine shooting of a few years ago. These people feed off each other. How sensible is it to gratify their lust for attention with world wide media coverage of their insane acts? Sure, report the incident but concentrate on the devastated people who have suffered as a result; the perpetrator should be ‘disappeared’, sending out the message that infamy is not guaranteed with such hopeless gestures of despair.

If I don’t know, tell me.

Tuesday, April 17th, 2007

A little painful lesson today to remind me of my humility.

On my jogging route I run into a little cul-de-sac just to extend my course. It has open plan grass lawns belonging to ’sheltered accommodation’ type council bungalows. As I loop round I run along the edge of the lawns in order to have a softer running surface and thus save my back. This particular lunchtime one of the occupants of the bungalows was washing his car. He was a burly middle aged man who had a large Rottweiler standing beside him. As he saw me approach he put his hand on the dog’s collar as if to prevent it from charging; this did not fill me with confidence and I ran much further into the lawn to give the dog a wide birth. The dog behaved itself but as I came around to complete the loop the man said something to me which I did not readily catch so I slowed down and asked him to repeat what he had said.

He said, “Don’t run on my lawn when you come round again.”

He wasn’t aggressive with this instruction but it was clearly an instruction, no room for any debate. I hesitated a moment as I tried to figure out what my position was and what reason he would have to object. In the end I replied matter-of-factly that yes, okay, I would do that.

As I jogged back home I thoroughly examined the exchange and its results. The fact that he had given me an instruction immediately aroused defensive emotions – resentment, humiliation etc. My emotions were in direct proportion to his level of forcefulness – had he asked nicely in a friendly was, I would have responded in kind and been more compliant; had he shouted aggressively I would have prepared for some kind of fight and resisted any concession. As it was, he probably restrained himself from being more aggressive because he must have seen me on other occasions running on his lawn and been building up a little reservoir of resentment, so from his point of view he was being more than reasonable.

In terms of justification I had to concede I was at fault. Even though the lawns were open plan and unfenced, it did not mean I had the right to run along their edge. I thought about my lawn and how I would feel if he came jogging with his dog and ran across it. The lawn indicates the boundary edge of your territory, it is only human nature to want to defend it.

So I felt humbled as I made my way home; I had been wrong to run on the lawn in the first place and so should not feel any resentment about being told off for it, but I did. ‘Human nature’ makes us react in this way and only critical thinking can overcome it to a very limited extent. I suppose simply being aware of it is an accomplishment in itself.

The pursuit of fun

Monday, April 16th, 2007

cartoon strip

Whenever I talk to people about my previous creative endeavours I always say to them the one thing I would have liked to have done professionally was music, even though I had no natural abilities as a musician and I had to work extremely hard to write a song. I imagined I would have had the most glorious fun touring the world and singing my songs.

Then recently I found myself chatting to a friend whose young son had just enlisted in a band that had a six week tour schedule. She described to me his immediate chaotic lifestyle as he was due to be picked up by the band in Southampton at 2.00 pm that day and they needed to be in Manchester for 5.00 pm, a distance of some two hundred and forty miles. This piece of information brought back to me memories of my own typical rock ‘n roll existence.

We too were required to travel hundreds of miles to a venue. Sometimes the club was open, sometimes not in which case we might have to wait an hour or two for someone to unlock the doors. We would then carry all the heavy equipment into the room and rig the stage. After that we would sound check, iron out any problems, then either leave the venue to find something to eat or remain in the venue just waiting to go on stage in several hours time. In the meantime I had to stay sober as I was the only driver.

At the allotted time, we would take the stage, perform for forty minutes then leave the stage. Then, depending on the venue, we would either have to wait a couple of hours again before we could de-rig or we could de-rig immediately and start to load the van. A drive home could vary from several minutes to several hours depending on where we were.

At the other end we would have to unload the van again (a loaded van left overnight was simply asking to be stolen) then I would drop the other band members off before I could go home to bed. Thousands of unsigned bands still do this today because it is ‘fun’.

I compared this routine with a typical caricature gig where I would turn up half an hour before the event with a briefcase, perform (okay, the performance lasts from two to three hours) then pack up my briefcase and drive home for a fee that can be up to four times what a band gets at some pubs.

With these memories, I had to ask myself how often did I have fun when I was a musician.

I had to think hard. The actual performances themselves were not always fun; we used a drum machine so in every song I had to count the bars – getting lost was a catastrophe. You still have to count with a live drummer but at least with a live drummer you can all readjust or signal to each other to repeat an ending if everyone is enjoying themselves.

I could only think of one live performance that I actually enjoyed with abandon. We were on a Czech tour and the Prague gig had accommodation that was within walking distance of the venue so I could have a drink. With a couple of beers inside me I felt pretty good and we stormed through our set.

Interestingly the only other occasions I remember having fun was in the writing process. I would have a roughly structured song or at least an idea for one with a riff and maybe some lyrics. I would bring this idea to the band who would kick it around until the thing started to come alive or it became obvious it was premature and still born. If it lived, we would try to breathe more life into it by injecting it with promising ideas and varying the dosage. We would get visibly excited when we noticed the foetus twitching and jerking with more life of its own. Eventually we would fashion something that hadn’t existed before and which now danced before us in a whirligig of joy. And like any parents we recognised that our progeny had an identity of its own, greater than the sum of its parts.

The apotheosis of creative enjoyment occurred when everyone knew what part they played in the making of the song and it was just a case of fine tuning the timing – the building of the baby was complete and now it was a case of imbuing it with emotion and passion, giving it that final surge of adrenaline. That was a fabulous moment; over the improving repetitions you could hear the song tighten like a guitar string and suddenly stretch into a sweet note, in tune with our own song of life. That was the best I would ever feel about a song. From there on in it was downhill. There would be a couple of months of performing the song to a live audience and seeing their reaction to it but once we had decided to record it in a studio, that would be the death. Once in the recording studio, it was take after take after take. By the end of the session you were sick of the thing and the joy it had originally brought you was now gone.

Ironically, our loss was another’s gain, for the joy was simply passed on like a ripple on a pond. Someone hearing the recorded version of it for the first time could relive the joy you had when you first wrote it.

I think it was the potential of music to transport me into another world that I found intoxicating and those moments were enough to see me through the tedium of the practicalities of rock ‘n roll.

So what is fun? We seem to know when we are having fun, or rather we ‘don’t know‘ because we tend to forget ourselves during those moments and the passage of time speeds up until it disappears altogether.

We were obviously prepared to put up with a lot to experience those ego-less moments.

Hey, have I discovered something more valuable than money?

Chipboard coffins

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

I wrote a post about renting coffins here.

In a cavalier fashion I suggested the expensive coffin should be switched at the last minute for a chipboard one. I have since discovered that ninety percent of the coffins used in the UK are veneered chipboard ones and that when burned they release toxic fumes. I have also discovered that the market is already way ahead of me and that alternative materials for coffins is a booming industry; bamboo being the material of choice for the environmentally committed.

Yet again I am reminded that flippant or crazy ideas can be considered seriously as possible solutions to a challenge (a clockwork radio?) and that simple solutions are rarely achievable without considerable research.

If knowledge is power…

Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

Oven door diagram

Another incident which illustrates the fallibility of modern society.

I had decided to clean our built-in cooker thoroughly. This would mean taking the door off. I got out the instructions and read;

1. Fully open the oven door.
2. Move the catch levers on the right and left-hand sides to the fully open position.
3. Placing the door at an upward angle toward you, grasp the door with both hands and lift it out of the hinges toward you.

That was it. Sounds simple enough, so I followed the instructions and attempted to lift the door. Nothing happened. I pulled a bit harder. Still nothing happened.

At this point I had to make a decision; is the force needed to retract the hinges greater than is being currently applied (if it is, why doesn’t the instruction book mention it), or will applying extra force damage the hinges because I am not doing it right even though I have read the instructions (brief, as they are)?

Normally at this point I would have given up. The resulting inconvenience from a damaged oven door would not have been worth the benefit of a slightly cleaner oven but I remembered the repair man getting the oven door off with one swift movement (the element had blown, typically, two days before Christmas. Fortunately it was still under warranty). I also remembered a loud snapping sound when the door came off therefore I reasoned, powerful forces were at work in springs somewhere in the hinges, thus greater force was probably needed to ‘lift’ the door out of its hinges. I braced my knees and gave a powerful tug. This time the hinges ‘bounced’ on its fierce springs. After a dozen more attempts I discovered the door needed the strength of a champion all-in wrestler to writhe it from its hinge sockets.

When the door did finally come off there was the same loud snap as the hinges locked into their closed position. This immediately concerned me because I had not seen the repair man replace the door and so was not sure how the hinges were prized open. I trusted the instruction book however and continued cleaning the oven.

When it was time to replace the door I read the instructions;

Set both hinges into their respective receptacles on the left and right, and swing the oven door downward.
Close the catch levers on the left and right.
Close the oven door.

Well that sounded like I didn’t need to worry about prizing open any spring loaded hinges before offering it up to the receptacles. When I tried to do this however it soon became apparent that the hinges could not be inserted into their respective slots because they were in a closed position. When I experimented with pulling them down I couldn’t even make an impression on them, so fierce were the springs. Why didn’t the instructions say anything about opening the hinges and how to go about it?

I tried using a small screwdriver to get some leverage on the hinges but it quickly became apparent it was not strong enough and I was now going to need the services of a trapeze artist catcher with an iron grip. Nothing in the instructions about that either. After some experimentation I realised I could stand the door on its edge on the floor and get my foot on top of the locked hinge and use my weight to prize the thing open. I could only get it so far before the metal hinge penetrated my carpet slipper and hurt my foot. As I went to put on my work boots I was trying to think how I could keep the hinge open once I had prized it fully open.

With an inch of rubber between the metal hinge and my foot I could apply my full weight to the hinge. This time it opened fully and to my relief I heard a click and the hinge remained locked in the open position. At last, I thought, progress. I thought too soon.

On offering it up to the hinge slots there were several problems. The oven door was heavy and so both hands were needed to hold it. I could only locate one hinge slot at a time as they were on either side of the door and so as I positioned one and wiggled the door to try and find the other I discovered the hinge was on a hair trigger and snapped back shut at the slightest pressure. This meant putting the door down and opening the hinge again. After countless attempts at a ‘precise location’ approach, each time ending with the hinges reacting like a snapping turtle I decided to try a more brutal approach and I positioned the hinges in the approximate positions before shoving the door hard into the oven. This had some success and I was able to actually fit the door back onto the oven but when I tried opening the door fully I noticed it would not lie flat as it had previously done. Now it caught on a protruding metal flange. It clearly wasn’t sitting right, so I had to remove the door again with the wresting throw I had learnt earlier.

For the next thirty minutes I did what was effectively circuit training in a gym; writhe the door from its hinges, unlock the spring loaded hinges, attempt to push home the hinges, either unlock hinges again or check the positioning of the door, shout in frustration at the door, repeat the above.
At one stage I was going to leave the door as it was, imperfectly positioned but as I studied the mini oven door above the main oven I could see how the hinges were supposed to be seated and I wasn’t happy with what I’d done. The prospect of calling a repair man loomed as I studied the instructions one more time. Nothing new appeared from them. I was aware I had to try something different as countless attempts with the same configuration had not produced the desired result. What would happen, I thought, if I opened the catch levers as well before I attempted to fit the door? The same result. By now, I was wearing work boots to prize the hinges open, ear defenders for the loud snapping, a filthy work shirt because of all the grime coming off the oven door (which resisted my earlier cleaning) and I was sweating like a boxer on the twelfth round of a thorough beating, occasionally crying out in pain as if a particularly bone crushing blow had found its way through my paltry guard.

My young children had been watching this pantomime bemused and concerned before rushing to the front door when they heard their mother return from the supermarket. She was immediately drafted in to help. With a clear head she did the logical thing and read the instructions. From them she worked out that the catch levers had to be open before you attempted to fit the hinges. I said that didn’t seem to help and demonstrated all the problems. More circuit training ensued before we decided to co-operate. I would hold the door in place while my wife carefully guided the hinges into place. This had limited success and worryingly, the spring locks seemed to be weakening so the merest touch set them off.

Finally my wife seemed to figure out the method of insertion and a miraculous, effortless mating occurred. I opened the oven door and it laid flat. I checked the alignment and it was even all the way around. We had done it! All it needed was the assistance of another pair of hands that had the skills and sensitivity of a brain surgeon. What could be simpler?

I had embarked on this adventure because I had seen the repair man pull the door off. He hadn’t explained anything, I had simply seen him do it in exactly the same way one chimp might see another chimp use a tool. I had the experience of actually seeing it done. Had I not, the instructions would have been practically useless (they pretty much were anyway). This demonstrates the absolute truth that experience is essential for learning. You can read all the instructions you care to about something but until you try it out for real, the instructions are simply interesting theory and only manual operation wires the brain with the necessary connections to do it again successfully. Which brings me back to the instructions; who were they meant for? If they were meant for the householder with no experience of the equipment, they were useless. If they were meant for the fitter, they would have such experience and not bother with the instructions.

Clearly, when products are designed there is not a testing procedure where a complete stranger to the product is asked to try it out for real. Such deficiencies in the instructions would then be found and remedied. Presumably it would cost too much to have this extra testing but think of the anguish and frustration it would save.

I can only think Bosch never imagined any householder would be adventurous enough to actually try and remove the door.

Sure, knowledge is power but without experience to harness that power, it is simply a loose cannon.

Mirror man

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

On my return from the petrol station, I was waiting behind a car that was wanting to turn right. The driver’s window lowered and an empty cigarette packet was lobbed out. This immediately filled me with rage and I considered getting out of my car, walking up to his open window and lobbing some of my litter into his car so he could get an idea of how some people felt about this anti social behaviour. I didn’t fortunately as I know from experience that any act which confronts the perpetrator doesn’t give them any room to manoeuvre and they are forced to entrench into their established position, i.e. he would resolve to continue throwing litter out of his window but with more conviction.

As I drove the last couple of miles to my home I considered the issues the incident had raised.

  • why was I so enraged by his attitude?
  • What did it reflect back to me about my personality?
  • My rage stemmed from the thoughtless lack of responsibility the driver displayed. Not only was he enabling Big Tobacco to continue peddling their evil product but he was inflicting its toxins onto those people who didn’t want it; no doubt his nicotine soaked cigarette end would find its way onto the tarmac several miles down the road following its packet. He must have been aware the packet was litter, that’s why he didn’t want it in his car but there his thinking stopped. He didn’t want the litter so he makes it someone else’s problem – yours and mine. His attitude was ‘there’s only me that matters, you lot can go to hell.’ I am always intrigued as to where these sort of people draw the line; would he have thrown the packet out onto the street he lived on, or on his drive? I can only think this is a small scale example of the kind of thinking that ultimately destroys the world. Had he the ambition, this driver could easily have become George Bush.

    So what does that say about me? Am I selfish in some other way and his selfishness reminds me of my own failing? What would have been the correct way to approach it?

    I wrote a post about an SUV parked on a pavement a few days ago. After speaking to one of the builders about it in a perfectly reasonable way, no other vehicles have parked on the pavement since. Whether this was coincidence or a result of my request I am not sure because most of the builders seem to have disappeared. However, the point is, my approach could have done no harm. I was being reasonable and I didn’t give any kind of ultimatum which could have involved the ego and macho pride of the workforce.

    So with this driver, I should have got out of my car, picked up the empty cigarette packet and either found a bin or put it in my car until I could get rid of it in an appropriate manner. If I had done this cheerfully and without censure, the driver had only one way to go if he chose. He could either stay where he was on this issue (“great, somebody cleans up my mess!”) or he could reflect on why someone would want to clean up his mess voluntarily. This could alert him to the possibility that his actions had consequences and that he could modify his actions to moderate the consequences.

    If enough people voluntarily cleaned up other people’s mess it would send out the signal that dropping litter was socially unacceptable. This is slowly happening with dog owners, more and more are cleaning up their dog’s mess. A couple of decades ago, nobody would have even dreamed of doing such a thing.

    Admitting you are wrong is one of the hardest things anybody can do.

    Victim of a drive-by hooting

    Monday, April 2nd, 2007

    Last night I was the victim of a drive-by hooting.

    No, that’s not a typo, I was actually hooted at by a passing motorist.

    It was about ten p.m. when I decided I needed some exercise and left the house to do some power walking. I had gone maybe half a mile down the main road when a car traveling in the same direction as me slowed as it came level. As I turned my head to look I saw a male youth at the open window produce a bright red horn and let rip with a blast of air. This made me jump which was, presumably, the effect he was after and which, also presumably, he found so utterly hilarious he was prepared to give up his evenings doing instead of making teenage girls pregnant or inhaling intoxicating fumes. As he speeded up and disappeared down the road I remembered the start of my walk and how I heard in the distance the sound of a horn but thought nothing of it, and as if to confirm my memory, shortly after the car turned a corner I heard the horn again in the distance as the driver must have blasted another innocent pedestrian with 120 decibels. I was tempted to run after him in the forlorn hope of catching his car or at least getting his number plate, such was my fury at his stupidity.

    Then as I continued my walk I started to count my blessings. This was the UK, we don’t as yet have guns in the hands of every gang member (although in certain parts of the country this is changing). Had it been the USA, I probably would have been face down on the pavement either thinking about upgrading my weaponry to a semi automatic or thinking about how would I manage without the use of x (whichever organ/limb was damaged) and composing the first verse of a rap song, my career as a rapper now assured. Come to think of it, had it been the USA I would have been nuts walking the streets alone at night.

    Also, had I got the license plate of the car, what would I do with it?

    “Is that the police? I’ve just been er…”

    What? Hooted at. I don’t actually think there is a law against that. I suppose the nearest they could get would be disturbing the peace.
    Then I thought about all the other sorts of drive-by’s that you could have. Most are malicious but what if you had beneficial drive-by’s?

    “I was walking the street, minding my own business and this guy just drove by on a scooter and stuffed a twenty pound note in my bag!”

    Now that would make the national news.