Monday, December 12, 2011


The FT's article on the report on the failure of the Royal Bank of Scotland is pretty damning/depressing/encouraging reading. Their link/commentary on the report itself nails it though:

"Why has no one taken responsibility for a failure that has cost British taxpayers billions?"

Other quotes make for more good evidence that FT is the paper to read on financial matters, not some City-suck-up rag with its own interests at heart:

"The report’s language has also been repeatedly watered down after the individuals involved fought a tough battle to remove some of the most inflammatory comments"

"The closure of the [previous] investigation triggered a storm of public and political outrage as the FSA was forced to admit that no comprehensive summary had been prepared, with work scattered across a collection of desks, files and notes stuck to the computer screens of its staff."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Yahoo blocking URLs in webmail?

Can anyone with a Yahoo! (or BT?) account confirm they're censoring the URL, as in this article/video?

Pretty low if so.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Fire Service up the spout

The story of AssetCo is pretty FU. Privatised dire fire service. £100m+ debts. Allegations of cash mis-use by former CEO. The pension scheme could have to be rescued by public money. Fire engines owned by Lloyds Bank. It's hard to imagine a much bigger mess, really.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Flash-Lit Fiction

I had great fun at the weekend getting remotely involved in Flash-Lit Fiction night, organised by Paragraph Planet, Grit Lit, and Story Studio. The challenge was to submit a story in a tweet - so 140 characters, minus the #flf11 hashtag. There was an initial theme of "21st Century", followed by an all-encompassing "Any" theme. Sadly I couldn't make the in-flesh meet-up that followed, but welcome to the 21st Century...

I should caveat by saying I don't really "consider" myself a "writer". I can do words and have a pen at the top of this blog, but I've never had the time or brain to sit down and write something I really like. (And oh yes, I've tried.)

So Twitter is great for this - you can think of some nugget of an idea and dash it out to the Internet for casual judgement in under a minute. That instantaneity is also why I love writing Haiku - there's no time to dissect and ruin an idea, and once you've posted it, you can move on to something else. There's a great and raw "nowness" to it all.

You can see the final shortlisted and winning stories here - the winners were indeed awesome tweets. I came in second on both categories - which I'm definitely more chuffed than miffed about, what with not really being a writer and all that. (Although I'm even more pleased that one of the categories came down to a clapometer-style showdown...) More than anything though, it was huge fun just bashing ideas out into a phone, refining them to be the right length, and seeing what works and what doesn't.

For posterity, all my entries are below. But I'm also hoping to carry on tweeting stories - they fit nicely alongside 100-word Drabbles and Paragraph Planet's 75-worders. Just need a short-enough hashtag now.

My entries (# links to original tweet):

# I sat, staring out of the flung-open window of my new penthouse flat. Clouds hovered. Birds cartwheeled. I jumped.

# My hand fumbles around in the darkness for a rope, while the clown just smiles at me for another hour. [my favourite]

# I remember the day of my birth perfectly; it was snowing, and I couldn't help but scream.

# I grew up around the trees of this forest. 89 years and one cheap dagger later, now they grow up around me. [shortlisted]

# I thought 'the Great Malaise' was an exotic place. In History class today we learnt it referred to the 1st half of the 21st century.

# The old woodcutter fell asleep surrounded by the forest, and woke up in a field of skyscrapers. He still thinks there's a way home.

# For them it was less "arranged marriage", more "conveyor belt romance". With the obvious, inevitable conclusion.

# We discovered the particle for love on the 11th of March, 2088. The first products hit the shelves in time for Christmas. [shortlisted / clapometered]

# There aren't many who can remember where they were for both the 2000 and the 2100 celebrations. And none that want to.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Psychedelic Gift Culture Bank Notes

It's not a URL I fancy typing in, or saying out loud, but has some amazing psychedlic-art-gift-culture-bank-notes.


1 Million:


Monday, August 22, 2011

Talking Nothing

Sometimes I wonder if we're in such a pickle because we've wrapped our public-facing language into such tidy, useless little bundles. Lucy Kellaway's breakdown [FT, possible paywall] of Larry Page's Google-Motorola-acquisition statement amused me:

These 32 words were last week repeated uncritically in newspapers all over the world, but no one seems to have stopped to wonder: what on earth was he on about?


Entire. One can’t ever have too much emphasis in a statement of this sort. Never mind that it’s a nonsense in this case, as an ecosystem is by definition entire as it doesn’t come in halves.

[Sidenote: Interesting to see more website playing with the clipboard. FT now adds a polite copyright disclaimer if you copy text from theirs.]

Monday, July 25, 2011

Bitcoin network/transaction analysis

This article grabs the headlines by saying Bitcoin is not anonymous - which was kind of obvious really - but is actually fascinating for its network analysis and diagrams for the recent Bitcoin heist:

Friday, July 15, 2011

Untackling Climate Change

Sir John Beddington's message on climate change, and how events outside the UK will affect us in the UK, is an interesting read for the language it uses.

For a start, it appears to accept that climate change is inevitable, and that adapting to it is more important than "preventing" it. Have we reached the tipping point not in terms of scientific effect, but of moral mastery? Is this a sign of a reality that has failed to deal with an unseeable threat?

Perhaps this ties in with a second observation - that climate change is indeed still seen as an "external threat" which acts upon us like an invading enemy. That we are "vulnerable" to it, rather than it is merely an effect of our actions. That we must "tackle" it, rather than change anything about what we think already. Like a good horror story, it is only too late that we finally wake up and realise that the problem is nothing to do with the outside, but was inside our very noses all this time.

Finally, the solution wheeled out comes down to money and markets - yup, if there's a solution out there, we should be the ones to profit from it. The idea that technological innovation will not only a) save the world, but also b) get everyone to give us money for doing so is like something out of any good sci-fi story with a Jesus complex.

The split between "us" and "them" is no longer of use. There is no "outside" or "inside" the UK - ideas, money, harmful gases and luxury goods now flow freely around the planet. Our society is connected, but the political mechanisms we try to find solutions with are anything but.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

How to stop thinking about the recession

This Guardian piece sums up the state of the UK economy for me. We have no plan not just for growth, but for sustainability either. It's questionable whether we need the former, but without the latter, we're pretty screwed.

It's becoming clear that we're about to hit a period where we've run out of strategy, which in practical terms means that we've run out of status quo opportunity: those who have resources will be fine. Those who do not will suffer.

At least, that's how it will play out for those who follow the "rules". In harsh times, a competitive system will be anything but fair or level - something I kind of figured out a long time ago. Resources will breed resources. Money will breed money.

The upside - and this is essential to understand - is that power is no longer limited to money. The old resources have been augmented and shifted - subtly, but subtly enough for it to matter.

In the coming hard times, those who follow money as the competitive decider will lose out to whoever has more. This is similar to tai chi, which starts out by saying that those who rely on strength will lose once they meet a stronger force. This is an unsustainable, unbalanced, unwinnable system.

The real way to "win" is not to compete, but to connect - to utilise networks, knowledge, creativity and sharing as a new form of power.

This is why sustainability is more important than growth. Growth is an outcome, not a goal. To grow, we need to focus on nurturing ourselves - as a whole, as a system - rather than competing with others. If we compete, there can only be one winner. If we share, we return to a future that has meaning, promise, and variable growth as and when.

The real divide is not between the haves vs the have-nots - if you think this, you're in the wrong mindset. We all have, and we all don't have.

The real divide is between those who want to connect, and those who will carry on fighting.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Habitat and the decline of society

The sale and chop-up of Habitat is fascinating, for two reasons:

  1. For the increased encroachment of an ever-poorer middle-class: "clever designs were mimicked by cheaper rivals and, by the late 1980s, it was in financial difficulties". Simulation of luxury is the driver of mainstream consumerism as we plunge into the new century. Businesses that sit in between real cheapness and real luxury are doomed.

  2. For the increased London-centric consolidation of that more expensive (but not authentic) luxury: "Home Retail is buying [only] three London stores which are on the capital's prime furniture shopping streets". Anyone looking at exploiting/catering to the higher-end markets needs to realise that this is a rapidly-shrinking demographic, both numerically and geographically. House prices are doing the same thing - the bursting economy is becoming a filter not for true or sustainable value, but merely for power through "network strength".

Right, I'm off to Poundsavers.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Bitcoin Post

The Programmable Currency

Over on Phil's blog, I called Bitcoin a "programmable currency".

I have no idea what I actually mean by that, but much like the "exmosis" moniker, I get the feeling it's something important. Sometimes the words get ahead of their own meaning.

Originally I guess I meant "programmable currency" to refer to a value-medium (like any currency or asset) that was easily scriptable - for example, a bedroom coder can easily shunt huge numbers around with the right JSON calls.

No need for institutions to validate. No 3-day waiting times. No fecking Verified-By-Visa splash screens.

That's huge. We're starting to see meta-currencies, sibling-currencies, and other "spin offs" from Bitcoins, but which are transferrable, synonymous, backed by them. Witcoin converts Bitcoins into a unit for forum-activity. Bitbills convert Bitcoins into a "physical" form through hidden QR codes.

All we're doing is passing IDs around. Some of them are open. Some of them are closed.

A New Network

At the other end of the scale, the value-generation part, Bitcoin-mining is now distributable via Javascript on your website. To catch-up, the supply of Bitcoins is determined by cracking crypto - stronger crypto means less new currency incoming.

Typically, this has meant people rent server farms, or upgrade their GPU to get more processing power. But recently we've seen people pooling together to share not just their resources, but profits from this "mining" activity. Just like Lottery syndicates.

This Javascript implementation is another step towards along the road to a new kind of network. Not a "democratisation" of economics, but a system based on the distribution and availability of computation and efficiency.

I won't call this a "networked economy" - influence and power are always network based. Just the network is shifting from those with enough resources and impetus to wield influence, to something else. Here, the network is based on TCP/IP rather than on "schmoozing". Here, the content is algorithmic power, rather than rhetoric and persuasion.

(A sidenote: Brute CPU power alone is not what Bitcoin is based on - there are plenty of software/hardware-level optimisations one can do to increase computational power. Quality cracking, as well as quantity.)

Where Next?

I haven't decided yet if Bitcoin is a currency or not - any more than if I've decided the Pound is a currency or not.

But it does store value, and you can transfer it between people. That's good enough.

We can do business with it. We can keep track of notions of debt with it. We can speculate with it. We can track value over time with it. The notion of "currency" gives way to what is simply "practical".

More importantly, we can do all this globally, and for the transaction fee we decide. I can send a penny's worth of Bitcoins to someone in Australia in the same time it takes me to send it to someone in the same room as me. I can (for now) be sure that all of that penny's worth will go to them, rather than some middle-man holding transactions hostage.

And I can write a script to do it. A bash script. A javascript. A Twitterbot. I can run that anywhere.

Remember when you first got e-mail? That crazy notion that you could basically do what the postal system did: send a letter anywhere in the world, but for free? With a single, universal address?

Here's mine: 16XfuKyktJDUJLMGwAu8u5Y2Wq1b61h7Sz

Sunday, May 08, 2011


Facebook, vague laws, weak authentication... all the things I'm really, really trying hard to avoid these days are coming home to roost.

Use pwned systems, by all means. But a) never give out anything you don't mind losing control of, and b) always keep a back-up of what's important to you.

Or just follow Robert De Niro's advice.

On Osama

Phil's trying to think of something interesting to say about Osama (with some great results) - and I'm inclined to struggle in the same way.

My initial reaction is kind of a "so what?" - terrorism isn't down to one big bad boss, as Hollywood or computer games might have you believe. The urge to pin extreme acts on one guy, or even one group (or brand?) may make for good storytelling/news headlines, but doesn't translate very well into policy.

In fact, is "Terrorism" itself a handy scapegoat, positioned right down the other, most abstracted end of the scale? A scale that focuses on the forces of Good overcoming a single Evil - whether that's a person, an organisation, or a linguistic term. Are we destined to portray things as a fight against both a 1984/Bond-style individual with bad facial hair AND an indefinable, uncatchable mode of ethics? What do we gain by setting ourselves this paradox? What do we lose?

More disconcerting is the notion that Osama was driven (at least publicly) by cultural, economic and social ideas. His rhetoric was to tackle the West's "progressiveness" - a vague term that means different things to different people. But underneath this subjectivity, what can we really say about Osama's actions? Was he an independent, "evil genius" terrorist, or was he riding a more fundamental system of the global power struggle?

To cut to the Chase: Is "new war" the continuation of "new politics" by other means?

Waging war by attacking symbols of wealth? Use of violence - unsanctioned, yet justified by the actor - as a symbol, in itself, of protest and a threat for change? The disatisfaction with "big" politics decided by some very influential minorities with some very vested interests? Do these all come down to a system of networks (the how) and symbolism (the what)?

Isn't this what's playing out in Egypt? In Syria? In London? When the threat of violence is eradicated through preventative force, how far away is the progression from terrorism to pure destruction - or at least to violence purely to show control is not all one-sided? When does the *threat* give way to a non-stop series of televised attacks?

How we approach the figure of Osama (that is, his image, his reputation and his propaganda, all seen through a Western media lens) speaks volumes about how we approach any form of modern dissent, and how we portray forces of disagreement not thoroughly proscribed in advance.

The narrative of separation, criminality, outsideness, and ultimately the causes of violence itself, will define the next century - and how "politics" will continue to manifest.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Building a model city in 180 days

Sad to see Rob Simpson's MyCity model build project come to an end, although I can see why he'd want to stop.

I've been watching the model slowly grow for the last few months - something about it is entrancing. I'm not sure if it's watching something usually so large and organic grow beneath our eyes, or if it's the ghostly white texture pervading the scene. But this has been great fun to watch.

Hope he displays it somewhere.

Useful Scarcity

Just posted something on Witcoin that I was originally going to blog, so here's a link instead.

Can we sell more stuff based on the idea that the tiger is dying out and that land is at a premium, than we can if both were rife and sustained?

Or, like currency and BTCs, is everything given a value somewhere in between "un-usefully rare" and "un-usefully common"?

Wish I had more time to think it through - more thoughts welcomed.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Review: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76: Society Must Be Defended

Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76: Society Must Be DefendedLectures at the College de France, 1975-76: Society Must Be Defended by Michel Foucault

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Foucault is always hard to get into, but once you eventually get a grip of the assumptions and definitions he comes in with, the ideas he presents and the stories he describes are mindblowing. I borrowed this from the local library and read it over a couple of months - but have now ordered my own copy.

There is a loose agenda in this series of lectures, but it's not always very precisely defined, coherent, or entirely thoroughly backed up. But what Foucault does well - as in Discipline and Punish - is use history to shed light on certain movements today. Perhaps this is how history should have been taught at school.

In these lectures, Foucault addresses the link between war and politics - is either an extension of the other, but through different means? In asking the question, he delves into the history of power struggles in France, England and Europe over the last 800 years or so, and traces the use of stories and knowledge through this time to show how the balance of power has changed.

In short, a fascinating read - and one that asks many more questions than it does provide answers, especially as the lectures are now 35 years old, and working out how they apply to modern politics and technology is a challenge in itself. I wanted my own copy to delve into these questions more, as I'd probably rack up dozens of fines if I had to keep getting this out of the library.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Barclays. Muppets.

Wow. Just wow.

I've been with Barclays for over 10 years. I set up a student account with them when I went to University. I took out a loan with them to buy a motorbike. I have a savings account with them. And yet. And yet. And yet, it is difficult to put into words just how large a bunch of muppets they can be.

Difficult, but not impossible.

On New Year's Day, I received an automated phone call from their fraud department - a number of payments had been taken out using my card details, in both London and Manchester (not Brighton), and had been flagged up as suspicious. Fair enough, I thought. I confirmed they weren't me. I canceled the card and got a new one. Game on. OK, I couldn't access my account online without a card so couldn't check the transactions, but small price to pay, huh?

It should be as simple as that, shouldn't it? Barclays worked out they were fraudulent transactions, hurray. Continue.

And yet. Everything they've done since then has been incredulous to the extreme. It has me questioning how they manage to survive, but the only conclusion I can come to is that their greed outweighs perfectly their incompetence when it comes to these matters.

Rewind. I phoned the fraud department and ran through the transactions in question. Yup, all fraudulent. But transactions don't just get blocked, no - companies obviously need to be paid, so instead I would need to check if the transactions came out of my account, and then claim back from the fraud department if so.

To do this, I was told, I had to go into my branch and get a statement - then I could mark up which transactions, if any, were the frauds. Great. One lunchtime I went in, stood in a queue for a while, and then finally asked for my statement. Only to be told that there wasn't much point - the transactions have an expiry date by which the company has to claim, so I might as well wait for that to come to pass before checking. Hmm, might have been useful to have known that before.

So I waited 3 days, then went back in and stood in the same queue. I got the statement. Nothing on it, hurrah - no fraudulent transactions. Had the transactions actually been blocked at this point? I wasn't really sure, but it kind of looked like it, based on what I'd been told.

A few days on, and I get some post. (Or rather, my parents get the post despite me asking Barclays to send it to my own address.) It's a list of the transactions, and a form asking me to mark them up as Genuine or Fraudulent, along with information on my card - could it have been copied, had it been out of my sight, etc etc. If I don't send it back within 10 days, then they'll assume all the transactions are genuine. Fine, I send it back.

I don't hear anything back. No confirmation that the letter got there.

A few days later, guess what. The transactions have been debited from my account. They did go through after all. But no-one told me this. No feedback. I checked my account for a completely different reason. Getting a little annoyed by this point. Not at the actual criminals, mind, but at the company I thought were looking after my money. Chortle.

Ringing up Barclays fraud department who I've dealt with so far, I'm told I have to actually talk to the Debit Card department now. Really? OK, transfer me. I speak to the guy there. Turns out they have no idea what the transactions are - they have to look up my account and ask me which ones we're talking about. Didn't I already go through this with the fraud department? Twice?

The guy in the line is fairly good. He can cancel the transactions, but I need to fill in a form confirming that they're fraudulent, so they can investigate the matter further. Didn't I already do that for the fraud department? Apparently they're on a different planet or something, I need to fill a new one in.

There's some success here - the transactions are re-credited to my account about 48 hours later (not the 24 I was originally told). Yes! Maybe Barclays do care about me after all?

A few days later I get the form (to my own address this time - another win!). It's basically the same as the first, but different. Type written. Underscores for form fields. There are some antiquated-looking questions: "Have you used your card for any transactions via the Internet?" - with half a line for details. I'm a geek that likes eBay. About half my transactions are on-line these days.

There's also the whole spiel about returning the form within 10 days again. I don't really want to get it lost in the post, but the guy on the phone informed me (after I asked) that I could go into my branch to fax it. Sounds good.

My branch is busy when I go in. I make an appointment for the next day.

The next day, I go through the weird little form with a member of staff, who seems very helpful. I can just answer "No" to the Internet question apparently (I guess the questions is from before Paypal, Amazon or iTunes were invented.) He faxes it off and gives me a copy. I ask to make a complaint about the process so far, but the complaint form requires a category, and "general systemic incompetence" isn't among them. We select a random option and add that to the list of complaints. Yes, I complained about the complaint form.

I've lost track of time by this point. I have a 4 month old child. New Year's Day seems like a lifetime ago. I start asking around to find out what other banks people are using.

A few more days later, I get a letter saying I'd be receiving a phone call - apparently something in this has been transferred to a more complex investigation in the fraud department. But I know how the game works now - I ring them up immediately rather than waiting for the call. But they're ahead of me! The phone rings and rings, then changes tone, and I'm diverted into a siding - maybe it's the debit card department again? Who knows?

Explaining the situation, the lady tells me she could transfer me to the correct place, but as I've only just got the letter, they wouldn't have any more details. Fine, I say, transfer me. Oh my, it turns out the person I talk to next can give me more details - one of the transactions in question has been questioned, but I should hear back from them soon.

Then there's a wait. I have my money. It costs me to ring up and find out more. It costs me time, it costs me phone call money. And it costs me Saintly patience. It costs me good will. It costs me any hope of wanting to bank with Barclays ever agsin, or wanting anyone else to for that matter. I consider writing a blog post about it all but it makes my brain hurt.

I don't hear anything for a few weeks, and then yesterday, a phone call comes at 8.30am. Someone's investigating my case, and would like to know if there was any way someone else could have got my card - the same questions that were on the previous 2 forms I already sent back. No, no and no. I still have the canceled card in my wallet if you want to see it. I suggest someone got my details and put it on a blank card with their own signature. The guy agrees, and tells me he'll ring back in a couple of hours.

Do I hear back? Yeah, right. No. The next thing I know, I've logged into my account to check a statement - and the transactions have come back out again. All of them. I'm almost 400 quid down again. I'm getting a mortgage, FFS. I do not need this right now.

So now it's up to me again, to ring up these muppets and not just work out where my money's gone. I also need to work out who to ring, who to talk to, why my money's gone back out agsin, and what to do next. I suspect it involves another form. I suspect it involves printing and faxing something. I'm even starting to suspect I won't get my money back at all. Or that it'll at least costs as much in phone calls.

It'd be funny if it wasn't so painstaking unnecessary. It'd be funny if Barclays acknowledged they could improve. As it is, every moment of imbecility is met with stoic ignorance - it's part of the process, but not part enough to be something I can be formally told about. Disjointed government is nothing compared to this hellhole.

If you're with Barclays, I suggest - emphatically - getting the hell away from them. Before they take everything away from you.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

How not to make a difference

Laurie Penny's BoingBoing article has pushed me to blog because it says so much of what I don't want to think but can't help thinking - can't help coming back to.

The process of "violent" demonstration is something I've been tussling with since at least 2004. It has its seeds before that - probably back in February 2003 when I took to the streets against the Iraq war.

That was my first large-scale protest. It is likely my last. It became rapidly clear - on the arch, watching the news, listening to speeches - that public opinion was no longer a factor. It was obvious that the march might as well just have been a party, or a funeral, or a bank holiday.

It had its purpose, but the purpose wasn't to protest. Ultimately, its purpose was to keep people off the streets, by conceding the streets to the public - for one, single day. After that it was back to business as usual. Politics rambled on. Shops sold stuff. I felt like I'd done something, even if it had had no effect.

Fast forward, though, and it turns out that this bothered me more than I thought. I am political, but I am not a politician. I listen to MPs, but only to see if they've come to any sense. Their arguments bore me - the rhetoric is transparent and the logic is wrong. Anyone with a moment to think things through knows this. But it rumbles on. It is a game. A show. These are not decisions.

Watching the protests against cuts on the news last week, I still had no idea what to think. Passivity is so easily ignored. Violence is so easily fixed. Even with all the headlines, business still continues as normal. The damage shown on TV was nothing compared to some streets in town after a Saturday night.

So what, then?

In the years since the anti-Iraq war protest, I've managed to realise a few things, I guess:

1. Violence is no longer a cause for influencing decisions - media and politicians portray it as such because it gives them a reason to argue against doing something. But modern violence is not terrorism - it is merely an outlet. It is delinquency, it is anarchy - because chaos is all we have left on our side.

Everyone is angry, and the anger has reached a level that video games can no longer contain. But we have no political outlet for that anger - I have marched, I have written letters, I have ranted on blogs. But the rules rule me out. I am defeated by standard replies which barely respond to my points. FFS, there isn't a decent space for debate, let alone decision-making.

The only way to participate meaningfully, for me, then, is to start by tearing the rules down. This looks like chaos, but only in the same way that you have to unpack everything before moving.

2. Violence is not an answer - in Tai Chi, the first thing you learn is not to use force to oppose force. The stronger side will win, and the stronger side is probably not you.

Violence is a last resort, but we are not near this resort in this country, not yet. Convincing people takes both passion and logic. Destruction is pure passion, and is therefore so easily outmaneuvred.

If you are truly passionate about something you will sacrifice yourself, not others. (By this benchmark, I am political, but perhaps not passionate.)

The most moving, memorable protests in the world use non-violence. It is easy to use violence against violence - the riot police work on the principle of subtle incitement, followed by over-reaction. They simply wait for the right excuse, the moment of ignition.

Non-violence doesn't let this happen. It is meek, but through this meekness, it is powerful. Gandhi's Satyagraha principles expound this amazingly. Protest is no longer about "us vs them". It becomes "us and them". Unfortunately there are many, many reasons why this is becoming increasingly difficult here.

3. Politics is not total - indeed, politics is undergoing something of a soul-search. MPs have power, yes. But do they have influence? As network politics increasingly takes hold, and people do organise and decide things for themselves, what is the role of the centre? Is it to organise and guide? Or is it to step in when things go societally wrong - a kind of hyper-market-failure role? Is the centre doomed to becoming an inherently police state, simply because all other functions are done more effectively elsewhere?

There are no answers to this yet. But the questions are answers in themselves. People are routing around political parties and representative democracy. Companies have more cultural power. The Internet has more informational power. Wikileaks Cablegate showed us not only that secrecy was a sham, but that the secrets themselves were boring as mainstream news.

We live in an exciting age. People are starting to realise the potential of the networks they've always had - but which are being revealed through formalisation and RSS feeds. Nobody really knows quite what to do with this yet, because we've forgotten that we have even the questions we need to ask. We have got so used to relying on central politics that we no longer remember what we need.

But change is coming. It requires effort, ideas, implementation, and safeguarding. Change is not easy, which is why focusing energy is of utmost importance. Avoid useless endeavours and distractions. Make the change happen.

If you've read all the way this far - thanks. I'm sure there are more points. But I have a small baby and a job. I could rant all day on this, but I wouldn't get anything else done. It's nice to reach this point. I feel slightly less helpless, and it feels like ultimately, the original question itself has changed.

That is - perhaps we don't need to ask what the best way of getting our voice heard is. Our voices are actually heard all the time, but when we're going forwards, not fighting going backwards. When we're doing something we truly believe in, not just marching against what we think is wrong.

I guess it'll take a long time yet, but isn't that just the way of the world?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Happiness WTF?

(This was my response to the Office of National Statistics' "What is well-being?" question. It's an issue I've been trying to understand for many years, but have only really succeeded in working out what happiness is not. Hopefully the thought process will take more than the 3,000 characters that the ONS site allows. Or maybe it requires far, far fewer.)

Health, relationships, job, money - happiness is all of these things, and yet at the same time it is none of them. Happiness is not a "thing", though. Instead, it may be helpful to think it using 3 levels:

1. "Traditional" ideas of what happiness is depend largely on the idea that it results from "good" things happening *to* someone. For instance, consuming food, and being able to consume food (via money), being cured, watching films, etc. This is a fairly basic form of happiness, but is short-lived and utterly dependent on external forces.

2. "Emerging" ideas of happiness take creativity into account - i.e. we must give something back to the world to be happy. "Job satisfaction" (an ugly term for daily passion) is an example of this, as are children to some extent (the ultimate act of creation). Creativity acts on the creator as much as what is created.

Both these models, though, assume that happiness "belongs" to the self - the individual - and that it arises as a *result* of the self interacting with the "outside" world - either consuming it or creating it. But happiness is not a simple rational emotion, any more than depression is. It exists in the mind, but cannot be said to be a mental process - rather, it is a state of *being* which uses the mind as a conduit.

We can then define a new level for happiness:

3. Happiness as "integration" - this begins to move away from happiness as an "end result", and more towards an inherent part of existence, something which feeds back into what we do and becomes who we are.

Maybe this is similar to the sound that comes out of an orchestra: each chord is a "result" in that it involves a co-ordination, not just across musicians, but between each musician and their instrument, and between each instrument and its environment. But each chord is not anything in itself, but set in the context of all other chords, and which simultaneously sets the context for all other chords too.

What is happiness at this stage? It can be said to be intrinsically related to our relations, just as a chord cannot sound without an orchestra, but an orchestra with no sound is not an orchestra.

This is vital in understanding the importance that relationships have with happiness - the link must be bi-directional. The two support each other, and create each other. This is where "happiness" can truly be defined as "well-being" - happiness is no longer an end in itself, but something which creates in order to create, and in order to create itself. It becomes an act of being spread across the self and others so that the "self" boundary is blurred. This is why family, community and a relationship with nature are important.

Finally, but fundamentally, happiness is also about the self's relationship with *itself*, an internal, self-supporting form of well-being. This is the most difficult to measure, as it is subjective by definition.

To understand this requires wisdom and subtlety. But it is also obvious if looked for.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Review: The Book of Fantasy

The Book of FantasyThe Book of Fantasy by Jorge Luis Borges

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The term "Fantasy" in modern culture seems to have become something of a twisted niche - often now associated with lands of Tolkien-style creatures and epic battles. But this collection of short stories, put together by Borges, Ocampo and Casares, returns to the roots of what it means to be "fantastic". The compendium, gathered from all over time and space, is large and diverse, but brought together through a simple desire to explore the imagination.

Folk tales, Chinese dream stories, ghost stories, strange animals, weird letters, bizarre furniture... I especially enjoyed some of the really short tales, a couple of pages long. Some of the stories are a little hardgoing, but a) none of them are so long you can't just read through them to the next one, b) some of the turn out to be great stories by the end.

I was going to read this then pass it on, but think I'll keep it now. Worth picking up a copy if you see it.

For the record, I particularly enjoyed these (in case you haven't time to read them all, or just want to Google some):

The Drowned Giant - J.G. Ballard
Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius - Borges himself, always a classic
House Taken Over - Julio Cortazar
Earth's Holocaust - Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Monkey's Paw - W. W. Jacobs
The Wizard Passed Over - Infante Don Juan Manuel
Who Knows? - Guy de Maupassant
The Blind Spot - Barry Perowne
The Encounter - an old Chinese story
Macario - B Traven
The Infinite Dream of Pao-yu - Ta'ao Chan

View all my reviews

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Another short story: My haiku teacher

Another drabble:

My haiku teacher

He wore a thin beard, eyes alive with faint laughter, and non-descript clothes. I saw him eat food, but he never put on weight. He had a cottage, but he never lived in it. He had a long name, which nobody ever used. And nobody asked.

One summer evening, raindrops were slowly falling outside the window. "Haiku is the art," he told me with his faint eyes, "of detailed silence."
I smiled back at him, but did not quite understand. Perhaps I do now.

A month after that, I could no longer find him - did I dream it all?

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Short story: The red balloon

New drabble:

The red balloon

Her hand grabbed the string at the last moment. The balloon, ruby red, was dragged mercilessly back down.

"Lose it again, and I'll take it back," she snapped, more tired than angry.

It was not a good day. Between solicitors, funeral directors, and the weekly food shop, she thought the balloon would at least take her son's mind off his grandfather passing, irritating shop music, and the relentless rain. Instead she'd spent all day trying to retrieve it.

But in one fleeting moments, the balloon finally escaped.

Looking up at it rising, the boy thought of grandpa and waved goodbye.