Saturday, May 10, 2003

Not satisfied with becoming the first person to lose a public argument with Ken Bates, Education Secretary Charles Clarke decides to take on mediaeval historians. Saving me the time of finding a relevant quote, Iain Coleman has a good response.
Quote of the moment: "It's not the despair. The despair I can live with. It's the hope I can't stand."
Here's an idea for any HTML developers out there. How about setting up a standard for a Meta tag that indicates a page is a joke and not to be taken seriously? It might save us from any more of this sort of thing, for a start.

Friday, May 09, 2003

Running a few days late on this one, but there was an interesting Guardian article on Tuesday about Afrikaner society in South Africa and what effects the end of apartheid has had on different groups - some have allied themselves with the ANC, some have withdrawn to the fringes of society and a tiny few have tried terrorism. However, the article also notes an interesting irony within a new Afrikaner rights movement called the Group of 63:

The new Afrikaners have discovered a most surprising weapon: the language of moderation, of devolution, and they are calling on the ANC government to protect the minority rights of Afrikaners, as it is committed to do under United Nations conventions. A rising Afrikaans trade union calls itself not Death to the Infidel but, more wickedly, Solidarity. These Afrikaners are not galloping into the veld to confront the old oppressor, they are beating their swords into software. Modernity, minority rights, self-reliance - these astonishing words you hear again and again. What the world went to war for in the Balkans is good enough for these new Boers.

The article goes on to discuss Orania, a town in the Northern Cape where, without any fuss, Arikaners are creating what is effectively their own homeland, a strange reversal of the old South Africa's Bantustans.

Reading that reminded me of the Free State Project that I wrote about a while ago and I was thinking how these sort of movements do have a connection, even if it's not immediately apparent. It's politics becoming insular, rather than trying to persuade a mass of people or an entire nation of the rightness of your views, it's now about gathering together those who believe the same as you and finding your own place to live how you want and shut out those who don't agree with you. Obviously, this isn't a new idea - there's hundreds of religous communities based on that principle as well as several more secular utopian groups from the 19th century - but there is the sense that it's an idea that has come back to prominence after being obscured in the twentieth century.

There is one difference between these modern groups and the nineteenth century utopians, though. In the past, these groups often sought to totally separate themselves from the world, or at least keep their participation in it to a bare minimum. However, nowadays these groups seek to use the institutions of the world as a means to keep themselves separate from it. That might sound like I'm contradicting myself, and in a way I am, but take the quote above as an example - they're using the principles of the world (the doctrine of 'rights') to justify their separation from it, using the framework of the world system to support themselves in their desire to be left alone by it.

In the past, micro-states were strange remnants of the past - places like San Marino, Andorra and Liechtenstein that had somehow survived the agglomeration going on around them. Now, though, we have more and more states being created, more nations breaking up into smaller ones, but now there's a safety net for these smaller nations in the supranational bodies like the UN or the EU, asserting that these new states have the right to exist, that they have the right to self-determination and separation. Are we on the path towards Ken Macleod's Fall Revolution, where the UN has about 15,000 member states?
Someone's hacked Green Fairy. Either that, or my ISP is getting lost in the wilds of the internet and diverting me to some strange, seemingly Brazilian, site.

Update: All is well - was actually her hosting service that got hacked, not her, and she's back.

Thursday, May 08, 2003

Sometimes, the truth is stranger than Billy The Fish. Reading Harry Hatchet today, I discovered that Shakin' Stevens (the 'Welsh Elvis' and Fulchester United midfield dynamo) was formerly a member of the Young Communist League. Was This Old House merely a metaphor for the inherent weakness and inevitable collapse of Western Capitalism? Was Green Door (the first single I ever bought, by the way) telling us all of the better life that awaited us behind the Iron Curtain? And, given his roots in the Valleys and left-wing politics was he, and not The Clash as everyone thinks, the real inspiration for the Manic Street Preachers?
Matthew Engel has some good points about the quasi-socialist and dictatorial nature of US sport in his Guardian article today. It did conjure up memories for me of trying to explain football's (that's real football, not the bastardisation of Rugby with body armour they play over the Atlantic - or the legalized GBH they play down under, for that matter) promotion and relegation system to an American - lots of blank looks, which were then matched by my attempts to understand some of the rules of American sports. Which is my way of apologising in advance to everyone who gets confused by my talk of the playoffs over the next week or so.

Still, nothing's anywhere near as much fun as trying to explain the rules of cricket to someone from a non-cricketing nation. You can talk about the 'Anglosphere' all you like, but until Americans understand the difference between a googly, a beamer and Deep Fine Leg, the whole concept is bogged down on a sticky wicket.
There seems to be a slight problem with enetation (my comments provider) at the moment, with comments disappearig after people submit them. However, they are getting through to the server somehow as they're all still getting emailed to me - sometimes multiple times. Personally, I blame Sam - it seemed to start with him commenting 'Hail Eris!' to my post about conspiracies below, and once you let the spirit of Discordia loose in software, who knows what's going to happen.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

To be honest, I don't really care about the news that 'conservative virtues maven' Bill Bennett has spent large amounts of cash gambling over the past few years. Unlike Bennett, I don't go around telling people how to live their lives and tend to ignore people who tell me how to live my life unless I've got a good reason to listen to them (note to anyone wanting to tell me how to live my life - 'my invisible friend up in the sky told me to tell you how to live your life' is not a good reason). However, I did find the story in itself interesting, rather than the various pieces of fall out and spin from it.

Bennett clearly doesn't seem to have broken the first rule of gambling: never bet more than you can afford to lose. Given how much he's purported to earn - I saw one story that says he can earn $50,000 for a speech - that's not surprising, as it would take a pretty concerted effort to lose the sort of sums he earns. Although casinos are very good at separating customers from their money they like to do it slowly, even with the high rollers, to minimize their own risk. Taking a $1,000,000 bet at even money (or as near as you get to even money in a casino) means the casino does have a 50% chance of a $1,000,000 profit - but it also has a 50% chance lof a $1,000,000 loss. It's much better for them to get the customer to make 100 $10,000 bets, thereby reducing the potential loss on any one bet - and as the odds are much more likely to be 51/49 in the casino's favour than 50/50, the 'house edge' will cut in over time. So, for Bennett to lose more than he could afford to would take a lot of hard work and a lot of time.

What I find mystifying about the whole Bennett story isn't that he was gambling - it's quite a common pursuit for rich people who can have all the fun without the worry of the losses - but that he was risking his money on slot machines. Sure, high roller, high limit, up to $500 a go slot machines, but we're still talking slot machines - and boring American casino slots, not fun British pub ones with nudges, holds and all sorts of bells and whistles.

I think we can set aside all the questions of winning and losing - whether he lost millions (as casino sources claim) ro broke even (as he claims) it's a loss he can clearly endure, and for someone gambling with that amount of money the aim of gambling is entertainment, not to make any kind of winning. Sure, winning in itself is fun - but winning $100,000 when you're already worth several million isn't exactly going to change your life, is it? So, the assumption has to be that he was gambling for entertainment - sure, it's expensive entertainment, but as I (and anyone else who's been to Vegas, Atlantic City or any other big casino) can tell you it's good entertainment. It's just that slots are probably the least entertaining thing in any casino - it's gambling reduced to mechanics, just feeding coins in, pushing buttons and occasionally watching coins fall out, then repeating ad infinitum until you run out of money or energy. And, from watching the slot players in Vegas, I can tell you that it can take a long time until either of them run out - these are people with huge buckets of coins, being fuelled by the constant free drinks the casino provides (and the extra oxygen they pump on to the casino floor, if the legends are true), ensuring that you're continually surrounded by the sound of coins dropping, reels spinning, machines beeping and payouts crashing. However, the people playing them rarely seem to be having fun. Even when they win, that just means more fuel for the slot beast with the very rare celebration when someone hits the big jackpot.

That's why I don't play slot machines much (I must admit to having played a couple of 5c machines in Vegas for a while) - I know that every game in the casino is weighted against me and if they're going to take my money they're going to give me some excitement and action in the process. With, of course, the possibility of winning some money but, when you're only playing what you can afford to lose, you're not likely to win enough to change your life, unles you get on the mother of all lucky streaks of course. I think that's the crux of this Bennett story for me - I've never heard of people playing the slots for fun for the length of time he's reported to have played them. Sure, it can be fun for an hour or so, but the dedicated slot players don't seem to be doing it for the enjoyment they're getting from playing, but for the chance of hitting the big win, or at least the win that'll pay for this trip to Vegas. Maybe Bennett is one of the rare breed who can get hours of fun from playing slots, but given that he was also reported as being a poker player, I can't see why he'd choose slots for his source of enjoyment.
Salam Pax has posted again. The systematic melting down of Blogspot's servers as everyone rushes to read him will begin in 5...4...3...
Rod Liddle has an excellent column about conspiracy theories in today's Guardian. As I've mentioned before, I love reading conspiracy theories - I think it's because I enjoy looking for the 'Atlantis moment', the sentence that indicates the creator of the theory has left any possible reality behind and is now on a path than discusses the secret knowledge of the Atlanteans and how George Bush (or Henry Kissinger, Hillary Clinton or Dan Rather, depending on the writer's position) is using their flying saucers (as piloted by either Yetis or giant Annunaki lizards) to control the minds of the American people.

Liddle also mentions the Cloak and Dagger website which seems quite fun, with it's mixing of real news and conspiracies and the Cloak and Dagger Poll: 'Does Bush have a double?' Previous polls on the site show that a majority of its readers think that the Columbia crash was either 'another conspiracy' or a 'particle beam attack'. The Top 10 Conspiracies make for good reading as well - it seems the British Empire is on the march again...
'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' appears to have become proactive: A Caped crusader was reported to be doing good deeds in Tunbridge Wells during the Bank Holiday break. People watched in disbelief as a man wearing a brown cape and mask "swept" on to The Pantiles to rescue victims. (bizarrely, I found this on Counterspin Central - I've not seen it on any UK blogs yet)

I can only figure he's decided to practice his skills somewhere safe unti he feels he's ready to tackle a bigger town, or even London. Of course, being from Tunbridge Wells, he'll commute into London for his crimefighting. Like any good superhero, he needs a name though. Disgustedman? The Tenacious Warrior of Tunbridge Wells?

(For those of you from outside the UK who don't understand the mythic resonances of the name 'Tunbridge Wells', this BBC page is a good introduction.)

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

There are uses to having a blogging MP, even if he is a West Brom fan. The Government is now officially proposing to have next year's local and European elections on the same day. It's one of those ideas that has pros and cons, but I come down on the side of it being a good idea, if only because getting activists out to campaign for two elections in close succession is nigh-on impossible, which is one reason European elections have suffered in terms of turnout in the past. If the parties can't get people out to campaign for them, why should the voters care about turning out to vote?

A quick thought on one potential problem - if the elections are delayed by a month, does this affect any office holders whose term of service is defined by statute? Probably not councillors, but as GLA elections are on the same day, was the length of the Mayor's (and GLA members) term of office defined in the laws establishing the GLA?

One other interesting point in the announcement - trials of weekend voting are to go ahead. Not sure when, as it's apparently not practical to do it next year, but I think that's the sort of change that could have a positive effect on turnout. As could politicians people actually give a care about, but that's a whole different issue.
I meant to write earlier about this George Monbiot piece in today's Guardian on how the World Bank defines poverty (it's all about the price of pedicures, as you'd expect) but didn't get round to it. But Chris Bertram did and said pretty much everything I'd have said. Except to point to this piece I wrote about Stiglitz's Globalisation and its Discontents, of course.
Of course, he'll have to be known as a Freedom Pastry Chef. (originally found by Hesiod)
Jez links to this amusing 'Spam you never receive' page, which turns out to be on Seethru.co.uk. Remember Seethru? It was set up as the online parallel for the TV series Attachments which was meant to be the dot com version of This Life, only with terrible writing, bad acting and a technical knowledge of the internet that made me look like a web guru.

I'm just amazed that the BBC haven't shut down this site in an attempt to deny that Attachements ever existed and, if it did, that it must have been on some channel other than the BBC. But then, it turns out that Everyone Hates Attachments is still up and running, with people still posting to it, so maybe they're both in some game of website chicken - first one to get shut down loses.
And the award for 'person most annoyed by the Scottish election result' goes to this guy. (via Perspective)
As the man said, I'm a poet and I don't know it. (Originally discovered by Caz)

Here's a little piece on the Tories:

What they need it by storm
and otters... Birth and given the cities.
IDS is the key is going to measure
Conservative support CGI or Perl,
which now than
the Sacred Art of global Nero, fiddling a
Thursday, night,

Kind of Hughes meets Mitchell in a Burroughsian cut-up, really.

Monday, May 05, 2003

Meanwhile, in Scotland, there are reports that approaches have been made to the Green Party to join the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition government, following the Greens gaining seven seats last week. While this would make for an interesting development, I'm suspicious of the reports because of the use of the phrase 'Traffic light alliance' to describe the resulting administration. Part of me just thinks that someone came up with the image to describe a Labour (red), Lib Dem (gold/yellow) and Green (duh, what colour do you think they use?) alliance, and then went in search of a story to match the metaphor.
The BBC have a new series about the history of British sitcoms starting next week, called The Sitcom Story - the title ironically reflecting the same level of thought that seems to go into creating British sitcoms nowadays. Not having seen it, I obviously can't comment on it, but Stuart Jeffries' article about it in today's Guardian doesn't really leave me with much confidence in it being much more than 'I love Sitcoms'. After all, when the only writer they seem to be interviewing in it is Ben 'stopped being even remotely funny about a decade ago' Elton, I don't have much faith in it being more than a 'and here's another funny scene, which we'll ruin by interspersing it with lots of talking heads telling you about just how funny it is, rather than letting you see it for yourself' show.

Of course, that misses the most important part about all the most important British sitcoms - they're all about tragedy. Comedy is just bad things happening to other people, or in Mel Brooks' words: 'Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.' It's something we've forgotten in our sitcoms, which now seem to have decided that rather than having plot, or character or any of those minor things they just need a situation that encourages wackiness - with hilarious consequences, of course.

(Full disclosure: Yes, my sitcom script was rejected by a number of production companies. If there are any others out there who want to see it, you're welcome to - I need a few more rejection letters to have enough to cover an entire wall.)

Sunday, May 04, 2003

'If fish can feel pain, perhaps it's time to govern human affairs on the principle that human beings feel pain too.' Terry Jones in today's Observer.
As you may have noticed, I re-ordered my blogroll yesterday to group people by location (if I've got someone in the wrong place then please let me know) and in a kind of synchronicity, tonight I find The World as a Blog (via Davos Newbies). I'm sure the technically minded will find it a fascinating use of various bits of web information, but I just see it as an oddly serene (and strangely hypnotic) way of seeing where people are blogging and what the world is thinking at any one time. Definitely worth a visit.