Saturday, 7 October 2017

Is No Deal Better Than a Bad Deal?

Under the 1667 Treaty of Breda that ended the second Anglo Dutch war, England kept Manhattan, which it had seized from the Netherlands three years earlier, while the Dutch gained the island of Run, which had been the only English outpost in the Indonesian Spice Islands. It seems crazy that the Dutch should have relinquished part-ownership of a continent in order to gain full control of a small island. However, at the time it was seen as a good deal, for it enabled the Dutch to realise their dream of a nutmeg monopoly, since the ten Banda Islands were home to all the world’s nutmeg trees. I don’t know how valuable the nutmeg crop is these days but, since I have had a jar of the spice in my cupboard for at least 20 years, I guess it is not the fastest-moving of commodities. Manhattan, on the other hand, has turned out to be a hot piece of real estate (despite being originally a swamp) and a global financial centre. It seems it is all about location after all.
Of course it is a pity for the Brits that they were unable to hold on to Manhattan long enough to get the real benefit of its subsequent development. They need not have lost it in 1783, since independence was not the preferred option of all colonists. However, their clumsy and unsympathetic governance led to a war they were bound to lose and, ever since, Manhattan and London have been rivals in the real-estate and finance sectors. It was small consolation, I suspect, that the British finally figured out how to cultivate nutmeg trees in Malaysia in the 19th century.
There is no doubt that Britain’s economic strength is a mere shadow of its former self, yet the fact seems to be taking a while to sink in to the consciousness of some natives, notably those who are cushioned by private wealth against the reality of public poverty. Speaking of whom, these last few days have seen central Manchester heavily guarded by police, as the governing Conservative Party holds its annual conference here. The city is a Labour Party stronghold, so the Conservatives’ choice of location is not easily explained: it could be a tactical – if vain – move to win the hearts and minds of Northerners; or it may be that they were offered cheap, off-season room rates; it could even be that Mancunians encouraged them to come here so that they could ridicule them at close-quarters; whatever the reason for their presence, it is tolerated rather than welcomed. Our severely depleted police force has drafted in reinforcements from around the region, making it a good time for burglars and other petty criminals to operate without fear of being nicked.
On Sunday there was a big rally organised by Trades Unions and associated organisations to demonstrate opposition to the Government’s policy of continuing austerity in the provision of public services. The speeches at the rally went down well – as may be expected when preaching to the converted – and everyone set off to march through the streets to the conference centre where they intended to make a great deal of noise so that the Conservatives would feel even more uncomfortable than they probably already did. The idea was a good one, except that the distance between the delegates in the hall and the police perimeter around it was so great as to nullify the effect.
Meanwhile, anti-Brexiteers were also demonstrating nearby in the hope of persuading their few Conservative sympathisers to pressure the Government into changing direction. However, while it attempts to “negotiate” its way out of thousands of laws, treaties and obligations and ignores the real business of government, we remain on course to ‘go Dutch’ and relinquish our part-share in a continent in order to gain full control of a small – and fragmenting – island.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Health and Security

The friendly staff at my medical centre suggested I might like to establish an online account to access my medical records via my own portal. It seemed a good idea, more reliable and comprehensive than my own tatty file of random NHS papers received over the years, so I went ahead. At first, I was alarmed to discover that the service is outsourced to a private company – more evidence of the ‘creeping privatisation’ of our treasured NHS, I thought – but I reconciled this concern with the argument that the NHS should concentrate on providing medical treatment and leave the management of data and websites to specialists in the field. So I now have a health-record portal and – aside from the fact that the accessible information is presented in unintelligible doctor-speak – a small problem: I have acquired another password.
In our household, the responsibility for keeping passwords lies with me, by default. I will not reveal the method employed to store them but let’s just say it may not be 100% hack-proof and that, in a discussion with my partner about this, I was volunteered to research the various apps that purport to keep passwords secret yet available to each of us whenever and wherever required. There are several such apps but their descriptions do not explain quite how they work: that becomes apparent only when you have downloaded them, created an account (with yet another password) and attempted to use them in the way you imagined they might perform. After an hour or so of trial-and-error, my frustration level rose to the point where physical violence threatened to break out and I decided to take a gym-break.
Down at the gym, however, things were no better. Knowing my membership was about to expire, I had taken my credit card with me. “You can renew via your online portal,” said the harassed-looking manager. “Maybe,” I said, “but I established my account long before you were born and the system no longer recognises it.” He hacked grumpily into my account, hit the ‘renew’ button and demanded from me a sum way above what I had budgeted. I protested and, when it turned out that the system was indeed overcharging, he had to complete the transaction by manual over-ride. I did my best not to appear smug.
The next day I received an email from the gym explaining to me how “becoming healthier and more active is easier than ever.”  But I already know that, I thought: eat a balanced diet and walk more. How much easier can it be? I read on and discovered that my simplistic approach is regarded as primitive, unsophisticated and entirely inadequate to keep me at the peak of personal fitness. Apparently, I should login to internet-connected Technogym equipment to access my training programmes, record my body measurements, connect with popular nutritional apps and devices and share my data with my personal trainer. I am already worried about privatisation of the NHS, now I detect a sneaky attempt to monetise the very fitness regime that I employ to avoid requiring its services in the first place. How prescient of H.G. Wells to observe, “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”
The next time I went to the gym, there was some good news: I no longer have to remember a passcode to get through the turnstile. Instead, they gave me a rubber bracelet with an embedded chip to present for entry. I suspect, however, that it also records data such as when you come and go, how frequently and what you get up to while you are there. How long before all of this pops up on my NHS portal accompanied, no doubt, by ads for nutritional supplements and discounted life insurance?

Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Light Bulb Joke

How many men does it take to change a light bulb? Just one – as long as he is a qualified and experienced electrician. The bulb in question is, in fact, an LED embedded deep in a recessed fitting in my kitchen ceiling. When I had the old light fittings replaced three years ago, I was so enthralled by the reassurance that these new LEDs offered low energy consumption and incredible longevity that I gave no more thought to their eventual replacement than a teenager would give to retirement options. However, this morning, as I balanced on a dining chair with the beam of my head torch flickering weakly on the ceiling and struggled to extract the ‘bulb’ that had been blinking for several days, I had cause to question my lack of foresight and regret my ignorance of advanced lighting technology.
I had been putting off the task until I had resolved another household technical issue, the supposedly essential software upgrade to our mobile phones. (My partner and I have the same model for reasons to do with convenience and domestic harmony.) While I accept that technological advances are necessarily cumulative and that obsolescence is all part of that process, I am also wary of the disruption to one’s routines that can result. In this case, just when I thought I had my digital affairs in order, Microsoft decided to fiddle with my filing system and reorganise it in such a labyrinthine fashion that I had to spend days finding stuff. It’s a bit like having someone ‘tidy’ your study in your absence without your permission and finding, when you return, that they have gone AWOL, leaving you to cope on your own with the anxiety of lost folders and shredded to-do lists.
Of course, I had a cunning plan to minimise the anticipated pain of updating our phones: it was to try it first on mine. There is only one thing worse than getting in a pickle with your phone and that is screwing up your partner’s: the ensuing recriminations bring even more pain. In the end – despite the tensions and the moments of panic – this proved to be a successful strategy, though it left me drained and with some residual tidying-up of stray apps and unfamiliar ring-tones. Then, flushed with success, I came to tackle the light bulb. Perhaps I should have taken a few days for recovery, for my failure here tested my resilience and found it wanting. Defeated, I phoned the electrician and retreated to the tranquillity of the coffee bar in the lobby of a nearby hotel, where I calmed myself over a cappuccino, pondering the while whether tech-anxiety really is related to ageing. Not that I regard myself as old. Only a few evenings previously, while walking in the company of an even older man, a tout approached and offered us free entry tickets to a local lap-dancing club. When I protested our dignified senior status, the young whipper-snapper winked and said “You’re never too old, gents.” We declined his offer, not only because we were on our way to dinner with our partners, the two ladies walking a few yards ahead of us.
Meanwhile, the calm of the hotel lobby had the desired effect and, with no wi-fi connection, I felt cosseted within an old-fashioned environment, safe from the thrusting, youthful demands of technology. I was reading old-style print and came across this quote: There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of the people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will have truly defeated age. The author was not a renowned philosopher, but that goddess of the silver screen, Sophia Loren. I’ll bet she also would have been able to tell me how many men it takes to change a light bulb.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Leeds Man

On Radio 4’s humorous programme Have I Got News for You! I once heard a piece in which the participants were challenged to invent a headline for the Great Fire of London in 1666, as reported by their chosen newspaper. One of them came up with “The Yorkshire Post – Leeds Man’s Jacket Badly Singed.”
The lack of empathy for the plight of those outside one’s immediate circle is both the joke and the tragedy. What prompted its recall was the media coverage of the destruction caused by hurricanes in the Americas and the monsoons in the Asian countries of India, Bangladesh and Nepal. The tepidity of my sympathy for the victims of those events made me feel somewhat ashamed. What little empathy I did manage to summon was, in any case, overshadowed by my outrage that the coverage of the Atlantic storms was far more extensive than that of the Asian floods, despite the latter having affected millions more people and much weaker economies. And my outrage was further stoked by the sight of President Trump, Climate-Change-Denier-in-Chief, professing sympathy with his electorate’s problems while, in practical terms, conspiring with industrial leaders to exacerbate them.
However, just as I was lamenting (and making excuses for) my empathy- deficit, I heard a news item that helped me feel a little better about myself. It concerned a child who has total lack of empathy. The ensuing discussion concerned the causes of such a condition, social and/or hereditary, and the extent to which it can be rectified. The hereditary cause is not so common, which is fortunate for all of us as it is difficult, if not impossible, to reverse and sociopaths are not nice people to live with. Extreme cases, such as the one featured, do not care whether their condition is fixed and may, therefore, undergo years of ineffective psychoanalysis, or end up incarcerated as criminals – or both. Social causes are easier to reverse.
Most of us, however, are socialised to the extent that we can agree to get along together most of the time. We have learned to appreciate the concept of humanity and we are, therefore, susceptible to modifying selfish behaviours accordingly. Humanity may be defined as the quality of compassion or consideration for others, but what that encompasses is not straightforward. The boundaries of your humanity depend on which moral code you are signed up for – or are co-opted into. If, for example, your ethical code is defined by adherence to a religious creed that will not countenance homosexuality as normal human behaviour, it is unlikely that you will be compassionate towards homosexuals who are ostracised.
For those whose values are secular, there is the notion of a social contract – an arrangement whereby society attempts to form a consensual agreement on what does and does not constitute behaviour that is compassionate and considerate of all its members. However, since so many diverse and evolving ideas, beliefs and biases have to be added into such an equation, this is necessarily a constant work-in-progress.
The hope of the secularist-humanitarian is that the evolution of the social contract will progress towards eliminating bias, prejudice and injustice in the interest of fostering humane systems of governance. Optimistically, one can point to the spread of these ideals – the United Nations embraces them and has four agencies devoted to delivering humanitarian aid to people affected by both man-made and natural disasters (though it is often hindered by international politics). However, institutional altruism such as this originates in the hearts of humans and, while it is said that charity begins at home, we must all be thankful that it does not always stop there. The Leeds Man story reminded me of that.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Pencil Factory

I have never been to the Pencil Museum at Keswick in the Lake District. It has always seemed too limited a concept on which to spend time, though it may well be worthy and I expect it is popular with holidaymakers committed to spending a week or so in a region where, whatever the season, rain can drive everyone indoors. We campervanners, however, have no need to hang around and wait for the sky to clear: we just ‘up-sticks’ and move on. (Although I suppose that phrase needs updating, since it originates from a time when a wanderer’s shelter comprised canvas supported by wooden poles.)
I was in the Lake District this week to rendezvous with an old friend. We don’t see each other often so we both arrived the evening before our planned hike around Langdale Pikes. After supper at the local pub, we settled in to our campsite for the night – as did the rain. The next day’s forecast, fortunately, was “brighter later” so we set off enthusiastically, our conversation ranging from nostalgia, through updates on family and mutual acquaintances, to current affairs and shared cultural interests. The walking became strenuous towards the end, especially where we lost our bearings for a while, but at its conclusion, we congratulated ourselves on having sufficiently youthful limbs to carry us through and arranged to meet again soon for another hike – in Norfolk, perhaps.
Back at camp I was ‘upping-sticks’ when a neighbouring campervanner approached me to ask whether I had a set of Allen keys. “Yes,” I said. “I have a comprehensive tool-box that I have been carrying for about thirty years and I am delighted that, at last, my prudence has paid off.” He was also delighted – on his own behalf – and explained that, like me, he normally has Allen keys to hand but, being from Australia and in a hired vehicle, was without the means to tighten his loose fitting. Men who fix things are called ‘blokes’ as opposed to ‘chaps’ or ‘lads’, neither of which categories seems to signal the inclination or ability to mend broken stuff.
With the rest of the day free, I decided to drive home via one of the visitor attractions – Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage or The World of Beatrix Potter, perhaps. However, being a bit of a bloke, I opted instead for the bobbin mill at Stott Park. It ceased production in 1971, the last of sixty such factories in the region, which sprang up because of the plentiful supply of trees for coppicing and water for powering machinery. Their ready customer base was the cotton industry of nearby Lancashire. The mill ended its days powered by electric motors, though they were – and still are – attached to the original belt and pulley system that drives all the equipment, so our tour guide was able to demonstrate bobbin-making.
From a mechanical/industrial-ingenuity perspective, the whole set-up, which began in 1835, is admirable and fascinating, but our guide was careful to remind us, from behind a retro-fitted safety-guard, of the human cost of these early industrial endeavours. Boys had to serve a seven-year apprenticeship just to qualify for a lifetime working twelve hours a day, five and a half days a week at a single, repetitive and inherently dangerous task, for which they received only subsistence wages. Things may have changed (for some of us) but vestiges of our industrial past are embedded in our language, reminding us how hard it was. For example, the mill workers were obliged to buy their own hand tools so that they would be sure to look after them. If they left the job having worked well they were given a sack to carry them away in, but if they left under a cloud of disapprobation their tools were thrown in the fire. Better to be sacked than fired. Either way, you could always try your luck at the pencil factory. They were tough times for workers – and they still are: the gig economy, with its self-employment and zero-hours contracts is proof that exploitation never went away – it just changed its image.