Thursday, 25 August 2011

Up the Stairs to an Understanding of Topography #03


As we walk the concrete, adamant and flagstone pavements of our town, from time to time our feet stray with purpose onto grass and topsoil desire lines - on the beaten track unrecognised by those who have placed the paving, mis-planned our best route from place to place. And just as often, our feet find us climbing or descending the many staircases of the public townscape. When gradients become too steep for comfortable or safe walking and the ground beneath our feet breaks up into the discontinuities of riser and tread, those stringer-held steps can help us to a topographical understanding of the urban space and the underlying human and natural geography. An understanding of human interventions in the landscape - building up artificial features; bridges and causeways, embankments and revetments to span hollows and valleys, to terrace inclines or consolidate banks and tame hills. And we can reach an understanding of those banks, inclines, hollows, valleys and hills themselves - the treads and risers whisper to us a story of the three; no-four (not forgetting time, not forgetting heritage) dimensional shape of our urban environment.

And so a mental acquisition is gained and augmented by the agency of our calves and thighs and their unconscious unblended apprehension of scarp and glen: the sixth psychogeographical sense is fed by unconscious muscle memory and conscious eye.


Throughout Kincorth, a network of paths and stairways leads through that southern-steep-sloped suburb (or "garden estate" as we are invited now to know it) to the craggy tops of Kincorth Hill - still sometimes know as  'e Grupms. Put a small hot tattie in you mouth and pronounce: The Gramps. Write it out longhand and untruncated and you'll appreciate that this prominence just south of the Dee is the last eastermost finger of The Grampian Mountains, triangling down the whole length of Deeside to a last low summit before finally giving out and giving way to the sea. Known once as Stoneyhill, the area towards the summit is now a nature reserve and is dotted with quarry workings and spoil tips dating from the 18th to the late 20th centuries.

Kincorth has or rather had in the past, a formidable reputation for gang violence, no-go areas and turf wars. But that's all histobunk now. On its traffic-free paths and stairs today, rather than loitering razor-gang hoolies lurking to tax or chib you, much more likely are you to see young mums chatting, the ill-considered parking of their progeny prams the only thing to impede your progress. Or you'll see sullen trendy teens in their jeggings and beehives, sumfily tutting and texting away their duty to walk the family shihtzu, collecting its tiny shits in a little orange plastic bag. But then, from time to time, you might be able to detect an inkling, an afterimage, of this place's formidable past as you note the swallow-tattooed neck of the painfully thin shortarsed shuffling alcoholic old man. His brilliantined attempt to DA his nicotine yellow grey hair betrays the fact that he's not nearly as old as he looks; his face is a contour map of a confrontational past in a lawless frontier. Twitching and grunting, grumbling to himself only, he re-lives past controversies - glories and humiliations -  as he stands smoking outside The Abbot - the area's only pub, near the top of the hill. The pub is named for the Abbot of Arbroath, the medieval religious warlord who held sway over the farms and peasants, crofts and serfs of this area during the days of real strongmen.


If you stand at one end of Ashvale Place or the other, the 'vale' topography is evident. Presumably ash trees once grew in this valley. But what is not perhaps so clear is the fact that the valley's actually a good deal deeper and steeper than Ashvale Place makes it appear, for the road crosses the valley obliquely. The Holburn (or Ferryhill Burn) runs beneath Ashvale Place - at the far west end of the street it runs on the north, but by the east end of the street it runs on the south. A little exploration can show you the true shape of the valley - steep sides can be made out behind the townhouses on the south side of Union Grove, and likewise, the steep valley is evident in the retaining walls and steep drying greens which run behind the messy incoherent collection of buildings and carparks surrounding the Ashvale Chip Shop on the north side of Great Western Road, visible from Cuparstone Court. At the far west end of Ashvale Place, recent (well, within the last 15 years) redevelopment of industrial land has opened a new access for pedestrians up the south west slope of the valley from Ashvale Place to Claremont St. This is of great benefit to the residents of Pitmuxton, allowing greater permeability along the most direct pedestrian desire line between Pitmuxton and the town centre. Ashvale Place is characterised by robust unfussy Victorian tenements, which the recent long economic boom seems to have treated well. All units seem to be recently rennovated and in pretty good shape - singles and first timers occupy these well-enough-mannered apartments very close to the entertainment and employment zones of the town centre. People of my old-dad's generation knew a different Ashvale Place in the middle 20th century when the street was a slum; then known locally as "Ash-bucket Alley".


As we walk the urban environment, it is sometimes hard to appreciate just how great were the interventions made by previous generations; it can be difficult to understand just how transformative they were. Most Aberdonians know that Union Street is a viaduct which crosses the valley of the Denburn. But, of course, it's not the only one; Rosemount Viaduct is a similarly impressive structure, if not more so, for it's spectacular curving grace between Schoolhill at its south-eastern end and Leadside Road at the north-west flattened the hills and smoothed access to the fertile slopes of Rosemount beyond while spanning the Denburn twice. Bypassing the filthy muddy sharny slums of Gilcomston and on proud granite arch the Rosemount Viaduct bore the new Victorians high above the old slums below; behind cast-iron parapet, so they could look down on those left behind in Upper Denburn and Jacks Brae in total safety - a different world. The photo shows a latter-day stairway which links a snicket from Upper Denburn to Rosemound Viaduct. On the opposite side, the street called Gilcomston Park, being vehicular, sort of ski-jumps its carrageway from ground level up to the level of the viaduct. 

Viaducts like these exist all over Europe in formerly hilly town centres with which the Victorians had their vainglorious way. Notably Edinburgh has its many viaducts and bridges with vaulted caverns below, and those vaults are put to work as entertainment venues, pop-up pubs, knocking shops, ghost-tour backdrops, etc.  Similarly, London's Oxford street is, in part, raised above the former natural topography. In parts, entire pre-Victorian streetscapes are preserved below vaults, notably the Georgian shopping street which has been preserved almost in its entirety below the Selfridges department store. We understand that this living psychogeographical fossil (for what else can we call it?) has been from time to time used as a film-set. Back home, we have heard claims of secret access, of strange artifacts and of old cottages and the like existing below the vaulted stonework of Aberdeen's viaducts, but we treat these claims with skepticism. We know that, notwithstanding the odd restaurant and nightclub, the vaults of Aberdeen are most commonly used as underground carparks, and commercial storage. However, we would love to learn of more exotic uses, of secrets forgotten, of stories waiting to be told. We would so love be proven wrong.


Wednesday, 24 August 2011


When I returned to the Piper Alpha garden, all the gardeners had gone. There was peace and space and air and light in which I could now contemplate the memorial, its 168 engraved names, that dreadful night.
Then I began to remember.
Then I remembered something of that time...

...Then I remembered something of that time.

All those years ago. Another life, in another time, I worked for an engineering consultancy in the North Sea oil and gas industry. In those days following the Piper Alpha disaster, at the fag-end of the 1980's, something new was happening with young people. Out of the London suburbs and the empty warehouses of economic decline had come the acid house rave culture. And in this town too, the drugdance fever hit: The former post-punk alternative and indie club culture mixed with the nascent hip-hop upwellings and we danced and we danced and we danced. Thursday to Sunday we danced. But this life needed funding, and funding was available from the shiny engineering consultancies of the dirty oil industry. All suited up, ties tied, shoes laced, collars buttoned-down, it was quite common - more than common; it was inevitable - that you would come across fellow ravers working in drawing offices or oilco technical libraries, print rooms, server rooms and the like. Self-employed contractors we were; junior engineers, tech clerks, tracers, data input operators, dye-line printers, hot-shot document couriers in rented saloons, coining it in through the day and necking the eckies when the sun went down. A knowing nod across a drawing office on Thursday afternoon was then later a roar of recognition and a huge hug on the dancefloor on Friday night. An expensive life for young people to lead, clubbing every night - so we funded it right out of the pockets of the oil companies, for that year the offshore disaster had blown an ill-windfall bonanza for those in the right place to harvest it.

The consultancy I worked for in the year following the Piper disaster was contracted by the company Occidental itself - operators of the ill-fated platform where 168 had died on that one awful night. We were contracted to audit and remediate the working practices and equipment on their Claymore gas production platform which was similar in layout and operation to Piper. Occidental - the company had once been know affectionately as 'Oxy' - unsurprisingly had a big PR problem in this town after the disaster. Rightly or wrongly they were seen as liable, as criminal. They were seen as having caused the deaths. They became known around town as 'Poxy' or 'Poxy-metal'. At best they were known as 'Accidental'. If you say "Occidental" in a slack-jawed Texan drawl, it sounds like "Accidental", so this bit of cheek you could pull off in front of the companymen's faces while retaining plausible deniability. Not that they would ever again dare challenge a 'local', for power had shifted in the wake of the tragedy. They had a desperate need to be seen to be doing the right thing, and so, when they let their 'right thing' contracts, money was no object, and they let them locally.

Occidental was unusual in the oil industry by being about the last of the truly independent oil companies. While it's stock was traded, it remained under the majority control of one man, a second-generation Ukrainian New York immigrant called Armand Hammer. Having spent years adventuring in the newly-formed Soviet Union during the 1920's supposedly looking for the lost Romanov treasure (but truly no doubt on the payroll of the US secret service - more on this later... ), Hammer became personal friends with Lenin. Hammer used to boast that one fine day Lenin took him to a mountaintop and, gesturing to the unspoiled vastness of all the Russias below, offered him exclusive rights for mineral exploitation in the Soviet Union. Whatever the truth of this, the similarity to the bible tale of Satan tempting Jesus is both striking and telling. In any event, Hammer did not go on to exploit the geological wealth of the Soviet Union; rather, he founded a high quality pencil manufacturing company which competed indigenous Russian manufacturers out of business. Hammer's pencil company received the Huge Central Annual Stationery Order of the Soviets, worth millions of rubles in gold. Gold which he then immediately exported to the US and parleyed into control of Occidental Petroleum.  

Genuinely a remarkable and complex character, Armand Hammer, it seems, was named after the 'Arm and Hammer' symbol which was the symbol of the Socialist Labor Party of America, of which his father was a leading agitator. Indeed Hammer senior led the splinter group fraction from that party which went on to become the nugatory foundation of the Communist Party USA. We should place Hammer's Soviet links, adventures and fortune in this context and, skating all too quickly over the surface of that frozen yet deep pond, reassess our earlier assertion that Hammer's US ties were those that bound him during his early Soviet buccaneering. The irony that Armand Hammer would one day control the company (Church and Dwight) which owned the 'Arm and Hammer' domestic chemical brand - best known in this country for bicarbonate of soda toothpaste - with its trademark iconography being identical to both that of US socialism and one of the symbols of world-wide freemasonry - would surely not have been lost on such a complicated man. 

During the first flush of our town's oil-boom, Hammer would have his private airliner piloted into Dyce, where he would be met on the tarmac by chained Provost and kilted piper before being whisked to a site north of Bridge of Don. Once de-limo'ed, he would then wander around the scrubland pointing with shooting-stick at this feature and that, planning the building of his 'Caledonia' HQ. Here the office block campus with its bronze-mirrored corridors and half-carpeted internal partition walls; there the comms tower with its direct line-of sight (for microwave telemetry and control) over and across Aberdeen bay to the Piper and Claymore oilfields some 120 miles away to the north-east. Hammer was in his element. He could not know what was to happen, how badly it would end for him and his company here. 

I remember that the oil price was actually rather low at the time, during that year after the Piper disaster, but I also remember that the consultancies around town were busy-busy nonetheless. The disaster had meant that the industry urgently needed to take a painful and honest good look at itself, lest similar happen again. The oil companies were all staring into the Piper abyss and thinking: "There but for the grace of God...", so they all really needed this work done. And because the work itself was a bit of a reflexive strange loop - being largely comprised of defining what the workscope was - contracts were let on a 'cost plus' basis. Which is to say that the contract sum - the final total - was left open-ended, undefined. Rather, the consultancies would, at the end of each month, summarise their costs - mostly labour, but also stationery (heh), mileage, subsistence and whateverelse you thought you could get away with - add on a percentage (usually 20%), add on VAT (at the time, 12.5%) and invoice the oilco, who would then pay up the following month. I never once remember an invoice being questioned. The temptation to pad these invoices with extra hours or miles or print runs or whatever, was, of course, overwhelming. And as the consultancy I worked for was contracted by Occidental, it became almost a duty for us to give in to this temptation; to chisel and chisel and chisel some more out of the 'Accidental' killers. At all levels, from board members to tea-ladies we plundered the hapless outsiders. With glee we took our pencil-necked revenge-by-proxy through our timesheets and expense claims, our invoices and our indents. 

The consultancy grew quickly as we took on more and more contractors, more and more bodies in the drawing offices and engineers' ateliers to subcontract out to the Oxy job cost-plus money machine. Day-rates ballooned and word got round. Draughtsmen and engineers who had until earlier that year been making an OK-enough and secure salary in the Donside papermills, Belfast shipyards, Sellafield nuke plants, came to work for us on day-rate. A night shift was instituted. We paid them handsomely and all from Armand Hammer's fortune. There was plenty work to go round on the Oxy job. We were spreading the wealth and a party atmosphere pervaded our consultancy. The company tripled in size over about six months. A move first to overflow portacabin accommodation on the Altens Industrial Estate site, then overflowed to hotel suites at the four-star Skean Dhu, then settling to sexy high tech offices in the city centre.

As the company grew, it also grew its own culture and group of young engineers and clerks within the consultancy set up a satirical review newsletter which very quickly grew beyond its initial aims. At times very close to the knuckle, this 'Private Eye for the North Sea' circulated well beyond our own company, becoming a clearinghouse for anonymous whistleblowing; exposing unsafe practices offshore and mercilessly lampooning individuals and oil companies involved in industrial accidents, oilspills, corruption, anti-union activity and the like and the inevitable subsequent coverups. Produced by individuals who nurtured their plausible deniability carefully, overnight the newsletter just appeared on your desk photocopied and stapled (sometimes comb-bound? With an acetate cover? Maybe.) This was before the advent of desktop email so this newsletter was a real physical item, with actual costs involved in its production. Who was to pay these costs?

At board level an inquiry was convened... It is interesting to note that the content of the newsletter was not questioned - demonstrating tacit approval for whistleblowing in the wake of serious loss of life; good. But pencil-necked businessmen being pencil-necked businessmen, the money question had to be asked: The chairman puffed his panatella and pushed the satirical-serious pages away from him across the dark teak. He placed the cigar in the brass ashtray to his left and sipped a little malt from the lead-crystal tumbler in front of him. An intake of breath through teeth. Leaning over and back, he whispered to the minute-secretary to put down her pencil and pad. Then, elbows on the high-lustre polished table, he steepled his fingers below his chin and raised his bushy eyebrows high into his balded brow: 
"Ahem, very good. But... er, who's paying for the printing?"
His right-hand man, the Managing Director - his old university friend with whom together they had set up partnership and formed the company way way back in the heady new days of Forties and Brent - provided the answer. For, of course, to ask the question - that day in 1989 in that post-Piper context - to ask the question was to answer it:
"Who's paying? Why - Oxy, of course!"


With respect. 
This post is dedicated to the dead, in the 
hope that such a workplace tragedy can never happen again.


Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Hazlehead Externalities


Long before you can see it, you can smell it; the outdoor odour of hot fried onions being remarkably similar to that of unwashed underarm sweat. Before you can see it, you can hear it; the diesel genny's farting thrum is no respecter of horticultural serenity. Those canned drinks have just godda be served cold!

The school term having just started, and this visit being made at lunchtime, many children from Hazlehead Academy (those both in the know and in the money) were seen queueing for their quarterpounder cheezeburgers and chips and Coke. All children being willing addicts of these foodstuffs, their preference is bound to run to the burgervan over municipal school dinners. 

And we wonder: is that OK? Did the process of awarding this catering concession take this into account? Or is it an unforeseen consequence. And we wonder, as we would, how did this concession come to be awarded to the burgervan of 'Monster Catering'; how much do they pay and to what controls are they subject? And in any case, just who exactly is the customer here? Which party is providing the feed and which party is the consumer?

And we wonder why the already existing modernist snack kiosk, only ten yards from the burgervan - with its already-plumbed and wired services cannot be used by the concessionaire. Indeed, we wonder what has happened to the once stately café, now boarded up and seemingly abandoned, where friends enjoyed French fancies not four months ago. It is said that the market serves all needs. And the burgers are good (not to try is not to know) and the schoolkids are very happy today. But it is clear from the scenario playing out in our town's Hazlehead park that the market both discounts the future and ignores inconvenient externalities.

If you turn your back on the noise and smell of the burgervan and walk past the soon to be derelict restaurant café, (its unique jasmine planting commemorates the pro-democracy struggle of Burmese political activist Aung San Suu Kyi), there, near a car-park you'll find a garden of stonework pods which show historical episodes from the life of Robert the Bruce in concrete-pressed bas-relief. And to think - Councillor Kevin Stewart, when he commissioned that new statue which sits outside Marischal College said that the town had no commemoration of The Bruce! It is particularly interesting to note that one of the reliefs actually has the courage to depict the historically difficult 'Harrying of Buchan' episode, though we don't think it quite manages to do justice to the full extent of the ethnic cleansing genocide, systematic rape and managed campaign of terror, demolition, fire-raising and eradication meted out to the people of this region by Bruce. Shame.

Although much of the park is already derelict and not open, if you continue walking west past what we understand is the second-largest municipal maze in the UK (now free entry, yay!) you'll walk through some well-tended gardens, putting greens, sculpture courts. And at last, the smell of the burgervan and the noise of its noxious generator fades, to be overridden by the spicy fragrance of rhododendron and the twittering of little birds respectively. 

But the Queen Mother garden is suffering from austerity cut-backs.

But next plot to that, the Piper Alpha memorial garden is in good shape. Like the Queen Mother garden, it's the sort of formally laid-out rose-garden very common in Scotland, and that's OK. No risks were taken, no-one was offended.

If any readers don't know about the Piper Alpha disaster, click here.

The Piper Alpha memorial sculpture is emotionally engaging and moving. The three figures, with their attitudes, gestures and clothing, are replete with meaning and symbology. In a still moment, alone with the sculpture, you might just begin notice the tiny things which our photos cannot show. You might begin to feel stuff. If you're old enough, you'll remember stuff. 

But when these photos were taken, the Piper Alpha garden was being tended by two municipal gardeners who had a portable radio with them. Its ill-tuned pop channel was crepitating a cacophonic dancefloor remix of Jerry Rafferty's 'Baker Street' across the formal beds. I did my best to ignore it and took some more photos. A third gardener, older, appeared. Brown-sharn-smudged high-visibility tabard and trousers orange and lemon - suddenly framed at the entrance to the rose garden - he suddenly appeared and started hollering at the other two. Something to do with the order in which they were doing the work, or they were doing it all wrong or something, I don't know. The two with the radio started gesturing obscenely and taunting the newcomer, taking the piss, humiliating him. This sent him into a rage and his shouts became louder and more indignant. The two turned off their radio, the better to hear and laugh at the exhortations of the third who was by now charging towards them, waving his arms about, an incoherent stream of invective issuing from his spittle-flecked lips. Thinking it best not to intrude upon private grief, I withdrew back to the Queen Mother garden, and mooched around for a few minutes. 

When I returned to the Piper Alpha garden, all the gardeners had gone. There was peace and space and air and light in which I could now contemplate the memorial, its 168 engraved names, that dreadful night. 

Then I began to remember.

Then I remembered something of that time...


With thanks to reader Peter
for the inspiration and ideas which led to this post

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Robots, Robots, Robots.


OBSERVING the panorama from the top-deck of a shopping mall's multi-story car-park, we look down on the other open-air car-park below, and we start noticing things. The lines of cars queueing to get in through the turnpike ticket-machines; those cars, once in, orbiting the place, scuttling about in search of their own paint- and kerbstone-delineated rented parking space; once parked up, the occupants of the vehicles, disgored from their conveyances, forming denser and more dense desire lines focused upon the mall's entrance, moving inexorably towards the apotheosis of consumption. Then, desires having been discharged inside the building, they line up and queue again at the payment machine which grants passport to exit once more through turnpike to public street beyond.

It is too too tempting to draw an analogy. Of what is this behaviour reminiscent? At first the obvious one: Insects - ants in their formicary, termites in their tower, bees in their hive. But no, that's not right; it doesn't quite satisfy - it's not really what the scene reminded us of. For while those insects show behaviours which appear automatic, those behaviours are collective and endowed with agency. By individual insect actions coming together and summed as a whole, the insect community is served in its totality: stuff gets done; things get built; the next generation is nurtured; the community moves forward. Contrastingly, it is agency which is lacking in the actions of the shoppers at the mall. While the shoppers clearly believe they are exercising their freedom of consumer choice as empowered and individualistic shoppers, all it takes is for us to view their behaviour from an elevation of about 25 metres for those illusions to melt away like springtime snow.

UK Readers of a certain age will remember the young children's BBC TV show Play School. At one point in every programme, we were invited to go "through the window" to observe an often repetitive interlude-type scene (which we can now recognise as an early form of ambient video). A favourite theme was automation: the factory scene; the bottling plant; the cannery. And this is what we were most reminded of as we studied the car-park scene playing out below us; a large compound machine which processes raw materials. Our paradigm shift came when we realised that it is the shoppers themselves which comprise the raw materials.

We used to refer to consumer goods (entertainment systems, kitchen appliances, motorcars and the like) as 'durables' or 'durable goods' which would yield their value in utility to the consumer over an extended period of time lasting several years. We would shop out of necessity only; "I need a new pair of shoes" was said out of genuine need, not out of a whim provoked by advertising, aspiration, peer-pressure or the urgent urgings of variable inconstant fashion. Now, through the agency of planned or perceived obsolescence and the provoked aspiration to move up through the artificial hierarchy of entry-level -> mid-range -> pro -> premium, we replace (always 'upgrade') our durables long before their true obsolescence. The hierarchy of possession chimes with (and to a great extent replaces) our social class system. Class/social mobility aspiration is subsumed into the possession upgrade cycle. Now, rather than our possessions providing value to us through their utility over time, they provide us with signifier value; we choose 'brand x' because it says 'y' about us through the signals it transmits to those who can read them (everyone who has similarly 'bought in'). Thus we can be relied upon to provide value (through reliably regular revenue) to the manufacturers of those possessions and the software which runs upon them (films, TV, books, music, apps, etc) for as long as we are advertising-engineered to remain brand-loyal. The arbitrary class system based upon birth is replaced by the seemingly egalitarian hierarchy of consumption. But this seeming egalitarianism hides something in plain sight, something which it takes only an effort of will to see - the will to see that this subversion of aspiration leads into a trap.

What were once 'durables' are now 'consumables', the upgrade cycle having effectively rendered the ownership of possessions merely short term leases towards planned obsolescence and inevitable upgrade. The subscription model embraces and guides consumers by flattery (amongst other tactics) towards a future on the upgrade path which is the aspirational roadmap to forever, with added functionality (a weasel word not necessarily meaning 'utility') being each milestone and the software/hardware nexus destination being kept forever just out of reach. Mobile phone teleco business models led the way to the 'free' provision of hardware in return for a monthly software subscription fee. We now see this model being rolled out for TV receivers, home and business computer systems, motor vehicles, domestic heating systems, business clothing and, no doubt, many other products and services which we're not aware of. The more the consumer pays every month, the quicker the upgrade through that artificial hierarchy to newer more functional and flashier hardware which the consumer is content to believe is a direct reflection of their place in the hierarchy. The consumer is content to believe this because just about everyone else does. It is this human tendency for groupthink which has transmuted our natural aspirations into a trap. This aspiration trap has, in turn, rendered us into the ultimate durable 'hardware' item on the market. The possessions we aspire to 'own' have been pre-selected for us for the effects they have on us. Our engineered desire for more and more-up-to-date possessions is the software which makes us run, makes us go; go to work every day, makes us submit; submit to the whims of our bosses and their bosses and their bosses' bosses and the far-off unseen shareholders who give them their orders. Our brand-loyalty contract is negotiable and we and our propensities (whether we like it or not, whether we are aware of it or not) are traded amongst megacorps as their 'installed base'. 

We recognised in that simple observation of the operation of a shopping mall car park a bizarre inversion of the manufacturing process which created the value which gave western civilisation its 150 year hegemony: where once people operated machines to create value from raw materials on behalf of nearby (or, at most, national) paternalistic mill-owners - now machines operate people to extract the value of their human labour on behalf of far-off unseen and indifferent international shareholders. The advanced car-park wrangler machines of shopping malls are examples of integrated cybernetic systems processing variable inputs and operating autonomously - in other words they are true robots. Many other and more pervasive autonomous cybernetic systems now exist to service the consumer economy - from the credit card billing system which offers 'loyalty points' to the number-plate recognition system which bills car-parking or congestion charge through that same credit card system; from adaptive phase traffic lights to Amazon's recommendation system - these systems might appear to offer us a certain convenient utility, a certain freedom in service of consumer choice, but in fact they erode our agency with every iteration of their ever-closer integration, which will continue unchecked and accelerate 'for your convenience and safety'.

Latter-day consumerism is a vast cybernetic compound machine which processes raw materials. But the horror we feel when we realise that the feedstock of that machine is composed of human beings - corralled and fed to the machine by robots for the benefit of far-off concentrations of wealth to which we can never truly hope to aspire - might make us look back upon those old Play School ambient videos as being a form of training, a form of indoctrination, of conditioning. We were made to look at repetitive hypnotic films of raw materials being processed by machines, and we subliminally assimilated the message that we were to be the raw materials, and now the machines can operate and consume us as they will; cybernetic agents of an increasingly exclusive and hidden coterie of controllers with their hands on the levers of control, the levers of power.

Today, the robots are everywhere, we cannot see who controls them, we do not know their names, we didn't notice the ascendancy of their hegemony, and so pervasive are their networks that they will not now easily be dismantled. Breaking our own conditioning is the only the first necessary step.


Friday, 12 August 2011

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? Nos!


If you ever think about it, you might simply assume that the minds at the other end of these cameras must surely belong to police, or at least directly police-employed civilians; if not that, council-employed security 'professionals'. In any case, we think, they must be vetted and qualified (if only by our tacit consent) authority figures. We might not even think about it at all; the cameras which surround us being the quintessential symbol of authority, we intuit at a non-conscious level that the surveillance system is operated by the same authority which operates the mechanisms of the law (or at least civic order within the public realm). The surveillance system is the law, the law is the state and therefore, the surveillance system is the state. While everything's going along nicely, we have no reason to imagine that there's any distinction. While everything's going along nicely, we might even imagine that, as citizens of a democracy, we are, ourselves full active participants in that Leviathan state, happy to submit to authority because that's us - l'etat, c'est nous. It is only when things start going wrong - economically, socially, politically - that the contradictions inherent in our comforting and comfortable assumptions are exposed.
As with all things, the market changed the reality while our lazy statist assumptions had us looking elsewhere. All that is solid melts into air. CCTV control rooms up and down the country are outsourced to Big Name Brand security enterprises like Optimum, Reliance, G4S (web address: and the like. And these big box security brands themselves routinely subcontract the monitoring of the CCTV feeds out through recruitment agencies who also provide their employee/subcontractor operators with the necessary SIA Licence training (for a fee of about £150). The subcontracted staff often work at home, using their own PC's to monitor the CCTV feeds they are allocated over a 'secure' internet link.
The market accommodates all needs, so the race to the bottom is on. With a certain acknowledgement of inevitability, we learned of a burgeoning trend - CCTV crowdsource monitoring. 


Internet Eyes
Detecting Crime As It Happens


Internet Eyes is an online monitoring solution, allowing our registered members to view live CCTV camera feeds from our Business Customers, and notify them the instant a crime is observed.
"The Internet Eyes system does its job! I've caught a number of people stealing or acting suspiciously."
Amit, Bargain Booze - Cumbria
Viewers of Internet Eyes will have their ID and ages verified and are required to pay a membership fee to join our community. Payment of the membership fee helps prevent misuse of the system and acts as a barrier to entry to stop voyeurism. Internet Eyes has therefore established a rewards policy as outlined below so that memberships fees and more can be returned to Viewers in proportion to their usage of Internet Eyes and their vigilance.
  • A reward fund of a minumum of £1000 pounds per month will be shared between most vigilant members who have made the best contribution to the prevention or detection of a crime.
  • A usage reward for time spent helping the community by monitoring live CCTV footage
  • A reward for recommending a friend 


We observe with curiosity the hollowing out of arbitrary monolithic state-enabled authority as surveillance turns itself inside-out and, under the logic of market forces, metamorphoses itself into something else. (Crossveillance?... Transveillance?) Are we watching the development of a grass-roots culture of voyeristic paid and amateur delatores? Is the CCTV/laptop nexus the new bocche dei leoni?


Disorderly events in England have provoked an outbreak of grass-roots "name and shame" initiatives on social media. We relish the irony that some aspects of that same social media are blamed by the statist politicians for enabling those same disorderly events, and we note that, with their knee-jerk responses being unhindered by their feet of clay, the statist politicians call for a ban on social media. It is also true that some aspects of the disorder were enabled by the oxygen which is present in our atmosphere. Will the statists seek to ban that next?


PM Tries to Lock Down Social Media As Police Virtually Name and Shame 
Riots and social media, help or hindrance? 
By Kari Lipschutz
British Prime Minister David Cameron told an emergency meeting of parliament that he wants to crack down on rioters, and the social media that helped them to organize.
Cameron said he would like to meet with industry leaders, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Research in Motion, in order to see what could be done to prevent future riots from being orchestrated online. "[W]hen people are using social media for violence we need to stop them," Cameron said. "So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality." His comments caused outrage among free-speech groups.

Notwithstanding the present difficulties between some communities and certain police forces, one of the cornerstones of our freedom against arbitrary state action in this country remains our centuries long tradition of policing by consent. The police are civilians and civilians are the police. Police organisations are not subject to political control and do not stand separate from the communities they serve and are integral to - to draw a distinction is meaningless (at least for the time being). Police organisations must remain integrated with our communities at the most local and closest, most immediate possible levels for freedom against arbitrary state action to be maintained. Contrasting with his soft-anarcho "Big Society" platitudes of the last few years, current events have revealed our prime minister's Big State authoritarian instincts. Mr Cameron wrongly believes that he is the state and demonstrates that he would very much like to rule by decree. The police are rightly happy to point out the error of these assumptions: Sir Hugh Orde of ACPO has quickly and publicly rubbished our prime minister's salivating desire for watercanon and rubber bullets on the streets; Sussex police call social media a "force for good"; and Manchester's police are cocking a snook at the pm's dislike of social media by using it as a cornerstone of their riot follow-up policies. Lipschutz' article continues...                      

As the prime minister tries to clamp down on social media use in the face of rioting, the Greater Manchester Police are doing just the opposite. The police force there has made more than 170 arrests in connection with the riots thus far, and have launched an initiative to virtually shame those that have been convicted. Using their Twitter feed, the Greater Manchester Police has starting publishing the names, birth dates, partial addresses, and sentences of perpetrators. "We promised we’d name all those convicted for their roles in the disorder — here we go …," the Twitter feed read. The police force is aware that their line of action is controversial, but is unapologetic for their choice of tactics. "Lot of debate about publishing details – courts very clear, justice should be done publicly," they tweeted.


With thanks to regularly contributing commenter uair01 for drawing our attention to "Internet Eyes"

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Anti-Car Rant


Woonerf for The Denburn Valley. Philosophy, Background and Site Visits
Reader Comments
Nala said...
I don’t know why you don’t just re-title your blog ‘Anti-Car Rant’, for that’s all it is in various disguises. 
The truth you avoid recognising is that most people aspire to the convenience of personal motor transport, pay dearly for the privilege, provide much employment, contribute greatly in taxes, and then people like you expect them to ‘leave the car at home’...



Scottish Transport Statistics No 29: 2010 Edition
  • 27% increase in the number of motor vehicles licensed in Scotland since 1999
  • 43% of motorists say they drive every day (including weekends)
High Level Summary of Statistics Trends - Chart data
  • 208 deaths caused by bad driving in 2010
  • 13,116 injuries caused by bad driving in 2010
[compare with...]
  • 79 homicides in 2009/10
  • 5,700 criminal injuries (non-sexual assaults in which the victim's injury resulted in detention in hospital or outpatient treatment) in 2009/10


--------                --------

Department for Transport
National Travel Survey 2010
  • 20% of all journeys less than one mile were made by car during 2010
  • 59% of all journeys 1-2 miles were made by car
  • 78% of all journeys 2-5 miles were made by car
  • 43% of primary school children were driven to and from school in a car
  • Walking journeys fell by 8% between 2009 and 2010. This is the lowest level recorded ever.
High Level Summary of Statistics Trends - Chart data
  • 180% increase in males overweight, obese or morbidly obese between 1995 and 2009
  • Only 37% of adults engaged in physical activity for more than 10 minutes per day.
NHS - Health Scotland
Physical Activity
Physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death as a contributor to non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancers worldwide. It is also related to other leading risk factors for NCDs (e.g. high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high glucose levels) and to the increase in childhood and adult obesity.
[...] Physical inactivity should [therefore] be regarded as a major public health priority in Scotland today.
Preventing Overweight and Obesity in Scotland.
A Route Map Towards Healthy Weight.
Scotland is experiencing the obesity epidemic. 
Scotland has one of the highest levels of obesity in OECD countries; only the USA and Mexico having higher levels. In 2008, 26.8% of adults in Scotland were obese and 65.1% were overweight; for children the corresponding rates were 15.1% and 31.7%. As overweight has become the norm, we have developed a distorted view of normal body shape and just how many people in Scotland are overweight and obese.
Attainment of the Government’s purpose of a flourishing economy requires a healthy population. Overweight and obesity pose real risks to the health of the population in Scotland and its ability to meet its overarching purpose of sustainable economic growth because of the burden of disease that accompanies overweight and obesity.
 to achieve a healthy weight it is important that we both participate in enough activity, and that when we are not doing this we are careful to minimise how much time we spend sitting down ... To achieve sustained weight loss, for the majority of Scotland’s population who are already overweight, requires both a change in eating habits to reduce calorie intake and an increase in physical activity. For adults, at least 60 minutes of moderate activity, such as walking, is required on most days of the week to both lose weight and maintain weight loss
The scale of change required for both diet and physical activity to reduce obesity across the population cannot rely on individual behaviour change alone. We need to act at the population level so that these changes become the norm in Scottish society.


More people are today killed and hurt by bad driving in Scotland than by all other non-sexual crimes combined. And more are killed by bad driving in Scotland each year than by all those media-panic favourites: MRSA, clostridium difficile and winter flu put together.

The pathology of an obesity epidemic caused by sedentary lifestyles sweeps through our health services preventing treatment capacity from being allocated to other needs. Not only that, but that same sedentary pathology also threatens the sustainability of our economy; an enervated sick workforce being unable to compete internationally with workforces which are better equipped by their vigour and fitness to meet the challenges caused by the ending of economic growth.

Fear of traffic around schools means that today's parents are - ironically - driving more and more of those children to school, they forbid their children from going outside independently and they chauffeur them to every single activity outside the home. This life behind closed doors means we not only expose our children to an obesogenic lifestyle, but we also run the risk of battery-rearing a generation of "cotton-wool children" who will never be able to learn resilience for themselves and will be unable to cope with risk.

If the damage caused to the population by driving were caused by - say - terrorism or an infectious epidemic we can imagine the public outcry and subsequent policy action. Yet fully one-fifth of all  journeys of a distance less than one mile are undertaken by car. This distance is walkable. Perhaps it's an unpopular and revolutionary stance to take, but yes, we believe that distances of less than one mile are walkable.

Our message to policymakers is that, rather than roll out yet more and more road-space creating projects for Aberdeen, they should go for the easy win; the low hanging fruit. Target first those 20% of journeys less than one mile which are undertaken by car. Lessons from places like Malmo, Lubeck, Aalborg, Montpellier and Eindhoven can show the way. In the town centre the introduction of severe parking restrictions and penalties, long phase asyncronous traffic signalling, pedestrian priority, shared spaces etc will 'nudge' an increasing amount of people to simply leave the car at home when undertaking these short, perfectly walkable journeys. As the urban environment becomes less dominated by motorcars, opportunities can then be explored for measures to tackle those 59% of journeys less than 2 miles which are undertaken by car. As more of the urban environment is abandoned by private motor-transport then public transport, cycling and walking become more efficient and attractive, and the circle is completed.

But to return to our critic's original statement...
The truth you avoid recognising is that most people aspire to the convenience of personal motor transport, pay dearly for the privilege, provide much employment [and] contribute greatly in taxes...
Indeed yes, motoring is expensive (about £550 per month for the average person running the average car, according to the RAC). It's true that, whenever there's a petrol-tax-hike or price increase because of record-high oil costs, we all see the STV cub reporter sent out to do his easy-peasy hack-work lazy boilerplate on "hard pressed" motorists who are "beleaguered" by record fuel prices. And there they are: motorists-in-solidarity-on-the-forecourt being interviewed; happy to be interviewed venting about paying "more than enough". They roll their eyes and go through the motions of complaining bitterly, but if you look closely, if you examine the micro-gestures, you'll see that their eyes are actually smiling - laughing even - with self-regarding relish. Oh yes, the motorists love to complain because in that complaining they get to boast about how much money they spend on running their cars, and how hard they work in extra overtime hours to keep the show on the road. This demonstrates that they are cash-rich and time-poor: the very badges of high status.

Thus the ever-increasing cost of motoring affords the motorist a chance to perform Darwinian status-display dances. From the young contract engineer using his soft-top roadster as a fanny-magnet to the yummy-mummy piloting her oil-tanker-vast Range Rover around the centre of town - higher motoring costs simply and conveniently serve to enhance status, for in Aberdeen motoring is now a Veblen Good; the more expensive it is, the greater its attraction. Indeed motoring today is the high status distilled essence of aspiration itself.

So, if - like so many insecure and alienated Aberdonians - you have a deep-seated need to display how much you're capable of spending in order to keep the show on the road - what better way to affirm your importance, affluence and high status to yourself than motoring? Because, if you wish for it hard enough and if you choose to "buy in" to it, motoring makes you feel wealthy, high-ranking and sexy, just as the car-adverts promise it will. And then you can ignore everyone and everything else.


But what about the people of those Swedish, Danish, French, German and Dutch towns we mentioned? Do they not love their cars as much as people of Aberdeen? Are they somehow less 'advanced' than us? Or is it that they have just learned to use their cars more appropriately, like well-adjusted grown-ups?