Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Death and all his friends

It seems the older I get, the more I consider the end of my life as a real situation. It would seem that, despite evidence to the contrary, we humans often assume a certain fixed length of time, and even though we know there are no guarantees of that time, we plan for it and keep it in the back of our minds as a deadline, if you will. This in mind, I often wonder about that undiscovered country, usually when I lie awake of a night. And despite the fact that I can find no compelling evidence for an afterlife of any sort, beyond the reintegration of my constituent matter into the ecosystems of the Earth, the fact remains that I cannot, nor can anyone, be certain. Therefore, as Peter Pan once said, to die will be an awfully big adventure; but, it will also be a tad scary.

There are many reasons why I would want an afterlife to be real, and many people I know who believe in one because of these reasons. I can't see that the desire for something alone is sufficient evidence to assume it is true, and so I resolve to use the one life I can say for certain exists, in the best way possible. I think this is a healthy attitude and one which would be beneficial to the world as a whole. If you knew that your actions, for good or ill, were only measurable by the effects they have on others here and now, wouldn't that make you behave better? Maybe not, but the world now is hardly a bastion of altruism, despite threats of everlasting torment or some vague reward of milk and honey. In fact the promise of rewards after death can lead to the most terrible behaviours. I need not give examples here; just watch the news.

I think the worst thing about the fact that there might not be an afterlife, is I will never get to say I told you so.

If I am honest (and I like to think I am), mostly the thought of death as unpredictable motivates me to write more; there are a few projects I have had in mind for a time now, which I would really like to get finished. Some of these have yet to even be started. The thought also motivates me to exercise and get well, but I find that I am often more resolved during my midnight musings than when faced with a day of jogging and broccoli.

There are certainly many pros to being dead, and I will not borrow a format from Bobby Gaylor and say that I will not miss exercise, cereal, tooth maintenance, pregnancy scares, getting fatter, pain (both emotional and physical), stressing about money, boring jobs, or funerals. On the other hand, if it's possible to miss things when dead, there are a lot of things I will definitely miss: the satisfaction of finishing a novel, and having people read it, of having done exercise and feeling that warm tiredness, clean sheets after a hard day, talking to girls, and all the other things you do with girls, music and the emotion it brings, a nice cup of tea, too many different types of food to mention, Christmas with family, drinks with friends, dancing until dawn, talking shit even longer, looking good in new clothes, watching excellent movies over and again, or for the first time, waking up and realising it's Saturday. There are so many things I could do over and over again, perhaps even forever, but most definitely for the rest of my life.

The problem is, I don't want to ruin the time that I have now worrying about it being over. Like being at a concert and constantly checking the time so you can rush off to get the last tube. It puts a cloud over the whole thing. So, I will try and use the idea as motivation, and deal with the inevitable when it happens. Or maybe, have my consciousness put in a robot, and live forever.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Grammar Nazis

Firstly, let me say how completely apt I find the term. It is not excessive or overblown in the least to compare persons pedantic about spelling and punctuation, with a regime which committed acts so horrific, and with such a mechanical ruthlessness, as to cause them to be burned into our collective consciousness forever. I can only imagine my friends must feel the same revulsion when visiting Auchswitz as they do when I point out to them a stray apostrophe or comma. It seems entirely likely that the disgust I feel for an incorrect use of there/their/they’re is the same feeling provoked in members of the Nazi party by Jews and homosexuals.

Sarcasm aside (well, no promises), I would like to examine my own pedantry in this regard. I have been thinking about the possible reasons behind my own irritation, and have come to the following conclusions:
 
OCD: Yes, this must be one of the main reasons, surely. I have a certain feeling that things should be done in a certain way. With language, even though the rules are sometimes arbitrary and often based on archaic rules which themselves were founded on an attempt to force the English language into a Greek or Latin mould, there are rules nonetheless. The wrong word in the wrong place, the wrong spelling, these things just upset my sense of things in their right place.

Communication: I honestly struggle sometimes to understand just what the hell people have said. Is it possible for things to get to the stage when I simply cannot communicate with people who have been taught and who speak the same language as me? I suppose it happens sometimes, verbally, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not as if the problem is likely to creep into the academic field, hospitals, the military, the legal profession, or other places where it could do real damage, is it? Or is it? I have often received emails from my colleagues which I had to spend time deciphering, or which required me to call them to explain just what they were trying to say. This leads nicely to my next point.

Standards (a): a friend of mine said to me that she doesn’t bother writing correctly online because it’s too much of an effort, and that she only takes care when at work. This, to me, speaks to a lowering of standards outside the workplace. Sure, I understand that behaviour is often different in different contexts, and that there is value in switching off from work, but I also feel that this excuse misses the point. I believe that if you write poorly at home, those errors will creep into your professional work. Good habits are hard to form and easy to use. There is also the question of why you would want to be any less thorough at home. It makes sense to be switched on at work, but I take pride in my writing whenever I do it.

Standards (b): Another point which occurs to me is the idea that it is somehow ok to lower standards outside of work in the written word. Imagine if I applied this principle to mathematics. I doubt my local supermarket would be impressed when they asked me for £15.31 and I handed them a tenner. When given a quizzical look, I doubt the explanation ‘it’s not like I’m at work’ would fly very far.

Beauty: True communication can be beautiful. The right word in the right place; a semi-colon well-situated; words well-used have the power to transcend themselves and become true art. Good writing is like the most moving music; bad writing can be like hearing foxes screech mid-coitus at three in the morning.

Superiority: Perhaps it just makes me feel smarter than other people. Or, perhaps, more disciplined. Perhaps it is just a personal OCD, as mentioned, and it hurts me that the people I know care less about the subject than I do. These points must all be true in some respect.

I know people see my criticism as a personal attack, that they feel as if I am calling them stupid, rather than exhorting them to try harder. (Actually, some people I am just calling stupid. You know who you are.) I know some people just plain do not care. But knowing does not help me avoid the shudder every time I see those greengrocer’s apostrophes. The epidemic shows no sign of abating, so for now my plan involves cursing at my computer screen and the occasional sarcastic or corrective Facebook comment. If you are a victim of such, don’t think too badly of me. Or at least, don’t compare me to a racist, genocidal maniac.

p.s. there will probably be some errors in this very blog. For these, I apologise unreservedly, and blame Word’s autocorrect function.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Entropy

A few years ago I mentioned to one of my uncles that the years seemed to go by more quickly than they had before, and he told me that they only get quicker from here on in. At first I wondered why this should be, until I realised that, if you really think about it, it’s completely logical. As humans, our perception of time can be as important as the independent, ‘true’ rate of time. When you were five, a year constituted fully one fifth of your life; when you’re fifty, it will constitute only one fiftieth. The result: a year will seem ten times as fast to a fifty-year-old as it will to a five-year-old.
 
Knowing this objectively, however, does little to remove the subjective feelings the passage of time engenders, in much the same way as knowing that thinking about a song and then hearing it on the radio later that day isn’t ‘weird’ at all (consider all the songs you think about which do not turn up on radio later the same day). What I mean is, because both of these things are processed by our minds in a certain way, they bring up feelings which it is difficult to rationalise away.

There are, of course, other events, both external and internal, which drive our sense of time. Our progression through various stages of schooling; the maturing and, later, decay of our bodies; our journey through various relationships to a family life, in various forms; the changes in our various tastes and in our emotions. All these things, as well as the rhythms of day and night, month and year, summer and winter, combine to add to our sense of time’s flow.

The other factor we must consider is entropy, the driver behind the wheel of time’s arrow. This direction, from past to present to future, is written into the fabric of the universe. (Perhaps this is the true existential meaning behind the otherwise vapid pop group’s moniker.) ‘Things fall apart,’ Yeats famously wrote, his subdued fanfare proclaiming the emergence of modernism, ‘the centre cannot hold.’ I have no idea whether Yeats were a physicist or not, but to me his words are entropy translated for humans. Things decay, bodies wear out, people grow old.

Now, that fact that our ultimate fate is in dissolution, even for our universe (see ‘heat death’), can of course have a bearing on the way we view our lives, can bring a sense of futility to our actions. I myself have been tempted by this view from time to time. But to think in this misses a key component of human happiness: our enjoyment is always in the present. To know a moment will end, a house may burn, a love will die, does not prevent one from enjoying those things now. In fact, this knowledge can bring a certain relevance to our enjoyment, a determination to live in the moment and make the most of the joy we have.
 
‘Death is the mother of beauty.’ So wrote Wallace Stevens (yes, more poetry; get involved), and such is an essential facet of our experience and our appreciation of those people, things, and times which we find wondrous and worth having. Time will ultimately kill us, but, in a curiously human way, it is only because of time that we are able to experience beauty at all.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Green

If you know me, you probably know that my favourite colour is green. It's always been this way. My mother told me that when I was little, and my sister wouldn't let me ride her tricycle with the green pedals, I threw a strop and chased after her. I think there is photographic evidence to back this up. I can also tell you that it works with packaging: I once bought toothpaste because it had green packaging, even though I really needed the type in blue packaging. And this is far from the only example.
 
But, while I am well aware of my predilection, what I am unsure of is, why it should be this way. I can't really think of what advantage is conferred upon an animal by its having a favourite colour. Speculation might suggest that it has advantages in the types of foods an animal tends to eat, or the places it tends to feel comfortable, but if this were true of humans, wouldn't we all have similar favourite colours? There are those of us who favour blue or red over green, but I can't think that favouring blueberries or cherries over cucumber confers much of an advantage. Or, likewise, how would feeling comfortable near the sea or near lava be better than a preference for the forest? For these reasons I assume that favourite colours are some happy by-product of our sight as it has come to be, and also of our psychology. If any evolutionary or neurobiologists out there have further information on this subject, I'd be interested to hear it.
 
Another speculation I have had in this regard is that one's favourite colour is somehow a reflection of one's personality. I have found that my friends who prefer the colour red are much more action-oriented, active, and social. Greens tend to have a more laid-back, less outgoing nature. A friend of mine told me that the music store he worked in had red-painted walls, because it's a more active colour, which makes people more likely to buy things. Greens are often seen in places where a calmer attitude is desired, like hospital wards. Of course, these are generalisations, and I don't think there is any way to categorise someone completely by use of their favourite colour (but I wouldn't be surprised if unscrupulous astrologers had incorporated aspects of it into their 'readings'), but, nonetheless, it does offer an interesting line of thought.
 
Now, the fact that a favourite colour may happen to be a happy accident makes it no less enjoyable, and I feel that the way I have embraced my love for things green does me no disservice (though it may be to the detriment of my dental health). I fully intend to continue the green life for time to come. However, this does mean I may have to force myself to avoid voting for the Green party, buying a hybrid, or taking up gardening.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

The Royal Baby

Judging by the amount of likes I got to my recent facebook post consisting of a picture of Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebwoski surrounded by the words 'AM I THE ONLY ONE AROUND HERE WHO DOESN'T GIVE A FUCKING FUCK ABOUT THE ROYAL BABY', I assume the answer to the question is yes. Or perhaps I care, but in the opposite way to how most people I've met seem to care, viz. I dislike that it is so popular. Why? Read on, dear friends, read on.

Firstly, and most importantly, I dislike the implication in terms of the massive amount of news coverage, in the sense that though thousands of babies are born every day, this one is somehow massively more important than any of them (even those of Posh and Becks). It reinforces the belief that status (and wealth) are the attributes that make a person worthwhile. This human being has achieved sweet fuck all in its life, and yet it is already being put on a pedestal for the world to see.

You see, I am more of an admirer of people being valued for what they have done. I am not a royalist, but I appreciate that the current royal family, with odd exception, do their jobs very well. (And let's be clear, they are jobs.) They generate a lot of wealth, both in trade and tourism, and their community and charity efforts are many and varied. But should the day come when this is not the case, the day the royals become a burden or a hindrance to the country, their last claim to being worthy of public support will, in my eyes, vanish.

The baby may grow up to become a great king in his own right, and a great friend of the people, but the fact that he automatically gets the chance to rule over people (even in the limited modern sense), without being elected, sits uncomfortably with me, as does the fact that there would be no easy way to get rid of him. A king is for life, not just four more years. And I think if you cleared away the bullshit romanticism and Disney crap that fills the heads of so many supporters of the monarchy, perhaps they would feel uncomfortable too.

Again, I reiterate the the current royals seem, as far as I can tell, to be good people, with a genuine concern for their subjects (do you like being subjectified?), and Wills and Kate are probably very nice people. But this alone doesn't guarantee you an automatic right to rule, and to rule for life, at the expense of the people you're ruling.

The other thing I dislike is the constant media harrying of people, who probably just want to me left alone to life their lives for a while. I can't think of anything worse than being hounded like that, except being hounded like that and not having a taxpayer-funded police squad to warn the media off you every now and then.

All this is very well and good, I hear you say, but the pricks in the Houses of Parliament are much, much worse. True, but at least with them there is an inbuilt sense of accountability, and we get to get rid of them every now and then. Maybe a democratic choice means choosing between the lesser of two evils, but I'll always be glad to have the choice.

Monday, 17 June 2013

NYC, & co.

I'm struggling to find a beginning to this blog. I want to do a summary of my trip to Canada and the US, to try and convey the different vibes of the places I went, without resorting to bland descriptions like 'the next day I went to Niagara Falls. There was a lot of water and it was amazing'. However, I'm finding it difficult to really get across what I want to say.

Now, I am aware that the only thing more boring than a bland travel narrative is a blog about someone who is trying and failing not to write a boring travel narrative, so my idea to simply to describe key points, and leave out all the intervening... not crap, exactly, but you have no need to know the details of my hotels or the lengths of my bus rides. So, here goes.

Toronto: downtown is like any other city downtown, bland and boring. The area I stayed reminded me a lot of Wellington City, a bit too trendy for its own good, with an edge. The hobos yelling at each other definitely gave it an edge. I tried Poutine, which was a treat (it's chips and gravy and cheese). I also tried walking around town during a Bluejays game wearing a Yankees cap, in contrast to the six thousand or so blue-clad Canadians who gave me the evil eye as I walked past their sports bars. There was a Hooters, too, but I gave it a miss. This is my one true Canadian regret.

Niagara Falls: what can I say that isn't already on a postcard? Spectacular, with a few odd mini malls nearby where you can buy boring Canadian t-shirts and endless maple syrup. I did pick up some of the latter, as well as an O Henry! bar, which was excellent, by the way. The town itself seemed dead or dying, as if the world were like 'yeah, the Falls, we get it already', but maybe it was just the wrong season.

Buffalo: was just a bus depot to me, but I met a nice American lady who made excellent chocolate milk. The accents started to change and the air was humid.

New York: well, the bus chugged along for a long time, and then there it was. Beautiful. I'd been before so I was aware of the buzz, but when I stepped off the coach and walked the streets again it was amazing. There is a vibe about that city that I easily get caught up in. I'm saying, find me an American wife so I can move there. I dropped my bags at the hotel and just wandered around. This was 11pm, but everyone was still awake, and it was blissfully hot. Got a slice and Coke. Heaven.

The following day was the zoo, where I missed the chance to see an elephant for the first time in my life. This was quickly followed by baseball: the game itself was average, but the stadium was great, and the beer and cheesesteak excellent. Oh, and I wore shorts that day for the first time in a long time.

The day after was a Greenwich Village food tour, where we got to sample delicacies and see the outside of the building which pretends to be the building in Friends but isn't, as well as other historical tidbits.

Philadelphia: a day trip. I didn't get to do the famous run up those steps, but I did get to see the Liberty Bell (smaller than you'd expect), to visit the Constitution Center, and to get all inspired and let-me-buy-a-copy-of-the-Constitution-y. It really is a great document, despite how things have gone with it since, and the Bill of Rights in particular is beautiful. I also went to Reading Street Market for a cheesesteak, and went back twice more, for crepes and then ice cream. Comic con was on while I was there (if only I had known!), and I saw plenty of potential wives dressed as Batgirl or Huntress or even the TARDIS.

Back to New York: the wedding day, and what a great wedding. The boring bits cut down, and stuffed full of dancing, with free candy and glow sticks to boot. The food was excellent, which was becoming a theme (and rightly so, given my prior declaration that I would 'stuff my face' on this trip - hold back on that wife for a second: if I lived in the US, I'd probably be morbidly obese). Shelley was beautiful, and she looked so happy. I got a milkshake at 3am, and then got the subway home. Yes, it runs all night.

The rest of the days were spent doing touristy things, shopping for some presents for family, and digging around comic book stores. I also did the Guggenheim and the MoMA, which I am glad I did, but wouldn't do again. Modern art really is a scam. I soaked up the sun and started craving smoothies and fruit after all the pancakes and burgers. I wandered around Macy's and Central Park, Grand Central and the USS Intrepid. The latter was amazing, a retired US aircraft carrier, if you like that sort of thing. I walked through Hell's Kitchen and across to Times Square, and tell you, there really is nothing like stopping into a pub for the coldest, most refreshing pint you've ever tasted, after an hour's walk in the hot New York sun.

NYC definitely the highlight, but Canada was interesting. I think to really appreciate it I'd have to do the great outdoors there. Maybe it'd give NZ a run for its money. And NYC really does give London a run for hers. What a city. As I said, I am now on the lookout for a greencard. If you know a Yank who fits the bill, who is super cute and into quirky Australasians, tell her to look me up. I promise I'll lay off the pancakes for her.

Monday, 27 May 2013

On Fate, and Free Will


Things only feel like they’re meant to be the way they are because they are the way they are. Because we’re born in to them and from them and the way this universe is unfolds not only all around us but within us; it is us. There is no way that things could ever be other than they are at any given moment, at least not in any human capacity, which is all we have to deal with. So, if you wanted to call something ‘Fate’, you could call it ‘how things are, and how they have to be’, or ‘will be’, or ‘were’. But there is no innate possibility. Things don’t get tidied up and kept on track and made to happen by Fate, by some controlling principle of reason; they just happen. That’s really the difference: there is no reason for anything, not even for existence, but what we ourselves ascribe to it. This does not devalue any sense of reason; rather, I feel it gives us power over things we could not otherwise have power over. Not in a controlling sense, but in the sense that despite the inevitability of, well, everything around us, ultimately it is we who hold the key to any occurrence.

Consider a universe, or perhaps I should say an existence different from our own in any way, whether great or small. The sky is green, humans have six fingers, coffee tastes like medicine. No matter how strange it may seem, in a universe which, from its inception, lives with any given set of principles, laws of physics, and so on, any beings which come to exist within such a framework will ultimately consider that reality to be ‘the way things are meant to be’. From ‘losing my lunch money made me go to the coffee shop where I met my future wife’ to ‘if I hadn’t gone to work late I’d still have my job’; all these realities are unable to exist, for each entity within them at any given moment, in any other way. And it is pointless to get into arguments of ‘well, you did meet your future wife at the coffee shop, but if you’d had your lunch money you’d’ve met her and made a million bucks’, for two reasons. One, the countless variables, knowable and unknowable, and the completely unpredictable nature of the entirety of causal reality (see: quantum indeterminacy); and, two, because any occurrence of events other than those which actually happened is impossible.

This of course all raises the question of free will. If I could never have done anything but lose my lunch money and meet my wife at the coffee shop, then did I really ‘do’ any of it? That is, I was physically there, but did I choose anything? Or did it ‘just seem like I did’? Good question. Does the deterministic reduction of every action and ‘choice’ into merely the result of preceding events and actions negate the very possibility of free will?

To be honest, I don’t know. And until we can completely map the thought processes of the human brain, then take exact knowledge of the laws of physics, chemistry, biology etc, and the circumstance of every bit of matter in existence (again, indeterminacy renders this impossible), and put all the data into a superbly accurate difference engine which would then predict every occurrence to come forever; I say, until and unless we can do that, we are simply left with the practical question ‘is what seems to be free will actually free will?’, and then the more practical ‘does it matter?’

So, since the former question is out of our grasp (unless I have missed some crucial piece of evidence somewhere along the way), we move on to the latter.

Either we have free will or we do not. Because we cannot prove this either way, people will simply believe what seems reasonable to them (or, whatever), and go about their lives as usual. Our knowledge of the truth can have no effect, in this case, on the nature of it, and, excepting the laudable goal of some grand search for truth remaining unanswered, no huge harm or loss has occurred. Once again it is our reasoning minds and our imagination which provide value and meaning to our lives, surroundings, and our understanding of existence, and ‘the way things are’. Therefore, as relates to free will, it matters only what we believe, and nothing more.

Introducing... inappropriate humour


Introducing… inappropriate humour

They have a series of books which I think of as the Introducing… series. The titles are all Introducing Philosophy or Introducing Sartre or Introducing Postmodernism, & so on. (The focus does seem to be towards the arts, but not totally.) They’re actually very good, the few that I’ve read, and, of course, are brief and succinct introductions to various subjects. How much do you want to bet we’ll never see:
1)      Introducing… Satanism
2)      Introducing… Paedophilia
3)      Introducing… S&M
Well, anyway. So that’s all I really wanted to say. I’m generally against censorship & the suppression of information, because knowledge is the key to change, and the only real choices are informed ones; however, I would not be terribly saddened or angered if such a book as example 2 (above) were never to see the light of day. I’m not even sure it’s even been thought of before, but probably. The only value I could see is in predicting and preventing children from being harmed; that type of value, however, is invaluable, so I guess if such a book saved even one child (and harmed none) it’d be well worth it. The sales would probably be fairly low, though. I’d suggest a more sensitive title:
            Introducing: How to protect your children from kiddie-fiddlers (and how to exact revenge if it’s already too late). And there’d be a note: The first half of this book is officially endorsed by the National Police Force; the second half will have to be content with an unofficial endorsement.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Fallout III


So, a year has passed. Time goes more quickly the older you get, or seems to, which may be the same thing. It’s really a function of proportion. When you’re four, a year is a quarter of your life, when you’re thirty, well, one thirtieth. But it still feels to me like the last year has flown by. I have no reason to assume that it shouldn’t, for the reason stated above, as well as that fact that many other better and worse people I have known have lived and died; the world runs on regardless. But she was my mother.

I cannot bear to think of her now as she is – I omit to even continue the line of thought here. It is not something which I can do, and I believe it is not something which is even accurate. My mother is not the body lying beneath the ground now, nor is she anything so cold or gruesome; nor is she some silent spirit which guides me and my family through life, providing subtle but noticeable help in times of need. No, she is the memories in the minds of those she left behind, the way they act and the emotions they feel; she is the influence she left in all of us. The influence is strong, and it leads me to my next thought.

I feel like I have made little progress, or perhaps, that little progress is there to be made. Not in any arrogant sense; I wouldn’t claim that I have all the answers and have simply been recalling them as needed. What I mean is that I think my approach has been correct, and I don’t think it is circular to credit it to my mother in the first place. You see, I have looked at what happened, or rather, how I should deal with what happened, through the lens of how my mother would have advised me to, at least in a frame of mind context, rather than anything theological. (You know my thoughts on this aspect, and I won’t reiterate them here.)

The approach has been to remember the love, fun, and happiness, and to continue living as best I can, while improving myself through a study of those points of behaviour which my mother taught me have value, both through explanation and demonstration. (I doubt if she always knew she was teaching me, but as an example, I have had none better.) These have been the guidelines for me. I do not say that it has been without pain, without tears, without the comfort which, in similar circumstances, I would have looked to find in the one person who was necessarily unable to provide it. But, it has been the best way I can think of.

It is difficult if not impossible not to think of what could have been. It is hard to ignore the time lost, the empty hours of a life cut short, hours which will never gently sound her voice or bring to me the image of her smile. In remembering the good, my thoughts inevitably drift to these considerations, and I am melancholy. This is part of the process too, I think. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. The pain will be what it will be, but my belief is that in the end it will lessen, to be eased away by memories of smiles and laughter, the indelible remnants of a life lived happily and well, and of love given freely and openly.

Time, as I have noted, goes on. I will not labour the point. Perhaps this chapter is closed, or set aside. I do not mean that my thoughts will turn or fade away. I only mean that I am determined to continue the approach I have started. Walking along that path I can foresee only success, made possible by the life and words of a woman who can never be forgotten.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Eugenics


The topic of eugenics, or ‘people husbandry’ as it has been called, is one which receives far less attention than it would have were it not for the nefarious influence of one A. Hitler and his ragtag band of genocidal maniacs some seventy years ago. The fact that the Nazis believed that they could create, from their own stock of course, a ‘master race’, and that they carried out many horrible experiments to that end, has inevitably made discussion of the concept sensitive, if not taboo, in many circles.

The fact remains, however, that prior to World War Two, and all the horrors which went along with it, eugenics was a highly popular idea, and was supported by many eminent scientists and thninkers of note, both in Europe and beyond. The modern ability to be aware of genetic disorders prior to birth, to manipulate genes in ways previously unthinkable, as well as the success of the Human Genome Project, means that the idea is due to come back to us in a big way, and no amount of social nicety will divert the power of science in this regard.

I would like to think about the issue in a way which ignores the negative connotations of the past, and focus on an examination of the rights and wrongs of various aspects of the practice. To be clear, eugenics is ‘the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics)’. I have borrowed this definition from dictionary.com.

To take the first aspect first, I think it is fairly clear to a Western sensibility, that forcing someone to have children with another, simply because it is believed that the resulting children will be genetically desirable, is not something we would consider morally right. Eastern philosophy, if you will, is more amenable to the idea of arranged (and sometimes forced) marriage, with all the inherent benefits which result (i.e. children). However, marriage and children are not interchangeable, and I think, for myself, I would take the position that forcing two people to have children with each other is not a practice which a just society would foster. Again, cultural considerations may cause differences of opinion on this regard.

The second aspect, discouraging, or prohibiting reproduction amongst certain individuals, is a murkier area. While many would take the view that people have a right to have children, I do not believe that this is the case, and I believe there is some value to the argument that people should be fit and able to provide for their children, before being permitted to bring them into the world. But this is far from saying potential parents should be genetically screened before being permitted to conceive. Eugenics goes even further than this, or it can, in the sense that it would prevent people with certain genetic defects (Down’s syndrome, Turner’s syndrome, muscular dystrophy and so on) from having children, thereby eventually eliminating these problems from the gene pool , and hence the population. Some of these defects are self-limiting, in the sense that those who have them cannot reproduce, and others are not. So, is it fair to prevent people with these defects from having children?

Any consideration of the question must necessarily involve a balance of the rights of the individual against the rights of the state (i.e. everyone else). To simply, let us assume the embryo growing inside a particular woman has been found to have Turner’s syndrome. Assuming it is early enough to abort, and assuming also that the woman herself wants to keep the child, then the child must be kept, because if I can say nothing else for certain, I can say that forced abortion is something I could never countenance. However, taking a step back from this, we must consider the ‘right’ of the parents to conceive a child in the first place. If genetic disorders could be eliminated, by preventing people who had them from, essentially, having sex, would this be a desirable option?

For myself, I am unsure. While I don’t believe people have the right to children, I think denying people children on the basis of their genes is a slippery slope. Should a woman married to someone with depression be prevented from having a child? What about a woman with a murderer for a husband (issues of conjugal visits aside)? The argument is moot for the moment, but should there come a time when we are able, through technology, to tell the likelihood that a particular couple will conceive a child which will suffer from cystic fibrosis, or phenylketonuria, or the desire to touch children; I say, should there come a time when we are able to tell this to a high degree of certainty for any given couple in the population at any time, then the question will have to be answered: do we allow such children life, or do we improve life for everyone else by denying them a chance at their own?

As I have said, it is hard to come to a satisfactory conclusion in this regard. It is hard to dispute that the human race would be measurably improved by the elimination of certain genes, certain characteristics, but as I mentioned, this is a tricky idea, in the sense of knowing where to stop. Do we soon weed out intolerance, or a melancholic disposition, known to be an attribute when settled in an artistic mind; do we remove dissatisfaction, and the inclination to protest? Manipulation of the gene pool could be a powerful tool in the hands of a technologically advanced fascistic regime. I guess this brings us back to the Nazis again. The ultimate question would be: who decides what is desirable, and what is not? Since we cannot agree on this at present, I find it hard to believe that we will ever have consensus on this in future. And if we are to embark upon a programme which would change the essence of who we are, before we begin, we’d better be damn sure we know who it is we want to become.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Monarchy

In an evolving modern world, the question of monarchy will eventually have to be addressed. To have people making major decisions for your country, and representing it at a national level (whether or not there is also an elected parliament), is simply undemocratic. Today’s monarchs, particularly in Europe, are the same as they always were: descendants of so-called ‘high’ families who strove to be even higher by attaining, for their own advancement, positions of power. These families were never elected by the people. In the past, they justified their position by invoking a ‘divine right’; nowadays, the arguments usually used are tourism, commerce, and tradition.

I’ll tackle the tradition argument first, as it is easily dispelled. You simply have to imagine a tradition which is so unfavourable as to have been discarded despite its hallowed past, or in fact, look to history. The long-standing tradition in which women could not vote, rather than being kept around due to its having been around for so long (or for other dubious merits which were applied to it during the suffrage years), had been done away with, tradition notwithstanding. Perhaps you could say this is not a true tradition, but what is tradition other than the habitual practice of some custom?
In terms of tourism, and indeed commerce, well, these are where strength of the argument truly lies. The monarchy should be kept, people argue, because they are good for the country. They generate wealth, revenue. This is not in dispute. The Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and her family do much to enhance the international profile of the UK, and as well as their many and varied financial achievements, also contribute much to the worst-off of the nation via their charitable works. For this, we should applaud them.

However, there is a catch. Because these royals are the latest in a long line of power-grabbing families, whose real concern (in the past) had nothing to do with the people and everything to do with themselves; well, because of this, our only obligation to them now lies in their usefulness to us. Our decision about whether or not to retain a monarchy lies solely in their worth to the people, in how well they perform their job (and it is a job) of protecting, providing, and caring for the people. If they cease to do these things, they cease to be anything more than expensive showpieces.
When I say worth, I don’t mean of course, the worth of a person. That is another argument entirely. What I mean is the worth of the position. To take a fictional example: if there were an MP whose role was to ensure people apologised to each when spilling hot drinks, we might rightly protest that this position is unworthy of existence, and that the position should be dissolved and his or her salary channelled instead into health or education. This is what I mean about the worth of the royals. Currently they earn their keep. And you can be sure it is in their interest to keep it that way.

And don’t think they won’t be alright if the monarchy is dissolved. Part of the benefit of being a powerful family in charge of a nation for such a long time is the accumulation of wealth and property. Sure, a few things will be handed back, Buckingham Palace maybe, and the crown jewels, but it won’t be Child Benefit for Wills and Kate, of that you can be sure.
To be sure, none of the above takes into account the public’s love of the monarchy, much of it well-deserved based on the character of the people. Or the white trash propensity for styling their daughters princesses based on nothing more than sparkly clothes and wishful thinking. However, for me, an approach based on democratic rule and economic good sense must eventually force itself upon the nation, and it should never be the case that any leaders or rulers are beyond question.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Super Bowl XLVII

As far as I can recall, my first experience with American Football came thanks to my cousin's Sega Mega Drive, which, when it came out, was the coolest piece of equipment on the planet (and the controllers had three buttons). I cannot recall the name of the game, but I do remember him letting me play it for a while; I recall the intrigue I felt, and the thrill of a play successfully executed. Then, for years, nothing. New Zealand, like any country which is not the US, is not massively inundated with NFL news or coverage, and I grew up on a steady diet of football (real football, that is), and rugby.

About this situation, I have no complaints, since the above-mentioned sports are still my two favourites by far, and probably always will be. Like anyone who goes out into the world and lets themself be affected by it, I altered. Through my late teens and early twenties, as my tastes evolved and changed, I grew up and opened myself to new musical genres and new cuisines, and so too I began to watch different sports and see how I liked them. They weren't all great successes (see: handball), but the intrigue I held for 'gridiron', as it was sometimes known, remained, sown away in my mind, waiting for the right conditions to sprout.

As it turned out, the right conditions for sprouting were simply coverage of matches on TV accessible to me, and a team to get behind. One naturally followed the other. Since I discovered NFL on Sky Sports last year, and began randomly watching a game or two (or more accurately, a play or two, since the stop-start nature of the game at first annoyed me), I realised I was going to need a team to cheer for. It's just not really my style to watch a game and cheer for no one (unless it's two teams I hate, like Spurs and Liverpool).

So then, which team to choose. I don't want to look like a glory hunter, given yesternight's events, but I plumped for the Ravens. Well before they were a decent shout for the Super Bowl, mind you. Why? Well, for a start I am fascinated by Baltimore, due to my introduction to The Wire, and other media following on from that fantastic show. But also because ravens are excellent animals, one of my favourites. The final link in the chain was the Poe connection, which makes Baltimore an even more fascinating city still.

Fast forward through a great season and some exhilarating playoff games, to me sat nervously on the edge of my couch watching the Ravens give up seventeen straight points, having been comfortably 28-6 up on the other side of a freakish power cut. Even though I'd only been a fan of the team for a season, I already felt the rising tension that Ravens fans must have felt as the 49ers began to surge back into the game. The Ravens, though, held their nerve. They fought back with a couple of courageous plays, and their defence in the red zone during the final minutes was second to none. A smart move forcing a safety, a punt, and it was all over.

I cheered, but not too loudly, since everyone else in my flat was asleep at 4am, and waved my arms like a lunatic. What a ridiculously tense game, what a great performance by Lewis, Flacco, Bouldin, and Jones, as well as the rest of the Ravens lineup. Oh, and I hit three of my five bets, too, which helped make things even sweeter. I turned off the TV and sank into bed, tired but still buzzing from the excitement and sheer nervous energy of the last quarter. And as my brain finally submitted to sleep and I drifted off, I realised one thing: I'll always be a Ravens fan.


Sunday, 20 January 2013

Snow

It so happens that there are times when the weather perfectly reflects your mood, and when this happens, to me at least, it puts me at a strange kind of ease with the world, and makes me understand how people could come to believe that the world was created with humans in mind, and is designed to make us feel content within it. However, a quick glance at nature in general reveals the opposite; we grew into the world, not the other way around. And therefore, for me, these rare moments are more a time for a kind of careless emotionalism, a kind of cathartic self-indulgence which is nonetheless necessary.

The emotions themselves can of course vary, and do, depending on the type of weather involved. Invariably the happiest is a blazing summer day, the most miserable a bitchy spring rain determined to get into your socks. But with snow, well, with snow, it's another kind of feeling altogether.

I was at work on Friday, and it snowed from ten until about three. I emerged from the office as the sun was brushing its teeth and preparing its hot water bottle, ready to slide of the edge of the earth and into bed; I walked through a landscape which, had it been a scene in a movie, the director would not have dared to spoil with music. Silence was the key. The hush, and stillness, which descends after a snowfall... well, in this instance it mirrored my mood, chilled and contemplative as it was.

Now, in general it is safe to say I am over snow. It's a pain in the ass, it gets in your face, and it puts the trains to sleep. And it causes (some) girls to screech irritably and run around like maniacs. I doubt this ill will will dissipate any time soon. But, there are times when snow and I get along. This moment was one. It allowed me a moment of serenity and soft introspection of a kind rarely found these days. I wandered through it, enjoying the squeak of my shoes, enjoying the spoiled trail my footprints left across the otherwise unbroken field behind me, enjoying pushing handfuls of the stuff from brick walls and tree branches.

I don't know why it should be so, but as I walked, I felt that there was a chance that I'd be okay. Perhaps it was the growing confidence with my work, or myself, perhaps it was the story ideas running around my head like noisy streams, perhaps it was simply the fact that it was Friday and I had left the workaday shit behind me for a few days. I was unable to find the reason, and I was uninclined to chase it around a snowy field. Instead, I drew a deep breath, took a picture of the scene in my mind, and allowed it to sit there, clean and unspoiled, as I walked away towards the city and my regular life.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Who wants to live forever?

On the face of it, there are many reasons to want to stick around. I am writing this sitting in a hotel in Paris, and one of the reasons which occurred to me first is that I could learn every language that has ever existed, or at least a hell of a lot of them. I mean, I did try Klingon when I was younger, but who has time for that these days? Is there a Rosetta Stone - Klingon? It would be fun to communicate with other nerds incognito. Then of course there's French, Spanish, and various dialects of English I haven't yet mastered.

Speaking of Klingons, one of the main reasons it would be great to live forever would be to see what the future is like. I read an article the other day which predicted the kinds of things we'll have in future, and I, for one, would love to be around when we finally perfect flying cars. And invisibility. And the holodeck (though I'm sure most people will use it for pornographic uses, rather than educational).

And speaking of tech, perhaps I could create some. I mean, I could study EVERYTHING. And you'd have to think, given enough time, I could become good enough at anything to be at least well-respected in the field. Perhaps I could cure cancer. Perhaps I could just live to see it cured. I would be an expert on quantum mechanics and the life cycle of the common house fly; I could invent the successor to the internet, or become the first man on Mars; I could form a world government, or abolish human trafficking worldwide. If I had enough time, what could I not achieve? Not to mention all the fun I could have. Adventures, and cultural experiences, and sex with strangers.

This is all assuming, of course, that my faculties hold. That my body doesn't simply continue to degrade to the point that I am a mere conscious husk of flesh. Unless you add this caveat, or something like it (perhaps a form of cloning, or invention of my consciousness uploaded to an android), infinite life begins to take on a horrible pallor. And that's not to mention the sheer drag of being alive sometimes. There are times even now when I cannot live with myself, when I get sick of the sound of my own thoughts bouncing around inside my skull, when I wish I could simply be elsewhere for a while. But how can one be elsewhere from oneself?

Even assuming vigour of mind and body, and a relative contentment with oneself, still problems arise. I say 'problems', but really I mean loved ones. They would need to be around, too. Imagine living on while your friends all passed away. Imagine watching your children grow old and die while you walked calmly through life unaffected. This, I think, would be the worst thing about being immortal, and surely it would be enough to drive anyone mad. Eventually, I think you would avoid making friends, for watching them blossom and decay in front of you would be too painful.

As hinted at above, I don't think the human mind is built for too long a term. We just don't have the capacity to go on forever, in the sense that it is inimical to our mental well-being. I don't mean that all older people are mentally ill, just that after a few hundred years, I think life would be an increasingly hard thing to deal with. Perhaps I am wrong, or wrong in certain cases, but certainly part of me knows and appreciates that I won't be around forever. The idea might be testable in a few hundred years, when technology and standards of living have lengthened our lives still further, but for now all we can do is speculate.

This leads me to the advantages of not living forever, apart from those, in a sense, described above. There are a lot of shitty things you won't have to do anymore, like ironing, and flossing, and being ill. You won't have to worry about work, or looking stupid in front of girls, or global warming, or cholesterol. And indeed, if I am correct in my supposition that being dead is exactly the same as not having been born (remember that? No, of course you don't), you won't have to worry about anything at all.

All of this is purely an intellectual exercise, since there is no way to offer anyone a real choice between death and immortality. At least, not at present. But the question remains: would you want to live forever? And it is an interesting question.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

New Year's Resolutions

I'm not really a fan of New Year's resolutions, in the sense that a) if you're resolved about something, the year makes no difference, and if you're not, same goes, and also b) I usually fail the ones I make. Ok, well, perhaps reason b is the more honest reason.

It occurs to me that honesty must be behind any kind of change in attitude or behaviour, or it is doomed to failure. I mean this in the sense of a real understanding of oneself, one's motivations, intentions, and limitations. Temet nosce, and all that. It further occurs to me that I like to think of myself as honest with myself, but of course in many ways this sense of honesty is a lie.

We all know these kind of lies, too. I'll clean my room later, I'll only have one drink, I'll definitely call this girl after tonight. They creep up so easily, and indeed seem to true, in many cases, that one could be said to be prevailing in an Orwellian doublethink for much of one's adult existence. I am at the stage of my life where many of these habitual untruths have been painstakingly peeled away and thrown on the fire, but others grow deeper and are harder to root out.

In one of those horribly deep moments of introspection which comes with too much port (et al), it occurs to me that I have not really been clear with myself about my intentions for myself, even when I believed I was being. I understand this is all a little vague, but suffice it to say I have figured out some things which, when laid out plainly, I can't believe it took me so long to uncover. I mean, they were about as well hidden as Wally in the versions they make for people with visual impairment.

But of course the question: If I can't even be honest about how truthful I am with myself on a daily basis, how can I ever really hope to have meaningful achievements? Well, the next stage is to really examine what I want, and then figure out the lost realistic way to get it while still taking into account a realistic appraisal of myself. If I succeed, it will be a revolution of thinking the likes of which my brain has not seen since it threw off the shackles of a religious upbringing, and decided it was tired of another kind of doublethink.

So, what do I want? Let's stick to goals for 2013 for now, and see how that goes. Baby steps, people:

1) More money. This is not for the sake of money itself; in fact, it may seem disingenuous, but I hate money. It makes people ugly and gives them excuses to destroy each other. However, you gotta have it. More money will allow me to do some of the other things on the list.

2) Tying into number 1, is fulfilment at work. Yes, I know, everyone hates their job, or something like that, but the job I have now is a great opportunity for me to grow, and challenge myself, and all those cliches you trot out in an interview which (who knew?) turn out to be true. I have a chance to really be good at a job, whereas for the last few years perhaps I was cruising. I have a chance to kick some ass, and I intend to take it.

3) I need to write more. I know it's not always easy when you’re god-damn tired, and I definitely know it takes time and effort, but I want to get more done. If I form a habit, I can do a little more each week, and it all adds up. Even if it is just for the twenty or so people who pick my books up online. I have talent and it is going to waste. Yeah I said it.

4) Indulge less. A classic resolution. But really all I mean is if I can tweak my eating habits just a little more, and keep up my exercise, I can lose a bit more weight, and feel a whole lot better. That, and cut down on dem bad tings.

5) Confidence. This will come from success at work (and, sometimes, from mistakes), but mostly I mean chatting up birds. I have forgiven myself for the fact that I suck at it, but I'd like to make a little improvement, if at all possible. This one is the least likely of my ambitions; in this I do know myself.

6) Going back to money, in terms of the capacity it brings, I'd like to travel a bit more, tick off some of the countries on the to-do list, go home for Xmas, see friends get married, and so on and so forth. There is so much to see and so little time to see it.

7) Is that it? Well, lastly, save some money too. I haven't managed much of that recently, and it really needs to be looked into.

Ok, so, seven resolutions which could really be narrowed down to cash, confidence, health, and fitness. Hmmm... now the part where I evaluate whether I can achieve them. Again, they are things I think are achievable, and I do have a history of setting my mind to certain things, but the only real answer, for now, is we will see. Roll on 2013.