Friday, 23 December 2011

Spiegel on Havel,1518,805536,00.html

The Spiegel coverage of the death of Vaclav Havel is definitely worth a read, providing a bit more context and biography than the facts-only BBC version.

I hadn't previously known that Havel had apologised for the expulsion of the Sudetenland Germans. That must have been an extremely brave political decision. Obviously every country should apologise for past attacks on ethnic minorities. However, since Czechoslovakia had been invaded with the German minority used as an explicit justification by Hitler it must have required even more public courage than usual.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Kim Jong ill (then dead)

The insane dictator of North Korea has died of a heart attack leaving a (probably) nuclear armed country in the hands of his little known son.

As a wise man on Facebook put it:

"He died of a heart attack due the the pressures of his job. Maybe he should of picked a different Korea."

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Viva la Velvet Revolution

The Czech Republic's dissident playwright and first post-communist President, Vaclav Havel, has died at the age of 75. Here's a couple of quotes to remember this sensible and intellectual politician by:

"The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less."

"The only lost cause is one we give up on before we enter the struggle."

Wise words from a real liberal champion.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

National Idiocy

"Treasures worth more then £65m, including a Poussin, a Van Dyck and a stupendous Turner painting that was the artist's final image of the Rome, will all leave the UK because no one had sufficient money to prevent their export, an annual report revealed yesterday"

The Guardian - under the headline "Going, going, gone: UK treasures sold overseas".

Seriously? Could Mr Mark Brown (Arts Correspondent) really look at those first two surnames and with a straight face think 'Aha! UK treasures!'. France and the Netherlands might beg to differ.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Lifestyle Politics

Cyclists of the World Unite!
You have Nothing to Lose but your Lanes.

Friday, 2 December 2011

FU Russia Today

Headline from Russia Today: Merkel gives EU the FU

FU apparently being a recognised abbreviation for Fiscal Union.
Might just be me but this wasn't my first thought.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Strikes - does the government understand the point of them?

Another day, another ritualistic attempt to denounce the unions as selfish and greedy. Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude claims that next weeks strikes could cost the economy £500 million and cause vaguely alluded to job losses.

Yes, the strikes will have an effect. If they didn't there wouldn't be any way to distinguish it from an ordinary working day. The fact that public minded civil servants are willing to take time out from the vital jobs they carry out every day should surely show the government the strength of feeling that people have about the current economic climate. Simply saying there is "no more money on the table." is no recipe for social harmony. Perhaps a more equitable distribution of cuts and public debate on their necessity would.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Maoists a threat to the environment?

The insurgency is straining Government of Nepal and Royal Nepalese Army resources, causing them to redeploy forces away from environmentally sensitive areas like the national parks.  The result has been a vacuum that both the Maoist insurgents and criminal poachers have rushed to exploit. In this case, the victims have included not only the police and army officers assassinated by the Maoists, and Nepal's helpless civilian population, but also Nepal's equally defenseless wildlife -- a national treasure and an asset of truly global significance. 
From Wikileaks. 

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Avoiding the Second Falklands War

Just found this on Wikileaks regarding a unilateral move by Argentina to extend their t-erritorial waters. It must be a hard job for American diplomats trying to couch their la-nguage in such unambiguous terms that it can't be used as an excuse to start a war. Ev-en funnier the author does the 'NOT RPT NOT' thing about four times throughout the dispatch to add emphasis. He should be commended for his clarity and lack of imagin-ation ;)  

Friday, 11 November 2011

Racism and Fantasy revisited

Happy armistice day!

So I've talked about the political problems of most mainstream science fiction and fantasy writing before ( However, then I only identified the problem and suggested methods of coping with it for the politically conscious, non-conservative reader. This time around I'm more concerned about why fantasy writers are so keen to champion racial essentialism, moral absolutism and conflict between races or species. I will argue that it is largely due to the influence of Tolkien on Fantasy writing as well as the unquestioning acceptance of the moralizing discourse of total war in the real world.

So let's start with Tolkien. His books about Middle Earth envoke many of these trends. Lord of the Rings is an epic tale of the fight between good and evil, with the combatant's allegiance decided mainly by race.

There are characters who cross this boundary. Saruman, the Wild Men and the Easterlings (Orientalism ahoy!) are conventional traitor characters. The Nazgul represent a more insidious form of corruption leading to evil and the Orcs are often described as corrupted men or elves. Finally it takes some characters time to throw off bad advice or weakness and oppose the dark force; Rohan is held back by Wormtongue's advice while Gondor is hindered by the madness and greed of the regent.

However, this by no means turns the battle ground of Middle Earth into an open conflict where participants are primarily divided by ideology or political considerations rather than race. While there are examples of good characters who defect to the side of evil there is never a case of the reverse. Sauron and his followers are portrayed as beyond redemption. They are ultimately responsible for the war and are killed in droves by the heroic fellowship without any signs of remorse. We are never given any hint that they might have a family life or engage in any activities beyond murder, theft and invasion.

This demonisation of the enemy is of course a major feature of modern wars. Tolkien claimed not to have been influenced by Germany's aggression in WW2 when writing the plot of LOTR. However, there are obvious parallels to be drawn. The war between Sauron and the 'good' races is fought to the finish. There is no suggestion that there could be a compromise peace or surrender by one side or the other. This pursuit of total victory is arguably the defining feature of the modern, total war.

Similarly the racial stereotyping of the enemy is a standard aspect of contemporary war. In his book, 'Colonial Madness; Psychiatry in French North Africa', Richard Keller relates how the conception of the Algerians as violent and irresponsible addicts with a fatalistic attitude was used to legitimate French imperialism in the Maghreb. During the Algerian war of independence the FLN resistance was invariably presented as destructive, primitive and fanatical. Similarly the varied propaganda machines of the World Wars and the following Cold War always attempted to present enemies as unchangeably evil. If an enemy can change then they can be negotiated with and that may not be in line with the aims of those running the conflict. If an enemy is not evil then how can we justify the morally dubious methods we must use to defeat them?

Therefore, the use in fantasy of ideas that seem politically extreme and hard to agree with may not be down to the personal views held by the writers. Readers of the genre can be assumed to be familiar with Tolkien or the many, many authors that have imitated him and therefore are assumed to want more of the same. Thus the influence of total war on Tolkien's fictional conflict (which was tellingly written during the period of the Second World War) is unquestioningly passed down from writer to writer with little attempt to change the fundamental assumptions about the fixed character of races or the genocidal methods justified by moralized, racial conflict.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Fresh Meat - Joints no. 5 and 6

I've already talked about the first few episodes of Channel Four student comedy, Fresh Meat, which I've been getting my teeth into (pun intended).

To cut a long and frequently tangential review short, the series started off well but got less funny very quickly after the initial episodes.

Luckily this trend hasn't continued with episodes five and six which seem to have increased got better again and have a bit more direction rather than just rehashing (pun intended) jokes that they have already done. Here are my thoughts on the lastest offerings:

Episode 5) An improvement but not a huge one. The student demonstration angle is nice and there are some good jokes about kettling and the group getting lost in London. However, it really didn't shake things up enough. The only real new character we met was the wimpy protest organizer, who got a few funny lines, but generally it was the same old gang and the usual jokes. Vod's efforts to be an urban guerrilla despite her complete lack of political awareness also got a few laughs.

Episode 6) A real return to quality. All of the characters actually showed some emotional depth; JP and his dad, Oregon ( or rather, shock horror, Melissa!) and her horse, Howard's sabotaged romance with Geology girl and Vod finding out Oregon's secrets. The knee jerk laughs were kept to a minimum but when they were used they were pretty good (Awesome trees!). Generally a really good episode and best of all, no Professor Shales. I swear that character hasn't been at all funny since episode 3.

Bring on the rest and keep it up, Channel 4!

Friday, 21 October 2011

Carcassone computer game

They've changed the meeples for little, animated soldiers. I will see that they burn for this heresy.

But seriously, great idea. We should see more board games converted well onto computers/consoles and vice versa. I would be the happiest man in the world if someone released a 'Wrath Unleashed' board game.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Rush-ing into stupidity

Dear God, this man is stupid. Does he look into the politics of the groups he talks about or is it just politically expedient to ignore the mutilation, murder, rape and child slavery in order to score a few more points with America's right wing nuts?

Also, no end in sight in Libya? I'd say there is now, Mr Rush.

Gadaffi is dead!

Wow! After so long I wasn't expecting the BBC to ever get to use that headline (as they've obviously been aching to do).

It is reported that Gadaffi was found hiding in Sirtre, which incidentally the NTC are also claiming to have taken back from Gadaffi loyalists. He is meant to have been wounded in both legs but taken alive by the NTC fighters.

If the reports are true then Gadaffi was taken to Misrata by ambulance. It seems strange that he didn't flee the country but maybe he was caught unawares by the revolt and was too prominent a figure to easily slip over the border with the NATO countries and rebels tracking him. Sirtre has long been named as a possible hiding place for him.

I suspect the transitional government is planning the trial already.

[Edit] - Meanwhile Reuters are saying that Gadaffi has died of wounds sustained during his capture. There is much speculation about whether other high ranking Libyan loyalists have been captured or killed alongside him.

[Edit. Edit] - "Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi says the war in Libya is "over", according to Ansa news agency." Well done Berlusconi. Even the NTC representatives are urging caution until the reports are confirmed. What political purpose is served by you jumping the gun apart from possibly making you look like an idiot?

[Edit, Edit, Edit] - And it is pretty much official. Footage of Gadaffi's body has been released and the NTC have promised to release further details later in the week.

[Edit, Edit, Edit, Edit] - Spiegel shows its usual frankness. Sub-headline:

'We Have Been Waiting for This'

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Hours and hours of 'In our time'!

The full 'In our time' archives are available to download as podcasts!

Go there now. If you don't learn something you are probably omniscient already.

My favourite episode is ' Industrial Revolution I' as Melvyn Bragg completely loses his temper when a guest indirectly calls him racist. He has a massive strop but unfortunately by the next installment they had obviously agreed to play nicely again.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Fresh Meat - four slices to go

So, after a tip off from some friends at work, I decided to watch this new Channel 4 comedy show about the surreal (and generally cringeworthy) experiences of a house full of university freshers in Manchester. I blitzed the first three episodes in one evening and watched the latest one last night.

Here is what I think of it so far:

Episode 1) Pretty funny and definitely caught my interest. The characters were introduced in an entertaining way - especially Howard's stuttering speech about not having talked to actual human beings for some time and Kingsley's awkward attempts to make conversation about drinking tea. Lots of bits that were reminiscent of when I was a fresher; the conversation about how talking about your A-level results is unbelievably lame, Oregon's mounting anxiety as Vod steals her essay, strange gap year stories etc. Ended on a high note as Josie realises that she's going to be living with the public school prat that she just had a meaningless fuck with.

Episode 2) Even better than the first one. Josie's mock aggressive boyfriend was hilarious, "you piece of shit - only kidding." Funny running jokes about Russell Brand's head, Howard's knowledge of 'rom-coms' and Vod 'just being slutty, not racist for Asians'. Unfortunately Robert Webb isn't very funny as the clingy and inappropriate Geology tutor.

Episode 3) Not bad but not as good as the first two. Josie's obvious happiness when she finds out that she was only stood up because her blind date was dead is classic. Oregon's weird flirtation with Professor Shales was also funny. However, the whole Kingsley swapping to drama thing only provoked a few weak laughs as did the uncertain rape side-story.

Episode 4) Pretty dire. Everything in it we had seen before but done better. Professor Shales being seedy rather than romantic. Check. Josie and Kingsley's sexual tension. Check. King Ralph selfishly using J.P for his own gain. Check. It seems like they were hoping that two sex scenes in one episode would be titillating enough to make up for a complete lack of originality.

However, despite the decline in quality it is still a nice brainless comedy and the characters are good. The theme music is surprisingly awesome and I definitely think I'll watch the remaining episodes!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Spiegel seizes the lender's moral high ground,1518,790138,00.html

It always gives me a sour taste when I see German newspapers heaping condemnation on the southern members of the Eurozone. It takes two to tango and it takes a poor lender and a poor borrower to put together a bad loan. If German banks and financial companies couldn't be bothered to check whether they were going to be paid back they shouldn't have gone on handing out more loans.

Joseph Stiglitz makes a good point when he says that the world needs borrowers and lenders to function. While lenders might be in a stronger position when the world tips over into recession this doesn't mean that it they are in ethically superior to nations that are net creditors.

It also doesn't help that the article isn't internally consistent. Sensible, Protestant, Northern Europe vs the slack, profligate, Catholic South makes a nice newspaper headline. However, even the Spiegel acknowledges that Belgium has similar levels of debt to Italy and Greece. Presumably we should be blaming the Catholic Waloons for contaminating poor, sensible Belgium with debtor tendencies?

Thursday, 29 September 2011

To lash or not to lash .....

The latest news in the recent Saudi Arabian 'gender liberalisation' is that the courts might refrain from lashing a woman for driving a car. What an admirable level of restraint! The article also optimistically quotes correspondants and journalists who argue that there is a general thaw regarding women drivers - with many not being penalized even if caught.

Whether or not this the story about the revoked lashing is true - it was 'tweeted' by a Saudi princess who one might expect to have certain vested interests - the BBC seem to be pursuing a very strange line of reporting in regard to Saudi Arabia recently.

I expect some favouritism for allies of the West in the blatantly neo-lib/right wing Economist. They recently splashed a poorly substantiated article about possible Chinese arms deals with Gadaffi's regime, while quickly dropping the distasteful topic of Saudi and Bahraini attacks on democratic demonstrators. However, the BBC is usually more neutral and subtle in its editorial stance.

Yet in this short article they somehow refrain from pointing out that some might consider it completely unacceptable for a twenty first century nation to legally forbid 50% of the population from driving or acting in their own right. Of course it is good if King Abdullah is genuinely pushing through long overdue reform but this doesn't mean that we shouldn't note the lengths that Saudi society still has to go to achieve anything like gender parity.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Libya conflict coming to an end?

The Libyan rebels (or should we start calling them the Libyan government?) have entered Sirte, one of the few towns still held by Gadaffi-loyal forces. It seems as if progress has been slow but with the help of NATO air strikes it is surely only a matter of time before they take the former regime's last outposts.

So soon the NTC will have effective control of the country and will have to embark on reconstruction and the establishment of a more stable, democratic government. Hopefully they will succeed in this endeavour. While I think it was the right thing for NATO to militarily intervene (once the UN approved it), this destructive initiative must be matched by full economic and political assistance for Libya's future stability as a democracy.

The only question hanging over the country is the location of Gadaffi. Why hasn't he been heard from recently and what is he planning to do now that he has lost the country? Needless to say if the NTC capture him in Libya his chances of standing trial for his crimes against his people are high. Fleeing the country seems a far smarter move for the ex-dictator at this point but if he has done so why has he not revealed his location? (

Sunday, 25 September 2011

About friggin time .....

Finally, Saudi Arabia has decided to give women the right to vote and run for political positions (at least municipal and possibly also national). Cynically they have timed it just in time for the current elections, meaning that it will be four years before Saudi women can actually exercise these rights.

Guardian 'correspondants' claim that this is evidence of the liberalising role of King Abdullah, the snail pace of which can be explained by the extreme conservatism of Saudi society and the political power of the clerics.

However, looking at the wider context this seems more likely to be a response to the successes and greater democracy brought about by the 'Arab Spring'. As popular uprisings secure full democracy all over the area it looks even stranger to have a relatively rich, politically stable state with massive regional influence that refuses to let women drive. The Saudi state's reaction to these uprisings has been luke warm at best. Saudi troops fired on protestors in Bahrain and the country has acted as a haven for ousted dictators from across the region.

Still it is at least a step in the right direction, whatever the underlying reasons. In 2009, Saudi Arabia was rated zero by the World Economic Forum, meaning it had shown no recognisable effort to achieve gender parity. Therefore, any step towards the better treatment of women is a great achievement. You just have to wonder how rational and consistent gender policy can ever be in a country where female politicians have to find someone to drive them into work in the morning!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Dr Who and the Minotaur

Finally got around to watching the latest Dr Who and it was pretty damn good. I really liked the glancing, perspective shots to make the Minotaur monster seem more terrifying at the start of the episode and then the more revealing shots later on when we began to feel a bit more sorry for it.

Some of the insanity clips (as people went mad and began to giggle or PRAISE HIM) were genuinely scary, especially the sudden one where you realize Rita is the next target.

I also enjoyed how they hinted at the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur without ever actually making it explicit. The Dr referred to the space Minotaur as an alien race that descends on more primitive civilizations and feeds off their faith. The alluded to victims managed to trap their 'God' in a virtual prison on a satellite, fed by kidnapped natives of other planets. Surely a more advanced form of the tactic adopted by the Cretans, who locked their Minotaur in a labyrinth and fed it with captured enemies?

So, a scary and surprisingly clever episode that nevertheless had some good moments of humour. Every line from Gibbis about the extreme cowardice of his race was hilarious but I felt sorry enough for him and interested enough in his rat-like desire to survive that he wasn't just a character played for laughs. Similarly the Dr's joke about abandoning Amy when he met Rita was very funny and presaged things to come.*

Great stuff, although after all these psychological episodes I'm looking forward to a more sci-fi finale and the explanation of the Dr's death.

* Now if only they'd explained the room with the sad clown and his balloon!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

A sliding scale of pointlessness

Sorry for the lack of posts recently. I've been very busy with a new job, dentist appointments, charity training and a visit to Birmingham to see Villa play Newcastle. All very enjoyable but hasn't left me a lot of free time. To make things worse I've been getting back into video games recently - finishing Portal 1, starting a British empire in Rome Total War and even spending a night in Stockwood co-oping the vast majority of Halo 1's campaign mode.

Anyway here are some of my favourite pointless moments in Military history:

1) The 40 minute war of 1896 - Well, 38 to be precise. I've taken longer than that to cook meals. You would have thought that the Zanzibaris might have considered the proximity of British gun ships before deciding to try and throw off their colonial oppressors. (

2) The 1898 Battle of Manila - A mock battle fought between two colonial powers, neither of whom knew that a peace treaty had been signed the day before. They succeeded in their unofficial objective of stopping Filipino guerrillas from seizing the city. However, both sides took casualties despite an agreement that they wouldn't really fight. (

3) The German attack on the USSR in WW2 - This is a biggie. If Hitler hadn't taken on Russia he would have had a reasonable chance of consolidating his Blitzkrieg conquests in Europe. Stalin was so anxious to avoid war that he refused to alert his border troops as the ensuing invasion became more and more certain. The largest army ever to be assembled for an invasion swept across the border of Poland and the Baltic States causing massive damage to the Red Army. However within half a year the German advance was slowing and they found themselves at war on two fronts with both the USSR and the USA - the only remaining powers that could have saved Britain from defeat.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Drunk in charge of Moose

Haven't we all found ourselves in that situation occasionally?

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Harrowing film of the week - 'The boy in the striped pyjamas'

Going into this film I was expecting not to like it. My logic behind this was that it received a 12a certificate in the UK. I didn't think that there was any way that you could cover the horrors of the Holocaust within the constraints of a program partially aimed at a pre-pubescent audience

It didn't take long for the film to disillusion me of this opinion. Stylistically it works. Nobody would have been stupid enough to carry out acts of horrendous violence against the prisoners in front of the Kommandant's eight-year-old son. Therefore, the more graphic atrocities are carried out behind closed doors. We get before and after portraits rather than viewing the event itself, as when an SS guard claims he is going to have a 'conversation' with Shmuel about stealing food and the next time we see the Jewish boy he has a badly bruised eye. Somehow this more subtle, child's-eye-view approach to the Holocaust bypassed my usual mental resistance to take in dramatic representations of horror and really got to me at points.

The character acting is fantastic, although only the Kommandant really got the hang of the German accent and the others all sound very English or American. It is interesting to see how Gretel and Bruno adjust to life in such a warped environment; Gretel is charmed by the ideological surity and surface attractiveness of camp life while Bruno retains his innocence and lack of understanding throughout the film. The ending is a real wrench that I didn't see coming even as Bruno burrowed under the fence (the border guards seemed to be especially lax, by the way). By removing the barrier between him and Shmuel he repairs any residual damage to their friendship from the food stealing incident and shows that when not being cowed by a shouting guard he feels no base revulsion or hatred of the people in the camps. However, this same childish lack of understanding means he (and even the more street-wise Shmuel) cannot comprehend the danger he is getting himself into by breaking down the boundaries, enforced by the brutality of the state repression apparatus, between Jews and the Volksdeutsche.

P.s. What is it with all the presentations of terrible people as loving parents this week? First, Omar in Four Lions with his pleasant and jokey home environment where everyone knew he planned to blow himself up for jihad. Then the Kommandant with his obvious affection for his family despite disagreements about his concentration camp posting and genocidal activities. I mean, I know it is crude propaganda to make fictionalised portraits of your (former or current) enemies as wife beaters and alcoholics, but some of them were! Robert Ley was an alcoholic, Goebbels slept around and Goering had a morphine addiction throughout his career as the heir presumptive of the Third Reich. Still it is nothing new for the film-making industry to obsess with the image of the sophisticated and clever Nazi. It raises more interesting questions about motivation and ideology than an examination of the average SA member who was in all likelihood not very clever and enjoyed fighting the Nazi's political enemies on the streets of Berlin.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Fascist's job prospects in post-war Hungary

I am currently a few chapters into Victor Sebestyen's 'Twelve Days: Revolution 1956' - a history book about the Hungarian attempt to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, which was met with Soviet tanks and the execution of the Hungarian communist leadership.

My motivation for delving into East European modern history comes from a few directions. I'm concentrating pretty heavily on German language and history at the moment so it is nice to take a break and look at some closely related but slightly different history. Reading about the Berlin Wall and Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Stasi) has also got me interested in the history of the Warsaw Pact countries. Finally and more tangentially, while watching 'The Hour' (a BBC programme which I eventually got disillusioned with but doggedly followed to the end) I was interested in the portrayal of the Hungarian uprising that they put in between their more plot-central focus on Suez.

Anyway, Sebestyen makes the interesting point that there was quite a large influx of former fascist Arrow Cross members into the post-war AVO security/secret police organisation. This superficially makes a lot of sense as apart from the showy trials at Nuremburg and initial purges in Soviet territory the removal of fascists from key positions always took second place to pragmatic consideration of restoring order and manoeuvering for Cold War advantage. The Headquarters of the two organisations was even the same (and is now a museum to the victims of Communism and Fascism named 'The House of Terror' (

However, apart from the shared HQ I can't find any collaboration of this claim. If anybody knows anything about the issue or can point me towards any good books it would be much appreciated!

Friday, 2 September 2011

Look carefully ...

The Western leaders are engaged in what will hopefully be a lengthy 'honeymoon' period with the National Transitional Council that has successfully led the Libyan revolution. In Paris they agreed to unfreeze more Libyan assets and cheerfully listened to Libyan promises to aim for reconciliation and respect the rule of law in post-Gadaffi Libya.

The BBC of course accompanied this with a picture of happy Libyan women making that most Pro-Western of hand signs, the two finger 'V for victory' gesture.

Except for the smiley woman on the far left, who must have taken a disliking to the camera man.