Monday, 27 July 2015

Glamour: Offering relationship advice for the terminally stupid, the chronically immature and the eternal doormats...

Ah, Glamour magazine. How cute of you to try and outdo Cosmo for truly stupid relationship advice. Click here to see the original or read below if you're worried you might be fooled by such idiocy...

1. Stocking the fridge with his favorite drinks. Bonus points: Bring him back to his fraternity days by handing him a cold one as he steps out of the shower.

Yes! Get him drunk before work! Render him unemployed! Superb!

2. Making him a snack after sex. It doesn’t have to be a gourmet meal—a simple grilled cheese or milk and cookies will do.

Or sleep. Sleep will do too.

3. Emailing him the latest online gossip about his favorite TV show. You don’t have to have a BFF at HBO. Just share applicable links from your Twitter feed and pat yourself on the back.

And wait for the "Why are you spamming me with this shit?" email in return.

4. Bragging about him to your friends, family, the stranger on the street corner—whomever. Proclamations of pride will make his chest puff out and his heart swell.

Yes, that random person at the bus stop is simply dying to hear about how he has been promoted to second in charge of the accounts department.

5. Answering the door in a negligee—or, better yet, naked.

Ideal if your front door opens directly on to a busy street!

6. Being open to what he wants to try in the bedroom and out. An open mind is attractive no matter your playground.

Try that in the playground and end up on the sex offenders' register.

7. Letting him solve your petty work problem. Many men don’t do gossip, but they do like to fix things.

Alternatively, do your job yourself like a grown-ass woman.

8. Spitting out sports stats for his favorite team. Showing an interest in his favorite players will earn you points on and off the field.

Oh yes! Faking interest in something will always win a man over!

9. Making a big deal out of his favorite meal. Does he like hot dogs cut up into his boxed mac-and-cheese? Serve it on a silver platter to really see him smile.

If he likes hot dogs cut up into boxed mac-and-cheese, call a cardiologist.

10. Treating his friends as well as you treat your own. If you win their affections, you’ll win his heart.

Er, this is just a good rule for life in general.

11. Sitting side-by-side while he vegs out to the TV. It may not feel like quality time to you, but it’s the best time to him.

Even if it's a programme you have zero interest in and you'd rather be elsewhere in the house doing something productive.

12. Giving him a massage—happy ending completely optional. In fact, a foot rub works just fine.

Or flick his earlobe. Or run your finger down the length of his nose in an alluring manner. These are good too...

13. Taking him back to third grade with a gentle tease over anything from how you’ll dominate him on the basketball court to the weird way he just styled his hair.

Nothing says "Sexy!" like behaving like a child. If this does say "Sexy!" to the man in question, call yourself a taxi.

Photography by Vojko Kalan

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Why the Ashley Madison hacking matters

"These lying cheats look like they'll get some of their own medicine now." (Daily Telegraph reader)

"I didn't used [sic] to believe in karma, but this, honestly is making me question my doubts. This totally made my Monday. I hope they totally out everyone on that site. ;)" (Huffington Post reader)

"I think the hackers should publish the whole damn lot, regardless of whether the site is taken down." (Guardian reader)

And so on... It was inevitable that the hack on Ashley Madison, a website aimed at people who want to discreetly cheat on their partners, was not going to generate much sympathy for the victims. But the pearl-clutching outrage and sanctimonious gloating over the unfaithful masks the bigger problem here.

Melanie McDonagh, Moral Guardian in Chief for the Evening Standard drearily, predictably wrote yesterday that she would be "even more inclined to cackle if the Impact Team was a group of evangelical Christians anxious to put people out of the way of temptation."

Sadly for St Melanie of the Marital Bed, the real story was not a moral crusade with the potential to destroy millions of lives and provide a bonanza for divorce lawyers. Instead, it seems the Impact Team hacked Ashley Madison as disgruntled customers - they were outraged that the company would only permanently delete details of membership from its servers for a £15 fee. Given the nature of the site and the desperation of people not to be found out if they decided Ashley Madison's human smorgasbord was not to their taste, this would be an easy money-spinner. Welcome to free market capitalism, cheaters!

But it is the fact that such a devastating hack can happen on websites that claim to have the very best security that is the real worry for everyone. How many websites have your personal details? How would you feel if someone wasn't happy with waiting all day for an Argos delivery, hacked into their database and threatened to release the information? Obviously, being outed as an Argos customer is marginally less embarrassing than being outed as an Ashley Madison customer, but the breach of privacy is still completely unacceptable.

What if the government decided that a website you'd signed up to was not to their liking and they wanted to find out the details of everyone involved? David Cameron's speech this week about dealing with radical Islam is a case in point. Maybe you signed up to a website for some information about Islam for any number of reasons, none of which involved terrorism. But this is a government that is becoming less and less libertarian about your online privacy - do you trust this government to not obtain personal information from sites they deem to be "of interest"?

How relaxed and comfortable would you feel if you discovered you ended up on a watch list for no good reason? Maybe you'll get stopped from boarding that flight to Turkey, even though you were simply hoping for a Kate Moss-style rampage on a beach in Bodrum and weren't using the trip to enter Syria and join IS.

But, hey, it is far easier to moralise about the lives of people you don't know. Never mind that with 70% of Ashley Madison members being men, the chances of feckless husbands actually getting laid via that site are not brilliant. Never mind that it's the kind of site that plenty of people probably join for a bit of a nosy around before logging off and never logging back on again. Never mind that there might be people on that site desperate for some attention because they are in an abusive relationship or a relationship they don't feel they can leave for any number of reasons.

No, let's just get the pitchforks out instead and affect an attitude that leads to execution in Saudi Arabia! Yeah! Well played, people!

Nobody is denying that infidelity can destroy relationships and that it usually ends up being deeply unpleasant for all concerned. But if all you're getting out of the Ashley Madison story is an excuse to get on your high horse about other people's sex lives, you're not paying attention.

Photography by Circe Denyer. Picture posed by models in no way connected to this blog post.

What would happen if Jeremy Corbyn becomes Labour leader?

The Honourable Member for Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn, could end up as the leader of the Labour Party in September. If this happens, delight and horror will ring out around the country, possibly in equal measure.

This week's vote on the welfare bill may well be the nail in the coffin for the leadership campaigns of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, all of whom abstained with the hope that a bunch of amendments will get through. It's a risky strategy because, aside from the amendments not dealing with some of the more awful aspects of the welfare bill, Labour will be left in an awkward spot if some but not all of the amendments are passed. What then? Do they go ahead and vote for a bill with a few tweaks or vote the whole thing down if they can't get all the amendments passed?

If the majority of Labour's MPs let a slightly tweaked bill become law, that is not going to placate the people, both in and out of the party, who are siding firmly with the 48 MPs who voted against the bill this week. Corbyn was among the 48 rebels and this has given his campaign for the party leadership new vigour.

Nobody seems more surprised than Corbyn himself that he is now a realistic contender for the Labour Party leadership. By his own admission, he threw his hat into the ring to reinvigorate debate rather than with any real hopes of winning the damn thing outright.

The fragmentation of Labour and the resulting arguments the leadership contest has spawned has led to much speculation over whether the party can ever win again if it shifts too far to the left or the right. Tony Blair was a master at finding the middle ground. He then took the party possibly further to the right than it had ever been before, but he is still hailed as an electoral hero by many.

But since Blair's time in office ended, there have been growing murmurings about whether there is an appetite for a centre-left party to govern the UK. Some will say the Green Party is the obvious choice and will despair that more people don't vote Green, while others find aspects of Green policy, such as their war on air and road travel, to be a leap too far to the left but they would rather like to vote for a party that preserves things like the NHS, the BBC, state education and housing benefit for under-25s. Some would deride these people as champagne socialists, although they are more likely to simply be realists who happen to own a car and like to take a holiday abroad once in a while.

A sober analysis of this year's election results is needed. The numbers reveal that 36.9% of all votes went to the Conservative Party. Of these, there would be lifelong Tory voters, people who figured there was no point voting LibDem, swing voters, voters genuinely convinced that the Conservatives can manage the economy properly, and UKIP supporters who thought better of it in the privacy of the polling booth. Labour trailed in second place with 30.4% of the vote.

It is the rest of the results that make for interesting reading. UKIP were a distant third with 12.6% of the vote - as well as the stereotypical UKIP voters, plenty of disillusioned Labour voters went purple this year. Some are Eurosceptics - and this is a significant element of the population that Labour will need to consider if they are serious about winning the 2020 election - and some ex-Labour-now-UKIP voters genuinely think Nigel Farage's party supports working class people in a way they feel Labour does not.

Meanwhile, the hapless Liberal Democrats managed 7.9% of the vote and the Greens 3.8% - if Labour were able to better appeal to these left-of-centre voters, they probably could have won the election, albeit by a tiny margin given the first-past-the-post system. But seriously, the craven pandering to the Tories by the LibDems in the last Parliament should have been a gift for Labour.

Then there is the loss of Scotland, formerly safe Labour, to the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon led a highly effective campaign to appeal not just to Scottish nationalism but also to sell the party as a way more credible, anti-austerity opposite than Labour. Now Parliament is back in session, it is hard to deny that it is the SNP that looks like the strong, coherent opposition party right now.

On top of all this, while the 66.1% voter turnout was considered high, that means 33.9% of eligible voters didn't vote. This can be arrogantly dismissed as an acceptance of the status quo or it can be a sign that a large proportion of adults in Britain did not see the point in voting. Would anything change, regardless of how they voted? Was there any real difference between the major parties?

On balance, it appears there is a not-insignificant number of people in Britain who don't want to see the country resemble East Germany but would welcome a credible centre-left alternative to the current government.

The NHS is a good case in point for a desire for sensible centre-left policies. Poll after poll shows that people from across the political spectrum are keen to keep the NHS free at the point of use. The need for reform in the NHS is also widely acknowledged and accepted, but Labour has done an appalling job of showing people how the ongoing reforms of the NHS by the Tory-LibDem coalition and now the Tory majority government are doing more harm than good and have made the NHS less cost-effective and more bureaucratic than ever. Like the LibDem failings, this should have been a gift for Labour at the last election. Hell, ex-Tory leadership prospect Michael Portillo is on the record back in 2011 as saying that David Cameron and Tories lied to the people of Great Britain about their intentions for the NHS because they knew it'd be electoral suicide.

If Corbyn can provide a compassionate and cost-effective alternative to the destructive Health and Social Care Act of 2012, that alone would make him a very popular Labour leader. And the same goes for the welfare bill - it is one thing to take a stand with 47 rebel MPs against what is largely terrible legislation but it is quite another to put forward a bold new proposal that doesn't throw the vulnerable under a bus, doesn't penalise the millions of people in work who rely on benefits, and shows a genuine commitment to job creation.

Would it be so terrible if Corbyn led the Labour Party? Or would it be like Michael Foot all over again?

What I do know is that the left can be easily disappointed in their leaders. There is a tendency to place heroes on pedestals - so ironically anti-egalitarian - and this gives them a long way to fall for even the slightest transgression. Barack Obama, Ed Milliband and Julia Gillard are examples of heroes of the left who, despite varying degrees of success, have invoked serious disappointment among some of their supporters. If Corbyn, as Labour Party leader, shows any signs of compromising with the centre-right factions of the party - even if this means preserving his leadership - I predict he will face a barrage of criticism from people who hitherto supported him, just as surely as he would be crucified if he released a manifesto that the mainstream media deemed to be too socialist.

Corbyn will face a delicate balancing act if he becomes leader of the Labour Party. How he manages to walk this tightrope might ultimately depend on how much he wants to lead the party more than how much his party want him to win an election in 2020.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

The Queen is probably not a Nazi but I am still a republican...

For The Sun, it was mission accomplished.

Step 1: Stoke up outrage over photographs and a film from 1933 featuring the Queen Mother and Uncle Edward apparently teaching the Queen and Princess Margaret how to do a Nazi salute. Put said photo on the front page with a Nazi-pun headline.

Step 2: Wait for the inevitable media outcry whereby other news outlets, both within the Murdoch stable and outside it, won't stop banging on about it so the front page gets a ridiculous amount of free publicity. No need to pay an ad agency this week.

Step 3: Weather the storm of criticism about The Sun being a republican newspaper that just wants to cut down "hardworking royals" and piss on British traditions.

Step 4: Bask in the increased sales and website clicks safe in the knowledge that, if anything, running an 82-year-old photo as "news" has probably increased support for the monarchy.

The Sun loves the royals and would be lost without them. They love a good royal scandal because they love the revenue but they will always join in the media forelock-tugging whenever there is a royal wedding or birth that demands pages and pages of fawning coverage. If you don't like it, don't buy it.

Firstly, the Queen probably isn't a Nazi. She probably isn't a rampant lefty either, but I am pretty sure she found the wholesale slaughter of millions of people by the Nazis in WWII as abhorrent as any reasonable person would.

However, that's not to say the photograph is not newsworthy. It's not newsworthy as an exposé of Her Maj as a fan of Hitler but it is newsworthy from a historical viewpoint. It's a story that would be better placed in a history magazine rather than The Sun's front page but it is still interesting to consider how close Britain came to having a serious Nazi sympathiser on the throne before Edward abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, a woman whose support for Hitler is hardly a state secret. The British monarch is meant to be apolitical but only the seriously naive believe that royals have no opinions and have never tried to influence the government of the day.

The Queen was six years old when the photo was taken so it is ridiculous to think she'd have any idea what the Nazi salute stood for any more than I knew what I was talking about when, aged four, my party piece was to inform houseguests that the Australian Prime Minister of the time had a face like a bum. I've since revised my views on Malcolm Fraser just as the Queen, in all likelihood, didn't cheer on Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939.

But it is certainly absurd to think that the Queen Mother had no idea about Nazi ideology in 1933. Mein Kampf was published in 1925 and by 1933, it had been translated in English and The Times ran excerpts to expose Hitler's racist agenda. She was not living in a vacuum. An ivory tower, yes, but not a vacuum. It would be unbelievable to think she was in blissful ignorance about Hitler's ideologies. She would not have been aware of the full horror of the concentration camps as those horrific places were in their nascent stages in 1933 but she must have had some inkling about his views on race.

The Sun probably knew that running this story on the front page was not going to damage the monarchy - and that people would indeed rush to the defence of the Queen. I am an avowed republican but I do not think this story is necessarily the best way to argue for a British republic. There are plenty of great arguments for a British republic and it would behoove British republicans to share them rather than feeding the troll that is The Sun.

Picture by Karen Arnold.

Australia! Land of the kitty killers!

The Australian government did something this week that actually makes sense. Plans to cull two million feral cats over the next five years were announced. The internet, predictably, reacted with a barrage of uneducated horror. The way people were carrying on, one could be forgiven for thinking Australia was about to morph into a nation of psychotic kitty killers, with gangs of rogue marksmen taking pot shots at pet shops and beheading much-loved house cats as they slept peacefully on their owners' beds.

People who'd never been to Australia, much less seen an Australian feral cat in real life, were typing in capital letters, such was their fury. And naturally the arguments against the cull were, overall, daft and ill-informed.

Ironically, there were calls for a tourism boycott of Australia. That was particularly idiotic because Australia's amazing natural environment, including native wildlife, is one of the main reasons tourists visit my home country. Feral cats have been linked to the extinction of 28 native species and are threatening at least 100 more. These cats do not belong in Australia. Along with foxes and rabbits, they should never have been introduced by the British in the 1800s. The problem is being dealt with more than 100 years too late - but at least it is being dealt with.

"But humans are the worst destroyers of the planet! Leave the cats alone!" was another wail from the peanut gallery. True. We humans are doing a pretty good job of polluting the place when we're not busy killing each other for stupid reasons. But because we humans have the ability to think rationally and examine scientific evidence, we are best placed to solve our problems, including what the hell to do about a country that is overrun with an estimated 18-20 million feral cats.

The calls for a trap-neuter-release programme are well-intentioned but still misguided. The size of such a task with so many cats in a country the size of Australia would be gargantuan - and completely and utterly ineffective. The neutered, released cats would still kill native wildlife. And when they're not killing native wildlife, they are killing and injuring domestic cats and contributing to the spread of Feline Immunodeficiency Virus as well as diseases among livestock.

To support the cull is to support the survival of native Australian wildlife and responsible cat ownership. Feral cats have been breeding rampantly for generations in the wild and sometimes domestic cats end up going feral too. Cat owners need to get their pets neutered and microchipped and bring them inside at night to be part of the solution.

But if you don't want to take my word for it, click here to get the views of scientists on this issue. Feral cats are not cute kitties. The cull has to happen.

Photo courtesy of the government of the state of Victoria

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Oil, gas and Greek salvation

Imagine this: A country is on the skids economically. The reasons for this crisis are myriad and blame is not limited to one person or one group of people. Corruption and tax evasion have been rife for years. Governments of different shades have been incompetent. Attempts to solve the economic problems have not worked.

But for the last five years at least, the country's energy ministry has known about significant offshore oil reserves - some 22 billion barrels to the west and a further 4 billion barrels in the waters to the east. Surveys have also estimated that the country may have natural gas reserves worth $9 trillion. Further exploration of the country's coastal waters could reveal even more oil and possibly natural gas reserves too. There may be enough to cover at least 50% of the country's oil needs. The country already has some oil and natural gas production but this has dropped sharply between 1990 and 2000 and has continued to fall ever since, dwindling to no gas production and barely enough oil production for one of the salads the country is so famous for.

This country is not hypothetical. This country is Greece.

Exploiting its oil and gas reserves alone won't solve the country's economic problems but it could make a massive difference.

Fuel would become cheaper - it is currently at around 1.59 per litre - and this would benefit everyone from struggling taxi drivers and farmers to the people who live on and visit the islands, where prices are higher for the many goods that need to be shipped from the mainland. There may be enough oil and gas to not only fire up power stations and further develop the petrochemicals sector. The government could remove bureaucratic obstacles to the development of renewable energy, so oil and gas-fired power stations are used in conjunction with renewables. This would mean a more reliable supply of electricity for the country. This is a minor bummer when the lights go out while you're enjoying a pint of Mythos in a Cretan taverna and it is an ongoing pain in the arse if you live in Greece.

Fossil fuels won't last forever - the clue is in the name - but we need to use them for now alongside renewables because the technology for solar, wind and tidal energy still needs work. A thriving oil and gas industry would be a fiscal multiplier and a creator of jobs.

As a bonus, Greece's heavy reliance on coal and imported hydrocarbons from such bastions of freedom as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya and Kazakhstan would come to an end.

Imagine that: Greece could be one of the few countries in the EU to get off the Russian gas teat and tell the Saudi government to go pound sand.

But will this happen? Probably not, especially if the IMF and EU governments succeed in getting Greece to sell off assets such as ports and public companies, in particular the national energy companies, to reduce the debt. But who the hell is going to buy these assets at this time? Realistically, how much money could be made from such a fire sale?

Joint ventures between Greece's national energy companies and foreign investors would make more sense. Keeping the ports for the transport of oil and gas and the development of LNG terminals would also make sense. LNG - liquefied natural gas - is a growing sector of the gas industry and one of its benefits is that it eliminates the need for pipelines with other countries, thus reducing the risk of geopolitical dramas, especially with nearby Turkey.

Additionally, LNG is a great way to store gas for domestic use and transport it for export. Remember exporting? A way that a country can make money! Exporting! Part of a sensible, steady economic recovery for Greece rather than the current debacle. It'll never catch on, especially if the Greek government eliminates tax breaks for the Greek islands. Yeah, what a great idea. Let's make it harder for the Greek islands to attract tourists! We're only talking about places so damn beautiful that all the advertising they should need is a Google image search. It's not as if tourism is a revenue-raiser for Greece or anything...

There is a lot of love out there for Tsipras at the moment but if he succeeds in raising taxes for the islands while not properly reforming the whole country's taxation system, and if he doesn't do a damn thing to push for oil and gas development, he is completely short-sighted. Equally, bullying tactics from the IMF and EU governments are not conducive to getting Greece back on its feet and five years of austerity in a vacuum where there have been no real plans to grow the economy haven't solved a damn thing either.

TLDR version? It's a bloody mess and I'll be stunned if anything improves any time soon.

Photography by George Hodan

Monday, 15 June 2015

Period dramas...

I'd never heard of Ella Whelan before last week and I am quite sure she doesn't much care about my existence either. But, Christ on a cracker, has she missed the point of Plan UK's #JustATampon campaign.

Or, what is probably more likely, is that she understands Plan UK's campaign perfectly well but she fancied being the voice of contrived contrarian lefty-bashing feminism that The Spectator clearly needs among its bloggers.

She unleashed a bucket of faux ignorance on the world last week in her piece about the West being obsessed with the contents of the knickers of developing countries. In particular, she called out Plan UK's campaign to help women and girls in developing countries become more educated about menstrual health and to help these women and girls access sanitary products.

Ella seems to object to Plan UK's assertion that "stigma and embarrassment attached to women's periods contributes to gender inequality worldwide". Except that it does, Ella. But instead of acknowledging that women and girls around the world suffer enormously because of a lack of menstrual care, she insists that the campaign will only serve to perpetuate the perception of African countries as being dirty, unhygienic and unaware of periods. Except that many women and girls in many African countries do experience their periods in horrible conditions that would make the average western woman recoil in horror.

Why pretend this isn't happening?

Probably because it is easier and more clickbait-friendly for Ella to use her soapbox to bash popular targets of the right as Jenny Eclair and Jon Snow. Why is she afraid to acknowledge that having your period in horrific conditions, often with the added stigma of cultural taboos and myths about menstruation, means that you might miss days of school and not complete your education, or you might not be able to go to work, or care for your family properly? These are real issues and helping girls and women have less horrific periods is part of the solution.

Ella is partly right to say that the problem for women in developing countries is not a lack of education about periods but that there isn't a branch of Boots on every corner. Of course, it'd be nice for women in Africa's deprived regions to have the same easy access to pads, tampons and Mooncups that we enjoy here in Britain. But getting many African countries to that point will take time. Some parts of Africa are already there. It is a big and diverse continent.

This is why the countries in which Plan UK works are called "developing countries". It is short-sighted and defeatist to slag off an entire campaign because it seems easier to sit back and wait for capitalism to happen. Plan UK does great work to help women and girls in particular to be part of the solutions to poverty, such as ensuring they have access to healthcare and education and do not disappear from the world in forced marriages.

The #JustATampon campaign just one component of the wide-ranging work Plan UK does. Sure, it's  a gimmick to have people take selfies with tampons and I frequently scoff at such campaigns because I am unsure how many selfies actually convert into donations (See also, the ice bucket challenge and no make-up selfies). But if the campaign leads to more people choosing to support Plan UK, a secular charity with no ulterior motivation to convert anyone to or from religion, that's a good thing.

Plan UK cannot solve the world's problems alone but, in particular with their programmes involving access to education and eliminating child marriage, they are doing something. Access to clean drinking water and access to reliable energy are other challenges which need to be addressed so that developing countries can attain Ella's Boots-on-ever-corner menstrual utopia.

And lack of menstrual care is not just a problem for girls and women in developing countries.

Given the lazy approach Ella took to her piece in The Spectator, I wonder if she could be bothered to acknowledge that it is an issue for homeless women in Britain and in other supposedly civilised countries. The Homeless Period campaign explains this more eloquently and powerfully than I can. Click here to find out about this great campaign.

And, as outlined in this rather upsetting piece in the Guardian, lack of access to menstrual products is an issue in some US prisons. Just don't read the comments at the end unless you really enjoy reading the work of dullard mansplainers who have never had a period in their life advocating a system where women in prison as deserve to spend days caked in their own menstrual blood.

Having a period that is as comfortable as it can possibly be is something most of us take for granted. Is Ella having to wad her own underwear with toilet paper scavenged from a public toilet like a homeless woman every month? Is she banished away from her community until her period is over because menstruation is seen as a taboo? Has lack of access to pads and tampons impacted on her ability to get an education or work for a living? Is she imprisoned and forced to ration her maxi-pads?

These things are still happening to girls and women in 2015. Anyone who is taking steps to ensure these things don't happen should be congratulated. They do not deserve the petty vitriol of an arrogant columnist.   

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Liquid food dripping down the slippery slope

Anyone who has ever seen my Facebook page will be nonplussed to know I was in one of those I-must-keep-going-because-someone-is-wrong-on-the-internet arguments the other day. It was over, of all things, liquid food. In particular, it was about a New York Times article a friend posted about Soylent, the ironically named liquid food substitute that is apparently taking Silicone Valley by storm.

Soylent is made up of all the nutrients the FDA recommends one should eat in a day. As if everyone needs exactly the same quantity of nutrients regardless of multiple biological variables. But it's so easy! You simply add water to the powder and drink the resulting bland, porridge-coloured sludge in lieu of actual food.

Rob Rhinehart, the software engineer who came up with this idea goes to great pains to tell us it's not a weight loss product and that it is not meant to replace all meals. But, naturally, because human beings love quick fixes when it comes to weight loss, this is inevitably what it will be used for, especially when journalists have tried it out and reported weight loss.

And the New York Times report features people in Silicone Valley who are indeed living on nothing but Soylent. They are just too damn busy to be arsed with proper meals. And this is where the whole thing becomes inherently depressing. People living on Soylent have become the inevitable result of the cult of busy. It is partly down to pressure in workplaces to work longer rather than smarter, for costs being cut through understaffing, for people to define themselves entirely by their work.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with working hard to make something of yourself. But the cult of busy has generated an inflated sense of self-importance among many of us. The notion that something really bad will happen if you leave work on time, as if the sky will fall if you leave it until tomorrow to finish a task after you've had a good night's sleep, that you exist solely for work at the expense of human relationships or any real joy.

We are now in an era where too many of us answer the question: "How are you?" with a sigh, an eyeroll and a diatribe about how damn busy we are. I've done this. Most of us have. It's as if we're now ashamed to answer "How are you?" with a "I'm great, thanks. I get out of work at 5pm most days and I am sleeping really well and spending loads of time with friends and family."

In the Facebook argument, I made these points along with a lament for another nail in the coffin of real food, another way to take people further away from the joy of eating and preparing meals.

I am quite sure the people who begged to differ, who said they'd be interested in trying out Soylent because cooking doesn't interest them are perfectly nice people. Hell, if they want to spend their money on something that hospitals buy for a fraction of the price to force-feed anorexics they can knock themselves out. It's the money and their gastrointestinal tracts.

But the argument did shine a light on the glorification of not being able to cook. For fuck's sake, people. Even if you don't cook a cordon bleu meal every night, cooking is a life skill every adult should have. There is nothing big or clever about not being able to cook at least a few basic dishes. In the argument, I was accused of harking back to a pre-technology era - but, ironically, the conveniences of a modern kitchen make it easier than ever to cook and preserve food.

Of course, this is easy for me, or anyone who lives in a developed country, to say. What about the poor people of developing countries? Those without access to refrigeration or an efficient stove? Well, just as well then that Rob Rhinehart has the answers!

Except he doesn't really. In fact, he is a bit of a douche when it comes to his big idea for solving poverty. He proposes giving people in developing countries a Soylent-producing algae so they can keep making Soylent indefinitely. He says this would eliminate the need for factories and farms. Yes, because who needs factories? They only create jobs to help people out of poverty. And, frankly, how dare he deny the cultural importance of agriculture to millions of people across the world. How dare he slag off all agriculture instead of recognising its importance and recognising that it needs to evolve in an efficient and ethical way.

But it's OK because they can make all this Soylent! Yeah. Those poverty-stricken ingrates should be glad of any food, even if it is tasteless sludge. Why would they ever aspire to choice? Why would they ever want access to energy so they can cook their favourite foods safely and efficiently?

Rhinehart flippantly added that "all we'd have to do is fix the world's housing problem and people could be free". Yes, it's as simple as that in his privileged, arrogant, ignorant world. Sustainable development clearly isn't a concept he has spent much time with. How the hell does he think houses happen? Houses require building skills, which can be taught so people have a way of earning a living. Ideally, houses should be designed so they are appropriate for the needs of the people who live in them and make sense in their environment. Houses need access to energy to be effective places to live, work, study and, yes, cook actual meals in 2015.

Energy poverty needs to be addressed to make any of this possible. On top of that, access to education is the best way to help people out of poverty, to ensure they have a better life than their parents did. Access to healthcare is also important. Rhinehart's simplistic soundbite-friendly non-solutions patronise the world's poor.

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest Rhinehart hasn't really thought this through. For now, he is just trying to meet demand for orders in the US, an effort which required him to raise $20 million in venture capital. If his main goal is to make pots of money, fair play to him. He is a businessman in a free market economy and, as far as I can tell, he hasn't broken any laws. The ingredients of Soylent are not a secret. Consumers can make an informed choice.

And if they choose to forego the joy of food because they are too damn busy and important to pause for a proper meal, so be it. If they see fit to behave like overgrown adult babies who don't want to learn to cook, whatever. If they want to help Rhinehart get rich, that is also up to them. But don't sugar-coat your choice with the naive belief that Soylent is going to be a major force in changing the world for the better.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Marriage equality, Germaine Greer, and those who think of the children...

Ireland voted in favour of marriage equality for gay couples. Excellent news. Here's hoping my home country of Australia follows suit very soon. Many thought the power of the Roman Catholic church would be too strong but, given that just over 61% voted in favour, plenty of people who most likely identify as Roman Catholic also believe that if gay people want to get married, there should be no problem. Plenty of gay Roman Catholics will no doubt take advantage of this wonderful, historic change.

No Roman Catholic church in Ireland will be forced to conduct same-sex marriages. Nobody's religious freedoms will be impinged upon. Contrary to popular mythology, the Republic of Ireland does not have a state religion. It is known as a "Catholic country" because a lot of Catholics live there. Similarly, Turkey is a secular country that happens to have a lot of people who are Muslim, either observant or nominally so. The current government over there is doing all it can to piss on Ataturk's secular dream but, at the time of writing, Islam is not the state religion of Turkey.

The way in which the church will not be affected by same-sex marriage is a good example of why the further apart church and state are, the better it is for all concerned. Compare this to the absolute dog's breakfast that happened to the Church of England when the UK legalised same-sex marriage in 2012, except for the special snowflake that is Northern Ireland.

Maria Miller, who was at the time the utterly incompetent Culture Secretary, announced that the Church of England would be banned from performing same-sex marriages. The official religion of Great Britain would be exempt from this new law - which would be great, except that there are plenty of vicars in the Church of England in the UK and beyond who would love to perform same-sex marriages. This should be a matter for the Church of England to deal with as it sees fit. Whether this would mean a split in the church or a whole new church being formed is irrelevant. If the UK had separation of church and state, the Church of England could sort it out amongst themselves and there would be no daft ban enshrined in law.

In hindsight, marriage equality was inevitable for Ireland. In 1993, homosexuality was decriminalised and the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual sex became equal. In 2009, same-sex civil partnerships were introduced. The sky didn't fall. Perhaps now Northern Ireland might consider going down the same path instead of being given absurd religion-based privileges despite being part of an allegedly united country.

The "No" vote campaigners in the marriage equality referendum's main argument (aside from the fringe-dwelling loons who used the irrational "Next, people will marry dogs and toasters!" non-sequitur...) was that to legalise same-sex marriage would spell a decline in the traditional family, that all children need a mother and a father.

However, since 2000, lesbians in Ireland have had access to IVF and now gay couples can jointly adopt both non-biological children and step-children. There are, no doubt, plenty of people in Ireland who are horrified by this. In general, these are the same people who are horrified by abortion and want to preserve the ban in Irish law.

If a lesbian in Ireland falls pregnant, either by accident or design, these religious conservatives would not give her the right to have an abortion and they do not want her to be happily married to her partner either. I guess the only thing that would make these people happy is to force such women to give up their babies for adoption. Because that worked so well in the era of the Magdalene Laundries. Yeah. You'll have to forgive me for not being entirely convinced by their concern for keeping families together.

There is now talk that this new era of progressiveness for Ireland could lead to legalising abortion, or at least loosening some of the restrictions. If this happened, again it should be a clarion call to Northern Ireland to change abortion laws so they're in line with the rest of the UK. Of course, this would lead to the inevitable cries from the conservatives about how gay marriage leads to abortion when, for obvious reasons, gay people are not particularly responsible for causing too many abortions anywhere in the world. Indeed, when gay couples decide to become parents by whatever means they choose, it is usually a spectacularly well-planned process resulting in much-loved, much-wanted children.

Which brings me to Germaine Greer, bless her. This week at the Hay Festival, she became the accidental hero of religious conservatives when she used the example of Elton John and David Furnish and their children as an example of the "deconstruction" of motherhood. Really, Germaine? The cult of motherhood is bloody everywhere, especially if you manage to look hot while you're doing it. That is where the deconstruction is going on, where mothers are being insulted and degraded on a daily basis. It's not being deconstructed because some gay men are now parents. And it won't be deconstructed because gay people can now get married in Ireland. Get a grip.

Motherhood is still considered by many to be the pinnacle of female achievement, as if women without kids have somehow not fulfilled their full potential until they have bred. I remember a time when that was the kind of attitude that would appall Germaine Greer. Did she not notice the unseemly womb-watching of the Duchess of Cambridge? Did she somehow miss the endless media fawning as Kate and William emerged from the hospital with Princess Charlotte in an idealised, heavily styled tableau of heterosexual family values?

For good measure, Germaine criticised IVF, the very process which helps gay and straight couples become parents. She had the makings of a good point when she said that in some places, women don't know what happens to all the eggs that are produced by IVF and this is something women tend to care about. This is not the case in the UK where it is made perfectly clear what will happen to each and every egg harvested in the IVF process and this should be the global standard.

But then she went on to claim that the 1967 Abortion Act was only introduced because of lobbying by the fertility industry. Did she not notice the women marching in the 1960s to demand the right to choose? Does she think they were all there because they were getting kickbacks from the fertility industry? There may well have been lobbying by the burgeoning fertility industry at the time but that does not change the fact that a lot of women wanted the law to change and are glad that it did. Apart from a failed attempt to tighten abortion law by Nadine Dorries in 2012, abortion in the UK is not a hot button political issue as it is in Ireland and the US.

The sting has been taken out of the tail of the anti-marriage equality movement in Ireland. Maybe the sting will one day be taken out of the tail of the Irish anti-abortion lobby too. But in the meantime, we have a curious world indeed where Ireland is doing better on gay rights than Australia and Germaine Greer is echoing the sentiments of groups who have spent decades being horrified by the loudest voices of feminism. In the midst of it all, the kids will probably be all right.


Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Could the election ever have been all about the NHS, stupid?

"It's the economy, stupid!" is a frequent, if cliched, explanation for why elections are won. It's so obvious. The winning party was either strong on economic policy or, as is more likely in the case of this month's UK General Election, was strong on giving a good impersonation of being strong on the economy.

If the only payrise you've received of late is down to tax cuts, if you're not struggling on a zero hours contract, if you have never seen inside a food bank, if you really don't know what the difference is between the debt and the deficit and don't particularly care to find out, if you're genuinely happy with supermarket prices and the economy's current rate of growth, then yes, it is pretty obvious why the Conservative Party came out as looking like they might be strong on the economy. Whatever. It doesn't matter what your politics are, you can probably find figures to support your argument or you might genuinely believe George Osborne is doing a sterling job as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

For the beleaguered Labour Party, the polls (Ha! Remember those wacky polls before the election?), suggested the public thought Team Red rather than Team Blue was stronger and more trustworthy on the NHS. But this didn't translate into nearly enough votes for Labour to come close to a majority. The wheels fell off for Labour on the NHS long before Ed Miliband unveiled his stone tablet inscribed with the meaningless platitude of "An NHS with time to care".

While there certainly are people in Britain who would support the NHS moving towards a user-pays system and an increased take-up of private health insurance, the overwhelming feeling I get is that "free at the point of use" remains an important pillar of the NHS for many people from across the political spectrum. People understand that we pay for the NHS via our taxes and people expect in return to not receive a bill or have to file for bankruptcy as a result of receiving NHS treatment.

I remember debating UKIP's NHS policy with a Kipper on Twitter who was desperate to reassure me that UKIP is committed the NHS remaining free at the point of use (except immigrants like me, who have not yet lived here for five years, would have to take out private health insurance...). I found that UKIP, Tory, LibDem and Labour supporters all push the "free at the point of use" line but few seem too concerned with whether NHS services are publicly or privately provided.

And so the missed opportunities for Labour to show true strength on the NHS began.

Why didn't Labour promise to look into the billions of pounds the NHS internal market costs taxpayers in administration costs alone?

When we have situations across the country such as Virgin Care running essential urgent care services at Croydon University Hospital so poorly that quality standards are simply not being met, G4S being allowed anywhere near a hospital, Serco misuing public funds in relation to NHS contracts, we have a problem. The problem is compounded by private companies being exempt from FOI laws?

At the very least, Labour could have pledged to overturn the FOI exemption for private companies in relation to NHS contracts. Why did this not happen?

A promise to cap profits of private providers in the NHS did not resonate with voters.

The National Health Action Party, the Greens and UKIP all had policies on rolling back expensive PFI contracts, which are costing us billions in repayments, meaning we frequently get one hospital for the price of nine. Why was Labour afraid of a mea culpa on PFI? PFI may have been started by the Conservatives but it went nuclear under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. A humble admission that this was a massively expensive SNAFU and a pledge to do something about it could have been a vote-winner.

The cost of the NHS internal market and PFI contracts represent cost pressures on the NHS that make the Daily Mail's constant wail of "health tourism" pale into insignificance. They would be pledges that would not fit nicely on a ridiculous stone or have the snappy insta-appeal of the mansion tax, even though that would not come close to helping plug the NHS funding gap.

Why couldn't the Labour Party found a way to get the message out there that internal market costs and PFI are crippling the NHS financially way more than immigrants ever will?

Instead, we have much NHS fun and games already with the all-new, all-singing, all-dancing Conservative majority government. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is now bashing nurses over anti-social hours pay in his quest to make what is already a 24-hour service an unachievable 24-hour service. There are unrealistic promises of hordes of new GPs despite there not being enough GPs in training to achieve this, and despite Britain struggling to attract foreign GPs to make up the shortfall. It all smacks of setting the system up for inevitable failure, ably assisted by a compliant NHS-bashing media, thus whetting the public appetite for selling off more services.

Whether Labour, under the election manifesto's NHS promises, would have done any better is a moot point. Whether the new Labour leader will be able to offer a genuine, cost-effective, patient outcomes-focused alternative remains to be seen. All I will say is that if one of the "modernisers" wins the leadership contest (I'm looking at you, Liz Kendall...), I predict more of the same for years to come.