Thursday, 28 November 2013

Speak No Evil

Just in case you didn't guess, I intend to write on the topic of freedom in more than one blog. I'm very grateful for the comments I received yesterday both here and on Facebook. Today's piece goes back to the last time I covered this, some years ago.

One of the biggest freedoms in the west is Freedom of Speech. Especially in English speaking countries there's quite a history here, and it's a right held very dear. The problem I am thinking of  is that one I mentioned yesterday, of the difference between legal freedom and actual freedom.

Legally, in most democracies, you can say what you want, in public, and the law will protect you. Certain individuals and groups take advantage of this to say things that the vast majority of people oppose. The religious right, particularly the extreme fringe of it, are notorious for this. As much as their hate speech is despised by anyone with half a brain, the general opinion is that they must be given the right to say it, because of how precious free speech is. Apart from anything else, it allows them to "show their true colours."

Here again, we see two freedoms hitting head on. The freedom to be obnoxious, and the freedom not to be subjected to it.

For the sake of this blog we'll assume that speech includes anything written, not just spoken out loud.

In practice, if you shoot your mouth off there are consequences, and we tend to fall back on that. But a lot of time is taken up by people using Freedom of Speech for their own purposes, to criticize or verbally persecute minorities or anyone they don't approve of, or to push their own agenda. There will always be those who take advantage of freedom.

But is Freedom of Speech real? There are quite a few examples of where speaking out will get you into trouble. We call these people whistleblowers. Of course it tends to depend on what it is they are making public, and there are unquestionably occasions where it would make no sense to share sensitive information.

We cannot have complete transparency of all activity of governments and their agencies. If military plans were freely available, there would be no military strategy. If police operations were freely available, they simply wouldn't be able to function. Businesses need to be able to play their cards fairly close to survive.

Imagine you had a soup factory. You are obliged to list the ingredients on the label, but that's all. The recipe is a closely guarded secret. If an ex-employee were to publish it on the internet it could ruin you. For this reason contracts of non-disclosure are often signed prior to being privy to this sort of information, and you effectively waive your rights of free speech.

I once signed documents pertaining to the Official Secrets Act in Britain. I was working on a military base, and although I didn't actually have access to sensitive information, I was free to come and go in areas where there was equipment that the Army really didn't want discussed "outside" and therefore, just to make sure, all staff, even those like me who wouldn't have known what I was looking at, had to sign. I had no problem with that. If I HAD been able to give away secrets, I could potentially have allowed a group like the I.R.A. to make it easier to kill a British soldier on patrol in Belfast. And you never knew when a civilian employee could be an I.R.A. sympathizer.

Of course, signing those documents didn't guarantee that such a person would keep their mouth shut. What it meant was that if they gave away sensitive information and got found out, they were in breach of a very serious contract, and could be prosecuted, in fact they'd throw the book at them. Not quite treason, but damn near.

So free speech with regard to classified data is limited, based on other agreements made, and the real intent behind Freedom of Speech is freedom of opinion. So that you can say "The President is an idiot!" without fear. You still can't say he did something that he didn't, because there are also laws of slander and libel, but in practice these are rarely used for elected officials. Having people tell lies about you, if you are a politician, just goes with the job, and everyone just shrugs it off, not least because politicians tell enough lies about themselves.

The reason we value this is because in certain authoritarian systems, I could not say that elected officials tell lies. Some little snoop somewhere would see it, report me, and at the very least the blog would be removed. I could get a visit from men in suits or uniforms and get told to stop saying such things. Etc. Authoritarian regimes fear such truths being public. Because, you know, if nobody says it, it's not happening.

Those who cling to every shred of Freedom of Speech do so because they are fully aware of what a luxury and a priviledge is to have your opinion protected by law. In so many situations around the world, and through history, it is quite different.

It makes me extremely angry then, when people claim freedom of speech just to be complete arseholes online. These laws simply don't apply on social media. Facebook or whatever other site you use have terms of use policies, which you sign before using them. Rules are not always implemented fairly, sometimes they are arbitrary or even bizarre (Facebook's censrship is extremely hit and miss) but it's their website and they can do as they please. You are not obliged to use it.

But if you visit a person's blog or wall or whatever, say something offensive, and get yourself deleted, your rights of Freedom of Speech have got nothing to do with it. It is disingenuous to claim that you have any rights whatsoever in that situation.

And then there's this.

It is fair to say that the choice between telling the truth, and being tactful/polite/kind/helpful can be tricky. It's something I personally find very hard, very often. I choose therefore to curtail my speech, despite freedom within the law to speak my mind. Good old fashioned good manners are what stop me instead.

I have met, as I'm sure you have, those who say whatever they are thinking, and hang the consequences. It may just be your neighbour, it may be a relative, or co-worker, or it may be a TV personality. The impact of their outspoken views will therefore vary. Sometimes it creates a starting point for discussion, and can be helpful. More often than not it causes arguments, upsets somebody unnecessarily, and leads to them getting a reputation as unpleasant, so the consequences follow quite naturally.

As I said, we are in an area now which has nothing to do with law, but everything to do with etiquette and common sense.

It has led to an entire discipline - diplomacy. I'm a great fan of diplomacy. I am, I freely admit, an opinionated person. But I also desire, with every fibre of my being, to be kind. The practice (in both senses) of diplomacy allows me to be authentic without hurting anyone's feelings, at least most of the time.

I am convinced that the urge to be diplomatic for its own sake is on the wane. Rudeness and speech with ulterior motives is most definitely greater than it was 30 years ago. This is despite political correctness, you understand. I can't do anything about this disturbing trend, so I shall have to continue with my unilateral efforts to state my case while trying to avoid unnecessary harm.

And to that end:

Wednesday, 27 November 2013


Here's a word tossed around in discussions an awful lot, and in fact it has become largely misunderstood.

There are two things you need to think about when discussing freedom.

1. It's a luxury. The vast majority of people have limited freedom, one way and another. Some people have a lot of freedom in some ways, and none in others. How much, and what sort of freedom you have is mostly by luck of birth. If you are born in the west, wealthy, white, and male, then you have far more freedom than average.

2. Freedom by law and freedom by actuality are two totally different things. Simply being uncurtailed by law is not necessarily freedom, and being bound by law does not necessarily limit your freedom. I am not free to kill people, but I don't want to anyway. I am free to walk down the street topless but in practice it would affect my life drastically because it would draw attention by the media, and ultimately this is no freedom at all, due to public attitudes.

So, it's a rather vague word, open to interpretation, and therefore to argument.

In recent years we have seen a rise in the argument over freedom and security. The idea behind it is sound. If you feel secure, that it to say you don't feel that your personal safety or your property are at risk from people who would attack you or steal from you, then in theory you are free of those dangers. Unfortunately in many instances the actions required to reduce those risks tend to limit your freedom in other ways. It can lead to what people call a "fortress mentality". This can be quite literal, as we see in "gated communities". Groups of houses inside a perimeter fence with a guard at the entrance. Some people choose to live in this manner and think they are free.

A similar situation has arisen when travelling. Because of the fear of airplanes being used for nefarious purposes, all those flying are now restricted in what they can carry, their baggage is searched before boarding, passengers must walk through metal detectors, and in some instances are scanned or patted down. So, to preserve the freedom to fly safely, we all become suspects. Interesting.

When I look at my own life, I have quite a bit of personal freedom. But there are many expenses I cannot avoid in order to live comfortably. In order to afford to live, in fact I am forced to work, and I am then forced to declare and pay taxes and other contributions to the state. In the modern western world it is almost impossible to opt out of this system, there is no land that is "common", that one could simply choose to build a shelter on and not pay rent to somebody, and in our climate even if you did find a spot where nobody noticed you, it would an extremely uncomfortable subsistence lifestyle, which only appeals to a tiny minority. Doesn't appeal to me at all.

In fact we have sacrificed financial freedom for ease of lifestyle. As much as we grumble about our way of life, we like our warm homes, power at the flick of a switch, having plenty to eat, and there are few who would be willing to give this up.

For every single freedom that a person has there is a trade-off. There are no exceptions to this, and understanding it is the key to being realistic about what freedom is.

It is not being able to do as you please, because there are consequences to everything. You are free to refuse to work, pay taxes, pay utilities, etc, for example, but the consequence is that you will be cold and hungry. This is generally thought of as cutting off your nose to spite your face.

What freedom actually is then, is having the choice to live within the boundaries and enjoy the benefits, or to live outside the boundaries and eschew the benefits.

This doesn't just apply to individuals. If a portion of a country wishes to break away, to rule itself, and not be bound by that country, freedom would be having the option to do that. The larger country may not allow it, may fight to keeps its boundaries intact, to prevent the rebel area from leaving. There could be great loss of life in the struggle in a situation like this. Is it worth dying for independence? Those who fight for it may call themselves freedom fighters, because they believe that after forming their own government, and becoming an independent state they will be free. Free of what? Free from one government, but under another. Free of aid from a large government probably.

Teenagers often think they are free in much the same way, when they first leave home. Free from chores and curfews and nagging. Also free of having any money left after paying landlords, when the rent is several times higher than the contribution they made to their parents. Free from having anyone to do things for you when you are sick, or tired, or working, or can't be bothered. You're on your own now. You have to pay for everything, do everything, yep, you're free.

But if you are allowed to leave home, as most kids are, then there is a freedom in having that choice.

It really isn't uncommon for individuals or groups to make choices that seem to reduce the quality of their life in order to feel free. Because the feeling of freedom is hard to define, varies from one person to another, and is largely a matter of opinion.

What matters is that choice.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Don't Take My Word For It

When I get into discussions online that are "heated", I do my absolute best to be the calm one, to not use sarcasm or inflammatory language, to keep the discussion on the rails, as it were. I am very good at this, I can, if necessary, remain polite and calm despite quite a bit of provocation, and if you saw me, I'd be smiling in an understanding manner. I understand fully that not everyone can do this, that they lose their temper easily, and allow it to show in their writing, and some opinions are tinged with great passion, and we're all different, and that's what makes life interesting.

But let's get the facts straight.

If I have to correct a person who has not done their research, who is giving a knee-jerk reaction, and who then objects to me correcting them, I'm done.

If you don't think I'm right, that's fine, go and look it up. Because if you are talking rubbish, I will correct you. Not everything is an opinion. Some things are verifiable, quite easily. A mile really is longer than a kilometre and nothing ever changes that. If you mix red with blue you get purple. That's just how it is. Insects do not have four legs, and the sun rises in the East.

Despite this, I find myself constantly doing battle with people who think their opinion (or their error) counts more than a fact. I don't seek these battles. They seem to find me. The only way of avoiding them would be to withdraw from all social media, and I have no desire to do that, I get eccentric enough living out here in the boonies as it is.

I don't know everything, and neither does anyone else. When I don't know something, I find out. I use whatever information is at hand. And I care. I have no desire to spread incorrect information. I have nothing invested in "saving face" if I am mistaken. It is completely beyond me why people can't admit they are wrong, that they erred. It's easy - try it:

"Oops, I got that wrong!"

It can happen to anyone, and in fact the smarter a person is, the more ready he is to accept that he made a mistake, the more likely he'll want the facts to win the day.

Between opinions and errors, and the simply bloody-minded, there are always heated discussions going on, and so I get plenty of practice.

Today I heard that all farmers are stupid, evil, and disgusting. And that's fine. You don't have to like farmers. You can have any silly prejudiced opinion about farmers that you want. Seriously. I can assure you that farmers are capable of silly prejudiced opinions about city people, and don't hold back in sharing them. This stuff is just humans being silly and prejudiced, out loud. Whatever.

But to say you don't need farmers...that's not a valid opinion.


You do need farmers. Every single thing that goes in your mouth came at some point from a farm. No matter how processed it is afterwards, how far from food it becomes in a factory, it began as something that grew. It may have grown in a greenhouse more akin to a laboratory, but nevertheless, it grew. Those imbecile hicks you revile, they grew it. It's OK to hate them. It's OK to demean them, if that's your kick. But to say you don't need them? No.

Be they local or foreign, you'd be dead without them. Stone dead. Hunger is not pretty.

Think you can grow your own food? Well, maybe. But can and shall are two extremely different things. Self sufficiency, especially in the west, is exceedingly rare and very,very difficult. It's cute to hear about people's plans to live off the land, especially if it's a very small amount of land, in anything but an ideal climate. I admire all and any efforts, but sooner or later you have two options. Buy food that was farmed, or die. It's not much of an option.

If this sounds like me being very passionate about something just because I live deep in farm country, no, that's not it. Nope. Not at all. It's just an example. Just one of many examples of the complete idiocy of people shooting their mouths off online. About how they don't need anyone but themselves. 

About 12,000 years ago, give or take, our ancestors made an irreversible decision to farm instead of hunt. It took longer for some to switch over than others, but these days very few are still relying on hunting. After that we made a series of other decisions, leading headlong into the interdependency of modern civilization. If it all ended tonight, 80% of humans would die within weeks or months. In the west, 99%. Most western humans would resort to theft, and killing one another for food and other basic needs. Starvation would come later. We are Homo sapiens domesticus. We need one another, and the system we live in, no less than if we were attached by tubes and wires.

That is not opinion. That is the cold, hard facts. We are so far from being able to look after ourselves that it's not even a fun game to fantasize that we can. Even the craziest survivalists are not realistic, or even HONEST. Their stockpiles prove that.

The well-meaning people that show me "easy" ways to grow your own food don't like it when I point out the issues involved in this latest idea, I am derided for being negative. No. I have a basic grasp of horticulture.

And even this isn't my point. This is not a blog about self-sufficiency, even that is just a convenient example.

I love to discuss, to debate even, but there are rules to debate, and these include offering views backed up by evidence. The topic doesn't matter. It can be something as fluffy as home decorating. I do not have time to get into a pissing match because you can't be bothered to factcheck.

And while I'm here.....

The definition of politics, for your perusal:

  1. 1.
    the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power.
    "the party quickly gained influence in French politics"
    synonyms:governmentlocal government, affairs of state, public affairs,diplomacyparty politics More

  2. 2.
    activities aimed at improving someone's status or increasing power within an organization.
    "yet another discussion of office politics and personalities"


Every so often I read a classic book that I haven't read before, just because I feel one should. If that's not something you would consider doing, it may seem a bit odd, especially as they often disappoint, but in my mind they became classics for a reason.

I chose Hemingway's "Farewelll to Arms" this time, because it's not too long. I had never got round to Hemingway, but I've had several of his sitting in my library a long time. I knew this was semi-autobiographical, so it seemed like a good start.

And I didn't like it. I'm not even sure whether I'll try the others.

Perhaps in its day it was something outstanding, a book about war that wasn't all heroism. For that I suppose it has value.

Firstly I couldn't get past the writing style. Does that man love the word "and" or what? But I told myself, you've read far quirkier styles than this, get over it.

The real problem was the conversations his characters had. They may well have been realistic, but I just couldn't keep up with the randomness.

This is a problem I often have with TV and movies. Person A says X. Person B says Z, and my head goes "WTF?"

I am expecting too much, I know. I'm expecting replies to follow logically, and people are not logical. They say what's on their mind, which may or may not be any sort of reply at all. So if a conversation in a fictional piece doesn't "follow" properly, it may just be a reflection on how human conversation is.

On the other hand if it's too trite and formulaic I just groan. You know the ones. You can even predict what stereotype A will reply to stereotype B.

So I'm asking a lot. I'm asking for conversations that make sense, while still being refreshing and thoughtful.

But my point here is that plenty of writers manage this, in fact I think that's how I judge a good writer. I can feel his characters thinking.

If these characters were thinking then I couldn't "hear" it at all. Of course it would be very hard for me to relate to a nurse in a foreign country in wartime, but surely the whole point of offering me that character was to make me sympathetic to her? She just confused me.

And I'm absolutely no good at people who are conflicted in romance. This is my problem, of course, but it would help if I could understand WHY they behaved like that.

Soliders' friendships? Obviously an area I have no background in, BUT THAT'S THE POINT, ISN'T IT?

Isn't it the writer's job to bring those characters alive to me? To show me that relationship, to allow me to see inside it, to feel something, whether I like them or not. That is the whole purpose of reading a story. Otherwise characters don't even need names. They are just props.

I should know, very quickly, the basic personality, and then come to know it more and more as the story goes on.

Because if I can't get inside the character's head, then I can't get inside the author's head, and Hemingway is locked up tight.

Sunday, 24 November 2013


When I was a little girl I was somewhat quirky, and I was never afraid to speak my mind.


OK, nothing's changed.

But the point is, I did notice things, I did form opinions on things, independent of what anyone else told me, and if asked my opinion, you got it. Except, I was taught to be polite.

I was well brought up. I was taught to be grateful for anything I was given, to look happy with what I received, to smile, to say thank you.

I was also taught to tell the truth.

This is a terrible conundrum for a child. Tact is a difficult thing at the best of times, we all put our foot in it at times, but when you are 7 years old it is really, really complicated, and sometimes............well, I just gave up.

My aunt, who wasn't an aunt, but an honorary aunt (the best kind, IMHO) thought she knew me really well. She knew I was a tomboy. She knew not to buy me dresses. She knew I preferred trousers, and things I could get dirty and climb trees in. Bless her. She tried so hard. She bought me a pair of hardwearing trousers, and they came with a little speech about how much she knew I hated dresses, etc etc. She looked so pleased with herself as she handed them over, and I was thinking I was getting jeans or corduroy, which I lived in.

As I opened the package I felt like I had a stone in my stomach. I didn't even want to look up, for fear that I might look less than pleased. I was a lot less than pleased. I was horrified. They were hideous. I wouldn't even have lined my rabbit cage with them. I wrestled between being honest and being grateful, for what felt like 100 years, but was actually just long enough for her to notice. A really, really loud hesitation. I pretended to be grateful, she pretended to believe me, but we both knew.....

Anyway, we both got over it.

Let's jump forward about 10 years. I had just left school and I went into my first job. The people I worked with were very nice, but one of them became a firm friend, despite being 10 years older than me. She was huge fun, clever, warm, and very, very fashion conscious. Particular too. Every morning she'd roll sellotape backwards round her hand and pat herself all over to remove animal hair/fluff/whatever. I dunno. I never saw any. I was probably covered in cat fur and oblivious. Her shoes were always shiny, her hair was always perfect, but she never came off as vain or anything, just elegant. She didn't take herself seriously, she was just well-groomed. I was good to go if I didn't have food down my shirt.

One day she came in in a new skirt and did a twirl. "What do you think?"

I guess my face was a picture, because I was looking at exactly the same fabric as those god-awful trousers.

Torn again between honesty and politeness, I decided I was a big girl now, we were good pals, and I could approach this in a rather clever way. I very proudly told her "Well, it's a nice skirt except that fabric isn't a favourite of mine."

I swear to you her mouth fell open so far I could see her tonsils.



"EVERYBODY loves Houndstooth! It's a classic!"

And in my head all I could hear was "It's fucking ugly." But I managed to keep it inside.

She never let me forget that. She wasn't offended, she was shocked. How could anyone, even that little punk Melanie, not like Houndstooth? It was some sort of fashion crime to not appreciate it.

I discovered then that some things are sort of sacred. Your taste (or lack of it) doesn't count. It has a prestige, and if you aren't on that particular bandwagon then clearly you have no taste.

I still hate Houndstooth. I think I was supposed to at least grow into it. A maturity thing. Well, it didn't happen.

It wasn't alone. The famous Burberry design, which was originally rather upper class, and more recently became popular among the lowest classes, still somehow has that same status. I hate it.

Then there's polka dots. Yeuk.

Black and white checkerboard. Bleargh.

And now we have a whole new era of really nasty designs.

This sort of thing, very popular, totally hideous:

Or this sort of thing:

Or this:

Anyway, enough of that, I've recently eaten.

I go shopping and I can't find anything appealing. Even buying a bag is hard. They have fucking writing all over them.

Or not quite writing, but may as well be:

I want you to understand, that I'm not just saying this doesn't appeal to me, I want to express this accurately. If I didn't know better, I'd think this was a joke. It is so incredibly ugly, I would rather use a Wal-Mart grocery bag.

I am fully aware I'm in a minority, because I'm seeing ugliness everywhere I go just lately. If it's not the hideous patterns, it's revolting colours, or styles.


Yesterday Rhiannon and I did a craft show. We do not live in a high-trend area, not by any standards, so what I was seeing isn't "the latest look" and was probably quite tame, but I don't get out much, and so it was people watching paradise. We do actually have photos, thanks to Brennan who got bored and amused himself by taking hundreds of photos. But I think it would be quite wrong to show you the people I'm going to critique.

1. Ordinary looking woman. Brown short sleeved sweater, very boring actually, but teamed with a skirt that was 2/3 plain, and then had random patches of fabric attached round the bottom included pink fur, a piece of old knitwork, and a piece of denim that wasn't even square. I couldn't take my eyes off that skirt. I've seen nicer garments on crazy people who live in dumpsters.

2. Very tall woman, which accentuated everything. Very BEAUTIFUL woman, which added to my confusion. She wore a long tunic, quite plain, under which she wore two skirts of different lengths, some trousers with the widest legs I've ever seen in my life, and leather clogs. I've heard of the layered look, but I'm sure that's not what it means.

It wasn't just the clothes. I saw a buyer leaving with an old window frame, painted pale pink and with a bit of deep pink lace would round it in places, covered in chicken wire, and with about half a dozen multicoloured (and all different) bows attached to the wire. One was made from feathers. I couldn't invent that for a joke, I couldn't. My imagination isn't that deranged, and I'm not taking LSD for the sake of art. No.

Somebody pointed out to me today that fashion is art.

So is this:

The infamous bricks in the Tate gallery in London, have come to symbolize art for art's sake. The gallery spent a small fortune on this, and the media had a field day.

Details here for those unfamiliar with the story:

It's all very well saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but doesn't there come a point where it's less about esthetics and more about...well, what is it? Is this an Emperor's New Clothes scenario, or something even worse?

Maybe I'm just a dreadful cynic but I can't help thinking that people's tastes can be groomed. That if I spilled some paint down my jeans, and tried to sell them for $1,000,000 as a piece of art, I'd be laughed at. But if they featured on a popular movie, that would just be the opening bid.

I believe a lot of what people say they like, or even sincerely believe that they like, is more to do with how they associate it. It looks fresh, it looks expensive, it looks classy, or whatever. What they've been told, in fact. Marketing. Marketing is just brainwashing.

But people like being trendy. Whatever. I like what I like too. I still find it hard to believe anyone likes this:

No, I just don't believe it. Never mind the combination. Never mind the shape of the pants, how the hell can you like the design of that fabric?

I have a friend who is a saint. No, I mean it. When I was very rude about something she made yesterday, she understood, bless her. Except she didn't. It was only after the discussion among those who loved it that it all made sense (or didn't). People were discussing the length, the shape, the style, the colours, etc etc. No, that wasn't it. None of that. I'll come back to that, but it was interesting, again, being the odd one out. Not "getting" the trend.

Of course, I could just shut up and cash in on trends, which is exactly what people do, and I don't blame them one bit. When I sell jewellery I try to stay abreast of trends in taste...which is why I'm stuck with loads of oxblood beads after I believed the fashion pundits last year. They lied. My customers prefer purple.

And I think the same thing is happening to fashion as is happening to food. Food has trends. And right now it's all in the same vein.

See, the designers (of food and clothing) have completely run out of ideas. There is so much variety already, so many options, and so many trends running concurrently. What's the "in" skirt length? Anything. Anything goes right now. There has never been so much choice.

So chefs and designers are putting things together that don't go together. This was my issue yesterday with my friend's technically competant (and well-received) efforts. It was a combination of a geometric patterned hooded knitted sweater (something I would have to be close to death from freezing to wear in the first place) combined with sheer fabrics in stripes. In my head, these things do not go together, but what the hell do I know?

Taken to the it already has been. There are no longer any limits. Neither in fashion, nor food.

"Darling you look FABULOUS in that burlap and pink gingham with fur trim, here, sit down and I'll fetch you a slice of raisin mackerel quiche, and a glass of bacon wine. Sit down on the tartan and paisley sofa, and I'll pull the green alligator skin curtains. I'm not happy with them. I think we need a swag over the top. I know, how about Houndstooth?"

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Is Everything A Disorder?

Where does the buck stop?

The latest theory is that laziness is a type of depression, and that there should be sympathy for the lazy, because they can't help it. An alternative theory (espoused by the lazy) is that they are just saving energy, like cats. Plenty of people who claim to be "thinking outside the box" believe that the value ascribed to a "good work ethic" is in fact a ploy to create worker drones. They liken it either to religious or political brainwashing.

Then, in turn, those who claim that the masses have been fooled into accepting this system, are considered to be at best rebels, social agitators, anarchists, etc., or, at worst, delusional, and on a par with conspiracy theorists.

Unfortunately, as it's patently obvious than a large number of people are incapable of making wise decisions for themselves, it's hard to argue any of this.

Yesterday I wrote about taking advice, and often, not taking it, and how one should respond to the opinion of others. This is directly connected, because in order to choose between all the advice thrown at you, it is necessary to have the ability to discern. If you can't do that, you can't even get out of the starting gate.

If you make poor choices, that's because you have a disability in your executive skills. Everyone is blameless.

How the hell do we find a balance here?

In times gone by there were no excuses. You were beaten for being left-handed, never mind being dyslexic, or "slow", or forgetful, or worse. The idea was that it was all your own fault.

We slowly became more sympathetic to some situations, gave assistance instead of beatings, and recognized that in some cases a person really can't hold down a job, so rather than letting them die in a gutter, other members of society support them.

Now we have gone to the other extreme, and we discovered that, what do you know, if everyone who is compromised in any way doesn't contribute, the burden is too great for the rest to be able to support them. At least, to a standard of living that we have decided all humans require.

What am I suggesting? A return to the workhouse?

How about some proper research. That would be a start. If you've read anything on the history of psychology, you'll know that early theories have largely been replaced. Freud spoke a lot of bollocks. We are much better at it these days, but we're not there yet.

A friend of mine has been diagnosed with a disorder. It's quite a serious one, and most people I've known who have this, don't really function in society, but she does. In fact she holds down a very responsible job. For this reason, I doubted the diagnosis. Not claiming to be an expert in psychology, but when the diagnosis tends to include an inability to stay employed, and they have been successful in their job for years, it seems like a contradiction.

In discussing this with another friend, who has professional skills in the psychology area, an important point was raised, which I knew but had forgotten. And it is this.

Every disorder is an extreme version of mistakes/bad decisions all people make.

That is to say, if you pick a behaviour that is outside that vague grey area we think of as normal, and exaggerate it, first it becomes a quirk, then a disorder, and finally an illness. These are points on a scale.

Let's pick a behaviour at random. Dancing. Dancing is not a survival instinct. It is a choice, a behaviour. Something many of us enjoy. For some it is culturally important (or required, even) and for a few it is banned. But for most people it's something we do in a social setting, or for exercise, and it has its place along with everything else. Therefore, it's normal.

If you dance a lot, with no music playing, perhaps in the line-up in Wal-Mart, or while waiting to cross the road, people will give you funny looks, and consider you a bit eccentric. And you are. Because that is slightly outside of normal, but it's doing no harm to anyone, and it probably puts a smile on people's faces. Dance on, you crazy thing.

If you feel the compulsion to dance during staff meetings or while at the dentist, things have gone a bit off the rails. People start telling you to stop, it's really not appropriate here. We are in the area of a disorder now. Loved ones would ask you to seek professional help, find out what's behind it. You could be fired or arrested. It's not funny anymore.

And then there's stuff like this:

I deliberately used dancing as an example to avoid offending anyone reading, as I don't know anyone who suffers from this, and I would assume it's pretty rare.

But substitute anything for dancing, and you can see what I mean.

The point is that everything, positive or negative, in extremis becomes a serious mental issue. I don't think anyone would argue with that, or that fact that sufferers need help, sympathy, treatment, and actual financial support. If you spend 18 hours a day dancing up and down the corridor, you can't hold down a job.

The question is at which point we set the limit as to a) what society tolerates (a little jig here and there), and b) at which point we acknowledge that the problem is severe enough for the sufferer to be DISABLED, and therefore to be supported by the rest of us.

And remember, I said positive or negative. And these will have different effects as to where that point is. Because it's fairly obvious that a workaholic who is bordering on manic can probably not only support himself just fine, but contribute to others, while at the other end of the scale a lazy person who is only really just outside the range of normal, might find himself out of work most of the time.

In the same way OCD sufferers tend to be quite popular with employers if it manifests in meticulous work, and excessively talkative people can make great salesmen. Recluses have always been in demand for surveillance work. So having a quirk, or even a disorder is not necessarily a disability, it can be an advantage, in the right situation.

No, it's the negative end of the spectrum that tends to be where the problem lies. Addictive personalities, short tempers, shyness, laziness, credulity, and good old-fashioned dumbness, these are the issues.

I don't have any answers here. I wish I did. But I do think we have to decide.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Opinion of Others

I have been asked my thoughts here, and I'm writing it as a blog for a wider audience.

Let's begin at the beginning.

A funny thing about discussing one's own behaviour on the internet is that honesty has become very necessary, because when we talk about ourselves and how we were many years ago, there is a strong chance that somebody who remembers us at that time will be reading. I know that at least half a dozen people who've known me most or all of my life read my blog.

And I contend, with them as witnesses, that what I'm about to say, is the truth.

That, while I have always been a rebel, it was never without a cause.

This is not to say I have always behaved myself, I make no claim to that at all, but in the area of refusal to do certain things, or the opposite, determination to do certain things, against all advice and prevailing opinion, it was having given the matter my full attention, and with the intent to do what was right for me. Indeed, often with the intent to do what's right.

As a child/teenager I was never rebellious just for the sake of it. Which is why I tended to get away with it. Wise people around me might say "Well, she's being bloody awkward, but I do understand why!" and generally it worked out just fine. Even the incident that led to me leaving school prematurely was not really of my doing. With a little flexibility it could have been worked out.

But the point is that by and large my decisions, right from toddlerhood, were based on sound principles. Even when I was wrong. Because decisions are made based on the information at hand.

I wasn't born old, obviously. I was born with a strong personality, and the ability to both think and learn fast, which helps, but I had to learn everything as children do. It just so happens that those who influenced my development, my decision-making skills, and my attitude, were by and large reasonable, intelligent people. Not saints. Not geniuses. But the sort of people who, most of the time, made good choices themselves, gave sage advice, offered encouragement, and were "there for me." I am fully aware that not everyone had that in their lives early on, and that I was very lucky.

In fact, as what we become has a lot to do with everything we've ever experienced, and all of those who we've ever known, I had a distinct advantage. It is possible for a person to evolve personally despite negative experiences, to learn how not to behave from having analyzed negative influences, and to develop wisdom while being shown very little. But it's hard.

It's much easier of you are surrounded by good people.

However, that doesn't mean they are always right. When I was of an age that kids are encouraged to think about their future careers, for example, nobody gave me any good advice. They suggested lots of things that would have been totally unsuitable for me, and which would probably have made me quite miserable, and at the same time, they did not give me the suggestions they should have. I still feel cheated by this, despite the fact that I am totally happy with my life. It doesn't matter now, but I don't want to see it happening to others. The key to this advice, which I wasn't given, and had to figure out slowly for myself, is that the only barriers we face in life to doing exactly what we want are those we create ourselves. Unfortunately, if we don't know that, we never know how to break that first barrier, if you see what I mean.

So, the statement that led to this blog was that you should never listen to the opinion of others. I disagree.

Obviously, there are many people who have been hurt or damaged by the opinion of others. But that doesn't mean you should never listen to it. You should listen to all advice and opinion that comes your way. As much as possible. Because some of it may just be right.

OK, you say, how I do I know which is good advice?

Well, you don't. No more than you know what to believe when you read information online. So, what you do is pay attention, file it away and then sort it all out later, in combination with all the other data you have collected.

There are a few things to remember, however.

The advice of a successful person is better than the advice of an unsuccessful person. 

Yes, there is something to be gained from "don't do as I did, I learned the hard way". Certainly. But it doesn't give you the best alternative. As a young mother, if anyone gave me parenting advice, I considered their kids. How had they turned out? I've had to laugh (discreetly) many, many times at unsolicited advice given by other parents, because, well, if that's what they did, and this is the result? Count me out. It's incredible that they offer any advice at all, having produced poster children for how not to parent, but they do, forcefully, and repeatedly, more so than average. Have you noticed that? It's also interesting when people criticize their own kids. Well who raised them?

This applies to all things of course, business, relationships, even cooking. I knew a girl once who was proud of how she never followed a recipe, but her food was bloody awful. It applies with advice about money, about stain-removal, about dog training, about decorating, about car maintenance, about how to grow beans, you name it, the best person to get advice from is the one with a success story they can actually demonstrate.

It's not foolproof, because what works for one may not work for another, but chances are far higher.

Even the best advice is only useful if you actually take it.

My usual analogy here. If I get asked for a recipe, and get told it didn't turn out well, my first question is always "Did you follow the recipe exactly?" You know what I'm going to say. In fact in all cases where I'm told that some process or other went wrong, I ask "Did you follow the instructions?" The answer is "no" so often, that I get tired of trying to help.

You have to follow through all the way too. If you plant a garden, put the seeds in at the right depth, at the right time, having prepared the soil carefully, then forget to water it, you won't get a good crop. If there are ten steps within the instructions/advice you have to do all of them. I'm sure this stuff drives doctors crazy. It says right on the package, take with food, or take 3 times a day, or take the full course, cover area completely, but people don't follow these instructions, then go back complaining the treatment didn't work.

And that's how all advice is, it's a course of treatment. I've taught the mayo cure for head lice to hundreds of people. Every so often I've been told the lice came back. I ask "Did you do the treatment every day for two weeks?" Sheepish look. Every day for two weeks means every day for two weeks. And so on.

Some people are afraid to admit they don't know what to tell you, so they'll tell you anything.

And, it's very easy to pass "helpful tips!" on via Facebook without checking if they work first.

While we're here let's tackle that. No, you can't heat a room with two candles. Unless it's a very small room. Say, for example, a cat carrier.

I admit I had to look the formula up, because I'm not a heating engineer, but the principle is obvious:

A large candle gives off about the same amount of heat as a human being - about 50 BTUs an hour. So, it will heat about 5 square feet, on a slightly chilly spring day, so long as nobody opens the door.

Candles were invented thousands of years ago. If they were a good source of heat, we'd have discovered this a long, long time ago, trust me.

Skepticism is your friend.

A lot of people are ruled by emotion, rather than logic, and may simply tell you what you want to hear.

Enablers. They think they are being kind, but they're not. Partly because they only hear your side of the story. I see a lot of this on the seller forums at Etsy, with people complaining about a transaction that went wrong. They get a flood of advice on what to do, with every answer assuming they just told the absolute truth.

But if you've ever heard both sides of any dispute, you'll know that's it's rare as rocking horse shit for the two versions to agree. Perception is everything, and it really does affect the outcome.

So, when you seek relationship advice from a person who did not witness the issue that occurred, they are giving you very skewed advice. Along with a sense of "There, there," they are playing right into whatever it was you intended doing next anyway, because it seems like a good idea, with the available information. Even if the story is true, if something was withheld it changes everything.

At some point when you are given advice, you have to use your own skill and judgement to decide whether to take it or not. There are absolutely no guarantees, you have to use experience as a guide, you have to think carefully, and examine all possible outcomes. The opinion of others is what you draw upon, it has been since you were born, and it will always be useful. It is a tool, a library, a selection process, and the opinion of others is neither right nor wrong, good nor bad, in and of itself.

Monday, 18 November 2013

And You Thought White Poppies Were A Problem

I wish to express my love for David Mitchell.

Now, this is not a physical thing, you understand. By which I suppose I should explain that I'm not suggesting he is an unattractive man. Although with his current hairstyle and beard he does remind me of a certain math teacher I had, who was a far less attractive man, and who I didn't like at all. Not that it was his unattractiveness that I resented, it was his peculiarly negative attitude towards my complete lack of interest in what he taught, and the fact that when angered he would jump up in the air. Literally. And I really do mean literally, not the way it's commonly used. He would leave the ground. He would begin by rocking back and forth on his feet as he ranted, this would increase in speed as he got louder and redder in the face, and then at some point he would actually become airborne, ever so slightly.

At the time of course, I'd not heard of David Mitchell (who would only have been about a year old anyway) so the person he reminded me of, with that hairstyle, was Hitler, only taller. Not that David Mitchell reminds me of Hitler, you understand, and I'm suddenly really glad I'm writing this in an unknown blog and not somewhere the poor man will read it. My point in all of this is to explain that while he's no Johnny Depp, he's a perfectly respectable looking man, and also that this is completely irrelevant.

What I love is his wit. Even when he's not funny. Contrary to what some people think, wit is not always humour. No. Sometimes it's just perception. As much as I love this man's humour, I am equally in love with what he notices and how he notices it, and furthermore how he explains it.

I bring you a fine example:

Or for those of you who find all the British political references too distracting, here's something a bit more international:

Or even more general:

Or this:

It's all good stuff isn't it. Some humour, some insight, it's well thought out and well presented.

However when he's deadly serious, and slightly angry, then he is at his finest.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

In My Own Little World

A friend referred to Katy Perry on FB this morning, the details are not important, and I replied:

I live in a Katy Perry free world. I see/hear her name quite often, but I don't know what she looks like let alone what she sings. In fact I only know she sings because you just said so.

And this is the truth. One of many celebrities who I have heard of, but all I know about them is that they are celebrities.

Sometimes, when I say things like this, people suggest I am out of touch. Matter of opinion.

But the real question, the sensible question is HOW I stay so uninformed.

I'm not cut off from the outside world. I am busy online socially, but I'm selective. I don't have a TV service - the only TV I get to see is on You Tube, so first of all I see no commercials, and I choose what I watch.

I don't buy magazines, or even newspapers.

If I listen to the radio, which is rare, I listen to classic rock stations, so all I hear is classic rock. To hear other music I watch videos recommended by friends. In this way I hear music that isn't classic rock, but frequently isn't mainstream either. I usually discover highly popular dance music 5 years after it comes out, at a party or something. I still haven't heard Gangnam Style. I know it exists but have no need to hear it, so until somebody plays it at a party, I remain unfamiliar.

My kids keep me up to date on things I need to stay up to date on. So I don't miss out on worthy new things. They have fairly good taste (with a few exceptions on Michael's playlist, I really cannot abide screaming cavemen), I'm quite lucky there.

There is nothing "clever" about dismissing pop culture, I just don't have time for it, don't find it important, don't have any need for it. With the exception of jewellery (I daresay I know more about trends there than you do, not that I follow it but it's useful to know) I have zero interest in fashion. I assume that if something is available in a shop then it must be reasonably "in" so I don't end up looking ridiculous, but I tend to create my own style anyway.

My phone is two years old and I will replace it when it stops working. I only use it for texts and business notifications anyway. I hate talking on the phone. I don't need more updated technology.

I still read books made from paper, I don't own a Kindle. I did download the PC version so that I could download or even buy specific publications only available in electronic format, but I don't enjoy reading from a screen. I do it if I have to, but it isn't the same experience at all.

These are my choices, because I know what I like and what I don't like. I don't have any need to be like other people. I don't have any urge to conform. If people don't like me, they can go and like somebody else.

Above all, I will not spend money or time on items or activities I don't enjoy, just to "join in". I equate it to eating tasteless food just to fill a belly.

This is me. I'm not unpleasant. I'm honest and I try to be kind. I laugh readily and I enjoy life. If you need more than that, probably best look elsewhere.