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30 November, 2006

National Day of Action

You’d never guess, sitting here in a CBD office amid the usual hum and bustle of my white-collar colleagues, but today is a national day of action in Australia. Tens of thousands of people all around the country are on the streets protesting against the government’s new industrial relations laws. I’d like to be out there with them but these days I’m my own boss and my job security is simply a function of my sales ability. Still, I sympathise with them. Ordinary people in ordinary jobs are facing a future far more uncertain and a working life far less pleasant than they have enjoyed in the past few decades. And all because the government wants to create an environment in which business can prosper and the economy can grow.

Those of you in the USA and similar corporation-dominated societies will recognise the situation. In order for these economies to survive, they have to grow. If they don’t grow, you’re in a recession, and the investment goes elsewhere. Without investment, the economies shrink. Then you have depression.

And how do you get growth? Well, you can be lucky – like Australia – and be sitting on all the raw materials all the growing economies need, or you can raise productivity. Productivity means getting more for the same cost, or the same for less cost, or, best of all, more for less cost. It’s the reason we’re working harder and longer hours, why living standards are falling, why the rich are getting relatively richer and the poor relatively poorer, it’s why we need to ‘globalise’, why standards of service are falling, why manufactured goods are of lower quality. To get productivity up, the corporations have to squeeze and squeeze and keep squeezing.

That’s why Australia has new industrial relations laws, making it easier to sack people, guaranteeing fewer benefits (like holidays), and weakening the power of trades unions to do collective bargaining an behalf of their members. More for less. All the time more for less.

It wasn’t so long ago that the European countries and the Communist countries – and even Australia – were trying, and often able, to provide free education at all levels, to everyone, free health care across the board, generous pensions, low-rent public housing on an enormous scale, and universal free access to services such as legal representation. For a brief period – after World War 2 until the Reagan/Thatcher era began in the late 70s – governments all over pursued an agenda of social reform and sharing of wealth.

Now the agenda is economic growth. But you’ve got to ask: if economic growth means that we get less and less benefit as we are squeezed harder and harder, why on Earth would we want it? I’m pretty sure that this is the kind of question in the minds of the marchers out on the streets today.

I wish them all the very best.

27 November, 2006

Coonan the Barbarian

That Coonan woman has been at it again. Today she told an audience of media parrots that she thought Rupert Murdoch’s and James Packer’s criticisms of her ineffectual broadband policy were motivated by self-interest. Well, duh. To quote the Senator, “I can appreciate that if you have got a real commercial interest in getting people to buy very expensive product and content, you'll be trying to get the government to subsidise it as much as possible." All I can say is that throwing up this kind of smokescreen is just so pathetically typical of politicians it makes one sick.

Either the woman is stupid and has missed the point completely, or she is deliberately obfuscating to justify the Government’s failure to do anything useful about the appalling state of broadband in this country. Of couse the big content providers want a decent broadband network in Australia. That’s because there is a demand here for broadband services that cannot be met. What Coonan should take away from Murdoch and Packer’s comments is not that they want to make a buck but that there is the opportunity to build a world-class industry here, not that they’re trying to force her silly government into making investmants they don’t want to make but that the people of this country are crying out for a decent service. And when I say ‘the people’, I mean the voters, the ones she’s supposed to be serving. Geddit?

Mostly, I think that what Murdoch and Packer have to sell is trash but I want broadband for all the other, useful services it offers. For example, all my friends and relatives in the UK and the US now take broadband so much for granted that they really can’t understand why they shouldn’t send family photos that are 2 megabytes large, or why we can’t talk to them using Skype. We’re becoming cut off here from the rest of the world because we’re such a technological backwater. And here’s another example. My hobby is to write music but, even at low bitrates, a single song is 4 or 5 megabytes large. It takes me an hour or two to upload one file like that to my website – but the line quality here in Australia’s third largest city is so poor that I’ve given up trying. My line won’t stay up that long! And another example. I like to stay up-to-date with updates from Microsoft for my operating syystem and my Office applications but I can’t because downloads of 137 megabytes (which the backlog now amounts to) would take over 80 hours at my connection speeds!

The UN last week declared that broadband should now be considered a ‘utility’ like electricity and water. That may be going a bit far but I know what they mean. Without broadband these days, one is cut off from so much that is going on in the world, from one’s own family and friends even! This is the point that the Coonan creature fails to grasp. This is the fate to which she and her ridiculous peers are consigning this country.

24 November, 2006

One Small Putt For A Man

Yesterday a Russian cosmonaut hit a golf ball off the Soyuz docking platform of the International Space Station as an advertising stunt for a Canadian golf club manufacturer. The stunt went well, it seems, and the ball is expected to do about 48 Earth orbits before finally burning up in the atmosphere.

When I first read that this was going to happen, my reaction was (predictably) one of dismay. That the wonderful and noble quest for humankind to build a new home in space should be so debased and degraded, seemed an awful thing. That the ISS, or, at least, the Russian space programme, should be forced to raise cash by selling its astronaut’s time to advertisers struck me as scandalous and a terrible indictment of our materialist world.

Yet, as often happens, a little reflection gave me a different view. Of course it is an unspeakable crime to waste the time of highly-qualified and highly-trained astronauts in batting balls around to make a few dollars – not to mention that of the NASA engineers on the ground who had to do protracted safety studies – yet isn’t the whole business so wonderfully human? I mean, you spend billions upon billions of dollars, thousands of people dedicate their lives, decades of planning, design, building and execution unfolds, people die for Heaven’s sake! And for what? So that one day some ridiculous company can stage a ridiculous marketing show.

Well, of course. That’s what has to happen. That’s what this is all for. We’re not going into space to change human nature. We’ll still be the same clownish little monkeys Out There as we are down here. Were going into space to be us – only somewhere bigger. And that means whacking golf balls 48 time around the world, and holding zero-G raves, and getting drunk, and having fights, and making love, and keeping pets, and frying the longest sausage in the known universe, and filming episodes of Home and Away on a starship, and on and on and on.

That’s who we are. That’s who we always will be. Painting asteroids in corporate colours in our Destiny. I just hope the rest of the Galaxy is ready for us.

23 November, 2006

M'aidez

In my continuing and, might I say, futile attempts to get my fiction published, I joined a small writers collective a couple of years ago. The group, Crime Writers Queensland, publishes its own books and audio tapes which are collections of short stories by members. Almost all the members are published authors, some with quite a good local reputation. I'm hoping to get a story in their new collection. It will be their seventh book and will be called 'Seven'. The book launch is planned for 7/7/07. Lucky? We all hope so.

Anyhoo, to follow up the enormous success of the poem I published yesterday, here's a very short story. We do these from time to time as an exercise. The story has to be precisely 100 words long and the theme is set at the meetings. I quite liked this one, so I'm goimg to inflict it on you. Just because I can...


The orbital bombardment was over and the shock troops had already gone in. We would be next. I nudged Dannee who’d been sitting beside me since we left Deepstation, fiddling with that stupid little radio of his. “I hate this bloody waiting,” I growled.

“Listen.” He handed me the earpiece. “It’s from down there.”

I glanced out at the scarred planet below and listened. The lilting, musical language meant nothing to me but two sounds kept repeating among the gabble: “mae dae”.

Dannee said it must mean “Fuck off aliens”.

My stomachs lurched as we tipped into our approach run.

22 November, 2006

Home Alone 2

Since I’m home alone and missing Wifie so much, I can’t help thinking about how bad it would be if she had gone forever. How would I ever stand it?

I had a small taste of the nightmare about five years ago when, out of the blue, she had a stroke. She just felt a bit off one day, went up to bed early and found she couldn’t brush her teeth. Somehow, I realised immediately what it was and got her to the hospital just before she had a second and then, soon after, a third and massive one. It was a shock that such a thing could happen so suddenly and with no warning but the really bad thing was knowing, afterwards, how close I’d come to losing her.

This little sonnet came some while later and was published in The Love Blender, a great little online poetry magazine which all romantics should read regularly. I named the poem ‘Snap!’. You’ll see why.


“I’ve lost co-ordination in my hand.” And the
world becomes a darkening storm of grim purpose;
racing down spiteful roads; pushing through the blur of
slow people to reach the one in the uniform;
“I think my wife’s had a stroke.”
“I think my wife’s had a stroke.”As I sit and talk
to you, as I sit alone and gasping in fear
in the night, as your long recovery plays out
in tiny, heart-bursting finger movements, fewer
words mis-spoken, our bruised eyes reflect the horror
of what might have been. The handful of lucky breaks
and hasty choices that saved your life seem a too-
thin thread on which to hang all a man’s happiness.

21 November, 2006

Bonded Slave

Wifie’s away. She flew off this morning to visit some relatives in Melbourne. I miss her already – which is odd because it’s an ordinary working day and I wouldn’t normally see her until I get home in a few hours’ time. It’s just knowing that she won’t be there that is creating the anticipation of loneliness.

She and I have been together for almost two decades. It will be our umpty-umpth wedding anniversary next month. We’re still very much in love and I suppose, after all this time, we will be for the rest of our lives. As with so many other aspects of my emotional life, the bond that ties me to my wife is a deep and mysterious thing, lurking in the deepest and oldest recesses of my being, accessible to consciousness only in its effects, and completely beyond my control.

I suppose I’ll go home and potter about, listen to Blondie and the B-52’s and surf the Web – the usual things a fifty-one-year old does these days. I’ll be at a loose end – for no particular reason. Silly. But I’ll be off-balance. There’ll be something missing, like that thing you know you’ve forgotten to bring and you just know you’ll need it when you get there.

Bonding with someone is so strange! Something to do with evolutionary imperatives no doubt – it creates a stable environment for raising children, or it prevents social upheaval in small communities by reducing sexual adventuring, something along those lines. But to me, the mere phenotype, the helpless puppet of my DNA, all I can do is drift around the kitchen feeling uninspired and hoping the week goes by quickly.

The upside, of course, is that when it’s all going as Nature intended and both of us are in the same time zone at the same time, it’s pretty damned good and I’m quite happy to hand over the reins of my soul to my genome.

19 November, 2006

Dumber and Dumber

You know, Dolly Parton once said, ‘Never watch anything dumber than you are.’ It’s pretty good advice, although very hard to achieve considering the state of modern film and television. It’s even hard to apply to reading these days. The editorial standards of most newspapers have slipped below the point where they irritate one beyond endurance, magazines are worse, and as for books! Well, let’s face it, most of them are written by people who are only barely literate and edited by people who are hardly better. Worst of all, of course, are advertisements. Mind you, writing advertising copy is probably the kind of job you can only do if you don’t have the intelligence to realize what blight on civilization you have become. The literacy of most advertising ranks just a step or two above text messages, somewhere below emails and blogs.

Partly, it’s a failure of intelligence. Let’s face it, spelling and grammar are just too hard for most people. But it is also a failure of education. I’ve known some reasonably bright people who were pathetically unable to string two words together. Partly it’s the fault of the Americans. Their attempt to ‘simplify’ spelling many years ago has left them with a semi-phonetic spelling system which has thrown away most of our language’s etymology, making it impossible for American children to learn spelling by understanding the linguistic and historical roots of words. It was a mistake on a global scale since they now export their impoverished version of English to the world and drone countries like Australia parrot American as if it were their own language.

Yet there’s something much more serious going on. There’s a tendency for people – even professional writers – not to care about expressing themselves correctly. They don’t think that they need to worry about precision because people will know what they mean. They communicate without care. In itself, not so bad, but if people are not trying clearly to express what they mean, my suspicion is that they are not trying hard to be clear about what they mean, that their thinking itself is sloppy and careless. And it certainly seems to be the case.

As a very minor example of this very significant problem, consider plurals. People today have enormous difficulty with plurality. They cannot distinguish phenomenon from phenomena, fewer from less, and words like fora and schemata are almost gone from the language. Worse than these (which, after all, are probably just laziness) is the inability to use collective nouns as singular (the crowd are chanting, everybody who lives here are poor) and to use the names of singular entities as plurals (Manchester United are pleased with the result, the Government are voting on the bill, Microsoft are releasing Vista in January). These examples are not just sloppiness with language but sloppiness of thought – the inability to distinguish a collective entity from its members.

Even in something so apparently trivial, can be traced our first steps on the slippery slope to losing all the hard-won benefits of civilization and universal education. If we let our language fall into ruin, we let our ability to think clearly fall with it.

17 November, 2006

Running In Neutral

Watching Yuli, our cat, sitting perfectly still and staring vacantly at a blank wall just a metre from his face – as only cats can do – I was reminded of an interesting little episode from my past.

Wifie and I were hiking through a very beautiful part of the Arizona desert, an area of low hills covered in gorgeous cacti of various kinds. We were walking single-file on a narrow track and a strange hissing sound gradually edged its way into my awareness. Suddenly I realised what I was hearing and called out ‘Rattlesnake, darling!’

To my amazement, Wifie took off like a mountain goat, leaping and bounding down the track for dozens of metres before she came skidding to a halt in a cloud of dust. I looked down at where she had been just a few moments ago and there, writhing and spitting under a cactus bush, well within striking distance of the track, was the most angry and irascible rattlesnake you are ever likely to bump into.

I was a nice, safe, couple of metres away, so I edged gingerly around it and went down to join my belovèd. She was experiencing a variety of emotions. Somewhere in the mix was well-deserved guilt that she had cleared off and left me to the mercy of our vicious friend but her most powerful sensation was bewilderment because she had no recollection at all of doing a hundred-metre sprint down that rocky track. She remembered my warning and the next thing she knew she was at the bottom of the hill looking up.

One often hears phrases like ‘blind panic’ and one frequently realises that one’s mind has been ‘running in neutral’ for the past couple of minutes but what struck us both about this particular incident was that Wifie had, for quite a number of seconds, performed intelligent, purposeful, skilled, not to mention athletic behaviour with no conscious awareness of it. It was such a perfect illustration of the fact that animals like us can get by perfectly well in the world without having to be conscious at all and the imputation of conscious awareness to other animals is entirely unnecessary.

Which brings me back to Yuli.

16 November, 2006

Cranky of Karana Downs

I read a newspaper article today about how Rupert Murdock had said Australia's broadband service was a 'disaster' and needed $10bn spending on it. Fair enough. Then I read our own alleged 'Communications Minister' - some woman called Coonan - saying it wasn't a disaster because quite a lot of people could get it and there was lots of demand.

My regular reader will know that I have some strong views about this country's lack of broadband, so it will be no surprise that I got a bit miffed by the Coonan woman's comments. So miffed in fact, that I dropped her a line. This was it:

Dear Ms Coonan,

I read with some irritation your spirited defence of Australia's current broadband situation. I live in the Brisbane suburb of Karana Downs and there is absolutely no broadband available here - not even ADSL 1. (Although there is ADSL 1 available at my local exchange, the exchange is too far away from my house for me to receive it.)

My usual internet connection, with a 56K modem, is between 16.9 and 21.4 kilobits per second (yes, kilobits). I run a small, high-tech business from home and I can't help but agree with Rupert Murdoch that the state of broadband in this country is a disaster. I don't live in the outback, I live in a suburb of Australia's third largest city!

Frankly, it's pathetic.

Regards,

Graham Storrs.


I'll let you know what the dear lady's reply is if I get one.

14 November, 2006

Smart State Buys Stupid Cars

When you live in a state that calls itself ‘the smart state’, you would expect its government to do at least a couple of smart things now and then. Don’t you think? Well, not Queensland. The smart state seems to go out of its way to be as stupid as it can be.

It’s not just the big things. Like damming and wrecking the Mary River because it wakes up after decades of ignorance and denial and realises we’re running out of water and we’ve got to have some fast! Which, by the way, means hundreds and hundreds of families get thrown out of their homes to make way for this folly and the rare, indigenous lungfish is driven to extinction. (You know, they tried. They hoped for rain for years and then they prayed for rain for years but, for all their efforts, we still ran out of water. You can hardly blame them for that!)

No. It’s the small things too. Like not having daylight savings like the rest of Australia ‘because it would lead to more skin cancer’. Although the Cancer Council of Australia denies this, based on the research, I suppose we’re to believe the Premier instead because… well… just because. Or like the cars they buy for the state’s senior civil servants.

These are easy to spot because (a) they have distinctive number plates (b) they are all large-engined and foreign-made and (c) their drivers seem to be even more pushy and aggressive than most. I see a lot of these cars on the roads of Brisbane. As I sat in my car this morning on Moggill Road and then on the Western Freeway – two of the smart state’s longest car parks – I saw two of them. One was a big, black 4-wheel drive, BMW 5X and the other was an even bigger, silver, 4-wheel drive (I couldn’t see the make or model but it was really, really ugly). Others I have noticed lately were Audis, Alfas and Lexuses.

I suspect there are at least a hundred of these cars about – possibly a lot more. I looked up the price of a BMW 5X today and they start at AU$75,000 and go up to about AU$120,000. The others I’ve seen are a similar price. So if there are 100 of these about, the state must have spent something like AU$10 million on them. So I ask myself:
  • Why is the smart state spending AU$10 million on ego-massage for its civil servants?

  • Why is the smart state sponsoring foreign imports of cars to the tune of AU$10 million?

  • Why is the smart state encouraging its employees to drive around in cars with engine capacities between 3 and 4 litres at a time when global warming is choking off the state’s water supplies?

The only answer I can find to these questions is that the smart state must be seriously stupid.

12 November, 2006

Thinking About Retiring

I’m retiring soon. I know what you’re thinking. Someone as young and vibrant and full of the joys of life as I am can’t possibly be retiring. But it’s true.

I’ve been trying to write something about what it means to retire but it's hard. The thing is, it’s a bit of a non-event, really. I’m not filled with anxiety about losing my purpose, my identity, or my role in society. I don’t feel I have work left undone. I’m not chagrined that I haven’t achieved all my goals. I have no fear that my status will suffer, or my self-esteem will fail. I won’t grieve for the loss of my workmates (in the contracting business I tend to move from place to place often enough for the gaining and losing of acquaintances to be perfectly normal.) And I certainly have no concern at all that I won’t have enough to do!

Work has been such a chore to me most of the time. However interesting the job, however good the company, part of me has always resented it bitterly. Even when the work has been incredibly interesting – and I have worked in universities doing post-doc research and, for many years in industrial R&D – there was always the knowledge that someone else was setting the agenda, that I wasn’t able to pick and choose what I wanted to engage my interest in. Not that I didn’t work hard and with complete dedication for my various employers – thanks to my good old English working class upbringing – but I have wished all my life that I didn’t have to do it. And the only reason I have done it is for the money.

And that's my only concern. I worry a bit that maybe I won’t have enough money. After all, no matter how well set-up things seem now, the economy is in the hands of politicians, so it could collapse at any moment. But, to be honest, if that happens, having a job wouldn’t be much help anyway.

More than that, I worry that not earning money is an end to fantasy. You know the way couples talk, ‘maybe well get one of those (houses, cars, trips to Antarctica, whatever) one day. While you’re still working it’s always just possible, just within the realms of belief, even if, in your heart of hearts, you know how unlikely it would be. Yet to stop earning is also to give up some of that, to say, ‘OK, what we have now, how we live now, is pretty much how it will always be, until we die.’ I think Wifie and I are fairly sensible types but one has to wonder how much such silly talk sustains one.

I suppose we’ll see. Certainly it will be nice to have the time to reflect on it.

10 November, 2006

Christmas is Coming

It’s almost always sunny here. It’s always green. The trees don’t lose their leaves in winter (not the natives anyway) and there are always flowers of some kind blooming all year round. And because Brisbane is just a few hundred kilometres from the Tropic of Capricorn, the winter days are only a little shorter than the summer ones.

As a colleague of mine once remarked, ‘In Brisbane you can’t tell the season by looking out of the window.’ He’s wrong – if you know what you’re looking for – but he’s right enough.

So it’s always a bit weird when Christmas starts to loom.

My poor brain, trained by several decades of living in England, Scotland and Switzerland, expects the darkness to start seeping into the daytime at both ends, it expects the cold to grow ever more penetrating, it expects lowering clouds and squally rain, bare trees and stuffy, overheated houses. Instead, it gets clear blue skies and warmer nights. Then, just when I’m starting to think about beaches and cold cocktails by the pool, up pops Santa!

Of course, he pops up earlier and earlier each year. This year the first displays of Christmas tree decorations and Christmas cards appeared in September. I suppose, given time, this Christmas bling bling will be on sale all year round. Then you won’t be able to tell the season by walking into a shopping mall either.

It’s a shame, though, that Christmas in Australia has all the same trimmings as Christmas in Europe. I know that’s because most of the people here came from there – and not very long ago either. But it’s so weird to have pretend snow and icicles all over the place when the weather is a humid 35 outside. It’s odd to sit in a café in shorts and sandals when there’s a guy in a fur-trimmed red hood and stout boots sweatily yo-ho-hoing nearby.

Why can’t Santa be a barefoot surfer, his reindeer flying dolphins? Why can’t we deck the halls with boughs of grevillea? Why aren’t our Christmas trees wattles, our decorations banksias cones and gum nuts, why not kiss under the Cooktown orchid? It’s all nonsense anyway, so why not have some appropriate nonsense?

Yet it is the old nonsense that has a way of persisting, year after year. It seems that a European Christmas is as indestructible here as an Australian plastic banknote.

08 November, 2006

What do you think of it so far?

I’ve been writing this blog for about ten weeks now and this is my 45th posting. While I’m entertaining myself enormously – I love writing, especially about myself and my own ideas! – the intention is that other people will be entertained too. I don’t get any stats from Blogger (which hosts this blog – thanks guys) but AdSense (which runs those intriguing and highly clickable ads – hint) tells me how many pages are looked at each day – and it’s going up, slowly.

So it is probably time to take stock, check the direction, feel the pulse, take my bearings, test the water, and do a lot of other clichéd things. I am, after all, a usability specialist and my mantra has always been ‘Ask the user!’ So I’m asking. Is this blog the kind of thing you like to read? Will you go on reading it if it stays the same? Are you looking for something else? Is there more I could do to satisfy you? Is it becoming repetitive? Does the writing need more sparkle? Is all this wit and erudition getting a bit tedious?

All I ask is that you take a moment or two to click on the ‘comments’ link below and tell me how I’m doing. I know it is a lot to ask. Lurking (joining newsgroups or reading blogs without ever offering a comment) is a fine old Internet tradition and I’m always loathe to break the silence myself. I can only say that will not sneer at anything you say (however tempting) and I will not ignore even the most anatomically difficult suggestion. And you will have the immense personal satisfaction of knowing that you helped set a fledgling blogger on the right track.

In fact, to make it as easy as possible for you, I include a couple of prepared responses for you to cut-and-paste into the comment:

  • I think your blog is wonderful. It is like a beacon of sanity in this crazy world.

  • You suck. My buddies at the NRA all say you’re a moron.

  • I was looking for the collected works of Stevie Smith actually.

So, your turn now.

07 November, 2006

Melbourne Cup Day

It’s Melbourne Cup day here in Australia. For those of you elsewhere, the Melbourne Cup is a horse race which, for some reason, ‘stops the nation’. Everybody has a bet, every office runs a sweepstake, every pub is packed and has its giant plasma screens tuned to the sports channels, and every neighbourhood is dotted with lunchtime barbies where those at home gather around TV sets to watch the great event.

As someone who doesn’t gamble, the whole thing seems a bit odd. I remember the Grand National back in the UK, which was similar in that it was the one day in the year when everyone had a flutter - but inspired nothing like the national fervour of this race. In fact, the Grand National was the only day in the year when my mother would place a bet. My mother worked in a bookmakers for most of the time I knew her and she almost always picked the winner on Grand National day (one year, her horse came second but she always placed ‘each way’ bets, so she was OK.)

I don’t gamble because the chances of winning are too low – even in a horse race, where the ‘field’ is rarely very large. I suppose I know too much about statistics and about cognitive biases to be anything but unimpressed by any odds that are not strongly in my favour.

My mother and father invested a lot of hope in winning ‘the pools’ and played religiously. I remember them marking up their entry forms each week – columns of carefully drawn Xs in the tightly-packed grids – and then eagerly scoring their copy coupon as the football results were read out on a Saturday. I couldn’t understand the care with which they picked their configuration of drawn matches. Neither had any deep knowledge of the form of the teams involved and they seemed to use a vaguely superstitious rule that their choices should be distributed in a way that didn’t follow any obvious pattern.

I used to ask them why they bothered. A block of Xs, or some other regular array would be just as likely to win as any other configuration. But they had a strong aversion to any kind of clearly non-random pattern. You see the same thing with people who pick numbers for the big national lotteries. Everyone hates to pick an obvious pattern.

I think I understand it now. If you put all your Xs in a block, or all your numbers in a sequence, even the most statistically naïve of us can begin to see how extremely unlikely it is that games or the draw will fall out in just that pattern. Something like that would be almost impossible! It makes us aware of the futility of what we’re doing – the fantastic odds against our gamble paying off - even if only vaguely. And, of course, they’d been watching the results come through week after week for years and they had never, ever, seen such a pattern come up.

Needless to say, my parents never did win the pools. Alas.

06 November, 2006

Why The Bad Guys Always Win

What do you think empathy is?

The Free Dictionary defines it as the "identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives” which is something like what I might have said. Merriam-Webster Online is rather more verbose but essentially similar; “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

Psychologists tend to see empathy as an aspect of personality. It doesn’t actually feature as a major ‘personality factor’ in modern personality models, however, the famous Hans Eysenck sort of had it in his own personality models in that his personality dimension of 'psychoticism' was defined as the absence of empathy. Therapists seem to have a higher respect for it and give empathy far more weight as a tool for probing and understanding other people – which is sort of understandable, really.

My own view is that empathy is a major personality trait, and that it’s opposite is not psychoticism in general but psychopathy in particular. Like other human traits, empathy is probably normally distributed – which means that a tiny percentage of us is deeply empathic while an equally tiny percentage is deeply psychotic – unable to comprehend that other people have feelings at all. The great mass of us are in the middle somewhere. However, if empathy is normally distributed, we should expect that half the world has less than an average amount of it and, that for every person who resonates to the suffering of others, there is another one who is indifferent to it.

If I’m right, this is one of the saddest facts about the world that I know. While there are 3.2 billion people with above average empathy, there are also 3.2 billion with below average empathy. Which explains why there are plenty of people quite happy to kill whales, or chimpanzees for food. That’s why there are plenty of people willing to torture other people, or to hack them to death with machetes. That’s why there are bullies in the workplace and the schoolyard, why people are happy to get rich while other people starve, why 'men of faith' will condemn women to unwanted pregnancies and babies to unloving parents. It's also why so many will ignore the future suffering that global-warming will bring in favour of present comforts, and why people cut you up when you’re out driving.

The only bright side is that, for every one of these perfectly sane monsters, there is someone else who joins Amnesty International, gives up their seat on the bus, and weeps for starving children.

Unfortunately, when a person with high empathy confronts their opposite number with low empathy, the guy with the machete is the one with the big advantage.

05 November, 2006

Georgette Heyer: An Infamous Army

Fed up with the deep and meaningful book I’d taken with me on holiday, I borrowed Georgette Heyer’s novel An Infamous Army from Wifie.

Oddly enough, I read a lot of Georgette Heyer novels as a young teenager. My mother was a big fan and, since I devoured every book that came into the house in those days, regardless of genre, I got through plenty of bodice rippers. I also read the entire works of Eric von Daniken and Denis Wheatley, to name but two of the weird authors my mother was into. It’s true that better authors also came my way from that source – Shakespeare, Browning, du Maurier and le Carré, for example – but for the most part my mother favoured rather sensational and mystical writers. Still, it is arguable that 13 is the best age at which to be reading von Daniken, or Denis Wheatley, and that one should save the sensible stuff for when one is old enough to appreciate it.

So I approached the prospect of being stuck with nothing to read except a Georgette Heyer novels as something akin to being stuck with a Dr Seuss book, or a Rupert the Bear annual – something a child would put itself to sleep with.

Yet An Infamous Army turned out to be the best read I’d had in ages. Of course, it had the usual Mills & Boon plot (boy meets girl, boy and girl fall madly and instantly in love, boy and girl stupidly get all confused and upset with one another, boy and girl finally work it out and live happily ever after) but it also had the background and events of the battle of Waterloo, thoroughly researched and very well presented. And it was well-written too – something I’d forgotten about Georgette Heyer. The characters were convincing, the settings and situations realistic and the great battle itself was so evocative that I still carry many of the images around in my head weeks later.

All-in-all, I’d recommend it to anyone. It wasn’t Vanity Fair by any means but it was a real page turner.

04 November, 2006

No, Seriously

Have you ever heard someone say of someone else that ‘he’s a serious person’? I’ve come across the phrase a few times in the past few years. It is always spoken by a senior executive or high-ranking politician and always refers to another senior exec or politician. I’ve often pondered this quality of ‘seriousness’ that they seem to see in one another (and, by implication, do not see in other people.) Indeed, I am aware, from my various encounters with CEOs and political leaders and the like, that they clearly do not think that I am a ‘serious man’. But, since I am extremely serious about almost everything – to the point of being uncomfortably intense – the quality is clearly nothing to do with seriousness in any sense that I normally use the word.

I used to think it simply referred to some quality like gravitas that such people possess. Now, I know I haven’t got gravitas. I tend to be glib. I smile a lot. I like to be friendly and accommodating. So that’s possible but, as I have come across the phrase in more contexts, I doubt that this is what is meant. Although the people who use the phrase like to cultivate an air of gravitas, I think this is just because they feel that the people ‘under’ them wouldn’t respect them if they acted like ordinary people. And that is probably true, people being what they are.

So I turned my attention to what the people who call each other ‘serious people’ have in common and I think I’ve finally worked it out. The people who use the phrase are typical of their type. They are the self-interested, sociopathic types – all men – who push and bully, grab and scheme their way to the top. Typical leaders, of course, but ones who are, perhaps, just a bit more of all these things than their fellows. What they really mean by ‘serious person’ is ‘someone like us’, someone who also likes to gather power to themselves, someone who is also a player in their games of pushing and shoving, someone they can deal with and understand, who has the same values, who could be helpful – or dangerous – to them. That is, someone that they need to take seriously – as a threat, or a collaborator.

Now that I’ve worked it out, I’m glad that these people don’t think I’m a serious person. I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for one of them.

03 November, 2006

Exercise: A Cost-Benefit Analysis

You hear a lot about how exercise can extend your life. I did a little looking into this the other day because, well, frankly, I don’t like exercise and it sometimes bothers me that I don’t do any. I suppose I would do it if I thought it would be worth it though. I like food but I’ve more-or-less given up everything nice in order to avoid being obese. Here the trade-off seems acceptable: eat less on the one hand and look better, feel better and live longer on the other. But exercise… It just doesn’t seem so obvious that the benefits are worth having.

The problem with exercise is that it’s boring. For long periods, you have to do pointless things – like cycling, walking, chasing a ball around a field, bending and stretching, chasing a ball around a small room, and so on – which preclude doing more interesting things, like reading, writing and making music. Why should I waste my life doing boring things? Well, there are two reasons. One is that someone is paying you to and you need the money (which is why I commute two hours every day, for example). The other is there is some other kind of reward – the chicks will flock around you, you can kick sand in other blokes' faces, your clothes will fit better – or you get to live longer.

In which case, I guess it comes down to living longer. So how much extra life would make it worth all that boredom? Let’s face it, we’re not just talking about spending a week at a fitness centre and being set up for life. This is something you have to do day in and day out for the rest of your life – at least half an hour every single day! And when it comes to counting the cost of such thigs, I'm with Oscar Wild (who said, 'To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.')

Well, it looks like, for all that effort, you get three extra years of life. Three. Instead of dying at 74.5, like your average Australian male, I’d die at 77.5. Let me be clear here. Australians who have exercised regularly all their lives might live an extra three years – if the global pandemics, global warming, or world war three don’t get them first. And, assuming that ‘regular exercise’ means half an hour a day, a quick calculation shows that they will have spent 81% of those extra three years doing the exercise necessary for them to live that long!

So, an extra three years, four fifths of it spent hitting balls with sticks, or spending my time with a good book and not fretting about the few extra months I could have had?

No contest!

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