More thoughts on the gilets jaunes

On this trip to France we actually saw real gilets jaunes protestors – on two different roundabouts. We also saw some kind of placeholder gilet jaunes at another roundabout, though these weren’t real people but hi-vis vests draped over human shaped objects. Scarecrow gilets jaunes, maybe.

Another phenomenon, bubbling under the last time we were here but now evident everywhere, is that every speed camera has either been burnt out or wrapped in black plastic. All the familiar places, where you know people are going to slow down, the familiar yellow or grey box has been scorched and melted or simply wrapped in black cling film. Oddly, people are still slowing down for these zombie cameras, so 🤷🏼‍♂️.

As I argued before, regardless of the state of the economy, unemployment, under-employment, etc, the protest against fuel taxes which started all this was the wrong cause. Sure, Macron’s neoliberalism is bad for working people, but these yellow vested ones are probably the ones who voted for his out-of-nowhere “new party” in the first place. Read the small print. And then go and inconvenience some rich people.

But French bad driving habits is an ingrained sickness that is as much a part of the national scofflaw character as a fondness for baguette and lunch at noon. There is no reasoning with them over speeding, and they don’t even have the sobering levels of congestion that we have in the UK to cure them of this love affair with the car.

But I’m a little (a lot) cynical about the vandalism of speed cameras. Sure, it’s a way of sticking it to the man, but it’s also a way to drive as fast as you want without pesky consequences.

(Anyway, all France has to do now is kick back and wait for jobs to trickle back across the channel as companies seek frictionless access to the European Single Market.)

Some people drive around with a convenient gilet jaune on the dashboard of their car. This is supposed to be a way of showing solidarity but is more like a sop to the protestors so they don’t harass you. Others hang them from trees outside their houses. I think it’s dangerously close to hanging out a certain kind of flag so that people wearing a certain colour shirt don’t kick the shit out of you. I mean, what’s the bloody difference between a yellow vest and a brown shirt? I do not feel the warm glow of support for these protestors. It all feels a little right wing to me. I mean, this is a protest with a uniform (albeit a lame one), and these protests against fuel taxes and speeding are also libertarian, Clarkson-like, causes. Underneath it all there might a need for social justice, progressive taxation and equality, but unfortunately, the iconography of this protest has all the appearance of climate change denialists demanding to live their polluting lives without interference.

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Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Moon

Well, there’s a clue in the title, I suppose, if you know your KSR publication history. Red Mars was succeeded by Blue and Green, and even his Three Californias might have been renamed with the colours, had he the benefit of hindsight. So Red Moon might be followed by Blue and Green, but I don’t know yet.

A coupe of years back, I read Ian McDonald’s Luna, and was very disappointed, both by its Warring Crime Dynasties theme, and by its execution. I wasn’t interested enough to read the sequel. This is the worst possible scenario: when you read an entire book and then realise that not only is it not enjoyable to read, but it also lacks a proper ending.

So I have mixed feelings about Red Moon, which doesn’t pack a proper closure. It leaves things up in the air (or up in the non-air, as someone in the book might say). On the other hand, it was quite enjoyable to read: a good KSR experience, as opposed to one of the bad ones. I enjoyed Aurora, but hated 2312 and avoided New York 2140 because it also had a date in the title.

Aurora, about a generation ship on a mission to discover a new home for humanity, turned out to be really about the generation ship we live upon, the earth, and how we should be doing everything possible to save it as a safe environment in which to live. Similarly, Red Moon is really mostly about the Earth and its economies and superpowers.

The Red in the title refers to the presence of China on the moon, but also the experience of being on the moon when there’s a lunar eclipse: actually being on the surface when the moon appears to be red from the perspective of earth. Which is the trick KSR so often pulls: here you are thinking of things from one point of view, but here’s what it’s like if you put yourself over here and look at it backwards, as it were.

So: Earth, Moon, China, USA. Different perspectives on similar problems. The most telling moment of the novel comes when an American criticises China for being a single Party state, and is told that the market itself, under the yoke of which we all toil, is, effectively, a single party state. You cannot have democracy, equality, reform etc. if you are in thrall to the market.

“I mean America is more of a one-party state than China. It’s entirely ruled by the market. Actually the market is the only party in the world now, or it wants to be. So every nation has to deal with that in its own way.”

“They usually say we have a two-party system,” Fred mentioned.

“Your parties are just factions.”

And in this week, the week in which the always factional UK Labour party splits over Brexit, and the UK Conservative party, as ever, is riven with factions which are completely at odds with each other, you realise that, yes, all of this infighting gives the illusion of a political choice, but as long as free market economics hold sway, it is just an illusion.

So this is a novel about the Moon Illusion. Once more, KSR reminds us that this Earth, this planet, is all we really have, that the great fantasy of colonising the solar system will always come up against the reality. The Moon is a sterile world, no air, no atmosphere: nothing can live there except in a fragile artificial environment, and nobody can survive there without regular supply drops from Earth. All of this is just background: the Moon is like Antarctica, a place where various international groups can collaborate, with regularly rotating personnel. Nobody gets pregnant and has babies there. It’s not a place to settle.

But getting pregnant is what one character, Qi, does, and she turns out to be the catalyst for change: not so much on the Moon as on Earth. She pinballs around, pursued by her enemies, accompanied by Fred, an American engineer working for a Swiss company who has got caught up in an assassination plot. They travel from the Moon to Earth and back again, one step ahead or one step behind. Here, KSR has us thinking about surveillance and privacy and whether it is possible to be truly free. Even in a balkanised surveillance system, people can be tracked: by means of GPS chips, radio signals, facial recognition.

As he did with Aurora, KSR offers one POV which is an AI, programmed to improve its own general intelligence, and therefore pondering what all that means, and trying to parse what it is that people want or need. And it all comes down, in this novel about a sterile world upon which not a single basic human need is met except through dedicated intervention, to things like heat and clean air and water and shelter. All of which brings you crashing down to Earth, because here on this planet, cradle of humanity, and the only place we have to live, there are millions of people whose basic Maslowian human needs are not being met. Why? Because capitalism, because markets.

It’s a bit like William Gibson purporting to be science fiction but actually just about the moral limits of markets: it’s philosophy. Not “our lunar future” but our earthly present. But: it lacks an ending, so a sequel to follow, I would guess.

Woodstock taking

I watched the director’s cut of the Woodstock movie this weekend. It was, I would say, moderately entertaining, although there was not really enough of what you’d call the best music, and way too much of stuff that wasn’t very good to start with, and which has dated badly.

Jefferson Airplane, I ask you.

Not a lot of it, actually, is really my kind of thing, but a glance at the list of artists omitted from the film (including not only The Band, but Creedence, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and The Grateful Dead) and then what was included (Sha Na Na, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe & the Fish), and there’s a disconnect. I’m sure a lot of it came down to licensing issues and record company dicking, but you do wonder, sitting through the screeching of Joan Baez, the irrelevant ramblings of John Sebastian and the interminable noodling of Jimi Hendrix, what the editors were thinking. And Jefferson Airplane’s melody-free caterwauling is just the capper really: unbearable, unlistenable, tosh. A load of old wank, as a fine woman once said.

Which is before you get to the lengthy interview with the toilet cleaner, the extended sequence of the awful peace hippy clown Wavy Gravy acting as MC, and the ten minute interlude of chanting through the rain. Then there’s the gratuitous hippy nudity and so on.

Of course, the director was trying to capture the whole weekend in all its facets, and you certainly get a real feeling for how devastating the rain was and how utterly unprepared the organisers were for both the size of the crowd and the weather. The lateness of many of the performances was testament to the amateurish, spoiled rich kid organisation. I think everyone after The (not included) Band was technically performing on Monday, the fourth day of the three days of peace, love and, largely indifferent, music.

The performances that have gone down in legend are the ones who turned it up loud. The Who and Hendrix, Ten Years After, Santana. But apart from Hendrix, there’s not enough of these people in the film.

I went on YouTube and discovered a (mostly audio) clip of what purports to be The Band’s performance, and it seemed to be fine. Nothing wrong with it at all. And since they were objectively at the peak of their game, their exclusion from the film is strange. Were people disappointed that Dylan didn’t join them?

Anyway, it ends up being a document of the times, I guess, in much the same as the last 20 minutes of Let it Be capture London in January of the same year, and Gimme Shelter captures the death of the dream on the other coast in November. Never forget, also, that the Tate-LaBianca murders were just the weekend before Woodstock. 1969 was the full spectrum hippy fuckup.

Flickr mircl

A while ago, I wrote an extended post about how I was locked out of my original Flickr account. You can read it here.

What was especially galling about the whole thing was that, even though I’d started a new Flickr account to continue my use of the service, I never did use it very enthusiastically or regularly. That was because it made me unhappy every time I visited the site, just to know that my old account had been languishing there since September 2013.

And, oh, how those not-very-good 2013 Fleetwood Mac photos came to bug me, as the last things I posted in that account.

WELL.

New owners Smugmug have been emailing me over the past couple of months, informing me that I was about to lose my “Pro” privileges as they limit free accounts to 1000 uploads. So I tried, one last time, to email technical support and get some help.

And this time, I didn’t get a Yahoo robot, but an actual human being, who looked at the situation, clearly saw the match between (a) the two different accounts and (b) the email address attached to the locked account; and also (c) looked at my screen grab of all the corrupted Yahoo log-ins (dating from the 2013 hack of the service); and decided to help me out.

Reader, I’m back in.

I was so happy about this that I immediately paid for a “Pro” account for one year, so I could start uploading things again.

So for the past couple of days, I’ve been uploading pictures taken since 2013 into the once-dormant account. I’ve reached the end of 2014, the year I bought my little GM1 system camera. (I noticed also that I’d set the date and time wrong on that camera, so there were a lot more 2014 pictures than it initially appeared.) A lot of these had previously been uploaded into the sad secondary account, but I want everything in one place.

And it’s been fun, looking back at those far off days of 2014, the year of the heavy snow fall in France, the year of my youngest in braces and my oldest out of them. I will always be happy about my kids’ confident smiles. I tend to shoot candids, not a fan of the look people get on their faces when they’re posing, although there are a few portraits on there. I used to have quite the eye, but lack of practice means that I take fairly dull photos these days.

Flickr is still Flickr, of course. It’s slow at times, flaky, unreliable, with an awkward app experience. But the good news is that I long ago ceased to interact with others on the platform, and I don’t feel the need to comment or keep checking activity. Poignantly, the last ever comment on this account was, “Why you stop posting?” A question I couldn’t answer, because I was locked out.

Recently watched on TV

I’ve been blasting through a fair few series of late. I temporarily resubscribed to Amazon Prime so I could watch Counterpart Season 2, and since I was there, I also watched Homecoming, The Man in the High Castle (season 3), The Exorcist (season 2), and Mr Mercedes (1 & 2).

I reviewed Counterpart Season 1 here and said it was unmissable, although it is in fact very easy to miss.

You have to jump through a fair few hoops to watch it. A lot of people don’t realise they even have Amazon Prime Video as part of their Prime membership, which they sign up to for the free next-day delivery option. But anyway, first you need Amazon Prime. Then you need to add the Starzplay channel within Amazon Prime. It’s quite a clever move by Amazon: a kind of mise-en-abîme of subscriptions within subscriptions. The good news is that you can get a 90-day trial of Starzplay, which is easily enough time to burn through Counterpart. Season 2 is near its end. Will it be renewed for a third? You need at least three seasons to be truly great, but we live in a strange world in which one of the best shows currently on TV is on an obscure network/service that most people haven’t heard of.

So it’s behind a paywall behind a paywall, but notwithstanding all that, it is well worth seeking out. Season 2 continues the theme of confusion and identity characteristic of the espionage genre at its best, but also begins to fill in some of the back story: we learn more about how the Crossing was created, who Management are, and how the two Howards (Alpha/Prime) became such very different people. It really is superb, on a level with The Americans, and just as challenging to watch.

While you’re on Starzplay for the 90 days, you can watch other stuff, including Mr Mercedes, which is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel. In its first season, it’s a fairly straight retired-cop-obsessed-with-old-case saga. It’s watchable enough and has an interesting cast, although Brendan Gleeson’s Irish accent is hard to explain away. Mary-Louise Parker makes an appearance, which is always nice. Then there’s season 2, which takes a more obviously King-like turn, and adds Justine Lupe as a cast regular. It all goes off the rails a bit. The main issue with something like this is that it doesn’t need 20 episodes to tell its story, and so it gets a bit repetitive and draggy.

The Man in the High Castle is actually more watchable in its third season, reaching an intense climax that leaves you gasping for another season. That said, in order to get to Season 3, you have to force yourself to watch Season 2, which is a hard watch. It’s on Amazon, so you might as well watch it, but don’t subscribe just to see it.

Homecoming is a TV adaptation of the podcast of the same name, with added star value in the form of Julia Roberts. I enjoyed it, especially the non-standard episode lengths, which make it more bingeable. There’s a lot to be said for these dramas that have shorter episodes. The story feels a lot less padded, and it’s easier to fit in one more before bedtime. Again, though, this is something you watch if you subscribe, but it’s not worth subscribing just to see it.

Amazon is very interested in what people watch first after they subscribe to Amazon Prime, in case you were wondering why they’re still employing Clarkson and Co. Even if you only watch one episode of The Grand Tour (because it is shit), you’re still a statistic. Personally, my sign-up series was Bosch, and if you’re a fan of those books, that is a reason to subscribe.

Meanwhile, there is stuff like The Exorcist, which in its first season did a good job of reimagining the film and turning it into a watchable TV series. Season 2 moves us on to a new location and a new possession, whilst keeping only a core few of the original cast. It’s pretty good at what it does, though the demon fighting scenes can get to be a bit of a drag. There is a lot less of the existential angst that characterises the film and the original series, but I still got to the end. It’s another one that didn’t need a full 10 episodes, though. And now it’s cancelled, so only Amazon knows if it’s worth a streaming service rescue. Netflix teased some viewing figures recently, such as the 40 million who watched You, which on its original network received 1/80th of that audience.

Which brings us to Netflix and what I’ve watched on there lately. Not much. Netflix, it seems to me, have a real problem with quality control, but I guess they know what they’re at. What seems from the outside like throwing spaghetti at a wall is probably a well thought out strategy.

Russian Doll is a winner, simply because it’s interesting enough to overcome its unlikeable cast of characters and nasty vibe. It also has those shorter episodes that can keep you watching through your dislike for the vision of humanity on display.

On the other hand, Nightflyers is simply terrible, an incoherent slab of dark science fiction that defies your ability to suspend disbelief. Interchangeable characters die in horrible ways on a malfunctioning ship in such quantities that it’s impossible to believe that their purported mission could continue. A ship which seems to have vast, empty spaces and at the same time an unlimited supply of crew to be killed in various horrible ways? Some kind of miraculous future power source and yet nobody ever turns a light on? Check and check. There’s a Game of Thrones style body count, but not a single character you care about, and some kind of mission you also don’t care about. It’s crap, in short, so save your time.

The only thing redeeming Netflix at the moment is Star Trek: Discovery, which in Season 2 is finally the show it almost was in Season 1. Each of the three episodes so far have been very good indeed, and as someone who’s loved Star Trek since I gave up the Cub Scouts so as not to miss it, I’m in love.

How the internet ruined everything


The news that Tesco is to close its fresh food counters is just another sign that we don’t even want to have nice things. You can’t really blame the internet for people not wanting to queue up and ask for a slice of that pork pie thing with egg in the middle, or exactly 175g of mince, or three sausages and six anchovies. The metric system maybe? After all, a lot of people probably know what 2oz of cheese looks like but don’t know how to ask for it in grams. But it’s a symptom all the same that when offered the choice between convenience and service we’ll pick convenience every time. Of course it doesn’t help matters when the tappety-tap-tap of people paid to have opinions spreads its jism all over the comment pages and convinces someone somewhere for five minutes that, no, indeed, fresh food counters and customer service are rubbish and of course we won’t miss them. Like we don’t miss the milkman and milk in glass bottles, do we?

(Let’s set aside the ironic lack of self awareness of someone who writes for a newspaper in 2019 telling us about something they won’t miss when it’s gone.)

Which brings us onto the things that the internet really did ruin. While I can barely remember that time I asked for anchovies at the deli counter in Waitrose, the last time I bought a newspaper is an even dimmer memory. I never did quite understand why newspapers and magazines even started giving away their content for free on the internet. It was a collective insanity that cost them dear. They swallowed some canard about how information wants to be free and nobody listened to the little boy in the crowd who shouted that it was just a fucking metaphor.

So while the presses still rolled, and the newspaper groups still paid for staff and offices and newsprint, and even as they cannibalised their own advertising revenue with online content, they were caught off balance when people without expensive printworks and distribution networks to support came along and undercut them by not even paying the idiots who wrote their content. Because, turns out, the logical corollary of information wants to be free is writers don’t want to be paid.

So there went the printing jobs, and the journalism jobs, and what a hilarious trick that was: suddenly any idiot could be a writer or a photographer, but nobody was getting paid. And now even low-overhead outlets like Vice, Buzzfeed and Huffington Post are laying off staff.  Meanwhile, others are in administration. There’s no there there. Nothing is real. Strawberry Fields forever.

 And then there was a mad scrabble to pivot to video and podcasts and promote your shouldn’t-be-free content on social networks and look how that turned out. It goes without saying that instead of liberating us, the internet ruined politics too. It wasn’t as if we were well served, politically, by old media, but new media didn’t help at all. It just said, hold my pint.

The thing about most news content is, usually the headline is enough for most people, so putting the headline on Twitter was a good way of reducing your readership. And Twitter or Facebook can make money off your content, but you can’t.

And all those podcasts, I love them, I absolutely do, but at the same time, all the podcast adverts are just a list of ways in which the internet is setting out to ruin everything. Go to the mattresses! So let’s kill off the mattress retailers, and the opticians, the clothes retailers, the grocers, and in a final ironic twist, let’s kill off independent web designers. Use Squarespace for all your needs. Put those pixel pushers on the dole.

But as much as nobody loves shopping for mattresses, there’s a whole ecosystem there isn’t there? You go to the retail park to buy a mattress, and you might pop into the electronics store, or the pet supply place, or Halfords, whatever. But if you’re no longer going to buy a mattress, everybody else is screwed. Do Amazon sell tyres? Of course they fucking do.

Which, talking of which, brings us to Amazon’s Evil Empire, and how we all chose to kill off book stores and record stores and all the other stores where people might work reasonable hours for reasonable pay and get a staff discount and have a bit of a laugh with their colleagues. First they killed the Net Book Agreement, which okay, was a bit of a cartel, but it wasn’t as if there weren’t discount bookshops with remaindered titles. It was a system and it worked. And it was like milk from the milkman. You paid a bit more but somehow we still had a society.

I’m probably the most guilty person when it comes to using Amazon instead of retail stores. I mean, when I needed a petrol cap for the strimmer in France, I ordered it from Amazon instead of trying a local stockist, just because I knew the local stockist would probably be hopeless. But what are we going to do when Amazon has killed everything, has an effective monopoly, and pulls the trigger on raising prices so they can turn a profit? 

I once ordered a car online, that’s how guilty I am.

And I’d do it again, probably, because car salespeople are horrible, aren’t they? And so are journalists, aren’t they? I mean, a lot of them work(ed) for Murdoch and the Daily Mail etc. What kind of shitty human being do you have to be to work for the Daily Mail? There are all kinds of categories of people it’s easy to avoid by shopping online.

All that’ll be left on the high street will be the coffee shops, and when all the other shops have gone, they’ll have to go too, because the footfall will be gone.

And it’ll be the internet wot dunnit, and everything will be a little bit (or a lot) worse, and we’ll complain about it, but we did it to ourselves.

*Takes cardboard packaging out to the recycling bin*

This is the way the world ends

Every day, someone reaches the front of the line to have an opinion about Brexit. And every day, it creeps a little closer. Time moves strangely: on the one hand, tick-tocking to the tappety tap tap tap of people paid to have opinions; on the other, coming straight down the tracks with the clackety clack clack of a runaway train.

At this stage, I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting it to be over and done with, in one way or another, and yet you can’t shake the realisation that this is how we live now. Whatever happens, the bickering will continue and the tappety tap tap will go on forever.

I still remain (fnar) torn between my intellectual awareness that we can’t have socialism within the neoliberal culture of the EU and my intellectual awareness that we can’t have socialism because my neighbours (and yours, and yours) are fuckwits. And so I wish we could stay in the EU, because then at least I could get out of this fucking country and away from my fuckwit neighbours as soon as I retire.

If capital has freedom of movement, then people should too. Why should money have more rights than people?


Another sign of the forthcoming End of All Things is the BBC’s decision to make its popular Fortunately podcast exclusively available on the BBC Sounds app.

Now, the great thing about podcasting, up to now, has been that, as a new medium, it was open and free, and anybody could make one. The cost of entry being low has enabled a burgeoning of independent producers who have carved out their niches and their audiences on an equal footing with the big players (traditional broadcasters).

There have been signs of late that this situation was coming to an end. Large corporations introducing exclusive content on proprietary apps. For example, Jon Ronson has produced exclusive content for Stitcher and Audible.

But this Fortunately fiasco is the first time that something I care about has been taken off the open internet (RSS feed/on iTunes) and put into a “walled garden” that required you to have a specific app to listen. And I hate it, of course. Not just because of the inconvenience, but because it’s so unnecessary. The BBC has a massive platform and has no need to muscle in on the world of podcasting with its heavyweight app: especially as it already had the iPlayer Radio app.

Now, I fully understand that the under-35s aren’t bothering with BBC radio or iPlayer. And I fully understand that the BBC wants to ensure it has a future: hence, the trendy “Sounds” app with its wall-to-wall recommendations clearly aimed at people much younger than me.

I looked at it, as I was encouraged to, and hated it. It makes you log in with a BBC ID, and claims that it will tailor content for you, but then proceeded to show me almost nothing but music and sport recommendations, when I literally never listen to either of them on the BBC. The last time I tuned into a radio station to hear some music was the day Radio Caroline sank in the North Sea. So I genuinely hated it, and even though I gave it a couple more tries, I returned to iPlayer for my BBC listening, and will stick to Overcast for podcasts. Until the bitter end.

The BBC did almost immediately back down and put Fortunately on iPlayer, and claim that the exclusivity will end after a while, but still. Stop messing with podcasts. Free and open and independent podcasting is clinging on, and when it’s gone we will miss it, just like we’ll miss all the high street shops when they’re gone.