Monday, 26 September 2016

Let's call it a cat

As we waited for a traffic light on upper Broadway, I saw a sporting extra headlined with the score of the game. The green sheet was more real than the afternoon itself--succinct, condensed and clear:

PRINCETON CONQUERS YALE 10-3
SEVENTY THOUSAND WATCH TIGER TRIM
BULLDOG

DEVLIN SCORES ON YALE FUMBLE

There it was--not like the afternoon, muddled, uncertain, patchy and scrappy to the end, but nicely mounted now in the setting of the past:

PRINCETON, 10; YALE, 3

Achievement was a curious thing, I thought. Dolly was largely responsible for that. I wondered if all things that screamed in the headlines were simply arbitrary accents. As if people should ask, "What does it look like?"

"It looks most like a cat."

"Well, then, let's call it a cat."

My mind, brightened by the lights and the cheerful tumult, suddenly grasped the fact that all achievement was a placing of emphasis--a molding of the confusion of life into form.

F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Bowl (1928)

An unusually long quote but the context is important - an American football game - muddled, uncertain, patchy and scrappy to the end, but nicely mounted now in the setting of the past. And here again is the conclusion Fitzgerald's character draws from all the tidying up so that everything is nicely mounted.

My mind, brightened by the lights and the cheerful tumult, suddenly grasped the fact that all achievement was a placing of emphasis--a molding of the confusion of life into form.

Not particularly easy to generalise as an insight into the essentially artificial nature of achievement because there are obvious caveats. Eliminating hunger globally would be more than a mere placing of emphasis. So expanding Fitzgerald’s observation to wider achievements is not so easy. As well as the caveats it requires a kind of lateral cynicism, a willingness and even a desire to step away from the social clamour and focus on the artificial aspects of achievement. Perhaps it is also easy to see such an attitude as overdone, as envy or misanthropy taken too far.

And yet... and yet all achievement is a placing of emphasis because it must be. We have to define what counts as achievement and what does not, even if we are eliminating hunger or aiming to cure cancer. We have to emphasise the necessary qualities of achievement before it counts as achievement, even if that emphasis is perfectly obvious to the entire world.

Staying with sporting achievement - suppose the rules of soccer were to be changed. Smaller or bigger pitches, a different number of players, changes to the scoring, kick-ins instead of throw-ins, no offside rule. Whatever we do we have to say how the game is to be won or lost, we have to define the achievement of winning by a placing of emphasis. As we all know the emphasis on winning has become so overblown that even the idea of football as a sporting contest seems naive. The emphasis has shifted.

A more tricky example might be Jeremy Corbyn winning the general election for Labour in 2020. That would certainly be a remarkable achievement by conventional standards, yet the man probably doesn’t expect to win. His notion of achievement may be centred around a different placing of emphasis, shifting the Labour party towards the more totalitarian politics he and his supporters favour.

The internet is a remarkable achievement by conventional standards, but again we could step aside so that this too becomes a placing of emphasis. The power of almost instant global communication is emphasised over a range of more sedate alternatives such as talking, doing and taking part. This does not imply that the internet is a malign influence. It merely reminds us that popular emphasis is merely that – emphasis - and that one achievement often precludes another. 

Saturday, 24 September 2016

More on the NHS

Almost all of us have stories about the NHS. This is from regular commenter Wiggia.
----------------------------------------------------------- 

A long short story

Your article on the NHS reminded me of a personal trip to West Suffolk Hospital some years ago. I had a pain behind my knee and the leg from there down swelled up, it didn't get better so saw my GP who was not satisfied and thought it could be DVT so sent me to the hospital to see a specialist.

I saw the specialist at about ten in the morning on schedule but she was not certain of her diagnosis and wanted the head of the unit to confirm her findings (it was a burst Baker's cyst) before I was released.

After waiting about an hour the senior nurse (very old school matron type) came over and said it would be a long wait. Why so? I asked, and she said he only came to the clinic after he had done his ward rounds later in the day, as is normal in these situations. I had no choice and waited, in the meantime the senior nurse well aware of the time involved brought me tea and biscuits from the ward trolley and said she was sorry but that is how it is now at this hospital.

At four in the afternoon the consultant appeared, spent less than two minutes with me, agreed with the original diagnosis and gave a prescription for the knee problem to be handed in at the dispensary that happened to be next to the area I was in.

Another hour went by waiting and I had reached the point where I was ready to go home without the prescription. I decided to walk the five yards round the corner to see what the hold up was. There was my original doctor with her legs up drinking tea another nurse reading a newspaper and another getting some prescriptions together.

I explained what I was waiting for and that I had been waiting an hour when the nurse who was actually working exploded with "we have been very busy all day" in that manner that says you will wait regardless as you are just a number. My reply was, "I would have been very busy all day but I have been stuck here and unlike you as I run my own business I do not get paid to sit on my arse." 

That didn't go down to well and resulted in shuffled papers and mumblings, and my prescription was ready in a couple of minutes. Sometimes you have to tell them how it is. They or many NHS employees still believe they are doing you a favour just being there.

I have another example, recently getting an appointment with the eye clinic, where after three months ! of trying to get an appointment and being told there is a hold up and shortage etc I emailed (previous emails had not been returned) that obviously my appointment was totally unnecessary and I wouldn't be trying again to get get one. If they thought it was wanted they could contact me or not. I had an appointment with alternatives that 'might' suit me in two days.

This attitude of being something you should be grateful for rather than something we all pay for is prevalent amongst a large section of NHS workers. Even a nurse giving me an annual asthma check said after I had explained the treatment wasn't working and needed to change replied that 'as it was free there was no harm done'. Saying that nothing was free in the NHS got me the look of someone who really should be more grateful.

Everyone can relate to the good and bad about the NHS but it is to big to be criticised and dealt with properly and totally over-managed mainly by people from the baked bean industry.

The attitude of many within the NHS is of an organisation that is fine thank you and leave us alone and just throw money our way. Despite government giving whistleblowers on malpractice clearance without malice to come forward, the NHS trusts still buy them of or shut them down. There are so many items that need correcting before you even get onto the finance that it would take yet another article on the subject. There have already been dozens and the effect absolutely nothing.

My GP practice consists of eight GPs five part time, if you can ever get past the non medical appointment meister and get an appointment. If urgent you will be directed to the walk-in centre six miles away. Your appointment will be at least two weeks away and not on a Thursday or Friday afternoon because as far as I can make out there is only one doctor on duty at those times, and anyway you are to old to be prioritised as it says on their literature. Children and babies will have priority. Yes it actually tells those that have paid taxes all their life for this system that they are now at the back of the queue.

Ever since I have been with this medical centre as they call it, they have sent out survey forms for feedback on the practice. Nothing has ever changed, what is the point !

Not all about the NHS is bad, far from it. My wife who does have ongoing problems has with minor exceptions received good care and treatment all her life. So there can always be a difference of opinion about the service amongst individuals, but the overall picture is of a downward spiral with nobody having any real solution other than want more money. Money alone is not the answer and this is where another article starts or would to add to the many on file everywhere.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Coercive places

He was drinking his tea. He would have preferred not to. But the spirit of the place was coercive.
Ford Madox Ford - Henry for Hugh (1934)

Places certainly can be coercive; we encounter them all the time. Schools, hospitals, churches, courtrooms, police stations. They induce certain kinds of behaviour and rule out other kinds of behaviour and everyone knows which is which. Almost everyone.

Often there is official power behind the coercion and increasingly it is more overt that it was in the comparatively recent past. Notices about zero tolerance of abusive behaviour in hospitals for example. This means you. Even if you are never abusive it still means you.

It is perfectly understandable in A&E, nobody should have to put up with drunken abuse, but not so understandable in Urology where everyone sits quietly and ignores the drinking water station. I merely offer this as an example hem hem.

Those threatening notices seem to have oozed out of places where they obviously applicable into more mundane surrounding where one never seems to encounter a raised voice, let alone threatening behaviour. There are no clear caveats either, no boundary where some kind of negative behaviour is deemed acceptable. In hospitals one is left with the impression that they really mean don’t even think about criticising us even if you have been waiting for hours. As if we would. We are too polite.

As far as I can see, schools like their threatening notices too. What are they afraid of? Angry parents of course and no doubt there are appalling parents who are not fit to bring up a goldfish let alone a child, but why point the finger at everyone? Again one is left with the impression that they really mean don’t even think about criticising us even if you child isn’t receiving a particularly good education. As if we would. We are too polite.

Even roads have become coercive places, coercive ribbons of tarmac lined with directions, warnings, speed limits and cameras. Even cars are becoming coercive places with warnings about seat belts, tyre pressures and service intervals. Useful perhaps, but also coercive, part of a trend which seems unlikely to slow down. In which case we may soon be hard pushed to find places which are not coercive.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Spurious signals

One of the pleasures of modern language is the invention of particularly apt, powerfully descriptive phrases such as ‘virtue signalling’. This seems to be a recent one. According to Google Trends it first appeared as a blip in 2009 then rose from obscurity in 2015. In spite of claims by James Bartholomew it probably originated within signalling theory. Google Ngram Viewer isn’t aware of it at all.


Virtue signalling is the expression or promotion of viewpoints that are especially valued within a social group, especially when this is done primarily to enhance the social standing of the speaker. For example, expressing a hatred of the conservative newspaper Daily Mail might be an example of virtue signalling on the British left. The term is chiefly used by commentators to criticize the platitudinous and empty or superficial support of socially progressive views on social media, but has also been used to describe analogous behaviour in other groups, such as pro-gun rights grandstanding among the American right, and by signalling theorists to discuss conspicuous piety among the religious faithful as well as agnostics and atheists.

A real stonker of a phrase, it is extraordinarily powerful as a concise term for vast swathes of unedifying human behaviour. Yet the idea of signalling is hardly new - Strindberg saw it in art.

...for my art was incapable of expressing a single idea; at the most it could represent the body in a position expressing an emotion accompanying a thought—or, in other words, express a thought at third hand. It is like signalling, meaningless to all who cannot read the signals. I only see a red flag, but the soldier sees the word of command: Advance!
August Strindberg – The Red Room (1879)

In which case and given that it is now so obvious that virtue signalling is a vital aspect of human behaviour, what prevented us from describing it in such a powerfully accessible way before? Perhaps it is because, as we well know, forceful phrases soon become overused, lose their vigour and slip off into the land of cliché.

Which would be handy for those who rely on virtue signalling because it cuts so deeply into the social fabric. It exposes the manipulative mechanisms of power, the screen behind which personal interests hide.

Celebrity culture, mainstream journalism, drama, political allegiances, the EU, the UN, major charities, environmental drama, major sporting events and international businesses all lean heavily on virtue signalling. They cannot say so or folk might expect some genuine virtues instead of being caught up in the nonsense themselves. We can’t have that can we?

Monday, 19 September 2016

Printer ink

The BBC has a piece about HP printers rejecting non-HP cartridges.

Large numbers of HP printer owners found their printers stopped recognising unofficial printer ink cartridges on 13 September.

Dutch printer ink vendor 123inkt said it had received more than 1,000 complaints in one day.

HP said that during its last firmware update, settings had been changed so HP printers would communicate with only HP-chipped cartridges.

It also said some devices already had the functionality built-in.


We have a Canon printer and stick to Canon ink cartridges after fatal problems with our previous Epson printer choking on unofficial cartridges. We do very little printing, but over the past year or so I'm sure the lifetime of cartridges has reduced. It is easy enough to check this because we buy them through Amazon which tells us when we last bought the same item. I keep no records, but from memory cartridge life seems to have dropped from about a year to about six months.

It's not a new issue of course. Back in 2013 the Guardian was telling us about printer manufacturers reducing the amount of ink per cartridge. It could be worth buying a cheap printer with the intention of throwing it away when a cartridge runs out, but no doubt they will have that sorted by making special short lifetime cartridges for new printers. Cartels eh? Don't we just love them?

Sunday, 18 September 2016

The greatest discovery


In the days which are now called the good days, although in reality they were very bad ones for a good many people, the greatest discovery of a great century was made, namely, that one could live more cheaply and better on other people's money than on the results of one's own efforts.
August Strindberg – The Red Room (1879)

Perhaps the history of such a momentous discovery could be part of our national curriculum.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

A Blatz Wildcat

Stutz Bearcat from the Jazz Age

Near them was the parking space, as yet a modest yard; and as they lingered indecisively, their eyes were caught and held by a small car, red in color and slung at that proximity to the ground which indicated both speed of motion and speed of life. It was a Blatz Wildcat, and for the next five years it represented the ambition of several million American boys. Occupying it, in the posture of aloof exhaustion exacted by the sloping seat, was a blonde, gay, baby-faced girl.
F. Scott Fitzgerald - A Night at the Fair (1928)

A Blatz Wildcat eh? It is thought that Fitzgerald, being something of a petrolhead, was referring to the Stutz Bearcat.

What about today? What does a young chap covet now? A politically correct Tesla? Or further down the scale, a knackered Subaru Impreza or a Vauxhall Corsa with drainpipe exhaust? Either way the romance has gone and the baby-faced girl has other ambitions. Or maybe not.