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Saying women are more ethical than men does not make it so

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

“Women are not only stronger… they’re more ethical,” said the fashion designer Donatella Versace in a recent interview, adding: “the future belongs to women.”

I have been reminded of these comments over the past few days, by the fall from grace of Brazil’s female president, Dilma Rousseff.

Rousseff is being impeached, having failed to dispel links to a scandal involving kickbacks from Petrobras, the state-owned oil conglomerate, while she was the country’s energy minister. In that fate, she is rather less fortunate than Cristina Kirchner, who was president of neighbouring Argentina until last December: Kirchner managed two full terms, despite numerous claims of corruption, misuse of public funds and falsification of public statistics against her administration.

I grant you, being completely and utterly bent is something for which Latin American politicians are renowned. And sure enough, most of Rousseff’s political opponents, including the male ones waiting to supplant her regime, also stand accused of offences: perjury, money laundering, misappropriating dosh, forging documents, you name it. Politics in Brazil sounds like a barrel of laughs, unless you’re one of the governed. But, anyway, the point is this: the route to advancing equality of the sexes taken by women like Rousseff appears to be equality of venality. What happened to being more ethical? Eh, Donatella?

In the US, however vile and unpleasant Hillary Clinton’s opponents on the right, she knows better than to campaign on an ethics ticket. Firstly, she is a Clinton. And secondly, it seems improbable that she has ever held a position on any issue that hasn’t been tradeable for votes. Nevertheless, a two-fold pitch of being a woman and, by way of corollary, not Donald Trump, should be enough to put her in the White House. If that sounds like an oversimplification, it’s one that’s backed up by the polls: electing America’s first female president is the top reason given for backing the otherwise unloved Hillary in 2016.

The notion that women are a pacifying force in public life, that they are more collaborative and compassionate than men, who all want to be Julius Caesar, was perpetuated in the U.S. by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Plenty of evidence contradicts that thesis, however. In a meta-analysis of  studies involving more than 12 million people, researchers at Iowa State University found an almost 80 per cent overlap between men and women on more than 75 per cent of psychological characteristics. In everything from morality to risk-taking, intelligence, personality traits, leadership style and satisfaction with life, they discovered men and women are just about the same.

The problem here for men arises in deciding which of these competing narratives is less likely to rouse feminists to anger. On the one hand, while they may encourage us to question what we think of as male characteristics, what moron among us would dare to deny any aspect of what women decide constitutes womanhood? On the other hand, it is probably as reckless, if not more, to state a belief in differences between the genders – unless one is willing to go the way of the gelded sycophant and admit that women are just better all-round at being human in the 21st century. That may well be the case but, Jesus, get some spine lads.

Back to actual politics, and women in it, though. For every Catherine the Great, Russia’s enlightened despot, and every Cory Aquino, who was regarded in the Philippines as a national treasure, I will show you a Wu Zetain and a Gloria Arroyo. Wu, who ruled China for 15 years from 690 AD, is thought to have strangled her own daughter in order to frame a rival. Arroyo, who left office in 2010, remains under hospital arrest in Manila, charged with plundering state coffers.

In Britain, opinion is still divided on Margaret Thatcher, but compassion and collaboration are not words unhesitatingly thrown her way. When she died, the singer Morrissey called her “A barbaric terror without an atom of humanity.” Another conservative, Angela Merkel, fares rather better in her country’s affections, but her approach to diplomacy has been described as “Kissingerian”, for which read cunning as a rat.

On the left, Indira Ghandi was a ruthless political operator who went to war with Pakistan and ruled India by decree during a two-year state of emergency. Julia Gillard’s backdoor grab for power in Australia would have impressed Machiavelli. And, seemingly quiescent over the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, even Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi has let her halo slip since her release from house arrest in 2010.

None of this is to argue against having more female politicians. According to the United Nations, the percentage of women in politics globally has almost doubled in the past two decades, but it’s still only at 22 per cent. Some places are going at the issue with less zeal than others. Lots of countries now have some kind of gender quota system in place, though. And where I come from, the government in the devolved Scottish parliament has a completely gender-balanced cabinet, in addition to its three main parties all having female leaders.

It is rare nowadays that we get to say Scotland represents the future of anything. In this instance, though, it does. Personally, I think anyone who wants a career in politics should be put in chains, but the quotas? I’m all for them. In the west, women are doing better in education than men and they’re starting businesses at a higher rate too. Online, social media networks are culturally feminised spaces. Why shouldn’t public life fall in line? More quotas, I say. Women-only shortlists. Ban men from standing for election. Ban them from leaving the house. Just don’t tell me women are going to run the world differently.

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Tokyo’s Olympic organisers are smarter than the PR hustlers think

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

You have probably noticed that there is something of a backlash underway against the free movement of money. In America and Europe, even people who were for it have looked at how the wind’s blowing and are suddenly against it. Borders and barriers and sounding like you’ve read a Noam Chomsky book are in vogue. Free trade is being spoken of in tones usually reserved by conspiracy theorists for the Jesuits or the Bilderberg Group.

Some aspects of globalisation are likely invulnerable, though. However far the nations of the world opt to go in protecting their own industries against foreign encroachment, or in turning the screws on capital flows, the universal triumph of branding seems a fait accompli.

Branding has gone viral – in the way that pathogens are viral. It is both a pollutant and a parasite. Every organisation under the sun has been hoodwinked into adopting a “vision”, and a “mission”, and “values”. It is all so much tumescent mumbo jumbo, but the hubris of the so-called creative industries has conquered the globe.

That is why when the PR and marketing monkeys mess up, it becomes news. On the face of it, this is what has happened with the Tokyo Olympic Games over the last year. First the British architect Zaha Hadid’s winning design for a new stadium for 2020 was thrown over due to exorbitant costs and another bid hastily selected. Then along came a plagiarism controversy over the logo. I am not so sure, though: I think perhaps the Japanese organisers are smarter than all the PR hustlers competing for their largesse give them credit for.

The original winning proposal for the Games emblem, by Kenjiro Sano, was withdrawn late last year. A theatre in the Belgian city of Liege had said it must have been copied from their own logotype and threatened to sue. Sano’s design, an assortment of shapes arranged to form a “T”, certainly looked like something you had seen before. Quite possibly a “T”. At any rate, it hardly rivalled Caravaggio in its originality.

A few days ago, a new design shortlist was revealed. The selection process had been opened to the public and the 15,000 entries received have been whittled down to four. Stressing their “outstanding” qualities, Ryohei Miyata, head of the Tokyo 2020 emblem committee, told journalists: “I’m proud to say that these are the best works at this point.”

I have long believed having a sense of humour to be among the most vital qualities in a public functionary. Mr Miyata is therefore to be congratulated. Unkind appraisals of previous Olympic logos have likened them to drawings done by slightly backwards children. At least two of the four presented for public consultation by Miyata et al fall into this category, which may or may not be explicable by the fact that over a thousand Japanese schoolchildren entered.

In any event, the important thing is that throwing the contest open has irked the creative wallahs. The American Institute of Graphic Arts says the design profession has been “disrespected”. I don’t know; maybe they’re miffed about the money. The emblem for the London Olympics, which looked like some pieces of broken glass, cost the British public £400,000 (HK$4.5 million). The winning design in Japan will be awarded ¥1 million (HK$70,000) and a ticket to the opening ceremonies of both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Same result, fraction of the cost.

The joke gets even better, though, when you consider the stress put on the committee’s rigorous “international trademark verification procedures” to ensure that the designs were all original this time. According to a statement on the subject, applicants were referred to the Tokyo 2020 Games Vision and “key concepts” for inspiration.

Alas, there is nothing original whatsoever contained in these sources of inspiration. They tell us that the Games are “innovative”. There is some drivel about diversity (“Accepting one another”) and some equally nebulous stuff about legacy. And there is a derisory nod to actual sport: “Striving for your personal best”. One could be reading about Kentucky Fried Chicken, or the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department of the Hong Kong government, or hell, who knows, the Bilderberg Group.

It’s conceivable that I’m wrong about this but what I’d like to believe the Japanese are saying here is that all corporate emblems are rubbish, modern corporate branding is stupid and we hope you enjoy the Games, lol. As with the stadium, they’re just not up for being rinsed financially. Fair play to them.

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Are we training students for a world where robots work for free?

This post can also be read at SCMP.COM

According to research, levels of happiness among Hong Kong schoolchildren have plummeted to new lows. Homework and extra lessons are eating into students’ time for sleep and exercise and are held to be their chief source of distress. The findings follow a spate of recent suicides that have made the mental well-being of young people an especially vexed issue. It is all very alarming – but don’t expect to see attitudes changing any time soon. The educational stakes are just too high.

In a competitive society, the imperative not to set one’s children at any disadvantage is an understandable one. A minimalist definition of aspiration might be the desire for your loved ones not to have to end up working until they drop.

What if technological change were happening so quickly that even the specialised skills we’ve convinced ourselves will power economic growth in the coming decades become irrelevant in the space of only a few years? These things are starting to happen, and with profound implications for jobs and education.

What, though, if everything we thought we knew about getting ahead, acquiring knowledge and expertise and securing an attractive career was being shaken up? What if technological change were happening so quickly that even the specialised skills we’ve convinced ourselves will power economic growth in the coming decades become irrelevant in the space of only a few years? These things are starting to happen, and with profound implications for jobs and education.

At some point in the present decade, we entered an age of drones, 3D printing, robots and artificial intelligence. Such marvels, it is a fair bet, will eliminate millions of low-skilled and unskilled jobs involving everyday tasks from cleaning and washing up to driving vans, sorting mail and serving food. In the United States alone, the predicted wave will make the offshoring of the country’s manufacturing in recent years look like small beer. Skilled jobs will be at risk, too, though.

Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, said recently on BBC radio: “In the industrial age we automated a lot of physical work, the work of our muscles. In the new machine age, we’re doing the same things for mental work. This is having as big an impact on humanity as the industrial revolution did.” Machines could end up doing the jobs of surgeons, teachers, firefighters, entertainers – even, one imagines, bankers.

Beyond that, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have all warned about an existential threat arising when super-intelligent computers become capable of designing and building machines smarter than themselves – a moment that is being referred to as “the singularity” and which experts believe will arrive in about 40 years. If this forecast becomes reality, what use the study of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects then to mere mortals? Why bother learning about the nature of an exponential function, or how to write source code? (Note: these questions will be even more redundant if the machines opt to murder us all in our beds, Terminator-style.)

A more medium-term outlook is that many of us will be looking for new forms of employment. We might also be forced to reconsider what will benefit our children to learn. For Brynjolfsson, that means focusing on things that humans do well and machines don’t, or don’t yet: “creative” things like coaching football teams, or writing novels, or conceiving of new products and services.

The problem with the last of these, I hear you object (you’re objecting to the first two as well, on account of there being a finite number of football teams and already enough crap novels? Fair enough) is that if machines are doing everything workers used to, then there will be no workers / consumers left to buy the things smarty-pants entrepreneurial people are producing. This is to presume that without proper work we’d most of us be poor, though. In fact, in a world where machines make and do everything, the cost of buying stuff should also nosedive, meaning that we can survive on very little, helped along by governments paying some kind of “living wage”.

That’s the rosy, utopian version of a workless future enabled by A.I. in which we all become part of one big leisure class, at liberty to create or to volunteer, or simply to exist. No doubt people in every century in history have felt like they were at the end of something that went before, but the notion of the end of work feels a bit more significant than the end of, say, witch-burning, or rock ‘n’ roll, or communism, or even religion. Freed to be artists and idlers, perhaps we’d have more time to think about human values, and about how they might survive the singularity. Perhaps we’d gain self-worth entirely from sources other than our careers. Either way, you would hope we’d be less inclined to overload the young with tests and homework.

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Ugly populism is not an argument against democracy

This post can also be read at SCMP.COM

The beacon light on the shining city on the hill is guttering. The barbarians are at the gate and the fox is in the henhouse. The worm, you may be assured, has scoffed the apple. Ladies and gents, American democracy is being exposed for a sham by an absurd buffoon who looks like a character from the funny papers. The mot du jour is dysfunctionality, and dysfunctionality is afflicting all known institutions grievously – but some (political parties, the electoral process) more than others. With the rise of Donald Trump, we have reached the inevitable end-point of politics’ showbusiness vajazzling. America’s Got Talent but it’s being offered a preening, pelt-haired Tony Soprano instead and if it’s repulsed it’s also enamoured.

I offer my apologies. Words along these lines are in over-supply right now – as likely to be voiced by disbelieving American conservatives as by liberals, by people with a dog in the fight as by despairing onlookers in other parts of the world. It’s almost as though Trump’s detractors have begun to echo and amplify the nihilism of his message. Millions of Americans, it is understood, have lost faith: in government, in political parties, in big business, in the media. Trump exploits this loss of faith to build a following. Trump-watchers respond that this following is further proof of the loss of faith, and of the dysfunctionality of the system – of the parties’ inertia, of a debased campaign financing model, of the remaking of politics as a reality gameshow. Others look at his followers and blame the situation on their stupidity and susceptibility. Either way, if you believe many parts of the commentariat, it’s democracy itself that is kaput.

This is a negative message for Americans to consume. For folks in places around the world where democracy does not exist it is all the more depressing. Indeed, the only people likely to take any solace from it are those who consider democracy a virus anyway. People like the Chinese Communist Party and its friends. Look, they might say of the world’s most hubristic polity – democracy is a mass of contradictions that offers only the illusion of freedom. Institutions are at the mercy of big money, Congress is gridlocked, mob violence attends public rallies and demagoguery is cutting through. In such an analysis, radical populist movements – whether in America or in Hong Kong, where we have a growing “localist” faction that’s driven in part by anger at the city’s “mainlandisation” and a failure to address blue-collar concerns – are warnings against disrupting the corporatist status quo.

There’s little doubt that Trump is garnering support not only for the populism of his message but also for his abandonment of the normal rules of civility – those are for the establishment “schmucks” on all sides who’ve propagated a system of top-down technocracy. Flat-footing his opponents by being provocative and boorish has played well with large constituencies of voters who are tired of party automatons. Other candidates gotta serve somebody – big pharma, Wall Street; The Donald’s personal wealth allows him to make a virtue of serving only himself. His anti-establishment credentials thus defined, he has eschewed consistency. Who knows what a Trump presidency might have in store for the world? His instincts seem not only protectionist but isolationist. He thinks America gets a raw deal as the world’s policeman. On the other hand, he wants to “rebuild” its military, and he wants to “beat” China, Mexico, Russia and Iran. If there’s a unifying message, it might be that the rest of the world can go to hell.

Trump also believes in torture, mass deportations and banning certain monotheistic types not of a Judaeo-Christian persuasion. The man most likely to gain the Republican Party presidential nomination is an authoritarian oaf. Does this invalidate democracy? No, it does not. Not in any real sense. Authoritarian thugs can be voted in; in democracies they can also be voted out. Meanwhile, the United States Constitution enshrines checks on the executive branch of government. That hoariest of Winston Churchill quotes serves: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In a more pragmatic sense, a Trump candidacy, while representing a nadir, may actually be good for the GOP: it may cause it to fracture, but the healing process would surely return it to a more centrist, consensus-building course. Already, the Trump enema has convinced some conservative thinkers that what’s required is to develop more policies that appeal to working people. Moreover, if – as pollsters anticipate – Hillary Clinton wins a two-way race against Trump in November, she could end up with a uniquely bi-partisan mandate.

To those who despair, or gloat, at the state of U.S. democracy, however, one need only point out one abiding characteristic of it to sustain a more romantic view. If millions of Americans have “lost faith” in politics, then millions of others do not appear at all cynical about the enterprise (and it’s true that both Trump and his leftist counterpart in the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders, have brought entirely new groups of voters into the process). A passion for voting and elections has been a feature of American civil society since at least the 1830s, when the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville exclaimed on it in his classic book Democracy in America. A little further back, Aristotle defined man as a political animal (zoon politikon) with an innate need to debate questions of justice and the common good. Sometimes this gives rise to expressions of humanity’s uglier nature. But no, democracy itself is not the virus.

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The best obtainable snapshot of impending doom in Hong Kong

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM

It is a rare thing these days to find oneself at liberty to read an entire day’s newspaper in a sitting. “Distracted from distraction by distraction … in this twittering world” writes T.S Eliot in Burnt Norton, and he is not wrong. Alright, I skipped 11 other lines with that “…”. Plus: they hadn’t even got television news yet in his day, never mind Twitter. Nor did he have children. But still, he was a man ahead of his time, old T.S.

Printing newspapers will be done away with some day soon, you know. Either that or they’ll become a niche curiosity, like cars with steering wheels, or ivory cufflinks. Or cufflinks of any sort, for that matter. Either way, it’ll be your fault, blog reader – you, with your low attention span and gadabout reading habits, your social media and your windows and your apps. Newspapers are dying because you’ve stopped buying them. You’ve decided to spend the money on other stuff: hot milk blasted with coffee, Netflix, gifts for other people’s already-spoilt children. Frankly it’s a nonsense and you should have a talk with yourself. Just think of the money you’re saving by not smoking all day like everyone did not that long ago. And don’t imagine you’re excused by saying you never used to read the thing anyway. In the old days plenty of people bought a daily newspaper simply in order to leave it unopened on a telephone stand. They threw it in the bin the next day, or hid it under a carpet to be rediscovered years hence, or used it to wrap their grandmother against the cold in winter. And they did so because to buy a newspaper was the right thing to do.

In truth I am out of the habit of stockpiling newspapers under carpets and as guilty as anyone of not reading the ones I remember to buy. But, every so often, mindful of that thing Carl Bernstein said about good newspapers serving up the best obtainable version of the truth each day, I do make an appointment to sit down and read all of the South China Morning Post. It’s still the most therapeutic way, I find, of fathoming what’s what in Hong Kong. Instead of venturing online in search only of that which interests me then falling prey to all manner of bait-mongers, I’m effectively saying: gimme what you’ve got, warts, biases and all.

The snarl I’m coming to is this, though – the snapshot of the truth I gained from scouring the pages of the SCMP the other day was anything but therapeutic. It was, on the contrary, a vision of impending doom, catastrophe, unease, horror, pain, decline, dissolution, war and possibly apocalypse. Such, in fact, was my distress that I failed to take solace from the likelihood that non-newspaper readers are every bit as vulnerable to this tide of ruin as newspaper readers. And in that magnanimous vein, I think I perform a service by relating it.

In the news pages I learned the following: that there is a Cold War-style stand-off at the DMZ; that China is suspected of building a radar system in the Spratlys that may hasten World War III; that intimidation of journalists is being redoubled with a new threat of graft proceedings against state media workers; that the Communist Party’s revolutionary princelings are hunkering down for a “protracted war”. In the introduction to an Insight column, I discover: “One of the most talked-about topics these days is undoubtedly China”. It is an effort to read on.

In Hong Kong there is an alarming rise in HIV cases. There is rape, robbery and assault. Meanwhile, it is suggested financial secretary John Tsang’s budget handouts are having a “placebo effect” on a soon-to-be flatlining economy. Standard Chartered has reported annual losses and its top directors won’t be getting a bonus for 2015. Surely a public fund will be raised, you ask, not unreasonably. In America, a man has been fired from the staff of one presidential hopeful for alleging that another presidential hopeful said the bible did not contain all the answers to everything. (Relax, he said the opposite.)

I read some more about the fallout from the violence in Mong Kok the other week. Richard Wong writes that Hong Kong’s “growing socioeconomic divide… has deepened anxiety, insecurity and conflict in day-to-day life.” Expect more social unrest. In the Property Section, it’s all about property prices “sinking”. I briefly wonder if this is a good thing, at least for all the people who currently can’t afford to buy, but there is no mention of this. Instead, there is cause to worry that spending is down at Chow Tai Fook. It is “depressed”, you see. Draw up one of those keyword cloud things and you will have a picture of the toxic verbal traffic in my head: “economic woes”, “market volatility”, “bleak outlook”, “deeply divided,” “Senator Ted Cruz”.

Finally, there is some light relief as I turn to the sports pages. One of global football’s most dedicated mercenaries, Sven Goran Eriksson – now manager at Shanghai SIPG – says that China will win the World Cup “in a decade”. If you’re laying a carpet, make sure that one goes down nice and flat.

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Scots and Japanese locked in new space race

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

It’s become one of those things people drop into conversations to make themselves sound knowledgeable: Japanese whisky is the best in the world nowadays. Better than the stuff from Ireland and America, don’t you know, and also that place where they make Scotch. Yes, yes: Scotland.

It is true that the Japanese are winning all sorts of awards for their whisky. Most notably, something called the Whisky Bible last year named Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, by Suntory, the world’s best whisky, with nary a Scottish entry in the top five.

The ascendancy of Nipponese nips should come as no surprise. For a start, it is well-known that the Japanese are terrible swots and brilliant at copying other people’s things and making them better. And secondly, they’ve been at it for long enough: Suntory was founded in 1923, which is ages ago. Back then, most Scotch was still undrinkable, and most people in Scotland were blind and/or raving mad on account of it.

The sudden popularity of Japanese whisky, catalysed by the whole winning awards thing, was not foreseen, however – even by its distillers. Which is why, as it happens, they’re running out of casks that are ready to bottle.

Meanwhile, the Scots have not taken this reverse lying down. No danger – if the Japanese (and the Taiwanese, whose Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique won best single malt at this year’s World Whiskies Awards) can make proper whisky, then, by the ghost of John Logie Baird, cultivating a little tea is not beyond the ingenuity of my fellow northern Britons.

Earlier this year, a smoky-tasting white tea grown on Scotland’s very first tea plantation, in Perthshire, by The Wee Tea Company, was duly named best tea in the world at the Salon de The awards in Paris. I have no idea why the French consider themselves so expert on the subject, but there you have it: Scotland rules tea.

Now I read that, contrary to the notion of it being the quintessential English drink, Scotland also rules gin. According to the London Times, UK exports of gin are up 37 per cent in five years, largely due to demand for premium tipples from Scottish distilleries, including Hendrick’s and Tanqueray. In Georgian and Victorian times, Londoners drank so much gin it rendered men impotent and women sterile, but seemingly now even that which is labelled “London dry gin” is more likely to originate from Scottish stills than English ones. One can almost hear Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s secessionist First Minister, cackling away.

Now that things are going all “craft” on the gin front, Hong Kong, predictably, has its very own circuit of gin bars run and frequented by men with awful Victorian-sized beards and charging modern-day Shoreditch prices, only doubled. Good luck to them, although the drink’s aptness to induce maudlin tendencies does not, perhaps, commend it altogether in an era of impending economic dissolution.

It has long troubled me, incidentally, that your average Hong Kong barman cannot grasp that gin and tonic is served with lime (or indeed lime juice instead of tonic, if you’re the subaltern in John Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song). All too often lemon, with the wrong gin, introduces an unwelcome hint, I find, of Pocari Sweat – the Japanese sports drink made from Pocaris, that lesser-known member of the citrus family.

I hasten to add here that on its own Pocari Sweat is a faultless beverage and an excellent hangover cure. As such, I can think of no more fitting product to pioneer branding on the moon – as it will next month, when its owner, Otsuka, sends a rocket there with a capsule containing Pocari Sweat, in powder form. The company’s laudable idea is that at some future date, present-day children inspired by the mission to become astronauts will touch down and be able to relieve their hangovers, or perchance simply their thirsts, by mixing the powder with the (currently arid) moon’s own water.

What is not admitted by the Japanese is that their designs are very much part of a beverage-centric space race in the making. The Scots, their principal adversaries, struck an early blow: some vials of unmatured malt from Ardbeg Distillery on Islay have just returned to earth after being transported to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket in October 2011. The whisky had orbited the earth for 1,045 days and was found afterwards by the distillery’s tasters to have a more “intense” flavour, although it’s unlikely they were about to declare “it tastes just the same” after going to all that trouble.

Another other piece of whisky-related news is that Whisky Galore!, the 1949 Ealing comedy set on a remote Scottish island, whose inhabitants appropriate a shipwrecked cargo of whisky, is currently being re-made. I would not be surprised to discover that the whole story has been relocated to space, nor that some role had been found for the Japanese as villains.

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In praise of the SCMP’s ‘Around the Nation’

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

A woman destroys an ATM machine in a fit of rage. Another wins a hair-growing competition. A man, drunk, drowns in a manure pit. I know I am far from alone in finding the South China Morning Post’s Around the Nation page one of its most compelling sections. Countless conversations with editorial staff and SCMP loyalists assure me of this. Often, however, there is a tone of slight hesitation in their admissions – a wavering, I think, lest too pronounced an enthusiasm be taken to intimate a lack of seriousness about news.

Anyone familiar with this blog will acknowledge that if it does not always provide the final word in serious-minded comment, then it will at least include one or two from somewhere nearing that end of things. More generally, the SCMP is considered a serious organ – the sub-editors may quibble at the word, but its news and analysis tends more towards the intellectual than what used to be called “human interest”, even when it was about pets. With ATN, this order is subverted. Reader, a word here in its praise.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m referring to, buy the paper and you’ll see it: Around the Nation is a round-up of stories that have been making the headlines in sundry corners of the mainland. Some are routine – a new infrastructure project here, a government denial about something over there. Others are anecdotal but still marginally un-extraordinary: a man cracks a window during a quarrel on a bus with his girlfriend; a woman has to receive medical help after playing mahjong for three days solid. The most memorable can usually be filed under bizarre, gruesome, heartwarming, comical or downright appalling, although none of these categories is exclusive.

You would probably be right to identify this as tabloid journalism. A fine tradition, and one in which I’ve dabbled, and frequently defend, but make no mistake – it’s often voyeuristic, mawkish and vulgar. The snobs have a point. Doubtless, too, it serves as an instrument of distraction, particularly in a country such as China where “proper” journalism gets throttled. And this is all before one considers how things have evolved online, where it seems the only way for media organisations to thrive is to deploy armies of clickbait wallahs to churn out titillating content, and to hell with its veracity.

There is, I think, a case to be made that our appetite for the weird and wonderful, the salacious and the shocking, is such that a journalism that caters to it offers a valve – one that’s not inimical to but rather part of life in a civilised society. This applies, moreover, regardless of how far that society may or may not be shaped by the principles of Athenian democracy. In its way, though, ATN offers both less and more than this valve function.

For one, ATN is mediated, a digest from other sources, for English readers in Hong Kong and elsewhere. There’s therefore an element of revelling in the wacky things that seem to happen in the mainland, puzzlement at the jarring effects created by awkwardly-translated phrases or sketchily-explained cultural mores, uncertainty at the degree of comic intentions. (What are we to make, for example, of this detail, included in a story about a pig which surprised visitors to a Buddhist temple in Wenzhou province by prostrating itself as if in prayer? “Photos posted online amazed some internet users, while others claimed the animal was suffering from a vitamin E deficiency.”)

At the same time, details omitted leave us wanting to know more, or attempting to piece things together in our imaginations, as we skip from the fantastical to the mundane to the brutal, mind-mapping the country, wondering what’s fact, what’s hearsay and what’s been embellished by eager hacks. The stories about mahjong casualties and failed blackmail attempts on local officials have an ageless quality, like folktales. Earlier this year it seems there was a spate of burglars breaking into homes then falling asleep.

Meanwhile, the outbreaks of violence or cruelty, the crazy people doing crazy things, the health scares, the exam stress – all contribute to a sense of modern China, even if they don’t tell us what modern China is. In Henan, a grave-visiting business opens for people who don’t have time to visit their own deceased relatives. In Chongqing, a farmer sells his ox to go looking for his runaway son.

ATN may be tabloid journalism by numbers on the one hand; on the other it offers a dispassionate window on a diverse country enduring the pangs of development. All human life is there. Animal life too.

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How the positivity industry prefers us to worry

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

I’ve been receiving a torrent of communications from the positive thinking brigade lately. I don’t know what prompted it. Maybe it was something I googled. Or something I wrote on here: maybe I create such an impression of charlatanry that I’ve been fingered for susceptibility to charlatanry in general. Reader, how should I know?

At any rate, the email invites have been coming thick and fast: from mind coaches and self-belief gurus, character educators and positivity activators. They wish to show me the way, they say, to unbridled confidence, success, happiness. Some merely offer to help me build my “personal brand”.

As described in The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-being, a recent book by a chap named William Davies, this is all very lucrative stuff. Vast operations are at work nowadays to benefit from making us worry – about how optimally engaged we are in our jobs; how fulfilled and confident we are in ourselves; in short, how brilliantly we’re doing. I doubt very much if the sum of human happiness is increased at all.

According to Davies some occupational psychologists are keen on companies sacking workers who do not show the proper enthusiasm for their advances. The Maoist tenor of that approach might sound a little extreme, but it does seem to chime with my experience on the handful of occasions when I have been forced by employers to attend motivational workshops and the like.

What I have noticed, see, is that for everyone in these situations who instinctively gets it, for everyone who has his or her self-belief calibrated the way the psychologists might desire, others are there out of fear: fear of not getting ahead; worse, of being left behind. Often they appear to have been ambushed by the notion that being bumptious and insufferable is the only way to get where they want to be.

Perhaps the idea that most frightens such people, then, is this: that self-belief and self-promotion may not in fact be enough, on their own, to guarantee making it to the top, that no matter how good your personal brand or your CV, unfortunately other factors, such as ability and, yes, connections, also come into play.

As an aside, a couple of years ago the veteran Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten published a memorable, if somewhat canting, riposte to a young journalist who had asked him how he’d built his personal brand. The main lesson was never to intimate that a columnist might be a self-publicist. However, Weingarten also railed, righteously, against the internet generation’s preoccupation with “eyeballs” and against that weasel thing “content” (which, lexicography being satire’s carousel, must – I submit – be ripe for replacement by the equally nebulous “ingredients”).

The point, sort of, is that brands are essentially shallow constructs – no matter how they’re dressed up in marketing’s “Vision, Mission, Values” b***cks. Online, though, everyone’s at it: the imperative is to demonstrate how fascinating and fabulous you are. Problem is, a world full of shiny, happy, self-confident people doesn’t ring all that true. No matter what the “science” of positive thinking says, and no matter how much we fake it, we can’t all be winners all of the time, can we?

Maybe it’s partly a question of upbringing: I was always taught not to bang on about myself, not to brag. If nothing else, socially it’s a killer – nobody’s really interested in people who are full of themselves; it’s the listeners and the empathisers who tend to make the best friends. And the same must go, I suppose, for the super-engaged and the super-motivated – the grown teacher’s pets who spend every waking moment composing work emails. How do they have lives?

We ought to worry, I think, for the future mental health of those toddlers we keep hearing about who have four-page CVs and are being put through kindergarten interviews. For most people, I imagine, the knowledge that the world does not revolve around oneself arrives as a blessed relief. Unfortunately, the plainest truths often run against the cultural grain.

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Overheard at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

“Now George, I’ve said I’ll take care of this so behave yourself.” It’s late and two elderly English couples are trying to settle their bill. The women perch squiffily on their stools, looking about ready to drop off. George is putting up a valiant effort but it’s clear he’s losing ground. “This is my club, George, and when we go to your club you always pay for us.” And then comes the clincher: “It’s just Christian values, George. They might be unfashionable but that’s how I was brought up.” A reverential lull is allowed to fall on the conversation. “Christian bloody values.”

“I think we have to be wary of making FGM an issue about ‘us’ and ‘them’, you know,” says an Australian woman, loudly. “The whole attitude is very neo-colonial, don’t you think? I mean, who gets to decide that western ideas about sexual freedom are superior? Colonialism was all about male phallic dominance – we mustn’t encourage a colonialism of the clitoris.”

“It sounds just like the old days,” says the local Chinese journalist, referring to a recent flashpoint: the incident of the Swedish diplomat throwing a tantrum at staff after being denied a table for 12 guests. “In fact, some things haven’t moved on at all,” she tells her companions, three suited western males. “White people have always felt superior in this club, but foreign journalists are still paid more in Hong Kong, so what’s changed there?” The men sip their drinks and give the matter some thought. “Of course, the Vikings had a decent-sized empire,” offers one. “But they never made it this far east.”

A Scotsman is telling a story. “I’ve just come out my building and I’m walking down the hill,” he says. “And you know where those posh flats across the road are? Right, well I’m going past and something catches my eye, like something going down really quick. And I look over behind this skip on the road and there’s a guy lying there. His legs are all mangled and he’s not moving, and he’s, well he’s f***ing dead – there’s no point even checking for a pulse. What the f*** can you do? So, anyway, I call for an ambulance and – no kidding – the guy says they’re too busy and can I call back. Eventually I persuade him to take a note of where I’m calling from and hang up. Meanwhile, there’s a crowd of people gathered around the dead guy and they’re all out with their phones taking pictures. Seriously, I have no words.”

Something dabs the right corner of my vision like a damp cloth. I look across the bar and a couple are crying together; sotto voce, yet somehow unguardedly. Look away, instinct says – but these don’t seem like normal, private tears. He’s mid-40s, with an intent face, Western; she’s younger, Asian, but with a CNN accent gone slurry from wine. It’s 4pm. They’re insensibly sloshed, holding hands and, I realise, praying to the Almighty Lord. Through a cloud of ecstasy, I hear her call: “Help me, Jesus, to be my better self.” The bartender, on his rounds, sets a bowl of peanuts before them. “More drinks?” he asks.

“Well, y’see, when y’leave the place you can get lifetime membership,” says Jack. “That’s what I got – this here card. Just a piece of cardboard back in those days, with your number on it and the photograph. That’s me there. Yeah, well, I was considerably younger then. It’s been 20 years since we went home to America. Always wanted to come visit again, my wife and I, but we never did, God rest her soul. I’m here now, though. Yessir, I’m doing it like we said. Changes? Oh, you bet. Hey, but you know what? It’s like old Marcus Aurelius said – the universe is change. I’m just taking it all in. And y’know, the FCC is still standing. That’s something.”