Monthly Archives: January 2006

Fear and loathing in Palestine

How do you get a stalled peace process back on track in the world’s most complicated and fragile region? Well, I’ll be honest, I have no idea (you thought I did?). But maybe, trying to think positively, what you do is you put the bad guys in charge.

You elect the least democratic and most belligerent party in the political landscape and, maybe, under threat of international isolation and withdrawal of vital funds, they set aside the AK47s and the suicides and the toxic rhetoric and, maybe, they morph into statesmen and peacemakers before your eyes…

I told you I had no idea but is there a small chance that the simple fact of being in power in a fledgling democracy might influence Hamas in the direction of an accommodation with Israel?

Stuart Hughes, BBC producer (who came pretty close to getting killed in Northern Iraq during the war), is doing a fascinating (and slick) podcast from the region.

So why did they do it?

Why did Google cave in to Chinese censorship? Because of American accounting principles. In the US (and, increasingly, elsewhere) a listed business reports to its shareholders every 90 days. The next quarter’s results are all that matters. Anything that ‘impacts’ three or more quarters into the future is not the legitimate concern of Google’s management. Google’s cooperation with the Chinese Government makes sense only in this very short-term view – and Google’s share price will, I’m sure, reflect this.

In the long term (three, five, ten years or more) the wise decision would have been to side with the Chinese people. They will, after all, one day be in charge in China and they will remember Google’s (and Yahoo’s and MSN’s…) decision to side with the miserable old men who run the place now. Google and the others may have bought themselves the short-term approval of their shareholders but, I like to think, they have also bought the very long-term disapproval of a largish proportion of 1.5 billion increasingly-wired Chinese consumers.

Whalers on our whale

Naturally enough, when London’s poor lost Northern Bottlenose Whale started to get worldwide press I thought I’d see what the less sentimental whaling nations were saying about it. Not much, it turns out and nothing along the ‘chop it up and eat it you soft gits!’ line that I was sort of hoping for. Anyway, I like to think I detect some sarcasm in this piece, headlined River Thames whale dies in failed rescue attempt from Japan’s Mainichi Daily News and the story sits alongside this ‘photo special‘ from the whaling frontline. The Norwegians aren’t bothered at all, really.

Sources: Norway, Japan.

Would you carry an ID card?

I might carry an ID card. I might carry one that said something like: “the bearer has proven, to the satisfaction of somebody accountable, that he is the person he says he is”. I might even carry one that contained some kind of biometric fingerprint so that nobody else could use it and pretend to be me. What I won’t carry (up to a point, I suppose – I’m not going to prison or anything) is an ID card backed by a big ugly database bulging with superfluous information about me (and everyone else, of course…).

I’m sure I’m not the first to point out that a useful ID card scheme doesn’t actually need a database – just a simple way of ensuring that card numbers are unique. Governments, though, don’t seem to be able to resist the idea of building proper databases, full of information.

These politicians, who – don’t forget – belong to a generation that never encountered a computer at school or even at work, apparently retain intact their 1960s spy thriller vision of spinning tapes, chattering teletypes and infallible electronic brains, sifting and matching data to magically pinpoint wrongdoing on any continent. They just can’t stand the idea of an empty database. I say ‘governments’ because I don’t believe for a minute that Cameron’s Tories would be able to resist the allure of hoarding your personal data for more than one-tenth of a parliamentary term either.

What I’d like to see (fat chance) is a government with the courage to say: “hey. Why don’t we try not warehousing personal data? Why don’t we see if we can acquire some competitive advantage from being the developed economy that decides not to waste billions accumulating and analysing this dumb data? Hey. Crazy thought: why don’t we try actually listening to the swarm of super-intelligent geeks who keep telling us we could do without ID cards?”

As a first step we could push through a genuinely voluntary ID card scheme that stores nothing centrally. It will work: it will prevent identity theft and provide a convenient, personal ID for your next trip to Threshers or the library and it will minimise the risk of yet another giant multi-billion pound public computing cock-up. Like I said, fat chance.

Don’t tell me…

Do not tell me you’re not watching Nasty Pete, Wise Maggot, Vain (definitely not Gorgeous) George, Strange Traci, Sad Michael, Clever Dennis, Ditzy Chantelle and Cute Preston on the show of the year. I’m in awe. The unlikely offspring of Big Daddy Big Brother has grown up and is much better – more intense, more jaw-droppingly neurotic – than the original by about a mile. The fact that a non-celebrity is odds-on to win the bloody thing only makes it stranger and sweeter. Tune in.

Books and bombs

Will books be replaced (or even substantially substituted) by ebooks and hand-held readers? Robert McCrumb in The Observer thinks so. Maybe he’s right. A better question – do they need to replaced – is rarely asked. Instead, we line up around our entrenched positions – apocalyptic-Luddite or euphoric-futurist – both conveniently informed by the same brittle, reductive view of technology that says: “It is possible therefore it will happen”.

Arguing from the potential of a new technology is almost always a mug’s game. A technology’s potential – positive, negative or indifferent – is always and necessarily hedged around by its alarmingly complicated context: social, economic, political.

This context invariably derails new technologies, sending them down various dead-ends or permanently mitigating their scary/exciting (delete where applicable) potential.

A crass but real example: nuclear weapons. Arguing solely from the death-dealing potential of the hydrogen bomb would leave one wondering what the hell we’re still doing here. The planet should, by now, have been laid waste a thousand times over.

We’re still here not because the bombs are crap but because the context – the whole, spinning galaxy of stuff that provides friction for events – didn’t let it. Likewise, books will persist and they’ll do so mostly because the massive economic friction provided by the culture and the market will hold back the alternatives. Books have five hundred years of resistance to annihilation to call on. They’re tough. They’ll survive.

Cuddly musical genius in town

About ten years ago, I met Elliot Carter. When I say ‘met’, I mean I stood next to him outside the cloakroom at The Museum of Modern Art in New York while someone fetched his coat. At the time I thought this was pretty cool (cooler still because earlier that day I’d stood next to another cuddly modernist – Allen Ginsberg – in a lift. I said “hello”, he said “yeh”. Or it might have been “yh”).

Carter was mobbed by adoring fans approximately one-fifth his age – students, I guess – all pressing scores and books and albums on him for his autograph. The man was 87, smiley and cute. This year he’s 97 and everybody still loves him, of course. In fact, I think he must be the world’s best-loved difficult atonal composer.

I’d love to be at The Barbican tomorrow for the last day of the big Carter weekend but my kids won’t let me – his may be the most accessible scary post-war music you can get but they’re not buying it. We might make it to the ridiculously friendly and cheery Children’s Classic Concert at the same venue in May but I’m pretty sure they won’t be doing any Carter (no. I checked. They’re not doing any Carter).

Abu, meet Rula

Abu Hamza, courtesy of PARula Lenska in The Big Brother House
He’s not an attractive man is he? He reminds me of a PE teacher I once knew – a cruel, self-important man we laughed at when he wasn’t looking (funnily enough, he wound up in prison too…). Anyway, since the man is an obvious jerk and since he’s probably about as dangerous as… er… Jodie Marsh, we think an appropriate punishment for him (should he be found guilty, of course) would be an extraordinary rendition – in a secret CIA limo – to The Big Brother House.

A few days eating toast in his pyjamas with that nasty, humourless cabal will make Guantanamo look like a Tupperware Party. Barrymore and Burns will soon have him snivelling in the diary room (or perhaps mewing like a kitten with Rula).

Alternatively, Juliet thinks he should be forced to run for leader of the Liberal Democrats. The humiliation would straighten him out.

Old music

A couple of years after the giant sucking sound coming from Cupertino was first heard in even the quieter parts of the record industry there can’t be much music released that isn’t available for download straight away somewhere or other and, for you cheapskates, the file sharing networks are bigger and more useful than ever. What I’ve been wondering, though, is “where is all the out-of-copyright stuff?”

Recordings made in the first half of the last century – hundreds of thousands of them presumably, from just about every nation and musical style on earth – are now out-of-copyright. Bunk Johnson, Caruso, Sophie Tucker, Mistinguett, The Carter Family, Toscanini, Big Bill Broonzy, George Formby: hundreds of artists should by now be available for download but it’s way too patchy.

Archive.org provides a lot of this material (especially 78s) but there don’t seem to be any dedicated out-of-copyright archives. Archiving and indexing this culturally important and hard-to-find material (as well as the movies and radio programmes and comic books and posters and magazines and theatre programmes and…) looks like a very useful (and entirely legal) job for the file sharing networks to tackle.

As an obvious public service, it might also insulate the P2P networks from further vandalism by the labels. It would certainly be harder for a witless Judge to switch off a network the majority of whose content was recorded before he was born than one pointlessly stuffed with already ubiquitous contemporary top 40 material.