The (lost?) art of conversation

I have recently finished reading The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen – inspired by reading The Undivided Past by David Cannadine which was in turn inspired by hearing him on A Point of View.  Isn’t life path-dependent?  (Especially if that appeals to you and so you somewhat encourage it).

I would not claim to fully understand the book, despite considerable background reading in philosophy and economics over the years (and help from several episodes of In Our Time), but nevertheless I shall try and summarise a couple of his key thoughts.

Firstly, he is not a big fan of transcendental solutions while recognising the debt that he and others owe to earlier philosophers who used such ideas.  He would say that justice is not well served when someone tries to find a perfect solution to all of the issues and then seeks to implement it.  I’d certainly be inclined to go along with this: for a start, humans seem to struggle to implement something as simple as a largish IT project without making a complete (and very expensive) mess so solving the wider problems in society and the world does not seem likely.  I would also strongly suspect that people will not agree on a single “final solution” (a phrase with a very unpleasant history) – though many may be able to agree on smaller steps to take towards a better solution than the one we have today.

This brings us to his second big idea which is that to find these smaller steps we need to have reasoned public discussion.  This discussion needs to include voices from outside the local polity (whatever that may be) to avoid becoming trapped by parochial thinking.  In this way, Mr Sen hopes that we can identify and move towards a more just world – even when we don’t all agree about everything.  We can even do this with out unduly harming those who remain in reasonable disagreement.

Last night I had the pleasure of listening to the philosopher Angie Hobbs on Desert Island Discs.  Rather a fine choice of discs (which means her musical taste is not too dissimilar from mine), but more importantly some interesting thoughts on the importance of teaching philosophy to the young.  I have come to be fascinated by philosophy rather late in life, but Angie made the excellent point that it can help to foster critical thinking from a young age.  She (and I) wonder if young people equipped with such an ability would be in a stronger position to make better choices about their lives.  The young are not stupid, merely lack experience, but this does mean they can be relatively easily manipulated.  If our society appears to offer little to the young, I doubt knowledge of the 6 times table or the dates of the reign of Henry II offer much of a bulwark against those proposing an alternative to society – even if that alternative later leads to performing despicable acts in a local gang or a foreign war.

The media in all of its myriad modern forms could be front-and-centre in providing forums (or fora for any Ancient Romans reading) to host the reasoned discussion that seems so important to me.  However, what we find instead is the media playing host to incredibly narrow views which are defended against all comers with unreasoned venom.  Indeed, the need for “balance” seems to be used to actively promote this sort of this thought-free verbal conflict.  The current obsession of all political parties that every statement or thought must be on-message makes this even worse – narrowing the range of views that are visible still further and heaping abuse and opprobrium any who dare to move away from the rigidly enforced orthodoxy.  This means no-one in politics (and increasingly public life more broadly) intentionally says anything of any value.  Is it any wonder that people are disaffected with politics and are drawn towards the comforting fantasies offered by UKIP or the Greens?

The recent news – which despite my best attempts to avoid it seems to creep in through the interstices of life – has been particularly depressing in this regard.  The number of party leaders who stand around and “debate” seems far more important that what they debate or whether we will learn anything other than which of them are better at public speaking or remembering the details of their brief.  I have a pretty good memory and, as we have established, am more than willing to harangue a crowd: does this mean I should be running the country?  (Whilst there is usually no right answer in these situations, here I am willing to say that the correct answer is a resounding: NO).  I’m quite happy to have an absent-minded, bearded mumbler in charge if he (or she) were actually competent.  Sadly, our political system does seem to be stacked against a leader having any of these qualities: especially the last.

This week the news has been obsessed by a very expensive, but rather ineffective watch – really a watch that only lasts 18 hours under optimal conditions does seem rather a backward step for mankind even if it does save you from the intolerable burden of taking your phone out of your pocket.  Did the Calvinist Swiss strive in vain?

Today the obsession is with a man who may (or may not) have hit another man.  I hate to break it to the media, but men have been hitting other men since before we were men.  If we reported every such occurrence the entire available media bandwidth would be needed 24 hours a day.  I would agree men really shouldn’t hit each other – and that if they do, then some sort of response to such naughtiness is probably required.  However, if an accounts clerk hit a colleague it really wouldn’t be the lead story on the national news nor would all the accounts he had recently “clerked” by thrown away: he would be subject to some standard disciplinary action and the world would continue on its axis.  I also doubt that lines would be drawn in the sand with tens of thousands insisting on his right to deck his colleagues or insisting that he should be hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.  Really, if every time a buffoon who enjoys being a bit controversial (and don’t we all, especially if it generates a laugh without harming anyone else) loses his temper briefly and does something foolish the whole world and her spouse then project all of their frustrations into vitriolic attacks on each other it may be time to give another species the keys to the planet.  Even if the red squirrels or sea otters make a terrible mess of it, at least they will look cute while doing it!

OK, I’m painting things as rather more black than they actually are: a very dark shade of charcoal.  There are little pockets of reasoned debate where the determined member of the public can catch little glimpses of new ways of thinking about and understanding the important issues of the day.  I try and seek them out, but it is hard and time-consuming work: if only there were some way one could support these pockets and see them grow.  There are a few writers and philosophers who regularly add to the rather thin gruel of public debate – I don’t always agree with them (at least on first hearing), but am very grateful to have their input.  Having stumbled upon them, I try and listen to their work, buy their books etc but rather fear this is not enough in these austere times.  Would that one could sponsor an intellectual or have a Spotify for thought: perhaps having seen the lack, it is down to me to fix it: arghh!


Baffled by the news

I try and avoid the news, on which topic more will follow in a coming post, however I do occasionally catch brief snatches in between the songs on 6Music or before something interesting and informative (or just amusing) on Radio 4.  Two recent stories have left me somewhat baffled.

A woman who was found grossly incompetent at her recent job, rather than more competent but criminal, by a jury of her peers has described this as a “vindication”.  Not sure the very public announcement of my uselessness is something I’d describe thus – and not sure those who lost their jobs (or paid her salary) would view matters in quite the same way.  The ethics training inflicted on me by “the man” has been pretty clear that neither ignorance nor stupidity is any defence in law.  I may be wrong but I’m fairly sure that her employees have been caught making inappropriate payments to public officials – and this is very much within the scope of my training.  Is “the man” fibbing to me? Or is it one rule for the plebs and another for the patricians?  I am always amazed at the ability of those benefitting most from capitalism to draw a high salary, but then escape any responsibility for those actions that the man, woman or dog in the street might expect to be a basic consequence of their highly paid position.  Obviously, I do realise this is sour grapes on the part of the dog who is merely upset that no-one is willing to pay it a vast salary for something it is completely unable to do.

In another story, the government has decided to ban khat (and not as I first heard, cats – though this would probably have more logic given their very destructive influence on our native fauna).  I presume this is on the basis of the huge success we have had banning other drugs: the trail of dead young people and the volume of drug-related criminal behaviour and the cost of detaining at Her Majesty’s Pleasure those miscreants actually caught.  Then again, given the recent history of our entirely legal food companies and their flexibility with the ingredients, perhaps criminal gangs are the safest suppliers of drugs to the nation’s young.  I presume this ban will vastly increase the profitability of the khat trade and encourage the entrepreneurial with flexible morals to enter the field in droves.  I do sometimes wonder if the Home Office is taking backhanders from various “industries” to keep them very profitably illegal.  Would that I could engineer such a ban on something I am capable of cheaply producing – drivel perhaps?

Talking of the costs of prison, I have heard it said – though this may be a zombie statistic – that it is cheaper to keep a child at Eton than in gaol.  Given that we are short prison spaces and rather long public schools (in my view), an obvious solution presents itself for future young offenders: pack them off to boarding school.  If nothing else, we should have better educated felons and perhaps a broader mix of backgrounds in the cabinet a few years hence.  Just a thought…



Last year I discovered that I was at the unhappiest time of my life (according to studies), but today’s news brings a further hammer blow for those of us in their very late thirties (I failed my 39+, and so have been held back).   A major research project published in the BMJ has revealed that cognitive faculties, like memory, vocabulary and reasoning, start to decline from 45 – substantially earlier than previously believed.  So, it would seem that it’s all downhill from here for yours truly- and as this blog will attest, I was starting from a pretty low base.  It can only be a matter of time before this blog is brought to a premature end by the declining mental faculties of its author or by his drooling shorting out the computer.

Still, I suppose there was a hint of good news for those of us who may now find ourselves being cared for by the NHS rather sooner than expected.  The same 6Music news bulletin, which brought confirmation of my rapid decline into senescence, revealed plans by our freshly-scrubbed PM to place patients at the centre of care in the NHS.  Perhaps it is due to my declining mental state, but I did find myself wondering what (or who) has been at the centre of care in the NHS prior to the Coalition taking decisive action (or, at least, drafting a decisive sound bite or two).

W(h)ither journalism?

I inadvertently caught a small amount of the 10 o’clock news last night – I know, I really shouldn’t be ramping my blood pressure at that time of night.  At the risk of returning to a furrow which has already seen more than its fair share of the plough (or possibly a bear, we astronomers find them so hard to tell apart), I feel a polemic coming on…

Those following the UK news may be aware that the government is intending to make changes to the planning system.  We will pause here to briefly note the irony of the words ‘government’ and ‘planning’ sharing a sentence without an odd number of negatives being involved.  I think it would be uncontroversial to say that this intention is not universally popular, with some fairly big guns lining up to oppose it.  In such circumstances, this government displays one of two responses: (A) completely ditch the policy and do something else (probably even less well thought-out, assuming that is possible) or (B) ignore the criticisms (however valid) and carry on regardless.  It would appear that on this occasion option B is to be the favoured one (or, perhaps, not to be – by the time you read this © Hamlet).

I am no expert on the planning system – one of rather few things I have in common with the current government (I did not, for example, go to Eton – I’ve never come closer than Slough – and nor am I a millionaire) – and so cannot say for sure whether the government or its critics are correct.  However, I am somewhat of an expert on the UK electricity sector and the government is also planning to make changes here.  These changes seem singularly poorly thought-out (and I may be overly generous to include the verb ‘to think’ here) and have been very well critiqued by the Energy Select Committee.  Despite this, the government has also gone with option B in this case – its fingers have been inserted very firmly into its metaphorical ears and it is saying la-la-la as loudly as possible.  As a result, I think it would be wise to start turning the heating and the lights down now, so that we will have acclimatised to sitting in the cold and dark ahead of the electricity running out (it will also be a good way to save some cash).  Now, it may be that whilst the government struggles to distinguish the mid-arm joint from the gluteus maximus in the world of energy, it is fully competent elsewhere – however, I suspect that its incompetence is relatively equally distributed across the entire range of its activities (perhaps with some local maxima – certainly, this would be an accurate description of my own incompetence).  Whilst I may seem to be picking on the current government, I am not convinced it is any more incompetent that its predecessors – just more topical.  Be that as it may, given my suspicions about the distribution of incompetence in policy making, I am forced to rely on the fourth estate to explain the potential changes to the planning system, their likely impact and any issues or unintended consequences which may arise.  As the regular reader may have guessed, last night’s news served up only the bitter gruel of disappointment to those hoping for the sweet nourishment of such enlightenment.

The full extent of the journalism related to the planning system – as displayed on the news – seemed to comprise the following:

  • skimming a government press release,
  • finding the most virulently opposed organisation and garnering a quote from them (likely also from a press release) – this provides ‘balance’ apparently,
  • writing a short ‘piece to camera’ based on these two documents,
  • hiring a helicopter, and
  • giving the piece to camera whilst flying over some fields in the aforementioned paraffin budgie.

Now, I know some people don’t get out much, but surely almost everyone has seen a field – if not, the BBC must have many acres of stock footage (can you have an acre of footage?  Or is something awry with the dimensionality?) of fields: perhaps more such acreage then the country has fields!  Surely Countryfile must have something?  Using such footage would have saved the time and cost involved in hiring a helicopter – and then this time and money could perhaps have been used to actually understand the changes proposed to the planning system and then explain the key features (along with any potential issues) to the great unwashed (within which camp I include myself).  This process used to be called journalism and was quite popular back in the day – but now seems to have fallen into disuse.  To be honest, I am quite capable of reading two press releases for myself (and, if pushed, cutting-and-pasting them together) – and, given the budget, could probably hire a helicopter (I do have very modest form in the field) – and so really don’t need someone else to do it for me.  In fact, having written the odd press release in my time, I really wouldn’t advise anyone to use them as their primary source of information about the world: they are written to a rather specific brief, which is rarely to spread enlightenment.

In this time of belt tightening – of the type traditionally associated with the magical bifurcation of a glamorous assistant, but without the subsequent re-assembly associated with the conjuror – would this not be an excellent opportunity to cut back on pointless but expensive travel and helicopter hire and return to the much cheaper virtues of actual journalism?  We might even produce a better informed and more engaged electorate as a consequence and, in the very long term, some rather better thought-out legislation.  But, I suspect this is never going to happen: I rather fear the last things to be cut from the news budget will be the pointless live pictures of a ‘journalist’ standing in a vaguely relevant location and overblown computer graphics which will still be standing long after the last vestiges of ‘news’ have fled.

Breaking leg…

…wear news.

For many years, I have not been in weekly receipt of a free local “news”paper (perhaps down to buying a new home) but this situation has now changed.  Each Thursday, I take reluctant delivery of the Cambridge News and Crier (though who the lachrymose individual might be is not made clear) which proudly boasts that it is “Free weekly newspaper of the year in the East of England”.

This week’s front page lead (actually, the only story on the front page) relates the harrowing tale of a local lad who has been forced to endure warmer-than-wanted legs as a result of his school’s banning of shorts (the leg wear, rather than the drink – though, as the child is only 12, I presume this is also banned).  To alleviate his distress, he has taken to wearing a skirt – on the grounds that some of his fellow pupils (the girls and any immigrant Scots, I assume) are permitted this luxury.

At the risk of sounding my age, they don’t know they’re born these days!

When I was a lad, I went to school throughout the year in shorts (trudging, thus attired, through the deep Kentish snows of the 1970s) up to the age of eleven.  This was not a school policy, but that of my mother.  As a child I used to fall over quite a lot (so, not much has changed there – except the cause) and my mother reasoned that my knees would mend and my trousers wouldn’t.  The switch to secondary school – with its stricter uniform policy – brought some relief as I was then compelled to wear long trousers.  The requirement for long trousers obtained throughout the year and, being the inmate of an all boys school, the skirt option really wasn’t available.  However, it wasn’t all overheating in my teenage years – when we played football or hockey the teams were distinguished by the members of one team wearing coloured “bibs”.  Well, that was the theory, but as a result of funding issues (I assume that was the cause, though it could just have been sadism) there were not enough bibs – and so one team had to play in “skins”, i.e. naked from the waist up.  Football and hockey were only played in winter, and often in driving rain as I recall – but it never did me any (lasting) harm.

In some ways, the enforced experience of extremes of temperature has proved beneficial in my later life.  I think my childhood rather over-loaded my body’s temperature sensing ability, and as a result when I later moved to Newcastle (the one upon Tyne, and the best – beware imitations) I was well able to fit in with the locals and go throughout the winter wearing minimal clothing (to be brutally frank, I often found myself wearing less than the locals).

I’m not quite as good in heat, but did still manage to give an all day training course, suited and booted, in a London basement office with no opening windows or air-conditioning, when the outside temperature was 38ºC with 100% humidity.  Worse, I was sharing this office with a projector, 4 desktop PCs (not mini-constables) and three Italians.  I did warn the Italians that the office would be hot and they should dress appropriately, but for some reason they assumed I was joking about the lack of cooling and dressed for style (way too much wool) rather than comfort.  Let’s just say, it was very hot in that room and the PCs weren’t the only things humming!  But, we survived – and, at least one of us was able to spin the straw of that day’s suffering into blogging gold (yes, I am the electronic answer to Rumplestiltskin – though I reckon my name would have been even harder to guess)!

I do worry that, in some ways, we are making childhood too easy for our young people and the real world is going to come as a terrible shock (as it did to my Italian friends) when (and, if – let’s face it, I’m still resisting) they grow up.

Prescription Description

As regular readers will know, I try avoid to the television news for fear of the consequences on my blood pressure.  However, despite my best efforts I did catch about 2 minutes of the 10 o’clock news on the BBC last night – though I should make clear that the rant which follows would apply equally to any other provider of televisual current affairs.

Those with a vaguely operable hippocampus and a passing interest in recent happenings, may be aware that the folk north of the border have decided to stop charging patients for prescriptions.  Given the famed ill-health of the Scots, I can’t help worrying that this might turn out to be a tad expensive – but if you’ve just paid £7.20 for 7 pills you would probably admire their pluck (and consider a move rather closer to the source of good whisky).

A story of some little interest, especially if you were a poorly scotsman.  However, I reckon I could cover it in a pretty short sentence – “Free prescriptions in Scotland” should suffice (at least if I added a finite verb to the ensemble of words).  Even adding some background about the fulfilment of an election promise (something of which we Sassenachs can only dream) and the date of implementation would still only leave you with a fairly short paragraph.  I think I could deliver this from behind a desk (or propped on the corner of one, depending on channel) in under a minute in a manner which could be understood by the entire English speaking audience over the age of 4 – even without the aid of a nubile young lovely to assist me and despite my tendency to digress.

However, according to the BBC I am over-estimating its viewers significantly.  They chose to send a reporter to a pharmacy and as this pharmacy was rather generic looking, and the reporter lacked a strong accent, the piece was helpfully captioned “Glasgow” so that we would know we were in Scotland – though I wonder if they should have also explained that Glasgow is a city in Scotland given the poor take-up of geography qualifications reported in recent weeks (at least in these days of “compliance” we can be sure that it really was in Glasgow, and not just round the corner from White City).   I assume the pharmacy was to help the hard of thinking place the word “prescription” into an appropriate context since it is so often used in other ways, particularly by those in property law who are famed for their weak powers of comprehension.  Our reporter then delivered a 2-3 minute piece to camera surrounded by tablets, corn plasters, sun lotion and the other staples of the pharmacist’s trade – before we were returned to someone behind a desk in a studio.  I do wonder if a photograph of a pharmacy – perhaps with a tartan-clad bagpiper photoshopped into it to give it the appropriate geographical vibe – could have been used and the piece delivered from behind the desk?  Better still, given the extremely simple nature of the story, perhaps we could forego the visual aids entirely?  Surely, in these times of tightened belts and given the focus on cutting costs, a newsreader merely “reading” the “news” would have been a much more cost-effective option?  I would not wish to deny any reporter an afternoon out and a bit of fun. However, I doubt he would have been too upset to miss the opportunity of standing around a small branch of Boots – a frankly rather dull activity which most of us can do almost any week at only very modest cost, but usually don’t (unless we have a prescription to collect).  He might even have enjoyed the chance to stay at home (or in the office) doing some actual journalism – though perhaps since Wikileaks, journalism has become rather passé (why work on a story if you can just wait for some Australian hacker in need of a haircut to “leak” everything and then just cut-and-paste it?).

Am I being unreasonable?  Did you enjoy seeing a man standing around in a chemist’s? Would you like to see men pointlessly standing around in other shops?  Would you have preferred a woman?  A minor celebrity?  A trained animal of some sort?  Call my premium rate phone line now to register your vote and be in with a chance of winning a free prescription.  (Calls will cost no more than £7.20.  All votes will be ignored.  Terms and Conditions apply.  Please note, free prescription can only be claimed in Scotland after 1 April 2011.)

What is news?

Betelgeuse (or Alpha Orionis, as it is known to friends) is a star in the constellation of Orion (well duh, look at the name).  In its vicinity, according to Douglas Adams, is a small planet which Ford Prefect called home.  Amusingly, for those of us who can remember Star Trek, it is class M star – though I don’t think this means quite what Mr Spock did when describing a similarly monickered planet.

Betelgeuse is also a red supergiant – which for a star means it is definitely drawing its pension and asking anyone who’ll listen if they know how old it is (probably 10 million years or so).  Apparently it could peg out quite soon, though quite soon for an ageing star could be any time in the next couple of million years – probably after an unfeasibly large number of come-back tours.

None of this is new information – nor does it seem terribly pressing.  I haven’t started making plans for a million years hence yet – though maybe I should something pencil in:

3 Feb 1002011  11:45  Dental Checkup

given the shortage of dentists, and the difficulty getting an appointment on the NHS, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Given these facts, it is a trifle surprising that this should be reported as news today – and, as a quick search of the interweb reveals, on several other days over the last few years.  This suggests it utterly fails to be “new”: neither a current event nor recent happening.  On the plus side, some have suggested it could provide a second sun shining day and night for several weeks – which would be good news for anyone with solar panels.

Surely, if they are going to start reporting long known about potential events in the distant future as news, our newspapers are going to be enormous (and the Sunday Times is already storing up a back-ache time bomb for the future at its current bloated size).

Come back that man with his lost cat, all is forgiven.  (I wonder if he ever found it?)

Puss in Peril

Erwin Schrodinger won the Nobel prize for physics in 1933 for his eponymous wave equation, however, to the vast majority of the general public he is best known for his cat.  This latter honour (though not, to the best of my knowledge, the former) he shares with Postman Pat and Mrs Slocombe.  Schrodinger’s cat was not real, but was part of a thought experiment.  This experiment was designed to illustrate an implication of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory that a cat placed in a box (along with a radioactive isotope, a geiger counter and a vial of poison gas) could be both alive and dead at the same time.   This does not mean the cat is undead – quantum theory does not provide a shortcut to zombies – but rather is in a superposition of states.  When the box is opened the cat is found to be either dead or alive – it does not emerge seeking fresh blood or human brains (well, no more so than any other cat).

One of the biggest news stories of 2010 was a woman placing a cat into a wheelie bin.  It is unclear whether this was an attempt to translate Schrodinger’s thought experiment into a practical – but when the wave function collapsed (i.e. the bin was opened) the cat was alive.

Last night, the flagship (or at the very least, heavy cruiser) 6 o’clock news on BBC Radio 4 devoted nearly 10% of its running length to a story about a lost cat.  Apparently, after losing his moggie, a man nailed “lost” posters in his neighbourhood resulting in the threat of a fine from his council for flyposting and arboreal cruelty.  As I’m sure we’d all agree, this story would be a great way for his local paper to fill a few column inches, however, I struggle to undertand its prominence in the national news.  On Radio 4!  Had so little else happened in the world?  Perhaps I should be grateful to this man, or the fact that I had finally pruned my vine would have been national news.

I think the lessons are clear, if you want to be remembered and reach national prominence then you need to place one (or more) of our feline friends in peril.  Call it cat-astrophe theory if you will.  So, to boost the profile of this blog I have decided to re-instate the ancient sport of cat-swinging – I have the room and it’s time I used it.  My dream of Z-list celebrity can only be days away!