Archive for July, 2007

Walking backwards

Monday, July 30th, 2007

How do people decide which sport they will excel in?

Logically, the sport chooses them. They have a go at various activities and if they enjoy one more than another (usually because they are good at it), then that is the one they will concentrate on.

The choice of sports that we have a go at is, to a large extent dictated by the sports endorsed by the society we live in – if it’s not played anywhere, how can we try it? These sports are decided upon by various factors including;

  • the popularity of the sport with spectators
  • the rewards attached to success in a sport
  • what is considered cool by your peers – as a young male for example you would consider snow boarding or boxing before bowls or long distance spitting (I made that event up by the way).
  • So how and why do people choose walking races? You can’t imagine somebody thinking they would look cool gyrating their arms and legs in an unnatural piston motion for hours on end. And did some eccentric sports instructor spot them as a kid and say to them, “that’s pretty good walking son, you’re a natural. Ever thought of taking it up professionally?” And how do you decide if you are good at it? And it’s not as if the pay off is spectacular either – “let me introduce you to an Olympic champion.”

    “A gold medallist. Wow! What did you win it in?”

    I would be interested to hear the definition of walking, as it looks so easy to cheat. Where is the line between fast walking and slow jogging?

    Ultimately, it begs the question ‘why walk fast?’ If it doesn’t require that much more effort to slowly jog and you get there quicker, then that’s much more sensible.

    Every Olympic games that I watch I am forced to ask myself ‘what is the point of some of these disciplines?’ If there is no point to them, in the sense that the moves won’t come in useful in a conflict situation, then they might as well go the whole hog and have something really stupid like backwards walking races.

    Freethinkers meeting July 25th

    Friday, July 27th, 2007

    Thank you to everyone who turned up for the meeting and a special thank you to Jane for organising the room and food, which were both excellent. If anyone needs a meeting room for fifteen people or so in the centre of Wakefield, then Rustico’s has to be your first choice.

    Nobody at the meeting knew anyone else apart from me so a certain amount of social discourse was required. Normally this would be just a few minutes of conversation but when you have a group of highly intelligent/motivated/opinionated/extrovert people, it becomes an event in itself.

    It was my intention to take notes of the discussion but it rattled along like a runaway express train, switching tracks every five minutes that I found it impossible to keep up. The women were in the majority in terms of numbers and one topic of conversation I do remember was the ‘guilt’ factor women have to deal with when it comes to spending time with their children. It was mooted that this was a purely biological function as one of our group was a step mother and she did not suffer from this condition. It was generally agreed that men do not suffer any anxiety over this issue.

    I remember one comment was made about social acceptance. It concerned living in Hebden Bridge which is considered by ‘average society’ to be radical and liberal. The experience of the person making the comment was that the residents were radical and liberal so long as you conformed to their community rules; step out of line and it is a different story. This was not dwelled upon but after the meeting it struck me that an opportunity for an in depth analysis was missed there; surely all communities have a set of rules that its members are expected to abide by – otherwise it would not be a community? The perfect example is our own Freethinkers group. Despite its title, it must operate with some kind of structure and vision for its members. If some hard right individuals joined in some of the meetings and voiced racist opinions and trashed the venue as well for good measure, wouldn’t the others want to remove these people from further meetings? And yet the Freethinkers group as a concept needs members with different viewpoints to attend otherwise the entire rationale behind it would be redundant. The question is, how tolerant is a community of a divergent viewpoint? I would guess Hebden Bridge is more tolerant than the average Conservative club but not as tolerant as a Freethinkers group. Maybe we could discuss it via comments here. Anyone have any insights they can share?

    We did discuss the failings of most schools with regard to students who did not fit in with the general definition of success within the school system (actually, isn’t this an echo of the point about communities and what they will endorse and what they will exclude?) but to my mind the topic was too broad to get any real critical thinking skills applied to it.

    In conclusion, although we had a thoroughly enjoyable time, it was felt something of value needed to be teased out of a meeting such as this. In order to achieve this in the future it was agreed that a formal structure for a meeting was required with one or two specific topics lined up for discussion. In this way, it was hoped, an enjoyable evening could be had as well as some new insights into how the world works or indeed, how we ourselves work.

    This I think, would be the real value of the group; to make us think beyond our own world view. Thanks again to everyone involved.

    Tipping is a scam

    Monday, July 23rd, 2007

    I don’t understand the concept of tipping. It doesn’t make any sense in today’s Western society. If you apply logical, critical thinking to it, it collapses into a heap of irrational psycho-babble. Let me show you what I mean.

    In today’s society everything has a price. We use the internet to check prices against hundreds of outlets so that when we buy a product we know we have got the best price and how much we will have to pay. Simple. But with dining out, this simple model goes to pot.

    The pretence of a price is there; we can look at the menu and see prices against the food items but this is not the real price. It is expected that you will pay more than the asking price. Now why would anyone in their right mind do that? Where else does this happen in commerce? You don’t go to the cinema and pay five pounds for the ticket and then have the guy on the counter give you a disgusted look if you don’t voluntarily cough up another fifty pence, do you? So why do certain industries have this extortion racket?

    If we had a market system based on haggling then a vagueness in price would be expected. I would argue the toss with the restaurant owner about how much the meal was worth, strike the bargain then order. But our society is based on fixed monetary values. Imagine walking into M&S and offering the shop assistant a percentage of the ticket price. What sort of reaction would that get?

    “No sir the price is forty pounds.” I could pull a disgusted face and try and make the shop assistant uncomfortable by chuntering on about my offer being a fair price and having several kids to feed back home but ultimately the assistant would say “Look, it’s forty pounds. Now either pay the price or sod off. Sir.”

    And how did certain industries acquired this privilege? Why aren’t nurses tipped? And where do you draw the line in the tipping charade? Who exactly merits a tip? Does anyone get tipped in a McDonald’s restaurant, if not, why not?

    We need to turn the tables – metaphorically of course – on the waiters. As they stand there with a pathetic hangdog look on their face and that little pewter plate in their hands that has your change on it – why do they need a special begging plate to give you change? – we need to run a conversation like this.

    “Now, before I leave you your tip, what do you think your efforts merit?”

    He or she replies with a hopeful ‘ten pounds?’

    “Ten pounds, fine. But just so I am satisfied that you have earned the tip, just remind me what you did to earn this extra pay for services that were above and beyond your normal job description. (Listens) Ah, okay, you took my order, correctly conveyed the information to the kitchen, then you managed to bring the food after correctly identifying it as the food I had ordered, to my table. And no, you didn’t spill any of it down my jacket and as far as we can tell you washed your hands after that bout of diarrhoea that you suffered.

    Hmm, but wait a minute, isn’t that just what your job requires you to do? Where does the extra ten pounds come in – you do get paid don’t you for doing your job? Ah but only poorly you say. So what you are saying then is that the tip is in fact a charitable donation to subsidise the catering industry. Forgive me, but why can’t this restaurant business stand on its own two feet like any other commercial venture? It sounds like you should tip me for keeping you in a job!”

    Here we have the biggest scam in the Western world. Imagine if other industries took up the same business model. Take the fire service.

    “Look lads, as employers we don’t want to pay you a living wage so you’ll have to make the rest up with tips. Hey, come on, think of the tips you’ll get if you saved someone’s house from burning down!”

    The argument that waiters are poorly paid is a myth anyway. We have a minimum wage in this country now; with the addition of the tips they make, some waiters are earning fifty thousand pounds a year.

    My favourite trick though is where you get the bill and at the bottom it says ‘service not included’.

    Oh dear, that’s a bit of an oversight isn’t it; not including the cost of one of your raw materials. Or was it understood that I would go to the kitchen, request my own food and fetch it when it was ready – I can do that if that is what is required. And why is it service that is not included, why not food, or the furniture?

    Imagine going into M&S again, buying a pair of trousers then being presented with a bill that said ‘transportation costs not included’. And you then had to guess at its likely component cost and the only indication you had of its accuracy was the expression on the shop assistants face. If you are hopelessly out you are made to feel uncomfortable for your ignorance by the disgusted look of outrage on their face. What sort of way is that to run a business?

    I can understand the origin of tipping and in this context it makes sense; say count Dracula goes into a restaurant and looks over the menu. He says to the waiter, “I fancy some liver and bacon tonight but this pig’s liver is not to my liking, I don’t suppose you could find a human one could you?’ And the waiter replies, “We don’t really do human liver sir..company policy and all that, but there is a teaching hospital next door. Let me see what I can do!”

    The waiter has done you a special favour so great, pay him for his trouble. But to tip for no good reason?

    And isn’t it strange that it doesn’t work both ways? Say the service is crap; the barely edible food was slow in coming and served by surly apes – what then? Imagine the reaction if, after receiving the bill, you said, “Well normally I would leave a fifteen percent tip. But as the service has been so atrocious I will deduct twenty percent from this bill.”

    If someone does try it, let me know the outcome.

    How plants ’see’ light

    Friday, July 20th, 2007

    I was in the garden with my five year old daughter and we were looking at the two potato plants we had put in the soil over a month ago. It was a little bit of fun for the children to watch them grow.

    We planted them next to the house and so they got only a few hours direct sunlight during the day. Both plants were growing horizontally instead of vertically in an attempt to reach the area that provided the most sunlight. I explained to my daughter what the plants were trying to do and she asked me if the potatoes had eyes. Slightly taken aback I said ‘yes, yes they do’ and wondered if she was aware of her joke. Then it dawned on me that she was serious, she was asking me how the plants ’see’ the light.

    Amused by her inadvertent joke I started to explain the mechanism behind the plants ability when I realised I hadn’t a clue how they did it. The more I thought about it the more mysterious the process became. It was one of those phenomena that we are perfectly aware of, such as tides, but which the explanation in scientific terms escapes the majority of people.

    So how did they explain the tides before the discovery of gravity?

    Anyway, for those that are interested, I discovered this article which explained how the plants ’see’ light and shade.

    The reality gap

    Monday, July 16th, 2007

    Do you remember those multi coloured abstract pictures that you had to focus on in a particular way to see a three dimensional image?

    Once you had mastered the particular shift in focus required to see the image, the image was perfectly obvious. To someone else, who hadn’t seen the pictures before, mastering the unusual focus was a difficult thing to do and a certain percentage of the population find it impossible to do. Even when you were practised at it, the slightest loss of concentration allowed the image to slide into an abstract mush of colours again and the illusion was lost.

    Fame and fortune are similar to these pictures except that the illusion is reversed. The three dimensional illusion is the one that everyone can see without any effort as it is the one that surrounds us constantly. The abstract mush of colours hidden in the illusion is the one that is difficult to perceive. Some people may never be able to see this reality. The distance between these two levels of understanding is the reality gap.

    To the uninitiated, fame and fortune ‘appears’ as a fully rounded, three dimensional, desirable reality. But what they perceive is simply an idea – it has to be because they are not rich or famous enough themselves (they imagine). The reality of fame and fortune has to include the minutes; the day to day stuff which everyone has to do but is of no interest to the media as it spoils the illusion of being rich and famous (which the media feed on so it is in their interest to maintain that illusion).

    Similarly, even if you have seen through the illusion, a lack of concentration can allow the idea of fame and fortune as something desirable to reassert itself – it being all pervasive – and it takes an act of mental effort to remember the illusion.

    The lazy way to get lost

    Friday, July 13th, 2007

    SatNav devices are wonderful pieces of technology, they benefit the motorist and take out a lot of the stress involved in finding a location. That said, it is dangerous to rely exclusively on any one idea, oracle, prophet, sign etc.

    For example, on one long journey I knew roughly where I was going and which roads I would take. Early on in that journey, a motorway matrix sign told me part of my intended route was blocked and recommended another route. I took the advice (when a motorway is blocked for two exits you just know it’s going to be gridlock for miles) and switched my route, confident that the SatNav would recalculate. This saved me having to stop and look at the map to figure out the new route. Great, but what I didn’t expect was a route that took me close to the centre of London. I didn’t want to be in London, I wanted to go around it, but the SatNav figured this was the quickest route. It wasn’t.

    When I arrived at my destination I had time to look at the road atlas and retrace my steps. They didn’t make much sense when alternatives were considered. Had I known, I would have chosen another road.

    Here is the thing. I could have trusted the SatNav unquestioningly and accepted that every suggestion it made was the best one or, if I had bothered to check and discovered an error I could have blamed the device and claimed it didn’t work and so never used it again. This is how most people behave with established ideas, especially religions.

    But this is a mistake. The SatNav has an option for the user to check the route. I should have stopped and reviewed the idea that the SatNav had about how to get there. If I didn’t like the overall idea I could always change it – it has that option – and told it to follow my idea instead. I still wouldn’t have to worry about the details, the SatNav would do that.

    And so it is with dogma. For whatever reasons it becomes inviolable. Instead, it should be considered as a suggested idea, probably a good one. This idea should be checked out against other ideas and if confirmed or if there is no known alternative, go with it.

    But if it looks like a bad idea, amend and update it with something more suitable. Let’s not get too precious about ideas, nor lazy about evaluating them if they seems to work well at the time.

    Smoking ban

    Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

    On the 1st of July 2007, the government here introduced a smoking ban in all public places. I used to do a comedy routine about smoking so I thought I would reproduce it here. You can imagine the reaction this routine got in some comedy clubs where they didn’t let you in unless you were smoking.

    A word of warning, if you are of a squeamish disposition, I advise you to quit reading now as I didn’t pull any punches in this routine.

    ” I heard a bloke on the radio say that you couldn’t invent a filthier habit than smoking if you tried. I thought, ‘I bet I could.’ So I came up with one. Let’s see if it is worse than smoking…

    It’s a Saturday night in a town centre pub and a group of lads buy a round of drinks and sit down at a table. On the table, instead of an ash tray, is a adult sized glass potty. A bit later on in the evening one of our lads catches the eye of a rather fetching young girl and he gets excited about his chances of scoring. As a result he can feel a bowel movement coming on.

    Well instead of having to go to the toilet and miss out on all the banter with his mates, with this new habit, he can go there and then in the potty. So he climbs onto the table, drops his trousers, squats down, and while still chatting with his mates and having a drink, he drops a log.

    Now is that as bad as smoking?

    Hmm, thinking about it, it’s not. You see, the steam rising from the freshly laid turd, doesn’t give you cancer.

    Okay, it’s later on in the evening and the pub is busy now and another one of our lads is up on the table about to have a dump when there is a fracas near the table and an unfortunate bystander is jostled directly into the path of the falling turd – now is that as bad as smoking?

    Not really. Because the turd, striking the back of the hand of this unfortunate lady, tumbling onto the table then rolling onto the floor will, at worst, only produce a warm slimy sensation and not a second degree burn. And the turd now lying on the floor, merely represents a slipping hazard and not a fire hazard.

    Okay, it’s the end of the evening and the place is heaving. Everyone has made full and copious use of the potty’s and they are pilled high with every conceivable colour and texture of kak – some have the odd crisp packet neatly folded and stuffed into the centre of them – and the stink is indescribable!

    Now is that as bad as smoking?

    Well no, because you go out into the night air and the stink just evaporates. But with smoking, you go where the hell you like and the stink will cling to you like a sordid memory for days on end.

    So no then, not as bad as smoking.

    And this idea that smoking is cool, sophisticated and sexy; let’s apply this kudos to our new habit.

    We’ll go back to our lad in the pub. He did score that evening and he’s on his second date. He really wants to impress this girl so he takes her to a sophisticated restaurant – soft lighting, pianist in the corner etc. He thinks ‘I know how to impress her. I’ll show her what a man of the world I am.’ So he leans over to her, gazes into her eyes seductively and murmurs casually, ‘Do you mind if I poo?’

    ‘No, of course not’ she says. ‘I don’t indulge myself, but you go ahead.’

    So he climbs onto the table, strides over the main course which has just arrived, undoes his trousers, squats down in front of her and while gazing sexily into her eyes lays a huge cable. ‘This will impress her,’ he thinks.

    Adolescents would invent a new fashion garment where an opening would be cut into the seat of their trousers so that they could strut up and down the street with a turd hanging out of their arse and them thinking ‘do I look cool or what!’”

    The most dangerous ideas in history. 2. Time.

    Monday, July 9th, 2007

    Do you see your life as a ‘join the dots’ illustration? One big event linking to another; a birthday celebration perhaps, a graduation, a first job, wedding, big holiday? Or perhaps one goal connecting to another? The final picture would be your life. Some pictures will make sense, most won’t.

    That’s the dangerous concept behind time; that it is a string of events or moments. It allows us to plan ahead and think in terms of ‘when so and so happens’ I’ll be able to do this. So a lot of us put our lives on hold for a period and serve a time sentence waiting for some big event to set us free so that we can move on to the next fat dot.

    We see time as neat little packages; so many years as a toddler, so many years at school, three years at university etc. But of course time does not exist. It is a human invention like modern dance or money. It is incredibly useful but like all incredibly useful things it has a tendency to make itself indispensable. We forget the reason behind its creation.

    We invented time to benefit civilisation, to make things more efficient for us. But inevitably we find ourselves conforming to the demands of time.

    Time marches us.

    We say we are time poor as if it is in short supply, some women even give birth on time by caesarian section because their schedules are so hectic. What we forget in all of this rushing flood of time is that there is no video tape of events which we can rewind or fast forward to precise moments, to the dot in the big picture. Such a thing doesn’t exist. There is only NOW. This indivisible moment, right now. That is all there is.

    So if you are struggling to make the next big fat dot in the picture of your life, remember, there is no destination, no final picture. There is only the journey. So make your journey the thing that you put all your passion and energy into. Because if time tells us anything, it is that we all destined to make an appearance in that big arrival lounge in the sky.

    People who sound their horns

    Friday, July 6th, 2007

    Call me curmudgeonly, but something that annoys me is people sounding their car horns because they have seen someone they know.

    You’re walking along a busy street and suddenly a 110 decibel blast of a horn makes you jump out of your skin. Not only that but other motorists in the vicinity are all looking round puzzled to see if they are doing something wrong. As they do so, the chances of someone actually doing something wrong and having a prang increases dramatically because they have taken their eye off the road. And all because some moron in a car sees someone they know walking along the road. Great.

    Okay, if it’s a long lost twin that you last saw twenty years ago, I can understand the excitement but if it’s the guy you just dropped off a minute ago – it’s not necessary!

    These morons probably need to carry around air horns with them all the time and whenever they see someone they know, like an office colleague walking past their desk after getting a drink of water, they can let rip with their horns like some excited howler monkey and wave stupidly at them.

    Hmm.. I can feel a comedy sketch coming on.

    Monkey – Journey to the West. A real persons review.

    Thursday, July 5th, 2007

    The reviews I read and heard of this opera made it sound groundbreaking and spectacular. As it was on in Manchester I thought it might be worth a look. Now I have been caught out before by unanimous praise (three television pundits once claimed that Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis was a masterpiece. I can only imagine they read a different book to the one I bought) but the reviews of Monkey were so consistent that I thought it was a safe bet.

    My wife and I were sat near the front of the stage. The opening of the show was terrific. Nice use of animation blended cleverly with live action. The costumes and set design all looked wonderful. Okay, they got me, how were they going to keep me?

    The first crack appeared with the sub titles which were projected below the level of the stage onto the stage wall. These proved difficult to read as everyone in front of us started to bob their heads trying to read the text. They also distracted from the action which was continuing at a pace on stage. Eventually I gave up trying to read the subtitles and just watched the action in ignorance of the story.

    The music was nothing special. Maybe it was my Western ear but I could discern nothing memorable about the melodies. At least, there was the spectacle on stage.

    The underwater scene was enchanting and kept me engaged. However I was either going to need some kind of story to involve me emotionally or the visuals were going to have to maintain their invention in each subsequent scene to retain my interest. Unfortunately, neither happened. I could feel myself drifting off into my own imagination as the clunky narrative stalled. The music was becoming grating at times and I longed for some rock n roll to kick in or at the very least some Chemical Brothers style sound sculpture.

    The Spiderwoman scene revived my flagging interest. This was a feast for the eyes, beautifully and seductively choreographed. As I was watching this, I imagined how good opera could be if it were done properly – if all the other elements were in place; a powerful narrative, characters I cared about, contemporary music.., sex, drugs and rock n roll basically.

    An impressive set of a giant Buddha brought the opera to a close. I was disappointed that the girls spinning the plates did not toss them into the air at the end to demonstrate that the plates were not tied to the sticks with a piece of string.

    Ultimately, the opera was a series of visual tableaux performed by circus artists. Nothing wrong with that. Circus performers are highly skilled. But opera is supposed to be an art form and great art should be more than the sum of its parts. This was not.

    Full marks to the creators for having a go, but what is wrong with all the reviewers? Are they fed cocaine before they see the show?

    It was good in parts. Would I recommend it to others? Only if they were a Mandarin speaking, Buddhist scholar with a particular interest in the structure of classical Chinese music.

    Otherwise, stick to Disney on ice.