The Null Device

Posts matching tags 'uk'

2014/2/24

House prices in London keep rising; London housing is, after all, a de facto reserve currency, and most sales in the "super-prime" market—places like Chelsea, Mayfair and Belgravia—are done in cash to foreign buyers, often from economically or politically troubled regions whence getting one's wealth out is a sensible idea; also, if one wants to hobnob with the world's movers and shakers, a pied a terre in London is essential. One result of this is that demand from the unimaginably rich global titans pushes the merely locally rich further out, and triggers a wave of outward-moving gentrification ending in cash-strapped working stiffs moving out to remote corners of Norfolk and spending several hours a day commuting to their London jobs, collapsing exhausted when they get home, but not before setting the alarm for 4:45 the following morning to do it all again:

The "extreme commuter" appears so regularly in demographic updates these days that it will be a miracle if, like Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman before him, he doesn't become a prime target for next year's electoral pitch. A recent Radio 4 exposé of the phenomenon came crammed with horror stories of single mothers rising at 5am in the Essex hinterland to drive their offspring to the childminder's before proceeding, via train, Tube and pavement to some sweating house in Threadneedle Street or Holborn Circus. Ominously enough, there was very little in it about that search for the fulfilling rural lifestyle that we hear so much about, and a whole lot more about ground-down wage serfs forced into five- or six-hour daily round-trips by domestic circumstance or the lack of affordable housing near their place of work.
While some resign themselves to the joyless grind of extreme commuting, others have found different solutions; such as living on no-frills floating slums on the Thames (the London property market's own answer to the Chinese zombie fishing trawlers), with a combination of low-wage service-industry workers, the economially desperate and a smattering the sorts of oddballs one finds drawn for one reason or another to the fringes:
The room I chose had a smashed window and was open to the elements, meaning I could see my breath when I was in bed (March 2013 was to prove one of the coldest on record). The only upside was that the draft offset the fumes from the stove, lessening the dread caused by the occasional sounding of the carbon monoxide alarm. Better to be cold, I reasoned, and wake up the next day.
This way of life inevitably attracts colourful characters. A few longer-term residents, some of whom had been on the boat for years, genuinely enjoyed the life of the river. They had pets, and were often heavy drinkers, chain smokers and drug users, partying until the early hours. The boats meant freedom from rules and regulations, and form-filling officialdom. Most residents bought bottled water rather than consume the drinking water that was filtered straight from the river, but one man told me it didn't bother him because he never drank water; his entire liquid intake came in a cider bottle. He once advised me to cover my food in the kitchen; not because of rats – they were dead – but because they had stuffed the ceiling full of poison and had no idea where it might fall out. Included in this group were some of the younger crowd on my boat, people who liked the communal living, sitting out on the deck in the summer with a barbecue and some beers. It was enough for them to forget the conditions. Some of them admitted that they could afford to live elsewhere. They worked full-time; one designed computer games; another was a football coach; one young woman worked for a local council. They had no plans to stay in the long term, but were saving money by tolerating the boats.
Perhaps less romantically, some 289,000 families in England and Wales have taken to sharing homes with other families, in a laudable display of thrift of which George Osbourne would certainly approve. Fewer poor families selfishly demanding their own homes, after all, means more homes to be done up, sold, and left empty and "bubble-wrapped", the better to retain their investment value.

Meanwhile, one person has calculated that it is cheaper to rent a place in an upmarket district of Barcelona and commute to London each day than to rent one in London. The downside, of course, is spending several hours a day on Ryanair.

Finally, a Buzzfeed listicle, enumerating 14 signs you're house-hunting in London:

You need to consult your Oxford English Dictionary, because £720,000 for a flat certainly isn’t your definition of “affordable”.
You examine your finances and decide to delay buying for a couple of years in order to save up a bigger deposit. A year of working over time and living off baked beans later…and house prices have risen by £40,000. See ya later hesitater.

gentrification gilded age hypercapitalism london the precariat uk 1 Share

2013/12/23

Websites asking contributors to write for free (“for exposure”) is old-hat, it seems, now supplanted by websites allowing contributors to write for them, in return for a fee; i.e., the old vanity-press business model, now refurbished by Mumsnet (best known as the online forum of “penis beaker” fame):

‘Webchats are actually something Mumsnet often charges for, because they’re such an effective way of promoting things; they tend to get many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of page views. In other circumstances (as we were thinking here) we do them on a no-cost basis (on either side) because it’s an issue our audience is interested in, and people who want to campaign on something or drum up interest see it as an opportunity to get their message out.’
This blurring of the lines between editorial and advertising (hint: look at the direction the money flows to see which is which) is apparently a symptom of the New Gilded Age; the hollowing-out of the middle class and the erection of a new privileged stratum above its straitened remnants, a stratum differentiated from the unworthy rabble below by the ability to pay to unlock doors and elbow one's way in (see also: the unpaid internships required to start careers in the media and other industries; or, indeed, the abolition of free university education coupled with a bachelor degree becoming the minimum requirement for any work from secretarial work (now rebranded as “PA”) upward). So, naturally, if the indicator of which stratum in society one belongs in is one's (or one's parents') ability to pay, it makes perfect sense for the invisible hand of the free market to raise itself, palm forward, in the faces of the jumped-up serfs who have the temerity to think they have a right to be heard:
Readers suffer because British writing is no longer a meritocracy but becoming a vast system of vanity publishing. Editors are not nurturing talent, but looking for passengers who can pay their own way. As Julie Burchill says, ‘once rich daddies bought their daughters ponies now they buy them newspaper columns’. For all the babble about ‘diversity’, an ever-narrower class of people dominates journalism, broadcasting, drama and publishing.

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2013/9/1

A piece in The Quietus about the rise of the “trollitician”, a type of gleefully objectionable right-wing populist whose shtick is that the “silent majority”—middle-aged straight white men, Christians, motorists, smokers, whatever—are now being oppressed by an all-powerful alien hegemony (variously defined as “the trendy Left”, “political correctness”, “health and safety” or “Cultural Marxism”) which is denying their God-given rights as straight, affluent white men, from smoking in the pub to spanking their children to slapping the secretary's bottom when she walks past or cracking racist jokes in public:

“Today, we throw off our chains. Today is the day that, finally, we can say 'no', and to mean 'no'. 'No' to speed cameras, 'no' to overgenerous maternity pay, 'no' to wheelchair ramps and to cushy holidays for juvenile delinquents! 'No' to trendy teachers and the Marxist curriculum! 'No' to new mosques and gay marriage and, especially, to gay marriage in new mosques! 'No' to endless apologising for the slave trade, and for the Empire: after all, everyone's been invaded at some point! And it was ages ago! 'No' to striking nurses and firemen, and 'no' to the union leaders who still – still, can you believe it? - have us by the balls! What's wrong with a bit of sodding common sense? Look, some of our best friends are black! If they can take a laugh and a joke, I don't know why that Owen Jones and Laurie Penny bloody can't. And we'll say 'yes', too. 'Yes' to the property ladder. 'Yes' to golf clubs, to kit cars and the neighbourhood watch! 'Yes' to new, better wedding vows: 'Do you take this fine piece of totty to be your lawfully wedded crumpet?' 'Yes' to the Royal Family – I'm not that bothered myself, but, let's face it, they bring the tourists in and older people like them. Think about it. Think about how happy they make your gran, you wouldn't want to take that away from her, would you? We'll celebrate the Best of British – Churchill and Brunel and Nelson. Dogged, determined, wouldn't take 'no' for an answer, cut through the red tape. Where's all that now? Where's tradition? Where's 'Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more'? What do we have instead? Communism! Great idea in theory, but it'd never work in practice; people are naturally competitive – Darwin proved this, but try telling that to the schools. All the kids ever hear these days is about how everything we've done is wrong. But it's stopping now. No more, we say, no more of this nonsense. Because today, Rugby Club Land dares to do more than whisper the word, and instead shouts it out loud, proud and British – 'INDEPENDENCE'.”
The altering of the dimensions of the argument is where the likes of Bloom become significant. Their work is twofold. On one hand, they consume the energies of the left through irritation: while we know what they're saying is essentially dumb and contradictory, we still feel obliged to respond (as I'm doing here). For conservatives – from the rabid right to the parish council – they serve to stoke a sense that it's the dominant sections of society (the white, the male, the heterosexual, the middle class) who are getting it in the neck. If one read nothing but the Daily Mail it would be easy enough to become convinced that Britain really was a country in which it was possible to be oppressed and persecuted for being a straight bloke with a Lexus. The new mythology states that the left are dictating the political sphere and, in doing so, hammering the "ordinary people in the rugby and cricket club."

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2013/8/23

Architect Richard Rogers alleges that Prince Charles, our infallible future head of state and staunch traditionalist, has a veto over all major new developments in London and the UK, using his influence to scupper any ones which he does not approve of:

Developers must square projects with the heir to the throne first to avoid the financial risk of a major undertaking being scuppered by a direct intervention from the great opponent of architectural novelty, who has succeeded in blocking several building plans.
Architects given the Prince’s blessing for their incorporation of his favoured classical style would be attached to projects. Even when Charles did not succeed in getting a development dropped, his intervention could prompt expensive delays, sometimes for years.
Prince Charles, of course, had Rogers' plans for the Chelsea Barracks site scuppered after petitioning one of his fellow royals, the Emir of Qatar, who was funding the project to intervene; the article enumerates a number of other instances in which the Prince saved the Realm from the spectre of architectural modernism:
Called plans for skyscraper by German-born modernist Mies van der Rohe at One Poultry, London a “glass stump” which would “ruin” the skyline. Plans were replaced by a Sir James Stirling design which Charles said “looks rather like an old 1930s wireless.”
Warned Cardiff Bay redevelopment against replicating London’s Docklands where warehouses were “wantonly destroyed”. Plans for an opera house in the Wales Millennium Centre area by modernist Zaha Hadid were scrapped.
Clarence House, Prince Charles' office, has replied, saying that, while a charity funded by the Prince is “often approached for advice and works with local authorities”, Prince Charles has no formal planning approval powers.

architecture postdemocracy prince charles richard rogers traditionalism uk 2 Share

2013/8/21

A few days ago, David Miranda, a Brazilian man who is the partner of investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained for nine hours under anti-terrorism legislation whilst passing through Heathrow on the way from Berlin to his home in Brazil. Metropolitan Police threatened him with imprisonment, demanded his passwords and seized all electronic devices on his person; GCHQ have been unable to crack encrypted files seized from him, which could be plans for a doomsday device. Or they might not.

US conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan has compared this incident to events in Putin's Russia:

In this respect, I can say this to David Cameron. Thank you for clearing the air on these matters of surveillance. You have now demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that these anti-terror provisions are capable of rank abuse. Unless some other facts emerge, there is really no difference in kind between you and Vladimir Putin. You have used police powers granted for anti-terrorism and deployed them to target and intimidate journalists deemed enemies of the state.
You have proven that these laws can be hideously abused. Which means they must be repealed. You have broken the trust that enables any such legislation to survive in a democracy. By so doing, you have attacked British democracy itself. What on earth do you have to say for yourself? And were you, in any way, encouraged by the US administration to do such a thing?
The Whitehouse "says" "it" "played" "no" "role" "in" the detention, though acknowledged that it was briefed on Miranda's presence on the plane and on the detention, as was PM David Cameron. Which suggests that, unless one makes the extraordinary mental gymnastics of extending the definition of “terrorism” to leaking information embarrassing national security agencies, this was a naked act of intimidation against a journalist by targeting his family, of the sort practiced in China and Iran.

Meanwhile, it emerged that, a month earlier, officers of the security services raided the headquarters of the Guardian and forced staff to destroy hard drives and computers used to store the NSA revelations. Copies apparently exist abroad, for the time being, with Guardian staff working on the case being based in the New York office.

I wonder how long until the Guardian relocates its editorial headquarters to a location that is not a pervasive security state, selling the shiny new building they have at Kings Place (though perhaps keeping a floor as a local bureau and/or for writing whimsical middle-class humour columns for the Saturday supplement) and using part of the undoubtedly hefty profit to buy a block in, say, downtown Reykjavík?

Also, Groklaw founder Pamela Jones has shut the site down, on account of the environment of pervasive surveillance, and is going into internal exile off the internet:

One function of privacy is to provide a safe space away from terror or other assaultive experiences. When you remove a person's ability to sequester herself, or intimate information about herself, you make her extremely vulnerable....
The totalitarian state watches everyone, but keeps its own plans secret. Privacy is seen as dangerous because it enhances resistance. Constantly spying and then confronting people with what are often petty transgressions is a way of maintaining social control and unnerving and disempowering opposition....
And even when one shakes real pursuers, it is often hard to rid oneself of the feeling of being watched -- which is why surveillance is an extremely powerful way to control people. The mind's tendency to still feel observed when alone... can be inhibiting. ... Feeling watched, but not knowing for sure, nor knowing if, when, or how the hostile surveyor may strike, people often become fearful, constricted, and distracted.
My personal decision is to get off of the Internet to the degree it's possible. I'm just an ordinary person. But I really know, after all my research and some serious thinking things through, that I can't stay online personally without losing my humanness, now that I know that ensuring privacy online is impossible. I find myself unable to write. I've always been a private person. That's why I never wanted to be a celebrity and why I fought hard to maintain both my privacy and yours.
And here's Charlie Stross' take, in which he connects the British security state to David Cameron's mandatory anti-porn internet filter plans:
The spooks are not stupid. There are two ways they can respond to this in a manner consistent with their current objectives. They can try to shut down the press — a distinct possibility within the UK, but still incredibly dangerous — or they can shut down the open internet, in order to stop the information leakage over that channel and, more ambitiously, to stop the public reading undesirable news.I think they're going for the latter option, although I doubt they can make it stick. Let me walk you through the early stages of what I think is going to happen.
If you can tap data from the major search engines, how hard is it to insert search results into their output? Easy, it turns out. As easy as falling off a log. Google and Facebook are both advertising businesses. Twitter's trying to become one. Amazon and Ebay both rent space at the top of their search results to vendors who pay more money or offer more profits. Advertising is the keyword. All the NSA needs, in addition to the current information gathering capability, is the ability to inject spurious search results that submerge whatever nugget the user might be hunting for in a sea of irrelevant sewage. Imagine hunting for "Snowden" on Google and, instead of finding The New York Times or The Guardian's in-depth coverage, finding page after page of links to spam blogs.

authoritarianism nsa postdemocracy surveillance the long siege uk 0 Share

2013/7/7

Charlie Stross speculates about the suggestion that, politically, Britain may be functionally a one-party state:

I'm nursing a pet theory. Which is that there are actually four main political parties in Westminster: the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Ruling Party.
The Ruling Party is a meta-party; it has members in all of the three major parties, and probably the minority parties as well. It always wins every election, because whichever party wins (or participates in a coalition) is led in Parliament by members of the Ruling Party, who have more in common with each other than with the back bench dinosaurs who form the rump of their notional party. One does not rise to Front Bench rank in any of the major parties unless one is a paid-up Ruling Party member, who meets with the approval of the Ruling Party members one will have to work with. Outsiders are excluded or marginalized, as are followers of the ideology to which the nominal party adheres.
The Ruling Party Stross posits has a few characteristics: it's comprised of people from a specific background (typically public-school, politics/economics at Oxbridge or LSE, often followed by a career as a barrister), and, as befits entities which have little to fear from public opinion, is not answerable to the general public (who can take their frustration out on whichever of the publicly visible parties nominally forms the government at the moment). The interests they serve are of multinational corporations (which Stross previously equated to a form of alien life which has taken over the Earth) and free-floating elites (i.e., those who stand to benefit from privatisation, the endless trough of contracts or the good old-fashioned Friedman Shock Doctrine). Of course, the problem is that, if democracy becomes increasingly a sham, sooner or later it will lose a crucial advantage it has over other systems, i.e., it offering a mechanism for the peaceful transfer of power:
Moreover, we are now discovering that we live in a panopticon, in houses of glass that are open to inspection and surveillance by the powers of the Deep State. Our only remaining form of privacy is privacy by obscurity, by keeping such a low profile that we are of no individual interest to anyone: and even that is only a tenuous comfort. Any attempt at organizing a transfer of power that does not ring the changes and usher in a new group of Ruling Party faces to replace the old risks being denounced as Terrorism.
My conclusion is that we are now entering a pre-revolutionary state, much as the nations of Europe did in 1849 with the suppression of the wave of revolutions that spurred, among other things, the writing of "The Communist Manifesto". It took more than a half-century for that pre-revolutionary situation to mature to the point of explosion, but explode it did, giving rise to the messy fallout of the 20th century. I don't know how long this pre-revolutionary situation will last — although I would be surprised if it persisted for less than two decades — but the whirlwind we reap will be ugly indeed: if you want to see how ugly, look to the Arab Spring and imagine it fought by finger-sized killer drones that know what you wrote on Facebook eighteen years ago when you were younger, foolish, and uncowed. And which is armed with dossiers the completeness of which the East German Stasi could only fantasize about.

charlie stross oligarchy politics postdemocracy thatcherism-blairism uk 0 Share

2013/6/17

As the G8 prepare to meet in economically depressed Northern Ireland, the UK government hosts have been touching up the area, by covering the windows of the area's many empty shops with large photographic stickers of thriving businesses:

One set of stickers have been fixed to a former butchers in Belcoo, on the border between the province and the Republic. They show the shop – which traded as Flanagan’s until it went out of business about a year ago – still fully stocked with a selection of fresh meat on display. A sticker pasted on a closed door even shows an open door and an apparently well-adorned interior. Another set of stickers have been put up in the windows of a former pharmacy in the village, to give the vacant site the appearance of an office supply stores.
Perhaps if the Soviet Union and its satellites had had large-format photographic sticker technology, the Berlin Wall would never have fallen, and Marxism-Leninism would still be shambling on, joyless but just about alive, much like George Osborne's austerity plan is.

Meanwhile, the US Secret Service has reportedly deployed agents disguised as Irish farmers; they purchased a fleet of shiny new tractors, but apparently neglected to make them look less conspicuously new:

However, locals told the paper the agents would “stick out like sore thumbs” in Fermanagh, as their tractors are all brand new. It’s “like something out of Father Ted”, one resident said.
Surely there'd be someone in the US Secret Service who could apply convincing amounts of dirt, rust and general wear to tractors to not compromise the whole point of having bought them in the first place?

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2013/4/17

The International Monetary Fund has, once again, warned Britain's government to ease back on its austerity policy, or risk driving Britain into a triple-dip recession. The government has replied with a statement defending its approach.

Meanwhile, researchers have found serious flaws in an economics paper used to justify austerity policies and the prioritisation of cutting debt at all costs. The paper, Growth In A Time Of Debt, which argues that high public debt stifles economic growth, and which has been a favourite of neoliberals and small-state libertarians, was found to have flaws including selective inclusion of data, unusual weighting of years studied, and a coding flaw in an Excel spreadsheet; when corrected, the data produced does not yield the same conclusions:

This error is needed to get the results they published, and it would go a long way to explaining why it has been impossible for others to replicate these results. If this error turns out to be an actual mistake Reinhart-Rogoff made, well, all I can hope is that future historians note that one of the core empirical points providing the intellectual foundation for the global move to austerity in the early 2010s was based on someone accidentally not updating a row formula in Excel.
So, if it does turn out that austerity policies are based on a spreadsheet error, does that mean that we can expect a contrite George Osborne to quickly change course? Of course not; the revelation that austerity is based on junk economics will have no more effect than what we've already known, such that Britain's current public debt is historically quite modest, because austerity never was purely about economic pragmatism, but rather about principle; the principle being “this money does not belong to you”, with the explanation being “because we say so”. Which is why, for example, the government has £10m to give Margaret Thatcher a state funeral in all but name (“we can afford it”), whilst cutting £11.6 from the arts budget, closing public libraries and slashing benefits. The principle is why the government has introduced a “bedroom tax”, cutting the benefits of those deemed to have a spare bedroom, despite the lack of suitably cramped accommodation they could move to (especially in economically depressed areas in the north). There is no economic benefit from this, but it has the moral benefit in the eyes of the Tories and the Daily Mail-reading public of punishing the unworthy poor. And punishing freeloaders is a good in itself, worth doing even if it costs us to do so.

Even if there was no recession, if government coffers were flush with cash, spending money on the public good would be immoral. In Australia, where the economy escaped the recession and is carried aloft on a mining boom, there still is no money for public infrastructure, to the point where recent secondary education reforms had to be funded by massive cuts to the university sector. There is plenty of money, but it belongs not to the little people, but the mining oligarchs, whose sense of property rights does not extend to them rejecting billions of dollars of diesel fuel subsidies paid for by the taxpayer. Needless to say, there is no money for things like modern internet infrastructure or public transport, to say nothing of things like the high-speed railway line between Melbourne and Sydney (the two endpoints of the second busiest passenger air route in the world) for which studies have recently been published. Where there is money left over, it is handed back as tax rebates to middle-class households in outer suburban electorates, where it can do the most good electorally for the government.

The libertarian myth that the economically prudent state is the minimal “nightwatchman state”–enforcing contract law, punishing freeloaders and otherwise keeping its hands off—doesn't bear out in reality, where prior investment and planning are often more prudent than leaving things to the wisdom of the free market. We have seen this in the United States' health care system, where costs are several times higher than in the supposedly inefficient socialised health care systems of socialist Europe (which is not counting externalities, from lower life expectancies and more chronic illnesses to people staying in less than ideal jobs out of fear of losing their health insurance), and in previous attempts to reduce public spending by cutting welfare (at least when the sainted Margaret Thatcher did so in the 1980s). Anyone who has had to commute in a city organised according to laissez-faire let-them-drive-cars principles, at least once it gets beyond a certain level of density, will know that it doesn't work; which is why even neoliberal London and New York spend billions on public transport facilities, which are used with almost Scandinavian egalitarianism by everybody from beggars to bankers. And, in a decade's time, it's not unlikely that the gutting of Britain's social infrastructure will end up costing more, as more people fall through the cracks; some will be picked up by a swelling prison system, as happens across the Atlantic, while others will subsist in dismal conditions, out of sight and out of mind of the people who matter.

anglocapitalism austerity economics neoliberalism politics uk 0 Share

2013/4/10

A day after the death of an elderly, long-retired Margaret Thatcher, the reactions in Britain have been varied. The national news media have generally been lavish in their hagiography, at most conceding that Thatcher “polarised opinion” or was “controversial”; the implication being that all sides, from the yuppies whom made out like bandits during the Big Bang to the miners who were kicked in the teeth, had, over time, put their differences aside. (The BBC has been particularly fawning, careful to avoid giving a voice to anyone who may say anything remotely critical, or in any way shatter the illusion that the PM who smashed the miners' unions, immiserated the North and began the dismantling of the post-WW2 social contract may well have been a much loved and thoroughly apolitical member of the Royal Family. Between that and their silence on the privatisation of the NHS, one suspects that they are betting that, maybe if they cooperate enthusiastically, the Tories won't dismember them and sell the bits off to Rupert Murdoch before the next election.) Even the Guardian, whilst publishing a mildly condemnatory editorial, hedged its bets, as not to offend those of its readers who vote Conservative (and presumably there are some). Regional newspapers have been somewhat less equivocal, especially those in places like Sheffield, Newcastle and Wales. Meanwhile, television schedules have been cleared to make room for turgid memorial programming.

Last night, after her death was announced, spontaneous celebrations did erupt in parts of Britain; as of yesterday afternoon, the centre of Liverpool reportedly looked “like bonfire night on Endor”, and other celebrations took place in Glasgow, Bristol, Brixton and Republican areas of Northern Ireland. Elsewhere, the manager of an Oddbins was suspended after announcing a special on champagne “in case anyone wanted to celebrate for any reason”.

Other than that, there have been few signs of public jubilation in London; no red bunting bedecking streets, no spontaneous street parties around portable stereos blaring out Billy Bragg songs, no jubilant signs in windows, not even an uncanny sense of euphoria in the air. And, when one thinks about it, it's hardly surprising, as there's precious little to celebrate. An old, frail woman, whose actions caused considerable suffering for many (and, for a few, great fortune) a quarter-century ago, died at an advanced age, amidst luxury; and, short of being borne to Valhalla on the wings of valkyries, there could scarcely be a more victorious way to exit life. If she was aware of anything in her last days, it would have been of the triumph of her views and the utter vanquishment of all opposition. The welfare state has been dismantled to an extent she dared not imagine, trade unions are all but extinct, and neo-Thatcherism is the backbone of all admissible political parties. Other than there still being homosexuals and trains in Britain, there could have been little to disappoint her. Thatcher may be dead, but Thatcherism is stronger than ever. If anyone has reason to be popping the corks on those bottles of champagne, it would be the Conservative Party faithful and perhaps the Blairite wing of Labour, paying tribute to the end of a triumphant life.

While she may have been victorious, that is not to say that her victory was accepted. Perhaps telling are official shows of respect which were not called for, in case lack of observance says too much. For instance, football matches will not be observing a minute's silence. There will also be no state funeral, which would have required both a parliamentary vote (and the spectacle of Labour backbenchers defying the whip and Sinn Fein members being ejected from the chamber would have been somewhat insalubrious) and a national minute's silence. The funeral itself will be one step short of a state funeral, and the first Prime Minister's funeral attended by the Queen since Churchill's state funeral; it will be held next Wednesday, with central London under lockdown and a heavy police presence; one imagines that Thatcher wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Finally, at the time of writing, Judy Garland is enjoying an uncanny career resurgence in the British pop charts; Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead is at number 2 on the iTunes chart and number 1 on the Amazon MP3 chart. Yay for slacktivism!

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2013/4/8

Contentious former British Prime Minister and inventor of the soft-scoop ice cream*, Margaret Thatcher, is fit for work dead. Thatcher is best remembered for her contributions to music, having inspired at once the vitriol of a generation of post-punk musicians and a market for smooth wine-bar soul for a rising generation of moneyed sophisticates, and also having laid the ground work for Britain's rave culture by ensuring an abundance of empty warehouses. That and the smashing of the mining unions, support for the South African apartheid regime and Chilean libertarian dictator Augusto Pinochet, the Section 28 law suppressing the discussion of homosexuality in schools and by councils, the Poll Tax and the resulting extinction of the Conservative Party in Scotland (a society to which Burkean conservatism, as a world-view, was not traditionally alien), mass privatisation, economic precarity for a large (non-Tory-voting) section of the population, soaring inequality (Britain's Gini coefficient rose from 0.28 at the start of her term to 0.35 in 1990, at the end of her term; it is now around 0.4), and cocaine replacing tea as the national drug of Britain some time around 1986.

Thatcher died following a strike a stroke in a room at the Ritz; she was 87. She is survived by Nelson Mandela, whom she denounced as a terrorist, her son, motor racing enthusiast and Equatorial Guinea coup plotter Sir Mark Thatcher, and, of course, her economic policies, which now form the backbone of all major political parties in the UK, and UKIP as well. Now there is, indeed, no alternative.

A state funeral was proposed by the New Labour government a few years ago when Thatcher's frailty came up; there was also a petition to privatise it last year, as to better honour Thatcher's views. Meanwhile, a mausoleum, a towering pyramid of black onyx, is being constructed in Canary Wharf, where the great lady can spend eternity in the centre of the thrumming hive of finance she so loved in life.

A few years ago, there were also stickers circulating around London, presumably put up by some left-wing group or other, announcing a mass party in Trafalgar Square the Saturday after Thatcher died. I imagine, though, that, in this day of kettling and protest suppression, Trafalgar Square will be as conspicuously free of any political statements as Tienanmen Square is on any 4 June.

ding dong the witch is dead history margaret thatcher obituary politics thatcherism-blairism tramp the dirt down uk 2 Share

2013/3/30

A piece in the Guardian looking at what exactly is taught in the Christian Fundamentalist academies enthusiastically enabled by the Tories' education reforms:

In an English test, students face the following multiple-choice question:
(29) Responsible citizens will vote for political candidates who
a. promise to provide good paying jobs for all those who are out of work
b. promise to cut back on both government services and spending and cut taxes
c. promise to raise taxes on "big business" and use the money to help the poor
d. promise to provide child-care services for all mothers who need to work
(The "correct" answer is b.)
A church history assessment contains these questions: (1) The four foes of the faith considered in this Pace are____________.
(Answer: "rationalism, materialism, evolutionism, and communism".)
(2) The foe of the faith that takes in all the other three foes and is organised against the church is _________.
(Answer: "communism".)
In economics, Keynesian ideas are wrong while Adam Smith's are right. In geography, the prosperity of nations is clearly linked to the amount of Christian influence ("God blessed the United States, and it became the strongest and most prosperous nation on Earth"). In US history, it is taught that Jesus commanded us to make a profit; giving "handouts to citizens" was contrary to the intentions of America's hallowed founding fathers; nontaxpayers should not vote; and it is wrong for governments to provide welfare for citizens. "Liberals" receive particular criticism.
Which sounds like the plan is to build up a Religious Right bloc who can be counted on to vote Tory, contribute to election campaigns, go out letterboxing for campaigns rain or shine, and wage holy war against the Left in all its forms; i.e., the crystal meth of right-wing politics. It's a rush when you start, but before you know it, your party is beholden to religious fundamentalists and unable to shake them off even when facing electoral annihilation from those who don't count themselves among their ranks; this happened to the Republicans in the US, and for all the voices calling for modernisation, they're in no hurry to go cold turkey and go even further into the wilderness.

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2013/3/11

The latest example of the caprice of artificial borders: residents of a coastal village in Kent have found themselves facing high mobile phone bills as their phones latch onto signals from France, across the channel. Then, when their iPhones and Samsung Galaxys inevitably fetch data from the internet, they incur extortionate roaming charges, set at the dawn of time when mobile data abroad was the province of executives with deep expense accounts and left in place because bilking people for checking the email across a border is a nice little earner for the phone companies.

The bay is blocked by the white cliffs from receiving UK signals and people in the village sometimes get connected to the French network depending on atmospheric conditions and the weather. Nigel Wydymus, landlord of the Coastguard pub and restaurant next to the beach, said: "We are a little telecommunications enclave of France here.
The phone company, helpfully, advised residents of and visitors to such villages to switch off mobile data roaming:
The spokesman from EE, which covers the T-Mobile and Orange networks, said: "We always recommend our customers switch off roaming while they are in this little pocket of an area to ensure that they are connecting to the correct network, because we cannot control the networks from the other side of the water."
This minor absurdity is a result of the distortions of topology caused by a system whose building block is the post-Treaty of Westphalia nation-state, and which, by fiat, sets the distance between any two points within such a state to be a constant. From the mobile phone system's perspective, the distance from Dover to nearby Folkestone is exactly the same as that to London, Glasgow or Belfast, all of which are orders of magnitude nearer than Calais across the Channel. The costs of carrying the data across a system of base stations and trunk cables is part of the settlement of maintaining the legal fiction of the unitary nation-state; the sharp shock of roaming charges is the other side of the coin, a licence for the carriers to make a bit back from the tourists and business travellers, who are either in no position to complain or are used to the data they consume on the go being an expensive premium service. After all, it costs a lot to live in The Future.

Kent isn't the only place where travellers may find themselves virtually (though potentially expensively) abroad; a while ago, I was walking in Cumbria, near Ravenglass, and found myself on the Isle of Man (a separate jurisdiction with its own phone companies and, lucratively, roaming rates).

I wonder how this situation is handled on the continent, where the phones of people living near borders are likely to inadvertently cross them on numerous occasions. Do, say, Dutch phone companies charge roaming Belgians local rates? Do Italians find themselves inadvertently roaming in Switzerland or Croatia? Or do base stations on either side of a border do double-duty, serving both countries' carriers as if they were local?

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2013/3/5

Meanwhile, in Britain, there is a debate about what to do with a statue of Margaret Thatcher. The statue of the divisive former PM was proposed for her hometown, Grantham, though there is opposition from both sides. Some Tories oppose it—apparently out of respect for Thatcher's wishes—while much of the political Left and the geographical North regard Thatcher as a monster who should no more be commemorated by a statue than, say, Jack the Ripper. Indeed, an earlier statue was decapitated by a protester with a cricket bat in 2002.

I think there may be some merit in a statue of as influential a figure as Thatcher, who reshaped Britain arguably as dramatically as, say, Henry VIII or Oliver Cromwell. Though if it does go up, the statue should be surrounded by a thick wall of bulletproof glass. The totality—the statue, the glass, and the inevitable patina of spit that accumulates on it—could form a gesamtkunstwerk representing Thatcher's legacy and the range of public views of it.

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2013/2/14

Prince Charles, the future head of state of the UK, has been giving his subjects the benefit of his wisdom again; this time, he has used his royal powers to have medical advice critical of homeopathy removed from the NHS Choices website, or rather diluted to homeopathic proportions, where nothing of substance remains:

Homeopathy, which involves the use of remedies so heavily diluted with water that they no longer contain any active substance, is "rubbish", said chief medical officer Sally Davies in January to the House of Commons science and technology committee. She added that she was "perpetually surprised" that homeopathy was available in some places on the NHS.
But the government's NHS Choices website, which is intended to offer evidence-based information and advice to the public on treatments, does not reflect her view. A draft page that spelled out the scientific implausibility of homeopathic remedies was neutered by Department of Health officials. It is now uncritical, with just links to reports on the lack of evidence.
Mattin's original draft said: "There is no good quality clinical evidence to show that homeopathy is more successful than placebo in the treatment of any condition … Furthermore, if the principles of homeopathy were true it would violate all the existing theories of science that we make use of today; not just our theory of medicine, but also chemistry, biology and physics."
I dread to think of the counter-enlightenment Charles III will drag the UK towards when he ultimately becomes king. It is clear that the existing firewalls between Britain's (ostensibly decorative) monarchy and its democratic government are insufficient to contain his meddling even now.

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2013/2/6

The House of Commons voted today to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales; the bill passed by 400 votes for to 175 against. About a third of Conservatives voted for it, with slightly more voting against and the rest abstaining; a handful of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs voted against it, though most voted in favour. (Aside: according to accounts of the session, there are surprisingly many openly gay Tory MPs in Britain, a sign that the country has moved on since Tory electoral materials openly carried homophobic dog whistles and Thatcher tried to push through Section 28.)

The bill now needs to pass through the House of Lords; in theory, this should not be too much of a problem for a bill with this degree of support. Assuming it makes it through, it will become law and gay couples will be able to marry and have equal status to opposite-sex married couples.

The public acceptance of homosexuality has been one of the greatest social changes of the past half-century. It is scarcely to be believed that there are still men alive who went to prison for practising it. The real breakthrough may come only when gay people cease to demand the exceptionalism of a "victimised" group, when they can shrug off the intolerance of a few, having won the acceptance of the many.
A few residual anomalies will remain, however: it will be impossible for a same-sex couple to claim adultery as grounds for divorce, as adultery remains defined as an opposite-sex act (illicit hanky-panky with one of one's own sex falls under “unreasonable behaviour”, and barring a change in the law, will continue to do so even when one's spouse is of one's own sex), and nor is there any legal definition of non-consummation of a same-sex marriage. Also, while same-sex couples can marry, opposite-sex couples who dislike the idea of marriage still may not obtain civil partnerships, though those remain on the table for same-sex couples. What eventually happens to these anomalies remains to be seen.

Meanwhile in Australia, not only is there still bipartisan opposition to gay marriage in parliament, but the nominally progressive government is moving to allow religious groups broad exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, for example allowing Catholic hospitals to fire employees who are gay or have children outside of a marriage.

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2013/2/4

The economic difference between London, a global centre of finance, where wealth is conjured into being and every Russian oligarch and Saudi princeling worth his salt has to have a pied à terre, and the rest of Britain is drawn into sharp relief by a recent property value survey:

Research shows that the net value of properties in just 10 London boroughs – Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea, Wandsworth, Barnet, Camden, Richmond, Ealing, Bromley, Hammersmith & Fulham and Lambeth – now outstrips the worth of all the properties in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland combined.
The capital’s richest borough, Westminster, with 121,600 dwellings, is worth £95bn – more than twice the value of Edinburgh (pop 500,000) and three times that of England’s sixth most populous city, Bristol.
That's one thing one forgets about living in London: that this isn't normal. The high property values (and rents), the billions of pounds poured into public transport, the presence of everything from world-class art exhibitions to lunch options more interesting than a supermarket sandwich: none of this would be here were London not a global city-state of its stature, alongside the Singapores and Dubais of this world.

Of course, the downside of this is that London is considerably less affordable for those who aren't oligarchs, princelings or otherwise loaded.

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2013/1/19

For a while, Scotland famously had more pandas than Tory MPs; now, Germany has as many Scottish Tory parliamentarians as Scotland:

Many German politicians try to play down their roots if they have a hint of anything un-German about them. Not so McAllister, whose Scottishness – his father was born in Glasgow – has only served to boost the CDU's re-election chances on Sunday in the state of Lower Saxony, where he has been prime minister since 2010.
McAllister retains ties with relatives in Newton Mearns, and speaks English to his two daughters at home in Hanover. He refuses to be drawn on the issue of Scottish independence though, as a potential future leader of Germany, he may well one day find himself having to take a decision on Scottish membership of the European Union.
It's interesting that, in Germany, a politician who has a foreign name, holds dual citizenship and speaks English to his children is not only eligible, in the public eye, for office, but heading for probable electoral victory soundtracked by a bagpipe-backed, heavily Scottish-themed campaign anthem, and believed to be future Chancellor material. I can't imagine a similarly exotic candidate being as successful in Britain.

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2012/12/19

The latest front in the War On Piracy: Britain is setting up a national intellectual property crime unit to hunt down illegal downloaders wherever they may hide. The most interesting thing about this news is that the unit, which will operate across the length and breadth of Britain, will be part of the City of London Police; that's right: a national specialist unit that's part of the local constabulary of one square mile of a city.

The reason for this, presumably, has to do with the unique governance of the City of London, a system inherited from the feudal era and adapted seamlessly to the neoliberal age. Being the corporate centre of Britain's finance industry, the City's office bearers are elected by the corporations who have offices in the square mile; each corporation's share of votes is proportional to its global employee count. As such, it is the ideal post-democratic governing model for the New World Order, reflecting the realities of neoliberalism far more efficiently than the alternative of “democracy plus lobbyists plus corporations-are-people plus unlimited campaign expenditure” (as seen in the US) does.

The City of London taking responsibility for enforcing corporate monopolies on cultural exchange (“intellectual property”) across the land could be merely an early step in its ascension to being a branch of Britain's government, and one which wields real power. Perhaps in a few decades' time, we will see the parliaments of Westminster and Holyrood (by then, packed with a motley crew of wild-eyed socialists, foamy-mouthed right-wing populists and Pirate Party types) reduced to student union-style talking shops with no real power, with executive decisions devolved to the City of London's eminently level-headed corporate appointees?

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2012/10/16

As the details of the Scottish independence referendum, to be held in 2014 and consist of only one yes/no question, have been agreed, the Independent looks at how an independent Scotland might look; it's, as one might imagine, somewhat of a mixed bag, where defiantly un-Anglocapitalist social democracy meets restrictions on abortion as favoured by the hardline Presbyterian sects of the highlands, and the promise of Norwegian-style oil wealth comes up against the SNP's promises of a green economy run on wind power:

In February David Cameron said that independence would have “consequences for the NHS”, but the SNP were quick to point out that Scotland already has an independent NHS. An independent Scotland would have new powers over abortion law. Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil has indicated he would like to see the 24-week limit reduced.
Independent Scotland would keep the Queen as head of state and remain part of the Commonwealth. However, some SNP members have said they would like another referendum on keeping the monarchy in its present form, in the event of a Yes vote in 2014
Home Secretary Theresa May has said that border checks may be necessary between the UK and an independent Scotland. However, the SNP is intent for an independent Scotland to join the EU, so the Schengen Agreement would guarantee free cross-border movement. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said there will be Scottish passports.
Surely, though, if an independent Scotland accedes to the Schengen agreement (which Britain is outside of, and will remain so as long as the Daily Mail is printed on these isles), it'd mean passport-free travel from continental Europe, whilst having to show one's passport when crossing over from England or flying in from Ireland.
Alex Salmond has declared his intention to replace the BBC with a new public service broadcaster for Scotland, which may be partly funded by advertising. Salmond assures voters that shows produced in England but popular north of the border, such as Eastenders and Top Gear, would still be available.
A weaker, advertising-funded BBC substitute? Perhaps that's one of the reasons Murdoch is sympathetic to Scottish independence.

Of course, another possible consequence of independence is said to be a permanent shift to the right in what remains of the UK once the sizeable contingent of Labour MPs is gone, with more shifts towards a US-style devil-take-the-hindmost neoliberalism.

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2012/9/4

Britain's Tory-led coalition government has undergone a reshuffle. Among the changes: Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary who tried to rubberstamp Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of the rest of Sky TV, is now minister of health; which is somewhat troubling given his outspoken beliefs in homeopathy, and statements defending the NHS's funding of homeopathic “medicine” (which had, in the past, been roundly denounced in Parliament). Meanwhile, Conservative Chairman Lady Warsi, a fierce opponent of secularism, has been demoted to a newly created “Ministry of Faith”. Whether this is a sinecure intended to keep her out of trouble or a shift towards a more muscularly religious politics in Britain remains to be seen. And so, it looks like the Conservatism the Tories are bringing to government is one hearkening back to a time before the Enlightenment, when faith trumped evidence and reason.

In other news, transport minister Justine Greening, an opponent of the proposed third runway at Heathrow and passionate advocate of high-speed rail, has been replaced by Patrick McLoughlin, who was aviation minister in the ideologically anti-rail Thatcher government, but on the other hand. Given that there is pressure from segments of business for rapid expansion of Heathrow and opposition in the Conservative heartlands of the Cotswolds to having a high-speed railway run through their arcadian idyll, it'll be interesting to see whether the government's (until now commendable) transport agenda does a U-turn.

And finally, meet the new Minister for Equality, Maria Miller:

Though, to be fair, the Racial and Religious Vilification Bill would have acted as an all-faiths blasphemy law, criminalising speech offensive to religious sensibilities and acting as a chilling effect on criticism of, say, misogyny or homophobia in religious garb, so one can't really criticise her for having a part in its well-deserved death.

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2012/9/1

Meanwhile, the slogan “punk's not dead” is vividly illustrated by an annual festival in Blackpool, where original punk bands from the 1970s and 1980s reunite to play sets and the veterans of the punk scene momentarily put aside whatever accommodations they had since made with the status quo and return to the glorious mayhem of their youth:

"The original punks stand out because they're older and fatter, and struggle to do the pogo now," Rooney says. Many once fearsome punk rockers are now cuddly parents, who bring punk rock babies in punk T-shirts and earmuffs. Their parents' record collections or the internet lure slightly older youngsters into seeing what this threat to society was all about.
"If you're singing about being downtrodden, 90% of the population is going to identify with it," Bondage says. "I'd be prepared to kill off punk if we lived in a perfect world. But it isn't. Punk's the modern blues."

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2012/8/28

The limits of the Zuckerberg Doctrine, which states that everyone is to have one identity, publicly linked to their legal “wallet name”, which they use for all interactions, have been tested with the curious case of an impeccably connected young man named “Spike Wells”, who, until recently, had a Facebook profile:

He has more than 400 friends, including some of Britain's richest young men and women, and appears to have an impressive appetite for partying both in Britain and abroad.
Yesterday, however, it was claimed that Wells is in fact a pseudonym used by Prince Harry, whose nickname is Spike - even his Scotland Yard minder is known to call him Spike - to keep in contact with his friends.
The “Spike Wells” profile disappeared after a recent tabloid incident involving Prince Harry, and was largely locked down beforehand, leaking only the information that, under the Zuckerberg Doctrine, is public, but even that was enough to give the game away: given sufficient eyes, pseudonymity is shallow.
While Mr Wells used high privacy settings, until last week a limited version of his page was available for all the world to see, with every update discussed and debated on the internet by fans of Prince Harry.
Mr Wells's profile says he is from Maun, Botswana, a town visited by the Prince and his former girlfriend Chelsy Davy in 2007. Like Prince Harry, he also lists his interests as "all sports".
In July, Prince Harry went to the Womad Festival in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, where he was pictured wearing a hat based on the popular mobile phone game Angry Birds. Mr Wells's Facebook profile featured five people wearing similar hats, although their faces could not be seen.
Which suggests that even if one takes care to lock down one's profile and refrain from posting anything publicly that reveals one's identity, the very act of making social sites useful will, over time, leak out enough information to give one away, given sufficient eyeballs. If you're a young, single prince in a celebrity-obsessed society, sufficient eyeballs can be taken for granted. If not, the lack of a hungry public can be made up for by the more targeted interest of a smaller number of parties; business rivals, extortionists, obsessive stalkers, vindictive ex-partners (business or romantic), and others all could be very interested in piecing together a party's identity from a succession of large numbers of fragmentary clues. Which is why Scotland Yard's Royal Protection Branch have warned those with a high profile to forswear social software altogether:
However, Dai Davies, a former head of royal protection for Scotland Yard, said that a Facebook page for a member of the Royal family would pose a security risk. "From a security point of view I would never recommend anyone high profile to have a Facebook account," he said.
Of course, telling the world's richest and most influential people that they should, due to their status, restrict themselves to 20th-century modes of social telecommunication is not without its problems. (Telling the children of such people that there's no Facebook, no Instagram, no Pinterest for them, ever, by virtue of who their parents are could be even more problematic.) Hiding in plain sight on Facebook, however, has its problems, with information leakage. (One could imagine, after a few royals protested, members of the Royal Family being issued pseudonymous accounts, whose public profiles and publicly visible activity are “chaff”, deliberate disinformation posted by handlers from a specially established department of the security services, and whose personal updates are visible to friends only, with the cover identities (the “legends”, in intelligence parlance) of the accounts being known only to a trusted few, so, for example, only a few dozen people from old money and a handful of Qatari princelings would know that, let's say say, “Melva Bellamy”, ostensibly a 43-year-old veterinary nurse in Sheldon, Iowa, is really Prince Charles. At least until someone talked to the tabloids or Mrs. Bellamy started haranguing people about architecture or homoeopathy or something. I suspect that the handlers in charge of keeping Prince Phillip's account—or, rather, accounts—under the radar wouldn't have an easy job of it.)

Of course, this is only as secure as the weakest link, and there are many ways the secret online identities of the super-famous could fall into the hands of a delighted tabloid press. If the Queen (in her guise as Bolivian scrap merchant “Levi Villalobos”, or something to that effect) posts a comment on a photo taken by property tycoon Lord Reynold Mooney-Bagges on one of his yachts in Barbados, mentioning a similar trip she took some years ago, or how the dogs in a photo look a bit like her Corgis, or any one of a number of bits of innocuous fluff, this will be visible to all of Lord Mooney-Bagges' friends. And even if the Queen's (sorry, Señor Villalobos') online contacts are vetted by MI5 prior to being approved, Lord Moneybags' friends aren't. And they include three emotionally unstable narcissists, one fabulist and compulsive liar and two senior executives at News International. Oops!

Another option would be for the Royal Family to have its own social network built, for them and the few they socially connect with. This site (undoubtedly built by a military contractor at huge expense) would be accessible by invitation only; the invited would be vetted by the security services and given key fobs, like more ornate versions of the ones used by online banking services, for logging in. The theory is that Prince Harry could then have anyone he wished to socialise with invited to the service, forming a virtual royal court in cyberspace. Meanwhile, similar sites may crop up outside of the court; private social networks founded by groups of the super-wealthy and organised along the lines of private clubs.

The problem with such forums, though, is that they would be siloes, separated from the rest of online activity. If you're the Royal Family, you may be able to get away with sticking to your own forum without it turning into a ghost town; this, however, might not scale well to those less famous or whose fame is not guaranteed by constitutional law. And such siloes, by definition, would separate what happens within them from what happens outside; within, there are different identities, a different social graph, and their own discourses, photographs, events and the like. Which may be suitable for a traditional royal court who can bestow the honour of attendance on those sufficiently well connected, but it does preclude one from interacting with the outside world other than by inviting selected members of it into one's sphere. Perhaps the online royal court would flourish, or perhaps it'd become an expensive white elephant, but I doubt it would remove all need for those in the gilded cage to venture outside of it.

Perhaps the solution is a sort of delegated, federated social software, where each realm has its own identity scheme and privacy rules, but protocols exist for federating between them. (After all, Facebook is no less a walled-garden silo than such a virtual court would be, merely one that's many orders of magnitude larger.) When the credentials from one realm could be used for interacting with other realms (and granting access to private content, though issues of trust would have to be worked out), we could go from a one-size-fits-all Zuckerbergian walled garden to a multitude of interacting social spaces—some jealously private, some as public as Twitter; some free and ad-supported, some paid for with premium services, some enforcing a Zuckerbergian wallet-name policy, some encouraging pseudonyms or handles—without users being restricted to interacting only with those in one's own space.

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2012/7/19

Britain's High Court has ruled that the Metropolitan Police was justified in preemptively arresting activists prior to the royal wedding last year, just in case they tried something, a decision which effectively allows anybody with a propensity to protest of any sort to be arrested to prevent them protesting, opening the way for the great British democracy to be managed far more smoothly than previously possible. Soon Britain's civil society may be as efficient and trouble-free as Singapore's.

A key driver in the move towards a better managed democracy has been the recent festivities: the royal wedding last year, and the Jubilympics this year, which promise to leave a lasting legacy of legal measures. With the smooth running of the marketing exercise in East London at stake, nothing may be left to chance. Most recently, this has resulted in a “legal” graffiti artist being banned from the vicinity of Olympic venues, all public transport facilities and from possessing spray paint or marker pens for the duration of the event, merely because, should he decide to unlawfully graffiti the games (or to do a commission in the area for a non-sponsoring client), he would be able to do so.

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2012/6/5

The Quietus' Alex Niven writes in defence of the Stone Roses and their legacy, challenging the twin views that (a) the Stone Roses were little more than patient zero of an epidemic of thick, gormless lad-rock that subsumed British “indie” music from Britpop onwards, and (b) their reunion and forthcoming gigs are a triumph of the cynicism of late capitalism and a disproof of any idealistic construction of the cultural values of indie music, past or present:

The Roses' resurrection might actually amount to something worthwhile because it offers the prospect of a return to – or at least a reminder of – a tradition of popular radicalism in British music that was to a large extent derailed and suppressed in the nineties and noughties. This happened because, amongst other reasons, the Stone Roses pissed away their potential so regally and left a void behind for Blur and Kula Shaker to step into. This was a tragedy from which leftfield British pop has never quite recovered; revisiting it might provide some much-needed catharsis, as well as a chance to consider why we seem to have been stuck in a loop of ever increasing apathy and retrogressive inertia ever since the Roses seemed to metamorphose nightmarishly into Oasis one day in early 1994.
Niven's contention was that the Stone Roses, beneath their laddish swagger, articulated a form of eloquent popular radicalism that, had things turned out differently, may have taken Britpop in a more interesting (and more culturally and politically significant) direction than the stylistically conservative, politically Blairite, Beatles-citing nostalgia industry it turned into.
Throughout their apprenticeship on the margins of the mid-eighties indie scene, the band occupied a classic romantic-radical position from which they made repeated assertions that another dimension was lying dormant, ready to burst into life with the right amount of collective belief and imagination. Magical train rides through rainy cityscapes, hallucinations of bursting into heaven, graffiti scrawled on statues, daydreams about young love, lyrics about searching for the perfect day wrapped around chiming Opal Fruit guitar lines: this was the druggy landscape of dole culture in the second Thatcher term, a place where fantasy and utopianism offered a trapdoor-escape from post-industrial depression, especially in places like the North where the social defeat had been very real. Countless bands from the Smiths to the Cocteau Twins adopted a similar tone of hermetic idealism during this period. What was remarkable about the Stone Roses though – and the reason surely why they are regarded with such quasi-spiritual reverence to this day – is that their romantic assertions about another world being possible suddenly and miraculously started to seem realistic and realisable as the end of the eighties loomed.
But the failure of the Roses in the early-nineties – which was basically an arbitrary collision of bad luck and personal fall-outs – was the kind of unfortunate collapse that has profoundly negative repercussions throughout an entire stratum of the culture. Instead of being a wild anomaly that stood at the summit of a creative apotheosis only ever partially recaptured after the mid-nineties comeback, 'Fools Gold' might have been the foundation text of an alternative Britpop: a politically engaged mainstream movement that would never have gotten into bed with Blair, a revival rather than an attenuation of the post-war New Left, guitar pop more in thrall to Bootsy Collins than the Beatles, a progressive filter for – rather than a reaction against – the most thrilling leftfield developments of the nineties from Tricky through Timbaland. As it was, the independent scene crossed over to the darkside and instantaneously lost its whole raison d’être, while the underground progressively retreated into microcosmic obscurity in an age of internet atomisation (cf. chillwave).
So if the Stone Roses' reunion is not merely a spoonful of heritage-rock nostalgia for the record-fair fatsos or an affirmation of the bankruptcy of indie music as an ideology of resistance, confirming instead that everything is a commodity in the great marketplace, what is it? Niven suggests that it may be another chance, however slim, to peer through a window into the Another World that Is Possible, a sort of very British visionary socialist arcadia:
What the Camerons and the Cleggs and the Cowells and the monarchists and the Mail-readers and the Mumford & Sons minions are really deeply fucking scared of in the pits of their blackened souls is a normative radicalism, the sort of aberrant culture that does all the traditional things like making us dance and giving us songs to sing at weddings and wakes and school discos and sports occasions, at the same time as it introduces subtle formal innovations and delivers uncompromising messages of insurrection. The Stone Roses Mk. II will have a tough job managing to do anything very effective at all, once Zane Lowe and the Shockwaves NME start winding up the hyperbole machine. But if we press the mute button on our cynicism this Imperial-time-warp summer, we might just be able to hear their profoundly optimistic message resounding through a landscape ravaged by a newly virulent strain of Thatcherism: a kind of spiritualized socialism framed as a funky, communitarian song; an angry, affirmative voice promising that he won’t rest until Elizabeth II has lost her throne. Take a look around, there’s something happening. It’s the Britpop that never was. And right in the nick of time.
(Though wasn't Britpop at the time that the Major government crumbled sort of like that? And can such a world survive for more than nanoseconds before market forces act on it and it becomes commodified, and if the original participants don't sell out, someone who wasn't involved cashes in instead?)

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2012/6/4

In honour of this being the Diamond Jubilee long weekend, here is an evaluation of a piece of critique from an earlier Jubilee, namely the Sex Pistols' God Save The Queen:

God save the queen
The fascist regime
We're not off to a good start. Even if one relaxes the definition of “fascist” (as some on the left of political debate are sometimes wont to), calling Elizabeth II's figurehead reign, floating above the governments of the day, mouthing their words and cutting ribbons, a “fascist regime” would stretch it beyond recognition. One could argue that the song referred to the government of the day, except that it was written in the days of a flounderingly ineffectual Labour government, long before Maggie sent her riot police to smash the unions and said nice things about Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
She ain't no human being
If one's talking about the office of Queen, that could be considered to be true. Whoever sits on the throne occupies a peculiar role; wearing the title of an ancient absolute monarch, but serving as a mascot of sorts, and being on duty at all times, until she dies or abdicates (and the latter is not possible without scandal). Whereas an ancient monarch's freedom of opinion was limited only by their own power, the Queen has effectively given up the right to express opinions on anything consequential, lest they interfere with her official “opinions”, which change with the composition of Parliament and the will of Rupert Murdoch. (Her son, alas, has not received this memo, and is happy to give his loyal subjects the benefit of his expertise on fields as diverse as homeopathy and architecture.) So, half a point here; the office of the Queen is not human, though the occupant of it, biologically, is, unless you're David Icke.
There is no future
In England's dreaming
When there lines were written in 1977, Britain was in a political, economic and cultural malaise—there was the three-day week, uncollected rubbish was piling up; the Empire was gone, but its memory was still fresh enough that some people believed it wasn't. Ironically enough, one other person who would have agreed with Lydon that there was no future in England's dreaming would have been the aforementioned more-plausibly-fascist-than-the-Queen Tory MP, Margaret Thatcher.
God Save The Queen,
I mean it, man
This sudden lapse into a Californian surfer-dude voice is puzzling. Does Lydon believe that, as a rock'n'roll practitioner, he must adopt an American voice? How does he reconcile the showbiz fakery of rock'n'roll with the professed authenticity of punk as a voice of the people/youth? Or is he suggesting that a US-style Presidency would be preferable to a constitutional monarchy? (Which, a few years after Watergate, sounds implausible.)
God save the queen
'Cause tourists are money
Full points for this one; when motherhood statements about “timeless national symbols” and “bringing the country together” aren't enough, monarchists often follow up with “besides, they bring the tourists in”. Though, by some accounts, royal palaces aren't among the most popular of Britain's tourist destinations. Whether this was the case in 1977 is another question.
And our figurehead
Is not what she seems
Another one for the conspiracy theorists, it would seem; does the Queen sit at the apex of international organised crime (as US third-party political candidate Lyndon LaRouche claims), or are she and the entire house of Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha Windsor giant flesh-eating reptiles capable of shape-shifting into human form for camouflage (as former BBC snooker presenter David Icke asserts)? Or was Lydon suggesting that the figurehead is not really a figurehead and that the monarchy does involve itself in the running of the country as some sort of personal model train set?

authenticity giant lizards history jubilympics margaret thatcher monarchy music politics queen elizabeth ii sex pistols uk 3 Share

2012/5/29

A piece on the Olympic “Brand Exclusion Zone”, a quasi-totalitarian construct passed into English law at the diktat of the International Olympic Committee, and sweeping aside rights of free expression and association in order to protect the primacy of Olympic sponsors' brand names and logos:

The most carefully policed Brand Exclusion Zone will be around the Olympic Park, and extend up to 1km beyond its perimeter, for up to 35 days. Within this area, officially called an Advertising and Street Trade Restrictions venue restriction zone, no advertising for brands designated as competing with those of the official Olympic sponsors will be allowed. (Originally, as detailed here, only official sponsors were allowed to advertise, but leftover sites are now available). This will be supported by preventing spectators from wearing clothing prominently displaying competing brands, or from entering the exclusion zone with unofficial snack and beverage choices. Within the Zone, the world's biggest McDonald's will be the only branded food outlet, and Visa will be the only payment card accepted.
The restrictions on what people entering, leaving or having the fortune to reside in the Olympic zone wear or carry on their person are supposedly to prevent rival brands from playing “ambush marketing” stunts, such as sponsoring covert flash mobs of people dressed in their logo colours. It is not clear whether a bunch of people wearing Chicken Cottage T-shirts would impair McDonalds' image, though it seems that Olympic sponsors insult easily, and when offered the full might of the state and extraordinary police powers to do so, are willing to jump at the offer.
And it's not just London. All the venues for the 2012 Olympics will be on brand lockdown. In Coventry, even the roadsigns will be changed so that there is no reference to the Ricoh Arena, which is hosting matches in the football tournament. Even logos on hand dryers in the toilets are being covered up. The Sports Direct Arena in Newcastle will have to revert back to St. James Park for the duration of the Olympics.
It would be amusing if it didn't trample on the rights of free expression and free association. In a free society, one might argue that there are certain extreme contingencies when the usual freedoms need to be temporarily suspended for the common good. That it may be justifiable to do so to soothe the tender egos of a multinational corporations' marketing departments at a sporting event is a considerably more dubious proposition.

Meanwhile, the (London) Metropolitan Police, who were escorting the Olympic torch rally through Cornwall, seized a Cornish flag carried by a torch-bearer, on the grounds that it was a “political statement”.

And as ominous as the Olympic mascots are (they're essentially anthropomorphised surveillance cameras, executed in a hip-hop aerosol-art fashion, sublimating the appropriation of the superficial aspects of underground/“street” culture into an architecture of surveillance and control and subtly, or not so subtly, alluding to London's heritage as a world leader in CCTV coverage), some pieces of official merchandise are more ominous than others; take the mascot in a policeman's costume. It's not clear whether the Orwellian connotations are unintended or whether they're a deliberate acknowledgement of London's status as a model panopticon. After all, there will be a lot of foreign dignitaries at the Olympics, some from countries with, shall we say, more fraught internal situations than others, and if the Olympics go smoothly, with no evident dissent and no obvious sign of dissent being heavy-handedly crushed, this could result in a lot of sales by British security technology vendors.

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2012/5/6

In the UK, nightclub bouncers are requiring punters to show them their Facebook profiles on their phones as a condition of entry, ostensibly to weed out the underage. Civil liberties groups and a door staff training firm claim that this is illegal, while some bar owners and bouncers defend the practice, citing heavy fines levied in the event of staff accidentally letting in a minor with a fake ID.

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2012/3/21

The final nail was driven into the coffin of Britain's quasi-socialist post-WW2 settlement, with the Conservative-led government passing its NHS reform bill, against mass opposition from both the public and the medical profession, and despite its refusal to publish the results of a report into the risks of its plan. Britain's National Health Service will now go the way of British Rail, its logo remaining as a kitemark for a US-style system of private healthcare firms; something even Margaret Thatcher didn't dare to do:

"Entitlement to free health services in England will be curtailed by the Health and Social Care Bill currently before parliament. The bill sets out a new statutory framework that would abolish the duty of primary care trusts (PCTs) to secure health services for everyone living in a defined geographical area. New clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) will arrange provision of fewer government funded health services and determine the scope of these services independently of the secretary of state for health. They may delegate this decision to commercial companies. The bill also provides for health services to be arranged by local authorities, with provision for new charging powers for services currently provided free through the NHS (clauses 1, 12, 13, 17, and 49), and it will give the secretary of state an extraordinary power to exclude people from the health service. Taken together the measures would facilitate the transition from tax financed healthcare to the mixed financing model of the United States. We provide an analysis of the key legal reforms that will govern policy development and implementation if the bill is enacted."

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2012/2/29

Recently declassified documents from the German Foreign Ministry reveal that, in 1981, Margaret Thatcher, long seen as a hero of individual freedom and a staunch and fearless enemy of Communism, considered supporting the Polish Communist government's crackdown on the pro-democracy movement led by trade union-centred group Solidarność:

Carrington had earlier outlined the UK's position, saying that his government only backed Solidarity out of respect for public opinion, but that perhaps, from a more rational position, they would actually be "on the side of the Polish government".
Back then, Warsaw was threatened with insolvency and Thatcher evidently feared that the demands of the workers' movement could trigger a Soviet invasion. A few months later, the Polish communist Leader Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law and the US invoked economic sanctions against Poland. Britain, however, avoided levying sanctions on the country.
Presumably it was the “trade-union-led” bit that swung Solidarność into the same category as Nelson Mandela (considered a terrorist by the Thatcher government); after all, even if they might overthrow an evil Communist regime, what if in doing so they cause the greater harm of giving the local unionists ideas? In which case, Jaruzelski would have been a bulwark of stability, sort of like Thatcher's close friend, General Pinochet.

This wasn't Thatcher's last attempt to shore up the Eastern Bloc; later, as the Berlin Wall fell, she flew to Moscow to press Gorbachev to stop the reunification of Germany. Presumably freedom was good only where it applied to capital.

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2012/2/27

With the recent Royal Wedding and the upcoming Olympics, London's public transport authority has declared war on underground explorers, whose activities have now become a matter of national security:

"Normally we would have been dished off to the graffiti squad," Otter says. "But because of the wedding we ended up with detectives much higher up."
Last month TfL applied to issue anti-social behaviour orders which would not only stop them undertaking further expeditions and blogging about urban exploration but also prohibit them from carrying equipment that could be used for exploring after dark. Extraordinarily, it also stipulates they should not be allowed to speak to each other for the duration of the order – 10 years.

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2012/2/19

Some good news for people (well, Britons mostly) who like good design. You may remember Min-Kyu Choi's prototype of a folding electric mains plug compatible with both Britain's ruggedly oversized power sockets and its conservative electrical safety standards, which briefly made the news back in 2009:

Well, after some two and a half years, Choi's design (with some modifications) is finally making it onto the market, at least for certain values of "making it" and "market". Known as The Mu, the plug will be available as a folding USB charger, which will be sold for £25 at the Design Museum in London (i.e., this is currently for design enthusiasts only). As for being able to charge your ultra-light laptop with a plug that doesn't look anachronistic next to it, that's still some way off.

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2012/1/29

Last week, The Guardian once again ran a series of articles on Europe today, with contributions from papers in France, Spain, Germany, Poland and Italy. Intended partly to combat the rise in anti-European sentiment in the wake of the financial crisis. Among other things, this includes a number of profiles of political leaders by journalists from other countries (i.e., an Italian perspective on Germany's Angela Merkel, a German view of Poland's Donald Tusk, and French and British pieces on the other country's leader), as well as a a section looking at, and responding to, national stereotypes in Europe:

What message do we Brits think we send when our signature cultural export of 2011 was Downton Abbey, a show entirely about the intricacies of class and which apparently longs for a return to Edwardian notions of hierarchy? The smash West End play One Man, Two Guvnors similarly revolves around class. Unfortunately, it's not just a foreigners' myth that in Britain how one speaks and what school one attended still counts.
There is a vibrancy to modern British life that eludes the cliche's grasp. There's a hint of it in that Polish suggestion that the Brits are "kind and friendly to immigrants". Compared with other European countries, it's probably true that Britain is, generally, more tolerant. Some of our public services – the NHS, the BBC – are still cherished. We are not merely a mini-America of let-it-rip free-marketism.
Efficiency is not really a Berlin thing. Take construction. To build 2km of new tram lines to connect the new central station, they set aside three years. Delays were not even factored in. In China, they'd have built whole new cities in that time, or a high-speed motorway across the entire country. Maybe the Chinese are the Germans of the 21st century. Or maybe Berliners are just not typical Germans. Can you stereotype a country if its capital is not typical?
In Italy, sex drive increases with age. Naturally, it is also possessed to a degree by the young (this is why we have children), but it is only after the age of 50 that the Italian male finally dives headlong into adolescence. We are the only nation to have had a prime minister in his 70s who wears a bandana on his head like a tennis player or a rap singer.

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2012/1/17

As Britain sloughs into a new age of austerity, with the government cutting services, closing community facilities and admonishing the public to get by with less, the Queen prepares for her diamond jubilee, the 60th anniversary of her wedding (which, incidentally, also took place in a period of austerity). The diamond jubilee is a significant event in any sufficiently long-lived monarch's life, and so celebrations (including an extra bank holiday, not something bottom-line-driven Tories take lightly) have been on the cards since before the financial crisis. Some might have expected that a government trying to portray itself as almost painfully reasonable would insist on low-key celebrations, or at least not ply the world's richest woman with gifts paid for by the straitened taxpayer. However, this turned out not to be the case, as it emerged that education minister Michael Gove (i.e., the chap responsible for cutting school budgets and scrapping the Education Maintenance Allowance), apparently a passionate monarchist of the old school, pushed for the Queen to be given a new royal yacht, costing £60m, as a token of the public's gratitude.

The education secretary writes: "In spite, and perhaps because of the austere times, the celebration should go beyond those of previous jubilees and mark the greater achievement that the diamond anniversary represents."
He suggested "a gift from the nation to her majesty" such as "David Willetts's excellent suggestion of a royal yacht".
In Gove's view, the beneficence of Her Royal Highness, and the must reach epic proportions, worthy of a North Korean God-Emperor, given that the little people were expected to graciously accept the money that isn't keeping their libraries open or providing services to the vulnerable being spent on a royal yacht. Unsurprisingly, that other astute observer of the public mood, Prince Charles, is emphatically in favour of the idea (presumably with the proviso that the yacht be of a traditional design, and not some ghastly modern monstrosity).

Unfortunately for the government, the public's deference to its aristocratic superiors isn't what it used to be and the proposal was met with incredulity, forcing the Prime Minister to make a show of rejecting it, before quietly backing a variant of the proposal. The yacht will now officially be a training facility, with only part of it serving as a stately pleasure boat for the Royal Family; there will also be the option of hiring it out as conference facilities, and some undefined part of the funds will come from private donors. (Already Canada, which has its own hardline Tory government, has pledged £10m.)

Meanwhile, here are a few suggestions for things other than a royal yacht that £60m could buy.

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2011/12/19

The dust hasn't yet settled after David Cameron vetoed the EU financial treaty, setting Britain on a course to the periphery of the EU or beyond, but already the Euroskeptics are lining up to give Johnny Foreigner what for. The latest to stick it to the Frogs and Krauts is the mayor of Bishop's Stortford, whose particular exercise of Churchillian bulldog spirit has been to withdraw his town's twinning arrangement with Villiers sur Marne and Friedberg. Just because.

Mayor John Wyllie has written letters to his honourable counterparts in the town's two twin cities: Friedberg near the German financial capital of Frankfurt, and Villiers-sur-Marne near Paris. He isn't writing to invite them to the usual partnership ceremonies, conferences or youth exchange programs. He is writing to cancel the town's friendship with them, after 46 years. On September 28, 2012, Wyllie informed them that his town would sever all ties with the twin towns. He gave no reason for this break-off of diplomatic relations.
Mike Wood, 66, the only council member from the pro-European Liberal Democrat party, says Tories are "usually normal people. But whenever you mention Europe they turn into some kind of monster."
This comes on the heels of rising anti-European, and particularly anti-German, sentiment in the British populist media, with old WW2 stereotypes being dusted off and trotted out at all the inappropriate moments:
Distrust of the European Union goes hand-in-hand with distrust of Germany, especially among "euroskeptics," the current euphemism for the many haters of the EU in Britain. The headline "Welcome to the Fourth Reich" in the high-circulation Daily Mail summarized the German-French plans to rescue the monetary union.
(You'd think that, coming from a paper with the Daily Mail's history, "Fourth Reich" would be a term of glowing praise...)

Anecdotally, I've noticed that, while the supermarkets of Britain are full of Christmas puddings of all sorts, there is no stollen bread, a British Christmas tradition since cheap flights to German Christmas markets began. I wonder whether the decision to not order any this year comes from market research surveys into anti-German and/or anti-Continental sentiment among the British public.

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2011/12/9

Over the past decade or two, a wave of Britons had moved to Australia, tempted by made-for-export Australian soaps, whose English-speaking, lager-drinking inhabitants seemed happier, healthier and less beaten down by life than those on Eastenders, and facilitated by the Australian government's Anglo-friendly immigration policies. Now, it looks like a lot of them are moving back; for some, the Australian reality is not the idyll of beachside barbecues, but something more alienating, and even in the age of Skype and Facebook, the distance from friends and family is great:

"If they live in a bungalow in the suburbs of Adelaide, it gets lonely. There isn't a culture of going for a drink after work and the TV is terrible."
"It's not about living by the coast in the sun - it's about living in a dull flat in suburbs that don't have any real infrastructure."
One complaint is lack of cultural amenities and history, especially from those who ended up in the sticks:
Some British people complain about a lack of culture and history, he says, but that depends where you live."Sydney and Melbourne are world-class cities with plenty of great things to see and do, but outside the big urban areas life is definitely less colourful and probably more of an acquired taste."
Some Poms, however, are staying behind and making do with the lack of real ale, quality newspapers and/or cheap flights to Spain.

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2011/11/23

Welcome to the new age of austerity: Britain's Tory-led government is planning to abolish unfair dismissal laws and make it easier to sack workers, in the hope that Britain rides a Texas-style wave of increased productivity as employees compete against each other to keep their jobs. Also, young jobseekers will have to work without pay for private employers, for up to 30 hours a week, or lose their unemployment benefits. In other words, the government is subsidising below-minimum-wage jobs, keeping unemployment high (after all, why hire someone for minimum wage, when the government will send someone who has to work for nothing?) and transferring funds from the public coffers to private industry (undoubtedly to be returned in electoral contributions to the Conservative Party when the next election comes around).

Meanwhile, as Europe hits the doldrums, the Tory Right are pushing to use this as an opportunity to unilaterally renegotiate Britain's EU treaty obligations, in particular those which introduce socialistic inefficiencies like workers' rights and move British industrial relations westwards over the Atlantic. Britain is aggressively opposing plans to institute a financial transaction tax in Europe, and is set to win a permanent exemption from the working time directive, which limits working hours to 48 hours a week (in a rolling average over several weeks), unless workers individually opt out. I wonder how long until other inefficiencies like Britain's statutory annual leave provisions (which are fairly generous, especially compared to our cousins across the pond) are tossed onto the scrapheap. (The NHS looks set to be Americanised out of existence, and the rest of the welfare state is likely to go, first being changed from a universal system to one solely for the poorest and then progressively impoverished, on the grounds that most voters won't ever get anything from it and, hey, beggars can't be choosers.) David Cameron's Britain is set to look less like continental Europe and more like Rick Perry's Texas.

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2011/11/22

And in heritage rock news: archaeologists from York University have unearthed a fragment of Britain's cultural heritage: graffiti on the wall of a London flat shared by members of The Sex Pistols in the 1970s, including drawings believed to have been made by John Lydon:

"This is an important site, historically and archaeologically, for the material and evidence it contains. But should we retain it for the benefit of this and future generations?" they ask in a study of the drawings for Antiquity magazine.
I wonder what Lydon (who's surely not even dead yet) makes of being the subject of archaeological interest.

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2011/11/13

A piece in the Observer looks at the privatisation of public space in Britain, or how many of the "public spaces" created by private developers in neo-Thatcherite Britain are not actually public space, but rather private spaces, where the developers allow the public to use them, with conditions, much like shopping malls. The public who use these spaces do so on the sufferance of the owners, who are legally in their right to prohibit anything from photography to public displays of affection to any sort of democratic unpleasantry:

City Hall – the riverside HQ of London's elected government – stands in a privately owned and managed development called More London. Should anyone wish to protest here against the actions of the mayor, they would not be allowed to do so.
With the Liverpool One development a large part of the city effectively became a shopping mall without a roof. Formerly public streets are now privately managed, and a popular indoor market was closed. Liverpool One is not gated but its architectural style and treatment create what has been called an "invisible wall" around it.
The redevelopment of Paternoster Square, next to St Paul's Cathedral, has in its middle a piazza repeatedly described as a "public space". When its owners feared that Occupy London protesters would move into it, however, a sign went up saying that it is "private land".
Whilst a product of St. Margaret's vanquishment of post-WW2 quasi-socialism, the privatisation of public space found its place after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the zeitgeist of Francis Fukuyama's "End of History". After all, if history is over and we're all happy consumers forever, things like public squares are as anachronistic as castles; there are no more issues of ideology to be thrashed out that could necessitate the unsightly spectacle of public protest, and democracy is best left to professional managers and corporate stakeholders, all watched over by the beneficent invisible hand of the free market.

However, now, two decades later, as it emerges that the seemingly endless boom of consumer capitalism was a product of a middle class with disposable income, which is now being eroded, and increasing numbers of people find themselves facing poorer standards of living than their parents and grandparents did, may be the time that privatisation of public space comes into its own. For protests to go over the tipping point, there has to be collective awareness of a reality: it's not enough for everyone to know that the emperor has no clothes; everyone also has to know that everyone else knows before one can act on this without fear, which is why public spaces (such as, say, Tahrir Square or Tienanmen Square) can breed protest, and consequently trouble for the stakeholders of the status quo. Abolishing such public spaces, and effectively interdicting anybody who looks like starting any sort of protest, may be a necessary move as the squeeze takes hold.

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Police in London have arrested 179 members of anti-immigrant group the English Defence League, after members of this group were planning a violent attack on Occupy LSX protesters outside St. Paul's, in the name of defending God and Country and bringing to bear the old ultra-violence against some "Cultural Marxists". I imagine that outspoken EDL fellow traveller Anders Breivik would have approved:

The English Defence League had issued statements and made threats on Facebook to burn down protesters tents if they were still outside St Paul's on Remembrance Sunday, according to Phillips.
A statement by the EDL on Thursday was read to the Occupy LSX general assembly on Friday morning to make people aware that there was a threat being made. "They called us all sorts of names in the statement and said we should leave "their" church and stop violating their religion," said Phillips.
(Fascists claiming religion as exclusively theirs to defend and wield as a banner is nothing new: "Strength Through Purity, Purity Through Faith", as Alan Moore put it.)

Meanwhile, in eastern Germany, the story of three neo-Nazi fugitives who had been on the run since 1997 came to an end after two had shot each other in a trailer, and a third had been arrested after setting fire to the house they shared. Police searching the ruins of the house found a number of weapons, including the service pistol of a police officer killed by them during a bank robbery and a gun used in the execution-style murders of kebab shop owners across Germany. The three, calling themselves "Thüringer Heimschutz" (which Spiegel translates as "Thuringian Homeland Defence", though "Thuringian Homeland Security" is tantalisingly close) seemingly made little effort to hide, living openly among neo-Nazis in the town of Jena, which raises some questions of how they managed to avoid the attention of law-enforcement agencies:

Martina Renner, a ranking Left Party member in the state parliament, doubts these findings. "I think it's quite unlikely that those three lived for 10 years in Germany without having their cover blown." Even in 1998, she alleged -- when the manhunt began -- there were hints that the state's constitutional protection office had helped them disappear.
Renner says their alleged crimes even before 1998 were not just "petty crimes," but could have involved "explosions" of a "life-threatening magnitude." She says it's important to clarify just how deeply the state domestic intelligence office may have been involved. If a regional intelligence agency like that is prepared to "work with" such dangerous criminals, she says, the question arises whether the agency functions as an instrument to protect a democracy.

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2011/11/6

British architect Lord Norman Foster has just posited plans for a huge new airport and transport development on an artificial island in the Thames Estuary. The development, to be named the Thames Hub, will include the aforementioned airport, high-speed and standard-speed rail links to London, the Channel Tunnel and the North, a container port, an industrial zone and a new Thames flood barrier and tidal energy generator.

Foster (who, among other commissions, worked on Hong Kong's decade-old airport, which is also built on an artificial island), chided Britain for having lost its taste for ambitious projects:

"We need to recapture the foresight and political courage of our 19th-century forebears, " said Foster on Wednesday, "if we are to establish a modern transport and energy infrastructure in Britain for this century and beyond."
The plan has won a number of high-profile backers: industrial designer Sir James Dyson, of vacuum-cleaner fame, has backed it, and Boris Johnson (who proposed an island airport in the Thames to replace Heathrow) is in favour. However, not everyone is convinced; there are concerns that the Isle of Grain, which is to be subsumed beneath the artificial island, is both a fragile bird habitat (which would be annihilated by the airport), and a huge natural gas depot (which would pose a hazard), with additional threats posed by a sunken US warship, laden with high explosives. Also, while plans for a new airport are partly motivated by London's airports being close to capacity, some are saying that this can be better mitigated by replacing short-haul flights with high-speed rail; if there aren't all those flights departing from Heathrow for Manchester or Amsterdam, there'll be plenty of capacity for places like New York and Hong Kong. (Of course, high-speed rail suffers from all the Anglo-Saxon aversion to big projects even more than an airport would, given that one would have to placate or defeat the NIMBYs at every step of the way.)

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2011/11/2

For a purely decorative monarch-in-waiting, Prince Charles is somewhat of an interventionist. Perhaps its his strong opinions (be it about the efficacy of homoeopathy, the terminal decline of architecture after about the 18th century, or about hidebound traditionalism in all areas generally being a Good Thing), but he has never been content with the role of figurehead, passively waving at well-wishers and mouthing the words of the government of the day. Now, it has emerged that he has exercised a secret veto over various pieces of legislation in Britain, doing so under a 14th-century law that allows the Duke of Cornwall a say over any legislation that affects the Duchy's property, in a broad sense of the word.

The details of the laws have been kept secret, as has whether any changes were made to the laws to help them pass muster with the Prince of Wales; however, the subjects of the laws over which his advice was sought apparently include everything from gambling to road safety. This isn't the first time Charles has seen fit to give British society the benefit of his enlightened guidance, whether it wants it or not: a few years ago, he famously had a modernist architect sacked from a London project, and replaced by a neo-traditionalist of Charles' own stripe, using his friendship with the Qatari royals funding the project to go over the heads of those actually in Britain involved in the project.

Charles' interventions have been controversial on both sides of the fence; the Grauniad doesn't like the reactionary populist emphasis on leaden-handed traditionalism in Charles' views, comparing it to the Daily Mail, while the Torygraph is not entirely comfortable with his dippy-hippy tendencies:

The Prince does not seem to have actually exercised his right of veto, although The Guardian's attempts to access papers have largely failed. But the discovery that he can block legislation is alarming given his established willingness to interfere in political matters. It is all too easy to imagine him vetoing a bill loosening the planning laws, or widening the use of GM crops.
That's not to say he's wrong on every issue, although I'm happy to say he's wrong on a few. The point is that he is making the Royal family seem less like a stately and dignified ceremonial presence, and more like a cross between a fogey-hippy crossover activist group and a vast whole-foods retail company. Without the goodwill that the Queen generates, a Charles-headed monarchy will be subject to both mistrust and ridicule.
The Conservative-led government has ruled out changing this law, in the Burkean Conservative spirit of not fixing things which can be passed off as not entirely broken, and/or the spirit of The Old Ways Are The Best. And so, another asterisk and paragraph of small print gets added to the assertion that Britain is a modern democracy.

Which is not to say that Britain's monarchy is remaining firmly in the undemocratic past; last week, the Commonwealth approved constitutional changes to end gender discrimination on the rules of royal succession, a change which could affect literally dozens of women. You go, girls!

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2011/9/29

There's a piece in the Guardian's Bike Blog on the subculture of cyclists affecting the style of a bygone aristocracy (minus the unpalatable bits, of course):

Browsing some of the increasingly popular retro bike designs recently, I came across the Old Bicycle Showroom ("Purveyors of Fine bicycles to Nobility & Gentry"); and I met Pashley's owners' club of "jolly chaps", who look more Friedrich Nietzsche than Fausto Coppi. Then there is the Tweed Run, issuing its dress code like a public school prefect: "Now look here, proper attire is expected"; and Rapha, with its series of Gentlemen's Races, and clothing for gentlemen.
The irony that the article points to is that the golden age of aristocratic cycling is only slightly less fantastic than steampunk, with cycling having been a largely proletarian phenomenon, at least until the age of high-tech materials and the (distinctly modern) bike snob (not to mention of ubiquitous car ownership):
Seventy early cycling clubs were named after the campaigning socialist paper The Clarion (founded 1891), with its ideal of fellowship. The brief aristocratic fad for cycling petered out when the bike became too popular to be posh. It has, as Tim Hilton's memoir One More Kilometre and We're in the Showers relates, "belonged to a lower social class" ever since. Until, that is, the recent popularity of cycling among wealthy men persuaded some marketing departments to rewrite the history of cycling. But does this retelling make any sense?
Or, to quote from one of the commenters: "Mummy, why is daddy dressed as a racist?"

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2011/9/21

p1200616.jpgMore on the Pirate Party's recent electoral success in Berlin: Der Spiegel asks who the Pirate Party are (spoiler: they're the new Greens):

Voter analysis from Sunday would seem to back up that assessment. The survey group Infratest established that 17,000 former Green Party supporters switched their votes to the Pirate Party on Sunday, more than came from any other party. The SPD lost 14,000 voters to the Pirates and the far-left Left Party 13,000.
The party's largest coup, however, came from its ability to attract fully 23,000 people to the polls who had never voted before. More votes came from former East Berlin, where the party secured 10.1 percent of the vote, than from former West Berlin. Most of the party's supporters are young, well-educated men -- as are 14 of the 15 Pirates who will now take their seats in the Berlin city-state parliament.
And a Spiegel survey of editorials from various German newspapers (conveniently annotated with their political slants) links the Pirate vote to the rise of the laptop-and-latte generation in Berlin, a city now said to be Europe's IT start-up hub. Which raises the question of whether the Pirates are a progressive party for an age of gentrification.

Meanwhile, the Grauniad asks whether something like that could happen in Britain. (Spoiler: not in a first-past-the-post system, and Britain's politicians also seem less technologically clueful, and more beholden to the old-media powerbrokers, than Germany's:)

The German government was one of the first to decide that national-security systems should not be based on proprietary software. In such a climate it's predictable that a campaigning political party with a radical online agenda would find a ready audience. The bovine way in which the last House of Commons passed Lord Mandelson's digital economy bill, with its clueless 'anti-piracy' provisions, does not exactly engender confidence in the British political class's understanding of these matters.

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2011/9/7

The Guardian's art correspondent Jonathan Jones argues that mainstream acceptance is killing street art; how what used to be an outlaw pursuit, charged with an edgy, subversive frisson, is now thoroughly commodified, exhibited in galleries, flogged en masse to tourists and posed alongside by centre-right politicians, fatally eroding what underground credibility it once had:

Visitors to London buy Banksy prints on canvas from street stalls, while in Tripoli photographers latch on to any bloke with a spray can near any wall that's still standing. Graffiti and street art have become instant – and slightly lazy – icons of everything our culture lauds, from youth to rebellion to making a fast buck from art.
Maybe there was a time when painting a wittily satirical or cheekily rude picture or comment on a wall was genuinely disruptive and shocking. That time is gone. Councils still do their bit to keep street art alive by occasionally obliterating it, and so confirming that it has edge. But basically it has been absorbed so deep into the mainstream that old folk who once railed at graffiti in their town are now more likely to have a Banksy book on their shelves than a collection of Giles cartoons.
He has a point about the mainstreaming and commodification of once transgressive phenomena (recently we have witnessed the confirmation of punk's position as a safe and cozy part of Britain's heritage by the National Trust releasing a punk compilation album), and the fact that there is a lot of street art which, when one puts aside its illegality and unconventional locations, is quite mediocre. Though the final stage of this process of commodification seems less than apocalyptic: a culture in which street art becomes a sort of accepted folk art, sometimes critical or confrontational, occasionally brilliant, more often mediocre, and very occasionally leading to wealth and fame, though generally practiced by small-time artists, and tolerated by society as part of the local culture and the broader conversation. Which, to me, looks healthier than a society of zero-tolerance policies, where the means of street-level communication belong exclusively to corporate advertisers.

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2011/8/9

There have been three days of rioting across London (and now other parts of Britain). The riots started after the fatal shooting by police of a Tottenham man, said to be a responsible family man, though alleged to have current or former gang links. The riots soon spread, with gangs of youths organising through BlackBerry Messaging (which is harder for police to monitor than the internet) and looting shops. Sportswear and consumer electronics were reportedly the most stolen items, though baby buggy shops were broken into (presumably for use carrying stolen goods), while other groups systematically mugged passersby. (One gang stormed a posh Notting Hill restaurant and robbed the patrons.) Meanwhile, another group trashed a gay bookshop in Camden, whilst leaving other businesses alone. Elsewhere, ordinary people were burned out of their homes when shops were torched; a news photograph shows a woman leaping for her life from a burning building in Croydon.

In a sense, this was an aspirational riot. While it may have started with anger over police violence, and mistrust of the police, it soon degenerated into an excuse to stock up on Nikes and plasma TVs, as well as engage in lots of fun ultra-violence (just like a video game, only better!) The conditions for the riot may have been set by the Thatcherite-Blairite ideology of helping the rich get richer and letting the devil take the hindmost, but the riots were an affirmation of these values, filtered through the equally sociopathic antihero mythology of US gang culture, from Scarface, via gangsta rap, to video games (some rioters referred to the police as "the feds", presumably imagining themselves to be 50 Cent or the guy from Grand Theft Auto or something), secondhand Jamaican gang machismo (which could explain attacking gay bookshops) and even half-digested bits of Tea Party-style moronic entitlement (one junior Dagny Taggart with an armful of trainers was heard to say "I'm getting my taxes back"). There was no challenge to the status quo here, only an extrapolation of it.

Meanwhile in North London, the Sony music/video distribution warehouse was burned to the ground, destroying the inventory of dozens of independent music labels and film distributors, among them Beggars/4AD, Domino, Thrill Jockey, FatCat and Soul Jazz. I wonder how many of them, already kicked by the recession, will go under.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police are posting CCTV images of looters to see if anyone can identify them, and so is an independent site. And in riot-hit areas, the local communities have united to clean up after the riot, with volunteers signing on via social networks.

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2011/7/11

The Independent has a piece on the cultural differences between England and France, specifically pertaining to the question of lunch, which, in France, is an epicurean ritual taking several hours, whilst in England, is a takeaway sandwich, often efficiently consumed at one's desk (time is money, after all):

The French have the guillotine to thank for that. French food culture really took off when the princes of the Ancien Régime – who had spent most of the 1770s and 1780s gorging themselves – took off into exile. Along with their châteaux, they left their armies of chefs behind, who, sensing the way the wind was blowing, set up restaurants to feed the rising men of the middle class.
Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, published in 1861 for England's housewives, did not contain a chapter on "The Foundations of Pleasure", as Brillat-Savarin's had done. Sensuous pleasure in lunching and dining was for someone else – probably for venal foreigners or, as English writer Hannah Glasse said, those men who, full of "blind folly", employed a French chef and "their tricks". "They would," she harrumphed in her book Everlasting Syllabub and the Art of Carving, "rather be imposed on by a French Booby than give encouragement to a good English cook."
There was a time when Continental influences started making inroads into Britain—the two or three decades from the end of post-WW2 austerity —but Thatcherism and the cult of yuppie power-efficiency all but put paid to such profligacy and very un-British decadence, and restored the traditional English order—utilitarian, empirical, with undertones of a very Protestant puritanism—to the lunch hour, bolstered by the ascendant imperative of Anglocapitalism:
By the Eighties, simple pleasures became uneconomical. The Prime Minister gave up sleeping and lunch was for wimps. Well-upholstered City gents, who had previously led the vanguard of British lunching in the restaurants of St James's, were to be found, prawn sandwich in hand, in front of a trading screen in a glass box in Canary Wharf. "We were back to where we started: lunch as fuel to power us into the afternoon," Vogler says.
Meanwhile, where Anglocapitalist modes of gastronomy—i.e., le junk food—infiltranted France, even where they succeeded, they became coopted by French cultural norms on how one relates to food:
Recent headlines proclaiming France to be the second-most profitable market for Ronald and Co (after the US) are true but that's because, as The New York Times points out, the French go to the fast-food chain less often but spend much more, ordering "more than one course" as they would in any other restaurant.

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2011/7/10

The latest dispatches from what may be the Fall of the House of Murdoch: the weekend edition of the Guardian has a piece from Marina Hyde, a former Murdoch employee, about the toxic culture of corruption and patronage that permeated the leaden decades of the Murdocracy:

What a country we do live in. My apologies for repeating sentiments voiced in this column many times – as a recovering Murdoch employee, my sponsor insists I share thrice-weekly – but this is a land where a change in prime ministers constitutes the mere shuffling of Rupert's junior personnel. Anyone in doubt as to exactly how dirty a little secret Murdoch has always been is reminded that despite Margaret Thatcher being so close that they repeatedly Christmassed together at Chequers, she does not once even mention him in her memoirs. Not once! Like Voldemort, he must not be named.
[H]istorians assessing this period will find even cabinet papers infinitely less revealing than guest lists. Within the placements of cosy parties in the Cotswolds lie many unpalatable answers. Perhaps they will ask themselves why tragedy-stricken Gordon Brown felt he had to invite a clutch of tabloid editors to the funeral of his baby daughter. If they find that conundrum too ghastly to contemplate, they might question quite why Brown asked the then Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn to his wedding. Fear, presumably. It certainly isn't Richard's charm.
The Guardian also has a piece on fault lines within the Murdoch family. Meanwhile, Channel 4 has an illuminating diagram of the network of social ties around Rebekah Brooks, the former News Of The World chief on whose watch the phone hacking is alleged to have happened. Or, as Meg Pickard put it:
Alarmed by the cliquey #notw/NI/Chipping Norton Set, so I made them a t-shirt for their next dinner party
The Murdochs have acted quickly, throwing the News Of The World, with its 168-year history (though, granted, mostly an insalubrious one, from its early days of peddling lurid tales of crime and prostitution to the new class of barely literate labourers onwards) on the bonfire, and dismissing their entire staff. (Rumours have it that email and USB ports have been disabled in the News Of The World offices, presumably to ensure that any of the staff who are being cut loose don't take any incriminating evidence with them.) Not that News will be without a Sunday tabloid; the company registered the domain sunonsunday.co.uk on the day that the scandal broke, and had been meaning to consolidate their titles for a while; the scandal may have just forced their hand.

However, all that may not be enough; Murdoch's bid for BSkyB seems to be in serious trouble, and James Murdoch may face criminal charges on both sides of the Atlantic (the US authorities come down hard on US-listed corporations bribing police officers, as is alleged to have happened, and tend to prosecute the executives).

Meanwhile, Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein weighs in on the affair:

News International, the British arm of Murdoch’s media empire, “has always worked on the principle of omertà: ‘Do not say anything to anybody outside the family, and we will look after you,’ ” notes a former Murdoch editor who knows the system well. “Now they are hanging people out to dry. The moment you do that, the omertà is gone, and people are going to talk. It looks like a circular firing squad.”
And more from Keith Olbermann.

So it looks like the dam has broken and News Corp.'s troubles are just beginning. Though it may be premature to write Murdoch off just yet. He undoubtedly has numerous favours to call in and arms to twist, and there are many nights before any inquiry can take place.

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2011/7/6

Yesterday's revelations of the ghoulish new lows that Murdoch's tabloid hacks have sunk to, and the promise that deleting messages from a murdered schoolgirl's phone may not have been the worst, seem to have ignited a crisis in Britain's political establishment. This morning, it emerged that News Of The World have been intercepting the voicemail messages of the families of victims of the 7/7 terrorist bombing, like some sorts of grief vampires. Meanwhile, advertisers including Ford, Orange/T-Mobile and npower have started boycotting the News Of The World.

The forces of the Wapping Pact, the alliance forged by Thatcher and Murdoch in the 1980s, and renewed by every prime minister since, have dug their heels in. Murdoch has spoken out in defence of Rebekah Brooks, his CEO, on whose watch the "phone hacking" occurred, and David Cameron, Emperor Murdoch's viceroy at Number 10, has ruled out reversing the government's decision to allow News Corp. to buy the 61% of BSkyB it doesn't own. Other parliamentarians, however, have managed to get an extraordinary parliamentary session called over the incidents, with all parties laying into the Wapping Pact:

Zac Goldsmith, a Conservative, said the Murdoch empire had become too powerful: "We have seen, I would say, systemic abuse of almost unprecedented power. There is nothing noble in what these newspapers have been doing. Rupert Murdoch is clearly a very, very talented businessman, he's possibly even a genius, but his organisation has grown too powerful and has abused that power. It has systematically corrupted the police and in my view has gelded this Parliament to our shame."
Cameron is also under pressure to call a public inquiry into the incident. Which he might end up doing, though there will be a lot of pressure to keep the terms as narrow as possible and to ensure that it does not cause too much embarrassment for his masters. Meanwhile, the public outrage builds up; 38 Degrees' petition has over 70,000 signatures, and Avaaz' one (albeit a global one) has, at time of posting, 374,170. Both petitions are due in on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Independent's Matthew Norman writes that this may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to finally break Murdoch's corrupting grip on the British political system:

When Margaret Thatcher made her Faustian pact with Mr Murdoch in the 1980s, granting him his every heart's desire in return for his unwavering slavish support, she hastened the creation of the monster we see revealed in all its gruesome hideosity today. In general terms, she gifted him the preposterous media market share he expertly parlayed into a stranglehold over the political elite. In a country without a written constitution, bereft of checks and balances and devoid of oversight, the levers of power are there to be seized by the most ruthless buccaneer in town. This he did with wonted dark genius, coaxing and cajoling, bullying and bribing, to inculcate the near universally received wisdom that without his approval, no party can be elected or prosper in power for long. Once Thatcher had established the precedent of obeisance, it was rigidly and cringingly adhered to thereafter by Mr Tony Blair, the successor but one she begat, and now by his self-styled heir David Cameron.
Specifically, meanwhile, she politicised the police by using them as a political truncheon at Wapping as with the simultaneous miners' strike. In so doing, she placed them in Mr Murdoch's pocket, where they have snugly remained ever since.
It would take cross-party unity on a scale seldom witnessed outside time of war, with all three leaders agreeing that this, finally, is the moment to take up Vince Cable's rallying cry and go to war with Murdoch to break his dominion. A full independent inquiry into News Corp's internal workings should be as automatic as one into the Met's scandalous collusion by lethargy. So, needless to add, should an instant reversal of the green light on the BSkyB deal. It beggars all belief that the take-over might still be permitted. It will be a staggering, transcendent disgrace, after this, if it is.
Could the year of the Arab Spring have brought a belated British Spring, during which a more subtle regime falls from power?

Meanwhile, echoes of the scandal are being felt as far as Australia, where it may threaten a Murdoch-led consortium's bid for a contract to operate a national TV broadcasting network.

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2011/7/5

In 2002, Surrey schoolgirl Milly Dowler was abducted and murdered. Her family believed for six months that she was alive, on the basis that her voicemail messages were being deleted (and presumably listened to). It has turned out that staff from News Of The World, a Murdoch tabloid, had gotten into her voicemail and were deleting her messages, in order to free up space for more messages and keep the story profitably on the boil:

Apparently thirsty for more information from more voicemails, the paper intervened – and deleted the messages that had been left in the first few days after her disappearance. According to one source, this had a devastating effect: when her friends and family called again and discovered that her voicemail had been cleared, they concluded that this must have been done by Milly herself and, therefore, that she must still be alive. But she was not. The interference created false hope and extra agony for those who were misled by it.
The deletion of the messages also caused difficulties for the police by confusing the picture when they had few leads to pursue. It also potentially destroyed valuable evidence.
The editor of the NotW at the time was Rebekah Brooks, who now is Murdoch's CEO in the UK; the deputy editor, Andy Coulsdon, was, until January, Prime Minister David Cameron's media advisor.

In other, unrelated, news, the UK government has approved Murdoch's bid to take over the remainder of cable-TV operation BSkyB. There is a petition against it here.

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2011/6/8

The question of tagging versus graffiti art came up at the trial of London tagger Daniel "Tox" Halpin, whose handiwork will be immediately familiar to many Tube commuters:

The 26-year-old, from Camden, north London, whose masked image and story of anarchism has featured on television documentaries and in magazines, was found guilty of a string of graffiti attacks across England after prosecutor Hugo Lodge told a jury: "He is no Banksy. He doesn't have the artistic skills, so he has to get his tag up as much as possible."
As he was remanded in custody for sentencing, his artistic merit was further questioned by the reformed guerilla graffiti artist turned establishment darling Ben "Eine" Flynn, whose work was presented to the US president, Barack Obama, by the prime minister, David Cameron, last year. "His statement is Tox, Tox, Tox, Tox, over and over again," said Flynn after the trial at Blackfriars crown court, in which he gave evidence as an expert witness. In his opinion, the Tox "tags" or signatures, and "dubs" (the larger, often bubble lettering) were "incredibly basic" and lacking "skill, flair or unique style".
While Mr. Tox is not known for his artistic flair, that didn't stop him interrupting his criminal damage career top attempt to surf the post-Banksy hype boom, hoping that someone with more money than sense would interpret his tagging as a particularly "edgy", "real, innit" and "well fucking morocco, yeah?" form of street art and buy it on canvas:
Cashing in on his notoriety, he is said to have made £9,000 in two hours by selling pictures with his Tox tag. Reports in 2009 that he was selling 100 canvasses bearing his notorious mark, at £75 each, precipitated heated debate. Purists condemned him for "selling out", while legal experts mused over whether a loophole made him impervious to the Proceeds of Crime Act.
The appearance of Tox's tag in gilt-framed canvasses was "well funny", Flynn said, adding: "Art is worth what people are prepared to pay for it." People must have bought them as an investment, he added. "I can't imagine they bought them because they actually like them."
Halpin's co-defendants include a students of ultra-hip art school Goldsmiths and an Edinburgh Collge of Art graduate; his own credentials are not on record. Halpin and two defendants await sentencing.

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2011/5/26

The Guardian looks at whether intellectuals get as little respect in British culture as one is inclined to think:

Britain is a country in which the word "intellectual" is often preceded by the sneering adjective "so-called", where smart people are put down because they are "too clever by half" and where a cerebral politician (David Willetts) was for years saddled with the soubriquet "Two Brains". It's a society in which creative engineers are labelled "boffins" and kids with a talent for mathematics or computer programming are "nerds". As far as the Brits are concerned, intellectuals begin at Calais and gravitate to Paris, where the fact that they are lionised in its cafes and salons is seen as proof that the French, despite their cheese- and wine-making skills, are fundamentally unsound. Given this nasty linguistic undercurrent, a Martian anthropologist would be forgiven for thinking that Britain was a nation of knuckle-dragging troglodytes rather than a cockpit of vibrant cultural life and home to some of the world's best universities, most creative artists, liveliest publications and greatest theatres and museums.
There are various theories attempting to explain the British disdain for intellectuals: that Britain, because of its temperate cultural climate and historical good fortune, has not had to evolve an intelligentsia as more fraught countries such as France and Germany have; that Britain (or at least England) in valuing the empirical over the theoretical (or, conversely, being a "nation of shopkeepers", as Napoleon put it), has little room for the kinds of florid theorists who flourish across the Channel, preferring more practical thinkers, or (as the article suggests), that Britain is every bit as governed by ideas as the Continent is, and the supposed disdain for intellectuality is actually a disdain for blowing one's own horn or being too earnest. Or, perhaps, a combination of these.

And while English anti-intellectualism (the Scots may well argue that it is strictly a south-of-the-border phenomenon) may disdain the more abstract and less market-ready areas of thought, the colonial strains are considerably more virulent:

Marginson thinks there is a particular problem for science common to most English-speaking countries except Canada, which has a strong French influence. He says that in Australia, particularly in working-class cultures: ''Not all people think it is smart to learn; some feel it is not going to help them much and they think people who do well at school are wankers. It is a view pretty commonly felt and is not terribly conducive to having a highly educated population.''
To be fair, I've seen the same argument said about British working-class culture, though combined with nostalgia for an age when self-improvement was a widespread working-class ideal, now sadly replaced by acquisition of bling.

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2011/5/8

On Thursday, Britain had a referendum on changing the electoral system from first-past-the-post (i.e., every voter sees a list of candidates, picks one, and the one with the most votes win, which means that you either choose one of Democrats Labour or the Republicans Conservatives or, for all practical purposes, you might as well have stayed home) to the alternative vote (i.e., each voter ranks the candidates in order of preference, so if their first preference doesn't get in, their vote gets transferred to their second, and so on). And the results came in, with the status quo winning with about 69% of the vote. The British people have looked at reform, found it too confusing, and said no. The results by district show an interesting, though not unexpected, pattern, with inner London, inner Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge showing up as islands of strong yes votes, most of England being a sea of conservatism, with Scotland and Wales being slightly less conservative. The place with the highest yes vote in Britain was the London Borough of Hackney.

(One must grudgingly admire the way the Tories handled this, from a purely tactical point of view: offering the Liberal Democrats (until then, seen as a progressive, centre-left party, and voted by many left-leaning voters sick of Blairite New Labour which had been captured by the right) their precious little referendum in return for supporting their agenda of radical cuts, and manoeuvring the Lib Dems into being their human shields, so that by the time the referendum came around, the bitter taste of betrayal was too strong for many natural reform supporters to vote for anything with Nick Clegg's name on it. And so, cunning and betrayal win the day again. Well played, you loathsome bastards.)

The big winners in this are the Tories, and, to a lesser extent, Labour (who supported reform in this election, though it must be remembered that electoral reform was one of Tony Blair's pledges in 1997, though Labour kept first-past-the-post throughout their government for pragmatic reasons). Big business and the media proprietors are also big winners: with MPs not having to compete as hard for votes, they have more time to listen to the real stakeholders, rather trying to placate the little people.

Too much democracy, after all, is bad for business. Let the little people have too much of a say, and you get fractious parliaments full of Greens and religious parties and such. In that sense, first-past-the-post is slightly superior to the alternative vote (and greatly superior to proportional systems) in that it distorts the aggregated views of the people into an uncontroversial median, and helps keep the levers of power well away from the rabble. The ideal system for the stakeholders' interests is a low-fidelity form of democracy: just enough to keep anyone too unpopular from outstaying their welcome and prevent the "bad emperor" problem (where corrupt or inept leaders can arise beyond the power of anyone to remove them), and give the little people the illusion of being stakeholders in the system. If anything, the US system, with its electoral-college system which almost completely eliminates third parties, is superior to UK-style FPTP for this. Once there are only two parties, they will, by necessity, become so large that they become unanswerable to the little people, and become instruments of a homogeneous policy, as seen in everything from copyright-law expansion to the accelerating increase in income inequality.

Anyway, Britain's democracy is essentially a somewhat expensive low-pass filter on Rupert Murdoch's decisions, and this vote will ensure that it remains so for the foreseeable future. Some are saying that electoral reform has been set back by a generation, though I think that's overly optimistic. With the no case having won by 69%, despite the yes case having more campaign funds, I can't see the question arising in 25 years' time. It's probably safe to say that another electoral reform referendum in Britain will not happen in the lifetime of anybody who voted on Thursday. And so, in the next election, one will be faced with voting for the lesser evil (which, in the past, has turned out into voting for Tony "PNAC" Blair because he wasn't a Tory), or just giving up and letting Murdoch's zombie hordes decide. In fact, why not just give up on democracy altogether and install Murdoch as Emperor? It'll have more or less the same effect, but save considerable money.

In other election news: the Greens have emerged as the largest party on Brighton and Hove's council, and in Scotland, the Scottish National Party has won a majority, paving the way to a referendum on independence. I wonder whether the Tories' cunning will be enough to scotch this one.

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2011/5/2

Shortly before the Royal Wedding, Facebook shut down the groups of 50 UK-based protest groups, most of them not specifically anti-royalist. These groups included anti-corporate-tax-avoidance group UK Uncut, anti-cuts and pro-NHS protesters, and the Green Party, as well as socialist and anarchist groups. Facebook says that the groups were using fake personal accounts, rather than pages, in violation of the terms of service. However, to nuke them, immediately prior to a "national security event" and suspension of civil liberties, without any warning being given, does look somewhat suspicious.

I wonder what really happened there. Does Her Majesty's Government have in its arsenal a D-notice-style order to secretly oblige internet services operating in the UK to deny services to suspicious persons, and also deny the existence of the order? Has Prince Charles escalated his personal interventions in affairs of state from sacking modernist architects to calling up internet companies and getting protest groups silenced? Or is this a strategic decision by Facebook, a company which reportedly has its eye on the vast Chinese market, demonstrating to the Chinese Communist Party that it is extremely comfortable about enforcing "harmony" on its platform?

Meanwhile, Cory Doctorow argues that activists should avoid Facebook, because the system (a) gives one no democratic rights that cannot be arbitrarily taken away if it suits the powers that be to do so, and (b) is a surveillance system which gives the authorities lists of suspicious persons who have communicated with other troublemakers. It strikes me that if the world's activists take this advice, then these actions will have done to their causes the same sort of damage Wikileaks sought to do to the authoritarian conspiracy Julian Assange wrote about seeking to stop: by increasing the risks of organising in public, forcing them to fragment into small, secretive cells, with a greatly reduced organisational capacity.

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2011/4/27

For those following the electoral reform referendum in the UK, a clear and succinct explanation of the Alternative Vote system, which the status-quo lobby have dismissed as impossibly complicated to understand:

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A musician on the Isle of Wight was arrested for racial harrassment after playing the 1970s hit Kung Fu Fighting in front of a Chinese mother and son. He denies deliberately playing the song at them, and says that he was already playing it before they entered and took offence. Does this mean that the Oriental Riff is now considered musical hate speech, the melodic equivalent of a racist epithet?

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2011/4/26

Christopher Hitchens weighs in on the Royal Wedding, and, as usual, pulls no punches. The Hitch in full form is a splendid thing to behold:

A hereditary monarch, observed Thomas Paine, is as absurd a proposition as a hereditary doctor or mathematician. But try pointing this out when everybody is seemingly moist with excitement about the cake plans and gown schemes of the constitutional absurdity's designated mother-to-be. You don't seem to be uttering common sense. You sound like a Scrooge. I suppose this must be the monarchical "magic" of which we hear so much: By some mystic alchemy, the breeding imperatives for a dynasty become the stuff of romance, even "fairy tale." The usually contemptuous words fairy tale were certainly coldly accurate about the romance quotient of the last two major royal couplings, which brought the vapid disco-princesses Diana and Sarah (I decline to call her "Fergie") within range of demolishing the entire mystique. And, even if the current match looks a lot more wholesome and genuine, its principal function is still to restore a patina of glamour that has been all but irretrievably lost.
For Prince William at least it was decided on the day of his birth what he should do: Find a presentable wife, father a male heir (and preferably a male "spare" as well), and keep the show on the road. By yet another exercise of that notorious "magic," it is now doubly and triply important that he does this simple thing right, because only his supposed charisma can save the country from what monarchists dread and republicans ought to hope for: King Charles III. (Monarchy, you see, is a hereditary disease that can only be cured by fresh outbreaks of itself.) An even longer life for the present queen is generally hoped for: failing that a palace maneuver that skips a generation and saves the British from a man who—like the fruit of the medlar—went rotten before he turned ripe.
Myself, I wish her well and also wish I could whisper to her: If you really love him, honey, get him out of there, and yourself, too. Many of us don't want or need another sacrificial lamb to water the dried bones and veins of a dessicated system. Do yourself a favor and save what you can: Leave the throne to the awful next incumbent that the hereditary principle has mandated for it.

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2011/4/25

As the Royal Wedding approaches, progressive commentator Johann Hari makes a case against the monarchy, and what he terms its subtly corroding effect on the nation's psyche:

Of course, when two people get married, it's a sweet sight. Nobody objects to that part. On the contrary: republicans are the only people who would let William Windsor and Kate Middleton have the private, personal wedding they clearly crave, instead of turning them into stressed-out, emptied-out marionettes of monarchy that are about to jerk across the stage. We object not to a wedding, but to the orgy of deference, snobbery, and worship for the hereditary principle that will take place before, during and after it.
Kids in Britain grow up knowing that we all bow and curtsy in front of a person simply because of their unearned, uninteresting bloodline. This snobbery subtly soaks out through the society, tweaking us to be deferential to unearned and talentless wealth, simply because it's there.
We live with a weird cognitive dissonance in Britain. We are always saying we should be a meritocracy, but we shriek in horror at the idea that we should pick our head of state on merit. Earlier this month, David Cameron lamented that too many people in Britain get ahead because of who their parents are. A few minutes later, without missing a beat, he praised the monarchy as the best of British. Nobody laughed. Most monarchists try to get around this dissonance by creating – through sheer force of will – the illusion that the Windsor family really is steeped in merit, and better than the rest of us. This is a theory that falls apart the moment you actually hear Charles Windsor speak.
Monarchy, after all, is just a polite word for "hereditary dictatorship"; the difference between a monarchy and North Korea is the layers of glamour and mystique from centuries of submission and acclimatisation, which still remains in kitschy old fairy tales of wise kings, beautiful princesses and enchanted castles. Granted, in a constitutional monarchy like Britain's, in which the monarch has no power but to sit in a gilded cage, cut the odd ribbon and mouth the words written by elected politicians, the idea of monarchy is watered down almost to homeopathic levels, though the unpalatable reality of what a real monarchy would be like intrudes from time to time. For example, it is still a tradition for monarchs to act as a slightly peculiar global club and invite other crowned heads to their occasions, even if those crowned heads are actual hereditary dictators of the old school, like the Crown Prince of Bahrain, whose government recently massacred pro-democracy protesters. (The crown prince has withdrawn, much to his regret, though royals from Saudi Arabia and Swaziland, blessed with less immediately conspicuous human-rights issues, are still coming. Kim Jong Il, however, has not been invited, being too much of a hopped-up nouveau-riche to make the club.)

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In a few days' time, Britain will have its first Royal Wedding since 1981; though, while it's big news in some places (such as the US), Britain seems somewhat more apathetic about the whole thing, particularly compared to Charles and Diana's nuptials:

The street party response has been disappointing – many fewer than 1981 and a more markedly southern retro- flavour to those that are planned. But 1981 was practically BC in terms of the changes to the kinds of communities that have street parties – company towns, motor towns, mining villages, the lot. After all, 1981 was the year of the Specials' "Ghost Town" and every famous riot going, but there were still communities to fight for. Now it's all grassed over for Call Centre and Office Park Britain. Gone. How could you expect cheery knees-ups everywhere?
What sociologists call our "reference groups" have changed. For the UK over-class, it's their global-rich peers (they compare themselves to Wall Street, Silicon Valley or Shanghai). And for the uniquely durable British underclass, it's Lottery winners, football players and entertainers, people in the low-end celebrity press, Fickle Fingers of Fate people. To stay relevant, royal people and styles have both to acknowledge all this, yet still stay aloof from it.
Which is not to say Britain doesn't have communities with cohesion—one of them just rioted against the opening of a Tesco—but they're not the sorts of places that put up the bunting of Royalism, except perhaps in the most backhandedly sarcastic way (at the markets of Hackney, they're flogging boxing-match-flyer-style tea towels and commemorative mugs with the wrong prince printed on them to the bohemians and avant-bourgeoisie). Meanwhile, in the harrumphingly blue-ribboned Tory shires, they're probably too cosseted in their SUVs and too busy with serious business to spend much time putting up bunting and organising egg-and-spoon races; it's not really the sort of thing you can hire some Polish and/or Lithuanian workers to do either. Meanwhile, everybody else thanks the two young people for a long weekend to fly to Spain for and/or commiserates Ms. Middleton on the impending end of her life as a private individual.

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2011/4/18

London folk singer Emmy The Great has written a song in back-handed tribute to the Royal Wedding. Titled Mistress England, it is dedicated to the mothers of the young women whom Prince William didn't end up choosing as his future queen, and it positively drips with a very British, very measured wit:

The subject has inspired a touching, tender song. "Fold up your clean white invitations/ There is no need to keep them now," run the lyrics. "He found a Queen/ He chose another." The middle eight conjures distant churchbells, but in the Union Jack-decked garden, "no celebration here". "I'm two years younger than Kate Middleton," says Moss. "I honestly knew girls who applied to St Andrews to meet him. Presumably they're a bit miffed now."
"I keep trying to put myself in Kate Middleton's place," says Moss. "She did a degree, right, that's how she met him? I have never, ever heard it said what she studied there. But I do know what boots she likes to wear. That's a bit depressing, isn't it?"

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2011/3/16

Three young girls in Poole, Dorsetshire received a lesson in property rights after being told off by police for picking flowers in a park, which is technically theft of council property:

But Councillor Peter Adams, who said a family member of his had reported the incident, said taking the flowers amounted to stealing and the behaviour was "unacceptable".
Whitecliff is a council-owned park and therefore removing property from it is technically classed as an offence.
Cllr. Adams stated that the girls were not merely picking a few flowers, but removing them in large quantities. Perhaps they were running some sort of industrial bouquet-making operation?

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2011/3/3

In today's great political surprise, Rupert Murdoch is set to further tighten his grip on Britain's media landscape and political system, as Tory minister Jeremy Hunt (who has, in the past, spoken approvingly of News Corp.) approved his bid to take over the remainder of BSkyB, Britain's dominant TV broadcaster. There is the usual editorial-independence proviso for Sky News, but nothing Murdoch hasn't dealt with before (see also: The Times, the Wall Street Journal). Furthermore, unlike the US, news channels are governed by rules of strict impartiality, making a Sun-flavoured FOXNews UK ("now with more paedo gypsy asylum seekers!") impossible; well, at least until some future government decides to relax the regulatory regime, for reasons, of course, entirely unconnected to owing favours to sympathetic media proprietors.

All may not be lost, though; Murdoch's bid has attracted a lot of opposition, and even now, while it is not yet finalised, this is continuing. If you're a UK resident and concerned with this, you can write to your MP, and urge them to ask some hard questions in Parliament.

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2011/2/19

Whether or not there are any atheists in foxholes, there don't seem to be any in positions of political power who are willing to stand by their principles. Firstly Australia's outspokenly atheistic Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, proclaimed her wholehearted conviction in supporting an unaccountably authoritarian internet censorship system demanded by a Christian Fundamentalist fringe party, and now, Britain's deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, rules out eliminating the bishops from the House of Lords, instead planning to add unelected ministers of other religions for equality's sake. This token sliver of theocracy, these bishops, rabbis and imams will get to vote on legislation which affects all Britons, from waiving anti-discrimination legislation when the discrimination is guided by religious beliefs to blocking equal marriage rights for non-heterosexuals to keeping it a crime for the terminally ill to end their lives with dignity, going against the majority opinion of what is a largely secular society:

Here's a Trivial Pursuit question with an answer that isn't at all trivial. Which two nations still reserve places in their parliaments for unelected religious clerics, who then get an automatic say in writing the laws the country's citizens must obey? The answer is Iran... and Britain.
And here's the strangest kicker in this strange story: it looks like the plans being drawn up by Nick Clegg to "modernise" the House of Lords will not listen to the overwhelming majority of us and end these religious privileges. No – they are poised to do the opposite. Sources close to the reform team say they are going to add even more unelected religious figures to parliament. These plans are being drawn up as you read this and will be published soon. The time to fight is today, while we can still sway the agenda.
The atheists and secularists who are campaigning for democracy are consistently branded "arrogant" by the bishops and their noisy cheerleaders. But who is arrogant here? Is it atheists who say that since we have no evidence about how the universe came into being, we should be humble, admit we don't know, and keep investigating? Or is it the bishops, who claim that they not only "know" how everything was created, but they know exactly what that Creator thinks, how he wants us to have sex, and which pills we can take when we are dying? What could be more arrogant than claiming you have a right to an unelected seat in parliament to impose beliefs for which there is no evidence on an unbelieving population?
Fortunately, there are organisations in Britain fighting against such unaccountable religious privilege: the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association are both active in campaigns on issues such as this, and when the plans are published, they're certain to be at the front of the campaign against them. Whether the government will pay any heed to them depends on how many people are in the campaign.

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2011/2/6

Britain's Tory-led government is looking at the possibility of moving one of Britain's May bank holidays to October, making it a national day for the United Kingdom (as opposed to the non-holiday national days of its constituent nations). Which makes sense to an extent, given that May is loaded with two (count 'em!) bank holidays, falling shortly after Easter, and days off dry out after the end of August, with none until Christmas. Of course, being the Tory-led government, the holiday they're talking about eliminating is the May Day bank holiday, the ancient pagan spring feast which became synonymous with workers' solidarity and socialism in the 19th century. And, of course, keeping both bank holidays (of which Britain has few compared to continental Europe) is out of the question:

Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, called on the government to abandon the plan. "There is strong support for an extra public holiday as the UK has the stingiest allocation in Europe. But the last thing we need is for the government to mess around with established bank holidays that workers and businesses have built their schedules around," he said.
Andrew Rosindell, Conservative MP for Romford, said it "was a very good idea to celebrate all things British", adding that the government should move the holiday to June to coincide with the Queen's birthday. "I don't think we need a workers' day any more than we need a day for pensioners or any other group, it is silly. We need a day everybody can celebrate. If it can be for everybody it is much more inclusive."
It's not just the unions and the left who are up in arms; the proposal also risks attracting the wrath of the nation's morris dancers.

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It has emerged that the British government transferred nearly £2 million from Britain's foreign aid budget to pay for the Papal visit last year, on top of £3.7m from the environmental budget. This is presumably in line with the Conservative Party's platform (also shared by New Labour) that religion is a good in itself, from which it would follow that promoting religious organisations such as the Catholic Church increases the total amount of good in the world, and is thus a legitimate use of funds which would otherwise be spent feeding the hungry or eradicating diseases. Not surprisingly, this view is not shared unanimously:

[British Humanist Association] Head of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips commented, ‘Millions and millions from the public purse has been used to foot the cost of the Pope’s visit to the UK, with much of that diverted from crucial funds, including from foreign aid designated to help some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. It is irrational and wrong for government to say that the money was paid to recognise the work that the Catholic Church does overseas as an NGO – questionable in itself – when the money was used to fund the state visit. Most people, including Christians, did not think that the British taxpayer should pay for the Pope’s visit in the first place, and many will be astonished to see the detrimental impact that this illegitimate use of public funds has already made.’
(Disclaimer: I am a member of the British Humanist Association, and recommend this organisation to anyone concerned about religious privilege in the UK (of which there is a considerable amount, from Bishops in the House of Lords to faith schools teaching Creationism in science classes with the blessing of the political establishment).) Or, in the words of another atheist:

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2011/2/3

As Britain's Tory-led government prepares to bring in a regime of cuts that make High Thatcherism look like 1970s Sweden, one of the services set to be hit hardest will be libraries, with nearly half of libraries closing in some councils (because, the reasoning seems to go, if they don't make a profit they can't be very important to the public after all, and if there is a profit to be made, the free market, in its beneficent wisdom, will step in and provide what the public wants). As for those libraries that are left standing, there won't be money to pay for professional librarians to staff them, so those will be replaced with volunteers from the general public (because, to paraphrase Jeremy Clarkson, how hard can it be to put books back on shelves?).

Here is the transcript of a speech from Philip Pullman, delivered at a meeting to save Oxfordshire's libraries, about why this ostensibly economically rational measure is actually an act of gross cultural and social vandalism:

Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves? And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose lives are so empty, whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities of any sort, and yet are so wealthy that they can commit hours of their time every week to working for nothing? Who are these volunteers? Do you know anyone who could volunteer their time in this way? If there’s anyone who has the time and the energy to work for nothing in a good cause, they are probably already working for one of the voluntary sector day centres or running a local football team or helping out with the league of friends in a hospital. What’s going to make them stop doing that and start working in a library instead?
Imagine two communities that have been told their local library is going to be closed. One of them is full of people with generous pension arrangements, plenty of time on their hands, lots of experience of negotiating planning applications and that sort of thing, broadband connections to every household, two cars in every drive, neighbourhood watch schemes in every road, all organised and ready to go. ... I’m not knocking them. But they do have certain advantages that the other community, the second one I’m talking about, does not. There people are out of work, there are a lot of single parent households, young mothers struggling to look after their toddlers, and as for broadband and two cars, they might have a slow old computer if they’re lucky and a beaten-up old van and they dread the MOT test – people for whom a trip to the centre of Oxford takes a lot of time to organise, a lot of energy to negotiate, getting the children into something warm, getting the buggy set up and the baby stuff all organised, and the bus isn’t free, either – you can imagine it. Which of those two communities will get a bid organised to fund their local library?
The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs. That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for.

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2010/12/29

After the embarrassment of the Labour government having to sack a drug policy advisor for making a scientific case against drug prohibition, the new Con-Dem government has moved to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen again, by removing scientists from its drug control committee, and allowing the government to unilaterally decide which drugs to ban without interference from scientists who know nothing about public morality or political expediency. This, incidentally, completely discards the Liberal Democrats' platform, which promised an evidence-based drug policy centred around harm minimisation, though it has already been established that Liberal Democrat pledges made before the election are, to use a term from Australian politics, "non-core promises", so no great surprise there.

(To be fair, it could be a lot worse if the Tories had power in their own right; for one, the BBC is still standing, and the Tories' debt to News Corporation still unsettled in that regard, and there is the possibility of the electoral system being reformed. Nonetheless, the Liberal Democrats have either drank the Kool-Aid and turned into doctrinaire neo-Thatcherites or are being held hostage. Not surprisingly, they seem to be finished as a moderate, progressive third party; perhaps we can expect the old Social Democratic wing to fall off, joining that more moderate neo-Thatcherite party, Labour, with a few idealists going to the Greens, and the rump becoming the wet wing of the Tories.)

Under the new policy, scientific assessment of the danger of drugs will be replaced by a classification of drugs into two categories: "evil" and "non-evil", which relate to the spiritual and moral harm caused to the fabric of society as perceived by the readership of the Daily Mail. "Evil" drugs are those like cannabis, heroin, LSD and MDMA, whereas "non-evil" drugs include alcohol and tobacco. This is a scientific fact; there is no evidence for it, but it is a scientific fact.

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2010/12/23

The British government has confirmed its high-speed rail plans. HS2, the first high-speed line not going to France, will go from Euston (and not, thankfully, a new terminus out at Heathrow) to Birmingham. Trains will run at up to 250mph (i.e., faster than the Eurostar/TGV), putting Birmingham within 49 minutes of London. The line will also connect to HS1, allowing trains to run between Paris and Birmingham, and will later be extended north to Leeds and Manchester, and possibly further north. The first segment is expected to open in 2026, assuming that the residents in the well-heeled Tory heartland it will run through don't succeed in scuppering it.

Moving tens of thousands of daily travelers to the new line will allow the West Coast Main Line to be freed for local, regional, and freight services. The creation of new terminals in London, Birmingham, and the other cities served will encourage more downtown development. The government recognizes the economic benefits of increased spending on mobility infrastructure.
I wonder what the new Euston will look like. I imagine it'll have to be an improvement over the current one, a squat, 1960s-vintage box whose platforms have all the charm of an industrial loading dock. Perhaps they'll even rebuild the magnificent Doric arch which stood at the front of it before someone at British Rail decided to demolish it. (Apparently they found parts of it recently.)
If a Conservative government in the United Kingdom is willing to fund its project, in spite of massive cuts to the rest of the public budget, it’s hard to understand why bipartisan agreement in favor of investment in U.S. infrastructure in the form of high-speed rail cannot be assembled.
Oh, there are rightwingers in Britain who would want to scrap rail projects and stop the "politically correct war on motorists". The thing is, they're only represented by fringe parties such as the UKIP, the editorials of the Daily Mail and Jeremy Clarkson.

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2010/12/18

Johann Hari writes that, for the first time, he is hearing Britons say that they are too scared to protest:

So now we know. When our politicians complained over the past few decades, in a low, sad tone, that our young people were “too apathetic” and “disengaged”, it was a lie. A great flaring re-engagement of the young has take place this year. With overwhelmingly peaceful tactics, they are demanding policies that are supported by the majority of the British people – and our rulers are trying to truncheon, kettle and intimidate them back into apathy.
This slow constriction of the right to protest has been happening for decades now. Under New Labour, protesters outside parliament started to have to ask permission and suddenly found themselves prosecuted for “anti-social behaviour.” In 2009, a man who had committed no violence or threats at all died after being attacked by a police officer on the streets of London at a protest - and nobody has ever been punished. Now the Metropolitan Police’s instinctive response to any group of protesters is to surround them and ‘kettle’ – that is, arbitrarily imprison – them for up to ten hours in the freezing cold, with no food, water, or toilets. It doesn’t matter how peaceful you were. You are trapped.
As the government pushes through unpopular measures, such as the ConDems' "fair-minded" sweeping cuts to services, whilst preserving tax breaks for the super-rich, such intimidatory measures could be essential to maintaining social acquiescence. Though, when the idea of consent of the governed is compromised, ordinary people will pay the price:
There is a cost to this chilling of protest. Every British citizen is the beneficiary of a long line of protesters stretching back through the centuries. Every woman reading this can vote and open her own bank account and choose her own husband and have a career because protesters demanded it. Every worker gets at least £5.93 an hour, and paid holidays, and paid sick leave, because protesters demanded it. Every pensioner gets enough to survive because protesters demand it. What what your life would be like if all those protesters through all those years had been frightened into inactivity? If you block the right to protest, you block the path to progress. You are left instead at the whim of an elite, whose priority is tax cuts for themselves, paid for with spending cuts for the poor.
In Britain, we are not suffering from an excess of civil disobedience. We are suffering from an excess of civil obedience. Our government is pursuing dozens of policies we, the people, know to be immoral – from bombing civilians in Afghanistan to kicking away the ladder that lets hard-working poor children stay on at school. We aren’t wrong when we challenge these injustices. We are wrong when we stay silent. As Oscar Wilde said: “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

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2010/12/16

Julian Assange is free on bail, while he awaits Sweden's extradition case against him. According to his lawyer, he was kept in the same cell in Wandsworth Prison that had previously housed Oscar Wilde. (Perhaps it's the celebrity suite?)

Of course, it is widely argued that the Swedish allegations (note: not charges), nebulous as they are, are merely the phony war before the main event, an attempt to extradite Assange to the US and make an example of him so that nobody tries aything like WikiLeaks again, and harmony is restored across the New World Order. The British government appealing against the bail decision, and claiming that the Swedish prosecutor had done so (which the Swedes denied) also adds to the suspicion. Earlier, Assange's lawyer claimed that, according to Swedish sources, a grand jury has already been impanelled in secret in Alexandria, Virginia. The latest rumours say that the US won't seek to try Assange for espionage (which was assumed to be shaky), but to try him for conspiracy, making a case that he conspired with accused leaker Bradley Manning. Given that Manning is likely to face capital treason charges and is being held in conditions said to amount to torture, he'd have a strong incentive to remember evidence implicating Assange. The problem with this is that it is only slightly less problematic, as according to some commentators, it would also criminalise investigative journalism in general.

If the US Government just wants to put the frighteners on other potential troublemakers, they could attempt to try Assange in a closed military tribunal, arguing that evidence for the prosecution (i.e., ECHELON intercepts or similar) cannot be revealed to civilians. Everybody will suspect it's a kangaroo court, but will also know that you don't fuck with Uncle Sam.

That is, of course, assuming that the British government agrees to extradite Assange to the US. It could always stand up and tell the Yanks where to stick their conspiracy charge. By the same token, England could always win the World Cup in 2014. In all likelihood, assuming that the US gives its assurances that the prosecution will not be seeking the death penalty (the main sticking point with EU countries), extradition should be straightforward. In the unlikely occurrence that extraditing him is politically unpalatable, Britain could just cancel his visa and deport him to Australia (the only country he is believed to hold citizenship), where, if PM Julia Gillard is any authority on the matter, he would be handed over to the FBI as soon as his plane landed. (They don't mess around with finicky issues of civil liberties in former penal colonies.)

Meanwhile, Assange is not the only one to fall foul of the European Arrest Warrant system, which establishes the legal fiction that all European justice systems are equivalent and requires European countries to honour other countries' arrest warrants automatically, and has led to some absurd situations:

This month I watched proceedings in Westminster magistrates' court as Jacek Jaskolski, a disabled 58-year-old science teacher, fought an EAW issued against him by his native Poland. Jaskolski – also the primary carer for his disabled wife – has been in the UK since 2004. His crime? Ten years ago, when he still lived in Poland, Jaskolski went over his bank overdraft limit.
In 2008 a Polish man was extradited for theft of a dessert from a restaurant, using a European arrest warrant containing a list of the ingredients. People are being flown to Poland in specially chartered planes to answer charges that would not be thought worthy of an arrest in the UK, while we pick up the tab for police, court, experts' and lawyers' time to process a thousand cases a year. This whole costly system is based on the assumption that the criminal justice systems of countries such as Poland are reasonable enough that it is worth complying with all their requests.
Meanwhile, the net is closing around those involved in online activist/terrorist group Anonymous: a Greek designer has been arrested after leaving his details in a press release, and Scotland Yard say that they have been monitoring the group since their attacks on copyright enforcement groups. It is not clear whether post-9/11 antiterrorism powers are being used.

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2010/12/14

The new face of terrorism in the UK? A 12-year-old schoolboy in Eynsham, Oxfordshire was taken out of his class by anti-terrorism police, and threatened with arrest after starting a Facebook group to protest to the Prime Minister against the closure of a youth club:

Speaking to the Guardian, Nicky Wishart said: "In my lesson, [a school secretary] came and said my head of year wanted to talk to me. She was in her office with a police officer who wanted to talk to me about the protest. He said, 'if a riot breaks out we will arrest people and if anything happens you will get arrested because you are the organiser'.
Via MetaFilter, whose discussion thread includes this particularly insightful comment, by one "SysRq":
More and more, I get the feeling that the anti- in "anti-terror" doesn't refer to ideological opposition so much as directional opposition, as in anti-clockwise; whereas "terror" is the psychological warfare of The Enemy upon The State, "anti-terror" is the psychological warfare of The State upon itself — a sort of national autoimmune disorder.

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An observation I recently had about the way the various classes of "indie" music fall across the spectrum of class in Britain:

Discuss.

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2010/12/7

Julian Assange has been arrested in London, and is facing an extradition hearing to do with some somewhat suspicious-looking rape charges in Sweden. There is triumphal news coverge in the US, with statements like "the international manhunt is over"; in the official narrative, this is a high-value terrorist mastermind who has just been captured.

It looks like Assange is about to find out what happens to those who pick a fight with a hegemonic superpower. (Hint: they don't use lubricant.) Wikileaks, however, intend to keep publishing. How they'll keep funding the organisation is unknown, given that MasterCard has now suspended all card payments to them, and it's likely that Visa will follow suit.

I wonder whether Assange will even make it to Sweden, or whether (a) the rape charges will evaporate into thin air as soon as the US submits an extradition request (they don't have any laws they could charge him under—the 1917 Espionage Act is somewhat shaky on the matter—but they do have the benefit of a compliant British government who might reasonably be trusted to rubber-stamp and fast-track an extradition request in the interest of the "Special Relationship" if given a half-plausible pretext to do so), or (b) the plane chartered to take him to Sweden will take a detour to Guantanámo or Diego Garcia (or some pro-US Middle Eastern government with practiced torturers and reasons to be pissed off about their back-room dealings with the infidels having been made public). Perhaps they'll even find some child pornography on his laptop beforehand, just to underscore that this is a bad, bad man, and not any kind of martyr.

Of course, this is just one ringleader being made an example of. Wikileaks is still out there, and still drip-feeding the world with its revelations for now, and there is a list of mirrors in case the main site is shut down, and symphathisers are hosting an encrypted file, allegedly containing very damaging revelations. However, the NSA has acknowledged that it is monitoring traffic to and from Wikileaks, and thus probably has a good list of downloaders. Social network analysis can find people they know who may have anti-US or anti-establishment sympathies. A series of synchronised raids by law enforcement and security services, seizing or "sanitizing" computers, may destroy most copies of the data and, more importantly, put the frighteners on anyone thinking of sticking their head up and saying "I too am Wikileaks".

In the longer term, though, another Wikileaks will happen sooner or later unless they reengineer the internet from the ground up to eliminate the possibility of anonymity and provide mechanisms of centralised control. The MPAA and RIAA have been pushing aggressively for this for reasons of protecting their intellectual-property-licensing business models, but now Wikileaks may have made this a matter of priority. Perhaps from now on, we can expect the US to agree with China that the internet should be made controllable.

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2010/12/3

David Cameron, Britain's Tory Prime Minister, has on occasion professed his love of 1980s indie band The Smiths, known for their staunchly left-wing politics and anti-Thatcherite proclamations. And now, Johnny Marr has replied, forbidding David Cameron from liking The Smiths:

David Cameron, stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don't. I forbid you to like it.
less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone
And here is a piece from the Daily Torygraph, er, Telegraph's music critic, in defense of Cameron's uncharacteristically left-wing musical tastes, writing before the election, pointing out Morrissey's recently small-c-conservative views and claiming that at least Cameron was more genuinely into the music he professes a liking for than the New Labour politicians whose tastes are blandly focus-grouped:
Personally, I am tremendously heartened when a political leader actually demonstrates genuine and quite sophisticated cultural tastes, instead of getting spin doctors to compile their iPod playlists for them (with every song a political message). Or, like Gordon Brown, dropping clunking references to contemporary popular favourites such as the Arctic Monkeys and Harry Potter when we all know he is really ensconced in his study reading economic history and perhaps listening to a ‘Best Of’ classical compilation that his wife bought him for Christmas.
When I ran into David Cameron at the BBC once, I asked him what was the last CD he bought. Without a moment’s hesitation, he named a new album from an obscure American band called Modest Mouse, who had been working with Morrissey’s old Smiths’ collaborator Johnny Marr (who played every date on Red Wedge’s original tour). I am not sure what credibility it gives him to tackle global economic meltdown, but he is certainly the hippest party leader.
(Modest Mouse are obscure?)

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2010/12/2

Twitter has denied rumours that it suppressed traffic promoting student demonstrations in the UK at the request of the police. The allegations claim that the #demo2010 hashtag had been suppressed from trending topics, and that the Twitter account "UCLOccupation", used by protest coordinators, had been disabled during the protests; Twitter claims that there was no censorship of trending hashtags and no disabling of accounts.

It's not clear why the organisers were unable to use the UCLOccupation account during the protest; perhaps it coincided with part of Twitter's network being down. The other alternative is that the internet surveillance powers Britain's authorities have allow them to use deep-packet inspection to selectively suppress the traffic of troublemakers as to maintain order, and that the surveillance boxes installed on all internet trunks have facilities to take out Twitter posts in this fashion. That wouldn't explain the non-appearance of the #demo2010 hashtag, though, unless the government's black boxes were designed to suppress posts for everyone but the original poster.

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2010/11/29

It's paedogeddon: A school in Welwyn Garden City, north of London, has taken to blacking out pupils' eyes in school photographs, to prevent perverts from photoshopping their faces onto pornographic images. Each copy of a school photograph issued to a parent has the eyes of all children other than that parent's own occluded by black lines, just in case. Parents are also banned from taking photographs at the school's nativity play, just in case they might turn out to be paedophiles.

Applecroft Primary School has not commented on alleged plans to fit all children with containers containing pressurised sewage, which can be remotely detonated in the event of a paedophile attack.

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2010/11/28

The heartwarming diversity of the far right (an ongoing series): Nationalist/anti-immigrant group the English Defence League, best known for their anti-Muslim marches in immigrant neighbourhoods (which, they stress, have nothing to do with hatred for brown-skinned people who pray funny and eat food that smells weird, but everything to do with saving Britain (Muslim population: 2.7%) from imminently becoming an Islamic dictatorship) are now attempting to reach out to neglected constituencies such as Jews and gays, promising not to kick their heads in if they join with them to fight the creeping Islamicisation of Britain:

It claims that these inter-faith tensions were brought into sharp focus last month when the senior US Jewish leader and Tea Party activist Rabbi Nachum Shifren denounced Islam at a EDL rally outside the Israeli Embassy in London. Israeli flags have also been spotted at several EDL demonstrations across the UK.
It's not clear how genuine the suspension of the far right's traditional anti-Semitism is. Perhaps, by showing that they can break heads with the best of them, the Jews (well, at least the ones in Israel) have won the respect of the far right; no longer the effete, treacherous, baby-blood-drinking Grabblers of the Protocols, they are now seen as God-fearing cowboy frontiersmen and/or fellow shaven-headed headkickers. Or perhaps the neo-Nazis intend to deal with them once the Muslims are out of the way.
As well as aggravating religious tensions, the EDL has established a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Division to "defend" gay people from Sharia law. There are also specialist divisions for women, soldiers and disabled people. The report warns these communities to be vigilant against "selective racism" and the EDL's attempts at manipulation.
The EDL are also making overtures to feminist groups, raising the spectre of the far left making common cause with Islamists; after all, the reasoning seems to go, being stoned to death under Sharia law would be worse than being struck regularly like a gong, as one of the EDL's fellow travellers from the BNP recommended.

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2010/11/23

The latest nightspot in the old Sloane heartland of Chelsea is Maggie's Nightclub, a club inspired by Margaret Thatcher's decade in office. Maggie's includes photos of Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (I wonder whether there are any of her close friend General Augusto Pinochet), and speakers in the bathroom play a loop of the audiobook of the Iron Lady's diaries. The club has a £15 entry price and £250 fee for a table, and may or may not be ironic:

So, I ask the club's co-owner, Charlie Gilkes, is this the nocturnal equivalent of a neo-liberal manifesto? No, no, no, argues the Old Etonian, who opened Maggie's with his business partner Duncan Stirling earlier this year. "It's not a Tory club," he says carefully, but rather a tribute to the 80s – a bit of "childhood nostalgia for the decade of our birth". The reference to Britain's most divisive politician, he says, is tongue-in-cheek. "I know she's divisive, but I do admire her. She's a leader."
In this 80s, Thatcher-era themed club, bottles of champagne signed by the Iron Lady go for £5,000, but I make do with a Ferris Bueller Fizz, priced £10.50. A Super Mario mural adorns another facade and every table in sight has been made to look like a giant Rubik's cube, while a Neil Kinnock figurine takes pride of place next to Gilkes's own childhood collection of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Regular attendees apparently include Adam Ant and Tony Hadley, frontman of Spandau Ballet, who soundtracked part of the Iron Lady's reign. It's not clear what the playlist is: I'm guessing it'd be heavy on the 1980s yuppie wine-bar sophistisoul, include a bit of Bryan Ferry, perhaps some Stock/Aitken/Waterman chart pop to get people dancing, and the odd piece by Lord Lloyd-Webber in the chill-out room, with perhaps a Billy Bragg tune thrown in for irony. (Momus' Don't Stop The Night would also be a good ironic fit, though might be a bit obscure.)

Perhaps in ten years' time, someone will open a place in Islington named Tony's, which will play only Britpop, D:Ream and the Spice Girls, and have an ironic map of Iraq on one wall.

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2010/11/22

An investigation by the BBC's Panorama programme has revealed that children in Britain's Islamic schools are being taught from the Saudi national curriculum, which includes lessons such as the "reprehensible" qualities of Jews and the proper ways in chopping off the hands and feet of thieves.

It claims to have found 5,000 Muslim schoolchildren being taught that some Jews are transformed into pigs and apes and that the penalty for gay sex is execution. Some textbooks are said to teach the correct way to chop off the hands and feet of thieves. A spokesman for the programme said the pupils, aged six to 18, attend a network of more than 40 weekend schools across the country which teach the Saudi national curriculum to Muslim children.
Another illustration of why "faith schools" are a bad idea.

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2010/11/20

The story usually told about British brewing goes something like this: since time immemorial, Britain has had a fine tradition of brewing rich, foamy ales, in shades from amber to nut-brown. Then someone invented lager, which was cheap and convenient, and the undiscerning masses abandoned the venerable traditions of old in droves, instead choosing to down pints of ice-cold Foster's and Carling, and soon the "pint of mild" all but disappeared. As would English ale have altogether, were it not for the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), a sort of Village Green Preservation Society of beer comprised largely of paunchy, hirsute middle-aged men in handkerchief hats, who have so far successfully managed to preserve the tradition, coining the term "Real Ale", and expelling the serpent of unwelcome innovation, such as pressurised kegs, from the Edenic garden that is the British pub. The subtext here being that any use of technologies more recent than a few centuries ago is somehow cheating, and the slippery slope to forgetting Britain's fine heritage and gormlessly pouring pints of bland, gaseous lager down one's gob like some kind of benighted colonial.

Now, however, a new generation of British craft brewers is challenging the CAMRA orthodoxy, and its claim to ownership of proper beer in Britain:

The Scotsman believes Camra holds back innovation in the UK; he takes his inspiration from the US, where a wildly innovative new breed of brewers have revolutionised American beer.
Watt prefers to see his beers served from a keg than a cask, an approach that brings him into conflict with many of the craft brewers who have sprung up across the UK in recent years. "We want to get beyond the people who currently drink good beers in the UK," he explains. "We want to convert fizzy yellow lager drinkers into craft beer aficionados. The easiest way to do that is with keg – if you give them a cask ale, it's so alien, it's much warmer and it doesn't have the nice mouth feel. Keg is much better for the beers we produce."
More power to them; in the USA and Australia, where traditions are less entrenched, there is a lot of mass-market swill, but also a lot of superb craft breweries. Perhaps, in adopting the idea of Real Ale as the sole bulwark against homogeneous corporate lager, Britain is erring too much on the side of conservatism.

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2010/11/17

In major news stories recently:

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The Dorset Police, it seems, are feeling the downside of privatisation: the force has instructed its officers to send text messages rather than talking on their radios. A spokesman for the police force (i.e., management) has said it's a simple measure to improve the efficiency of the control room, and has nothing to do with the £2 per second levied on the police force by the private operator of its radio system; the head of the Dorset Police Federation (i.e., the employees), however, begs to differ:

"Particularly if you have a major incident or a normal Friday or Saturday night, we're going to use the radios quite a lot. If they go over the estimated level then a surcharge kicks in, that's £2 a second, which I think is extortionate - especially at a time when people in the police service are losing their jobs."
It may be that sending a text is more efficient; if the police radios have buttons or menus for sending standardised updates, perhaps tagged with coordinates, it could be, though if the officer has to stop and thumb in a message, that probably won't be the case*. And it's unlikely that there is so little capacity on the emergency service airwaves that the police have to ration their communications. So this looks rather like another case of, at some time in the great Blatcherite orgy of privatisation, the government of the day having eyed the police radio network and decided that, if they sold it to a private company, it'd top up the budget nicely up to the next election, when it became the next government's problem. And now, with the new age of austerity, we have police officers being told not to use their radios because every second that they do so is £2 from their budget to a private company.

*I haven't examined a police radio, but I suspect that devices developed for a largely captive institutional market will be slow to benefit from the interface-design innovations of more competitive markets; except in cases such as the US military, which has famously spent billions on human-interface research. Judging by the photographs I've seen, I'd guess that the interface of a police radio is comparable to that of a late-1990s Nokia phone in terms of design.

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2010/11/15

Out with the old, in with the new: Britain's Con-Dem government invites fast food companies like McDonalds and PepsiCo to help write health policy. Presumably New Labour's approach was too anti-business or something (damn those radical Blairite crypto-socialists). Meanwhile, despite being one of Europe's thinnest nations, Denmark is imposing a tax on junk food, out of the fear its citizens may become as obese as the British:

I met one Danish couple who are raising three young children on a modest income in what is already the most highly-taxed nation in Europe. But they do not resent the government adding further to their grocery bills; far from it.
At his heaviest Lars jokes that he had the belly of "an English hooligan".
Britons, it seems, are, in stereotype, the Americans of Europe.

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2010/11/4

Britain's privatised train companies are clamping down on unauthorised use of train timetable data, which they hold is proprietary intellectual property; they just shut down a (not-for-profit) web-based train timetables app a user wrote, and are now issuing licenses only to a few paying customers, who pass the cost on. One of these is the National Rail iPhone app, which costs £4.99, and despite the price, has spent a lot of time in the App Store Top 25; such are the economics of monopoly rents. Meanwhile, those who don't like trains quite enough to shell out a fiver for a timetable app (or fiddle around with their mobile browser navigating web sites, tapping, pinching and zooming, for a few minutes) just give up and fly (taking advantage of numerous free flight booking apps), drive or catch a bus, and Britain's carbon footprint grows.

Such is the nature of the short-termist capitalism inherent in the national ideology of Thatcherism-Blairism, which holds that (a) everything is a market, (b) the market is the most efficient solution to all problems, and (c) if there's a value in anything, there is a right to be licensed and monetised to the extent the market will bear, for the good of the shareholders (and likely party donors).

Meanwhile, there is a petition of sorts requesting the Office of Public Sector Information to make train timetable data freely available as one of the UK Government's data sets and/or pressure the train companies into not guarding it quite as jealously.

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2010/10/25

Charlie Brooker writes about Nick Clegg, the Good Cop of the Coalition behind the deepest economic cuts since 1918, in his inimitable style:

It's hard not to detect an air of crushed self-delusion about all this. At times Clegg sounds like a once-respected stage actor who's taken the Hollywood dollar and now finds himself sitting at a press junket, patiently telling a reporter that while, yes, on the face of it, his role as the Fartmonster in Guff Ditch III: Fartmonster's Revenge may look like a cultural step down from his previous work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, if you look beyond all the scenes of topless women being dissolved by clouds of acrid methane, the Guff Ditch trilogy actually contains more intellectual sustenance than King Lear, and that all the critics who've seen the film and are loudly claiming otherwise are misguided, partisan naysayers hell- bent on cynically misleading the public – which is ethically wrong.
On being the middle segment of a "human centipede": "I've heard a lot of people say, "urgh, Nick, have you seen that film The Human Centipede, where the mad scientist joins three people together by stitching them rectum-to-mouth? Can you imagine how disgusting that'd be in real life?" And I can see how they might leap to that conclusion. But real life is about compromise – sometimes we simply have to swallow a few unpleasant things in the name of pragmatism. In many ways, the coalition is a human centipede – a group of united individuals, all pulling together in one direction – and let me tell you, from the inside, it's surprisingly cosy."
It looks like being associated with the Tories is doing to the Liberal Democrats what being associated with the Bush administration did to New Labour; in the recent Tower Hamlets election, the Lib Dem candidate polled only slightly better than the Greens. Mind you, in that case, he was the Bad Cop; while the Tory put on a nondescriptly conciliatory platform, desperately trying to evade any lingering associations with Thatcher's Nasty Party, the Lib Dem went out and promised to shut down arts centres and other such wasteful activities.

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2010/10/21

Website of the day: Is Margaret Thatcher Dead Yet?. Arguably in rather poor taste, rather like, say, the "Gotcha!" headline upon the sinking of the Belgrano.

A few years ago, New Labour offered Thatcher the first state funeral for a PM since Winston Churchill, as if to further underscore their non-socialist credentials. Meanwhile, anarchists and socialists of various stripes have, for some years, been planning a massive party in Trafalgar Square on the Saturday after her death. I imagine the police are aware of this and have made plans to deal with it.

I can see why people whose communities were impoverished, as if in a campaign of collective punishment for having supported Labour, by the somewhat callous way Thatcher presided over the economic readjustments might rejoice in her passing. though, given that Britain is facing the most severe economic cuts since 1918, I imagine their celebrations will be somewhat muted.

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2010/10/10

A chap in Russia has posted scans from a book of ads from the British motor company Rootes, circa 1961. The ads are all beautifully illustrated, looking somewhere between the illustrations in vintage children's books and a subtly Anglicised take on the 1950s American Dream (the cars gleam and present seductive images of freedom and leisure, though the tailfins have a subtle, very British, understatement about them).

This was once the heady height of modernity. Air travel was still expensive, and the trains still ran on coal, but Britain had a shiny new motorway system, and for the cost of a gleaming car, it was yours to explore. Oil was cheap, and as far as anyone could tell, would remain cheap forever.

Adding even more texture to it, a number of the ads are in Russian. The book was produced for an exposition in Moscow; perhaps, at the height of the brief thaw of the Khrushchev administration, the executives of Rootes imagined that Russians may soon be enjoying a version of the British take on the American Dream?

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2010/10/8

The Graun's Alexis Petridis looks at the one genre of 1970s musical entertainment not yet revived or reappropriated by anyone: cabaret pop, which, by his description, is a lukewarm broth of reactionary light entertainment aired on British television throughout the 70s. Cabaret pop pointedly ignored all the stylistic innovations of the past decade, and was so unabashedly naff that it makes Eurovision look polished by comparison:

These days, we tend to view the years 1965 to 1968 as a high watermark of daring creativity, greeted with untrammelled delight at the time: after all, who wouldn't prefer Jimi Hendrix to Gerry and the Pacemakers? Look at the charts, however, and the answer seems to be: loads of people. The shift from pop to rock, and all the things bound up with it – drugs, dissent, the rise of the counterculture – clearly horrified as many record buyers as it delighted, and they responded by buying music as far from the cutting edge as it's possible to imagine. The incident in which Engelbert Humperdinck's Release Me kept Strawberry Fields Forever off the top of the charts wasn't an aberration, it was part of a trend. By late 1969, the predominant style in the UK singles chart is reactionary gloop. The Stones' Honky Tonk Women and the Temptations' Cloud Nine are fighting for space not just with Englebert, but with Clodagh Rodgers, Ken Dodd, Joe Dolan and Karen Young.
You're struck by how utterly cut off all this music seems from anything else happening at the time. There's not the vaguest intimation of glam rock or soul or singer-songwriterisms about the artists' sound or appearance. Children's TV was packed with pop music in the 70s – Lift Off With Ayshea, Supersonic, Get It Together, Shang-A-Lang – but a decade after the Times approved of the Beatles' Aeolian cadences, it's clear that no one working in light entertainment considered rock or pop music suitable mainstream entertainment for adults. When the Three Degrees appear on The Wheeltappers and Shunters, all hotpants and inoffensive Philly soul, the audience look aghast and baffled: you'd have thought Kraftwerk had just come on and played Autobahn in its entirety.
Even more astonishing is the way the musicians have shut themselves off from pop's recent past. You might have thought at least the Beatles' oeuvre had swiftly attained standard status, that Yesterday or Something might be precisely the kind of thing the balladeers with the shag-pile sideburns would gravitate towards, but no: it's still clearly considered too racy. During my light entertainment marathon, I hear two Beatles songs. One is courtesy of Little and Large: Syd Little sings Till There Was You while Eddie Large interrupts him doing impressions of Deputy Dawg. The other is Can't Buy Me Love, performed by the Morton Fraser Harmonica Gang: three men huffing away accompanied by a dancing midget in a wig.
Cabaret pop's most lasting contribution to pop culture may well have been being an irritant which contributed to the welling up of rage that brought about punk and the explosion of rule-breaking creativity that followed:
From a distance of nearly 40 years, punk can be hard to grasp: not the music, but the spitting and the swastikas and the fuck-everything nihilistic rage. But when you're drowning in light entertainment pop, you start to get an inkling of why so many people were so eager not just to listen to the Sex Pistols – that's obvious – but to indulge in all punk's unsavoury gestures. It's partly because anything, even dressing up like a Nazi and coming home covered in someone else's flob, was more entertaining than staying at home and watching three men play harmonicas accompanied by a dancing midget in a wig, and partly because, judging by what constituted mainstream popular entertainment in the 70s, not one of the previous decade's supposed revolutions had affected wider popular culture at all. The youth culture of the preceding decade seemed to have failed: to anyone watching the TV, Britain still looked trapped in the 1950s.
It's not clear whether this will remain cabaret pop's only claim to historical significance, or whether it will end up, eventually, being reappropriated by someone. Perhaps it'll be an adjunct to wickerfolk or hypnagogic pop, the insipid blandness and lack of artistic significance compared to the other things revived (from 1970s folk revivalism to radiophonic library music) merely a red rag to the bull of hipster irony. Perhaps someone will sample it, and the white-gowned ladies and dancing midgets will enjoy a post-ironic new lease of life at festivals. (Stranger things have happened; the Australians reading this will recall Kamahl's transition from ultra-bland crooner to ironic Big Day Out performer.) Or perhaps cabaret pop, without the antediluvian cool of lounge music, the polyester smoothness of yacht rock or the subtle undertones of the outré that shade the folk and radiophonica of that epoch, is truly beyond redemption as a subject of sincere interest going beyond half an hour of cringing at fuzzy YouTube videos; one of those things there isn't enough hipster irony in the observable universe to redeem.

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2010/9/24

In this economic downturn, spare a thought for the British royal family; the costs of heating all those palaces are becoming so burdensome that the Queen asked ministers for a handoud from the state poverty fund to heat them; a request which was, eventually, politely rebuffed:

Royal aides were told that the £60m worth of energy-saving grants were aimed at families on low incomes and if the money was given to Buckingham Palace instead of housing associations or hospitals it could lead to "adverse publicity" for the Queen and the Government.
Taxpayers already contribute £38m to pay for the Royal Family. Yet some of the buildings which would have benefited from the energy grant were occupied by minor royals living in grace and favour accommodation on the royal estates. Surprisingly the Government offered no resistance to the proposed application and cleared the way for the Queen to take advantage of the handout.
Though to be fair, those palaces are appallingly inefficient to heat:
Last year thermal imaging technology, used to identify and measure energy waste, showed heat pouring through the closed curtained windows, the roof and cracks in the walls. A team of energy surveyors labelled the Palace "shocking and appalling", the biggest "central heating radiator" in the capital and gave it a score of 0 out of 10.
You'd think that Prince Charles, that great ecologist, would take some time out from promoting homeopathy and waging war against nontraditional architecture to get some insulation installed, but alas, it doesn't seem to have happened.

Perhaps another argument for moving to a Dutch/Scandinavian-style "bicycle monarchy", in which the Royal Family earns its own keep? (A republic may be attractive to the more left-wing at heart, though it can be argued that the Royal Family is a cornerstone of British cultural "soft power", and its loss would weaken Britain's standing in the world. Having said that, one could say that the accession of Prince Charles may well end up doing that.) The Royal Family occupy that curious space between government institutions and popular entertainment; they have vestigial constitutional functions (mouthing whatever words the government of the day pens, opening Parliament), for which they are richly compensated, but the rest of their functions are providing fodder for celebrity gossip magazines and enticement for foreign tourists to visit these "quaint" isles. Perhaps if it was acknowledged that the Royal Family are part of the tourism and entertainment industries, they could be paid by these industries, in return for giving them more value for money than under the inefficient old system. Minor royals could become "tourism ambassadors", doing everything from international tours to viral video spots to get Japanese and Americans over here; a US-style surcharge on tourist visas to fund tourism promotion could help with the civil list. Meanwhile, one palace could be given over to a reality-TV company, with the royals spending a specified period of time in it, in front of the cameras, giving the paying public what they want; the revenue could be used to maintain and heat all their palaces.

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2010/9/23

A new quality-of-life survey has named the UK and Ireland the worst places to live in Europe, due to long working hours and high costs.

The UK has the 4th highest age – 63.1 – at which people choose or can afford to take retirement, and one of the lowest holiday entitlements. Net household income in the UK is just £2,314 above the European average, compared with £10,000 above average last year, falling behind Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark.
UK workers enjoy a week less holiday than the European average and three weeks less than the Spanish, while the UK's spend (as a percentage of GDP) on health and education is below the European average and UK food and diesel prices are the highest in Europe. Unleaded petrol, electricity, alcohol and cigarettes all cost more than the average across the continent.
("Europe" presumably means the EU; I imagine that, for example, the people of Transnistria would have somewhat more to complain about than a miserly four weeks of leave a year and high prices at the supermarket.)

The best place to live in Europe is right across the Channel, in France.

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2010/8/26

A Welsh artist is recruiting people to stand outside Cardiff City Hall looking miserable tomorrow from 1pm to 2pm. Barrie Davies intends the "sulkathon" to "capture the mood of the moment".

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2010/8/23

The perils of automated spellchecking have been illustrated in spectacular fashion in a leaflet promoting cycling published by Kirklees Council (or Kirtles Council, as the leaflet would have it):

Kirklees Council had 7,000 leaflets printed but they repeatedly spell Kirklees as Kirtles, Cleckheaton became Czechisation, Birstall ended up as Bistable and Kirkburton as Kirkpatrick.
The mangled spelling also affected the names of local bike shops, with Spen Velo becoming Supen Vole.
Even more bizarrely, an email address for British Waterways was given as: enquiries.manic-depressive@brutalisation's.co.uk

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2010/7/11

The rise in the use of antidepressants in Britain could be threatening shrimp populations across the coast; scientists have found that shrimp exposed to fluoxetine (i.e., Prozac) concentrations similar to those in waste water are more likely to be fatally overconfident, swimming towards light where they'd be easier prey for predators.

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2010/7/6

Under the new Tory/LibDem coalition government, Britain has become the first country to clamp down on airport expansion because of climate considerations; the government scrapped the third runway at Heathrow, and has committed to refusing Gatwick and Stansted new runways.

“The emissions were a significant factor” in the decision to cancel the runway-building plans, Teresa Villiers, Britain’s minister of state for transport, said in an interview. “The 220,000 or so flights that might well come with a third runway would make it difficult to meet the targets we’d set for ourselves.” She said that local environmental concerns like noise and pollution around Heathrow also weighed into the decision.
The air travel industry is, expectedly, crying betrayal, while environmental activists are pleased, though uncomfortable with the decision coming from the despised Tories.

From what I understand it, the opposition to airport expansion was actually driven by the Tories, rather than having been grudgingly ceded to the Lib Dems. Could there be a Nixon-in-China thing happening here? New Labour, keen to not be mistaken for Old Labour, were anxious to avoid anything that seemed left-wing, such as opposing air travel. (It may not just have been Blairite triangulation; perhaps there was also a calculation that an ongoing age of cheap flights to credit-bought second homes in the Essex end of Spain, stag weekends in Estonia and Ecstasy-fuelled raves in the Balearics would keep the public's cool-Britannia love affair with New Labour burning, at least until the oil ran out.) The Tories, however, have less to prove as far as being pro-business goes, and can afford to pass by some of the more short-termist decisions.

A high-speed railway network is planned to replace domestic flights across Britain; it should be ready in about 20 years.

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2010/7/5

Some good news: the BBC Trust has rejected plans to close 6 Music, the BBC's non-commercially-driven music channel.

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2010/7/1

The Mayor of London is now talking about wiring the entire city, including the Tube, for wireless internet. Of course, it's unlikely to be free, as once mentioned; for one, it'll cost a fair bit, and also, with the Digital Economy Act, it's likely that proof of identity (or at least a credit card) will be required for copyright-enforcement purposes.

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2010/6/26

Police emergency phone lines in Manchester are being tied up by a nuisance caller who "chants, raps, sings, preaches and plays loud music" at the call handlers, often for five minutes at a time. The handlers are not allowed to hang up on a caller. The Greater Manchester Police have already blocked about 60 SIM cards he has called from, which has little effect; with cheap prepaid SIM cards, the mystery nuisance rapper seems to be making his way through the pool of unallocated mobile numbers:

During many of the calls, the operator answers the phone to be met with a barrage of music and rants. His rapping is difficult to decipher but during one call he started shouting about his citizen's rights.
Greater Manchester Police have taken the unusual step of releasing a recording of one of his raps, in an attempt to track him down. Which could have unintended consequences; if that became standard practice, nuisance calls to emergency services could become the next bootleg grimetape distribution channel after MP3 blogs—you get your rap out, and are acknowledged as a police-certified badass at the same time.

Meanwhile, there's a small mystery of a less antisocial sort in Aberdeen, where the Google Street View van photographed a man with a horse's head.

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2010/6/17

Delivering the Bafta Annual Television Lecture, Stephen Fry laments the infantilisation of British television, including favourites like Doctor Who:

Fry, who hosts QI, said that the programmes were "like a chicken nugget. Every now and again we all like it … But if you are an adult you want something surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong. "You want to try those things, because that's what being adult means."
Fry said he was not arguing that all television should be pompous, academic or intellectual. "But they ought to surprise and to astonish and to make us feel perhaps the possibility there is a world outside that we know nothing of to provoke us, to provoke in the best sense of the word, sometimes in the worst sense," he said. "To surprise us, to outrage us."
In other news, Japanese neuroscientists have found that monkeys enjoy watching television, or at least that viewing video of performing circus animals stimulates the pleasure centres in the monkeys' frontal lobes.

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2010/6/16

Some good news from London: Transport For London, who run the city's public transport networks, have announced that they will be opening access to all their data by the end of June. The data will include station locations, bus routes and timetable information, and will be free from restrictions for commercial or noncommercial use.

The data will be hosted at the London DataStore, a site set up to give the public access to data from public-sector organisations serving London. A few sets are already up, as well as a beta API which returns the locations of Tube trains heading for a specific station. Which could probably be worked into a mobile app to tell you when to start walking to the station. If they had something like this giving the positions and estimated arrival times of buses (whose travel times are considerably more chaotic than those of trains, and which often run less frequently, especially at night), that would be even more useful. (Some approximation of this facility exists in the LED displays, which are installed at some bus stops and sometimes are operational; a XML feed and a mobile web app would probably be a more cost-effective way of getting this information into the hands of commuters.)

Another thing that would be useful would be an API for the Transport for London Journey Planner; being able to ping a URL, passing an some postcodes or station names, a departure/arrival time and some other constraints, and get back, at your option, a maximum journey time or a list of suitable journeys, in XML or JSON format, would be useful in a lot of applications, from device- or application-specific front ends (i.e., a "take me home from here" mobile app) to ways of calculating the "inconvenience distance" between two points by counting travel time and changes (i.e.,in terms of travel convenience, Stratford is closer to Notting Hill than Stoke Newington, despite being further in geographical terms, as it's a straight trip on the Central Line).

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2010/6/5

The BBC News Magazine takes a look at the biggest-selling records of the 1960s, revealing that, in contrast with the super-groovy sounds later associated with the decade, they were, by all accounts, not very cool:

the best-sellers of the Sixties include healthy dollops of yodelling, crooning and clarinet-tootling among the recordings that are now part of the rock canon.
Among the 1960s biggest-selling recording artists in the UK were easy-listening crooners like Ken Dodd, Engelbert Humperdinck and Frank Ifield (who not only crooned and didn't rock but also yodelled; completely unironically, of course) and wobbleboard maestro Rolf Harris. As far as I know, none of them ever ended up on a Ben Sherman T-shirt.

Of course, the 1960s and "the 1960s" are completely different things and shouldn't be confused with each other. The former is a stretch of ten solar years, starting and finishing at arbitrary points, whereas the latter is a cultural construct created in retrospect by observing what happened in the former, filtering out inconveniently outlying points and making up stories about it until a narrative emerges. And as the narrative emerges, often events that happened get subsumed into the background. So, while in the 1960s, groovy youth culture flourished in reaction against a more square status quo, and this status quo was the backdrop; "the 1960s", however, were a riot of psychedelic colour and stylish coolness; everybody was a Mod or a Rocker or else taking acid and listening to the Beatles. Much like everybody in the 1970s was a punk, a disco dancer or a super-smooth yacht rocker, and the 1980s were all about new-wave synthpop, fluorescent colours and the odd bit of hair metal.

It's like a cultural equivalent of the psychoacoustic audio compression used in MP3 files. When a sound recording is encoded to a MP3 file, the algorithm analyses it and discards the frequencies that a human listener wouldn't notice. A MP3 file is essentially a caricature of the original recording made up of the more salient frequencies; your brain fills in the gaps and you don't notice the difference. In a similar way, the historical process of interpreting a decade involves thrashing out its salient characteristics and discarding the rest. It's an ongoing process, and "the 1960s" (and "the 1970s" and "the 1980s" and onward) keep evolving in line with contemporary tastes; "the 1960s" which The Bangles and Lenny Kravitz referenced in the 1980s is not the same as the more rockist, geezerish "the 1960s" of post-Britpop lad-indie Britain. Neither, however, featured Rolf Harris.

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2010/5/24

In the wake of Brighton electing Westminster's first Green MP, the Grauniad's Alexis Petridis (best known for his music articles) takes a look at the place and its various contradictions:

Brighton is, after all, the perennially irksome, unofficial British capital of what the late rock critic Steven Wells once memorably described as "crusty-wusty, hippy-dippy, twat-hatted, ning-nang-nongers". Of course it elected someone like Lucas – who was recently photographed at home, standing, alas, before a shelf laden with self-help books called things like Awaken the Giant Within.
I walk past The World's Least Convincing Transvestite every day, on the way to my office. A man who has made the bold fashion decision to sport a jaw-dropping combination of earrings, eyeshadow, stubble and shaving rash on a daily basis, he has all the bewitching femininity of a rugby league prop forward in a pencil skirt; by comparison, Grayson Perry is the absolute spit of Audrey Hepburn. Judging by his clothes – demure court shoes, tights, pussy-bow blouse – he's en route to a clerical job in an office. For all I know, he might be facing yet another day of bruising homophobia and derision from his colleagues, but it doesn't look like it. He just looks like an ordinary bloke on his way to an ordinary job, albeit dressed as a woman. I've got a sneaking suspicion his workmates just let him get on with it. And if they do, that would be very Brighton.
There's been a lot of talk about the middle-class gentrification of Brighton over the last decade, but it doesn't seem to have impacted much on the city's famous air of slightly seedy licentiousness, on Keith Waterhouse's famous judgment that it's a town that always looks as if it's helping police with their inquiries. It now looks like a town that's helping police with its inquiries while enjoying an organic, locally sourced panini.
As Brightonian crime writer Peter James points out, the city does have a dark side, and it could be that that gives it its edge and keeps it from turning into just another haven for moneyed yuppies to bring up their cosseted kids:
And nowadays, several police officers have told me, it's one of the favourite places for top criminals to live in the UK. You've got two seaports on either side, you've got Shoreham airport with no customs post, you've got masses of unguarded coastline and a quick train to London; in other words - a fast exit. Then you've got the largest number of antique shops in the UK for fencing stuff, and you've got a massive recreational-drug market with two universities, a big gay population and arty middle-class residents. One of Brighton's distinctions – although the local tourist office doesn't talk about it - is that it's the drug-injecting death capital of the UK, and has been for nine years (we lost the title to Liverpool for a year or so, but we've got it back now).

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2010/5/12

Britain has a new government: it's a coalition between the Tories (cue spitting) and the Lib Dems. The latter had been in talks with Labour about forming a coalition (along with a number of smaller parties, such as the Greens, Plaid Cymru and possibly the Scottish National Party), but the deal apparently was scuppered by elements of the Labour Party deciding to veto it (presulably calculating that, during the upcoming years of austerity, they'd be better served being in opposition, and by encouraging a myth of the Lib Dems' perfidious betrayal of the progressive cause, they'd claim the left-wing vote for themselves come next election). Anyway, the Lib Dems get a few cabinet seats, and a referendum on replacing the grotesquely unfair first-past-the-post voting system with the somewhat less unfair alternative vote system, as used in Australia. (Proportional Representation is out of the question in the lower house, though there is talk about a fully elected House of Lords, so we may possibly get proportional representation there; again, like in Australia.)

Interestingly enough, Charlie Stross (who really dislikes the Tories) is oddly sanguine about the coalition:

All in all ...We've got a government that, for the first time since the 1930s, more than 50% of the voters voted for. There are a lot of positive policies here, on civil liberties and constitutional reform. There are some stinkers, but fewer than I expected. There is also a systemic weakness, insofar as the extreme fringe of either of the coalition parties have the ability to take down the government. So we're probably going to see lots of compromises. In particular, I'm hoping the Liberal Democrats act as an effective brake on the Conservatives (who I fear are capable of behaving much like Stephen Harper's Canadian tories if governing on their own).

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2010/5/7

And we have a hung parliament. The Tories are the largest party, but have nowhere near enough seats to form government, either alone or with the Northern Irish sectarian parties. The Lib Dems, oddly enough, took a caning, actually losing seats; they could still hold the balance of power, but only have the option to enter into coalition with the Tories or force an early election. The Tories have offered them, as a slightly contemptuous sweetener, a promise to pretend to think about electoral reform (something they vehemently and absolutely have opposed until now), or more precisely, to punt it to a committee which will formally say no. Meanwhile, it seems that numerous voters have been turned away from polling stations, which opens the prospect of legal challenges and byelections. It's not clear whether there was any sort of pattern to this.

All's not bleak, though; the Greens have won Brighton (though the Tories won Kemp Town, the gay centre of Brighton; explain that one), George Galloway got kicked out of parliament, and word has it that the BNP got a thrashing in Barking. And if you're a lefty not relishing the prospect of Tory rule, you can console yourself with these facts.

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2010/5/6

Reality-TV chart-pop svengali Simon Cowell: "Hey kids! Love celebrities and fashion? Vote Tory."

One thing I've noticed is that the stereotype about young people (i.e., those south of a dividing line somewhere between the mid-20s and property-owning parenthood) tending to be more progressive and politically engaged is not entirely true, or rather that it applies mostly to a minority of culturally engaged young people. Being into "pop culture" is not a good predictor of leftist ideals or concern about issues; from my encounters, the majority of consumers of mainstream pop culture (by which I mean top-40 pop/landfill indie, Hollywood movies and celebrity gossip) tend to lean towards the mainstream right of politics. This includes both Australian bogans voting Liberal (and wearing flags as capes to Big Day Out) and Generation Living TV rallying behind David Cameron in the UK. There could be a number of reasons for this: the zeitgeist of mainstream culture having shifted to the right in the past few decades, the residual affluence of the age of cheap credit instilling an empathy with the status quo, or, with rock'n'roll in its geriatric twilight, punk rock in late middle age and hip indie bands licensing their music to car commercials, pop culture/youth culture no longer being connected to any sort of meaningful rebellion against any sort of contemporary status quo, and in fact, having been fully rendered down to an innocuous ritual of target marketing, of the youth tribes in their colourful costumes jumping into niche boxes set up by their corporate lords. And besides which, if Rupert Murdoch gave us 24 and Sky Sports, he can't be that bad, right?

Of course, we'll see how the coming age of grim austerity Britain faces will affect this. When the cheap credit runs out and there are no more plasma screens, iPods or trips to Ibiza, will we (with the exception of a few "weird" and/or "pretentious" people) all still be neo-Thatcherites?

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Today, the UK goes to the polls in one of the more dramatic general elections of recent times. Thanks to New Labour being on the nose, and having used up enough of their at-least-we're-not-Tories credit, the Tories are leading the polling. Of course, enough people remember the bitter days of Thatcherism to turn a landslide into a hung parliament. Meanwhile, the third party, the Liberal Democrats (who are sufficiently untainted by proximity to actual power to be able to pass for honest) are relishing the prospect of holding the balance of power in a coalition government, and making noises about demanding electoral reform, to replace the first-past-the-post electoral system (which, in normal conditions, entrenches a two-party system, relegating third and subsequent parties to the lunatic fringe) with something else, preferably full proportional representation. Recent polls, however, show the Lib Dems' bubble deflating somewhat, and the Tories likely to squeak home and be able to govern with the help of the Northern Irish sectarian parties and/or UKIP. The Coalition of Ugly may well soon be upon us.

Your Humble Correspondent, being a Commonwealth national resident in the UK, is entitled to vote, and will be voting in the election. I will not be voting for a party but for an outcome; namely, that of a hung parliament (and the end of first-past-the-post, a system which centralises power away from the people). Given that, at the time the rolls closed, I was living in a marginal seat (held by Labour, likely to go Tory), in which every vote will count, I will, regretfully, be holding my nose and voting Labour. Yes, they're the Blatcherite bastards who gave us the Iraq War, the national ID card, rampant cronyism and creeping authoritarianism, but, in terms of plausible outcomes, it is exceedingly unlikely that a Labour government will return that is not in hock to the Lib Dems, which cannot be said for the Tories. Besides which, the Tories' claim to having taken back the title of lesser evil is looking pretty thin these days, between their alliances with the eastern-European far right and their promises of inheritance tax cuts for the super-rich. And here is an example of the new "compassionate conservatives"' style of government in action.

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2010/4/30

The Graun asked artists to design alternative election posters.

Here's Jeremy Deller's say:

This poster (by one Liam Gillick), believe it or not, was not intended to be sarcastic:
Meanwhile, the great satirical cartoonist Gerald Scarfe's take:

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2010/4/25

Could the Lib Dems win the UK election outright? This commentary from a psephologist says yes:

Much attention has been paid to the way Britain’s voting system is biased against the Lib Dems: they could end up with more votes than Labour or the Conservatives – but win half as many seats. What is not appreciated is that the reason why this is so is also the reason why, once the party passes a threshold – around 38% - it starts to garner seats in massive numbers. With 40% they would probably have an outright majority, With 42% they win by a landslide. The main reason is that with, say 30-35%, they come second in a vast number of seats, but first in only 100 or so. But as they approach 40%, these second places start converting into first places; each extra percentage point yields them a barrow-load of seats.
The answer to the question "are the Lib Dems likely to win outright?" remains at "Probably not". The Lib Dems' best chance is to become the linchpin in a coalition government and demand a replacement of the first-past-the-post system with preferential voting or even proportional representation, and hope that the other parties don't decide it's preferable to hold their noses and form a Labour-Conservative coalition to keep the status quo.

(via David Gerard) election liberal democrats politics psephology uk 0 Share

2010/4/7

The Independent has a pretty apt cartoon about the general election campaign that has just begun in the UK:

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2010/4/1

The Daily Mail Song, an exposé of the venomously right-wing, outrage-mongering British tabloid delivered in the form of a Subterranean Homesick Blues-style folk song. Brilliant and spot-on.

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In other news, science writer Simon Singh, who was being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association for stating that their practices were bogus, has prevailed in his case. The case cost £200,000 and Singh will never get back the two years or so that he spent defending himself, though perhaps now he can resume writing.

England's libel laws remain heavily biased in favour of litigants, though there is a push to have them reformed. Mind you, there are a lot of vested interests in keeping them usefully draconian, so it's a bit of an uphill battle. Anyway, there's a petition for libel reform here.

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The Ordnance Survey, long the dog in the manger of taxpayer-funded geodata, is setting its data free. From tomorrow, data including 1:10,000-scale maps and the coordinates of UK postcodes will be free for both personal and commercial use. (Some maps, such as the Explorer and Landranger maps, will remain commercial.)

OS is government-owned but self-funding through the sale of licences to use its maps. It had revenues of about £117m in 2009, of which roughly half came from the public sector, and provided a dividend of about £5m to the Treasury. The new arrangements are expected to cost about £20m in forgone revenues – which the government anticipates will be made up through increased tax revenues. The Treasury has agreed to fund the difference.
The Ordnance Survey's Open Data site is here; may a million mashups bloom.

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Citing falling sales in science fiction and fantasy, Charlie Stross unveils his new direction: supernatural romance novels about sparkly unicorns:

Harlequin Romance will publish my first paranormal romance, "Unicorn School™: The Sparkling", in Q1/2012. US:TS is the first book of the projected series, and introduces Avril Poisson, who moves with her family from Phoenix, Arizona, to Forks, Washington with her divorced father, and finds her life in danger when she falls in love with a Sparkly Unicorn™ called Bob. Stalked by and in fear of a mysterious horse-mutilator, Avril must practice her dressage skills with Bob and qualify her steed for a scholarship to the elite Unicorn School™, where he will be safe to grow (and sparkle) without fear of the vampires who infest the senior's common room.
Meanwhile, Transport For London is in talks with CERN about adapting the Circle Line into a hadron collider (which, thanks to miniaturisation, could be done without affecting existing services), and the embattled Labour Party takes an aggressive new direction in its campaign materials, hoping to turn Gordon Brown's reputation for bullying into a selling point, with slogans like "Step Outside, Posh Boy":
The Brown team has been buoyed by focus group results suggesting that an outbreak of physical fighting during the campaign, preferably involving bloodshed and broken limbs, could re-engage an electorate increasingly apathetic about politics. They also hope they can exploit the so-called "Putin effect", and are said to be exploring opportunities for Brown to be photographed killing a wild animal, though advisers have recommended that weather, and other considerations, mean Brown should not remove his shirt.

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2010/3/24

The Daily Mail Telegraph says that Facebook causes cancer syphilis:

The virus has increased fourfold in Sunderland, Durham and Teesside, the areas of Britain where Facebook is most popular, because it has given people a new way to meet multiple partners for casual sexual encounters.

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2010/3/23

Bitten by the "new media" bug, the Tories try their hand at this grass-roots web campaign thing, and launch a Web2.0-licious site, with the irreverently catchy title of "Cash Gordon". This site allows Tory supporters to earn "action points" by donating money or spreading the word. Unfortunately for the Tories, some people notice that it looks awfully familiar:

It turns out that Cash Gordon wasn't developed by David Cameron's bright-eyed web whiz-kids, but was a derivative of several web sites from the US Right, including sites against carbon taxes (see fig. 2), health care reform and gay rights, and for the right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation.

The Tories' misfortune doesn't end there, however. In their haste to embrace the Web and be down with the kids these days, the Tories (or perhaps their American associates) decided to integrate the site with Twitter, and have it automatically display any tweets posted with the #cashgordon tag. It turns out that, in their haste, they didn't anticipate the possibility of basic cross-site scripting attacks, instead displaying HTML tags intact. And it was not long before unsympathetic parties were making the most of it, and potential Tory activists were being rickrolled and Goatse'd.

For what it's worth, Meg Pickard has a graphic of how events unfolded:

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2010/3/16

The New Labour government is planning to rush through draconian new copyright laws in the form of the Digital Economy Bill. Drafted by the recording industry and big media, this bill will nobble the internet in Britain. (Among other things, wireless access points in cafés, libraries and pubs will be too great a copyright liability to operate, and ISPs will be obliged to block file exchange services like YouSendIt if they allow users to potentially infringe copyrights.)

According to a leaked memo from the BPI, MPs are resigned to passing this without debate, and the compliant New Labour leadership are determined to force it through in this form. In fact, the BPI fears this bill being subjectdd to parliamentary debate, knowing that were it to be so, the whole odious, iniquitous package would crumble like a vampire in sunlight.

Which is why it's important to contact your MP and ensure that they put the pressure on to get the Digital Economy Bill into the light. And you can contact your MP here.

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2010/3/15

Details have emerged of the suspensions of civil liberties to be brought in for the 2012 Olympics in London, and even by the standards of New Labour Britain, they are severe. Police will have the power to enter private homes and seize posters (so no putting a "Free Tibet" poster on your window then) and, to keep sponsors placated, will prevent the public from carrying "non-sponsor items" to sporting events. Not sure if it'll apply just inside stadia or inside an "Olympic Zone" of London as in Sydney in 2000, so if, say, KFC are a sponsor, whether it'll be an offense to be seen eating a box of Sheriff Sam's Al-Halal Texas Fried Chicken ("Tender and Tasty!") in the streets of Stratford. Or, indeed, whether the laws will stay on the books afterward, to be brought out when expedient (as happened in Sydney, where Olympic laws were later used to suppress protests against the Catholic Church's "World Youth Day").

Given that the Olympics are a merchandising exercise which invariably involves notionally liberal states bending over to placate corporate sponsors by suspending civil liberties, perhaps it would be better if future Olympics were held only in totalitarian states, where the legal frameworks are already in place. Pyongyang 2016 perhaps? I hear the North Koreans put on a killer show...

(via Boing Boing) authoritarianism london new labour olympics uk 1 Share

2010/3/13

England's severe libel laws have claimed a casualty: science writer Simon Singh, who is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association, has resigned from his Guardian column, citing the onerous requirements of preparing his defence:

The crippling and prohibitive financial cost of defending a libel case is often highlighted, but the equally terrible cost in terms of time and stress is rarely mentioned.
I recently discussed this with Dr Peter Wilmshurst, the eminent cardiologist who is being sued for libel for commenting on the efficacy of a new heart device... Perhaps it was just as well that Peter was not aware of the full implications of what lay ahead of him, namely at least two years of anxiety, misery and the threat of bankruptcy. Almost all his spare time has been spent on the libel case. When finalising his defence, he took two weeks of annual leave to work on the documents. Moreover, dealing with ongoing legal issues has prevented him from carrying out his usual medical research, and a number of publications have been put on hold.
England's libel laws are renowned across the world, with litigants taking cases to London on the flimsiest pretexts. Now foreign news organisations are starting to block access from Britain to their web sites to defend against this, raising the prospect of Britain facing Chinese-style isolation without even having to build its own national firewall:
You might feel that I am being alarmist, but major US newspapers, such as the Boston Globe and The New York Times, sent a memo last year to the House of Commons select committee on media, libel and privacy. They warned that they are considering stopping the sale of their publications in Britain due to the threat of libel. The benefits of selling newspapers here in terms of profit are outweighed by the potential losses in libel cases.
If publishers stopped selling hard copies in Britain, they would almost certainly also block their online content, because otherwise the threat of libel would remain.
If this worries you, you may want to sign the petition for libel reform.

The libel laws have their fans, though; other than the usual litigants, the recording industry seems to have used them as the models for the new copyright expansion laws they're trying to get passed, which will make any sites capable of sending potentially copyrighted files in private a prohibitive liability to make available to UK users.

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2010/3/7

Weaponizing Mozart, an article on how classical music is being used in Britain's war on its own youth:

The weaponization of classical music speaks volumes about the British elite’s authoritarianism and cultural backwardness. They’re so desperate to control youth—but from a distance, without actually having to engage with them—that they will film their every move, fire high-pitched noises in their ears, shine lights in their eyes, and bombard them with Mozart. And they have so little faith in young people’s intellectual abilities, in their capacity and their willingness to engage with humanity’s highest forms of art, that they imagine Beethoven and Mozart and others will be repugnant to young ears. Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The dangerous message being sent to young people is clear: 1) you are scum; 2) classical music is not a wonder of the human world, it’s a repellent against mildly anti-social behavior.

(via MeFi) authoritarianism culture moral panic music society the war on youth uk 0 Share

2010/2/24

In the UK, homeopathy has, until now, been funded by the National Health Service. All of this may change soon, though; a parliamentary committee has delivered a scathing condemnation of homeopathy, and called for all NHS funding to be withdrawn and homeopathic practices to be subjected to the same licensing and regulation as actual effective medical treatments are.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who witnessed the almost farcical nature of the proceedings, with the elite of homeopathy mocked by their own testimony. Peter Fisher, director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, spewed forth the sort of dialogue that wouldn't look out of place in a Terry Pratchett novel ... The select committee report has brutally inflicted the 21st, 20th and 19th centuries on this 18th century magic ritual, and under inspection it has fallen apart.
Sadly, the criticism is likely to fall on deaf ears. Rather than take the opportunity to reassess their approach, homeopaths are filling blogs and tweets with dark imaginings of vast, Big Pharma-controlled conspiracies against their noble art, painting a vivid picture of the fantasy world that they appear to inhabit. Of course, as Peter Fisher's comments reveal, a grand conspiracy is not neccesary to discredit homeopathy. The most effective way to do that is simply to let a homeopath speak.
The report is linked to from here, and doesn't mince words. Prince Charles, an avid supporter of fusty anachronisms including homeopathy, could not be reached for comment.

(via MeFi) homeopathy medicine pseudoscience scams uk 3 Share

2010/2/7

From a Guardian piece on Massive Attack's artwork, this interesting fact:

"We can't use any of the Heligoland artwork I've painted for the posters on London Underground. They won't allow anything on the tube that looks like 'street art'. They want us to remove all drips and fuzz from it so it doesn't look like it's been spray-painted, which is fucking ridiculous. It's the most absurd censorship I've ever seen. "

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Tabloids and Tory politicians have been claiming that Britain is a "broken society"; The Economist looks at the figures and shows that, actually, that's a load of rubbish; while Britain does have its share of social problems, it had much worse before:

As for family breakdown, some commentators seem to think that sex really was invented in 1963. British grannies know differently. Teenage pregnancy is still too common, but it has been declining, with the odd hiccup, for ages. A girl aged between 15 and 19 today is about half as likely to have a baby in her teens as her grandmother was. Her partner will probably not marry her and he is less likely to stick with her than were men in previous generations, but he is also a lot less likely to beat her. In homing in on the cosier parts of the Britain of yesteryear, it is easy to ignore the horrors that have gone. Straight white men are especially vulnerable to this sort of amnesia.
The perpetuators of the myth of "broken Britain", a society in violent decay, are building a narrative that strengthens kneejerk culture-war reactions, such as the Tories' tax breaks for married couples (read: "sin taxes" on the unmarried), whilst ignoring the cause of Britain's social problems: too little spent on education:
The waning of the manufacturing jobs that used to be the mainstay of the working class has created a generation of young males, in particular, who don’t know what to do with themselves. Britons have been boozers and scrappers for centuries, but self-destructive behaviour today in part reflects the perception that their lives are not worth much. As for children bearing children, there is evidence elsewhere that if girls are given better education—not just about sex, but also in areas likely to improve their job prospects—they are less likely to get pregnant at 16. Yet for all the official talk at home about ever-improving exam results, Britain is beginning to slide down the international league table of educational attainment.

(via David Gerard) culture war media moral panic society tories uk 1 Share

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