Category: Uncategorized

Siobhan Sharpe rides again

W1A has been a bit of a disappointment for me. It’s not so much the BBC self-regard, a notorious turnoff, but rather the lack of a plot driver. Twenty Twelve worked because it spoke to the steadily rising national dread before Operation Big Sportsday, something which nobody remembers now. This was wired into the show’s structure, as it was written not long ahead of time.

In fact, Twenty Twelve had what every joke needs, a punchline: the Olympics were a success. The police didn’t shoot anyone. Nothing fell down. I got out of town in advance, and don’t I remember my astonishment via Twitter at how people seemed to care. Coming back, I remember that Heathrow worked bizarrely well, and the landlord of my local pub explained it all: everyone he knew had at last got a job.

W1A doesn’t have the time-factor, and hence the tension. As a result it relies too much on cheap laughs, like mocking interns who are all idiots and therefore OK to abuse, BBC injokes, and too many celebrity cameos.

That said, it is a very rare example of the BBC standing up for itself rather than being whacked around a greasy carpark by indistinguishable lobbies. The last episode is about money, which raises a good point.

If you want the BBC run by people who do it for a pension, you’ve got to take its independence seriously. If you want to be able to sack everyone at whim, like all politicians and media participants do, you’ve got to pay them enough that they can take the risk of being zapped to please newspaper Z at any time. Otherwise it will turn into RAI or worse. (It’s as if that’s what the political elite would like!)

But you can’t have BBC independence, sack-the-board politics, and civil service salary scales all at once. You have to pick which requirement you’re willing to let go. Independence plus cheap is a combination that requires a high trust society, which we ain’t no more. Independence and sack the board, mitigated by money, is a compromise suited to what we are now.


The UsVsTh3m crowd really gave me the horrors with this app, at least when it was returning UK No.1s. Mine has a fast start – Odyssey, in July 1980 – but then plunges into two Spice Girls tracks and, Christ!, Wet Wet Wet. And Frankie Knuckles has left the building. This of course was an excuse to Listen To All The Things.

Here he is (thanks to Les Inrocks) in 1977.

The amazing thing here is that even then, when there were no conventions for this sort of thing, it’s all already there. It even sounds pretty fresh.

Here he is on the radio in 1986.

And live in 2012:

I saw him play in November that year at XOYO. I had flown back that morning from Dubai; I probably wouldn’t have done that for many other artists. He projected; DJs are infamous for hiding behind the machinery, and either making a virtue of being a faceless technical force or else trying to escape it and looking like a twat. But he seemed to host the night in a real sense, projecting welcome and acceptance. I also remember that he didn’t play much of his own stuff. Nothing could have been easier than running through a conventional, conservative set of the classics, but he wasn’t going to do that.


even if I prefer this version:

Pop-Up Treatment Room 2014

I’ve just been to the Tate’s Richard Hamilton monster exhibition. A thought: here’s Hamilton’s 1984 installation Treatment Room.


The Treatment Room has been re-installed at the Tate and you can walk around it, which is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, photos usually centre on the TV with the Thatcher loop, putting the viewer in the position of the unfortunate patient. In the flesh, you can also view it from behind the reinforced glass screen, where the control panel is – the roles of victim, perpetrator, and spectator are equally available.

Second, the physical objects in the Room have changed their significance over time. Again, it’s less obvious in reproduction that the TV is a top-of-the-range Sony Trinitron, at the time a very expensive state of the art product. In reproduction, you can’t see at all that the VCR in the control panel is a similarly lavish Bosch. Hamilton was a massive product-design obsessive and certainly didn’t make these choices by accident.

When the installation was originally assembled, then, it combined a grim institutional aesthetic with the latest of high technology, both a fairly typical setting in hospital and also a version of J.K. Galbraith’s notion of private affluence and public squalor.

Today, though, although the institutional grimness is still what it is, the significance of the kit has reversed. Big CRT televisions are now signifiers of poverty and of neglect, the sort of thing landlords chuck in because they can’t be bothered to remove them.

It is in the nature of technology that this change would have started as soon as Hamilton presented Treatment Room for the first time; obsolescence, a core Hamilton preoccupation that he both celebrated and warred against with the constant reinvention typical of his work, was designed into it from the beginning. And the political punch of Treatment Room fits it well; going from an NHS with shabby buildings and world-leading medicine to one where the equipment was as dated as the architecture is just what it seems to warn against.

That said, Hamilton had other motives in presenting Treatment Room with the latest technology of 1984. In his accompanying essay (he explained his work constantly – it was a cost of the constant innovation) he described the putative patient as a “victim of the health service” being patronised by Thatcher, not a victim of Thatcher.

It was a time when the Left that created the welfare state had fallen out of love with its creation, especially its medical manifestation. It was a bureaucratic behemoth in which high technology largely served the selfish interests of elite technocrats and permitted them to impose judgment and control on the bodies and minds of patients. The treatment in Treatment Room is clearly psychiatric, after all.

This movement had some very important successes – the end of the Victorian asylum, the legitimisation of service-user activism, much greater respect for the needs of stigmatised social groups, the acceptance of palliative care as a full citizen of medicine – but in parallel, the radical turn against the welfare state must also have weakened its defence against Thatcherism.

What would today’s Treatment Room look like? First of all, there are no logos in the Room except for the electronics. It comes from a time when hospitals didn’t have marketing. In fact, beyond the electronics, there is no language in the Room at all – Thatcher’s voice has been dubbed out and there is no writing anywhere. Secondly, it’s clearly embedded in the institutional world. Unionised cleaners call every night. Thirdly, it is as paternalistic as it looks – today, by contrast, participation is demanded. Perhaps we would now have a gaggle of iPads open to the Universal Jobmatch front page, endlessly interrupted by blaring popup ads, the floor littered with looted Nike AF1s.

This would, of course, age and date like the original, and hopefully also show up how dated and irrelevant politicians doing a fake version of Tony Blair’s response to John Major’s effort to follow Thatcher are.


You think #MH370 is Ballardian? Kicking it up a notch:

The tests showed that brands outperformed people where a person’s relationship to a product was tied to a story–such as the subject who loved his watch, which was handed down from his father, more than his girlfriend, or the man whose life-long love of the Seattle Seahawks measured as stronger than his love for his toddler. In all, three of the eight test subjects showed more love for brands than people.

Actually the study is more neurobabble than anything else (oxytocin, mirror neurons etc), but the point is what it might legitimise.

Meanwhile, NATO forces in Afghanistan are transferred to the command of General Indifference, and from the same source, Crusty Old Fuck In The Pentagon Hopes Cold War Just Got Hot:

The man, clearly delusional that developments in Ukraine spell a permanent return to relevance for Russia and the post-Soviet states on the global scene, has reportedly worked as an analyst in the Russia plans and strategy division since 1991. Two and half decades of utter insignificance later, the daydream believer says he always knew his moment to shine would come.

“Oh my, I have a brief to the general in an hour,” the man exclaimed, shuffling through papers and blathering on like he was talking about China or some shit. “This is just how I imagine the eighties, back before we lost our way in that miserable Middle East!”

And Bob Crow would have totally worn this harrington, although he probably shouldn’t have.

Links: Rugby League

I would like to embed this, but anyway, watch it and feel the thrilling and controversial American razzamatazz, like. Yes, still bitter.

This looks interesting, but apparently it’s a blog you have to read through facebook, which makes what kind of sense?


Ian Roberts, Kangaroo legend, also the game’s first professional to come out as gay. Oh hell.

‘I’ve got brain damage … that’s the nuts and bolts of it mate,’’ Roberts told Fairfax Media’s Peter FitzSimons during an interview on Channel Seven’s Sunday Night program. However, Roberts said he was not surprised by his test results and revealed he had been suffering depression…


On one hand they seem not quite sure of its value, while on the other they appear reluctant to lose control of it, like a bearded hipster with interesting glasses who finds out their favourite post-rock sextet is topping the bill at Hyde Park this summer.

It’s always been like that.

Crashy, the crash app, is crashing!

I just noticed from my Firefox crash log (about:crashes) that it crashed seven times on the 16th of October, 2013, of which four occurred between 1320 and 1420. I may have to revise my opinion of my own ability to manage anger, as nobody seems to have been hurt.

I think it may be this bug or related, but they’re deluding themselves if they think it was fixed in FF25 or 26; it’s been a constant since last summer. I hadn’t had a browser crash for 6 months before that. At the moment I’m getting four a day on average. Also, it’s probably significant that it memleaks to 3.5GB each time…

Obviously, it’s a wontfix because they’re too busy with the facebook drone or something else shiny.

Ah. Or is it this little beauty?

It’s almost like something is just holding on to everything in sight.

Yes, yes, it does. Says the reporting user:

the latest crashes with the memory report. today has been a trying day

You could say that again.

Human flesh video indexing engine

Somewhere between Thursday and Saturday, Bob Crow appeared on one of the TV news channels in an interview in which he was pictured in a Bradley Wiggins x Fred Perry shirt, nearly Yves Klein blue, and his expensive tan, in front of a massive parliamentary-looking bookcase. I am trying to find a screengrab in order to pursue this tweet. I’ve got the screengrab in my head but I’m not visual artist enough to reproduce it as a sketch. Can you help? I assure you the blog post will be epic if we find it.

Two simple plans – mine and another

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this Randeep Ramesh piece in the Grauniad.

However, the coalition is concerned that these levels of building will not meet the demand for properties, particularly in south-east England where outright normal home ownership is not an option for many. So [Danny] Alexander and his Tory cabinet colleague Eric Pickles will announce a review that will examine how “innovative financing mechanisms” could be used to raise the rate of affordable housebuilding.

That sounds like a simple plan! In fact, one of the proposals mentioned gives the simple plan an extra twist by suggesting that local authority pension schemes might be persuaded to invest in it. Unlike the central government schemes, council ones are funded, so they control some really large investment funds that need a safe home with a non-risible fixed return. I am actually kicking myself for not having included this in the original simple plan, as it’s a genuinely neat idea.

That said, it’s always worth counting your fingers with this lot.

Sources in the Treasury were keen to stress that the review would not be able to recommend measures that breached the government’s strict borrowing rules, seeking to contrast this with Labour’s “borrow to invest” political rhetoric.

Housebuilding based on the LHA income stream might well pass the government’s prudential borrowing tests, but so far councils have been told in no uncertain terms that there’s no point applying. So either the review is going to “offer all possible help other than actual assistance” in the words of Winston Churchill, or else it’s going to invent a new category of less borrow-y borrowing.

The government’s affordable rent scheme will see housing associations and councils offer rented homes to social tenants at a maximum of 80% of market rent rather than the 30% offered by traditional council housing. Accompanying changes to the way tenancies are offered will allow housing providers to offer more flexible leases, some as short as two years.

I don’t know why the “will say” trope is used here; “affordable” has been defined as 80% of market, i.e. not affordable, for years. The point about leases is also interesting and worrying. Up in the head of the piece, before the bit about local authority pension funds, there’s this:

The government is to announce a “wide-ranging” review to examine how to encourage City investors, insurers and pension funds to put up cash to build affordable housing schemes, designed to help poorer people get a roof over their heads.

Between 1989 and 2007, UK housing policy was famously to let housing benefit take the strain, pace Lord Young. This meant that people would rent, rents would be allowed to go where they might, and central government handouts would fill any gap and also act as a unacknowledged financial settlement between regions. They would rent from private landlords, and also from housing associations.

The private element of this was dependent on two innovations. The first was mortgage securitisation, which permitted the expansion of buy-to-let lending. The second was the assured shorthold tenancy, which permitted the expansion of buy-to-let borrowing by making it easier to function as a landlord without putting in time. The combination of these two innovations with the decline of final salary pensions and the string of mis-selling disasters from Barlow Clowes to PPI made rental property the middle class savings vehicle of choice. In the context of a property market with restricted supply and deregulated mortgage lending, it also made a property bubble very likely and made any action to stop it politically and eventually practically impossible.

The new policy sketched in the last quote is very similar, with one major difference. First of all, rents are deregulated and go up. Second, private landlords are central to it. Third, tenancies are shortened and made much less secure in order to financialise housing. This is precisely the package deployed by Young in the late 1980s.

The difference is that the landlords are expected to be strategic investors rather than retail savers. This represents the fact that a lot of people have burned their fingers and a lot more don’t have any savings, perhaps because of the cost of housing.

Anyone who’s ever been a tenant knows that there is more to being a landlord than rent; it’s fair to say that professional management, in itself, would be an improvement. You can make a case that amateurs are better out of the game, too. But we ought to be sceptical of the same old bullshit from the same old gang. “Unaffordable rent, mitigated by LHA” renders the people in the houses too vulnerable to political caprice. And real estate professionals are very often the biggest plungers in the boom and the biggest crashers in the crash. Watch out.

Links, sciency

Some technology links. This is a fabulously weird and awful idea, and it’s probably for the best someone did it as art before someone made a startup.

In January, 2013, she moved to Portland, Oregon, a city where she barely knew anyone, and went on sixteen first dates. For each date, she streamed audio and video of the proceedings to Ustream, and paid workers from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (a market for crowdsourcing tasks) to watch, comment, and send her instructions….When January ended, McCarthy returned to the East Coast in a “pretty confused state.” She ended up on a date recently, unplanned and with no Turk workers to back her up. “When he tried to kiss me, I believe my exact phrase was ‘I really don’t have any grasp on my basis for making decisions about this stuff right now, so ok?’”

See also this story, about trying to represent really advanced UX design in a near-future movie. As you well know, I really dislike the whole Google Now/Glass push-suggestion model, and I suspect it will be more like the first story than this one. The future is awkward.

The NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter provides a geological survey of the area around the Chinese Chang’3 lander. Really sadly, the NASA project scientists aren’t allowed to cooperate with the Chinese, but they can put all their results on the web and who knows who might wget the lot. I love the fact there are multiple, complementary spacecraft out at the Moon and Mars, so far beyond just sticking a flag in the regolith.

Realclimate investigates and concludes that Thames Barrier closures probably aren’t informative about climate change.

I keep meaning to go back to this, but Eli Rabett and others are rattling the tin to keep the Mauna Loa CO2 concentration series going because some bastard won’t fund it. Give!

Here’s a new tool for making a REST API for any website. Beyond webscraping.

A good discussion of 3D printing at war; the point that navies are likely to get the benefit first is a good one.

Pills that make you learn after supposed critical periods have passed.

The Sony SRF-39FP radio, an important artefact in the material culture of US prisons.

The really interesting bit, though, is that Sony didn’t do some grudging just-enough thing for convicts – they did a great job, so much so that radio hams collect them because the single-chip RF chain and the antenna provide superb sensitivity and selectivity at minimal power consumption…like you need if you want to listen to the radio in the depths of a supermax wing, but also I suspect out of sheer engineering love.

All it lacks is a picture of the thing. Like so.

I blogged about this years ago, but here is a good story, with great photos, about Eero Saarinen’s headquarters for Bell Labs, now abandoned after the Alcatel acquisition. There’s now a scheme to reuse it, fortunately.

And a wannabe terrorist chose to take a RIPA III conviction rather than disclose the encryption key to a USB drive. This protected the security of the data on the drive, right up until the cops tried the key he already gave them for another drive. Four Lions was a documentary.

Norwegian civil defence helo waved off from fire by air traffic control after reports of one or more “media drones” in the area. Have whatever fun you like with the phrase “media drone”, but this is a really important point. Airspace management and deconfliction are hard.