Sunday, 13 March 2011

Going Japanese

The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan certainly took me by surprise - to watch the TV and see cars bobbing up and down like rubber ducks shows the truly epic scale of the disaster, the tragedy for the Japanese people, and the task of rebuilding. It has gained the attention of religious crazies who consider it divine punishment, even though, if I did believe in God, I might think that he wanted to ensure that the third world didn't receive all the natural disasters and suffering, as part of a quota to achieve racial equality or something. Having watched the new Louis Theroux documentary on the Westboro Baptist Church, it is obvious that this view is shared by more than one person. But if the wackiness of views was to be modelled as a standard distribution, there are so many people in the world that statistically at least a few will have wacky views.

Meanwhile our best album - er -greenest government in the world... Ever! is up to its usual ploy of trying to appease the "hard pressed motorist" with a cut in fuel duty. Except it had already increased VAT on everything, so even capital M motorists were unimpressed. Luckily I had the chance to question MP and cabinet minister Jeremy Hunt about this, even though my fellow scholars are more likely to mention the mispronunciation of his name. To be honest, that's what he'll be remembered for. And he went for the hard pressed motorist line, although he did accept the cost of rail travel was excessive when pushed on this. But then, it's easy to accept that lots of things are true, and an entirely different matter to take action.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Crocodile Dundee

This blog is about the pathetically underwhelming things in life, as compared to the magnificent and / or excessive things which pwn them in an epic fashion, a bit like the way Usain Bolt runs compared with everyone else, or the way a jet fighter is faster than a paper plane.

Truth is, there is stuff out there which is sometimes claimed to be the shiznit, but is evidently not. Fortunately we Brits are not alone in that, as these pathetic cycle paths, installed circa 1992, in Barcelona, show. If you tire of the challenges of outdated town planning and pathetic engineering, alternately one could ride a pedal powered monorail. This gives you the freedom to - er - follow a fixed route in a glass coffin. If I wanted the recumbent position, I could spend a few thousand Euros on one of these. That isn't actually a bicycle, because it has 3 wheels, but it's far more of a bicycle than one of these objects.

Alternately, there are those that aren't interested in exaggerating their worthiness and would rather we didn't know what they were up to. We already knew Fred Goodwin was a banker, so what the flying fuck is he doing with this super injunction preventing news reports from referring to him as such? Were we supposed to call him a crook instead or something? He is obviously an idiot because he thought he could defeat the Streisand Effect in regards to something that was in the public domain already. It would be like Uwe Boll seeking an injunction against us calling him a director because he didn't like the way his films got slated.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

In the Black Stuff

Colonel Gaddafi has been the centre of attention recently for his eccentric fashion sense, his deranged ranting, and his, er, flagrant human rights abuses. Most people only "achieve" one of those, so I am simultaneously humoured and appalled by him. The humour comes from comparing his rants to Charlie Sheen's and creating my own Gaddafi-esque speech, the "appalled" comes from, well, this place.

The wider Arab world is also in a state of unrest at present, which has lead to an increase in oil prices. Something I would be interested to find out is what the response of the West would be if these protests spread to a regime where women are deprived of all civil rights and homosexuals stoned to death. A regime such as Saudi Arabia, with the world's largest conventional oil reserves. I somehow suspect that keeping motorcades moving will be the priority and our leaders will blithly ignore the suppression of political groups in order to keep cars moving, ideally on the way to homes with raised thermostats in a futile attempt to emulate Saudi desert heat on a cold February morning. Apparently Chris Huhne is saying we need to wean ourselves off oil, which is why the Transport Secretary is proposing raising motorway speed limits so we can get rid of it faster.

You also need oil to fuel helicopters to launch a bungled SAS mission and fly Prince Andrew around. A more sensible and economical use could be to ride around on scooters like you're in a folk rock group.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Aspiration, Fear, and Marketing

Charlie Brooker's TV series "How TV Ruined Your Life" had an episode about aspirational television, in the sense that regardless of the epic tantrums and relationship disasters, programmes like Sex and the City and My Super Sweet 16 represent some kind of superior lifestyle unreachable to the common teenager. And even if there were enough resources in the world for the typical British teenager to wear Chanel and get a Lexus for her birthday (and then throw a tantrum):

...The privileged would outdo us leather seated and air conditioned proles by granting themselves the use of a private jet And the jet set would move into space tourism. It's like a giant human pyramid with some Arab sheik at the top and his emirate's Bangladeshi workforce at the bottom.

This is a previous Charlie Brooker clip on the subject from a while ago:

And of course television adverts are the origin of this. In the old days adverts looked like this:

Yes, we *know* how important dental hygiene is, but satisfaction short-termism (you can drink Coke now) will trump health long-termism, unless one were to re-brand drinks with added sugar as being the most utterly monstrous and socially unacceptable thing imaginable, or at the very least something that was tainted by association with something else that was monstrous and socially unacceptable (did you know that Fanta originated in Nazi Germany?). But realistically that isn't going to happen, we like to do what feels right at the moment (eg drinking shots, or for the true pissheads, going through the whole vodka bottle) without paying too much attention to what might happen in the future in regards to our health.

Back to our theme of aspirationalism and we can see how advertising has progressed from a seemingly scientific exhalation of how the product benefits you, (although we still see examples of that with cosmetics that are far more dubious than most toothpaste adverts, and also have beauty which is aspirational) into some kind of totemic symbol of an ideal life, to which an act of consumerism is the key. See this advert from Dolce & Gabbana implying how you can enter a world of glamour with their fragrance.

Most of the above advert does *not* focus on the advertised product, because it could just have easily been an advert for a different company if it was not for the final shot. Indeed, much aspirational advertising is generic in the sense that a fictitious lifestyle scenario is presented that the upmarket item would seem to make possible, or at least, complete. And you can be just as beautiful as Gisele Bundchen, or at least smell like her.

The idea that an advert shows something to aspire to leads me to this, the "Cycle Hero" advert. This was mentioned by Jim of the Lo Fidelity Cycle Club blog as a way not to market cycling but he unfortunately didn't link to it there, or in the other comments where he mentioned it. Well here it is:

I must admit that it is not as "bad" as he had implied, in the sense that only the first cyclist shown is of the superhero costume wearing variety, and they're not wearing the high viz vests that in cultures less inclined to neglect vulnerable road users is the preserve of airport workers. There are a variety of bicycle types shown and some of the riders aren't even wearing helmets, placing them at great risk from unpruned trees. But while this advert clearly shows normal people (even including ethnic tokenism) that we can supposedly relate to, aspirationalism is clearly absent, despite the attempts of Chanel to cash in on "cycle chic". Arab playboys will be racing their supercars round Knightsbridge while you negotiate TfL's sorry excuse for what will apparently become a world class cycling city, if you consider Cambridge to be a geostationary satellite, Munich to be an asteroid, and Utrecht to be orbiting Pluto. What you need in infrastructure terms is this, but what cycling marketing needs (from a young male's perspective) is this:

Admittedly that is more to do with the allure of American Apparel's provocative in-house advertising than actual aspirationalism. As admirable as chauvinists would regard the notion of attractive women riding bicycles in their underwear, Queen went there in the 1970s, and the bikini bottom was supposedly edited in (but not "Photoshopped" in, they didn't have that technology yet) due to retailers being a bunch of prudes. Obviously that's why more men cycle than women. Either that or Fear.

Clearly cycling needs to be marketed as something that is accessible and fashionable, but also as an activity suitable for children which some of the American Apparel advertising isn't. Fortunately, we have sites such as Amsterdamize that do that for us, showing deliriously whimsical scenes that display an utter contempt for British "road safety" scaremongering. The closest we can get to this is a nostalgic look at some students. The fact that they are at one of the most prestigious universities in the world is in aspirational terms countered by the fact that they didn't even have BBC2, and the research computers the university had at the time were quite possibly less powerful than a touch screen train ticket machine. Therefore the ability of youths to waste their time on Farmville or get all the answers on Wikipedia was non existent.

Perhaps we could now look back to the previous point about short term enjoyment vs long term health effects, and I have come to this conclusion:
1) Many things that are bad for our health are enjoyable over the short term but can kill you slowly over time.
2) Cycling is good for our long term health, but there is the unfortunate perception that one could be hurt in the present.

This is why exhalations to do the right thing in the manner of the toothpaste advert fail in the face of what feels dangerous, and therefore will fail to achieve more cycling, because we *know* cycling is good for us, just as we *know* that smoking is bad for us, but knowledge of boring statistical facts does not alter the way we consider cycling to have poor "subjective safety" any more than the links between smoking and lung cancer deter scientifically literate students similar to those in the previous video from having a fag break. We have got rid of large predatory animals that can kill us but we have motor traffic in its place. Of course there are deaths and injuries due to falling down stairs and falling in water, but our primative perception of fear, ignited by lions, tigers, and HGVs, is not active in those situations. Despite Dettol making us fearful of our own kitchens, these invisible germs are not a threat of the kind Neanderthal man had to deal with.

There are two schools of thought - one is that one must adapt to the danger, the other is that one is kept apart from it or the danger is eradicated altogether. Here's a more comprehensive summary that pretty much says what I'm thinking in regards to cycling, but it also applies to road safety - there are road safety groups that emphasise the need to protect oneself and there are road safety groups that deal with what you're trying to protect yourself against (heavy motor vehicles controlled by amateurish individuals who may or may not be concentrating on other tasks). I believe the latter will lead to a less fearful society, because the former represents the status quo which the establishment is too complicit with, despite the fact that traffic fatalities account for far more deaths than something which attracts far more tabloid attention like bird flu.

Another Charlie Brooker clip, this time on fear:

Sleep well children!