Saturday, March 08, 2003

Andrew Mueller has a great article in today's Guardian showing how Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four predicted the rise of the manufactured pop act:

Among the diversions manufactured for this irredeemable peasantry are "rubbishy newspapers containing nothing except sport, crime and astrology", which may remind you of something, and "sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator".

What better description of the Pete Waterman pop which now dominates our charts - and, by extension, our shops, restaurants, and lives?

The present is an anodyne ballad, battering a human eardrum for ever and ever. Orwell describes a fictional song called It Was Only A Hopeless Fancy as "one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles" - a description applicable to anything by Westlife.

So, that's the prolefeed sorted out, Fox News is doing a good job at bringing the Two Minute Hate into everyday life, and we're about gto go to war in the name of peace. Book your weekend away in Room 101 now to avoid the rush.

Friday, March 07, 2003

As an update to my earlier post about 419/'Nigerian' scams, Jon Edelstein (aka The Head Heeb) informs me of some new versions of it that I hadn't been aware of that indicate further mutation of the basic scam beyond it's Nigerian/Zairean roots, including the interesting news that someone purporting to be one of the white farmers from Zimbabwe needs help to get money out of the country. As he comments, these versions are playing on much more charitable instincts (though they are still attempted frauds) but the people who are suckered in by this are more likely to be numbered among the gullible than the greedy and, depending on the circumstances, probably deserving of some sympathy.

He also mentions that he's heard of the scam originating as far away as Tonga, which makes you wonder what sort of variations will arise in the future. I can certainly envision an Iraqi variant offering the recipient to share in Saddam Hussein's millions in the aftermath of any war in the Gulf.

By the way, if you've haven't Jon's blog yet, it's definitely worth reading, if only for the amazing range of subjects he covers knowledgeably. How he finds the time to do it, I don't know, but maybe he'll go silent for about a month sometime in the future and then come back after having caught up with all his sleep!
I mentioned them in passing earlier, but like many cricket fans I've been amazed by Kenya's progress in the World Cup, with today's result against India another confirmation of how far they've come - it was certainly a closer victory for India than their match against England!

I was talking about this with a friend the other day, and one of the suggestions we came up with for Kenya playing so well is that they want to show the ICC that they made a mistake in making Bangladesh a Test nation, while witholding the same status from Kenya. I did think up a solution for the ICC, especially in the light of Bangladesh's abysmal record in both tests and one day matches since the last World Cup.

The ICC want to increase the number of nations who play cricket at Test level. It's a laudable ambition and both Zimbabwe and (especially) Sri Lanka have fully justified their promotion to Test status over recent years. However, their promotion came at a time when Test cricket was not as competitive as it is today - primarily because of the introduction of the World Test Championship table which means that whereas Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka's initial Tests were little more than friendly games, now no side playing Bangladesh can afford to take the risk of a potential slip up and losing points in the championship.

So, why not introduce a new classification for Test playing sides, between World Championship and non-World Championship sides? The big nine teams could still contest the World Championship with the newer sides allowed to play them in Tests, but without these Tests counting towards the Championship. Kenya could probably be promoted immediately to this category, and it would provide a good target for sides like Canada, the Netherlands and Namibia to aim for as a future promotion beyond the ICC Trophy. It would also encourage the bigger sides to play Tests against Bangladesh and Kenya, and perhaps to use them as matches to try out new talent on the Test stage without having to throw them into a top match against (say) Australia on their debut. Then, when a non-Championship side had showen itself to be ready to make the step up they could be included into the championship round of fixtures, with the potential to actually compete, not just be cannon fodder for the big teams.
I seem to have been getting an increased amount of spam email recently, but it is to my old email address which I'm in the process of phasing out, so it's not too much of a bother, as I just delete it all, though occasionally take notice of the subject lines just to see what tricks they're using now. 'Hey, remember me?' and it's ilk are still quite popular as are 'a Russian woman wants to meet you!' and all sorts of 'XXX Hardcore!' type things. There's a thought - how about a kind of Daypop of spam, listing the current top 40 spam emails doing the rounds? Yes, it would be utterly pointless, but how would that differentiate it from most of the web?

Anyway, on to the main point I was trying to make. Yesterday, two of my spams were that favourite of the spam charts - 'Urgent Business Assistance'. Yes, my name had been specially chosen from a business website to help a group of 'businessmen' get either $25 or $35 million out of Nigeria. Obviously, I deleted them both (though now I've found that sending them on to your local police might be of some help in tracking them down) but it reminded me of something I've thought many times before, usually on receiving one of these emails, which is: Is it wrong of me to feel absolutely no sympathy for people who lose money to the majority of these scams?

I say 'the majority' not all because I've heard of (but not seen) a slight variant on the scam that says the money is from a dead relative of yours, and in certain circumstances the scammed person might be in a position where that could be the case, but in the rest of them, well, I really can't find it in me to sympathise.

Why? Well, let's look at what's happened. These people have received an email from a total stranger (for an example of these emails, Snopes have a collection here, as part of their excellent page on the 'Nigerian Scam') who is effectively offering them something for nothing, and making quite clear that they're getting this something as the result of an illegal activity - impersonating a dead man, providing your bank details to allow millions of aid money to be embezzled from a country etc. To almost anyone reading this, it's quite clear that they are being asked to take part in a criminal conspiracy, usually to defraud a third world government, and often the money they are going to receive comes from a criminal conspiracy anyway (see all the letters supposedly from relatives of Mobuto Sese Soko of Zaire).

Effectively, people have given up money to these people in the hopes of receiving millions illegally - and then complained when it turns out their 'business partners' were lying! Somehow, despite their rush to the police to get them to investigate these fraudsters, I doubt that they'd have been willing to declare this income for tax purposes afterwards. I'm not saying the fraudsters who pull off these scams are nice people, or that they shouldn't be prosecuted, it's just that I don't really find any sympathy for wannabe criminals who get ripped off by other criminals.
I've realised something - when I write or think too much about politics, it gets me into a really angry and snappy mood, which explains a lot of how I've been feeling over the past few days (getting into pointless arguments with Tory Boy and his wilful ignorance don't help either, of course). So, time for me to find some happier and more enjoyable things to blog about for a while - expect more music, books and sport postings over the next few days is what I'm trying to say. It's a good weekend for sport, at least:

The new rules mean that Michael Schumacher might go for at least 10 laps before dominating the entire Formula 1 season.
Kenya are still in the Cricket World Cup, when England, Pakistan, South Africa and the West Indies are out
Wolves are still in the FA Cup

So, you only have to wait till Monday morning for everything sporting to go wrong and me to go back to being a crazy bloke ranting about politics.
I finished reading Ken Macleod's Dark Light this morning and was going to write about it here, but then I went to Amazon to get the link for it, and discovered that no one had written a review for it yet, so I had to do one, just for the chance to win that £50 gift certificate for writing the first review. So, you can get my thoughts on the book by clicking on that link in a few days when Amazon have processed it and put them on there. I'd repost it here, but I forgot to save a copy for myself before submitting it. Oops.

Anyway, is there much point in writing about Dark Light when it's a sequel to Cosmonaut Keep, which I expect no one reading this has read either? So, my quick capsule review is: yes, read them.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

Just had an email from about the anti-war petition for the UN Security Council I mentioned the other day. I said then that it had to be signed by Thursday (today) for submission tomorrow, but they're now extending the deadline for signing to Friday night as it won't now be submitted until Monday morning. There are already over 550,000 signatures, and they're hoping to get over the 750,000 mark by tomorrow night. So, if you haven't signed it yet, you still can by clicking here to go to the petition.
Looking over Blogdex, I found this interesting editorial piece from Roger Ebert that points out the differences between 'horizontal' and 'vertical' prayer. Obviously, I find all this talking to your invisible friend up in the sky generally amusing, but Ebert has some important points to make:

This is really an argument between two kinds of prayer--vertical and horizontal. I don't have the slightest problem with vertical prayer. It is horizontal prayer that frightens me. Vertical prayer is private, directed upward toward heaven. It need not be spoken aloud, because God is a spirit and has no ears. Horizontal prayer must always be audible, because its purpose is not to be heard by God, but to be heard by fellow men standing within earshot.

As Bartcop has regularly pointed out over the years, whenever this subject comes up - it's impossible to stop someone from praying, if they actually want to pray. If, however, they wish to loudly proclaim their faith and start inveigling others to join with them, that's a different matter, but some people choose to wilfully ignore that. Or, as someone reputedly said 2000 years ago:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. (Matthew 6: 5-6 - found thanks to the Skeptics Annotated Bible)
There are probably some interesting political points to be made about this BBC News story about Jack Straw's trip to Chile in the 60s, but quite frankly, I'm just linking to it because of the amusing pictures of Jack Straw in the 60s.
Quick musical recommendation, and tribute to my powers of Amazon special offer spotting: Alabama 3's first two albums (Exile on Coldharbour Lane and La Peste) are now available at just £6.66 from Amazon as part of a 3 for £20 sale (though 6.66 multiplied by 3 actually comes to 19.98) so go and buy them, if you don't own them already. They've also got a new album out (Power in the Blood) but the fact I failed to notice it until today can be attributed to the fact I was abroad when it came out. Even though they're behind the theme music for The Sopranos, America has (perhaps unsurprisingly) failed to clasp them to its musical heart. Not that Britain has either, of course.
Strange Amazon recommendations: one of the items it listed that I might be interested in is the Totally Bill Hicks (obviously based on my previous purchases of Love, Laughter and Truth and Flying Saucer Tour). However, I already own it, so I clicked on the rating (5/5 of course) and 'I own it' to see what comes up next (I do this sometimes, because occasionally it brings up some interesting offers) and on the 'here are some recommendations we think you'll like based on your rating' page I get recommendations for a a Friends video (OK, it's comedy, so not too bad), a David Attenborough video (pushing it a bit, but maybe the Amazon system has heard of the Bill Hicks Foundation?) ...and Midsomer Murders. The system still needs a few tweaks, I reckon. Unless there's some secret links between Bill Hicks and John Nettles that I'm not aware of.

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Next year's race for London mayor got its final major candidate today, with Simon Hughes winning the Liberal Democrat nomination. Looks like it'll be a three-horse raise between Livingstone, Hughes and Norris which may well go right down to the wire. Nicky Gavron is the Labour candidate, but as her whole campaign seems to centre around implicit support for Livingstone amongst the majoirty of Labour supporters, she seems to have been chosen (over Tony Banks, no less) as the Labour membership's way of saying 'we want Ken, but you won't let him back'.

The Guardian references a poll that shows Livingstone at 33%, Norris at 27% and Hughes at 24% of the vote which indicates it could be a long fight between the three. However (and yes, as a Lib Dem, I know I'm biased) I think that Hughes could win - he obviously thinks he can, otherwise he wouldn't have effectively turned down the Deputy Leadership of the party to stand for Mayor. With Livingstone and Norris spending much of the year attacking and dragging each other down Hughes has the chance to be seen as being 'above all that'. But, because of the vagaries of the electoral system used for Mayoral elections, he only has to get into the top two within reasonable distance of the leader, be it Livingstone or Norris, to win. Why? Because of the second preference votes - in a run-off against Norris, he'll get the Livingstone votes (and whatever share of the Green vote that doesn't got to Livingstone) while Norris will only pick up the preferences from various fringe parties (UKIP etc). In a run-off against Livingstone, Hughes will get almost all the Tory vote, which should be enough to take him past Livingstone, who's only likely to get the (relatively small) Labour vote. So, that's how he wins.

Disclaimer: My political predictions are either stunningly accurate or stunningly false, so please don't take this as gospel. Unless it works out exactly as I've said then hail me as a genius.

One thing I discovered while researching this - do a Google search for Steve Norris, and the first thing you see listed is 'Not Currently Active', which Google seems to think is the title of his website.
Responding to the arguments of Nick Cohen and others who've tried to persuade us that the entire population of Iraq is just desperate for Britain and the US to drop bombs on them, Jonathan Steele, writing in today's Guardian, shows that maybe not every Iraqi civilian is in line, waiting for their chance to become collateral damage.
At the moment I'm wishing I went to Oxford University instead of the University of Wales. Not for any academic reasons, but because Oxford is in the process of electing a new Chancellor to replace the late Roy Jenkins and who wouldn't want to take part in an election where the advice to voters includes "Gowns need not be worn by members of Convocation when voting"? Besides, I like the idea of the graduates of a University electing its Chancellor, not just having him (or occasionally her) appointed by the Court, Council or whatever name it uses for the governing body.

Still, the notice of election, which was also displayed in various newspapers today, gives the list of candidates: Lord "call me Tom" Bingham, Lord Neill, Chris Patten and Sandi Toksvig. Yes, that Sandi Toksvig - she's actually the candidate supported by the Students Union, campaigning against tuition fees, but her website is probably the most amusing of all the candidates. After all, where else can you find out that Balliol College was co-founded by the wonderfully named Dervorguilla of Galloway or that the first international student to attend Oxford was Emo of Friesland?
CND have obtained a legal opinion on whether the draft resolution submitted to the Security Council over Iraq authorises the use of force (this follows on from an earlier legal investigation into resolution 1441). Reading the legal opinion, and I'd recommend that people do as it isn't written in legalese and should be understandable, it makes a very strong legal case that even with the second resolution, there is no legal justification under international law for a war on Iraq.
For the handful of people out there who haven't seen it yet: Kissing Hank's Ass.

"If you kiss Hank's ass, He'll give you a million dollars; and if you don't, He'll kick the shit out of you."
"What? Is this some sort of bizarre mob shake-down?"
"Hank is a billionaire philanthropist. Hank built this town. Hank owns this town. He can do whatever He wants, and what He wants is to give you a million dollars, but He can't until you kiss His ass."

And, of course, there's Hankisms:

Mormonism - If you kiss Hank's ass, after you leave town he'll give you a million dollars. Plus, if any of your relatives have already left town, he'll give them a million dollars, too! By the way, we have new, elaborate buildings that you can use to kiss Hank's ass, if you give us money.

Greco-Roman - Hank and his dysfunctional family are suffering from some trust issues, and aren't giving out any money. It doesn't matter whose ass you kiss; the others will kick the shit out of you.

Tuesday, March 04, 2003 has an emergency petition for the UN Security Council based around one simple statement: The U.N. Security Council should back tough inspections, not war, so please go sign it.

The U.N. was created to enable peaceful alternatives to conflict. The weapons inspections under way are a perfect example of just such an alternative, and their growing success is a testament to the potential power the U.N. holds. By supporting tough inspections instead of war, you can show the world a real way to resolve conflict without bloodshed. But if you back a war, it will undermine the very premise upon which the U.N. was built.

MoveOn have a track record of being able to motivate and activate a large number of people (a lot of the turn out at the American rallies on march 15th can be attributed to them) so it's likely that this will get a lot of people signing - which, of course, means the site can be slow at times, but persevere as it is worth it. A copy of the petition and a supporting letter is being submitted to all the members of the Security Council on Thursday, so please pass the link ASAP on if you can! (thanks to Lisa at Burnt Toast for alerting me to this)
Russia now says it may use its veto in the Security Council to block war. Now, will we be getting 'Bash Russia' websites, lots of calls to boycott caviar and vodka etc? I'm not holding my breath waiting for it.

And Colin Powell may have remembered where he hid his self-esteem: "You will lose, Mr. President," Powell told Bush. "You will lose badly and the United States will be humiliated on the world stage." (from Thinking it Through)
Guardian Education has an interesting report from Indonesia, about how two schoolkids created a website to bully one of their fellow pupils. From what the article says, it seems like similar events have already happened in Britain, which makes me wonder how long it will be before the Daily Mail hears about it and runs a piece about it calling for the internet to be banned or censored. Because, of course, it's the fault of the technology that we have bullies, not our society.
So, Michael Caine has revealed what the original ending of The Italian Job was meant to be. For those of you who don't want to know, I won't reveal it, but it doesn't really matter what they do to The Italian Job now as I know full well that the Mark Wahlberg-starring remake of it (due out this summer) will destroy any enjoyment I could get from the original. It's the same with Planet Of The Apes - the original film hasn't changed, but watching it now just brings up painful memories of that horrible remake of 2001. Which also starred Mark Wahlberg - coincidence?

Monday, March 03, 2003

So, I was thinking over the weekend about writing a piece explaining why I'm against the war, outlining my reasons using the general theme of 'I remain to be convinced that ...' Then, while I was just aimlessly following links round blogs, I found this piece in Tom Spencer's Thinking It Through that indicates he spent his weekend thinking along the same lines as me. Can you accuse someone of plagiarising something you never got round to writing?
Quick bit of news for all jmy fellow TV Go Home fans who may be reading this - although the website hasn't been updated since last October, I've discovered a new TV Go Home listing. It's in the latest issue of Jack magazine as part of the PMTV feature, and seems to feature mostly new stuff. There's a couple of recycled bits, but as one of those is 'In The Name Of God, Stop Beating My Children To Death With Gigantic Hammers', I'm not complaining.
Robert Fisk has a very interesting article about the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in today's Independent: (thanks to codshit for the link)

First, Mr Mohammed was arrested in a joint raid by the CIA and Pakistani agents near Islamabad and spirited out of the country to an "undisclosed location". "The man who masterminded the September 11 attacks" was how the US billed this latest "victory" in the "war against terror" (again, quotation marks are obligatory). Then the Pakistanis announced that he hadn't been taken out of Pakistan at all. Then a Pakistani police official expressed his ignorance of any such arrest.

And then, a Taliban "source" – this means the real Taliban but "source" is supposed to cover the fact that the old Afghan regime still exists – claimed that Mr Mohammed "is still with us and in our protection and we challenge the US to prove their claim". By this stage, it looked like a case of the "whoops" school of journalism; a good story that just might be untrue.

So, with various sections of the media almost salivating over the prospect of him being tortured, are they going to be disappointed when it turns out there doesn't seem to be anyone to torture? Or has American intelligence managed to identify entirely the wrong person yet again?
Pigs in Lipstick offers this stunning revelation about the 'War on Terror':

the American 'terror alert' appears to be changing to coincide with the colour of David Dickinson's skin.

Disturbingly, it makes sense.

Sunday, March 02, 2003

The soc.history.what-if discussion about the Political Compass that I mentioned a few days ago has thrown up another interesting proposal for defining political beliefs: a method devised by Phil Edwards that is a kind of political Meyers-Briggs scale. Originally posted last June, but I must have missed it then. Quite interesting, as it's pretty much a complete break from the old left/right division and the resulting discussion gives some interesting points on how it can help political discussions.

I'd reckon that I'm a PLWD, should you be interested.
Inspired by Solobor's What's Not To Like? feature, asking people to comment on what they like about America, the Head Heeb has launched a similar idea for the rest of the world, asking people to 'to comment early and often about your favorite countries'.

It's an admirable thing, not least because, if it takes off like the 'What's Not To Like?' feature, he's letting himself in for a lot of work, but also because in recent weeks, especially across the 'Blogosphere' there's been a lot of negative comments about various countries and this is the sort of thing that can help to rebuild some of the bridges that have been burnt recently. So, please go check it out and add your own (positive) comments to the list. 'What's Not To Like?' has been characterised, as he points out, by 'the hyperpatriotism and chauvinism that often takes over these discussions' and maybe repeating the exercise for everyone else will have some positive effects on the world, reminding people that we can all find something to be proud of and admire wherever we happen to be in the world.
Ooh, I'm one of 'the enemy within'! According to Peter Cuthbertson at Conservative Commentary, anyway. Some people might get offended at that description, but I'm not one of them, mainly because it's always been one of my aims in life to be described as the enemy within. Of course, as a Liberal Democrat, Socialist Workers have referred to me in the past as a 'Tory in disguise' which means I can get quite confused as to who I'm meant to be siding with. I mean, should I be applying to join the Carlton Club, or trying to burn it down?

However, when describing this site, Peter did say that 'I can't say I agreed with, well, any of it' which makes me wonder if he read this post and disagrees with it. If he does disagree with my belief that Mr Benn was one of the greatest ever kids' TV programmes, well, there'll be nothing for it but outright blogwar, my friend!

When he's not attacking Mr Benn (either of them), Peter does make an interesting point (no, not the one about this site having 'good writing and interesting analysis' - that's just there so I can't say I disagree with him on everything, I'm sure) which relates to my post last week about the lack of British politics on the web. Firstly, he mentions 'the rarity of left-wing BritBlogs' and then, interestingly, 'Incidentally, I keep running into fairly well established British political weblogs and wondering how they managed to go on so long without my finding them.'.

I've been thinking about this since I wrote that post last week, and I have now found some British politics weblogs, but I'd stand by my statement that the percentage of overtly political blogs is lower among British blogs than American ones (I can't speak for other countries, because I haven't seen enough blogs from there to comment accurately). However, I think I may have the beginnings of an explanation for it, partly inspired by seeing this post from Harry Steele, where he observes that we in Britain are yet to experience the 'metablogs' - blogs that exist solely to comment (usually critically) on other blogs, a concept taken to the point of extremity by Media Whores Online Watch Watch Watch Watch.

Anyway, the explanation is based on two parts of the British political psyche - firstly, that we tend not to be too personally partisan, at least within the major parties, and secondly, that politics is seen as just another part of life, rather than a life in itself. For instance, while Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians and supporters will toss insults back and forth at each other, it rarely turns into outright personal nastiness, as American discussions between political opponents can. For instance, when I've worked on elections I've got to know Conservative and Labour activists well from seeing them around campaigning, at the ballot box and in the count. While we disagree politically, we can still get on personally, and thus there isn't the namecalling and ad hominem attacks (that characterise so many American political blogs) to base an aggressive political weblog culture on in this country.

Secondly, politics in Britain isn't seen as something that should define your whole life. Indeed, people tend to distrust politicians who don't seem to have a life outside of politics, and this applies to our 'political media' as well - for instance, both the Spectator and New Statesman have large culture/review section. So, it's natural that this is going to happen to weblogs as well - people will talk about politics in their blogs, but it will only rarely be the dominant or sole theme of a British blog. (As a sidebar, I think that's why I enjoy reading Bartcop, as he mixes the politics with tequila, TV, films, sports etc). For example, just looking over the last few days or so, while I've written about politics, I've also discussed Mr Benn, traffic wardens giving tickets to buses, the Diana seance, the insanity of conspiracy theories and attempted to create a couple of new words.

Anyway, I've rambled on far too much about this for now. But still, let me know if you think it makes any sense.