Saturday, October 30, 2004

Gourmet ghoul

I don't like to brag, but....

Well, actually, I do like to brag. I'm going to the best Halloween party in London. Why? Well, dahhlinks, it's being catered by the Gastrobloggette herself.

Have a look at the food. And the desserts.

This woman makes me hungry every time I go near her blog. I've been hankering for a cheesy hot dog for days.

On a serious note, though, I really do love to read her blog because she and her contributors are such wonderful, wonderful cooks. Most importantly, they have diverse styles and approaches to food as well as each bringing the cuisine and habits of a different culture to bear on their recipes.

Cooking is a great skill and a pleasure. I love to experiment...to have a look at what's on hand and see how I can combine the flavours and textures. This is only possible because of years of successes, failures and horrid mistakes. I now know what you can and can't do with egg, how to treat chocolate, how much salt to add just by sight, when to use vanilla essence, extract, sugar or pod and how to add milk to something hot without it curdling. I know which flavours can be happily combined to build on each-other and which provide a wonderful contrast to each-other.

Cooking for others is a great experience too - I love to make things for M and he does for me. Coming home to the smell of something wonderful bubbling away on the stove or crisping in the oven is a delight.

And, of course, the eating. Mmmmmm.....the eating.

Knowing how to cook well also heightens one's appreciation for other's cooking. You know how much effort has gone into the dish, you appreciate what a complex flavour has been created. You become picky as well as highly complimentary at restaurants.

I firmly believe that there is no-one who 'just can't cook'. We're not born with an innate ability to drive cars, program computers or grow plants either - they're all learned, refined skills.

I would keep going with this post, but I have to get my costume on and run. Be assured, it's nothing like this.

M

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Friday, October 29, 2004

Be still, my beating...

I received a very flattering email from Michael Jericho the other day. The flattery came with an invitation. Compliment-whore than I can be, I accepted and I'm pleased to say that I will be cross posting some of the things you read here onto A Western Heart.

I'm really no good at describing things succinctly. If you're curious about A Western Heart, go have a peek yourself. I think the writing and the political analysis is rather fresh and an easy, logical read, but don't take my word for it as I'm all biased now.

M

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Helpless

So we're not supposed to protect ourselves from an assault on our person or property.

Nor should we really expect the police to protect us from the same.

What, then, is left as a course of action for a person who would just like to get along with their lives?

I'm not talking about celebrities, or businesspeople, or the wealthy or the exceptionally fortunate. I'm talking about Joe Average who has a 9-5, a wife, 2.3 kids, a car that he wishes was just a little sexier and a front lawn that requires inordinate amounts of attention to look good.

What is the point of planning a life, of acquiring property, of using the word 'mine' when the justice system has as good as said someone else has the right to walk up and prise it out of your hands at their discretion?

The 'right to' do so, of course, only implicitly. The 'right to' because you aren't allowed to forcibly stop that person from doing it and because those to whom you have given the power to act on your behalf - the police - are too undermanned and shackled by beaurocracy to do it for you.

Humans need property to survive. It's in our nature - at it's most basic it is the food held in the hand of the savage and the animal skin keeping him warm.

We've thankfully progressed somewhat from that most basic of subsistence survival models (although if you listen closely to some in the environmental movement, they would like nothing more than for us to regress right back to it). We now have lamb cutlets and Italian leather coats, DVD players and iPods, Hondas and Segways. These are simply an enhancement of that basic hunk of food and that animal skin - even though they're not all *strictly* necessary for our basic survival, they are simply an extended version of the same idea of property.

The protection of this property, of our lives and of the freedom to enjoy both is, theoretically, the cornerstone of our political and legal system. Something's rather rotten in the state of Denmark when a citizen can't act out the rights he is given in theory to protect all three against anyone threatening to take them away.

M

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Thursday, October 28, 2004

Management by hint

I like all my commenters equally.

Except for those that don't follow the really simple instructions to use the comment system 'below'...meaning below the instruction. Those commenters, I like less.

Oh, and those that leave really intelligent comments. I like those more.

Otherwise, it's a pretty even spread of love.


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Purrfect pets

Run.

They're going to eat your children, make you break out in hives, ruin the habitat of the squish-faced-woodland-finch and eventually mutate into super-beings that can command your remote control. Really.

But first, they're going to sucker you in by being cute and stopping you from sneezing.

I'm talking about all that GM stuff, and it's a conspiracy, folks.

FIRST they give us things we want, all the things that will make our lives easier and better. All the things that we will be willing to part with money for because of their life-enhancing properties.

THEN one of the GM company bosses will take all those profits and will buy a leather high-backed chair, a ludicrously long conference table, an eye patch and will begin plans to Take Over The World.

I've seen it happen in numerous movies documentaries.

You have been warned.

M


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Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Democratizing the 'sphere

I'm liking the Adam Smith Institute's blog more and more as they get used to the format and find their voice in the medium. It's a great source of news snippets as well as a quick, concise and prescient analysis of the impact of that news.

So it's only natural that they should host a seminar on 'Democracy and The Blogosphere' when so many others have tried (and dismally failed) to discuss the issue in an intelligent and well-researched manner. This time, though, the Big Blog Company bunch are involved - halleluljah for expertise. Here's the rundown:

"Much hype surrounds the internet's self-publishing phenomenon known as blogging. Many claim that the blogosphere - the community of millions of blogs - is the key to reinvigorating the political process. Some believe that, using blogs, politicians will better serve their constituents, the disaffected will become involved in politics, and public confidence in the ability of government to solve society's problems will skyrocket.

There are also those who fiercely believe that, if only MPs would all start blogging, public debate would be dramatically revitalised. Is this wishful thinking in the age of spin doctors and party whips? Would more conversation with the public encourage our MPs to follow better policies, or lead to governance by opinion poll?

Does the blogosphere really strengthen the political progress, or is it more anti-Establishment than the Establishment would like to believe? Should the unprecedented ability of citizens to spread criticism of the state, its actions and its employees be cause for governmental alarm? Can our political process withstand such scrutiny? And is the blogosphere the big, equality-driving democracy so many claim that it is, or is it really a meritocracy, where the most interesting, compelling, and worthwhile ideas rise to the top?"

I won't encourage people to attend because those that should attend have some natural interest and don't need encouragement. I just want you to know it's there. And that there's champagne.

M


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Unconstitutional

Many people need SOMETHING...some seam-free prescriptive document by which to live their lives to the letter.

Many choose the bible as a comprehensive set of rules. Others consider themselves atheists...but are just as rigidly bound by another piece of writing.

The American Constitution is held up, by radical constitutionalists and those Libertarians who came to the flock without doing much background research, as the be-all and end-all in terms of How Things Should Be Done.

To listen to them is to think that this scrap of paper materialized some few hundred years ago from nowhere to be implemented with immediate and complete success.

The truth of the tale, as anyone who cares to give it much thought will tell you, is that it was written by a bunch of pretty clued up guys. A handful of men gathered together to decide on the rules that a fledgling nation state would play by and the only thing that they had to guide them was their judgment...and their philosophy – whether it be based on a god, the writings of dead Greeks or on Locke et al’s.

The Constitution is simply a SYMBOL of a set of moral philosophies as those ideas pertain to a government.

That’s it.

And it’s quite brilliant, actually. These guys took a bit of a stab in the dark and – for the most part – got it right.

The problem is when you base your entire idea of the way the world should work on that teensy little laundry list of Do’s and Don’ts. It’s not going to make you sound like anything other than a raving loon if you need to prop every argument you have on The Constitution.

“Taxes? No! Bad, bad, bad....except for luxury taxes on tobacco and alcohol...”

“Life, liberty and property? I THINK they’re good ideas, let me just look them up...”

"Coffee or tea? Lemme just pull out my copy of...."

(Yes, yes, the last is a JOKE. I don't need 20 emails telling me that there isn't a constitutional amendment on refreshments.)

Badnarik is a nice guy, I’m sure. Very brave to be the frontman for the Libertarian Party in America. Very brave.

I’d recommend that the man expand his reading list somewhat so that every question he is fielded doesn’t come back to 'It's in the Constitution' or ‘It’s not in the Constitution.’* Or that he doesn't argue both for adherence to it and it's abolition at the same time.*

*Via A Stitch in Haste, via VodkaPundit, via my RSS reader - credit where credit's due, people.

It just makes him sound like a born-again parchment worshipper and I don’t really think America needs another religious nutter for President.*

*No, of course it doesn't mean I endorse Kerry over Bush. As I said in an email to a friend that asked recently: "Bush, even though he's an angry-sky-god-worshipping, anti-science conservative. It's like asking: 'Would madam like to be strangled to death or shot this evening?' You choose the least painful."

This post isn't about trashing Badnarik, though, it's about seemingly-simple prescriptive solutions to problems and issues that are too complex to simply gloss over. It's also about the one thing that I froth about regularly on here - stripping back politicies, ideas, media articles, blog posts or metacontexts (Perry, I can't get rid of that word from my vocabulary, you should be proud) to their rawest, originating ideas and having a good, hard, long look.

The Constitution is a wonderful document, don't get me wrong (oh, OK, get me wrong - it keeps things interesting), but it's the ideas that spawned such a document that get me excited. If we understand those ideas, then the Constitution can not only be better utilized in word and in spirit, but perhaps we can use those ideas and come up with something that better expresses them to serve us.

M

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Tuesday, October 26, 2004

R & R

M took a day off yesterday and, as is the tradition when he does things like that, I packed a picnic and we walked to the lake.

The heath-like area we walk through to get to the lake was beautiful in a sparse way, when nature repeats patterns that are pleasing to the human eye. Dry, wheat-coloured grass shimmied in the wind and every stalk arched in the same direction, giving the illusion of a thousand stationary ripples, clumps of hair brushed by the breeze. Below the waving dry stalks was a still-lush dark green grass, only visible when underfoot. The illusion was one of walking on an ever-shifting green oasis in amongst a sea of parched straw.

We sat down at our favorite bluff and unpacked hot scrambled eggs and bacon, french bread and cheese, juice and steaming Model-Tea (you can have it any way you like, as long as it's white with sugar) from the thermos. We ate and talked, we observed geese honking and flying overhead - wisely leaving the country for warmer climes in the winter.

I noticed the way the light coloured Matthew's hair, made it so much brighter than normal. I've always loved the colour of his hair - every individual strand is a different colour...white, ash, yellow, copper, brown, black...and they come together to create the most extraordinarly rich auburn hair I've ever seen.



Beginning to feel the bite of the wind, we retreated to the more sheltered forrest area where phase two of gorging ourselves on sweeter things took place.

Matthew selected a likely spot and set up camp while I played around with the camera and the wonderfully bright slanting light.



I pulled out my laptop and...

...what? What are you looking at me like that for? What do you mean you don't pack your laptop for a picnic? Luddite.

Anyway, I read Cluetrain to Matthew as he busily munched food with all the fervour of a geek who hasn't consumed anything in the last 30 minutes. He loved Cluetrain...of course.

A man walking a dog happened upon us and started chuckling.

"It's quite an extraordinary pastoral scene you two have going there."

Quite right. There we were, rugged against the wind and cold...scarves, gloves and coats on. Nestled into the mossy roots of a massive tree, hugging each other and mugs of steaming tea...and me reading about management theory from a wafer-thin silver laptop.

I love being a geek-by-association :)

M

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Get a clue



A Story

There are a few things that I clearly remember from childhood - when the blur of past time seems to slow and sharpen like a pause in a frantic microfiche search and it's possible to immerse oneself in a memory.

Darryl Hull is sitting on my left and is animatedly describing something he did at work to my parents. His booming voice fills the room and his hands, skin soft and buttery-yellow like his hair, make expressive movements to punctuate the story. I'm just a kid, bright but not expected to fully understand what it is he's talking about.

If only he knew how his story changed my life.

He had been engaged by a company to find out why production errors were so high. He was also asked to get rid of a bottleneck that the company had found in it's operations. He went along and toured the facilities, talking to a guide as he filed from room to room, learning about what the company did and how, about the company's culture and it's history, about the way things were done and what was expected of people working there. Walking into a certain area and observing the workflow, he realised he had found it - the place where both the bottleneck and the errors occurred.

He pauses in his story, his eyes sparkling with the enjoyment of talking about an elegant solution to a complex problem. He isn't looking at me, hasn't noticed that I've scarcely taken a breath for the last few minutes. For some reason, this seems like the most interesting story I've ever heard - and it doesn't even have robots in it.

"And then I saw it, I saw *why* all of this was happening. It was between two departments, one of which simply carried on the production work of the previous department. One was wholly reliant on the other for it's input. You see, there was a wall between these two departments - just a flimsy one, not load bearing. It was soundproof, though, and only had a small window and a door in it - that damned door was always kept closed!"

He stopped again, waiting...waiting for my parents to get it. They didn't, it wasn't instinctual to them, this wasn't their profession. I, on the other hand, felt something strange. I remember seeing a flash of something that I can only describe as a dam or a log blocking the flow of a river which was overlaid onto my imagined picture of these two departments. The log was where that wall was and I felt uncomfortable.

"So I told them to get rid of that wall. Just scrap it." He takes a swig of his drink. "Of course, they thought I was crazy, but they did it anyway."

What happened in that company? Well, suddenly those two departments could talk to each other...actually talk...not just about work but just shooting the breeze and comparing notes on the weekend's cricket game. They could do it without opening that damned door, they could just raise their voice a little and talk to someone who basically didn't exist the previous week...someone in Another Department*. The conversation did turn to work occasionally and it turned out that feedback from the 'receiving' department changed what the 'giving' department sent over...it was better, it was right. The bottleneck and the errors were gone. The world took a collective breath. Birds twittered in the trees. We were safe.

(*Anyone who hasn't worked somewhere uber-corporate won't understand that people from Other Departments are usually viewed with suspicion by people in Your Department. The accountants are considered boring drunkards, IT as surly prats, administrative staff as an easy lay and HR as the untouchables. Christmas parties can look like organisational charts from above as department people sit together and rehash the year's cubicle conversation. )

Anyhow, at this point all I wanted to know was: "What is this?" What was his profession? It truly struck me as the most interesting occupation in the world, now that my ideas of being a surgeon had been neatly quashed. There were appeals to my rationality ('It takes years of study, hard study before you make any money.'), femininity ('It's a man's profession, you're always going to find yourself discriminated against.') and propriety ('It's digging around in people's guts, it's sick, foul-smelling, work, it's people dying, it's unsociable hours.'). Perhaps it's one of those things that was never really meant to be, perhaps I didn't really love it enough. I mean, do you think Michaelangelo would have been put off had his parents told him he'd get dusty from all that unsociable marble-chipping?

Either way, something had to replace my voracious appetite for any medical/scientific data and my habit of performing surgery on any meat product that my mother happened to leave on the draining board in the kitchen. (Fish skulls would get the royal treatment and I became expert at pulling apart eyeballs and examining pieces without making too much of a mess of the subject matter.)


Intellectual Apprenticeship

My passion was then and there transferred to this - whatever it was. I first had to find out what on earth his profession was called as it wasn't on the 'usual suspects' list of doctor/lawyer/accountant.

It seemed to be all about observing things, thinking about things and fixing things. It was about looking at things from the macro view. It was about walking into an ailing organisation and healing it. It was a lot like surgery but the patient was a business. I was hooked.

I did what all good chidren do (for once) and sought out the advice of my elders - I asked "How do I get there? How do I get to do this?"

Careers week at school was a little confusing as I couldn't find what I wanted to do on The List of professions. All of the options open to me as a small human were supposed to be contained on this one, all-encompassing, all-knowing list. (Government schools blow in ways unimagined.) Unfortunately, telling a teacher that I wanted to be 'Darryl Hull' would have had me referred to the school psychologist.

So I went to University to study Commerce. It seemed to be the right direction - I was studying anatomy, the anatomy of businesses that I would heal. I chose the most prestigious University in my state - all sandstone buildings and sprawling, manicured gardens and brass plaques and mentions in academic journals and treating undergrads (who brought in all the money) like slime because postgrads (who brought in all the prestige) were higher beings and taking itself very, very seriously.

And I waited.

Through hours of lectures on double-entry bookkeeping and Capital Asset Pricing Models.

Through tutorials with wanky marketing-types that would froth and bleat about 'branding' and 'eyeballs'.

Through heated arguments with my Workplace Law lecturer about why the hell every incident is considered the company's fault.

I waited to be taught how to heal, I waited for all of these disparate disciplines to be finally sown together into something resembling a going concern rather than discreet departments that just carried on despite each-other. I waited to be mesmerised again as I was in Darryl Hull's lounge room.

My discontent grew with every passing week, every month. I changed my major from Accounting/Finance to straight Management in a bid to study more of the holistic subjects that I thought would get me to my goal. I had figured out by this time that what I wanted to do was called Change Management and I spent every spare moment in the library reading the Harvard Business Review cases and studies when I should have been memorizing the 6 most common organisational structures or the 4 main things that constitute a marketing push.

Finally, I got to study the unit that was supposed to be all about Change Management. I was early for the first lecture and sat in the front row, giddy with excitement. I imagined case studies and real-world examples, anecdotes and recommendations for dealing with certain common problems. I expected to learn and to love it.

What I did NOT expect were the dreaded PowerPoint Slides of Intellectual Death (+2 resistance against alertness) and the same shapes, models and lists to memorise as in any other courses. By the third lecture I found my attention wandering and I began to think I had made a big, big mistake in my choice of career.

The tutorials, though, kept me thinking that I hadn't. Tutes consisted of case studies, lengthy ones that were supposed to be read beforehand and preliminarily analysed before bringing our paltry observations to the room and laying them on the Altar of Naivette to be scrutinised by the tutor. Sometimes, we would get into groups and 'role play' or discuss the case.

The problems here were twofold.

Firstly, I don't play well with children not of my choosing, so this group thinking thing didn't work for me.

I also generally knew the answers the minute that I skimmed the case. I didn't know how or why exactly - but the correct course of action seemed to come to me as easily as the answer to 1+1 - and I really didn't need to brainstorm or 'role play' with a bunch of list-memorising morons to come to my conclusions.

The answer, most of the time, was communication. Getting rid of the 'information silos' as Jack Welch called them. Getting rid of little factions and fiefdoms built on unique departmental knowledge.

Of course, there were other things that could be fixed - like implicit inducements to incorrect behavior through poorly constructed remuneration, for example - but *dang* did getting the right information to the right people have a lot to do with the quality of their decision making that in turn would ensure the success of the company.

Good internal communication also helped to ease the inevitable friction that poor communication, misinformation or gossip threw up in a large company.


Get Rid of That Wall

So I embarked on my career, usually in Human Resource departments (yes, I have the scars to prove I did my time) and I found that - almost without exception - these people were not the type to give a damn about the organisation as a whole.

They saw the workplace as an org chart to be filled with warm bodies, as resources to be passionlessly managed and moved around physically and emotionally without any reference to their humanity, as annoying complaints to be dealt with, as 'sensitive issues' to get all warm and fuzzy over.

People were foolish, rash, un-PC and there to be controlled like unruly children. We would try to filter and sanitise information as much as we could so that these children didn't hurt themselves or our organisation overly much in their everyday activities.

To be fair, I was working in the zombie-filled corridors of government, but still, aren't they supposed to be the sweet, loving ones that care about people over profit?

I covertly worked within the system to do the things I thought should be done in the ways I though they should be accomplished. I handed out unvarnished truths and didn't call a spade 'a lever-like garden implement'. I endeared myself to those managers who got the fact that we were there to get things done and made dire enemies of those who thought we were there to each create ourselves a corporate nest, line it with bullshit, secure it with sandbags and hunker down until retirement or promotion.

I was always trying to get rid of that damn wall. Through office furiture arrangement, by setting up committees (don't shoot, please), by emailing people, by giving out my mobile number and saying "Just call me...tell me how your day has been, tell me about life, whatever, I don't care, just don't ever think you're annoying me with a phone call."

I was honest about how busy I was. I remember a contract where, within a week of starting, it was decided that I and my lone counterpart were to be the point of contact for all Human Resource and Payroll queries in the company. I was hired as a 'Consultant'. I'm not a Payroll professional, by the way and it's a completely different discipline - like asking a footballer to play rugby because they're both sports played with a ball on a field. No, I don't know why it was dumped on us either.

Staff spanning England, Scotland and Wales were split into two groups and given our email addresses. Well, you can imagine that when the electronic shit hit the fan, there wasn't anywhere left for me to hide. I would sometimes sit and just watch emails coming into my inbox, filling the screen with unread messages like a game of tetris gone terribly wrong.

Taking a quick look at how much there was to be done and how little time there was to the next payroll cycle, I made an executive decision to communicate with my 'customers'. I sent out emails essentially saying;

"Hey all - I'm that new HR Consultant you've probably heard about. You've sent me loads of emails and I'm utterly snowed under with problems, all of which can't be solved for this pay cycle. Could the people who whose query is really, really urgent (ie: won't be able to pay the rent or buy food if I don't fix it this month) please send me a quick email and tell me so that I can prioritise them. I *will* get around to you all and think it'll take a few pay cycles to get everything done. Thanks for your patience, guys, I hope to actually meet all of you one of these days."

I hadn't demolished the wall, but I had certainly opened the door so that I could holler into the next room. I received a few emails saying "Me! Me! Fix my problem!" and I did. I received a few from asses who evidently thought that this was an easy system to screw over, simply give the woman a sob story and you'll get to the top of the list. I fixed those too, there weren't that many. I taught myself payroll slowly and painfully, I worked my way down the newly prioritised list and got it done.

It seemed to work. People who would otherwise be fuming about how the new HR person wasn't getting their query fixed realised that she was getting to it as fast as she could. I emailed people when I started working on their query, gave them a date by which I anticipated it's completion and always sent an apologetic email if it looked like I was running over the estimated time.

Most importantly, I had told the truth and had made some friends. People from strange offices far, far away said: "Hey, when are you going to haul your ass down here to visit us? You sound really cool."

I was happy with the result and shared the insight with my manager while we were at a large lunch with a load of other people. Her response?

"Yes, I heard about that. I never want you to do it again. Who are *you* to tell people that their problems may not be as important as someone else's? As for how busy you are - no-one wants to know. If you're going to send emails out to a lot of people, make sure you run them by me in future."

I was stunned. I didn't know whether to be embarrassed or furious, so I just felt numb and confused. Wasn't I hired as someone who was there to help employees? Wasn't part of that help talking to them like fellow human beings?

I didn't realise then that what I had done was to peel away the very cool, corporate persona that HR in this company had erected. We were the untouchables that would swoop down to hurt you if you uttered a sexist joke. We were the mysterious gatekeepers for hiring and firing. We conferred with executives and had just as much power to search their computer for nasties as anyone else's. We didn't have a sense of humour, we didn't fraternise with the natives and we most certainly didn't care if we weren't perceived as doing a good enough job.

Memories of every workplace are littered with those kinds of examples. With the most logical, straightforward solutions being abandoned for something that would tread on less toes, give out less information, present a more 'corporate' face, kiss the right ass.

I ended up thinking that I must be a little crazy, that there must be something wrong with my reasoning and my beliefs. It became very, very tiring to be always butting my head against indifference, hostility, politics and entrenched entropy.

Perhaps these people were right. After all, they're the ones being promoted and I'm the loon that no-one 'important' talks to in the cafeteria.


Cluetrain Vindication

Today I read half of the Cluetrain Manifesto and it was like sitting in Darryl Hull's lounge room again.

The descriptions of problems were clear and the solutions so eloquently, beautifully, instinctually simple and right that the only effort in reading was not to be distracted by anything else.

I dearly wished that I had read this earlier...I dearly wished that it had been written many years ago when I was just starting my degree. I would have had some sort of reference to go back to when the entire world was telling me that the things I thought were wrong and naive, that politicking and lies were the only way to survive, that obfuscation was superior to clarity and honesty and that customers were complete idiots to be fed a message that even we - as students and as practitioners - found insulting to utter.

I wish I had had it when I was working in those horrid companies. I would have understood and laughed at their stupidity rather than timidly tapped my superiors on the shoulder, offering suggestions for change and believing that I must be too young and inexperienced to be right in the face of so much opposition.

Cluetrain should be mandatory reading for university students in many disciplines - but, of course, it won't be - as it directly challenges the authoritative voice that teaches at those institutions.

It should be mandatory reading in any corporation that wishes to remain profitable in the years to come - but, again, it won't be - as it directly challenges the authority of many executives.

It will be read by many, understood by some, implemented by few - and those who implement it will be the ones to 'somehow' survive the great upheavals that are already beginning to shatter Business As Usual in Western society.

M

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Thursday, October 21, 2004

Packed it in

As promised, a light post to follow up the last one which was full of deep philosophical meanings and a couple of really in-depth charts.

_____

A few years ago, I opened a box of goods that had been mailed to us and exclaimed in delight. Reaching into the box, I pulled out a handful of packaging material and took a tentative bite...

You see, that packaging material looked just like chrupki - my favorite snack when living in Poland. Chrupki are simply an extruded, baked pulp of corn and water. They don't really sound appetizing, I know, and to people who absolutely demand flavour from their food - they aren't. It's the texture that I found utterly addictive.

Once I ascertained that it was (probably) the same stuff, I dove into that box and sat there contentedly munching packing pellets for several minutes before I noticed the way M was looking at me.

For the first time ever I had received a look that unequivocally said "Oh. My. God. You are stark, raving bonkers."

I hadn't bothered explaining what I was doing to the poor man and as far as he was concerned, his wife was sitting at a table calmly eating toxic packaging material right from the box.

I explained it to him and the look was only slightly downgraded to "I know you do these kinds of crazy things, and I know you have your reasons, but man can you be weird sometimes." This was fine - it's a look I was used to.

Anyhow, this time around in Poland, I sought out and bought a great, big bag of the things. M had one and exclaimed that it was like eating tissue paper. "Precisely" I said, "Crunchy, though, aren't they?". I got that slightly downgraded look.

After a couple of days of feasting on cardboard-flavoured pellets, I actually took a good look at the packet and almost shot the one I had in my mouth across the room. There, on the back, above the ingredients, was a picture of two children. Below it was written "My children eat this too." It was signed by the guy who owned the company who produced the things.





I understand the intent. He wanted to say "I'm a loving father who wants the best for his kids. I think these things are safe/nutritious/good enough for my children. You can feed these to your kids too, knowing that they won't grow tentacles by age 7 from eating my product."

As you can see, the whole thing hinges on him loving these children, wanting the best for them, treating them well. Which doesn't hang at all with the haircut of the eldest, does it? To me, that kind of coif just screams abuse of one sort or another.

How do you get that kind of hair on a kid? Do you show a hairdresser this:



...and tell him to wing it?

Hair like this doesn't just happen, it requires hairspray, maintenance and planning.

Just an observation, albeit a personal one. I'm now checking for tentacles on a weekly basis.

M

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A tale of two spectrums

I suppose I could invoke Godwin’s Law, but that seems a little too easy and there are so many other things I could point to that make Todd lose the argument.

My disagreement with Todd began in the comments section of the previous post. I was just going to let it lie, but when I got a certain email from him this afternoon, I thought that it might be worth taking a little time out to properly address his statements.

_____

I’ve seen the cycle before and never fail to be amazed by the lack of grace that some people on the other side of the political spectrum exhibit, especially if they accidentally mistake you for one of their own and – for a brief, shining moment – are actually nice to you. Todd and I had been exchanging emails complimenting each other’s writing styles for the last couple of days, life was rather peachy.

Then Todd suddenly realised that he and I might not agree with each other politically. The cycle had begun.

First, there’s ‘Anger’ at accidentally being suckered into civility:

“I should have guessed from the hair-do that you’d turn out to be a right-wing bean counting nut-job.”

As I told him in a follow up comment – he should have guessed by my writing. He did mention that he read my blog ‘all the time’.

I do absolutely nothing to hide my ideas. As the old saying goes – I wear my heart on my sleeve. One better, actually, as I wear an American dollar sign around my neck...I wore it when I worked in government, I wore it when I worked in a factory, I wear it when I walk into parties of people I know are openly hostile against Americans.

I also have this little blog here which is only censored for language – because I care about what goes up. Sometimes (like right now) I’ll just write off-the-cuff because the material is light. Sometimes I’ll take days to write a post because I want it to be just right, because I’ll want to make my thinking as clear and unambiguous as possible. I don’t censor for political ideas, I don’t blunt my message, I don’t couch the things I think in language that will soften the very real impact that they should make.

In other words, the only way I could make who I am and what I believe more obvious would be to have a neon sign installed above my head. That’s not going to happen, though, because the general populace is intelligent enough to figure these things out rather quickly from other cues.

Anyhow, the next stage in the cycle is ‘Throwing Up Buzzwords As Evidence’. Pretty much anything will do, although if it’s fresh and topical it’ll be a more likely candidate. Bear in mind that an actual, cogent presentation of a case isn’t necessary. The mere existence of said event/buzzword is proof enough that capitalism is out to ruin us all and boil our children down for soap:

“Now, from the people who brought you the marvelous efficiencies of private enterprise, we bring you the Enron show, brought to you in part by the Savings and Loan debacle.”

My answer to that is lengthy and can be found in the ‘Thinklings’ of the previous post. Suffice it to say that I rebuked it as best I could and admitted where I had insufficient information to make a comment.

Evidently, everything was moving along according to the script because the ‘Patronizing and Belittling Condescension’ kicked in. This phase is triggered when it looks like (horror of horrors) the person on my end of the political spectrum is quite willing and able to enter into a rational point-by-point discussion rather than merely fling mud and exchange insults:

“Darling, I wasn’t using the Enron case as an exception, I was using it as the rule. Private enterprise has as its goal profits, not efficiency. The two only rarely go hand in hand outside macroeconomics classrooms. Neither, however, benefit public libraries. The only thing that justifies your argument is the cute little pout you get when you proclaim its virtues.”

Again, my (lengthy) answer is in ‘Thinklings’ in the last post.

Before I posted my answer, however, Godwin reared his ugly head and I received this email:

“Sorry Nazi Girl, I'm not going to comment on your site anymore, even though I know you're dying to lead people over to it. You'll just have to go back to playing GI Joe.Have fun in California, Todd”

Todd lives in a parallel universe where I play with children’s toys, where his commenting on my blog (leaving a link to his blog) somehow drives traffic to me, where I live in California and where I am a Nazi.

Fascinating. Bloody predictable really as it’s the last phase of the cycle – 'Implying Fascism', but still fascinating in its scope and execution.

It’s this last comment that pushed me from casually watching the proceedings to taking more immediate action. I’m a little tired of being called a Nazi or a fascist. It’s insulting, tiring to hear again and again and so terribly, blatantly and evidently wrong that I’m amazed at people with a seemingly comprehensive education espousing the view.

Let’s do a lesson in Politics 101. Just one lesson I promise, then back to my usual lighthearted nothings about fashion and what Britney’s going to do with her life.

Please click on each image for a larger version.


The Spectrum





Right, this one’s pretty self-explanatory. That there’s a spectrum. Note the important feature of very different things being at each end. Keep it in mind, it'll come in handy later.





This is what I was taught at school. Bear in mind that my teacher was an idiot. He used to talk about the spectrum as a strip that looped back in on itself as Communism and Fascism shared some similar traits. No kidding? Like being almost identical, perhaps?

This is not the kind of spectrum that will have women swooning over you when you start talking about politics. I warn you now – he probably died alone in an apartment full of cats and inaccurate history books.





...after all, that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Picking up at a soiree. Don’t tell me I never do anything for you.

This little diagram makes so much more sense. It’s a spectrum – one thing on one side and a very different thing on the other.

Note the numbers, here’s an explanation:

1 – Where we’re told we are
2 – Where we actually are
3 – Where we’re headed for


The Fighting Thing

Yes, yes, the Communists and the Nazis fought. They disliked each other. They threw propaganda, tanks, men, threats and bullets at each other – it’s a matter of historical record. This DOES NOT MEAN THAT THEY ARE IDEOLOGICAL OPPOSITES.

To help illustrate this, let’s look at an analogy – two mafia dons battling for territory. They will throw propaganda, grenades, men, threats and bullets at each other. This doesn’t mean that because one is a bloodthirsty murderer, the other must be a yoga-practicing, wheatgrass-juice-gargling, Kerry-voting peacenik. They’re both just barbarian dictators fighting over territory and the ensuing riches that they can extract from them.

Right. Got that?

So coming back to the whole Communist-is-the-opposite-of-Fascist idea, the fact that they didn’t particularly like each other or that they fought each other isn’t grounds for saying that they are opposites. They fought for power over territory – usually Poland, because that’s what Poland is there for.

In fact, anyone who actually paid attention during History lessons at school (I didn’t really. Neither did my teacher, who used to practice his golf swing in the corner while we copied down the notes the previous class had had from their teacher and that were still on the blackboard.) will recall that Nazi stands for National Socialist Party. Yes, socialist. Socialist as in the central idea behind Communism.

I just know that there was a collective gasp of realization out there in the blogosphere from that one.


Bringing it all Together

Now – the last stage – synthesis of all these ideas.

I talk about freedom from government intervention, I talk about individualism, I talk about productivity and business, I talk about hair product. All of these, I think you will agree, firmly belong at the Capitalist end of the spectrum. Far, far away from anything requiring goose-stepping and jodhpurs.

I most certainly don’t talk about the South of Poland or large ovens or how very pretty it would be if we were all blonde.

Silliness aside (*pushes entire post to the side with the aid of a small bulldozer*), stating that anyone who doesn’t believe in state redistribution of riches is a Nazi is quite ignorant. It blatantly ignores the fundamental philosophy behind Fascism as well as that behind Communism, it shows that you are either unwilling or incapable of discussing politics at an adult level and...well...it invokes Godwin’s law for chrissakes.

M


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Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Sake and storage

People love to harp on about what they think governments should provide. From libraries to education to computers to just about anything you can think of. If someone needs it, then the state should step in and vaporize it from thin air for them.

There are many reasons that this is just plain wrong (think 'theft' and you'd be on the right track), but one of the reasons that captures the imagination most is this - when a government provides something it has absolutely no incentive to make it innovative, interesting, beautiful...heck, even economical. I mean, what are the state serfs who dole out alms going to get if they give a better service? Less foul-tasting coffee? A discount on Dilbert calendars? Special vests with knife-foiling-plating on the back? Nope - in the end, unless they're oily, butt-kissing little turds, they're going to get sweet, sweet nada for doing a better job.

It's the market - full of nutjobs like entrepreneurs - that provides innovation and flavour to our everyday lives. Companies, in a bid to attract customers (you see, when you DON'T have a government monopoly, you have to do something pretty exciting to get people to use your service), will create wild things. Colourful computers with shitty little round one-button mice. Toasters in a variety of migraine-inducing colours. Vacuum cleaners that don't use dustbags. Sushi specs. Sushi USB flash memory units.

Yup. Sushi USBs. Via Gastroblog (it's food, ok, symbolised food):



Can you see the Creative Service Steering Committee of the Department Of Very Small Storage Devices *ever* coming up with something like this?

No, neither do I.

In fact, if USB storage devices were only supplied by government departments, I'd be willing to bet that you'd need a wheelbarrow to cart one around and a PhD to figure out how to work the bloody thing as well as a fully registered Connections Operator to help you plug it into your computer.

It's because the government *cannot*, by it's very nature, distribute (let's not taint the word 'sell') anything bar bog-standard products that have basic, tested, functionality. They have to cater to the broadest set of people possible - cutting swathes across generations, genders, races, socioeconomic levels and tastes.

They can't take risks (and shouldn't) so they don't. That's why anything provided by the government is grey, boxy, barely-functional and about as exciting as a date with a trainspotter.

And consider this - if the government's product is shite, there is very little responsibility taken. Someone may be fired, some reshuffling of titles may happen. In the end, it's not like they'll go out of business, not with millions of people being forced to pay them irrespective of the kind of service they provide. They fail, money keeps rolling in.

A business, on the other hand, that takes a risk and fails miserably goes *out* of business pretty quickly. Money only comes in if they provide something of value at the right price. This is why they are willing to take a risk on something a little off-the-wall - what if it works? What if they can quickly create and control a completely new section of the market?

I have no idea if those little sushi USB thingies will make it. I hope they do - it'll make the world a more colourful place.

M

_____

Update: Note to self - Read Perry Metzger's blog more often. He'll probably have written what you want to write in a lovely, concise, lucid form, ie:

"When examining a proposed government action, we must be especially skeptical, since there is no mechanism that will act as a check on poor performance. In the free market, companies that fail to meet their customer's needs go bankrupt, but governments are funded by taxation and have no such limitation."

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Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Last chance

When I’m not concentrating on the world around me – when my thoughts are focused within – I know that all emotion leaves my face and it becomes hard, like a statue. It’s not a particularly nasty look, just cold and aloof. I’ve heard it called ‘imperious’.

Walking up the steps of the train platform this afternoon, a thousand things were going through my mind. The sharp click of my heels on the concrete, the cold satin lining of my long black coat brushing past the exposed parts of my legs and the glorious faux-fur* collar softly nestled against my neck and chin faintly registered in my conscious mind. Internally, I was dividing some number by 6.5 to calculate an exchange rate. That was my entire world – platform, body, thoughts – nothing else mattered, everyone else there was just a moving object whose speed and direction was to be gauged and whose trajectory was to be avoided.

Suddenly, I registered a smile. Well, not so much ‘registered’ as ‘became aware of’. Registration would come later, too late as it turned out.

Seated against the wall was a gentleman, his suit grey and his hair beginning to turn the same colour. His grooming was immaculate and the crows feet in his tanned skin deeply wrinkled as he looked over to me with a lovely, genuine smile.

Now, in London, as I’m sure is the case in the larger cities of the world a smile from a stranger is about as rare as a beggar saying “Hey, let me shout you a drink.”

I’m not talking about the salacious, appraising-someone-from-head-to-toe-and-leaving-a-slime-trail look either, those are far too common. I’m talking about the kind of smile that says “Hello there, nice day, isn’t it?”

And here’s where my recalcitrant visage comes into play – I was so deep in thought that I must have given him what amounted to a snooty or dirty look. By the time I snapped out of it and smiled back, he had turned away, his face had fallen in evident embarrassment – he was mortified.

I sat down on the bench next to him, 2 minutes remained until the next train in our direction and I did my best to rectify what must have seemed a terrible – if unintentional – snub.

He resolutely wouldn’t look at me. When the train came, he walked a few paces to ensure that we weren’t in the same carriage. I felt awful and wondered, as the train clattered on its way, what would have happened had I smiled back – would I have a new acquaintance? He certainly must be extraordinary in some way to remain so openly, cheerfully civil in a society where one ‘keeps to oneself’ in public.

I’ll never know – I do know that. My father once saw a beautiful woman on a train and didn’t have the courage to do anything about it. He returned to the same station at the same time for days on end and never saw her again. I’m sure that same rule applies here.

In life, sometimes we are only given one chance to act and no matter how we kick or scream or beat our chests to the gods, this fact remains. I, for one, know that I’m going to be a little more forthcoming with my grin in the future.

M

* Faux not because I don’t believe in gutting animals for warmth – but because I can’t afford something made of mink. Yet.

_____

Update: I wrote the above over coffee whilst waiting to go somewhere else today. On the way home, after drinks with M and a friend in the city, I sat in a separate part of the carriage from M for lack of seats.

In the flurry to sit down, I noticed a smile. My second random smile for the day and its owner happened to be sitting right across the aisle – looking straight at me.

I looked down, flustered. I saw my briefcase. Remembering that the above post was scrawled in my diary and that that diary was in my briefcase, I realised I had the chance to rectify this morning’s mistake – or at least mitigate it a little.

It felt strange, though, this smile-at-a-stranger-on-demand business. I’m not really an accomplished flirt, I’m just comfortable around people and he was most obviously looking up at me from his newspaper periodically, waiting to catch my eye. I hoped most sincerely that I wasn’t blushing.

I looked at his lap and noticed something strange about his paper. The letters were a little weird...weirdly familiar...just like...and suddenly the paper moved. He was holding it up for me, the right way around, grinning. He had nice blue eyes, I noticed, and an easy smile.

The paper was in Polish, which gave me the excuse to say hello in that language. He was startled and we started to chat.

We spoke through the entire journey in Polish, much to the amazement of fellow passengers who saw that we had been strangers just a few moments ago. We chatted about Poland and London, about work and about our backgrounds. We got up at the same station and took the same exit. It was really nice – it made me wonder anew at what I could have learnt from my first smile for the day.

M


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In the dead of night

"After the protests, they instituted a police state. Soon after, that very night in fact if my memory serves me well, they began rounding up everyone who had anything to do with the Solidarity movement or who had protested and started sending them to jail. There were camps along the Russian border - one for men, one for women. They were held for a long time and questioned." He looked at me wearily. "Of course, you can imagine how the Russians 'questioned' them. Their lives were effectively over from that point because although they were allowed to return, they were not permitted to work."

"There were no funerals because there were 'officially' no dead. Parents, husbands, wives, children would get a knock on the door in the middle of the night and be shown a sealed black plastic bag containing someone they loved and had no idea was dead. The burial was that night - hasty, surreptitious, frightening."

This isn't some figment of my imagination or a Tom Clancy novel, people, this is what I heard one week ago from my godfather in Poland. It is living memory and testament to what happens when citizens allow or encourage their state to get out of control.

I know that I must sound like a broken record when I speak about how much I hate the European Union but it's because, more than anything, I'm afraid of it and it's seemingly insatiable power lust. If the EU - with it's courts and it's parliament and it's mandate to assimilate all - continues to do things like this then there will simply be no way for it to be kept in check.

All things have their basic principles, behaviors and urges that are innate to the creature's nature. A bureaucracy has the natural tendency to grow, to expand in scope and power and bring everything and everyone into line with it's policies. It's what the creature does and to hate it is like hating a shark for eating a human - pointless. To state that a bureaucracy has been tamed, in turn, is to slip a leash around a shark's neck and pretend that it's a pet rather than a vicious animal barely contained by circumstance.

There have been a few examples of the state being kept in check - most notably the American Constitution which worked very well for a fair while, allowing that country to be prosperous and free. Of course, over time, the effectiveness of the document has been curtailed as the insidious nature of the bureaucracy there wormed it's way into the cracks and destroyed entire swathes of civil liberties and freedoms afforded by that very document - evident if one reads the document in spirit as well as in word.

The state is a dangerous animal that, left unchecked, preys on citizens' lives, livelihoods and freedoms. This little court ruling signals that the animal doesn't particularly wish to bend to the will or requirements of a master...and that is dangerous indeed.

M

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Running commentary

You will notice two sets of comments on this site. This is not an accident. Really.

I have a plan.

Enetation was giving me some trouble as well as being blocked at M's workplace. It is not a good thing for a husband to be annoyed at the blog for any reason - especially since the blog vortex seems to take up so much of his wife's time already.

I also wanted to implement trackback because...it seemed like a good idea (I'm full of these today, aren't I?)

I have decided to leave Enetationon for a while longer so that some of the wonderful comments I've received don't just vaporize. I'd ask you, though, NOT TO USE THE REGULAR COMMENT AREA ANYMORE.

Please use the 'Thinklings' instead. Because they're cuter. And because it's the WAY FORWARD. I'd throw a swooshy logo on but I just don't have the skill.

M


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Twang

Egads...he sounds so...American.

It's the reaction I've had a couple of times this week when listening to people on the other side of the pond.

First there was the Skype experiment with a longtime American friend of mine - Frode Odegard. We downloaded the program and fiddled with buttons until sound came out...then, much to my surprise* an American-accented voice was saying: "Monica, can you hear me?"

* I don't really know why, we've spoken on the phone before, a long time ago.

Why, yes, yes I could - but who was this? Frode grew up in Sweden and understands Monty Python. He should have well-rounded vowels. Who was this guy pronouncing his 'r's all funny?

Then there's the new section that Rory has on Neopoleon.com with sound feeds of interesting anecdotes. I dutifully clicked the link and my speakers sprang to life, Rory's introduction sounding through my study in...in American.

I'm so used to reading Frode's emails and to reading Rory's words, applying the little voice in my mind (which is British-accented according to Aussies and Aussie-accented according to Brits, so some amalgam of the two, I suppose) that hearing what the two of them actually sound like was a shock. It was all wrong.

It'll be interesting to travel to the States one of these days - I have so many friends and acquaintances that I keep in touch with through my blog, email and postcards that I imagine it will be a trip of double-takes and me giving funny looks to people the moment that they open their mouths.

M


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Love unrequited

Living in London and coming into daily contact with people who read The Guardian and actually agree with most of it's puerile drivel, it was a breath of fresh air to read the responses from Americans to a campaign The Guardian had the audacity to run in Ohio.

Essentially, they asked Brits to write to undecided voters in that state and tell them how to vote.

I kid you not. 11,000 addresses were requested and, presumably 5,000 letters were sent (I am working on the general ratio of productivity here which runs at a little under 50%).

The responses varied, from ankle-grabbing thanks wafting over from California to some choice words from just about everyone else telling the British populace to butt the hell out of the election. The whole gamut of 'stay the hell out' responses were written, including:


Creative threats:

"Consider this: stay out of American electoral politics. Unless you would like a company of US Navy Seals - Republican to a man - to descend upon the offices of the Guardian, bag the lot of you, and transport you to Guantanamo Bay, where you can share quarters with some lonely Taliban shepherd boys. "


Disdain (and a good point):

"I don't give a rat's ass if our election is going to have an effect on your worthless little life. I really don't. If you want to have a meaningful election in your crappy little island full of shitty food and yellow teeth, then maybe you should try not to sell your sovereignty out to Brussels and Berlin."


A history lesson:

"Keep your noses out of our business. As I recall we kicked your asses out of our country back in 1776."


A good idea:

"Gentle folks at the Guardian,In your plea to get your non-American readers to write to voters in Clark County, Iowa, you are correct that events in the US have had, and will have, effects on world events. For example, we have pulled your chestnuts out of the fire in two world wars that were occasioned by European diplomacy. Maybe you'd like a vote in which American president will oversee the next rescue. The next time you have elections in Great Britain, I shall endeavour to send names of your citizens to people in France, Iraq, India, the United Arab Emirates, Botswana, Pakistan, China and Argentina so that they may attempt to influence your election. It's only fair that everybody in the world should have a say in the selection of the prime minister."


And of course, biting sarcasm:

"My dear, beloved Brits,

I understand the Guardian is sponsoring a service where British citizens write to Americans to advise them on how to vote. Thank heavens! I was adrift in a sea of confusion and you are my beacon of hope!

Feel free to respond to this email with your advice. Please keep in mind that I am something of an anglophile, so this is not confrontational. Please remember, too, that I am merely an American. That means I am not very bright. It means I have no culture or sense of history. It also means that I am barely literate, so please don't use big, fancy words.
Set me straight, folks!


Dayton, Ohio"


Evidently, a lot of the letter writers didn't pay much heed to letter-writing-instruction 72b:

"Explain why you think they should pay the slightest bit of attention to what you think about their election. Remember, charm will be far more effective than hectoring."

Why you think they should pay attention to what you think. Because, of course, if you think it old chap - it must be right.

No amount of 'charm' will mask the fact that The Guardian has overstepped the bounds of decency here. Is it really the role of a newspaper to send out electoral roll details from another country and urge readers to send voting instructions to private citizens?

M




* Via Tech Central Station

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Monday, October 18, 2004

Required: one babelfish, may be used

HSBC has been running their 'We know how to do business anywhere in the world and can help you so that you don't get yourself into trouble, you neophyte globetrotting wheeler-dealer. Just to prove this, we will show you the difference between a football, a mousetrap and a handshake in 3 different countries.' advertising campaign for some time now.

This week, I realised I may need their help.

Coming back from holiday to read my business email account, I received something that made me realise business communication can be a tricky business in and of itself.

Before I left, I had sent out some email 'feelers' for printing quotes. Fearing that my written Polish may not be ... err ... polished enough for a detailed technical email, I had my father help me compose something that (I thought) was entirely unambiguous, descriptive and (most, most, most importantly) obsequious enough to get a decent reply. In a country where the standard terms of address are the third person 'lady' and 'sir' - as in "Would lady terribly mind if I took this seat?" it's rather important to ensure that formalities are out of the way correctly to start a relationship off on the right foot. I'm fine in social situations and had some interesting political discussions whilst I was there, but talking about lithography is a little beyond me.

Anyhow, I got back to an interesting range of quotes. They fell into roughly two bands quite far apart on the price scale - making me think that there was something in the original communication that wasn't as clear as it could have been. I started to send clarifying emails to check on the lower quotes as I was sure printing couldn't cost that little.

This is when The Email came in and it went something like this:

"Dear Lady Monica,

The price of printing has no correlation at all to the run that you require. The job that you sent will cost 72 million USD. This is before tax and includes delivery.

May a thousand roses bloom in the garden of your Summer's day, you sweet angel of heaven (alright, not exactly those words, but stomach-churningly close)
Mr Printer"

Rrrrrrright. For 72 million USD, I would expect that each page was hand delivered by a different, handsome, besuited man who could engage me in witty yet challenging conversation over dinner. He would then give me a back rub or other such service and leave to make room for the next page - and man.

It's the only way I could justify paying that much for a run of approx. 1000 copies.

Bear in mind that this was the ONLY printer that asked for a PDF sample of the work and therefore gleaned that it was to be in English. I wonder if he really thinks the streets are paved with gold over here.

He still hasn't sent a reply to my 'Umm, I think we may have miscommunicated....' email either. I shall wait and see.

In the meantime, if someone has a used babelfish that they could lend me, it would be much appreciated.

M




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Th' inkwell Quote of the Day

Looking up a business site, I found this. How curious. It seems I can't stop blogging today.

"For all their inspiring morality, nowhere in the gospels is intelligence praised as a virtue" - Marilyn Manson


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Food for thought

I've meant to see Super Size Me for a while now, simply because I'm rather interested in food and diet in general. The reviews of the film seemed favourable and to describe a balanced and interesting view put forth by the director, who subjected himself to a McDonald's-only diet for a month with horrendous results for his health.

Now I see that* the documentary may, indeed, be of the Michael Moore mould rather than the honest scientific experiment I thought it was.

It'll be interesting to see how long it takes for people to completely mistrust anything that comes out of Big Media's and Big Cinema's mouth, just like they would have done for the Internet years ago. Nowadays, it seems that the web based editorials, news and writing I visit bend over backward to substantiate facts or at least to try and ensure that what they are writing has been researched in some way. Supersizecon, indeed, uses good old fashioned science and critical thinking (remember those from school way back when it was still taught?) to critique 'Super Size Me'. There is no solid reputation to lean on, in fact, there is only a poor reputation to overcome.

The things I see on TV or read in newspapers, conversely, tend to still have an 'it's here so it's true' aura about them. There's only so long you can cruise on the goodwill of an old reputation, though.

M

* Hat tip to AnarCapLib.

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Surrender monkeys unite!

Yes, well, this isn't usually a 'looky here!' reactionary blog as I tend to do far too much one-liner sniping in my day-to-day life as it is, but I couldn't resist this one.

I somehow came across this bunch of complete lunatics on my perusal of the web today. I could possibly forgive them for their stupidity as most seem to be angry-sky-god worshippers in their spare time, but really people - this doesn't just take the cake - it takes it, burns it, crumbles it, mixes it with excrement and smears it on the face of the family of anyone who has been kidnapped and beheaded over the last x months.

Wishing for 'world peace' is lovely, as is wishing for a new Ferrari or for Michael Moore to just go away. Something very important to impart here is that wishing for something does almost as much* as praying for it - naught.

Obtaining a Ferrari requires either hard work or long legs and the ability to lie through your teeth when saying the words 'I do' to someone with a trust fund. Dispatching the world of Michael Moore requires rigorous thinking, unwavering correction of his misapplied 'facts' and a triple-chocolate-chocolate-chip muffin spiked with Bromethalin.**

And world peace requires the willingness and the ability to defend oneself if some sand-burrowing religious fundamentalist bastard decides that the world, in turn, would be better off without you. 'Peace' means lack of overt conflict, not one side rolling over to expose a belly as yellow as a spring chicken. Simply touting 'world peace' on little cardboard signs in the hope of appeasing said bastard won't do anything at all - it'll simply send the message that you're completely ready to be bundled up in primitive robes and to have all of your freedoms taken away in the name of Angry Sky God Allah.

What I think these people don't realise is that morally surrendering to what is undeniably a ruthless and bloody campaign of terror is not a Good Thing. These people aren't like your priests - they don't just hand out Hail Marys or deep thought as penance for your sins - they will sanction the mutilation or murder of you or your family for any transgression against their entirely arbitrary and useless moral code.*** These are Bad People, not just brothers-in-spirit who happen to have dark beards.

Anyway, take a good look at these people**** and join me in thinking that without state help, Darwinism would have taken them far, far earlier due to sheer stupidity.

M




* Praying for something actually does a little more than wishing. VERY little more - it gives you kudos with the shaman of your particular denomination.

** I'm not suggesting anything of the like be attempted. It would be immoral, unpardonable and would pose the world (once again) with this kind of problem.

*** A little like your arbitrary and useless moral code but stricter and with more provision for keeping your woman in line.

**** Not too good a look, you may go blind.

_____


Update: It seems that the trend to wave around silly placards to appease the "Iraquis" has spread to the right. We must stop this meme before it starts being a subject in the new school curriculum: 'Surrendery 101'

Hat tip to the ever vigilant VodkaPundit

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Sunday, October 17, 2004

Train of thought

I could travel on intercity trains forever – the rapidly shifting foreground scenery framed by the languidly moving horizon, staccato clicks of wheels on tracks regulating my breathing and soothing my usually too-rapid thoughts down to the perfect pace for reflection.

The first time I fell in love with long train journeys was years ago when I lived in Warsaw. The actual process of traveling had never held any pleasure for me until then – long car journeys were nauseating, buses doubly so. Short train rides in cities merely the daily-bustle way of shuttling oneself to new coordinates and airplane rides sickeningly frightening to someone who used to get vertigo just standing on a chair.*

(* No, not anymore, not by a long shot. Cured myself in the only way I know how – ‘head butting’ it as M likes to call it. Just kept clenching my teeth and doing all the things that a normal person does (climb ladders, change light bulbs, climb trees, get on planes without squeezing the arm rests to a soft pulp). It got easier and easier – to the point where the only thing that makes me uncomfortable about airplane travel is the fact that I’m not in control of the vehicle and I don’t know the ability of the person who is, which is an entirely different issue. )

I would deal with all these things for the stimulus of a new location; I considered it the price that one paid for travel. For the most part, I still do.

My first European intercity train journey, then, was a revelation. I was to travel across Poland on an overnight train and had splurged on an entire first class cabin all to myself for the night. At that time in Poland, of course, the expense was as much for security as it was for luxury – ‘luxury’ being a relative term in each country and at each period in time.

The money bought me a little cabin with two beds, a bathroom, a table by the window and the most wonderful array of miniaturized amenities that I immediately pushed, prodded, twisted, turned, unlocked, broke, fixed and generally played with until I felt the train lurch away from the platform to begin it’s journey north.

I sat down by the window to look out at the suburbs of Warsaw streaming past and had the most extraordinary sensation. Looking back into the cabin, I surveyed it with a newly proprietorial air. It was the first time in my life that I had hired living quarters to myself in my name, with money I had earned. Sure, I had lived in a dorm room at Warsaw University for a while – but that had been arranged by my parents. I was currently living with an old widow in the centre of the city and I felt very much an intruder in her home – a shrine of sorts to the time when she lost her husband, some 30 years earlier. Back in Australia, I had always lived with my parents.

This, then, this little place 2 meters by 3 streaking through space on two silver tracks was to be mine and mine alone for the next 7 hours. I sat up a little straighter and studied the changing landscape outside, mistress of the warmth and seeming splendor of my own small domain.

As the night descended, the window changed from a chameleon of colour and shape to become a pane of inky blackness holding only my trembling reflection. My thoughts followed suit – seemingly without when scenery could distract them from their pondering, they turned within and at once solidified into startling clarity. Mesmerised by occasional strings of light signifying yet another small village and station, I began to allow my mind free reign to ponder the things I had been experiencing in my first few months as a teenage expatriate. I didn’t sleep that night at all for thinking and disembarked with a strangely light feeling in my chest amid the leaden feeling of tiredness in my body.

Perhaps something changed in me right then, or I take a small piece of that night with me every time I board for a long journey, but rarely are my thoughts as lucid, enjoyable and beautifully reflective as when on a train. This is, funnily enough, only true when I am traveling alone.

This afternoon, we traveled back from Stratford-upon-Avon by train and I snuck away from the raucousness of our group to another, empty, carriage carrying paper and pen with me but secretly knowing that I wouldn’t write all that much.

I sat down alone, in a berth of four seats, right by the window. Facing backward, the scenery unfolded quickly but lingered for a long time, surrounding me in gently rolling hills of the most perfect green imaginable. Hedgerows that divided the green carpet into fields shot past the pane and sheep seemed to be scattered with mathematical precision to cover enclosures evenly and consistently.

The landscape was beautiful, small villages raised the flags of roofs and spires, whitewashed walls and tended gardens to signal their existence before disappearing from view almost as rapidly as they had appeared.

I hastily began to scratch out this post before the regular clicking of the wheels had its usual effect on me. The rhythm became part of my breathing and my pulse, then moved to slow and discipline my mind to a steady pace. I became aware of the fact that my pen was resting on the page and that I had no more desire to write – only to look out the window and to think.

So I thought of the performance of Hamlet the night before and silently recited some of my favorite lines, I recalled that every time I see or read Hamlet I take something else away – last night was no exception, I thought of our time in Poland and how easy it was to be with M in almost any circumstance, I thought of discovering Berlin and being so moved by the impassioned speeches made by a guide in a walking tour that M and I were silent for an hour after it finished – just walking around the city, comfortable in each-other’s silence, I thought of the tasks I have set for myself in the next month and wondered what I would think of my own performance at the tasks a month hence, I started framing the essence of another post. I went through so much so easily that it felt like a meditation and a relaxation of the mind through rapid, easy thought.

I don’t know how long I was in that state – it could have been minutes or an hour – I didn’t ask when I walked back into the other carriage. Frankly, I didn’t care. My holiday was over, the train ride cementing the memories and clearing my mind to face another week, another month or year before I next have the opportunity to gaze out of a grubby train window and slip into this intoxicated state.

I think I’d like to take the Trans Siberian one day, across the country where I was born and where so much of my ancestor’s history lies buried. I imagine myself alone in a small cabin, light outside slowly dying as the train’s sleek body streaks across endless plains. A dark window will reflect my older but no less prone to mischief visage back to me, triggering untold thoughts, introspections and memories of a life that I, here in the present day, am yet to make.

M




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Friday, October 15, 2004

Administrative post

To everyone who has sent me personal emails over the last couple of weeks...thank you so much, I really appreciate the communication. I'm not ignoring you, I'm just trying to concentrate on work at the moment, considering the fact that I was ill for weeks prior to my holiday and just thinking about how behind I am on things that I'm supposed to do makes me panic and need tea which gives me a caffeine buzz which in turn makes me panic even more. It's a vicious, milky cycle.

Please be patient if you wrote me something that deserves a long reply - you'll get one as soon as either:

a) I figure out how to insert a 25th hour (and a 26th...why stop at one?) in my day.
b) My schedule frees up a little.

This weekend sees me at Stratford-upon-Avon for the season finale of Hamlet from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Yummy. Culture, men in tights (no, no, not the movie...actual men in actual body-hugging tights), English spoken beautifully, one of Shakespeare's better speeches, a two hour train ride through English greenness and the company of some loud, raucous Australians that will no doubt draw out my own Aussie drawl.

We've hired out an entire Inn for the weekend and have decided that this kind of situation requires some sort of pact ensuring debauchery. As such, there are plans afoot to crash the after-party of the play. My role is as the 'responsible yet sexy' female in the group that will do all the talking whilst my compatriots titter behind me batting eyelids and ensuring that chosen outfits appear to best advantage. I'm not sure exactly what I'm going to say, as 'Hello, we'd like to come in, please.' is a little too obvious and I've not been trained in the not-so-subtle art of bouncer-massage as practiced by this island's inhabitants in places like Ibiza.

I've considered trying to pretend that we're a specially trained team of crack assault beauticians who will be on hand in case any paparazzi turn up or that we're actually the 'adult entertainment' for the night.

Both can, technically, be true.

Between the lot of us, I'm sure we could give a decent manicure and will be packing an entire department store's worth of emergency re-masking supplies just in case...ummm. Yes, well, I'm not one of those females that wears all the foundations or powders or blushers so I have no idea of the elaborate rituals that go on in the bathrooms, but I DO know that my girls will have enough to paint on an entirely new face for someone.

As for the other, well, we're also adults. And entertaining.

You see, I'd not consider actually lying to the bouncer. Oh, no.

M


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Th' inkwell

Perhaps it's time I explained the name of the blog. It seems that every time I see it being linked to on blogrolls, it has a new name:

Thinkwell
th-inkwell
Th'inkwell
Th'ink well
Th' Inkwell

Quite natural, I suppose, considering the fact that it's in capital letters in the banner and it's a bit of a tricky one to start with.

This is actually the correct way of writing it in lower case:

Th' inkwell

Th' is ye olde englishe for 'the'.

The entire title is a play on words...

If you read it literally, with the olde englishe, it means 'the inkwell' - the object you can see on the right of the screen either beautifully ornamenting the page or completely screwing with the look of the page - depending on your screen size, browser, etc.

An inkwell is, of course, a tool for writers and a symbol of the written word. A blown glass inkwell and glass pen also happen to be two of my favorite posessions. Writing with the pen is just wonderful and the pleasure I obtain from using it generally translates into the kind of writing I love.

If you read the title out loud, however, you can hear 'think well' - which is what I'd surreptitiously love to help people to do in the posts where I delve into philosophy, politics and general world-class navel gazing.

M

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London calling

A comedy of errors by London Life Company Limited
BB - Big Bank
MW - Monica White


BB: Hello Big Bank, Vijay Speaking

MW: Hi - can you please put me through to the My Suburb branch?

BB: Sorry madam, I have to go through a security check with you. Can you give me your sort code, please?

MW: Sure - 12-34-56

BB: Can you give me your name?

MW: Monica White

BB: Can you give me your date of birth?

MW: 01/01/1901

BB: Can you give me your blood type, the first three letters of your third canary's name and what colour the eyes on the boy you liked in 6th grade were?

MW: Information duly given

BB: Can I have the first, third, ninth and sixty-second digits of your security code?

MW: 42, 42, 42, 42

BB: And can I just hear you blow air out of your left nostril for our sound verification check...

MW: *honk*

(The clink of the submachine guns being lowered is audible)

BB: What can I do for you today, Mrs White?

MW: As I said, I'd like to speak to someone in My Suburb's branch

BB: So you'd like me to put you through to Regent Street?

MW: No - I'd like you to put me through to My Suburb's branch

BB: That sort code refers to a Regent Street account

MW: Yes, I know it does, but I'd like to speak to My Suburb's branch

BB: Madam, your account is at Regent Street

MW: That's correct. However I had a new credit card sent to My Suburb's branch and I'd like to see if it's there waiting for me

BB: (Uncertain) Alright...I'll just put you through...

....muzak....muzak....muzak....

BB: I'm sorry Mrs White, the lines are busy

MW: Well...can you just give me the direct number so that I don't have to call Bombay every time I want to speak to someone 5 minutes walk away?

BB: I'm afraid I can't

MW: Why not?

BB: Because I don't know the number

MW: What?

BB: I don't know the number myself, madam

MW: So how do you put me through?

BB: It's an internal number

MW: So you have no idea how to call the branch from an outside line? You don't have a list of phone numbers there?

BB: No madam - but I can try to put you through to the Regent Street branch

(Regent Street, for those of you not familiar with London, is the very heart of the city - half an hour's journey from my door)

MW: And why would I want to speak to Regent Street?

BB: Because your account is held there, madam

MW: Yes, that's right. And I suppose they could somehow tell me if the card is sitting in My Suburb's branch office?

BB: I'm not sure madam, would you like me to put you through?

MW: No, no thanks - I'm not so terribly desparate for conversation that I'll call one of your branches pointlessly. How can I speak to someone at My Suburb?

BB: I will send an urgent message to them to call you - may I have your number please?

MW: You mean you don't have it?

BB: I'm sorry madam?

MW: After that rigorous security check delving into 5 generations of my family on my mother's side - meaning you have THAT information at your disposal, you're telling me that you don't have my TELEPHONE NUMBER stored on your systems?

BB: Yes madam

MW: *sigh*


...I really don't know what else to say...

M

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Thursday, October 14, 2004

Dehumanizing humanity

- A single mother with two children.

- A 19 year old boy with AIDS who has attempted suicide twice, conducting AIDS research.

- A businessman that employs 200 staff.

- An 80 year old retiree.

They all need a life saving operation, but only one operation is available on the NHS. All bar the businessman have a hefty discount for the operation. Who should live and who should die?

This is a decision that I would firmly class as a ‘lifeboat scenario’ – something that is so out of the ordinary that there’s no point in extrapolating daily-life meaning from it. It’s also a decision that no human should want to or have to make in their lifetime.

Yet in our system, it’s made every day by the public health professionals doling out scarce care according to ‘need’ and other arbitrary criteria.

And today, it was a decision that had to be made by a class of 7-th graders in a new subject in the UK called ‘Citizenship’.

My father happened to be looking in on the class and was utterly horrified by what he saw and heard. This is a man who had grown up in, lived through and escaped Communism itself. Every day as a teacher in the UK he is more and more concerned by what he sees taught to children – it is all too familiar.

So what did the children decide? One group chose the mother, until they received clarifying information telling them that she was actually an alcoholic and the state had removed the children from her care. She was then demoted to the group who would certainly die.

Now, let’s look at that – according to this value judgment, she only has worth as a human being when she is there to take care of other humans, not as an individual, flawed though she is.

The retiree wasn’t even considered – what could she offer to society? She had already had her ‘fair share’ of life and was only a drain on the public purse.

The businessman was also not chosen by any group. His life was measured by the number of dependants that his existence supported, in this case 200 people would lose their jobs if he were to die.

The correct choice, according to the teacher (who happens to also be the teacher of religion at the school) was the boy with AIDS.

...suddenly, out of nowhere, a small voice piped up.

‘Why save the AIDS patient?’ Said the voice ‘He’s already tried to kill himself twice, he’s just a nutcase.’

‘Anyway’, it went on, ‘Why not let the businessman pay for his operation and use the money to give an operation to one of the others – that way, you could have two operations instead of one.’

The voice belonged to a small boy in the class who happened to not only have the mind to consider alternatives and the values to make a judgment but who had the courage to contradict a teacher’s moral edict.

These kinds of children aren’t particularly welcome in an education system crafted for students who merely imbibe and passionlessly regurgitate information. He was about to be taught his first lesson in the dangers of thinking differently from the herd.

The teacher apparently whirled around to face the boy and launch into a speech designed to humiliate and upbraid him. After all – how could the boy say such a thing? The fact that the businessman can pay for the operation shouldn’t mean that he gets one, he’s no better than the others just because he can pay. The boy was clearly WRONG.

The businessman indeed is no better if you measure virtue by how far down one has fallen in life or how much of a burden one carries on behalf of the all-powerful ‘society’. He would be low down on the list solely because he has done something in his life to ensure that he has the power to act for himself at a time like this – he has created and retained wealth.

The fact that the boy had had the nous to find a way for two people to have an operation instead of one was ignored. He had stepped outside the parameters of the exercise – which was one of moral judgment. He was there to learn about citizenship, which meant he was there to learn about the state and the way the state thinks. He was to step into the shoes of our all-powerful government and do what our government is there, apparently, to do – to choose who will live and who will die.

In this system, we must give up our earnings – earnings that we could use to make life saving, life extending and life enriching decisions for ourselves – to the state. We are told that we will be taken care of – that we will be given education, roads, protection and health care as and when we need it. Instead, the state then doles out health, education and protection according to some soul-crushing scale of individual pathos or a demonic gauge of how much a person can ‘give back’ to society. We rarely get back – measure for measure – what we put in. Rigorous thinking applied to this process of centralized garnering and redistribution will reveal the obvious – that it is in no way fair, equitable or moral.

Rigorous thinking, however, requires a rigorous education. And if there’s one thing that the state does NOT provide, it is an education designed to stimulate or stretch the mind of the small humans in its care.

Instead, they are taught imbecilic levels of mathematics, are made to read state sanctioned, politically correct tomes about people with ‘social issues’ and are philosophically shaped by citizenship classes that teach them to think like bureaucrats. It isn't even necessary to obtain a score over 50% to pass some subjects anymore.

These children will not only lack the tools to critically assess the current political and economic status-quo, they will lack the desire to see it change from anything other than the course it is headed on.

We are creating a generation of children who will only see individual humans in terms of what they give to the society/state or what they take away from the same. Humans can then be allowed to live or eliminated, healed or left to perish, fed or starved according to this ‘societal benefit’ measure. This is utterly horrendous and contrary to any philosophy that holds human beings as self-determining, free individuals.

The natural culmination of this kind of thinking is socialism in one form or another and the only defense against it is philosophical. With a populace already coaxed into this mode of thought, though, an October revolution won’t be necessary – there will be nothing to overthrow and no-one to fight once these state educated children grow up.

M

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