Saturday, March 15, 2003

Seeing as I've had a few people come here looking for information on the election for Chancellor of Oxford University, I feel I ought to mention it. See? I'm listening to my readers and giving them what they want, though I fear I can't do much for the Canadian visitor who came here looking for 'how to get your father to let you go out after you've been sassy'.

So, the election started yesterday and continues throughout today, with the result being announced on Monday. They're expecting 20,000 people to turn up and vote, though given the nature of the electorate, no one really wants to make any predictions as to who might win. Bookies make Chris Patten favourite, though that might just be a reaction to the fact that he's the most high-profile candidate of the four, and I suspect they're probably right - considering the last time the Oxford electorate had a choice they went for Roy Jenkins over Edward Heath, if they follow the same trend, Patten seems the more likely inheritor of the Jenkins mantle than Lords Neill and Bingham. However, it will be interesting to see what effect Sandi Toksvig will have on the election. While it would be interesting to see her win, given that she's trying to become the first woman, and the first non-Oxford graduate since the Duke of Wellington to become Chancellor (I can't quite work out which of those would be her biggest handicap with the electorate - somehow I suspect it's the fact she went to Cambridge), I doubt that she will. But, given that the election is being held using the Single Transferable Vote system, she could attract a number of first preference protest votes, which might make the whole process rather interesting.

Friday, March 14, 2003

Did you know Britain's got a new political party? The People's Alliance (not to be confused with the Christian People's Alliance), formerly known as the New Party For Britain. There have been rumours about this new party launching for several months - there's a reference to it in this BBC News story from December, when it was still just the New Party for Britain, but the prospect had several senior Tories worried, mainly because they were worried this new party might manage to draw away some of their richer supporters. Given that they had to become the first political party to 'launch on the internet', this doesn't appear to be the case. 'Launching on the Internet' is, after all, usually code for 'we can't afford a proper launch'.

Still, it's quite fun reading their policies and poking holes in the logic gaps that appear in them. For instance, the House of Lords will be reflected by an assembly made up of people over 50, elected for life, who haven't previously been involved in politics. Surely, though, just standing for election would count as an involvement in politics, so anyone standing would be disqualified from standing on the ground that they've thus involved themselves in politics. And surely voting is being 'involved in politics'?

It's also funny to read their comments page, where it seems that just about any email they've been sent has been put on the site. I don't know why, but I imagine these emails written in green ink...
Quick fill in the blanks quiz for you. Which country and person's name are missing from the following quote?

(Country) has consistently said it would vote against any UN measure that would automatically pave the way for war against Iraq.

"The position of (Country) remains unchanged," (Person) said. "We will not allow any resolution based upon ultimatums and that opens the path to the use of force with regard to Iraq."

OK, everyone who said 'France' and 'Chirac' or 'De Villepin'? You're wrong.

The correct answers are 'Russia' and 'Fedotov' (Deputy Foreign Minister). (Original story from Ananova, via PolitX) But, I guess admitting that it's not just France who are opposed knocks a big hole in the 'it's all the fault of Jacques Chirac' argument, doesn't it?
OK, so we've got Jack Straw saying that France using its veto will make war more likely and The Sun claiming that in the event of any war Chirac will have the blood of 'our boys' on his hands, which makes me think two things. One: the Downing Street spin machine is in full gear and doesn't really care about reality any more, but has decided that 'blame the French' will now be the answer to everything.

Second, the official line of the Government is now that of a bully or an abuser: 'Now look what you made me do.' It's not their fault, it's always someone else's who just wouldn't do what they were told. 'Now look what you made me do.' Always the excuse of the person who doesn't want to take responsibility for their actions, the person who wants to break the rules and get away with it. 'Now look what you made me do.' Because it's never their fault, never their responsibility, it's always someone else who forced them into doing it, someone else who did something wrong, never them.

'Now look what you made me do.' No, Mr Straw. Don't hide, don't blame other people. Take some responsibility for your actions. You do it, you take the responsibility.
Mark Fiore's Dictatorship 101 (Flash animation) on the Mother Jones website is rather amusing. (Thanks to Bana for the link)

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Some more bad news: there may only be as little as 694,267,200,000,000,000 seconds left to the end of the Universe. Iain explains why, but also notes that now we know just when we have to get that Milliway's restaurant built by.
A couple of mildly contrasting takes on the life of Zoran Djindjic, the Serbian Prime Minister who was assassinated yesterday. Firstly, the quite balanced Guardian obituary and then a more negative (and perhaps more truthful) perspective from Dragan Antulov in Croatia:

He could have been remembered as one of the least popular Serbian prime ministers – man who allowed his government to be constantly paralised with coalition quarrels rather than break the impasse and take his chances on the polls. But, now he would enter Serbian history books as a good-looking martyr figure – man who gave his life in an attempt to lead his country from darkness.
Latest from - the Global Vigil for Peace to be held on Sunday 16th March at 7.00pm.
Matthew Engel has an interesting article about the possibility (or probability, it seems) of some matches in the next Cricket World Cup being played in Florida. It is an interesting proposal, and the attraction to the ICC is obviously playing them in a stadium at Disney's Wide World of Sports in Orlando with all the prospects of Disney money that involves. The US came close to qualifying for the World Cup this time - finishing 5th in the ICC Trophy, with the top three (Namibia, Canada and Holland) qualifying and the United States Cricket Association does seem to represent clubs across the country, but I think Engel makes a good point when he says that the ICC's dream of trying to get cricket to 'take off' in the US is a foolish one. However, hopefully they'll follow his advice and go for scheduling one or two matches for India and/or Pakistan in Orlando, rather than just the USA's matches.

(As a prediction, I expect a slight change to the format, with the number of teams increased to 15 from 14, and divided into three groups of five with the top two from each going to the Super Six stage - it cuts down the number of games in the group stages, which has been complained about in the last two tournaments but increases the number of Super Six games which are more likely to be between the 'elite' teams...and maybe England as well.)

Still, I'm hoping to go to that World Cup - I've always wanted to visit the Caribbean, and getting to visit several islands following the World Cup around seems like a fun way to spend a few weeks. Just have to start saving up for the next four years.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

And some good news for a change - Kenya have made it to the Semi-Finals of the Cricket World Cup, becoming the first non-Test playing nation ever to make it that far (I believe they're the first to make it to the Super Six, or equivalent stage as well). Plus, as their semi-final will be a day-night match against India, who they ran pretty close in their previous game, there's still a chance they could make the final!

Let's hope that this will expedite Kenya's promotion to Test-playing status, as that's the least they deserve (alongside the $400,000 of prize money I believe they're now guaranteed) and it would also be a great way to show the other non-Test playing nations what is possible for them.
Serbian Prime Minister assassinated: The major powers preparing for war, an assasination in the Balkans. I know there's no connection between them (or at least, I can't see how there would be one) but I can't be only the person to be reminded of 1914. Or is the world just making me far too nervous nowadays?
Found via Blogdex: the team behind SETI@Home have identified their top 150 'candidate radio signals' discovered by the project and are heading to Arecibo to look into whether they might be signals from another world. I used to run the SETI@Home screensaver on my computer at work when it first came out, so I like to think I've done my bit to help out.

"And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space, because there's bugger all down here on Earth."

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Another little thought I need to do some more work on, but I'm putting it on here to see what feedback it gets. Thanks for the feedback on American Nationalism I've had so far - it's certainly encouraging, though I think I need to go do some actual research on it now... That's the trouble with coming up with an interesting theory - people actually want you to go and see if it holds.

Anyway, SF literary criticism this time, which I was reminded of after my comments on Dark Light the other day - Ken Macleod, Kim Stanley Robinson and the 'alternate future'.

One feature that's been common to many SF authors over the year has been their creation of 'future histories' to provide a framework to their work, setting all, or a great part, of their work within one overarching continuity. Not necessarily making every book a prequel or sequel to another, but using the same background and accepting that what happened in one book becomes part of the 'canon' for others written in the same 'history'. For instance, much of Asimov's later work was devoted to trying to weld together the Robots and Foundation novels into a coherent whole. Not every SF writer did this, of course - Philip K Dick set each of his books and short stories in separate words with only a handful making a possible reference to other works. However, when writing a sequel to a previous book or another set in the same circumstances, the basic assumption has always been of a sense of continuity within that author's created universe.

Obviously, this trend is much more noticeable in media SF, with the Star Wars and Star Trek universes both placing a strong emphasis on continuity across all their output and providing hours of fun for devoted fanboys to produce detailed histories and continuity guides for the universes. The same could be said to apply for Doctor Who, but that has special circumstances which I'll no doubt write about in much greater detail when I've finished The Adventuress of Henrietta Street.

However, there is a challenge to this idea of the consistent future. I'm most aware of it in the work of Macleod and Robinson, but there could well be others doing the same as them. Where they differ from their predecessors is that while they tend to use similar concepts in their views of the future, they both seemingly reject the idea of continuity within a fixed future.

The most obvious example of this is Robinson's Orange County books (The Wild Shore, Pacific Edge and The Gold Coast) each of which uses the same location and characters but in three different versions of future history - the three are written as companion novels, but with no sense of 'historical' continuity between them. The same applies to some of his other works - the Accelerando is introduced as a concept in The Memory of Whiteness and then reintroduced in the Mars trilogy, yet again the history between the two is not continuous with the Mars of Whiteness different to the Mars of the trilogy. Then, in The Martians he does it again, with alternate visions of Michel and Maya in a history where they didn't go to Mars.

Macleod does something similar in the Fall Revolution series, with different futures spinning off from a similar set of initial events (the Fall Revolution) yet the future of The Sky Road is different from that of The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division - having not read The Star Fraction yet, I'm not sure how that fits in! And while the Engines of Light series follows one continuity through the series, the novella The Human Front can be seen as a different spin on the same question.

So, what I'm wondering is if this is a reaction to the fall of the conventional notion of the 'future history' (as explored by Gary Westfahl in 'Why the Stars are Silent: The Decline and Fall of the SF Monomyth' (in Interzone issue 128, not available online) and Macleod's own 'Science Fiction After The Future Went Away') and an acceptance that the Gernsbackian view of SF as something that could predict the future has failed. Is an acceptance that we can't predict the future reflected in the refusal to set a fictional future in stone?
In the post for me this morning: What Liberal Media?, Things Snowball, London, Not Tennessee and... Power In The Blood.

Ah, sweet country acid house gospel music...

Monday, March 10, 2003

I've been thinking some more about nationalism since that spark of something that might have been a new thought last night, and discovered an interesting resource on the web: The Nationalism Project which has all sorts of articles, reviews, abstracts and links and could probably keep me busy for days. And no doubt will, as the issue of nationalism and national identity (along with other manifestations of communal and large group identity) are one of my continuing interests since my time in academia.

So, I was thinking about American nationalism last night (in the sense of 'American' referring to the USA, rather than the Americas as a whole) and had a thought about how American nationalism differs from principally European nationalism in that it's much more linked with the state (the federal government as opposed to the individual states themselves) with lots of references to the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence etc, whereas European and other nationalisms are usually more concerned with the state as a manifestation of the national identity. The question that occurred to me is that while one can argue that this is because America has no ethnic homogeneity to create a national 'myth' upon, could it also be because, unlike the European countries, it's state has a continuous existence since the late 18th Century, whereas European states have been reconfigured several times?

For instance, France is currently governed under the rules of the Fifth Republic, and while the four previous Republics (as well as the Kingdoms and Empires) all ceased to exist, the notion of France as a nation did not. Pretty much every European country has had a time when its established government has ceased to exist, or been replaced by another form (even England from 1649-60 and in 1689) yet the 'nation', as an abstract entity has always remained in existence. By contrast, 'American' national identity only really arose in the 18th century and is linked to the foundation of the USA which has, unlike it's European counterparts, had a continuous existence to today thus linking the national identity with the existence of the state. I could be wildly off-target here, but I'd appreciate any of you reading this might have on it.
We definitely seem to be getting towards the political crunch point over Iraq. On top of a Labour PPS resigning over the weekend (with others threatening to) and Claire Short's statement that she will resign if there's no second resolution, John Randall, a Conservative Whip, has resigned from the Opposition frontbench saying he does not believe a case has been made for war.

Also, there's an interesting comment piece by Roy Hattersley in today's Guardian, advising Charles Kennedy to take the 'risk' of standing for his convictions. The advice is similar to that issued by other political commentators, but it's the source of it that's interesting here. Hattersley, after all, was one of the leading moderates who refused to join the SDP in 1981, yet here he is directly advising Kennedy on how to meet his 'date with destiny'. It's couched in terms of how the Liberal Democrats can replace the Tories as the Opposition, but given that the main thrust of the argument is Kennedy and the Lib Dems stance on the war where they, and not the Tories, have been the effective Opposition it's tempting to see this as Hattersley actually attacking his own party. There's definitely some big changes possible in the current climate of British politics, and this might just be another sign of things to come. I can't see Hattersley and the Labour rebels defecting en masse to the Liberal Democrats, but there's one name from British political history I do remember that might be relevant here: the Independent Labour Party. Not exactly, but there are certain ideals it shares with today's rebels:

It saw itself as Labour's socialist conscience ... the conscience-in-exile of the Labour Party
I'm linking to this post by the Head Heeb for a few reasons: Firstly, it's an excellently written piece about the parallels between the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, and not just on the superificial level that that parallel is often drawn but a very insightful analysis.

Second, it reflects a trend I've noticed across the 'Blogosphere' (I don't like that word, but can't think of anything better - any suggestions? I'm not too enamoured of 'Blogistan' either, before you suggest that) of 'Liberal Hawks' changing their minds and coming out against the war. This isn't exactly the same, as Jonathan has been on the fence before, but it seems to be a definite trend now. I don't know if it represents a swing in public opinion against the war, or if it's just that as we've now been given a definite date, people's opinions have crystallised.

Finally, there was one part in it that sparked off a thought in my head, and I just want to note this down here - if I write it down on a piece of paper, I'll probably lose it and forget about it. It might not make too much sense right now, but hopefully having it here will remind me to clarify and expand on it sometime later on. It links to an earlier post (and discussion) on the Head Heeb about nationalist and post-nationalist states, and how differences in perception of other nations by the inhabitants of them. Citizens of post-nationalist states are more inclined to see a distinction between the policy of a country and the beliefs of its citizens than citizens of nationalist states who see a closer link between policy and national beliefs or 'character'.

See, told you it wouldn't make sense.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Martin Sheen has been in the news this week, mainly because various people have chosen to atack him and other celebrities for daring to have an opinion that might differ from theirs. However, there have been enough words written about that on the Web this week, so I'm going to focus on something else that has come up - the argument that the liberal nature of Bartlett administration in The West Wing represents the supposed 'liberal bias' of Hollywood. I'm not going to take on the whole 'liberal bias' argument (though I've got an copy of Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media? on order from Amazon, so maybe I will after reading that) but instead explain why I believe Bartlett has to be a liberal in dramatic terms, and coincidentally, why a British version of West Wing wouldn't work.

The key point to make is that drama, in any genre, relies on conflict and The West Wing is no exception to that - a series where the President (of any political description) or his staff propose some legislation which Congress then adopts without fuss is going to have a hard job getting to a pilot, let alone a long-running series. So, for The West Wing to work, the President and his staff have to be in regular conflict (usually over a policy) with others. However, even if you create a world where the Presidency and Congress are in opposition, there's still not a huge scope for interesting drama, as the White House staff will still have the support of their own party on most issues, and a drama series that relies on a regular plot of convincing a small group of waverers from the other party to support you is going to run out of plots very quickly.

What's also important to remember is that in Aaron Sorkin's original vision of The West Wing, the President wouldn't have appeared and the focus would have been entirely on the staff. When this proved unworkable (after all, it wouldn't have been long before finding excuses for the President not to be in a scene would have got very tiring for both writers and viewers) Sheen was brought in to play the President and you can see, watching the first series, how his character became more and more important. However, the character of the staff remained the same with a decision made to define them as being somewhat outside the usual political process, and not the sort of people you'd necessarily expect to be working in a Presidential administration, being much more combative and less diplomatic than people would normally be in their positions. Admittedly, some of this also comes from the fact that some characters were based on members of the Clinton administration, the most obvious being the parallels between Josh and Paul Begala, Deputy Chief of Staff during Clinton's first term.

However, to get this sort of character into the White House requires an unconventional President who would have emplyed these people as opposed to the standard Washington 'type'. This is shown dramtically in the episode 'In The Shadow of Two Gunmen' at the start of the second series where a series of flashbacks shows how they all came to be part of the Bartlett campaign, contrasting their unconventional approach with the standard political types who Josh clashes with in the Hoynes campaign team, and who Leo fires from the Bartlett team in favour of Toby, Josh, CJ and Sam. Again, this is modelled slightly on the Clinton campaign which used people like James Carville instead of the conventional campaign staff. This also allowed Bartlett to be seen as not being within the mainstream of his party, which explains why the Administration is in conflict with Congressional Democrats as much as with the Republicans.

So, why is Bartlett a Democrat outsider rather than a Republican outsider? I'd argue that is Sorkin reflecting historical reality in that Democrat outsiders have won their party's nomination and the Presidency whereas Republican outsiders have not. Both Carter and Clinton started as outsiders, whereas recent Republican nominees have come from the mainstream of their party. You could argue that Reagan began as an outsider, but after getting the nomination and becoming President the Republican Party as a whole backed him much more closely than the Democrats supported Carter and Clinton, at least in the initial years of their Administrations. To have a Republican Bartlett would be to place The West Wing outside what people believe is a political possibility. Also, the Republican Bartlett would have to come from the Republican right to be in the same position as Bartlett - a moderate or liberal Republican might be in conflict with his own party, but would get support from the Democrats. The character of a Republican Bartlett would have to be similar to Pat Buchanan and his ilk, and while that might make for good drama, it wouldn't exactly be the easiest series to sell to the viewers.

Of course, Sorkin is a liberal, so he's going to write about what he believes in and knows best, but I hope I've shown why it makes dramatic sense for The West Wing to be the way it is.

So, why wouldn't a British version work? Mainly, it's because it's impossible under the British political system for a Prime Minister to be in the same position as Bartlett, in that he has to be the leader of his party and cannot be in continual conflict with them. A Prime Minister without the support of his or her party isn't going to stay in office for very long as we saw with Thatcher in 1990. A British Bartlett would be only be in conflict with the opposition parties, not his own and that would remove a lot of the dramatic potential from the show. You could do a series with a Prime Minister leading a coalition government, but even then, there isn't a real-life model to work from and the supporting staff characters are not likely to be the outsiders of The West Wing.

However, real life has shown one way in which a British political drama could work, but it would be outside of Westminster. A series about the directly elected Independent Mayor of a big city would allow for a similar structure to The West Wing, allowing for conflict with all the parties with the central characters being outsiders. It could be a Ken Livingstone-type character to place it within the 'man against his own party' mould of The West Wing, or even a Ray Mallon or H'Angus The Monkey type to show a true independent having to deal with the vagaries of party politics to try and get their policies through.
I'm making a few changes to my template code today, and I'm not that much of an HTML expert, so if things go wrong and anything looks weird, please email me and let me know!

Update: Things seem to be alright, I've changed the entry text font to a variable size so if the text on posts seems to be either too big or too small, you should be able to change it on your browser.
OK, today's lesson in 'you learn something every day' is 'never think you know exactly who your readers are'. This, and especially this, have shown that to me.

So, I'm reading Lawrence Miles' The Adventuress of Henrietta Street right now - anyone read that?