Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Japan would be well advised to stop going reckless

A fantastic headline don’t you think? It introduced this little gem of North Korean journalism: “Its moves to escalate the tensions under the pretext of ‘threat’ from the DPRK would only invite stronger rebuff at the debate on the regional issues. The Japanese reactionaries would be gravely mistaken if they think their sanctions could frighten the DPRK or bring it to its knees.”

Finally these gems are properly available on line. This wondrous little item came to my attention via Reuters recently:
Few can denounce the "imperialist ogre" or "kingpin of evil" as well as the writers at North Korea's official news agency, and a California graphic artist is now cataloging their rhetorical masterpieces on a Web site.

Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, is the only regular source of the views of the secretive government of Kim Jong-il available to diplomats, journalists and scholars.

But there was no way for them to search the archives of KCNA until Geoff Davis, fighting boredom during a rainy San Francisco spring, decided to hone his Web design skills on a topic he had followed in news reports on the North Korean nuclear crisis.

"Their propaganda is often unintentionally hilarious and I couldn't find an existing searchable database of the KCNA on the Web. Thus, NK News was born," Davis told Reuters.

Davis has also created the endlessly entertaining KCNA insult generator, capable of churning out such gems as:
“You black-hearted gangster, you are sadly mistaken you think you can browbeat the DPRK!”

Marvellous, just marvellous.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Me and the Ruminator, packed fit to explode with lunchy goodness at the Free Press. Posted by Picasa
A fine visit

Marissa, the Ruminator, old friend and first-ever flatmate visited Cambridge for the weekend.

We punted, we looked at colleges, we bought lunch from the cheese shop and ate it on the college lawn, we looked at colleges, we had a beer from the Mill in plastic cups by the Mill pond. And that was just the first four hours after she got off the bus from the train station.

Our first day was mostly walking. Including walking up to my balcony to prove that the slim resistance offered by a bottle of Marsanne was, indeed, useless. Followed by a stroll to two of my favourite pubs (the Castle and the Pickerel).

Yesterday was mostly cycling in gloriously atypical sunshine, having discovered a spare bicycle left in the care of neighbours by a departing Masters student, which wasn't widly too big for Marissa - though posed its own unique mounting/dismounting challenges on occassion.

We cycled round Jesus Green, darted irresponsibly up pedestrian-only streets, got into Kings Chapel (having parked the bike), and cycled over to a compulsory stop in the Doug tour: a pub lunch at the Free Press.

I felt happy to dispatch Marissa on her travels confident she'd been well fed, watered, and exercised. What more can you do for a visiting friend?

Her report of things is over here. All I'll say is, just in case you got a false impression, the jacket in question was brown velvet, not brown pinstripe. Ahem.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

A view from my balcony Posted by Picasa

A summer day to live in memory

In April I boasted about getting into a habit of going for a run most mornings, which I slid out of around May Week and the following rush of family visitors. Recently, with the aid of friendly neighbour K, I’ve been running again. Usually about 2 km.

Most mornings we aim to head out at 8.30, if we’re going, and check if the other wants to come. Rigorous experimentation has now proved we run further and faster with a buddy: not in any competitive spirit, just coz it’s more fun.

This has usually been followed with breakfast at the kitchen-across-the-way. I’m the only resident left in the kitchen in my four-room corner, while the “flat” opposite mine is more inhabited. The habit of breakfast with the neighbours resulted from my fondness for stovetop-made coffee and microwave porridge. My kitchen lacks a microwave, and for a while the stove stopped working. So what commenced as necessity has become a pleasant ritual.

Last Wednesday morning, though, was a little more solitary. I headed out for a run with only the solace of the iPod. A neighbour passed through at breakfast but lacked time to linger.

I got in a couple of decent hours work, and decided to go read articles on my balcony. Shortly before noon the Ruminator called to catch up and discuss details of her impending visit. Lovely. Another call or two back home seemed in order while I was at the phone.

Then, with two hours work under my belt, my resolve cracked. It was 27c outside. The sky was cloudless blue. It was one of those rare days in England worthy of the name “Summer”, one of those moments when the sunlight goes straight to your head, erases the trauma of a grey five-month Winter, and makes you think maybe Ol’ Blighty ain’t so bad after all.

Fortunately, an excuse to abandon work was at hand. Neighbour K and I had an appointment with the Jesus Green outdoor pool. Jesus Green is a devastatingly pretty park, especially when cycling to the pool you pass over the lock.

We swam briefly in bitingly cold water until the blood began to stir and it wasn’t so bad. After a brief bout of exercise, we flopped in the sun and chatted, dipped again and after a pleasant couple of hours headed home for a snack.

For “snack” read “gin and tonic on the balcony”. Another neighbour brought us corn and avocado salad for dinner.

Graduate student life, it’s a tough game.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Talking Danish Westerns with Lyn: "Dear Wendy"

Doug: Heya Lyn.

Lyn: Hi Doug. Um, don’t you feel uncomfortable appropriating my voice like this?

Doug: Not especially.

Lyn: Just checking.

Doug: I mean, especially since you’ve done it to me in the past …

Lyn: I said, ‘just checking’, OK?

Doug: and since you’re not updating Lynscreens at present …

Lyn: Yeah, a change of subject anytime now would be fine.

Doug: And especially since we’re going to be talking about movies.

Lyn: So, what’ve you been seeing?

Doug: Ooh, astounding conversational flanking manoeuvre there.

Lyn: But you’ll fall for it, won’t you? C’mon, recent viewing. I want opinions, dammit!

Doug: Right, well I’ve seen “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. I take it back, Depp does outdo Wilder; I like the new material, and the tone is much more suitably dark for Dahl. I went to see “Fantastic Four” – trash, but good, amiable clean-cut trash. And I, despite myself, loved “Wedding Crashers”: I did not expect to be laughing at cringe comedy for two solid hours.

Lyn: You never bother saying anything that concisely. So, what’re you saving the words for?

Doug: “Dear Wendy.” Man, that is an amazing, but really pretty damn disturbing film.

Lyn: I’ve heard it called a Danish Western. The script’s by Lars von Trier, right?

Doug: Yeah, but it’s not really a Western. And it’s not terribly Danish – other than the director, crew, funding and the locations. It’s an American small-town tragedy, and it’s about how the fear of violence gives rise to violence.

Lyn: Gimme a narrative hook here.

Doug: Jamie “Billy Elliot” Bell is a loner/loser in a small mining town until he stumbles across an old gun, which despite his pacifist convictions he can’t throw away. Forging bonds with other outcasts, he soon has a small club of “armed pacifists”, who carry their “partners” for “moral support”. They develop their own code of “Dandyism” (with nods to Oscar Wilde and Brideshead Revisited), grow as people and swear never to use their guns to kill. In fact, they don’t even use the word “killing”, they refer to it as “loving”.

Lyn: That, right there, does not sound especially healthy.

Doug: Hell, wait ‘til you hear how their private language interacts with the retro-cool Zombies soundtrack.

All the action takes place in a tiny town square, or one of two mines nearby. Yet without the Fight-Club-esque device of framing of much of the movie as an extended flashback, making it perfectly clear things are going to go badly wrong, the little fragment of a town would really not have any oppressive sense of claustrophobia.

People talk about their fear of gangs with guns, and about being beaten up at school. But we never see these things. Their square is a strangely innocent oasis. The characters also have some of the misfit innocence of Depp in “Edward Scissorhands”, which I saw last night on a big screen, too.

Lyn: Stick to the point here. So, it has an innocence. I think you’re circling the word “Romanticism”.

Doug: Yes, it definitely explores Romanticism, and its obsession with death and mortality and also the connection between fear and violence. A town that imagines gangs of armed youths summons one into being. Also, for all their preternatural skill with their weapons, it is painfully apparent that this is not a Western where the heroes will be able to take on vastly superior numbers of black-hats and win.

Dandyist armed pacifism has been seen as a satire of Western foreign policy, but I think it’s a far more disturbing exploration of the empty heroism of symbolic acts.

Lyn: You use the word “exploring” a lot. You don’t think von Trier’s moralising, then?

Doug: No. This is a tragedy, in the true sense of not being about unhappiness, but in the remorseless working out of events.

Lyn: So, is it realistic, then?

Doug: No, but it’s compelling. It is has a sense of heightened unreality, a deliberateness that gives the characters depth despite occasionally too-smooth dialogue. It’s a great film. Disturbing, yes. But well worth seeing.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Understanding suicide bombers

With similar incomprehension British society has been asking of the 7 July tube bombers “How could young men, born in England, personally unaffected by events in the Middle East, seemingly functional members of society, commit these acts?” Or more simply, “How could people who enjoyed cricket do this?” Obviously, in Britain and elsewhere, it has lead to a certain amount of soul-searching about whether multiculturalism has worked.

This misses the point.

The migrant experience has always involved initial ghetto-isation. The problem has never been the first generation’s coping with a new country, it has been the experience of their children.

The only place I’ve seen the point made was in a short literary essay (which shamefully, I failed to make a note of and have not been able to find on-line) on novels dealing with the alienation and anger of some children of migrants and their distinctively different experience to the generations before and after them. It was an idea I kicked around with a few friends recently, and this is a summary of my tentative conclusions.

Most migrants move for a better life. They don’t expect it to be easy and expect to work hard. Often migrants are prepared to take a step down the social ladder. Think of the archetypal foreign-trained professional who, with locally unrecognised qualifications, takes up unskilled work. Why? So their children have a shot at a better future.

Which can put a lot of pressure on the kids. One of my friends provided an example of a girl in her high-school with two African parents who had decided their first-born would be a doctor and their second-born a lawyer. Of course, the first had the gift for languages and the second for maths, but they were pressured to stick to the plan regardless. I can think of a uni friend from a migrant family (her father a successful developer), and she and all her siblings are now either doctors or lawyers.

This isn’t limited to migrant families, obviously. Many families who’ve recently “made it”, typically self-made entrepreneurs, will want to see their kids with “safe” qualifications in law, medicine, accountancy and so on.

However, second generation migrants are brought face-to-face with the hypocrisies in any society. Most western democracies are built on an egalitarian vision that “anyone can make it”. And while anyone can make it in Britain, Australia, Canada or the US – not everyone does, and there are fewer barriers for some than others. Children told by their parents they’ve come to a land of opportunity and pressured to succeed will have a more negative experience of the usual levels of incidental discrimination and suspicion of “new” migrant communities.

They may be able to make it, but will have to work harder for it than many, particularly in a post-industrial society with a shortage of blue-collar and entry-level positions.

On top of this, of course, is the potential dislocation of being caught between “home” and “national” culture. The second generation, as native speakers of the local language, are often the interpreters and intermediaries between the family and the outside world. A fine example of this, of course, is the popularity in some quarters of radical Imams who preach in English.

Caught between two cultures, the appeal of a pan-ethnic, supra-national religious identity must be strong. If already angry and alienated from your “local” culture, identifying with the suffering of Muslims elsewhere in the world can’t be particularly difficult.

None of this is to suggest that every second-generation member of a migrant community is a fiery, disaffected potential terrorist. Just that the pressures upon them are distinct and possibly unique.

A fact of the Australian experience is that by a third and certainly a fourth generation most migrant communities have lost any ability to speak fluently their “home” language. Indeed, many would regard it as pretty poor taste to suggest everyone who looks kinda Chinese, Greek or Italian should be able to speak Chinese, Greek or Italian.

Put simply, in the long run, local culture wins out.

Thinking of which, it’s not as if disaffected, violent masculinity organised on tribal lines is anything foreign to Britain. But football hooligans are no more representative of blue-collar former steel and coal towns, than the tube bombers are of their communities.

If you have a sufficiently large number of disaffected young men in a population, anger and violence is more or less inevitable. The “root causes” may lie in a lack of justice in the Middle East, but they may equally lie in social inequalities much closer to home.

If we’re going to tackle potential home-grown terrorists in multicultural societies, we need to stop thinking of them as somehow fundamentally alien and the special responsibility of “their” communities to weed out.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Judicial activism

When in need of a cheap shot for quick political points, blame judicial activism.

Frustrated with the lack of quick fix solutions in the war on terror? Blame it on judges for striking laws down.

Michael Howard, lame-duck Tory leader, has decided to trot out the tired old judicial activism line as he did while he was Home Secretary and in Government in an article for the Daily Telegraph. (Here’s a the complete article.)

His tone was a little more restrained in dealing with the issue on Radio 4 this morning, backing away from the quote “aggressive judicial activism” and emphasising that his point was that the UK Human Rights Act placed a burden on judges, meaning they had to engage in a balancing of individual rights and community interests best left to Parliament. His concern was to open debate on amendment or repeal of the Act.

Put simply, the HR Act gives the UK courts a kind of limited constitutional review function: if judges find a law infringes UK obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, they can refer it back to Parliament for amendment. In the meantime, the Courts still have to apply it, even if it can't be interpreted so as to be consistent with the Convention.

It’s hard to see how this transfers power to the judges, which is the usual criticism of any proposed bill of rights in Australia. All it gives judges the power to request that Parliament, “Have another go.”

If an Act clearly cannot be reconciled with international human rights, it cannot be struck down on that basis. If it can be interpreted consistently with Convention rights, that is the interpretation that must be given.

Regardless, the courts have never been the mere “interpreters” of parliamentary law, they are there as a check on parliamentary power and especially on ill-thought-out solutions.

Yes, conservatives can now, after the 7 July bombings, beat the courts and libertarians with their own rhetoric of “The real threat to the life of the nation … comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these”, but the law and its guardians should not back away from one of their first functions: to preserve fundamental values even in the face of emergency.

Further, judicial restraints on arbitrary detention are an important part of a successful campaign to counter terrorism. The terrorist recruitment base is always disaffected, radicalised youth. The experience of internment in Northern Ireland, imprisonment with no trial or with decisions on detention made by secretive security tribunals, was that where the wrong people were locked up they were radicalised by that very experience.

The complicity of the legal system in internment was an unmitigated disaster, creating further grievances that helped fuel a terrorist conflict. We should, as a society, be very wary of calls for the courts to give effect to the will of parliament and to exercise restraint in times of national emergency.

This is not to say the court system couldn’t cope with some reform to deal with new situations. Apparently, phone tap evidence is not admissible in British courts. While I can see, in principle, a conflict with the right to silence, that right is already one so heavily qualified as scarcely to be worth the name and I can imagine few citizens having a problem with saying, “Put all the evidence in the ring for a judge and jury and let suspects answer it if they chose.”

Undermining fundamental liberties, such as indefinite detention without due process, however, is another matter altogether, one as likely to fuel problems as quell them.

Friday, August 5, 2005

Criminal stupidity?

So, there’s been a fair bit in the news about 19 year old Sydney-sider Angela Sceats and her trial in England. Her offence? Running late for a plane and sending a joke SMS to a friend (Angela Forster) asking them to call the police and phone in a bomb threat to hold up the plane.

She was acquitted of any offence by a jury in 30 minutes. Once you read the texts, the reason is pretty obvious, though a full transcript of them is hard to come by.

Sceats text to Forster read: "Can you call the police. There is a bomb on board. The flight is 8.10. Leaving from Stansted. Going to Dublin. The number is 999. Do it now."

Forster texts back the message: “serious”, as in "[Are you] serious [?]".
Sceats replies: "Absolutely. Hurry up. Do it from the payphone outside. Put on an accent. Tell them there is a man with a gun to your head telling you to make the phone call."

Forster then calls 999 and apparently says: “I just got a message from my friend who is meant to be boarding the 8.10am flight from London to Dublin. She has just messaged me to say I have got to call the police. There is a bomb on board … I am not sure of the whole situation."

As a result of this call, Sceats is arrested at Stansted.

Several things strike me as more than a bit rough about this story.

The first is that anyone was so foolish as to take the texts seriously.

The second is that the judge held Sceats would have to pay her £15,000 legal costs because (in a dubious bit of reasoning) if convicted she would have gone to jail, and her actions still caused a security alert and created fear and a waste of public resources.

This seems to be using legal costs to impose a fine, on a person found innocent of any offence. Sceats has also had to remain in the UK pending her trial and missed what should have been her first year of uni.

The third is that Forster wasn’t charged with anything, or even summoned to give evidence. Okay, making out intent against her would have been pretty hard.

Still, it’s a high price to pay for a poor taste joke and a friend’s stupidity.

Thursday, August 4, 2005

Imminent injury averted

When returning to Cambridge from Windsor my Mum expressed some entirely human misgivings about my using the tube.

Doug: “Well, I’m more likely to be injured in a cycling accident in Cambridge than in a terrorist incident in London.”

Mum: “That’s really not very reassuring.”

Doug: “Fair point.” Internally: Mental note, really must get my bike’s brakes fixed.

One of life’s minor joys is finding reliable trades people. Over the long summer break, things move at a slower speed around college and I’ve had a chance to chat with some of the staff at my accommodation site. I’ve had some interesting conversations with my Polish cleaner and a lovely guy from maintenance who came to replace a flickering light.

More crucially, as a car driver I always faced the peril of trying to find reliable mechanics. Nowadays I need reliable bike mechanics – and having moved across Cambridge this year, needed some new ones.

And some new brakes. The hideous screech of my bike and it’s 30 metre stopping distance was beginning to draw attention. (Yes, Malcolm – I know when you sold it to me you said the brakes needed attention, dropped the price and recommended mechanics. I’m just lazy.)

So, two years in this country and I’ve finally found the yellow pages on line (www.yell.co.uk, not super intuitive, frankly). And through it – a local(ish) bike mechanic.

He was a little Italian dude with a face that appeared to have emerge from a gnarled olive tree of the type visible in the somnolent, dusty background of “Stealing Beauty”. I was in two minds as to whether, under the moustache he had only three teeth, or whether he just had three giant teeth dwarfing their neighbours.

He praised the “they-don’t-make-them-as-good-as-this-anymore” character of my brake assembly, pointed out where one horse-shoe component was a little out of alignment and said he’d probably just replace the brake blocks.

I got about 7 words in 10 of his English; but that’s a hell of a lot more than anyone’d get of my Italian, he was friendly, seemed to know what he was on about, ran a tidy workshop (I’m always reassured by mechanics with an ordered working environment) and didn’t overcharge me.

Yay, a local gem. And it always feels good to support owner-operators over a bigger outfit.

Monday, August 1, 2005

Diary of a spending spree

I recently earned a surprising sum of money doing some research work (of which, more later). What does one do with unexpected riches? Spend it, seems to be the answer.

Thus, Tuesday, the night I discovered my rate of pay for two days work was much higher than expected I stood seven or eight friends a round of cleansing ales at my local, The Castle.

I also ordered in a mixed case of white wine for summer drinking, and spent £20 or so on light reading on Amazon.

Poorer, but with funds in reserve, I thought I’d let off enough steam to just leave the rest in the bank.

No, no, no. I went to Windsor. Not an elopement with royalty, or just the rush of disposable income to the head left me standing in Market Square crying: “The Hounds! To Windsor - and Damn the Expense!” Just catching the parents as the exit the country.

Windsor is pretty. It is tidy, well presented and has a lot of whitewashed heritage buildings facing out onto tidy, unlettered streets. It has two charming railway stations, both rendered rather recently it seems in red brick. It is pleasant, affluent and agreeably dull. In short, it is what you expect Britain to be like, as opposed to the slightly dingy post-industrial malaise you find most places larger than a hamlet.

Also, other than having Windsor castle (of which, more later too), it has some fearsomely good shopping. And I was there for the sales.

My assimilation into Cambridge life is now almost completed by possession of the following staples:

a seriously nice summer linen suit;

a ¾ length, high-buttoning ‘autumn-weight’ tweed jacket; and

another pair of stripey trousers (charcoal and light grey).

I am doomed to assimilate. And am a hopelessly shallow consumer at heart.

But it was all half-price, dammit.

This after buying a second-hand morning suit for £36 on the Isle of Wight, as well. Clearly, travel gives me strange ideas about financial prudence.