Monday, 9 March 2015

United Colours of The Port, Greenock and Paisley too.

On Friday night I went along to the New Hellfire Club's music shop in the Hidden Lane area of Argyle St in Glasgow to watch the amazing James 'Bar' Bowen and Johnny Campbell. While I was there, I picked up a copy of San Fran and the Siscos​'s EP. It included a music version of a poem by Jim Monaghan​ called "United Colours of Cumnock". I've had it's words and rhythm going around my head all weekend.
While the poem is set in the Ayrshire town of Cumnock, it reminds me just as much about Port Glasgow where I went to High School, Greenock where I spent much of my late teenage years, and Paisley where I have come to live now. I have to think long and hard about any night out that I have had in these towns that hasn't fallen down the conversational pithole of "where are you from?"

I was born in the west end of Glasgow, but then grew up in the relatively well off village of Langbank (catchment area for Port Glasgow High School), before going back to Glasgow for University, it's a hard question for me to answer in a confident manner. I've had my house in Gallowhill, Paisley, for around 9 years now, yet I feel that I'm not allowed to respond to the question and call it my home. It's always followed up by "yeah, but you're not from here, where did you go to school?". I left school in 2001, the people asking the question probably left many years before that.

If it's not my accent, it's my shyness, or my reluctance to pepper every fucking sentence with another fucking swearword in front of fucking strangers. I am more than likely politically aligned with most of the people I meet in Scottish bars (in that, I mean that I don't tend to hang out in the Bullingdon clubs of Glasgow nor am I Little Lord Fauntleroy observing the citizens), yet they have a scepticism of me based on something I have no control over.

Yet, despite this, I don't move away. I don't think I really feel an attachment to any other place in the country. I tried living in Dundee for a few years, but the city didn't ever really click with me. Strange, since on paper it should have done so, especially with some of the closest friends that I've met up there.

That said, I have tried living in New York too, and if money, commitments, and lifestyle had allowed I doubt I would have boarded the return flight.

Why? Because it gave me most of the things that I love about living in the west coast of Scotland, but without the bagagge of classrooms, football, and hypothetical silver spoons. Hell, I even found myself living in an area with not that dissimilar an economic demographic to that of Gallowhill. Pub conversations were an anxiety-free utopia where no one that I met cared for where I came from beyond the door of the bar (once we'd established that I wasn't from Ireland, and didn't know their pal from Edinburgh).

Anyway, this wasn't meant to be a well formed blog post, more a way of bringing an amazing and brilliant poem to your attention. It hasn't helped me to truly understand why I'm drawn back here, but it made me think about it.

by Jim Monaghan 

My town is a green town, but it's not a 'fuck the queen' green town,
it's a tree in every scene town,
wae gairdens freshly dug.
That's green that pours through every crack,
through pavements, viaducts, fitba' parks,
where men who suffer heart attacks,
go walks wae three-leg dugs.

My town is a blue town, a 'who the fuck are you' town,
a 'what school did you go to' town
and 'are you one of us?'
That's blue that seeps through doors and walls,
fae pubs and bookies, village halls,
where men would guard old Derry's walls,
instead o' guarding us.

My town was once a red town, another miner dead town,
a men who fought and bled town,
wae brave and stalwart wives.
That's red that came fae meeting rooms,
fae folk that worked the pumps and looms.
when burgh bands played different tunes,
and we marched for better lives.

But now my town's a grey town, a 50 mils a day town,
a watch life slip away town,
a tunnel wae nae light.
That's grey that weeps fae dying eyes,
bewildered parents, children's cries,
wae skinny arms and stick-like thighs,
and nae strength left to fight.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Digitally encoding ourselves

In the history of mankind, has there ever been a technology that has had as massive an effect on our social interactions as the internet? Sure, the ability to transmit information from city to city via pigeon reduced the amount of social engagement on the horse-drawn highways, and the data transmit rates of around 6 words per week allowed us to plan for war, but our day to day relationships with friends were unchanged.

Radio came along and increased the availability of information, but still humans would go out and meet other humans to discuss the events over a tea or a coffee, with perceptions of their closest friends unchanged unless an argument should arise. Even then, at least it was face to face with the right to reply.

Telephones took us from the safe and private walls of our houses to the mercy of a ringing bell. I know you that you don't have to answer a ringing phone, but I always feel equal parts "what fresh hell is this?" and "this might be good news".

Television's emergence in the 40s and 50s did have a greater effect on social activities, first it was the parents who stayed in to watch their programs while the newly emerging sub-group of the "teenagers" went out to cafes and concerts. Through this emerged a fear of the teenagers and a rebellion against the parents, and perhaps one that has continued to this day. Role reversal started occurring with the introduction of youth based soap operas, then home-based computer games, and eventually the internet.

With the internet as we know it now, it is not merely the interactions between the youth and the elders who's interactions have been altered. The very fabric of friendship has been altered to an almost unrecognised state from ten, perhaps even 5 years ago. All because ever increasing numbers of us are digitally encoding ourselves on to the internet.

It's not lossless encoding though, it's iMP3 rather than iFLAC. I like to look at social media websites in the same way that I'd view a car park filled with my friend's cars. Sure, I can recognise the driver from the littered items on display through the windows and locked doors but it stops short of showing me the full person and how they came to be who they are today.

We say that we know people "In real life" as a qualifier about how we know an actual human being, rather than their digital encoded self. I have many people who I know and am fond of In Real Life(TM), that I find hard to stomach online, and I am sure that there are many, many people who can say the same about me. It always amazes me when I get home from a rather shit gig or a dull night out to find out how a fellow attendee had a "pure totes amazing night last night", as if the event didn't take place if it falls below a perceived enjoyment threshold.

Radio and Television might have made us question our towns and cities, but it never had the ability to make us question friend or foe inside such a close circle of people.

We live in an age where "pics or it didn't happen", where the blue and grey colour scheme of facebook comments assert allegiance and opinion beyond context and in-jokes, where apologies are posted for public sympathy rather than forgiveness from those we have hurt, and where people find they have to live up to, or stand-by, their digital representation to complete strangers (who are doing the same in return).

I sometimes look at my Facebook, or at my Twitter, or whatever and wonder what, or who, my encoded form says that I am. Yeah, that I like music, that I play music, I do a bit of science, I can be partial to the odd lash-out, I like having a drink with friends, and that I don't like the Conservatives.

Yet, it misses out so much more that are none-the-less-real because I have chosen to make them artifacts of the encoding process.

We can have dull nights, and we're all the better for it.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Let's not make this even more of a rich man's world.

With my job, I get to travel around a lot. From Minneapolis to Heidelberg, New York to Nice, I've enjoyed the ability to visit countries and cities with a frequency that I otherwise would not have been able to afford. The main activity of these trips is work related, be it presenting at a conference, having meetings or carrying out lab experiments. However, every single academic would be lying if they tried to say with any conviction that they haven't made use of such trips for a bit of pleasure.

A typical oversees conference (of which there are several each year) will cost around £1000 to attend. This includes the registration fees of the conference (several £100s depending on the conference), the accommodation (usually for more than 3 nights), flights, local transport, and any dinners needed outside the onslaught of free conference food. I'm not sure about you, but I can't really justify spending £1000 on a holiday for myself and my wife each year let alone several times a year in order to full-fill the conditions of my employment.

Naturally, you are not obliged to go to conferences, but missing out on attending means that you isolate yourself from the academic community of your field. Your name doesn't get out there, and you find it difficult to form the collaborations needed to bring in more funding for more work (and conferences).

So, why am I bringing this all up now? Well, I recently returned from a conference in the south of France where the dinner table turned to politics. There was a general dislike of politicians from the PhD students (and a couple of eminent professors) rising from the expenses scandal. Even outside the academic field, this is a major complaint for politicians.

Let me make this clear: We were sitting in a fancy restaurant in Nice, eating fine food, listening to people complain about Expenses being Exploited by Politicians, all before collecting our receipts so that we could claim back the dinner later!

Did any of these academics order a side salad with a side of water? Of course not. The amount we are allowed to spend on our per-day food costs isn't infinite, but it is enough that trips for work are comfortable enough that discussions can be held away from the screaming kids of a Burger King.

I'm not a rich man from working in Academia (I'd be in industry if I wanted that), but also, I am not an academic because I'm a rich man. If the expenses weren't there, most of the scientists working in the UK universities wouldn't be able to afford to do their job. This would ultimately close off the job to the upper echelons of our society (would a shallow gene pool really give us the best science? Prince Phillip, PhD etc?!).  It could also lead to increased intervention by companies, privately funding science and guiding it and its results towards their own ends*.

So, back to politicians:

Let's look at it the other way, let's cut every single politician off from the 'gravy train' of expenses. Let's make an MP for Inverness attend parliament and meetings in London on their own cash. Let's have the MP for the Highlands and Islands (Is that a constituency?) travel between London to Mull to London to Bute and back again under their own funds. What kind of people would be able to do this kind of job? Rich people. People with massive amounts of disposable income that they can use to fly around the place.

Is this the type of person that we want to restrict the job of running our country to?

Or, do we want to have a system in place such that the MP for the most northern parts of Scotland, or the MP for the most rural parts of Wales, to have the same ability to do their job as their South of England counterparts? I'm not saying that the current system is perfect, I believe that the amount of expenses available should be based on distance of travel. However, it absolutely should not be scrapped altogether because of a few bad eggs.

Ranting about a politician claiming £1.50 for a bottle of Irn Bru? No matter how much of an absolute, scheming, bastard that politician is, it only serves to divert attention away from more important matters (see also: politicians picking on a Glasgow Bar's sense of humour, or new politician's younger self's Twitter feed).

So, next time I'm at a conference, I will be on expenses, but because I want to keep my job (and I don't have the luxury of the public voting me in and out), I will play the game and have a sandwich and a bottle of Irn Bru rather than the caviar, foi gras and gold ice cream.

*Some of my work has been funded, in part, by a private company, but I have never been pressurised to or compensated for, guiding the results towards the companies manifesto. Science is Science, and if it doens't say what the company want's, then that's still what the company gets.

Monday, 9 February 2015

If I'm so Left, why does the Left Wing Twitterati piss me off?

I associate myself with Left wing politics, I love the welfare system which we enjoy in the UK providing stuff such as the NHS and Child benefits. However, when I'm on the internet, I sometimes feel that my other love, that of rational thought, gets in the way of being truly 'Left'. Either with us or against us is the rallying cry when a small dissenting view might tweet in to view.

I felt my left wing credentials being called in to check (by only myself, I might add, but silence can speak louder than words or JSON) today when I brought up my twitter time-line and was presented with this lovely succinct image.
Left Wing Twitteratti caption: "This is the problem with catching tax avoiding companies".
Go on, look at it, let it make you hate, let the pixels contained allow your Red blood to boil until your heart explodes and tears itself from your sleeve. "This may help to explain things" cried Rupert Myers, "Can these figures really be true!?..If so the people at HMRC and DWP need a calculator for Christmas!!" asserted Susan Indy. "Learn to read a graph properly" declared my internal thought processes.

We are taught that as a business increases its profits, the tax it pays should increase proportionally to its income. Small businesses pay small tax, big businesses pay big tax, and HUGE companies pay small tax. Wait, hang on. So, the £70bn+ tax that has been evaded must surely come from HUGE companies? How many of them can there be?

There's Vodaphone, I've heard Laurie Penny talk about them (sometimes about tax, other times about her phone bill). There's Google, I use them. Oh, Starbucks! That's another. Jazzy's newsagent on Netherhill Road? Probably doesn't produce big enough profits, or despite being the classic Left enemy of a capitalist (well, why else would sell things for money?) a tax avoider.

So, we can assume for ourselves that the number of HUGE businesses avoiding tax to the level of £70bn is perhaps in the upper tens, if breeching the 100 mark at all.

Let's move on to benefit fraud, despite it's rather vague description. Is this all fraud from the DWP? or just Housing benefit fraud but no Child benefit fraud? Let's assume that it is over the same time period as the business figures, less we throw another parameter in to this graph (I'll get to that in a moment). In the UK for May 2014 there were 5.2 million claiming benefits. Most of these (99.3%) are claimed correctly and without fraud. Leaving 0.7% of 5.2M people apparently committing benefit fraud, that's 36,400 people. A tiny bit more than our estimate for the companies.

Right, so back to the graph. 300 people investigating around 100 companies gives no more than 3 people to a company, and 3250 investigating 36,400 people giving each investigator around 10 people to look at. However, and here's a difference: A company consists of many people, say one CEO and a board of directors. This would have the effect of, in some cases, rounding out the numbers such that both workforces were perfectly adequate for the task ahead.

A two dimensional graph, like the one above which shows two axis (amount of money and number of workers) represents a linear equation. To be an accurate graph, there should be changing variable except what the axis represent. In theory, this graph should actually be a 3 axis surface plot of money, workers and number of people under investigation. Until then, it's just a pointless exercise in the whole "those who shout loudest are the truth of the internet".

The best way to fix tax avoidance? Don't use Vodaphone. Don't buy coffee at Starbucks. Don't use Goog... in fact, I quite like my chromebook, android phone and android watch. Does this make me less of a left-winger?

No, I still vote for the party that I think will bring the better society rather than the ones that will dismantle it.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Freedom of Speech and Santa Claus.

This is more a ramble than an article. Even more so, it's an argument with myself as I try to work out logic in the face of faith. Last week good guy* Pope stated that there should be limits on Freedom of Speech** and that Religion should be protected from Satire. It started my brain thinking about how this boils down to a greater respect for people to have religion being protected than the respect for people to not have religion.

Why do we protect Religion? What is it about a belief in God that elevates it to such a protected status that it is inadvisable for the thoughts of a dissenting person to be aired in public or written down.

There is the common atheist argument that "Babies have no religion", and that religion is emblazoned on them by their parent's beliefs (much like Veganism, I guess). This, in itself, can set aside religion from race in arguing its validity in Freedom of Speech. People leave the womb with a race and a skin colour. In an equal society this doesn't matter, because an equal society sees the person beyond characteristic stereotypes. Of course, we are unfortunately yet to find ourselves in this equal society.

Religion on the other hand will never, ever, achieve an equal society for the sole reason that it demarcates all people based on their ability to conform to a common belief in a God, currently void of evidence either way. Not even God per-sé, but a vision or representation of God written by historians (you can start to see a whole other hypocrisy here) in ancients tomes and scriptures. Naturally, I accept that if we had never had religion, we wouldn't have our society as it is today (from Churches came schools, universities, laws). However, it is my belief that if you solely remove God then you have community, keep it and you have a religion protected from Free Speech.

We see a similar trait in the parents of small children and the paternalistic deception of Santa Claus. The majority of people visiting relatives with small children will have their Freedom of Speech curtailed of any fact pertaining to the fiction of Santa Claus. Yet, we put up with it for the Sake of the Children. It may surprise you to know that I am perfectly happy to allow my niece and nephew to believe in a mythical present-bearing man that sneaks chimney to chimney delivering gifts once a year.

Why do I allow myself this, but not feel OK with the protection of religion?

Children are, basically, the uneducated/undeveloped form of the adult. They are learning how to be an adult, and as yet the world is full of a wonder that is ripe for learning. They learn about societal customs and expectations from their parents and surroundings until they are old enough to make up their own mind. Thus, you are more likely to ask a person "How did you find out that Santa didn't exist?" than "When did your parents tell you Santa didn't exist?". For some people, this happened early due to increased rational thought, for others it comes later (perhaps from finding letters addressed to the North Pole tucked behind a 'magic radiator instead of a fireplace). Perhaps the Santa Claus deception started out as a test for rational thought, with the hypothesis lost to the commercialisation of the season?

Growing up, we are taught to think for ourselves, to gather evidence and make the world our own. We don't burn our hands on the kettle because we've learnt that touching a hot metal is painful, we don't jump off a cliff and expect to fly, we don't expect the stranger we've found in our house at 3am in Winter to be a friendly gift barer. Compare this to the bare-bones of religion, and God, and see a form of thought that evades logic and developmental growth from childhood through to adulthood and death.

Yes, talking ill of religion will cause offence to those practising religion. However, to elevate it to protected expression status above evidence and rational thinking is to loose the crux of Freedom of Speech***. In terms of hurting peoples feelings, I don't disrespect religious people on a day to day basis on the same level that I don't phone my toddler relatives each day to tell them Santa doesn't exist. I sit back through respect for them having their own beliefs, and hopefully let them learn for themselves through experience and evidence. This is, perhaps, where Richard Dawkins and I differ.

Thus, if I am expected to allow religious beliefs to be free from critical thinking, I expect that my own beliefs are allowed the same (it would be fucking amazing to be a scientist in the absence of critical thinking - peer review would be a skoosh). Only then do we have full freedom of speech. Hey, I've not even touched on the ranges of Mr Pope's limits on Freedom of Speech on other religions (will he protect those with more than one God against those with none?).

Do onto others as you expect for yourself, yeah?

*based on the lower public knowledge of evil-ness relative to his predecessor.
** I have found myself capitalising this expression in much the same way as I do the word God. Strange, perhaps hypocritically.
*** When I first heard the Pope saying "There should be Freedom of Speech, but with limits regarding to Religion", my first thought was "yeah, there should be no speed limit on the motorway, but everyone should be above 50Mph". Limits go both ways.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo, Barbara Streisand, and provocative retaliation.

Yesterday, shortly after finishing my baked potato and cheese, I felt a queasiness in my stomach. My twitter feed broke the news of the shooting at Charlie Hebdo's offices. For the next hour or two, or three, and more, I was transfixed by the rolling Live News coverage that has became normality. The whole idea of actually taking someone's life (let alone thirteen) because they used their artistic talents to ridicule a belief system is so alien and incomprehensible to me that it started to hurt.

Until lunchtime yesterday, I doubt if more that 5% of my friends would have heard about Charlie Hebdo. Here is the French equivalent of Private Eye, only with more cartoons and, crucially, bravery. While Private Eye might be seen as the satirical outpost of the UK media, compared to Hebdo, it is all rather tame and constricted by the British stiff upper lip. Carry On Politics compared to Chaplin's The Dictator.

After lunchtime, however, the Barbara Streisand effect was in full swing. The perpetrators committed their brutal acts as a method of silencing. "If you don't stop printing that which we don't agree with, we will stop you doing so". As expected, the opposite occurred. Retweeting, blogging, Facebooking, and newspaper printing of the cartoons, were all used as a show of defiance in the face of censorship.

Make no mistake, this attack on Charlie Hebdo's offices was an act of Censorship

And that's where I, for all my support for Freedom of Speech, started to become a bit queasy again. At the start, the reprinting of Hebdo cartoons showed for everyone to see, the wide ranging aim and scope of their satire, from politicians, to bankers, to authors, and of course to mutiple religions (including the major ones of the 'west'). However, a sense of retaliation started to build. A sense of 'us' versus 'them' with every 'I'm going to draw cartoons of Mohammed every day' or the mocking and public flogging of any media outlet that dared to censor or outright block publication of Hebdo's cartoons.
Front cover of Charlie Hebdo showing Michael Houellebecq, a noted author who has been accused in the past of being Islamophobic. Cover mocks him as a 'mystic' saying he'll lose his teeth in 2015, and practice Ramadan by 2022.

Where as the original Charlie Hebdo cartoons were printed in the context of lack of context: Everyone, absolutely everyone, was a target of the cartoonist's truth, we are now assigning a malicious context to them. We tell ourselves that the radicalised perpetrators aren't a true indicator of Muslims or Islam, but then use a staple of Islam (Aniconism) to attack them, to provoke them, to retaliate.

Freedom of Speech allows you to do this, and I am not for a moment saying that it doesn't. I am merely saying that respect as Human Beings should make you wonder if you are, in the quest to taunt the perpetrators, censuring people's Freedom to Religion?

If we get caught up in using cartoon depictions of Mohammed as the weapon of choice against these murderers, we are in essence declaring war on Islam. If we want to declare war on the perpretrators (and their radicalised ideas), then we should satirise yesterday's murderers and their horrific acts.

I am not brave enough to do that, and for that reason, I am not Charlie and chances are, neither are you.

Friday, 2 January 2015

What did the author mean?

I spent an infuriating half an hour in the car listening to the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2. Mr Vine was chairing a discussion about a blog post for the British Medical Journal, written by previous BMJ editor Richard Smith. In this fairly poetic blog, Smith breaks down a choice of four deaths (ignoring suicide) on their effect on family and friends. Depression, as he perfectly describes " the most awful as you are slowly erased", perhaps long before the body is ready to shut down. A sudden death on the other hand leaves relationships in a frozen state that may or may not be positive, leading to tragedy, guilt and regret.

Cancer, Smith proclaims, allows a period of contemplation and action. Allowing the terminal patient to, hopefully, bid farewell to family and friends and leave all loose ends tied up nicely. Smith, then ends with a flippant line about the wastage of research funds on cancer. Which, brings me to my frustration.

Vine repeatedly re-introduced the discussion along the lines of "Is cancer the best death?" and "Should we cut funding for cancer research as an editor of the British Medical Journal suggests?". This was followed by many callers voicing their disapproval of the premise; "Cancer's awful" "I watched my dad die from cancer" etc. To be fair, he did have a guest who was into her last months of terminal cancer and who agreed with the premise.

The whole discussion was infuriating because it reminded me of a meme that gets passed around the internet from time to time.  This meme, below, relates to literature teachers trying to teach students how to think about what the author means when they write "The curtains were blue", with the response being that "the curtains were fucking blue" and any other description is superfluous. Perhaps the sentence before the introduction of the curtains informed the reader of the curtain'owners cat passing away, or he is a retired ship captain longing for the sea. Both of these would change the motive for the author to tell you the colour of the curtains in his house.
To go through life believing that the "curtains were fucking blue", and I am in no doubt that they had that colour, is to completely forget how to read beyond the physical ink on paper/pixels on screen words that appear. Context is lost, and while an instruction manual may need the reader to take the words as unequivocal truth less the instructions can't be followed, other forms of writing and literature require the reader to question the meaning beyond the words.  

While trying to formulate this blog post, I was trying to think of an example of songwriter where a simple lyric on the page can see throwaway but with context opens up a whole world of interpretation. That line is taken from Bruce Springsteen's Cautious Man:

"He got dressed in the moonlight and down to the highway he strode , when he got there he didn't find nothing but road" 

Here, we have a guy standing on the road at night and nothing else. In the meme above, that is what the author fucking meant. That however loses all the power of what songwriting and literature in general sets out to do. In the context of the song, here is a man who is burdened with regret and longing, who is looking for an easy way out, symbolized by the highway but then finds that it can't solve his problems. The song comes in the middle of Springsteen's break up album, Tunnel Of Love, giving even more credence to the redundancy of the escape in the context of an adult relationship. Then, outside the context of the album, you have the author, Mr Car's and Girls, Mr Born To Run, writing about the highway being 'nothing but road?'. Sheesh, there's a whole autobiography in two lines of simple songwriting. 

To bring this back to the BMJ blog, Richard Smith uses poetic language and imagery to talk about the taboo subject of death. He does this to remain respectful of the whole topic of death and those facing readers who are facing it themselves or in their family, and at the same time to allow those not imminently facing it to understand it. The image of depression 'erasing a person' is one that will stay with me for a long time. The final line about research funding has a change of tone and style that allows it to come across as a punchline in the context of the text as a whole. 

It is this change in tone that Jeremy Vine missed in his chairing of the discussion, reducing the whole poetic piece to nothing more than words on a screen to push an agenda. Had he taken two or three minutes to merely recite the blog piece then his listeners would appreciate the beauty of the author's argument. 

By trying to reduce every small set of words to "what the author fucking meant" is to reduce our language and lose meaning, we will have static facts and data but no humour, empathy or allusion. 

So, next time you read a blog or listen to a song, please don't take two sentences which you don't agree with out of the sum of their parts and get angry. Instead, take it as a whole and try to understand what the author really meant and work out for yourself if you still agree.

Then, if it calls for it, get angry and phone in to the Jeremy Vine show.

Currently listening to: Megan Trainor, All About The Bass.