Alex Pareene on the link between the profitability and ethics of newspapers in the Columbia Journalism Review:

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that American journalism’s professional norms around fairness and ethics emerged at a time when newspapers and magazines were good investments for normal financial reasons. Safe investments attract safe corporate investors. Corporations like clear standards of conduct and don’t like offending huge numbers of potential customers, which is how Yellow Journalism gave way to “All the News That’s Fit to Print” and the mainstream media as we knew it. The market played a big role in determining content. A big city paper could lean a little to the left or the right, but it couldn’t go full–John Birch or all–in Yippie without losing the thing that gave it power: monopolistic access to the eyeballs of the city’s literate adults.

What They Want, the Government Can’t Give

It wasn’t a surprise to me, or to anyone else in the UK, that residents of Grenfell Tower heckled their councillors and Tory politicians. And I wasn’t surprised when Prime Minister Theresa May cravenly refused to meet with anyone from the tower.

But what is surprising to me is that even the Queen received criticism:

There were emotionally charged scenes as the Queen and the Duke of Cambridge visited the Westway sports centre earlier in the day. Standing beneath the rumbling Westway flyover, the royals had finished meeting firefighters and police officers who responded to the inferno, when they were met with a spontaneous round of applause from onlookers.

But when the clapping died down, a distraught man beckoned them to come over. “Please come here,” he said. Clutching a missing appeal poster for the siblings Firdaws and Yahya, Rami Mohamed said he was a friend of the missing children’s family.

The Queen climbed into her car as the prince apologised and pledged to return to the Westway centre, which is operating as a relief centre for displaced evacuees and relatives of the missing.

When the royals departed, Mohamed said he was frustrated that so many people arrived for the monarch but it felt like his friends were being left behind. The Queen and the prince spent about 30 minutes in the centre visiting those affected, the day after May declined to visit the area over the security concerns.

Theresa May promised a £5 million cash fund for residents, but that didn’t stop the protests. The truth is, there’s literally nothing that the current government could promise that could. Not £50 million, not £500 million, not even the resignation of the Prime Minister herself.

Even a full-throated apology, for years of austerity, decades of neglect, and unremitting abuse from certain sectors of the press, wouldn’t do — because no-one would believe it. What use are words when there’s nothing stopping the Tories, or indeed the entire ‘neoliberal project’, from continuing to dismantle safety regulations and value money above all else? The right wing, led by the Vicar’s Daughter, would crucify the poor and the struggling on a cross of gold.

But the residents’ moral authority is unimpeachable — they weren’t even kettled on Oxford Circus:

What they want, the government can’t give. And so this will only end with the collapse of the government.

Mr. Corbyn, Please Stop Phone Scammers

My phone number was temporarily stolen last month. Rather than just tweet about it, I decided to write a letter to my local MP, Jeremy Corbyn, with specific suggestions on how to combat identity theft and phone scams.

Dear Mr. Corbyn,

In the last month, I have been subject to multiple identity theft attempts and fraud scams. No permanent harm was done, but it was very distressing. Moreover, it highlights major shortcomings with the government’s regulation of personal data security, particularly for mobile phone companies.

On XX December, I received a text message from Three telling me that my registered billing address had been changed, even though I had not requested this. I was in Canada on holiday and unable to contact Three until I returned on XX January.

It emerged that someone had called Three on XX December pretending to be me (they only needed my billing address and date of birth) and successfully changed my billing address to “19 Haling Park Road, South Croydon, CR2 6NJ” — presumably a forwarding address. They then requested a replacement SIM card be sent there.

The SIM card would have arrived a few days later, giving them possession of my mobile phone number. They attempted to buy £650 of goods from Boots.com on my credit card. This attempt was stopped automatically, and when the scammers called the credit card compnay, they were unable to authorise the purchase because they didn’t know my PIN.

When I returned on XX January, I visited a Three shop and was given a new SIM card. I also changed my billing address back, and XX issued me a new credit card (with new number). Everything was back to normal — although on XXJanuary I received a call from a person with an Indian accent on 0333 338 1019, telling me that they were Three customer support; this was obviously untrue, so I hung up. Continue reading “Mr. Corbyn, Please Stop Phone Scammers”

We can’t afford your perfectionism

For a long time, I refused to pay for membership to The Guardian despite reading it multiple times a day. “Fifty pounds?!” I’d cry. “And for what? Shit I don’t need and junk mail? I’ll pay when it’s half the price and they fire Jonathan Jones.”

I was being a dick. If The Guardian disappeared tomorrow, I’d be all over Twitter rending my clothes. I really do appreciate their journalism and commentary, and while a small part of me would be glad to see the back of their anodyne lifestyle articles and flaming garbage pile of a comments section, and yes, Jonathan Jones, I’d regret not having done more to support them.

There is a segment of the population — let’s call them Silicon Valley Optimisers — who feel intellectually and morally superior to the rest of humanity. One can observe them in their natural habitats of Hacker News, Lesswrong, and Slatestarcodex. They work in technology, they earn a good salary, and they want the best.

No, scratch that — truthfully, I spend a lot of time in Optimisation Land. We want the best, because the world and the conomy expects the best from us. We are hyperanalytical cost-benefit maximisers. There is no charity so pure that we can’t criticise for wasting money; no non-profit too noble to snipe at for using the wrong tech stack; no institution too valuable to be explosively disrupted.

Whether it’s journalism, healthcare, transportation, social security, or politics, we could do better, if we tried. But we don’t care to try, because we’re too busy trying to make shit tons of money, and you don’t make money by working in non-profits or journalism. So fuck anyone else for trying and failing to attain perfection, and what’s more, fuck them for having the temerity to ask us for our hard-earned cash.

The time for that attitude is well and truly over. We cannot afford your perfectionism any more.

If you read the New York Times or the Washington Post, or you listen to NPR, or you value living in a society with civil liberties, you must support those organisations — even if you object to a lot of what they do. The people working there are doing hard work for comparatively little pay, and they need your support.

If you’re always waiting to donate to the perfect organisation that deserves your money, you will never be part of the solution. You will be part of the problem.

The Guardian is not going to fire Jonathan Jones, as much as I might complain. They probably aren’t going to change their shitty comments system, even though I was told several years ago that it was happening ‘any time now’. And like the NYT and Washington Post, they aren’t going to stop producing hard-hitting investigating journalism that tries to speak truth to power. So if that’s something you value, you need to support them now.

Likewise, organisations like Liberty, the ACLU, and the Southern Poverty Law Center — they may be inefficient. They may do political things that irritate you. But if you share their ideals, you need to support them now.

Don’t be an Optimiser. Be a Human.

Photo CC-BY Trevor Hurlbut

Shootings, and how not to prevent them

In order to prevent yet more tragedies like the shooting at the Planned Parenthood centre in Colorado Springs, gun rights activists – and rightwingers in general – often suggest that we need to prevent the ‘mentally ill’ from gaining access to firearms. In fact, even Democrats and centrists say that, “I think as a state, but as a country, we have got a lot more thinking about this, of how to make sure we keep guns out of the hands of people that are unstable,” as the governor John Hickenlooper said (and the Mayor of Colorado Springs, John Suthers, echoed).

This strikes me as one of those anodyne statements that is simultaneously impossible to disagree with and yet completely useless. Of course we should be tough on the causes of crime. Of course we should improve our children’s education. And of course we should prevent those who we think are likely to kill civilians with guns from possessing guns. The question is how we do that.

Robert Dear, the man suspected of the Planned Parenthood killings, was considered to be strange, not dangerous. He had no entry in any database that marked him as being mentally unstable – because no such database exists. It’s hard to imagine how one could ever exist; the notion stinks of Precrime-style profiling, an attempt to predict crimes that haven’t yet been committed. Mental illness is not a crime, and the great majority of people who are mentally ill (a woolly category if I’ve ever seen one) do not commit violent crimes. And even if that were not the case, science is yet to produce a foolproof ‘mental illness’ detector.

I realise that the whole ‘guns don’t kill people, stop mentally ill people from getting guns’ is essentially a smokescreen. My point is that it’s a terrible, incoherent smokescreen. Gun rights activists love to cite the US Constitution, but I can’t think of a worse violation of it than a law prohibiting individuals who’ve been designated as ‘mentally ill’ from ever possessing arms. What if Obama designates all gun advocates as being mentally ill?!!?!!11!

Austerity: The LARP

Everyone in Britain is playing a game called Austerity. Some are playing the game with enthusiasm and conviction. Some are playing with calculation and cunning. And others believe they are not playing, when in fact they cannot escape the game.

Austerity is not a console game with expensive graphics, nor is it an addictive casual game for smartphones. It is a LARP: a Live Action Role-Playing game. Like other LARPs, this game consumes your environment and your life. Unlike other LARPs, Austerity does not take place on a disused Swedish naval destroyer and end after a weekend. You will live and breathe Austerity for as long as everyone continues to believe in it, which means it may have no end.

It has a beginning, though: the Second World War.

Nostalgia is an intoxicating brew. We venerate WW2, the last time Britain was Great, the last time the Kingdom felt truly United, the last time we had a national victory that wasn’t on the field of play. It’s natural to look back fondly on such times, acknowledging the horrors and respecting the sacrifice.

Wait, no. Not respecting the sacrifice – fetishising it.

This is Keep Calm and Carry On. This is Dig for Victory, ration books, Downton Abbey (sort of) and Doctor Who’s innumerable wartime stories.

Dig for Victory and ration books are real, of course. They were part of the civilian mission to harness the entire capacity of a country in the pursuit of victory in a total war. Likewise, war bonds and volunteering and sewing clothes for the men. Money was tight but it was necessary to be thrifty. Virtuous, even. And who can say that the war was not won by such virtuous sacrifice?

Austerity has those sentiments at its heart: sacrifice is necessary for victory against an existential threat such as the Nazis.

Today’s existential threats are the European Union, immigrants, a slightly high debt-to-GDP ratio, and a lack of respect from other countries. To prevail against such enemies, hard choices must be made. We cannot afford to waste money on shirkers, or waste money on fripperies such as arts and culture. We must cut taxes on entrepreneurs and reward hard-working families, because people who are not in families, and people who do not work hard, do not deserve anything.

Now, it may be that these hard choices often end up benefitting those who already have lots of money; but this is where the game becomes important as a justification and a distraction. If players are encouraged to emulate the heroes of WW2, to Keep Calm and Carry On, then we will be prepared to sacrifice anything to save the nation from existential threats: to cut social security, to close those theatres and museums.

Sometimes players get upset when they perceive that other players are breaking the immersion, as can happen in other LARPs. For example, we didn’t have all these foreigners back in WW2, so it’s wrong to have them here now. We didn’t have wind power and solar power either, so that must also be wrong.

But the truth is, we are all breaking the rules in Austerity. If we were really committing to the LARP, then we would be investing hours a day into community gardens and volunteer work. We would be living and fighting and dying, cheek by jowl, on the front lines, the baker next to the banker, the lawyer next to the labourer.

Real believers in Austerity would reinstate the two thousand British Restaurants, communal kitchens that would sell you a healthy meal for the equivalent of £1 in today’s money. They would serve a million meals a day to those who couldn’t afford any better, and they would make the country fit and strong.

Like other LARPs, Austerity is a sham. And like other LARPs, a lot of players don’t want to take on the hard roles – they just want to do the easy fun stuff; the sewing and dressing up and saving pennies while forcing other players to part with pounds. That is why the special mission in Austerity, “The Big Society”, was such a failure.

The real danger of the Austerity LARP, though, is that it’s not actually real. We don’t live in 1945 any more; we live in 2015. We do not face an existential threat to the nation (other than perhaps climate change). We are not obliged to spend £45 billion, or 2.2% of GDP, on a non-productive military. We do, however, have the money to spend more on the institutions that made this country great: social security, NHS, the universities, the schools.

We need to snap the fuck out this playtime and get real.

Eternal Fundraising, Luxuries as Resiliency, Isometric Buildings

Mr. Miller Doesn’t Go to Washington, a bracingly honest story about running for Congress. It just astonishes me quite how much time candidates – and elected politicians – have to spend on fundraising. Hours. A. Day.

I had written before about how crazy it is that we expect politicians to spend four hours a day (or more) on the money chase. But nothing prepares you for what it’s like to be in the candidate’s chair.

First order of business is introducing you to the bizarre rites and rituals associated with reaching out to the 1/20th of 1 percent of Americans who fund campaigns, and I soon learned consultants have studied dialing for dollars with anthropological precision. One consultant’s motto is, “Shorter calls means more calls!”—i.e., more money. So stop all the chitchat. When you make the “ask,” another told me—and that’s typically for the max of $2,600 per person, $5,200 per couple—just say the number and pause: Don’t keep talking. And above all, don’t leave L.A. for an out-of-town fundraiser unless you’re guaranteed to rake in at least $50,000, and preferably 100 large. Anything less and it’s not worth the hassle.

Blessed are the wastrels, for their surplus could save the Earth, a fascinating argument that luxury industries represent a massive pool of ‘unplanned’ resiliency in the face of disasters (as opposed to planned resiliency, which can easily be defunded):

Organic farms are an example [of a less excessive ‘luxury’]: they use their inputs (land, grain, animals) to produce food at higher cost and lower quantity than conventional farming. The advantages of organic food appeal to richer, western consumers. But if the situation were desperate, organic farms could be retooled for mass production of lower-quality but still edible foods. The same goes for factories making super-plasma, hyper-surround cinema-experience televisions (or similar toys for the wealthy). This rich demand maintains a manufacturing base for extreme luxury products, but one that could be repurposed for mass production of less extravagant but more useful products if needed.

Concrete Jungle – Building the Buildings: I had always assumed that the lovely 2D isometric buildings you see in games like SimCity must be the product of superbly trained artist. While I don’t doubt the skill involved, this step-by-step guide on drawing pixel perfect isometric buildings (using 3D intermediates) is fascinating:

29102014-5

Once everything is arranged pleasingly, it’s time to render. I’m using Blender to generate my renders- it’s completely free and it’s rendering engine is delicious. The scene I’m using has the render camera set up to render isometrically (is that a word?) What’s outputted is something that looks like this but bigger:

29102014-61

Worrying and Thinking

Over the past few years, I’ve been worrying over a knot of problems that seem to defy any straightforward answers, including:

  • How can we use Google, Facebook, and Amazon’s services when we know they’re putting people out of work, centralising information, and often acting against our interest?
  • There are no more jobs for life, so why aren’t we fighting harder for improved social security?
  • How can we avoid being made miserable or broke by advertising?
  • What happens if we don’t have the time to properly think about what the good life consists of – or we don’t have the means to enact it?
  • Is it possible to resist, or even question, the total political dominance of capitalism and free market economics?
  • How can we possibly criticise massive corporations when we, as consumers and workers, feel complicit in their existence and operation?
  • What can any individual do to change any of this, when meaningful solidarity appears to have totally evaporated within many rich countries?

These are not the only problems in the world; they’re not even among top ten problems humanity faces. Nevertheless, I consider them to be serious problems and given that some people are better placed to address some problems than others, it’s worth thinking about them.

Neither are they wholly new problems. We’ve lived – unhappily – with overpowered corporations, fractured communities, and inadequate social security for decades and centuries. Yet they are affected by technology and culture, and so these problems require new kinds of solutions every generation.

I intend to spend the next few months writing about this, in a ‘thinking-out-loud’ kind of way. Many chapters of A History of the Future were about these problems. Spoiler: I don’t have any quick or easy solutions, but I do think that these worries are shared by many others who would dearly like to do something about them.

The Phantom ‘Global Race’

There’s been a lot of talk from Conservative politicians in the UK about the ‘global race‘. This race, we’re led to believe, involves all the countries of the world. The winners are those countries that can compete the best, presumably by selling more things cheaper than anyone else can, by dint of working harder and being smarter.

Races, and competitions in general, are perfectly reasonable for situations where the thing you want to find out (or to optimise) is easily and directly measured; so, for example, if you want to find out who the fastest runner in the world is, then you hold a series of races where you measure everyone’s speed. No problem, everyone’s happy.

Now, while such races are entertaining to watch and may tell you something about the human spirit, etc, they are not of direct relevance to most people’s lives because most people are not that interested in becoming the fastest runner in the world. They may want to run, because it’s fun to do so or because they want to lose weight, and in the process they may find it fun to try and run faster, but in all the 5k and 10k and half-marathons I’ve run in, there’s only one winner and about 5000 losers. None of those losers consider themselves losers because they aren’t really competing against anyone except for, perhaps, themselves.

That’s where the problem with the global race comes in. The metaphor is chosen because we all know what races are, and we all know that sacrifices must be made in order to win them. We all know about Olympic athletes who swim for eight hours a day or who run on Christmas and New Year’s Day just to get a bit more training in than their rivals. Therefore, if we’re in a global race, everyone in the country must pull together and make sacrifices in order to win.

But what does it mean to win the global race? What, exactly, are we measuring?

GDP per capita? According to the International Monetary Fund, the top spot is held by Qatar, with $100,889; the UK lies at 24th place with $36,569. It’s safe to say we won’t be winning that particular race any time soon. More importantly, I don’t think anyone in the UK is particularly jealous of Qatari citizens other than the fact that they probably own some really nice cars and electronics.

Productivity rates? Out of the OECD countries, Luxembourg and Norway come out top when measured by GDP per hour worked; as of 2007, the UK lay in 11th place. Now, I like Norway a lot, but I suspect the Tories don’t, otherwise they’d be renationalising the energy sector, employing more government workers, expanding the welfare state, and giving parents 46 weeks of paid leave.

Neither measurement is satisfactory. Taiwan, Sweden, Ireland, Hong Kong, and the US all outperform the UK. Does that mean they’re winning in the global race, and so we should mimic whatever they do? Singapore is well up there, perhaps the UK should also become a one-party country. Or maybe, like Germany (who are also beating us), we should require large companies to have workers councils and also adopt proportional representation.

We don’t know who the winners and losers of the global race are because we don’t know what the race is for — and even if we did know, we couldn’t simply just copy what the winners do, because we aren’t about to magically discover more oil in the North Sea, or because we aren’t prepared to adopt the policies of Taiwan or Singapore, or because we know that what works for smaller countries won’t work for us.

As for GDP and productivity figures (which are easily manipulated and hard to compare between countries), they’re only useful as a means towards an end, which may, depending on your politics, include healthier and happier citizens, or citizens who have a great deal of autonomy, or citizens who live fulfilling lives. Those ends can be achieved in many different ways and it’s not always clear that money will help, otherwise Qatar would have the happiest, healthiest, smartest, and most fulfilled citizens in the world. The vagueness of the global race is deliberate, or at least, extremely advantageous, because it allows the Tories to justify more or less any policy they want.

But what’s most disappointing to me is not the vagueness. It’s the lack of vision. We know we don’t want to be poor. But what do we win, and what do we sacrifice, by being rich?

Does it Scale?

When I first heard about Occupy Wall Street, I had two conflicting reactions: I was happy that the incredible rise in inequality and the pernicious influence of corporations and vested interests on democracy was finally getting the attention it deserved – but I found the sheer lack of organisation painful to see. In particular, the ‘total consensus’ decision-making process in some areas seemed like it was a definite roadblock to scaling things up. Only with scale, I thought, could the Occupy movement make a real impact.

We’ve treated ‘scale’ like an unalloyed good for so long that it seems peculiar to question it. There are plenty of reasons for wanting to scale businesses and services up to make more things for more people in more areas; perhaps the strongest is that things usually get cheaper and quicker to provide.

The problem is that scale has a cost, and that’s being unable to respond to the wants and needs of unique individuals. Theoretically, that’s not a problem in a free market, but of course, we don’t have a free market, and we certainly don’t have a free market when it comes to politics and media.

Just look at how the Occupy movement have been covered – or not, as the case may be. National news organisations naturally want to cover the biggest movements that they think will be of the most interest to the most people, and crucially, can be explained in the least time possible; no wonder they were so adamant on getting a single demand or list of issues from Occupy Wall Street and the rest of the movement – it’d make their lives easier.

And that process of simplification has a feedback effect on politics, focusing attention on just a small number of actors who appear to have ‘scale’ and an interesting story. Who cares about some little protest in some town when you can profile Michelle Bachmann, potential Republican presidential nominee (or indeed, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, etc.)? But there is one good reason behind focusing on them – it’s the ultimate instance of scale, one person representing over 300 million people.

I find that disturbing. I’ve made no secret of my belief that bad gatekeepers (like commissioners and editors) can waste money, favour their friends, and harm creativity. Some think that the solution to this is to have better gatekeepers. I think the solution is to have fewer gatekeepers – as few as we can manage with.

The system of politics in the US and UK has a similar problem, where you have a single person wielding a massive amount of power. When we see a bad leader in power, we think the solution is to elect a better leader. For some reason, we don’t think of having fewer leaders.

So, on second thoughts, I can see understand the strengths of the Occupy movement. By being a leaderless organisation, small groups that are loosely connected, it neatly eliminates the problem of abusive or ineffective leaders and devolves power to a much more local level – a level that can be more reflective and responsive to the people directly involved.

OccupyX is not perfect by any means but it demonstrates an alternative to the lure of scale. Just by itself, that’s a remarkable achievement.