Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The tyranny of the focus group

Recently we met a rather naive woman weeping over the fate of her book. She had got a contract to write a book of educational materials, and she had assumed that this was due to her strong opinions about what would make a good book. She had a lot of experience in the field, she had thought long and hard about the room for improvement in this particular area, and felt she knew very well what would make a really good book. Her book would be different from all the other books in that particular market, which were all, to a greater or lesser degree, bad.

Then she found out that the plans for the book and the sample chapter had to be given to a series of focus groups - groups of teachers, ordinary teachers with no particular expertise, but teachers representing the vast majority of the market for the book. The feedback was not all positive. Changes had to be made. The book had to become more like all the other books on the market. It had to become more like what was already familiar.

The weeping author was dismayed. She had assumed that the publisher would organize a campaign to persuade potential buyers that this new kind of book was better and should be preferred over the familiar but inferior stuff. Clearly this would spark a debate about the pros and cons of different kinds of books. But it turned out that there was to be no debate and no attempt at persuasion. The focus group would decide, and there could be no questioning the anxieties, prejudices and narrow-minded ideas that doubtless underlay their decision.

Between sobs she described her previous conviction that the free market in goods could also be an arena in which ideas compete with each other, allowing the best to gain ascendance. But if the free market is all about companies looking for the lowest common denominator, there is no hope for a cultural aristocracy (in the good sense of a state in which the best - the aristos - holds sway).

After the sobs died down, what remained was a gnawing sense of the nihilism of what has come to pass - a nihilsm quite different from that of the blue-spectacled Russians, like Sergey Nechaev, but one that still treats all ideas of what is good and true with an indifference that is - to sensitive souls like the naive woman in question - as terrible as anything the nineteenth century nihilists dreamed of.

What hope is there now for a notion of the Good that means more than "that which sells"?

Friday, 20 March 2009

Socialising the losses

We just can't seem to concentrate on our rereading of Nietzsche's "The Genealogy of Morals", which we'd been planning on doing since Christmas. Partly it is the continuing sense that the world is on a historic brink and we just can't find the kind of Taoist inner calm to give our minds entirely over to a very difficult text from the 19th century. There are too many troubling things like Credit Default Swaps, which we still can't fathom out - things that are a real thorn in the flesh. It seems imperative to understand what Credit Default Swaps are, and what the other derivatives (derivatives of what?) might be, and how it could come to be that the value of all those derivates exceeds the total earnings of everyone on the planet. It seems that over the last decade, while we were tending our hillside vegetable plot and sleepily reading Rousseau's "Confessions" in the evenings, Finance was taking off in a historically unprecedented way and we were completely unaware of it until something hit the proverbial fan.

We've already mentioned the video Money as Debt, which was a real eye-opener and set a convincing agenda for monetary reform, and today, while trying to find out about Quantitative Easing, of which the BBC and Al Jazeera are full at the moment, we came across an oddly heart-warming blog - "oddly" because this is the blog of a trader who seems to have been led by a careful consideration of the numbers (which just don't add up any longer) to the conclusion that the free market needs a radical rethink, beginning with the banks and the money supply. Nathan Martin seems like a very sound chap.

Nathan has some charts. Some of them (because they touch on our evaporated pension funds) are too shocking for us to look at. But there is one that we would like to reprint here. It is a chart of the reserves held by banks. Now a sensible chap would assume that banks would actually have to keep quite a lot of money in the vault, and certainly not lend out more money than they have (although a sensible chap who has had a chat with a few bankers might end up thinking that maybe it's okay for banks to lend out - say - 10 times the amount of money they keep in the vault, as long as they do actually keep that tenth safe and sound). Am I just stupid, or does it not seem right if regular chaps are borrowing money to buy cars and houses and suchlike from insitutions that actually don't have a dime?

Did Marx foresee all of this, or was he so focused on the extraction of surplus value from the sweat of the worker that he paid insufficient attention to the way the whole show ended up being run for the benefit of the banks?

It is all so difficult to understand, though. We find ourselves scratching our heads like idiots and wishing we had studied some economics alongside our philosophy instead of spending so much time pouring over half-understood early 19th century German poetry. For one thing: If banks create 97% of the money out of thin air when they give loans, why does there seem to be so much pain when things go wrong? They never had the wealth in the first place, so they haven't really lost anything, have they? If the deposits of regular savers are such a small part of banking business, why can't the government just guarantee all those deposits and let the banks fail? And with the sub-prime people, why not just cancel the debts and let them keep their houses? There seems to be a choice between cancelling the debt (hitting the banks and other lenders, i.e. the culprits) and the government taking on the debt to relieve the banks (which effectively passes the debts to the tax payer, i.e. the victim). If that is the choice, surely it is better to let the banks take the hit.

Maybe we are just naive, but we want to see Obama set the tone for things by nationalizing savings and pensions, and closing the rest of the financial services sector down. A run on Wall St? Ban share trading and turn all shares into stakes in a state pension system, and offer companies loans of state-printed money in place of the funds raised by the sale of shares. The companies don't want to be hamstrung? Hey, that's not being hamstrung; that's democratic accountability. Pie in the sky?

Nathan reminded us of a nice commentary on the right-wing criticism that current government intervention smacks too much of socialism. What the government is doing, though, is socializing the losses, spreading the debts of the rich across the rest of the populus; during the good times, by contrast, the profits remain private.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Globalization or genuine economic and social development?

Please excuse the vagueness, but I dimly remember some fairly recent developments in the fishing business off the west coast of Africa. Let me sketch in the outlines of the story: for millennia families with small, home-made wooden boats fished the seas off the west African coast in a sustainable way, then a few decades ago huge trawlers from foreign ports started sweeping the coastline and taking a massive proportion of the fish stocks - stocks that were depleted to such an extent that the relevant authority (we forget which) had no choice but to ban foreign trawlers and pass a law allowing fishing only from the traditional small boats.

The reasons in this case were partly ecological but also partly an expression of the self-interest of business (because there can be no fishing business - either modern and globalized or sustainable and traditional - without fish). The point that we want to make is this: Why think that either ecology or this simplest form of business self-interest are the only reasons for putting the brakes on globalization and looking for some alternative form of development? The policy on the west African coast was great for the local population and fantastic for the economic autonomy (or let's just call it the autonomy) of the region. Are these not also extremely good reasons for putting on the brakes? Seeing the community in this part of west Africa flourishing, do you not see a reason for questioning the kind of globalization represented by the foreign trawlers?

Part of the resistance to this idea seems to come from an odd dynamic in the discourse of globalization itself - the way it has built into it a belief in both a technological imperative and what might be called an arithmetic fetish (the conviction that more or faster must be better than less or slower). Globalization of a certain sort (big foreign trawlers, in this case, and because they are much, much bigger and much, much more effective at catching fish, it goes without saying that they are - in a supposedly absolute sense - better) is identified with progress, and everyone wants progress, don't they? It just seems so self-evident that business must become big business, and that big business must become even bigger. Is this not progress? Is this not unquestionably good?

Another example: Opel in Germany. Opel make cars, a lot of cars, and they are a big player in the German economy. Some ridiculous percentage of the German economy revolves around the manufacture of cars (including all the associated car-related businesses). It's not just Opel, but Opel is one of the biggest. Entire German towns (one of which is Bochum) have grown up around Opel factories and depend on the continued existence of the business. Doubtless hundreds, if not thousands, of German youngsters go to technical schools in the hope that they will one day be able to find work with Opel.

Once upon a time Opel was bought by General Motors, whose headquarters, apparently, is on the 30-something floor of a tower in Detroit. In the midst of the crisis, the workers (and their bosses) in Germany hear that the board of directors in Detroit is thinking of closing the German operation down. Some of those at Opel argue that it makes no sense. It obviously looks different from Detroit.

Can it be right that the future of such an important part of the German economy is decided by a handful of guys enjoying the view from the top of a steel and glass tower in Detroit? Although there is a lot to be said for foreign investment (injecting capital into an economy that lacks it), there is something very dubious about investors then controlling the fate of entire communities - and controlling it without any meaningful accountability (because it seems that our wonderful form of globalization does not require the guys from Detroit to travel to Bochum and persuade everyone there that they must give up their jobs. Where is the justification for allowing a tiny group of people to have greater and greater control of larger and larger parts of foreign markets (and markets mean jobs, which mean communities)? This justification is especially difficult to grasp if we bear in mind the extent to which a company like GM was depending on things like the infrastructure in Germany and the local educational system to provide skilled workers and the health care system to keep them fit and healthy - all paid for, presumably, not by GM but by German tax payers.

I find myself looking for the most dubious assumption behind all of this. What is it? Is this the really dubious assumption: Only if we allow the unbridled pursuit of profit, will the economy develop? Now for that not to be an empty tautology about the accumulation of profit, it must mean the following: Only if we allow the unbridled pursuit of profit, will people's needs for goods be satisfied. (This is the message we were fed so often during the Cold War with footage of empty East European shelves, implying that only the free market can come up with the goods.) Isn't this a very, very dubious assumption? The trawlers (they may have been Spanish - forgive my terrible memory and laziness in checking the facts) off the coast of Africa did not improve the supply of fish to the local African market. And I wonder if GM's purchase of Opel all those years ago did anything to improve the manufacture of cars. Did more people get better cars as a result of it (assuming more people ought to have cars, which is itself a dubious assumption and unfortunately one whose serious discussion is discouraged by the principle of the free market that consumers will decide such things, not citizens through debate and democratic decision-making)?

This might be old socialist pie in the sky, but the opposite might sometimes be the case. If a car manufacturer did not have to worry so much about making a profit and fending off hostile take-over bids, it might be able to develop a better kind of car. I seem to remember reading a scurrilous article about a prototype of an electric car by Ford that was scrapped perhaps because it was too reliable and too easy to maintain (so that there would be little or no profit to be made from spare parts and frequent maintainance). By easing off the profit neurosis, the phenomenon of built-in obsolecence could be ended, which would be one good thing.

There is no reason here to make profit into a sin. I have my little book and it would be nice if I could make a profit out of it. I would also like to set up my own little publishing business so that I could publish my book and similar books myself. However, I would find it perfectly reasonable if I was looking, for instance, at publishing opportunities in Nigeria and found that the Nigerian government only allowed me either to lend money to Nigerian businessnes or to sell my expertise, not buy up a massive part of the Nigerian publishing industry. In a similar way, if there is a future in fishing off the west African coast, could the Spanish (instead of sending in the trawlers) not provide credit to local fishermen or sell their know-how so that the locals can improve their techniques (providing that the improved techniques are sustainable)? Even if we limit ourselves to ignorant and bovine economic motives, there are opportunities to make money in this way without, for instance, making a quick profit by scooping up pretty much every fish in the waters off west Africa. In this way, is the development of real and sustainable economies not possible without the expansion of irresponsible foreign ownership and control? Is it not possible to rethink globalization so that it doesn't become synonymous with the growth of a hideous international oligarchy (and it is a terrible contradiction that western democracy is effectively a tool for the growth of such an oligarchy)?

Monday, 16 March 2009

Democratic Banking

Doubltess everyone else saw Money As Debt years ago. I only got round to seeing it a couple of days ago. Hugely recommended, especially for those, like myself, who are economically illiterate.

We had previously considered it outrageous that our schools did not and do not organize a single meaningful classroom activity on our great democratic tradition. The same must now be said of money and banking and international finance. If it can be so effectively summed up in a 47 minute cartoon, it ought to be compulsory viewing for every 18-year-old still in full-time education.

The conclusion we draw is that monetary reform is imperative. The picture (which may or may not be quite accurate - we are not in a position to say) of a financial system dependent on an ever-expanding debt that can NEVER in principle be repaid is just as disturbing as the rape of the planet.

Our working hypothesis, while we hurriedly follow up some of Paul's interesting footnotes, is that the banks must all be nationalized and that banking must become politically/ethically/socially concerned. The idea that banking is a business that must be allowed to go its own sweet way while it wreaks havoc with our prospects for a pension so that we will probably now have to go on working until we drop dead at the lathe - this idea must be publicly vilified. We are surprised that in all the articles we previously read about democratic theory we never came across an injunction to democratize the banks (and democratization surely presupposes nationalization). It just seems glaringly obvious that the state (or state controled organisations) should issue the loans, and issue them WITHOUT interest (bring back the sin of usury, if necessary). Of course we have heard before that the state cannot be trusted. Now it is clear, though, that the banks certainly cannot be trusted. And if the state cannot be trusted, then democracy cannot be trusted, in which case let's scrap the charade of voting. No, we think the state can be trusted, but we feel that this presupposes not the rise of the technocrats (the Bernanke's of this world) but putting a stop to the anti-democratic dumbing down of the populus.

Of course the crisis ought to be a great opportunity for some radical change, now that there is no ignoring the political, social significance of the economy. What is almost as depressing as the loss of one's pension, however, are the signs that nothing essentially will change - everything will be geared to getting us back to the unethical, undemocratic, depressing and alienating mess we were in before.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Media Impartiality: the Polite Nihilism of the BBC

Two things cropped up recently which raised the issue of impartiality and made us question this extremely dubious value (the second we will leave for another post). One was the BBC's refusal to broadcast the charity appeal for the victims in the Gaza Strip. In the aftermath one of the editors of Spiked.com (which we had previously considered a thinking person's source of commentary in the few times we had come across it) was on Iranian TV (Press TV - the voice of Iran in English, and one of the few English language channels we can get on our satellite service) lambasting critics of the BBC who had been urging the BBC to take a stance and side with the Palestinians. The BBC must remain impartial, he said. The media, (in its editorial line? in choosing its mix of programming? in each individual programme? insofar as it purports to provide that hallowed thing called "the news"?) should remain impartial.

To some extent, impartiality has its attractions. One wouldn't want the sort of media which (apparently) Lebanon has. From what we gather each channel there is tied to a particular party, and can only be expected to toe the party line. (But is the problem here the mere attachment of a media channel to a social movement, or is the problem the narrowness, the unpleasantness, the pig-headedness and the lack of generosity of that social movement?).

But what is wrong with impartiality in the media? Isn't there something oddly empty about the concept of impartiality? Is there anything in impartiality to get excited about - something one really might want to defend, to promote? The negativity of impartiality is clear - we don't want to slip into a Lebanese situation. But what is the positive content of impartiality? Is there any?

In practice, does this discourse of impartiality connect with anything that actually matters to us?
I have just watched a programme on the staunchly impartial BBC, a documentary about the arms dealer Viktor Bout. The programme bore signs of trying to remain, to some extent, impartial. Russia, Britain, the US and other countries were mentioned, and there was no obvious attempt to besmirch the name of any of the countries involved. Bout is Russian and was obviously protected and aided by the Russian establishment, but nothing was made of this in the programme. Bout was also employed at one time by the British and at another time by the US, but this was mentioned in passing. The programme did not bash the British or the Americans. Were these things glossed over in the name of impartiality?

What was striking about the Bout documentary was the way it focussed entirely upon Bout as an individual - the so-called Merchant of Death, and entrepreneur without a conscience - and the way it then devoted so much time to telling and reconstructing the gripping story of how the man was tracked down and finally caught by a US team in Bankok. Was it impartiality that demanded this focus on the story of Bout as a wicked individual? Of course there was no impartiality with respect to Bout. Everyone on the programme agreed he was a man without a conscience who would sell arms wherever there was the money or the diamonds to pay for them. No time was devoted to the view of Bout as a victim or a pawn in a larger game. Was it out of a desire for impartiality that we got this very personal, this very partial view of Bout as the Merchant (the sole merchant working on his own initiative) of Death? Is this kind of partiality acceptable because it is so obviously the product of a media team doing its best to be impartial?

The Bout documentary is a perfect example of what the hailed value of impartiality means in practice. It means not rocking the boat. By construing Bout's story as the story of an evil individual - a story that appears to come to a complete end with his imprisonment - the programme avoids any of the boat-rocking that would have been involved in following up the Russian connection and the the business of Bout being employed by the British and the US after he was on record as someone acting in breach of international law (breaking arms embargos, money laundering, etc). There is also the phenomenon of the arms industry. Arms manufacturers sold arms to Bout. Who were they? Were one or two of them in NATO countries - countries supposedly unsullied by ties to the axis of evil? Some or all of these darker questions must have occured to the programme makers, but the decision was obviously taken to avoid them so as...so as not to rock the boat.

A provisional conclusion: impartiality is defended so loudly to stop journalists feeling guilty for having glossed over so much that ought to have been brought to light, and to stop them feeling guilty about just doing their job (finding something pleasant to fill the gap between adverts). But behind the earnest talk about impartiality is not only the guilt of individuals but also corporate self-interest: boat-rocking would not chime well with advertisers (all of whom have a vested interested in leaving the boat unrocked). Personalised dramas (like the Bout documentary) that do not raise thorny issues about the social system make good sense from a business point of view.

So what is there to object to here? Is it a lack of truth? It cannot be. The Bout documentary, let's assume, told no lies during the 25 or 30 minutes alloted to it. The documentary did not tell the whole truth, but there was never any possibility of it doing so in such a short space of time. Truth cannot be the issue here. The BBC, we might assume, takes care to fill its schedule coveying information that has been checked for accuracy. And in all of this no party line is being toed. It is all truth (for the sake of argument) and it is all impartial (again, for the sake of argument).

The problem does not concern truth, it concerns power and ethics. The impartial avoidance of boat rocking places the present system of power and social control beyond criticism prior to any investigation. The exclamation: "I am impartial" means "I do not judge; I do not criticise." But what if our particular boat deserves to be rocked? In that case, does impartiality not start to lose the moral high ground?

There is an ethical imperative (let's call it that) to rock this particular boat. If there is something ethically questionable about the status quo (as there is with the arms industry and the whole business of fomenting and perpetuating international tensions, for instance) then there is nothing to be gained ethically/morally by espousing impartiality. Do you not agree that there is something questionable here? If so, you see an imperative not to be impartial.

How about a provisional sketch of the virtuous journalist? She is first and foremost a woman of convictions (far from the impartial man who is proud of apparently having no convictions), who sees that there are urgent issues that need to be dealt with, and who sees that there are things which are being covered up that ought to be brought into the clear light of public scrutiny. It is no good just being interested in the Truth. The truth is everywhere. The virtuous journalist hates deception, but she is not a lover of the Truth. She is engaged by the contemporary situation and the way deception becomes a force to perpetuate injustice (assuming injustice is the thorn in the flesh of this particular journalist). As well as being engaged by everything that is dubious in the status quo, the virtuous journalist has a keen sense of responsibility to the public, or (looking at it slightly differently) has a keen sense of her role in raising the level of public debate in our as yet infant democracy. Again, what is at issue is not so much the Truth but the public's ability to comprehend more of what shapes their lives, and their ability to make intelligent judgments. Just as uncovering deception involves an engagement with power, the contribution to the public debate touches on the issue of power - the power of the people in a democracy to genuinely shape their world. The virtuous journalist hates to see the public being bombarded with masses and masses of disconnected newbites that mystify rather than illuminate.

But perhaps the Viktor Bout documentary was a bad example. Let's look at another. I can imagine a spokesperson for the BBC reminding us that Stephen Sackur has his Hard Talk programme. Now there is a man who can often seem to rock the boat, and rock it while remaining absolutely impartial (perhaps the metaphor needs altering so that there are many boats and Stephen rocks each of them equally). One week Stephen will be interviewing a Zionist, and will be insisting on answers to the hardest questions about Israel's flouting of international law, for instance; and the following week he will be interviewing a Palestinian spokesperson, demanding with equal vigor an answer as to why the faction will not recognise the state of Israel. There is no pussy-footing around on Hard Talk. Stephen does look for the hardest questions and he insists on answers with a steely look in his eye, although the discussion always ends with an apparently warm hand shake. Is this not an example of impartiality in the media at its best?
Hard Talk is a good example of what passes for impartiality, but it is also an example of how this ends up being all but indistinguishable from nihilism. Stephen has all the air of a man who is earnest about the Truth. But he is only allowed to ask the questions. They are the hard questions, admittedly, but they are only questions. All the answers come from those being interrogated. One week the Zionist is given a platform and appears to be able to justify bombing a thousand Palestinians and seems to eloquently justify the idea that all of Palestine belongs to the children of the twelve tribes; the following week the Palestinians seem to be equally able to justify firing rockets into Israel and equally eloquent in defending their right to the land they occupied before it was handed by foreign powers to the Zionists. The effect of this in the long term is the exact opposite of Stephen's incisive questioning. Although with the incisive question Stephen seems to grab hold of the side of the boat (in readiness to give it a good rocking?), in the long term the inescapable conclusion is that there is no authoritative way of judging what ought to be done. Although the guests are allowed to make the most noise, it is Stephen's silence that ends up being the most notable. Stephen refrains from judging. All the other "impartial" programmes do likewise.

The media constitute not just one public space but THE public space in contemporary society. In this context the stance of Stephen and his colleagues takes on an epistemo-political significance. The message goes out that there are no values that we can come to rest on publicly, apart from the implied ones of maintaining a certain level of politeness, of being willing to shake the hand of anyone no matter how much blood is on it, and of always resisting the temptation to remove your shoes and throw them at someone. One must always be polite and one must always let the other chap have his say, but one must never be deluded that one's own criticism (if one is still capable of developing a critical position of any sophistication) will be anything other than just another futile point of view. This is the polite moral nihilism propagated by the BBC.

The upshot of this is that defenders of journalistic impartiality cannot be allowed to end the debate with their appeal either to impartiality or the Truth. Since in practice the pursuit of impartiality seems to involve avoiding anything that would rock the boat, they need to have a good reason for not rocking the boat. But how could they develop that argument and still remain impartial? And they need to have an argument as to why the media should continue to sap the public's ability to make intelligent judgments about the most important social developments. They need to have an argument to justify spreading the sort of polite nihilism spread so ably by the BBC.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Habermas's deafness to the call of pop

We tore a few chapters out of the Philosophical Discourses of Modernity and we promise to re-read them (our bags were already close to the 20kg limit and Habermas's hardback book was heavy) but in the meantime the same old thoughts keep floating into view. And they floated again just now as we were watching the Polish channel 4 Fun TV while eating our museli (because hearing about the latest wave of suicide bombings doesn't seem to aid the digestion of one's breakfast). And there was a new (to us) video of a song by Morandi (nationality unknown - never heard of them) entitled Save Me. Well photographed shots of young adults in work situations looking as if life is meaningless. People wanting to be saved. And the song is clear about how they are to be saved. Romance. If you are a boy, the apparent lack of meaning will evaporate - it seems - when the girl next door or the girl in the office or the girl in the field (a lot of the video is shot in a sunny wheat field) finally says "Yes".

It surprises us that less is said about the way the youth have this message drummed into them with an even greater idiotic frequency than the youth in North Korea are made to march in unison.

It also seems to us that Habermas should have watched more of this stuff while he was eating his museli. Maybe it would have made him think a little more about communicative action and about communication generally.

Long before young people get to the point where they have the education and the intellectual maturity to meaningfully participate in the kind of rigorously rational debate that Habermas thinks should govern social life they will have watched thousands of hours of pop videos - pop videos that communicate a message - a message which is immensely effective despite being crass, banal and just plain misleading.

There is very little variety in the message. At the risk of stating the glaringly obvious, we will sum them up. Firstly, The Save Me video is an example of the love song in which an idealised girl/boy announces, "Love (boy-girl stuff) is the Truth, the Way, the Life" - romantic love (consummated, although this is generally left as an implication) is the Saviour. Secondly, there are the ego-tripping songs typified by rappers that objectify everything and praise only themselves and their possessions. Thirdly, there is the angry nihilism of rock where the ego is subsumed in a wave of hate and aggression. Finally, and this is probably the most important message, and one that probably underlies all the others, there is the deification of music itself. By chance, before we had a chance to finish our museli this morning 4 Fun TV played the Guru Josh Project video again - a piece with a DJ turned composer with a synthesizer and a saxophone solo and the words, "Trust in me and you will find infinity" - "me" being the music itself. Music says that only it can fill the gaps in reality. Music itself redeems, which implies that music itself is enough.

After a few thousand very carefully crafted pop videos it is difficult to ignore these messages - these semi-discursive forms of communication. Does this not constitute an immensely powerful force preventing the emergence of the kind of communicative action that Habermas was arguing for?

For Habermas's communicative action to finally take center stage (because up to now it has been in the depths of the wings) a culture would have to emerge for which Rational Truth is the highest social value. That great will to Truth would finally have to become hegemonic. Assuming that this is indeed desirable, the question is: How is it to be accomplished? It certainly won't be accomplished if the sentimental education of the youth is left to the culture industry. But How? In other words, how can the youth be persuaded to kill the DJ?

Habermas needed a theory of music. How does the call of reason chime with the call of music, including the call of pop? Habermas just seemed to dismiss pop, presumably because it is so banal. But there can be no doubt that pop is a massive force to be reckoned with. The Taliban outlawed it. That doesn't seem to be an option for us. But something needs to be done. What?

Web design and the wolverine

It has been a long time since the last post. The reasons: a waning of the force that through the green fuse ... (Dylan "do not go gentle into that good night" Thomas) brought on partly by the sudden professional setback. Prior to September it seemed we hd a great future as a writer of multiple choice questions for secondary school pupils. The first book was already in the shops and plans were underway for a second to make it into a mini-series. Then came the crash and news that the publishing company was to close its publishing business in Greece. First there was some hope that the head office in the UK would continue some of the Greek publishing projects. Six months later that little hope has been dashed.

So it becomes harder to get out of bed in the morning, then harder to switch the telly off and do something worthwhile.

But we have not let things slide completely. We may not shave every day, but we manage not to let more than three days go before putting the razor to the stubble. And partly by force of circumstance we have been trying to branch out to find other ways to keep that old wolverine from the door. Since the market for multiple choice questions has collapsed we have had to look for some other niche. Quite by chance we heard from a Cumbria tourism workshop that guest houses in Keswick were not finding it easy to create web sites for themselves at a reasonable price. Well we are not web experts but we do know how to create a few HTML pages that validate and we have had experience over the past year of setting up and promoting a site for self-catering cottages in Cumbria. We don't know about XML or Content Management Systems, but we do know about online booking systems in Cumbria and how to get free photos and logos from the Cumbria Tourism Organisation. And we know how to get onto the first page of the Google search listings. That gives us something to sell, or so we thought. And this is the second reason for the lack of posts. We have been busy setting up our little web design business for Keswick.

Robbie Williams had that song a while back which repeated the phrase "advertising space". Now when we discuss the web in schools the kids are quick to trot out the cliche that the web is all about improving access to information. Of course they are mistaken. The web is all about creating more space for advertising. This is depressing. And it is especially depressing when one finds oneself caught up in the same business (to say we are "caught up" is a little dishonest because we are taking the initiative - no one is prodding us). We have created a page, for instance, to promote guest houses in Keswick, and we are now that we are getting some success in the Google rankings we are trying to sell space on it to guest houses whose own sites are down on pages 18, 19 or 20 in the Google rankings.

As youths we felt very keenly that it was important to keep ourselves fit - fit for the future. We were sure that within our lifetimes there would come a call - a call to like-minded people to rise up and fight to make the world a better place and prove once and for all that Adorno was wrong to say that "progress" over the last 5,000 years has been nothing but the move from the slingshot to the mega-tonne bomb. We made sacrifices. We said "No" to easy pleasures and a life of idleness. We did push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and went on punishingly long cycle rides. We were careful about our diet - not to look slim and beautiful but to be fit and ready for the call to take our place at the cultural barricades.

We were not keeping ourselves fit and healthy and eternally ready to create advertising space. How did this come to be? Are we to blame? Or was it just the time, the age, the epoch?

The strange twists of life.