Wednesday 30 April 2008

Are you sitting comfortably?

Then I'll begin. Today's story is a special story, because it's all about story-tellers. Yes, Tarquin, that does make it tediously meta, but bear with me for a moment. Now children, when I tell you stories, it's a good thing, because I'm making important life-lessons simple and easily memorable. Lessons like "It's cheaper to outsource" or "Never give in to your wife's whining". Or "If success depends on your keeping your name secret, don't prance around a fire yelling it at the top of your voice, you dozy prat."

But there are some people who tell stories for bad reasons - to make you like them, or to make you not like someone else, or because they're too lazy to do their goddam job properly. Some of these people are called Politicians and some are called Journalists, but for our purposes there's no real difference.

Listen and attend, then, for here is a Story by one Storyteller about the Stories other Storytellers will soon be Telling. Yes, Tarquin, I know and I'm sorry. Here is the story Mr Freedland wants to tell us:

Little Red Ken is fighting Big Blue Boris. Next year, Big Brown Gordon will fight Aquamarine Dave. Little Red Ken is just like Big Brown Gordon, in every way. Big Blue Boris may as well be a facsimile of Aquamarine Dave. So whoever wins tomorrow, his bosom pal and soulmate will win next year. Isn't that a great story? No? Well, why not?

Yes, Tarquin, Ken isn't all that like Gordon. And he did win his first fight all by himself, yes, very good. Against Gordon's buddy, that's right. What's that Guinevere? Ken's been desparately avoiding any links with Gordon and all his friends? That's true, I suppose. What about Boris and Dave? One's a blundering, mumbling one-trick pony and the other's a slick, duplicitous soap and flannel merchant? All right, don't all shout at once children. Anything else? "The idea that Londoners in any way form a microcosm of the UK population, or that London's issues are national issues, or that non-Londoners don't have their own issues, is so moronically simplistic as to be laughable." Well, Tarquin, I rather think you've blown this tedious classroom imagery out of the water with that one, but you've got a point.

The thesis is so untenable, Freedland contradicts himself in the space of three sentences:

Similarly, if the new, modernised Tories can't win in the south-east, in a city with disproportionate numbers of high-income voters, then how can they hope to win the country?
A Ken victory will embolden Labour in its conflict with the Conservatives, to be sure, but it will also have a profound effect on the continuing struggle within the party. For if Livingstone manages to defy a national trend, winning when Labour was losing everywhere else it will tip the scales in what has, until now, been an evenly matched argument.
If Labour is losing everywhere but London, it seems that Conservatives can hope to win hte country fairly easily. So why stretch the facts so much to make this particular story? From a journalistic, if not a civic, point of view, isn't Ken v Boris enough to be going on with? No, because it's over soon. So much better to tie it into a wider narrative about the future of the country and make yourself look visionary. No doubt Freedland is right when he says that Labour politicos want to see Ken win so that they can start telling this story. But that's no excuse for him to tell it too. It's a given that politicians tell stories. But as Charlie Brooker points out, this somewhat toxic practice only works because the media let it. Wouldn't it be great - I mean wouldn't it be fantastic - if rather than telling stories about what next year's stories will be, journalists concentrated on telling us what was actually happening?

Monday 28 April 2008

Kingdom of the blind

The Guardian is even-handed enough to print cheerleading on behalf of both Ken and Boris.
Peter Oborne has the blue pom-poms today and sets out to demolish the main, nay fundamental, criticism of his mop-headed champion in a an article headed: Boris is not a buffoon.

Tough gig. But Oborne has evidence and to spare:
I would hardly begin to clear my throat before he'd say something that showed he understood better than I did what I was trying to say. Within five minutes we had covered the landscape. Often the following Thursday's cover story arose out of Boris's ability to make sense of my half-articulated arguments.
Now, here's the crucial difference between the absolute and the relative. Oborne wants us to believe that "Boris is cleverer than me" means "Boris is clever." There is, however, an alternative hypothesis: one which admits Boris's ability to outthink a Daily Mail columnist, but preserves nonetheless our assessment that he is a meandering half-wit. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, this hypothesis has not occured to Oborne.

Sunday 27 April 2008

Right Next Time

If this blog has a theme, which it doesn't, then that theme is that it's OK to make mistakes, provided you learn from them. But it's better of course to learn from others, so allow me to pass on some hard-earned wisdom:

If you decline to be Facebook friends with someone on the grounds that you'll never see them again, you'd better be damn sure you're never going to see them again. Some people take it personally.

Thursday 24 April 2008

Honour among vicious psycho killers

Saw In Bruges last night. It's an excellent, funny, moving film with two great leads, fun cameos and beautifully shot to boot. So that's fine - go see it. But it serves as a good example of a trope that's becoming (I think) more and more common, and which probably needs to be stopped.

The film's characters are all wrong 'uns. Even the love interest/magical redemptive girlfriend pixie (another trope which has gone too far, and for which Natalie Portman is largely to blame) who would in other films be a paediatric nurse or terminal cancer patient, is here a drug dealer/thief. The two leads are hit-men, working for a psycho gang boss. And this is where the trouble starts: if they were simply the evil scumbags their job titles suggest, we wouldn't care about them. So we're given reasons to think they might be OK guys. For Ray, the younger hit man, this almost works. This is because Ray spends the movie confronting the evil thing he's done, and struggling hard with it. We care about Ray because we see genuine torment.

For Ken, Ray's older partner, and Harry, the psycho gang boss, it's a different story. We get the two cod justifications that always get trotted out: Ken only kills bad people and Harry because he's a proper cockney, loves his faahmley. Now, I know what you're thinking: this is ludicrously unsatisfying as a reason to care about these guys. So we go one better: these criminals live to a code of honour.

Ken refuses one of Harry's orders, but refuses to fight him because of their history together. Harry comes to Bruges to kill Ken, but can't because he won't fight. Harry later refuses to shoot a pregnant woman, instead getting involved in a ridiculous dialogue with the man he's hunting. At the very end, without wishing to spoil it for you, Harry again demonstrates that he has to be true to his principles.

What a lot of poisonous tosh. However comforting it might be, however many series of the Sopranos we get out of it, we need to escape from the delusion that career criminals are plagued by scruples or honour or integrity. I'm willing to bet that in real life, people who have risen to the top of organised crime don't worry too much about who they kill, or hesitate over anyone who gets in their way. There isn't a point of view from which they're tarnished heroes, struggling with a bad situation. If your chosen profession is hitman for the mob, then you're a scumbag and you don't get to wiggle out of it with this "he never hit a woman" bollocks.

This is why No Country For Old Men is an excellent movie - Anton Chigurh is genuinely mad, bad and dangerous to know, and there's no pretence otherwise.

You should still go see In Bruges though, if only for the joke about Belgian inventions.

By George, I think she's lost it

It doesn't get much more Daily Mail than this

The last living descendant of Admiral Lord Nelson takes issue with Brirmingham's Selfridges for not celebrating St George's Day. She neatly contrasts this with the way they light the building up for gays and Hindus. Specifically, she feels they should light the building up red for St George.

Unfortunately the building is silver. Red light reflecting off it would look pink. This is what they did on Gay Pride day, in fact. Still genes will out. Nelson, of course, held the telescope to his bad eye and declared "I see no ships". Miss Tribe, as the following quotes show, has a similar genius for dismissing uncomfortable truths:

Spokesman: So it's just one of those things, it is impossible to light it up red."
Miss Tribe: "I'm sure they could do it red. "

Tuesday 22 April 2008

I wouldn't aff him if her were the last man on earth

For those of you struggling with your decision over the London Mayor, you may want to check out this handy quiz. As with every other election nowadays, somebody with time hanging heavy on their hands has collated the various candidates' approaches to different policy areas, so that you can compare your views to theirs. What's quite good about this one is that it offers a "neither" option alongside "agree" and "disagree"; after all, not everyone has an opinion about every single aspect of London's governance, and it would be ludicrous to expect them to.

Unless, of course, they were running for office. In which case, we might hope that they would have something to offer. Maybe not, to be fair, on the question of pigeon-feeding, but on some of the big stuff. So it's instructive then, to look at candidates' who score highly in the "dunno" column. In reverse order:
  • Brian Paddick: 1
  • Ken Livingstone: 1
  • Sian Berry: 4
  • Boris Johnson: 6
On 6/25 policy issues (call it 5 for the pigeons), covering transport, police, business regulation, tax and the role of the mayor, it's impossible for a highly dedicated team of politics nerds (who have even done this for the loony candidates like Vote England) to work out what the hell Boris Johnson thinks.

Still, he's an affable chap, and a hoot at parties.

Monday 21 April 2008

Saucing the gander - a guide to blogger mores

There's a lot of etiquette surrounding blogging, and a lot of debate (inevitably) over the details of that etiquette. But here's a handy guide to keep you on the straight and narrow.

This is ok:
[...]I return to the inevitably insane and unpleasant world of politics and the ruination of our country by the corrupt freaks, weirdos, demons, bitches and whores of NuLabour.

Although we tend to focus on those fuckers who have been elected simply because they have the power to make our lives more miserable, we should never forget that they could not do so without their equally stupid, mindless, ignorant, slaves—those wankstains who support them.
So is this:
The Left have fucked this country. You all thought you were acting in a good cause—you all had the best motives, but you fucked it. You fucked it all up. You see the wreckage all around you. Know why you fucked it all up, and why the voters let you? Because 1) you’re dumb and 2) they’re dumb.
But this is beyond the pale:
I'm genetically predisposed to hate the Tories. It's my default, hard-wired position.
Why? Here's DK with the lowdown, backing his point up with a definition:
A bigot is a prejudiced person who is intolerant of opinions, lifestyles, or identities differing from his or her own, and bigotry is the corresponding ideology.
Brooker is intolerant of Tories and is, therefore, a bigot. Although, come to think of it, Brooker is a Grauniad journalist so he probably lives like a Tory, having enough cash to be able to afford the luxury of hating them...
Do you see? Thoughtless generalisations are bad! Hyperbole is bad! Having entrenched political views is bad! Erm...or maybe good? It all depends, really.

Sunday 20 April 2008


The bad news is we were out when the flatnoses came. The good news is, they now have explanatory cartoons.

It's a deft exegesis, mixing a sophisticated understanding of scripture with a wealth of artistic talent and an instinctive knack for storytelling. Consider the simple but gripping thrill of unexpected death:

Fun, sure, but for a real understanding of the human condition, check out the reviewed sins of our anonymous self-declared everyman:

I don't know about you average joes out there, but I've got a lot of whoremongering and theft to catch up with. (I will admit to doing a little whispering in my time, however. Which of us perfect, alas?)

Finally, we see the advantages of the letting Christ in to your life (presumably through a handy Christ-flap) As befits a pamphlet which has so ruthlessly attacked atheistic materialism, it steers well clear of suggesting any base financial benefits to belief:

Now, I'll be the first to admit that this is a big and sluggish fish in a small and ricochet-friendly barrel. But what's fascinating about it is that it presumably reflects, more or less accurately, the worldview of those who create, publish and distribute these wretched tracts. And what a world it is: most people you meet in the street are complete bastards - thieves and liars, whoremongers and whisperers, hypocrites, deceivers and false accusers abound, and woe to the Godly if they fall among them. God has CCTV cameras everywhere, and the price of a moment's human frailty is eternal damnation. Moreover, it's a world in which almost no-one in the western world has ever heard of Christianity. No wonder they've nothing better do on Saturday than drop crap through my door.

However, and I don't know if they've ever considered this, what if they're wrong?

Thursday 17 April 2008

A sense of proportion

God knows we all get carried away at times. Because we're passionate, because we care. But sometimes, you find you've overshot hyperbole and hit nonsense. Mr Eugenides digs up some evidence of corruption in Kenya, which is worth repeating in its own right:
Kenya's expanded new government will spend 80 per cent of the entire national budget on luxury vehicles, inflated salaries for ministers and general running costs, a local anti-corruption group claimed on Wednesday.
Clearly there is only one comparison to be made:
And I thought our set of bastards were bad. Still, this has a familiar ring:
"It appears as if the government has ceased to have a development function and exists only to tax Kenyans and spend their money on recurring costs," said Mwalimu Mati, the director of the Mars Group, an anti-corruption body.
Join the club, mate.
Yes, if there's one thing a professional kleptocracy should remind us of, it's a government that has:
  • doubled funding for school pupils
  • employed 85,000 more nurses and 36,000 more teachers
  • opened 2,200 Sure Start centres
  • lifted 600,000 children out of poverty
  • not stolen 80% of the total budget
Isn't it scary how closely this legalised theft follows the Kenyan model?

Tuesday 15 April 2008

All We Want To Do Is Eat Your Brains

Jonathon Coulton was a software developer who got bored and quit to become a singer/songwriter. But being a software developer had given him certain habits, like setting goals. So he wrote one song a week for a year. The software development thing also influenced him in other ways, as you can see from this:

and this:

Also because of the tech-geek background, you can request gigs online. Which is pretty damn sci-fi:


I'm in New York. It's really very cool indeed. And it's emphasising for me once again the difference between experience and knowledge. I knew the buildings would be very tall and that I'd recognise places I hadn't been to just because I'd seen them in e.g. Die Hard with a Vengeance. But still, I spent the first day walking around thinking man, the buildings are so tall! And this is just like the movies!

And I knew that the grid system would make it easy to get around, but I didn't appreciate just what an advantage it is. It's not a matter of thinking you know your way around - you really do. Given any location on the grid, you instantly know where it is and how long it takes to get there. Any other city, you need about three months to get that feel - in New York, about half an hour. One result of this, as my friend/generous host pointed out, is that there is no excuse, in New York, for being late:

"Oh, I didn't realise how far it was"
"Why? Can you not subtract?"

One other knowledge/experience gap: I knew, of course, that the popular British stereotype of Americans - fat, stupid, arrogant, war-mongers - was itself stupid. So why I was I quite so surprised, when we took a weekend trip upstate (e.g. into the sticks) to find that the town of Ithaca's Farmers' Market was run by and for a bunch of hippies? Of all the food stalls I expected to find at a small-town American market, none of the following were on the list:
  • Kebabs
  • Samosas
  • Tibetan Cuisine
  • Khmer Food
I wouldn't mind, but I really wanted a burger.

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Most non-triumphant

INT: Suburban Garage (American)
BILL is staring at old concert posters when TED enters:

TED: Bill my friend?
BILL: Yes, Ted my friend?
TED: Do you remember our most excellent adventure?
BILL: Yes, Ted, and it was indeed most excellent. Alas, as the sequel proved, it's bodaciousness was unrepeatable.
TED: That is a heinous truth dude, but one I am sad to say is not widely recognised.
BILL: For me Ted it is all too widely recognised, as witnessed by my most non-triumphant career trajectory ever since.
TED: Truly, your agent dude has been most lax. [A thought slowly dawns] Unlike mine. [Air guitar riff]
BILL: Dude! Don't make me bring up Johnny Mnemonic.
TED: Sorry dude. But I came here with news. Oh yeah! Those Hollywood dudes are totally remaking our most excellent adventure.
BILL: No way!
TED: Way, dude. Our adventures through time and history are being "reimagined" for a new generation.
BILL: I'm confused Ted. Wasn't the original only made 17 years ago? Those Hollywood dudes must be nearly as out of ideas as we were.
TED: It is true, Bill - this decision shows a most non-triumphant lack of creativity. But I hear they will make us 21st Century dudes, in order to hide this woeful failing of imagination.
BILL: Dude! We are totally emblematic of early 90s California. Check out the hair!
TED: Sad to say Bill, the hair - and the clothes - will be most heinously updated. It is even possible that they will no longer ask people to be excellent to each other. But that is far from the worst news. Do you remember our band?
BILL and TED: WYLD STALLIONS! [air guitar riff]
TED: Wyld Stallions [mini-riff] are no more dude.
BILL: No more?
TED: Hollywood dudes were most non-satisfied with Wyld Stallions [mini-riff] as a band-name. New Bill and New Ted's band has been most heinously re-titled.
BILL: I am almost afraid to ask what those Hollywood dudes came up with, Ted.
TED: You are right to be afraid, Ted my friend. New Bill S Preston and New Ted Theodore Logan together will be: Atomic Gorilla
BILL: Atomic Gorilla?
TED: Atomic Gorilla, dude.
BILL and TED: Bogus!

Sunday 6 April 2008

Torch Errors

I've just seen the BBC's coverage of the Olympic Torch procession and I have to say I think it went splendidly for everyone.

The Chinese government were able to record whole seconds of footage that didn't show anti-Chinese banners, embattled security guards three deep round the torch or weeping Tibetan mothers. What a triumphant demonstration of their new place in the community of nations!

The British authorities were able to offer a tantalising glimpse of 2012, with a characteristically well-judged and choreographed event. I don't know which bright spark realised that a 31 mile journey would give people plenty of opportunity to express their enthusiastic support , but promotion surely cannot be far away.

Gordon Brown, I thought, did well to avoid the obvious blunders. Some would have made a principled case for supporting the Olympic ideal as something that rises above the messy business of international relations. Others would have taken the opportunity to publicise Britain's principled stand against China's human rights violations. Brown - typically deft at set-piece media events - brilliantly stood there like a lemon, carefully not laying hands on the torch and saying nothing. What clearer signal could there be of the government's well thought out stance on this knotty moral issue?

Finally the protesters, who once again showed that there is no issue that cannot be solved if we all get together, paint our faces, set off fire extinguishers and generally behave like crazed chimps in a nunnery. There can, after all, be no finer way to win the hearts of Middle England than assaulting a former Blue Peter presenter.

In all honesty, my sympathy is with the protesters. China wants to use the Olympics for kudos - to present itself at its glittering best to the world. Given that it's a corrupt, immoral and violently repressive regime, the strategy of using the self-same event to present that image to the world seems only right and just.

Thursday 3 April 2008

London voting

Time to look at national news, with the London Mayoral elections. It's going to be a close one, politics fans: a Guardian poll gives Boris a 2 point lead over Ken, with other candidates nowhere. Something reflected all too clearly in Ken's lastest billboard, which resembles a three line ballot paper offering the following options:
  • The loose cannon
  • One of the other ones
  • London

Isn't politics wonderful? Ken Livingstone - Ken Livingstone - is painting his opponent as the dangerous maverick, unrestrained by party, policy or common sense. He got elected first time out because he dumped the Labour party to pursue his own policies, for crying out loud. Does he think no-one noticed? But things change. People change. Perhaps that's why this poster, like pretty much all his election material, makes no mention whatsoever of the Labour party. Vote London, vote Ken - the establishment candidate.