Complicity (a Bankable novel)

It’s an old novel, so old, in fact, that it was published in the same year I was born, but Complicity by Ian Banks is indeed a fascinating book. It manages to be funny and frightening as well as intellectually and morally challenging, as it follows a miserably hedonistic journalist, and his involvement in a series on bizzare attacks.  It is more than just a thriller though. It tests our views on justice, passes comment on politics (which show a remarkable relevance to today), and questions normal views about justice and morality.  In addition, it is an interesting character piece, as it explores Cameron Colley, the journalist protagonist’s, personal history and views from the first person.  It can be shocking though. The attacks that form the centre of the novel are detailed in second person, making the graphic descriptions of violence very unsettling. However, that’s the point. Not only to shock, but also to make the reader feel complicit in what is happening, to feel at least partially responsible.  This, and the nature of consent, are key themes in the book. Are we complicit in the evils of politicians and corporations because we allow them to happen? What can you really consent to? Why is this important?  These questions are posed to the reader, and less subtly, at times asked directly by characters.  The second half is thrilling, with the resolution ringing in your ears after you finish.

I could go into more depth about each section of the book, and what was particularly interesting, but I don’t want to. I went into this book relatively blind, and that meant every section was surprising. Ian Banks, or Ian M Banks (the name he uses when he publishes sci fi), is a writer of considerable range and talent, and his recent death is a great loss for British literature.

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Just my opinion…

It has been said that opinions are like arseholes. Everyone has one, but it’s not acceptable to go around sticking yours in other people’s faces.

This is all very well, but as far as I’ve noticed no one seems to have a really high regard of their rectum, get it out at parties, and then, when it goes unappreciated say “hey, it’s just my arsehole. You gotta live with it”.  This doesn’t happen to me often, and I’ve never really felt the urge to do it myself. It is, perhaps, a poor analogy, in that sense.

Someone’s views make up an important part on their personality. Many people define themselves by them.  I wish they would be less loud though.

I know I can hardly talk, me with my whole internet waffle stream here, but  people seem to think anybody wants their opinion on anything. Frankly I don’t care that you don’t like my t-shirt, or which book-to-film adaptation was least shit, or what the recent discovery of a new subatomic particle will mean for the financial markets of East Asia. Goddammit. Are you an expert in the field of t-shirt design?! Well are you?!

“It’s just opinion” is one of the most annoying things to hear in a conversation. Seriously.  If the person who said it really believed it, you probably wouldn’t get to a point where they needed to say it.  Them saying it assumes that all opinions are equal and should be heard equally, but that they are all equally irrelevant. No food is better than others. No music. No films. McDonalds is on the same level as Michel Roux. Mozart with Muse. I find that hard to swallow. It’s worse when it is simply, plainly, objectively (and I mean this without the ambiguity I have brought to it in previous discussions) wrong.  You can prove something is wrong scientifically. You can almost prove something is right. With established theories it is not down to personal opinions on the evidence what the conclusion is: It is down to reasoning, and reasons. They might be overturned at any point by new evidence, but the facts aren’t subjective. It is not my opinion that evolution works. There are thousands of reasons to believe it does, and none to believe it doesn’t.  It is not my opinion homeopathy doesn’t work. Many fair clinical trials have shown it does no better than placebo. Why do people think it’s ok just to say, “It’s my opinion”, and think that makes their ridiculous indefensible statement right?

I think the idea that everyone’s opinion is equally valid is ridiculous (and I understand the irony in me making statement like that). I will trust an expert on a subject more than I would trust pretty much anyone else.  On an academic subject, be it science or sociology, they will have spent far more time studying that subject, they will know more interpretations of it, they will probably have done research on it, and they will know the vast set of situations that their knowledge applies to far better than some kid in his room (hi). Personal examples are almost unilaterally irrelevant in an argument (the main situation when they’re not are absolutes. The statement “all French people eat snails and love it” is very easily contradicted by your mate Francois who doesn’t. The statement “most French people eat snails and love it” is far harder to argue against without evidence. Incidentally, I know nothing about French people’s attitudes to snails.).

In terms of the arts, or entertainment, or whatever you want to describe them as, I will trust a critic’s judgement of quality far higher than I would an imdb rating. There are a lot of stupid people in the world. This is well demonstrated by the inexplicable popularity of Transformers and whatever autotuned nonsense is in vogue right now. Of course, you have to form your own opinions rather than just mirroring others, but it makes sense to listen to someone who has a wide experience and knowledge of a subject to get a view on what is “good” or not. Rather than some moron who likes shit blowing up.  Now, I should be clear. I differentiate between people’s personal tastes and how people view the quality of a thing. Something can be good, and you not like it. I enjoyed Highlander, but I know it was a bad film. I didn’t enjoy There Will Be Blood at all, but I could see it was beautifully shot and very well acted (Please don’t use this as a cross-section on my ability to judge films. I like some good films I promise).  Can quality be objective? Can you describe something as objectively better? I’m not sure. But I know that taste and quality are not something to get mixed up in a discussion.

I think my final point links to everything I have already said.  The use of reasoning. You can make unqualified statements if you want, but they will be meaningless to anyone else without justification. Do you believe something?  Do you like something? Why? By explaining yourself there’s a chance of sharing this with others, and of them agreeing with you.  Man, I might even respect your high opinion of  Transformers.  It is your opinion, and it doesn’t need to be justified to anyone, or indeed told to anyone. But if you must get it out, let them know why you think that.

And for God’s sake, don’t have the wrong opinion.

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On Guns, and their idiotic harm.

The recent shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, were horrific. 20 very young children and 6 adults were shot dead by a 20 year old boy, in a school.  Since 2009, there have been 4 mass shootings in the US.  It is pretty clear that there is something terribly wrong to allow this to happen.

Obama gave an incredibly moving speech on the Newtown incident, which you should watch. You can here, or for a shorter version, here are some highlights. It’s not often you see genuine emotion from a politician, but when Obama says that “we’re not doing enough. We have to change.” you can see he believes it, that he is sick that the country he lives in should treat murder as such a routine thing.

This incident highlights a desperately important issue in American politics: Guns.  The rights of individuals to be able to carry a tool that can kill people on demand (or as the Onion calls it: Right To Own Handheld Device That Shoots Deadly Metal Pellets At High Speed).

The US is a great country.  It really is. So many of the world’s best writers, thinkers, artists and scientists came from the States. Batman is American. So are the Drums. Pretty much every American I have met is a lovely person. Problem is, in so many ways, their politics seems entrenched in the 18th century. I know these cases do not represent the country as a whole, but a 1st World, fully developed, purportedly liberal country that has such a big anti-abortion, pro-execution, homophobic, creationist lobby just makes no sense. But these have much less power than the pro-death-stick brigade.

It is stupid to say that the ready availability of guns does not lead to the higher use of guns.  It’s just moronic.

It is true guns will still be available on the black market or whatever even if guns were banned, but that doesn’t mean that it renders a ban useless.  I don’t know where I could get a gun here (I live in the UK). I don’t know how to start looking for one.  It is thus far harder for me to go on a spontaneous rampage, or to shoot someone I dislike, or to hold up a shop, or to shoot myself.  I could well try other means to achieve the same ends, but there are fewer more efficient ways of killing someone than using a machine designed for the purpose.

Guns do not prevent murder, probably because everyone has guns. Here are some stats from CIVITAS showing that the US has one of the highest homicide rate in the developed world (though the assault rate is lower than England and Wales).  Here is another, from an Oxford University journal (admittedly from 1998) that shows the US as having the highest rate of gun related deaths (look at page 4). So whether it was someone shooting a mate when out hunting, dropping his gun, forgetting the safety’s on, shooting a guy dead for breaking into your car, leaving it on the side when a kid’s around or going out and deciding to kill someone, guns definitely contribute to death.

As I said, denying it is dumb as fuck.

Of course there are more factors. Of course.  There will be lots of reasons for things happening. Thing is, “these things” wouldn’t happen without guns in the first place.

Next thing argued by the death-spewing-phallus advocate groups is the individuals “right” to bear arms. I won’t go into any great dissection of the constitution, as I lack knowledge, experience and interest in it.  However, it should be clear: this “right” is not an inherent or inalienable human right, and it shouldn’t be treated as such.  If a right infringes upon another’s rights, especially rights as important as their rights to life and security (Article 3 of the Universal Declaration), then frankly it isn’t worth a damn. It’s not worth it. It’s not worth campaigning to protect your “right” to carry a death dispensing penis, for no real purpose. Your “right” to carry an assault rifle will endanger yourself, your friends and your children, as it’s the same for every Tom, Dick and psychopath in the country. And lets face it, the right to bear arms is not what’s stopping Obama waging war on the American populace. Don’t claim it is. Seriously guys.

So, even if a ban on a penis substitute that ejaculates lead is impractical, or politically difficult, regulation is necessary.  No one else should die.

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“Why so serious?” “That joke isn’t funny anymore.”

When I started this blog, I kind of wanted to be a bit funny. Like Charlie Brooker’s later ones. The ones that weren’t about crap tv (though those arguably were the funniest).  I sat down and started to write and thought “Christ, this is hard”, and promptly gave up funniness, instead covertly inserting it into my articles (posts?) like racism in the telegraph.  If at some point you found these attempts at humour and choked on their facetiousness, I apologise. I know I find it irritating when someone comes up with something that’s REALLY FUNNY ALRIGHT.

Thing is, comedy’s a freaking minefield. Not a serious one, understand. The worst consequence is looking like a dick, but for me, sheltered as I am, that’s pretty horrific. To be a “funnyman” (for want of a better word), you need to be an incredible egotist. The sort of person that never shuts up when everyone should be listening to your hilarious story. To quote the ever insightful Bo Burnham:

Have you ever been to a birthday party for children
And one of the children won’t stop screaming
Cuz he’s just a little attention attractor
When he grows up to be a comic or actor

Of course, he also said lots of things. Mainly puns, mainly offensive. But often funny.  The comedian’s assumption is that someone will pay to hear them talk, or read their book.  Actually, it’s simpler than that. They assume someone wants to spend precious time to watch their youtube video, or read their blog. Why? God knows. Maybe their parents didn’t give them any attention. Maybe they gave them too much attention? Dunno. Think about it though. They’re dicks.

Then there’s what to be funny about. Many people do the whole Michael McIntyre thing, observational humour, anecdotes, the like. Apart from simply how many people are doing this now there is the issue I’ve stated above. You are just witnessing someone prattle. “My Dad said the other day…” I don’t know your Dad! You can witness your friends prattle, but about people you actually know. It is far funnier hearing about your mate up the corridor who got his head stuck in the cupboard than a more ornate story about Josh Widdicombe’s friend with a fish in a cupboard. Plus, is it true? What is their input? Or false? Then they lied! Bastards. Like with improv. Improv is rarely as funny as stand up, but it gets away with more because it’s genuine. I am disappointed when Whose Line Is It Anyway looks rehearsed.  So should you.

Then, offensive humour. I walk a fine (entirely personal, and thus probably hideously arbitrary) line on this topic. First, nothing should be out of bounds for humour. Second, you should not be offensive.  This might sound contradictory. You are probably right. I think the intention behind the joke is important, and you can tell this from the joke itself. It’s the difference between a joke on race and a racist joke; a joke about the differences between men and women and a sexist joke; a joke on a serious incident and a joke that trivialises it. Though often, trivialising a serious event is a coping method for people.  I think wait for them to say something first though. Don’t tell your amputee friend you’re taking him out to “get legless”, unless he said something about “rolling out”. Still, from the amount of times comedy has been misunderstood, even when something is clearly a joke, airing on the side of caution is often a good idea. (And I’m not talking about Top Gear, for fuck’s sake. That’s either genuinely offensive or nastily cynically offensive. The “jokes” are simply choosing a subject and laughing at it. They’re not even witty. If you laugh at them, then you become like them. Unpleasant. I rather meant Stewart Lee, who often gives comic disclaimers at the end of his rants. He’s a comedian who takes comedy very seriously.)

I haven’t auditioned for my University’s comedy club yet. Partially for the reasons above. Mainly because I’m not very funny. And quite lazy. But mainly the unfunniness.

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A Degree Of Responsibility

It seems everybody’s writing about University now.  This is for the obvious reason that lots of people have gone, or are going, really, really soon, to the aforementioned havens of learning (and drinking). The University will give you a fresher’s guide, as will your college/halls, as will your sixth-form, as will the Police, as will each member of your family, as will every newspaper you choose to read. Including the Sun, which has a touch of irony about it.  Even the very friends which left a week ago act the grand veterans of higher education, and give you advice, that by and large, you neither want nor need (incidentally, a fish bowl does not come with a fish. Remember this when you are looking for a present for your nephew). The advice from the other (possibly more reputable) sources invariably comes down to “washing up rotas, the best thing since toasters?” and “don’t drink too much, you saucy dogs!”  Because we are imbeciles, and we’re not used to thinking, as we haven’t really done it in 3 months. Instead we drank (presumably as practice), played video games, moped over the friends and girl/boy/?-friends we’d miss, and took on menial jobs so we could actually afford to eat next year.

It does seem odd to me that the act of willingly ingesting poison to make social events more tolerable (ie. getting pissed) is not only prevalent in a place of learning, but is seen as a secondary feature.  It’s probably got something to do with hoards of young people going off to live on their own. If you put a kid on their own in a room full of chocolate they will eat all the chocolate, and I suppose for all the talk of independence and adulthood and having your own potato peeler, we are still kids. I’m going to University at the end of the week, and I am frankly terrified.  All this talk of buying kitchen implements and contents insurance makes my blood run cold.  Of course I’m excited for it, but by Harry it’s a big step.  Just one year ago I had to send an email to let my teacher know that I got poorly, now I’m having to arrange my own vaccinations for possibly life threatening diseases.  That’s fucking adulthood. Pretty soon I’ll be drinking Ovaltine in an armchair, complaining that “music isn’t what it used to be”. Oh. Wait.

To be fair, Uni students are pretty protected from the big bad world. There are welfare officers, tutor groups and a general dormy sensibility, that kind of makes it a bit like a big ol’ summer camp specifically for adults who like reading. It’s certainly not preparation for reality. All the financial advice I had as a child told me debt was bad, and I should avoid it when I grow up, whereas everyone in University is thousands of pounds in debt! We don’t actually have a choice!

Nevertheless, it’ll inevitably be worth it.  You will spend upwards of 3 years of your life immersed purely in what you are most interested in. You will meet loads of people who are just like you.  At the end you can get the job you wanted.  Well, possibly. With the current rate of qualification inflation, in 3 years time a 2:1 in Mathematics might be able to get you a job in Burger King if you’re lucky.
Good luck everyone, and if you’re going straight into work, well done for not being a lazy slackarse.

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Don’t give a squat

This is in response to my very own response blogger, and friend, Iwanttheconch:
Squatting is symptomatic of a much larger problem, that is, people without decent shelter.  Homeless people.  Most of the time, people on the street have nowhere to go, and to criminalise them for trying to find shelter from the elements (as opposed to exercising their right to get pneumonia) is callous and stupid, unless the government has implemented decent homeless shelters (which they haven’t).

By definition, you cannot squat in an occupied house, so this law protects the privilege of the wealthy to own land they don’t live on at the expense of the most vulnerable.

I agree that squatters can do damage, and they should be dealt with accordingly, and that they should move when asked (by the police or homeowners, I am not going to defend their “right” to live on someone else’s property). Furthermore, the government cannot be seen to encourage trespass.

But giving someone a criminal record, for what can only be described as a crime of desperation, seems extreme.  Move them on, charge them for vandalism if you want, but for crying out loud, get them somewhere to stay!

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Not really a sporting chance.

I have long considered Sport, like dairylea and Queen, to be both boring and marginally unpleasant. However, I have steadily come to realise that maybe my judgement was too harsh…maybe.  Of course, the idea of people being paid vast quantities of money for effectively playing games does grind somewhat with my sense of what is good in the world, but if people want to pay them for it then you have to hand it to the crafty buggers.
I enjoyed the bits of the olympics I saw immensely! I didn’t watch all of it, I didn’t even watch a decent percentage (I’m not a crazy person). Most of what I saw was in the background while I did other, much more important things. Like reading webcomics.  But that’s not to say that I wasn’t impressed by the swimmers, cyclists, gymnasts, weightlifters and pentathletes I saw, to whom the best comparison I can make are Superheroes. Visually. Batman could do all those things and more, but hey, he’s not real, and his build’s like that guy on the parallel bars. The novelty wore off by the time I reached the Paralympics, which is a real shame, because I’ve only heard good things about the amazing feats the Paralympians pulled off.  It brought up questions about the true meanings of words like “disabled” because people in wheelchairs often kicked more arse than anyone else.  And George Osborne got booed (well, if you have the name, face and behaviour of spiderman villain….), which if you look up on youtube, is hilarious.

I also follow the cycling, which, regardless of what anyone else wants to say, is the most brutal sport in the world which isn’t illegal somewhere. I’ve seen a man fall down a mountain to land with barbed wire between his legs, and get back on his bike.  I’ve seen a pile up of 20 people, each going at 30mph, which broke a guy’s collarbone. He finished the race. The races last all day! Across hundreds of miles! It makes a footballer’s grazed knee and one and a half hours look pathetic (Frankly, so does playing football when you’re 10, where the rules consist broadly of “no hand-balls” and “no weaponry”).  It’s also fortunate, because it’s a sport the UK is good at.

Unlike…football. That massive corporate preoccupation of this country which is only rendered more inexplicable by just how bad we are at it.  We haven’t won the World Cup since 1966. That was when my Dad was born. Seriously? We’re not getting any better!  Why would you watch some overpaid children kick a ball around a massive field for nearly 2 hours when you know we will lose?!  But hey, I play video games, and blog, so I suppose I can’t talk about futility (but FIFA? What the fuck!?)

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Should We Kill People?

Should we kill people who do not follow the law?

This post is not on a topic that I’ve had a lot of controversy discussing before, but I realise that it is actually fiercely fought across the world.  I think I will play devil’s advocate with myself a little, in order to get a feel of internal debate going here!

There are many things to say in favour of the death penalty. With repeat offenders of serious crimes it could be seen as the only solution there is for dealing with them, short of keeping them locked up forever.  It could save significant amounts of money, given that the government would not have to pay the living costs of criminals, and as prisons are getting over-full anyway, it could save space.  What’s more, it is a powerful deterrent (there’s no coming back from being dead), and, for the more scarily vindictive, some people deserve to die.

Apart from the very last point, I am inclined to sympathise with this line of argument, because it makes a handful of decent points (I understand I made them, but work with me here).  However, I personally am vehemently opposed to the death penalty.

I think that punishments should be preventative: in order to discourage people from committing crimes, and to stop people who are likely to commit crimes from committing them again.  I do not think that people should be punished simply for “doing wrong”, as I would struggle to see what would be the ideal end result, if not one of the above.  In that sense, I don’t think some people “deserve” punishment on any inherent level, and thus some people do not, fundamentally, deserve to die.

I believe that killing is wrong. I imagine that this is a view held by a lot of people.  I myself think that there are few things, short of rape and torture, that are worse, morally. If we were to institutionalise killing, then that normalises it to an extent.  If we are to kill people, how can we really take the moral high ground about lesser crimes such as stealing cds or smashing windows?  Would revenge killings count as murder, and how could we justify saying that if it is? A justice system should be trustworthy and respected, and that is hard to achieve if they get their hands dirty in such a way.  It’s a joke going through twitter now: “What’s the death penalty? Killing people that kill people to show people that killing people is wrong.”

However, compared to all the obvious practical advantages, should purely moral objections be given such weight?  I would say yes, as I believe that you shouldn’t put prioritise material gains over (as I see them) such fundamental moral ideas.  But what is more, there are serious practical problems with the death penalty. A significant flaw is one of the advantages I mentioned above: when you kill someone, you can’t just take it back.  The guilty verdict must be absolutely irrefutable. That is rarely the case.  Furthermore, execution rarely acts as a much stronger deterrent than prison, countries and eras with death penalties simply do not have lower crime rates (there are other factors involved, of course, but this shows the effect is small).

So it appears I can’t persuade myself otherwise. I still think the death penalty is pointless and barbaric.  Others are welcome to have their own opinions on the subject. As long as they do not become a member of government. Or vote.  Or speak.

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A Taxing Approach To Breaking The Laws

The constant clashes between tax avoiding millionaires, benefit cheats, and the sanctimonious and often corrupt politicians that condemn them could well go on for centuries, if by then we haven’t come up with a better way of paying for our roads and health service. There has always been a gross disparity between the consequences for those involved, and those with the least, and stealing the least, being dealt with most harshly.

Tax avoidance isn’t illegal, though costing the states billions in potential income. The excuse given to leaving the loopholes open are usually along the lines of “there are too many” and the impending fear of losing all the potential tax from all the rich that would leave as a result. The former can be dismissed with a stern “just deal with it. It’s your job.”, but the latter does provide an interesting idea. Companies in the UK make lots of profit, as we are a country of ravenous consumers. Would they really leave simply because they had to pay some more tax? If instead, the alternative was to operate from a different country (such as…Luxembourg), then that just means we’d have to make regulations regarding that (this also seems like a useful job for the EU). The situation does not appear to be that insurmountable. If instead, it’s conniving individuals who want to leave the country if they have to pay a fair amount of tax, then I don’t think it’s too harsh to say that we’re probably better off without them. However, it’s not just avoidance that is granted amnesty by the government, but also illegal evasion, if you’re rich enough. In 2010, Vodafone was let off £6bn in tax (even after it was declared they had broken laws by not paying it).  It’s true, Cameron did criticise Jimmy Carr for avoiding tax, but he employed Phillip Green, tax avoider extraordinaire, as a Government advisor.  This is largely illustrative of the current government’s attitude towards paying tax.

Moving on to figures of government, where there does seem to be a “protect yer own” attitude prevailing, notably with the issue of David Laws, which has been circulating social networks recently:

It’s true, looking deeper into the situation makes him look a bit less like greedy scum, as there is the personal matter of him wanting to keep his sexuality private, and as soon as discovered he started to pay the over-claimed amount back.  The subsequent loss of outrage isn’t helped by the group complaining about him being so homophobic (It’s not that he’s gay, but…) However, it doesn’t change the fact that his actions were no less deliberately misleading than that of Carol Irving, and he has had very little consequences for his actions. Even feeling all sympathetic and liberal (as I am often prone to do), this sort of comparison does not look favourable at all, and that fact that he is returning to government is quite ridiculous.  Surely, for society to run smoothly, we need consistent punishments for crimes?

What this country, and indeed the whole world, needs more equality. Not only in the level of income people receive (which is my usual harping point), but in their punishments, criticism and consequences.
Bit more to read on this subject:

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Just Wittering On

So, relatively recently I’ve tried to work out Twitter. I’m sure that makes me sound like an old man (“Ahh, someone’s just ‘tweeted’ on ‘the twitter’! What does that say…er…goodness, I can’t understand a word…”), but as a social medium it is nothing short of unfathomable.  It lacks the personal-ness that facebook can claim with its myriad privacy settings, chat options and questionnaires (everyone loves questionnaires) on your favourite books, films, sandwiches etc…  Twitter isn’t easy or practical to use for personal communication (or it shouldn’t be…you shouldn’t tell the whole world about what you’re doing tomorrow). It is telling that with Twitter you have followers, not friends, as that is basically what you do. You say shit. And sometimes somebody listens.  Sometimes somebody even says the same shit as you, and everyone feels all warm about it.

However, due to how short each tweet is (though lord knows, it’s a horrific word), it’s hard to say anything worthwhile.  It’s not like a blog, in which you can expand your ideas and justify them and to a degree make them valuable in their own right: It’s microblogging, so you have to cut out all the bits which make your point interesting. They’re left as just that, a point in the endless void of the internet.

And so! Everybody loves it.

So anyway, I’ve got twitter, guys.  @Igottheconch.

Follow me…(as the lion said to the naive lamb)

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