Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Big Brother 13

I despise 'Reality TV', and in particular I despise Big Brother. I'm not talking here about finding it dull, or mildly offensive. I'm talking about a deep, dark, raw and undiluted hatred for the programme. I have nothing but anger and contempt for those who make it and those who appear on it. They cheapen what it means to be human... they pollute our culture with the foul propaganda of selfishness, mediocrity and empty celebrity. If I were made God-Emperor tomorrow, Big Brother would be banned by tomorrow evening. And that fricking house demolished by Monday.

Back when Big Brother began... even before the programme had aired, in fact... I was already fuming. In my view, anyone who has read and understood Orwell cannot be anything other than furious at their choice of name.

George Orwell's "1984" is one of the finest and most important novels ever written. Far from being an historical novel making a specific attack on Stalinism, as was Animal Farm, "1984" was written as a warning to future generations. Written just as surveillance technology (the television) was beginning to develop and spread, Orwell could clearly see the incredible dangers that such technology holds for society. Not merely the ability to constantly monitor private individuals... but to force-feed a stream of messages into every home, about how to live your life, what to aspire to, how to think and what to dream of...

And at the heart of Orwell's message was the incredible power that language holds over all of this. How by eliminating the language of rebellion, so rebellion itself can be controlled. A modern car advert is merely a sophisticated version of "We have always been at war with Eurasia"... it reinforces the status quo and it reinforces within us the things we need to desire (victory over Eurasia) and the things we need to fear (not being able to afford the car).

Right at the end of "1984"... after the bleakest ending in literary history... Orwell attaches an appendix. It's a bizarre thing to do for all manner of reasons, and a singularly intriguing one. The appendix is entitled The Principles of Newspeak and I believe that one of the reasons for its inclusion is - oddly enough - to snap the reader out of the specific story of Winston Smith and remind them that "1984" should not be viewed as a potent piece of speculative fiction about one man's tragedy; but as that warning to future generations which Orwell clearly felt it to be.

And without a shadow of a doubt, the most potent and vital symbol of that warning is "Big Brother". The phrase "Big Brother is Watching You" appears on the opening page of the book. And the novel ends with a line containing "Big Brother" (which I'll not mention in case you've yet to read it). By planting that phrase in the English language - which he did so very well, and for which we should be grateful - Orwell was himself using the principles of Newspeak to try and provide us with an innoculation against surveillance culture. He gave us a powerful and simple phrase, which we could always use to remind ourselves of where certain roads can lead.

That's why I say that if you genuinely understand what Orwell was trying to say about language, that you cannot help but be horrified at how a vile and crass group of media fucks have ripped the heart out of Orwell's warning and neutralised the potency of the words "Big Brother" forever.

I was standing in the supermarket checkout line a couple of days ago. Behind me were two women in their 30s. My age. They were chatting about the upcoming new series... Big Brother 13. One of them said the following, "I can't wait 'til it starts... I love Big Brother!"

Above the beeping checkouts and the background hum of a busy supermarket I felt sure I could hear the faint rumble of George Orwell turning in his grave.

There's more to read...
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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Bad joke

So it's Saturday evening and the synagogue is full of worshippers. Suddenly the door bursts open and a crazed-looking man with a bucket of paint dashes into the temple and immediately begins painting over the Star of David next to the door. The jews are obviously horrified at this defilement and leap up to stop the vandalism. The man quickly finishes painting over the Star of David and runs out of the temple cackling insanely.

Pursued by a group of devotees, the man stops next to some neo-Nazi graffiti and - to the surprise of the chasing crowd - begins painting over the large Swastika scrawled on the wall.

He's eventually arrested and charged with anti-semiotic behaviour.



(boom - tish)
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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

My accidental traffic

I have clearly run out of ideas if I'm reduced to this. The most generic of all blog entries... the lowest of all the most common denominators... yes, it's the "Things they googled for to find me" post. Sorry.

If nothing else though, it gives me an excuse to mention once more the fact that people have - in the past - arrived at my website by googling "Oliver Kamm tedious bore" (which is something of a private joke, but I find it very funny indeed). Also, amazingly, I was once discovered by someone searching for "how to give a suppository to a timid teenage boy". Hardly something you'd want to admit being an expert in.

Recently though, I've discovered that my policy of deliberately mis-spelling "Prince Charels" (as a way of pointing out that Parker-Bowels is kind of funny, without being so crass as to actually spell it that way) has meant that I've been getting quite a few people thanks to their google typos. Isn't the internet marvellous? I'd bet money on the fact that this sentence - containing the words "nakef schollgirls" - will generate at least one extra hit. Whether he's the demographic I'm after, however...

One of the main reasons I decided to do this piece, actually, was to ask a question of my extremely knowledgeable readership. Not three hours ago someone arrived here searching for "van morrison's anti-semitic song". Does anyone know what this query might be referring to? Van's done some dubious stuff over the years... but anti-semitism? It just doesn't seem likely.

There's been a glut of recent arrivals looking for information on "UCAWWW"; those zany Texans who want to abolish the internet. Texas is the only place I've been where a random redneck pulled a handgun on me, pointed it right into my face at close range and slowly squeezed the trigger until the hammer went "click" very loudly; then laughed as my knees gave way and I stumbled and fell rather wussily.

Not a big fan of Texas.

I'm also getting listed on the first page of google when someone searches for "Vatican smoke". One of those strange glitches; like the fact that my old site used to show up as the number one result for "top ten songs ever". I suspect few people are seeking my witterings when they type these things into google.

Another bit of oddness is the fact that one of the very first entries on this site (a review of Battle Royale) has suddenly become very popular. One of the lines I quoted from the film, "You can do it Shuya" has been searched for 8 times in the past 3 days alone. What's with that?

The most recent search at the time of writing was "rate my bong" which I like a lot. And the top ten words are...
  • hardee
  • malcolm
  • doors
  • bliss
  • jim
  • where
  • oil
  • production
  • peaking
  • world
Words which have put in only one appearance include...
  • friedman
  • pathogenic
  • fuck
  • puppytorturer
  • discontinuity
  • dutch
  • demonology
  • drugs
  • toothpicks
  • pants
And to the person who arrived here last night because they were "angry at being single" can I just point out that I trade more in "despair and indignation" rather than anger (as, I hope, the person who arrived soon afterwards discovered), but I do sympathise all the same.
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Monday, May 23, 2005

The news in briefs

Saddam Hussein in his underpants? What's that all about then? And why is the American government complaining about the willingness of The Sun to print the pictures when they clearly had to be taken by someone in the American military establishment and deliberately leaked.

Which is news.

In the Arab world it's also, unsurprisingly, "being treated as a small piece in an overall pattern of alleged American violations of prisoners' rights. And as confirmation, to many, of US contempt for Arabs and Islam." I don't understand exactly where this is all leading, but it's becoming more and more likely (in my view) that the Dubya administration is consciously ratcheting up the tension between the West and Islam.

(Sorry about the terrible pun title, but what the hell else is a blog for?)



Meanwhile here in the UK it seems that sales of lottery tickets are on the increase. According to Camelot (who run the lottery) this is evidence that "the business is on the mend". That, and the fact that people are becoming more desperate.



Also in the UK, the London Stock Exchange is starting to get skittish with regards to oil reserves. It seems that there's a few small oil companies having to own up to radically overstating their proven and probable reserves. Looks like Shell wasn't the only one then...



Meanwhile we are soon to be treated to a documentary about three sisters who have all just given birth to children. Their ages? 12, 14 and 16.

I've often been accused (wrongly) of being "a liberal" because of the stance I take on various issues. I'm not a liberal. Not even slightly. I just happen to have a set of views which intersect with liberal social policy in a number of areas. This isn't one of those areas.

When I hear stories like this one I just despair. The mother (and now grandmother) spends her time blaming the inadequate sex education in school. Sorry you stupid woman (and sorry liberals); but no!

The state has a vested interest in your children being well educated; no question about that; but it's your fucking responsibility to raise them.



Slightly less relevant, perhaps, is the announcement that wormholes in the fabric of spacetime are actually no use for time travel. This would be disappointing to all us theoretical physics buffs if true. However, upon closer reading it turns out that even the lightweight BBC article exposes a major logical flaw in this pronouncement.
It might - in theory - be possible to carefully fine-tune the geometry of the wormhole so that the wormhole throat became big enough for a person to fit through, says Fewster.

But building a wormhole with a throat radius big enough to just fit a proton would require fine-tuning to within one part in 10 to the power of 30. A human-sized wormhole would require fine-tuning to within one part in 10 to the power of 60.

"Frankly no engineer is going to be able to do that," said the York researcher.
It's probably true to say that no human engineer could do that; but if humanity ever reaches the point where we're seriously considering the construction of spacetime wormholes there's no reason to imagine that we won't be working in tandem with a super-advanced Artificial Intelligence.



Meanwhile things don't seem to be getting any better in Iraq, with the new Chief of Security the latest victim. And there also seems to be some serious concern that the lid is going to come off Afghanistan again. The failure to exert real control over the country (beyond a few specific towns) has provided the local resistance with the time and space to regroup. With America tied up in Iraq, the temptation must be for the Taliban to pick a moment and storm Kabul.

The symbolism of retaking the city (even if only for a few days, before reinforcements arrived) would shake US policy in the region to it's foundations. I also worry about a real nightmare scenario where China begins to openly arm and train the Afghan resistance against the occupying troops and their installed government.

Anyone recall a precedent for that?



Oh yeah, and we've got bird-flu popping up in China. There's pessimism with regards to North Korea. And climate change is going to shaft us. (No link for that one; just a general point).

Yet I'm feeling vaguely chipper because these arrived this morning...

Two tickets to see the Polyphonic Spree in August

... now I just need to find someone to go with (who won't stand me up!)

Should I be worried about the fact that the arrival of two tickets to a Polyphonic Spree gig in August can make me say "Oh cool!" with incredible glee and a kind of "Life is Good!" nod of the head, despite the fact that I'd just been reading all of the above...?

Or should I be glad?
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Sunday, May 22, 2005

Mrs. Bush goes to Jerusalem

From the Middle East we hear news that Laura Bush has been heckled whilst visiting holy sites on Temple Mount in Jerusalem. I have to admit that I find this trip of hers completely mystifying. I can't see how it could generate anything but further ill feeling amongst those already opposed to America's presence in the region.

The most high-profile thing she did was to criticise the attitudes of Arab societies towards women before visiting the Wailing Wall with the wife of Israeli President Moshe Katsav. There - in accordance with Orthodox Jewish Law - she prayed "in the Women's Section".

(Rumours that she was asked to sit at the back of the tour bus with the rest of the women are apparently untrue however).

Then she drove to the Dome of the Rock mosque... a high-profile tourist with the world's media in tow, performing a motorcade pilgrimage of deep crassness and bad taste.

Don't get me wrong. I've lived in Egypt and worked in Saudi... Islamic society is very seriously fucked up (Egypt far less so than Saudi let me point out). I wouldn't describe it as more fucked up than Western consumerism... just fucked up in different ways. I suspect that a culture based on the instructions of a 6th century warrior prophet who heard voices is probably madder in many ways than one based on totally meaningless material acquisition. But it's also probably less dangerous in lots of ways. So whatcha gonna do?

All the same, women do indeed get a more overtly raw deal over there than they do here.
...that's why I could never get to grips with Saudi Arabia, and why it's the one place I enjoyed living even less than I'm enjoying the American Midwest... the total lack of anything remotely "feminine" in hardline Islamic society wasn't something I could deal with very well. And even though the argument over there was that at least it's better than a culture in which "the feminine" is reduced to just another commodity, I disagree. I'm uncomfortable living in a place where, for days on end, every face I see is male. Too much testosterone.

So yeah; I'll even take Ottumwa or Des Moines or Columbus or... save us... Oakbrook, Illinois rather than Riyadh or Jeddah. And even though there may be a lesson in that, I hope I'll have the courage to choose a quick and honourable death if those two ever become the only options available to us.
- me (email from America, 1998)
So I'm not defending Islam against the charges levelled at it by Mrs. Dubya (incidentally, along with the whole "Women's Section" thing... I'm a little confused by the fact that The First Lady; a woman whose position is entirely based upon the achievements of her husband; gets to lecture a foreign culture on the position of women in society... but that's just me). The charges themselves are perfectly valid and - if anything - don't go nearly far enough. But Laura Bush could hardly be a worse messenger. Especially as all three of the monotheisms involved have parables about tending to your own shit before criticising others.

Also, her very presence is all wrong. Coiffured, unapproachable and untouchable her visit to the Dome of the Rock mosque simply reeked of opportunistic and hollow theatrics. It was exploitative. All photo-op no soul.
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Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities

Leastways that's what my current Oblique Strategy instructs. And who am I to argue?
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Monkeys

As little as a year ago, if you'd asked me for my honest assessment of the immediate future of humanity, I'd have summed it up in two words... "We're fucked".

Hmmm... is that really two words though? "We're" is a contraction... the Schrödinger's Cat of grammar... "It's two separate words; but look it's also just one!" And no theoretical vivisection involved.

Actually, thinking about it, the dual "wave/particle" nature of light would perhaps have been a better analogy, seeing as there's no state change involved... no "contraction event"; no "cat asphyxiation" so to speak; that could differentiate between the two alternatives.

That said; even the wave/particle thing isn't right. Because in a way, a contraction is two words implied by a single entity, rather than both the single word and the two words simultaneously. Which, if you ask me, is going to be a problem for any physics metaphor to handle adequately...

The natural role of religion then.

I suppose - in many ways - a contraction is a little bit like Our Lord Jesus... a Man, certainly, but one who implies and embodies God on this plane. Now if you'll all open your bibles to the book of Ezekiel and repeat after me: "Oh Lord, how is it, that so many people, take this madness seriously..."

Seriously folks... take Ezekiel... please!

But really, when you read Ezekiel you're forced to the realisation that people who claim the entire bible is the literal Word of God are significantly madder than people who wrap their head in tin-foil to stop the aliens controlling their dreams. Significantly madder. Y'know... which is fine. People should be allowed to believe whatever mad shit they feel like, but I don't like the idea of having a tin-foil hatter in the White House.

So anyone even madder...?

Which is pretty much where this blog entry came in... the future of humanity and it's potential fuckedness.

(Listen, you think it's confusing reading this shit? Try having to think like this; it's exhausting!).
I had a professor who said if you think of humans as angels it's a shit of a scene, but if you think of them as monkeys it's the most amazing thing you ever saw
- Terence McKenna
I guess in a sense I still think "we're fucked". But these days I don't see it as the end of the world. Just the world as we know it. Deep down I understand that any grandiose proposals I might make to salvage 'the best of the modern world' within a sustainable future are doomed to failure.

Because we're monkeys.
One day we'll live on Venus,
and men will walk on Mars,
but we will still be monkeys,
down deep inside...
- Talking Heads (The Facts of Life)
That's the inescapable fact of the matter. Even the people wearing tinfoil hats understand it. Unfortunately the society we've built, the lifestyle we've adopted and the systems which sustain it are about to face a threat which - in order to successfully address - requires us to behave in decidedly unnatural ways for monkeys.

And though I hate to admit it; I'm fairly certain most of us aren't up for that.

But the good news is that we're probably less-seriously fucked than I thought a year ago. I'd say the odds are significantly against extinction for instance. Which is a major improvement obviously. So even though my plans for a centralised European Resource Bureau assisting with the management of multiple low-impact technically advanced sustainable communities may be folly... like teaching monkeys how to herd cats... there can be little doubt that - as a species - we'll somehow muddle through the next century and emerge a very very very tiny bit wiser.

Because when you look at New York and remember it was monkeys...

Well, let's just say I don't think it's time for us to lose our dominant species status just yet. We started in southeast Africa (far as we can ascertain) and now some of us are living in houses made of ice in Northern Canada. We live on top of mountains, in jungles, deserts and on tiny islands in the middle of massive oceans. There's even a handful of us living in orbit right now! So yeah, we'll find a way through this alright.

Sadly, that statement isn't the same thing as lauding the bottomless ingenuity of humankind and announcing that all will be well. That a new invention will soon solve the resource depletion issue. Because it won't. Because "the resource depletion issue" will inevitably destroy our current civilisation. Because it's going to happen very soon and it isn't a dress rehearsal or a drill. It's going to happen to us. And we are staggeringly ill-prepared.

The natural monkey response is to continue what we've already begun... gather round the remaining resources and kick seven shades of shit out of each other. It's what monkeys do. We'll do very serious damage to each other and the very planet we live on. We'll alter the world in unpredictable ways, and hurt each other in sadly predictable ones. We'll commit atrocities and holocausts, and then we'll limp away to lick our wounds and start over from scratch. We'll muddle through.

It just won't be pretty.

Though it could be. It really could. But only if we accept a paradox. Only if we transcend being monkeys for a couple of decades.

Pretend to be angels a while.
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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

UCAWWW

Via UserLoser (via Nick)
Amarillo, TX -- Gladis Haralski, founder of United Confederacy Against WWW (UCAWWW) announced last week of her ongoing campaign to shut down the internet.

In an interview Gladis proclaims the destructive way in which we use the internet degenerates society's standards. "The internet is nothing but filth to steal our children from God and truth", says Gladis...

Currently the UCAWWW holds 43 members, all of which reside in Texas. When Gladis was asked by reporters how she planned to reach out to others across the country she said, "We have many ongoing projects, and soon we'll be proud to announce the grand opening of our website."
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Monday, May 16, 2005

I used to be suave

A few months ago I switched phone companies. The new lot promised lower bills. The actual savings, it turns out, are marginal unless you use the phone a good deal more than I do.

On Friday a sales rep from the new phone company knocked on my door. It was a horrible experience.

Two months ago some guy knocked on my door and tried to sell me the same phone service. The one I am already signed up to. And then last month another guy from the company also knocked and tried to sell me the service. And then last Friday, a saleswoman tried again.

The first time this occurred my flatmate answered the door and spent five minutes listening to the salesman's patter before I overheard what was going on and shouted something like "We already use your service ya daft bugger! But if you ever interrupt our evening with a sales call again we'll bloody well stop." He went away with a hasty apology.

The next time this occurred I came close to cancelling my subscription, but it was only my promise that "I'll quit your service next time!" that kept the poor guy stood on my doorstep for the duration of my very satisfying rant. I explained in great detail to the increasingly shell-shocked salesman (with more ferocity than was perhaps warranted) that one of the big reasons I signed up for his service was the promise that they'd filter out sales calls (of which I was getting "too damn many"). I explained exactly how much I hated commercial advertising. I explained how intrusive I found it when it appeared on billboards in the streets; how unbearable I found it when people phoned to advertise at me; and asked him could he possibly imagine - therefore - just how intrusive I found people banging on my front door to spin me a sales pitch?

Particularly for a service I already use primarily for it's "we'll cut down those intrusive sales calls" claims.

The salesman apologised profusely. He'd been backing away from the door throughout my diatribe, so that he was at the garden gate as he was explaining how his list of target houses apparently didn't include some sort of filter on current subscribers. I vowed to cancel the service if anything similar ever happened again.

And then it did. A saleswoman showed up on Friday.

So did I cancel the service? Did I rant and rave about intrusive marketing? Yeah right. She was gorgeous!

The trouble is... there was a time when I used to be suave. Debonaire even... sometimes with a dash of charming. Well, relatively. At least I'm pretty sure I was. Of course, it wasn't for very long... a strange burst of unearthly self-confidence that hit me in my late teens and then evaporated just as quickly in my late twenties.

Naturally it would be very easy for you to glance suggestively at the container-loads of drugs I was doing at the time and idly wonder whether or not they had anything to do with it. And you would have a point. Up to a point. But you wouldn't be taking the chain of causality back nearly far enough. In fact you'd actually be missing the point. Even though you had, as I said, a point. Up to a point.

The container-loads were themselves merely a symptom. And not even the most obvious one. But that's a tale in and of itself.

Back to Friday's short conversation with the woman from the phone company however, which demonstrated two things very clearly. Firstly is how quickly my objections to intrusive advertising evaporate when it involves a beautiful woman knocking on my front door. Secondly is the fact that whatever suaveness I once possessed is lying bloodied and beaten in an alley somewhere.

The thing is; answering the door half-asleep and unshaven, in jeans and a t-shirt that looks like it's been been rolled up in a ball for a month and bare feet at just after 1pm is by no means an unrecoverable situation. At least, not if you've got a modicum of cool or suaveness about you.

With me though... well, you know those conversations that actually make you physically wince as you recall them years later? I'm fairly certain this was one of them. Opening with (in a completely involuntarily stoner drawl) "whoaaa... you're lovely..." is about as charmless as it gets.

In my defence, I was taken completely off-guard. She was one of those women you describe as "slender" rather than "slim" or "thin". Pale, nordic features and jet black hair flecked with red and purple strands. Stunning green eyes expressing a world-weary "I hate this job" contradiction to the sales smile on her lips (that instantly had me empathising with her as well as finding her drop-dead gorgeous).

She was visibly taken aback by my gormless opening gambit, and whatever bridges I'd set alight were well and truly burnt by my following line... "Oh no; you're not a Christian are you?"

I have no idea why I said that. She hadn't told me who she was yet, but she was clearly not a Jehovah's Witness. I had simply decided to blather nonsense at the poor woman because of the fact that she'd been born pretty. Don't get me wrong; I don't buy into all that "the loneliness of being gorgeous" bullshit (we all have crosses to bear, but that one's made out of styrofoam); but if even a tenth of the men this woman meets get reduced to the pathetic mess of random syllables and vowel sounds that became of me... well, I can see how that would be a bit annoying all right.

Thankfully she took my horrified silence as the cue to begin her patter... "Ummm; I'm actually from [name of phone service] and was wondering if you'd be interested in subscribing..."

Her voice had a vaguely East European accent, but she'd clearly been in London for a long time. I was entranced. I'd have listened to her explain the most mundane of details about my phone service for as long as she was willing. Except at just that moment, the door behind me blew shut... the sharp corner of the doorknob digging into my lower back.

I leapt forward hissing "Bastid bloody thing!" Which needless to say gave her a bit of a fright. And it was to the rapidly retreating woman from the phone company that I explained that I was already signed up, but thanks for asking.
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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Some links and a short film review

It's been a quiet weekend. Most are these days. As Einstein once remarked; "I much prefer silent vice to ostenatious virtue". I find myself in agreement with him on that. As on many things.

I wrote half an article on peak oil for The Sharpener. It kind of tapered out sadly, but I'll hopefully rediscover the impetus for that sometime during the week. Other bloggers, however, have been more productive of late...

Over at Bristling Badger, Merrick tells us a bit about our friend, the torturer. If you ever wanted evidence that US/UK foreign policy has precisely nothing to do with "protecting oppressed peoples", our warm friendship with the brutal dictator in Uzbekistan is all you need.

Meanwhile Harry Hutton's correspondence with Sir Boris Johnsons MP had me laughing out loud. Excellent stuff.

And I discovered this article via Ken MacLeod's blog. It's pretty full-on stuff. Seymour Hersh: Iraq "Moving Towards Open Civil War".



Last night I watched the Jonathan Demme remake of The Manchurian Candidate and was pleasantly surprised by how good it was.

It says, of course, far more about the state of modern culture than about the film when I say it's one of the more subversive things to emerge from Hollywood for a good while. Yeah, yeah there was a cop-out (pun intended) when "the feds" show up to save the day... but it's good to see the whole capitalist military-industrial thingamajig being the bad guys even if, by judicious sleight-of-hand, America itself escapes direct criticism.

It was the Corporate Machine Run Amok what did it! Not America.

The film looks great, the performances are excellent all round, there are some truly chilling set pieces, and the ending is actually a bit more ambiguous than it first seems (though far less ambiguous than it would have been if I'd been asked to give the script a little ooomph).

Anyways, I'm not saying this is a classic. It's not. But it is a very good, intelligent film. Recommended.
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Friday, May 13, 2005

Vote UKIP in 2009!

I'm positively seething at the timing of my conversion. Just a couple of weeks earlier and I would have had an opportunity to campaign... to get involved... to convince my fellow voters that a massive swing to UKIP was the only sensible vote. You see, I've just woken up to the fact that the UK needs to withdraw immediately from the European Union. Just get out completely. And although UKIP has some pretty dodgy policies all told, they were the only party to place that promise high upon their agenda.

I think there's no question that such a pull out would be totally against Britain's best interests. However, I'm speaking here as an Irishman and European, not a Briton. Frankly Britain has become a massive liability to the European project. And should the French vote Yes to the constitution (by no means guaranteed; more because the French want to bloody Chirac's nose than because they're anti-European), now that the Germans have just given it the go-ahead... and should the UK be the only obstacle then I can honestly see very serious questions about Britain's continued membership arising.

Here's the thing that the British don't seem to understand about Europe: most of the people in the other member states actually want it to work. Weird, huh? How you define "work" is, of course, open to interpretation and that's where the various disagreements between the other member states arise. With Britain though, there's a real sense that the whole nation is a sullen child been dragged along on a family excursion... a spoiler, absolutely determined to make it as unpleasant as possible for everyone involved.

I mean, pretty much everyone else has adopted the same currency. Now they're adopting a constitution... ummm... I hate to break it to you Britain, but they seem pretty clear about where they're going on this excursion. You're not a child any more. You do have a choice in this matter. So why the hell are you along for this ride? And if you don't want to be, then please stop sitting in the back seat whinging.

I have huge reservations about the European Union. But they are outweighed, I believe, by the potential benefits. And it seems to me that further European integration is vital. I believe that the best model for a sustainable Europe is one where nearly all power over social policy is devolved to local level, but that an overarching body (representative in some way of the people of Europe) be given the task of setting and implementing policy on certain issues. These would be issues where the allocation and distribution of resources needs to happen at a non-local level... defence, sustainability, environmental protection and the like.

I'm often asked for examples of these. And I'm often at a loss for words... not because I can't think of any, but because they are so numerous and so obvious that the question confuses me.

A community living at the source of a river aren't affected if they decide to use it as a sewer. But communities further downstream should reasonably be able to expect their neighbours not to piss in the river.

Or how about the fact that Mercedes have made some interesting developments in biofueled buses? Really efficient compact engines on lightweight but sturdy frames. Now just because the private car is set to disappear does not mean that communities can't run sustainable transport systems. The fuelstock land required for a decent bus network should not be beyond the means of most areas.

It seems to me that if a bunch of Germans (and perhaps a bunch of Italians and a bunch of Czechs as well) can make excellent and efficient sustainable buses, then they should do so. The European government would ensure that sufficient resources were sent to the nice people at Mercedes who - in turn - would provide us with buses. It's not rocket science.

Because so much needs to begin happening at a local level (all food production and preservation, all economic activity, most power generation, etc.) there will be a corresponding focus inwards by communities and a need to control almost everything at that level; but because so much still requires smooth and efficient cooperation between communities towards ends motivated by social need rather than consumer demand, so we require a non-partisan organisation to oversee things. The European Union is a long way from that now, and I'm not saying the transformation will be easy... but it's a damn sight better an idea than our current "wait and see" policy. And until someone comes up with something better, I'll keep plugging away at this one.

Anyways, it struck me as I was given a handful of change in a shop in the rural west of Ireland where my family live, that there's a subtle but very real process of Europeanisation occurring in the Euro Zone. Amongst the Irish coins in my hand was a German 1 euro coin and a Dutch 2 euro. The cultural influence of the single currency is still in its infancy but it has the potential to be huge.

(One of the funnier ironies of the British anti-Europe thing, by the way, is the idea that Europe seeks to deprive the UK of the right to have the Queen's Head on the currency. In fact, you can put whatever you want on the coins. Put the Queen's Arse on them for all anyone else cares! The point is just that your shops accept the Belgian coins and in return you can proudly buy stuff in Brussels with your queen's arse.)

Anyways, this process of Europeanisation is happening without you Britain. And one day it will reach a point where it's too late in practice for you to hop aboard. "Wonderful!" you say "we never wanted to be part of your silly club anyway." Which, y'know, is fine. But why waste everyone's time now?

If you don't want to be part of it, that's cool with everyone else, but why get in the way of European Unity?
Full post...

Thursday, May 12, 2005

A link: Matt Simmons on Peak Oil

Matthew Simmons (energy analyst, CEO of the largest investment bank in the world dedicated to the energy industry, and advisor to George Dubya on energy policy) reiterates his position that peak oil is an imminent problem that urgently needs to be addressed.
Full post...

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

It's about oil, stupid

A couple of nights ago I was watching the news on television. My flatmate came into the room... "anything happening in the world today?" he wondered. Without even thinking I responded "nothing important". In saying that, I was dismissively referring to the news of Labour backbenchers calling for Blair to resign, and to the tory shadow-cabinet reshuffle.

The thing is... the second item in the headlines was actually the news that another 60 random Iraqis had been blown to pieces in a Baghdad market. I hadn't meant to overlook it. In fact, as soon as I said "nothing important" I remembered the story and felt vaguely sick that I'd so quickly forgotten it.

I've always opposed the Iraq war. But then, I have a tendency to oppose war in general. I'm not an ideological pacifist, in that I do believe there are situations in which the taking up of arms is justified. However our invasion of Iraq didn't resemble one of those situations in the slightest. For anyone keeping a close eye on the geopolitical ramifications of resource depletion, the Iraq war was clearly about oil.

Which isn't saying "We went there to steal the oil". That particular interpretation is demonstrably false. We went there to stick quarter of a million well-armed troops on top of the world's second largest oil reserves. All that death and destruction wasn't even about pillage and plunder... just about ensuring Preferential Customer status.

Now. The trouble is, if you take that interpretation to it's logical conclusion, you end up saying some pretty nasty things about the people running the war. Things like how daily insurgency attacks killing scores of civilians is the perfect post-war environment for the US and Britain. It provides apparent justification for the continuing presence of huge numbers of western troops. It keeps the Iraqi government weak and unstable, and hence reliant upon those troops to maintain their position. And so long as a compliant media continue to report these bombings as second on the news, with an identical report to yesterday's bomb, and the one before that, and the ones last week and last month... and without any sense of genuine outrage that this shit is happening on our watch (self-appointed though that watch may be)... then it'll just fade into the background even for those of us who can be arsed to write pointless little rants about it.

The process of normalisation has already taken place. The situation is static for us in the safe west, even though we've brought chaos to Iraq. It's second on the news and it's the same as last week.

Now that our governments have admitted there were no WMD, and nothing else to justify the war except the truth ("so long as you lot want to drive your SUVs we'll have to keep killing foreigners, OK?"), they've fallen back on the absurd notion that the war was still a good idea because Saddam Hussein was A Very Bad Man.

"We had to go to war to protect the Iraqi people".

What?! Have you turned on the news lately? We seem to be doing a very bad job.
Full post...

Ten songs at random

So I put my media player on shuffle this evening, and this is what happened...
  1. Five Years - David Bowie
    (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars)
    Windows Media Player could hardly have chosen a better place to start. Bowie's impassioned lament about the approaching collapse of civilisation:
    ...news had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
    News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
    Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying...

    Ahh... my music knows me so well.

  2. There's A Tear in My Beer - The The
    (Hanky Panky)
    Lovely.... Matt Johnson's much underrated album of Hank Williams songs. In many ways it really shouldn't work... the voice of 1980s depressed lefty London bedsit dwellers applied to Hank's country blues Americana. But work it does... a connection is forged across time, across the ocean, and across a cultural divide. The underlying shared humanity is what shines through. Heartache knows no borders.

  3. Purple Rain - Prince
    (Purple Rain)
    Oh man, it doesn't get any better than this. Prince was to the 1980s what Bowie was to the 70s, The Beatles to the 60s and Elvis to the 50s... he managed to be a huge megastar whilst at the same time experimenting, pushing boundaries, and making some downright incredible music. Proof that popularity doesn't always have to mean mediocrity (incidentally, the sequence continued with Björk in the 90s). During the Lovesexy 88 tour, Prince played an extended version of this track, and I remember being transported out of my body by the incredible majesty of the music. His best work was still to come after Purple Rain. And listening to the track now... that's a remarkable thing to be able to say.

  4. Honey Pie - The Beatles
    (Beatles Anthology 3)
    Not the version from The White Album, but an earlier take with a far simpler arrangement... mostly voice, maracas and acoustic guitar. The stripped down arrangement really emphasises the sweetness of Macca's voice, and like many of the alternate takes from this period the atmosphere in the studio sounds wonderful, with exuberant backing vocals and a real edge of joy to the proceedings.

  5. Radio Ethiopia - Patti Smith
    (Radio Ethiopia)
    Urgent, Can-like drums roll behind Smith's powerful and captivating voice. A fuzz guitar rises and falls, almost washing out the soundscape completely at times. And Patti's half-babbled, half-wailed, half-sung vocals snatch fragmented images, curses and blessings from the ether and twist them into weird shapes before your eyes. There's nothing else like this.

  6. Keep Punching Joe - Daniel Johnston
    (Museum of Love - a compilation)
    Not everyone gets Daniel Johnston. But that's OK. He's intense, brutally honest, witty and unconcerned with mass appeal. His voice slips in and out of tune, his melodies are simple - though beautifully expressive - and his lyrics come straight from the heart filtered through his strange, self-deprecating mind:
    I guess I lean toward the excessive
    But that's just the way it is
    When you're a manic depressive...

    And you have to love someone who is so audacious with his choice of rhymes!*

  7. Impromptus (No. 3) - Franz Schubert
    (Schubert: Impromptus)
    Schubert is my favourite 'classical' composer. There's an exquisite melancholy haunting this piano piece. You feel as though you're listening to a great romance, but also to great loss. Passion held in check by sadness... very strange, and quite beautiful.

  8. Ghost Chase - Atari Teenage Riot
    (60 Second Wipeout)
    I laughed aloud when this came on after Schubert. Talk about your incongruous segues! For those unfamiliar with ATR, they make the noisiest and most extreme music you're likely to find. Digital Hardcore Recordings (DHR) are characterised by screaming white noise, ludicrously fast beats and shouty revolutionary swearing. "In fact, if you were to ask, 'how much more extreme could music be?' the answer would have to be 'none'. 'None more extreme'"

  9. Blind - Talking Heads
    (12x12 Original Remixes)
    Talking Heads are one of my favourite bands. David Byrne is a big hero of mine. And because Talking Heads had several hit singles, a lot of people don't realise that they were primarily an albums band. Listening to Remain In Light or Fear of Music or any of the later albums makes you realise just how truly original and daring they were. This particular remix of Blind, the "Deaf, Dub, Blind" remix is one of the better ones on a largely disappointing compilation album, however. Those of you who bought music in the 80s will recall the tendency to create "12 inch remixes" by essentially sticking 5 minutes of looped drum machine in the middle of the track. Talking Heads were just as guilty of this as everyone else sadly.

  10. Window on The World - The Legendary Pink Dots
    (Malachi: Shadow Weaver Part 2)
    The Legendary Pink Dots are the most underrated band in the world. Bar none. I understand if you feel differently, but please bear in mind that you are wrong. Plain and simple. The Pink Dots have released dozens of the finest albums ever recorded. Dark, industrial-tinged blends of acoustic and electronica with some of the most intense, hypnotic and evocative vocals you're likely to hear. A list of my top 100 albums would contain as many as five from the Pink Dots... yet most people have never even heard their name, and they've never had a major label contract. This particular track does their usual thing of starting in one place and finishing somewhere entirely different about 12 minutes later, having taken in an ambient soundscape, some full-on rock, plenty of sinister messed-up electronica and an acoustic ballad along the way.
* Only Nick Cave is more audacious with rhyme...
She got perfumed breasts and raven hair
Sprinkled with wedding confettis
And a gang of garrotters were all giving me stares
Armed, as they were, with machetes
Full post...

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Some silly things I have read today

Call for rational nuclear debate

OK, let's have the debate...

I, Brian Wilson (that's the former UK Energy Minister, not the musical genius) propose in order to deal with increasing energy demand, curtail carbon emissions, and reduce dependence upon fossil fuels imported from the Gulf... that we build a new generation of nuclear power stations. Hell, it'll even keep you "Peak Oil" freaks happy!

Thankyou for that proposal, Mr. Wilson. It's shite. It makes no sense. And we're not listening to any more of your craziness. Goodbye, and thank you for that lovely rational debate.

But, but...

If you don't fuck off right now Mr. Wilson, we'll have you ejected forcibly.

Nuclear power is a shit idea, people.
  1. Nuclear energy is not a substitute for oil. So it doesn't mitigate the peak oil issue.
  2. Uranium resources are even more limited than fossil fuels. The Australian government estimates that "[a]t current rates of consumption, existing and estimated uranium reserves recoverable ... are sufficient for only about 50-60 years" and point out that "growth in the nuclear industry will reduce this period."
  3. Although the Australian government do mention that "very substantial higher cost uranium resources exist (e.g. seawater offers a virtually unlimited supply...)", they acknowledge that it is not a sustainable option. (The amount of energy required to extract usable amounts of uranium from seawater is enormous... any such plan would involve the construction of nuclear reactors on an impractical scale)
  4. The potential risks involved would perhaps be worth taking (or at least talking about taking) if nuclear power offered a genuinely sustainable replacement for fossil fuels. But it doesn't. And a dramatic expansion of nuclear power station construction would be a guaranteed way of significantly increasing demand for fossil fuels in the near term.
(Note: Australia is the world's largest supplier of uranium and holds the largest reserves... hence the reference to their reports).

I am not a Luddite. In fact, I'm something of a technophile and see low-impact high-tech as an inevitable part of any solution to the energy problems we face. I've always called for serious money to be put into fusion research (a potential energy technology that doesn't have the natural resource scarcity issues of fossil fuels or uranium, nor the waste problems) which would clearly make the peak oil crisis far more manageable. But current nuclear power technology is not the way forward.

It's got no future.


The next silly thing I read online today was

The Things They Say by Oliver Kamm...

[W]e must acknowledge that Adolf Hitler was a truly excellent leader and had all the right ideas about just about everything. He was a visionary man who should have been allowed export the glory of the Third Reich to every corner of the globe...
- Joe Bloggs, opera singer and defender of Naziism
...
Oliver Kamm is the finest writer on the internet by far. He's the only blogger who really seems to get to the heart of the matter.
- Joe Bloggs, on a blogger he can identify with
And now a question to all you first year philosophy undergraduates still trying to get their heads around propositional logic... Anyone attempting to imply that Oliver Kamm is an anti-semite who wishes to see jews, gypsies and homosexuals exterminated based upon the above two quotes is guilty of which fallacy exactly?

Nice try Oliver. But reason, coherence and logic don't appear to be your strong points. Best stick to economics then.

Actually, I think Galloway is a bit of a scumbag myself, but it's just so bloody annoying when lazy thinkers resort to a constant stream of invented reasons to criticise someone they dislike. "George Galloway is evil! See... this crazy jazz musician likes him, so it must be true!"

In the name of all that's sacred... that's Marx Brothers stuff. And this guy writes for The Times? Talk about the dumbing-down of political culture.

Anyways, there's plenty of good reasons to take issue with George Galloway and the Respect Coalition. I suspect, when all's said and done however, that he is a blip on the chart. Once The War has ceased being an electoral issue and Blair's been replaced by Brown, Galloway's coalition will fragment. And that'll be that.

Until then I suspect (though I acknowledge this is a prediction, and could be wrong) that Gorgeous George will be an entertaining, ineffective and increasingly irrelevant part of parliamentary politics. Nothing more and nothing less.

(Incidentally, if I were the LibDems I'd be worried about those seats they took from Labour on what was - very possibly - a significant anti-war protest vote. I doubt that'll be a factor in 5 years time.)

So yes, George Galloway has rather dodgy views. He appears to have been guilty of some nasty campaigning. He seems willing to exploit social division for his own ends. He's way too egotistical to be an effective public servant. He is almost certainly no more trustworthy than Tony Blair.

For all those reasons Galloway should be treated with the same amount of contempt that we reserve for anyone using the political process in order to forward a personal or hidden agenda. But making an issue out of which jazz musicians count themselves among his supporters seems a bit idiotic.

And finally...

The other silly thing that I've been reading all day is all this speculation about the future of politics in the UK as though it's not already written in stone.

Whoever won this election will lose the next one. It matters not a whit who the next tory leader is, nor how competent Gordon Brown may be as a prime minister. By 2008 it will have become apparent that spiralling oil prices are out of the government's control and the next election will be fought by the tories claiming to be able to do something about it. They won't be able to. But that won't stop them winning by a landslide.
Full post...

Monday, May 09, 2005

They'll get my bong when they pry it from my cold dead hand

Barely two days had passed since the election before Tony Blair had me slapping my forehead. Imagine hypothetical elections in Germany in 1937 with Hitler getting returned with a reduced majority. "I have listened, and I have learnt. And I acknowledge that things must change around here. For a start, we're going to make sure the trains stop running on time..."

The declassification of cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug was one of the few acts of the Labour government that made me think, "Well yeah, the tories wouldn't have done that... Labour really are measurably better in some ways". Of course the declassification went nowhere near far enough. And there's a fairly strong argument that by putting such a popular recreational drug into a legal "halfway house" it could actually do more harm than good. But it was clearly a statement of intent... a decision to get more practical and less blindly dogmatic about drug policy.

Within hours of his third election victory, however, Tony Blair was announcing his decision to re-examine the declassification with a view to reversing it. Bloody marvellous!

It's a little bit cheeky, when you think about it, only announcing the day after an election your decision to recriminalise 6% of the electorate. Not that I voted NuLabor, but it might have been nice of Tony to let me know his intention to put me in prison when his candidate was asking for my vote. Y'think?

At least Michael Howard was upfront about his wish to ruin my life and turn me from a productive member of society into a financial liability.

It's such a load of old bollocks as well. There's no argument in favour of cannabis prohibition that actually makes sense. Once you take out the weird puritan "thou shalt not have fun in ways I don't understand" irrationality that motivates most prohibitionists, the actual reasons for cannabis use being a criminal activity just don't add up.

Take this quote from the BBC article...
"Thirty or 40 years ago I was writing that cannabis was a drug without harm and dependency but I've had to eat my hat now," he says. "That doesn't mean it's a growing evil but, rather like cigarettes, we need controls in place and a serious message.
And we've decided that the best way to deal with cigarettes is to imprison all the users, and transfer production and supply into the hands of criminals. Right?

Oh hang on a second. We haven't done that, have we? Even though cigarettes are incredibly addictive and directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of slow painful deaths every year. Why haven't we done that then?

Because it'd be fucking ridiculous. Right? That's why.

Let's get a few things straight...
  • cannabis is not harmless. However it is demonstrably less harmful - from both health and social standpoints - than either tobacco or alcohol;
  • the prohibition of cannabis increases the health risks associated with cannabis use;
  • the legalisation and control of cannabis would not be without hitches and drawbacks; but done correctly it would be a clear net benefit to society.
Before "peak oil" and sustainability became the wasp in my fedora, I was a bit of an evangelist on the subject of drug law reform. This emerged from two disparate directions.

Firstly I was, and am, a believer in the use of altered states to access certain kinds of knowledge and wisdom. These states can be achieved through a variety of means; one of which is the consumption of visionary plants.

So high they let Ringo sing a couple of songs

Secondly, during my early twenties, a whole bunch of my very close friends died from drug misuse (overdoses and misidentification) within a fairly short period of time.

These two different strands were woven together and I wound up editing and publishing a zine called Heads and Tales (thanks to my liberation of stationery and printing facilities from my then employer). This was half-filled with a combination of articles denouncing the War On (some) Drugs, ideas for legal reform and mad bits of psychedelia; and it was half-filled with authoritative (read: "stolen") articles on individual drugs... with a particular emphasis on harm reduction.

Once in a while (it happened only last week actually) I'll bump into someone who, because of some hint or other in the conversation, will exclaim; "Hang on! Are you ****** Jim? You did that magazine, right? Oh man, it totally saved my life one Glastonbury... [insert tale of near drug disaster averted by someone saying "this magazine here says we should do this..."]

Anyways, it's a big issue for me; sensible drug policy. Almost everyone I know who died through illegal drug use would still be alive had the drug been accessed through a legal, controlled supply chain.

See it just makes no sense. Why are drugs illegal?

Because they can be dangerous to the user.
But leaving aside the fact that we don't, as a rule, ban things because they can be dangerous (sky-diving, drinking alcohol, eating fast food, contact sports, etc.)... the prohibition of drugs is clearly making them more dangerous to the user.

Because they are bad for society.
But if alcohol prohibition in the United States proved anything, it's that extremely violent criminal gangs will gladly sell drugs if nobody else is allowed to. Not only does this drive up the price of the drug (which, if it's highly addictive will then drive a proportion of its users towards theft in order to sustain their addiction), but it also leads to an increase in gun crime (and violent crime in general) as disputes between rival dealers can hardly be settled in the courts.

Because getting high is wrong
No it's not. Anyways, we're not supposed to legislate articles of faith. And that's the most generous thing I can say about the "it's immoral" line.

Because lots more people would use drugs if they were legal
Firstly; there's no evidence for that. And what little evidence there is (and it is very scant - so neither side can claim genuine authority here) would seem to contradict it. The Dutch model has worked, despite claims to the contrary by people who visit the red light district of Amsterdam and assume that tells them anything... as though a walk through Soho on a Saturday night is representative of Britain as a whole. And though their policies don't go far enough, the Netherlands is one of the few countries in the world where the average age of heroin addicts is rising (meaning fewer new addicts... suggesting the 'market separation' policy has worked).

Anyways, the Dutch model is very specific and very limited. A fully legalised supply would address many of the glitches it has thrown up. Imagine if heroin addicts bought a clean supply, in a clean needle, at cost price, from someone who would refer them immediately to a counsellor should they express a desire to quit. Right now they buy contaminated crap of unknown strength from people who have a vested interest only in making them more profitable customers.

I know which of those systems is more likely to cause an explosion of drug use. And the incredible rise in heroin addiction after it was taken out of the hands of doctors and placed into the control of organised crime would seem to suggest this.

And as for cannabis... yes it has risks. Risks that would be far better mitigated if those experiencing problematic cannabis use didn't have to worry about criminal prosecution when they sought help. But the reality is that for the vast majority of tokers, the greatest danger pot ever poses them is that of being punished for it's possession. Which is absurd.
Full post...

Friday, May 06, 2005

Was that it?

Well, I've put up my first post over at The Sharpener. Whenever I post something there, I'll make a point of mentioning, and linking to, it here (rather than posting it in two places).

In this case it's just me being underwhelmed by the election. And talk about The Twat Vote... Oliver "Puppy-strangler" Letwin got back in!

I guess there were a couple of high points to the elections... Veritas and UKIP having a complete meltdown was funny. Also there was my first (and probably only) cheer at seeing a tory candidate elected. It was impossible not to relish watching David Rendel getting kicked out of Newbury. Yeah, yeah, the tory replacement would certainly have been as pro-bypass as Rendel. But as Merrick points out... with Newbury it's personal.
Full post...

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Sharpener (and the Twat vote)

There's a new group blog thingie opening over at The Sharpener (trying to make a point - geddit?) Curiously enough, I'm kind of involved. The editorial folks - unconcerned by the legal and spiritual implications - have asked me to be a contributor. Which is very nice of them indeed (and remember guys... you'll get to see your families again after I've posted five entries. Not before).


I'm off to vote in a few minutes. Well, I'm off to make a pointless gesture like the childish twat I am.

Y'see, already today I've been told that spoiling my ballot with "None of The Above" in big black marker pen is utterly pointless. I've been told I'm being childish, and - best of all - that I'm "a twat".

Firstly, can I point out that deliberately spoiling your ballot is - almost by definition - not "utterly pointless". A point is clearly being made... even if nobody is listening.

Yeah yeah. Semantics. Whatever whatever.

And as for childish? Well at least I'm not a poop-head like you!

The "twat" remark came right out of left field. Someone on a web forum I use announced that a Green vote is pointless, and anyone who spoils their vote is a twat. The only way to vote, apparently, is for Blair (to keep out the tories). There's no way to respond to that really. You just have to hope those kinds of people are getting access to the help they need.


I'll not be doing an election-night "live blog" as will some. But I will be sitting up all bloody night (like the fool I am) surfing between the 6 (count 'em) channels showing blanket coverage. If something really groovy happens (like Oliver "dog kicker" Letwin getting voted out) then I'll probably do a little jig and post a triumphant message here to that effect.

I'll also be keeping an eye on the various election blogs to see what's making other people do their dance. I suspect, sadly, that the result of today's election will make a popular revolution necessary sometime during the next parliament. I'm Irish, so I can't really start it (can you imagine the political implications?) but I'll gladly offer planning and logistical support to anyone who fancies trying. So long as we're basing our plans along the lines of the Gandhi approach, as opposed to the Lenin one.

Or even something in between at a pinch.

Now. Off to make a childish point. Twat!
Full post...

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

It's not that I've been slack

Look, I've started writing a whole bunch of blog entries during the past week. But nothing seems to stick. I wanted to cover the election campaign in a little more depth, but the three main parties have all managed to so spectacularly alienate me as to make that a potentially libellous undertaking. I wanted to write a bit about the rising profile of 'peak oil' in the media, but that just seems to be stating the obvious... anyone can type "peak oil" into google news and see the evidence for themselves. Indeed, my focus is now shifting from warning of the approaching oil shock (a warning that finally seems to be sinking in) towards planning solutions.

Unfortunately I'm not entirely sure the world is yet ready for the solutions I've developed so far.

And as a break from the wider issues, I've also tried to write a couple of more personal blog entries. But they've either petered out, or ended up in unexpected and unpublishable places.

Yeah. It's been a strange week. I came very close to chucking in my current "job" (which genuinely deserves those quote marks) to become a professional poker player (which would require "job" to be italicised, as well as contained within quote marks). No really, I was very close to it. The only thing that prevented me was a vivid dream I had on the night I watched some poor schmuck lose almost a thousand pounds to the table (some into my pocket). The dream involved having to escape from danger through a sewage pipe (reminiscent of that scene in The Shawshank Redemption), and myself and a companion found ourselves washed out onto a filthy mud flat.

We were surrounded by bank notes... hundreds of thousands... perhaps millions of pounds, dollars and euro just there in the mud. And mixed in among the banknotes were playing cards. The person I was with began to frantically gather up the money... stuffing his pockets. And in the dream I began screaming at him to stop... "It's contaminated!" I shouted. "Can't you see the money is contaminated!?"

And it struck me upon waking that perhaps methodically playing very safe poker and taking money from gamblers too stupid to calculate odds may not be the most karmically responsible way to earn a living. At least not while there are other options that pay almost as good and have an arguable social benefit (right now I'm building web-software and sites for non-profit organisations at a perfectly acceptable wage). But it's nice to know there's a fall-back position... professional gambler... second oldest profession and all that.
Isn't it great when you put your media player on "shuffle" and a Hendrix track you haven't heard for ages comes on, and it's followed by some top dub, and you realise that although it's still early afternoon, now's a really good time for a joint... and you do, after all, set your own hours.
- Johann Rissle
from Slacking in the 21st Century (pamphlet)
But what about them elections, eh?

Is there any less edifying spectacle than a modern democratic election? And to think, we're forcing this shit on other countries at gunpoint! Anything truly important is ignored, and the issues which are discussed are trivialised by both politicians and media. Shallow soundbites, meaningless slogans, empty promises and the most obvious of lies all served up with a dollop of contempt.

Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see the tories given a kicking so bad they never recover... a proper thrashing that consigns them to the contaminated mudflats of history. Yet I can think of few things I'd like to see less than a smug Tony Blair returned to Downing Street with a whopping big majority and talk of being "vindicated". And I'm even beginning to feel a bit nauseated by the thought of Charles Kennedy gaining lots of ground and crowing about how people have chosen "The Real Alternative".

The LibDems have been steadily losing my respect over the past weeks as leaflet after leaflet printed on glossy paper fell through my letterbox informing me about how the Liberal Democrats were the only party making the environment a priority. It's a lie. An insidious, nasty, unpleasant lie designed to trick people with genuine concerns into thinking that they'll address them. It's not like I'm a big fan of the Green Party, but stealing their votes by telling outrageous lies is just plain low.

Not that it's an unusual thing to be occurring during a democratic election campaign. But when it's so upfront and brazen it really does make you want to spend the day at the polling station explaining in great detail just how little the LibDems differ from the tories or NuLabor when it comes to the environment and sustainability. It's a great big bastid lie. And I'm sick of being told it.

You always know when the tories are lying of course... their lips are moving. We've come to expect roughly the same from Labour now. But when, not long after I wrote the words, "if I were you... I'd vote LibDem" they show up and push dangerous lies through my letterbox two days running, it makes me want to vote UKIP just to be awkward. At least with UKIP you know what you're getting. A lot like the Monster Raving Loonies in that respect.

Nobody involved with the Newbury Bypass protest can forget David Rendell, Liberal Democrat MP for Newbury, and just how much he cared about the environment when big business wanted to build a completely unnecessary road through some of the most important and ecologically sensitive sites in his constituency. A sitting Liberal Democrat MP. Can you imagine the boost the campaign, if the local MP had come out against the project? If he hadn't been one of it's most vocal supporters?

And when a developer in Kingston wanted a row of mature trees felled in order to provide a better view from the luxury flats they built, the local LibDem council was quick to give permission.

You can't claim to be a "green" party when you consistently put business before the environment. Every party - the tories included - will make the environment a top priority when there's no financial downside. The only relevant question is whether your priorities change when there's big wodges of cash involved. And the LibDems (supporters of GM crops in Scotland) have demonstrated that whenever they actually find themselves in a position of power, they're just as willing to sell out the environment in the name of short-termist profitwank as the tories and Labour.

Look, vote Green if you can in your constituency. If there's not a Green in the area, then spoil your ballot. 100% Green vote and no representative returned from constituencies without a Green candidate. That's "The Real Alternative".
The secret is to work out how best to support your chosen lifestyle with the least amount of work. This is not only responsible from the point of view of a sustainable future, but provides the maximum amount of time in bed.
- Johann Rissle
from Slacking in the 21st Century (pamphlet)
Anyways, I was going to write more about how much I dislike capitalism and stuff... but my new digital camera has just been delivered, and I want to play with it.
Full post...

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The ricin ring that never was

Head over to Chicken Yoghurt for an explanation and plenty of links to follow. Justin's done all the legwork; I'm providing a reflective surface...

The ricin ring that never was

Yesterday's trial collapse has exposed the deception behind attempts to link al-Qaida to a 'poison attack' on London

Duncan Campbell
Thursday April 14, 2005
The Guardian

Colin Powell does not need more humiliation over the manifold errors in his February 2003 presentation to the UN. But yesterday a London jury brought down another section of the case he made for war - that Iraq and Osama bin Laden were supporting and directing terrorist poison cells throughout Europe, including a London ricin ring.

Yesterday's verdicts on five defendants and the dropping of charges against four others make clear there was no ricin ring. Nor did the "ricin ring" make or have ricin. Not that the government shared that news with us. Until today, the public record for the past three fear-inducing years has been that ricin was found in the Wood Green flat occupied by some of yesterday's acquitted defendants. It wasn't.

The third plank of the al-Qaida-Iraq poison theory was the link between what Powell labelled the "UK poison cell" and training camps in Afghanistan. The evidence the government wanted to use to connect the defendants to Afghanistan and al-Qaida was never put to the jury. That was because last autumn a trial within a trial was secretly taking place. This was a private contest between a group of scientists from the Porton Down military research centre and myself. The issue was: where had the information on poisons and chemicals come from?

The information - five pages in Arabic, containing amateur instructions for making ricin, cyanide and botulinum, and a list of chemicals used in explosives - was at the heart of the case. The notes had been made by Kamel Bourgass, the sole convicted defendant. His co-defendants believed that he had copied the information from the internet. The prosecution claimed it had come from Afghanistan.

I was asked to look for the original source on the internet. This meant exploring Islamist websites that publish Bin Laden and his sympathisers, and plumbing the most prolific source of information on how to do harm: the writings of the American survivalist right and the gun lobby.

The experience of being an expert witness on these issues has made me feel a great deal safer on the streets of London. These were the internal documents of the supposed al-Qaida cell planning the "big one" in Britain. But the recipes were untested and unoriginal, borrowed from US sources. Moreover, ricin is not a weapon of mass destruction. It is a poison which has only ever been used for one-on-one killings and attempted killings.

If this was the measure of the destructive wrath that Bin Laden's followers were about to wreak on London, it was impotent. Yet it was the discovery of a copy of Bourgass's notes in Thetford in 2002 that inspired the wave of horror stories and government announcements and preparations for poison gas attacks.

It is true that when the team from Porton Down entered the Wood Green flat in January 2003, their field equipment registered the presence of ricin. But these were high sensitivity field detectors, for use where a false negative result could be fatal. A few days later in the lab, Dr Martin Pearce, head of the Biological Weapons Identification Group, found that there was no ricin. But when this result was passed to London, the message reportedly said the opposite.

The planned government case on links to Afghanistan was based only on papers that a freelance journalist working for the Times had scooped up after the US invasion of Kabul. Some were in Arabic, some in Russian. They were far more detailed than Bourgass's notes. Nevertheless, claimed Porton Down chemistry chief Dr Chris Timperley, they showed a "common origin and progression" in the methods, thus linking the London group of north Africans to Afghanistan and Bin Laden.

The weakness of Timperley's case was that neither he nor the intelligence services had examined any other documents that could have been the source. We were told Porton Down and its intelligence advisers had never previously heard of the "Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, containing recipes for ricin and much more". The document, written by veterans of the 1980s Afghan war, has been on the net since 1998.

All the information roads led west, not to Kabul but to California and the US midwest. The recipes for ricin now seen on the internet were invented 20 years ago by survivalist Kurt Saxon. He advertises videos and books on the internet. Before the ricin ring trial started, I phoned him in Arizona. For $110, he sent me a fistful of CDs and videos on how to make bombs, missiles, booby traps - and ricin. We handed a copy of the ricin video to the police.

When, in October, I showed that the chemical lists found in London were an exact copy of pages on an internet site in Palo Alto, California, the prosecution gave up on the Kabul and al-Qaida link claims. But it seems this information was not shared with the then home secretary, David Blunkett, who was still whipping up fear two weeks later. "Al-Qaida and the international network is seen to be, and will be demonstrated through the courts over months to come, actually on our doorstep and threatening our lives," he said on November 14.

The most ironic twist was an attempt to introduce an "al-Qaida manual" into the case. The manual - called the Manual of the Afghan Jihad - had been found on a raid in Manchester in 2000. It was given to the FBI to produce in the 2001 New York trial for the first attack on the World Trade Centre. But it wasn't an al-Qaida manual. The name was invented by the US department of justice in 2001, and the contents were rushed on to the net to aid a presentation to the Senate by the then attorney general, John Ashcroft, supporting the US Patriot Act.

To show that the Jihad manual was written in the 1980s and the period of the US-supported war against the Soviet occupation was easy. The ricin recipe it contained was a direct translation from a 1988 US book called the Poisoner's Handbook, by Maxwell Hutchkinson.

We have all been victims of this mass deception. I do not doubt that Bourgass would have contemplated causing harm if he was competent to do so. But he was an Islamist yobbo on his own, not an Al Qaida-trained superterrorist. An Asbo might be appropriate.
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