Archive for January, 2009

Riding the tiger

Friday, January 30th, 2009

An outline of my hand
It all began with word play; cult, culture – they must have the same root I thought and yet the word cult has an interpretation which is light years away from culture. Odd.

So, let’s put them together, I thought; a cult of culture… hmm, not bad, but what could the cult be about? Well, culture, obviously, maybe a brand new culture that made things up as it went along, a culture out of control…

And so the idea was born. The more I thought about it, the more ideas sparked off as ‘culture’ became the grinding stone onto which I forced the blade of ‘cult’.  It had massive irony and limitless comic potential, there might even be some high profile publicity from a cleverly worded press release somewhere.

So I wrote one. I sent it to a few friends of mine to gauge their reaction. They all thought it highly amusing and a fascinating concept. Eventually, for a joke, I emailed it to the first newspaper I thought of, one of the biggest in the land; The Sun. Within two minutes of it being sent my telephone rang and a Sun journalist was on the line asking me a series of questions, some of which centred around the practices of the cult. This took me completely by surprise and I answered his questions in a deadpan, guarded manner. To my mind, the tone of the conversation was in the desired, ironic spirit. He asked me if I had ever had a cult before. No, I answered, this was my first one. He then asked me how many members were in this cult. I answered two (which was true, in the sense that they had joined in the fun and given themselves ridiculous titles). He lost interest at this stage and asked me to contact him again when the cult had become bigger.

“How many members would it need to be before it was ‘bigger’?”, I asked.

“Oh, half a dozen.” he answered, then put the phone down.

Excitement got the better of me as I marvelled at the ease with which I had got one of the country’s biggest newspapers interested. I only needed four more members and nation-wide exposure for the cult was to be had. Thus started the recruitment drive.

I sent an email to my freethinking friends explaining the situation with the caveat that there could be a slight possibility that The Sun may want to name or photograph them. This was possibly their fifteen minutes of fame that Andy Warhol had promised them and I eagerly awaited the flood of membership applications to come in, along with their creatively absurd, self appointed titles.

Silence. Puzzled, I telephoned one or two to ask why they hadn’t responded. It turned out that they were nervous about the possible publicity and ‘fallout’ from the cult label, especially with the tabloid Sun newspaper reporting it. I should explain that the people I spoke to are artists and musicians.

I was surprised and amazed. The concept was a joke, surely anyone could see that? Apparently not, irony is not a strong point with The Sun (I have to confess I never read it and I am only aware of its reputation from the law suits filed against it by wealthy individuals). How they would report my story would probably be in keeping with their reputation. The Sun was a tiger and I had invited my friends to join me in riding it.

I searched for allies further afield and contacted people who I thought would be sympathetic to the core message of resisting corporate homogeneity. Silence. I was beginning to feel like a pariah at this stage. Even ‘hard left’ freethinkers balked at the idea of ‘coming out’ about joining a spoof cult. Artists told me they were afraid it might hurt their career. Artists. What is the job of an artist? No, seriously, what is the purpose of art?

This was turning into something I had not expected and raised some profound questions about mind control. It was almost as if my joke about a spoof cult being out of the control of the authorities had inadvertently exposed a far bigger, more insidious and powerful cult; the cult of conformity. Even artists were ‘afraid’ to appear provocative, controversial, creative. What does that say about the society we live in? We hear stories of tyrannical regimes that overtly use fear tactics to keep their population under control. How much cleverer is it then to use covert fear so that the population are not even aware that they are being controlled? Isn’t this one of the definitions of a cult?

Maybe I’m reading too much into this but I find it strange that everyone liked the idea of the cult of culture and yet very few people were willing to get involved with it (incidentally, my thanks go to Dave Pollard, an established ’serious’ author in Canada who was one of the three other people who did respond to my invitation and who adventurously joined in the fun). Being ’serious’ at something, doesn’t disqualify you from having fun as well.

Even on this very small scale I got an insight into the power of ideas and our automatic, irrational reaction to new ones. Those who propose radical new ideas have my utmost respect because they must know that, if reasoned convincingly enough, their ideas necessarily threaten an existing power base. This is why people go to war over ideas. What courage Charles Darwin must have had to put his name to such an heretical idea as a theory of evolution.

As for the cult of culture, I intend to turn it into a routine for stand-up comedy and possibly a cartoon strip. All the jokes will be at the expense of ourselves.

Inventions waiting to be found

Saturday, January 24th, 2009

Have you ever wondered how an invention seems to have several independent inventors? The telephone, for example was patented by Alexander Graham Bell just hours before Elisha Gray submitted his patent. How amazing is that?

Not much at all. I have long suspected that our brains work in similar ways so that when there are enough ‘clues’ to a puzzle we will all eventually figure out what the puzzle is. Admittedly, some people will take longer than others but most people will figure stuff out using the same process. Often, this process is non-verbal; our subconscious simply presents the picture of the solution to the conscious part of our brain. We need the clues though; the Fosbury flop couldn’t have come about without the introduction of the inflatable mattress, as a ‘flop’ into a sand pit would have resulted in a broken neck. Similarly, electricity and one or two other things was needed to be in the world before curious minds could start to see new connections and the telephone could be invented.

The same principle obviously must operate for jokes. Indeed, I have proof that it does.

Years ago I had a routine which included a joke about blister packs. I would complain about them and describe how you need a Swiss army knife to get into them. I then tell a story about needing to remove a stone from a horses hoof. To do this I would ideally need a Swiss army knife. So I subsequently bought one. Which came in a blister pack…

And here is a Basic Instruction strip which reproduces the joke in a slightly different way.

There is a theory in comedy which proposes that jokes can be created in three different ways;

  • a flash of original inspiration on seeing possible ‘clues’ to a potential joke
  • hearing a good joke, forgetting about the joke but then subconsciously remembering the joke when one of the ‘clues’ is spotted and then mistakenly attributing it as your own flash of inspiration
  • deliberately stealing a joke from someone else

Well as far as I know, this joke of mine has not been posted on the internet and Scott is in the USA so it would be unlikely he could have heard it and then subconsciously stolen it from me. This means certain jokes lend themselves to being found, in the same way that evolution would eventually throw up the same universal solutions to a problem – flight for example.

Unfortunately, this means we aren’t half as clever as we like to think we are (I deliberately stole that line from a popular song). To a higher intelligence we must appear as predictable as ants.

War and money

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

On 9/11 as the twin towers in New York burned, Jo Moore, a lowly government spin doctor in London, sent an email which stated it was a good day to “bury” bad news about the government. She was later excoriated by the media for this and was forced to resign.

Then tonight, on television, a hedge fund manager, David Yarrow, proudly told the story of how within minutes of the first plane hitting one of the towers, he was on the telephone ’shorting stock’ that was likely to suffer in the aftermath. Presumably he was proud about this because he was ’sharp’ enough to make money out of the situation.

Okay, so you tell me the difference between this insignificant girl in the government composing an email and this parasitic city trader also taking advantage of the situation. I didn’t see him in the news being spat upon by the media days after 9/11.

I’m not quite sure who I’m assassinating here, David Yarrow or the hypocritical, cretinous media.

Martin Luther King day

Monday, January 19th, 2009

On 1st December 1955 Rosa Parks sat on a bus in Alabama and made history. Afterwards she said she was tired that day. Not physically tired but spiritually tired of the racial segregation she had had to put up with all her life. So she refused to budge for a white skinned human being.

Here is another story of outrageous injustice, of human depravity and shamefulness. When is someone going to make history for the new segregated, the poor? Who will make a stand against the corruption in the capitalist system? Surely the inequalities in this current financial scandal are as bad as any apartheid practised by white supremacists throughout the world. The supremacists today are a different breed. They are a minority still but their ideology is now arrogantly flaunted on our city streets and so powerful is it that the poor think it is the natural order of things. These supremacists have no need for the shameful, anonymous white hoods and gowns of their forefathers. Their burning crosses have been reworked into the sign of the dollar and now their howls of ecstasy are unbridled as they dance in celebration of their naked greed.

Except the truth is these people are parasites on every working family, cowardly parasites that produce nothing and who will not take responsibility for their actions. And we let them walk the streets with impunity.

Maybe it is because this segregation is not as directly visible as a black and white one but conceptually, it is just as repugnant. Why is it tolerated? And how do we fight it? Rosa could sit tight then get arrested to make her point. But against the inequalities of greed…where can the mythology be created? Any ideas?

Swimming with sharks

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

Oh this is good. This is really good. Protesters wanting to stop a new runway from being built have bought a parcel of land that sits in the middle of the proposed runway. To make things even more difficult for the planners they have gone on to divide the land up into even smaller chunks and sold them onto people living all over the world – an administrative nightmare for a compulsory purchase order.

What is so good about this is the tactic. They have learned from the masters; multinationals.

I read of one supermarket (Tesco I think it was) that bought a tiny strip of land measuring only three or four feet wide on a vacant plot near one of its own supermarkets purely to stop a rival supermarket from setting up in competition.

Multinationals have hundreds of these kind of tricks, most of them legal. To fight them you need to play the same game but be just that bit more creative.

Hyping hyperbole

Monday, January 12th, 2009

Sitting in a cinema with my brother in law many years ago, we watched a trailer for a movie which starred Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone. At the final climax of the trailer the gravel voiced narrator boomed, “Stallone! Stone!” to which my brother in law added, “Turkey!”

Even from the trailer it was apparent that this film would stink. To be honest, I never saw the film nor the poster advertising it but I would bet my house that the poster had snippets of reviews that would have shouted things like “dazzling”, “stunning” and “not to be missed”. Various trade journals and newspapers would be listed underneath these affirmations followed by more stars than even the Hubble telescope could take in.

The weird thing is, Hollywood has been promoting its films like this for decades. And probably every cinema goer in the world has by now realised that these testimonials bear no relation to the quality of the film on offer. None. You have to rely on word of mouth from a like minded person to get an objective opinion. So why does Hollywood persist with this strategy? Here are some possibilities;

  • It must work. My empirical evidence suggests that it doesn’t, but maybe my brother in law and I are exceptions.
  • People forget. They believe the hype, go see the film, are disappointed but then convince themselves it was a one off or they must have been feeling a bit under the weather that day.
  • Hollywood is bankrupt of ideas. This has my vote. Hollywood can almost be lumped in with the Financial sector. It has very little to do with entertainment. It is run by fund managers who crave certainty and the familiar, so where possible, things are done conservatively and based on a formula. Most of the films coming out of Hollywood confirm this automated view so it makes sense to extrapolate this to their marketing as well.

Here is my idea for an interesting Channel 4 documentary. Make a list of the worst films ever released (using all the available criteria – box office takings, critical reviews, fan web sites etc.). Dig out the posters that initially promoted the films. Make a list of all the trade journals and newspapers quoted on the posters. Go to the offices of these organisations and attempt to find the person who actually wrote that glowing review. If they exist, ask them what the hell they were thinking, or what they were paid by the distributors (delete whichever is inapplicable) to write such nonsense. These people can then be used as a guide for what not to watch in the future if they subsequently give a film a glowing review.

If such a documentary was made I can imagine a ‘MAD’ magazine type explanation for the reviews. The journalist would say, “yes I did write that but it appeared out of context from this sentence, ‘The sheer incompetence of this film is dazzling’”. Or they would say, “Yes I did write that but I was writing about another film entirely. They’ve taken the entire space/time continuum of existence out of context”.

Good-bye Seth Godin

Friday, January 9th, 2009

He’s the bible of marketing. And like the bible, for every story he writes about in his blog you can find another one of his stories which contradicts it.

I’m not quite sure what his stance is. He’s a bit like the magician who’s magic is to reveal how a trick is done. He’s a marketer right, so is this a clever marketing ploy to stand out from the other marketers – the marketeer who reveals the marketing tricks? Does this make him the uber marketeer, evil incarnate, or some kind of anti marketeer hero?  Or is his mission just to be talked about like a novelty product? Well, that must be working because I’m writing about him.

Some of the tricks he reveals are a bit lame too (is that because I know most of this marketing theory?) – all marketeers are liars. Uh-huh, revelatory stuff. Presumably this title is a reworking of the ancient joke as first told by an Athenian stand up comic; “all Athenians are liars”.

I reckon a lot of his warmed over writings are due to the soul destroying tyrannical demands of daily posts. You have to have a regular trick to deal with that and in this post about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book this is the one he uses, “So, success is due to 10,000 hours of hard work according to the research.” he says. “But not always, look at these exceptions. Er, so what am I saying here?”

Here’s another example of his contrariness. He rails against consumerism, we don’t need any more stuff he exhorts. But look at all the books Seth has for sale on his blog. Do we need all those books? Did he have to write so many, why couldn’t he get it all into one book? But he is in the game of selling more books, more stuff.

A person can only take so much cognitive dissonance.

It’s such a fine line he treads; as I read I ask, “am I being had or aren’t I?” Ultimately, what he says is “Nobody knows anything”, but he pretends to know a bit more than his readers, otherwise why should they buy his books?

My best answer is that his books are specious, which is what marketing does best, so hats off to Seth for doing such a great job and having a huge readership (but is that doing a great job?). Hey, this ’set ‘em up to knock ‘em down’ game is addictive; I could do this all day…

It took me a long time to justify this post. I have a rule of courtesy that states, only ever offer an opinion when it is asked for. But then be ruthlessly honest with that opinion. Mr Godin didn’t ask for my opinion so can I stay true to my rule? Yes. Because I haven’t forced my opinion on him. Unless he reads my blog, he won’t know about it. And if he reads my blog then by default, he is soliciting my opinion.

And so I am removing his name from my blogroll. I just don’t feel his blog provides enough interesting material to recommend him to the kind of readers I would like to have.

Robbing banks

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Looking at my credit card statement the other day I noticed an item that was twice the amount it should have been. I contacted the firm that supplied me the part and pointed out the discrepancy between the price they gave me and the amount debited. They checked their records and told me it was the bank, and not them, that had made the error.

I’m supposed to be getting a refund, but of course, I have to monitor my account if I want to be sure of actually getting the money back.

The thing is, has anyone, ever, been undercharged or overpaid by a bank? Ever? I’ve never met anyone.

An idea

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

In my last post I wrote about the second world war and the rationing of food and how it was made illegal to waste food. If they could do that then, why can’t they do the same today but with energy?

It’s not just about the money anymore

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

At a family party the other day I noticed my brother’s television was on standby. As we were partying, I didn’t expect him to suddenly start watching television so I pointed this out to him. He interpreted my observation as some kind of criticism and I could see from his expression he was preparing his ground.

“I’m paying for the energy so I can do what the hell I like with it.” he said in a mock imperial tone. It’s amazing what a couple of drinks can do to somebody.

“But you’re wasting the energy and this benefits no-one.” I responded.

There then ensued a classic conversation which you could probably multiply by many millions; “Me turning off one tv isn’t going to make any difference.” he asserted.

I didn’t bother to point out that his six watts multiplied by several million other six watts wasted by individual people leaving their tv’s on standby amounted to, well you get the picture.

But it was his unswerving belief that because he had paid for it that he could ‘do what the hell he liked with it’ that made me realise the world had changed. Maybe a few years ago the majority of people would have agreed with him. But today, he is on shaky ground. It is only a short while ago that someone would have insisted, “I paid for that slave and I will do whatever the hell I want with it.” And so they did.

But civilisation becomes more conscious, more responsible, more moral as time passes. In the second world war it was illegal in England to waste food (strange that they had to introduce such a law for starving people. Recent documents show that the government during the war were gorging themselves on gourmet meals while everyone else was on rations. Did they want to make sure that everyone else wasn’t being as profligate as they were?). Slavery is not tolerated in a civilised society today. And if we reduce this monetary stance to its absurd level, what happens then? Imagine a man who becomes so rich and powerful that he is able to purchase the entire world. Is it still acceptable for him to declare, “I paid for this world and I will do whatever the hell I like with it.”?

No, it is not. It’s not just about the money anymore. It’s about me, my children, our town, our country, our planet.

Your money’s no good here.