Exeunt Corbyn

Waaay back in 2000-whenever-it-was, when the world made a smidge more sense, I joined the Labour party to vote in the leadership election. You could call me an entryist, but I'd pretty much always voted Labour and been on the cusp of joining for a while. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn as leader and Tom Watson as deputy. Watson, if you're not aware, was a veteran of Gordon Brown's fairly centrist government, but I knew him for his work opposing the Digital Economy Act and the Murdoch phone hacking, and he seemed like a good egg.

Corbyn and Watson were principled politicians from opposite ends of the party, and ultimately that was why I chose them. After seeing Ed Miliband fail to beat the Conservatives on their own turf I felt Labour needed an injection of actual socialism, to remember what a democratic socialist party was supposed to be fighting for. But I also felt a wholesale rejection the Blair/Brown ideology would be a mistake.

Labour needed to grow, to accept it was a coalition of many views that shared a common goal. I hoped that Corbyn, who wasn't expecting to have this job so late in his career, would act more as a spiritual leader, working with Watson to empower people from across the leftist spectrum, putting aside their differences and working together to create a force that could properly dominate British politics.


Here we are…

Jeremy Corbyn is probably not an antisemite, but he seems utterly incapable of dealing with the fact that some people he admires hold antisemitic views. It is a genuine tragedy that there is no clear way to criticise the right-wing Israeli government's appalling actions in Palestine without criticising the existence of a Jewish state, but that doesn't excuse people from being racist assholes. The left is not immune from racist assholery – if anything its susceptibility is more pernicious because it thinks it's immune.

If you're leading a party that identifies first and foremost as democratic socialist, then you're going to have a lot of Jewish people around, because leftist Jews have always been a key part of the movement. And you're also going to have a lot of pro-Palestine people around. So it's your job to bring them together, to find that common ground.

On this, and countless other issues, Jeremy Corbyn was a terrible leader. He may have been a lovely man, a righteous man, a moral man, but he was a shite leader.

Corbyn has been suspended from the Labour party for being a whiney bitch about the report into antisemitism under his watch.

Tom Watson stood down at the last election and has left politics because he couldn't be arsed with the hassle and abuse he was getting from within the Labour party.

I left the Labour party after it became clear they weren't going to properly oppose Brexit, though I donate occasionally and support them in elections. In hindsight I should never have joined as I'm unable to separate my beliefs and ideologies from the need to get elected and be in government.

I have a few friends who are active Labour members from across the spectrum. Some of them appear to have gone fucking insane over the last few years, if their Twitters are anything to go by, like rats fighting for scraps of meat off a rotting corpse. The worst part is they are experts at attacking someone a few steps to the left or right of them, but absolutely hopeless at dealing with the gaping maw of awfulness that's been in power for the last decade. The left has neutered itself.

What this country needs is a progressive coalition with the sole goal of attaining political power. Everyone from the LibDems to the Marxists needs to be included. We will never agree on everything, but that's OK. We just need to agree on enough, and educate each other about our differences. And then we can kick this minority interest Tory party to the kerb where they belong.

I don't know who is the best person to do that, but it clearly wasn't Corbyn. Get over him, learn the lessons and move on.

Is my take.

The Sunday Pete

Well, hello there.

I seem to have developed a nasty case of figuring out what I want to do with my writing and then freezing and not doing any writing, and I don't like it. So here's me trying another format that might provide the right mix of freedom and constraint, giving me space and permission to write, while keeping it focussed and developmental. I'm inspired this time by Jay's Weeknotes, which I enjoy getting every Sunday even if I'm not interested in half of it because it's built to skim.

What I've been up to

After being on furlough for a shocking seven months I'm back at Loaf on my regular hours from November, which will be a relief. But since the furlough scheme had a loophole which allowed me to do some hours in an R&D capacity, I've been doing business development with a smal group and mentoring from Coops UK. It's been an eye-opener, drawing up a full budget and plan for 2021 that overhauls how Loaf operates given we can't profitably teach people in our kitchen classroom during the pandemic. It's involved a lot of discussions too, since we're a workers cooperative, making sure that everyone is able to make an informed decision about the future of our business regardless of their level of interest in the financial planning side. It's amusing to me that I'm only just discovering I'm quite good at this in my mid-40s.

Speaking of mid-40s, I've had a cough since August and after two negative Covid tests I got in touch with the doctor. She thinks it's probably some kind of acid reflux thingy common to folks my age so I'm on Lansoprazole for a couple of months, which seem to be knocking me out a bit, like shitty sleeping pills. Which would be great if I wasn't taking them in the morning. But the good news is the cough has lessened.

I also had a chest X-ray this week, just to be safe. The last time I had an X-ray at the QE it involved lots of waiting around in rooms and corridors. This time I was in and out in 10 minutes, tops. They really don't want people hanging around in there these days! After than I walked home along the canal, which was nice, and then slept for three hours, because Lansoprazole.

Fi and I went on our first Date Night since February. Date Night is something long-term couples are advised to do to remind them why they became long-term couples. We'd been pretty wary of restaurants but Alicias have converted their back yard into an outdoor eating space and their pizzas are SO good, so we went for it. And it was great.

Sunset Social Club, one of the art jobs I had lined up before lockdown wiped out my freelance career, has been resurrected, albeit in a more distanced fashion. I'm heading with my camera up to Druids Heath, on the edge of Birmingham, whenever there's a good sunset and local folk are welcome to join me. More info here and I'm putting my pics in this Flickr album.

What I've been watching

I really enjoyed Lovecraft Country, which ended this week. I think I'm going to have to write something long-ish about how it employed magic to talk about how language is used to oppress depower. My brain was so bubbly I even farted my theory in the Guardian recap's comments. (Sky/NowTV).

I introduced Fi to Star Trek: Discovery which has gone down well. We started season two this week and that first episode is quite bonkers – all that crazy shit happens and then Tig Notaro appears! Meanwhile I've started season 3, because I have no self-control, and I think it's going to be a metaphor for taking democratic institutions for granted in the face of emergent autocracies. (Netflix)

I do like a heavy-handed metaphor in my televisual entertainment.

What I've been reading

I switched my Read Later service to Instapaper last week and am much preferring it to Pocket. (Instapaper went bad a few years ago but has been bought out by the workers and it good again). As usual I've been reading A LOT but I don't think those long links posts were particularly useful, so I'm going to refer you to my Instapaper profile for the last 20 things I faved and just pick a handful for here.

Explaining Brexit to Americans Part II by Alina Utrata is equal parts hilarious, infuriating and illuminating. Especially if the spectre of the Covid has caused you to forget this is all about to kick off again in a few months.

Revolution and American Indians: "Marxism is as Alien to My Culture as Capitalism". This speech by Russell Means from 1980 is essential reading in itself but also ties nicely into thoughts I've been having about our somewhat myopic view of the European Enlightenment which, sure, was generally a good thing, but it wasn't the only thing. Means' view of the squabbles within European thought as being equally alien to him feel important as we squirm out of late-Capitalism into something… else. See also Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch and, possibly, William Kempe

QAnon Conspiracy Theories Are Driving Families Apart. Is it notable that the older generation seems more susceptible to conspiracies these days? Are the youngs better at navigating this stuff? Or does this wave of conspiracies just appeal to the small-c conservative mindset that you find in the parental generation? And what do you do if you're a reasonably level headed kid who's watching the people who brought you up descend into kooksville?

What I'm listening to

New Mountain Goats album! Getting Into Knives dropped this week and it's a great Mountain Goats album. If you like the Mountain Goats you'll like this!

Live Music For A Time Without Stages is a 20 hour playlist of live tracks, specifically those live tracks where the gig really kicks into another gear. Worth dipping into for some needed energy.

What I'd like to know

So, you've read, or skimmed, to the end of this email, which means you like my writing to some degree. What do you want me to write about? I'm not saying I will write about it, but I'm genuinely intrigued. Personal stuff? Art stuff? Counterculture stuff? Internet stuff? Other stuff?

Let me know!

Arts & Ents – a links special

Kiran Shah testing Ewok costumes for Return fo the Jedi.

This week I noticed a bit of a theme in my text document of interesting links, so I pushed the sirius-news-is-sirius stuff out during the week and saved all the stuff on "the arts" for the weekend, just like a proper newspaper!

Why Radiohead are the Blackest white band of our times.

You can filter people based on how they respond to this headline. If they find it intriguing and want to know more, they're my kind of people. Otherwise, meh. Written from the perspective of a Black girl Radiohead fan, she picks up on ideological similarities with Black culture as much as, or more than, the music. This is not to say Radiohead did this on purpose – once the art is out there it is in the hands of the audience, and subjective audience interpretation has always fascinated me. This is also the first time I've really noticed the capitalisation of Black, signifying its use as a culture rather than a colour. (Guardian)

Bob Mould, alt-rock's gay icon, takes on American evil: 'My head's on fire!'

Nice interview with the Hüsker Dü / Sugar frontman who I've kept tabs on over the years mostly due to m'good friend Jez's next level man-crush. I'm even going to recommend you check out the comments, which I never do, as they add multitudes. The new album is pretty sweet. (Guardian)

How Flash games shaped the video game industry

It's kinda mad that Flash is being effectively discontinued this year. It felt like it defined the internet for a while in the 2000's. For websites Flash was a gigantic pain in the arse, so I don't miss it, but this rundown of simple games people made with Flash brought back some very fond memories. I found myself wanting to play Canabalt again – thankfully a bunch of games are linked to at the bottom of the page so I loaded it up, clicked to allow the hoary plugin to run, and boom, off I went. (flashgamehistory)

'Fiery, chaotic and full of emotion': This Heat, the band who tried to change everything

One of my favourite things is discovering a piece of culture from my youth that I'd never heard of before, especially something that has been cited as an influence by people I admire. I'm never ashamed of my ignorance, just really keen to correct it. I love their music. I'd possibly describe it as psych-prog-punk, but only because they spanned those 70s eras. It's really like nothing else of that time. From the interview I really admire their desire to reach out to everyone, not to just play to insular same-faces crowds. (Guardian)

Kiran Shah: The hero with a thousand faces

I'd come across Shah in the Lord of the Rings DVD extras back in the day but I had no idea as to the extent of his career as a scale double for some of the major films of the last few decades, playing characters in the distance against smaller, more economic sets. This is on top of his actor work, in and out of costume. A great profile and insightful interview. (CNN)

Nurse with Wound list

The 1979 Nurse with Wound album Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella contained a long list of musicians and bands considered influential. It ranges from the expected to the almost willfully obscure, so if you were looking for a listening project over the next lockdown… (Wikipedia)

Recommended Movie: One More Time With Feeling

We're currently watching this 2016 documentary in bits over the weekend, because it's a bit too itense to watch all at once, for the first viewing anyway. In many ways a sequel to 20,000 Days on Earth, this sees Nick Cave, deep in mourning for his recently deceased son, finishing the recording of the Bad Seeds' album Skeleton Tree. Here's a clip that pretty much sets the tone. (Rent/buy on AppleTV)

Links for Thursday 1st October

My translation of the Prime Minister's Sept 22 address to the nation. Number 2 in a series.

Judith Butler on the culture wars, JK Rowling and living in "anti-intellectual times"

With so much heat and very little light being emitted by the trans rights debate it's good to check in with Judith Butler, who arguably started it all with her revolutionary gender theory work. This interview cleared up a few misconceptions and misunderstandings I had and introduces her concept of "radical equality", understanding "ourselves as living in a world in which we are fundamentally dependent on others, on institutions, on the Earth." A good egg. (New Statesman)

Degrowth and Modern Monetary Theory: A thought experiment

We're often told that money is a social construct, a system based on a promise, but it feels like a natural law to most people, presumably because we've been living under a financial monoculture that denies any alternatives. Thankfully we're starting to see a few challengers to capitalism's crown and Modern Monetary Theory is a new one to me. In short, debt is good, inflation is bad and growth is unnecessary. Which seems insane, but so does capitalism from afar. (Jason Hickel)

Joggers and drinkers: what a day in the life of a Leeds park tells us about modern Britain

As I was carrying a garden chair to the local park to meet someone from Loaf to talk shop, I joked to a neighbour that the park has become my co-working space. Last week I did tech-support on a friend's Macbook sitting in the sun. I used to meet in cafes and bars. Now I meet people under specific trees and am getting to know the local dogs. So I totally enjoyed this lovely survey of a park in Leeds and the wide variety of ways people have used it this summer. (Guardian)

How Memes, Lulz, and "Ironic" Bigotry Won the Internet

An important piece by Helen Lewis (who is blossoming in her new position at the Atlantic) on the complacency of late-2000s internet culture not picking up on nascent forms of the extremist bullshit we're suffering through today. I was quite invested in that era's LOL culture and while my lot might have been mostly in the light, we were certainly only a few degrees from some nasty shit. I was a mostly-lurker, occasional poster on FilePile, which was no 4chan, but y'know, in hindsight I wonder if any of those guys are now mens-rights incels or shitposting nazis. Algo-social networks might have amplified internet culture into mainstream culture but we built the foundations on levels of irony so deep it's no wonder no-one knows what's going on. (Atlantic)

'The Social Dilemma' Dilemma

Nick Heer's take on Netflix's social-media-is-bad documentary, which he calls "a mediocre movie about a difficult topic", is a nice accompaniment to my initial thoughts as he's a ardent critic of surveillance advertising who is hooked in to the culture of developer that work in the the attention economy, so is able to present both sides. That's not to say the sides are balanced, he at least provides a window. (Pixel Envy)

What If Trump Refuses to Concede?

Lots of talk currently about Trump not accepting defeat in November and literally breaking the bits of the American democratic project that depend on not being an asshole in the process. This is the sobering breakdown of how that might play out, should you have a morbid disposition. (Atlantic)

Video: Hamilton and the right mess it's gotten me into

Today's video essay is from Grace Lee and is about the problems with the Hamilton musical (now available at home for non-musical-theatre people to see what the fuss was all about) from a leftist perspective. Which you might find odd as Hamilton is as progressive as all fuck, no? Well… it's complicated… See also Lindsay Ellis' Musicalsplaining podcast episode.

Thoughts on The Social Dilemma

So there's this new documentary, The Social Dilemma, which goes into great detail about how terrible the social media industry is for its users and for society in general, ultimately concluding that unless something changes we could see the end of democracy as we know it. Netflix bought the rights and it's getting a lot of exposure.

As you might imagine, I have thoughts.

Some of you will be aware that for a few years in the late 2000's I traded as a Social Media Consultant. I'm not proud, but it meant I was there at the teething of what we might now call the surveillance capitalism industry. I got in to the SMC game around 2006 or so, when blogging suddenly was a thing that people wanted to pay good money to learn how to do, which soon became Twitter and other stuff which coalesced under the "social media" umbrella. The name never sat that well – surely all media is social? – but once it had a label and was no longer an amorphous mass of nerdy shit it was quickly overrun with marketing people and I started to want to get out. (Thankfully I'd made my rep blogging about artists so actually becoming an artist was a short hop. But I digress.)

The marketing people were mostly just an excuse, though. Something was rotten in the world of social media from the get go. But when you're in the middle of the wood it's hard to see all them trees.

I developed a habit, maybe even a reputation, of writing some screed against "social media" every year or so. I think people found them entertaining (there he goes again!) and maybe even thought provoking, but I doubt they changed any minds, because they were pretty incoherent. I didn't have the language, the insight or the metaphors to properly articulate what I was finding disquieting. And ultimately I probably didn't want to prove myself right because it would render void a bunch of ideas that I'd come to identify with.

Nowadays there's a plethora of academics and activists using decades of media theory and social science to point out the blindingly obvious. I wish they'd been around in the mid 2000's.

I'd always talked about the media platform as being the thing, because that's where I operated. I drew a line from printed books to photocopied zines to online forums to blogs to Twitter and Facebook. I wasn't looking at the undercarriage, the printing presses, photocopiers, internet protocols and data-mining algorithms.

It took being an artist to bring that stuff to my attention. While digging deep into the fundamentals of photography, I came across a media theorist called Vilém Flusser who had this theory about that was fascinating. The camera is the true author of a photograph, not the person holding the camera. When you take pictures you're just along for the ride. But this goes further than simply collaborating with Nikon or Canon. Your involvement is dwarfed by the technical, industrial, economic and social systems which caused that camera to come about.

My research as a BOM fellow was centred on this and it features in a talk I gave in 2016.

Like all good theories, it's not about photography. It's about our relationship with technology, specifically media technologies under capitalism. The iPhone is not a screen, Instagram is not a cascade of images, Facebook is not updates from your friends, Twitter is not whatever it is you thought Twitter was (no-one really knows, especially not Twitter). They are systems which sits on top of systems upon systems upon systems going back through history to the first tool. There is no magic but there is massive complexity coupled with exponentially insane levels of processing power.

In looking for metaphors to describe the scale of the systems upon which our devices sit the best I can think of is the cosmicism of HP Lovecraft. In the face of an incomprehensibly infinite universe our greatest fear is our own insignificance. The algorithm doesn't care about you. You don't exist as anything more than a string of numbers. But paradoxically the algorithm is programmed to make you hyper-aware of yourself and how you fit into society. Hello ant, meet your uncaring clockwork universe.

So it was kinda remarkable and very cheering to see this sort of thinking (albeit without the Lovecraft references) underpin Netflix's documentary on how surveillance capitalism is strip-mining our emotions and breaking the world. Because so much of this stuff just looks at the surface without trying to get a handle on the tentacles writing beneath. It's not perfect of course – no film ever is – but it feels like a breakthrough.

Douglas Rushkoff has a nice little video celebrating the film and cautioning his community not to attack the makers for ripping off ideas that he and other fringe thinkers have been writing about for years. This is a victory! We're winning!

Bigger is not just bigger, it's different, and for once I feel a teeny, tiny bit optimistic about the effect of this documentary because I think it has opened the door, just a crack, to some actual change.

One of the few solutions put forward is a tax on data collection. Regulators would set a limit to the amount of data-points a company is able to hold on a person for free. Above that you need to pay a tax, set such that you would need a really good incentive to keep that data. While bad actors and foreign companies could evade this with ease, it would be in the interests of the likes of Google and Facebook to comply and change their business models. There's no reason our internet has to be funded by surveillance advertising. It didn't exist a decade or so ago. Why can't we replace it with something less toxic?

Now, I'm not saying this will work, but it's a good idea that sits between business-as-usual and burn-it-all-down. And once we have one good idea we can have more good ideas and maybe we'll be able to share photos and talk to each other online without destroying civilisation.

I could say much more about this doc but I set myself a two hour limit for writing about it tonight, and that time is up. If you have Netflix, give it a watch. It's worth the data-shadow of you they'll sell on the ad-tech markets. Lol.

Further Reading

Header image: Cover to Astounding Stories (1936) the first publication of HP Lovecraft's The Mountains of Madness.

Heritage Socialism – a working definition

I'm working on a piece where the key concept is something I've called "heritage socialism", a term I like but which I've struggled to explain. So I'm going to have a go here.

According to the Wikipedians, "cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that is inherited from past generations." What has always interested me about heritage is how selective it is. Some things are considered worthy of preservation, some are considered in need or erasure. In a city like Birmingham, where I live, this value judgement is felt keenly as each generation overthrows the heritage judgement of the previous, with the 20th century currently being wiped out in favour of Victorianana.

Another interesting, though probably unintentional, effect of heritage is to detach historical artefacts from the present. In my mind this is where heritage differs from history. The purpose of history is to draw lines from the past to the present day, so we can learn something about ourselves. Heritage should do this, but in my experience it tends to "other" the past, to draw a boundary around it and set it in stone. Heritage is mummified history, preserved and unable to talk to the present.

It's notable that we have a "heritage industry" but not, as far as I'm aware, a "history industry". History is a practice and discipline. Heritage is packaged into products, ready to be consumed.

During the 20th century, Britain underwent a number of changes that can be umbrellaed by the broad term "socialism". Universal suffrage, the welfare state, nationalisation of major industries, the NHS, free education, and so on. It reached its peak in the Post War Consensus and has been in decline since the 1980s.

I became an adult in the circa 1990 and with the buffer of Thatcherism this period took on a mythical status. We were told it was a failure, and yet the results were still all around us. Hippies were derided and laughed at, but acid house had brought us the second summer of love. It was a bit confusing.

When I could vote, I couldn't vote for an actual socialist. Tony Blair made sure of that. I didn't even really know what socialism was other than something old and broken. Around 2000, in my late 20s, I was in a pub with an older friend, talking politics. He insisted my ideas and beliefs were totally socialist. I was very reticent, such was the cleansing power of the 80s.

(For what it's worth I currently identify as a radical-agnostic cosmic-scale-nihilist with socialist tendencies, but that's for another day.)

Fast forward to 2012 and Danny Boyle put the NHS centre stage at his Olympic opening ceremony. It's a statement, but I think the political nature of it washed over most of the people watching. The health service is one of those things that is beyond politics. As a country we're proud of it, especially when we look to the USA. You wouldn't have known that the NHS is a political creation were it not for the mutterings of bias from a few Thatcherite MPs. You can debate how it should be run, but no-one would dare say it should be abolished.

Heritage Socialism, then, is the presentation of a historical socialist or socialist-adjacent idea or movement, isolated from its past and future context.

For example, the story of the origin of NHS might say the idea came from the wartime 1942 Beveridge report and it was founded by the Labour government in 1948. Doctors weren't keen because they feared a pay cut, but Nye Bevan won them over. Hooray!

By making a heritage product of NHS history, the political and social context is removed and all we have left are facts. The NHS was founded: people generally thought it was a good thing, but there has been debate about how best to run it. Denuded of anything ideological it can be adopted by the most Thatcherite of free-market politicians as something they support.

The NHS is now unmoored from the ideas that created it. It has become closer to a force of nature, something inevitable, unstoppable and impossible to erase. During lockdown we protected the NHS, we thanked the NHS, but we never worried the NHS would disappear.

Privatisation of the NHS has been happening for the last few decades and will continue, but as long as the NHS logo is on everything no-one will notice, or much care. As a heritage object it is no longer a socialist project. We do not have "socialised medicine" in the UK – we have the NHS.

Turning products of socialism into heritage objects doesn't just allow the forces that opposed their creation to embrace, co-opt and subvert them. It also divorces them from the ideas that formed them, preventing us from building on those successes in the present day. These origin stories become curiosities, events from the past-as-foreign-country.

Heritage Socialism is a theme park where we can gaze in wonder at a time when people came together and build stuff that meant something, but it doesn't give us the tools to build for ourselves, only the mild frustration that we can't.

It's a bit of a problem.

This post will be updated and re-written as I get to grips with and develop this idea. Future versions will also be much shorter, I promise.

If you have thoughts on developing this, do let me know.

Links for Saturday 26th September

Reprogramming a Game By Playing It: an Unbelievable Super Mario Bros 3 Speedrun

So there's this thing where people see who can complete a computer game in the fastest time. This used to be simply about pressing the buttons in the right sequence and was pretty impressive even then, but it looks to have developed even further. This method of playing Mario involves making specific moves that corrupt the memory storage so that a glitch will appear at a specific point and allow you to skip to the end. Because you're playing the original game code it's not a cheat, right? If the puzzle is a manifestation of computer code, this is just part of the puzzle. Right? You don't have to be interested in computer games (I'm totally not) to find this philosophically fascinating. (Kottke)

Surfaces vs Airborne: What We Know Now About Covid-19 Transmission

How we respond to this Coronavirus has evolved from "touch nothing and see no-one" to something thankfully more nuanced. For me the big change has been focussing more on airborne droplets (from heavy breathing and speaking) than infected surfaces, and this roundup of current (Sept 2020) knowledge and advice is a good one to share. In short, wear a mask, don't disinfect your shopping, keep washing your hands to be safe. (Medium)

Solarpunk – Life in the Future Beyond the Rusted Chrome of Yestermorrow

I have been bemused by Solarpunk for a while now, more-so since actively following Jay Springett's work where the term come up a lot. So I was grateful for this extended explanation (essentially a talk transcript with slides) which cleared up a lot of stuff. It's thankfully got nothing to do with Seapunk, which is just a daft aesthetic and some bad music. Solarpunk could best be described as imagining a future we'd like to live in, rather than speculating how we might live in a dystopia. In other words the opposite of Cyberpunk. There's also a lot of Mark Fisher-esque analysis of late-capitalism's mining of nostalgia and actively looking for ways to break beyond that. It's an attempt to solve the problem of not being able to imagine a future these days. And, of course, a shitload more, but that's my understanding of the basics. In short, it turns out to be very relevant to my 1972 Project thinkings. If I was a bit less of a nihilist I could even be a Solarpunk! (thejaymo)

The disruption con: why big tech's favourite buzzword is nonsense

I remember when I first learned that "disruption", the natural-law-style justification for investment-backed tech companies destroying existing industries with maths, was at best bullshit and at worst fundamentally evil. It's a bit like putting on a new pair of glasses and suddenly seeing the world in focus. This teardown has a nice bit of backstory I didn't know. This concept of disruption has its roots in The Communist Manifesto, so who knows? The endless Uber-fication of everything might lead to a socialist world state! Or not. (Guardian)

How to Build a Three-Parent Family

I've often felt that the two-parent family unit, while it can work for some, is not always the best fit. We know "it takes a village", but the nuclear family is always the default. So I found this account of people attempting to separate romantic/sexual attraction from the long-term commitment to parenting, really interesting, especially legal three+ parent adoption. Massive caveat that story takes place in an area of San Francisco with an "alternative parenting community", but as someone who is "always the Uncle, never the Dad" it's a fascinating eyeopener.

How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read

I don't think I've read a whole book in years, but I've skimmed a fuck-tonne and I've never thought this to be a problem. I can't remember most of what I've read anyway. What I get from reading is less specific, more like a cloud of knowledge-stuff in my memory which illuminates and enriches my experience as I move through life. Fuelling that cloud does not necessarily involve reading books cover to cover. So this book (lol) about not reading books looks very interesting. If you don't want to read it (lol) this is a good summary. (Brain Pickings)

Video: American Desert: Breaking Bad & Punishment Park

Maggie May Fish is one of those video essayists who regularly hits it out of the park. She's also been my gateway to the work and ideas of filmmaker Peter Watkins who came up making dramas for the BBC back in the 60s when they incubated radical filmmakers (see also Alan Clarke) but he turned out to be a bit too radical and moved on. His big theory is that of the monoform, which Maggie deals with half way through her excellent Fight Club video. This essay compares Watkins' 1971 film Punishment Park with the tv show Breaking Bad, initially through their use of the American desert and then going much deeper into questions of power and authority. Oh, and she does all this while keeping it light, breezy and fun! (YouTube)

Links for Friday 18th September

Graph of Covid cases in Birmingham, from this analysis of testing data.

A psychoanalytic reading of social media and the death drive

Richard Seymour's The Twittering Machine has moved to the top of my to-read list thanks to this highly entertaining review, best summarised with this quote: "Rather than wondering ponderously if this is 'cancel culture' or whatever, we might ask ourselves: Why the fuck were all these people tweeting? What were they thinking? What were they hoping to accomplish? What was the cost-benefit analysis that led them to think continued participation in social media was a good idea?" (Bookforum)

The battle over dyslexia

I struggled with writing essays in school, barely scraping English GCSEs. Since school I've taught myself to write for zines and blogs using typewriters and computers. School being in the 80s, I was never diagnosed but usually say I'm probably a bit dyslexic, part of my bundle of Autistic traits. So I found this article about whether dyslexia even exists as a diagnosis really interesting, the implication being the teaching methods don't fit the student, rather than the student being "broken" in some way. Worth a read if this affects you. (Guardian)

How big oil misled the public into believing plastic would be recycled

It seems everyone in the waste industry knows most plastic can't be recycled, yet for some reason we assume it can be. Turns out the oil industry has been lobbying for and promoting pointless plastic recycling schemes to distract from the urgent need to reduce our plastic usage. A long and damning expose. (NPR)

It is unclear what rich people are for.

This is a sports article on a sports website about the ownership of a sports team. But the first paragraph is universal. One day our descendants will look back with bemusement at how we allowed a tiny minority of unqualified fools to become stupidly rich. (Defector)

When you browse Instagram and find former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's passport number.

We all kinda know you shouldn't post a photo of your boarding pass online because… reasons? This chap found Tony Abbott's pass and decided to see how much he could hack it. (Mango PDF Zone)

Paul Lansky – Mild und Leise (1973)

Came to my attention because Radiohead sampled a chord progression (45 seconds in) for the track Idioteque, this is a really nice piece of very early computer-generated music composed on an IBM mainframe around the time of my first birthday.

Dome Up

Last year I bought a geodesic dome connectors kit, Hubs, and a load of wood. We built a dome in the back garden, purely because I've always wanted to build a geodesic dome and had given up on waiting for a reasonable excuse to come along. Here's a timelapse of the construction.

It stayed up for a week or so and then came down because, frankly, there wasn't room on that lawn for something so impractical. But having seen it in action, and needing to replace a rotting pergola, we plotted how to bring it back as something we could use.

Initially the plan was to build it in the Spring, but that went the way of all Spring plans, and I wasn't expecting to do anything dome-like this year. But then it occurred to me a semi-covered shelter in the garden might be useful for meeting folks during the pandemic's Autumn period, if not deep midwinter, and this dome, being made with cheap and reclaimed wood, would not be the final version, so I could spend the winter tinkering and refining ready for the re-build in the Spring.

So over the last couple of weeks I built the base and prepared the bits and today Fiona and I raised the barn dome!

Fiona sitting in the completed dome.

One amusing quirk of this build is we wanted the dome to be pretty much the width of the garden. But to make a dome you ideally need an area significantly larger that the final footprint so you can lay it out flat and built it up from the middle.

So for this build I went against the recommended instructions and worked from the bottom up using a mix of props, straps and wife to hold the joints in place.

Seasoned dome-builders will be staring wide-eyed through their fingers at this insane method.

A geodesic dome is an incredibly strong and stable structure when, and only when, all the sections are connected to each other and the stress and weight is evenly distributed. Until that point it's a mess of chaos and gravity. Pull one bit and something else shifts. It took a while and mental calmness to work through the inevitable collapses, but finally we got the last piece in and, boom, dynamic maximum tension achieved!

Having spent the whole build inside the dome it was very strange to walk down the garden and get a good look at it for the first time. It did not look like I expected, much more compact and subtle, though painting it dark green probably helped. (I'm very aware that the neighbours might not appreciate a 3 metre high sphere in their periphery!) The shape is quite delightful, geometric and engineered, but sympathetic to the plants and trees. Importantly it doesn't feel huge, but has plenty of room inside.

Sure, it's a big fucking dome, but it's not that offensive, right?

There's something strange about sitting inside a piece of geometry. You understand why both the Egyptians and Mayans obsessed over pyramids on opposite sides of the globe, and why the geodesic dome became the iconic structure of the back-to-the-land movement. It just feels right.

Of course, it's not finished. The structure is up but it needs to be made useful. Watch this space (and come visit once our lockdown is paused!)

Economics and Epidemiology

The pandemic has shown us how a lot of things we took for granted actually work. From the economy to handwashing, stuff we thought we'd got our heads around turns out to be significantly more nuanced once a couple of the pillars that prop up our specific variation on society are taken away.

Take public health messaging. To the degree that I'd even contemplated it prior to March, I'd always assumed that it a was a fairly simple thing. The science declares something to be a health risk and identifies a solution to mitigate this risk. Said solution is communicated to the public and the efficacy of the solution, along with its communication, is judged on results. Rinse and repeat.

But we're in the middle of a constantly evolving public health crisis where the science looks from the outside to be a literal can of worms. While we know a hell of a lot more than we did a few months ago, there isn't a simple solution that can be communicated beyond the broad strokes (keep your distance, wear masks, wash your hands, etc). That's fine for periods of full lockdown, but what about other times? How do you nuance the message when nuance is impossible?

The UK government has handled this crisis appallingly, that is beyond dispute, but we shouldn't forget that managing this situation is a really really hard job that I wouldn't wish on anyone.

Take, for instance, the new "rule of six" for England and the local lockdown for my city of Birmingham.

The rule of six is fairly simple. You can meet with no more than 5 other people at one time and should limit the number of groups you partake in as much as possible. This can be indoor and outdoors in private or public places.

Birmingham's local lockdown keeps the rule of six for public places, such as parks or pubs, but removes it for homes and private gardens where you can only have immediate family or those within your bubble. So when Andy pops over tomorrow for a chat he can't come into our garden but we can go and sit in the park.

When people hear these rules they immediately look for cases that make the rules seem absurd or wrongheaded. A common one for the local lockdown is that socialising is OK as long as there's a till. Your friends can come over to your house as long as you pay them to do the washing up. The rules appear to prioritise economic activity over human interaction.

The logic of keeping businesses open is actually pretty sound. Workplaces, shops and venues have to be Covid-secure in order to trade or they are breaking the law. Health and Safety rules apply to workplaces. They do not apply to homes, which also tend to be smaller and, in my experience, less well ventilated. Gardens also tend to be smaller. We have a pretty standard long, thin terrace garden and while we can distance while sitting down, moving around it is very different to moving around a park.

But since national lockdown ended a significant amount of government messaging has been about restarting the economy, culminating in the drive to get people back to their city centre offices, to save those shops and services that trade off the daily commute and lunch hour. "Save Pret" is, of course, not really about the minimum-wage jobs in cookie-cutter sandwich shops. It's about land value and returns on investment.

I don't think this is just about a few rich people becoming slightly less rich. Our economy is pretty much built on the value of land, and that value has arguably been inflated to an uncomfortable level. If the value of a building is based on how much rent it can extract, and if no businesses can justify paying that rent, then the value will drop.

If London property values start to drop, all that foreign money that sees a West End mansion as a nice little earner will up sticks and leave. Prices drop further and a pillar of the British economy starts to vanish. Yes, we need a corrective on house prices, but the population has been told for the last few decades to put their money in bricks and mortar. They might be able to lose a bit but a dramatic fall in land value would wipe out millions of pensions.

When I've visited places I used to live in the 80s and 90s I'm always amazed at how many more cafes and sandwich shops there are. The 40 year history of the prepacked sandwich industry is a fascinating one leading to an £8bn annual turnover in 2017. I'd be fascinated to see what proportion of the price of a sandwich goes towards rent. When a Pret closes because there's no customer traffic the staff can get another low-paid, low-skill job, the food suppliers can find other customers, but the landlord cannot charge the same rent.

I don't think we have particularly good economic literacy in this country. I say this because I'm in my 40s and I've only recently figured a lot of this out. If, as a country, we did understand how it all fits together we might realise why "save Pret" is actually a pretty sound piece of messaging. But we'd also understand that the way we've allowed our economy to be constructed is not necessarily ideal in the long term.

I wouldn't go so far as to say we've been lied to, because conspiracies have a bad rep these days, but we've certainly been told a fraction of the full story. We're told that property values will increase so it's worth investing in them, which means there's an incentive for property values to increase and so on. But we aren't told why and what the implications are for this economic model. Are there other things we could invest in? Why are we investing at all? What is investment for? Isn't there another way we could be organising this stuff? (cf)

But we don't ask these questions because we don't have the intellectual tools. What we can comprehend is what we see, and that's the government saving their friends' investment portfolios.

The danger is that these two messages, getting back to work and local lockdown rules, are conflated because they're both based on disciplines that seem mystical and counter-intuitive to the layman – mid-pandemic epidemiology and neoliberal economics.

If you want to get a few million people to do a thing quickly and effectively you need a clear, simple message with no nuance.

You can see how this was never going to be smooth.