Thursday, 5 December 2013

Smell of the season.

It is that time of year again.  When the adds on TV all seem to be for perfume.  Presumably this is because in the summer we can all be outside, with plenty of fresh air to drive away the fowl stench of our loved ones.  But now that winter is here and outside is less inviting, there is just no getting away from it.  They really stink.  And we must buy them perfume.  Or choke.
Given that smell is a rather difficult thing to convey via medium that plays only to our other senses, the add men have to come up with another way to convince us to buy into their particular stink.  They must sell us a concept, a dream, an aspiration.  And it seems that they have decided what we most aspire to is the ability to be massively pretentious.  And possibly live in a black and white world. 
The most offensive of these ads on TV is rip off of the final scene from the film Notting Hill.  Where Hugh Grant blags his way into Julia Roberts press conference.  Quite why this should inspire me to smell like the weasel faced miscreant in the advert I do not know.  And I can’t judge it against the product itself because I genuinely don’t know what it is advertising.  I probably did at one point, as at some point in the past I must have seen, what is only a few seconds of film, to its conclusion.  But since then I have scoured it from my mind.  These days it irritates me to such an extent that when it comes on, if I am within reach of the TV remote I will turn the sound off and look away.  If I am not close enough to the remote I look away and enter a trance like state where I block out certain aspects of my surroundings.  This state I have otherwise attained through meditation or sitting in the back of a small plane, knowing that I would soon be leaving its relative safety to head back to earth via the clear air between.  So maybe these perfume adverts do have a higher purpose after all.

Here’s wishing you a happy perfume season and lets hope their stench does not choke you before the fresh air of spring sets you free.

Monday, 11 November 2013

The Western Wilds

It has been a little while, but I am still here.  Although here is not the same here it used to be.  Since my last post my job as a research scientist came to an end.  It was a job that opened my eyes to some of the less ideal aspects of the academic offering.  The petty put downs, the bitching, the frantic need to establish a career in a rapidly diminishing time frame against competition who apparently don’t sleep.  Not the land of milk and honey I thought I was entering.
So it was against this background that I decided to get out and, get a “proper job”, one not in a research institution and one not on a fixed term contract.  I was also told by my boss that my academic career was F****d, which is lucky because by that time I was more than keen to escape.  And escape I did, leaving behind the medium sized city heading west to take up an engineering job.
Hopefully in time I will be able to get that patch of land that I have been coveting for so long and maybe even build a house.  But for now I am renting a place that is both near the centre and on the edge of a small town.  My bedroom window overlooks fields and when the cows are feeling particularly curious I can see them peering through the gap in the hedge made by a footpath stile.  Before the evenings got too dark I would walk along that path after work and on one occasion saw a cow that had just given birth.  The calf was laying down behind its mother, shivering and still covered in birthy goo. 
You may be thinking ‘Autumn! That’s the wrong end of the year for calves!’  and I was thinking that too, but I was told when I went to speak to the farmer that they have calves all through the year to encourage continuous milk production.  So now you know.  There is more milk production than romantic pastoral notions, there is a grittier side to it too.  Next they will be telling me that apples get crushed to make the cider that comes from these parts. 

As I watched the calf take its first unsteady steps in the fading evening light I thought this is why I really moved out here.  Just think if my academic career wasn’t F****d, right now I would be in the lab worrying about my academic career.  Here’s to the land of milk and cider.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Happiness is a warm statistic

The other day I went for a rather nice walk and saw a horse that was just posing for the camera.  The rest of this blog is about political philosophy, so if that brings you out in hives, just have a good look at the horse and then go and have a cup of tea or something.  Isn't she a handsome horsey.  I think she might like some hay or maybe a sugar cube. 

Recently a problem of political philosophical has been occupying my mind.  Since the fall of communism at the end of the eighties there has been no coherent viable alternative to capitalism.  Now I would not consider myself to be opposed to capitalism per se, but I am uncomfortable with anything being totally unchallenged.  I usually find myself defending capitalism in political discussions, for the simple reason that it is a functioning system.  Now call me crazy, but I like ideas that work in practice rather than just being an ideal that would only work in an ideal world.  As a died in the wool scientist few things rub me up the wrong way quite like ignoring evidence in order to support your own theory and there is quite a body of empirical evidence in the form of failed communist states, that communism in its early twentieth century form does not work.  It seems to me that the reasons for this are simple, it is an ideal that comes crunching up against the barriers of human nature quite quickly.  When wealth is redistributed in the name of fairness, it is always the re-distributors that come out best.
If you live in a commune, you can name, or at least recognize all of the people in that commune, and as such you will be bound personally to the consequences of your actions.  If you put in more work it will be you, your friends and family that will prosper.  If you are a sponge for the fruits of other people’s labors  you will witness first hand those other people having to work harder to carry your dead weight in the system.  When the commune is scaled up to the size of a state no such first hand experience exists.  If you take all that is on offer, then those who suffer may well be on the other side of the country, and if you work hard you or yours will not benefit.  So why bother.  The link between the consequences and actions of an individual are broken, and the less attractive aspects of human nature take hold.  To counter this, the whole system has to be managed.  But the people managing the system are neither all knowing nor free from these base urges of greed and sloth.  As such productivity declines and distribution is inefficient. 
Capitalism also suffers from a disconnect between greed and suffering, so the rich almost never rub shoulders with those who are going without.  But its strength is that personal productivity is connected to personal gain and this means that instead of being hamstrung by greed, capitalism is actually powered by it.  As such its direction of the whole system is dictated by millions of individual people who are looking for an opportunity to get ahead, and this means it needs comparatively little management.  It can even self correct. 

When I make this point I am often mistaken for a conservative or even a Conservative, but neither of these are true.  I just have an attachment to systems that work, and capitalism does.  At about this point most people say ‘what about the poor?’, ‘what about the financial crash?’.  Well markets generally pick themselves up after a while, but the interim period may be too horrific for governments to allow it to run its course and for this reason some management is usually required.  What about the poor? Capitalism never set out to help the poor, so strictly speaking the poor are not a failure of capitalism, but a failing of capitalism.  It is an ugly system that doesn't care about anyone.  It is a brutal system that runs on greed, chews up the poor, keeps the rich, rich and can has some interesting effects on those in the middle.  It is not nice.  It just happens to lack a convincing viable alternative.
But what of socialism?  Many would suggest it is socialism, not communism that offers the coherent alternative to capitalism.  Socialism is the splicing of communism and capitalism in various ratios to give it some of that hybrid vigor   On the communist end of the spectrum it will suffer from the same problems as communism and at the capitalist end it almost indistinguishable from capitalism.  In most of the space between socialism suggests that the money of capitalism should be shared around society.  But this is missing the point.  It is still expecting money to solve the problems.

America is widely regarded as the home of modern free market capitalism.  In 1776 they declared independence from Britain in a declaration that enshrined the “pursuit of happiness” as a right for its people.  This concept has since been widely accepted around the world.

If we look back to the nineteenth century when Marx set out his ideas of socialism and communism, the world was a very different place to the world we see today.  The poor of the working classes lived in conditions that would be unthinkable today and becoming unemployed could mean starvation.  The life expectancy of the poor was low.  The most obvious impediment to the happiness of the poor was their lack of monetary wealth with which they might buy food and a higher quality of shelter.

In the twentieth century the liberal democracies of North Western Europe, and some other parts of the world, largely eradicated the symptoms of nineteenth century poverty using a various mixtures of left and right wing politics.  Of course there are plenty of places around the world where the picture is not quite the same.  People are worried about their future.  But in northwest Europe starvation and tenements have gone, however poverty has stubbornly refused to die.  Its definition has changed to become less about survival and more about lacking the means to effectively participate in society.  A monetary quantity that is inherently relative to costs and wealth of the rest of society.  The symptoms of poverty have also changed.  Starvation has been replaced by obesity, along with a host of other life shortening conditions such as mental illness and addiction to all manner of substances.  One thing that all of these conditions have in common is a strong link with stress, anxiety and general unhappiness.  Where once the symptoms of poverty could be considered to impede the pursuit of happiness, it can now be considered that the symptoms are caused by a lack of happiness.

The interesting thing about these symptoms is they do not just affect the very poor, but reach all levels of society to varying degrees.  Obesity has recently been described as an epidemic.  Government response has largely been to tackle each symptom.  We are now routinely ‘educated’ about the risks of smoking, drinking, taking drugs, eating badly, and are told to take more exercise, less alcohol and no tobacco.  A war has been declared on drugs, with sellers, importers and users alike being locked up.  Food is labelled in bright colours telling us its salt content, fat content, sugar content, etc.  Tobacco products have warning labels and pictures of all manner of medical nastiness on them.  Yet no attempt has been made to improve happiness directly or explicitly.  Many attempts have been made to tackle secondary effects, such as improving facilities and prospect for the poor, but this problem reaches wider than just the poor.  Any number of governments, and their respective policies, have promised to make us all richer, and it can be argued that this is quantifiably true.  The poor no longer starve and most of us have material items that our parents aspired and saved for, but the rates of mental illness and suicide would suggest that this has not brought us happiness.  It is a widely repeated truth that money cannot buy happiness, and yet this has been the basis of most government policy.  The reason that we have all bought into this in spite of the well worn adage that money cannot buy happiness, is that it partly stands up to scrutiny.  A lack of money brings unhappiness, or at least this is generally seen to be true.  It is also true that a correlation does exist between higher income and happiness, but this is not the same as cause of happiness.
The basic stuff of happiness is quite simple.  The factors include relationships with family and / or friends, pleasurable activities, engaging with something, a sense of meaning, and a sense of accomplishment.  Working against these is stress, social disengagement and fracturing of family life.  It can be argued that capitalism allows people to buy pleasurable activities and gain a sense of achievement through their work, but this comes at the cost of stress and an increasing amount of time is required, allowing less time to enjoy the fruits of these labours.  The negative effect of capitalism on our happiness has often been noted by the increased suicide rate in times of economic downturn, especially amongst young men.
Capitalism is an effective way of managing an economy to maximise economic output, but it is largely blind to the happiness of suffering of its people.  In times where the main impediment to happiness is financial, the various forms of capitalism can offer an effective solution that can maximise benefit across a population.  However that is not an accurate depiction of the society that we live in today.  By the old standards we do not live in a society of haves and have-nots, but a society of haves and have-mores.  Monetary differences still separate the rich from the poor, but it is the comparison rather than the absolute wealth of people that causes jealously and unhappiness. 
Happiness is a notoriously difficult thing to quantify.  Pioneering efforts have been made in Bhutan to measure Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an alternative to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  These have been criticised as being an inherently subjective measure and therefore not a reliable measure.  It may seem pessimistic, but a measure of gross national unhappiness may be easier to quantify by using data on the symptoms of unhappiness.   The most extreme and irrefutable of which would be suicide, but should also include levels of mental illness and addiction.  Measures of happiness have been proposed that take into account a number of factors such as economic, environmental, social, mental, political wellbeing.  The exact way that happiness should be measured is still an active area of research, but in many ways any measure is better than none.

 At this point one might ask why have a measure of happiness?  I have not been proposing a radically new system, just a measurement of the effects that any system is having on us.  As Prince put it “if long life is what we all live for, then long life will come to pass”.  Personally I would rather a happy life, but sentiment remains the same and the aims for which we are all striving are the most likely to come to pass.  In our current society we focus almost exclusively on monetary wealth, and this has been largely successful.  Broadly speaking we are wealthier than our parents and grandparents.  By having a measure of happiness we would gain focus and this would give perspective on the broader effects that policy has on society.  Currently we have a review of the market performances at the end of every nightly news program and every quarter the productivity of the economy is published.  Yet there is no equivalent for our happiness or mental wellbeing.  If we invested as much focus and effort in our happiness as we do to making money, then improvements are bound to occur.  As lord Kelvin put it "if you can't measure it, you can't improve it".  That's not to say it can't improve with out a measure, but how could you be sure?

In summary, since the fall of communism, capitalism has had no viable opposition.  Capitalism is an effective way to maximise economic productivity, however it can cause great stress and we have now reached appoint where the main impediment to happiness is no longer absolute poverty.  Implicit in the acceptance of our current forms of capitalism is the idea that wealth will bring happiness.  Barring recent bumps we are now richer than at any time in our history and yet happiness is still as elusive as ever.  Measuring happiness is not in itself an alternative to capitalism, but is would provide a different focus around which to make policy.
It seems perverse that governments elected to represent the people are not making attempts to routinely measure that thing which we hold most dear.  Our Happiness.  Capitalism has done us well, but will more money make us happier?  Perhaps it is time to change the focus of our government policies to take account of the effect that they have on people rather than just their wallets.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Rising Sap

It is that time again.  On a couple of occasions recently I have left the house without freezing, there is blossom out and the birds are singing.  It can only mean one thing.  Spring is starting at long last.  It also means that some of those exciting plants that I bought in the tail end of last year will have their first full season in my company.  According to my sources oca and yacon need to be grown on in pots, until the chances of frost pass.  I over-wintered them in a tub indoors and this may explain their early sprouting.  So it is time to separate them up into pots and bring them on a bit.  It may be that in future years I will be a bit less precious over them, but for now I will be careful and build up my stock.
Jerusalem artichoke (left), Yacon (right) and Oca (bottom centre)
The Yacon tubers look like Jerusalem artichokes.  In fact they look even more like jerusalem artichokes than the jerusalem artichoke that I found for the photograph.
Oca starting to come through and looking a lot like clover.

The jerusalem artichokes have gone straight into the ground as I feel I can be a bit less precious over them.  I have only ever known one person who did not have a run away success growing them and even if I do kill them I can get some more.
The seed potatoes have gone in.  This year I have gone for a lucky dip selection.  Two years ago I planted a wide selection at my mum's house, which were only partly harvested that year and completely abandoned the following year.  So last year I dug up some in the autumn, but by that time the labels had long since passed on.  Now this mixed collection have formed the seed for this year.  Lets see what comes up!
I have also put in some quite normal seeds including broccoli, comfrey, pumpkin, and chili.  Far more excitingly I have planted some liquorice, and cape gooseberry seeds.  Lets hope I can keep the slugs away this time.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Drugs, Just say why?

Lance Armstrong's recent fall from grace has got me thinking.  He used to date Sheryl Crow.  A relationship which neatly represents the two side of societies ambivalent attitudes towards drugs.  On the one hand you have Lance Armstrong whom we now known to be a lying, bullying, DRUGS CHEAT!  He is now persona non grata and will probably be sued by every American who ever looked up to him, or put into a Findus beef lasagna along with the rest of the failed race horses.  On the other hand you have Sheryl Crow, who for all I know is a clean living child of light who welcomes the rising sun every morning with yogic love, but for this illustration she represents the music industry where a much more permissive attitude towards drug use is common.
Now this raises an obvious question, why the difference?  Of course we all know the usual arguments about  drug use in sport.  That it should be about the ability of the athlete and not their ability to take drugs, and taking drugs is a shortcut for just doing more training.  I am inclined to agree, seeing people shorten their lives for a blaze of transient glory on the sport field is a bit tragic.  There are those who suggest, only half joking, that there should be some divisions of sport where there is a drugs free for all, and I have to confess that I would be curious to see what the human body could achieve with an unlimited supply of pharmaceutical assistance.
The interesting thing is that the attitude of many people, myself included, is very different when it comes to the the music industry.  Now you might say this is not a fair comparison.  In the world of sport drugs are used to enhance performance in quite clinical and indeed cynical ways, whereas in the world of music, drugs are recreational and it is not a competition.  These drugs will not make you run faster.  They are taken in a haphazard way to expand perception, relax, stimulate, or heighten experiences and emotions.  Not similar at all.  But what is it that musicians do?  They sing, compose and play about their perceptions, experiences and emotions.  They get hyped up to give manic performances and then need help to relax afterwards.  So are the drugs they use not performance enhancing?  Its just a different kind of performance.  If you don't believe me, look at the clean living musicians such as Coldplay or Westlife.  It is theoretically possible that their music could make me more bored, but I would have to be prevented from turning it off to experience that level of boredom.
Of course you can point to drug addled wastrels who produce rubbish music.  But then the equivalent would be true in sport.  It wouldn't matter how much EPO and steroids you pushed into me, I wouldn't keep up with Bradley Wiggins unless he was pulling me in a bike trailer.  Drugs can only assist so far, and after that it just down to what you had to start with.
All this musing leads me to some final questions.  With the correct prescription of recreational drugs would Coldplay and Westlife stop producing drivel that can put strong men into a catatonic torpor?  On the other hand, what have we got to lose?

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Wailing and gnashing of dampproofing

Have you ever wondered if you could fit everything you own into one room?  Recently this question has been vexing me and it turns out that, broadly speaking the answer is yes. I can fit almost everything I own into one room.  I say almost everything because some items of furniture remain downstairs, but technically most of those are the property of my mother, without whom my house would be mostly unfurnished.  Actually some (all) of the furniture in my bedroom belongs to my mother too, so if we discount that it should be easy to fit everything into one room.

The obvious question is why?  Why would someone fit everything they own into one cramped little room.  Well in the near future my house will be in receipt of a new damp course and wood worm spray.  As such all wood floors need to be free of items, carpet, furniture, etc.  and some of the downstairs walls need to be freed from their plaster and skirting boards.  On top of all this, a number of floor boards need to be lifted so that the joists and undersides of the floors can be sprayed too.  All of this means that the house has a cold, musty and dusty air of a building site on hiatus.

All this will soon change though as the treatment should be happening in a week or so.  This will be followed by some rather extensive plastering to make good on the damp proofing and the building work.  This should be the last I see of bare bricks on the inside of the house, which i am more than a bit glad of as I cannot adequately describe quite how sick I am of my house being a building site.  What is more remarkable is that I spend most of my time (when not wearing a boiler suit) at Claire's.  The  house of my lovely girlfriend, not the shop that sells cheap jewellery.  So I am not even fully immersed in the buildingsiteyness of it.  But it has been a year since I moved in.  Plenty long enough to tire of the sight of bare plaster/bare brick/cables/unfinished floor boards/ etc.
Ah well.  Hopefully most of the building site will just be a memory soon!