Sunday, 27 September 2009

Shopping as a "patriotic duty"

Lately, the media have been discussing the idea that the public needs to do more shopping to prop up the economy. Some have even framed it in terms of there being a "duty to shop". Meanwhile, the UK government has been lowering interest rates, which ends up punishing people who haven't been living above their means, while bailing out the ones who have.

Anyone with even a passing interest in ecological issues knows that the current rate of consumption is simply impossible to sustain, much less increase. The earth is of a finite size, so eventually we will run out of things. We might quibble about when that's going to happen, but it will, and it will likely happen within your lifetime.

Still, the idea that the economy would - god forbid - shrink - is discussed in apocalyptic terms.

I understand that without some heavy adjustments in society, a shrinking economy means that people lose their jobs. But perhaps modern technology (and the UK's convenient position atop a giant pyramid of exploitation, I mean, trade) has made working forty hours a week an unnecessary burden? Theoretically, we could simply all agree to work less, be a little poorer, and have more free time. In this free time we could discover that there are ways of enjoying ourselves that don't cost as much.

For example, board games. I'm a great fan of board games, and play them fairly regularly. If you look at them from a cost/benefit point of view, they're amazing. An expensive board game may cost 25 pounds, but will provide hundreds of hours of entertainment to several people. However, people don't play board games because they think they're for children, or for nerds, or they're outdated.

Partly, this is due to conspicuous consumption, that tendency of people to consume goods and services to show off their wealth and success. Playing a board game doesn't require you to be rich, successful or popular, so it's an unpopular pastime for that reason.

To some degree, I think, this is human nature - people instinctively want to enhance their social status. But societies can differ in what things define your social status, and theoretically, those things could be something less environmentally disastrous.

But anyone who sells anything has a vested interest in equating its consumption with social standing. Hence, advertising consists of a thousand daily voices telling you to buy things. But there are next to no voices telling you not to.

Another vested interest is the limitation of public facilities. Anything that's freely available to everyone - benches, public toilets, public television, public anything - is in competition with its private counterpart - coffee shops, toilets that charge you, private television, etc. (Yes, benches and public toilets compete with coffee shops. How many times have you had a cup of tea because you needed the loo and a sit down, rather than because you wanted the tea?)

Finally, I have to bring up the argument that money does not make you happy. This is a phrase that many people secretly disbelieve, but I think it's quite accurate. Unsurprisingly, there has been quite a lot of research in that direction, and what it generally says is this: people who are actually poor (by the standards of their society) are less happy than others. But for everyone else, there is no correlation between wealth and happiness. [1] [2]

At this point you may have dismissed this post. After all, none of this is new. You've been told to turn off your TV, go outside, stop buying pointless things, et cetera et cetera. You've been told more times than you can remember.

That doesn't mean it's not true, though, now is it?

People have this crazy idea that once something's no longer fashionable, it's no longer true. Criticisms of consumerism haven't stopped being true just because people came up with them a while ago. Just because they're no longer "trendy" doesn't mean they're not valid.

I think that's pretty much what happened to environmentalism in the 90s - it was considered such an 80s thing to worry about that the public just largely forgot about it. Instead we had the dot-com boom to occupy us. Next, terrorism grabbed the headlines. And now it's 2009, and unsurprisingly, the environmental problems haven't gone away by themselves.

So what can you do? Understand that a lot of people are putting a lot of effort into making you believe you must constantly spend money to be happy and entertained. Distrust these impulses and consider the alternatives.

If you're interested in reading more about such things, I can recommend the book Growth Fetish, which makes most of the points I make above but in more detail.

[1] Clive Hamilton - "Growth Fetish", chapter 2.

[2] Or alternatively, Hamilton's sources, which I admittedly haven't read:

Steve Dodds, "Economic growth and human well-being", in Mark Diesendorf and Clive Hamilton (eds), "Human Ecology, Human Economy: Ideas for an Ecologically Sustainable Future", Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997.

Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, "Happiness and Economics", Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2002.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Trafigura: An Opinion Piece. Opinion! No facts here!

As I have previously mentioned, UK libel law is quite unusual in that it essentially places the burden of proof onto the accused rather than the accuser. Also, the defence costs, even if the defence is successful, have to be carried by the accused, and the costs can easily be half a million pounds. This leaves most organisations and individuals with no choice other than not to contest the suit and having to retract their statements.

On a completely unrelated note, have a series of links to some interesting - but potentially libellous and untrue - news articles about oil trading company Trafigura:
In my personal opinion...

Wait, am I allowed to have an opinion on this?

I'm not entirely certain. I was under the impression that people were generally allowed to have an opinion, but recent events have somewhat dented that idea.

So you're just going to have to form your own. But then you must keep it to yourself, or at least not mention it within sight or earshot of Trafigura's lawyers...

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Quick Link: How to Organise a Demonstration

I thought readers here might be interested in Carrie Supple's article for The F-Word: How to organise a demonstration:
In this case study, Carrie Supple explains how she and Louise Morris organised a protest to support Sudanese journalist Lubna Hussein - and how you can use the same techniques to organise a demo for your campaign too.

Monday, 14 September 2009

A famous face

Zarkonnen's description of the purpose of this blog is that it is a place to practically make the world a little better. I am hoping that posting this here will help something be done about the focus of my post today, TV chef James Martin.

In an article in The Mail on Sunday motoring section he describes how endangering cyclists by "skimming" them and implies he causes them to either crash or certainly come near. I know that it can be challenging for some people to understand the appeal of cycling, but in the UK as in almost all countries cyclists have equal rights on the road and are much more vulnerable road users.

The article itself does not fall foul of the guidelines set out by the Press Complaints Commission, even though he explicitly describes breaking the law and endangering others, but for this reason I feel that complaints against this article should be sent to the BBC. As his main employer he is a representitive of the corporation on TV and in this article puts himself and the BBC into disrepute.

The letter example below is taken from the Bike Radar forums, but can be adjusted and sent to the BBC complaints department. It isn't their fault that his article was published, but I don't want a public body that I help to fund to keep such a person on their payroll.

I wish to formally complain about the comments made by the presenter James Martin in a column in the Daily Mail newspaper. Whilst I recognise that this is beyond the control of the BBC the presenter is one the public faces of the corporation and receives funding from licence payers.
James Martin specifically admits to causing cyclists distress and possible injury by his actions. The admissions, if substantiated, could well result in prosecution for Inconsiderate Driving, Driving Without Due Care And Attention or even Common Assault. The behaviour of James Martin as described in his column are not those which I have come to expect from the BBC. I would be grateful if you could explore the admissions and recontact me with the results of your findings. The article can be found below.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Bluefin Update

As stated in my last post, the fate of bluefin tuna is currently being discussed in the European Union's political machinery. When I was writing the last post, the European Commission were about to decide on whether to back the addition of bluefin to CITES, which would make the tuna a protected species and outlaw trade in its meat - giving stocks a chance to recover after years of mis-management.

The EC have now decided to back the application to CITES, which is excellent news. However, according to Reuters, "[...] the EU will not fully commit until its 27 member countries have been consulted on September 21 or before new scientific data emerges in November".

The problem with waiting until November is that the application deadline to CITES is on 14 October! Hence, waiting for the new data, while it may sound reasonable on the surface, is pretty much a delaying tactic aimed at preventing the CITES application from going through this year. I'm really not sure what extra scientific data would be needed - bluefin tuna is clearly being fished to extinction, and the current stock management is clearly ineffectual.

Which means that it's now more important than ever to write to your MEPs and tell them to support the immediate addition of bluefin to CITES Appendix I. You can use this letter as a guide, but it's better if you use your own words. The earlier post also contains more background information.

Using WriteToThem is really quick and straightforward, and even a quick (if polite line) is far better than nothing.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Save bluefin tuna

The bluefin tuna is a magificent fish - huge, fast, beautiful, even able to generate its own body heat, not something fish can usually do.

Photo by adalau, CC-licensed

It's also very tasty and very sought after - and about to go extinct due to overfishing. According to marine scientists and conservation organisations [1], bluefin tuna stocks have collapsed. Without careful management of the remaining stocks, the fish will soon be gone entirely.

Unfortunately, the "International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas", supposedly in charge of protecting the fish, has been setting quotas far above safe levels. [2] For example, in November 2009, they were advised by their own scientists that the quota should not exceed 15 000 tonnes - so they set it to 22 000. Add to that the huge illegal catch made possible by lax enforcement, and the actual amount of fish extracted from the sea ends up as 50 000 to 60 000 tonnes. [3]

ICCAT's ineffectual quotas are not enough to save the fish. Hence, the European Commission is mulling a proposal made by Monaco to add bluefin tuna to Appendix I of CITES, which would temporarily ban all international trade in it. This would allow the stocks to recover, especially because it would also curb illegal fishing. Illegally caught tuna can be easily passed off as its legal counterpart right now, but this would no longer work with the ban in place.[4]

However, a number of other countries, especially Malta, who has large tuna fisheries, are trying to stop this ban. And the fisheries commissioner, Joe Borg, says that he wishes to wait for an update from ICCAT before doing anything - by which point the deadline for CITES applications will have (conveniently?) passed. [5]

In short, this is a great big mess of European bureaucracy and horse-trading - but according to the Independent, the vote will be sometime next week. And if it goes the wrong way, it may well doom bluefin tuna.

And you don't need to be a, er, fish-hugger to want to save bluefin - if nothing else, it is a very tasty fish, and its extinction will impoverish our dinner table.

Hence, I would like to appeal to you to quickly write to some of the main players in this thing and ask them to ensure that the ban does go through. To this end, I have collected addresses and some prepared letters. However, if possible, amend or reword the letters in your own words.

An announcement is expected on Wednesday 9 September [6], so you will have to hurry.

So what can you do?

Write to:Write something like this:

Dear NAME,

It has come to my attention that the European Commission is considering an application to add bluefin tuna to Appendix I of CITES, which would declare it an endangered species and outlaw international trade in it.

Bluefin tuna is a popular food fish that has been brought to the brink of extinction by years of overfishing. It is my belief that the current measures to protect it are grossly inadequate, with ICCAT regularly setting quotas far above scientific recommendations. This is compounded by illegal fishing.

Of course, a ban on its trade may cause disruption to European fisheries, but so will its extinction!

I would ask you to do whatever is in your power to ensure that bluefin tuna is added to the list of endangered species. We no longer have the luxury to wait and see.

I look forward to hearing from you on this important matter.

Yours Sincerely,

your name here

[1] Bluefin Tuna in Atlantic Nearing Extinction, Conservation Group Says, National Geographic
[2] Managed to death, The Economist
[3] The Sushi Wars: Can the Bluefin Tuna Be Saved? Time
[4] Showdown looms for tuna in Brussels, WWF
[5] Political infighting threatens survival of the bluefin tuna, The Independent
[6] EU mulls ban on tuna as stocks near collapse,

That sickly smell

I use a software package called Poser 7 to make character portraits for the game I'm developing. I bought it about a year ago, having played around with the demo briefly.

I also have a copy of Poser 3 floating around, and in some respects, the program's quality is much improved: the monochrome-terracotta skin of the Poser 3 figure models has been replaced by a much more believable texture, and the rendering engine has been upgraded to a proper ray-tracer.

But there are certain issues. A lot of the newer systems integrate very badly into the program's core functionality. For example, while I can edit the shape and colour of a figure's face, the changed colour does not get applied to the rest of the body, making the feature semi-useless.

Adding clothes is hit-and-miss, with a lot of the pre-supplied clothes 3D models being impossible to fit onto the figures properly: the figure's flesh often extends further out than the cloth, leaving random patches of nakedness. In one case this is even visible in the thumbnail picture of that clothes model.

But the most distressing thing about the program is the amount of sexism that it manages to contain:

By default, Poser 7 comes with a male and a female figure (3D model) called "Simon" and "Sydney" respectively. Simon comes in two major variations: naked, and clothed in jeans and T-shirt. Sydney comes in one variation only: naked.

Let me repeat that: the male figure gets a version with clothes on by default. The female one doesn't. Of course, in both cases, the naked figures can then be clothed by adding clothes to them, but why this asymmetry? What if I just want a quick 3D render of a clothed woman? I can do it if it's a man.

This ridiculousness is compounded by some other things:

Simon comes without genitals by default. This is perhaps not so surprising. Sydney doesn't have nipples by default. The figure's breasts are just nipple-less flesh-coloured domes. You have to load in an alternate texture to get the nipples. So here we have sexism intermixing with a tiring shame about the human body.

The default set of clothes models supplied with the program is rather interesting as well. Simon's and Sydney's wardrobes are similar in some parts (tennis shoes, sandals, jeans) - but while Simon has a suit, Sydney has a form-fitting leather jacket and high-heeled leather boots. The two tops in Sydney's wardrobe are an incredibly tight fit as well. In short, Simon can dress casual or business, Sydney can dress casual-sexy or leather-sexy.

Then there's the websites you can buy more figure models at, which heavily feature scantily clad women along with invitations to, er, buy them...

I don't think I will.

To be frank, I don't have any suggestions for you here beyond boycotting software that has that sickly smell of sexism about it - but I am badgering the distributors of Poser, trying to get some sort of statement out of them. If that happens, I will post it here.