Do the comfortable thing.

I am feeling rather ashamed today. I heard that Asia Bibi was released from prison, after her conviction for blasphemy was overturned, and was relieved with this news. However, after a decade unjustly imprisoned, and much of that time spent in solitary confinement, she is at considerable risk in Pakistan. There have been mass demonstrations and riots demanding that she be executed. This is no idle concern, as previously high-ranking officials who took up her case were indeed assassinated. She has wisely asked for asylum and thankfully there have been some offers and it is likely she will go to the Netherlands.

The reason I feel rather ashamed is that one of the countries from which she requested asylum was the United Kingdom. Given the long association between Pakistan and the United Kingdom this would seem to be a natural choice. Given the obvious need for asylum, and the reasons behind her plight, one would have anticipated that an offer of asylum would have been quickly forthcoming. However , it seems that this has been specifically rejected. Wilson Chowdhry, of the British Pakistani Christian Association, reports that British authorities  have said :-

‘I’ve been lead to believe that the UK government had concerns that her moving to the UK would cause security concerns and unrest among certain sections of the community and would also be a security threat to British embassies abroad which might be targeted by Islamist terrorists,’

Religious freedom and a refusal to be intimidated are core facets of what we consider “British Values”. We should be proud to offer asylum to those fleeing persecution and should do this even if there are risks in doing so. We can not be seen to only help when there is no cost to ourselves. It is shameful to reject asylum because of fears of what those doing the oppression might do. If there are those in our community who object to us giving asylum then it is they that are behaving badly, and against the principles of our country. Indeed, if there are any who think that she should be executed we should ensure she comes here, and is kept safely, to clearly echo the point that we think freedom of thought and freedom of religion and vital, and uncontestable, parts of British society. It is those who think othewise who should consider whether they are living in the right place.

Asylum is something that should not be weighed up against trade deals, nor weighed up against possible difficulties to ourselves, it is something we should offer to prove our humanity and moral standing. I feel a little ashamed that today it seems Britain has said moral duties can be trumped by comfort or safety.  It was said that during World War 2 we spent all our energy and lost thousands of lives in order to protect a few moral principles while now we will loose our moral principles in order to save a few lives.

 

 

Anti-deception belt buckles

Anti-deception belt buckles

It is that time of the year when I get my HBA1c checked again. Now I know that is a measure of my glycosylated haemoglobin and it gives a weighted average of blood glucose levels over the life of red blood cells (117 days or so). But this is not really how I think of it. It is really a test of my abilities in self-deception. I test my blood daily and therefore should really know what my average blood glucose has been – but I cheat !

If I have had a bad day with my diet, a night out for a meal and a drink, I tend to forget to do my bloods just afterwards. If I have forgotten to do my exercises I tend also, quite conveniently, forget to check my sugar levels as well.  I don’t want to see the results of my failings. Until that LED screen on the glucose meter frowns a high value at me I can pretend to myself that little has happened. When I check a little later, having been good and exercised properly, my sugars are not that bad. In essence, I manage to check myself at all the best times and give myself the feeling I am doing better than I am. This feeling of confidence all disappears when the HBA1c comes around and destroys my flimsy deceptions with its harsh reading of the true average reading over the last three months. Because it is a three month average it is not even possible to do a quick few days of good dieting and heavy exercise to bring the average down – the HBA1c doesn’t see this recent contrition, it just counts the pastries and sloth of the previous months.

I think we need similar tests of self-deception that we can use before we end up in the mess of being fat and diabetic. I would have loved to have an anti-deception mirror. This mirror would surreptitiously collect images of us and then present them back to us as an average image of how we looked over the last three months. It would not matter if you stood up straight, threw your shoulders back and sucked in your stomach and held the pose you managed, for the first 30 seconds, that you met a new attractive person. It would show you slouched, hunched and belly flopping. This might be a fillip to think about diet or exercise.  These might meet the call Robert Burns put out in “To a Louse” :-

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

I can imagine another two ways to free us from possible blunders. Anti-deception headphones could also be valuable. These would monitor our conversations for words and phrases like “chubby”, “chunky”, “thick around the middle”, “buxom”, “full figured”, “hefty” or “portly”, when used to describe ourselves, and play the words “fat”, “overweight” or “obese” in their stead. But perhaps the most valuable tool, for men in any event, might be the anti-deception belt buckle.

After a certain age men often become aware of a paunch developing around their midriff. It gradually grows until it is quite a size. To the man this becomes recognizable when he can no longer look down and see his feet or genitals without either sucking in or using his hands. To the rest of the world this became apparent when the paunch had grown to cover his belt buckle. I noticed that I, like many men, dealt with this problem by a cunning strategy. By simply pulling my short out from under my waist band, while my paunch may be hiding my belt buckle, the short now covers the paunch and the buckle. I honestly believed that the rest of the world were fooled by this strategy. I thought that they thought “Hey, look at the thin guy over there whose shirt flaps outside his trousers. I wish I was slim like that“. I didn’t imagine they thought, “Heavens that bloke is too fat to do up his trousers properly and tuck in his shirt“. I believe women have similar cunning plans involving ponchos and similar outfits. I would never had pulled my shirt out while I was wearing a suit (It would have looked too wierd) but I was happy enough to deceive myself that this strategy worked when I wore jeans or chinos. A simple belt buckle with a light sensitive alarm could sound a siren, or ring a bell, when it was covered by a shirt to alert the wearer that they were being silly and making a fashion faux pas.

Anyway, I should know in a few days how much I have been deceiving myself when the HBA1c comes in. I am sure when I get this , temporarily at least, I will pull my sock ups, eat better and workout more. Although perhaps not tonight;  as the next test will not be for over three months and tonight won’t figure in the next test !

 

The nights are drawing in.

It is now a week since the clocks went back an hour and I am gradually getting used to the new routines. The initial pleasure of that extra light in the morning has largely worn off to be replaced by the annoyance of the earlier darkness. Not only does night start an hour earlier it comes on much more quickly. No sooner have you noticed the gathering twilight than it is pitch black.

This alters the afternoon and evening routines as, regardless of what time it shows on the clock,  it is still vital to get the birds into their coups before darkness falls. If we miss this deadline then we can be pretty much assured we will lose some of the birds to foxes. We lose enough to the hawks, who are brazen and steal during the day, and we can’t afford to supply the fox population also. Having said this, if the birds had a choice they might prefer the fox to the hawk as their ultimate nemesis as the fox kills much more quickly and humanely.

Now, instead of a leisurely task in the early evening, strolling coup to coup and checking everybody is tucked in for the night, there is a hurried dash rushing everyone indoors before the darkness falls. We have our poultry scattered about the farm in half a dozen or so small coups. It would be less work to keep them all together in one larger shed and take a lot less time at night. However, this way seems a lot more natural for the birds and we are able to keep more cockerels. Each cockerel lives with his 8 to 10 wives on his patch. They rarely stray into enemy territory and there are relatively few fights. The hens like this more natural family set up and it is clear that the cockerel sees his role as the guard of his harem. He wards of intruders and guards the doors at night. The hens seem happier when he is about.

We prefer it not only because it is more natural but also because, this way, we can keep more cockerels on the farm. If we are honest, cockerels img_20181104_1646276595128874143955393.jpgare much prettier than chickens and exhibit a great deal more character. There is a surprising amount of pleasure that can be obtained from sitting, on a warm and dry afternoon, and watching the cockerels strut try and rule their roost. This system necessitates a bit more work for me in the daily opening and closing of the coups, but , it does repay itself in the pleasure I get from watching the small flocks of birds  having their adventures all over the farm yard rather than just in one field or barn. Anyway, with the birds seem to have adjusted to the changed clocks and, after a fashion, so have I.

A further adaptation, that I didn’t expect, was that I have had  to reschedule my daily exercise routine. Previously I would cycle in the afternoon. Before the nights started to draw in, it was a time when roads were quiet and there was a lull in the working day; it was an ideal time to go. With the shortened hours there is no afternoon lull and I don’t get my chance to cycle before the evening has started. Therefore, today  I decided to try cycling at night. After I had scoured the garage for an old bicycle lamp I powered up the lamp and my podcast player and headed out. This did not work out as successfully as I had anticipated. As you will see from the video below this lamp was not really up to the job. I pedaled in the gloom only avoiding accident because I knew the road. My fear for my safety was augmented by the scariness of the dark forest so I did at least  manage a good workout as my heart-rate certainly went up. My attempt to calm my fears by listening to the BBC’s “Moral Maze” debate on climate change did not entirely work. I think I’ll have to invest in a better lamp before I try  this again. But, at least I now know what I want Santa to bring me for Christmas.

I’m sure I wouldn’t like that anyway.

I am not yet sure if this is an advantage or a disadvantage of rural life. Out here in the wilds we have a lot less choice when it comes to entertainment. Basically there is less choice because there is a lot less on offer. There are no multiplex cinemas with five screens, with three showing times, 3D films and surround sound. At our local cinema there is one screen (some home plasma TVs are larger) and we used to have to stack the chairs after a show (but following some grant money this is no longer necessary). We feel blessed as within a mere 45 minutes drive we have the choice of two cinemas. These will not be showing the latest releases, as they can’t compete with the cost that entails, but they will be showing fairly recent films interspersed with some more eclectic choices (and some live-screened events).

We have two theatres, open occasionally, within an hour’s drive which tend to show local productions or the occasional Arts Council funded project. We have a handful of restaurants and pubs locally. If we want more than this then we need to plan, as it is going to entail considerable travel, quite a bit of expense, and possibly an over-night stay.

We therefore have some choice; not a great deal, but not none. Sometimes I feel disadvantaged when I watch the trailers for new films, or advertisements for hit shows and concerts, on the television as I know they are not going to be available to me. My choice won’t include them. My choice will be the smaller range offered by our local providers and whatever the community groups have arranged locally.

I have family who live in central London and have an unimaginable range of choice of an evening. There choices are difficult – “Shall we go to the opera, or the theatre, or that jazz club, or the rock show in the O2 centre ? Or shall we just see that exhibition and go for a meal ? Should we have Indian, or Malaysian, I really like Armenian food, though there is also that lovely Lebanese restaurant. You know the one we went to when Korean restaurant was fully booked ?”. I don’t have this problem, thankfully. Our decision is more often “Shall we go to that concert, or not ?

The advantages of choice are clear. We all like to make decisions to try and choose options which are best for our own personal tastes.  Whether it be what we eat, what books we read, what clothes we wear, where we live, what music we listen to – we like to make the decisions ourselves and have a range of options while we do so. If all our needs and pleasures were adequately met, but we did not do the choosing, we would feel our lives empty and unfulfilled. We need to choose to show ourselves that we are alive. The worst aspect of prison life is the loss of autonomy and control, which is just another way of saying the loss of choice. So, out here in the sticks, we are quite disadvantaged by the lack of choices we have in terms of entertainment. But I am not sure that this is entirely a disadvantage.

I am not sure that more choice would actually help me a great deal. I am a ditherer and I worry I wouldn’t go out as much if I had too wide a choice. I could get paralyzed with indecision. I do feel jealous at times, but only occasionally. I am very, very good at cognitive dissonance and convincing myself I am happy with what I have. I am better than Aesop’s fox when it comes to knowing that grape’s are sour. I don’t need the full range of options I’ll be happy with something – I don’t need larks’ tongues in aspic, I’ll make do quite happily with corned beef hash. So I feel that, while I like choice, I only want a certain amount; enough that I have to choose between things, between things that are different enough to make it worthwhile choosing, and not from too many choices (So that I don’t spend the evening bored and annoyed, wishing I’d chosen the other option which would clearly have been better than that which I have now). From a smaller range of choices I select faster and more definitively. I feel more confident in my choice and, I think, less likely to have feelings of regret that I opted for the wrong thing.

But there is one other aspect of our reduced choices that I feel may be an advantage. When there is a large menu of options it is likely that you will find something that you know is to your taste.  The choices here are often much more limited and reduced to “this thing” or “nothing”. This means often you opt for “this thing” not knowing whether it will be to your taste or not. So, paradoxically, because of reduced choices you end up making more adventurous decisions.

This was my choice tonight. I like jazz fusion, progressive rock, classical, and folk music. I have fairly catholic tastes. But my choice this evening was “Sacred choral music” or “nothing”. I opted for the ‘sacred choral music’ and went out to a church in a nearby town to hear a choir who had traveled from Russia to perform in country churches and halls throughout Wales. This was my first time at such a concert. If I had been given more choice, for example were a Zappa tribute band playing, then I would not have gone to listen to Voskresenije Choir of St Petersburg on their Ressurection tour.

This is how I found myself in a local church on a weekend night listening to an 8 piece Russian choir. the voices of the four men and four women were excellent, all soloists in their own right but coming together to make something that transcended the individual voices. It was fascinating to hear the differences between the male and female voices. The sensations evoked by both, though different, were equally powerful and together they managed to make something separate and even better The evening was split into a first half of sacred music and, after the interval, a second half of russian folk music. All of it was excellent but, surprisingly and against my expectations, I prefered the sacred music to the rest. Perhaps it was the acoustics and atmosphere of the church, or perhaps it was the smell of the traces of incense which heightened the impact of the music, I’ll never be sure. However, I know that if I had been offered more choices then I probably would not have chosen this evening and I would have missed out. I would have chosen something closer to my usual tastes and continued with my narrowed experience. As I told my children when introducing them to brocolli “how do you know you don’t like it, if you’ve never tried it ?” They discovered the joys of brocolli by not having much of a chouce either,

 

 

A difficult conversation.

A difficult conversation.

I had a difficult conversation with my neighbour this morning. Each day I, and my neighbours, take our constitutionals with our dogs around the lanes of our valley. It is rare not to meet someone and usually the walk ends with a handful of folk and a reasonably sized pack of dogs doing the circuit. My immediate neighbour, and his two terriers, are my most frequent companion and my reliable source of local news. He has been very ill over the last few years and had become significantly disabled. However, fortunately he discovered the idea of a mobility scooter and his life has been transformed.

On his own he is able to walk, perhaps, 20 yards on a flat surface and over the past years he had to give up many of the activities he enjoyed. Now, with his scooter he walks the dogs daily again, visits friends, post letters, and the many other activities which allow him to have an independent life. But I have to confess that, at one level, it was his mobility scooter which made the conversation difficult this morning.

On his scooter there is a little dial. This dial can be turned from pointing at an icon of a tortoise through to a picture of a running hare. I think this dial is probably stuck solid through lack of use as he never switches it from the dashing hare. I believe he hates the idea that he might hold people up or slow down their walk. Unfortunately, this means our walks take the form of me jogging and running trying to keep up while he zips along with ease. To a passer-by I am sure it looks as if he is being chased by an elderly, wheezing asthmatic, but safely evading their clutches.

I have asked him the speed that the ‘hare’ setting represents as a hint that perhaps this was a little too fast (As prior hints by wheezing, stumbling and falling behind were obviously too subtle). It seems at this setting we can manage a steady pace between 5 and 6 miles per hour. This is the pace that marks the change from jogging to running and it seems that this is good estimate of our progress. So our conversation was difficult: my replies obscured by wheezy breathing; his replies lost on the wind as he flew on.

However, this was not the main reason the conversation was difficult. The real difficulty came with the content of his news. He, and his wife, have been keen Rotarians all their adult life and done an enormous amount of charitable works. He sadly informed me that his, and possibly the other, branch of Rotary in our area might have to close down. We are unusual in our small town that we have two branches of this charity. It relates back to the great schism a decade or two ago. Arguments about the membership of women, and difficulties relating to important players personalities, split the Rotary into two groups.

Both groups were successful for a while but in the last years their membership has risen in age and fallen in numbers. Insufficient people attend to justify two groups continuing and if they merge back it is possible that there may not be enough interested people to even keep one branch functioning. As we talked about this it became clear that this type of charitable work is often maintained by older people. Younger people don’t seem to have the interest or enthusiasm to take part in this type of charitable activity. As members die there are not new recruits waiting in the wings to take their place.

This would not be a terrible situation were it simply reflecting a change in practice and new styles of charitable works were being brought forward by a younger population. This is not happening, we seem to be losing the interest in charity. Although charitable donations have increased, the number of people giving is less and fewer people report active involvement in any form of charity. I fear that some of this may be an unintended adverse effect from the larger welfare state we now enjoy. We pay our taxes and expect the state in return to look after us in our periods of misfortune. Ideas of self reliance and prudence for the future are less fashionable now.

Charity is a virtue, possibly the greatest virtue. But often now charity is seen a a poor or bad thing, something to be avoided. Public opinion often complains if charities provide a service rather than the state. The poor and the misfortunate will always be with us and we will always need to be able to do what we can to help our fellow men and women when they fall on hard times. The state will never cover every eventuality and nor should it.

If we don’t get the opportunity to undertake charitable actions we miss out on one of the most important aspects of being human. To knowingly and deliberately help, or forgo something, to help our fellow is what marks us as human. It is also, in most psychological research, the most potent source of our happiness. Material things can only give brief and transitory pleasure, while helping others does bring lasting happiness. It is in our nature. This may help explain the paradox that while the material wealth of the population has risen year on year unfortunately our happiness has not. Indeed, as we have become materially wealthier more of use are falling prey to depression and sadness.

It was difficult to hear about the possible loss of these local social groups. It sounded like a further sign that we are continuing on a path which distances us from our neighbours and making us less involved particularly when times are hard. No amount of money, no amount of taxation, can have the same effect of a helping hand from a friendly neighbour and we should be wary of seeing comfort as a substitute for happiness.

img_20181031_1102364544023414742620165.jpg
He is probably just around the corner

 

The Big Question

The Big Question

This post is an advertisement. I have found a podcast that I feel duty bound to share. Let me explain.

I suppose I should describe myself as an agnostic. I don’t mean this is a mealy-mouthed way, as if I never got around to making my mind up. I mean this as a considered decision after much research and contemplation. I find myself unable to answer some of the major philosophical and moral questions we face, and increasingly fear that the answers may, to me at least, be unanswerable.

My background and experience leaves me very divided. As a scientist and clinician, working with people with psychiatric and neurological problems, I can see the power of scientific explanations as to why people do what they do. The brain sciences do help us understand the mechanisms behind our desires and motivations. But although, as a scientist, I can use these findings to help me with questions of why and how, I fail to find them helpful with questions about what we ought to, or should, do.

I find having grown up in a Christian culture that I can comprehend and understand its moral teachings. When I want to know what we should or should not do I find calling on these principles much more valuable than looking at the scientific literature. Instinctivly I find the Christian writings on free will and responsibility much more plausible than the current utilitarian and deterministic viewpoints. Indeed I’d say I ascribe to the christian worldview but I fail in the vital question of faith.

So I fail in both camps. Millennia of thought and development by both groups leave a finely balanced argument that I can not satisfactorily resolve. Unfortunately I have found the writings and debates on these matters becoming less helpful. They are increasingly acrimonious and less concerned with finding clarity than with either preaching to the concerted or revealing the stupidity of the opposition.

I don’t find this polarised hostile battle very helpful in developing my thoughts. Mudslinging and bear baiting might be entertaining to some but I find it distasteful. I have their been pleasantly surprised to discover a series of debates which avoid this strategy.

The Big Question is a series of live debates, organized by a Christian radio station, in which eminent theists and atheists debate these issues. These are long enough to do justice to the topics and have speakers equally balanced in skills and eminence. The speakers are respectful and don’t try for cheap shots but rather try and grapple with the issues.

I have found myself better informed after these debates and think my opinions are clearer. I fear I have a long way to go before I’ll be certain, if I ever am, on these issues. I may be doomed to be a failure to both camps, but my failure might act as a signpost for others if they listen to these debates and form a better understanding than I have.

Don’t leave a mess when you leave.

Don’t leave a mess when you leave.

Now that I am old I have the great fortune to be able to watch afternoon television. The programmes  run in the afternoon are obviously cheap fare; either rubbish to punish the unemployed, or easy nostalgia to appeal to the older viewer. These programmes are innocuous enough but I am rather worried by the type of advertisement which predominates. I don’t mind the repeated ads for stair lifts and incontinence pads. This is fair enough, my time will come when I need these things. I don’t even mind the adverts for capital release – suggesting I’m gullible enough to give over my home, and all its value, for the short term fun of a holiday or giving a gift to my children. No, these are all fine. What annoys me are the repeated funeral plan adverts.

Advert after advert tries to worry me about the cost of funerals and urges me to buy a plan now so that I don’t have to worry about it in the future. Now, to tell the truth, I never really worry about the cost of my funeral. I can be pretty sure that the one person who will not be around to worry about that bill is me ! If I have money left when I die then this will be used to pay for my funeral. If I am so short of money that I will have none left then the last thing I should be doing is spending money on my future corpse. I obviously need that money now, use the money during your life to keep life tolerable or fun. Don’t waste scare reserves on the one purchase you will certainly never be able to enjoy.

This is the thing about funerals. They are about how the people who knew you, and are still alive, decide you should be remembered. They are not your choice. Sure, if you think you are so unloved that you are going to be put out in a bin bag with the garbage then it might be better to buy a plan and avoid the ignominy. But a better plan might be to behave better, become better regarded and thus secure some positive attention following your demise.

Funerals are for the survivors to express their sadness and to celebrate the life of the departed. They should choose how this is done. If they want to have a big event with much gnashing of teeth and wailing then that is their right, likewise if they want a low key affair then that too is correct. We hope that we will be missed because we hope that we were well regarded and loved. No amount of money will sort this problem other than perhaps by how beneficent you are during your life. So if you are really keen on preparing for your death and funeral look to how you are living not to planning your funeral. Imagine the terrible scene there could be if you bought a wonderful funeral, with black horses, banks of lilies, a marble mausoleum but there was no one there because you had been so miserable during your life and so self-centred that no-one really missed you.

Don’t buy a funeral plan, make a gift to a friend, help a family member in their time of need, or make a charitable donation if you are really concerned about how people will think on you once you are gone. Think that it might just be possible that this is a scam by funeral directors to get people to pay more and earlier for their services. They play on the elderly’s guilt; suggesting that we should give up our possession now as we really shouldn’t enjoy them, and also suggesting that we are a burden and we should be very careful that we stop being a burden when we die. Really saying, make sure, when you go, you leave no mess for us to clear up, no awkward bills or planning. Tidy up and close the door after you ! Sorry, I’m not doing it, I’m using all my money wisely and hopefully generously because, as they say, there are no pockets in a shroud.