Archive for December, 2008

The New Capitalism

Saturday, December 20th, 2008

Interesting. The mainstream media is talking about a new capitalism. There are no details as yet, just a general punt about a more caring society, of putting well being above profit. Even politicians are mouthing these platitudes; entrepreneurship with responsibility they spout.

Henry Ford famously said ‘History is bunk’. He was right in a way, lessons never seem to be learned from history.

The reality is this. A new capitalism requires change – a change in thinking, a change in values, a change in power. Those already in power instinctively resist change because they have the most to lose. Consider the argument for proportional representation. The people who advocate it are the minority parties, the ones with little power, because they have the most to gain. For it to become law however, the people in power have to agree to it and they are the ones who will lose the most. The system is far more equitable than the current first past the post nonsense but how will it come into effect?

Bankers and politicians, therefore, talking about change are creating a smoke screen. They are saying what the people want to hear but saying something and doing something are two different things. Change occurs against their will. Change comes from the outside, it is imposed by another force. To refer to history I will give the example of the poll tax which Margaret Thatcher tried to introduce. The mass of ordinary people perceived this tax to be unfair and made their feelings be known. The tax had to be scrapped.

Think about it. If you were in a position to vote yourself a bonus every year, why would you stop? If nothing prevents you from doing so you might reduce the amount to appease the general public (see, they do have power, just don’t get them mad). What needs to change is the thinking behind why financial wealth is considered the greatest achievement in our society. It’s like smoking; if you remove the perceived coolness from the act of smoking, fewer children will try it and thus avoid the resulting addiction.

For New Capitalism to work we have to become adults and put away childish things.

The meaning of life

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

Instead of asking, ‘what is the meaning of life?’ ask, ‘how can I make my life more meaningful?

The start of the Industrial Devolution

Saturday, December 13th, 2008

It is practically impossible to guess when the market has bottomed out. The stock exchanges around the world exhibit a phenomenon called a dead cat bounce. This is where prices fall so far and so fast that bargain hunters jump in and buy worthless stock. It looks like a recovery but it is not, the stock is still worthless.

The same will happen with the current recession. I believe it is a significant moment; the beginning of the Industrial Devolution.

The sacred mantra of ‘growth’ – recited by every capitalist economy – is now a bankrupt concept. Governments are, and will continue to be, in denial about this. In the coming years they will manipulate the statistics to show that growth has returned in some small measure to reassure themselves that nothing has changed but the rhetoric will sound hollow. No-one will believe them, the cat is still dead.

I predict this because I believe we will see a system failure in society. Massive unemployment, wholesale bankruptcies, reduction in public services and the loosening grip of mainstream media on the news will create a shift in public perception. Growing environmental awareness will complete the process. Profligacy and excess in all areas of society will become unacceptable or impossible and small, community based systems of commerce will begin to appear. Central government will lose more and more influence (and revenues)  and in an ironic twist, democracy will become the power of the people rather than the rich as it was intended to be. Privilege will have to earned rather than inherited.

We had better learn those old skills of self reliance and craftsmanship. Time starts now.

The day the earth stood still (film review)

Friday, December 12th, 2008

This should have been done as a tongue in cheek comedy, then at least the adults could have got something out of it. Instead it was played straight and as a result, it limited itself to being a second rate allegorical tale for pre teen children.

Some of the pre release chatter led me to believe there might be some intelligence in this modern day remake of an old sci-fi classic but intelligence and Hollywood blockbuster are terms diametrically opposed. This is absolute formula stuff; global threat, cute kid wanting to be loved, well meaning scientist, puzzled, rational aliens… The standard clichés are there too; ‘ah, these humans, they are vicious, feckless murdering bastards but, I don’t know, there is just something so goddamn cute about them. I think I will stay and die with them’. You get the picture.

The important philosophy that is at the heart of this story is debated with as much subtlety as might be displayed in a red top tabloid newspaper. The super hero robot guardian reacts to violence by reciprocating with more of the same (a strangely human characteristic) and the most risible moment in the film is when Klaatu the alien informs the well meaning scientist that humans are to be punished for misbehaving in the garden of Eden by being destroyed. The scientist cries, “We can change!’ This reminded me of another movie, a comedy, where an evil cowboy asks the voluptuous and virtuous heroine to run away with him. She demurs and sensibly points out the problem with the relationship; she was good and he was evil. The evil cowboy looks imploringly into her eyes and fiercely reassures her, “You can change!”

Yes we can change but usually for the worse. When pushed, by catastrophe or the threat of violence from a higher power for example, we can adapt.

The film must have been far longer in the initial cut because the released version has some holes in the narrative and the ending is surprisingly abrupt. There is also a scene with John Cleese, who plays a Nobel prize winning mathematician, which seems to have been gratuitously shoe-horned in. It parodies his factual audience with the Dali Lama several years ago. He explains to the superior being that humans are misunderstood and not all bad. The superior being furrows his brow and seems to be reconsidering. My, if only governments were that easy to influence.

The only real bit of critical insight in the film is when the alien asks to speak to the world leaders at the United Nations. The American secretary of state claims to have the authority of her President. The alien then asks if she speaks for the entire world. She declines to answer audibly but her silence speaks volumes.

What they should be teaching at school now

Monday, December 8th, 2008

For a number of years now some enlightened people in the academic world have questioned the value of the current curriculum in our primary and secondary schools. Any rational, forward thinking person would concur with them.

The function of schools is hopelessly out of date. They were originally designed to produce literate workers for the offices and factories of post industrialised Britain. We have long since got past that stage and what was needed next in our schools was the facilitation of creativity and happiness so that communities could be strengthened and maintained.

I use the past tense because I suddenly realised today that in order to stay ahead of the curve, such laudable subjects have now become secondary to a far more urgent subject; survival in the coming century.

I was listening to a discussion on the radio where an advocate of nuclear energy was stating her case. She pointed out that even with more fuel efficient devices, power consumption continues to increase. She gave the example of someone buying a new refrigerator which, because of its efficiency, would use less energy. Unfortunately, the buyer then tends to move the old refrigerator into the garage to keep their beer cold and so their overall power consumption increases. That was when I realised education was the key in helping our children survive the coming decades.

Power consumption has to level off and then decrease if current civilisation has a future. That means a completely new way of thinking about consumerism. For this new way of thinking to work, it has to be inculcated, from the earliest age into the next generation. It is too late for the adults. Too many of them are indoctrinated with the mantras of growth and disposability. Putting the old fridge into the garage may seem like a positive contribution to the environment but it is not. You don’t throw it away either. You dismantle it and reuse whatever parts you can before recycling those parts which cannot be utilised in other devices. The mindset has to be; ‘what if this is the last refrigerator that will ever be made?’

Children are malleable enough to accommodate a new template for living. It would be so much easier for them to make a controlled deceleration into sustainable living through education. But this won’t happen. No-one in power will have the foresight or integrity to implement such a radical shift. Politicians want power, not a sustainable future. Our children will have to take a baptism of fire when the economy implodes and they are left with only the useless information given to them by an antiquated education system to deal with the massive problems they will face.


Friday, December 5th, 2008

Driving to a gig today, the roads were clear enough to be able to pay attention to the scenery rather than the few metres in front of the car. And how beautiful it was too.

Yesterday saw heavy snowfall around here. In places it was up to 20 centimetres deep. This is rare in the UK now, thanks to global warming. I had a gig yesterday too, but most of that journey was just fighting traffic and anticipating which roads might be the least treacherous.

Today though was a real pleasure. Maybe it was the novelty of seeing snow again but there was an intense, pellucid beauty about the landscapes which softened my mood and brought joy to my life. It was if nature had thrown a clean, white sheet over the world and everything was new again and twice as bright. All the mistakes and wanton vandalism perpetrated on nature by a delinquent human race was somehow forgotten about and we could start all over again, our childish recklessness forgiven… magical.

It reminded me of a song I wrote years ago, one of the last I ever wrote and one of the best too in my opinion. It encapsulates this idea of starting anew.


I packed some clothes and I cut my hair
found the money that I hid somewhere.
In my bag, now I’m on the run,
a British passport and a gun.

Wheels are turning, I have done my duty.
East of Berlin, someone’s waiting for me.

I took some drugs and I took a ride
the driver spoke of some guy who’d died.
On the boat I watch the sea
sipping slowly some Russian tea.

Wheels are turning, I have done my duty.
East of Berlin, someone’s waiting for me.

When I see the lands I can call my own
snow will cover fields where the seeds were sown.

The art of writing great comedy material

Monday, December 1st, 2008

The first rule is to find common ground. The broader the appeal of your subject matter, the more likely people will have experienced your points of reference and the more successful your jokes will be.

For example; a lot of comedians use the Star Wars products as their source material. For any of their jokes to work on this topic, you have to have experienced these products. Now, I have only experienced one film (which I found boring – there, yes, I’ve said it!) and so none of their jokes make me laugh – who are they talking about? Usually there isn’t even a visual gag within their Star Wars routine which I can appreciate without needing the cultural reference. By narrowing your cultural reference you lose more of your audience.

One of the best exponents of using this rule is Peter Kay. Not only does he use subject matter which is familiar to the demographic sample of your typical comedy audience (pretty much the same as a cinema audience) but it is familiar to practically any demographic in the country. How many of us have been to a fair or a wedding? Even if you are not familiar with these experiences, there is enough visual humour in his performance to make the cultural reference irrelevant.

The best way to adhere to this rule is to monitor your own routine then, assuming you aren’t an astronaut or something, most of what you do will be familiar to everyone else.

For example; if you work, you probably travel to work either by public transport or by car. The next trick is to observe what you do and what everyone else does on that journey. Do this dispassionately. Look for inconsistencies, oddities and patterns. make a note of them. If you don’t write them down you will forget (you will, trust me).

Once you have gone through your entire routine for a week you should have enough notes to make a start. Pick a subject then look at the experience from a different angle. Some work is involved here and you may need to resort to creative thinking techniques such as the Lotus Blossom technique. Any decent book on creative thinking will have various exercises for you to use.

The trick here is, to adopt a different perspective. You don’t have to agree with the perspective, just adopt it and see where it takes you. Most people will have an accepted opinion about something, so if you can show the contrary or demonstrate the stupidity of such a view, humour will arise.

For example; in the days before I had a dishwasher, I would wash up by hand in a bowl in the sink. Quite often the empty bowl would be hooked onto the protruding metal nipple that anchored the chain of the plug. As the bowl filled up with water the plastic on the edge of the bowl would eventually give way and the bowl would suddenly drop an inch or so into the sink causing the water in the bowl to splash up and soak me with dirty water. This was never a gag of mine but I remember complaining to a friend about the frequency of the occurrence. As I told them the story they found it hilarious. Afterwards, I pondered on why they found it funny and the reason, I decided, was because it was so insignificant. The listener had obviously done this themselves and thought nothing of it, precisely because it was so trivial. In effect, they had no opinion about it. By complaining vociferously therefore, I had elevated it to a major issue and it was this absurdity that forced the humour.

Rhod Gilbert has a routine about a torch with a million candle power. Most people just accept the claim on the box but Rhod takes it literally and plays around with the concept – what if it only had 900,000 candle power, is that inadequate? etc.

Note also that with the increase in dishwasher sales, my story about the washing up bowl becomes less familiar to people. Eventually, if I tried to tell it, it wouldn’t make any sense to those people who had only ever experienced a dishwasher.

Next, extrapolate. By that I mean play around with it, apply whatever modification you can think of. Any modification is usually preceded with a ‘what if..?‘ question – ‘what if I exaggerate this incident, what if I take away the people, what if this principle was applied to a similar, unconnected social custom etc. Thus, even my comment about someone not being an astronaut could be utilised; what if you were an astronaut going to work, how would things be different?

By the way, if you’re an entrepreneur looking for a gap in the market, this approach will work for business as well.