The intellectual’s dilemma

My friend Sam is an intellectual. His words, not mine.

It’s a blessing in so far as he was able to get a good degree, have a successful career and generally get by in a world which seems to reward that sort of thing.

But he tells me that being an intellectual, far from defining a higher purpose, is in fact a curse.

Most people can happily chat about things that don’t matter and make observations that have been made many times before.

Weather looks promising for this week, no? It’s fine to say that Manchester City are odds on to win the league this season, since Arsenal have slipped up. It’s OK to note that last year’s weather was harsh, which has decimated plants that would normally have thrived. Donald Trump is a bit evil, right? Boris Johnson is dishonest. Jose Mourinho…narcissistic?

It’s perfectly all right to state the obvious.

But not for Sam. He feels like a fraud if his comments aren’t brilliantly original or insightful. He’s continually fighting an internal critic, accusing him of banality.

What should he do?

Try harder and keep up the good work or learn to live with the mediocrity of the everyday?

Tough call.

There is another interpretation.

Sam is a pretentious twat.

What if you died tomorrow?

It’s a question that was dragged into my thoughts as I read recently about the sad story of Sheila Seleoane, the medical secretary who died in 2019 in her fourth floor flat in Peckham, but whose body was only discovered more than two years later.

Nobody had noticed she was missing.

It’s hard to know what’s most disturbing about this story.

Early reports homed in on the sordid and macabre nature of the discovery. The Metro newspaper ran this headline:

The Mail Online reported the ‘macabre claim’ that footsteps had been heard in the flat many months after the occupier had died, supposedly alone.

Other reports focused on attributing blame:

The negligence of the Peabody Trust housing association, who had continued to collect Mrs Seeoane’s rent for the whole period, but had not had any contact with her, despite repeated concerns raised by residents worried about the overpowering smell.

The incomprehensible incompetence of the local police. Prompted by another neighbour’s concerns, police were first persuaded to visit the flat in October 2020. According to this neighbour, officers then reported they had ‘made contact’ with the occupant and established she was ‘safe and well’. The report is confirmed by Peabody. This certainly raises some questions.

But surely the most disturbing angle to this whole sad tale is what it tells us about the world we are creating. Automated systems now allow the rent to be paid automatically, for our bills to be paid, for every element of our lives to continue seemingly as normal – even when we are no longer there.

Perhaps if I get clever with ChatGPT I’ll be able to set posts to this blog to automatically appear well into the future, so you won’t know if I’m here or not. Or if I’m still here now.


‘Clap for carers’ seems a long time ago and a long way away

Do you remember ‘clap for carers’? When Brits stood out on their doorsteps to cheer on the heroic efforts of NHS staff and care workers in the pandemic?

Do you remember the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics? With its celebration of all Britain’s proudest achievements – the NHS being the proudest of all?

Well that seems a long way away from the crumbling system we have today. Nurses are still striking over pay which has been eroded steadily from ‘undervalued‘ to ‘insultingly undervalued‘ to ‘so undervalued you might as well go and work at Amazon instead‘. Hospital Doctors are striking. Ambulance workers and paramedics are striking. GP numbers are shrinking. In surveys more than a third of NHS workers say they are planning to leave. Record numbers are indeed leaving. Unfilled vacancies are at the highest levels ever – over 133,000 equivalent to 10% of the workforce. Has anyone noticed there might be something wrong with the way we organise and pay our care workers?

Meanwhile waiting lists continue to hit record levels and staffing targets are missed and morale across healthcare plumb new depths.

And inevitably health outcomes for people using the service have measurably declined.

It seems as though the NHS has gone in a few short years from our greatest achievement to our most embarrassing liability.

I worked in and around the healthcare industry for many years. The official line was that, even though opinions of the system itself were declining, people’s feelings about their local service – the one they had real life experience of – were still solid. This was dangerously complacent.

Truth is the NHS was never the amazing service we imagined. Even before the current crisis, in the real world, it didn’t provide for many essential health needs. In theory NHS provides some level of dental care but in real life it doesn’t. It does not provide basic eye care for people who need glasses. There are effectively no services for mental health across large parts of the UK, especially for young people. Physiotherapy and musculoskeletal services are largely inaccessible and patients are pointed to private providers.

Our success rates in treating cancer have consistently been among the worst in the developed world.

More fundamentally, the NHS only really deals with illness, not with preventative healthcare which would be infinitely more effective economically speaking.

All this, at a time when medical insurers and Big Pharma have never been more successful. Hmmmm.

It’s not so surprising that the UK is shifting towards a private health insurance model. As those who can afford it opt for private care, the NHS will be limited to the poor and to those services too difficult or uneconomic for the private sector. This isn’t a prediction. It is already happening.

Before the pandemic 60% of FTSE100 companies provided private health insurance for employees. It’s now 70% and rising. It is a creeping privatisation. And it has happened, not by direct government action, but by employers’ and employees’ choices. Of course these choices have been prompted by decades of policies which either intentionally or by accident, turned the NHS from our greatest achievement to our worst nightmare.

The US experience should worry us. It’s a terrible system and it costs a fortune. The average cost of employer-sourced health insurance was $6400 in 2000. Last year it was $22,400. Real wages have hardly increased in that period.

During the nurse’s pay dispute, on strike days, official advice is to avoid any hazardous activities so we wouldn’t end up in A&E. Forget strike days. I fear that advice may apply universally now.

Government for the one percent? Turkeys voting for Christmas?

The British political system is a wonderful and mysterious thing. For most of my lifetime we have had Conservative governments. The received wisdom is that they are, and they certainly believe themselves to be “the natural party of government”.

Which is weird because the most cursory inspection shows that they govern in the interest of a very small minority of Brits. Any party which seriously proposes something euphemistically described as ‘trickle down economics” is sort of admitting that it is making policies which are designed for an elite.

And it has become increasingly obvious to anyone paying attention that it is normal for policy decisions to be ‘bought’ by vested interest. There are too many examples to mention, to the extent it’s surely not in doubt.

It is what Dye and Zeigler described as ‘the irony of democracy’ in one of my political science textbooks. The way, a bit like some competitive markets move inexorably towards monopoly or oligopoly, a democratic system veers uncontrollably towards rule by interest groups. They were talking about the USA in the 1980s but it is equally true today, or so it would appear.

So how is it that people vote for a government which basically screws them time after time? It can’t simply be that the comms machine is so smart it convinces them that black is white and good is bad, can it?

That’s what people said about Brexit, where Brits voted, like turkeys for Christmas directly against their own interests but that was surely also more complicated.

And why aren’t people more angry about the increasing inequality in Britain? Or the way ordinary folks are facing a cost-of-living-crisis while corporate profits are booming? Or as the Unite trade union calls it the profiteering crisis?

Well, I think I have found the answer.

As, so often, it was discovered by Douglas Adams:

“[Ford said] “.. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur. “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going in for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in.”

― Douglas Adams, The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Learning to er… think

Have you ever tried to draw? Of course you have.

Learning to draw is fiendishly difficult. I have tried a couple of courses over the past few years and it has been a sobering experience. Clearly, it’s a skill that comes more naturally to some people than others.

The course I have recently finished felt a bit like going back to primary school. In a bright studio in the suburbs, hosted by an unfeasibly cheerful lady teacher, we were encouraged to be uninhibited, to explore different mediums and generally to express ourselves. I was seven years old again. Sadly my inner art critic was not. He kept reminding me that my drawings weren’t recognisably similar to the things they were supposed to represent.

I had gone into this with a clear philosophy and simple goals. I visited the Young Picasso exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery a few years ago. Picasso’s early work is simple, clean, accurate, realistic. Only after he had mastered the core skills did he experiment with symbolism and create the more abstract forms of art we know him for. I would do the same (well not actually the same, I’m not completely deluded, but you get the idea). I would learn to draw first. Having got on top of the basics, I would be qualified to get a bit more expressive later.

However, I did learn one fundamental lesson. We interpret everything we see without thinking. This is why drawing is difficult. Our eyes perceive the world through many layers of interpretation. The images projected onto our retinas are turned into 3-D representations using all our experience of the world, the nature of space, objects, colours, perspective, light and dark and so on. Right now as I write I see a coffee shop full of people, with a shop window, a road and occasional cars behind that, another row of shops behind that, with clouds further back and some blue sky beyond those. If I had to draw this scene I would need to reduce all of that complexity to patches of colour, in different hues of light and dark. It’s difficult because our brains automatically convert the patches of colour into real things, concepts, relationships. We add all this flavour through our basic experiences of the world and our other senses.

Come to think of it, all our thinking is similarly filtered. This may be what gestalt theory is all about.

Take politics. When I read a newspaper, I’m aware of my tendency to seek out articles and opinions that agree with me – it helps justify my own pre-conceived ideas. We all do this. It’s a short-cut, because we’re mentally lazy (efficient if you prefer).

Maybe that’s also why political arguments are so difficult. Because we jump to interpretation automatically, without really seeing the shapes and colours in front of us. Understanding the opposite perspective means starting again from scratch. Harder work.

Maybe we would benefit from disassembling our beliefs in the same way as if we were learning to draw. We’d have to create a new picture each time, rather than passing every new image through the familiar filters. Maybe that would make us more open minded, less dogmatic.

Who’s afraid of ChatGPT?

The galaxy is an exciting place full of mind-boggling wonders, including the latest development in technology: Artificial Intelligence (AI). While it’s no secret that this technology has the potential to change our lives in ways we can’t even imagine, there are valid reasons to exercise a bit of caution.

One concern about AI is the impact it could have on employment, particularly in creative fields like art and music. It’s no longer just a matter of machines taking over mundane tasks; AI is now capable of producing creative works that rival those made by humans. A portrait painted by an AI system recently sold for almost half a million dollars, and AI-generated music is becoming increasingly sophisticated. It’s not unreasonable to wonder if machines will be the new rock stars and artists in the not-too-distant future.

Of course, this raises important questions about the value of human creativity and its place in a world dominated by AI. Will there still be a need for human artists and musicians, or will machines take over entirely? It’s a perplexing conundrum that only time will tell.

Another concern about AI is the need to manage our expectations based on the history of previous technologies. We’ve seen other “game-changing” technologies, like robotics and 3D printing, overhyped and fail to live up to their promise. Sure, robots have transformed manufacturing, and 3D printing has revolutionized prototyping, but their impact on our daily lives has been less than we expected.

The lesson here is that we need to temper our expectations and approach new technologies with caution. AI is an exciting development, but it’s important to recognize that its impact may be more limited than we initially imagine. It’s not the end of the world as we know it, but it’s also not the dawn of a new era.

In conclusion, AI is a new and exciting development that has the potential to change our lives in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We need to be cautious and consider the potential impact on employment and manage our expectations based on the history of previous technologies. It’s a brave new world out there, but let’s not panic just yet.

Remember, in the words of the late, great Douglas Adams, “Don’t panic!”

And now for the punchline.

Did you see it coming?

This post was written by ChatGPT.

Oo er. Don’t panic, indeed.

Permissive society my arse

Hey you, Whitehouse
Ha-ha, charade you are

You, house proud town mouse
Ha-ha, charade you are

You’re trying to keep our feelings off the street

You’re nearly a real treat
All tight lips and cold feet
And do you feel abused?
You, gotta stem the evil tide
And keep it all on the inside

Mary, you’re nearly a treat
Mary, you’re nearly a treat, but you’re really a cry

That’s Roger Waters’ take on moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse. Somewhere between a hate figure and a ridiculous caricature during my childhood in the English midlands. It seemed extraordinary in a world where people were enjoying ever greater freedoms, she managed to see “utter filth” in everything. To teenagers like me, she epitomised everything that was wrong with the out-of-date, regressive, quasi-religious establishment.

Happily those days are largely behind us. The 80s, 90s and 2000s saw a new consensus emerge, where people swear on TV and occasionally get naked, a bit like they do in real life, and for the most part, nobody needs to apologise for it.

Or so we thought.

I was entertained and horrified in equal measure by this story emerging from America recently. The Head of a school in Florida was forced by the school board to resign, after parents complained that the image of Michelangelo’s David, shown in class, was pornography.

Sorry, should I have issued a warning to parents or to the highly sensitive before I included that picture?

Initially, I hesitated to take this further because these days, taking pot shots at stories like this from America is like shooting fish in a barrel. There’s just so much crazy shit emerging. On the other hand, we in Britain are hardly immune to batshit crazy stuff popping up and quickly becoming normalised.

So here’s what happened:

A sixth grade class at Tallahassee classical school in Miami was shown various classical renaissance images as part of the lesson plan. Unlike previous years, no ‘content warning’ was sent in advance to parents stating there might be ‘nudity’. After complaints from parents, the Head, Hope Carrasquilla was given the choice of resigning or being fired.

Let’s just think about that for a moment. Does The Louvre or The Smithsonian have a warning for parents, where there are nudes depicted in the art on their walls? I assume you’ve seen Michelangelo’s David. Pornography? Seriously? What kind of parents are these? What kind of educationalists are listening to them?

Well maybe a slightly different perspective would be helpful on this. Let’s take a broader view.

There is a disturbing volume of sexually explicit content all around us. We may have become desensitised to this because it is everywhere.

Exhibit A. David Attenborough’s much loved nature documentaries on animals, including some no-holds-barred footage of mating rituals and sex acts a plenty.

In ‘Wild Isles’ we are shown explicit footage of the demoiselle butterfly unloading sperm. Other sequences prompted eagle-eyed observers on Twitter to call out ‘slug porn‘.

As the great woman might have said: “absolute filth”.

It gets worse. I recently visited Wisley Royal Horticultural Gardens and some of the trees were blatantly displaying blossom. “Come and shag me” they might just as well have been shouting. The plant world is shameless. Throughout the gardens, there were plants with their stamens and sex parts flagrantly on display.

Even the insects are at it.

Tits oot for the boys’ or what?

Have they no shame? It’s patantly obscene.

Gotta stem the evil tide. Damn right.

Where is Mary when we need her?

Depression is not a dog

I can’t think of a less helpful analogy. Dogs, are loyal and friendly. Even big looming ones with a sense of foreboding, like ‘The Grim’ in folk lore and Harry Potter.

Every person’s experience of depression is different, but I would certainly not characterize Joe’s as a canine. His was more like a cat. Cats are cunning and capricious. Have you ever watched a cat playing with its prey? That’s how Joe’s depression was.

What’s more, it’s like a cat who knows ju jitsu. Depression has an ability to actively undermine you. Like a martial arts expert knows pressure points, it knows your coping strategies and it knows how to beat them. It knows more about you than you know about yourself. The hidden triggers that make no sense but inexplicably send you into a tailspin. There’s nothing so happy that depression can’t turn it into a source of pain.

Joe’s better now.

But it’s definitely not a dog.

Crunchy nut corn flakes: why you shouldn’t blame the food giants for trying to kill you

The trouble is they taste too good:

This campaign for Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes is one of the greats, from the golden age of British advertising. My agency, J. Walter Thompson, was rightly proud of it. It was much loved and hugely successful.

It also tells us everything about the working of the food business. And why that’s likely to be the thing that kills you.

Here’s how the food industry works:

Evolution over millions of years gave humans a brilliant system for regulating their eating. When their bodies needed energy, it made them feel hungry so they would eat. When they had eaten enough, it made them feel full, so they would stop. It’s brilliant. Physiologists talk about the stomach as ‘the second brain’ because this hunger – satiety mechanism is a self-regulating intelligence which ties in to all the body’s other functions – emotional and physical – to maintain its healthy working.

Over time, food scientists discovered that certain fatty, sugary, salty foods would undermine this physiology by making us crave food even when we’re not hungry and want more, even when we are full.

In a modern, capitalist market economy, these businesses are driven by an imperative to sell more food at a premium, in order to generate ever greater revenue and so to return shareholder value. So making us eat more is very much their business.

The result is an obesity epidemic which now extends even to second and third world economies. Globally, obesity now contributes to more preventable deaths annually than anything except smoking. That’s 2.8 million deaths (source: world health organisation).

In Britain, more than 30,000 deaths each year are attributed directly or indirectly to obesity.

But there’s no point blaming the food giants for this.

Businesses are driven by the need to return shareholder value. That means profit and growth. You can do that by (1) selling more stuff at higher prices (check), (2) by buying up your competitors – the concentration of businesses in this sector is incredible; pretty much everything is now owned by ten huge global organisations or (3) by extending into new territories (check).

If I’m a boss at one of these food giants, what options do I have?

If I don’t sell foods that trick my consumers’ physiology into wanting more – i.e. foods where, to replay Kellogg’s ad campaign, the trouble is they taste too good – then my competitor will create something more yummy, steal my sales and profits, my sales will suffer and I will rapidly be out of a job.

If the guy who replaces me continues to lose out to competitors’ too-good-to-resist food offers, then my company’s share price will suffer. Consequently we will be bought by a competitor, who is better at playing the trouble-is-they-taste-too-good game.

There really is no way out for the poor lambs.

But it’s not all bad news.

How to make things better? What all this tells us is that we can’t rely on consumers making better choices – you can’t fight the biology. We already know broadly what we ought to eat and what we ought to avoid. It just makes bugger all difference to most of us, when our bodies are telling us to eat that cake. And we clearly can’t expect food manufacturers to take it on themselves. Shareholder value may be a terrible way to incentivise corporate behaviour, but sadly it’s the one we’re stuck with.

In June of this year, having been commissioned by DEFRA, Henry Dimbleby, founder of Leon and the Sustainable Restaurant Federation masterminded the new UK Food Strategy. It very sensibly focuses on interventions that don’t rely on anyone making ‘the right choices’. It’s all about supply side solutions, penalties, interventions and regulation. Very dry. Lots of stuff about how food is produced. Ethical standards in agriculture. Sustainability. All those tedious bits that get in the way of filling people tummies with gunk.

So refreshing to hear about a solution that isn’t essentially either the whole nation going on a crash diet or every food business deciding to forego making a profit.

Those who complain about Nanny State will hate it, but it’s the only way forward.

Rugby’s not a contact sport, it’s a collision sport – dancing is a contact sport

To paraphrase legendary American Football coach Vince Lombardi – he was saying this about football, but it still holds, I think you’ll agree.

Rugby is getting quite anxious about the impact of these collisions – quite understandably.

Former England hooker and world cup winner, Steve Thompson has made a documentary for the BBC about how the early onset dementia which ended his career has impacted on his life. It’s pretty harrowing stuff.

Researchers are finding ever-more-worrying evidence of the link between rugby impacts and long term brain damage. The largest study to date of former rugby players quantifies the link between neurodegenerative disease and repeated traumatic head injuries. The study was led by Dr Willie Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist. It compared former Scottish international players with the general population and found players were twice as likely to get dementia and more than three times as likely to get Parkinson’s disease. There was also a dramatic 15-fold increase in risk of motor neurone disease. Current players train harder and compete more than those studied, which suggests these numbers will get worse.

In a separate study in New Zealand, researchers at the University of Canterbury found rugby players suffer levels of trauma, during a game, similar to that experienced in a car crash.

This is all pretty terrifying and the authorities are all over it, as they should be. Though not as much as some commentators would like.

It does raise one very stark and obvious question for me. Call it the herd of elephants in the room if you like. While we’re quite rightly becoming anxious about the dangers in rugby, how can it be that we still have another sport, commanding huge audiences and prize money all over the world, which consists of big men whacking each other in the head. This isn’t just incidental to the game, like rugby. It is the game.

The dangers of boxing could hardly be more obvious. The recent Benn-Eubank fight in the UK was called off due to a doping issue, but the fight’s back-story should make us stop and think.

As Tortoise Media reported the story:

“Boxing is stalked by the ghosts and tragedies of the past. The chaos of this week in British boxing cannot shut out the distressing memories that still haunt the Eubank and Benn families. Michael Watson ended up in a coma for months, and his life has never been the same, after he and Chris Eubank Sr met in the ring in 1991. Nigel Benn showed such ferocity four years later that his opponent, Gerald McClellan, went blind and suffered terrible brain damage. Chris Eubank Jr’s fists sent Nick Blackwell tumbling into a coma in 2016. Both families have been scarred by the damage done in the ring.”

And that’s just one story of many.

I fully admit that the spectacle of a fight between powerful athletes is something to behold. I have enjoyed watching boxing in the past. It’s exciting and there’s a certain instinctive human appeal in the physical contest. I’ve even had boxing lessons, for goodness sake.

But looked at next to the current furore in the rugby world, it just looks like a crazy anomaly.

Note that boxing is taught to kids aged 7 and above. My local club starts at age 8.

Is that a good idea?

Is that sport?