Dissecting Conspiracy Theories

I’ve been reading about conspiracy theories lately – well, it made a change from the end of the world – and one of the books I’ve picked up does a pretty good job of dissecting most of the popular/well known/most widespread ones by resorting to Occam’s razor. If you’re not familiar with Occam’s razor – and unless you’re a philosophy student, why should you be? – this essentially boils down to “the simplest solution is almost certainly the right one”. I have to say that a lot of the time, this method is really very effective but does take a lot of the fun out of things.

To select three examples which David Aaronovitch – for it is his book I’m reading – uses, let’s use the deaths of Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe and John F Kennedy and, using Stef’s Hatchet rather than Occam’s razor, let’s see where we end up.

It’s all rather prosaic, actually. Princess Diana died in an avoidable accident (somebody really should have put their foot down and said that the driver was too drunk to be behind the wheel) and Monroe was an accidental overdose given that she had taken sleeping pills for a very long time and was reportedly rather depressed when she died. JFK is the one that I had most fun with. I’m still not sure that the angles work out for a lone gunman, but I’m going to stick my neck out here and come up with a really neat solution that entertained me for all of ten minutes.

Lee Harvey Oswald had already attempted to kill a public figure in April 1963, but was unsuccessful. He had the means, motives and resources to kill Kennedy. Opportunity favoured Oswald when the route of the motorcade was changed to go past the Book Depository, where Oswald worked – so he managed to get in, secrete himself on the sixth floor and wait. However, down in the crowd, somewhere near a grassy knoll, is terminally ill Jack Ruby, who decided that he was going to go out in style and take a president with him. Three shots are fired and it’s unclear who fires the fatal shot. It’s not until Oswald is arrested that Ruby realises he may have failed; he’s the one who shot the President, not this upstart. So he goes and kills Oswald in revenge for stealing his bit of limelight.

How neat was that? It’s plausible too, if only there were evidence to support it. Oh well, never mind – lone gunman it is then.

The thing is, people create conspiracy theories for two main reasons; (1) they don’t trust what they are being told by the government or the media, and (2) they want to believe in something. Any theory, therefore, is better than no theory. I think this tells us an awful lot about the relationship between government, media and populace and I’m surprised it hasn’t been explored more.


When Technology Makes Me Redundant

There’s a scene in the recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie where Mr Bucket (Charlie’s dad) is made redundant from his job at the toothpaste factory because the position has been taken over by a robot. I’m fairly sure that a number of car manufacturers underwent a similar process when they mechanised aspects of vehicle production. And it’s almost certain that the number of secretaries will decrease as people become increasingly techno-savvy and start producing their own letters and documents. I expect that by the time technology gets rid of my job, I’ll be ready to retire anyway.

I know I’m something of a Luddite sometimes, but I’m not against technology as a rule. Technology has given us agriculture, food, clothing, books, housing and public health. Some technology is beneficial – BUT not all of it is and sometimes the after-effects of a technological innovation may not be immediately apparent or simply not something previously considered. The example that is usually given is Airbnb; seen as a way of helping people pay their mortgages by renting out rooms on a night-by-night basis, it has pushed up housing costs in some cities reliant on tourist income. Uber has had a devastating impact on the incomes of licensed taxi drivers, many of whom undergo rigorous testing to start their income. Amazon may be wonderfully convenient, but some of their working practices leave a lot to be desired and the “high street” has felt its impact considerably. Progress doesn’t always lead to utopia, despite what the CEOs tell us.

Perhaps we need to start seeing past the brands and look at what the companies actually do. There is still a lot of discontent about the number of major global companies who – quite legally – avoid paying corporation tax, even though they make billions of dollars in profit every year; and some of these are “hip young start-ups” like Uber and Airbnb. What impacts will their technologies have on people who don’t necessarily use them – and is that impact necessarily a good thing? The last thing I want is to end up in a mud hut sending smoke signals, but I do think we ought to question the brands a little more – and if we don’t agree with what they do, we need to go somewhere else, preferably before they put us all out of a job.

The Great Avocado Crime Wave

I shouldn’t laugh – this really is quite serious – but there is something really funny about avocados being at the centre of global organised crime. It feels a little like a detective story written by Salvador Dali.

The root cause of it, unsurprisingly, is climate change. Extreme weather in South America has had a significant effect on the harvest and the fruit has been priced out of the reach of many local consumers. A secondary cause, especially in Australia and New Zealand, is that demand is far outstripping supply, to the point where any avocados are being harvested from orchards in the hope of making a quick buck. Apparently, Down Under they even trade through social media.

Despite how bonkers it sounds – and I still think it’s the silliest thing I’ve heard in ages – it’s incredibly serious and I think ought to force us all to look at how we view food. I ate my first avocado at the age of 30; it’s not something that I grew up with. Vegetables were the basics; peas, potatoes, carrots, sprouts, cabbage, parsnips or swede (or beetroot with a salad). Fruit was even more basic – pears, apples, plums, oranges, bananas for a treat. Food fads were extremely rare and superfoods were unknown. What we did have was food grown locally, bought locally and tasting delicious.

If we promoted local produce, grown according to our local climate, I do think we would all be better off for it, both in terms of health and in not allowing crime to pay – which is what it’s all about really, isn’t it?

Being Batty

I think most readers will be familiar with the expression “he’s got bats in his belfry” to suggest that someone may not be entirely sane. Indeed, I’ve referred to myself as a batty old dear (or deranged old bat, or variations thereof) in the past. What I want to know is – when did a lovely little flying rodent come to have anything to do with a person’s sanity? Bats aren’t particularly known for their odd behaviour. It’s a conundrum.

I think the saying has a bit more to do with the commotion of bats taking flight from a tower (or belfry, which is the church bell tower) and it has somehow come to be linked with disordered thinking. Even Buddhists and Taoists have a similar idea, which they call “monkey mind” or “butterfly mind” – when the mind flits from idea to thought to idea to thought without really pausing at anything; one cannot concentrate because one is constantly being distracted by new ideas and thoughts.

Bats themselves are not unintelligent; they are one of the few land creatures which use sonar to find food on the wing (i.e. when flying), and roost in packs in dark recesses – trees, caves and roof spaces are common places to find bat colonies. If you do find one, it is against the law to disturb it. Most bats are endangered and any steps that can be taken to promote their conservation are encouraged.

I do think it’s a very strange juxtaposition; bats and madness don’t really go together in any way that I can see. Not that it matters. I’m quite pleased to be batty.

Goths and Disability

I’ve said before and I will say again (and will keep saying until the message gets through) that Goth is a broad church of all shapes, sizes, colours and creeds – and if it needs saying, abilities. There is no reason why people who are blind, deaf, have a disability or a chronic condition shouldn’t consider themselves Goth. It’s not a fashion statement, after all (and I think I’ve mentioned that a few times as well).

Speaking entirely personally, I’m deaf on one side after extensive ear surgeries and I think I have previously mentioned that I wear glasses. I’ve never felt excluded or unwelcome in the Goth community – quite the contrary. Obviously there are practical considerations to bear in mind, but I think they would apply regardless – if you use a wheelchair and have arranged a meet up, to make sure that the venue is accessible, that kind of thing. Actually, if you are a Goth wheelchair user, I’d love to see if you’ve vamped up your transport in any way!

The point I’m trying to make is that there’s no reason to feel excluded. Why should there be? The whole point about Goth is revelling in the fact that we are not the same as everyone else, and having a disability – or difference of ability, or however you want to phrase it – makes no difference in that regard. If you are blind, deaf, a wheelchair user, have a learning difficulty or a chronic illness of any kind – go for it. Just go for it and have a great time.

Being an Old Goth

My hair isn’t as black as it once was and certainly the old waistline doesn’t appreciate a corset much these days. That heady combination of marriage, motherhood and having to work for a living has taken its toll on my Gothic wardrobe somewhat – not that I care really. It’s never been about the wardrobe for me and sometimes, not standing out from the crowd has actually done me some favours.

But there is always that thought in the back of my mind that Goth is a “young person’s thing”. I’m at my half century and “young” is not a word I tend to hear anymore. I certainly don’t look the part – more mumsy than Morticia – but mentally I haven’t changed at all. Should I be bothered?

I saw a picture some time ago of an “elder Goth”; a fabulous lady who looked a little older than I am now and dressed in full Victorian mourning. This is so far away from how I see myself that I could have been looking at a 20 year old with green hair and spikes on her feet. That said, it was very inspiring to see that age is not a barrier for those of a Gothic bent and quite a few still make the annual pilgrimage to Whitby for the Goth Weekender.

I suppose as one gets older death becomes slightly more of a reality – the funerals start to outnumber the weddings and christenings are often optional anyway – so perhaps it is easier to put off the inevitable rather than try to come to terms with it. In a roundabout way, I’ve found it very life-affirming; having made my peace with Death, it no longer scares me, so I can really enjoy life in a way that I hadn’t fully realised I could.

At its heart, Goth is a broad church and very inclusive – you won’t be judged on your Goth credentials and there won’t be an exam on the end. All that is asked is understanding, tolerance and an appreciation of the darker things in life – and one can do that at any age.

It’s All About The Money, Honey

If you were hoping to name your newborn after one of Beyonce’s twins, there’s a bit of a problem – she’s trademarked their names. And she isn’t the first – Harper Beckham is now a trademark, so anyone wanting to name their child Harper Beckham Smith may have to hand over some money. Because, ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.

There’s a lot of dosh to be made from celebrity endorsements. If you can get a Kardashian to wear your perfume or buy your biscuits, as long as you pay them to say so, they can make a fortune doing nothing particularly special. I mean, what’s special about wearing perfume or eating biscuits? Most people do, but they don’t make money out of it. The trick is to turn oneself into a brand, market the brand and the money will start rolling in. That’s all Trump does. His business is Brand Trump; he doesn’t build or run the Trump Hotels or Golf Courses, he just lets them stick his name on them – for a fee. This is how branding works.

The power of advertising is such that by associating a brand with a celebrity (Nike/Michael Jordan) or promoting distinctive design features (Apple), it renders the brand desirable – everybody wants one so they will pay a premium to have something with which to impress their friends. Good advertising and product placement is virtually priceless if it means people are buying YourCola instead of MyCola. And because business is about making money rather than making people happy, it really does pay to advertise.

Whether or not children – who are probably not able to make that decision for themselves – ought to find themselves trademarked so that every time they write their name they are potentially endorsing something is something that really ought to be discussed loudly and more often. This is a decision made by the parents, already brands themselves, in the name of their brand, not the welfare or interests of the child. It’s not right really, but then it’s not about right at all. It’s really only about the money.

My Least Favourite Word – Decided at Last

It’s taken me a while (and I’m the first to admit that) but I think I have now come to the conclusion that my least favourite word is profit. Admittedly, it took a novel the size of a house brick to confirm this, but there is not a lot about this word that I’m happy with.

According to the Collins English Dictionary, the definition of profit is:

1. (Accounting & Book-keeping) (often plural) excess of revenues over outlays and expenses in a business enterprise over a given period of time, usually a year; 2. (Commerce) the monetary gain derived from a transaction; 3. (Banking & Finance) a. income derived from property or an investment, as contrasted with capital gains b. the ratio of this income to the investment or principal 4. (Economics) a. the income or reward accruing to a successful entrepreneur and held to be the motivating factor of all economic activity in a capitalist economy b. (as modifier): the profit motive. 5. a gain, benefit, or advantage 6(verb) to gain or cause to gain profit

Yes, there’s a lot there; but breaking it down we can see what’s behind it all. Putting a value against an activity is the primary motivation. Everything that happens must have a value against it or else profit cannot be generated. Which is fine, if you work in the financial industry, but there are some things where the idea of profit sits considerably less comfortably. The health sector, for example. Surely, the value is in the health benefits generated rather than the wealth benefits generated – or am I simply being naïve here?**

In the book I’m reading at the moment, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth, there are two examples of where I think profit plays an unnatural role. Some of the characters are scientists and, as a general rule of thumb, scientists believe in the free exchange of knowledge. Where that knowledge involves discoveries which could potentially be profitable – i.e. biotechnology, engineering, pharmaceuticals – the sharing of the knowledge is restricted in order to maximise the profit to be gained from it. That seems to me to go against the basic principles of science, but not being a scientist, I can’t really say. I appreciate there’s an argument that laboratories need money, and that money has to come from somewhere, but it seems inequitable that a business model is used to govern education and knowledge.

The second example is where a senator’s climate change advisor is having a meeting with a right wing president and his science advisor, who is described as a member of the Flat Earth Society – draw your own conclusions there. At one point, both the president and the science advisor resort to economic principles to dispute a scientific argument – it’s not profitable to make these changes to carbon emissions, it will cost too much money – yeah, we’ve heard it all before. If it doesn’t pay its way, it’s not worth the investment.

I firmly believe that some things are not about the money. The fact that we only have one planet to live on should be one of them. Bugger this planet up and we’re doomed – that’s not scaremongering, that’s a basic fact. We maintain this planet on trust for future generations, and if any trustee mismanages a trust they should expect to be fired. We are mismanaging this trust to an extent that wouldn’t be tolerated if the trust fund were money rather than a planet. And this is me applying economic principles to a scientific argument!

Somebody’s health should not be a question of money. Somebody’s education should not be a question of money. These things should be basic, fundamental and a given, regardless of the costs. Other things are not so fundamental. The amount of money spent on benefits would be reduced, if people didn’t have to worry about their basic human needs – benefits bridge the gap between the two, allegedly. Equally, the amount of money spent on MP’s pay rises could be drastically reduced, but then again I say that every year. It all just really frustrates me!

I hadn’t thought that reading a science fiction novel about the end of the world – my favourite kind, let’s be honest – would make me think about present day politics. It’s fascinating and irritating in equal measure, but this is what good science fiction ought to make you do. And it has to be said, this is very good science fiction.

** Yeah, I know I’m probably being naïve. There is a point to this, though. I’m hoping that my analysis helps explain to myself (and others, if they’re interested) quite why these things seem so uncomfortable.

Plastic is Not So Fantastic

I’ve been keeping quite a careful watch on my plastic usage. It’s not great, but I try very hard to keep it down as much as possible. Plastic’s not recyclable, you see – and there’s only so much landfill one can use. Plastic is also not biodegradable – there’s a poster at Victoria Station that says it takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to rot – so whatever plastic you use now you would probably be able to use again in a hundred years’ time, once you’d given it a quick rinse – assuming you have access to water. It’s a bit like herpes – you just can’t get rid of it.

There are also a few horror stories doing the rounds of the effect that discarded plastic has on marine life – turtles with straws sticking out of their noses or whales with stomachs full of carrier bags. It’s pretty disgusting really and if nothing else it should make us reconsider our plastic usage.

This also links with one of my favourite bugbears – unnecessary packaging. Online retailers are some of the worst offenders for this, putting tiny items into huge boxes with yards of scrunched up paper (or worse – plastic) to pad the box out. Marks & Spencer have said that they will reduce plastic packaging in their food products to reduce the amount of waste, but that’s only one retailer amongst many. Much more needs to be done if we are to reduce our plastic footprint by any appreciable degree.

It’s impossible to completely avoid plastic, but we can take steps to change our usage to one that is more ecological. Some of the steps are easy – use cloth bags for shopping; travel mugs if you really must have a coffee on the train; drink tap water or refill water bottles; don’t buy toiletries with microbeads; complain to an online retailer if they insist on ludicrous packaging for their items. If we all change our ways, corporations will be forced to change theirs – and we can make a real difference.

Does Losing a Diplodocus Make Any Difference?

There’s been an ongoing debate on the role of museums – should they encourage taxidermy of specimens, should they be more involved in conservation and ecology. It has to be said, though, that the only dodo I’ve ever seen was in the Natural History Museum in London, which was home to Dippy the Diplodocus. Mind you, the only bison I’ve ever seen was in the Natural History Museum in Chicago. And if it’s all the same to you, I do not want to get up close and personal with a dinosaur any time soon, so the reconstructed skeletons are fine by me. Losing Dippy does mark the end of an era, though. I grew up meeting him (or her) in the Great Hall of the Museum on every visit, and I’m delighted that my daughter also had the same experience. Given that most kids, including mine, go through a phase involving fossils and dinosaurs, it was a wonderful way to capture their imaginations – I know my little brain had trouble coming to terms with the sheer size of the things.

All that said, I can understand the reasoning behind changing the Great Hall’s feature exhibit to a non-extinct (but still endangered) mammal. The blue whale is the Earth’s largest living creature, is itself endangered and has a grace and mystique found in most marine animals. The skeleton has been posed as if it were diving, which must have been an engineering feat in itself. It is, without doubt, a beautiful thing. Whether or not it inspires the love of the living world that the Museum hopes for is another question entirely. I’m not sure that it will – and that’s because dinosaurs are a “kid thing” and whales tend not to be, in a similar way that dodo and bison aren’t really “kid things” either. That’s not a criticism in any way – any parent will tell you that their children are more likely to have a dinosaur phase rather than (say) a crocodile phase.

That said, from a very young age, my daughter was obsessed by sharks. She knew all the different species, from dogfish to basking shark – even correcting a guide at Disney World Florida when he misidentified a carpet shark – and has decided, once she gets primary school (and secondary school and university) out of the way, to become a marine biologist. She still had a dinosaur phase, although not a big one. Basically, she loves the sea. Perhaps I should take her to see the blue whale and see what she thinks of it.