A Fat Man Thinks

Have you ever wanted to know what a fat man thinks about? You'll find out here. I spend most of my time looking as I do in the picture there.

Lessons from Lisbon

So, Ireland said "No". I'll leave it to others to fire reasons why this is. Certainly yesterday's papers claimed everything from the Irish anger at their government, to not understanding what it really meant to a fairly straightforward rejection. Every group on the "no" side (and there were many, many groups on the no side) are claiming it to be their victory. But this is nonsense really. If the pundits and analysts really know why the Irish people voted "No", they could have told us this was going to happen weeks ago. But right up to the day, it came down to the wire.
There are, of course, lessons to be learned from the "No" vote. And perhaps, some changes need to take place as well.
For one thing, I'm sick of the papers and radios being full of commentators telling us why the result came about. They patently don't know. In future, every betting slip, err, ballot paper should include a short multiple choice survey to define the reasons for someone's vote. An important inclusion in this survey would be the option "People died for my freedom". This would go some way to shutting up the mindless clamour that comes in the days following any election or referendum. Alternatively, the Referendum Commission could do something similar. They phoned someone I know to ask whether they had clearly and usefully articulated what the referendum meant. Why not phone people to ask how they came about their decision. The results could have uses as wide ranging as shoving down some commentators throats and up other less reasonable passages.
High-minded posturing aside, there are actual lessons to be learned. For one thing, let's look at the "debate."

So, having dealt thoroughly with the "debate" surrounding the referendum, let's take a look at the media coverage. Unfortunately, the Lisbon treaty is a prize example of politics as entertainment. Explaining the treaty became a matter of advertising its benefits or drawbacks - not looking at the actual issues at hand.
It started with a fairly heavy onslaught from the "No" side, which was for too long unchallenged by the "Yes" side. When the "Yes" folk did say something, it seemed unconnected from what the "Nos" had thrown down. So, in round one, the "Nos" won.
It's been pointed out to me that the "No" side misquoted (at best), or perhaps even lied (at worst) about a number of articles in the treaty. I'm not going to get into that argument, but one important point is that it wasn't until halfway through last week that I heard someone (Enda Kenny) actually addressing the untruths of the "No" side. The "Yes" folk were too busy telling us the benefits to point out where the other side were duping us. In the narrative of mass media this means the Yes side were not addressing the issues. Issues laid down by the "No" side.
This media discussion could go on (and maybe will in paper and on radio), but really it needn't. Half the problem is that the debate was tailored for media delivery. I don't blame the media - most 'serious' (read broadsheet/talk programmes on radio/TV news programmes) took the whole thing quite seriously, and tried - as honestly as they could - to outline what the treaty meant.
The tailors here were political spin doctors or PR folk or whoever. At one point, it seemed more like there was a general election than a decision process going on. I got literature through my door telling me the benefits of my local TD, and mentioning that he was all for Lisbon. "Who wouldn't be?" was the general timbre of the literature. There are two problems with this - 1, this isn't explaining why Lisbon is important, why I should vote and why, when voting I should vote "Yes". 2 - Irish people are quite cynical about politicians and politics. How this has escaped their notice, I have no idea, but they really are. So the "Vote Yes because I think it's a good idea and you can always trust me" isn't a great plea.
The "No" people had absurdity on their side. We will lose our power in Europe, we will lose our commissioner! being a real hum dinger. Because they made it sound like Ireland was the only country this was going to happen to. Then, to expand, they pointed out how "This is what the bureaucrats in Brussels want to do with your money!" Despite the fact that the EU have been quite straight on the point that if every country has a commissioner, the commission would become bloated, over expensive and overly-bureaucratic. The solution was to develop a commission that reflected actual need of the EU working, which meant that countries would have to take it in turn to have a commissioner. They would lose their commissioner for five of every fifteen years. France, Germany and Ireland. Oh, and twenty four other countries...
We can broker a better deal! Really? 496 million people are going to say "To hell with it! Go on, give the Paddies what they want. Do I want anything changed? No, I'm fine. Let's have whiskey Friday and read from Beckett in French and Joyce in Italian and send money to the lads. They've spent the last lot we sent over."
But the greatest, truly, has to be People died for your freedom. Don't throw it away! By Christ that one gave me indigestion. I have no idea how this even connected with the argument.
But it was a stroke of genius. That Coir did a brilliant job - because they connected with every demographic in some way - from the Tabloid-type murder of your ancestors to a more high minded analysis of how the EU was determined that Irish women should be forced into abortion clinics set up by foreign nationals all over the country. They weren't too far away from claiming prison camps run by savage, under-resourced bureaucrats!
Then, there was If you don't know, vote no! This, a friend of mine railed against quite rightly. It lacks logic: the world will stop because you don't know? It makes no sense. First, as Chris pointed out - you should find out. If you really want to make a statement about not knowing, spoil your vote. Voting "No" for this reason makes as much sense as alhakamga ner bushchchca nargle flop.
Running politics through the media has finally hit rock bottom (and ironically, it was the politicians 'what dunnit'). The use of advertising and marketing techniques has fostered and encouraged a demented, ignorant 'brand-oriented' perception of political issues. This is one thing in a general election. However, it's much more serious when you're talking about the fundament of the country. One lesson from Lisbon (for Ireland, and perhaps further abroad) is to return some intelligence and depth to political debate. Make it actual political debate, and not some type of ad. If it hurts peoples' brains - then tough. A small headache must easily be worth the blood that's already on your hands, what with all those people dying for your freedom.
Onto the aftermath. The part where the teacher sits down and checks your sums. Within ten minutes of getting up on Saturday, I had ditched listening to Irish radio for BBC Radio 4. What I heard there was food for thought. A number of people commented on how the Irish people had "Spoken for the people of Europe". I thought this a valuable comment - whether it's right or wrong. Let's not forget that only a few years ago the French and the Dutch did reject the Constitution (which was relabelled the Lisbon treaty). This is not a reason to vote no (as some did claim!), but with the Irish rejection, perhaps it is time for Europe to ask the people. Now, this is not to say that we have to go back to the drawing board and wait another half decade for a deal to be brokered between 27 countries that they can all agree to. But it does mean saying "Look, this is how we can get along. Are you OK with that?" If people say no, then perhaps Europe (as in the EU) does need to reconsider its mission.
The problem faced here is one faced by all human endeavor now. People are tiered in every facet of human life: from the completely ignorant to the professional/expert (these are not moral or social labels - they are related only the the amount of information, knowledge and understanding that people have related to different subjects). It runs in science, medicine, politics, law, technology, etc. etc. The closer you are to the 'ignorant' end of the tier, the more likely you are to believe that the professional/expert end is up to something. Something suspicious.
In the age of the Internet and mass media, knowledge and information hasn't been shared, it has been shattered, creating pockets of interest and the ability to know intimately some specific detail of some larger framework without necessarily knowing very much about the larger framework, or any other details of it. This has repercussions for all human knowledge, and is probably the most important lesson from Lisbon - it's a flashpoint where this new human condition has shown itself, but it is something that needs to be faced and tackled before we start living in completely different intellectual spaces.

Apathy: Dozing into Your Worst Nightmare

A friend of mine - a lawyer and politically minded type - emailed a bunch of us, offering to explain the Lisbon treaty, should we have any questions. His efforts were dashed when one voice returned with a joke, asking how we should vote. From there, the whole thing descended into the usual mayhem that is circular emails, once gravity has been punctured.
I stayed out of it. While I usually enjoy embarrassing myself by making outlandish and often indecipherable comments in group emails (the ones that make sense in your head, but not on your screen, and not on anyone else's either), I was held back by thoughts about morality, about politics and about the apathy of the 'post-secular state'.
What is the 'post-secular state'? A term I made up for the world we now live in (in the 'West', at any rate). It is post-secular because the idea of neutrality in religious matters is now ridiculous. People with no true (let alone 'strong' or 'devout') beliefs baptise their children in Ireland to ensure they will receive an education, which, on the face of it is provided by the State - but is, in fact, controlled by the Catholic and Anglican churches. In the UK, the prime minister cannot be Catholic. In America, 'God be with you' is still a stock phrase of political speeches (particularly just prior to the launch of an ungodly attack somewhere in the world).
I'm not against religion, I'm just pointing out that to speak of a 'secular state' in England, Ireland or America is ridiculous. Ironically, the mode du jour for debate and commentary remains firmly non-religious. Religion is often seen as naive, despite the fact that it is naive to try and wave it away, like so much nothing.
But the 'post-secular' state is also about consumerism. We left religion by the side of the road (we'll pick it up again, it's only human) to pick up some cool clothes and CDs. Gadgets galore made by little hands to keep us entertained, care free, unthinking.
And this is where morality and politics come into my thinking. I was at a Will Self reading last week, where he pointed out that his work (as a satirist) is inherently about morality. It's not that he wants to 'offload' his own morality on people, but that he wants people to consider their own morality, and to understand the foundations upon which that morality is built. This, I believe is now a fundamental responsibility for humans.
Without religion, we lose a stock-morality, prepared, packaged and ready to consume. That's not to say religion is a good source of morals - it is just to point out that with religion came a moral framework, much like Windows comes with a media player. However, if you think enough - if you are curious enough to consider what might be outside conventional wisdom, you may find a media player that suits you better. You may find a morality that you can stand stand for.
And that's the important thing about morality - you do have to stand for it. It has to inform your actions and your judgments about the actions of others.
A religious-type morality allows you to look up a book somewhere (or even a website) for guidance. But of course, this isn't always practical. Despite the rise of 3G, mobile Internet connections just aren't fast enough to tell you whether you should speak up about an obvious down-and-out stealing bread, or keep shtum because the harm he is causing another is outweighed by the possibility that this is the only way he can feed his family.
People often say that we're missing God here in Ireland - that the (mush overstated) demise of the Catholic Church has left a moral vacuum, which needs to be filled. Usually, someone of a religious bent will scream this through a mouth that is frothing, causing the rest of us to snigger at what we see as a transparent attempt at recruitment. But they do have a point. Without Catholicism's dowdy, dreary and downright damning sense of morality, a moral vacuum has appeared. But, with the shoes, the clothes, the gadgets, the satellite TV, we've all been too busy distracting ourselves to notice. Which is why little hands stitch the soles and lapels, and fit the circuit boards and buttons that provide our distractions from reality.
Are we happy with this? It's a vital question, and one so effectively ignored that it's a good case for telling someone to 'lighten up'!
Politics is in a similar barrel, albeit one that might be more pressing, if morals don't interest you. The thing about morals is that really, they're all about how you affect the world. The thing about politics is that it's all about how the world will affect you. Don't think so?
Democracy - famously described by Winston Churchill as the worst system of government, except for all the others - affords its citizens a choice once every 4-7 years (depending on where you live) on who should govern the country. In a few short months, one is asked to decide on who you feel is most suited and capable to steer a whole country through a future which is most uncertain.
The rise of Nazi Germany (elected with 37% of the vote) is often contributed to voter apathy - the only people motivated enough to seek change were those who morally and politically weren't against facist and racist governance. Of course, this is within the context of history - a period when facism was a popular political ideology and anti-semitism was rife.
Closer to our time, there's the re-election of George Bush. His first election was much contested, and caused many Democrat supporters to apologise for his election. However, his second election was due to an absolute majority. Many feel this victory is due to the war in Iraq and - whether you supported this state of affairs or not - a Republican was the only way to ensure the safety of the country and the end of the war (even though he started it...).
Time and again over the past decade (century?), a lack of moral and political belief has led us blindly to places we wish we could get away from. Places we wish we never were.
It is true that politicians are often corrupt. This is often given as a reason for political apathy. But this is true of all humans. It is sometimes true that politicians can't really change anything. Especially not if their party is in a minority. But the Nazis had 37% of the vote, and look at how much they achieved.

Lisbon: Let's Make it About Europe

On the radio, there's a lot of talk about the referendum to ratify the Lisbon treaty. According to the pundits (who are usually right for the wrong reasons, or wrong for the right ones), the people will be 'sending a message' to the government. Barnardos don't want the referendum held on the same day as the so called 'children's rights' referendum for fear that the message to the government is so strong that it will overflow rejection of an EU question and also become the rejection of fundamental rights for children. What the hell is going on?
First, this Irish obsession with 'sending messages' through the ballot box has finally hit the absurd. A general election was held last year. Some would believe that the most opportune time to let a government know you felt they weren't up to task. There were some barriers to this though. For one thing, the lack of an actual alternative to vote into power. If people are as sick as they say they are (and here lies one trap - believing what you see in the papers and hear on radio), they might have given the other fellows a go. I mean, they couldn't be that much worse, could they?
We are now at the point where the government, voted in once again, has once again fallen out of favour with the electorate. And so, once again, the electorate will 'punish' the government by rejecting a European treaty.
What has Europe ever done for us? Alright, apart from the direct investment, protection of workers, laws relating to quality, health and safety, etc. The Life of Brian jokes aside, it does seem more sensible to reject the concept of 'fundamental human rights for children' out of hand before we reject an ambitious political concept and programme out of hand.
Why? Well, first of all 'fundamental human rights' for children is absurd. They have them already, as humans. To enshrine 'fundamental human rights' for children is tantamount to rejecting the idea that others might have equal rights because they have not been enshrined (for women, for minorities, for men, for teenagers...). It has Kafka written all over it, but protection of all people from those that would harm them seems an important concept to me, children or no.
Then, there's the point about Europe. Irish people spend a lot of time, column inches and radio minutes whingeing about Europe and what 'they over there' are doing over here. However, no one wants to actually learn about what 'they over there' do.
Ireland as a nation has benefited from Europe, but this isn't the only reason we should take an interest. There's also the fact that so many decisions are becoming centralised. For better or worse, this is the way it is. So, if you want a say about Europe, this is the time to be heard. But, will you be talking about Europe, or about a government that you feel impoverished of Ethical capital, imagination, or whatever?
Ironically, if people actually read the treaty this time, and make a truly informed decision, and still decides No, it will probably still be reported as the electorate 'sending a message' to the government.

On Raising the Legal Drinking Age in Ireland

A lot of conversations this weekend about raising the legal age to drink in Ireland from 18 to 21. Will this help curb our drinking culture? I don't think so.
I'm not necessarily against legislation designed for social engineering (i.e. to change people's habits). Less smoking is not a bad thing. Less plastic bag waste, ditto.
However, I'm not convinced raising the legal age at which one may drink to 21 will change people's habits.
Why not? Well, for a number of reasons. First, there's "Drinking at home". You can stop someone buying drink for themselves until their 21, but you can't stop their parents giving them alcohol. From my experience, many people I know were allowed a glass of wine at 16, a beer at 17. There was a sense of maturity and 'coming of age' about it all. Sometimes, you got drunk, and sometimes even vomited. But, all at home where you were safe and sound. With the decline in pub numbers already quite obvious, increasing the age at which people can drink will simply increase the time people spend drinking at home, with their parents - or indeed their friends.
Then, you have the opposite of this. The "Cider Binge". This kind of drinking often occurs around the same time. There is less parental guidance, and more drunkenness and vomiting.
This period is usually over at 17 (at the latest). Raising the legal limit for drinking will also extend this period.
Also, there's the question of "Delayed Rebellion". Anecdotally, I've heard a huge dearth of stories about people who didn't really get into drinking until later in life, and ended up going completely off the rails. Some people (with no scientific backing, but with some weight of experience), claim that those who start drinking later, end up drinking longer. And often to the excess that crashes lives. There is some sense in this - think of being 16, 17 or 18 and being able to drink yourself into oblivion. Next day, you feel rotten to the core. Your head hurts, belly is contracting and there's an overheated chill running up and down your flesh. You'll never drink again. You do this six or seven times over three to four years, and soon you start to figure out your limit. Soon, you start to get sick of missing the 'day after' because you're creased into a couch. Soon, you start to get sick of missing the night itself, because everything after 9.30 is a complete blank. Sometimes you go through periods of feeling guilt for not being able to remember - because you've no idea how badly you lost control. At 16, 17 or 18, this is (roughly) harmless. It's the kind of thing that's been done for generations. It's also something you grow out of. And growing out of it takes time and experience.
Then, there's the simple question of being a "Culture that respects inebriation". No matter what anyone says, the Irish love a few drinks. And I for one, am completely behind this. Yes, alcohol can destroy lives, but it can also be the source of great fun, loosening up that builds bridges. Homer Simpson said it best when he raised a toast to alcohol: "Cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems!" The Irish like to be 'affected'. Be it by communion wine, pints, shots, glasses, pills, powders, sprays... Raising the legal age at which one can buy alcohol may - if it's enforced stringently - push people toward other methods of inebriation. Coke and smoke being top of the list here. But, maybe you can get people back into sniffing glue or inhaling deodorants. I'd love to read the book about professionals and middle classes, piling into office block cubicles to "Spray up" - Professionals Perfumed: Inhaling An Escape.
All in all, it seems to me that raising the legal age at which one can drink is a mis-placement of effort. What needs to be done is to encourage a more responsible approach to drinking and inebriation. The first thing that probably needs to be tackled is the "I've had seven pints, and I'm not affected at all!" attitude. This not only adds to public disorder, but also drink driving ('Sure, I'm fine! I'll chance it!). We need to learn how to know when we're drunk, when we need to start taking it easy, and when we need to stop.

Sexing Up The Dossers

A conversation over lunch introduces me to the concept of "Sex hair", which my wife tells me is also called "Bed hair". This is a popular barnet treatment, whereby the young lady of the day spends three hours trying to get her hair to look like it might if she just spent 15 minutes in the sack with some sexy hunk (although, hunk is not the mot juste - that was a word used when I was a teen).
It raises the question of what sexual liberation has done. What has it done to the younger generation?
My thinking is that sexual liberation, of itself, has done nothing to the younger generation. What we often blame liberation for is actually the meeting place of two issues - "Irony" as the humorous genre of the day and the marketing of sex to younger individuals.
The latter first, because I'm a fuddy duddy, and like to do things backwards (oooh, reverend!). Sex is no longer just liberated as an idea (or, indeed act). It's now actively marketed towards young people. If she wanted, Emily - my five year old daughter - could have Playboy bunny dolls (not dolls of Playboy bunnies, but Bunny toys, in fluffy pink, with the deliriously fashionable logo. Of course, it's probably just a matter of time before I could buy Playboy bunny dolls...). Luckily, Emily doesn't know what she wants. But apparently, four year olds now want thongs (http://www.independent.ie/national-news/warning-against-sexy-childrens-clothes-1265024.html).
Sex is now being marketed toward children. Playboy do a range of pencil cases. Some 'musical act' (marketed with 'Pester Power') sing a song with the lyrics "I'm just a love machine/feeding my fantasy/Give me a kiss or three!" Nine year olds are wearing tops with Vs to get them comfortable with showing off their cleavage when they're older. And belly tops, so they learn to understand the allure of a sexy stomach. Much of this is excess, as they've been learning from the age of four that making sure you can get laid is of the utmost importance.
You can blame anything. You can blame everything. Sex is being beamed directly to our children's minds: Bratz dolls, Teen mags, soap operas, ads, ads, ads... if you're not doing it, you aren't doing anything is the message. But of course, I should lighten up. No one wants to see our seven-year olds in flagrante delicto. All of this, it's ironic, isn't it? It's funny because we don't mean it.
But do the kids know that?
The second problem, after the marketing of sex to children, is that of irony. Irony requires some level of sophistication to interpret. Toward adults, irony can split your sides, and leave you ROFL. Towards children, the best of irony may well be considered the 'truth' - the way it is, or the way people think it should be. Because irony - at its best - is subtle. However, children are not ready to understand the subtleties of irony because they don't have the experience or the education to see the point of it. So when you think "Won't it be funny to see Stacey-Jane in a thong" or "Why don't we put Britney-Christina in a basque for the birthday party?" They don't see the irony. They think: It's good to be sexy. Important. Vital. And if they figure out irony, they may well think "Oh, my parents don't want me to have sex. But if I do that guy, it'd be really ironic, because it's what they don't want me to do - and they always get a kick out of hearing about things they think shouldn't happen."
It all ends up with these kids getting promiscuous, getting pregnant or getting some STD. Or, it just ends up with these kids completely messed up in the head because they feel they don't want to have sex, but they should be. Kids are idiots. They are not fully-formed people, much as others would like to think they are. They need guidance and discipline. Of course, I may well just be being ironic...

Irish Governmental Ministers' Pay Rise

We've been on fire about political pay raises. And, of course, Bertie Ahern is the one in the firing line. The pay raise has been defended by pointing out that it brings politicians' pay into line with their equivalents in the private sector. Furthermore, it's been argued that Bertie Ahern is a hard worker, so deserves a good pay rise. The only criticism I've heard is that it's bad timing that these pay increases come when Ireland is on the threshold of (at best) an economic slow down and (at worst) a possible recession.
Some questions:
Bertie Ahern is a hard worker. But has he worked harder than Tony Blair or Gordon Brown? Tony left office on a salary of £187,611 (which, I believe is Gordon's current salary). Bertie Ahern's €310,000 translates to £216,110.012. In the past five years, Bertie Ahern has run:

  • a slowly ailing economy
  • a health service so much in 'crisis' that it's now a clichĂ©
  • a rise in anti-social behaviour (commonly associated with a lack of decent community facilities)
  • a laughable transport infrastructure
  • and one drunk TD driving up the wrong side of a dual carriageway.
Outside of the last point, I guess Tony Blair has done much the same. Although he's also:
  • invaded two countries
  • spent some time staving off dissent in his party
  • and developed one of the most unionised left-wing parties in Europe into one of the most unionised right-wing parties in Europe
Maybe having a drunk minister drive the wrong way up a dual carriageway is worth £28,499.12 (€40,880.69). But I'd believe it's fair to say Tony's been up to a bit more. Plus Tony, 'working for the people' means 'working for' 60m people. Bertie 'works for' just the 4m. Unless Ireland has become some kind of Boutique nation, this just doesn't seem right.

The other question is whether government workers' pay should be brought into line with that of the private sector. It seems fair enough - same pay for the same job. Except that this doesn't take into account the pensions and day-to-day risks.
Civil service pensions, being index linked, are generally worth an awful lot more than the private pensions the rest of us are privileged to pay for.
Furthermore, private sector pay is high because those working in the private sector 'enjoy' a bizarre existence: make more money or make no money. If someone (especially in the 'management level' that the Irish Government ministers are at) couldn't cut the slack at their job, they'd be fired. I understand some merchant bankers have been fired not for losing money, but for not making enough money - they didn't reach targets. Government ministers and civil servants don't face such risks.
Government ministers could be fired (i.e. voted out of office) in the morning, but so could any of us. And if a government minister were voted out of office in the morning, they'd still get their 'government ministerial pension', which is linked to the current pay for the minister in that position. A private sector manager could hope for a shit-eating grin, a soulless reference and a hope that someone in the business community doesn't really know why they were fired. Maybe a huge payout would also be in order, but this is up to the business in question to provide.
Put simply, while both politics and private business have risks to contend with, the consolations of a political life are more of a comfort than those of private business.
I wonder whether this is a case of the government raiding the silverware before the house has to go up for sale?

Microsoft, MacDonald's and Monopolisation

Reading an article (and forum discussion) on CafĂ© Babel (a European Community discussion and news site, that I'm really becoming a fan of...). Microsoft has to pay something in the region of €500m in antitrust fines.
I can feel the cheers from people all over Europe, and possibly the world (interestingly, the comments on Babel are much more reasoned and reserved than the kind of cheers I'm thinking of). Microsoft, as the Emperor (in the Star Wars sense) of desktop software gets a rap on the knuckles (although €500m is probably just the one knuckle for Microsoft). Those who feel they've been 'hard done' by Microsoft (for various reasons) will be over the moon that their imperial march has been halted.
But forgotten is the question of choice. And if it's remembered, the real question (of choice) has been buried under years of posturing.
The fact is, Microsoft is just one example of many many companies that have grown to huge proportions. They have done so because people choose to spend their money on their products and/or services. The same principle applies for MacDonald's, Ford, Dell, Phillips, Apple, Kraft Foods, etc. Of course, there are always issues of scale and influence that could be (and most probably are) brought to bear in the growth of these companies: Once they hit a certain size, that size is used to engineer their further growth. This is where the EU has come in and slapped a fine on Microsoft.
The problem is that people don't choose other products and/or services. Obviously some people do. The point is, not everyone does. In fact, it might just be fair to say, in terms of software, most people choose Microsoft. The minority are those who choose other software providers. And in that minority a further battle rages. Apple, which is design chic, and also an easy alternative that shows you've released yourself from the shackles of the great beast is a common choice. But, far more imaginatively, there is the choice of Open Source and smaller software house products. But people fear these options, and, to them, for good reason.
Our economy, and, in the West, our way of life dictates that you never get something for nothing. And furthermore, if you do have to pay for it, then you should get the product complete - no messing about with it. So, Open Source just doesn't make sense to a lot of common-sensical types. It's a fair point. Why would someone (or some group) provide software to the masses without charge? Why would you provide a product that people can go home and tinker with? It feels safer to go the route of paying through the nose. At least there's someone to sue if things go wrong. Apple makes more sense, as it offers the 'complete package'. User friendly to the max, Apple gives you the box and the software. This does two things: it makes computers the 'true consumer electronic' that Apple dreams of. No worrying about 'software' and 'hardware'. Just plug it in, and it works. Laudable enough to some extent. But isn't this Apple telling people that, as consumers, this is what they'll want to be doing with their computers? My feeling is that choosing Apple, simply to 'not choose' Microsoft makes as much sense as choosing Burger King to 'not choose' MacDonald's. It reminds me of my grandparents spending 10 pounds sterling in McDonald's, only to leave because they were told there was no cutlery because no one wanted it.
The problem we face is one of confidence in the other options. The dreaded Open Source, and all its tics and bugs. It's not always free, let's get that out of the way. But it's often cheaper than buying 'out of the box'. And it's customizable, so you can generally do what you want with it. The tics and bugs are more often than not a result of the fact that to date, many of the people who work on Open Source projects are in effect volunteers. So while they have a passion for it, they also have to earn some money.
My wife tells me I fear change. And she may be right. For one thing, I actually want to stick with the separation of software and hardware in computing. I think such a separation will actually open up possibilities that cannot be dreamed of now, because just about every computer that ships is shipped with an Operating System (generally, Microsoft's or Apple's). Give people options, explode the idea that computers and technology should be something 'simple'. Make people think about their options. Then, we may see the end of 'cultural homogeneity' that people fear so much. This is all possible, but it depends on what people fear most: thinking openly and creatively, or everything being the same.
I look forward to the day I get my burger patty in my local joint, the buns from Burger King, pickles from McDonald's and for sauce, use Abrakebabra's taco-cheese fries sauce. It may sound disgusting to you, but it'd suit me right down to the ground.