Some thoughts on work

April 25, 2009

It’s not just about me and my dream of doing nothing. It’s about all of us. I don’t know what happened to me at that hypnotherapist and, I don’t know, maybe it was just shock and it’s wearing off now, but when I saw that fat man keel over and die – Michael, we don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements. From the film Office Space.

 

To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth. Pearl S. Buck

 

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. C. Northcote Parkinson

 

This boundless region, the region of le boulet, the job, il rusco – of daily work, in other words – is less known than the Antarctic. Primo Levi.

 

The meaning of work has been constantly under discussion for millennia now. For Aristotle all paid jobs absorbed and degraded the mind. In the Bible work was a curse for man’s disobedience to God.  In the sixteenth century with the Reformation we got the protestant work ethic; hard work was seen as a blessing as a way of showing love for God. In Karl Marx’s communist utopia there would be no limits to what humans could choose. One could be a painter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, a writer in the evening, and a lover at night. Sounds bloody tiring if you ask me. More recently has come the idea of work as being a place to find meaning. Getting a salary is not enough we need to be self-actualised. 

At the centre of much of modern work is the office. In his book about everyday life, Queuing for Beginners, Joe Moran identifies three kinds of office:

 

  1. Cells – individual offices for people such as barristers or academics who need to work quietly on their own or have one-to-one meetings.
  2. Dens – busy places where people need to exchange ideas. The classic example is the newspaper office.
  3. Hives – places like call or data-entry offices, where employees just get on with their jobs like busy worker bees.

 

An integral part offices is the desk, another one of those American inventions that has come to dominate our lives. In 1915, the Steelcase Corp. created a newfangled piece of office furniture they called the Modern Efficiency Desk. It was such a simple design – a metal slab atop three drawers – that we may not fully appreciate its significance. It limited individual privacy and was essential for the evolution of the open-plan office. With IBM’s desktop computers we got the workstation. The workplace is then constantly evolving although innovations such as hot-desking don’t seem to have caught on; they are a victim of our strong sense of territoriality.

            The division of labour, described by Adam Smith in his famous account of the pin-making factory in The Wealth of Nations, has become a dominant factor in our societies. Some people lament this. Undoubtedly it can be dehumanising – we all remember those dystopian images from Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece Modern Times, where the main character spends his day tightening the same bolt over and over again. But this enormous specialisation, only possible in a sufficiently large market, has enabled wealth creation never before seen in history. We now have a dazzling variety of things people do, activities which are often difficult to describe in a single word, unlike those traditional jobs reflected in many a surname. Can you imagine trying to make surnames out of some of today’s professions?

Work has become much more unstable in the last thirty years. The idea of The Organisation Man seems to be a thing of the past. We have gone from six generations of blacksmiths in a family to today’s friction-free capitalism. This is a question of balance. The kind of stability we saw in the past could be oppressive. We want a dynamic society but we are afraid of the destructive consequences of  change. We would like growth without change but we are always going to face this kind of trade-off.

Many now see work as a source of meaning in life. This is an incredibly ambitious goal and mirrors the way love has become a central part of marriage. Both of these ideas would have shocked our forefathers and are difficult to live up to and a sure recipe for dissatisfaction. We need a more realistic basis. Organisations do not love us. We are probably not going to find nirvana at our workplace. Moderate contentment is more attainable. Maybe the Bible was right – work is our curse and we just have to make the most of it.


Movie Monologues #6

April 25, 2009

 

The Boiler Room written by Ben Young

             An excellent film which takes a look at the world of “boiler room” (seedy, dishonourable, and often fraudulent) brokerage firms.

 

Jim Young (Ben Affleck) Okay, here’s the deal, I’m not here to waste your time. Okay, I certainly hope you’re not here to waste mine, so I’m gonna keep this short. Become an employee of this firm, you will make your first million within 3 years. Okay, I’m gonna repeat that, you will make a million dollars, within three years of your first day of employment at J.T. Marlin. There’s no question as to whether you become a millionaire working here. The only question is, how many times over. You think I’m joking….I am not joking. I am a millionaire. It’s a weird thing to hear, right? Lemme tell ya, its a weird thing to say: I am a fucking millionaire. And guess how old I am…27, you know what that makes me here? A fucking senior citizen. This firm is entirely comprised of people your age, not mine. Lucky for me, I happen to be very fucking good at my job or I’d be out of one. You guys are the new blood. You are the future swinging dicks of this firm. Now you all look money hungry and that’s good. Anybody who tells you that money is the root of all evil, doesn’t fucking have any. They say money can’t buy happiness. Look at the fucking smile on my face! Ear to ear baby! You want details, fine. I drive a Ferrari 355 Cabriolet. What’s up? (he slides his keys across the long boardroom table) I have a ridiculous house at the South Fork. I have every toy you could possibly imagine. And best of all, I am liquid. So now you know what’s possible, let me tell you what’s required. You are required to work your fucking ass off at this firm. We want winners here, not pikers. A piker walks at the bell. A Piker asks how much vacation time you get in the first year. Vacation time? People come to work at this firm for one reason, to become filthy rich, that’s it. We’re not here to make friends, we’re not saving the fucking manatees here guys. You want vacation time, go teach third grade at a public school.

Okay, first three months at the firm are as a trainee, you’ll make 150 dollars a week. After you’ve done training, you take the series seven, you pass that, you become a junior broker and you’re opening accounts for your team leader. You open forty accounts you start working for yourself, the sky’s the limit. A word or two about being a trainee, your friends, parents, other brokers, they’re gonna give you shit about it, it’s true, a 150 a week, that’s not a lot of money. Pay them no mind. You need to learn this business and this is the time to to do it.

            Once you pass the test, none of that’s gonna matter. Your friends are shit. You tell em you made 25 grand last month they’re not gonna fucking believe you. Fuck them! Fuck ’em! Parents don’t like the life you lead. Fuck your mom and dad. See how it feels when you’re making their fucking Lexus payments. Now go home and think about it. Think about whether or not this is really for you. If you decide that it isn’t, listen, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. This is not for everyone. But if you really want this, you call me on Monday and we’ll talk. Just don’t waste my fucking time……Okay, that’s it.


The world’s oldest joke book

April 25, 2009

The other day I heard a fascinating programme on ABC Radio National, featuring Professor in classics at Cambridge University, Mary Beard telling jokes from the oldest collection of jokes in the world, Philogelos: The Laughter Lover. The collection, which contains 265 jokes, is written in Greek, and the language used indicates that it may have been written in the 4th century CE, according to William Berg, an American classics professor. The targets of the humour include teachers, students, eggheads and fools. You can also see comic Jim Bowen performing some of these jokes on YouTube. Here is a selection of these jokes: 

 

An egghead, falling sick, had promised to pay the doctor if he recovered. When his wife nagged at him for drinking wine while he had a fever, he said: “Do you want me to get healthy and be forced to pay the doctor?”

 

An egghead visiting his country-estate asked if the water in a well there was good to drink. He was told that it was good, and that his own parents used to drink from the well. The egghead was amazed: “How long were their necks, that they could drink from something so deep!”

 

An absent-minded professor is asked by a friend to bring back two 15-year-old slave boys from his trip abroad, and replies “fine, and if I can’t find two 15-year-olds I will bring you one 30-year-old.

 

An incompetent astrologer cast a boy’s horoscope and said: “He will be a lawyer, then a city-official, then a governor.” But when this child died, the mother confronted the astrologer: “He’s dead — the one you said was going to be a lawyer and an official and a governor.” “By his holy memory,” he replied, “If he had lived, he would have been all of those things!”

 

“An egg-head doctor was seeing a patient. ‘Doctor’, he said, ‘when I get up in the morning I feel dizzy for 20 minutes.’ ‘Get up 20 minutes later, then’”).

 

A misogynist paid his last respects at the tomb of his dead wife. When someone asked him, “Who has gone to rest?” he replied: “Me, now that I’m alone.”

 

A misogynist was sick, at death’s door. When his wife said to him, “If anything bad happens to you, I’ll hang myself,” he looked up at her and said: “Do me the favour while I’m still alive.”

 

A barber, a bald man and an absent-minded professor are taking a journey together. They have to camp overnight, so decide to take turns watching the luggage. When it’s the barber’s turn, he gets bored, so he amuses himself by shaving the head of the professor. When the professor is woken up for his shift, he feels his head, and says “How stupid is that barber? He’s woken up the bald man instead of me.”

 

A fellow says to a butcher from Sidon, ‘Lend me a knife as far as Smyma.’ ‘I don’t have a knife that reaches that far,’ answers the butcher.

 

This last one could be considered a direct ancestor of Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch: A man complains the slave he has just bought has died. “By the gods”, answers the slave trader, “when he was with me, he never did any such thing.”

 


My media week 26/04/09

April 25, 2009

Wired has a piece about Jill Price, a woman with an incredible memory. although all is not what it seems. There is also video of an interview with her. Total Recall: The Woman Who Can’t Forget.

 

When a West German photographer set off on a trip to the East German island of Rügen just after the Wall fell in the spring of 1990, he captured a world that would soon disappear forever. Twenty years after the epochal event, he looks back on his journey in a first-person account. East Germany, Up Close and Personal. There is also a slideshow of his photos.

 

In this article from The New Republic Alvaro Vargas Llosa, the son of writer Mario Vargas Llosa. does a hatchet job on Hugo Chavez’s gift to President Obama at the recent Summit of the Americas, a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America.

 

More or Less: Behind the Stats, the BBC’s programme about numbers, which is presented by Tim “The Undercover Economist” Harford, is back on air. In this week’s episode they examine the arithmetic behind sustainable energy, ask if putting in 100% effort is enough and declare a dictatorship to try to explain the national debt.

 

In this article Chuck Norris invokes historical precedent to analyse the US response to the threat posed by Somali pirates: Jefferson, U.S. hostages and Somali pirates. Next week: Steven Seagal on the intellectual fallacies underpinning postmodernism.

 

ABC’S Lingua Franca talks to Elizabeth Little, who prefers word travel to world travel. She describes her love of this kind of transportation in Biting the Wax Tadpole: Misadventures of an armchair linguist.


The never-ending War on Drugs

April 17, 2009

Obama’s visit to Mexico this week has once again highlighted America’s interminable War on Drugs. The term was coined by Richard Nixon in 1969, in a clear allusion to Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous War on Poverty. We are now in 2009 and the war continues. The website drugsense.org has a drug war clock, which graphically shows the enormous costs of this war. So far this year the American federal government and the states have spent more than fifteen billion dollars on this war – that works out at over $600 a second. In the same period more than half a million people have been arrested for drug-related offences.

         This insane struggle goes back much further than Tricky Dicky. One of its first key players was HJ Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a precursor of today’s DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency). Anslinger personifies the punitive approach to drug use. I know it’s a bit unfair to judge a historical figure by contemporary mores but this quote will give you a flavour of the man:

There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” According to Anslinger marijuana had almost magical qualities, being responsible for inducing both violence and pacifism. He also claimed that it “makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” Anslinger was at the FBN for more than 30 years. He is no longer around but these catastrophic policies continue to hold sway.

            My first objection to this war is based on individual freedom. As adults we should be free to ingest whatever we want. As long as we don’t harm others, we have the right to choose what we do with our lives. But this freedom comes with responsibility. If you abuse that responsibility, you have to face up to the consequences of your actions. I think we hear the word victim and illness too often in these cases. Freedom without responsibility is a recipe for disaster. I have always stayed away from the whole drug culture – I have little sympathy for this world.  But I think if I did become addicted to any substance, I would find it very tough to go straight. Therefore, the best option for me is to stay off them.

Economic analysis can also be used to analyse the efficacy of this war. The aim is to reduce the supply of illegal drugs, thus pushing prices up and as a consequence reducing the amount people want to consume.  A typical enforcement strategy is to pressurize countries like Colombia or Mexico to eradicate the production of coca. This has been going on for three decades now and the policy just hasn’t worked. For a little while supply did go down but the drug cartel were able to lie low a while or their organisations mutated and now the total number of hectares has actually gone up. So the U.S. government has wasted billions of dollars on Plan Colombia and seems unwilling to learn the lessons of the recent past in the drug war. Let’s just suppose for a minute that it were possible to completely eliminate all the coca – all you would do is shift production to whatever country is next best at producing it. You can grow coca in many different places and so the effect on cost is likely to be minimal.  The cost of producing drugs abroad and transporting them to the United States is said to represent only about 1 percent of their street price. The inescapable conclusion is that this will never be an effective way of reducing drug use.

Finally we need to look at the unintended consequences. The most prevalent one is crime. This occurs in our countries and in the producer countries. In Mexico almost 10,000 people have been killed in the last two years; 10% were law enforcement agents. This has had a destabilising effect on Mexican democracy. Prohibition of alcohol helped Al Capone get rich and now history is being repeated with the Mexican cartels. Will we never learn?

Politics is about making trade-offs not finding the perfect solution. Decriminalisation is most definitely not perfect and I do have a certain unease about what the consequences would be. But this perpetual war reminds me of the joke by British Tommies in the trenches during WWI – if we keep advancing at this rate, we’ll get to Berlin in 100 years. At least that war ended after four years; this one has been going on for decades and there is no is no sign of a victory parade.


Quotes about drugs

April 17, 2009

Drug misuse is not a disease; it’s a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error of judgement. Philip K. Dick

 

Bacchus has drowned more men than Neptune Giuseppe Garibaldi

 

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out. Timothy Leary

 

There is only one reason why men become addicted to drugs, they are weak men. Only strong men are cured, and they cure themselves. Martin H. Fischer, German-born U.S. physician and author.

 

Cocaine isn’t habit-forming. I should know—I’ve been using it for years.  Tallulah Bankhead, U.S. actress.

 

Our country has deliberately undertaken a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose. Herbert Hoover, U.S. president referring to Prohibition.

 

Drugs have taught an entire generation of American kids the metric system. P.J. O’Rourke, writer.

 

Annual drug deaths: tobacco: 395,000, alcohol: 125,000, ‘legal’ drugs: 38,000, illegal drug overdoses: 5,200, marijuana: 0. Considering government subsidies of tobacco, just what is our government protecting us from in the drug war? William Turnbow

 

Consider first the addict. Legalizing drugs might increase the number of addicts, though it is not certain that it would. Forbidden fruit is attractive, particularly to the young. More important, many persons are deliberately made into drug addicts by pushers, who now give likely prospects their first doses free. It pays the pusher to do so because, once hooked, the addict is a captive customer. If drugs were legally available, any possible profit from such inhumane activity would largely disappear, since the addict could buy from a cheaper source. Milton Friedman

 

The only law the narcoterrorists don’t break is the law of supply and demand. Virgilio Barco Vargas ex-president of Columbia.

 

The idea that the creative endeavour and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time … Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers – common garden variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplough drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons. Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2001)

 

A woman drove me to drink and I never even had the courtesy to thank her. W.C. Fields

 

It’s not a war on drugs, it’s a war on personal freedom. Keep that in mind at all times. Bill Hicks


Drug trivia

April 17, 2009

Here is some trivia about drugs that I have found on the web:

 

The opium poppy was first cultivated in around 3400 BCE in lower Mesopotamia. The Sumerians referred to it as Hul Gil, the ‘joy plant.’ The Sumerians would soon pass along the plant and its euphoric effects to the Assyrians. The art of poppy culling would continue from the Assyrians to the Babylonians who in turn would pass their knowledge onto the Egyptians.

 

Hassan Ben Sabbah, a boyhood friend of Omar Khayyam, the Arabian poet, gathered a group of warriors and captured the powerful Persian fort of Alamut. To maintain his power, Hassan formed a society of murderers to secretly kill all his enemies. The killers were known as “Fedais,” or Devoted Ones. When one of them was selected for a kill, he was first given hashish and entertained royally with all the most sensual and erotic delights of the Orient. He was told that he had been given a taste of things to come. After all this, the killer was not only willing, but also anxious, to die for his leader after this taste of Paradise. From this ceremony came the name “hashshashin,” meaning “hashish eater,” from which came today’s corruption, “assassin.”

 

Accurate American history tells us that famous names of the period like Wild Bill Hickock and Kit Carson actually frequented opium dens more often than saloons. The stereotyped picture we have of the cowboy in the bar drinking whiskey straight after a long hard ride on the dusty trail is only part of the story of the old west. Oftentimes times the cowboy was not in a bar at all. He was in a prone position in a dim candle-lit room smoking opium in the company of an oriental prostitute.

 

Because of its intense euphoric side effects, morphine was named after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus.

 

In 1830 Britain solved its ballooning trade deficit with China by flooding it with opium grown in Bengal. This sparked the first opium war. The Chinese were defeated by the British. Along with paying a large indemnity, Hong Kong was ceded to the British.

 

The first recognized authority and advocate for cocaine was world famous psychologist, Sigmund Freud. Early in his career, Freud broadly promoted cocaine as a safe and useful tonic that could cure depression and sexual impotence.

 

Cocaine got a further boost in acceptability when in 1886 John Pemberton included cocaine as the main ingredient in his new soft drink, Coca Cola. It was cocaine’s euphoric and energizing effects on the consumer that was mostly responsible for skyrocketing Coca Cola into its place as the most popular soft drink in history. Public pressure forced Coca Cola to remove cocaine in 1903.

 

Snorting cocaine became popular at the beginning of the century. Cocaine can also be injected intravenously as Sherlock Holmes used to do.

 

U.S. efforts to contain the spread of Communism in Asia involved forging alliances with tribes and warlords inhabiting the areas of the Golden Triangle, (an expanse covering Laos, Thailand and Burma), thus providing accessibility and protection along the southeast border of China. In order to maintain their relationship with the warlords while continuing to fund the struggle against communism, the U.S. and France supplied the drug warlords and their armies with ammunition, arms and air transport for the production and sale of opium. The result: an explosion in the availability and illegal flow of heroin into the United States and into the hands of drug dealers and addicts.

 

It is possible to get high by licking a toad. The Cane Toad produces a toxin called bufotenine to ward off predators. When licked, this toxin acts as a hallucinogen.

 

In 2005 a study of Content Analysis of References to Substance Abuse in Popular Music  was carried out by Brian A. Primack of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. His team analysed Billboard magazine’s 279 most popular songs of that year. The researchers noted every mention of substance use in pop, rock, R&B/hip-hop, country and rap songs and they also looked within each genre to determine motivations for, associations with and consequences of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use. Their results included:

 

41.6% of songs had a substance use reference of any kind.

33.3% contained explicit substance use references

 

One or more references to substance use were found in:

3 of 35 pop songs (9%)

9 of 66 rock songs (14%)

11 of 55 R&B/hip-hop songs (20%)

22 of 61 country songs (36%)

48 of 62 rap songs (77%)

 

2.9% of the 279 songs portrayed tobacco use

23.7% depicted alcohol use

13.6% depicted marijuana use

11.5% depicted other or unspecified substance use