The Price of Freedom

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The Harley-Davidson product home page currently celebrates “110 years of freedom”.

Its page on tailored finance products, courtesy of Harley-Davidson finance (a trading name of Black Horse Limited) tells us how we can pay for our freedom.

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Freedom subject to status. Indemnities may be required. To obtain a quotation please contact your local authorised dealer.

Caution: Safety Net

TarmacOldMeetsNew

There is a large scale road resurfacing operation going on in the area I live. The image above is where the old patchy and broken surface currently gives way to the shiny smooth new.

I use this particular section of road regularly. I cycle it, I drive it, I ride the bus along it, I walk along it and I spend quite a lot of time sitting in the beer garden of the pub right alongside it. It’s a long, wide, rural road with a 60mph limit. Cars typically fly along it.

Strangely, over the past couple of days traffic has been travelling noticeably slower than usual. There are no temporary speed limits in place, there are no more obstructions than usual, and the new surface is almost glass smooth. Why the uncharacteristically low speeds?

I took the above photo yesterday to highlight something interesting. Visible is the contrast between old and new, but also visible is the lack of white line painted on the fresh tarmac. At the time the image was captured the freshly surfaced section stretched for around three miles without a single road marking.

Road markings are designed to keep us safe. Official guidelines exist to state this as fact, to set out the specifics and to enshrine them in law. We trust these laws to protect us.

I passed through again today. The guys are there with their pickup truck, tape measures and spray paint, marking out the course for the centre line. Later this afternoon, or perhaps tomorrow, the team with the big lorry will arrive. They will repaint the lines as per the guidelines, so as to keep us safe from ourselves.

And we will feel safe.

And our speeds will increase.

The perception of danger encourages safe behaviour. Perceived safety creates danger.

Empty one, fill the other

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Upon returning from my first visit to a self-storage facility, I see this article on Amazon’s “fulfilment centres”.

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How strikingly similar these facilities are, if not in scale then in function, in spirit and in design. Bold yellows, bright whites, corrugated sheet steel, smooth floors and strip lighting. Gridded and numbered, miles of aisles.

We empty one to fill the other, paying each time. One cradle, one grave, these are the twin monuments bookending our myopia.

The circle of life, 2013. Contentment through consumerism.

Our times are the opening chapter of a dystopian novel.

The Agricultural Approach

Day spent with farmers

Recently I spent a day with some farmers. In that field I learnt many aspects of the agricultural approach to problem solving that are well worth bringing back to my desk:

  1. Whatever you need to do must be done with whatever resources you have to hand.
  2. There are very few jobs for which the perfect tool exists.
  3. You will overcome problems, no matter how big.
  4. Planning is great, doing is better.
  5. Now trumps tomorrow.
  6. Overbuilt is better than underbuilt.
  7. Perfection doesn’t exist.
  8. Pretty is irrelevant.
  9. Complaining achieves nothing.
  10. It’ll be reyt. It’ll all be reyt.

The myth of wealth creation in a zero sum game

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I have come to think of wealth as energy. Like energy, wealth cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be transferred.

Whatever we might like to believe, we cannot conjure up wealth. It can be converted, tapped, captured, lost, stored or distributed but at its inception wealth can only be released from a natural resource.

We live on a planet of finite resources, so we live on a planet of finite wealth. Our economy is therefore a zero sum game. For wealth to exist in one place, poverty must exist in another. This, I assume, is why the west wages war and the west remains wealthy. Deep down we know that without access to the raw resources, our capital wealth is worthless for it won’t feed us.

In the west the super wealthy claim to be wealth creators but this is not true. At best they are wealth redistributors, and at worst they are wealth hoarders.

Anyone sitting on wealth they do not need is a hoarder. Anybody who is comfortable can to some extent be considered a wealth hoarder. The batteries we use to store our hoards may take the form of luxury, extravagance or a simple number on a balance sheet but they’re just batteries, slowly degrading as batteries do.

In context with my surroundings, my batteries appear relatively small. I have next to no capital wealth, yet to sit here at a computer typing these words is to admit I am a wealth hoarder. I have this comfort because others I will never know have prospected for and captured wealth in my name and choose to redistribute a proportion of it in my direction.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. What wealth I have, others do not. The economy is a competition, a game we start playing before we’re even born.

One day we will dig our last mineral. One day we will kill our last animal. One day we will harvest our last crop. Whatever husk of humanity remains that day will starve to death surrounded by oceans of gold. The last thing seen by human eyes will be a popup box, and it will read:

Congratulations. You are the winner. Would you like to play again?

Yes         No

A Bitter Pill

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A few weeks ago I was sent a link to a music video featuring a collection of naked breasted female models prancing around a man wearing sunglasses, to a catchy if empty pop song.

I watched for about 30 seconds before I started skipping randomly through, dropping in and out to see if it actually went anywhere. It didn’t. No crescendo was reached. The song stayed the same, the breasts stayed naked, the man stayed in his sunglasses. Intermittently a full–screen Twitter hashtag flashed up over the vaguely adult footage, but that was about it. It was a mildly surreal viewing experience, but I quickly forgot about it and moved on with my life.

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A few days later I heard the song playing in the corner shop. It’s unusual for a modern pop song to enter my consciousness such that I will notice it twice, but this one somehow got through the filters. I’m happy to admit it’s a catchy tune, but I had also made that mental connection; this is that song with all the tits in the video. I reached the counter, paid for my wares, forgot about what I’d just heard and got on with my life.

Another few days had passed when I saw a short clip of the video again, this time on TV. It was the same catchy pop song with the same women dancing around the same man in the same sunglasses, with the same screen–dominating Twitter hashtags flashing up every few seconds. It was identical in every conceivable way but for one key difference; this time the nipples of the aforementioned tits were now concealed by clothing. While still a raunchy video, it was clear a certain minimum accepted level of modesty had now been thrust upon it. I noted the clever twin video tactic, then forgot about it and got on with my life.

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A few days later still, which brings us to earlier this evening, during a commercial break on TV I see the video again. It was the family–friendly version this time, but again with a subtle difference from either version I’d seen before. This time the women were waving around small plastic objects, each similar in shape to a cod liver oil capsule but between thirty to forty times the size. The hashtags were different too – now they were convincing the viewer to buy a pill. The advert went off, and I didn’t get on with my life. I instead came to the internet to confirm what I had just seen.

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Picture 1

They filmed a naughty, titillating video to go viral on the sex–obsessed internet, they filmed a clean version to plaster all over the telly, and they filmed the product placement version for the commercial breaks. The song itself is seemingly designed to capture whatever fleeting moment of attention we might have for it by unloading everything it has during even the briefest burst, and it’s mixed and mastered with so little audial complexity that a first generation Nintendo Game Boy could comfortably reproduce it. Perfectly suited then to the tiny speakers of the mobile phones so beloved of the pop producer’s current prey.

I just looked up the advert on Youtube. There, to my amazement, it can be found with a director’s commentary. A director’s commentary. So there’s yet another version out there, this time offering us a previously unseen glimpse behind the scenes and so providing yet another incentive to watch it.

Let me share a couple of insights it provides, courtesy of the man behind the hashtag:

“Everything that [product] represents is youth and innovation and quality and gangsterism, so that’s everything I wanna be a part of.”

“Any time you can take a great song that’s fresh, and then, you know, you take a cool guy like me, and you mix it with one of the coolest brands in the world, I think it breeds swagger.”

Youth and innovation, quality and gangsterism. A cool guy like him. Swagger.

What moral bankruptcy. What sickening, soul sapping emptiness. What an abhorrent, cynical, foul tasting travesty. It is a strategically coordinated, spreadsheet driven, scientifically proven, misogynistic, multi pronged assault on music, art, spontaneity, creativity and commerce, so entirely and proudly devoid of passion, taste and decency that it happily displays nothing but open and blatant contempt for its audience, for society and for humanity.

At the time of writing, Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ is the fastest selling single of the year so far and the current UK Number 1.

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Enduring Designs

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The R1200R is the most basic machine in BMW’s line up. It doesn’t offer luxury or performance as justification of its premium price. Instead the owner is rewarded with quality, solidity and heritage.

It’s a proven design. The bike hangs from unique Telelever front and Paralever rear suspension, and the unmistakable design of its air cooled, unit construction boxer engine with shaft final drive can be traced back to BMW’s first motorcycle, the R32 of 1923.

It’s a functional machine that has evolved over time, remaining unswayed by passing trends.

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The Carrera 2 is the most basic car in the Porsche 911 range. It’s similar in spirit to the bike above. It’s not the fastest car out there, nor the most luxurious, but it carries a premium price that reflects its quality, solidity and heritage.

Similarly it is a unique yet proven design. It’s been a few years since they were air cooled, but that familiar shape and that layout of boxer engine hanging out behind the rear wheels can be traced right back to Porsche’s original production car, the 356 of 1948.

Again, it’s a functional machine that has evolved over time, remaining largely unswayed by passing trends.

I like German design and engineering, but I admire it most when a unique concept is polished and perfected over time. I like to see things done differently, yet I still most favour the quietly mature approach of constant evolution to the desperate, attention grabbing approach of constant revolution.

It is unfortunate that in the UK both BMW and Porsche have a snooty and superior image thrust upon them. These obnoxious clothes worn at the behest of target hungry marketing teams make it difficult to see beyond the brand and focus purely on the design and engineering.

Those prepared to consider the products behind the brands here will see that things may have been done a little differently, and in a way perhaps not to everyone’s tastes. They’re certainly not the most exciting options out there but they’ve been done for a long time, they’re done right and they’re done well.

They’re as good as they could ever need to be.

The future was then

Sheffield: 'City on the Move', 1970s

Castle Square, known locally as the Hole in the Road, was the crowning glory of Sheffield’s concrete commitment to modernist oddities. After three decades of decline it was finally filled and flattened in 1994, apparently using rubble from the nearby demolition of the similarly short lived Hyde Park flats.

I was twelve in 1994 and I can’t recall the last time I went down there, but I do quite vividly remember peering in from the top deck of a bus as the demolition teams were pouring the rubble. I informed my mum as she sat beside me:

“When I’m old I’ll enjoy describing the Hole in the Road to kids because it’ll seem mad.”

It was mad. I thought Castle Square was mad then as I do now; a sprawling and eccentric piece of civic architecture difficult to describe. The narrator of the 70s publicity video Sheffield on the Move has a good go, referring to it as a “forward looking development; an underground concourse with its ingenious roof of sky”.

I wonder what those charged with the forward looking thought they saw. I wonder because I know had I been in their shoes I would’ve probably seen the same thing.

For those working to build a better society, the modernist utopia of efficiency, logic and order provided such a solid answer. It’s a concept that makes such sense, and had I been around in the 60s and 70s I would’ve thrown myself headlong into the entire movement.

Even now, with the hindsight of a thousand wrecking balls and a thousand tumbling tower blocks, I find the image above so enticing. I let me eyes be drawn up Arundel Gate by the smooth ribbons of tarmac and I want to live there. Even though I actually did and often still do live there and know it to be largely awful, I still want to live in that picture.

Not in the place, but in the promise. I want to live in the promise of that picture, and with the hope it offers. I want to know what it’s like to live with that hope; the hope that a better world is ours to make.

Feeding the hand that bites

WaterWorksNUM

Last night in a pub in Sheffield a hastily arranged party was held to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher. I didn’t go; to me it seemed like an own goal.

The pub chosen is situated in a stone fronted, grade II listed premises originally built in 1867 to accommodate the offices of the Sheffield Water Works Company. Over a century later work began on a large, brutalist office complex adjoining its rear facade. This much larger, purposefully imposing structure and the water works building it subsumed were together intended to house the headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers.

The proposed tenant never arrived. By the time construction work was complete in 1988, the NUM and the entire trade union movement had effectively been smashed by Thatcher’s government. The NUM HQ has stood empty throughout its life.

Though remaining conjoined, around the turn of the century the water works building regained its independence having been internally sealed off from the deserted NUM building. It now houses the aforementioned pub, one of a national chain of high street pubs ultimately owned by an outspoken eurosceptic who last year saw fit to brew a special edition ale as a “salute to Cameron’s stance” on Europe.

So to celebrate the death of their arch nemesis, the lefties of Sheffield chose to congregate in a high street chain pub set amidst the ghost of their own smashed hope and hand over their money to a large corporation used by its multimillionaire owner to further his own right wing agenda. Way to go, comrades.

A couple of blogs back I spoke of my belief that the pound in our pocket has become a more useful democratic tool than the vote we impotently cast twice a decade. I really do believe this, and I think it’s often conveniently ignored by the apparently angry and supposedly active left.

While those marching against the government and the evils of corporate greed remain happy to nip into the nearest Tesco Express for their lunch, they undermine everything they’re supposedly fighting for. Waving a banner isn’t “doing your bit”. Token gestures aren’t politics. Shouting in the street isn’t politics. Big business is politics. Rightly or wrongly, our country is run like a business. What happens in big business affects us all. Even without our government and its supposed opposition up to its eyeballs in commercial interest, we’d still need the books to balance.

So if we want to actually do our bit, we must look beyond our own convenience and make the sacrifices necessary to cut off the flow of money to those we despise. Big business needs our money to do what it’s doing; losing just a small percentage of that source of income would force real change in a very short time.

If we really care we need to stop feeding the hand that bites and start using capitalism against itself. We must shop with our political heads on, thinking about what we buy, where we buy and why we buy. Weekend socialism will achieve very little. Those who care must pick their side and do everything in their power to stick to it. Only then can the balance tip. Conscious consuming has the power to create a conscious capitalism against which our society can fare better. Unconscious consumers can only score own goals.