Unbalanced

It’s hard to stop rubbernecking the political car crash in the US at the moment, but I think this piece from The Economist is a perfect summary of the current state of politics here in the UK.

Britain’s equilibrium of incompetence
The country’s political parties are exactly as inept as each other.
It is common for one of Britain’s great parties to be in crisis while the other is in clover. Labour tore itself apart in the Thatcher era and the Tories did the same during the Blair years. But Britain is currently witnessing something unusual: both its main parties are in crisis at the same time, divided over their future direction, racked by factional fights and worried about leadership challenges.

What a mess.

That’s not the way to do it: Zoe Williams assesses the problems with questioning the Prime Minister in Parliament
In Punch and Judy Politics: An insider’s guide to Prime Minister’s questions, Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, both of whom have prepared parliamentary Opposition leaders for the House of Commons’ weekly ritual, take an exhaustive look at the “joust”, concluding as they begin: “If you were starting from scratch, this isn’t the way you’d build it. But this is what it is. We think it works”. This is a relaxed, urbane, rather fatalistic assessment, in the tradition of “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms”.

It’s hard to be an optimist these days. But perhaps we don’t need to be.

We’re getting bigger and smaller

George Monbiot dispels some of the myths that try to explain why we’re so much fatter than we were in previous generations.

We’re in a new age of obesity. How did it happen? You’d be surprised
So what has happened? The light begins to dawn when you look at the nutrition figures in more detail. Yes, we ate more in 1976, but differently. Today, we buy half as much fresh milk per person, but five times more yoghurt, three times more ice cream and – wait for it – 39 times as many dairy desserts. We buy half as many eggs as in 1976, but a third more breakfast cereals and twice the cereal snacks; half the total potatoes, but three times the crisps. While our direct purchases of sugar have sharply declined, the sugar we consume in drinks and confectionery is likely to have rocketed. … In other words, the opportunities to load our food with sugar have boomed.

We can’t simply put this change in society’s shape down to a lack of willpower, there’s a whole industry out there working against us.

[F]ood companies have invested heavily in designing products that use sugar to bypass our natural appetite control mechanisms, and in packaging and promoting these products to break down what remains of our defences, including through the use of subliminal scents. They employ an army of food scientists and psychologists to trick us into eating more than we need, while their advertisers use the latest findings in neuroscience to overcome our resistance.

They hire biddable scientists and thinktanks to confuse us about the causes of obesity. Above all, just as the tobacco companies did with smoking, they promote the idea that weight is a question of “personal responsibility”. After spending billions on overriding our willpower, they blame us for failing to exercise it.

Whilst some people are getting larger, this piece argues that our culture, institutions and even our gadgets (“high-tech pacifiers”) are reducing us and treating us like children.

The infantilization of Western culture
While we might find it trivial or amusing, the infantilist ethos becomes especially seductive in times of social crises and fear. And its favoring of simple, easy and fast betrays natural affinities for certain political solutions over others.

And typically not intelligent ones.

Democratic policymaking requires debate, demands compromise and involves critical thinking. It entails considering different viewpoints, anticipating the future, and composing thoughtful legislation.

What’s a fast, easy and simple alternative to this political process? It’s not difficult to imagine an infantile society being attracted to authoritarian rule.

Indeed.

People are strange

The Cut, a style and culture website that’s part of the New York magazine, have a very odd set of articles tagged What it’s like, with titles such as What it’s like to be married to a very attractive man, What it’s like to crave amputation, What it’s like to be allergic to wi-fi, and What it’s like to date a horse.

It’s quite a collection, but don’t read too many at once, you’ll go mad.

The fabulous future of work awaits

Following on from that article about what it might be like to work until we’re 100, here’s another example of over-optimistic, blue-sky, work-based astrology, this time from Liselotte Lyngsø, a futurist from the Copenhagen-based consultancy Future Navigator.

This is what work will look like in 2100
Human potential, according to Lyngsø, is not best cultivated in today’s workplace structure, and many of the changes she predicts revolve around the ongoing effort to maximize the abilities of individuals. To that end, many of today’s workplace structures, such as the 9-to-5 workday, traditional offices, rigid hierarchies, and the very concept of retirement will change dramatically.

“I don’t think we’ll have work hours like we used to. Likewise I think we’ll replace retirement with breaks where we reorient and retrain, where the borders [of work] are blurred,” she says. “It’s also about creating a sustainable lifestyle so you don’t burn out, and you can keep working for longer.”

Oh great, thanks.

Can’t stop, won’t stop

I’ve mentioned before that, when it comes to our time here, we don’t get long. But perhaps our lives — and our working lives, especially — will be longer than we think.

What if we have to work until we’re 100?
Retirement is becoming more and more expensive – and future generations may have to abandon the idea altogether. So what kinds of jobs will we do when we’re old and grey? Will we be well enough to work? And will anyone want to employ us?

Mind your manners

A couple of polite reviews of In Pursuit of Civility by Keith Thomas. I love the first reviewer’s breakdown of the passive-aggressive phrase “Polite Notice”.

In praise of (occasional) bad manners
There are some funny moments here. One involves Keith Thomas’s lunchtime encounter with Norbert Elias, “world authority on the history of table manners,” when Thomas apparently knocked a jug of water all over the table. Elias’s response is not recorded; perhaps it was unprintable. It would have been good to learn more about comparable embarrassments in the early modern period—tales such as that reported by John Aubrey involving the Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), who, “making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travel [for] seven years. On his return the Queen welcomed him home, and said, ‘My Lord, I had forgot the Fart.’”

How manners made man
In his final chapter, Thomas reflects on today’s world, in which civility means the recognition of equality, the right to self-expression, and the tolerance of difference. The new barbarians, in my view, are those who conduct phone conversations on trains and take selfies outside Auschwitz. But these actions are not, insists Thomas, signs of a “decivilising process”, because they do not threaten the internal order. I disagree, but then civility, to quote Barack Obama, is about disagreeing without being disagreeable.

Happy Windrush Day, grandma and grandad

It’s Windrush Day.

UK makes Windrush Day official with £500k grant to support events
Windrush Day will take place on 22 June, the day when around 500 migrants from the Caribbean arrived at Tilbury Docks in Essex in 1948 aboard the MV Empire Windrush. […] The communities minister, Lord Bourne, said the annual celebration will help to “recognise and honour the enormous contribution” of those who arrived between 1948 and 1971.

I mentioned before about my grandad being on the Windrush. Here he is.

windrush-day-2

He and my grandma had first met during the war. They got married in September 1948.

windrush-day-3

The only black guy at the wedding. In the village, probably.

Look at all these happy faces.

windrush-day-4

They went on to have seven kids, my mum being one of them. Never got to meet him, sadly, as he died in a traffic accident in 1958. So it goes. And it would have been my grandma’s birthday tomorrow, too, if she was still around.

Anyway, happy Windrush Day, the pair of you.

Weaponized classical music?

An interesting but depressing essay from the LA Review of Books about the uses classical music is being put to these days.

Whereas Japanese train stations are attempting to move on undesirables by playing ugly sounds only the young can hear, in other parts of the world it’s the wonderfully uplifting (to me, anyway) music of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart that’s being used instead.

Bach at the Burger King
The inspiration for the Burger King plan, a CMCBD official commented, came from the London Underground. In 2005, the metro system started playing orchestral soundtracks in 65 tube stations as part of a scheme to deter “anti-social” behavior, after the surprising success of a 2003 pilot program. The pilot’s remarkable results — seeing train robberies fall 33 percent, verbal assaults on staff drop 25 percent, and vandalism decrease 37 percent after just 18 months of classical music — caught the eye of the global law-enforcement community. Thus, an international phenomenon was born. Since then, weaponized classical music has spread throughout England and the world: police units across the planet now deploy the string quartet as the latest addition to their crime-fighting arsenal, recruiting Officer Johann Sebastian as the newest member of the force.

[…]

It is crucial to remember that the tactic does not aim to stop or even necessarily reduce crime — but to relocate it. Moreover, such mercenary measures most often target minor infractions like vandalism and loitering — crimes that damage property, not people, and usually the property of the powerful. “[B]usiness and government leaders,” Lily Hirsch observes in Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, “are seizing on classical music not as a positive moralizing force, but as a marker of space.” In a strange mutation, classical music devolves from a “universal language of mankind” reminding all people of their common humanity into a sonic border fence protecting privileged areas from common crowds, telling the plebes in auditory code that “you’re not welcome here.”

So our metaphor for music’s power must change from panacea to punishment, from unifying to separating force, as its purpose slips from aesthetic or spiritual ennoblement into economic relocation. Mozart has traded in a career as doctor for the soul to become an eviction agent for the poor.

And as if that’s not bad enough, the essay goes on to examine how classical music is being further reduced by advertising and our ‘sound-bite culture’.

Extended musical forms allow the listener to appreciate the subtle interplay of motif and movement — and it is exactly this nuanced appreciation that quote-clipping nullifies. There is a two-part mechanism to extract and transplant a tune: detach a 15-second theme from a 45-minute symphony (where it functioned as an integrated part in an organic whole) and attach it to an alien subject. Uproot “O Fortuna” from a Latin cantata, so it can be grafted onto a Domino’s Super Bowl spot. These transplants produce jarring mashups that trigger another insidious side effect: by always quoting works out of the context the public forgets that they have a context. The spectator forgets that “O Fortuna” could be glorious in its original context because it’s absurd hyping Domino’s Pizza. In sum, in the remix media ecosystem, famous compositions degenerate from serious music into decorative sound, applied like wallpaper to lay a poignant surface over banal intentions.

Looking forward in anger

Zoe Williams at the Guardian tries to understand where all the anger is coming from these days. Does anger always have an economic basis? Is social media to blame? Can it be a force for good? There’s certainly a lot of it about.

Why are we living in an age of anger – is it because of the 50-year rage cycle?
There was the mean note left on the car of a disabled woman (“I witnessed you and your young able-bodied daughter … walk towards the precinct with no sign of disability”); the crazed dyspepsia of the woman whose driveway was blocked briefly by paramedics while they tried to save someone’s life. Last week, Highways England felt moved to launch a campaign against road rage, spurred by 3,446 recorded instances in a year of motorists driving straight through roadworks. Violent crime has not gone up – well, it has, but this is thought mainly to reflect better reporting practices – but violent fantasies are ablaze. Political discourse is drenched in rage. The things people want to do to Diane Abbott and Luciana Berger make my eyes pop out of my head.

I’m not really convinced by the theories that suggest these things are cyclical. The dates of these suggested 40 to 60 year ‘Kondratiev waves’ of high and low economic growth, that tie in to periods of stagnation, unrest and anger, feel a little forced. I’m going to continue to blame Trump. And social media.

Social media has given us a way to transmute that anger from the workplace – which often we do not have the power to change – to every other area of life. You can go on Mumsnet to get angry with other people’s lazy husbands and interfering mother-in-laws; Twitter to find comradeship in fury about politics and punctuation; Facebook for rage-offs about people who shouted at a baby on a train or left their dog in a hot car. These social forums “enable hysterical contagion”, says Balick, but that does not mean it is always unproductive. The example he uses of a groundswell of infectious anger that became a movement is the Arab spring, but you could point to petitions websites such as 38 Degrees and Avaaz or crowdfunded justice projects. Most broad, collaborative calls for change begin with a story that enrages people.

Yes, ok, fair enough.

Good, but not that good

Some interesting research from Pew Research Center, on shifting attitudes towards the internet over recent years. The majority of respondents to their survey think the internet is mostly good for them personally, but less so when thinking about society as a whole.

Declining majority of online adults say the internet has been good for society
By contrast, those who think the internet is a bad thing for society gave a wider range of reasons for their opinions, with no single issue standing out. The most common theme (mentioned by 25% of these respondents) was that the internet isolates people from each other or encourages them to spend too much time with their devices. These responses also included references to the spread and prevalence of fake news or other types of false information: 16% mentioned this issue. Some 14% of those who think the internet’s impact is negative cited specific concerns about its effect on children, while 13% argued that it encourages illegal activity. A small share (5%) expressed privacy concerns or worries about sensitive personal information being available online.

It’s interesting that, for all the talk in the media about online privacy and data protection fears, many more people are worried about the internet’s effect on children. This seems to get less attention, perhaps because it’s harder to unravel, less black and white.

Attempts have been made, however, and Pew Research Center have also published an extensive report on possible remedies relating to a wide range of issues.

The future of well-being in a tech-saturated world
Many of those who argue that human well-being will be harmed also acknowledge that digital tools will continue to enhance various aspects of life. They also note there is no turning back. At the same time, hundreds of them suggested interventions in the coming years they feel could mitigate the problems and emphasize the benefits. Moreover, many of the hopeful respondents also agree that some harm will arise in the future, especially to those who are vulnerable.

[…]

Three types of themes emerged: those tied to expert views that people will be more helped than harmed when it comes to well-being; those tied to potential harms; and those tied to remedies these experts proposed to mitigate foreseeable problems.

Lots of interesting opinions and ideas, from calls for government regulation to formally educating people about the impacts of digital life on well-being.