Archive for January, 2005

The value of gifts (or ‘What Star Trek taught me about capitalism’)

Thursday, January 27th, 2005

I got into Star Trek The Next Generation over Christmas. Being stuck at home for a month and idly switching over to Sky One on cable at 5pm. I used to like this series but found it quite dated a while back. I still dislike the first series and it only really gets going at the end of season 2, with ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ when they nick the ‘Cybermen’ from Doctor Who and call them the Borg.


Earlier this week they showed ‘Data’s Day’ which is a quite amusing episode from season 3. It’s a ‘ship in a bottle’ show, which means one where they basically set the whole thing on the Enterprise and keep effects shots to a minimum so they can fund the more expensive installments.

In this episode we follow Lt Cmdr Data (whose name is pronounced the English way, but whose rank is pronounced the American way – i.e. ‘loo-tennant’, not ‘left-tennant’) during 24 hours on board the Enterprise.

I won’t bore you with the details of the plot as there isn’t much of one really. But there is a little sequence in it which I found myself pondering.

Data is participating in a wedding and realises he has to get a gift for the happy couple, so he goes to what must be the Enterprise’s ‘shop’ where he bumps into Mr Worf who is doing the same thing. The scene opens with the two characters chatting while in the background a mother and father are using the replicator to produce a teddy bear or something for an excited child who grabs it, and they walk off like the all-American family they are (I think this is ironic – or at least I hope it is).

Now that was the first thing to grab me. This child has just seen a cuddly toy replicated out of thin air by the miracle of modern science at no cost to him or his parents. Presumably he can have all the toys in the world if it’s so easy, so why is he so excited at getting this one? And if it were so easy, wouldn’t he expect something a little better than a bloody cuddly toy?

Then we focus on Data and Worf who are browsing some sort of online catalogue (this is in the days before Amazon so it’s all very futuristic, remember) trying to choose something. Data says something along the lines of ‘I do not understand the human ritual of giving gifts’ and Worf says ‘I have noticed the gift is supposed to represent the personality of the person giving it’ – actually I may have got them mixed up but you get the point.

The gifts on offer are a bit naff – the sort of thing you see on display in seaside bingo halls that you can win for a line or full house. ‘Souvenir of Blackpool’ type stuff.

So this is where it started getting weird. The universe as imagined by Gene Roddenbury is one in which poverty is a thing of the past and in several episodes characters mention how the Earth no longer uses currency. So here we have characters who are choosing gifts that are going to be replicated – they’re not made by anyone, not the product of toil or artistry, and they’re not being paid for or in other words exchanged for the characters’ labour. So what value do these gifts have?

I’d say they have no value at all. In Marxist terms there’s no exchange value and no use value – in the following episode the happily married couple are eating ‘home made’ replicated food from each other’s heritage (Irish and Japanese) and Keiko (for it is she) expresses shock when Chief O’Brien says his mother used to handle real meat with her own hands. So here we have Keiko trying to introduce her husband to authentic, replicated, untouched-by-human-hands Japanese cuisine with all the pride in the world, and O’Brien reciprocating with potato casserole straight from the matter transporter – it makes no sense.

Back to the wedding gifts. Presumably at the reception Data and Worf whip out their presents and Keiko and O’Brien force grins on their faces as they say ‘oh a fake replicated bit of starstuff in the shape of a Lalique vase that cost you nothing to buy and only a few seconds of your time to choose from the on-board Argos catalogue. You shouldn’t have’.

I don’t see how it can work. I don’t see how the economy could work because, essentially, no one has to work – I mean, why join Starfleet, train for years, only to be given the ‘Red Shirt of Certain Death’ when you could stay at home and burn out your replicator on fast food and sex toys? I can get that some people would be motivated by the desire to explore or find purpose but altruism only goes so far. Why get promoted and take on stressful roles without proper compensation?

There’s no sense that people are paid in replicator credits or holodeck privelages – in fact those only come in when Voyager is trapped in the delta quadrant and energy is at a premium (whoops- showing my geekiness there!) so we can assume the Enterprise doesn’t run on such an economy.

Gifts, of course, have a status all of their own and I was pointing this out to students recently. I suggested (and I can’t remember if I read this somewhere or came up with it myself) that the more that somebody means to us the less useful or valuable the gift can be.

For example, I am about to post a packet of Cadbury Mini Eggs and a packet of Haribo ‘Tangfastic’ sweets to my friend in New Zealand. She’s a very important person to me, and we used to have a bit of a private joke about Haribo sweets and Tangfastics in particular (they make my tongue sore but she loves them); and she had a bit of a fetish for mini eggs last year. So these sweets, which cost less than it’ll cost me to post them to her, have no financial value and no use value but I know that when she opens them she’ll invest in them exactly the same meaning that I did. In technical jargon, she’ll decode the encoded message accurately.

And then she’ll eat them cos she’s a pig like that.

The value of the gift is the meaning, not the cost or the use. And the more someone means to you the more you are able to use ‘meaningful’ gifts as a sign of that person’s value to you.

Jean Baudrillard points out that objects move freely between four ‘values’ – as a commodity, a utility, a status symbol and as a gift. But a gift need not be financially valuable, is what I’m saying, and indeed the less financially valuable it is, the more value it can have as a gift. We use the word ‘token’ for such things.

However, many gifts are simultaneously financially valuable and act as a status symbol: an engagement ring, for example. And there is a certain economy of gifts I think in which the gift’s value lies not in its representation of the value of the relationship between giver and receiver, but its value as a symbol of status as ‘rich boyfriend and provider’ or ‘girlfriend of rich boyfriend’ (to use a couple of mysoginistic examples). Other gifts are given as investments – an heirloom is essentially a saftey deposit against hard times in the future or a down payment on a house, car or holiday. It’s a politically correct way of giving cash without being so vulgar (cash, of course, being a promissary note in the same way).

So where does this leave poor old Data and Worf? For them, the process of giving gifts is literally alien. It’s not part of their culture so they do it to fit in – in other words it’s an imposition (I once went to a wedding where a friend and I had to choose gifts from a wedding list that was written, we suspected, more to communicate the couple’s social status than anything else – I mean, a croquet set?)

The gifts Data and Worf chose were not useful and were not the result of a sacrifice. In turn they would have been an imposition on the receivers as they’d have to have them on display whenever the giver popped round for tea (or maybe they could simply have programmed the replicator to sense the giver’s presence at the door and beam the appropriate gift back into existance? I can see that catching on).

The tradition of buying wedding gifts is one that allows a couple to accumulate the things they need to set up home together. Remove that need and you remove the need for a gift – the last wedding I went to cost me a few hundred pounds to attend and I know my friend realised that me being there was my gift (I just realised how that sounds! You know what I mean…)

The gifts that Data and Worf gave cost nothing, meant nothing, and were not wanted or needed. I can’t see how a currency-less and compensation-for-labour-less economy would continue the gift-giving tradition except in the tokenistic but meaning-filled way, like with the sweets I bought my friend. Similarly, a gift I received last year from departing students meant a lot to me – a children’s book of spelling exercises, a joke about my proofing of their dissertations – because of the meaning invested in it, not the expense or the use.

Friends, colleagues and intimates sharing a private joke or a memory – these are the real value of gifts and, I think, as we become more affluent, this is the future of giving gifts. For Data and Worf, for O’Brien and Keiko, and worst of all for the poor kid receiving the cuddly toy fresh off the replicator, there was little positive, but much negative, associated with the activity of valueless gift giving.

Going loopy

Monday, January 24th, 2005

I’ve just been watching a video shot in a club near where I live, The Ocean Rooms, and I was sitting thinking ‘blimey this is a long video…’ until I realised I’d been watching a loop for about 15 minutes.

I’m intrigued by the graphics used on the club’s website – you can’t walk through Brighton without being given a hundred flyers for the different clubs the city seems to possess (quite where they all are I haven’t figured out) – we seem to be looping in print terms too. Capital letters and tight (if not negative) leading seem to be de rigeur at the moment; takes me back to when I tried to get the company I worked for as an in-house designer kicking and screaming into the 1990s graphically-speaking. I found that I had to be really subtle as any ‘major’ advances were usually rejected outright by some stuffy director who thought wood-panelled walls were a sign of distinction. My colleagues and I used to try to sneak in ‘radical’ design ideas and see what we could get away with.

My best ones were film spoofs – the company was/is the world’s largest seller of building materials and so I’d have to sell such exciting things as bath plugs, copper pipes and toilets. Biggest career killer you could ask for, I suppose! But I swapped an ‘approved’ design for the bath plug ad as it went to press for an ‘Independence Day’ spoof (invading bath plugs! Lasers and everything!) that actually went down very well, and an ad for compact kitchens for studio flats became a ‘Honey I Shrunk the Kitchen!’ spoof complete with screaming 1950s woman and zany spiral background.

If I’d asked for approval I’d never have got it, so I took these gambles and they paid off – which sort of took the fun out of it. So much so I started getting bored. My farewell ad was for (wait for it) urinals and cubicles that came pre-packaged in a box and were called (it gets better) ‘cubicles in a box’ – they pay people to come up with these names, you know. If I hadn’t just resigned I would have done at this point…

So I did something wowzer in Bryce, some sort of wooden crate with rays of smoky light coming out of the top and a urinal and cubical coming out with a forced perspective. I mean, how do you make these things exciting?! My master stroke though was the title ‘Cubicles in a box!’ which I rendered using the new Eye Candy filter we’d got for Photoshop which was made to look just like someone had pissed it all over the floor…

Oh how we laughed when no one spotted it. Probably ‘cos it didn’t really look like pee at all, but we knew that’s what I’d intended.

You had to be there.

Lazy son of a…

Sunday, January 23rd, 2005

I just had three days off (Fridays are unpaid which I can’t afford but it’s quite nice).

I had intended to use Friday to finish the book, Saturday to plan Tuesday’s lecture and discussion, and Sunday to plan my two and a half day web design class that I have to give next week.

Instead I did… nothing. Woke up late on Friday and got ready for a trip to the gym after tidying up but did neither. Popped to the shop for some milk and bumped into my ex who was having a ‘duvet day’. After that I just spent the afternoon watching TV.

Saturday… got up late. Did actually go to the gym this time for a whole hour (whoopee) and then home to watch more TV and play Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow on the X-Box. Then my neighbours decided to have a party until 5am so didn’t sleep much.

This morning (Sunday) got up late, played on the Xbox, watched Voyager on cable and did at least vacuum the sofa and cut the cat’s claws (fun fun fun).

Now it’s just gone 9pm and I’ve realised I’ve done nothing to prepare for next week! Starting to panic but also thinking ‘well that’s what weekends are for…’

I think this is one of the biggest problems with part-time teaching, you only get paid for the hours you teach – the pay includes prep time, but because you have to fill every spare hour with paid work it means using your evenings and weekends.

Yes, I know it’s another moan and I don’t have to live like this… but I really needed a weekend of doing nothing whatsoever; it’s just the worry that the lessons will be crap this week and I don’t think I can use it as an excuse. I hate being unprepared. I usually have a ‘spare lecture’ on hand for times when things go wrong like this, but it’s not really appropriate for the lessons I’m giving this week. Plus I think I’ve used it on one of these groups already!

Italy’s real ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Saturday, January 22nd, 2005

From the BBC News website. My newsreader picked this story up earlier today and after reading the two line preview I put off reading it. Now I have, I wish I hadn’t. One of those small private tragedies that you know will end up being a sensational tabloid headline – or minor blog entry…

A husband in Italy who lost hope of his wife waking from a four-month coma has killed himself – only for his beloved to regain consciousness hours later.

Doctors said when Rossana, 67, stirred, she asked for her husband Ettore.

The tragedy, recalling the ending of Romeo and Juliet, took place in Padua, 60km (40 miles) from Verona, the setting of Shakespeare’s play.

Ettore, 71, had kept a daily vigil at Rossana’s side after she had a stroke and fell into a coma in September.

Italian media report that he would visit his wife daily, sometimes coming to the hospital in the northern town as many as four times a day.

But on Wednesday, Ettore committed suicide by gassing himself in the garage of the couple’s Padua home.

About 12 hours later, Rossana, a former nurse, emerged from the coma and asked for her husband.

Ettore had recently told the local pastor that he was very pessimistic about the prospects of his wife’s recovery, Italian news agency Ansa reports. The couple had no children.

In Shakespeare’s play, Juliet drinks a potion in order to appear dead as part of a plan to elope with Romeo.

Unaware of this, Romeo, believing she is dead, kills himself. Juliet awakens and, seeing Romeo dead, stabs herself.

iPod Shuffle shipping

Saturday, January 22nd, 2005

Just had an email from Apple to say my iPod Shuffle is on its way, delivery due in 2-3 business days.


Problem is, I won’t be in during the day so will have to rearrange delivery until the week after next as, like so many companies, Apple use private courier firms instead of Royal Mail or Parcelforce, who would leave the package either at the post office round the corner or at the sorting office in town, about 10 minutes walk from work.

When I got my replacement Powerbook through my insurance company I had to get a taxi into the middle of nowhere at a cost of £50, or risk it being sent back because I couldn’t be in at a time that was convenient to the shipping company. Great customer service.

Some couriers will leave things with my neighbour and one even rang me at work and dropped it off with me there. But Apple’s courier of choice won’t do that. Oh well – it wouldn’t be British of me if I didn’t complain about the miracles of the modern world…

If people lived like they blogged

Tuesday, January 18th, 2005

One of the funniest ‘what if life were like blogging’ posts I’ve read (LJ=LiveJournal for those who don’t know, a blogging system like ‘blogger’, the one this site uses):

How To Have An LJ Day In Real Life!

My god, what an amazing day I had when LJ was down!…I’m exhausted. LJ isn’t easy to replace…But I think I managed it, in REAL LIFE!

First I read my newspapers and watched the news on TV but to give everything an LJ flavour, I got my 9 year old to choose which stories I should read or watch and to give me his opinions on all of them. I then got him to make me a little Poll, so that I could register my opinion. He was a bit distracted by my home-made mask (or ‘avatar’, as I called it) but he agreed that I was wise to wear it, as it was much prettier than my real face.

Next I decided to sneak into my neighbour houses and read their diaries. Unfortunately my neighbours are pretty well-balanced and their diaries reflected this, so when I got home, I listened to my Leonard Cohen CDs right through a couple of times, to crank up my angst intake. Mmmm…If anyone should have an LJ it is Leonard Cohen. After a while I was pleasantly depressed and I shared my depression in LJ style, by shouting it through a large Loud Hailer/Bullhorn, out of the bedroom window, to anyone passing…But they just ignored my misery. Oh and I phoned up a couple of friends and told them I never wanted to see them again, then disconnected my phone before they could discuss it. Nobody cared. I had received no comments from anyone for a couple of hours, apart from “give my fucking diary back!” and “Shut up!”.

Although my LJ Down day was realistic in many ways, I wanted it to be like a successful LJ experience…What would scarletdemon do on LJ, that *I* wasn’t doing in real-life?

As soon as I asked myself that, I had the brilliant plan of selling out, making a really stupid hat and dancing around in the middle of the road, like a monkey on crack. It really worked! People who saw me made 57 comments in 2 hours, plus a few people threw me money (which I will use to buy more user time).

By now I was hardly missing LJ at all and once I’d printed out photographs of my family and friends to hand out to complete strangers, the day felt almost normal.

All I had left to do was to go to the local park and hang out in the bushes (where kind men showed me their cocks, without me even having to join a community or say I was over 18!) and my fake LJ day was over.

Missing LJ? Nah. I’m looking forward to the next crash ;).

Dilbert’s on the nose again

Friday, January 14th, 2005

Coincidental to my post on being an iPod Shuffle victim, here’s today’s Dilbert cartoon:

iPod Shuffle victim

Friday, January 14th, 2005

I hate Apple. I spent far too much money the other day on the new versions of Keynote and Garageband, and then found myself going back to snap up a new iPod Shuffle. The more i think about it the more this is a cool gadget that seems to answer a need that a lot of people just don’t seem to ‘get’. If you read some of the (quite heated) anti-Shuffle comments it all revolves around the fact there’s no screen and you can’t tell what song’s coming next. Some of the critics have said it doesn’t have a radio either, like some competitors.

But when Apple released the iPod mini last year and updated the big iPod they added the ‘shuffle’ feature to the main menu because it seems a lot of people just stuck their player on random and never looked at the screen. And what’s a radio if it’s not just a player stuck on random (but with someone else’s choice of crappy music and ads every few minutes?)

For me the beauty of the Shuffle is that it only holds a couple hundred songs. I’ve found with my 40gb iPod that by the time I’ve decided what to listen to I’m late for whatever i was going to! And it’s too heavy for the gym. So I tend to save it for train journeys and overnight stays.

The Shuffle should be good for the gym and quick walks to work – and the real killer deal is the iTunes integration. Unlike other players, this one updates randomly and automatically from a pre-set playlist in iTunes, so I’m going to use my ‘smart’ playlist called ‘rock not played in the last year’ to fill it – currently 4,288 songs, or 12 days long – to randomly fill it, and hopefully rediscover some forgotten treasures.

Should be here in two weeks, and quite looking forward to it. I’m not a sad hype victim at all – I haven’t been fooled into thinking this is the answer to my prayers. True i didn’t know I needed this on Monday, but since Tuesday it’s been so damned obvious… 😉

Plus I’ll be the first one in the gym to have one – everyone has an iPod there, so sometimes I feel quite cool that I don’t take mine with me. Sad, isn’t it?

Anyway, to see quite an accurate commentary on how pervasive the iPod has become in Britain (Brighton and London are awash with them), check out this quite weird BBC comedy sketch. Or is it a documentary?

I nearly bought a Mac mini too, just cos it’s so damned affordable. Don’t need one at all, but hell I NEED one…

Blogger sacked for sounding off

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005

Time for UK readers to boycott Waterstones, I think…

“A bookseller has become the first blogger in Britain to be sacked from his job because he kept an online diary in which he occasionally mentioned bad days at work and satirised his ‘sandal-wearing’ boss. Joe Gordon, 37, worked for Waterstone’s in Edinburgh for 11 years but says he was dismissed without warning for ‘gross misconduct’ and ‘bringing the company into disrepute’ through the comments he posted on his weblog. Published authors and some of the 5 million self-published bloggers around the globe said it was extraordinary that a company advertising itself as a bastion of freedom of speech had acted so swiftly to sack Mr Gordon, who mentions everything from the US elections to his home city of Edinburgh in the satirical blog he writes in his spare time.”

Read the full article here

Sadly I can’t ask my publisher to withdraw my book from them, but I’d ask anyone who was thinking of buying it in the UK to get it from somewhere other than Waterstones until they act like grown-ups.

What kind of intelligence are you?

Monday, January 10th, 2005

Well apparently I’m ‘lingusitically intelligent’ – you can take the test yourself and see what you are (my result is below). I have to say, a few of the questions I wanted to tick most of the boxes, so I’m tempted to try it again and see if I’m just all-round intelligent 😉

If you like this sort of thing, don’t forget my own S:Team quiz

Your Dominant Intelligence is Linguistic Intelligence

You are excellent with words and language. You explain yourself well.

An elegant speaker, you can converse well with anyone on the fly.

You are also good at remembering information and convicing someone of your point of view.

A master of creative phrasing and unique words, you enjoy expanding your vocabulary.

You would make a fantastic poet, journalist, writer, teacher, lawyer, politician, or translator.

What Kind of Intelligence Do You Have?