08
Dec 09

“Is this a Turner for the better” and other clever headlines

The most convincing criticism of contemporary art in general (also known by some of my friends as ‘conceptual bull’), is that most of it exists only to question the audience’s view of what art is.

Such art, I agree, is not art. At least, it was considered so back in the 60s, where it was perfectly valid to create a piece with the sole intention of getting us to answer the question “then what is art?” – but since then we have moved on. We have answered that question.

(In fact, it was way earlier than the 60s, in fact probably not even last century, but the whole thing was arguably popularised at this point.)

By inference, the most convincing criticism of the Turner Prize – which usually features the likes of cow brains, elephant dung, and other headline-inducing artistic concepts – the most convincing criticism is that it is entirely self-referential, and nothing more.

Well, it is self-referential, but this isn’t the whole story. A great proportion of historic art is also self-referential, but this seems to pass Turner critics by.

One solution that Turner defenders seize upon is to argue that the concept behind each work is what defines the work’s value, and the success of the work is based on two things:

  1. the artistic journey behind the concept (artistic process, technique, relevance of the concept to the audience and to society, etc.)
  2. the power that the physical rendition of the concept (i.e. the thing that gets put in a gallery) has to point the audience towards the concept; its physical success.

Personally, I don’t accept this, and it seems to me a regressive move to defend contemporary art in such a dialectic.

When Kim Howells denounced the Turner Prize as “conceptual bullshit”, I believe he didn’t mean that conceptual art is bullshit, but rather that the quality of the concepts were bullshit.

He may have been right or wrong, but this should not affect our view of the validity of a Turner piece as a piece of ‘real art’.

I know we all come to our own conclusions as to what questions were answered by the first strands of conceptual art – whether you think this was in the 60s or the 1917 or what. For me, it is that art does not require being part of a larger system or strand of development, nor does it require any kind of grounding in, or reference to society. Art is at its most powerful when considered as aesthetically autonomous. An autonomous art needs no defense.

It is no surprise that the papers have focused on how this year’s Turner Prize winner is more of a ‘traditional’ artist. The Daily Mail calls it “Actual Art” in their special little article.

And I am very glad at the announcement of Wright as this year’s winner of the Turner Prize. In fact I haven’t met a single person that didn’t want him to win this year’s Turner Prize.

But, given my views above, it upset me that this year’s judges said things like “it is just so beautiful” instead of providing a good reason as to why he won this year. This, I feel, makes a mockery of contemporary art.


09
Oct 09

Royal Mail. Doing Justice to its 'Royal' Roots.

Royal Pain in the Arse, more like.

Yesterday, our post came at 2pm.

I ran to the door, because two days ago I had noticed they had delivered mail for another house altogether, and I wanted to ask the postman what he was doing. (Politely. I am always polite, however angry.)

But first, I inspected the letters that had just dropped.

One for me, one for 61 Tunis Road (lucky me!) and one for 61 Stanlanke Road.

“What, AGAIN?!”, thought I.

I immediately dropped the mail, opened the front door expecting to see the postman a couple of steps away. I was ready to lose a little bit of patience, actually.

Even if it was the fault of the sorting office who had put things in the wrong piles, and even if it was the end of my shift, I would still not do something like that. I would look at the post, and think “I should take this to where it should go, one road down”. I would then sacrifice 10 extra minutes of my life to explain to my manager that this has happened too many times now, and it’s not acceptable.

Alas, the postie was half way down the road in a red van by the time I looked out on the street. How on Earth he must have returned to his van from my doorstep, started up, and driven half-way down the road in the space of about 8 seconds, I have no idea!

This is a special skill. An art, you might say. One that requires practice.

The plot thickens.

I walked around to 61 Tunis Road to politely offer them some important mail (return address was PO Box Northampton, does the reader know what this means? Yes, the letter had a credit-card shaped, er, card inside of it, no joke), and was greeted by a lady whose young boy asked if I was Matthew.

Good GOD. This sharp-eyed young boy had remembered seeing my address and name on some mail for me, delivered to them! And it was my online VAT registration details, including membership card. Great, so nothing too important then!

Do these people see “letter from HMRC REVENUE AND CUSTOMS” and think “sod it, I’ll deliver it elsewhere”?

Is it because I made a complaint about them shoving a “while you were out” notice through the letterbox two months ago without having even knocked on the door only to open the door immediately to ask what was going on and to find the postman didn’t even have the parcel he was claiming to try to deliver that day? Was it revenge for the formal complaint I had made about this terrible behaviour?

I visited my next location, where I was greeted by the grateful face of a lady whose HMRC REVENUE AND CUSTOMS letter (yes, another really important letter), or that of her husband, had been missing.

How desperate!

This country is a joke!

I am giving up and moving to Spain.

In Spain, people sit around in sunny piazzas, drinking espresso and talking about important things.

People look after others’ babies without the fear of being arrested or told off by officious social services workers.

Do people misbehave like this in Spain, where it’s hot?

Do people not take pride in their jobs here at all?

Do people have no souls? Not an ounce of goodness? Any sense of right?

Am I the only one who has a sense of basic human decency and duty? No, thankfully I am not. But it’s so hard finding others who also do!

Our road names are different! Our postcodes completely different! They are DIFFERENT ADDRESSES! Your job is to deliver an envelope to an address, not a random letterbox nearby because you are at the end of your shift, you lazy jobsworth-y heap of disrespectful human uselessness!

It’s one thing when we can’t trust others on the street to behave considerately towards others, but it’s another thing altogether when people do so AND take a pay packet for the privilege at the end of the month!

Member of the chattering classes that I am, I feel it’s my duty to apportion blame at this point.

Middle management. Not postmen. Middle management. For it is they who refuse to accept there is a huge problem with their workers. An enormous problem with quality of service. As long as they install customer care lines where they pay people to smile over the phone at you in order to form a convenient black hole for serious service complaints (every call ends with “thank you for your call, I will chat with the area manager and have this resolved as soon as possible“, which invariably masks a complete lack of understanding of the severity and spread of the endemic problems of worker attitude and area manager accountability), as long as they refuse to admit there are management structure problems and wipe out entire sections of the business to remedy the problem, this problem will continue to further plague the Royal Mail and cause its eventual demise.

Talk about an industry giving itself a black eye when it’s already got major health problems.

I only write because mail workers voted in favour of a strike today.

Good one. Imagine if everyone had a little bit of a strike. Postal workers, train workers, politicians, policemen and women, teachers, firemen. Anarchy, it would be anarchy. That’s why striking, in a society like we have today, is practically immoral; if you don’t like your job, or the sector you decided to go in to, why the hell are you staying in it? Sure, try to reform it, if you do care about your job or sector. But striking doesn’t have that effect, it has the effect of stirring up anger from the public and solving nothing between ‘robust’ negotiators for the industry and insolent negotiators for the unions.

God, it’s not like we are sending people down the mines any more, is it?

Striking: in our current societal status, it’s what lazy people who think they deserve more do. Here’s my message to you: everyone in the world thinks they deserve more. Apart from those who really don’t have anything, and they appreciate life in every way they can. Yes, workers think they deserve better treatment and pay, even politicians think they deserve better pay, even after The Scandal. I don’t want this to sound trite, but I have come to appreciate those around me who appreciate what they have got, I am one of these people myself.

Anyway, enough of the happy clappy, on with the vitriol.

Or perhaps it’s lawyers’ faults?

Lawyers have turned our society into a compensation society, like the USA. They didn’t mean to, their motives for campaigning for individuals to have greater power to challenge organisations were pure. After all, they were about power to the people. But actually it has backfired, and it means we are not able to simply get rid of rubbish workers, for fear of tribunals and court cases of unfair dismissal. The public sector, which doesn’t have the money to get serious heavyweight legal assistance in such cases, is the one that loses. Or rather, we, consumers of public services, are the ones who lose. The Lawyers didn’t think about that, they didn’t think about the long lasting effects of handing legal power to the individual.

Sounds good on paper, but actually leads to inefficient, ineffective organisations, ones that have to care more about workers’ rights than the job they are trying to get done. That surely cannot be right.

Sack it, I blame the Labour government. (NB I say this tongue-in-cheek.) Might as well. Spoon feed society, pay them for sitting around on their arses all day, and the wretched disease of indifference about life, the universe, and everything, will filter up into the working classes, god help us because it has probably permeated the middle and upper classes too, and soon enough 99.9% of the general public will be unable to make decisions for themselves and abuse their surroundings and take others for granted. This is the thin end of the wedge. The thick end is crime and intolerance.

Socialism. It may seem like a great idea to give handouts to those who need them the most, but it does nothing for society – all levels of society – in the medium to long term.

It simply means more people spit in the street, and dump their rubbish illegally, and behave in antisocial ways. And drop mess, and eat smelly food on the tube, and carry knives around. And drink and start fights, and can’t look each other in the eye.

That’s why I simply cannot bring myself to vote Labour, however much I don’t want the Tories to come to power.

Rant over.

I wish I were not in the impossible position of having to vote for a party I don’t really believe in, nor do I think will ever have enough power.

Can’t someone fill the political gap?

No, not you, UKIP, you single-minded waste of a manifesto.

A party I could take pride in, one that represents a political ideal I can connect with. One that is in favour of Europe, peace, technology, progress, social justice, reasonable taxes, fiscal conservatism. I wouldn’t mind paying higher tax if we could find one.

Am I a Tory? Please tell me no. I am not a Tory.


29
Jun 09

The London Foxtrot

The London Foxtrot
Once per day, usually between the hours of midnight and 3am, I sit on the front step outside my house in a busy suburb of London to get some ‘air’.
This summer has been unusually warm so far, with long spans of hot temperatures starting as early as late April.
In the 5 minutes it takes for me to finish this ‘air’ one usually sees 3-5 cars passing through the nearby junction, fifty percent of which have noisy radios or noisy exhausts. Three out of seven days during this 5 minute period I will watch a pizza delivery moped pass by, with its customary “L” plate denoting the fact the driver is a perpetual learner, presumably with no intention of ever taking a test. 2 in 3 times a passer-by will walk past. One in about 20 times the passer-by will ask me something. (Usually such people are to be ignored, because they are rude or scary in some small way.) Once, whilst I was sitting outside on the telephone, a man on the opposite side of the road shouted over asking me for a cigarette. I didn’t respond because I was deep in conversation, and he crossed over and shouted “hey, I’m talking to you”. He swore. I pointed at the phone to indicate I was busy talking, and he became verbal abusive. I explained firmly that he could see I was talking on the phone, but he swore at me and asked who the hell I thought I was to ignore him.
This year, foxes pass me by. Foxes always walk trot elegantly and quickly along the street from my left to my right. About a third of the way into my view, they clock me, stop as still as the night itself and stare. We exchange quizzical stares for five to ten seconds, dead still. About 5 seconds into the stare I raise my eyebrow. During this summer, this chain of events happens every time I go outside.
Why do foxes trot?

 

Once per day, usually between the hours of midnight and 3am, I sit on the front step outside my house in a busy part of London to get some ‘air’.

This summer has been unusually warm so far, with long spans of hot temperatures starting as early as late April.

In the 5 minutes it takes for me to finish this ‘air’ one usually sees 3-5 cars passing through the nearby junction, fifty percent of which have noisy radios or noisy exhausts. Three out of seven days during this 5 minute period I will watch a pizza delivery moped pass by, with its customary “L” plate denoting the fact the driver is a perpetual learner, presumably with no intention of ever taking a test. 2 in 3 times a passer-by will walk past. One in about 20 times the passer-by will ask me something. (Usually such people are to be ignored, because they are rude or scary in some small way.) Once, whilst I was sitting outside on the telephone, a man on the opposite side of the road shouted over asking me for a cigarette. I didn’t respond because I was deep in conversation, and he crossed over and shouted “hey, I’m talking to you”. He swore. I pointed at the phone to indicate I was busy talking, and he became verbally abusive. I explained, with a robust tone of voice, that he could see I was talking on the phone, but he swore at me and asked who the hell I thought I was to ignore him.

This year, foxes pass me by. Foxes always walk trot elegantly and quickly along the street from my left to my right. About a third of the way into my view, they clock me, stop as still as the night itself and stare. We exchange quizzical stares for five to ten seconds, dead still. About 5 seconds into the stare I raise my eyebrow. During this summer, this chain of events happens every time I go outside.

Why do foxes trot?

Why is it generally considered okay in prose to mix digits with the number written out in text, seemingly randomly?

17
Apr 09

Radical rhetoric

Did I hear this correctly?

Regarding Mexico, Hillary Clinton said, “Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade”, and, “Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians”.

Here we have a senior Whitehouse official accepting some form of societal responsibility for the damage the drug trade is doing to foreign ground.

That may well sound normal and correct to the average citizen, but isn’t it a little radical for Ms Clinton to state such things?

I can’t see how, if she had won the primaries and the subsequent election, she would ever have been capable of such radical speak. Being in support of good power makes Hillary an exceptionally likeable person.

Yes, this is another Obama-praise post in disguise.


19
Jan 09

Tomorrow is inauguration day!

I am distinctly jealous of all those in America who can attend any number of inauguration parties and celebrate the most exciting day in my living history with their friends tomorrow.

I am even more jealous of those in Washington DC who can have a real-life slice of the action. I have been highly excited about the lead-up to tomorrow, but there’s nobody to share it with.


19
Jan 09

To what extent must society shape capitalism?

Another post from a self-proclaimed economy non-expert.

This post is one big question mark, just so you’re aware!

I am sure that most of us, even the most right wing, would agree that capitalism is most effective – from a utilitarian point of view – when tempered to an extent by social forces. These may be ethics, the metaphorical workers’ rights of the marketplace; regulation, the health-and-safety handbook; economic progress, the constitution and philosophical goals of capitalism; trading law, the global rules of operation; process, the top-level efficiency of the capitalist system; communication and diplomacy, the oil in the machinery; the list could go on.

In fact if that list were to go on, it would become less and less directly related to capitalism, and the metaphors would become more and more broad. This is because capitalism itself eventually gives way to the aspects of society that surround it. For example, business ethics are informed by the aspects of global/local society that feed it, namely politics, environment, art, national and regional development, media, and so on. I hope to have explained this point as a construct rather than a view, as it exists whatever one’s views on the autonomy of capitalism within a state are. Whether you believe capitalism should be capitalism and completely uninformed by society, I am attempting to at least define the interdependence that could, does, should, or should not exist.

Which leads me to the point of writing this. As a layman I’m totally ignorant as to the schools of thought that define these boundaries. If anyone reading this knows of some studies on the interdependence between capitalism and society, I’d really appreciate a reading list. Or maybe even just a quick summary, or some keywords or authors I can search. Specifically the questions I have are as follows.

Most ‘moderates’, as I would consider them, believe that a marketplace should have a good degree of independence, but that there should be some healthy acknowledgement of the surrounding world. National politics usually define regulations, international consortia define trade law, but my question is to what extent should free market ethics be defined by society? A business should be able to use its powers to create a market and generate demand where there isn’t any, but the equal and opposite is that a business should also be able to use its power to close down a market, reduce demand, force down wages, etc. The obvious questions of business ethics arise from this example of irregularity. More importantly than “to what extent should free market ethics be defined by society”, is “who theoretically makes that decision” (this is rhetorical because it’s the powerful who end up making it), and “what system of rationale governs who makes the decision”?

I guess there are inevitably no answers to the above questions, but I am interested if there’s any research in these more esoteric areas.


20
Nov 08

The domestic guide to good coffee

This guide is a work in progress. Currently you are seeing the first draft.

Grinding your own

Always choose a burr grinder. A non burr grinder will chop the beans instead of crushing them to release oils. Chopping a good roast is a terrible thing to do if you want half decent coffee. It’s not worth buying a grinder at all unless it’s a burr grinder. If it doesn’t specifically say “burr grinder”, it most likely isn’t one, however expensive the unit may be. If you don’t buy a burr grinder, it is always better to have your beans ground at the shop where you buy it.

The quality of a burr grinder is defined by two variables:  

  1. Consistency of grinds
  2. Build quality (length of life, ease of cleaning etc)

It’s possible to purchase a cheap burr grinder for reasonable results. The Krups GVX2 is reasonable, although it may not last a lifetime. Mine broke after a few years. I found a replacement at Debenhams for £36 – an absolute steal. I believe Starbucks sell a branded version of the same model. It’s the cheapest reasonably decent grinder, and I use it. The compartment is not the easiest to clean, it requires a little shake sometimes mid-grind, to keep the beans flowing through. Also, you’ll need to clean grinds up, it does make a little mess. But that’s what coffee is about.

Better still would be the KitchenAid Artisan burr grinder. I haven’t used this unit myself, but it has great reviews.

Espresso machines

I’ve a lot to say on this subject, but I may fill this out at a later date.

It goes without saying, you must avoid cheap units in department stores or online. They often call themselves “cappuccino makers” or “latte makers”. The look like this.

The most important specification of an espresso machine is its pressure. Pressure is measured in bars, or atmospheres. Compare different machines on this specification to start with.

Avoid machines that use anything but coffee you can put in yourself. Nespresso is a well-known brand, and it’s the exception to this rule. It can make perfectly reasonable espresso, even with their cheaper models, and at an acceptable price. It makes a very good every-day espresso machine with minimal cleaning fuss.

The very best domestic espresso is made in lever machines like those from La Pavoni. They are also very high maintenance. You really have to want good coffee if you use this regularly.

Using a stove-top

Stove-tops are the cheapest way of getting espresso-like coffee. They cannot yield a true espresso, and they do not give a crema. That’s something that only a real espresso machine can do.

The most common stove-top make and size is the Bialetti Moka Express 3 cup. This is the one I have had most success with.

Often the coffee can taste way too bitter or way too weak, and sometimes coffee has a subtle taste of burnt rubber to it, due to the slight softening of the rubber seal. The seal may be replaced on Bialetti stove-top makers.

Stove-tops can yield reasonable coffee, but it’s very difficult to make them comply. It’s therefore advisable to lower your sights and use shop-bought name brands such as Illy or Lavazza as the consistency of the grounds will always be high, and grounds consistency is a variable that can throw the results out (strength, bitterness etc) by factors of ten.

It’s best to experiment with volume of coffee, volume of water, length of boiling and amount of heat. Also experiment a little with tamping pressure (how hard you press the coffee down) – start by not tamping it at all except to level the coffee grinds. Never tamp too hard.

A good starting place is to fill a 3 cup Bialetti Moka Express filter funnel with Lavazza espresso coffee, so it comes to just below the top of the funnel. Pat down with your finger to level the coffee. Run your finger around the rim of the funnel to remove loose grinds, ensuring that the rest of the funnel has no grinds stuck to it. Fill the bottom section up with cold water (filtered water is usually better, although such subtleties won’t be appreciated with a stove-top). Screw the lot together, nice and tight. Place on a medium gas heat from the smallest ring of your stove, or equivalent. Wait until you hear the perculating noise and wait a further 30 seconds to a minute. Taste the results without milk if you can, and vary the process.

It’s not uncommon for coffee to randomly taste so bad it’s undrinkable. It’s not uncommon for the coffee to simply never percolate at all; I’ve noticed this happening randomly on my own and friends’ stove-tops. It doesn’t necessarily mean a replacement seal is required. Just cool-off and try again.

There are no hard and fast rules except the following:

  1. Never fill water above the pressure valve. It’s usually best to fill the stove-top with cold water so the water level is just under the valve.
  2. Always remove grinds from the rim of the filter funnel before proceding.
  3. Avoid using washing up liquid on any of the parts, and never use a dishwasher.

07
Nov 08

Reflections on the UK political system after Obama elected

As a Brit there are two Western political systems of democracy that affect me: the UK style and the US style.

Up until now I’ve had a natural preference for the UK flavour of party politics as opposed to presidential; my reasoning that party politics allows leadership by consensus not character, and lends itself to the long-term development and continuity of political ideals. A party governs a country, and the leader of the party serves the party, rather than the party serving the leader. The consequent of consensus government is the requirement to stick to a party line; the word ‘Maverick’ doesn’t sell back in the UK. I have always believed that party politics is more progressive than presidential for these reasons.

Our two major political parties have worked themselves into an ideological deadlock. When New Labour moved into the centre, I was most pleased; finally there was a party I could potentially bring myself to vote for who were in with a chance. But how does an opposition party defeat a governing party that has led from the centre? How does it gain political capital over a party that has positioned itself to appeal to all?

Here’s how: they take the centre ground too, and pick pick pick away at the governing party. They pick to show they are better at running the centre ground, even if they aren’t. They pick away incessantly to the point where the real issues affecting the electorate are ignored, instead of fulfilling their duty to balance power and challenge the governing party. They pick and pick and pick until the political bubble so obscures their view of reality that the whole concept of party politics is ruined.

Does anybody remember when David Cameron was elected leader of the opposition party?

He called for an end to “Punch and Judy politics”.

“People in this country are crying out for a Conservative Party that is decent, reasonable, sensible, common sense and in it for the long term…”

Any human being to have witnessed PMQs in the House of Commons on a Wednesday afternoon knows that, three years on, that hasn’t happened.

(Click here for a very good, topical example. It depresses me beyond reason.)

Anyone who thinks our country isn’t run by a terrible bunch of rowdy smugsters clearly hasn’t seen our politics in action. Whilst it’s true to say we Brits don’t go in for the emotional, patriotic style of government, their jeers and sneers are enough to put any sane human with a soul off politics.

Cameron promised to “switch on a whole new generation”. He preceded by appointing three Old Etonians to his shadow cabinet. And fifteen on the front bench. I don’t think I’d like my 21st Century Britain to be run by a bunch of chaps who all went to the same school, thanks.

No wonder this country doesn’t vote.

Once this deadlock is achieved, how can it be broken? The greatest aspect of party politics, that replaceable individuals conform to the will of the continuous group, is also its flaw.

US politics, however, can reinvent itself.

Why should this be necessary? I can see two reasons.

1. When a President with centrist political leanings, or non-partisanship, governs a country, he can do so effectively or ineffectively – however the electorate decide who is to govern at the beginning of each term. If the electorate still want a politically central government, but they are unhappy with the effectiveness of the current leader, this problem can be solved by the election of another. A party, however, elects its own leader.

2. Every new era requires a new politic. A new politic allows a country’s government to live up to the needs of its electorate without the need for revolution. When the governing party moves to the centre, they are inadvertently setting the political agenda for the opposition party, however by definition, to appeal to the majority of the electorate, the opposition must take-on the centrist politics of the governing power. The core values of the two parties become increasingly similar (or at least, they purport to be similar). The only way forward is then political point-scoring, a form of political battle that is at its heart completely out of touch with the electorate.

Whilst I am not against the domestic policies of ex Prime Minister Tony Blair, or against his style of leadership, it does seem that his leadership has indirectly diluted the core values of both political parties – and because of the sedative effect of party politics, there seems to be no way out of the deadlock.

Witnessing the US Presidential election in all its technicolour excitement brings the above point home – but even more depressing were the UK leaders’ childish responses, each wanting to align themselves with President-elect Obama to bolster his own political position.

The personal upshot? I shall vote for the Liberal Democrats, as I can’t bring myself to vote for either main parties now – but I do so regretfully; they are the party who will never gain power in this country. I regret that our politics cannot morph such that one of the major parties can become politically libertarian, fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and with a firm but peace-loving foreign policy. I would happily vote for any Labour or Conservative party with such values.

Either that, or I’ll move to the land of the free.