Saturday, September 07, 2019

Alternative ways to Success

I have a friend who is a Drugs Counsellor. Part of his job is to try and convince young people to give up drugs and live a drug-free life. He says it’s a difficult task. His biggest challenge, he told me, is not just convincing the kids that they can have a rewarding life without the constant thrill of exciting chemicals. It’s the sheer hard work of persuading them to stop doing something that’s become a habit and a regular part of their daily routine. Well, that’s a problem in every aspect of life.

Still, with his years of experience, he’s come up with what he calls his ‘Formula for Success’. I was impressed. It’s a procedure that will work with any change you want to make. Let’s go through it.

Number One is to ask yourself: ‘What am I doing - right now?’ AND ‘If I carry on down this road, where will it lead me?’ That last bit is problematical, of course. The sheer definition of a Drug Addict is that they are living for the moment, the next fix, and completely uncaring about tomorrow. The answer to the question for them, of course, is - ‘Probably, in ten years, dead’, and no one wants to admit to that.

Strangely, the first bit comes out as a problem, too, because, my friend says, darn few of us are ever capable of being completely honest. ‘What are we doing?’ Well, if we’ve got a chemical addiction, then the answer is that we’re killing ourselves, one way or another, some time, sooner or later. But, if we’re eating junk food and taking no exercise, then it’s the same answer, and who wants to face up to that. Being a couch potato doesn’t seem like committing suicide, but the outcome is the same. It just takes longer.

Stage Two goes like this: ‘Stop what you’re doing now. Do something else. Choose a different road’. Apparently, that first phrase is a real stopper, because, he says, sure, people want things to improve, but they don’t want them to change. People say things like, ‘I want to join a gym and get fit’. So, you might say, when are you going to start? Ah, they say, I go to the pub three nights a week now, so I’ll just have to fit in the gym on the other nights. The better thing, of course, would be to stop the pub visits - if you really want to get fit - and substitute the gym trips. Not easy to do. People come up with new ideas - like joining a gym - and imagine they can just add them on to an already busy schedule. It doesn’t work. If you want a new habit, the first question to ask yourself, apparently, is: ‘What am I going to give up?’ (It’s the same in my field - book writing. People say to me, constantly, ‘Oh, yes, I’d like to write a book too, but I just don’t have the time’. When I suggest to them that they might need to sacrifice a few pub nights to make the time to write, they just look resentful, as if drinking beer is as essential to them as breathing fresh air. News Flash: it isn’t.)

The second part is just as problematical, it seems. The idea of ‘doing something new’ sounds quite attractive at first, but when you tell a person who wants to lose weight that the new diet means not only having salad for lunch, but NOT having the cream buns in the afternoon, they find it hard to adjust. But it is a choice, pure and simple. You can’t just add the new on top of the old. It would be like some friends I once shared a house with. Their idea of ‘getting fit’ was to run twice around the park at the bottom of the road. Good idea. But then they came back, breathing heavy, slumped down in front of the TV and shared crisps and lemonade. They didn’t seem to think that the exercise was being cancelled out by the snacks. No, the only thing that would have worked for them: do the run, drop the crisps and sugar water. (They wouldn’t listen to me.)

The third part can be even harder to adopt, especially if, as my friend tells me about many of his clients, people like to pretend, ‘No, I’m not a drug addict. I just like to use illegal drugs, now and again.’ Oh, yeah? So, in their heads, all they have to do is cut it down a little more, and they’ll be fine. If you ask them to say, ‘I lead a drug-free life’, they get nervous and say, ‘What? I can never have them ever again?’ It seems like to them like they’re sacrificing a lot. It’s a whole road they have to quit. But, if the road they’re on is leading to an early death, then there’s no other way. Get off that path and head in another direction. Don’t imagine you’ll be safe by carrying on down that same old road - but thinking you will save yourself by trying really hard to move a little slower.

The Third stage sounds easy. ‘Reward yourself.’ The problem is, well, you already know what your favourite reward is. If you take drugs, a ‘reward’ is more drugs. If you need a diet, your regular emotional boost is more food. So, you’ve been really ‘good’ and cut down on eating? Right, you go out and buy a really big cake, (AND tube of ice-cream. You deserve it, right?) This instruction should say, ‘Find a way to reward yourself’, (which may have to be new and not be related to the problem you’re trying to solve). A reward for improving your eating habits might be a day out in the country, or a ticket to a concert of your favourite singer. But you’ll need two things: One, it has to make sense to you. If someone says, ‘My reward is a visit to my Grandma’, don’t knock it. That could be really important to them. Or they might say, ‘My reward is a download of Adele’s latest album’. Well, that’s their taste. Let them have their fun. And two, it’s better if there’s some immediate and obvious link. So, if a man comes round your office offering cakes at 11 o’clock and you’ve avoided stuffing yourself for a week, then think of all the money you’ve saved, and say something like, ‘Right, I deserve a trip to the hair stylist’, (or the Nail Bar or the Laser game room).

But there’s a Three too: don’t give up one bad habit and put another bad habit in its place. If you say, ‘I’m giving up illegal drugs and going to spend more time in the pub with my mates’, be aware that alcohol instead of cannabis is not a helpful swap. Giving up drugs and taking up marathon running is a much better idea. And note, that ‘giving up’ is still the biggest achievement. Creating a vacuum in your life by stopping some destructive habit is a good way to make room to create more productive pastimes. In fact, says my mate, if you’re not actually stopping something, then it’s highly unlikely the new plan will ever get established. You need elbow room. You need space to maneouvre. You need to create some space in your head for thinking about your new life, walking down that new road. Telling the old ways of thinking to move on and move out, is the best way - maybe the only way - to guarantee success.
So, here it is again, in summary:

Stage One: ask yourself - ‘What am I doing - right now? and ‘If I carry on down this road, where will I get?’

Stage Two: Stop what you’re doing. Start something new. Choose a new road.

Stage Three: Reward yourself

Friday, June 28, 2019

Alternatives to 'Cut-offs'

Internet Authors don't need Cut-offs

Here’s a story. When our children were younger, and still at High School, we moved house. The new place was further away from the school, and they told us that there might be financial help available for us towards the cost of our kids' bus fares. We were sent a letter. It said that money was paid to people who lived '8 miles away and further'. We measured the journey in the car and it certainly seemed about that distance. Weeks later we got another letter. Our application was denied. We 'didn't live 8 miles away'. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. No, according to their calculations, we lived 7.9 miles away. That's seven point nine. Not enough, they said. After all, they said, there has to be a cut-off point.

Would-be authors keep coming up against the same problem. They send their work to Traditional Publishers, and immediately encounter problems. Say they've written a novel in the Horror genre. Oh, the publisher says, we do operate in a range of popular genres and we publish Science Fiction and Fantasy, for instance. But no, not Horror. After all, they say, you have to have a cut-off somewhere. Or let's suppose you've written a Spy novel. We don't publish spy novels, they tell you. But, you say, consulting the publisher's current catalogue, you are publishing two spy novels this month and you actually published three last year. Ah, agrees the publisher, but we figured we've published enough spy novels for this year now and that's why we're stopping this month. After all, there has to be a cut-off somewhere.

A worse problem concerns money. You read in the newspaper that a certain publisher has just paid a fortune to a famous author for his new thriller. Ohhh, you think. This publisher likes thrillers and is willing to pay out large advances. Nothing so simple! When you send in your manuscript, you're given short shrift. After all, the publisher says, ‘We've spent our budget for this year’, (you know on who). ‘We've had to cut-off all advances until next April’, (the start of the new financial year). Sorry.

Internet Authors don't have this problem. They know that they can go to a website like Lulu and get their books published there – no matter how many, what genre you've chosen, and what time of year it is, (or day or night, come to that). They know the service is superb and you can order copies in small or large numbers, as you wish. In fact, there are no limitations at all. No cut-offs.

Because, as you probably know, human beings are not actually robots. We don't have to live in a world where good things are cut off at some arbitrarily chosen point. A few weeks ago I went into a self-service restaurant one evening, hoping for a quick meal. I patiently queued at the counter, but when I got to the head of the queue, the man behind the counter pointed to a sign and said, 'We stop serving at 9 o'clock'. It was one minute past the allotted time. He insisted he was right, but then another chap came out from the kitchen, tray in hand. 'Serve it', he said. 'I haven't started putting things away yet. All the food is still out'. It's true, it was. It was no trouble for me to be served, no extra effort. It just meant breaking that rule that said there was an absolute and unequivocal cut-off. The second bloke wasn't so fixed in his views, and was willing to be flexible. I got fed. That was important to me, (at that particular time, and I was grateful for it).

What's important to hide-bound and inflexible bureaucrats (like the employees at most Traditional Publishers houses) is that The Rules are stuck by, adhered to and never questioned, (even when made up and changed at random). Why? In the first example, why, 8 miles was the limit and that was that. Why? Why not 9 or 10? Had someone checked how many people lived outside this boundary and drawn the map accordingly? Nothing so sophisticated! Had anyone thought to check whether the bus fare for a 7.5 mile journey was any less expensive than an 8.5 mile journey? Not at all. The problem is that when people design these so-called 'rules' they like to make them seem so scientific – without actually doing any science – and usually simply base their demarcation lines on sheer prejudice and blind faith. The usual reason such 'rules' are important, is that, we are told, if they are broken – well then, oh dear, civilisation will collapse, (or something far, far worse). Would it? Had anyone checked how many applications had come from people who lived at 7.5 miles or 7.3 miles? After all, if they bent the rules and let us through – at 7.9 – well, they might get flooded with all those other people within a decimal point or two, mightn't they? Well No, only if such people existed, and nobody could tell me that. They had no record of how many people had been declined or how close they were to that magic figure 8.

The saddest fact from the school story is that the budget for assisted bus fares was under-spent at the end of the financial year, and the school had to send a leaflet round to all parents, inviting them to apply again. That's what you get for 'sticking to the rules' – you don't get the outcome you want! You don't get to helping the people you want to help and you don't get to spend the money you've got available. The alternative? To grow up and realise that the 'cut-off' is drawn up in an office by a balding man with glasses and a pencil. He's not divine; he's not a superhuman genius; and his decisions can be challenged or circumvented at will. That's not anarchy, it's simply Common Sense. 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Alternatives to Pretending


A met an old pal of mine just the other day. He was looking down, which was a surprise. When I knew him well and we were both in our '20s, he was one of the most irrepressible optimists I've ever met. He was always laughing and joking, always cheerful, no matter what the problem. Right now he looked as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. I asked him what was getting to him and he said he was in the middle of a messy divorce. Without thinking, I blurted out that it must be a problem caused by his 'wandering eye'.

He was always a bit of a devil with the ladies, very popular with the opposite sex. In fact, the reason I knew him fairly well in those days is that we used to meet up every Sunday lunchtime in the pub. There, listening to jazz and supping a pint or two of beer, we would swap stories of our recent bachelor exploits. What I remember is that he always had more to report than I did. I led a fairly conventional life then, which meant that even though I could be found in pubs and bars, clubs and discos, I was usually the guy who was walking home early in the evening, alone. Oh, I had my fair share of girlfriends, relationships and affairs, and, in fact, didn't meet the person I settled down with until I was past the magic age of 30. Still, my 'adventures' were as nothing compared to my pal's, who was likely to regale us with every fine detail, each and every Sunday lunch. So, I was thinking, surely that was the issue. He couldn't resist a bit of temptation, yes? What was it, an office romance, a flirtatious affair with a neighbour? My old friend looked at me sadly. You got me wrong, he said. I made all that stuff up.

It was a revelation. I knew that when people like us got together in those far off days, the combination of alcohol and encouragement from peers, meant that one was tempted to exaggerate. I knew that, and I wasn't very good at it, with the result that I was always left behind, struggling to keep up. My 'stories' were always far less graphic, less intriguing, less entertaining than my friend's, mostly, because what I said was true. I was therefore staggered, appalled, when my old friend not only said, 'I made it up', but added, as if it was an obvious afterthought, 'Didn't you?' No, I didn't. Sorry. I didn't realise I had to.

Reading a recent book by psychiatrist Oliver James I realise that I'm a bit old-fashioned. You see, I should have made it up. That's the modern way. In a world that is less concerned with sexual conquests and more interested in material success, the conversation tends to focus on what job you have; what you're paid; where you live; where you go on holidays; and what car you drive. The temptation therefore, naturally, is for people to exaggerate and when they can't get away with that, tell a downright lie. The more sophisticated alternative, in these days of modern credit, is to 'lie' with a reality that you can't really afford. Thus, drive a car that is way too expensive for you, and struggle to pay for it with a car loan that is too much for you. Or holiday in exotic foreign parts and slap the payments on a credit card which you can hardly afford to settle. That's as much a 'lie' as saying you've been there when you haven’t, but it's more undercover and you're less likely to get caught.

Because, in the end, that really is the point. You will get caught out, everybody does. Like my friend from years ago. He was married for many years and now he's divorced. It's taken that long a time for me to find out he was a young and reckless fibber, but I did find out, and yes, I do think less of him, now that I know. Pretending is such a short term solution. It may work, today, or in the moment, but it won't hold up for ever, no matter how much you try and prop it up. Eventually it will crumble to the ground. The point, according to our helpful psychiatrist, is that you have to expend energy to maintain a lie, energy that you take from some other part of your life. Eventually you find yourself putting all your effort into telling people what an interesting and challenging job you have, rather than looking for a better one. Or you spend your precious energy trying to keep up the pretence of having lots of money, and end up in debt. It can't be supported. Far better, says our advisor, to put your efforts into being real and, if you aren't happy with where you are and what you're doing, put all that physical and psychic power into improving your circumstances. If you make the mistake of putting time and effort into making excuses, then that's all you'll have. Instead, put the effort into changing, but own up if things are bad. What do you get? A better life, less tension, stress and painful dichotomy between what you are and what you pretend you are. For me, all it means is that I was being honest about not being seen as much of a Romeo in my '20s. That's hardly a high price to pay for peace of mind.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Alternatives to Drug Testing


Switching on the radio this morning, the News is full of outrage (as usual). This time, it’s about women who are born with too much testosterone. It gives them muscle mass and man-like strength. That doesn’t mean they aren’t women - they are - but there’s an ‘unintended consequence’ - if they take part in Athletics events with other women, they always win. Some people say they have an unfair advantage. The International governing body for athletics is asking such women to take hormones to tone down the testosterone and make them more like all the other women who are taking part.

How dare they! (some are saying.). Running and jumping are for everybody, they say. There are only two categories in Athletics - Men and Women. If people are born women, they are entitled to take part in all ‘Women’ events, they say. Really? You’re forgetting - there are actually four categories, because Para-Olympics mean that athletes who have a physical disability go in for Para events, and there’s a Men and Women category for each of those.

Let’s talk about Oscar Pistorius. Before he got taken to court for shooting his girlfriend dead, he regularly took part in Para running races. He has no feet and runs on carbon fibre ‘blades’. That gives him an advantage over Olympians with one leg, for instance, but no notice seems to be taken of complaints there, mainly because he’s on the outside of the mainstream, still in the ‘Para’ category. Now let’s try our imagination. Let’s imagine that Oscar goes to the hospital for new treatments, and is told there’s a new type of blade that might suit him. The blades are even more bouncy. He tries them and sets a new world record for the 100 metres - for all contenders, able-bodied and disabled alike. So, feeling confident, he applies to the regular Olympics team. Do you think they would let him in? Not on your life! Ordinary male athletes would shout ‘Foul’ and complain about ‘unfair advantage’. Poor Oscar would find the door barred.

Meanwhile, back in the world of Female Athletics, (governed by an international body which is practically all men), there are strict rules about drug taking. You aren’t allowed to swallow or inject anything that would give you an advantage. One of the banned substances is Testosterone. If you were a female athlete and tested, and found to have an unusually high level of Testosterone in your blood, you would be excluded and - possibly - banned. So, there are already levels of Testosterone which are regarded as ‘normal’. If you inject to get a higher level, you would be described as a ‘cheat’. If you’re lucky enough to be born with an unusually high level, you can demand the opportunity to compete with ‘ordinary’ women. But you know you’d probably win! Isn’t it cheating? You know you’ve been born with a genetic advantage, (just like the mutant ‘X-men’ with their super powers - and the ‘X-women), but you want to play with the ‘normals’, down there with their physical disadvantages! If an able-bodied athlete demanded to be allowed to compete in the Para-Olympics, would anyone think that would be fair? Or worse, what if a man demanded to be allowed to compete in the Women’s 100 Metres? Why? Because he might win! Is that fair?

The answer is simple. There needs to be a new category, where women with a testosterone level around 2 don’t have to compete with women lucky enough to have a level nearer 10 or 12. It’s been done before! People seem to forget. In the 18th century, a man called Queensberry decided to make rules about boxing. He noticed that if you put a man of six foot six in the same ring as a man of five foot six, the match would be over quickly. So he invented the concept of ‘weights’. Now boxers are categorised. There’s ‘heavyweight’ and ‘lightweight’, ‘fly-weight’, ‘welter-weight’ and ‘light heavyweight’. Nobody thinks that’s odd anymore. Why can’t we have categories for ‘Women at Level 4 or lower’ and ‘Women Level 4 or over’. Sound peculiar? One Doctor commented that recent research seemed to show that men who were taller stood a better chance of winning the short races. Every build, he said, was more suited to certain sports. So, me, with my small and thin frame would do better at long-distance and Marathon running. (If only!) While a sturdily built man would do better at shorter distances. Can we imagine - in the future - that there might be races such as ’100 Metres - Men, six feet and under’ and another face for ‘Men, six feet and over’. It’s possible. Would that be so bad?

It’s not just about being ‘fair’. It’s also about being predictable. When we watch a set of runners hammering down the track and breasting the tape, we really do want to feel that any of them might win. It would destroy all interest if we KNEW that the women on the left - the one with the highest testosterone - was going to win the race - just as they did last week, and just as they will next week. We want a bit of the unexpected! Think about horse racing. Usually, each race has a ‘Favourite’, the one predicted to win, but there’s no certainty. Otherwise, gambling would make no sense! In fact, the categories have already been rigged to allow the most unexpected outcome. You might hear an announcement of ‘The 3-20 from Rotherham’, but after that they might say, ‘For fillies, five years and older’. The next race might be for ‘Thoroughbreds over ten hands’. All those dozens of horses have been put into groups which allow them the best chance of winning - because they are racing against other competitors just like themselves. If you mix them all up, then the males - the biggest ones - will always win. Where’s the fun in that?

Personally, I think if the Sport of Kings has to be organised to make horse racing enjoyable, then something similar could quite easily be put in place for people. What’s good enough for horses, is good enough for us, surely? After all, it’s sport. It’s only sport. It’s activities that have been made up to make life more interesting. Can you remember being young? You know when a friend in the playground would say, ‘See that tree? Let’s run over there. First one to arrive, wins’. We can put the game into a massive stadium and broadcast it worldwide but the principles haven’t changed. In the Primary School you soon learned the important lesson: it was no good racing against Jonathan, because he would always win. It was more fun running with Brian, because sometimes he won, and sometimes you would. That was enjoyable. Let’s keep it that way. Let’s redesign sport to keep it something you actually want to witness. I know it’s no fun talking about hormones. Fine. Leave that to the Ruling Body, but, when they do their best to keep the sporting principles in Sport, then I think they deserve our support.


Picture of Mike with his biggest fan

Monday, April 15, 2019

Alternatives to 'Making Do'


Most people remember The Beatles. In the 1960s they were the most famous pop group in the world, and were responsible for writing some of the most memorable songs of that era. People are still humming their tunes today. So where did the songs come from? In their later years, the band used to meet up in a recording studio and mess around for hours, on guitars and keyboards, eventually coming up with something they were happy with. There is a memorable piece of film from the time that shows them working on a title song for their self-made film, 'Magical Mystery Tour'. It was at a stage when most of the filming had already been done. The band had a title for the film, all they needed was a song to go with it. The background documentary shows them trying out all sorts of ideas, before finally deciding that they had done enough and needed to break for the day. At that stage the only thing they had agreed on was 3 chords, A, D and E. In a signature moment, we see Paul McCartney looking round and shouting, 'Somebody write that down'. The next day they came in and finished the song off, recorded it and moved on to other projects.

Unfortunately, we can't all be The Beatles. Ask yourself, if you arrived in a recording studio and all you had to look at was a scrap of paper on top of the piano that said 'A,D,E', would you be able to make something of it? They did. They used that combination for the first line, repeated; added a call-back; then a bridge. If you've ever listened to the whole song, 'Magical Mystery Tour', it would seem impossible that the total package grew out of a concept that was simply one line. One line. The Beatles 'made do' with that, and developed it into something wonderful. Could any of the rest of us do that? No? So why do we risk it?

A few years ago I worked in a small charity. It didn't have much money or many resources, but it had a computer, and I often commented that the machine could be put to good use and save everyone time and effort. For instance, addressing envelopes. We regularly sent out mailings to people, (it was a long time ago) and for many years the Secretary had been in the habit of writing out all the envelopes laboriously by hand, but it was always to the same people. I told her it would be easier in the long run to type those names into a simple database, and then she could simply print out labels each time she needed a new set of envelopes. She said she was in a rush and had to 'make do', but would be sure to do it 'next time'. She never did. She somehow never found the time to prepare the database, and therefore wasted hours of effort every month in copying out addresses onto brown envelopes. She was so used to 'making do', she couldn't ever bring herself to save the effort and try a new approach.

Why was that? Was he scared of the computer? No, she had taken herself off to training courses and knew full well how to prepare databases and make mailing labels. She just never did. Was it habit? Maybe. Some of us have developed time wasting and wasteful habits over the years, but they are so familiar that we can't ever seem to ditch them. I notice it all the time.

Just the other day, a friend of mine was showing me his holiday photos on his office computer. Every time he clicked on a pic, we had to wait while a photo editing program loaded up before it displayed it. He then closed the window, selected another photo and clicked on it. We then waited for the program to load. I pointed out that if he didn't close the window, just shrunk it, then his editing software would still be open and wouldn't have to load up for each new photo. It would import the photo chosen and display it without having to open again as a program. He looked at me with puzzlement. He had always done it this way. It was the way he had been shown. Was I seriously suggesting he should chance his life? Why not? If we are any sort of genius, then maybe we can 'make do' and get by. Otherwise, it might be advisable to try and find the best way of doing things, not just the only way we know. Who knows, maybe there will be a better way, if we stop, think about what we're doing, and consider alternatives.

Meanwhile, real talent can cope. When my brother got married, he invited an old friend to be his best man. The guy was entertaining company, a witty speaker, and people were looking forward to his speech at the Reception. We arrived at the banqueting hall after the formal wedding, and while everybody else was queueing at the bar for their first drink, I noticed he was in a corner, scribbling on a small business card. He jotted down several bullet points and appeared happy. Later, when we had taken our places, he stood up and delivered a blistering speech, which had people howling with laughter and rolling in the aisles.

Now, the only time that I have made a speech at such a similarly inspiring occasion, I worked on it for months. If I had tried to 'make do' and make it up on the day, like I had seen done at the wedding, it would have been awful. Well, I had seen the guy planning his talk, and it was nothing but the barest of 'bare bones'. Still, he managed to create something marvellous out of it. Good for him. As for the rest of us, it's an insult to the world to 'make do' and deliver less than your best. Take the time, make the effort. If you 'make do', it will show and you'll be doing no one a favour, least of all yourself. Doing 'your best' sometimes means committing the time and effort to ensure that you have put in all that you have to offer. 'Making do' is skimping. Don't do it. Leave that to the genius people. They can pull the rabbit out of the hat at the last minute and create some magic. Most of us have to prepare.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Alternatives to Mussolini

Have you used a Search Engine recently?

I have. I was looking for an author, based in my part of the world, the North West of England. A friend had told me about him. He's called John Lock and he writes crime fiction, something I'm interested in. I thought I'd give him a try.

I typed 'John Lock' into Google, and immediately got that annoying thing at the top of the page, that says: “Did you mean?” In my case it said 'Did you mean 'John Locke'?' No, I didn't. My guy is spelt differently. No 'e' at the end of his name. Still, I thought I'd give this John Locke (with an 'e') a go. It turns out he writes crime fiction too. But he comes from the Deep South of America, and writes stories that veer between New York, L.A. and Washington D.C. His hero is a violent psychopath, hired as an assassin by various gangsters. Not nice. Also, there's a lot of swearing.

Having determined that John Locke (with an 'e') wasn't for me, I went back to looking for John Lock, the Brit, (and no swearing). Google suggested another John Locke, (with an 'e'), and yes, it was someone I had heard of this time. The 18th century British philosopher. Wow, he's written a lot of books. But no crime fiction. I didn't want to make a fuss, but hey, I know what I'm looking for.

Now this is odd. It wouldn't work in real life, of course. Imagine you went into a library, and asked the man behind the desk for John Lock (no 'e'). Suppose he said: “You don't want him. You want John Locke, (with an 'e'). He's American. Lots of people ask for him. In fact, he's written a book called 'How I Sold a Million e-books in 5 months'. He's very popular.” You'd think: Great, but, you know, I really do want John Lock, British author. A choice of eight e-book novels, apparently. So far. (Although he may not have sold a million copies. Just yet.)

You wouldn't take such nonsense from a librarian, would you? So why do we put up with it from a computer? Well, maybe because it isn't the computer at fault. It's the guys who programme it. It's the Google engineers who are busy deciding what people really want. I might say, 'I want John Lock'. They say, 'No, you don't. You want John Locke'. How could they possibly make that assumption? Simple. They are working from what the last thousand people wanted. Those enquirers typed in John Lock (no 'e') but they'd made a mistake: they didn't want the Brit, they wanted the Yank, and that's where they ended up. So, rather than tramp you around the houses, the Google guys are going to cut to the chase. Here's John Locke, they say. Don't bother thanking us.

Bastards. It's not meant to happen. I want something – trifle or trivia – and, the story used to go, we're the Search Engine and we'll take you there. Not any more. There was even meant to be ways of qualifying your search. No dice. I tried that too. I typed in: 'John Lock NOT John Locke'. The 'not' is meant to exclude stuff you don't want. It doesn't. Not now. Google is one step ahead. They've disabled that function. The last thousand people didn't need it, so why should you? Bastards.

In a way, we should thank the team at Google. They've given us an insight into what life must have been like in Italy in the 1920s when the Fascists were in charge. Trade Unionists were sent to prison, communists were killed. There was one guy in charge, El Duce, and he told everyone what to think. Mussolini. He was the wise guy who knew best. These days we've got El Googlé, and they know best, or so they imagine. A shame. At one stage, we were told how the internet was going to make people free; it was 'open' and 'democratic'. Now the fascists have taken over. It's a totalitarian state, and, the irony is, that it's all being done in the name of being 'helpful'. After all, they say, you don't really want 'John Lock', do you? It's all in your head. It's a mistake, on your part. Forget it. Go where we send you. We know best.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Alternatives to 'Criminals'

Alternatives to catching criminals

Working in the community can be hard work. Doing good isn't all that easy, especially when there's very little money and hardly any support to go around. Inevitably, a lot of time is spent trying to raise funds to make things happen. In Britain that means applying to charitable trusts and all the quasi-governmental organisations like the National Lottery, and that means getting a bank account opened. Ehhh, that's when life gets difficult.

This week I turned up at my local bank with an application to open a bank account on behalf of the newest charitable venture in our area that I was supporting. I thought I had things ready. I had filled in the form and got my neighbour to sign it too. No chance, I was told. For a start, the Manager of the bank was on her lunch-break and couldn't see me until later. I offered to come back the next day. That would be fine, I was told, as long as the two of us showed up. My colleague would have to be there too, in person. It was because they didn't know us, I was told. I sympathised. After all, I could have been an international drug dealer seeking to launder my many millions of pounds of ill-gotten gains. I made an appointment for the following afternoon.

The next morning, waiting for the appointed hour, I had a brain wave. Sure, the local bank didn't know me, but both of us who signed the form also had an account at another bank, the same bank, at the main building in the city. They knew me there, I reasoned. I'd go there and get the account opened. After all, I had the form all filled in and signed. What else would I need?

Another form, I was told later. Yes, they knew me at the main branch of the bank, the woman assured me, but it was a 'new account' and they'd have to see both of us, in person, (just like the first person said). No, I couldn't open the account then and there. I'd have to go away. Frustrated, I complied and moved on to my former appointment that afternoon, fearing that I'd only be met with another hurdle. Sure enough. I hadn't filled in the 'application form', the right one. I had filled in the 'mandate form' okay, but that wasn't enough. There was a second form. I was sent away.

Well yes, the answer to all the form filling and 'showing identification' and personal appearances, is that they want to avoid money launderers. So, I want to ask you this question – all these precautions, do you honestly think that they would they really deter a real-life drug-dealing money launderer? From what I've seen of such people on the television, it wouldn't slow them up for one minute. For a start, they probably have enough fake passports to convince a lowly bank teller that they are who they say they are. Failing that, they could offer a bribe (or send their lawyer in their place). If all else fails, they might kidnap the bank manager's wife and hold her hostage until the terrified man complies with their every wish. Wouldn't they?

Yes, the problem with the real world is that the real criminals don't stick to the rules, (that's where they get the name 'criminal' from). It's only the dazed and baffled ordinary citizen who gets stuck by these procedures. I've got another example. Ever been driving down the road, keeping to the speed limit, when you get overtaken by a real flash car, driving dangerously and speeding outrageously? What makes them think they can get away with exceeding the limit and breaking the rules? Because they do. A friend who's a policeman told me that the real criminals simply ignore all parking fines, resist all summonses and never turn up in court. They guess – probably rightly – that the police department won't have the time or personnel to come and arrest them. The only people who break the law and pay the fines, he told me, are the law-abiding citizens.

And another. In Britain, it's a fact that there are a number of people who claim to be out of work, draw unemployment benefits from the state, then go off and do work in secret and get paid for that too. The newspapers get all steamed up about these 'benefit cheats' and demand action. It adds up, they storm, to a total of over fifty million pounds a year. Consequently, the government employs hundreds of investigators and sends them out to track down these 'criminals'. So far, so logical. What undercuts it is that the Internal Revenue department has calculated that the amount of tax they lose each year to people who cheat on their tax returns is over five hundred million pounds. That's ten times as much as the amount lost to people pretending not to be working when they are. Ten times. What's the government's response? They employ investigators too. It's estimated that there are about a tenth of the number of investigators in the tax department as there are in the Benefits department. Ten times the money stolen, a tenth of the effort to catch those 'criminals'.

What does that prove? That today, in our modern world, there is an alternative to catching criminals. One is to look as though you're doing something about it, as in the bank account example, when, in fact, you don't even inconvenience the real bad guys. The other is to allocate resources to the cases that are aggressively unpopular with the public, such as the 'unemployed' cheats, and do little about the cases that might have public sympathy, such as tax dodgers. That way, you stay popular. You haven't done what you said you'd do, of course, which is to address the problem. But when did anyone have the time to notice that?

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Alternatives to 'News'


The media in Britain don't do complicated.

In the summer of 1999, the then British Home Secretary visited the derelict area of Langworthy in Salford, North West England. He was shocked by the appalling conditions, the boarded up houses, the residents with no hope. Local people, angry and frustrated, shouted at him to 'do something'; six months later, it was announced that thirteen million pounds of government grant was heading their way.

Did it work? Has the area improved? More than a dozen years later, I wanted to know, so. I asked local people, and their answer was clear: 'Yes and No'. Yes, they said, some of the houses had been improved, the area was tidied up, most of the boarded-up houses had gone, a new primary school had been built, and the small local park was greatly improved. No, they said, the shops looked better but had no parking; the biggest bar in the area had been planned to be renovated but instead, was being demolished; the streets that had their houses demolished were now just empty patches of grass, waiting for the economy to improve before anyone could afford to build new properties.

It was a confused picture. Unfortunately, the media can't handle that. The local newspaper is still using pictures from its archives of derelict houses to represent Langworthy, or pictures of the new empty plots as representing the whole area and talk about 'failure' and 'broken promises'. They can't discuss good and bad - at the same time. They can't do both. They can't say, as the local people are telling them, that there have been some good things coming out of all the grants put in and the works done, but there have also been some real disappointments. In particular, the Press simply fails to understand that a hefty proportion of the original, dissatisfied residents of Langworthy have simply moved on, sold their houses, maybe, but relocated anyway, setting up home in a new area, with fresh challenges and new rewards. They aren't there to comment. How do those particular people feel about what was done to their neighbourhood? We'll never know.

The media prefers simple. It wants to see some simplified 'before' and 'after' pictures, and come to a hasty conclusion. It doesn't really want to hear what ordinary people say, unless they can keep it short and keep it simple. If they try to seriously express themselves, the reporters can't cope and the camera people turn off their cameras. They want sound bites: they don't want explanations.

In 1999, we should have seen it coming. That year the BBC sent a film crew to explore the area and discuss the issues for its 'Newsnight' programme on BBC2, (a supposedly 'serious' news show). The first film that went out, in November 2000, showed some shocking footage of boarded up houses and dereliction. They showed deprivation. For instance, poor old Mrs Herring had a coal fire in her lounge, and had to struggle to carry buckets of coal up from her cellar several times a day to feed it. People who saw those images told me they cried. Salford City Council was distraught too, rushed round to her house and organised the funds to pay for a new gas-fired boiler for her, complete with a brand new radiator for each room. (This was at a time when the grants hadn't even started – but they found the money from somewhere.) Poor Mrs Herring had central heating by Christmas.

But in January of 2001, the next episode of the 'Report from Langworthy' used the same footage of a dear old lady struggling up cellar steps. And in April. And in July. It wasn't true, but it was such a good image. The TV continued to use it, even when it was out of date and, to be honest, a complete lie. Obviously, the BBC2 people had their own agenda, and their own point of view, so they simply used something that was instantly recognisable, tragic and moving. It didn't actually say anything about the plans for regeneration that were being put together, or even if they were working or not. But it sure as hell made the viewers feel bad, about the area and about the residents.

Even more telling, the TV people had taken shots of boarded up streets in October 2000 which they were still using in their broadcasts a year later. If they had checked the footage against reality, they would have seen that some of the houses featured had actually been demolished and weren't there any longer, while some of the streets were completely covered in scaffolding, as builders were starting to renovate the properties. That was obviously too complicated for the media people; far easier to keep up the 'image' of boarded-up streets, even when the true picture was starting to change and, in places, become completely different.

They say 'a picture says more than a thousand words', but a picture of a derelict street only makes sense if it's representative, if the rest of the area is desolate too. If Langworthy is anything to go by, it HAS improved – in parts – and if you took the trouble to walk around the area, you'd now see SOME improvement everywhere, and MUCH improvement in some streets. Well, that's too complex for the media; neither the TV, nor the Press, has bothered to come back and update the story. The image of dereliction was powerful and striking; so much so, that it lingers on with most of the British public. It's sad, but their view of Langworthy hasn't changed much since 1999, when the first TV programme aired. But hey, that's 'News'. A decade of rebuilding and regeneration is less dramatic and less engaging. Shouting is more interesting than talking. It's a shame that the more recent pictures won't make it to the front page, but that's because of the media we pay for in Britain today.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Alternatives to 'Hooking Up'

Of all the recent inane philosophies and dumb 'Lifestyle Choices' to come out of the United States of America in recent years, the prize for the absolutely silliest must go to the concept of 'hooking up'. The way it works is this: teenagers who deem themselves 'too busy' for a formal girlfriend or boyfriend relationship, decide that they don't actually have to forfeit the company of the other gender completely, and therefore agree to spend a short and designated amount of time with someone that they pick out of a random sample of passers-by, strangers, classmates and friends of friends.

If the other person is simple enough to agree, then the pair will adjourn to some romantic setting, such as the back seat of a car, and proceed to 'make out'. This latter idea is even more difficult to envisage, since it seems to cover all manner of physical interaction from kissing and cuddling to 'going all the way'. Occasionally, to be fair, the young people have access to accommodation, their parents or others, and 'hooking up' can take all night. If so, the transaction is seen as somehow more mature and responsible, as there may be less need to make a rush on the fumbling and more time to say, 'Thanks and see you around'.

Young people who engage in these transactions report that they think of the idea as 'adult' and 'grown up'. If, that is, they have parents who spend time with hookers, then they probably have a point. Or if their parents busy themselves with affairs outside the marriage, then too, the concept of hurried trysts in secret places must seem like second-nature. However, the adult world is good at one thing, if nothing else: hypocrisy. While it's true to say that many so-called 'grown-ups' are surprisingly immature in their liaisons and actually do a lot more of what they tell their children not to do than they should, (or is good for them), the moral stance of grown-ups is clear: short-term 'romance' without commitment is worthless.

The aim, for most people growing up in the Western world, is to strive for a long-term, monogamous relationship that will form a stable backdrop to the difficult business of raising children. If the kids don't get that, or have moved on into a new sense of re-evaluating the one night stand as some kind of serious, innovative or fashionable way of conducting themselves, then one thing is clear: this generation of adults have seriously failed their children.

The young people, reportedly, don't see that. They see advantages in this way of interacting. The benefits, as expressed by these young people, have to do with creating more time to spend on their studies, apparently. If they cut down on the amount of hours they simply 'hang out' with boyfriends and girlfriends, (all that listening to music and drinking milk shakes and frothy coffees), then they can hit the books. If they're not down the Mall or taking desultory walks alongside the Lake, they will do better in school, (they say). This is curious, because it seems to show that they have picked up yet another message from the adult world, and misinterpreted this too. Just as above, the youngsters seem to think that an affair can be as rewarding and fulfilling as actually living with someone full time, they have taken on board the concept of 'work hard' and 'study', and re-interpreted that to mean that going out with someone is more of a distraction than an important, (or even essential), part of life.

In Britain, thank goodness, it has always been said that University is just as much about meeting people and growing up as it is about research and reading. Parents have even encouraged their children to travel away to a University and not live at home, since it means the kids will learn valuable lessons in independence. When, the older people say, you don the cap and gown and collect your certificates at the end of the course, it's not just what it says on the piece of paper that counts: it's also what you young people have learned from each other and about yourselves, and a lot of that comes from finding someone to go out with. Missing out on the highs and lows of relationships over long time-scales is likely to be something that will stunt the emotional growth of kids and make them unfit to parent the next generation. It's not even a wrong turn on the road of life: the concept of 'hooking up' is a blind alley that leads nowhere but the motel of loneliness and heartache.

Youngsters involved in this practice, ever inventive, may seek to justify their behaviour, of course. They say that their illicit activities still enable them to get to know the people they spend time with, (even if the time is limited, rushed and pressured). This is nonsense, too. Just as adult gorillas have a strict social code which means that not all the young males are actually ever involved in procreation at all, the idea that hooking up is fulfilling the same function as a mixer, prom dance, or cocktail party, is to spot that polite society tends to politely ignore the bit that goes on once the lights are out or the curtains drawn, but to undervalue every other aspect of interactions between individuals that makes up social life . It is this aspect of the fantasy that is so corrosive: it dulls the emotions and clouds the differences between individuals.

It used to be the case that young people were a lot more selective about who they slept with, and with good reason: the well known saying is that you have to kiss a lot of frogs in order to find a prince. It doesn't say that you gain anything by moving beyond the kissing stage. But also, as with gorillas, if you make a habit of sleeping around, you aren't actually going to meet a lot of people, or very much variety. The number involved in the practice is always going to be less than the total numbers in the class. To hazard a guess, if a young lady chooses to 'hook up' on a regular basis, she is never going to get to speak to a geek, ever. The good-looking guys will get all the women they want, of course, (as with gorillas), while the cerebral types will be left waiting.

This is the last, and most telling, point. 'Hooking up' does not benefit boys and girls equally. In fact, some analysts might see a similarity between what is happening now and the worst aspects of the 1970s, when marriage was more of an acknowledged aim, and casual relationships were common, but concealed. The losers, in those days, were women, which is why some stood to one side and invented a Women's Movement. The cynic, looking at recent developments, might simply conclude that fashion has once again turned a full circle and men have yet again emerged the victors. 'Hooking up' is, at the end of the day, a young man's dream - physical intimacy without commitment. Unfortunately, it may well turn out to be society's nightmare.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Alternatives to 'Gesture' Politics

Why 'Gesture Politics' is important

If I walk out of my house, go to the top of my street and look left down the next road, what do I see? Satellite dishes, a line of them, one attached to the front of each house. Fading off into the distance.
So what does that tell me?
That my neighbours are interested in watching TV, perhaps, and want a huge choice of channels. They like to stay in maybe, drink a few beers, follow the sports and enjoy some films. How do I know all this? I don't, but that's the impression I get, and impressions count for a lot.
It could be different. Here's my vision -
in place of the satellite dishes - the small, round black aerials that I see at the moment - there would be a line of mini-wind turbines instead.
What would that tell us?
Well, something different, obviously.
It might suggest that now, the same people are concerned more about the environment. Perhaps they have started thinking about their children's future, and have decided to play their part in making the world more sustainable. Each has taken the trouble to go out and buy a windmill and have it put up on the front of their house. Each one is generating a small amount of electricity, which helps cut their fuel bills and contributes to the power needs of the nation.
It would show that they care.
Ah, some people say. It's not real. It's just a 'gesture'.
Wind turbines don't make economic sense, they say. The amount of electricity they can generate is tiny, especially in urban areas. The contribution they can make to the power needs of the country is minute - very, very small. They aren't 'value for money'. They cost a lot, to buy and to install, and they would have to be running at peak efficiency for many years before they would ever pay for themselves.
That may be true. But it doesn't depress me.
On the contrary, my 'vision' of every household in the street making a positive decision to 'do something' about alternative power is a dream that cheers me up and makes me very happy.
People do have the power to 'make a difference', even if it is only a small thing. And a 'gesture'. A small thing.
Because, as everyone knows, actually, small things can add up to a lot.
Campaigners have calculated that if every household in Britain re-equipped each and every room in their home with low energy lightbulbs, then the nation could do without a whole power station. In these days of concern over pollution and carbon emissions, well, yes, that is something.
That would make a difference.
More, and even more prosaic, another suggestion is that if every house in the land was fitted with a decent level of loft insulation (and an amount of draught proofing on doors and windows), that would add up to a lot more. Maybe as much as two or three power stations.
That's impressive. A valuable saving on fossil fuels and carbon emissions.
The only problem with it, of course, is that it's not quite as exciting as 'alternative energy'. People don't seem to get so enthusiastic about layers of insulation in their attics as they do about windmills on their roofs.
Maybe it's something about the 'impression' a wind turbine can make, fluttering up there on your roof, in plain view, as opposed to insulation under the roof – which you can't see. Or, buying a windmill is somehow more definite, more of a step forward, than buying bulky rolls of insulation.
But that's not more 'real', either.
It's all about impressions. All about 'gestures'. And that can be very important.
Way back in the 1980s, campaigners calculated that if you took the amount of money it would cost to build a brand new nuclear power station – at the time, about three thousand million pounds – and spent that on loft insulation instead, then you wouldn't need the power station!
It was a choice – power station or loft insulation.
Guess which one the government chose?
Why, the choice that led to a brand new, glossy building that the politicians could be photographed opening. There's not much of a 'photo opportunity' in household lofts!
Is this important?
Yes, because, ultimately, it's all about communication.
If people put up windmills on their roofs, then maybe it wouldn't be a great economic investment, but it would be a great 'message'. It would let politicians know that ordinary people thought that 'alternative power' was a good idea, and they were prepared to back their enthusiasm with their own money.
That would give the government permission – and some incentive - to spend some of the people's taxes on windmills too, bigger and better ones, the sort that would generate real power and make a real difference.
At the moment, the opposite is true.
Those in charge, the ones with real power, can say today, 'Look, who cares about 'alternative power'? Nobody is doing anything about it. I can't see any change in my street'. See? If everybody had a windmill as I suggested, it might just change the way people saw things.
Instead, the doom sayers tell you, 'These tiny windmills don't make any difference at all. What's the point?' The point, in my view, is to get your message across. Express your point of view.
If you don’t worry about what impression you will be giving – right now and later, and what it might lead to, - then those in power are quite right to say that they don’t understand your point of view. Why? Because you haven't communicated anything!
A good example of that, for me, happened a few years ago in our area.
Unemployment was a problem, at the time, and I was a member of a group that was helping young people start their own businesses. We provided training and assisted these youngsters to draw up Business Plans, apply for grants, find premises and start their own businesses. It seemed like a great project, with a lot of good results. We were so successful, we had grants from a lot of funders, including the National Lottery.
Then, one day, the axe fell.
The Lottery funders rang up to say they were going to visit us. That seemed fine. It didn't seem like bad news. It was. They'd made a mistake, they said. They never should have given us a grant. We were the wrong type of organisation.
Hold on, we said. We're half way through a three year grant. If you withdraw your money now, we might collapse. We might have to close the service and sack staff. Sorry, they said. Really. Our mistake.
Yes, your mistake, we agreed, but it's we who suffer. And our clients. Without our help, they might not get into business. They might stay jobless, on the dole, being a drain to society.
No good. It wasn't heard. Our pleas fell on deaf ears.
The point is, when we had a Management Committee meeting, several of the members said – Well, that's it. Let's pack up now.
Hold on, I said. Shouldn't we complain? Look at what’s happened; they've changed their minds. First they said we could have the grant. Now they say we can't. Shouldn't we protest?
No point, the pessimists said. They won't change their minds. It's all over.
OK, let's be realistic. No, the Lottery Board never did change their minds. They cancelled the grant, (but luckily didn't ask for any of their earlier grant back, so we didn't have to close). I realise that.
The point, for me, was that we'd been treated badly and we should let them know. We should communicate. It won't make any difference, the other members said. Maybe not, I agreed. But we need to let them know how we feel.
Well, we didn't. We never did.
The Lottery staff went away and must have thought we were pretty happy. We hadn't complained, so why should they worry?
The only problem – not for us – is that the next time the Lottery wanted to screw around with a not-for-profit charity group, they could, couldn't they? They knew nobody would protest. They knew they would get away with it.
Even if it would do no good, I was insisting, we should let them know what it meant to us. We should communicate. We shouldn't just jump ahead to what we thought may happen – that they would ignore us. We should be prepared to go through the motions of protest, both for our sakes (in case we ever applied for another grant) and for the sake of all those other groups that were going to be messed around, now that the funders knew it was so easy.
My vision - today, now - is for bumper stickers.
I appreciate that it's very difficult to communicate with politicians in this country. Particularly the members of the Cabinet, who get taken around in chauffered limousines, and never have to talk to ordinary people.
Imagine if there were bumper stickers on every car, saying things like 'Yes to Alternative Power', 'Windmills are great' etc. Even the guys in the big cars might see them. As they were driven down Whitehall, on their way to important meetings, (if they bothered to glance out of the darkened windows of their plush vehicles), they might notice the stickers on all the cars they passed. They might just pause, and think to themselves, 'There's a lot of support out there. Maybe I should take note of it'.
It's a thought, isn't it?
No guarantees, of course, and maybe it's only a 'gesture'. But, in my book, it's something that everyone could do. We could make our feelings known, get our message across.
And that's the best hope that things will improve.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Alternatives to books

Wow, Mike. What you say?
Is there an Alternatives to books??

Well, probably. The e-book is going to change the world - real soon, now. Way back in the 1980s, when the Personal Computer was in its infancy, we were told that the logic was inescapable: now that ordinary people could read text on a screen, they said, then the days of the printed page were numbered. There was a better way. After all, the Personal Computer – we were assured – would soon be in every office, in every home, and it would give everybody access to the biggest library in the world, in digital form. In the future, so the story went, you would walk into someone's new house and the most striking feature would be that there would be no bookshelves. There would be no need for any! All data would be stored on computers, out of sight.

That first myth is the easiest to deal with. People still have shelves, but they're not necessarily groaning under the weight of books anymore, no. But they probably contain other stuff - knick knacks, souvenirs of Blackpool - and some media, such as CDs, DVDs, videotapes (since people haven't all moved on. Ask them - they’ll tell you about the joys of Betamax), vinyl - (which went, and then came back, having a second go) - and, even, surprise, surprise, that throwback to the 1970s, the cassette tape. Well, cassettes are old-fashioned now, but many new home entertainment centres have been forced to include a means to play them, like they used to - because that’s what people want! They like cassettes. The things are small, convenient, easy to carry around in your pocket, and could be played anywhere – in the home, the office and your car. Yes, but CDs came along and they were better, we are told. Better sound quality, better – Hold on, they aren't better. As many a computer nerd knows, a round plastic disc is not more convenient than a small plastic box. The disc rolls off the desk or table, it gets scratched, it slips down the side of things and can't be retrieved. Also, it doesn't do well what people actually want. In the days of vinyl when cassettes were invented, ordinary residents found a terrific use for the cassette. You could borrow your friend's record, tape it at your house, give it back and have a workable copy. No, that's not happening now: CDs don't do that well. Even without 'borrowing' your pal's music, and using access to the internet and download sites, the problem is that some CD players refuse to play 'home made' disks, for whatever reason. So you can't slip your favourite tracks in your pocket and carry them round and play them anywhere – ah, but that's why someone invented the i-Pod, you say. Yes, that does do the trick of storing music from anywhere you are lucky enough to find it – the web, your ‘friends', something someone gave you for Christmas – but it adds a layer of technology, the computer. If you look at a friendly old cassette recorder now, the most important thing was how simple it was to operate, how few controls. Compare that to the laptop computer. Ouch, there's no comparison. Saving and storing music is now more flexible, people will tell you. Yes, but nothing like as downright simple!

Back to books. Now, in our bright new future - which has already arrived - I can load up text on my laptop, tablet or phone. As long as I have access to the web on my laptop or desktop computer, tablet or whatever, I can download just about every book that wasn't written yesterday, but there is a problem: the computer screen. A screen isn't as easy to carry round in my pocket as a book. Compare the situation on a crowded commuter train, early in the morning. People with paperback books can read them in any corner, whether squeezed against the door or hanging on to a dangling support. The person with the laptop needs a table, or even a seat, but room to move their elbows. Ah, but that's why someone invented the Smart phone, you say. You can download your text onto your little pocket machine and scan the words in any tight corner. But when you start listing the attributes of a phone with novels and ‘How To’ manuals on it, you come to a very strange conclusion. The hand-held device is portable, handy, will fit in your pocket and can be carried around. Can be accessed anywhere and shared with friends. It's small, friendly and human sized. In fact, it's exactly like a book! There are only two differences, one good, one bad. One is that you can store more than one book on it at any one time. Wow, you're saying that a device the size of a paperback book can actually store dozens of paperback books inside itself. It's almost like a fairy tale: imagine a book that had blank pages and every day you could wish for a new story and it would show you it. Then it would blank its pages until tomorrow, when a brand new, undiscovered story would appear. What could be better than that? Well, something that was actually readable. Printers have been working for years to discover fonts that are easy on the eye and readable in all lights. The phone has been forced to try and duplicate the sheer joy of black writing on a white background, a trick that can fail in poor ambient light or when the batteries are low. In fact, the problem for hand-held devices is exactly that. They can't deliver a printed page, it's just a pretty average copy of one. That's their weakness.

Still, the market progresses and every year 'the e-book' we are told is growing on us and will finally deliver all our expected and unexpected specifications. Unfortunately that means – if you go to the web again and look for e-books to read – that they are still being offered in a variety of confusing formats as Kindle, Nook and Kobo machines still vie to become the new, universal standard. Perhaps it will happen. Perhaps, even now, the hand-held device (AND format) is being developed that will become the new, acceptable alternative to the novel in pocket form. But the test is back here in reality, not in the laboratory. Just like 'the paperless office', it's a promise that hasn't delivered, a vision that hasn't become a reality. For some reason – some annoying, illogical, all too human reason – the people who actually enjoy reading are, as yet, addicted to the touch, the feel and maybe even the smell, of the printed page. They stuff books into their pockets in the morning, and read printed novels in their spare moments and lunch hours. Not yet have they become the humans who manage without paper, merely and solely pulling out of their pockets their small electronic friends in order to indulge in stories, tall tales and inventions. Why not? We can only speculate. It's frustrating for the marketing manager, but interesting for the sociologist. The e-book is here to stay, they cry, so why won't people just co-operate and start using them as the go-to first choice, all day, every day, and declare themselves free and able to manage once and for all without the technology of the 15th century?