Archive for November, 2005

Open Rights Shites

Wednesday, November 30th, 2005

This evening, Coxall, Levine and I attended an open meeting of the Open Rights Group, a new UK organisation set in the mould of the EFF. I wasn’t expecting the earth to move for me: we’ve attended too many of these little geek/numeeja run yack-shacks to hope for anything particularly productive to emerge. This evening did its least to confound me.

It was held in a basement in Soho named Zero-One. I say basement, but, naturally, one is encouraged to term it a “creative space”. Said “creative space” was filled with geeks and numeedjas, as well as a scattering of lawyer-types and Earnest Young Men. Overwhelmingly men, of course, the few women who were there either freaks, sociologists or serving the free cheese and wine. Hey – don’t shoot the messenger. A few chairs encircled the basement, but the main floor was bare, to encourage crouching and cross-legged encampment. Oh dear. This was all going to be “inclusive and discursive”, wasn’t it?

Oh dear, indeed: the manageress of the “creative space” started proceedings. Her introduction was little more than an ad for her basement. She then brought on an ex hack, who spouted some trivial nonsense or other, and was excited by the prospect of setting up ever more “wikis” and “blogs”. She, in turn, brought on a jargon-clappy professional “meeting facilitator/consultant”. This was going to be “fun”.

The evening was to commence with a little talk from some Oxford chap or other, followed by a free-fall clustered discussion, in which each cluster was to be provided with its own sticky wall-covering on which to paste their mindstormingly written postcards.

The Oxford nonentity informed us that the Internet was somewhat marvellous, and, gosh, lots of interesting things might become of it soon, what ho, and it’s not just paedophilia and terrorists. The poor fellow seemed trapped in 1994.

The Management Consultant Facilitator then spouted some jargon, and asked the floor for ideas for the discussion clusters. The Earnest Young Men pontificated their banalities. The geeks obsessed about some yawnful minutia. And Coxall suggested we discuss how to win over the “unhosed stupid masses”. Yes, that is the phrase he used and, yes, the reaction from this righton bunch of whitebread nonces was predictable. “Maybe if you stopped patronising them like that…” was the immediate response from one of the Earnest Young Men on the floor.

Thence began the multiple clustering. Levine, Coxall and I have attended so many of these nascent talking shops now that we decided to skip with the usual niceties and begin some good old Trotskyite agitation. We argued that trying to interest people in the potential problems of overreaching anti-privacy legislation, or draconian Intellectual Property laws and the restrictive technologies therefor, was a lost cause. The “unhosed masses” wouldn’t care about these philosophical crampings until they felt the constrictive banding themselves, in their every day lives. We argued for the inculcation of popular anger: to that end, a little DRM here, a little copyright overextension there wasn’t enough. We decided that, rather than allow creative society to die the death by a thousand cuts that is its inevitable fate in a world dominated by multi-billion dollar “content” oligarchies, we should use these monoliths’ huge power and budgets to subvert themselves from within, to the point where their overreaching hubris could lead to genuine polltax-riot intensity anger, and Berlin-wall-sized dismantlement.

Rather than fiddle with legislation to make it slightly less bad, then, or to try to temper corporate excesses with the few thrown crumbs of compromise, a smartly utilitarian organisation would instead encourage the corporate hubris to its reductio ad absurdem extreme, to catalyse rather than inhibit the inevitable Hegelian dialectic’s unfolding.

By analogy, imagine one is piloting an aircraft. One has insufficient fuel to reach an airport. In such a circumstance, it is better immediately to make a controlled crash-landing in a field, than to wait until the plane runs dry and spirals out of control. Similarly, organisations like the Open Rights Group need to realise that, with what will always be considered esoteric domains of discourse, no matter the theoretical “education” one can provide, they have only Hobson’s Choice in how to inculcate change. They need to make this choice wisely, and not to act as unwitting handmaidens to the oligarchies, moderating their ludicrous and unhinged excesses, but rather to encourage the oligarchies to their doom. Only then might a freely creative culture take its first deep breaths of pure air. Until then, it’s a war of attrition no grassroots organisation with romantic aims and – ooh – 5,000 quid a month to spend, can achieve. Idealism against all the money and power in the world? Don’t believe the sentimental penny-dreadful. In real life, the winner is generally preordained.

To this end, we pontificated loudly, and wrote lots of postcards with catchy phrases, like “Throw Pirate Kids in Jail Today” and “Encourage a Media Exec’s Dream, and Let it Become His Nightmare” and “You Prevent Future Forest Fires by Encouraging Present Ones”. I particularly enjoyed the comparison with the Temperance movement in the early 20th century United States:
“What destroyed the Temperance Movement?”, I asked.
“The reasoned debates, pamphlets and lobbying against it, or its achievement of Prohibition, which ludicrous overreaching achieved what decades of petty lobbying could not”? We need to encourage the development of the equivalent of Prohibition in the digital realm. We need to encourage Them to overplay their hand. They must be sung by we sweet sirens finally into the newly exposed rocks of public opinion.

Of course, the Earnest Young Men found this all far too “cynical”. They called the inculcation of anger “negative” and generally became flustered. The British don’t like anti-consensual opinion, and make it known. Levine was trying to argue with a Britwasp, who suddenly stood up, with his Britwasp smirk, flapped his hands about dismissedly and said “I’m Leaving”. He flounced off. An odd effect for Mr Levine, who was blooded by this, as shall become apparent.

Some people were genuinely tickled by our ideas, we Bolsheviks to the rest of the lilly livered Mensheviks in the other clusters, with their spider diagrams and their invocations to “Reach Out to Our MEPs”. Some people were angered. Some wanted to argue against them, but couldn’t find logically cohesive counter arguments beyond fey idealism. “Oh, we just need to educate The General Public”.
“Really”, retorted Coxall, “So we just say ‘Ooh, Mr Public – did you know that copyright might be extended to 90 years’. ‘Gosh, no. Thank you for telling me. Now I’m off to watch East Enders”. The only education is a practical education, a sharp realisation of what their Content Providers’ hegemony means when given utterly free reign. Not “might mean”, note well, but “means”. The public are not good with the subjunctive mood, after all. They need to be given a real and present catastrophe on a plate before they react.

I was pleased to see that one early waverer concluded by writing “Do not amaeliorate bad legislation” on a card, and stuck it up on our wall. He was beginning to get the point. As good Trots, it was not our job to be pooper-scooper to the Corporate behemoths, tempering and tidying their excessive crap, their Ideological Manifestations, if you will, so that they remain just beyond the nose of general public ire.

The public meeting ended, our board full of sardony. Gedankenexperiment? Genuinely useful methodology? Epater le bourgeois? Pisstake? Some and all of the above, probably. But a hell of a lot more interesting than the anodyne pap drafted by the rubbishers in the rest of the room.

There was a quick reconvening to discuss our gestalt meanderings in plenary session. The Earnest Young Men went on again about their blessed MEPs. Some numeeja urged the importance of Edutaining the Public. Edutaining. If this is what the grassroots has come to, please pass the herbicide.

Levine, oddly Bolshy, asked the lady in charge of proceedings what she was actually going to do. She talked excitedly about already getting some press in the Guardian, The Register and ZDNET. Levine probed her further, asking what she was going to do after sending press released thereto. “Send more”. Levine wouldn’t let it lie. “And once you’re finished preaching to the converted?” General hubbub. An Earnest Young Man tried to defend the fair maiden. Levine tried to retort, saying he’d seen this empty posturing so many times before, but the Meeting Facilitator Jargon Man stopped him in his tracks, rebuking him forcefully:
“We’ve heard enough from you. You interrupted Adam there. You’ve had more than enough to say”. Even the audience, who had been Britishly riled by Levine’s daring to piss in Tony’s Big Tent, were somewhat aghast by the vehemency of the putdown. The Meeting Facilitator Jargon Man then ensured that the evening concluded on a tawdry, Partridgesque note by suggesting that, although he’d seen fit to give his “services” for free this evening, perhaps some might consider hiring for their next such event.

So there we have it. Another hot air balloon sets forth for its brief and useless journey. We emerged feeling depressed at how people seem unable in the current milleu to cope with genuinely robust, left-field debate, preferring rather to ensconce themselves in downy administrivia and shallow consensual sweet nothings.

We departed feeling arrogantly intelligent but deflated, a feeling that we’re enduring ever more often after such events. Big-headedness on our part, certainly, but it seems that the educated idiots who attend these things plough their lobotomised troughs with depressing predictability.

Plumbium absurdis

Tuesday, November 29th, 2005

Victoria’s father’s instructions loudspeakered from Leeds on his daughter’s mobile phone allowed us to effect a repair on a recalcitrant radiator which would otherwise have facilitated a hefty callout fee. Hmm. I quite like that sentence. Usually, I agree with Lord Denning’s advice to separate most clauses into their respective sentence; but once in a while, it’s enjoyable to let rip on a full string, juicy for parsing in some translation exercise. “Die Aufgaben des Vaters Victorias ..”

Anyway, the retrospective saving justified my purchasing a Sony LCD “high-def” telly today. And very nice it is too. Lifting the old broken CRT leviathan off its stand led to a heart-skipping moment where I thought that either my foot or the cat would be pancaked, but all ended well. So, working television and working radiator. Sadly, though, not all matters of plumbing can be rectified with paternal invocations, and an engineer had been arranged to attend our moribund water pump. The device has lain seemingly uselessly beneath our bath since we moved in, and has refused to engush our water pressure beyond the old-fart-with-enlarged-prostate trickle we and our guests have endured. The engineer would, apparently, replace whatever PCBs required replacing, fix whatever valves needed fixing, tut about the cowboys who had previously plumbed in the device, and generally earn his callout fee.

I worked from home to facilitate his arrival, and a genial fellow of middle age appearance and demeanour appeared in the early afternoon. A quick tour of the house’s plumbing, questions about stopcocks, and, yes, genuine tutting about the “cowboys” who had plumbed our pump under the far corner of the bath, making it quite inaccessible without ripping off the tub’s fascia. It looked like a crow bar would have to be readied. Before any wanton destruction, though, the gentleman asked whether I knew of any odd switches, sockets or cables in the bedrooms or landing. He kept asking, and, truth be told, I was becoming annoyed with the repetition:
“No, we don’t. I know our bedrooms well, having sought the various power sockets and so on to plug in computer equipment, clock radios and so on. There’s nothing unaccounted for.”
“Are you sure? Do you mind if I take a look?”
Oh, for goodness sake! Still, humour the simpleton, get this stupid quest over with so he can actually begin working on the bloody broken pump:
“Ok, be my guest. You are wasting your time, though, I promise you”.
He immediately found a cable that emerged from the floor of the 2nd bedroom. A cable with a plug at its end. A cable I suddenly remembered discounting some months ago, its having no causal or effective interest to me. I think I have the memory of unplugging it soon after arriving in the house.
He plugged it back in. He turned on the tap. Niagra Falls. He was sheepish, but soon overcame this with the brandishing of the invoice:
“To be honest, I prefer it when there’s a fault, so I can earn my callout fee”.
“Credit card ok?”
“Yes – that’ll be 75 quid, thanks”.
It annoyed me to pay it, of course, but it felt right that my confounded arrogance was suitably fined.

So, working radiator, a nice new telly, and restored water pressure. Bliss. As consummate a way to end a domestically productive day as any. Time to enjoy the new telly. What a pity that the final ever episode of Carnivale sputtered out with so many loose ends. Still, that’s what happens when you get your series cancelled with 6 more seasons of plot left. The final episode, set in the 30s dust-bowl as ever, made me feel encrusted with grime. Agreeable, then, that my bath took just two minutes to fill rather than the heretofore customary 20.

Broken Quotient

Monday, November 28th, 2005

A day in which karma enjoyed a merry repast. I awoke in relatively good spirits, which is somewhat surprising: I had engaged in a dishonourable skirmish last night with my pillow. It was one of the continuing internecine battles in the war betwixt my head and the wretched pillow’s treacherous lack of comfortable support. It mocks me, this foam buttress. It taunts me, reminding me that my attempts at defection to one of its fellows always ends in a sullen return to the default, but still inadequate, downy disappointment. It seems that I cannot find a pillow which does not soon induce bellicose punchings, rotations and eventual ejections these days. Perhaps it’s a part of ageing. Maybe grey ear-hair will emerge next, and a predilection for butterscotch. Perhaps I should try one of those Nasa-spaceage-memory-pillows-for-the-year-2000.

Even so, a productive day, including throwing half a room into the council tip, and attending the Finchley Lido’s gym, whose chlorine fumes make exercising there tantamount to enduring a mustard-gas attack. So, homeward, a bit of telly slumping was called for. I mean, what with the manual labour and the gym, it was warranted. Sunday afternoon. Egg. Toast. Tea. Recorded plebtickler. Prostate-cancer-threat-reducing pomegranate. Nowt better. So I turned on the telly. And the sound seemed a bit muffled. Never mind. I turned it off and back on again. Upon hissing back to life, it revealed a stroboscopic image, scrolling, distorting, twisting and generally refusing to depict the stable figurative reality so desirous of one’s average screenful. Fiddling with cables helped not. Neither did kicking the thing. Or punching it. The cat tried to bat the coruscating image, but to no avail. The set is officially broken. This annoys me, as I was just congratulating myself the other day that my telly was better than Neil Levine’s, whose set is a flickering disgrace, its 60hz of epilepsy-inducing shame at odds with any vestige of geekhood the man professes. Only parents and district nurses would put up with a small 60hz set, surely? Ah well, evidently, some deity in charge of internal competitive gadget hubris decided to fiddle with my fate.

Still, with every broken telly, there beats in the heart of any true geek the happy realisation that repair is, thankfully, too costly to consider. Three cheers for the throwaway society, in which that hit of the purest crack Neophylia is never more than one blown capacitor away. As far as I can tell, I should get an LCD HDTV-ready set. Should last a year or two before it breaks in some gratifyingly necessary way, so I might then purchase the next one which, by then, will have lasers and talk like Kitt the Car.

With today’s bit of household entropy, then, the forces of order in the Manichaean duality ensconcing any Burnt Oak terrace required some balancing. And, lo, it was so. With loudspeakered instructions from Victoria’s dad in Leeds, spanners and an unhelpful feline, we were able to repair a leaking and cold radiator in our bedroom whose repair otherwise would have necessitated a plumber with his concomitant callout fee. So, one bit of household technology broken, another unexpectedly repaired. And the plumbing money saved might just help me to stretch to one of those new Sony tellies advertised with the coloured bouncing balls. The advert, apparently, was created with real rubber, and not CGI thereof. They really did release a dump-truck full of bouncy balls atop a San Francisco hill and filmed the ensuing Brownian-like cascade. Hooray.