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Thursday, August 5, 2010

The End is Nigh

I believe it's the right (or, at least, the clear determination) of every generation to complain to anyone who will listen that the world is in much worse shape than when they were young, and that the end of days is surely approaching.

There are some moments, though, when it seems that, as we begin the second decade of the 21st Century, this really could be the case.

I don't think at any time in my life have I read so many news reports that leave me speechless at the behavior of some of my fellow primates. Below are two links to stories, one from the US and one from the UK, that have struck me dumb:



Perhaps it's selective recollection on my part, but I simply don't remember things like this happening in my earlier years: Wanton acts of extreme cruelty without any discernible benefit for the perpetrator. It's one thing to mug someone for their wallet or jewelry, there at least is an arguable financial upside for the thief, but to throw a baby into the path of an oncoming bus seems not only abhorrent and evil but also pointless: what is this act intended to achieve?

I try to find humor in most situations, but there are some (the above salient examples) in which no bright side can be located. Nor should it. Human beings have always behaved terribly towards one another in the pursuit of persuasive goals like power, money, territory, and religious conviction (the Holocaust, the genocides in Sudan, Rwanda, and Bosnia, Saddam Hussein's massacre of the Kurdish population of Iraq, the list goes on and on and on...and on...), but there now seems to be a particular viciousness exhibited between what one might term as 'ordinary' citizens. Just regular people like you and I but with their morality turned off, they don't feel pity or remorse and seem unafraid of repercussion.

We could argue the sociological reasons behind this phenomenon until we are blue in the face; the breakdown of the family unit, crumbling education systems, the complete divorce of effort, attainment and reward in all areas of life, the neutering of authority figures...this list also stretches off into the murky distance, but unless we take a long, hard look at what is happening and why, our future and that of our children is in serious peril.

There has been talk of lost generations before now but the threat to those born since the turn of the millennium feels more immediate and far more sinister. This is not just a loosening of morals or spirited rebellion against the establishment, it is a complete breakdown of social order where compassion is construed as weakness, and laws are essentially meaningless...unless, of course, you are someone who tries to abide by them, but that is another discussion altogether.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Land of (waning) Hope and (faded) Glory

It's not easy being English during the World Cup. Particularly for me since I live in America and am without fail elected (without the appropriate fawning ceremony, I might add) as official spokesperson for the England team. I am called to account for each victory or loss, each peak or trough in team performance, and sometimes even the physical virtues of each WAG who totters alongside her man in preposterous Christian Louboutin heels.

In the months leading up to every tournament the English media whip up a storm of excitement and expectation; this, they can be relied upon to assure us, is OUR year. Gerrard is on top form, Ashley Cole has no peer at his position, and Wayne Rooney...well, what can be said that already hasn't? By the time kick-off rolls around, we English are practically hyperventilating. The St. George cross is flying from every car window, the Scots and Welsh have been reminded ad infinitum that their team did not qualify, and every newspaper throughout the land is urging the populace to rally around "the lads" and cheer them on to victory.

Then reality, and the forecast for the future, come crashing down. No World Cup in recent memory has so starkly illustrated the grimness of both as this one.

A dreary and spiritless performance against the US, a positively embarrassing and amateurish effort against Algeria, an occasional glimpse of what-could-have-been against Slovenia and then a 4-1 drubbing at the hands the Germans. As predictable as England's shameful play was, even more so was the subsequent wave of insipid excuses and accusations by the fans and pundits.

It has been widely opined that the goal Frank Lampard had disallowed was a contributing factor to the eventual loss; the thinking being that the psychological momentum would have been with England as they went into the dressing room at half-time having just scored the equalizer, and the Germans would have ended the half on a down-note. If this theory is accepted then it says more about the mental weakness of the English players than it does about anything else.

This is what is most frustrating about being a supporter of the England team. We cry and moan about disallowed goals, about handballs and offsides and make every other conceivable excuse, but the bottom line is that the team should not be in a position where a bad call by a referee decides the outcome of the game. Do I have a solution? I hear you ask. Why yes, indeed I do: play better defence and score more goals...I'm somewhat surprised noone has put forth this novel proposition before now.

For me, a casual football fan (to say the least - I don't follow the Premiership and am only interested in the sport when England is playing), the more distressing and sinister aspect of the international game is the English fan's insistence that every encounter with the Germans be equated to World War II. I read a newspaper article ahead of Sunday's match in which yet another War analogy was made: France had folded, as had the Italians, so it was left to the English to face Germany (no mention of support from the US, I noticed). This constant droning on about "winning" World War II and comparing it to (of all things) a football match is as insulting to those of EVERY nationality who lost their lives in the conflict as it is a pathetic attempt to up the drama ante.

It is base rabble-rousing of this kind that football REALLY doesn't need. Is it wise to further antagonize thousands of drunk and adrenalized fans, already furious about losing the game, by invocations of war and nationalism? You don't need to answer that.

We also need to stop reminding anyone who will listen that England won the Cup in 1966. Yes, 1966. There are volcanoes younger than that achievement. As they say in my adopted home country: Dude, move on.


BONUS

Perhaps my favorite story of the whole tournament was that during the 7-0 whipping that North Korea took from Portugal, North Korea stopped broadcasting the game. Is that not totalitarianism defined? "Citizenry, this game is no longer happening. What you have just seen was an hallucination. Return to work." It would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Art Humiliating Life

The most tedious 90 minutes of my recent life was spent watching 'The Ugly Truth' with Gerard Butler and the eye-pleasing (but woefully cast) Katherine Heigl. For those of you lucky enough not to have seen this pile of filmic fecal matter, Butler is a TV anchor newly hired by a regional station at which Heigl works as a segment producer. He is rude and irresponsible (but, you know, charmingly so) and she is uptight and humorless (but still impossibly beautiful and reassuringly accessible). They both have one-track minds, but the tracks are as different as could be. Hilarity, the filmmakers would have us believe, ensues.

Apparently, as an unmarried male not overly keen on shaving every day, the writers of the film think Butler's character is one I should very much identify with, if not actually wish I was more like. If only I had the spinal fortitude to say every stupid and childish thing that popped into my head, wouldn't I just feel so much better?

He is supposed to be the wacky guy who is great fun at parties and, despite his abrasive manner, impossible not to like. The opposite is true, however. It is extremely easy to dislike him. Rather than being the life and soul, he is actually the crass, juvenile bore who thinks that he is being oh-so-controversial by pointing out sexual innuendo in every word he or anyone else utters, whether the double-entendre is valid or not. He is not the guy that makes the party, he's the guy that everyone wishes would just go home.

I can hear and see him now, head tilted slightly back and to the side, one palm flat against his chest: "I'm just being honest", he proclaims after his latest 'that's-what-she-said' moment. I've heard funnier things said at a war crimes trial.

A film like 'The Ugly Truth' is more disappointing in the fact that it (and its writers) think they are saying something noone else has ever said before, something that viewers would otherwise have difficulty admitting to themselves. That the film is puerile, cliche'd and so painfully predictable is actually less offensive than how controversial it thinks it's being. Men's apparent interest in sex and sex alone is hardly virgin territory (pun intended), this is a topic that has been covered exhaustively by everybody from Woody Allen to the producers of 'Friends'.

That being said, perhaps I am being too hard on the makers of 'The Ugly Truth'. Perhaps they do know they are on well-trodden ground, and the vulgarity employed in the delivery of the story is quite deliberate and an honest, if misguided, attempt to put a different spin on the analysis of the primal drivers of male instincts. By way of the movies unabashed vulgarity they are admitting they think that any laugh is a good laugh and it is, of course, much easier to get the desired result through shocking your audience than through subtle jokes that get their response after a few seconds thought.

Nonetheless, in summation 'The Ugly Truth' contains no truth, but is grotesquely ugly. The acting is poor, the plot is tired and obvious and the script is as clumsy and witless as it gets.

Exhale...

This, sadly, is a trend with modern comedies. Most of them are not funny in the slightest and rely on base toilet humor for all their laughs. Interestingly enough, the best comedy today is found in films that are otherwise quite serious in tone and content. A great recent example is Anne Hathaway's turn in Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland' as the White Queen. Her character's gag reflex is perpetually on a hair trigger and there are a couple of key dramatic moments whose seriousness is broken by the Queen dry-heaving at the sight of blood or other unpleasantness. It's beautiful in its simplicity and the more one thinks about it, the more it seems to suit her character. She is the White Queen, pure and virginal, of course she would think dragon's blood is gross. This little peccadillo humanizes her character without weakening it.

With that rant out of my system, let's move on to the main point of this post. Where have all the great stories gone?

One of the best in the last two decades is Quentin Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs'. A pure character study, the movie contains all the great components of classic bank heist films but, in a stroke of story-telling genius that manages to infuse the film with all the associated tension and excitement, you never actually witness the robbery whose aftermath you are now watching.

Primarily a drama, it too has its lighter moments. Mr. White and Mr. Orange, played by Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth, respectively, are laying on the floor in the gang's hideout, both soaked in Orange's blood which flows unfettered from a gunshot would in his stomach. White is cradling Orange as his life is ebbing away and in a hauntingly tender moment even combs the younger gangsters hair to comfort him. Steve Buscemi's Mr. Pink enters the scene, ranting.

"This is bad, this is so [expletive] bad." He spits, pacing back and forth in front of them. Turning to Mr. White, he asks "Is it bad?", meaning both the overall situation and Orange's injury.

White looks at the half-dead Mr. Orange, quivering in his arms, his skin now grey from the massive loss of blood. He turns his incredulous gaze back to Pink. "As opposed to good?" He snaps. Subtle, yes, ironic, yes, funny, without question.

This kind of movie is becoming increasingly rare in the 21st Century. Watch 'Reservoir Dogs' today and you will find it looks and feels as contemporary as it did the day it came out which, surprisingly even to me, was in 1992.

One of the great character studies of very recent years has been 'Precious', the story of an African-American teen who lives in a world of unspeakable hardship. Before I knew anything about the film my hopes were buoyed that good screenwriting was not a thing of the past, but the inescapable fact is that the film is based on a book that was written in 1995.

It seems to me that all the best writers in Hollywood work for Pixar. Home of the 'Toy Story' movies, 'Finding Nemo' and the absolute masterpiece that is 'Wall-E' (no dialogue at all for the first fifteen minutes but so visually captivating you don't even notice), Pixar has perfected the art of combining social commentary with well-paced and original story-telling. Whilst making some concessions to dramatic convention, these films make their points in far less ham-fisted ways than films like 'Avatar', which think they are making statements about great moral truths but are in fact simply pointing out the obvious. Obvious, at least, to anyone who spends any amount of time thinking about the world they live in.

The 'Transformers' movies, whilst undoubtedly impressive technical achievements, are about as vapid and thin in terms of their story than anything to come out of Hollywood in the last twenty years. Director Michael Bay's apparent intention is to remove all nuance, subtext and depth from the stories he brings to the screen, and simply try to out-nerd himself with each release.

Endless unnecessary remakes (Robin Hood, Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre), 'event' films like 'Avatar' (where the film itself is the star, not the story or cast), or comic book translations like 'Iron Man' (which I actually quite enjoyed, thanks RDJ...) are becoming what Hollywood does, and little attention is paid to plot or character development. It's not even as if every movie has to take itself and its main players particularly seriously, there is room for humor and the light-hearted approach does not detract from the overall value of a story at all. Take every twenty- and thirty-something male's favorite movie, 'Swingers'. This is a funny movie, a VERY funny movie but is also multi-layered, sophisticated and has some genuinely revolutionary things to say about human relationships, particularly those between men as they work through the personal and professional wasteland that is their mid- to late-twenties.

Not every movie has to be as serious as 'Road to Perdition', but the artfully-crafted story and character are becoming increasingly rare beasts. Movies can and should be fun, but when the choice for viewers is between 90 minutes of bodily functions or 90 minutes of deafening explosions, I'd rather just read a book.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

An Immigrant's Story

Outrage followed the passage of SB1070, Arizona's tough new immigration bill. The reaction is in large part to wording in the bill around "reasonable suspicion" of a person's illegal immigration status, and that it can be used as justification for a police officer to demand to see proof of residency/citizenship.

The reason for the concern is simple; 'reasonable' is a decidedly subjective term, and immigration advocates are worried that it will open the door to racial profiling.

Last year I became a Legal Permanent Resident of the United States, which is to say I was issued a Green Card. After nearly six years in temporary worker status (prior to this I held an H1-B skilled workers visa) I had in my hands the Holy Grail and all the exciting freedoms that come with it.

Throughout the Green Card application process, I became intimately acquainted with all the nuances and peculiarities of immigration law, and believe me when I tell you it is a netherworld of forms filled out in triplicate, medical tests, biometric exams and disconcertingly vague Q&A sessions with lawyers, from which come far more questions than answers.

Much of the process is tiresome and feels somewhat unfair; a question on the application form asks whether one has ever been arrested. This to me seems prejudicial, surely the pertinent question is whether one has ever been convicted of a crime (although this question does come up later on); an arrest can be meaningless if it is mistaken, or worse, unlawful.

Other parts of it actually raise a smile, albeit a wry one. The same application form asks whether the respondent ever sent money to and/or worked for the German government between the years of 1933 and 1945. I was 32 at the time I filled out the form, so it would have been a neat metaphysical trick if I had had any dealings with the Third Reich, financial or otherwise.

A few questions later, one encounters perhaps the most memorably phrased question; "Have you ever engaged in or sponsored Genocide?". I had to pause before indignantly checking the 'No' box - there was this one time when my apartment had a really bad ant problem, so I took this kettle of boiling water and...never mind. Also, the word 'sponsored' tickled me; one can't help but think of sponsorship in terms of a 5k race in support of some kind of local charity (Would you care to donate some money to our cause, sir? We're almost at our target of $500 for the extermination of a competing cultural group. Sure, why not, put me down for a tenner.)

Following these two gems, there is also a question about whether the applicant is intending to overthrow the government by seditious means once inside the country. It would be admirably honest for someone to answer this question in the positive.

Obviously, I am making light of a serious process that causes considerable anxiety for many temporary workers. Over the course of the six years as an H1-B holder I built an entire life here and a denial of my Green Card would have meant the destruction of it all and my having to start over again somewhere else (contrary to many ill-informed anti-immigration activists, the H1-b temporary work visa cannot be renewed indefinitely - it's clear and unbreakable limit is six years).

The immigration system without doubt needs an overhaul, it is rife with inefficiency and redundancy and is still involves many paper-based forms that are complicated and repetitive. Processes need revising and much more clarity into the various stages of the application should be provided to the applicant.

There are also unnecessarily harsh penalties for mistakes. For example, if for whatever reason the applicant misses his/her biometrics appointment (where fingerprints, etc, are taken), the entire Green Card application is deemed as abandoned by the immigration service and has to be started again from the very beginning, wasting potentially years of effort and thousands of dollars.

This is why SB1070 is such a poorly thought-out exercise; just making it more risky for illegal immigrants to walk the streets in Arizona solves no problems at all. There are systemic problems that need fixing, ones that will remain so despite a police officer's ability to demand proof of legal immigration status of anyone he deems suspicious. It is also worth nothing that the requirement to carry proof of status is not unheard of; as a Green Card holder one is obliged to carry it at all times.

A common proposition made by anti-immigration voices is that US companies are less likely to employ American citizens because they can pay immigrants much lower salaries. This might be true of particular industries, but jobs that require a higher level of technical skill and education (i.e the most desirable, well-compensated ones) are certainly not being given to undocumented workers. For example, it is doubtful that the wage disparity between two doctors, one born in India and the other in Wisconsin, working at the same hospital is very large. Similarly, I can guarantee that you will not find an illegal immigrant working in the IT department of any reputable company. No such organization would expose itself to that serious a risk.

There are other, softer reasons to fix the immigration system, too. The cultural benefits of immigration are obvious and plentiful; in England in the mid-20th century, there was a huge influx of immigrants from Asia. Their presence immeasurably added to the richness and diversity of art, music and cuisine (and let me tell you, my beautiful country of birth needs all the help it can get in that last category).

Obviously, the flow of immigrants needs measures of control, but people from other countries do so much more than just work, they add vibrancy and color (pun somewhat intended) to our cities and bring with them the diversity that is the hallmark of the 21st century.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Religion & Politics - The Great Debate

It is often said that if a social occasion is to remain civil, two topics must be avoided; politics and religion. Recently there have been a couple of notable instances where it appears that in the minds of two prospective presidential candidates the line between the two is blurred.

Mike Huckabee, ex-governor of Arkansas and current Fox News host, was asked by reporters about the likelihood of him making a presidential bid in 2012. In reply, Huckabee said 'God hasn't told me yet'.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, after his speech at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, said much the same thing when asked a similar question.

To some, these might be just throwaway comments, light-hearted in nature and almost touching in their simplicity. However, to secularists they are words that start alarm bells ringing and fingers drumming.

The first question that comes to mind is if either man is elected are policy decisions going to be driven by religious sensibilities? For example, would funding for certain programs be decreased (or increased) depending on whether they align with his/her personal belief system?

A real-life instance, albeit on a smaller scale, of religion coloring public life was several years ago when controversy raged over pharmacists in a number of states refusing to dispense birth-control or the morning-after pill. The pharmacists claimed that providing those medications ran counter to their own religious beliefs, so they felt compelled to turn away customers looking to procure them. Some of the pharmacists also said they thought giving out birth-control violated the hippocratic oath, although it's hard to not suspect that their religious convictions were the driving force, and it was merely convenient that an applied reading of the oath was available for use as a compounding argument.

Bringing us back to the religion-in-politics question, to the secular mind the concern is around the implications if the issues in question are broader than personal health choices, and the decision-maker is the President of the United States.

There will always be debate about religion's place in political discourse; to many believers, religious beliefs are an important contributing factor to the affinity they might feel towards a particular candidate, whereas secularists seek to exclude religion from any discussion of policy-making due to its intensely personal nature and tendency to undermine objectivity. Secularists bolster the legitimacy of this goal by citing the US Constitution and its mandated exclusion of religious influence from political debate.

When presenting any argument it is very important to acknowledge head-on the counter-arguments, research why and how they exist and apply, and then demonstrate why your point still stands in spite of them. In that spirit, a secularist must acknowledge that nowhere in the Constitution do the words 'separation of church and state' appear (just as any serious and thoughtful atheist must admit they cannot actually prove there is no God), there is only a warrant against religious conviction being a deciding factor in a candidate's suitability for public office, which can be found article VI. Even in the first amendment the exact phrase cannot be found, the wording is simply as follows: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;".

Whilst both of these pieces of text do not explicitly state that religion and politics are not to be mixed, the implications of their respective wordings are obvious. Religion is deemed to be something that exists within an individual's conscience and when making laws should not be a part of the input process. In the case of the first amendment, a crystal-clear statement just sixteen words long, two rules essential to the functioning of a free society are put in place; first, that the government has no say in what you believe (or don't believe), and second, that the government cannot enforce a particular religion or any of its practices.

The end result is the separation of church and state, since if the government is barred from influencing belief in any way, shape or form, freedom of AND from religion is established.

Secularism does not equate to atheism (although it is hard to imagine an atheist who is not also a secularist); there are plenty of believers who support secular ideals as they recognize 1), the diversity of the United States in its citizenry means that acknowledgement of one "official" religion is an impossibility, and 2) religion as an informer of policy puts us uncomfortably close to the beginnings of a theocratic system of government. Both of which could eventually result in persecution of those who hold different beliefs or, of course, none at all. It hardly needs mentioning that this was the main reason the founders of the United States left Europe.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom in 1779 and in it the ideals of article VI of the Constitution and of the first amendment are reflected:

"...that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry, that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy of the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right."

The founders of this country knew that religion, whilst important to many, was entirely too divisive to drive public policy and took action in a variety of ways to ensure it did not. We need to remind our leaders of the lessons of our forefathers and always remember them ourselves.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Goldman Opportunity

First, I would like to apologize for the excruciating pun that is the title of this article. That being said, the current SEC investigation of Goldman Sachs does so sweetly tee up President Obama's pitch for financial reform and provides him a free kick at punting it to the electorate, an advantage not available to him during the recent healthcare debate.

The story is as follows, the SEC is looking into allegations that Goldman Sachs was complicit in some extremely unethical trading practices by Paulson & Co, a hedge fund management company it contracted to advise some of its clients on investment opportunities.

The case focuses on Centralized Debt Obligations (CDO's), which are a type of financial instrument whose value is tied to an underlying set of assets. In this instance, the CDO's were "backed" by a set of subprime-mortgage bonds which had been hand-picked by Paulson & Co for inclusion in an investment portfolio. It is alleged that Paulson knew the portfolio was destined to fail and had in fact deliberately constructed it in such a way that the value could go nowhere but down. The health and value of the portfolio was misrepresented to clients of Goldman who were encouraged to put money into it. Traders at Goldman then "bet" on the housing bubble bursting and raked in colossal profits when it did.

Before we continue, l want to spend a brief moment on the concept of "betting" on stocks. This term is thrown around a lot and I don't have the deepest understanding of the concept, but I'll give explaining it my best shot. A stock is valued at $100 but I, as a trader, have information that leads me to believe the price will go down to $50 by close of business tomorrow. I approach an owner of the stock and 'borrow' it from them until that time in exchange for a lender's fee. I immediately sell the stock at the high price, then wait until the price drops the following day and buy it back. I then return the stock to its original owner (plus the lender's fee) and pocket the rest of the money. This is also known as 'short-selling' and, whilst the SEC doesn't mind the practice itself, problems arise when the market is deliberately manipulated.

There has been some backlash against the investigation with some analysts and commentators deeming it a waste of time and effort. Others, however, are happy to see a large financial house being called to account for its alleged irresponsible behavior. The investigation has gone global, too, with the United Kingdom and Germany starting their own inquiries (Germany, in particular, must declare a special interest; one of Goldman's clients most seriously affected in the scandal is IKB Deutsche Industriebank AG, a huge bank that has had its own problems in recent years, receiving no less than two bailouts to keep it afloat).

Which brings us to the forthcoming financial reform bill, championed by President Obama. The SEC investigation provides a great opportunity for the bill's sponsors to frame the passage of the bill as a fight back against the big banks who had for so many years operated recklessly and without any proper supervision, crippling the economy in the process.

The details of the case are far more complex than the simplistic treatment I have given them here (I freely concede I have not even scratched the surface), but that is actually the point of this article. The case appears to be a simple matter of right and wrong; upon this basis it is easy to pick a side (I assume I needn't go so far as to point out who the bad guy is in this dismal piece of theater) and therefore easier for Obama to explain the necessity of reform to the electorate.

The President did not have this advantage when the healthcare bill was going through; according to polls, people were generally happy with their healthcare plan so there was noone to demonize.

The communication aspect of policy-making is almost as important as the policies themselves, and noone knows how to kill a bill through poor messaging better than the Democrats. They need to take some cues out of the Republican playbook, from which phrases like 'Death Panel' and 'Pulling the Plug on Grandma' so powerfully and memorably came. The task for the Democrats is this: formulate some lapel-badge-sized talking points and repeat them until voters are saying them in their sleep.

This time around it should be much more straightforward; people losing their 401ks because of rogue trading practices is very, very bad, so financial industry reform has to be a good thing.

Even the Democrats can't screw this up, right?

Authors note: Thanks to Adam Martin for his input on this article.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Benefits of a Classical Education

A minor throat-clearing before we begin; I cannot claim for my own any of what the title of this piece offers. I went to a mediocre university after an unremarkable performance at secondary school in England. I wasn't a particularly bad student; I was indifferent, middle-of-the-road; not sufficiently applied to my studies to excel but at the same time not courageous enough to rebel.

The study of Shakespeare and Dickens and James Joyce is unavoidable in the English education system and I drew very little from them at the time because it was a task to read them, not a pleasure as it has since become. I don't necessarily think I am significantly more intelligent at this point in my life, I think perhaps it's that now I am interested in more things. It is almost certainly a sign of age but I am now possessed of a desire to learn as much as I can about everything. Seriously, everything. At the very least I want to be able to contribute usefully to a conversation on any topic. A lofty goal, I concede.

Socrates defined intelligence as the realization of how little one actually knows. Of course, as a young man I thought I knew everything. I didn't think I needed to know Shakespeare because I didn't think it would have any value in later life. What I, looking back now, was missing is that the study of Shakespeare, Orwell, Russell, Joyce, Milton, Owen and so many others is not about their value (although it is handy to be able to pull out an obscure quote to reinforce a conversation point from time to time) but that they are worth reading for their own sake.

Orwell, for example, opens his books perhaps better than any other author. In 'Coming Up for Air', his most England-centric novel, the very first line of the first chapter reads 'The idea came to me the day I got my new false teeth'; if that doesn't make you want to read more you might want to check your wrist for a pulse. '1984' also has a memorable first line - 'It was a bright and cold day in April and all the clocks were striking thirteen'. One knows, in a single sentence, that one has been transported into a very different world.

Of course, there will be books that one intends to read but never gets around to. There are also those that one pretends to have read (Plato's Republic leaps to mind), but since there are only so many hours in a day and days in a lifetime, even if you don't get to them all there is, I feel, credit to be given for at least wanting to.

A mention of Plato brings us back to Socrates. If he is correct in his definition of intelligence, that it is the acknowledgment that we know almost nothing, then I hereby lay claim to the title of most intelligent man in the world.