If I Were a Tory

Leadership debates are good. Candidates are motivated to hold each other to account and they know the issues well enough to do so. They aren’t perfect, but in this Tory leadership race, I think they’ve been the best two hours of content you could have consumed. Props to them for turning up.

I have not been impressed with the candidates. If they haven’t got a plan to improve the lives of the worldwide poor, a plan for climate change and a suggestion to break the parliamentary deadlock, I’m not interested. Heck, a plan for just one of those would have been an improvement. I can only think of one possibly new idea — Javid’s Islamophobia instigation. Other than that, silence.

So, if I were a Tory, what would I have said? Let’s start with the world. People are suffering out there. A bold policy would be to seek for UK development money to be spent, not towards things that need to benefit the UK, but towards the causes that will have the most benefit. And this wouldn’t need to be purely altruistic — those countries and individuals would know that’s what we were doing. A more well world is a safer world for us. And the Tories could talk about how they are the party of competence. Secondly, they could offer to run a national charity which would do the same thing — your money spent in the way the UK government thinks is best for individuals. The government can get economies of scale, create and seize new opportunities, it has top people thinking about these issues. Perhaps they could offer to match the first billion pounds given each year?

Next climate change. Were there any new ideas here? Nope, just hand wringing. Not quite as bad as how hastily they all said there wouldn’t be another election (which all polling says they would lose), but still hardly noble. Someone could have said, as is true, that the 2050 deadline ignores the government’s own advice that we shouldn’t use international carbon credits — we shouldn’t be able to pay to “transfer” emissions and say we’ve reduced them. Someone could have put forward an ambitious plan to build nuclear power stations, to implement a carbon tax, to remove the subsidies on North Sea Oil. The UK could have had its own Tory Green Deal, which puts huge amounts of money into the green sector in order to develop technology, create jobs and save the planet. 

Finally then, Brexit. We are trapped in an insomniac state, unable to sleep, unable to wake up. We need to acknowledge that the current process isn’t working. In that sense Jon-Hun-Gov-Jav’s magical hand waving and Stewarts “same old, same old” are both bad. One is no solution, one is a failed solution. Stewart is right to say the only door out of the room is with Parliament, but that body has rejected May’s deal three times. We need new ideas.

The failed idea is the need to reduce immigration. There is a desire, sure, but where does it come from? I suggest falling wages and fear. I’ve heard from several directions about how it is mechanisation not immigration which causes such sluggish wage growth. I don’t know, but it is worth your consideration. As for fear, a fear that our culture is being lost, if British culture really is better, it must be in a way that is teachable and shareable to newcomers — if there are geographically located sorts of people who cannot learn about it, how does that differ from racism? I don’t see how you can think our culture is better and that other people cannot learn it, without eventually justifying killing those people to protect what you have. 

Andrew Yang puts forward that it’s mechanisation which is causing the working class’ ills

Brexit has changed. Originally it was all talk of how easy a deal would be, now people are saying that WTO is what they’ve always wanted. So it can change again. To break parliamentary deadlock we need new ideas and I suggest letting go of the hold on immigration will give Parliament the room it needs to vote a deal through. Norway+ might be able to get the agreement of MPs in a way that magical options or failed options will not. What’s more, it could be combined with an ambitious package of retraining/universal basic income/manufacturing subsidies to improve stagnant wages whilst delivering the “sovereignty” that Tory candidates say people voted for.

Theresa May did not fail due to a lack of resilience or gumption or “belief in Britain”. She failed due to a lack of ideas. Longform interviews and debates are a good way of hearing ideas, but what this week has taught me is that these candidates don’t have any.

Stopping, not starting

Think of a hobby you used to do.  Why did you stop? Did you choose to or did the time-anaconda slowly sqeeze it out of your life?  How long did choosing to stop take? Now think about starting. How long did it take to start? Or to decide to. I’m a fairly neurotic guy, but even for me, starting is easier, as my litany of partial hobbies suggests.

It’s easy to want to try something new – a new game or sport, a new relationship, new food (well, I used to be a bit weird about food) and it’s usually pretty easy to argue the point – if I don’t meet this person now, when will I? I might love this thing, I should have a go. I just want to understand you/ it/ him. Stopping on the other hand is tough. It’s about not doing and not seeing, not tasting and feeling. And yet,  it’s a much more meaningful choice. By not doing things, you declare that the things you are doing are more important. If you stop playing squash so you can play with your children you are showing they are more important to you and you are taking responsibility. You are acknowledging your time is not unlimited and that some things matter more than others. That’s the decision of an adult.

Maybe you read that and think that you don’t do many things and that each new interaction is scary for you. Perhaps each new activity takes courage. That’s okay. But I don’t think it is the experience of many young Westerners (I could be wrong).

I think this is a key political notion. On almost any topic it’s easy to justify that we should do something. The more important question is, when should we stop.

Most people think we should have some armed forces. But once you have more than one soldier, where should you stop? Most people think we should tax people, but where should you stop? Most people think some freedom of speech should exist. But where should it stop? When should you stop paying for benefits or allowing people to own things that could be used as weapons or intervening in other countries.

Sorry to keep making similar points, but it’s important. Hospitals are good. As a country we should definitely finance at least one. But how many? 10, 100, every second building? There must be a number at which we stop building hospitals. It’s not that I don’t like hospitals, I do, but if we build a hospital every second building then we probably won’t have money for schools and houses.

This is true of ideologies in general. Freedom is good. But you can have too much of it. Should I be free to break into your house and move all your things around (maybe move some of them to my house)? No! So here we are at the same question of starting and stopping.

I think in our society it is far too easy to call anyone who voices restraint the enemy. Whether it’s brexit, Syria, free speech, the NHS, the list goes on. And yet, I imagine you think at least some of the things I have mentioned there should be more of, and some you think less. And frankly, we may not agree. Likewise you could accuse this of being a negative ideology – that I’m always thinking about stopping things. But when we talked about stopping squash to spend time with my children (who don’t currently exist, sorry Grammie) that wasn’t negative, it was a proper use of my time. The truth is, we can’t do everything. We just can’t. And we don’t want to allow everything (murder is wrong, right?).  So there must be a discussion of when to stop.

Ideologies so rarely seem to bother themselves with this most important of questions. When do free market capitalists need to stop the free market? (eg monopolies) When do we stop providing healthcare? (We cannot give everyone the gold standard treatment, and we don’t.) I know it’s scary to admit that there might not be free speech we don’t want to protect, or equality we don’t want to enshrine, but it must be the case (see: every second building a hospital) so until we discuss it, we pretend that we can and should keep on at every good thing, forever.

The person who does every activity has no time to do any of them well. That person isn’t free or focused, they are instead ruled by their hobbies. There would be not time for sleep or eating or any of the few things they really love. The ideology which has no room for stopping will grow and grow until it (or something worse) controls your whole life. So when someone next proposes something (and it can genuinely be a good and desirable thing) ask, “Great, so when will it stop?”

Photo by Kees Streefkerk on Unsplash

Street Harassment: My Thoughts

I wrote this article before a major shift in my thinking, but I’ll leave it here for transparency. I don’t know if I would write it now, but if I did it would not be focused around the gender binary and I would be more careful about loyalty to country/gender etc. It’s is nuanced – I like being what I am, but it is no better than that I were something else, nor am I more valuable for it.

I was reading a thread of tweets on a case of street harassment and it got me to thinking (feel free to read the account, below). It is, I think, a fairly normal account: man calls out to woman, man follows woman, woman brushes man off, man keeps following, woman brushes of again, main gets aggressive. It is an upsetting story and clearly one that shouldn’t happen.

My first response to these stories is nearly always the same. I am a human and like all humans I have a certain loyalty to those in my own “group”. I feel loyal to my family, to Christians, to the English, to the British, to Europeans and yes, to men. When a man does something bad, I almost always begin by attempting to justify how maybe it wasn’t that bad or maybe it was just this man who went off the rails. This is clearly problematic. It should be noted that I don’t think the above loyalty is bad – what’s wrong with being in favour of your family or nation – but that it must be tempered by greater things – the notions of truth and justice, a care for the oppressed.

The main issue with my response is that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I am not a woman. I have never been catcalled or harassed on the street. (I know it would be unpleasant but it’s not even easy to imagine myself in her shoes – if a woman showed interest in me on the street it be a compliment because it never happens). So now I would have to imagine what it must feel like to be harassed all the time and I’m not sure I can do that. I know it would be bad, but I struggle to put myself in that situation.) Likewise I have never catcalled or harassed a woman on the street. This is not due to feminist principles so much as never having wanted to. I don’t know what motivates men to do so (we’ll get to this later) so I don’t know what it is that I lack, but suffice it to say, if it is power, I don’t desire to force someone to talk to me. And if it is attraction, I’m a fairly numbers-focused evangelical Christian. The odds that a random woman on the street would be an evangelical Christian too are low, unless I’m walking around a Christian festival, in which case we cut to the chase and reveal that the idea of actively pursuing any kind of road-based romance terrifies and sickens me in equal measure (#slighthyperbole).

Picture of people at christian festival, Soul Survivor

I once mentioned Christian festivals at the pub and a woman literally choked up her drink

So back to the point. I’ve had an initial pro-men reaction which I’ve elected to ignore, followed by some reasoning on my complete lack of knowledge on the subject. A reasonable starting step seems to me to be to consider the injured party. Women say they are harassed on the street and that it is unpleasant. And this is not just a few women. I think it’s nearly all the women with whom I’ve discussed the subject and often to a much greater degree than I expect. In terms of the argument, it doesn’t seem credible to me that these women are lying and frankly I haven’t read anyone who accuses them of it. Street harassment seems universally disliked and almost universally experienced among the women I know. So why would we as a society condone an action that half of society hates? Is there any social benefit? Like, a lot of it?

Again I draw a blank. Now, I haven’t gone looking, but I imagine there are some men somewhere who say that shouting at women across the road is the best thing since sliced bread. This doesn’t satisfy me. Clearly there are other ways of dating women, you can get to know some through social activities, you can use an app, you can ask some of your female friends to introduce you to some. If men and women only met while walking the streets of inner cities, maybe we would have to cede a necessary social function to this unpleasant activity, but that’s not the case. There are clearly other options, and those ones don’t upset women.

The second argument would seem to be something along the lines of “Why can’t I tell her she’s pretty”. Now as I’ve said, I personally don’t understand why you’d want to do this on the street, but if you do, this argument seems to work based on social propriety: It’s good to compliment people and you can’t control it if they get upset. But that doesn’t make sense to me either – social propriety is a set of rules we create to all get along. If someone gets upset when you buy them a birthday card, that’s on them, but if the majority of a majority of the population hates the activity in question, maybe it shouldn’t be proper, maybe it should be socially improper. And what’s more, maybe you never cared about it being social proper in the first place. Let’s remember also, that because a proportion (which I don’t know) of men get aggressive/violent if refused, women are given no clue as to how men will respond if they are turned down, which makes the initial “compliment” likely all the more unnerving.

As we do this, it seems to me we force the discussion closer and closer to whether it is merely an exercise of power on the part of men. Once we get there the game is up – there is nothing moral or worthwhile in that explanation and I imagine if it was commonly agreed that street harassment was about power then it would probably stop. (I mean if it was actually known, can you imagine a frank discussion in which men admitted “I know we only do this for the sake of our own egos but we just think we are more valuable than you are”) It seems to me that if there is self deception going on here then it is what is keeping the street harassment boat afloat.

I’m not seeking to paint catcallers into a corner – if my logic is right, they are already painted in

Finally then, it seems to me you might argue it was a game of risk and reward. None of this is about the men who get violent, clearly their behavior is unacceptable. But for the other men, a thousand brush offs are balanced out by the chance that one woman might actually respond positively. Since the women that turn them down choose not to value them, the men give them no value in return and hence it’s okay to annoy a thousand valueless people in a row. As with much of this, this argument is almost completely alien to me. People have value. Full stop. We don’t get to choose who is valuable and who isn’t.

I have a feeling this won’t cut the mustard with those who disagree, so perhaps I’ll put it like this. Imagine there was a guy a work, who if you didn’t laugh at his jokes, didn’t consider you worth his time. Maybe you’d think he’s a bit of an asshole, but you’d just ignore each other. Now imagine that when you didn’t laugh at his jokes, he got angry or aggressive. Now the guy is a total douche-bag, insecure and probably the sort of person you would hate to have to work with. If you think street harassment is okay, it seems to me you are a version of guy. At best, if you always leave women alone after that initial brush off, you don’t care about the feelings of the women who aren’t attracted to you. At worst, if you carry on after that first brush off, you as bad as the most unreasonable man you’ve ever met.

Ahh, but Nathan, you say, I’m just paying compliments. That’s not like forcing someone to laugh at my jokes. But you aren’t paying compliments to people who want to hear them – only a very small percentage of people you speak to (from what I’ve heard) actually like your compliments. And by not taking those people’s feelings into account, you have chosen not to care about them. And why have you done that? Because of their lack of attraction to you. You’ve made their feelings for you be the sole judge of your treatment of them. And much like angry joke guy, women have free choice whether to choose to like you. To like me. To like any of us, as men. If we use that choice as the basis of whether or not to treat them as they would like to be treated, we are behaving like the guy who forces everyone to laugh at his jokes, who from our experience might become aggressive and violent at the drop of a hat. We would not appreciate jokes from that guy, not even funny ones. That’s like shouting “Mike” at everyone in the hope that occasionally you’ll get it right.

Henry VIII

Take my mate Henry, he’s hilarious, when he makes a joke, everyone loses their heads

It is not even obvious that this final case is even true, but like all the other cases clearly it is unjustifiable. Women do not like to be treated like this and there is no good reason that I can see as to why men ought to do it. It is indefensible on the grounds of necessity, social propriety, power dynamics or risk and reward. It is a thing that most of the women I’ve talked to strongly dislike and something no one I’ve talked to has every come up with a good defense of. It is the behavior of an asshole. So let’s just stop doing it.

Young’s First Law of Worldbuidling: Rules and Form

Read this joke, or watch this video:

A distillation of the first minute of this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yelG1h5XYZI

Ha ha, very funny. Or not. Whatever it is, it neatly skewers an issue with discussing fantasy: You can’t critique slightly unlikely events when the impossible happens all the time. That’s the joke.

But that’s obviously incorrect. I’m allowed to be confused when Harry Potter is blithely sent to walk in forest inhabited by monsters, but requires a slip from his guardians to go to a nearby town, even though that world has wands and goblins. It’s good to talk about what appears to be a gaping plot hole in Lord of the Rings (why Gandalf doesn’t just jump on an eagle and fly to Mount Doom), even though LOTR has elves and magic rings. It is reasonable to criticise the constantly changing nature of Magneto’s powers in the X-men films even though that universe has superpowers and Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Just because a work contains impossible elements doesn’t put it beyond the realm of reasoned discussion.

Magneto on bridge

If you watch closely you’ll see that magnetos powers work differently in practically every scene. Someone should write a blog about it.

The key question is consistency. And what a work should be consistent with. I don’t care whether a work is reasonable compared the our world, I care whether it is consistent with itself and its own rules. Rom-coms rarely mirror reality – the people are too beautiful, funny and pair up  with too few issues – but we still get upset when characters do things which don’t make sense, like get together for the sake of a happy ending or use terrible dialogue. There are a set of agreed conditions at the start of  such a film which allow us to quickly get into the world we are watching, but once we are in that rom com world, we can critique it. Fantasy should be no different. It is no different. So here we are:

1st law:

a) A story should be reasonable once its own rules and form are taken into account.

b) These rules should not be criticised on their own account, but rather when a work breaks them or doesn’t use them logically.

c) Applying rules to each other in logical ways makes your world seem more realistic and can be used to engage the reader.

Let’s use Game of Thrones. It’s rules are things like:

  • There is a medieval world
  • There are dragons & magic
  • Tyrion is relli relli hard to kill

It’s form is that of a gritty fantasy novel with grand plots and a global scope. If we are going to criticise it, we have to take these rules and form into account.

Or Harry Potter:

  • There is a modern world
  • There is a secret world of medieval witches and wizards
  • There is magic and mythical creatures
  • There is a spell that disrupts people
  • There is a spell that kills people
  • There are a bagillion other spells

It’s form is of a children’s book which becomes grittier and more adult over time. Now I like Harry Potter, but I think using these rules and form, we can make some reasonable criticism. Throughout all human warfare people have used the best options available to them. Few poeple nowadays fight with swords. So once you have a good disruption spell and a good killing/stunning spell, that’s about all you need. There is that one fight where one person summons a giant snake then the other one turns it into a swarm of bees which the first guy freezes (or whatever). This doesn’t really make sense, why not just kill them with a zap of avada kedavra? And if this was in Harry Potter 1 – 3 I’d probably not worry since a children’s story don’t require high levels of internal consistency. In my opinion, gritty, young adult fiction does, so I think we can ask why everyone is so flashily inefficient in killing/subduing one another.

Time Turner

I don’t even want to talk about it

As a final example, let’s look at Christopher Paolini’s Eragon. It’s a young adult fantasy novel with the following rules:

  • There is a medieval world (feels like I type that a lot)
  • There are dragons
  • Magic means things happen instantly, but require the same amount of exertion
  • A load of other rules

There is a great scene, where the main character is low on cash but knows some magicians. He gets them to make silk clothing (which is time consuming but doesn’t require much physical strength) so rather than painstaking hours of dextrous enterprise, they can do it immediately. Our buddy Chris Paolini has used his rules to solve a problem in a neat way. Good job Chris. (For a good essay relating problem solving and magic follow this link.)

The thing is that we the readers could have made that jump of logic ourselves – all the tools were there. So by the author doing it in front of us, we realise the characters in the story are independent actors, capable of insight and epiphany. They aren’t just making the decision they are presented with, they are cheating and breaking the game. Much like we do.

The key thing is that particularly when we talk about fantasy we seem to mistake three things, which I’ll call the suspension of reality, disbelief and criticism. The world in the story is not like our world (reality), but is that so different from the suspension of disbelief required when we watch James Bond? We think we can judge the narratives of Shakespeare, but because Game of Thrones has dragons? All stories ask us to suspend our disbelief, some ask us to suspend our notions of reality but I don’t think we are ever required to stop being able to critique a work, whether it is War and Peace or Spongebob Squarepants.

I’m not saying you need to be that person who sits in the corner of the room always picking holes in things – I like many worlds which I think contain issues. Probably it is bad to ask why Tarly is still fat, mainly cos it doesn’t mean much. Rather, I think there are good and bad ways to critique fiction and hopefully learning them will help you to produce better fiction, building on your rules to create a world of growth and change. The plaintive cry, “but none of it is real anyway” is nonsensical and boring, and always has been.

This format piece is inspired by Sanderson’s Laws of Magic. The content was something that’s been bugging me for ages.

 

For What It’s Worth: Post-Brexit

The words that have been written about Brexit could no doubt fill a small library’s worth of books, or cover hundreds of rolls of Andrex with their occasionally snarky, tightly-written script. I don’t intend to expound the arguments of either side, nor tell you who or what to vote for. Perhaps some day, but not today.

A box saying "prevent this page from making additional dialogues"

If only

Much has been said over the last few days of the toxic climate of the debate. Particularly to the extent that it caused the awful murder of Jo Cox. I wonder if we would damn it so quickly had she not been murdered. Maybe we would just shrug and move on, not thinking about the words and images we have so quickly used to deride each others’ strongly held views.

We are going to vote on Thursday and we will either vote to leave or to remain. In either case there will be a significant minority who disagree with the result (perhaps as many as 2014’s 45% of Scottish voters). I’m not saying living together will be an issue; unless you behave like an arse, I think we’ll be okay, but building our country together could be more difficult.

With that in mind, it seems to me (for whatever that’s worth) that a few things are worth mentioning:

Migrants are not the problem. Migration perhaps, but individuals and families migrating to this country to improve their lot are doing a legal and reasonable thing. Whatever your thoughts on immigration policy, those people are not the immigration policy they are taking advantage of. They are people.

A picture of my friend and I

Okay, sometimes migrants are the problem

This isn’t winner takes all. In the possible case of a 55% leave vote, 45% of those who voted did not wish to leave, but will nonetheless. As a country we will have to seek out ways to leave which are particularly careful to suit the ideals those people stand for, whether they be workers rights or solidarity with mainland Europe. Likewise a 55% remain vote is hardly a vote of full confidence in the EU. We will have to push for reform of the issues which troubled those who voted to leave.

A picture of the game, 2048

There can be compromise. It’s not 2048

The the minority should pitch in. It seems to me that we all want the same things. Everyone I’ve talked to wants a reformed Europe (some of them just don’t want to be in it). Most want a strong British economy, good jobs for those less well off than themselves and a loving response to all those refugees who are fleeing crisis. All these things are more achievable, in my dubious opinion, if the minority group pushes for them with the same gusto with which they have fought for this debate…

…But not the same manner. If this debate has been toxic, misleading, unconcerned with reasoned argument, patronising, overly-memed, fearmongering and prone to desperate tactics, it is because we have made it so. We buy the papers and consume the media, we share the memes and write the ill-conceived facebook comments, we are rude to people we should care about and use argument to suit our position. I say “we” because I do this too (particularly the facebook comment one).

A dumb internet post

If your post looks anything like this.. Red flag

So what are the issues that matter to you? Honestly, take some time to think about a few issues that you have really cared about in this debate. Has it been sovereignty, immigration, the economy, TTIP, red tape, hospital funding, trade deals, workers’ rights, British values, green policy, European geopolitics, queues… Seriously, take a minute to think.

Dot

 

Dot Dot

Dot Dot Dot.

Stop reading this, it hasn’t been a minute.

 

Dot Dot Dot Dot.

Mine top issues are immigration, the EU’s structure, and the treatments of Greece. These are issues which I want to keep a track of and upon which I want to hold the government accountable. I shall be forced to read multiple news sources and perhaps occasionally write an email to my MP. We can’t all be informed about everything, but since I this referendum has probably shown you which issues are important to you, you know what you want from your elected representatives next time it comes to a vote. This is just one possible course of action, but it seems reasonable to me.

Illuminati Logo

This diagram shows the EU’s pyramid structure. (Kidding)

This vote is going to be over by Friday, and we’ll all live with each other afterwards. Whatever the result, we have a choice about how we move forward, and if we care about that choice we should act on it. I think our futures rest, not merely on a generational choice, but a generational opportunity to work together or succumb to infighting. I think they rest on improving the standard of public debate and holding our politicians to account. If you agree, then what are we going to do about it?

The Adventures of Super Muzungu (and Glen) – Landmarks: Going to Seum

In Uganda, foreigners, particularly white people, are often referred to as muzungu – (literally “someone who wanders in circles”, fun article here). Because I require a 2mm layer of deet and suncream to stay alive, my friends referred to me as super mzungu – whiter than average.

Awaking after a fairly horrific night’s sleep, Glen set to work checking how our room faired in relation to British water regs. He’s a plumber, it’s territorial thing. The room came up to scratch the only real issue being that our air conditioning didn’t work. Opening the fuse box, Glen found that one switch was down and so chancing the ire of which ever god has the remit over such things (Vulcan?) he pulled down the lever.

Everything went dark.

It didn’t, but it’s what what both of us were hoping for. Actually, it turned the air conditioning on. Can’t think why a hotel would leave that off, obviously our €6 city tax didn’t cover such trivialities.

Our first port of call was to buy sun cream ‘cause I can burn on a cloudy day. The ten minutes it took to get to the local hypermarché left me feeling decidedly warm, so we attempted to find some. Glen and I have different methods of dealing with foreigners – I talk to them like they are human beings and Glen treats them like a newly evolved species, all slow words and hand gestures. He however would say I use too many words, while he gets his point across. The debate continues throughout the holiday. I think Glen took this one, so after miming washing himself and saying “SUN CREAM” we were pointed in completely the wrong direction. The lady had responded with “crem di sol” so she presumably understood, she just didn’t know the layout of the supermarket. 20 minutes later we found the sun cream next to the tills. I picked up some childrens factor 50 which put me in good stead for the rest of the week, we also bought some water bottles and we learned that italian supermarkets have live lobsters and whilst playing on the travellators that Glen’s shoes have no grip.

A nun buying lots of wine

We saw this nun. Bad habits

Rome does not like fat people. The supermarket had a metal fence around it which you could only past using those gates made for stopping bikes and horses. When we took the metro there were two up escalators but only one down. Which was about half the width of the up ones. If you can’t fit on it, you’re using the stairs. We saw 2 fat people the whole time we were there.

We decided to walk to the Colosseum from 2 stations away because what’s life without a little whimsy. 5 minutes in, I wondered if we were lost (another recurring theme) until we rounded the corner and there it was. The big papa of surviving Roman architecture.

 I shouldn’t be surprised by the scale of it – many buildings are wider and taller than the Colosseum.  It’s not that different to a football stadiums, but we know you can make something like that out of metal and when you surround it with a car park, it all feels quite commonplace. The difference is you don’t find things like this made of stone. The Flavian Amphitheatre sits by the side of the road, a crouching monolith. It looks too tall for it’s width. It knows that it’s on all the postcards. 

The Colosseum was surrounded by gawkers and hawkers, guys dressed up as centurions and the ever present offer of a queue jump. Our path had taken us via streets which were perhaps 15m above Colosseum ground level (interesting to think how much of ancient Rome is buried), so were give a view of both the building and the crowds milling around it. I’d been told not to worry about tickets because you can buy them at the palatine hill entrance. But soon we were spotted by a tour guide. “Hey you guys want an English speaking tour?”

While watching Sherlock Holmes there is always a part of me that finds it hard to believe you could read people like that in the real world. Does anyone really have the white spots on the their left shoe to show they’ve been painting whilst standing on a stepladder? Turns out they do. Well not the stepladder thing. Forget it. Certainly, as far as nationalities are concerned, these guys have it down:

“It’s cool that you know we’re English straight away. Can you do it with other nationalities?”
“Sure, point at anyone”
“What about that guy” I said pointing to a random man in a queue 50 meters away wearing a green and white striped shirt.
“Brazilian. Let’s go see” We stride over. “Hey, me and my friends-“This guy had great patter. “had a bet about your nationality. Where are you from?”
“Brazil.”

Boom. We played again and it was 2 for 2, though he admitted he knew the tour guide the second person was with. Were we not attempting to see the Colosseum I could have done this all day. I don’t even care whether there are a lot of easy visual tells – we pointed at a person and he told us their nationality. I’ve got a lot of respect for that.

Thus charmed, we bought a tour from his company and entered the amphitheatre with a tour guide. I suppose we could have been easily scammed during this arrangement, but I did know where they worked and for whatever it’s worth they seemed trustworthy. I could review them badly on tripadvisor. The inside of the Colosseum is fairly mental also, showing something of what it would have been like when intact. I would heavily recommend getting a guide, however, since there is so much history around the structure. Built by Vespasian as he eradicated Nero’s legacy from the world, stones carried by Jewish slaves, between 500k and several million deaths. The Colosseum has to make you reassess the Romans. And everyone who has attempted to use it since, be it for a stadium, fortress, slum, market or shrine.

Take a deep breath.

Take a picture for the couple next to you because your long limbs give good angles.

We waited outside for our tour guide for the next part. Chad was described to us as looking like Thor. Biting back comments about Thor’s recently becoming a woman, we waited for him to turn up.

Chad was great. He’d partially completed a masters but for reasons we didn’t find out, had come to Rome instead. He did a great line in sarcasm – insulting us, historians who thought Augustus was the first emperor and Italian workmen. We saw Constantine’s arch and palatine hill. Coming off the hill to the Roman Forum is just preposterous. There is so much Roman stuff just lying around. You could build 5 museums, you could label to your hearts content, but it’s just lying there protruding from the ground or having been preserved/altered by future generations. Chad poured scorn on a bronze? “original Roman door” which if legitimate would have been stolen centuries ago. Huge areas were fenced with no explanation. Rome seems to have too much history and doesn’t know what to do with it. Probably a money thing. Chad chalked some of it up to corruption. In Britain it’s all scarce enough that you’re dying to turn it into a specific tourist attraction. Later we would walk into an church clothed in marble, obviously used daily (I know ’cause they had a daily Bible reading), absolutely stunning, completely empty. Here’s Chad’s company.

Glen and I had calzone for lunch. The guy bought us fantas despite the fact that we had said we just wanted 2 calzone. Italian service isn’t great. Perhaps English service isn’t either, but certainly we were misinterpreted perhaps willfully on a number of occasions. Foreshadowing.

On the upside we took Penny’s advice and bought ice cream. The lady served us preposterously large portions. If you are near the Colosseum it’s just up one of the nearby roads. No I can’t be more specific.

In the afternoon, we visited the Tomb of an Unknown soldier in the Altar of the Fatherland. A stunning building, all white stone with a black chariot on top of each wing, it shows the Italians can still build, though their style hasn’t changed much. (According to Wikipedia a criticism of the building is that style has changed too much, moving from Roman to Greek and Teutonic. Shrug.) Nowhere in Rome did we see modern buildings, no skyscrapers or attempts to show the city as anything other than something that once was a big deal. As we went home that night the tubes weren’t packed with commuters, they were half full of tourists. In places the most modern thing about the city is the advertising, which usually sets off alarm bells for me. The area around our hotel could have been in the parts of Uganda or India I’ve visited – with it’s lack of modern buildings cars or non-phone technology. This side of Rome surprised me.

We walked around for an hour looking for places to talk to other human beings. We didn’t find any – our area lacked a pub culture. Eventually we dined in a seafood restaurant which was supposedly a tripadvisor victor. Later on I would realise that every restaurant seemed to be one of these and all we had done was limit our choice to a type of food I don’t like. The carbonara was lovely. Glen had fish.

We went to sleep. This time in seperate beds – bed seperated by 4 inches. Beggars can’t be choosers.

The adventures of super mzungu (and Glen) – Departure day

That holiday feeling

In Uganda foreigners, particularly white poeple, are often referred to as muzungu – (literally “someone who wanders in circles”, fun article here). Because I require a 2mm layer of deet and suncream to stay alive, my friends referred to me as super mzungu – whiter than average.
Glen and I went to Rome. Before we begin there are some things you should probably know. Rome is an ancient city on the banks of the Tiber, which was the capital of the Roman Kingdom, Republic and Empire between 753BC and 293 AD. Glen is my friend and tormentor, who lives beside the Thames and isn’t capital of anything – he sees himself more as an Alexander the Great figure.


It was recommended that I take a holiday after working for the summer because that’s how people rest. I have never done a city break before, so I mooted the idea with my man friend and we began. The booking experience was anything but restful, but in the end I found a trip to Rome. Certainly some people seem to think Rome is “quite good”. (moneysaving expert is really helpful).


On the day of departure, panic number one happened as I realised we hadn’t invited Luke. “Luke do you know the definition of the 11th hour?” “When someone is invited to something just before it happens” He’s fun, see. “Yeah something like that”. Could he come? Yes. If he bought his girlfriend a horse. And if BA haggle. They don’t. Packed and set off.


Chatted to a bloke on the plane. We told him he should name his spreadsheets after dinosaurs and encourage his staff more; he congratulated Glen and I on our anniversary. I enjoy the whole travelling experience because you can’t do anything other than rest. I’m not great at that so some enforced relaxation etait bon.


On our arrived at Fiumicino airport, I was once again reminded of BAs status as a premium carrier. I had booked a lift from the airport, so that at half 11 at night in a foreign city we weren’t forced to do deals with local cabbies. It didn’t appear, the the BA and lift company desks were closed and their 24 hour english-only emergency line was answered by a confused Italian man who promptly hung up on me. Urgh.


I have been scared on few occasions, particularly with Glen at my side (read that how you will); the ensuing cab journey was one of these. You have no idea which features are the ones to trust and you don’t have Liam N33son coming after your if you’re wrong. We opted for a(n offcial-looking) white cab with some kind of identification, prayed and checked road signs to make sure we weren’t heading towards the sea.
As we checked in we were “reminded” of the city tax. 6€ per head per night. See, here it says on your voucher that you have not paid such taxes, got to pay it or else. Thank you BA, thank you Italy.

Finally, they had of course thought us a couple and so Glen and I piled into our double bed, talked for 2 hours and then went to sleep.

Icebucket.

Probably enough words have been written on this topic already, but hey. (buzzfeed title this ain’t).

Icebucket.

So we all get to donate to charity. HOORAY! This is obviously a good thing. The charity itself is a bit arbitrary, since ALS is very unlikely to be the thing that kills you or even ruins your life, but it does ruin some lives and… I’m not going to discuss this. Well thought-out piece by vox hereThought for the paragraph: charity hooray.

We all get to say we have donated to charity. Hooray. A culture where we celebrate sacrificing our wealth in order to better others is a good culture. Becoming proud is bad, but showing that its good to do good is good, particularly when we are all focused on how much we have.

We probably gave because our friends told us to. Erm.. pretty break even. It’s good when your friends tell you to do good things, but not if you do good things because your friends told you to. Certainly your friends pressuring you to do good things is bad. Your friends pressuring you to do anything is bad. Probably.

We then probably told others to. #moralmaze. We are now quite far down the rabbit hole. If being told was good then surely doing the telling is good? But what if we are just propagating this chain letter?

We don’t actually donate that much. … … …  . Not sure there is a pithy emotional response here. It’s just true. We probably haven’t given an earth shattering amount of money. That doesn’t make it a bad thing, just a slightly less significant thing that we thought it was. Maybe you didn’t think it was significant. Why are you reading this?

It may have taken someone telling us to give for us to give the what we did. Probs not good. Need we be told to give and then rewarded for doing so. I don’t think so. We have so much wealth and I think we should use it to benefit one another (and to glorify God, but that’s my beef) so I hope we don’t need a process to make this happen.

We may have read a post like this and then felt guilty about having participated. Boo! I don’t think you should feel guilty about this. You chose to participate. Hopefully for a good reason. Maybe just for a reason that you wanted to be good. Maybe for a bad reason (okay maybe we should talk about that).  But just as our pride can piggy back on charity, its easy to let superiority allow us to crush others when they attempt to do good. Most people have done a good thing here.

Or maybe you are upset that I’m trying to make you feel bad. I’m not. You now have an opportunity to think about giving. You have likely been challenged to give in the past month, so you can think about that. I have been massively challenged. I give regularly, but I have practically no outgoings and it just leaves my account, so its not that much of a sacrifice. Certainly this has caused me to take stock. I’m certainly reticent to participate in the challenge because everyone else is doing it. So I’m a bit stupid regardless.

Why did you ice challenge? How should we give? How could you benefit more people? How wealthy are you? Need we give money? How do we choose whom we give to? Is a bucket full of mice not cruelty to animals?
It is good for us to take time considering how we give because giving is a great thing to be able to do.

And for that reason if no other, it was good to have something to break the ice.

p.s. but seriously, don’t think forever, put it into practice.

Chapter 2: A New Hope

At this juncture, it seems reasonable to actually tell you the point of our trip other than to gain patience (and then pretend to have gained none by writing a vitriolic travelogue about it). We went to a college in Udaipur, India to run a sports tournament. The trip was in affiliation with the Emmanuel Church (the church which I attend) Football Team (ECFC, ECFC, ECFC – hopefully they chant this, I’ve never been to one of their games). There were 6 of us:
  • Ben (leading, midfielder, volleyball umpire),
  • Jo (married to Ben, advising on all things with two X chromosomes),
  • Steve (small [6ft], ugly, and bad at both football and cricket [he plays for the “county”])
  • Mike (one time Emmanuel FC midfielder, Steve’s dad and erstwhile tormentor)
  • Tim (defender, banminton pro, all round good egg, had the misfortune to previously play for Christchurch FC)
  • myself (lamentably unable to play football, but relatively handy with a circular piece of plastic).

In the run up to the trip many had asked me what I expected to do and while it would have been a lie to say I had no idea, it was close. Suffice it to say I expected to play some sports in some Christian-related context, in India. Probably other people had more of an idea, but preplanning is for wimps (clever people) without a million other things to do (who know how to say no). It should be mentioned at this point that I wasn’t really looking forward to this trip. I don’t really look forward to things in general and it had caused me quite a lot of difficulty due to my misreading (see preplanning) my university calendar and having to hastily rebook my flight home to avoid my missing 2 weeks of university (unreasonable) instead of 1 (passable) and the aforementioned computing assignment which was taking longer than expected and could present a serious issue if I was unable to find internet in India. I don’t really know why I decided to go at all since it was quite expensive, but it seemed like a good idea, whatever that means.

Back to the good bit. Since we had passed Indian night time in an Herculean struggle with baggage control, we opted to avoid sleep since that would mean losing another day. Janet, our host, who used to go to Emmanuel before she moved permanently to India, met us at the Golden Tulip and listened patiently while we played air violins and narrated our tale. Once the the 7 of us had got in one Rickshaw (cramped) we travelled to the centre of Udaipur.

Cultural Point #2: Driving in India is “an experience”. I’m not sure they have heard of traffic law and if they have, they take no notice. Generally people drive on the right, but also in the middle and, if the mood takes them, on the left as well. It’s more an art than a science, every driver attempting to get to their destination as quickly as possible, beeping  and avoiding anyone in the way. The crazy thing is that this actually works as long as everyone plays along. Were you to actually drive safely you’d probably cause a crash when you slowed unexpectedly (or just slowed down).. Stopping distance: at times, inches. Crumple zone: invariably your knees.

On arriving at the town centre, we made our way to Haveli’s (probably not spelled like that) a small cafe owned by… you guessed it. Janet had said the food was good and cheap and it seemed like your standard local eatery, as long as you were expecting a view worthy of your average 5 star hotel, that is. Somehow, Haveli had managed to bag a heart-stopping view over Lake Pichola with its azure waters, a floating palace, mountains fading into the mist. The food was great (garlic naan can be really garlicky, and your average takeaway does kormas all wrong), but this was just a local café, rather than the highrise establishment you might expect to hold such a view. This is certainly something that has stayed with me – the effortless beauty of Udaipur. I’m not going to be crass and say the locals ignore it – I have no idea, it didn’t come up in conversation – but in terms of both natural landscape and architecture Udaipur has a raw beauty to it. There is some raw pain and poverty too, but the beauty is what I saw first.
Following brunch on the roof, we idled on the riverbank for a while, deciding to take a boat trip around the river. While the superb scenery drifted past I chatted to Tim and variously attempted to capsize the  boat. We navigated around the river palace (built into the lake floor and only accessible by boat) as well as a slightly less impressive lake house (washing on line, presumably accessible by dinghy). Two American girls sat at the prow and derided my naiveté; you take the rough with the smooth, I suppose.

The Rise and Rise of 2048

The rise of 2048 has been exponential. Since its introduction to my friend group 7 days ago, most conversations seem be along the topic of these fiendish powers of 2. A blog seems appropriate.
Stage 1: Encounter of the 2^nth kind
The Marhvelous [sic] Greg showed me the game originally and it was interest at first button push. I’m not sure why it should be so enticing, but with it’s clean interface and well-chosen colour palette, combining things easily finds its way to your pleasure centers. If you haven’t played it, do. But only once you have finished any upcoming deadlines. As I said, it’s been a week.
Stage 2a: Tinkering (CONTAINS STRATEGIC ADVICE)
Surely there’s got to be a strategy? You hope so at least. You notice that by putting your big numbers in a corner they are more combinable without getting in the way of the smaller stacks. Armed with this knowledge you share it with your friends.
Stage 2b: The Race Begins
It seems so simple, get 2048. But every second you waste, one of your friends maybe eschewing their responsibilities also and coming ever closer to that beautiful numbered lozenge. It’s a winner takes all competition with cries of “who remembers the second man to run the 4 minute mile?” echoing around your friend group (It was John Landy. And before you complain about the obvious analogy being people on the moon, you don’t know my friends. They know the 2^1th man on the moon. They probably even know the 2^3.58th). You toy with using paint.
Credit to Ollie Lansdowne. He apologises to all you font nerds.
Stage 3: The Tears Begin
You cry like a wounded animal as you are unfairly beaten to the prize by someone with fewer time pressures but no discernibly greater IQ (in your modest opinion), be it Steve from the animal care department using the fact that the bears are still hibernating or the sabbatical officers of your Junion Common Room (the student body in my college) deciding to take Friday as their “morning off”. It’s humble pie for you and they spend a lot of time smugly musing on the nature of their premiership. You wish you’d used paint/failed your summative presentation.
Well played boys.
Stage 4: Scoring
Now that the big prizes has (as far as you are concerned anyway) gone, you move on to scoring. Is it possibly to finish with 2 concurrent 2048s? (Theoretically, but I have been, as yet, unable.) What’s the lowest score you can manage? Timed races? Throughout this your receive threats from your peers for the damage you have done to their schedules, sleeping patterns, relationships. It’s around this point when the dreams begin. You close your eyes and can only see squares colliding into sequentially higher powers of 2. You think of combining plates, pots, similar-looking friends to see if they will morph into some superior version.

That’s not my actual best score.
Stage 5. Interest Wanes The Game Changes
Just as your were about to move back to cookie clicker (no I won’t give you a link, trust me, you don’t want that) you realise some guy named Emil has built a two player version and while you and your friends were talking about whether there is a perfect strategy some guy was programming an AI version. You read his notes in a bid to understand this demigod before watching the computer tear up the tiles.
Stage 6: The Game Changes Again..
Somebody builds this monstrosity. You play for 20 minutes before your friend tells you it will take ~71 million years to complete (at 2 moves a second) meaning you should have started in the Cretaceous period. Your success is mocked by fake trumpets. Doge
The colours don’t even change after 8192. Credit to Josh Wilkes (I didn’t get past 4096)
Stage 7: Paradigm Shift
Seven days ago you were sitting under the apple tree and realisation came that all pairs of objects are attracted along a lines joining their centers of mass. Today you wake up and your twin returns from their relativistic journey to tell you that along with seeing you hit by that apple just 5 minutes before, time and space are relative and 2048 now has 4 dimensions. There are now 8 keys to press. You twist your mind round the problem… And you play.

My thanks go to Gabriele Cirulli and to all my friends with whom I have shared the rollercoaster ride (and stolen and published the funny bits). You can email Garbriele or donate if the game has given you enough pleasure that you might have bought it if you could (you can even donate bitcoins – good way to get rid of them before their value crashes).

Edits – Additional 2048 variants as they come
18/03/2014 Fibonacci “2584”
17/07/2014 So I should admit I didn’t keep this up. There are some good websites for it though.