Sunday, 11 December 2011

Bingo Wings

My friend found an insanely sincere old e-mail I sent him and said he thought, in retrospect, that it was funny. I've copied it below and yeah, it is funny. But I still believe every word and I'm pretty sure I gave this exact same speech to some poor bastard on Friday night.

But you know, if I believe it, then I believe it.

The context is... I said doing an IronMan was a spiritual experience. Now, I am not the sort of person that uses the word 'spiritual' sparingly. I have walked out of yoga classes because the instructor referred to the 'spirituality' of the people in the room. Manufactured collective sentiment makes me nauseous, which is why I hate going to gigs. But anyway, my friend said there was nothing spiritual about a triathlon, it's just a bunch of people in weird clothes performing a difficult but ultimately trivial task.

Well, by any definition of spirituality I have read, I disagree and maintain what I say below.

I should also point out that I kind of plagiarized some of this from 'Hands on a Hard Body', a beautiful documentary about mental strength and probably my favorite film ever.

I just saw this email from you, well funny:

Nothing is spiritual when described in those terms. You could call bathing in the Ganges "dipping your ankles in some shitty water" or a pilgrimage to Mecca as "a long hot walk to some dustbowl". And agreed, there is nothing spiritual about running on a treadmill. Or eating liquid sugar. Or buying a carbon fibre bike. But, like Lance Armstrong said, it's not about the bike, it's about the soul of the person riding it. 

"‘I had learned what it means to ride the Tour de France. It’s not about the bike. It’s a metaphor for life, not only the longest race in the world but also the most exalting and heartbreaking and potentially tragic. It poses every conceivable element to the rider, and more: cold, heat, mountains, plains, ruts, flat tires, high winds, unspeakable bad luck, unthinkable beauty, yawning senselessness, and above all, a great deep self-questioning. During our lives we’re faced with so many different elements as well, we experience so many setbacks, and fight such a hand-to-hand battle with failure, head down in the rain, just trying to stay upright and to have a little hope."

I agree with that 100%. Maybe its trite, maybe its laughable, but I don't care. You look at cycling and you see some fit guys in stupid outfits pushing wheels round. I see guys who are at their pain threshold, looking inside themselves to see who they really are. There's no knowing irony, or pretending that we didn't really care in the first place. The layers of bullshit that most people, especially myself, project outwards on a daily basis are blown away. 

And that's the thing about IronMan or the Tour de France or whatever. It is so insanely fucking hard that when you compete you are vulnerable. You are putting yourself on the line. It is brave and not a lot of people want to take that sort of risk, expose themselves like that. To me, the underlying pointlessness of the whole endeavor only magnifies it's beauty. 

p.s. When I googled Mecca, the first listing was Mecca Bingo.

Friday, 2 December 2011

It's just so OBVIOUS

It's just so obvious, I'm amazed everyone else is just so bloody thick they can't see it. It must be because they haven't read as much as me.


The Coalition government are hell bent on finishing off what Thatcher started by rolling back the public sector to fund ideologically driven tax cuts. This is taking money out of the economy just when higher government spending is exactly what's needed. This means we're heading into another recession, which means we'll end up borrowing even more than we were before. The government have no idea about basic macroeconomics, Nobel Laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz have been warning for years that the austerity experiment will not only fail, but ruin Britain's economy for the next decade.

But the Tories don't care. All they care about is protecting the wealth of their core voters, the rich. The injustice is all the more infuriating seeing as it was the bankers that caused the financial crisis in the first place, yet they still seem to be doing just fine. The rich protect the rich, they couldn't care less about everyone else. So public sector workers do the only thing they can to protect themselves, they strike... and so they should. They're the ones who look after the poor, the sick, the needy and they've done nothing to cause any of this. It is the clearest case of Right vs Wrong since, well, since ever.

But then on the other hand...


Striking public sector workers are taking the piss. They've got more generous pensions than their equivalents in the private sector and its the tax revenues from the private sector that actually pay for them. It used to be the case that you got less money for working in the public sector because you had extra job security. Now, despite the approaching redundancies, the public sector have greater job security AND a pay premium. In the private sector, workers have been getting their pay cut if they're lucky enough to just not lose their job. So, public sector people, you want more money? Yeah, no shit, don't we all.

The government just HAS to cut spending. The bond markets wanted a signal that spending was going to be brought under control. Clegg flipped from his pre election position because he believed he simply had no choice. Anyone who doesn't understand that doesn't grasp basic game theory. Veteran investors like Jim Rogers and Bill Gross warned that investors were close to losing faith in the British government. You only have to look at what's going on in Greece, Italy and the rest of Europe to see what happens if you don't placate the bond markets.

Taxing the bankers is one solution, but if they all move to Hong Kong, the government will be getting 60% of nothing instead of whatever they collect now. Besides, the top 1% of income tax earners are already paying over 25% of all income tax revenues. Given the choice of funding generous public sector pensions or cutting income tax for the low paid, I'd go for the latter.


Either, they are both plausible. Believing one over the other doesn't make you intelligent or ignorant. There is plenty of evidence out there to support either argument and I don't think the morality of one position is obviously superior to the other.

Now, I love Twitter and Facebook as sources of information. Twitter knows everything before I do and Facebook is a great way to keep in touch with all my friends in London now that I live in Bristol. But this week, the only thing I've learnt is how much my teacher friends hate bankers/Tories, and how much my banker/entrepreneur friends hate the unions.

Perversely, now that we all communicate via Twitter and Facebook and can talk to almost anyone, we increasingly only hear from the people we agree with. Sure, some of us follow the odd journo from the other side, just to stay informed. But, I'm betting most of us mainly click on links from the people we already agree with. Your Facebook homepage now runs off an algorithm that gives increased prominence to friends whose links you click on more regularly. So the more someone posts something you want to read, the more you hear from them.

This is a problem. The more we hear an opinion, the more we believe it. Psychological research shows that we confuse repeated information with new information (among others... Hawkins & Hoch, 1992; Kahneman & Tversky, 1973). Someone tells you something twice, you believe it more the second time, even though its the same information. More to the point, if person A tells you something and person B tells you the same, you tend to treat person B's information as 'new'. You will do this even if you know person B found this information out from person A in the first place. Anyone who has ever spread or heard gossip (i.e. everyone) should be familiar with this phenomenon.

As much as I love Twitter and Facebook, they are more or less a never ending stream of opinions, skewed towards the viewpoint you already have. The same goes for any news source. We tend to think that just because we're spending lots of time collecting information, we're actually learning something 'new'. Actually, most of the time, we're just hearing repetitions. These repetitions make us more certain we're right, when we're often no more informed than we were at the start. Its like the example I gave above of persons A and B, but its happening thousands of times a day in a network so complex we can't even begin to compute its underlying structure and therefore the true value of the 'new' information we are receiving.

If we acknowledge that we vastly overstate our certainty, then we can shrug our shoulders and admit that in truth, we're not really too sure about exactly what is 'right' and 'wrong'. We might then be able to talk to each other with a bit more humility and without making any wild conclusive statements.

But then I suppose, where would be the fun in that?

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

There is a Lamp that's now going out

I found myself quite moved by Henry Winter's piece on Frank Lampard's poor form in the Telegraph this morning. If you're not bothered about football, then at face value, its not particularly interesting. I know this. But it got me thinking about how hard it must be for an elite athlete to come to terms with their physical decline.

I wondered if Frank Lampard lies awake at night thinking about death, or not being able to play football anymore, or whether he considers them to be the same thing. He probably doesn't. Quietly intelligent, he appears to be psychologically robust enough to adapt to a new life. Then again, how the hell would I know? I've never met him (though I did once see him in a casino with John Virgo, who was actually wearing a snooker-themed waistcoat like he used to on Big Break).

I admit I have no idea what goes through Frank Lampard's mind, I guess this post is more about me than him. When I woke up this morning, my right knee (my good one) was still swollen and sore from my Sunday League game. I've gradually come to terms with the fact that these aren't temporary injuries. The pain and stiffness can be temporarily alleviated, but my body is essentially decaying. So is Frank Lampard's and I'm just guessing that as distressing as I find this trend, it must be even harder for him.

With his Premier League record of 164 consecutive outfield appearances, Lampard is one of the most formidable athletes to have ever played the game. Ferguson called him a 'freak'. Former coaches say he wasn't a natural talent either. He worked for it, as hard as any player in modern football. Three years ago, Capello told Lampard "You are in the moment of your life". No doubt he meant to say something else, but I still think this was a truly beautiful way of describing an elite athlete at the peak of their career. Nothing else will compare.

But now its all drifting away from him. Of course this has happened to other players countless times before, but none that I consider the same generation as myself. At 31, I'm only two years younger than Lampard. My friends and colleagues have visibly aged over the years, but its easy to convince yourself that they don't eat and rest properly, or that they drink too much. But its not really possible to do that with Frank Lampard. If he can't do what he used to, then I definitely can't. Its just so final, it scares the shit out of me.

This must be something that all sports fans go through. The first time you see someone younger than you play top level sport, its a shock. Something gets hammered home... "See that kid on the TV? That's not you. It's never going to be you." Then again, I was always rubbish at sport but strong academically, so it wasn't exactly a devastating blow when Gerrard (three months my junior) leapfrogged me into the England starting XI. But now I'm watching men my age being superseded by a new generation and frankly its harder to stomach than Gerrard's England debut. It's not about getting older per se. I don't care that I don't know anything about modern music, I'm sure it wouldn't be that hard to learn about it. But what Lampard and Gerrard are now coming to terms with is that their physical vitality has been clipped. Permanently.

I wonder if this is why the likes of Ryan Giggs and Sachin Tendulkar are universally popular. Tendulkar truly is a 'freak'. He has a few grey hairs, but he more or less looks the same as the chubby 16 year-old who cheerfully batted on with a bouncer bloodied nose in his debut series against Pakistan. One of the few enjoyable moments for Indian cricket fans this summer were the warm receptions Sachin received on his walks out to the middle. I'm sure the crowd were mainly cheering a wonderful batsman who has been a joy to watch over the years, but I think one of the reasons we love him so much is his sheer stubborn refusal to get older. As long as he pretends he's still 16, we can too. He's batting, we're watching... nothing has changed.

Giggs is different. A few years ago, everyone had written him off. The conventional wisdom was that he'd had too many injuries, he couldn't survive without his pace. Wenger almost certainly would have given him a testimonial and sent him on his way. But the wonder of Ryan Giggs is not that he is still exploding down the wing like he did when he was 16, but that he courageously reinvented himself when he should have been growing new chins and getting pally with ex-pros in the Sky Sports studios. Tendulkar's 30s were a dream-like miracle because we were watching a boy who would live forever. Giggs' yoga-aided latter career on the other hand is nothing less than a resurrection. I wonder how many ex-players struggle to come to terms with life as just a regular human being. I imagine they must have dreams where, like Ryan Giggs, they can suddenly play again.

I saw an interview with Giggs recently where he was shown a goal he scored back in 1994. He looked a little shocked and Martin Tyler asked him what was wrong. He said he thought he could remember every goal he'd ever scored, but he just didn't recognize the scenes he was watching at all. In many ways that's because he's just scored so many over such a lengthy career and that should be cause for celebration. But you could see he was rattled, that it occurred to him that when ex-pros say "Well, at least you'll always have the memories", that might not necessarily be true, that while 20 years of professional football is beyond the wildest dreams of even the most deluded kid, on his deathbed, it will feel like it all flashed by in a heartbeat.