Monthly Archives: November 2018

Searching for meaning?

There is a really interesting long read in today’s Guardian. The article examines how we have weaponised our leisure time in a way that would have been unthinkable to our grandparents (and probably even our parents). Competition and the clamour for public approbation of our sporting, baking, reading, photographic or other (insert hobby here) activities is linked to a decline in the meaning that we find in our professional lives. The argument runs that if you are in a bullshit job (and – to a greater or lesser extent – most of us are), then one way to find meaning in your life is through the things that you do in your leisure time. The ability to share our achievements, exploits, creations, finish times on a whole range of social media platforms serves to both reinforce this sense of meaning, but also increases the pressure that we feel to be better/faster/more creative. Rather than leisure time being a time to rest and recover, we use our hobbies and other discretionary activity as a way to increase our sense of personal worth and value.

There’s a lot in the article that I can identify with. When I’m running (and I’ll be back soon – see blogs passim) I do user a tracker and upload my data to Strava. I like to monitor my progress, but not in comparison to others. I keep my stats to track my own progress – when I run at parkrun or any other run, I’m running with other people, not against them. My competition is the clock. To be honest, it’s the same with this blog. I do like to see whether people are reading, and it’s always interesting to compare which posts attract more or less reader attention. But – to take the daily blogpost through November as an example – what really matters to me is the discipline of completing the challenge. Completing it as a ‘public’ diary rather than simply jotting down some thoughts in an exercise book is part of the way that I hold myself to account.

There’s an interesting section in the Guardian piece about the ways that some people are using YouTube guides and audiobooks to fast-track their social time – listening to audio-books at 1.5x speed, or fast forwarding through on-line videos. This is presented as being something new. I’m less sure about that, though. I still vaguely remember the Readers Digest booklets that were a regular arrival at my grandparents’ house, containing abridged versions of various books. Perhaps in some respects, at least, whilst the technology has undoubtedly changed, the desire to squeeze the most benefit possible from our leisure time is not so different to that experienced by earlier generations.

Getting ready to get fit again

I am pleased to report that my knee is recovering really well from the recent minor operation to tidy up the cartilage. The bag of bolts that had become lodged behind my knee cap has disappeared and I’m completely pain free for the first time in a year. I’m not getting ahead of myself and I know that it will take a while to get back up to full fitness, but I am really optimistic now that I’ll be back at parkrun by Christmas. In fact, such is my confidence, that I’ve just entered four 10k races in South Wales between March and August next year. All things being equal I’ll be pounding the streets of Cardiff in March, and then Newport, Porthcawl and Barry Island as the weather warms up. This will be part of a phased build-up to the half marathon double header of Bristol and Cardiff in late September and early October of 2019.

The race is on!

Social media pros and cons

I happened upon this story on the BBC news website today. It’s a really interesting case study in the benefits and perils of social media. Twitter in particular has a tendency to be incredibly supportive/funny/informative/challenging, and negative/insulting/abusive/ vindictive – all at the same time. It tends not to be a platform that encourages nuance and subtlety – the requirement for brevity (even after the increase in the character limit to 280) often leads to the sacrifice of balance on the altar of impact. But it can also be a brilliant introduction to wider discussions, either through the use of threads of tweets, or the inclusion of links to other websites or blogs where more complex arguments are developed in greater detail. This is the approach that is deployed by some of my favourite users of Twitter, including @davidallengreen and @BarristerSecret.

The former has been a consistently reliable and balanced commentator on the legal and political processes surrounding Brexit, and the unavoidable legalities that EU Treaties and the Article 50 requirements place on the UK government and the EU. He has consistently (and without bias or favour) pointed out the inaccuracies and impossibilities of positions put forward by Leavers, Remainers and (occasionally) even the EU itself. His predictions of the complexity of the withdrawal process and the dangers of thinking that it would either speedy or straightforward have been consistently proved right.

@BarristerSecret is a practising barrister who works extensively in the criminal justice arena and who highlights the absurdity of cuts to the courts and wider criminal justice system, and the appalling impact that austerity has had on justice for both victims and those accused of committing crimes. In addition, Tweets from the Secret Barrister are an essential go-to whenever the popular press picks up on an apparently lenient sentence or some other alleged calumny by either a judge or lawyer in a criminal case. The patient explanation of sentencing guidelines and their application in cases that attract tabloid fury, provide an invaluable insight into the constraints within which judges work, and the (often) unintended consequences of poorly conceived, politically motivated guidance.

Twitter can also be spectacularly entertaining. This beauty comes from Brian Bilston, my favourite pop poet, and coincides with the launch of the latest series of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. It seems a suitable way to sign off today’s post!

November 20th : a red, amber, green and black letter day

Sometimes, I start writing entries on this blog with no real plan for where it might take me. Today is one of those days, but it’s been a fascinating journey, and I hope you’ll enjoy it too…

Traffic lights as we know them are 95 years old today. The patent for three position traffic lights was awarded in the US to Garrett Morgan on this day in 1923. The first traffic light system had been installed in London in 1868, but it was Morgan who came up with the idea of adding the amber light to better control traffic at busy junctions. Morgan sold the rights to his invention to General Electric for £40,000 (equivalent to about £500,000 in today’s money).

Morgan’s is a fascinating life, straight out of the American Dream handbook, made all the more remarkable by the fact that he was the black son of former slaves. Born in Kentucky in the final quarter of the 19th Century, he moved north to Ohio searching for work and took jobs as a handyman and then sewing machine repairman, before opening his own repair shop. Such was his success, that he expanded into clothing stores and then a newspaper – the Cleveland Call and Post, one of the most prominent of the black newspapers in the US.

The Call and Post featured prominently the Scottsboro case in 1931, which led to Supreme Court rulings on the conduct of criminal trials that remain in place to this day. The case was highly racially charged, involving an allegation of rape by two white women against 9 African American teenagers in the state of Alabama. The case is now widely cited as an example of a dreadful miscarriage of justice.

The Call and Post was facing bankruptcy and dissolution in 1998, but was saved from the brink by boxing promoter Don King. King is one of the most flamboyant and controversial characters in world boxing. He promoted the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila – two of the three bouts contested by Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier; and more recently, he was responsible for charting the meteoric rise of Mike Tyson, before an equally dramatic decline in his protogees fortunes. King himself has twice been charged with manslaughter – on the first occasion he was acquitted when the court accepted that he was seeking to prevent the victim from robbing him. The second case was much less justifiable, and King spent nearly four years in prison as a result.

More recently, King landed himself in hot water when he used the n word while introducing Donald Trump at a presidential campaign event at a Black church in Cleveland in 2016. It’s perhaps unfortunate that there isn’t a system of warning lights for Republican speakers at political rallies. It would save them all a lot of unnecessary trouble!



International Men’s Day

It’s International Men’s Day today, apparently. This is a new one on me, but it has been running on 19th November annually for a number of years now. In the UK, the focus is on promoting male health and wellbeing, and in particular mental wellbeing, with a focus on the high rates of male suicide, and promotion of support services available to men. Whether there’s really a need for an International Men’s Day in a world where – for the most part – men’s rights are rarely subject to the same abuses as those suffered  by women, is a highly debateable point. However, I guess that any opportunity to highlight the range of services available to men (and women) to support mental health ought to be applauded.

At a much more trivial level, International Men’s Day this year coincides with a day off work unwell for me. I have contracted that vicious and virulent disease – man flu. It strikes indiscriminately and knocks victims for six, leading to long periods of self-pity, and consumption of large quantities of paracetamol and Covonia cough medicine. I have spent much of the day putting my affairs in order, and if there’s no blog tomorrow, you’ll know what’s happened…

Diversion Therapy

Let’s be honest, there’s not much to be happy about in the news at the moment. It’s Sunday. The sun is shining (at least in Cardiff) and I’m going down with a cold (it’s probably flu but I’ll get no sympathy here). I need a bit of cheering up, so I’ve trawled the internet to find some reasons to be cheerful.

First up, this story about the mysterious malfunctioning of a car park barrier in a North Yorkshire country park. When staff opened up the workings to try to find out what the problem was, they discovered this little character curled up fast asleep inside.

wood mouse

Keep the noise down!

The wood mouse was carefully removed and returned to a safer (and more natural) setting, although presumably one without the added attraction of CPU powered central heating!

Next up, this wonderful story of a Japanese museum that has been running a two year cat-and-mouse (ahem!) battle to keep two cats out of the building. We have recently begun sharing our house with a cat of our own (and no – I can’t believe I just wrote that either!), but I can vouch for the fact that once a feline has set their sights on something, no amount of gentle admonition or cajoling will deter them from their path! There’s no doubt that Flo (our cat) will make an appearance in this blog at some point before the end of the month. In the meantime, I commend Ken-chan and Go-chan on their resilience and determination; and also the museum that’s spotted the commercial opportunities in the story and gone with them full-tilt!

Finally – news of a dream job for anyone who – like me – prefers the trimmings to the turkey on Christmas day. A Manchester pub is looking for somebody to taste-test the chef’s novel twists on pigs in blankets – the sausage-wrapped-in-bacon accompaniment to turkey. Now I don’t know what Christmas dinner is like in your house, but we can’t cook enough pigs in blankets in this house to meet the demand on the day (and then as snacks for at least the three days following). The amazing this about the Manchester job opportunity is that, not only do you get to try out these amazing savoury snacks, but they’ll also pay you £500 for the privilege. The only drawback? You have to be a Manchester resident to be considered for the job.

Have a lovely Sunday, dear Reader – and try to find the sunshine amongst the gloom of today’s main news stories!

What gives?

The annual BBC Children in Need telethon took place across the TV and radio network yesterday (Friday 17th November 2018). Over £50m was pledged for children’s charities in the UK during the day – a record for the event that has been running since 1980. Indeed, yesterday’s total took the cumulative money raised by the charity across its 38 years to over £1 billion. This is an incredible achievement and there are literally thousands of organisations that have been able to develop, deliver and sustain projects for and with young people in the UK that would otherwise never have happened without access to this funding. It may seem odd that children living in one of the world’s most advanced economies have to rely on charitable funding to deliver services that you might think ought to be the responsibility of government in a wealthy, democratic society; but another story from yesterday’s news reveals the impact that 40 years of more or less neo-liberal economic policy (and a self-imposed austerity programme in the past 5 years) has had on the poorest people in the UK. The UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty released his assessment of poverty in the UK and concluded that : “Levels of child poverty are “staggering” and 1.5 million people were destitute at some point in 2017.” While the gap between rich and poor in the UK continues to grow, the need for appeals like Children in Need will continue. It’s frankly bizarre that we continue to take pride in how much is raised each year, rather than rising up in fury at an economic system that makes charity necessary to prop up essential services for those who are least able to fend for themselves. To be clear, this is not a criticism of Children in Need which is doing fantastic work. It’s just a shame that it has to.

Also catching my eye today was this story in the Guardian. At first sight, the account of the homeless man who donated his last $20 to a woman stranded without petrol in a strange city, shows the best of human kindness. That the woman then created a GoFundMe page for the man as a way of thanking him and creating a fund to allow him to get back on his feet, appeared to be about all that is good and uplifting about the human condition. The fact that $400,000 was raised for the man is an indication of the touching effect that the story had on those who read about it on social media and in the following newspaper coverage. 

Except it was completely untrue. There was no late night drama at the petrol station; and whilst its true that the man was homeless, he has never seen a dime of the $400,000. The man, the woman and her partner have all now been arrested on charges of fraud and obtaining money by deception. Ironically, the authorities were alerted to the case when the man sought to sue the couple for the money raised. It’s not clear what’s happened to the $400k, but it does seem as though it has disappeared.

There is no doubt that social media and on-line communications and donation channels have revolutionised the way that charities and charitable causes are able to raise money quickly, easily and with minimum administration costs. But as with all things on-line, their speed and ease of use also make them attractive to people with less altruistic intentions. I guess the lesson from the US case is to treat on-line appeals from unrecognised individuals and organisations in the same way that we would people randomly shaking tins in the street. It’s a shame that that’s the case, but its probably the only way that we can be sure that our donations will truly end up where we think they’re going.