Positive Reasons to Stay in the EU

Even as a staunch Remainer from the start, I have to admit that the official Remain campaign has been pretty lacklustre. Not as bad as the borderline racist and almost entirely fact-free Leave campaign, thankfully, but just dull and uninspiring. Most of what they’ve put forward (at least, most of what I’ve seen) has been about the likely economic impact of leaving, and its effects on the cost of living.

Personally I think that, important though the economy is, it was a mistake for them to base their campaign on that. I doubt it will have convinced many potential Leave voters to switch sides, because it’s far too easily countered. When being told that the economy might be damaged or the cost of their weekly shop might go up, people can respond with “It’s a price worth paying to get back control of our country”, or “Well, people like me haven’t been benefiting from economic growth anyway, so why should I care about it now?”, which is an understandable sentiment considering that both main UK parties have spent the last few decades making sure that most of the proceeds from growth get siphoned up to a tiny minority of already rich people.

Some would argue that it had to be this way: that the Remain side was never going to be able to come up with anything very inspiring, because they’re tasked with defending a status quo that people are already accustomed to, and because even those who on balance support the EU find it hard to get very enthusiastic about it. It’s common to hear people say resignedly “My heart says leave, but my head says remain”.

I don’t agree with this. In my opinion there are far more inspiring and positive reasons to stay in the EU than the danger that GDP might drop by 2% or that your cornflakes might cost 12p more if we left. They just aren’t being put forward as much as they should be. In my case, my head certainly says “remain”, but my heart also says “remain”, if anything even more strongly.

"Being black, I worry about the rise of the anti-immigration Right. I'm also concerned about the effect of Brexit on the value of my house". #CatsAgainstBrexit

“Being black, I worry about the rise of the anti-immigration Right. I’m also concerned about the effect of Brexit on the value of my house”. #CatsAgainstBrexit

The continent of Europe certainly has its problems, and if you only look at what’s right there in front of you right now, some of those problems can look serious enough that it might make sense to bail out. But I think you need to look beyond that. If you look at the context, at the entirety of human history, and at what things are still like in much of the rest of the world, it’s hard to deny that (relatively speaking at least) present day Europe is an incredible success story, a beacon of prosperity, democracy, tolerance and peace in a world that seems desperately short of all those qualities.

We live in a continent that only a few decades ago, still within living memory, was tearing itself apart with war. Now its major member countries live in peace, co-operating on trade, science, solving environmental problems, and almost every other area of life. Even more recently, large swathes of Europe were still under totalitarian rule. Now those countries are starting to thrive as free, modern democracies.

For all the talk you hear of defending British values, I think Europe shares our most important values with us. The EU is made up of countries where (in general) you don’t need to worry about going bankrupt if you fall ill; where the poor and vulnerable are looked after rather than left to starve; where violence is seen as something abhorrent and shocking rather than as a normal, everyday occurrence; where people can think and say and believe whatever they want without fear of oppression; where workers are protected from the worst kinds of exploitation; where people’s opportunities aren’t limited by their gender or sexuality or skin colour; where everyone, no matter how poor, gets an education; where those accused of crimes will get a fair trial and won’t be tortured or executed by the state under any circumstances. Of course, not all of that works perfectly all the time, but by and large we are much closer to those ideals in Europe in the present than most of the world has been throughout the vast majority of human history, and I don’t think we should be taking them for granted and assuming that they’re all going to continue indefinitely no matter what we do in the future.

I’m not saying that all of this is going to be reversed straight away if we leave the EU. Clearly if there’s a Leave majority on Thursday, it’s not going to spark off World War III on Friday. But it seems to me that turning our back on the institution that’s presided over such a progressive group of countries for so long, pushing away our neighbours with whom we have so much in common, is fundamentally the wrong direction to be moving in. Last week, with the tragic murder of an MP by a far right “activist”, we’ve already had an example of what can happen when people are led down the path of hatred and division instead of friendship and co-operation. Let’s not go down that path as a nation.

I believe it’s going to be essential to have some sort of close international co-operation in order to solve the problems of the future. Issues such as climate change, tax avoidance and terrorism don’t stop at national borders. I would rather have a strong super-national body like the EU to help deal with those things than let them run rampant and unchecked; and I would rather it was a relatively democratic body with an elected parliament as well. The world has changed, and the challenges of today aren’t the challenges of 50 or 100 years ago. If we shut ourselves off from the world, those challenges aren’t going to go away, we’re just going to damage our ability to overcome them.

 

Common Sense Is Overrated

I won’t be popular for saying this, but what the hell. I don’t write these articles to make myself popular.

Right now it appears a lot of people believe that what this country really needs is a good dose of common sense. We should stop getting entangled in the nitty gritty details of things, stop listening to so-called “experts” with their big words and their complicated arguments, and just trust ourselves to know what we should do. After all, the answer is obvious, isn’t it? Politicians have kept it from us all these years, tried to pull the wool over our eyes and confuse us, tried to make sure that only the elite have a voice, but not anymore. This time we’re going to do what should have been done years ago, and to hell with all of them!

It’s an appealing sentiment in a lot of ways. But it’s also, I would argue, badly wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. Common sense is certainly useful in a lot of situations, and I’m not arguing that it’s a bad thing in itself. I could do with a bit more of it myself, I think. It’s great for getting you through the grind of day-to-day life with the minimum of fuss, and for solving problems that are similar to ones you’ve encountered before. But for deciding how to (for example) run a country, for making the really big decisions and looking beyond the obvious, it’s pretty lousy.

Let’s put one thing to rest before we go any further: people need to stop taking it so personally whenever anyone dares to suggest that someone who’s devoted their life to working in a particular field might know more about it than the people who haven’t. That isn’t elitism or snobbery, that’s just stating a fact. The reality is that many areas of life are so complicated these days that it takes a lot of time and a lot of research to properly get to grips with them. That’s just the way it is. Stating that most people aren’t realistically going to put in that time and effort for any given subject isn’t an insult, it’s simply a recognition that people have lives and don’t usually have time to learn about more than a handful of topics in real depth, no matter how intelligent they might be.

It’s undeniably true that human civilisation has got far more complex over the past decades, to the point where even experts in a certain field can’t realistically know everything there is to know about that field anymore. I remember years ago my girlfriend at the time was complaining about Microsoft Word behaving weirdly and wrecking the formatting of one of her assignments. It amused her greatly when I dismissively said “Yeah, Microsoft Word just does whatever the hell it wants”. She imagined that being a computer professional myself, I ought to have a perfect understanding of Word’s behaviour… but the truth is, that version of Word was probably made up of hundreds of thousands or even millions of lines of code, code which I’d never seen since it wasn’t relevant to my own work. Even the programmers who originally wrote it probably won’t be able to remember the reasons behind all of its behaviour without going back and looking at the code again.

Computer software and hardware is just mind-bogglingly, unbelievably complex these days, and it’s the same in many other fields as well. It wasn’t always this way though. Back in the early days of civilisation’s progress, new inventions and discoveries tended to be simpler and more intuitive. Even if not everyone could have had the spark of inspiration required to invent the wheel, almost everyone would be able to see how it worked, how to use it and why it was such a good idea once it was there in front of them. This was also true to an extent with early industrial technology such as steam engines: although it took a genius to envisage them before they existed, the concepts that make them work are relatively simple and understandable. Not so today: how many people really understand how a nuclear reactor works, or how a computer processor works, or for that matter how the global financial system works?

It’s easy to see all this complexity as a bad, intimidating thing, but is it really? I would argue that no, it’s actually a good thing… the reason we have so much complexity now is largely because we’ve solved most of the simple problems at this stage, so naturally what’s left is the more complicated problems. If anything, the fact that we as a civilisation have come this far should be cause for celebration, not lamentation.

It’s true that there are downsides to complexity, of course. Some fields (economics comes to mind) have got so complicated that even their best experts struggle to understand them, and any field that’s too complicated for most ordinary people to understand is liable to be viewed with suspicion (whether deserved or not). But to me, that isn’t a reason to throw away all our progress and go back to making decisions on the most shallow, simplistic grounds instead. It’s a reason to come up with better ways of dealing with the complexity. That goal isn’t necessarily as hopeless as it may sound: going back to computers, they may be vastly more complex than they were thirty years ago, but they’re also vastly easier to use, thanks to software engineers using some of the computers’ power to hide most of the complexity when possible.

“Common sense” would never have got us to where we are now. If everyone had always lived their lives by common sense, we’d still be living in caves. Before aviation existed, common sense would have told you that it was impossible for humans to fly, but it obviously isn’t. Before the era of modern medicine, common sense would have said that we couldn’t cure diseases by swallowing tiny little pills, or prevent other diseases by sticking needles in our arms, but we do those things every day now. What’s more, common sense would have said it was a waste of time to work towards any of that stuff, and that people should spend their time on something useful instead, like hunting enough animals to feed the tribe for another day.

And this is why I’m so suspicious of the “common sense” solutions put forward in politics. There are certainly a lot of them around these days, mostly put forward by loudmouth right wing types: we should leave the EU to save money, because it’s just common sense that paying them all that money leaves us with less. We should send home all the immigrants, because it’s just common sense that life would be better for British people then. We should stop doing anything about climate change, because it’s just common sense that it’s not really happening. We should stop paying benefits to the mentally ill and force them to work, because it’s just common sense that they’re faking it. We should stop pandering to transgender people, because it’s just common sense that they’re really attention seekers or perverts and don’t deserve our help. We should bring back the death penalty, because it’s just common sense that it must be cheaper and a better deterrent than jail.

No thanks. I’d rather listen to the experts (who incidentally disagree which pretty much all of that last paragraph), flawed as they may be. Then there’d be at least a chance of not dragging my country back into the dark ages.

I also think it’s interesting that the politicians who apparently want to listen to “common sense” are very selective about which common sense policies they’ll support. For example, I could suggest that it would be common sense to tax the rich more and give the money to the poor to eliminate poverty. Or that it would be common sense to prioritise the environment over the economy, since we can’t even survive without a healthy environment. As far as I can see those more left wing suggestions are at least as much “common sense” as the right wing ones I listed above. But try suggesting them to Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson, and I think you’d find they’re quite happy to go down the “Well, it may sound like a good idea, but it’s not really as simple as that…” route when it suits them.

The truth is, the Brexit supporters are appealing to “common sense” not because they believe it’s a good idea, but because it’s all they have left at this point. They know their arguments don’t hold any water with people who actually understand the realities of the situation, so instead they’re attacking the very concept of understanding, trying to make out that knowledge and insight are somehow elitist and undemocratic.

And sadly, judging from the recent polls, it looks as if they’re succeeding 🙁 .

Casual ageism… and why it’s bad

This is another thing I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, and something I saw posted by a couple of friends on Facebook has spurred me on to finally do it.

I’ve always found it slightly curious that ageism often doesn’t seem to be taken very seriously compared to the other -isms. There are countless articles online about things you shouldn’t do once you’re over 30*, for example, and although many people do find them annoying, they rarely provoke more of a reaction than that. Yet just imagine the uproar if there were breezy lifestyle articles on popular sites entitled “20 Things Black People Shouldn’t Do”, or “10 Things Gay People Need To Stop Wearing”.

The difference in response just seems odd to me… after all, you can’t choose your age any more than you can choose your skin colour or your sexuality, so why should it be considered more acceptable to judge and pigeonhole people according to age?

(* Full disclosure: the specific article that got me thinking about all this again was actually entitled something like “30 Things Women Over 30 Should Stop Wearing”. Now, I’m not a woman so I don’t really feel qualified to talk about the sexist aspect of the article – why “women over 30” and not just “people over 30”? – but I still feel entitled to stick my oar in when it comes to the ageism. In any case, I’m not really going to focus on that particular article much, it was more just a catalyst that got me back to thinking about the whole issue).

The underlying message of that kind of article always seems to be the same: you’re 30 now, so your life is over. Stop pathetically trying to enjoy yourself and get in the box we’ve made for you.

Let’s be honest: I’m the sort of person who probably gives those article authors nightmares. I’m nearer 40 than 30 now, but I still go to gigs; most days I still dress pretty much the same way I’ve dressed since I started high school (jeans, trainers, T-shirt); I love going on roller coasters; I explore abandoned structures that I’m not supposed to be in, just for fun; I had a massive buffet of Haribo sweets at my wedding reception; I still go to dance events where most of the attendees are students; I hang out with people for whom a good party is one that involves stripping naked and running into the nearest body of water; I called my largely pointless blog “Gcat’s World of Stuff”; when I go travelling I stay in cheap hostels like a gap year student, not because I desperately need to save money (though that is a nice side effect), but because I feel more at home in places like that. In short, “acting my age” is not really a concept that exists for me.

Front row on Nemesis

Front row on Nemesis

I have zero intention of stopping doing those things any time soon. If and when I do stop, it’ll be because that’s what feels right for me at the time, not because I happen to have been alive for some arbitrary, meaningless period of time. Hell, I didn’t even start doing about half of that stuff until I was already over 30!

At this point you may be thinking “Hang on, it’s not fair to compare ageism with racism and sexism. It’s different, because everyone gets the chance to be young once, so it’s reasonable to judge people who failed to get the ‘young person stuff’ out of their system at an appropriate age, people who refuse to grow up and move on”.

And I, in turn, could respond by pointing out that not everyone does get the same chances when they’re young. Many people’s childhood and adolescence are blighted by abuse, mental illness, physical illness, or any number of other circumstances that might make it difficult for them to spend time on enjoyable activites. In my own case those circumstances included bullying as well as very long lasting depression and anxiety… and now that I’m finally making real progress on getting over all that, I’m damned if I’m going to miss out on having some fun at long last, just because it makes some judgemental idiots squeamish to see over 30s enjoying themselves.

But I think to go down that line of argument would be to miss the more fundamental point. I’d be trying to justify something that should require no justification, buying into the underlying assumption that I should somehow be ashamed of what I’m doing, that I should feel I have to make excuses for my behaviour. I don’t have to make excuses, because there is nothing to excuse: I’m not hurting anyone.

DSC_6428

I suppose people might argue that I’m hurting myself, though, and missing out on proper adult experiences by not acting my age. I disagree. I’m married, I work in a fulfilling and highly skilled job, I own a nice house and a nice car. I don’t think I’m missing out on anything… and I think the people who believe you need to stop doing what you love and start putting on some dull, soul-destroying act of “maturity” in order to succeed in the fields of dating and career are utterly, utterly wrong. You have a MUCH better chance of finding a partner or a job that’s right for you if you’re happy, relaxed and enjoying life than you do if you’re uptight, repressed and wasting all your energy on putting up a front to the world. Believe me, I know this from bitter experience!

It seems highly ironic to me that people who claim to value maturity so much are often the ones who judge others based on trivialities like what clothes they choose to wear or what activities they enjoy in their spare time. That doesn’t look much like mature behaviour to me… in fact that looks very much like someone who’s desperate to appear grown up to cover up the insecurities underneath, but lacks any understanding of what being grown up actually means. I’m reminded of the famous C.S.Lewis quote, “When I became a man, I put away childish things… like the fear of childishness, and the desire to be very grown up”.

But why does it matter?

You’re probably wondering why I chose to write a blog entry about this. After all, I could have just ignored it… I could have rolled my eyes, muttered “idiots” under my breath and moved on. And that is what I usually do these days, because if I let every ignorant comment get to me the way I used to, there wouldn’t be enough bandwidth on the internet to convey all the things I wanted to say back.

But this issue, I thought, merited a response, because I think it could easily turn into more than just an annoyance, to some people at least. I mentioned above that I was clinically depressed for a long time. There were a number of factors that helped me to get better a few years ago, but by far the most important one was re-learning to listen to my feelings and do things that would make me happy, regardless of what I felt I “should” be doing. In other words, it was mainly starting to do all of those supposedly age-inappropriate activities I listed above that finally lifted me out of the depression I’d been mired in for well over a decade.

Mattresses

In light of my experience, I think it’s downright irresponsible for anyone to be dishing out “advice” that amounts to telling people to give up on the things that make them happy. I’m sure the article authors would retort that they’re not forcing anyone to take their advice, and that’s true; but knowing what it’s like to be in a deeply depressed and vulnerable state, I suspect that the people who are least likely to be able to brush off things like this are also the most likely to be damaged by them. Of course some vapid, click-bait list that even the person who wrote it probably doesn’t really believe isn’t going to ruin someone’s life in itself, but I can easily see it pushing someone over the edge if they’re already in a precarious state. So I stand by what I said: it is irresponsible.

But then I’m 36 and I still wear trainers, so I suppose that disqualifies me from talking about responsibility anyway.

I Now Pronounce You Mr And Mrs Gcat

Laura and I got married on the 28th of May. Since I’ve previously decided that going for a walk by a river, fitting new spark plugs to my car and finding an Android music player app that can do gapless playback were important enough life events to merit writing blog entries about them, I decided that this probably was too.

ceremony

For a long time, I didn’t used to think I’d ever get married. To be brutally honest, if it wasn’t for the rise of internet dating I probably wouldn’t have; I may be a bit less neurotic in some ways than I used to be, but I’d still rather ingest live slugs than attempt to chat someone up in “real life”. So it’s a good job I’ll never have to, now!

We’re just back from honeymoon (well, mini-moon… we might still do a bigger holiday later in the year) and it’s all still a bit of a blur. So far the most noticeable difference between being engaged and being married is that once you’re married you no longer have a wedding to organise, which believe me is a very welcome difference right now. But I guess since we’d already been living together for four years, bought a house together, adopted cats together, and so on, actually tying the metaphorical knot was never going to suddenly change everything the way it would have back in more conservative times.

guestbook

But enough waffling: what was the big day like? Well, the main thing I noticed was that it was over so, so quickly. After all the months and months of planning things, booking things, preparing things, I was left reeling at the end of the day thinking “Was that it?”. That’s partly because our ceremony was so short (not being religious, we went for a humanist-ish one, and didn’t have any long readings or anything like that), but even the other parts of the day seemed to be over in a flash.

That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable, though. The venues excelled themselves and everything was perfect, just the way we wanted it. The ceremony itself, for all its shortness, was quite moving and about halfway through I found myself wishing I’d had the foresight to put some tissues in my sporran. (Judging from the loud sniffing noises emanating from the rows of people behind me, I wasn’t the only one). I didn’t even mind being the centre of attention as much as I thought I would. I think the adrenaline and the sheer joyousness of the occasion was carrying me through, so that I was still able to give smiles and hugs to the guests long past the point where I would normally have slipped into sour-faced, monosyllabic mode and wanted to go lie in a darkened room.

cake

One of the highlights was the fantastic best man’s speech that Alex wrote. Here’s an excerpt:

“I think who [gcat] is, really, is a very caring and non-judgemental person… and a bit of a nerd. And for me, that word has no negative connotations whatsoever. He’s not one of those trendy new nerds who are basically normal people who like superhero movies. He’s a proper, old-school nerd who gets absolutely obsessed with the most obscure subjects, regardless of whether anyone else is into them or not”.

I’m pretty happy with that summing up of myself, though he did then go on to make me sound completely insane by following it with a list of several of my obscure obsessions from over the decades, including some that I’d almost forgotten about myself. (I gave a short speech myself just beforehand, but that mostly consisted of puns referencing the fact that we got married on a canal boat).

Another thing that struck me was that the whole process of getting married wasn’t all as romantic as you might think. A lot of the time is taken up with practical and logistical stuff: making sure the cats’ litter trays have been cleaned out before you leave the house for the night, spending what seems like an eternity in a kilt hire shop watching your fiance’s uncle winding up the staff, and so on.

The Mini Moon

Due to June being very busy for both of us, and the wedding itself being quite expensive, we weren’t sure if we’d have the time or money to go on honeymoon straight afterwards. So we decided to compromise and go on a little trip up north the week after the wedding, possibly going for a more traditional holiday somewhere hot a few months later, once our savings had had time to replenish a bit.

Strangely, whenever I’m packing for a trip where I’m going to be “doing nothing” (and I certainly intended this to be one of those) I end up taking far more stuff with me than I do for trips where I know I’ll be working, or doing a lot of sightseeing, or whatever. I think I just worry that I’m going to get bored, and feel the need to take a large selection of books, DS games, etc.

cottage

As it turned out, we couldn’t have asked for a better holiday home, or better weather. We stayed in a cottage in the midddle of nowhere (well, technically it was next to one of the main roads through the Highlands, but main roads through the Highlands can still be quieter than our residential backwater in Edinburgh, so we weren’t disturbed much by the traffic). Although it had a few interesting features – cold taps that sometimes ran hot, a staircase so steep that a sign on the wall warned that it was best to use it as if it was a ladder – that was all far outweighed by the lovely location and great facilities.

And the hot tub.

hottub

We spent a lot of time in the hot tub, and a lot of time lying in the garden in the sun afterwards. I made a valiant attempt at clearing the huge backlog of transport-related books that I’d been meaning to read, but it was no use – due to buying yet more of them in Kingussie and Aviemore, the backlog ominously grew even bigger.

Although we’d generously been given a huge selection of presents from our not-very-traditional wedding list on Amazon (which included plenty of board games and other fun stuff in among the more normal household items), we’d also been given quite a bit of money and gift vouchers, and we took advantage of the cottage’s surprisingly good wifi to spend some of that.

In addition to buying some sensible items, we also blew some of the money on hoes 😉 .

hoes

Our main outing on the mini-moon was a day out on the Strathspey Railway, which runs regular steam trains from Aviemore up to Broomhill, stopping at Boat of Garten on the way. In addition to the lovely views of the Cairngorms there was some interesting old railway equipment in various states of repair to look at as we puffed our way along the valley. We had lunch in the restaurant car on the way. Doing things like that always feels classy to me, as if I’m in Murder on the Orient Express… or better still, on the Excess Express from Paper Mario: the Thousand Year Door.

steamtrain