The Sandbaggers

The Sandbaggers DVDFor someone who spends an embarrassingly large proportion of his time watching detective and spy TV programmes, it was quite galling to discover I’d been oblivious to a British show that aired in 1978 and was described by the New York Times as “The best spy show in TV history.” Worse still, I was made aware of it by an American work colleague. The final indignity was to discover it was every bit as good as the hype suggested.

There’s no James Bond nonsense here, just a tiny Whitehall department, encumbered by budgets and politics, that nonetheless has to undertake missions ranging from foiling terrorist bomb plots to organizing foreign coups. There are no absolute rights and wrongs, and no conventional heroes. Instead there some extraordinarily plausible plots, brilliant acting, and superb characterization that combine into a thoroughly gripping, albeit traumatic at times, TV series. There are many reviews out there that express this better than I ever could, but If you’re a fan of complex, well thought out, realistic spy dramas in the mold of Le Carre then please get hold of this as soon as you can

As a final enticement, here are two Interesting facts about the mysterious author of this masterpiece, Ian MacKintosh:

  • One episode of the second series was dropped because it contravenes the Official Secrets Act.
  • Before the scripts for Series 3 were completed, Ian MacKintosh disappeared under mysterious circumstances in a private plane together with a friend and his wife. This is why the series was cancelled.
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Laurel and Hardy Airways starring Deputy Doofus

The first time I encountered Deputy Doofus was a week last Saturday at John Wayne airport in Orange County, California, after flying in via Atlanta. It was around 10pm local-time, despite the insistence of the little clock in my brain that claimed it was actually 1am. The previous 12 hours (time-zone be damned) had involved various forms of travel, so it’s fair to say I wasn’t in the best of spirits as I waited by the carousel for my bag to appear – yes I checked a bag – no I won’t be doing that again on a domestic flight.
My plane-mates and I stood in languid silence as we watched the bags proceed on their perpetual journey around the carousel whose name, if it had one, was “Atlanta”, according to the monitors above. Occasionally a lucky passenger would recognise a suitcase and react for a brief moment as if they’d won a life-altering sum of money until they managed to regain their composure and wrestle their bag away from the scene and re-commence their journey. As we waited, Deputy Doofus lumbered into the scene to offer his valuable insight into the situation. He was about 50, adorned in a loose representation of the airline’s uniform and clearly appeared very happy with his role in the business of facilitating air travel. He approached some passengers standing nearby and asked them in a loud friendly voice if they were from the Atlanta flight. They affirmed his suspicion and he replied:
“Well, the baggage has all been unloaded and it’s coming on to the Carousel right now!”
They expressed mild gratitude for the information and continued to hunt for their luggage on the now busy conveyor. He walked two steps away and addressed me, with exactly the same question:
“Are you from the Atlanta flight?”
I nodded.
“Well, the baggage has all been unloaded and it’s coming on to the Carousel right now!” he enthusiastically repeated.
“Ah, OK.” I said, desperately trying to sound like this was even vaguely helpful, and he went on another two steps, then repeated the procedure for the benefit of the next group of people. It struck me as a very peculiar service for the airline to be offering, after all we obviously had some inkling as to why we were standing here. Perhaps he thought we were confused by the sight all of those big lumpy things going round and round?
Once he was satisfied that everyone in the general area knew exactly what was going on with the bags and our relationship to them, he changed gear; the work was over, it was fun time! He had been accompanied all this time by a short female colleague who had wisely decided to let him do the talking.
“And it’s Jane’s birthday today isn’t it Jane!” he announced, pointing at his colleague. “It’s her birthday!” he repeated to the next group of people standing nearby, as if they couldn’t hear his shouting it the first time around. “I’m embarrassing her!” he continued, and Jane did indeed look embarrassed while she followed him around the assembled crowd. However her look also conveyed a resigned weariness that suggested she had spent time with her colleague in public before.

A week elapsed. Hotel, work, food, drink, nice weather, etc.

The journey home was due to commence with a flight at 6:45am, and so in preparation I arranged with the hotel desk to order a cab for 5:15am.
At around 10pm, as I was preparing to go to bed in advance of the early start, an email popped up on my laptop. It was from the airline and it explained that my flight would be delayed until 8am. So, I put on enough clothing to allow me to schlep down to the hotel reception without causing a scene and travelled in the elevator to the desk. The guy was extremely friendly and understanding and I returned to my room with a comfortable feeling, partly derived from the knowledge I had an extra hour of sleep ahead. Obviously, I’d left my access card in the room and so had to return downstairs to ask the guy, who was slightly less friendly now, to give me another one. But eventually I got to bed and slept.
The lovely, lovely sleep was broken by the harsh sound of my mobile ringtone at around arse-o-clock, or 3:45am whichever is more accurate. On answering the call a robot announced that my flight had been rescheduled. It wasn’t clear whether this was the reschedule I knew about, or an entirely new reschedule so I reluctantly climbed out of bed and investigated the situation, after negotiating the hotel’s crappy wifi captive-portal for the umpteenth time. The airline’s website indicated that my flight was leaving at 6:45 as originally planned, with no indication as to whether the 8am rumour was ever true or mattered any more. Wide awake (that ringtone is really jarring) I acknowledged that the only solution was to aim at the earlier of the two deadlines and stay on the safe side. So, I showered, put on some clothes and returned to the lobby where a new assistant was in attendance. This guy was older, grumpy looking, and wearing an ill-fitting suit jacket over a hawaiian shirt. I explained my predicament and he sighed. “I’m not even supposed to be working now,” he explained without my asking. “I’m haven’t had a day off in four weeks.” Restraining the temptation to quote Monty Python and ask him if he knew his statement was irrelevant, I asked if he could reschedule the cab. Several heavy sighs and a couple of unnecessarily long phone calls later I went back to my room to spend the last fifteen minutes of my time in the hotel rapidly stuffing a weeks worth of dirty clothes into my rucksack. Up until that point I’d be overjoyed with the hotel and genuinely wanted to give them a 10/10 on the customer survey – so much so that while I was waiting in the lobby for my cab I asked the guy if they had my correct email address on file. He faffed about on the computer for a minute or two before saying “I don’t know what you want me to do – send you an email or something? There is no email, it was a web booking.” I was tired and suddenly lacking in enthusiasm for the rest of the conversation and so sat down and waited for the cab.
We got to the airport very quickly – for some reason the roads were relatively clear, who knows why? After taking part in the surreal interactive security theatre the TSA had put on, I put my clothes back on, collected my dignity and went to look for my flight. Consulting the large screen containing details of all upcoming departures I located my flight and was irritated to discover the 6:45 departure time had been amended to…8. It was 5:30 and I had been up, and in a grumpy mood, for 2 and a half hours already but the tiredness was successfully beating down the anger and so I staggered to the departure gate where the departure time was still listed as 6:45, so asked the lady at the desk what was going on. “Look, let me announce this over the PA, because everyone is asking” she said. She announced that there were in fact two flights, one at 6:45 and one at 8. All of the assembled people looked as confused as I felt. I tried to explain about the email and the contradictory phone-call but she looked incredulous and continued to repeat the same story. But whatever was to happen, there would be a way out at either 6:45 or 8 and so I sat down in a sleepy-haze and waited. Many of the other passengers looked non-plussed, and overheard conversations frequently included snippets such as “did you get woken up at 3:45 too?” and “is it 6:45 or 8 that this plane is leaving?” The desk clerk only once offered a suggestion and it was that perhaps whoever had been in charge had managed to obtain another plane and switched it…or something. No-one looked convinced but waited patiently, or more accurately sleepily, for something more concrete or someone who knew what was going on. We had nothing to fear, because the airline had called in the A-Team to clear up the mess: Deputy Doofus!
Wasting no time, he headed straight to the PA microphone and turned on the magic.
“As you may have heard we had to swap out the plane for your flight this morning and although it’s the same type of plane, a 757, it’s a slightly different model and so the seat layout is different. If you confirmed your flight last night and have an electronic boarding pass, your seat may have changed and so you should approach us and we’ll take care of it for you.”
Immediately after he’d finished speaking, a planes-worth of unhappy passengers left their seats and mobbed Doofus’ poor colleague who, up until that point, had been doing a reasonably good job of keeping tempers at bay. She began frantically tapping away on her terminal and before the full wrath of the crowd was upon her she started yelling to anyone who would listen, “it’s alright – everybody’s seat is safe. No-one is affected!” Doofus re-engaged the microphone, repeated his colleague’s announcement and the bitter mob slowly dispersed back to their holding pattern in the seating area.
Eventually the boarding commenced and within a period of around twenty minutes, everyone was on board. A further twenty minutes elapsed during which nothing happened – the most notable instance of nothing being the movement of the plane. We were still attached to the gate and certainly not about to take off any time soon. There was a growing air of disquiet on board which was interrupted by the sound of Deputy Doofus over the plane’s PA system.
“Well, as you probably know there was a whole lot of bad weather in Atlanta that caused a whole lot of disruption to flights going in and coming out, and that’s why we originally moved this flight to 8am, and then found another plane that could take off at the original time. Well, it seems that this information didn’t make it to the pilots, and that’s why we can’t take off. Hopefully, if they believe the flight is due to take off at eight, they’ll actually be here any moment now and then we can take off.”
So the airline had done everything to salvage the flight except arrange for someone to fly the plane. Either Deputy Doofus had been given way too much responsibility or the airline is actually run by Laurel and Hardy, I thought as I desperately tried to sleep and make it all go away. Another twenty minutes of bugger all dragged by. Cue Doofy.
“Well we’re still trying to find the pilots, and right now there’s someone at the gate waiting for them. As soon as we find them we’ll be able to take off. Now, for those of you with a connecting flight at Atlanta, we have representatives there who know the situation and will be waiting for you. If you’ve missed your connection you’ll have been rebooked on another flight. You may know that Atlanta is the biggest airport in the world, that’s the world! They have 750 flights out of there a day! So you will get another flight, and there will be people there to help you.” Then, with a flourish that could only be matched by Alan Partridge he added, “And in case you were wondering what the second largest airport in the world is…it’s Frankfurt.”

Obviously when we reached Atlanta the airline reps didn’t have a bloody clue what was going on, and the only advice I was given was “you betta run!” I did.

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The Great Paedophile Conspiracy

Somehow I missed this whole thing the first few times around and it’s nice to see it come back and get taken seriously because if it’s true then it’ll make Operation Yewtree look like a case of nicking a Twix bar from a newsagent. In 1981 Dickens used parliamentary privilege to name a senior MI6 operative, and knight of the realm, as head of a paedophile ring with the user-friendly branding of “Paedophile Information Exchange”. This is extraordinary for so many reasons. Also bear in mind that back in those days HMG denied the very existence of MI6 and so Dickens’ action was pretty audacious. Hardly surprising he was later the victim of two “burglaries” and multiple death threats. Damn it, I’ve started to respect a Tory.

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The Internet Ages

Here are two nice examples of how the ubiquity of the Internet has impacted two distinct age groups: those who have had the Internet all of their lives, and those to whom it’s still a “new thing”.

One of our neighbours recently celebrated her retirement by buying her first computer, a Macbook Air, and inviting the Internet into her home. Once I’d helped her set everything up she was emailing, web-browsing and printing like a natural.
A couple of weeks ago one of her dogs was attacked by another dog and, knowing M’s ability to fix a variety of wildlife, she knocked on our door in a panic. M explained that she really couldn’t help with a domestic pet, especially one that probably needed surgery. Nonetheless she went round to see if there was anything she could do to help. The scene was intense: the wounded dog was being held by our Neighbour’s sister who was accordingly splattered with a liberal quantity of blood, while our neighbour was hunched over the phone book frantically trying to find the address and phone number of her vet. M was a little surprised by this for a several reasons, not least of which was that people still had phonebooks. “Wait!” she couldn’t help exclaiming, “where’s your laptop?” A quick Google later she’d located the name and address of the vet to the amazement and relief of everyone. It hadn’t even occurred to our neighbour or her sister that the task of looking up a phone number could have been achieved by any other means than the traditional dead-tree method. But what of the generation that have never known a world without The Internet?

Being middle-aged and a code-monger means that my day job frequently involves being surrounded by what I now call “children” (that’s pretty much the only benefit to not being young any more.) We work in the city, but not too near the food action, so we often get together and order food for delivery at lunchtime. Most of the local vendors have switched to using GrubHub for orchestrating orders and in fairness Grubhub do a pretty good job of it on the whole – their cutesy, patronising communications notwithstanding.

One particular lunchtime a group of “children” were ordering Sushi via grubhub when the unthinkable happened: Grubhub went down mid order! Worse still, the vendor didn’t have any other ordering mechanism on their website. Imagine the panic! The Sushi vendor wasn’t totally inaccessible – a reasonably short drive, or a considerable walk away – but on this particular day the outside world was hostile; the ground was covered in snow and ice, the temperature was around -10C, and it was raining. The would-be lunchers were despairing when a slightly older colleague spoke up and suggested they phone the order in! A few seconds of silence followed while everyone considered this bizarre suggestion. “Of course,” said one of the sushi-seekers, “I would never have thought of that!” And the lunch came, and it was good, and there was much rejoicing.

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Fran on Failure

Fran videoThis is the best advice for anyone hoping to learn about…well…anything: get used to failure, because failure is part of the process.
At a previous job, one of my friends used to make a point of asking interviewees for new positions what was the worst disaster they’d ever caused, and what they did about it. It’s a brilliant question because it tends to paint a picture of the candidate in a real life high-pressure situation. Anyone working in a technical field who hasn’t caused some sort of disaster or other has either not been given the controls or is unaware of the impact of their actions. How would they actually cope with fixing a disaster – regardless of whether it was their fault or not?
Obviously there is the finite possibility that they are indeed perfect and infallible, but this is so unlikely that it’s not worth considering – and anyway, would you really want to work with someone like that?

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A complex story with a simple ending

Being terrible at mathematics is rarely a problem for software developers these days; algorithms for most problems are widely available and software libraries implementing those algorithms are equally accessible now that people understand the joy of free software.
A-level Mathematics was extraordinarily difficult for me and even though many of the concepts were beautifully simple to grasp, the nuts and bolts of making them work eluded me. Seeing any formula involving ‘e’, ‘i’, an integral, or a capital Sigma would send my brain into meltdown and force me to look away.
Thankfully we don’t need to understand this stuff in “the real world”, I comforted myself by saying twenty years ago. Twenty years later I was dealing with complex numbers in my day job and regretted not learning about them properly when I was younger; when my brain was less fried. Obviously I understood the basics: ‘i’ is the square-root of -1 and a complex number is simply a combination of i with a real number e.g. “3i+4″. I also understood how to do the operations on them so that performing something like an FFT was pretty straightforward. But why it worked, and what it was all about had eluded me completely. Most people don’t care about that – as long as they can perform the necessary operations they’re happy, and rightfully so. But I’m stubborn and not very good at this stuff so it has always concerned me that I don’t understand why it works, and consequently I never understood why the complex-plane was ever relevant to real-life.
Very recently I stumbled upon this amazing website:
http://betterexplained.com/articles/a-visual-intuitive-guide-to-imaginary-numbers/
This guy is brilliant! It was as if he understood my mental block and picked it apart leaving me with the glorious feeling of actually understanding complex numbers and how they relate to real-life. Quite a wonderful experience to have on the bus home from work.

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Bragging

Today, being a Sunday, my family and I managed to set up a video chat (using Facetime, although Skype used to work before that). My sister’s family were also in attendance and so it was a lovely opportunity to catch up with everyone, especially my nieces.
When I got a chance to speak to my parents my dad told me about a problem he’d experienced making CD’s from MP3’s he’d downloaded: the CD only played on certain CD players but not all of them. In particular it didn’t play on the CD player of the man for whom my dad bought the album. He bought and transferred the MP3’s to a CD for his friend who only had a CD player.
Now, to me this sounds like “par for the course” because CD-R’s are, and always have been, a shit technology. That’s just what happens. But my dad was concerned that he’d done something wrong.
What follows is another way to interpret my dad’s experience. He and my mum read this and so they may wish to correct me on any of the details.
My father is 82. As a result of my arrogant nature and desire to be able to maintain his computer from 3000 miles away I’ve forced him to use Ubuntu. It’s a massively underpowered machine for 2013 but he maintains it well. Using Ubuntu my dad managed to purchase a gift for his friend – a bunch of MP3s from amazon.com. He also managed to transcode them to WAV files and then burn them to CD. The fact that they didn’t work on a bunch of CD players made him feel that he’d done something wrong. This is an example of how broken the world is.
CD-RW’s, CD-R’s and all of the various family members are examples of crap technology. They are at best an anachronism. But when you have to deal with non-geeks, they still have their place.
I suppose the point I’m trying to make here is purely that I’m massively proud of my parents. My dad is transcoding MP3’s for his friends after buying them on Amazon while my mum is happily using the iPad to explore the world.

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Gibiru “The Only Fully Anonymous Uncensored Search Engine”

There are a number of alternative search engines out there and some, such as Duck Duck Go, are completely independent and actively work to protect your privacy. Then there’s Gibiru. They make a lot of grand sounding claims, and their “about” page should really be written in green ink, but I liked the idea and started using it.
The first thing that concerned me is that they seem to be using Google’s API – so you’re actually querying Google. So how is that uncensored exactly? Surely Google are quite capable of censoring their API as well as the front end the users see. I wonder how well Gibiru works in China?
What Gibiru does is to proxy your search request and zap all of the potentially identifying data so that Google doesn’t get your IP address etc. So far so useful.
But there is a major problem: the links they return are actually links to Google; every result in a Google search contains a link that looks like a link to the target site, but is actually a redirect via Google itself so that they can pick up information on where you went after searching.
Try it: go to giburu.com; search for something; right-click any of the result links; copy the link address and paste it somewhere you can look at it. It’s the same link you would get if you searched on Google, and it is also a link *to* Google; If you click the link, Google will have all the info it needs to entirely reconstruct your search – including your IP address.
Am I missing something here, or is Giburu really this flawed?

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The Hyperboria Darknet

Hyperboria LogoRecent events and revelations have encouraged more people to start thinking about privacy, security and liberty in the digital realm. About bloody time! The armies of young geeks who have been empowered by the Internet, some for the majority of their lives, have started seriously considering the unthinkable: the Internet being beaten into a unusable, restrictive, corporate mess – like television.
So now even the mainstream media has started to talk about Darknets: areas of the Internet inaccessible and invisible to ordinary users. Tor is perhaps the best known and certainly the most widely adopted, but there are countless others, some of which have been around for a surprisingly long time, and others that are still experimental.
The Holy Grail of free (as in “speech”) networking is decentralization – no central infrastructure that can be knocked out.
“Mesh Networking” is such a notion: a network of equal nodes that can sort out an efficient way to send data from one node to any another without needing a central authority to manage the network. There have been many attempts to implement this kind of unbreakable network, some of which fared better than others.
Hyperboria is a mesh network that started out a couple of years ago, based around some experimental software called cjdns. What interested me most about the project was its grand-sounding aim of “replacing” the Internet rather than simply augmenting it, so I decided to give it a go.
Getting it up and running is a matter of downloading and building cjdns, then asking someone already on the network to let you in. By “asking” I’m not referring to some nice quick, automated, simple protocol, I mean you actually have to find a human being that is already on the network and ask if you can “peer” with them (ooh, err etc). The guidelines say you should do this using IRC – which was almost enough to put me off. Fortunately the people there seem to be unusually friendly and helpful – it’s early days after all. In fairness there’s now also a convenient map of nodes that permits avoiding IRC altogether; you find a node near you and send an email (hopefully encrypted).
Once you have been granted access to a peer, you fire up cjdns and magical things happen.
Without any other messing about you are granted access to Hyperboria; suddenly the darknet links start working!
The pioneers have done a good job of providing a set of genuinely useful services exclusive to Hyperboria including a microblogging service, several network analysis tools, chat (IRC/Jabber) servers and a variety of websites. All the time you’re browsing Hyperboria your traffic is encrypted: a core requirement of the networking protocol.

Behind the scenes every node allocates themselves an IPv6 address in the block fc00::/8 – unorthodox as far as I can tell, but who cares at this stage. Somehow the address is used as an encryption key for securing traffic to other IPv6 nodes on the network. I’ve not looked into this at all at this point so have no way to know how cryptographically secure it actually is. Unlike normal IP routing, each node has to build up a picture of the network dynamically based on addresses it has seen and knows about and passes IP packets on to other nodes as best as it can.

This is the first time I’ve properly played around with mesh networking and I have to say it’s pretty nifty. As previously mentioned I’ve yet to dig into the code to see how any of the magic works and therefore can’t predict anything about its future. Also it’s clearly not ready for use by mainstream users at this point – maybe that’s why I’m enjoying being part of it so much – but they have grand plans to make it more accessible in the future.

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Captivating Bullshit

British kids growing up in the 1970’s had a pitiful choice from three TV channels, only one of which showed commercials. As one of those kids, who watched a lot of TV, I could never understand why my dad would get so angry with the commercials – some of them were quite good! He used to say they were an invasion, or an intrusion. But surely it provides a convenient break to go for a pee or relax your brain? I thought.
As weird as it may sound, I was a lot older before realising that the BBC didn’t air commercials. Commercials were normal, but if they weren’t there I didn’t notice.
Things changed over the next 30 years.
Those of us that don’t watch broadcast TV and use Ad-block Plus on our browsers have been de-programmed from accepting commercials as part of our normal life experience.
Now for us, sitting in front of a TV relaying normal programming, is extremely hard to take. In fact it seems so weird that it’s difficult to comprehend how viewers can deal with it. Why would someone voluntarily opt to be subjected to a bunch of lies intended to sell you something you probably don’t need? You know you can turn that off now?
The people that do know how, turn it off. Other people do not. They’re not necessarily stupid people, they’re just used to it as a part of every-day life.
There is a big problem with this: what if everyone opts out of viewing advertisements? The entire web economy relies on advertisements – those of us that block them are actually damaging this economy! If everyone did it, the majority of commercial websites would die.
Fortunately most people don’t care – that will keep it ticking over for a while. But what of the future? What if everyone does opt-out? Well, they’ve thought of that!
If you end up in A&E (ER) your time will not be wasted because you can now sit and absorb hours of TV adverts while you wait for several hours. Buying petrol (gas) at the local station is no longer the hugely boring experience it once was because now you are forcefully subjected to commercial pressure by a TV screen at every pump while you wait to fill your tank! A boring old cab ride home now earns more money from you than the fare because every Philly Cab is equipped with a screen in the back that bombards you with commercials…fortunately the customer is allowed to turn off this particular telescreen.
These are all examples of invasive advertising – but there is a new form of advertising slowly making headway which makes the former seem quite enjoyable and cute: mandatory advertising.
Last year I flew to San Francisco with Virgin America. As is now traditional for airlines, the telescreens directly in front of us were hijacked to show a mandatory video about safety – you know, the thing that tells you how to put your seat-belt on, how to evacuate if the plane “lands on water” etc etc. The videos are important, and that’s why you can’t turn them off. They are played after the plane has started to taxi and so you must have your seatbelt on while you watch. It’s a pain in the arse for frequent travelers but we all understand why it’s necessary.
But this journey had a new twist: after the mandatory video were a couple of commercials – one of which was for a well known brand of Cola. We were still strapped in, and the commercial was still unstoppable.
To clarify, hundreds of people on a plane were forced to watch shitty commercials while they were strapped in. You can turn those telescreens off during the flight, but NOT while they’re showing you how to enjoy The Real Thing.
I was pretty shocked about this experience and it brought to mind the scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex has his eyes pegged open…
Back to the now; every working morning I have to get into a lift (elevator). This lift not only delivers passengers to their desired floor, it also contains a small screen for us all to watch as we travel. The telescreen shows us snippets of news, sport, and a bunch of trite crap that no normal person could benefit from. Obviously they also contain on-screen commercials that help us decide what to buy. Nice. The screens proudly display their sponsor: “Captivate Network”.
The name “Captivate” is really rather sinister. Rather that invoking the notion of “captivating” an audience, what they are talking about is a “captive audience”. They’re gonna be in this lift for a minute or two – and there’s nothing they can do about it. So sell them shit! In the wonky world of marketing it doesn’t matter that no-one will ever actually fork-out for something that’s being advertised. We now have a situation where advertising “real-estate” (they do actually call it that) is worth money on its own. If you can push an ad to a place where people will see it, you get money!
Even if no-one ever actually puts their hand in their pocket, the marketing people cash out. It’s just another form of currency now.

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