Archived entries for Thoughts

Knowledge in the night

I’ve been experiencing a lack of sleep recently, due to a recent illness. I’d like to think that I’m one of those people who, upon confronting a sleepless night, gets up and starts to write rather profound ideas or poetry, inspired by the stillness of the moment or the rare opportunity to delve undisturbed into the depths of the soul.

I need…to discover the very purpose of this fleeting existence, to discover what brings us here and to speculate our ultimate destination.

I need…to put into words what it means to capture a breathtaking view, to experience the fresh scent of a new Summer’s day, or the life-affirming laughter of close friends.

I need…to pee, actually.

I suppose I am, in some respects, doing philosophy late at night. I’m questioning the foundations of knowledge, namely, trying to work out if I really know I need to go.

“Do I really want to go now? Can I wait? Should I wait? It’s cold out there, maybe I don’t need to go at all, and it’s just my body’s way of telling me it’s bored and it would rather be sleeping, thank you very much.”

When he wasn’t pondering the nature of justice, I’m sure Socrates must have asked himself similar questions.

I didn’t spend too much time on these epistemological queries, though; I would have wet the bed. If I’d have tried explaining to my exasperated girlfriend that Socrates made me soak myself, I’d be writing this with a blunt crayon and a special bracelet.

Towards the Eternal Conversation

Well, if 2008 was the Year of Facebook, it looks like 2009, judging by what everyone’s been talking about during the first few weeks, will become the Year of Twitter. As much as I like new technology, however, there are certain limits to what I consider to be the sort of useful applications which actually make life that little bit easier, or a bit more fun, which is why I haven’t really “got” the Twitter craze. It escapes me in much the same way that I never felt the need for mobile phone  ringtones. Why bother? You either pick up within two seconds, in which case it’s not so much a “ringtone” as just a “ringt-“. Let it play and by the time we’ve all appreciated your electronic, tinny-sounding rendition of a song that wasn’t much good to start with, the caller has lost patience and hung up. It’s the same thing with those little desktop gadgets you get which tell you what the weather is like; you can click on it to open a new window on your computer or you could, hang on…just open the real window and look outside!
For me, Twitter falls into the same category, into a drawer marked, ‘What’s The Point?’. The buzzword seems to be “microblogging“, the New Thing To Do, which is essentially about publishing short text updates about what’s going on in your life. Each entry is a “status update”, or ‘Tweet“, some of the new terms for telling everyone how you’re doing.

Why, though? Surely this will lead to us all becoming like that mad old man in the train station who mutters to himself about everything that he’s doing because he’s convinced that German spies are still listening in to his every word:

“I’m just sitting down on this bench now.”

“I had chip sandwiches for tea last night, you know.”

“Status code Red, Sergeant! Target seen purchasing a suspicous item, codename “Flapjack”. Ready to roll out the next phase of Operation Platform Three. Stand by, gentlemen.”

The point here is that that something like Twitter doesn’t offer you the sort of social feedback that you would get if you said these sort of sentences in real life, to real people. Without the human checks and balances that let you know when and whether something is worth saying, what’s left is simply a license to report everything that goes on, no madder how mundane or trivial, because it’s been marketed as What the World Wants To Know.

If you believe the hype, your old friends are eager to hear that you got to bed at 2am last night; your distant relatives are now back in touch, thanks to this marvel of modernity, and can rejoice in the news that you’re away right now in your third meeting this morning, “LOL”.

It seems like there’s a sort of dichotomy going on at the moment when it comes to people who are connected to the Internet. On the one hand, everyone seems to be so concerned about online privacy, and about just who has access their personal information, whether they can accept the content of their emails being monitored and so on.

Yet on the other, people are only too willing to divulge their personal lives, whether this is broadcasting information about themselves via their personal profiles on social networks, uploading and tagging their photos, their videos, or, most recently, reporting their every actions and thoughts at regular intervals, all day, every day. You could argue that this latter sharing is “controlled” by the people using the service, but it affects other people “outside the loop” as well. We’ve all, I’m sure, met people who have been told that they are “on” Facebook, even if they themselves have never signed up to the service, because they’ve been tagged in a photo, a video, or somewhere in the maze of all that user-generated content that makes up today’s online communities.

The sheer volume of information that we upload to these sites seems to me to be less about control and more about something opposite, an almost uncontrollable urge to communicate as many things about our lives to as many people as possible.

So what’s next, after “microblogging”? With the way things are going, my guess is that the next phase will be “Omniblogging”, in which users forget even the discreet pauses between updates, until what’s left is just a constant, unedited online stream of consciousness, from every device, all the time, about everything.

By the way, have you heard about that other resource they’ve been keeping quiet about all this time? It’s being used all around the world, by millions of people on a daily basis, and what’s more it’s also completely free to use: it’s called “Silence”.

Rain and reflections

It’s that time of year again. Time to reach into the attic, among the big jumpers, mattres springs and those other objects you have absolutely no recollection of purchasing, and get down that dusty old box labelled “Things To Do This Winter”. Like the class bully on the first day of a new term, autumn came along this afternoon in the form of a fierce gale, broke my umbrella and told me just what it thought of my summery memories and long, lazy evenings on the terrace. Not to mention just where I could shove my new sunglasses.

So in the spirit of getting through Winter by taking on something new (always a good way to keep going through the dark days ahead), I’ve started attending a philosophy class, with the School of Philosophy, having studied something of the subject at university. It’s quite different, though, because whereas my studies involved looking at the original texts of Plato, Hegel and friends, this course has an emphasis on the more practical side of things. So it looks at, for example, how to take a philosophical statement such as “It is easier today to triumph over evil habits than it will be tomorrow” (Confucius) and discusses how and why this might be the case. Then the class is encouraged to put this into practice during the week, to look at, say, doing something that needs doing immediately rather than putting it off until another time, and so testing Confucius’ theory in an everyday setting. The idea is that you then at the next lesson discuss the results, and try to work out why a certain philosophical idea worked or didn’t work. To learn philosophy by living it.

It’s only been the second week so far, but it’s certainly been enjoyable. I like the idea of sitting around and giving feedback on how useful, or not, these ideas have been. For me, it’s taking philosophy back to its original purpose of questioning assumptions and trying to talk through the deeper meaning of what goes on in our lives on a regular basis. It’ll be interesting to see what impact the course might have on my usual winter mood of complaining bitterly about the cold and the rain. Why, I might ask, am I feeling angry at the icy rain that’s trickling down the inside of my shirt? Will I be able to see the bigger picture if I’m shivering wreck waiting for a tram that’s 20 minutes late? I can’t wait to find out.

Knight of the Order of the Thistle

I’ve been thinking about establishment. Partly it’s because, in my new job as a journalist on EU affairs, I’ve been in contact with several MEPs and commissioners and this morning I was taking pictures of the president of the European parliament for a feature on, yep, you’ve guessed it, electric bikes.

What also prompted these thoughts is the fact that the “in-house” style at the magazine follows the same style as the Guardian newspaper, i.e. to use lowercase words wherever possible. Writing in this way got me thinking about titles and honours and the establishment in general.

It’ll be interesting to see how my opinions change as I come into more frequent contact with politicans and heads of different organisations. At the moment, I still read a title like “Professor Sir Gilbert Knockbottle OBE PhD FRS LLM FRCP KCB PRA MSTA” with a certain amount of awe, even though I know that for a lot of these titles, it’s a case of approaching the right people with the right words and the right wine.

The other day I was trying to get in touch with somebody who is a professor and a knight, and again as I was dialling the numbers I thought about what I was going to say to somebody who was considered of great importance both in society and also in academic circles, i.e. on paper, both brilliant and charming. I’m not a particularly tied to social convention as such – I’ve worked for Greenpeace, for example – but there’s something about knowing that this person was an established authority that makes me want to make a good impression.

My guess is that the more time you are able to spend on the “inside” – in government departments, royal colleges, academic circles, international institutions and so on – the more you become aware of the tricks used to build up a favourable reputation. Perhaps I’ll come across these tricks the more contact I have with EU officials. Of course, there are exceptions where genuine hard work merits proper recognition. However, I have my suspicions that most post-nominal letters might turn out to be less about long-term committment and more about long-life Chateau Latour.

Confrontations with the Clinically Insane

I think it might be a wise idea if I carry a card around with me. Unlike a business card, which usually makes its appearance after the champagne and chit-chat (“Ha ha, yars, yars, you must come round and look at the tennis lawn sometime”), it would be the first thing I hand to other people. For their own safety. It would serve to lessen the impact when they find themselves, sometime later, in the sort of situtations in which the most prominent thought seems to be, “Why on earth didn’t I just stay at home and tidy the kitchen?”

The card would, in other words, act as a sort of personal disclaimer. A wallet-sized ‘You Have Been Warned’ notice. It would say something along the lines of, “Being friends with Matt carries certain risks. It is likely that you will encounter people several stations too far from Sanity Central. Stay alert.”

It had, up until yesterday, been a relatively “nutter-free” existence in Brussels. Most people I met were fairly stable, apart from, say, the people who decide to fix you with a solemn stare for the entire metro journey, or anyone who’s a member of ITS. Yesterday afternoon, after a walk exploring the area just north-west of where I live, I decided to meet my friend, a Spanish girl called Pilar, for a coffee at Grand Place. It was just after 5pm.

We met near the market, and were walking down one of the streets, looking for somewhere that was fairly quiet, away from the Bank Holiday crowds. As we were walking, a man passed us and spontaneously produced a gesture that looked like he was swatting away a fly in front of him…very violenty. Pilar and I exchanged a look, and we turned around out of curiosity, as you do when these things happen. As it happens he had also stopped, about fifteen meters away, and was looking at us.

He was standing next to a builders’ skip, inside which were broken up blocks of concrete. One of which, he picked up, and made as if to throw the block right towards us. At this point, Pilar grabbed my arm and screamed. Maybe this is what he was hoping for, because he didn’t throw the block at us, but continued to stand there with it raised in his hand, staring with malice. At the time, I was at a complete blank, I just stood and stared at him, gripped with fear and disbelief; of course, the moment we felt sure he wasn’t going to throw it, we got out of there like lightning.

Shaken, we found a cafe – the criteria having been narrowed down to, “somewhere, anywhere” – and gradually were able to joke about it; the event would become “something to tell the grandchildren.” It got me thinking, however, that perhaps I ought to advise the people I meet to consider something in addition to my personal details: some personal insurance.

(Regarding my journalism training, this last week, among other things, I’ve been dealing with serious organised crime.)

Downpour

I’ve just been caught in really heavy rain, on my way home. I tend to get the giggles in the first few minutes of a really big downpour, and I think it’s nervous laughter. An incredible volume of water is falling down from a great height, thrashing around in whichever direction the wind happens to be going; you’re temporarily blinded by the water in your eyes and deafened by the unique white noise that rain makes. Rain, like all weather, makes no distinction between people, and in that sense is quite a useful reminder of who we really are. As you’re standing under a tree, waiting for an appropriate moment to try and run a bit further, you might exchange a quick glance with someone you meet; a silent acknowledgment of shared vulnerability. Regardless of your social status, age, race, language, sexuality, political beliefs, habits, and so on, in the struggle for protection from natural forces you are simply a human being. What hits us is not only rain but also reality.

…and what do you do?

Union Pacific Railroad Big Boy #4012

I hope there’s not some universal rule that dictates that the people you tend to attract are a reflection of the sort of person you are yourself. Maybe, of course, somewhere deep inside me there’s an enthusiasm for those interests that are, to put it kindly, located at some distance away from typically popular culture. Why has this sudden suspicion arisen, you might ask? It’s because last night I was at a champagne reception and got caught in at least fifteen minutes of conversation (or, rather, my own one-to-one lecture) with a Dutch train guard who works on a voluntary railway, on the subject of narrow-gauge railways…in Romania.  

Fringe benefits

It was time, on Friday, to get a haircut. My hair had grown to the point where it could have housed a small family of birds for the winter; something had to be done. So off I went to the nearest hairdressers, and thus the ordeal began…

“Bonjour, Monsieur. How would you like it cut?”

 (Remember this is in French and my vocab on hair terminology is somewhat limited…) “Well, it’s too thick, you see, so I’d like it thinner.”  

“Right. Do you want it layered?”

“Layered? Er…can I just have it cut?”

“Well what sort of style did you have in mind?”

 “I was hoping to go for the “Now I Have Less Hair Than When I Came In” look that seems to be-”

(Of course now she’s giving me a look that I do not want to see on someone grasping a pair of sharp scissors, so I stop talking. Sharpish.)

“You already have layers, Monsieur”

 “Of course I do! Silly me! You see, sometimes you forget, don’t you? Forget to take the rubbish out, forget to feed the cat, forget your hair is layered….”

“How much length do you want me to take off?”

“Well, actually, can I…sorry, please could you keep it quite long, if that’s alright?”

“I’ve got a better idea”

(Oh, Christ. Here it comes. Skinhead. Mohican. Just A Fringe.)

“Just let me cut it.”

 Well, it was a fantastic haircut, in the end. I wish all hairdressers could be like that from the beginning, instead of making me feel like I’m taking part in some sort of Hairdressers’ Mastermind.

Still Life

Sardinia

Just back from Sardinia, where I joined my family who were staying near Stintino, in the North West of the island. As we went out of season, both Stintino and the surrounding area were deserted, giving the place a very “League-of-Gentlemen” feel: “Lei è locale?”

It reminded me in a way of where I come from, North West Wales. Beautiful scenery, absolutely packed with people in the summer months, and a bleak emptiness in the winter months. I began to wonder what would pass for news in Stintino, what would get the locals chatting excitedly in the shops, cafes and by the post box:

“Man Drops Keys Down Drain”

“Last Night’s Full Moon: Exclusive pictures inside!”

Speculating on what might constitute headline material in this remote part of Sardinia reminds me that North West Wales has itself produced some memorable “news” items recently:

Man rang 999 to report cold meal

Man gets breakfast tattoo on head

There comes a time when Scrabble clearly loses its appeal…

New horizons

The gang from 46 Ave Albert Jonnart

It’s been a busy few days since the weekend, beginning with a wonderful day out with my housmates to Ostende, a chance to get out of the city and also to spend a bit more time getting to know the people with whom I’ll be sharing a house for the next 5 months. For me it was a strange resort because right next to the beach, there is a very built up area consisting of tower blocks of hotels and appartments. Even when you look along the coast, further along through the haze you can make out the tall buildings rising up from the sea and sand nearby. A visit to a new place with new friends, I stuck to the theme of novelty and tried some new food. The “Warme Wullocks” (sea snails), which Marta had bought, were very hot and very chewy, but didn’t really taste of anything. It was quite satisfying in a sort of “Yeah, I’ve had snails” way, but also disappointing in that I had sort of perversely hoped I might faint with disgust.

This week the Parliament has a Plenary Session in Strasbourg, a monthly meeting in which MEPs give speeches, debate issues, vote on resolutions and adopt reports. I’ve been following the proceedings closely, with a little help from Felix, a stagiaire with the French press service, who has been very patient and explained how a lot of things work.
This morning I followed a very important debate on the Berlin Declaration, which is to be signed to mark the 50th anniversary of the treaty of Rome and which will set out a rough agenda for the future of the EU. It was an interesting debate in which many colourful views were expressed, and I helped produce our subsequent press release which can be viewed here:


MEPs expect a Berlin Declaration worthy of today’s EU

It’s been more relaxed on the cooking front so far, because often when I come home Anglela and Marta will already be making something and will just ask me if I’d like some. Fear not, though, because I have agreed to cook for a certain girl I’ve got to know – somehow my intial offer of a restaurant didn’t register – so we’ll see how that goes. I shall place my trust in Delia once again and hopefully can look forward to a kitchen that features many flavours rather than many firemen…



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