Archive | December, 2014

Have a jolly, merry…. Whatever.

21 Dec

Some things are terribly predictable at this time of year; they just go with the season.

In particular, there’s bound to be someone who wants to talk about the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas.

Then again there’s bound to be someone who’ll point out that Christmas is a festival that was co-opted by the Christian church.

And there will doubtless be someone to point out how many of the customs and practices associated with Christmas actually have nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with pre and non-Christian belief systems.

And there’s also liable to be someone who points out how many of our time honoured Christmas traditions are actually quite modern in their origins.

Needless to say, the scholarship behind these claims tends to be patchy in quality and this usually gives rise to all sorts of debate, often ill tempered, and usually just as patchy in the quality of its erudition.

Being a scholar much in the tradition of patchy erudition myself, I’ve formed the vague impression that most cultures that have their origins in parts of the world where the winters are cold tend to have some sort of festival, usually timed for whenever the weather can be expected to be at it’s most inclement.

These festivals usually seem to involve people getting together, often with people they never see at any other time of the year, in order to eat and drink and pretend to have a good time while all kinds of subterranean tensions seethe away under the surface.

Obviously these festivals are a product of pre-industrial societies, industrialised, urbanised societies tend to be less influenced by the changing of the seasons, but the habits of an older society do tend to persist, even if they do evolve over time. And as a result we’re stuck with the dubious pleasures of Christmas with all its mongrel inheritance.

Naturally, there are all kinds of interesting (or at least semi-interesting) common features and contrasts to be found amongst the various ways that people celebrate towards the end of December throughout Europe, and in those parts of the world influenced by European cultures. There should be no big surprise about that; most of these cultures have diverged from common roots in similar environments.

What’s much more interesting is that there should be a parallel to our Christmas in Native American cultures.

What I’m referring to, of course is the Potlatch.

Potlatch is, in fact quite a general term and covers a variety of customs that were current in a number of different cultures on the pacific coast of North America.

This environment was very rich in resources that could be harvested throughout the summer and autumn, but the winter was incredibly harsh.

As a consequence, everyone worked hard to lay in provisions while they could and then, when the weather turned nasty, there was very little to do except eat, drink, tell stories, sing songs and generally enjoy the fruits of all that hard work you’d done earlier in the year. And at the potlatch there was even an exchange of gifts.

Each potlatch was hosted by a kinship group, (sometimes called a house or numaym) or more precisely by an aristocrat of the kinship group and the whole point was to invite all the other neighbouring kinship groups partly for a celebration, but also to conduct a certain amount of practical business. There were always tensions and rivalries between the different kin groups and these rivalries and tensions had to be expressed and managed, preferably without out and out warfare.

And the way these tensions were expressed and managed at the potlatch was very largely through the giving of gifts.

So on the face of it, the potlatch seemed like quite a jolly custom

Unfortunately, there was a darker side to the potlatch. As I’ve suggested, the people who gathered together during the potlatch were not necessarily the best of friends and, as a result, the gift giving tended to have a competitive edge.

This competitive edge led to an escalation in the value of the gifts being exchanged until, according to the classic accounts, the whole thing became utterly ruinous. (Accounts differ, however, and various aspects of the potlatch may well have been exaggerated by the various people who described it, since they all had agendas of their own).

Of course, the potlatch was criminalised by the Canadian and American authorities. This was because it offended against the prevailing notions of industry, thrift and prudence prevailing amongst the uptight white eye community, but the custom persisted since it was closely linked to the religious beliefs and cultural identity of the Native American peoples who practised it.

So there we have it.

People on different continents with completely different cultural backgrounds getting together with other people they don’t like in order to munch their way through copious amounts of food while exchanging of gifts at ruinous expense. And all with the threat of criminal proceedings following closely in the aftermath.

A typical family Christmas, in fact.

So whether you’re celebrating the birth of Christ, or the winter solstice, whether it’s Yule or Noel or just a chance to take some time off work and overindulge a little, have a happy whatever, try to be nice to each other and always remember the words of the song,

Hallelujah noel be it heaven or hell,

The Christmas you get you deserve.

(I Believe in Father Christmas – Emerson, Lake and Palmer)

Every Complex Problem

14 Dec

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong. (H.L. Mencken)

To be honest I don’t know much about HL Mencken other than the fact that he gets a mention in The Sun also Rises (Also known as Fiesta) and, on the strength of the comments made in that novel, I don’t think Earnest Hemingway was a fan.

On the other hand, I kind of agree with Mencken on this point at least.

The trouble is, of course, that the world often seems to be full of people who are quite determined to believe that these clear and simple solutions aren’t wrong, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, but are, in fact, the only solution.

And, of course any aspiring politician with more ambition than integrity (which would be most of them, it seems) will latch on to these clear and simple solutions and peddle them for all they’re worth to all the people who already believe them to be right.

One of the most obvious examples of this kind of (non)thinking can be seen in the current urge to curb immigration.

Essentially the line of (un)reasoning goes as follows. You can’t get a house/job/GP appointment/ a place for your kids in the local school. Therefore there are too many people in the country. Therefore the problem is immigration. Therefore if we stop people coming into the country and repatriate those immigrants who’re already here, then everything will be nice again.

Except, of course, it won’t.

You still won’t be able to get a house if there aren’t enough houses being built and you still won’t be able to get a decent job when the economy has been ‘rebalanced’ to provide high paid jobs to the privileged and low paid insecure jobs for the majority. You also won’t be able to see your GP when you want to if the resources that are put into the NHS have been squandered in yet another top down reorganisation (even when you’ve been solemnly promised that no such thing will happen). And you’ll struggle to get your kids into a decent school when Local Education Authorities are starved of resources so that politicians can fund their pet educational projects.

But this is all complicated and problematic and recognising, let alone addressing any of these issues would require a bit of serious thinking. And why should anyone bother with that when it’s so much easier to fall back on the usual exchange of sound bites and slogans and easy to remember, drip dry policies that can be explained in a few column inches or in a brief, stage-managed TV appearance.

This is, of course, a fundamental problem with trying to run a democracy in an industrialised, capitalist society that is dependent on mass media for the communication of ideas.

It’s worth taking a look at the phrase ‘industrialised, capitalist society’.

A society that is industrialised is one that has the capacity to feed, clothe and house a far larger population than one that is pre- or at least non- industrialised. This large population is one that can support and indeed necessitates mass media, word of mouth can only go so far in a population of millions.

A society that is capitalist is one that is defined by the capitalist mode of production (as Karl Marx would tell you, if he was here).

One of the characteristics of capitalism is that it turns everything that has a value into a commodity. (And incidentally devalues anything that can’t be turned into a commodity). In other words, most of the things you might want, including information, will have a price and there will always be someone willing to sell it to you.

As a consequence it is the business of the media to ‘shift product’, be that a physical item like a newspaper or a book, or advertising space or something else that can be sold and therefore raise revenue. (With public service media outlets the need to ‘shift product’ is a little more indirect, but circulation and/or ratings still count if the outlet is to justify its existence to those who control its funding).

Given that the easiest way to guarantee a mass audience/readership is to confirm what the majority of people already think they know, or at least to avoid contradicting anything they believe to be true, those media outlets that reach the greatest number of people will be those that avoid challenging the majority view on anything. They will also be the outlets that keep things simple, that avoid long, involved arguments and that won’t burden their customers with a lot of bothersome facts or figures.

So in the more downmarket hovels of the media, you will seldom find any serious attempt to look at how many people actually come to live in the country, what they do, how they live, what they contribute and whether or not they might enhance or enrich the communities they live in. What you will be offered instead are anecdotes about individual immigrants who might have criminal records, engage in anti-social behaviour or, horror of horrors, actually use public services that they are perfectly entitled to use.

These individual cases will then be held up (explicitly or implicitly) as being typical of all immigrants. This use of facts which may, or then again may not, be accurate in themselves will therefore contribute to a perception of immigrants that is unfair, untrue and of no use to anyone except bigots and racists and those who would seek to profit from them.

You can incidentally see a similar pattern of reporting where other vilified groups, notably benefits claimants, the homeless, people who depend on food banks and, of course, asylum seekers are concerned.

There is a way to correct this irresponsible and divisive kind of reporting.

Don’t buy crap newspapers and don’t watch garbage TV programmes. Complaining is no use, writing to your MP is pointless, simply damage their revenue stream and you’ll soon find the media sorting themselves out.

This leads me to a more general point about politics.

The political system we have in this country can be characterised as government by millionaires on behalf of billionaires and a great many people are sick to death of it.

A healthy democratic political system depends on the quality of the politicians who participate in it, and the media that report on it. And both of these, in turn, depend on the extent to which members of the general public (that’s us, by the way) are willing to engage in politics.

If we won’t take the trouble to pay attention then we will allow lazy, complacent journalists to allow politicians to spout off their lazy, complacent platitudes. And if we do that then we have very little to complain about if democracy descends into the shallow pretence of free choice where all we’re offered is two or three versions of the same thing wrapped up in different packaging.

It is very easy to despair of politics and politicians and far too many people fall into despair or indifference or the lazy, cowardly assumption that nothing we can do will make a difference.

But at the heart of all this there is the fact that when our political system doesn’t work properly people get hurt.

So it’s not good enough to say, ‘politicians are all the same’ and ‘they all lie through their teeth so what difference does it make?’ or to fall back on the old Anarchist slogan, ‘don’t vote, the government will get in’ because the government will get in anyway.

The only difference will be that the government that will be elected when the majority of us don’t vote will be a government chosen by those few zealots, activists and ‘bee in the bonnet’ merchants who can still be bothered to put their cross in a box.

And what that means is that we’ll get a worse government than we could have had if we’d all paid attention and actually tried thinking about what we need and what we want instead of just assuming that all we can do is make a selection from the limited set of options that the political parties choose to offer us.

And, say what you like about the result, our recent Independence Referendum was pretty effective in getting

people stirred up and getting them involved.

As an aside, I note with interest that whenever you hear anyone complaining about the referendum, it’s alleged divisiveness, the abusive and stupid behaviour that some (a tiny minority) just couldn’t resist, the way that the referendum allegedly brought the work of the government in Scotland to a standstill, you’ll find that they’re always Unionists. They are, in fact, those who are, or those who support, those who are already well established within the Westminster system. (Or in the case of UKIP those who, for all their attempt to cultivate rebel chic, would dearly love to become well established within the Westminster system).

On the other hand, some of us are willing to put up with the odd internet troll and the occasional egg being thrown (not that I would advocate or excuse either) if that’s the price of getting people involved in making the decisions that will affect their lives. I should scarcely need to add that I would very much prefer it if none of us had to put up with this kind of behaviour, but it’s better than a sulky, brutish apathy that allows politicians to do whatever they like.

I think it’s perfectly obvious by now that the majority of our politicians are willing to put up with low turn outs and declining party membership if that means that they can carry on offering their clear, simple solutions without having to worry too much about whether or not their wrong.

But there is an alternative, and it is this: the only politician worth a damn’ is the one who has good reason to fear losing his, or her, job. And, of course, the way to instil that kind of fear is to make sure they know that you’re a/ paying attention and b/ willing to vote them out of office if they don’t behave themselves. (NB and this is really crucial, voting a politician out of office cannot be done by NOT voting. It can only be done by voting for someone else).

So if we want to make things better in our country (and it is OUR country) then we have to start, or continue, to pay attention to what appears in the media and what our politicians do and say. More than that we need to be willing to punish those who behave badly. If you don’t like the crap that appears in your newspaper, stop buying it. If you don’t like the crap you see on TV, then stop watching it. If you don’t like what you MP. MSP, EMP or Local Councillor does then pick someone else and vote for them.

The kind of tribal loyalty that the established parties have depended on for generations (in the West of Scotland that means Labour, but elsewhere it will be other parties) is worse than pointless it’s counter productive. All it means is that one party will ignore you because they think they already own your votes, while the other parties will ignore you because they don’t believe you’ll ever vote for them regardless of what they do.

So the last thing you want to do is be a party loyalist in a safe seat, because if that’s what you are, you’re a complete irrelevance in the political process.

And if you think on the basis of any of the above that what I want to do is to subvert the way we do politics in this country, then you’re dead right. I can’t think of anything else you can decently do with it.

Brainssssss (Or Why We’re All Looking Forward To The Zombie Apocalypse)

7 Dec

On the face of it, The Zombie Apocalypse may not seem like something we should be looking forward to with eager anticipation.

After all, it will doubtless be a source of some inconvenience to those who become zombified and I dare say the rest of us will face some appreciable degree of hardship, and probably even some risk to life and limb, as we seek to avoid joining the shambling hordes of undead flesh eaters.

On the other hand, there will definitely be something of an up side to all the devastation, carnage, cannibalism and general mayhem.

For one thing the Zombie Apocalypse will be a great leveller. Social, racial and class differences will finally be put in their rightful perspective by the general and shared need to avoid being munched on by the walking dead and, as a result, the world will finally become a true meritocracy. Only your skill and judgement in staying alive will count. Other factors will be irrelevant.

Another point is that, in the face of wandering herds of ravenous brain-dead cannibals, you are likely to find that all those troublesome worries and concerns of day to day life in our allegedly civilised society will lose their importance. Worries about how you’re going to pay the bills, what you’re going to get your granny for her birthday, how to avoid all that humiliating deference you have to show your moron of a boss will fade into the background as you find yourself much more focussed on the really important things in life. Things like finding a safe haven, scrounging food and choosing a suitable weapon with which to fend off the zombie hordes.

You may also find yourself making new friends and gaining new skills.

People that you would normally avoid, or even look down on, will all of a sudden be revealed to be persons of merit worthy of your esteem.

For example, the red-necked survivalist named ‘Cleetus’ or ‘Bubba’, whose banjo playing always used to irritate you, will now be your best pal. After all, who else is better placed to offer help and advice when fortifying and modifying your newly acquired vehicle in order to create the supercharged, armour-plated and fully zombie-proof battle wagon that you’ve always wanted?

After all, who else can boast the skills required to sneak around in the dark, despatching zombies efficiently and with the minimum of fuss and brain splatter? And who else can brew up moonshine in a still improvised from assorted household goods?

Of course a certain number of practical issues will need to be addressed. First and foremost, you will need a suitable choice of attire, and I would suggest a practical, rather than aesthetic approach here.

Leather, for example, can be very stylish and should also be bite resistant. Mail armour would, of course, be preferable and would give a rather fetching, slinky look to one’s ensemble, but it is rather heavy, by no means rainproof and also has the disadvantage of being somewhat hard to come by this century.

Kevlar, on the other hand, is not only light and flexible, it’s also hard wearing and has the advantage of being cruelty free. The uninitiated may well assume that kevlar is difficult to find, but any decent biker shop should have a wide selection of garments made from kevlar and other durable, weatherproof materials. These garments can be expensive to buy, at the moment, but this consideration will, of course, be quite irrelevant in the event of the zombie apocalypse.

Another important decision to be made will be in the matter of weapons.

In the United States, particularly south of the Mason Dixon line, firearms will be relatively easy to find. In the United Kingdom, however, while you may be able to find a shotgun without undue difficulty in rural areas does, you will be hard pressed to find any kind of gun without a good deal of effort. Unless, of course, you happen to have criminal tendencies, or be fortunate enough to be a close acquaintance of someone who does.

This should not be a source if undue discouragement, however, because while firearms can present certain advantages in the matter of fending off marauding zombies, there are also disadvantages to this option.

Clearly the ability to despatch a zombie at some distance is desirable, and a bullet in the head will do the job quite efficiently, but the difficulty with guns is that they are of limited value without ammunition. And ammunition is quite heavy to carry in bulk and does tend to run out at the most inconvenient times.

As an aside, it is worth noting that so many people come to grief by persisting in the habit of shooting zombies in the chest. Clearly this is a waste of time and ammunition. The only way to kill a zombie is to destroy the brain, therefore you must ALWAYS go for the head shot.

Unless of course one is threatened by a large number of highly mobile zombies in which case the precision required for an effective head shot will be difficult to achieve. In such circumstances it can be advisable to aim for the legs. This will not kill the zombies, of course, but it will slow them down quite considerably. Zombies may well feel no pain, but even the undead can’t run, or even shamble, on shattered leg bones, so they will be restricted to crawling, or dragging themselves along using their arms. This will then allow an opportunity either to retreat or to despatch the zombies on an individual basis.

But in the absence of ready access to firearms, one can always opt for a bow, although this requires almost constant practice to maintain an appropriate level of skill. Or a crossbow, a weapon that requires little more skill to use than a firearm, and is considerably quieter, but is every bit as useless as a gun once the ammunition is gone. Having said this, at least a crossbow bolt is reusable.

Regardless of one’s access to any of the above weapons one will always need a backup for when the ammunition runs out or the zombies get to close and what this boils down to is the choice between a sharp implement or a blunt one.

Either way, the length, weight and even the aerodynamic qualities of the weapon should be taken into consideration.

In particular, you need a weapon that is long enough to give you sufficient reach to keep the zombie out of biting range, but one that is not so long as to be difficult to wield.

One of the reasons why the Scottish army were defeated at the battle of Flodden, for example, is that they had been rearmed with 15 foot long pikes, which were considered state of the art weaponry, but which were, in the absence of proper training, unwieldy and virtually useless. James IV would have been better advised to have let his soldiers use the weapons they were used to.

In a similar vein, one should also choose a weapon of sufficient weight to be effective, but not so heavy as to be too tiring to use repeatedly.

The aerodynamic properties of a weapon may seem to be quite marginal, but if one is faced with a large number of zombies requiring repeated strikes, this apparently marginal factor may become quite significant.

These are, of course, matter of personal choice and will depend on the physique, fitness and skill of the individual.

Choosing between a sharp or blunt instrument is also a matter of individual choice. A sharp implement will appeal to those who favour decapitation over bludgeoning, but one must be aware of the risk of blood spatter which, depending on the variety of undead cannibal one encounters, may represent a significant risk of infection.

Something that is far less a question of personal choice is the matter of who to despatch and who to allow to go on living. Clearly those identified as zombies, or those infected persons who are likely to become zombies, should be dealt with firmly and decisively. Those who are not infected, should however, on the whole, not be killed.

Clearly, if we are to act on this principle we will need to have a robust and accurate means of identifying who is, or is not infected.

While even the most cursory visual examination may reveal those who are well and truly zombified, as they will

tend to be encrusted with dried blood about the mouth, lower face and chest, one may find that in conditions of poor visibility etc even a cursory examination may not be possible and in any case the early stages of zombification may not be obvious to the naked eye.

A detailed physical examination should determine whether or not someone has been bitten, but this will require the co-operation of the subject, which may not be forthcoming, and in any case a physical examination will require relatively close proximity, which may be inadvisable. Therefore other methods should be employed where possible.

One can, of course, carry out a careful observation of the subject’s behaviour in order to determine their level of physical co-ordination since a loss of fine motor skills is generally symptomatic of infection. On the other hand, some people are just clumsy, so this test cannot be considered definitive.

Alternatively, one may wish to engage the subject in conversation, as the infected will tend not to be great conversationalists. On the other hand an over reliance on the conversational ability of the subject as a determining factor may result in an unacceptably high attrition rate amongst the aphasic, or even just those of a taciturn disposition.

Significantly, one should not necessarily assume that someone is, or is about to become, a zombie simply because they hold and express views that appear to be inconsistent with higher cognitive function.

Therefore, decapitation of those whose taste in music, films or whose voting habits one disagrees with must, generally speaking, be considered excessive. A sharp blow to the head should be quite sufficient to the occasion and, if challenged, one can always cite the fact that zombies feel no pain and then congratulate the subject on having successfully passed the test.

Of course in amongst all the uncertainties resulting from the zombie apocalypse, there will always be some certainties that we can rely on.

The most notable of these are as follows:

1/ If you hear an unexplained noise from

a/ outside

b/ the cellar

c/ the attic

It is not the wind, the dust settling, or a stray kitten. It is DEFINITELY a zombie and you should take appropriate steps accordingly.

2/ If you see a young child wandering around on his/her own, do NOT approach. It is a zombie and should be despatched at your earliest convenience. (Actually the child may not be a zombie, but shooting irritatingly cute and precocious kids may be one of the great advantages of living through the zombie apocalypse. The true philosopher will always take his or her pleasures where he or she can.

3/ NEVER say any of the following

a/ I can handle this

b/ I think we’re safe now

c/ Everything’s going to be alright

d/ You know, I think Justin Bieber’s greatly underrated as a performer.

If you do, you WILL die a bizarre and horrible death.

4/ If a zombie appears to be dead, it isn’t. It’s just resting. Be sure and kill it before you do anything else.

By following these simple principles I’m sure we can all have a rewarding and enjoyable zombie apocalypse experience.