On Scrooge As A Role Model

A defence appears in the New Statesman, where else, of Scrooge as an “anti-capitalist hero, bravely resisting the commercialisation of Christmas”. He likes the idea of the poor being required to go to the workhouse, “a baby step along the road to a proper welfare state”. Poverty cannot be resolved by individualist philanthropy, but by state intervention.

He is famously frugal, limiting the amount of coal he burns. He sits by the light of a fire rather than using gas. “His actions result in a low-emission lifestyle that could preserve the earth for future generations.”

Plus, Scrooge’s meanness means that unlike bankers and chief executives today, “he does not impose austerity from a luxury yacht”. Scrooge sees through the season’s shallow festivities as “an ideological sham”.

Scrooge is put through psychological torture, “a long night of supernatural waterboarding”. After his conversion, he buys a turkey, “a product of the meat industry, which is today a bigger contributor to climate change than cars or airplanes”.

The writer concludes: “Scrooge should signify someone who resists the consumerism that is destroying our world.”

A small part of me is tempted to agree with that view on consumerist excess. The larger part of me worries that, from all the evidence available, the writer believes every word and means a serious political point. Beyond parody, then.


On Amateur Drinkers

Two vignettes from the festive season, both from pubs. And the curse of the amateur drinker.

One: eight beefy Neanderthal types are at the bar of a (smallish) pub. They are issuing that braying, “Hoon, hoon” laugh that certain men, gathered together to drink, are prone to make. They are not at the bar to buy a drink. They are at the bar, as opposed to any other empty place in the pub, to drink.

There is almost as much meat there as in the average rugby scrum. This means that no one else can get near the bar to order a drink. People are craning over them to attract the staff, frantically waving banknotes, shouting orders. The staff cannot reach them.

“Hoon, hoon.” Did I mention three of them are wearing silly Santa hats?

Two: A blonde is sitting on a stool. She is in tight black fake leather trousers. In front of her is a bald man, one of those types who regard it as ineffably cool to shave his head but cultivate a hairy, hillbilly beard. They are snogging as if their lives depend on it. The man is meanwhile frantically running his hands over as much adipose fat as they can reach. And there is a lot of adipose fat to reach.

At 2.30 on a Thursday afternoon?

A Plymouth bar owner has just brought in rules for amateur Santa drinkers, to ensure regulars are not inconvenienced. An excellent idea.

Dear God, is there much more of this to endure?

On IT Idiocy

My email system has a mind of its own. Every now and then it will decide that I need a change, that I am in danger of getting into a rut.

The latest initiative has been to install some sort of auto-correct programme. This translates any unfamiliar personal names into their closest English equivalents. The column I write, Tempus, becomes Time. My surname is Wall. My wife is now January.

And the nice lady who sends me research material from one of the big merchant banks, whose given name is Gael, becomes Available.

I ring the IT man. Yes, I have tried switching it off and switching it on again. He scratches his head. He’s not seen this one before. I explain that if I indeed address Gael, whom I have never met, as Available, she might get the wrong idea. As indeed might my HR department.

It turns out there is indeed an option hidden deep within the entrails of my email system that allows me to convert names into proper nouns. It was written in by whoever programmed the thing.

I have been trying to imagine under what circumstances anyone might need such a service. But so far I have failed.

On Spam Emails

I always thought that if those spammers who generate endless different attempts to swindle us by email devoted their evident talents in IT to doing something else, they might even make a useful living.

A great new example arrives, purporting to come from one of the two big providers of anti-spam software. Would I care to upgrade? I delete my existing firewall, and then invite them to download their own software to my computer.

What happens then? Well, shortly afterwards my bank account empties, for a start. Thereafter, all sorts of other interesting things will happen on my computer, for sure.

The spammers’ problem, along with the usual email addresses and websites that plainly have nothing to do with the software company concerned, is that this arrived on my work computer. This does not use the company’s product itself, because there is a cross-company firewall.

But don’t try this at home, kids.

On SF Heroes, And Laura Roslin

The British Film Institute, as part of a series on science fiction, has been asking who is the favourite SF character ever. Top votes, Doctor Who and Ripley, from the Alien films.

If you believe, as I do, and as I suspect anyone has watched it does, that the reinvented Battlestar Galactica is the best SF series ever, by a huge long way, then… Gaius Baltar? Twisted, treacherous, probably mad? (Did she really exist? Or just in his head?)

Or President Laura Roslin? Who gains power by accident, discovers it requires some awful choices, awful compromises from what you know is right? (Spoiler alert.) Gets cancer. Dies. Happy.

A middle aged, not unattractive woman, but not a sex bomb, (cf Kara Thrace) with cancer. Not exactly the stuff of which SF superheroes are made.

Laura Roslin. But then, those who know BG will see that already. Those who don’t, if you like dark, morally ambiguous SF…. Remind me. Who are the good guys?

On Re-Reading Robert Heinlein

I do not give away much in this blog. You will know I am fairly left wing. You will know I have a religion. Not necessarily one recognised by the CofE. (Google Arianism. Suppressed by the early Church fathers.)

I have been re-reading the works of Robert Anson Heinlein. He is not an obvious influence. Heinlein is thought of as an extreme right winger, a libertarian, someone who is a proponent of the minimal state. Guns and liberty, the final frontier.

Unfair. Heinlein is best remembered for ‘Starship Troopers’, in which he suggested public flogging and hanging was a good thing, and that the vote should be limited to those who have performed military service. Made into a film by Paul Verhoeven. Which utterly corrupted what he had to say. So it goes.

Read again his posthumous ‘Expanded Universe’. Heinlein was a socialist in his youth and never lost his believe in the power of human freedom. He came round to a humanist belief of the transcendence of the human spirit. Way beyond the fascism with which he is lazily identified.

He talks of the poverty of Communist Russia, and the tour guide he met there who said her ambition for her family was to have a toilet of her own. ‘The  next aesthete who sneers at our American plumbing culture in my presence I intend to cut into small pieces and flush him down the WC he despises.’

And he says, of his belief of impending nuclear apocalypse, ‘if we are to die, let us die as men, eyes open, aware of our peril and striving to cope with it, not as fat and fatuous fools, smug in the belief that the military men and the diplomats have the whole thing under control.’

Hardly right wing. And ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’ is a very good book.

The Raid 2, And Why We Seem To Be In Charge

I have been watching The Raid 2, a startlingly violent Indonesian gangster movie. My son and I often settle down to this kind of thing. He seems quite well balanced. It, and the first film, The Raid, were directed by a Welshman in Jakarata. There’s international for you.

The Raid 2 might as well be a product of Hollywood. It is a typical crime movie, policeman goes undercover into the gang to avenge his brother.

What struck me is that the villains all wear western dress, suits with or without ties. The Indonesian SWAT team look like a US SWAT team, or the kind of police we increasingly see on our streets.

When the leaders of Japan and China, both cultures with thousands of years of tradition behind them, met recently for an uncomfortable picture opportunity, both were wearing western style suits. The Japanese tie was grey, the Chinese yellow.

Western style dress has become the default mode for international statesmen and businessmen. Western culture is paramount. When South Korea had an unaccustomed novelty hit in the music charts a while back, something which occasioned great celebration in another country with millennia of indigenous culture to draw from, it was a mock-up of a western disco hit that could have been recorded in New York, Paris or London.

Western culture, dress and style has taken over. Even in countries like Russiam, or China post the Mao suit, which were never formally part of anyone’s empire, the two piece with tie is the norm among the well off and powerful.

This was a legacy of the Victorian era when it took over from more foppish Regency styling and became the costume of the middle classes, whether monied or less so. It said, I can afford clothing that wastes material and includes an entirely unnecessary neck accessory. I am not part of the proletariat.

One assumes its adoption, by Russian biznez or Indian technocrats, is saying much the same. We are not part of our own lumpen culture. We have transcended it. It is as if when the colonial tide abated, it left its cultural norms and accoutrements behind, which supplanted their indigenous equivalent. Then as western  film and music became dominant, the local producers were required to mimic it.

There are exceptions. Bollywood is a bastardised form, despised by many Indian intellectuals, but it retains a degree of authenticity, at least in terms of the music, and is wildly popular in its target audience in or outside the subcontinent. Chinese traditional opera is still popular, as is Sufi devotional music in much of the Muslim world. Some developing world leaders, in Africa especially, cling to their traditional costumes.

There is none of the crossover you see in Gangnam Style, though. The traffic is in one direction. They take from us; we take nothing from them.

Most forms of art that came from non-western cultures were incomprehensible to the west, and were ignored. East Asian gamelan, Sung Dynasty painting, south Indian Carnatic music. Barely known except by experts.

This western cultural juggernaut is picking up pace, because of the domination of English as the lingua franca of the Internet. It is no coincidence that the game changers came from the English speaking world, Microsoft, Google, Oracle, the rest. China, South Korea and India may be good at the hardware, and the services behind it. They will never catch up with the west in true innovation, while we have that inbuilt advantage.

One of the great debates in history has to do with western exceptionalism. A culture that a thousand years ago was merely a collection of warlords on the fringes of civilisation, lagging well behind the Islamic world and China, within 500 years was the technological leader and within three or four more centuries was in charge most of the globe. It is a process that seems to be happening again on the cultural front. And on the Internet, where it matters rather more.

On Supermarkets, And Cynicism

Tesco has gained some useful free publicity by selling champagne for £8 a bottle, just in time for Christmas.

God knows what it tastes like – some reports say not that great. Because at my local megastore, early on Saturday morning, there was none to be seen.

There was space for about 12 bottles, a tiny stretch of shelving, with the offer on full display. Elsewhere around the store, there was acres and acres of shelves devoted to the full priced stuff, £25, £30 a bottle.

Next to that empty space, though, there was a huge number of bottles of another champagne, at almost £14 a bottle. Claimed to be half price, though these offers are never what they seem.

The way it works is this. Shoppers read about the £8 stuff, and go along to buy it. Needless to say, it barely exists. No supermarket can make a profit at £8 a bottle. They can, at £14. So you can’t get the cheap stuff, but you say, well I want some champagne anyway. You pick up the £14 bottle. The free publicity therefore means Tesco can sell more of the stuff it can make a profit on.

Utterly cynical.

Tesco admitted a couple of months ago that there was a hole in its accounts worth a quarter of a billion quid, because someone had been cooking the books. You’d have to sell a fair few bottles of fizz at £14 to make up the difference.

Still, every little helps.