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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Just Finished Reading: The Wonder Box – Curious Histories of How to Live by Roman Krznaric (FP: 2011)

It’s a perennial question normally answered (in many formats) by Philosophy – How Should I Live my Life? The author of this interesting volume has other ideas: Why not look for answers, or at least possible answers in the more concrete examples of historical figures and societies from other non-Western cultures? There is also a challenge and a deeper question embedded in this approach – Why do we live the way we do today? Are there valid, practical alternatives to what we consider normal behaviour in our advanced western capitalist societies? Because clearly things have not always been this way. There was a time before Facebook (weird I know) and even a time before the Internet (can you imagine that?). There was a time before the 24 hour culture when you could be out of contact for hours, or days or even for longer periods. Did people way back then – say the 1970’s – have to live at a much slower pace or did they just want to? Could we do that today through choice?

Why stop there of course. Why not examine every part of our lives and think about why we do the things we do. Are we actually making reasoned choices about or lives or are we, like fish, simply oblivious to the social and cultural waters we swim in? Do we accept things the way they are simply because (we think) that they have always been done this way? Well, a little bit of historical knowledge would address that particular myth or misunderstanding. The past is full of examples of how we have done things differently – from working patterns to relationships, from politics to family structure, from our relationship with money to the dominance of a single sense (sight these days), from changes in belief to thoughts on creativity and our relationship with death and the process of ending our lives with dignity and, sometimes, style. All of these things have been different in the past and are available to learn from. There are individuals: heroes, rebels, teachers, doctors and even politicians who can teach us – by their concrete example – of other modes of being from the sacrifice of people like Albert Schweitzer to the sheer grit and determination of Helen Keller. There are hundreds upon hundreds of historical role models we can look up to and emulate for their persistence in the face of hardship, for their commitment to their fellow human beings, for their passions and dedication, for their grit and, often, bloody-mindedness to get things done and make things better. This is not the sometimes unrealistic musings of philosophers long dead but the real-life examples of real people (sometimes admittedly long dead too).

This was an interesting twist on the whole ‘how we should live’ question. Rather than theory this is practice from individuals who have been there, done that, and sometimes lived to tell their tale. Across the world there are countless examples of how people have lived their lives in ways that can help you examine yours and just maybe make a few changes that will improve things. More particularly this book might start you thinking about why you live the way you do and hold the beliefs that you believe (or even know) to be true. Are they true? If so why have other people held other equally strong beliefs? Is it just a matter of them being wrong or because they lived in a very different worlds with different cultures and different zeitgeists? (I do love that word – the German’s are, after all, such a comforting people). This book asks you to dig into the past lives of others across the globe and use their lives as lenses to see our own culture afresh and then question how and why we live our own lives. It’s an interesting experiment once you start down that road. Who knows where it might lead…… Recommended. Oh, it has a really good bibliography too!  

Monday, December 15, 2014

Just Finished Reading: The Cider House Rules by John Irving (FP: 1985)

For as long as he could remember, orphan Homer Wells wanted to be of use. Born into the orphanage in St Clouds, Maine, he knew of no other life despite finding several families who would take him in, at least briefly. Dr Wilbur Larch, who ran the orphanage, worried that Homer was being institutionalised but he loved him as a son and feared for his progress in the outside world. But needing to feel of use Homer began assisting in the work of Dr Larch, both legal (the live births of unwanted children) and illegal (the abortions that the state would not sanction regardless of the need). Until that fateful arrival of young Candy and her loving boyfriend who had heard of a Doctor who would perform such services that could not be obtained elsewhere. That was when Homer fell in love, broke his promise and stepped out into the wide world setting in train a whole host of consequences he had no idea he was responsible for.

Although a rather chunky 587 pages this really shouldn’t have taken me over 2 weeks to complete compared with an upcoming book to review of 582 pages which took me 5 days to finish (OK, I was off work ill for 3 of those days but the point stands). It’s not that this is a bad book. It is not poorly written, now is it boring, convoluted (OK, maybe a little) or exactly difficult. It was arguably outside of my normal comfort zone but, as one of my regular lurkers has remarked, my comfort zone is rather wide. This book was, in many ways, an impressive one. The characterisation was outstanding. I always admire the way that an author can create a number of characters of both sexes that are completely believable and that, in one way or another, the reader can relate to. The author did that here ‘in spades’ (as they say). The story, whilst rather convoluted (in other words ‘real’), was eminently easy to follow. I certainly didn’t lose the plot at any point. I think my problem was that nothing really seemed to happen – despite the fact that a great deal actually happened. I know that hardly makes any sense but, at least for now, that’s the best way to describe how I felt reading it. It wasn’t exactly a slog as such. I didn’t feel that reading it was a particular effort but I couldn’t seem to read more that 5-6 pages without finding something else that needed doing. In contrast to my upcoming ‘chunky’ book where I read over 100 pages in a day and had to force myself to put it down and go do something else to stop my eyes burning!

So… not exactly gripping. More interesting, funny, clever, well written and a deserved modern classic, but……….. I am making more of an effort to read more, for want of a better word, mainstream novels. Well, this was one of them. There will be more as it’s not exactly put me off pushing my boundaries a little bit (never a bad thing in most cases). 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Winter is Here.... Christmas is Coming.....
Surveillance laws 'not fit for purpose', MPs say

From The BBC

6 December 2014

Surveillance laws that allow police officers to access people's phone records are not fit for purpose, the Home Affairs Select Committee has said. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) has been used to access journalists' records in some cases. The committee said journalists' sources should be "fully protected" and access to data under Ripa was "secretive". The Home Office said there were measures in place to ensure police powers were not abused. Police officers have also failed to routinely record the professions of individuals who have had their communications data accessed, MPs said.

Earlier this year, it emerged police had used their powers under Ripa to obtain information about phone calls involving newspaper reporters. The Metropolitan Police used the Act to try to obtain the telephone records of the Sun's newsdesk to try to identify who had leaked the "Plebgate" story involving former Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell. Kent constabulary also used their powers under Ripa to obtain phone records of a journalist investigating the Chris Huhne speeding points scandal, as well as those of one of his sources - despite a judge agreeing the source could remain confidential.

Committee chairman Keith Vaz said: "Ripa is not fit for purpose. We were astonished that law enforcement agencies failed to routinely record the professions of individuals who have had their communications data accessed under the legislation. Using Ripa to access telephone records of journalists is wrong and this practice must cease. The inevitable consequence is that this deters whistleblowers from coming forward." He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that journalists' records should be kept privileged, "otherwise we get into a situation where legislation introduced for completely different purposes is being used in a mission creep to be able to control sections that were never intended to be controlled".

Half a million pieces of information are accessed every year under the legislation, added Mr Vaz. He told the programme it had been used for "trawling", saying: "We have felt for some time that public officials are using this piece of legislation for what was not intended by it." The committee called on the Home Office to hold a consultation on an amended Ripa code of practice, which would give special provisions to those dealing with privileged information. Security minister James Brokenshire said communications data was "an absolutely critical tool" used "to investigate crime, safeguard national security and protect the public".

He insisted there are already safeguards against abuse of police powers to access data. The Home Office specified new rules will ensure "extra consideration" is given in cases where police want to see the phone records of those in sensitive professions, such as journalists. The revised code will be published before Christmas, according to the government. Privacy lobby group Big Brother Watch said the current situation was "intolerable". Emma Carr, who is the director of the group, said: "When a senior parliamentary committee says that the current legislation is not fit for purpose, then this simply cannot be ignored. It is now abundantly clear that the law is out of date, the oversight is weak and the recording of how the powers are used is patchy at best. The public is right to expect better. This is intolerable."

[Colour me cynical but I don’t think that we should be at all surprised that security or surveillance legislation is subject to ‘mission creep’ and is regularly abused, misused, mishandled and where necessary covered up. Governments of every shade will do whatever they can to protect themselves, to restrict access to information they don’t believe that the people should know about and to spy on the very people whose job – in a healthy functioning democracy – is to ferret out corruption and incompetence within the very organisations that we set up to run things in our name. Whenever we hear the word security we should immediately become suspicious – most especially when we are told that ‘procedures are already in place and there is nothing to worry our befuddled heads about. Just return to your game shows and your celebrity scandals. Leave the real world to us. Everything is safe in our hands…..’]