Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Evolution of Thought

It is my belief that there are a few major changes which will need to occur in our ways of thinking, as individuals, and as a species, if we are ever to reach the next level of our sociological development. And by ‘next level’ I mean a society with fairness and equity for all its members, that is, all humans worldwide; an almost ‘Star Trek’ level, which is neither as silly nor as unachievable as it sounds. Perhaps eventually a ‘Human Charter’ will be drafted, taking the Human Rights Act, and incorporating also a social philosophy of compassion, and responsibility.

So, I have listed the ways in which I believe we must evolve our thinking.
  1. Religion – In terms of the way it presents obligations over others, religion will have to go. A softer spiritualism may remain, may even be necessary. A system of thought which is regressive, and values ignorance over genuine freedom of thought, is not conducive to a world which seeks to evolve and improve.
  2. The primacy of the human over the idea. – People have rights. Ideas do not have rights.
  3. Racism – As a general term, to mean a realisation that although differences will always occur, these must cease to be used as a differentiating mark between us, we must treat each other based on how we behave. It makes no more sense to judge a person’s character on the basis of their colour as it does to do so based on their eye colour.
  4. Sexism – similarly to the above, women, and persons of what I might call ambiguous sex or gender (which are not the same thing), must be afforded the same rights, pay, and opportunities as men. Women must be enfranchised and given control of their bodies.
  5. Sex - attitudes to sex, and consent, must alter, to the extent that others do not seek to determine what constitutes normal or proper activity for others; this is, within the limits set by consenting adults.
  6. Countries – whilst people’s pride in their origins should not and cannot be removed, the idea of strictly-defined nation states with borders will need to end, as will the idea that people can be defined or categorised so easily. This will only be possible once all the world has been raised to a roughly level standard, so that borders may be drooped without fear of a flood of immigrants looking for the benefits more developed nations provide. There will always be a necessity for local laws, customs, and governments, but this will be more a global federation with smaller powers for cities than anything approaching nation states.
  7. Money – the usage of money will have to evolve and eventually be replaced by a system of credits. The accumulation of money (and things) will cease to be the driving force in human lives. The quest to be better than we are must become our unifying goal.
  8. Things – this will require perhaps one of the hardest changes to the human mind set imaginable, i.e. the removal of greed, and/or the removal of the materialism which comes with modern capitalism.
  9. Crime – the mind set of the vast majority of the human race will need to cease to glamorise (certain types of) crime, and instead embrace a system of rules which is to their benefit. If this can be done, many of the problems which currently occur can be overcome. We may look to and enhance the ideas of current societies in order to facilitate this, taking those things which work well and applying them elsewhere.
  10. Government – hand in hand with the above, governments (such as they may be in the new system) will need to be transparent, democratic, and free of corruption. This will enable the buy-in from the people which is needed to authorise any system of fair governance. Only when people can see that a system of government benefits them and, broadly speaking, serves their best interests, will they embrace it fully, nor should they do otherwise.
  11. Power – as touched on before, the desire to impose one’s will or way of thinking on others must be changed. Taste must not dictate legislation. Human lives and desires will never completely match each other, and this is to be accepted and understood.
  12. Philosophy – a legal, social, and moral school of thought geared towards compassion, but also towards the responsibility of the individual, while also championing the rights of each individual to live in the way they feel is best for themselves. A social conscience is desirable and necessary.
  13. Ecology - a respect for nature, of which we are a part, and a striving, with our economics, technology and resource usage, to live amongst and share the planet, and protect it from harm. Unless the methods of farming are radically altered, meat consumption will also become a luxury rather than a daily necessity.
  14. Children – along with a new attitude toward the planet must come a realisation that its resources are not infinite, and we must temper our reproduction in a responsible fashion. I have written about this before so do not need to go into more detail here.
  15. The cult of celebrity - which is by no means a modern disease, but which has in our time, reached new levels of absurdity. Merit, or talent, as elements of praise and reward, must become the norm. Idiocy, obnoxiousness, and arrogance should be pitied and despised.
  16. Class - the idea that one can be born into positions of wealth and power, and responsibility, must end. This is true not only for the more obvious cases, such a modern royalty, but also in the unending cycle of the prevalence and pre-eminence of families and groups of people, whose interest lies in precisely the opposite direction to that which I am suggesting. A change in attitude to inheritance must also prevail; if the concept of money goes, so goes the ability to be given much without earning any of it.
  17. Mental illness - the stigma around such conditions needs to be removed, and replaced with the same compassion we show to those with physical problems. The body and the mind are intertwined, but out attitudes to afflictions of the one sort are often alarmingly primitive.
  18. The self, and selfishness - I suppose the central theme of this blog is the idea that people are able to consider their actions in relation to others, which sounds simple but sometimes seems much less common than could be expected. There is value in a sense of self-worth, but this is most true when taken in conjunction with a considerate estimation of the needs of others.

Some of the concepts I have mentioned are here now, and many communities on Earth have embraced them, or begun to do so. Others are longer term goals. All are intertwined. It seems that, in short, we must change much of how we currently live, and defy much of what we consider to be our nature. This is difficult, but not impossible. As to whether it can ever be truly achieved, well, I guess that is up to us.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Unspoken Problem

Go to any news website right now and take a look at the problems which are occurring in the world. I am willing to bet that a good proportion of them are due to the same root cause, and yet it is a cause which is rarely discussed in any solid or serious terms. I am talking, of course, about people, and more specifically, about the fact that there are, in essence, too many of us.

I want to put forth the argument that expansion for the sake of expansion is not only illogical, it is also morally unjustifiable. First of all, there is a simple mathematics at work here. You have an area (or a planet) with finite resources, resources which are necessary to human survival. You also have a number of people who may potentially inhabit said area. The fact is that each human requires a certain amount of resources over the course of their life in order to stay alive, and even more resources in order to thrive (the definition of thriving varies from place to place, but I’ll ignore this consideration for now). Therefore, to live comfortably, the amount of humans in any one area cannot go beyond a maximum, or you find yourself with such problems as overcrowding, drought, starvation, lack of housing, and these problems lead to crime, war, and conflict.

Because the resources of any one place cannot be said to be infinite, we need to consider the amount of people who may live comfortably (or even uncomfortably) in any one area, by considering the amount of (existing or potential) water, food, housing, and other resources available to them. If we fail to do so, we invite famine, conflict, and general human misery.

This is not idle speculation. As I have said, these problems are already occurring, on not inconsiderable scales worldwide. It is therefore, in my opinion, not only illogical, but also irresponsible and arrogant to continue to pump out humans without taking these problems into account. A change in attitude is required in order for us to avoid or mitigate the aforementioned issues.

Other challenges loom. The way we operate as a species is now threatening, and has for some time, the existence of other species on the planet. We have already caused the extinction of species like the Dodo, the Moa, and the Tasmanian Tiger. Whereas in the past we may have been able to claim ignorance of our effect on these animals, in the future we will have no such excuse. Even when we do not directly hunt a species, we may still cause its decline by the way we operate, due to factors like habitat fragmentation and deforestation, as is evident in the jungles of south-east Asia, and the plight many of the threatened species there.

Let me be clear here: this planet is not ours. We act like we own it, but in reality, we share it. To allow other species to be destroyed, whether by action or inaction, as a result of our economic pressures or, more simply, our garbage and pollutants, is criminal. Furthermore, if the moral imperative were not enough, we are pushing the planet to the point where it will become much less suitable for supporting human life, as well as the life of other species. This is a problem which must be addressed.

Now, we have begun to change our ways. New technologies and new ways of thinking are beginning to solve problems, clean things up, and make living conditions better for millions of people, and other species. But it is my opinion that even if science can save us from ourselves, it still does not stand to reason that we should keep filling the planet up with people indefinitely. There is only so much space. There are environments and places we should keep free of human influence, both because they are home to other beings, and also because of their importance to the way the Earth’s ecosystems work. These places should not be destroyed or corrupted. Other forms of life would perhaps assert its right to exist in the strongest terms, were it capable of doing so. As it does not have such capability, we must speak and act on its behalf.

So, next is the question of what can be done. We have seen some experimentation (for lack of a better word) in this area, in the oft-quoted One Child Policy implemented in parts of China. The policy is not without its exceptions, controversies, and challenges, but it speaks to a reasonable concern among leaders that indefinite population growth is neither sustainable nor desirable. There will be no one policy suitable to all places and peoples, but I would say that, in a general sense, a change in attitude is required to avert both human misery and conflict, as well as global catastrophe. This I believe to be a logical extrapolation from available information, rather than scaremongering or general misanthropy.


The moral imperative lies with governments, and individuals, when deciding how to behave. In the same way that responsible leaders will need to balance the pressures of day-to-day life for those they lead, with the problems of environmental damage and the threats arising therefrom, so they will need to begin to examine attitudes to procreation, and the idea that more is better may simply have to be abandoned. This will not be easy. Attitudes are based on any number of things, from one’s own childhood memories, to religious or superstitious convictions, to social attitudes. Still, change must come, or change will be forced upon us by the simple pressures of resource limitation. We will either succeed, or we will suffer.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Online vigilantism

Recently I have noticed an increase in the number of ‘name and shames’ occurring online, for anything from annoying people on the tube, to outright accusations of criminal activity. While I believe that social media has a part to play in the prosecution of justice, much of the way these types of things are handled at the moment gives me cause for concern. In particular, the presumption of guilt before such has been proven, and the implicit or explicit incitement to a sort of mob justice that follows.

One example occurred on May 12, in which a man was accused on Facebook of taking photos of children. The man later responded to the accusation by saying he was taking a selfie with a picture of Darth Vader as a joke to send to his children, and is taking legal action due to the damage to his character. Full story.

I have seen examples of people accused of theft, assault, and other crimes. My concern is that these posts, which essentially side step the provision of innocent until proven guilty, will encourage violence against people who may not deserve it (or even against those who may). Consider the following hypothetical scenario: a photo of a man is posted online, accusing him of, say, child abuse. It is well known that emotions run high in such cases, and the community take matters into their own hands, and deliver the man in the picture of a beating. Now, consider the following possibilities.
  1. The wrong picture was uploaded, and the wrong man takes a beating.
  2. The person who was beaten looks similar to the man in the photo, but is not the man in the photo.
  3. The person is the man in the photo, but suffers from mental impairment, and would not be able to be held legally responsible for his crime.
  4. The man in the photo catches a beating, but it turns out the child fabricated the story. 
Even if the person is guilty, and in the eyes of many ‘got what he deserved’, does this give us the right to provoke such action? Even if the man is never attacked, how would he be expected to get a fair trial after such a witch hunt? If accusations are smeared all over the internet, we have reached the stage where, often, accused equals guilty?


I am not saying I feel particularly sympathetic towards certain criminals, nor that they do not deserve certain punishments. What I am saying is that the protections we have built up in law through centuries of trial and error (if you’ll forgive the pun) exist for very good reasons, and it might make sense to think twice before posting accusations of criminal activity online. Hell, it might make sense to think twice before shaming anyone online. That fat, sweaty guy on the tube might have a medical condition. The stinky kid on the bus may have been pushed into the mud by bullies at school. The point it, once it’s out there, it can’t be taken back, and that is a bigger step to take on someone else’s behalf than many of us seem to realise.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Lessons from my Mother

I have a confession to make. Recently the third anniversary of my mother’s passing came and went. I don’t know the exact date. I haven’t gone out of my way to forget it, but nor have I committed it to memory. The reason being, I prefer to think about her life.

That being said, it’s hard to ignore the thoughts that roll around this time of year, and as some of them have occurred to me, I decided to create a list. My mother taught me a lot, both purposely and simply through her example, so here are some of the things which come to mind.

Never be ashamed to get involved. Whenever there was a holiday, play, school event, or what have you, Mum would take to it with enthusiasm. She wasn’t worried about whether others would laugh; she’d happily look silly in order to make things fun for her kids or others.

Creativity is important. When we were young, we were always allowed and encouraged to muck around with paints, crafts, cooking, old clothes. All things which encourage creativity and art in a young mind. Once, we played astronauts in the lounge and Mum brought us green milk to add to the alien effect. I’ll never forget that.

Self-esteem. Let’s face it, I was a gloomy teenager a lot of the time. Hell, I can still be a gloomy adult. Still, my mother was always telling me to believe in myself, and be positive. I didn’t see the importance of it at the time, as is often the way, but now I do.

Permanence. During your childhood, your parents are ever-present. Though I availed myself less of the opportunity than I could have (due to aforementioned teenage gloom), Mum was always ready to lend an ear, and, also, to offer sound, practical advice. She was also exactly what you want when you’re sick: someone to sympathise and bring you soup. Even now, I still miss my Mum when I am ill.

The fact that being a parent is a pain in the ass sometimes. If you look at the amount of my mother’s pottery or sculpture that my brother and I broke, it might represent the amount of hard work and frustration she put into us over the years. (My Aunty Es had a similar problem I am sure.) Despite that fact that I’m pretty cool, I threw the odd strop, and I know my brother and sister were no angels. Behind all this, though, as a child knowing you’ll always have a warm home to come home to no matter how many windows you break is something more than special.

Words can hurt. I think back to one or two things I said when I was younger, which upset my Mum, and I feel ashamed. There is a lesson in this, and it’s one I try to remind myself of regularly.

Practicality is important. From my Ma, I learned the basics of cooking, cleaning, laundry, and she pushed me to learn to drive and to get my first job. These things laid the foundation for some of the every day things I do, taught me to be confident and independent, and to stand up for myself. My Mum also showed me that life isn’t fair, and you have to accept this and battle on when difficulty arises.

A system of belief requires conviction. Though she didn’t realise it, an independence of mind (some results of which she might regret) was instilled in me. While young, my thoughts about how people should be treated, how they should behave, and a tentative moral philosophy, were developed by watching and listening to my mother.

There are worse things than a dignified death. My mother’s last days must have been frustrating, even maddening. I don’t know how she stayed calm, but throughout her decline, that’s what she did. She always seemed peaceful. This is a testament to her strength of mind and heart.


Now, I’m not saying she was a saint, and there are definitely one or two things which I found frustrating, like a double standard when it came to talking in the lounge while the TV was on, or a stubborn streak of her own from time to time. But I can forgive these things when it comes to my Ma, because the good far outweighs the bad. I am sure there are other things that are lost in time or overlooked, but the home life, and the later support I received have given me many reasons to be grateful.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

The Internet Generation

My generation is lucky. They are the first to have access to the internet, and they have avoided being the first to be born with the internet available. The children who are born now, I think their attitude to the internet will be different to ours, and different to their parents. I say this because we are now witnessing a generation of children who will ‘grow up online’, so to speak. We have millions of children who already have a substantial online presence that they did not create, and in which they had no say. Their parents have uploaded pictures of them, posted videos, added status updates telling the world about their misadventures and bowel movements. Formerly, these embarrassments were the domain of stories from parents at parties, and the occasional polaroid of a baby in a bath or with cake all over their face. Now, it’s all out there for the world to see. Children have email addresses and facebook pages before they learn how to speak. It’s like everyone is growing up a child celebrity, but without the money to insulate themselves from the negative aspects of being in the public eye.

Why is this so bad? What’s the harm in a few baby pictures online? To that, let me posit the following scenario. A man trawls the internet looking for pictures of children, because he finds them exciting. Sure, your privacy settings are high, but are your friends’? That video they shared is now in the hands of Pervy McNasty. Even if it never goes further than that, that’s a chilling thought. But keep in mind it could go further than that. People know how to find you, to get your address, to figure out where your children go to school. It’ll probably be ok. But you never know.

There’s also the problem of privacy. There are things I don’t want people to know, both from my childhood and as an adult. These things, I have a right to keep to myself. If I start dating a girl, I don’t expect her to be able to find my baby pictures online immediately. That kind of thing can wait.  Similarly, she doesn’t need to know all the gross things I got up to (and have no memory of) when I was a two-year-old. That’s information I keep to myself.

I’m not saying never share anything. After all, parents will always be annoyingly proud of their children (despite the lack of any real achievement thus far - call me when they win a Nobel prize, would ya?). But think about what you put online on behalf of a person who is going to have to live with that online presence, with photos and pictures and information about themselves which they did not choose to make public. Even if the information is mild and inoffensive, it’s still information about a person which they had no say in posting. And have no doubt, once it’s online, it’s public.


The only advantage that today’s children will have is that they will understand what it is like to have their whole lives smeared across the internet before they even knew what the internet was, and they will be more considerate than their parents about what they choose to post. At least, that’s the hope. We’ll have to wait and see.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Meaning of Life

What is the meaning of life?

To begin with, I need to stress the importance of meaning as a human concept. This may be disputed, by those who claim that meaning is generated outside of the individual, but as you will see, this belief can be incorporated into my theory of meaning and how it is created.

Events and actions do not have meaning, outside of human interpretation. ‘Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.’ One need only visit a sporting event to understand how an individual event such as a goal or try can have a vastly different meaning for two otherwise similar human beings. Any occurrence is assigned meaning by a human brain, framing that occurrence within the context of its own values and beliefs. Value judgements about the triviality or importance of an event, its morality or lack thereof, are not possible without the observer to apply them. When the last human on Earth dies, who will be able to point to an event and say this is bad or good?

So, people acquire meaning through experience, through the values and beliefs they are taught (directly or indirectly) by those around them and by society. Systems and structures of meaning, whether one creates them consciously through study and thought, or accepts them passively through the teachings of others, become the pillars of our lives; they affect the way we feel about an event, and direct how we act in any given situation.

As Sartre said, we are ‘condemned to be free’. We have the burden and the gift of deciding the meaning of our own existence, each and every one of us. And this determines how we act; our lives are our own responsibility.

Some individuals allow their values and sense of purpose to be defined for them by a teacher, or invisible man, or other entity, and thus defer the decision of meaning to a moral authority they perceive to be greater than themselves; but nonetheless this act, in itself, is a decision of a kind. We cannot escape the fact that we must choose the meaning of our own lives, even if that choice is to embrace someone else’s rules and values.

(Indeed, we cannot stop ourselves from creating meaning; we begin to assign human motive to other living things, and even vast inanimate things like the universe, simply because to do so is instinctive, almost automatic. The current theory around our willingness to assign motive to things like storms and computers, is that it is the remnant of a survival trait which prompted action on our part where otherwise we might have failed to act appropriately. If we perceive a landslide is trying to kill us, it makes the situation much more immediate, and the required action much clearer. However, we can now see how it can be flawed to reason in this way.)

It is also true that a meaning can and will change for a person during their lifetime. You do not value things now the same way you valued them as a chil,d and your ideas about what is important have changed as you’ve assimilated new information (whether accurate or not) and undergone new experiences. Thus, meaning cannot be defined as a universal statement or even feeling. It is unique for each individual, and indeed for each time and place in that individual’s life. This is because of the nature of the universe, and of human existence; which is to say we are in flux.

If we search for absolutes, which you might realise by now is a risky thing to do, we can only say: change is the only true constant. The only permanence is impermanence.

It is not logical to expect that meaning can ever be expressed in absolutes, even for an individual. Instead, we find meaning in the search for meaning. (If this seems paradoxical, consider the fact that at the end of our lives, we die. We do not sit down to sum up our lives and describe the meaning of them in a neat package, or if we do, we inevitably find multiple ways to express the truth of our existence, such as it has been at various points over the course of the years. And others who examine our lives from the outside will find their own ways of interpreting and understanding them.) We constantly rediscover our own meaning as we go through the inevitable changes life brings. The goal is the struggle. The destination is the journey.


So the answer to the question, ‘what is the meaning of life’ must ultimately be another question: what do you think it is? The answer is the question. But your answer is yours alone.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Football vs football

I really do enjoy a number of different sports. Having relatively recently been able to watch a decent amount of NFL in a way which was hitherto unavailable, I have enjoyed a good deal of American Football too. Thank you, Sky Sports. Now, part of the reason people who are used to watching rugby or football (aka soccer) often struggle with the US version of the same name, is that it is just so stop-start. I mean, the stoppages are built into the game, from turnovers, to flags, to quarter breaks, to the two-minute warning. Now, I propose no solution to this issue, nor do I insinuate that such a solution is necessary (to say nothing about desirable); no, my point is to analyse the relative 'value', in terms of game time to non-game time watched, provide a comparison.

What I mean is this: say you are sitting down with a beer, about to watch a game, and you find yourself wondering, 'just how much crap am I going to have to watch during the course of this match?' By my use of the highly-technical term 'crap', I mean anything that isn't the game itself, such as advertisements, punditry (informative or otherwise), or the players standing around waiting for something to happen or arguing with the referee. I admit that I am going to be dealing in averages and imprecise figures here, since rugby uses a stopped clock, players argue with a referee for differing amounts of time, and NFL games don't all have the same length. This is a necessary evil, but I think I can give enough of a picture to provide some satisfaction. I am also assuming the aforementioned beer-wielding man turns his TV on at then precise moment a game begins, ignoring things like anthems, cheerleaders, or the haka. For the purposes of this article, I will also ignore games which require overtime or extra time.

1) Football (aka soccer):

A football game is scheduled for ninety minutes, with fifteen minutes for half time. There is also added time in either half, but since this added time is intended to compensate for stoppages during play itself, I am going to use ninety minutes as our basic figure, and add the stoppages to the 'crap' category. I am going to assume an average of six minutes of added time per match, that's three minutes per half. Therefore, if a match is watched completely, the viewer has ninety minutes of sport time, and twenty one minutes of 'crap' (fifteen minutes for half time plus six minutes for stoppages).

This leads to a ratio of 90:21, or 30:7. This can also be expressed as 4.29:1, and it means that for every four and a half minutes of sport the man (or woman, let's be fair) watches, he also has to watch a minute of crap.

2) Rugby (aka rugby union)

Rugby is only eighty minutes to football's ninety, and what's more the play clock is stopped during breaks in play or when the video referee is being consulted, making things a little more tricky to calculate. With the problems around the modern scrum, I estimate this stoppage time at around four minutes per half, for a total of eight minutes. A rugby half time is ten minutes, for a crap total of eighteen minutes.

This leads to a ratio of 80: 18, or 4.44:1. Pretty similar to football, and if you take into consideration the fact that in rugby you don't have to put up with scenes of players falling to the ground in agony only to be fine again moments later, or surrounding the referee to complain about a decision, rugby creeps ahead in the watchability stakes (but that's another argument).

3) American Football (aka gridiron)

The duration of play time for an NFL game is 60 minutes. The half time lasts 12 minutes, and the quarter breaks each also involve short stoppages of 2 minutes. So far that's 16 minutes. However, I'm going to take a different approach on this entry, because the timekeeping in an NFL game involves both the game clock and the play clock, and the many rules are too complicated for me to go into here. What I want to do is compare the play time (60 minutes), with the average duration (slightly over three hours). Therefore, the crap total is about 120 minutes (i.e. 180 minus 60).

This leads to a ratio of 60:120, or 1:2. This means that for every minute of play an NFL fan watches, he or she also watches two minutes of crap. This is a far smaller reward for effort (if by effort you assume I mean couch time), than either of the previous two entries. I believe this accounts for much of the difficulty in selling the NFL to a British or European public.

Now, as I have mentioned, American Football is built around the system of plays and downs, and this is part of what makes the game so enjoyable. However, if some of the extraneous viewing could be weeded out, it might make it more palatable to those who have grown up watching more fast-paced games (which is certainly on the NFL's agenda, at least in the UK). Dammit, I said I wasn't going to look at solutions. Oh well, I got drawn in.

In closing, I enjoy all the above sports, and more, and of course there's more to a game than how many ads you have to suffer through, but I do feel that generally speaking, the less crap involved, the better.