Friday, 28 February 2014

Talk About....... Pop Music

On a totally different topic this morning, music of the 60s and early 70s.

I was so lucky. Even though (or maybe because?) I had an older mother, I was never discouraged from listening to music, quite the opposite. My mother had eclectic tastes. We had everything in the house from Tchaikovsky to Burt Bacharach, and then when I started singing along to the Beatles and Rolling Stones as soon as I could talk, I was allowed to buy those too.

The radio was always on (which we called the wireless). I can't find the exact model on Google images, but it looked similar to this:

So, from late 1963 onwards, so I'm told, I sang and danced to whatever came out of that. I cannot say I remember doing it, but I remember it just always being there, always on, always making me happy.

What I do remember, very clearly, was listening to this, while on holiday in the Isle of Wight.

They played a wide variety of music on the radio. I've studied the history of popular music so I know the whole dynamic was different where I was to what those of you in the US experienced. We had essentially 3 types of radio station to listen to music. BBC Radio 3 played classical music. BBC Radio 2 played music for older people, and BBC Radio 1 and Radio Luxembourg played popular music. All of it. Whatever was in the charts. No categories or genres, if it was a hit, they played it. So the range was pretty broad. 

Here's an example of what you would have heard in 1966

Some of it was British, some American, and quite a variety there. 

When people talk about music from that era it's usually either with one of two opinions, either it was fantastic, and they don't make music like that anymore, or it was awful thank goodness music improved. A lot of this is nostalgia of course. I think that when you look back at that time in music history you see some very finely crafted pieces. 

Pop music is neither good nor bad music. Some of it is rubbish, some of it is wonderful. If you dismiss it all just because of its genre I think you're missing out. 

If you can't see, for example the sheer brilliance (and not just in production) in this, then I'm at a loss.

That is a fascinating song, musically. This is not just my opinion, I happen to know it is studied by people taking doctorates in music. And why not? What was Mozart if not the pop star of his day?

No, this aversion to all pop music in one sweeping sour face is just snobbery. You don't have to like it, tastes vary, but you can't dismiss it. 

I am partial to 1966 not just because it was when I really became aware of what was going on musically, but because it's when pop music started to become "authentic". When writing your own songs started to become a big deal. When lyrics were no longer all "boy meets girl". There were, of course, outstandingly good pop songs before that, but the pace really picked up in the latter half of the sixties. 

So, what did I like? I liked what I liked. I always have. I've never been genre-oriented. I like melodic, I like quirky, I like inspiring and uplifting, I like raw drum beats. If it appeals, it appeals. 

I love this:

And I love this:

And I love this:

And I love this:

Because I don't care about genre. I like what I like. 

Thursday, 27 February 2014


Something you'll see crop up every so often in debates is the ultimate ad hominem. The argument is dismissed. The person is crazy. We see it all the time, and I've even done it myself, but really, in general, it's not a good idea to resort to this, no matter how frustrating things get.

Just lately it has become very popular, for example to call any religious belief crazy. Considering how many religious people are in the world, it's a stretch. But what's worse is being selective about it. This is where one calls everyone's beliefs crazy except one's own.

It's the same with debates on politics, women's rights, animal rights, environmentalism, economics, you name it. If the opinion of the speaker is too different, well, he must be crazy. That's a cop-out. It's no way to discuss anything.

In fairness it tends to be a certain type that always resorts to this, they are quite lazy in debate, and often their own opinions are a bit eccentric. I see this especially in discussions over conspiracy theories. You're crazy to believe all that! You're crazy not to! It's like a tennis match.

But I can't dictate how others conduct themselves, all I can do is try to be reasonable myself.

So I make the effort, even if I think a person's opinion or reasoning is somewhat "off" not to say so, but to try harder to understand where they are coming from, and if one angle of discussion doesn't work, I'll try another one.

It is hardest of all when I'm dealing with the creationists, and others on the extreme religious right. When they start on their theories about how the story of Noah is perfectly plausible. Especially when having explained the utter impossibility of it, they give up having a debate and say "God can do anything". There's nothing you can say at that point and the best thing to do is walk away.

This week, I confess, I gave in. While I didn't actually say "you're crazy" it was what was on my mind. I wanted to say it.

OK, I should never have got into the discussion in the first place, even though I was invited. When I saw there were obviously very.......I'm not sure if conservative is even the right word here........let's say there were a certain type of Christian there, whose opinions are probably not even Biblical, but are certainly extreme. Let's leave it at that. These are not my kind of people. I don't have enough experience to know how to handle them, and I should not respond. Ever. But just as it's hard not to gasp sometimes, in written discussions, sometimes it's really hard not to say......something.

So the topic was threats in our future. It began with climate change (which obviously they attributed to the wrath of God), and went through the usual fears about the "gay agenda" and those evil Muslims, and then somebody mentioned zombies. I suggested (politely, I thought) that despite differing opinions we would do better to stick to REAL threats. And I was told:

"How do you know zombies aren't real?"

And she was supported by no less than 3 other people.

These people vote. In the US they are permitted weapons. They breed.


I know exactly what you are going to say. I said nothing.


Apparently there was a time when constancy was considered a virtue, and as such, one of those quaint old virtue names was created: Constance. It became popular, I have no idea why, horrible name, but let's not get into names because that is always a bad idea.

I doubt very much that most of the more modern Constances were so named in the hope they'd be constant, and I honestly don't think people think about constancy much any more.

What does it mean? Well, it means somebody whose thoughts, words, and deeds are reliable, not ever-changing.

It means someone who commits to something and follows through.

It means someone who is not a hypocrite.

It means someone who is decisive, having made a wise choice in the first place.

It means someone who keeps promises.

It means someone who doesn't flip-flop on their opinion.

And a whole lot more.

These days, instead of this being a virtue, it's pretty much dismissed. In fact as far as I can tell people are proud of being inconstant.

It means a lot to me, and I try very hard to achieve it. It's a personal goal, to be constant.

And, as a result of that inconstant people annoy me. They frustrate me. Even if they are kind and well-meaning, otherwise. Especially if they don't appear to be even trying, and if they seem proud of it, well, I growl.

If they try, and fail, OK, that's part of being human. I just have to live with that, and I do. If they try.......

I am bothered by this trend that it's funny to be inconstant. That it's not important. If I had said publically, maybe 30 or 40 years ago that I failed miserably at committing to things, chances are it would have been in the form of a confession, and I would have been ashamed of it. And while I may have had people sympathetic, and say "well, nobody's perfect" there would still have been a general feeling that the thing to do would be to work on this, to try harder.

Now people makes jokes about it, they don't care.

I think it's great that we can be more honest about our faults and flaws. I'm not so keen on the idea that by being fully open about trhem, that it somehow makes them OK.

I remember when people apologized for being late, and meant it.

I remember when people apologized for forgetting things, and meant it.

I think I'm getting old.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Battle of Moralities

Gosh, that was fun! So many fascinating discussions from the posts of the last few days, thank you all who engaged in one place or other.

So, I have to tackle Arizona because apart from anything else it is a perfect illustration of why this whole morality thing is such an issue. In Arizona two moralities are coming face to face.

Just in case you don't know, a new law* has been passed in Arizona that gives business owners the right to refuse service to anyone based on religious sensibilities. It is called religious freedom, but of course, it's nothing of the sort. The vast majority of observers liken it to Jim Crow and they are spot on. I make no bones about my opposition to this law, there's no point, my biases are right up front. This is legalized bigotry.

But it's also a situation where moralities clash, because while this law is based one type of morality (purity, and let's not pretend otherwise, it's about sex, because it's aimed at LGBT people)  it inevitably leads to another type of immorality, namely harm. It could potentially lead to physical harm, this is not a law that will simply be accepted quietly, nor should it be.

So, first things first, the plans I had to visit Arizona are cancelled until this is repealed, and if I find myself there by accident, as I have done before, I won't be spending any money. I apologize in advance to the decent people of Arizona, but monetary sanctions are the only thing that ever works. I'm also well aware that losing my business won't hurt them, but we have to start somewhere.

And you might say, never mind this, the situation is far worse in Uganda, and you'd be right. The difference is that nobody expects any better of Museveni and his crew, they are the scum of the Earth. One would hope that those representing a Western state would have more sense, but apparently not.

Does a business owner have any right to refuse business. Absolutely. And it can be for no good reason. Too tired, felt like closing early. Just felt like. Nobody has any right to service.

We already have many businesses who simply don't open on Sundays because of their religious beliefs. But discriminating against specific customers, that's a whole other issue. That's low.

The last thing these bigots need is encouragement.

Look, any of these people can and have said "Sorry, don't want that order". They make themselves look bad, and when it becomes public some will boycott them and some will applaud them. That's how the world is. We don't have to like it.

But this stuff is insidious. When you legalize this type of discrimination you make other types of discrimination easier. That's why they do it. This has nothing to do with religious freedom and everything to do with a desire  by bigots to persecute the (in their view) subhuman. They are, as usual, using religion as an excuse, because we have some crazy urge to automatically respect religious beliefs.

* I've been informed it has yet to pass. This is my error. There is hope.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Even Shorter, Much Sweeter

I have been asked which religions or types thereof I support.


If it's all about love and kindness, you have my support.

Otherwise, F.O.

Short But Not Sweet

There is no situation whereby execution is acceptable.

My opinion. Yours may differ. This is OK, we can still be friends.

Here's my reasoning:

Murder is wrong. Murder is always wrong. Killing in some situations (self-defence, etc) can be justified, but murder is always wrong. Murder is taking a life having planned to do so. The longer the time between the plan and the act, the worse it is.

Execution is murder.

Not only that, it is murder by civil servant.

Paying somebody to murder.

A contract killing.

No society can stand up and call itself just, if it stoops to that. There are no exceptions.

I am aware that some of you believe it is a better option because it's cheaper. I could explain why it isn't, actually, but I'm not going to bother, because I don't think we can justify murder for economy.

I'm done.

The F Word

This post is sort of by request, but I had been sitting on it. No longer.

This morning a friend posted this on Facebook, it was exactly what I needed:

This is one way of looking at it. All too often this is exactly what faith amounts to. 

Even if you dissect the classic Biblical definition, it suggests something a bit delusional:

Hebrews 11:1 (KJV)
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

I got into several long and deep go-rounds with Christians on this one, when I asserted that it was no more than wishful thinking. I didn't back down because it really can be that.

This is that sort of faith in action:

I know that the Christians reading this will say that obviously these people are compromised in some way, and that normal Christians would never do this. The fact remains that "faith" can sometimes manifest this way.

For the record I don't actually think faith, as a general concept is a bad thing. My kids have faith in me, and I have faith in them.

I also have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, and I have a reasonable amount of faith in my banks, Canadian society, and in the "system" in general. I have faith in civilization. I have a strong faith in humanity.

Before you object that this is something different, I'm not done.

It's a loaded word, the F word. It can cause far more harm than the other F word.

Faith, as I pointed out recently, can lead to suicide bombers.

This is not a straightforward concept then, it has a light and a dark side, and it does not always mean what you think it means. Probably more importantly, we never really know what a person means when he says it.

I think it can simply mean optimism. Faith that the Universe is unfolding as it should.

"Everything will be alright in the end, if it's not alright, then it's not yet the end". 

And I do think it's important. It gives us hope, and something to cling on to when things aren't going well.

So, what's going on here, when a common word has more than one meaning? I think the problem lies in translation. I'm never afraid to go the Greek.


It means belief. So why don't we use the word belief to translate it? We use it for lots of other things, both religious and otherwise. Are faith and belief synonyms?

I waffled about belief a bit recently with regard to science, and how it relates to acceptance. I want you to bear with me here as I test these words out.

I believe the sun will rise tomorrow.
I have faith the sun will rise tomorrow
I accept that the sun will rise tomorrow.

Do you think these mean the same thing?

Let's have another look at pistis.

pístis (from peithô, "persuade, be persuaded") – properly,persuasion (be persuaded, come to trust)

Persuaded, huh? Come to trust. Hmm. Still no concept of evidence being required, just rhetoric, really.

Let's go back a bit further.

In Greek mythologyPistis (Πίστις) was the personification of good faith, trust and reliability. She is mentioned together with such other personifications as Elpis (Hope), Sophrosyne (Prudence), and the Charites, who were all associated with honesty and harmony among people.
Her Roman equivalent was Fides, a personified concept significant in Roman culture.

Fides, fidelity. It's all about trust, isn't it?

I suppose, in the end, it all depends on what you are being asked to trust in.

I'm not sure that's all that clear. But it is expected of us, in all sorts of ways. Some people trust in God but not the government, some the other way around, some both, and some neither.

In some ways I'm actually sympathetic to those who say "I don't trust science, scientists have been wrong before." I think they are misunderstanding what science is, when they say that, but because they misunderstand it, this attitude actually makes sense.

If you read my earlier blog today, you can see what happens when people trust an authority figure, and I suggest they'd do better to trust their own judgement instead, but I suppose the question has to be asked, what or who should you trust?

I don't think there is a quick answer to that. I think we have to think on our feet all the time, and I think the idea of trusting something or somebody (a pilot, the legal system, a doctor, a bridge...) is more a matter of expediency than anything. There isn't always the time or opportunity to TEST the quality or reliability or everything we use, we have to rely on it and hope for the best.

I think people have can have faith in faith. The power of positive thinking. I think they can, if it suits them, project that onto "God" in whatever form that takes for them, and I think it will work just as well.

If that surprises you, knowing how I am quick to reject formal religion, then perhaps you have jumped to conclusions. If your religious beliefs lead you to deciding that the Bible is true word for word, I think you've missed the whole point, as a matter of fact. I think having faith in a book is the most absurd form of faith possible. However, if your faith consists of a great optimism that causes you to strive for better things for yourself and everyone around you, then I applaud it, no matter what you base it on.

Since you asked :)

Cruelty on a Whim

My course in morality wound up, and I managed to get enough marks to pass despite being too late joining to do the first test. That's satisfying, but of course it's not the reason I did it. I take many courses that I don't "pass" because I don't do the peer essays. I learn, that's my objective.

And this week I learned two things I want to pass on.

The first one may surprise you, but if you don't believe me you can check it out for yourself, and the evidence is incontravertible, our world, our society, has been getting steadily less violent, and we are living in the least violent times, and currently also the most peaceful.

Now, that's a long lecture, or a long article, if you prefer to read it, but it has to be to cover all the angles. He's got together all the data, because people are going to tell him he's wrong. They have no basis on which to do that.

Why, if this is so clearly true, do we see it do differently?

Partly of course, it's due to awareness. We hear about violence constantly in the media. Of course we do, peacefulness is not news.

And of couse there is the US being the outlier on the stats:

But partly there is a phenomenon that exists in every generation where people are certain things were better in the old days. People who lived 100 years ago, for example, were utterly convinced they were living at the very end of it all. And people living 1000 years ago were too. There's some sort of pessimism from those who cannot imagine the future, probably because they won't be part of it.

Of course, things could change, there's no guarantee of this trend not reversing, so if you prefer pessimism, you go right ahead.

I also expect some of you will say, well, we don't need direct violence to kill one another off anymore, we're all doomed because of climate change. So, you still have lots of pessimism possible.

And indeed, the other interesting thing I learned this week is that people are bastards. And fools. So you pessimists can relax even easier.

Some of you will have heard of Stanley Millgram and his experiments in seeing how people would do terrible things if an authority figure told them to. I'd heard of it in passing, more pop culture references than anything, but examining it closely is pretty scary. I managed to find this video for you, to demonstrate.

Would the same results occur today? Because of the way research is authorized, nobody would ever get permission now to repeat this, so we can only guess. My guess is that less people would be willing to shock a stranger, but some still would.

Do I have an opinion on the character of those who did so when told to? You bet I do. Would I deliver the first shock? NOT A CHANCE. Would you? I hope not.

So, what does this tell us about those who would? Does it suggest they lack compassion, or simply that they are sheep?

Whatever it is, this is how the bully gets his henchmen.

We are never told much about those who go along with it. We don't know if they are naturally sadistic without any encouragement. We don't know if they are just easily manipulated. I can think of a few people I've met in my life who fall into both categories, who I would assume would keep doing it right to the end.

It's an uncomfortable feeling that half the people we run into are potentially either cruel enough or spineless enough to inflict pain on a total stranger for no good reason.

As I said, I'm quite certain I would refuse to shock a stranger no matter how much I was reassured by the authority and situation. It goes against everything I believe in. But I'm going to tell you a story about a much younger Melanie.

When I was 16 I joined a business initiative for young people called Young Enterprise. We had to set up a small company producing simple, useful items, sell shares to fund it, then create the items, and sell them. Each term we chose a Managing Director based on the apparent drive/personality/bravado of the kids we were with, and it'll come as no surprise to you that I was chosen.

So, having been put in this position, each week I had to direct things, and give a little talk at our business meeting. There was one boy there who didn't like a girl being Director and was constantly heckling during my talks. One of the adults who advised us was standing behind me, and he whispered in my ear "For pity's sake throw something at him." And I did. And I hit him. On the head. And it hurt.

So what's different here? Well, he had actually done something to "deserve" it, although it's a matter of opinion whether anyone ever "deserves" to be assaulted due to heckling.

I think what was really different is my age. I was young and stupid.

You are smiling graciously, I know.

You are saying to yourself, yes, quite forgiveable, you were a kid.

You are not at all bothered about it.

So, how do you feel now that I tell you that what I threw was a half pound claw hammer?

No, there is no excuse for that at any age. A very young child knows it's wrong to throw hammers at people's heads.

I do not offer the defence that a supposedly responsible adult told me to do it, because he probably expected me to throw a book.

There's no excuse possible, and no explanation possible, but there it is.

I wouldn't do it now, and I can tell you how it could have been prevented at the time.

First let me tell you one of the main thrusts of this morality course. Bear in mind that it's not a "preaching" course. At no point during it did either the professor or any of the readings or videos he sent us to tell us what was right or wrong. It wasn't that type of instruction. What was discussed was what morality is, how it works, how it is studied.

And yet he said, right at the start, and again at the end, that he hoped, and believed, that taking it would cause us to examine our own morality, and potentially be better people. That was certainly part of my reason for taking it. Personal growth.

By the time I took this course I already had several decades of my own informal studies under my belt, it's something I'm interested in, and the effect such a course can have on me is obviously not as powerful as if I had never considered any of this. I like to think I've got a fairly good handle on morality already. I still found it very useful and interesting.

But what if I'd taken this course before I was 16? Or a similar course, more suited to my age group. Would I have thrown that hammer. The obvious answer is no.

Once you have given morality full thought, once you understand it, you cannot possibly be cruel accidently or lightly. Oh sure, you can still do it, but not mindlessly. Not on a whim. Not because somebody whispered in your ear.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Loops and Escapes

Two points that have arisen from my last two blogs.

First, briefly, I posted a blog entitled "You Are Living In A Fantasy World", and there was some content which referred to religion. I received an email objecting to this slur (i.e. the title) on somebody's religious beliefs. That was absolutely not my intention, and because that person won't be speaking to me again, I can reply somewhat more frankly than in my original reply.

Don't be so sensitive. It wasn't about you, and it wasn't about your religious beliefs. The emphasis was on WORLD and if you had read the entire thing instead of taking umbrage at the beginning, you'd have realised that. Possibly.

I manage to have very good friendships with people of all possible beliefs. Issues only arise when people read things that aren't there. That's something I have no control over. Misunderstandings can occur with the written word because you can't hear the tone of voice/see facial expressions, so the best approach is to assume the best intent. In any case, reading the whole thing matters.

Which brings me to the second point, and the main thrust of this post.

I wrote a piece about ethical limitations and I was discussing it with a friend on Messenger. We got onto how lack of education leads to prejudice, and while he agreed with me, I am pretty sure he didn't really understand what I was saying about culture because he's not very well-travelled. I have already apologized to him for saying that, he concedes it's true, and I promised to explain it in depth, so here we are.

At the end of the post I pointed out that we don't know what we don't know, and perhaps more importantly that we don't know that we don't know. We live in blissful ignorance of many, many things. Every day of my life I learn new things, and while some of them are "AHA!" moments, mostly it's just "Oh, how interesting" because it had never arisen before, and it's probably safe to say I had managed fine without that information.

Sometimes I actively seek out information. An example would be cuttlefish. I know what they taste like, I knew they were related to squids, but it occurred to me that I didn't know what they looked like while swimming around. Well, now I do. Good old Google images.

But most of the time the truth is that we don't know what we don't know. If it's never presented to us, we don't go looking for it because we are unaware what we are looking for, or that there's anything to look for.

Small children are curious. They explore constantly, and they ask questions. Even children who never attend school grow up able to function in an adult world simply by watching, and by experimentation.

But we also make the effort to show them things, teach them about our world and save them a lot of time by revealing to them all that we have learned. Even the dullest student grows up with a considerable amount of information in his head that was not from his own trial and error, and of course this is why we are able to do the amazing things we do. Engineers are taught everything that many generations of previous engineers discovered, so they don't have to start from scratch. Our most highly skilled people have several lifetimes of research taught to them before they begin their own journey. It is a tremendous advantage.

Most of us grow up with gaps in our knowledge. It's impossible to cover everything, and there is still quite a lot we have to figure out for ourselves, because while it can be taught, it doesn't actually make a lot of sense until we experience it.

Imagine, for example a Mongolian yak-herder who has never left Bayan-Olgii in western Mongolia. They've never even been to Olgii, its only city, and trust me Olgii is not what we think of as a city. But they have been to school, and they have learned about the world outside their personal experience.

They were taught about the west and they've heard of and seen pictures of big cities. But could they really imagine it? Could they understand about highways and tall office buildings and subways and malls and sports stadiums? Let's face it, they'd have a hard time really understanding trees.

But just as we are able to imagine weird civilizations on other planets in Sci-Fi stories, these people are not fools. They have the same intellect as you and I, and they can read about our world, they can study it. But they don't "get it" any more than we get theirs. Their confusion and probable discomfort if they were dumped here would be as great as ours would be if dumped there.

But it doesn't have to be that extreme. If you recall your first trip some distance from home, especially if it was a different climate, you begin to get a feel for how books and videos just don't cut it. Things smell different, sounds are unfamiliar.

When I was 48 I went to Los Angeles, so, hardly a child. I had never been to California before and what struck me immediately was that the flora was different. Not just the amazing pink flowers growing in December, but everything. In fact all of the weeds growing around the edge of the parking lot at the airport were unfamiliar. At home, I can look at a patch of weeds and even if I can't name them, I've seen them all before. These were all new. Even the grass was totally different.

There were many things that seemed familiar, roads, cars, etc, obviously, but it was quite a different place to home. The buildings had a different style, the road signs had a different style, even the way the roads were built was different. If I were to stay there any length of time it would become familiar, but as a visitor I was bombarded with differentness at every turn.

It doesn't matter how I relate to weeds, or road signs, or houses. But it does matter how I relate to people, because people have feelings. Californians aren't terribly different to Ontarians. So, no problem there. But did I know that before I met them? What was I told about Californians prior to going there?

Whatever it was, it wasn't useful. Because in fact, when you meet people, they are just who they are. But we are told all sorts of things about people we haven't met, and they are referred to in groups, not as individuals.

And we have to do this. Because cultures really do vary, and while stereotypes are often wrong there has to be an overview. It really helps to be told, for example, that if you go to Paris, the waiters are likely to be brusque, so that it's not such a shock. Then you can see the funny side of it. What's a trip to Paris without a rude waiter story?

There is a website called Wikitravel that warns you of risks specific to each location. It's worth a browse, but I'll get you to the site by going to an actual example of what you do need to know before visiting:

But it's risky, this whole grouping thing. Not only because there are always exceptions, but because without knowing WHY people in a given culture have certain beliefs, behaviours, or attitudes, it's really of no help at all. Some of the WHY goes back hundreds of years. Some is more recent. When I was in Spain I needed to know what all the graffiti was, and why road signs had place names in spray paint over the top, with a different spelling. I was told it was a dispute over official languages. Some of the place names had one letter different. It looks trivial to an outsider, and it would be easy to make a major faux pas and get into an argument, if you dismissed this as petty. To them, it's not. It's huge.

I remember being taught about different countries, and different cultures in school. And it was rubbish. It was of very little practical use. We learned about national costumes, music, and food. But nobody told me that the police in Germany can fine you on the spot.

Obviously, it's impossible to cover every eventuality, and it's up to the traveller to do some research. There will still be surprises.

I do think, however, that all of us are badly let down by not being taught what's underneath all of this. I mentioned in passing to a friend the other day that my absolute first exposure to American culture, was the TV show the Monkees. She was horrified. I assured her it was a good first impression, but of course, it was hardly accurate.

But even if it had accurately reflected culture in one part of the US, it wouldn't have told me much about the rest of such a large and diverse country. And yet, living where I was, in England, I thought I saw, gradually, over the years, in the media a thing called "American Culture" but what the hell could that mean? Is there such a thing, really? To define it would be to generalize to an absurd level.

At the same time, if you say the words "American Culture" everyone hearing it immediately has an idea in mind. It may be positive or negative, but it's there. It's obviously not right, because there are many, many versions of it. There's an old story that describes what's going on here:

But you can break it down, and then you get closer to reality. The culture of the Florida Keys should be fairly easy to represent, and to describe to an outsider. It doesn't tell you what each inhabitant is like, but it'll prepare you better than watching a movie about New York City.

This is assuming that variation in behaviour, attitudes, and beliefs are divided up by location. There are lots of other ways that people differ. Age will have an impact. What older people find unacceptable, and young people find perfectly OK (and vice versa) is an important distinction, and worth bearing in mind. Social status may vary dramatically within a pretty small distance. Especially in cities, it's not unusual to have the wealthiest and poorest people living cheek by jowl. This is nothing new. An interesting feature of the poverty maps of Victorian London show how the upper classes lived on the main thoroughfares, but there were slums just round the corner, on the narrow back streets. That pattern can be seen throughout history and around the world.

It probably also goes without saying that in many parts of the world race and/or religion can cause differences too, and having a multi-ethnic society works better in some situations than others. In Toronto it works extraordinarily well, but in other parts of the world there is constant conflict.

And then there's what we have to call politics, but isn't. And that is the liberal-conservative or left-right spectrum. Because the basis of this isn't about politics at all, it's a personality type, a worldview, an attitude, although, without doubt, it is based on historical factors, and much of it is acquired from peers and the prevailing culture of whatever one was born into.

Because wherever you go there will be a dominant attitude that leans to the left or the right. Typically the country is more conservative than the city, ports are less conservative than inland, and the old are more conservative than the young. Some of it is easy to explain, some is harder, and some is positively inscrutable.

I try to think outside the box, to avoid bias. I am aware that my own life experiences and background affect my attitude. I question everything, even my dearest held beliefs, and I consider that to be a wise thing to do. That alone, by definition, puts me on left side of the spectrum. Did I just accuse conservatives of being closed-minded? Yes. Oh. So much for not being biased. (For the record, I don't think conservatives are bad people, I just think they are mistaken.)

But wait. Closed-mindedness, or more accurately, an aversion to change, is not by and of itself a bad thing. Calling a person or group closed-minded is only a negative if you think it is. It's just a rather ham-fisted way of describing the conservative mindset. By definition, conservatives are less open to change - that's why they are called conservatives. And they justify the aversion to change, by offering examples of where change is a bad thing. After all, they are easy enough to find.

A few paragraphs up I said that the old are typically more conservative than the young, and I'm about to appear to contradict myself. A broad education causes people to become more liberal, on the whole. Obviously there are exceptions to this, but that is the usual effect. Broadly educated people tend to be more liberal. The more education they get, over time makes them more liberal. And the cause and effect direction is pretty clear. While there are definitely conservatives in power who don't want people to be educated (it leads to change), it's not a case of only the liberal minded people getting an education. Most young people, given the motivation and opportunity, seek education, at least of some sort. And most young people are more on the liberal side. See, I didn't contradict myself.

But note that I said "given the motivation and opportunity". If one or both of those are missing, the likelihood of a person getting a broad education diminish, and the chances of them leaning further to the right with age increase. And.....I said a broad education. There are plenty of highly educated people who are very conservative indeed because their studies were restricted to conservative interests. Consider the average Ayatollah, for example.

So, in certain societies, because of a prevailing conservative mindset, AND lack of motivation and opportunity to obtain a broad education (or much of one at all), the poorest people, the ones who need this advantage the most, are often those most frequently lacking it. You can always find exceptions. Somewhere in northern Pakistan, for example, I guarantee there's a dirt poor kid with an open mind, desperately trying to learn more, more, more about ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING, despite help, and possibly in the face of pressure to stop. And he'll become something really awesome as a result, we may even get to hear about him when he invents something the whole world benefits from. But we hear about these success stories because they stand out, they are not the norm. Most of his peers will remain in a state of de facto ignorance. And they will be far more conservative than him.

Some of this is truly political, that is to say, because of governmental factors. But that's a separate issue and...... not today.

OK, I've gone on at some length about this and if I'm not careful it looks like I'm saying that conservatives are dumber than liberals. And I'm trying to avoid bias. Not doing very well, am I?

What I have (I hope) said at length, is a better (or at least a more detailed) way of saying this:

That quote always causes an argument, because it comes with no explanation. To explain fully the phenomenon of why a lack of education leads to a conservative mindset would take volumes. They are out there and I've read some of it, but as the basic theory here - no matter how well the data supports it - is controversial, I know for a fact some readers are shaking their heads at me.

And some are saying, but Melanie it's not their fault they don't get an education. Yes, I know. That's my point. I'm not exactly going to defend them, because there are choices involved here, but I'm going to go back to not knowing what you don't know.

Where does the responsibility lie?

In theory, first with parents. But if parents are totally encultured, they aren't even aware they need to do anything. My mother was rather advanced for her generation, but my grandparents, wow, some of the things they believed and said would make your hair curl.

For example, my grandfather was rabidly anti-Catholic. Why? Because his father was. It is my considered opinion that this actually went back several generations to the Gordon Riots. So that's the background to it.

He had precious little education, left school at 14 and became a dockworker, his father owned a shipyard. They were not poor, they had servants, but they were barely middle-class, and none of the children received more education than this. It wasn't deemed necessary.

Nobody bothered to tell him why Catholics believed what they did. I don't think he knew anything about them at all. So, he would not have been able to explain to you what was wrong with them, and he never bothered trying to find out, or to learn that, in fact, they were not very different from him at all. The seed was planted in his mind early, that they were very different, in a bad way, and he never moved on from that belief.

This is classic prejudice. It is incredibly common. And if you don't know any better, then you don't know, and you don't know that you don't know.

My mother somehow managed to rise above that. She was no better educated - formally, anyway. But she read a lot. She thought outside the box. The more she read the more she wanted to think outside the box, and the more she thought outside the box the more she wanted to read. My first boyfriend was Catholic and she never batted an eyelid.

She taught me how to think outside the box. She introduced me to people in her social circles who were "on the fringe" of society. Hindus, actors, transsexuals. As I said, she was way ahead of her time. But I don't want you to get the idea she was free of prejudice, because she was still a product of the times. She believed, for example, that the reason Hitler was able to gain control of the German collective psyche, was because they were "like that". This was a common belief in Britain for those who lived through the war. I daresay it was helped by propaganda - it really helps to have the people hate the enemy, and it's not difficult to achieve when they are dropping bombs on you - but it was rare to find people of that generation who didn't believe that the basic nature of the German people caused them to welcome Nazi activities. "He was elected, you know!" It's a complete misunderstanding of how things happened, but if you don't know, you don't know.

Of course, she was kind to Germans. I did student exchanges and she was sweet to the girls who stayed with us, and she had no problem with me going there. Before we left England our neighbours were German and she was perfectly friendly with them when she visited me. But even then, if I should happen to comment on something quirky from next door, she'd sometimes say "Well, they're German" as if that explained everything. It was still there.

And me? Well, I was taught to treat everyone kindly, but I don't remember being told to treat everyone equally. Not at home. Not in school. And I was taught that differences in people were directly due to where they lived. I remember distinctly that being the overarching belief. Racism was not a huge thing, but nationality was. They are different, not least because London was very multi-cultural, and had a long history of being so, and it was made quite clear to me that black English people were more "like us" than white foreign people. Especially the French.

(I have a theory why this is, but I'll save that for another occasion.)

Luckily I started to travel abroad quite frequently, and I discovered that, actually, people are.......people. No better, nor worse, anywhere. And not THAT different, once you got to know them. Even the French.

People all have the same basic needs, we are after all, all the same animal. We need food, and shelter, and companionship. We like to get up in the morning, wash and dress, eat, then work, study or play, and we all get tired at the end of the day. We all look the same when we're asleep. We all have dreams.

But attitudes, yes, they differ. They do. They don't make people good or bad, but they do take a bit of explanation sometimes. I am still frequently forced to explain my English husband to Canadians. I'm never quite sure I succeed.

So for us, moving to another country, albeit one with colonial roots, the same language, and so on, was interesting. And I have spent the last 21 years explaining the one to the other, as I see both sides of it. And I've been here long enough now that I find much of English culture a bit foreign...well, I always did, I suppose, or I wouldn't have left. I didn't fit in, despite being born there. It was only after a long time I realised I don't fit in anywhere. I am very poor at being encultured. I think outside the box too much. And there was a brief period when that bothered me. And then it stopped bothering me. I think I decided that if I didn't belong anywhere, then I belonged everywhere. In a way. And it's good enough.

As I get older I like being that fish out of water more and more. I can excuse any quirk of personality to being a foreigner. It's also the go-to explanation assumed by others. Gets me out of a lot of trouble. It doesn't work on people who know me well of course, but for the most part I use it to my advantage. I am a citizen of planet Earth, I just happen to have been born there, I live here, and I'll go anywhere.

So am I free of prejudice? Of course not. Is that even possible?

I admit to a prejudice towards conservatives in the southern US. What some people see as "Good Old Boys" I see very negatively. And not just the toothless, inbred, gun-totin' stereotype either. In a conversation recently about hats I confessed to seeing a cowboy hat quite differently to the way I did as a child. Back then it was cool. Now I just assume "religious right, racist, homophobic, anti-choice" even though I'm well aware it's hardly fair. I try very hard to get past that, but social media has done a number on me.

I have never been to the southern states, I'm actually a bit scared to. Common sense tells me to get over it, and then along comes somebody who actually lives there who says "well, you should be safe in a big city" which doesn't exactly help my fears. Others just tell me I'll be fine if I keep my liberal opinions to myself, but that's who I am. The idea that I would have to pretend to be something I'm not doesn't exactly make me want to visit.

Believe it or not I don't like to argue. I LOVE to discuss and debate, but I hate to argue. At the same time I can't just listen to people saying offensive things and keep a straight face, stay jolly, or want to continue my meal. I actually gave up a perfectly good job in a bar because I could no longer smile mindlessly at the drunks spewing filthy opinions. It's impossible to avoid the dodgy topics completely, at some point somebody is going to say something that makes me bristle.

Put it all together and it's best I don't go there.

As I said social media has drilled into my brain like a worm. People I like and trust have made it very clear that some of the southern stereotypes are based in fact (well, stereotypes often are), but the discussions I get into aren't an insult fest, believe it or not. Sincere questions are asked.

Why, for example, do poor southerners act against their own best interests? Maybe this is The Big Question really. Why do these disenfranchised people vote Republican, when anyone, even a child, can tell you that conservative politicians, conservative governments, in general, are actively opposed to helping out the most needy? Especially in the southern US with its traditional attitude of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.

Why have millions of people in a modern nation chosen a backwards way of looking at...well, everything really.

This mystery has been presented to me in many ways, frequently (mostly) by Americans themselves, including those living in the areas in question. This is not a foreigner asking the question. But I ask it too, because I want to get past my prejudice. I think I have an answer.

Some of is historical, and some is fear of change (q.v. definition of conservative, again). Partly, the answer is they don't know why they do it, any more than we do. They just do, because they have a conservative attitude, so they seek conservative representation. And partly it is because they are poorly educated, as I've said. So, not only do they not know any better, they don't know that they don't know. But instead of finding out, they avoid education. They eschew it for themselves, and they aren't actively seeking it for the next generation. In fact, by voting as they do, they demonstrate that they oppose better education. And round and round it goes.

People get caught in a loop. Ignorance leads to bad choices, and those bad choices lead to ignorance. Which is bad enough on an individual level, but when the local culture encourages that, it's awfully hard to escape, unless you think outside the box. But most don't do that, because the opportunities and motivation are not available to them. Loop.

The only way to stop this is to interfere by educating them, by inserting information, as it were, but it's a bit like putting a stick through the wheel of a bicycle. It'll stop. It'll stop very fast, but the rider won't. Ever watched that? My husband and my daughter both have scars on their chins from learning to fly the quick way. Anyway, that sudden stop leads to a lot of pain.

The modern world, especially the internet, is that stick. People are discovering not only what they didn't know before, they are learning how much more they don't know, and they are asking questions. So there truly is hope out there. Today's kids are far more worldly, far more open to change, far less likely to be prejudiced, far more likely to want to have a broad education. But we are a long way from where we need to be, because it's scary to think outside the box, it scary even to peek out. You may get hurt. And without information, it's just really, really hard to do.

Like it or not, the world has changed and is changing. You are going to meet lots of different people and you do need to try to relate to them, to get along. We can no longer shrug off the "quaint" prejudices of the more insular places, allowances will not be made for those who don't know any better, because it has all become a choice.

It must begin, however with children. It must begin with education. It must be broad and it must be good. It must inspire instead of bore them. It must raise them up instead of putting them down. It must make them want to learn more. Knowledge leads to good choices, and good choices lead to more knowledge. It's harder to remain ignorant and stuck in old mindsets when the local culture encourages personal growth and awareness. Once you start thinking outside the box you tend to pull others out with you. Escape.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Limitations of Ethics

Further to my studies lately on morality, only the briefest of mentions have been made on the limitations of it, and I suppose there's only so much can be fitted into a 6 week course. On the occasions it has been raised, it was most often in reference to a philosopher called Peter Singer. He is best described as a moral extremist, in theory at least. Quite how he actually conducts himself we can only guess.

So, because I am never satisfied with half the story, I've ordered a couple of his books, and will be taking a course with him, starting in just over a week. I want to hear it from the horses mouth, as it were.

On the face of, I think I disagree with him on some issues (not others) but we can't just give all our attention to those we agree with. We never grow like that.

So, I'll return to this topic then, if there's something I think good for a blog post.

For now I wanted to cover the basic idea that we are limited. I'll explain with a basic idea from Singer, from several decades ago now, so those of you who are familiar with it please bear with me. (And please read my final paragraph here.)

He suggests that as wealthy modern western people we should give away far more of our wealth and resources than we do, and that we should jolly well feel guilty about living in the lap of luxury when others have so little.

I don't need anyone telling me that, as I fight that sort of guilt on an ongoing basis already, but like most (decent) people I settle for a balance between what I can do and what the cricket on my shoulder tells me I ought to do, because I've seen the damage that too much "outside" altruism can do to families.

As some of you know, I believe in wrestling with ethics. I'm OK with lying awake at night considering this stuff. I don't think I should breeze through life without giving a lot of thought into my decisions and actions on ethical grounds.

At the same time, I am only one person, I have a very limited sphere of influence (family, friends, blog readers) and as a friend pointed out yesterday "you can't save them all".

An excellent and simple example of this is what happened in my barn this week. Our first lamb of the season was born, and the birth was very traumatic for the mother. Jacob sheep are famed for their hardiness and hardly ever need intervention when lambing, but she was on her own all night, as we had no clue she was about to lamb, and we have no idea how long it took or what specific issues she had. I also didn't know she had retained the placenta until I saw it almost 12 hours later, because they usually eat it, and in this instance absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence. Anyway, things went wrong.

What we were presented with was a big, bonny, healthy lamb, and a ewe that was "down". With no strength to get up. We did what we could for her, but she died the following day.

Meanwhile we faffed about making colostrum substitute from a recipe, as we had been unable to get a drop out of her - she was totally dry - and it being a holiday on Monday, the farm stores were closed. As the first lamb this year no foster mother was available, and when I phoned a neighbour, he was in the exact same situation. So we made up the recipe, and then bought commercial lamb milk replacer the following day.

This is a limit of ethics situation, coupled with economics. It's not worth calling a vet on a ewe that is worth maybe $50. That idea will upset some, but that's farming. The animals are livestock. The Vegans have an argument for that, but others don't. She was not a pet. We may easily have spent four figures on trying to save her and failed anyway. So, no. We made her as comfortable as we possibly could and accepted the natural course of events. Shit happens. It's an economic loss, and I'm not callous, I don't enjoy losing animals, but at other times I selectively butcher them so that's how it is.

On the other hand I couldn't leave a perfectly healthy lamb to starve to death, so we have been bottle feeding him. He may not survive anyway. Without real colostrum they often die of infections in the first couple of weeks, and he's very vulnerable to injury too, and this morning he's limping, so this story is not over.

Here's the part even the non-Vegans don't like. If he survives, he will be butchered. That's his future, I'm afraid. That's what he's here for. An accident of being born male. I suppose I could sell him as a breeding ram to another farmer, either way he's far more valuable than his mother.

So what we had effectively was triage. I make no apologies for it, and if you are uncomfortable with this whole story, and you are not Vegan, I'm not going to get into an argument over it, that is the reality of raising meat.

This is how life is on planet Earth. You can't save them all. Most of them you will never even know about. And if you were introduced personally to every deserving case, you'd be overwhelmed.

3 million children under 5 die of hunger every year. It could be prevented, but not by me, and not by you. Even knowing about it and caring will not change that. Human society is OK with that happening or it would be stopped. It would cost $1000 per child, so it's a lot of money, but it's a drop in the ocean compared to a long list of other things we could live without, but I'll just pull one figure out for you, those 3 million children this year could be saved if the Kentucky dam project were cancelled.I have nothing against the Kentucky dam project, which was why I chose it (it's too easy to pick on military budgets) but it's just one example of how the haves spend, and the have nots die.

When I was planning my wedding I was required to go to "classes" with the Methodist minister who married us, and the topic came up of wishes. What did we wish for. Bear in mind I was only 18, very naive and a de facto Marxist at the time. I said that I wished all the money in the world could be equally distributed, right the way across the human population. He was a wise man, that minister, and he smiled and said it wouldn't last.

Trying to find out how much we'd each have if this happened today has proven very frustrating, but it would appear to be just under $10,000.

And this is why it won't happen. I am not willing to live on that amount, and I freely admit it. Remember this isn't an annual income, it would have to last you the rest of your life. In order to eat, never mind anything else, you'd get through it in 2-3 years, even if you grew your own food, and where would you live? Even if you own property you have to heat it, do repairs, etc........I don't need to explain.

But the fact is that to arrive at that figure, it's obvious that many, MANY people are living on a hell of a lot less. They don't all die. It is possible to live on less than that, but it would require a completely different way of life, that the vast majority of people would not be willing to do.

And no, even if this was done, it wouldn't last. The smarter, stronger, more skillful among us would not be willing to live at subsistence levels, and would quickly find ways to move more into our own pockets, not out of greed even, but out of a desire to be able to continue to not just survive but to improve our lot, to stop our share running out. It would be necessary, in fact, to take more than our fair share to thrive. Money changes hands, that's inevitable (no point having it if you can't buy something , from somebody) and it pools in some places. Some people are able to collect more than others, so they do.

That is human nature. Always has been. We are basically ambitious. We are progress oriented. That's why we live in skyscrapers and not trees.

If I was to give away everything I had to help world poverty it would have precious little impact, unless it all went to one small village. And now I'd be a statistic instead. I do take more resources than a whole African extended family, but I'm not ready to change that. Let's be honest.

What I do do, is send $37 a month to a little girl in Uganda so she can go to school, and hope she is able to change her country from within when she grows up, if she has an education. If we all did that much, at least, it would help, so I decided I would.

Still there are those who post all over Facebook that we should not send massive amounts of foreign aid, when we have needs here at home. I get what they are saying, we do have kids going hungry right here in North America, which is absurd, but it isn't because we spend too much on children we've never met, it's because the idiots who run our countries couldn't manage them properly no matter how much money they had. Me going short is not going to change that, either.

It's certainly true that if North Americans gave away all their money to those in need, it wouldn't solve anything because that's not how the world works (see above) so what we have to strive for is a balance, and that requires limitations of ethics. Which is why this is a forever task. Sharing is not straightforward.

And there ARE enough resources to go around. We can feed at least twice as many humans as we currently have, which is just as well as human population has not peaked. It's really all a question of how it is distributed (not to whom), and what is done with it. Again, it can be fixed, but we clearly don't want to fix it, or we would have by now.

Of course, limitations of ethics don't have to be on such a grand scale, it's just that it matters more when we look at something as important as this.

I think that's enough for now or you'll doze off, but I just want to end by saying that I have mentioned bits and pieces of all of this to various people in passing, and their reaction has been a shrug, and "Oh I know, we were taught that in school." Which is great. I wasn't. I've mentioned before of my lack of education, and how I'm playing catch up. Perhaps they don't realise what an incredible privilege an education is. Those of us who didn't get one can probably not get that across because, like most things when you're young, you don't appreciate it.

The simple fact is that the ability to care about ethics, about distribution, and all these theories of how to fix the inequalities in our society, comes from that privilege of education. Because until we know, we don't know. And we don't know that we don't know.

Friday, 21 February 2014

You Are Living In A Fantasy World

I was alerted to a video presentation this morning. It's a couple of years old, but don't let that put you off, this is fully current.

I suppose I could have just hit share on Facebook, but many of you would have just ignored it, either because it's too long, or you don't like him, or you have no interest in American politics, or whatever. I'm hoping that by offering it as part of a blog post you'll take the time to listen.

He voices a lot of things I have voiced myself, and I'm not even an atheist. But I fit in the "other" box, along with the atheists and have much in common with them.

Like him, I've read the Bible carefully and I discussed this the other day so I'm not about to repeat myself, the critical point being that you can't read it literally. By which I mean that to do so requires you to believe two opposing things, and I'm not talking about paradox, I'm talking about actual contradiction.

There's a reason for that, and if you don't know why by now, you have absolutely no right to an opinion on it. It is not one book. It is a collection of writings, a gathering together. Much was left out. If you honestly didn't know this, and how or why much was left out, go and do some research now, and certainly before disputing anything I say here.

For quick reference, let's hand it over to another brief video.

As Penn said, this is no crazier than anything else in the collection, so why was it left out?

So, yes, I have a problem with literalists. But as I have said many times before, and those of you who've known me a long time, know I've been saying it for decades, it makes no difference to me what you believe, so long as you don't foist your beliefs onto others. Which is exactly what people in power do, of course, and why it matters.

But I know why people are willing to do this. Why they are happy to go along with the fantastic (in the real sense of the word) elements of their religion, that is to say the mythology of it. It is for the same reason that video games are so popular.


Fantasy is something humans can't get enough of. It's only comparatively recently that we've been willing to admit it, or at least that it isn't just children who enjoy it. It began a long time ago, of course, but I recall vividly, even in my lifetime, older people insisting that fantasy was for children, and only a brave and arty minority dared say otherwsie. Authors for example. But now, even octogenarians watch Harry Potter and play fantasy games. There is a refreshing honesty in all of this.

It's not a genre I am big on myself. If it's very good, I'll make an exception, but mostly I find it repetitive, and I am just simply more interested in people than dragons, that's all. I have nothing against it.

But I can't but help notice that for people who need it, fantasy as an escape from the humdrum or actual unpleasantness of everyday life, is a sort of drug. A very addictive one. Again, if it helps people be happy, if it's therapeutic, I am not objecting, until it becomes obsessive. It looks as if it's something very human to do, to fantasize.

I am reminded that it's because we can. We are very good at it. It is this ability to fantasize that has made civilization possible. As far as we know, humans are the only creature with an imagination, and this is what sets us apart.

If any of you have read the books that accompany Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, written in conjunction with Jack Cohen (a biologist) and Ian Stewart (a mathematician) they discuss the idea of a story as a force. In the Discworld this exists as an element, Narrativium. It's explained here:

The fact is, we thrive on fantasy in our day to day activities. Most things we take for granted don't really exist. That is to say, they only exist in our minds.

The example usually given is that of a corporation. We'll pick one at random today, let's say Nestlé. It's a huge international corporation, but it's a fantasy.

That makes no sense on the face of it, so I'll explain.

What is Nestlé? Is it the people who work in it? No, because if you fired them all right now, the offices and factories, would all still exist. So is it the buildings with the logo on? No, because if you pulled them all down, the products would still be in circulation. Is it the products? No, because if production stopped the staff and buildings would still be there. Aha, if you you took away all the buildings, staff, and products, the share certificates would still exist, and various legal documents of incorporation too, so is THAT Nestlé, the wealth and paperwork? Not on its own, no. You need all of these things, together, and functioning, for the entity that we call Nestlé, because there is nothing you can hold in your hand and call Nestlé. It is a concept.

Lots of things are concepts. Banking. Government. States. The fact that these things can change totally and still function, or can cease to exist at the stroke of a pen proves they were only ever concepts in the first place.

If this idea fascinates you there's a book you'll want to read when it comes out in English:

From Animals into Gods: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari 

So, put that on your list. It will blow your mind.

In the meantime, you'll have to trust me. It's true.

Not that it matters to most people. It's how we've always done things, and we probably always will. We do it because we can, and we like it because we're used to it.

Now, obviously, this all goes back to Plato's Cave. If you are unfamiliar with that, it doesn't matter. You've watched the Matrix. Same deal. If we stop believing in it, it falls apart. So we are obliged to continue with all these little fantasies, and the bigger ones, and I have to quote Pratchett again here, sorry:

“All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need...fantasies to make life bearable."


"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"


"So we can believe the big ones?"


"They're not the same at all!"


"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point—"


― Terry PratchettHogfather

This is how we function. So is it any wonder, really, that our world is full of religions based on mythology, and politicians pretending to follow them?

EDIT: I have been reliably informed that in the US:

... if a juror votes that a person is innocent and states that it is because they think God really did tell the person to do it, the juror would be held in contempt of court.....

We have to swear on a Bible in court, but we can't stand up and say we really believe God did something.

Penn Jillette is correct.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Hey Girls!

In a hundred different places in recent times I've explained how I'm not a girly girl, quite the opposite. But I've also delighted in pointing out that you can't really put people in boxes, so you cannot assume that all girly girls like pink or hate getting dirty, for example, nor can you assume that tomboys can't paint nails. (Q.V. Eddie Izzard)

So, for something completely different on this blog, I want to show you something to illustrate some things.

This is an untouched photo of the ring finger of my right hand.

Notice first that it's virtually perfect. Thank you. It's not just that I'm showing off my painting skills, I'd like to show just how bloody awful many of the photos of nail polish you see online are. If I can do that, with my non-dominant hand, quickly, and for no reason other than I wanted to (i.e. it's not being used for financial gain) why can't these so-called experts do such a good job? HMM?

OK, so that's just me preening, but really. I constantly roll my eyes at the bad work out there and some of those responsible are professionals. I'm not impressed. It really makes no difference to me, but I think professional standards are pretty poor.

I should also point out that this is a winter phenomenon. As a gardener, my nails all get broken in spring, and have no hope of looking nice again until winter, and even during that time my left thumbnail is permanently grooved from jewellery-making. Anyway, I make the most of having nails to paint in winter.

I have no idea how people can do most work with nails. If mine get any longer than this I can't type, and in fact it's only been allowed to grow this long as my phone isn't working, so I'm not texting. When I see women with nails longer than this, they look handicapped. And this is especially true if they look like this:

How the hell can she wipe her arse?

Somebody had to ask. May as well be me. 

I'm sorry but that's just fucking ugly. And I've seen worse. 

If she were a singer, or maybe a stripper, it would make some sort of sense, but I've seen working class women in supermarkets with nails like that. None of my business, of course, but if she thinks that is attractive? Sorry love. 

Unless they are kept really, really short, those square ended nails always look stupid. 

I cannot be persuaded otherwise. That's my opinion, and as valid as any other.

But there is something even worse than flat ended.

What the hell is this?

You don't have to agree with me, and I'll ignore you if you disagree with me, this is just a get-it-off-my-chest blog post.

OK I'm done.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Higher Ground

Sometimes I catch my kids telling lies.

The worst part is that it's always over something trivial. I'll say "Did you bring down all the dirty cups from your room?" and I know they haven't because the cupboard is empty. But they'll look me straight in the eye and say "Yes". It's not a big deal either way. If they told the truth, they'd only get a dirty look and a request to go get them NOW, and when I catch them out, they get much the same. I don't make a song and dance out of it, nor do I do the martyr parent's "disappointment". I can't stand martyr parents. Bleargh.


I'm big on ethics, and my kids know this. They also know that I don't take life too seriously, so there's a balance (as usual) between trying to turn them into fine, honest, upright citizens, and accepting the limitations of human nature.

I'm also aware, no, not just aware, I'm sympathetic to the phenomenon whereby strictness leads to dishonesty. I am a pretty strict parent, in many ways, so I sort of do it to myself.

But I hope that over time they develop their own balance here. Self-discipline is the only worthwhile discipline, after all. I'm trying to turn out bona fide anarchists here.

I am fairly forgiving with human nature overall, but there comes a point as one ages where there are no excuses left.

My grandmother was always on my grandfather's case. She had a special tone, a way of saying "GEORGE!" that had woven into it the sense of "George, you have really displeased me, and you're going to regret it" and also, very much,  a sense of "AGAIN".

My grandfather wasn't a bad man, but he didn't learn. He knew what annoyed her, and he did it anyway. Not only that, he'd try to make excuses for it, and they were always pathetic. Totally, utterly pathetic.

So, if he walked his dirty boots across her nice clean kitchen floor, and got that "GEORGE!" with the special tone, he'd quickly rattle off some excuse as to why it had happened. Wasn't his fault. Someone had moved the V-Shaped piece of wood he used to pull his boots off. He had to run in and out very quickly. He thought she'd be cleaning the floor soon anyway. He never took responsibility for his transgressions.

Children learn by watching. I was obviously a confirmed people watcher from an early age, otherwise why would I even remember any of this?

It would have taken no more time to apologize. She would still know that it would happen again, but at least there would be some courtesy involved.

But worst of all, he could dismiss his single word admonition, with a single word in return:


It was said as a growl. It carried with it an unspoken excuse, as if he knew it would make no difference. Pick an excuse, you know it's rubbish anyway.

For years I heard the same thing.

"GEORGE!" (high pitched Cockney squalk)

"Weell....." (low growl)

And we all do it, don't we?

We all offer a pathetic excuse, or no excuse at all. Instead of taking responsibility for doing something we shouldn't. Instead of admitting what we did was lazy or thoughtless.

And sometimes what we do is just plain wrong.

In one way or another "Weell..." is being said by people every day in a million ways.

Now, obviously, there are plenty of people out there who just don't care. They don't even bother to respond to having their bad behaviour pointed out.

But assuming we do care, assuming we are good people, we know when we've done something wrong, and we do have the option to own our behaviour. To apologize. To make amends maybe (clean up our own dirty footprints), and maybe, just maybe, make the effort not to do it again.

It's a choice.