Thursday, November 24, 2016

How to Win at Black Friday

I'm still not entirely sure how we can have "the day after Thanksgiving" without actually having Thanksgiving in the first place, but never mind. Once again, our stores have engaged in their pre-Christmas "let's have a sale" sale, with all sorts of wonderful bargains on things people mostly don't want. And, once again, we have a flurry of articles from newspapers decrying this, declaring that they're not really bargains at all, or whatever else. Which is their way of cashing in on all this consumerist nonsense without looking like they're cashing in. It's all quite clever.

But the truth lies somewhere in between: buying into this consumerist nonsense is a bad idea, but so too is adamantly refusing to get involved no matter what. There are, in fact, some good bargains to be had; you just have to be a bit savvy.

And the key question is this: would you have bought the item anyway, even at full price?

See, that's the thing: if there was something that you were going to get anyway (let's say a printer, just for a random example), then it may well be that you can find a good one at a much reduced price in the sale. In which case, it makes sense to go and get that item at this time of year, rather than, say, two weeks ago when prices were higher or two weeks from now when they're probably higher again.

(And so, really, the way to win at Black Friday is to ignore the advertising and the offers completely. Instead, if there's something you'd been considering buying, then maybe go look if there's an offer on that, and make a purchase. But look only at things you've been considering anyway, and don't get drawn in to other purchases.)

Speaking of which... it's probably time for a new phone. Though the big downside there is that the one I almost bought last time I thought about it was a Samsung, which I'm obviously now avoiding...

#64: "The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul", by Douglas Adams

Friday, November 18, 2016

Post-truth Politics?

Apparently the word of the year is "post-truth", which refers to the tendency of people to only seek out political news from sources they agree with, meaning they never see the other side, never have to deal with fact checking, and as such aren't interested in 'truth'. Which is, indeed, an issue.

Except... post-truth implies that there was a time when there was that interest in truth in politics. But I distinctly remember being advised at high school that newspapers had their agendas: some supported Labour, some the Tories, with the 'impartial' BBC using the newspapers to set the overall agenda.

And people would buy and vote accordingly: if you were on the Left, you probably bought the Guardian and voted Labour; if you were on the Right, you probably bought the Telegraph and voted Tory.

(There are several ways that the newspapers supported their agendas, often without lying. It's done by cherry-picking only those statistics that support your argument, by giving greater emphasis to some facts over others, giving more air-time/word-count to your preferred experts, and even by simply not reporting inconvenient facts. Actually lying is for amateurs.)

So how is that any different from now? People were still only seeking out the voices that agreed with what they thought anyway, they were having their opinions reinforced, and they weren't actually interested in 'truth'.

What has changed is that people are increasingly declaring "a plague on both your houses" and walking away from both Labour and the Tories. At which point they're also walking away from their previous newspapers... and finding there is no alternative. On the Right, there is no serious newspaper that supports UKIP. In Scotland, until about eighteen months ago, there was no serious newspaper that supported independence. In America, the same applied to Bernie Sanders, and indeed to Donald Trump until he secured the Republican nomination.

What's new is not that people have started looking only at the sources they agree with; what's new is that they've rejected the newspapers' versions of what is 'true'.

#63: "Spelljammer: The Broken Sphere", by Nigel Findlay

Monday, November 14, 2016

Remember Them? It's All About Us These Days

This year I once again played at the Festival of Remembrance in Falkirk Town Hall on Saturday and then again at the Armistice Parade in Falkirk on Sunday. Sadly, this was also the first year I found myself rather uncomfortable doing so. It really feels that Remembrance Sunday has completed its transformation from a sombre event of respect and remembrance into something decidedly... other.

I have three reasons for this:

Firstly, there's a enforced respect agenda that has been gradually creeping up on us. It started a few years ago when we started seeing various guests being lambasted for the horrific 'crime' of not wearing a poppy while appearing on the BBC in the weeks before the event. It has now expanded to the point where even the Cookie Monster is festooned with a poppy before appearing on the One Show. (I'm also more than a little uncomfortable that the BBC apparently gets a bulk order of poppies for this season, and puts one on all guests as a matter of course. Which means that it's actually not a show of respect for people to wear them; it's just an extension of makeup. If we were actually serious about the matter, guests would be required to provide their own poppies for appearance.)

But more troubling than even that is the horror show of the newspapers turning Remembrance Day into a stick with which to beat Jeremy Corbyn - he didn't bow low enough, or his poppy wasn't big enough, or was too big, or he dared to dance into the street (while talking to an actual veteran; the newspapers cropped the photo in order to invent an offense). It's disgusting.

Secondly, there's the rise of poppy bling. Apparently, it's not enough for our celebrities to show respect the same way as the rest of us. Oh, no, they have to show how specially special their remembrance is with their special bejewelled poppies, with larger-than-life poppies, poppy cufflinks, poppy ties, poppy hats, or whatever other show of one-upmanship they can event. Because they're special people, so they need to show their 'respect' in special ways.

But, thirdly, and most troublingly, it really feels that the remembrance agenda has become increasingly hijacked by the powers-that-be for their own ends, and in particular the glorification of our military and their ongoing adventures in far flung lands. Here's a hint: if you're painting a poppy on a plane or a tank, you're doing it wrong - unless your next act is to immediately scrap that vehicle.

I find myself deeply uncomfortable even writing this, because Remembrance Sunday is a serious and important event, or at least it should be. The First World War was a mad exercise in throwing away lives for no good reason, and we've not actually become much better. We still send our troops to places they probably shouldn't be, don't equip them properly, and then fail to care for them when they come home injured. It's all a disgrace, and if Remembrance Sunday even helps to keep that in check then that's a good thing. But I'm increasingly uncomfortable with what Remembrance Sunday (or, rather, everything that surrounds it) is becoming.

I think, unless something changes, my days of wearing the poppy are numbered. I'll continue to make my donation, of course, but as for wearing the symbol... As long as Grandad remains alive, I'll wear it in recognition of his service. But once he passes, it will be time for a rethink.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Tragedy of Trump

Over the last several decades, the world has become increasingly globalised. The trend has been for lots of jobs, especially in manufacturing and related areas, to move away from the UK and the UK overseas (largely to India and China, with South America and/or Africa next in line), and with lots of cheap goods to come from overseas into the UK and US.

And, taken as a whole, that's a positive thing - average standards of living have improved significantly, the economy has done well out of it, and lots of money has been made.


The UK isn't just an undifferentiated blob of people who all benefit when "the economy" does well. Instead, we're a collection of some 70 million people, some of whom do incredibly well out of globalisation, some of whom do less well, and many of whom do incredibly badly. (The US is the same, just with bigger numbers.) And while millions of people in London do well out of globalisation, there are millions of people elsewhere who are doing badly. Indeed, in some cases it's a disaster that now engulfs three generations: one generation of workers lost their jobs during Thatcher's mad de-industrialisation programme, their children have therefore grown up in abandoned towns with few prospects, and now their children have damn little hope.

So when someone suggests that they can turn their back on the worlds, turn against globalisation, and things will be better, it's no surprise that that message gets traction.

And the Left, the Labour party in the UK and the Democrats in the US, who should be on the side of those people turned a deaf ear. They wrote them off as racists, or stupid, or a "basket of deplorables", or whatever else, and used this as justification not to listen.

Well, here's the thing: some of those people may well be racist, or stupid, or whatever else, but that doesn't mean they don't also have legitimate concerns. (And, whoever you are and whatever faults you might have, "I can't feed my family" is pretty fucking legitimate, as concerns go.)

And that's how we get Brexit in the UK, and President Donald Trump in the US. Those campaigns managed to persuade people they were listening, they sold them the message that they would champion their causes, and they reaped the benefits.

The tragedy of all this, though, aside from the fact that those results really have enboldened the racists, misogynists, and homophobes, is that it's all for nothing. Neither Brexit nor President Trump can do anything meaningful in the face of globalisation. It will still be cheaper to employ people in manufacturing in India and China (and South America and Africa) than it will in the UK or US - and would be even if the workers over here were paid a wage of zero. And, worse, the next round of automation is coming ever closer, which means another swathe of jobs is going to disappear. So people were persuaded to vote for Brexit/Trump in the hope that jobs would come back to improve their lives; what they'll get instead will be no jobs but an increase in prices, and worse lives. Again.

(Which is really scary, actually. If you're angry at the world, and you place your last hope in Brexit/President Trump, what do you do when that one last hope is dashed?)

Alas, while I'm reasonably sure of the fundamental underlying problem (that those jobs are going away, forever), I'm much less able to see a solution. Because I am convinced that that shift is indeed inevitable, which means we need to adapt to it, not fight against it. (See also Climate Change - sorry, it's too late, we've destroyed the world. So we'd better figure out how to live amongst the ashes.)

The bottom line, I think, is that we need a societal shift: the assumption that people will work for a living needs to go, we need to stop measuring people (and our own self-worth) by the jobs they do, and we need some sort of a universal income so that people can actually afford to live. None of which will happen.

As I said, it's a tragedy. (Only even that's not right. Marx noted that everything in history happens twice, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. Thatcher/Reagan was the first time; May/Trump is the second. So, really, this isn't the tragedy; it's the farce.)

#62: "Shy Knives", by Sam Sykes

Monday, November 07, 2016

Going Retro

Last week, LC and I watched "West Skerra Light", a horror/comedy produced by the BBC for Halloween. The show starts with one of the characters narrating a story to a bunch of kids at some sort of camp fire, during which he accuses them of being "too busy with your Game Boys." To which the child in question asks, "what's a Game Boy?" Which is, of course, both amusing and disturbing for its truth.

The other major task LC and I are involved in, of course, is the process of moving. In the course of which we've taken the opportunity to dig through a lot of our accumulated stuff and are gradually shedding a lot of dross - over the years we (mostly I) have accumulated a whole load of rubbish that should have been disposed of but which has gradually accumulated. So much of the weekend was spent shredding old documents - indeed, it remains an ongoing task, as I had to stop when the recycle bin was full.

In addition to shredding papers, though, we also dug out a couple of boxes of stuff that had been resting under the spare bed. In truth, those boxes had mostly lain untouched since I moved in, having mostly lain untouched in all previous homes. So, as I'm sure you can imagine, it didn't really have much of any value!

Funnily enough, though, it did contain not one but two Game Boy Advance units - both the original design and also the SD redesign - both still in working order, and with a bunch of game cartridges. Cue hours of retro-gaming fun... to be had at some later, more suitable, time.

(That said, I'm not entirely convinced that the GBA counts as "retro-gaming" - it only came out in 2001, which is a mere 15 years ago. That's only ten generations of computing power, meaning that current units are a paltry 1,024 times as powerful... yeah, okay, they're retro...)

The other surprising thing that I found at the weekend was a letter written by my great-grandmother to my parents some two weeks after I was born. Needless to say, that will be being kept.

#61: "Le Petit Prince", by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (a book from The List)

Friday, November 04, 2016


Last night I finished "Morgawr", the third and final volume in the "Voyage of the Jerle Shannara" trilogy, and my sixtieth book of the year. This therefore completes my second (of four) goals for the year - one more will be coming next month, all being well; alas, the fourth looks certain to fail.

Sadly, "Morgawr" is not a particularly good book, and indeed will probably be recorded as the weakest book I've read all year. This creates something of a dilemma for me - with such an agressive reading schedule, I've found it useful to follow a number of series to follow, and I'm running a little short. I had therefore considered getting caught up on the Shannara series, which I last read many years ago, and had therefore treated the "Voyage of the Jerle Shannara" as something of a test for the series. And it was going well enough - the first book was fine and the second better. But I really didn't care for the third...

So I'm now rethinking my strategy - I could stick with my plan of declaring the Shannara novels a sublist for next year, I could abandon them entirely (especially since the next trilogy is long out of print and potentially hard to find), or I could try the next trilogy and then decide.

#60: "Morgawr", by Terry Brooks

Thursday, November 03, 2016

A Matter of Principle

As a matter of principle, today's ruling that Parliament must vote on the invocation of Article 50 is dead right - one of the key principles argued in the referendum was that it should be the Westminster parliament that holds power in the UK, and this ruling reflects that.

However, as a matter of principle the MPs within the House of Commons really need to vote for the invocation of Article 50, almost regardless of their personal views on the same. (MPs from Scotland and Northern Ireland have something of a get-out clause here, in that they'll be representing the wishes of their countrymen, but that should be largely symbolic - they should be handily outvoted by the MPs from England and Wales.)

Because the job of MPs is to represent their constituents in Westminster. And while I don't like the result of the EU referendum, the will of the people of the UK was clear - it is therefore for our MPs to get on and implement it.

(What this does mean, however, is that Parliament can, and should, demand greater oversight of the process of Brexit - and, specifically, Parliament could insist on a 'soft' Brexit or could insist that the government not give sweetheart deals to some companies at the expense of the rest of us, or on whatever other conditions they want. Because while the result of the referendum was clear that the UK should Leave the EU, we did not vote on how this should be done. If the powers-that-be want a specific mandate on that one, they're free to seek it; otherwise, the mandate lies with our MPs.)

#59: "Tome of Beasts", by Kobold Press

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Christmas Strikes Back!

I'm not really keen on people calling for government bans on things that they happen not to like. By and large, I take the view that the biggest threat to our freedom comes from the governments that we elect, and where possible we should err towards being as permissive as possible - at least in terms of the laws we impose.

However, it has long since been clear that the shops either can't, or more likely won't, police themselves when it comes to maintaining the seasons and festivities. Indeed, in one case a store in London started advertising Christmas at mid-summer this year, from which it's a short step to everyone just advertising Christmas all year round, and then anything that's different about that season is lost.

So I think the government needs to step in: shops should not be allowed to advertise Christmas until after Halloween, to advertise Valentine's Day until after Christmas, Easter until after V-Day, "Barbecue Season" until after Easter, or Halloween until the last weekend in September.

I believe that way they always have something they can advertise as being 'seasonal' but at the same time we have a nice, distinct separation between events. And, crucially, we don't have Christmas colonizing all of the seasons. (Though, in fairness, I would definitely go to see a sequel to "The Nightmare Before Christmas" in which marauding elves seek their revenge for Jack's ill-fated invasion attempt in '93.)