Saturday, February 15, 2003

Just been getting myself psyched up and ready for going to London and bringing down the Government tomorrow (hey, I can dream!) by watching Bill Hicks' Revelations. Or, there's a full transcript of one of the funniest men ever to walk the earth in full flow here.

The world is like a ride in an amusement park. And when you choose to go on it, you think it's real because that's how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round. It has thrills and chills and it's very brightly coloured and it's very loud and it's fun, for a while. Some people have been on the ride for a long time and they begin to question, is this real, or is this just a ride? And other people have remembered, and they come back to us, they say, "hey - don't worry, don't be afraid, ever, because, this is just a ride..."

And we... kill those people.

"Shut him up. We have a lot invested in this ride. Shut him up. Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account and my family. This just has to be real."

Just a ride. But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok. But it doesn't matter because: It's just a ride. And we can change it anytime we want. It's only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings and money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one. Here's what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money that we spend on weapons and defences each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.

Friday, February 14, 2003

Sometimes I see something on the web that really pisses me off. Today it's this - Bashing The French For Fun and Profit - because recycling old xenophobic stereotypes is funny, don't you see?

Laugh? I thought I'd never start.

As you might guess, it's done by a bunch of juvenile American rightwingers - I'm sure they're the sort of people who listen to Rush Limbaugh, watch Fox News and remain convinced that there's a 'liberal media' that dominates the airwaves. But, these are also the same people who scream 'that's anti-Americanism! that's wrong! how dare you!' when anyone makes so much as a slightly critical comment about America or American policy. So, if anti-Americanism is so wrong, why is it OK to 'bash the French'?

Thursday, February 13, 2003

I was watching the BBC debate on war with Iraq last night. It was an interesting and ambitious programme, but I doubt that it changed many minds. However, it got me thinking about Robert Anton Wilson's Quantum Psychology and how it's relevant to political debate, specifically the ongoing debate about the possible war. Somehow, I doubt there were many people thinking the same thing.

Specifically, I was thinking of it at the point when Alan Duncan, the Conservative Foreign Affairs spokesman, and a woman whose name I didn't note down from Republicans Abroad were trying to get Charles Kennedy to commit to a specific position on various hypothetical situations, and when he refused to say exactly what his position would be in every potential situation, came out with that old insult that's been thrown at every Liberal and Liberal Democrat leader since Jo Grimond (and probably before him as well) - 'you're just sitting on the fence.'

However, what I saw, and as I am a Liberal Democrat you can of course attribute this to my own personal bias, is that Kennedy has an admirable quality in modern politics in that he's willing to admit we live in an uncertain world, one where issues can't be addressed in the Aristotelian model of yes/no and right/wrong. The world we live in is a quantum one, where issues cannot be addressed with any certainty. We like to pretend that there are definite truths, when there are only probabilities, not certainties. As Wilson writes:

"Wild primates, like other verterbrates, claim physical territories; domesticated primates (humans) claim 'mental' territories - Ideologies and Religions. Thus one seldom hears a quantum maybe in discussions of Roosevelt's economic policies versus Ronald Reagan's economic policies...one virtually never hears 'Maybe Jesus was the son of God' or 'Maybe Islam is a false religion.'

People ignore the quantum maybe because they have largely never heard of quantum logic or Transactional psychology but they also ignore it because traditional politics and religion have conditioned people for milleniums - and still train them today - to act with intolerance and premature certainty.

In general, people judge it 'manly' to pronounce dogmatic verdicts and fight for them, and to admit quantum uncertainty (von Neumann's maybe) seems 'unmanly.' Feminism often challenges this machismo, but, just as often, certain Feminists appear to think they will appear stronger if they speak and behave as dogmatically and unscientifically as the stupidest, most macho males."
(Quantum Psychology, p77, Wilson's italics)

Now, I'm not trying to claim that Charles Kennedy is some kind of Quantum Physics genius, but his position, and that of many people, is closer to the position of quantum uncertainty. That is to say, that there are things we do not know and it is ridculous to try and have an absolute 'I'm right and all other positions are wrong' attitude when we live in a universe that doesn't itself believe in absolutes. Any position we take can only be based on our own perceptions, not some kind of Universal Truth.

Before this essay heads off into the rabbit warren of quantum theory and begins to doubt its own existence, I'll illustrate with one of the more basic parts of quantum theory - the structure of light. Photons (the components of light) can appear as either waves or particles, depending on how they're observed - but are never both at the same time. Thus, we cannot say that 'a photon is a particle' or 'a photon is a wave' but only 'in certain conditions, the photon appears to be a particle' and 'in certain conditions, the photon appears to be a wave.' A similar condition applies to quantum particles where we can only know their location or direction, never both at the same time. I can sense the brains melting as you try to understand this...

What I'm trying to say, and what Wilson alluded to in his reference to Feminism, is that most politicians are far too concerned with saying that something 'is' definitely one thing or another, that there is only one way to do things and all other ways are wrong. Liberals can be just as prone to this error as others, but the problem comes when someone attempts to bring in the maybe or perhaps into politics - to those who hold (or at least believe themselves to be in possession of) Absolute Truth, 'maybe' is a sign of weakness, an attempt to 'sit on the fence' rather than an admission of the existence of human fallibility and the lack of certainties in life.

However, we've seen over recent years that more and more people are getting turned off by conventional politics because of its adversarial nature. In short, people are much more open to the idea of uncertainty than politicians might want to admit because, after all, politicians like to present themselves as the owners of an Absolute Truth (and of course those on the other side only think they have one) and to admit to the people that they are just fallible humans like the rest of us is a Bad Thing. After all, if we regard them as just like the rest of us we might start making our minds up for ourselves rather than rely on them to do the thinking for us, and that would never do.

In conclusion, I think it's time for us to embrace the idea of uncertainty in politics and adopt the idea of Quantum Politics, which sounds very fancy, but is very simple. Let's not shout down the people we disagree with, but listen to them, discuss ideas and, most importantly, be prepared to admit when we're wrong. Let's move away from the old 'we're right and you're wrong' attitudes towards the kind of Open Society, discussed by Karl Popper. We don't have to stick to the old models anymore.
Capitulation? A French journalist responds to criticism of France:

No, France has not forgotten. No, France is not standing shoulder to shoulder with Saddam the dictator. Yes, France knows the price of freedom. A freedom it reveres and uses, precisely, having never considered that gratitude implied servitude. So why these eye-catching headlines, these humiliating and false accusations? Why the disinformation?

We all know politicians love their soundbites and what they think are witticisms. It lets them perform sidesteps which allow them to avoid answering difficult questions. But what a disappointment to see the media so easily falling into step behind them. They should all stand to attention; only too happy with the green light their government mentors have given them to unleash their diatribes, their crudity, their caricatures. "On your orders, General Rumsfeld!" Let them get it out of their systems, like playground tearaways, when in fact they should resist and keep their distance, explain, enlighten, investigate. Perhaps they should get out in the field and listen to the arguments, report from French territory, get down to grassroots and ask some questions: "So, you support Saddam?", "So, you hate the Americans?", "So, you're afraid of war?", "Why?" Then wait and see what the answers are.


Here's a thought: if 'Cheese eating surrender monkeys' is now a fair thing to call the French, are we allowed to refer to Americans as 'Burger eating can't-be-bothered-to-show-up-on-time-for-a-war-then-take-all-the-credit monkeys'? Or is that too long?

Also from The Guardian, Seamus Milne on why opposing war does not make you an 'appeaser', and why comparisons to World War 2 are utterly wrong:

It would be tempting to put these latest invocations of the second world war down to ignorance if it wasn't that those making them clearly know better. What they are in fact engaged in is a crude attempt to rewrite 20th century European history to justify a war of aggression in the Middle East. The parallel between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Nazi Germany is transparently ridiculous. In the late 1930s, Hitler's Germany was the world's second largest industrial economy and commanded its most powerful military machine. It openly espoused an ideology of territorial expansion, had annexed the Rhineland, Austria and Czechoslovakia in rapid succession and posed a direct threat to its neighbours. It would go on to enslave most of Europe and carry out an industrial genocide unparallelled in human history.

Iraq is, by contrast, a broken-backed developing country, with a single commodity economy and a devastated infrastructure, which doesn't even control all its own territory and has posed no credible threat to its neighbours, let alone Britain or the US, for more than a decade. Whatever residual chemical or biological weapons Iraq may retain, they are clearly no deterrent, its armed forces have been massively weakened and face the most powerful military force in history - Iraq's military spending is estimated to be about one per cent of the US's $380bn budget. The attempt to equate the Iraqis' horrific gas attacks on Kurds and Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war with the Nazi holocaust is particularly grotesque - a better analogy would be the British gassing of Iraqi Kurds in the 20s or the US use of chemical weapons in Vietnam.

...

Just as absurd, against the background of the European-US standoff, is the increasingly strident insistence of the war party that it was the US which saved Europe from Nazi tyranny in the 1940s. It isn't necessary in any way to minimise the heroism of US soldiers to balk at such a retrospective reworking of the facts. Quite what the Russians - who lost perhaps 27 million people in the second world war (compared with 135,576 US deaths in Europe), bore the brunt of the European fighting and, in Churchill's words, "tore the guts out of the Nazi war machine" - are supposed to make of this fable is anyone's guess. Particularly when Russia - along with France, Germany and China - is opposing the current war drive and is presumably therefore regarded by war supporters as ranked among the appeasers.
Hmm...I can't decide. Should it be an Axis of Weasels T shirt (see below) or a 'Kiss My Ass Osama' thong?
If this article wasn't on BBC News, I really would think it was a joke. Even now, I'm not quite sure if they're just getting in an April Fool early, in case the world's ended by April 1st:

Londoners are getting a text message service that will give tell them what to do if terrorists attack the capital.
The City Alert Texting System (Cats) will warn people where attacks are taking place and pass on information about what to do to people caught in an incident.


Now, given that the text message system is known to slow down when lots of people send messages at the same time (for instance, one I sent on New Year's Eve this year actually got to its recipient on January 3rd) does anyone really think this is going to help?

Then, of course, there's this little bit at the end of the story:

Signing up to the service costs £1.50 for each postcode that people register.

But I'm sure no one's going to be making a profit from this, are they?
No More Mister Nice Blog draws our attention to this - quick! Still time to get your order in for Valentine's Day! Yes, they really think that a Stop The Axis of Weasels mousemat is just what you should be getting your partner to say you love them. And why do they miss Belgium off all the merchandise? OK, so your average American wouldn't know what the Belgian flag looked like, and probably doesn't even know where Belgium is.

And then there's this - because international trade wars always have a good outcome for all concerned, don't they? I think I'll be going out of my way to buy French, Belgian and German products to try and counteract any American boycotts.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

From a couple of weeks ago, an interview with Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favourite authors:

Based on what you’ve read and seen in the media, what is not being said in the mainstream press about President Bush’s policies and the impending war in Iraq?

That they are nonsense.


And to plug something I wrote, here's my Bartcop Books recommendation of Mother Night.
Just a quick one before I go off to watch the War Debate on the BBC. Hopefully, Bart will mention this today so it makes some sense, but if any UK-based readers of Bartcop fancy meeting up at the Stop The War demonstration on Saturday then please get in touch. Or just look for me in the crowd...I'll be the tall bloke in the 'Buck Fush' t-shirt.

I'm taking my trusty camera along with me on Saturday, so hopefully I'll have a bunch of pictures up here on Saturday night or Sunday morning.
Well, well, Bartcop gets a mention in Matthew Engel's Guardian column:

There has, naturally, been zilch coverage of this issue in the mainstream American press - because the White House hasn't mentioned it. But conspiracy theorists on the web (see, for instance, ecotalk.org and bartcop.com) are hard at work. The Florida election was, of course, a shambles again in the 2002 midterm election, especially in the primaries. The conspiracists, however, are concentrating on two other states.

And Rod Liddle doesn't mention any friends of mine, but writes an interesting column about how America expects total loyalty from its allies, but never seems to help them out at all. For instance, contrary to popular belief, America gave Britain almost no support during the Falklands, while France gave us all the intelligence about Argentina we wanted.
After tracking down various people who share my name over the past few days. I wonder how the SF author Stephen Baxter feels about his name being used for the Son of God in ITV's Second Coming?

OK, so one's a Stephen and the other's a Steven. But the only vaguely interesting Steven Baxter that Google can come up with is a writer for the Sutton Borough Gazette. There's much more mileage in comparing an SF writer with a taste for the Universe-spanning epic (see Vacuum Diagrams, for instance) to the Son Of God, than there is in comparing a sportswriter. After all, sportswriters tend to think they are actually God, not something minor like the Son of God.

There was a point to this entry when I started writing it, you know...

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Sometimes, I wish our politicians would speak more like Australians:

MARK LATHAM: Bush himself, Mr Deputy Speaker, Bush himself is the most incompetent and dangerous President in living memory. It's a bit rich for him to be preaching democratic values when he failed to win a democratic majority himself in the 2000 Presidential election.
... Mr Howard and his Government are just yes-men to the United States. There they are, a conga line of suckholes on the conservative side of Australian politics.


Considering Tam Dalyell got thrown out of the House of Commons for calling the Government 'deceitful' (you're not actually allowed to call someone a liar in the House of Commons, which is why British politicians are the only people in the world to use the word 'mendacity' on a regular basis) I'd welcome someone like Mark Latham to British politics.
Another email from Charles Kennedy today:

Dear Friend

This is a difficult week as the momentum towards war is building.

The Liberal Democrats have been prominent in the debate over Iraq, asking the questions that many people in this country want answered about the possibility of military action.

Among the questions, which I have repeatedly put to the Prime Minister, are:

1. What is the nature of the commitment, if any, that he has made to President Bush?

2. Why is it in our national interest to be so closely allied with the Bush administration on this issue?

This coming weekend I will join the march through London and I hope as many of you as possible will join me. I have made it clear to the organisers that I want to articulate the concerns which have driven the Liberal Democrats throughout this debate.

The Liberal Democrats remain the positively pro-UN party. We are not the all-out anti-war party. I believe that the United Nations is the proper place to make the decisions. We need to be certain that, after hearing from the UN Secretary General and the weapons inspectors, the Security Council is sure that military action is the only way to make Saddam Hussein disarm. It is UN resolutions which have been flouted and it is the UN which must decide what the next step should be. Ideally this requires a second resolution, but above all it requires a clear UN mandate.

There is no question that Saddam Hussein is a brutal tyrant and a malign influence in the Middle East. The world would be a better place without his baleful administration. If it is impossible to persuade him to get rid of his weapons of mass destruction by peaceful means, then military action may be necessary. But we are not there yet.

This week it is becoming increasingly clear that there are deep disagreements in the international community about the way forward. There are also real concerns among the British people that the case for war and the reason why British troops should participate has not been adequately made. The Liberal Democrats have repeatedly pressed the Prime Minister for a vote in the House of Commons on the deployment of British troops ahead of any military action.

All of these issues have contributed to my decision to march. But what finally swayed me was that it has become clear that vast numbers of people feel powerless to influence the government and make their voices heard. These are people who want to express their concerns to the Prime Minister and he must listen.

I shall use this opportunity to re-state our position, and in the days ahead I will continue to ask the very real questions that all of us want answered about how we got into this situation and where the government intends to go next.

If you are coming on the march yourself, please do join myself and other Liberal Democrats who are meeting before 12 noon at the Royal Festival Hall before joining up with the main march. Please allow plenty of time to get there by 12 noon - it is likely that the number of people coming on the march will make getting about rather slower than normal.

Finally, as events develop over the next few days and weeks the latest news from myself and my party colleagues will continue to be posted up on our website.

Yours sincerely,

Charles Kennedy
Leader of the Liberal Democrats


I think he's taking an interesting, but principled, political gamble. If he makes a good speech on Saturday (and he is capable of making good speeches) it could be the biggest thing to happen to British Liberalism since Lloyd George. British politics is about to enter some interesting times, I think...
Strange coincidence corner: after looking up my name on Google the other night, I now turn up in today's Guardian:

Nick Barlow, consultant paediatric psychologist at Leicester Royal Infirmary.

And people always said my handwriting was so bad, I should become a doctor.
Two good bits from today's Guardian:

An interview with Richard Dawkins, who always provides some interesting comments. This time it's:

Well, I say, the bit I was thinking about was when you said how you hated it when young children are described as Muslim or Jewish or whatever when they've had no say in the matter. He grins, and says it's pure Monty Python. "It's like saying the three-year-old child is a neo-Gramscian Marxist child, we wouldn't do that."

And he has a new book coming out - A Devil's Chaplain - which sounds interesting, as it's a collection of his essays on many subjects. The interview doesn't say if it it contains Religion's Guided Missiles, which is one of the most controversial things he's written recently.

Also, Gary Younge's latest article from New York has a good response to American superiority:

"If it wasn't for us you would be speaking German," they say. "No, if it wasn't for you," I tell them, "I would probably be speaking Yoruba."
Is this the way things are going to play out in Iraq? The worrying thing is that behind all the comedy, it's all too believable.

Monday, February 10, 2003

Only a week or so to go until I hear the results of this.

Excuse me while I nervous.
I'm a lurker and occasional contributor to the soc.history.what-if (SHWI) Usenet group, which, as you can probably tell from the title discusses 'what if's or alternate history. One of the best features in the group are the timelines created by participants in which someone takes a 'point of departure' - an event that goes differently to how it did in our history, and then examines the consequences through history. It's the same thing done in books such as Fatherland or The Man In The High Castle, but whereas fictional books usually set a dramatic story in an alternate world,. SHWI timelines are about the history of the new timeline.

Which brings me to the point I wanted to make - one of my favourite ongoing timelines is coming to an end, and I wanted to plug it. The change? Gordon Banks plays for England against West Germany in the 1970 World Cup. Not that dramatic a difference, you might think - except here England win, Harold Wilson gets re-elected a week later...and then the real fun starts, including Enoch Powell becoming Prime Minister. Anyway, you can read it here, should you so wish.
Pointless things you find on the web while wasting time on a night shift, number 3:

This is something I found by doing a vanity search on Google:

Nick Barlow is a third-generation rancher who loves the land and the way of life with every fiber of his being. He has no interest in publicity, and furthermore, his divorce settlement is at last close to being finalized. A profile in a national magazine that portrays him as outrageously prosperous might throw a wrench in the works...

Nick is really just your basic romance hero with all the right characteristics: he’s attractive, strong, successful, brave, resourceful, kind, and honorable.


But in another book you can find:

Nicholas Barlow, erudite book publisher and bon vivant with a taste for mystery and suspense

And then there's this, which is kind of metaphysically disturbing.
So, France and Germany have come up with a peace plan for Iraq, where the entire country becomes a no-fly zone, the numbe rof inspectors is tripled and UN peacekeepers are deployed to support the inspectors. Russia's announced it supports the plan, but the Americans don't like it:

News of the initiative has been greeted with anger by American officials, who said Washington had not been consulted.

Aww...poor diddums, not being consulted. After all, the Americans are well known for having full discussions with their allies about everything they want to do, and not just announcing a new policy and expecting everyone to fall in behind, aren't they?

But, to be serious for a moment, I'm trying to work out just why anyone would oppose this plan. I'm sure that the US is going to come out with some objections to it, but it achieves everything we're supposed to be doing in Iraq - disarming the country and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, without having to bomb thousands of innocent people to achieve it.
Just registered with Blogwise and, as it's another night shift with more time to kill, I followed one of the links to UK blogs, which is how I ended up at Green Fairy and found a link there to Protect and Survive- an archive of UK Civil Defence material from the 80s and 90s.

Protect and Survive was one of those things I've heard about a lot, and seen referenced in enough British culture to know pretty much what it contained. I'm pretty sure my family must have received a copy, but as I would only have been about eight at the time it was distributed, I can understand why I never got to see my family's copy. It is interesting to read through it now we're not facing up to the prospect of a full-scale nuclear conflict starting in the next half hour, as it's an interesting indication of the kind of mindset we had back then - which is best exemplified by the 1980s TV bit in the TV Go Home book, which included the series How You Will Die: a twenty part series depicting just what will happen to your body during and after the nuclear holocaust.

There is a similar air to Protect and Survive, mixed in with Mr Cholmondely-Warner's guide to Surviving a Nuclear War. Obviously, it was a very serious topic, and there were extensive Government plans in place to deal with the aftermath of a nuclear conflict, but the general fatalism of the whole thing is very surprising. Yes, it's a guide to surviving, and gives everyone the information they need to survive, but the whole thing is written as though the war is upon us, and you must go and build your shelter now. I wonder how many people actually did prepare a fallout shelter within their house?

Interestingly, a quick Googling for 'fallout shelters' gives about 12,000 links. I'm often wondered how many people in Britain still have one somewhere underneath their garden or house - I can remember seeing a Sunday Times Magazine article in the early 80s about different types of fallout shelters and the people who'd bought them. While a 'protect and survive' temporary shelter would be something easy enough to dismantle, one of the full size underground ones would probably have to remain in situ until it became some sort of environmental hazard. Would it add or detract from the value of a house? Of course, in some parts of London and the south east, you could probably rent out a fallout shelter for a quite nice profit.

Sunday, February 09, 2003

It's good to see that Chris Morris is back writing for The Observer. At least, I presume this article by 'Jonathan Margolis' is another Morris satire. I mean, no one would really write that it's OK to dangle your child out of a hotel room window because you have 'big, strong hands', would they?
Reading Metafilter last night, I found a thread about Lost Cosmonauts, which mentioned the claims made by two Italians in the 1960s that they had picked up transmissions from secret Soviet space missions where the astronauts had died. According to them, these missions were then covered up by the Soviet authorities. There's a website about it all here which presents the claims as if they're true. Of course, there's no evidence that they are, and this article does a comprehensive job of demolishing the claims of the Judica-Cordiglia brothers. One of the giveaways that these brothers might have been claiming something that was untrue was that they don't seem to have picked up any transmissions from the flights that we know took place, such as Gagarin. At least, there's no mention of them claiming that on the website that I can see.

There was speculation on the Metafilter discussion about this as to why these stories have persisted for so long after being debunked. Of course, there are many myths and legends that persist well after they've been proven wrong, and part of the recent interest in these stories (and hence their appearance on Metafilter) is as an aftermath of the Columbia disaster last week and people's attention is naturally on others who have died in space. There's also the sense that 'it could be true' - when you consider it, it's amazing how few people have died in the space race. After Gagarin's first flight - there were six years on a variety of completely new systems doing something that had never been done before, and none died until Soyuz 1 and Apollo 1 in 1967. Some of these myths obviously come from the belief that things didn't really go as perfectly, thus someone must have died and as they were known for covering things up, it must have happened to the Soviets. Reasonable logic, just a faulty premise. But a process that's obviously been thought through a number of times, judging from this list of phantom cosmonauts, which features just one American 'phantom'.

There is also the human tendency to come up with stories to scare ourselves, and there is something uniquely horrific about the idea of being trapped in a little tin can, just waiting for your air to run out. Space Oddity syndrome, if it's something in need of a name.

And reading up on this did introduce me to the excellent Astronautix website, which is a database of just about everything space-related, down to an almost trainspotter-esque level of detail about rockets and launches. Great way to kill time on a night shift though.
Pointless things you find on the web while wasting time on a night shift, number 2: Nation States - an online game where you create and run a country. I've created the Rogue Nation of Hicksiania - a small nation on the newly-discovered Continent of Comedy, where all the leadership decisions get made in line with Bill Hicks routines.

It's all been set up to promote a book called Jennifer Government, which looks like it might be an interesting read. Have to see if I can find a copy somewhere.