Friday, April 4, 2014

A guide to the ethics of freecycling and recycling

The other day I brought a few things over to St Oswald's for them to sell or send to the rag and bone people. I now prefer to do this over the more conventional options supported by the city, such as just bin things on the day, put them in the recycling bin or bring them to the recycling centre near St-Peter's in Byker.  The practical truth is that these options are now less desirable than ethically distributing things between neighbours and donating to various charities.

Before we get to the how of Freecycling, let's look at the why.

The last two times I tried to use the recycling depot I was verbally abused by the officious little *&nts from the council running the place. Despite my heartfelt desire to bring electronic goods, rags and other things they were designed to take, I was barred from the place for having entered on the power of my own legs. Forget that I at the time lived two blocks away and didn't want to drive a car in ( or in my case  somebody else's), the facility is built on the exclusive notion that you will drive in and out, there is no pedestrian access. Because of the slavish devotion to health and safety as well as  the belief that people are too stupid to look out before walking into a place to see if there is any traffic, means that anybody using something smaller than a mini austin or with fewer than 3 wheels cannot bring any recycling into the centre. Good job City of Newcastle, for making the disposal of unwanted things more likely to end up being fly tipped. I am not the only one who feels this way  but repeated complaints have have done nothing to remedy the situation and now I depend on other means which I shall talk about in a bit.It still means that at the end of the day, there is an even greater probability that the item I would have brought there to be dealt with properly, be it electronics, old paint, cardboard or building materials, will end up in landfill and not be recycled at all.

So what about the recycling bin you say? The problem is not so much the sorting, that I don't mind, glass away from the rest, makes sense. The problem begins when you try to shoe horn things like rods or odd bits of plastic  that won't fit in. Try leaving the clearly for recycling cardboard boxes neatly folded and staked next to the bin and they ignore the stuff. You need to cut it up and tie it and put a pretty bow on it with a note telling the workers how  brilliant they are AND stuff it into the already  full bin. Left over building material not numerous enough to hire a skip lays unloved and untouched for weeks  or months  until some bright spark takes pitty on the stuff and cuts it up with saw or steals it in the night. So while the blue bin is ok for most stuff, the things most foisted on us despite our best efforts, are near impossible to get rid of.

The blue bin part 2: We don't create a lot of rubbish, in fact if it weren't for a bit of egg shell, trimmed veg and bones, we'd have no rubbish at all. We recycle as much as we can and try to buy things with as little packaging as possible. This means that our green bin is effectively a large unused space taker in front of the house.  What to do?  For starters, what if I could use it as a recycle bin as well?  Just need a council approved sign of some kind..... a signal of some kind that says it's not got any rubbish,  but today I have put a load of old papers and other things in that would not fit in the blue one. It would take a second for them to look.

The Brown bin: If you live in a place with a lawn , a garden or some other such place with vedure and root things that need regular tending, you'll know you can't mix in food waste,  you can't put in any sticks  over a certain length and you cannot put in anything that is not some kind of plant life. Fair enough about that,  but  during certain seasons you'll trim a lot more than one brown bin's worth, and it will take weeks to be rid of the stuff if  ever.  In short, If I can , and I can....we burn it. We can't be bothered to wait a month to reduce a day's garden waste. And if that wasn't bad enough, it's a limited service, miss the days and you're stuck with a bin full of grass cuttings till next season. Three guesses where all that grass ends up.  Personally, I just hide it in with the occasional regular rubbish I accumulate, but  little wonder  some people have wrong mindedly paved, astro turfed or concreted over their laws. These people who had a choice to be kind to the planet or free of one more job, chose to deny water yet a few hundred more square feet of  space to gently go into the ground. Wonder why there's so much flooding? there's one reason.

Composting: A fine idea, sometimes even supported by local councils  but mostly not. What do you need to compost? Enough waste that is clean ( uncontaminated ), clean kitchen waste, some paper, some space, a composting kit and a reason to make the stuff in the first place.  If you can't use it but your neighbour can, good.  But if you're not that lucky, who's going to take it away to be used at allotments, private gardens or local farms? Depending where you live, the service is spotty to none. Which brings me to us....We cook from scratch, buy fresh, mostly free of  packaging and only in the amounts we need in the case of food that will go off quickly. Food prep waste, mostly fruit, veg and egg shells, means we should compost, but we produce too little even with all the home cooking. We are forced to find novel ways to get rid of the stuff, and so we start here with the freecycling and the ethics of it all.  Faced with the dilemma of binning v making the world's smallest compost bin, we have been forced in the absence of a nearby compost bin to just bin the stuff in the closest  green bin owned by people who never heard of recycling, and believe me.... there are still way too many of them. It saddens us that until we finally turn over the yard and turn it into a our own small free hold farm  short of the chickens ( hums the good life theme), we are effectively forced to go against our own principles or end up knee deep in bits of onion and garlic skins.

Having lived a few places in my life, not least of which was a city that led the way with what we now call free cycling, I find myself turning to the old solutions, as they are still the best.

As a boy my grandmother taught me two important things.

Other peoples rubbish can and should be gold, but only if you need it or know people who need it . 


Always be clean and respectful of other people's property when reclaiming something into usefulness. 

It's amazing what perfectly good things people will bin. In my lifetime I have saved furniture, books, clothes, toys and games not to mention the abundant harvest of pumpkins, melons and other perfectly edible decorative veg that goes out the day after harvest festivals and Halloween. We lived on an unused clean 5 kg bag of lentils for two months once. Most recently we have acquired

1- a lawn mower
2- a strimmer
3- several antique non electric yard and kitchen gadgets that still work fine
4- enough spare parts to build or repair most of the appliances in the house
5- book cases, books, cd's
6- perfectly good computer peripherals including a kick ass set of mini speakers
7- Enough toddler toys to stock a day care.... which it did in the end
8- Art.... you will not believe the bounty off people with bad taste.

and FOOD.... food that thing that keeps us alive. When you move house and you bin perfectly good fresh food.... don't make it hard to get to, don't cover it in slime. Make it easy to find and take, and if you can spare the effort and time... offer it to somebody, anybody. It's food and it's a sin, a crime to waste it.

CLOTHING is another area we need to tread carefully on. Most clothes in this country end up in one of two places, the bin or increasingly, the charity shop. I used to run a charity and can tell that despite the most logical hygiene rules, people still donate underwear, aka stuff that has been near your genitals or bottom.  Do I even need to say why this is wrong????? Pants aside, most clothes, washed and in good condition deserve to be used by somebody. If we have lost weight and cannot take the clothes in ourselves or they are not worth the expense of a seamstress, we will bring the clothes to one of the many large metal boxes situated in convenient places and that are dry even in the wettest weather. Barring that, we always walk the clothes over to a charity shop near us to insure the goods are not ruined by passing dogs and other beasts that could open the bags up. That said, my wife and I have been the grateful recipients of clothes from others who thought we'd appreciate perfectly good clothes  that could fit us  but not the person offering.

Freecycling is easy and ethical if you follow a few simple principles

1- Assume somebody needs what you don't want any more:  This is true with furniture, appliances, art, books and kitchen things. My preferred way is to put things in plain sight a few days before the bin men come. What doesn't get taken by people who need it gets taken by the rag and bone men ( salvage ). If you feel uneasy about this, then call a proper charity that will place or sell on your things at a low price to those who will need it most. Avoid the charity that regularly breaks and bins most things  they get  if they cannot get  a good price off the antique dealers. Ask the questions and you'll be sure the goods ( not actual rubbish) get a new home as opposed to just taking longer to get to the landfill.  In fact the step before the charity is to ask around your neighbours or family before you put it put on the curb.  Even better, hold a garage sale, put a small price tag and shift it to somebody else's house.

2- When taking something from the tip behind the big grocery store: be careful to be clean, be careful to take only what you need and no more. In fact you can, if you think it will work, arrange to let the manager know you are taking the stuff and why.  Let them know that there are food banks and families that are going without while they bin industrial quantities of food every week.

3- When taking something from the yard of a person on or near the bin days: keep it clean, only take the stuff you can use and leave the rest for somebody else.

4- Give back: keep the cycle going, do not be ashamed of what you are doing and make sure you never break any laws.

5- If you have enough people or space to take food from the "not so perfect" back bin in large amounts, cook it, share it , freeze it , and share some more.

6- If you garden, swap with others, give away excess seeds so others can garden as well. Process your fruit and veg into something that will last and cook with it or bake with it.

7- Books: If you're not the type to hold onto books for long, find people willing to take them off you or sell them to used books shops. 

8- You are online: then use the swapping sites, be fair, be honest and never undervalue things  just because some idiot is giving things away for 25p.  Things have value, just try buying them new cheap or trying to find somebody willing to build it for you for free..... these things have value and so do the skills to make them.

9- lastly, in all of this, never loose sight of the fact that your act of generosity and consideration will be a reason to socialize more and be aware of your impact on the people around you. You are also reducing the amount of materials used to replace the binned things if you had to buy them new yourself. Consider that the next time you feel the need for a new phone a mere 4 or 5 months after you just upgraded. Waste is waste regardless of what end of the wheel you take it from.

Freecycling is not begging or scavenging for the sake of a temporary budgetary short fall, it's a way of life that goes goes back centuries and will survive the current greedy culture that just wants us to buy new things and replace them 5 minutes later with something newer. Hand me downs are not always a bad thing , they are thrift. Some children's clothing is made so well and so timeless that several generations can wear them before they are worn out. Freecycling as we know it now was started in New York City by middle-class people and socialites who grew tired of the waste and even at their rarified cost of living  were having to choose what they spent money on and what they preferred not to. That it took them back to the same values their parents and grandparents held barely 60 years ago is no accident.

Because of this way of life, I have learned how to cook with an assortment of novel unexpected ingredients, I have learned to repair appliances and acquired the skills to use tools that have been abandoned by an entire generation. I have made new friends and been introduced to new cultures.  My reach and impact into other people's lives is greater because I participate in the swapping, giving and reusing. The absolute ethical spine that drives the movement here and in other places is one that fights the instinct of some to isolate themselves and think only of themselves.

I don't for a second suggest that this is the ultimate way of life, this using old or slightly used things only. I feel it's important that you also spend some serious cash with skilled workmen, farmers and merchants who get up in the morning to make a living. I'm not raising the act of charitable giving above and beyond every other thing you can do to the distraction of profit and the destruction of the marketplace for skilled people.  We still need a functioning economy, but if you feel that wasting things is bad and you prefer to spend your money on things you can't make yourself, then freecycling is the route for you.

I do have one proviso about the reusing of things for the sake of reusing things...... Know the value of what you are about to destroy for the sake of arts and crafts, fashion or simple utility. If you are taking a first edition of 1984 to cut amusing shapes into , then you are desecrating a book, but if you take 50 copies of Jaws in paper back  to make coasters, you're ok. If you find vintage clothing and decide to cut it up for curtains, you could be insuring the destruction of the last of such an item. Underclothes especially are hard to find, but clothes of any kind  above a certain age are worth more intact than altered or damaged.  Do you need a spare part off an older thing that still works? be sure the main object is beyond use. Just because YOU don't see any value in the bit of furniture, book, record, painting etc.... does not give you the right to destroy it. Before you make the ultimate gesture of removing an object from it's principle reason of being, be damn sure it's beyond use, once it's gone, it's gone.

still using this

Here's a way my wife and I developed years ago and still use. We call it the Bench G-d,  we take a box or bags  of items we don't want and leave it on a park bench or bus stop. At some point, if we've chosen wisely, more than a few people who actually need the items will stop long enough and help themselves. It helps somtimes to put the word FREE in large friendly letters, but you don't have to. Friend of ours regularly does this by leaving books near the fireplace of her local pub, if anything, the place seems to breed more books now and all of them good for somebody.

A few interesting links you can use to follow up on this.

UK freecycle, a site where you .... swap or give away for free. 
Gumtree ,  sell your stuff
CT home Newcastle ... furniture, appliances service for the less well off.  Dealers not tolerated.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The re emergence of Central Europe or how the next European War started.

I hate to say I told you so, but, I told you so. Russia under the leadership of Vladimir "Rex" Putin has only gone and proved me right yet again. Years ago I said he wasn't to be trusted, years ago, when he meddled in Georgia the World was warned that the current bunch of Empire rebuilding Russians were not going to rest until they fixed the mistakes of  Mikhail Gorbachev.  There has always been a nationalist party in the Kremlin and regardless of ideology, any regional government that tried to get away from the loving embrace of Mother Russia has paid in blood and even greater loss of freedom.

 That the Crimea or Krim which is easier to say and more familiar to me, was never a part of Ukraine, really seems academic at this point, but is worth considering if only for the intellectual exercise most rational people went through as early as the emergence of an independent Ukraine in the 1990's. Firstly, the ceding in 1954 to the then wholly artificial concept of  an independent self sufficient Ukraine within the Soviecky Soyuz by an apparently drunken Soviet leader in a fit of  more than usually strong alcoholic haze, is one of the great mysteries of modern Russian history. That most regretted it almost immediately is not questioned. Roll onto the dissolution of the Soviet Empire in the wake of  Glasnost and Peristroika, and you see the rise of nationalist elements that began to clamour for the reconstruction of what had been lost. Solely in the case of the Krim was there ever a justified case for the restitution of territory to it's proper place. If people who consider themselves Russian want to live in the paradise that is the Soviet Empire redux, that I will grudgingly admit, is their  right. Where I depart from the views of both Kiyov and Moscow is the argument that you can forcibly keep people within borders that were never really yours or that you can just take back land after a sham referendum in which every rule ever written for referendums was broken. The less than subtle armed take over  followed by the "transparent" ballot boxes and annexation atmosphere that followed the occupation of the peninsula, including the unvarnished and unapologetic propaganda machine that had hundreds of thousands of imaginary refugees fleeing Ukraine, pogroms and apparent rise of 5th column nazis rising in their hundreds of thousands ready to wage terrible war on the legacy of dear old Lenin, would have been funny had it not been so earnestly taken seriously by Russians and Russian speakers in the Ukraine. Having got the required soviet style 97 % in a vote( prior to the Russian occupation , a poll had annexation at 40%) , Putin and the ultra nationalists have the needed bit of  moral justification they wanted. They would have achieved this years ago if they hadn't spent the entire time scaring the hell out of their own citizens and those of countries around them. Who knows, if Gorbachev had ultimately succeeded in creating a truly free and democratic Russia and the IMF and others not insisted on trying to recreate in Moscow what failed so miserably under Reagan and Thatcher, we'd be looking at situation where Crimea would continue to be an autonomous, predominantly Russian speaking state that could have eventually chosen in time to 1- separate from Ukraine  then 2- negotiate it's entry into Russia..... or not.  As it stands, this brutal regime has yet again shown it will do anything, as long as it can do so without fear of retribution or loss of personal power and fortune.

The fact remains that most existing sovereign states  in central and eastern Europe today live in constant fear that Russia will next target them in the never ending crusade to rescue imperilled Russians living abroad or to repatriate territory unjustly , in the eyes of Russians, given away at one time or another and most recently in the great dissolution of the temporary madness of  Gorbachev. Having successfully bluffed the West and the rest of Europe in the Krim, Putin now has his eye on the Eastern territories of Ukraine. If the current crisis can be stopped at this tipping point between all out European war and some old fashioned diplomatic tension, we and the people of the Ukraine may yet walk away from the naked territorial grab that is next in the works without thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dying needlessly when the ultimate result is a draw in which nothing changes but the formerly intact landscape of homes, factories and farms. If shooting breaks out, the inevitable outcome is the hardening of the resolve of  millions of Ukrainians, both native speakers and Russian speakers alike v the not so paternalistic Russian forces coming to take them kicking and screaming home to Moscow. As a citizen of Europe, you surely cannot be unaware that any war on European soil that involves Russia directly like this, cannot help but escalate tensions and cause every government from Warsaw through at least Berlin or even Paris to mobilize it's armed forces where  if the desired effect for Putin is pan European war, he will get his wish. The mood that prevailed last week  where economic and diplomatic sanctions on Russia and it's oligarchs was not seen to be realistic or practical has now moved into full application. Germany and a number of other nations are moving to a position where soon a defacto boycott of  many Russian products and services will occur. Sanctions on individuals and their companies so successful against the Serbs in the last Balkan war, are the first step in a long line of steps designed to stop the  naked territorial aggression and ambitions of Putin's Russia short of having to declare War. I do have one question to which even I don't have an answer.... Can The United Nations Security council survive with it's reputation intact if a permanent member is allowed to veto any resolution stopping it's own aggression on a sovereign state let alone it's own people? I'm sure like the League of Nations it will hobble along like a dying animal for a bit, but can the Security council find a way around this? I for one hope so, the vacuum it's death would cause is too dangerous to contemplate.

What are the other critical forgotten conflict zones where it could all still go horribly wrong? Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan as well as Latvia  where fully 25% of the population are ethnic Russians. If we step away from strictly linguistic and ethnic tensions, Russia has till now been, all be it unstable at times, a partner in the greater international efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and in ( he laughed with unease ) Syria, where it has so far ( rolls eyes) refrained from further escalating the civil war/revolution into a bigger unstable bloodbath. As and when Russia drops the pretence of being an honest broker and good global citizen, we will be back in the full grips of a Cold War we have not felt since the 80's.  I'm still not convinced that anybody will use nuclear weapons, and maybe because of this, I'm all the more concerned that full on conventional war will break out in Europe and drag the rest of the World into it..... again. The European Union and the effect it has had on nations in it and those wanting in is tangible and powerful proof that the last thing Europeans want is another European land war. Oh look at those words come out of hibernation  people, like tired old soldiers who thought they'd been retired for good but called out again for one last kick at the ball. Where was I? The EU, In recent elections in Serbia and Bulgaria, the political momentum has been away from isolationism and towards a greater integration into the European Union, the cleansing effect this has had on countries is in marked contrast to what they were like a mere 10 years ago. The one positive you can take from the crisis is that even in the UK, the anti European rhetoric will be falling on increasingly deafer ears as the fear of war and the destruction of Pax Europa is staring us down the barrel of a kalishnikov.

Some of you are too young to remember what it was like to live in the cold war.  Lucky you, but grab your towels fast because we're about to get another ride on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse merry go round. Sometime from the moment Russian tanks crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1957 to the moment of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Peace Dividend somewhere in  early 1989, the  world was in the cold war. From as early as aged 7, I lived in daily terror of dying from a nuclear holocaust. It coloured my view of relationships, marriage and my definition of long term planning. I had for years a recurring nightmare where I would be walking in the street near my home seeing my family walking away from me under threat and when I turned around to look at the house, there would be the unmistakable, yet silent, mushroom cloud of death rising over the city from behind our home. The wind would approach, trees would bend and buildings dissolve and just before I died....I would wake up. That was no way to live. When the nightmares stopped, we all thought that regular programming had resumed and to a great extent it has. This current crisis has however restored the previous levels of terror prior to the last cold war. Where in the rest of Europe the appetite of Germany, Austria, France and Britain has effectively gone away, Russia is still hungry.  It has never stopped and pushes up against the political and economic aspirations of a peaceful and unified Europe. The death of the so called nuclear deterrent only makes actual conventional war more inevitable in Europe and the European Union the only effective solution to the Russian threat.

War is neither evitable or inevitable

The first ripples of fear will manifest themselves in the Central European capitals like Berlin and Warsaw where already the new Europe is drawing up plans to put a stop to the as yet "evitable?" war with Russia. New mutual defence pacts are being drawn up or tested as we speak, gone is the hope that somehow Russians will somehow develop a healthy appreciation of  our democracy, our only desire now being to castrate the regime and it's friends enough to buy time to shore up defences, limit the damage and be clear we mean business. I would like to think that the wishes and desires of the various peoples of the emerging Central Europe that had been swallowed by the Russian Bear will be respected and encouraged to the detriment of  Soviet ambitions, but I fear at least some of the more far off western powers will still try to use us as a bargaining chip. Please be aware that once out of the bottle, powers like Poland that have joined Germany and France in the new Entente Cordiale that includes the potent mix of NATO and EU membership will be hard to break down short of the previously mentioned naked armed aggression.

Merkle and Tusk

Russia has had it's moment to be part of greater Europe and seems to have decided rather firmly that it will not even try be part of Pax Europa.  If this is the way it's meant to be for the next decade or so, then so be it, let's not drag our feet any more than we need to. No more Mr Nice Guy, time we took down the oligarchs and the dictators they are supported by.  I'm sad it's come to this, but at least I can look forward to the leadership and wisdom of Frau Merkle  who herself had to endure the horrors and deprivations of the Cold War like the rest of the new European leaders in Central Europe. There is nothing like a victim at the helm to insure the mistakes of the past are not repeated. Yet it would be foolhardy for the peaceniks too to think for a second that self defence and military alliances that mean something are a bad thing. If Ukraine asks for help from it's neighbours as it will most assuredly not hesitate to do should it come to that, be prepared to see many more millions of slavs who have tasted freedom since 1989 to stand thier ground and not roll over and die with a whimper like some in the West have done repeatedly. Some of us have lost relatives to Russian aggression and oppression in every decade since 1945, if you think  there is no stomach for a fight in Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria or the Baltic states, etc.., think again.

In my lifetime I have seen a few things I thought I would never see.

1- Polish freedom from Russia
2- The fall of the Soviet Union
3- Irish peace
4- The end of the nuclear nightmare.... literally.
5- The restoration of Europe to it's state of affairs prior to 1900

The New Europe has ignited hopes in me of standing for election as an MEP,  the House of Commons or even the Polish Sejm. I now live on the cusp of fulfilling several long held dreams, not least of which  living in Poland again at least part time on my family's own recovered lands and properties. However that and other hopes are tempered by that old familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach I still have  every time  I watch a programme about European history and they get to the part where yet again, Poland and the rest of Central Europe are engulfed in a fight not of their own making, where our young and not so young people will yet again die for the vanity of a man in Moscow. Yet again we will be forced to rebuild our cities and towns and yet again we will be bombed into an industrial stone age, our economies in ruins. Well not  this time if we can help. And if it comes to a fight at least this time we'll be ready.

Those of you in far flung places who don't think a few shots fired in the Balkans or the Crimea will amount to anything are forgetting that the recent history between 1914 and 1989 was an interlude in which Central Europe was swallowed whole by both the West and the East, made to be the pawns of powers far away and too concerned with other matters to think our people mattered. Things are different now, we have our countries back, our power back and our dignity back. Soon jobs held in near perpetuity by British, French and American politicians, diplomats and generals will pass into the hands of  those most concerned. Central Europe is back and hoping it will not require a baptism of fire to be taken seriously.

I strongly recomend you watch this instructive video of the evolution of the map of Europe. pick a spot, any spot and watch, then look at Poland, Germany, Russia and a few other states. Try to realize that through most of European history the nations some of us hardly reckon can muster so much as a veto were for the longest time huge military and economic powers with interests that reached far past their physical boundaries. Further take your modern history glasses off and realize that Russia is IN Europe, it , Russia IS Eastern Europe and all the states to the west of it form the centre along with Germany. Maybe now you'll realize once and for all that things have changed. There is no Warsaw pact, no Soyuz and no Soviet Empire, just free sovereign states that are part of the old Europe minus a few royal houses.

Late news edit: Russian demands that Ukraine create a new federal constitution, it remain neutral or in other words, not join the EU or NATO, give status to the Russian language and Lastly respect the result of the impromptu referendum in Crimea. The real news is that President Obama on the recommendation of Foreign Secretary Kerry, has accepted this. Again, the actual opinion of the legitimate government of Ukraine is to be ignored and Russia is allowed to dictate terms in order to get out of a sticky wicket. Typical, disgusting and a complete surrender by Obama. Who is he to speak for another country, who is Lavrov to demand these things of Ukraine? While on the surface some of the demands are even reasonable, but seen as a whole, similar to the attempt to humiliate Serbia in 1914. And if you need reminding, despite the total acceptance of even the most intrusive demands from Austria, Serbia still ended up being invaded. Can we expect better from Russia? Probably not. EU foreign ministers are to meet and are already rejecting some of the demands as extreme. Among the demands the creation of a “Support Group for Ukraine” consisting of the US, EU and Russia that would guarantee the military neutrality of Ukraine, the same sort of diplomatic construct that kept Belgium neutral till 1914 when it no longer suited the Kaiser. 

At the end of the day if Ukraine does join the EU it too will want to make military alliances with neighbours that won't threaten to invade them. Russia will have to accept at some point that they no longer can call the shots like that. This of course will take longer if people like Obama insist on telling another people that they have no free will unless he and Putin think they can have it. How very sad. Plus ├ža change and all that. Even sadder is it's not clear if Putin is blinking or just playing WW1, the game. Obama's words "continue to oppose any violations of Ukraine's sovereignty or territorial integrity " ring even more hollow in the knowledge that the reaction in the White House and UN are those of the old school diplomats that have blinked when they could have helped at the ultimate cost of Ukraine. The desire of Ukraine to join the EU, the very reason for the uprising in the first place now seems to be in jeopardy. Time will tell if this premature climb down by the Americans will be accepted by the European foreign ministers and Ukraine itself.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

What me? Sinner? or how to fine tune yourself

I have a question for you. Can you, the living breathing embodiment of the Mahatma Ghandi or Mother Theresa be free of sin, you who have given to every charity, recycled, voted, protested, signed petitions, been nice to minorities, adopted rescue kittens, read the Guardian and bought fair trade, be capable of sin? 

Most people won't consider themselves capable of sin so long as they still go by the old fashioned teaching that created multiple generations of Catholics ( or other Christians) who were told that disobeying your parents, not doing your homework and forgetting to throw out the rubbish was sinning.  Such a list of what we can call minor misdemeanours,  compared to actual sins and the adult  application of what is actually meant as a sin, are worlds apart and are the principle reason most people either don't understand or take seriously the word SIN.

In this season of  Lent where we are supposed to examine ourselves  and find ways to improve ourselves, perhaps a quick look at Sin itself and the way it affects our lives is in order.
Guilt is your conscience reminding you it's there.

Guilt, Catholic guilt, closely related to Jewish guilt and that thing English people do when confronted with squelchy noises and awkward situations, is the manifestation of all people asking themselves the core question, consciously or unconsciously, "Am I doing the right thing". It's another way of  being aware of sin. Sin in and of itself is not just the list of the big ones, the cardinal sins, the sins that get you locked up and fined, but the myriad of small traps that define life for ourselves and those around us, that through awareness keep us from complicating day to day life unnecessarily. And yet it is also the force that requires us to occasionally make a few waves but know also when to stop. It's hardly simple is it? But it operates in some, 24 hours a day and in others hardly at all. Sin, the awareness of sin or guilt are the only tools we have as people to navigate an often tempting world where many basic values have been left by the side of the road.

When some pray "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, ... the things: which should be changed,: and the Wisdom to distinguish: the one from the other." They are asking for guidance in knowing when to pick a fight, when to make a principled stand, when to bend and when to lead by example. This doesn't absolve anybody for a second from trying to insure a better self or a better world, but it does keep us from getting into the kind of trouble that will make our efforts wasted, misunderstood or so devalued, we may as well not have tried.

 I can hear some of you thinking, but this is about idealism and big principles. Well  sometimes it is, and it guided the actions of many great people, including the just passed away Tony Benn, who was a great practitioner of the Methodist school of Socialism. His life was about righting great wrongs and picking his moments. Sometimes he chose wisely, other times he preferred to loose than to win just a little bit. While life, especially political life is about the great debates and great reforms, it is also about the the small battles we face every day with ourselves, with others and with the limits of where our rights and obligations begin and end. 

We need to accept that if we are to achieve personal serenity and adherence to the values we hold dear and more importantly through our own example, show others that they are good values, we need to first break down the intellectual notion of what sin actually asks us to examine. In the Catholic mass, the following phrase is used when confessing to sin and declaring our souls pure and open to receiving G-d.  

"I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do. "

It's not long, but boy is it heavy laden, and yet despite multiple repetition or even mumbling over the years, the weight of those words is lost on many who still, as we have seen, believe sinning is not having made your bed and disobeying your Mother.  That somehow sinning is for small children and once you're old enough to open a bank account, it doesn't apply to you is missing the point entirely.  If you take nothing else out of a church service, then that simple sentence should be the one thing ringing in your ears everyday of your life. It is the moment during the service when you are asked, for a few seconds to examine yourself and see if you could make the week coming better than the last. 

Let's look at the 4 conditions and consider them. 

"In my thoughts":  You could argue that your thoughts are your own and that if you do not follow through on killing the person who has just mistaken Tuesday for Thursday for the 3rd week in a row, costing you time and money, you have showed restraint, even mercy. In as much as you have avoided a direct action that could have been unfortunate and even possibly illegal, you may be right, but are still not out of the woods. Your thoughts, your decision making as it were, will guide your attitude towards people and things in a number of small but significant ways. If you are not open to new suggestions, new ideas, new information or the exercise of reserving judgement until you have enough information, you will choose unwisely. If you limit the sphere of consequence of your decisions to the 3 feet around you and your personal comfort, glory and satisfaction, you have in fact through your thoughts sinned.  No man is an Island and if we accept that we live in a society that is composed of more than just ourselves, we must be inclusive in our thinking.  But if you insist on me giving you a concrete example of sin through thought by even a saintly person, I give you reckless, insensitive, sinful thought, I give you... jumping to conclusions. It's a favoured sport in my tribe and that of my wife, having led us individually and together to a lot of bad decisions, some funnier than others and some, life alteringly awful, dragging on for years and usually based on absolutely nothing.

 "In my words": Words are powerful if you give them power, and other times they are just words. You need to know the difference. This diplomatic skill eludes a lot of people, especially the brightest among us. We will at times forget ourselves and say things that are inadvertently hurtful or lead to questions and consequences that were wholly avoidable. I'm not telling you to never utter a word, or never praise or never  mention something embarrassing or never correct. These are sometimes the right thing to do. Some people just need to deal with the fact that life goes on regardless, that praise is part of the learning process and that correction is the passing on of wisdom, that humour is as much part of the healing process as is comforting. Where some of us might cross the line is when we carry a joke too far or pick at a still raw, less than healed sore of another person. You have to ask yourself if it was worth the discomfort of the other person when you scored that extra point or humiliated your friend for "a laugh".  As for the less learned, you also sin with words when you use them and think, it's all the same, you can chop and change meanings and expect others to justify and support your ignorance. Do not be offended or surprised when you get something wrong. When you reject the correction or the wisdom with your words, you send a signal to the other person that they need not waste any more effort on you, and that will be your loss, not theirs.  If anything, remember always that the wisest man is the one who is still learning.

 Lastly, sometimes ignorance can in fact be bliss. Ask yourself at least three times  before you spill the beans about something too soon, to the wrong person or to the person being wronged.  I won't say who, but a person of my acquaintance was in a bad relationship. I tried to the best of my ability to meddle with a light touch, but discovered she was not yet ready to find out for herself what kind of mess she was in. When the time came and the relationship dissolved, I was there to offer help when it was needed and we are still friends. If she had in fact been in any kind of real danger, you bet I would not have hesitated to act more forcefully, but some people just won't be told and sometimes you're best staying out of it. 

A good rule of thumb before you open your mouth and can never take back what you said is to 1- know who is there 2- be sure what you're going to say doesn't open a can of worms and 3- Be sure you will be clearly understood.  How others choose to twist your words is not down to you, but always strive for clarity. 

In what I have done: This is different from words, as words, however good or bad, flawed or premature, can be rendered into a choice not taken. However, once you've crossed the Rubicon, that's it.  In doing something, you open a whole new can of worms that can't be changed. Consequences of a much more solid variety, as a rule will cost you more than an I'm sorry I said that, they will bring with them a lot of ill will, anger and retribution on you.  Are you really prepared to waste your money or time for example, on a luxury for yourself when your dependent children and spouse who have in no way wronged you or been bad, will later have to suffer themselves because of your own greed? Is it really a harmless sin when you opt to do something to  a person or persons over a matter so trivial there is no law for it but will lead to their lives being worse directly or indirectly through your choice.  I do not suggest you hold the weight of the world  like Atlas, but do think about how your choices will impact on those around you.  When you hold hostage something out of spite or out of simple seeking of fun, the person to whom the object belongs to will trust you less, expect restitution of damaged goods and likely place you on a black list you will not soon come off of.  And you had better hope and pray that whatever it is you damaged isn't irreplaceable. Sentimental objects, collector items and appliances that will cost more than a week's wages to repair or replace will also shift responsibility for the replacement of those things on others  if you yourself are not able to. How fair is it that they need to pay for your stupidity? Why should they loose something they took care of for years because you were too inept to be careful? And even if it is yours and has come to you from an older relative, does it give you the right to be the last person to ever have it or use it? In most cases we are meant to preserve and care for things and people, and it starts from the moment we are able to pass something on intact or better than when we received it. 

In what I have not done:  Here's a tough one that isn't any harder to understand than the power of words. So you didn't do something, so what , who got hurt? Well you didn't, but it has cost somebody else for sure. I'll use a simple example we've all seen in operation. The somebody else's problem field so well explained in Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  There are three or four of you in a house, somebody , the famous somebody, but not you, has left a sock on the floor. You see it, but it's not yours, so you leave it there, a few days go by, the others too ignore the sock, especially the person who dropped it. Eventually the sock becomes a no go zone, surrounded by dust, and for all intents and purposes, invisible.  Then laundry day  comes along  and presto, who ever was doing the laundry picked it up.  They had to go on a seek and destroy mission around the house looking for all the lost bits of clothing, it cost them time, it cost them happiness and it made them feel used and unappreciated that nobody else would pick up the damn sock. Again mining the rich vein that is Douglas Adams, there is a refrigerator, a detective and a cleaning lady.  The detective won't throw out the disgusting rotting sandwich in the back of the fridge as it's the cleaning lady's job, she won't touch it as she expects not to have to be exposed to possible new life forms that will eat her. It's not hard to see Dirk Gently is wrong, but we also recognize a huge stubborn streak in him. it's not his job, not his responsibility and it's certainly not his problem. Somebody will have to clean it up , but not him. Again I'm not  suggesting you become muggins and do it all yourself, but show some initiative, then get the problem solved in a more permanent and fair manner. Lastly, without breaking any law or being immediately and irrevocably awful, if you delay action, any action, too often, the time to do the right thing will pass and you will be responsible for the worsening of something through your inaction. Try not to leave those to do lists mouldering too long  before they become impossible to do things. Some won't affect anybody but yourself, yet others will in point of fact leave you  hoping others don't find out it was you that forgot to apply for something when it was easy but you figured " I don't need it, so sod  it" and now  your mates are wondering why they are the only ones paying full price and locked into a year long contract. BTW, if you know something seriously bad is being done and you can stop it but you don't do anything, you are as good as doing it yourself. 

It's a simple thing to do things on time, do them even if you don't feel the need for it now. It can and probably will come in handy later on and you can never predict how your decision to not do something today will impact harmfully on your friends or future relatives. Make the time to do things, think about others and how your seen or unseen unselfish act will always reflect better on people than the selfish one you hope they never find out about.  

Savings, thrift, the act of not wasting, the act of sharing , the act of asking if others want as well, are all actions you can choose not to do that are not a cardinal sin, just  nigly little annoying ones that if you let them pile up, will hurt you and those around you. 

There you have it, the four conditions, the four horsemen of Sin, not so scary, not so simple and not so insignificant.

Having got through this, let me ask you again .... You , can you, the living breathing embodiment of the  Mahatma Ghandi or Mother Theresa be free of sin, you who have given to every charity, recycled, voted, protested, signed petitions, been nice to minorities, adopted rescue kittens, read the Guardian and bought fair trade, be capable of sin? Of course you can, not even the great Mahatma was free of sin, sin as you can see is not just about the big heavy commandments, it's a life long  fine tuning of yourself ,and guilt, the little voice reminding you to look at your check engine light from time to time.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: 36 years later.

In case you missed it.... it's Douglas Adams's Birthday today. One of the greatest sons of Cambridge, second only to the founder of the circling poets of Kakrafoon, 5th in line in froodness from the Jamaican roti wagon man who is the holder of the perspex pillar of justice with wich he scrapes grease from the grease trap. A man who still owes a script to the BBC which graciously has granted him yet another extension, having missed the last 8, at least 3 out of  simple habit and one out of mischief. We may yet rescue a story from one of his hard drives but I suspect it will be more Silmarilion than Restaurant at the end. In the interim, we can read, watch or listen to any number of versions of his Magnum Opus till that day comes to pass.

I was moved to write today mostly out the need to tell as many people as I could about the hoopie little features the BBC has laid on for the HHGTTG cognoscenti around the world. I set the mood first by tuning into  this wonderful site holding the radio plays   or here as they went out that  first time in 1978. I could have also gone to the specially designed BBC page complete with reconstituted retro game even, but chose to not wait till next week, tho in fairness, I need little provocation to listen again and do so at the slightest excuse or if  I have a long train ride that would otherwise be punctuated by offers of bad biscuits and overpriced East Coast hot beverages. (scripts for the radio shows here, follow the logical links)

Play the game again or for the first time
Ah yes....  er, Games,  yes. If you're old enough, you'll remember the joy of early gaming where you typed instructions and dialogue into a programme that if you were lucky, had you trained in the appropriate machine language responses required to get past the bulldozer. If however you are alive now and were not a spotty youth in 1984, you will find bewildering the manner in which you interact.  Don't Panic, the kind boffins at the BBC have included several tabs that help you navigate the Neanderthal retro game with ease. It has lots of cool sound effects and once you get the hang of it, it even begins to make sense. I having been a past master when it first came out, took only 10 minutes to finally get out the house before I was crushed to death by the bulldozer. Not bad as it's been nearly 30 years since I played it last. Truth be told, even then it was a miracle that first time when I made onto the Vogon cruiser. I won't give any more away, but if you get  onto the Heart of Gold, do please pay a visit to the Nutrimatics drinks dispenser. You know what the sad thing is ? Even now I'm getting the details from memory. 

And that's the thing about Douglas Adams, he wrote other things.... Dirk Gently, Doctor Who eps and lots of other stuff, but what sticks like glue in our collective minds , occupying precious space that could be storing valuable information like where I left that Dalek cookie cutter or the alleged safe place  I last left my datastick in, is the entirety of HHGTTG, all of it, the radio plays, the telly plays and the books. Greater even than Shakespeare and his many plays, better than JRR Tolkein's LOTR, HHGTTG has managed to be ever present babelfish Sci Fi trope treasure trove and existentialist Woody Allen sketch edited by a Pythoner filtering the rest of life for you. If you're like most of my geek mates of a certain age, that's precisely the sort of thing that would appeal to you. Give it to a young person  who's just turned old enough to start considering the question of Life the Universe and Everything, and you'll soon find out if you have a deeply curious person who may turn into scientist, philosopher or both. A constant questioning vein of humour runs throughout the entire work and distracts the reader/listener from the fact that Douglas Adams turned inconsistency, lack of continuity and writing by the skin of your teeth into an art form. If you read it correctly, you can actually hear him thinking out loud, wondering which turn to take and more often than not, wondering how to get himself out of yet another trap of his own making. His most famous such trap was left unresolved in the upstairs landing of Dirk Gently's Apartment building. Like the Gordian Knot of old, a man from the removal firm finally sawed it in half. 

If you're new to the obsession, I warn you that you'll need all of it. Well maybe not the film, it was a mess and you'll only mutter darkly afterwards, but the rest, you'll need it all. Here's why.  Our boy could never leave anything well enough alone, consequently  when the radio plays were made into telly plays and books, details would change, some not so important others more so. If you have heard the radio plays, you'll know there is a giant statue with bird people living in the head, they are never heard from again but the statue reappears later in a cave. If you read the books published separately, the perspex pillar is also the award for the most gratuitous use of the word fuck in a screenplay, but in the omnibus, it's now Belgium. You're not even safe with the omnibus editions, I'm not sure but I think that from the the one without "Zaphod plays it safe" to the one with, there are more minuscule alterations.  My point is that if you pick up any of the books out there, from the radio scripts to the novelizations to the omnibus, you can have a differently spiced version every time.

Our book club is reading Hitch Hiker this month, I know some of them won't get it. The undisciplined mind that created the Electric Monk and the interconnectivity of all things is just too scattered and easily distracted for the type that prefers a traditional beginning , middle, end going somewhere with this story. HHGTTG is not one of those books, it's more of an exploration of reality, spirituality and the universe through humour and viewed via the filter of the British stiff upper lip  that dances on the border of madness and control. One of the tensest scenes in the entire story takes place in a railway dinner in which a single packet of biscuits is shared by two people who each think the other is stealing their biscuits. Propriety and fair play in the midst of bureaucratic intransigence arises time and again as if it were a game of cricket. In fact cricket as life and as philosophy of life is never far from the surface. 

Marvin the Paranoid Android is the fatalistic Russian Jewish side of the story that springs up at you
forever pointing out that life is hard and that G-d, if he exists, has it in for you. The planet Krikkit is inhabited by Daily Mail readers who hate outsiders and Arthur Dent is himself a shlemiel who finds out the long hard way that it's the little things in life and tea, that remain constant, not the same, but constant, that sometimes certain people are in fact the centre of the Universe and the rest of us will never be.  I could explain that in greater detail, but I would much rather you read the books.

The only way to enjoy these books is to let go of  structure and allow the narrative to take you on a ride through surrealism and  alternate streams of thought occasionally resting in a oasis long enough to have a go at yet another social blunder, security blanket or fad. I'm not saying he's Joseph Conrad, Tolstoy or Kafka, tho at times you would swear he'd been reading them just before he sat down to write. Then again, if  you like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Kafka, it stands to reason you like Adams. You need a corkscrew  sort of mindset to get into the stories, they are all about everything and about nothing. 

I'm going to have a piece of Faery cake and a cup of tea now, even in the darkest depths of space in the most advance ship ever known, there is always time for tea and a bit of a bath.