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Saturday, 31 March 2012

Time-travel sex tourism is not quite as straightforward as you'd think

A friend of mine claims to have invented a rudimentary time machine that will allow him to travel back and forth over relatively short distances in time. He says that he is planning a little jaunt to the tail end of the 20th century (mainly for shopping purposes), but has been losing sleep over a rather tricky ethical question. He reckons that if he successfully engineers this trip back in time, he will be tempted to look up his missus as she was in the early days of their marriage and, as the saying goes, ‘get it on’ with her. His wife took up professional wrestling a few years ago, and has bulked up to an extent that he is not entirely comfortable with, but is afraid to comment on for fear of hurting her feelings, or indeed, suffering physical reprisals. That is at least part of the appeal in hooking up with her as she was in 1998.

He believes that he could probably talk his ‘1998’ missus into doing it because: a) she was always game for a laugh before she took up the wrestling, and
b) she would have been gullible enough to have bought the line that the ‘1998’ her having sex with the ‘2012’ him could not be construed as actual adultery as he is /was still the person that she is /was married to, albeit one with unusually variable temporal co-ordinates.

If this plan works, his dilemma can be summarised as follows: When his ‘1998’ missus succumbs to the charms of the ‘2012’ version of him, will she be being unfaithful and will he have grounds for divorce when he returns from his late-nineties sex /shopping trip? Could any act they commit in 1998 be legally and /or morally construed as adulterous behaviour? His view is that he won’t be betraying his ‘2012’ wife by having sex with her in 1998, because she’ll have been aware of, and complicit in, that very act and will have remembered it as just another roll in the hay with her husband (again, notwithstanding those rather unusual circumstances). In addition, she couldn’t really have betrayed her ‘2012’ self in 1998 by agreeing to become the mistress of her ‘2012’ husband, because, in 1998, the 2012 ‘her’ didn’t yet exist.

The real difficulty, however, occurs when my friend considers the fact that this 1998 liaison will have been hidden from the ‘him’ of the last fourteen years. The time-travel sex in 1998 will be a ‘new’ experience for the 2012 him but -when he returns to the present- it will have been an ‘old’ experience for the 2012 version of his wife. After 1998, it will always have been an old experience for her, meaning that his ‘2012’ missus has been hiding this (possibly) adulterous act from him all these years. Unless his wife is exceptionally dim, she must know that, at some point, he is going to find out what went on, because –once he returns from the time trip- he’ll have remembered making it happen and he’ll know that she allowed it to happen. And that, clearly, would make a cuckolded fool of the 1998 him (and all the other ‘hims’ from then, right up to the point at which he goes back in time).

Obviously, he has no recollection of this event because it hasn’t yet happened to him, but if he succeeds in making it happen, the ‘pre-time travel’ 2012 version of him will have been kept in the dark all of these years, which will make the ‘post-time travel’ version of him feel angry and a bit stupid for having suspected nothing all this time. Not only will his wife have been lying to him, but –technically speaking- he’ll have betrayed himself by persuading her to have committed adultery with an older man.

Of course, there is always the possibility that his time machine won’t actually work and he won’t be faced with this dilemma at all. If the grouting he did for me last year is anything to go by, I suspect the odds are probably against a successful expedition.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Thoughtcrime

The decision to prosecute and jail the 21-year old Swansea University student Liam Stacey is depressingly sinister. Stacey admitted posting ‘racially offensive’ comments about the footballer Fabrice Muamba and has been jailed for 56 days.

The notion that this young man stirred up racial hatred is, at best, fanciful. His tweets are clearly the work of a catastrophically drunk idiot, looking to shock a few people. I’ve seen so-called ‘comedians’ on TV try the same kind of thing. The folk who chose to spread his remarks (some of them presumably through a sense of outrage) certainly did a great job of exposing Stacey to a wider audience than he could ever have expected. I’m sure he thought (if thought was ever part of the process) that his idiotic remarks would be read mainly by his (presumably) idiotic friends and the handful of people he was goading.

There is no doubt that he said some stupid and horrible things, but that shouldn’t be enough to merit a jail sentence. We shouldn’t be comfortable with the idea of imprisoning someone for being an offensive idiot. Now that that door has been forced open, it's not too difficult to imagine the various dismal roads it will be possible for us to go down.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

A message for those with O.F.D.S.

Rangers edged the latest Old Firm skirmish, but congratulations will be due to Celtic when they eventually clinch the Scottish League Championship. The best team always wins the league and –on a personal level- I’ll be pleased for Neil Lennon after all the disgraceful rubbish that he had to endure last season. It’s a pity that he had to impugn the referee after last week’s loss to Kilmarnock and, inevitably, he has had a go at today’s match officials. The ability to accept defeat with dignity and grace is perhaps something he will acquire with a bit more experience.

No club outside of the Old Firm has won the league since Aberdeen’s triumph in 1985, so it is little wonder that the battle for the Scottish Championship has been compared to two bald men fighting over a comb. But with Rangers likely to be forced to downscale their financial operations, the ‘race’ for the title in the next few years is probably going to look more like one bald man forever finding the same comb in the pocket of an increasingly threadbare suit. If you thought Scottish football was boring before, it might be about to get a whole lot worse.

As a neutral football fan, I’m delighted whenever one of the so-called provincial teams can triumph over the two-headed dog of the Old Firm, but even the use that kind of phrase has, for some folk, become rather contentious. I’ve been ticked off a couple of times recently by Celtic supporters when I have used the term the ‘Old Firm’ to describe the Celtic-Rangers duopoly. This Old Firm Denial Syndrome (O.F.D.S.) is quite a new phenomenon, albeit one that is obviously an aspect of the perennial one-upmanship that goes on between these two clubs. I suspect that some Celtic supporters enjoy nursing a grievance almost as much as they enjoy winning trophies, so when you conflate Celtic and Rangers by, for example, using the phrase ‘The Ugly Sisters’ in the context of any discussion on sectarianism, you are likely to cause something that they would attempt to pass off as 'offence'. Some of these supporters believe that should Rangers go under, Celtic will survive and indeed thrive in their own right. ‘There is no such thing as the Old Firm’ they say. ‘Don’t lump us in with that lot’.

Thank goodness, Peter Lawell, their chief executive, has put an end to this nonsense. His recent comments about the voting issues in Scottish football make it clear that he recognises, and is comfortable with, the symbiotic relationship between Scottish football’s big two.
Lawell is seeking to preserve the ridiculous 11-1 voting structure that was foolishly agreed by the member clubs in the Scottish Premier League. The gerrymandered voting structure means that to pass a qualified resolution among the SPL members, the Old Firm have to be split. You’d think a simple 7–5 or an 8-4 majority would be enough to carry the vote; but no, not even a 10-2 majority is good enough. Could there be any clearer illustration that Celtic and Rangers work towards a common interest and that that interest is not, as they claim, the good of Scottish football? They have hitched up their skirts and fluttered their eyelashes at the English Premier League (or the mythical North Atlantic League) too many times for anyone to believe that nonsense. The Old Firm’s ‘common interest’ is in exerting and extending their dominance of Scottish football.

"The Icelandic and Welsh leagues are competitive, but it is the presence of the Old Firm which makes Scottish football different" says Lawell. He is upset because “not being invited to the recent meetings of the other 10 clubs is disappointing and disrespectful, given what Celtic and Rangers bring to the game”.

It is clear that the other clubs in the SPL are attempting to take advantage of the financial strife at Rangers to try and bring about some kind of change. Most clubs are run on the basis of self-interest, so I’m not naïve enough to imagine that all of their intentions are strictly honourable. I do, however, wish them luck, because they have an important principle on their side. How could anyone reasonably object to a 10-2 majority carrying a vote among any organisation with twelve members?

Peter Lawell is absolutely correct to point out that the Old Firm are the key players in Scottish football, but his statement merely serves to remind us of the brutal reality. For their own good, those fans with O.F.D.S. need to be told: The Old Firm are, indeed, two cheeks on the same arse.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

There's one for you, nineteen for me

In some quarters, it has become an article of faith that to cut the 50p top rate of tax is an act of betrayal, a callous and partisan decision by a ‘posh-boy’ government inclined to favour the filthy rich at the expense of the hoi polloi. That might be a convenient peg on which to hang your donkey jacket while you’re signing up for the ‘Class Warfare’ module at your local college, but knee-jerk responses and party slogans are inadequate to the task of appreciating the nuanced realities of our tax system.

Back in 1970, the top 1% earners in the UK contributed around 11% to the total tax yield. That was after several years in which the government imposed ‘super-tax’ rates which peaked at 83% (and which, for some, reached an unbelievable 98% once a surcharge on investments and dividends had been levied). Super-tax rates, in class warfare terms, might have scored a few brownie points; in terms of income generation, they sucked.

UK governments since then have -by and large- accepted the idea that punitive tax rates for the very rich are not beneficial to the overall yield. Today, the inconvenient truth for those who like to complain about the rich ‘getting away with it’, is that the top 1% of earners in the UK are accountable for 28% of the total income tax yield, while the top 15% of earners are responsible for 63%. In just over forty years, the income tax yield from that top 1% has increased by more than 150%.

The argument for cutting the 50p top rate is that it actually generates more money from the top earners. Evidence suggests that people who earn huge sums of money are far less likely to seek legal methods of tax avoidance if their top rate is lower than, or somewhere around, 40p in the pound. Once it hits 50p, there is a perception that it becomes ‘unfair’ and folk are then encouraged to look for ways around it. If, therefore, you want to get more money out of very rich people, you have to make your top rate just high enough to generate the desired tax yield, but just low enough for them to think they are being treated fairly. Not only (the theory goes) do you get more tax out of them; you encourage them to spend more money on goods and services, which will have been provided by small, medium and large businesses (employing small, medium and large people).
Some folk might not like the idea pandering to such a mentality, but those misgivings should be irrelevant if -and this might be a big if- the primary focus really is on increasing the tax yield to the exchequer.

Last year, Adele took a huge amount of public flak because she had the nerve to complain about her £4m tax bill. That’s four million pounds in one year. A four million pound contribution to roads, schools, hospitals, MPs expenses and all the rest, paid into the system by our most successful singer. On a quick, back-of-a-fag-packet calculation, I reckon I’ll need to live and work until the age of 389 to have contributed that amount to the public coffers.

It’s not difficult to see how and why the tax yield from that top 1% has increased so markedly within a few decades. We’ve developed a system that induces the top 15% of earners to contribute 63% of our total income tax yield; most folk, I think, would be comfortable with labelling that system as ‘progressive’.
Those who claim that the current government is merely currying favour with our top earners should perhaps ask themselves whether they want to bleed the rich for the sake of it (which is one thing), or whether they want to generate more funds for the exchequer (which is quite another).

Monday, 19 March 2012

Gang of One

‘Gang of One’ is the story of Scottish banker Gary Mulgrew’s spell in the Big Spring penitentiary in Texas. One of the so-called ‘NatWest Three’, Mulgrew was indicted by the US authorities in 2002 for his part in some dodgy financial dealings. Having invested with a NatWest client who was directly connected to Enron, he made the mistake of not telling his employers about that investment, hence the spectacular fall from grace.

One of the achievements of his book is that it manages to evoke sympathy for an investment banker who was perceived to have profited massively from some very sharp practices. Mulgrew appears contrite about his role in so-called ‘casino capitalism’ and wisely avoids going too deeply into the details of the case.
He focuses instead on the human interest story surrounding his separation from his son Calum and the search for his missing daughter, Cara Katrina.
His daughter is missing because, when the scandal was at its height, his ex-wife abducted her and fled to Tunisia, leaving Mulgrew and his son to come to terms not only with the gathering storm of his impending extradition and imprisonment, but the disappearance of half of their family unit. With his career and his marriage in ruins, he was forced to draw upon reserves of fortitude which he attributes, in some part, to his Glasgow upbringing.

He writes amusingly of his preparations for prison. During the limbo period after extradition, while he is hanging around in Houston awaiting instructions on where to report for his prison sentence, Mulgrew imagines all of the negative possibilities of prison life. From his perspective as an average middle-aged executive: “they broke down into two distinct categories ... I labelled the first group BAD: things like poor diet, boredom, bad beds, no pillow, cold showers, shared toilet, no tea or coffee … The second heading covered murder, rape, violence, death etc., so after some thought I named that group FUCKING CATASTROPHIC”.

He hires a personal trainer to prepare him for the probability of physical challenges but, when the time comes, it is his quick-wittedness and ability to assimilate which prove to be his greatest assets in Big Spring.

In spite of his initial dread at being perceived to be the ‘Enron Guy’ (and therefore a likely target), Mulgrew uses his wits to carve out his own little niche in the prison. Convention demands that each inmate in Big Spring must be affiliated to a gang. Unable to join any of the various ethnic groups and unwilling to side with the loathsome Aryan Brotherhood, Mulgrew survives by forming his very own ‘Gang of One’. He manages to befriend the right kind of people and turns his energies positively towards gainful employment, first as a toilet cleaner and then in a ‘promoted’ post in the library. His real focus is on re-uniting with his son and then on finding his daughter. The pain of separation from his children is the thing that gives him the strength to endure his imprisonment with equanimity.

The boredom and brutality of prison life is evoked skilfully. Long periods of inertia are peppered with brief but sickening bouts of ultra-violence. Mulgrew is horrified to witness some awful ‘revenge’ beatings. He reacts in the way that anyone who has not been anaesthetised to that level of brutality would react: he wants to intervene. His instinct is to help the men being ‘punished’, but is warned that to intervene would be equivalent to writing his own suicide note. The experience makes him question what it is to be human:

“I had given up all pretence of not watching and sat on my bunk … wondering where the hell I was. I hated all these people, I hated myself for watching it. I hated the people who had sent me here. Is this what those cunts in the Department of Justice wanted to teach me? Was this how anyone was supposed to be corrected? I wanted to scream, to tear the walls down, to attack them all, but I just sat there like I was watching a movie”.

This book provides an entertaining read, due in no small part to the clarity and candour of Mulgrew’s voice. The prison scenes are written with a cinematic eye for detail and it would be no surprise to see the story translated to the big screen sometime soon. I can think of several big-name Scottish actors who might quite fancy the idea of playing the main man in the ‘Gang of One’.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

The right to define

Now that we are into what Lynne Featherstone, Minister for Equalities, has called the ‘consultation period’, the battle lines have been drawn in the debate around the legal status of same-sex partnerships.

All the indications however, are that –in some quarters- the terms of debate will be framed within the context of the perceived superiority of the modern secular worldview. ‘Modern’ values are almost universally understood to be somehow more ‘evolved’ than those of previous generations. The modern secular liberal believes him or herself to be not only morally and intellectually superior to old-school religious conservatives, but morally and intellectually superior to every human being that has ever lived. The tiresome growth of hard-line atheists and their increasingly fundamentalist approach to the ‘God’ debate is but one example of this phenomenon.

Let me make this absolutely clear: I am all for same-sex partnerships. I think that people in same-sex partnerships should have the same rights as heterosexual couples and should be allowed legally to describe their union as a ‘marriage’. Nor do I have any issue with such partnerships raising children. Society is much better off when children are raised by responsible people who love, support and care for them; the gender or sexual orientation of those carers is not the primary consideration.

I do, however, understand why some folk might fret about the impending legal redefinition of the word 'marriage'. It was only in 2005 that the concept of 'civil partnership' was legalised in the UK. In historical terms, the ink is barely dry on that deal, yet the proposal now is for a further seismic shift in legal terminology.

This isn’t like ‘Marathon’ changing its name to ‘Snickers’. There are perfectly good economic and socio-cultural reasons why ‘marriage’ has –at least up until now- meant the union of man and woman. Accordingly, you can’t expect everyone to react with unbridled enthusiasm just because a relatively new societal trend has emerged. ‘Marriage’ has an extremely long and significant history. It is, at best, naïve to expect that a complete redefinition within the space of a couple of generations will not encounter a significant degree of hostility.

Lynne Featherstone claims that the church does not ‘own’ marriage and that the government is entitled to introduce same-sex marriages as a "change for the better". But do governments –which are always temporary- really have the moral authority to redefine a concept as old as marriage? Is this ‘moral authority’ founded upon nothing more substantial than the ability to guess which way the wind of opinion is currently blowing? Does it rest on a narcissistic belief that the modern secular liberal knows best? A Guardian editorial on this topic last year stated that the law needed to ‘catch up with where people are’. If more people decided that shoplifting was an appropriate lifestyle choice, would the law have to 'catch up' with that by legalising shoplifting?

I’m not religious and I have no desire to see any religious grouping dictate terms to society at large, but I do respect the fact that the Judeo-Christian value system has, by and large, shaped our laws, institutions and societal mores. I don’t support the arguments of folk like Cardinal Keith O’Brien, but I do understand the background from which it is possible for him to arrive at his position. And a position that has evolved over centuries won’t be changed by trend-hopping governments or by editorials in the Guardian.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

How to spend your royalties wisely

When you have been involved in the business of music, even in a modest way, you can occasionally be surprised and delighted to receive remuneration for your work. I’ve just received notification of a royalties payment of $24.64 (or £15.58 in actual British money) for some music that I released several years ago.
Now I’m not going to get carried away by this, but I’d like to think that all of the folk who have scoffed at my musical efforts over the years will now be scoffing on the other side of their faces. Show business is about learning how to take the knocks before dusting yourself down and then –literally- getting on with the show. Part of my strategy for coping with criticism over the years has been to divide into various categories the folk who criticise, ignore or ridicule my musical efforts. This will make it a bit easier to exact revenge on the day of judgement (a.k.a. the day I make my acceptance speech upon receiving the ‘lifetime achievement award’ at the Brits).
For the record, the offenders are categorised as follows: teachers, schoolmates, journalists, liars, promoters, record company executives, neighbours, girlfriends, DJs, workmates, bastards, random strangers, friends, relatives, wives, children and members of the medical profession. There is also a ‘miscellaneous’ category, just in case I’ve missed anyone out. I’ve already got a rough draft of my acceptance speech and, if I can trim it down by about 45 minutes, it will be succinctly and utterly devastating to anyone who has ever doubted my abilities.
Along with the rewards that the music business can bring comes the pressure of having to decide how to spend your hard-earned wonga. Like other major rock stars, I occasionally feel a burning need to put something back, to use my position, my influence and my earnings to make a positive contribution to society. Sting famously built a recording studio and health spa in a remote African village, while Madonna published a 128-page glossy hardback translation of her lyrics into Aramaic in an attempt to promote greater understanding and world peace. On a more modest level, Peter Gabriel funded a moth sanctuary in Cornwall, while de Bono out of the U2 has written various books on the power of positive thinking.

Now I’d be the first to admit that £15.58 is not an amount that is likely to change the world; the fact that it is such a modest sum makes it rather tempting to blow it quickly on my hedonistic lifestyle. Like many rock stars before me, I almost succumbed to the desire to shove my earnings straight up my nose. I checked the current street prices and ‘my man’ assured me that I could get two, maybe even three, Vicks Vapol Inhalers for that kind of money. However, now that I’m older and –I’d like to think- a bit wiser, I’m more inclined to try to broaden my mind with a bit of cultured reading. A quick rummage around a certain well-known internet shopping site reveals that there is currently a very interesting book available, just inside my price range. It’s called, somewhat intriguingly:

“The Doctrines of the Resurrection and the Reward to Come, Considered as the Grand Motives to an Holy Life. Discoursed Of, from 1. Cor. XV. 58. / By the late pious and learned John Worthington DD (1690)” [Paperback edition]

You may recall that this treatise on the early history of religion was made into a successful film, ‘Snakes on a Plane’, starring Samuel L. Jackson (although I believe some of the heavier religious stuff was left out of the final cut).
While there is a lot to be said for using my royalties to advance the understanding of complex philosophical ideas, I’m tempted instead to invest in something that would bring a little bit of unadulterated joy into the world.

A job lot of ten sets of Universal Curly Sexy Car Headlight Eyelashes (pictured below) is currently sitting at £13.96 on e-bay. That sounds like a pretty good price and it still leaves me some room to manoeuvre on the bidding. I don’t watch ‘Top Gear’, so I have no idea what the views of the cognoscenti of the car world would be on headlight eyelashes. I can’t imagine that Clarkson and the boys would be anything other than completely in favour of this innovative automotive adornment. Surely ten sets of these sexy car headlight eyelashes, distributed at random to friends, relatives and acquaintances would help make the world a better place? After all, we are the world, we are the children. We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving.

If I can just get my hands on those headlight eyelashes, I’ll know that all those years of trudging around various dead-ends gigs in hovels, dives and toilets up and down the country will not have been wasted.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Thinking is better when you use your head

The historian David Starkey kicked up a bit of a storm during his latest appearance on Question Time. This is par for the course for Mr Starkey, as is the silly over-reaction to his peculiar brand of intellectual grandstanding. Sadly, if the average edition of Question Time is anything to go by, 'par for the course' in what passes for political debate in the UK involves the reiteration of a series of anodyne, statistic-heavy stock phrases, scripted by spin doctors, enforced by whips and parroted by party hacks with little more than the ability to read and memorise a script. The reaction to Starkey says a great deal about our atrophied capacity for the cut and thrust of grown-up political debate.

Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, provided a particularly dismal example the other night. There was no point in the show at which one felt that she was ‘listening’ to her fellow panellists or indeed ‘considering’ an answer. She didn’t have to ‘listen’ to the questions, because she already ‘knew’ the answers. She didn’t have to think, because she had memorised her responses in advance (and this isn’t a party political point, because all of our mainstream parties are riddled with this kind of intellectual dry rot).
Ms Reeves, drunk on statistics and spin, briefed up to her eyeballs and terrified (or unable) to reveal even the merest hint of anything approaching an original thought or -god forbid- an opinion, exemplified a wretched truth about modern politics. Namely, that to be a thriving member of the professional political class, one merely requires the ability to regurgitate an approved set of platitudes, statistics and stock phrases; there is nothing in the job description about intellectual bravery or insight.

Unlike 99.5% of the usual Question Time panellists, David Starkey is at least prepared to stand or fall by his intellectual arguments. You might not agree with him (or like him), but he will let you know exactly what he thinks and you know that what he thinks will have been arrived at through an intellectual process. His comments on Syria, multiculturalism, taxation and the French have all received critical attention this week, but the reaction to his remarks about the NHS (particularly about the conditions that the British Medical Association has managed to secure for GPs) provide a perfect illustration of a polity mired in censorious groupthink, wallowing in a mushy middle ground wherein conspicuous compassion is more valued than intellectual rigour.

There is a great deal to commend about the idea of the NHS and a lot of wonderful work is done by its employees. But then again, one might be entitled to expect high standards from any organisation that employs 1.3 million people. Unfortunately, political discourse in the UK is not mature enough to handle a discussion on how to improve or modernise the NHS. As soon as you deviate from the line that it is the 'envy of the world', you are branded as a hardline free-marketeer who would like poor people, when not lying dead at the side of the road, at least to have sold all of their meagre possessions (perhaps including their vital organs) to pay for medical insurance.

George Orwell famously wrote that: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

David Starkey reminds us that true intellectual freedom is the hallmark of a mature and functioning democracy. We need people who are willing to tackle sacred cows, to say the ‘unsayable’, to strip away the layers of spin, obfuscation and sentimentality, to get to the very essence of political ideas.
To say, when required, that two plus two makes four.