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Colin Johnson’s blog


Archive for August, 2011

Subcultures and Social Class (2)

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

It is a common failing of parents to view all subcultures as drop-out underclass cultures. When I was a teenager there were no significant subcultures at our (suburban, working-class) comprehensive school; by which, I mean that no-one was part of a recognisable national subculture like punks or skinheads. The view of my parents, and I suppose my own view at the time, was that these subcultures were all an underclass, people who had completely rejected the regular society around them.

It was a surprise, following this, to meet a lot of people from various subcultures at university. In particular, it was a complete shock to realise that some subcultures (Goth is a canonical example) were primarily middle-class. I think my parents were rather shocked to see me hanging around with what to them were the dregs of society—in practice, I was hanging out with people from what they would have viewed as respectable middle-class families.

Subcultures and Social Class (1)

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

There have been a number of articles, a book even, about the idea that the concept of the Chav is anti-working-class. I’m not so sure. The problem that I have with this is that it has in the background the idea that the Chav subculture represents the core working class culture, rather than being a fairly small subculture within working class culture.

It is a pity that the idea of the decent, hard-working working class has faded into obscurity over the last couple of decades. To a lot of commentators in the media, the term working class means feckless underclass; anyone who holds down a solid job and has a fairly stable family life is portrayed as being a member of the (perhaps lower) middle class. I feel that this rather misses out on a large chunk of the population, the “respectable”, hard-working, law-abiding working classes who don’t see being middle class as a necessary aspiration (but probably don’t mind if people do have that aim). As someone from such a background I find it particularly unpleasant that this group is more-or-less invisible in current British society.

Failure Insurance

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Given that higher education is increasingly costly in the UK, is there a business opportunity for students to take out insurance against the risk that they will fail the course? If so, how would the insurer ensure that the failure was due to an inability to achieve the aims of the course, rather than just fecklessness?

Net Neutrality and Entrepreneurship

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

It seems odd that net neutrality is associated with the liberal left, with the canonical right-wing argument being that neutrality is a kind of enforced anti-market equality . However, a perfectly decent argument could be made from a pro-capitalist standpoint that net neutrality is a desirable aim.

At the core of one such argument is the idea of an easy-entry space in which entrepreneurialism can occur. It is clear that different markets have different entry requirements—starting up a business online is trivial, starting a shop or market stall fairly low entry, whilst starting a broadcast TV station is complex and expensive. We can imagine what a different country we would live in if, to open a shop, you had to agree with a national chain of shopping malls to open a shop in every location simultaneously, and no individual shops were available.

Other costs of doing business also benefit from a comparable neutrality—for example, the neutral transport and logistics infrastructure means that you can readily shift small amounts of goods around the country via postal and courier firms, not have to have a complex logistics contract in place before you can start a small business.

The creation of easy-entry spaces is a core activity of pro-business governments throughout the world, who are prepared to throw large amounts of money at smoothing out this entry point, through the creation of enterprise zones, regional development agencies, business hubs, science parks and so on.

The neutral net is, in many ways, an ideal enterprise zone; and, what’s more, it is entirely self-sustaining. It seems astonishing that pro-business governments would be prepared to throw this away, when they are getting for free what in other domains they throw vast amounts of public sector money at, often without much success.

Perhaps the key difference here isn’t right- vs. left-, its big vs. small or new vs. old. In many ways, the non-neutral net, like broadcast TV, is a big/old favouring medium; so is the “big socialism” of e.g. Soviet Russia. Both of these have a high entry cost for new activity; in broadcast TV, the “block size” of entity you ned to create is large; in a big socialist system the complexity of the planning system plays a similar role. In a smaller/new-focused organisation, neutrality aids innovation, whether in a more capitalist-focused system (e.g. a market stall) or in a social-oriented system (think about a student union where the preconditions for setting up a student society are that you have 20 students interested).

The diagram that has been kicking around for years comparing the non-neutral net to a subscription TV channel is a very succinct summary of the issues here.

And yet, perhaps this matters less now that in did a few years ago. Increasingly, it is the large websites—facebook, Amazon, YouTube—that are the infrastructure of the net, not individual company sites. This is evidenced by the increasing trend of companies to include www.facebook.com/example as the link in advertising, rather than www.example.com; similarly, a service like about.me, which presents a brief bio, photo and list of social networking sites as a replacement for the traditional “home page”. So, perhaps neutrality matters less to the entrepreneur—as long as potential customers can access these base, neutral platforms, that’s okay, and they will surely be including in the “basic package” for most internet services. But, it seems terribly risky to predicate the success of your business on the ongoing commitment of these firms to continue to provide a neutral platform.

Wotsa Swanga?

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Found the item “Swangas” on my shopping list a few days ago. What on earth is a Swanga? After a lot of thinking realised that this was “Swan Gas”, i.e. the stuff that you use to refill lighters.

Circumspect

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Just realised that I’ve been misunderstanding the word “circumspect” all of my life. I had always assumed that it meant looking at something briefly or superficially, but looking it up after seeing it in a context where that doesn’t work, I realise that it means more-or-less the opposite: looking carefully at all aspects of a situation. This illustrates a danger with trying to understand words from their etymology—I had assumed that it meant “looking just around the edge of something” like the use of “circum” in “circumference”, not “looking at something from all aspects”.

Indian Club Swinging

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

When my dad was in the Boys Brigade back in the 1930s, he learned Indian Club Swinging, a style of exercise that has become popular again in recent years. I recently took some video of him demonstrating this; here it is:

Also, I’ve discovered that it isn’t very easy to Google “club swinging” without lots of ads for “swingers clubs” popping up—something very different indeed!

Joke (1)

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

A number of people have produced aquariums (acquaria?) based on early Apple Mac computers; these are sometimes referred to as MacQuariums. Here is an example:

Mac turned into an aquarium

(Photo by Dale Basler.)

In 20 years time, will be turning old iPhones into aquariums for plankton?

T-shirt Wordplay

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Rather liked this T-shirt slogan that I saw the other day: “The ultimate pub-crawl: the night you won’t remember that you’ll never forget”. I find the prospect of being so drunk that you can’t remember anything frightening—but I appreciate the wordplay.

Different Interpretations

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Interesting to see the differing headlines concerning the National Student Survey results:

  • One in ten students ‘not happy’ with degree – The Telegraph
  • Only a quarter of students are happy with their degree course – The Times
  • 1 in 11 uni students is ‘unhappy’ on course – Metro
  • Most UK students ‘satisfied with university course’ – BBC News
  • Eight out of 10 higher education students give their courses top marks – HEFCE Press Release

Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Volkov, Usher Hall, 13th August 2011

Saturday, August 13th, 2011

This concert, by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with their Principal Guest Conductor Ivan Volkov, consisted of three works by composer Jonathan Harvey. Specifically, three linked works were presented, all written specifically for this group, inspired by buddhist ideas of purification.

The first piece, Body Mandala, was a taut piece with two main kinds of material: one focused around complex, morphing sequences of brass chords, inspired by the low horns used in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, whilst the second kind of material consisted of rapid sequences of staccato chords alongside long runs on clarinet and flute. Overall, this combination of material was effective and the piece remained tight and focused.

Speakings, the second piece and most recent of the three pieces, was by far the most extensive and complex of the three. The piece was broken into three contiguous movements, which gave it a clear structure throughout its span. A distinctive element in this piece was the use of a computer system which, at points in the piece, processed the sound of the orchestra so as to shape it into patterns that followed the shape of some spoken-voice samples. This had mixed effects. In many parts of the work it simply added to the complexity of an already dense texture without adding much that was distinctive. When it was allowed to speak out, against a sparser or cleaner orchestra texture, it came into its own: a section in the second movement, and several points in the third movement, though the use of a baby’s cry to shape the sound in the opening and ending was perhaps a little cheap. Overall, the third movement, was the most effective, reaching two powerful points of rest, each followed by a primitive flute melody. The ever-ascending string patterns and swirling electronic sounds towards the end of the movement was particularly powerful.

Following the complexity of Speakings, the final piece, …towards a Pure Land was rather jarring in its simplicity. In many ways this was the closest to what a naïve listener might expect from a meditative, Buddhism inspired piece—washy string textures, wind effects from the percussion, fragments of ritualistic percussion, bells—but, the piece didn’t sink into new-age waffle, retaining interest throughout.

Overall, the standard of performance was excellent, with stand-out violin solos being performed with angular precision, and the complexity clarinet solos in the first piece being deftly handled. Overall, an interested insight into different aspects of how ritual and meditation has inspired a composer.

Inspiration (3)

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Idea for a performance: one day, from first light until the sun is below the horizon, stand next to Greyfriar’s Bobby doing the “rabbit ears” gesture over his head.

Inspiration (2)

Monday, August 8th, 2011

Idea for an artwork: a house which, as far as possible, has been equipped entirely with “Christian” versions of normal household goods, procured from the evangelical shops.

Tedious Progress

Monday, August 8th, 2011

An observation about writing (might apply to other forms of work): a piece of writing will feel like it is approximately 50% complete up until the point at which it is 90% complete.