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…

Sex and death

August 16th, 2016

wasp-pilotblog

The cabbage-white butterfly dances provocatively above the purple-sprouting broccoli plants in the hot July sunlight. The butterfly doesn’t know it but the broccoli plants are mine.

I’m sitting on the patio and watching this display of intent with growing anxiety and alarm. Soon the butterfly will alight on one of the defenceless turquoise leaves of the broccoli plant and lay one of its tiny grenades of destruction. I have my usual reflex urge to jump up, rush at the butterfly and wave it away from the garden but the two glasses of red wine I’ve just enjoyed has ambushed that reflex midway between my brain and my legs and detained it with inane conversation about how wonderful it is to be alive and how some things just aren’t worth the candle…

So instead, I observe proceedings from my seat with a resigned inevitability.

And then, out of the infinite blue sky, another butterfly appears and doubles my anxiety but almost immediately a third butterfly joins the dance and my alarm switches to curiosity– such a grouping means more than just the routine laying of eggs, is the new arrival going to cut in on the dance?

Such is the hard-wired sex drive of many species that it doesn’t take me long to recognise the primitive, timeless moves of a courtship dance and the posturing displays of males vying for the sexual favours of a female.

The female butterfly settles on the green lawn immediately adjacent to the broccoli plants and disports herself invitingly for the males. One of them attempts to land on her back to mate but the other male interferes and the two take to the air to do battle.

My curiosity aroused, I stand up and walk the few paces into the lawn to get a closer look. The female is only slightly perturbed by my appearance and flies a couple of feet further along the lawn before settling on the grass again. I shadow her move and step closer to her but this time she is content to lay on the grass, such is the abandoned urgency of sex.

One of the males has clearly won the effeminate duel of wing slapping and descends on her open and welcoming back. As they mate I watch their intimacy.

The progeny of these insects will eat my food that is undeniable. As beautiful as they are in their design and movement I can’t get rid of the selfish idea that I should kill them.

I continue to watch their mating, my feet only inches from their copulating bodies. If I stepped on them now during the very sex act they would know death as well – how perfect and tragic.

A sober me would no doubt have let them perform their ritual and then shooed them away afterwards in a delusional belief that they would not return to my garden but the wine had done its damage and in the long, sad history of that drug it momentarily facilitates my base instincts. Taking me by surprise—my moral considerations suddenly swept aside like a wooden beach hut in a tsunami—I witness my foot, armoured in scarred leather, shoot forward and land firmly on the copulating pair.

With a pang of guilt I instantly withdraw my foot but the two white butterflies lie inert among the leaves of grass, dead as petals. The third butterfly sees its chance and returns, dancing to within a few inches of the female, but then must get a sharp scent of death because it quickly departs for good.

Sex and death under a careless sun – the enormity of the incident makes me return to my seat on the patio and ponder my actions.

Several minutes later, I awake from my reverie to see two wasps hover like malevolent angels over the carcasses of the butterflies. They set down on their victims and immediately begin to butcher them.

Again, curiosity gets the better of me and I step forward to witness this new act. With ruthless efficiency they neatly saw off the wings, then the denuded bodies are carried aloft and away like freshly harvested souls for the hell that is the wasps’ nest.

Nothing is wasted in nature. The circle is renewed: the bodies of the butterflies will give birth to new life only not in the shape of caterpillars. Another species will flourish instead.

Then, whilst still standing at the scene of the slaughter on my lawn, I hear a faint but powerful droning sound. It is as if a swarm of monstrous bees is slowly filling the air. I jerk my head up in panic and wildly scan the heavens. And there in the distance I see them. I keep my eyes fixed on the rough black line getting nearer and wider. The droning sound grows louder and louder until it is an all-consuming roar – my empty wine glass, stained red, trembles faintly on the patio table.

The sky darkens and a primitive fear grips my intestines, as I look directly overhead at the heavy layer of bombers sweeping across the sky like a swiftly moving stain of fresh blood. Collectively, they look like the underside of a giant boot poised to crush an unsuspecting town where the inhabitants might be dancing, courting, making love…

I think of the pilots, drunk on their own insane power.

Technology is a great liberator but it’s also a great oppressor

July 22nd, 2016

I got some kind of group invite through my email account which didn’t work properly because the operating system on my computer is too old to deal with it. I only discovered it was an invite when someone replied ‘to all’ confirming they could make the date.

I persist with my old computer because

  • it still does everything I need to do on it
  • I don’t buy into the consumerist ideology of having the latest thing just because it is the latest thing.
  • I’m conscious of unnecessary waste

Unfortunately, not everyone has these criteria and nor would I expect everyone to have them, that would be unreasonable. So why then do most people in industry think that everyone is using the same level of technology that they are? I don’t use a smartphone because I don’t want to volunteer all my information to whoever can hack into it.. This makes me some kind of Luddite in the eyes of most people.

What happens next though is really interesting. Smartphone users (I’m using this generalised label purely for demonstration purposes) assume everyone in their demographic has a smartphone and behaves accordingly; they use the technology available on the phone. This means if you don’t have a smartphone, you’re excluded from lots of functions. Eventually, the divide will become so great that the smartphone users will literally use a different language to non smartphone users.

What you then have is fractured and marginalised groups in a society that moves in a direction further away from ‘community’.

Part of me knows that this is a deliberate ploy by manufacturers to a) sell more product and b) to maintain the learned helplessness in the consumers.

I’m aware that there are some people who don’t even have internet access. I can’t even begin to imagine how disadvantaged they are in society.

Technology is a great liberator but it’s also a great oppressor.

The future of creativity: machine code

June 3rd, 2016

WScover

I was at my local lending library looking for a book to read when I spotted a Wilbur Smith hardback on the shelf. Wilbur Smith had written River God, a book I literally couldn’t put down it was so compelling. He’d also written some other novels that I found quite easy to put down (literally and metaphorically) so it’s a bit of a lottery when he publishes something new.

I plucked the tome from the shelf and looked at the cover, it depicted the usual themes of his books—historical Africa or Egypt and bloody adventure—but something odd caught my eye; the author’s name was not alone, in smaller writing it said ‘with Giles Kristian’. What could this possibly mean?

I took it to the desk and quizzed the immaculately dressed, white-haired, bespectacled lady that was the librarian.

“Can you clear this up for me please, who is the author here?”

Without hesitation she explained the mechanics; Wilbur Smith comes up with the idea and Giles Kristian then does the grunt work of writing the book (she actually used the phrase ‘grunt work’ which amused me more than it should have done).

“So it’s kinda ghost written?” I said.

“Yes” she said “but the co-author is usually well known for writing in a similar style.”

“So it’s like Damien Hirst coming up with an idea of say, a flayed baby in a bath of formaldehyde or something and then saying to one of his hundreds of assistants ‘here, you make this into reality”.

“Yes” she said, “that’s pretty much how it works.”

I was astonished. Not because of the discovery of ghostwriters or artists’ assistants—I already knew of their existence—but because of what it presaged.

Ghostwriters are usually employed to supplement the missing talent of the celebrity, namely, the ability to write. But here, a perfectly capable writer is employing another perfectly capable writer to do the heavy lifting. Wilbur Smith is so prolific and so popular that he has become a brand that is easily recognised and easily emulated.

Presumably, the faithful readers of his books aren’t too bothered about this development so long as their metaphorical Corn Flakes continue to taste exactly how they liked them in the past no matter who is the new owner manufacturing them.

Now lets jump into the future a hundred years. Wilbur Smith is dead and so is Giles Kristian but new Wilbur Smith books continue to appear every year, regular as clockwork. You might think that dozens of authors are employed to maintain this booming franchise but you’d be wrong.

A sophisticated algorithm writes all the books. The preferred language, styling, plot twists and characters that appear in all the previous Wilbur Smith books are analysed by the algorithm and a clever refinement in the programming allows it to devise new story lines with similar characters but with enough differentiation about them to sufficiently fool a human brain into thinking ‘this is novel’ (pun intended).

This is the future: creativity done by a machine. I’m not sure whether I should be excited or depressed. Can I be both?

Footnote: A year or so ago I did a caricaturing gig in Leicestershire at a private birthday party. The house turned out to be a mansion and my small talk with the guests during my sketching revealed that it was the party of a successful author. Nearly everyone at the party was a published author or creative artist of some kind. When I came to draw the birthday boy himself he told me a little about his glittering past and that he had recently been working with Wilbur Smith.

On Contemplating Art

May 2nd, 2016

JRSmithlo

I was working at an unfamiliar hotel one evening and as I always do when I visit such a venue, I casually glance at the pictures on the walls. Often, if it’s a modern, chain hotel, the pictures will be bland and pretty in an ersatz parody of art. The older the hotel however, the more care they seem to take in selecting their wall art.

This particular hotel was old, hundreds of years old. The mullioned windows were straight out of Wuthering Heights.

This set my curiosity to ‘high’ and I conducted a deliberate viewing of the walls when I entered reception. To my delight, they were covered in a host of pictures and none of them seemed generic or glossy. In fact, many looked like the works of gifted amateurs and suggested that they might be originals.

As I rounded a corner a picture presented itself to me. The composition of it was such that I instinctively knew it was the work of a true artist – the balance of shape and tone was delightful. This drew me in like a magnet and I inspected it from a metre or so away. It was a sketch of a street scene executed on a dark ivory coloured board. The style was quite loose as if it had been drawn from life but the draughtsmanship in the overall structure was such that it was evident the artist had a lifetime of experience.

As I continued to study it, it became apparent that it was a pencil drawing finished with watercolour but the colour palette was so restricted that it took a while for me to realise this.

This inspection from a middle distance increased my interest in the artwork. The various elements within the picture intrigued me with their textures and depth of tone. This progression of curiosity was telling me that this was a major work of art.

I stepped closer to the picture, my nose barely a foot away form its surface and I stepped into another world…

I was in the street. I could hear snippets of conversation of the people going about their shopping, I could feel the soft crunch of dust under my feet as I walked the parade of shops—I could even smell the subtle fecund aromas in the hot air. The light was magical, gently warming the edges of the awnings and buildings.

The picture achieved this incredible transportation purely through the power of suggestion. Some parts of the image were so loosely executed that a few brushes with a wash of muted colour created the solid wall of a building complete with reflective windows. Smoke from the chimney pots was achieved with a few swift, deft touches from a charcoal stick. The mastery of control, the sheer economy of line, the unerring choice of colour mesmerised me.

It had an inverse law of appreciation: the closer I looked at the detail, the greater my pleasure and the deeper I was transported into this other world. I was like a scientist from the middle ages being given a microscope for the first time and the higher the magnification I used, the greater was my amazement.

How on earth was that texture achieved? The colours blended in and out of shadow and light as elusively as playful ghosts. As I drank in all the detail it was clear now that the picture was mixed media: soft pencil, charcoal, watercolour and gouache.

I stood there captivated by the work of a master craftsperson.

It has been a while since art moved me with such force. I’d almost forgotten how marks on a surface could sometimes perform the miracle of turning dirt into an entire world. This painting did what exquisite art does: move me to profound depths and inspire me to try to emulate the miracle.

Footnote: I went back to the hotel to photograph the sketch. Due to the reflections on the glass I’ve had to tweak the image but the atmosphere of the original is mostly preserved. My research suggests Joseph Rideal Smith is the artist.

Disney symbolism eats itself

March 26th, 2016

On the insistence of my daughter, I accompanied her to the cinema to watch a new Disney film. As we waited for the film to start, the adverts and trailers beforehand contained a more instructive and damning critique of modern society than anything the main feature could possibly offer.

Without exception, every item promoted to the audience utilised animal characters to sell its content. Every item was a regurgitation of old ideas, whether the old ideas were good ones or not. It was an exercise in cynicism, of laziness, of the defeat of human creativity.

I let the wave of Americano wash over me as if I was a drowning man in a vast ocean of featureless water. The situation was hopeless and impossible to survive – I might as well succumb to the inevitable and give up…

Then the Disney film began and miraculously, a sand bank appeared in the middle of the ocean. I crawled half-dead onto this solid rib of crystals with mixed emotions – my grasp on life would be briefly extended but only so that I could suffer more pain and anguish before the inevitable overwhelmed me.

The intended symbolism of the film began immediately (this is a story about ‘us’, children) but a shadow symbolism quickly overwhelmed the intended lesson like a malevolent ghost haunting the author’s message.

The computer graphics in the film were the best I had ever seen. Such was the realism that it exceeded realism itself and I was left gasping at the wonders of technology. And so the symbolic reality of the situation made itself apparent to me.

I was transported back to a time centuries ago; I was a simple native that had, up to that moment, lived a perfectly satisfactory life on a secluded island before the strange dark vessel appeared on the horizon. As a yawl then slowly made its way towards the shore, I waited on the beach with a small group of my curious tribe members, eager to discover what the gods had brought us.

In our innocence we greeted the strangers with fruits and flowers. They, in turn, reciprocated with their technology – and we looked in awe at the shiny beads and buttons in the animated movies they showed us. We looked upon them beguiled and mesmerised and we were prepared to sell our souls for these worthless shards of digital glass and plastic – ‘yes’, we signalled, ‘take our hearts, our minds, we gladly give them up for your captivating technologies’.

And so now we fall sick, one by one, felled by the disease brought by the Americans, a pathogen that invades the world like a virulent strain of smallpox deliberately secreted amongst their glittering gifts.

Our real island is disappearing so the Americans reproduce it in glorious detail and colour in a virtual new world that no one can inhabit except through memory and hope…

We’re sleepwalking into a cultural desert.

On having a sense of smell.

January 15th, 2016

Our sense of smell is being revealed as an undiscovered super-sense; we can detect Parkinson’s disease just by someone’s scent, we can follow a scent-trail when blindfolded and we can detect emotional states by it.

And encountering a remembered scent can be as powerful as piece of music for transporting us back to a specific point in our past; they’re like preserved moments held in jar in a museum of ghosts.

The happiest smell of all for me is the rich cloying aroma of a fecund earth, pure and clean. A smell straight out of the Garden of Eden before the serpent visited. A smell promising the possibility of miracles and evoking a reassuring sense of perfection and order in the world. A smell to rejoice by, to come closer to life by, a smell of faeces in its proper place, a smell which one instinctively understands to be the only philosophy in life which is correct and absolute. A smell that penetrates the very mystery of life itself and reveals in its vapours the unspoken answers to all out enquiries. It is the smell of life itself.

And then there’s the hot sharp, pungent smell of over-activity, of biological mayhem, an acrid stinging smell saturated with discomfort and gripe. A smell of India and teeming bacteria.

As the body declines the more frequent ghost visitor is the dry decrepit smell of old age and infirmity, of fruitless loins and barren wombs, of sterility and shrivelled up bowels; a smell from antiquity, from Ancient Egypt artificially preserved in glass stoppered bottles and once more encountered in dusty Museums. It is the smell of the past, of history, of death.