Why the Fawkes Did We Just Do That?

Fawkes. Guy Fawkes.

I know it’s been and gone, but it seems fitting to write this now. Late. After it has ceased to be relevant.

In that spirit I would like us all to pause for a moment. Please. With me. Close your eyes and let us remember the true meaning of Guy Fawkes.

Um… I’m going to go with…. blowing up politicians?

Actually, the original true meaning of Guy Fawkes is something along the lines of this: Fuck Catholics.

People today celebrating Guy Fawkes with fireworks makes about as much sense as people in the year 2417 celebrating  Osama Bin Laden with paper planes and airshows. Guy Fawkes was a failed Catholic terrorist. He wanted to blow up the entire political class, start a civil war, and make England a Catholic country. He failed. He got executed. Explosive plots. Shoot outs. And torture. That’s what we are celebrating. Happy Death to Catholics Day everybody! God save the King!

This whole deal started because the King and parliament – who were quite thankful about not being exploded to death – decided the whole country should give thanks. And for some reason we’ve really liked it. Other weird traditions from that era have long since gone. Yet Guy Fawkes is one guy who has stuck with us for over four hundred years.

Why are we still doing this?

The thank-God-we’re-not-Catholic bit more or less died out in the 19th Century. We all decided to be a bit more orderly about things and stop beating people up. But you could still burn effigies of the Pope if you really wanted. Or the Russians. Or Tony Blair. Whoever you feel needs a good burning.

Then the fireworks industry got in on the on the action, using it as an annual celebration of their product. Seems we were okay with that. And entrepreneurial children also got in on the action, using it as an opportunity to sell effigies for burning so the could buy fireworks, because… fireworks.

Nowadays Guy Fawkes is morphing yet again. Governments, unimpressed by their citizens burning things down and blowing off fingers, have been moving us into an era of organized community fireworks displays. How very civilized.

And not one word about Catholics.

Yet the Guy Fawkes tale has also shot off in another bizarre tangent. Some of us quite like the idea of blowing up politicians. Ever seen that white-faced, mustachioed, smiling mask? The one beloved by Anonymous? That’s Guy Fawkes.  Those masks are film merchandise.

The film V for Vendetta, where that mask comes from, turned the whole 5th of November tale on it’s head. Guy-Fawkes-the-terrorist-fanatic became Guy-Fawkes-the-model-anarchist-freedom-fighter. Woo-hoo!  Let’s blow those fascists sky-high! Here Guy Fawkes takes on the meaning of a mad jester’s threat: if you politicians screw with us too much, we might just try to blow you to pieces. All of you! Kaboomy!

This whole fire-lit celebration has evolved rather a lot over the years.

I see little sign that Guy Fawkes will ever settle down as something coherent. Guy Fawkes is both hero and villain simultaneously. Guy Fawkes is about nothing and about everything simultaneously. Trivial and inspiring. Annoying and beautiful. You can sit at home doing nothing. You can run out and spend $6000 on explosives. No one cares. No one understands. Nobody knows what we’re doing.

Perhaps that is the secret to its success.

Any meaning or none can be wrapped around a hearty glowing core of fire, and explosions, and the vague sense that this all has something to do with politics.

That, I think, is the true meaning of Guy Fawkes. We’re all pyromaniacs. And we’re all confused.


Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

A brief guide to Guy Fawkes from the BBC here.

The Guy Fawkes mask as the symbol of carnivalesque protest, on the Guardian, here.


One Easy Way to Spot When News is Actually Advertising

Was it long absence that made something so subtle appear so obvious? It’s been a long time since I’ve watched TV news. Is that why a blink-and-you-miss it segment jumped up, slapped me in the face, and yelled, “I’m not a real news piece! I’m trying to sell you something!”?

I don’t know, but it did teach me one good lesson about how to cut through the crap. Here’s one easy trick for spotting when news is more than mere news – look for the unnecessary element.

Look for that bit which adds nothing to your understanding of the story. The bit that seems chosen arbitrarily. The meaningless trifle. The thing which, when added, completely changes the meaning of the entire piece.

See if you can spot it in the news I saw. The story ran something like this:

It is the anniversary of a long-ago big change in our currency system.

An elderly man is interviewed. He worked at a particular bank in his youth and had to keep a close eye on the change.

Background info is given. Why we changed – it was a simpler system. The challenges – people thought it would be confusing. Why it worked – it had a good PR campaign. A few black and white cartoons drive home the point.

A young woman from the same bank as the old man is interviewed. “Most of our customers now use internet banking,” she says. The news presenter closes the story, “…and that goes to show that people are just as adaptable as they’ve ever been.”

Did you spot it?

Think for a moment.

Why that particular bank? Twice. And why mention internet banking? That currency change – a massive abrupt government rearrangement of the system – was in no way similar to the general private trend towards internet banking. Why bring it up? And besides… doesn’t everyone already know this?

At face value they are trying to tie the past to the present. Make it relevant. We changed then, we change now. But it still is a strange choice. We’ve had other top-down abrupt changes to our currency system in recent times – phasing out small coins, redesigning notes etc. Surely these are the obvious examples to turn to.

So why talk about internet banking? Surely this is an unnecessary element. Yet it completely changes the meaning of the story.

Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe the media can’t help but churn this stuff out. Maybe the entire story was written by that bank. But the meaning of the story is clear:

Hi there old folks!

Are you old enough that you still watch TV news? Are you old enough that you remember that big old currency change? Are you old enough that you don’t already know that everybody uses internet banking these days?

Well, then you’ll remember that even though the currency change looked big and scary it turned out to be both easy and so much simpler than the old way… just like internet banking.

Most of our customers already use it. You’ve made a big change before. You can make a big change again.

Internet banking. It’s for you!



How to Write a Philosophical Bucket-list

Recently I had a crack at writing at a bucket-list: that defining list of things that you must do before you “kick the bucket”. I don’t know why it occurred to me to do this. Perhaps I’m dying and only three neurons in my hippocampus have yet noticed. Either way I think I messed it up. Majorly.

You see, I looked at other people’s lists for inspiration. Loud as a gong my mistake became clear. “Oh no!” I said. “What have I done?!”

You see, I’d written Become wise; they’d all written Go scuba diving.

Gosh! Dang! Jeepers!

Am I wasting my life? What am I doing?

Trying to live wisely, apparently. That’s according to my half-assed never-to-be-finished scuba-free bucket-list anyway. So let’s have a crack at that. Wisdom. And bucket-lists.

Why are bucket-lists so full of trivial crap? This crap is supposed to be the crap you must do before the Grim Reaper pops over for dinner and death. Yet 99% of bucket lists contain the following: write a novel,  learn a language, travel the world, and run a marathon.


Marathons must be pretty bloody amazing.

These bucket-list cliches are all nice. Yay for you. You went for a run. Good one. Nice.

But do you want a nice life? Or a meaningful life? Because all these cliche goals, this menagerie of the nice,  does have a certain meaning. They are the expressions of a certain philosophy – a poorly thought through philosophy.

The typical bucket-list philosophy is this:

  • juvenile hedonism,
  • drive-by altruism,
  • mushy sentimentality,
  • and rub-the-Jone’s-face-in-my-glory one-upmanship.

It’s the life philosophy of a Facebook photo. Look at me. I shook the president’s hand. I’m so cool. Now I can die.

Jeepers! Dang! Gosh!

This all got me thinking. What would a philosophically sound bucket-list look like? Here’s some thoughts.

First, the over-riding motivator behind bucket-lists is this idea about “living life to the full”, whatever that means. As a result recommended items include:

  • Jump in a puddle,
  • See a sunrise,
  • And watch the clouds go by.

This is nonsense! Do you really plan on watching a sunrise only once in your life? Are you a vampire who wants to go out with a bang?


Living life to the full is not for bucket-lists. It’s a habit. You do it everyday. You see a puddle. You jump in it. Life lived.

Second, although typical bucket-lists are insipid, they do allow you to see the classes of activity you can do in life. Here’s ten rough categories to help spur your imagination:

  • Becoming: change your character.
  • Learning: gain knowledge or skills.
  • Experiencing: see, touch, hear, lick it for yourself.
  • Achieving: succeed at some prestigious project.
  • Creating: make something.
  • Acquiring: get stuff.
  • Helping: make life better for other Earthlings you know.
  • Changing: make a difference in the world.
  • Locations: be somewhere.
  • Relationships: make and shape social bonds.

Pick items from each class. That way your bucket-list is more than just a bloody road-trip itinerary.

Third, please-please-please know why you are adding an item to the list. Do you really want to run a marathon? Or does that just sound cool? Item #1 on your list should be this: figure out what matters in life. Nothing else makes it on the list until you’ve answered that question.

Fourth, choose goals that take time. Seeing the Eiffel Tower can, technically, be achieved in 0.01 of a second. How is life any better for that?

In contrast, becoming fluent in French will take you a lifetime. You will soak in the language. You will be changed by the language. You’ll have to go to France anyway. Remember – these are things worth doing. They are worth taking some time. So, even if you simply must see Gustave Eiffel’s pile o’ steel, then at least do this: draw a picture of it. You will be forced to stop, slow down, and be changed.

Fifth, be careful with random trivial goals. They risk sucking the meaning from the entire enterprise. Instead give your list structure. Begin writing the grand and noble, then work down to the small and trivial. Let the lesser serve the greater. For example:

  1. Be as psychologically healthy as humanly possible
  2. learn meditation
  3. visit a Buddhist temple

Each goal flows one from the other. The otherwise trivial YOLO goal of getting selfies with a bald monk is given meaning by being part of a series of greater goals. The trivial is lifted to greatness, rather than the great  brought down to triviality.

Lastly, you might want to consider calling this list something other than a bucket-list. As soon as you say “I have a bucket-list.” you’re going to get asked, “So when are you going scuba diving?”

More troublesome, the “kick the bucket” idiom comes from either slaughtering pigs, or maybe from committing suicide. Yeah. Grim. Nihilistic gallows humor isn’t a great start for finding meaning in life.

I prefer the image of a list of plot points. Imagine you are writing a novel. Look at the main character. Certain things need to happen to this person. What  must they learn? How must they change? Where must they go? For the story to make sense – to have meaning – each question must be answered. Each answer must be brought to fruition. Otherwise the story will be incomplete. You just couldn’t kill off the main character yet.

Finish their story, then they can die.

Stories are how we make meaning of events. Life is a story we tell ourselves. So then, what are your plot points? What must happen for your tale to be complete? And yes, it can include scuba diving.





Cryptic Poetry: why bother?

Words exist to communicate. Each one is a dense dollop of meaning flung from my mind to yours. That is the purpose of words. Why then do people write words without meaning? I’m talking here about a certain species of bad poetry – cryptic poetry. Words that are so indecipherable they communicate nothing. They fail as words. Why write them?

Dew of mist

All the butterflies are dead

This year

Inject the soul with


Was that a poem? I created it by stringing random words together with a little syntactic glue. It has no purpose. It has no meaning. It is an empty shell of hollow words. This poem has meaning in the same way clouds have faces.  Yet the internet is awash in this sort of cryptic meaningless poetry.

Why? A lack of skill? Some people out there do seem to think that merely putting words

on different


makes it

a poem.

It doesn’t.

Slap on top a belief that poetry must be about obscure personal emotions and out pops cryptically bad poetry. It’s like listening to someone talk in their sleep. We can’t join their dreams.

My heart aches

The cinnamon bun

You know.

Another possibility is a neurological problem. Serious. It’s called word salad. It’s a symptom of dementia, schizophrenia, and brain injury.

Wall speaks

Windy hot mess, cloud blues;

A shelf lay fuschia,

In worlds with pencils.

I hope this is rather rare cause of bad poetry, but one can’t escape the resemblance.

However, incompetence and injury aside, to truly understand the popularity of cryptically bad poetry, I’m sorry to say this, we’re going to have to ask Deepak Chopra. Yes. Deepak Chopra. To be more precise, a random word generator with the uncanny ability to mimic a tweet by Deepak Chopra.

Can you guess which of these is the real Deepak, and which is the random Deepak machine? (The answers are at the end.)

“Reality is the consciousness that projects the illusion.”

“Formless Being is ultimate reality Liberation of Consciousness from Identification with Form through Non-reactivity.”

“Your consciousness is reborn in universal possibilities.”

“Self-power is the womb of total acceptance of abstract beauty.”

The Deepak machine was used in a 2015 study by psychologists from the University of Waterloo. It won science’s second highest honor after the Noble prizes (and all those other prizes) – the Ignoble Prize. The topic? It was titled “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.”

Bullshit. Pseudo-profound bullshit. That, I believe, is what we are dealing with here.

They define pseudo-profound bullshit as “seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.” And they found that people will frequently rate a meaningless randomly generated buzzword sentence as profound. People buy bullshit.

Seeing how easy it is to write cryptically bad poetry by stringing together random words, I would say that it counts as pseudo-profound bullshit. It gives the impression of deep meaning without having any actual deep meaning.

So why is there so much bullshit poetry?

From the poet’s point of view bullshit emanates out of a desire to impress, to seem profound, to get clicks on the like button. As people will happily slurp up bullshit, you’ll seldom be challenged on the fact that all your poetry is empty nonsense. That, or you’re a random word generator.

Oh, spring forth

flying quantum space time of

my soul!

From the readers point of view? We expect poetry to be profound, we are accustomed to it being difficult, and we intend to read it intuitively – souls wide open.  We put ourselves in the optimal bullshit-absorption state. The expectation creates gullibility. The lack of confidence makes us confuse “I don’t get it” with “This is profound.” And the intuitiveness disarms our analytical firewalls. The bullshit slides right on down.

Ah, zeitgeist

dust motes

dancing on the minds

of this is bullshit!


Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole

Pennycook et al. (2015). On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 6. Here.

The Deepak tweet generator, www.wisdomofchopra.com.

(ANSWER: For the Deepak quotes, the first two are from Deepak’s twitter, the second two are randomly generated. How well did you do?)