What makes me?

Immigration is always a hot-button topic for politicians, and some seem unable to resist pushing that big, red, shiny button. Almost like they were being (or had been) given rewards on a variable schedule.

Exhibit A: Peters, W.; unable to let an issue pass without adding his two cents. He does raise an interesting theory1, however: is Australia strict on immigrants from New Zealand because NZ is lax on immigrants to NZ? (If you didn’t read the link, he claims immigrants have used NZ as a stepping stone: staying the minimum time to gain citizenship then moving to Australia.)

Even if what he says is true, it doesn’t mean the problem is only on one side. NZ could (and maybe already has) tighten up its immigration policies2. Australia could limit their sanctions (on NZ’ers living in Australia) to only the freshly-minted New Zealanders.


There has been other citizenship-related news recently, too. Several members of the Australian parliament have run into problems due to potentially having dual-citizenship. I can understand the reasoning: a dual-citizen is not fully committed to the country, and so should not be an MP. However, it becomes ludicrous when someone can hold dual citizenship without their knowledge or initiative3.

And, of course, there’s the latest kerfuffle from the US4. *sigh* Is there anyone he hasn’t managed to alienate yet?

All these issues are different facets of a point5 that I’ve been wondering about: What does it mean to be a citizen?

When I was growing up, not being well-informed on political history, I had assumed countries existed because they were originally the homeland of a certain ethnic group, but that owing to people migrating around the world, a lot of countries now had a mixture of ethnicities. In a way, this was further reinforced as countries like Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR separated into distinct states, seemingly along ethnic lines.

I did however, find it confusing learning about various long-running conflicts that seemed to involve particular ethnic groups whose “homelands” straddled two or more countries (e.g. the Kurdish people). It was only later I realised the countries were often defined as “the bit claimed by [insert applicable expansionist European empire]”, and so you got locals being told to fight other locals from across the river because they’re being oppressed by the French rather than the British. Yeah. No wonder some parts of the world are messed up.

There is a definite distinction between what the powers-that-be have decided upon, and they way individual people feel. As an extended example, despite the ancient nation of Israel/Judah being ended by the Roman Empire (often symbolised by the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in about 70 AD), the strength of Jewish identity passed down through the generations meant that even after nearly 1900 years there was enough impetus to re-establish Israel. Unfortunately, this was plenty of time for Palestine to become established and viewed as an ancestral homeland, hence neither side wanting to cede territory.

People can identify very strongly with “their” country, even though—much like their racial identity—it’s usually obtained through an accident of birth. Unlike race, however, people cannot wake up one morning to find that they are now part of a different country (again, outside of their initiative). But the impression I get is that—at the scale of a country—people are generally more attached to a physical place than a political state (it’s just that the two are often synonymous). We have a sense of “home”; a place that provides security. Some are willing to venture further from home than others, but most would feel a sense of loss if they could never go back.

This attachment can vary depending on the level of patriotism in a country. The United States, being formed of a vast array of different peoples, a lot of them immigrants, has focused on forming a strong bond with the flag and the nation. Children recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school. There is a strong implication of “if you do this, you are one of us, and we stand together”. If someone has participated in this, grown up in this environment, maybe never known any other, it is downright cruel to have the authorities essentially say “you are not one of us”. To send people away from the only home they’ve ever known to a place where they may not even speak the language. The world’s seen too much of that crap already.


1 Whether he is correct in his assertions, I don’t know, but the scenario he presented prompted Thoughts™.

2 Maybe not to the level of Australia’s, though? Just saying. Not an expert.

3 When this issue first appeared in the news, a friend of mine joked that we could therefore remove any Australian MP we disliked by granting them NZ citizenship. You might well argue that we would then have to let said former-Aussie-MP into NZ, but our immigration laws do bar criminals, and obtaining a governmental position when unqualified certainly sounds like a crime. Practically treason.
(Please note this entire footnote should not be taken seriously. I’m sure this won’t be too arduous for any of you.)

4 That is, the latest at the time I started writing this. By the time you read it, the Human Vuvuzela will no doubt have moved on to fresh outrages.

5 It can be helpful to step back, to generalise, to look at the common threads in several related situations. The trouble is, working at this more abstract, theoretical level, it’s not obvious how to apply your conclusions to the real world. Assuming you even manage to come to any conclusions.

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Doctor Why

So, this morning I—like many others—woke to the announcement of who’s playing the next Doctor. Somewhat predictably, there has been online ranting from the extremes of the pro/anti spectrum1.

Am I the only one thinking “That’s interesting. I’ll have to see how they turn out.”?

But then, I tend to have that reaction to any new Doctor announcement2. Generally I haven’t heard of/encountered the new actor before, so I don’t have any particular preconceptions before I see them in action. It’s hard to judge how good a Doctor someone will be beforehand3, as it’s not just a matter of who the actor is, but what their “style” is going to be (both costume and manner), and where the writing team take them.

Doctor Who is at rather an advantage in this regard, having not just a built-in mechanism for cast changes, but an expectation of them. Companions come and go as their own stories are completed, and the main character regenerates to be the-same-but-different, allowing a new style, attitude, and perspective. Regardless of whether you like a particular Doctor and/or companion, the show will eventually move on, and even if you stop watching there’s always the incentive to come back to see what you think of the new one.

My theory is that with every new Doctor, the writers etc (whether they’ve worked with the previous Doctor(s) or not) will have a sense of what aspect of the character they want to explore, and will cast the part with that in mind. The general theme so far with the new series has been the Doctor coming to terms with past trauma (the Time War and all that), so…

  • The 9th Doctor started out a bit hardened and cynical, and gradually learned to open up to people again, to have fun, to “dance”. Christopher Eccleston was a good fit for being able to be a bit scary but also a bit goofy.
  • The 10th was somewhat mellower, but now that he’d opened up, had to deal with the previously-bottled emotions. Hence, manic energy, but also the angst. And David Tennant does good sad-puppy eyes.
  • 11 had moved on, wanting a fresh start. New, happy memories to replace the bad, old ones (10 and 11 are described at one point as “the man who regrets, and the man who forgets”). Hence the young Matt Smith, who never-the-less can convey an alienness and sense of age.
  • 12 (bearing in mind I’ve only seen his first season) had finally resolved a lot of his issues around the Time War, but had been uncertain about who he was without that focal point, making it difficult for him to relate to other people. Peter Capaldi made this unintentional abrasiveness work, and—in an odd reversal of the previous version—was an old-looking face who behaved like a teenager; still finding themselves, desperate for approval, but prone to being prickly.

So where does that leave 13, to be played by Jodie Whittaker? For one thing, she wouldn’t have been cast if they didn’t think she was capable of playing the part. My hope is that the Doctor being a woman has a purpose behind it, in terms of exploring a different side of the character.

But, as with all her predecessors, we’ll have to wait, and watch, to find out. As usual, I’m quietly hopeful.


1 “Yes!!! Another kick in the plums for the patriarchy!!”, “Ow, my entitlement!”, “About time! James (Jane) Bond next!”, “The show is ruined forever!”, etc. etc. All the stuff you encounter if you ever dare to read the comment section.

2 Though I do admit a little extra emphasis on the ‘that’s interesting’ this time.

3 Full disclosure: Of the “modern” Doctors, I’d heard of Christopher Eccleston and thought him a weird choice, but he was fine. I knew nothing about David Tennant, enjoyed his early stuff, but got a bit over him by the end. Matt Smith was the first Doctor younger than me, which was a strange feeling, but I thought he did well4. Peter Capaldi I didn’t know what to expect, and personally haven’t enjoyed his Doctor, but I wouldn’t say he’s done a bad job of it.

4 Plus, bow ties are cool. I’m undecided about fezzes though.

You Know My Name

I’m not greatly familiar with Chris Cornell’s body of work, except for this:

I still think it’s one of the better Bond openings, both in terms of the song fitting the tone/style of the film, and that it succeeds visually without the usual crutch of implied (or actual) nudity. Sadly, subsequent Bond movies have gone backward in this regard.

I’d like to think that we’re progressing, as a society, and that we’ve gotten past using empty titillation. Even if it’s intended “ironically”. But sometimes, one of the tragic aspects of a sad piece of news is that some things haven’t gotten any better.

Yet.

Twin Medics

I’m generally a fan of thought experiments (see the blog title, for example), whether about the nature of reality, ethics1, language and meaning, technology, or anything else. They may be called by various names: experiments, paradoxes2, dilemmas, problems…

The advantage of a thought experiment is that it allows one (or many) to consider the nuances and implications of a situation before getting into it. This is especially handy if the situation is one that requires quick decisions, or has a high cost. Plus, it’s just interesting to consider what might be, and what are the implications and ramifications of a decision.

I find scenarios a little frustrating, however. There may be a good point behind them, but the way they are presented means the immediate solution is a matter of grammar or semantics. For example, the “Omnipotence Paradox”, usually expressed as (something like) “if God can do anything, can he create a stone too heavy for him to lift?”. Whether the answer is yes or no, it establishes something that God cannot do, thus God cannot be omnipotent. It’s really about the logical inconsistencies of our concept of omnipotence, and the limitations of our language in expressing certain concepts. Which is fine, those are worthy topics of discussion, but we shouldn’t claim it tells us anything useful about the nature/existence of God.

Another famous one that doesn’t really hold up is the “Epimenides’ Paradox”, named after a Cretan philosopher who claimed that all Cretans were liars. But he was a Cretan, so he must have been lying. So Cretans are not liars, so he was telling the truth, so … 😕

But that's a false dichotomy. The statement “All Cretans are liars” is not the same as the (more specific) statement “All Cretans always lie”. In the real world no-one lies all the time (despite recent evidence). Of more relevance is the (somewhat blander and more formal) “Liar Paradox”, encapsulated in “This sentence is false”. This has been the basis of much discussion of the problems of self-referential language.


Speaking of lying, though, I saw an article purporting to list the 5 lies you are allowed to tell in a relationship. The morality of lying has been a hobbyhorse of mine, so I was intrigued. But ultimately disappointed. Their list of acceptable topics to lie about was:

  1. Whether you liked the meal they cooked
  2. Whether the hotel room is okay
  3. Whether it’s fine for their family to visit
  4. Whether those clothes look good on them
  5. Whether they’re right (in an argument)

In general, this seems to be mistaking lying for diplomacy. In all these situations, lying about your feelings to spare theirs is a bad idea. Again, it’s presenting a false dichotomy: you have more options than lying through your teeth, or giving it to them with both barrels. Telling the truth can (and should) be done gently, and with respect for the person you’re talking to. It’s a lack of that respect that makes the truth blunt and rude.

A specific note on outfits: they advise praising an outfit that works and saying nothing about an outfit that doesn’t (i.e. lying by omission). Again, the truth would be better, but this is a scenario where you have to show you deserve the right to tell the truth. The stereotypical girlfriend’s “test” (“Does this make my bum look big?”) isn’t about the clothes. It’s not a yes/no question. You pass by showing that you want her to look good, and can say something’s wrong without hurting her feelings.

Ultimately, don’t you want those close to you to respect and value your feelings and opinions? How can they do that if you’re not being honest?


1 A topical example is the Trolley Problem—first popularised in the late 1960’s—which directly relates to the decision-making of automated vehicles in potential crash situations (do you drive into the other car, or the pedestrian?).

2 Yes, the heading is a dreadful pun. No, I’m not sorry. 😛

Lost in the Crowd

I have a definite dose of the cynicisms at the moment.

The whole “post-truth”, “alternative facts” nonsense could very well have something to do with it. In some ways, I feel like this is a predictable result of swinging too far in the post-modernist “truth is relative”, “my interpretation is [just as/more] important than your intentions” school of thought.

The trouble is that reality is nuanced. I’d like to be able to make a blanket statement that this perspective is wrong, but that falls into the same trap of over-simplifying reality to save having to engage in critical thought.

When it comes to the “meaning” behind a piece of art—be it a novel, film, painting, sculpture, or whatever else—or a statement that someone has made (say, a political speech for example), it is important to recognise that different people will have different reactions to it. Everyone brings their own opinions, history, understanding, and perspectives to bear when they take in something. That’s why things like innuendoes or inside jokes work; some people will interpret them differently than others. And (assuming people of generally sound mind), multiple interpretations are valid.

As an example, a few years ago there was some debate about censoring the “n-word” in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer—what was considered acceptable parlance has changed, and a modern reader likely brings additional baggage. I don’t have a strong inclination one way or the other (as a relative outsider), but I do think it’s an important discussion to have. Values dissonance can have quite an impact on how one views a story/character. A Shakespearean character who spouts “zounds!” and the like comes across to modern readers as quaint, when for the time that may have been considered offensive language.

Not everything is this open to interpretation, however. You may be able to say anything with statistics, but you cannot change the underlying data. Some things are true, some things are false, and some things are ineffable.

I don’t know any politicians personally, so it would be extremely arrogant of me to make statements about their beliefs or attitudes. Recent experience has shown me that in any large group of people, there can be vast differences in attitude towards an issue, even among those who take the same “side”.

That said, I find the recent actions of certain newly-minted state leaders to be very worrying. They may be done with good intentions towards improving the lives of their citizens, but they seem to be giving entirely the wrong impression in terms of being confrontational, alienating, and divisive; emboldening to bigots both domestic and foreign.

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has been posting interesting explanations of the negotiation and persuasion tactics behind certain decisions, and recently pointed out that—by pushing lots of controversial things through in a short space of time—one can undermine strong protests about any of them (as the opponents have too many things to complain about). Like John Key and flags, however, I’m left wondering what else has gone on that’s been overlooked in the rush.

We are in for interesting times. Kia kaha.

Crime and Punishment

I was shown an interesting blog article talking about the Game of Thrones tv series, and the conflicting drives (in the audience) of empathy and vengeance. You can read it here, but in summary it was addressing the way characters do horrible things, so we want them to be punished, but then get penalised brutally, so we feel bad for them.

At this point, I should clarify that I’m not a fan of GoT—it’s too … intense … for my tastes1. Given the popularity of revenge-based stories throughout history (as in, they usually inspire catharsis, not ambivalence), I suspect the makers of the show are trying to portray the acts of retribution in such a way as to emphasise their brutality and engender empathy in the audience. It would certainly fit with the theme of “everyone is equally nasty (and those that aren’t tend to get killed off quickly)”.

It does raise an interesting thought, though. When we see another human suffering, we feel sympathy. If we see someone wronged, we feel anger: we want justice. But what do we mean by “justice”? Sure, revenge is viscerally satisfying, but only if we dissociate from the other party (usually either through seeing them as somehow inhuman—monstrously evil and unredeemable—or by otherwise distancing them—they are from a rival clan/group).

Many stories of vengeance also convey the idea of “‘an eye for an eye’ leaves the world blind”. Our desire for punishment can be defused by seeing the humanity of the perpetrator. Some political parties like to focus on “tougher sentences for crime” as though it would help, but evidence suggests it does not: likelihood of punishment (“Will I get caught?”) matters more than severity of punishment in deterring lawbreaking.

This is all focusing on the penalties of wrongdoing, however (whether via an individual avenger, or state sanctions). And while the presence of these can mitigate our sense of injustice, I do wonder if they are ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff measures.

Perhaps the way to make the world a more just place would be to try and ensure there were no benefits to breaking the rules.

But we could go further. It’s also known that people are more likely to take risks to avoid a loss than to gain a bonus. So maybe the real problem (and the real injustice) is that following the rules doesn’t mean you’ll be successful.


1 I do know enough bits and pieces of history to recognise the reality of the political machinations; it’s been said2 that democracy doesn’t guarantee you the best ruler, but allows you to change them without bloodshed. It’s worth remembering. We don’t know how propitious are the circumstances, Frederick. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, a new sultan would have his extended family killed off to prevent the possibility of civil war over heirship.

2 I seem to recall a specific quote along these lines, but I cannot remember the wording, or who said it. If anyone does know, please enlighten me!

Might Be?

It’s comforting to think that we live in a fairly egalitarian society, where we have advanced beyond “primitive” concepts like “Might Makes Right“.

But have we?

Allow me to present an example. The other day, I was waiting to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing. Weighing up whether to step out, I (wisely) chose to wait and see if the approaching car was planning to stop for me or not. As they breezed past, and I internally grumbled about right-of-way, the following occurred to me.

According to the road rules, the car should have given way. Were I to step forward with that expectation, they would certainly try to stop in time. If they hit me, they would likely bear the brunt of any legal censure, while I would be told to be more careful.

Assuming I was still around to be told.

Various pieces of legislation exist to empower the “little guy”—the one on the wrong side of any disagreement where “might* makes right” could apply. And this is fair enough: if someone is correct, they shouldn’t need to coerce others to agree; if someone is wrong, they shouldn’t win an argument.

The trouble is that these rules and laws work more as a proclamation. Pragmatically, they have only a limited effect. Thanks to the rules, cars will occasionally stop to let me cross the road. But if they don’t, there’s generally no recourse. In theory I could note number-plates and pursue legal action, but it would likely be a long hard slog with little or no reward. So a driver is free from reprisal unless they actually run someone over. However, even in this case, there’s still an advantage to being the “mighty” one—they get fined, or maybe even sent to jail, some weeks or months after the event. The pedestrian gets injured immediately.

Might still makes right in some situations. But I don’t see any practical way around that, so having rules to say “this is the way things should be” is the next best thing.

And this musing distracted me from getting grumpy about inconsiderate drivers, so there’s that too. 🙂


* “Might” doesn’t necessarily mean physical strength. The concept could apply anywhere that one party is able to intimidate another party into submission, whether that is through strength, size, majority (outnumbering the other party), intelligence (ever see someone beaten down with complex rhetoric?), status (holding greater authority), etc.

The Marginal Myth

I’ve been reading quite a bit recently about how the world works and what one must do in order to succeed. It’s become a source of minor frustration that much of this advice (though likely effective) comes from those whom I would not wish to emulate.

Put simply, the modern world rewards effort, but also ruthlessness. As the saying goes, “Nice guys finish last”.

People are catching on to the fact that the world is not a meritocracy—your circumstances make a huge difference both to what opportunities you receive, and your ability to act on them—but what I’m calling the Marginal Myth seems to be either unrecognised, or actively ignored (as with many other uncomfortable truths).

The Marginal Myth comes from the common practise of examining the “margins” of a situation in order to streamline (e.g. being able to produce goods faster and/or more cheaply).

“But wait!” you say, “That’s not a myth; it works!” And you’d be right. It’s more insidious and subtle than that: the myth is that this approach is always worth taking.

To cite another saying: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a thumb nail”. So, when times are tough, people get bogged down in trying to work out where they can “economise”; governments speak of “belt-tightening”; a lot of emphasis is placed on “the bottom line”. We trim and squeeze the margins further and further, our blinkered focus not seeing the other drawbacks that don’t directly affect the magic number.

Using the example of a soda-making factory: profit margins are being squeezed by their competitors, so they have to economise. Various tweaks are made to the bottling process, after which they find to their delight that they can save a few cents a bottle. A seemingly trivial amount, but given the volume they produce it has a significant effect. Hands are shaken, new instructions given to workers on the floor, and the bigwigs head out for a celebratory round of golf. But…

  • Maybe there isn’t time to properly clean the machines between batches, leading to build-up of syrupy residue which attracts insects, leading to contamination of the product.
  • Maybe the cheaper supplier of ingredients is farming them unsustainably, creating environmental problems due to deforestation or use of pesticides.
  • Maybe making the plastic bottles slightly thinner leads to increased leaks, causing wasted and unsold product, and frustrating retailers.
  • Maybe no-one’s properly checking the bottles before they get boxed up anymore. Occasionally, one has the wrong label, or the label upside-down, or just skewed/misprinted. No disaster, but customers start having subconscious thought of declining quality and are more likely to try a different brand if it catches their eye.

And so on. Okay, I’m presenting worst-case scenarios here, but the thing about “belt-tightening” is that it almost invariably happens again. Whether because other economic pressures arise, or because some board-member who doesn’t know the factory’s address, let alone having ever visited, gets excited at the improvement and thinks if they do a bit more he can add a couple of feet to his yacht.

Easy changes are made, and everyone’s okay with that. All seems well. Further changes are made. People on the ground are under more pressure than before, but once they get used to it, everything will settle down again, right? When the next change happens, they suddenly realise things didn’t settle down again. Now they aren’t getting a pay rise for this year. Still, not a problem, right*? Next time, more drastic cuts are required. People may accept reduced hours/pay because the alternative is redundancy. Either way, there are (on average) less staff on the factory floor. Compromises get made. Mistakes creep in.

We’re viewing this as a quantitative adjustment—changes made cause numbers to be different—but at some, not necessarily predictable, point in the process, a qualitative shift can happen. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. And it’s all driven by competition: the incredible, ephemeral “market” that makes companies and governments march to its drum**. It’s a commons dilemma where too many are placing no value on the long-term good.

There’s a story about a village that decided to hold a great celebration. Everyone in town was asked to contribute a bottle of wine into the vast barrel placed in the square, and that night there would be revels aplenty. But the blacksmith thought to himself, “I don’t want to pay for a bottle of wine, but if I add a bottle of water, there’s so much wine, no-one will notice”, so he did. Many others had similar thoughts, so that evening, when the mayor—with great ceremony—poured the first flagon, only water came out. All went home, chastened, the celebration cancelled.

Maybe we need to hold our glasses up to the light.


* People are less likely to complain at missing out on a bonus (pay rise) than suffering a penalty (pay cut), not realising that it’s effectively a pay cut given the likely increase in the cost of living (due to inflation and suchlike).

** There’s a lot of other issues I have with being driven by “the market”, but that will have to wait for later posts.

Fear and Gender

A note to begin with: this post discusses gender issues. I don’t claim to be able to speak for all men, let alone all women, and I’m well aware that people are many and varied (probably in ways I’m not even aware of). So can we agree at the start that we are dealing with the [mythical] “average man/woman”? Right then…

I’m not sure if I have much of a conclusion/point (beyond “peoples is messed up, yo”); this is more expressing some thoughts on a topic that bothers me.


I recently read an article by Caitlin Moran (in The Times Magazine—behind a paywall unfortunately) called “What men need to know about women”. The gist was that women are exhausted (from trying to live up to societal expectations—basically “Women can have it all! You don’t have it all? You slacker!”) and scared.

Scared because ~50% of the population are bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than them. Scared because if attacked there is little they can do to fight back. Scared because—quite frankly—the statistics around violence and sexual assault (male attacking female) are terrifying.

This struck a chord with me. Not because I’m a woman and have experienced this fear. Not because I’d never heard it before (there is a theory that you have to hear something several times before it really sinks in). Probably from the way it was expressed.

You see, I’m a small man. I’m roughly average height, but I have to wear heavy boots if the wind is blowing. I can definitely relate to the sense of being aware that most people in the room are bigger than me. I don’t feel entirely comfortable walking home alone late at night; not generally afraid, just extra alert and cautious. I did spend a while being afraid, following an unpleasant encounter with a boisterous drunk (though that was weirdly location-specific), so I can appreciate that regular verbal harassment and the like would quickly erode one’s sense of safety.

As well as size, though, I suspect the worry is related to the impulse (or lack thereof) to fight back, which seems more of a cultural construct. For boys, there’s a (usually unspoken) encouragement to “hit them back”. It seems to engender an odd perspective in that, àpropos of nothing, you occasionally find a thought lurking in the back of your mind to the effect of “yeah, I could totally take them down”. Even though my instinctive reaction is to freeze up when threatened (the lesser-known third option of the fight-or-flight response), I still entertain fantasies of showing an assailant that I was not to be messed with (straightens monocle imperiously), lest I feel myself “less of a man”. Stupid, huh?

I did kung fu for a few years, and one of the significant factors in me stopping was a mental block about hurting others. I was fine with learning moves, practicing falls, hitting a bag, etc. I still consider the board-break from one of my gradings as a particular achievement. But I blanched at doing more contact sparring-type drills, and when it sunk in that I was capable of seriously injuring someone by accident. Plus getting sick of the common bumps and bruises, and the fact that I could be easily knocked around (scrawny, remember? Technique has only limited benefit when your opponent is twice your size. This is why there are weight divisions in boxing/wrestling/etc.).

In contrast, girls are socialised to not cause trouble. I remember seeing it somewhere expressed as women shrinking and men growing (in terms of imposing themselves—or not, as the case may be—on the people/space around them). This doesn’t mean they are never aggressive, but it can often manifest verbally/emotionally rather than physically. Which, strangely enough, can be a most effective avenue for wounding men (again, remember this is about generalities and stereotypes).

I guess the only real option is to try our best to forget about these boxes we’re put in and just treat other people as people. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

The Forgotten

It’s been a while since I’ve felt like writing anything (or at least, anything that isn’t a rant about plumbers). What I want to address today, though, is the disparity between what we view as significant or valuable, and what actually is.

I’ve encountered the same idea so many times, from people in so many different fields: “If I’ve done things right, no-one will notice. If I mess up, everyone will be glaring at me.” I’d even venture to suggest that the vast majority of jobs are like this.

Think of a rock star, strutting their stuff in a big stage show—lasers, pyrotechnics, the works. If everything goes well, the audience reaction will be “Gosh [band name] were well radical!”*. If the lighting display is out-of-sync, and the spotlight fails to follow the lead singer around the stage, everyone will be complaining about the technicians.

But just pause for a moment. Whether a concert goes well, or bombs, how many people are involved in making it work? Advertisers, ticket sellers/collectors, sound/lighting/sfx technicians, “roadies”, prima-donna wranglers, and probably heaps more, but all the acclaim goes to the handful of oddly-dressed bods on the stage.

This leads to two rather odd mental blocks relating to the actual cost and the perceived value of the performance.

Firstly, people complain about the ticket prices, insinuating that they would be cheaper if the guitarist was willing to only buy one new Lamborghini this year, apparently oblivious (unless they consciously stop and think about it) to all the behind-the-scenes folk who also deserve to get paid**. It’s not that people are unaware, but our brains will take the easy way out given half a chance (I recommend the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” for anyone curious about this phenomenon).

Secondly, regardless of how ticket prices get parcelled out, the few jobs that do receive attention also tend to receive significant remuneration. Think of the (exorbitant) pay-packets of famous athletes. They can (though not all do, to be fair, only those that reach a high enough level in a popular enough sport) earn hundreds of times what, say, a teacher does. But would anyone seriously argue that kicking a ball around on television is more valuable to society than teaching the next generation so that they can be content and productive themselves? Yet capitalism says otherwise, in one of its lies that western society has internalised: money represents value, ergo if you earn more money, you are more valuable.

What’s going on? Well, in typical fashion, we are measuring what is easy to measure and disregarding what isn’t. I’ve seen in pointed out that the reason a sportsman (and sadly, it is almost always a man***) can earn so much is because their performance works regardless of the audience—how many there are, whether they’re paying close attention or just watching for the atmosphere, etc. If televised, millions could be watching. For a teacher to do their job, they need to engage with each member of the class, which is just impractical once the class gets over a certain size****.

So, in a way, maybe this is a rant about plumbers. And everyone else doing those valuable-but-hidden jobs. Because I for one am very glad that you do what you do, and that I can take a shower without having to think about how the water gets there; this is a prompt to myself, as well as anyone else, that such things shouldn’t be forgotten.


* Maybe not in those terms. I may be showing my lack-of-hip.

** Please note that I am unaware of how much of the ticket price goes to the various parties. It may well disproportionately favour the performer(s), it may vary depending on the prestige of the act. But that’s a separate issue.

*** Again, separate issue. Important, yes, but this post is long enough already.

**** I make no claims as to what the feasible upper limit of a class size is—it probably depends on who both the teacher and the students are—but it’s certainly not in the hundreds, let alone the millions.