ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Unless you have spent the last month on a desert island, there is a good chance you have heard of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. It is a craze that has spread around the world, where people are challenged to pour a bucket of ice water – the icier, the better – over their heads, all on film. The participant then nominates three others to take undertake the challenge. Where this craze differs from other internet memes is that it is designed to raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – known as motor neurone disease in the UK – as well as raise money for the charities involved in supporting sufferers and looking for a cure. Each participant donates money to the ALS Association in America, or the Motor Neurone Disease Association in the UK, and if a nominee refuses to take part, they are encouraged to pay a fine.

ALS or motor neurone disease is a terrible, debilitating illness that causes the sufferer’s muscles to weaken and atrophy over time until they are eventually unable to move or look after themselves. There is no known cure.

As with all crazes, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has attracted its share of criticism, from participants being accused of taking part as a means of self-aggrandisement, to other media commentators like William Foxton from the Daily Telegraph describing the challenge as “a middle-class wet-T-shirt contest for armchair clicktivists”. The cynic in me can understand these points of view to a certain extent, but there is one aspect of the craze that cannot be argued.

According to Time Magazine, since it started, the campaign has raised over $50 million in the US for the ALSA. It is estimated over £8 million has been raised in the UK. This is an incredible amount for these previously little-known charities, and will provide a welcome boost in both the support for sufferers and the ongoing search for a cure.

Yesterday, I was nominated to take part in the challenge by my step-brother. I thought long and hard about taking part. There is an element of self-centredness in taking part, especially in the posting videos. There is the risk that those taking part feel they have “done their bit” and sit back while other worthy causes lose out. But it would take a hard-hearted person not to see the benefits from the Ice Bucket Challenge far outweigh these criticisms, both in money raised and in much needed exposure for this horrible disease, so I decided to take part.

Here is the video of my Ice Bucket Challenge:

If you are in the US and would like to donate money to the  ALSA, please click on the line here.

If you are in the UK, you can donate to the Motor Neurone Disease Association by clicking here.

In Memory Of Czeslawa Kwoka

A very thought provoking and moving tribute to a young girl who was killed in the holocaust.

City Jackdaw

The last post that I added to City Jackdaw was all about the wonder and splendour of this beautiful world that we live in. Today’s post is about a darker aspect of this same world, an aspect that we shamefully bring to it. I came across the story of Czeslawa Kwoka by accident.  I had never heard of her before, but it was the photograph that drew my attention. I could not stop looking at it.

Czeslawa Kwoka

Czeslawa Kwoka was born in Poland in 1928. This beautiful girl was to die in Auschwitz in 1943. Not a Jew, she was a Polish Catholic girl who was sent to Auschwitz along with her mother in December 1942. Within three months, both were dead.

I have never been to Auschwitz. I did go to the Terezín camp when I was in Prague a few years ago. Although used as a ghetto and not…

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What is the point?

What do you mean I can't take it with me? (source: legacy matters.ca)

What do you mean I can’t take it with me? (source: legacy matters.ca)

“If you could be anyone in the world, who would it be?”
Bill Gates.”
“Why?”
“Because he’s the richest man in the world.”*
“And then what?”
“What do you mean?”
“And then what? Once you’re the richest man in the world, then what?”
“I’d make more money.”**

I had my first blogging argument the other day. Well, when I say argument, I mean disagreement and even that is too harsh because being a typical Brit I backed down as soon as I thought I had caused offense.

It started after reading the excellent donotgetsickinthesink blog (she’s very good, you should follow her). Now Karen (she of the aforementioned blog) was commenting on the story of Huguette Clark, a reclusive American heiress who died recently. Ms Clark decided to leave her estate to those who cared for her over the last 20 years instead of her closest relatives. Unsurprisingly, her extended family are currently disputing the will, despite the fact that many hadn’t seen her for years and some had never met her at all. Personally I find the whole thing amazing. I mean, my sister-in-law is famous for visiting relatives to ensure she doesn’t get left out of their wills, and the most she’s likely to get is 14 pairs of white socks and some Lego. Surely they could have visited once or twice in the intervening years?

Now Karen wrote in “if you can’t take it with you then at least make them fight over it” about how different life for the extremely wealthy is compared to the rest of us and that the only interest this family had with Ms Clark was after she had died. And while I agree, it got me thinking of a bigger picture. Sadly, instead of writing something profound about what I was thinking, I wrote a flippant comment about the American Dream which Karen rightly gave short shrift. This is my somewhat more reasoned reply.

The story of Huguetta Clark reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago with some colleagues. These colleagues were big believers in the American Dream. They had been brought up to believe that in the USA, anyone with the right stuff and will to succeed can make it, or as it was better defined by James Truslow Adams in 1931: “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.” I don’t know how anybody could disagree with that.

This man has a lot to answer for (source: Wikipedia)

This man has a lot to answer for (source: Wikipedia)

The problem is, the meaning of the American Dream has changed since Adams wrote that definition, and for my colleagues (and many other Americans) the goal of “life should be better, richer, fuller” changed to just “richer”. This is very similar to how fame, once a byproduct of artistic or political achievement, is now a goal in its own right (I’m looking at you, Mr Cowell).

Now before we go any further, I’m not knocking America or Americans. This viewpoint isn’t unique to the them, in fact I’m sure most Russian Oligarchs, high-ranking Chinese Communist Party members, London Bankers and many, many others agree. I’m also not here to argue whether the American Dream is actually attainable any more, especially when the current President of the USA is the embodiment of that dream (boy that’s got to hurt the tea party) and the current Prime Minister of the UK is a direct descendent of William IV, went to Eton, was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club whilst at Oxford University and has had most things handed to him on a silver platter from birth.

What it made me think of is:

What is the Point?

What is the point of “making it” in this way? I can understand wanting to better yourself, to provide for your family, both now and when you are gone. But if your goal in life is to make it, and the measurement of “making it” is  through money, then Ms Clark was at the very pinnacle of the American Dream when she died. Is that really what people are aiming for? Is the goal of billions around the world to spend their last 20 years in hospital despite not being ill, because you are closer to the people who care for you than your family due to the alienating nature of extreme wealth?

The good news is that not every billionaire views the world this way. Bill Gates, the man my colleagues wanted to be, has placed most of his wealth into a foundation to improve the lives of millions through technology. Only last week Larry Page, one of the founders of Google, announced a new startup company called Calico, whose goal is to combat ageing and eventually deliver eternal life. Now billionaire philanthropists wanting to make the world a better place isn’t a new phenomena (just look at Alfred Novel, for example). What is new, however, is the sheer magnitude of their goals, and the fact that they are not doing this in their dotage, or posthumously, but while they are still relatively young.

Is this really the point? (source: findexamples.com)

Is this really the point? (source: findexamples.com)

Sadly, though, these are the few rather than the many. The majority of billionaires are still engaged in the world’s largest pissing contest. At the same time Bill and Melinda Gates have been looking for a cure for the most virulent African diseases; Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle and the world’s third richest man, has focused his efforts on building the world’s most expensive yacht ahead of Roman Abramovic, whilst the Koch Brothers appear to be secretly trying to become puppet masters of the USA by taking over the Republican party in the hope they can install a brand of unregulated capitalism based on Darwin’s ‘Survival of the fittest’ (and how ironic is it that the main supporters of these two brothers are the more fundamental Christian groups).

The thing is, with a couple of simple words we may be able to turn this minority into a majority. I may be being naive, possibly idealistic, and it will take time, but if we can change the American Dream from aiming to be “richer” to “richer to deliver good”, maybe the USA, and therefore the world, would become a  better place. And possibly, just possibly, the descendants of the next Huguetta Clark wouldn’t be fighting over their inheritance, but how best to use her endowment for the better.

*This was correct at the time of the discussion. Then the richest man in the world is Carlos Slim Carlos Slim Helú, the Mexican telecoms magnet and philanthropist. Now, apparently, Bill has hit the top spot once again.

**My answer, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web who could have been fabulously wealthy but decided that his invention should be free for the benefit of mankind.***

*** OK, the answer at the time was Steve Jobs. Satisfied?

Are we the baddies?

Honest folks, PRISM is for your own good

Honest folks, PRISM is for your own good

The only thing that has surprised me about the recent revelations that US intelligence services have been involved in spying on millions of people around the globe, has been the number of people who are surprised. Please tell me that I’m not the only person who already thought something like this was taking place? I’m particularly amused by the shock coming from members of congress upon realising that it wasn’t just those pesky foreigners that were being spied on as originally stated by President Obama, but US citizens as well, ignoring the fact that many of their erstwhile allies are not amused.

Here in the UK, the government is coming under huge pressure following allegations that they obtained data from the PRISM project as a means to spy on their own citizens without obtaining the necessary court approval.

Meanwhile, back in California, many of the world’s largest tech companies are falling over themselves to reassure their users that the US intelligence services have no direct link into their data servers.

When I look at this story, a number of things come to mind:

1. We are all complicit in this

The majority of information that is being gathered has been freely provided by us to the tech companies involved. When we sign up to use a service, we give permission for the service provider to store or activity. Every status update, tweet, SMS and (yes I appreciate the irony) blog post only exists because it has been created by us. I am not suggesting for one moment that what the security services are doing is right, or that they are not breaking the law (as may be the case in some countries.) But by handing our content over to third parties, this type of scenario was always possible.

2. History shows that this was always going to happen

During the post-war years in the US, war was declared on a concept (in this case communism.) What followed were years of paranoia and persecution including the surveillance of hundreds of thousands of individuals and organisations within the US by it’s own intelligence services. Moving along to the present day, war has been declared on a verb (in this case terror). What has followed should not be a surprise. Once the leader of a nation says “you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists,” any chance to debate how large a threat has been posed or how to combat the threat is gone, including the usual checks and balances to prevent abuses of power.

3. Who decides the common good?

It would be easy to categorise the intelligence services involved and those who authorised the intelligence gathering as bad or evil, but you have to remember the context in which they are working. I am sure that the people working on these programs believed they were doing so for the common good, that they were collecting this data to protect the citizens of the United States (and handing it on to the British Government to protect their citizens too.). But who decides what is the common good and at what point does the act of protection cause more harm than that which you are being protected from? It shouldn’t be hard for the White House and UK Government to understand how this looks to the rest of the world. Just replace the word US with either China or Iran in my opening paragraphs and suddenly everything takes on a completely different meaning. The whole situation reminds me of a Mitchell and Webb sketch from a few years back (I would just like to point out that I am not saying the current US administration is anything like Nazi Germany.) The question is: in the modern world, are we starting to become the baddies?