Stop STOP signs for Earth’s sake

It had been a little while since I last heard from my ‘green’ friend, so in case her homemade bathroom tissue recycling plant had exploded, I thought it may be worth checking on her.  She answered her cellphone with an expletive and without pausing for breath, she announced that she wasn’t in the mood to talk as “I’m stuck in traffic driving in town breathing in all these fumes and you just know there’s going to be nowhere to park this truck and my mouth tastes horrible because the batteries have gone in my toothbrush” followed by another expletive and ”we have got to get this traffic off the roads and cut congestion.”  She then told me that anyway she wasn’t going to talk to me because I had called her a ‘green-o-crite’ and ended the call before I could explain why.

I thought of this yesterday when I was driving back home and realised that for all their sound bites about global warming and congestion, Governments are not serious about it.  For if they were, they wouldn’t have just forced me to come to a complete stop on a 40mph road because there a chance that Ethel would want to pull out of her little side street and it wouldn’t be fair to make the residents of those five houses wait for a gap in traffic.  So the traffic planners had made it a compulsory stop in all directions and I had to wait for the girl in front of me to stop shaving her legs and actually start off again.  So did the other five vehicles between her car and mine.  And of course, Ethel wasn’t actually pulling out of her little side street that day because she had lost her false teeth and couldn’t go out without them.  But, just in case she did, 12 vehicles had come to a complete stop, inch forward and stop again, just because some faceless person (probably Ethel’s nephew in line for a nice inheritance) had got out a can of white paint and painted a white stripe across the road.

Anyone who drives in the US or Europe will come across the compulsory stop.  Some of them make sense, for example when at the end of the road where you are about to drive over the cliff or into Ethel’s front parlour.  But there are many many more random stop signs that really could just disappear overnight and help reduce emissions and cut congestion at the same time.  If I didn’t know better, I would swear that the local traffic planners had shares in International Paints or needed that free paintbrush that came with the jumbo sized can of white paint in the local Home Depot.  And this is the paradox:  it’s almost universally known that stopped and slow moving traffic produces more emissions because the internal combustion engine is more efficient at higher speeds and congestion is made much worse by endless waits at traffic signals or having to stop because Ethel needs Fixodent for her false teeth.  Yet we get more and more compulsory stop signs.  It’s not because drivers don’t know it’s a bad idea to pull out into speeding traffic either.

The road to one hotel I use half a mile long and has two lanes in either direction.  It terminates at a four way intersection that is access to the hotel, an apartment complex and the rear entrance to a shopping complex on each of the other three legs respectively.  If you use this road you are unlucky if you see two other vehicles.  Yet half way up this road is an entrance to an office building with a compulsory stop sign in each direction.  And if you miss ignore the stop sign, the very nice police car that sits 100yds further up will do its imitation of a sound and light show and the very nice policeman inside will get out and give you a very nice ticket to appear in court for failing to stop.  It’s a good location for him as he can sit nice and quiet and meet his monthly quota because of a white line across the road.  Just realized, this kills three birds with one stone: It gives the policeman his monthly bonus, keeps the court system working and of course helps the government as well.  The extra fuel you have pointlessly used to stop and start again means you have to buy more, therefore paying more in taxation to the state and the federal government.

You think this is fanciful?  No.  Let me quote an example from the UK:  It took the incoming Administration to get the Department of Transport to allow traffic signals to be phased to allow free movement of traffic by installing sensors to trigger a succession of green lights or ‘green wave’.  Previously the Department for Transport (DfT) had discouraged the systems which reduce fuel use and thus resulting in less tax being paid to the Treasury.  But both Environmental and motoring groups say carbon emissions will be reduced following the official policy change.  A BBC news report states “But now, rather than seeing green wave systems as a ‘cost’ to the public purse, the DfT views them as a benefit” and quotes the Department as saying “Urban traffic control systems, like green wave, help tackle congestion and vehicle emissions in urban areas, and a number are already being progressed as local major schemes.”

It’s after reading this that I call most single issue green campaigners ‘Green-o-crites’ and doubt the willingness of governments to really stave of global warming.  For instead of trying to make me carry paper bags from the grocery store, why can’t we see a simple campaign to ease emissions through simple low cost measures – like removing some of the more pointless and totally unnecessary Stop signs on our highways?  I am sure that there are other spin-offs as well, for the redundant aluminium signs could be melted down for recycling (it takes 20 times as much energy to produce aluminium from ore) and a lot of the estimated $115 billion and 3.9 billion gallons of fuel that was wasted through congestion in the US in 2009 could be saved.  These figures are from a US government authorized study that also estimates the cost to the individual was $808 and 34 hours annually in the same year.

So perhaps the stopping of the stop sign could be one of the more easy targets for my green friend. You can even produce a campaign slogan for it, ‘Stop-signs Trouble Our Planet’.  Traffic congestion cut, emissions cut, aluminum production cut, oil production cut, less deep sea drilling  and I can get to the grocery store and back with my plastic shopping bag full of steaks a lot quicker.  Of course, that is assuming that all those so called environmental activists can actually stop attending conferences in Cancun and campaign for the real things that will help, not insisting that we cover the nation with windmills and stop whatever is the bete noire of the day.

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Facebook, photos and the CIA

When I was still living at home with my mother, I always knew the gossip and who went out with whom.  If I listened carefully, I could probably of worked out who shopped where, what they purchased and understand that their dress-sense was inappropriate for church and they didn’t fool anyone by dyeing their hair because the cuffs and collars didn’t match.  I knew all this because my mother was a member of a social networking site, established centuries ago and honed to a level of detailed reporting that Facebook or Twitter would envy and any marketer would give his right arm for.  It was called ‘friends’ and they would sit in my mother’s house, drinking coffee and eating cakes, spreading the ‘news’ and explaining exactly about Mrs Carter and her liking for the butcher’s sausage.  Occasionally, photographic evidence would be used to support the latest salacious nugget of information, because Mrs Skipsey just happened to have a picture of Mrs Carter’s daughter Jane in the background of a snap taken at her son’s friend’s birthday party and doesn’t Jane look like the Butcher more than Mrs Carter’s husband.  Then for good measure Mrs Skipsey would name everyone else in the picture and more gossip would follow.  Or, sometimes, if the gossip was really juicy, my mother would receive a phone call from one of her friends and of course feel obliged to pass it on.  Admit it, you have all seen this.

So why on earth has everyone in the world suddenly started criticising Facebook because they have the technology to identify who’s whom in pictures uploaded onto their clients’ pages?  Some of the more outlandish comments I have seen claim ‘Government snooping’ and the ‘end of privacy’ or ‘world government wanting to know everything about us’.  No.  I disagree.  Facebook launched the technology in order to help their users identify who is in the background, because if you are like me you have lots of old photos in a box where you haven’t the foggiest idea of who was sat at the table with you at Josephine’s wedding.  Facebook just goes through the photographs for you and the computer says “I think that is Jane, the one everyone just ‘knows’ is the butcher’s daughter.”  This is not a governmental or commercial conspiracy – its just gossip, only faster and electronic because nowadays most people work and haven’t got time to eat my mother’s cakes.

Like everyone, the government knows exactly who I am.  They know when I travel, what I earn, what car I drive and who lives in my house with me.  I have a passport and a driving licence, so they have my photograph and fingerprints.  And because I travel extensively in the US and Europe, more than one Government has this or similar information, even a scan of my iris for Border Control.  My employers have details of my academic record and the names and addresses of people I worked with.  Some prospective employers may even have details I tried to hide when I applied, depending on exactly what they asked my referees.  Add in credit checks and drug screens and you soon have an awful lot of information about you out there.  You know that when a very nice policeman pulls in behind you and runs your plates he not only knows who you are, but that your car is 5 years old and is only a base model and not the sports version like the badge you stuck on says.  He will also know that the car is really owned by the finance company and that you are a customer of abc insurance.  He may also be aware that this car was last seen outside xwz location yesterday.  But so would have my mother and her friends.

Some people worry about photographs – so what?  Everyone knows that you cannot walk into a bank or shop without being recorded on CCTV and traffic control cameras are everywhere. Anyone with a computer can connect to streaming pictures of freeways all over the world and I have in the past looked at the UK and Indianapolis simultaneously to compare weather conditions.  Images exist and just because Facebook tells you that in your tourist snaps of Paris the man sat behind on the steps of Notre Dame was M. Claude Boules it is only the same as if you happened to hear his name called anyway.  About a month ago, a friend mine from the United Kingdom sent me a photograph of me taken at an event I attended in San Francisco.  The photograph was a group publicity shot and the photographer had identified who was in attendance for the history of the event.  My friend had come across it through an indirect search and it was coincidence that we knew each other; otherwise my name would have been insignificant.  This is also the way with images and the photographs you put on Facebook, only significant to those who know or care about those photographed. 

I am purposefully avoiding the data companies hold on me, but my airline knows where I fly and my credit card company knows as well – together with my choice in rental cars and hotels.  My local supermarket knows what I buy, so the company could more than likely make a guess as to what I have for dinner most evenings.  So if they want to suggest that I eat my cow with a marinade made from the various sauces I buy, so be it.  It will save me the bother of having to look it up or running out to the drive-thru because I am sick of eating plain steaks.  But remember, when the response rate to direct marketing is less than 5%, it means that 95% is ‘junk’ mail, so if by using some clever data analysis they stop sending me invitations to subscribe to Vegan’s World magazine, I’m all for it.  And remember, a lot of us give this information away ourselves in the first place through surveys and not ticking the privacy boxes on forms.

Having a level of detail about you in the public arena is unavoidable, even if it’s the photograph of getting drunk with a college roommate 20 years ago, because the roommate remembers your name and tells the people who look at it when cleaning out the attic decades later.  Most photographs end up in a box with the subjects forgotten.  Yes, these photographs may now be electronic – so what. Unless of course you just happen to be a Senator trying to impress the ladies with your physique, but that is a whole different story.  And it’s not Facebook who will pull out that photograph of you at two years old naked in the kitchen sink, it will be you mother or your brother or even Facebook;s users, not the company.

Even with all the electronic media now available, I would still put a bet on my mother and her friends being able to spread the news about Mrs Carter and the greengrocer faster than Facebook any day.  The East Germans knew this before the end of the cold war, because instead of installing listening devices and using spy cameras, they recruited thousands of local gossips.  But the data collected just sat there because its just gossip and really, nobody cares.  My mother may talk about Mrs Carter, but in the next town it was Mrs Morris and everyone knew the Butcher didn’t have a bike.   And when it does come to government analysis, you know that with 18 different agencies in the US alone, there is no way they can look at the data.  Because even when a government has access to the latest technologies and numerous data gathering resources, it still takes almost 10 years for them to work out that the target is just outside a military base.   So in all, I would fear my mother and Mrs Skipsey well before I fear Facebook, simply because I can chose not to Facebook in the first place.

Your name here arena

Anyone who has free time as a tourist in Chicago will obviously have a list of things to do and see, either partaking of the more cultural activities and enjoying some of the best natural history museums in the world, some great food or just marvelling at the skyscrapers that dominate the city, that based on average heights, gives Chicago the highest skyline in the world.  Obviously you will want to visit the observation deck in the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the US and the fifth tallest in the world.  Except that you cannot visit the Sears Tower any more and will have to make do with the Willis Tower instead.  Because the ‘naming rights’ have changed and even though the Sears Roebuck moved out of the building seventeen years earlier, the London based insurer decided to rename the building after itself.   

 It’s probably understandable that there are reasons for changing a name.  Wives often do it to remove their former married names, cities do it to remove the stigma of a dictatorship, for example Volgograd was formerly Stalingrad, even whole countries have done it following independence or to return to its original name, Zimbabwe was formally Rhodesia and its capital was Salisbury, not Harare.  Byzantium became Constantinople (it was a new city) which is now Istanbul, the original name in the Turkish language.  But the Sears Corporation was not overthrown by the proud freedom fighters of Willis Group Holdings yet against the wishes of over 97,000 people in the Facebook group against the name change, Willis Group still insisted on changing the name of the building from Sears Tower to Willis Tower.  And in fifteen years, the ‘naming rights’ will be available again, so the Sears – Willis tower may even become the ‘Cryptothinking Real American Palace’  tower and I am sure that there could be an acronym for short.

The whole issue of ‘naming rights’ is most prevalent in sporting arenas.  You can visit the UK and watch Darlington play soccer at the Williamson Motors Stadium,  I mean the Darlington Arena, no wait, it’s the 96.6 TFM Darlington Arena, make that the Balfour Webnet Darlington Arena, sorry, I meant the Northern Echo Darlington Arena.  At least that has Darlington in the name:  How about a visit to the Sun Life Stadium, formerly called the Joe Robbie Stadium, Pro Player Park, Pro Player Stadium, Dolphin Stadium and Land Shark Stadium in Florida?  Some of my friends in California now watch bands and basketball at the Power Balance Pavilion, not the Arco Arena.  The right to put your name on a building is big business.  On my visits to Indianapolis, I watched the construction of the new home for the Indianapolis Colts, named for the next 20 years Lucas Stadium at a cost of 121 million dollars. (Oh, and even the Indianapolis Colts were the Brooklyn Colts and owe their colors and origins to the Dallas Texans.)

Even airports are getting in on the act.  You cannot fly to Liverpool or Belfast City airports anymore; it’s now John Lennon and George Best airports respectively.  Orange County Airport in California is now called John Wayne Airport and ‘shurely’ that should have been Marion Robert Morrison, his real name.  Several American aviation authorities  are seriously thinking of allowing the naming rights to their to be sold, in Kansas, Detroit and Utah, although Phoenix did refuse to allow the Sky Harbor Airport to become Ashley Madison Airport, turning down $10m from the infidelity dating site of the same name.  But let’s assume this became a trend:  can you imagine how many children would be denied visits to Disneyland because their parents did not want them exposed to advertising when Orlando International becomes McDonalds Happy Airport with all the TSA security guards dressed in Ronald McDonald outfits?

But what happens when companies change their name or just go out of favor?  This happens frequently, for example the Philip Morris tobacco conglomerate is now Altria Group and the CIA and US State department contractor Blackwater has become Xe Services llc, pronounced ‘zee’.  How many cab drivers will reply “Which freaking one?” in response to “Xe Building, please”   Corporate headquarters names have changed however, for example, the  Standard Oil Building in Chicago  became the Amoco building following the change in the company name, which made its nickname of ‘The Big Stan’ a bit silly, especially as it is now the Aon Center.  In Houston, Enron Field became Minute Maid Park, but you could also go to the Toyota Center or Reliant Energy’s Arena.  There is also the Verizon Wireless Theater.  So when the world boycotts cars, bans oil, stops drinking Coca-Cola’s products and Verizon changes its name yet again, will all the street maps for downtown Houston become out of date overnight and FEMA drafted in to help the hundreds of Texans lost in their own city?

 But please, can we now stop?  It can go too far and anyway the locals will not keep up.  There is a pub in Wales that is known to all as ‘The Rat Trap’ and despite an attempt to change it the present owners were forced to revert to the former name because no one knew where it was.  On top, some places become so iconic or notorious that their names will never change, for example The Chrysler Building in New York or the remains of the Holiday Inn and St Georges Hotels in Beirut.  So no attempt at corporate branding will work here and anyway you may be better off as being known for owning the building:   The MGM Grand, The Bellagio and The Luxor casinos are iconic and all owned by the same company.  Purpose built, famous buildings designed with individual names.  Unlike the four Fifth Third sports fields or the four Verizon Centers or the various Coca Cola stadia worldwide.

 It doesn’t of course stop with buildings.  Literary prizes, sports leagues, even racing teams are named after those willing to pay.  Perhaps I could join in.  For a small nominal fee paid to my Cayman Islands bank account, you could have your name on the top of this post.  You can replace Cryptothinking with the name of your company, just imagine, you could be reading the Burger King Mid Atlantic Thought Generator, assuming of course you wouldn’t feel compelled to rush out and buy a beef sandwich or wasn’t held back because you work for McDonalds and they would disapprove of you frequenting a rival’s establishment.

Hooters turn, not McDonalds

Certain things in life are probably a dead give away and it doesn’t take too much intelligence to work out what a type of establishment is.  For example, I am sure that the leader of my local “Bible Discussion and Study Meeting” Group now fully understands that when they were on their trip to Amsterdam, it may have been advisable to avoid an establishment tastefully adorned with little red lights and that the large neon sign saying flashing ‘BDSM Club’ was not an abbreviation of the founders’ surnames, the respected pillars of the community Roger Bonger, Ververy De Roode,  Willie Stikken and the Inman Massen.  Group leader Ethel now understands that the very nice ladies stood in the windows were not sponsored by the local leather workshop either.

I can forgive a lot of people of not understanding the true nature of a certain club named after a flavour of chewing gum and a large endangered land animal (I don’t mean Peppermint Hippos, but close), but you must have been living on another planet for years if you haven’t heard of ‘Hooters’, a bar and restaurant chain that operates in 28 countries and has over 460 establishments.  The Hooters’s name is openly derived from a slang term for certain parts of the female anatomy and the chain could have been easily called ‘Melons’.  The table staffs in these restaurants are female, the corporate uniform is a tight fitting tee-shirt worn with hotpants and a certain degree of attractiveness is required to be successful at the interview.   Hooters claim that their hiring policy for certain physical attributes in all female wait staff is actually a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification under discrimination laws in the US, in the same way as Playboy does with the ‘Bunnies’ at its clubs.  Additionally, all of the restaurants are licensed to serve alcohol and they obviously don’t do a kids menu.  Although the business model is aimed at a mature market, there is absolutely no way to connect the restaurants or their staff to any of the more salacious businesses such as Peppermint Hippos.   

So why do I mention this?  Well, it’s not Wednesday so it’s not McDonalds turn.  Yes, there is someone suing Dunkin Donuts because they served them a cup of coffee with sugar and not artificial sweetener (because we all know that the staff should be able to diagnose that the customer was a diabetic at a glance), but really that’s just a local issue.  No, we have a new Quelle Horreur:  It appears that a family took their 12 year old to the local Hooters for a birthday party …. and then were rather upset because his cake was in the shape of the curvy bits of a female.  It gets worse, not only were they very upset, but they managed to get a petition online with over 900 signatures.  No one seems to have noticed that someone actually specially ordered and paid for the cake, because it actually said ‘Happy 12th Birthday’ on it.

No doubt that someone now wants either recompense or an opportunity to sell their story to the newspapers.  In a couple of weeks we may see a family member appearing on Dr Phil or Oprah or some other eponymous daytime TV show regaling the audience with details of “how I dealt with the shock of my twelve year old seeing fake breasts” and “We are all in counselling”.   It’s more probable that, given the choice between a birthday party in McDonalds, with a bunch of unhappy kids running around whilst someone in a clown suit is trying to force a balloon into your hands at the same time as you are failing to tear open a ketchup sachet to mask the taste of what may be a burger wrapped in grease-soaked paper cartons, or eating a proper meal served at your table in a proper restaurant, most normal people would opt for a nice meal in nice surroundings.  It turns the event into an occasion for the family and injects a sense of fun for someone who is too old to sit on a clown’s knee.  It’s conscious decision by the parents and adults who are actually organising and paying for the event.

But what of the cake?  It is worth noting that this whole incident took place in Bristol in the UK.  It is also worth noting that in 1971 the Times Newspaper no less published the first topless model photograph in an advertisement for Fisons.  The Sun newspaper has recently celebrated 40 years of publishing a photograph of a topless model on page 3 each day, a newspaper that the University of Nottingham has noted is the read by a fifth of twelve year olds in a survey of 8,000 children in surveys conducted in the 1970s and in 1999.  So even assuming the birthday child in question has never been to an museum and seen any Renaissance artworks or been on a European beach vacation, just by reading a newspaper they see topless models, alongside the lurid headlines for death, violence and all the other rather unsavoury aspects of life.  Against this context a twelve year old should not be shocked at the representation of the female form.  And again, remember that this is a fun item for all the guests.

The article also made reference to the corporate uniform worn by the staff in Hooters.  The thought has to be so what, tee-shirt and shorts – big deal.  Admittedly you may not wear them to your aunt’s funeral, but girls have been wearing these for decades and it is virtually de rigueur for a night out in frost covered Newcastle in January.  A tee-shirt certainly covers more flesh that you see on the beach or at the swimming pool and cannot in any way be seen as provocative.  A clean tee-shirt on someone with a smile is better than a badly fitting clown suit and certainly preferable to a grease covered apron worn by some 300lb moustachioed female with a surly attitude.  The adults in the birthday party know this and this is why they injected some sense of fun into a birthday party.  “Its my party and I’ll cry if I want to” may have been a great lyric for Lesley Gore to sing, but really it defeats the whole purpose of being joyous at a birthday celebration.

So yet another non-story about successful business being condemned for an imagined slight – something not of their doing.  In a couple of days, this will be forgotten and normal service will be resumed when there is yet more criticism of McDonalds again, hopefully for something original this time maybe like the fact that a woman felt humiliated that the building was painted in the same shade as their lipstick.  In the meantime, a 12 year old in Bristol can put the press clippings in a scrap book and remember the fun party in a local restaurant.  And I’m off to see exactly if the Roger Bonger, Ververy De Roode,  Willie Stikken and the Inman Massen clothing line will look as good on me as the models in their windows.

German-Scottish-Irish-American?

There cannot be any doubt about it, the Americans are very proud of their country.  Wherever you travel in the United States, the Stars and Stripes are flown proudly, unlike in the United Kingdom where flying the Union flag is tantamount to admitting xenophobia and in England in particular, flying the English Cross of St George is accepted as saying that you are a ultra right wing fascist.  There are countless stories in the press where the over-zealous politically correct brigade have banned children from displaying flags least it causes offence – and that  even  highlighted in a report to the UK Government.  It went so far that during the 2006 soccer World Cup, some retailers, schools and major employers banned the flag completely.  Try doing that in America – there would soon be some sharp reminders and possible demonstrations of just how the west was won in the first place.

Americans are also proud of being Americans and take pride in their nation’s achievements – even those that are not, like single-handedly winning World War Two, cracking the Enigma Code and inventing the light bulb and jet engine, except that World War Two was a team effort, the British cracked the Enigma code and captured an Enigma machine before the Americans even entered the war and of course it was Brits Swan and Whittle who devoloped the light bulb and the jet engine respectively.  But I digress.  Americans are proud to be Americans and the 1,046,539 people who naturalized in 2008 probably are as well.  So I am surprised at how a lot of Americans try to dilute their nationality.

When I am asked the nationality of my family, I just say what’s on my passport, because that is what we are.  In alphabetical order, my family has American, Cherokee, English, Irish, German, Scottish and Welsh bloodlines, not including aunties and cousins, where you can throw in Caribbean and Moor as well.  That’s just the ones we know about, although I am sure that genealogists with enough time in the vaults in Utah would be able to find quite a few other nationalities as well.  Even the main family surname has possible French origins.  So, what nationality was the first man on the moon?  No-one is going to say Scottish-Irish-German-American (Neil Armstrong’s lineage), they just say American.  And that is my point.

Americans have a habit of saying that they are either Afro-American or Irish-American or Italian- American or <insert nationality here>-American.  A lot of fuss was made over President Obama as he is the first “Afro-American” President and what do you call him?  Well to my mind its just “Mr President”, the 44th holder of that office and the 39th American to do so (the first five US Presidents were Welsh and there may be another one if Hillary Clinton gains the Oval Office).  President Obama also claimed Irish roots on his recent visit there, so does that make him Irish-Afro-American? Wait, his father was African Arab from Kenya and his mother is from English decent.  So, should it English-Irish-Arabian-Afro-American? (Technically, President Obama is 50% Caucasian from his mother, 43.75% Arabic, and 6.25% African from his father.)  No.  Give me a break.  He was born in America to an American mother.  So he is an American. Period.

Now I can understand the imperative to maintain the (civilised) cultures and traditional values of your family, which often explains the reason the majority of us choose our belief system.  This is your heritage and the family history is important, especially when you need to explain to your children that they are not in poverty when they can’t have the latest X-Box game – poverty is what your grandfather knew living in that cave somewhere in Europe toiling 27 hours a day to put a meal on the table once a week.  From a shared heritage and history comes the nation and it shapes the society.  The US Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights that grants Americans their freedoms was mostly signed by Welshmen based on their values of fair play and liberty, although I suspect more as a way of sticking it to the English and take that for invading and banning the Welsh language.  Canada’s and Australia’s constitutions and governmental systems closely mirror Britain’s because that reflects the cultural history and the origins of a lot of the early settlers.  But you don’t hear people saying ‘British-Australian” in Sydney or “Australian-British” in London, in the same way as you don’t hear Welsh-British or Scottish-British or African-British.  

Into this must factor time.  If you are ‘fresh off the boat’, it’s understandable that you class yourself as “X living in Y”.  But your children will be Y living in Y and so will their children.  You wouldn’t dream of walking up to someone in Louisiana and saying they are not American because FIVE generations ago their father was kidnapped in Africa and brought to the US.  So why on Earth should that same person, five generations later, still identify as Afro-American, surely after nearly one and a half centuries it should be American, or at a push, American-African.   (The only reason aboriginal Americans say American Indian is to distinguish from Indians from India.)  As the generations pass and various families mix through marriage, more and more bloodlines are introduced anyway, so where do you stop? Will there be a huge family argument over whether little Chuck is Scottish-Irish-German-American or German-Scottish-Irish-American?

No.  I wouldn’t dream of concluding that the actual self-identification of Americans has anything to do with the federal grants and other advantages available as part of the various ‘Affirmative Action’ (or that oxymoron ‘Positive Discrimination’) measures in place, unlike the group of Italian-American professors did at City University of New York when they asked to be added as an ‘affirmative action’ category for ‘promotion and hiring’ in 1976.   If people want to create a nation, then they should be proud of it and willing to say that they are Oliviatanians from Oliviatania.   You have to find a point at which to stop otherwise, if the Christian Bible is true and you go back far enough, we are all Israeli anyway because it was Noah and his sons who populated the Earth after the flood.  Wow.  The first man on the moon was Israeli.  I must rewrite the history books.

If you are Welsh or British or American or Oliviatanian, be that and be proud of it.  By all means carry two passports just in case (you never know when Switzerland is going to invade) but I cannot imagine anyone in North Korea actually admitting they are American until the 101st Airborne get there.  So in the interim, if you are American, be just that.  Because you know there is not enough room on the form to write American-Cherokee-English-Irish-German-Scottish-Welsh and it will stop you having to argue with your grandparents over which order it should be written.

Boycott Kraft? boycott shopping

There are lots of things that we put off doing.  Work (unless our bosses are watching) and paying bills will be the two that will immediately spring to mind, but there is a whole list of things where given the chance, you would prefer to clean the cat’s litter tray before even contemplating of having to do ‘X’.  And ‘X’ isn’t on its own: most of us have a mental list of chores to avoid, in my case starting at ‘A’ and going all the way to ‘ZZ’.  Whilst this list will vary between individuals, I am positive that ‘grocery shopping’ will be in the top ten, just below cleaning the bathroom and slightly above washing the car after its been parked underneath a flock of seagulls all day.  Grocery shopping is not fun anymore and whether you are reading this in Beverly Hills, Beverley in Yorkshire or Bellary in Karnataka, you cannot truthfully deny this.

The first thing you do is have to work out what you want.  In past times this would have been easy, because consumer choice was limited.  When you walked in to the hardware store, you just said “6 candles please,” and the storekeeper would give you half a dozen of whatever he had in the box under the counter.  Today, however, this isn’t that simple, you now have to choose between alter, pillar, scented, un-scented, decorative, dinner….. the list is endless and can someone tell me how on earth Amazon can list 5,310 results for candles alone?  One candle shop boasts over 700 product lines and I suppose answering “Do you want scented or unscented, we have a nice aromatherapy range here…” with “no, I just want some light because my power has been cut off” wouldn’t really be appropriate.  No matter what you buy, you have to spend a lot of time working out what you exactly want.  You can’t just send your kid down the local supermarket to get some milk:  you have to specify which type: “full fat, low fat, reduced fat, fat free, organic, non-organic, lactose free, fortified, calcium enriched or even non dairy.”  By the time you wrote a simple shopping list, you pen has run out of ink, you’ve de-forested half of the States and you could have gone yourself and just about got back in time to go to bed.

That leads into my second point.  After working out what you want to buy, the second question is “where from?”  36 supermarkets in Beverly Hills, 9 in Beverley, 6 in Bellary. (That’s in India, by the way).  You have to answer all sorts of questions in your mind: ‘is my 2 rupees off at Y worth driving there for, or shall I pay three cents more at X so I can get W off on Z’ followed by ‘will I be able to park’, and ‘oh no, it’s 3:30 The place is going to be full of screaming kids in strollers’.  You could still ask your kids to go, but that assumes you could get them out of their rooms and promised enough cash to make them go for you.  Then you know that their choice of where to shop will be based either in the hopes of seeing that good-looking cashier is on duty, you know, the one who asked smiled at you and maybe just be available for a date, or, to avoid that good-looking cashier because they working today and certainly do want to go out on a date.  So, after you have argued with your partner over what to buy, decided where to buy it from and ruled out sending the kids on the grounds of cost, efficiency and the fact that you got tired of asking them, you realize that it’s no good, you have to go yourself.

And this is my third point.  You have to get ready to go and after the mental exercise in drawing up a shopping list and working out where to shop, you now have to decide on what to wear. Your choice of clothing will be based on where you shop, where you live and more importantly, who is likely to see you.  In Benghazi or Baghdad this could just be as simple as putting on a bullet proof vest under your veil, but in most towns and cities, be honest – you dress appropriately.  You can be too overdressed for Wal-Mart (seriously) or too underdressed for Safeway or Waitrose.  You can’t just walk out unshaved or in a pair of flip-flops because you can bet your bottom dollar you are going to bump into your friends from Church or your big boss from work.  And if you are famous or even infamous, you know that lurking outside every supermarket will be someone with a camera just waiting to take your picture and sell it to the Enquirer or the People.  The same applies in Wal-Mart, but the photographs of their customers end up on peopleofwalmart.com unless of course it’s John Travolta.  Nowadays you can’t go shopping for clothes because you have no good clothes to wear.

Which leads straight on to the fourth point, the hazards of shopping.  Assuming you have successfully established a list, worked out where to go and are appropriately dressed, now comes the real danger.  Forget the occasional mis-guided NATO air-strike, because that is rare.  The real dangers are at the supermarket itself, and I don’t mean the risk of photographs.  No, when you get inside, you are faced with the fresh fruit (salmonellae and e-coli), fresh eggs (salmonellae again) and the risk of obesity, heart attacks and diabetes from the abundance of high calorie food on display.  This does not include the caustic acids in the cleaning agents.  Then there is the risk of strains and injury from lifting the gallons of milk or the damage to your ankles from being rear-ended by the person talking on their cell phone whilst pushing a shopping cart.  Isn’t there a law against using a phone whilst driving?  This of course does not include the child in the cart next to you throwing cans on your toes whilst screaming in your ears, making you deaf.

After surviving all that, you carry your plastic bags back to the car, breaking your fingers in the process as the handles cut into your skin.  You then arrive home, only to find that you have been overcharged and you forgot the one thing you really went to get in the first place.  I’m sure that is why Amazon and online grocery shops are so successful: not because of the price, but its really is too much like hard work to go out:  you don’t have to get dressed to sit in front of a computer and you don’t risk being photographed, bombed or running into your boss when you have no makeup on and you are wearing last year’s fashions.

So after you ladled the melted ice-cream back into the container, got shouted at by your partner for forgetting things and put all the goods away, you realize that there is still nothing eat and you are destined to go back out to a drive-through for some burgers.  But that is after you finish cutting up the newspaper to hang behind the door because of course the one thing you intended to buy was a role of bathroom tissue.

German Nuclear Meltdown

Another day, yet another conversation with my bathroom tissue recycling friend, only this time she was phoning me to tell me some news and not berate me as usual because I was killing the earth by actually driving my car and still insisted in using plastic shopping bags.  “Great news… I’m moving to Germany – and I love Sauerkraut!”  she breathlessly announced, “but I have a question.. What power adaptor will I need for my electric toothbrush?”  Now as I know these things, I instinctively replied “anything compatible with CEE 7/16 – 2.5amp 250volt ungrounded or possibly CEE 7/4 ‘Schuko’ 16amp 250volt grounded” and quickly ended the call before she could start complaining that my clothes dryer had just made a penguin homeless.

I will admit that I have a few good memories about Germany, especially the time I drove into the country without my passport, got kidnapped by some Germans in Italy (well, that was my excuse for being falling down drunk in a bar) and driving way too fast on their autobahns.  I even have a liking for Berlin, especially the tracks with Dave Gilmour on guitar and the love theme for Top Gun.  I was thinking about this and how I didn’t think that Stuttgart was ready for the sight of recycled bathroom tissue drying in the sun when I realized that I didn’t know why my friend was intending to leave.  I was sure that they hadn’t suddenly voted in another mad head of state again (like an Austrian ex-catholic choirboy) and the 101st Airborne were working for Exxon somewhere hot, so I started looking on the interwebs.

It took all of a couple of seconds to find the reason.  Apparently, Germany has announced that the country is going to phase out nuclear energy by 2022 and proudly states that the country will now be at the forefront of renewable and alternative energy research.  All because the Japanese nuclear power plants did what they were designed to do and survived one of the biggest earthquakes in recent history and have so far refused to blow up, despite the best efforts of a tsunami that inflicted the severe damage.  Whilst there have been small earthquakes in the North Sea (that’s the bit of water between the UK and the rest of Europe for our geographically challenged readers), research published in 2006 concluded that even a mega-quake and Norway falling into the sea would only produce light flooding on Germany’s northern shores.  Bit of a difference between high tides and a tsunami.   Still, better safe than sorry.

So in ten years Germany is going to switch off nearly a quarter of its generating capacity, replacing  it with renewable energy and reduced demand through energy efficiencies.  Ok, highly commendable and maybe on paper it works: You switch off 23%, you double the current share of renewables to give you 17% and you reduce demand by 10%, leaving a surplus of 4%.  But whilst this may fool the local kindergarten math class, if it is really is that simple, why on earth did it take politicians, some of them who will probably be educated, over 14 hours in an overnight sitting to come up with this conclusion?   (Just a thought: this has nothing to do with a rightwing politician facing political defeat at the hands of the Green Party has it?)

I am not a trained scientist or economist, but even I can see a few problems.  A quick check, remembering that nearly half of Germany’s current renewable energy comes from wind – you must have seen some of those 75-240ft towers with 90-180ft diameter rotors – to double the amount from wind would require at best another 18,000 wind-turbines, covering an area roughly twice the size of Berlin.  Then you would need the national grid to be renewed to carry the power, with pylons and transmission towers springing up around the country.  So, in order to eliminate nuclear power you will need to cover the country with power lines, windmills, bio-mass plants and photovoltaic cells and hope that everyone is going to reduce their power consumption to make up the shortfall.  (Just a note:  France currently generates almost twice as much as its electricity from renewable sources than Germany and still has 58 nuclear plants.)  And no-one has counted the cost:  A 2mw wind-turbine costs roughly $3.5million installed at 2007 prices.  So, for wind turbines alone, Germany faces a spend of over $6.3bn and remember that just because you switch a nuclear plant off does not mean it disappears – you still have to decommission it.  And that costs too, so does the grid and the replacement infrastructure.  But the biggest problem will be telling all those nice ‘green’ Germans to stop using their electric toothbrushes and use their hand motions for something else instead.

I phoned my friend back.  “Forget the toothbrush – you will not need it.  There will be no power, toothbrushes will be banned in order to save electricity, you will not be able to afford the windfarm taxes and the Ruhr will be covered in a blanket of smog from the coal powered electricity plants used to make up the shortfall,” followed by an explanation of the enormity of the problems Germany industry is going to face, although this may be good news for me as I dislike BMWs and the Mercedes I want is made in Mexico anyway.   Sounding rather disappointed, my friend hurried off the phone and I am sure she said she was busy knitting some beefburger or was it Bratwurst substitute?

My mother used to warn me to be careful what I wished for, just in case my wishes came true.  It’s a pity she didn’t tell the German green parties the same.  Because now they have their wishes granted and the Chancellor is going to switch off nuclear power.  So instead of being really nice to the planet and reducing their carbon footprint (nuclear generation produces no CO2), they are going to cover Germany with steel, build transmission lines everywhere and get the country to run out of electricity to recharge their toothbrushes and cars.  Well maybe that’s a good thing, because at least we’ll know where all the green-o-crites will be because they wouldn’t dream of flying would they? (unless of course it’s to that world climate conference held somewhere hot and remote, like a four star resort in Mexico)  In the interim, China will start manufacturing all the things German industry used to make and the world will start looking at the German government wondering if they have yet another mad Chancellor on their hands – or just maybe a really clever woman who is going to put an end to the protests against nuclear power once and for all by calling the Green Party’s bluff.