Communication

My girlfriend suspects I am having an affair.

She thinks this, because she often walks in when I am typing messages to someone called Sunny. While this mysterious character will no doubt be flattered by the implication, its not him I’m obsessed with, just his RSS feed. His, and those belonging to about thirty other people too.

When I mentioned in August that I would be inaugurating a blog (or a “blog” as I would have called it then), my girlfriend was slightly offended. Why communicate online when there is a whole city of real people to talk to? Why sacrifice human contact, and body language, to have a debate with someone you will never meet, never see, never know? My response was to reassure her that I was not seeking to replace proper conversations. I pointed out that we gravitate towards people with similar opinions and outlook, and it would be a tragedy if there were friends of mine I hadn’t met yet. Through the Internet I could find them, even if by some ridiculous mistake of fortune they happened to live in Nebraska. Using my website to broadcast my thoughts into the ether, I too would be famous for fifteen people.

The stigma associated with meeting people online (for debate, love, or friendship) reduces every day, but I don’t believe the Internet presents a threat to offline, non-virtual (i.e. real) interaction. Over at The Triforce, where the authors are famous for fifty people apparently, Ste Curran tells us why Internet communities are better in the flesh:

Meeting someone online is a bit like telling a ghost story. It is meant to be real, but all parties involved should know it is also essentially fictional. Everything you read on a forum, in an IM, in an email; each of these fragmented bursts of data, or microscopic-essays, or simple streams of consciousness; each of them is a representation of a single instant in someone’s life. The person producing them is communicating by sending a series of snapshots of themselves, and stringing together those snapshots misses out a big piece of what makes them them.

So the signature, the avatar, the email address you hold up as this person is not quite the same as firstname lastname behind the keyboard. It’s not they’re picking themselves out as something else with objective cynicism … The person you’re typing to is the tone of their voice, the way their eyes dart, the way their clothes fall, that fractional gasp when they’re surprised. It is in everything they don’t know about themselves.

Again, because that is super important: they are not hiding. Anything but. Something about the internet means people are more free with their conversation there than they might be if they’d known you for months in real life. They are telling you things in private they haven’t told their best friends. Even forums where you talk about nothing bring you so close. Read between the lines in the nonsense and you can build up incredibly detailed internal profiles of your online friends. You’ll still never really know them until the moment you touch.

To be honest, I’m rather wary of quoting a whole three paragraphs of Triforce material. Since I have met them online and in person, I can tell you with authority that fuelling their egos further is probably not a good idea. So no-one tell them, OK?

Thank the Lords

Common sense and decency prevails, as the House of Lords rules that evidence gained through torture cannot be used in court.

Lord Carswell

The duty not to countenance the use of torture by admission of evidence so obtained in judicial proceedings must be regarded as paramount and that to allow its admission would shock the conscience, abuse or degrade the proceedings and involve the state in moral defilement

The ineffectiveness of torture as a tool for anything has been well argued… but a couple of quick observations. First, the “ticking bomb scenario” is an unhelpful hypothetical construct. As David Luban says in the Washington Post, we give it credence only because we see so many examples of it in Hollywood. (via Clive). If it gets to the stage where a bomb is about to go off, and the only way we can discover it is by electrocuting a terrorists testicles… then I would say we’re already pretty much fucked anyway.

The other problem with the “ticking bomb” hypothetical is that it ignores the sheer amount of time and effort that goes into torturing people. If the CIA really are scheduling flights across the atlantic in order to torture their prisoners, then their intelligence gathering is clearly not being done with any sense of urgency.

Update: The New Republic carries Andrew Sullivan’s fantastic article against torture, a response to Charles Krauthammer’s apology for it. Over at Great Britain, Not Little England, there are links to further discussion, referencing Craig Murray and the Uzbekistani example.

Encountering the 'Submerged'

Last Monday I had cause to be working in Glasgow, in a theatre just south of the Clyde. At the end of the day, I planned to take a train back to the city centre. I arrived at the station ten minutes after someone had committed suicide, jumping onto the tracks. The police and ambulance had arrived moments before me, and had not yet been able to remove the body. He lay there, lifeless and nameless like a mannequin. All last week I searched all the news media for an account of what happened, but there was nothing.

With no chance of a train, the tube was a better option, and I was soon in the city centre once more. Just outside Queen Street station, I met a man with a red face and no teeth selling the Big Issue magazine. The magazine was giving away some free post-cards, so I bought his last copy. I had intended to send a postcard to some friends I had stayed with over the weekend, but they turned out to be a promotional pack for Amnesty International, who are running a campaign of awareness of domestic violence. Did you know that on average a woman is assaulted 35 times before she seeks help from outside authorities, and that every day two women are killed by a current or former partner?

Not for the first time, a doctor friend was telling me today about the evidence of domestic abuse she sees in hospital. She told me stories of young women who conceal pregancies from violent partners or disapproving parents. Others manage to live for months without even realising they are pregnant. They arrive in the hospital with pains, and despite not menstruating and the appearance of a huge, baby shaped lump in their abdomen, they insist that they cannot be pregnant. They only have to wait a month before unwelcome contractions prove them wrong.

Surely the biological facts of the matter are so obvious as to be unmistakeable? Apparently not, said my friend. For social or religious reasons, some live in denial, scared to admit even to themselves a fact that would bring shame upon them. Others have a more clinical mind-block, a psycological refusal to see the truth in a manner similar to anorexia.

I think these are relevant digressions, because they are all examples of someone so far removed from our own daily lives, that they could be living in another country. And yet we all live in the same country. Men so sad they will jump in front of a train; men without teeth or a roof over their heads; women suffering and dying in silence, unnoticed; and girls so illiterate they do not understand what will happen if they have unprotected sex. I am reminded of a passage in Fergal Keane’s book A Stranger’s Eye (2000), where talks of the ‘submerged’, people, those whose lives are so far removed from the rest of the country, that they seem to no longer undersatnd us, nor we them:

For a few weeks in a Leeds courtroom, the story of her life and death illuminated a parellel universe in which young men, women and children lived not so much on the wrong side of the tracks, but far below the surface of the nation. Submerged. The majority did not end up killing or engaging in senseless violence, nor could they in any sense be said to inhabit the same moral universe as those who murdered Anglea Pearce.

But they did live in a submerged world. It was there all around us, in every city in the country, a world of unexplained departures and missed connections, a great, quiet tradgedy that went stalking down the generations. When it spilled onto our front pages – a child dead from neglect or cruelty, a frightening drug statistic – we took notice, we were shocked. But the waves always closed over and the underwater silence resumed.

Elegance and clarity

I really don’t know what all the fuss was about.

Say five people go to a weekend music festival together. At various times during the weekend, they pay for groceries and travel expenses. R pays £3 for margerine, £3 for electricity, totalling £6. L pays £17.50 for some groceries. E spends £10 in the shop and another £2 for some communal painkillers to ease hangovers, a total of £12. K spends £7.50 on groceries and £6 on electricity cards, which totals £13.50. S pays for car hire at £113 for the weekend, then £18 for parking, £15 on petrol, and £54 on groceries, a total of £200 exactly.

That means we’ve spent £249 in total, or £49.80 each.

If S has paid £200 but owes £49.80, she is due £150.20 from the other four. However, K and E foolishly gave her £3 each, and R has already handed over £5 early in the proceedings, so really S only needs £139.20. Since K has already spent £13.50, he should contribute another £36.30, £3 of which he has already paid. £33.30 is still due. Since E has paid £12 already, plus another £3 to S, only £34.80 of her £49.80 share is due. Likewise, L has already paid £17.50 of his equal share, so he still needs to pay £32.30. R has only made purchases of £6, but since he has already paid £5 to S he now owes £38.80 to the group.

Since S is owed money, the other four should pay her back. £139.20 divided by four is £34.80 owed to S by each of the other members. By luck, this is exactly what E owed to the group anyway, so now both S and E are ‘quits’ with the group. This just leaves K, L and R. Since K only owed £33.30 in the first place, his paying over £34.80 to S leaves him £1.50 short. By a similar calculation, L only owed £32.30, so paying £34.80 to S left him £2.50 out of pocket. All is not lost however, because although R owed a total of £38.80 to the group, he only paid S £34.80 of that sum. R therefore has £4 outstanding to the group, which K and L can split between them.

To summarize, everyone pays S £34.80, and R pays supplements of £1.50 to K and £2.50 to L. Simple.

Cartoon by Sidney Harris.
Cartoon by Sidney Harris.

Captive Market

We’re cruising at 36,000 feet, the two o’clock EasyJet flight back to Edinburgh. The flight is smooth, the cloud-speckled landscape beautiful, and I am suddenly a festering, miserable bastard.

Over the tannoy, the pre-pubescent ‘Flight Customer Services Representative’ (or whatever the stewards call themselves these days) invades my airspace with adverts for Harry Potter Top Trumps. Not any old Top Trumps, by the way, but the very latest Goblet of Fire editon. You simply cannot get these in the shops. You can also buy the perfume endorsed by Sarah Jessica Parker…

As with departure lounges, in-flight shops are so insidious because there really is no escape. You cannot ring the bell, ask to get off, then simply get the next pplane, five minutes later. The steward’s voice makes it worse: not because the camp mockney accent contrasts so starkly with the refined tones of the RP you still hear on other airlines; but because he is simply inarticulate and crass. “Stick this in yer gob, you’ll love it!”. Proper diction and a sense of decorum should not be commodities that can be cut back.

When you book with a low cost airline, you should not expect all the frills. The lack of free coffee and snacks has even been expunged from the BMI flights too, so the dry and barren atmosphere is not a bother. But there is a difference between being given no extras, and being subjected to the constant onslaught of Opportunities To Buy. If this stealth commerce is the only way EasyJet can compete, then they could at least do me the courtesy of not wishing me a peaceful flight at the plane takes off. With the drone of the cabin crew’s constant sales patter, peace and quiet is clearly not high on their agenda.

Now, if they had the wit to tell a few jokes or sing a song, they might win their way back to my heart. Writing in The Independent, John Walsh laments the disappearance of bus conductors, now the old Routemasters have been all but phased out in London. We read of the conductors acting as bouncers, bodyguards, rappers, crooners and other entertainers, and even lectures on ettiquette! On the bus, there was no need to pay a premium – these unexpected extras were provided free as part of the ‘no frills’ service. And with an old Routemaster Bus, you could jump on and off the back if you needed to escape. Now the bendy buses are snaking their way through London, bus passengers are yet another imprisoned market for crass, on-board advertising opportunities. Watch this space.

The Ethics of Tetley Tea: Response

I’m delighted to announce that Tetley have responded fully and promptly to last week’s letter, where I asked some questions regarding Tetley’s environmental and ethical policy. A two page letter from Customer Services Advisor Mary Reid (printed on recycled paper I may add), fully outlined Tetley’s activities in this area.

It is our firm belief that estates who supply our tea treat their workers fairly… However, we recognise that ‘believing it’ is simply not enough. The issue is of unversal interest and it is to everyone’s benefit – both the estates overseas and packers like ourselves in the UK – to make sure that practices in the producing countries are more visible to the consumer, who may be many thousands of miles away.

In order to do this, in 1997 Tetley became one of the founder members of the Tea Sourcing Partnership

The Tea Sourcing Partnership became the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) in 2004. According to Ms Reid, it is “the biggest ‘ethical sourcing’ scheme of its kind” and has a network in place to monitor:

  • Terms and Conditions of Employment
  • Education
  • Maternity Provsions
  • Health and Safety
  • Housing
  • Basic Human Rights

The ETP website may be found at www.ethicalteapartnership.org. I notice PG Tips are members too.

The site gives a fairly comprehensive run-down of the groups activities, with PricewaterhouseCoopers monitoring the work that they do. My main criticism is that no actual facts or figures are given. For example, agreements are in place regarding working hours is pretty meaningless if the union and the employers have ‘agreed’ that 126 hour working weeks are acceptable! The site needs to provide full reports on exactly what the agreements and regulations actually are, and how they relate to the laws of the country in question. Only then will consumers be able to make a meaningful judgement on the ETP’s activities.

My correspondent at Tetley provided a double-whammy. By way of an explanation of their energy policy, Ms Reid provided an article from their in-house magazine. Apparently, the excess waste from cutting round tea-bags is burnt in an on-site furnace, heating the boiler at their Eaglescliff factory. Land-fill is reduced and energy is saved. My question regarding excess packaging was left unanswered, so they don’t get ten out of ten… but nevertheless I am pleased my letter was taken seriously and addressed fully.

A key criticism of the campaigns for ethically produced foodstuffs is that stricter controls lead to a rise in prices. Poorer people can no longer buy the goods, while the chattering classes consume their organic, fair-trade Java from their chrome cafitiere. It is good to find cases where a more ethical approach seems to be working accross the industry, without consumers being priced out of the market here in Britain.

Either way, it looks like I can drink my tea with a clear conscience. Kellogs Cornflakes are next.

Blogging analogies

Nosemonkey provides a long and interesting peice on the cliques and changes abound in blog network.

This is the main concern. If we all start meeting up in the real world and communicating via email rather than just comment boxes etc, is this likely to turn us all into some kind of nepotistic clique in just as bad a way as the mainstream press (pretty much) is? This whole obsession with ID cards, 90 Days etc is a prime case in point – in some areas it’s already almost turning into a Britblog hive mind…

The ‘hive mind’ idea is a popular one in science fiction, which in turn reminds me of the SETI screen-saver, where your computer analyses radio noise from the heavens in its spare time, looking for a pattern. The idea of a blog-hive-mind is like this too: Many people analysing lots of information. As Nosemonkey points out, the sheer volume of information being churned out by the established and online media means that we cannot read it all, and we cannot verify all of what we read. But the ‘blogosphere’ means we don’t have to. Between us all, we read everything, and between us we recommend the best of what we have read. The most interesting and controversial articles, or those that somehow capture the zeitgeist of the hour, will succeed in the market-place of ideas.

And the marketplace is not a bad comparision either. Why not concieve of the internet as a giant public square, where the best price can be obtained for your goods, you are sold exactly what you want, avoid tedious discussions, and spend more time finding precisely the right people to be friends with, and to argue with?

Update: From the comments section of the same article, I found a great piece on Weblogs, Powerlaws, and Inequality. Apparently it is highly unlikely that blog posts will success in the marketplace of ideas after all! As another commenter puts it: Shall we just forget about it all and get on with writing about things that interest us?

Bombing the messenger

Fuck it. Everyone else is pledging to break the law, so why not me?

The problem being: Al-Jazeera were (allegedly) threatened with bombing because they undermined the US-led war effort with their bad news. But now, the Blogger engine is running the Don’t Bomb Us website. Perhaps, at the very moment you read this, President Bush is planning to bomb Google too?

(Thanks Rachel for the tip off).

Tips for the neo-con project

At last, says Clive Davis, someone has written a fair article on the Neo-conservative ideology. What a shame then, that this fairness does not extend to the other side of the debate.

In The Times, Stephen Pollard of the Centre for the New Europe, discusses how a person’s Left-or-Right political leanings no longer has a bearing on what their stance on British foreign policy will be. As Clive says, its important to point out the humanitarian aspect to neo-con policy… but Pollard comits a dirty sleight-of-hand:

It might, after all, be thought reasonable to identify democracy, freedom and human rights as key components of a left-wing approach. And yet the reaction to the Iraq war shows that this no longer applies

Innocuous, but actually very naughty. The implication, throughout the article, is that only one side of the argument has human rights at heart. The implication is that by questioning the wisdom of war, those on The Left were reverting to an anti-americanism factory default, with support for the Islamo-facists an unwitting side-effect. It also ignores the worry held by many worldwide, that there were other, less noble reasons for war.

The mistake that Stephen Pollard makes, along with countless others on both sides of the debate, is to misunderstand the nature of the argument. It is not a debate about where the concept of human rights falls in our list of global priorities. Mine is an unpopular belief: that there are people in both the pro-war and anti-war camps who had the best interests of the Iraqis, their fellow human beings, at heart when they took their stance.

For me, the debate about the Iraq war was not ideological, but practical. Dictators should be stopped, no question, but my objections were over the best way to achieve that aim. Telling lies over WMD and ignoring our blood-stained hand in the history of the region was not a good footing for a military campaign. If the intervention had been managed more honestly, I may have had a different view… but pencilling a war into your diary for six months hence, then constructing a forty-five minute justification afterwards, is not a viable strategy. Although confident that we would defeat the Saddam regime itself, I was never confident that we would ‘win’ the war in the sense of acheiving our human rights objectives. Indeed, as a piece The Times published earlier this year shows, the soul searching by war hawks who have had second thoughts is almost entirely based on practical considerations. It is not the morality of toppling a dictator that figures, but the manner in which we did it. Suggesting that we could have chosen a different way is libellously painted by the hawks as against human rights.

Pollard also mocks the idea that there is some kind of project for “American global dominion” of which the Iraq war was a part. But I would suggest that it is actually those in the pro-war camp, our own leaders no less, who allow this accusation to flourish. Their pitiful attempts to wish away the WMD transgressions merely fuel the theory of American Imperialism. Certainly it distracts from the humanitarian case for intervention. Despite their reputation for being slick spin-doctors, the neo-conservatives have presented their argument appallingly, in no small part due to the inarticulacy of their chief spokesperson, President Bush. If the neo-cons wish to invoke the name of Henry Jackson and his ideas of principled intervention, they had better damn well demonstrate those principles before they start trying to convince the rest of us. An honest account of how we came to war, and why we previously supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, would be a fine start. Until then, they cannot take the moral high-ground that Stephen Pollard claims for them.

Heisenblogged

Many sites out there have rightly mentioned Tim Worstall’s 2005: Blogged, especially those who have had one of their articles included in the anthology. I notice Chris at qwghlm is pleased to be included for his article on ID Cards, as are the folk at Pickled Politics regarding the fantastic Apu essay.

I wonder if the book may provoke some kind of Heisenberg effect? By this, I mean – what if the very act of observing something, changes that thing you are observing? Now 2005: Blogged has been published, eager bloggers will begin beavering away, planning seminal posts that will make it into 2006: Blogged. Some kind of annual blogging awards may be just around the corner too! All of this will change the way people write. No longer will they fire off an angry yet unwittingly eloquent rant at 4am, instead they will be working and re-working their articles in the hope of winning an inclusion. I know I will.