Thursday, 28 December 2017

Does how you spend your money matter?

Every pound or euro or dollar we spend is a vote on how we want the world around us to be.

This is not, of course, my original thought but it is one that requires regular restatement  against the constant counter narrative that is simply seen as normal.

It is easy to buy from Amazon. We all do it; it is easy and fast and cheap, so why not? Well, just think about what money is, and where it goes. Amazon are cheap partly due to the economies of scale and low overheads, but more so because of the power that they wield in the marketplace.. For instance, with books the standard agreement is that they sell at a 60% discount, and the publisher does not allow other retailers to undercut that price. Of course, that cut doesn't come from Amazon's profits, but from those of the publishers and authors, which is largely the reason that the average UK-based writer makes around £11, 000 per year from their work.

So the vast amount of your spend with Amazon goes to the company, not to those who produce the products it sells - and, of course, we all know how little Amazon pays in tax or staff wages.

Big chain stores are a little better. While they generally have a similar profile in terms of passing costs on to producers (see the various reports on how the major supermarket chains screw over farmers) , and often in paying taxes, but at least they provide jobs in the community in which they are based.

Best of all is the old mantra: buy local, as much as is possible. Spending £100 in a chain store mostly goes to the overpaid CEO (by definition, executives are grossly overpaid in the modern economy, with few exceptions) and shareholders, but £100 at a local hardware shop goes to the family that own it buying food and supplies, ideally in other local shops, strengthening the local economy in a virtuous circle. Maybe paying local craftspeople, or for repairs from local tradespeople.

Sometimes these decisions are fairly easy. I'm lucky enough to live in a city with many, many fantastic small - often family-run - restaurants, cafes, takeaways and sandwich shops, so I've not been to a chain eatery in years. I made the choice not to - but, let's face it, the places I frequent serve far better food than KFC or Nando's or Zizzi, and are often cheaper. If you're going to a local butcher or greengrocer, you're probably paying more than you would at Tesco or Aldi, but the quality is probably higher. But many of the groceries - the dry goods, the cleaning products, the toilet paper - are almost certainly going to be a damned sight more expensive at your local corner shop, and they'll have a poorer selection. And you might not even have the choice.

These and many other factors make it easier to shop online or at big supermarkets. While the greengrocer and butcher are closed by 6 pm (if you're lucky) the supermarket is likely open until at least 10, and the internet never shuts. But it is worth making the effort, rather than slipping into the most convenient way of doing things, because it's better for everyone in the long term. And it isn't all or nothing. I've fallen back to doing most of my shopping at one supermarket or other (Aldi is just so cheap and convenient...), mostly through working hours and a lack of planning. But I haven't given up.

So, if you're going for coffee look around from the Costa and find that little independent place around the corner, which is probably cosier and friendlier - and definitely has better coffee. Seek out that local Italian restaurant and get that warm welcome feeling when they recognise you on your second visit. And maybe, on the Saturday drive to the supermarket see if you can drop by some local shops or the town market and enrich your shopping experience.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Are immigrants making miners work til they are 75? Response to a Facebook post.

I meant to write this a few weeks ago when someone - a family member, actually - shared on Facebook a meme showing two pictures. One was a group of smiling white men wearing overalls and mining helmets and the second a photo of a large-ish family of brown-skinned, possibly muslim, people. The text suggested that the first group were being forced to work to 75 because the second group were sponging off the state.

I’m hardly on Facebook, and don’t think this person makes a habit of sharing this kind of thing, so was ‘lucky’ it was posted just as I popped on for five minutes. I commented with an exasperated “what utter bollocks!” and left it at that. I probably should have been a bit more constructive, but it was such a ridiculous argument (for want of a better word) I was just annoyed. The poster did quickly respond, asking if he wasn’t entitled to his opinion. I replied that of course he was, but that there was a difference between things which are opinions and things which were verifiably true or false, and this was both the latter and false. Again, I should probably have offered an explanation, so here it is.

I will leave aside the miners - of whom there are precious little left in the UK, and who are certainly not required to work to 75. I will assume they were simply being used to represent the “ordinary working Brit”, although that does bring into question why a group of white men was used but, again, I shall leave that aside.

More important are the false implications and assumptions of the brown, muslim-looking family. There are many, and I doubt I’ll cover all of them.

The points I’ll be making are about the value of immigrants, and are all based on hard fact. Not feelings, not ‘fake news’, not massaged statistics, but well-documented, consistent, incontrovertible facts.

Immigrants claim a lower proportion of benefits than any other segment of the population. These are people who have had the wherewithal to travel hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles. They have already worked hard are certainly not expecting an easy life. When allowed to, they work. As a group, they work hard. They set up far more businesses as a proportion than do native born people. There is a reason the ‘Indian corner shop’ is a cliche.

Linked to this, immigrants pay taxes.So, not only do they not drain the national resources, they actually add to the pot of money from which these resources come.

“Ah!” (I hear someone say) “But that is because they take jobs from honest, British workers!” Well, person who I have heard say that, no; you fundamentally misunderstand how economies work. Most of our economy is based on the consumption of goods and services. Whether it is using utilities (paying for gas, electricity, broadband, etc), buying cars or furniture or groceries or a bagel and coffee from the sandwich shop down the road, this puts money into the economy and is how other people’s wages are paid - gas engineers and call centre staff car mechanics and sandwich makers. Look at Germany, which has brought in more than a MILLION asylum seekers in recent years (on top of the immigration already happening), and has the lowest unemployment since East and West reunified - when, practically overnight, West Germany had to integrate 16.5 million poor East Germans and spend billions of marks changing 45 years of separation.

Then there is the demographic ‘time-bomb’. The largest population spurt we have ever seen are the baby boomers, that generation born after the second world war who benefited so much from the newly created Welfare State (and created so much wealth in return) and have been gradually retiring over the last two decades. Birth rates have been dropping, which means a smaller than ever working population are supporting a larger than ever retired population. Bt most immigrants are in their 20s and - as i said above - more than happy to work and pay taxes.

And, here’s another thing about that, it’s a damned sight cheaper to bring in immigrants than raise our own population to working age. How much do you think it costs - the state, and parents - to raise a child, to pay for 17, 18, 24, years of healthcare and education? Any cost in language skills or integration or even a few months of benefits is literally insignificant next to that.

There are people (mentioning no daily newspapers) that also suggest there is a crime problem associated with immigration, but this is also simply wrong. Immigrant populations, wherever they are from, consistently commit FAR less crime than native born populations. Seriously, a fraction as much.

Lastly, and on a different tack, why assume a brown family are immigrants in any case? I’ve known lots of people of Asian and African descent who were not only ‘born here’ but whose families have been here for generations. My own family are largely of Welsh and Irish descent within the last four generations or so, so are also immigrants. As is everybody else on this island. Yes, there are people who have traced their line back centuries (often to the Normans, who were of course immigrants who didn’t want to mix with the locals and learn the language) but that is only one branch of the family. It is clear that one of the main legions who held Britain for the Romans was the Africanus legion so (despite Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ill-educated protestations) black people have been in these isles for at least two thousand years.

I’ve only covered the main points, but these are usually the ones made (or snidely hinted at) by racist memes and the EDF and the Daily Mail. All of them are facts and, I think, also make sense when given a moment’s thought. I hope everyone reading this will bear them in mind when responding to knee-jerk emotive posts.

Please, think about what a post is saying before hitting share.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Book Review: Voices (Annals of the Western Shore 2) by Ursula K le Guin

Le Guin is rightly famed for her novels of the late 1960s and the 1970s such as the Earthsea books, The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, but she has never let up and has been a force in science fiction, fantasy and indeed literature for almost 60 years now. This, the middle volume of the Annals of the Western Shore, shows just why; she writes prose as lucid and powerful as almost any writer I can think of, characters that walk the line between tale-tellers archetype and fully three dimensional human beings, and infuses the whole with a humanity and relevance that is breathtaking. She writes great stories that are made epic by the inclusion of a meaning that is apparent but never heavy handed, that never overwhelms the tale but lifts it.

Voices finds a great, ancient city of learning that has been subjugated for seventeen years by a foreign power whose singular god considers any other deities to be demons and any books or writing blasphemy, and a girl - child of a violation during the invasion - who has grown up tending the remains of a secret library and is witness to, and instrumental in, a great change.

As wonderful as the first volume, Gifts, leaving me a little sad that there is only one book remaining.

Book Review: The Rook by Daniel O'Malley

I started off rather enjoying this, but it frankly became a something of a slog. The setting is a present-day Britain where, within the government, there exists a shadowy organisation known as the Checquy. It has existed for many centuries and is made up of ‘talented’ individuals, usually recruited as infants and raised to serve and protect the British Isles. Think X-Men meets Charles Stross’ Laundry Files meets Harry Potter.

We start with Myfanwy Thomas coming to with no memory, surrounded by bodies, in a London park. At least, the letter in her pocket tells her that’s who she is - or, rather, that is the identity of the body she inhabits. This missive and the trail of information she follows are written by the ‘real’ Thomas, a highly placed administrator at the organisation, who has received several telling prophecies that she is to die and her body is to be re-inhabited by another. What’s more, it is another member of the Checquy ruling elite who is responsible.

This is an intriguing idea, a nice fantastical twist on the venerable DOA motif; the crime has already been committed, and the first person narrator is trying to find the perpetrator. And it starts well enough, building the new Myfanwy’s character, with all it’s unmoored uncertainty as she struggles to fit into this life at the same time as investigating the ongoing crime - because, of course, her predecessor’s obliteration is part of a grander scheme.

This was one of the first sour notes. Once she begins to interact with the other members of the organisation, with all their strange powers and arcane knowledge, people  barely bat an eye at her sudden change of character. These are people who know there are individuals and organisations with powers exotic and powerful and multifarious, but don’t consider that this highly-placed officer might have been replaced by an imposter? However, I reinforced my willing suspension of disbelief and rejoined the ride.

Unfortunately, my perseverance wasn’t rewarded. While there are many excellent ideas embedded within the story, it needed more thought and, quite honestly, a good deal more editing. Increasingly problematic are the notes left by the original Rook Thomas for the replacement; the original purpose of these is to guide her substitute with the information she has managed to glean prior to her own ‘murder’. As this seems to be building toward something the reader can’t help but think “why not just skip ahead and find out what’s going on?” but then the author begins to pad these epistles out with stories of Thomas background which, while arguably interesting backstory, are entirely inappropriate and act as massive info dumps, a terrible example of the writer feeling the need to show their working.

I confess that I started skim reading, also encouraged by a tonal monotony and the fact that the writing just wasn’t executed well enough to carry the whole thing off. When a big action scene and reveal  left me yawning I knew I wasn’t going to continue with the series. There’s definitely potential here, but the whole needed tightening up.

Originally posted on Goodreads

Sunday, 4 June 2017


I've always fought against fear, fear of failure and pain. Fighting to try and overcome the knowledge that failure is inevitable and that any success or happiness is just putting off the time when things will come crashing down, and make the crash all the worse.

I try. I try to be positive and try to work hard and try, most importantly, to be a good person but that just ends up throwing into starker relief that I can't do these things. I thought it was getting easier - or, at least, less phenomenally, impossibly difficult. There was always the fear hanging over my of slipping back to the time when surviving each day didn't feel like any sort of victory, but just left me with the crushing weight that I'd have to try to do it again and again, pushing the rock up the hill only to have it roll to the bottom again,knowing that one day I'd not be strong enough and the rock would squash me.

Perhaps it should be relief of sorts to be back there. one less thing to be afraid of. But it isn't.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Book Review: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski: may's amazing maze, a paradox of pages

Wow. Where to start?

Very little can clearly and definitively be stated about Mark Danielewki’s book; it is dense and confusing, it is playful and frustrating. It is a work of either genius or a huge illusion of smoke and mirrors. I certainly lean toward the former.

The story of the main text is that of a supposedly famous film by Will Navidson, a celebrated photojournalist, settling down from his travels on assignment around with world with his partner and children in a house in Virginia, only for a strange hallway to open up in the house that seems to defy both the dimensions of the building and the laws of geometry. It is this central plot that leads the novel (some would even argue with that noun although, while he plays with the form and stretches it, a novel it certainly is) to be filed under ‘horror’.

This text, however, is being presented as an unfinished manuscript by a blind author Zampano, discovered and edited by one Johnny Truant, an Angelino apprenticed at a tattoo parlour in the city. Johnny’s footnotes become longer and more invasive, appearing often to have little to do with the text and frequently running on for pages at a time - on top of footnotes by the mysterious Zampano, so Johnny’s footnotes are often secondary, and become increasingly nested, to the point of absurdity, in some cases leading to appendices which are footnoted “missing”.

This textual confusion is furthered by the inclusion of many quotes from cultural arbiters and experts - interviews with Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick, criticism from Jacques Derrida and Camille Paglia and Hunter S. Thompson - and many others more obscure and, indeed, entirely fictional. Actually, while this film is written about as being a defining cultural moment, Johnny himself has never heard of it. The text and Johnny’s footnotes are presented in presented in different fonts and, as the impossible labyrinth within the house is explored Danielewski introduces increasingly bizarre text layouts - text directionality changing on the page, being printed upside down, notes embedded in the middle of the main text, words being as important for their pattern on the page as their meaning.

So, what is the book about? It could be read as the story of the impossible house, although the reader would have to ignore a massive amount of the book (there is actually a wonderful radio adaptation which does an admirable job of dramatising this aspect), the hallway and labyrinth to which it leads can be read as a metaphor for the problems in the relationship between Navidson and Karen - but Johnny’s story is even more interesting and obscure. One of the appendices is The Whalestoe Letters, correspondence from Johnny’s institutionalised mother, which makes (some) sense of  some of his own background. Do the rest of the appendices add to the tale? The odd poetry and notes and quotes and sketches? I don’t know, but it all feels like it belongs. Is everything David Lynch includes in a script meaningful, or is he sometimes just fucking with us? Even if he is, if it still adds to the stor, it still belongs.

Some of Danielewski’s influences are clear - I see Borges and Calvino and Alasdair Gray, and I know there are many, many I miss - but the book is so beautifully constructed, so much its own thing (and so knowingly self-referential) that reference spotting never spoils the ride. I have no doubt that this is a work of utter genius to which i will return, if only to see what I’ve missed on a first reading.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

For a moment, I forgot this wasn't the first terrorist attack at a pop concert

A pop concert. Again. This time, one with families and children.

Words fail. My heart goes out to everyone involved, of course. It is unimaginable, or should be. But what do we do, how do we react? This kind of thing cannot be defended against in a free, liberal democracy - cars used as weapons against pedestrians, attacks on the softest of targets. So, what are our options? We become more afraid, less open? Police states are one definition of secure. We go all Trump (or Bush and Blair) and react by going after "these people" - except, who are "these people"? And, more to the point, isn't it our aggressions in the Middle East and Afghanistan that cause these attacks, that multiply our enemies? I cannot believe that there is anyone in any of the places we and our so-called allies are at war who could see pictures of children at an event meant to be joyous, suddenly torn apart by explosives and think it anything but horrific. But there are undoubtedly many who would look hollow-eyed and think "welcome to our world." I am not making excuses for whoever did this - this is terrible, by definition anyone perpetrating this kind of act is unhinged, through neurro-chemical imbalance or twisted by dogma - but we have to think about cause and effect.

I'm off work today, meant to prepping for an interview. I'm going to make an effort to not curl into a ball and hide, to do my prep and walk in the sun, to communicate with friends, to do some housework. To make an effort to not let this shitstorm beat me down. I'm not making this awful thing about me, but it affects me, it affects us all. The way we react, the way we think. We have to carry on, not as though nothing has happened but knowing it has, and could again, but carry on regardless. To not allow ourselves to be bowed or scared or stop feeling compassion. Compassion is not a limited resource unless we allow it to be.

Ramble over. I hope it makes sense to some of you. Go outside in the sun, look at something beautiful, tell someone how much you love them. This is what matters.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Book Review: Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

This novel starts in the Chinese Cultural Revolution and advances to the present day - or, more probably, to the very near future, although this isn’t completely clear. Along with this interesting and - for me - unfamiliar setting, it is a novel of big ideas, science, culture and society (all the things science fiction does best), so I should have loved it.

And it isn’t that is is badly written. There are, indeed, moments of sheer beauty, and I would call the novel a success, but it does fall short. In some ways the book feels like a patchwork from different eras of SF; there are parts reminiscent of ‘Doc’ Smith, Asimov, Silverberg, Stephenson. I particularly thought of this last a few times with Liu’s tendency to elaborate on a scientific idea (such as the titular Three Body Problem) or a technology, and also to expostulate at length.

Much of the novel centres around one of the characters investigating a virtual reality game called Three Body, wherein the players are attempting to define a scientific model for a reality where the days and seasons seem utterly chaotic (although it might seem that the name of the game is a rather obvious clue, given the scientific background of so many of the players). It transpires that this game is actually a recruiting tool by a group of people who are preparing to welcome to Earth an alien civilisation from just such a world. And this is where the book really falls apart; the aliens just aren’t believable. While many of the other shortcomings of the book can be excused - there is a lack of good characterisation, the scientific ideas may break the flow of the story on occasion but are interesting in themselves, the idea that intelligent life could evolve on such a chaotic world are far fetched but no more so than, say, Dragon’s Egg, The aliens themselves entirely lack personality. Worse, their communications are often nothing but the worst sort of exposition and full of metaphors that are so human and 20th century it is entirely jarring.

This is a great shame, as there is so much about the book to admire and enjoy. The details of the Cultural Revolution, and the inviting of the potentially destructive outside force to solve the problems of a humanity that may be considered to be beyond redemption as a mirror for that terrible era. I am very much undecided whether to pick up the next volume.

Nice evening 15k to round off January

 The weather has turned suddenly milder after the recent cold snap, so it made getting out this evening all the easier.

I'd bottled out of running into work after a poor night's sleep so was pleased to find that, after a slow build up through the park, I settled into a comfortable loping rhythm. Out to Clay Wheels Lane then soon beyond the reach of the streetlights into Beeley Woods, the beam of my chest light bobbing ahead of me.

At Oughtibridge I decided to try the climb of Church Road for he first time in a while - not just up to Worrall, but arcing to the right up to Kirk Edge, the road a black line between the Stygian fields.

It's impossible to see the whole of Sheffield from any one point, nestled as it is in the fold of creases of its seven hills and their many valleys, but there are many high vantage points that give the illusion if you don't know better. About half way up the 230 odd metre climb there's a sudden view down this portion of the Don Valley revealed a stunning glimpse of the lights of the city centre and the climb toward Norfolk Park and Sheffield Manor beyond. But at the high point of Kirk Edge Road as I turn south to drop sharply back toward Hillsborough is one of those spots where it is easy to believe that the lights glittering like an armful of gems scattered over rucked black velvet is the whole 370 square kilometres of the city, and all of its 560, 000 citizens, but knowing that there are parts entirely hidden by the cunning folds of the land is part of the city's beauty.

I let gravity take me down the hill, trusting in my chest light and that any traffic coming the other way will be visible a long way off by its own light. I consider taking one of the turns that will drop me down into Loxley Valley higher up by the reservoir but feel the long straight of Loxley Road may be dispiriting if I lose my wind, so compromise by pushing for all I'm worth along the childs'-rollercoaster undulations of Myers Lane and am rewarded with a comfortable PR

More traffic on the drop down Long Lane than on the rest of the night-time roads combined, then onto pavement for the final hop over Wiesewood and home.

A gorgeous bit of night running. I'm sure I wouldn't appreciate it nearly so much in the early hours.

Listening: The Guilty Feminist, & The Infinite Monkey Cage podcasts