Don’t Wallow in the News of Celebrity Deaths and Donald Trump – 2016 Was the Best Year Ever

Happy New Year!

I hope you celebrated and made yourself merry last night on New Year’s Eve. I especially hope that the results of the US election (if you didn’t want to see President-Elect Trump), Brexit (if you’re a remainer), celebrity deaths (if you’re everyone else), etc., didn’t sour your personal festivities.

Last year I wrote a post about why 2015 was the best year ever for the human race and how 2016 would be better. I was asked by some, that surely I wouldn’t have the same view now that 2016 is over, given some of the “awful” things that have happened?

Not at all, I stand by what I said completely. 2016 was incredible. Yesterday, in the run-up to counting down the end of the year, I launched – unplanned – into a tweet storm of good news stories of 2017. Rather than another lecture on why the last year was such a good one for our species and the world overall, let me just post some of those tweets below.

Whoever you are and whatever you do in 2017, I wish you every happiness.

It occurred to me that this was turning into a rant of sorts at this point. But hey, in for a penny, in for a pound…

See, 2016 was awesome. But just watch. 2017 is going to kick its ass.

Rewriting Ayn Rand

AtlasDo you have a novel that you have read time and time again? A story that – despite there being so many stories in the world to discover – you keep coming back to? Which one is it for you? What’s your dark, literary secret?

For me, it’s Ayn Rand’s half-a-million word magnum opus Atlas Shrugged.

I’m re-reading it now, for the… actually, I have no idea how many times I’ve worked my way through those 1,184 pages, but it’s got to be my fifth outing at least. This time, and the last time I read it, I’ve used my Kindle, which at least keeps the weight of the book down.

I read Atlas Shrugged every 2-3 years. And in many ways, it’s a terrible novel.

Lacking in creativity, realism (but Rand herself acknowledged that it was a romantic novel where realism wasn’t the goal), pace, brevity and rounded characters, it’s almost an exercise in how not to write a novel. But still, something about it makes me keep coming back.

That something is its didactic message. It’s an honest novel. It speaks the truth about how the world works, and how morality, and reason matter.

The fact that Rand bashes us over the head with the same 2/3 lessons and scenarios time and time again, is simply because that very honest, truthful and moral dilemma is at the heart of many of the worlds problems. And generally, art doesn’t discuss it. That’s why we need to bashed over our heads time and time again.

Rand was heartbroken when it wasn’t a well-received novel. One critic compared the message of the book to the Nazi concentration camps. When of course, Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is a promotion of quite the opposite.

Because this novel speaks a raw truth to me, I find myself coming back to it, over and over. It’s like in a world where the benefits of reason are ignored, where the reality of human nature is discarded or distorted, I turn to this book as a top-up of morality.

So despite it being the one novel I can read over and over, I can’t help feel the language of Objectivism as well as the style of the book are what’s kept it from full-blown mainstream attention.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a phenomenally successful book, that’s had more reprints than you and I have had proverbial hot dinners. But the ultimate moral message – despite it chiming with the way rational beings live their lives – has not shined through.

I think I might know why.

Firstly, as I mentioned before, Atlas Shrugged is long. Way long. Half-a-million words is more than five times longer than the average book. That, on a practical level, puts people off. The inflexible use of language and the equally inflexible repetition may also do the message a disservice.

The fundamental idea – that some mysterious man is taking away the great producers of the world – is a fun mystery, that could – and should – play out like a pacy thriller. But there’s no pace here. Add to that the way that Rand lays down the same (in my opinion valid) argument over and over, on page after page doesn’t help either. But it’s the language employed that really makes it hard.

And that’s the problem with Objectivism generally. If you wish to take words that are used by people a certain way, and use them in another, then you’re simply not communicating effectively. Even if your use of the words are more accurate. Simply stating that it’s moral and good to be selfish, does not help persuade people to your line of thinking, if they associate selfishness with immoral behaviour. But it’s not necessarily an argument between one person saying “A is good” and another saying “A is bad”. It’s actually that they both agree “A is good”, but what the first calls “A”, the other calls “B”.

I know that’s a very difficult paragraph to read. But Objectivism is a philosophy, and nailing down a philosophy in a succinct way is – as Rand has demonstrated over countless pages – difficult to read sometimes.

Let’s take that example of “selfishness”. To most people, they’d describe the act of breaking into a car and stealing it as “selfish”. So when Rand describes the Virtue of Selfishness, to them, they think she’s practically saying it’s a virtue to steal a car, or do one of a million things they’d consider selfish.

But Rand isn’t saying that. She’s saying that being selfish is to be motivated by – and living for – your rational self interest. Yes, strictly speaking, this could be defined as “selfish”, but most people wouldn’t consider it to be so. And that’s the problem, her inflexible language – and the language of so many who consider themselves to be Objectivists – stops them from having a normal conversation.

Let me be clear. I consider myself an Objectivist. I happen to think that Rand herself wasn’t the best example of an Objectivist in the world (but maybe that’s for another blog post), but more importantly, I think that it’s worth using better language to describe that philosophy, language that communicates with clarity what Objectivists believe. To do so would – in my opinion – make the message both more acceptable and understandable to many more people. For example, the occasional moral musings of entertainer Penn Jillette, or any given Objectivist discussion by Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, do more – in my opinion – to promote the philosophy of Objectivism than Ayn Rand’s entire life work. They are more productive than she is in this regard, which is quite ironic.

We need more Objectivist thinking in the world. It’d be a better world for it. I just sometimes wish it’d been explained better in the first place, and not recited by self-described Objectivists today, who seem to be keen to do an Ayn Rand impression (and defend her personal life and every quote, etc) than actually persuade more people to embrace the ideas.

If only Thomas “The Pursuit of Happiness” Jefferson was still around, I think he’d translate the philosophy of Objectivism in a far greater way than Rand was able to.

Fighting “Writer’s Block”

WritingThere’s a lot of comments, blogs, articles, interviews with authors, and all sorts of stuff online about “writer’s block”, and what it really means. In fact, there’s so much, it can stop you from writing as you procrastinate and use up as much time as possible reading about writing problems rather than, you know, writing.

To be frank, it’s not something I’ve had much trouble with these days. So when I had a really charming letter from an aspiring writer the other day, who asked me what I do to overcome writer’s block – ironically – I couldn’t think of what to say to her.

But I’ve had a bit of a think, partly because the email was really sweet (I won’t repeat it here, she asked if I don’t as it contained specifics about her work that basically I’m too lazy to edit out), and partly because it got me thinking about my view on this alleged creativity-draining problem. So in the end, I came up with a reply, which she kindly let me share with you here. I’ve re-written it quite a bit to suit a more generic writer rather than specific issues of a specific problem.

With the disclaimer that my advice might sound crude, or undermining of a creative process you may have, I’m afraid that I only have blunt things to say about “writer’s block”, and how it may be overcome. They might not be warm and comforting comments, but I think they have the advantage of being spot-on in most circumstances, for most people.

My cousin, rather like my grandfather before him, is a trucker. Long-haul, big-rig stuff. The money’s pretty good, and it’s something he’s always wanted to do. He passed the Heavy Good Vehicle driver’s tests, and he earns enough to support his young family. He’s also a really great guy and a loving father to two adorable children.

Sometimes, somewhat unsurprisingly for a truck-driver, his job requires him to get up very early in the morning and drive from one end of the country to the other.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to suppose that sometimes the last thing he wants to do in the whole world is get out of bed very early in the morning, leave his lovely wife-to-be and great kids sleeping at home, and head to the depot to start the working day.

But he does it all the same. He gets up, goes out in the cold and dark, does the job, and – one assumes – almost certainly gets a sense of satisfaction out of knowing he’s done a good job for a good days pay.

In other words, he doesn’t get “trucker’s block”. It’s a job. It’s a job he likes. With the early starts and other aspects, he doesn’t always like every part of it (who does in any job?) but he does what he needs to in those times, and he is all the better for it.

If you are writing your first novel for example, (that’s the case of the writer who emailed me recently through this site), and you feel you’re getting what some on the internet have told you might be “writer’s block”, think of it as “trucker’s block”. And then it suddenly sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it?

Yes, I know it’s disappointing that I don’t have some special, magic trick to share. But I do have that one tip. Call it “trucker’s block”. That’s my advice.

Because you might be writing for pleasure at the early stage of your endeavours, rather than the paycheck, it can be hard to carry on during the bits that aren’t as much fun. And that makes sense. Who wants to do a job they’re not enjoying if they don’t have to? My cousin wouldn’t get up at 4am to drive a lorry over to Whitstable from Stoke-on-Trent if he didn’t have to, and still got paid regardless.

And this is really the point. For the jobbing writer (of anything really, journalists, content-creators, copywriters, novelists, etc.), I’ve noticed that “writer’s block” is less of a phenomenon. Because like a trucker at four in the morning, you just have to get up and get on with it. It’s your job. If you really really hate everything about it, then why are you doing it? Seriously, go do something else and be happy. But if you don’t feel like it right now, when you booked yourself time to do it, I say force yourself to start anyway. After a while, the reflexes kick in, and at the end of the day or session, you feel pretty good about what you’ve done. Even if it’s mostly/partly junk and you’ll need to do something about it later. You did it, and that counts for something.

And here’s the odd thing that I think I’ve mentioned before. Sometimes when I get that feeling which some call “writer’s block”, it’s often because I’m really disliking what I’ve just written. Once again, instead of going “Ah, I’m not writing well today, I should leave it”, I force myself to carry on, because usually the next day, when I’m in a better frame of mind, I look at what I’ve written in that frustrated “blocked” period of time, and end up realising that I’m reading some of the best stuff I’ve ever written. Seriously.

Of course, your mileage may vary. This advice will help some, and annoy others. I’m sorry if you fall into the latter category. This isn’t a hard and fast rule for writing. I don’t believe that those exist.

It’s just that for me, there’s times when I don’t feel like writing something. But I don’t call that “writer’s block”, I call that “not wanting to write at the moment.” When I feel like that, I get on and do it anyway. Not to meet the deadline, not because of the paycheck, but because my cousin is a truck driver. And he has to get up and do his job too, so I don’t see why I’m any different.

Glenn Greenwald: The 21st Century Bob Woodward?

It’s been an interesting few years for Glenn Greenwald.

He’s a lawyer, but has a take on journalism that’s interesting, subversive and deeply important.

As the face of the Edward Snowden Saga (with a documentary centred around him too), it could be argued that Greenwald is a modern version of journalist Bob Woodward – made famous for his coverage of the Watergate scandal with Carl Bernstein that lives on through the movie All The President’s Men.

In the above video, he talks to Reason TV, and talks more about his new online magazine “The Intercept”.

Why We Should Celebrate Magna Carta Day

It's 'Magna Carta Day' on June 15th, and for my money, it's much better celebration of what it means to be English, than the tired old esoteric St George's day, which has just become an excuse to endulge in vague piffle to do with “what does it mean to be English”, without giving any real answer. Except for something about a dragon. That didn't exist.

If we really want to celebrate England's contribution to the world, it should be about the best gift our nation gave the rest of the world – namely, the rule of law.

Throughout the Commonwealth – and, indeed, the Anglosphere more generally – The “Great Charter of Freedom” is venerated and highly respected. Sadly, here in the country of its origin, we seem to have forgotten about it entirely.

So, on June 15th, take a moment to remember England's great contribution to the world, that radical, revolutionary truth: we, as human beings, are born free. And any tyrant who claims otherwise, is sorely mistaken.

 

The Spending Cuts (that aren’t spending cuts)

Just a quick reality check: The UK government has postured and made a loud noises about their so-called “spending cuts”, and, indeed, the opposition in the UK have also waxed lyrical about “savage cuts”.

Well, here, courtesy of the office for budget responsibility, are those “cuts”, and the projected “cuts”, in full:

Total Managed expenditure

2012-13: £701.9bn

2013-14: £717.8bn

2014-15: £730.5bn

2015-16: £744bn (OBR figures Autumn 2013)

Who the Minimum Wage Hurts

Young People Minimum Wage UK

There's some things that just don't work, but everybody loves them. I've posted before about the NHS, and other such almost religiously-supported institutions and ideas. Those who support them are – to my mind at least – kind-hearted, decent and good people. But good intentions don't make for good policy.

A case in point on this day – budget day: The UK is set to increase its minimum wage. Minimum wage laws hurt those who cannot provide a service as valuable as the minimum-wage. If, due to your circumstances, education, ability, etc. can only provide £5 an hour of value, at say, a resurant or warehouse, then you can't get a job if an employer is forced to pay you a minimum of £6.50 an hour.

The last Labour government were very proud about dispelling the naysayers of the minimum wage: “They said it would cost jobs”, they gleefully retort, “but unemployment went down in the first decade of the minimum wage!”

Yes, unemployment went down. Quite easy to do, if you're into making a massive government, centered around a client-state, where you create a lot of 'fake' government-jobs. But the growth in private-sector jobs at the same time was practically anaemic.

Those who said that the minimum wage costs jobs weren't talking about any old jobs though. We were specifically talking about those sort of jobs that younger, poorer, underskilled people typically take.

So how have, say, younger people done under the minimum wage? Well, you can see the graph above and see for yourself. Before the minimum wage, younger people were finding more and more (real) jobs, and opportunities to get on the ladder, often of their chosen career-path. But it turned almost 180 degrees after that.

I believe that the forthcoming increase in the minimum wage will, sadly, continue this tragic trend.

 

Writing Apps

20140316-070120 pm.jpg

Are you a writer?

What software do you use to write? It’s a question I’m asked a lot.

The truth – cliched and as obvious as it is – is that there’s not one single application that is the writer’s tool. Everyone writes differently, so everyone will find different tools work better for them.

Here’s some I use:

When I’m sitting by a computer, just trying to get some ideas down, I’m a big fan of OmmWriter. It’s a distraction-free writing tool that provides a sound-scape, inspiring backgrounds and encouraging clicking sounds as you type. There’s a few options, but it’s basically a text-editor and all the tools get out of the way when you start writing.

When I have a general idea of, say a novel I want to write, I use one of a number of iPad apps to “block out” the story. One I’m currently using quite a bit is Index Card, because of it’s integration with Scrivener (which I’ll talk more about in a moment). But Scrivener is supposedly releasing an iPad app in its own right that I’m looking forward to, so that might be my go-to app for planning a story in the future.

And that’s because when it comes to putting a novel or long-form written piece together, for my money, Scrivener is currently the best app I can find. I use the Mac version, so I can’t say anything about the Windows version (which I hear has fewer features) but it’s fast and nimble. Whether you are working on an empty new document, or one with thousands of documents, images, notes, and chapters making up a 250,000-word masterpiece, Scrivener remains incredibly responsive.

It’s cheap for what it is, and is feature-rich. But the real beauty of Scrivener is that you only need to learn the features you need, and you can discard the rest, or use them when you find a use for them. Not learning everything (and there is a lot to learn) doesn’t hamper your ability to get a lot out of this remarkable and well-thought-out app.

But that’s just me, your mileage my vary.

I say try everything out you can, and you’ll find a workflow that works. This “software experimentation” requires time and patience, but it’s worth investing that time as it could save you hours (or possibly months) of time later when you find yourself knee-deep in an epic project and only then realise you’d rather work in a different way. Get it right for you from the start, and you’ll avoid lots of headaches later. And I speak as someone who has made that mistake far too many times.

If you’re really inspired, a simple notepad and a text editor will do the trick. But using some of these tools allow the difficulty and mechanics of writing to get out of the way, leaving you with your ideas and the tale you want to tell.

Happy writing and good luck!

The NHS: Britain’s State Religion

Stethoscope“The NHS is Britain’s national religion” stated then Prime Ministerial hopeful David Cameron before the last election. The phrase was meant to show he understood how preciously we hold the NHS to our collective heart, and that he wasn’t going to “tamper” with it too much.

He’s right that we hold it dear, and he’s right that we in the UK treat it as a religion, but he’s way off if he thinks this is a good thing.

A religion is a belief that operates on faith – without any evidence. Indeed, often the absence of evidence is a requirement. Even if there is evidence to the contrary, it merely serves to boost the congregations faith and proclaim their beliefs in a louder more vocal way.

The overwhelming evidence is that Britain, with it’s nation health service, has one of the worst healthcare outcomes in the western world. Everyone (almost) can provide some anecdotal story about how their Aunty Mabel received great treatment and that the nurses were very kind, but it’s just that – an anecdote. The fact is, even lucky old Aunty Mabel would have better treatment if she’d have been treated in Singapore, or Germany, or many other countries.

I have big problems with the healthcare system in the US. But those problems are the SAME as the ones facing Britain. The narrative in the UK is you either have our post-war NHS system, or you have an “evil” “private” system like the US. But what about the other systems, many of which, unlike both the UK and US models, are fairly free-market solutions?

The thing is though, pretty much all the ills with the American system are to do with the fact that it’s not a free-market system when compared to say, the cellphone market, or the grocery business. If the grocery industry was run like the US healthcare system, millions and millions of Americans would go to bed hungry every night. And more than a million every year would starve to death. But luckily, the comparatively free market grocery “system” in America means that the problems with diet over there are down to over-consumption (type 2 diabetes, heart decease and obesity), not starvation. I appreciate there are hungry people in the US, but I think we’re all smart enough to understand the problem in context. Tens of millions in the US will not go hungry tonight.

The US government contributes about 75 cents of every dollar spent on healthcare. There are anti free-market rules about not buying coverage in a different state to the one you live in, and if you do buy insurance, (or what they laughably call insurance but is really a system to pay for everything in advance, not just to insure yourself against unforeseen problems) you’re forced to pay for coverage for things irrelevant to you. But all that is for another post.

Basically healthcare the the UK and the US is faced with the same problem: the distance between the customer and the seller. If the majority of us had to directly buy your own health services and goods, the prices would fall and the quality would rise, at levels we can’t imagine now. That’s what happens in every other comparatively “free market” capital-intensive, zero marginal cost business/service. The problem in both systems, is the state stands in between consumer and service.

But you can’t make that argument in the UK. Because our Aunty Mabel said those nurses were so nice to her. Even when she went in for a chesty cough and contracted the norovirus on the ward. They were lovely. And the only alternative is the evil private American system where people die on the street because they can’t afford healthcare, right?

Amen.

The Help To Buy “Time Bomb”

The classic definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time.

British Prime Minister David Cameron seems very chuffed that his new Help To Buy Scheme is seeing such a large number of applicants right away. But I wonder if this isn’t another financial ticking time-bomb that’s set to go off, in a similar (if not smaller) manner that the last housing-related bubble went off?

Why is there this obsession with making people “home-owners”, foresaking decent economics in the process, even when those decent economics can steer you clear of a financial meltdown?

Buy all means, build more homes if there’s a market for them. That might curb prices and make a mortgage more economically viable. But when the government uses the banking/lending system as another tool for social engineering, you get, well, you know, what happened last time.

Some interesting views on this in the Backbencher, which is always well-worth a read.