Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Liquid food dripping down the slippery slope

Anyone who has ever seen my Facebook page will be nonplussed to know I was in one of those I-must-keep-going-because-someone-is-wrong-on-the-internet arguments the other day. It was over, of all things, liquid food. In particular, it was about a New York Times article a friend posted about Soylent, the ironically named liquid food substitute that is apparently taking Silicone Valley by storm.

Soylent is made up of all the nutrients the FDA recommends one should eat in a day. As if everyone needs exactly the same quantity of nutrients regardless of multiple biological variables. But it's so easy! You simply add water to the powder and drink the resulting bland, porridge-coloured sludge in lieu of actual food.

Rob Rhinehart, the software engineer who came up with this idea goes to great pains to tell us it's not a weight loss product and that it is not meant to replace all meals. But, naturally, because human beings love quick fixes when it comes to weight loss, this is inevitably what it will be used for, especially when journalists have tried it out and reported weight loss.

And the New York Times report features people in Silicone Valley who are indeed living on nothing but Soylent. They are just too damn busy to be arsed with proper meals. And this is where the whole thing becomes inherently depressing. People living on Soylent have become the inevitable result of the cult of busy. It is partly down to pressure in workplaces to work longer rather than smarter, for costs being cut through understaffing, for people to define themselves entirely by their work.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with working hard to make something of yourself. But the cult of busy has generated an inflated sense of self-importance among many of us. The notion that something really bad will happen if you leave work on time, as if the sky will fall if you leave it until tomorrow to finish a task after you've had a good night's sleep, that you exist solely for work at the expense of human relationships or any real joy.

We are now in an era where too many of us answer the question: "How are you?" with a sigh, an eyeroll and a diatribe about how damn busy we are. I've done this. Most of us have. It's as if we're now ashamed to answer "How are you?" with a "I'm great, thanks. I get out of work at 5pm most days and I am sleeping really well and spending loads of time with friends and family."

In the Facebook argument, I made these points along with a lament for another nail in the coffin of real food, another way to take people further away from the joy of eating and preparing meals.

I am quite sure the people who begged to differ, who said they'd be interested in trying out Soylent because cooking doesn't interest them are perfectly nice people. Hell, if they want to spend their money on something that hospitals buy for a fraction of the price to force-feed anorexics they can knock themselves out. It's the money and their gastrointestinal tracts.

But the argument did shine a light on the glorification of not being able to cook. For fuck's sake, people. Even if you don't cook a cordon bleu meal every night, cooking is a life skill every adult should have. There is nothing big or clever about not being able to cook at least a few basic dishes. In the argument, I was accused of harking back to a pre-technology era - but, ironically, the conveniences of a modern kitchen make it easier than ever to cook and preserve food.

Of course, this is easy for me, or anyone who lives in a developed country, to say. What about the poor people of developing countries? Those without access to refrigeration or an efficient stove? Well, just as well then that Rob Rhinehart has the answers!

Except he doesn't really. In fact, he is a bit of a douche when it comes to his big idea for solving poverty. He proposes giving people in developing countries a Soylent-producing algae so they can keep making Soylent indefinitely. He says this would eliminate the need for factories and farms. Yes, because who needs factories? They only create jobs to help people out of poverty. And, frankly, how dare he deny the cultural importance of agriculture to millions of people across the world. How dare he slag off all agriculture instead of recognising its importance and recognising that it needs to evolve in an efficient and ethical way.

But it's OK because they can make all this Soylent! Yeah. Those poverty-stricken ingrates should be glad of any food, even if it is tasteless sludge. Why would they ever aspire to choice? Why would they ever want access to energy so they can cook their favourite foods safely and efficiently?

Rhinehart flippantly added that "all we'd have to do is fix the world's housing problem and people could be free". Yes, it's as simple as that in his privileged, arrogant, ignorant world. Sustainable development clearly isn't a concept he has spent much time with. How the hell does he think houses happen? Houses require building skills, which can be taught so people have a way of earning a living. Ideally, houses should be designed so they are appropriate for the needs of the people who live in them and make sense in their environment. Houses need access to energy to be effective places to live, work, study and, yes, cook actual meals in 2015.

Energy poverty needs to be addressed to make any of this possible. On top of that, access to education is the best way to help people out of poverty, to ensure they have a better life than their parents did. Access to healthcare is also important. Rhinehart's simplistic soundbite-friendly non-solutions patronise the world's poor.

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest Rhinehart hasn't really thought this through. For now, he is just trying to meet demand for orders in the US, an effort which required him to raise $20 million in venture capital. If his main goal is to make pots of money, fair play to him. He is a businessman in a free market economy and, as far as I can tell, he hasn't broken any laws. The ingredients of Soylent are not a secret. Consumers can make an informed choice.

And if they choose to forego the joy of food because they are too damn busy and important to pause for a proper meal, so be it. If they see fit to behave like overgrown adult babies who don't want to learn to cook, whatever. If they want to help Rhinehart get rich, that is also up to them. But don't sugar-coat your choice with the naive belief that Soylent is going to be a major force in changing the world for the better.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Marriage equality, Germaine Greer, and those who think of the children...

Ireland voted in favour of marriage equality for gay couples. Excellent news. Here's hoping my home country of Australia follows suit very soon. Many thought the power of the Roman Catholic church would be too strong but, given that just over 61% voted in favour, plenty of people who most likely identify as Roman Catholic also believe that if gay people want to get married, there should be no problem. Plenty of gay Roman Catholics will no doubt take advantage of this wonderful, historic change.

No Roman Catholic church in Ireland will be forced to conduct same-sex marriages. Nobody's religious freedoms will be impinged upon. Contrary to popular mythology, the Republic of Ireland does not have a state religion. It is known as a "Catholic country" because a lot of Catholics live there. Similarly, Turkey is a secular country that happens to have a lot of people who are Muslim, either observant or nominally so. The current government over there is doing all it can to piss on Ataturk's secular dream but, at the time of writing, Islam is not the state religion of Turkey.

The way in which the church will not be affected by same-sex marriage is a good example of why the further apart church and state are, the better it is for all concerned. Compare this to the absolute dog's breakfast that happened to the Church of England when the UK legalised same-sex marriage in 2012, except for the special snowflake that is Northern Ireland.

Maria Miller, who was at the time the utterly incompetent Culture Secretary, announced that the Church of England would be banned from performing same-sex marriages. The official religion of Great Britain would be exempt from this new law - which would be great, except that there are plenty of vicars in the Church of England in the UK and beyond who would love to perform same-sex marriages. This should be a matter for the Church of England to deal with as it sees fit. Whether this would mean a split in the church or a whole new church being formed is irrelevant. If the UK had separation of church and state, the Church of England could sort it out amongst themselves and there would be no daft ban enshrined in law.

In hindsight, marriage equality was inevitable for Ireland. In 1993, homosexuality was decriminalised and the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual sex became equal. In 2009, same-sex civil partnerships were introduced. The sky didn't fall. Perhaps now Northern Ireland might consider going down the same path instead of being given absurd religion-based privileges despite being part of an allegedly united country.

The "No" vote campaigners in the marriage equality referendum's main argument (aside from the fringe-dwelling loons who used the irrational "Next, people will marry dogs and toasters!" non-sequitur...) was that to legalise same-sex marriage would spell a decline in the traditional family, that all children need a mother and a father.

However, since 2000, lesbians in Ireland have had access to IVF and now gay couples can jointly adopt both non-biological children and step-children. There are, no doubt, plenty of people in Ireland who are horrified by this. In general, these are the same people who are horrified by abortion and want to preserve the ban in Irish law.

If a lesbian in Ireland falls pregnant, either by accident or design, these religious conservatives would not give her the right to have an abortion and they do not want her to be happily married to her partner either. I guess the only thing that would make these people happy is to force such women to give up their babies for adoption. Because that worked so well in the era of the Magdalene Laundries. Yeah. You'll have to forgive me for not being entirely convinced by their concern for keeping families together.

There is now talk that this new era of progressiveness for Ireland could lead to legalising abortion, or at least loosening some of the restrictions. If this happened, again it should be a clarion call to Northern Ireland to change abortion laws so they're in line with the rest of the UK. Of course, this would lead to the inevitable cries from the conservatives about how gay marriage leads to abortion when, for obvious reasons, gay people are not particularly responsible for causing too many abortions anywhere in the world. Indeed, when gay couples decide to become parents by whatever means they choose, it is usually a spectacularly well-planned process resulting in much-loved, much-wanted children.

Which brings me to Germaine Greer, bless her. This week at the Hay Festival, she became the accidental hero of religious conservatives when she used the example of Elton John and David Furnish and their children as an example of the "deconstruction" of motherhood. Really, Germaine? The cult of motherhood is bloody everywhere, especially if you manage to look hot while you're doing it. That is where the deconstruction is going on, where mothers are being insulted and degraded on a daily basis. It's not being deconstructed because some gay men are now parents. And it won't be deconstructed because gay people can now get married in Ireland. Get a grip.

Motherhood is still considered by many to be the pinnacle of female achievement, as if women without kids have somehow not fulfilled their full potential until they have bred. I remember a time when that was the kind of attitude that would appall Germaine Greer. Did she not notice the unseemly womb-watching of the Duchess of Cambridge? Did she somehow miss the endless media fawning as Kate and William emerged from the hospital with Princess Charlotte in an idealised, heavily styled tableau of heterosexual family values?

For good measure, Germaine criticised IVF, the very process which helps gay and straight couples become parents. She had the makings of a good point when she said that in some places, women don't know what happens to all the eggs that are produced by IVF and this is something women tend to care about. This is not the case in the UK where it is made perfectly clear what will happen to each and every egg harvested in the IVF process and this should be the global standard.

But then she went on to claim that the 1967 Abortion Act was only introduced because of lobbying by the fertility industry. Did she not notice the women marching in the 1960s to demand the right to choose? Does she think they were all there because they were getting kickbacks from the fertility industry? There may well have been lobbying by the burgeoning fertility industry at the time but that does not change the fact that a lot of women wanted the law to change and are glad that it did. Apart from a failed attempt to tighten abortion law by Nadine Dorries in 2012, abortion in the UK is not a hot button political issue as it is in Ireland and the US.

The sting has been taken out of the tail of the anti-marriage equality movement in Ireland. Maybe the sting will one day be taken out of the tail of the Irish anti-abortion lobby too. But in the meantime, we have a curious world indeed where Ireland is doing better on gay rights than Australia and Germaine Greer is echoing the sentiments of groups who have spent decades being horrified by the loudest voices of feminism. In the midst of it all, the kids will probably be all right.


Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Could the election ever have been all about the NHS, stupid?

"It's the economy, stupid!" is a frequent, if cliched, explanation for why elections are won. It's so obvious. The winning party was either strong on economic policy or, as is more likely in the case of this month's UK General Election, was strong on giving a good impersonation of being strong on the economy.

If the only payrise you've received of late is down to tax cuts, if you're not struggling on a zero hours contract, if you have never seen inside a food bank, if you really don't know what the difference is between the debt and the deficit and don't particularly care to find out, if you're genuinely happy with supermarket prices and the economy's current rate of growth, then yes, it is pretty obvious why the Conservative Party came out as looking like they might be strong on the economy. Whatever. It doesn't matter what your politics are, you can probably find figures to support your argument or you might genuinely believe George Osborne is doing a sterling job as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

For the beleaguered Labour Party, the polls (Ha! Remember those wacky polls before the election?), suggested the public thought Team Red rather than Team Blue was stronger and more trustworthy on the NHS. But this didn't translate into nearly enough votes for Labour to come close to a majority. The wheels fell off for Labour on the NHS long before Ed Miliband unveiled his stone tablet inscribed with the meaningless platitude of "An NHS with time to care".

While there certainly are people in Britain who would support the NHS moving towards a user-pays system and an increased take-up of private health insurance, the overwhelming feeling I get is that "free at the point of use" remains an important pillar of the NHS for many people from across the political spectrum. People understand that we pay for the NHS via our taxes and people expect in return to not receive a bill or have to file for bankruptcy as a result of receiving NHS treatment.

I remember debating UKIP's NHS policy with a Kipper on Twitter who was desperate to reassure me that UKIP is committed the NHS remaining free at the point of use (except immigrants like me, who have not yet lived here for five years, would have to take out private health insurance...). I found that UKIP, Tory, LibDem and Labour supporters all push the "free at the point of use" line but few seem too concerned with whether NHS services are publicly or privately provided.

And so the missed opportunities for Labour to show true strength on the NHS began.

Why didn't Labour promise to look into the billions of pounds the NHS internal market costs taxpayers in administration costs alone?

When we have situations across the country such as Virgin Care running essential urgent care services at Croydon University Hospital so poorly that quality standards are simply not being met, G4S being allowed anywhere near a hospital, Serco misuing public funds in relation to NHS contracts, we have a problem. The problem is compounded by private companies being exempt from FOI laws?

At the very least, Labour could have pledged to overturn the FOI exemption for private companies in relation to NHS contracts. Why did this not happen?

A promise to cap profits of private providers in the NHS did not resonate with voters.

The National Health Action Party, the Greens and UKIP all had policies on rolling back expensive PFI contracts, which are costing us billions in repayments, meaning we frequently get one hospital for the price of nine. Why was Labour afraid of a mea culpa on PFI? PFI may have been started by the Conservatives but it went nuclear under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. A humble admission that this was a massively expensive SNAFU and a pledge to do something about it could have been a vote-winner.

The cost of the NHS internal market and PFI contracts represent cost pressures on the NHS that make the Daily Mail's constant wail of "health tourism" pale into insignificance. They would be pledges that would not fit nicely on a ridiculous stone or have the snappy insta-appeal of the mansion tax, even though that would not come close to helping plug the NHS funding gap.

Why couldn't the Labour Party found a way to get the message out there that internal market costs and PFI are crippling the NHS financially way more than immigrants ever will?

Instead, we have much NHS fun and games already with the all-new, all-singing, all-dancing Conservative majority government. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is now bashing nurses over anti-social hours pay in his quest to make what is already a 24-hour service an unachievable 24-hour service. There are unrealistic promises of hordes of new GPs despite there not being enough GPs in training to achieve this, and despite Britain struggling to attract foreign GPs to make up the shortfall. It all smacks of setting the system up for inevitable failure, ably assisted by a compliant NHS-bashing media, thus whetting the public appetite for selling off more services.

Whether Labour, under the election manifesto's NHS promises, would have done any better is a moot point. Whether the new Labour leader will be able to offer a genuine, cost-effective, patient outcomes-focused alternative remains to be seen. All I will say is that if one of the "modernisers" wins the leadership contest (I'm looking at you, Liz Kendall...), I predict more of the same for years to come.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Enough with MPs wanting to be London mayors already!

Being the Mayor of London is a big job. It is not just a ceremonial role where you get to throw on some robes and gold chains and open village fairs. It is a huge responsibility. Apart from New York City, London is pretty much the only major city in the world where people from other countries know who the mayor is, especially since the deliberately dishevelled showpony that is Boris Johnson has been in the job. As a result, he has a huge following from people who don't even live in the UK and certainly don't have to live with the consequences of his ridiculousness.

Now Boris is both an MP and the Mayor so he can do two jobs badly instead of just the one. Being an MP is also a big job and a huge responsibility. So why the hell do people keep thinking they can do both jobs and do them properly?

When Boris leaves his post as mayor next year, there will be a vacancy and sitting MPs keep sticking their heads over the parapet to declare they're running for the top London job. We have Sadiq Khan, Labour MP for Tooting, Zac Goldsmith, Conservative MP for Richmond Park, Diane Abbot, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham all with hats in the ring. Additionally, Gareth Thomas, Labour MP for Harrow West, and Justine Greening, Conservative MP for Putney, are considered as potential candidates.

It has to stop. To try and be Mayor of London and an effective MP at the same time is to show no respect to the people you represent.

MPs cop a lot of flak and it is often well-deserved, especially when greedy snouts keep finding their way into troughs at our expense. But it is a demanding job, even if you are a humble backbencher, and there are plenty of MPs of all political shades who work hard and are genuinely trying to serve the people they represent. If you don't believe me, check out the excellent BBC documentary Inside The Commons.

And what is really sad is that among the MPs who have declared they want to be the Mayor of London, there are some genuinely talented people, in particular Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith. I can imagine both Khan and Goldsmith being better mayors for London than Boris Johnson.

But I don't want to see any of them as Mayor of London if it means they won't be able to devote as much time as they should to their roles as MP. And being a good MP, even if you are a London-based one, means you're not going to have time to take the helm of a city as huge, complex, diverse and challenging as the nation's capital. Nobody votes for a part-time MP any more than they vote for a part-time mayor.

And, frankly, while I'm at it, I've had it with the party politics focus on the job of Mayor of London. Hell, party politics at any level of local government can get messy and it can easily turn local councils into training grounds for ambitious wannabe MPs. This should not be the purpose of local government.

The media has to shoulder a lot of the blame for the party politicisation of the London mayoral elections. Every time it is portrayed as Labour versus Tory, red versus blue. As if the mayor can only ever be from one of two parties. And people are daft enough to view it as a two-horse race and vote for one of the two heads they see on every front page rather than carefully thinking about who might actually be the best person to run the capital.

In the last London mayoral election, it would have been magnificent if Siobhan Benita won. Imagine that. An independent mayor of London. A mayor who is not beholden to the policies of any of the major parties. A mayor who might actually have made decisions based on what was best for London and for Londoners. A mayor who is not distracted by the demands of being an MP. A mayor with no ambitions to be in the House of Commons or to be Prime Minister.

Will Londoners be bold enough to vote in a way that could set a great example for local government across the whole country? Or will it be another election of more of the same, regardless of the result?

Friday, 8 May 2015

OK, so what has gone on with the UK general election?

The polls predicted a close election. Britain was braced for a hung parliament and the possibility of voting again to break the deadlock. But the deadlock never happened and the Conservative Party won a majority. There will be no deals with the Liberal Democrats. With only eight LibDem MPs left in the House of Commons, they'll be able to hold their meetings in a booth at Pizza Hut. UKIP only won one seat. Labour members are in shock. And the SNP took almost every constituency in Scotland, which was about the only thing anyone predicted.

So why did vast swathes of Britain turn blue? I suspect UKIP helped the Conservatives enormously. It does not take a great leap of imagination to picture right-leaning, undecided voters across the country who were contemplating voting UKIP thinking better of it in the privacy of the ballot box. The Conservatives may have seemed a safer choice than a largely untested, gaffe-prone party that cannot quite shake its reputation for racism or sexism or being stuck in the 1950s or blaming floods on gay people getting married.

It is ironic that UKIP, the party that claims to be anti-establishment, helped to ensure the establishment retained power. Then again, this is the same party that all at once says it is in favour of free speech, constantly whines about "BBC lefty bias, appears on the BBC with alarming regularity, and called the police after Camilla Long had the temerity to make a joke about Nigel Farage on Have I Got News For You. We cannot expect any consistency from UKIP, the party that once had uniforms for taxi drivers as a policy despite claiming to be the party of minimal government interference.

The UKIP factor is more of a worry for the Labour party. In many seats, UKIP polled strongly against Labour candidates, eating into their majorities. This will mean some serious soul-searching for Labour. Ed Miliband attempted tough talk on immigration. Indeed, his bizarre stone monument named "Controlled immigration" as a promise.

For Labour, myriad questions have emerged. Will Labour need to try and out-UKIP UKIP to win back traditional working class Labour voters? Is it fair to tar all working class Labour voters as susceptible to UKIP policy? Should Labour instead try to educate voters in order to counteract UKIP's fear-mongering about immigrants? Or will Labour instead assume there will always be an element of the working class who will vote for them no matter what and try instead to appeal more to their liberal middle class supporters? Was Labour not radical enough on the NHS? Can Labour win over Green and Liberal Democrat voters in 2020 and would that be enough to dredge up a majority in five years' time? And what about being annihilated in Scotland?

Which brings us to the SNP. The Tories don't need the SNP to form a government, Labour is in no position to ask the SNP to help them take charge. The SNP rode high on a wave of Scottish nationalism but in England, English nationalism and a fear of being run by the SNP in a coalition, did not help Labour's cause. In the end, it didn't matter how many times Ed Miliband said there wouldn't be a Labour-SNP coalition. People were not convinced. As a result the SNP goal of ridding the UK of the Tories failed despite winning 56 seats.

Of course, there was also the rank hypocrisy of politicians who not so long ago were begging Scotland to stay in the union now encouraging everyone outside of Scotland to panic-vote a possible coalition away, neutering the influence of the very people they were courting during last year's referendum.

Given the SNP campaign was a strongly anti-austerity, let's-get-rid-of-the-Tories campaign, we can only assume their MPs will vote against any planned Conservative cuts in the new parliament. But even if they vote as a bloc with Labour, the Green MP and the smattering of LibDems, the Conservatives won't have any trouble getting things passed through the House of Commons. Whether the House of Lords is compliant, however, is another matter. And the Conservatives could easily face divisions, especially on issues such as Europe, if rebel MPs refuse to vote with the whip. We shall see...

And then there was the LibDems' obliteration across the whole country. London is left with just one LibDem, the cadaverously insincere Tom Brake, who has managed to convince people he is keeping the local hospital open on the strength of an e-petition so out of date it is addressed to the wrong body.

But were the LibDems punished for becoming yellow Tories? Given the number of yellow seats that turned blue, possibly not. Either there was a curiously apathetic attitude in polling booths of "Oh well, we may as well just vote Conservative, same difference" going on or perhaps there are more natural conservatives among us than we realised. With seats such as Twickenham, Sutton & Cheam and Kingston & Surbiton going from LibDem to Tory, were the more affluent and elderly voters, those more likely to vote and vote blue, coming out in force in these areas?

Oh well, maybe it is time for some good old electoral reform, eh? Remember way back in 2011 when we had the AV referendum? AV? Alternative vote? Anyone? Given that about three people turned out to vote, nobody seemed to understand what AV was, and the asinine Louise Mensch drearily sneered from the US that AV was bad because Australia and Papua New Guinea have it, it came as no surprise when the referendum failed. Now, all of a sudden, people who couldn't give a damn about electoral reform in 2011 are suddenly crying out for proportional representation instead of first-past-the-post.

In particular, losing parties are crying out for a spot of proportional representation - the Liberal Democrats and UKIP would have both done a whole lot better under that system. And maybe it isn't a fair reflection of the national mood if UKIP only gets one seat despite getting more than four million votes across the country. They are four million people the major parties will try to win over in 2020 if they are serious about governing with a comfortable majority.

But ultimately, UKIP may not matter at all in the long run. The purple pound-sign warriors can talk up their success-despite-only-having-one-seat all they like tonight. David Cameron has promised an in-out referendum on Europe in 2017. If he keeps his promise, UKIP will slink further into irrelevancy regardless of the result.

If the UK votes to leave the EU, that sucks the life out of pretty much every UKIP policy so they'd be instantly beside the point. If the UK votes to stay in the EU, the people will have spoken out against UKIP's obsession, life will go on and the UKIP MEPs will continue to be ineffective in Brussels at everything except riding the gravy train.

And as the night falls on the first day of the Conservative majority government, there will be a lot of pollsters, as well as Labour supporters, NHS campaigners, LibDems and people who'd sooner hammer rusty nails into their eardrums than vote Tory who are wondering what the hell to do now. Next up, we will have the inevitably unedifying spectacle of parties choosing new leaders as they lick their wounds. You might not like the result of this election but, chances are, you cannot look away. If you want change, however, you will have to do stuff as well as look, tweet and bleat.