Still an insult, no longer an offence

Finally! The word “insulting” has been removed from the UK Public Order Act’s offence of “threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour”. It’s about time: like all laws written with the best of intentions, it’s been abused time and again to bring people who merely disagreed with a litigious person into a cowed defensive posture.

It’s not far enough – British law still favours people with “beliefs”, constantly letting them off societal and legal obligations simply because they made a big noise about their imaginary friend in the sky. (Witness the way “faith schools” are allowed to discriminate based on what ancient text pupils’ parents prefer, or the way an organisation sending 26 people to the House of Lords is allowed to deny people a certain job rank simply because they’re female.) But it’s a step in the right direction.

Introduced in the 80s, the law’s been abused by countless thin-skinned people who think anyone criticising their beliefs should be jailed. (Interestingly, some of the biggest numbers of both plaintiffs AND defendants in such case have been Muslims. Proving once again that religion is principally a divisive force, something for playing up our differences, not bringing us closer together.)

So at last, UK citizens are once again free to voice nonviolent opinions and concerns as they please. Can I just mention that you are stupid and ugly and your mother dresses you funny?

How to do meetings

(Repost of an old blog from my former blogging provider!)

There’s an expression I use in meetings when people are engaging in wishful thinking instead of solving the problems at hand. When they’ve come to a convenient break in their flights of unproductive fancy, I jump in with:

‘…and while we’re in Lollipop Land, I’d like a pink-maned pony to ride across the candyfloss clouds.’

In other words, I run a tight meeting. Get me leading a table and you’ll see decisions made and minutes acted on with a clear sense of purpose, everything tight as a drum. It’s not hard. Here’s how I do it.

1. Set a start time. And keep to it. It’s far too easy to lose 30 minutes or more waiting for stragglers to arrive. If the meeting starts at 10am, start it at 10, and anyone not there loses the right to be involved. They’ve missed the Chocolate-Frosted Choo-Choo that brings them to the meeting room, and they’ll have to stay over in Lollipop Land.

2. Communicate the meeting’s purpose. All meetings should have ONE purpose and ONE major outcome. Meetings are to decide things, not discuss them. If people start wandering off track, ask them how that conversation is contributing to the meeting’s purpose – or give them the line above. You may as well mention Sugarcane Mountain while you’re at it.

3. Tell people what their role is in the meeting. In other words, make sure everyone knows their area of responsibility. And don’t let them step outside it – because perversely, the best performers at work are often the worst at meetings: experts tend to think their expertise reaches beyond their area of knowledge, and will grab any opportunity to demonstrate this. Don’t let them. Every Yummy-Scrumptious Pebble on Lollipop Land’s beaches is different, but not one has more than one flavour.

4. Tell people it’s okay not to come, and that if they don’t, decisions will be made without them. You don’t want anyone there who doesn’t need to be. It’s perfectly possible to do this diplomatically – ‘If you feel this would not be a good use of your time, please tell me and I’ll cc you the minutes’. And while they’re in Lollipop Land, they can get you a cookie.

5. Practice lock-out for latecomers. People must understand that the meeting fulfills a business purpose and that if they miss it they’re preventing that purpose from being met.

6. Have a chairman. All meetings need a leader. And that’s not just a note-taker (ideally someone else takes the scribe role) – the leader introduces topics, summarises decisions taken, gets agreement, and moves down the agenda at a set rate.

7. Specify a finishing time. More important than you think. Few meetings need longer than an hour; most can be done in 30mins, and plenty can happen by phone or IM without travel involved. There’s no need to take the Choo-Choo all around Sugarcane Mountain when you only want to go as far as Gingerbread Station.

8. Issue the minutes. A single page with a title, participant list, date and time, a paragraph, and bullet points of what was done. The most important is the one-paragraph (even better, one-line) summary of what the meeting achieved, which should always include context of what needs to happen as a result of that decision.

9. Keep your eyes on the clock. If the first agenda item of 6 takes half an hour, you’re in line for a three-hour meeting – which is too long. Agree a set time at the start – say, ten minutes per agenda item. If the strawberry-shortcake clock in Lollipop town centre strikes 12, you might be stuck in Lollipop Land forever!

10. Close the meeting properly. When the end time approaches, the chairman should summarise the decisions and firmly close the meeting. If you let the conversation wander aimlessly or peter out, you’re on the fast track to Sugarcane Mountain. If you’ve dealt with everything early, then close the meeting early! ‘Fill all the time’ is never a meeting objective.

Lastly, the best advice of all: don’t go to meetings! At least 75% of meetings are unnecessary. Cancel three meetings a week, and you’re putting a whole morning’s worth of time back in your day. And over time, the quality of the meetings you do go to will rise – because people will assume if ‘the guy who doesn’t go to meetings’ is there, it must be important.

Britain today: a nation of wusses

Whatever happened to Dunkirk spirit?

Ok, there’s snow across a large part of the UK. In some places it’s over a foot deep.

But most people are over a foot tall. And it seems millions aren’t capable even of lifting their feet.

Trains have shut down. Roads are closed. People are battening down the hatches. What worries me is that so many millions of them – my countrymen, the people who’ve faced down massed armies, built great institutions, and became a major world power through sheer vitality of spirit – don’t even make the effort any more.

Anaesthetised by a decade-plus of socialist rule, the British have gone the way of the Italians and French: thinking the answer to all their problems lies somewhere else and should be solved by the State. Nobody provisions his own requirements any more. Nobody has the self-respect and sense of personal dignity to simply fend for himself.

Britain today. A nation of whiney, namby-pamby, moaning lightweights. And it’s all your fault, Blair and Brown. If you hadn’t made people believe that government should be their first port of call rather than the lowest safety net… if you hadn’t encouraged this risk-averse, sue-everybody, compensation-claim culture, where problems are legislated against rather than solved and risk is eliminated rather than managed… then we’d have a people I’d actually feel proud of. But we don’t. Sheesh.

"Mentalist" being the operative word

I can’t stand environmentalists. You know why? Because they’re deluded.

Greens are characterised by a smug holier-than-thou outlook that I can’t stand. They’re after the quick win, the easy thrill, the little action that’ll make them feel good, rather than anything that really helps the planet.

But if you mention this to any of them – even in passing – you’ll be subject to an endless barrage of violent criticism. Nothing’s so important to a greenie as her own self-righteousness. Greens are right, they believe, and they’re right without – or even in spite of – any evidence for their practices.

They’ll buy a tomato from the local farmer’s market in preference to one from the supermarket because it has fewer “food miles” – forgetting that the plane Tesco’s tomato came in carried 500,000 of the little red spherical buggers, so driving to the farmer’s market released far more Co2 into the atmosphere than the plane on a per-tomato basis.

They’ll buy Fairtrade goods, without understanding that if you proscribe a concrete set of measures for greater profit (as Fairtrade does to its farmers) those rules will be gamed to divert the extra funds into as few pockets as possible. (Take a look at all the farmers who can’t get into the Fairtrade cartel. As a result of Fairtrade’s market-distorting measures, far more farmers are in far worse conditions than ever before.)

They’ll make great show of switching off appliances on standby, skating over the fact that a single one-second ignition of their car negates a year of that.

They’ll drive the ultimate smugmobile, the Toyota Prius, and London’s Mayor will support them by exempting them from certain taxes. While non-smug vehicles with still lower emissions than the Prius – Volkswagen’s Polo comes to mind – are unloved, because they don’t give the greens that sense of smugness.

They’ll oppose bloodsports like foxhunting, forgetting that these activities are eminently sustainable and support thousands of people in low environmental impact jobs in the countryside. And they’ll forget, of course, that real life (where your food comes from) IS full of blood and guts. The ‘nature’ they profess to love is red in tooth and claw, not the hugs-and-puppies cuteness they imagine.

They’ll read with wonderment those books about living for a year without money… not realising that if we all went back to being subsistence farmers, the world could support about 50m people tops, and without the magic of trade and division of labour we’d have no great cities, no schools, and no technology. (How many of these people would stay out in their fields when.. they needed a hospital?)

Of course, if these greens – a surprising number are middle-class – really wanted to do something good, they’d be doing something hard. Like negotiating trade agreements that kill off EU subsidies. Or engineering a better wind farm. But no, no, that’s difficult. And what greens really want is to feel smugly superior without actually doing anything.

Greenies suck.

I can’t stand that Stephen Hawking

In the latest of my occasional series (people you’re not supposed to dislike) I’ve decided I can’t stand that Stephen Hawking bloke.

It starts with his self-description in books like Brief History of Time. “I sit in the chair once occupied by Isaac Newton…” Fair enough Steve, but brushes with fame don’t make you him. Isaac Newton was on an entirely different level. It takes serious brainspace even to understand calculus and optics and gravitation; Isaac Newton developed them from first principles and wrote the seminal works on them. You are no Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking.

Hawking’s chief contribution revolves around an interesting but minor element of blackhole physics, later discovered (and admitted) to be partly wrong. If Hawking were really on par with Isaac Newton, he’d have come up with the fundamentals of string theory (where even better physicists like Ed Witten and Brian Greene are still dancing around on the surface phenomena.)

But it goes further than not being Newton’s equal; he was never even in the foremost ranks of today’s physicists. Hawking’s discoveries are dwarfed even by some graduate students. Far from being a top physicist, anyone in the know at Cambridge would whisper that he wasn’t even the best physicist in his own department.

You are NOTHING without that chair, Stephen Hawking. NOTHING!

I can’t stand that Dalai Llama bloke

A friend just blogged excitedly about seeing the Dalai Llama getting off his train in Nottingham. I can’t stand the Dalai Llama.

Why do Westerners from Bill Clinton to Steve Jobs go gooey-eyed over some Asian guy in robes? Have we really come nowhere since the 1960s? I mean, what does the Dalai Llama actually DO? Don’t we have something called the age of reason?

Why is it that the countries who espouse representative democracy and equality for all fall panting at the feet of …. a guy put in power claiming divine authority, leading an ethnic group hostile to outsiders, with some of the worst life expectancy and health statistics in the world?

(Did any of these guys have their eyes OPEN when they went to Tibet? The place is a shithole! Zero infrastructure, zero public institutions, and when the Chinese do something that might actually give the economy a boost – like laying a 2000 mile railway through unforgiving rock, an incredible feat of engineering – they thank them with brickbats.)

Do you realise one of the Tibetan people’s prime grievances about the Chinese is that the Han race keep moving in on their turf? Shock horror! Actually having to live next door to someone of a different race! I mean, isn’t that a little bit… racist?

But of course, this is how political correctness works: only white people are racist, certainly not the poor little Asians. If a white person takes this attitude, it’s selfish and evil and filled with hatred (true). If a member of an ‘ethnic minority’ does it, it’s ‘protecting their culture’. And if you’ve got a roving ambassador with, apparently, a hall pass to No 10 and the White House, you can get away with pretty much anything. As long as you’re wearing the robes.

Hint for religious leaders: bright colours work on Western leaders. Something orange and floor-length, and you’ll have ’em eating out of your hand. The Dalai Llama’s got it sussed.

Sheeesh, give me strength.

I’m no fan of the Chinese government, but as with so many territorial disputes, the Tibet thing all depends on when you draw the line in history. I mean, you don’t have to go back that many centuries to discover Outer Mongolia has a pretty strong claim over most of Asia and a fair chunk of Europe. And let’s face it, when Tibet was annexed by the Chinese – the 1950s – a great deal of Europe had redrawn its borders just a few years before, and over in the Middle East a bunch of guys were divvying up Israel and Palestine. Is China’s claim over Tibet ‘legitimate’? Depends on where you stand. History is a myth agreed upon.

Ted Simon really annoys me

I’m a bit put out by the attitude of ‘Jupiter’s Travels’ author Ted Simon, who’s just repeated his 1973 trip around the world by motorbike and found it wanting.

Quote: “A beach in Thailand that Simon had had to himself for a week on his first trip was now a nightmare of concrete and tourists. Tiny villages in Asia and Africa had ballooned into shanty towns, their inhabitants as poor as ever.”

In other words: all that matters to him is that the atmospheric little villages, redolent with smoke and animal dung, have transformed into characterless corrugated towns. The low socio-economic status of the Africans is of secondary concern when compared to the incredible disappointment of him not having a cultural experience.

Or try: “On my first trip I would ride into a small village in Sudan or the Middle East and they would feed me, fuss over me like I was a pop star. This time around no one bothered — they’ve seen too many blokes on motorbikes.”

Translation: I’m really disappointed that nobody thinks I’m a celebrity any more.

Another: “I do regret that my son will never be able to dance with the Turkana [the Kenyan tribe] as I once did, or that China has lost its mystery, that it is possible to travel from one end of Africa to the other without seeing a wild animal that isn’t protected, and all the empty beaches I once loved are full.”

Translation: It’s a shame the rest of the world has changed in the last 33 years, because it’s made it so much less fun for me.

Hey Ted, WAKE UP! Everywhere in the article, his plaintive voice is whining: I’m special, I’m the traveller, and the world exists for my personal sense of fulfilment. It’s the same mistake made by 99% of travel writers: assuming that they’re somehow more special than the people they visit.

Ted, you’re just plain wrong. There’s still PLENTY of mystery and wonder in the world. Could it be that by visiting all the same places you went to in 1973, you might have been… just a bit… narrow minded? If you wanted wonder, perhaps you should have taken a different route, done it in a different way?

I still hate travel writing.

I hate pandas

This report reminded me why I hate pandas.

I mean, why is an animal without the sense to eat anything more nutritionally valuable than bamboo shoots and won’t even screw to save its species so uncritically loved by 99% of the world’s humans? Pandas are ABSOLUTELY USELESS CREATURES.

Pandas are TOO FUSSY. Only a small number of bamboo species are acceptable dinner to them, and they change their minds all the time. No species with such food faddisms deserves to be exempted from Darwinism.

Pandas are STUPID. Just sitting around expecting the food to come to them? Pandas have a ridiculous sense of entitlement: if they were human, they’d be stars of CCTV and reality shows, and we’d be deriding them as lazy trailer trash. They’re the chavs of the animal world.

Pandas DON’T REPRODUCE. You’d think that when breeding seasons are few and far between, they’d at least be able to make the effort for a night or two. But apparently romance is dead in panda country. Few pandas show any interest in sex, and it can’t be just because they all look the same. Or are they just too selfish to bring fresh pandas into the world?

And lastly, saving useless pandas TAKES RESOURCES AWAY from creatures who’d be more grateful. Many termite species are in trouble, but – because termites don’t look out at you from a fat furry face with big soulful black eyes, nobody cares about termites. And yet termites are AMAZING creatures. Just a few thousand neurons each, yet together they build architecture whose equivalent human scale would be buildings the size of Everest. Termites are incredible. And yet some species are in terminal decline. All because of those bastard pandas.

I hate pandas.