Where Ideas Come From

December 3rd, 2017
fuyong-hua-Ideas

FuYong Hua from Unsplash.com

It’s logical to assume that someone somewhere must have once had an original idea. Today it is said that no ideas are original; our exposure to creative content is so great these days that it’s incredibly difficult to state with any conviction that a new idea is entirely original.

Plagiarism however, is more readily identified. The worst cases involve writers who copy and past entire novels, change a few details and then declare the work to be their own and try to sell it online for profit.

In-between these two extremes is a muddy area. Here is a recent case in point.

Jack Strange is a friend of mine from decades ago. He recently had a novel published titled Celebrity Chef Zombie Apocolypse. I read the novel and although the genre of fantasy horror was not to my liking, I was still happy for his achievement – writing novels is tough.

In fact, his achievement encouraged me to have a go at doing some creative writing myself and I wrote several short stories. One of them I posted on this site.

The inspiration for the story was very clear to me. Last summer Chris Olley and his wife, Karen, visited me. Chris had spent some time in Wakefield before moving to Nottingham where he formed the band Six.BySeven and with which he enjoyed considerable success.

We were sitting in the café of M&S where Chris was regaling me with stories from his colourful past. I was amazed he knew Bill Hicks and had corresponded with him. One of his other stories involved a well-known Rock Star who Chris was friendly with but who had a reputation in the music business of being incredibly unreliable.

Now, I’ve long been fascinated by the development of powerful technologies and especially algorithms that are set to take away everyone’s jobs so I joked with Chris that one day soon, this celebrity won’t be needed to introduce other acts as virtual reality will be convincing enough to fool an audience into thinking he’s really there.

After we’d riffed on this concept for a while I told Chris that there was enough material to write a short story about it. The result was Lazarus Corps.

I showed the story to a few people and one of them informed me that it wasn’t so much science fiction as science fact and told me about the Star Wars film where the character of Christopher Lee ‘acts’ even though he had been dead for some time. I hurriedly posted the story online before it became outdated.

Then Jack Strange came across it and accused me of plagiarizing his novel Celebrity Chef. I must say I was surprised by this allegation. The genesis of the story was clear in my head – it was that day in the café of M&S.

However, I reflected on his points: in his novel he has an invention called The Lazarus Engine that is used to resurrect a long dead TV chef (whose rotting corpse has to be physically dug up out of the ground).

In my story, the company that specialises in programming the algorithms to create the dead (and sometimes still living) celebrities from existing video footage of them is called Lazarus Corps.

Had Jack invented the name Lazarus and told a story about him being raised from the dead, I would have no defence and I would indeed be a plagiarist. But Lazarus is a story from the bible and has been invoked many times in creative works (Lazarus Raised by Peter Gabriel from 1989, for example).

Who has claim on the name of ‘Lazarus’?

If I had named the company in my story ‘Frankenstein Corps’ would that have been acceptable or would the estate of Mary Shelley be accusing me of stealing her original idea (or was she herself borrowing from the Lazarus story)?

The development of sampling technology brought this issue into sharp focus. Here, musicians were lifting actual samples of records to incorporate into their own ‘original’ works. Often, the samples only lasted for a few seconds but anyone familiar with the original work would recognise it.

Sampling is fine if the artists acknowledge the source and pay royalties if money is made from any creation but in this example the artists can identify precisely where their samples came from.

The creative process itself though, is not so clear-cut.

Here is an example.

I write comedy routines to perform live. As I develop the routines I make a habit of running the ideas past several trusted friends. More often than not, they comment and supply me with additional lines of exploration that I had overlooked or would never have thought of because my mind doesn’t work the way theirs does. Their interpretation of the content often sparks new ideas I can apply to my creative process.

Here is another apposite example.

Chrystal Roe posted a comment about Lazarus Corps being a possible jumping off point for a much longer story. This idea had never occurred to me, I just saw it as a complete short story but the comment has made me consider the idea. If I were to write the longer story, how much credit do I give Chrystal Roe?

This is even before we consider the area of subconscious appropriation. Music is a minefield for this. I’ve lost count of the number of lawsuits concerning plagiarised tunes. I’m pretty certain that the musicians involved often had no idea they had lifted chord progressions or melodies from old songs that they may have heard in the background at some point.

So when Jack brought his comparison to me I thought deeply about this – do I owe him a debt of gratitude?

With regard to appropriating any story lines, I don’t honestly know. If I do, then he will simply be in a long line of other storytellers I must have knowingly or unknowingly borrowed from.

But for the record, one thing I can acknowledge for sure (as evidenced by this lengthy post) is that Jack Strange has encouraged me to sit down and write.

Lazarus Corps

August 7th, 2017
Photo: John Pratt from Unsplash

Photo: John Pratt from Unsplash

The ten thousand strong crowd had been waiting nearly an hour for the show to start. Most of them were absorbed in their phones, staring vacantly at glowing screens that threw an eerie light onto their faces.

Rancid, the PR intern from the production company organising the show, was standing near the stage and looking at his own phone, monitoring the social media comments being posted by the crowd. They were using the #malariadeathring hashtag – and most of the audience were clearly becoming pissed off at the delay but were trying to be amusing about it in their comments.

The delay in the start of the show was being stage-managed. With high overheads and punitive financial penalty clauses in the venue contract should anything go awry, the entire show was designed to run like clockwork. It was Rancid’s job to gauge whether the ‘rebellious’ attitude of the tardy band was returning any dividends. A debrief after the show would discuss the efficacy of the tactic and decide whether to continue with the practice or not at future events.

Rancid checked the time on his phone, the show was going to start about…now!

The background music yielded to a swelling bass tone of menace that got louder until it was at concert hall level and reverberated in Rancid’s chest. He looked up from his phone at the vast stage, empty of people but festooned with equipment poking through the shallow layer of dry ice like skyscrapers piercing cloud cover. A column of light was falling onto the stage like a biblical portent. The audience, as one, raised their phones into the air to video the moment.

From the side of the stage emerged a lone figure walking towards the spotlight. It was a young man with long dark hair as lustrous and bountiful as a woman in the prime of her reproductive years. He was wearing a loose-fitting white poet shirt tucked into brown leather trousers that were accessorised with an ornate buckle belt – the aficionados in the audience immediately recognised it as the silver Zuni Navajo Concho belt made famous by its wearer.

The figure reached the pool of light drilling into the stage and as he stepped into its beam the audience could clearly see Jim Morrison. He stood silently for a few seconds allowing the audience to take in the extraordinary detail of his clothes, hair and belt. A huge screen above the stage relayed the live moment. Then he spoke to the crowd in a husky drawl, “Ladies and gentlemen… Malaria Death Ring” and with that he turned and walked off the stage the same way he had come.

To the cheers of the audience, the members of Malaria Death Ring emerged from the centre of the stage on a hydraulic riser. They were face-painted and costumed so exotically that they made Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band from their acid days of the ‘60s, look like a team of bank clerks on their first day at work. A distinctive intro chord was struck and the show began in earnest.

oOo

Countless months before the show, the production team had their regular meeting at the record company headquarters. They sat around the clear glass, boardroom table.

“Siobhan, who do we have introducing the band on the 5th?”

Martin asked this question while scrolling through his digital tablet. Siobhan was on the other side of the table flicking her dyed hair away from her face. The others at the table all looked at her.

“We’ve currently got the President of the United States as the introducer.”

“Which one?” asked Martin.

“Donald Trump,” answered Siobhan.

“Isn’t he getting a bit…clichéd?” interrupted Hugh, a young, handsome man sitting next to Siobhan “I mean, how often can he say ‘this is the best band, you’re going to see the best show’ before it gets too predictable? Besides, I’m reliably informed that Donald Trump is going to be introducing ‘Horse Blood’ on the same night in Birmingham. Surely we want to be a bit more exclusive than that?” He looked at Martin for support. Martin continued to peer at his tablet.

“Who told you that?” asked Martin still looking at his tablet.

“Peter Pinkjacket,” said Hugh.

“Pinkjacket! He’s a coke-head; you can’t trust anything he says!” yelled Siobhan.

Martin quickly looked up from his tablet sensing a time-wasting spat between his two team members. He addressed the five people at the table. “Reliable or not I think it’s worth looking at other options anyway. This is a big gig for Death Ring as it’s the album launch so it might be worth exploring something… unusual. Andy, do you know of anything being developed that we might be able to use?”

Andy was the technical expert with his finger on the digital pulse of innovation.

“I hear Jim Morrison is going to be available soon,” he suggested.

“Whooa! He would be cool!” said Mike, the creative executive.

“Really? Any idea how much he would be?” asked Martin.

“It wouldn’t be that much more than Donald Trump, but there would obviously be a premium for exclusivity. The downside is the quality wouldn’t be quite as good as Trump, as the archive footage is so poor. Comparatively.” Andy added.

Mike said, “But it’s been so long since anyone saw him in the flesh it wouldn’t matter. To the people in the audience he would be real enough. And, as we own The Doors back catalogue it could generate sales from curious onlookers who haven’t heard of him.”

“I’m liking the idea of Jim Morrison more than Donald Trump,” said Martin as he glanced at Siobhan, “Morrison has more…gravitas than Trump and Mike is right, we need to consider the trade off between the extra cost of the avatar and the possible revenue from fresh sales. See if you can fix that up, would you?”

Siobhan made a note on her phone.

Later, at around midnight, Siobhan made a video call to Leee from Lazarus Corporation.

“It looks like we’re going to run with Jim Morrison, Leee, do you know if the avatar will be ready for the 5th? We just need him to say ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Malaria Death Ring!’”

Leee was suitably rock ‘n roll; with a shaven head and dark glasses. He responded from his sunlit office in LA, “Yep, he’s just about ready for a trial run and he looks beautiful. We’ve rendered him in his prime at about age twenty-two. You’ll be the first to have him.”

Yeah, after some American outfit uses him first, thought Siobhan.

“Fabulous” said Siobhan “consider this confirmation. I’ll send the official request through in about fifteen minutes.”

oOo

In the old days, living celebrities would open a show for a band in person but this entailed so many problems with egos, riders, and reliability issues that an exasperated executive came up with a novel idea.

He got the idea from a development first seen at conferences. A speaker, who was many thousands of miles away, would be projected onto a stage during a live event. To the audience it looked pretty much as if this speaker was in the room, not in a studio on the other side of the world. They could even conduct a Q&A session with them and still maintain the illusion of reality.

It was only a small step to imagine a pre-recorded message given by a celebrity being projected onto a stage but this still involved getting the cooperation of the celebrity in the first place and pandering to their narcissism.

Then some digital artists armed with fast computers and lots of start-up funding took it one step further. They had seen the online videos that mocked certain politicians with mashed-up broadcast footage of their old speeches. Fast and clever editing made the politician say or sing outrageous things that the public understood to be nearer to the truth of what they meant.

What these digital artists did was to create a believable hologram of a living celebrity purely from footage that was available online. A hugely sophisticated algorithm could visualize new scenarios based on the known mannerisms of the subject. A programmer could then feed in any body movements and dialogue that they wanted into the programme to generate a convincing hologram of the celebrity on a stage at a live event. The result was the current fashion of having a big name introduce an act. The day of the indistinguishable avatar from the real celebrity (at least viewed from a distance) had arrived. Algorithms had revolutionised the entertainment industry. Real celebrities were a pain in the arse. Avatars were the future.

The celebrities on offer were growing by the month – alive or dead. However, the older the celebrity the more expensive they tended to be as the processing power needed to resurrect them was higher due to the paucity of material and the poorer quality of recordings.

Having a celebrity introduce an act with the line “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome x” was just the right length to make the process commercially viable for medium sized acts. And once they had been generated, smaller acts could purchase a licence to use the same file but with a slight alteration for whatever name they required the avatar to speak.

Of course, the first time this stunt was pulled, the celebrity in question was outraged at the appropriation and lawsuits were quickly filed but once the lawyers started to look into the case many loopholes and omissions were revealed. The technology was too new for the old law. The originators argued that they weren’t pretending that the actual celebrity was opening the show; they were completely upfront that a counterfeit was being displayed. The lawyers weren’t even sure if the image fell under the legislation designed for artworks or not, it was a lawless frontier.

Such were the vagaries of the case that it was quickly thrown out of court and the celebrities suddenly realised what it must feel like to be a production worker in a factory and witness the introduction of a tireless robot that could do your job far more efficiently. Overnight, celebrities got increasingly shy about appearing on any media that could record them walking, talking or even cutting a ribbon with a pair of scissors. Old media started to get deleted from video sites and lobby groups were putting pressure on the legislators to protect the rights of the unfortunate celebrities.

But by that time the innovators had already banked terabytes of data ready to analyse and render into their new compliant ghosts.

It wasn’t too long before filmmakers started to look at the costs of creating a full-length movie using digitally reproduced actors based on real actors – but these new actors wouldn’t throw a tantrum, get coked up in their trailers or even age over time.

Some gossip columnists enjoyed the shadenfraude of celebrities losing status and earnings due to the avatars. Writers felt especially smug; they were in a position of renewed status as the spoken lines that the avatars delivered became more important than the celebrity.

That didn’t last long however as the ‘deep learning’ algorithms managed to become creative and start churning out copy that humans found amusing, dazzling or moving based on what the audience had previously found amusing, dazzling and moving. The algorithms even learned to apply context and topicality to their output.

Then Bill Hicks got his own show. It was a brand new show and completely written by algorithms. The show even used the name of Bill Hicks as the owners of his estate realised it was useless fighting the onslaught of new technology and they might as well take a slice of the pie through licencing agreements rather than go hungry.

The show was a smash. The persona of Bill Hicks lent itself beautifully to some of the surreal imagery that the algorithm conjured up out of its mathematical processes and it even managed to come up with a routine that included some self-referential jokes about artificial intelligence being too clever by half for dumb humans.

All the creativity in the show was machine generated and the only thing left for humans to do was to market it and consume it.

Had he been alive, Bill Hicks would have got high on the irony.

Colston Hall should be renamed

May 7th, 2017

Slave coin

Colston Hall is to be renamed. Some people in Bristol objected to the former slave trader being honoured for his contribution to the city.

Other people in Bristol think there is nothing wrong with a former slave trader being remembered with a building dedicated to culture.

Edward Colston was a slave trader and philanthropist. The problem I have is that these two terms are mutually exclusive – you cannot be both. The only exception is where the slave trader has an epiphany and then spends the rest of his life fighting the slave trade no matter what the cost to himself. As far as I can tell, this does not apply to Colston.

Anyone who can countenance the idea of making money from the suffering of other human beings has absolutely no regard for the rest of humanity (it should also be noted that Colston was a devout Christian).

Sometimes human suffering is a by-product of the final manufactured item but with slave trading the product starts with the suffering of human beings, this fact cannot be disputed.

The profits from slave trading were spectacular. It is no surprise therefore that many traders had more money than they knew what to do with. After the building of stately homes, philanthropy was another obvious self-aggrandizing solution to this dilemma.

The broad definition of a philanthropist is someone who considers the greater good. This suggests empathy and compassion, a regard for those less fortunate than themselves. A slave trader does not have these qualities.

What then, motivates a slave trader to give his money away?

Narcissism.

They will be remembered for their charity, helping the less fortunate enjoy the benefits of his or her success. They will have buildings named after them so their name will linger in history as a force for good. Statues will be testament of this.

But the motivation for this generosity is utterly selfish. The money is hardly ever bequeathed anonymously, far from it, the more public fanfare of the donation, the better – hence the naming of buildings after them.

This is a crime of vanity. The crime of slave trading is therefore compounded by this second crime. As perpetrators of misery they then amplify their crime by boasting of it. This is unacceptable.

The right thing to do is to erase the names of such criminals from public buildings and to destroy their statues. The various gifts they bestowed upon society should be given the names of the slaves they exploited or if none can be found, simply renamed Slave House or Slave Park etc.

Condoning and celebrating ruthless greed is not the mark of a civilised society.


What is MSM?

February 25th, 2017
Hulme Crescents

Original Tweet by Neil Claxton

On social media, MSM is usually short for Mainstream Media and refers to national TV news programmes like the Ten o’clock news and ‘red tops’ – tabloid newspapers available throughout the country.

Some journalists refuse to acknowledge this term as they think it too vague and simple as a concept to serve any purpose. Some even deny that ‘mainstream news’ exists at all. They consider its use pejorative.

If anyone is guilty of simplifying concepts and using pejorative language, it is journalists. If anyone is guilty of being biased and manipulative, it is journalists. They are now being hoist by their own petard and they are outraged that someone else has the temerity to use such devices.

Take, for example, this story from today’s Guardian website*. Several questions need to be asked:

  1. Why is this a story?

  2. Who decided it was a story?

  3. Whose interests does it serve?

  4. Why was this photograph chosen to illustrate it?

  5. What is ISIS?

The only reason I took note of the story was because Martin Bryant, a journalist who knows Manchester, commented on his personal Twitter account that the building in the photograph no longer exists and that the area is a lot more pleasant today.

If this was lazy journalism by The Guardian (we don’t have the staff to do a proper picture search on the internet) it could be partly forgiven but this is not lazy journalism, this is a deliberate attempt to mould the story into a particular shape. The journalist was working the raw material of the story—like a sculptor working on a lump of clay—into an effigy of some kind.

The journalist however is working under the guidance of his or her mentor, the editor, who likes works to conform to certain aesthetic standards, ones that invariably are to the liking of their ultimate patron – the owner of the media outlet. The editor might even have told the journalist to create this effigy from somewhere because the media outlet had some interest to serve.

Some journalists might genuinely believe that they are working without supervision from their boss but as Peter Oborne found out when he tried to write critically about HSBC this is an illusion.

So what is ISIS? How is this different to using MSM?

The slightest research into the situation in Syria reveals a complexity of factions and forces that goes way beyond the patience of MSM consumers. ISIS is a meaningless term in reality but it’s useful in giving a bit of detail to a similarly meaningless term – ‘enemy’.

Donald Trump is a useful Geiger counter for highlighting what is dysfunctional in society. His contempt for the media is a sure sign that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way it operates and that he can exploit it for his own gain.

Of course there are some journalists who are hard working and conscientious but they are like the ‘hard-working taxpayers’ mentioned in so many Tory missives; they don’t really figure in the grand scheme of things and can be safely discounted.

* they have since changed the photograph

Stop Trying To Change The World

January 14th, 2017

Thruscreen

Step out of your comfort zone.

This is advice we hear all the time. If you’re a motivational speaker then this will be your core message. The fact that businesses pay huge sums of money to motivational speakers to drive home this message with their workforce suggests it’s safe to assume that this position is beyond question. Clearly, this is how humans were meant to improve themselves.

But is it? I’m not so sure.

GraphA

Look at graph A. The y-axis represents the highs and lows of life from the extreme high (say winning the lottery or achieving a lifetimes goal) to the extreme low (say being diagnosed with a terminal illness or losing everything due to war). The line in the middle is the mean and 0 represents the perfect level of comfort – however you wish to define that.

The mean should not be derided – we wouldn’t be here if the universe didn’t have a comfort zone. Planet earth exists on this mean line – neither too hot nor too cold, a miracle really considering the unimaginable extremes of the universe.

As human beings, we understand the environment through comparison – to our touch fire is too hot, ice is too cold and blood temperature is just about right. For every positive, we compare it to a negative and everything exists on this continuum.

Let’s go back to graph A. The motivational speaker encourages the audience to achieve goals that attain these spectacular ‘highs’ on the positive side of the mean. What is rarely mentioned is that for every move higher there will potentially be a corresponding move lower in emotional response, and the higher you go the lower you can go too. This has to be the case. If you’ve set your heart and soul on achieving a particular goal (how great it will be to achieve this!) and you fail to achieve it, your disappointment will be proportional to the desire you had in wanting to achieve it. If your disappointment is not too great then the logic dictates that you couldn’t have wanted it that badly in the first place.

Hence, any idea of living your entire life in the positive side of the mean is an illusion because we can only make sense of the world through comparison so the mean in the graph would have to be shifted upwards and the graph recalibrated so that 0 appeared higher on the y-axis so that some experiences fell into the negative half.

GraphB

Most people live their lives similar to graph B where the peaks and troughs are minimised (I’m making this extrapolation from the existence of an industry that actively encourages a pursuit of the bigger peaks and troughs) whereas the ‘special’ people— for example, risk-taking cave divers or mountain climbers, live their lives similar to graph C.

GraphC

Which is the preferred graph?

The thing we definitely don’t want to experience is a flat line – the undeviating line of the mean itself. In medical circles ‘flatline’ is a sign of death. If you were perpetually comfortable, your body and mind would protest. Sensory deprivation is anathema to our brains – it needs some stimulus thus it’s easy to see where the idea of stepping out of our comfort zones originated—doing so provides stimulus for our brain.

So being perpetually comfortable is practically impossible. Before long, it would become uncomfortable through lack of stimulus.

Most people however, don’t require an enormous amount of stimulus. If you look at graph C and consider it in terms of food intake, it doesn’t look very attractive; imagine many days of fasting followed by uncontrollable binges. It could be argued by a motivational speaker that the longer the fast, the more out of your comfort zone you are (is that a good thing?) and that when you do eventually eat, the food will taste better as a result of your extended fast. Presumably, this is ‘living life to the full’ and should be advocated by life coaches but as far as I’m aware, it’s not often on their agenda. Why is this? Is it because it is probably healthier to be more moderate with your food intake?

If this moderate principle applies to food, why is it not extended to other areas of our lives? In fact, why is the desire to experience life to the full with extreme goals seen as healthy at all?

Maybe the entire premise of ‘motivation’ is misguided? When a goal is achieved or a disaster experienced, where is the impact of it most keenly felt? – In the mind. It is our mindfulness that dictates how we experience existence. We feel ‘amazing’ or ‘gutted’ because our minds create the emotion. ‘Motivation’ is an ersatz way of accessing the mind, like viewing the world through a low-resolution screen instead of looking at the real thing unobstructed. Why not focus directly on the mind?

Stop reading now and pay close attention to what you can hear, listen for every nuance of sound, find all the frequencies.

This is as good as it gets. You’re alive! By learning to be more aware of the now, we can appreciate the ‘simple’ things in life (listening to sounds might seem simple but when reflected upon deeply the unimaginable complexity of it becomes apparent).

Action without thought is mindless. We need Mindfulness Speakers more than we need motivational speakers.

Eventually, food banks will have to go bust.

December 12th, 2016

wheatfieldlo

The number of charities, food banks and ‘pay what you feel’ café’s that utilise food that would otherwise have been thrown away is on the increase. At first glance this would appear to be a good thing, but when looked at closely it is not.

According to the data, the UK is the worst country in Europe for food waste. This fact alone should be the main focus of any reform efforts by charities and concerned people. It is an utter disgrace that so much intensive farming (and all the environmental degradation that it entails) goes to waste when food is thrown away. France has already taken the lead in this and has passed a law banning supermarkets from destroying unsold food.

The sheer scale of the food waste was only brought home to me after watching a BBC news article that documented some examples of how food was deemed ‘unwanted’. One example involved packets of dried spaghetti. One packet isn’t such a big deal but when it comes out of a box that has come out of a lorry-load of spaghetti boxes, it does become a big deal. And then when the news item goes on to state that this is merely one lorry out of a fleet of seventeen similarly loaded lorries, the mind starts to boggle.

It is no wonder then that some people are moved to do something about this prodigious waste – hence the springing up of food banks etc. But my argument is that this activity is merely duplicating the waste—albeit disguised in a different form. The volunteers have to get into cars or vans (OK, some may get on a bicycle) and drive to the various supermarkets to negotiate the collection of the food. These vehicles then have to drive around the town or city to drop off the food at various food banks and cafes. This causes pollution and traffic congestion as well as more landfill once the vehicles come to the end of their useful life.

My reasoning is that as the food is already on the premises of the supermarket (which is situated in a central location of a large community) the logic is screaming out that the most efficient way to redistribute the food is for the supermarkets themselves to give the food away directly to those people who need it the most – the end customer.

This however is where capitalism appears to become outraged. If you have free food next to food that has to be bought, which are people going to choose? The obvious answer is the free food every time. This however does capitalism a disservice and underestimates its power – it’s far cleverer than that.

Firstly, the free food would probably be housed in a separate warehouse section so that it doesn’t take up prime floor space in the well-lit, heated supermarket. This means customers have to exit the pleasant area and enter a downmarket one to access the free food. Capitalism says that people respect tiers of status – many people would not allow themselves to be seen in the warehouse section (I’m not judging here, merely observing) so they would never enter it.

Secondly, the food in the warehouse section is less fresh than in the supermarket so again, status would come into play; many people prefer their food to be as fresh as possible.

Thirdly, the free food lacks choice. In the example given earlier, you might have lots of spaghetti on offer but very little else. I don’t know many people who eat spaghetti on its own; they usually want some kind of sauce to go with it. If the ingredients for that sauce are not available in the warehouse section then a lot of people would probably go into the supermarket to purchase those few extra ingredients.

In practice then, the frugal customer could enter the warehouse section first, pick up whatever free foods was on offer and then move onto a consultation point manned by volunteers who could advise them on what meals to make from those foodstuffs. And here’s the crucial bit: by advising them on which added ingredients could make the meal nutritious, the customer could be tempted to go into the supermarket and buy them if the cost is not too prohibitive.

It’s counter-intuitive at first but in the long run this could actually work out to be beneficial for the supermarkets, they might even sell more produce as a result. The supermarket gets rid of its unwanted food as efficiently as possible thereby eliminating food waste and landfill and it potentially sells more food overall. It’s a win-win scenario.

Whichever supermarket adopts this model first will garner enormous media coverage, terrific PR and increase its market share.

The time has come to think beyond the old models. If implemented this could be the first step towards making other radical ideas—like Universal Basic Income—a reality.

*The photograph above is from Unsplash.com, a website that offers high-resolution images to anyone for free.


Planned obsolescence

November 11th, 2016

kettle-switchblog

This is the on/off switch from our electric kettle. When we bought the kettle I could immediately see that the plastic switch was so inadequate for the job that it must have been deliberately designed that way to limit the life of the device.

Sure enough it lasted for about eighteen months which seems to be the industry standard for any small electrical good these days.

I’m now supposed to throw the kettle away and buy a new one so that the relentless process of consumerism can continue.

Can we follow the example of Trump and call it like it is? Why don’t manufacturers honestly admit their strategy of planned obsolescence and insert a chip into a device to stop it working after a certain period of time so we can actually plan for the obsolescence? The date of the failure can even be printed on the packet when we buy it from new.

We could also set up specific recycling depots in our redundant high street shops for the non-functioning devices so a certain amount of sustainability can be built into the insane consumerist model.

The Sun is probably smarter than you think

October 23rd, 2016

SunLogo

On the day that The Sun’s highest paid journalist is sentenced to a jail term for perverting the course of justice the paper decides to attack one of Britain’s National Treasures – Gary Lineker.

What heinous offence did Gary commit that trumps the reporting of one of its own journalists being sentenced to a jail term for perverting the course of justice?

All that Gary did was express an opinion on his private Twitter account. He wanted to show some compassion for the refugees fleeing the war in Syria. To most people, this would be considered normal and decent and in keeping with someone being considered as a National Treasure.

The Sun however had a different agenda and needed to hide the fact that its highest paid journalist had been found guilty of perverting the course of justice. To any rival newspaper, this would be sensational front-page news requiring the journalists to dig out a copy of the Thesaurus to fully express the evil of the perpetrator and his employer.

The Sun needed a metaphorical dead cat to throw onto the table during the conversation and what better pet of the British public to murder and toss casually onto the polished wood than the cuddly Gary Lineker. The move would provoke outrage on the part of decent folk everywhere but also strengthen the relationship between the prejudiced sector of the population and the newspaper.

This is where it gets clever though.

The Sun’s power emanates from its wealth. Its wealth derives from its circulation which is enormous. Advertisers are attracted to the huge circulation and pay big money to access it. The company always sees any furore that attracts eyeballs to The Sun’s content as welcome traffic as it simply convinces advertisers to spend their advertising budget there.

The Sun is currently sponsoring a poll to discover who is the favourite presenter on TV. It invites the public to vote. I’ve seen tweets that encourage people to go to the site and vote for Lineker.

If Lineker wins, this may seem like one in the eye for the media company but the upshot is this; The Sun gets more coverage from this apparent backlash and also acquires legitimacy for the poll it is sponsoring. It wouldn’t even surprise me if it were The Sun itself that came up with the idea of getting people to vote for Lineker.

Liverpool has demonstrated that it can hurt The Sun. It has done this by effectively banning the sale of it in the city. This equates to millions of pounds of lost revenue for the company.

Don’t buy the Sun but don’t acknowledge it either. The thing it hates the most is being ignored*.

*I realise I’m writing about The Sun but I only do so to remind people that its highest paid journalist has recently been sentenced to a jail term for perverting the course of justice and that not engaging with it in any form ultimately destroys it.

Stepping into the unknown

October 5th, 2016

leap

I recently gave an illustrated talk at a pop-up arts venue in York. The building they had commandeered was an old fire station complete with pole through the ceiling. To my astonishment the organiser announced that if anyone wanted to have a slide on the pole they were welcome to. I say ‘astonishment’ because as an event organiser myself, the insurance implications of such an activity sent my liability calculations zooming into orbit.

As the evening wore on, I watched lots of people take up the invitation – undeterred by any risk – and slide down the pole with joyful abandon. I said to my sister who was with me at the event that ever since I was a schoolboy and our class had visited a fire station where the use of the pole had been demonstrated by one of the firemen I’d always wanted to have a go on one.

“Well, now’s your chance” she said and rummaged in her handbag for her phone to take a video of the stunt. She held the phone and looked at me expectantly. I could see that a significant moment had arrived. I turned for the stairs.

As I climbed the echoing steps to the top floor I passed through various empty rooms that had been stripped of their furnishings. The crumbling plasterwork and general dilapidation of the building reminded me of my own advancing years and how my reflexes and suppleness weren’t as good as they used to be.

I arrived at the vestibule where you launch yourself onto the pole and I studied the scene. The pole was within easy reach but I made the mistake of looking down through the hole to where the pole was bolted to the floor of the fire station. Lord! It was a good ten metres down and I began to weigh up all the possible outcomes of the stunt. The one that loomed the largest was the one where I miscalculate the slipiness of the pole and I go whizzing uncontrollably down it to crash awkwardly onto the concrete floor and break a few bones in my feet incapacitating me for months to come. As a self-employed man the risk was simply too great and cautiously I backed away from the orifice slightly shame faced and greatly disappointed.

Back in the event room I told my sister it was higher than I had anticipated and I simply balked at the risk of something going wrong.

Later in the evening I got talking to a member of the audience and he asked me if I had been down the pole. I answered truthfully and explained to him all the reasons why I thought it was a bad idea for a man of my age.

“You’re over-thinking it,” he said. “Come on, let me show you how easy it is” and with that he encouraged me to follow him as he walked towards the staircase door. Another significant moment arrived: do I politely decline or trust this stranger with my life?

I followed him.

Once again I stood by the vestibule with the stranger in front of me. He stood poised to launch himself when he turned to me and said “Don’t look down, just grab the pole and commit fully to the slide” and then he effortlessly reached out for the pole and was gone.

I stood alone looking at the pole. I was calculating the physics of -

I jumped.

I knew if I stood there any longer I would go through the same looped thinking process that would talk me out of reaching for the pole and so before I did I launched myself.

To my astonishment I had near total control of my descent (my logical mind immediately understood why the pole was approximately 5 inches in diameter – it greatly increased the coefficient of friction) and I could have stopped mid-slide if I’d wanted to.

Safely on the floor of the fire station I turned to my mentor and we high-fived the little achievement. I was genuinely grateful to him for pushing me out of my comfort zone and then he exited out of my life, possibly for good.

As I walked back to where my sister was sitting I couldn’t help thinking of the famous quote “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

My sister missed the photo opportunity because I acted impulsively and didn’t let her know. Sometimes it’s better to trust your gut than your head.

Great lessons can be learned from small incidents; I was honest with people about my failure, they offered to help, I welcomed their help and together we achieved success.

After waiting many decades, the fire station pole is now off my list.

Your private life

August 23rd, 2016

snowden

I’m appalled at the indifference most people express regarding the Edward Snowden revelations.

The general attitude seems to be, so what if the authorities know practically everything about my private life, why should I care?

Let me explain the enormity of this issue with a few personal examples. I was called recently on my mobile by a company wanting to sell me a box to add to some equipment I already own. I sensed a scam and so I ended the call but it was only afterwards that I asked myself, where did they get my mobile number from and how did they know about this piece of equipment I own? To find out I called them back on the number logged into my ‘phone only to discover it was a convenience number that is bought and sold by companies wanting to disguise their activities.

My guess is that the company that sold me the equipment originally passed my details onto anyone who wanted them for a fee. I don’t know if they’re allowed to do this but I’m guessing even if I’d told them at the beginning that I didn’t want any of my details to be passed onto anyone else it wouldn’t have made any difference because there is no way you can enforce such a request.

Again, a personal experience bears this out.

A few years ago I cancelled an insurance policy prematurely. I know for a fact that this kind of information is confidential and covered by the data protection act but within days of me cancelling the policy I was being bombarded with unsolicited calls from companies offering to ‘review’ my financial arrangements.

I surmised that my data had been sold onto an unscrupulous third party. I gathered they were unscrupulous because after a few of these calls I became so angry I used every swear word available to me (and I’m creative) to express my displeasure with the caller. This made no difference whatsoever to their sales pitch which suggested that they weren’t legitimate.

I officially complained to the insurance company I’d bought the policy from about the data leak but all I got back was a ‘report’ that reassured me no such leak had occurred. All I had was their word for it. How on earth was I supposed to prove that they (or someone within their organisation) were selling personal data? Unless you bait a premeditated trap from the outset it’s impossible.

Now, if that’s the reality, then a huge amount of your personal data is available to commercial organisations that can target you with specific sales pitches and can call you day or night on your mobile phone. Are you happy with that? I’m not.

There’s a famous story about a retail company emailing a family with promotions for baby items. When the parents complained to the company they discovered that metadata had told the company that their daughter was pregnant due to the recent change in her buying habit. When the parents confronted their daughter she admitted that she was pregnant.

The company knew before their parents did purely from metadata.

Now, if that’s what commercial organisations know about you imagine what authorities with special privileges know about you…