50 at 50….

Today is my 50th birthday – and as you can imagine that has meant a lot of reflection, a lot of retrospection, and a fair amount of contemplation. Lots of interesting ideas came, themes, thoughts… but mostly, my feeling right now is one of general happiness and wonder. Life can be pretty hideous at times – but it can be wonderful too, and the thing that seems to make it wonderful to me is often random, seemingly unconnected stuff. The best things that have happened to me have very often – almost always – been unpredictable, chaotic, even sometimes dangerous.

A few things I do know. I know that you don’t have to lose your ideals as you grow older. I know that you don’t have to become more conservative as you grow older. I know that you don’t have to become more selfish as you grow older. I know that you don’t have to get grumpier as you get older. I know that you don’t have to get more afraid as you get older. I know that you don’t have to stop loving life, loving people, and loving things as you get older. I love things because I love them – not really for any rational reasons, but just because I love them. Yes, that means family and friends, but that’s not for here or for now. Here and now, I just want to set down a few things – well, 50 things, because I like numbers (!) – that make me smile, and that in some ways make me what I am.

Everything here matters to me in some way – and has some connection to what it feels to me to be 50, to be alive, to be here. This is not a carefully calculated list – making sure there are no omissions, or that everything is in balance – but mine has not been a carefully calculated life. Very much the opposite – successful long term plans have been very much the exception, not the rule. Anyway, in the unlikely event you’re interested, here they are, in no particular order – or rather, in the random order that they came to my mind.

1 Bacon

streaky_bacon
2 Studio Ghibli

mononoke

3 Wolves

wolves

4 Wolves

wolvesfc

5 Protests

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 15.19.19

6 Marmite

Marmite

7 Romania

romania-2

8 Snow Leopards

Snow_Leopard_Sitting_In_Rocks_600

9 Cambridge

Pembroke_Homepage_LowRes_0046_header

10 Fatherhood

11 Marvin Gaye

marvin

12 Socialism

red-flag-madrid-spain-may

13 Travelling

map

14 The Princess Bride

swordfight

15 Twitter

Twitter

16 Realising I’m wrong about something

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 07.51.35

17 Multiculturalism

multicultural

18 Dumplings

dumplings

19 The Clash

Clash210513

20 Train journeys

train2

21 Law

scales

22 Cold, clear days

cold clear day

23 Trees

24 Sushi

sushi

25 Bringing Up Baby

bringing-up-baby

26 Computers

old mac

27 Children’s films

Merida

28 Parodies

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 07.38.14

29 Regina Spektor

Regina-Spektor-midcoast-9771

30 Mathematics

trigonometery

31 Indigo snakes

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

32 Boston Legal

Boston-Legal-cast

33 Gene Wolfe

Gene-Wolfe-007

34 Poetry

Windscale

35 Surprises

surprised-animals-3

36 Dartmoor

dartmoor

37 Axolotls

axolotl1-960x960

38 Castles

Castle 2

39 Croquet

croquet

40 Judge Dredd

dredd

41 Social Justice

social_justice

42 Bridge

Bridge

43 Cooking

Toad

44 Tea

mug-of-tea

45 Roast dinners

Roast beef

46 Ancient history

47 Beethoven

beethoven-1

48 Steve Bull

Steve Bull

49 Writing

writing

50 Fairy Tales

Fairy tale

———————–

Well, that’s me for now. Congratulations for reaching this far – it’s been a bit of a trek. I hope I keep trekking a lot longer.

Labour and torture…

One of the immediate effects of reading some of the Torture Report last night was a feeling of deep anger. My memories of 2003 and protesting against the planned invasion of Iraq came flooding back – and my anger towards Tony Blair in particular and the Labour Party in general came flooding back. I tweeted about it a bit last night and this morning – and though most people seemed to agree with me, a number seemed to think I was being unfair. After Polly Toynbee’s suggestion yesterday that we should ‘ignore the flaws’ of the Labour Party, having this particularly huge flaw shoved in my face seemed a touch ironic. So am I unfair to be angry with Labour? The people suggesting so seem to have a three main complaints:

This wasn’t Tony Blair – or even the UK. This is about the CIA.

It’s certainly true that the Torture Report is about the CIA’s activities – but the UK is not unconnected. Firstly, the UK was involved in the CIA’s activities, helping with rendition at the very least, and turning a blind eye to other things. Secondly, anyone who imagines that the UK is totally innocent of similar actions seems to me to be deeply naïve – the fact that we don’t know for sure may well have as much to do with our secretive and seemingly ineffective forms of oversight. A report like the Torture Report is almost unheard of in the UK. We have the odd whitewash from time to time, but nothing more. What’s more, Blair made the UK complicit in the whole ‘war on terror’ – and the torture was part of that.

Tony Blair didn’t know what was happening

For that to be true, he would have to be a complete fool – and that’s one thing I would never accuse him of. What’s more, over a million of us warned him.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 15.19.19

I was on that march – and we weren’t just saying ‘don’t invade Iraq’, we were saying ‘don’t go into bed with the most reactionary and objectionable US president in living memory.’ We may not have known the details – details confirmed by the Torture Report – but we knew who and what Bush was, and what joining him implied. Blair must also have known – and if he didn’t make the obvious inference about things like torture, then as I wrote before, he would have to be a fool. And he isn’t a fool.

Tony Blair isn’t the Labour Party

No he isn’t – but he led the Labour Party, and a very significant number of the current crop of MPs voted for Blair and Bush’s war, effectively voting for this torture. Some of the ‘big figures’ who actively supported the war are still very much part of the party – names like David Blunkett and Jack Straw spring to mind, but there are others. More importantly, the current Labour Party seem to be very much carrying on Blair’s agenda. Yvette Cooper seems to be almost as much an authoritarian as the rest of them!

 

So yes, I do blame Labour. And yes, I think that’s fair – and until Labour makes a proper break from the past, and shows that it understands what went wrong, or even that it was wrong, I will continue to blame Labour.

#Establishment?

Two seemingly very different stories have been dominating the left-wing UK political scene on Twitter over the last week or two. The first is the remarkable success of the #CameronMustGo hashtag, the second the Trumpton UKIP saga. They’re very, very different things – and on the surface seem not to have very much in common – but there are strong connections between the two, connections that suggest some interesting things about how social media, and Twitter in particular, can work.

The #CameronMustGo hashtag is still trending (as I type this) after two weeks and more than a million tweets, in the face of a whole series of derogatory articles in the mainstream media (as I discussed here), and reactions from disdain to rage. To get a hashtag to trend isn’t easy at the best of times, and to get it to trend for this long is nothing short of remarkable – indeed, the disappointment last night when (seemingly briefly) the hashtag dropped off the trending list almost made me laugh, but had a serious point. Getting the hashtag to trend has given groups of people a sense of power – a sense that they can have at least some impact, albeit only in the virtual world of Twitter, when they otherwise feel so powerless in the face of a seemingly overwhelming establishment.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 07.38.14

The UKIP Trumpton phenomenon seems very different. The initial UKIP Trumpton account was a parody account, one of many such accounts on Twitter – I run a parody account myself, @KipperNick – but until a few days ago it had just a small following. It was funny, particularly for people of a certain generation (including myself) who grew up watching programmes like Trumpton, Camberwick Green and so forth – but it wasn’t earth-shattering, until it started to be attacked by UKIP MEP David Coburn for being ‘fake’. That started a twitter storm, one that has raged ever since. @Trumpton_UKIP now has 18.9 thousand followers, more than twice David Coburn’s number, and has spawned a whole range of related Trumpton accounts, as well as a wide range of attacks from UKIP supporters, some suggesting that it shouldn’t be allowed to use the word ‘UKIP’ in its name, others invoking (more than a touch dubiously) intellectual property law. The more the attacks come, the more the parody thrives – and the more attention it gets, from the mainstream press, and even from TV and radio.

So what’s the connection between the two, apart from being attacks on right wing politicians? Well, first of all, they both emerged from small, humble roots – the people behind the initial #CameronMustGo hashtag and the @Trumpton_UKIP account are ordinary Twitter users, not part of political parties or backed by the mainstream media. Both took root through the grassroots of twitter – yes, the #CameronMustGo hashtag was taken up by official Labour Party people, but the mainstay was (and remains) much more ordinary twitter users. Both thrive in the face of (at least partial) mainstream attacks – indeed, the attacks seem to make them stronger. Both use humour – even a brief look at the #CameronMustGo stream shows that a fair proportion of the tweets either are or use jokes as their basis, while the Trumpton accounts are based almost entirely on humour. And they’re funny. Very funny at times.

Both, too, seem to have caught the ‘establishment’ on the hop – and for all its protestations, UKIP is very much part of the establishment. Whether it’s UKIP or the Tories, the BBC or the mainstream press, the social media is something that they can’t quite get on top of. It’s not as controllable as they want it to be – and it challenges their control over the ‘message’. The Labour Party shouldn’t get complacent either – the wrath of Twitter is as likely to turn upon them as it has on the Tories and UKIP. If they try to use the people of Twitter as their political tools, they can expect a backlash. If there’s one thing #CameronMustGo and Trumpton has shown, it’s that it’s the people that count, not the parties. And long may that last.

 

 

The Nige Before Christmas

Farage Santa Ill

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the House

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

The Kippers were watching the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nigel so soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

With no chance of sex ed in their little heads.

And Mark in his ‘kerchief, and Doug in his cap,

Had settled their brains for a long winter’s nap.

Mark and Doug

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutter, and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow

Gave the lustre of midday to objects below,

When, what in the world should I suddenly find,

But a man on a tank, who was out of his mind.

Farage tank

With a fag in one hand, in the other a beer

St Nige looked around with some kind of a leer

He looked this way and that as though searching around

For something he wanted, some thing to be found

St Nige doesn’t care if you’re naughty or nice

He cares if you cook with too much foreign spice

If your daddy or mummy came from the wrong place

If your accent is strange, or you have the wrong face

He has gifts for rich Brits, but for migrants the boot

And for everyone else just more hardship and soot

He’ll travel the land checking homes all around

If he sees a strange face, or hears a strange sound

Then it’s time to repatriate, quick as a flash

To send them all ‘home’, with a dash, dash, dash, dash

No matter how nice, no matter how good

There’s no place for them in his neighbourhood

St Nige has no sleigh, and no fine reindeer

But he does have his tank, and his fag and his beer

And behind him are mobs, all filled up with hype

He dog-whistles loudly and calls them by type:

“Come bigots, come racists

Come Englanders Little

Join our people’s army

Be ready for battle

Come lost and afraid

We’ve got someone to blame

It’s the immigrants’ fault

Let’s show them our flame.”

The BNP, EDL and Britain First

Oh, all Britain’s racists, they gather, the worst

To support the great Nigel, their hero and saint

You’d better watch out, their hearts are not faint

 EDL etc

Saint Nigel looked up and he flashed me a smile

A smile more befitting a dread crocodile

He winked and he grinned and I knew what he meant

A message it was, a message he sent.

“Happy Christmas to all – if you’re British and rich

And for everyone else, well life is a bitch.”

Farage Santa Ill

Fear and loathing of social media…

There seems to have been a lot of negativity about social media in the last few weeks and months. It has a number of different facets and works in a number of different directions.

Command central for terrorists

One is the portrayal of the social media as evil and dangerous, full of paedophiles, terrorists and worse. We should be afraid of social media. The new head of GCHQ has called Google and Facebook ‘Command Central’ for terrorists such as the so-called Islamic State, something echoed in detail by the Parliament Intelligence and Security Committee’s apparent conclusion that Facebook were the only ones who could have (and didn’t) stop the murder of Lee Rigby. According to this mantra, we need to take control of the social media if the social media companies don’t take control themselves, and accept their ‘social responsibility’

The playground of irrelevant keyboard warriors

The second is the seemingly contradictory portrayal of the social media as pointless, puerile and distracting, reflective of nothing of substance and a great deal of stupidity and foolishness. Social media is something to be loathed. The reaction to the #CameronMustGo hashtag is perhaps the best example – and in particular complaints about the idea that this fact that the hashtag has now trended for upwards of a week (which for people unfamiliar with Twitter trends is something quite remarkable – in Twitter terms) deserves coverage in the mainstream media – and has received it. ‘Why,’ the argument goes, ‘should the real media pay any attention at all to the online witterings of a few dodgy lefty keyboard warriors? That’s not real news.’

So which is it? Is the social media a den of evil, command central for terrorists and something we should all be desperately afraid of – and need to police, to control, to censor? Or is it just the playground of geeks and nerds, lefty political wonks and the liberal media elite, to which we should pay no attention at all? Both? Neither?

A little more complicated….

Reality, as usual, is a little more complicated than that. Social media is in some ways new, in some ways old, in some ways crucially important, in others entirely irrelevant. It needs thought in order to understand, not just a few clichéd words and a bit of pigeon-holing. It’s reflective of ‘real’ life in some ways – and a place and space of its own in others. That, for many of those of us who spend a lot of time using social media, is actually what makes it worthwhile. There are things on here that matter – and there are things that don’t at all. There are ways in which the social media can challenge the ‘mainstream media’, and do jobs that the mainstream media either can’t or won’t do – the coverage of the Israeli incursions into Gaza earlier this year was one of those, opening eyes and then leading at least some of the mainstream media into a very different form of coverage of Palestine and the Palestinians than they had ever shown before. The same for the coverage of the reaction to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson – social media’s immediacy, the way that ordinary people could get their own experiences ‘out there’, provided something different, and seemed, at least in some ways, to change the way that the mainstream media (or at least some of it) covered the events. That matters.

At the same time, a lot of the other stuff on social media really is pretty pointless. Stories abound that have no basis in reality – or, worse, distort reality and distract from real coverage of real events. Some of the photos of the full and empty chambers of the Houses of Parliament currently circulating on Twitter fit into this category, as Isabel Hardman has revealed in the Spectator. At times, though, even these pictures do matter – or at least I think so – such as the ones I tweeted myself of the empty chamber during the DRIP debate. They mattered then because the chamber really was empty, and that was the only time that Parliament had to discuss that critical debate – there was no other chance to debate it, no committee stages, no public (or even private) hearings, just that debate. That was it.

At other times, Twitter is just stupid and irrelevant – or silly and fun, depending on your perspective. I use Twitter for important, work-related stuff, for political debate – but also for silly hashtag games. My tweet ‘The Hunt For Red Leicester’ in the #CheeseFilms hashtag games remains one of my favourites.

#CameronMustGo

Where, then, does #CameronMustGo fit in to this – and why do some people seem to absolutely loath it? Some have positively seethed when they tweet about how pointless and irrelevant it is, how ridiculous it is that other people are angry that the BBC isn’t giving it more coverage, how much of a distraction it is from ‘real’ news, how it doesn’t have any ‘real’ basis behind it and so on. Are they right?

For me, there’s a lot of truth in what the critics say in detail – but they miss the ‘bigger’ social media picture. Yes, there’s no ‘real’ basis for it – it wasn’t a particular event that triggered the tweets, just an idea to try to get it trending. It’s not one particular action of our Prime Minister that made people think it was time for him to go. It’s also not true that #CameronMustGo has any chance whatsoever of actually succeeding in making Cameron go anywhere – let alone forcing him out of office.

…but very, very few of those contributing to the hashtag would ever believe that it does. The ones that I know, at least, have very few illusions about what a hashtag can actually contribute, or what the point of it is. #CameronMustGo is something that allows people to vent their frustration at a government that they detest – and at a media that seems to ignore them. It was born out of anger with the mainstream media’s apparent obsession with Ed Miliband’s oddness and awkwardness – and their unwillingness to subject Cameron to similar levels of scrutiny. It was an opportunity to have fun too – and the hashtag is full of humorous as well as serious tweets.

That doesn’t mean that the hashtag needs or deserves attention by the mainstream media in terms other than its own: as a hashtag. As a hashtag, however, it does deserve attention. That is, if you’re studying or covering what’s happening on Twitter, it deserves attention – because Twitter trends rarely last long, and for #CameronMustGo to trend this long. The level of dissent, of attention, of focus necessary to keep this trending is impressive – in Twitter terms.

That’s not to be sneezed at – but neither is it earthshattering. It’s a bit of a Twitter phenomenon – but I doubt Cameron will be losing much sleep over it either. The main way that Twitter matters to politicians is that their own injudicious (or at least arguably injudicious) tweets can be deeply damaging to their careers, as Emily Thornberry found out. Twitter matters most to those on Twitter. It’s not really something to be either feared or loathed – particularly by those who don’t really understand it.

It is, however, those who don’t really understand social media who seem to display the most of that fear and loathing. They might do better to listen a little more to those who spend more time on the social media…..

 

UPDATE: 2 December 2014

As I write, two days after the initial post, #CameronMustGo is still trending – and the loathing of it seems to have reached new heights. One Tory MP has suggested witheringly that those behind it don’t understand economics, others that it’s no substitute for ‘real’ politics – while journalists continue to treat it largely with disdain. I can see why both politicians and journalists don’t like it – but at times there seems to be something close to fear in their reactions. It’s natural to be afraid of the unknown to some degree – and the problem seems to be that this really is unknown territory.

Journalists have embraced Twitter to a great degree – but there is still a tendency to look down on it because it’s not ‘real’ journalism. That’s true. It isn’t ‘real’ journalism – but that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow a ‘lesser’ thing. It’s just different. It performs different functions – mobilisation of groups who are otherwise unheard is just one of them. Anyone who followed the ‘IamSpartacus’ movement should see that – and journalists should be able to look beyond their own bubbles and see that too.

Most politicians haven’t embraced Twitter to the same extent – except to #TweetLikeAnMP – and they generally treat Twitter with either fear (as it may end their careers, Emily Thornberry-style) or as a PR tool (as they treat a great many things). That, too, is missing the point. Twitter is something quite different…

…and those behind the #CameronMustGo hashtag have realised that. They’re in unknown territory too, as no-one imagined the hashtag would trend this long. As I noted above, this still isn’t earth shattering, and it definitely won’t unseat Cameron – but neither is it intended to. It does what it does, and on its own terms – and it does it spectacularly well, in comparison to other similar attempts.

Calling politicians ‘childish’ is an insult to children…

Rather than write about the more obvious points about Plebgate – from the actions themselves to the foolishness of taking libel actions when the consequences of losing could be so damaging and when your reputation has already been substantially repaired – I want to write about one particular turn of phrase used by Mr Justice Mitting. He said that Mitchell’s behaviour had been ‘childish’.

It’s a common enough description – and anyone who ever watches the ridiculousness that is Prime Minister’s Questions, the absurd self-importance, name-calling and point-scoring that most politicians seem to get up to on the BBC’s Question Time knows what it refers to. Politicians do seem to spend an inordinate amount of their time – and from the evidence in the Plebgate libel trial not just their time in the public eye – engaging in this kind of activity. They even do it in the laws they draft – anyone who has seen the Social Action, Responsibility And Heroism (‘SARAH’) bill will see that it’s ridiculous, irrelevant and designed only to try to get a few headlines in the tabloids. Absurd is too polite a word for a law like this. And then we have ‘grandees’ like David Mellor ranting and swearing at cab drivers.

It’s an insult to us, who elect them and pay their salaries (and expenses) that they do so – but it’s also an insult to children to call this kind of activity childish. I have an eight year old daughter, and she and her friends may engage in this kind of thing from time to time, but, frankly, not that often. What’s more, they feel ashamed of it when they do it – at least most of the time – and they spend a lot more time being cooperative, friendly, listening to each other, being joyful, free, honest and helpful. What’s more, the ones that I know seem to spend a lot of time really wanting to learn…

…which is something that MPs seem conspicuously unwilling or unable to do.  The point scoring, the straw-man arguments, the bare-faced-lies, the attempts to get things just for themselves, are all things that we wouldn’t (and as parents generally don’t) accept from children. In grown adults, highly educated, highly paid, in deeply responsible positions, making decisions that have a massive impact on all of us, it’s far worse.

Facebook And Twitter – Handling Extremism And Disorder

After extensive consultation, FAT-HEAD has been amended to take into account its lack of clarity over costs (see 8) and the unfortunate limitation of extent (see 9).


 

Facebook And Twitter – Handling Extremism And Disorder Bill (‘FAT-HEAD’)

Contents:

  1. When this Act applies
  2. Facebook and Twitter
  3. Social and Moral Responsibility
  4. Code of conduct
  5. Extremism
  6. Disorder
  7. Acceptance of blame
  8. Costs
  9. Extent, commencement and short title

A

Bill

to

Make provision as to matters concerning the social and moral responsibility of Facebook and Twitter, to ensure that proper cooperation is made with the authorities in relation to morality, extremism and disorder.

BE IT ENACTED by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:—

1. When this Act applies

This Act applies whenever an event of such significance, as determined by the Secretary of State, requires it to. Events include but are not restricted to acts of extremism, of disorder and of embarrassment to the Secretary of State, the government, the intelligence and security services and the police, or any other event deemed appropriate by the Secretary of State.

2. Facebook and Twitter

The powers conferred through this Act apply to Facebook, Twitter and any other online services, systems, or their equivalents, successors or alternatives (‘the services’) as determined by the Secretary of State.

3. Social and moral responsibility

The services shall recognise that they have a social and moral responsibility above and beyond any requirements hitherto required by the law. The requirements that constitute this social and moral responsibility shall be determined by the Secretary of State, in consultation with the editors of the Sun and the Daily Mail.

4. Code of Conduct

The Secretary of State shall prepare a Code of Conduct to cover the actions of the services, in accordance with the social and moral responsibility as set out in section 1. This code of conduct shall cover extremism, disorder, obscenity, dissent and other factors as determined by the Secretary of State.

5. Extremism

i)  The services shall monitor the activities of all those who use their services for evidence of extremism, including but not limited to reading all their posts, messages and other communications, analysing all photographs, monitoring all location information, all music listened to and all areas of the internet linked to.

ii)  The services shall provide real-time access to all of their servers and all user information to the security services, the police and any others authorised by the Secretary of State, including the provision of tools to enable that access.

iii)  The services shall prepare reports on all its users activities, including but not limited to those activities relating to extremism, including contact information, personal details, locations visited and any other information that may be determined from such information.

iv)  The services shall provide these reports to the security services, the police and any others authorised by the Secretary of State.

v) The services shall delete the accounts of any user upon the request of the security services, the police or any others authorised by the Secretary of State.

vi)  The services may not report that they have provided the access or these reports to anyone without the express permission of the Secretary of State.

6. Disorder

At a time of disorder, as determined by the Secretary of State, the security services or a police officer, the services shall provide the following:

i) Immediate access to location data of all users.

ii) Immediate access to all communications data of all users

iii) Detailed information on all accounts that have any relationship to the disorder

iv) Deletion of accounts of any users deemed to be involved, or likely to be involved, in disorder.

v) Upon order by the Secretary of State, the security services or a police officer, the services shall block all access to their services in an area to be determined by the Secretary of State.

7. Acceptance of Blame

The services shall recognise that their social and moral responsibility includes the requirement to accept the blame for the existence, escalation or consequences of any extremism or disorder. This acceptance of blame must be acknowledged in writing and in the broadcast media, ensuring that the government, the security services and the police are not held responsible for their own roles in such extremism or disorder or their consequences.

8. Costs

All costs for the development, implementation, monitoring, updating and supporting the systems required for the services to comply with the Facebook And Twitter – Handling Extremism And Disorder Act 2014 shall be borne by the services.

9. Extent, commencement and short title

i) This Act extends to England, Wales, and anywhere else on the entire planet, and in addition to inner and outer space, the moon, any planets, comets and other bodies as deemed appropriate by the Secretary of State.

ii) This Act comes into force on the day on which this Act is passed.

iii) This Act may be cited as the Facebook And Twitter – Handling Extremism And Disorder Act 2014.