On the Weather

It’s funny how we acclimatise to the, erm, climate. Walking to the station this morning in my boots, heavy coat, woolly hat and multiple layers of underwear, I suddenly recalled with a shock that not six months ago, I was making the same journey in short trousers and flip-flops. The change in the weather happens just slow enough that it never seems improbable or extreme. Like the descent into fascism, the change happens gradually enough to go without comment, and you begin to doubt your memories of a better time, a summer’s day. And then it snows and everyone goes nuts, as if it were somehow unexpected.

So you’ve had a threatening letter…

Last week, Libel Reform Campaign terriers Sense About Science published a timely document on blogging and libel. Entitled So you’ve had a threatening letter. What can you do?, the booklet gives sage advice to those harassed by legal action.

Sense About Science were recently threatened with legal action themselves. Along with Dr Dalia Nield, they were threatened with libel by lawyers acting on behalf of Rodial, a company which manufactures a dubious ‘boob job cream’, which they claim can enlarge breasts without surgery! Sense About Science and Dr Nield expressed doubts about the safety and efficacy of the cream.

#RoyalWedding, #RoyalWedding

Following the technique of Kate Fox News, I thought I would ‘crowd source’ a poem about the Royal Wedding announcement.  It is a good time to remind ourselves of ‘Do Not Exceed The Stated Dose‘ too.

#RoyalWedding, #RoyalWedding
Look how quick the news is spreading

I’m really pleased for Kate and Will
But will the tax payers foot the bill?

Gawd bless’ em, *reach for tissues*
Newspapers plan their special issues

Al Quaida rubbing hands with glee
I’ll do the photos for a reasonable fee.

Middleton to marry to some balding toff
But do you think we get a day off?

Twitter is in meltdown. Just don’t get it.
Frankly I just don’t give a shit

China plate makers at the ready!
Oh I do hope it will be on the telly

Ooo Ooo! Whoop! WOOHOOs!
Today is a good day to bury bad news.

Prime Numbers and BASIC

I am reading Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter.  First published in 1979, the author discusses various systems – mathematical, visual and musical, which somehow manage to talk about themselves.  This self-reference, says the author, is one of the key ingredients for intelligence.

Much of the book so far has been taken up with explaining some key elements of number theory, and Hofstadter includes lengthy digressions on programming, and loops of operations nested within others.  It inspired me to find a BBC BASIC emulator and write a little programme that finds prime numbers.  Here is what I came up with:

10 CLS
40 FOR N = 3 TO L
50    FOR D = 2 TO (N-1)
60      IF N/D=INT(N/D) THEN GOTO 100
70    NEXT D
80    PRINT N;
90    GOTO 110
100   PRINT ".";
110 NEXT N
120 END

This programme asks you for a number, and it will search for prime numbers up to and including the number you give.  If it finds a prime, it prints it, otherwise it just prints a dot.  I chose this method of output so that one has a visual representation of how primes are distributed throughout the natural numbers, and it is easy to spot Twin Primes.

Since we’re thinking about self-reference, I might as well make an observations about this post, which is that it will probably succeed in alienating everyone.  Those with no interest in maths and coding will likely think I am being terribly geeky.  Meanwhile, those who do take an interest in such things will scoff at the incredible simplicity of my coding ambitions.  Already one wag in the office has asked me why I don’t print all the discovered primes in an array…

The output from my programme.

Crowdsourcing Clegg Commentary

One perk of working for English PEN at the Free Word Centre is the annual festival, which includes the welcoming of a poet-in-residence.  Last year we had Ray Antrobus and Joshua Idehen dropping the rhymes. This year Kate Fox has been reciting poems to us at our desks.  Under the alternym Kate Fox News, she quickly writes and publishes poems about current affairs, such as the Pope’s visit and the party conferences.

Kate recited for us an experimental poem she wrote yesterday entitled “Nick Clegg’s Conference Speech Remixed“.  She has spliced some of Clegg’s soundbites together with realtime Twitter commentary.

Just imagine how different our country will be.
Not exactly a vision thing
Stick with us
It wasn’t a bad speech
Stick with us
Looks all so sincere
Stick with us
We’re stuck with U

I like this format.  For one, it includes a random, crowd-sourced element.  It is surprising how often the act of yeilding some control of your content to The Cloud or The Rabble yeilds something true and pleasing – Cybraphon and FOUND are the arch mongers of this type of art.  I also like the juxtaposition of the primary source material – the speech – with the commentary.  A poem that could not have been created before social media tools became ubiquitous.

Known Unknowns

At the Plain Blog About Politics, Jonathan Bernstein reminds us that, despite the oceans of political coverage that seems to saturate the media, many people do not take an active interest in politics outside of election time.

If you asked [my Father] to name a NASCAR driver he’d probably look at you as if you were nuts…but if you named some of them, he’d probably recognize the names. The idea is that lots and lots of people have about that level of knowledge about most of what happens in politics. It’s just background noise. We, the people who write and read political blogs, and watch debates, and pay attention to politics even in the off season –we’re the minority.

Bernstein is writing about US politics, discussing former Governors and presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, two people who I bet few in Britain would recognise.  Nevertheless, Bernstein’s cautionary tale is pertinent in the UK too – At election time, I remember being amazed that the Leaders’ debates could increase Nick Clegg’s popularity ratings so substantially.  How had so many people not heard of him, or see him perform?  In my world, he was on TV all the time!

Here’s Caitlin Moran on Twitter:

I’ve made a decision – I’m not going to find out who Justin Bieber is. He’s going to be the first “modern thing” I’m going to ignore.

This has stuck with me, because it was via this message that I discovered that a person called Justin Beiber existed.  Whenever I have mentioned this to other people, they have, without exception, replied: “Who’s Justin Beiber?” which reassures me somewhat.  If I am being culturally ignorant, then at least a lot of other people I know are too.  There is a Facebook group called I bet I can find 1 million people who hate Justin Bieber.  Perhaps I should start one called I bet I can find 1 million people who have never heard of Justin Bieber?

That Bieber is, in many circles, a hugely famous global phenomenon – worthy of single-serving sites, mash-ups and parodies – matters little to me.  The most cursory research quickly reveals that I am not his target market.  In such cases, admitting ignorance becomes something of a badge of sophistication.  However, in other cases, the sudden exposure of my own ignorance leaves me more concerned.  It is more embarrassing for me to admit that I had barely any knowledge of Alan Watkins’ career, or the output of Tony Judt, until people I follow began tweeting and blogging their RIPs.  As a fully paid up agent for the liberal left conspiracy, Watkins and Judt were guys I really, really should have known about before they died.  Instead, both names were part of the ambient noise around me (like Bernstein Snr and the NASCAR drivers).  I’m grateful that at least the news of their passing found its way into my ‘streams’, and I can now set about reading Postwar.

Of course, knowing that there are influential people out there who you have not heard of is not very helpful, because of course, you don’t know who they are!  This can be remedied by reading an entirely new or random blog, or just by picking up a weekly magazine that you might otherwise avoid.  What might me more interesting, however, is considering who or what currently exists on the penumbra of your consciousness?

The answer that springs to mind is Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, which I first became aware of when I began to see young teensm on trains reading improbably thick paperbacks.  Meyer’s series managed to become a global success story while I remained oblivious.  Again, this is easily explained by the fact that I am not the target market.  However, now that movies are being made and advertised on the public transport system, I would say that the saga, with its emo-vampire chic, is part of most people’s peripheral vision now.  It is no longer ‘background noise’ as Bernstein has it, but rather, a collective cultural happening that infiltrates our awareness via a kind of osmosis.

I would say that there are a whole class of public figures – people like Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Huw Edwards, and John Terry – who enter our thoughts this way.  We know about them, and their notoriety before we even consider consuming their cultural oevres ourselves.  Certain politicians fall into this category too.  I would expect even the most uninterested and sullen of the lumpenproletariat to know who David Cameron was, and possibly George Osborne and Nick Clegg too.  However, if they aren’t clear who David Willets or Danny Alexander are… well, I think that’s forgivable.

WOMAD and Multiculturalism

Moussa Sissiokho, Johnny Kalsi and James McNally at WOMAD 2010. Photo by yrstrly

One of the highlights of WOMAD last weekend was watching a comeback performance by the Afro-Celt Sound System, who rocked the tent on Sunday evening with a tight blend of two cultures. The undoubted crowd-pleaser was a three-way drum duel between James McNally on the bodhran, Johnny Kalsi on the dhol, and Moussa Sissiokho on the tamma (‘talking drum’).  Underlay a little bit of electronica and some pipes, and the result is something that cannot fail to move you, both physically and emotionally. Its great to see musicians do that to an audience – and its even better to be a part of such primeval happenings yourself.  In such moments, the rising pace of the drums causes your mind to wander and wonder.

Here, I thought, we have a group of disparate musicians bringing their different traditions together to create something new.  Indeed, ‘fusion’ music is one of the festival’s specialities, and the Afro-Celt Soundsystem are very musch a creature of WOMAD.  But in watching the McNally/Kalsi/Sissiokho three-way, I was reminded that such music only works if the individual members have a (shall we say) traditional music upbringing.  Perhaps the discipline, and the distincitiveness of their separate musical heritages, are actually pre-requisites for their fusion music to work.

If true, it is an argument for a fairly rigourous form of multiculturalism.  Perhaps there is a value in encouraging not the fusion of cultures itself, but instead a promotion of the more traditional practices on which that fusion is based?  Only with a mature understanding of one’s culture can you confidently engage with others, and thereby play a proper part in creating something global, transcendental.

In a diverse country like Britain, this means supporting projects which pedestalise both the minority cultures, and the deeper roots of English and Celtic cultures.  This approach implies division, and the creation cultural silos, and has come in for much criticism in recent years.  But watching the talents of the musicians at WOMAD, you cannot help but percieve the long, accumulated embedded within each artist.  When you do, its natural to want to preserve and protect that history.

WOMAD flags by Wolfgang Haak on Flickr
WOMAD flags by Wolfgang Haak on Flickr


Neither of my Twitter followers would have been in any doubt as to what I was up to on Tuesday evening – interviewing sci-fi authors China Mieville and Cory Doctorow for Clerkenwell Tales book shop.  I had relentlessly plugged the event and solicited questions.
Here is Dougal Wallace’s Flickr photoset for the event.

Tom Baynham will put up an audio podcast soon, and I will certainly write some afterthoughts on the discussion… including Mieville’s well-reasoned worry that blogging means we now have very few unpublished thoughts.

The Underground Project

A fascinating link that has been doing the rounds recently is the Live London Tube Map by Matthew SomervilleThe link is meant to be here, but at present (24/6/2010) it is not active… probably because so many people re-tweeted it and I guess it makes pretty heavy demands on the servers of Transport For London, who provide the raw location data.

I know many people share a fascination for watching or listening to events and processes that happen in real-time.  During the shuttle missions, I like to listen to the communications between the astronauts and Houston; ATC audio holds the same fascination, as does FlightRadar’s graphical representations of live air traffic around Europe.  Chris Heathcote has created a page of TFL cams, showing live images from London’s roads; and subscribers to the Shoreditch Digital Bridge project are just as keen to watch each other via CCTV as they are to watch actual programmes.

The appearance of Matt’s tube page inspires me to post a short concept for an urban game that I wrote a few years ago, uploaded to a wiki, and then failed to develop much further.  It is reproduced below.  I sense that Foursquare may actually perform many similar functions, though I haven’t used that platform yet.  Either way, it would be great to get some input from people like those who run LiveFiction and Hide&Seek.
Continue reading “The Underground Project”

Israel and Apartheid

The division wall through Jerusalem under construction, 2005.  Photo by Yrstrly.
The division wall through Jerusalem under construction, 2005. Photo by Yrstrly.

Back in the ‘Six, the author Jostein Gaarder caused a bit of a storm with a ranting criticism of Israel that bordered on the anti-Semitic. At the time, I wrote a brace of posts trying to tease out what might the legitimate parts of his argument, from those in which he confused Israel with Jewishness and slipped into a lazy racism.  In particular, I wrote about how Israel might be termed an ‘apartheid’ state, an idea which attracted some no small criticism in the comments.  Katy Newton led the charge; here’s a flavour:

Robert, you disappoint me. … This is just another example of the typical overstatement that characterises current criticism of Israel. The comparisons with South Africa are not apt here at all. … There is undoubtedly racism and prejudice directed at Israeli-born Arabs but to say that the position of Israeli Arabs is the same as the position of black South Africans under apartheid rule is utter, utter arse. … My patience and goodwill are sorely tried when Jostein Gaardner publishes that sort of “apartheid state” claptrap and when intelligent men like you promote and support it.

After that I conceded that it was a divisive and not entirely analogous term that it was best not to use… and subsequently risked the ire of those on the other side of the debate who thought I was being too timid, too much of a weather vane.  It was a good example of a robust online debate that still remained relatively civil (back in my heyday of blogging, when I still had time to argue with all-comers, and before my readership was decimated by a period of downtime).  But the legacy was ultimately that I became much more equivocal on all matters Israeli, and much less inclined to use words like ‘apartheid’ in that context.

Yet recently, in relatively quick succession, I have happened across three instances of that usage with regards to the Israel-Palestine problem.  Its worth bookmarking them here, and perhaps revisiting the argument I had with Katy et al, nearly four years ago.

First, I noted back in February that Ehud Barak, former Israeli Prime Minister, no less, broke the “apartheid barrier” in a speech to the Herzliya Conference:

If, and as long as between the Jordan and the sea, there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic… If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a binational state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state.

Its important to note that this is a slightly different concept to that discussed earlier on this blog.  What K-Newt took issue with was my characterisation of the current state of Israel as practising apartheid within its internationally recognised borders (i.e. not the West Bank, Gaza, Golan &ct):

But Israeli Arabs have a vote, they stand for government – as a result of which there are Arab political parties in the Knesset; they are able to apply for the same jobs as Jewish Israelis, they teach at the universities, some choose to serve in the army, they own property, they are not forced to live in certain areas – they have the same civil rights as Jewish Israelis.

Quite right.  There is clearly a chasm of difference in the political rights experienced by Arab Israelis, and the Palestinians of the West Bank/Gaza. If you understand Israel to be a country which excludes these territories, then the country is nothing like apartheid.  There may be racism and prejudice, and organisations like Adalah would say that there are institutional biases against the Arab population… but at least everyone has a vote, which is a world away from the arrangements in pre-1994 South Africa.

On the other hand, Ehud Barak’s comments refer to the idea of a ‘Greater Israel’ which includes the West Bank and Gaza.  He is trying to debunk the idea that a comprehensive Med-to-Jordan state (still the goal of many hard-line Zionists) could be a feasible Jewish state.  More recently, John J. Mearsheimer expanded on this idea at a conference with an altogether different ideological starting point, the Hisham B. Sharabi Memorial Lecture (Sharabi was an academic, pro-Paletinian activist and anti-Zionist, while Herzliya was the ideological father of political Zionism).  He says that a single state solution is not politically practical, and that there is no political will for establishing a viable two-state solution.  The current state of limbo will remain.  Unfortunately, this liminal situation denies the Palestinians a share in the political sovereignty over those who wield power over them.  The reality is, that their economy, their energy supply, their food supply and their security are all controlled by a government and a parliament for whom they cannot vote.  Such power (says Mearsheimer) will never be properly transferred to anyone for whom they can vote. They are destined to be serfs.

If we are being honest and practical, words like ‘nation’, ‘state’, ‘country’ or even ‘Authority’ do not describe the West Bank and Gaza.  Instead, we are left grappling for words like ‘ghetto’, ‘enclave’ (charitable) or even ‘Bantustan’ to convey the political and social situation of the people that live in these places.  Many people claim that the Palestinians brought this on themselves, because they rejected opportunities offered by previous Israeli Prime Ministers in the 1990s, or because they elected the murderous and racist Hamas faction to power.  I think such a stance is enormously unsympathetic to ordinary Palestinian people.  But even if it were fair; and even if one refused to use the word ‘occupation’ to describe the current reality of the West Bank; one cannot deny that the Israeli government still wields incredible, disproportionate power over these territories.  However the decision was made, this is the outcome.  And if this power relationship is not counter-balanced with a Knesset vote, then one has a huge civil rights failure in the space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.  And if that civil rights failure is based upon ethnicity (which it is, because Israeli settlers in the West Bank retain their vote), then we are nearing ‘apartheid’.  Since some Arab Israelis, living in places like Haifa or Tel Aviv, may retain the vote, then perhaps formal use of the term can be staved off for a while.  But the longer the situation continues, the more this label will stick.  The fact that people like Ehud Barak have used it (whatever the context) is a tacit admission that the term is legitimate and acceptable.

Finally, and perhaps most shockingly, there is the claim that Israel became a key ally of Apartheid South Africa in the 1970s.  Max Blumenthal reviews The Unspoken Alliance by Sasha Polakow-Suransky, calling it “the most authoritative account to date of Israel’s scandalous dealings with the apartheid regime of South Africa”.  Embattled and isolated following the 1973 war, Israel entered into a security pact with South Africa, supplying $200m worth of weapons to its new ally. I don’t think this proves that all along Israeli politicians have been plotting to bring about apartheid in Israel too, but it is a unfortunate, uncomfortable and shameful chapter in Israeli history that lends even more rhetorical weight to the apartheid charge.

The tragedy of all this is that Israel as a single secular nation would not be at all bad. The ancient cities would look infinitely more beautiful without the concrete walls snaking through the streets. Tourism would flourish, and Jerusalem could become a cosmopolitan centre that could compete with London or New York. A single state would be a place where the Palestinians were treated as native citizens and not as aliens to be corralled and managed. The hatred and anger they currently show towards the world would dissipate. As we saw in South Africa, there was no widespread massacre of the whites, no settling of scores… and now they’re hosting the World Cup.