Monday, December 02, 2013

Review of 'Dirty Wars'

A documentary presented faux-documentary thriller, with place captions to explain where the action is coming from next, arty shots through tunnels, and so on. But the message is a serious one, about the assassination squads and drone strikes  that are the body of America's 'War on Terror'. Scahill's film, which focuses on the collateral damage  of these tactics, is impeccably liberal. He is outraged that America isn't better than this, and he wants us to be be outraged about the continuity between Bush's strategy and Obama's. In truth there was little that outraged or even surprised me, except for the incident in which Obama personally intervened to keep a Yemeni investigative journalist locked up because he was getting near to the truth about the involvement of Americans in the obliteration of a Bedouin clan with no links to Al Qaeda who just happened to be in the wrong place.

Review of Aharon Appelfeld's "Badenheim 1939"

I really didn't like this book, even though it is beautifully written and a good translation. I think that I don't like it because it is such a thoroughly Zionist perspective on the holocaust. It focuses on a group of German/Austrian Jews in a spa resort who wilfully refuse to see the increasingly obvious signs around them that something terrible is happening. While the 'Sanitation Department' fences them they continue to obsess about music and eat pastries. Even when the food starts to run out they refuse to see what is happening to them and what is so obviously going to happen.

At one level it's possible to see this as a universal fable about denial, but I think that Appelfeld, as a mainstream Israeli writer and a holocaust survivor himself is writing about more than this. His own experience of the Holocaust was nothing to do with that of German/Austrian Jews. He hid in the forests and served with a Red Army unit as a cook. But the Zionist narrative spends a lot of time on German Jews, even though they were a tiny minority of holocaust victims, because they illustrate so well the argument that assimilation is doomed to failure. Appelfeld emphasises how little the Jews in his story feel for their Jewish identity, how important German high culture is to them.

He also seems to have very little sympathy for them. They don't have any sort of inner life; we just see their increasingly obnoxious behaviour and listen to their pretentious speech.
It's hard to avoid the implication that they have brought their fate upon themselves, by their bad choices and their refusal to see what is going on. If this isn't victim-blaming I don't know what is.

[Spoiler Alert] If there is any doubt about this the final passage of the book drives the lesson home. The Jews are marched towards cattle trucks for deportation, and their 'leader' reassures himself that the filthy state of the train is surely proof that their journey will be a short one. Even as they are being deported he continues to believe the best of the Germans. It is very moving, and it moves you to where the author wants you to go. It doesn't seem to me to be an exploration of denial in general, or even about the holocaust in general, but rather a polemic against Jews who thought they were part of European civilisation.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Shame that the first Firefox OS phones are so bad

I bought a ZTE Open for my son. His cheapo Android had more or less broken and it seemed a good time to try one out, what with having written the book and all that.

It had received some bad reviews but some people know, really picky. Maybe it wasn't so bad. And why not try it out on someone else?

Sadly it really was that bad. The touchscreen was unusable, the camera rubbish, and he couldn't make it sync with the contacts in his Google account.

He gave it half an hour before he put it back in the box and went back to the broken cheapo one.

This doesn't prove that all Firefox OS phones will always be bad, but it does make you wonder what ZTE - and the mobile operators who are putting some hopes behind Firefox OS as a way to counter the duopoly - are playing at. Why release something this bad?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review of 'The Fifth Estate'

Saw this a few hours ago. I thought it was good - much better than the mainstream reviews suggested, and managing quite well to show at the same time that Wikileaks is important but Assange is a bit of a creep. Too much sympathy to the US Government in my view, because that's where all of the human interest stuff is located; no human interest in the people who are the victims of what the US government does or sponsors. The Kenyans who are victims are pretty much faceless - we don't build any emotional connection with them before they are assassinated.

But a a good film for the most part, and engrossing despite the length.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

A modest proposal to help support internet privacy

Recent revelations about PRISM and TEMPORA have made people more aware about the threats to their privacy on the internet. There have also been concerns about commercially motivated data harvesting, though these have rather paled into insignificance in the light of the governments' apparently illegal data gathering practices.

Some internet users have responded by suggesting that we all ought to use better encrypted services and blocking software. There are doubts as to how effective this can be, especially since the government appears to have an armlock on the providers of these services. My modest proposal is for a different, smokescreen-like approach. I suggest it would be useful if our browsers generated masses of false data about our search terms and browsing habits.

Something similar has been suggested before, as in this article and also here. A similar approach has also been proposed in terms of generating fake GPS location data.

This could be delivered via a browser plug-in, like AdBlock. The spoofing and false search terms could be regularly updated in the plug in. On the model of the World Community Grid the plug-in could be only active when the users were not actively using their PCs. Of course, it would be of fundamental importance that those who managed this process were perceived to be completely trustworthy; otherwise the plug-ins could be manipulated for commercial purposes, or to support objectives that those who had joined this activity would not endorse.

This is particularly important because the network of participating PCs could be used in something very similar to a botnet orchestrated distributed denial of service attack, albeit one with the consent of the PC owners. In the context of full consent, though, this could be seen as a legitimate form of protest, analogous to signing petitions or sending emails of protest.

I look forward to being advised by my more code-savvy friends whether this approach would be feasible and whether it has disadvantages that I haven't thought of.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Review of "Heretic's guide to global finance: hacking the future of money" by Brett Scott

This is an important and interesting book that covers a lot of ground in a succinct and clear way. It explains a lot about how the world of finance works and suggests some ways in which activists can take it on. If you know nothing about finance and financial markets you should definitely read it.

If you are looking for a rant about the iniquities of global finance then look elsewhere. Scott has set out to do something different in this book. As well as an account of how finance works (rather than a critique of how it doesn't), it is also an exploration of the possibilities to act on the financial system – both through disruption and also through the creation of positive alternatives and exploitation of those spaces that do exist for creativity.

For me, I'd have preferred a little more of the critique, although I accept that this would have been hard in a short, focused book – and I acknowledge that there are plenty of other books that cover this ground. Scott is strong on the rationale for the whole edifice of derivatives, hedge funds and so on, and I'd have liked him to apply his strong facility for clear explanation to the irrationality – the short-termism, the way it necessarily drives projects which wreck the planet, the corruption...(I'd have preferred if he'd dropped the references to 'gonzo' engagement, which didn't really work for me).

A more serious issue is about the whole notion of 'engagement' with the world of finance. 'Engagement' has two separate, almost opposite meanings; you engage with the enemy by fighting against it, and you engage with something else as an alternative to fighting against it – 'constructive engagement', in the language of the diplomats. There is a sense in which Scott obfuscates the difference between the two meanings; are we engaging with the world of finance to educate our side as to how it works and what's wrong with it, or because we think it is actually susceptible to influence and capable of change so as to not be evil?

There is a similar issue at the heart of the alternative financial models and entities that he discusses, in what for me was easily the best and most useful part of the book. Unlike the Bolshevik tradition, which argues that nothing much useful can be done until capitalism has been overthrown, and unlike the social democratic tradition which argues that capitalism can be reformed bit by bit until it will no longer be capitalism, the anarchist and syndicalist traditions thought that it was worth creating pre-figurative institutions so as to 'build the new world within the shell of the old'. It's a lovely image, and it's hard to resist the appeal of the idea; why not make things now that are harbingers of the world we want to make, and at the same time create something that is worthwhile in itself? The book has lots of examples of projects in this spirit, and Scott's blog (Suitpossum) has even more. They are inspirations and models, and they deserve the attention he gives them.

That said, it's important to realise that this path, as much as the other two, is strewn with the corpses of failures – the co-ops that went bust through incompetence, the union-owned enterprises that turned out to be no better as employers than their capitalist counterparts, and so on. Each of these failures affects not only the people involved, but all those who were inspired and believed, and who learned that nothing can be changed. For some people – especially those who work in start-ups – failures are as valuable as successes, because you learn so much from them. But social movements are not venture capitalists, and they can't afford so many failures if they are going to keep activists and others involved. Campaigners need a string of little victories, no matter how small, to keep the troops motivated.

But this is nevertheless a great book, with a great set of references and further reading. More people on the anti-capitalist left need to involve themselves in what finance is like, if only to answer the argument that this is the only way that a complex technological and economic system can be organised.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Review of "Friends with Benefits"

Enjoyable quirky sort of anti-romcom romcom. Some plot and character implausibilities, but also some sharp dialogue and nice observations; better than average for the genre. Interesting use of contemporary technology elements to expedite elements of the plot (smartphones, voice mail)...funny though how no-one in this film seems to have heard of social media.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Review of This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson

This was recommended by someone that I trust, but I really didn't like it. It is overlong and the writing is not that good. Fitzroy seems to have been an interesting character who was badly treated and under-appreciated, but this book makes him about to be something like a saint. His hunches are always right, he is always on the right side of every argument, and his thoughts are almost always honourable. His main character flaw - his terrible temper and his bipolar disorder - is presented as something entirely external to him. I don't want to diminish the illness, but the way it is described means that it is nothing to do with Fitzroy's self. The book is also entirely sympathetic to Fitzroy's politics - he is a reactionary Tory paternalist. Everyone else (including other Tories) are presented as cynical and corrupt, especially the Liberals and the Radicals. The Chartists get a walk-on part as a ravening mob. Liberal factory owners are hypocrites. Only Tory landowners have the real interests of the common people at heart (I bet David Cameron would love this book). Only believing Christians who think that savages have immortal souls that can be saved for God are not racists. As a naval officer Fitzroy maintains iron discipline (including just the one flogging) but his men respect him for it.

Perhaps the worst thing about the book is the portrayal of Darwin, who comes across as vain, pompous, cowardly, unreliable, snobbish and racist (a proto-social Darwinist, looking forward to the extermination of inferior races). The book really is a hatchet job here. No petty thought of Darwin's is too trivial to be described; imagine a biography of Martin Luther King that recorded his thoughts about the footwear of the people he met. Now I am not a Darwin scholar, but I have read his account of The Voyage of the Beagle, and he comes across there as a really great guy - someone I'd happily have spent time with. Of course that's his account and necessarily biased, but even so - the things in which he takes pleasure, and the things that he hates (including racism and slavery) suggest to me that he was not much like the Darwin of this book.

I am bemused by all the people who think that this book is so great; what else do they read?

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Review of 'Blue Jasmine'

As the mainstream reviews say, this is a long-awaited return to form by Woody Allen - a serious, sombre drama centred on the character flaws of Jasmine. I don't want to write a spoiler (even though approximately no-one reads these reviews), and it's difficult to write much about this without giving away the progressive of the narrative. Not that it's a plot driven film, but Jasmine's personality and history is at least partially revealed in stages, and knowing what these were going to be would spoil the film.

Suffice it to say, then, that this is a pretty much perfect film in dialogue, appearance and narration. It is about the nastiness of the rich and powerful, and the ways in they screw over the lives of those that they touch. Cate Blanchett is great as the spoiled, selfish, self-deluding Jasmine. The film manages to convey the pathos of a fall from a great height, and to engage us emotionally with it, without evoking a shred of sympathy - pretty impressive, I'd say.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review of 'Another Year'

I am not one of those who treasures everything that Mike Leigh does, but this was great - a really touching, poignant portrayal of late middle age. The central characters are Tom and Gerri, a contentedly married middle-aged middle-class couple (he's a construction geologist, she's a counsellor in a GP surgery) and the others all are their friends or relatives; but for me the show was rather stolen by Mary, Gerri's colleague who is just not very good at life. She's a bit of a drunk without being a real problem-drinker alcoholic (that is, her drinking is not a problem for anyone else), she has a string of failed relationships, an imaginary relationship with her friend's grown-up son...and the fact that she is a failure but not a disaster makes her more sad and more believable. Can't stop thinking about her. Tom's angry, distant nephew who turns up late and swearing at his mother's funeral, and his silent, emotionally constipated brother Roger are great characters too. This is a real human tragedy, without catastrophes - just ordinary sadness.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Review of Elysium

This was enjoyable, exciting, and – most necessary on this occasion – distracting. It’s not nearly as bad as some of the really hostile reviews have made out. Its heart is in the right place. Unlike a lot of dystopian films, it is most definitely on the side of the 99%, who are portrayed as real people with hopes, fears and pains. It’s not subtle, but it manages to do this quite quickly, by engaging emotionally with a group of illegal migrants trying to bypass the border controls to break into Elysium. Its sympathies are with these people, not with the cossetted elite on whose behalf the security apparatus – managed by Jodie Foster as a chillingly efficient head of security – work to exclude them. I liked the way that even the Mexican drug gangs who seemed to dominate the Los Angeles of 2154 are portrayed with some affection; they are also real people, with hopes and dreams, and sometimes with nice eyes.

It is striking looking too. Like its predecessor District 9, it really captures the cyberpunk aesthetic, of a future already worn out and gritty. The fact that the earth-bound elements of this future actually exist – the Los Angeles scenes were filmed in an enormous Mexican rubbish dump – makes this more intense. There are a few nice jokes too – the evil CEO who runs the armaments and security conglomerate is called Carlyle, and Jodie Foster’s character is called Delacourt (after the merchant bank?).

But there is lots about the film that’s not so good. The satire on the corporate controlled world is weak. It just looks like all of the other brutal repressive dystopias, with brutal droid police. Although Matt Damon’s plastic-headed robot parole officer is a nice touch, there is little sign of soft power, consent manufacture or distraction. There is politics on Elysium but not on Earth.

The future technology is very unimaginative. People in 2154 still hold phones up to their ears, use QWERTY keyboards, connect their devices with long trailing cables. The most innovative piece of technology – apart from the clapped-out spaceships and the torus space station itself – is a transparent PC monitor that John Carlyle uses at once point, still typing on a conventional keyboard. And there seems to be only one giant corporation in the future, rather than the screaming multiplicity of brands that we live among now. Why should that be?

And the film is carried along by action (mainly violent) rather than by plot or character. Only Jodie Foster’s character, and the Afrikaner psychopath covert agent – are remotely interesting. Most of the plot elements, the politics and the scenario, are all in place within 20 minutes, and after that it all looks rather like a Playstation first person shooter, as did District 9.

Still, it’s hard not to like. I enjoyed it more for my recent discovery that Matt Damon, who I never really liked as an actor, grew up in leftist commune with favourite Marxist historian Howard Zinn, and is genuinely in sympathy with the film. See, there is a point to reading celeb interviews after all.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Reflections on William Morris

I went with friends to the William Morris Gallery on Saturday. It was a lovely day, the gallery had lots of beautiful things to look at, and items from Morris's personal and business history. Morris was for the most part a top bloke - against anti-Semitism in the left at a time when it was mainly acceptable, an opponent of authoritarian tendencies in the SDF and a genuine democrat, with awareness of the ironies of his position as a supplier of fancy furnishings to the idle rich.

So what is it about him that gives me the creeps? Partly I think it's the whole Merrie England thing. There is a long tradition on the right of celebrating a pre-industrial time of harmonious, organic community, before capitalism and industrialisation. Philip Blond, the 'red tory' and sometime advisor to David Cameron on 'big society', is one of the latest manifestations of this, but it has a long pedigree among both the mainstream right and the far right. Sometimes these people call themselves 'Tory Anarchists'. It's mixed up with a preference for Medieval art and craft alongside imagined Medieval social relations. Chesterton is a very articulate spokesman for this ideology.

The trouble is that there are those on the left who are attracted to this - they like the idea of small communities, simple life, self-sufficiency, localism, craft work rather than industrialisation. Of course there are left-wing versions of this too...and some versions that are just not too picky about who they hang out with. I don't have a problem with localism; I do have a problem with those who can't tell the difference between friends who advocate it, and enemies who affect to for entirely other reasons.

I think that my problem with Morris is that he is just too close to all this - the medievalism, the preference for craftwork over industrial production; even though he is himself a decent sort he acts as a sort of gateway drug for reactionary ideas within the left.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Review of Wadjda

This is the only Saudi film I've ever seen (well, a Saudi-German co-production) and it was thoroughly depressing. It focused on the life of a young girl in Riyadh, who is a bit of a tomboy and wants to have a bike so that she can race with a her young male friend - they are both about ten.

The depiction of the life of women - young and old - is so sad, and so oppressive, that it for once made me feel ashamed to be male. Every aspect of life is controlled and repressed; most of the repressing is done by other women - teachers, parents - and most of it is about conforming to an impossible code of modesty and honour.

Some of the posters for the film (not the one on the right, they must have used a different one in the UK) give the impression that there is a certain coming-of-age, feel-good dimension to the film; they show the girl's foot on the pedal of the bike. Actually it's nothing like that at all, just unremitting misery for most of the running time. The closest thing to it is The Handmaiden's Tale, except that this is real, not science fiction.

Good thing that the EDL are not smart enough to organise sponsored showings all over the country. It's hard to feel warm about Islam after watching this. Just as well that I know that the Wahhabism  that the Saudis are successfully spreading throughout the Muslim world is not the only kind that there is.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Review of BlancaNieves

A really enjoyable, beautiful modern black and white silent film - funny, sad, totally engaging. Loosely based on Snow White, this is a very Spanish film, with lots of heavy Catholicism and bullfighting. It's set in the 1920s (ending in 1929), that is during the proto-fascist dictatorship of Primo de Rivera - though there is no sign of this. Except for a brief glimpse of a Zeppelin over the bullfight ring, there is almost no sign of the modern world at all.

But it is really beautiful, lots of stunning composition and cinematography, great silent acting, and some really good visual gags. And the wicked stepmother Encarna (played by Maribel Verdu, and somewhat reminiscent of Joan Collins) is really, really wicked. I note in passing that she enjoys S&M sex with her lover, the family chauffeur, who she also collars like a dog in one scene. As I have written elsewhere, these days only S&M sex is transgressive enough to count as really dirty in films. Vanilla sex is just too commonplace to have any symbolic force.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Actually, they did tell me all of this when I did A level economics in the 1970s

...which is no reflection on Chang, just on how far mainstream economics has become dominated by ideology and equations. There is nothing in here which would be a surprise to any economist (or politician) from outside the Anglosphere. Neo-classical economics doesn't describe the real world very well and is a poor basis for economic policy or business strategy. Pretty much everyone seriously interested in economics knows this except the kleptocracy in whose interest the UK and USA are both run, and their lackeys who help them do the actual running. Come to think of it, they probably know this too, but it serves them well to keep the rest of us doped up on free-market fairy tales.

This is nicely written - very clear, ordinary language, not an equation or a diagram in sight. It's not by any means anti-capitalist. HJC says 'capitalist is the worst system apart from all the others', and he clearly means it. This view is not really examined, and there is no real consideration of any of the alternatives, apart from the way that the USSR tried to do socialism. There isn't even a proper evaluation of that.

Still, it does at least point out that there are other ways of doing capitalism, and that there is some theoretical justification for this within economics as well as from ethics and politics.  Perhaps some New Labour policy wonks will read on the flight over for their next fact-finding trip to America, and perhaps something will seep in and remain next time they have to write a briefing paper. Perhaps.

Review of The Company You Keep

I absolutely loved the book, and I only quite liked the film. Even though it was an independent production, it still felt Hollywood-ized. At times I felt the book was just a tad too sympathetic to the Weather Underground, but there was no such danger with the film. I haven't done a textual comparison between the book and the film's dialogue, but it felt like most of the politics had been squeezed out of it. There wasn't much sympathy for the Weather people at all - all of that was reserved for those who wanted out of it. It was much more of a conventional 'clear my name' and 'fugitive' type film. The FBI agents didn't seem menacing - the close-ups humanized them. The Osbornes didn't have the right-wing populist politics that they had in the book. And the actors were all much too old - Robert Redford looked at least 70, which made the chronology a little nonsensical.

Still pacey and enjoyable, but a missed opportunity.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Review of The Bling Ring

Bit of a disappointment. The review in the LRB (of the book, not this film) made the whole thing sound terribly post-modern (well, post-post-modern) and interesting, about the intersection of morality, celebrity and criminal justice - but it was mainly just an annoying brat-movie. Occasionally it showed the film it could have been, which somehow made it worse. Curiously, apart from the stealing thing, these kids are model teenagers; they do a little under-age drinking (it wouldn't be under-age in the UK - they are mainly 18 plus) but that's it. No drugs, no sex. Not even a snog, although they all look like models. Can they really spend all that time on the internet without ever looking at...well, you know...

Monday, June 10, 2013

A fast-moving industry

Last week I demonstrated to my colleagues how cool and down with the kids I was by knowing about the Dark Internet, and proposing that we collaborate on a report incorporating stuff like encrypted digital cash, Silk Road, and the ToR network. I had the satisfaction of discovering that they hadn't heard of most of this.

This morning the ToR network and the subject of the Dark Internet was on BBC Radio 4's utterly mainstream middle-of-the-road Today program.  Even mentioned the way that ToR was created by the US Navy. I feel very superfluous.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Review of 'Behind the Candelabra'

Sad, gritty, depressing film about Liberace's young lover. No positive depiction of relationships between gay men as based on love and respect; just damaged people exploiting each other and adding to the damage. Liberace is implausibly in the closet (did anyone not know he was gay? Really?), and following plastic surgery on himself, insists that the young Scott also has facial surgery to make him look more like Liberace himself. Surely anyone who doesn't walk at this point is damaged beyond words, and probably beyond repair.

But Scott goes through with the surgery and spends the rest of the film with strangely shiny cheekbones. Guess Matt Damon (actually quite good in this film) didn't want to actually have surgery, and popping speed to stay slim (the California diet, apparently).

Michael Douglas good as Liberace (did he give interview about getting throat cancer from so much cunnilingus to re-assert his heterosexuality in the aftermath of a credible performance as a gay man?). But the film is not enjoyable to watch. On the positive side, it's nice to be reminded that some things do change for the better.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Review of 'The Great Gatsby'

At times this seemed sort of empty and dragged a bit - too much sweeping footage of the beautiful houses and gardens, too many CGI aerial shots of 1920s New York. But it comes to life in the depictions of the dark side of city life - the ash dump between Long Island and Manhattan, the speakeasies, and so on.

Not sure why the party scenes had to have hip-hop tracks - to bring Fitzgerald to a new generation? Since the yoof now seems to be rather fond of 1920s music, albeit with a drum and base overlay (electroswing) that seems unnecessary.

Liked the casting - though Daisy seems a bit dull, so that it's hard to see why Gatsby is so infatuated with her.

Liked the way it actually brought the text of the book into the film, through words (typewritten and handwritten) scrolling across the screen. Loved the way that it captured the despondency of the ending - Fitzgerald's greatness is surely his ability to not succumb to the relentless optimism that seems to characterize almost all cultural output in America.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review of Michael Lewis's "Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World"

I loved The Big Short, and I liked this a lot. Lewis has the knack of bringing complicated financial stuff to life, and making it comprehensible, through a combination of anecdote and analogy. He's really great at this. Unlike the other books, though, he's on political territory here, and I suspect his instincts are not so sound. He's also writing about people other than Americans, and I suspect he is not immune from the kinds of prejudices about other nations that make for easy shorthand. He knows this, and he makes it apparent that he knows, but even so there is a bad taste in the mouth. Are all Greeks really lazy and venal? Are all Germans really obsessed with shit, and does this explain what happened with their financial system?

I think he's particularly unfair to the Germans, as indeed so many others are. Once you get passed all the shit stuff, what the Germans really stand accused of is believing the ratings agencies. If they shouldn't have, then surely the offence is with them rather than with Germany's modest, local banking system.

And it's funny the way that the final chapter, about America, has to end on a note of optimism, even though just a few pages earlier he was lambasting the 'something will turn up' attitude that allowed so many people to indulge in so much stupidity. I don't think Americans are aware of just how ingrained this need to find a bright note to end on is part of their national character. Optimism is nice, but stupid faith that something will turn up is actually dis-empowering and in itself leads to more bad decisions.

Still a very good read though.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Review of 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang'

I really enjoyed this, though I am not entirely sure I should have. It's very violent - lots of people get killed, though they are mainly baddies. There's quite a lot of gore, too - they don't just get quietly killed off-screen. On the other hand, it's quite witty, and more inventive in form and structure (lots of talking direct to the audience, some moments that make it explicit that you are watching a film, and so on). And apart from the structure, there's quite a good whodunnit/whydunnit plot, interesting characters, and some good LA locations that veer between the glamorous and the seedy. And I like Robert Downey Jnr much better as a nebbech that than I do as a tough-guy.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review of Drugs 2.0

A great book.

Full of lots of new information and powerful insights. Worth reading for the chapter on the Dark Web alone, which introduces the reader to the subject of Tor, encryption, and virtual currencies.

Not given over to unthinking liberalism on drugs either - the author makes it clear that 'research chemicals' can be really, really dangerous, and the fact that it is almost impossible to control the supply does not automatically prove that legalization is the only option.

Can't help thinking (a) that it's mad to have driven our kids from herbal substances on which it is hard to overdose towards synthetic ones the effects and correct dosage of which are poorly understood and (b) that part of the solution must surely be for the pharmaceutical industry to pull its finger out and develop a proper recreational drug program.

Review of 'The Sessions'

Just your regular polio-victim-sex-surrogate film. Well, not formulaic at all, then, and occasionally very uncomfortable to watch. Lots of detail about the mechanics of polio, and also about the mechanics of having sex when you are severely disabled. Worth watching, but not a whole lot of fun - though there are some great cameos and some nice moments of humour.

Based on a true story, and on an article written by the subject of the film Mark O'Brien.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Review of "Ginger and Rosa"

Two teenage girls grow up in 1960s London with liberal, progressive parents. The famous left-wing intellectual dad turns out to have feet of clay and shags the main character's best friend, even though she is a young teen. Everyone (even the other liberal parents and godparents) is shocked. A coming of age film, with some nice scenes and settings, but a bit empty.

Review of "Hope Springs"

A sad film about a middle-aged couple in a relationship that was gone stale. Packaged as if it is a comedy, but actually not funny at all. The male character (well played by Tommy Lee Jones, though I wonder if Jack Nicholson was considered for the role) is so emotionally constipated and frightened of any kind of intimacy that he needs some more serious psychotherapy than the touchy-feely “couples therapy” on offer here.

Not a bad film though. Meryl Streep isn't in many bad ones, is she?

Review of "Great Expectations"

Did we need another film version of “Great Expectations”? Why? I'd say the David Leanversion had it down properly, and was certainly atmospheric enough. The story hasn't changed. Well, cinematic technique has moved on, I suppose. And you can use new actors – that'll make it more accessible, won't it? A bit like Borges' story in which Paul Menard re-writes Don Quixote, using exactly the same words – but his version is richer in allusions to more recent events. So this was quite enjoyable to watch but feels completely superfluous.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review of 'What happens in Vegas'

Dull, stupid romcom. Formulaic. Only surprising aspects: the sympathetic depiction of alcohol and drunkenness. Usually when characters in this sort of film use/abuse alcohol there are bad consequences. Here there mainly aren't. Sure, the annoying yuppie that Cameron Diaz plays gets married to the slacker male lead because she's drunk, but that turns out well in the end. No-one who gets drunk seems to have a bad hangover or take foolish risks, let alone vomit into a gutter. Also, surprising in that the male character has a family and a back-story but the female one just doesn't.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review of 'The Adjustment Bureau'

One of the worst films I have seen for a long time. The presence of Matt Damon ought to have been a clue. A mixture of conspiracy thriller, supernatural/religious themes, and the 'American ideology' that anyone can rise above their fate if they are determined enough. Truly awful. I was pleased to discover that the Philip K Dick story on which this is very loosely based, 'The Adjustment Team', is nothing like this at all. I like his work, and usually like the films it is made into. This is a dreadful exception.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Review of all of those Stieg Larsson "Girl With..." films

I watched these last week while recovering from a neck/shoulder injury. I think I enjoyed the injury more. These films, like the book, are violent but dull. I know that I ought to like Stieg Largsson, but I don't - not the books, and not the films. Despite the plot lines they are devoid of dramatic tension, and the characters are uninteresting. The plots are full of holes, and apparently intelligent characters do the most stupid things.

At least now I understand why there was a US remake so soon after the release of the Swedish film; given the success of the books someone thought that they ought to be able to make a film that was at least not boring. I don't know if they succeeded. I am not going to watch the Hollywood remake - I have already wasted enough time on this. Well, that's seven hours of my life I'm not getting back.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Review of "Love and Other Drugs"

A romcom with degenerative diseases. Jake Gyllenhaal is a smart young man from a good family but he's working in sales because...something about not wanting to give his doctor father the satisfaction he would get from Jake finishing med school. So his start-up millionaire geek brother gets him a job as a medical rep, where he meets early-stage Parkinson's sufferer Anne Hathaway. They engage in the kind of verbal sparring that always means they are about to have sex in this sort of film, and then they have sex. Very energetic, young-people sex. Anne Hathaway's condition is very mild (her hand twitches a bit every so often) but it hangs over them.

He works for Pfizer, so soon he's pushing Viagra rather than Zoloft, and becomes much in demand. Cue some stiffy jokes, and an orgy scene. Then it all gets serious when he realises he really really loves her, and she doesn't want him to take on a future in which she will degenerate...and on to the resolution, which there's no need for me to spoil. Not quite your usual romcom - slightly more gravitas, but still plenty of dick and wanking jokes.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Review of 'Lay the Favourite'

Oddly shapeless film about a naive young woman from Florida moving to Las Vegas and working as an assistant to a professional gambler. Sympathetic depictions of the 'gambling industry', Bruce Willis as the professional with a heart of gold, Catherine Zeta Jones as his face-lifted trophy wife...with a heart of gold...

The final credits say that the naive young woman eventually goes to college and becomes a writer. The film is based on her memoir of her gambling days, so I suppose it is in some sense a true story. It certainly has the shapelessness of truth - not a strong plot line, not much suspense, not very interesting or well rounded characters. A bit like life, then. But not compelling to watch.

Review of 'Otelo Burning'

An independent film about young Black surfers in Durban as apartheid draws to a close. Very understated, the sort of thing that gets described as a 'coming of age' movie, but with a background of violence in the townships.

A few observations. One, Inkhatha; I had almost completely forgotten that Inkatha had ever existed. Then, we were told that the struggle between the ANC and Inkatha was an ethnic one. But in the absence of apartheid, Inkatha just melted away because it no longer had any purpose. Interesting to remember this, and one wonders how many other apparently grass-roots movements will turn out to be constructions in the same way. Surprised to discover it still exists; certainly the UK media has lost all interest.

Two, the depictions of apartheid in the film; to say the least, subtle. Apart from one sign on the beach there is no sign of any 'petty apartheid'. The white people in the surfing competition fraternity don't seem particularly surprised to see a Black competitor. The people in the township have almost no connection with the wider world of South Africa - no work, nothing. Maybe that's realistic - a Hollywood film would have emphasized the racist attitudes and the discrimination.

Review of 'The Black Dahlia"

Stylish retro-noir feel, plot that can only be understood by careful reconstruction (and even then I am not completely convinced that it makes sense). Of course, the incomprehensibility of the plot may have something to do with the fact that I dozed off several times. I don't think that's necessarily a reflection on the film, but...

Rather over-stylized - if  there were LA lesbian bars in the 1940s, can they really have had such big Busby Berkeley style cabarets?

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Review of Glorious 39

Great conspiracy thriller set in Britain in 1939. Some great acting and lovely camerawork/editing. Nice to see some familiar faces cast against type - Bill Nighy and Jeremy Northam, Eddy Romayne as baddies. Great also that the upper class baddies are appeasers, not Communist sympathisers as usually seems to happen in drama set in this era. Really captures the spirit of officious English bureaucracy well too - the checkpoint with the Military Police, the slaughter of pets (did that really happen?).

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Why it has all gone wrong within our Public Services: from an ad published in today's The Guardian

I thought this piece, published as a self-financed advertisement in today's Guardian, was worthy of further distribution. With the permission of the author, Mike Ledwidge, I am republishing it here on my blog.

Our public services have been devastated over the last 25 years and the reasons have been hidden in the complexity of detail. I am so angry about what has been done that I have actually paid for this page out of my own money. How angry have I got to be to do that! And yes, I do know what I am talking about.

The problem goes back to the Thatcher years. Since then, one goal and three assumptions appear to have driven government’s treatment of our public services. Their goal has been to make the public services do things to make government look good, to win votes. The three assumptions have been, firstly that you can measure the ‘complex systems’ of our public services in the same way as the ‘simple systems’ of private businesses, (Read Checkland and Seddon) , secondly that all public servants are lazy, and can only be motivated by threat or reward, (Read McGregor, Hertzberg and Mayo), and thirdly that private business is more efficient than public services.

As a direct result of the way government have managed our public services they have killed many people through the proliferation of hospital superbugs, criminalised a generation of young men by giving them convictions for crimes they have not committed, driven over a million children out of education without any qualifications, almost caused our doctors to go private like the dentists did, made the court fine system a joke, and allowed the criminal seizure of your motor vehicle when all you have done is overstayed in a parking space for a few minutes.

You CANNOT performance measure a ‘complex system’ by outputs. Now if you do not understand EXACTLY what that sentence means let us hope you are not involved in anything to do with the management of our public services. Sadly we now have thousands of senior public servants who think they do know what they are doing with targets and measurement, and clearly they don’t. Complex systems have more than one purpose. If you measure the police on arrests and detections any prevention they do will muck that up. If you ‘performance measure’ on crime reduction, officers will find ways to not record crimes. The awful tale of the rape unit in Southwark trying to improve their stats is an example of the result of government pressure and targets.

During the time of ‘hospital targets’, on issues like waiting times, they halved the number of cleaners, and gave cleaning contracts to private companies who made their money by employing cheap staff who had no idea why cleaning was important. Hence hospitals became filthy, allowing the proliferation of the superbugs to kill thousands of people.

Within two years of the Conservatives starting league tables for schools exclusions quadrupled, because if you are measuring a school like a factory they will have to get rid of what is affecting their performance. The current trick is to not allow the children who will do badly in exams to take them at all. Tens of thousands of children leave our education system each year without a single GCSE.

In policing we were being told that there were not enough ‘convictions’, so one of the tricks was criminalise drunks. Being simply ‘drunk’ is not a crime, but a process offence. Yet, they have been persuaded to sign cautions for the criminal offence of ‘disorderly conduct’, which turns a ’non crime’ into a ‘crime’ plus a ‘conviction’ for the government statistics. Because courts were being performance measured on the amount of outstanding fines they had on their books 40% of fines were never paid, because to satisfy the targets everything outstanding was written off after less than 2 years.

The bullying of the public services has resulted in a far greater turnover of staff than ever before. At one stage we were 20,000 teachers short, and some have been replaced by people who, like some doctors, are not easy to understand. We have stolen 70,000 nurses from abroad, yet British nurses currently being trained in the UK are being head hunted by Australian hospitals, which are now full of our prized British trained nurses.

Altruism, and the willingness to take poor pay in our public services for doing a well respected job, with a good pension, has been completely denigrated. My best friend walked away from a top job in social services, not because his team were performing badly, but because the bullying inspection process was so stressful and disrespectful that the pension was just not worth waiting for. Government thought to make doctors work harder by introducing a new pay scale as they believed they were lazy. But most doctors were already doing at least 20 hours a week for free. This resulted in us paying a great deal more for no extra hours from the doctors, who have been further insulted by the dirty tricks now being done to claw that money back. I know of NHS dentists who do extensive unnecessary work on healthy teeth but the NHS trusts appear to do nothing about it, perhaps because they fear losing someone who still does NHS dentistry. These are criminals committing GBH on healthy teeth.

The work of Mcgregor shows that just ‘money’ is a very poor motivator, yet the whole premise of government motivation has been one of ‘threat and reward’. Thatcher thought all teachers were lazy and so made them write down everything they did every day. This multiplication of their paperwork resulted in the loss of much of their goodwill, and their willingness to do the extra things like sport and music. They then sold off those unused playing fields to the lobbyists clamouring for places to build in the profitable south east. Little wonder most of our top athletes don’t discover their talent because they never even run round a track, or that the sports we are still good at tend to be the ones based in the private schools, where children still do sport.

The idea that private business is more efficient than public services has some merit. But there is a huge catch with that premise. Firstly private business is a predatory shark that will take it’s profit wherever it can, (like hospital cleaning companies) especially if it has a monopoly. And the only way to offer out parts of the public service is to make it a monopoly. Once someone has the right to deal with parking on the street they will obviously tow any car away they can, because they can then demand hundreds of pounds back from the ‘captive’ customer rather than hand out a £40 parking ticket. Yet if their vehicle is not causing a genuine ‘obstruction of the highway’ which can NEVER be the case if the vehicle is in a parking space, to tow it away is the criminal act of ‘blackmail’.

We have had 8 billion pounds worth of hospital construction, (much of which was not needed), but will be repaying 50 billion over 25 years, and after 25 years we still will not own the buildings, but will have to rent them back from those PPI sharks. Hence we have hospital trusts going bankrupt paying for these loans. I even know of an American who could not find anyone in a hospital to take her money for the expensive treatment she had been given. We have been screwed by foreign countries who charge for the treatment of British citizens abroad. Yet we claim almost nothing from these countries for the huge number of their citizens who should be paying for their care here. Citizenship, or illegally obtained NHS numbers appear not to be challenged, because too many of our gatekeepers now appear to be corrupt.

The government still continues to surround itself with advisors from private business. They are people who appear not understand how to manage the complex systems of our public services, or how to motivate the altruism in people doing a vocation. Cameron even has the gall to call for the gaps created by the bullying of our public servants, to be filled by the ‘big society’ and volunteers being altruistic. I suggest that, if any member of parliament ever tries to tell me that the pro bono work I do is for their ‘big society’, they will be taking a considerable personal risk.

To enable government to get away with this they needed the autonomy of people like Chief Constables under their control. This they did with short term contracts for senior officers. Anyone who would not play the game was ousted. Middle ranked officers could not advance unless they also played along. In my police force we tore an excellent policing system apart with a new policing plan that was literally just ‘made up’ so that we could play the numbers game. I even had to sit and listen to a senior officer telling us that we were not being sued enough, and that we should be ‘pushing the edge of the legal and ethical envelope’ when finding reasons for authorising house searches, to try to satisfy those performance targets. Most of the targets in policing have now gone, but we are stuck with those managers who think they know how to measure, and who will do anything to get noticed. Even the one big current government target of ‘cut crime’ just means that many crimes are not now recorded.

Because all public servants were seen as lazy government decided that our basic jobs could be done by people who had very little training. Hence we have nursing assistants, teaching assistants and police community support officers (PCSOs). The snag with that is that they have replaced an important developmental part of these public servants career path with lower quality service. I know the person who did all the research on PCSOs and none of those police services from other countries were as good as we were. We had to introduce them because the real officers were taken off the streets to satisfy government ‘targets’ and this was the only way government could force uniforms back onto the street and keep them there. I have spoken to many PCSOs, some struggled to communicate and none of those that I have spoken to had ever been taught their civilian powers of arrest.

With the reduction in police numbers we have now effectively replaced 16,000 police constables with 16,000 PCSOs who do not pay any of their wages into the police pension pot. The police pension pot always used to be in profit, but it is now ‘in the red’ to the tune of many millions every year because of government interference. A problem they are resolving by shafting public servants once again.

We are heading towards public services run by people who can only manage by bullying, threats, or by dangling carrots. Public servants will continue to be treated as if they are on a factory floor, as supposedly self interested, work shy, employees. Many good people with a vocational bent, or a desire to ‘make a difference’ have, or will do something else, or work abroad where they are appreciated. Many managers will progressively be the ones McGregor describes as X personalities, and like certain politicians they will bully their staff as they try to get noticed by making changes, regardless of how stupid they are. The recent ‘quality of care’ issues were ultimately our own government’s fault.

Some idiot will say ‘but you have to measure the public services’. Doh! Well of course you do. But if you do not know how to do it, you should not be doing the job in the first place. ‘Output’ data is valuable, but in ‘complex systems’ you have to measure ‘quality of process’ to get positive changes, especially as there is no ethical control of some of the ‘inputs’ to the system, and resources are limited.

In ‘simple systems’ the failure to achieve suitable ‘output’ targets means the company goes bust. We have given private business our public service monopolies, which means they make their profit by failing to maintain or replace infrastructure, or by disbanding repair services. Hence our rivers regularly flood with sewerage and power cuts take much longer to deal with. Even the banks are not ‘simple systems’ as they could not be allowed to go bust. So, because banks are ‘complex systems’ and not just about making a profit, being given ‘targets’ and ‘bonuses’ for sales of mortgages has bankrupted the western world for a generation.

Mike Ledwidge has a degree in Systems Management and Statistics, an MBA, and 29 years of public service.

Review of 'The Perils of Being a Wallflower'

Another romcom with mental illness overlay, only this one is more of a high school teen comedy, with occasional romcom elements. Mainly a coming of age film, quite gentle and funny. The main character starts out as awkward and isolated at the beginning, but he soon finds the school misfits (actually not all that misfitted themselves - the girls just wear a bit too much eye shadow, and one of the blokes is gay) and soon has a full and happy social life.

Liberal heart firmly on sleeve. Unusually none of the drug-taking here leads to any sort of problem - they don't die from over-doses, crash cars, jump off buildings, as drug-taking characters usually do. They have a good time, are funny, and recover. They don't even get into trouble. Even the scenes in which they listen to music very loud while driving their cars (not under the influence of drugs or drink - it's not that liberal, or that stupid) don't result in fatal pile-ups.

Some of seems particularly implausible, though - is it really possible that in the most advanced English class in an American High School no-one knows that Shakespeare didn't write novels? Or that none of the kids even claim that they will read for pleasure out of class? Really?

One nice thing; there is a bit of a time capsule dimension to it, because it's based on a 1999 novel, and so no-one has mobiles or internet. They make mix-tapes on cassette. The only phones are enormous home cordless ones. Curiously the kids don't seem to have any difficulty arranging their social lives. Why aren't they wandering around not knowing where to meet each other?

So is the mental health (and child sex abuse) angle there just to give an otherwise pleasant but unremarkable teen comedy a bit of gravitas? Or is this in some way autobiographical. I think we should be told.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Review of Silver Linings Playbook

Watched this in freezing cold Ghent, so enjoyment may have been influenced by the fact that it was experienced in a warm dry place. Subtitles in French and Flemish did not contribute significantly to the pleasure, but didn't detract that much either.

Just your basic romcom, with a mental illness overlay. Nice performances, especially by Robert De Niro as the OCD dad. Sentimental and manipulative but it worked for me - lump in throat and tear in corner of the eye by the end.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Review of Beowulf (2007)

Nicely done with CGI, but why change the story? In the epic Beowulf does kill Grendel's mother. He does not have sex with her, and the dragon that comes to terrorize his kingdom is not his son by an adulterous cross-species sexual liaison with Grendel's mother.

Is this some sort of therapy for the director? Did a producer say there wasn't enough sex in the original story line? Did somebody want there to be 'closure' or something like that? I dunno, but I think we should be told.

I remember the earlier version from the late 1990s that I watched with my kids as part of their introduction to great literature (well, that turned out well, didn't it?), which I liked better - more faithful to the story line and to what I think ought to be the look and feel of a cinematic depiction of Anglo-Saxon literature.

One touch that I did like, though, was seeing Beowulf in his hall as an older man, watching his epic being acted out while a bard recites the epic in the original Anglo-Saxon.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Z-Day at South Bank University

To South Bank University, to a meeting of the London Futurists group, held in conjunction with the Zeitgeist Movement and branded as Z-Day. I went with some trepidation, because pretty much all I knew about the Zeitgeist Movement came from this article, which made them sound like conspiracy nutters. I expected a cross between the 9/11 TruthMovement and the School of Economic Science.

In fact they turned out to be nice, earnest young people who were genuinely friendly and appeared to be open to learning from others. One or two had piercings and tattoos, but most looked well scrubbed and neat. The entrance hall had a little stall with the Zeitgeist movie on DVD and some pamphlets, and there were posters up for the Venus Project, a detailed blueprint for a high-tech sustainable world with which the Zeitgeist Movement is sort of associated. There was a very faint air of creepy cultishness in the way that some of the material looked, but perhaps that's inevitable when an unfamiliar organisation with a non-identifiable house style wants to address matters of seriousness. I know what it is supposed to look like when Greenpeace or FoE talk about climate change, and I'm just not familiar with the way that the Zeigeist Movement does this. There was no sign of any conspiracy theory material, no references to Lyndon LaRouche, no Protocols or anything like that. 

The lecture theatre was full. There was some cheesy intro music and a short video clip, and then we were welcomed by James Phillips, a  young Zeitgeister. He explained (a bit loosely, and without proper timings) how the day would work, and I was genuinely cheered to hear who the other speakers were – decent types from Positive Money, the Equality Trust, and so on. If they were involved it couldn't be all bad, could it?

And it wasn't. The Zeitgeister gave an earnest PowerPoint presentation about what was wrong with the world (inequality, depletion of resources, loss of biodiversity, climate change) that was hard to disagree with. Whereas my feeling at the last London Futurists meeting was that I had fallen among people with a radically different worldview, I could see that with the Zeitgeisters I was at least in the same moral universe. We cared about the same things. If the movement is about antisemitic conspiracy theories, it didn't show.

Sadly the Zeitgeisters ideas about how to fix what is wrong seems much less impressive. It's a good thing that they don't reject technology. There are greens around who seem to think that if we only went back to some period before the fossil fuel age all would be well. The Zeitgeisters are at the other end of the spectrum. They think that advances in technology make it possible for us to live a life of abundance without wrecking the planet. They go all dewy-eyed over Maglev trains, twelve-storey aquaponic urban farms, geothermal energy and the internet of things. There is an almost touching naivety to the way that they seem to think that technology by itself will resolve and dissolve all of the conflicts within economy and science, if only it were adopted. All that is needed is for this to be explained thoroughly, and the blueprint spelled out in enough detail, and the good society will be upon us. They have an equally touching belief in the 'scientific method' as a way of dealing with conflicts, and they appear to have absolutely no awareness at all of any of the work in academic science studies about the limitations of this idealized view of science.

It was hard not to laugh when the nice young man put up pictures of the 'house of the future', which he explained would have a dome roof because science had proved that was the best shape, and harder still when he presented the 'city of the future' – the pictures looked uncannily like Ebenezer Howard's plans for garden cities. Now I've got a lot of time for Howard, who has generally been under-appreciated as an urban theorist, but this stuff is not new. The idea that better computers and networking technology will allow us to run a fabulous, resource based economy without scarcity or money isn't new either – perhaps someone should tell them about Stafford Beer and his attempts to do just that in Allende's Chile. (Having said that, it is amazing that the USSR probably ran its five-year plans and the administration system to deliver them with less processing power than my smartphone – would it have done better if it had had better computers?)

Not knowing about this history makes you look ridiculous. I think that futurologists should all have to study the 'history of the future' before they are allowed to use their crystal balls.

In fact, the whole Zeitgeist thing is strongly reminiscent of the C19th utopian socialists that Engels derided so successfully. If the Zeitgeisters have heard of Saint-Simon and the Comptean Positivists, or even the Owenists, they gave no sign of doing so, but they need to hear about them. They need to know that there have been movements before that have thought that technology has just reached the point at which it can deliver abundance without injury to the planet and in such a way that class conflict will become unnecessary. They need to know that these movements failed, dismally, and they need to have a good think about why. The idea that the world could be better run by a scientific elite of experts has an old provenance too, as is the notion that this is somehow 'apolitical'. In fact this thread runs through the philosophies of both Left and Right, particularly in Britain, where it was a component of both Fabianism and Moseley's Fascism. Come to think of it, the Zeitgeisters could profit from some time reading H.G. Wells' “The Shape of Things to Come”. Perhaps one of the reasons why some on the Left are so upset about the Zeitgeist Movement is that it reminds us that we've been steeped in this sort of thing ourselves, at least sometimes.

What the Zeitgeisters really need to understand is what Marx meant when he said that the relations of production could turn into fetters on the mode of production. It's a tricky phrase that sounds like jargon, but it's actually very important in explaining the current crisis of our economy and civilisation.

I'm not saying that the problem with their movement is that it lacks a correct Marxist perspective, or that they fail to understand the need for a revolutionary party to lead the workers in the overthrow of capitalism. But actually old Karl was thinking about exactly the same problems as them, and he had some profound insights. It's important to learn from the past if we want to avoid repeating its mistakes.

Z-Day was surprisingly enjoyable. The Zeitgeisters seem to be open to listening to others. There were great presentations by Ben Dyson from Positive Money, by London Futurists' own David Wood (available here), and Sean Blaine from the Equality Trust. There was a good session on Non-Violent Communication by Daren De Witt, and a surprisingly interesting discussion with the Moneyless Man, Mark Boyle, who came across as a really sincere latter-day Tolstoyan. Tolstoyans, Saint-Simonians, it really was a back to the future sort of day. If this lot were all dupes of the Zeitgeisters in lending them protective colouration as decent progressives instead of antisemitic conspiracy nuts then it was a trick well done. 

The one lame spot on the day's agenda (for me, anyway) was a short film and talk by John Webster, who claimed to have uncovered the secret legal fiction that underpinned all of state power and the capitalist relations of production (see this link for a flavour of the discussion).  This was the sort of thing that I had been expecting, Webster, who apparently won a prize at the Crystal Palace Film Festival  (yeah, me neither) seemed to think that once this secret was revealed no-one need ever be in debt, or be forced to submit to authority, ever again. Sadly the audience really seemed to like this dross, and there was a mind-numbing discussion on a point of detail with someone who appeared to be advocating the even more pointless 'Freemen'philosophy.

Maybe I've been successfully duped, but the Zeitgeisters did not seem like dangerous conspiracy nuts. They are not my people, and I don't think their approach will lead to anything, but I can't see any sign that they are harmful. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Review of "Why it's all still kicking off" by Paul Mason

I really like Paul Mason. He writes very well, about stuff that is important. This book is in many ways a survey of the present moment - or rather an update of a slightly earlier survey of a present moment - and so it's inevitable that there will be things in it that look a bit dated or have turned out differently. That is no reflection on Mason, only on the limitations of writing a book versus a more 'hot' medium. Of course a book makes for longer and more thoughtful treatment of complicated subjects than a twitterfeed or even a blog, and you can read it in a different way, more slowly and flicking backwards and forwards.

This book is about the intersection of social, cultural, technological and economic trends – and shows how these have affected and driven a series of not-all-that-connected events, from the Arab Spring to the underclass riots in England. He writes with insight and passion about the places where strange ecounters are taking place, between slum dwellers (the arse end of the globalized economy) and what is in effect the lumpen-intelligentsia (the arse end of the globalized education market), which he characterises as the graduate without a future. He covers the unhappy meeting-points between the traditional organized labour movement and the more radical, deliberately non-organized horizontalist protest movements.

He has a real feel for the limitations of both, and understands the all-too-real risk that the latter will fall in love with itself. I'd say that was more of a certainty than a risk, and that in a few years time no-one but left history anoraks will remember the Occupy movement; it will be there in the roll-call of missed opportunities to build a new kind of movement, along with the Dialectics of Liberation and Beyond the Fragments.

Unlike many others writing about new social movements he's got a good understanding of the opportunities presented by new technology, though here too he is aware of the limitations and the risks. I think he should have managed a hat tip to Evgeny Morozov's “The Net Delusion”, but you can't have everything. In general the book feels well-researched and has lots of references.

Now a couple of negatives. Considering he's Newsnight's economics editor there isn't that much economics in it, which is a shame. That relates to my other criticism – that he's a bit weak on the relationship between the new technologies that he writes about and the labour market. One of the reasons why all those graduates don't have a future is that the jobs for which their institutions were created to prepare them are going away. Arts and humanities graduates were created to fill the middle layers in bureaucratic organisations of the public and private sector, because mass market manufacturing and service delivery required much complex interaction.

Information technology has done away with a lot of that interaction, replacing the live labour of the bureaucrat with the dead labour of the software programmer. Better software based on more, clever code and using more powerful processors and network protocols has done away with lots of what we once thought of as 'creative' jobs – remember how RobertReich thought we were all going to become 'symbolic analysts'? The graduates without futures are the people who were prepared for symbolic analyst jobs that don't need doing any more – software does it better.

Second negative: I don't understand Mason's bromance with Manuel Castells. I watched Mason introduce and interview Castells at an LSE event (later broadcast on the BBC) and I thought that Mason himself was much more interesting and personally engaging than Castells. I'm not sure whether Castells is as special as Mason seems to think he is, or as Castells himself clearly thinks he is. In particular, I don't think that the 'alternativeeconomic practices' that he makes so much of are all that important. In another time we used to call that the 'grey' or the 'black' economy, or just spivery. Is this really the basis for a new society growing within the shell of the old, or is it just old-fashioned cash-in-hand work and bartering, perhaps facilitated by some new mechanisms of trust and recommendation supported by the internet? And is it therefore really a basis for a challenge to corporate capitalism, or a sort of weedy consolatory 'Poujadism of the Left', to cheer ourselves up that we can't afford the stuff that we used to? I'm all in favour of people not buying crap that they don't need, and it would be lovely if we could just bypass the structures of capitalism to create a pre-figurative socialist society based on mutual aid, but I am not convinced that the 'alternative economic practices' that both Castells and Mason seem so keen on are leading us there.

Oh, and one more thing. Mason works for the BBC, and good luck to him for that. Sometimes that sends the Daily Telegraph into a howl of rage because it “proves” the corporation is really run by Trotskyists. My concern is the opposite one; who is providing this kind of coverage of alternative movements useful to? It was Susan George who said that radical intellectuals should study the rich, because any research into the poor and their mechanisms of solidarity would ultimately be used against them. I don't at all intend to imply that Mason is a turncoat or a traitor or anything like that. His book is inspirational; but not everyone who will read it is looking for inspiration.

But hats off to Paul Mason for writing what is a really very good book about where we are at and where it might go. It's made me think more than a whole lot of meetings and magazine articles, and it deserves to be read and debated widely.