No News Is Bad News

I like to keep abreast of current affairs. I find important issues such as elections, changing macroeconomic conditions and the name of Kate and Will’s latest to be extremely compelling.
In addition to keeping a watchful eye on these weighty issues I am also drawn to the weird happenings in the world. For instance this week I learnt of a 0.5km fun run in the Texan town of Boerne. That decimal point is not a typo, we’re talking 500m. I could do that – it’s a fraction of the distance I run every day looking for my keys, phone and wallet. The run starts at one bar and ends at another. One hundred and fifty metres into the run there’s a doughnut stand, which is beside a smoking area. It would be fair to say the emphasis is more on fun than run.
You could say the organisers of the Boerne fun run are “taking the piss”, but not as much as IKEA, as this next piece of news will reveal. IKEA recently placed a magazine advert for baby bassinets that doubled as a pregnancy test. Anyone who thought they might be pregnant was encouraged to pee on the ad that was splashed across the magazine’s pages. If they were pregnant the positive test revealed a previously hidden special discount price. If there are couples out there reading this and trying to get pregnant – not at the same time obviously – please note this only works for women.
Some people may discount weird items news as being improbable or inconsequential. Whereas I, having lived with myself these past few decades, find them entirely believable. Furthermore, I find they have value in allowing me to view the weird events in my own life less severely. For example, I read of a job interview that went awry when the applicant fainted and only regained consciousness in an ambulance. Which made me feel better about the time I went to the toilet while nervously waiting for a job interview. When I tried to leave the stall I found I was locked in. With my phone in my car, and my cries for help going unnoticed I resolved to commando crawl under the door. However I was concerned my clothes would get dirty so I stripped to my underwear then squeezed through the gap. While lying horizontal and scantily clad on the toilet floor someone came in; I was relieved – in every sense – when they didn’t hang around. However I did get the opportunity to explain myself fully to them when I saw them on the interview panel. You see it works, you’re already feeling better about your own worst interview.
It is incorrect that News is an acronym for either Notable Events, Weather and Sport, or for North, East, West and South. Rather the clue is in the name; news is to do with new information. Other explanations are fake (news).
Fake news, unlike real news, is intended to deceive. It is not news. Nor is it new – the term was used as early as 1894 in a cartoon by Frederick Opper. We owe a lot to President Donald Trump for the work he has done in the area of fake news. We are especially indebted to his broadening of the term to include accurate news that he doesn’t like.
Real news has power, and the people who vilify the fourth estate, or worse still harm those within it, realize this. News has the power to increase the engagement of ordinary people in society. Initially through increasing their ability to hold a conversation. Secondly, it facilitates the shaping the people’s opinions and beliefs. Then ultimately, news allows people to go out and shape their world. Clearly dangerous stuff.
So I’m going out to buy a quality newspaper with accurate reporting, reasoned editorials and a few job vacancies with interviews by Skype – not in an office block with a dodgy toilet door.
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Spammers Beware

The world of technology is a bit like Pandora’s box. Although when Pandora lifted the lid only evil escaped. Technology, on the other hand, has released much good into the world. For example, the world wide web can aid learning, it brings people together (whoever knew they had so many wealthy relatives in Nigeria?) and it allows 24/7 shopping for necessities such as Cecily calendars.
Today my beef is with spam. Which is odd because spam, the tinned meat, is made from pork and ham then cunningly disguised to look like spleen. Electronic spam takes its name from a Monty Python skit set in a restaurant where a table of Vikings – oh come on it’s not that unusual – sit in a corner loudly singing, ‘Spam, Spam, Wonderful Spam’, thus drowning out the real conversation with their unwanted message.
Electronic spam too is disguised, only not as spleen. Those Nigerian relatives, fake invoices and requests to confirm account details, etc. hide everything from brazen requests for your money through to links that will rob you of your bank details, money and faith in humanity.
What can we do I hear you ask plaintively? Traditional advice has been to delete any suspicious emails without opening them. All very sage, but not very satisfying. Firstly, this will protect you, but not others. Then secondly, and most infuriatingly, it doesn’t hurt the spammer. And let’s face it, what we really want is to do is have them beaten to a pulp or made to copy out Donald Trump’s autobiography 100 times.
However, now there is a way we can fight back. The New Zealand Government internet watchdog, Netsafe, has invented an artificially intelligent chat-bot that engages with the spammer and continues an indefinite conversation, thus sending the spammer on a fool’s errand, wasting their time and resources. All you have to do is forward any spam that you receive to me@rescam.org The chat-bot at Netsafe will strip off any identifying information to do with you, and then spend some quality time with the spammer. This software acts like a human, making both spellng mistakes and jokes, and can engage an infinite number of spammers at once. There is a God! And now her eye is on those pasty-faced highwaymen of the internet. You don’t have to be a New Zealander to do this, but if you are from elsewhere just remember that it’s my taxes that brought you this divine retribution, so please, no more sheep jokes.
If you feel so inclined Netsafe will send you a link so that you can follow their conversation with the spammer. While infuriating a spammer is not as satisfying as having them publicly flogged there is a certain poetry in turning the tables on these people that waste our time and cost the world’s economy an estimated US$50 billion each year. Imagine what a wonderful world it would be if that money and internet traffic were involved in education, reuniting old friends or on-line purchases of Cecily calendars.

Birth Order

I was conceived in a wine bar in Queenstown, New Zealand. How about you? A few days later I was born on a drawing board, with only the neighbour’s dog in attendance. I was already 30-something – it’s enough to make your eyes water.
Mine was an unusual beginning, but then I’m what is referred to as a brain child. I am an original, something that has been invented. Whereas you, Dear Reader, although possibly conceived on a bed of rose petals in Paris, are merely unique. If I seem overly competitive I’m sorry, but I am a first-born child.
You may justifiably retort that I’m just a cartoon character, a mere doodle on a page. However you and I have much in common. I too have feelings – I can feel flat, grey and drawn. And at our respective conceptions both of us were just a rubber away from non-existence. So I too have insecurities about my position in the world. Being Celia’s first born I can easily be supplanted by a pesky second brain child, and end up as yellowing sketches desperately clinging to the fridge.
Many believe that birth order, whether you are the first born, second born, etc., has a big effect on your personality and behaviour. Eldest children, so the theory goes, got lots of parental attention; consequently they tend to be high achievers and leaders, but can be controlling and bossy. Barack Obama is a first born, so too are both Bill and Hillary Clinton. The trend in monarchy is even more exaggerated, with virtually every King being a first-born male – spooky! Also twenty one of the twenty-four US astronauts who have been to the moon are first born. Which leaves middle born children wondering, if we can send twenty-one first born to the moon, why not all of them?
Of course, a middle child doesn’t have nasty thoughts like that. According to birth order theory middle children tend to be mediators, compromising, diplomatic, conflict avoiding, loyal and unspoilt. However, before you middle children climb out of your boxes you are also thought of as shy and having low self-esteem. To witness the qualities of diplomacy, conflict avoidance and shyness in a middle child you need look no further than Donald Trump.
Finally, and this is their constant experience, finally we come to the last-born child. A group that until they left home weren’t aware that clothes came from shops. You have had to fit into an established order, consequently you’re charming, a people person, precocious, creative and innovative. Older siblings are expressing this when they endearingly tell you you’re manipulative, blaming of others, prone to showing off and disorganised.
Is any of this true? Funnily enough each birth order group believes the stereotypes to be correct in two out of three cases; only being incorrect in assessments of themselves. One thing we appear to have in common is self-serving bias.
Despite these conflicts most families feel bound together, united by something greater than personal rivalries. Wouldn’t it be nice if the people of the world too saw themselves as one big family, and started to get along despite their differences? I think we’d all celebrate the birth of that world order.

You can’t take it with you

‘You can’t take it with you when you go’. This gem was part of a treasure trove of sage advice passed down to us from an older and wiser generation. If only it had been accompanied with, ‘Practice what you preach’. Because as baby boomers and generation X sort through the family home, now the parents have moved on, they are finding the previous generation did not walk the talk. Left in our hands is the fate of everything from their art and furniture through to their memorabilia and dry-cleaning receipts dating back to 1973.

It’s been said our parents’ behaviour is the product of growing up in the great depression; they are unable to throw anything away, even if its had it. I’m not convinced. The depression theory would explain some additional work clothes, sensible shoes and emergency food rations. However, it doesn’t cut the mustard (five opened and expired jars of it) in explaining why anyone needs 102 pairs of pantihose or 45 hotel shower caps. I don’t believe the great depression was withstood by staying in hotels and stealing shower caps.

There are a range of reasons why we collect stuff. One is financial – some collections can be worth millions. However, most are not worth anything at all. The items in these collections have a sentimental value, they help to keep the past alive. Historically collections of photographs have done this well. This won’t work in the future if all you photograph are your pets and your food.

Hoarding on the other hand is pathological.  Paradoxically it is linked to perfectionism and the fear of making the wrong decision; hence the inability to know what to acquire, keep or discard. Predictably Freud believed it was due to unresolved issues around toilet training, and who better to explain a pile of crap than Freud.

Baby boomers and generation X had better beware though, because an inability on their part to discern what to keep or what to discard will see what’s left over from their parent’s home assimilated into their own. Then you can look forward to your home becoming a monument to the indecision of two generations.

What may ultimately come to our rescue is the fact our houses have grown bigger by over 50% since the 1970s. Consequently, you need not make too many tough decisions, just take the stuff and leave it for your kids to sort out. After all another useful gem from the past is, ‘Like mother, like daughter.’

Cecily – The Factual Alternative

Just before the recent US elections I read George Orwell’s 1984 for the first time. At least I think it was for the first time, I might have read it years ago and then been re-educated to reject such thoughtcrime. Stranger things have happened. In fact, stranger things are happening.
The ghost of Orwell’s doublethink came back to haunt us recently when we were told by US White House officials that more people attended the new President’s inauguration than previous ceremonies – despite what photographs or travel statistics showed. The White House staff explained away the discrepancy by saying their claim was an ‘alternative fact’. To accept this type of doublethink all you have to do is to believe two contrary ideas at the same time. Seeing things as black or white is so 1983.
Fake news is another doublethink. Normally used to describe such publications as the ‘Sunday Sport’, with such classics as ‘World War 2 Bomber Found on the Moon’, it has now been applied to the BBC. Of course this is not the first time the BBC has been accused of telling lies, it’s just that it’s normally done by people like Robert Mugabe.
Of course we all play with the truth at times. Occasionally it is not only socially acceptable, but essential that we do. Imagine a friend showing you her new purchase – a very expensive ski suit to take to Japan – that makes her look enormous. She asks your opinion on the purchase. Do you manage to say, with misgivings, that it looks ‘nice’ (a lie), or do you tell the truth, namely that when she’s finished she may be able to find a buyer in a sumo wrestling school? Most of us would lie – I certainly hope my friends would.
However all lies are not created equally. The lie to your friend was for her sake, was inconsequential and didn’t lower trust. Whereas when White House staff issue falsehoods, alternative facts or doublespeak then trust in them and their office is lowered.
Perhaps I need to accept some doublethink myself. Orwell’s themes of nationalism, censorship and surveillance are on the rise, but in the end everything’s going to be great.

Wise Men – Yeah Right!

I’ve always been skeptical about the biblical story of that first Christmas in Bethlehem; before you burn me at the stake read on. My doubt has nothing to do with the concept of a virgin birth. Indeed, I know many a teenage girl who has used this explanation for their ‘condition’ – unfortunately for them the consensus was that a more earthly congress had taken place. Rather what beggars belief is that there were three wise men. I don’t doubt there are three wise men somewhere. Indeed, in an infinite universe all possibilities must eventuate, however unlikely it may seem. But the chance of finding three in the one place at the one time does seem unlikely; an event akin to winning the lottery three times, or finding three pens in your house that work. These are all theoretically possible, but you just know it’s not going to happen.

The other explanation is that while there were three men hanging about – a common occurrence – they weren’t wise. After all two thirds of their gifts (frankincense and myrrh) are ingredients for incense –  hardly an appropriate gift for a baby. Although perhaps they wanted to mask the agrarian smells from the stable. On the other hand they did bring gold, which in those uncertain times would have been a hedge against inflation, a weakening shekel and a stock market disaster – that would have been wise. Assuming they could carry a gold ingot (12.4kg) they would have gifted a tidy nest egg to the future king. In today’s money that’s about $520,263.33, which is enough to buy 50, 324 goats, 40 hectares near Jerusalem, or a tiny bed-sit in the city.

What would three wise women have brought? Remember that Bethlehem was bulging at the seams that night with visitors who had come to register for the census of Caesar Augustus. The chances are that every woman was doing then what they’re doing today at Christmas: catering for households full of people. They wouldn’t have had time to go blundering around Judea in the dark following yonder star. However if they had of popped out between making meals and doing dishes I imagine they’d have done something practical for the new family. Perhaps a swaddling cloth for the baby, lanolin for Mary’s cracked nipples, and for Joseph, a sound telling off for not booking ahead at Christmas time. That’s what I call wise.

Oops

With regard to committing social faux pas the world can be divided into two groups: those who admit to regularly transgressing social norms, and those who lie. For apparently we all embarrass ourselves four times a day on average. Just thinking about myself, I’d consider only four embarrassing moments within a 24 hour period a stellar day. One worthy of celebrating by jumping up and down on the spot and shouting with glee! Oops….

Common embarrassments are tripping over in public, getting food stuck on our face and forgetting someone’s name when introducing them. I consider these to be mere trifles, as I’ve done worse – much worse. Once in a clothes shop a sock of mine got caught inside one of the many pairs of trousers I had been trying on. The trousers were then returned to the clothes rack before I noticed the sock was missing. Soon there were three shop assistants, as well as myself, searching through the many clothes racks to find my lost aging holey sock. However this incident is insignificant when compared to what once happened at the end of a hike in the New Zealand wilderness. I simply had to answer the call of nature, and did so in a remote clearing at the bottom of a small terrace. Only the terrace turned out to be an embankment for a railway. This railway carries a tourist train that twice a day trundles slowly though this area, thereby allowing visitors to see spectacular and unparalleled views of what New Zealand has to offer. On this sunny day in the height of summer the train was packed with tourists in the open carriages, all aiming cameras with gigantic lenses at the virgin scenery (and me). This most certainly colored my cheeks.

It seems to me that embarrassment serves two valuable purposes. Firstly it entertains friends, giving them much hilarity. Secondly it provides material for speech writers at birthdays, weddings and funerals. My funeral may run for days as my blunders, gaffes and indiscretions are recounted; although ironically my funeral may be the one social engagement where I maintain a calm composure.

Psychologists believe the purpose of going bright red is to clearly communicate that we are aware of our mistake. This colourful admission of guilt results in the beetroot-faced being more likely to be forgiven, trusted and liked than those who maintain a perpetual calm. Consequently people showing embarrassment are more likely to be found attractive. So why am I still single? I believe the frequency and scale of my embarrassments has rendered my attractiveness so great that I am viewed as unattainable; sad, but perhaps true.

So the next time you fail to live up to some social standard and you feel the colour rising in your cheeks, take heart in the possibility that a future beau may note your discomfort, and judge you to be both trustworthy and attractive. Who knows, perhaps there’s a tourist somewhere who’s wondering how to contact that woman with her pants down and her colour up.

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