Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Why do some people defend oil?

Wednesday, February 19th, 2020
Photo: Zbynek Burival from Unsplash

Photo: Zbynek Burival from Unsplash

If your wealth and power is derived from the business of selling fossil fuels then this question is redundant.

If however you have no financial investment in fossil fuels, why would you actively promote its continued use if better* alternatives exist? Most people take existing technologies for granted and generally become enthusiastic about the new alternatives and not for the old technology that is being threatened – so what’s going on?

I often run across people who actively campaign against the proliferation of renewable energy technologies and fiercely support fossil fuels that they have no investment in. This goes against any kind of logic.

If this attitude were applied across the board, would they be condemning all new innovations? And where would they set their cut-off point for acceptable technology – today, a century ago, the Stone Age?

One argument they offer is that they see renewable energy companies as being snake oil salesmen who dupe governments for huge sums of money.

The problem with this argument is that renewable energy technologies work. The argument then moves onto, they don’t work well enough or they’re just as harmful as the old technology. But all technologies have a development period where they improve beyond measure – just look at early brick-like mobile phones that could only make and receive calls to today’s tiny marvels of functionality.

The only answer I can come up with for this perverse attitude is that the fossil fuel companies have co-opted some members of the public to imagine they are crusaders for a cause (again, if the people aren’t connected to the companies in any way what drives the motivation?)

History shows time and time again that a dominant company will do everything in its power to consolidate its position in a market regardless of the cost. It will resist change that it has no control over.

Here is a classic example.

In the early days of the combustion engine there was a problem with ‘knocking’ in the car engine. Several additives to the fuel were tried to stop the problem and eventually lead was shown to be highly effective. The only problem was lead is toxic to humans and many other life forms. Fortunately, ethyl alcohol proved to be equally effective and wasn’t poisonous unless you drank it.

The oil companies went with lead and proceeded to commit the greatest man-made environmental disaster the world has ever seen. Hundreds of millions of cars all over the globe sprayed out a fine mist of lead that now covers the planet. This lead can never be removed.

Why did they choose lead?

Profits.

Tetraethyl lead could be patented and its distribution controlled; any farmer however, could distill ethyl alcohol from grain.

It was only legislation that stopped lead pollution from car engines (other pollutants are still being pumped out).

An industry that has so little regard for the safety of anyone (all the oil executives and their families were being poisoned as much as anyone else) can be expected to behave in an underhand way, so my guess is that their propaganda has radicalised enough people to form an army of opinion.

Any other suggestions as to why people who don’t financially benefit from fossil fuels help promote them would be welcome.

*A lot of what is considered to be ‘better’ is subject to a myriad of other factors and is an essay in itself.


Tracy Brabin in a Power Dress

Thursday, February 6th, 2020
Tracy Brabin in the House of Commons

Tracy Brabin in the House of Commons

Tracy Brabin was recently the subject of much discussion on social media for wearing a particular garment in the House of Commons – it caused outrage among some members of the public.

It did this because it confused certain signals in our ways of seeing.

Men are particularly conditioned to view women in a sexual way. Ours is a patriarchal society and much of our entertainment reinforces this view.

In many western films and TV, one of the signals for a woman to indicate her availability when she’s alone with a man is through the manipulation of her clothes – if she slips off of a shoulder strap, either of a dress or a bra, for example, she’s initiating foreplay. Over time, an audience learns to interpret the shorthand.

Ms Brabin’s top had an, ‘off-the-shoulder’ design and one of her shoulders was exposed while the other was not. The effect of ‘a strap’ being half way down her right arm was to give her the look (within the context of film entertainment) of someone about to undress.

In other ways, Ms Brabin conforms to a female stereotype in a film – she’s an attractive woman with long blond hair that is often worn loose so that some of it falls across one of her eyes in a seductive manner.

But Ms Brabin was wearing the top in the House of Commons where she’s an MP so within that context many men saw her clothing as inappropriate.

The House of Commons is still predominantly a male preserve despite the increasing numbers of female MPs in it. It is also replete with archaic and incomprehensible rituals that maintain the culture of male dominance. The sight of Ms Brabin disporting herself in such a setting clearly enraged some men – here was a woman in their domain, inflaming them with her sexual power – how dare she!

Of course, if Ms Brabin had been photographed against a white background wearing the top and people were asked to imagine the context with no other information to guide them, most people would assume it was taken at some fancy dinner or some other high-society function. Asymmetry is the clue.

Asymmetry is uncommon in most of our everyday attire and is therefore a sign of cultural status. Asymmetry is usually the preserve of the empowered.

Two naked shoulders on a woman during a heat wave would have probably gone unnoticed in the House of Commons but one is making some kind of statement – but how to interpret that statement?

Given our cultural conditioning, and the education of Ms Brabin, my questions are these: why did Ms Brabin choose that top for a day at work? Did she anticipate it would be provocative in the context of the House of Commons? If she did, what was she trying to achieve?

And why did she answer her critics with a list of possible interpretations for her appearance that described empowered women?

The answers lie in the struggle for power.

In our society, women have sexual power and men have political power. A woman who commands sexual power and political power is a prospect too terrifying for many insecure men to contemplate.

Who murdered the BBC?

Sunday, December 1st, 2019

Screenshot 2019-12-01 at 12.56.41 PM

Say I’m an unbiased detective and someone has told me about the murder of a large media organisation that I only have knowledge of through news reports. I’m assigned to do the investigation of the murder. I might have my theories about who did it based on the perceived attitude of the BBC and those it might have angered but I need evidence that will stand up in court so I look for likely suspects. I get a tip off that a group of Flat-Earthers did it. I’m shown circumstantial evidence that is strong enough to make me do a thorough investigation of their ringleader.

Although I maintain I’m still being unbiased, I’m looking for evidence that proves the ringleader perpetrated the crime. If I find additional evidence that confirms my suspicion I will look for more. If I don’t find any I will need another suspect and motive. Because I’m a hard nosed detective who understands human weaknesses, a lot of my evaluation of the circumstantial evidence will be based on my gut feeling. For backup, I will have my trusty Occam’s razor perpetually up my sleeve ready to deploy.

Journalists are supposed to be like detectives – unbiased investigators looking for evidence of exceptialism. But what if the force becomes corrupt and infiltrated by bent reporters?

The BBC is supposed to be an unbiased news organisation (among other things) but there are rumours that it has become corrupt and right-leaning journalists are influencing particular investigations. Moreover there is empirical evidence to support the accusation: several recent broadcast clips have been manipulated to misrepresent the truth. The BBC’s defence is ‘human error.’

How can the claim be properly investigated?

Meticulous attention to detail might do it.

I could decide to take just one broadcast slot – the six o’clock news, and ignore all the other output. I choose this slot because it carries particular influence. I then decide on a timescale – say, one year, to analyse all the broadcasts in that period. I then decide to look for news items that feature only two entities: The Blues and The Reds as they are the most significant players in the power game. I then decide to choose a topic, one that is particularly human and therefore universal. I decide to look at mentions of xenophobia, in particular, anti-Semitism and racism. Then I begin my analysis.

Say I discover that in the time period there are forty reports of anti-Semitism (almost always associated with The Reds) for every one of racism (almost always associated with the Blues)*. My impression is that the problem of anti-Semitism is forty times greater than the problem of racism. And when I look forensically at the reporting of one of the news items I see that the BBC invariably maintains its supposed unbiased position by inviting a member of the Reds to deny the accusation. Strangely, little evidence is presented in these reports, it is nearly all opinion.

As far as the BBC is concerned, it has maintained its unbiased position and yet as an uncritical viewer I get the impression that The Reds have a huge problem with one particular issue whereas the Blues are almost completely free of it.

But then out slips my Occam’s razor and I assess the likelihood of this. Humans are more alike than different so I puzzle over this huge difference in reporting. I then find evidence that suggests racism is as much an issue with The Blues as it is with The Reds – so why the discrepancy in reporting?

I now look at the backgrounds of the people working in the BBC. The vast majority share the same culture as the members of The Blues. My Occam’s razor itches for more action. It appears a lot of the top journalists at the BBC are actually on intimate terms with a lot of The Blues – now I have a motive.

This forensic analysis could reveal significant patterns in bias. It seems strange that very few are ever conducted – I wonder why? I was sent a link (thanks Karl) of one such attempt though.

One final thought. There is evidence that illegal drug taking within Parliament is rife. Where is the ongoing outrage over this? Could it be that too many politicians and journalists are involved in the activity and so don’t care for its discussion? Lucky for them they have the powers to influence which cases are investigated and which are not.

*Hypothetical figures.

The Great Climate Change Deception

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

mohamed-nohassi-186911-unsplash

Let’s ignore the fact that over 90% of scientists agree that climate change is man-made (most people thought the sun revolved around the earth at one time so consensus is not a guarantee of accuracy) and just look at the overall logic of the situation.

Today, we have fossil fuels as the main source of energy in society. We’ve been burning wood to keep warm and cook food for millennia – it’s a very old way of doing things. Oil and gas are just wood that’s more energy-dense.

Plants have harnessed the energy of the sun and wind for hundreds of millions of years to propagate themselves – this is the oldest method of all, we simply lacked the technology to take it beyond sailing ships and burning insects under magnifying glasses. Until now.

Today we have efficient solar panels, wind turbines and hydropower. This technology is still in its early stages and so the full potential of it hasn’t been realized yet.

So there’s a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. As more and more people are living in cities now, being cleaner is one benefit that will improve the health of millions of people.

A bonus of this cleaner energy is that it doesn’t increase CO2 emissions from human activity (ignoring all the associated costs of mining and processing). So regardless of whether CO2 emissions affect the climate or not, you’ve taken that possible risk out of the equation so surely that’s an improvement?

Where I struggle is when a person not connected with the fossil fuel industry insists the climate change issue is a deception – why would they take this position?

If they belonged to the fossil fuel industry then it would make sense: they stand to lose money and their job, so like any obsolete industry they will fight to the last.

But if they have nothing to lose from the switch why would they defend a giant polluter like the fossil fuel industry? Where’s the logic? Why would they be against cleaner energy, increased forestation, and greater biodiversity?

If they believe it’s a money making scam by environmentalists why do they get upset about this particular scam (remember they’re not involved in the industry) when there are far bigger ones taking place in the banking sector and in defence contracts?

What is the motivation for these people?


The Revenant

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

I finally got round to watching this magnificent film.

And watching it is pretty much all you can do because the dialogue is so incoherent that it might as well be just another layer of noise in the astonishing soundscape. I don’t know if Tom Hardy (playing Fitzgerald) was attempting to hide an atrocious American accent or what, but he’d buried it deeper than the grave he digs for Glass.

The absolute star of this film is without doubt the landscape. Shot in ultra wide angle, you genuinely get a sense of the pitiless beauty and scale of it.

As much as I enjoyed the visual journey through the landscape there were too many attendant aspects about the film that irritated me along the way like so many biting mosquitoes. In fact they drove me so mad I had to write this blog post.

I’ll ignore any historical inaccuracies depicted because they won’t bother any viewer who is unfamiliar with them. What I will cover are the obvious stupidities in the story.

Cold is a killer. Anyone who has experienced snow knows how insidious it is, an hour in it is usually enough. If you fall into a freezing river you have minutes before you succumb to hypothermia and die.

In the film, Glass crawls out of a frozen river still suffering from his life threatening injuries sustained during a bear attack but he still manages to make a small fire and dry himself out and the bear skin cloak.

I was particularly amazed by all the handy gas burners conveniently situated just below the ground in various locations. At least that’s what I guessed they were because you don’t get a bright, dancing flame a foot high from a few small twigs. The only other possible explanation is that he was burning animal fat – but where did he acquire that in the wilderness and as a starving man surely he would have eaten it first?

In one scene, Glass is laying by a campfire that seems to be burning inside a snowdrift. All around him is a treeless flat plateau of snow. Where did the wood come from? And remember, this is a man who is supposed to be so injured he can barely walk.

The incident with the disembowelled horse forced me to put acro props under my disbelief to keep it suspended. The process of eviscerating a horse with a small knife must require as much effort as it does to build a shelter. The idea of the horse still being warm is absurd. Once the animal is dead, the heat would escape its body at the same rate as any cooked meat. So spending a night in it, naked (this symbolism of him being reborn was a touch too strained here) would produce hypothermia within hours.

The climax of the film contained the worst abuses.

Upon hearing of the possible survival of Glass, the captain of the fort orders a dozen men to go out into the wilderness and search for him at night using torchlight. Seriously?

Miraculously, they find Glass. The captain is furious at Fitzgerald and on returning to the fort they discover he has vanished after ransacking the safe.

Now, a safe is supposed to keep valuable things ‘safe’ so it’s usually difficult to get into. If any passing stranger can open the safe and take whatever they want from it then it’s not a safe, it’s a cupboard.

So we now have a vicious, remorseless man, heavily armed and desperate, loose in the wilderness. How many men does the captain muster to hunt him down? Er, two – himself and the barely recovered Glass. Bit odd that, why take a dozen men to search for a harmless survivor but only two to hunt down an armed desperado?

Inevitably, the two pursuers split up as they near their quarry and Fitzgerald murders the captain. Now it’s Glass, the expert guide and survivalist, versus Fitzgerald the mercenary.

Glass allows himself to be shot as he rides his horse through open territory. Fitzgerald approaches the body to investigate it whereupon Glass pops up from the other horse that carried the dead captain.

So a construction that needed to be strong enough to support a dead body in an upright position on a walking horse can be knocked over by a single bullet fired from a distance?

It gets worse.

After a struggle, Fitzgerald runs off and Glass gives chase but at one point is unable to decide which way he went. His tracking skills that formerly allowed him to follow footsteps in virgin snow to see where a quarry went have suddenly deserted him and he has to guess on the direction.

Iñárritu, the director of the film clearly wasn’t going to be distracted in his direction; he wanted a film about one’s man’s revenge against another man in all its stripped down brutality and he wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of it, especially the laws of physics or common sense.

It’s still a film worth watching though.


Toilet door handles

Friday, February 16th, 2018
Photo: Clem Onojeg

Photo: Clem Onojeg

After I’ve been to the toilet I always wash my hands. Data shows that most food poisoning is self-inflicted by handling food with contaminated hands.

After washing my hands in a public toilet I’m invariably confronted by one (but often two) doors that need to be pulled to open them.

Knowing that many people don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet (irrespective of how dirty they might have been) I’m always loathe to soil my freshly cleaned hands on aluminium handles that are no doubt harbouring harmful bacteria.

The answer of course is simple – make the doors on exit Push instead of Pull then hygienic users can use their shoulder or elbow to push open the door. The reason they’re not configured this way is because if they were, they would invariably open into a corridor and the door would then present a hazard to anyone walking along it. Most architects obviously think a case of campylobacter is preferable to an accidental injury that could result in litigation.

But I have an answer to this dilemma: two handles.

The usual grab rail handle can be placed in the normal position for comfortable leverage by the user – roughly at shoulder height. The second handle however is set much lower down so that it requires a slight crouching position to reach it. This would mean someone using the second handle would have to exert some effort in its operation. If a person is so lazy that they can’t even be bothered to wash their hands then they are extremely unlikely to use the lower handle.  This means only conscientious people will use it and so lessen the risk of harmful bacteria collecting on it.

You’re welcome.

Where Ideas Come From

Sunday, 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

Monday, 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

Sunday, 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?

Saturday, 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