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?).

A bridge too far?

I learned to play Bridge while at school – which may tell you something about my age and social background (or may not).  I did not live anywhere terribly posh during my school days and my schooling was provided by the State.  Perhaps curiously, I was taught by my chemistry teacher – which I suspect he did in his own time (Bridge certainly wasn’t on the curriculum) – or this may be entirely normal (a web search suggest this link between chemistry and contract bridge may not be entirely uncommon).  I have no idea whether today’s young people are exposed to the delights of Acol and Blackwood whilst in their teens – I fear they may have superficially more exciting things to do than we had in the early 80s.

Bridge is a very cheap hobby (unless you bet on the outcome): all you need is a deck of cards, three friends (or you could use complete strangers, but this may be harder to arrange without an inappropriate degree of coercion) and a pen and paper to keep score.  I played at school, at my grandfather’s and most recently on a holiday in Iceland.  I do find it is becoming harder to find people who are both able and willing to play Bridge, which is a pity – or perhaps I just move in the wrong social circles.

But why is the old fool banging on about Bridge?  Well, you should blame HMRC for I learned in the news today that the Courts have agreed with HMRC that Bridge is a game rather than a sport.  I think I’d always known this: it is clearly a card game (like cribbage, whist or Newmarket), I am not aware of any card sports (though this may be a result of my sheltered upbringing).  Confusingly, when I was forced to play sports at schools, the lessons were described in the timetable as “Games”.

One might wonder why the judiciary and excise should be bothered by this difference – well apparently sports are not subject to VAT while games are.  Yes, it is the whole Jaffa Cake debacle again whereby cakes and biscuits have different VAT treatment and the courts had to decide into which camp the orangey treat should be placed.  I suppose I shouldn’t blame HMRC, they merely enforce the laws of taxation – it is government that creates these laws.  I find it hard to explain why successive UK governments have decided that sport and biscuits are good, but games and cakes are bad.

I suppose sport has supposed health benefits – though does also seem to generate an awful lot of injuries (everyone I know who played football in their twenties had totally wrecked their knees by their early thirties) which is not something which I would expect from playing Bridge.  I suppose sport might also have benefitted from the Victorian vogue for muscular Christianity.  However, I fear it does give the impression that the State is rather keener on brawn than brain and I’m not sure this is going to help us in the “Global Race” (which is apparently so important to the current government), unless this race is a rather more literal one than I had previously understood.  It also seems to reinforce the school stereotype that “jocks” are more lauded than “geeks”.

The preference for biscuits over cake is unfathomable – does the state have some issue with raising agents?  Was this an attempt to support British biscuits against an onslaught of imported cakes (a flood of gateaux and torte)?  I suppose baking powder et al work their magic through the production of carbon dioxide, so perhaps this is an early attempt at green taxation to tackle global warming?  Still, I can’t imagine that the baking of cakes is a major contributor to atmospheric CO2: even given my own consumption.

What other weird incentives is our VAT system giving to the good folk of the UK?  I seem to recall there is some strange difference in treatment between hot and cold food – with cold food favoured (very much not the position taken by generations of mothers – but I suppose for much of history they were not given the vote and even now are rare in government).

Many in this country (and probably others) whinge about the European Union and its supposed legislation on the curvature of bananas and the definition of carrots as fruit (so that the Portuguese can make jam out of them).  I really don’t think we need to look to Europe for such irrationality, perhaps we should focus our efforts on our own taxation system.  That way we could reduce the scope of confusion and expensive court cases and rationalise the incentives we provide to our citizens.   Let’s have a level playing field: whether it be of grass or green baize.  Let’s have fair competition between the cake and the biscuit!