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May 31, 2009

We'll hitchhike our way...

Sign of the times: a group of hitch-hikers, planning a mass hitch this summer, need to agree on a European destination that will give them the least possible amount of hassle with visas and the like. Their choice: Ukraine. Yes, 500 people will be thumbing their way to Odessa because Shengen bureaucracy is so visitor-unfriendly.

This nugget from the Berlin Beach Camp, an annual get-together of couchsurfers at a lake near the city.

May 26, 2009

38 Degrees

38 Degrees has just launched. It's aiming to become a UK counterpart to Avaaz: a large non-party campaign organization built around a stonking big email list, picking winnable campaigns and feeding their supporters with small, easy ways of contributing.

They're kicking off with an attempt to bounce of the MP expenses kerfuffle to give constituents the power to recall MPs. So far they're pretty vague about what this would entail, and I'm not entirely clear on the benefits. Sure, a few immensely corrupt MPs might be removed. But I dread to think how many local campaigns could end up diverting their energies into unwinnable attempts to remove their MPs.

I'm mildly concerned about a few aspects of their site: the petition page doesn't make it clear whether 38 Degrees will hold onto your email, and they aren't offering any email address to get in touch with them. But it's early days yet, and these are things that will doubtless get ironed out quickly. Plus David Babbs is involved, so I already have a fair amount of unpleasantly old-boyish confidence in them.

May 25, 2009

nuum wars

Simon "Energy Flash" Reynolds, K-Punk and friends have been having an interesting (and intriguingly nerdish) discussion on 'nuum', or the 'hardore continuum', the family of British music descending from rave and hardcore, and covering the range of jungle, garage, grime, and a thousand subgenre cousins. A blogger-heavy conference at the University of East London has given them license to go into depth. Simon's posts (1 2 3 4) are unashamedly, delightfully, high-falutin':

You could see rave as a whole, and the nuum in particular, as modernism's last stand, or unexpected comeback, long after the ideals of modernism had been abandoned, eroded, questioned, everywhere else....Miraculously holding pomo at bay, the nuum preserved within itself, within its own partially cordoned off space, the heightened temporality of peak-era modernism: a sensation of hurtling into the future.

K-Punk, incidentally, has a nice little defense of criticism.

May 16, 2009

Thomas Bayrle

More art today, this time Thomas Bayrle. He's the kind of artist who must have had a fit when Photoshop came along, after he'd spent decades making striking poster images out of identical repeating components. I've not yet found anything here to keep my attention more than a few seconds; maybe there are subtleties somewhere in the details, but I've not been able to find them. Still, quite pleasant at first glance:

May 15, 2009

The need for squats

A few weeks ago I joined Tau and several thousand others on a demonstration across Berlin, in support of squats and other free spaces. I promised to write about it -- and then repeatedly failed to, stymied by the vastness and importance of the topic.

Berlin's squatters mostly feel they're fighting a rearguard action, defending decades-old social centres from the inexorable march of private investors.

But I'm, for once, more optimistic than most, and more convinced that squats are an essential part of the urban ecology. Squats are to a city what strikes are to a firm, valuable more as threat than as activity. They challenge the belief that individual buildings in a city can function as private property, without obligations to their neighbours. A building without its surroundings is purposeless, worth no more in itself than its counterparts standing abandoned across East Germany. City buildings can only exist symbiotically, and when one is left empty it harms the others. That harm is fundamentally social, but it can also easily be translated to financial terms as the loss of house value.

Naturally, I don't think every building should be squatted, or that existing squats should be inviolable. All else aside, a little tension keeps the squatters honest. The squats that survive are the ones which contribute to the life of the city.

So I don't mind that Berlin's squats are under pressure. They're always under pressure, and so they should be. But for every squat evicted, another deserves to be created (at least!). And I still believe that it will happen.

May 13, 2009

Irish dancing in Minsk

Every guest brings some story to the corner house, so whenever I visit I'm confronted by some unexpected mini-world.

A fortnight ago, it was the popularity of Irish dancing in Belarus, as a troupe of dancers from Minsk passed by on their way home from a competition in Duisburg. Apparently step-dancing got started in Belarus at the start of the decade, imported from Moscow(!). It's since grown rapidly, with teachers brought in from Ireland, and students traveling to international events. Apparently, the Irish dominance at these events is rapidly declining, with dancers from Eastern Europe creeping up the leader-boards.

Maybe it shouldn't have been so surprising, beyond the surreal cross-cultural charm of saturday-night Slavic-Celtic jigs in a Berlin apartment. It fits right into the whole sprawling North European obsession with the middle ages, something you can find everywhere from Norwegian metal bands to Russian forest-lovers. It's very apparent in Berlin, and presumably much stronger elsewhere in Germany. I've not ventured out to any of the numerous re-enactment fairs -- an immense cottage industry, or perhaps more accurately a communal labour of love. Being more at home among cities than trees, I content myself with the Wednesday-night medieval music sessions in Arcanoa.

The Belarusian trend is clearly part of this; the one English-language description I could find is on a site devoted to "Medieval Belarus".

As for the corner-house, it has lately been packed out by a family of 12 making their way on a massive year-long journey across eurasia.

May 12, 2009

UK election leaflets, archived

Linkies! The Straight Choice is a new website collecting campaign leaflets from UK elections.

If it takes off, this could become a very useful resource. Leaflets ofen show campaigns at their most brutal and desperate. Enhancing the collective memory of what politicians have done is a great way of holding them to account. That goes for the outrageous behaviour that comes out during elections (who remembers the Tory slogan "if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour."? Would pictures help?). More importantly, it goes for the little promises that are made and then ignored, safe in the knowledge that what's said in the campaign vanishes soon afterwards.

Of course, libraries do have collections of this stuff; there's one at LSE, and another in Bristol. But I doubt they get much attention, except from academic historians and the occasional zealous party worker. Online images have much greater potential, provided the intial enthusiasm is enough to start it snowballing.

May 11, 2009

Stéphane Blanquet

There haven't been nearly enough pictures around here lately. So here's something by Stéphane Blanquet, a youngish French artist producing comics, book and CD covers, and a solid supply of drawings. They range from Steadman-esque sketches, through an outright terrifying fake condom label, through to the kind of intricate and gently surreal composition that I'll reliably fall for:

May 10, 2009

Histories of momentary places

My hippie heart is continually entranced by communal living spaces. Permanent Hospitality Berlin, the one I'm closest to, is firmly entrenched as my favourite place in the world.

But, magical as it may be, the odds are that it won't exist in fifty years' time. Such places depend entirely on the personalities and culture involved, which change in a matter of months or less. Most disintegrate or are reabsorbed into normality, and only a very few walk the cultural tightrope for decades.

So these projects are reinvented and forgotten year by year. Permanent Hospitality has made a point of documenting itself, but I'm not convinced that words can capture any more than the basic institutional structure of such a place. It takes a work of genius such as The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test to get inside the heads of a culture (and it becomes harder, not easier, when the group are less self-consciously exhibitionist than the Merry Pranksters).

Usually, the only way of getting at the spirit of the place is through the minds of the people touched by it. I am inordinately excited by the knowledge that the hundreds of people who have encountered the project are now spread in tiny pockets across the world, bringing their idea of it wider into the project.

All of which is by way of introduction to this short essay on the hacker spaces movement, which shares at least a little with the ideology of other intentional communities. I'll leave the main thrust for another day (briefly: I disagree that being self-consciously 'political' is essential, or even necessarily helpful), but I entirely agree with the call for oral history:

To get there we really need a more explicit sense and understanding of the history of what we are doing, of the political approaches and demands that went into it long ago and that still are there, hidden in what we do right now.
So to start off we would like to organize some workshops in the hackerspaces where we can learn about the philosophical, historical and other items that we need to get back in our lives. Theory is a toolkit to analyze and deconstruct the world.

Not new, of course: once the Whole Earth Catalog, now worldchanging and a flotilla of websites provide the maps. But, especially given the noticeable age-segregation of so many projects, I feel an increasing need to pick the brains of greybears (and...erm...greybeardesses) who have been through it all before.

[ETA: As usual, Mike adds a comment that's considerably more informative than the post itself. Mike, you rock.]

May 5, 2009

UK Prison population

As Rachel highlights, Labour govenrment has massively raised the UK's prison population:

1997: 61,000
2008: 81,000

It works out at somewhere around 150 people in jail per 100,000 population. That's higher than China, Burma or Saudi Arabia, although admitttedly only a fifth of the USA.

May 4, 2009

Police State UK

Just a link today - to Police State UK, a new blog "intended as an information source for people who are concerned about the direction politics and policing have taken in the UK". Not so much there yet, but I'm sure it will continue to grow over time. After all, there's no shortage of material.

May 3, 2009

recognition and redistribution

Nancy Fraser isn't a name I'd come across until last week, when I read a fascinating interview with her for Eurozine.

Fraser is a political-scientist-cum-philosopher, who has attempted to sum up the political culture of the last few decades in a shift from 'redistribution' to 'recognition'. That is, people stopped mobilizing around inequalities of wealth and power, and instead dedicated their energies to demanding respect for their identities within the same market structure. So out went tax-and-spent, benefits were cut, the rich got richer and the poor stayed poor. But there were massive sttrides forward in feminism, gay rights, reducing racism, and the like. [I'm butchering her ideas.

I'm obviously butchering Fraser's ideas here, but her generalisation holds up surprisingly well. From Tony Blair to the culture wars to the issues exciting student campaigners, the left gave up on fighting economic inequality. Those who did keep a focus on redistribution -- notably, the unions -- were depicted as dinosaurs.

This ties in to the soul-searching happening on Liberal Conspiracy and elsewhere. It's hardly surprising that we have nothing to say about the financial crisis, if we've spent the past 2 decades looking the other way when it comes to poverty.

May 2, 2009

Transparency isn't Bunk

Online government transparency projects have reached the hype cycle where proponents and pundits get disillusioned, and start to wonder if the whole thing has any value at all.

So Aaron Swartz, of Watchdog, theinfo, and many other excellent projects, has decided that 'transparency is bunk':

For too long we’ve been funding transparency projects on the model of if-we-build-it-they-will-come: that we don’t know what transparency will be useful for, but once it’s done it will lead to all sorts of exciting possibilities. Well, we’ve built it. And they haven’t come. The only success story its proponents can point to is that transparency projects have bred even more transparency projects. I’m done working on watchdog.net; I’m done hurting America. It’s time to give old-fashioned narrative journalism a try.

Aaron's strawman here is the idea that just making information available will have people investigations rather than watching soaps. Which is, well, obvious. This stuff was always going to be mainly used by the usual lobbyists, hacks, and campaigners, plus a small crowd of obsessive amateurs. That's how it feeds into journalism and politics. At best, as with mysociety projects, ease-of-use can broaden the circle of people who would look at official data.

Likewise Cory Doctorow has figured out that speaking truth to power achieves little by itself, in particular about police misbehaviour at last year's climate camp:

And here's where transparency breaks down. We've known about all this since last August – seven months and more. It was on national news. It was on the web. Anyone who cared about the issue knew everything they needed to know about it. And everyone had the opportunity to find out about it: remember, it was included in national news broadcasts, covered in the major papers – it was everywhere. And yet ... nothing much has happened in the intervening eight months. Simply knowing that the police misbehaved does nothing to bring them to account.

Again, this shouldn't be a shock to anybody who has ever been involved in a political campaign. The truth doesn't change anything until it is pointed at an election, or a law-court, or at influencing somebody in power.

Evgeny Morozov has a decently calming reaction to all this, but to me the short answer is that sites collecting government data are tools rather than end-products, which aren't much use without further work to build stories out of the raw facts.

May 1, 2009

Whataboutery and noblogathons

For some reason, charges of hyocrisy and misdirected attention make both Johann Hari and Sunder Katwala break out the neologisms. Hari calls it 'whataboutery':

When you have lost an argument - when you can't justify your case, and it is crumbling in your hands - you snap back: "But what about x?"

You then raise a totally different subject, and try to get everybody to focus on it - hoping it will distract attention from your own deflated case.

So whenever I report on, say, atrocities committed by Israel, I am bombarded with e-mails saying: "But what about the bad things done by Muslims? Why do you never talk about them?" Whenever I report on the atrocities committed by Islamists, I am bombarded with e-mails saying: "But what about Israel?

Sunder applies the principle to blogs, where it becomes the 'Whynoblogathon':

Oh, I see you have blogged about X but you chose not to blog about Y. Ah-ha! Now we see your hidden agenda.

On a personal level, I agree with both of them. But they're smudging an important distinction between personal blame and group behaviour. I don't care what one columnist, or one blogger, writes about. But the importance we attach to issues depends on whether we are repeatedly confronted with them. Media attention is the main reason why a British life counts for so much more than an Afghan one. It's why we distrust science (because we hear about the entertaining bad science, but not about the good science). It's why Mail readers get wildly distorted ideas about race and crime. This is stuff we need to talk about, in the same way as we need to be able to talk about institutional racism without calling people bigots.