« February 2009 | Main | April 2009 »

March 31, 2009

Roll on the FOI requests

Rare thing - a sensible comment on the Jacqui Smith porn storm-in-teacup:

And why, you might ask, am I, um, handwringing over this in quite so prurient a fashion?
Simple. This is just the kind of happy little vignette that it’s apparently just fine for three hundred thousand civil servants and ministers to know about the rest of us. Every internet transaction, every site visit, every email. So what if outrage, mortification and a publicly damaged relationship results? At least the government have been able to verify to their own satisfaction that you’re not doing anything wrong.
Come to think of it, if adult-rated content were to show up in anybody’s records, Jacqui would probably be the first to advocate just nipping in to people’s private purchases and checking them for, say, consensual violent content.

Corrupt judges

This is pretty horrific. Not just judges taking bribes, but judges taking bribes from private prisons to give children jail sentences there. In other words, people were being locked up as a side-effect of a scheme for prisons to drum up more business:

Hillary Transue, 17, who appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom in 2007 and spent a month in a wilderness camp for building a MySpace page that lampooned her assistant principal, was elated that her record would be expunged. .... Youths were routinely brought before Ciavarella without a lawyer, given hearings that lasted only a minute or two, and then sent to detention for offenses as minor as stealing change from cars and writing prank notes.

[xpost from LJ]

March 30, 2009

One solution - resolution

Superficially hilarious, but deeply dispiriting. 60 Westminster CCTV cameras have to be turned off during the G20 summit - not on any kind of civil liberties grounds, but because their pictures aren't high-enough resolution:

Under the legislation, traffic cameras must be capable of recording at 720 x 576 pixels, an analogue broadcast standard. Westminster's wireless network of road cameras, introduced last year, is the only fully digital traffic enforcement system operating in the UK, and is regarded as one of the most advanced in the world. But its picture quality is only 704 x 576 pixels. The DfT's enforcement branch, the Vehicle Certification Agency, has ruled it does not comply with the law.

Not much of a comeuppance, though - 60 cameras out of perhaps 5 million in the UK

March 28, 2009

water wars

Is water as a cause of war overrated? Wendy Barnaby argues that, because it is possible to import 'embedded water' in the form of food, it's usually better to trade food than to fight over water. I'm unconvinced (you could equally call industrial products 'embedded oil' and deny the likelihood of energy wars). Nice to have an anti-cassandra, though.

March 27, 2009

everything a man could want

The Guardian is asking readers to suggest songs about class. This may seem odd, given the amount of punk I listen to, but the one that consistently catches me is from Simon & Garfunkel:

Their starting-point is a not-particularly brilliant poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson:

   Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
  We people on the pavement looked at him:
  He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
  Clean-favoured and imperially slim.

  And he was always quietly arrayed,
  And he was always human when he talked;
  But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
  "Good Morning!" and he glittered when he walked.

  And he was rich, yes, richer than a king,
  And admirably schooled in every grace:
  In fine -- we thought that he was everything
  To make us wish that we were in his place.

  So on we worked and waited for the light,
  And went without the meat and cursed the bread,
  And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
  Went home and put a bullet in his head. 

Paul Simon takes this twee "it's tough being rich" piece of sap, and turn it upside down. It only works because of the last repetition of the chorus:

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
"Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head."

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be (x3)
Richard Cory. 

Class warfare it ain't. Still, it got throughly under my skin when I was a teenager ashamed of my own cowardice in not killing myself, and has stuck there ever since.

March 26, 2009

The end of the world as we print it

The great End of Newspapers debate is all around me again (still?). Everybody has presumably already seen (Clay Shirky's latest piece (in brief: newspapers are doomed. Nobody knows what replaces them. That's what revolutions are like - live with it). I was more interested in the angle brought out by Nick Clayton, in comments to Pat Kane's post on the topic, and particularly the comments by Nick Clayton. He's interested by the psychological shock to old-fashioned journalists, and whether they'll cope without the newsroom:

the journalists who are losing their jobs are used to working as a team with a common goal, the next edition. It's not easy to move to setting your own deadlines.
The reason, I believe, that [a triumph of individual journos working from home] hasn't happened on a large scale so far is because of the isolation that appears built into the model and the accompanying lack of somebody to kick you up the backside when your copy's late.
What's missing at the moment is a framework which doesn't assume that one person can be writer, reporter, editor, promoter, ad sales person, designer, photographer, book-keeper and search engine optimiser. Instead there's a need for an infrastructure which brings together people with those skills quite possibly on a part-time or temporary basis.

March 25, 2009

Gazprom guards

from Edward Lucas' The New Cold War:

The Kremlin has given Gazprom, a private company, the unusual right to recruit and operate its own military forces to protect its overseas pipelines[p.221]

'overseas pipelines' includes Nord Stream, the planned baltic pipeline bringing Russian gas to Germany and the rest of Europe. [Lucas has much analysis of this pipeline: its expense, its unpopularity with the Baltic states, how it will enable Russia to deny gas to Eastern Europe while feeding it through to Germany. All best taken with a pinch of salt, though, given the book's unremittingly anti-Russian tone]

Lucas's source is The Times, July 2007. There are plenty of other articles about it online, but they mostly seem to be regurgitating the same few facts.

March 24, 2009

...but an old grandad compared to Jenny Everywhere

You know how we all like to imagine ancient traditions, only to find that they started in the Nineteenth Century, or that they are inventions of an enthusiastic civil servant. In the same way I'd imagined that pseudonym Luther Blissett, freely used by all kinds of artistic and political groups, had been around for ever (or at least since the 60s, the political road-bump beyond which the laws of generational blindness prevent us looking). I was mildly disappointed to find that it only dates back to 1994, when a bunch of Italian anarchists stole the name of an unsuccessful footballer.

On the bright side, that means that the book, the writings the identities, the entire culture have sprung up in the last 15 years.

March 23, 2009

Squatted dreamscape

This essay by Zadie Smith is a delight to read. It's about Pygmalion and Obama and Smith herself, about how people trim their speech and their actions to finesse multiple group identities, and how that is not always a bad thing. She pulls together some more examples -- do we need more? -- of how supremely articulate the President is, and how he is able to capture the speech of different groups. From his memoir, she picks up on this phrase:

"Even as that spell was broken," he writes, "and the worlds that they thought they'd left behind reclaimed each of them, I occupied the place where their dreams had been." To occupy a dream, to exist in a dreamed space (conjured by both father and mother), is surely a quite different thing from simply inheriting a dream. It's more interesting.

I love this idea of 'occupied' dreams. It suggests re-purposing, the ability to take advantage of soemthing. It's a novel way of looking at how we inhabit and twist our parents' and our societies' expectations, find a way of being ourselves within the ideological framework of our upbringing. I'd go beyond occupation: what we're doing is squatting dreams.


Shock! Horror! because German finance minister Peer Steinbrück has been a bit unpleasant to Switzerland. That this is noteworthy just shows up the unbearable dullness of German politics. I keep on peeking enviously over at France, where politics is all about strutting and squabbling and preening - always immature, but generally entertaining.

March 22, 2009

People ask us why we don't use fly spray. Well, where's the sport in that?

Via Liberal Conspiracy comes news of an anti-mosquito laser gun. Granted, it's the kind of hilarious story that could only be the product of some very skilled PR, but it's just too fun to pass over. As LC say:

It’s a LASER BEAM that locates, targets and shoots down individual mosquitoes. There is nothing in that that isn’t cool. And the very serious professional zoologists in my office have all agreed it has to look like an individual robot gun that spins on a dome-shaped turret, saying ‘target acquired’ in a little robot voice. Because what would be the point otherwise?

Meanwhile, I couldn't pass over the topic without a link to the obvious Monty Python skit:

Sunday Times, c. 1995

I've lately been reading Nick Davies' Flat Earth News, an excellent book-length attack on the dire state of British journalism. Grimly informative for the most part, it does turn up a few headslappingly ridiculous events. Like the aftermath of when a protest group called the 'Lesbian Avengers' invaded the Sunday Times offices:

Ellis, formerly of the Sun, was managing editor responsible for news and he really didn't like what the lesbian avengers had done, so he put his head together with a couple of other executives and decided that what was needed here was a bit of infiltration: they would put an undercover reporter in among these women and expose their evil ways. And no sooner was the idea agreed than the reporter was chosen. Ciaran Byrne would go in undercover. This was an odd choice because Ciaran Byrne was a trainee with little experience of reporting and none at all of working undercover, which is always demanding and sometimes dangerous. Furthermore, Ciaran Byrne is a man. That caused a little trouble. Byrne didn't want to do it. The women would spot him immediately, as soon as he started to speak, he complained. No problem, said the executives: they'd get him a voice coach to teach him to sound likme a woman. And they would get a clothing coach to teach him to dress like a woman. Byrne protested that he still wouldn't look like a woman. But that wast he point, explained the executives: 'They're all so bloody ugly, they look like men!"

'Course, by picking up and propagating the most ridiculous passage in the book, despite the story not existing anywhere else on the internet, I'm doing exactly what Davies gets justifiably grumpy at the press for. Mea maxima culpa.

March 21, 2009

Prayers to San Precario

One of the really spot-on things to come over the past decade from the European left, and Mayday protesters in particular, was their focus on 'precarity' - the trend of work to move from big corporations towards agencies, and freelancers, and short-term contracts. Acclaimed by many, with some justification*, as liberating workers from grey Fordist hierarchies, it is now leaving them high and dry without any security. Which, of course, was totally predictable - but it's noteworthy that people did predict it, and devote their energies to campaigning around it**.

It's a safe bet that precarious work - ranging from short-term contracts, through various degrees of informality, through to the outright illegal - is going to continue expanding across the economy in the next couple of years. There's a strong argument that this is good and progressive, with informal work providing at least some safety net for the unemployed. Even the Wall Street Journal has been describing the informal economy as "one of the last safe havens in a darkening financial climate".

Considerably more interesting, though, are the stories being collected by Robert Neuwirth. Neuwrith is one of desperately few people with a genuinely global outlook, and responsible for the excellent squatter city blog (and book). He's now turning his attention to the informal economy.

Maybe it's taking things to far to talk about informal work as being the poor's best response to the collapse of capitalism, and to ask governments to find ways of accommodating the legally grey. Still, I prefer it to the usual assumption that the world's poor should grow up to be obedient salarymen, and I have no doubt that Neuwrith will come out with a more nuanced version at some time in the future.

* I write all this as somebody self-employed, with minimal job security and few fallback plans, earning considerably less than I did when fully employed. I wouldn't want it any other way, however tough things get through this recesssion. On the other hand, I can be relatively relaxed about all this because being a skilled worker my options are somewhat more appealing.

** Yes, this is me saying nice things about Hardt and Negri. Pay attention, it doesn't happen often