Remember November

For the next 30 days, I will be concentrating on three personal projects and three only. The first will be a Ruby project called The Collective. I'm not revealing any more about it, but I'm hoping it'll be pretty big if I get a sizeable chunk of it done by the end of this month. The second is a little bit of musical amateurism, namely to record some stuff with Cubase and Garageband on my MacBook. This is to keep me sane (if nothing else) and keep my creative brain ticking over. And on the subject of creativity, the third project is writing a novel. That last bit is particularly scary, but I'm giving it a go. It won't be as stressful as it sounds, as the main idea behind it is to just get a first draft out of the door without fear of beating one's self up over it being perfect.

To aid the three projects, I'm stripping back on a lot of things that are cluttering life up a little at the moment. I'll be avoiding alcohol. I'll be shunning social networking, such as Facebook and Twitter - any contact with those social tools will be entirely via this blog. Any personal messages can be sent to me via email or phone (particularly stuff about news items that I might be interested in, as that's the biggest drain on my time using social networking). The television will be turned off; programmes will be stored on hard drive for watching in December. Only the wonder that is BBC Radio 4 will keep me company. This means that stuff like The Collective will be functioning a lot like a skunkworks in November, as I'll be attempting to architect it without the use of overt technology (apart from Ruby itself and GitHub).

Any proper socialising will be done over a bite to eat (arranged by people emailing, texting or calling me) or at gigs (such as seeing The Indelicates play at The 13th Note), which is slightly related to The Collective project I'm working on. I'm hoping that all my friends and colleagues who read this blog article will keep me on the straight and narrow by giving me a bollocking if it looks like I'm procrastinating online, watching telly or drinking wine.

An Appeal For 'Twin Peaks'

This year sees the 20th anniversary of David Lynch's masterpiece 'Twin Peaks'. And what better way to celebrate than to bring a little bit of the magic to London! On November 27th 2010, Riverside Studios in Hammersmith will host the first 'Twin Peaks' UK Festival. I love 'Twin Peaks'. In the early 90s, it pretty much shaped my worldview and personality, as the confused and dreamlike world perfectly mirrored my teenage life at that point. It also made me feel bulletproof as my favourite character (and someone who influenced me) was Albert Rosenfield, played by Miguel Ferrer. Here he is in full-flow.

You see? He's a total bastard, but also a pacifist and skeptic - rather like me.

Anyway, for those reasons (and many others), I was genuinely thrilled to find out that a friend of mine was organising the 'Twin Peaks' Festival in Hammersmith. Cherry pie, coffee, owls and red drapes was enough to convince me, along with the entrancing prospect of being surrounded by fellow Peakies. However, I know at this late stage that the 'Twin Peaks' UK Festival organisers are still desperately trying to raise the last funds they need for the festival to be a roaring success. Obviously, they're pulling out all the stops but the word needs spread to as many people as possible, so maybe there's a potentially new (and thoroughly lovely) sponsor that could help out. If people are interested in sponsorship, the festival can offer plenty of advertising (the website has had 300,000 hits in five weeks and Riverside Studios gets 40,000 hits a week) and branding at the festival and tickets. If they are magazine/media sponsors, it's perfectly possible that interviews with the actors can be sorted out as well. In fact, any profit is being split between Cancer Research and the Rowan's Hospice in Portsmouth. Have a little visit here, by clicking on the picture.

Or alternatively, if they can get 1000 people to donate £12 then the fun 'n' games will commence in earnest, plus the charities the festival supports will get money from any profits. People can donate safely through the festival support page. Again, for further reminder (and to save time by talking backwards like a character in the Black Lodge), any profit from the festival is being split between cancer research and the Rowans Hospice, Portsmouth.

I'm away now to get some cherry pie at the Double R Diner, where pies go when they die.

The Goth Hoover Dance


I'm glad Summer is over. There I've said it. I even started a Facebook group about two years ago about how rubbish Summer is and only ten people joined. I'm disappointed in all of you. More of you should sign up. Why be mindless servants of the sun, I ask you? You can check the reasons there as to why I don't like it. The beginning of this Summer was pretty much the same as every other one. Miserable, alone, dressed in black and feeling witlessly superior to the photosynthesised plants outside. I was sitting indoors, trying to hack together a bunch of code before a deadline and listening to a load of Goth on Spotify. As I hurled abuse at my screen, while trying to get my fingers to jab out clumsy letters, those yelping humans outside got steadily louder, blindly running into the sunlight like the sheep that they always are. They were doubtlessly jumping up and down and yelping, "Summer's here!". "Shut up," I growled, while my collection of deep-throated dark anthems bleared out of the computer speakers. The only consolation was one singular tweet that had been quacked into the Twitter void by noted Guardian columnist Grace Dent, who was going through a similar agony while listening to Bauhaus. Well, misery loves company, as they say and I tweeted back at her, sharing with her my Spotify playlist. Briefly cheered by the dashing Ms Dent's eager subscription to my terror-filled tracklisting, I still couldn't disguise the dread feeling I had of being back at square one, rather like a terrible repetitive dance that I often found myself doing. Yes, a dance.

Let me tell you about this little-known dance. I know that's a surprise, as you already know me as the man who can't dance and couldn't if his life depended on it. So, it might seem surprising that I'm an expert in a slightly obscure dance move that not many people know about. It's so obscure, the people who regularly participate in this specially-named dance aren't even aware that they themselves are doing it. It's not as low-brow as "The Agadoo Dance" or as depressingly culture-defining as the "Whigfield Saturday Night" dance, nor is it as universal and crowd-pleasing as the "YMCA" move. No, it's the "Goth Hoover Dance". The "Goth Hoover Dance" is deeply symbolic of this entire blog article, as it typifies the sub-culture I was (still am?) a member of. Here's me doing it here, on this video.

As you can see, it consists of a simple three steps forward, three steps backward, gaze aimed firmly at the floor, rather as if one is hoovering the carpet. There's a variation where the said Goth clasps his hands behind his back while performing this move, so if the hypothetical hoover ever existed, the Goth would be moving it around with his nose. The frightening thing about this dance is how closely it parallels the life of the person doing it. It's like a physical and mental cul de sac. You keep thinking you've made the three-point turn to get out, but the stupid steep kerb just refuses to get out of the way.

I was doomed from the outset. The first word I learned as a child was "Dracula". Honestly. Well, to be more accurate, the baby version of me grappled with the syllables and pronounced it phonetically as "Drakla". My brother was buying horror comics at this point and used to regularly alude to Bram Stoker's creation. By the repetition of vampire verse and the power of imprinting, the neurons rewired in my infant brain and made "Drakla" the first word I pronounced. When I hit my teens, the first album that really turned my hormonal head and made an impact on my life was "Peepshow" by Siouxsie and The Banshees. It was lent to me by my mate, Spiderboz. I'd already started listening to punk, from the Pistols to the Dead Kennedys - with a passing sideshow interest in the whacky surrealism of Half Man Half Biscuit. However, the first infant word that had passed my lips had marked my future grave already and "Peepshow" was my first musical love. It helps that the lead singer regularly wore tight black PVC too. Sweet heck, I loved Siouxisie Sioux.

I realised how far this self-flaggelation had advanced, when I was asked a profound and poignant question a few years ago. "Did you ever create something from your own mind that physically manifested in the real world and you thought was genuinely beautiful? Something that you were proud to leave as a legacy once you departed this world, no matter how large or small that legacy was?". To my surprise, there was. I wrote a very perfect love song called "Butterfly" in my early 20s. It was simplicity and it was pure. It wasn't even written about a particular girlfriend or partner; it was just a pitch-perfect paen to unconditional love. However, as I was ruminating my gift to Planet Earth, I got asked the inevitable follow-up. "Is there anything you regret thrusting onto this world in the shape of a perceived creative gift?". Sadly, the answer to this was in plural and also belonged to the category of poetry and songwriting. Loosely. When I declared that the name of this piece of Goth gas was pretentiously entitled "The Scars of Yesterday", I guess I shouldn't have been that surprised at the raucous laugh I was greeted with.

"The Scars Of Yesterday". Fuck's sake. I don't even have to tell you how bad that self-pitying rubbish was, formed as it was on the basis of that title. I'll give you one sample line from it. "If I had a mirror on my shoulder, I'd watch my back every day". I've read that line back and I feel proud and appalled by it, in equal measure. There were other classics from when I stamped around campus with a scowl on my face. "Immaculate In Black" might seem like a parody of a title, but I unironically called a poem that once. "Disposable Friend" explained to a cruel world exactly how I felt, but a colleague felt moved to say that the title made it sound like a chorus about a condom. "I'm Dreaming Of A Black Christmas" doesn't really need an explanation. The only thing that makes me feel slightly less ashamed of this period of my life? Others behaved worse. After one laughably mediocre night in the nearby Goth club and observing a phalanx of darklings doing the hoover dance, I was astonished to see them all suddenly clear off the floor and all retreat to their gloomy corners. Like a black sheep following a load of other black sheep, I said that I "quite liked that song Disintegration" and queried why everyone had buggered off. The Cure had "sold out", came the spat words. I guess that meant Robert Smith was wiping his tears away with diamond-encrusted sequins.

It wasn't all bad. With the benefit of hindsight, the mid-80s to early 90s was a pretty miserable time to be a student, so it wasn't surprising that gangs used to float about like aimless stretch hearses. I'll admit to finding the whole current premise of Emos laughable, although I'm sure some of this superiority is everything to do with just hating youth in general. But, look - in my day, we were properly miserable. We were "4 REAL". Emos look too clean and bourgeois. Emo idols are too shiny and beautiful. They've got clothes from the Hellfire chain, iPhone Evanescence apps and the dude from Twilight. We had bin liners, Christian Death and Peter Murphy having his cock strangled by his trousers.

I also realise that in our twilight (not Twilight) Goth years, my group of friends were taking it less seriously anyway. For starters, my colleague Cryotec started doing the "Whigfield Saturday Night" dance to the "Temple Of Love". The hordes in black would stand back appalled at the obvious irreverance until they realised collectively (and with horror) that he was mouthing along with the words and knew all the lyrics. Another evening, Cryotec clapped his hands together during "Bela Legosi's Dead" and announced loudly, "Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the Dashing Black Seargant!". Me and my friend Kat felt like we'd been gassed with nitrous oxide when he said that. The final curtain on those mega-serious years was observing an Uber-Goth, clad head-to-toe in black leather, with a flashing LED crucifix on his crotch. It was upside-down, of course. Presumably, if he'd got lucky later on and ended up in a 69 dry-hump scenario, he would've faced it the "right" way up and ended with one leg in Heaven and a head in Hell. After regarding the Uber Goth flapping around in his variation of a hoover dance, Cryotec announced, "Fuck, we all look like dicks".

And after the carthartic chuckling, our little gang headed back home, laughed at the Tamagothi on the internet, went to bed and woke up the following morning as happy, balanced individuals. Our long mid-20s crisis that had lasted roughly the whole decade was over. Except it hadn't. It was merely the forward-most step of the Hoover dance. Being a Goth is rather like smoking, you think you've kicked the habit. Day-by-day, you sink back into the 'odd' social cigarette at the weekend and think nothing of it, until you're retching your lungs up. Similarly, you know you're back to 'square one' of the dance every now and again, such as the time I was in a club, weeping into a pint of cider and blackcurrant. It wasn't the drink that was the warning bell, it was being practically blinded by the diluted black mascara that had poured into my iris. It was exactly the same at the beginning of this Summer, now mercifully at an end. I realised I was still on the Moebius strip of the dance, sitting furiously in the gloom in front of my computer and glaring out of the side of my eye at the brainless lambs gallivanting outside. In the background, the only non-black item of clothing I've got in my wardobe is a pink and yellow garment that also happens to be a Sisters Of Mercy T-shirt. Forever and forever, first and last and always, three steps forward and then three steps backward and never leaving the Summer of misery. Roll on the Autumn and Halloween.

Dispatches - Tabloids, Tories and Phone Tapping

Peter Oborne outside the Houses of Parliament

On Monday night, an episode of Channel 4's "Dispatches" was screened. It was about the unfolding saga of "News Of The World" journalists and their utilisation of phone tapping. A lot of people are interested in this ongoing story. Some of them are interested in it because they can have a bit of a potshot at the former editor, Andy Coulson, who is now the current Prime Minister's right-hand man and communications manager. This is fair enough, but I'm a lot more worried at the relationship being nurtured between News International and the Metropolitan Police force. So, it seems, is John Prescott, former Deputy Prime Minister. Not to mention Brian Paddick who was a frickin' member of the fecking Metropolitan Police force. Also, I shed a tear for the poor girl who didn't have the label of a 'celebrity', but had her phone hacked by the "News Of The World" anyway. The police grudgingly sent her an unhelpful reply email three months after she'd made an initial allegation.

Anyway, my political paranoia started causing my neck hairs to prickle, as I realised 4oD and Channel 4's Youtube channel had pulled the documentary from Catch-Up. So, I decided to upload it myself. It'll probably be taken down, but Catch it while you can. By the time I'd uploaded the first part, it'd already got 200 hits within 20 minutes. Admittedly, this was probably aided and abetted by my colleague Graham Linehan tweeting it. Another online acquaintance, Mr Chris Coltrane, has also kindly pointed to a torrent site hosting the documentary - which, as I understand, has leapt up in the number of peers sharing it, thus proving you can't keep a good story down if people want to share it. If you can't torrent a video, you can also watch another streaming copy on Vimeo courtesy of Derfen, particularly since Youtube is rather more vulnerable to contentious material being blocked. But while it's not being blocked, you also have the option of a streaming HD (High Definition) copy embedded in this blog (or follow the link below each embedded video to go direct to Youtube). In fact, just for really good measure, if you suspect this newly-uploaded video will be pulled from Youtube, then use Keepvid to keep a copy of it yourself.

Since writing this blog entry, 4oD have since put the documentary back up, so you could watch it there too (although only for the next month). You might also be thinking that I (and a fair number of other social media chatterers) might have over-reacted. It wasn't pulled by mysterious Powers-That-Be, surely? You may well be right. But we've been here before, many times before. One great illustration was the crude super-injunction that was issued to stop coverage of Trafigura in newspapers, legitimate broadasting outlets and Parliament itself. In that instance, a lot of very alert social media users ended up being the watchdog, when our more traditional protectors and representatives (such as the CPS, journalists, PCC and even our MPs) were circumnavigated by big business. Frankly, it's happened before; it's happened since; and it'll happen again.

A lot of the old media brigade pour scorn on things like bloggers and the new technology. They may well have a point. I guess there'll be some of us that laughably think we're digital revolutionaries or internet anarchists. But if the professionals in Whitehall and Fleet Street are wandering around with black gaffer tape on their gobs, then why not let a few of us shout, tweet, share and upload? I think it's rather heartening that a load of "amateurs" can quickly spread the word of a must-see documentary, when the usual establishment bodies seemed anxious to draw attention away from it.

By the way, if anyone is interested, I also have Peter Oborne's fantastic 2008 "Dispatches" documentary entitled "It Shouldn't Happen To A Muslim" (July 2008, Channel 4), where he expertly skewers the anti-Muslim narratives that the newspapers have been peddling. He also shows how most of the stories are blatant made-up bollocks as well. Yes, a fair number of us knew all this already, but it's great seeing Oborne embarass the national press with such surgical precision. Give me a holler if you want me to upload that too.

Who Lives In A House Like This? Davina, It's Over To You! Davina?

At the start of this century, "Big Brother" seemed like a novelty and audiences grew and grew. Before 2000 and "Big Brother's" first series, nobody could engage their voyeuristic instincts without punitive action. Even professional psychologists had to validate observational studies, after ethics committees deemed 1950s/1960s psychological experiments (by the likes of Zimbardo and Milgram) too invasive and dehumanising. Now we live in times where it's commonplace to announce your activities to all your friends and strangers via Twitter; the whole world is now a reality show. Whether it realised the need to compete, "Big Brother" producers made the crass decision that it needed to engage our interests by attracting more extreme exhibitionists. In doing so, it had it's wings clipped (perhaps rightly) by OFCOM and its ilk, mirroring what happened with the ethics committees in the 1960s. As a psychology graduate myself, this strikes me as perfectly reasonable; if you can't dignify a social experiment with the advancement of science, you certainly can't dignify it with the advancement of an entertainment circus. Meanwhile, as social networking becomes more universal, voyeurism seems so much more pervasive. We can interactively create our own reality shows where we have the choice of "following" who we want, be that a bedsit musician, amateur blogger or 50 Cent. At the same time, television producers have their hands tied by OFCOM's tougher regulations and, paradoxically, they are left with the very thing that caused those regulations to be put in place; extreme personalities in an artificial house that audiences can no longer identify with. It's little wonder "Big Brother" now seems out-dated.

There are two threads in this blog article as to why "Big Brother" drifted inevitably away from it's roots. Firstly, as a reality TV gameshow in it's dying days, it bears little similarity to the simplicity of the social experiment it had in it's earlier years. Secondly, like most evolving systems of democracy (from phone-in vote shows all the way to party politics) a media-machine will grow around it as time goes by. This machine will attempt to influence a winner and a runner-up. As an added opinion with no basis (but one of personal preference), there will be a third place taken by a participant who would normally be the most deserving winner*; someone who is overlooked by the voting system's media-machine and are often rewarded by votes from a more dedicated populous who ignore external manipulation. Is there any basis to my preposterous theory or leap of imagination? Well, I know who will win the last series of "Big Brother" (or "Ultimate Big Brother"). Steep claim**? Well, read on…

Let's deal with the original point. "Big Brother" is often argued to be both a social experiment and a gameshow, as well as holding up a mirror to society. In the former case, I've already argued that "Big Brother" is a "jack-of-all-trades" which quickly became a "master-of-none"; the show's biggest strengths became the biggest weaknesses as the series went on. It can't be a proper reality show, because most people in the United Kingdom don't end up in a strange sci-fi house with funny tasks, accompanied by a skewed sample of the population (while something like "The Verdict" is a more analogous artifice of an enclosed social situation). As a gameshow too, I've argued that a level playing-field for all contestants became less and less fair as producers and media became involved and interfered.

In that sense, "Big Brother" was never "a mirror to society"; it was "a mirror to media and democracy". If you think about it, any landscape that supports opponents trying to get to the top of a hierarchy by using other peoples' votes starts off relatively fair. However, after a voting system is recognised and establishes itself, it becomes obligatory that vested interests will get involved. In the "Big Brother" series, just chuck in the phrase "producers" instead of "spin doctors" and replace "newspapers" with "companion shows". Plus, throw in the newspapers themselves, who are adept at giving their wholly compartmentalised views of society. You've now got a potent mix of inbuilt biases and cultural norms. I'm not saying that there's a conspiracy to ensure a particular person is crowned  winner in a frothy television series (I'll leave that to obsessed online fan forum groups). It would be more accurate to say that any perception of a television reality is going to be, at the very least, unconsciously shaped by past experiences and biases of the producers themselves without them meaning to. As the connection between the voting public and the producers' vision becomes more disparate, the audience drifts away and their interests go toward... well, social networking and following other ordinary people; or other artistic projects that represent real people.

Certainly, after the seventh series of "Big Brother", the show began to fizzle out. The winner of the eighth series, for example, was Brian Belo, someone who had absorbed the BB phenomenon via osmosis, having watched every episode on video over and over again. In that sense, he was inadvertently the living embodiment of a winner that encapsulated the media part of BB, as opposed to the ordinary person on the street. The mega-fan, either consciously or unconsciously, had absorbed exactly what was needed to be the media representation of the perfect BB competitor. This was living proof that "Big Brother" had embraced the media fully and it was another death blow. As lovely as Mr Belo is, he's the "Big Brother" series version of Tony Blair***.

To conclude, it started off as a minority channel social experiment, with a little bit of viewer interaction in the form of phone-in votes. It was seized upon by the tabloids and new gossip mags. Spin-off shows were quickly created to catch up with the new "Heat"-style titles that had appeared. Due to this engorged media, the gameshow element became a sideshow. Voting by telephone or betting slip wouldn't work, because there was no level-playing field anymore; the image was of a distorted playing field created by harsher editing and extreme personalities. As a result, the highlights programme showed insane stereotypes, rather than gentle archetypes. The aggressiveness of the editing can lead to people potentially being misrepresented harmfully, particularly as the final day of the show has been sadly affected by Nadia's suicide attempt. It's time for the show to be given to an over-delayed rest. As for it being a reality show, who really lives in a house like this? The seeds had already been sown slowly for it to die.

* Disclosure One. Yes, I voted Lib Dem. I feel a bit foolish now. Disclosure Two. I have two friends who are both Bronze medallists from "Big Brother" (and both of them follow my demented tweets). Read Dan Bryan's article from last week on this blog, while check out Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace's contribution to the BBC News this morning. Oh, and here's a few more Bronze medallists who all deserved to win. Three's the magic number.
  • Alex Sibley (BB3)
  • Dan Bryan (BB5)
  • Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace (BB7)
  • Liam McGough (BB8)
  • Maggot (CBB4)
  • Dirk Benedict (CBB5)

** For those not in the know, Ultimate Big Brother is a belated last throw of the dice of the dying BB franchise, which reunites a whole bunch of previous contestants of past series. And I already know who will win Ultimate Big Brother. Seriously. In my minds eye, I can see it as clearly as crystal shard. Davina McCall will start off almost palpably uneasy and foreboding, reading the name off the card "And the winner of Big Brother, the Ultimate Winner of all time, is... is... IS". This is her last chance, Davina is reaching the crescendos of all crescendos. Believe me, a Davina crescendo is like a sunspot radiation flare. They're always big, but not as big as this. "IS... "

In order of votes counted (and predicted):

1) Brian Dowling
2) Nikki Grahame
3) Victor Ebuwa
4) Chantelle Houghton
5) Nick Bateman
6) Ulrika Jonsson
7) Samuel Preston

*** Not really. Belo's lovely and doesn't know his Shakespeare from his George Miller. Blair's a cunt and doesn't know his Iraq from his Afghanistan.

Next blog entry, things on this blog will become normal again, when I'll witter on about Goths. Yes, I know I used to be one - it'll be slightly autobiographical.

In Reality, I'm Stereotypically Yours

This is a guest post by Dan Bryan, songwriter and vocalist for Icehouse Project, critically appraising the casting of stereotypes in reality television. An edited version of this was originally printed in Gay Times, September issue of 2009. By his kind (and timely) permission, the article is now published here. Photo by Icehouse Project collaborator Paul Dakeyne.

One of the main problems with reality television stereotypes is the producers.

In a notoriously young profession you have producers and assistant producers in their early twenties. This is not a bad thing in itself but we are now entering a generation where new, young producers have been brought up and spoon-fed on a vapid celebrity culture. They themselves cannot wait to get a tabloid rag and thumb the pages for the gossip in breaks during filming. This means that the type of people they are picking for their shows tend to be the two dimensional cartoon cut-out characters that we see. When they pick a gay for their show they are picking them for being larger than life, with more front than Brighton and enough mince to feed the Russian navy for a year, for being just gay in fact.


Because the producers think that is what the public think of when they see a gay. So by pandering to what they THINK the public wants and by giving them what they THINK they want to see it all ends up being stereotypes and pigeon-holed characters. What they have forgotten over the years of saturating us with images of cartoon ‘people’ is that as humans we actually pick up on the subtleties of someone’s character and TV is the perfect medium for platforming these traits in anyone. We are far more likely to find a gorgeous, stubbly, bit-rough-round-the-edges mechanic (who happens to be gay) interesting if he has a sense of humour and a caring, warm personality and crucially; vulnerability. The shows doing well at the moment are the ones where people are chosen to learn a skill or for their strengths and weaknesses rather than what they act like or which pigeon-hole they fit.

As an openly gay male I find it insulting and annoying when we are constantly represented by the mincing, effeminate, bitchy, two-faced phoney twirlies that reality TV keeps parading before us. As if they are doing us proud. Patronising us with the old “here we have a gay so the gays feel represented” when in actual fact it’s not about sexuality at all. I’m not the butchest guy ever and I do possess one of the sharpest tongues seen on television, but on the whole I’m just a regular guy. I was chosen to enter the "Big Brother" house for my strength of character and abilities to deal with any given situation with the kind of leadership skills that you would expect from a 30-year-old alpha male. I was picked for my intelligence and acerbic wit and my abilities to make people feel safe in unpleasant situations and NOT because I have a high pitched squeal and clap my hands at every given opportunity; not for my tan and manicure; nor for my high-lighted hair; and I know this because I have none of those things.

Our producers realised in me that sexuality makes up less than 2% of a persons personality and it is because of this ignorance, and willingness to exploit the obvious that other reality producers are destroying their own work. People simply switch off when they are presented with characters who are not only really blatant and have the depth of a puddle, but continue to show themselves to be just as shallow. And why? Because it’s insulting to think we are that much of a push over.

Reality TV clearly thinks we are stupid.

We are not.

Next blog post will be my own contribution on the wrapping up of Channel 4's "Big Brother" televison series.

L'Ancien Regime - Crumbling And Analogue

This is Part 2 of an article. Part 1 is here, just before the Digital Economy Bill was about to be passed. Now it's an Act. Why was it passed?

I've started looking backwards. I'm so baffled by the absolutist positions of old content distributors lobbying for the Digital Economy Act and denying the truth staring them in the face. I've decided that it can't be the future these people are interested in. To understand them better, I reasoned, I'd have to dig around in history and philosophy, even though I thought such subjects might be irrelevant to the bright shiny internet. So, I started digging around the philosophies of Marxism and Adam Smith with all their talk about free markets, the proletariat, and so on. I originally thought the concepts seemed so quaint. The Marxist proletariat I normally associate with workers in smoking-chimney factories or coal-mines, while Smith's 'invisible hand' used to be seen as a corrective benign guide for market forces. Now those factories or coal-mines don't really exist in that form anymore, while the 'invisible hand' is now no longer seen as benign or neutral, but seen as vicious and connected to Thatcherism. Neither of those philosophies could have dreamt of the the large, amazing force of the internet or the widespread availability of software tools for everyone to democratically create content (whether that be music, Youtube movies or citizen journalism in the form of blogs). The 'invisible hand' in the internet age means that supply always meets demand, as there are no 'scarce resources' as everything is just copied. Plus, for every niche interest, there will be someone else that can cater for it, be it Mongolian folk covers of Radiohead songs or very obscure sexual fetishes.

Why have I started thinking like this? Why have I been looking at dusty Marxist tomes? Before anyone thinks that I'm a Communist planning a downfall of the state, please note that I mentioned also reading Adam Smith and I haven't turned into a raving Thatcherite either. In fact, if you're taking that logical stand, I've read L Ron Hubbard and I haven't turned into a Scientologist or started watching loads of Tom Cruise films. It's just rather neat to re-examine old economic philosophy, particularly those based around machinery exploitation, and then turn it on its head. The big leap on my part is that most of us are now the proletariat and not the middle class. Hey, well, David Cameron did say he was middle-class the other day. Maybe he was right? Because of the way wealth and gadget affordability is within the grasp of most, that doesn't mean everyone in society is now bourgeois and the working-class have ceased to exist; it's the opposite. According to Marxist philosophy in the digital age, this proletariat have expanded to be the biggest in society and their tools are no longer pick-axes or mining equipment, but computers. It's getting dangerous for a dramatically-depleted leisure class and a new ancien régime (I know, an oxymoron, deliberately so), because the internet connects these proletariat tools and might finally cause that deeply-unfashionable Marxist revolution that so many capitalists had deemed dead. It just won't come in the form of a quaint burning of a Reichstag by some cute overalled working-class types from the 1920s. It is emerging from genuine craftsmen doing creative stuff in their bedrooms.

Engels defines Marx's proletariat look like this.

"[The machines] introduction completely altered the existing method of production and displaced the existing workers. This was due to the fact that machinery could produce cheaper and better commodities than could the handicraftsmen with their imperfect spinning wheels and hand looms. Thus, these machines handed over industry entirely to the big capitalists and rendered the little property the workers possessed (tools, hand looms, etc.) entirely worthless. Soon the capitalists got all in their hands and nothing remained for the workers".

An aim of Engels is the abolition of private property - this isn't just flats or houses we're talking about, but the proceeds of a labourer's works now owned privately by someone else. So a modern day example would be copyright owners. "Private property will be abolished only when the means of production have become available in sufficient quantities". Did you read that, folks? I think we've just reached that stage, don't you? Cheap affordable machines that everyone uses (iPhones, computers, music and movie-making software etc) and the world-wide web (given away for free by Mr Berners-Lee) means the communication between a vast, creatively-aware populous is possible.

At ORGCON,the music industry panel pointed out that the word processor came along and suddenly a whole load of typists were made redundant during the 1980s and 1990s. This was seen as a perfectly valid thing to happen at the time, despite a load of upset unemployed typists. In that situation, the government didn't go and ban Microsoft Word to prop up typist jobs. Yet, old distribution models are being shown as inefficient when placed next to internet distribution, but the government is propping up the old industry with the Digital Economy Act (incidentally, as an aside, I know Adam Smith is barely getting coverage in this blog entry, but Elmyra did it so much better in her blog article covering classic economics and the internet - it seems appropriate to plug that here, since I sat a few seats behind her and Cory Doctorow at an ORGCON event and annoyingly didn't realise it was her at the time). Despite widespread puzzlement as to why this perceived symmetry didn't apply to distributors, but did apply to typists, we can check this Marx quote from 1844, about 140 years before Microsoft Word started crashing routinely in it's earliest incarnations.

"[T]he alienation of the worker is expressed thus: the more he produces, the less he can consume; the more value he creates, the less value he has. [L]abour produces things for the rich, but misery is for the poor. Machines replace labour, and jobs diminish, while other workers turn into machines." - Manuscripts of 1844, Marx.

Furthermore, "[I]t not only degrades man, but also depersonalises him". The boss imposes the kind of work, the method and the rhythm, but he never bothers if the worker ends up as a "mere appendage of flesh on a machine of iron".

Nowadays, we come to the odd situation that Marx, normally a man of foresight, could never have seen; the machine starts becoming the appendage to the human and is used for societal change from below. In other words, ladies and gentlemen, I give you a potential real revolution. Rather than typists being kicked out of a job, distributors and money-men are starting to feel that they could be dispensable, while the new l'ancien regime is getting nervous. Three questions for you, then. Question One. Who are good examples of distributors? Why, step forward, Mr Simon Cowell! Mr Paul McGuinness, speak your tune from GQ! Question Two. Who could be members of the l'ancien regime? Aye, aye, it's the BPI. Hello, newspaper proprietors, such as Mr Rupert Murdoch (a man who really hates the internet). In short, anyone defending rapidly-aging copyright laws from centuries ago. Question Three. Which people are chiefly responsible for the Digital Economy Act? Okay, okay, that's almost a rhetorical question - yes, it's the previous two groups. And neither of those two groups want to go the way of the typist. To explain that, let's read this letter to Weydemyer from Marx, dated March 5th, 1852.

"What's important, is to grasp that each social class has its own interests and each holds views about the government of the state consistent with the defence of those interests. Social harmony which certain 'beautiful souls' preach, CANNOT exist. It can't, because so long as any one class lives by exploiting another, a struggle will exist against such exploitation. And this class struggle is NECESSARY for human progress."

We can go back further into the past, just in case you all think I really am a Rampant Red. Hegel's "Philosophy Of History" argued that humanity advances and progresses only because of conflicts, wars, revolutions; that is, through the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors. Peace and harmony don't make for progress. Despite Hegel mainly meaning a religious struggle, he still described it very much as a spiritual conflict; or a struggle between ideas. While not particularly associated with the spiritual, most proponents of the digital revolution are certainly full of ideas as to how the new business model might operate. Most of the supporters of the Digital Economy Act choose either not to understand or ignore the ideas espoused by the individual craftsmen releasing their individual craft online via technology. It's not bafflement or bewilderment; very simply, it's safeguarding their own private property as laid down by copyright in the analogue economy. Never mind the fact that just by opening a browser and accessing any website means you don't own that website, you own a copy that now sits in your machine - so strictly speaking, old copyright law never fitted into the digital model in the first place. Plus, here's where I kill off any suggestion that I'm a raging Marxist. Anyone with a red beret on their head during the 1970s claiming "[A]ll property is theft" ceases to have any meaning in a digital world, since all web properties are copies that are downloaded anyway. Music and video is only a small part of the way the internet works. It's where Adam Smith and Karl Marx end up in the digital afterlife, where there is a perfect virtual free market and all property is copied.

This blog entry is going to ensure I'm never employed ever again, isn't it? Oh well. Next week, I talk about Big Brother. Despite all my high falutin' philosophising here, you'd think I was talking about the Marx-inspired groundbreaking novel of George Orwell. Sadly, nothing as profound as that. I'm returning to the slightly more ridiculous terrain of previous blog entries and talking about the Channel 4 television series that's coming crashing to an end (and getting flooded in the process).

Facebook Be Damned

By the time May 31st arrives, my Facebook account will be a minimalist name and a hyperlink to this Posterous page or/and my Typepad blog. All my pictures, status updates, et al will no longer exist on my Facebook profile. I will NOT be removing any friends, as Facebook is (annoyingly) indispensible as a self-updating address book. But I don't like Facebook's casual ownership and cavalier attitude toward all my info on there. So, I'm taking it away from our Facebook masters.

Posted via email from Chris Nicholson's posterous

The DEB Star Will Be Completed On Schedule


When the Terrorism Act 2000 was introduced to the British public, there were a lot of very worried people and some, such as photographers, even felt it might impact their careers. With the current Digital Economy Bill (DEB) going through a final review in the Commons, after being passed by the Lords, a helpless sense of deja vu is being felt again.

I remember at the turn of the century, gentle hippy acquaintances frequently protested in the streets (often fruitlessly) against the perils of globalisation or against a park getting bricked over by a building developer. They seemed a bit narked off with various Terrorism Acts during the Noughties, frequently assailing the senses with stories of being cordoned off by the police, who could round them up for daring to hang around a public place with about a dozen other like-minded hippies. Overlapping with this good-willed group, there was another group of people that weren't happy with it, namely photographers. They argued that the Terrorism Act could theoretically have a negative effect on their career. When the initial readings for the Terrorism Bill were first being passed through the Commons, professional and amateur photographers were trying to make their voices heard. This was in a time without Facebook or Twitter either, so they had to do that old-fashioned thing of traipsing around the streets with billboards. Not without irony, a fair few of them realised that by demonstrating in this way, they'd already landed themselves into the same category as the gentle hippies being kettled under the incoming new Terrorism Act.

Ah, nodded those supposedly in-the-know at the time of the Terrorism Act's gestation, but that's all theoretical. Due dilligence and discretion will be used in the application of these new powers to combat terrorism. More to the point, they probably secretly thought; who cares about a bunch of amateur/professional photographers? That's not a proper career, like those banker friends of ours that keep society properly ticking over.

Down through the years of various Terrorism and Criminal Justice Acts, it's now practically a weekly (if not daily) occurrence that police harrass photographers. Here's a few recent examples, just to show the commonality of harrassment; a famous architectural photographer is arrested by the real-life equivalent of Gene Hunt; a man taking photos in Elephant & Castle is arrested and jailed; a BBC photographer is accused of being an "Al Quaeda operative"; and, brilliantly, an Italian student secretly filmed the Met cops harrassing her. This isn't even taking into account the many, many cases from 2001 onwards. All the theoretical talk photographers had "indulged" in at the start of the century seems to have become a reality. Foreign tourists are feeling the warm welcome of Britain when they go out to snap UK landmarks. It took almost a decade for one senior police officer to realise that this was giving the boys-in-blue a rather ugly veneer and he sent a circular around, suggesting clause 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 was being abused. The circular didn't appear to work. The next few weeks threw up new police harrassment cases, including a man being arrested in a shopping mall for taking photos of his children and, the punchline to this paragraph, a retired police officer being harrassed for photographing some buskers.

When viewed in the historical context of the Terrorism Act legislation, any law that doesn't bear close scrutiny needs scrapped when you keep in mind what those poor photographers had to deal with. As the people most likely to be professionally hit by such draconian measures, they knew that badly-worded law could land them into frequent trouble. It is similar with the Lord Mandelson's Digital Economy Bill (DEB). Practically every major digital economy representative opposes the UK legislation, including those from the security services. One of the alarming measures introduced by Lib Dem and Tory Lords was the straightforward blocking of websites suspected of infringing copyright. Superficially, to anyone that doesn't know much about how the web operates, this seems reasonable. Dig a little further and you're banning blogs, small business startups and even Youtube channels, with the presumption of guilt in the first instance. These are the cottage industry areas of the internet, often staffed by people who have to dig into their empty pockets against multinationals armed with unlimited resources, wanting to snuff them out. The onus is still on the little person trying prove their innocence, rather like a shocking electronic version of current British libel law. Most of the time, they'll have no choice but to board up shop. A further amendment to the DEB was outlawing the use of "web lockers". Again, this doesn't bear close scrutiny when you ponder a real-world equivalent. Try telling people in the non-virtual world equivalent that they're no longer allowed to use briefcases, safes or padlocked office drawers, because terrorists and criminals use such facilities to hide stuff. Most people would be picking up the phone to call the men in white coats for you.

To take the real-world analogy further, maybe we should ban all the locks on the windows and doors to our homes, because criminals live in houses as well and that'll make them easier to catch. Does that sound like I'm being unreasonably sarcastic? Well, no actually. Part of the DEB involves tying a single IP address to a person's account. To put it crudely, ill-informed legislation suggests that IP address equals person's account equals physical home address. Dynamic IP address allocation is just one feature of how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) attempt to make our internet connections more secure and make them more impervious to cyber attacks. The DEB legislation is worded ambiguously and it's not entirely clear how dynamic IP address allocation is going to be utilised successfully in this post-DEB world, so they could just be removed as a natural defence against common viruses. IP "address" (dynamic or not) is maybe a misnomer in the wireless age anyway, as it could never be realistically linked to a physical address of one person's account. It's ambiguous as to who could be rightfully termed a subscriber or who could be termed an ISP, particularly as even the government appear unsure at this point. This is why cafes, libraries and museums are understandably upset, while Universities are extremely perturbed at the way their current federated internet structure could be impacted. We're also talking about a future where nearly any notable public area could conceivably have Wi Fi, including public toilets. Surfing the net for the latest James Blunt MP3 while you take a deeply symbolic shit is only a matter of time.

Thus, the biggest damage that the DEB will do is to the digital industry itself. Many small IT firms and cottage industry projects use legal filesharing more than your average user, but the DEB will automatically target those that do the most filesharing. In other words, web developers (particularly those that use legitimate Linux filesharing) are going to start feeling like our old photographer friends. Too far-fetched? On Twitter, I suggested web engineers could be permanent criminal suspects under the new DEB regime and, through the power of the retweet by the blogosphere, I got that suggestion sent out to about 20000 people. Out of those many people, only one tweet came back suggesting I could be wrong. After some discussion, they eventually conceded and suggested "But all you have to do if asked, and we don't think the question will be asked, is disclose the content and author of files". Sorry, I don't want to do that. I've already worked on a system for clinical patient reports, an intranet for schoolkids aged between 4-16 and a CV (Curriculum Vitae) management web application. All of those contain sensitive data files, none of which a befuddled ISP or a Whitehall mandarin should have access to. More to the point, a small business needs to survive on its wits and minnow-like ability to swim quickly amongst the giant behemoth corporations. If a small digital business had a great idea, a new 'business model', a world-shifting 'paradigm' or a 'killer app" that could potentially threaten old corporation interests, then the last thing they want to do is hand files out to ISPs or Lord Mandelson's minions. The Lord of Darkness has already indicated which side he's on by introducing this ill-advised BIll. Just like the photographers were hit by the legal crossfire of the Terrorism Act, any worker in the digital economy will be subject to wandering around a DEB minefield that Mandelson, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) and the record companies inflicted on us for daring to think outside the analogue box.

This is the first part of an article. The second part will deal more specifically with WHY Mandelson and others seek to attack the digital economy and this has it's roots firmly at the start of New Labour, if not the roots of British society. It's wrapped up in the timely and symbolic act from last week when Facebook threatened The Daily Mail  with legal action. This isn't a case of just "new media vs old media", this is a case of "new money vs old establishment money".

Thanks to the Broccoli Man for the references on photographer arrests.

The Riddler

Do you remember that scene in "Batman Forever" when Jim Carrey's "The Riddler" plugged most of Gotham City into his head? Big swirly green brainwaves were sucked from the populous sitting befuddled in front of their TV screens and sucked straight into The Riddler's big swollen conk. Well, that's sometimes how I feel Twitter operates. It's sometimes too much, because my brain constantly expands uncomfortably at the swelter of mental projections swirling in the virtual vacuum. Having said that, it can sometimes feel like a fantastic angel-decorated Wim Wenders movie, where you can drift in between a constantly scrolling narrative of peoples' thoughts. It can occasionally resemble the shock horror realisation of the Buffy episode "Earshot", where the drifting between thoughts can reveal an innermost turmoil and shock decision. Or, on a really bad night, Twitter can reveal a bunch of trolls all running out from underneath their bridge and shouting spite.

But overall, it's more like the Wim Wenders "Wings Of Desire" movie. Big brilliant brave thoughts, all jostling with each other, formed from the collective niceness of the whole network, born out of new human-made Twitter customs like Follow Friday and Music Monday. You either share friends thoughts ("Hey, check this guy out, he's funny! Check this girl out, she's building a hovercraft on solar power and blogging about it") or share music ("Hey, just found this harpsichord cover from a 90s band of a 70s classic on Spotify!"). You can saunter between all these peoples' undiscovered blogs and scrappy thoughts, but not feel like an unpleasant voyeur, because they're all wanting to share stuff too.

How come I wasn't born into all this? Six degrees of separation was five too many for me. I lived in a location where 50 miles due East seemed too far, an exhausting struggle to get to meet a few friends for a snatched couple of hours or a strained phone call where only one person was listening (albeit, a great friend on the other end of the wire). But brilliantly, there's a generation just behind me who are growing up with all this. I feel privileged that I'm involved in the Glow project, an intranet that extends all over Scotland's schools and shares knowledge between kids and teachers, which removes those six degrees. It means that children in urban Glasgow and Dundee can share knowledge about the Highland Clearances with... hey, get this... youngsters that grew up in the Highlands. Plus, not to get too parochial about this, it means those kids can talk to other children on other Continents. What's next? Could the Glow intranet start talking to people up in Space, like Soichi Noguchi, and let the children have a literally out-of-this-world experience? No wonder George Lucas has given his seal of approval to Glow on an occasion. I'm even playing with developing a Twitter for schoolchildren that will enable kids to talk, uninterrupted by those pesky adults, to that aforementioned spaceman.

However, a couple of caveats are in order.

Firstly, I sometimes feel like The Riddler, with the big bloated head. I can't keep up with everyone sometimes. I'm busy, developing Glow's search engine, while moonlighting on extremely silly web projects with comedy writers. Or I spend time worrying, just after 5pm, about stupid things like mortgages or the airbrushed forehead of David Cameron. Let's just leave the currently rapid expanding virtual world, free of geographical boundaries, to the kids with their developing dendrites and naughty neurons.

Secondly, this isn't the sort of state education intranet that needs to have money cut by torrid Tories or limping Labourites. In this new world, elitists need not apply and they should allow education (oh, and meaningless babble and gossip) to course through the new digital veins of the world.

For those reasons alone, don't let the digital world grind to a halt. Vested interests in the UK analogue world would be quite happy to let it happen. They've all got bloated heads full of undersigned lobbyist interests, advertising deals and poorly written Digital Economy Bills (DEB) of a world they no longer understand. Younger generations are now already born into this and ready to learn as much as possible. Is it jealousy of those generations that governments and older generations wish to quash, I wonder?

That's the true riddle, isn't it?

And to think. You regular readers thought I could only write cynical posts. Shame on you.