Nobody Cares

There’s a fun little anecdote over in the comments at the Grandad’s place:

I retired at 60, and I’ve never regretted  it. I worked for 43 years as a marine engineer and spent a vast amount of time away from my family. Now i have grandkids and have the time to see them on a regular basis. They are the family that I never saw.

Although I was obviously much missed by my outfit that I retired from:

*Ring Ring*

ME: Hello?

Company servant: Hello Nick. Just ringing to ask you to send us your ID card and your anti gas respirator.

ME: OK

*Click*

Bearing in mind that I was the longest serving person for the company in it’s entire history of just over 100 years.

One of the things I thankfully learned very early in my working life is that “the company”, meaning your employer, could not give two hoots about your overall wellbeing.  Cynic that I am, I have been joking for years that if I got squashed/kidnapped/blown-up in the line of work the biggest concern my management would have is that I hadn’t submitted my timesheet that week.

The idea that a company cares who you are or would miss you should you go is one of the most  common misconceptions employees have.  I’ve seen guys resign and expect people to give a shit.  “How come nobody even spoke to me about why?” they ask.  “What about an exit interview?”  They don’t care: you’re gone, somebody else will take your place.  “But they new guy won’t know what to do!” they wail.  “Who cares?”  thinks the management, if they were to think at all.

I lost my best friend earlier this year after a long illness.  When he was diagnosed he was thrashing himself in a job which kept him away from his family and took up almost all of his waking hours.  His efforts were genuinely appreciated as proven by his boss giving a wonderful eulogy at his funeral, but one of the things my friend told me was how quickly they replaced him.  He thought he was the only one who could do this job and as such felt he could never take holidays or work normal hours.  Yet within a day or two of diagnosis the military – for he was a serving officer – replaced him with somebody from a different branch.  The handover took a few hours followed by a single clarification meeting a day or two later and that was that.  The military were good to him throughout and they are missing a phenomenal soldier, but even he was stunned by how quickly they replaced him and how little they missed him in the role.

He told me had he not fallen ill he would have leaped from one assignment to the next, each one more demanding than the last, fighting his way up the rapidly narrowing pyramid that is a military career.  He’d have gotten far, too.  The diagnosis changed all that.  His entire outlook flipped and he effectively quit his work to spend as much time as possible trying to get better and, more successfully, get to know his wife and kids.  He told me shortly before he died that if nothing else, he got to spend a couple of years with his kids which he probably otherwise would not have.  He also advised me that killing yourself in a job is utterly pointless and one should concentrate on enjoying life more.

But he didn’t need to tell me that, I already knew.

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Virtue Signalling in Disguise

I’ve noticed recently that something keeps happening to me that perhaps didn’t happen so much before.

I get asked my opinion on something and the person asking me doesn’t much like the answer I give.  Usually the question is on a topic which is controversial – Brexit, Donald Trump, the Iraq War, George W. Bush, Gun Control, Barack Obama – but only in the global sense.  What I mean by that is within a certain demographic – European, middle-class, degree educated – these topics are not controversial at all, and everyone is in lock-step agreement on each.

Which is where I think I’m surprising people.  I get asked my opinion on Brexit (let’s use that as an example) and I basically say what I said here: I would have been happy enough with a Remain victory for personal reasons, but on principle I am not unhappy to have seen the Leave campaign win because I think major reforms of the EU are long overdue and these would never happen without some cataclysmic event like Brexit forcing the issue.  This is hardly an extreme view but it causes a shock reaction nonetheless.

The immediate effect is for the person to challenge what I’ve said using the first response that comes into their head (“But the British economy will collapse, all the banks will move to Frankfurt!”).  My response in turn is to refute them using the same information, statistics, facts, and arguments I’ve seen presented elsewhere to the same objection.  The thing is, what my interlocutor has not realised, quite understandably, is that I take a keen interest in certain things and read and re-read dozens of lengthy arguments on these subjects which take place on the Internet.  I also have copious amounts of time on my hands.  A lot of the time I then post my own opinions on this here blog, having taken the time to consider each angle and argument carefully so that my stance can be both clearly presented and defended if necessary.  So when I am challenged on my opinion my responses are effectively prepared in advance and rehearsed, and for somebody who has just dipped their toe into the subject without such preparation they find themselves neck deep in an argument they stand almost no chance of winning.

Which makes me appear a bit of an asshole.  I have been accused of being defensive, aggressive, unfriendly, argumentative, and a whole load of other things basically because I can defend a slightly controversial opinion with quick-fire, eloquent responses which I’ve thought through in advance.  And also, probably, because I am a bit of an asshole.

For a while I thought about softening my stance, but I’ve decided against it.  The reason for this is because I figured out a lot of people who ask my opinion on such matters are not asking my opinion at all, they are looking to confirm their own.  As I said earlier in the post, the educated, European, middle-classes agree almost wholeheartedly on these issues: Brexit is bad and Britain’s economy will be fucked and the people who campaigned for it are stupid cowards and the people who voted for it are thick racists.  If you stated that over lunch in any European white-collar office not a single peep of protest would result.

Unless I was sat there.  Okay sure, I like an argument.  I’d start an argument in a coffin, as somebody once said.  But I get annoyed when people ask my opinion only for the purposes of confirming their own, which would allow them to say that they are informed on current affairs without making the effort to hear solid counter-arguments which challenged their own preconceptions and forced them to perhaps modify their views.  I wouldn’t mind if somebody wants a proper discussion on an issue, but most of the time they want a quick agreement of their own position, not a discussion.  And this is nothing more than cheap virtue signalling, and I hate that in any form.

So my advice is:

1. Don’t ask for somebody’s opinion on something if he writes about it on a blog unless you are prepared to hear something you might not like.

2. When you hear an opinion you don’t like from somebody who writes about it on a blog, be prepared for a pretty robust argument should you challenge it.

3. Pay particular attention to points 1 and 2 if the person writing the blog happens to be a bit of an asshole who likes arguing.

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Here be dragons

Via Tim Worstall, I see that the Hungarian government has upset British diplomats by dishing out leaflets saying that Britain has “no-go” zones as a result of its immigration policies.  This follows the row a few weeks back over Air China warning its passengers to be careful in areas of London populated by swarthy folk.

I cite the above merely to remark on the warnings our own Foreign Office gives to British citizens travelling abroad, which either:

1) Warn travelers to stay away from a place which has just witnessed some one-off catastrophe which is all over the news and in which thousands of people have been killed. This warning appears on their website two days after the event.

or

2) Warn travelers to stay away from a country in which something of minor consequence has happened that nevertheless got the British media excited, and life is going on as normal.

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Ten Days in New York

I’m back from New York, having had a fantastic time wandering around, drinking, and hanging out with friends.  What follows are my general observations and thoughts, in no particular order of importance.

New York is massive, I mean seriously big.  I first got an inkling of this when I found the time it took to get from Harlem to 42nd Street on the subway was longer than I thought, and I’d only covered about half of Manhattan.  Later in the week I tried to walk from lower Manhattan to midtown, but gave up as I realised no matter how many blocks I covered I still wasn’t getting much closer.  Later still I stood on the Brooklyn Bridge and looked towards midtown, and realised it was an awfully long way off.  And when I crossed the Robert F. Kennedy bridge into Astoria and looked westwards at Manhattan, it seemed to stretch southwards forever.  Even disregarding Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, Manhattan itself is enormous, on a different scale to anywhere else I’ve lived (Lagos, despite having a population of about 18 million people, isn’t that big geographically).  I quickly realised that simply walking everywhere isn’t really an option in New York.

It took me a while to get used to the subway.  About two days in I figured out that different trains run on the same lines but stop at different stations, and that some trains were “local” – stopping at every station – and some “express” and only stopping at major stations.  And whether a train was local or an express changed with the time of day and the day of the week.  This was all a bit complicated for a farm boy from Wales, but at least it explained why New York subway stations are designed with a third track in the middle: it allows trains to pass through without stopping.

The metro itself worked well enough, and was mercifully air conditioned.  But the stations themselves weren’t, and it was stiflingly hot down there.  The locals seemed to cope with this a lot better than I did, as I was sweating buckets.  I can’t say I liked the subway carriages themselves, the stainless steel design making them look more industrial than perhaps they need to, but they were clean enough.  The same can’t be said for the stations, which were in desperate need of a pressure wash, and the whole system kept reminding me of violent scenes in films from the 1980s.  At least they don’t have Guardian Angels patrolling it any more.  I will say this, though: the people seem a lot friendlier on the New York subway than they are on the London underground or Paris metro.  One chap offered to help me figure out the myriad combinations of stops and express trains – something you’d never see a Parisian doing – and I noticed people spoke and interacted with each other more than anywhere else I’ve seen.  Aside from one bellend who came in dressed like a gangster, shirtless with his pants hanging down his arse and tattoos all over him carrying a ghetto blaster playing music that only reinforced my theory that the louder music is played the worse it is, everyone was awfully polite.

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Brits Abroad

You’ve got to love the British press:

England fan fighting for his life and dozens more injured as English fans and Russian thugs clash at Euro 2016 in Marseille

The English were fans.  The Russians were thugs.  Presumably no Englishman in Marseille last night displayed thuggish behaviour, and no Russian showed the slightest interest in football.

Aye, they look like a bunch out to enjoy the beautiful game.

There’s another word the British press and authorities like to use in such situations:

Sir Julian King, Britain’s ambassador to France tweeted that several Britons were being kept in hospital overnight.

If ever a British citizen is in some sort of strife abroad, the immediate assumption is he is wholly innocent and the hapless victim of overseas thuggery, an incompetent and heavy-handed local police force, or a corrupt foreign justice system, in which case it is necessary for the British press to thereafter refer to him as a “Briton”. (The best example of this is in the reporting and government statements relating to the conviction of Liverpool fan Michael Shields in Bulgaria in 2005.)

This reminds me of the summer of 2010 which I spent in Phuket, Thailand hanging out in expat bars all day (and all night, if I’m being truthful).   One of the regulars who used to come into my favourite bar was a dangerous-looking thug from Manchester, whose reputation for fighting, drug-dealing, treachery, and other unsavoury behaviour preceded him by a good three miles.  Typically he would come into the bar at 11am ready to start the day’s drinking and recount the story of what happened the night before, usually prompted by somebody asking why he was sporting some new injury or other.  His recollections always followed the same format:

“I was walking along the street near the boxing stadium minding my own business when a bunch of Belgians started kicking off…I punched one of them, but the others got behind me and I fell down and one of them kicked me in the head.”

“We were in a bar and some Germans started a fight with us…you know what the Germans are like…and we all ended up being thrown out when the police arrived.”

“I was riding my scooter down the road and I ran into a bunch of guys…Spanish or Greeks, I think…same thing…and one of them threw a bottle at me, so I picked up a brick and threw it at him, and it all kicked off.  The police came and I had to spend the night in the cells.”

I detected a pattern here.  Now he might have been telling the truth.  And I might be the Dalai Lama.  But what I never heard, in all my time in Phuket or indeed ever in my life, was a story told to me by non-Brit complaining of getting into a fight with another non-Brit.  For whatever reason, Frenchmen don’t seem to end up fighting Spaniards in beach resorts and Germans somehow manage to rub along all right with Italians on holiday without kicking the shit out of one another.  The common element in all the fighting in beach resorts across the world, particularly the Mediterranean, is the presence of young Brits.  Little surprise then that the only trouble seen thus far at the Euro 2016 tournament features the same demographic.

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When an Engineer meets an Artsy Type

One of the reasons that this blog has been quiet recently is that I have spent a portion of my spare time dipping my toe into what I was told was the “art” worlds of Paris and, by proxy, New York.  I have posted some comments about my experiences in the comments section on others’ blogs, but felt it deserves a post of its own.

In February I met a 32 year old American woman here in Paris who I will call Angela.  She works here as a freelance translator/interpreter, and from what I saw she was pretty damned good at it and had obviously worked hard on her technique and vocabulary.  However – and the importance of this will become apparent later on – the three languages she knows stem from a childhood spent in a country with two official languages whilst her parents spoke a third to her at home.  In other words, they were not learned in adulthood or even late teens.  She had spent the last 18 months in Paris after 10 years in New York.

Angela called herself an artist, both on her websites and when asked by people what she did.  She definitely fit the description of an “artsy” type: facial piercings, unconventional clothing, a history of coloured hair, but unsurprisingly no tattoos.  Her identity revolved around “art”, and most aspects of her social life both past and present were somehow connected with the “art” scenes of Paris and New York.  I’ll confess she was a lot of fun to be around, especially because she enthusiastically took it upon herself to introduce me to the art world and show me stuff I had likely never seen before.  For my part, I am conscious that I work in a rather close-minded corporate environment (despite the campaigns, there is about as much diversity among oil and gas expatriates as there is in a Glasgow Celtic convention) and so took the opportunity to let somebody show me a world I might not know existed.  And boy, did she ever.

From the beginning, Angela talked incessantly about the Burning Man festival which takes place annually in Nevada’s Black Rock desert.  I had heard of it before and seen some photos, and concluded it was some sort of alternative/hippy festival involving lots of sex, drugs, and alcohol.  But the way Angela spoke of it, one would be forgiven thinking it was primarily an arts festival which just happens to have several acres of tenting devoted to orgies and other acts of sexual depravity.  Insofar as Angela was an artist, her claim was based partly on her attendance at Burning Man and other festivals and events, which I will describe later.

Shortly after I met Angela she told me she practiced taxidermy.  She said she’d stumbled across this hobby when a friend of hers had pulled out of a taxidermy course and she’d gone in her stead, and showed me a picture of a rat she’d stuffed.  She also said she’d given a workshop to her friends on rat taxidermy.  Beyond that, she’d not done any taxidermy.  But her greatest claim to being an artist was her being a photographer.  She had numerous photography websites – both personal and professional – plus Instagram and Flickr accounts containing hundreds and hundreds of photographs she’d taken over the years (I’ll not link to them because I don’t wish to reveal her identity).  She had done some part-time freelance photography work, mainly for friends but also occasionally for literary and other events.  But most of her photographs were of arts festivals (including Burning Man) and other rather odd conventions and festivals, and a good half of them were pictures of her mates.  She’d also worked for a few years as a graphic designer/art director for a restaurant magazine which went bankrupt, and later doing communications, administrative, and graphic design work at a non-profit organisation.

Now to be fair, she was a pretty good technical photographer: she had good equipment and knew how to use it, so she got some pretty neat shots which would have been a challenge to capture in the light conditions.  The sort of skill that comes from taking a photography course and practicing a bit, in other words.  She had a reasonable photographic eye but her photos were no better in terms of artistic composition and technical quality than those being posted by tens of thousands of hobbyist photographers on a daily basis.  I enjoy taking photographs myself, and although I’d concede her photos were overall better than mine, the gap wasn’t substantial.

Perhaps through my naivety and a willingness to appear open-minded, I took Angela’s artistic claims at face value and listened to the stories of her artistic pursuits with her friends in New York with a non-critical ear.  Hell, I liked the girl, she was a lot of fun to hang out with, and I thought I might learn something.  Yet something bothered me when I was at the birthday party of a Paris-based artist a month or so after we’d met.  A Frenchman, who might have worked in film production, asked us both what we did.  Before I could say that I was an engineer, Angela had said “Je suis une artiste” and expanded on that by saying she was a photographer.  I asked her later why she said that, when she was (more accurately) a translator/interpreter.  She said she considers herself an artist, on the basis of her photography and (from what I could gather) her interest in art.

A few weeks after that she began to reveal things about her past which caused me to raise an eyebrow or two.  That’s putting it mildly.  I have gotten involved in some weird shit in my time and for a middle-class British professional I’m about as open-minded as they come, but these revelations were shocking even to me.  I’ll not go into details because they are irrelevant to the point I’m making in this post (I’d normally say they’re a subject for another post, but a dedicated blog would probably be more accurate) but they were highly sexual in nature, pretty fucked up, and were intertwined inextricably with what, according to her, is the New York “arts” scene and the lifestyle that appears to accompany it.  I also think it worth saying, lest I come across as too judgmental, that a lot of what she told me was obviously complete bullshit, and had all the hallmarks of a carefully constructed narrative generated to avoid her having to admit responsibility for any of her unwise past choices.  It was the obvious lying, and her ultra-aggressive defence of the lies, that offended me more than the content of the stories.

So having learned some quite unsavoury things about my new-found artsy friend, I started to look a bit more critically at the stuff she’d told me.  And when the friendship faltered and then ended completely – solely because of what she’d revealed to me – I started looking at it a lot more critically.  And what I discovered was pretty depressing.

I realised that for all Angela’s self-promotion as an artist, she was nothing of the sort.  She had studied Political Science at university before going to work in various graphic design/admin. positions within what could plausibly called the New York arts world.  Now it could be argued that graphic design for promotional material and magazines is a form of art, but does doing this sort of work allow one to self-describe as an artist?  Perhaps.  But it feels a bit like me calling myself a writer on the basis that I spend half my working life writing engineering reports (anyone who doesn’t think this involves creative writing and a vivid imagination has obviously not worked in the oil industry).  Certainly, when Angela introduced herself as an artist she did not elaborate on her full-time jobs, which she’d quit in any case to become a translator/interpreter.  As I said, the basis of her claim to be an artist appeared to be her reasonable but not spectacular photography, her having stuffed a rat once, and her participation in various artsy events.

What she never showed me was something she had produced or achieved which was the result of hours and months and years of practice and effort representing skill, dedication, patience, and vision.  She couldn’t – or at least, didn’t – draw, paint, sculpt, or craft.  The best I got was this photo of a tattoo on a piece of broccoli she had done one night at her friend’s place.

I’ll admit that I hadn’t met all of her friends in Paris, and none of them from New York, but from what she describes they didn’t seem much different: working middle-of-the-road jobs vaguely connected to the arts world while claiming to be artists, but producing nothing which was the result of years of effort spent honing skills to create something truly unique, aesthetically pleasing, or of value.  Now I might be selling some of her friends and acquaintances short here, perhaps some of them were genuine artists.  But if they were, I never saw their output.

Now as I’ve said, she spoke at length of various “artistic” events she attended and was involved in, which formed the basis of her social life.  I have mentioned Burning Man, where she said she assisted people in the construction of large plywood artifacts which later got set on fire.  Now I have no doubt that there are things on display at Burning Man which are created by genuine artists who possess skill and vision, but her participation seemed to be more for the social element.  And the more I read about that, and spoke to other people who knew about Burning Man, and considered the revelations she had told me about some of her “lifestyle” habits…well, I never asked.  I really, really didn’t want to know.  But I could guess.

She told me that she was involved with an outfit in New York called Figment Project which is:

[A] forum for the creation and display of participatory and interactive art by emerging artists across disciplines. FIGMENT began in July 2007 as a free, one-day participatory arts event on Governors Island in New York Harbor with over 2,600 participants.

FIGMENT’s vision for art looks past the white-walled galleries and into the realm of participation. Art is not just something that you stand still and quietly look at–it is something you participate in. You touch it, smell it, write on it, talk to it, dance with it, play with it, learn from it. Interactive art creates a dynamic collaboration between the artist, the audience and their environment.

FIGMENT’s goal is to advance social and personal transformation through creativity, in the form of free participatory arts events and exhibitions.

So, it’s a “free” arts event, described with woolly guff that doesn’t tell you very much.  But they take great pains to tell us that:

FIGMENT is uninterrupted by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. Selling or advertising goods or services is not permitted. Neither our artists nor our planners and staff are paid: everything that you see at FIGMENT is born from a simple desire to share imagination with each other and the public.

FIGMENT accepts no corporate sponsorship of any kind.

FIGMENT is an alternative to many of the shortcomings of the commercial art world: exclusive, expensive, impersonal, untouchable and often simply boring.

How very principled!  So, where do they take funding from?

FIGMENT is supported by public funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. FIGMENT NYC is supported by theNew York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council, as well as by the Fund for Creative Communities, supported by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature and administered by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

Ah, the taxpayer.  Of course.  Which includes single mothers working minimum wage.

Angela – along with her ex-husband – were founder members of this Figment outfit, and as such both sit on its “Governance Council”, a position she attained when she was 24.  If she or her ex-husband have any formal artistic qualifications or significant experience to warrant their position on a board of governance spending taxpayers’ money, it is something she kept from me.  A quick cross-reference of her social life on Facebook and the names of people involved in this Figment Project suggests this is run by a group of mates/partners, much of it seemingly  for their own personal benefit and entertainment.  Here is a picture from one of their events:

Which is basically Angela (who is taking the photo) and her mates standing around a camp fire.  It looks an awful lot like the camping trips I used to take part in on Sakhalin, only we weren’t funded by the taxpayer.  And I wasn’t on a Governance Council.  I’ve seen other photos of other Figment events, and I don’t think I’m being unkind when I say they look a bit like a school fete that has been organised by the kids from the remedial class.  Little wonder Angela mounted a robust defence of state funding of the arts when I questioned whether it could be justified in times of austerity.

Bear in mind that when Angela told me she was an artist, it was in part based on her participation in events like these.  So what other events were there?  One called Santacon which is:

SANTACON IS A CHARITABLE, NON-COMMERCIAL, NON-POLITICAL, NONSENSICAL SANTA CLAUS CONVENTION THAT HAPPENS ONCE A YEAR FOR ABSOLUTELY NO REASON.

Here’s what it really is: a bunch of people, an awful lot of whom appear to be middle-aged, dress up as Santa Claus and take to the streets of New York getting pissed and (probably) smoking a lot of weed.  Here’s a photo Angela took at one of them:

How very artistic!  Another was an event was called the PEX Summer Festival and whose mission is:

[To] inspire and connect a growing, willing and participatory community of passionate, tolerant and motivated individuals by actively creating, supporting and providing engaging experiences. To this end we continually strive to foster an environment that nurtures and protects the family evolved by this culture.

From the gallery, it looks to me to be a cross between a rave, a hippy festival, and a general piss-up.  I have a couple of photos that Angela took at one of these events, but I will not post them here because those who have seen them begged me not to and several have told me, weeks later, that they still cannot get the images out of their heads.  But I will describe them thusly:

1. Two of Angela’s mates – a man and a woman who look to be in their mid-30s – wearing strap-on dildos which they are pushing together to make the ends touch, drinking from tins of lager.

2. Another of Angela’s mates in a swimming pool with the end of a strap-on dildo sticking up out of the water.

Angela actually told me about her attendance at this event before, and her own wearing of a strap-on dildo, as if this was something worthy of mentioning.  A mixture of tact and naivety made me keep my silence.  Another year at the same event involved Angela and her mates dressing up as grandmas and grandpas and sitting around drinking from tins of lager:

There was also Zombicon, an event similar to Santacon, only taking place in Florida and people dress up as zombies.  This event might not happen any more after somebody was shot at the last event in October 2015.

Now I’m not against people dressing up like idiots and getting drunk per se.  Indeed, I did an awful lot of that myself and I have plenty of photos to prove it.  But there are two crucial differences:

1. I quit all that in my mid 20s, when I grew up a bit.  Angela and her group of artsy mates seem content, indeed proud, to be doing this into their 30s, 40s, and sometimes 50s.

2. I never presented my dressing up like an idiot and drinking as being the basis of an artistic lifestyle, nor as proof of anything other than my being a twenty-something year old bloke with more energy than common sense.

I once asked Angela whether any of her artistic, creative friends played a musical instrument – something that requires dedication, discipline, and practice. Not a single one of them did.  By the time I asked her the question, I already knew the answer.  It probably goes without saying that they all voted Democrat, with Angela herself vociferously supporting policies such as the Living Wage, subsidised arts programmes, feminist causes (such as addressing the supposed gender pay gap) and draconian laws protecting women from “online threats”.

The truth – and this is the crux of this post – is that there is a section of society out there which is not completely stupid (but not particularly bright either) who lack the talent, work ethic, and self-discipline to enter into professional or corporate environments and so attach themselves like parasites to the genuine arts world in order to give themselves some sort of identity.  The problem with the arts world – as opposed to say, law, engineering or music – is there is no quality control: anyone can tag along, dress up in costumes, get drunk, take some photographs, and claim they’re an “artist”.

As one commenter said elsewhere:

Inventing a career and being an artist fits the bill perfectly as it’s one which can be thought to confer a certain degree of social status – it implies someone creative, passionate, sensitive, driven yet without the burden of requiring evidence of any particular professional or financial success.

Another put it thusly:

The “arts” scene you mentioned is a reminder that for many people “being an artist” is more of a lifestyle choice than an activity.  For every genuine artist who is serious about creating something of value there are at least ten phonies who just want to be seen as cool and creative without doing any actual work.

What worries me is the degree of control and influence these people have over the overall arts world (including taxpayer dollars), and how they distort the image the public have of genuine, talented artists.

I know some genuine artists, and have heard from others who do as well, and those who pursue the arts as a career have had to put in thousands of hours learning and perfecting techniques, honing their skills, and converting their visions and ideas into a tangible output.  I heard one say that he paints because if he didn’t, he might as well die.  Even those who don’t practice their craft full-time and have to take a normal job to pay the bills dedicate huge swathes of their lives doing what they love and – crucially – having something to show for their endeavours of which they can be proud.  Tastes vary of course, but one has to show something in terms of output.  Being an artist, like being anything worthwhile, is a lifetime of seriously hard work.

This just didn’t apply to Angela, and nor (from what I could tell) to her whole social circle.  Having come from a background of engineering, I must confess I was barely aware such a section of society existed.  Almost everybody I associate with has worked their backsides off, put in years of effort, and committed endless sacrifice to achieve something tangible, be it learn a language, perfect a skill, or even raise a family (Angela was long-term single and childless, having gotten divorced after 2 years of marriage to a fellow hanger-on in the arts world; few of her friends appeared to have children).

Putting aside my professional achievements and the efforts I put in to survive in places like Kuwait, Nigeria, and Sakhalin, since I graduated from university I have learned two foreign languages to conversational level, mostly self-taught; I taught myself to play the guitar to a high enough standard to enable me to take part in music festivals; I practiced long and hard enough to be able to ski down red runs if not every black run in the Alps; and kept myself pretty physically fit and strong through regular gym work for the past 6 years.  Each of these on their own represents hours and hours and hours of patience, effort, dedication, and commitment to achieving a goal.  Most of it was painful, repetitive, drudgery.  I did it because I liked the results.  Aside from those, I am pretty well versed in 20th century Russian and Soviet history and culture, and general military history, but those took no effort at all because I enjoyed learning these subjects.  Among my peers – both professional and social – I am nothing special, everybody has a similar list of achievements to their name.  Until I poked my nose into Angela’s “arts” world, I assumed that most middle-class educated sections of society were the same.

Apparently not.  Much was made by Angela of the fact that I, as an engineer without much by way of formal cultural education, would benefit from having my mind exposed to the arts world.  And maybe it would, but the side of the arts worlds that Angela inhabits is one I really hope never to encounter again.  I should probably have chosen a better guide.

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There Was Once a Road Through the Woods

Perry de Havilland at Samizdata has linked to a piece in the Christian Post written by somebody apologising for being an ardent defender of Islam in recent times, somebody who now feels the critics of Islam were right all along.  This paragraph in particular nudged me into writing a post I’ve been meaning to for a while:

Though we claim the mantle of human rights, free speech and equality, we lack the courage of our convictions when it offends someone. We make the cowardly lion look like Churchill.

Principles are strange things in the sense that they do not necessarily have to be pleasant to be attractive, and that even appalling principles can be more attractive (to some) than none at all.  I recall a section in David Hackworth’s book About Face where during the Vietnam War he interviewed an NVA prisoner to try to understand what made them fight.  Once the prisoner realised Hackworth wasn’t going to torture him, and in fact wasn’t after military information at all, he opened up.  It transpired that the prisoner was four-square behind the idea of Communism and the principles that the leadership in Hanoi was preaching and practising.  Hackworth remarked that although he didn’t agree with the cause the man was fighting for, he could not help but admire the fact that his prisoner was willing to endure extreme hardship in order to do so, and noted that he had a fist-sized hole somewhere on his person (I forget where) that was a result of some battlefield injury incurred earlier in the war.  Hackworth contrasted his prisoner’s dedication with those of the feckless ARVN who generally lacked the motivation to fight, were happy to dodge the action and let the Americans do the (literal) grunt work, and represented a regime that was morally bankrupt, corrupt, brutal and stood for nothing whatsoever other than not being Communist.  He concluded that unless the South Vietnamese get off their arses and start fighting in the way his prisoner was, they would ultimately lose the war.  And he was right.

I am about as far from a Communist as it is possible to get, yet there is no denying the ideas and principles attracted – and continue to attract – millions of people.  I have read enough Cold War history to know that the Chinese fought with fanatical, suicidal dedication to the Communist cause in North Korea, that millions of Russian soldiers died with Stalin’s name on their lips, and that a huge percentage of the Soviet people worked willingly in support of the Socialist cause for decades.  These people might be brainwashed, and they might be complete idiots, but the fact is that having been presented with a set of principles – however warped both in theory and practice – millions of them followed with unflappable dedication.

So how come the Commies lost the Cold War?  Theories vary, but one crucial element in the Western victory was the upholding of certain principles which the Communist Bloc didn’t recognise: free speech, liberty, property rights, the right to a fair trial, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom of artistic expression, etc.  Granted most, if not all, Western countries upheld these principles imperfectly at various times but this does not equate to an absence of principles any more than the largesse of the Politburo meant an absence of collectivist principles in the Soviet Union.

By upholding these principles that were alien to the Communists, the West was able to achieve two things:

1. Demonstrate how they were fundamentally different from the Communists in a positive way, i.e. better than them.

2. Provide an alternative set of principles for those in the enemy camp who wished to reject the Communist principles.

Convinced of its own superior system of government, the West thought nothing of blasting the populations trapped behind the Iron Curtain with propaganda, urging them to convert to its own way of thinking.  An American president – the leader of the free world – called the Soviet Union an evil empire not only because it was, but also because he knew those living under its rule against their will would take great heart from his words and continue to struggle.  The conviction of the West in shamelessly and incessantly promoting its own principles over the Communists’ likely did as much to inspire internal resentment over the Soviet leadership as their own degeneracy: without the former, against what standard could the Soviet leaders and their own circumstances be measured?

This brings me onto what I want to talk about, which is a thought that first started churning in my head in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  That is, the question as to why moderate Muslims don’t speak out and condemn the atrocities carried out in the name of Islam.  It is tempting to say that many probably agree with the atrocities, leading one to question just how many moderates there actually are.  But shortly afterwards I read a comment in a blog by somebody who suggested putting yourself in the shoes of a moderate Muslim and asking whether you yourself would speak out.

And in doing so it became a lot clearer why they don’t.  What we are asking moderate Muslims to do is speak out against those whose actions are incompatible with our way of life.  But what we really want is confirmation that moderate Muslims have themselves accepted our way of life and the principles that underpin it, and will therefore reject the extremists in their ranks.  In theory, this isn’t much different than hoping citizens of Communist countries would accept our way of life and make things difficult for their overlords by seeking change.  But whereas during the Cold War we had clearly defined principles that we genuinely believed were superior and were not afraid to advertise them, what principles are we supposed to be waving in front of Muslims?

And that’s a question I can’t answer.  Whatever free speech we currently enjoy is fast being eroded: when citizens can be jailed for offensive Tweets or nasty Facebook comments, and homophobic remarks are grounds for arrest as a matter of course, then we can probably say that this isn’t solid ground on which we can fight a battle of ideas.  Individual freedom is rapidly disappearing as a concept now that refusing to bake a wedding cake is a matter in which the full force of the law is brought to ensure conformity: I’d not fancy my chances arguing that individual freedoms in the West are nowadays sancrosanct in a way that they are not in the Muslim world.  The state is becoming ever more intrusive, particularly into family matters: with Scotland now setting up a truly Stalinist system of shadow parenting by state officials (H/T Samizdata) it would take a brave soul to try to win over a Muslim by pointing to our superior methods of running a family.

That’s not to say the West has nothing to offer Muslims, because it clearly does.  But the differentiator which enabled them to offer all people – not just Muslims – something better was the society that resulted from first fighting for, and then upholding, the principles on which it was based.  The West appears to have forgotten that it was these principles that made its society attractive in the first place, and it doesn’t seem to realise that if it abandons those principles then it won’t be the same society; and if it’s not the same society, who is to say it will be an improvement on any other, particularly one that’s been aroud awhile?

To repeat what I quoted from the Christian Post:

Though we claim the mantle of human rights, free speech and equality, we lack the courage of our convictions when it offends someone.

If our leadership – and I use that term loosely – lacks the conviction to uphold the principles which supposedly define the West, why the hell should we expect Muslims to come out in support of them?  I suspect for many, faced with a choice between leaning towards Islamic principles and Western principles, many moderate Muslims are choosing the former because they are unconvinced that the latter even exist.  Hell, I’m not convinced they exist in any meaningful sense any more, so why should somebody who comes from a culture where they have been historically absent?

As the aforementioned blog commenter asked, if you were a young Muslim living in Britain over the last few years, which way would you lean?  Which way is the wind blowing?  When you have elected officials condemning the publication of blasphemous cartoons, and newspaper columnists suggesting Charlie Hebdo was probably at fault, would you stick your head above the parapet and argue that insulting the Prophet is a fundamental right?  When any atrocity is immediately followed by politicians mumbling vague approximations of supposed bedrock principles which they contradict in the very same sentence through use of the word “but”, and fall over themselves to assure you – a Muslim – that this is nothing to do with your own principles and faith, and then an utter headcase is invited for an interview on the state-owned TV channel where he defends the bloodshed and nobody says a peep: which way are you going to jump?

As the Christian Post article goes on to say:

In reality, those who criticize Islam, especially reform minded Muslims, are the bravest of the brave. They are literally putting their lives at risk by the simple act of criticizing the Quran, Muhammad, and Sharia.

It’s hard enough as it is to get Muslims to question aspects of their faith they might find distasteful and risk the opprobrium of their family, friends, and community.  But it was equally hard to get Russian citizens to criticise their own people and system as well.  Back then, we realised the importance in upholding our own convictions and demonstrating our principles in the struggle to convert people away from Communism and to adopt our way of life.

But today we have abandoned our principles, yet at the same time we expect Muslims to start questioning theirs.  Somebody with principles will not abandon them – even if they are appalling – unless there are alternatives on offer.  And although I see much merit in the principles on which Western society was based, the past decade or two has seen them eroded to such an extent that their function as an alternative which others can adopt has diminished to the point that few appear to be taking them up any more.  What’s more worrying, as David Hackworth’s prisoner demonstrated, those with principles – regardless of what they are – tend to prevail over those who are operating with none.

If the West wants its way of life to continue its citizenry had better rediscover the principles on which it developed and not only start upholding them, but demanding their leaders do the same.  They’d be wise to consider that the Muslims they are hoping to convert already have principles, they’ve been following them faithfully for hundreds of years, and there is very little they would have seen in recent years which would make them do otherwise.

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Ah, so it was all bullshit?

This is long overdue:

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) says electronic devices such as mobile phones can be left switched on during flights.

EASA says that electronic devices do not pose a safety risk.

The restriction on using mobile phones was almost as stupid as the requirement to turn off “electronic devices” during taxi, take-off, and landing.  If any aircraft, ever, had displayed the slightest sign of inteference from a mobile phone or other device, the whole fleet would have been grounded immediately.  The “because it may interfere with the aircraft’s navigation system” was a lie, pure and simple.

It came about, in my opinion, due to a confluence of several things which can be observed separately elsewhere.  The first is the phenomenon whereby people feel empowered by a uniform and delight in telling other people what to do, even if this means causing them unnecessary inconvenience.  Pilots have always overestimated their own speciality: modern aircraft are not like those of two or three generations ago, and pilots are simply too numerous for the job to be that difficult.  They do an important job, and you’d want a good one to be at the yoke if something went wrong, but the manner in which they like to portray themselves belongs to an era which has long since passed.  And nothing reinforces their sense of authority more than ordering passengers around in the name of “safety”, not even the tedious reminders that “this is a non-smoking flight” (the last of which took place around 16 years ago, at least in the US) and pointless information regarding the aircraft’s speed and altitude.

Then you have the trolley-dollies who, having to put up with shit from passengers for most of the flight, enjoy nothing more than to harangue them during the fleeting moments they have some authority.  I’ve noticed they’ve even taken to ordering passengers to remove headphones during take-off and landing, no doubt citing the importance of passengers being able to hear announcements in the event of an incident.  Although any passenger who is unaware of an announced incident during take-off or landing is almost certainly unconcious or dead, and not merely listening to music.

Coupled with this is the dumbfuck, luddite mentality amongst most people who lack the basic scientific knowledge to laugh in the face of anyone who says an iPod will interfere with the correct functioning of an aircraft.  Aircraft are constantly bombarded by all sorts of electromagnetic waves, particularly during taxi, take-off, and landing when they are near the airport and other aircraft, who are all communicating with one another.  To the degree that any component of the aircraft could be unduly influenced by electromagnetic radiation – and this is doubtful – the device and its cables would be shielded.  An iPod would produce some electromagnetic radiation, but this would be almost undetectable without specialist equipment set up right next to it.  It is simply impossible for an iPod to interfere with a plane’s equipment.  But most people lack any kind of technical knowledge and, in the fashion of Pavlov’s dogs, simply nod dumbly when somebody in a uniform tells them to do something vaguely to do with technology – even if the person in the uniform is employed primarily on looks.  I particularly hate the request to switch off “all electronic devices” because its ludicrously broad criteria makes it impossible to comply with.  My watch is electronic.  How do I turn it off?

It’s bullshit masquerading as safety compliance, and I hear enough of this in my own industry.  Mobile phones are banned on all operational sites where hydrocarbons may be present, yet there is not a single example, anywhere, of a mobile phone causing a spark.  Mythbusters tested this to death and couldn’t get a solitary spark out of a mobile phone; they also couldn’t get aircraft instruments to react to a mobile phone, either.  Of course, most people will say “well, if it makes us safer, even by a little bit, then it is not too much to ask”, and indeed they do say this.  And they know nothing about risk, and even less about people’s actual preferences: if it wasn’t too much to ask, the stewardesses wouldn’t need to check, would they?

I can see why they banned mobile phones: airlines simply didn’t want the hassle and complaints associated with people taking on phones on an aircraft, so they came up with some safety bullshit as a way to enforce compliance.  But now technology has advanced to the point that money can be made from people making calls on flights, the regulations prohibiting phone use have magically disappeared.

This is welcome, but it’s a shame they had to bullshit us for two decades in the first place.

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Two Road Systems Contrasted

For the second of the 4-day weekends in May I decided to go to London to visit a couple of mates who were in town.  Such trips are possible from Paris, but weren’t from Lagos and Sakhalin.  I decided to drive, having checked the Eurostar prices and found it an absolute fleecing (being a bank holiday, and me having left it late in any case), and driving had the added bonus of being able to visit a British supermarket and fill up with tonnes of stuff that you can’t get easily in France (e.g. Shreddies, custard creams, Branston Pickle, Colman’s packet sauces, Jaffa Cakes, Ambrosia rice pudding in a can, etc.).

I also wanted to give my car a proper run-out, as since buying it almost from new (it was an ex-demonstrator) I’d only really bumbled about the outskirts of Paris in it (but enough to cop a speeding fine, which was thankfully only 40 Euros).  For those that are interested, it’s a BMW 330d M-Sport, and goes like shit off a shovel.  In France diesel is cheaper than petrol by around 20 cents per litre; I think this is a consequence of the French having been pioneers in diesel engine development decades ago, and as a result most cars in France are diesels.  I looked at buying an M3 (and becoming a drug dealer in Rusholme), but I’m not a speed junky and a car like that would be wasted on me, plus the fuel consumption would have gotten very expensive.  So I opted for a top-end diesel, and so far I’m very happy with it (except when I spy an M3).

I booked a ticket on the Eurotunnel in advance and left Paris early on the Thursday morning, and got onto the A1 towards Calais.  The road was fantastic, virtually empty of traffic, with a surface like silk and a speed limit of 130kph (81mph), with only a few speed cameras that came with ample warning in advance.  Driving the route was a pleasure, and I made the Eurotunnel terminal with an hour to spare.  I had never taken the Eurotunnel before and was curious to see how it worked.  Very efficiently, is the answer.  I approached the barrier, it read my number plate and the screen welcomed me by name and asked if I wanted to take the earlier train or wait for the one which I’d booked.  I chose the earlier one, the machine printed me out a label to hang from the mirror, and then…we hit the bottleneck of British immigration, as usual (the French just waved everyone through: they don’t care who is leaving).  After that we all queued up in ranks and each rank drove up to the train in turn, drove onto the actual train, all the way along on an upper or lower deck, until you come to a stop as the train fills up from the front, then they close some doors and within 20 minutes you’re on your way.  You can stand in a narrow walkway beside your car or remain inside it, but either way you pop out the other side after 33 minutes and a few minutes after that you drive off the train in the same manner you drove on, almost straight onto the M20 without stopping.  I was impressed.

Which is more than I can say for the state of the M20.  The road was patched tarmac for some stretches, rough concrete for others, and chock-full of lorries.  British (and foreign) lorries successfully turn 3-lane motorways into 1-lane roads by having one of them travelling at 55mph overtake another doing 54mph and thus taking several miles to do it.  They used to do this way back when I lived in the UK and the practice still continues.  Bumping along on a crappy surface, continually braking behind lorries and being squeezed into the outside lane, the comparison with the French autoroutes I’d left behind was not favourable.

There are likely several reasons for this.  Firstly, French autoroutes are toll roads and operated by companies (either state-owned or private) which collect the tolls and are responsible for their maintenance.  For a country which thinks dance lessons and venues for adults to play Scalextric (seriously) are services for which the state should pay and the public enjoy free of charge, it is highly surprising that the major roads should be pay-as-you-go.  But I guess the concept has been there for so long that everyone is used to it.  And they don’t have a vehicle tax.  As a result, the money French road operators collect goes on maintaining the roads.  By contrast, the money collected from vehicle and fuel taxes in the UK gets spent on diversity outreach coordinators in the Ministry of Sport and Culture, and road maintenance is kept at an absolute minimum, if it’s done at all.

Secondly, the French have a different attitude about roads altogether.  If somebody suggested putting a decent road down in the UK, a vocal minority would start protesting that the roads should be kept shit to “discourage driving”.  Such people think everyone should travel by train instead, but they are also shit.  In France, the trains are fantastic (assuming there are no strikes, which admittedly is a big assumption) and so are the roads: they don’t deliberately keep one shit to encourage everyone to use the equally shit other.  There seems to be no taboo about a lot of people driving a long way along the roads in France.

Thirdly, the French seem to keep the lorries off the roads.  I don’t know how, but French roads are not clogged up with lorries.

Fourthly, with toll roads you get rid of all the knobbers who are going nowhere in particular and are just “out for a drive”, sitting in the middle lane on a Sunday afternoon doing 60mph and listening to Gardeners’ Question Time.  Everyone who is on a French autoroute has paid money to be there and is going somewhere for a purpose.  The traffic reflects that.

And thus I discovered that driving around in France is a pleasant experience, and I will write more on that shortly.

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More on the Missing Plane

This whole situation still continues to fascinate me, and by a process of elimination I reckon I’ve figured out what has happened.

I think it is safe to assume the plane was hijacked, or deliberately flown off course by one or both of the pilots.  It does not seem credible to me that the plane suffered a malfunction or some sort and the pilots were unable to get a message out of some sort, if indeed they kept flying for several hours after radar contact was lost.

I think it is reasonably safe to assume the plane did not crash in the Gulf of Thailand, Malacca Straits, or the Andaman Sea.  These areas are chock-full of shipping, fishermen, and other craft and debris would have been spotted by now, and somebody would have seen or heard something.

I think it is also fairly safe to assume that nobody pinches a plane full of passengers for the purposes of disappearing quietly.  Precedent suggests that plane hijackings are quickly followed by political demands or spectacular collisions with iconic buildings.  The lack of either occurrence suggests the first part of the plan was carried out, but not the second.  I don’t buy the argument that the plane was hijacked in order to be used later: there are several ways to obtain a 777 without raising an international plane-hunt involving 239 missing people; if you want a flying bomb, a cargo plane would do just as well.

Therefore I think the most likely scenario is one whereby a pilot, or both pilots, carried out instructions to divert from their normal course before losing their nerve; or being overpowered by the other pilot, in the event only one was in on it.  Or somebody else –  either passengers, stowaways, or a combination of both – took over the plane and either lost their nerve or were overpowered.  If the people in control of the plane were overpowered after a struggle, then the plane would have come down wherever it happened to be at the time.  But if somebody lost their nerve, or found the second part of the mission could not be completed for whatever reason, I can envisage a scenario whereby those in control fly the plane as far out into the deep ocean as they can before the fuel runs out, thus minimising the likelihood of wreckage and the black boxes being found.  This course of action would serve two purposes: it would save the faces of those who have lost their nerve (I can’t imagine al-Qa’eda gives second chances to operatives who have bottled out); and also destroy as much evidence as possible thus helping to protect the rest of the network back in Malaysia and elsewhere who organised it.  The US might have congressional debates on whether water-boarding constitutes torture and a media which frets over the mishandling of a Koran, but I expect anyone who fell into the hands of the Chinese investigating team would be singing like a canary in pretty short order.

I therefore expect that the plane has come down miles into the Indian ocean somewhere, well out of sight of land or shipping, and at some point in the future bits and pieces will wash ashore or come up in a fishing net, which will lead to the black boxes being eventually found.  The only thing I cannot for the life of me work out is what cause is advanced by somebody hijacking a Malaysian plane filled mostly with Chinese citizens.  It’s that question which has me stumped over and above any other.

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