Andalucia Steve the dream

A Growing Lifetime of Not Understanding

The older I get, the less I seem to understand, but I don't think its just me!
I rarely visit the UK, but the last time I did I confronted one of those new-fangled self-service tills in a shop for the first time. It confused the hell out of me! I had to get my niece to show me what to do. This was particularly embarrassing because I'm supposed to be a techie guy - Computer Steve - the dude who has been bothering microchips since the early seventies. The odd thing is that while this is factually correct, the world has progressed while my understanding of it has become increasingly muddy.
I'm not talking about things I don't understand about life in general, like why women fashion hats out of towels at some point during the process of taking a shower, or why dogs don't chew their food whereas they're so adept at chewing on furniture. I'm specifically concerned with the wall that has been growing between man and machine since electronics has been migrating from analog to digital.
If you are old enough to remember the 1960's this wall didn't exist. If you owned a radio or a TV, the chances are it had two dials - one that turned the volume up and down, the other which tuned the device through different channels. There was also a good chance that these were labelled 'volume' and 'tuner' in English. 
The first suggestion in my world that things were about to get ugly came with the Cassette Tape recorder. Do you remember those? We used to use them to record the top 30 pop songs on a Sunday night. A tune I remember fondly was Queen - Seven Seas Of Rhye which was as near as I got to liking heavy metal back in the day! Anyway, the thing that was lost on me and probably many others at the time, was that the controls on these machines had a language-independent interface. This allowed the manufactures to streamline tooling so they could basically knock out the same machine and sell it to different countries with the minimum of changes, perhaps with just a different mains plug and user manual. This was a subtle but important turning point as it meant we, the great unwashed public, had to start  learning a new language of symbols. (The posh word for this is semiotics but lets not get ahead of ourselves).
Now a cassette recorder wasn't rocket science but it was more complicated than a radio. One had to express forward/back, stop, record/play and pause. This was done with the use of symbols and sometimes colour, with the red being used to signify record. Us old folk have had forty years to forget how we first learned this interface but I understand it still foxes kids today when they see a Sony Walkman for the first time. 
Household appliances of all kinds have undergone similar 'progress' since those heady days. Our washing machine back then was so simple a child could use it. There was a dial that had labels in English that said meaningful things like 'wash', 'rinse' and 'spin'. The washing machine I use today has a dial with dozens of signs on it that look as though they were invented for the purpose of confusing the hell out of me by some insane professor of Aztec hieroglyphics! Fortunately the Devil's spawn was already here when I moved into the house, so I just leave the dial where it has always been, throw my washing in, switch it on and hope for the best! Seems to be OK but God only knows what all the other settings do. As for the washing instructions they put inside clothes, don't get me started!
It's the same thing with steam irons. No idea! Turning the dial clockwise seems to make them hotter but as for the other symbols, not a clue!
Things really started to get mysterious when appliances became digital. An old analog microwave oven was a joy to use. There was just a timer and a power level control - easy. Does anyone really understand the interface on a conventional digital microwave? Weird images of chicken drum-sticks and steaming bowls? I would never buy a microwave with an interface like that, but I had occasion to use one a few years back, and in the absence of a manual (or anyone else that was in possession of the sacred knowledge of how it worked), I eventually managed to cook some popcorn after about five minutes of trial and error, randomly pushing buttons and trying my best to gauge the results.
The removal of language in favour of internationalization is only one of the problems. The other is that all signs are not equal. If it were just the case that a picture represented something recognisable, things wouldn't be too bad. Think of a public toilet for example. There is an image of a man, an image of a woman and an image of a person in a wheelchair. It's not easy to confuse these icons for the things they represent in the real world.
Icons however are only one of the three categories of sign recognized in semiotics, the study of signs. The other two are symbol and index. Icons are reduced depictions of the object they represent, such as our toilet folk. Symbols however are signs that represent an object without resembling it.  Most national flags are abstract symbols, which clearly represent a national identity without imaging a real thing (there are exceptions - some flags may contain stars, lions etc but for the purpose of the example I'm talking about plain flags with just lines and colours). Indexes are pointers to a concept that often cannot easily be represented directly, e.g. drawing three horizontal squiggly lines doesn't look much like water but it does suggest a river or sea and maybe used to indicate water, swimming, tide and many things water related. 
All three types of sign are found in the earliest cave paintings dating back hundreds of thousands of years. The paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has been doing a study of the objects represented in engravings and paintings in caves across the world and has discovered that all the designs can be reduced to a basic 'vocabulary' of 32 separate signs. She mentions in her excellent and fascinating TED talk on the subject that "There is a striking lack of diversity in the earliest rock art from France and Spain to Indonesia and Australia". The thought that the outlook of people across the human world hundreds of thousands of years ago could be expressed in 32 signs is a sobering one. Hold onto it while I describe what happens next in my story.
Computers, as you will know, are a lot more than glorified adding machines. Since the early days of punch cards and paper tape, the interfaces through which we connect to computers has been gradually evolving. From my earliest contact with them during the 1970's until the middle of 1980s, all interaction was mainly through a 'terminal' model, where one would see a command line on a screen, type in commands and get the answer back as lines of text. Later, many alternative custom graphical interfaces came and went but the one that endured was called the WIMP interface (standing for windows, icons, menus and pointers - or mice and pointers depending on which version of computer history you believe). This found its way into the Apple Macintosh in 1984 and other home computers such as the Atari and Amiga until eventually being reinvented by Microsoft as their flagship interface, Windows.
I was a command-line ninja having been a Unix programmer who had worked in this type of environment for so long, so I personally found the move to a graphical user interface a very painful one. Implicit in all these interfaces was the dubious conceit that they represented your desktop and the items within it, such as files, printers, waste-bins and so on. I couldn't see what was intuitive nor useful about say, clicking my cursor on a file and dragging it onto the printer to print it. In my experience, dropping a physical A4 document onto a the top of a physical printer or photocopier would not induce the latter to print, so why should it be so on my computer? It really took me decade to get my head around it.
Meanwhile the academic thinkers in the process of constructing the Tower of Babel we jokingly refer to as Computer Science had another trick up their sleeve. The number of printable characters back in the 60's was originally a lowly 128, due to the limited bit-length of early computers (the size of the blocks of numbers the computers were able to work with at a low level - this grew over time time from 8, 16, 32 to 64 etc as technology improved). The size of the possible 'alphabet' was extended throughout the years, but the huge uptake of computers internationally and the need to represent different character sets such as Japanese Kanji text meant a complete overhaul of how characters were represented was in order. The boffins came up with Unicode, a standard which is now used to represent hundreds of thousands of characters. 
Now you will probably be aware that techies used smiley symbols 🙂 back in mainframe days. When mobile phones became a craze in Japan during the 1990s, their phone manufacturers extended this idea and ran wild with it creating the sub-culture of the emoji, those crazy little images that almost substitute for text in messages exchanged by young people. This soon spread beyond Japan and cutting a long story short, emojis are now represented across technical platforms worldwide using the Unicode standard. They are now mainstream!
Smartphones didn't come out until I was well into my forties, by which time the last thing I wanted to do was learn yet another interface. The gestures, swiping and pinching all baffled me for some time. I still get the shivers If I have to copy something from one app to another on my phone or have to print something out, but I'm getting there. 
My Waterloo however is messaging. I sometimes get messages, especially from young people, that look like they were copied from the walls of an Egyptian tomb. Icons, symbols and indexes all in the shape of modern emoji. I know what they are, I just can't figure out what they mean, because there seem to be thousands of these things. When I see them I often think back to Genevieve von Petzinger's fundamental 32 character vocabulary and wonder how old I actually am, because I often feel nearer to our cave-dwelling, stone-age ancestors than I do to our couch-dwelling Generation-Z!

Why I came to Spain

What am I doing here - well people do ask sometimes!
First Year in Spain 2003
Python sketch comes to mind - Shopkeeper "Why are you here?" Customer "Why are any of us here, its all so meaningless really..."
This might go back a bit further than you imagined. Europe was a mystery to me that revealed itself slowly over many years.
I cherished home a little too much as a kid. I grew up in a working class cottage with dad the janitor, mum the cleaner, grandad the ex-sailor/bricklayer and sister the audio-typist. I didn't know anyone 'foreign' or anyone who had been abroad. The world came to London to play us at footy in 1966 and we of course won. I had a 'World Cup Willie' in my Christmas stocking that year. Everything seemed cosy and local! 
Then something weird happened. One of my sisters moved further away due to her husband getting a better job. I'd never countenanced the idea of moving for such an unimportant thing as work before - what on earth were they thinking of? Looking back on it I had an insular mindset, but that was about to change. It turned out the cottage we lived in was tied to my father's job, and when he retired in 1973, we had to find another place to live. 
By this time I'd become dimly aware of the existence of Europe, primarily through TV There was the Eurovision Song Contest, It's a Knockout and European football, all of which I now know were designed specifically to create the awareness I was experiencing. Also my sister's husband's career was taking him all over Europe and we would get strange phone calls of the type "I'm pulling my hair out here - I've got three Hungarian executives coming around for dinner and I don't have a recipe for goulash!" My horizons were slowly broadening.
Our neighbours in the new house were a nice old couple with two bright young sons, Tommy and David. The boys were both toolmakers which was a much sought-after skill in the early 1970's. Due to Labour's 84% tax rate they both decided to leave Britain. David emigrated to America but Tommy went to live in Alicante in Spain. This fascinated me beyond measure. I couldn't believe this guy was going to relocate to a country the spoke a different language. This was really the start of a new mindset for me where I looked at the concept of international mobility and the pros and cons of living in Britain and living abroad. The subject haunted me thorough-out my adolescence. It seemed difficult to relocate abroad for work but the notion of retiring abroad was something I'd already considered was going to happen, even though I'd not been overseas myself yet.
On one occasion I remember sitting in a very dull A-level physics lesson and a thought struck me. Given current interest rates, how much capital would I need to acquire in order to live off the interest rate if I went to live in an inexpensive Mediterranean country? I did the sums and worked out I'd need about £100k. Though that was a chunk of money back then in the late 1970's it was achievable. Much of the next decade would see me revisiting this figure, adjusting it for various expenses as my naivety about the true cost of living was replaced with experience, as soon after, I started work.
One of my early jobs was a summer spent with the Department of Employment as it then was. I was a temporary administrative officer in the local unemployment benefit office and as such I had to attend a week of training. Part of the course covered the reciprocal rights that existed for workers in Britain and the EU. There were many of these but the one that lept out at me was that as an unemployed Brit, it was my right to sign on as unemployed and receive unemployment benefit was respected by the EU. I remember asking the tutor in disbelief, "So that means I could go to say, Italy for a month looking for work and sign on over there". Yes was the reply. From then on I really started to pay attention to this EU business. This sounded great!
However I didn't actually set foot in an EU country until 1985 when I went on holiday to Lanzarote. Then I was smitten. It wasn't just the weather, though that was pretty good. It was the smells, the taste, the vibrancy of the colours - everything seemed better than blighty. I later learned the vibrancy of the colour in sunny climbs is not one's imagination but a fact due to colour being a function of the quality of light, a fact noted by Leonardo Da Vinci many centuries ago. [Quote from the notebooks of Leonardo]
Since we see that the quality of colour is known [only] by means of light, it is to be supposed that where there is most light the true character of a colour in light will be best seen; and where there is most shadow the colour will be affected by the tone of that. Hence, O Painter! remember to show the true quality of colours in bright lights.
I had many subsequent holidays to Greece, Cyprus etc, and while my wife was busy working on her tan, I'd be looking at the price of property and the work opportunities for possible emigration. The problem always came down to income as I didn't have any easily translatable skill at the time that I could use to find work abroad. 
Then in around 1989 I changed jobs and started working IT. At first I was trained as a small-systems developer but after a few short years I found myself working in the latest 'big thing', the Internet.
While still working in government I started working at home as long ago as the early 1990s. I was running a Unix computer network at the time and there were certain jobs that had to be done while everyone was offline. I'd previously been doing these on the weekend earning a bit of overtime, but I hated the commute - there were less trains than during the week and more likelihood of meeting a group of drunk footy fans on the way to a game. So I had a word with my boss and pointed out that if I he let me dial in remotely to do these jobs from home, I'd only charge him for the hours I was on-line and not for any travel time. He agreed and over the next couple of years I became a part-time teleworker. 
During the decade of the 90's the Internet became vastly more important with the development of the web. I voluntarily retired from government, setting myself up as an Internet consultant, which eventually led to me co-founding a web design agency called Datadial Ltd which is still running today. 
Towards the end of the decade, on another holiday in Lanzarote I met a chap who caused me to rethink my plan to retire abroad. He was a Brit who retired to the island on a police pension. We had a conversation about the Spanish language.  He had been there a number of years and could hold a conversation in Spanish well enough to identify the accents folk had from different towns in the island. He impressed two things upon me.  Immersion was essential and each decade that goes by it gets exponentially harder to learn Spanish. So the notion that one would wait until retiring at 65, coming to Spain to live and starting to learn the language was a fantasy. I've since found that to be true. Clearly the longer I waited the harder it would be. Curiously I went back to the UK, started to learn Spanish, but unlike previous occasions where I'd read a book for a week then put it down out of boredom - I kept the learning up month after month. I'd clearly made a decision that this was going to happen.
I was not very happy working in the company I'd started. My business partner and I had various differences of opinion as to how things should be done. Also the notion that the longer I waited, the harder it would be to learn Spanish was niggling away at the back of my mind. Finally in 2003 I hit upon a solution. I was working at home a lot of the time anyway since my role as technical director meant a lot of time was spent in software development.  I decide to let my business partner effectively take over the reigns of the company while I relocated to Spain. I would keep working part time on a reduced salary. Once agreed the move became very simple. I sold my house and within three months I'd moved to Spain. I was living the dream.
Incidentally I'd been battling away learning Spanish for nearly four years at this point. I wasn't very good. 17 years later I'm still not very good, so I hate to think how bad my Spanish would be if I'd waited any longer. Much to my chagrin, my wife, who had been brought up in a Polish speaking household and excelled at French and German at school didn't do any preparation before moving to Spain but was fluent after about three months of getting off the plane!
A lot has happened since I moved here. I've gone through two long term relationships, lost a house due to the financial crash and been through lots of jobs. I've worked as a software developer, translator, estate agent, labourer and a busker! Today I'm clinging on by my finger-tips, hoping the exchange rate doesn't do any more harm to the tiny income I get from the UK. Like many Brits here, I really didn't believe Brexit would happen, but now it has, I'm so glad I made the decision to come to Spain when I did. Hopefully I will retain the rights conferred on me from the EU by virtue of being a Spanish resident next January which is much more preferrable than if I were living in the UK and about to have those rights stripped from me. The one thing that sticks out as a problem for us expats is Freedom of Movement. It looks as though we're stuck in our chosen country of residence because we're British passport holders. After January 2021, unless a deal emerges to the contrary, I couldn't go to say, Germany and apply for a job as easily as I could pre-Brexit, which is something I had considered as I see a lot of adverts for jobs in Germany with my IT skills.
My battle with the language continues. In another blog post I'll explain some of the issues that make the language in Southern Spain so difficult (possible title - The Gargoyle People - that should get you thinking!)

Spanish Bureaucracy

Often cited as the least favorite thing about life as an ex-pat, bureaucracy is the bête noire of living in Spain
A viral video appeared on social media video a while back that took a humorous look at the nature of administration in Spanish offices.

All the issues in the video, the plethora of documents, the need for copies, the importance and finality of the rubber stamp, will be familiar to those of us who live here and bear the scars of many battles in the offices of local and central government, utilities and even many commercial organisations such as car-hire companies (which can be one of the worst IMHO).
An illustration of the frustrations associated with Spanish administration is my recent attempt to pay a water bill. How hard can it be? A lady knocked on my door and presented me with a 'notificación providencia de apremio' an urgent notification. This is a registered document which I had to sign for. Sent by the office that collects money on behalf of the water board, it contained advice of an outstanding bill. I've been in the process of trying to get the bill in my name and the money taken from my bank account for some years, but that's another story! Anyway, the notification doubles as a bill and contains a bar-code with which I can go to the ATMs of most Spanish banks to make the payment in cash. I was just off to the shops and since the bank was on the way I decided to strike while the iron was hot.
I went to the cash-point, scanned in the code and was greeted with the message 'The payment date of the bill has expired'. I laughed out loud. This was less than 15 minutes after I'd signed to say I had received the damn thing!! So the next day I had to visit the office to get another document. I took this one to the bank, scanned it into the machine and got another message saying 'Sorry but I cannot issue you with a receipt at the moment'. The message disappeared after a few seconds and returned to the previous screen inviting me to scan the document in. I was clearly in a loop as there was no option to escape by paying the bill without a receipt. Mired by thoughts of impending doom I entered the branch and joined the queue. After a quarter of an hour I reached the teller and explained I wanted to pay the bill but the machine wouldn't let me. 
"I can't pay it here for you, you must use the machine" the lady replied.
From previous visits I'm familiar with her lust for automation which I presume she sees as work avoided for her.
"I've just tried, it doesn't work" I said, trying my best to appear genuine and pathetic at the same time, in the hope that she might take pity on me and actually choose to help instead of scowl at me which had been her posture so far.
"OK I try" she said and frog-marched me outside to the machine. She stood over me while I repeated the same steps I had previously taken and unsurprisingly achieved the same result. 
"The machine is not working. You will have to use another bank." she said and returned to her lair. So I trudged off in search of another bank. First world problems I know but kill me now!
It's worth noting that this bar-code malarkey is relatively new. In the past one had to take such bills into the bank in person. Since the 2008 crash all the banks seem to have introduced measures to restrict the days and hours during which cash payments can be made, so one would, for example, have to wait until the next Thursday and join a long queue between the hours of 8:30 to 10:30 and deal with the teller face-to-face. It was a grim affair. 
I recall an incident regarding this in Murcia a few years ago. Cutting a very long story short, I'd found a renter for a property that was just about to get its electricity cut off. He gave me a wedge of cash as a deposit, so I went to see the electricity people and got a chit to take to the bank to clear the outstanding bill. I took it to the Santander bank but the gentleman refused to take the payment because it was on the wrong day. I should point out the bank was empty except for he and me. I asked to see the manager. He said he was the manager! I remonstrated with him for a good ten minutes, pointing out the imminent demise of the leccie supply but he remained smugly resolute - he didn't want my money!! It was nearly closing time and, realizing that I was achieving nothing (other than entertaining this chap's fantasy of how he would treat people were he a guard in a Nazi concentration camp), I decided it was prudent to leave in search of another bank. Fortunately a nearby branch of La Caixa was more accommodating. I understand why banks have these rules to streamline transaction activities in order to reduce costs etc but Jesus wept, whatever happened to 'the customer is always right?'
Incidentally there appears something institutionally evil about Santander. A friend of mine visited the local branch with his elderly incontinent mother a while ago. She was 'took short' and asked if she could use the staff toilet. They refused. Her son pleaded but to no avail, so they had to forego their place in the queue so she could be taken elsewhere for a pee. The branch closed down some months after. Karma is believed to be the cause.
Another incident of bureaucratic madness got my gander up recently. Very kindly and proactively, the department of health in Andalusia sent me a letter offering me the opportunity to volunteer to take part in a regional colon cancer screening programme. I was thrilled to be included and immediately returned the letter signifying my agreement to be so. Soon after, I received a screening kit through the post. One is instructed how to take the sample (not a great deal of fun) and to return it to the local medical centre, recommending a Monday or Thursday. This I did. The medical centre lady quizzed me when I brought it in to make sure the sample was fresh - apparently it only lasts a day even when refrigerated.
Some weeks passed and I was sent another kit and a letter saying something had gone wrong with the previous specimen. So once again I waited until Wednesday evening, did my sample, popped it into the fridge and brought it to the medical centre the following morning, as again the accompanying letter said to return the sample Monday or Thursday. This time there was a huge group of people queued outside, but I caught the lady's eye in the hope of dropping my bag of shit and making a run for it.
"Can I leave this with you" I said,
"No" she said, and officiously tapped her Bic on a paper notice that had been sticky-taped to the door,
"Colon sample deposits Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday 8:30 to 9:30" she said.
"You won't take it?" I pleaded. Then another woman in a white coat chimed in.
"Tell him to come back in the morning..."
Her colleague pointed out tomorrow was Friday so I wouldn't be able to come until Monday, by which time the sample would have expired. The other lady said it looked as though I would need another kit. Both health workers lost interest in me and drifted back to their business without really giving me a satisfactory answer as to what I should do.
Then an old lady in the queue took to scolding me, wagging her finger and reminding me it was 'Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday only - 8:30 to 9:30', as though this was blindingly obvious to all, however half-witted, not least the old hags like her who have nothing else to do all day save occupy queues at the local medical centre. I reveled briefly in the contemplation that due to her advanced years, the blight of her visitation on humanity would soon be at an end. Then I took my leave. 
It's hard to nail a common theme in such anecdotes, though I submit that while the Spanish are normally the most lovely, kind, helpful humanitarians one can imagine, put them behind a desk (or a steering wheel, or handle of a Zimmer frame) and it's as though they have taken a large swig of Dr Jekyll's potion. Fronting such people with the straight-jacket of computer systems magnifies their power creating an edifice that at times seems completely unscalable. A friend recently remarked on how impenetrable Spanish Government websites are to human navigation. He's not wrong. A week of exploration has gone by and I'm still trying to figure out how to get my hands on another colon cancer testing kit!

Logical Thought

Recalling the Book Straight and Crooked Thinking.

I make no apologies for how ever dull, dry and boring some of my blog posts here may seem to some people. This may be one of those posts, but this is my blog and I'll write want I want to. 

Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self. - Cyril Connolly New Statesman, February 25, 1933

My favourite pastime is studying. I like learning about all sorts of things, music, science, politics, economics, history and current affairs. This led me towards MOOC - Massive Online Open courses. These are being run by universities all over the globe. They use them as a sort of sales vehicle in the hope that if you get hooked on them you will upscale to a paid course.

I've done dozens of these courses in recent years. One that I particularly enjoyed last year was run by Stanford University and was entitled Introduction to Mathematical Thinking and hosted by a well respected mathematician called Dr. Keith Devlin.

Much of the course was devoted to the application of the rigors of mathematical logic to the everyday language we humans use. All human languages have shortcomings that make it easy for meaning to be distorted and misconstrued (as do the users of them). By applying certain mathematical rules, we can overcome many of the errors of thinking people make everyday.

This concept was not entirely new to me. In fact the course reminded me that when I was a kid, maybe in the first or second year of secondary school, I was lucky enough to read a book by RH Thouless called Straight and Crooked Thinking. This book was quite famous back then but seems to have fallen out of fashion of late. You can however read it online: Straight and Crooked Thinking by RH Thouless.

The book was a revelation to me then. I was just becoming interested in politics and reading the newspaper at that time, so the book helped me avoid some of the pitfalls that one encounters in dealing with communications that have an agenda at heart.

Many concepts are covered in the book, certainly too many to explain here within the confines of the 1000 word target of this blog post. However I'll give you a few examples of the type of issues the book addresses and how they come in handy when listening/reading the daily news.

The first chapter introduces the concept of emotionally charged words. Often, especially where a newspaper is trying to trigger a prescribed response, a journalist will use similes of harmless words, replacing them with alternatives that may contain stigma, prejudice or some other emotional colour. The Daily Express is particularly good at this using it as a technique to elicit clicks in its online version every day. Here is a random title from today's edition "Sturgeon FUMING as she's savaged for IndyRef2 obsession amid SNP-led Scotland 'CRISIS". Can you see what they did here? FUMING, savaged, obsession and CRISIS are all emotionally charged words that could have been written with milder alternatives (annoyed, condemned, concentration and situation for example), but the author has deliberately used the most extreme alternative for each of these words with the deliberate intention of making the SNP leader look bad because the Express don't care much for the SNP.

I saw another good example in a tweet this week. The MP Zarah Sultana had made a speech in the house. She tweeted a video excerpt from her speech along with the message:

Just because they want to learn, young people are burdened with colossal student debt.

My debt is nearly £50,000 & last year alone it grew by more than £2,000 in interest.

Now someone who is obviously a supporter of the party on the opposite benches replied:

Just a thought Zara , is it fair that kids whom choose to become bricklayer, plumbers , electricians etc pay via their tax for their peers to drink and socialise throughout a 3 year course in media studies at some spurious polytechnic ?

The chap has used a series of emotionally charged words and concepts in his reply to belittle the MPs position. Let's deconstruct this because it is quite skillfully and mischeiviously done. Firstly he uses the word 'kids', suggesting that children are being taken advantage of. Yet he's actually talking about people of working age. Would have been less inaccurate perhaps to say 'young adults'. Then he names three trades, bricklayer, plumbers and electricians, as examples of these working age adult's jobs. Notice he chose to use types of work associated with the working class. He could have said 'banker, stock broker or civil servant' none of which necessarily require a degree to enter, but his choice again emotionally colours his argument. He then asks why these people's taxes should pay for their peers to 'drink and socialise' - notice that he didn't say 'study' which is what student loans are for. The vast majority of students don't borrow enough to pay to drink and socialise, many indeed have jobs to help pay for food, but again he's cleverly invoking a stereotype of student days of the past which were much easier than today. Then the last two stingers, 'three year course in media studies' and 'some spurious polytechnic' both of which are deliberately designed emotional triggers. Media Studies are often derided as vacuous and easy options by right-wing commentators, however ironically the people on media studies courses are the ones learning the very pitfalls and traps the author is laying. Again 'polytechnic' is a derogatory term for university, as they were tertiary educational institutions in the UK which, prior to 1992 were regarded differently to universities due to their specialization in STEM subjects, a distinction that was abandoned in 1992 by the further and higher education act.

So nearly every word and phrase in this tweet has been tweaked with emotionally charged language, designed to persuade the reader to believe a particular political viewpoint.

For what its worth I replied with:

Is it fair that many have no choice other than to become bricklayers, plumbers, electricians etc because they can't risk taking on student debt as they already come from a poor background?

Twitter's character limit makes it hard to address each of the authors' word choices individually!

Talking of limits, I've just reach mine for this blog post. In fact I'm over the 1000 word target already! But I hope I've introduced you to the gist of Straight and Crooked Thinking, a topic I may revisit in the future.

The Tyger

Things that go bump in the night
The Tyger
I felt eyes burning from behind. I heard a growl so low it could have come from the depths of Hades. It was a big cat.
I'm running now. It may have been a tiger, a jaguar, perhaps a leopard but who cares when you're scared. Feline taxonomy becomes secondary to survival. I just knew it moved stealthily and with intelligence. Whichever way I ran it took a shortcut towards me. Hide? Forget it. Had to keep moving.
Then I caught a break. I opened the kitchen door and stood to the side. The beast's momentum carried it outside. I slammed the door shut then ran back upstairs to close the windows in my jungle house above. Quickly upwards, lungs bursting. Another floor, another floor to the top. I heard the growl again. The big cat had climbed a nearby tree and was waiting. It came in through the window. At this point I started to throw objects at the snarling animal - fruit, vegetables whatever came to hand. That's when I woke up!
One generally awakens quickly from a nightmare, though I noticed as I journeyed into consciousness that I'd made a mental note to source weapons of a more practical nature such as spears or knives, in case I were I to find myself in that position again. Then things became clearer.
It was stupid o'clock and under normal circumstances I would have rolled over and gone back to sleep. However my mind was still racing from being chased by the big predator so I knew nodding-off again was not an option. There was only one thing for it.. Twitter!
I grabbed my smartphone and lay there in the dark scrolling through the wall of micro-stories. Lots of marketing (note to self, why do I bother following all these sodding online marketers - OK they follow back but they post such crap, much of it automatically scheduled making sure my feed is polluted with pithy motivational messages even in the middle of the night).
There were lots of stories about the local UK elections. Basically the Labour party had gained more seats than the Tories, but because the Tories had anticipated a poor result and Labour a big one, the Tory Twitter brigade were claiming it as a huge victory. Another not to self: 'Truth' is the first casualty of a politicians opening their mouths!
Then a ballsack-grabbing headline caught my eye. "Knesset gives power to Netanyahu to declare war with single vote backing". That seemed important. It's not just that the power to start a war is sliding from a cabinet towards an individual i.e. the shift from democracy towards totalitarianism. It is that legislation such as this does not pop-out of thin air. Somebody has gone to the trouble of asking for this, of planning it. What is the motive? What is the intention? Worryingly Netanyahu had, a few hours before, given a presentation claiming Iran had lied about it's nuclear program. Are Israel about to declare war on Iran, who they're claiming are a nuclear power in hiding? This sounds bad. 
Immediately the first thing to do is to fact-check. The original Tweet was on RT or RTNews as I recall and had a link to the Knesset. To further confirm the story I checked the Knesset website in English and found the relevant press release []
This had been announced on Monday 1st May and I was only finding out on the following Saturday. That surprised me because I read a lot of news and have feeds and alerts pumping information to me all the time. So I thought I'd do a quick search in case I'd missed this important story. Well there was nothing in the Daily Mail, Financial Times, The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, The New York Times or the Washington post. Doing a general search of Google news, there were a few local/blog-type Jewish and Arab publications reporting the story but the only internationally known news source carrying it was Al Jazeera. []
I'd be a very rich man if I only had a microBitcoin for how many times I've had it said to me - 'Oh but you don't want to listen to RT or Al Jazeera, they're not credible news sources you know. Not trust-worthy like the BBC for example'. Well as an after-thought I just checked the BBC and there was no mention there either. 
One has to ask why this piece of news was not more widely circulated. Do they not want to worry us? Well, the newspapers seem to spend most of their time keeping us in a state of fear. My guess is, there is something planned that they don't want us to know about just yet in case we start to rally against it. I think that Israel will attack Iran and/or Syria soon.
Perhaps there is a reason I was dreaming about being stalked by a fearsome big cat. I thought back to William Blake:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The Tyger in this poem is more than a wild animal. The protagonist who sees the Tyger goes on to ask several questions of the beasts appearance in relation to the supreme deity which created it. Blake is challenging us to rise above the meekness of the lamb of God and to realize the suppressed spiritual power in our soul. Blake sent us the Tyger to wake us the fuck up. In my case, he succeeded.
[Disclaimer - I jotted this down after the nightmare a year ago and never got around to blogging it before. Since then there thankfully has been no large-scale invasion of Iran/Syria by Israel - yet!]

Fruit picking, a personal perspective.

Thoughts on fruit picking of an ex-pat whose ancestors were agricultural labourers for three centuries.
Fruit picking, a personal perspective.

One of the consequences of Brexit often visited by the media is the future of fruit and vegetable harvesting. The reporting comes in two stripes. The anti-Brexit media report the downsides of course. In a nutshell the 'hostile environment' created by the Tories towards foreigners and Brexit uncertainty has deterred immigrants from EU countries filling the seasonal vacancies in the industry. There are many reports of fruit rotting on the ground and farmers fearing they will be driven out of business completely or forced to relocate abroad. Then there is the Brexit positive media who claim this is all scaremongering. They report on the job opportunities for picking fruit in Britain soaring e.g. "£700 per week job boom" says 'The Sun'. Another common theme in the pro-Brexit media are reports about the development of fruit and veg picking robots, so clearly there is a fall-back in case Britain's youth don't care to relocate to a field in East Anglia to pick strawberries in July.

I've never picked fruit commercially myself. Well I owned a small-holding in Spain for a couple of years but apart from trading several tree-loads of olives to the local co-operative in exchange for virgin oil, I never sold anything, nor was I paid.
However that wasn't the norm for my ancestors. A friend of mine who is a whiz at these things came to stay for a few weeks and her parting gift was a family tree going back to 1740. For generation after generation my forebears were agricultural labourers.
I knew my grandfather was a farm labourer but not that the entire stock of my family were so as well, male and female. All lived and worked in the same village, Froxfield Hants for centuries. Grandfather Alfred though was a little different. He moved where the work was, over some considerable distance.
My father Edmund was born in Tolworth, Surrey in 1908. He told me he didn't see his father very often when growing up. Alfred did seasonal work which meant he was away for much of the year. One month he would be hop-picking in Kent, another harvesting turnips in Suffolk and so forth. Money was good when Alfred came back and my father and his seven brothers and sisters ate well. However one year, Alfred did not return. This was before the welfare state remember, there were no benefits to take care of single mothers with eight children, so the siblings who could work did, while my father and his younger brother George were found a place in Bizley Farm School, a charitable institution for borders, where the children would tend crops, manufacture wickerwork baskets, produce honey, cheese and so forth all of which was sold to pay for their farm education. 
Dad also picked fruit but he did so to survive. In good old Dickensian manner, the children at the school were largely fed on bowls of gruel, apart from Easter when they were treated to a boiled egg. My father and his friends therefore foraged in the countryside scrumping whatever fruit and veg they could find. They would trap birds, game, pigeons etc. A particular favourite was a hedgehog rolled in mud and cooked on a bonfire. It is a sobering thought that this is not a fairy tale from long ago - this is the real story of my father and these events took place less than a century ago.
Anyway, I didn't think too much about picking fruit again until in 2003 when my wife and I moved to Spain. We bought a country house in a small inland village in the north west of Murcia which is very much an agricultural economy. We became friendly with many of the local farmers and after a time, a picture of the black economy emerged. Fruit picking is obviously an activity where time is of the essence. As a crop is about to ripen, people have to be there in numbers not required throughout the rest of the year. In a somewhat 'backward' area of Spain at this time (by which I mean few people had email), there was an unspoken seasonal tradition. Come say, June, the apricots would ripen. A convoy of battered cars would arrive full of itinerant fruit pickers as if out of nowhere. At six in the morning the 'workforce' would gather at a point on the edge of town, and farmers would haggle to get the amount of workers they need at the lowest price. These people were working in black money so they would invariably earn below minimum wage, perhaps two to three euros per hour. After a twelve hour day in the blazing sun the workers would return to their cars, which were normally parked near the river where they could bathe and wash their clothes. This is tough work too. An Ecuadorian woman of my acquaintance appeared one day with her hand in a sling. When I enquired she said she had slipped from a tree and sliced off her little finger. She shrugged and said live goes on, explaining she needed return to work quickly to continue sending money back to her family.
As far as I could gather, the itinerant labourers in Spain have a similar lot to my grandfather. They move about, not just in Spain but in other EU countries, providing work where it is needed, often (mostly as far as I could see) in black money. There seemed to be a mix of Moroccans, Bulgarians and South Americans, all of whom had the common thread of being so far down the food chain they never get out of the black money trap.
However I have since seen another class of migrant workers in Spain with much better terms and conditions. Indigenous Spanish who are already in the system get much better 'gigs'. I knew a builder, a very industrious chap called 'ni' (short for Antonio) who would go to Switzerland each summer picking grapes, for which he got good money, stamp paid for etc. I understand that the building trade is quiet in Spain during the summer months so this is a popular way for workers who would otherwise be picking up unemployment to get some good money in. Now the Spanish unemployment money is not bad anyway so for this to be the case I reckon the Swiss money must be pretty good. I've heard of similar schemes where town halls in Spain organize groups of people to go fruit picking in France and Italy, again on legal money that is high enough to make it worthwhile. One woman told me she will be doing three months at 3000 euros per month and she will be taking most of that home. 
What these subjective, personal and somewhat random observations suggest to me is the future of the farming of fruit and vegetables in Britain is this. With Britain leaving the EU I see it as unlikely that the lot of fruit-pickers in Britain will get any better. On the 19 December 2019 the Johnson government published a revised version of the EU withdrawal agreement which no longer contains clauses on the protection of EU-derived workers’ rights. Robots aside (fruit picking robots are a long way from being viable), a demand for fruit pickers (which has apparently gone from four fruit pickers to each job to four jobs for each fruit-picker) will inevitably drive up wages, so I doubt the British supermarkets will accept the corresponding increase in the price of produce required by farmers for their operations to remain profitable. There are therefore two ways this could go. Either the government will takes steps to make the environment for the unemployed so unpleasant that they will be induced to chase low paid agricultural work to avoid starvation as my ancestors did, or alternative suppliers to British farms will fill the void on the supermarket shelves. The countries that may gain the most out of the latter are non-EU countries with low labour costs that are not the other side of the world and have climates that suit agricultural production. The British government has already had preliminary talks with several North African countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and these may well be smart places for investment in a post-Brexit economy.



The Jewish Question

I was triggered this week. Here's why
The Jewish Question

So it came to pass I was on Facebook this week and a post came up that caught my eye. A friend of mine, someone I knew in real life, had posted a comment on a group that I'm not a member of, claiming the political left had a long history of anti-Semitism.

The comment he made was in response to the daubing of anti-Semitic graffiti on a synagogue in North London on Hanukkah. The post read:

Anti-semitism has long standing roots on the Left - read Marx on 'The Jewish Question' - and please remember that Muslims are brought up, in varying degrees, to loathe Jews and for some indeed - it takes but a few - to envisage a world where they are wiped out. The Left are allies of a certain stripe of Islam so don't immediately jump to the facile conclusion that the 'Far Right' is responsible. The rise of anti-semitism has coincided with large numbers of Muslim migrants into Europe, some of whom deeply resent Judaism and 'nationalist' parties have arisen in response to this and the increasing emphasis on pressing for a monolithic European 'government'. The 'Far Right' was a risible minority until these two processes were underway.

I was immediately angered by this. Triggered if you will. Now the friend in question (no names no pack drill) isn't your typical Britain First thug. He's an educated man with a degree from the LSE of all places. He is well read and has a house full of books. I was aware he leaned to the right as I've enjoyed many late night alcohol-fuelled discussions with him, during which times we've never had too many violent clashes.

In my experience and of what I have read, the very notion that the left is anti-Semitic is a nonsense. The communists famously battled alongside the Jews in the battle of Cable Street against Moseley's British Nazis in the 1930's. It was the nazi's spouting anti-jewish slurs and propaganda during the 70's that necessitated the formation of the anti-nazi league. During 2019 election there was even an anti-Labour proppo starring Maureen Lipman that listed the life-long links that previously existed between the Jewish community in Britain and the Labour party. But then later in the video one gets to the nub. This horrendous piece of anti-Corbyn propaganda is part of a much larger and more sinister campaign by the right deliberately designed to smear Corbyn as anti-Semitic.

Going back to my friend's original post, if you have read 'On the Jewish Question' you'll know that it was far from being anti-Semitic. Marx wrote it in response to an essay by the German philosopher Bruno Bauer, who himself was arguing that Jews should renounce their religion in order to be free in a secular society, clearly an anti-Semitic position that Marx was attacking. If instead of reading the whole piece you only dip in and grab snatches of it one can easily confuse it as being anti-semitic because Marx uses many quotes from Bauer which have anti-semitic language in it. Also the language Marx used is perhaps a little less delicate than we would use today, but one has to consider the essay was written in 1843 in a time when the phrase anti-Semitic had yet to be coined. Marx also used irony and takes Devil's Advocate positions which go over a lot of reader's heads. Let's not forget too, he himself was Jewish! This leads to misconceptions about the piece such that even some Jewish scholars argue among themselves whether Marx was being anti-Semitic or not. It is this has been taken advantage of by the right who have cited the piece many times since around the year 2000. One can see the cited articles in Google Ngram searches and by searching for mentions of the book with the advanced Google search tag site: e.g. "on the jewish question"

Clearly my friend's claim that anti-Semitism has deep roots on the left is completely without foundation. The far right however have been solidly anti-semitic since Hitler wrote Mein Kampf and that has manifested itself in various forms with the rise of the right. My suspicion is, that like many people my friend has been the victim of right-wing gaslighting.

Further clues follow in the rest of his comment which is pure Mainstream Media 'dog-whistle racism' as seen everyday in the Mail, Express, Times, Telegraph, Star etc etc.

1) He suggests Muslims hate Jews. There are about 1.5 billion Muslims on the planet, I'd be surprised if some of them weren't brought up to hate jews as are some Christians, but it's simply a racist stereo-type to regard being Muslim as automatically anti-semitic.

2) The left are allies of a certain 'stripe' of Islam. Hmm, not sure which stripe that is. Does he mean the Palestinian stripe who has had their lands occupied by Israel in defiance of UN resolutions, or does he mean the stripe of Islam opposed to the war being waged by the Wahabbi's on Yemen? Tell you what, we'll leave that for another blog post.

3) The rise of anti-semitism has coincided with large numbers of Muslim migrants into Europe. Has it though? He was saying earlier how old the roots of anti-Semitism were in Europe because of the political left. Is there more anti-Semitism in Europe now than there was in the 1930's? Clearly not.

4) ..'nationalist' parties have arisen in response to this [sic. large numbers of Muslim migrants into Europe] and the increasing emphasis on pressing for a monolithic European 'government'. This is a Brexiteer trope. The increase in Muslim migration to Europe is a direct consequence of American meddling in the Middle East and the notion that there pressure for a monolithic European government is also a distopic fantasy from the minds of Bannon and Farage. Anyone who believes this is barmy but anyone who believes this and uses it to accuse the political left of being anti-semitic is clearly of a dangerously confused mind.

So I politely replied to my friends post rebutting his arguments I also added the following:

"What is a crime against intellectual freedom is the notion that any criticism of the State of Israel is automatically antisemitic, and the recent decision by the Tories to prohibit public bodies like universities and local authorities from supporting the BDS movement. That's worse than Thatcher supporting apartheid."

Of course the unanswered question here is who hoodwinked my friend and the electorate into thinking Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party were anti-Semitic, but that is a theme for another blog post on another day!


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An aside

Spain News

Thursday, July 9, 2020 2:19:00 PM
Spain’s Largest Speed Network Busted Euro Weekly News
Thursday, July 9, 2020 12:48:00 PM
Spain’s Balearic Islands to make face masks mandatory in all public spaces except the beach EL PAÍS in English
Thursday, July 9, 2020 12:09:00 PM
Spain records 257 new coronavirus cases, the largest daily rise since May EL PAÍS in English
Thursday, July 9, 2020 11:09:01 AM
Spain's Catalonia region imposes strict mask regulation DW (English)Spain to fine tourists who leave their hotel without wearing a face mask masks mandatory in northeast Spain amid virus uptick ABC NewsVirus on retreat in Spain...
Thursday, July 9, 2020 11:00:00 AM
Casa Grande Hotel in Spain occupies 18th-century stone manor house Dezeen
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