Sunday, 11 September 2011

Advice I Should Not Have Taken

In the song, 'Ironic' (2004) by Alanis Morissette one lyric is 'It's the good advice that you just didn't take'.  I have not really been aware of anything like that in my life.  It is possibly because my parents went out of their way not to advise me one way or another.  When I was deciding which university to study at they gave no positive advice, simply whenever I had made a choice they would undermine it with criticisms of the option I had taken.  They would make no positive suggestions want to entirely avoid giving me anything that I could blame them for.  Ironically I blame them for not giving me any advice and leaving me at as loss as what to do and sure, because of all their undermining, that any option I took would turn out to be the wrong one. 

When I see graduates coming into jobs now and people claim they are directionless and lacking knowledge of their options, I laugh.  When I was a pupil and then a student I received no guidance.  The best I got was a leaflet from the careers centre about the possibility of teaching, no other support.  These days students have fully equipped centres with banks of staff whether in school, university or even high street advice centres (though I know funding is being cut back), they can get placements and internships even during their school and university holidays and advice and practice in everything from completing CVs to doing interviews.  People say it is now more competitive now, but still, unemployment is nowhere near the level it was in the 1980s, it is just now that young people can draw upon.  Consequently, I had to work out where I was going with my life very much for myself in an almost vacuum of advice.  It did lead to me making grave errors such as the first flat I bought and not taking up the offer to buy the flat I had been renting because I was unaware of the money I could have been loaned.  It meant me making tens of useless job applications which took me many hours and quite a lot of money (these were the days when employers demanded 4-8 copies of your application), but the style of CV had changed.  Even when employer I was working for part-time told me my CV was no good, they could offer no advice on how I should alter it in order to secure a full-time job.  At least these days you can turn to the internet for advice on this kind of thing.

Thus, in my life, I received very little advice.  I suppose a lot of people, especially employers, simply assume that the 'right' people 'just know' this stuff.  To a great degree that is where my parents let me down and, as I have noted before, I had quite a lot of useless teachers, some to whom it seemed offering advice to young people was an anathema.  I remember one teacher in particular who seemed to think we should all get the worst because we would not comply with her 1950s view of the world.  She laughed when tens of people at my sixth form college got caught out by a scam offering reduced prices trips to Russia, which had been promoted through the college itself.  She could not contain herself in class, cackling over the misfortune of those who had lost money, saying it had been entirely obvious that it was a scam from the start.  She seemed to delight in the fact that more of the undeserving youth who she deigned to teach had been punished for their apparent fecklessness.

Anyway, in my nearly advice-free life there were just a few pieces of advice which were advocated strongly to me that I regret having taking.  I guess if I had received more advice, perhaps all or a large portion of it would have been as bad as this lot and I may have suffered more.  These were enough that now, on the rare occasions when I receive advice, I tend to ignore it, suspecting it will cost me time, effort or money and leave me worse off than before.  These are in chronological order:

An ISIC card is only useful if you are booking flights
I see that the ISIC (International Student Identity Card) is still in existence.  Back in the 1980s when at university I decided to travel around West Germany and Austria in order to improve my German.  That, of course, was a wasted exercise given that I can hardly speak a word of German these days, but that was a mistake I made for myself.  I went to buy my Inter-Rail ticket (I see these still exist too), which allowed you to travel all over Europe for free in those days, if you were under the age of 26, the continental age at which you stop being deemed a student, in the UK it was either 21 or 24, but you still could travel up to 26 across mainland Europe, even through the Iron Curtain still in existence at the time. 

I asked about getting hold of an ISIC, which in those days you got through travel agencies as you could not buy stuff online.  I asked for the various forms, but the young woman in the travel agency, which was one based on a university campus, said to me that I had no need for it because I was not buying aeroplane tickets.  Foolishly I took her word for it, partly because she made me feel such an idiot even requesting the forms.  Almost immediately when I arrived in Aachen, the first stop on my tour, I realised what a mistake it had been not to press her for the forms.  Everywhere I went especially museums and other sights asked for an ISIC card to get reduced entrance.  I do not know how much more money I spent not having one.  It also opened me up to ridicule in Heidelberg when going into the museum with a couple of students I had met, when I had to pay full price.  For the sake of some ill-informed person at the campus travel agency, I ended up spending a lot more.  I never used that travel agency again.

You should read a good quality newspaper every day
This was a strong piece of advice given to me on a number of occasions by a lecturer who I believed was trustworthy, though as time passed, I quickly found was an idiot.  It is ironic that he gave this advice, which I have heard that Oxford dons typically give to their students, because he was one of these revolutionary left-wing men who seemed to believe that the harshness of the Thatcherite regime was going to trigger a genuine revolution in the UK and so they wrecked the Labour Party and pressed policies intended to make the ordinary people suffer more so that they would be compelled to rise up.  I realised how deluded he was eventually when I heard him speaking about the Baader-Meinhof Gang as being genuine revolutionaries, whereas it is apparent to everyone that they were spoilt, wealthy psychopaths with no real political agenda, simply an enjoyment of being terrorists and the luxury trappings which came with it.  I was surprised to find eight years later that he was still working as a lecturer, though from what I can find now he seems to have disappeared into deserved obscurity.

I think I feel angered by this advice as it also highlights how I misjudged the man who was not as intelligent or insightful as I believed, so I feel doubly the fool for having heeded his words.  I did precisely what he had advised and in my 3rd year of university, every day would buy 'The Guardian' newspaper and sit reading it until it was finished.  Not only must this have cost a lot of money that could have been spent more wisely, but it used up a lot of time as I was simply sat reading right through each morning, so stripping me of 3-4 hours each day, so at least 15-20 hours per week, every week, that I could have spent studying, or at least, doing some activity such as being in a club, that would have got me contacts and/or experience that would have been useful for getting a job.  I was too stupid to see the damage I was doing to my degree by following this advice and with hindsight, it is unsurprising, that having lost so much study time in my final year, my grades were far worse than predicted.  There is no consolation.  I cannot recount a single story that I read in all those newspapers and even a slightly better view of the news was of no benefit to my study of history.  One lesson I learnt too late, is that with any habit you develop, you need to stop at times and really think about whether it is in your best interests no matter who advised you to do it.

You should try to go to the works cafe each day
This useless piece of advice came from my father over the last 15 years and he still repeats it every time I start a new job.  These days I ignore him, but back in the 2000s, partly because I received so little advice from him, I paid attention to him.  Consequently, every day I would go down to the cafe and buy a coffee and a biscuit and sit there staring out of the window.  My father seems convinced that useful networking opportunities arise if you are in the works cafe and are seen to be out and about by colleagues, but this never happened.  I also tried some of the smaller outlets at the site, to no avail.  Perhaps it is my unusual personal appearance that makes that fail.  I never got to talk to anyone apart from the cafe staff and even that became harder the longer I was there as the middle-aged English people were replaced by young Polish women whose grasp of English was insufficient to chat with customers.  The habit I developed was detrimental for my job, as I tried going at different times in an attempt to run into different people with whom I might network.  I always seemed to be away from my desk at the time some senior colleague or my manager would come to see me.  My line manager's opinion of me deteriorated from him holding me in high esteem when I started to the extent he saw me as a liability and advised me to leave the industry by the end.  Obviously a lot of that had to do with personality clashes, but me being off drinking coffee and eating biscuits when he 'dropped by' did not help.

The main issue was how much money I spent engaging in this wasted activity.  I calculated how much I spent over the 4 years I was at a particular company and it came to over £2000 (€2280; US$3220) which whilst it did not mean I was rich, but if I had not spent that money it could have put me in a stronger position, given that my redundancy pay after 4 years was only £1700.  Saving £500 per year would have been enough to pay for a short holiday or to buy something for the house, but no, it simply went into the till at the works cafe for absolutely no benefit for me.  I guess, charitably, my father's view was shaped by behaviour in an age before email and mobile phones which by providing better connectivity have reduced face-to-face meetings.  I do suspect, however, that even in the 1970s, my father was sat in the cafe at his works, alone, hoping that someone of use would come in that he could network with.  As regular readers know my father has quite a hostile opinion of me, though it was better back in the early 2000s, yet, I can only think he gave this advice a little to spite me or take me down a peg when I started my new job.

Only buy a car from someone you know
This was another costly mistake.  The car I had, a Nissan Micra, proved too small when I also began transporting around the woman in my house and her son.  Thus, the woman suggested I bought a Renault Megane Scenic (this was produced before the Megane and the Scenic designations for Renault cars was separated out into two distinct vehicles), in 2006, from a couple we knew quite well, who were about to have a baby and emigrate to Ireland (this was a time when its economy was still thriving).  The car was £1500 which seemed a good price as these people carrier vehicles retain their value.  I should have been suspicious at that stage: never buy anything which is less than the 'going rate' in newspapers and on websites, even if it is from friends.  I drove the car around and it seemed to work well enough.  However, I should have checked with someone with more expertise as there were things that needed repairing which are difficult for even a skilled amateur to do, let alone someone with as little expertise as me.  Anyway, over the next 11 months before the compressors went in the big end and the car became undrivable, I spent £2300 on repairs to the vehicle.  The largest single cost was the heater, which cost £500 to extricate and replace; a new key because only one came with the car cost £139.  I tried driving without the heater, but my feet get cold enough as it is and it was very unpleasant.  I learnt the lesson that even if you buy a car in the summer you should check all the winter features too. 

As with the previous two situations, I should have baled out from the activity and got rid of the car long before it broke down.  I doubt I would have got more than a small fraction of my money back if I had sold it in a few months' time, but I certainly should have got rid of it the moment the repair bill began to even come close to the price of the car.  I certainly should not have been persuaded to buy from people I know.  They have returned from Ireland now it is in economic meltdown and one owns a shop in my town. I have to hold back from going around there and bawling at them for having cheated me so badly.  Clearly both me and the woman who lives in my house liked the couple more than they liked us and it seems that they only developed the connection so that they could foist their heap of a car on us that they knew they could not get rid of, so this was an extended confidence trick.  I knew enough about cars to spot a bad one, but this had a whole host of issues that I could not spot immediately.  If I had held onto the Micra for six months more and saved my money, I could have had a £1000 or so more and bought a better quality second hand car that would ultimately have cost me less.  When it comes to car sales, the one piece of advice someone could have given me, was do not even trust your friends.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Owning Chickens

Karl Marx believed that revolution would come when the status of the skilled working class and lower middle classes began to decay to the extent that they found common ground with the 'lumpen proletariat', i.e. unskilled workers.  I think his greatest oversight was consumerism, that the capitalist state successfully bribes many sectors of society away from unrest by permitting companies to constantly sell consumer products and through the availability of such items, the competition between individuals that they foster and the advertising which boosts both of these they were able to distract most people from political struggle.  However, as I have noted before the economic power of people who are working class and middle class has continued to slide over the past sixty years, to the extent that someone like me, a graduate holding sometimes managerial positions is not able to purchase those things which are seen as being associated with 'middle class' life.  Instead I am down at Lidl worrying about what of the immediate needs I can afford as if I was simply someone stuck in the unskilled working class, the bulk of whose expenditure, like mine goes on necessities: food, utilities and accommodation.

Back in July I read an interesting article by Oliver Burkeman about how poverty saps your willpower because there is a 'psychic cost' in worrying about having enough money and what precisely you can spend that money on, that then drains your personal abilities for doing other things that need will power, a whole host of activities such as dieting, exercising, taking classes, etc.  Thus, when society makes people anxious and worrying about where every penny is going it makes it far harder for them to improve their situation, thus, to some extent creating a 'dependency culture' though in the opposite way to right-wing thinkers believe.  In fact if you give people more money, you reduce them worrying about how they are going to pay the electricity bill or buy sufficient food and you thus leave them with more will power, more personal capital to do things like applying for more jobs, or more vitally take training and along with providing the funds for saving, you actually stimulate the personal capacity to save.  Obviously it impacts on individuals to different degrees.  However, I know as someone who applied for 80 jobs and attended 29 interveiws, I used up a great deal of my personal capital and consequently could not do other things such as reading fiction or non-fiction or writing.  Now I am in work, there are fewer concerns and I am reading more and writing more too as I have some 'spare' mental/psychic capacity to tackle those thing.

Of course, you are scarred by bad experiences and so I am now constantly nagged by the fear that once again I will be made redundant and have to try the house once again (a process itself which exhausts much personal capital) and this continues to make me apprehensive and probably not working at my best.  In addition, with a legacy of paying landlords after I have left the house due to fixed-term contracts, being wrongly taxed and having charges levied on me by Newham Council continues to sap my financial resources.  I just cannot believe how much I still owe.  This leads to fascinating situations.  The other day I realised I was walking along in my £28 suit and my £14 shoes, all from Asda going to my car which is insured for £1000 but in my bag I was carrying a laptop and an iPad which combined are worth £1800.  They belong to my company, of course, not me.  However, it does increasingly make me feel like a proletarian moving in a middle class context.  That was what my previous employer disliked.  They were insisting of bourgeoisie moving in their middle class context and seemed angry that somehow, despite my lack of money, I had, through my skills and effort had been able to get into their world and worked hard to drive me back out, something they were unapologetic about and I am still stunned by the words they actually used and the attitudes they exposed, this is 2011 not 1951 or 1911. 

Society is supposed to have moved on, though we do seem to be in the midst of a social counter-revolution something which I am glad more and more newspaper commentators are noticing and protesting about.  Strangely, from assuming I was middle class, I seem rapidly to be turning into a bit of a working class warrior.  My parents were skilled working class and I even lack their skills (nursing and electrical technology).  I guess if wordprocessing is some kind of basic skill then I am semi-skilled.

This is an incredibly round about way of opening my posting about chickens.  What do they have to do with social class?  Well, like camping, they seem to be something which might have been seen as a working class activity now being colonised by the middle class.  Whilst I do not have the income or clothes or groceries of the middle class, due to being a graduate and my interests, I do tend to see things very much through a middle class perspective and have aspirations to be, some time in the future, someone who can afford once again to go on a foreign holiday and buy the cultural items like books and movies that I associate with being middle class.  I guess the point about groceries above, should have brought this home: that the middle class have the luxury of worrying about the future, whilst those of us who are slipping from the class, no longer can:  I cannot afford insurance and certainly know the child who lives in my house will never go to university; I have no idea even where I will get a car from when the current one dies.  For me expenditure is simply paying the bills this month and hoping I can next month, nothing longer term than that.  The middle class, in contrast still can think about their children's higher education and their own retirement.

Sorry, I must get back to these chickens.  So keeping chickens has in recent years, become a middle class hobby, well, in the UK.  In Belgium it has been something that everyone seems to have been doing for ever and even so they still not seemed to have grasped that cockerels living in the suburbs will crow at 01.30 because they think the street lights are daybreak.  Once it became clear that we would not be compelled to sell this house, the woman who lives in it with me and her son, decided she needed to have chickens.  To some degree this was sensible, because while I was unemployed, between the three of us we were consuming 20 eggs per week.  In five days she had relocated the compost, levelled and stripped a patch of ground in the garden, bought on eBay and erected a chicken house and then constructed a wire fence and gate (cunningly made from a picture frame, the cheapest way it seems to get a hardwood frame as discount 'fancy goods' stores sell them cheaper than buying the wood from DIY stores).  I was brought in to bring home the chickens, 4 for £10 each and their straw, corn and 'grit' which seems to be a high calcium thing to help with shell production.

Within the space of a week we had gone from being a non-chicken owning house to one with four breeds of chicken: a New Hampshire Red (which looks like the classic protrayal of a chicken with brownish feathers), A Sussex (white with black flecks around the neck), a Bluebell (subtle shades of grey) and a Black Rock (with green-black and flame brown plumage; I can see why people 'show' chickens).  They seem to settle in quickly and eat a wide diet, so fewer of our scraps are going to the compost and now instead go to the chickens.  In return though, chicken droppings are supposed to be a really good source of fertiliser.  The chickens came to us at 17 weeks and within 3-4 weeks were laying regularly and so we now get 4 eggs almost every day, enough to generate a surplus.  Though the eggs are equivalent to the 'small' size you buy in the shops, we know that there are no growth hormones in them and the chickens have a good quality of life, though I have been designated the slaughterman if any come to the end of that life, though saying that the woman in my house has become so attached to them that I think she would rather have a chicken retirement home with hens too old to lay. Having spoken to another very middle class man from Wales about his, he only got former battery hen chickens as one might take in a rescued cat or a retired racing greyhound.  Apparently battery hens are retired after only 18 months of laying, though this can be only half way through their full laying period. 

I had anticipated the eggs coming out with shells of a variety of colours, but the four breeds we own all produce medium brown eggs just the shade of the ones you find in the shop.  You can find breeds that produce pale or speckled or even pale blue eggs, I have seen these at other people's houses but they are not from the varieties we have.  The eggs are of the size that would be deemed 'small' in the shops, so I have had to use more as I am used to 'large' eggs in my cooking.  One thing about our eggs and, in fact, all home grown ones is the taste, it is so much better than the ones you get from the shops, you have to try it.  The yolks are far yellower, sometimes even orange and your omlettes and scrambled eggs come out with a very bright colour, which ironically looks 'artificial'.  Interestingly in the first touch of the cooked egg on your tongue you get more flavour than in a shop bought egg, but that flavour tends to fade faster.  This may have to do with the youth of the chickens and that apparently the whites are more watery.

The chickens have proven quite easy to tend especially as they have got to know the woman in my house and her 9-year old son.  It is fascinating how they so quickly have come to resemble rural paintings from the 19th century, having intuitively adopted the use of slender sticks to herd the chickens back into their run from free range in the garden and then into their coop.  The other thing I had not anticipated is how quickly they become like pets.  Having each chicken a different breed (which could have selected from among a further four breeds at the farm we bought them from) helps with identification, but even so you would soon be able to tell them apart even if they all looked the same as they behave differently. 

We have encountered some illness from our chickens.  They are prone both to internal parasites like worms and external ones such as red mite.  We had to take the New Hampshire Red to the vet as she seemed underweight and we feared that she had worms.  I have only been in a vet's once before and forgot that they call out the name of the animal to go into the consulting room and often append the owner's surname on the end.  It was quite comic taking the poor hen in the car in a box with her head protruding from one end and her tail from the other, with her looking out the window at passersby.  She was pretty well behaved in the surgery only flapping up twice and she was very patient being weighed.  Given the fact that my brother, his mother-in-law, my aunt, my girlfriend's sister's friend and friends of the boy in my house all own chickens, I had expected our vet, even though he is urban rather than rural, to have more familiarity with them (one of his receptionists keeps them too).  I think maybe we should have gone beyond the town limits to a more rural vet.  However, he was game and I guess his knowledge of poultry is increasing.  It was a little funny, because as with human patients, the woman in my house went in with as much information gleaned from online discussion forums as she was going to get from the physician.  Anyway, the hen was less ill than we thought which was good.  We did stock up on medicine to be on the sure side.

The woman who lives in my house has read about their societies and whilst I knew about the 'pecking order', this does not seem to remain static in our coop.  There is sometimes some feather-wrenching pecking when they are bored.  However, rubbing Vick's decongestant on the areas liable to be attacked has proven as effective warding off attacks as we were advised.  Apparently, being an all-female community it can become a little like a women's prison (and the group dynamics shown in the movie 'Chicken Run' (2000) seem to make much more sense to me now) with sometimes one taking on a 'male' role and even crowing.  Their laying time also gets in step, just like the periods of a group of women living together will become synchronised over time. Watching the 'ladies' as the woman in my house calls them, pecking around and hearing them 'sing', that kind of rising note rather than a cluck is amazingly soothing.  We are learning the different sounds they make: the distinctive laying 'cluck' which alerts us to the arrival of a new egg; the alert but not alarmed cluck when a hen is taken into new surroundings and a warning one, fortunately at this stage only 'black special' (as per the UK's BIKINI levels of alert for terrorism) as a dog was sensed two gardens away, rather than the 'amber' alert of a fox in the vicinity.

As with all pets, we will need a sitter if we ever go away even for a day, because of the need to get the chickens in and out for exercise and to replenish food and water; they drink a great deal.  Apparently you can hire chicken sitters.  Unfortunately being in a road which is more than four-sevenths occupied by students, there are no neighbours with sufficient expertise that we can ask even in exchange for free eggs.  I guess we will have to move into a more middle class area where others have chickens.  So far we are a long way from recouping the £240 spent on getting the chickens set up, plus £44 for medication and I guess that is why this is a middle class activity, not a proletarian one.  It was the woman in my house's money rather than mine and there are clear non-monetary benefits for her in terms of a real sense of achievement, an affinity with her 'ladies' and the soothing effect just watching them go about their business has.  The next plan is for bees...

Monday, 5 September 2011

Playing 'Shogun 2'

Back in August last year I outlined my ongoing relationship with the 'Total War' series of computer games which have been released over the past twelve years.  Then I was looking forward to playing 'Total War: Shogun 2' the update of the original Total War game released back in 1999.  As I outlined last year, for many reasons I, and I am sure many other players, still view the original 'Shogun Total War' with affection even though elements of it now appear dated.  The limited parameters of the game confined to the islands of Japan combined with a really evocative style combining graphics and music make a pleasure to play.  Consequently I was both interested and a little concerned to see what the update was like when it was released in March this year.  I had to wait until I got a job and was able to afford to buy a computer with sufficient specification to run it, because, as with all the Total War games they tend to be produced at the top end of the specifications current at the time.

Was 'Shogun 2' worth the wait?  Given that it pushed aside all the other games I have been playing for about a fortnight suggests that it is certainly incredibly engaging.  As before the interface is easy to use which has always been a winning point over rivals to the Total War series.  The game balances complexity with playability.  In addition, unlike some of the titles, notably 'Rome Total War' there has been an adherence to what happened historically.  Far more clans are involved not just the 'big 7': Hojo, Imagawa, Mori, Oda, Shimazu, Takeda and Uesugi that appeared in original game but a whole range of smaller historic clans.  You can play one of nine clans with the Chosokabe, Date and Tokugawa clans added and the Imagawa clan removed.  If you buy the limited edition version you also get the Hattori clan of ninjas and you can buy the Ikko-ikki Buddhist heretic faction as a downloadable update.  However, once you start playing, history can go down interesting paths and you find that in place of the clans we are pretty familiar with less common names, such as the Amato or the Besso or the Yamana, start coming to the fore, building up sizeable realms which makes the game very interesting. 

If you take a clan's last province you can make them a vassal which means they pay you a fee each year, give you one unit and fight for you.  The vassals can often start building a large realm of their own that may lead them to break free of you at some time in the future.  They can be useful, however, for supplementing your armies and pushing back your opponents on different fronts.  It is best not to make one of the nine/ten playable clans one of your vassals as they tend to be very ambitious and will run off creating their own kingdom without you and become hard to manage very quickly.

Each of the starting clans, as in the original, has a particular strength in the type of troops that they can recruit.  However, this is less important as you can choose how your clan develops by specialising in different military and civic skills as the game progresse.  Combined with this you can shape the skills that your daimyo, his brothers and sons, plus your other generals adopt, both to their individual benefit and to the benefit of the clan.  Honour is important for relations with other clans and relations with them are now far more important as they affect trade which can become a vital source of income.  Your daimyo can also make any sons who are not your nominated heir, any brothers he has and any generals, hold various commissioner positions controlling things like supply or military matters to boost actions they carry out and the welfare of the clan as a whole.


Further specialisation comes from the buildings you construct and what you can build, in contrast to the original game, is often shaped by the civil or military skills you choose to develop.  In addition, sometime certain materials like stone or incense are required in order to construct certain buildings. In addition some buildings use up food in a way that was never the case with the original game, so you have to balance building up larger castles or markets with ensuring you have sufficiently developed agriculture to feed them.  Even cultural developments such as holding sumo wrestling events which pleases the public, consumes food.  With such variables, you can can easily play the same clan twice and have them developing in different ways.  There are all the familiar troop types with spear, naginata (polearm), katana and no-dachi (sword), bow and matchlock firearm forces with their horseback equivalents, there are the ashigaru (commoner) versions and the tougher samurai versions, plus ninjas, geishas, metsuke (spies) and Buddhist and Christian priests.

In terms of graphics, things have come a long way since 1999 and the seasons are shown very well, with not only rain, sun and snow, but now clouds drifting across the sky.  The attention to detail is immense and it is fun to zoom in pick out individual soldiers as they march through grass wafting in the wind.  The big innovation that came with 'Empire Total War' (2009) is the ability to have proper naval warfare.  It is interesting to see the difference between European and Japanese vessels of the period, the mid to late 16th century.  If you make friends with European traders you can buy European cannon equipped ships but generally you have boxy ships firing arrows and closing so samurai can board.  The portrayal of the battles especially if you are among small islands is very picturesque and dealing with ships and the wind conditions is a very different challenge to fighting on land.

Castles appear on the battlefield in greater complexity as you build them up on the strategic map, reflecting the multi-tiered nature of Japanese castles.  However, there is one disappointment as when there is a  fighting in the open field the terrain is very much geared to where your army has advanced into a region, however all the castles seem to come from a limited number of settings, one on a hill, one on a river island and one by the coast.  They get larger as the castle is developed, but the location is pretty much the same.  This contrasts with what appears to happen in 'Medieval Total War' (2002) and 'Medieval II Total War' (2006) with their European and North African settings.

One frustrating thing on when in battle mode is trying to move large groups of units around.  The facility to widen or narrow the breadth of the units is a lot easier than it has been on some of the Total War games, as is changing the way the unit is pointing.  However, for some reason if you try to move a neat group of different units forward rather than going in a straight line they spread out in a fan shape, utterly breaking up the strong form you have.  If you are not careful not only do you quickly find that your unit is standing side on to your opponents, but that they have wandered off far from where the bulk of your units are, in both cases they simply get cut down.  You have to really send each unit singly, which is not ideal when trying to maintain the coherence of your army.

As has occurred with others in the Total War series, the AI (artificial intelligence) playing your opponent is very precise, never making a mistake which can be difficult to oppose, though the geography of Japan with restricted routes down which armies can go, to a great degree avoids the chance of you going just slightly the wrong way so that your reinforcements do not enter a battle whereas the computer's always do.  Perhaps I should do more online play, but given how unpleasant the online players are I have encountered playing 'World of Warcraft', I am loath to mix with online wargamers.  Anyway, conversely to the AI controlling your opponents, you find that your own soldiers often behave very stupidly.  They seem to have reined in the generals' units from charging up to the enemy, out of your control, simply to be cut down as happened too often in previous games.  However, you do find units standing by, idly watching while their comrades bare metres away are cut down.  You can set units to 'guard' mode, which means they do not move off their designated location to attack, but I have this disabled and yet, often in a castle, especially the large ones like Kyoto, where you have to be jumping from one side to another to cover the multiple attacks, you find one or two units of spearmen or swordsmen have simply stood by while their enemies have scaled the walls and cut all the archers to pieces even though they are only a spear's reach away from where they are standing.  You cannot be everywhere on a battlefield at once and the units lacking any common sense make it hard to keep them alive and your carefully constructed defensive position can simply count for nothing as units let themselves be cut up one-by-one.

Ironically it is far easier to defend a small fort than a major castle and despite the gains in tax raising you can disadvantage yourself by building large castle structures especially in a frontline area.  The length of walls and the distance between points of attack means that you can neither spread your troops effectively nor concentrate them for attack as they get exhausted running around the castle.  This is in contrast to real castle fighting in medieval Japan which less than western castles, depended far more on the soldiers defending it than on the built defences.  The self-sustaining towers are far too few once you build a large castle.  I would rather be defending a three-tier castle in 'Medieval II Total War' and stick to small forts for this game.

Missile troops are far more effective than in 'Shogun Total War'.  In the original game, there was really no point in recruiting matchlock firearm troops as typically a barrage of shots from them would only kill one or two of the attacking unit, if you were lucky.  Now a barrage of shots and, even more, fire from archers really makes an impact on attackers, as it should do, especially aganist densely packed ranks of soldiers marching forwards as is often the case.  The strength of general's units is also much more realistic.  In the past, in most of the Total War games, a single general had no trouble fighting off 200 spearmen jabbing at him and his horse.  Now in such a circumstance he is killed as he would be in reality.  If you select particular development for your generals his strength and that of his bodyguard unit do increase but never to the extent that they become virtually indestructable and can hold up an entire battalion on their own.


In terms of the ambiance most of the tunes have been copied over from the original game.  I do miss the zither-like sound effect when you advance a season and the call of the birds when you look at the map of Japan.  However, the Japanese pictures, the various death poems and the animated movies about different units or particular developments or attacks in the game are well done, without being excessive.  I used to like rival daimyo or Spanish or Dutch emissaries bowling into your audience chamber but I know people found these and all the movies around attempted assassinations too much.  I feel the right balance has now been struck.  I am pleased that they have reinstated the movie at the end when you win the game to see a statue of your winning daimyo in a modern day Tokyo square.

There is no distinction between various European emissaries.  In the past you only accepted Christianity if you went with the Portuguese and could simply buy guns of the Dutch.  Now you can adopt Catholicism as a faction or not even if trading with the Europeans.  Religious difference between your clan and the provinces you hold is far more important than in the original game.  The largest benefit contact with the Europeans can bring is cannon-armed ships which have a far superior range than Japanese ships and make a large difference in naval battles.  If you are lucky you can capture the Black Ship and even more heavily armed European vessel, but I have not managed to to this.

In the past in the Total War games there has often not been any point in trying to engage in diplomacy with other factions.  What they want of you, even when you are more powerful of them is usually excessive.  This is most prominent in 'Empire Total War' when even small factions demand all your American colonies or ten different technologies and a large sum of money in exchange for a single simple technology, let alone an alliance.  Throughout the Total War games, if an ally (faction B) of one of your allies (faction A), attacks you, then invariably faction A breaks with you and often a string of others and you can turn in an instant to facing a whole continent of enemies, no matter what you do.  In 'Total War Shogun 2', it is easier to develop trade treaties with even factions which are indifferent to you.  This is in contrast to the previous games and is necessary because, as it is, as in many of the games, you battle to get enough money ever to build any of the interesting buildings or units, even with rebellion-risking tax levels and sustained looting.  However, even your vassals have a negative view towards you, no matter what you do in terms of paying them, supporting them in wars, making sure you have the same religion as them and having a high level of honour for your daimyo.  It is inevitable on this basis that they turn against you.  The long memories of factions makes it difficult for some factions in particular.  The Tokugawa clan begins as a vassal of the Imawaga clan and unless you are lucky you cannot expand and have to wait for them to tire of you.  If you attack first all your subsequent relationships with all clans, even your vassals, will be damaged by you breaking your vassalage.

In 'Total War Shogun 2', you being alone against everyone else is even easier than in the previous games because as you advance you finally attract attention of the Shogun who will then unleash every faction on you. All your allies desert you and soon after all your vassals too.  However, it does not work in reverse.  Once you capture Kyoto and are named Shogun, you find no factions coming over to your camp, in contrast to what happened in history.  This even applies to factions which are down to one province, who you might think might choose to swear fealty to the new Shogun rather than battle on against him.  However, this is not the case.  The loyalty to the Ashikaga Shogunate lingers on even after that faction has been eliminated.  I can imagine some clans would remain hostile, especially the more powerful ones, but in fact the universal coalition against you persists with even new clans appearing, deciding to attack you straight off rather than seek to make a compromise.  In previous games you often had a sudden collapse when everyone turned against you.  It is a pity that with a slightly more sophisticated diplomacy system you cannot have something more subtle.  Even ten years after becoming Shogun you will find the whole country against you and your vassals regularly defecting no matter what you do.  The Tokugawa regime would never have survived if they had faced such conditions.

Overall the game is engaging and the variety of ways you can develop a clan and individual generals means that you can have a very varied game even if you were to play the same faction again and again.  There remain niggles, things around how the AI operates your troops and the other factions, which have not been resolved for them to function in a logical or even worthwhile way.  It was like the merchants in the 'Medieval II Total War' there was no point recruiting them as they are eliminated far too quickly by your opponents; fortunately they do not appear in this game and are replaced with province wide trade.  Similarly, there is no point in 'Total War Shogun 2' trying to form alliances as they quickly crumble.  The game is visually stunning, with most of the atmosphere that made the original such a delight to play.  I certainly anticipate coming back to this game over the next decade. 

Now I wonder what the next Total War game is, and I guess that signals that this one has succeeded in me still wanting more.  There is a lot of online speculation at one set in the late 19th century and as yet as happened with the Napoleonic Wars, as yet no-one has really created the defining strategic wargame of the late colonial era and the Scramble for Africa might be one option, perhaps with the battles for independence in South America as a supplement.  Then we reach the First World War, which is always difficult to replicate as no-one wants a game in which there is minimal action for four years, so it might have to focus on the more fluid Eastern Front.  The Second World War is more feasible, but we come to some very sticky political issues.   Consequently I think scenarios set in India before the arrival of Europeans or China in one of any number of eras from the 3rd century CE right up to the 1918-50 CE would be interesting.  For now, though, I am in 16th century Japan once more.

P.P. 09/01/2012
I have continued playing 'Shogun 2' and have found a few more irritating things.  First that when you are on the top of a hill your archers do minimal damage to your opponents clambering up the hill, often inflicting no casualties despite pouring hundreds of arrows into the air.  In contrast, the opposing archers down the hill slaughter tens of your men even while marching up the hill seems the kind of flaw that you would have found in 'Medieval Total War' and has not been resolved.
Another problem is the zone of control of armies on the strategic map of Japan.  Japan, especially in the medieval period, had strictly limited routes that it was possible to march down so the opportunity to block opposing armies is a valuable one, especially as this game unlike 'Rome Total War' or 'Medieval II Total War' does not allow the construction of forts on the roads.  You find that it pretty difficult to skirt opposing armies without being drawn into a battle with them.  However, the same does not apply to your own armies.  I have had a large army and its reserve standing in a narrow valley in theory blocking the route only to have my opponents walk right past without triggering a battle and then them wandering from farmland to workshop destroying them with impunity as my armies simply stand there as if frozen.  This imbalance between the zones of control of the human and computer characters spoils a lot of plans you may lay and makes it very difficult to defend your economic structures.

Another problem is how easily huge armies disappear.  Even with metsuke or ninja agents out and about in your provinces you find that an army marches into a province and simply disappears from view.  This is particularly an issue in large or oddly-shaped provinces as you can have your army wandering around trying to track down your opponents who then simply pop out of the woods near your castle.  I do not think this reflects reality very well as whilst small units perhaps could proceed unnoticed, unless your villagers were really hostile to you I am sure someone would alert you to the fact that a large hostile army was camped in your province.

The imbalance between you and the computer-run opponents brings me back to a problem that has plagued the total war games right back to 'Rome Total War' this is the ability of enemy fleets to be able to track down your ships right across hundreds of kilometres to arrive at precisely the right time and place with just the right amount of force to attack you.  Even in the Second World War with far more advanced technology, radio communication, aircraft, etc., it proved challenging to track down fleets and certainly was impossible in 16th century Japan.  I accept that given the more limited space around Japan's coast that it is more feasible than in 'Medieval II Total War' and certainly 'Empire Total War', but the fact that your opponents will get you precisely every single time seems unrealistic especially as when you are pursuing their fleets you find suddenly that they disappear from sight.  I find this particularly the case when chasing pirates.  It does not matter how advanced you are in naval skills or how experienced your admirals are.  The pirates are incredibly strong and will easily overcome one of your ships even if it has more troops on board, e.g. a medium bute for a clan has 55 soldiers whereas a pirate ship of the same size has 35, and they are experienced troops.

I have found a bug in the construction of certain castles.  These get more complex in a way which is difficult to handle, especially as your troops have a tendency to walk outside the castle into the spears of your waiting opponents, simply when you want to move them from one part of your castle to the other.  On one castle I found that two gaps appeared, one at either end of the castle.  I assume these are supposed to be gateways, but the structures are missing.  Your troops can easily slide down and clamber up the brown cliff that forms in the gap.  Whilst this is a bug, it makes the castle with this bug easier to defend than other large castles which have been formed properly as your opponents will naturally attack the two gaps and so ride or run right into your waiting spearmen with archers positioned behind them firing over the invaders heads to their comrades waiting below.

I have enjoyed the 'Rise of the Samurai' downloadable upgrade.  Rather than covering the mid- to late 16th century and early 17th century, this scenario covers the period of the Gempei War of the 12th and early 13th centuries.  You play one of two branches of three leading families.  As the name suggests this was an era in which the standard samurai units were being formed so you find quite different units which are interesting to play with, certainly more flexible.  The Foot Samurai decent melee and bow-armed soldiers are very useful.  There is almost a different 'evolutionary path' for units, following the older style and you can concentrate on this line instead if you prefer which enables you to gain Attendant troops and particularly Warrior Monks, always a favourite of mine.  The naval units and the various agents are all different to the standard 'Shogun 2' game.  I found myself enjoying this era more but could not escape a bug which meant the game crashed when I reached the year 1200.  Again, with Sega running shy after cyber attacks on them I do not know how long it will be until there is an appropriate patch to fix this.

The latest product in the 'Shogun 2' stable is a stand-alone scenario is 'Fall of the Samurai' for which you do not need the original game in order to play.  I like the fact that they have taken a bold step and feature the Boshin War which started in 1864 and ultimately led to the overthrow of the Shogunate and the return of the Emperor's power with the Meiji Restoration of 1868; the period featured in the movie 'The Last Samurai' (2003).  You can play one of three clans that supported the Shogun or one of three that supported the Emperor.  Britain, France and the USA also get involved and there is the chance to use the technology of the times in terms of artillery, guns and iron-clad ships alongside the traditional samurai weaponry.  There are railways and battleships can both shell shore-based units and be shelled by them.  Whilst I would liked to have seen the Mongol invasion scenario brought up-to-date for use on 'Shogun 2', this is an interesting step to take and I look forward to playing it.  It may suggest, with late 19th century technology appearing that there may one day be a 'Great War: Total War', certainly on more fluid fronts such as the Eastern Front or in the Ottoman Empire as a game of the stagnation of the Western Front or Italian Front would hardly appeal.  Given Sega have been bold with this latest step, maybe something set in India will be seen as worth the risk, that theatre is an interesting one to play on 'Empire Total War' after all.

P.P. 30/01/2012
Another flaw that I have recognised in previous Total War games but seems even more apparent in 'Shogun 2' is the different impact of running short of funds between you and the computer opponents.  In all of the games if you build large armies without sufficient tax revenue coming in or suddenly find that a trade route is cut or your trade ships sunk, you quickly find you run out of funds, it is possible to go bankrupt in a single term.  Generally you have raise taxes (often not possible given that the citizens in the Total War series, like most computer games, seem hostile to even moderate tax and quickly rebel) or cut back on the size of your armies or fleets or cancel some building projects.  You would anticipate that as you reduced the territory that your opponents controlled that they would face similar difficulties, but that is not the case.  You find that they are able to maintain much larger armies or fleets than you are even though you have many times their number of provinces.  A recent example had my faction with 16 provinces struggling to keep open any trade routes because five large and well equipped fleets kept simply sinking my ships as fast as I produced them.  I could imagine that if I was facing a far larger faction (especially as their ships have that 'radar' tracking) but I was fighting a faction with only two landlocked provinces remaining.  I could imagine that they could keep the armies and fleets sustained for a short time, but after five or six turns they were still there.  The financial implications do not seem to apply to the computer-run factions which is another factor in making the game so imbalanced.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

iPadding Around

I am sure I am not the only person in a job, even in these hard recession times, who is told that there is a ‘budget which needs to be spent’. Many companies have an approach that a budget is allocated for a time period and if it is not spent by the department it has been given to then the money has to be returned. In addition, it is likely that the department will not receive as large a budget in the future, at a time when it may have far greater need of the money. Consequently as the deadline for having spent the budget approaches, departments find ways either to ‘carry over’ the money to a time when they have more need of it or do what my department is currently doing, i.e. spending it as fast as they can. Of course, you cannot simply spend money on anything that you want, because budgets are usually attached to some particular kind of cost. The most flexible are project budgets because almost anything can be seen as appropriate for carrying out a budget. However, others are wedded to things like furniture, entertaining or technology.

In my department we have a technology budget that has to be used so my boss decided she would equip a number of us with iPad 2s to see what we could use them for. Consequently I have been playing around with mine to see what I can do with it for a work purpose rather than entertainment. What I discovered may be useful for you. The first thing I discovered was that I could not even get it started within the company’s premises. This is because to register your I-Pad and get it running you have to log on to iTunes and download it to your iPad. The only problem with that is that my company specifically blocks iTunes from any of its computers. This meant I had to take it home and register it there.

You can connect a memory stick (a.k.a. a flash drive) to your iPad but in general it is very dependent on almost constant internet connection. It was fine at home because where I am living has a very good wireless signal that in fact goes with me quite a way up the street if I choose to forget to switch my iPad off. However, again once inside the company’s premises things got harder. The company has good IT support, though at this time of year its opening hours are not as long as at other times of the year when people are not taking summer holidays. First of all I tried following the online guidance without any joy. I then went to one IT helpdesk which was closed for the day. I ended up at another which does not specialise in connecting to the work wi-fi, but they saw it as a challenge. After 30 minutes of working with a knowledgeable IT colleague he was able to finally connect me to the wi-fi.

The iPad does not count as a laptop, it comes under the heading of a smart phone. In many ways that is accurate and worthwhile bearing in mind if trying to connect yours to someone’s system. Of course, if you have the money and a spare 3G sim card you can slot that it using Apple’s low-tech modified paperclip helpfully supplied with the iPad and then phone into the internet. For me, without those resources, I am dependent on what free (or paid for by someone else like my landlord or my company) wireless signals I can get into.

Now I was up and running. I have found some problems that others have done, such as every time I move it the screen tips. I know you can lock it in place, but that is not what I want to do, because some things are better done in landscape and some in portrait. It is just that it never seems to go in the direction I want it and I often end up with it upside down from how I am viewing it. It is ideal if you have small fingers, because often when I am trying to ‘click’ on to something (which is done by jabbing your finger on to it on an iPad; very much more forcefully than you see people doing on the advertisements) I would end up hitting something else and it constantly seemed to think that I wanted to bin whatever I was working on. If it was my own device and not the company’s I would stick a big arrow on it saying ‘this way up’. The ‘Home’ button is small and looks pretty like the camera at the other end. Consequently using the various camera functions, I ended up finding I was holding the iPad ‘upside down’ but only when I emailed the image to someone else.

Taking photos is pretty easy. However, getting the right exposure and lining up a camera which is as large as an exercise book to take pictures is quite a challenge. The images are not bad but with no way to focus in except by moving closer nor to adjust the exposure to light conditions, it can be harder than even using your mobile phone to take a picture. Some things are very easy. One is connecting to YouTube though locating the volume control when music starts blaring out is far harder. The image is pretty good as is the sound. If you want to play clips and stand around discussing them, as I did with colleagues about clips from some film noir movies from YouTube, you can do that very easily.

You soon find, however, that YouTube is pretty much the limit of the video resources you can get into. I tried accessing BBC I-Player and Channel 4OD without any success, just messages saying that what they were offering was not suited to the device I was using. Some of the problems appear to come from tensions between Apple and other companies, notably Adobe. This means that neither can you watch anything which needs Flash nor can you even read PDF files which is an obstacle in the average office.

Another thing I experimented with was using the iPad for tweeting. I am pretty sceptical of the purpose of tweeting and as a result of playing a lot of ‘Total War; Shogun 2’ ended up writing tweets in the style of medieval Japanese death poems (translated into English of course) constantly reflecting on the ephemeral nature of what I was writing and the fact that you toss it into the ether with no idea if anyone pays attention to it. As you will know, I have had similar thoughts around blogging.

The shortness of tweets means we tend to see that as ‘lighter’ and so unsurprisingly rather than the lead tablets I throw out here, they seemed more like messages scribbled on scraps of paper or even dead leaves. Interestingly, dying Japanese warriors seem to have had a similar view on their lives and their significance after their death, with lots of reference to dead leaves, falling blossom and melting snow. What happens to a tweet that no-one reads? Anyway, my scepticism of tweeting has not abated. However, having attended a conference recently at which the audience was regularly harangued for not sending sufficient tweets during the proceedings and me not actually having any device on me that would enable me to do it (nor a Twitter account in fact), it did seem that now I had the iPad, the tool of choice for tweeting during conferences, I should at least equip it with that functionality.

In many ways I was trying to use the I-Pad in the way I might other devices. One was to use it like a Kindle. Certainly you can download e-books on to it. I accessed some by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from the Guttenberg site. This was fine except for the functionality you get, i.e. the book appears like a very long scroll that you unroll with your finger. Much of the iPad functionality depends on you pulling things around with your finger. This can be a challenge with even a comparatively short novel, but might work well enough for short reports. The only benefit is that when you go away from the book and return, it brings you back to the point that you were at before.

Moving away from things you have opened is the toughest part of using the iPad and I found myself constantly hitting the Home button. However, this did not resolve the problem because if I clicked back on to the internet browser (Safari) or the iTunes or YouTube buttons, I would simply find myself back at the document/video/audio I was at previously. You can sometimes press a button to bring up all the panels you have opened and then close them from there. However, sometimes the functionality seems to disappear causing difficult situations. I had heard about iTunes U which is a variant of I-Tunes that universities put written, audio and audio-video content on to. I download a Basic Chinese course for free from the Open University which probably unsurprisingly is a big user of the site. This was great. However, once I ran the first lesson all I had on my screen was a large image of a dragon and no buttons to pause or stop or even quieten the rather loud declaration of ‘ni hao!’ booming out across the office. This issue of going away from things is not helped by the fact that the functionality seems to differ depending what kind of item you are looking at and at times seems dependent, as in the case of the Open University material, on choices made by the provider rather than you.

The fact of being 'locked into' something worsened as I used the iPad more. I found that the web browser became fixed on to Google Docs which I had been using. No matter what I pressed it would not go back from the page or go to any other website bar Google Docs, effectively rendering the search engine useless. Unlike with a PC or even a laptop, I am unable to reboot, as even if you switch it off entirely it always comes back to whatever you had it set on when you switched it off.

You might expect the iPad coming out of the iTunes context to be good with audio/video content, but using it in the workplace I was interested in what it could actually do that was not about entertainment. You can get on to a range of websites very easily, so checking out a company before you get there is straight forward. There are diary functions and maps available in a range of formats such as relief and street map, so you get the functions of a PDA and a bit of a sat nav in there too. At least the iPad can tell you where you are and unlike most sat navs does not assume you are in a car making it easier to navigate as a pedestrian, useful in London.

What I was interested in was whether I could effectively use the iPad as a laptop when I got to the meeting. There is a notebook function, but that did not seem appropriate for the kind of thing I might be doing. This is when I realised that it was fine for my company to give me an I-Pad but without a budget to buy supplementary packages, i.e. ‘apps’ then I was limited. Apple do produce a wordprocessor package for the iPad, Pages, but this costs $9.99, I was not able to find a UK price. Similarly, Keynote for the same price allows you to do presentations, though I am pretty averse to this, given the unhealthy dependency so many office workers and their audiences have on ‘slides’.

If you want things like spreadsheets and other office packages, then you need iWork which has Pages and Keynote in it plus Numbers which is the spreadsheet package. I have been told there is an iPad version for $80 but tend to only find the Macintosh version online. Someone noted to me the other day, that if we only ever go after free stuff why will companies ever both producing packages if there is no money in them. This is a good question. However, even if I had had a £100 budget then I would have bought some products from Apple. Given how tight my money is, I am not in a position or willing to subsidise my company. Any company that is thinking about equipping their workers with I-Pads should either buy all the necessary packages before they dish them out or give the workers a budget to buy the apps that they feel are most appropriate.

I then thought of using Open Office, the free rival to Microsoft products. Unfortunately, as you will see discussed on forums, because the operating system of the I-Pad is different from that of the Macs and is more ‘closed’, the Open Office people have not been able to develop a version for iPads. This may come in the future. So, what do you do if you have no budget, are as poor as I am and want to wordprocess on an iPad? The one solution I found was to use Google Docs. You can set up a Google email account, gmail, for free. Then you can access Google Docs. The documents you produce in Google Docs are incredibly primitive with no formatting. You can do carriage returns but little else. However, you can email them to yourself as .doc or .rtf or a range of other formats that allows you to work on them on a proper computer. This works fine for my note taking. I can type pretty fast so found it not much slower than handwriting the notes. The key problem is the predictive text approach that Google Docs uses. I found it changing many of my words, sometimes into very American terms. As these were notes, I abbreviated a lot but found ‘mkt’ for market for some reason became ‘MIT’ and ‘wkplace’ for workplace turn into ‘ail lace’ the first time (ail being the French word for garlic) and then ‘sip pace’ the second time. I will have to explore if I can disable this function.

Accessing email accounts is pretty easy off the iPad. Leaving a particular account proves much harder and I found that when I clicked to the email facility (you can go in through Safari or connect your favourite email account to the separate Email button) it kept returning to the email from my girlfriend that I had opened as the first one that morning. This could be embarrassing, but I battled to get away from this email. This issue of ‘dismissing’ things you have finished with is one of the most frustrating when using the iPad. The next issue is attaching things. I am used to creating a document or an image and then attaching it to an email. You do this a lot with an iPad as you need to get the item off that machine on to one where you can work on it more with formatting, etc. However, you find no matter what email account you use, and I went into a Hotmail one, a gmail one and an Outlook one (through web access not a client) that I could not attach anything. With the iPad you have to do it in reverse, i.e. go to the item whether an image or a document and click something like ‘Share’ or ‘email’ and then it goes back to the email account you are using and attaches the item. I suppose being so used to different ways makes it harder to adapt.

I find it funny that when Sir Clive Sinclair produced the home computers, the ZX80 and ZX81 unsurprisingly in 1980 and 1981, people criticised the touch keyboards that they used. By the time he produced the ZX Spectrum in 1982 he was compelled to include rubbery keys. Subsequently all home computers have had ‘fully travelling’ keyboards which move and clunk like typewriters used to. Now, however, with the iPad I find myself slapping my fingers across the screen hitting letters (and additional one with my cuff links; for these sort of devices wearing a teeshirt and not having flabby wrists is advised) as if I was back in 1980 or working a till at MacDonalds. Apple emphasises how easy it is to use such approaches and no-one seems to be complaining. Though the IT man who helped me connect to the wi-fi said he always used a Bluetooth keyboard instead, but in some ways I guess that reduces the portability and increases the danger of finding you have left either your keyboard or your I-Pad somewhere different from where you are with the other. The other thing is that the face of the iPad looks like the panel of an arcade game at a fun fair in the 1980s, covered with greasy finger marks. I am sure some enterprising crime writer is producing a story in which fingerprints and even DNA are taken from an abandoned or dropped iPad.

Anyway, this was what I discovered in the first four days of being assigned an iPad. I guess if you are in a company more set up for using them, especially connecting them to the company’s wi-fi and especially if you have an allocated budget to go with the device, then it will be easier. The lightness (1.4 Kg) and the decent battery life (10 hours) means that it is a portable device. My colleague sees the main function being to keep him entertained while travelling on the train and it is decent for this though he will probably need a sim card for it. For office work, the main thing it has replaced is my paper notepad that I used to take to meetings. If I can scrape together $9.99 then I may invest in Pages; but this month I was down to £32 with three weeks left until pay day. Years of fixed-term contracts, three mortgages and rising fuel prices mean I am dependent on left over sandwiches from meetings to make up my evening meal at present, so not really in a position to splash out on apps.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Catherine Hakim's Ancillism: The Darkness Beyond Post-Feminism

Back in January 2008, I wrote about my concerns for the position and behaviour of both women and men in British society as a result of the growing prevalence of post-Feminist views:  My concern, which does not seem to have been contradicted by anything which has happened since, was that with the dismissal of Feminist attitudes as too austere and inappropriate for our hyper-consumerist age.  Consequently, girls and women were feeling that they needed to return to old fashioned views of femininity evoking a submissiveness and domesticity, yet, contrary to previous decades, shot through with over-emphasised sexuality encompassing body shape, plastic surgery, sexualised clothing and behaviour, rather than a demure attitude.   Conversely boys and men are increasingly re-subscribing to outdated modes of masculinity particularly involving violence and the treatment of women as simply sex objects, needing protection, but ultimately disposable.

Some of these things seemed to have retracted a little in the intervening years.  Total pink now seems to be less de rigeur for girls and their mothers, but other elements such as platform-soled shoes with dangerously high heels as office wear and the return of skin-tight leggings across the age ranges suggest that while the issue might mutate it has not gone away.  Then I came across the work of Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics.  Her book released last month is entitled 'Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital'.  From reviews it seems poorly researched and repetitive.  However, what is alarming is that it creates a kind of ideology for the extreme elements of post-Feminism that I had highlighted before.  I guess this needs a new terminology as I imagine that even ardent supporters of post-Feminism would feel alarmed at going as far as Hakim.  She talks of 'sexonomics'.  Perhaps more accurately it should be termed something around female servitude, disempowerment, deference, let me propose 'Ancillism', taken from the Latin word for 'slave girl', ancilla.

Basically Hakim feels that British and American women, as opposed to French women, have entirely 'forgotten' that a way to success for them is to draw on their 'assets' to create a 'striking effect' (a term she takes from philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer).  She builds on Pierre Bourdieu's views of personal capital, i.e. those things that help us get on in life such as money; our intelligence, knowledge, training, education; and networks with friends, family, contacts, etc.  To this Hakim adds the blatantly titled 'erotic capital'.  Now, apparently, this has been used by American sociologists before, referring to physical appearance and sex appeal.  On top of those attributes Hakim adds charm, sociability and sexual 'expertise' into the mix. 

Her entire list includes, as journalist Zoe Williams noted in 'The Guardian': 'beauty; sexual attractiveness; social skills like grace, charm and discreet flirtation; liveliness, which is a mixture of physical fitness, social energy and good humour; social presentation, including dress, jewellery and other adornments; and finally, sexuality itself, competence, energy, imagination.'  Now, a few of these sound like you might have expected from a finishing school, especially charm and sociability, but the others, especially a need to have 'competence, energy and imagination' in terms of sex, are where Hakim takes the steps way beyond Post-Feminism.

The reason why Hakim feels that women alone need to boost their erotic capital, is because of the imbalance in sexual desire between men and women, what she calls the 'male sex deficit'.  Consequently her simple premise is that the reason why women are not progressing well in business or in many cases to even get a job is that they are too frumpy and thus are not attracting male interest whether to be employed or be promoted.  As Will Self sharply noted in 'The Guardian' this suggests that Hakim feels that to get on women should stop focusing on their education or their networks and should simply focus on physical appearance and how they project themselves in a sexual manner.  This means that they will then be appealing to aged men with power who are desperate for easy sex and are willing to reward women for providing it.  Does the model not sound rather like prostitution?  At the minimum it seems to be the motives behind those women who aim to become a Playboy 'bunny' and end up married to superannuated Hugh Heffner. 

Despite Hakim's inclusion of 'competence, energy and imagination' in terms of sexual skills, these are all to be tailored not for the greater pleasure of the woman or a shared pleasure with a partner, but purely towards the needs of a man.  Why should not the man need 'competence, energy and imagination' when engaging in sex?  This is why I feel Hakim is putting the woman very much into the slave girl role: entirely a provider with only the man as consumer.  The thrust of Hakim's thesis also suggests that clothing, jewellery, other adornments (not clear what she means, does this mean cosmetics? Tattoos?  Branding?) and beauty itself however augmented are purely to allow the woman to 'buy' provision from the man, nothing about the woman herself potentially enjoying these aspects of herself.

Hakim's philosophy seems to be consumerism taken yet another step.  It is probably unsurprising that Self ends up quoting Marx in terms of sexual usage.  She is incredibly dismissive of overweight women, blaming them entirely for their condition.  To quote Lucy Kellaway in the 'Financial Times', Hakim's view is that '[o]besity is self-inflicted'; 'has no benefit and destroys erotic capital' and '[f]atties deserve no sympathy or special treatment as their girth "is unnecessary and indefensible".'  Apparently Hakim feels too many women, not simply the overweight, simply do not make 'enough effort' in how they appear and claims that they lose 10-15% of the income they could be earning as a result. You just wonder why she did not stop there and question whether it is right that women and not men, have salaries dependent on how much they sexualise themselves. Again it brings me back to the slave girl analogy.

Naturally as you can see by the references I make, Hakim has been condemned by a string or reviewers, Claire Black in 'The Scotsman' is another.  Hakim seems quite robust in challenging those who challenge her.  Williams notes that after interviewing Hakim, she telephoned Williams's boss questioning about Williams frame of mind, assuming that her negativity to her ideas must stem from a relationship break up.  To a great degree, something very bad for an academic, Hakim has sunk so deep into her view of the world that she has real difficulty in even envisaging what a different perspective on her ideas might look like.  I have not noticed 'The Sun' newspaper with its daily photo of a topless woman and the common advice to women who find their man losing interest to be more sexy for him, picking up on Hakim's work, though it seems to fit in perfectly with their philosophy towards women.  Whilst the 'Daily Mail' apparently warmed to earlier comments from Hakim that women need to be more ambitious and 'marry up' to achieve financial success (as if we all lived in the era of Jane Austen), they do not seem to have embraced this further step down the post-Feminist road to Ancillism.

This is not to say that in the media Hakim has been without support.   Bryony Gordon writing in 'Daily Telegraph' has bought right into the philosophy, even making changes in her own life, having her hair styled, running to make her buttocks more trim and shopping at LK Bennett whose opening webpage says 'Exude Glamour' (though in fact their styles are very old fashioned looking like they have arrived from somewhere between 1955 and 1983).  She claims in her youth she was tutored that to appear sexy as a woman was to reduce one's IQ and now seems to be a convert entirely to Hakim's line.  She feels  Nigella Lawson, Tamara Mellon, Samantha Cameron and Miriam Clegg fit into this category too.  When the latter two are the wives of the prime minister and deputy prime minister you do wonder if it will be long before post-Feminism if not Ancillism, becomes government policy, as it seems to have become under the Berlusconi administration in Italy. Gordon feels Hakim's philosophy should be made part of the curriculum for school girls.  More support comes from Sarah Vine writing in 'The Times'.  It is probably unsurprising that the right-wing press support Ancillism, for them having ranks of deferential, nubile young women servicing wealthy men, rather than spending the money to offer women real opportunities, probably seems some kind of solution to 'broken Britain'.

Of course, Mrs. Cameron and Mrs. Clegg have adopted the traditional, pre- and post-Feminist approach of getting on through marrying rich men.  They like everyone in the public eye these days, have been packaged by image consultants.  In addition, possibly because they have no need, do not seem to tap into Hakim's list of attributes women should foster.  Perhaps this is because women make up more of the electorate than men.  The trouble is, not for those women like Gordon and those she mentions but for the everyday woman, trying to start a career or progress in a career in an ordinary business.  With people in the media supporting Hakim and suggesting other leading women do too (even without their consent) and her ideas seemingly coming with academic credentials, then a bright young woman could not be criticised for thinking she has to increase her 'erotic capital' through dressing, adorning, behaving and becoming expert in the ways that Hakim lists. 

On these bases one does wonder what 'employability' on university courses of the future might include if this insidious attitude takes?  What then for the women who do not have the chance of university?  In the context Hakim is trying so hard to foster, will they see no alternative but to comply, that offering themselves up to appeal to some man with a 'sexual deficit' is the only way to survive?  It is interesting that the image heading Self's review was not of a string of successful women in smart dresses but of Indonesian prostitutes, from whom apparently the term 'honey money' derives.

While I do not believe in censorship, we need to see quickly and vigorously ideas and statements that challenge Hakim's Ancillism if we are not to see young women already advised that their best bet is to become a domestic drudge to some man, take further steps and commodify themselves just as Hakim advices.  It seems incredible that in the space of forty years we have gone from women being told to aspire to be prime minister to being told that their best hope is to prostitute themselves.