Saturday, June 13, 2009

Five Minutes Thirty Four Seconds

I've got 5,953 songs occupying 31.72GB of disk space in my iTunes player. If I was so inclined, it would take me 16 days, 7 hours and 12 minutes to listen to them all.....but I would probably die of sleep deprivation before I finished. As a sort of random exercise, here are all the songs that are exactly five minutes and thirty four seconds in duration:

Aztec Camera - Stray
Lisa Knapp - Blacksmith
Black Grape - Little Bob
Terri Naomi - Flesh for Bones
Aretha Franklin - Bridge Over Troubled Water
King Creosote - My Favourite Girl
The Sensational Alex Harvey Band - Give My Compliments to the Chef
Hootie and the Blowfish - When I'm Lonely
Myrrhman - Talk Talk

Go on, if you're out there, give me a duration and I'll give you another list. Or send me yours.



Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Football and God

It may be apocryphal but David Beckham, legendary English footballer and all round nice guy was once credited with making the following statement about his son Brooklyn "I definitely want Brooklyn to be christened, but I don't know into what religion yet."

Cue jokes about footballers not being terribly bright etc. but frankly I don't particularly care if they're smart or not. We don't expect our academics to be good footballers so why should we expect our footballers to be intellectuals? "Jeez, that Stephen Fry's a clever bugger but have you ever seen him take a penalty?" My point exactly. So, on the whole, I think we should leave our footballers to concentrate on putting the ball in the onion bag and we should leave the reciprocation of pi and the quantum physics to the people who are so inclined to such matters. We, the punters, are only really interested in the end result - plenty of goals and the answer to the meaning of life - and we don't much care how our footballers and boffins get there, simply that they do.

But I think Mr. Beckham raises an interesting point. People are not born religious. Religion is a man-made concept. It is now, in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Beckham, apparently simply something of a lifestyle choice. A person may live in a society that is pre-disposed to affiliate itself with one particular religion and it may be somewhat inevitable that in the absence of any other belief system, that is the religion a person gets drawn into, but if that same person, before gaining an understanding of their local predominant religion is taken elsewhere, they may adopt an entirely different set of beliefs from a different society. We're not born and naturally inclined to adopt a particular religion, any more than we are born intuitively French and with an appreciation of good coffee just because we were born in France.

Religion was initially a means of getting a naïve population into believing that, for example, if nobody could reasonably explain where the sun and the stars came from, then the only logical explanation was that someone must have put them there and they had better be careful not to upset that person. Diss the big man up there and he'll be looking for vengeance. This suited religious leaders who could claim they had a hotline to the Gods and could ease your passage through life if you showed them enough respect. A cosy existence if you could get enough people to buy into it.

Nowadays we can pretty much explain why the sun comes over the hill every day and that leaves religion in a tight spot. Every day it seems, one of their core values is explained away by the scientists as simply an inevitability of the passage of time and a lot of atoms pinging around in interesting but pretty random ways. It also means that some of the more new-age, out-there religions have to come up with new ideas to draw in the customers. Cue the Scientologists and Kabbalah crowd, eager to fill the vacuum created by an increasingly cynical congregation. Better still if you can get a few celebrities on board because celebrities are now the new icons. If you can get a few of them to buy into your ideas then, with luck, they'll bring their fanbase with them. The whole Hare Krishna movement was famously given a huge kickstart in the sixties through the patronage of The Beatles.

Where am I going with this piece? I don't really know. You may have gathered that I'm not a religious person but I'm vexed by the idea that,although I know we're not born and naturally inclined to a particular religion, we may be somehow genetically wired to want something like religion in our lives. Not because the alternative of nothing is unbearable but, hopefully perhaps, because we like abstract ideas. Let's face it, we're all a little bit superstitious about something, even if we declare absolute atheism.

Faith is, by definition, belief in something for which you have no proof. I'm happy to say I'm not interested in any of it and don't have that genetic wiring (if it in fact exists) but I'm frankly amazed by the number of people that are.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Gravy Suckers

As our government steadily but inevitably implodes upon itself the whole scandal about MP's expenses prompts a few questions.

The thing that has irked the population more than anything I suspect is that not a single MP has managed to come up with a decent defence of their expense claims. There have been two common defences. The first is to claim it was a simple oversight or accounting error. This would be plausible in a few cases but when this lack of attention to detail is exhibited by just about every MP, you start to think this is simply a collective excuse that they're all trotting out. If we were to believe they all made the same simple accounting errors then this displays a collective incompetence on a grand scale that simply illustrates they're incapable of the most simple of tasks and don't deserve to be employed in any position of authority.

The second defence/excuse is to say that it was "within the rules." This is patently untrue because the rules states that expenses should be incurred as part of being an MP. Having your garden landscaped which has been a frequent expense claim is not an occupational expense of being an MP however lax you make the rules.

The other excuse is to claim they're terribly overworked and equally terribly underpaid as they only take a annual salary of about £64,000. Based on average salaries, this places them in the top 9% of earners in the UK. This argument simply doesn't stand up to even the simplest of analysis. If I were an MP and felt as woefully underpaid, overworked and unappreciated as this lot do then I'd probably give it up and go and find another job where my brilliance was appreciated but this lot, despite claiming that they lead such a financially perilous existence seem strangely determined to hang on to their jobs. The reality is a great many of them could not hope to draw a wage like this (plus expenses) in the private sector as most of them have precious little experience of working in the real world.

None of them have been prepared to admit that being an MP is a pretty cushy existence. You get to run a small business with a turnover of around £250,000 per year that is pretty much immune from the scrutiny of the taxman. You can employ members of your own family in nominal jobs. You have various ways of collecting large sums of money from the public purse without having to provide any proof of actually how that money is spent. There is an extremely generous pension scheme that is unheard of in the private sector and if you do lose your job (effectively sacked because your electorate don't think you're up to it) there is a generous redundancy package.

MPs also like to proselytise about how much work they do and how essential their duties are. The reality is that over the last month, while Parliament has been mired in this scandal, precious little real work has been done. Most MPs are avoiding their constituents and the media like the plague for fear of being asked awkward questions. Party leaders have spent all their time defending the actions of their MPs or in the case of Gordon Brown, feigning interest in the health of reality show contestants in a desperate attempt to appear in touch with the public.

It's been a gravy train for too long and MPs have the gravy boat wedged firmly in their mouths and they'll keep sucking it for as long as they can get away with it.