Monday, February 26, 2018

The Exchange of Beautiful Ideas

The building was not at all as he had imagined it. Standing in the chill wind that blew shreds of litter across the deserted piazza, Robin felt as if he was getting his disappointment in first, before he even went through the double doors. The grey of the concrete matched the grey of the sky behind. A desultory strip of red tiles divided the ground floor from the eight stories above, as if someone had told the architect at the last minute that some form of decoration was required.

Apart from this the building, which occupied one side of the square, was a dull matt slab with mean dark windows and a flat roof. Next to the doors there was a scrappy sign in tarnished metal, screwed into the concrete.  “The Exchange of Beautiful Ideas”, it proclaimed, in three centimetre Times Roman.

Robin walked slowly up to the entrance, the shoebox that held his idea resting heavily against his bent arm.

Inside the air was too warm, and uncomfortably dry. There were notice boards with flapping leaflets and schedules. A woman in a nondescript uniform jacket sat behind a reception counter, her eyes fixed on a screen. She did not look up as Robin approached.

“Excuse me,” he said, and then she did look up, with a show of reluctance. “I’ve got an idea that I’d like to -”

“What sort of idea?” said the woman, turning her attention back to her screen, which now cast a blue-green glow onto her face.

Robin hesitated for a moment. He had not expected to have to explain his idea at the reception desk.

“It’’s about how people can be nicer to each other, by -”

“Social and political, third floor. Second door on the left,” said the woman, in a bored tone. “They’ll explain how the exchange works to you there.”

The lift to the third floor seemed as decrepit as everything else about the place. The door slid closed with agonizing slowness. Inside, there were two signs about what do in the event of an emergency, with contradictory instructions as to which buttons to press and what number to call. There was no sign of a telephone.

At the third floor the corridor was dimly lit. One of the overhead strip lights flickered and buzzed. There were more unkempt-looking noticeboards. The second door on the left had another metal sign that read ‘Social and Political’. One of the corner screws was missing.

The room was too small for its contents. There was another counter, with another uniformed woman sitting behind it. Shelves crammed with bulging lever arch files covered the walls from floor to ceiling.  Behind the counter there was a table, on which Robin could see piles of paper spilling onto the floor.

The woman behind the counter gave Robin a friendly smile, and for the first time that day he felt himself relax a little.

“I have an idea,” he said. “I hope it’s - I think it’s beautiful, and I’d like to -”

“Here’s the form, and the notes,” said the smiling woman. “It’s quite straightforward, but if you need any help just ask.” She handed him a thin sheaf of papers and indicated a desk on the other side of the room.

Robin sat down and looked at the form. There were several pages for personal information, but only a very small space in which he was requested to describe the idea itself. He looked around for a pen, and finding none, took out his own.

The minutes passed, slowly. Robin was aware of the ticking of a large electric clock above the counter. The personal information sections were exhaustive but easy enough to understand. The notes, and the later parts of the form, were very confusing. At last he finished, and went back to the woman at the desk.

She took the form from him and begun to copy out his entries on what looked to be a very old computer. She typed slowly, pecking at the keyboard with two fingers, and looking backwards and forwards between the handwritten form, the keys, and the flickering monochrome monitor.

“Wouldn’t it have been quicker if I’d just typed it straight in myself?” asked Robin.

The woman shrugged. “Administrative Improvements is on the sixth floor,” she said. “We’re just Social and Political here.”

Robin waited for what seemed like a long time.

“You’ve not assigned a nominated beneficiary,” the woman said, at last. “Or signed the primary assertion of ownership. We can’t put it in if you don’t do that.”

“I don’t understand,” said Robin, feeling small and stupid. “I don’t want to own anything. I  just want to exchange my idea. My beautiful idea.”

“Don’t worry,” said the woman, in the patient, slow tone one would use to explain to a not very bright child. “A lot of people find it confusing, the first time they file an idea.”

She thinks I’m an idiot, thought Robin.

“The whole point of the exchange is to enable ideas to be owned,” she said. “So that they can be traded. Bought and sold.”

“Oh,” said Robin. “I thought the exchange was to encourage the spread of ideas. Like a sort of library.”

“Exactly!” said the woman. “You wouldn’t steal books from a library, would you?”

“Of course not,” said Robin. “Only, an idea isn't the same as a book, is it?”

“No, it’s not,” said the woman. “A proper idea is unique. That’s what makes it intellectual property. And we can’t have people stealing each other’s property. That’s why we made the exchange; to establish ownership and property in thought. Because everything should belong to someone.”

“But I want my idea to spread,” said Robin. “I want as many people as possible to hear about it. A book in a library, well, only one person can borrow it at a time...unless there’s two copies, of course, and then…” His voice trailed away.

“We can’t have two copies of an idea,” said the woman, with a hint of irritation creeping in to her voice. Her smile had vanished. “How would we know which was the real one?”

“Aren’t they both the real one?” asked Robin. “A copy of the idea is...well, it is the same as the real one. Exactly the same. It’s not a counterfeit idea, or anything like that.”

“It’s a pirated idea,” said the woman. “The originator owns the idea, unless they’ve sold it to someone else, and then the buyer owns it. If anyone else has the idea, then they’ve stolen it. Like they walked into a shop and taken took something off the shelf without paying for it.”

“No they haven’t,” said Robin, who was also becoming irritated now. “Because if I steal something from a shop it’s not there anymore. But if someone else has my idea, I’ve still got it. It’s not gone anywhere.”

“If we followed your logic, nobody would make ideas,” said the woman. “There’d be no point, if they couldn’t own them. What would be the incentive?”

“I don’t have ideas because of an incentive,” Robin replied. “I have them because I think about something, and it leads to an idea. Or it doesn’t...but whether it does or not is nothing to do with incentives or ownership. It’s what brains do, have ideas.”

And then Robin had another idea.

“You know what?” he said. “I don’t think I want to put my idea into the exchange after all. I’ll find somewhere else to put it.”

“Suit yourself,” said the woman. “Only mind out. Someone else might put your idea - “ she held up her fingers to make air quotes as she said the word - “Into the exchange. And then it wouldn’t be yours anymore, it would be theirs.”

“I’ll take the chance,” said Robin. “And all this talk about owning ideas has given me another idea. I don’t know what I’ll do with it. I just know I won’t be putting it into the exchange.”

“Suit yourself,” said the woman, shrugging. “I don’t care either way.” She began to peck at her keyboard again.

Robin left the room and walked back to the lift.

Information wants to be free, he thought. Now there’s an idea.

Review of 'On Body and Soul'

A Hungarian romantic drama, mainly set in a slaughterhouse - sounds like an insane 1970s arthouse project, but was actually one of the most moving films I've seen for a long time.

The film centres on the slaughterhouse's financial director and a new external meat inspector, who is a stickler for the regulations in the way that her predecessor wasn't. There is an alert at the plant because some 'cattle mating drug' has been stolen and used at a party, and the police suggest that all the staff undergo psychological screening. The psychologist asks all the staff really very prurient questions about their sex lives and histories, during which it emerges that the finance director and the inspector are meeting in their identical dreams, in which they are both deer.

That's the only fantastical element; it's not explained, but it makes the rest of the plot and development possible. The inspector is a high functioning and ethereally beautiful woman with severe asperger's syndrome. She continues to visit her child psychologist and resists his suggestions that she see an adult therapist. The finance director gradually falls in love with her, despite (or because of?) her alien-ness - she makes Saga Noren from the Bridge, the beautiful blond aspergers detective from The Bridge, look well-adjusted. Their relationship and how it develops is the centre of the film, but there is plenty of other character development and interaction. The sexy pyschologist (RĂ©ka Tenki) is remarkable.

The cinematography is understated but remarkable; the deer are beautiful, and in a beautiful winter forest landscape, but the cows in the industrial setting of the slaughterhouse are also beautiful - there are lots of close-ups of their faces and eyes. And it's possible to infer from some other details (for example, what the characters wear) that it's the height of summer, and therefore hot, but it never looks like it is; it somehow manages to be literally gloomy, both indoors and outdoors.

Watched at the Lansdown Film Club in Stroud, with less than a dozen other people in the audience.

Healthy New Towns - a good idea or a tech-washed way for the healthcare industry to grab a slice of the property boom?

Another day, another on-trend article from Architects Data File - this one, entitled 'Care Pathways', about Healthy New Towns.  It doesn't seem to be avaiable online, so you'll have to trust my summary until I can add a link to the original.

Roughly it goes:

  • Health a big problem, the NHS usually reactive and attuned to ill-health
  • Healthy New Towns, an initiative 'from the NHS) via its Five Year Forward View 2014 strategy aimed at prevention and well-being, not sickness, calls for policy and planning to take health in to account
  • Lots of demonstrator sites in progress or planned - to encourage walking and make for mult-generational housing
  • Technology jolly important and we need lots more of it - tele this and that, needs 5G networks and the Internet of Things, communities should be built around the internet
  • Healthy New Towns need private capital and development opportunities
See what I mean about the tech-washing? I have no trouble believing that technology can help to solve human problems or even transform societies - I'm a big fan of genuinely radical visions for technology, from solarpunk through Paul Mason's PostCapitalism to more mainstream versions like Jeremy Rifkin's Zero Marginal Cost Society.

But there is no link here at all between the call for more technology and more infrastructure on the one hand, and the proposed transformation on the other...just a touching belief that tech is needed.  And not much engagement with big questions either, like why the commercial market is unable to offer 'multi-generational neighborhoods'? Hint: it's to do with a housing market that no longer bears any relation to other parts of the economy, including the labour market and what young people can expect to earn in a lifetime. 

Oh, and I didn't see any mention of cars or transport policy, or even parking...just the information that one of the planned pilots is 'just outside the M25'. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Against Decluttering

I picked up a cutting from the Architect's Data File, and it was all about decluttering and de-materialization and microhomes/tiny homes. It was linked to some material about building regulations and minimum space standards, and to the ideas of 'futurist and author' James Wallman, responsible for the book and blog 'Stuffocation'.

Normally I'm a sucker for this sort of thing. I've said more than once that we go on holiday to get away from our own stuff, because so much of it nags us to do something - fix it, put it away, do the thing that it represents, remember that we bought it in order to take up a new activity that we haven't got round get the picture. As a Green I know that our lives are full of shit that we don't really need, or even want, or have space for, that cost resources to make and will leave toxic traces behind when we eventually dispose of them. I watched the original 'Story of Stuff' film.

But now I'm thinking about the flip side to all this. If capitalism wants to sell us stuff (whether we need it or not) why is it paying consultancy fees to Wallman? Because it doesn't care whether it sells us stuff, and because it quite likes a future where we give it money but it doesn't have to give us stuff.

I'm not the first one to think about this, obviously; this article argues that in handing back 'ownership' of our things to the companies that sold them to us, we are effectively going to back to the middle ages, when all property belonged to the crown, and the rest of us just had some limited rights to use it.

But I still want to give two cheers for ownership over the 'experience economy'. In the old days, when I bought a physical book, or physical DVD, they were mine to do what I liked with. Sure, there were copyright restrictions, and that blurb in the front of the book about it not being re-lent or re-sold without permission, but unless you were involved in parallel imports it didn't really matter. I can give a book (or a DVD) to a friend, or take it to a charity shop. If I pay for a film on Amazon Prime (or Google Play, or anything else) I pretty much can't. Google offers me the choice of 'renting' the film or 'buying' it, but in neither case do I own it in the same sense that I did the physical item. Even though the marginal cost of producing the 'digital experience' that is a streamed film is close to zero, I pay almost the same for it that I would pay for a physical item, and I can do less with it.

In the Economics textbooks that I studied at school there was a lot about the supply curve. As the price of a thing rises, more firms enter the market to produce it, so that the price eventually falls back to an equilibrium representing the marginal cost of production (I may have rushed that a little). In real life capitalists move heaven and earth to stop this happening, and much of what you get taught in business school is stuff that ought not to be of any use if classical Economic theory was true. Barriers to entry - patents, regulations, licensing rights, state-protected monopolies via 'outsourcing' contracts...if you need a refresher it's all nicely set out in Guy Standing's book The Corruption of Capitalism, which re-introduces the Economic meaning of 'rent' as unearned income.

Nevertheless, the trajectory of economic and technological development over the last few years has made the fiction of the supply curve a bit more true. Globalization, competition from China, the increasing automation of physical production, and the increasing software component of physical goods has all helped to ensure that the marginal cost of producing stuff is also tending towards zero, even if it will never actually get there. Stuff is getting cheaper, and competition from low-cost no-brand producers is a constant concern for big branded manufacturers. Chinese Android mobile phones are pretty much as good as the more expensive branded versions; the after-sales service is not much good (but actually it's not much good from the big brands either, for the most part) but there's pretty good free support from other users via the web.

Hence, I think, the increasing emphasis on things-as-a-service, and on rolling back ownership of things we thought we had bought. Warranties and licence agreements that are breached if we try to repair or enhance the things; software that acts against the interests of the apparent owner; Delightfully, Amazon rubbed our noses in it by deleting, of all books, Orwell's 1984 from the Kindles of customers who thought they had bought the book.

It bears saying, too, that while the manufacture of things is subject to this cost curve, I don't think the same applies to the creation of 'experiences'. The latter are much more likely to involve human labour (even though some it will be robotized and automated, I suspect the premium experiences will involve humans, almost by definition) - and on present experience, not very well paid human labour. And it's not necessarily true that the ecological footprint of experiences is less than that of stuff - especially not if that experience is a carbon-heavy trip to Kilimanjaro, or a cheap flight stag weekend in Tallinn.

And let's come back to those microhomes, where this began. Is it really true that millennials and others are embracing smaller homes out of a values-driven rejection of stuff and clutter, or is that rejection actually the consequence of smaller homes? So-called 'luxury flats' have minimal storage space nowadays - one reason for the huge boom in out of town storage. It's not only piles of meaningless plastic crap that you don't have room for; it's also your parents' photo album, and your grandmother's candlesticks. Letting go of some of these items, even when they are not in frequent use, is an emotional process. It's nice to think we are freer because we're not burdened with stuff, but are we also giving up a bit of ourselves? Erving Goffman's famous account of total institutions drew attention to the way that inmates are stripped of their identity-defining personal possessions. Something to think about the next time you hear someone waxing lyrical about decluttering, and dematerialisation, and 'x as a service'. And while we're at it, let's have a look at James Wallman's house.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Review of "Hamlet Liikemaailmassa" (Hamlet Goes Business)

A Finnish noir comedy version of Hamlet, set in a family-owned corporate group. If you can imagine that you can pretty much imagine the film. As with other Kaurismaki films the time period of the setting feels a bit indeterminate - there are some computers on desks, but otherwise it looks 1950s (the clothes, the interiors) or even earlier. The screenplay credit goes to William Shakespeare, though I rather feel that there are some departures from the text and from the story-line as I remember it. Certainly the Hamlet character doesn't seem to be as tortured and indecisive as the one that I think Shakespeare imagined.

I watched this once before, at the Sydney Film Festival in 1991 - Ruth was pregnant with Louis, iron-deficient and so eating bunches of parsley as a cinema snack. I joined in to keep her company, so I associate this and other films that I saw there with the taste and feel of parsley. I didn't remember much about it, apart from some of the interior shots; curiously I remembered it as being in washed out colour, but it's black and white.

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill, from a real DVD.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Review of 'The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution'

A sympathetic documentary about the Panthers, which brings out many of the good things - the social services they offered within the community, the move beyond racial nationalism towards a socialist and class-baseed analysis, the identification with anti-imperialist struggles - but more or less glosses over the bad things - the sexism, the uneasy relationship with criminality and gangs, the glorification of guns and violence...

The film is pretty analytical though, and shows how the FBI targeted the Panthers, and how successful its program of inflitration and destabilisation was. One thing I didn't get at all from the film was how the party related to other Black nationalist, liberation and civil rights groups. There was some mention of the King assassination, and the odd quote from someone in the SNCC, but one could be forgiven for thinking that the Panthers were the only radical group in the Black community. How did they relate to Malcolm X's Nation of Islam, for example?

Lots of great footage, though, including some nice film from the breakfast programs (why don't radicals do that sort of thing any more?) and from demonstrations in support of jailed Panthers that are very clearly multi-racial. And great music.

Watched via informal download, Chromestream and Chromecast.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Review of Mr Rooseveldt

An unfunny comedy that has unnaccountably attracted rave reviews and ratings - why? Is there something deeply corrupt about the world of cinema and peer-reviewing sites?

This is 'quirky' - a word that is actually dissected in the film. A young woman who is apparently a comedian in LA but mainly works in a video editing job (many people would think of that as relatively glamorous, but it's presented as dreary and meaningless). She has to return to Austen (her home town) because (spoiler alert) her cat is's dead by the time she gets back, and her boyfriend has taken up with a new woman who is also grieving for the cat...some casual sex, some ex stuff, too long and not really funny at all - I may have smiled once or twice.

Another bad film from Netflix.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Review of 'The Dressmaker'

From the stable of quirky, set in small town Australia with lots of dark secrets and petty jealousies. Kate Winslett very good as the eponyomous young woman dressmaker returning to look after her aged and dementing mother, who re-enters into the life of the town by making stunning dresses for the women (several of them former enemies). Funny how they are transformed in every respect when they put on the dresses - they have better make-up, hair, complexions and walk as well as the outfits themselves. But it's only a movie.

I was slightly puzzled by the abrupt changes of tone and mood in the film. It starts out as a 'dark comedy', swaps into romcom territory as Kate's character gets the guy, then suddenly it's melodrama, and then we're back with dark comedy again only it's very dark, with a climax involving multiple murders. Mind you, I did sort of experience Hamlet as a comedy because I only saw it after I saw 'Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are dead', so I found the corpse-strewn ending funny in a way that few others watching did.

Anyway, this is good, and worth watching for the outfits alone.

Surprisingly watched on live TV - Film4.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Review of Victor Victoria

I really enjoyed this cross-dressing musical comedy from the early 1980s - it's a remake of a German film from the early 1930s. Julie Andrews is really great as the eponymous Victor/Victoria, a woman singer who becomes successful by pretending to be a female impersonator. I can't help thinking how much she looks like David Bowie (I've broken with my blog convention by posting a still rather than the film poster).

There is plenty of positive depiction of gay relationships, and the gay and cross-dressing characters aren't there to suggest decadence, as they are in other films of this genre (Cabaret comes to mind); they are just people with their own lives and loves.

I suspect the film was ahead of its time - it won several awards and was nominated for others, but I don't think it made much money.

Watched at home via Chromestream, having been obtained from those good old informal distribution networks.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Review of Suffragette

Competent historical drama about the women's suffrage movement in the early 20th century. Well made enough to keep my interest, but not so special either in terms of cinematography, or narrative, or insights, as to make me think very much. The acting is good (though it's hard to like Helena Bonham-Carter as a radical after the stupid things she's said), and it's a shame that Anne-Marie Duff, who is one of the main characters gets left off the poster - not pretty enough? Pass me the irony bag.

Still, for my money it really looks like Edwardian England. The force-feeding scene in the prison was suitably horrible though I suspect it was actually rather prettied up. I can't complain that it ignores the dynamic between working-class and posher suffragettes, because that's one of the main themes. Just a bid ploddy.

Watched via Chromestream and informal distribution.

Review of ‘Slouching towards Bethlehem’ by Joan Didion

I must have read this years ago, because I found a well-read copy in my book collection, but I have almost no memory of the contents. Perhaps that’s because the writing is more about a feeling – what it feels like to be Joan Didion – than anything else. There are essays about how it felt for her to be a young woman moving from California to New York in the early 1960s, and how it felt for her a little later when the attractions of the city began to pall. There is a sneering piece about a middlebrow, middle of the road think tank called the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, another in much the same tone about a ‘school of non-violence’ run under the auspices of Joan Baez, and a rather long essay about Haight-Ashbury in the later 1960s that put me in mind of ‘Through a Scanner Darkly’.

It’s nicely written, and I’ll seek out more of her old stuff, even though I don’t quite like her.

I was mainly struck by how contemporary it all feels, even though it was written and describes a world of fifty years ago. It’s recognisably still my world, despite the absence of all the technologies that I make use of during most waking minutes. Even the cover photo, which shows Didion and a beardy man in some sort of tent with a vase of flowers and a bottle of wine in front of them, could have been taken at last year’s Womad. That’s weird, isn’t it? We talk so much about how fast things are changing – but I am sure that if my parents had read a book in 1958 (the year of my birth) that depicted the world of 1908 they wouldn’t have felt it was their world. So when was the disjuncture? The war, or the post-war boom?