Thursday, 31 December 2015

New Year Honours

So here we go again - the annual circus that is the New Year Honours list, with the usual list of nominal rewards given to 'the great and the good' for services rendered to something or other. And, as usual, there's controversy about the Westminster bubble patting itself on the back in various ways, handing out the gongs to it's own people with a hearty 'haven't they worked so very hard at their public service'. And rightly so, I reckon.

I'm not going to launch into some tirade against individual honours here - there's plenty of people doing that already, and I'm not going to speculate over how justified each of these specific complaints is. Suffice to say that I, like many, still feel that the system is geared towards giving honours to people essentially for doing the job they are paid to do on the basis that those who decide the award distribution happen to be the same people who see the work they do first (or at least second) hand. And that is really the point, for me - not that it is always necessarily deliberately incestuous (or 'corrupt'), but simply that assumptions of 'worthiness' in this context seem all too often to be made on the basis of personal proximity and knowledge in a way that should have been deal with years ago.

We've been told, of course, that the days of 'automatic honours' are over. That's not the point, though - people seem to still be getting them for nothing more than doing their paid job quite well. This isn't a party political issue - it's a general problem that seems to apply, at least to some extent, right across the political spectrum and the political 'class'. The idea that a civil servant who happens to be both a senior and a reasonably good civil servant should get some kind of honour for it because 'public service' seems as ludicrous to me as the idea that an MP, or ex-MP, should get something special just because they were supposedly a good, hard-working MP and/or minister even though they haven't really done anything outside the MP-ing that they were being paid to do. Special honours like this shouldn't ever work like that.

Now that's not to suggest that MPs and civil servants from Westminster should never get such awards, of course - if an MP rows single-handed across the Atlantic to raise money for charity, or a civil servant spends their off time over decades helping youngsters in deprived areas by running youth clubs, they should get the recognition they deserve, just like anyone else. That's the point, though, recognition should be for actions above and beyond the day job, even if that day job is considered 'public service'. Indeed, the same should apply to teachers (and I'm sure it more often does!) - retiring from teaching after a lifetime of 'service' doesn't automatically add their name to the honours list, and nor should it. What should add a teacher's name is something 'a bit special', above and beyond being a good teacher and doing what a good teacher is paid to do. I think that the ones who deserve special awards from society are the ones who do those things above and beyond just fulfilling the role they are paid to fulfil - those who give extra time to help their pupils in extra ways - that truth should hold true for everyone across the board.

I do think these kind of awards should exist, so that 'the people' in the form of 'the state' can reward individuals in some way for making that extra-special effort to do things for others or for the wider good of society (or particular aspects thereof). The current system of awards quite obviously needs a bit of attention, though - we really don't need to be issuing medals in the name of the 'Empire' any more! I'm not going to go along any kid of 'republican' nonsense about it being all about 'bowing to a monarch' or anything - republics have similar systems of public 'honours', and the royal connection is really nothing much more than a convenient customary ceremonial one. I don't think that's an issue worth making a fuss about, particularly because doing so detracts from the main point about making sure that we are only issuing such recognition to those who actually deserve it.

We have to get away from the idea that these awards should be decided by the Westminster political elite according to their own internal standards, even if they are doing so partly according to suggestions that they are receiving from others. The reality is that it is still our senior politicians, however well meaning, giving things to 'their own', and that is surely wrong. We need to overhaul the system, in my opinion, so that it is made absolutely clear that nobody should get any such special recognition for just doing their paid job really well. Nobody. That applies equally to celebrities and sports people, though I accept there is some argument that in the latter case it is recognition for their lifelong dedication to achieving a goal that sometimes sees them putting in many, many hours of unpaid training 'work' from childhood onwards. It should be about someone having done something really 'special' that contributes to the wider world in some way, not just about someone being good at whatever it is their are supposed to be good at because they are paid to do it.

Currently, like many others, I feel that it is still not the case, particularly when it comes to Westminster assuming itself to be a 'special place' where their kind of 'public service' puts them in some kind of different moral bracket to other people, and puts them in a position where their job itself makes them worthy of being given a special honour by 'the people' (when in fact the honour is given to them by each other, of course). Public service should certainly be a primary consideration for everyone in politics and the associated mechanisms, but in itself it doesn't make those people worthy of special extra rewards. It may be a 'public service' job, but it is still a job for which people are paid. In fact they are often very well paid compared with the average wage, even if sometimes they are not quite as well paid as some comparable workers in the private sectors - they often do get other relative 'benefits' in their 'terms and considerations'. To an extent they should be considering 'public service' itself as a kind of reward in terms of being able to help people and make the world a better place (as they see fit) - personally I'd be slightly concerned at any 'public servant' who doesn't consider that to be the case.

The entire system of honours as it stands could be said, with some justification, to be somewhat anachronistic in the modern world. That certainly doesn't make the idea of special public recognition for doing special things to be a bad one, even if some of the inconsistencies in it need to be ironed out. It does, however, need to really be 'for doing special things', and not just 'for doing things that someone was really supposed to be doing anyway as a matter of course', or even 'for doing the things that someone was supposed to be doing really, really well'. It has to be for things 'above and beyond' what could reasonably be considered simple as 'duty', or as 'reasonable duties of the job'. All 'politicians' should be doing things 'for politics'. All 'public servants' should be doing things 'for public service'. To put it bluntly, that's what they are paid for. If they are going to get special recognition via the honours system, they need to have been doing, or to have done, something really special that goes above and beyond that normal 'duty'.

Happy New Year!

Monday, 14 December 2015

My Top 20 CDs of 2015

Having put together this list, I thought I might as well post it as a blog post too. It has no particular relevance, of course, and I as usual claim no particular expertise other than being a lifelong music obsessive who always tries to take in as much new music as possible every year, but for what it's worth here it is. I originally did this in no particular order, but having had to order a 'top 10' for something else I thought I might as well try to put the whole thing in some kind of sequence. I make no promises about the precise relative positions matching exactly what I'll feel about them relative to one another in future, but here they are anyway:

20. Searching For Zero - Cancer Bats
19. The Congregation - Leprous
18. Holy War - Thy Art Is Murder
17. Curious Volume - Pentagram
16. Ire - Parkway Drive
15. Guilt (EP) - Shields
14. Under The Red Cloud - Amorphis
13. Brainwashed - While She Sleeps
12. Volume - Skindred
11 VII: Sturm Und Drang - Lamb of God
10. The Anthropocene Extintion - Cattle Decapitation 
 9. Wolflight - Steve Hackett 
 8. Xeno - Crossfaith 
 7. Drones - Muse 
 6. Meliora - Ghost 
 5. Juggernaut (Alpha/Omega) - Periphery 
 4. Reprisal - Continents
 3. Polaris - TesseracT 
 2. Soul Sphere - Born of Osiris  
 1. Coma Ecliptic - Between The Buried And Me 

If you want to have a listen to a sample from each, I have a Spotify playlist of one song from each, in the same order, here:

Also, very honourable mentions for a few that very, very nearly made it onto the list:

The Book of Souls - Iron Maiden
Node - Northlane 
V - Scale The Summit

Note: The photo is one I took watching Muse at Download Festival this year - a tremendous set that will live long in my memory.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Where should the UK's parliament be?

This post has really been prompted by two considerations. Firstly, there is the simple fact that the current main building that houses parliament and its necessary associated functions is, to put it bluntly, in the process of falling down. In addition to that, the other associated buildings are barely fit for purpose, and any form of expansion in the centre of one of them most crowded and expensive cities in the world is obviously going to be a problem. Now is a perfect time for considering exactly what we do about the location of parliament, and I don't think we should be afraid to point out what is probably blindingly obvious to most people outside the 'Westminster bubble' itself.

The second, and more important, is the fact that the UK's parliament has long been tucked away in one corner of England, pretty much as far as possible from the other constituent nations of the UK (there may some sound historical reasons for that, of course!), and far from being central to England itself. This has had a clear effect on the way that the regional economies have developed within the UK, and in the modern world it's creating a problem for everyone. London has long been an effective drain on the resources of other parts of the UK with its centralisation of economic activity around the area of political power. This is not a coincidence, of course, though it's not an issue for which anybody should really be blamed either, since it has grown over centuries where transport communication was nothing like what is possible today. Many of the things that were centred on London really needed to be geographically located in close proximity, but that is quite clearly, I think, no longer the case.

But let's not pretend that this has all been great for the London area itself - it certainly hasn't. Overpopulation has caused massive issues for living costs, transport, housing, pollution and air quality, not to mention the fact that London also happens to be in one of the worst spots in the UK for enabling effective collection of large amounts of water. Though it's easy to look at the overall figures and say that the London area is doing just fine, the reality is that everyone is suffering in some way, and the less well off the more they are suffering. The UK has plenty of land to home its population and more, but the south East of England, and London in particular, cannot realistically sustain the population levels it has. The answer to that issue seems to me to be fairly obvious - we have to look at how we distribute population less ludicrously unevenly across the UK.

There is also a political cost of having the centre of power located in the the big city in the far corner of the union, and from two perspectives. Firstly, while there is an inevitable 'bubble' around any centre of power that skews political debate and over-emphasises the importance of some issues (and under-emphasises others), this certainly isn't helped by this particular kind of location. 'The North' really can be a long way from the life experience of many of the people who hold the strings of power, let alone such weird, foreign places as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The reverse is also true - London is about as remote as it possibly could be from these places, and the people there know it. It's really not a healthy situation for the UK state as a whole, and for our various parts to work positively together in an atmosphere of mutual trust. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the location of parliament, with all that results from it, is a significant factor in issues like the potential break up of the Union by Scottish Nationalism - if London hadn't been so physically remote that it was able to become so politically (and socially) remote, I think things might very well have been very different over history of the Union and its government.

It would be nonsense to pretend we can burst the 'bubble' entirely by simply moving parliament, of course. There will always be an element of that situation, no matter where parliament sits. It is a reality that every country has to live with, and that everyone involved with politics should remind themselves about constantly (many, in all political parties and associated hanger-on groups, do not do that nearly enough, but that's perhaps a slightly different issue). At the moment, though, we have a 'bubble within a bubble' - London is so different and remote from the rest of the UK that it has its own bubble issue, and Westminster has another bubble inside. Double-bubble equals double-trouble (sorry - couldn't resist that bit of cheesiness!).

It would also be nonsense to pretend that we would solve all the problems of London itself overnight by simply moving the politicians out. That's not going to happen either - it will still very much be the economic heart of the country in many ways, and almost nothing will change that (if something catastrophic enough to change that comes along, the niceties of 'bubbles' will be the least of our worries!). We can do other things, of course - we can look at the concentration of government departments in London too. The historical growth of them around parliament was obviously inevitable, but times have changed - to but it bluntly, we no longer need to communicate by horse and carrier pigeon. There is no real need for government departments to be next to parliament, or next to each other, so let's spread them about a bit. Does it really make sense, for example, to have a Ministry dealing with Agriculture to be located in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world? I'm going to say not! While we can't solve London's over-population issues overnight, we can potentially spark a process of change that would gradually reduce the problem over time.

Of course, there will be those who take an attitude of 'you can't possibly do that', but many of them will be people living within the 'bubbles' who fear any change that might see them having to move just a little bit out of their own associated personal bubble. 'But I might have to move to....THE NORTH!', well, sorry (not sorry!), but so be it! We need to take action to address the problem we have, and we could also do with distributing our high-paid civil service and political posts around the country a bit, for the good of everyone. There is obviously a case for leaving some functions in the London area - since most embassies are located there, for example, it would make some sense to have the Foreign Office functions continue in their current location. We shouldn't be dogmatic about doing things that make no sense, of course, but I don't believe that that means we should do nothing to address the current situation.

So that all brings me back to where we started - where should the UK's parliament be? Well the obvious answer is 'somewhere in the middle'. that's not as easy as it sounds to work out in a place that happens to be as oddly shaped as the UK, though. There are various opinions as to what constitutes the exact middle of the UK. In considering the question, I thought I'd take a fairly blunt approach in the first instance - get a map, and start drawing lines between significant points at opposite 'ends' to see where they crossed. They don't all cross at the same place, of course, but a significant number do seem to cross around one particular place. Many of them cross in the sea, in fact, which led me towards further considerations of where was close to that bit of sea, and about communications with the various parts of the UK. I did, in the end, come to a firm conclusion as to where was the best place to put parliament.

Before I specify that, I'm just going to speculate that some people will really not like the answer, but that is more down to their own ideas of the place than its reality, and doesn't take into account the benefits that would inevitably be brought as a result of becoming the seat of government for the UK. So there we have it - my answer is Liverpool. Roughly central-ish to the UK as a whole, with pretty good links to all of it (including direct links to the capital of Northern Ireland, which all too often gets overlooked in such considerations). Much closer to Wales and Scotland than London is, obviously, but still close to the large centres of population in the Midlands and North, as well as being reasonably easily accessible to the South East.

In the current situation of over-centralisation and building on the point of collapse, I think we should be seriously considering moving parliament, and building it a new home in (or more specifically on the outskirts of, where expansion would be possible) Liverpool. Whether such a thing happens, however, will ultimately be in the hands of the already multi-bubbled, and the cynic in my suspects that they will dismiss the idea any way they can, on the basis that they would rather not have to go there (as much talk as there is of a 'Northern Powerhouse', I'm not sure that translates to our political 'elite' wanting to actually have to be located within it!), and would rather stay in the city that some people laughingly refer to as 'the centre of the World'. It isn't 'the centre of the World', it isn't even the centre of the UK. It is, quite frankly, a dreadfully unsuitable place to have our parliament. It's not where anybody should really have chosen to put it, and now we have an opportunity to make that choice again we should use it, and I think we should put it where it makes some kind of practical sense, which I believe would be Liverpool.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

The current proposed 'strategy' for #Syria

Does anybody remember this classic Kenny Everett character?

'Round 'em all up, put 'em in a field, and bomb the bastards!'

Well, what struck me today as I was musing over the whole situation of the possible parliamentary vote for air strikes in Syria was that, despite its obvious silliness, it's actually probably a more coherent and effective military strategy than what is being proposed in the real world for dealing with a vile terrorist group. That is something that we should all find deeply worrying. At least following this character's plan we would know exactly where the people we are trying to bomb are, and that no innocent bystanders are going to get killed in the process.

To lay it out, this is what the current suggested 'strategy' seems to depend on in order to make it work to defeat both ISIS and their terrorist threat:
1. We have intelligence that is in all cases 100% accurate and tells us exactly where ISIS are hiding.
2. Nobody else at all happens to be in the vicinity at the time when we are dropping bombs.
3. We never miss with a single weapon, and everyone is closely and perfectly targeted.
4. All of the relevant people involved in promoting violence and terrorism are dealt with very quickly, before they can move around or order any more attacks.
5. None of the other people allied to them who are already in various parts of the world, potentially armed and ready to strike, decide to just go for it once their orders have stopped coming for what will be a pretty obvious reason to them.
6. In the case of something going wrong in 1 & 2 and some 'collateral damage' to innocent people, nobody else gets at all annoyed with the 'Western powers' once again dropping bombs 'indiscriminately' and killing their innocent fellows to such an extent that they can be persuaded to join the forces opposing those powers.
7. A mysterious force will somehow unite the many small 'moderate' groups in the region who don't seem to agree on much and don't seem to work together, organise them into a coherent army of occupation and peacekeeping with a single effective command structure, and they will then flood in to the vacuum left to take up the entire slack, effectively police the whole region and rid it of any remnants of the defeated forces, and solve the whole internal conflict (while Assad, to whom they are also opposed, quietly leaves them alone to do it, of course).

That seems to me to be an awful lot of 'ifs and buts'.

It just doesn't make any sense to me as a way to pursue the goals in question. I'm no 'pacifist' in the sense of always opposing all military operations - I fully understand that sometimes it is, unfortunately, necessary. This, though, seems to me to be going about things in entirely the wrong way - there's no realistic way it will work, no realistic prospect of it helping much even if it does work, and no realistic way in which it will do anything other than make the problem even worse if it fails to work 100% for every bomb dropped (which we can pretty much guarantee it always will).

So why are we going down this particular kind of road at all? We know from bitter experience that this kind of thing doesn't solve these kind of problems, and there's no real evidence that it's going to be significantly different this time around. Indeed, it would, I think, be quite foolish to suggest that the current strategy of bombing ISIL in Iraq failed to prevent attacks in Paris purely on the grounds that ISIL forces in the Middle East were able to nip over the border and be 'safe'. Where's the sense in trying it?

I seems to me that the main reason we are talking about 'air strikes' (which apparently sounds so much better than 'bombing' and hoping we know exactly who we hit every single time) is the fear of 'risk' in putting any forces into the region that might actually be able to do something about the dominance of ISIL over its territory of current control. You can bomb from the air without significant risk to personnel (especially if you include drones), but the same is obviously not true of 'boots on the ground'. That and the obvious issue of public opinion when it comes to putting the lives of our soldiers in danger - I'm no simplistic pacifist, but even more so I'm certainly no warmonger, and I'm in no rush to want for that to happen.

However, though I rarely agree with Ken Livingstone, and he obviously made some points extremely badly on Question Time last week, his suggestion that the only way to really start to get to grips with the issue is a truly multinational (not 'Western') UN force of some kind on the ground is certainly not without merit. Now I really hate to say it, but he's probably basically right on that (he's far from the only one saying such things, of course, in various political parties, but he did say it quite prominently in public, which is why I've included him as an example) - I can see no realistic alternative that will actually stand a realistic chance of doing some significant good. Of course, that is a road that is itself fraught with many kinds of difficulty (Assad being one of them, obviously), but if we are going to get involved in trying to do something to help the situation it is the kind of solution that we are going to have to look towards in some way.

We seem to be caught up in a post-attack, knee-jerk fit of 'we must do something' at the moment, and that is a very, very dangerous thing. We need to think about this very, very carefully, and take a logical and evidence based approach to everything we do. The current 'something' that is proposed is not going to work - it really shouldn't be an option for consideration at all as it stands. It's a 'hit it and hope' solution - while that might be quite useful in a moment of frustration during a pub pool game, it's really no way to plan or conduct military action.

So what is our realistic set of options at this time? Well, the primary question has to be whether we actually give in to the 'do something' brigade at all at this point. We will almost certainly do more harm than good by doing the wrong thing, and the lessons of previous campaigns have demonstrated quite clearly that this proposed air strike solution is very much the wrong thing. We have to decide whether we get directly involved in Syria at all at this point, or whether we stand up to terrorism by showing that we aren't afraid, won't change our lifestyle, and aren't going to be battered into starting exactly the kind of war that the terrorists want to improve their recruitment and bring about the ultimate global battle between cultures and religions. That's one option, and alongside it obviously goes measures like dealing with the finance and arms sales to that organisation, and so on, as well as stepping up the 'hearts and minds' kind of campaigning around the world to rob the terrorists of their support and recruitment opportunities.

The other option, and as much as I dislike it I accept that it might eventually come to this, is to properly get involved militarily in a way that really will begin to deal with the issues of ISIL on the ground in Syria. That's not going to be air strikes, though, that is going to be carefully building an international coalition from all over the world, including the Middle East, including Russia, and via the UN. That is going to be boots on the ground (with air support, of course). That's going to be a major, united world action against a group that is unacceptable to everyone, and in order to really achieve it in a morally viable way (which we have to do for it to succeed - we have to be building something better for the people, or the same thing will just happen again) it also includes properly addressing some of the other Human Rights issues going on in the region. We can't simply turn a blind eye and follow the 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' approach, partly because that is part of what has created such a well armed and well organised force in the first place.

So there we have it - two potentially viable and effective solutions to pursue, of which the current proposal is neither. Both can actually be pursued simultaneously, of course, and they also have common measures outside of any possible military action itself that will be required for ultimate success. They are plans that could work - plans that could help. The question really has to be which one it is now the right time for, and since the latter will obviously take time to build into a reality I personally think the answer should be pretty obvious - take option one, while exploring and building gradually towards option two in case it ultimately becomes the only viable solution.

What we have to do in order to try to improve the situation, or at least not make it a whole lot worse, is to avoid the third option - the current proposal of vaguely 'bombing the bastards' just to be seen to be 'doing something', and doing it at minimal risk to ourselves and our people, regardless of what the probable (or even possible) eventual outcome of it might be. In what is proposed currently, there's no real plan. There's no real strategy. there's nothing in there that's going to help. there's nothing even that's going to stop it from making things worse. I hope that every MP, on all sides of the House, will take a measured and considered approach to any parliamentary vote on the subject, and vote for an option that doesn't make things worse just for the sake of being seen to be 'doing something'.

Friday, 27 November 2015

The True Legend of Noddy Holder

OK, so I'm sure most of you know this story well by now (at least, the adult among you - children stop reading now!), but I thought I'd write the basics out for anyone who doesn't, just because Christmas is coming. I was also prompted by this story, in which Noddy himself suggests that "People think I live in a cave all year and come out in December, shouting It's Chriiisstmaaasss!", as if we didn't all know the truth. 

A long, long time ago, back in the late 1960's, Santa was a very happy legendary creature. He had a nice, cosy home at the North Pole, well hidden from all those pesky explorer types, and he and Mrs Claus had finally got the elves performing like a well-oiled machine (there had been some trouble over the years with keeping them focussed). In fact, they had got to a point where they were starting to get plenty of relaxation time through much of the year - Mrs Claus was happy enough making pies and cakes for the elves, but she could really have done with Santa getting from out beneath her feet. He was getting a little restless, and that was making him a little irritating (No, not irritable, irritating! He was always quite happy to be that).

So, in a moment of frustration (of which there were many around that time), she suggested that he might like to take a little holiday, and go and see the world in daylight for a change. Indeed, there was some mention of long walks, but he wasn't a big exercise fan, and a short pier somehow didn't seem a suitable venue for such an undertaking anyway. He was a little dubious, of course, but eventually the idea that it might help him to understand what people really wanted for Christmas if he actually met some actual people persuaded him.

A bit of a problem occurred to him, though, late one night as he began to plan his trip beneath the big tree (while fishing some needles out of his pockets, as he had to do every few minutes). They didn't actually have any money. None at all. Not a penny, nor even a dime (depending, of course, on which side of the Atlantic you are reading this from). It's not something he'd previously considered, since they didn't have any need for it - everything they needed was provided by the inter-dimensional magic creatures, a few generous and wealthy benefactors, and one or two creatures with, shall we say, some very odd waste-production habits. When it came down to it, though, Santa-ing just wasn't a well paid occupation, in fact, not a paid occupation at all. If he wanted to enjoy the world, he had to be able to travel (and clearly reindeer weren't an option in daylight - that would have been a dead give-away), buy food, buy things, buy beer, and that kind of stuff. They had lots of stuff, of course - raw materials, magical things, and so on, but none of it was really stuff he could think about selling. This was, of course, going to be a problem.

He took this problem to some of his most trusted and innovative elves, and since they were equally fed up of Santa getting under their feet they set their minds to searching for a solution straight away. They hunted high and low (the original inspiration was well hidden within the final version, but you may remember a song written about this process by the band A-Ha. They were, of course, from not far away from the North Pole, and had heard some rumours, though no connection was ever admitted to), but nothing seemed to fit - they knew the basic theories of supply and demand, and some simple economics, of course, but just couldn't work out how they could make something from it.

It was two of the most artistic and colourful elves who eventually hatched a plan that they all thought just might work, though - Gimli (pronounced 'Jimly', obviously - Tolkien had long been a mate of his, but they argued over the spelling of his name when he wanted to put him in his book, and so badly that he ended up making the character a dwarf out of sheer spite - they never spoke again) and Daveill.

They'd been messing about for years with various musical instruments, learning to play bits and pieces, and they'd been fascinated by the rise of requests for music records in the Christmas lists through the 1960s. The solution became obvious in a moment of revelation (the thing, not the bit in the Bible, obviously - that would just be wrong, and no Beasts were allowed to take any part in the process at all) - Santa should do a really great and memorable Christmas song. It had to be believable, though, so between the three of them (along with drummer elf Donp - good drummer, but far too silly a name for band usage on its own, even with some creative spelling!) they decided they should start by making some other songs, getting themselves known and doing a bit of travelling, before hitting the world with the big one.

The execution of the plan is well known history, so I won't go into the details of that. It worked perfectly, though, and for years nobody noticed. There were always rumours, but that's all they were, and indeed all that they still may be, since nobody has ever confirmed or denied the story officially. We all know what's going on really (apart from children - I hope none have read this far!), of course. Santa had his cunning disguise to try to fool us, complete with a bit of hair dye for authenticity in the early days, although the elves pretty much turned up as they were (as pictured above - elves do like to be bright and colourful in a manner humans tend to think somewhat silly (something else that Tolkien got irritatingly wrong, obviously)).

And that is how the legend started, and how it continues. Every year, Santa (with a pseudo name suitably taken from a well-known children's toy, and the fact that he was the holder of every Noddy item destined for the world's Christmas trees and stockings) spends most of his life on holiday around the world, popping back and forward to the North Pole every few weeks, but not enough to get in anybody's way. Of course, he'd never manage to get away with it without his disguise of being clean shaven (the accent is real, though - it's a little known fact that much of the English Midlands was long ago populated by renegade bands of former North Pole residents, shifted out during the dreadful 'North Pole Clearances' to make way for bigger and better workshops - it's a part of history that Christmas stories understandably tend to gloss over), but around mid-October every year he starts the growth process.

First come those famous and distinctive sideburns, ready for his annual sales push for the song, and then in mid-December, promotion done and dusted and money made to fund the following years holidays, the beard is allowed to return in time for Christmas eve. Come new year, off the facial hair all comes once again. And so the annual ritual continues, and will continue until the end of time unless evil Santa (known as Lemmy, and locked in an eternal battle with his more generous and frankly rather less 'wild' cousin) finally manages to end their immortal reign of ever-balanced pleasure and terror (I'll let you decide for yourselves which brings which to the party).

Think on this, though, if that song ever begins to annoy you - without the little commercial enterprise dreamed up by Santa, and his merry elves Daveill, Gimli and Donp (pictured above), Christmas would be a far sadder time. Children would be disappointed, and trees would remain unadorned by gifts. Without his annual treks around the world, had he been stuck permanetly at the North Pole as he used to be, there is no doubt that his wife would, by now, have committed some heinous crime against Mythicalcreaturity. This simple song has saved the sanity of her and the elves, saved the life of Santa, and saved Christmas for us all.

Of course, the sweetest part of this whole story is that he still thinks that we don't all know.

Merry It's Chriiisstmaaasss!

Monday, 23 November 2015

'Banned' Church of England #JustPray Advert.

So the news has been doing the rounds today about a Church of England cinema advert that has allegedly (according to some commentators and newspaper headlines) been 'banned' from cinemas, because it might 'offend' people. That is quite clearly not the case at all.

It hasn't been 'banned' at all, for a start - a company that deals with the advertising for many cinemas (reportedly about 80% of them) has rejected the advert, on the grounds that they have a standing policy against taking advertising about religion and politics. That is no more of a 'ban from cinemas' than a particular ale is 'banned from pubs' because it isn't sold in my local, or than suggesting that I have 'banned' Take That from Twitter on the grounds that they don't appear in my Twitter feed, because I don't happen to like them very much. If we want to go down the road of suggesting that it's an issue because they control 80% of the market (whereas I don't control 80% of Twitter, obviously!), then we are suggesting that they are running a virtual monopoly, or at least have too great a dominance, in their marketplace - that's an entirely separate issue of whether some kind of intervention or regulation is required to open up the market of UK cinema advertising to greater competition. That question is nothing to do with this particular advert at all - it's a complete red herring.

So on to the question of people being 'offended' by the Lord's Prayer advert. The main point to note is that is not what the company has said in terms of this specific advert at all. It is something that they applied to all such advertising in a general way. They haven't said that this advert would 'offend', merely that adverts about personal beliefs in general might potentially offend some people, based on previous customer feedback (there's no 'off' button in the cinema, of course, and it would seem that people don't like politics and religion thrown at them on a trip out to the flicks). The stuff coming from people suggesting that the company have deemed the Church of England's advert to be something that would specifically offend people is sheer nonsense. It isn't true, despite the outrage that some are expressing over it.

There's clearly no discrimination involved here, since it applies equally to all religion and politics, and has apparently resulted from feedback that they have received suggesting that their cinema audiences don't like having such things shown in cinemas. Now unless we want to pass a ludicrous law that all companies who receive advertising must take absolutely any advert for anything and from any source, companies must be able to decide on such policies for themselves, as long as their are not discriminatory in rules or their application. One suggestion brought up to counter this was about whether I would be happy if they 'banned' (see above!) 'same sex couples' advertisements because some people found them 'offensive' - the obvious answer is that that would actually be discriminatory unless they banned ALL 'couples' adverts, which is obviously ridiculous. If a company wanted to ban all 'couples' adverts altogether then that would be up to them - personally I think it's a fairly unlikely scenario, though!

Indeed, there is not even a distinction or discrimination between 'religious' and 'secular', since it applies to all 'personal beliefs' including 'secular' politics (and presumably would also cover adverts from Humanist groups). In effect, they will show adverts selling products or services, but they won't show adverts selling 'personal beliefs'. That's a pretty clear distinction, and I can't see how it could be described as 'discriminatory' against any group in any way, since it applies equally to all. I can also understand why a company might decide that it doesn't want to be seen to be supporting any particular organisation of that kind, since, although they might theoretically be able to show any if it weren't for this policy, only certain groups would have the money to pay for the advertising time. I'm sure they wouldn't want to be accused of 'supporting' or 'promoting' a particular political party on the grounds that they always showed their adverts and didn't show anybody else's - that accusation would be inevitable even if the cause were simply a financial matter for the parties themselves. The same applies to 'promoting religion' of a certain kind, of course. It's a can of worms - I can understand why they would rather avoid opening it.

Others have been saying things along the lines of 'How can the Lord's Prayer' offend anyone? It only could if you were actively looking to be offended'. That might well be true to a large extent, but the reality is that some people are, and we should, perhaps, consider the potential effects of that with regard to the way the advert itself has been put together. Let's take a look at the advert itself - it shows various people in various situations reciting the Lord's Prayer (a slightly odd version of it from what I remember, but that's not relevant), and then finishes with the tagline 'Prayer is for everyone', with the 'everyone' highlighted in red. Well, first off, that blatantly isn't true - it might be for all Christians (or all people of faith, even), but to suggest it's for everyone potentially implies that we should all be, or regards ourselves as, Christians (or people of faith). The prayer itself shouldn't really offend anyone, of course, since in a free society there is no right to never see or hear other people's religious beliefs.

It wouldn't be too difficult to draw an inference that the advert, with its tagline, is trying to suggest that we should all be praying in their way, though. While it would be reasonable enough to say that that would be 'over-sensitive', we do have to remember that the Church of England is 'Established', and therefore in effect the 'state approved' religious institution peddling the 'state approved' religion. In some places in the world, a message like that from the 'state church' could have rather different implications from what it has in reality here, and that's a message that some might easily seek to use to spread division by promoting the idea that the 'state religion' is trying to 'make' everyone follow its path through forcing 'propaganda' down people's throats as they take their families to see a film. A bit of a stretch? Certainly, but that doesn't mean that it isn't something that some might seek to use as 'proof' to further their own agenda, and that isn't helpful in promoting the idea of the UK being a tolerant place where all religions are equally respected.

Let's look at it another way - if that same advert featured images of Islamic prayer, how many people would be 'actively looking to be offended' by it in the UK at the moment? They shouldn't, of course, but the fact that they would be means that it wouldn't exactly be helpful for social cohesion and religious tolerance in the UK. Some people would react very badly, and start wanting such things actually banned. They shouldn't want that, but they would. Once you consider that, although I can see no justification for actually banning the advert despite its potential weaknesses, it's not hard to see why a particular company might feel that it's better to steer clear of all such issues altogether, no matter which religion it comes from. In other words, I think that the advert itself, while not actually being 'offensive', is pretty poorly thought out, in my opinion - it doesn't seem to have been put together with particular sensitivity to the fact that it comes from an Established Church to which we don't all belong (and don't all have to belong) in mind. I've no doubt that it wasn't intentional, but I really don't think it's the best way for the Church of England to try to be increasing active participation, particularly in the current climate of threats and counter-threats to harmonious religious relations and tolerance in the world.

As for why they have brought this situation about in this way, and created this particular controversy, that is something that only the Church of England can answer. Did they really not have the sense to check whether their advert would be accepted for showing by this company before they decided to go down this road? Cynics might suggest that they knew full well this would happen, and wanted to publicity from it to promote themselves. I couldn't possibly comment on that, of course, but I think it would be a pretty shabby kind of behaviour by the Church if that were to be the case. The idea that the decision has 'chilling consequences for free speech', as has been suggested, is complete nonsense. It has no such implications at all - it is a simple matter of company policy, not legal restriction. If the Church is genuinely 'bewildered' by the decision, as has also been suggested, then it needs to look a little harder at the way it researches into the possible openings for its own advertising potential.

To summarise, I think the outcry over the banning of this advert is a load of tosh, and the whole situation is one that never should have been created - it was very easily avoidable. It's an advert that hasn't itself been thought through properly, in my opinion, but far more importantly merely a matter of a company deciding its own entirely legal and non-discriminatory policy for itself, which it has every right to do. I sincerely hope that the pressure of the outcry doesn't force them to back down, since the can of worms that would open might just prove that they were right to take the line that they have on advertising and promoting 'personal beliefs' including religion and politics. In a land of free speech, everyone must be able to express their own opinions and hold their own beliefs, of course - nothing should be 'banned' that isn't discriminatory hate speech promoting violence, or whatever. That doesn't mean that every company should be compelled to to promote whatever beliefs that people pay them to promote - as long as they are not discriminating against any particular groups in their rules (which they clearly aren't in this case), that should be a matter for them to decide.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

#ParisAttacks - I am NOT afraid

We have just witnessed the most appalling atrocities in Paris, and my thoughts remain very much with all of those affected. It is an unimaginable nightmare situation for all of those caught up in it, and we must all do all that we can support them. The sad reality, though, is that for most of us there is unfortunately really very little that we can practically do other than show them that we are thinking of them at this dreadful time. What we must not do, though, is allow the terrorists to win.

Some have, in the past, rightly pointed out that we can sometimes be selective in our reactions to such events, depending on how much we personally feel that it is 'close to home' - that many of us have reacted so much more to this than we have to the daily violence and carnage in the far-off Middle East. That is a fair comment - it is a part of the human condition, I guess, as it probably is to tie what has just happened in with other current 'hot issues'. However, those engaged in the inevitable social media reactionary lurch against refugees would do well to remember that these acts have been perpetrated by the very people that are perpetrating the acts and creating the situations from which many of the refugees are trying to escape in their homelands. This is not the result of the refugee crisis, it is the cause of it.

Another inevitable social media response has been the cries of 'where are these supposed 'moderate Muslims' who are condemning such outrages?'. The answer to that is, in fact, a simple one - they are everywhere. Muslims, Muslim leaders and Muslim organisations all over the world have been rapid in their response, condemning utterly acts that have no basis, and are directly contradictory to, their own religious beliefs. I won't go into providing a list of such Muslim responses, but I very easily could with a minimum of googling - try it, you'll find them. Whether that is being prominently reported by the particular chosen media outlets of the social media reactionaries is another question, of course.

It is often said, with some justification, that social media can be an 'echo chamber' - people often tend to notice, follow and friend others who share their opinions, and I have no doubt that in the aftermath of such an attach their various newsfeeds are filled with outrage not just about the events, nor just about the perpetrators themselves, but about anyone and everyone who might share some apparent particular demographic similarities with them. That is a real issue in the modern world, in the age of the rise of the politics of 'but we all know that...' - a spiralling of ever more outraged rhetoric against whole demographic groups of people, bouncing around between people of similar beliefs and luring those who just don't know what to think in the aftermath of terrible events into their web. I don't pretend to know the answer to countering that problem, but it plays straight into the hands of those who are trying to create a 'war between cultures'. It is worth noting, though, that that kind of nasty and intolerant social media rhetoric is not the only social media response out there - thankfully many people are reacting very, very differently.

That is what the perpetrators and supporters of these acts want to create - a war between cultures. That is why they are doing what they are doing. They want to harden attitudes and spread the blame, because hardening attitudes and spreading blame beyond those actually responsible creates a reactive response that only serves to harden attitudes among a wider group on their own side. It was often said that the best recruiting sergeants the IRA ever had in their campaign of violence were the most hardline loyalists, and the reverse was undoubtedly true too. We need to be aware of this. What terrorists want is to create terror - the clue is in the name. They want lives to be ruled by fear, not only among their opponents but among those of their own supposed faith who fear reprisals that go far above and beyond simple justice applied to the perpetrators themselves. That is always part of the cause of terrorism - it is what allows them to recruit, and to win support.

In this case, they want the far right, Islamophobic, hate-filled groups to rise in power and prominence in the west. They want to create a war with those people who want a war with them, and to do that they need both their opponents and themselves to be recruiting support for their agendas. They want violence. They want to promote fear to promote hate and violence - that is what it is entirely about, and that is why they pick on entirely innocent targets to maximise public outrage. It's not about creating fear 'close to home' for us to make us more timid and cowed in the face of their campaign - quite the opposite, it is all about creating fear to provoke a violent response that will add power to their arguments, increase their support and further their agenda. We have to be aware of that fact, because it dictates the kind of response we need to give to prevent them from ultimately succeeding in their campaign.

And on that issue of being 'close to home', for me this attack, and one part of it in particular, very much feels as though it is. As is natural, I think, this particular event has personally hit me harder than almost any other terrorist atrocity that I can remember. We always here talk of the affected 'communities', and in this case a community of which I am very much a part was at the centre of events. I have spend to many hours of my life at rock and metal concerts just like that which the Eagles of Death Metal were performing at in Paris on Friday night. While I didn't watch them myself, that very band was playing at a festival that I attended just a few months ago - they might not be very well known outside of rock and metal 'circles', I guess, but they are a very well known and respected band within them.

Those gigs and festivals are in many ways like big extended 'family get-togethers', with a real atmosphere of togetherness between the audience, the band and their music. For many of us, it's so much more than just 'a good night out with mates' (though it is often that as well) - it is a communal gathering of a cultural kind to engage collectively in what binds that culture and community together, akin in many ways to the kind of community gatherings that occur at religious services. In a very real sense, the people in that gig were a part of my own community - they were my brothers and sisters. Had I been in Paris, I could have easily been there myself, or known people who were there (hopefully I don't, though I do know of someone who would have been had their travel plans not been delayed), and I could at some point (since such people tend to work in various places and for various bands over the years) have very easily been sold a t-shirt by one of the terrorists' confirmed victims. This one does feel more personal to me, and while I understand and fully support the idea that we should be outraged by all such acts of violence (and indeed I am), I make no apologies for feeling that at the human level. This felt to me very much like an attack against 'my own'.

So how should we react? With outrage, sorrow and sympathy, of course, and also with calls for justice for any who have actually committed such acts, but we mustn't allow ourselves to fall into the trap of reaction with thoughts of revenge against those who share some kind of identification with that used by the perpetrators. As I have said, I am a part of the worldwide rock and metal community - that doesn't mean that I am in any way associated with, or supportive of, any criminal, violent or hateful acts perpetrated by other members of that community at any time, even if they have sought, by some kind of twisted logic, to use that community's shared identity as justification for what they have done. I've never burnt a Scandinavian church, for example (such things have, sadly, happened in the past), nor would I ever do anything than utterly condemn such acts - they are the product of twisting logic to justify violence that has nothing whatsoever to do with the real passion for music shared by the community at large. The same is true for members of any community - all such communities will have a few criminals among them - that's humanity for you, unfortunately.

I can certainly understand those Muslims (and I've seen one or two) who make a point of refusing to 'apologise' for what has happened too - why should they? It's nothing to do with them, or to do with their beliefs, or to do with their community - they are not remotely responsible for what has happened in any way. All Muslims should, and the vast majority do, condemn any acts of terror or violence that others try to justify by some twisting of Islam (and, as is often rightly pointed out, there are far more victims of these particular terror organisations who are Muslims than who are non-Muslims), but they shouldn't need to apologise for something for which they are not responsible. To expect them to do that is to imply that ordinary Muslims are somehow to blame, which they are not, and doing that only promotes the world view that the terrorists want promoted - that there really is some kind of 'cultural conflict' between Muslims and other people.

If we react with fear, we risk being led (by those with their own agenda) down a path of hate, and a path that promotes resistance towards those innocent people who are not to blame for what has happened. There are those who would seek to use such reactions for their own ends. there are the perpetrators themselves who want to provoke violent reactions, there are the hate-filled opposition who want to find an excuse for more violence, and in addition there are those who seek to manipulate us into allowing the surrender of our own freedoms. While a period of limited local shut down to allow immediate investigations to take place is inevitable, of course, we must not allow the perpetrators to win by us agreeing to change our way of life on a wider scale.

Those who seek to increase state control over us through security and surveillance will seek to use events like this to justify themselves - that's not some weird conspiracy-theorist nonsense, but simply a reflection of reality that can be very easily observed by looking at the way some governments are trying to erode our own ability to oppose them or hold them to account for their actions (including a current UK Tory government bent on introducing Snoopers' Charters and eroding Freedom of Information, and so on). They will seek to make us give up our liberties in order to 'keep us safe'. Civil liberties are a massively important part of our society and culture - the freedom to do what we choose and be who we choose, free from government interference and 'monitoring', as long as we don't harm anyone else. We must not allow ourselves to surrender such things to fear - it would diminish our society, and allow those who thrive on fear to prosper, and potentially eventually to create their 'cultural war' to 'prove' the 'superiority' of one culture over another (which, ultimately, is what both such 'sides' want to do) even as essential elements of that culture are itself eroded in the name of 'security'.

That is a very real danger at this point - make no mistake about it. I have mentioned in previous posts the dangers of the current style of political language and rhetoric, and how parallels can and must be drawn with past history to inform us about the direction in which we could end up going, and going very quickly in the wake of an attack such as this. We have to avoid falling in to the same old trap. We need to respond with an understanding of this, and with solidarity with all of humanity standing together as one - brothers and sisters against hate, and against those who would seek to use hate and fear to divide us against each other. Yes, those people might attack us again, and next time it might be us ourselves who are the victims - then so be it - they still will not defeat me. I will not meet hate with hate, and I will not respond to their attempted intimidation with fear. I will not play into their hands, and I will not allow them to use me to further their intolerant and hateful agenda. We cannot allow our lives to be ruled by fear - if we do, they win.

I stand together in solidarity with my Parisian brothers and sisters.
I stand together in solidarity with my French brothers and sisters.
I stand together in solidarity with my Rock and Metal brothers and sisters.
I stand together in solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters.
I stand together in solidarity with people of all faiths, and none.
I stand together in solidarity with all of humanity.
I stand against those who would use violence to promote fear and hatred.
They have failed, and will always fail - I am NOT afraid.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Transport Policy - Don't Forget Travel Sickness

There has, quite rightly, been much attention paid by many people recently to 'unseen illness' - mental illness, cancer, sarcoidosis, etc., etc. - the many, many conditions that are not immediately visible to others. They vary in severity, of course, but can sometimes be underestimated in terms of the impact that they have on the way a person is feeling simply because they are 'invisible'. Some of them can even occasionally be dismissed in a kind of 'get over it' attitude, and I think it's right to repeat the oft repeated, 'you wouldn't say that to someone with a broken leg'.

One condition that rarely gets mentioned, or considered as something that is in any way 'serious', is the issue of travel sickness, or motion sickness. It's often something experienced in childhood and 'grown out of', of course, but many adults also suffer, and it is a very real problem for people in their daily lives. It's often 'unseen', unless people actually get to the point of turning visibly green or vomiting, which most sufferers prefer to take action to avoid if they can. There are a variety of medications and 'remedies' out there, but many people find them to be less than universally successful, certainly in doing anything more than being a 'coping strategy' that somewhat mitigates the worst effects (something to 'hold back the flow', so to speak, but not any kind of 'cure' for the feeling of nausea itself). It never seems to be considered as a factor to be taken into account when looking at transport policy, but it's such a common problem, and such a serious and debilitating condition for sufferers, that I think it should be.

So what are we talking about here? Well essentially it's a form of 'sensory disconnect' - one part of the body's mechanisms not agreeing with another part as to what is going on. At its core it's about visual input seemingly disagreeing with the balance and movement information coming from the inner ear. It's speculated that it might have evolved as a defence mechanism against poisoning - a likely symptom of that being visual hallucination, leading to the brain receiving different signals, leading to it deciding that it needs to eject whatever substance is causing the problem before it gets any worse. That seems reasonable enough to me, though I claim no expertise in such things - to put it bluntly, humans originally evolved to survive eating things, not to travel at high speed.

Let's personalise this - as you might have guessed, it's something I have suffered very badly with over the years, which is why I'm so aware of it. Initially I was quite bad in childhood, then it reduced for a while through my twenties, and then it returned later on and continues to this day. It manifests itself in a number of ways, as it does with many people - most of the issue is related to travel and transport, although it also causes issues with watching TV and film stuff with extended spinning or non-steady camera work, including cameras attached to people. The film 'Gravity', for example, won awards for its effects, but included scenes that were sheer torture for me (and I had to close my eyes at several points, so missed some of those award-winning effects). Commentator Brian Moore probably nailed it more than he realised when he referred to the 'ref cams' now being used for international rugby games as 'Vomit Cam' - I can cope for short bursts, but extended shots from that kind of thing are no fun at all.

Three times I have spent an hour or more lying horizontal on a bench in theme parks as a result of being persuaded to go on to some particular ride or other. These scenarios are mostly the fault of my kids, and my daughter in particular, who had a tendency to tell me that I'll 'be fine' and 'it's not too bad' when she wanted me to go on something with her. Once was from a 'pirate ship' ride, on the 'half-swing' setting considered suitable for smaller children, once from a 'simulator' ride, and once from a coaster. I'm actually not too bad on milder coasters normally, because it's a short stint with plenty of fresh air blowing in my face, but this particular one completely flattened me (the reason I mention my (then teenage) daughter, and hold her so responsible for it, is that when we came off she told me 'Oh yeah, Mum felt sick on this one too', knowing full well that her mother has a far 'stronger stomach' for such things than me!). In all these cases I was apparently green for some time, and certainly not back to full functionality for a couple of hours.

And that is something that non-sufferers often don't appreciate - the fact that the problem doesn't instantly cure itself when the motion stops. The body doesn't suddenly say 'Oh, that's OK now, then' - it takes a good while to realise that the 'poison' isn't an issue any more. That results in the old 'it's only 20 minutes on the train, and then you'll be fine' suggestion - that's just not how it works for many of us. That 'just' 20 minutes sets off a reaction that can sometimes last for hours.

So what makes it better when travelling? Well, the simple answer is driving - not even just going by car (people who know me know that I rarely agree to be a passenger for any length of journey, and will always prefer to drive), but actually driving. I know many people who feel the same - although there can still be a problem, it is usually nowhere near as severe and much easier to control. Again I claim no scientific expertise in the issue, but from my experience I suspect that there are several reasons for this. Firstly, driving forces you to focus constantly on an exterior horizon, which is a help with keeping the different sensory inputs consistent with one another. Secondly, the fact that you are actually in control of the means of travel means that you not only have additional inputs to help the brain interpret the signals properly (you can 'feel' what is happening through the wheel, and so on), but that you are anticipating movements to a much greater degree (because you are controlling them), which allows the brain a little more time to cope. Thirdly, in many cases the driver ends up by default in control of things like the temperature and air flow in the car - that is of critical importance to the whole issue. It's not a 'cure all', though - my girlfriend is certainly well used to the periods on journeys when I am silent, have the window open, take regular small sips of cold water and am sucking a mint. She's well aware, thankfully, that my unwillingness to speak is not because 'I'm in a mood' or anything! It's not a problem for driving standards - quite the opposite, in fact, because it forces me to concentrate utterly on what I am doing.

Now you may be getting a hint here about some of the things I'm talking about when it comes to transport policy. A big one is the push for public transport. Of course, it is much greener, and that's very important. It also helps to reduce the need for road building and maintenance, and all of the other things that come with the simple fact of there being less cars on the road. I think we should spare a thought, though, for those for whom public transport is genuinely not a viable option at the moment, unless you want them to arrive at their destination green and self-pebble-dashed, and incapable of doing anything at all for hours afterwards (which would hardly seem fair on them).

Yes of course we have to encourage more and better public transport, but we also have to consider what 'better' really means. A huge issue for travel sickness sufferers, and one that I've almost never heard mentioned in the whole debate, is the design of modern public transport vehicles. We seem to be obsessed with not only making them faster and more efficient, but also making them 'comfortable' in a sense generally accepted by many, perhaps most, people for whom motion sickness is a distant issue that seems to have little or no relevance or importance. For them, 'comfortable' seems to mean nice and warm, sealed from nasty drafts, and so on. Let me tell you - for us sufferers, there's nothing worse. I, for example, can quite easily cope with travelling in a vintage railway carriage, with open windows, lots of airflow coming from the direction of travel, cold, draughty, and so on. Yes, it's much slower and less efficient in its streamlining, and you can't use such carriages at modern ultra-high speeds, but I'd much rather spend an hour getting somewhere on that than spend 20 minutes in a relatively modern sealed and heated carriage. I'll be in a far better state when I get to where I'm going. Exactly the same applies to buses - if it's cold, there's air blowing on my face, and so on, as it used to be with those 'nasty old rattly' types of bus, it's barely an issue at all, at least on relatively short journeys - modern buses, though, are invariably utter torture, especially when packed with people and noisy with chatter (that adds to stress levels, too, which certainly doesn't help).

Don't even get me started on heated longer-distance coaches, with tiny little air vents above that might turn on if you are lucky, and might provide a whisper of air if the driver has thought to turn the relevant system on at the front! Have you ever spend large chunks of a coach journey in the usually pretty rank toilet (often the coolest place anyway!), trying to prevent yourself from continually repeating the outward flow as best you can? Believe me, it's no picnic at all, and the more modern a vehicle is, the worse it is. I can also tell you that train toilets are no more pleasant. And then there's aircraft, with their modern insistence on improving efficiency by reducing air circulation and cleaning. And bendy-buses - they are absolutely hideous things to travel on, no matter which bit you are sitting in.

We must be able to design transport vehicles in a much better way, with these issues in mind. Of course, some people might complain about them being cold and draughty, but ultimately they can put a jumper on - surely better for some to have to wear a coat than for others to have to wear the contents of their own stomach! Indeed, in a train scenario it might be possibly to have specified 'cold' and 'warm' carriages - obviously we can't have open windows at 100 MPH plus, but we can have a decent rate of vented and/or forced cold air flow in the relevant direction, to help the sense of motion sickness sufferers cope with the potential disconnect (cold air flow, in the correct direction, is a huge factor). There may be other things we can consider too (suspension systems, and so on - I couldn't put my finger on why, but more modern suspension systems, where you don't 'feel the bumps on the road' so much, seems to me to make things far worse, and sideways rolling is another big contributory factor), but the main thing is that we need to take the issue seriously and consider it as something important. At the moment we clearly aren't doing that at all, or not anywhere near seriously enough to design stuff that works for many motion sickness sufferers.

If we want to be getting the many people like me out of our cars and on to public transport, we have to make public transport far more usable for us than it currently is. Currently, it really is just not an option for many people - when we wonder why some people are still glued to driving along in their own cars (not even doing car sharing), we have to recognise that that is likely to be a significant issue for quite a number of them. We can't simply pretend that the problem isn't a serious one, or a significant one worthy of consideration in transport policy in terms  - it's really quite common, and a very big issue for those who suffer.

Last year I had to travel to a conference in Glasgow, from South Wales. Almost without exception, my friends and colleagues were taking various modes of public transport (some train, some coach, some plane - the practical differences between those modes for me are negligible). Needless to say, I was driving myself. There are, of course, certain other advantages to my chosen mode of transport - the minute I got out of the hotel to make the return journey, I was in 'my own space', with my own music, my own control of conditions, my own schedule, and even the ability to smoke (not having smoking at all on public transport is another issue for some people, but that's a somewhat different subject). I was driving for one reason, though, and one reason alone - it was, quite simply, the only way I could get there without vomiting, though it took me considerably longer to get there than many others (and of course I'd be quite happy to have a reduced journey time, if I could, and getting there without the fatigue of having driven all day). Though I guess I'm quite a serious sufferer, I know I'm certainly not unique, and there are many, many more people who suffer less severely for whom it can still be a significant consideration.

This has real implications for policy-making, and it is something that needs to be considered. When we're looking at designing policy, systems and vehicles, we have to be asking ourselves whether they are the best that they can be to allow the maximum number of people to use them. We also have to ask ourselves what alternatives there are for people who are not able to use them. That consideration becomes important again as the increasing probability arises of 'driver-less cars' a driver-less car makes you a passenger, but being a passenger really isn't an appropriate option for some people. There will always have to be some recognition of the fact that some things are not appropriate for everyone. We really can't ban car driving, or begin to price it out of practical existence, without putting people who suffer from a fairly common and potentially very debilitating condition at a severe disadvantage in life (and viable travel is an inevitably important aspect of opportunity in the modern world). It might not be a visible condition, but it is certainly a condition that we have to take seriously - without doing so, we run a real risk of actually discriminating in practical ways against people, on the grounds of a fairly common health condition.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

DON'T wear your poppy with 'pride'.

It's coming to the time of year when there is a myriad of Social Media posts about how we should all be wearing our poppy 'with pride'. Some of that, of course, is being driven by shady (and more blatant) far-right extremist groups, trying to piggy-back onto the whole thing in order to increase their social media reach and lay the foundations for more overt extreme nationalist sentiments. Britain First (and their various alternatively-titled manifestations) are the most obvious example of a group who have been doing this successfully for a few years now, but they are not the only ones by any means. Some have gone so far as to sell their own poppies (not even supporting the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal, which is actually a big part of the point of the poppy adornment itself), with their own additional 'patriotic' slogans.

With the Oldham West and Royton by-election coming up, UKIP have launched into a full-scale campaign of supposed 'patriotism', specifically against Jeremy Corbyn (partly related to rumours about his potential non-poppy-wearing, as well as stuff about him not singing the anthem, being a republican, and so on)), and don't for a second think that they don't know exactly what they are doing in that. I've posted before here about the dangers of the language that has been used about refugees, and what we need to learn from history such things. This kind of 'patriotic' language is really no different, and no less dangerous. As author Michael Rosen very wisely wrote:

"I sometimes fear that people might think that fascism arrives in fancy dress worn by grotesques and monsters as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. Fascism arrives as your friend. It will restore your honour, make you feel proud, protect your house, give you a job, clean up the neighbourhood, remind you of how great you once were, clear out the venal and the corrupt, remove anything you feel is unlike you...It doesn't walk in saying, "Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution."

This is the very grave danger that we all need to be aware about with that kind of 'patriotism', and trying to appeal on an emotive level to feelings of 'national pride'. And there's that word again - 'pride'. Right wing groups are trying to tie the poppy as a symbol up with 'patriotism' and 'national pride', as if it were a symbol of celebration for our great military victories as a country. It is not. It never has been, and it was never intended to be.

The use of the poppy comes from this famous poem, of course:

In Flanders' fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders' fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders' Fields.

Now of course you might suggest that the final verse could be suggested as having some kind of 'patriotic' edge in terms of carrying on the fight, but the tone of the poem is very obviously about remembrance - about never forgetting the sacrifices made by the fallen, and not letting their deaths be in vain. And that is what the poppy really represents, in my opinion - not the glory of war, nor the glory of a country, but remembrance of the sacrifices that have been made in war (and not just the one war now, obviously), and of course remembrance of the sacrifices still being made in war today.

These right wing groups are trying to hijack that (partly on the basis of a very tiny minority group who have similarly misinterpreted the whole thing, and objected to the symbol - any such group is also completely missing the point, in my opinion) into some kind of almost infantile 'ain't Britain brilliant' thing, lurching as far as they can beyond mere nationalism and into xenophobia (often aimed, of course, at Muslims, conveniently ignoring the fact that many thousands of Muslims also lost their lives fighting for Britain in the Great War). They are trying to play with the emotions of those who quite rightly want to remember those who sacrificed their lives to make them feel that those soldiers doing so was something 'glorious' done to defend against 'the other'. In other words, it's just another attempt by them to try to subtly persuade people that 'the other' is something to be feared and hated - that 'foreigners' (especially Muslims) are both 'dangerous' and inherently 'anti-British', and that the poppy is somehow a symbol of that 'anti-foreign-ness'. Nothing more than another manipulative ruse, of course, but one that is seemingly being missed by many, including in the media.

We need not only to defeat the ideas of such people, but to understand what they are trying to do in terms of the way they are trying to manipulate people into supporting their hateful agenda. They are actually trying to make people feel guilty and 'un-British', not only for not wearing a poppy, if that is what they choose to do, but even also for not treating the poppy as a symbol of nationalistic pride and the 'patriotic superiority' of the UK over other nations. We shouldn't be fooled by this. It is not some benign sentiment of support for 'our boys' that they are really expressing - far from it.

Of course, there are some (and Jeremy Corbyn has been speculating as one who might) who choose to wear a white poppy rather than a red one. The justification for this is related to the idea of supporting 'peace not war', and the like, on the basis of seeing the red poppy as being some kind of almost 'pro-war' symbol. Personally I think that somewhat misses the point of the red poppy - if you think that commemorating those who have lost their lives is a 'glorification' of war itself in any way, then I don't think you're really thinking hard enough about it. That's up to them, though - the main issue is in the act of remembrance itself, not in simple having the right symbol pinned to your coat.

Remembrance commemorations, and their associated poppy, are not about 'celebrating our achievements in war'. They are not about 'celebrating our wonderful nation'. They are not about 'patriotism' or 'nationalism' at all. They are about remembering those who sacrificed - those who lost their lives in war. They are about the opposite of 'glorification' - they serve as a reminder about the horrors of war, and exactly why we should try to avoid war from happening. How can a person have 'pride' in remembering people who have died on the battlefield? The very idea has horrific implications.

To digress slightly into something very personal for a moment, as a young lad (I guess about 8 or 9) I was taken (as part of a family holiday) to Ypres. I wandered around preserved trenches in the area, stood at the Menin Gate as the Last Post was sounded, visited war cemeteries and visited museums in the area. It made a massive impression on me, and one that is still with me today - indeed there are some pictures I saw then that still remain etched into my brain, though I haven't seen them since. It was a large part of prompting a life-long interest for me in history, and the Great War in particular. The enormity of what happened then, and what happened just a few years later in the Second War, are things that I have spent a great deal of time contemplating, and the sacrifice of those who lost their lives is something that hangs over all of that like a shroud, and I'm sure dictates my own wider attitudes to modern warfare and those who are doing their duty today. While I do not always agree with the actions of politicians in sending soldiers to into combat, I could not be more supportive of those who put their lives on the line every day - that's about humanity, though, not about narrow, nationalistic 'pride'. I'm certainly not 'proud' that in the modern world we are still having to send human beings out to risk their lives, and take the lives of others - that fact is not something 'glorious' at all.

Personally, I do usually wear a poppy at this time of year. The only time I do not, and the only reason I ever do not, is if I happen to simply not have been somewhere where they have been on sale (it happens very occasionally - I do have one this year, though). I will not be one of those people who carefully keeps a poppy stored away, or buys some kind of non-British Legion everlasting badge to show how 'proud' I am. Part of the pint of the poppy is to contribute to the appeal, so I make sure that when I wear one that is what I have done. In wearing one, and in considering what I am doing and why, I certainly do not wear it 'with pride'. Far from it - I wear it with remembrance, with reverence, with reflection. I wear it with sorrow and with sadness for the great losses that war has brought to so many people, families and communities. I wear it in mourning, to remind myself that people have given their lives, and are still risking and giving their lives, to do their duty for their (and my) country. I wear it in mourning for the great waste of humanity that war brings. That is what I think it should really be all about.

Above is one example of poetry from the first world war, and I will give you another - 'Futility' by Wilfred Owen. Though the symbolic poppy is quite rightly no longer about just that one war, that is where it originated, and is still very relevant in considering exactly what wearing a poppy should be all about. 

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?

That is what we are really talking about when we remember those who lost their lives in war (all war) - not the 'glory' of it, but the sheer, numbing pain of those who endure such losses, and the sheer waste of human life. If anybody can feel 'pride' in that remembrance in any way, then I think they really have to take a long, hard look at themselves and what they are thinking. There is nothing whatsoever there to be 'proud' about.

Wear a poppy, by all means - it's a very good thing to do, of course. Wear it with reflection. Wear it with respect. Wear it with remembrance. Wear it with reverence. Wear it with sorrow. Wear it with sadness. Wear it to show your support for all those human beings who lost their lives, and for those human beings who continue to risk their lives. But don't wear it with 'pride' - that's really not what it's about at all.

In my opinion, if anybody wears their poppy 'with pride', then they are simply doing it wrong.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Reflections on the Rugby World Cup 2015

Firstly, on looking back at the Rugby World cup, I have to give hearty congratulations to hosts England, and to everybody who was involved in putting on what was, in general, a fantastic tournament. What most characterised its success for me was the success of the 'smaller' rugby nations in improving their competitiveness across the board. Japan, Namibia, Georgia, etc. should be congratulated on their hard work, as indeed should everyone in World Rugby for the efforts that have clearly been put in to spreading and improving the game outside of the traditional heartland nations. On the strength of this tournament, it would be hard to say that Rugby Union has anything other than a bright future as a worldwide sport.

On the subject of those developing rugby nations, one idea that really caught me as a positive move would be to include a 'plate' competition at the next world cup for teams knocked out at the pool stage, rather than just sending them home. Getting those players is a huge commitment for them and their Rugby Unions, and the more that can be made of it the better it is for everyone, and for the sport as a whole. That plate competition would see them continue for at least one more game, and could also include the automatic qualification for the following World Cup as part of the incentive for teams to really have something to play for. There has also been talk of increasing the size of the 6 Nations and its Southern Hemisphere equivalent, or having second tier competitions with promotion and relegation to those top tournaments. I would favour the latter type of option, otherwise we'll end up with international players in a tournament so long that they virtually no longer play domestic rugby, which I think would be a mess! I'm not sure that we are quite there yet in terms of promotion and relegation, but I do think World Rugby should now be looking at creating stronger formal 'second tier' annual competitions on a regional basis, with a view to having a system of play-off qualifications to get into the top tournament at some point a few years down the line. Initially, I would suggest that it be an 'extra' team in each competition rather than including relegation - while developing the sport in other countries, I don't really think it would be a good idea to risk the profile of the sport within the existing nations.

Having congratulated England on their hosting, I next obviously have to commiserate them on being the first hosts ever to go out of the cup in the pool stages. This fact will obviously be hurting them a lot, but I think they need to be very wary of overreacting - there seems to be something akin to a panicked witch-hunt going on in the RFU, and it's not only potentially very divisive and damaging to the English game, but also pretty unnecessary. Ultimately, we all knew that the 'Pool of Death' was going to result in one of three 'top' rugby nations going out, and it really could have been any one of the three. That it was England came down to one probably poor decision, and a few points, at the end of a very tight and even game that could easily have gone either way. There has to be a review of what happened, as there should be for every nation at the tournament, but the level of panic and recrimination that seems to be hitting the whole England set up seems to me to be over the top. The team, RFU and the fans have to be philosophical about it - the team were in many way a young and 'transitional' group who, realistically, were not really going to be in a position to win the tournament. England needs to accept that (though accepting perceived 'under-performance' as being anything other than catastrophic and unjustified failure seems to be a feature of English sport, unfortunately) and move on - yes, look at how things can be improved, but don't start wielding axes and blame here, there and everywhere, and also don't (as some seem to be suggesting) try to roll the clock back to 2003 in some kind of rose-tinted, UKIP style 'make us great again' campaign. The game has moved on, and will continue to move on, so moving backwards isn't likely to improve things much.

Of course, England's loss was Wales's gain. All of us in Wales feared for a team that was hit by some very key injuries on the cusp of the tournament. The replacements who came in, though, along with the rest of the team, certainly did their nation proud. Had all of the players been fit, we could certainly speculate that we could have gone further, and perhaps indeed all the way - that's mere speculation, of course, but I think we did suffer somewhat as a result of the missing players, especially in attack. To put it bluntly, when you're camped on the opposition line for 10 minutes when they are down to 13 men and you still can't get over the line, something ain't right. Not to take anything away from the defenders for their efforts, of course, but we lacked that cutting edge in attack. It's been a problem for some years now - undoubtedly one of the best defences in international rugby, but a lack of imagination and clinical operations in attack. We don't seem to have anyone able to run those clever lines that break through defences, even when everyone is fit (and when we do, we all too often drop the ball anyway!) - oh for an Alan Bateman! It's not just a player issues, though - those things can be planned and coached, and they don't seem to be. It's still 'Plan A' or 'Plan A'. There has been talk about Wales possibly not holding on to the defensive coach, and possibly looking at some coaching changes - it's quite clearly, I would say, in attack that we need to try something new.

Still, overall I think we should celebrate a tournament that was more successful for Wales than it certainly could have been given the context of injuries and pool draws, and the players should be hailed for a mammoth effort and putting everything on the line - I don't want to go mad with identifying individuals (frankly, I could go through the whole team and praise the lot of them!), but it would be wrong to not mention the incredible work of Dan Biggar throughout - he was not alone, of course, but he was immense. Also Alun Wyn Jones - as good as ever, and deservedly up for 'World Player of the Year' consideration. I'd also like to mention Alex Cuthbert, who has come in for a great deal of stick, and even abuse, from some. He was out of form - we knew that, and he knew that - had we not had so many injuries, he probably wouldn't have played. I've never been his biggest fan as a player anyway, I must admit, but while he wasn't 'perfect' in the tournament, he certainly put in a shift and put in maximum effort. He gave absolutely everything when I'm sure he knew that he wasn't at his best, and I don't think he can be criticised at all for that. He certainly did not 'let the side down' at all. Overall, those that came in to replace the injured showed that we have a little more strength in depth in Wales that we sometimes seem to think, and there are some great young players coming through too. There's no reason for Wales to fear for the future at all.

Now we come to the strange case of collapsing Ireland. What happened there? They should have been, on form, the Northern Hemisphere side with the best chance of getting to the final at least. They were motoring along quietly through the pool stages, and seemed to be almost cruising. Maybe that was the problem - perhaps they underestimated the new Argentina, and just didn't pick themselves up enough for the serious challenge they presented. They also, of course, lost a couple of key 'leaders' for that game, but an international side with the level of experience that they have in their ranks should really have been able to cope with that. The fact that they didn't has to be something of a worry for them. Ireland seem, for some reason, to be a team that 'chokes' on some big occasions, and this is the worst example of it. Even with their injuries, they should have been the better side, or at least able to compete more than effectively - on the day, they were comprehensively outclassed. Some of those senior players are heading towards the end of their international careers now, so the next few years could be tough if they don't learn from the experience and bounce back straight away in the Six Nations.

And so on to Scotland. Poor Scotland, but what an incredible effort they put in. That was a game that, let's be honest, nobody seriously thought they would produce in this tournament. Of all the Northern Hemisphere sides, Scotland were the ones written off as 'most likely to go out in the pool stages'. There have for a few years been glimpses of what the team might be capable of in the slightly longer term, but nothing to suggest that they could do what they would have done if it weren't for one or two critical decisions (more about that in a moment!). I see that Greig Laidlaw is also up for consideration as World Player of the Year, and rightly so - he had an immense tournament of calm control, as did so many others in that Scotland side. They confounded all expectations, and, along with Argentina and Japan, have to be hailed as the surprise packages of the tournament. There's so much for Scotland to build on now, and they should be very positive for the future if they can keep building on this platform.

Having mentioned Scotland, we have to talk about the elephant in the room. The refereeing. There were some really bad examples over the tournament as a whole, but that Scotland result was one made by refereeing error. I think we can conclusively say that Scotland should have gone through. I'm not going to go into details about the penalty that shouldn't have been and the TMO that couldn't have been consulted in those circumstances - that is something that World Rugby has to look at very carefully. For my money, if there is any doubt about a decision when play has already stopped, then the ref should be able to go to the TMO. More critical for me was the late hit on Hogg a minute or two before that that was missed by both on-field officials and the TMO, and as much as questions are being sked about Joubert, there also has to be an examination of why TMO Ben Skeen missed such an obvious example of foul play - as TMO, he should be reviewing something like that. It's quite clear to me that the player hit late, could have easily pulled out, and led with his shoulder - that, for me, is a clear yellow card and, according to the rules, a penalty where the ball landed (and that was a big kick), 15 metres in. That would have changed everything, and before we even got to the supposed deliberate offside decision it would probably have been game over. Referees are human - they will always make the odd mistake (even Nigel Owens in the Final, along with Wayne Barnes, managed to miss a glaring forward pass). That's fine - part of the game that should even out. However, when such refereeing decisions will actually clearly change the result of a game in the last minute or two, everything has to be done to make sure that the decision made is the right one. That's something that the authorities need to get a tighter grip on - it's not the first time it's happened.

Finally, I want to just say a few words about the UK's TV coverage from ITV. Frankly, it was awful. The choice of 'experts' was far from universally good, but more than that it was far from balanced. It relied very heavily throughout on ex-England people, some of whom felt it was appropriate to always be turning the conversation towards England in games where they weren't playing, and even after they had packed their bags and gone home (and some of whom were barely coherent at times - does anybody know that Wilkinson was waffling on about after the final?!). The UK is not England, and, more than that, in an international tournament you are also hosting fans from all over the world - there has to be a more balanced view, with input from each nation playing as well as a 'neutral'. It's fair enough to have an English (host) neutral, of course, but they did not have, as far as I could tell, any analyst (commentary or studio) from any non-English speaking country. You need that input - there are many ex-players who will speak reasonable English, of course, and people are actually able to cope with hearing a 'foreign accent'. Rugby coverage is not a UKIP conference! Many of the 'experts' (the commentary analysts during the final, for example - both English) seemed to have little idea of what to say or how to say it in such a way that it was a useful or illuminating comment. On top of that, directors often seemed to have little idea about the use of replays during the game - what to replay and when. On the Friday evening before the Third Place Play-off match, I watched a Pro12 game between the Scarlets and the Dragons. Not only was it a much better game (the 3rd place match was probably the least good of the tournament, IMO!), but the TV coverage and commentary were such a massive relief from what ITV had been offering.  ITV should really sit down and watch (and listen to - in particular to a superb commentary team like Gareth Charles and Jonathan Davies) such BBC coverage before they do any more - just do it like that, because they actually know what they are doing!

So there we have it - my comments on the Rugby World Cup 2015. There were some frustrations and annoyances, but overall it was a fantastic spectacle filled with great rugby and a wonderful advert for the game. Bring on 2019!