Thursday, 28 February 2008

Slogans

Could not help it, had to let some thoughts formulate while whooshing through Heathrow again, having been saturated with advert slogans shouting at me everywhere.

Some are the pinnacle of very useful and sales-increasing nonsense, while others are just plain funny- although they don't intend to be.

My favourite was a mobile phone company saying: 'Think fast, browse faster'. Hmmm. Hokay. I wonder what happens if I manage to browse faster on my phone than thinking. Would I even be able to operate the scroll bar or even read what's on the screen? Lovely and fills you with positive vibe, but it's absolute nonsense.

The other is just funny for the techies. Vodafone says: 'Make the most of now'. Yep mate, you'd better, because your battery will run flat in a few minutes, if you are going nuts with HSUPA data transfers while playing your favourite Bluetooth-interconnected Java racing game on the damn thing.

Then some are just enigmatically hilarious. Passing through, well, going past the chemical warfare zone filled with so-called perfumes, I see '121 Sexy Men'. Now it is not clear to me: do they only sell 121 bottles of the silly thing, so those who use it, will become sexy due to it? Or... you share each bottle between 121 men who, inevitably, will all become sexy. Or... maybe it commemorates something similar to the battle of Thermopylae, but fought with very smelly bottles of dubious chemicals, and only by 121 brave warriors armed with gas masks?

A Volvo advert reads: 'Designed to bring people together. And keep them apart.' OK, so... the car is cosy, nice, fast, comfy, makes people get together in it, with it, by it. But then it also of course it is stupendous enough to keep them living far apart from each other, wanting, desiring a ride in that chunky metal box shaped like an angular tank eroded a bit by time and painted over... so that they can cross those distances and be together again. Deeply philosophical utter nonsense, but it certainly works on the more brainless yuppies enthralled by it.

There is also a breakdown of the causality chain. One software advert says, all successful businesses use that software package. OK, so not sure how this can be proven or disproven, therefore it's holy grail of nonsensical advertising, safe enough not to be banned by advertising standard agency (like the stupid BA slogan claiming it to be world's favourite airline, when they just about scraped in at number 14 or so on the list...). And what is cause and effect? Did those companies become successful because they use the monster software? Or they are successful anyway, and they choose to use the thingy - because it's so good or they just feel like it. It is a multi-layered enigma, actually, it is single-layered nonsense that sounds like, actually suggests, something positive caused by that product.

I have to give it to them, they certainly know crowd psychology and looking at their slogans, fruits of their travails, I can see why I am not an advertising executive :-)

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Earthquake

We had,last night in the UK, the strongest earthquake in 25 years, 5.2 on Richter scale. One man was injured, but otherwise the media has characteristically blown this out of proportion, while most other areas of the UK said to be 'strongly affected' felt at 1AM something, as more accurate people put it, equivalent to a truck driving past the house.

This goes to a larger topic. People say, ah, media just exaggerates - but, a bit deeper, maybe the reason for this is that we are really living such empty and routine lives, that we need to overcompensate. Anything banale has to be blow out of proportion to infuse some 'interesting' elements into the everyday reality.

It is some psychological process akin to watching Andy Warhol's Big Sleep - where our stimulus threshold gets progressively lowered so much, that a deeper breath makes us experience thrill comparable to some big event in some action-packed thriller.

Toothpaste gives you 'amazing experience' of cleaning. Really? Amazing?? Experience???

-6 degrees centigrade is 'siberian conditions hitting the UK' ?

1.5 cm snow is so 'severe' that brings everything to a halt?

Trains just about keeping normal timetable are running as 'good' service? Not just normal?

Washing powder also gives you 'amazing experience' as the toothpaste does. Really? Have you ever been blown into a state of metaphysical revelation while dropping the tablets into the washing machine and looked at the result?

When puny things of a puny existence are watched through a desperate magnifying glass meant to make ordinary, downright laughably banale, things extra-ordinary, then yes, we have huge events in our life happening all the time...

Monday, 25 February 2008

Ramp-up

On the slow, lengthy ramp-up to elections, the golden topic, immigration, has produced another great Home Office proposal.

There is of course quite a bit of debate about who, how and to what extent integrates or even wishes to integrate to British society. There is a lot of talk about Britishness and how this could be taught to kids in school even.

Now the proposal is that immigrants who want to become British citizen will spend a timeperiod on 'probation', their progress being monitored and assessed. This includes language skills etc. - after all it is fair to ask that when in Rome, should behave like the Romans...

But on a funnier note, this probation period (never mind exactly how the progress across various criteria will be monitored) could include the following in my opinion:

- does the naturalisation candidate show ability of talking about the weather for 3 hours continuously?

- can he/she gradually ingest 10-12 pints of beer every other day (if daily, even better) ?

- does a gradual cognitive block develop, whereby other countries outside UK (except US) seem to be totally strange, with odd cultures and habits?

- does he/she start imitating the US in every respect and start considering it as a reference point?

- consider, by lowering expectation threashold, anything average/normal as 'great'? For example, the ability of London underground to just about run something on time, will he/she agree that it is not normal, but 'good' service?

Ah the list could really carry on (again).

But on a less funny note, really curious how exactly will Home Office propose to measure and track the progress naturalisations candidates make...

Something that is so fuzzy and multi-faceted, will be assessed based on some amazing 'ruler' placed against it - would like to see the criteria and especially the methodology used to track progress...

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Overload

As UK general elections are no longer barely visible dots on the horizon, time to resort again to cranking up heat on the topic that is guaranteed to trigger useful emotions for any party trying to take rational thinking out of the voting process: immigration.

The Government is proposing to introduce taxes on immigrants, so that latter compensate for the burden (downright overload, if one reads The Sun and other such illuminated publications...) they cause on the health service, transport system etc.

Of course. After all, the following small list of examples can only be seen as clear cases of immigrants being at the roots of the problems, can't it?

- several billion pounds invested into the health service computer system turned out to be, exactly as predicted by many, a complete failure

- just in my area, on a 70 mile long portion of the rail network, there have been 8 1/2 years of engineering works, rendering the train service impossible to use on every weekend. What is therefore the average speed with which they progress?

- newly replaced (over those 8 1/2 years) signaling systems break all the time, taking out of action the trains completely for entire days, while bus replacement services operate chaotically

- while paying 1% extra national insurance for the last few years, the health service has become exponentially more diabolical while the salaries of health service managers have increased exponentially

- hospitals in the UK can become death traps where you die from MRSA, building up statistics that are the shame of EU. Basic cleaning and sanitising is hardly linked to immigration statistics, is it?

- almost 70% of nurses are foreigners. Quite a burden if they leave the health service...

- there are 18 minutes allocated in my London-bound trains' timetable for attaching carriages on Sundays. Not once they manage to complete the operation on time. Wow, immigrants seem to have a telepathic influence, rendering train company staff incompetent!

- Royal Mail loses hundreds of thousands of letters and parcels routinely. Again, immigrants seem to have a telepathic effect somehow...

The list could be very long on all these things that are an absolute (and quantifiable) shame when compared to any other EU country.

Somehow, as somebody so accurately said in the 1950s, a society that can not own up to its own problems, will project outward. Somehow, all of these things and many more are due to immigrants putting the infrastructure of this country in overload mode.

I wonder if the immigrants start paying special taxes, will the oh-so-British rail company finish the repair of the tracks after almost 9 years? According to BBC Panorama, secretly filmed, they are idle and do absolutely nothing 80% of the time, every working day. How will extra taxes / charges change that?...

Friday, 22 February 2008

Tax haven...

... or a tax hell, rather.

According to the World Bank's analysis, Romania is No. 4 on the list of 178 countries that impose the most taxes on businesses. The average number of taxes a company operating in Romania has to pay is 96.

Now this brings in a wider topic... namely, greed vs. profit, short-term profit chasing vs. longer-term profits.

Apart from just how much the Government and related fori want to milk everything that moves in that country, there is the rather interesting example of how resources are put to use.

The same thought pattern applies there, too. Tourism-related infrastructures are in a weird state, because the emphasis is put on huge prices for often not even modernised facilities, so you may end up paying incredible prices even in European terms for a 1970s un-refurbished room with rusty taps and deplorable facilities.

The main focus is on maximum short-term profit with minimum investment. The places that are usually the exceptions are very 'exclusive' and totally unaffordable to 'mortals', these are not representative statistically either.

It is shameful to have the Black Sea resorts put on explicitly counter-recommended lists of European tour operators, while other ex-Communist countries could manage their natural assets in terms of tourism to such an extent, that became tourist hot-spots. Just think of the contrast between the economical realities and the experiences of Black Sea Romanian 'resorts' and Bulgarian seaside havens.

It is impossible to get the current Romanian circles of business and power to think ahead for more than 5 minutes. The concept of a long-term investment occurs still very rarely, but there are some examples that are encouraging.

There are smaller-scale signs, too of this mentality. It is jungle capitalism, where minimum human decency also goes out on the window, regardless of the EU regulations. I have seen countless waiting rooms where the investment was put in just for bare minimum facilities and pensioners can be waiting 3-4 hours without one single chair in the room. If someone can't read from such signs and connect these with the oh-so-familiar mentality seen everywhere, well...

So... why would one expect that it is a stimulating environment where the Government wishes to entice investors to set up companies and businesses, if most of the thinking is focused on maximum short-term profit?

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Kosovo

It is quite surprising to some (even one editor of the Daily Telegraph) that certain countries like Romania and Slovakia have not recognised Kosovo as a state.

Really? I mean... is it really a surprise? If one looks at the list of countries that vehemently protested against the Kosovo 'situation', it is clear where the emotions come from. I find it hard, well, impossible to find a country on that list which does not have a serious ethnic minority issue.

In case of Romania and Slovakia, it really isn't a surprise.

Both countries were hand in hand at every opportunity to go on extreme nationalist rampages against their very large ethnic minority (Hungarians), with acts ranging from childish but oh-so familiar flag burning to government-level declarations & measures.

Now again, it is perfect harmony between fellow nationalist extremists.

Would one expect a country like Romania, which in 2006 voted among the Top 10 Great Romanians figures like the fascist dictator Ion Antonescu (and in top 40, the founder leader of the Iron Guard, the fascist paramilitary organisation so infamous in the 1930s-1940s), to solve any ethnic minority issue in any civilised manner?

Or, not having solved them at even basic level (still many things are in direct violation of the Romanian Constitution even, which is funny as it contains anyway only much watered down versions of European ethnic minority rights-related points...), could one expect it not to react like the bull in front of the fluffy red cloth when it sees basically an ethnic group achieving independence in Europe?

Would such countries see the Kosovo situation as something acceptable, when they, in 2008, are still vehemently arguing with foaming mouths about something as simple as whether a minority has the right to have bi-lingual street signs? Let's not even talk about more important and bigger issues...

All above are rhetorical questions. The Kosovo 'move' is interesting and it will reverberate for a while...

Friday, 15 February 2008

Discipline

Discipline in schools... ah yes, that old chestnut.

Recently it has been said that introducing re-trained ex-army personnel into schools to work with and as teachers is the answer. It seems to work, so let's expand it as a general practice. There is already an organisation in the UK specialising on such particular re-training and it's doing quite well.

It is something that Eastern Europe very quickly aligned itself with, namely the lack of discipline in schools and the impossibility of achieving any decent disciplined and civilised climate in a classroom.

While kids absorb into every cell of their body the fact that they have, above all, rights , while the notion of responsibility is becoming a matter of ridicule, one of the direct consequences is the utter lack of respect and any notion of discipline in the classroom. It spans from mischievous devils to grown-up students who, as lately a friend had to get into an argument with, could nonchalantly peel oranges over an 18th century manuscript in the college library. They have rights, get it?

Kids, both back home in that mythical Eastern Europe and in the more tangible UK, throw things at the teacher as soon as he/she turns his/her back. May even assault and/or stab a teacher or headteacher to death. And the much milder little devils 'just' limit themselves to being disruptive, be totally resilient to any disciplinary measure and generally turn the school into a laboratory experiment into chaos theory.

I remember my school days when the teacher entering the classroom meant instantaneous silence.

But re-trained ex-army people are the answer. And there are lots of reasons and examples brought up in the BBC report on this.

May I ask... Could we then, applying exactly the same thinking heard there, introduce a military dictatorship? Please do - obviously, following the very same thought (?) process and line of arguments, the society's problems (very similar to what a classroom looks & feels nowadays, but at a grander scale in all respects) would be solved as by magic...

Thursday, 14 February 2008

The Venus Offence

1532: Lucas Cranach the Elder paints Venus.
2008: The Royal Academy of Arts displays a poster all over London for advertising the upcoming Cranach exhibition.

The real headline here is (not by any means diminishing Cranach...) that Transport for London, which operates the Underground, banned the poster as offensive.

They say they have "to take account of the full range of travellers and endeavour not to cause offence in the advertising we display".

In other words, yet again, some absolute sad person sitting in a badly ventilated office with no view onto the outside world (yep, may even be underground office for all I know) has decided what others may or may not feel/think while they, in this particular case, glance at an almost 500 year old painting.

Others define employee code of conduct, where - I literally quote from a such brochure- the employee should not ask for black coffee, as it may offend somebody. One should ask for coffee with no milk.

Others define rules by which saying fireman instead of firefighter is offensive.

Others ban cute piglet cartoon characters playing builders as it may offend the muslim community.

Others ban a children's book because occasional scenes where kids climb onto certain things may give unsafe ideas to some children and endanger them.

The list is truly endless but as the infinite Universe, it does keep expanding further. And from where I'm standing, we may be uncertain on whether Universe expands in an accelerating or constant or decelerating manner, but the human stupidity is definitely expanding in accelerated fashion.

Sorry, but the rules about non-fascist, non-offensive, non-discriminatory etc. etc. acts, images, words, phrasings are born in the minds of the most fascist, offensive, discriminating and above all, idiotic, terminally sad bureacrats of the world.

What sane and normal person would have those thoughts and word associations?

There is an issue with ludicrous political correctness and many dark matters (no pun intended) of this society, but there is a limit to political correctness that we crossed at least in the UK many years ago.

Please, please, Mr. Oh-So-Protective-And-Considerate Person (did I say Mr? might be Ms or Mrs - gosh, I am discriminating already!), let's put a veil or even ban hundreds of classical paintings in the National Gallery and every other exhibition space!

Or please, at least, make sure you put a big sign up at the entrance, paraphrasing good old Dante: Give up all hope of political correctness those who enter. You may see naked bodies and just downright scandalous imagery of nude gods, demi-gods and mortals. Be warned!

And possibly append a contact telephone number where we all could log complaints on, let's say, Botticelli. OK, his Venus is not in London, but that is far from the point ;-)

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Neurons

A news item that occupied the front pages and electronic headlines for the last few days:

The Archbishop of Canterbury, being interviewed by the BBC last Thursday, shared his thoughts about the use of sharia law to resolve "some personal or domestic issues among Britain's Muslims, much like the way Orthodox Jews have their own courts for some matters."

Asked if sharia needed to be applied in some cases for community cohesion, Williams said: "It seems unavoidable."

As a news item puts it, "Williams' comments sparked outrage in some newspapers, led by the mass circulation Sun" - the latter, well known for being a 'BNP publication' and giving voice to thought processes that would feel at home only in the 10th-11th centuries, launched a campaign to remove him from office, accusing him of giving heart to "Muslim terrorists".

I love it. We go absolutely bonkers about fundamentalist Muslim circles going bonkers about certain caricatures, a teddy bear called Mohammed, various quotes from the Pope that were meant in a certain context... and then, while shouting about how 'they' misinterpret things and take them out of context in extreme (or extremist) ways, 'we' do exactly the same.

Well, by 'we' I mean quite a number of well-circulated papers, and even the BBC (which wishes to be so painfully objective that it lost any edge in political reporting since it got slapped).

Personally, as I can't and won't debate the views aired in publications like the Sun, I find it ultimately ironic that 'we' resort to the same treatment of something that was meant in context. 'We' cancel any activity between synapses of our neurons, and 'we' happily raise our pulse rate and blood pressure without any actual thought given to the quotes...

On the other hand, in today's interesting world (in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse of 'may you live in interesting times'...), how would one expect a balanced discussion, the ability to put things not only into a social context, but also into the context of the very numerical and factual realities of our multi-cultural society ?

Knowing the average IQ of the readers of Sun (not from an in-depth scientific survey, just a wide and statistically representative exposure & contact with those avid readers over my last decade or so), one really should not raise one's pulse rate and blood pressure.

It is hard to tolerate that nonsense though, as similar publications, even when apparently quoting numerical facts, can easily multiply real figures more than 12 times even (cue their claim that 60% of council houses are occupied by immigrants).

The tragicomic fact is that all this sounds word-by-word familiar - one could hear and see this in Romania, about ethnic minorities pre- and post-Revolution. One has to just replace certain nouns and figures in speeches of demented fascicts like Gh. Funar or C. V. Tudor, and you got yourself an article in the Sun about something else, somewhere else, at some other point in time.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Natural(isation)

One of the most unnatural processes to go through in the UK is called naturalisation.

Yep, it's a word that regularly wakes up British National Party members (single-word synonims are widely available in the English dictionary for these people, but you'd find that most of those words are close references to things characteristic to a particular area of Europe of the 1930s and 1940s).

It wakes them up as only vivid nightmares can. It is a process by which a foreign citizen acquires British citizenship - and quite naturally, no pun intended, it is a complex process.

What made it truly unnatural was the introduction of a 'Britishness' test. This exists in many countries (well, not about Britishness) and it's supposed to test the applicant on basic matters of the country he/she applies for citizenship in.

It is quite appropriate to test someone on basic knowledge about the society. In Rome, please, please, behave like the Romans.

But... it seems 1 in 7 British-born people can actually pass the test. This comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with current levels of general knowledge in the country and the level of the education system in Britain.

On the other hand, the questions in the test are ludicrous.

May I ask, what do the following questions do with knowledge about British society? :

What is the population of Wales?

What proportion of young people in the United Kingdom who became first-time voters in the 2001 general election actually used their vote?

Would you say that rate of demographic growth is higher in UK compared to US?

How many died in the Holocaust?

What proportion of the population of the UK comes from [...] ethnic background?


Another way of looking at this is that well, these questions do reflect British society.

All the angst, misguided imitation of the US in every respect (at least we are there already with obesity statistics), paranoia, wide-spread but well-hidden xenophobia (unless one is a BNP member, in which case can be openly fascist) etc. is captured in the questions.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Emptiness

In many ways, this is linked to the blog entry entitled 'More'. Just that, having faced another stupendous example of overstated desperate marketing, I couldn't resist a summary of the slogans most devoid of meaning and/or content.

While advancing as a rodent through the surface of a dark rye cracker, noticed on its packaging, that if I send in some coupon, I could win (no, not receive, win! imagine the thrill of it!) an exclusive tin box to keep them in. It will be a limited edition tin box with serial number etched onto its surface - to hold my rye crackers in.

Fantastic. After that, one would really feel as part of an exclusive club.

On a less sarcastic note,it really truly is one of the pinnacles of desperation, not limited to a marketing person, a brand... With such wonderful examples being wide-spread, we are really living in a society where deep, deep down, some realise (or perhaps subconsciously feel the need to compensate for the fact) that what we consume in ever greater amorphous masses is truly devoid of individuality, personality, meaning, impossible to separate from the other masses of dross. If a rye cracker can become such an object of exclusivity, to be held in special edition branded tin box, then...

Similarly, a well-known jeans manufacturer (some say designer, but... that in itself is an overcompensating overstatement) advertised recently a certain model - saying in huge bold letters on every slogan: Be Individual!

Certainly buying and wearing one of the tens of millions of pairs made would make one become and look individual, yes?

Exclusive, individual - all bolted on top of the most banal products and material goods that we may buy. Limited editions abound, not limited just to DVD Nth special ultimate definitive never-to-be-seen-ever-again director's cut editions, but also to shampoo, soap, hair straighteners, oh yes, rye crackers and jeans. And whisky flasks made of stainless steel. To name just a few utterly exclusive items spotted in last 3-4 months of empty, vacuum-ridden advertising campaigns.

The bitter irony is that if a society, so much navigating right into the centre of the world that Philip K. Dick so chillingly accurately prophesized in his Mold Of Yancy (quoted him before, but... here we are again), realises self-consciously or subconsciously how devoid of meaning everything has become and just how uniform everybody's taste has become, doesn't want nor manage to do anything about it any more.

It just resorts to futile and laughable re-labeling of vacuous banal objects as things that give its buyer, wearer, user a sense of utter exclusivity. You MUST feel special.

If you can't develop a personal taste, can't think for yourself, can't acquire a good general and specialised knowledge about what is around you, then, as something that takes much less effort, you can glow and shine even as these exclusive products turn you into an individual. Unless you realise another few hundreds of millions of people use the same exclusive things.

I must send in that coupon.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Those Ghosts Of Old & New Romania

When I started Notes From A Tunnel, commented on the ghosts of the Ceausescu era that are still so very much walking around in the present 'new' Romania.

Although we are now 18 years after the changes, some things pop up in the Romanian political, and this time legal, scene that enforce this feeling.

The National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives was established long after the changes to look into what current key figures collaborated with the old regime.

High priests of the Orthodox Church, key current political and business figures have been revealed as collaborators - these just confirmed the well-founded suspicions and rumours.

But now, in 2008, finally the Dark Side wins (again) in Romania. It has now been stated that, according to the Constitutional Court, the Council is anti-constitutional. Both chambers of the Parliament will be told and it seems obvious that all existing legal proceedings brought against the proven long-term Securitate collaborators will be stopped.

It is great to have a Parliament that brings laws to protect the most dubious and vicious politicians in both of its chambers.

The reasoning for the activity of the Council being show as anti-Constitutional is obviously laughable. Well, tragicomic.

There are still voices that say, things have really changed in Romania. Yes, true - but some things that really matter, with one key example being the ability to own up to its past, have not changed at all.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Freedom of Sight

We apparently have freedom of speech and thought. Not sure any more about freedom of sight, or rather, freedom in capturing sights.

As a member of the Bureau of Freelance Photographers (no, not a paparazzo, but into travel & architectural photography), I can't help reading more and more cases of downright Stalinist measures brought by British police & overzealous security guards against totally harmless, non-paparazzi photographers, many members of BFP.

In some areas of West London, even professional photographers have been approached and/or detained (!) by police for simply carrying a camera or while setting up a shot. In Ealing, the officer in charge of 'safer neighbourhoods' claims that as per world-wide practice (?!) he can stop anyone for any reason and obtain details on one's identity.

In Richmond Park, somebody taking pictures while using a tripod was told he needs licence because of 'professional' camera being used.

The list continues and includes much more dramatic cases of public incidents being immortalised by semi-professional photographers, who were detained and their equipment was stolen as they had to leave it behind.

When taking shots in a shopping centre, the person was considered a 'security risk' and considerable aggro came his way.

In many cases, public safety, terrorist threat (!), security 'issues' etc. were quoted as reason for absolutely diabolical treatment of the amateur, semi-pro or even professional photographers. The only good news is, that in many cases the police was taken to court (ironic...) or settled compensation in some way, or, at least a formal apology was obtained.

This is a free society, where the culture of fear at all levels has been so well imprinted into any small person with small power that they truly think they are fighting on the barricades that protect this society from aggression.

If that is not the key motivator, then it may just be health & safety. An amateur photographer, in a case that made the, was escorted from the London Eye as his tripod was a 'public safety risk'.

It has escalated to such a level now, that even the vice-chair of the National Union of Journalists' Photographers Sub-Committee had to give advice to people and emphasised that taking pictures in a public place is not against any UK law.

Not yet.