The Psychology of First World Problems

A phrase has appeared on the internet recently. Someone posts a Facebook status update complaining about a less than perfect hazelnut latte, and in the comments some one will point out that this is a First World Problem.
Oliver Burkeman has an interesting column in the Guardian on the psychology behind this.

He starts with the furore caused by a very very rich American Tom Perkins comparing criticism of the richest 1% to Nazi persecution of the Jews (completely ignoring Godwin’s Law).

Perhaps you recall the furore a few weeks ago when Tom Perkins, a stratospherically wealthy venture capitalist from San Francisco, wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal, comparing criticism of America’s ultra-rich to Kristallnacht. Yes, that Kristallnacht. The Nazi one. Perkins apologised, but in an editorial the Journal claimed the uproar proved his point: “Maybe the critics are afraid that Mr Perkins is on to something?” Maybe. Or maybe it was a very stupid comparison, made only marginally less offensive by its absurdity.

He puts this incredible touchiness among the 1% down to the fact that they surrounded by lackeys and flatterers – like the editorial writer in the Wall Street Journal – employed to blow sunshine up the arse of the rich. They never hear criticism, they are never told they could be wrong, when criticised or told that they are wrong they take it incredibly badly.

I remember a story that our then Union Convener told me. He had encountered two members of the higher echelons of the company’s management in a hotel bar. While remaining perfectly civil about it he told them exactly where they were wrong why they were wrong and what they needed to do to put things right. He said that the primary reaction he received from them was shock, shock that someone had the effrontery to tell them something that they didn’t want to hear, and probably shock at the fact that a person about ten pay grades below them was telling them and giving a good coherently argued case.

That accounts for the 1% reaction, but it doesn’t take into account the problem of the imperfectly prepared hazelnut latte.

Then again, if you’ve ever felt cross about the absence of your favourite brand of coffee at the supermarket, or frustrated by slow broadband, you’re doing something similar. In that sense, the tale of Tom Perkins is just an extreme illustration of how, to quote the comedian Louis CK, “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy”. (He recalled a fellow aeroplane passenger complaining that the in-flight WiFi didn’t work. “But you’re sitting in a chair in the sky!”) Actually, he might have added, it’s worse than that, because the more amazing things get, the less it’ll take to make you dissatisfied.

This is where the problem lies, we have become used to a world of perfect hazelnut lattes and super-fast broadband and if the latte isn’t exactly to our taste, or it takes more than a nanosecond to download the latest pearls of wisdom from johnm55, we get annoyed. It applies to other, more serious, things. As Steven Pinker points out in the Better Angels of Our Nature we live in probably the least violent era in human history. As a result some things like domestic violence, which a century or even a few decades ago would have seemed unremarkable, are now seen as unacceptable. Because aggressive and violent behaviour is now fairly rare these things stand out.

Some bad phenomenon – workplace bullying, say – may strike us as appalling. But part of the reason it stands out is that aggressive behaviour in general is so rare, and our standards so high, compared with previous eras. In this area, high standards are a good thing, of course, since workplace bullying ought to be eliminated. When it comes to your slow broadband, you’re probably better advised to lower your standards. Yet, in both cases, it’s the excellence of the wider context that makes the flaw look so bad. And when your context is more privileged than that of almost any human in history, perhaps you stop being able to see how deranged it looks when you compare your critics to Hitler.

Or possibly a few lessons in self-awareness might help – for everyone.

The full article can be read here

Weather Revisited

We finally have a bit of a respite from the storms that have battered Britain since about a fortnight before Christmas, or the late part of October of you count the St Jude Storm (so-called because it was at its height on October the 28th, which is The feast of St Jude the Apostle).
I found this video on YouTube in which various climate scientists explain that what we see happening before our eyes is essentially what we can expect to see.

In The Observer Henry Porter asks the climate change sceptics to coherently explain what is happening and why we don’t need to do anything about it. Having berated the media, especially the Today programme, for trying to pretend that man-made climate change is still an open question;

For the moment, however, they have a disproportionate influence because they’ve created the illusion that this is a finely balanced discussion where a person can reasonably support either side. They empower a certain amount of stupidity, laziness, selfishness and ignorance in the minds of many, and I hope some of the younger deniers, though few, live to acknowledge responsibility.

He does give a very logical reason about why the sceptics deny the facts when presented to them.

I mentioned that most deniers come from the right and it is true the uninterrupted business of capitalism, which often entails waste of resources and energy, is a priority, but there is something deeper that explains why there are so few deniers from the left and that is to do with conservative mind. In his 1956 essay “On Being Conservative”, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote that the man of conservative temperament is “not in love with what is dangerous and difficult; he is unadventurous; he has no impulse to sail uncharted seas. What others plausibly identify as timidity, he recognises in himself as rational prudence. He eyes the situation in terms of its propensity to disrupt the familiarity of the features of his world”.

The real problem is that we are all a bit conservative and very few of us want the familiar features of our world disrupted, but unless we start to do something about it soon, as the video shows our little world is going to be disrupted whether we like it or not.
Go read the full article here

Superfoods?

Have you ever wondered what the next food that will change your life will be. The one that promises to make you ten years younger, rejuvenate your sex life, prevent or cure all cancers and make you rich and famous. My money is on either raw tripe or more likely some semi-inedible berry from the Afghan foothills of the Pamir Mountains. Jay Rayner is eagerly scanning is in-box for the news.

I was scrolling through my spam email folder one day dreaming about how life would be if its contents were only true. Oh the Nigerian oil millions I would have; the glorious women who were out there, waiting for me; the private jets I could buy at a knockdown price. Then I flicked back to my normal inbox. Suddenly it struck me: life wouldn’t be too shabby if many of these were true as well.

According to these emailed press releases food wasn’t just stuff you ate for nutritional purposes. It was the elixir of life, the very wellspring from which immortality might flow, a cure for cancer, acne and heart disease. My email inbox had become superfood central. A new superfood snack had been launched. Someone else was flogging a new range of superfood products. There was news of wonder berries, of offers to feed your immune system, of medicinally potent grains.

Or possibly not, as he explains in today’s Observer Food Monthly.

One thing that has always annoyed me is the claim that foods can act as medicines. No they can not. A healthy diet can help you to stay healthy, but it is not a guarantee, but trying to claim that for example food “x” will cure disease “y” is patent nonsense and fortunately illegal in the EU.

No wonder the European Union has banned the use of the term on packaging unless it can be backed up with scientific chapter and verse. Cancer Research UK calls it “just a marketing tool”. Sure, some so-called superfoods contain chemicals that, in the lab, have been shown to affect cancer cells. But that’s very different to what happens in the human body. For example to ingest the same volume of the active ingredient in garlic as used in laboratory tests you’d have to eat 28 cloves a day. Weirdly, no one has tried.

In addition, applying the active ingredient to a cell in a Petri dish is not the same as trying to apply the same active ingredient via the digestive system.
Jay Rayner loves food, and as he says treating it as medicine strips all joy out of it. He concludes;

I’m not a trained nutritionist but I know trash science when I see it – and the superfood cult is exactly that. Here, then is my advice to anyone wanting to take care of themselves through food: eat a normal balanced diet. It won’t stave off cancer. It won’t make you immortal. But it will keep you generally healthy. Which is about all you can expect from your lunch.

He does make on minor mistake here though, he is as qualified as a nutritionist as the people who make the claims about Super-foods. In the UK any one can call themselves a nutritionist. This is why, to try to get a bit better control over my blood glucose levels (I’m diabetic), I will be going to see a Dietician next week.

Songs I Love: Pete Seeger – Quite Early Morning

When Pete Seeger died on January 27 this year the world lost one of its greats. To get a bit of an idea how great read this tribute to him and his influence on the British folk scene by Martin Carthy.

As a song-writer he wrote songs that are now that much part of the tradition that many people who sing them may not even be aware that he wrote them. Songs like, “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn Turn Turn” – lyrics borrowed and slightly adapted from Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 (This is Judy Collins’ version). He also helped to popularise “We Shall Overcome” as the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. (Click in the links to go to videos of the songs)

Out of all the songs that he wrote, “Quite Early Morning” is the one that speaks to me the most. It is an old man’s song of hope. Most of us, as we get older, get more pessimistic about the future of the human race, but Pete never gave up on his hope that we would eventually get our collective act together.

Some say humankind won’t long endure,
But what makes them so dog gone sure.

The song I think sums up his life as a political, environmental and civil rights activist, and his hope that the next generation can and will take up the challenge of making the world a better and fairer place.

There are quite a few versions on You Tube, and I have posted links below. I can’t find Holly Near’s version on YouTube, but I do have a Spotify link;
Holly Near Quite Early Morning
Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger when he was (a bit) younger
Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie

This version of the song is by The Rivertown Kids, a group of young people from his home-town in New York, who get together to sing and work toward environmental and social justice. Pete acted as their mentor and I suppose great-grandfather figure. One line in the song says;

When these fingers can strum no longer,
Pass the old banjo to the young ones stronger.

This, I think is what he meant.

Through all this world of joy and sorrow,
We still can have singing tomorrow.

Thanks Pete for your life, songs and inspiration.

Weather

Weather, we seem to have had a lot of it recently. Since about a fortnight before Christmas It seems as if we have had a never-ending sequence of heavy rain accompanied by gale force winds, with the occasional hour or two of sunshine in between. The south of England has experienced the wettest January in two hundred and fifty years and the weather patterns show no signs of letting up.

Rainfall January 2014

Almost incessant storms battering the South-west coast lead to the railway line to Cornwall being washed away, considerable damage to coastal defences, not to mention Cornish beach cafés, as well as some quite spectacular photos.

Porthleven Click for more images from The Guardian

The explanation for this is fairly simple. The jet stream, which drives North Atlantic weather is running further south than normal. This drives the low pressure systems, which normally run northwards into the gap between Scotland and Iceland into the southern part of the Great Britain. This also explains why, if you look at the map, the Northwest of Scotland has only had about 85% of its normal rainfall this January (although it has probably still been pretty damp).

This is obviously what can be described as an extreme weather event, and while I would agree that no one weather event can be ascribed to Global Climate Change, this is the type of event that climate change models predict will occur with increasing regularity. If this is going to be the case what steps will we need to take to alleviate the situation. Politicians and business leaders world-wide show no signs of being willing or able to address the fundamental cause of Climate Change, i.e. the amount of Carbon Dioxide we are pumping into the atmosphere.

I feel for the people who live on the Somerset Levels, which have been underwater for about six weeks now. They may have a point that increased dredging of their rivers and drainage canals might have lessened the flooding. Having said that there are others who say that, with the volume of water involved, it wouldn’t have made any difference. A more fundamental question is this; If this current pattern of winter weather becomes the norm, is trying to preserve this area, which is below sea level, as agricultural land practical, or should we let it revert to salt-marsh? Looking wider, we will need to make a choice between flooding agricultural land to absorb the excess waters in our rivers or allowing towns downstream to be flooded. Always remembering that all this costs money, and while the Daily Mail believes that “Something must be done”© the Daily Mail and a lot of the British public are not keen on the tax rises that may be required to fund such programmes.

The railway line to Cornwall can be routed inland. There is a line that was axed by Dr Beeching’s notorious cuts to the railway network that used to link Exeter to Plymouth by an alternative route. Apparently the rail bed is still more or less intact, and while it probably wouldn’t be cheap, it shouldn’t be any harder to do than reinstating the Waverley Line. Though I must admit that section of the line at Dawlish is quite spectacular.

Unfortunately I don’t have any answers, just questions. Any effective answers will ultimately need to come from politicians who can’t tell the truth, because we their electorate don’t want to hear it.

At least it has stopped raining for the time being, though it will be back on Tuesday, possibly in spades.

Cyclo-cross World Championships 2014

The World Cyclo-cross Championships have just finished in Hoogerheide in the Netherlands. For those of you unfamiliar with the sport it is probably best described as half way between Mountain Biking and Road Racing. It is held off-road and the races are about an hour-long for men and about 45 minutes for women.

This years men’s race was as exciting a bike race as I have seen in a long time. The women’s race was a master class in cyclo-cross by the finest bicycle racer on the planet today Marianne Vos

Highlights of the Women’s Race

Highlights of the Men’s Race

If that has whetted your appetite you might be interested to learn that a round of the World Cup will be held in Milton Keynes next year.

If you want to watch the full races and/or the Junior and the Under-23 races they are available on the UCI’s YouTube channel.

Eating out with Vegetarians

Barbara Ellen rants in today’s Observer at people who won’t go out with a vegetarian because they are “too picky” and make dining out “nightmare”.

Would you date a vegetarian? I ask, because it’s still evident that there are people who’d prefer not to, because they feel that dining out would be a nightmare and that vegetarians are “too picky”.The cheek of it, yet such judgment is widespread.

Now I have some sympathy with her views, having gone out, indeed been married to a vegetarian for the best part of the last 30 years. Admittedly it does need a bit of reading of menus outside restaurants in France, and (in France) often ends up eating in an Italian or Vietnamese restaurant. But generally, no they are not picky they can’t afford to be.

It’s time to fight back. Vegetarians don’t ruin meals in restaurants – we are angels who meekly accept the one dish (max) we’re offered (these days, either the ubiquitous goat’s cheese tart or dreaded risotto).

It is slightly better than it used to be, when the choice was generally the vegetarian lasagna. Or with one memorable, for all the wrong reasons, meal in a pub on the A303, tagliatelle in “mushroom sauce”. They had boiled the tagliatelle for about an hour and the “mushroom sauce” looked and tasted like Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. An Anglo-Italian family had made the same mistake as us. Their teenage daughter was overheard saying,
“Mama you will not believe what they have done to the pasta”.
My meal wasn’t much better.

We don’t kick off when male omnivores use every pan in the house, lost in a fantasy that they’re Anthony Bourdain.

Yes you do, but we’ll leave that for another day. Anyway in my case the fantasy is that I’m Heston Blumenthal

No, the time when vegetarians are picky and a pain in the backside in restaurants is when you go to a vegetarian restaurant with them. Normally it takes her two seconds to decide what she is having to eat ( because there is only one choice) but take her to Terre à Terre and Mrsjohnm55 can take half-an-hour making up her mind what to have.

Terre à Terre by the way comes highly recommended by this omnivore. Only the most blinkered carnivore could fail to enjoy their food.