Saturday, February 25, 2012

On The Motivations of the Guilds of Craftsmen

When people in the same business are apart they are plotting against each other. When they get together they are plotting against the rest of us. There are plenty of professions where entry needs to be controlled to some extent. You wouldn’t want just anyone putting a sign on his door and calling himself a doctor. The business of finding out whether he had actually learned anything other than a flick through Gray’s online and what he remembered from ‘playing’ with his cousin in the airing cupboard years ago is likely to be quite exhilarating, but possibly rather short. No, we really want to know that when we go to a medical practitioner he has been weighed in the balance by an expert group of his peers who would have liked nothing better than to keep him out of their club, but couldn’t find a reason to do so.

We can add a number of other professions in which it is essential that a certain expertise be demonstrated before one is allowed to practice. Some where it might be considered useful or helpful to the customer. These might include many of the artisans’ guilds. After all, the mechanical quality of a mediaeval clock cannot easily be judged by a layman. But then there are many professions and trades in which the customer requires no such protection, and the only reason practitioners have for restricting entry is to protect themselves.

The first group that comes to mind are journalists. They have created for themselves a complex mythology, the illusion that they are special, a cut above the rest of us, and so entitled to cheat and lie and act abominably in circumstances where mere mortals would be criticised and punished. At times we seem to take them at their own evaluation. A bad idea, as well as a wrong one.

They have always been attempts to decide who could and could not be employed as a journalist, to limit the numbers who were called journalists as opposed to commentators or whatever, and the powerful groups were keen to keep certain people out, but in Britain at least it doesn’t seem to have been particularly successful, perhaps because it wasn’t easy to define criteria which weren’t transparently interpretable as ‘so-and-so’s son’, and ‘his uncle handles the free tickets for Wimbledon’. But it has never stopped them trying. In Spain you can do a degree in journalism. There doesn’t seem to be any real point, not in terms of what you learn, but it’s still the best way to get into the club.

The Internet will soon kill print journalism and the legal and practical limits on the number of news outlets have ceased to exist. Anyone can do news reporting now, all that is needed is something to report on, something to say about it, and some idea of how to communicate. We will see a huge number of major news gathering organizations come to prominence in the next few years, some of them with familiar names, and many will disappear again quickly. There will be turnover as there is in music and fashion, but it won’t just be yesterday’s edition wrapping the chips, it’ll be yesterday’s journalists.

There is clearly no need for the law, or the union, to establish criteria for whom a news outlet may choose to employ. Someone looking to hire a writer will have available all the information they require to make that choice. Insisting that they can’t employ someone who doesn’t have the right degree, or the right experience, or the approval of the Head Boy and Girl, serves no one but those who already have power within the trade. It doesn’t help the paper or the reader in any way. It’s not only the unions who like the idea of deciding who is and who is not a journalist. Governments would love to licence journalists, privileging the tame ones and making life difficult for the outsiders.

The same is true of acting and music. I have an actress friend who often complains about ‘intrusismo’, which I don’t know the English word for, but what she means is that, despite having gone to drama school, she loses out on TV roles to people who have little formal training, but are younger and better looking than she is (I should say, even though she is unlikely to read this, that she is in fact young and attractive, but so are a lot of other aspiring actresses). What she fails to appreciate is that the laws and customs which prevent just anyone from calling himself a doctor or an architect or whatever, are there to protect the customer, not the worker. In stage and TV the customer is the producer/director, and ultimately the viewer, all of whom are interested only in the actual performance the performer is capable of giving, don’t need to be told how by a piece of paper, because they can see for themselves.

There is a movement among musicians here for some kind of licence. You can’t charge for a performance unless you’ve got a diploma from an official music school or some such nutty idea. That one will never see the light of day, but it’s difficult to explain to them that you earn the right to be paid by playing something that someone actually wants to hear, and playing it well.

Another angle on this is offered by my physiotherapist, properly trained and competent to do all kinds of things, including treating muscle and bone injuries, some of it with machines, that you wouldn’t want an incompetent playing around with. He complains about ‘intrusismo’, and in this case he’s right to do so, as there are loads of people who’ve learnt to do a basic massage and then call themselves physiotherapists, wasting people’s money and sometimes doing them harm. But my physio also complains about all the rules, on equipment, training of staff, inspections etc, that the association makes him follow. He doesn’t quite grasp that it’s all part of the same thing. You keep out the incompetent (in this case legitimately, I feel) by demanding high standards of the competent.

It’s all rent-seeking of one kind or another, and it’s part of being human. But it pays to be aware of it, and of what’s behind it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

More on Advertising

Talking of advertisements, as I was the other day, there’s another type of advert which really shouldn’t work, but apparently does, because you see it regularly. I refer to the ‘new, improved’ concept, in which the advertiser more or less admits that the product they’ve been selling you for years was a load of rubbish, but now they’ve got a better version that really is worth the money and does what they kept telling you the other one did.

On Spanish TV the last few weeks I have seen an advert for a cleaning product in which they compare the new version with the old (traditional) version, and show you how ineffective the stuff you’ve been using really is. Which makes the new one look terrific, of course, but do we really want to trust these people again? Apparently we do. It must work.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Our Spiteful Press

One of the ways in which England differs from Spain is the extent to which the English are prepared to be told what to think by the media. Every time I visit England, which is usually for a week or so every summer, I have fun identifying the new groups that the media (in general, including the BBC and the Guardian. It must be general or it wouldn’t work) have given people permission to hate.

The hatred of anyone connected with banks is not part of this, by the way. That is a much bigger hate campaign successfully promoted by politicians around the free world to hide the fact that the recession is largely their fault. (Discuss).

No, I’m talking about minority pursuits, people who have interests which can’t seriously be thought to threaten anyone, but who have some reason have drawn the spiteful venom of the press. You can tell these things are not natural, not based on anything real, because they are usually given a convenient handle, everyone complains about exactly the same things, and they are unique to the UK, the same groups of people in other countries apparently never managing to annoy anyone.

In Spain, you either ride a bike or you don’t. Or you sometimes ride a bike, or you have one but don’t use it anymore, or you intend to buy one as soon as your son is old enough to ride. That sort of thing. In England it appears society is divided into Cyclists on the one hand, and the people who call them lycra louts on the other. (Yes, I know some riders can be inconsiderate to pedestrians but car drivers can be a menace on the roads and they don’t get vilified collectively. It’s an invention of the media. Really it is.)

Hands up anyone who has ever had a problem with a Google Street View car. Yes, as I thought. But mention the subject to an English person and they will immediately splutter about all the trouble they have caused for some indeterminate other people who no one seems to know.

Drivers, or cyclists, who use GPS navigators in their vehicles. Could someone explain to me why possession of a perfectly ordinary, and extremely useful piece of equipment, which has greatly simplified travelling and made it a lot safer at the same time, should come to be a diagnostic tool for finding people to look down your nose at and metaphorically spit upon?  A tough one, isn’t it? But in the land of my birth it was so, at least for a time.

Drinkers of bottled water suffered the same fate a few years ago. Now it is users of electronic cigarettes. I have seen references to ‘vapers’, clearly a code word for ‘someone to whom I am vastly superior’, being used in supposedly respectable newspapers to describe people who use this harmless, odourless, non-polluting device in order to adapt their customs to the convenience of those around them. Why are we being told to hate them? Perhaps the Guardian can tell us.

I am an Englishman, and shall always be rather proud of the chance that got me born there, but a lot of our journalists are petty, ignorant and provincial, and are lucky that in a free country they rarely have to answer for their words.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What is an Opinion Worth?

What someone thinks it is. You can no more decree the 'value' of an opinion than you can decree the value of a sack of potatoes. It's worth whatever value someone is prepared to give it.

We assume that the wisdom of crowds will ensure that a fair impression is given overall – that the uncensored self-expression of hundreds of millions will tend towards the truth. Half the time it just regresses to the mean.

I wonder if he understands any of the ideas he has introduced there. I suspect not. In any case we assume no such thing. Under certain conditions to have greater confidence in the pooled thought of a group than in any one individual from that group, but most of the time all you get is a collection of opinions.

The article is about how important he is and how much more seriously he should be taken than people who just write anonymous comments. He says an internet troll’s opinion should carry no more weight than graffiti. That ‘should’ is a bit of a giveaway. He doesn’t like being criticised and is flailing around for a way to stop it happening that doesn’t sound excessively totalitarian. Inevitably there are calls, above and below the line, for some kind of control on what people can say without providing a name. Prohibition is some people’s answer to everything, sadly.

Although he writes under the name David Mitchell, I have no idea who he is, or whether that is his real name. To me he is anonymous as I am to him. I have no idea whether his opinion is based on any kind of expert knowledge that might give it a little weight. Internal evidence in the text suggests not. He just objects to people saying bad things about him.

So do we all, but the answer, I’m afraid, is not to set yourself up as an opinion-former in a major national newspaper. Anyone who has any kind of public profile, from this little blog to the comment pages of the Guardian, from Westminster to Old Trafford, passing through Hollywood on route to Hello magazine, is open to personal criticism. Communication works both ways. You tell me what you think, and I’ll tell you if I think you’re wrong. Some people will get nasty. Not everyone is nice. Not everyone cares who you think you are. Some will snipe quietly without leaving a trace. If they aren’t doing it on line they’ll be doing it in the pub, or just to themselves. The only difference is that you don’t get to find out. You delete them. You live with it, if you want people to hear your ideas.

The alternative is to shut people up by force, and that is not a good idea. In any case, you can’t stop people disagreeing with you, or thinking bad things about you. Not everyone likes you, and not everyone thinks you’re wonderful. You can’t change that, however Draconian the laws you pass.

An opinion is worth the value we attribute to it. No more, no less. I attribute little or no value to the opinion of David Mitchell because it’s clear he’s writing from a personal perspective, motivated by the chip on his shoulder. He knows little of his subject and is not interested in informing or promoting the interests of the reader. A journalist’s worthless opinion is obviously worth nothing. A priori, any journalist’s opinion is worth nothing. As a graffiti artist or a troll’s opinion is worth nothing unless it creates value for itself.

The whole article, and many of the comments, and the assumption behind it- that many people will agree with him- is no more than a self-conscious plea to be taken as seriously as he takes himself. Not an attractive posture.

In part two, I shall rant about groups who think they are special and try to protect their imagined status by making rules to exclude those who are ‘not like them.’

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Instant Universes in Advertising

The language of advertising, in fact the whole communicative package of advertising, is very interesting. It provides an object that is relatively easy to study, since the only important underlying message is ‘buy this product’. You know that the advert is saying that, and the chances are that it’s saying it very successfully because, although not all adverts are commercially successful, the people who make them are very good at what they do.

There are many ways of representing that basic message, usually involving the creation of some sort of narrative structure, in a single image or a few seconds of film, and it often means providing the mark customer with just enough cues that the cultural baggage they are assumed to have will suffice to let them invent the narrative for themselves. It saves time, but it’s hard to do.

Some adverts go so far as to create that cultural baggage within themselves, in a single sentence or a short sequence of images, planting in the viewer’s mind the necessary assumption on which the whole story is based, where no such assumption existed before. Such adverts don’t so much disappear up their own navels as loop the loop inside it and come shooting out again.

Readers of a certain age will remember adverts for the Electricity Board (I think) which showed scenes of family life and began with the words ‘Sunday breakfast in the kitchen, electric…’ The implication in the phrase, the tone and the image was that it was natural to have breakfast on Sundays all together in the kitchen, which you wouldn’t do the rest of the week. It did a very good job of creating and transmitting the (false) cultural assumption that it needed you to use to interpret the rest of the advert. The real reason for it was that they wanted to have the whole scene set in the kitchen rather than going from there to the dining room, so that you could see the nice shiny electric oven and hotplates, but equally they couldn’t present the idea as new, so it was slid into your brain at the start and then a moment later you found it there, the tool required to interpret the advert in the way they intended, as though it had always been there. It’s clever, and difficult to do. If it’s obvious, it doesn’t work.

Recently there has been an advert on TV here for some kind of yoghourt, premised on the assumption that children are happy drink milk in the morning but not in the afternoon, and they need to drink two glasses a day. This is presented so naturally that you could easily just accept it and start trying to pour yoghourt down your children’s throat. Unless you stop to think, but the clever adverts don’t let you think.

A slightly different version is an advert for a car, from a couple of years ago, which involves a mouse in some way that I don’t recall clearly. At the end, and out of nowhere (I mean it doesn’t emerge from the narrative) there is a voice-over by a middle-aged actress pretending to be a simpering little girl, who says, ‘Daddy, will you buy me the car of Ratoncito Pérez? (a mythical mouse who’s our version of the tooth fairy). In one line it manages to create and implant in the viewer’s mind the entirely false impression that children are naturally referring to this car in that way. Familiarity and confidence in the product swell up manifold within as though attached to a helium cylinder. The mouse in the advert isn’t even intended to be a representation of the Tooth Mouse, it’s just a mouse, but in the final two seconds, almost as an afterthought, they attach the product firmly to a cultural icon, effortlessly forming in your mind an association that you can believe has been there since you were a child. It’s the speed and the finality which make it so interesting. It’s a great trick if you can do it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Stonehenge as Acoustic Experiment

There is a general assumption in anthropology that the larger and more pointless the structure, the more terrified were the people of their gods.
Stonehenge is a case in point. However it was built, and whoever built it, it took a tremendous amount of work. You need a very good reason to do it, and the best reasons of all are to keep the gods happy. They are, after all, the ones who will keep your crops growing, your enemies cowed, and your body healthy. If the idea was just to know when to plant the crops, or when to expect an eclipse of the moon, a simpler, smaller and, above all, lighter, solution would have served. Stonehenge is what it is because, for some reason, it had to be like that.
So was it built in order to reproduce the interference patterns of sound? It’s very tempting to say, err, probably not, but Stephen Waller has worked hard to make his research sound reasonably sensible.
He says, and he’s probably right as far as it goes, that moving around in the space between two pipers piping we experience louder areas where the sounds reinforce one another and quieter areas where they almost cancel out, as though a large stone block were in the way. Ancient Britons were fascinated by this phenomenon, attributed ritual or mystic significance to it, and built Stonehenge in order to reproduce it permanently on a massive scale.
When addressing the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a certain panache and self-confidence are required, especially if the work is a touch speculative. Steven Waller seems to possess these qualities. At least he was heard. I shall leave it to the experts to decide whether there is any merit to his theory, but it’s certainly imaginative.

Found Poetry in Wikipedia

The son of a photocopier technician, he trained as a butcher, but became involved in graffiti during the great Bristol aerosol boom of the late 1980s.

It makes perfect sense, and it may well be true, for all I know, but it is so improbable, so hard to process at a first reading, and so dull (these things are all linked, and linked to the conclusion) that all you hear in your mind as you read is the sound, and the sound is good.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


More comments on a book, as I wrote it for myself a few days ago, and without amendment (too busy/lazy; or alternatively it gives insight into my personal reaction to the work, unaffected by the presence of an audience).