Tuesday, 1 June 2010

An introduction to twitter

Everyone seems to be talking about twitter. Watch TV, listen to the radio or read the newspaper and people are going on about twitter. You've probably heard one of your friends or colleagues mention it. It's slightly annoying.

What's more, opening a twitter account doesn't really help to understand what you're supposed to do with it. At first it seems virtually pointless. In fact, I've not heard any description of twitter and its potential that hits the nail on the head. So, I thought I'd add my swing of the hammer and leave another dent somewhere around the nail.

I've been on twitter for quite a while now. I started because I wanted to see what it was. Ever so slowly, my use has increased and diversified. This isn't a guide to twitter, as such. Just Google 'twitter guide' and you'll get hundreds of results. Most of these will be written by people who know much more about twitter than me. This blog is just my use, experience and how I see it.

I’ll admit it now, I love twitter. It’s a staggeringly simple and mind-blowingly effective form of communication. But I didn’t start off feeling like that. Anyway, here goes...

Google 'twitter' and the top result reads, "Twitter is without a doubt the best way to share and discover what is happening right now." This is an excellent description – but it took me ages to understand why. I'm only just learning how to get something of value out of it.

It has helped me to think of twitter as having levels of involvement.

Level one - A public place to post little notices

This is the beginner level and the one I've spent most time using – but sticking to level one kind of misses the point. The little notices, or 'tweets', are restricted to just 140 characters. This may or may not sound like much but it's an important characteristic of twitter. It keeps things brief and there's a skill in getting your point across in such a small space. In fact, it's amazing what you can convey in just a sentence or two.

Another key characteristic of twitter is the ability to tweet from just about anywhere. If you have a mobile phone (and a signal), you can tweet by text/SMS. I've tweeted on the train, on the top of mountains, in airports, in pubs and restaurants and just about everywhere else. For example, while on holiday, you could send the following text from your mobile/cellphone:

Camping by the Dordogne. The weather is great but my French is terrible. Off to Bordeaux tomorrow.”

Once sent, it's automatically published online. This kind of tweet is a little like a postcard. I've been on a few holidays and told friends and family to keep an eye on twitter if they want to know what and where I'm up to. This in itself is a very useful tool – it's not revolutionary, but it's kinda cool.

During a recent holiday, the Icelandic volcano caused some uncertainty about when I'd get home. With twitter, I was able to post instant messages by text/SMS and everyone (family, friends, work etc) could read what was happening.

Level one is a fairly one dimensional use of twitter. It's just a message service from you to your twitter page. Readers don't even need to be signed up to twitter themselves. Your tweets appear on a public webpage called something like twitter.com/yourname. This is a webpage that anyone can view as it's public and on the Internet.

Level one can be enhanced with picture upload services like twitpic.com. There are dozens of photo service providers that integrate with twitter but, for something like a holiday scenario already given, it's great to post images from your trip. I took a photo of the Icelandic volcano from the plane and uploaded it the next day. For some of the people following my tweets, this may have been their first glimpse of a pretty big news story (you can see it here).

Level two - Listening to other people

As well as posting your own messages, you can read what other people are saying and doing. This is called 'following' and these people can be friends, colleagues, journalists, news services, political parties, authors, pop stars, actors or anyone you can imagine.

When you sign in to your twitter account, your home page is populated by the tweets of the people you're following. They appear in a list orgnanised in chronological order (the most recent at the top). You'll also see your own tweets here and there, depending on how often you tweet. This is where twitter becomes something much more than the one-way street of level one.

Hopefully, the people you have chosen to follow are interesting to you for some reason. Maybe you've opted to follow BBC News on twitter - this is where all the latest news will be posted (usually much faster than traditional news media). You may also be following your favourite comedian - with any luck, their tweets will be amusing and may even give you exclusive news about TV shows or tour dates.

Once you're following a good selection of people (and variety really is the spice of twitter life), you are actually tailoring a constant flow of information that suits you. Your account is unique to you and your interests. Just take a second to absorb that - there are millions of twitter users, every one is sharing information with each other, yet no two accounts are the same.

This ability to only get the information you're interested in is another key feature of twitter. And as you are part of a global community, the chances are their will be others who share your interest. For example, you can post a tweet that says, "at home watching the football". This may be followed by your friend who says, "at the match, great atmosphere but freezing in the stadium". Then, a footballer you are following (let’s call him Fabio) might tweet "on the bench today, not happy"'. Your favourite football journalist may also tweet, "Rumours abound about Fabio’s transfer to United".

Even in the football example above, you can see how twitter can add depth and insight into any given situation. It has taken us beyond the one way communication of level one and makes twitter a two way communication channel – you send updates out, and you can get other people's in. But this is only half the twitter story...

Level three - a source of news and information

The original intention behind BBC television was to inform, educate and entertain. You wouldn't think that little messages of no more than 140 characters could do all these things, but they can. Twitter is a great word to describe the virtual sound of millions of people commenting about everything and anything. It's an instant and global conversation. Much of this noise is nonsense, but a lot of it is about stuff (issues, events, emergencies).

You can search at any time for any word or phrase interests you. This is fine but it can throw up anomalies so twitter uses something called the hashtag. This simple punctuation turns a word or a phrase into a recognised topic.

For example, the TV series 'Lost' came to an end recently. For me, Lost is right up there alongside Saddam's WMDs as the world's biggest wastes of time. However, millions of people were talking and twittering about it.

To find out what they were saying, you could search for the word 'lost' However, the results would display every tweet containing the word lost - "England just lost the match", for example. If you search for '#lost', there's much greater chance that the search results will be more relevant. A hashtag turns a word in to a topic so that everyone knows what's being talked about.

Think of it as joining your friends halfway through a conversation. A hashtag helps you see what the conversation is about with every comment. What's more you don't need to wait for a gap to join in. Just add the hashtag to your message and you're in.

The second great thing about topic searching is that you can peek into the world of twitterers. Search results bring up all tweets about a topic, whether you are following the authors or not. This gives you access to a world of views, opinions and comments. Some of these are nonsense, some are extreme, some may even be offensive, but others are clever, witty, concise and intelligent.

The 2010 UK general election was a great example of a twitter-enhanced news event. I was able to search for all kinds of related words and terms. The results provided an informative and entertaining source of information. They were also a great gauge of public opinion.

Twitter also monitors what people are talking about. On the right hand side of your twitter page, you'll see a list of 'trending topics'. These are simply the most popular topics or talking points at any given moment. These can be tailored to your country or location. During the time of the election, the UK’s most popular and trending topics where election related. Once or twice, I joined in the conversation simply by adding a relevant hashtag. It’s that easy to take part. The trending topics are a great way to find out what's happening and what's being talked about right now.

I haven’t really given enough emphasis to something called the retweet. The retweet is a bit like a grapevine or Chinese whispers. It’s where someone tweets something you like, maybe something funny or interesting and you simply repeat this as one of your tweets. It’s still credited to the person who wrote it but a retweet is like saying, “hey, I thought you might be interested in this…”

The retweet is important to twitter’s success as it gives a viral element to information. News or events can be posted to a handful of people, but with just a few retweets, it can be around the world in minutes.

Twitter has become a great tool of the people. I've already referenced the BBC's principle's to inform, educate and entertain. There's a similar phrase I used to hear in the 1980s, usually from slightly more subversive political groups – agitate, educate and organise. Twitter can do these things too.

In the 2009 Iranian general election, social networks were used by demonstrators to organise and mobilise. Because twitter can be written and read, created and consumed via mobile phones, it proves itself to be one of the most effective mass communication channels we may ever have known.

Level four - A new community

This is a tricky level to write about because I don’t really know much about it. It seems to be for advanced users who are in constant touch with their twitter accounts. However, the other day, I had my first personal experience of it.

Once you’ve created your own network (of people you are following and people who are following you), you form something that resembles a community. This sounds a bit corny but let me explain.

I read one account of a person who lost his wallet in New York and couldn’t get home. He had his phone and tweeted something like:

"Stuck on the corner of 1st and 14th street. Lost my wallet. Looks like I’m walking home."

Before long, his followers had seen his message and started retweeting. So followers of followers were seeing the message. Before long, he started getting responses from twitterers with offers of money, bus passes and subway tickets. A little after that, a friend of a friend of a friend turned up in a taxi.

Hey, are you the twitter guy?”
Lost your wallet?”
Jump in”

The experience I had the other day was similar. In preparation for a meeting, I'd loaded a new selection of MP3s on my player. However, I ended up running late and grabbed my stuff in a hurry. When on the train, I realised I’d forgotten my earphones. In my frustration, I tweeted:

"Bugger. Put lots of music on my phone but forgot my earphones. What an idiot."

Within minutes, I got a message to say:

"If you’re on a Virgin train, the first class carriages sell earphones (£2, I think)"

As it happened, I didn’t need the earphones but this little tip could’ve made all the difference between a bearable or boring journey. I’d tweeted about my problem and twitter came back, directly to me, with a relevant answer. And that was pretty cool.

So, these are the four levels of twitter as I've come to understand them. There may be several other levels but I don't know anything about them yet. If you know of more, I'd love to hear about them. Or maybe the multi-level model isn't a helpful way of getting the most out of twitter? You tell me.

I now tweet several times a day. It’s almost as important as email and certainly more interesting (than my email account, anyway). Don’t listen to the people who criticise twitter for the sake of it. Twitter has its drawbacks but I’ve heard and read a lot of ignorant criticism.

Twitter is as adult and mature and serious as any format. It can be high brow and low brow. If you give it a go and don’t like it, fair enough. For me, it’s a source of news and information, it’s self-expression, it’s person to person and mass communication all in one. For now, or until something better emerges, I love it.

Give it a go...


Friday, 6 March 2009

16.20 Birmingham New Street – Utopia

I’m writing this while on a train from Birmingham to Penrith. I’m returning from an exhibition at the National Exhibition Centre. Of the various conversations I had, by far the most interesting was one with a retired coach safety test engineer. His career had been spent in the public transport industry but he was also an authority transport systems using magnetic levitation.

From what I could gather (and I haven’t had the chance to Google it yet) there are magnetic levitation train systems being trialled in Japan and Germany. These trials are based on a mono-rail system. Once the train is ready to go, the electro-magnets are powered up and the whole thing lifts just 10mm into the air. The power that provides the levitational force also provides high speed propulsion.

As levitation suggests, the train actually floats. This means no contact points, no friction and an incredibly smooth ride. In comparison, our current rail travel begins to sound pretty Victorian.

Obviously, these things cost enormous amounts of money to develop and introduce. Even if the UK government gave unlimited funds right now to a project like this, it would be 10 to 20 years before anything like this could be called a national network. There’s every chance it won’t happen in my lifetime – but then I said that about a black president.

As I have become very aware recently, I’m a sucker for Utopian visions. I go misty eyed at the prospect of a fairer society – where everyone is equal and we all work with each others’ best interests at heart. Put aside the fact that I don’t know what system could achieve this but to my mind, Utopia needs good public transport. It’s right there in my visions, clean cities, healthy citizens and mono-rail systems.

Obviously, my visions of Utopia aren’t my own. These visions come from my childhood interest in science fiction and the future – and even these are taken second hand from sources like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Anyway, the point is that these visions are probably the best part of a century old. And I don’t understand why we’re not there yet. Maybe it’s a lack of vision? Or maybe because my vision of Utopia is another man’s Orwellian nightmare?

And indeed, our communication networks are probably better and more mobile than even Fritz could imagine. Computers are developing incredibly quickly and have literally revolutionised my own creative pursuits. Mobile phones are delivering real connectivity and useful information on the move. In 25 years, phone batteries have reduced in size and charge time and increased in storage and output. They’ve made incredible advances in a relatively short period. So what happened to transport?

As Daniel H. Wilson, titled his book, Where’s my jet pack? Where are our mono rails? Where are our electric cars and hover boards? Why did these things fall behind? Okay, the car and the internal combustion engine have refined and become more efficient. Agreed, the train I’m sitting on tilts gently round corners to allow smooth travel (something British Rail’s Advanced Passenger Train consistently failed to do). That’s all well and good – but it’s old technology.

As I write, I can hear and feel the diesel engines chug through the countryside and I can imagine the fumes they’re churning into the atmosphere. Some recent train service improvements have resulted in one or two speed records being broken. But these records were set in the 50s. How many other speed records, for anything, have lasted for sixty years in the modern age?

I dunno. Whether it’s the power of the oil industry, state cost cutting or restricted private enterprise, I just can’t say. But I’m getting older and there are certain things I’d love to see before I die. When it comes to transport, I hope I haven’t missed the magnetically levitating mono-rail to Utopia.

Monday, 19 January 2009

All clear

I don't have kids, I don't have pets, I don't have a garden and I don't play golf. This doesn't mean I don't have demands on my time, I just want to establish a few basics. I'm also suggesting that you don't need any of these things to understand what I'm about to describe.

There's a level of tiredness (for me, at least) that is almost unnoticeable. It settles silently on my perceptions like dust. It's so subtle that I only notice when I look back at affected periods. Memories of days, afternoons or evenings while under the influence of this fatigue are not quite like others. I'm still capable. I can make decisions and my ability to interact socially or professionally is relatively unaffected. In fact, it's amazing how productive you can be. But sometimes, I look back, for instance, at parts of yesterday, and they're vague. They're misty and foggy and seem so much further away than just 24 hours ago.

I suppose the best example (that you might relate to) is the lost journey to work. Have you ever driven to work and been unable to remember passing a particular familiar landmark or a certain stretch of the route? It's like a waking sleepwalk - like you haven't quite experienced something but you know you did it.

I resent looking back at any time in my life through a mist of fatigue. If you imagine an average life expectancy to be 75 years, this equates to just 27,375 days. As a 37 year old, I've already used 13,170 of them. That's nearly half way there and who knows if I'll reach 75? (If you who wish to check my arithmetic, by all means let me know of any errors, but I hope you get the point.)

These days are precious. They are all I have. When they are gone, so am I. Everything else is trivial. Everything. And for this reason, I hate experiencing any of them in a half-living, out of body, automaton-like state.

I blame Work. Okay, roll your eyes as I aim my meagre guns at the old enemy, but I'm serious. It's that bloody Work God again - the one that keeps taking my precious days like they're in endless supply. A 45 year career, working 5 days a week with around 4 weeks holiday a year adds up to 10,800 days. 10,800! Out of 27,375! What kind of arrangement is that?

When the first industrial towns began to develop in the late 1700s, workers had to adopt a whole new discipline of time. Workers were woken at a fixed time by the 'knocker-upper' and they clocked in when they arrived at the factory. This is where our association/obsession with time and money began. The new bosses wanted their money's worth. The agricultural work these workers had come from was hard and long, but the tyranny of the Work God's ticking clock is a characteristic of the industrial age.

These early workers often worked 6 or even 7 days a week - and 12/14/16 hour shifts. God knows what fatigue they were dealing with but from these beginnings, it really looks like progress when average weeks reduced from 7 to 6 and then from 6 to 5 days. But why didn't it continue to reduce to 4? Why did progress stop? Is 5 days out of 7 fair?

And don't confuse work with purpose. I don't just want to lie-in on my 3 day weekend. I want to be productive and useful.

I have two phases of my adult life that were clear and crisp and all the better for it. The first was my time at university from 95-98. These were not idle times but I admit I got ample sleep. The second fog-free period was when I took part in a jobshare scheme and worked just 17.5 hours a week. I was able to manage my time, house-keep, read, write, play guitar, sleep, socialise, work and do all the things I rarely get time to do. It was economically unsustainable but fantastic. The spectre of fatigue was banished. My head was clear and my memories were fresh.

I don't believe it's fair to expect people to bring up families, have hobbies, have social lives, have relationships, be in for the plumber, visit the doctor, go to dentists, fix the roof, prepare healthy food, exercise regularly, enjoy travel, experience other cultures and hold down a full time job. We all try and manage our time around our jobs by making tweaks here and there. Combining some things but predominantly dropping the things we love. We rarely acknowledge the effing great big elephant in the room that takes up all the space - Work.

So is Work an enabler or a disabler? I don't have an answer. Unless you're very lucky, you'll have the same problem. But it's no coincidence that the working classes (and by this I mean those that work full time) are not responsible for the world's greatest works of art, music, science and literature. It's also no coincidence that professional sport has emerged from so-called working class sports - the history of Rugby League and its split with Rugby Union was about exactly this. But theoretically speaking, imagine the talent out there. Imagine where art, music, science and literature could be if they had the masses contributing to it.

I was listening to the radio the other day and heard a doctor talk about sleep deprivation. He was responding to some research that suggested lack of sleep makes people more susceptible to cancer. Amongst other things, he advised against exercise after 6pm because adrenalin and endorphins keep you awake. So if you want to work 9-5 and sleep soundly, when are you supposed to exercise? I suppose my whole problem with fatigue-fog could be solved if I went to bed early every night, but I have stuff to do. A life to lead - that's exactly the problem.

Of course, the doctor should've advised reduced working hours and improved work/life balance. Part-time hours and job share schemes for all. It could be the future, but of course, it won't be. Instead, we'll have to carry on living with that effing great big elephant and vague memories of yesterday - or was it the day before?

Monday, 6 October 2008


As I start this blog, I’m a bit worried it’ll turn into a rant. I try my best to be balanced but I feel a bit irritable with what I hear on the news at the moment. After all, we are in the middle of a banking crisis of spectacular proportions.

There’s a song by a little known Manchester band, the Sun and the Moon. In their song, A Matter of Conscience, Mark Burgess sings, "I follow no-one, I lead myself."

This lyric has a double edge – or, at least two ways to understand it. On one hand, I don't like its individualistic tone. I think individualism is a bit of a myth. It’s a state of mind and too easily exaggerated and manipulated. On the other hand, the lyrics perfectly articulate how I feel about politics. Humans are social animals but this can lead to a herd-like mentality. And herds unfortunately need leaders.

I'm sick of leaders. Up until recently, I worked for an organisation that was led by a man who fitted perfectly the clinical diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Down to a tea. I emailed the clinical criteria to some colleagues (without revealing what the list related to) and asked what I was describing. Everybody, without exception, assumed I was describing the Chief Exec. I dare say this helped get him where he was but he was a deeply dysfunctional and unpleasant character. I don’t know what his approach was at the started but as time went on, his blurring of the lines between professional advancement and personal gain, I believe, were inevitable. That's what people like that do.

But anyway, politicians are responsible for my current irritation so let me talk about them.

There was a particular 'type' at school. This awkward minority was no good at football, had little interest in pop music or TV and generally had difficulty fitting in. I remember one boy in particular who, for the life of him, couldn't get the hang of a trampoline. It remains one of the funniest video clip memories in my collection.

These pupils were the teenage Times readers. They were outside the mainstream because they excluded themselves. As far as I know, the small number of this type at my school went on to well paid jobs. And on a wider scale, it seems that a subset of this group get involved with mainstream politics.

Take a look at the audience of any political party conference. The seats are full of 'em. And let's face it, they're an odd bunch. This unappealing shower, this collection of misfits, is the crop from which our professional politicians are picked.

Watch the news to see the daily round of political photo-opportunities. This is where these nerd-do-wells 'mix' with us, the plebs, to make themselves look accessible. They go to schools and kick footballs, they go to amusement parks and ride on the log flume, they go to retirement homes and drink tea with the geriatrics.

Just watch the discomfort on their faces. Marvel at their awkward attempts to smile. Being part of the population is as unnatural to a politician as trampolining was to my former schoolmate.

To make things worse, they're followed by an entourage of national media. Like a hideous food chain, these useless people churn out statistics and vacuous statements every single day. Our equally unappealing media swallow what they can before regurgitating it for their readers. Everyone, from the be-suited commuters to the hard-hatted labourers take it in – and it's little but propaganda, lies and emptiness.

In the current banking crisis, it's been interesting to see the laissez faire Tories squirm as an irresponsible free market leads us into recession. Their awful party, funded by big business as it always has been, defines itself on reducing state intervention. On the government's side, I've heard Gordon Brown (the Prime Minister, for goodness sake) spin his record in office by stating that interest rates ran to 15% under the Tories. He is referring to Black Wednesday in 1992 when the incompetent Tories upped interest rates to 15% for about three hours. Brown using this as indicative of the period is plainly misleading.

Here they are – the leaders of the world – absolutely powerless in the face of a failing system. They have no choice but to spend an unprecedented amount of tax payers’ money to prevent complete collapse of, and let’s call a spade a spade, capitalism. Imagine the hospitals, schools, sports centres, immunisation programmes and international aid this could provide.

I don't understand why we need these leaders. I don't understand why they have any credibility. I don't understand why we listen to them and I don't understand why the media and electorate don't make them properly accountable. Tony Blair now has a very, very lucrative career as an ex-world leader. He can choose whatever job he likes. He was recently on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, laughing and joking about his time in office and his relationship with George W. Bush. This will seem like a strong statement but whenever I see Tony Blair, I see a murderer. I hold him (and lots of others) personally responsible for the death of thousands of innocent people in Iraq.

Before you think, "Well, we vote for them," remember, not all of us do. In the last UK general election, our 'democracy' made it impossible to vote for a viable party that was against the war in Iraq. In the next election, it will be impossible to vote for a party that (for example) offers an alternative to the market economy.

As far as I understood, the Nazis were never particularly popular in Berlin. They didn't get a big share of the vote and anti-Nazi demonstrations took place during the Second World War. The majority of Berliners probably wanted peace. Instead they were drawn into the machinery of the Third Reich and torn to shreds. At the end of the war, they suffered the wrath of an avenging Red Army, the bitterness of a defeated Führer and they watched their city burn. Then, before their lives were rebuilt they were dragged into a new war, the Cold War. Alongside the unimaginable horrors of the Second World War, I also reserve some sadness for the ordinary people and the floating voters. There may've been many who voted for the Nazis, they may even have heard rumours about what was happening to the Jews, but who could imagine what their leaders were really getting them into?

There's a chant that's commonly heard in protests around the world, "Not in my name." I voted Labour in 1997 and 2001 - does that mean I supported Blair's decision to go to war? Absolutely not.

I think it was Harold Wilson who said of all his years in government, the best thing he did was to introduce Cat’s Eyes onto Britain’s roads. A simple safety measure – maybe. A dull domestic issue – maybe. Newsworthy – probably not.

To say we all have the same simple needs (peace, food and shelter) our politicians prefer to quibble and bicker. They play word games with each other and the press. They spar with each other and share a drink in the bar afterwards. They tell us that coming out to vote is how we can have our say in a democracy. Instead, we are helping to perpetuate a corrupt system.

Nelson Mandela showed that some leaders get it right. Mandela put aside his personal grievances and presided over a process of healing - truth and reconciliation. There may be many hard working politicians who want to make a positive difference – they may even be the majority – but far too often, they slip into advancing their own interests. They get used to seeing the world behind smoked-glass, bullet-proof, chaffeur-driven, publicly-funded vehicles and forget, as we all do, that we need politicians to act as our servants, not our leaders.

Hmmmm. Upon reading the above, I think I was right. It did turn into a rant.


Monday, 22 September 2008

I love documentaries

I love documentaries. Like a million other people, I have a lot to thank them for. So let me just say again, I love documentaries.

Growing up, Thursday nights were always a treat. That's when my mother did the weekly shopping and we were allowed a can of fizzy drink with our tea (evening meal, for those unfamiliar with the colloquial). Cool. But even more importantly, it was a terrific night on the telly. Tomorrow's World followed by Top of the Pops. These science and music (respectively) programmes represented all three of the BBC's holy trinity. They informed, educated and entertained me. I loved them and watched religiously for around 10-15 years.

Having thought about it, and speaking generally, I have been informed, educated and entertained by TV and radio for as long as I can remember. I've also been appalled, infuriated and disgusted (the BBC's alter mission statement) but being blunt, the majority of what I know comes from television. More than school, parents, newspapers, books and probably university.

I'd prefer to have gained my understanding of the world through the orthodox study of art, music, literature and science - in fact, television may've prevented me from doing this - but the truth is, most of what I know comes from TV. I chip into conversations with sentences that begin, "Yeah, I saw this programme once, right, and that said..." I don't often say the same about books.

So, yes. Broadcasting has had an enormous impact on my brain. And in terms of being educated by it, this is primarily through documentaries.

I've just made a documentary. I'm very proud of it. It's called My DDR T-Shirt. Although it's not an exemplary piece of filmmaking, I did adhere to some basic documentary principles. Essentially, I wanted to be fair - fair to the interviewees, fair to the subject and now that I am selling a few copies of the DVD, I want to be fair to the audience. In a way, I was lucky. I had no financiers to keep happy and no TV slot fill. I could make my film according to my whim. I was accountable only to myself and the self-imposed principles of fairness.

In these multi-channel days, making documentaries has become more complicated - and they are suffering. Really suffering. They've lost confidence in themselves and the audience and resort to intelligence-insulting mechanisms to keep us tuned in.

Let me explain...

Keep flicking through your TV channels until you find a documentary. Let's say you find one about a construction team and they're building an enormous bridge. The construction process - the organisation, the co-ordination of skills and specialist hardware - could be interesting. However, this potentially 30 minute programme is more likely to be 50 minutes long and broken into 4 parts (at least) for commercial breaks. And in the countdown to a commercial break, there'll be all kinds of tantalising clips of what's to follow. And more often than not there'll be a cliff hanger.

I think cliff hangers originate from the weekly cinema dramas of the early days - the Saturday matinées, the westerns, the Flash Gordons etc. At the end of the episode, the hero is dangling from a cliff and the audience have to 'come back next week' to find out what happens. It's just mechanism of the entertainment industry and as old as cinema itself. There's a certain commercial need for cliff hangers. I'm not unrealistic and I don't mind them being used for dramas, Flash Gordon or Westerns. I just have a problem with use in documentaries.

Documentaries are supposed to be about education. I want to learn something. I don't want to see edited grimaces of the bridge construction manager as the narrator dramatises the risk of a twisted cable. "If this cable gives way, the 1000 ton bridge segment could fall and trigger a deadly chain reaction."

It's the fear of the flick. The programme makers tailor their half-interesting product to half-interested channel-hoppers. It's an admission that their programme isn't good enough to keep people tuned in. It's a dishonesty and, if not a lie, a gross exaggeration. And before we get sniffy about the output of obscure satellite and digital channels, these techniques have become standard for many.

Award-winning journalist and respected filmmaker Jon Ronson recently made Reverend Death, a documentary about an American reverend who assisted suicide. It was a good subject, the reverend was an interesting character, Ronson went to a lot of trouble to get to know him and it was screened on the UK's Channel 4. As each commercial break loomed, the last minute of the programme became a trailer for the sections to come. We saw edited clips that appear to show the plot thickening. By the time the previewed section arrives, you've already seen the footage several times - and what's more, you realise that the clip isn't quite as intriguing as you were invited to think. Channel 4's '9/11 Faker' is another example.

It's dishonest. It's trickery. It hides a lack substance and it degrades the programme.

As a regular documentary watcher, I only used to worry about what angle the narrator was coming from. Was the programme maker twisting the issue? Was he or she editing the footage to make a point? Were the interviewees credible? Is there a political agenda? All these things are still important, but now, they're secondary to whether the programme is what it claims to be. Is the filmmaker prodding my inquisitive nature to keep me tuned in? Does the filmmaker have anything to tell me or am I being exploited?

All this amounts to a crisis for me. Trusting a filmmaker has always required care but doubting the documentary as a medium, as a source of information, as a way to learn, is new. And it makes me very, very sad.

So look out next time you're watching telly. Do you end the programme with a sense of having learned something? Or do you have a sense, like I increasingly do, that you've been ever so slightly conned?

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Cash rich, time poor

I first heard this phrase around twelve years ago. It was part of the editor’s introduction to an early edition (possible the first) of the women’s lifestyle magazine, Red. I resented it then and it still bugs me.

The phrase pops up here and there as part of the debate about ‘work/life balance’ – another interesting phrase. It describes the apparently increasing condition that money is more abundant than time. In other words, lots of people have reached a point in their lives where they have enough money to pay for what they want, but not the time to enjoy it.

The fact that we even have phrases like this amazes me. What’s more, they are dropped into conversation and editorial like an accepted and understood status report – without any scrutiny of what the phrase is actually reporting about our status.

It seems fashionable to seek balance, or at least use the word, in contemporary life. After a 20th century of extremes, the early 21st century prefers to occupy the middle ground. For instance, mainstream British and European political parties compete for the middle ground; speaking generally, confrontational behaviour between unions and employers is not dead, but the flavour has changed.

Balance in itself is difficult to argue against:

“We need a balanced approach.”
“No we don’t. We need an imbalanced one.”

The problem with talking about balance is that it takes the focus away from sometimes unreasonable extremes on either side of the fulcrum. Seeking balance assumes that there is a solution between opposing forces. But what happens if these opposing forces are incompatible? What happens if one force is disproportionately dominant?

If a child plays on a see-saw with another child, the balance is easy. If a child plays on a see-saw with an elephant, balance could only be achieved by moving the fulcrum, the centre ground, closer to the elephant and further from the child. The centre ground isn’t so central anymore and balance isn’t always very well balanced.

We often use these balance metaphors but in doing so we distract ourselves from the issues involved. The term ‘work/life balance’ assumes that such a thing is possible – that work and life can be balanced in a satisfactory way. It also acknowledges that these two things are opposites. If we use the see-saw analogy, work and life for most will always be in competition with each other. Wouldn’t it be better to seek a solution to this rather than find the balance?

At this point, I’d like to acknowledge that binary opposites (left/right, good/bad) aren’t always helpful. The human condition isn’t always so black and white but it is significant that we’ve created a binary opposite with ‘work/life’.

The phrase I began with, “cash rich, time poor” is effectively a description of a work/life imbalance. It is used like a common complaint, like an occupational hazard. And if the work/life balance was so achievable, as that phrase suggests, if work and life weren’t such opposing forces, why do so many people feel cash rich, time poor?

What a comment this is about the system we live by. In the West, starvation isn’t the biggest threat, its obesity. For jobs, employment and destitution aren’t the concern, it’s having the time to spend your earnings. And, presumably, many of these cash rich, time poor people have followed the system’s rules to achieve this status. Generally, (and there will be all kinds of exceptions) they have worked at school, gone to university, applied for jobs and applied for promotions etc etc. They have essentially conformed, and how does our system reward them? With time poverty - and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, more valuable than our time.

Maybe the balancing act isn’t so easy. Maybe it isn’t within the power of any ordinary individual to make the necessary changes? If a child is trying to play on a see-saw and the elephant at the other end won’t budge, maybe we shouldn’t be talking about balance?

Friday, 16 May 2008

There'll always be an England

I'm from a totally non-religious family but once a week my sister takes my two year-old niece to a local Methodist church toddler group. The fact it's in a church is a coincidence. A few weeks ago, she phoned to tell me about a 1940s evening being held at the church hall and suggested that my 86 year old grand mother may like to attend. It sounded like a good idea and my Nana liked the sound of it too. So, I picked her up, drove to the hall outside Huddersfield and took my seat for and evening of war time songs.

It was a stiff and amateur performance but listening to these old songs was a strangely poignant experience. At the end, we were treated to a hot supper of meat pies and mushy peas. On the way home, Nana said wistfully, "There Always Be an England...well, where's it gone?"

Given that Nana spends almost all her time inside her home, financially comfortable and visited four times a day by NHS carers, I wondered what knowledge she had of contemporary England. It was also hard to know why she sounded so disappointed.

The sentiment reminded me of a comment made to me by an ex-girlfriend's grand father. He was a Commando during the war and, when asked, he would describe some of his horrific experiences. He was involved in some notoriously bloody action in Burma (I apologise for not being able to remember the names of these battles). He once recalled a moment when he found himself spattered by blood, bone and brain after his friend was shot in the head. And then he added, "When I look at what we've become and what's happened to the country, I don't think it was worth it."

I found it particularly hard to hear such disillusionment after his endeavour and hardship.

I wasn't around during the 1940s so I don't know what it was like. By all accounts, it was a pretty tough time. So where does this feeling of betrayal and disappointment come from? I think there's more than one factor and I'm going to hazard a few guesses - in no particular order.

My first guess is immigration. Actually, it's not much of a guess. It's what I've heard the people above talking about.

There's a line in the song There'll Always be an England:

"Britons awake! The Empire too, we can depend on you."

Despite this stirring faith that subjects of the British Empire would support us when necessary (as thousands of 'Commonwealth' soldiers did), I doubt this relationship was intended to be mutual. For example, I know that my Nana's heart sinks when she sees Asian people in her local shop. Despite the fact that people choose to come to England for its stability and opportunity (things the soldiers fought for), Nana sees Asians as dirty, untrustworthy and lesser-beings. As horrible as this is, immigration and racism contribute to Nana's sense that England, as she knew it, has gone.

My second guess, and slightly less tangible than my first, is propaganda.

At the prospect of being overrun by Nazis, I suspect that it suited the British ruling classes to ask the nation to pull together and fight. But did our soldiers really fight to preserve an archaic system where 90% of the country was in the hands of around 2% of the population (not exact figures but I know I'm not far off)?

Propaganda created and/or perpetuated the myths of England - fair play, rolling countryside and village cricket etc. The fact that (for many) the future didn't live up to these myths is not surprising. I think the soldiers, the sailors, the land girls, the female munitions workers, the Indians, the Africans, the New Zealanders, the Aussies and everyone else were sold a lie.

But let me stress at this point: I think the Nazis were worth fighting. If the Nazis weren't defeated, God knows what Europe (and the world) would look like today. It's just that deeds of individual and collective bravery and sacrifice wouldn't happen if people didn't believe in what they were fighting for. These are the things that won the war but these are also the things that lost hearts and minds in the long run.

I would've thought that the end of the war brought about mind-boggling hopes for a bright and peaceful future - indeed, I'm sure this helped our soldiers struggle on. And when they came home, they were promised a home fit for heroes - a New Jerusalem. The fact that this vision was never realised is more to do with the lies that were peddled and the imbalance of the real England that the soldiers were actually defending.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Plasma/LCD picture quality revisited

I always include disclaimers in my blogs. I try to be clear that I'm expressing my opinion - and it isn't always on solid ground.

I recently wrote a blog called "Why is plasma/LCD screen picture quality so bad?" It outlined the disappointment I felt at the poor quality of the latest TV technology. Basically, everytime I looked at new tellies, I saw a low quality picture with lots of pixelation and distortion.

To my delight, I received an anonymous comment from someone who'd bought a new TV and agreed with what I'd said. But even so, no-one else was writing anything similar. I started reading reviews of LCD/plasma screens. Programmes like Channel Five's The Gadget Show and organisations like Which? go to great lengths to test things and their reviews of TVs didn't say anything about pixelation or distortion being a problem across the board.

After reading more reviews with descriptions like 'crystal clear' and 'pin sharp', my girlfriend and I decided to take the plunge. We bought a Panasonic 32" LCD TV. By coincidence, it arrived on my birthday. The superior, distant tone of my original TV blog was not evident that day. I love getting stuff - it's true.

All things considered, the TV's pretty good - I'm pleased with it. Image quality from certain sources (like a standard DVD player) is generally good. Image quality from certain digital television channels isn't. Football for instance, one of the examples given in my original blog, proves to be a particular struggle. American talk shows, on-screen graphics and fast-moving music videos or kid's TV (all high brow examples, huh?) are other pixelation-prone areas.

If I make a mistake, I'd like to be the first to say it, but on this occasion a certain Mr. Adamson beat me to it. (Thank you). He politely asked whether there was any hypocrisy in declaring "I'm gonna wait a while before I pay the several hundred pounds required for an ultra-stylish backward steps" a matter of months before buying one. I squirmed a little, conceded the charge and squirmed a little more.

Obviously, I was already aware of my inconsistency, but there are some things I'd like to explain. My girlfriend and I read lots of reviews and we
saw better quality picture quality in some none high-street electrical retailers. If you go into Currys, Dixons or Comet, picture quality of display models is terrible. No doubt. Secondly, I wonder whether the pixelation problem is due to digital TV rather than the screens themselves. Certain types of movement and colour combinations play havoc with the image quality. This was evident on my old CRT TV and a bigger screen may just make it easier to see. If this is the case, if digital TV is the problem, I was wrong about plasma and LCD picture quality and I apologise.

However, I still believe we're not getting the quality we're being promised. Of the years that plasma and LCD screens have been on sale we've had (roughly) three stages - the first lot displayed images at 720p, the second were HD Ready at 1080i and now we have Full HD Ready at 1080p. Mine is the middle one, 1080i. It's good but there are still problem areas - they might be solved at 1080p but they must be terrible at 720p. If the problems lie with digital TV broadcast, this is being glossed over in the drive to switch to digital only broadcasts by 2012. If the problems lie with poor quality connections and SCART leads then I'll have even more egg on my face.

So, as the final word, I apologise for my inconsistency. Sorry.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Concrete and communism

I was on holiday in Bulgaria last week. As I walked back to the hotel from the resort centre, something caught my eye. Another hotel had a long, sweeping concrete walkway leading from ground level to an upper floor. This futuristic looking construction was supported by elegant and narrow concrete pillars. There was definitely something stylish about it but there was also something distinctly derelict. I don't think anyone had walked along it for many years (it may even have been blocked off at one end) and I could see large patches of crumbling concrete on the underside - cracked and fractured by the rusting and expanding reinforced steel structure within.

What a shame. The walkway would've looked cool once - part of an architect's vision of the future. And that's what got me thinking...

Crumbling and neglected concrete is absolutely a feature of the former Eastern Bloc countries I have visited. It seems like concrete suited the communist planners. Concrete was used for everything - apartment blocks, public buildings, public art, train stations, lamp posts, telegraph polls, bus shelters, road signs, park benches, litter bins...the Berlin Wall - the list could go on. It's like there was a belief in concrete as the building material of the future. It was used extensively in the West too - often part of Britain's post-war New Jerusalem. There was nothing concrete couldn't achieve - a universal material that levelled the old inequalities, applied to all and took society into a newer, fairer future.

These are exactly the qualities (or myths) that appeal to communists. And maybe the concrete and communism parallel goes further? Over time they both fade and stain. The early ideals become compromised by clumsy, ugly and lazy application. The inner structure or principles corrode and weaken and the whole thing becomes unsound and liable to collapse.

Maybe I don't know very much about politics or architecture? Probably not, but until I find out otherwise (or maybe you can tell me?), I'll keep thinking about the parallel between these two things. But at least I've explained to myself why I'm drawn to Eastern Europe's crumbling concrete structures? And maybe that's why I feel so sad whenever I see these futuristic designs looking so decrepit and broken?

And you know what? As I walk amongst modern Manchester's redevelopment and new architecture, I can see that concrete is still being used. It's almost made a comeback. If done properly, there's a future for concrete. If only someone could work out how to 'do' communism properly, maybe there's a future for that too?

Friday, 22 February 2008

Dumb and Hummers

I'm sure my blogs contain all kinds of sweeping generalisations but most of these will be out of ignorance. I try my best, but some always slip through. I don't know why, but this time, I've decided to indulge myself with a generalisation-based blog.

Hummers, and drivers of Hummers, are some of the least appealing things/people in the world.

Lots of people have discussed the phenomenon of mothers taking their kids to school in a Land Rover Discovery - but I don't want to duplicate this. It's Hummers, in particular, that got me thinking.

In certain theatres of war, there may be a reason for Hummers. On certain UN missions, there may be a use for them. In certain parts of the United States, they may be the perfect all terrain vehicle. But Jeeeeeesus, do we need them in Manchester?

Although this isn't one of the Freedom Series of blogs, the Hummer thing is partly about freedom of choice. Freedom of choice is important. I believe that. But when a system like ours provides so much choice, I mean a bewildering array of options for almost every item in our lives, these choices morph into modes of self-expression.

There's something about Hummers that epitomise US foreign policy. Hummers go anywhere in the world, they're big, they're ugly, they are energy inefficient, they leave a massive footprint and drive over anything. So where does this fit into the UK car buyer's mentality?

Most things are chosen because the buyer identifies with 'characteristics' of the thing. Good natured people own good natured dogs. Flashy people buy flashy phones. Idiots like Jeremy Clarkson drive idiotic cars.

So what drives a person in the UK to choose a Hummer? What Hummer characteristic does the owner identify with? It's size? It's weight? It's horrible, clunky, boxy design? What does a Hummer owner feel when s/he climbs up to the steering wheel?

I don't understand it.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Freedom #2

Before I start, let me set out what I'm trying to do. I've spent a lot of time trying to learn about life in the DDR. This blog isn't meant to sound like some kind of polemic, it's a thought process. So, if I'm talking rubbish, please feel free to tell me. Constructively, please.

The first interview for My DDR T-Shirt was with a researcher at the Stasi Museum, Normannenstrasse, Berlin. Steffen's English was superb. He was friendly and knowledgeable. He told me lots about the workings of the Stasi and of the former East German government. As the 'schwert und schield' (sword and shield) of the East German Communist Party, the Stasi wanted to know 'everything about everybody.'

Part of the Stasi's job was to monitor the East German population - and use the population to monitor itself. The Stasi had operatives and agents throughout East German society. There are several books on this subject, all of which are more knowledgeable than me, but Steffen told me about one example that made me think.

Sometimes, in some East German schools, some school children were asked to draw the clock from the evening TV news. I can't remember the exact details but it went something like this - the news on both East and West German TV featured a clock in the background. The East German clock had numerals around the clock face. The West German version had twelve dots around the face. It seems innocuous to ask kids to draw the clock from TV, until you realise that this exercise was used to find out which families were watching forbidden TV from the West. And these families were reported to the Stasi.

Using children to monitor the behaviour of their parents is a pretty dirty trick. It's a measure of what the DDR was like. I mean, children, honestly.

Go into any high street into any town or city in the UK. Or even any town or city in the western world. The chances are you will see a McDonald's. In most McDonald's, there's a kid's area and most McDonald's offer the space for free for birthday parties and the like. They provide free balloons and games and most of the kids will leave the party sporting some kind of hat that features that infamous logo, the McDonald golden arches.

If any readers of this blog have children (I know I have readers, or at least one - he left a comment once), you don't need me to tell you about the pressure kids are under to wear certain fashionable items. Most parents feel under intense pressure too, from the kids themselves, to buy certain brands. For example, sending your kids to school in Asda own-brand trainers or Wal Mart brand sneakers is an invitation for other children to ridicule your child. And given that no parent wants to do this, they do their best, even those on very low incomes, to buy the big brands. It's known in marketing as the 'nag factor' and companies and corporations spend millions each year to achieve it.

What's the difference? Well, one is state sponsored and one isn't. But if you change the word 'state' to 'system', you have sentence that applies both ways - using children to make parents behave in certain ways is/was system sponsored in the old East and in the West.

Another difference? Well, the Stasi used to lock people up, the nag factor doesn't. True and I accept this key difference. But on the other hand, the Stasi didn't lock up everyone who watched West German TV and at least in East Germany, parents took their own punishment, not the kids. A system that puts the child in line for the punishment (the bullying, the ridicule at school etc) is pretty harsh too.

Okay, so I'm using a clumsy mechanism but maybe you get the point. The DDR used children to make people behave in certain ways - and so do we.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Freedom #1

"That's not freedom. That's oppression!"

My sister's words - used to describe the shopping frenzy in some Yorkshire's towns and cities in the run up to Christmas. She was making the point that people put themselves through hell to complete their Christmas shopping on time - they feel compelled to do it. And if people feel compelled to do something (and most of us feel this at Christmas, despite our better judgement), is it indicative of an oppressive system or a free state?

I agree with my sister. Why would we choose to buy something for £20 on Christmas Eve that would be available for £10 on Boxing Day? And of greater value than money, why would people spend so much time traipsing around the shops? Do we do it for the love of our friends and family, or for another reason? We all know that Christmas is over-commercialised and an anti-climax. Yet we repeat the cycle each year - and I don't think that's freedom, it's much more like oppression.

For about three years, I've been working on a documentary about East Germany - the DDR (Deutsche Demokratik Republik). The DDR was an oppressive state that ceased to exist after German re-unification in 1990. I spoke to lots of people who lived in the DDR and asked them what life was like. I've also read and researched as much as I can about this subject. There were lots of restrictions for DDR citizens, the most famous being restrictions on travel - the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie etc. But as I learned more about life in the DDR, I found myself asking awkward questions of life under our current system. And these questions form the basis of the Freedom Series.

Let's hope I get round to writing enough of them to constitute a series...

Monday, 10 December 2007

Why is plasma/LCD screen picture quality so bad?

Having written blogs that touch on status anxiety, consumerism and other such things, I thought I should add something...

I don't think it's inconsistent to say that I love 'stuff' too. I'm not as bad as some but I feel the pull of latest computer technology, phones and MP3 players. No doubt. Millions of pounds are spent on making them as desirable as possible. I was sceptical about iPod hype, for example, but when I first saw one, it was just gorgeous.

Having said that, I still haven't invested in a proper MP3 player yet. I rarely have the money to buy these things but I like to see how they're developing. Typically of me, I listen to a little 1GB mini-player from Aldi. Not exactly cool - it's the Tevion 'sports' version with a rubberised case and a free mini-compass! - but I kinda love it for carrying 199 great songs in such a tiny package.

Anyway, as a big fan of film and television, AV products have a big pull too. DVDs were a big step forward for me - I'd known for a long time how unsatisfactory VHS was. They were so big and clunky and the picture quality was awful. The sheer clarity of film on DVD was a revelation - and still is.

For a few years, flat and wide CRT screens were the must-have feature for the Great British living room. But on visiting friends and family with these massive tellies, I started to notice how poor the picture quality was. I don't know why, but they were certainly less clear than my old 4:3 ratio Matsui CRT TV at home. When flat screen plasma and LCD screens started to emerge onto the market, I, like everyone else thought they were a great leap forward. Until I saw one in a shop. Again, the picture quality was rubbish.

My workplace bought a massive plasma screen a few years ago. God knows how much it cost but it looked 'the business' in the board room. It was great for PowerPoint presentations etc but then the World Cup happened in 2006. Trying to watch live action football on that thing was a nightmare. Extreme pixelation, blurred lines, massive shadows on the players - it was like watching the whole thing as a lo-res, badly compressed jpeg.

Now that these screens are all 'HD Ready', I thought I would finally see the beautiful clarity of the good old CRT. Nope. There's a marked improvement but even HD TV on the latest 1080i/p HD screens suffer from pixelation and mpeggy/jpeggy style artefacts. I dunno maybe I'm missing a trick somewhere because I seem to the only person to see it. Like lots of people, I remember twisting and turning the little circular wire aerial on a B&W portable to get a decent reception. I'm gonna wait a while before I pay the several hundred pounds required for an ultra-stylish backward steps.

I know I'm the only person who actually reads this blog, but if by some bizarre accident you are reading this and have noticed the same thing, please let me know. Or even better, if anyone can explain why picture quality on modern screens is so bad, please speak up!

UPDATE: I have since written a follow up to this blog. Read it here...

Friday, 7 December 2007

What Location, Location, Location really means

Imagine a TV programme about football. It’s full of people who talk about football and millions of people watch it because they’re interested in football. But it’s called Play, Play, Play and no-one ever mentions the word “football.”

Without knowing for sure (a consistent thread in my blogs) I think the term “Location, location, location” is the answer to, “What are the three most important things to remember when buying a house?” It became a cliché, and then a very successful TV programme on Channel 4.

It isn’t the format of the programme that bothers me, though I’m not a fan. It’s the fact that this phrase and the TV programme are a perpetuation of a hidden code.

When looking for somewhere to live, location isn’t actually that important. It’s been a long time since we lived according to proximity to water, food or the quality of the soil. A small number of people are lucky enough to choose somewhere according to the view or the scenery but most of us live and move within urban or sub-urban areas – and these areas are much the same, wherever they are.

The most important thing for most of us when choosing where to live is an area’s social status. And when we talk about social status we’re talking about the neighbours – people.

Location, Location, Location's recent list (October 2007) of the best and worse places to live in the UK was based on statistics. They included average rainfall or hours of sunlight but it was mainly crime, unemployment and health statistics, number of people claiming benefits and average local income. These are not assessments of an area. They’re assessments of the people living there.

It seems odd that we know exactly what we’re actually talking about, yet no-one mentions it by name. Let’s be honest. We’re talking about whether somewhere can be called home due to class, education, ethnicity, income and aspirations. We all do it, so why are we so afraid to call a spade a spade?

It's an example of how confused we all are about class and social status. It's also an example of how ideas of who is better than who prevail, and how taboo the subject of class has become. No matter how often mainstream political parties talk about classless societies, in truth, it's the last thing they want. We live in a very competitive world and status anxiety (to borrow Alain de Botton's phrase) is one of the ways we are encouraged to keep trying, buying and consuming.

The point of our economic and social system is to keep people unsatisfied. Inequality is vital, as is the feeling that we are being watched, judged and ultimately not quite good enough. If you have a mobile phone that works and fits in your pocket, why would you want to 'upgrade'? If you have enough clothes, why would you buy more? If you live in a city, why would you drive a Land Rover Discovery? If your child is learning to walk, why would you give them Nike trainers? And why don't see joggers anymore without an effing iPod strapped to their arm?? It's a code and a language and we're all fluent speakers.

I'd like us to be aware that we are making judgements according to class and status. Next time you meet someone new at a party, a meeting or anywhere else, ask yourself what you've learnt. In seconds, you'll have formed a first impression of where they are from, their economic background, their level of education and ultimately where they are on the social ladder. The other person has done the same to you - and we all want to make a good first impression.

It's exactly the same process when you're looking for somewhere to live. And these are the great un-mentionables behind Location, Location, Location. Not Phil's speech impediment or Kirstie's weight problem, but the status codes required to find the right place to live in a country and system riddled with status anxiety. Maybe Status, Status, Status would be a better title?

Monday, 12 November 2007

Quango chutney

Apologies for the title. It kinda describes what I want to blog about but it's a little tenuous. Anyway, does anybody remember the issue of quangos? It was a buzz word and political issue during the last, say, five years of the Tory government. Quangos are a Tory legacy and they have continued to flourish under (New) Labour.

In my muddled opinion, the Tories did everything they could do to break-up, fragment, fracture, dilute and destroy opposition. After strikes and political strife in the 1970s, reducing the power of trades unions was a Tory objective - and one with a certain amount of public support.

The miners' strike of 1984 is a good example of this clash of ideas. The miners were defeated and the end of one of the UK's last great traditional industries (far from its heyday) was guaranteed. It was part of a huge shift in British society.

Unlike the miners' strike, quangos have never resulted in pitched battles between workers and riot police - but their influence, alongside privatisation, is just as significant.

Throughout their 18 years in power, the Tories met considerable residence to their ideas and objectives from local government - ie. city and town councils. Big cities often remained Labour strongholds even when the Tories enjoyed good majorities in parliament - a form of proportional representation, in a way. Councils spend a good chunk of public money - and money is power.

To bypass this unwanted political influence on the running of schools, transport, libraries, public services and other aspects of everyday life, the Tories turned to the Quasi Autonomous Non Governmental Organisation - the quango. These 'agencies' popped up everywhere and were given the job of spending public money.

Inward investment agencies, development agencies, independent schools, highways agencies, hospital trusts etc etc. It was a highly effective way of reducing the unwanted influence of democratically elected councils.

Though far from perfect, councils are accountable to the electorate and subject to all kinds of checks and balances. They (are supposed to) follow strict guidelines on staff treatment and recruitment. They are also committed to union representation for their staff, set targets for things like equal opportunities and usually offer progressive employment terms and conditions. As small autonomous companies, quangos are able to side-step many of these things.

I was talking a while ago to someone who had recently returned to work after maternity leave. A colleague (whose children are now grown up) compared his/her own experience of returning to work at a local authority. To paraphrase:

"They were different times back then. We had flexi-time, plenty of annual leave, creche facilities and things just seemed easier."

You don't expect to hear that things were easier fifteen or twenty years ago. Without knowing for sure, I would guess that quangos have been a backward step for the rights of the employee. On this, I can speak personally. When my local authority job was ‘seconded’ to a quango, I lost flexi-time, two days annual leave a year (and the prospect of this increasing), overtime rates, an agreed and transparent salary scheme and a handful of other, small benefits.

Looking at things another way, quangos have de-politicised public spending and removed a layer of bureaucracy. That’s definitely a good thing. But a closer look at the workings of any British city will reveal a long list of quangos. Each has their own board of directors or governors and each with their own chief executive or managing director.

All quangos have to report to a board made up of business men and women, prominent locals, councillors, representatives of religious groups and any other interested parties and individuals. Yet none of these people need to be accountable to the public or face any democratic process to be there. So who guards the guardians?

This new layer of unelected bureaucracy has given rise to a whole generation of relatively unregulated directors and executives. It has also, I believe, provided a haven of nepotism, cronyism and corruption.

Ten years after the Tories, no-one really talks about quangos anymore. Labour use them to their advantage too. No democracy can really claim to be democratic for as long as there is (to borrow a phrase from Billy Bragg) power without accountability. And as millions, most probably billions, of pounds of public money is being spent by quangos every year, that’s an awful lot of power.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Anthony Wilson 1950-2007

Anthony Wilson died the other day. I was surprised how sad I felt about it.

I've never been a big fan. He seemed to have a certain vanity and his reputation as a godfather of Manchester music was a little irritating. I remember going to the Hacienda (never a big fan of that place either) and seeing a huge black and white portrait of Wilson hanging in the entrance/box office area. It struck me as an incredibly vainglorious thing to do. There's also the fact that the very best Manchester bands had nothing to do with Wilson or Factory records (The Smiths, The Stone Roses, The Chameleons).

Having said all this, if there was a voice of Manchester music, it was Anthony Wilson. There isn't really any competition. He was enormously influential and made a massive contribution to Manchester music. He achieved so much more than I ever have/will and he certainly made his mark on the world.

Moreover, after Joy Division/New Order and The Happy Mondays, Wilson was still working to 'score a hat-trick' (his own words) by discovering a third original band and making them successful. To do this he looked to the young, black music scene in Manchester's notorious Moss Side area - and not many other prominent music industry types have done that. I also know that up until just a few months ago, he was still actively promoting Manchester music internationally. I think he'll be sorely missed.

Wilson's death has another significance. There hasn't been a really good or original, new band from Manchester for about 15 years. Oasis simply don't count, Badly Drawn Boy is a solo artist and (as good as they are) Doves, Elbow and I am Klute are all of my generation. After the recent renaissance of bands (Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, Arctic Monkeys, Maximo Park, Arctic Fire etc etc) a good Manchester contribution was conspicuously absent.

So where are the new Manchester bands? I have a theory, although I don't know how convincing it is:

Renaissance Manchester
While Manchester was known as a grey, bleak, post-industrial wasteland, bands had something to counter. Creativity can often flow from the unlikeliest sources. The Smiths for example made greyness and misery an art form. The Stone Roses made the most jubilant and celebratory music at the time of Tories and Recession. Since Manchester's 'renaissance', the scallies of north and east Manchester, Wythenshawe and Salford aren't really welcome in Manchester's trendy bars and clubs. For all kinds of reasons, I think there is a degree of separation between these Manchester people and the city centre's latest inhabitants. Is it a coincidence that the 15 years of Manchester's renaissance are the same 15 years of very few successful Manchester bands?

It's a thought. But I hope that Anthony Wilson's death isn't indicative of a wider decline in Manchester music. I suppose it only takes one new idea to spark something original and creative - maybe a new Manchester music movement is just around the corner.

And maybe the new Anthony Wilson is just round the corner too - but I think he was a one off. I didn't expect to feel like this but I'm sad he's gone.

Monday, 2 July 2007

The unbearable falseness of work

I was talking to an ex-colleague some time ago. Before s/he left my place of work, s/he was a head of department and did a good job. I talked to them after a month or so in their new post and asked how it was going. I'm paraphrasing, but the candid answer went something like...

"I'm responsible for huge budgets and people keep asking me things. They come into my office and ask me to make decisions. I make a decision but I don't really know what I’m doing. I feel like a fraud."

First of all, I have no doubt that this person is very capable in their new job. But his/her comments are indicative of a state of mind I have stumbled upon before.

People go to work, do their jobs and look forward to going home. A lucky minority enjoy what they do, but let's face it, work is a necessity. We all fear repossession, the sack and destitution but the only thing we have of genuine value is time. Without time, we have nothing. And of this, work takes the lion's share.

So does work give us a sense of fulfilment and purpose for giving our time so willingly? Usually not. Even friends who enjoy their jobs confess to a sense of falseness (my word, not theirs). It's more than just a problem of identifying with the job they're paid to do. It's a sense of ‘playing at’ being a Head of Department, Marketing Executive, Graphic Designer or whatever the ‘grown up’ role may be.

Have you ever been in a meeting and felt the need to speak, even if you have nothing to say? If you've ever had this feeling, be assured that others do too. Next time you're in a meeting, assess how much talk is substance and how much is hot air. Most meeting room contributions come from the feeling of, "I'm in a meeting, I need to say something." Some people are just better at filling the space than others. Presentations are another example - I know what it's like to blag a presentation and I've witnessed my 'superiors' employ exactly the same techniques.

Amongst these best efforts to do the job is the niggling fear that it's all a bit of a blag.

This 'playing at' state of mind affects all levels. Your line manager, your boss, your chief executive have all felt the same. And it goes right to the top. I'm sure George W. Bush had to pinch himself when staff called him Mr. President for the very first time.

"So, let me get this straight. Air Force One is an airplane?"
"Yes, Mr. President."
"And that's my airplane?
"All yours, Mr. President."
"Okay. Sounds good…now, call me Mr. President again."
"Yes...Mr. President."

I think one of the reasons for this falseness is that we all have to adopt personalities to get a job in the first place. A job application is an exercise in sheer falseness. We answer cliché with cliché and over-egg our achievements if necessary. It doesn't mean that you don't care or that you aren't right for the job. It's just a skin we wear for the situation - and the interviewers jumped through the same hoops when they were interviewed. We all know it’s a game.

I'm sure this falseness of the professional world plagues millions. I'm subject to it too but wouldn't it be liberating to rid ourselves of it?

Monday, 25 June 2007


Over the last week or so, I've felt a little under the weather. No big deal, just a bit throaty, sniffly and snotty. But interestingly, it has highlighted (or maybe highlit?) the very contemporary concept of man-flu.

For those of you who don't know...
Man-flu is the same as any other kind of flu - or more accurately, the same as any other kind of cold. The concept of man-flu comes from the belief (usually held by women) that men make a big deal out of a simple cold. In other words, if a man and woman catch the same cold, the woman will battle on and the man will make a fuss.

From a very quick Google search, there doesn't appear to be any evidence that men are hypochondriacs. In fact, I found some evidence to suggest the opposite - but I'm sure there are contextual explanations for these results. The main point is the readiness to see issues, people or differences along gender political lines. There are differences between the genders - this is good. The sad part is the need to invent negative attributes - and maybe this is something we all share.

Like everyone else, if I dig deep enough in my own opinions, there will be negative stereotypes. These may be based on age, weight, gender, class, race, religion, nationality, sexuality or disability (to name just a few). These stereotypes can be learnt and/or implanted at any age. The hard thing is to root them out and the important thing is to challenge them.

I really don't want to misrepresent people and I wouldn't want to be misrepresented by others. For me, it's one of the most important parts of the Social Contract. Some misrepresentations are easier to spot than others but the whole man-flu thing is a bit of a no-brainer.

So next time you hear someone complaining about their cold symptoms, they may well be whinging. But does it need to be a gender issue?

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Me and the Money God

A couple of weeks ago, I agreed to an offer from my bank to settle my claim for unfair bank charges. Shortly after, £558 turned up in my current account. As world finances go, this isn't a big deal but it was a tiny triumph for the little man (that's me).

While waiting for the money, thoughts turned to what I should do with it. I haven't had savings since I was a teenager so it was nice to have a small fund to consider. It seemed good sense to save around £300/350, buy a nice present for my girlfriend and spend the rest on a few treats.

A few days before the money was paid into my account, my beloved digital camera got a soaking. I was cycling in Scotland and the rain put a decisive end to the LCD display - and these days, cameras aren't much use without that. Also, a few days ago, my shower stopped working.

I'm a firm believer in 'make do and mend' but there is little chance of fixing the problems above without professional help. Alongside the £150 or so to replace the camera, and the unknown amount it will cost to fix the shower, around half of my bank settlement is already spoken for.

The idea of the Money God is taken from George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Its central character, Gordon Comstock, battles the Money God heroically and pointlessly but the idea resonated with me and I have viewed money in these relationship terms ever since.

The Money God and I will never be friends. He doesn't like me and I don't like him. I avoid contact with him and pay little attention to his needs. He gives very little in return and to be fair, I don't think I ask for much. However, my relationship with the Money God is massively imbalanced. So every now and again, he likes to throw little power trip reminders from his seat in the cash clouds.

He knows when I'm getting a little windfall (he knows everything) and decides to invent a few unforeseen expenses. The irritating thing is, as I get older I try harder and harder to play by his rules - amongst other things I got rid of my credit card and I don't go over-overdrawn anymore. I'd even decided to put most of my settlement money into savings. Yet he still seems angry.

So tomorrow morning, I'll phone a plumber and ask him to take a look at the shower. I'll put together with my girlfriend and buy a new camera and I'll still buy her a present. That will bring my little spree to an end and it will be like I never had the money in the first place. The Money God giveth and the Money God taketh away.

Update: I managed to avoid professional help and fixed the shower myself. It was my first attempt at plumbing and I'm delighted to say it was successful. More importantly it saved me a tidy sum on call out and labour charges.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Self improvement? Hmmmph.

Well, here's my first blog. I've decided to try one and see if it becomes something I want to do regularly. I tend to go on with myself to my girlfriend and colleagues so I thought I should have the courage of my lack of conviction and try a blog. It may be that a blog is just the thing I've been waiting for, but it also crossed my mind that maybe I was exactly the person blogs were waiting for.

So, world of blogs and bloggers, your search is over. I am ready to speak to you.

The truth is, I'm messing about on the computer (writing this) when I should be doing some German homework. Before anyone gets the wrong impression, I am in my 30s and the German course is totally my idea. It's a very good course - well-taught and filled with enthusiastic students. I also thoroughly appreciate what it has taught me so far. However, it is in the evening (after a day at work) and it lasts 3 hours and 15 minutes. There hasn't been a week go by that hasn't felt like a drag to turn up at the class room.

I want to learn another language, I usually enjoy it while I'm there and I'd never learn so much through self-study. I've even provisionally agreed to do the next level when I've finished this one and I really don't want to moan about it. It's a great course and I love learning about stuff, so why does it feel like a pain to get the books out?

If you have reached this far, feel good that you share the same thought as the author and his thousands of followers (actual figures not available). Let's hope things get a little better from here.

Guten Abend.