Saturday, December 31, 2011

Annus mirabilis or annus terribilis?

It was no less a sage than Carrie Bradshaw who once mused in Sex And The City: "Maybe the past is like an anchor holding us back. Maybe, you have to let go of who you were to become who you will be." It is perfectly true that looking back, rather than the other direction, only relives troubling memories or revisits those we'd rather resign to the dark coffers of history. That said, the adage that knowing where you've come from helps where you're going also rings true.

The point of all this cod philosophy is that, this being New Year's Eve and all, I feel compelled to cast one final glance over the shoulder of a year which, on a personal level, could at the very least be described as 'odd', and on a global level, be described as relentless. I won't dwell here on the personal stuff, save to say that if 2011's emotional dips, peaks, twists and turns were to be turned into a theme park ride, Health & Safety would close it down in an instant.

The list of world events, however, warrants some reflection. Keeping pace with 'big' news this year has been the current affairs equivalent of running a long, punishing marathon with only a few stops for water and the odd embarrassing Paula Radcliffe roadside evacuation along the way.

In the year in which the world welcomed its seven billionth inhabitant, major news stories seemed to be bigger and more impactful: perhaps it was the way they were reported by the media that engorged them, but from the Arab Awakening and the Fukushima earthquake to Europe's economic disaster, the deaths of Steve Jobs and Osama Bin Laden to the deranged rampage of Anders Brevik, Charlie Sheen's very public meltdown and Amy Winehouse's somewhat inevitable demise to the bizarre case of Dominic Strauss-Kahn, England's summer riots and the Anglo-Saxon media's self-ingestion over phone hacking, there was a never-ending parade of news which just seemed that much bigger than usual.

Of all of them, it is the events that will continue into 2012 that deserve the most attention. Biggest of these is the revolution that swept the Middle East and North Africa. It actually began last December with the self-emoliation of a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit and vegetable seller, Mohammed Bouazizi. His act of fatal desperation lit the fuse of a conflagration that is burning still in Syria and smoldering elsewhere.

If the Vietnam War had been the first television war, the revolution that took hold in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Libya and other countries in the region was the first to be initiated by and spread via social networking. The smartphone, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook became more powerful than any pitchfork or Molatov cocktail in the history of popular uprising, channels for disobedience, for liberty and retribution, conveying both brutal injustice as well as the brutal dispatch of an insane monster like Muammar Gaddafi.

Social networking tools evolved from frivolous platforms for sharing pictures of drunken nights out, commencing and ending relationships and posting inconsequential videos of cats playing musical instruments to outlets for freedom and ingenuity. People found a voice they either didn't have before, or were denied their right to exercise it in the first place.

At the arrival of 2012 nothing is more certain than it was one year ago. Europe continues to heave and groan amid the seismic contractions of its politically complex economy, and the Middle East continues to be a source of social unrest and even the resurgence of the sort of nuclear tension that kept an entire generation awake at night not so long ago.

To add to the uncertainty we have Iran rattling its sabre over oil and its own atomic ambitions and a North Korea run by, it would appear, a pudgy video gamer who has swapped his Xbox controls for a large red button labelled Use only if you wish to hold south-east Asia to ransom. Given that the Mayan calendar doesn't have a lot planned for 2013, there is much to be nervous about as we send fireworks into the night sky tonight.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A high-definition Christmas

By this time next week it will be all over. I’m not talking about the world, however, as that is not due to expire until next year.

No, by next Thursday Christmas will already be a fading memory and life will be returning to some semblance of normality after the annual orgy of food and wrapping paper.

I know it's all meant to be about the Nativity, but let’s face it, thanks to the consumer insurgency we all buy into, it has become a desperately anti-climactic festival of spending. Right now many of us are in a state of belligerent defiance mixed with blind panic, but in a few days from now, all that preparation and the weeks spent agonizing over the perfect gift which you then wrap with the precision of a master bomb maker, will have dissolved into a flurry of ripped paper amid fleeting hope passing rapidly into barely disguised disappointment.

In case any members of my family or diminishing circle of friends are reading this hokum (and apologies to regular WWDBD viewers for the apparent break in service – November appeared to have exhausted my writing mojo), all I want for Christmas this year is shiny, circular, measures about 12cm across, and can rightfully be described as the last physical media format I will ever own: Blu-ray Disc.

Despite having played a part in the launch of Blu-ray Disc in a former life - and the format itself being on the market since 2006 - I have hitherto resisted its charms. DVD, for the most part, has been a perfectly adequate format to enjoy movies and TV series in fantastic quality at home. The arrival of high-definition digital TV services and even the availability of HD movies via iTunes has also dented any urge to start building up more shelf-swamping content in a new physical form.

I know I’m not alone in this view – Blu-ray clearly has yet to become the true high-definition successor to DVD it was touted to be. I have happily embraced renting movies online as a means of ensuring my film collection doesn't end up occupuing another post code. In fact this time last year I was completing a significant rationalisation of both my CD and DVD collections, and I’ve maintained a notable abstinence this year in building the pile back up. Dangerously, perhaps, iTunes has made it easier to buy film and music on-spec that I probably wouldn't have bought had I gone to a shop. That said, in the process I’ve come across some gems.

So what tipped me over the edge and dragged me into my local FNAC to buy a Blu-ray Disc player? There were two factors: firstly, my ageing DVD/SACD player was suffering from wear-and-tear, and it was time to buy a replacement. The good people of a particular Japanese consumer electronics brand were helpfully put on the market a Blu-ray player that also played SACDs, so my investment in that format wouldn’t be forfeited. Secondly, the price of even a decent Blu-ray player has commoditised so sharply in the last five years that it was a steal.

There was a third factor: Mad Men. Walking through one of the few remaining HMV stores in London recently I saw a box set of the first four Mad Men seasons going for an absolute song. Knowing that amongst the many things Mad Men had been hailed for was its vivid, Technicolor art direction, it seemed a perfect match for the high-definition richness of Blu-ray Disc. I plunged in.

I wasn’t disappointed. It did, however, dawn on me, as I gorged on the glorious depiction of amorality in a 1960s Madison Avenue ad agency, that it created a paradox: here I was watching a TV show in pristine high-definition picture quality which is set in an era when television was a largely grey, fuzzy and intermittent affair. Then it didn’t have so much as an ‘interactive red button’, programmes didn’t communicate via Twitter, and changing channels involved getting off your arse and turning a dial.

The other irony about Mad Men is that I doubt if any of the characters would actually be alive today. For a start, no scene seems to be possible without everyone lighting up a cigarette, pouring a large measure of scotch or both, which means that most of the employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce would have dropped dead long ago from some variety of cancer – lung or oesophagal, take your pick. Mad Men’s Olympian levels of smoking was established early on. Indeed Page 1 of the script of the very first episode starts thus:

Alone in a red corner booth is DON DRAPER, early 30's, handsome, conservative, and despite his third old fashioned, he is apparently sober. He is doodling on a cocktail napkin.

He crosses something out, puts down his fountain pen, and taps a cigarette out of a pack of 'Lucky Strike'.

The BUSBOY, a middle-aged black man, too old for his tight uniform, approaches.

BUSBOY: Finished, sir?

DON: Yeah. Got a light?

The busboy pulls out a pack of matches from the back of his 'Old Gold’s' and lights Don's cigarette.

DON: Ah, an 'Old Gold' man.


'Lucky Strike', here.
Man Men’s high consumption of tobacco and Johnny Walker’s is matched only by the number of notches on the bedposts of the principle characters. There is more shagging going on at SCDP than even the members of Fleetwood Mac entertained with each other during the 70s and 80s. Most – if not all – of the agency’s male staff would have succumbed to some unpleasant disease of the genital district long before AIDS came along.

But I digress. Blu-ray Disc is having to co-exist with television and the Internet unlike any other format before it. In principle, it wins hands-down on the quality front, something film director Ridley Scott recently put forward in a blog article he wrote for the Huffington Post.

"Technology will need to make many more huge leaps before one can ever view films with the level of picture and sound quality many film lovers demand without having to slide a disc into a player," Scott wrote. "The technically sophisticated Blu-ray Disc, of which I've been a supporter since its inception, is the closest we've come to replicating the best theatrical viewing experience.”

The director of Alien and Blade Runner maintains that, while iPads and smartphones have become as much a part of personal theater as the big screen TV, we must continue to maintain shelf space for Blu-ray Disc and DVD box sets.

“Physical media has years of life left," says Scott, "and must be preserved because there is no better alternative."

I’m not so sure: as Internet bandwidth improves all the time, and video technology continues to be refined further and further, it’s only a matter of time when the quality of Blu-ray Disc will be completely superceded by something which doesn’t require packaging and shelf space. And actually having to get off your fat arse to change discs when gorging on a whole season of Mad Men in one go, as that’s what WiFi is for.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Do not worry: rabbits, chickens and princes will save the planet

As the European economy continues its irrevocable slide back to the Middle Ages, a seemingly lesser event crept in under radar last week and set up camp in South Africa: the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Mercifully abbreviated to ‘COP17’ (which fits better on a T-shirt) the conference is the latest attempt by Planet Earth to save itself by limiting greenhouse gas emissions. If you've hitherto been unaware of this event, do not be embarassed. Global attention has been elsewhere.

However, as COP17 enters its second week, there is a chance that the start of what is traditionally known as the 'higher level talks' might draw a bit more attention to the conference, which draws together over 10,000 delegates from 194 countries, and includes the world's leading climate change experts, scientists and campaigners, as well as governments.

Despite the scant coverage in the media, this year's conference represents a critical moment in the effort to agree binding global targets for greenhouse gas emissions. It has been an exhaustive process, ever since COP3 in 1994 produced the treaty named after the conference's host city - the Kyoto Protocol On Climate Change. Then, 37 nations committed themselves to reducing their emissions of the four main greenhouse gases (which include the two we're all guilty of - carbon dioxide and methane...) by 5.2%, the benchmarked "potential" for future climate warming, by 2012. However, the United States (which contributes the world's second-largest output of CO2) - along with Australia - refused to ratify the treaty on the grounds that it didn't encourage the world's poorest polluters to step up as well (the Aussies have, however, since signed their ratification. The United States still hasn't). With the Kyoto Protocol due to expire next year, all subsequent UNFCCC events have concerned themselves with continued negotiations, arguments, posturing and brave attempts to come up with a successor.

In 2004 the climate change circus pitched up on the extremely agreeable island of Bali to map out the steps to a new agreement. The following year it was the somewhat less temperate environment of Poznan in Poland. With these two events meant to, respectively, prepare the roadmap and then fill in the blanks, COP15 in Copenhagen two years ago was supposed to have presented the new global agreement. Some felt it was a slam-dunk, requiring no more than the signatures of world leaders to make it happen.

Disastrously, it didn't. Despite the high-profile presence of presidents and prime ministers, it failed to produce any kind of binding agreement, merely producing a flimsy 'look-we've-come-all-this-way-so-we-need-to-sign-something' document which paid little more than lip service to getting anything done.

Not being a particular expert on climate change, the politics surrounding it, or the diplomacy required to get governments to do something about it, I have my own theory as to why COP15 in Copenhagen failed to deliver: crap logistics. I can offer this viewpoint from personal experience.

I arrived in Copenhagen in a blizzard. The first thing I noticed was that, unlike other some places I've lived in, where the merest hint of a snowflake sends people mad and preparing for a 1000-year nuclear winter, Danes have got it down to a fine art. An airport runway that had been covered in thick snow barely half an hour before my plane landed had been cleared and was operating with all the normality of a summer's day.

That was, however, the last time that day that I encountered anything resembling efficiency. Arriving at Copenhagen's Bella Center I encountered an already lengthy queue for accreditation. Being British, I was, initially, as happy as a clam to queue stoically and politely, while scanning the peripherery for any potential bad-mannered interlopers.

Unfortunately I hadn't banked on the UN's own imported police force who were administrating the accreditation process. For five-and-a-half hours I queued ankle-deep in freezing snow, weathering wind chill of -20. Climate change and global warming were two distant concepts as I stood there, shuffling from one foot to the other, cursing (the first sign of hypothermia) for being shod in officewear and not the pelts of two wolves.
Artist impression of the rabbit

Advancing at a pace only time-lapse photography could faithfully record, and with the only comfort coming from cups of coffee handed out by the Danish Army, I watched two grown human beings dressed, respectively, as a chicken and a rabbit embroiled in a punch-up.

Artist impression of the chicken
From what I could gather - and do bear in mind that I may have been hallucinating at this point - the contretemps between the bunny and the bird appeared to be a territorial dispute over the optimum spot from which to stage their protests against global warming. The morning had taken on a profoundly surreal element at this point.

By the third hour of queuing I was entertaining irrational fears of succumbing to frostbite and, like Ranulph Fiennes, having to saw off my own toes with a tool fashioned from of a reindeer's antler. By the fifth hour I'd had enough, having been up since 4.30am for my flight to Copenhagen (yes, I know, I should have chartered a more carbon-friendly pack of sled dogs). Just as I was planning to make a break for it I noticed that ahead of me in the queue was a representation from a Native American tribe. Oh, the irony that my eyes had been watering for most of the morning.

Their skills of endurance, hewn no doubt on the high plains, we're clearly more developed than mine. Annoyed, cold and resentful from having spent a long morning standing still in the actual land of ice and snow, I hobbled off on my frost-bitten, close-to-amputation feet in search of a hotel, several cold (but not too cold) beers and an open fire-heated bar.

Reanimated by the loving toastiness of the hotel, and by the fact a colleague had provided me with the pass I should have had in the first place, I returned to the Bella Center where, several hours after I’d left it, I discovered the Indian tribe to be still just in front of me. Twin Peaks had now been uprooted and moved to a Scandinavian exhibition centre.

As it transpired, the process to get into COP15 was almost as arduous as it was for the conference to get any agreement out of it. The Prince of Wales was addressing the opening session of what is called the "high-level talks". My presence was due to the fact that my then-employer was a significant member of the Corporate Leaders Group, an organisation set up by the Prince to bring enterprises together to apply more pressure on governments to do something about climate change.

Charles was there to apply his passion for the environment by imploring the great-and-the-good assembled to, effectively, pull their fingers out and reach an agreement. "The inescapable conclusion," he told delegates, "is that a partial solution to climate change is no solution at all. Crucially, it must be embraced by the public, private and NGO sectors, as well as by local communities and indigenous people, while also encouraging individual responsibility."

While many think of Charles as either a well-meaning eccentric or a do-gooder who should stay out of politics, his ability to command the attention of a large conference chamber was impressive, and his commitment to the cause can never be faulted. Alas, the failure of COP15 to reach any kind of conclusive agreement was more the result of everyone else in Copenhagen to make a commitment.

The following year the conference took to the blisteringly warm Mexican beach resort of Cançun, better known for American college students indulging in the drunken debauchery of Spring Break. COP16 was meant to be a more low-key affair, attended by a more functional profile of delegates who, according to the roadmap, would have been tasked with outlining the implementation of whatever Copenhagen the year before had agreed. The presidents and prime ministers stayed away, leaving their experts to pick up the baton. Apart from a few token pieces of legislation, and a lot of huffing and puffing about the critical need to do something, the outcome was limp.

So, what of this year? Despite the lack of media attention, COP17 is the last-chance saloon to replace Kyoto. Whatever your view on climate change, the planet's ice caps are thinning at an alarming rate, and the seas are heating up to the extent that America's hurricane season is growing longer and more intense. These can't be random developments.

Critics of the climate change discussions say that they are hampered by too much self interest. Surely, though, self-interest should be the reason for getting an agreement. After all, London, Paris and New York won't be much fun to live in when they're under water.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

It's still here

One Saturday, 24 years ago, a magazine editor, in his wisdom, dispatched me to the English market town of Hereford to ask locals about their sexual habits.

It was an assignment fraught with danger. Firstly, Hereford is the world-famous home of the SAS, Britain's elite special forces. They are not know for their openness to strangers asking questions. About anything.

Secondly, the objective of my mission was to test national attitudes towards HIV/AIDS which, in 1987, was seen almost exclusively as a "gay plague", helped no end by unenlightened newspaper headlines along those lines.

Dodging threatening looks and accusations ("You some sort of pervert?") and the inevitable and progressively unfunny 'jokes' ("Practice safe sex? Absolutely - last time we 'ad it off in the car we almost crashed." Ho and, can I add, ho), I waded through the crowded provincial town centre. This particular 'vox pop' required nerves of steel and, I discovered relatively early on, a decent pair of trainers.

At the beginning of 1987 the government had delivered a leaflet to every home in Britain inscribed "AIDS: Don't die of ignorance". It was a slogan born of the age of Katherine Hamnett's famous white FRANKIE SAYS... T-shirts, and formed part of a £20 million advertising campaign which also included two iconic TV commercials, in which a large iceberg in one, and a tombstone in the other, loomed into view to John Hurt's voiceover cheerily warning of "a deadly disease and there is no known cure".

Amid the inevitable hostility towards my questions, my afternoon in Hereford produced some interesting results. Firstly, it was clear that a large number of people under the age of 20 hadn't seen the government's leaflet at all. Of those that had, less than half had found it useful, only a similar number said that the advertising campaign had made them change their sexual habits, and even a sixth said they hadn't even thought about it.

There was plenty of indifference and, indeed, ignorance in Hereford that afternoon, reactions that replicated themselves across the country as the same investigation was carried out by my colleagues in London, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds and other cities and towns. Things weren't helped by the positively Victorian thundering of James Anderton, who was then-Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, who talked about AIDS victims "...swirling in a human cesspit of their own making".

Today is World Aids Day. It is also 30 years since scientists at the United States' Centers for Disease Control first flagged up a new virus with an alarmingly high mortality rate. Although human infection by the HIV virus has since been traced back to the early 20th Century, and the origins of its development into a pandemic even now unclear, 'full blown' AIDS became the sort of bogeyman that communism and 'Reds under the bed' had been in the 1950s and 60s. Much of this had to do with the gay stigma attached to the disease. As I found in Hereford, few people understood, or were prepared to understand that HIV contamination could affect both heterosexuals as well as needle-sharing drug users.

As deaths soared - and the deaths of figures from the arts and entertainment world like Rock Hudson, previously regarded as the all-American hearthrob whose homosexuality had been kept an unusual secret in pre-Internet Hollywood - public opinion continued to focus on issues of morality surrounding the disease.

In 1985 the story of Indiana schoolboy Ryan White caught media and celebrity attention. White was a hemophiliac who, in 1984, was diagnosed with pneumonia and was subsequently discovered to have AIDS. When it was learned that he'd contracted the HIV virus from a contaminated batch of transfused blood, White and his family entered a protracted dispute with the local education authority who wanted to keep him away from school. White's case drew celebrity attention, with everyone from Elton John and Michael Jackson to Ronald and Nancy Reagan supporting his cause and, in the process, doing much to destigmatise AIDS and the real ignorance that existed around it.

When AIDS first reached the public consciousness there was much talk of it becoming a pandemic that could even impact world population numbers. Today its global death toll stands at 22 million with HIV infections at 60 million. Effective treatments have turned it into a manageable, chronic condition which has kept it off the front pages. While people still die from the disease, the fact that those dying aren't actors and rock stars has stopped it becoming news. There is also the complacent belief that HIV/AIDS is on the decline. Certainly in places like south-east Asia there has been a marked decline in new infections and deaths thanks to preventative education and treatment programmes in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

In truth, however, HIV/AIDS is anything but disappeared. It is estimated that 33.4 million people live today with the HIV virus, and two-thirds of those are in sub-Saharan Africa. In Zimbabwe, Botswana and Swaziland around a third of the population lives with the virus. There have been significant signs of progress in Africa, but it is still a basket case by world standards.

Not that things are necessarily rosy in the developed world. New HIV infections in the UK, for example, have continued to grow over the last ten years as complacency towards practicing safe sex has crept in. In the United States HIV infection rates amongst African-Americans overtook those within the gay community in 2000, and today the disease continues to ravage parts of the country's southern states, where mortality rates are markedly the highest and the majority of people who have HIV or AIDS are black. Significantly, six of the ten American states with the highest number of women with AIDS are in the South.

Sexual health is still a topic of extreme sensitivity, and the stigma attached to AIDS in every part of the world - and every community where it resides - is still the biggest barrier to achieving a World Health Organisation target of zero new HIV infections and deaths from AIDS by 2015.

The second biggest barrier is, inevitably, money. Scientists claim they are achingly close to developing an HIV/AIDS vaccine, but cuts in funding are threatening to arrest that development. Still, World Aids Day today - and on December 1 for the next four years - will focus on the zero infections target.

The blight of AIDS has, in recent years at least, been blighted itself by a combination of indifference, ignorance and cynicsm. Being straight, I've been part of a community that regarded it as someone else's risk; being European, it was someone else's problem; not being a drug user, someone else's stupidity. Other causes have come along to claim attention for our charity and our lifestyles. But 24 or 25 years ago, while we were still more worried about the Russians turning our capital cities into irradiated wasteland, a new disease came along to wipe the post-Free Love Generation smiles off our faces. And it's still with us today.