Tag Archives: Anger

Police Brutality

Ian Tomlinson, who died of a suspected heart attack yesterday. Photograph: Public domain

Shortly before he died of a heart attack, Ian Tomlinson was the subject of an unprovoked attack by the police, footage of which was obtained by the Guardian.

Will they get away with this too, just like they got away with the death of Jean Charles de Menezes?

I’m just angry and sickened, and mostly just want to go stand outside Scotland Yard with a placard, except that I’m fairly sure it’s within that exclusion zone we’re forbidden from protesting in without obtaining permission from the police.

Some democracy.

Greedy Bankers: A Critque on the Shortcomings of Neoliberal Capitalism and the Thatcher Legacy

Hopefully I at least win points for the most pretentious title.

The recent history of the world has been one of a struggle between two predominant economic theories – Capitalism, and Communism / Socialism.

Capitalism is a system in which the means of production and the capital (hence the name) required to finance such things are held by a small sub-set of the population, whilst the rest of the population are employed by this sub-set to work the means of production for profit – i.e. for the benefit of the holder of the means of production. The various elements of this sub-set compete amongst each other on the free market to produce the most profit.

Socialism is a system in which the means of production are owned by everyone, worked by everyone, and the profits of the labour are owned by everyone.

For a good proportion of the 20th century the world was engaged in a grand experiment to see which of these two opposing ideals would win out, and ostensibly Capitalism came out victorious. Purists would argue that the “Communism” on display was false, and was essentially Capitalism in disguise – the subset owning the means of production was now the Party, not the Rich, but in almost all essentials it was exactly the same as the Capitalist system, apart from the lack of the anarchic effects of the free market having a detrimental effect upon the Soviet economy.

Along with the fall of Communism and the Iron Curtain came the rise of Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the US, who eliminated every vestige of socialist thought and ideology wherever it could be found, and raised the Cult of the Free Market in their place. In this country, Thatcher presided over the castration of the unions and the dismantling of British state industries; replaced with private companies, they are now bound to deliver profit to their shareholders, instead of delivering the best for the British public.

This tendency has followed through all contemporary Anglo-American policy, on both sides of the Left/Right divide. The Cult of the Free Market is everywhere – an absolute belief that if the market will always find the right way, the most efficient way, the best way; if only government cuts out red tape, if only the government kept out of the market’s affairs. To some degree, this liberalising tendency (hence the name neoliberal) has worked over the past two decades. As bonuses of the bankers in the City of London have inflated, so has the prosperity of the country. The bankers’ benefit was our benefit, so it seemed.

It doesn’t take much of an analysis to see that the myth of the free market is essentially unsound; it’s based upon a simplistic application of the idea that local optimisation leads to global optimisation. In short, the hypothesis of the free market is: if everybody does what is best for themselves, then the outcome will be what is best for society. This can be shown trivially to not necessarily be true for all cases with a simple counter-example.

Consider panic buying of some finite resource, say, petrol. Assume for the sake of this argument that there is enough petrol for everyone’s needs for a week, after which the petrol is replenished. It is in the interest of society that each individual continue to buy exactly how much they need, then everyone will have enough for their purposes. However, in a condition where future replenishment becomes uncertain, or is perceived to be uncertain, it becomes in the interest of the individual to buy as much petrol as they can; to stockpile it. This means that some people will now potentially not have enough if they do not also panic buy. The best strategy in this situation is obviously for everyone to continue buying normally, then everyone will have enough for at least the week. Panic buying will ensure a lot of people have to little or none, whilst the others have too much. The natural “market”, if you will, behaviour creates a sub-optimal situation.

It’s a metastable equilibrium situation, i.e. there are two equilibrium states, and the system can easily decay from one to the other. The perfect scenario can exist under the system, but it requires only a small perturbation to throw it into a very undesirable state. This isn’t a particularly contrived example – a very similar one could be constructed that approximates the credit crunch, where the metastable state is economic prosperity, and the stable state is economic depression.

Essentially, the individual greed of the bankers creates something approximating a successful economy only under carefully controlled conditions, inside their little metastable box. Perturb the economic parameters too far, and all hell breaks loose as each of them tries to save their own skin, dropping the system into the stable state.

This is ignoring the other poisonous effects that such an accumulation of wealth has on society. It’s like throwing fertiliser into a lake; you get huge explosive growth that covers the surface of the water and starves the plants below of light and oxygen. Wealthy London bankers go out and buy second homes in the country, causing a property boom that prices people out of the towns and villages they’ve lived all their lives. These second homes that lie empty most of the year, choking the life out of these places. Wealth that can afford the best education for their children – practically a guarantee of a good university place, statistically speaking – and all the money and support needed to set their children up in anything. There is gradual ghettoisation as those who can afford to move out of “poor” areas into “rich” areas do. I could go on, and on, and on.

The sums that these kinds of people receive are phenomenal, but are they of any more value to society than teachers, nurses, police, doctors, or scientists? I would say they’re worth a great deal less, but because they handle the capital, the dominant force in our society, they are elevated above the more socially worthwhile professions.

The really sad part is that these greedy banks cannot be allowed to fall, as the misery inflicted on the general public would be too great. So these bankers must be rescued from their own folly by the governments who condoned, allowed, and supported their actions.

It’s a damned shame that a government that calls itself Labour is committed to helping these scum prosper, not wiping them from our nation entirely.

However much I may have condemned it above, there will always be a place for the free market, this is true. It does encourage many positive competitive instincts, but it must be viewed for what it is; one tool in the box for solving a complex problem, the principal-agent problem; that is, making it so that one body (the agent) working on behalf of another (the principal) does what the principal wants them to. Turns out it’s pretty hard to solve in a general manner. The free market is not the be all and end all.

As an example, take the principal to be a bank offering mortgages, and the agent to be a mortgage salesperson. The bank wants to sell a lot of mortgages, so they offer the salesperson a commission on each mortgage sold. The salesperson’s interest is not in the general health or wellbeing of the bank – he’s not here to debate about if selling a mortgage to Mr & Mrs Redneck is a good idea – he just wants his commission, so he’ll shift as many dodgy mortgages as he can. This is, excuse the pun, a pretty sub-prime solution to what the bank was looking for.

Idolising free-market capitalism is a mistake. There are roles to be played by socialist thinking instead – obviously the scope of what could be done is well beyond this blog post! Mostly because this is really long already, I’m not an economist, and I don’t have the real world to compare it to like I can with the vast free-market experiment. The alternatives include democratic control of institutions, for instance I would posit that transport in London has been improved since being under the control of a democratically elected Mayor. It’s so much better than the rest of the country, it’s really not even funny.

Anyways, I’m sure that many of you reading will think I’m wrong. That’s cool. I mean, you’re the ones who are wrong, but we can’t all be right, can we? Feel free to make your case heard in the comments, though.

My Trouble With All Music Software

Recently I’ve had a bit of a go at iTunes. I was mad, and I said some mean things, and I meant all of them. Recently, they released iTunes 8, which adds a Grid view that lays out your music in a grid of album art. Which is exactly what Windows Media Player has done for yonks, but that’s a good thing! Everybody should rip off their competitors best features without being ashamed, I say. As long as the side getting copied from doesn’t get cocky about it (I’m looking at you, Apple!).

They also added Genius, which generates a list of songs that go well with a song of your choice. This is a brilliant feature! Well done Apple, I like it. It means I don’t really have to screw around with the rest of the crappy interface to listen to just start listening to a particular kind of thing. Yay?!

Anyways, as I was looking through the grid of albums, I came across Soviet Kitsch by Regina Spektor. I didn’t realise I had this album, and so I looked closer: turned out it only contained one song: “Us”. That’s the trouble, right there. One song does NOT an album make! I do not have a copy of Regina Spektor’s album Soviet Kitsch, I have Regina Spektor’s song Us. Yet no media player I have ever seen makes this crucial distinction.

I think the problem is that engineers and computer scientists love their neat little hierarchies. Artists “contain” albums, albums “contain” tracks, and that’s just the way things are. Isn’t it neat? This leads to those cute little absurdities where if the album name is missing from the track’s tags, it ends up clustered in this neat little “Unknown Album” pseudo-album with all that artist’s other poor orphaned songs. Even worse, in iTunes albums with multiple different artists listed in the tracks’ tags get automatically fragmented into multiple copies of the same album, each with the same album art; there’s a special “Compilation album” setting you have to tick to make them stick back together. Not to mention the Soviet Kitsch fiasco.

This is just absolutely stark-raving bonkers, in my opinion. I can kind of understand the neat little hierarchy when it makes sense; I have bought all four Coldplay studio albums, so clicking through Coldplay –> Rush of Blood to the Head –> The Scientist makes sense (on many levels, it’s a really good song). But I’ve also got an album listed called Death Will Never Conquer. It’s a little ditty they released for free on their website, and it’s stylistically close to Viva La Vida. That’s creating a spurious “album”. It’s no such thing, nor will it ever be. It’s not even an album fragment.

Essentially, our music software is built with 20th century assumptions about music in a 21st century world. Maybe a friend wrote and performed some music, recorded it and sent it to me. It’s not an album, it’s just a few songs here and there, but apparently it’s from her album “Unknown Album”. There’s just that ever-present assumption that songs come bundled in albums. That’s not the world we live in.

The other major issue I have is the assumption that if it comes packaged in a music file, if it has tags, if it came on a CD – it’s music, and should go into the Artist->Album->Track hierarchy. This isn’t true, either. What about say, learn-to-speak language CDs? Podcasts? Sound effects? All my media players say I have an artist called Jasper Carrot, who has an album Jasper Carrot Live, with the track Dangerous Sports. It’s not music, it’s a actually quite funny little comedy routine about Australian car insurance forms. Can I tell any of my music manager programs it isn’t music, that it should be still there and still indexed and still playable, just not treated like music? You bet I can’t.

There’s very little that bothers me more than when things are built on faulty assumptions, and seemingly every piece of music software out there is built on these huge great ones.

I don’t know what the solution is, exactly. But I have the feeling it revolves somewhere roundabouts working out what the real fundamentals here are – like what exactly the primary identity of a track is. Common wisdom (ha!) seems to be that the primary identity is the Artist/Album/Track name triad, but I would say it was the actual sound of the music. I mean, Under the Bridge is the same recording on Greatest Hits as it is on Blood Sugar Sex Magic, for instance. Conventional reckoning of the identity would have those two being separate, which is obviously wrong! I’d say a tougher question would be if it shares an identity with Under the Bridge from Live in Hyde Park, or that hideous All Saints cover.

For the latter, I would definitely say no. I would hope you, dear reader, would too, otherwise I’m not sure we can get along.

I guess my point is that this is tough messy problem currently being solved in a simplistic and ham-handed manner, and that everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves and try and work together to do better. Maybe just baby steps at first – like if you have less than say, 50% of an album, just don’t show it up in a list of albums. If someone searches for that album specifically, show it. Easy. Practically trivial to implement too. Sadly though, I doubt anyone from Apple or Microsoft will ever read this.

Anyways, if you have other suggestions, or know of media players which work in the way I’ve described, leave a comment!

iTunes

So I bought an iPhone, and mostly I’m enjoying the heck out of the thing. It’s a wonderfully designed device, and Apple’s hardware guys need some kinda pay rise and general public adulation. The software guys… well, they’ve done some stuff that’s pretty sweet – finally allowing native apps is a godsend, some of the stuff that’s being done is brilliant; my current favourite is an app that listens to a song being played using the iPhone’s microphone, and then tells you what song it is. Fantastic! Some stuff on there is pretty dire though, like apps that turn your screen white to act as a torch costing £0.60. Good value for money, guys.

There are some things which are considerably more retarded, like the total lack of copy & paste, or that when you’re setting up an email account, the setup wizard (for lack of better terminology) doesn’t have options for things like port numbers or SSL settings, so when the phone attempts to guess these details from what you’ve put in, it can spend a hell of a long time wildly guessing before it decides it can’t do it, allows you to save the settings, and then allow you to fiddle with the advanced settings in another menu. Another odd email-related niggle is that the error message for a mis-configured outgoing email server (SMTP) is to tell you that the email address you’re trying to send an email to is invalid. Thanks for making me have to do some psychic debugging, guys.

Never mind. What I really wanted to talk about was iTunes. I’ve finally had to install it after years of being a Windows Media Playing scumbag, and… really, what’s the fuss been about? It’s a total piece of crap! I mean, seriously, this is version 7? Version 1 must have been a car crash!

First thing that’s getting on my nerves is how the App Store has been jammed into iTunes in what looks to be about the shoddiest hatchet-job I’ve ever seen. What I especially like is if you right-click on an App and select "Get Info" the Info tab includes (albeit greyed-out) fields for such useful infomation as "Album Artist" and "Composer", the Options tab has settings for "Volume Adjustment" and the "Equalizer Preset". I wish I was making this up.

Second: Apple. I have a music folder already. You evidently know this, as you have created an "iTunes" folder inside it. And an "iTunes Music" folder inside that. You seem to have entirely missed the point of the Music folder. Here’s a tip: it’s to keep music in, not iTunes’s settings.

Third: The store. It’s dog slow, and nearly impossible to find what you’re looking for. Browsing for apps is horrific. It’s better for music, it seems, but it’s still horribly slow, and the layout just feels terribly cluttered and hard to use. It also lets me do stupid things like switch to the US store, find something I want, then try to purchase it, only to be told my account’s only good for the UK store. Great, but I was logged in all along, couldn’t you have told me before? Why even let me see the US store? Would there be any horrible DRM-related consequences to trying to create a US account? I really, really have no idea. Painful, miserable experience.

Fourth: How the hell do I drill into my library by artist, or by album?! All I have is the ability to look at a huge list of songs. Oh right, you have to click the little eye symbol by the Eject button in the lower corner. Of course! That’s incredibly obvious. How did I not think of that.

Fifth: When it imported my library, it didn’t actually ask which folders I wanted to import from – it just grabbed everything, including non-music auditory detritus lurking in my personal folders, and now I’m going to have to clean it all out of the library if I want my signal/noise ratio to not utterly suck.

Honestly, I can count on two fingers the iTunes features I actually like, which is shuffle by album, and randomly play songs by the same artist/album together in shuffle.

Are there any redeeming features? I’d really love to know.

*PAIN*

Oh god, I just hooked up my 360 to Live again, and because I’d last played using my profile on my sister’s 360, I had to recover the profile. No problem.

Except there is one. It’s swallowed my entire gaming history since moving out here, which means my entire set of Halo 3 achievements. I’m glad I didn’t get any I really had to work for, but it probably means I’m going to have to play the entire fucking thing all over again!

AAAAAARGH!

Fuck it, I’m gonna play TF2.