The Cost of War

Since the The Independent newspaper today asks what happened to the $1bn Iraqi defence budget, it seems a good time to mention some research by an old lecturer of mine, Professor Keith Hartley.

Professor Hartley estimates that the total cost of the war in Iraq will be US$1.25 trillion. This bill will be picked up by the US and UK taxpayers, and the new Iraqi state.

“If, at the outset, the Americans anticipated the Iraq operation would cost $100 billion, they could have given Saddam Hussein and his family $20 billion to go, $50 billion to Iraq and still have had $30 billion left over. The UK would not have been involved, no-one would have died and no buildings would have been destroyed. (PDF)

Internet Philosophy

When the aliens come to visit me, the first thing I will do is show them the Internet. I think it is fascinating that I can surf from cross-stitch to cross-dressing in a single click. The Internet proves how diverse the human species can be, with little cliques and groups each posting their messages about those activities which take up their time.

I enjoyed Jeanette Winterson’s article in The Times, discussing the internet as an innovation and a medium. Part of the reason for this site’s existence is my plan to discuss the philosophy of the Internet: How its uses are evolving; how design, and coding innovations allow easy access to information; the future of the medium. I believe that the Internet will have a seismic effect on society, in the UK and beyond. The ability to “communicate and connect” (as Winterson suggests) may cause a paradigm shift for the way we live, especially politics and the media. The Internet is about globalisation…. it will be at the heart of multiculturalism.

This post inaugurates a new category on this website. I will call it Internet Philosophy for now, but I may change it to something less (or more) grandiose, depending on the feedback.

US of E

Reading Gary Monro’s post regarding Europhile Ken Clarke’s Tory leadership bid, prompts me to think once more about the arguments against the single currency.

I remember going to see Tony Benn speak a year or two ago, when he was promoting a recently published volume of his diaries. He made the point that if (or when) we joined the single currency, economic and financial decisions would be made by people who we could not “sack” out of office. Joing the single currency does indeed imply the “foreign control” that Gary speaks of.

There are therefore only two democratically acceptable positions to take on this issue: total non-participation, or total European federalism. Ken Clarke, New Labour and the Liberal Democrats do us a disservice by picking a position somewhere between these two stools.

Thoughts on the nature of culture and multiculture I must leave to another day. However, I think I find the idea of a federal Europe less offensive than most of my countrymen. In the UK, we already live in a federation of sorts. Despite an English accent, I have Welsh and Scots ancestry. Now I live in Edinburgh, I can be as proud of cultural icons such as David Hume, Walter Scott and Robert Burns as I am of anyone strictly English. I look forward to the day when we become the United States of Europe, when I can celebrate my illustrious countrymen: Da Vinci, Voltaire, Neitzche, Picasso!

Letter to Lord Falconer

Today begins what I anticipate to be a long series of posts. It shall consist of letters written to prominent politicians and public figures, asking for clarification to particularly ambiguous statements made in other parts of the media. The point raised with Lord Falconer (below) is perhaps of minor importance, but I do believe his comments are characteristic of The Government’s tendency to present non-arguments as something more substantial. Blogs and The Internet are the perfect place to examine such comments in more detail.

I am writing to ask for a clarification on comments you made to journalist Marie Woolf, published in The Independent newspaper today (5/09/2005).

You are quoted as saying:

That there was a disagreement about that issue [the decision to go to war in Iraq] should not lead to a corrosion in trust. Plainly those who disagree with us on Iraq do not in any way forfeit our trust, and it should not be vice-versa.

Regardless of whether or not the decision to go to war was correct, your comments seem to imply a willful misunderstanding of the nature of the public disagreement the Government has faced over this issue since September 2002. I suggest the Government did not lose trust because of the decision made in light of the facts available at the time. Instead, trust was forfeited due to the perceived Government duplicity concerning the veracity of those facts, and indeed the chronology of the decisions made. Likewise, the BBC also lost a great deal of trust over its presentation of the facts during the Kelly-Gilligan affair.

If you think someone is lying to you, is it not perfectly rational, sensible and prudent to trust them less? Were your comments directed towards campaigners against the decision within the public at large, or against specific sections of the media? In any case, trust is surely not a right, but something to be earned.

The Devil's Alternative

The news that Simon Harris, the suspected murderer of Rory Blackhall, had been facing sex offence charges, has led to calls for yet another reform to the crimminal justice system. This time, it is suggested that we add people who have simply been accused of sex offenses to be added to the sex offenders register until their trial. This idea of pre-emptive justice inevitably reminds me of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, who died at Stockwell tube station on 22 July.

Then as now, the argument centres around the idea of public protection. Those in power declare that it would be crimminally negligent of them to allow innocent people to die. For them, to ‘err on the side of caution’ is to neutralise potential threats, and ask questions later. Menezes is simply a tragic casualty of war. Likewise, depriving a potentially innocent man of his civil liberties is a price worth paying, to reduce the treat of harm to the Great British Public.

However, we must admit that people will kill and abuse each other, whatever the actions taken by the State. If they are doing this in numbers that society deems unacceptable (for now, 52 people dead on the London Transport system fits that criteria, in this country at least) then the problem is not necessarily a failure of policing, but a failure of society and a failure of political decision-making. Locking people up, putting them under surveillance, or even shooting them seven times in the head (and then once in the leg) is a simplistic policy answer.

The fact that these crimes occur highlights the fact that the security services are not all-powerful. The State simply cannot protect us from everything. It is crucially the role of the State which is under scrutiny here. Not only the State’s to deal with such threats, but where the State exists on the moral plane. We must be very clear about this point, and at present the waters are muddied.

The State is not a person. It cannot make snap decisions based upon the ‘facts on the gound’. Instead, the State is a collection of people, all of us, and we have to make decisions in advance, which are then applied equally throughout the country. They are our laws, and we must stick to them. There can be no special circumstances when these are flouted. If there are, then they become unfair, unjust, and ultimately meaningless.

Many people have said this before, but often they conclude their argument at this point. However, respecting the rule of law, and our civil liberties, has some very unpalatable consequences which we must nevertheless admit to ourselves if we are to have any chance of improving our society.

Perhaps it is better for another child to be murdered, than for an innocent man to have his life ruined by false imprisonment or even a false accusation. Perhaps it is better that a dozen innocent people die on a tube train by terrorism, than it is for one innocent electrician to be wrongly murdered by the State. Whatever the choice made, someone will die. In the case of a true suicide bomber or a child murderer, the killer is an individual. But in the Menezes case, the killer was the State. It was us. There is a moral difference between allowing a death that even the police are powerless to prevent, and proactively causing the death of an innocent person.

The choice is of course a Devil’s Alternative, but when our agents made our choice for us on 22 July, we all became murderers. To absolve ourselves of this sin, we must ensure that it never happens again. Some of our laws make it harder to catch terrorists. Better that we allow innocent people to die by terrorism than to become murderers, terrorists, ourselves. Altering our laws can no longer help us win the battles against terrorists, sex offenders or indeed any other crime. We need to begin altering our society, and the way we conduct our political debate, if we are to stand any chance of winning.

Narrow Definition of Web Design

This was the Star Letter in the July 2005 issue of Creative Review.

If the websites showcased recently in Creative Review are any guide to the industry as a whole, our definition of what constitutes a good website design is far too narrow. The emphasis at present seems to be purely on the visual, with websites being laid out using exactly the same rules as print design. Focus is given to ‘wow’ technologies such as Flash, while the basic rules of accessibility are ignored.

A film with immaculate cinematography may be totally let down by poor narrative structure or sound-track. Likewise, a website with an pleasing and original visual style will be let down by invalid markup, slow download times, and a lack of accessibility features (such as ‘title’ and ‘alt’ attributes to aid site visitors).

Examining the Aardman and Nike websites, showcased in the 2005 Annual, we see that neither site validates for HTML or CSS, and all the copy is presented as images – not searchable by Google or Yahoo – with no textual alternative. I can’t remember the last site featured in CR that was NOT designed to fixed dimensions, which reduces accessibility for those who may wish to enlarge the site on their screen. The end result of all these choices is that the key messages are communicated less efficiently to less people.

Designing good website visuals is not the same as designing a good website. I would encourage readers of CR to read one of the countless guides to website accessibility that exist online, and design accordingly. The ability to separate content from presentation is one of the positive aspects of the Internet. The web should be treated as a medium in itself, and not a metaphor for print.

Cliché watch #1

The Internet is a wonderful medium for communication and collaboration, but my God, it encourages lazy clichés. Many journalists are still under the illusion that using the Internet for research is still innovative and clever. In order to demonstrate to us, the pop-cultured masses, that their chosen subject is relevant, they begin their article thus: “A search on Google for x yields over 100,000 results.”

It’s a really tedious way to set the scene. No specialist knowledge or research lies behind the statistic. Anyone can use Google to search for a phrase, and everyone does. And therefore, everyone knows that the figures given are meaningless. Google includes in its results all indexed sites that contain one or more of the keywords and does not yet make any recommendations as to how relevant the results returned are likely to be. Everyone also knows that several pages in the same site can return multiple results, making the raw figure presented at the top of the screen even more meaningless.

What does the figure actually mean? When 472,000 results are returned for, say, “Margaret Thatcher Sex” have we really learnt anything new? All it really tells us is that some English words are used on some sites, somewhere on the web. And yet the journalist is wasting an entire column inch telling us this.

But it is most annoying because the phrase itself if so unoriginal. A search on Google for “A search on Google for” yields 90,000 results. So let us call a moratorium on this particular cliché, please.

Oxymoron

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was… Terror. Our war began on or around 14th September 2001, when George W Bush asked for a ‘unity’ against terror that quickly became a ‘war’. Heads of States flocked to their press conference microphones to join the war, and soon an airborne armada was bombing Afghanistan.

What a shame, then, that our enemy doesn’t exist.

The word ‘terror’ means to be really, really scared of something. Common things to be scared of in this county range from being stung by a wasp, to being blown up in an aeroplane, and everything in between. But whatever, you are scared of, your ‘terror’ is an emotion, something within you. The only way we can eradicate terror is to annihilate our species… something we seem to be on course for at the moment.

When Dubya made his speech to the nation on that grief stricken Friday, he misused the word ‘terror,’ and in doing so dammed a generation to meaningless conflict. The word has now become a catchall phrase to describe any attack, for an reason, on Westerners. Almost three years later, the same man describes ‘terrorism’ as the new Nazisim. He talks about the ‘terrorist movement’ as if it were a political party, and vows to defeat it. What he fails to realise, and what will ultimately cause hundreds more deaths before the end of his presidency, is that terrorism is not an ideology, or a group, but a weapon. For all his bravado on the anniversary of D-Day, the President is fighting a battle he cannot win. It is as if he said he was going to declare war on guns. Or tanks, or stones. Though it pains me to ally myself with Dubya’s buddies at the NRA, terrorism doesn’t kill people; People kill people.

To eradicate terrorism, you need to stop people hating you, and if you want to do that, the last thing you need is a war. Instead, George W Bush sends in his troops equipped with rifles and ray-bans, and every shot they fire creates another American-hater who will pick-up terrorism, the only weapon they have, in order to fight back. The ideology that is ‘anti-Americanism’ now sees its ranks swelling to numbers that the Nazis could only dream of.

A terrifying thought.

Robert Kilroy-Silk is a waste of space

Once again, real issues have been marred by people who do not know how to have an argument. I refer of course to the embarrassing piece of human discourse that was the Kilroy affair. The article at the centre of the argument was very bad, but in some ways the arguments against it were worse, because they lent credence to Robert Kilroy-Silk where absolutely none was due.

In years to come, historians will hold up the article as a prime example not of human ignorance or bigotry, but of human idiocy. It is likely that they will give short shrift to the article itself, which embarrasses itself with inaccuracies, sentence construction, and ignorance: Kilroy-Silk says that no-one can think of anything the Arabs have ever given us. To this, the long list of retorts begins with an ‘a’ for algebra, and continues from there.

His one vaguely pertinent point – that Arab states should not be supported – is given an entirely offensive new meaning by the fact that he confuses ‘Arab states’ with ‘Arabs.’ His “grammatical error” (if we assume that is what it was) betrays a general immaturity of thought – that to speak of a people, is to speak of their government, and vice-versa. It is not racist to criticise the policies of the state of Israel, the USA, or any of the Islamic middle-eastern states. I believe all deserve the criticism ten-fold. Indeed, it can never be racist to genuinely question the policies of anyone, or anything. However, it is the very definition of racism is to ascribe the policies of a few, to a whole race, for that is a prejudice. To rail against The Arabs, The Jews, The Americans is nonsensical, for they are groups of individuals about which we know very little except where they live.

It is therefore nonsense to say that Mr Kilroy-Silk has a right to free speech over this issue, because his article has nothing logical or interesting to say. It is as if he had declared that he was actually a Vauxhall Astra 1.6 convertible, and then someone said “Well, I disagree with him, but everyone has a right to their opinion.” With free speech comes the responsibility to string your words together in a proper order, a task at which Mr Kilroy-Silk has manifestly failed.

The right to free speech is also attached to the responsibility to research your topic. We should not expect everyone in the UK to understand that Iran is not an Arab state (indeed, their proximity makes this a forgivable mistake). However, such knowledge is a pre-requisite for someone such as Kilroy-Silk, who was commenting directly on the issue. The BBC took the ridiculous step of suspending Kilroy-Silk and his programme only after complaints were made. They should have sacked him immediately: not because they disagreed with the article, but for proving beyond reasonable doubt what a rubbish journalist he actually is. The Sunday Express should be vilified for printing what is unarguably shoddy journalism.

The editors at The Sunday Express are the chief culprits in this tale of human stupidity. Their response to the complaints was to remark that the article had been printed in April, and no one had complained! This is an argument that could be used to justify any of the holocausts that stain our history. If something is only made racist or wrong by the number of complaints received, then every unreported crime is acceptable… Perhaps during the article’s first publication, the complainants were reading a better newspaper. More likely, they were too busy complaining to the Express about something else.

Every day, the foolishness of our media, and the inability of our politicians to ever make a proper argument, draws me closer to my depressing conclusion: we still live in the dark ages, where false arguments justify false aims. Historians of the future will group this new century in with all its predecessors, and call it the pre-enlightenment age. They will not bother trying to learn anything from this era, for it is already stained with the mark of a village idiot. The controversy surrounding Robert Kilroy-Silk’s article is the latest in an infamous tradition of mad hatter tea-parties. Like the dormouse, we shall sleep through many more.

Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden

Pauline Lockhart as Lily

Creating the play

In a small and half formed garden in the quaint town of Pitlochry, Sweet Fanny Adams became incarnate in a human form. Playwright Judith Adams‘ creation Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden was performed by a troupe of actors in the Scottish Plant Collector ‘s Garden. They were assisted by: costumes; a container of props; some sets; a sound system; and an array of sophisticated digital technology. In two hours they told the stories of three women, three men, and a little girl dressed in red (who may have had wings). Audiences were on the whole delighted by the piece, which combined the fairy tales of their past with a distinctly 21st century sense of humour. Sweet Fanny Adams & was a promenade performance, with scenes taking place simultaneously across several locations around the seven-acre space. Despite this ambitious approach, reviews from favourable across the board. In common with the audience, the summary was always I’ve never seen anything like it!

And “You’ve never seen anything like it” is spot on – It is the conclusion to this article. It may appear a paradox therefore, when I declare that the reviewers to a large extent missed the point. Despite a lengthy briefing by the playwright herself in the pre-show interviews, there was little comment on the way in which the play had been created. In failing to do this true nature of the achievement escaped the reviewers, like a butterfly from a net.

After the Stellar Quines Theatre Company commissioned Adams, she began researching the characters and the gardens upon which it was suggested the play should be based. She quickly found that there were myriad ideas and several interlinking themes, swimming around in her own head, and in the writings and words of her subjects. How to connect them in a way that made sense?

Collaborating with the design and multimedia production company Fifty Nine, Adams found that existing Internet authoring technology could be adapted to her needs. As the characters’ words were typed into the computer, so too were the links between the scenes, and ‘core texts’ to which they referred.

Many scenes in Adams’ earlier work are characterised by a certain antagonism to linearity, with the various characters’ words and worlds overlapping and mirroring one-another, creating what may be described as a symphony of speech. Just like a musical composition, the individual instruments (in this case, human voices) are each a part of a greater whole. The Internet (or more specifically the HTML pages that may also be viewed on a computer without an online connection) provided a much better medium with which to generate this sort of writing. Overlapping and concurrent scenes may be presented just so. If a character repeats a refrain from an earlier scene, well, that scene with all its richness may be ‘linked’ to its counterpart in the later acts.

Of course, once the non-linearity of the medium became apparent to the playwright, the proverbial floodgates proverbially opened. If one were not constrained by notions of ‘before-and-after’ or ‘here-and-there’ (just like the fictional, fairy-tale characters, and just like our imaginations), why stay in one time, or one place? Presented with an entirely new method of writing plays, Judith Adams presented an entirely new type of play. Worlds collide. One word shoots a fountain of others in all directions. Embracing the medium, the playwright created scenes that did not require a place in a linear narrative.

Video was introduced as a means by which a character could physically exist in more than one place. Moreover, in this context of suppression and dominion, video also represented an alternative mental space.

A web of stories

Taking stock, then: The play that appeared as a scruffy CD-ROM in the hands of director Muriel Romanes was text based, but non linear. The constituent parts of the script (I hesitate to call them pages) existed in their very own piece of cyber space, one that neither preceded nor succeeded any other. They therefore made as much sense when put in one order, as they did in another. This matters, because non-linearity better reflects the human mind, thoughts, history. We are constantly affected by the actions of others, and each thought (indeed, each life) is affected not by one, but several narratives that have gone before. A scene has two meanings, one for each character. A scene may have two meanings, depending on what has preceded it. There is circularity to our lives and our history that is ideally represented by a non-linear medium.

Let it not be said that Sweet Fanny Adams has no discipline, or that the scenes are ordered without thought. A finite number of carefully considered words make up the text. No more may be added. In this way, the play is like any other. Eventually, a certain order was imposed on the piece so that it could be presented to actors and then used in physical rehearsals (Eight or more Palm-top computers were not available at the time). Fifty Nine used computer modelling to determine which combinations of scenes were possible in Pitlochry. The proposed order was carefully considered, with the writer, director and production team examining its implications, and the interpretations of the story that were likely to be inferred as a result of the imposition.

However, devising this order did seem a betrayal, and alteration of the piece. Clicking ‘print’ and creating a paper version was an act of adaptation, moving the composition out of its natural environment. While the audience were ultimately allowed to choose an order for the scenes themselves (and therefore the performance changed for them, depending on their whims and preconceptions), their choices were nevertheless limited to those possible within the space and time of the performance for which they had bought a ticket.

The current proposals, submitted to the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) and Arts Council England (Yorkshire), push this audience interaction a stage further. They suggest the creation of an online version of the performance with specially recorded scenes. In this way, they seek to return Sweet Fanny Adams to is natural habitat. There in cyber space, each performance will be unique for each audience member. Indeed, the audience member becomes an important character in the play. They take over the role of Smith the Showman, who gives voices to, and then silences, the women he keeps under surveillance. That the audience may take on this role is the mark of true interactivity, something that only the Internet may deliver. So far as text-based performance goes, it is very rare for a play to even acknowledge the existence of an audience, let alone allow the character of the audience member to influence and bend the proceedings, according to that character. Even in Pitlochry and especially on the Internet, Sweet Fanny Adams achieves both these things.

The actors, their characters, and the audience

Leaving aside the creation of Sweet Fanny Adams in Hyperspace Eden, there is a second important point about the structure of the piece. This was very pertinent in the case of the Pitlochry performance. Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden requires of the actor a whole new type of text based performance, a subtly different type of acting that not all can master. The Pitlochry performance literally redefined what it meant to develop a character. On successive nights, the actors rediscovered what the website had demonstrated all along  that their words could be delivered in any order. Towards the end of the run (when usually the actors might be settling into a tiresome repetition, with one eye on their next audition) the Pitlochry cast were inventing entirely new scenes, and thus finding new meanings in the play, new insights into their characters. Crucially, this was not improvisation, because what could and could not be said had been clearly defined by the writer some months before, and rehearsed during the previous fortnight. Instead, they evolved scenes that revealed secrets about the world of Sweet Fanny Adams that even the writer had not consciously understood. The four-week run allowed the kind of character development that is not possible in media other than theatre, and rarely explored in conventional (linear) theatre. It was the unique construction of the script online that gave the actors the confidence and inspiration to play, create, and innovate in this way.

While Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden is conventionally entertaining, with a set of strong characters, and Fairy Tale themes given a defiant twist, it is nevertheless the method of its creation that sets it apart. This piece simply could not have been created before the advent of HTML language, and not practically before the introduction of web authoring tools (such as Adobe GoLive). It is one of the few examples of Internet technology being used as a medium for creation in itself, rather than as a substitute for the page or the TV screen. It is thus quintessentially of its time. Furthermore, it has inspired new techniques for actors, and presented an entirely new form of performance art to the audiences of Scotland. Back in cyber-space, it will bring this new art to the rest of the world.