Thursday, February 20, 2020
What a great start to the day!
As you may know, I am a crime fiction writer. I construct chiller thrillers set around the metropolitan area of Greater Manchester in the North West of England. I’ve been doing it for years, but every day is different. Like today. Before I sat down and started on the latest chapter of my new novel, I just paused, and thought I would have a quick look at my books on Amazon. There’s a lot of them. Maybe over twenty. That’s quite an achievement, but hey, it’s not all down to me - I’ve had a lot of help over the years. Anyway, I was just scrolling down the list and noticed something odd: many Reviews had disappeared. They’d been cut.
Okay, it takes a while to notice that the train is going off the rails and careering down the side of the mountain, so I didn’t want to react straight away and panic. So I looked, and looked again. After a while, the picture became clear. Some books used to have lots of Reviews, but overnight they’d all disappeared. Other Reviews were still there. Why? Why were they saved? Ah, at last I began to see. The ones that were left were the Five Star reviews. All the others - the two stars, three stars, four stars reviews - had simply disappeared. It was like all the Avengers had vanished and only Robert Downey Junior was left. That was what had happened, I just couldn’t see any sign of Thanos. I didn’t know who the evil mastermind was behind the theft.
Now, don’t take this wrong: I’m not complaining. I mean, I could whine about Amazon and how they keep moving the goalposts, but then, it wouldn’t make sense. It’s not the boys and girls at the online shop that are causing problems - it’s the algorithms, right? Something buried deep in the computer has made a decision, and whoops - all over. These things happen. It’s like waking up one day and saying out loud: ‘Alexa, what’s the weather like today?’ and this voice says, ‘I’m not talking to you today’. But No, it’s no good arguing with Alexa, she’s just a robot. Who cut my Reviews? A robot!
However, after a moment’s thought, I realised one special thing: this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me! I mean, I still don’t know what caused it. Amazon, or the computer that runs the whole operation, had said to himself, ‘Hey, this Mike guy has got a jumble of two’s and three’s. Let’s just erase them, they’re getting in the way’. Zap, gone. Game over. Uh, No, actually. Because look at it. Look! The only things left are the 5-star Reviews. So, Mike Scantlebury, Crime Author, has got a shop-front with selves full of thriller novels. ‘Has Mike got any Reviews?’ you ask. Hell, yes. He’s got a bunch of them, and they’re nothing but Fives. High Five, Dudes!
However, it’s an illusion, of course. Sure, the 5-stars are left, but they’re only attached to a proportion of the books. Meanwhile, some of the books have got no Reviews at all! Lower star Reviews removed? Yes, some books lost all the reviews they ever had, and if they were lower down the scale, they simply disappeared. Uh, Mike, why is that a good thing for you? Because, my Friend, a lot of readers are not using a lot of focus when they scan through the books in the store, looking for something to read. They will catch sight of the 5-star Reviews, I guess, and skim over the books with no stars. Well, okay, I lost their attention for those other volumes, but that’s not a worry for me, because if said Reader likes the look of a ’5-star book’ and buys it, they might like it. If they do, they will get to the end and find one useful thing - a big list of all the other books in the series. They liked the one they’ve got? They’ll buy the next one, or the previous one, or the first in the series. Will they notice it hasn’t got any Reviews? Maybe, but not likely. After all, they’re on a mission - find the next one to buy. Why would they stop and examine Reviews? They know what they want!
So thanks, Amazon. You’ve created a pathway through the forest. We know that most readers are overwhelmed by the mass of trees in front of them, so they look for the ’5-stars’ and that’s like a signpost, an arrow pointing one way and it says, ‘Follow this track’. Once they’re on the track, they may become one of my readers. and then I love ‘em. They will get the chance to join my Mailing List and then they’ll find out about all the Special Offers I make available. They’ll find a link to my website and learn all about me and my world, (which isn’t the ‘Manchester’ you read about in the papers). Once they’re in there, in amongst the trees, they’re hardly likely to stray off the path. Amazon has done what it does best, coralled people into being repeat customers and making the bookshop money. Luckily, that’s also beneficial to writers. Well done, Alexa! It’s a great day.
Monday, January 06, 2020
Most authors who are trying to sell their books online have fallen victim to an obsession with Reviews. Above all, they dream and salivate over the prospect of that wonderful and longed-for ‘Five Star’ Review. Well, fine, you say. That’s the system, right? And it sells books. Doesn’t it? Aw, listen, guys, haven’t you ever heard of the phrase - ‘Think outside the Box’? Well, the Box is the Review system, and it’s a box with chains around it, and jaws. And spikes inside. And razor wire. It needs to change.
The current system of Reviews creates two problems. One for readers and one for writers. Let’s think about writers, first. If you’re new to getting published - cos maybe you’ve written a novel and you’ve put it up on line by yourself - then you will know that all the advice is to ‘get a few Reviews’. That’s the way you get noticed, they say. It will help you sell books. Sounds fine, but, as a new author, where are you going to get those ‘necessary’ Reviews from? Ah, I’ll ask people, you think. No, Chum. Online book-stores like Amazon are way ahead of you. They don’t allow that.
They have algorithms that will check. A Review appears and it’s by someone with the same name? Why, yes, you say. It was written by my sister. Not allowed! Amazon (and other bookshops are available) will delete it. It’s biased, they will say. Of course your family will think well of you. It’s not ‘genuine’, they say. Okay, so you ask your next door neighbour. That’s banned, too. How do they know? Because they know everything about everybody (of course) and the robots know that you, the author, and that person, the Reviewer, have the same Postcode. Right, banned, (because, after all, the woman next door is not going to insult you in print, are they? They won’t want you dumping on their doorstep. They’ll be biased, (the robots say - as only bots can). So you ask someone from your Writing Group. They know stuff about books, you think. They will give you a fair hearing. They won’t be biased. Anyway, who is going to find out? The bots! They check, and discover, that you the author and that other person, the Reviewer, are Friends on Facebook. No good, say the algorithms. Bias, again. Not allowed. Review posted? Review withdrawn, as only an online book-store can.
Baffling. I mean, you’ve been asked to come up with some Reviews but there seems to be some kind of ‘Rules’ operating here, something that’s hardly ever discussed and certainly not revealed by the website. Ever tried asking Amazon how they decide what’s a ‘good’ Review and what’s not? Good Luck with that! Likely, they won’t answer. More likely, they don’t know. After all, robots have their own rules, don’t they? Also, Big Publishers. Yes, the real killer is that all this discrimination only applies to small publishers and Solo Authors. It doesn’t apply to Traditional Publishers. After all, they’ve been around for hundreds of years, so you have to respect their way of doing things, even if it results in bias. Their favoured method is to cultivate a Mailing List of interested readers, who will agree to review the new titles as they come out. Imagine, a Trad Publisher sends out ‘review’ copies to their fifty ‘friends’ and get fifty five-star reviews. Not biased at all. No, and the online bookshops are quite happy with that. The favourable reviews have been bought with the offer of a free copy and the glow of being involved with a big name in the industry. You try that, as a small-time author, giving out a free book and expecting a review in return. Guess what? Amazon etc, (and all the others), have declared such practice illegal, immoral and harmful for small mammals (but only for small publishers etc, not for the Big Boys).
Still, that’s not the end of your unhappiness. You also have to cope with the behaviour of Readers, I mean real people, those who actually buy books (and pay for them). They’re unbelievable! Try it. Approach an interested reader and say to them, ‘Well, actually, I have been lucky and yes, I did get a Five Star review this week’. What do they say? ‘Oh, I never look at Reviews’, they say. Or, ‘Reviews are only one of the factors I rely on before deciding to buy a book’. Oh, really? The facts are different. As an internet author, I can check my sales regularly. Every day, if I want. So, I can see one of my books sold that many, that day. Then, the next day, so many. Then - Oooh, there’s a spike in sales. What caused that? I look at the online bookshop and see that a few favourable Reviews came in that day. Five Star Reviews? Sales go up, (just as the Gurus said they would). Problem is, you can never find the people who did that. Ask. Ask, ask, and ask again, and the readers you encounter will say, ‘No, not me’. Maybe those people don’t want to admit they’re so easily swayed. Maybe they don’t want to look shallow. But the fact is that I’ve confronted crowds and dared them to admit they buy a book simply because it has good reviews and guess what? Nobody holds their hands up. Those easily persuaded, sheep-like buyers, clearly don’t exist. They’re just imaginary. Real buyers are all really discriminating and make their decisions based on personal preference and their own tastes. They do. Or, at least, they say they do.
I call it ‘The Tyranny of the Stars’. Every writer, every reader, finds their future is in the stars. Sales come from stars. Five Stars, best of all. Well, that’s the way it’s working now, and don’t imagine things are going to get better. Recent experience shows that ‘The Rules’ are getting tighter every year - for small publishers and solo authors, at least. No, the Box won’t get more friendly or more open. Not until some enlightened person picks up an axe and smashes the whole sordid charade with a killer blow.
Monday, December 02, 2019
Alternatives to Self-preservation
If you’ve ever watched the TV series ‘Downtown Abbey’ you’ll know that the aristocracy were very kind, back then. Once a year Lord Grantham organised a massive Fête in the extensive grounds and invites all those poor, poor people from the village to come and grab some free food and entertainment. Also, once a year, The Family allows the servants to sit at the big table and the toffs deliver the courses - Role Reversal for a night.
It’s a good idea. It means the lower orders are damn grateful for their lives, and harbour no resentments against those who are seemingly more important and higher up the social ladder than them. And if there’s even more - well, if the Lord gets off his fat backside and turns up at a hovel to deliver sustenance and support to the sick - that’s a bonus.
Actually, it’s a case of Self-Preservation. It’s the only way that British society has avoided a revolution for the last four hundred years. Strangely, the new breed of rich people, the so-called ‘One Per Cent’ seem to have no conception of this approach, which is why they are doomed.
The ‘Oncers’ may have made money, but they seem to lack basic Common Sense. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. If you’ve read a book by Nicholas Taleb, the author of ‘The Black Swan’, amongst others, you will be familiar with the fact that he moved to New York in the ’90s and was confronted by taxi drivers whose favourite phrase was, ‘If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ The assumption was that, since this was the Land of the Free, then everyone was able to start work and make themselves a fortune, if only they would apply themselves. Mr Taleb found the opposite to be true. He set up as a Trader, and worked in the Stock Exchange, the Futures Exchange, the Derivatives Exchange and the Commodities Exchange. He met plenty of successful traders. His question was, ‘If you’re so rich, why ain’t you smart?’ Because he discovered - much to his chagrin - that there was no relation between being clever and being rich. Some people made money in his business, some didn’t. It wasn’t the brightest who made the biggest fortunes. Far from it. In fact, it seemed totally random.
If you’ve read any books by Robert Kiyosaki you will know his Dad was a University lecturer, a very ‘smart’ man. But then he was made redundant at the age of 50. He enjoyed a comfortable but not poor life up to that age, and was struggling ever after. Robert called him his ‘Poor Dad’. But then the young man met the father of his pal, Mike. Mike’s Dad was a successful businessman, and owned shops, a transport firm, property, land and investments. He was the ‘Rich Dad’ who Robert was drawn to, and swiftly adopted his way of looking at things and working methods. Using Rich Dad’s methods in the world of business, Robert became rich - oh, after failing four times. Sorry, did you miss the bit about his bankruptcies? Yes, acolyte Robert didn’t have a smooth ride from ‘Poor’ to ‘Rich’. He tried, he failed. He tried again. Maybe he got lucky.
My point is this: people who start ‘with nothing’, might like you believe that they achieved wealth through their own undaunted efforts and sheer cleverness. The reality, as with most philosophies, is a little more mixed. As Tina Turner once said, ‘What’s luck got to do with it?’ Quite a lot, actually. If you’ve ever listened to a programme on BBC Radio 4 called ‘Desert Island Discs’ you may or may not have noticed that MOST actors, singers, artists - and even business people - will, when telling their stories, get to a point where they say, ‘Oh, and then I was really lucky. I met this person, (or, got this part, or was offered a commission), and everything grew from there’. Right, they are being honest, but few listeners ever hear that part. They are too in love with the idea that effort, brilliance and talent is what makes people famous, when the reality is more murky. My point is - if you’ve been lucky, how about helping others? If you’ve got a lot, how about sharing? Just like ‘Downton Abbey’ !
The alternative? Well, London has seen protesters camping out and throwing bricks through shop windows. New York has seen ‘Anti-Capitalists’ on Wall Street. Well, if I was a capitalist, I’d start giving to charity, right now. Quick. Before anything else bad happens. Unfortunately, the new rich lapse into ‘You’re just envious’, while forgetting there are other Deadly Sins apart from Envy. Would these success stories admit, ‘Me, I’m Greedy, Gluttonous, Dissolute, Vainglorious and Sexually Depraved’? No, I thought not. The list is just too long.
As I said, Britain hasn’t had a revolution since 1642, but France did, in 1789. At that point, the poor - and even the Middle Class - who had had enough of being vilified and deprived, rose up and overthrew the Monarchy, then started murdering the aristocracy, one by one, on the guillotine. That wasn’t very clever, was it? No, the rich need to be less distant, less self-absorbed, and more generous - not because it’s a Good Thing, (which it is), but because it’s a matter of Self-Preservation.
I know, Jonathan, I know. You're stumped.
Saturday, September 07, 2019
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
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
TOO MUCH O’ NOTHING
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
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 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?