Saturday, June 30, 2007

An Undeserved Notoriety?

Glasgow Airport
Glasgow Airport - Another terrorist incident?
We're now into our fourth hour of coverage of the incident today at Glasgow Airport.

It has been almost continuous coverage, no breaks for a brief round up of other news let alone sport or weather. Without a doubt it deserves to be the lead story and a certain prominence on any self-respecting 24 hour news outlet, but this much?

Frankly, the whole story can be told in every bit of detail that is known, every pertinent eyewitness statement listened to, and every bit of expert and not-so-expert analysis analysed in less than ten minutes, so all we are getting is the usual almost unchanging loop. I don't seek to minimise what could have been a much more serious incident, but I still think it is overkill.

I should say that it is not yet known whether this incident represents a rather unsuccessful terrorist attack, or something else, but for the sake of argument let us assume it is. I suspect that it is a sad reality that we will have to face incidents like this on a fairly regular basis for many years to come. There's actually very little we can do about it. As a country, we could exit Iraq tomorrow and adopt a rabidly anti-Israeli stance on the world stage and, let's be honest, it would make very little difference. At heart, for the fundamentalists, it is not what we do, but what we are, and the liberal values we espouse. They fear the attraction of the these values over their primitive values of centuries ago; they are right to fear our values, because basically they are right and respect the best of humanity's natural instincts, rather than the baser superstitions and hatreds that they appeal to.

It's natural that at the moment we tend to over play incident's such as today's with the genuine horrors of the London tube bombings still a relatively recent memory, but I really don't think we can afford to give them such prominence in the future. I'm no expert on terrorism, but I suspect that there are just as few evil geniuses in these organisations, capable of creating slaughter on a mass scale, as there are geniuses in any other organisation capable of coming up with a great eureka moment to the benefit of society. While I reluctantly expect we will see more such incidents, I suspect the vast majority will be similar to today's shambolic affair thankfully. Yes, the incident today could have been a lot worse, but given the mechanisms they opted for, the chances of it having being so were probably pretty limited. I remember listening to some stunt director once explaining just how hard it is to make a car explode in that spectacular Hollywood way.

News reporting needs to be full, frank and detailed, but also needs to avoid giving undue prominence to these groups. Frankly, all I want to hear about it now, much of the basic detail being known, is in the days to come whether the alleged perpetrators had links to any known groups or whether this was an ad hoc set of loners, and in the distant future, whether a jury finds them guilty and of what charges. Should they disappear behind bars to spend the rest of their miserable lives in highly sub-standard state accommodation then that is the last I will think of them.

It's especially the "panic and fear" phrase being used by the current BBC anchor that is starting to grate. It seems to fly in the face of all but one of their own eyewitness accounts and plays into the hands of those who try to sell us on deeply objectionable concepts such as ID cards and lengthy detention without charge.

Just before posting my favourite blog read at the moment, Devil's Kitchen has commented on some web coverage of the incident. At first reading I thought it represented a view very different from my own, but actually on second reading I think I agree with him, as well. We should take all incidents seriously and responsibly, because as the Devil himself says:
"Now, it is all very well for The Register to talk about Beavis and Butthead bombings, but just because these arseholes haven't been able to make a competent bomb does not mean that they neither desired to nor could not actually do so with a bit more thought."

Devil's Kitchen

He's right, but I guess all I'm suggesting is that there is a balance to be struck between over trivialising incidents like this one, and aiding terrorists in their aims by creating an excessive climate of fear through media coverage. As for his own criticisms on the way these incidents are reported as well his more practical suggestions on dealing with the menace, and all I can say is hear hear.

I should say that in all of this I'm not suggesting there is any real intent on the part of the BBC or Sky, who've been going down pretty much the same line. Stories like this will always have their macabre fascination for a large portion of their audiences, and I suppose for the journalists involved, it's the type of story they always imagined themselves covering one day as they set out on their careers. There is however need for some care in what they do because by it's nature terrorism is a publicity hungry beast. If we are not careful we will see a journalistic analogye of science's observer effect (sometimes wrongly assumed to be the same as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle) emerge, where the act of observation effects the outcome of the experiment, and to an extent we always have, where the newsworthy becomes the preferred target, rather than necessarily the symbolic or even the greatest carnage.

Oh, and a final pre-beer comment. Jacqui Smith, the new Home Secretary, seemed terribly uncomfortable and lightweight compared to her predecessors. Jack Straw aside, I've hated all NuLab's occupants of this role more then those in any other front line job, Broon notwithstanding. That said, if you are going to have an authoritarian control freak with no regard to our traditional liberties to do the job, you may as well have one that sounds the part.

Update 8:35PM: I've just realised it was rather remiss of me to mention the Devil without thanking him for organising the enjoyable Libertarian UK drinks on Thursday evening. As the Devil himself pointed out, trying to get people of a Libertarian outlook together is a bit like herding cats, but he did manage to get a lot of people in the same room, and was a pretty effective catherd, even of some of the more feral beasts.

Irritants of the Week

There have been so many things that have irritated me this week, that I can't be bothered having having a go at them again, especially so soon after my day of a thousand pet hates.

Here, as an alternative, is a quick visual summary of some of the key points:

It was also a strangely painful moment when I had to go and update the 'Rogues Gallery' applet to swap Broon for Blair in the start up 'Leaders' list.

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Internet v Real Life

The previous post put me in mind of another clip I saw a few weeks ago. I can't remember who posted it, so a hat tip to who ever it was. I finally tracked it down again on YouTube so here it is. At least I can't lose it again now I've got it on my own blog!

OK, It's slightly cynical, but once again many a true word...

Internet - Myth and Reality

Some of the blogs I read beat my own for quantity, and nearly all do for quality. One that consistently does both is Dizzy Thinks. The video clip he has dug up today made me laugh. I'd encourage anyone who hasn't done so, to go and read the original blog, but I've reproduced the clip below for the terminally lazy.

There is more than an element of truth to it all. One thing that amazes me is the ability of the porn sites to register a domain name for nearly every variant spelling of some of the more heavily used regular sites. I have to admit, I don't quite get it; I mean, just because you misspell the name of your bank when you are trying to get on to your on-line banking system doesn't necessarily mean you're suddenly going to think 'stuff paying that bill, I'll go and have a quick sherman instead'.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

New Faces

Gordon and Sarah Brown
There goes the neighbourhood
Gordon and Sarah arrive at Number 10
Gordon Banks has wasted little time in posting his new team sheet. They look a distinctly motley crew, but then so was Tony's line up. It's hard to get over excited about any of the changes, especially in view of the distinct possibility that most will turn out to be little more than mouthpieces for a Prime Minister who will probably turn out to be more autocratic than his predecessor. Blair, at least had his overseas preoccupations to distract him from the worst excesses of control freakery, choosing to delegate many of the tasks of interfering in our daily lives to a platoon of health secretaries, a regiment of home secretaries and a host of other maladjusted members of his government.

I suppose, if pushed, I could say I was glad to see the back of Beckett and Hewitt. To an extent they were birds of a feather, both considerably more intelligent than many of their cohorts, but both with the same supercilious holier-than-thou tone of voice that made you want to throw the radio or TV out of the nearest window each time they appeared on air to lecture us. At least in the case of Beckett, she was generally pissing off foreign governments rather than the general populous, ever since she became foreign secretary.

Thankfully there does not seem to have been a promotion for either of my recent pet hates, Flint or Byrne, despite the latter being tipped by several bloggers who know a lot more than I. Please Gordon, when it comes to the team sheet for the second team, I beg you to move them somewhere where they can't piss me off on a daily basis, even if, given your limited resources you feel the need to keep them in government as the best of a bad lot.

David Miliband is, I'll have to be honest, an appointment that does interest me. As it is pointed out nearly every time he is mentioned, a trend I can see becoming irritating very quickly, he is the youngest person to be appointed Foreign Secretary since David Owen. Miliband is clearly a very bright bloke, even if he is also intensely irritating at times. He's never seemed to possess very much gravitas to me, bordering on being a lightweight, which could be a problem in a role that has traditionally demanded a more substantial figure. At the international level I suspect that on occasion what is needed is a big clunking fist like that of the new Prime Minister himself, rather than relying on the quick wittedness and intelligence, that Miliband clearly possesses, alone. For all that, he's a fresh face and on occasion an interesting thinker so I'll be having my fingers crossed for him.

The most bizarre appointment, as far as I'm concerned, is bizarrely enough the one non-change. Of those to keep a top job, excluding those who were promoted, is Des Browne really the best possible candidate to fill the very of Defence Secretary? It's an important role, all the more so when the country is involved in two simultaneous conflicts, so why on earth would you keep a man in the job who has performed so poorly that he appears not only to have lost the confidence of the country, but to be haemorrhaging support from the armed services, as well as all corners of the political landscape. His failures are manifest and frankly, the fact that he was one of the rare NuLab ministers to make something that came close to a public apology for his piss poor performance doesn't come close to excusing them. While it is a bit of a non-job I don't really think adding the duties Scottish Secretary to his role is going to help either; he seemed to have quite enough difficulty keeping on top of his existing brief.

It's true to say that there would never have been a Broon cabinet I could have felt enthusiastic about, and I suppose, the useless fuckwit in the Defence chair aside, it could have been a lot worse. There is though, one aspect of the reshuffle that does worry me. I never mentioned it here because I was too busy raising the issue on higher profile sites simply because it's something that really scares me deeply, and the personalities involved, Broon aside, don't matter to me in the slightest.

Dreaming Spires
Oxford - already attacked by Brown
Ask yourself a question: If you ignore on, the one hand, Broon's pronouncements directly concerning the Treasury which was his own bailiwick and you'd expect him to have opinions on, and on the other the incredibly limited comments as a Prime Minister-in-Waiting on the other big issues of the day such as Iraq, what are you left with if you look at what we know of Gordon from his own mouth? If you ignore the vague and the vacuous you are left with pretty much one issue over which he went solo…Laura 'I should have got into Oxford' Spence. What novelty do we see in the Broon cabinet? The first clear split between ministerial responsibility for primary and secondary education, and that for the tertiary sector. One minister can give the happy-clappy 'There has been no grade inflation and we are spending lots of money' line for the former, while the other can lay into the universities and colleges, doubtless to the delight of the anti-'elitists' in his own ranks. Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean that Gordon isn't on a mission from God to wreak havoc on just about the only bit of our education system that, for all of Tony and his own efforts, still engenders some genuine international respect.

Yes, I have a vested interest, albeit a dated one, being a product of Cambridge, but I was also a product of the Leeds comprehensive system. If the new Prime Minister thinks that Cambridge, and I suspect the same will apply to any other 'elitist' centre of learning, is prejudiced against people because of a state school education or being of the wrong 'class' (I hate writing that word anachronistic lefty sense) then frankly he is not the world class mind his own academic record would suggest it is.

Yes Cambridge is elitist, I suspect Oxford is too, even if they do occasionally produce dross like Blair. For them though, elitism is about trying to maximise the number of potential one-day Nobel Prize winners their system will produce in the long term. This does mean selection by ability on entry to the system, but from my experience it was a very pragmatic view of ability, and very much includes potential ability. Cambridge colleges, for example, spend a lot of time encouraging people from outside it's traditional recruiting grounds to apply, broadening the pool from which they could select. In my day they had also just introduced an alternative to 'S' levels. The nature of the examination questions themselves made it harder to gain advantage through the type of extra tuition that only certain privileged schools could offer. The fact that they have access to the whole paper rather than just the final grade, made it possible for them to spot nascent talents. The goal is to produce the best possible academic output. Perhaps, on the evidence, Oxford did miss a trick in the case of Ms Spence, who ultimately, via Harvard, went on to be a far better Biochemist than I became at Cambridge, but to suggest that Oxford's decision was based on some kind of prejudice is laughable.

Dreaming Spires
Cambridge - Second only to
Harvard on most rankings,
second for the clunking fist?
The country's top universities feature prominently in every worldwide rankings list, way ahead of even their European competition. Thousands from overseas vote with their feet, choosing to face the incredible expense to come and study here. When, much to my disgust, the EU tries to standardise aspects of higher education across the continent, they do at least tend to opt for standards akin to the British ones in many cases. They are a real asset to the nation, and one that Brown will tinker with at his peril. The universities now seem to be run, as a rule, by real Rolls-Royce minds, not the kind that you find in the civil service but ones with a real appreciation for the institutions they run combined with principle and increasingly with business acumen.

There are problems creeping into the British university system, but elitism is way down the list. Most of the problems that do exist, as far as I can see, actually have been caused by the same politicians who I fear may be about to interfere yet again.

One problem appears to be the diminishing standard of new intakes, where we here tale after tale of faculties having to provide remedial tuition for new students to bring them up to the standards of their predecessors of years gone by; the most damning evidence of the dumbing down and grade inflation, that successive governments have encouraged through their policies.

It's also government policy that is at the heart of the somewhat dysfunctional market in higher education provision. In some aspects the market works; we see many newer universities developing high grade specialisms, such as Exeter for modern languages, in which they are challenging the old order and attracting high quality students because of it. On the other hand we have a worrying pattern emerging, in the nature of courses on offer. This happens as institutions try not only to attract those with a genuine vocation for a university education, but also seek to show that they are 'doing their bit' in helping the government meet its 'back of a fag packet' target of having half of all 18-21 year olds in higher education. We see relatively prestigious institutions dropping major subjects in the sciences and engineering, ones which the nation has a real demand for quality graduates in, in favour of dumbed down subjects that they can more easily attract applicants for.

Despite these concerns, the sector still seems to be thriving. For God's sake Gordon, don't use the clunking fist to fix something that isn't really broken.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Blessings in Disguise

Not an ideal blogging platform
There can't be many worse places to 'pen' a blog entry from than a crowded carriage on a Silverlink train service, sitting next to a Lock-Knee sufferer, but frankly I don't really have a lot else to do other than look at the scenery that wasn't all that inspiring the first of the thousand time I saw it. Apologies for the spelling!

I had to leave home before I got to see any of the firestorm that Quentin Davies, MP for Grantham and Stamford, crossing the floor from the Conservatives to NuLab will have ignited on most of the blogs I read.

As it happens I don't really care all that much. One less Davies/Davis in the ranks of Conservative MPs should make life a bit less confusing and the loss of a Quentin can only be a good thing for their modernisation.

I don't think much of his rationale for the move will really strike that much a chord with the people of Grantham, or the nation as a whole. He appears dissatisfied with Cameron's EU policy, by which I presume he means the call for a referendum on the 'Amending Treaty'; if so he, if polls are to believed, is setting himself at odds with well over 80% of the population. I always hoped that Cameron would allow individual Conservatives to stand on a pro-Treaty platform, but had also hoped that most Tory MPs, in some ways especially the more visionary side of the pro-EU element, would see the need to take this issue to the people to lance the festering boil of the UK's attitude to Europe.

I suppose there is an outside chance that he is driven by seeing 'representative' democracy as some kind of Shibboleth to be worshipped despite the damage it will almost certainly inflict on his own cause in the long term, so I guess you could have this one down as a bizarre point of principle. This cannot be said of one of his other justifications, that the Conservatives are now too media and PR obsessed, an assertion that can only make him look ridiculous. For Christ's sake man, you are joining NuLab who have surpassed even themselves in these arts over the last couple of weeks. Now the Lib Dems, the argument might have held water in their case as they seem to have lost the plot entirely in these regards, but NuLab? Nah.

As it happens I do have some sympathy for Mr Davies' position against an immediate inquiry into the conduct of the Iraq war, but even that's evaporated having seen the childish ad hominem nature of his attacks on Cameron in the late edition I've just picked up. They are not the words of someone suffering a late life crisis of conscience, but of an embittered man being bettered by a younger generation and seeking a more old-style paternalistic, authoritarian home. Quite what his new friends will make of his attitude to gay rights, ID cards, anti-terrorism laws and the hunting ban, I really wouldn't like to guess, as Mr Davies conscience, as evidenced by his voting record, appears to lead him in very different directions to themselves.

I know all the arguments against an MP resigning upon changing party but, like most people I suspect, I don't buy them, regardless of the nature of the political metamorphosis. Some people vote for the man, I'm pretty sure many, many more vote for the party. It's the old representative democracy thing again. It's a fine concept, but one that people will only have faith in as long as they have trust in the promised basic tenets which will underpin the way the member performs his duty as representative. Sorry Mr Davies, for most people that comes down to party and manifesto.

I'm actually glad leading Conservatives didn't engage in this particular debate as it would have seemed weak and churlish, but at some less heated moment we need to consider a new convention to govern such situations if faith in the political system is to be maintained.

I won't be as unkind as doubtless others will have been this evening, though I do hope Mr Davies does prove the adage of political careers always ending in failure, and that anyone considering him for cosy jobs on some board or quango has some thought for the merits of honesty and loyalty. He may consider himself to be acting out of principle, but he is deceiving even himself if so, he' s just another self-serving piece of shit.

I don't even feel that sorry for the Conservative party, they are well off without him, the only sympathy I can feel is for those will have inevitably worked so hard at a local level with the man, believing that they were striving for the victory of a man of integrity; one they could trust. The feeling of betrayal must be overwhelming.

A Public Denial

The Charlatans
The Charlatans - upstaged?
It's live from Wembeley Arena tonight, where I've braved the Silverlink to see the Charlatans, who were excellent.

Some old git, Pete Townsend I think his name was, then came on stage to make a public denial that he had ever claimed to have invented the Internet. Apparently we wouldn't have wanted to anyway, because, according to him, it is 'shit'; he's going to go home after the show and put something on his own blog to say so. Sorry Pete, our generation has beaten you in breaking the news.

He also apologised that his attempts to sabotage Shirley Bassey's helicopter at Glastonbury only half-worked.

What was strange though that he was then joined by another elderly friend on stage, along with others. I can't think Who the hell they were, but they violated all concert conventions by plying louder, longer and later than the main act. They even hogged the impressive visuals side of things, and might even have just about won the performance and composition side of things; they should really have known their place!

They weren't half bad though for old boys, and not many people left for the pub once the headline act had gone.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Nostalgia Making a Comeback

Dry Glastonbury
A slightly idealised view
For once I come to praise the Mother Ship, not to bury it. Faced with a rather empty bar last night, Shrek decided to crank up the volume and put the live Glastonbury coverage. It was a welcome change from the regular rota of American Pro-wrestling, Poker and minor Snooker and Golf tournaments that usually fill the screens there later in the evening, ever since Sky were forced out of the market for better 'filler' material like the Australian Rugby League due to their need to pay even more for Premier League football.

I could point out that this was the result of a typically retarded bit of EU interventionism in what was a pretty functional market, but I won't; there is no need as this ridiculous organisation has spent the last few months making a fool of itself, culminating in a massive self inflicted wound in the early hours of Saturday morning. As usual the supporters of the EU have done the work of their opponents with welcome efficiency, so we can put our feet up and watch it haemorrhage goodwill by its own actions. Even its dwindling band of supporters from the authoritarian left of the newspaper spectrum like the Independent seem to have woken up to the fact that another chance has passed to turn around the current inevitable decline of the EU; it's welcome, but sorry, you're too late.

The inevitability of the way proceedings progressed was so well trailed by the likes of Dan Hannan, that despite the denials of the EUrofanatics, I really would have been better off at Glastonbury. I don't know if you're allowed to be nostalgic about something you've never done, but I was anyway. For all the mud, and the rip-offs led in no small part by the TUC owned "Worker's Beer Co-operative" charging £4 for a flimsy plastic beaker of even weaker beer, I really want to go next year. There have been some good overseas offerings televised this year but the backbone has remained strongly domestic, and nobody would expect anything different. There are many things that the UK still leads the world in, but, at least in my opinion the only claim that stands almost unchallenged is its leadership in today's music. Even America doesn't come close, and mainland Europe, yes, well the less said about that the better. Ireland and Australia come close, but the size of the respective populations means that the Britain, and it is very much a strength in all constituent nations, does still rule the airwaves.

I would have to admit though that I did enjoy last night's wrap up by a non-Brit, Iggy Pop, not someone, Passenger aside, that would be in my personal playlist. There was high quality mayhem as the stewards seemed forced into a role reversal, trying to keep the veteran performer out of the crowd, rather than keeping the crowd away from the stage. For all the chaos, mud, filth and expensive beer the crowd on both sides of the Day-Glo barrier were lapping up every moment.

Wet Glastonbury
Hmm...the grim reality?
OK, I will have to fork out some serious money to get living conditions that will allow me to avoid contracting trench foot, but I am going to do it. There isn't actually a great rush though as one of the great features of the British music scene is its almost complete lack of ageism. It's an area where society has undergone a quiet, but very significant, cultural revolution. The musical overlap between myself and my parent's generation is wafer thin, but that between even those who spent a little more than my ten months in the sixties and the vast majority of this weekend's mud dwellers is almost complete.

Yes, crap music is churned out today, but during my lifetime there always has been and my reject to respect ratio hasn't really changed as long as I've been interested in music. The majority of gigs I go to have representatives from those, at a guess in their late forties or early fifties, right down to those still getting ID checked at the bar. The ratios change a bit from concert to concert, but nothing is the domain of only a single generation today. We are no longer defined in the same way by the music of the prevailing generation.

It wasn't always the case; my parents are only separated by four years in age, but music, other than golf, is the only fault line between them, my father being very much Bill Haley, my mother engaged in the never ending debate of her musical generation between the Stones and the Beatles. My mother can even, reasonably comfortably identify with the more digestible offerings of today, while dad finds his parents swing bands easier going despite being on every other measure more the thoroughly modern pensioner; he's the silver surfer who sorts out pub arrangements by e-mail and even entered the world of Stalkerbook before I did. He is taking it a little far these days, throwing away years of being a prohibitionist headmaster when it comes to soft drugs by enjoying the odd spliff in a friend's greenhouse now and again, but I still don't see him buying even a Hendrix CD.

It's hard to identify what is different today; perhaps it's just a market that is becoming more sophisticated as new entrants look more positively on classic acts of a slightly earlier age, while we early adopters look with more open minds at newer offerings.