Saturday, 26 March 2011

Talk Is Cheap


The above picture has stoked up the ethical indignation in people. It is a statement that comes up every now and then, like every other tedious viral post that gets recycled. They speak of the outrage that one man who does something of no massive social importance can be paid more in a week than ten soldiers will in a year. Frankly, these moral fires are fuelled by emotive yet empty words and the smoke of hypocrisy and envy plume off them. Yet again, most of these people like to grab at the headline and forget the story. I'm not disputing that what a soldier, nurse or teacher does isn't more important than a sports or movie star. However, people who jumped on their high horses about this would do well to consider that they don't really believe what they say. How can I pass that judgement? Because talk is cheap and 99% of people are not willing to put their money where their mouth is.

First of all, let's put the hefty pay packet of the sports star into context. Sure, all he does is kick a ball. Why does he deserve that huge wad of cash? Well, he doesn't just kick a ball. He is the reason people buy tickets to the game. They buy merchandise with his name on it. He wins games that brings in prize money. If you worked for a company and earned that company £30 million, you would want a fair slice of it. Somehow, I doubt most people would be happy with the average wage of the nation (which in the UK in 2010 hovers around the £15,000 mark) if that equated to 0.5% of what you were bringing into the company.

Remember, big stars don't just sell their talents, they sell their lives and their privacy. If you make a mistake, go out in your scruffs or decide to date someone, it won't be splashed over the papers for the world to read.Sure they live up in their castles, living the good life of celebrity kings but it is never easy to be a king. Ask any big time lottery winner. They will tell you that their problems didn't evaporate with money. They just turned into different problems. Like the Notorious B.I.G taught, mo' money, mo' problems.

Second of all, the hypocrisy of those who preach this doctrine of better wages for our public servants. It's a noble thought, with heavy emphasis on the noble and very little on thought. Yeah, we would all like to see our front line civil servants paid well but we are all unwilling to pay for it. For example, the UK as a nation could pay every soldier £10,000 more a year. That would involve increasing the basic rate of income tax by 1p.  That is just for soldiers. You start adding fire fighters, police, teachers, nurses, paramedics et al into the mix and then the taxes could sky rocket.

But wait, we were outraged at one sports star getting overpaid. We want our day-to-day heroes to be paid better. We DEMAND that the balance be redressed. We just don't want to pay for it. Therein lies the problem of the self righteous attitude. It is like these people want a magic wand to be waved. If you are one of those who thinks "I'd be willing to pay a lot more tax to pay for these things," then I assure you that you are in a minority.

Finally, let me pose this dilemma to you. Your boss approaches you tomorrow and offers you £200,000 a week to do your job. How many of you will turn that down saying "My job is not nearly as important as all those soldiers and nurses. Pay me the same and send on the rest to them"? If you think you would, you are kidding yourself.

Think you would offer a big chunk of cash to charity? Take a look at a number of big time lottery winners and what did they do with their winnings? Lived the good life, lavish holidays, big houses and expensive cars.  Ironically, if they had been generous and given it to charity, we would have viewed it with cynicism. It happened with Bill Gates. He gave a ton of cash to charities and we all said "Well yeah, he can afford it." We all sit in envy of those who are incredibly affluent and pass judgement but the reality is, we would be no better in the same situation.

Talk is cheap. It doesn't matter if it is on a Facebook status or a grumble to your friends. If you are not willing to put your money where your mouth is, then you value soldiers, nurses et al at the wage they are currently paid. Is it right that a sports star earns in a more in a week than a front line civil servant does in 10 years?  No... I and many others say that. We just don't truly believe it and so it remains a philosophy of hypocrisy.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Tuition Fees Are Right

I went to University. I didn't pay tuition fees because I went as a mature student in Wales and therefore didn't have to. I even got a grant. I was one of the lucky ones. I have benefited from a Higher Education for free. Let me tell you now, that is morally wrong. I'm not about to rectify that because frankly, I'm as selfish as those who protest over tuition fees.

Education is free up until the age of 18, provided you stay within the state system. Yet once you leave that arena where you are effectively shoe horned into a subject, you have to take on an education that costs you personally. If you take up an apprenticeship, your wage is significantly lower than other staff. That difference is because the money is paying for that apprentice's training. If someone wants to get a CeMAP to sell mortgages or a CIFA to sell pensions, they have to pay for that training. Hell, if you want to learn how to give someone an Indian Head Massage, you have to pay for classes.

There is this deluded notion that all education should be free. Nonsense. All basic education should be free. We should give our children the chance to ground themselves and find their feet. Once that is done, it is time for them to start putting their money where their mouth is.

A University education offers you the prospect of a better wage and better equips you to contribute to society. Paying back tuition fees is one way. We preach about how the rich should bear a greater burden but we can't place that burden on those who supposedly get the best education out of all our children? That is hypocritical. They got the best, why shouldn't they pay for it?

My brother was an apprentice and got paid the minimum wage. If he was fully qualified, he would have been earning £9,000 more a year. By that notion, my brother was paying £9,000 for his education. Why aren't apprentices protesting up and down the streets of London? Because they were doing their job! They were contributing to society with income tax and helping the industry they work in. They weren't sitting in a library for 3 years, enjoying long lie ins because they couldn't be bothered attending lectures, benefiting from student discounts and freebies from freshman's week.

They argue that the poor won't go to University because of the tuition fees. That would be the fees they don't pay until they are earning enough to justify them chipping in a bit more to help other people go to University. If anyone chooses not to go to University because of the fear of debt, then how will these upper level of educated people meant to cope with the 25 year commitment of a mortgage? Those who fear debt only do so because they don't understand how to manage it. These are meant to be the best educated minds in the country and they don't understand debt? Maybe they could spend one of those days in the library reading up on it!

So the brightest should get it free and those who are willing to work should be made to pay? Because someone is less academically gifted, they are not entitled to free training? I don't care what anyone says, that is morally wrong. It is elitism. I got it and I didn't deserve it. The generations that went before me didn't deserve it. Now the current generation is kicking off not because they want what is right. They want to wallow in the wrongs that those who went before them got to enjoy.

Tuitions fees are the way the elite pay for the degree and education that makes them the elite. Those who cry that this is the way of taxing the poor to fill the pockets of the rich have no logic, no sense and no argument. If an apprentice has to effectively pay £9,000 a year for his education and training, why shouldn't students? Graduates will, on average, earn more money in their lifetime. They will live longer. Their children will benefit from better education and be less likely to be involved in drugs and crime. Does someone want to tell me that is not worth paying tuition fees for?!

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Sin Of The States

I should start this by clearly stating I am NOT Anti-American. The USA is a great country and has given this world many wonderful things. It represents many great parts of humanity.Creativity, patriotism, innovation, the country is brimming with it. Hollywood has shown us a million stories. American based institutions are littered throughout our lives and we love them.They provide us with worldwide social interaction, tasty food that clogs our hearts but puts a smile on our faces. The USA has liberated oppressed nations and promoted the rights of humanity across the globe. So before anyone says I am bashing on America because I don't like the country, you are wrong. This is me having a go at a country that frankly should know better!

The USA is one of the younger nations but it is also one of the most influential. It is the younger sibling in the family that got blessed with a massive physique and even larger intellect. The rest of the world expects them to behave like one of the best. Sadly, it is failing grossly.

Now everyone jumps on the bandwagon of pointing the finger at the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as something America should be ashamed of. These were wars that stemmed from the horrific 9/11 attacks. I am not going to be pious about that reaction, disproportionate or not. It was a cowardly act, designed to grab headlines and induce fear into innocent people. Those wars, whatever we think their motivations were, have a valid reason for existing and if they have been badly managed, that is the flaw of individuals and not a nation. Their imperialistic crusade for democracy is foolish and also shows a huge lack of naiveté about their own history. Yet there is nothing wrong with trying to do something they honestly believe will save lives.

No, the Sin of the United States of America is found very much on their own soil. Let me take the controversial Prop 8 campaigns in California. The homosexual community had been offered civil unions, a legal institution that granted all the rights of marriage but did not have to be practised by religions. In the UK, this already exists. No riots broke out. The gay community were happy to take that because they just wanted the legal rights enshrined in the institution of marriage.They never thought that the brand name defined their relationship. Life in the UK went on without even a Youtube video being created. Yet the people of California, on both sides of the equation, spent an estimated $75 million on the campaigns. That figure is sickeningly high and all for effectively the battle for a brand name! Forget the notion of how many children in Africa that could save. Put to one side how many diseases that could eradicate or wells it could dig. Try this simple thought. How much of the devastated New Orleans could have been rebuilt?

Hurricane Katrina ravaged one of the most famous cities of the Southern States. The mighty USA has just pushed the issue to one side. It has felt it is perfectly acceptable to leave them alone and hope they keep quiet. America has become the country that dresses up the windows, smiles like a happy family when outdoors and then locks up the ugly kid in the cellar. How can one of the richest nations in the world stand with any credibility when it cannot look after it's own?

Their hypocrisy doesn't stop there. 9/11 was terrible but lets remember who was responsible.This was a group of evil men, not a religion. The fact that the men involved were Muslims is actually irrelevant. These terrorists were not waging a war against Christianity. If they are, they are attacking the wrong country because for a nation that prints "In God We Trust" on their money, they are religiously bigoted. 70% of Americans said they did not want a mosque in near proximity of the new World Trade Centre site. Why not? It is just a place of religious worship but already people are assuming it is going to terrorist training camp. That is narrow minded. It is playing judge, jury and executioner all in one bitter opinion. This is the nation that has written in its Constitution, that its citizens have the freedom of religion. There are only a handful of amendments to the US Constitution but the unwritten terms and conditions seem to growing every day, fuelled by a media and mob that only knows how to hype and sensationalise.

A nation that believes that justice is a core principle that is then happy to torture people, as long as it is not in their back yard. A nation that thinks it can lecture other nations about how they should treat their citizens and then is outraged by the idea of providing healthcare for all of its own. A nation of opportunity but only if you are born in the right place and to the right family.Yet with each hypocrisy comes a validation that undermines the very principles they built their nation on.

Britain was once the mighty nation of this world. It didn't do well. The history of the country I live in and love is bathed in the blood of countless sins. We were terrible. So I am pleading with you, United States of America, do not fail us like we failed all that time ago. Learn to look after your own. Learn that unity comes from considerate compromise and not contentious coercion.Learn to be a beacon to the world for all that is good and decent. Learn to be what the Philadelphia Convention wanted you to be.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

It's Not The Drink Talking

I am teetotal and as a consequence, always the designated driver. That is not a problem. It means I get home comfortably and without vomit down my front. In fact, a lot of things about a night on the town are fairly consistent. I always get to walk into a nightclub with one of the pretty ladies on my arm, so the doormen don't ID them. I rarely dance, unlike others who go on to make fools of themselves. Yet one event is certain to happen through the course of a drunken night on the town for the guy who is always teetotal, especially when that behaviour stems from his faith.

That is the "I Really Respect You" speech you get on the way to the kebab house. I get it every time and it is endearing. Let me give you a rough template of how this speech is delivered to me... (slurring and breaks in flow because of tripping over kerbs have been removed).

"You know what Sparks, I really respect you... I wish I was like you. I get drunk all the time and I've slept with so many women, so many munters, well... I wish I was like you. Because I respect you. You're like a really good person. You know that? I love you mate."

It is very sweet and a nice ego boost. The first time it is said. Then it gets repeated like a stuck record during that walk to the kebab shop and all the way back to my car. Hell, it even happens on the drive back to the drunkard's home! By the end of it, you just wish they would shut up about how great you are for being sober!

It could be worse. In fact, at times it is. That's the Full Confession speech you get through the course of the night. This is where someone, usually a female friend, decides that I, the sober guy, is the nightclub equivalent of a priest. She will then explain how she has done terrible things. These terrible things tend to be how she slept with a guy in less than classy circumstances. We're talking down an alleyway, in the disabled toilets or even on the dance floor itself. Frankly, there have been locations listed that I don't think it is possible but why would a drunk lie?

Then there is the flipside of that coin, the "I'm Going To Ruin You" speech. It's actually more of a sales pitch than a speech. This is where someone, usually an older or less attractive female friend, comes over and tells me how she is going to "ruin" me. She will share all the tricks of the bedroom (or indeed wherever she does it) and how she is going to make me scream her name through the course of the night. The fact I am doing that thing where you lean back in disgust, like you are trying to escape her germs, has completely gone over her head. She always seems so confident yet she is going to fail. This is because she's minging and I will never be that desperate. She's worse than a 2am girl! (For those who don't know, a 2am girl is the girl you cop off with at the end of the night because you couldn't pull anyone else.)

There is just something about inebriation that gives someone's tongue complete liberation. I'm not complaining, it has become the staple part of a night out for me. However, just be careful if you are one of the people who gives one of the drunken speeches. You might say it was the drink talking but we all know, it's really you. We all know that and us sober people will remember it in the morning. Even worse, we'll remind you of it at work on Monday morning, so be warned!

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Tabloid Tyranny

The media has become a powerful tool for governing our emotions and our opinions. After all, they present the facts of the world in a manner of their choosing. Facts are the seed of those emotions and opinions. It can leave us blinded to the reality of the world around us because we get caught up in sensationalism. In fact, the news breaking machine can churn out so much information that we get lost in the sea of stories they produce.

Allow me to explain. On the 12th January 2010, a massive earthquake struck Haiti, killing thousands. The subsequent fallout lead to the deaths of a suspected 300,000 people, if not more.It is a number of epic proportion, the kind that makes your stomach turn. It rightly received widespread and comprehensive news coverage. To put that death toll in perspective, it is the same as a hundred 9/11 attacks, which also rightly received huge coverage.

Sticking with Haiti, it was a tragedy, one that made it the headline event of the day, in fact, for weeks. What determined that? Was it the huge body count? Somehow, I don’t think so. 300,000 is a sickeningly high number, when considered on its own. Now, compare that with the figure of an estimated near 6 million people who died from malnutrition in Africa in the same year.Earthquakes are unstoppable. Feeding people is solvable. So why isn’t the media constantly sticking that on the front pages and top of the news shows? Because an earthquake or terrorist attack is pure Hollywood. It is visually very powerful, stirs immediate emotional responses and most importantly, it sells. A starving child, whilst a disturbing and powerful image, does not sell.Sure, Madonna may rush over and adopt one, two or a dozen but the reality is that a problem highlighted by BBC News reporter Michael Buerk decades ago still exists. As it has slowly drifted out of the headline cycle, it has become just another story.

That is the disturbing thing. Our humanity is be herded by headlines. Haiti hit the headlines and we mobilised like nothing else. But as soon as the headlines stopped, we found a new distraction.We’re not interested in stories, just headlines. We went to war with Iraq over weapons of mass destruction, as we let North Korea develop them anyway. In USA, they screamed outrage at the credit crunch. Yet they ignored the fact that half of the people who go bankrupt in the USA do so because they fall ill without sufficient health insurance, because of the high premiums. This is because the tabloids choose the headlines and then we, the mob, attach ourselves to the emotion of them. Rather than considering all the stories and developing our own opinions, we adopt other people’s opinions. After all, that is so much easier than actually putting in the effort ourselves.

That is the cunning tyranny of the tabloids. The idea that they can get you to think and feel what they want by putting it in size 42 font and slapping a shocking picture next to it. The rage, the distress, the shock courses through you and you have to respond. You have to pick up that newspaper and read all about it, whilst noticing that there is a sale on at DFS. You have to watch that news report and then enjoy the advert selling the latest alcoholic beverage. You have to view that video online, right after the 15 second advert for the new vehicle that everyone has to have. And they don’t even force you. They just play on your emotions by giving you the facts that they think are salient. It is the informational equivalent of a drug dealer and we are the headline junkie generation.

Don’t let headlines govern your opinion. Read the stories and grow your own opinion. Then you’ll have something that is becoming rarer than diamonds and pearls. A mind of your own.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

My Top Ten TV Shows

10. Sons of Anarchy - Following Samcro, a biker gang that specialises in gun running, this show is actually smarter than the first glance may suggest. The main protagonist, Jackson, reads the thoughts of his deceased father from a book his old man wrote. What it becomes is a modern day Hamlet, as Jackson tries to drag his beloved gang from the murky underworld into the legitimate light. Yet along the way, the police, FBI, ATF and even white supremacists try to tear the gang apart. It is brave and bold and well worth seeing.

9. The Simpsons - Animated genius. Comedy genius. Satirical genius. It. Is. Genius. Homer Simpson went on to be declared as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. For what is just a cartoon, the stories are clever and are never predictable. Everyone can think of a funny moment from the show but it is so hard to pick the best one because there have been so many. Just to show how iconic The Simpsons have become, 20 years ago, everyone remembered the great "Who shot JR?" storyline. Now, people remember the great "Who shot Mr Burns?" storyline. They are that iconic.

8. Friends - The best sitcom of all time. Popular culture is still littered with references from the show. It lasted 10 years and well over 200 episodes. The great thing is you can watch them back now and they are still funny. Whilst it ended at the right time and the stories were pretty much done, we were so sad to see them go. So were the cast because despite their best efforts, none of them have done better than that. With that said, anyone would be proud to brag that Friends was their greatest achievement in their careers.

7. Top Gear - Clarkson and his cohorts have taken a mixture of cars, teenage lunacy and a bottle of 50 year old cynicism and brought it to the boil. What was left was Britain's best TV show. The show masquerades as a car show but really it is all about the banter, the adventures, the stunts and the road trips. The finest moment was the race to Switzerland, where a Ferrari took on a commercial air flight. What started out as a simple road trip to review a car became a tense race to the finish line, which got decided in the final mile. If you haven't seen it, find it and become hooked to what has become a British institution.

6. Damages - If you cut this show, its blood would be as black as oil. It is slick but vicious. Cold but ingenious. Glenn Close plays Patty Hewes, a civil litigator who craves only one thing... winning. She is willing to do anything to achieve it and for a lawyer, she does it by barely stepping into a courtroom. This show plays its cloak and dagger game outside, with psychological sparring that gets more sinister and personal as each season progresses. The fact that the season starts with how it will end just grips you more because you just have to know how the hell it ends up like that!

5. Boston Legal - Darkly funny, in fact the wit in this show is so sharp, it should be handled with very thick gloves. The main star is Alan Shore, played with smug elegance by James Spader. He is the man everyone would love to have as a friend and hate as anything else. He was the kid who always has a smart answer, can talk himself out of trouble and despite his deep moral fibre, doesn't mind breaking the rules to achieve the greater good. With William Shatner playing himself expertly as Denny Crane and a stellar supporting cast, this show, that willingly breaks the "fourth wall", is a joy to behold.

4. The West Wing - Following the staff of the White House, almost nothing happens for a countless amount of episodes and you know what? You can't take your eyes off. In fact, it's your ears that get more pleasure from this show. Aaron Sorkin, the guy who wrote most of the episodes for the first four seasons, came up with dialogue that was sharp, witty and utter genius. My personal favourite is when one of the characters is getting a schooling in a TV debate. His work colleagues show the kind of compassion you'd expect, by racing to watch it on TV and demanding that their secretaries bring popcorn. You know you'd do the same!

3. House - A medical drama that added the intriguing element of detective work and not in the lame "Diagnosis Murder" way. The mystery was always about what was wrong with the person. Yet the investigation into prescribing an accurate diagnosis only served to reveal the story of the patient. But more than anything, we wanted to watch the acidic Gregory House, expertly played by Hugh Laurie, as he came up with his latest series of sarcastic lines. Only he would say "If your life's no more important than anyone else's, sign your donor card and kill yourself." You'd want him as a doctor but definitely not as your psychiatrist!

2. 24 - Jack Bauer is one of the most iconic TV characters of all time and rightly so. His adventures, which saw him unravel massive conspiracies in one day, without eating, sleeping or going to the toilet, were brilliant. The series as a whole had some serious misses (90% of stories involving Kim Bauer sadly... but she's so pretty) but they were worth enduring for the show's incredible ability to come up with another gripping cliffhanger. For me, the height of the show was Season 3 but the whole thing is worth seeing. Even at its lows, it was better than most show's heights.

1. The Shield - Vic Mackey is the kind of cop we all love to watch. Gets the job done, a rule breaker and completely corrupt. He is a villain that you root for. In the opening show, we see him openly use brutality to achieve his means. We know that he has drug dealers and gangs in his pocket and is profiteering off them. In fact, we even watch him murder a cop. By the end of the series, we are right behind him, desperate for him to win and get away with his crimes. It is a brilliant and gritty portrayal of how a man's evil can become justified, because we do the same as he takes us along for the ride. Unafraid to face the controversial and relentless in its pace, for a low budget show, it reaches astounding heights in story telling. The best show on TV ever.