Monthly Archives: March 2011

#oneaday 37: Diamonds on the soles of his shoes

Monday’s  news that Barclays Bank chief executive, Mr Bob Diamond has had his bonus of at least £6.5m which rises to twice that with other perks, should surprise no one. Despite all the talk of restraint, bankers like everyone else, are programmed to get what they can as fast as they can. No amount of money is ever enough, and these boys and girls need to earn as much as possible. Don’t blame the people, blame the system. Actually scrub that, the people make the system, so blame them.

When most of us are gearing our spending downwards and cutting back, for some out there, this is just not a feature of their daily lives. We can get angry, indeed I am surprised that we are not angrier, but we could also use our teeny weeny amount of individual power and band together to make a difference.

For most of us the choice of bank for  most of us is a question which few of us really think about. Indeed we rarely change banks, unlike our insurance company, mobile phone supplier, supermarket, energy supplier and pub, most of us perceive very little between the banks. I read Mervyn King, the Governor of the bank of England, has made comments that call into question the real value banks put on their customers. He is right. When was the last time you ever got anything positive from your bank? If they ever send you a letter it normally tells you of a change in terms and conditions. If you have the mind of a lawyer you may actually be able to spot the difference between the ‘before’ and ‘after’, good luck with that little puzzle. Most times letters from banks cost you money!

 But we do have a choice. All banks rely on the capital deposited by customers being lent out to other customers, with a margin difference in interest rates representing their profits. If they can’t get access to the money from savers, it can be tricky for banks.

 Therefore, if you are a customer of a bank, look carefully at what they do for you. Are their charges competitive? Do they value you as a customer, do they have any ethics, do they pay their staff excessive bonuses? We all have a choice. We can work collectively to force change. Don’t think for a moment that any bank will make life easy for you, they won’t. Our account number is not portable, unlike our mobile phone number. You have to set up all direct debits and standing orders, and that is hassle. Making informed choices about which bank is the right one is not exactly easy. Banks spend millions of Pounds, Dollars and Euros building their brands to make them look attractive. Lewis Hamilton, The Premier League and the Six Nations may earn a few quid extra, but don’t be fooled. Look at the ethical behaviour and track record of these institutions. Most of them have a shocking record, Barclays are as good or bad as the rest. Maybe consider an organisation like the Co-Operative Bank who don’t seem to believe that their senior staff are ‘Masters of the Universe’, and appear to be a little more normal, if that is possible of course.

 So there is one way that those of us who are Barclays customers can make a difference. We can simply close our accounts and take our business elsewhere. Yes there maybe some work to do along the way, but how can true progress be made without effort?

 Maybe then Mr Diamond will wake up and smell his coffee, he may even jump on one of his lovely bikes and cycle off into the evening mist. Or maybe that will be idealistic wishful thinking, let’s see if we can make a difference. Spread the word. Change? We Can.

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Filed under Banks, Politics

#oneaday 36: Small is beautiful

I wrote this in December 2009…..I still think we are in amazing times, no matter what the President of Nintendo says 😉

I consider myself lucky enough to be born in the 1960’s, at school in the 1970’s and started my career (or job as we used to call it) in the 1980’s. I lived through two great British phenomena, Punk and Home Computer Games, although both had their parallel roots in the USA.

Rock ‘n’ Roll was the original disruptive modern youth movement, landing in a cold, paranoid and austere post World War 2 world and it ignited the power and the profit potential of recorded music sales. The music business rose up to rival the film business and by the mid seventies was spawning the much derided, but often purchased and sometimes enjoyed, concept album. Punk smashed that model up in 1976 and brought Low-Fi, DIY music to the ‘blank’ generation. It was an antidote to the excess of the seventies.  The DIY mentality of punk and the emergence of the synthesiser brought us electronic music, and with it a fascination with newly emerging home computers. Suddenly boys had options. Not everyone wanted to make their own music and wear their own fashion indeed the feelings of isolation often manifested themselves in boys taking to their bedrooms and spending hours and hours with their new fangled  home computers,  whether it be the Sinclair ZX81 or BBC Micro, getting off on making sprites ‘move’ on screen.

As these machines started to become popular, so demand for games started to rise and in the early eighties, these home computers, complete  with their cassette tape players and portable televisions spawned the beginnings of the games industry as we know it today. Games were obviously simple, but they were also cheap to buy and had what has now become known as ‘mass market appeal’.  They took their lead from the games hosted on coin op arcade machines, and every boy’s dream of an arcade in their bedroom looked like becoming a reality. The barriers to entry were modest and anyone capable of programming in BASIC could make their very own game. Soon companies who specialised in packaging, marketing, financing and selling the games started to appear and shops such as WH Smith and Boots (the chemists!) sold classics such as Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy by the thousand.  Hardware companies flocked to the festival of creativity, Apple and Commodore being two of the prominent players from the US to put their ten gallon hats in the ring. Down the line Nintendo, Sega, Sony and Microsoft all entered the home hardware fray and the rest as they say is history.

Fast forward to 2008 and the launch of the Apple’s App Store as an update to the digital distribution genre defining  iTunes.   With the worldwide sales of packaged recorded music sales falling like a Led Zeppelin, the music industry has seen the threat and opportunity of online distribution and most of that with Apple and iTunes.  Traditional sales of CDs have been replaced by digital delivery and storage of music, whether paid for by the consumer, given free by the owner or simply ‘shared’ by consumers without payment.  Artists have been able to connect to their audiences through the internet and no longer have to rely on promoters or radio networks to get voice. Apple have given consumers the power to buy lifestyle applications, including games, quickly and simply which can enhance their iPhone or their iTouch further.  They have also made the barrier to entry lower for creatives and consumers. Add in the phenomenon of ‘social networking’ and the places where people network socially, and you have browser based games that are compelling, free or cheap to play and above all entertaining. And this surely is the key. The applications (whether games or otherwise) are both entertaining and innovative. The successful ones are above all, addictive and profitable to their makers.

So, are what we still refer to as ‘next-gen’ games (perhaps we should rename them now-gen) the equivalent of the ‘70’s concept album? Has the games business become over bloated and inefficient, serving only derivative and ‘safe’ subject matter? Do the games take too long to make and cost too much money to sell?  Has the chain between creative and consumer become too long, defocused  and ultimately irrelevant to the consumer?  Indeed is there a parallel universe where new ’can do’  game makers exist without the knowledge, experience and safety first approach of the ‘traditional’ games industry?  Have we become tired by the old models? The model whereby developers are encouraged against taking risk, where the brief is to make a product that is a little bit like Grand Theft Auto, has the shock factor of Modern Warfare 2, is an online experience similar to World of Warcraft and the family appeal of Mario Kart? Last year it was all pink pony games on DS and look where that ended up, this year it is hidden object and puzzle games, what will it be next year?

Even if you do actually manage to develop the game of your dreams, you then have to put up with all the usual rubbish from publishers and the rest. Deductions, marketing initiatives, inflated budgets, ‘you need a minimum of two hundred and fifty grand to get meaningful and ‘seen’ TV ads’ retail is a nightmare’ and so on.  Then specialist retailers will join the party and tell you that ‘the supermarkets and online are killing their traditional business’ and those same supermarkets will point out that it is a ‘competitive market place and our customers come first for price and value’.  The online retailers cite ‘catalogue, choice and value’ but get accused of ‘exploiting tax loopholes, shipping early and giving no customer service’ by their rivals. The same old sales people sell to the same old buying contacts and the same old anecdotes get trotted out, day in day out. ‘Unless you spend thousands on in store marketing and offer full sale or return, no product can be a retail success’. Meanwhile the consumer gets choice and above all, with packaged goods, can trade these in, or simply take them back for full refund, just like they have always done.  Sounds like chaos? Sounds like the business model is badly flawed? Sounds to me like it is.

So consider a world whereby the investment required to make compelling games is perhaps measured in the hundreds of thousands of Pounds/Euros/Dollars and not in the millions. Maybe original ideas gain ground over derivative ‘me too’ products. One where console manufacturers don’t control the manufacturing supply chain and charge inordinate amounts for packaged goods? A world less controlled by multi nationals and more influenced by connected consumers.  People playing games with each other over the internet, 24/7.  People able to build, market and trade their own wares to like minded individuals. That world is here and it is full of very small and nimble footed companies. Being mid-sized is no longer an option, be specialist and make it your business to seek out as many like minded people as you can find and trade with them as best you can.

 The key of course is gaining commercially for what you make or the service you provide. In a world where Britain was known for innovation and trade we have had latter success in making compelling entertainment.  Next to the US, we are the best in the world and everyone wants our products. Making quirky, innovative, entertaining and commercially viable entertainment is in our DNA, think music, TV, film, literature and computer and video games. All we need to do is remember the spirit of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when our manufacturing industries were on their last legs, when workers were tied to one factory or office and creativity had to fight to get noticed.  In this technology enhanced, digitally connected world, co-operation across geographical, religious and cultural borders is normal and there has never been a better time to be an individual and a consumer, creative or otherwise. Small is beautiful.

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Filed under Music, Video games

#oneaday 35: Cooking the classes

I have not done my homework for weeks, just look at my #oneaday performance – we are on day 62 of 2011 and I am posting my 35th blog – so I am almost 50% behind the curve.  I think the phrase would be ‘could try harder’. Maybe I need to go back to school, in seach of further learning and inspiration.

Maybe though there is more than one  major crisis in the TV production industry. Or at least there seems to be. Whoever decided to try and fuse a popular chef who happens to have a very deep a social conscience, some famous people with brains or sporting prowess, some drop out 16 year olds without any GCSE’s and an allegedly failing teaching system probably thought the result would be enlightening,  a good idea even.  Certainly whoever green lit the concept at Channel 4 was either suffering from delusion or hubris or a bit of both.

Jamie Oliver has done many, many great things and I have the utmost respect for him. He is a one man force of nature. Whether it’s creating fast proper food, training 16 year old drop outs to be chefs or indeed putting some magic into the gastronomic production in schools and communities trying to help stop some becoming 16 year old drop outs, he has always fought against the endemic status quo.

However, last night ‘Jamie’s Dream School’ was the equivalent of cold cuts with your Frosties. The concept was simple, in more ways than one.

Take a heap of kids from various backgrounds, but mainly working class, who had left school at 16 without any qualifications. Then take a variety of well known and it has to be said purveyors of excellence in their respective fields and ask them to inspire said kids, and sort of teach them at the same time. Good concept eh? In the process prove that all students need inspiration and if they get that inspiration from teachers, they may well actually engage and learn and then get some qualifications and be good citizens.

Seems fair enough. From my own childhood I experienced good, bad and ugly teachers and one or two excellent ones who genuinely inspired me to learn and achieve. Indeed I still keep in touch with one such excellent teacher today, 30 years after leaving school.

But this is TV. It feels like teaching and learning don’t really make great TV, a bit like video games, i.e you have to be in it to get it, so to speak. So the producers have to use all sorts of visual aids and stunts to keep the viewer interested or at least they think they are keeping the viewer interested.

So we see a bit of indiscipline, sparked by David Starkey adopting a quasi 1950’s approach to teaching. More Jimmy Edwards than Robert Donat and all frankly contrived and somewhat embarrassing all round.  Cue ‘the kids’ leaving class and cries of ‘disrespec’ it’s rank out of orda’. Rolf Harris is there to teach art, and unsurprisingly got mashed by the sheer weight of numbers. Robert Winston, a trained surgeon, but advocate of science (good man) tries to get the interest of his class first by dissecting large mice or rats and then goes for the jugular by dissecting a pig complete with guts and entrails being chucked around hastened by a circular saw. Cue ‘the kids’ leaving class again and this time chucking their own guts up. Dame Ellen Macarthur stuck to her core subject, and got kids aboard her yacht and got their concentration, which one must assume is down to their being no signal for their mobile phones and it being somewhat dangerous in the Solent.

All in all the whole programme was predictable and frankly trite. Celebrity culture seems to allow for citizens to get some kind of warped kudos from being trite and often stupid. I would like to know what the budget for this series actually was, but whilst I do feel that Channel 4’s output has been getting steadily worse, let’s say lacking in inspiration, I would urge all of you to seek out and invest 5 hours of your life to watch ‘The Promise’ also broadcast and commissioned by Channel 4. That really was truly inspirational work of televisual art touching both my heart and mind in a profound way whilst also educating me on the issues surrounding the Middle East.

Check out The Promise on 4OD

Maybe Jamie could buy a ticket to Hebron or Gaza and use his considerable talents and diplomatic nature to help solve that little problem. They have tried everything else, so what have they or we got to lose?

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Filed under TV