The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'capitalism'
A few days ago, the hipster-electropop duo YACHT posted a plaintive note to their Twitter feed; the note announced, in a sombre, contrite tone, that, some years ago, the duo (Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans, who are also a couple) had made a sex tape for their own use; now, apparently, someone had stolen it and posted it online. The note ended, imploring YACHT's fans to respect their privacy and not look at it.
Only there was no sex tape; or rather, there was a contrived promotional video for the latest single, “I Want To Fuck You Till I'm Dead”, from their last album. The whole exercise was a publicity stunt; the following day, they were to, with feigned resignation, put up a website supposedly selling their homemade sex video, though one which always gave an error at the time of payment; ultimately the truth would come out, and fans would push the album to the top of the Spotify charts, all the while praising the artists' clever, subversive conceit. It was to be, in their own words, “a slowly-unveiling conspiracy”, referencing The X-Files and The KLF*.
Unfortunately, they miscalculated. What they weren't counting on was the mass outpourings of public sympathy at them apparently having had the privacy of their intimate lives violated. It turned out that the public, by and large, weren't grabby jerks hungry for celebrity skin; they were strongly susceptible to what millennials call “the feels”, and almost painfully empathetic with their sorry heroes. Which was a problem, as, all of a sudden, YACHT had committed the offence of obtaining sympathy under false pretences. Not quite in fake-cancer-blogger territory, but the difference is a quantitative, rather than a qualitative, one. As the truth emerged, they issued a weaselly non-apology, followed a day later by a genuine apology, for both the stunt and the non-apology. But the damage was done. Perhaps ironically, the exercise has left YACHT revealing a bit more of themselves than is entirely flattering.
While this is the most problematic of YACHT's public projects so far, it didn't come from nowhere; they have form taking hot-button issues and using them as superficial aesthetic elements, much like extreme violence in a Quentin Tarantino film. Witness their most recent album, I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler; it was in this blog's records of 2015, and it is a finely crafted piece of infectiously fun chopped'n'screwed electropop, albeit with pretentions above its station. As its title suggests, it is somewhat of a concept album about technological ennui; the actual execution involves taking a number of ideas about how our high-tech world, you know, kinda sucks, and mashing them together, like a selfie-stick-era We Didn't Start The Fire; thus, the Snowden revelations and extrajudicial executions by drone are mentioned within a breath of crappy ads on the web, corny Internet-of-things gadgets and Tinder being a bit lame, like a focus-group brainstorming exercise of some sort. (Needless to say, there is no time to discuss, say, the issues of privacy or trust in the digital age, the potential implications of data mining, or whether, say, the internet's convergence into corporate-run proprietary silos is bad for human development, democracy or civil society; this is pop music, not a Cory Doctorow blog post. Onto the next snappy soundbite!) The whole point of the song is that our technological age kinda sucks, in a nonspecific way that anyone can agree with. It's pretty close to content-free and a brilliant piece of marketing.
And marketing is YACHT's stock-in-trade. They appear to be relentless self-marketers, classic Frommian Marketing Characters, chameleonically superficial, as sexy, edgy or profound as you read into them. To the Marketing Character, depth is a liability that compromises one's ability to self-promote. This superficial engagement with the world in the mode of marketing also jettisons any distinction between critique and complicity; we have seen this with their marketing tie-in with Uber, making their then-unreleased album streamable when surge pricing was in effect; which is on one level a criticism of Uber's exploitative business model, and yet isn't, any potential critique being defanged into mere “edginess” of the sort ad agencies have thrived on since the days of OK Soda in the grunge era. Yeah, Uber, surge pricing, it says, with an affected vocal-fry of exaggerated ennui: but hey, have a listen to this awesome album! And I'm sure the edgily back-handed endorsement didn't hurt Uber.
From surge pricing to leaked sex tapes may seem like a leap, but it's not a huge one; in both cases, newsworthy exploitation is used as a vehicle for self-promotion; in the latter, YACHT don't merely reference the exploitation, with an edgy ambiguity that is well SugaRAPE, but actively concoct it, leaping onto a topical issue (revenge porn) and using it as a marketing gimmick. But hey, there's no such thing as bad publicity, right?
* Let's see: The KLF came up with a formula for gaming the pop industry, used it to score a hit, then when invited to
Top Of The Pops the Brit Awards, got shock-metal band Extreme Noise Terror to play with them, and poured buckets of pig's blood onto fired blanks into the audience, and then finally incinerated a million pounds in banknotes, negating any business value their exploits may have had. I somehow can't see YACHT doing anything so gauchely self-destructive or blatantly anti-commercial.
The street finds its own uses for things: Russian crime organisations have online marketplaces offering the services of willing underworld accomplices in various cities, administered through a cutting-edge web-based control panel:
The service, advertised on exclusive, Russian-language forums that cater to cybercrooks, claims to have willing and ready foot soldiers for hire in California, Florida, Illinois and New York. These associates are not mere “money mules,” unwitting and inexperienced Americans tricked and cajoled into laundering money after being hired for bogus work-at-home jobs. Rather, as the title of the ad for this service makes clear, the “foreign agents” available through this network are aware that they will be assisting in illegal activity (the ad refers to them as неразводные “nerazvodni” or “not deceived”). Put simply: These are mules that can be counted on not to freak out or disappear with the cash.
According to the advertisement, customers of this service get their very own login to a remote panel, where they can interact with the cashout service and monitor the progress of their thievery operations. The service also can be hired to drain bank accounts using counterfeit debit cards obtained through ATM skimmers or hacked point-of-sale devices. The complicit mules will even help cash out refunds from phony state and federal income tax filings — a lucrative form of fraud that, according to the Internal Revenue Service, cost taxpayers $5.2 billion last year.The contractors are available for other services, such as pickup and forward shipping of sketchy merchandise and “other interesting transactions”.
Once again, Russian biznesmeni are at the forefront of bringing free-market efficiency and the disintermediating, just-in-time power of the internet to the underworld (for long dominated by the almost Leninist command economies of hierarchical Mafia organisations and insular cells of bandits), or, if you will, liberating open-slather capitalism from pretences of legal propriety. Or, as has been said before, “Lenin failed to teach the Russians socialism, but he succeeded in teaching them capitalism”.
A software developer in the US has taken outsourcing into his own hands, by hiring a company in China to do his job for less than ¹⁄₅ of his salary:
"This organisation had been slowly moving toward a more telecommuting oriented workforce, and they had therefore started to allow their developers to work from home on certain days. In order to accomplish this, they'd set up a fairly standard VPN concentrator approximately two years prior to our receiving their call," he was quoted as saying on an internet security website.
"Authentication was no problem. He physically FedExed his RSA [security] token to China so that the third-party contractor could log-in under his credentials during the workday. It would appear that he was working an average nine-to-five work day," he added.The unnamed developer is said to have come physically into work but spent the time surfing eBay, Facebook and Reddit and watching cat videos on YouTube for the standard eight hours a day, which somewhat defeats the purpose of his hack. Then again, the report also suggests that he was simultaneously employed at several other companies, and similarly subcontracting his duties there to Shenyang.
The Daily Torygraph's Dr. Tim Stanley has hailed the developer as an exemplar of capitalism at its best:
For not only is Bob a modern hero to the terminally bored office worker, he’s also invented a whole new way of making capitalism work. If big companies can outsource labour to save money, why the heck can’t the little man do exactly the same?His employer, Verizon, didn't agree, and sacked him.
A recent popular self-help book, The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss, advocated doing the same sort of thing, converting oneself into middleware binding together disparate subcontractors and charging a premium for doing so, though advised the reader to first arrange to be able to work from home. And there are reports of enterprising hackers having done similar things as early as 2004.
On a similar tangent, Britain's sense of moral indignation has also been outsourced to China, and is being handled by “a permanently outraged man working 96-hour shifts” just outside of Beijing:
The outrage outsourcing was first noticed when a Rod Liddle was accidentally printed in its original Mandarin.
There's a piece in the Guardian about the rise of crowdfunding, and how it shifted from a medium for art projects to a means of decentralised organisation of practical endeavours requiring money, and turned into a means for circumventing market failures:
Kickstarter itself is changing under the influence of digital culture. At first it was about making established forms of art. Film was big – documentaries about organic community vegetable gardens were not uncommon. Now that is changing. It is becoming a land of gadget makers and gamers.
This new communal instinct can do amazing things like route around the warping influence of capitalism and digital platform wars. Look at projects like Open Trip Planner. This takes a bit of unravelling but basically the benefit of good maps on smartphones became endangered by Apple's titanic battle for market supremacy with Google. Apple are attempting to strip Google products like maps from iPhones and this left users with crappy transport info – Open Trip Planner is the communal answer to a hierarchical fall out.The article mentions OpenTripPlanner, an open-source alternative to trip planning systems which seems to be doing for trip planning what OpenStreetMap did for geodata, and the Pebble watch, a Bluetooth-enabled smart watch designed without the backing of a large electronics corporation, and the fact that Kickstarter is expanding to the UK.
In other crowdfunding news, Matthew Inman, who runs The Oatmeal web comic, recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise US$850,000 buy Nikola Tesla's old laboratory (put on the market by AGFA and expected to be bought by property developers); the campaign met its target in under a week and has since raised over a million dollars.
One of the dividends of the melting of Arctic ice is on its way; this summer, three flotillas of icebreakers and cable-laying ships will begin laying submarine cables crossing the Arctic, from London to Tokyo. The cables, which will go through Canada's Arctic Archipelago and skirt the Russian north coast, will cost between $600m and $1.5 billion each and will reduce the latency between London and Tokyo (a link which now goes either through the Indian Ocean or the long way around, through North America) by 30%, shaving 60 milliseconds off; which translates to up to $25 million per millisecond saved.
As important as network links are in today's hyperconnected world, the fact that some three or so billion dollars (a sum which could buy a lot of other things, from providing millions of people with clean water to patching up bridges and power plants) was easily found for a 60-millisecond speed increase is mostly to do with being massively useful for high-frequency algorithmic trading. Objectively, it makes no difference whether a transaction between London and Tokyo takes 170 or 230 milliseconds to take place—though whether the transaction gets in before or after the rest of the market is the difference between profit and loss. Already, a significant part of the global financial system resembles a game of Core Wars played with real money; large amounts of wealth are conjured into being in finance houses by wartrading bots created from GPUs and FPGAs by extremely well-renumerated geeks, and many of the brightest minds of our age are eschewing the vows of poverty which go with the academic life or the modest salaries promised by pure science and medical research and instead going into creating the bots that will outcompete the current generation of bots. As such, there's all the money in the world for faster network links between global financial centres, and the Arctic link should tide the traders of London and Tokyo over until someone opens a finance house on Novaya Zemlya or in the Canadian arctic and beats both sides to the punch. After all, 299,792,458 metres per second is not just a good idea; it is about as iron-clad a law as there is.
The article suggests that, while algorithmic trading will benefit from the link, it will also be open to general traffic. Though, since the reduced latency is a competitive advantage worth countless millions, I wonder whether civilian access to the cable will be specially configured to slow packets down by a few milliseconds.
The inimitable Rhodri Marsden has some uplifting thoughts for the day, the day being, of course, the 14th of February:
I was 14 when someone first said to me: "You're not my type". It felt like a sophisticated comeback for a 14-year-old girl. She evidently knew what she wanted from a 14-year-old boy – mainly that he had to be older than 14. My dissimilarity to the socio-economic profile she'd carefully constructed meant that I had to change, quickly, to try and tick some more boxes, but in this particular case it seemed to involve joining Spandau Ballet, which was going to be tricky. Then a friend told me that it was shorthand for: "I'll never go out with you no matter what you do," which was demoralising, but also something of a relief because Spandau Ballet weren't keen.
But then you meet someone and you fall in love and out of love and then in love with someone else and before long you realise that you have a "type", too, which becomes reinforced by every subsequent romantic liaison. And then someone comes along who's not your type, but they like you and you remember the burning injustice you felt when you were 14, so you try to explain, as best you can, that it's not going to happen. But of course it doesn't go down well, because there's no excuse yet devised that's able to cushion that kind of blow. And then you drift on, with an uneasy feeling that your "type" has now become so scarce that there's probably only one example left on the planet and it's already been shot, stuffed and exhibited in some museum somewhere, with a label that simply reads: "Sorry."In a similar (though less melancholic) vein, Rhodri also has a very entertaining book out consisting of dating catastrophies recounted through the medium of Twitter. (I attended a reading of this book last week; it was the best comedy show I have seen this year so far.)
For those more inclined to action, Occupy Valentine's Day (subtitle: "Down with couple-talism!"), a call to arms against the romance-industrial complex. Or something like that.
Meanwhile, here's Savage Chickens:
And one from Gemma Correll, a London-based illustrator specialising in all things twee:
After allegations emerged of brutal working practices at online game company Zynga (who, as well as considering the idea of work-life balance to be tantamount to disloyalty, recently have been forcing some employees to give up stock options), venture capital douchelord Michael Arrington posted a defence of long working hours and nonexistent work-life balance in the software industry as part of the Silicon Valley way, extensively quoting Jamie Zawinski's Netscape diaries to back up his point. But then, jwz turned around and tore it to pieces.
He's trying to make the point that the only path to success in the software industry is to work insane hours, sleep under your desk, and give up your one and only youth, and if you don't do that, you're a pussy. He's using my words to try and back up that thesis. I hate this, because it's not true, and it's disingenuous. What is true is that for a VC's business model to work, it's necessary for you to give up your life in order for him to become richer.
So if your goal is to enrich the Arringtons of the world while maybe, if you win the lottery, scooping some of the groundscore that they overlooked, then by all means, bust your ass while the bankers and speculators cheer you on.Instead of that, I recommend that you do what you love because you love doing it. If that means long hours, fantastic. If that means leaving the office by 6pm every day for your underwater basket-weaving class, also fantastic.Touché.
10 pivotal moments in band/brand relationships, from the crude commercial tie-ups of the old days (the Beatles' disastrously naïve merchandise licensing deal and the Pepsi/Michael Jackson tie-up), through various milestones (Moby licensing every track on his album Play to advertisers, whilst saying no to firms he found ethically dubious, such as McDonalds; Of Montreal turning the sell-out into performance art by rerecording a song as an Outback Steakhouse jingle and pocketing lots of money for it (though, to be honest, they probably they probably stole the idea from New Order), and onto the current day, when traditional record labels are waning and savvy sponsors are acting more like the art patrons of the pre-capitalist era than the traditional merchandisers of yore, setting up free MP3 labels and free recording studios, letting bands do their own thing for a reflection of some of the cool; raising questions about the nature of authenticity and the idea of "selling out" (a concept by now as unfashionably anachronistic as boycotting Nike products). Is selling a song to an advertiser, and spending the money on projects one has creative control over, more damning than signing one's rights away in perpetuity to a major label owned by a hedge fund for a pittance? And if there's no such thing as purity, which ways of compromising are more acceptable?
An Italian company has developed a new, ultra-compact airline seat for making economy class even more economical. Called the Skyrider, it takes only 23 inches, and involves the passenger sitting astride a saddle.
One could imagine penny-pinching airlines like Ryanair tearing out all their existing seats and replacing them with these, knowing that their clientele don't mind an hour or two of discomfort in return for getting to Ibiza or wherever for less than the train fare to the airport, though, as pointed out here, an entire jet full of these won't be possible for regulatory reasons. (Even if the total weight of the passengers sardined into it doesn't exceed the maximum carrying weight, the requirement that the aircraft can be evacuated in 90 seconds puts an upper limit on the number of passengers per exit.) The seats, it seems, aren't so much intended for budget carriers as for mixed carriers, allowing them to put in a tier below economy class, moving their lowest fares to this tier and raising the prices of their old cattle-class seats. Consequently, airlines, pressed by fuel prices and fare wars, will become slightly less unprofitable, and the flying experience will become that little bit shittier.
A Canadian paper company has launched a campaign to get people to print more:
“There is an appropriate use for paper. You should feel comfortable to use it appropriately and you shouldn’t be feeling there is some environmental negative when you use it,” Mr. Williams said at a news conference Monday. “People do not have to feel guilty about using paper to print.”
“Young people really are not printers. When was the last time your children demanded a printer? They want the electronic device,” Mr. Williams said after making a luncheon presentation to the Canadian Club.To get the youngsters hooked, the campaign will use Facebook and YouTube.
Think your privatised public transport service is shoddy? It could always be worse, like, say, the buses in Delhi, which are privately owned, with strong free-market incentives. Unfortunately, they're incentives to drive faster, overtaking the bus in front and grabbing potential passengers, whilst skimping on any avoidable maintenance, rather than providing a useful service:
While a city-run service would prioritize getting its citizens from A to B, a private driver is less focused on customer service than on overtaking the next bus down the road. After all, the faster he drives, the more competitors he passes, the more passengers he picks up, and the more money he makes.
Which is why the last thing a Blueline driver ever wants to do is come to a stop. Every move he makes is done with the intent of keeping the bus in motion: slowing just enough so debarking passengers can jump off, then picking up speed as the new passengers run alongside the bus, swinging themselves up and in as the conductor screams at them to hurry. And before the last passenger is fully aboard (sometimes pulled in by his fellow passengers), the driver is already shifting gears, spewing mocking black smoke at hapless would-be passengers still running after the bus, and bulldozing the bus back into traffic.
But with an estimated 2,200 Blueline buses careening across Delhi on any given day, it’s no wonder the newspaper reports are almost identical every day. After an accident, the driver tries to flee, an angry mob beats him, the police impound the bus, the driver is thrown in jail, the owner of the bus is not mentioned. Sometimes the driver escapes, in which case the mob finds its release in setting fire to the bus.The Delhi government wants to replace the privatised system with a modern, city-run one, though is expected to run into powerful opposition from the owners of the private buses.
As the economic crisis bites, credit card companies are turning to advanced psychological techniques to manage their customers, using their purchasing records to develop detailed psychological models of their behaviour.
Martin could often see precisely what cardholders were purchasing, and he discovered that the brands we buy are the windows into our souls — or at least into our willingness to make good on our debts. His data indicated, for instance, that people who bought cheap, generic automotive oil were much more likely to miss a credit-card payment than someone who got the expensive, name-brand stuff. People who bought carbon-monoxide monitors for their homes or those little felt pads that stop chair legs from scratching the floor almost never missed payments. Anyone who purchased a chrome-skull car accessory or a “Mega Thruster Exhaust System” was pretty likely to miss paying his bill eventually.
Martin’s measurements were so precise that he could tell you the “riskiest” drinking establishment in Canada — Sharx Pool Bar in Montreal, where 47 percent of the patrons who used their Canadian Tire card missed four payments over 12 months. He could also tell you the “safest” products — premium birdseed and a device called a “snow roof rake” that homeowners use to remove high-up snowdrifts so they don’t fall on pedestrians.
By the time he publicized his findings, a small industry of math fanatics — many of them former credit-card executives — had started consulting for the major banks that issued cards, and they began using Martin’s findings and other research to build psychological profiles. Why did birdseed and snow-rake buyers pay off their debts? The answer, research indicated, was that those consumers felt a sense of responsibility toward the world, manifested in their spending on birds they didn’t own and pedestrians they might not know. Why were felt-pad buyers so upstanding? Because they wanted to protect their belongings, be they hardwood floors or credit scores. Why did chrome-skull owners skip out on their debts? “The person who buys a skull for their car, they are like people who go to a bar named Sharx,” Martin told me. “Would you give them a loan?”It's not only your purchasing record that's mined for psychological data, though:
Most of the major credit-card companies have set up systems to comb through cardholders’ data for signs that someone is going to stop making payments. Are cardholders suddenly logging in at 1 in the morning? It might signal sleeplessness due to anxiety. Are they using their cards for groceries? It might mean they are trying to conserve their cash. Have they started using their cards for therapy sessions? Do they call the card company in the middle of the day, when they should be at work? What do they say when a customer-service representative asks how they’re feeling? Are their sighs long or short? Do they respond better to a comforting or bullying tone?The card companies have, as you might imagine, a variety of uses for this data. On the blunter side of the spectrum, signs of potential unreliability (bills for dive bars or marriage counselling services, unusual login patterns) may trigger card companies to raise interest rates or start pushing more aggressively for repayment. More subtly, though, if your credit card company calls you to discuss your bill, the person talking to you will be trained in psychological techniques and will have on their screen a detailed psychological profile of you, all the better to elicit compliance:
Santana had actually already sought permission from the bank to settle for as little as $10,000. It’s an open secret that if a debtor is willing to wait long enough, he can probably get away with paying almost nothing, as long as he doesn’t mind hurting his credit score. So Santana knew he should jump at the offer. But as an amateur psychologist, Santana was eager to make his own diagnosis — and presumably boost his own commission.
“I don’t think that’s going to work,” Santana told the man. Santana’s classes had focused on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a still-popular midcentury theory of human motivation. Santana had initially put this guy on the “love/belonging” level of Maslow’s hierarchy and built his pitch around his relationship with his ex-wife. But Santana was beginning to suspect that the debtor was actually in the “esteem” phase, where respect is a primary driver. So he switched tactics.
“You spent this money,” Santana said. “You made a promise. Now you have to decide what kind of a world you want to live in. Do you want to live around people who break their promises? How are you going to tell your friends or your kids that you can’t honor your word?”
The man mulled it over, and a few days later called back and said he’d pay $12,000.
“Boom, baby!” Santana shouted as he put down the phone. “It’s all about getting inside their heads and understanding what they need to hear,” he told me later. “It really feels great to know I’m helping people in pain.”Of course, another way to look at this was that, had the chump (who, according to the article, had recently been left by his wife) not offered to pay up extra, the friendly man from the card company would know exactly which buttons to push to kick them down further. Which is all very well (Personal Responsibility, after all, is What Made America Great, as any card-carrying Libertarian will tell you), other than the inherent asymmetry of going up against a huge organisation with frighteningly powerful intelligence-gathering abilities, and no interest in your welfare beyond what's required to maximise its profits.
(via Boing Boing)
The Independent has an article on the dark side of Dubai. The economic boom apparently owes itself to the unique and dynamic qualities of Dubai's autocratic legal environment, which short-circuits a lot of the inefficiencies of a more liberal society. For example, if you can lure workers over with promises of wealth, then take their passports, force them to work in inhumane conditions and not bother with paying them, you can achieve miracles of efficiency:
As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. "But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket," he said. "Well, then you'd better get to work," they replied.
Sahinal could well die out here. A British man who used to work on construction projects told me: "There's a huge number of suicides in the camps and on the construction sites, but they're not reported. They're described as 'accidents'." Even then, their families aren't free: they simply inherit the debts. A Human Rights Watch study found there is a "cover-up of the true extent" of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide, but the Indian consulate registered 971 deaths of their nationals in 2005 alone. After this figure was leaked, the consulates were told to stop counting.That's the construction workers building the marvels of architecture. The maids hired by the ruling classes of Emiratis and expatriates don't have any more rights, and don't have it much better:
The only hostel for women in Dubai – a filthy private villa on the brink of being repossessed – is filled with escaped maids. Mela Matari, a 25-year-old Ethiopian woman with a drooping smile, tells me what happened to her – and thousands like her. She was promised a paradise in the sands by an agency, so she left her four year-old daughter at home and headed here to earn money for a better future. "But they paid me half what they promised. I was put with an Australian family – four children – and Madam made me work from 6am to 1am every day, with no day off. I was exhausted and pleaded for a break, but they just shouted: 'You came here to work, not sleep!' Then one day I just couldn't go on, and Madam beat me. She beat me with her fists and kicked me. My ear still hurts. They wouldn't give me my wages: they said they'd pay me at the end of the two years. What could I do? I didn't know anybody here. I was terrified."The sense of terriblisma is heightened by some choice quotes from some particularly charming-sounding expatriates (mostly found in a tacky British bar):
"If you have an accident here it's a nightmare. There was a British woman we knew who ran over an Indian guy, and she was locked up for four days! If you have a tiny bit of alcohol on your breath they're all over you. These Indians throw themselves in front of cars, because then their family has to be given blood money – you know, compensation. But the police just blame us. That poor woman."
As she says this, I remember a stray sentence I heard back at Double Decker. I asked a British woman called Hermione Frayling what the best thing about Dubai was. "Oh, the servant class!" she trilled. "You do nothing. They'll do anything!"The expatriates, however, are not citizens and have no rights there; life's good for them, but only while they have money to spend and don't rock the boat:
She continued to complain – and started to receive anonymous phone calls. "Stop embarassing Dubai, or your visa will be cancelled and you're out," they said. She says: "The expats are terrified to talk about anything. One critical comment in the newspapers and they deport you. So what am I supposed to do? Now the water is worse than ever. People are getting really sick. Eye infections, ear infections, stomach infections, rashes. Look at it!" There is faeces floating on the beach, in the shadow of one of Dubai's most famous hotels.It gets worse, though: the article starts with the account of a woman who moved there with her husband when he got a senior management job. All was well until he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and resigned to leave; his payoff wasn't enough to cancel their debts, their passports were confiscated, and he was thrown in a debtors' prison.
Of course, it can't last forever; some say the Great Recession could wipe Dubai out:
If a recession turns into depression, Dr Raouf believes Dubai could run out of water. "At the moment, we have financial reserves that cover bringing so much water to the middle of the desert. But if we had lower revenues – if, say, the world shifts to a source of energy other than oil..." he shakes his head. "We will have a very big problem. Water is the main source of life. It would be a catastrophe. Dubai only has enough water to last us a week. There's almost no storage. We don't know what will happen if our supplies falter. It would be hard to survive."This article concurs that Dubai is in a world of trouble, citing the fact that those who have passports and their wits about them are fleeing, abandoning their cars at the airport with the keys still in the ignition before anyone can detain them.
The BBC has an article about a French dance craze named Tecktonik, which appears to break new boundaries in the commercialisation, monetisation and wholesale stripmining of subcultural fashions. Tecktonik appears to be a local evolution of the electro/new-rave/fluoro meme complex, born among predominantly white middle-class Parisian kids and hard-partying, style-conscious young professionals. Much like the French language (and unlike Anglo-Saxon equivalents), it has an official, codified repertoire of moves. Oh, and Tecktonik's creators (who include a Merrill Lynch investment banker) had the foresight to trademark their creation, and the arguable judgment to milk the licensing for all it's worth:
Switch on the television and you'll see kids dancing Tecktonik in adverts for mobile phones. Go to the supermarket and you'll find Tecktonik playstation games and Tecktonik school bags. And the Tecktonik company opened its first boutique and hair salon in Paris in November.Of course, not everyone's happy with their subculture becoming a mass-market commodity. After all, coolness is what economists call a positional good (i.e., its value depends on its scarcity; if everyone's into something, it loses its value as a signifier of coolness; which is OK if you're talking about something with other, more practical, measures of utility, but trendy dance styles don't generally fall into this category).
"When you're young, you dance to tell your parents 'I'm a free man! I've got my sexuality, my desires and they aren't yours!' You dance to express your freedom! But, here, it's not this kind of dance. Because it's a commercial dance. It's a safe dance. No sex, no drugs, no alcohol… It's anti-rock 'n' roll! It's a Sarkozy dance!"Curiously, the article closes with this paragraph:
Down at that Tecktonik Killer night, one of the star Tecktonik dancers, Lili Azian, tells me the movement has got so commercial she just never buys anything with the Tecktonik label. And now, in any case, she prefers a new dance - the Melbourne Shuffle.The Melbourne Shuffle? I'm guessing they're not talking about the Melbourne in Florida or Derbyshire here, but rather of the Stockholm of the southern hemisphere. Which brings to mind the question of what the Melbourne shuffle is, and whom they got the idea from. (Architecture In Helsinki? Midnight Juggernauts? Corey Worthington? Some random bunch of coolsie electro kids on YouTube?)
A Sunday Times piece on the decline of Britain's railways, whose services have been deteriorating and costs rising, the difference going to the shareholders of private operators:
The new ticket price from Bristol to London with what is, by common consent (and by most of the official indicators) Britain’s worst train company, is £137. At which price you could take a family of five to Budapest and back, although not with First Great Western. Again, this seems better value if you take into account the fact that you might well have to get off the train at Chippenham and travel by bus for a bit; two modes of transport for the price of one, you see. They think of everything for you.
I asked the eminent transport journalist Christian Wolmar what he made of Muir’s suggestion that increased fares would lead to improved services. “It’s just complete and utter crap,” he replied. “The money is going to the train operating companies, full stop.” How much is invested in improving rail services is, in any case, decided in advance by the rail regulator. Muir is being disingenuous. At the least.
Here’s a few more fares to gape at in wonderment: Plymouth to London with First Great Western – £196. That’s three times the cost of the usual return air ticket, and of course it takes almost four times as long by train. London to Manchester on Virgin Trains – £219. Fly instead and it will set you back about £80. And incidentally, those are the old prices, without the “A happy Christmas to all our benighted customers” fare increases.The author lays the blame at the feet of John Major's Conservative government, and its privatisation of British Rail (which, as maligned as it had been, was apparently much more efficient than today's system), a move driven more by neoliberal ideology and Tory antipathy to public transportation than practical concerns, though New Labour, who have presided over the decline of Britain's railways, get some of the blame:
It is either depressing or hilarious, take your pick, to mull over the fact that the privatised rail network soaks up almost three times as much taxpayers’ money in subsidies than did that much maligned, publicly owned corporation, British Rail. And the sad truth is that in those final years British Rail really was “getting there”.
You might expect of the Conservative party an instinctive affection for that most insular and individualistic form of transport, the motor car. Labour, though, has its ideological roots in public transport – and yet in the 10 years since Tony Blair took office, rail fares have been allowed to rise by 46% (not counting the latest rise), while the cost of travelling by car has risen by only 26%, according to figures from the Department for Transport. In other words, Labour has made it even more attractive to travel by car and less attractive to travel by train.
Again, the train companies will tell you that more people are travelling by rail than at any time since the 1950s. Well, up to a point. But they’re travelling short distances by rail (especially within central London, which recently got its first effectively nationalised route, the North London line). For the longer trips, people are turning to the planes, or sticking with the comfort of their cars.Or course, the idea of renationalising Britain's railways is absolutely out of the question, because that would be socialism, which is discredited, and it has been proven that free markets always achieve the best of all possible outcomes. So, whoever wins the next election, we can expect more of the same: underinvestment, price rises, and Britons paying for a service that costs considerably more and delivers less than on the continent, and choosing to fly over any distance further than London to Birmingham.
David Byrne interviews Thom Yorke about the In Rainbows experiment, and writes his own assessment of the changing state of the music industry. Meanwhile, MTV has its own timeline of "the year the music industry broke". And open-standard-friendly MP3/video player manufacturer Neuros has created a trademark for DRM-free media.
(via Boing Boing, Engadget)
Here is a tale of two indie bands and their respective negotiations of the contentious issues of commercialism and integrity that arise when an artist is tempted by the siren song of advertisement licensing revenue.
A while ago, Band Of Horses decided to licence one of their songs to Wal-Mart, that scary right-wing bète noire despised by a significant proportion of the sorts of people who buy independent music. After the ad was tested on a limited web release, they started getting bad feedback from fans who heard about it, had a change of heart and pulled the ad, returning Wal-Mart's 30 pieces of silver.
"Some fans, they don't even give a crap," he continued. "They're like, 'Whatever, bands got to get paid.' But at the same time, I was reluctant to do it in the back of my mind, and some fans reminded me there is a reason to feel that way about it. "So once I saw our fans were let down by it, I nixed the TV commercial, and said, 'You know what, this isn't for me. Keep your money.'"Meanwhile, after copping a lot of flack for licensing a song to restaurant chain Outback Steakhouse (itself a major Republican Party donor), Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes digs in and comes out swinging for the moral defense of capitalism, like some kind of indie-hipster John Galt:
The worst kind of person is the one who sucks the dick of the man during the daytime and then draws pictures of themselves slitting his throat at night. Jesus Christ, make up your mind! The thing is, there is a lack of balance. When capitalism is working on a healthy level, everyone gets their dick sucked from time to time and no one gets their throat slit. It's impossible to be a sell out in a capitalist society. You're only a winner or a loser. Either you've found a way to crack the code or you are struggling to do so. To sell out in capitalism is basically to be too accommodating, to not get what you think you deserve. In capitalism, you don't get what you think you deserve though. You get what someone else thinks you deserve. So the trick is to make them think you are worth what you feel you deserve. You deserve a lot, but you'll only get it when you figure out how to manipulate the system.
The thing is, I like capitalism. I think it's an interesting challenge. It's a system that rewards the imaginative and ambitious adults and punishes the lazy adults. Our generation is insanely lazy. We're just as smart as our parents but we are overwhelmed by contradicting ideas that confuse us into paralysis. Maybe the punk rock ethos made sense for the "no future" generation but it doesn't make sense for me. I like producing and purchasing things. I'd much rather go to IKEA than to stand in some bread line. That's because I don't have to stand in a bread line. Most people who throw around terms like "sellout" don't have to stand in one either. They don't have to stand in one because they are gainfully employed. The term "sellout" only exists in the lexicon of the over-privileged. Almost every non-homeless person in America is over-privileged, at least in a global sense.The devil, of course, is in the details. Capitalism doesn't reward those who make good art per se, but those who can find a niche in the market and fill it. Occasionally these two goals line up, but most market niches are for unchallenging populist fare. If one restricts oneself to making significant art, one will find the pickings relatively lean. (Just ask the members of OMD, who started making songs about nuclear war and, once they had mortgages to pay off, went on to manufacture commercial pop groups like Atomic Kitten.) The most successful capitalists in music aren't the most highly critically appraised artists, but rather the likes of 50 Cent and Simon Cowell.
Wall Street is experiencing a Chinese surveillance-led boom, with US hedge funds pumping more than $150m into the growth industry of developing high-tech means of detecting dissent and maintaining the control of the Communist Party over the world's most populous nation — namely, of squaring the circle of having economic freedom with totalitarian political and social control.
Terence Yap, the vice chairman and chief financial officer of China Security and Surveillance Technology, said his company’s software made it possible for security cameras to count the number of people in crosswalks and alert the police if a crowd forms at an unusual hour, a possible sign of an unsanctioned protest.
Mr. Yap said terrorism concerns did exist. His company has outfitted rail stations and government buildings in Tibet with surveillance systems.
In Shenzhen, white poles resembling street lights now line the roads every block or two, ready to be fitted with cameras. In a nondescript building linked to nearby street cameras, a desktop computer displayed streaming video images from outside and drew a green square around each face to check it against a “blacklist.” Since China lacks national or even regional digitized databases of troublemakers’ photos, Mr. Yap said municipal or neighborhood officials compile their own blacklists.
(via Boing Boing)
An email, incorrectly claiming that Apple's iPhone and Leopard had been delayed, wiped US$4bn off the value of the company. Once Apple issued a clarification, stock soon climbed back to most of its original value within about 15 minutes.
I wonder whether whoever sent the email managed to snag some bargain-priced Apple shares.
Google's shareholders say, alright, let's be evil where it's profitable:
A majority of Google shareholders today voted against an anti-censorship proposal that took aim at the way the search giant conducts its business in China and other countries that engage in active censorship.
The specific text of the failed proposal, available in the company's online proxy statement, stated:Of course, that doesn't mean that Google will give up the slogan "don't be evil"; given that, in the context of what they do, "evil" is a fairly vague term (even harder to nail down than Apple's environmental record, a subject of some debate), if they do start shopping dissidents to the Chinese government and propping up totalitarian regimes in the interests of profits, if anything, they're more likely to start spinning heavily on the we're-nice-guys angle; sort of like Nestlé.
- Data that can identify individual users should not be hosted in Internet-restricting countries, where political speech can be treated as a crime by the legal system.
- The company will not engage in pro-active censorship.
- The company will use all legal means to resist demands for censorship. The company will only comply with such demands if required to do so through legally binding procedures.
- Users will be clearly informed when the company has acceded to legally binding government requests to filter or otherwise censor content that the user is trying to access.
- Users should be informed about the company's data retention practices, and the ways in which their data is shared with third parties.
- The company will document all cases where legally binding censorship requests have been complied with, and that information will be publicly available.
US discount store chain Target has withdrawn a line of CD cases with Che Guevara's image, after
the Cuban government sued for copyright violation socialists protested at the commercialisation of his image critics protested at the glorification of an architect of totalitarianism:
"What next? Hitler backpacks? Pol Pot cookware? Pinochet pantyhose?" wrote Investor's Business Daily in an editorial earlier this month, citing the Guevara case as a model of "tyrant-chic".
According to the US government, al-Qaeda are planning to attack online stock market and banking sites. The fiends; is there anything they won't stoop to?
What happens when a company known for its ethical principles and alternative business culture is taken over by a multinational corporation? The outcomes vary; in many cases, the "funky"/ethical brand becomes merely a fig leaf over the parent's more conventional business practices:
Body Shop has just become part of the French cosmetics giant L'Oréal; Tom's of Maine fell to Colgate-Palmolive last month; Wales-based Rachel's Organic is a subsidiary of the American conglomerate Dean Foods, which has come under fire in the US over its industrial-scale organic dairies and factory-farm milk production. Pret A Manger is one-third owned by McDonald's; Ben & Jerry's has been under Unilever's ownership for six years and Green & Black's belongs to Cadbury-Schweppes, the world's biggest confectionery company.
At Ben & Jerry's in the US, the relationship with Unilever remains an uneasy one. Ben & Jerry's most recent social audit highlighted a "disappointing" lack of social initiatives at the company and poor morale among employees. It questioned whether the company was "simply a Unilever marketing operation using the brand's reputation for social responsibility to promote sales."
Ethical Consumer magazine runs an online shoppers guide, at www.ethiscore.org, which rates companies and their products on their ethical credentials. Body Shop's rating has plunged from 11 out of 20 to just 2.5 since the L'Oréal deal and the magazine has urged a boycott of its products in protest not only at the French cosmetics group's ownership, but also its links with Nestlé, which owns 26% of L'Oréal. Nestlé has faced boycott campaigns over issues from animal testing to the marketing of baby milk substitutes.This gloomy scenario, however, is not always the case; occasionally, a parent manages to keep its hands off a smaller unit and its culture, and the subsidiary continues on as before, only with the benefit of the parent's resources:
Like most of the niche businesses bought by multinationals, Green & Black's is run as an entirely separate operation within the Cadbury empire. "It's a case of how they can help us, not telling us what to do," Mr Palmer says.
He adds: "You can be fiercely independent and not have any funds to grow. But does that help the cocoa growers in Belize?"Perhaps Green & Black's having fared well is more a result of Cadbury's not particularly ruthless corporate culture (weren't the Cadbury family, who owned the company until not that long ago, Quakers or something?). I suspect that had they been bought out by, say, Nestlé, it may be a different picture altogether.
Could the future of employment be job dumping, where prospective employers put jobs up for auction and employ the lowest bidder, harnessing the same market dynamics that give us cheap Wal-Mart clothes?
Irony of the day: the anthem of Communism, The Internationale is copyrighted; a filmmaker in France is being shaken down for US$1,283 for having someone whistle the song without permission in one of his films.
Under French law, "The Internationale" won't fall into the public domain until 2014 70 years of post-mortem protection plus extra time to cover the world war. Degeyter died in 1932.
(Via bOING bOING, who point out that there's (a fragment of) a decent electropop version of The Internationale here. Funnily enough, a while ago, I thought that a happy-hardcore/doof/indie-dance version, with some dude rapping about dialectic materialism in the middle, would work well at the numerous anti-capitalism rallies the lefties kept having before 9/11.)
(via bOING bOING)
Former Swedish anarchist leftist Johan Norberg has penned a progressive defense of global capitalism titled, appropriately, "In Defense of Global Capitalism"; he outlines his arguments here. Norberg's thesis is that globalisation and free trade are precisely the solution the third world needs to escape poverty, and bring with them things like increased wages, reduced pollution (through technological improvements) and greater civil liberties; meanwhile, most opposition to globalisation comes from Westerners, and is founded in protectionist self-interest (i.e., by unions), naïvéte about historical trends, or even an objection to the modern condition and an Arcadian romanticisation of a remote agrarian past.
That's why in a typical developing nation, if you're able to work for an American multinational, you make eight times the average wage. That's why people are lining up to get these jobs. When I was in Vietnam, I interviewed workers about their dreams and aspirations. The most common wish was that Nike, one of the major targets of the anti-globalization movement, would expand so that a workers relatives could get a job with the company.
The best thing that could happen to the Arab world would be for them to run out of oil. Then theyd have to open up to trade, and a small number of people wouldnt be in control all of the wealth, as is the case in Saudi Arabia.
The further you get from the West, the more positive people are toward globalization, toward more business and trade ties with the rest of the world. The most vocal opponents of globalization in poor countries are often funded by critics from wealthier countries. For instance, Vandana Shiva [director of the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology] is a very vocal opponent of economic liberalization and biotechnology, and shes funded by a lot of different Western groups.
So, is Norberg's thesis just a rebadged Lexus and the Olive Tree in Starbucks-progressive garb, or is the "anti-globalisation" movement really full of it, or both?
(I wonder what he'd say to Greg Palast's accusations that the World Bank/IMF assistance programmes are designed not to help third-world economies but to starve them into bankrupcy, allowing assets to be bought up cheaply by multinationals and reducing the locals and their descendants to sharecroppers. I suppose that's just an unfortunate implementation detail, and not an indictment on the phenomenon of globalisation as such.)
China amends its constitution to protect private property, formally abandoning socialism in favour of an authoritarian form of free-market capitalism. So far, there has been no announcement of any name change for the increasingly inaccurately-named Communist Party, which will continue to maintain an iron grip on the nation's political life and public discourse.
But it is stalemated on even these modest political reforms, leaving modern China an increasingly prosperous private economy ruled by a dictatorship. In this it resembles General Pinochet's Chile, South Korea under military rule - or Taiwan before it moved to democracy in the 1980s.
Bad news for those hoping to protect the environment and global human rights by making a tidy sum on the stock market: New research has shown that most "ethical" or "socially responsible" investment funds aren't. To make more of a buck (and compete in the marketplace), most of the funds surveyed invested in fossil fuels, companies with histories of human-rights violation and, in one case, tobacco companies. They rationalise their decisions as investing in the "best of sector", i.e., the least evil company in a particular sector.
(Btw, which company is the "best of sector" in the high-tech armaments industry? Boeing. Lockheed or Raytheon?)