Thursday, June 29, 2006

Crime, insanity and a nice new pair of trainers

It's a world driven by competition for consumer goods and paid-for experiences, of hi-tech and high-end shopping signals that have become the means by which we keep score with each other.

As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points out, to be a successful consumer now defines what it is to be "normal". Therefore to be "abnormal" is to be a failed consumer. The lot of the failed consumer is miserable.

The failed consumer suffers not just from exclusion from normal society but isolation. The poor of the past had each other in a community of poverty. Misery could be shared and countered through class solidarity and the hope of a different life. The new poor lick their wounds alone in their council flats, with nowhere to hide from the messages on billboards and TV that constantly remind them of their social failure.

So if you want the causes of crime then look no further than the impulse of the poor to belong and be normal. So strong is this urge that the failed consumer will lie, cheat and steal to "earn" the trappings of success.

Consumerism and crime.

"Rises in mental health problems seem to be associated with improvements in economic conditions." As our GDP increases, we become more disturbed.
Hertz noted that "among high-income countries for which comparable estimates are available, only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility than the United States". In April the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a study showing that UK citizens in their 30s today are twice as likely to be stuck in the same economic class as their parents than people born 10 years earlier.

Here too, declining mobility is accompanied by rising expectations. In January the Learning and Skills Council found that 16% of the teenagers it interviewed believed they would become famous, probably by appearing on a show like Big Brother. Many of them saw this as a better prospect than obtaining qualifications; 11% of them, it found, were "sitting around 'waiting to be discovered' ". The council claimed that the probability of being chosen by Big Brother and of becoming rich and famous as a result is 30 million to one.

Advertising (and the businesses supported by it) is not the clattering of the stick in the swill bucket that Orwell perceived as much as the carrot that keeps the donkey moving. You are never allowed to come close enough to eat, however hard you pull. An economy driven by dissatisfaction could scarcely fail to cultivate mental illness.

Aspiration and mental illness

Inequalities of wealth and income are as ever but, more importantly, the new elite makes no apologies for its privileges, including the privilege of ensuring an easy passage through life for its own children.

First, you need a degree, preferably from Oxbridge, and the fee-charging schools are factories dedicated to getting the necessary A-levels. Second, you increasingly need family money, to finance you through either a postgraduate diploma or an unpaid internship. Third, you need connections - and preferably a metropolitan base - to help you get a foothold.

Different combinations of those advantages determine entry to almost every career that brings wealth, power and status.
Success and privilege

Spot the linkages? A society where people are valued only by their consumer goods (including such things as a gym-honed bodies). Those in the higher echelons have the only sure pathways to ensure their children enjoy the next generation of spoils. For the excluded, crime, mental illness, gambling (a new bookie's shop is just opening over the road from me - clearly one industry where the High St. and the internet version are both happily growing at the same time), and aspirations unrelated to reality.

No coincidence either that the cult of celebrity has grown hand-in-hand, especially a whole raft of them who're 'famous for being famous', i.e. no discernable talents.

Of course, this happens at a time when skilled jobs are being shed (see the 'Work' post below), so a further element helps plug the gap - debt. Mhe whole thing is being held up with a mountain of credit, that unlike the Hire Purchase boom of the 1950's / 60's, is not boosting the economy but merely keeping it afloat and ultimately thrusting some into even deeper poverty. The credit isn't just buying an iPod on the plastic, it's also about spiralling house prices based on cheap, accessible mortgages.

What sort of society is it propping up? Britain compared to other western European countries has the highest rate of child and pensioner poverty, lowest-paid workers working the longest hours, most underfunded healthcare and education provision, highest-paid corporate executives, highest prison population and the most violent society.

The last 8

If there was one word to describe the WC so far, for me it'd be underperformance. The big names have generally been doing just enough to win. There's also been far too much cheating going on and FIFA's attempt to stamp it out has rebounded: as more cards have been flourished there have been more attempts to get opponents carded.
Down to the last 8 and in all honesty, if I were a betting man, I wouldn't know where to put the life savings.
  • Germany, started out poorly (bear in mind Ballack's pre-tournament remarks) but definitely improved. Also have the home advantage.
  • Argentina. Best side in the groups stage by a country mile but were nearly knocked out by perennial non-achievers, Mexico, making it look as though the trick is to take the battle to them.
  • Italy. Negative and defensive with some very unpleasant attitudes. Side I'd most like to see go out.
  • Ukraine. Way out their league, but I'd love 'em to provide an upset.
  • England. Scraped through against weak opponents. Everyone seems to be playing way below their best, apart from Ashley Cole.
  • Portugal. Mix of brilliant football and appalling cheating; will be missing 2 or 3 key players against England.
  • France. Initially seemed past it but showed all the old strength and flair against Spain.
  • Brazil. Half the squad seem asleep. Apart from the 2nd half against Japan when they turned it on a bit, only Ronaldinho and Cafu are making much effort.
Stakes are getting much higher now; who can raise their game to take the lead?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Worst match ever?

The Ukraine edged past Switzerland last night in the worst game I can ever recall seeing in the World Cup. Neither side looked much like scoring and the Ukraine only won on penalties, even missing their firat. Frankly you get better football off Sunday pub sides who play with a fag in one hand and a can of Special Brew in the other.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


At the last local elections in the UK, when the BNP got another foothold in Barking, a news programme went there to interview people passing in the street. One of their interviewees, an elderly black man, explained that the root cause, he believed, was that skilled jobs were being lost and those that were available either required qualifications that ordinary people didn't have or paid so little that only immigrants would take them. I was shocked by his clarity - not only that he could see what was happening but that he explained it so clearly (whoever he was, if he wants to stand for partliament up this way, I'll sure as hell vote for him). The programme also interviewed politicians and pundits who either didn't understand this important point or didn't want to.

I believe him because I've seen it so much myself, probably all the more so living in a fading, post-industrial city with 2 universities, that (I'm guessing) has the sort of unemployment levels of most other places, but also chronic underemployment. When you do the shit jobs you meet an awful lot of graduates or what used to be the skilled working-class (e.g. former toolsetters). The UK's unemployment level is also high - during the Thatcher years, it was reduced substantially by changing the counting methods, no less than 18 times, principally by putting many unemployed on sickness benefits. The Labour party protested limply, but has proved content to live with this statistical fiddle since taking office. Indeed, press and politicians have been gloating recently over France's troubles, claiming they're the result of failing to 'reform' it's economy along Anglo-American lines, yet using real unemployment figures, it's actually higher in this country.

What's happened to the good jobs? I think there are 3 drivers here.
  1. Automation. Especially true in the car industry, these are ideal jobs for robots, a true homogeneous product line. You still may need your machines to do a bit of visual processing, pattern recognition, etc to cope with what the production line throws at them, but for a machine it's a far easier task than, say, gutting a chicken. As well as replacing humans, the car industry has long been producing surplus capacity, junking a huge number of vehicles which never even get to the showroom, which inevitably has led to plants closing.
  2. Outsourcing. Manufacturing's been moving to countries, particularly in the Far East, where wages are much lower. This started in the 80s, particularly with sportswear, but has now geared up to the stage of Chinese companies buying plant to relocate. This aspect is particularly worrying, not just in terms of the appalling way workers are treated in the 'export zones' where the manufacturing for takes place, but in that cheap oil isn't going to last forever; when that runs out the West may have to face true de-industrialisation.
  3. The loss of the Empire that enabled Britain to create an 'aristocracy of labour' (iirc I found this phrase reading Lenin, who was quoting Churchill). The empire allowed British workers a much higher standard of living, sucking up raw materials at, effectively, a commandeered price and ensuring a compliant market for manufactured goods. A specacular example was the creation of the welfare state; Attlee was under no illusion it was paid for by Iran's oil.
Whatever happened to our vision of the future where robots would do all the work and we'd devote our time to creativity and leisure? Well, it hasn't gone away, the problem is just getting your hands on the money to pay for it. The promise of the Reagan / Thatcher years, trickle-down economics, turned out to be the exact opposite. The balance of the rewards for capital v. labour tilted decisively in favour of the former to the extent that governments now run a 'Dutch auction' promising ever higher incentives to attract investment, and by extension, cutting back on programmes to help the mass of people.

More scarily, a hell of a lot of Westerners are living beyond their means. The whole system with it's high rates of consumption is being kept afloat on an enormous raft of credit. Moreover, it's also true of the U.S. government, which has run to enormous budget and trade deficits.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


factorXkiosk is to be renamed as e-n00b (= e-newbie). To this end I've bought the domains, and It's debatable as to whether they are good names of course, but I was very surprised they're still available. There are plenty of decent domain names still around if you're prepared to do some thinking.

A week on

Argentina look devastating, Spain the dark horses, Brazil lethargic with the odd flash of brilliance, Group E wildly unpredictable and England are struggling. Current predictions:
England to go out against Holland in the Q/F's on penalties, Argentina to slaughter anyone in their path and Spain to take out Brazil, with final positions,
1. Argentina
2. Spain
3. Holland
4. Italy

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The tabloids: Britain's poison press

Caught lying yet again: story
Would that it were a one-off, but the tabloid press has a long history of inventing stories to please their proprietors including the 'loony left' council scandals that regularly erupted during the Thatcher period. Most notorious of all, the supposed EU directive regarding the curvature of bananas - not only did it not exist, but the nearest thing to it was a British Board of Trade draft from 1962 iirc.
Other than pure invention there's the trick of conflating phrases to build a non-existent linkage. Choose any tabloid story about asylum seekers and you'll find the term 'illegal immigrant' is used interchangeably, and vice-versa. This is a superbly crafted trick, and clearly shows none of this is the result of sloppy journalism, rather than the calculated slyness of highly-educated, experienced writers.
One guy I used to work with, a committed Labour supporter, told me of how when stuck on a train journey once he got talking with the bloke opposite him. The bloke was coming out with some very right-wing opinions, and my workmate pretended to agree with him to lead him on. Eventually the bloke turned out to be a Sun journo and was actually proud of his work to 'keep the working-class in their place'.

Outside the political arena, it also extends to science and medicine. A personal favourite read is Ben Goldacre's Bad Science. The main villain amongst the tabloids in this case is the Daily Mail, the mainstay of the permanently-outraged middle class curtain twitchers, a true champion of ridiculous health scares, quack medicine and pseudo-mystical gibberish. Remember the Bible Codes, supported by the Daily Mail long after its originator, a Professor Eli Rips, had himself dismissed it?

While there's virtually no chance of the mega-rich owners of the poison press being called to account (is there any more ridiculous body than the Press Complaints Commission?), the internet does go some way to undermining their stranglehold on debate. It rather transforms the flock of geese following a leader to a leaderless buffalo herd, it decentralises it. It does not however stop the unsubstantiated rumour mill. By way of example, a distant relative was discovered to have been murdered this year, Charlene Downes. Her body hasn't been found; given that the accused is a foreigner that owned a kebab shop, it didn't take long for the extreme right to invent a story that her flesh had been served up in kebabs and her bones used to make grout. The story's repeated, parrot-fashion, all over their sites and is easy enough to find. What you won't find is a shred of evidence to support it. This includes the supposedly respectable BNP. Even more bizarrely, some are hailing her as a martyred race-warrior (whatever the f**k that means).

As the information producers can't be absolutely trusted (and in some cases not even slightly), the only way forward, really, is for the consumers to become more sceptical. But, particularly given the current celeb-fetish, I cant see it happening soon.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Day 2

The usual excess expectations before the England game. As it turned out a game of two halves. In the first, England dominated, with an own goal from a superb Beckham free kick. It looked like England were going to cruise it. However in the 2nd half Paraguay came back into it and started pressing England back. Sven's mysterious response was to replace Michael Owen with Stuart Downing, changing to a 4-4-1-1 formatiuon with Joe Cole playing behind Peter Crouch. Result: Crouch became isolated and inneffective and England got pushed further back. A worse substitution was to come when Cole himself was replaced by Owen Hargreaves which further aggravated the situation. England clung on, but it was a game that left both sets of supporters frustrated, England's by a seeming attempt to secure defeat from what should have been an easy victory, Paraguay's by a failure to score against a side on the ropes.

Then Sweden v Trinidad & Tobago, the latter springing the tournament's biggest surprise yet. Cliinging on, despite having had a player sent off, and launching a good few attacks of their own, T&T stepped into the valiant underdog role, which Brits always crave (though that may well be forgotten when T&T get to play England).

Not so sweet for Cote d'Ivoire coming up against Argentina, though. Can't help feel the Africans got really short-changed in the draw, they're a superb side and in any other group would have qualified for Round 2; but with the deadly finish of the Argentinians and the all-round excellence of Holland, their chances aren't good.

It all kicks off

Caught some of the opening game, Germany v Costa Rica, at work (one of the guys went out at lunchtime and bought a telly) and managed to catch the end in a pub in Cov city centre. Good match, open free-flowing football, little dirtiness and two excellent goals from Germany. Raised my expectations from this World Cup enormously. And nice to see Paolo Wanchope can still cut it on the big stage.

Saw the 1st half of Ecuador v. Poland at home and the 2nd half in the local, interest diminishing rapidly. Poland didn't look like they could score if the match went on for a fortnight. England have little to fear from either of those two should they meet in the next stage.

The sun's out and there's a feast of footie on the box; bad news work-wise. :)

The talk down the local is of the school I and several others went to, being renamed. It's current name, Caludon Castle, is a bit inappropriate for a 1950s comprehensive (it's named after a nearby small piece of wall that's all that remains of some late mediaeval (I think) building), but the new name's far worse, Applegate High. Sounds like some American soap, FFS. Worse still it undermines one of my great achievements, being kicked out of school for distributing communist propaganda. Where's the cachet in getting the boot from a place with a name like that?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

An idle musing

The work I do currently involves 5 languages - HTML / XHTML, CSS, PHP, SQL and Javascript. It's mildly annoying to have to frequently switch syntax, sometimes have several manuals open on the screen. A further niggle is having to fudge the CSS and javascript to fit the quirks of the major browsers, and if you're producing a cross-platform package (I'm not and don't intend to) to allow for different flavours of SQL.

Would it be possible to create a single language that could handle all 5 elements: page content markup, presentation, server-side processing, database access and client-side processing? The current mish-mash has arrived historically, the elements of the jigsaw either being from stuff that existed before the web, or to fill gaps (or in the case of HTML, it defined the web).

Obviously this is mere speculation unless any of the internet's great & good wishes to define such a language (no easy task) and persuade the entire industry to convert (even harder).

BTW how do you get to join the great & good? In any sphere of activity?

Technorati Profile

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


A day off from consultancy so I'll be pushing on with getting my e-commerce package going. While I thought the bulk of the work was done, every time I look at it there seems ever more to do:
  • test the new postage zones and rudimentary order processing areas
  • write an owner's manual
  • write a 3rd party developer's manual
  • think of a new name. I had a session with a BusinessLink mentor last week, and while he was quite enthusiastic about the project in general, he found the word 'kiosk' meaningless
  • when I've got the new name, I need the new, dedicated website
  • get my 1st client
  • I've signed up for a seminar on the legal side of e-commerce on 18th July, so that may throw up a whole raft of legal compliance issues
  • start thinking about the next level of order processing

Monday, June 05, 2006


I've yet to come across a convincing explanation of dreams. My own dreams sometimes feature big, complex, detailed cities where I've never been, most likely because they don't exist. The amount of compute power to generate a relatively simple static 3D render is pretty high. To create an arbitrary city, populate it and have some peculiar action going on there must be a staggering amount of work, even considering that the brain's hardware is well equipped for symbol processing. What's makes it even more peculiar is that dreaming occurs during our periods of greatest rest, i.e. sleep.

The views of reductionist biologists simply don't wash. The lowest case is that they're caused by responses to random nerve impulses firing in the brain stem. Once you invoke the parsimony of nature, the simplest thing for the brain to do would be to ignore them. I don't think this is completely wrong, however, in that external stimuli can have an effect. At one time my feet used to poke out from under my duvet, and if it was during winter, it would affact my dreams in that the pain of the cold would get interpreted as walking barefoot over broken glass.
Another such speculation was that dreams keep the mind active while an animal's sleeping so that if suddenly woken, it will be able to respond more rapidly. This is obviously tosh; occasionally you wake from a dream to discover the room you're in is quite unlike the one you thought you were in just a moment ago and it can take a little while to re-orient yourself.
A side-effect of memory reorganisation perhaps? This would be a natural guess for many people involved in computing, likening it to, say, an indexed filing system which as more information's added gets ever more higgledy-piggledy and will occasionally have to straighten reorganise its indexes if they're to work at all efficiently. No real evidence that's how the brain works, and wouldn't we find our short-term memory getting ever more confused as the night wore on?

Symbols important to ourselves are getting shuffled around, with people, places aother things of emotional significance featuring large. I can't see anything in what I can remember of my own dreams to justify either Freudian sexual repression or Jungian archetypes. A common item that happens in my own dreams is losing my shoes; no doubt adherents of either of these two schools of thought could perform the mental gymnastics to fit this in with their schemata, but this would involve more absurdities than the manifest content of the dreams themselves.

In one of Werner Herzog's films, a South American tribe claimed that it's dreams that are real and that our waking lives are false. This really hinges on the definition of 'real', I suppose. The fundamental difference between dreams and reality seems to me to be consistency; a door in a dream cannot be relied upon to lead to the same place twice.

The nearest thing to an explanation I can think of is by comparison to the Buddhist conception of the three truths - kutai, ketai and chutai. Kutai relates to unlimited potentialities, everything that could possibly exist, ketai, limited dependent 'hard' reality and the chutai, the middle way, the perfect union of the two. The best quote on this I could find comes from here:
Ichi here is the ultimate entity that embraces everything; it therefore corresponds to chutai, or the Middle Road. Dai tells us that the ultimate law of life and the universe is as extensive and all-inclusive as space; it therefore corresponds to kutai. Ji implies that this law manifests itself in the kaleidoscopic changes of all actual phenomena; it therefore corresponds to ketai. In the final analysis, ichidaiji is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the Law which perfectly incorporates the three truths.
It relates to the Buddhist conception of the cycle of life-and-death, that after death our existence retreats into potentiality where it 'recharges' itself for another bout. Could therefore dreams be a 'little death'? Rather than orgasms, though the latter are quite refreshing too. :)