17 December 2008

Merry Credit Crunchy Christmas!

In time for Christmas, I thought I'd write a little on another Christmas away from home and especially how the Credit Crunch makes trees shorter, Santa's bags smaller and Christmas stockings lighter (and shopping actually affordable for me)!

After three years of Christmas in London, one tries to compensate for the snow, the dozens of traditional fairs where they sell gingerbread hearts, roasted almonds, mulled wine and chocolate-glazed fruits, the smell of freshly baked cookies filling the houses and the exchange of cookie tins whenever you visit someone's place! Having lived in Kings Cross in December 2006, there were not that many places to buy trees in Central London - not that our halls would have allowed real trees anyway (thanks to health and safety). And in Earl's Court it would have been a bit annoying to drag a tree up three floors, even though it would have been fun to chuck it out onto the courtyard on Knut! Besides, in London you always have to consider that you might move again in a few months, so a plastic tree, sad as it is, would have been the more economical option. "Luckily", there is Tesco which sells around ten different kinds of plastic trees (2 for £5!) in all shapes and sizes (with snow, without, Rocky Mountain or Alpine, gold, black, pink, purple, red, silver, white, slim or small enough to hide it in the oven in case of any unannounced health & safety officers knocking at your door, "Ho Ho Ho, have you been a good girl this year?"

So, this year I wanted a REAL tree. You know, one that smells like pine and sheds needles so you have the hoover out of the closet and next to it, on standby; one which you have to water daily but where the water in the saucer always ends up anywhere except in the tree; one which you never manage to make stand 90 degrees upright, despite years of practice! Surprisingly enough, local corner shops sold some for £24 for one that goes to my upper thighs, that's £1 a day in December until Christmas eve. Hm. But then you'd have to buy lametta, a stand, and they probably ask for your ID if you buy chocolate hangers filled with alcohol (never seen those around here actually, probably because the bottles are too tiny for the British). Long tree short, I stayed with my 10 cm USB-lit tree. Cost me £4 you can recycle it every year. Only problem: Got a computer virus this year, so... lights out, I'm afraid...

Other ways to create Christmas feeling: Use aroma oils with orange and cinnamon, get baking (interestingly, a Taiwanese woman recently offered me some awesome and really authentic Weihnachtsstollen!), ask visiting friends to import the traditional must-have Vanillekipferl, write Christmas cards (which I hardly ever did in Austria, as you see everyone anyway) and get Oxfam's chocolate advent calendar with organic fair trade Divine chocolate (tOTTally but awesome that it exists! I also quite like the Ramadan chocolate calendar my Muslim flatmate got me not least because it has six more windows!).

Hmmm, ideally there is also a weekend skiing get away in the Alps somewhere in my idea of a perfect Christmas but spending it in Thailand next to the sea under palm trees with some fresh Mango salad for the festive fish dish, Santa contributing to global warming because of doing his door-to-door service (finally motorised!) on a Tuk Tuk because Mae-Khao, the maroon-bellied mosquito quit being his local partner and went to join the "unusual surprises" industry, servicing the niche market of yummy foreigners.

In the meantime, I spend the run up to Christmas on the high street. Thanks to the credit crunch (the ONLY positive effect of it so far) the government dropped the VAT from 17.5 % to 15 % on 1 December, in time for Christmas sales which vendors try to stimulate as well by offering as much as up to 50 % or even 70 % discount, thereby starting the end of season sale early (I wonder if they are gonna give stuff away for free after Boxing Day). For someone who does not have enough money to spend on Christmas gifts AND ship them overseas but who has not bought any new clothes ever since LAST Boxing Day and most of whose clothes are ripping into their pieces, the motto is "Shop Ahoi!", especially if - bless the Euro - shopping in London costs just as much as at home! 'Tis the season!!!

02 December 2008

I think I am being watched

"Throughout the country are an estimated five million CCTV cameras; that's one for every 12 citizens. We have more than 20 per cent of the world's CCTV cameras, which, considering that Britain occupies a tiny 0.2 per cent of the world's inhab itable land mass, is quite an achievement. The average Londoner going about his or her business may be monitored by 300 CCTV cameras a day. Roughly 1,800 cameras watch over London's railway stations and another 6,000 permanently peer at commuters on the Underground and London buses."
[New Statesman: Watching You, Watching Me, 2 October 2006]

Coming from a country where privacy is regarded very highly (or just plainly coming from what people over here in a sense of European belonging call "The Continent"), one really needs a bit of getting used to being on show 24 hours a day from the point you step out of the door. My Right To Private Life as anyone else's in the EU for that matter, is written down in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Now, I don't want to bore anyone of you guys but it is in your own interest to be aware of the scope of that article. Article 8.2 allows exceptions

"such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. to... except in cases where national security or the freedom of others are at stake."

Sounds plausible ey? Now, although I agree that video surveillance - if used effectively - has its advantages but did you know that a recent study by no-one less that the MET Police themselves pulished a report that CCTV contributed to only 3 % (!) of convictions?! As a result, police officers are now trained how to maximise the use of CCTV software and, surprisingly enough, also mentioned in the New Statesman article quoted above (a long article but worth every line of it, I do recommend reading, it's a journalist's report after a visit in London's CCTV headquarters!), the private sector, in the form of sports reporting, now serves as an inspiration for monitoring several cameras at once.

All that the CCTV craze started as protection against IRA attacks a decade or two ago, as far as I am aware of, and the recent 07/07 attacks re-kindled the debate on the transparent citizen. Some people say, that the War on Terror makes the use of CCTV even more necessary whereas others argue that it did not prevent the attacks from happening. For that, one has police officers with a twitchy finger on the trigger who shoot first, ask questions later. Take Charles Menezes, the Brazilian who got killed in Stockwell tube station because he looked just like the suspect the police was after (except he had a totally different face). Too bad that CCTV footage does not show the officers' faces clear enough and of course, with only 30-40 cameras in each tube station, there was no other angle available for the whole time that they were down there. What a pity, no? Well, it did cause severe crisis to the MET Police, resulting eventually in Sir Ian Blair's (the top copper) resignation.

What I do not understand is how people can give up their individual freedoms like that? It does not stop with CCTV, it continues with ID cards, swipe cards, Oyster travelcards... I wonder what the future will bring: Personalised direct mail advertisement through integrated CCTV systems for the corporate sector, perhaps pioneered by Google? It probably has sth to do with the UK not having had a history of genocide or censorship, like in "The Continent" at some point in time. Did you know that the synonym of Pol Pot, the politician responsible for the Cambodian genocide who even used children to spy on their parents, means Brother Number One? The brother that promised to take care of your problems?

Whoever is in charge of CCTV apparently did realise that CCTV is more effective if it actually detects a crime before or when it is taking place. Easy fix! Since 2003, there now is intelligent camera software that automatically detects "behavioural oddities". Welcome to the Minority Report era! You can see a sample of that as well as a general overview over UK's "surveillance society" in the following video. My favourite is the camera that speaks! It's like the voice of God coming down on you!