Monthly Archives: July 2013

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.

Bus to HELL!

We’ve had “excessive heat warnings” here for a week or two, but the temperature just keeps creeping up. Today it went over 100F and so I made sure I never left the air-conditioned world without just cause. “Just cause” in this case involves the journey from my house to the bus stop (4 minutes); the walk from the bus stop in center city to my office building (45 seconds); the walk from my office to the home-time bus stop (4 minutes); the walk from the final bus stop to my house (12 minutes). All of these times are tiny and therefore completely dealablewith. But today the bus journey home wasn’t the simple quotidian air-conditioned ride home, oh no. Today something was wrong. The bus was packed to capacity, and that includes around 30 people standing, packed together, including me. I was carrying a shoulderbag, a 5L wine-box, and enough sweat to drown several children. The people around me on the bus weren’t happy about me holding my arms up to grasp the parallel bars on either side of the bus but they were sitting down, the lucky bastards, so I was unconcerned about the gallons of sweat which were pouring off me. They wanted their seats more than they were disgusted about drops of sweat from a stranger.
The A/C on Septa buses is pretty awesome (in the literal use of that word) but on a day like today, with a lawbreaking number of passengers stuffed into the ridiculously small vehicle, it couldn’t keep up. After a a few miles it became apparent that even the youngest, fittest, healthiest passengers were suffering with sweat rivers. It was, without doubt, the hottest and most humid place I’ve ever been, and that includes the London Underground during a heat wave.
We got as far as Roxborough and finally the crowd had started to dissipate. A young lady, formally from the sweatbox at the front of the bus, decided to occupy a recently vacated seat at the back of the bus where we were all concentrating on not passing out. “Oh it’s even hotter here isn’t it” she observed. “Can we open that air vent thing?”.
A young boy opposite me (he was probably in his late 20’s but that’s my judgement these days) forced it open and in an instant the back of the bus was bathed in beautiful, sweat-evaporating cool air from the outside world. There was a mutual sigh of pleasure from all passengers at the back of the bus and for the first time in half an hour I stopped worrying about collapsing. A minute or two later and I was feeling human again. “I think, we’re going to make it!” I said after a minute of wallowing in the cool fresh air.
After alighting the bus into the cool fresh air, I felt free again; the outside temperature was around 95F – so whatever was going on inside the bus was clearly the work of something astonishingly evil.

Bar Crimes

Despite surface similarities, there are big differences between the British Pub and the American Bar. Brits, imagine this scenario:

You enter a drinking establishment and head to the bar, where you order a pint of something. The bar-person gives you your pint and informs you that the price is three groats. You give the bar-person three groats and retire to a table nearby where you consume the drink whilst reading a book. After you have consumed the drink you return to the bar and order an additional pint of the same. You return to your table after paying the three groats.

Brits may be surprised to know that in some of the bars I’ve visited in Philadelphia and its surroundings such a simple set of events could have made you the subject of hatred from the people that work there!
There are at least three faux-pas’ in the above scenario of which most Brits would be unaware. Nearly all of the faux pas’ stem from the fact that serving staff in the US rely, and I mean, rely on tips. So for starters, paying three groats for a three groat beer would be very rude. In Philly as I write this, the general rule is a buck for every drink ordered (caveats to follow). For full service, the tip should be 20% if the service was acceptable. Any less is an insult.
Secondly, if you order drinks at the bar, the bar-person gets the tip and not the person who serves your table. This can cause all kinds of problems. There have been times when our allocated server came up and berated us for ordering drinks at the bar even though we’d never seen her before.
Thirdly, we didn’t wait to be seated by the maitre’d in this example. A certain chain of North American “traditional English pubs” has the dreaded sign outside each of their premises that reads “Please wait here to be seated” (in fairness their food is authentically crap). If the maitre’d doesn’t seat you, you’ve broken the restaurant/bar. God forbid you buy a bunch of drinks at one table and then decide to move to another table when a new group of friends turn up. This can cause serious aggro over here.
Finally, we didn’t order food. We just chose to drink two pints of something. Even though the mark-up on drink is better than that on food, I have been subject to derisory comments, and witness to many more when the server considers our purchases to be too small. Every time I enter a bar for an after work pint and get asked if I want to see the menu, I get saddened.
Obviously there are places here not so strict and also not full of uptight wait-staff, but these places are rare. And in fairness if it’s all based on tips it’s understandable that they’d be uptight.
There are times when I yearn for the poor but direct service of British bar staff who only get annoyed if you can’t order a drink quickly enough. Once served, the transaction is over and you can drink wherever you like. With, optionally, a packet of pork scratchings.

A festival of odious bastardry

Watching a recent Question Time with Mark Steel. Some observations:

  • Mark Steel is still one of my favourite people on this planet.
  • Party politics is a pathetic sideshow for the real politics that are going on behind the scenes and have been since the beginning – Question Time is full of the same arguments today as it was in 1979.
  • The panelists have started looking way too young to me.
  • The saliva all over the TV screen and the soreness of my throat have reminded me of why I stopped watching Question Time. The neighbours must think I really hate my wife.

Another gobshite on Edward Snowden

Today I read a comment on a BBC article about Edward Snowden that berated the BBC for referring to Edward Snowden as an “Intelligence Leaker” rather than a “whistleblower”. It was the usual green-ink response by some terrified, impotent, suburban, delusional, working-class, Tory to anything the BBC says. You know, the sort of moronic Daily Mail level insults like “The BBC is Communist” and equally risible suggestions usually stemming from the poster’s innate fear of being Gay.

But this comment really irritated me. Clearly it was from a dickhead, but a dickhead that really believes that Edward Snowden was more than just a leak, and perhaps deserves some reverence. The sort of thing that similar mental-cases often accuse the BBC of doing!

As a gobshite myself it’s only fair that I get a chance to weigh in on these important issues too. Hear me out.
Around ten years ago, the US government told its citizens it was about to start spying on them when it announced the Patriot act. The UK Government did too, only they called it the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. There was a minimal protest at the time which some of us found a tad disheartening. Perhaps people thought it was a conspiracy theory (despite being open to public scrutiny by parliament/congress).

Ten years later, the things the governments said they were going to do, they have done. They see all.
Is Edward Snowden a Whistleblower? Well, he’s reporting what he considers to be illicit activity on behalf of the government and its agencies. So you may be inclined to think he is.
Bear in mind he was employed (i.e. paid) to work for the government and its agencies and will have contributed to the illicit activities during his time there. In fairness he may be too young to remember the Patriot Act or RIPA. Perhaps he suffered a sudden attack of conscience?
Either way I’d argue that publishing stuff about the government, that the government previously made no attempt to hide, is not whistleblowing.
“Whistleblower” is the only debatable title at this point. “Intelligence leaker” is firmly and undeniably accurate. He had clearance to TOP SECRET/CODEWORD information, and you can’t get that by accident. At that stage everyone knows what happens if you leak. Bradley Manning certainly did which is why he kept it quiet. Manning’s mistake was talking to a fellow hacker who turned out to be a massive douchebag grass. Unlike Snowden he wanted to stay out of the limelight.

Do I think the governments spying on their own people are doing right? NO! I didn’t think so ten years ago either! Also, I’m delighted that as a result of Snowden’s leaks people are getting angry! Good! I just don’t understand why the press and seemingly everyone else is surprised about it now.

The truth is that their surveillance is next to useless when it comes to people trying to remain private – that includes terrorists and freedom fighters. The worse news is that it will be a really useful tool against the general public who don’t care about privacy and don’t understand the technology or its consequences.
[Update – I have completely changed my opinion of Snowden since I wrote this.]