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A Poem: My Contactless Card and Me

My contactless cards is dying. It’s been a loyal friend for 6-8 months.
But now its breath rattles in its chest
Whenever I buy a sausage roll

The man from Greggs tells me that I may have been unkind to it,
Treating it with no respect at all
By keeping it near other NFC devices

But, I say, I have only kept it in my wallet. I’ve been nice to it.
Why would it hate me so?
Am I so unlovable that a bank card would shun me?

But the man from Gregg’s is persistent. Do I have another contactless card?
Yes, from my other account which I never use
Unless I’m drinking.

Apparently this is awful. Keeping two contactless cards together can break them.
And it’s all my fault.
But that leaves me with a question.

Is it really progress, if we get a new card, but we can’t put them in a wallet?
I’M NOT MADE OF POCKETS!
FUCK OFF CO-OPERATIVE BANK! FUCK OFF AND LEAVE US BE!

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The Collective Monopoly

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we’re treated by the corporations that are supposed to serve us. Back in the old days, the principal fear that we had about the power of corporations was that of Monopolies (with a capital M – I know, crazy, right?). The one thing we tried to avoid with all our might was the idea that a single corporation might control an entire market single-handedly and eliminate all possible competition.

This fear was, and is, well-founded. A corporation with a monopoly on a market has carte blanche to behave however it wishes. Imagine if all the bread in the world was under the control of a single manufacturer. They have the ability to charge whatever they want for the bread we buy. What would we do  if we didn’t like the price? We can’t choose to go elsewhere, and we can’t choose to ‘vote with our wallets’. We’re stuck with whatever price we’re told to pay, or cutting out bread from our diet altogether.

The Competition Commission (previously known as the Monopolies and Mergers commission) largely does a good job of preventing monopolies in modern Britain, and there are equivalent governmental departments all over the world. The odd problem gets through the cracks (Murdoch, anyone?), but by and large we manage to avoid monopolies these days.

The thing about a company behaving badly when it has a monopoly is this: in a twisted sense, it’s not really doing anything ‘wrong’ per se, if you assume a corporation’s role is to maximise shareholder returns. What we little people might decry as price-gouging or deliberate neglect of services, a corporation can point to rising turnover and lower costs. Which is why we prevent monopolies by statute – it is in the interests of individual corporations to seek a monopoly (or ‘maximise market share’ as they generally put it), but it is in the interests of the people to prevent it. This is one of those cases where we can’t just trust corporations to magically end up doing the right things for customers.

However, I believe there is a similar, and equally problematic issue in play today. I’ve termed it the Collective Monopoly. As a term, it’s not 100% accurate – it implies a conspiracy, I think, and I want to make it very clear that this is not a conspiract theory I’m putting forward here. But the phenomenon I’ll be discussing shares a lot of features in common with a monopoly and I certainly want to evoke the connotations of anti-consumer practice that the word monopoly has.

What is a collective monopoly? A collective monopoly is an group of competitive businesses in a single industry all behave identically in certain areas – removing consumer choice on those issues. I think this is best illustrated with an example. All four major banks, plus the two or three smaller ones and most building societies, will use your personal data for whatever ends they see fit. It is against the law for a bank to share your data with others without your consent, so all of the banks simply make consent for sharing of personal data a part of the terms and conditions on a current account.

Do you have a current account? Then you have given your bank permission to use your data for research, for market analysis or for any other use the bank can think of. If you don’t want your bank to be doing this, then you can always vote with your feet, withdraw your money and go to a different bank. But that other bank will be doing exactly the same thing. There is some truth to that refrain “they’re all the same.”

Of, banks are genuinely competitive with one another. It’s just that they aren’t competing on that particular behaviour. Consumers simply don’t have any real choice over whether they want their personal data shared or not. And since everybody has to have a bank account, all we can do is suck it up and select our bank based on some other factor.

I’m not suggesting that the banks are conspiring to share our personal data. But for each individual bank, it makes economic sense to do behave in this way. It’s easier to do risk/fraud analysis, it helps them market products to the ‘right’ people (that is, the people most likely to buy products, whether right for them or not). Essentially, it’s incredibly helpful in maximising revenue and minimising loss. But when each bank collectively makes the same decision on this behaviour, we lose our right to data privacy. There’s no point having a statutory right to data privacy if every product that is available requires us to waive it.

So that’s a collective monolpoly – a group of companies collectively displaying a behaviour which you might see when a single company has a monopoly. Particularly where such collective behaviour effectively removes customer choice.

—–

I’m going to write a series of blog posts on this subject. Any criticism, thoughts or feedback are totes welcome. If you have any consumer stories which you’d like to share with me, please do. Especially if you have a feeling switching company wouldn’t help because they’re “all the same”, I’d love to hear it. I plan to cover some obvious criticisms of this idea which I can think of, plus any criticisms which come from elsewhere.

Please get in touch with any feedback via Twitter (@timballantine) or in the comments.

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The Problem with Videogames, and the Solution

I’m a huge videogames fan. I’ve been playing console games since I was 5, and I played PC games throughout my teens. When I used a PC I played games 3 years behind the curve, because we grew up poor, and I couldn’t afford the high-end PCs which would let me play the latest stuff. I’ve never been one of those high-spending wealthy twentysomethings who have all the latest stuff (y’know, games publishers’ target market)

But let make it clear: I’ve played many video games in my time, and I’ve played huge numbers of console games. I also watch films, read books, play sports, watch television, go to the theatre watch and perform comedy and occasionally twist my ankle in the street for no obvious reason.

I believe that video games are the next paradigm shift in entertainment. I still believe that even after the 49th Call of Duty game is awaiting release in a month or two. Just as the wireless shifted the way we consume performance art away from theatre, and the cinema from the wireless, and the TV from the cinema, I believe that videogames have the potential to completely re-engineer how we consume media.

This is not to say that videogames will kill television or the cinema or radio. After all, the fears that TV would kill off the cinema experience ended up being wrong. Instead, I think we’re looking at a new generation of media-consumption – one in which interactivity is central and where our interface with our media is active rather than passive.

The Problem with Videogames

The problem with videogames is this: we are not creating media. The word media means in the middle of, but what is a videogame in the middle of? A film is the telling of a story from the point of view of a director. The director may not have written the story, but he or she is the one telling it. A book is the same thing, but for an author. The best media that we consume is, at its heart, personal and individual. It’s why the best films can touch us all differently and why nobody likes the TV that feels like it has been designed by committee.

Every AAA or top-tier videogame I’ve played recently suffers from this problem. There may be a story, but who is telling it? What is the message? How should I feel when the credits finally roll? There are indie games that do this very well, and these are exceptions that prove the rule. With fewer people on staff it is easier to produce something with a unity of purpose.

But in the film industry, this sort of success happens at all tiers. Small independent films all the way up to big-budget summer blockbusters get the ingredients right, and across all genres. Granted, there are some flabby messes along the way, but my point is that there’s nothing about the budget of a film or the genre that determines whether a director gets this right. Instead it’s up to the skill of the auteur.

The Solution

When a film gets the cocktail of elements right to produce a classic, it is because every element, every individual part of the film is subsumed in service to the artistic vision. If a fight scene is not a part of the artistic vision of the director, it does not appear. If the fight scene is important, then not only does it appear, but every shot and every piece of choreography is in hock to the message.

Go away, right now, and watch the skyscraper fight scene from Skyfall (as long as you promise to come back). In it, a Bond trying to recover from a career-ending fall, is trying to prove his relevance in a world where technology is making him obselete. Watch the use of light, and shadow, and music to tell us as audience this. The film ends in rural Scotland for a reason – it is the culmination of a story about the interplay between the old and the new.

Skyfall is not perfect by any means. But it is as AAA as films can possibly get, and yet they still make the individual elements of production synchronise with one another. You might think that this is simple for videogames. After all, if you don’t need a story to make your message, you don’t need one (and how many films can say that?) You don’t need actors, you don’t need to think about lighting and you don’t need to think about about sound if you don’t want to.

Games producers need to be only using the elements that they need to to make their impact. If something appears in a game, it needs to be a part of that game’s artistic vision. And the best largeish-budget example of this I’ve seen in the last couple of years is Spec Ops: The Line. For those of you who haven’t played it, I’m not going to spoil it if I can help it. But this is a game you all need to play. It’s a third-person shooter with a vision: To show the reality of war and violence to an audience who are used to the cartoon hoo-rah patriotism of modern AAA gaming.

Spec Ops is an attempt to answer the idiocy of the Call of Duties and Battlefields of this world with a game that circles around the madness and cold, hard reality of extreme violence. It is at once compelling and sickening, and is as brutal an expose of the military complex as any film on the subject. More so, at times, because we the audience are not mere passive observers of violence – we are the perpetrators of horrifying atrocities.

One example of how every element of this videogame services this message lies in its loading screens (yes, its loading screens). The loading screens begin with the standard FPS tips. Use cover to avoid enemy fire!

As the madness sets in, however, they start to reflect the actions the characters are taking under your command:

“The US army does not condone killing unarmed civilians. But this isn’t real, so why should you care?”

“To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.”

This game had to have loading screens. They had to be there. And therefore, as with any good art, those loading screens simply had to be a part of the Spec Ops message. This is the kind of thing we need to be seeing from the gaming industry. Games with higher values than mere time sinks or lowest common-denominator entertainment. Games whose primary selling point is how it will affect its audience rather than the new item-collecting mechanic. For games to truly become a creative media games makers need to behave creatively.

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The Champions League Final in Review

As we sit down on our couch, the teams are just walking out of the tunnel. We’ve skipped the build up, obviously, because we’re making Goulash and we’ve only just finished frying off the paprika. Still, it’s always good to miss the bit where Adrian Chiles pretends to care who Roy Keane thinks will win. Borussia Dortmund step out first, dressed in yellow and black like a stag night dressing up as early 90s referees. Munich follow, their red jerseys so dull as to be beyond comment.

The trophy is led out last. Carried by a Prussian general and a knight of the Holy Roman Empire, it is clear that this is not just a football match: this is an all out war to discover who is best at kicking leather towards a target. This is no mere football game. This is a battle to the death, if by death you mean “scoring the fewest goals.”

The teams line up to listen to the anthem of the Champions League. The only bit of the song I understand rings out: “THE CHAAAAAAMPIOOOONS, Buh buh bah bah baaaaaah,” The players applaud and the camera pans across to the referees, who have their own mascots! Their own mascots dressed as referees! I’m so excited by this it’s unreal. 5 year old referees make me happy, because I’m pretty sure they’ll grow up to be as obsessed with grammar as I am.

The game is ready to kick off. I am comfortable and leaning back in my seat with my girlfriend next to me. We both wait with baited breath for the first time Andy Townsend tries to pronounce Błaszczykowski. The first 6 minutes are characterised by lots of pressure from Borussia Dortmund, although it only culminates in 3 shit corners and a snatched shot. Lewandowski begins brightly, but it is 9:56 into the game when the first really entertaining thing happens – Błaszczykowski gets his first touch! Old Andy has clearly been coached, because his pronunciation is basically on the money (streaks ahead of his “Wojciech Tomasz Szczęsny” anyway).

We are playing the Andy Townsend drinking game tonight. If you haven’t heard of it, you need to drink whenever:

  1. Andy Townsend mixes up the singular and the plural versions of the word goal. Cf. “He gets his head up, takes one look at the goals, and fires off a shot.”
  2. Any time Andy Townsend gives a player a piece of advice, and then the exact opposite advice 2 minutes later.
  3. Whenever Andy Townsend commentates like Clive Tyldesley decided to let a 5 year-old boy do the analysis instead of a professional broadcaster. For instance using goalie instead of goalkeeper.

One is usually somewhat squiffy by the end of the night, but Andy’s clearly been given some lessons for this one. While I am considering AT’s new found clarity, the camera cuts to a sequence of shots of nervous looking German women. Then we see a group of Munich fans clapping in slow, but perfect, time. Even the Germans’ chanting is ruthlessly efficient.

We are now 16 minutes in and Neuer has already had a great game. 18 minutes and Ribery decides to make his presence known. A ball hits him, and he acts as if he’s been punched hard in the gut, which is ironic given his sex assault charges. Even more ironic since he looks like he wouldn’t be out of place wearing a scary mask and carrying a massive knife in a shit 90s slasher movie.

3 more saves for Neuer now and many close-ups of Lewandowski, who looks like a talented Vernon Kay. But less irritating. Bayern Munich begin to make their mark on the game and I forgive Lewandowski’s appearance when I realise Mandžukić looks like a tubby Greg Rusedski. Robben gets the best chance of the game so far, but Borussia’s goalie (DRINK!) saves with his face.

Dawn (aka, the girlfriend) sees a tweet about the Voice. We privately wonder if the singing from the Borussia fans is more, or less, annoying than the Battles round. Nature gets the better of me at 30:30 and I leave to attend its call. I hurry back, fearful of what I may miss. It turns out I needn’t have worried – shit all has gone down.

Once I’m settled back down, two more chances follow for Robben – but on both occasions he forgets he has teammates. Wanker. He has words with one of Borussia’s full backs and we get to see a shot of them standing next to one another. It is like a waxwork Jason Statham standing next to an extra in a shit 80s pop rock video.

Half-time arrives. 0-0, but more importantly it is time to prepare the dumplings for the Goulash. Since I’m working away at my traditional Hungarian casserole I miss the entire half-time break, so instead I fill in the half-time with guesses. Someone in the comments should let me know if I’m correct:

  1. Ray Winstone goes on and fucking on  about how “it’s all about the in-play!”
  2. Roy Keane makes a joke about his tackling.
  3. Adrian Chiles overuses the word thrilling.
  4. Gareth Southgate does nothing of any note whatsoever.

I breathlessly anticipate the start of the second half. I am breathless because the dumplings were a bit more work than I expected and because every time I breathe in all I can sense is Goulash-smell. Goulash-smell makes me feel faint with hunger. I see a panning shot of the Borussia Dortmund end in their yellow kit. Zoomed this far out, the only thing I can think to do is to belt out the lyrics to Sting’s Fields of Gold:

You’ll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You can tell the sun in his jealous sky
When we walked in fields of gold
When we walked in fields of go—

Until Dawn yells at me. 49 minutes and 43 seconds in, and ITV cut to a pitchside cameraman just as he stumbles over a photographer – always the most entertaining point of any game of football. I realise that the lettering on Borussia Dortmund’s shirts are in the 2012 London Olympics font. Perhaps it was cheaper to just dye the German Olympic team’s shirts yellow?

At 53:00 we cut to a shot of Angela Merkel, supposedly the most powerful woman on the planet. If that’s the case, why does she have such shit seats? At 54 minutes and 17 seconds, my hunger gets the better of me – I am checking on the Goulash instead of paying attention to the football.

Luckily there is currently a slight lull in the action. The most entertaining thing right now is a player named Bender. No sooner do I stop finding that funny, than Bayern Munich break the deadlock. I have nothing interesting to add to that point as I had been rooting for Borussia Dortmund and am now a bit put out.

I am in no mood for Clive Tyldesley’s ‘statistics’ right now.

Real Madrid couldn’t score against Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals. Barcelona couldn’t score against Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. Borussia Dortmund will need to find a goal against Bayern Munich now if they don’t want to lose this final.

Thanks, Clive, for explaining the rules of football like we didn’t know them. It’s 66 minutes in now, and the ‘stats’ are coming thick and fast: “We’ve not had a 1-0 final since 1998,” we are told. Like anyone cares.

I am suddenly revived by an unbelievable penalty for Borussia Dortmund. I say unbelievable, but I mean fucking hilarious. As if to prove how silly the foul was, we cut to a Munich fan looking pensive. A fan who looks like an Aryan Eminem. The penalty is scored. Borussia are level. The commentators cannot resist a sly dig about Germans and penalties. Everything feels right with the world, until Andy Townsend gets overexcited and starts wibbling on about the “goalie”. I have my first drink of the night. Then Andy gets carried away and calls it a “pen” instead of a penalty. I pour myself another drink.

Now that Dortmund are level my mind can return to the Goulash, which is nearly finished cooking. The combination of beef, paprika and exciting football leads me in to a feeling of ecstasy, in which I feel like I am floating outside of myself. Then a terrible sensation of tautology grips me, and I wonder if I am repeating myself.

WOW! An incredible goal-line clearance from Borussia, which I miss as I am serving the Goulash. Then an incredible disallowed goal  form Lewandowski, which I miss because I am slicing bread. When I return to the couch, there’s a crowd shot and I suddenly realise all the stewards are Borussia Dortmund fans (at the very least they’re in Borussia Dortmund colours).

Moments later a cynical challenge comes crashing in from Arjen Robben just as I realise that the Goulash is as good as I remember it. The game and the food is so good I’m almost looking forward to extra time.

Suddenly however, disaster strikes. And by disaster, I mean Arjen Robben. The sight of Bayern Munich scoring in the final two minutes of the game forces my Goulash to drop four of its letters and become merely Ash in my mouth. Bayern Munich must surely be the winner. Bayern waste time with a substitution. One Mario off for another. It’s almost unlucky there’s no one named Luigi on the pitch.

The final whistle blows and Bayern Munich are champions. I have now lost all interest. Dawn suggests I watch the lifting of the trophy. I comply, but first have to listen to Adrian Chiles talk about “the men at the Bayern end” and “the men at the Borussia end” as if no women in all of Germany watch football, before ITV skip to an ad break.

Whilst bored of the adverts, I consider the game I have just seen. It was fast-paced, entertaining and at times controversial. As was I. But Dawn and I agree that it missed the balls-to-the-wall action of Yeovil Town against Brentford in the League 1 Play-Off Final one week previously. It also missed that lovely emotional feeling you get when holding your balls up against a wall.

Watching Borussia Dortmund climb the stairs dejectedly to receive their loser’s medals, I start to wonder if maybe I should have seconds of the Goulash. Klopp is given literally the shittiest trophy I have ever seen in my life. It looks like a logo for an independent tyre manufacturer in some tiny village in Sussex.

Bayern Munich players kiss the trophy as they walk past it, although Dawn points out that they look as if they are caressing their pregnant girlfriend’s belly as they do so. Suddenly the proceedings become unintentionally hilarious.

Lahm lifts the trophy on behalf of the Bayern Munich team. There is lots of noise, lots of cheering and our commentators provide lots of hyperbole. Gold and silver tickets fall down from above the trophy area. If the Bayern Munich team pick up enough of them, Richard O’Brien will come on and offer them a pony trekking holiday across Great Yarmouth. Just like in the Crystal Maze.

I turn the TV off. The game is done. Football is finished until it begins again. I have one final thought: I never believed I could truly, deeply hate someone. I never believed it was possible to be filled with a hate so powerful that it might burst out of me at any moment. Never, that is, until Heineken put that fucking wanker in the same pompous advert at the beginning and end of every ad break throughout an entire 90 minutes of stupid football. Him, I hate.

Well done, Bayern Munich.

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My Blog Has Moved!

A big hello to both of my readers (Hi Mum! Hi me, checking back later to see if there’s been any comments!). I haven’t posted in a very long time, because I’ve been busy with a few things:

  1. Moving my blog to its new address at timballantine.wordpress.com
  2. Starting a comedy career.

Between these two things I haven’t had time to get angry about stuff, but there’s plenty being held back. Be prepared for me spamming your Facebook/Twitter timeline over the next week.

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