Thursday, 28 June 2007

Inverting the Impossible

Call it synchronicity or coincidence but I have a theory about books. They come to you at the right time. Sometimes a volume can lie on my shelf, forgotten or neglected, for years on end. Then, when I finally get round to reading it, I realise that if I had opened it even a month beforehand I could not have understood its message with the same profundity.

You might argue that people just leave things until they are interested in reading them. Then, lo and behold, they find their views magically reflected in the pages. But in many cases I simply have no idea - or even the wrong idea - about what a book is really going to be about before I've read it. How often do we buy something because of the back-page blurb only to discover that it bears little or no ressemblence to the content?

Anyway, to preface the remarks that follow I'd like to say I'm not religious in any orthodox way. I don't even have 'a' religion, per se. But I am fascinated by the search for truths, however unpleasant they may happen to be (I'm not afraid of the idea that God doesn't exist, like some agnostics, for example: I would just like to know one way or the other so I can live accordingly).
On a related note, I'm appalled by the relativist idea that all choice, in the end, is arbitrary. It is this idea, I think, that makes atheism so difficult to live with conceptually. Because it implies that nothing we do, say, think, or feel in this life has any intrinsic value. And when life loses its value then human beings find it very difficult to get out of bed. Just ask manic depressives.

Some people think that is nonsense. Indeed, they argue that arbitrary choice is actually liberating since it frees them from guilt, responsibility, and the burden of choosing well. For me, by contrast, free choice of this kind is no choice at all, since it merges into preference which is often no more than a physical response to one's environment. Which is fine, except that it makes me wonder what human beings have such heightened intelligence and emotions for, if they cannot be used for anything greater than improving our personal comfort.

Anyway, in the course of my reflections, I stumbled across a book called Shantaram: the real-life tale of an Australian convict and heroin addict who escapes from his high security prison to Bombay, where he acts in Bollywood, joins the mafia and ends up fighting for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. (I know, it doesn't sound like a real story but just check out this guy's bio). I only decided to read it because I am going to India in a few weeks and someone I know recommended it.

I was expecting something like a memoir-version of The Beach. What I got was very different.
Some passages, in particular, I found highly persuasive and reminded me of conversations and experiences I had in the past with a vaguely sufistic friend at university. Here they are for your edification and critical commentary:

"The truth is found more often in music than it is in books of philosophy...the truth is that an instant of real love, in the heart of anyone - the noblest man alive or the most wicked - has the whole purpose and process and meaning of life within the lotus-folds of its passion. The truth is that we are all, every one of us, every atom, moving toward God...There is no believing in God. We either know God, or we do not". .

Sound like inane spiritual gak of the type Westerners typically go to India to absorb? Read on.

Abdel Khader Khan, the mafia lord and slum baron, notes that certain things are knowable and real without being tangible. And that the opposite holds true for the facts and objects we consider concrete and verifiable.

He says, "the energy that actually animates the matter and the life that we think we see around us cannot be measured or weighed or even put into time, as we know it. In one form, that energy is photons of light. The smallest object is a universe of open space to them, and the entire universe is but a speck of dust . What we call the world is just an idea . and not a very good one, yet . From the point of view of the light, the photon of light that animates it, the universe that we know (ie the things that human beings perceive) is not real. Nothing is."

By contrast, "We can know God, for example, and we can know sadness. We can know dreams, and we can know love. But none of these are real, in our usual sense of things that exist in the world and seem real. W cannot weigh them, or measure their length, or find their basic parts in an atom smasher....there is another reality, beyond what we see with our eyues. You have to feel your way into that reality with your heart. There is no other way":

I share this sentiment. Sometimes, a feeling takes you - I guess love for a person is one example - and transforms your heart, your actions, and your state of mind. It differs qualitively from your everyday understanding of the world, and is so intangible it is easy to believe that - when it drifts far away from you, or fades into your memory - that it did not, could not, exist. And yet when you experience it, it is overwhelmingly and completely real. More real, even, than the world that habitually surrounds us.


Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Censorship Saudi Style

I read quite a few amusing Saudi blogs recounting attempts by the authorities to stamp out 'vice'. Censorship is one of their biggest weapons in the pursuit of this goal. This goes so far as opening your mail and confiscating/defacing any inappropriate contents. One woman repeatedly got the adverts in her monthly edition of Vanity Fair blacked out with marker pen when they contained less than fully-covered women while even food shipped into the country is tasted (sorry, tested) to see whether its halal or not.

Yet it's funny what slips through the net. A good friend of mine, living in a rather conservative part of the country, decided she'd like to read Rushdie's The Satanic Verses to see what the fuss was all about (she later decided it was one of the worst books she'd ever read, but at least she got the chance to see for herself: personally, I think it's rather interesting, if on the long side). So she ordered a copy off Amazon. Much to her amazement it turned up, opened but UNTOUCHED, at her front door not long afterwards. Needless to say Rushdie, along with Danish bacon, is uber-haram in Saudi. So how had that happened?

Easy, said her father. Cute cover, no pictures, English title, illiterate vice-squad.
On a more serious note I firmly believe that there are few good philosophical reasons for allowing censorship on the grounds of blasphemy, or disrespect to religions. That is particularly true with respect to fiction, and art of all kinds. I will publish my views on this (and the Rushdie case) in greater depth soon.

All this was just an excuse to ask you to help protect the right to free speech by clicking on the icon of Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist being held hostage in Gaza. You can sign a petition calling for his release.

Monday, 25 June 2007

First Class Service

This should come as a warning to all those who believe that first class is always classier. Even though a first class booking on the Eurostar was barely more expensive than the bog-standard, perhaps because of the last-come first-screwed theory that operates in the internal market. Given that eurostar themselves don't deal too kindly with complaints (the eurotunnel went up in flames, causing six hour delays and the ambiance of a refugee camp in the departures hall, and I still didn't get reimbursed) I have decided to share my experience with the commuting public online.

In the twentyfirst century luxury is within reach of the multitude. Smoked salmon, champagne, and truffles are widely available in every branch of Sainsbury's. A 'trip of a lifetime' to Mauritius is now embarked on yearly by increasing hordes of Yuppie families, regardless of dire climate change predictions. And even students I know now upgrade to first class on the train. Deciding to get on this bandwagon at long last, I paid my 95 euros (one way) and waited expectantly for my first taste of cross-channel luxury. Certainly, I did not expect things to go less smoothly than in cattle class.

And yet.

I turned up 35minutes prior to departure, quite unhurried. This is a TRAIN after all, and in Belgium 10 minutes is normally enough to get you through security and passport control and into your carriage with a cup of coffee. On the English side of the Manche, however, things happen rather differently.

I arrived to find a chain of Chinese tourists sneaking across the concourse and up the stairs and tried to circumnavigate them by presenting my first class ticket at the 'business premier' check-in where noone was waiting. I was rudely rebuffed. I think it was the sandals...Back in the crush, I tried to follow some Chinese through to security but was told I had to stand back and wait. Finally, i was instructed to use a different machine which promptly ate my ticket and refused to give it back. Four other ticket machines joined in the general strike and pandemonium ensued on the platform. There were now 10 minutes to go until departure.

Gesturing to one of the flustered staff members, who was physically holding back a wave of agitated customers from entering the inner sanctum, I explained the situation. With a look of undisguised malevolence she said that someone would deal with me in due course - even though count-down was fast progressing. When she eventually released the ticket it turned out to be the portion from Brussels to London which, in the crush, I had mistakenly put in.

I was in the process of producing the right ticket when I saw another security guard making off with my suitcase. This had clearly been labelled a terrorist threat, situated, as it was, 2 metres from my person. After fending off the controled explosion of my possessions I breathed a sigh of relief and made my way to the xray. Never having had ANY problems with security on previous countless trips I was not prepared for the next stage of my first class treatment.

With time ticking by the man pulls over my suitcase for inspection and gruffly commands me to open it. I do so and he picks his way through the contents of my toilet bag VERY VERY S-L-O-W-L-Y. After five excruciating minutes I hear the final call for my train. By this time he has put the suitcase through the xray a second time and is talking jovially to the security woman at the screen. I indicate my watch with growing alarm and he drags himself over."Is there a problem?" I said. "My train is leaving NOW". You should have got here earlier, he snapped. "But what's the problem?" I continued, "My ticket is non flexible and non refundable". "That's your problem"' he replies, and proceeds to run some gadget over the WHEELS of all things, before putting the suitcase through the machine AGAIN, just for good measure.

Finally, he gives me the all clear. Cursing under my breath, I take over the operation myself and shove my possessions in left, right and centre, and ask whether I can be spirited to the front of the passport queue. A request he pretends to ignore until I kick up such a fuss that another guard volunteers to bring me through.

I make it onto the train with twenty seconds to spare but only get as far as coach one out of eleven. Dragging my suitcase across children's toys, elderly body parts and fat midriffs endears me to no-one in the carriage so I abandon it in Voiture 2 and make my way up the train. Passing the buffet car I am arrested in my tracks by two burly employees who ask me where the h*ll I think I'm going. When I mention coach eleven they look suspicious and demand to see my ticket and ID. Having already gone through security about a million times I can't quite see the point of this interrogation and am really feeling like a wanted criminal. Happily, their suspicions about my vagabond status remain unfounded and they let me through. I resolve to wear a business suit the next time to avoid a repeat scenario.

Eventually I find my seat. It was nice enough. I had a glass of champers, and read my book. But I couldn't help thinking that treatment was more fifth than first class.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Comment is Free

Stat Counter is a fascinating thing. Quite apart from showing how many (or, more realistically, how few) people access your blog it has some neat features, including a 'recent visitor map' that marks their location on the globe with a little red banner. That turns up some surprising results. I had always been under the illusion that the only people that ever read my meanderings were supportive friends in Scotland and the occasional bored Eurocrat.

In fact, it turns out that while my assumed readership is busier filing amendments than previously thought, many people find this blog randomly from all corners of the world. One reader, I was surprised to note, appeared to be sailing along the equator as the flag turned up several times mid-ocean. Likewise, there seems to be a bigger appetite for EU Gossip and Scottish Politics in Qatar and Pakistan than I was expecting....

Still, I can't help but notice that people refrain from commenting on this site, Peter excepted of course ;) - that's blogger solidarity for you!

Constructive feedback, as my boss never hesitates to tell me, is invaluable, so I'd like to know what you think (within the realms of civil discussion of course, as befits a lady...I wouldn't want to invite comment only to have to enable comment moderation) even if it's just that you find the whole thing tedious, pretentious or a waste of valuable ether....I started this because I wanted to write and because you can't work all the hours God sends, ya know? So ideas about topics, style, etc, would be most welcome

Friday, 15 June 2007

GM vs. Bill Gates

Normally forwards belong resolutely in the 'deleted items' folder but I liked this one so much I had to share it with you. Thanks Lisa... It's dedicated to all of us who feel only the deepest love and affection for the way computers have enhanced our lives.

At a recent computer expo (COMDEX), Bill Gates reportedly compared the computer industry with the auto industry and stated,

"If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon."

In response to Bill's comments, General Motors issued a press release stating: "If GM had developed technology like Microsoft, we would all be driving cars with the following characteristics" (and I just love this part):

1. For no reason whatsoever, your car would crash........Twice a day.

2. Every time they repainted the lines in the road, you would have to buy a new car.

3. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway for no reason. You would have to pull to the side of the road, close all of the windows, shut off the car, restart it, and reopen the windows before you could continue. For some reason you would simply accept this.

4. Occasionally, executing a maneuver such as a left turn would cause your car to shut down and refuse to restart, in which case you would have to reinstall the engine.

5. Macintosh would make a car that was powered by the sun, was reliable, five times as fast and twice as easy to drive - but would run on only five percent of the roads.

6. The oil, water temperature, and alternator warning lights would all be replaced by a single "This Car Has Performed An Illegal Operation"warning light.

7. The airbag system would ask "Are you sure?" before deploying.

8. Occasionally, for no reason whatsoever, your car would lock you out and refuse to let you in until you simultaneously lifted the door handle, turned the key and grabbed hold of the radio antenna.

9. Every time a new car was introduced car buyers would have to learn how to drive all over again because none of the controls would operate in the same manner as the old car.

10. You'd have to press the "Start" button to turn the engine off.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Pure Dead...Nonsense

I always suspected that the Scottish Executive was just one big propaganda machine. This has now been confirmed by revelations that Scotland is officially the worst small country in the (developed) world in terms of health, education, employment rate and economic performance. Scotland also fell by one place, to 17th, in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's table of the world's 24 most developed countries.

Given that we are constantly being told how 'pure dead brilliant' we are - not to mention the 'best small country in the world' - this is highly ironic. I'm pleased though. I have sat through far too many self-satisfied debates in Holyrood where MSPs, Ministers and Civil Servants are happier to believe their own rhetoric than look at our country's problems objectively. It's time we stopped covering up our flaws and actively sought solutions from abroad.

According to a report published by FSB Scotland today,

"Scotland is the worst small country in western Europe, and requires urgent action to improve both our life chances and life expectancy...We are already far down the table of comparator countries, and on every count we are travelling in the wrong direction"

Needless to say, Glasvegas retained its status as Scotland's black hole, emerging as the worst performing local authority area in the country, with the poorest record in three of the four indicators: mortality, education and employment.

I'm pretty sure that the only solution to this problem is expel Glasgow from the Union - perhaps it could become some kind of principality like Monaco. It certainly has enough casinos...

Caffeine Shock

I was standing at the coffee bar today waiting for the waiter to turn his gaze in my direction. My Italian colleague seemed more nervous than usual but I put it down to lack of sleep (she'd taken a 5am flight that morning). She said hello to some snowy haired compatriot of hers, and his - numerous - assistants and then seemed to push me to one side. He noticed and said - no problem, les femmes et les enfants d'abord....a real gent.

Not knowing what was going on, and being exhausted, I moved to give him some space, despite his protestations, but didn't think much more of it. Then I ordered, got my coffee, looked around, and espied the milk jug on the other side of the Italians. So of course I asked if he could pass the milk. He seemed like a nice old guy after all. I noticed the look on my colleague's face when he gave it to me. T-O-T-A-L shock. I was puzzled. After all, this is a fairly standard mode of interaction.

I later discovered he is former Italian Prime Minister and President of the European Convention on the Constitution, Lamberto Dini - here for an interparliamentary meeting in advance of next month's summit. Also, it would seem, a very good bloke...

Friday, 8 June 2007

Who Said Belgian Bureaucracy Was Bad??

OK, I take back everything I ever said about Belgian inefficiency. When it comes to gold medals for inaction, the Indian Embassy in Brussels wins hands down. Which I admit is the worst aspects of Belgium and India combined.

I turned up - admittedly a little on the late side - to submit my visa application today. The office is open for two hours in the mornings and little sheltered old me, who's used to moving between European Countries without even presenting a passport, was not ready for the sheer LENGTH of the visa process. I have great sympathy with the Palestinian girl who was waiting with me this morning - and will probably still be camped out there now.

I arrived thinking I'll just give the forms to someone and take off. In fact, this IS the procedure - nothing more complicated - it's just that it requires standing in some very long queues until your number is called. 3 hours into my fast (I hadn't had breakfast, let alone a cup of coffee, but was unable to leave on pain of non re-admission when the door was firmly shut on applicants at 11.30) I entered the inner sanctum.
Here 9 embassy workers are engaged in drinking tea and nattering. One lady, in a fetching pink sari, is dealing with all the applicants in no particular order. One Indian national bangs on the window to complain about his long wait to the guy behind the 'Indian Passports Only' desk. The guy doesn't respond, only lowers the blind and continues to eat his sandwich and consult a newspaper. The plaintiff sits down again resignedly. This is clearly a cultural norm.

When I get to the desk I pre-empt disaster by telling the lady that I called the embassy in advance and brought all the documents they demanded. She looks through the (very large) bundle I provided her with and says 'You'll have to come back with your Belgian resident permit". At which point I had to tell her that it hadn't yet been processed (apparently it takes Belgian bureaucracy several months to make you legal) and these documents were attestations of my employment and residence here, as requested by the Indian embassy officials themselves.

This didn't go down well and the dossier was sent to the boss of bosses for approval. What I didn't know was that the boss of bosses was off for a long lunch in some undisclosed location. Several eons later I was called back to the desk. Permission, it seems, had been granted, but due to my unorthodox documentation there was a 'referral fee' for him casting his eye over it of an extra 32 euros. However I finally exited with the promise of a visa by next week. The whole episode was quite magnificently surreal.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Pimp Your 'Lifestyle'

Call me old fashioned but the following makes me quietly despair. It comes from a flyer for a 'new, exciting after work concept' I received when leaving work recently, aimed at yuppie bureaucrats and social climbers of all sorts.
"The 629 Club is:

  • The ultimate choice for those wanting to socialise and network

  • A fantastic place to have fun, discover lifestyle trends, and dance to international music

  • A place where great deals are made and great deals are offered.

  • You will have the opportunity to relax in our chill-out area

  • order food and drinks from the 629 special menu

  • have 'fun and games' in the social playground"

This is just wrong on so many levels. Fun and games in the social playground??? Is that some kind of sick euphemism? Or, rather, a tacit acknowledgement that networking just isn't, sorry, fun? Or that all socialising is networking on the eurocrat scene? That, therefore, the only way to deal with the banalities of repeating the same conversation 70 times over (Hi, darling, great to meet you. Where do you work? Ah, fascinating. Do you know so-and-so? And how is the report proceeding? Listen, I have a client who can give you a heads up on that if you want. Here's my card. Great, let's meet for coffee". Next victim) is to head straight for the special menu, which, if I read the small print correctly, is code for pasta and stale sandwiches. And. I guess, several crates of blanc de blanc.

But, ok, I can live with that part of the 'concept'. After all, networking is a fact of Brussels life and is how people can proceed to get a good job and stay ahead of the competition. BUT - and this is the big but - it is deeply worrying when networking supercedes real, mutually dependent, human relationships as our pattern for interaction.

By that I guess I mean Kant's dictum that people should be respected as ends in themselves and not as means to ends. Clearly, a culture based on networking, which blurs the boundaries between work and private life, is one in which people aren't treated as individuals. Rather, they are reduced to acting as the nodes, the cogs, in a self-referential and continuously expanding network.

I haven't read any myself, but I was discussing the work of Jean Baudrillard with a friend recently. His thesis is seemingly that the nature of social relations is determined by the forms of communication that a society employs. In the West, these relations are characterised by the simulacra of meaning, For example, you call someone you barely know darling, and feign interest in their work, for your own ends. This is what he has called 'hyper-reality', masking economic considerations with a veneer of human concern. Hence, Club 629 is primarily a place where 'great deals are made and great deals are offered' and 'lifestyle trends' are sold to cultural consumers.

That is what I object to so much about this way of living. Nothing we say or do can have its own essence, or authenticity, when we are constantly encouraged to buy into new marketing strategies that manage how we live and understand our own lives. It voids the world of humanity, of meaning, and of real choices.

However, as Baudrillard portentously noted, the expansion of liberal, parliamentary capitalism and its financial commodification unwittingly sows the seeds of reaction against it by its failure to understand the symbolic side of social existence. Indeed, he (controversially) argued that this is the best framework to understand the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the economy of the United States and its military establishment.

Yet that reaction occurs primarily amongst those who are somehow marginalised - or have absented themselves from - these economic and social networks. Theirs is a reaction grounded in exclusion and rejection. But for those whose lives are generated by, and lived within, this set of symbolic references - even when they are critically aware of its nature, as many in Brussels are - finding an adequate response is difficult. Without destroying a system can we regain authentic human relations (if such a thing ever existed)? Or do we simply put up, shut up, and have another drink?

Monday, 4 June 2007

Gay Pride

Who says gay couples don't make good parents? While debate may be raging about homosexual adoption in human societies, the animal kingdom has shown some sterling successes. Take Carlos and Fernando, a gay flamingo couple at at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire.

WWT spokeswoman Jane Waghorn said: "Fernando and Carlos are a same sex couple who have been known to steal other Flamingos' eggs by chasing them off their nest because they wanted to rear them themselves. "They were rather good at sitting on eggs and hatching them so last week, when a nest was abandoned, it seemed like a good idea to make them surrogate parents.

Jane Waghorn added "They have really bonded with the chick and are very good at being protective parents - finally to one of their own." Thanks for that Edel!