Archive for August 2015

“Can I go to the toilet?”

August 24, 2015

Please miss, can I go to the toilet?

Remember asking this as a kid and getting a lecture about the difference between “can” and “may”? My teachers would often feign incomprehension and say something like “Well, I’m sure you CAN go to the toilet…” and then wait for the luckless kid to get halfway to the door before finishing the sentence with: “…but I didn’t say you MAY go to the toilet.”

(“Things that confused me as a kid but make sense now” has been a theme of this blog recently, but now I’m branching out into “Things that confused me as a kid because they actually make no sense.”)

The teacher’s differentiation between “can” and “may” is based on the false premise that ability and permission are two completely separate things. But they’re not. Our ability to carry out a task is contextual. How much training and practice have we had? How much cognitive resource do we have left? Are we getting encouragement or discouragement? Are we getting help, or are obstacles being put in our way? Ability is not intrinsic. The social model of disability is a reaction to the false idea that disability is entirely intrinsic; just take that idea a tiny bit further and it becomes clear that ability is not intrinsic either.

Even with the seemingly simple example of going to the toilet, ability is not intrinsic.  Social and institutional permission intersects with how we relate to our bodies. I could give countless examples, but staying with the toilet theme: “shy bladder” and “shy bowel” are both about the intersection between “natural” urges/abilities and social/cultural permission. With both conditions, the sense that you “shouldn’t” go becomes an actual physical inability to go.  (They are not medically recognised conditions, but they are very real to the people who suffer from them.)

The harsher the institutional power structure, the more energy it puts into trying to control our bodies and how we relate to them. That’s why it is incredibly disingenuous for people who have power within institutions to pretend that ability is innate and separate from permission.

Mr Soylent illustrates my point

August 21, 2015

I blogged a while back about competitive minimalists and the privilege behind the concept of “living light”. My point was that to live with few possessions you need to engage with and benefit from existing systems, and the competitive minimalists who boast about living light don’t always seem to fully understand that.

Less than a month after I published my post came an example so perfect I initially thought it was a parody. The software engineer Rob Rhinehart, best-known for peddling the meal replacement product Soylent, wrote about how he’s given up electricity. (Spoiler: he has not in fact given up electricity.)

In the storm of internet mockery that followed, someone unearthed an old blog post in which he explains how he described undergoing a challenge to reduce his water consumption. (Top tip: when your clothes get dirty, give them away instead of washing them! Then get new clothes shipped to you from China. This saves both electricity and water!)

It’s tempting to dissect both posts line by line explaining why he’s wrong about nearly everything. But others have already done that. I just wanted to share the links, because this person’s thinking is the perfect example of how you can think you’re “living light” and maybe see yourself as some kind of lean frontiersy hero while in fact you’re:

  • dependent on many things that weren’t invented 100 years ago;
  • dependent on things that most of the world’s population does not have access to;
  • dependent on things that won’t exist or won’t work in the future if everybody carries on like you;
  • generating a carbon footprint the size of a small country;
  • generating a huge amount of non-recyclable and/or harmful waste;
  • consuming a wildly disproportionate share of the earth’s resources.

I wouldn’t start from here

August 18, 2015

When I was a kid, I read a story about a delivery boy. There was a bit about how Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat on a Friday, so Friday was the day when he delivered fish to all the local Catholic families. I was so bemused I re-read this bit multiple times, then concluded there must be a typo. Why would he be delivering fish to these families on the one day they’re not allowed to eat it? Clearly that bit was meant to say that he delivered the fish on Mondays, or some other day.

Many years later, I realised: if your mental model for how meals are supposed to work involves eating meat every day, eating fish rather than red meat kind of feels like you’re not eating meat. Even though you’re basically still eating a dead member of the animal kingdom, which many people would still define as meat. The fish-eating on Fridays is part of a long tradition of trying to observe no-meat rules as loosely as possible  (although the story of how Oxford’s Magdalen College reclassified deer as vegetables appears to be a myth, sadly).

And so I dimly began to formulate a new category of advice: advice that only makes sense if you’re already doing things a bit wrong. Advice that is best phrased as: “Well, you shouldn’t really […] but…” As the old Irish joke goes: “I wouldn’t start from here.”

You need more examples? A couple of my older relatives share my hobby of writing pub quizzes, and have repeatedly given me the advice: “You shouldn’t set a quiz question if you don’t know the answer to it yourself.” And I’ve wondered how it’s even possible to write a quiz question if you don’t know the answer yourself. Do you just kind of wonder about the thing, write the question and then hastily find out the answer before you actually try the quiz out in public? (And if so, how did people manage before Google?)

It turns out that this advice is actually really useful if your idea of writing a quiz involves going through quiz books and pulling out questions that other people have written. Because people who do that are tempted to use interesting-looking questions even though they’ve only just learnt the answer from the back of the book, and then sometimes the book is wrong, or the answer is debatable, and the quizmaster looks like a dick because their only response is “The quizmaster is always right,” which doesn’t work when an entire room of people rather than just one person is shouting “But it was the Duke of Wellington!”

But again…I wouldn’t start from here.

See also: the advice to use a hands-free kit to talk on the phone while driving. Well, yeah…if you think it’s OK to make a habit of conducting phone conversations while operating heavy machinery at speed, then a hands-free kit is your best option. But I wouldn’t start from here.

I’ve been trying to think of a snappy name for this category of advice, or category of choice.

Advice for the Already-Wrong
I Wouldn’t Start From Here
Starting In The Wrong Place

Starting In The Wrong Place is kind of pleasing because you can shorten it to SITWP, which sounds like someone with mixed Welsh and Yorkshire heritage is telling you to mend your posture.

I would love to get some contributions to this category, because I suspect there are plenty out there.

Boring things: men’s football

August 11, 2015

Do you remember when, back in January, I started an occasional series of posts about things that are too boring to understand? I got as far as plates and no further. I was going to do lightbulbs but then realised it’s a way more complicated topic than plates. Anyway, this post is about football. Specifically, men’s football.

So. It seems that every summer there is a big men’s football event, and it hogs public space and public attention for what seems like an eternity. Every time you visit a man with a telly, he’s watching the fucking football. Every time you go to a pub, there’s a big telly in there showing the football and anybody who’s not there to scream “wurrggh” at every goal is basically not welcome. If you work in a “normal” office you usually end up having to participate in some kind of fantasy football bet thing. (Men are especially obliged to join in all this bollocks, because, y’know… toxic masculinity.)

And then the big shouty telly-hogging space-hogging event is finally over, and it’s lovely for about five seconds because you think you’re free of football. And then some dick tells you that the football season is “starting” and you think “No no no what the fuck are you talking about? It’s supposed to be OVER! That was the deal: I tolerate this horrible bullshit for weeks and weeks and then it is OVER!”

Today I decided to find out what the fuck all this is about. Football fans will already know, but please: this blog is really not for you.

So, it turns out that the big shouty football event that hogs our attention during the warm months of every single year is not in fact one event. It’s several events.

  • There’s the European Championship, which is organised by UEFA. It happens every four years and last happened in 2012 (so the next one is 2016).
  • Then there’s the World Cup, which is organised by FIFA. It also happens every four years and last happened in 2014 (next one 2018).
    I also discovered that football counts as an Olympic sport, so televised football matches also happen as part of the Olympics. That’s on the same four-year cycle as the European Championship.

Looking at this information, you’d think that international summer tournaments only happen every two years. But as well as the actual World Cup, you get the “World Cup qualifiers” (matches held to determine who participates in the World Cup), which can start as early as three years before the World Cup and drag on for up to two years.

As well as these summer competitions, there’s the English Premier League, which runs a men’s football season from August to May. And the Football League Championship, which also has a season going from August to May.

So you know when you get the feeling that football is always on? It’s because it fucking well is. For ten months of the year, it’s the “normal” football championships. And then for the other two months of the year, it’s some special international tournament, or the qualifiers for it.

You might be wondering why I didn’t already know any of this. Well, like many people I was forced to play football (and fucking rugby) at school. But our teachers didn’t bother explaining the rules of the game, let alone the rules of how the fuck the game gets to dominate British public space to such an insane extent. You were supposed to “just know” and pick it all up naturally. *cough* toxic masculinity *cough*

I hope readers of this blog post will use this knowledge to push back on the idea that we all have to be tolerant or even cheerful about the summer tournaments just because they’re big every-four-years events. Yes, maybe the specific tournament that’s currently on only happens every few years, but the overall pattern is in fact that football is always on, every fucking month of the year. In the past I’ve wondered if I was going crazy because it felt as if the football was never-ending. In fact, I was just observing reality very accurately. It really is never-ending.

Other things I learnt while researching this “boring things” article: Scotland is considering having its main season in the summer because apparently summer has longer days and warmer weather. (Who knew?) But for some reason Turkey takes a month off in the winter.

There probably won’t be any more sport-based “boring things” posts, even though sport is unquestionably boring. Researching plates was kind of fun, but researching football has just made me feel that I’m giving an attention-hogging topic even more attention. I think the world would be a better place if men’s football got approximately 0.000001% of the resources it currently gets, and those resources include attention. Let us never speak of this again.