Archive for March, 2009

You can’t tickle yourself

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

While entertaining at a wedding anniversary recently, I was listening to the music in the background which was a compilation of 60’s and 70’s music. On came ‘Voodoo Chile’ by Jimi Hendrix and an immediate Pavlovian response of pleasure rippled through my body. I gave it my slightly divided attention (I was still caricaturing at the time) and appreciated the brilliant textures and harmonic movements in the piece.

Wow. I thought, this is sensational! How come I hadn’t noticed just how good it was before?

On the drive back home, I got out the cd that had Jimi Hendrixs’ greatest hits and played Voodoo Chile’ again on the car sound system. I must have heard this track hundreds of times and when I played it in the car, it was as I remembered – OK.

That’s strange I thought, why did it sound so good when I was working in the room?

The answer, I reasoned, must be like tickling. When someone tickles you, it’s unbearable because you don’t know where they will go next. But if you try tickling yourself in the same places… nothing happens.

I remember when I would spend hours as a youth drawing in my parents’ home and playing records to keep me company. As I was relatively poor, I only had so many records so I knew them intimately. My brother would then ask if he could have a turn on the record deck. He would have a few records of his own but a lot of the music he played would be what I had played earlier. I noticed then that when I had no idea what song was coming next I enjoyed it all the more. It was the unexpectedness that made me appreciate the song anew.

I suspect a lot of things in life are like that. If you engineer an outcome, it is as you expected; but if an outcome is unexpected, it is almost like experiencing it for the first time again. Is this why an unexpected bargain is more pleasurable than a fiercely negotiated deal?

Why is the human mind so fickle?

My own red top editorial

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

Red top banner

Top ten lists of anything are useless. They are the lowest common denominator. The ‘most popular anything‘ lists only tell you what is popular and nothing at all about why it is popular. Nor do they indicate anything about quality. On occasions, what is popular might also possess quality but any overlap is coincidental and arbitrary.

They are corruptingly disingenuous. On hearing that a music album is the third best selling record in the world, you automatically wonder which albums are first and second. This detracts from the content of the third best selling album. It is no longer about the experience of the music, it is about units and commerce. This is wrong.

All lists should be banned and their compilers… er, shouted at!

More toilet roll tips

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

Here is a hygienic way to get rid of those stool streaks in the toilet bowl which are above the water line.

These can be very difficult to remove and no amount of urinating from a great height can shift them. The reason for this is because the stool remnant has dried and is acting like a piece of mortar stuck on the side of the bowl. However, unlike mortar, stool streaks can be made to revert to their soft state again by soaking them.

But they are above the water line, I hear you cry. Here’s what to do. Get a single sheet of toilet paper and carefully lay it half in the water and half out. Be sure to make the part of the paper which is out of the water, cover the stool streak. The paper should just fall into place so no physical contact will be made between your fingers and the toilet. Then leave overnight.

In the morning, the toilet bowl will flush clean. This is because capillary action acts on the paper and water creeps up the paper to the deposit of excrement. Now in contact with water, the deposit softens and loses its adhesion to the ceramic.

Science makes the toilet brush redundant.

Recent Austrian visit

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Austrian landscape

The great toilet roll debate

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

To most people (and I sincerely hope that it is most people) this post will be a waste of time as it is so obvious.

But perhaps I am being too optimistic as, to my astonishment, I discovered the other day that some people are still ignorant (meaning that they didn’t know) of the correct way to load a toilet roll into a dispenser. I use the word ‘correct’ to mean the most beneficial. It was like finding someone who drove only ever using the reverse gear.

I was visiting an old friend and when I used their toilet I noticed that the toilet roll was falling into the wall.

“She’s an intelligent woman,” I thought, “why has she got this wrong?”

Afterwards I mentioned the error in a light hearted tone and asked her if it was just a simple mistake or a research project to find possible alternative configurations. This was the wrong approach and I could see her subconsciously preparing herself for a confrontation.

“What do you mean, ‘a mistake‘? What difference does it make how the toilet roll goes on?’

I then explained to her that if the roll falls away from the wall your dirty hand has more room to manoeuvre to grasp the paper and therefore less likely to touch the wall and contaminate it with bacteria. Also, some houses are shrines to artexing and even the toilet walls are pimpled with sharp plaster. Should your hand glance that stuff, an unpleasant graze can occur (this once actually happened to me).

Toilet roll diagram

I finished my explanation and expected an epiphany of understanding and a grateful reassurance that she would, in future, install the toilet roll in the correct configuration every time from now on.

Instead I got a scowl and an emotional outburst. She then attempted to prop up her configuration with specious arguments, one of which suggested that she consciously uses the left hand to grasp the paper and wipe with the other. I didn’t follow her reasoning too well because I was in a state of shock and awe.

To continue with the car analogy, I had just explained to her that the car has several other gears which allowed the car to be driven forwards and that the reverse gear is best left to reversing. By using the forward gears her journey will be more efficient, more pleasant and a lot safer.

Most people would be overjoyed in being shown a better way (somebody please confirm that they would). But my friend took umbrage and became more entrenched in her practice of using only the reverse gear. Maybe I could have approached the subject in a different way but why would anyone choose to stick with something that is shown to be inferior to another method?

Okay, we are only talking about a toilet roll here, but extrapolate… What if we were talking about political systems, business models, social services, peer review procedure..? If the evidence demonstrates a revolutionary new way of doing something is far better, is the old guard going to whoop with joy and switch immediately or will they fight their increasingly untenable corner?

So, are you an away from the wall or an into the wall person?

By the way, white toilet paper is less harmful to the environment than coloured paper.

PS It occurred to me that with a little leap of the imagination, newsprint could be the toilet roll in this story. Newspapers have enjoyed the ‘best installation’ position for centuries when it came to the dissemination of news but with the advent of the internet, printing presses seem as archaic today as the Spinning Jenny does. A good article on this here.

St. Paul’s Cathedral revisited

Monday, March 16th, 2009

In response to a comment on this post I thought I had better explain, in greater detail, my concerns about St. Paul’s Cathedral and its admissions policy.

Anton, your criticism is acknowledged and understood however, it is far too simplistic. My main criticism of the organised church is precisely that it is a business.

Imagine, for example, Mother Teresa working all day in the Calcutta slums and then going home to a palatial mansion with an Olympic sized swimming pool in the basement which has a magnificent mosaic of Christ on the cross at the bottom of it. At what point does Mother Teresa think to herself, “The cognitive dissonance is too much; surely all this wealth is better spent servicing the poor?”. Maybe she thinks to open the mansion to the public and charge an entrance fee. That way she can justify the extravagance of the mansion; the money will go towards her work with the poor. But the maintenance takes more and more of the money and her time and eventually she is forced to concede that she has simply become a real estate business maintaining its assets and nothing at all to do with the religion she was supposed to represent – the poor still go without.

She may even have a couple of servants working in the mansion. Her thinking is that she is providing a useful service, nay, a Christian service by helping these people out of poverty by giving them a job. But by that criterion, any business – banks included – are providing a Christian service by helping people out of poverty.

If you go to the fountain head of any religion the core message is to do good, to help the poor, to be of service to a higher calling, not become a sovereign state with fabulous wealth.

Or take the young man working at the till in the cathedral.

If he is simply an employee of the church, a hired, unbelieving hand, then he is simply part of a business like a bank or an accountant’s (you could argue that all businesses are charitable in that they ultimately help the poor). If he is a believer, a servant of the church however, at what point does he say to himself, “How is this doing good? How am I helping the poor? This money is going towards maintaining bricks and mortar, not life, and it is given by people who have no interest in the works of my church, only in its architecture”.

Equally, at what point does the head of the church admit that he is an administrator in a capitalist business with a profit and loss account and not a servant of God helping the less fortunate?

The cathedrals were built when the church was booming due to the rich trying to buy their way into heaven and so had money to spare. If all its remaining money is now being spent on bad assets, what is left to service the poor?

You quite rightly explain that during a normal church service a donation is asked for. But this is a voluntary donation and presumably if you have nothing to give you will not be turfed out by the choir boys. A flat fee is a regressive tax on the poor.

The time has come for the church, one of the biggest land owners in the country, to hand over expensive assets like St. Paul’s Cathedral to the National Trust and concentrate on what it is supposed to do, help the less fortunate.

Imagine an advert for a charity. It is shown on television and asks for donations. You donate a sum of money but wonder how much of it is going to the television company (a purely capitalist business) and how much is actually going to the poor (or whatever the charity claims to help?)

If the church is going to admit that it is simply a commercial business it might as well have gaming machines in the cathedral with bars selling alcohol and a desk where loans from the church can be arranged at competitive interest rates. If however, it insists it is true to the teachings of its founder then how can it justify these commercial practices?

Finally, the use of commas and the term ”for example’ indicates that i am aware St. Paul’s is not part of the Catholic church. The reason I mention the Catholic church is because I hope one day to visit Rome and see the religious buildings there. As I do so there will be a moment of frisson as I hand over my admission fee to an organisation that is one of the richest in the world and which also has so much blood on its hands. When I do so, am I part of the solution or am I part of the problem?

Alcohol

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

glass of lager

I started drinking when I was in my late thirties. I moved from being an infrequent drinker to a moderate drinker in the space of a few weeks. I had to force myself.

There was good medical evidence at the time that a regular tipple in middle age was useful insurance against heart disease and possibly some other common killers so I thought it might be worth drinking to this discovery.

Some people have a predisposition to alcohol addiction. I believe I have a predisposition which prevents me from developing one. A single drink is usually enough for me. On the rare occassion I have tried two or three I just feel ill.

It is a quirk of fate I guess that the two worst drugs in the world are the legal ones. Nicotine is the most addictive substance in the world (yup, it’s worse than heroin) and is a powerful toxin. Alcohol turns people violent.

That’s an oversimplification of course but the main side effect of alcohol intoxication is aggression as any drunk will tell you (even if they’re talking about something else).
Just take a drive along any arterial road of any large town on a Sunday morning and see for yourself the number of crystal mounds littering the now windowless bus shelters. These acts of vandalism have been fuelled by alcohol. Some of the vandals probably wouldn’t even remember that they had done something so mindless. The cost of alcohol abuse to the country in monetary terms is many billions of pounds, in emotional terms it’s incalculable.

Apart from the slight health benefits from moderate drinking in middle age (which could be easily made inconsequential if people ate healthily and exercised more), alcohol has nothing going for it.

Compare it with cannabis say, which has completely different side effects, the most notable being passivity. Or LSD which can expand the mind and thus connectivity with other people. Imagine how different the world would be if they had become the legal drugs instead of the two damaging poisons we have now.

Okay, all drugs have side effects and there would no doubt be severe cases of harm with the two alternatives I mentioned but you can be sure the costs would come no where near the current level of damage we have today.

It almost makes sense for a government agency to research and develop a brand new recreational drug which had minimal side effects and maximum buzz to replace the current legal ones. Then those people who are addicted could make a transition to the safer drug. The savings and benefit to society would outstrip any fiscal initiative that the government could ever come up with.

Imagine the outcry though if someone in authority suggested this rational approach. The official insanity is that we keep the two worst drugs in the world as legal, try to clean up the appalling mess created by them and combat the tide of illegal drugs (which could turn out to be less harmful if they were controlled properly) at the same time.

It’s no wonder people seek out mind altering substances to hide from such insanity.

Addendum: After posting this, the very next day, 3 Quarks Daily had this article.

Voodoo Visualisation

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

Voodoo visualisation

Too Big to Fail

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

This phrase has been doing the rounds in media circles and has been applied to quite a few companies; AIG, HBOS, General Motors etc.

What worries me is that it demonstrates there is no Plan B.

In a capitalist system, competition is supposed to be the evolutionary driver in business. Evolution is based on profligate waste. For every successful organism that reaches the stage of reproduction, there are sometimes thousands that fail.

And so capitalism demands that failure be part of its successful model, how else would you sort out the best from the worst? Which makes the phrase ‘too big to fail’ suspiciously anti capitalist and monolithic. It means companies are bigger than governments. It means the worst companies can persist in an environment that demands only the best survive. It means sacrificing valuable resources to sustain a bloated and dying organism.

And ultimately it means that eventually one of these companies will fail despite everyone’s best efforts and that means globalisation will have delivered its promise of catastrophe.

The biggest Ponzi scheme of them all

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

After reading some more about Ponzi schemes and their inner workings it didn’t take me long to figure out that the recent financial crisis was the result of the exact same principle.

In a Ponzi scheme, the early investors get a return on their money and persuade others, usually people they know, to invest in the scheme as well. Even empirical cynics are convinced by the evidence shown to them by their acquaintance or friend, so they too invest. For the scheme to work however it requires an unlimited supply of gullible investors. The flaw here, is in the word, ‘unlimited’. Any fool can tell you that unlimited is a theoretical property which fails in this limited world.

So, what about the banks? Well, let’s take the best example, the sub prime fiasco. Look at it as a Ponzi scheme. Empirical cynics (usual cautious bankers) are convinced the scheme works because their own property has doubled or tripled in value in a ridiculously short space of time. It makes sense then to pivot investment vehicles around this phenomenon. As property prices rise, more investors pile in. But the flaw in this scheme is that it requires an unending rise in property values if it is to succeed at all. Any fool can tell you that unending is a theoretical property which fails in this finite world.

The mainstream media have always referred to the financial crisis as a bubble or boom that suddenly ended. It was never likened to a Ponzi scheme. But it was a Ponzi scheme plain and simple, run by the banks. In any other rational universe, these bankers would now be waiting for trial in a criminal court of law.

Footnote. As I was doing some research on the web to find a suitable link that explained the Ponzi scheme I found this article. It appears there are a couple more huge Ponzi schemes out there run by the government.