Monday, January 31, 2011

"Detox"

Recently I have been thinking about “detox”.

In the first weeks of every year the media features articles on “detox”, a pseudo-scientific theory that maintains the human body requires cleansing to remove toxins. Formerly the concern of a small audience of slightly cranky alternative health enthusiasts, the concept of “detox” has become an increasingly mainstream social construct, widely accepted, discussed and written about. Over the last forty years “detox” has gone from redundant philosophical idea to alternative therapy to conventional set of treatments supported by a large and sophisticated range of products (some of them very expensive).

The way this has happened is extremely interesting as it demonstrates how a whole industry can be created on nothing more substantial than a half-remembered ancient belief (I ought to stress, however, that I am in no position to judge whether “detox” is valid or not, I am only interested in the marketing aspect).



Above: modern detox emphasizes raw unrefined food such as vegetable juices, and fiber such as low GI oatmeal biscuits.

The search for “purification” goes back to the origins of mankind, and seems to be essentially a religious idea (although perhaps linked to folk-memories of devastating plagues). The earliest texts are Egyptian and Greek, but the practice is far older than the written record. The Jewish ritual prohibitions on eating “unclean” food such as pork or shellfish are probably the best known of these taboos.



Above: Vogel are a modern example of the nineteenth century scrutiny of old theories and their development and refinement into products available to a generally small audience of enthusiasts. As well as a range of detox products, Vogel also produce bread (which you can buy in Sainsburys). High price, limited availability, devoted following.

As food production became industrialized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries various groups became concerned about “contamination” from additives and processes. Theories circulated that these additives would accumulate in the human body causing toxic reactions (in some cases this was true, leading to food protection legislation). From this thesis grew the modern idea that industrialized humanity needs regular “detox” to cleanse these toxins from the system.



Above: I was interested in this cover of Men’s Health as it shows a reference to “detox” (upper right corner). They would not put the word on their cover unless they expected it to make the magazine sell. This is also the first example I have seen where “detox” is being marketed to men (formerly it was associated with women’s health and beauty).

Now “detox” is ubiquitous throughout Western society. The scepticism of the medical profession has not been able to prevail against celebrity endorsement. The detox market in the United Kingdom is estimated to be worth almost £100 million.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Down through the generations

Village in the south west of the county. Several Saxon items have been found in the locality, including a very fine weight which is now in the county museum. The name of the village means settlement surrounded by willow trees.

The weather was wet and cold. The afternoon was gloomy (with two bursts of sun, each lasting a few seconds). The church was difficult to get into, and after ringing the keyholder on my mobile 'phone I waited around about twenty minutes until the elderly lady appeared.



Above: while I waited I looked at the exterior of the medieval building, which incorporated many of these little heads in the stonework.



Above: each of the little heads was different, so that I wondered whether they were crude portraits of real people. Had the mason who built the church in the 1380s (on the site of the Norman church, which in turn replaced a Saxon building) incorporated a gallery of village worthies? Or were these just random carvings, the work of a local sculptor ignorant of architectural conventions regarding capitals?



Above: the largest of the medieval heads was over the south arch leading into the building. It shows a bearded man, the features clearly distinguishable, the gaze enigmatic. Was this a prominent servant of the church back in the 1380s?



Above: during the tour of the building the elderly lady showed me this framed photograph, which showed Edwardian parish notables (organist, Sunday School teacher, a prominent farmer) her mother had known as a child. I spent some time looking at the details in the old picture (you can click on the image to enlarge it). Something about the man in the top left seemed familiar.



Above: here you can see them side by side. The same almond eyes, the same even eyebrows, the same straight nose, firm mouth and beard (without a moustache). Fanciful imagination?

It is more than possible that a farming family will stay on the same land for six hundred and twenty years, passing down through the generations the genetic visage, and maintaining a tradition of service to the local parish church.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

I should have seen that coming - the past week at work

Monday

At one point in the night I woke feeling extremely hot. I had to get up and remove some of the blankets from the bed. Difficult to get back to sleep again, which meant I was tired when I finally got up.

At the office Meryl P (my deputy, and who I had displaced from the job I am now doing) had returned from holiday. She seemed more co-operative, even when I told her of some changes I had made to the department. She wanted to send some of the staff on an assertiveness course - I agreed, but said she could not go ("...you've already been on the Advanced course" I joked weakly).

Another meeting to discuss the directory we are producing. Nothing conclusive was decided. An uncouth designer came to discuss the layout (the NGO seems to appoint new ad agencies and design agencies whenever they have a new requirement, which means we have dozens of these people chasing us for work all the time).

At various points in the afternoon my boss, Tom D, called me in to discuss making Katie (in the Information team we manage) redundant. The process is not going smoothly, mainly because of Tom's incompetence and failure to follow procedure. I was shocked that he wanted to falsify ("backdate") some of the redundancy paperwork.

Towards the end of the working day Meryl, sat in the desk opposite, talked about raj yoga, which is a hobby of hers.

Tuesdays

Instead of going to the office this morning I went to a seminar at a hotel in a regional town. It was a "breakfast briefing" - we sat at tables and were served plates of fried food. Across the room I saw Preston from the NGO's Innovation department, but most of the people in the room were from the NGO's partners and were unknown to me. Tom D arrived late and sat at my table.

On the whole the event was a bore.

Then to the office where I delegated more work to Meryl and began writing a report for the next Senior Managers' Meeting.

Wednesday

Caron and Margaret from the Information team returned from the assertiveness course with no discernable difference. I had to tell them that Tom D had made their colleague Katie formerly redundant. They took the news very well, even though Katie was well-liked in the team.

For some reason I have been lumbered with Health & Safety for the NGO. I hate this work, which is tedious and unrelated to marketing. I had to spend most of the morning in a meeting with two H&S consultants who are long-winded and pompous.

I took marketing junior Leo into the meeting, mainly because I want to off-load Health & Safety onto him ("I want you to take ownership of it").

In the afternoon I was in the unusual position of having all my work under control. I chatted to Innovation manager Preston for about an hour, and it was disturbing to hear him say things that contradicted what Tom has told me, particularly about budgets. I am increasingly aware that Tom D is completely dishonest and untrustworthy.

Thursday

The day began with another of the marketing department meetings (including the Information team). Tom D waffled through the agenda, no-one saying anything. Afterwards there was a lot of unrest in the Information team, Meredith (thin, fifties, refined Geordie accent) leading the complaints about the way Katie has been treated - why didn't she say this at the meeting instead of coming to me afterwards?

In the afternoon I sat-in on an appraisal as Meryl evaluated Leo (who technically reports to her). It seemed a waste of my time, especially as I didn't really have any role. As is customary in the NGO, Leo was given a glowing appraisal, even though his work is often sub-standard.

A funny sort of 'phone call from Ryan M, who is Director of the Operations team. He asked me what was said at the marketing meeting this morning. He has a reputation for being sensitive to criticism (although Tom did not criticise him so far as I remember).

I had to stay late to meet another designer (another designer) that Tom has appointed to work on the directory project. The whole thing is becoming an imbroglio - over budget, derided by other departments, likely to offend civil servants in "the department" (to whom we sort of answer to). I disliked the designer within the first few minutes of meeting him (his work for CHI and Partners, his layouts for various IPC magazines, his attitude that he was doing us a favour by agreeing to work for us).

Friday

First thing this morning a meeting with Meryl and the feminist ad agency who are running the Women's Conference Meryl is working on. The project had been put on hold due to lack of funding, but Tom had lobbied our CEO Alec Pressberg and more money has been forthcoming. Meryl is very enthusiastic about this conference, which she sees as restoring her reputation in the NGO.

One of the stake-holders of the NGO is Baptist minister Caleb H. His correspondence tray is located in the marketing department, and this encourages him to hang around the place distracting people. As an experiment I had the tray removed, but when he came in this afternoon Caleb blew his top (making rather a fool of himself) and the tray had to be reinstated.

I suppose I should have seen that coming.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Dog's Trust

The Dogs Trust (formerly the National Canine Defence League) is one of the oldest and largest animal welfare charities in the United Kingdom (founded in 1891).



They are active in all sorts of areas – stopping cruelty to dogs, rescuing and re-homing dogs, prosecuting people who harm dogs, educating people about how to look after dogs, advising the government on dog issues, conducting research into dog behaviour etc.



About sixteen thousand dogs are cared for every year by the Dogs Trust. Most of these dogs are looked after in a network of seventeen Re-Homing Centres, supported entirely by voluntary donations. No healthy dog is ever put down.



England is known as "a nation of dog lovers" but the position of dogs is far from ideal. People who ill-treat dogs should be punished more severely; dog breeders need to be regulated more closely; and overseas countries need to be advised that the way dogs are treated around the world is an issue of British foreign policy concern. These are populist issues with wide public support, so it is surprising no main party has focused on dog welfare.



More: http://www.dogstrust.org.uk/



Homeless people with dogs

Above: you often see homeless people with dogs – I took this picture last year in the area in front of Euston station where homeless people often congregate.



One of the Dog's Trust projects is to give free veterinary care to dogs whose owners are homeless. They also advise hostels and day centres on admitting homeless people who have dogs. Every Christmas they help provide a dog-friendly shelter in London, and distribute parcels of Christmas food and treats for dogs owned by homeless people.



Thursday, January 27, 2011

Johann Hari in The Independent

I never thought I would write this, but there was an excellent article by Johann Hari in The Independent yesterday. Normally I don't bother with his column - his writing has a spiteful quality that undermines any more serious points he is making. But yesterday's "manifesto" on care for the elderly was important, cogent and full of intelligent ideas.

He is obviously writing from the heart.

You can read it on-line here: http://johannhari.com/2011/01/26/how-to-end-the-crisis-in-our-old-peoples-homes-and-make-sure-nobody-suffers-like-my-grandmother-again

I absolutely endorse all ten points in the article, and would like to see them adopted as government policy.

Ironically economic and demographic pressures may help to ensure elderly people are supported in their own homes by their own families. If first time buyers are unable to afford a house of their own many of them will be obliged to stay in the parental home until they ultimately inherit. This may not be ideal in every case, but it seems to be a reasonable generational trade-off - care for elderly relatives in return for a £450 weekly payment and ultimate ownership of the family property (perhaps with a presumption in law that children who look after their parents are entitled to inherit their property, whatever the Will may say).

As most couples have only two children this should be an economically elegant solution to the housing shortage and the issue of long-term care for the elderly.

It will not suit the current "lifestyle" preferences, but lifestyles are just a matter of marketing (and we know how malleable marketing can be).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The proposed Murdoch takeover of Sky

Above:  one of the news stories that appeared during the week between Christmas and New Year was a survey asking the public about the Sky takeover bid - because so many commentators were on holiday, and Newsnight was off the air, this survey did not get the attention it deserved.
 
Ofcom, the media regulator, wants to refer the proposed Murdoch takeover of Sky to the Competition Commission.  Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture Olympics Media and Sport wants to give News International "more time" to amend its takeover bid.  Jeremy Hunt must not interfere in the regulatory process in this way.
 
According to a survey carried out at the end of December 2010 sixty-three per cent want the Murdoch bid investigated, and only five per cent want the takeover to go ahead.
 
Concentration of media power in the hands of one individual is not acceptable.
 
No-one has explained why Rupert Murdoch wants all this political power (other than a vague "he's enthusiastic about news" line).  Why is this person subsidising and cross subsidising publications and news channels that make a loss?  It doesn't make sense.
 
A few weeks ago Kelvin Mackenzie was interviewed on Sky News about Rupert Murdoch and he said to the female newsreader: "He doesn't interfere in the news decisions you make, does he?"  He said this to her twice.  On both occasions she didn't answer.
 
An independent inquiry needs to be made into the influence Rupert Murdoch has in political decision making in the United Kingdom.  Why is this foreigner allowed so much influence (donating media column inches to politicians is surely as corrupt as donating cash in brown envelopes).  I am particularly interested in Murdoch's behaviour in the lead-up to the Iraq war. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Burns Night, celebrating the poet Robert Burns



Above: my sister married a McDonald, which means we are familiar with all the recognisable items of the Scottish diaspora (several generations removed its homeland) - a dried Scottish thistle, single malt whisky, haggis, the poetry of Burns, a tartan napkin (I have questioned whether it is a McDonald tartan), what looks like a dirk etc.

This evening is Burns Night, celebrating the poet Robert Burns.

According to today's Daily Telegraph more Burns Night celebrations are held in England than in Scotland (or anywhere else in the world), which makes it arguably an English cultural event as well as a Scottish one.

Burns' most famous poem:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lAi9A9s5lg&playnext=1&list=PLEA05651F9B270D73&index=40

Monday, January 24, 2011

Discussion about “food security”

On the Today programme there was a discussion about "food security" and how the world is unlikely to be able to feed the expected rise in population to 9 billion people by 2050.



The discussion seems to have been provoked by a Chatham House paper on sub-Saharan Africa:


http://www.chathamhouse.org.uk/files/18284_bp0111greenrevolution.pdf



The alarmist nature of the debate was punctured by Davinder Sharma who pointed out that enough food is CURRENTLY produced to feed 11 billion people, and therefore even if the world population doubles to 9 million we still have plenty of food – all we have to do is stop wasting so much of it.



Davinder Sharma also said that the debate was in fact a softening-up exercise to get the United Kingdom to accept genetically-modified crops. This also my view and I want the politicians (spineless, greedy, useless wretches that they are) to face down the lobby that is trying to impose GM crops under the pretext of "food security". GM crops will be a disaster for bio-diversity in England.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

More new faces should be brought forward

Such a major reorganisation of the Shadow Cabinet (earlier today), only three months after they were put in place, looks a bit lackadaisical.

Instead of the usual contenders (Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Douglas Alexander - all of whom led the Labour Party to failure in May 2010) perhaps more new faces should be brought forward, such as Chris Evans MP for Islywn (Fabian Society and the Co-operative Party).

And someone needs to tell the Labour Party that whatever the merits of their argument the performance they are putting on in the House of Lords is a PR disaster (it looks terrible on television, with decrepit old codgers droning on about any old rubbish that comes into their heads).

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Wolf Moon



It's a full moon today - the Wolf Moon. Driving home (this was about 6.30pm) I was so struck by the beauty of the moonlit landscape that I had to stop the car and look at it properly. In the above photo you can see the Wolf Moon shining down on the wayside manor-house and the cedar tree and the deep swift-flowing river.

The combination of silvers and blues was breathtaking.

It's a reminder that for all our post-agrarian post-industrial virtual-society sophistication, the phases of the moon still appear in the sky just as they appeared to our paleolithic ancestors.

(I know this is a kitsch song, sneered at by music critics, but I've always liked it) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tt8d3Shlfrg

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Actual rate of inflation in the United Kingdom is only 1.1%

I managed to see Andrew Neil's Daily Politics at lunchtime today.

One of the items was about the rise announced today in the inflation rate, which is now at 3.7% - prompting calls for a rise in interest rates.

However, during the programme it was revealed that if you remove recently increased taxes the actual rate of inflation in the United Kingdom is only 1.1%.

As inflation is caused by too much money circulating in the economy, and as the effect of tax rises is to REMOVE money from the economy, then surely there is no need for interest rate rises?

Or have I got that wrong?

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/inflation-rise-adds-to-pressure-for-rates-hike-2187310.html

Monday, January 17, 2011

Yesterday on Sky News

Interesting discussion yesterday on Sky News.
 
Dambisa Moyo (author of How the West was lost) and Will Hutton (Work Foundation) were discussing the rise of the new BRIC economies and the perceived relative decline of the West.  At one point Dambisa Moyo asserted that the educational system in western countries had failed compared to the emerging economies.  Will Hutton countered this by saying that the number of patents registered in the emerging nations was tiny - in China's case less than half of one per cent of the total patents registered in any one year.
 
Independently from this there is a debate about whether strict Asian educational methods (as illustrated by Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua) produce better results than the more relaxed educational styles experienced in the West.
 
I wonder whether the two issues are connected.  Strict processing of acquired knowledge may encourage technical expertise but stifle independent thought.  More relaxed teaching styles may fail to produce "workers" but encourage the creativity and innovation necessary for on-going economic success.
 
I am also not convinced that the emerging economies will manage to hang onto the new wealth they are generating.  All money gravitates to a safe haven, so until the BRIC countries develop stable free democracies governed by the rule of law there is going to be a strong tendency by wealthy individuals in those countries to put their money somewhere safe out of the reach of corrupt officials, arbitrary state confiscations, mafia lootings etc.  That means the money will go to New York, Tokyo and London.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Green Man



Above: article in the Guardian last week (and available on-line) revealed that a genetic variation could have been responsible for legendary stories about tribes of giants occurring in medieval literature. The example quoted referred to Ireland, but it made me wonder whether we can relate this research to the ubiquitous phenomenon of "the Green Man" which is found throughout the British Isles. The Green Man was supposedly a wild giant that lived in the woods and wastelands (also known as Jack-In-The-Green and the Woodwose).

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/jan/11/irish-giant-genetic-mutation-growth-disorder



Above: representations of the Green Man can be found everywhere, which is unusual for a legendary character. Given the intolerance in medieval society to disabilities (physical perfection was greatly prized, and any deviation from this was regarded as a curse) it is reasonable to assume that families showing a prevalence for the "giant gene" would have been driven out of society. Is it possible these people formed separate tribes living in the woods and forests that covered much of the country?



Above: most portrayals of the Green Man are found in churches, which has led some folklorists to assume that it is a covert survival of a pre-Christian vegetation cult. However, you can turn this argument around - as most medieval buildings that have survived are churches, they are the only places where you can still see medieval carvings of the Green Man - all the others have been destroyed. Thus there is no basis for saying the Green Man was an ancient religion.



Above: place name evidence often shows Green Man references close to ancient woodland. Notice the brown contour line running through the image which marks the edge of an elevation. To the right of this line is the basin of a vast prehistoric lake, perhaps thirty squares miles in area, which was formed by glacier movement at the end of the last Ice Age (resulting in fluvioglacial deposits of boulder clay, sands and gravels).



Above: Green Man pubs can occasionally be found. Story-telling was a popular entertainment in the pre-modern era, and pubs may have used their signs to advertise these performances (Jack and the Beanstalk etc). There was a famous Green Man pub in Mill Hill, but some idiot seems to have renamed it.



Above (screenprint): one of the most famous medieval green giant stories is the fourteenth-century Gawain and the Green Knight. This is the cover of the Penguin edition, which I first read when I was seventeen and have re-read ever since. It is an alliterative poem notable for its descriptive passages (particularly the countryside in winter).



Above (screenprint): when I did an image-search on Google it produced thousands of illustrations of Gawain and the Green Knight. You can even get these Gawain and the Green Knight t-shirts, made in America. It is an indication of the power of the myth that it has survived so long and is now spread throughout the world.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Smiling that false smile of his - the past week at work

Monday

In the morning I asked my boss Tom D how the Marketing Plan had gone down at the Executive Board Weekend.

"They were extremely pleased" he said, "and I mean extremely. Rosemary's exact words were: you've got it right at last." Rosemary is a non-executive director of the NGO (she had attended one of my interviews for the job).

Later he handed me a white envelope marked private and confidential. I felt apprehensive as I opened it, thinking it might be bad news. But it was a letter to CEO Alec Pressberg, praising my contribution to the Marketing Plan ("contribution" is not the right word, I had actually researched and written all of it, but I was so relieved that it had gone well it hardly mattered).

Then into a meeting with the all-women ad agency we use. They are organising a small conference for us, with lots of feminist angles to it. They were despondent at the way the event has had to be cut back due to budget reductions.

Later a meeting about the (controversial) directory we are publishing. This time the response at the meeting was much more positive. I felt progress was finally being made.

Tuesday

At the office there didn't seem a great deal to do. Now the Marketing Plan has been accepted there is a lull until implementation begins. As I sat half-idly at my desk I could hear Caron and Margaret in the Information team talking about gardening.

Without warning Preston, manager of the Innovation Department, asked me to interview a candidate for a vacancy in his department. He explained that the candidate was his son, and so he felt he couldn't do the interview himself. HR manager Yasmin S joined me in the interview.

The candidate's CV said: Winchester, Cambridge, OTC officer cadet, Peterhouse May Ball Committee, Peterhouse rugby and soccer first teams, member of The Symposium banqueting society. Despite such a grand record the candidate was short, slight and insignificant. The interview lasted about thirty minutes.

Afterwards Yasmin asked me if I thought he was suitable for the job. What could I say? I said yes, I suppose he was.

Later I was signing a birthday card for one of the girls upstairs when I became aware that someone had silently moved into the desk opposite me. When I looked up I saw Ryan M, director of the Operations department, smiling that false smile of his (it has a sort of perfect quality, as if he practices it in a mirror). He wanted me to produce some leaflets for his department.

In the afternoon I travelled up to London to attend a meeting with another NGO (one of our partners in a project). Beautiful offices in St James's, the walls white marble. We talked about publicity for the project.

Wednesday

At nine o'clock all the workforce of the NGO was gathered into the claustrophobic Board Room upstairs on the top floor (under the eaves). Alec Pressberg, CEO of the NGO, talked about a "job evaluation" process that will be carried out. All the rumours are that this evaluation will be the prelude for redundancies (doesn't affect me as I am on a fixed-term contract).

Right at the end, after Alec Pressberg has finished speaking, Ryan M told everyone "there's nothing to worry about" (his voice sounding insincere).

A lot of the day spent with Tom D "evaluating" the Information team - I was glad all their contracts are to be renewed (they are being incorporated into the main NGO personnel, having previously been employed by a sub-NGO).

All the afternoon was taken up with meetings, none of them particularly important, all of them over-running.

Thursday

Wonderful shades of grey in the sky as I travelled to work.

All the morning spent on renewing contracts for the Information team.

In the afternoon a meeting to discuss the new directory. A specialist from London joined the meeting and explained how it should be done (and also the opposition we would experience). After the specialist had left I sat with the Information team - all of us were dazed at the scale of the task we have taken on.

Friday

I am becoming fed up with all the meetings I have to endure.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Who really won

Who really won the Oldham by-election?
 
Labour because they won the seat?
 
Phil Woolas because the electorate sympathised with him and refused to elect the Liberal Democrat candidate who went to law?
 
The Liberal Democrats because their vote held up against all predictions of a collapse?
 
The Conservatives because the Liberal Democrats will now stay in the Coalition?
 
Or did they all win?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sustainability policies



Above is a screen print.

I received an e-mail from Sainsbury's on Tuesday about their sustainability policies towards the fish products they sell. This sensitivity to ethical issues is one of the many reasons Sainsbury's has overtaken Asda and is challenging Tescos for the position of leading supermarket in the United Kingdom. I also like the way they label some of their meat "cruelty free" with a blue and white logo - it makes it a lot easier to shop rather than try to work out what a particular label is really saying (for instance, Tescos will have a picture of a farmer and a statement that the meat is produced to the high welfare standards Tescos demands, without saying what those standards are or whether they are independently audited).



Above: I was haunted by this article in the Guardian published February 2010 in which Jonathan Safran Foer talked about the suffering endured by farmed fish. Especially the revelation that sea lice (which thrive in sea farms) eat the faces off sea farmed salmon. Since reading this I have stopped buying farmed salmon.



Above: article in today's Guardian about alternatives to popular fish. He mentions a "sustainable" fish farm in Port Talbot which I might check. Joining "Europe" was a disaster for the British fishing industry - it just meant that non-British people were given a licence to pillage the fishing areas around the British Isles (and for what? what is the point of joining an organisation that behaves so appallingly?).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Southern Sudan

Above:  feature on Southern Sudan in the last issue of the Sunday Times magazine.  The tribal societies that make up the area are fascinating and deserve greater study.  I hope their traditional way of life will not be adversely affected by the oil that can be found in the area.
 
It's really encouraging to follow the elections that are taking place in Southern Sudan.
 
Just as you think that the world is a generally bad place and it is a mistake to even go outside the county, something like this happens to restore your faith in the Whig theory of history.
 
One of the charities I support is Not On Our Watch which campaigns to resolve the situation in Darfur.  Although I don't really agree with "celebrity culture" I have to be honest and say I would never have heard of the organisation without the support given to them by celebrities such as Brad Pitt.  The website is http://notonourwatchproject.org/

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Aditya Chakrabortty in today's Guardian about Facebook



Above: screen print of part of the on-line version of the article which can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/11/friendship-facebook-aditya-chakrabortty

Interesting article by Aditya Chakrabortty in today's Guardian about Facebook and how it is devaluing real friendships (although I thought his intro section was a bit lurid and not really relevant to the average Facebook experience).

I have tried several times with Facebook and can't get on with it. I find the structure and format too limiting. I suppose I prefer Blogger because it is very close to being a blank page.

There was research a while back that demonstrated you could only keep up a maximum of sixteen friendships at any one time. Add another sixteen "marginal" friends (ones you are either weeding out or bringing on) and possibly a Christmas card list of about thirty (not counting family) and that gives you a realistic social network of 62. So all the Facebook users who have "friends" of 100+ are not really fooling anyone.

This is not to denigrate the achievement of Mark Zuckerberg. Like Clive Sinclair and Alan Sugar who gave everyone in the United Kingdom the option of owning a computer, Mark Zuckerberg has given everyone the option of having their own website. And like the clunky old Sinclair QLs and AMSTRADs Facebook is aimed at the common denominator, with funky prompts and fun suggestions and shallow non-taxing interactions etc.

This suggests that social networking is likely to transmute into a more sophisticated and integrated facility, just as the old home computers have become the versatile machines we use today. Not sure whether Facebook are going to lead on this reinvention of social networking (they will need to invest heavily in social anthropology as they will only be able to match their products to society if they fully understand society). The usual pattern is for a new manifestation to come out of nowhere, hold the high ground for about five years, then fade away (until people say things like "Oh yeah, I remember Friends Reunited").

So possibly Facebook has only another twelve to twenty-four months at the top (is this a rash prediction?).

In his article Aditya Chakrabortty also savaged the idea of "bromance" which is an American social innovation that was typified in American society by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, but probably became better known in the United Kingdom through the influence of the MTV show The Hills.

Tim Berg had a 2010 success with Bromance which further popularised the social construct - the video can be seen http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWUC5Q0RCAA and was directed by Tobias Hansson.

The Hansson video seems to be an homage to the 2000 music video Lady hear me tonight which can be seen http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzpCcNdhy5w and was directed by François Nemeta (not sure where it was filmed - possibly Canada).

Monday, January 10, 2011

Black spot

Overheard on the train:
 
"There is a black spot on Epsom Downs where police radio cannot operate.  Surrey Police go there to have a rest.  They also use the area to interrogate people as there is no mobile phone signal."

Sunday, January 09, 2011

A mishmash



Above: you might need to click on the image to read the "gypsy warning". Remnants of folktales, village lore and "stories" can be found all over the county, but for how much longer? Folk culture in the county is evanescent and ephemeral, as insubstantial as a light mist and just as likely to be blown away before it is properly recorded.

I didn't go anywhere this afternoon, mainly because I drank calvados at lunchtime and effectively passed out (luckily while sitting in an armchair). When I woke it was 5 o'clock. I think I will pour the rest of the bottle down the sink.

But the enforced idleness (when I was finally awake) gave me an opportunity to think about my "Exploring the county" posts and work out what I am trying to achieve. When I first started I intended to use Pevsner as my guide and see all the medieval structures in the county. As I went from village to village I came across hundreds of extraneous items that would simply disappear if I did not photograph and record them.

The result seems to be a mishmash of unconnected characters, anecdotes and traditions (traditions often teetering perilously on the edge of neglect and extinction).

And yet, beneath all the confused reportage I feel there is an underlying unity and value if only I can work out what it is. In many ways I am bound to go on with this "exploration". I could not stop if I wanted to.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

He will make a complete hash of the presentation - the past week at work

Tuesday

First day back at work. I was tired all day. I suppose this is because I have been so lazy over the holiday.

Arriving at the office, lots of people seemed to be missing today.

I went up to the Operations department (first floor west) and only Kate was there (blonde, shortish, flirtatious in a married woman sort of way).

Without any preamble she asked me how old I was: "We were wondering because it's hard to tell. You look as if you could be in your late twenties. But it's hard to tell."

I ignored her question and talked about the promotional plan I had done for the Operations team. Jamie came in and we discussed the plan in detail (Jamie is mid-thirties, short spiky gelled hair, cynical about everything, slightly humourless, he is assistant to Operations head Ryan M). It was obvious that neither Kate nor Jamie would make a decision unless Ryan M was there.

A lot of the day I spent getting the Marketing Plan (which I am responsible for) into a presentable state. Margaret (in the Information Services team) laid out the text. Leo (the junior in my department) worked on graphs and charts.

A long talk in the afternoon with Felix S who heads the Statistics & Evaluation team (mid forties, very formal, wears glasses that enlarge his eyes so that he looks as if he is permanently surprised). We discussed how his Market Research Plan will link in with my Marketing Plan. He told me gossip that was circulating about how Finance Director Bonar B intended to oppose our boss Communications Director Tom Daw at the Executive Board Weekend.

Wednesday

A fairly relaxed kind of day. First thing I gave Leo a lot of filing to do, and he looked reproachfully at me from under his unkempt yellow hair, as if he was a golden labrador. As soon as I sat down at my desk I felt hungry and had to walk to the little kiosk at the centre of the business park where I bought cheese rolls, ice cream, a bar of chocolate and a small packet of biscuits.

In the afternoon freelance film-maker John Engel arrived at reception and asked for me. I was completely bemused by this until I worked out that Tom D had told him to attend an interview for a job with the NGO (in my team!). This was complete news to me, and I had to bluster my way through the interview without knowing what I was supposed to be interviewing him for.

Thursday

Leo morose and unco-operative this morning. I found out that he had done hardly any of the filing I had given him. He is the son of one of the other department heads, so it is difficult to tell him his work is inadequate (in any case, he is only working at the NGO to save money for his gap year).

Finally Tom D (my boss) is back. He immediately called a meeting with Felix S and myself to discuss the future of the Information Services team. At last we got to see the accounts for the team (which is set up as an NGO within the bigger NGO). The figures were not encouraging - the Information Services team was running at £60k pa over income (which comes from various grants). Tom D was so worried about this that he called in CEO Alec Pressberg (dour, late fifties, thinning grey hair). Alec Pressberg told Tom D to make two people redundant.

Tom D gave hardly any thought to the redundancy process and told us who he had selected (the "consultation" and all the other paperwork would be made to fit later).

Although I was not involved in this decision it made me feel guilty the rest of the day.

I am also becoming disillusioned about Tom D's irresponsible attitude to budgets - he spends money without any thought as to where it will come from.

At the end of the day I saw my Marketing Plan prepared for Tom D to present at the Executive Board Weekend, and I was disappointed at the unsuitable way the hard copies had been bound.

Friday

Most of the morning spent in a meeting with Tom D explaining the Marketing Plan to him point by point so that he can present it at the Executive Board Weekend. Felix S was also present explaining the Statistics & Evaluation Plan. I don't think Tom really understood what I was saying to him, and probably he will make a complete hash of the presentation.

In the afternoon a meeting with Jamie and Kate from the Operations team. They wanted me to meet three of their "stakeholders". It was hard work explaining to them the basics of image building.

Towards the end of the afternoon HR manager Yasmin S came to sit in the chair opposite me. She was furious at Tom D's behaviour over the redundancies, which is causing a lot of problems for her (he had just telephoned the two people, telling them over the 'phone their jobs were at risk). We talked for about an hour about the NGO and all the aspects we were not happy about.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Mirrlees Review, Reforming the tax system for the 21st century

Interesting paper by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on reform of the tax system in the United Kingdom (the Mirrlees Review, Reforming the tax system for the 21st century).

 

The review will be published in the  next few weeks.

 

http://www.ifs.org.uk/mirrleesreview/pamphlet.pdf  

 

I was particularly interested in the discussion about "neutrality".

 

The tax system in the United Kingdom is far too complicated, and generally it is fair to say that most people mistrust the fiscal process because they do not understand the intricacies of the system; they do not trust the politicians and civil servants who administer the system; often they do not agree with the way taxes are spent (this is especially the case when parties in power attempt to bribe some sections of the electorate with money taken from other sections).

 

On the whole I do not like indirect taxation.  I would like to see more direct taxes (especially income tax) but with hypothecated spending (this is where money is ring-fenced for particular purposes).  Ideally we should then ask the electorate to vote on the spending for each hypothecated sector (by multiple choice I would guess).

 

Difficult to do on a national scale, but not so difficult if more taxing and spending decisions were to be devolved down to county and municipal borough level.

 

The technocrats and civil servants would not like this system, but it would remove opposition to paying taxes since every pound sterling spent would have democratic endorsement.

 

Such a system may also throw up surprises.  Funding via taxes might actually be increased if people could be sure where their money was going.  Local hospitals might be saved, local post offices might be retained, free care for the elderly voted in etc.   

 

At the moment we are expected to hand over the money and hope it will be spent in ways we agree with.  This is not really acceptable.  The old model of "trust me I am a politician", "trust me I am a civil servant", "trust me I am a tax collector" is broken.


Thursday, January 06, 2011

Cooler Than Me by Mike Posner



Above: screen print 1 from the video.

At number 16 in the music chart this week is Cooler Than Me by Mike Posner.

The use of the word “cool” is a subject that interests me (coolness as a brand attribute is very valuable, if you can get it right). Mike Posner defines coolness as the moment of being snubbed by someone you are attracted to. As Mike Posner has a degree in sociology possibly he has put some thought into this definition.



Above: screen print 2 from the video.

The video for the song was directed by Jason Beattie. He shows Mike Posner at a party in the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood. Borrowing designer sunglasses from different people Mike Posner sees the party through different viewpoints – joyful dancers, serious intellectuals, naked girls bouncing on a bed etc.

It’s a clever concept.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7S_H1KDjW9Y
http://www.jasonbeattie.com/index.php?/admrktng/red-bulletin/

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Andrew Grice in The Independent

An articleby Andrew Grice in The Independent today looks at the collapse of support for the Liberal-Democrats, but no-one (that I have seen) has tried to analyse who will be the beneficiary of such a collapse.
 
It is not enough to look at the polls which just give the national view.  Someone needs to go through each of the Liberal-Democrat constituencies and assess whether a collapse in Lib-Dem support will mean the seat will go to Labour or the Conservatives.  A few of the Lib-Dem seats will be genuine marginals, but most will have very established voting patterns and therefore it should be possible to say who will benefit if the Lib-Dems are knocked out. 
 

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Helen Giles in today's Times



Unconvincing article by Helen Giles in The Times today arguing that access to Employment Tribunals should be heavily restricted (so that they are restricted out of existence if I follow her argument, although her points are not entirely logical).

Although I can understand that HR professionals would prefer to be sole judge and jury in all employment matters, I think we must allow employees to take their cases to independent arbiters when necessary.



Above: part of a biography about Helen Giles in The Guardian 2008.

Looking at Helen Giles's background, it seems she has spent her entire adult life in the public or not-for-profit sectors. No doubt she has done some good work during this time, and should be applauded for wanting to help the homeless. However this background does not give her the authority to go shooting her mouth off about the whole of British industry.

Otherwise she risks making herself look ridiculous.

PS I hope Helen Giles is not another Common Purpose clone.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Mixed thoughts

I have mixed thoughts about going back to work.

All the things that I left on my desk before the holiday are going to be waiting for me when I get back.

But on the other hand this job is only for six months (12 months if my temporary contract gets renewed).

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Snipe



All the snow and ice that covered the landscape has now gone, and as I walk around I see the remains of wildlife that failed to make it through the cold snap.

I found this bedraggled dead bird in a corner of the old farmyard (a couple of weeks back it would have been under three inches of snow). From the long bill I would guess it was a snipe. Snipe are notoriously difficult to shoot when they are flying (not that I would do such a thing) and shooters who are good at hunting snipe are known as "snipers".

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Resolutions

New Year's Day.

Traditionally a time for resolutions.

And despite all the failure, disillusion and weakness that will accompany the process, like Betjeman I feel I should light the candles up again and have another go.

Instead of a long list I will just concentrate on three areas:

1 Support charities more effectively.

There are thirty-eight charities that I "support". I am not boasting when I say thirty-eight, I am only too aware that sending a tenner once a year is hardly support in any meaningful way. I am also embarrassingly aware that the charity that gets most financial support (£133 to the National Trust) is the one that probably least needs it. But having identified thirty-eight areas of society/the environment/world affairs that I want to help change, I am going to try to do more than just give them money. So I plan to do at least one thing for each of them - writing letters, attending meetings, perhaps even going to see my MP. And supporting each of them in this blog.

2 Stop buying books.

This is a negative aspiration I know, but one that is becoming increasingly urgent (my reading pile consists of 550 volumes). Instead of buying new books I now just list the title and author in a notebook (an imitation moleskin) I bought at Asda. Except that the list is now 195 titles long, and I have started buying books from this list when I see them on discount...

3 Concentrate on the really important things in life.

Three areas - none of which I feel confident enough to list.