Saturday, 31 October 2009

Whither Government, Whither Science?

If you live in the United Kingdom, and you're reading this, you must have also heard about the latest disgrace by the British government, namely the sacking of one of its scientific advisers. The reason? The government minister did not like the advice. It didn't quite fit with government's own view, and probably with the view of the countries "moral majority". But was the advice scientifically incorrect? No. Not as long as current scientific evidence is concerned, as well as the opinion of the government's own, now sacked, expert, professor David Nutt, is concerned.

So what was such a hot topic that motivated the government to make politics override science? Drugs, of course.

Professor David Nutt dared challenge the current ranking of drugs in Britain, especially re-classifying cannabis as Class B drug last year, again contrary to the scientific advice. Why the then minister in charge did it? Because she felt the public wanted it that way. But shouldn't the government be there to provide the best, evidence based, governance? Isn't that what we elect them for? Apparently not. And in the long run, this hurts either public health, public trust in government, or worse, both. How so?

The trust in government is the easiest to explain. Surely an expert in the field can give better advice than a minister. There should really be no discussion about it. And if the minister explains the sacking by essentially saying he didn't like what science had to offer it makes it even worse. Mind you, at least he didn't try to claim he knew better. You can almost feel for him, being upset by someone rocking his boat. You are probably right, but since I don't like the truth I am going to decide otherwise, and you can get lost. I'll find a worse scientist next time, one that will sing from my song sheet, however wrong it is.

But how is public health hurt by classifying a drug as being more hurtful than it really is. Surely that will help people stay away from it better than if it was classified as less harmful or not harmful at all? There's two problems with this. First is one of the very points the government chose to disagree with from what professor Nutt had to say. Harsher classification does nothing to stop people using the drug. It just makes them more likely to get arrested and put in jail with exactly the wrong kind of people. It also pushes the drug availability more underground making people having to deal with more criminal elements in obtaining it. And these same criminal elements will have properly bad drugs available to push, too. So, in one fell swoop you criminalise a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't be, and make them more likely to get drawn deeper into really bad drug habits. The one everyone should always steer clear of.

Probably the worst effect is making people less likely to believe the government overall, regardless of the topic, and the merits of the policy. And what good is a government people do no trust? So let's just not go there, and instead make policies follow scientific advice when it is available. Otherwise we'll just undo all the gains democracy won in the past few hundred years. And in the process we're all going to be a bit less safe, and a bit less healthy.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Still Hitting Hard

I knew I had a decent photo of Andre of my very own. Here he is, still hitting the ball hard, for the opening of Wimbledon Centre Court roof this spring (17 May 2009, to be exact). I was there. He was there. And, unlike me, he was great. Still.
Oh, I guess those who had so much (negative) to say about Andre, would much rather feast their eyes on something they (think) they understand better. No, I don't mean her singing. I wouldn't be surprised if they appreciated only Katherine Jenkins's looks. So let them have their fun. From the same event as above, here she is.

Oh, and no need for picture credits for this one. All photos are by yours truly, and his trusted Fuji FinePix s9600.

So What

Shock! Horror! Andre Agassi reveals he used drugs 12 years ago. He also lied to ATP officials when asked if he did (at least they declined to comment). Now the media (and blogosphere, too) are, apparently, abuzz with moral consternation, and all sorts of similar comments and worries. And hopefully some of a different kind. On my part I'd like to add to all this brouhaha with a comment of an indifferent kind. My reaction to the news?

So what.

For those who believe drugs are bad, they are. Even Andre said so in his book. There's nothing in the story to be read as shining any good light on drugs, drug use, and addicts. Quite to the contrary.

For those who may be confusing Andre's drug use with doping, well, I doubt crystal meth does any good for your backhand. What better example than Andre himself, whose career returned back to form only after the drug "incident".

And finally, for those who fear a bad example may be given, what bad example? How bad is an example where someone admits to being stupid enough to use drugs, but then shows how one can extricate oneself from that particular quagmire, and still have strength enough left to become one of the most successful sportsman of our time.

So, to those who'd now like to stamp their little feet all over the bald, and bold, head of Andre Agassi:

You think you have the right to judge?

So what!

Image attribution: Chris Josefy, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Social Media Gone Too Far

Yesterday, Facebook announced they will make it possible for dead people to retain their Facebook pages. There's a few (easily spoofed, if need be) hoops through which family or friends need to jump to make this happen, and then the deceased profile will again become visible.

If this were the only thing that happened, i.e. the "works" of the deceased becoming visible to all and sundry, I may even applaud the move (very, very cautiously). However, it seems that a certain circle of people will also be able to continue commenting on the profile.

Yes, Facebook will limit this to those "close" to the deceased, but aren't those same people the most likely perpetrators of any "vandalism" (not to mention crimes against good taste)? And who is going to police any comments left, and how?

I never had very high opinion of Facebook in the first place (been, ran, am haunted still), this seems to be truly social media gone mad, wild, and sour. What's next? Dead allowed to tweet?

Silly. Just plain silly...

Of Pictures And Words

I have painted myself into a corner somewhat. In trying to make the blog pretty, and not just witty (I know it's neither) I have got into the situation where I sometimes refrain from posting when the post would be too short for a nice picture to be put alongside it.

The photos cost money, too, most of the time, as if I can't get a free one, or a good one I took, I resort to the very useful Dreamstime web site. Yes, I go for cheap $1 photos. But they're still great, and there's plenty to choose from.

Be that as it may, all this sounds silly and artificial, and also smacks too much of lame excuses. Therefore, I am taking my Alexanders' sword to the problem. From now on, you can expect an odd post to be short, and graphically unadorned.

Live with it.

Monday, 26 October 2009

BOO! A (Good) God?

Let me first declare where I stand in terms of the "is there a god?" debate: I do not believe there is a god. Do not the finesse of my position. I do not believe there is a god (it's worth repeating, trust me). This means that if you believe there is one, and want me to think the same, you have to find a way to persuade me to change my mind. I have nothing to prove to you. You have everything to prove to me. You have to make me believe, too. Presumably in the same set of things as you.

But this is not what I want to talk about here. The aim of this post could be understood as a bit of help to those who might want to make me change my mind (see above). In particular, the ones who believe in a god that is: benevolent (all good), omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all seeing). Oh, and also actively concerned and involved in human affairs. If you believe in one that set everything in motion, and now sits back and enjoys the show, well, such a god may just as well not exist, and if it does I frankly couldn't care less - and nor does he. I specifically do not want to aim this at any particular religion. If you recognise yours it's not my fault.

So, what is the issue I have with BOO (Benign Omnipotent Omniscient) deities? If you're in a hurry I can sum it up in one short sentence: on evidence of human affairs, past and present, such a deity cannot exist. But I know you really want to hear more. Even if your face just god red, as well as most of your field of vision. Let's see then, where's the problem here.

Again, I struggle to expand on this. It is really that obvious when you want to see the evidence. If your god was truly benevolent, good, fair, etc., how on Earth it could let so many innocent people suffer. Do not even start telling me they all must have wronged out of sight of us mere mortals. And even if they did, wouldn't an all good deity find a nicer way to teach them a lesson. It's like two sets of parents: one that talks things through with a straying child, and the other that takes the matter in their own hands - literally. And guess which ones raise a healthier child, on average? What is the purpose of innocent babies suffering? If they were all killed outright, and with no pain involved I could maybe understand it as an act of mercy. But it's just not happening. Every three seconds a child dies. Don't tell me they're all deserving sinners?

And then, even if they were, why would an omnipotent, and benign creator (we're all god's children, aren't we?) allow them to sin in the first place? Being omniscient as well, he could have seen their future sins, and being omnipotent could have done something to prevent them. You may say, god has created us with free will, and it's up to us to live up to his (high) expectations. be that as it may, there's still two issues with this theory. One is as old as the previous paragraph: come on! give kids a chance before maiming and killing them! And if you've just realised that they weren't the "right material": a) how could you create them imperfect, omnipotent and benign you are; and, b) why not put them out of their misery in a nice way? The other issue is, again, if you want people to be "good" (i.e. to your liking), and you're so benign and omnipotent, help them out - nicely! Oh, and if you say they slipped your attention, then you're not omniscient, are you?

On current evidence, any god ruling over us poor people cannot be all of the three: benign, omnipotent, and omniscient.


If you're trying to sell a religion with a BOO god, you failed. Miserably. And don't even start me on "loving", either. You'd have stood a much better chance if you tried just omniscient and omnipotent. Especially if you spiced it with "but otherwise doesn't care for anything apart from his own agenda". But stop! If you did, then what sort of motive I'd have to even care, let alone believe in such a deity. I may even believe there is one (I still don't for various other reasons), but that would sort of defeat the point. It wouldn't make me worship it, and it most certainly won't make me interested in it further than trying to figure out what the agenda is so I can fit in. But I wouldn't love such a deity any more than a prisoner loves his warden. And your warden sure seem to have whims worse than any real one, bar maybe a Nazi concentration camp one.

Oh, I have to stop right now. It's the Godwin's Law!

But it's still you who lost the argument...

Friday, 23 October 2009

I Plead Guilty

I always had my reservations about the widespread practice, especially in the United States, of offering reduced sentences to defendants who agree to "voluntarily" enter a guilty plea. Now, provided it proves true, this story, reported a few days ago by the BBC, assures me that guilty pleas in return for leniency are wrong (so called "plea bargains").

Yes, they make for quicker, and hence cheaper, process of handling a lot of criminal cases. And don't get me wrong, I do not propose to get rid of guilty pleas in general. If one can be had so much the better for all involved. I just think that it may be ultimately unfair for the defendant, especially one that has no means to defend his innocence properly, is poorly advised by his legal team, or intellectually incapable of making the right decision.

As the story mentioned above shows quite nicely, some may be tempted to plead guilty even if they are completely innocent. It probably does take a deliberately malicious set-up to be uncovered for this to become clear, but it is blindingly obvious, and humanly understandable after all, that those who could find no way of proving their innocence went for a guilty plea as that gets them out of jail earlier. This case makes everything even worse as it involves rape, and with that on your record your life is pretty much ruined with no chance of redemption - ever.

We all assume that our legal systems are founded on the healthy assumption of being innocent until proven guilty, but also that the system is geared towards making sure innocent people are not wrongly found guilty, even if they do sometimes end up accused. Lenience in return for a guilty plea seriously undermines the latter. Same is true for death sentence, as it is the only truly irreversible punishment in modern, democratic societies. But that is a theme for another post - if there is need to expand on it at all.

Death sentence is wrong. Period. On guilty plea for leniency the jury is still out. But the outlook is not good.

Coming Out Of The Woodwork

I watched last nights BBC Question Time with great interest, and even greater trepidation. You probably already know why, too. For the very first time such a platform was afforded to the much disliked, yet raising in popularity, leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin (no, I am not linking to them). Much ink and bile was spilt in the past few days discussing if this was a wise thing to do - to put it mildly.

Personally, I could not help but side with the ones pointing out that BNP was (still) legal, that they got 6% of the national vote for European Parliament, as well as two (2) seats there. Yes, party's constitution has been challenged in court - successfully, I might add - but it (BNP) has agreed to review it and change it, hopefully for the better. Whatever I, and anybody else, think about them and their (sick) views, they cannot be rightly denied air time. Not unless we decide that democracy as we know it is in fact not such a good thing.

And so, Nick Griffin took his (rightful?) place on the panel which included quite a few very clever, and equally upright, people. To name but a few: Jack Straw, current Justice Secretary, Baroness Warsi, a shadow minister (Conservative), Chris Huhne, and MP (Liberal Democrat). The panel was moderated by David Dimbleby, brilliant as ever. I won't attempt to tell you what happened. Go over to the BBC and see for yourselves. But while you're there also have a look at viewers' comments! This is what I want to talk about here.

But before I go there, let me just say one impression I got from watching last night's show. While I still think it was right, and possibly even important to give national air time to BNP in general, and Nick Griffin in particular, I think a mistake was made in the format. Question Time is arguably not the best format if you want to go deeper into a person's, and party's, views and beliefs. It too easily lends itself to chaos, unfinished sentences, and unanswered questions. It is nice to have a quick overview of what different people, and their organisations, as well as general public, think about a few issues. It almost assumes that everybody knows a few basics about everybody else, and also that all involved share the same basic values, more or less. But BNP is so unknown right now, and also so much different from any other mainstream organisation that the format just does not work. For the very first, introductory, TV session with them I firmly believe that a one-to-one interview would have been much better. Yes, it would give so much more uninterrupted time to Nick Griffin (does BNP even have any others who can appear in public and not embarrass themselves?). But on the other hand, British TV in general, and BBC in particular has quite enough truly brilliant political journalists well versed in the difficult and arcane art of interviewing controversial figures. You could make it relatively benign (in appearance, at least) by choosing Andrew Marr. Or you could go all the way by unleashing my all time favourite interviewer, Jeremy Paxman. Oh, how I would like to see Nick Griffin squirm after being asked for the 13th time (15th by different counting) if he really, truly, now believed Holocaust did happen, yes or no. And so on.

But, as I said, I am here to tell you, warn you, of another, possibly unintended consequence of last night's Question Time. Before I continue do go to the BBC web site and read a few pages of viewers' comments. Go on, do it. I mean it. And while you're at it try to keep track of the ratio of pro et contra. For this exercise, please count as pro (BNP) even those who say (now) they would not vote for them, but oh there are a few things they agree with. Once you've done that, and hopefully read on here you'll hopefully understand, and agree with me, that this way of counting makes sense.


What I want to say is that I am not so much worried about how BNP itself will fare after last night's show. I don't even think they themselves will reap too much benefit. What I think will happen, and that's potentially even worse, is that some of the views BNP promotes (and frankly, none they hold are acceptable in a modern society) have suddenly been given some kind of respectability. Yes, there's still this great furore when they are expressed openly, but no wit's suddenly OK to express them in the first place. The woodwork from the title suddenly comes to life, and all the ones who, until now, thought that talking about these things (no, I'm not listing them here) is shameful, and something one does not mention in polite society, they suddenly hear them discussed on BBC, and guess what? Now they know it's in fact OK to come out and talk about it. After all, look at all those people seriously trying to engage Nick Griffin, and his confused, and wrong on so many levels (including pure logic) statements. It is again respectable to say that United Kingdom may be better of if all non-whites (and some whites, too) were pushed overboard. No, they will not vote for BNP (not yet, anyway), but now they can go to their MP and demand that he does something about these things. So, suddenly, race, ethnicity, religion, again come to the forefront of the political debate. Everybody has to talk about it, and that just feeds the same fire. Before you know it you get a brand new political party, much better at PR than BNP can ever be, who cleverly disguises BNP-like agenda into something people can openly vote for (those who vote for BNPs everywhere tend to lie not only to pre-election, and exit polls, but also often to themselves; just go to Serbia and ask who voted for Slobodan Milošević in the first elections in 1990).

This is then what worries me about last night, and the following days. I still hope United Kingdom is bigger, and better than to sink to BNP-esque depths, but I thought so of ex-Yugoslavia, too (the one that burst to flames in 1991, not the ones that, sort of, emerged later). We'll just have to wait and see, and also work on countering this trend. Work very hard. Every single one of us, but mainstream political parties so much more. We're watching you...

But in the final analysis, am I still of the opinion that we could not have denied BNP a platform on national television? Yes, I am still firmly of that opinion. Not least because now everything is in the open, and everything now becomes available to fight for, or against as the case may be. Bashing somebody's political views without your audience having heard your opponent express them, in his their own words, usually sounds quite lame, and very often creates some kind of sympathy for the underdog. Let the underdog show its ugly, snarling face, and suddenly, hopefully you've won half the battle. At worst, you do not appear unfair just telling somebody to shut up for the benefit of the public, when that same public has no real clue what you, or rather they, are talking about. So all in all, I think what happened was good. It could (and should) have been done better, but it's a start. Shaky, but a start.

Now wish us all very, very good luck!

Above, I have used the example of Slobodan Milošević. It was unfair to an extent, even if I revile the man and all he stood for. A much better comparison to BNP, and Nick Griffin from recent Serbian history is to Serbian Radical Party (SRS, Srpska Radikalna Stranka), and it's leader Vojislav Šešelj, currently tried for war crimes in The Hague. Look at SRS and Šešelj, and see where letting BNP run riot can lead. Oh, and no, I am not linking to these criminals, either...

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Reconsidering Ethnic Minorities

Today, I've seen a brilliant article in the on-line edition of The Economist challenging the current views and practices in handling ethnic minorities. I cannot bring the entire article here to you. Go to the web site and read it. You'll need to hurry, as it will become subscription only in 90 days. What I will quote here is a selection of points I found especially intriguing. I'll also treat you to a few thoughts of my own on the subject. Enjoy. At least the article...

The whole idea of ethnicity is a spurious hangover from the past anyway. If it depends on DNA, then what about intermarriage and adoption? If it depends on ancestry, get out that copy of the Nuremberg laws.

No need to comment on the above really. We're either all an ethnic minority (see "out of Africa" theory of human evolution, as well as "mitochondrial Eve" one), or the question is moot. Please note, this means there are no ethnic majorities either, just that we're all equal(ly human).

But, once you allow for ethnic minorities and start "helping" them out, you may easily run into the following kind of problem. I've seen it happen with humanitarian aid unrelated to ethnicity, but the foul motives are the same. What makes it even worse is that it's members of the same community that needs help that are getting fat on the misfortune of their own. It happens all to easily...

It encourages clientilism, where self-appointed “community leaders” try to grab as much as possible from the public cake, in theory for their constituents, but in practice often for themselves. That encourages ill-feeling between the “minorities” and for the “majority” which feels left out.

And finally, an almost obvious truth: the same things ethnic minorities suffer from are a problem for the majority, too, not least because they are the result of the failure of government to enact it's own laws and rules:

The biggest complaints from many ethnic minorities are really about something else: bad behaviour by the authorities. Much better, therefore, to concentrate on solving that with a clean and responsive government, good laws and a good justice system.

To finish, I also heartily agree with the article's author that there are areas where direct help and even (local) favouritism are often called for, and justified. One is language, as the author also points out. The other is the "culture" insofar as it's different enough from the mainstream to require extra(ordinary) support.

I again urge you to go and read the article itself. It is so much better than my lame attempt at both summarising it, and giving my own contribution.

The Best Kept Secret

What you'll find below is a quote from "Economic and Philosophical manuscripts of 1844" by venerable Karl Marx. Why do I think this particular bit was (is?) a best kept secret? Well, I've been raised and, more importantly, educated in a country which swore by Marx and Communism. Even if it was a much better, and happier, place than the Soviet block, it still seemed to have totally disregarded some very important parts of Marx's philosophy. Reading the passage below, it could have only been deliberate. Sad, but true.

[This crude communism] appears in a double form; the domination of material property looms so large that it aims to destroy everything which is incapable of being possessed by everyone as private property. It wishes to eliminate talent, etc., by force. Immediate physical possession seems to it the unique goal of life and existence. The role of worker is not abolished but is extended to all men. The relation of private property remains the relation of the community to the world of things. Finally, this tendency to oppose general private property to private property is expressed in an animal form: marriage (which is incontestably a form of exclusive private property) is contrasted with the community of women,* in which women become communal and common property. One may say that this idea of the community of women is the open secret of this entirely crude and unreflective communism. Just as women are to pass from marriage to universal prostitution, so the whole world of wealth (i.e., the objective being of man) is to pass to the relation of universal prostitution with the community. This communism, which negates the personality of man in every sphere, is the only logical expression of private property which is this negation. Universal envy setting itself up as a power is only a camouflaged form of cupidity which reestablishes itself and satisfies itself in a different way. The thoughts of every individual private property are at least directed against any wealthier private property, in the form of envy and the desire to reduce everything to a common level; so that this envy and levelling in fact constitute the essence of competition. Crude communism is only the culmination of such envy and levelling-down on the basis of a preconcieved minimum. How little the abolition of private property represents a genuine appropriation is shown by the abstract negation of the whole world of culture and civilization, and the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor and wantless individual who has not only surpassed private property but has not yet even attained to it. The community is only a community of work and of equality of wages paid out by the communal capital, by the community as universal capitalist. The two sides of the relation are raised to a supposed universality; labor as a condition in which everyone is placed, and capital as the acknowledged universality and power of the community.
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, pp. 124-126

* Marx refers here to the speculations among certain eccentric communist thinkers of his time who thought that if everything is common property women should be, too.

So, why is the above quote the best kept secret? It should be obvious, really. What my country (and especially the Soviet bloc ones) was building was "crude communism", as described above. At best. At worst, it was just a sort of "communal" capitalism, where the "capitalists" were the ones in power. And there were much less of them than there were "proper" capitalists in "proper" capitalist countries. And all the while we were told otherwise (a less of a problem, if you had eyes), but also taught the underlying philosophy which was obviously masterfully edited to exclude telling passages as the one above. I'd have to check, but I wouldn't be surprised if the book quoted above (and the one mentioned below) were never translated!

Had we known this would anything be different? I like to think yes. Of course, I cannot know. Nobody can. There's precious little people who could look into the future with such insight as Karl Marx in the passage above, describing what wouldn't come to pass for more than 50 years hence.

So it goes...

I have took this quote from another great book (since I do not have a copy of the original to hand), by another venerable man, Erich Fromm. That book is "Beyond The Chains of Illusion: My Encounter With Marx and Freud". Read it. Carefully. You won't regret it.

Microsoft Tax - It's Dire

Microsoft Windows 7 is upon us. Having been encumbered by Vista on my main laptop, and encouraged by good reviews of Windows 7, I decided to look into the options to upgrade. yes, even if it meant spending some of my own money on a copy of Windows 7. Here's what I found, with some background information to put it all into perspective.

First things first. My laptop runs Windows Vista Ultimate. It is almost exactly year and a half old. I didn't choose the operating system. I looked for the laptop that was at the hardware/performance/price sweet spot for me. It just so happened that the best candidate came with Windows Vista Ultimate pre-installed. I even thought it was good - at the time. Since it seemed I have to pay Microsoft Tax anyway, at least I was getting their "greatest" (quotes intentional).

Unhappily, I used the laptop. Unhappily, as Vista proved to be all the bad things belaboured all over, and then some. No point in going into details. Just google it. I initially considered upgrading (no quotes intentional) to Windows XP, but reading the warranty terms it seemed that it would have invalidated it. So I stuck with Vista until a year has passed, then started looking for alternatives.

Linux, which I have installed on a separate partition anyway, was pretty much out of the question. My beloved wife will have nothing with it, and the laptop was officially "our" main machine. Dual boot was fine, as long as it defaulted to Windows. Around the same time rumours started about Windows 7 being worth a look. I looked, read about it, and decided it just may be worth the wait, and may even be worth some money. I am happy to spend money on software - provided it works.

Finally, the pricing came out, and Amazon had it for around £65 for Windows 7 Home Premium. While this was probably around £20 more than I reasonably thought an upgrade was worth - even not accounting for suffering inflicted by Vista - I thought it may just be within my budget. I never really needed the Ultimate-ness of Windows anyway. Home Premium seemed to have all the stuff I need.

I waited for the Upgrade Advisor and the release day of Windows 7. Better safe than sorry. Let me first check if the laptop was compatible, and whether Microsoft thinks there are areas that I need to be wary of. The tool came decently recommended by the tech news outfit I grew to trust the most. So, I downloaded the thing, let it run, and after a good few minutes (think ten to twenty) it spat out it's verdict.

Yes, I could install Windows 7. I'll probably need to un-install a couple of drivers, and also a couple of minor applications, but they could be safely re-installed after Windows 7. That this procedure was safe and sound was confirmed by other people's experience. Happy days!

But wait! A good look at the report later, and all my hopes got shot down in flames. If I wanted to upgrade - as opposed to install from scratch - I could only do so with Windows 7 Ultimate! Apparently, Vista Ultimate cannot be upgraded to Windows 7 Home Premium without deleting all my data and applications, and then (painstakingly!) re-installing everything! All the applications, all the data, the bloody lot! And how much does Windows 7 Ultimate cost? Bloody £160!

So, in order to spare myself the pain of re-creating my system from scratch - something that can last from 2 days for basic things, to 2 weeks for reaching the set-up I'm used to, and already have! - I need to spend £100 more. If only there was a good reason for it! I mean, even Microsoft will tell you that Windows 7 comes with less features than Vista in the first place. Even Windows 7 Ultimate does not have all the bells and whistles of Vista Ultimate. It doesn't matter if I needed them in the first place. Needing them, or (not) having them, I still have to pay the tax. And I'm not even allowed to decide I want to be rid of more than Microsoft thinks is good for me.

The conclusion? I am sticking with the brain-dead Vista Ultimate (Pain) on my laptop. For Pete's sake, if I sold my laptop second hand, and added £65 I would have spent on Windows 7 Home Premium, I can probably buy a brand new laptop running Windows 7, even if only Home Premium, and that would come with at least a year's warranty, too! Come on! What's this? An industry conspiracy to make people buy new hardware as well as new Microsoft operating system?

I'm not having any of it! And I'll review that decision to have my laptop boot to Windows by default. I wonder if my wife will even notice...

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Pinnacle Of Evolution?

I am sure everyone has at least sometimes heard that man (Homo sapiens sapiens) is "the pinnacle of evolution" on our little, blue-green planet. Well, yes and no, really.

In truth, the same can be said of absolutely every single species still not extinct. We (H. sapiens sapiens) are no more the pinnacle of evolution than is a flatworm, or even a bacterium of your choice. We (H. sapiens sapiens, flatworms, and bacteria) all share the starting point somewhere in the misty depths of the beginnings of life. We have all evolved for exactly the same time. H. Sapiens Sapiens is as advanced answer to the question of survival on Earth as any other creature still alive. If you draw the tree of life so that all branch lengths represent the time it took for a species to evolve, you'll find every living creature on Earth at the same level. Any branches shorter than that are reserved for the extinct species. Only they can be considered "less perfect".

So, the next time you want to feel proud about your own species (whatever your species), make sure it is because it's not extinct, and not because you may think you're more perfect(ed) than any other. You're not.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Immigrant Trap

Here is a brief explanation of just how most immigrants manage to end up isolated into their own little circles, and as a consequence unhappy, not to mention never truly integrated into the societies they themselves chose as their new homes. I've seen it happen myself, and I have also heard similar tales from others. I may also have a few words of advice on how to avoid this trap. I have.

So, you've moved to a new and strange country. It doesn't really matter why. The key thing is, you're there and you have to try and live as normal life as possible. A few things make this difficult. For one, it's very likely that you'll have to speak a language you're not used to, and which you probably do not know very well (or at least you think you don't). Also, as every other place, this country has at least slightly different customs, its own little ways of doing day to day things. You also find yourself without easy access to your usual family and friends support network, something you've been carefully building all your life. More likely than not, you panic. It's almost understandable.

Now, what too many people tend to do is retreat into safety of the known. Assuming you came with at least some family, you probably find yourself staying at home a lot, or going out just as a family. If you came on your own, and after a while even if you came with a family, you start seeking people like you, especially the ones who speak the same language. The path of least resistance is sometimes irresistible. Before you know it, pretty much all of your social life starts revolving around the same small circle of people, all of whom hail from the same country of origin.

You may now be asking yourselves what's so wrong with such a life. It's not as if you don't have any social life at all, and by keeping yourself you surely do not do any harm. So, let me tell you what problems lie in this kind of set-up.

First searching question you need to ask is: are all the people you socialise with the people you'd have chosen had you not emigrated? Would you befriend them back home? Or at least would you be spending so much time with them, to the exclusion of potentially more compatible ones? I bet that for quite a lot of your immigrant "friends" an honest answer would be "no". So why do it? Why torture yourself when in different circumstances the fact that you share language and origin wouldn't have been enough to put you in the same room?

The second problem is the consequence of the one described above. By spending all or most of your time with "your own" you automatically segregate yourself from the rest of the society you live in. This makes you, and your compatriots, look suspicious, or at least unfriendly. You can't be seen to have positive opinion of your hosts if you're so visibly avoiding to socialise with them. This in turn makes you feel unwanted and seen to be more of a foreigner than you'd probably like. But all that's of your own making. Surely, if you noticed a closed group of foreigners, you'd also start seeing them as at least a bit strange, and you'd start asking yourself why they're avoiding you.

The above two problems tend to reinforce one another, and can also spiral in a really bad way. The more you stick to "your own" the more you're seen as not part of the society. The more you feel not part of the society the more you feel the need to stick to "your own". And so on, until it escalates into really hating the place you live and the people who inhabit it. You also start spending the time with "your own" mostly complaining about the hosts. Almost certainly you are deeply unhappy.

So, what is my advice for avoiding the immigrant's trap?

It's as simple as it is blindingly obvious. You only need resist that path of least resistance. You chose to live where you are. Why not try giving the place a chance? Other people live there, and are happy. You can't be so much different to be totally incapable of doing an odd thing the local way. And if you are so sure your way is better, explain it to the hosts. You may be surprised when they see your point. Provided, of course, you do not try rubbing their nose in it. You may also be surprised how you may be allowed to have your way while they have theirs as long as nobody has to suffer. Next, choose your friends in exactly the same way you ever did. Why should you lower your standards just because you moved abroad? And if you allow yourself to try these two pieces of advice, you may also find that some of your hosts may be good friend material after all. Please note I am not urging you to stop socialising with "your own". I'm urging you to just treat all people without prejudice one way or another. It's easier than you think.

Does any of the above work? Of course it does, and it worked like magic for me. Do I have friends from back home? Of course I do! And I'll keep them even if I move somewhere else. Do I have friends from where I live now? Yes! And I intend to keep those, too. An added bonus from being country-of-origin-blind: I also have friends who came here from various other places. I feel my life is enriched by all of them. Touchingly, I have also been told, repeatedly, that by moving here I have enriched both my friends' lives and their home country. I feel that, in a very small way, I have done better service to my home country than many an ambassador in the recent years.

And so I ask you: why won't you be an ambassador, too?