Dance, monkey! Dance!

As market norms dominate ever more aspects of our lives, corporations are always on the look-out for new ways to sell us stuff.  It is very old news that shopping should be viewed as a form of entertainment.  Personally, I find this pretty unconvincing – shopping is mostly tedious or necessary, but rarely does it offer much entertainment.  I do my best to bring entertainment to the process, by walking into town through a sequence of parks (and so enjoying a little managed nature) or by engaging sales folk with merry banter (which they sometimes respond positively to), to give but two examples – but this is not terribly far removed from covering a hand grenade in sequins.  I will admit that time spent in a bookshop can be quite diverting and I suppose clothes shopping could be, in a dressing-up box kind of way (though clothes stores would probably discourage such an approach – however, I am now rather tempted to give it a go!  Would Dorothy Perkins let me try on a frock?).

Many of the ploys used by stores to attract our business strike me as having more in common with the shoe shop intensifier ray of the plant Brontitaur than they do with a real and viable strategy.  It allows executives to feel they are having a major impact in the world (and to spend money which might otherwise go to lowering prices or providing their employees or suppliers with a more sustainable income), while in fact just allowing existing cultural trends to continue unabated.  Nevertheless, Boxing Day does seem to have been successfully transitioned from a time to reward your servants and tradespeople to a time to slump in front of the television eating turkey left-overs to a time to hurl one’s self to an out-of-town shopping centre to stock up on a slightly less overpriced sofa or hammer drill (but mostly to sit in traffic on the way to or from said modern representation of Tartarus).

The latest day to be set-aside for the pious observances of our modern religion (or shopping) is the Friday following the fourth Thursday in November.  It would seem that after giving thanks to the divine for having escaped religious persecution in the old country, the very next thing on the Pilgrim Fathers’ agenda was to get some serious shopping done.  I presume that the autochthonous population of North America must have been more commercially astute than we are usually led to believe – and that Bloomingdale and Macy are old Iroquois words.  Perhaps recognising the terrible price these earliest American shopkeepers and their people paid for welcoming new customers, this event is now commemorated in the US as Black Friday.  The US version of The Sealed Knot mark the day by re-staging some of the early battles between the indigenous population and the new European settlers at stores across the land – though unlike their British brethren, these re-enactments seem to be in modern dress and with the rather mercenary and commercial objectives of the settlers laid bare.

It would seem that we too have imported this quaint custom from our former colony, despite the lack of the relevant local historical context.  I must admit I had been blissfully unaware of it until a week-or-so ago, but apparently the event was celebrated last year.  On Friday afternoon, I innocently wandered into the city to acquire a fresh inhaler to try and retain my ability to breathe without excessive wheezing – there seems to be something in the air at this time of year which affects me rather badly (I blame leaf blowers – on the basis of no evidence whatsoever – and will shortly be starting a campaign to bring back the rake!).  To my surprise, neé horror, the city centre was heaving with people – it was worse than a December Saturday!  I rather fear that they had been seduced by the dubious delights of Black Friday and were being led like fiscally-foolish sheep to the commercial slaughter.  Being expected to do something, immediately brought out the rebel in me – frankly, I think this may just be an anathema to “joining in”, but I like to view myself as a dangerous maverick (despite all the evidence).  I decided to buy as little as possible on Friday, and to minimise shopping over the whole weekend.

To this end, I went to Chichester yesterday and divided my time between the Pallant House Gallery, Whipped and Baked (for essential victuals – they never disappoint!) and the newly refurbished Chichester Festival Theatre.  It was a glorious day of the Arts and other than a programme I have nothing but pleasant memories to show for it.  The PHG really is amazing for a relatively small, provincial gallery – I can really recommend the highlights from the Ruth Bouchard Collection and the room devoted to post-war religious art (neither things I would expect to recommend, but both amazing).  The newly referred CFT is surprisingly comfortable – partly aided by my excellent (if fortuitous) choice of chair on the back row, but with heaps of legroom – which was appreciated as The Ideal Husband is three hours long (with interval) – and very reasonable priced.  Wilde’s work was less concise than is my preference, but it is so stuffed with wonderful quotes and was beautifully staged (even if Patricia Routledge and Edward Fox did act everyone else into a cocked hat) that the time raced by.  By cunning use of Chichester back streets, I almost managed to avoid any exposure to the rough world of “trade”.

Now, on “Black Sunday”, I am taking it easy – planning my next act of commercial rebellion!  This may involve avoiding something called “Cyber Monday” where we celebrate the work of Greek steersmen?  I think we’ve had almost enough rain to get my trireme out of storage – to your oars, men!

My weakness

The title should not lead you to believe that the author imagines he has but a single weakness.  For a start, I have no reason to believe that I am any more immune to gunfire, “fire” fire or ionising radiation than the next mammal.  No, the title focuses on a single weakness in a vain attempt to keep this post to a manageable length.

The weakness in question is books.  For as long as I can remember, I have had a lot of books and a strong desire to have more.  While other crazes have come and gone, the near infinite variety of books has retained my interest for more than 40 years.  It is rare that I travel more than a mile from home without at least one book – indeed, I am far more likely to have a book than my mobile phone (which may say more about my age than my passion for literature).  With a book, you always have a friend and a source of entertainment at hand – and a bulwark against the howling void of your own undirected thoughts.  Never underestimate the importance of divertissement to the avoidance of a one-way trip to La Suisse.

The recent arrival of a branch of Foyles at Waterloo station is a dangerous development as any free time waiting for a train can (all too easily) result in a new book (or books) being acquired.  The latest such entry to my library was Into the Woods by John Yorke.  This explains how and why stories work and so may prove beneficial to this blog in due course.  It also invaded my life (as books so often do), firstly when watching The Code (a recent and excellent) Australian drama on BBC4) when I found myself analysing how much worse things had yet to become for our heroes.  This was relatively harmless, but I have also caught myself trying to apply its principles to my own life, e.g. trying to precipitate an inciting incident in order to launch the hero (i.e. me) on a new journey.

As I drew to the end of that book, I wandered to Waterstones in Southampton, seeking books – but with no particular targets in mind (not even a choice as to whether they would be fiction or non).  I came away with four books – and iron self-control was needed to keep it down to four!  All have proved to be excellent, and less than half of the fourth remains to be read.  They have all been informative and entertaining, but have also made my look anew at my life.

The Blind Giant by Nick Harkaway was picked as I had read and enjoyed his fiction.  A very interesting and well thought-out take on the digital world and our place in it.  My interactions with the digital world may shift in future – but don’t worry, GofaDM is going nowhere!

Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George was chosen following last year’s winner of the Thinking Allowed prize for ethnography (about shipping) and given the fact that I now live in a container port.  A very interesting introduction into modern shipping and the container business.  When did any of us last think about the ships – and the (mostly) men that crew them – that bring most of the stuff we use?

Justice by Michael Sandel has already been mentioned in this blog.  I’d previously read his book on markets and have downloaded (but not yet listened to) his Reith Lectures from a few years back.  He really makes a chap think – and the book is also an excellent introduction to philosophy.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos is a book about translation which sounded like an interesting topic.  So indeed it was, I now have rather more respect for the poor souls who have to subtitle films and TV shows – I will perhaps mock their efforts less in the future.

Sadly, there is only a little fish left in my ear and so more books have had to be sought (and indeed bought).  I have just started on The Undivided Past by David Cannadine, a chap introduced to me by A Point of View or BBC Radio 4.  It had started very strongly, so my hopes are high.  aPoV has also prompted me to download Adam Gopnik’s memoir of his time in Paris – a few eBooks are useful when travelling abroad with only hand luggage, though for me they aren’t going to replace the real thing any time soon.  A book needs no battery and its use during take-off and landing (the most important times to be distracted) is entirely unlimited.

It remains astounding to me that some pressed vegetable fibres covered in dark marks can take you to a different world and return you safely to this one.  However, you are often returned a changed man with new ideas, different ways of looking at the world and even a desire to change your life (hopefully for the better).  So, I plan on hanging on to this weakness for as long as I can – and to Hades with the storage issues!  Hooray for books!  (If only it were National Book Week – but I’m only a month or so late).

Crossrail

I am a regular user of the railways, though not – at the moment – a commuter.  Rare is the week that I do not make at least one, roughly-matched pair of journeys.  I do this rather than drive (or fly) largely (I fondly imagine) as a matter of personal preference.  However, having recently read Michael Sandel’s Justice, I have come to realise that it is also a political act – by using the train (or even the bus), I rub shoulders (and sometimes more) with my fellow members of society and so interact with the full breadth of UK social class (all the way from standard to first) – an experience which is largely avoided by those who drive everywhere, (in)secure in their own private “bubble”.  Emboldened by my unintended political engagement and the recent news, I thought I’d be more overtly political about the railways.

In recent weeks, the government has produced a new “initiative” (one of depressingly many) that what is holding the north back is the transit time by rail between its major cities.  Now, I will admit that Trans-Pennine Express is a good description of the train’s route, but is rather optimistic about its pace (unless one is a geologist).  Nevertheless, I am somewhat sceptical that knocking 10 minutes off the transit time between Manchester and Leeds will create a new tiger economy in the lee of the M62.  However, the output from this government “tank” (which I presume is what remains once we has extracted any thought from a think tank) is that faster trains in the distant future is what is needed to revitalise the north.

I travel around the north by rail quite rarely, but I follow several people on Twitter who are regular users.  Now, I will readily admit that this sample has not been selected with the sort of rigour expected of a regular listener to More-or-Less – but remains interesting anecdotally.  I have yet to see any users of TPE complaining about the speed of service – but many complaints about the lack of seating and excess of unreliability.  The same story applies to Northern Rail – which, from what I read, must have taken its mission statement from one (or more) of Dante’s nine circles of hell (or perhaps the franchise is being operated by agoraphobic sardines?).  I would be willing to go out on a limb (statistically) and suggest that for the majority of northern rail users, some extra rolling stock and some decent maintenance tomorrow would be far more appreciated than standing for a slightly shorter period of time in a decade or two.  It would also be much quicker and cheaper to deliver.  One is left to ponder for whose benefit is the government intervening in the operation of the railway?  It would seem not to be either the passenger or tax payer – so who?

This question was brought into sharper focus today with the news about East Coast.  I have been a very regular user of the East Coast Main Line, and still use it in preference to flying to Edinburgh (which would be both cheaper and faster).  East Coast – the current state-owned operators – seem have made a decent fist of running it.  Not quite a return to the glory days of GNER, but a far better job than almost any other rail franchise.  I have seen much Twitter traffic praising East Cost and looking with horror on its replacement – which is not something you saw with the end of the First Capital Connect franchise (to take but a single example).  On the whole East Coast seems to be viewed somewhat favourably by its users – but this holds little sway with our political masters.  Once again, the government makes clear by its actions (rather than its empty rhetoric) that the railway is clearly not there to serve its customers.  It would seem to be there to deliver a hefty “bribe” to the Treasury (£3.3 billion – or 3.5 years of work from East Coast) and to enrich the shareholders of Virgin and Stagecoach.  I found myself wondering how many passengers East Coast carries per year and how this compares to the number of UK-voting and tax-paying shareholders of Stagecoach and Virgin (combined).  I suspect the balance would lie heavily in the East Coast passengers favour.  I have limited experience of Virgin’s rail performance, though news from a while back suggests that it is at least better than First Group, but Stagecoach have little in the way of laurels to rest upon.  Indeed, so toxic is Stagecoach’s name considered that despite owning 90% of the company which has “won” the franchise, it will be the Virgin “brand” that will appear on the trains.  Leaving the appearance that all rail routes to Scotland are controlled by Virgin – so much for competition!  (Well, in the private sector anyway – it still seems to be full-steam ahead in the public sector.  Perhaps the NHS should start dropping sizeable “bungs” to the Treasury?).   Or is this a punishment for the Scots for having the temerity to almost leave the union?

It is perhaps ironic that in many cases the UK government is keen to dispose of our “loss-making” railways to companies owned by foreign governments, who then make substantial profits from them.  We seem to be keen to give our money away to the French, Dutch and Germans – swapping subsidising our own railways with subsidising those of our neighbours.  This is very European minded of us, and quite at odds with most of the rhetoric produced by the government in recent weeks.

Political parties seem to be casting around randomly for policies that might appeal to voters in the run up to next year’s General Election.  Might I suggest that with the exception of East Coast (and perhaps a couple of others), promising to replace the current rail franchise holders would be a major vote winner.  It would also be one which avoids overly strong parallels with the rise of National Socialism in 1930s Germany – which would make for a nice change.

In the meantime, I shall be reviewing my travel arrangements to Scotland – a slow boat, perhaps?

Stiff awakening

You may suggest that this is an occupational hazard, given my “choice” to be a boy or, for that matter, my advanced age.  However, GofaDM is not at home to innuendo or ageism – so we will all pretend you didn’t suggest any such thing.

Nevertheless, this morning I awoke with all the flexibility of the geriatric love-child of DFS and a King Edward.  I don’k think that I have to look very far for an explanation: only as far as my combination of activities yesterday – and so, in line with the public service remit of GofaDM, I felt I should issue a warning to any readers who might be similarly disposed.

Friday morning was, as is traditional, devoted to gymnastics and to various ring and bar based activities that younger (and wiser) men would baulk at.  Still, foolishness can carry a chap quite a long way and I continue to make astonishing progress towards my ludicrous goals.  I then returned home for a quick shower and some lunch before heading to London.

My afternoon and evening were spend in galleries, with friends, looking at a pretty broad range of art.  We started at the British Museum with its exhibition on Germany.  This ties in with Neil McGregor’s excellent recent Radio 4 series, Germany: Memories of a Nation.  It was fascinating, especially the more recent years which were surprising (to me at least – but then my O level history did stop in 1914) and hold a number of lessons for today’s UK (the parallels with 1930s Germany were alarming).  The series made reference to a number of objects, many of which graced the exhibition.  From this I learned that, despite Neil’s excellent verbal descriptions, my ability to visualise anything from the radio is truly awful.  The exhibition also tied in to some recent reading, Simon Winder’s Danubia, which also covered some of the German speaking world.  It is amazing how much a little background can add to the experience of such an exhibition.

After a brief break for refreshments, we took a look at a smaller exhibition of prints featuring witches – which did very strongly suggest artists through the ages have become worryingly overwrought when thinking about powerful women.  This space led naturally into the Japanese collections of the BM.  This covered two areas of particular interest to me – very old earthenware which was not at all as one imagines Japanese art and very recent ceramics.  Some of the current ceramics were absolutely stunning – elegant forms, beautiful decoration and amazing use of colour.  I was pleased to see that a number of the makers had been officially recognised as Living National Treasures.  Something we might like to consider here, where national treasures tend only to be unofficial and usually need a substantial presence on television for even that.  I suspect Grayson Perry is our closest analogue.

We then moved to the Royal Academy and started with some more serious bodily fortification in the calming space of the Keeper’s House.  The RA is a splendid place to get away from the hustle (and even the bustle: though the bustle is much less fashionable than it was – surely only a matter of time before some Hoxton hipster adopts it once more?) of London and the Keeper’s House, as well as providing sustenance (both liquid and solid), also provides some great people-watching opportunities.

We went to the RA to visit the Anselm Kiefer exhibition (not just for its cafe).  I had no interest in Herr Kiefer – and a slightly negative, if almost entirely uninformed, view of his work – but my friend loves him and her recommendations have never led me astray.  Added to this, as a Friend on the RA there was no cost to risking a modest expansion of my artistic horizons.  The exhibition was incredible and so well curated.  I don’t love all of his work, but almost all is thought provoking and much is very moving.  Ages of the World, a new work commissioned for this exhibition was my favourite – but probably a dozen pieces can add themselves to my (non-existent) list of favourite works of art.  Totally contradicting my earlier pronouncement, arriving with (almost) no preconceived ideas made for a thrilling and emotional evening.  However, our earlier art experiences did feed very well into the Kiefer – especially Germany and the importance of the forest, but also some of the Japanese painting.  Going to the RA in the evening (as it opens late on a Friday) was a revelation – somehow it feels a more natural time than when it is daylight outside – and the galleries were very thinly attended giving lots of opportunity to get up-close and personal with the paintings (though not too close – some used tiny diamonds and if you lean too close to look, alarms go off).

The only downside to all this culture is that gallery visiting is very hard on the body – or at least my body.  I usually try to limit it to an hour or so per day, and even then it makes my legs, back and neck ache.  I don’t know why this should be – but it has been the case for as long as I’ve been visiting galleries (so I don’t think I can blame it on my age).  Yesterday, I probably spend three or more hours doing “art” – and coupling that with the earlier gymnastics may not have been entirely wise.  I strikes me that I have never spotted an elite gymnast in an art gallery and I suspect that my aching body may explain this absence.

Now, I can only personally attest to the combination of gymnastics and then gallery, so it is possible that the reverse sequence leads to an ache-free existence (but I have my doubts).  The again, I had a wonderful day yesterday and a few aches this morning is a small price to pay.  So, readers should view this post as a warning rather than a prohibition.

At last, an actual juxtaposition

It’s the moment for which we have all been waiting!  Without the aid of a safety net (ooh, aah), I will now introduce a real (and rather jarring) juxtaposition which just occurred to me.

Anyone who has been bored at an airport (which I presume is close to 100% of the airport-using population of the planet) will have wandered into an airport bookshop.  These usually offer a large display of books aimed at the businessman (or woman, but I suspect mostly man) with attention-grabbing titles.  All seem to promise rapid advancement in your chosen career (or to help you attain another one and then advance in that) by taking control of your own destiny.  This control is seized by taking the lessons extracted from previously successful business-folk and, if at all possible, linking these to some ancient oriental wisdom or military leader (or, ideally, both).  I always feel that the purchasers of such books are doomed to disappointment on two fairly obvious grounds.  Firstly, if anyone can learn these tricks for a mere £19.99 (or similar), then they are going to be pretty widely known and there is only so much room at the top of the greasy pole we are all supposed to be so assiduously ascending.  Secondly, the successful are often seduced by the idea that they are the author’s of their own success – rather than that they have risen (mostly) due to the operation of blind chance.  It is never wise to disrespect Fate – even at second hand – as she is known for her fondness for retribution.  As a result, I own no books purporting to tell me how to succeed in business – which may explain my lack of success or merely be an entirely unrelated fact (you, as they say, decide).  I may also have been somewhat inoculated against such works having once been employed by a much lauded company which subsequently went quite spectacularly bankrupt.  However, today the poverty of business thinking was brought rather forcibly to my attention.

This week, it would appear, “the man” has decided is Safety Week!  Luckily, I have made it unscathed through the last 51 danger weeks – and so could participate (via phone and screen) with the knuckle-biting launch event.  For this, some poor sap from HR felt it necessary to explain safety – something covered much better by my very first employer way back in 1987.  Apparently (and you will never have guessed this), but having zero accidents is a “good thing”.  It is also achievable: something which the Kent Constabulary gave the lie to while I was still at school.  When trying to teach we kids (yes, even I was once one) about road safety, they informed us that there had been one, real accident on the roads of Kent that year – in which a deer leapt out of a wood and directly into a car, sadly immolating both itself and the unfortunate driver.  It is hard to see any safety “culture” preventing this, without either exterminating all deer, raising all woods to the ground or banning the use of motor vehicles (or all three) – none of which are probably all that practical or desirable.  It is appalling hubris for any human endeavour to claim that it can eliminate all chance from existence (and I refer you to my previous thoughts on the dangers of tempting Fate).

Anyway, having established what safety is, the poor, benighted HR soul then tried to explain why we should value safety.  This seemed to include a muddled call on human rights, a nod to utilitarianism and quite a lot of vague waffle about economics.  In a normal day, this would only have been mildly irritating – but it came directly after reading Michel Sandel’s excellent book Justice.  Having covered the work of Aristotle, Bentham, Mill et al I had just finished a long chapter on the work of Immanuel Kant.  He put in a lot of the groundwork (which is a brilliant pun, but almost no-one will know why) to our ideas about universal human rights.  His work (at least as I have understood it) provides a very serious underpinning to how safety in the workplace is part of a moral life, but also why the approach taken by “the man” destroys this moral dimension by the introduction of heteronomy and the mandating of hypothetical imperatives.  The juxtaposition of the intellectual rigour of Kant and Sandel, and the neo-liberal hippyness from HR was particularly jarring and made the whole presentation unusually hard to bear (or take seriously).

I’m quite taken with Kant at the moment, but I’m about to move on to Rawls and all that could change.  This book is causing my opinions to shift on an almost page-by-page basis and is exposing the dreadfully muddled thinking (if any) that underlies most of my opinions.  Coupled with Melvin Bragg’s Theory of Ideas and the positive and negative freedoms of Isaiah Berlin (of which I had previously read), the philosophical parts of my mind are getting quite the work-out at the moment.  My opinions and views on almost all topics are thus in a state of terrible ferment or flux at present.  Hopefully, in another 120 pages or so they should start to settle down again, but I have no idea in what configuration this might be – which is rather exciting, but probably makes me ill-suited to a career in politics as it is currently practised.  Then again, we do seem to live in a society where certainty is significantly over-valued, so perhaps now is the time for me to make my move!

How it ends

I’m sure many readers have found themselves wondering when my inevitable demise will spare them from further ruminations on my life and times.  A few may even have considered hastening this happy day – which seems a tad extreme as (I assume) no-one is forced to read this drivel.  However, if there is anyone dressed entirely in orange being subjected to this as an alternative to water-boarding then I apologise unreservedly.

Well, I am sorry to report that despite my “career” in forecasting, I am unable to provide a date and time when the author will shuffle off his mortal coil.  I believe this blindness on the subject of one’s own future is not uncommon among those cursed with the power of prophecy – I seem to recall Cassandra was similarly afflicted, and like me, no-one believed her doom-laden visions of the future either.

I have for some time known the most likely cause of my death: bloody-mindedness (mine, though another’s may also be involved) which whilst it may not be inscribed on the certificate as the actual medical cause of my demise will certainly have been the “inciting incident”.  Today, I discovered how I will physically prepare for the end.

Attempting to be a gymnast at my advanced age does mean that from time-to-time attempted manoeuvres go a little awry on the first (or even nth) attempt.  When one’s body is falling through space to an inevitable collision with the ground, I believe the natural response is to assume the foetal position to protect one’s vitals.  I have discovered that I do not do this.  So highly trained am I that I keep my entire body perfectly straight and rigid – a look not unlike that of a fleshy bean-pole – and maintain this throughout the fall (well, you lose points for bending or folding in the wrong place).  I also tend to close my eyes – for, as we all know, what you can’t see can’t hurt you.  (Yes, I know you can’t see gravity even with your eyes open, but it isn’t the gravity that hurts but the impact with the ground occasioned by its operation.)  So, whatever else happens it is reassuring to know that as I rattle my clack, my core will be fully engaged.  My nearest-and-dearest should invest in a full-length coffin as at my point of departure I will be at my maximum length and, unless promptly folded, rigor mortis will maintain me at that size until inhumed (or inflamed).

Escaping safely

Writing this post carries the risk that readers will come to believe that I am obsessed by airline safety.  I like to view it as a healthy interest, but I suppose some may feel I am taking it too far.

Those who have flown will know that if the flight goes badly (but not catastrophically so) one may be able to exit the aircraft in an emergency.  Finally, the emergency, floor-level lighting will come into its own and my detailed study of the door mechanisms and locations will be vindicated.  It is at this time that ladies must remove any high-heeled shoes – we gentleman, of course, can be trusted to use an escape slide safely while wearing stilettos (or at least this is my inference from the safety announcements).  We are also told not to take anything with us – though generally no announcement is made as to specific items we should leave behind.  This is where the safety card (usually ensconced in the seat pocket in front of you) comes into its own.

On easyJet, you are enjoined not to take your tablet computer or your mobile phone with you.  Whilst the former may make some sense, the latter was mystifying.  Do we really have to rifle through our pockets during an emergency and discard our mobile phones?       I would have thought they might have some utility after exiting the aircraft – possessing as they do GPS and the potential to call for help (they’d certainly beat a tiny light and a whistle which is all the airline offers).

However, easyJet appear the very model of rationality when compared to FlyBe.  Their safety card requires you to remove all glasses and dentures before attempting to exit a distressed aircraft.  How does being unable to see where you are going help one escape?  Has an escape slide really been torn by a set of false teeth?  Particularly one being worn at the time?  I can imagine the floor of an aircraft loaded with pensioners being buried beneath great drifts of specs and teeth following an emergency landing.  Does the announcement “Brace! Brace! Brace!” have nothing to do with the position to adopt (head twixt knees and against the seat-back in from of you) but is in fact a reminder to those with straighteners applied to their uneven teeth to remove these dental appliances now?  I guess we should be grateful that those relying on larger prostheses are allowed to retain them – or would the flight crew (who are there for our safety, apparently) insist that they also be removed if the balloon were to go up (and the plane down)?

I guess Google Glass – having much in common with both glasses and a mobile phone – would be doomed to be left behind with both airlines.  Otherwise, when choosing an airline you may wish to look beyond price and customer service to what you may be forced to abandon in the case of an emergency – do BA require you to leave any offspring?  Or Cathay Pacific fear the damage a loose spouse could cause to the slides?  We – the flying public – have a right to know!

Keeping an open mind

I do like to try and keep an open mind – and also recognise that this is different from having a hole in the head.  Of course, being human – as far as any tests yet applied are able to ascertain – my mind is a rag-bag of ill (if at all) considered default positions, contradictory beliefs and prejudices.  Some of these I can recognise, some of the time, and try not to be too foolish about – and have, thus far at least, managed to avoid blogging (tweeting or the like) while drunk or under the influence of other mind altering drugs (with the obvious exceptions of cheese and cake).  I also try to avoid being needlessly offensive to other people – not as a result of any particular attachment to the much maligned “political correctness” but as a matter of common courtesy, which strikes me as basically being the same thing (under an older name).

Often my opinions are generated “live” as I’m speaking (or typing), as unlike so many we hear or see in the media I do not have well developed views to deliver in response to any question asked.  Sometimes they surprise me!  (If it’s a nice surprise, I’ll hope I remember them later).  On the whole, I work on the principle that every question has (at least) two simple answers and they are both wrong.  If something seems obvious, without having previously gone through a lot of detailed research and mature reflection, then I probably haven’t understood it.  Even when I have put a lot of effort into an opinion, it still tends to be contingent on new knowledge presenting itself – though like everyone else, it is hard to let go of a long cherished view merely because it clashes with reality (though, in the multi-worlds model of quantum mechanics you may be able to comfort yourself with the thought that at least it is still viable somewhere in the multiverse).  New input comes from many places – but usually a good book or decent podcast (often courtesy of Radio 4) – and is always a joy, even – and sometimes especially – when it disrupts a long (or just firmly) held view.  I fear I would make a very poor fundamentalist – I am far too inconstant (sometimes changing opinion within the span of a single spoken sentence).

Still, I think that’s enough set-up and we should probably make a start on the actual content.

It is all too easy for me (and I am sure many others) to view this government’s actions as an unwanted alloy of wickedness and incompetence (and also appropriate given its composition).  This task is made much easier by its consistent trumpeting of its wickedness and the fact that its incompetence stretches to include its generally transparent attempts (at least to the regular More or Less listener) to try and conceal its uselessness.  In an attempt to be fair to our political masters, many of them probably don’t attempt to be actively wicked but are just thoughtless and fail to consider (or care overly about) the consequences of their actions.  This is probably aided by an overly tight attachment to the random bunch of opinions and ideologies that (presumably) served them well as they climbed the greasy pole to relative political eminence.  In this respect (and so many others), this government is not so very different from many of its recent predecessors.

In my desire to think good of others, I have oft tried to think of something positive that the current incumbents of Westminster have achieved – to offset their botched interference in the public sector (and beyond) in an attempt to find an easy way (for them, but few others) to save some money.  It always seems to be easier to remove biscuits from meetings than to tackle the actual issues in a country or corporation.  Of course, governments tend to be more successful (with some help from their friends in the media) in convincing many that biscuits are the cause of all their woes than any of the companies for which I’ve worked (whilst continuing to give the choicest biscuits away free to themselves and their friends).  Still, I did manage to come up with only one positive achievement: equal marriage – which strikes me as an unalloyed good.

However, as so often I was wrong – and as is (almost) equally common it was The Life Scientific that set my straight.  I know I’ve probably banged on about how great TLS is before – but I will continue to do so until I have firm evidence that every man, woman and child on this planet (and any others we stumble across) has become a regular listener.  This time I was corrected by Professor Dame Sally Davies – a truly remarkable person and currently the Chief Medical Officer – who actually (and quite rightly) expressed pride in another achievement of this government.  This was the hospital just established in West Africa to help tackle the spread of ebola.  If I wanted to cavil, I might say that this took rather a long time to do – but I will freely admit I have never tired to set-up anything of this complexity so far from home so may be talking bunk.  She also suggested that the government is finally starting to recognise and act on the fact that mental illness is just illness – it is no more the fault of the patient than a head cold or dodgy spleen.  At a stroke, the positive things I could say about the government have trebled – and this does lead one to suspect there are probably more.  Oddly, the government does seem very shy about advertising the good it has done (unlike the ill) – for fear of upsetting its supporters?  Or just natural modesty?

She also made beautifully explicit how important competition was to finding the best solutions to medical problems but also that we cannot rely on the market to deliver everything that we need.  She highlighted not only the problems with finding new (and generally unprofitable) antibiotics but also diseases supposedly of the poor (like ebola) which the modern world can deliver to Chelsea or Mayfair in a matter of hours.  I cannot help but wonder how far the money now being spent in the richer parts of the world to manage a tiny handful of cases (or feared cases) might have gone in West Africa a few months ago (or in research several years ago) to ensure the dreaded virus was never allowed to reach its current extent.  But, as so often, I don’t know the answer (and nor, I suspect, does anyone else).

I think this has only reinforced my desire to stay away from the news until the level of debate has risen above that I thought I’d escaped when I left my primary school playground behind.  (Actually, this is doing a disservice to Lansdowne CP – where the rhetoric available at playtime was of a very high standard.)  But also acts as a reminder that one is rarely right – especially when certain!   A case of the old “confident, but wrong” syndrome which we must always guard against – impossible though that may be (or is it?).

Conspiracy theory I

The world is rife with conspiracy theories – generally, involving governments and/or aliens and/or secretive (probably imaginary) organisations that have existed for millennia.  Few stand up to even cursory inspection and all rely on a degree of organisational ability which it is really quite hard to imagine the human race managing to field.   This from a species whose trains struggle when exposed to a few leaves!

As you might imagine, I am not going to posit such a high-level conspiracy – but, in keeping with most of GofaDM, something much mundane.  Over the last fortnight, I have observed two apparently unconnected products switching from blue to red.  Coincidence? I think not!  The “packaging” of both Waitrose Extra Thick Single Cream (viz the tub) and the iTunes (viz the icon) have made this transition.  Now, due to my extraordinary general knowledge, I am aware that Cardiff City FC also changed their uniform (kit?) in the same way back in 2012 – but I do not believe this is connected.

So, is Waitrose subliminally plugging iTunes or is Apple trying to point me towards the joys of Extra Thick Single Cream?  My own theory is that Waitrose probably led this shift.  For many years, single cream has been found in red pots and double cream in blue (whipped in green) – I’m not sure who decided (perhaps a Royal Commission), but I think we’re probably stuck with this association now.  So, their ETSC has been an anomaly for years – mutton dressed as lamb, as it were – and has now finally been brought into line with the rest of the world of cream (or at least the United Kingdom of cream: I’m not sure if we exported the convention to the Empire, less alone the rest of the world).

This would suggest the John Lewis Partnership have bunged a few used fivers the way of the Apple Corporation to “plug” the change in ETSC packaging.  It is quite a subtle plug (well, it was until GofaDM blew the thing wide open) – but perhaps the JLP have learned an important lesson from the whole U2 album debacle.  It would also be quite tricky (even given 3D printing technology) to supply ETSC via iTunes – though I (for one) would be willing to pay for this service (if the price were right).  For where ETSC leads, surely cheese must follow – and the ability to print you own cheese at home is surely the mark of a somewhat mature civilisation.  However, I could be wrong – perhaps Waitrose have been bribed by Apple to boost the flagging fortunes of iTunes (following the aforementioned U2 album debacle).

Do the tentacles of this conspiracy extend further than cream and downloadable entertainment?  Have readers noted a lengthening of the wavelength of reflected light from other products in the last fortnight?  For the avoidance of doubt, I’m fairly sure that iTunes and ETSC are receding from me at high speed – so I don’t think the red-shifting more normally associated with distant galaxies outside is implicated in this particular case.  Maybe the cost of the colour blue has increased recently?  Though I don’t recall any recent news stories about a shortage of blue caused by recent poor harvests – indeed, I vaguely recall hearing that blue is/are reforming.

If they don’t believe any of my theories, perhaps readers would care to posit an alternative theory which might explain these co-temporaneously shifting product colours?

Be careful what you say…

Yesterday, I wrote a post about my trip to Poland and describing how much fun my first faltering steps with the Polish language were.  Make no mistake, if you want someone to say “with rum” in Polish then I am your man – but otherwise, the language remains very much an undiscovered country to me.

It would seem that Twitter is reading this blog and taking some of its text to heart.  From this morning, they have started adding adverts into my timeline which are written only in Polish.  Now, I will admit this is geographically much more relevant than their usual offerings, which apply (at best) to those living on the other side of the Atlantic – so a good 2000 miles better targeted.  Congratulations Twitter!  However, none of these ads has yet used any of the limited vocabulary I acquired in Krakow – so they remain a complete mystery.  So, Twitter is still totally failing with even the most basic requirements of an advertisement – in this case, the vaguest hint of reader comprehension (or is this a cunning new take on subliminal advertising?).  Still, according to Nicholas Parsons many a foreigner has learned English from Just a Minute, so perhaps I could learn Polish from mis-directed advertising?

I wonder if I claim to be fluent in Euskara, I will start receiving ads aimed at the Euskal Herria?  Or maybe I should stick closer to home (and my roots) and claim to be fluent in Welsh?  I did watch the excellent 2014 BBC Wales production of Under Milk Wood yesterday and so find myself very tempted by the language of my fathers (look you).  So much so that I have been proof-reading this post in a cod Welsh accent (please feel to try this yourself, it’s a lot of fun!) – so in deference to my forebears, I shall stop now.