Sunday, 23 April 2017

Let's All Vote for More Paid Time Off

One of the benefits of my recent career change is that I now get Bank Holidays - paid time off. Workers getting paid time off is an unusual phenomenon. Bank Holidays and holiday pay and sick pay and maternity leave are rights that workers have fought and campaigned hard to win for themselves. 

Anyone working in the hospitality sector knows not to take these rights for granted. In large swathes of the sector, sick pay is non-existent - you either come to work sick or you don't get paid; maternity benefits seldom exceed minimum government requirements - anecdotally, they are sometimes ignored altogether; those on zero-hours contracts do not accrue holiday. Bank Holidays are irrelevant to hospitality workers.

For most of my working life, Bank Holidays meant nothing to me. In the very earliest days of my bartending career, the pub I worked in paid time-and-a-half on Bank Holidays - most pubs did, because it was recognised that you were working when everyone else was off. The industry bosses eventually reasoned that it was stupid to pay extra for a quiet shift (Bank Holiday Mondays are notoriously quiet because everyone has overspent at the weekend). The un-unionised bartending workforce was powerless to fight back. The custom seemed to disappear sometime around the turn of the Century.

The Labour Party has announced plans for four more bank holidays. This is entirely consistent with the Labour Party's historical agenda to improve conditions for working people. More time off makes people healthier, happier and more productive when they get back to work. They get a chance to rest and spend time with their friends and family and generally do more of the things that people tend to regret not doing more of on their deathbed.

We are an exceptionally wealthy nation (albeit that the wealth is poorly distributed). We can afford to pay people to have time off. Let's all vote for more paid time off when we go to the ballot box on June 8th and lets also make sure that those people serving us in the pubs whilst we are enjoying the paid time off are fairly remunerated for their hours. (Or at least buy them a pint when you are getting your round in).

Never let it be said that my Labour Party membership makes me uncritical of their policies. Four extra bank holidays is a great idea, but placing them on the Patron Saints' days of the four home nations is dumb. Our Bank Holidays are already too Spring heavy with Easter and the two May Bank Holidays. Adding two in March and one each in April and November is silly. Let's have some time off in the summer!

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Notes on Democracy

Those of you who know your Herodotus won't need reminding of the history of Cleisthenes of Athens - the politician who accidentally invented democracy. He extended voting rights to landless citizens (the plethos) not out of philosophical principle, but to increase his power in government. Like Alec Salmond giving 16 year-old voters a say in the 2014 Scottish Referendum, Cleisthenes was relying on the principle that the newly enfranchised would back their enfranchiser.  

Cleisthenes - not to be confused with his uncle the tyrant Cleisthenes of Sicyon

The Athenians loved their new found power and went on to win the battle of Salamis using the novel tactic of ramming the Persians' boats. Both boats would sink, but only the Persian sailors would drown because (unlike the Greeks) they couldn't swim. 

For the next two-and-a-half thousand years or so democracy kept bubbling up in Europe and being squashed again. The most important step was when it occurred to a few enlightened individuals that possession of ovaries shouldn't necessarily debar people from the right to choose who represents them in government. This idea was hugely unpopular - especially with people whose reproductive equipment pointed downwards most of the time. However, after a long struggle, women over the age of 21 won the right to vote in 1928 - that's not that long ago. I own books that are older than universal suffrage!

I'm a big fan of democracy. Even though I seem consistently to back the losing side. Regular readers will remember:

My firstborn is due the same week as the UK election. Two thoughts occur:
  1.  Let's use this opportunity to make our small island a fairer place.
  2.  I wonder if Charlie likes the name Cleisthenes...  

Monday, 27 March 2017

Early Riser

You may not have noticed because you're used to it but, in the morning, all the shadows point the wrong way. Obviously, I knew this was the case on a conceptual level. But being suddenly exposed to the horrific reality of this phenomenon five days a week is quite the shock. I suppose, in time, I will get used to it, too. Such is the way of things. With every new day that passes, the new becomes the everyday.  

My new job is a 45 minute commute on foot from my home. Everybody I tell this too says, "Get a bike!" But I'm not in that much of a hurry and it has long been an ambition of mine to listen to all 700 episodes of In Our Time that are available to download for free from the BBC website.

In Our Time is a radio programme about the history of ideas, so quite why it is called In Our Time, I have no idea. The premise is simple: Each week, Melvyn Bragg (memorably described by the comedian Hugh Dennis as "the man everyone wants on their pub quiz team") discusses a different topic with three academics. I figure I've got a couple of years worth of commutes covered.

Early mornings are okay provided you go to bed early. My Nana always told me that "Hours [of sleep] before midnight are worth double." It just goes to show how wise Nanas are.

The streets are surprisingly crowded at 8am. And I'm starting to recognise people that I pass at the same time every weekday. The coffee shop owner who always seems to be arranging pastries on the counter when I pass. The girl who vapes her way up Prince of Wales Road trailing the smell of blueberries. The secretary of Norwich Celtic Supporters Club who I know from the pub, but has yet to recognise me in my new disguise as an office commuter - cropped hair, tucked in shirt, sunglasses and noise-cancelling headphones.

I'll leave you with that anthem to early risers everywhere...


Friday, 24 February 2017

Threads and Bins

For the last twenty years, most of my wardrobe has consisted of promotional T-shirts that I get free from breweries. I have a couple of pairs of jeans or shorts in circulation depending on the season and for bar work I generally wore walking boots all year round. I also own a suit for christenings, weddings and funerals.

Basically, I have no clothes of the sort of mid-level formality I associate with the modern office worker. 

I am practising getting up early this week, so I went into the city in the morning to buy some clothes. Having not bought any clothes for the last couple of decades, I didn't really know where to go. I know that Primark is the cheapest, but I'm sure I read that all their shirts are made by children in Bangladeshi sweatshops, so I wandered into a shop called 'H and M' (The sign didn't seem to say what the letters stand for - Haberdashery and Something?)  and bought two shirts - one in olive green and one in burgundy. 

Clearly, I have an eye for colour. But I've been a bit worried about some of the other functions of my eyes - so while I was in the city, I nipped into Specsavers to have them tested.

I don't know when you last had your eyes tested, but there's a bit during the health check part when they shine the light in your eyes to check for tumours or something. Whilst this was happening I experienced a vision of the interior of my own eye - a coloured veiny web in green and red - the whole thing was a bit trippy. I said as much to the optometrist.

"That's perfectly normal that is exactly what I can see," he said.

My point was that it is not normal for me to have a vision of what the person next to me is looking at. I wanted some kind of explanation of the perceptual phenomenon - what was causing me to see the inside of my eye projected across my field of vision? But he didn't seem interested in explaining this to me. 

To be honest, he seemed a bit cross with me - apparently I kept giving contradictory answers about how blurry things were through various lenses. Also, when he was testing my right (bad) eye, he asked me if I could tell him what the letters were in the bottom of three rows. I told him I could tell him exactly what they were because he had just tested me on the same letters with my left (good) eye and I had committed them to memory. N O A H Z. I asked if I could have a new sequence of letters and he said no. 

All in all a successful morning. I own a pair of shirts and I will soon own a pair of glasses. I let the lady in the shop choose the frames, she seemed to know what she was talking about.


Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Time at the Bar, Thank You

I suppose you are all familiar with the old Westcountry saying: "Nobody goes to a bartender's funeral." I figure that it can be read in one of three ways.

  •  Bartenders are immortal. Much as we may want this to be true, it is not. If it were true - I imagine a lot more people would consider bartending as a career.
  •  Bartenders are unloved. Demonstrably false (or people are very good liars).
  •  Bartending is a job generally filled by younger persons who in most cases move on before they die.
I quit my bar job. This may seem like an odd thing for a philosopher poet bartender to do. There are some things I'll miss, I suppose:

  • Never having to start work before midday.
  • The comradery of tackling a particularly tricky cryptic crossword.
  • Having a cheeky pint towards the end of a shift.
  • Ringing a bell and shouting (only bartenders, town criers and lepers get to do this).
  • Reading the newspaper at work.
  • Chatting to randoms who are in town only briefly but are your best friend after five pints.
  • Getting Tommy to watch the bar while I go for a smoke.
  • Stealing the ham and Tuna sandwiches on pool night.

Other things, I'll be glad to see the back of:

  • 2am finishes.
  • Finding someone has already done the crossword before my shift starts.
  • The smell of the glasswasher.
  • People who say "How much?" and pretend that they are not going to pay when you tell them the price of their pint. This happens at least twice an hour and these people make the same joke every time they order a drink! And their friends always think it is the funniest joke they've ever heard. 
  • Sport - I am the Chinese Room of sports conversation. I just repeat things I don't understand that other people have said. If you accidentally find yourself watching the Six Nations on Saturday, try saying: "England have got nothing after the third phase."
  • Making the ham and tuna sandwiches on pool night.  

Finnginn - philosopher poet bartender. I developed this blog as an outlet for these three facets of my personality. I suppose the question is: does Finnginn still serve a purpose now that he no longer serves a pint? 

I'm not much of a one for existential crises. I think we'll just keep the Finnginn nom-de-plume going on the flimsy premise that I can still think like a bartender even if I'm not actually being paid minimum wage to act like one anymore.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Mr Popper's Pensées

It may seem, at first glance, that Margaret Thatcher and I have little in common - what with her being a deceased former Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom widely held responsible for the demolition of the Welfare State and me being a part-time bartender with anarcho-syndicalist sympathies who talks to his cactus - however, I was alarmed to discover recently that Maggie and I have the same favourite philosopher: step forward, Karl Popper.

I've written about Popper here before - you probably read the account of how I used Conjecture and Refutation to find the cause of a mysterious noise in my flat back in 2013 and thought that I had exhausted my Popper material. But I have a couple more things to say.

Karl Popper is held up as one of the great defenders of Liberal Democracy. This is chiefly the legacy of a book he wrote in New Zealand during the Second World War (he was an Austrian of some Jewish descent, so continental Europe was not a place that he could stick around in at that time). The Open Society and its Enemies is a pretty zippy title for a work of political philosophy. No wonder it has sold better than its sequel, The Poverty of Historicism.

The citizens of open societies are permitted (even encouraged) to ask questions about the best way of doing things in a kind of rolling debate that prioritises pragmatism over dogmatism. Closed societies, by contrast, limit the questions that may be asked. Primitive closed societies achieve this by Taboo. The governments of advanced closed societies enact policies based on the dogma of their particular utopian vision and debate and criticism is discouraged or even punished.

Popper's big contribution to the philosophy of science is his Principle of Falsification. He offers a solution to the problem of demarcation - how do you differentiate science from pseudoscience? - by defining science as a process that:

  1.  Offers up theories that can be falsified.
  2.  Vigorously attempts to falsify those theories.
  3.  Abandons those theories that are found to be false. 

My copy of The Open Society and Its Enemies is on Kindle,
so here's a picture of The Logic of Scientific Discovery

There is a link between Popper's political philosophy and his work in the philosophy of science. An open society should approach a problem like a scientist. If an approach is found not to work, it should be abandoned in favour of a different one.

The problem with this is what to use as your benchmark of success or failure of a policy. In a truly open society, this is up for discussion as well. Obviously, here in the UK - from Thatcher, through the New Labour years to the present Brexit fiasco - the benchmark for policy adjustment has been and will be set by neoliberal ideology not open discussion. More's the pity.

A major critic of Karl Popper's work in the Philosophy of Science was Thomas Kuhn. In his slim and eminently readable The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn pointed out accurately that the work that scientists do bears little relation to science as Popper defines it. I have never understood why this is considered a criticism of Popper and not of scientists. In my view, Popper's major theses in his scientific and political work could be considered normatively - he can be read as describing how things should be not how things are.

The United States inaugurates its new President on Friday. By Popper's standards, the USA is a pretty open society. The american people can question its government's decisions and protest its actions. The press is independent of government and can be critical of power (except corporate power, obviously, you don't bite the hand that feeds you). Let's hope that the open nature of American society will enable its people to keep tabs on their new leader and mitigate some potential disasters that might ensue from his team's environmental and nuclear policies.      

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Limoncello Reminiscences

One of the first times I got drunk was on limoncello - the liqueur that Italians make from their annual glut of lemons - I was on a school trip to Italy, age 14, and we discovered that the Italian shopkeepers had no qualms about selling souvenir bottles of the strong (about 20% ABV) sweet alcoholic drink to teenagers. We smuggled the bottles back to the hotel room.

On that trip, we climbed Mount Vesuvius and explored the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, we saw the Colosseum and took a tour of the Catacombs of Rome, we took a ferry across the bay of Naples and visited the island of Capri. But if you asked me what I remember most, twenty years later, it would be the taste of limoncello, the boldness that drinking it engendered and the hedgehog notepaper on which Sarah-who-sat-behind-me-in-Science replied politely and negatively to my bold and poetic request for a date.

Limoncello has crept into my life once or twice since then. Notably, on a trip to the Peak District in 2013, where five friends and I depleted the entire limoncello stock of a small Derbyshire village pub. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the following day, I felt too ill to embark on a tour of the world's largest Blue John mine which I had been rather looking forward to. 

It occurred to me (as these whims sometimes do - see also the time I made some face-powder for my Sister-in-Law) that it might be a good idea to make some Limoncello for my Mother-in-Law for Xmas. Limoncello is made by soaking lemon peel in ethanol for months then adding a tonne of sugar to make it palatable.

I wanted to use Trump Vodka as my base spirit but, would you believe it? The President-Elect's brand was discontinued in 2011. Luckily, I was able to source a bottle of Putinoff.

Premium vodka.
I was in a hurry (it was the week before Xmas) and I didn't have months to soak the lemon peel. Pro tip: if you ever need to make vodka taste of lemons in a hurry, you can just soak some wedges of lemon in the vodka in your fridge for a couple of days.

Job done.
The final step is to make a sugar syrup and mix everything together with some lemon zest.

The zest of one lemon.
Just make sure the jar or bottle you use is properly sealed, because you wouldn't want your limoncello to, for example, leak all over everybody else's Secret Santa presents. That would be bad. Your wife would probably tell you off or something.