Politics Technology

The Last Refuge

English: Julian Assange, photo ("sunny co...

What is the difference between Julian Assange and Roman Polanski, two men on the run from accusations that could reasonably be described as rape? Well, there is an obvious one: Polanski is avoiding imprisonment for the sex crime, no two ways about it. There’s no question mark over his guilt.

Assange on the other hand claims the accusations were trumped up to render him into American hands and turn supporters against him. His decision to avoid investigation is not an admission of guilt at all therefore, but necessary to protect himself.

The question is whether we believe him.

I have no trouble believing that the US government is out to get Assange, by fair means or foul. America seems to hardly do anything these days except unlawfully imprison foreign nationals. Certainly they’d like to charge Assange with something, even if all he really did was act contrary to America’s interests. Call me an anti-Imperialist radical but I’d like to live in a world where it’s still legal to act contrary to America’s interests, so I am unequivocally opposed to him being extradited to the US.

But for these charges in Sweden to be such a stratagem would take what could only be described as mind-boggling, breathtaking, evil. It would require them to somehow bribe or blackmail two erstwhile supporters into bringing extremely serious accusations against an innocent man. Or, infiltrate his network with agents provocateur who presumably seduced him before accusing him of rape. That’s nightmare stuff.

The US – or if you prefer, its security services – is capable of immensely evil acts I have no doubt. What I have difficulty believing is that they would be capable of such terrible PR. To use false accusations of rape against a public figure? If the truth ever came out – which seems likely enough, as such a plan would have needed considerable arrangement – it would do more damage to the US than Assange could ever have.

And along with this we have to believe that Assange would be at greater risk of extradition/rendition from Sweden than he was from the UK – or will be from Ecuador. It is easier to think that he doesn’t want to face investigation in Sweden because he did what he’s been accused of in Sweden.

Cosmography Politics

The Great Goat Bubble

Well now it’s a stage play. I just saw it, it’s lovely. The Great Goat Bubble, as this incarnation is called, concerns a meeting in a lonely railway station between Irish innocent Jude and economics PhD Ibrahim Bihi, who recounts how he became unimaginably rich through exploiting a price inefficiency in the Somali goat market.

It is of course a satire on our recent boom and how it inevitably bust – though written before the bust actually happened. It is also a lesson in economics, delivered by a character with an economics doctorate, and it works brilliantly on that level, as good a grounding in market inefficiencies, asset price bubbles, futures, derivatives, and all the other shit that hit the global fan as you could hope to get in eighty minutes. And yet you forget this because it is a story about a man on a financial adventure, discovering for himself the flaws in supposedly perfect markets and exploiting them joyfully. And because it involves a heck of a lot of goats.

It expands on previous versions, in part to make it relate more to the particular bubble we knew in Ireland, where a decade of rapid but largely real economic development was squandered on worthless property. Also to go deeper into the intriguing character of Bihi and his feelings about the boom that made him both a billionaire and a pauper again. He has no regrets, seeing himself merely as an avatar of the Smithian Invisible Hand, and argues convincingly that to attempt to curb the free market is to fight human nature and so must lead inevitably to disaster. No critique is offered; only our perspective reminds us that there must be something wrong with Bihi’s seductive philosophy. We are left, I guess, to find the solution to economic instability ourselves.

Performances were note-perfect. Wil Johnson had me utterly convinced he was a Somali economist, Ciarán O’Brien made the outlandish character of Jude real. Mikel Murfi‘s direction was immensely subtle, turning a conversation into gripping theatre. A play for our times. I hope it comes to a town near you.


A Tale Of Two Cities – The Musical

Tyrone Power Snr., father of movie star Tyrone...
A Young James May Tyrone Power Snr. as Sidney Carton

I didn’t think I was going to enjoy this too much. A musical by an amateur company could go wrong in simply breathtaking ways. Plus I find dialogue on stage hard to follow when spoken, let alone sung. Plus I’d never actually read A Tale of Two Cities and could recall little about it except that the cities in question were Paris and London at the time of the French Revolution. So there would be crowd scenes, mayhem, and possibly accents. I expected to start confused and to gradually become perplexed.

Indeed it threw me right at the start, because it didn’t begin with what’s possibly the most famous opening line in all literature, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Instead it went straight into a murder scene, which can really be only one of those things. Quickly though I found myself following the plot – indeed, caught up in it. To my pleasurable surprise, I was being entertained.

Particularly after the appearance of Sidney Carton, played by Alan Greaney. You hate to single anyone out in an amateur production, especially one with so many great performances, but Carton – or this interpretation of him – really brought the thing alive. Suddenly there was a funny, engaging, cynical, drunken character right next to the centre of the action. Lovely.

Did Dickens really write him as fun as this, or is it Jill Santoriello‘s adaptation? Some people swear to me that he’s a great comic author, but I’ve generally found his humorous characters too clownish to be genuinely funny. Mostly he elicits the sort of half-laugh that means “Yes, I can see how that probably slayed them a hundred and fifty years ago.” But Sidney Carton the dissolute barrister was not only funny, he was… cool. A perfectly modern antihero.

Alas, just after the intermission I suddenly remembered; I may not have read the novel, but the ending of A Tale of Two Cities is almost as famous as the beginning. So I watched an hour and a half of intricate plotting, knowing exactly how it was all going to turn out by surprise.

Yet though it is famous, I think the ending was the weakest part. I’ll try not to give it away here in case you don’t remember it, but the problem is that it’s, well… a bit downbeat.

Actually, quite seriously amazingly downbeat.

Yet musical theatre requires a big closing number, and a downbeat big musical number is… not ideal, I think. To me it seemed a little anticlimactic. It wasn’t the fault of the production – or even the writer, except insofar as she took on a problem that may not actually have a solution. Indeed it is to their credit that it did come off as tragic and dramatic. Dickens always sails close to the sort of melodrama that a modern audience finds hard to take seriously. As Wilde said of another work, one would need a heart of stone not to read the death of Little Nell without laughing. So if it didn’t quite hit the climactic high, it did avoid the pitfall.

But that quibble aside, a really fun evening. Good by any standard, astoundingly good for amateur theatre. And you have just barely got a chance to see it, with one matinée at 2:30 and the closing performance tonight.

Humour Technology

The Guardian Monster

London Underground roundel logo
Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

Oh the Guardian, that normally well-regarded major UK newspaper, has had a ****ing brilliant idea. You see, if you read a story in the online version of the paper, you can share it on Facebook using their app.

Actually if you are logged into Facebook – even in another browser window you’ve forgotten is still open – it automatically posts the article you’re reading. It does say when you install it that the app will share what you read, but I don’t think the casual user will immediately realise this means “without even asking”. I certainly bloody didn’t.

So at long last, the Guardian has managed to fully automate the process of having someone reading over your shoulder. In this way online readers all over the world can partake of the authentic crowded London tube experience.

But that’s not even the worst part. The link it posts doesn’t actually go to the article, it – yes – offers to install the app. So you accept because you want to read the story. All your friends will then see what you’ve read and install the app so they can read it, which will tell all their friends what they’ve read… This thing is going to spread exactly like a virus.

Indeed the figures seem to be bearing that out. Two weeks ago, after being out only a month, they had their millionth install. At that rate we have about one week left to enjoy Facebook before it collapses under the sheer weight of Guardian links.


A Brilliant Satire Of Market-Driven Idiocy

Julian Gough. Photograph: Anne Marie Fives

Good news: My friend Julian has a new novel out, Jude in London. Here’s the first review, from the Guardian.

Gooder news: You can read it for free. If you like it, you can pay what you think it’s worth afterwards.

Julian and his publisher needed to get copies out ahead of its scheduled publication date of September 6 for the book to qualify for the Guardian’s “Not The Booker” alternative literary prize, so they sent out PDFs on the honour system. The response was so good that they decided to extend the offer, at least until it comes out officially. This “books on trust” idea could revolutionise the publishing industry more than the eBook and iPad combined. Probably not of course, but it could.

If you need to read a bit of a novel before you decide if it’s even worth downloading for free, I can recommend the excerpt The Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble, which was published by the Financial Times as a short story and later converted into a radio play by BBC4 (Listen here). It’s brilliant satire of the market-driven idiocy that got us where we are today – most of it written long before the crash actually happened.

Politics Technology

Why Tories Don’t Get It

Conservative Party poster from 1909, in which ...
Not much to do with the article, but ain't it great?

The basic problem of the Conservative party is that they’re the party of old. Not even the old, just old in general. A young Tory is like a baby smoking a pipe, a puppy barking at strangers, a flower behind glass in a museum. Oddly inappropriate and not very pleasant. It is not youthful to be a Conservative, and in the end the party always has to appeal to and reflect the mindset of the older voter. They absorb it, and come to embody it.

So despite the fact that riots occurred in the 80s in the same cities and even the same neighbourhoods, the problem must be social networking. Because it’s new, and the rioters used it to talk about rioting.

Look, I use social networking to talk about sex. That doesn’t mean it causes sex. I can assure you. It’s just the way these things are done now. If the riots had occurred five years ago, the Tories would have been talking about banning text messages. Five years before that, they’d be trying to shut down Internet chat rooms. As it happens though there were no riots on those occasions, so it’s fortunate that the Tories weren’t in power. Not of course that we’re suggesting any possible oh yes we are.

If I were a British voter, at the last election I’d have been tempted to vote for the Conservatives – or at least abstain from voting for Labour. Why? Mainly because of Labour’s pursuit of ID cards. I thought it was a case of a socialist party going a bit collective on individual liberty. But here are the Conservatives, party of individual rights and responsibilities, wanting to police our texts and sit in on our conversations. Because they don’t know what else to do.

“Free flow of information can be used for good,” said David Cameron to the House of Commons. No David. Free flow of information cannot be “used for good”. It is the fundamental basis of liberal democracy. If you don’t understand that, get the hell out.


I Blame The Parent

London collage.
Like this except on fire

According to one pundit – I won’t name him, he likes that too much – the real cause of the riots in England is absentee fathers. I don’t know why fathers always seem to go away when the Tories get elected, but it is a theory.

In the light of it, maybe we have been understanding the situation there completely incorrectly. All these young men, children really, smashing windows and cars. They are protesting, but not in the way we understand it – not even in the way they understand it themselves. They’re not kicking against the government or their economic situation or social exclusion, but something more fundamental.

Nor was the situation precipitated by reductions in police numbers, resources, and morale. That would be far too simplistic. No – at least, not in the obvious way.

We must look instead at the psychology of the individual, as one of those detective types said. What do the kids want? Well father figures of course. The discipline and guidance that children yearn for. Men of authority, whom they can look up to.

Who are the only really convincing figures of authority in their communities, the only ones who don’t need guns or knives to look hard, the only ones who set them straight when they do wrong? The father figures who in recent years and months have had less and less time for them, who don’t come around so often anymore, who seem preoccupied recently.

The looting is not really about greed. It’s kleptomania for the poor, a cry for attention. From the police. And I think it’s working.

Humour Politics

The Great Theft Of London

Mayor of London, Boris Johnson poses for a pho...
Seriously. Boris Johnson

Pent-up resentment, a growing social divide, mistrust of the police? At the start, certainly. Riots follow Tory governments like, well like effect follows cause. But now something else has happened. Something new.

Consider the circumstances. The Metropolitan Police, tasked with keeping order in London, are demoralised and ill-prepared. They’ve had a 20% funding cutback even though, as always in a recession, crime rates are soaring. They’ve just lost their Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner in the phone hacking scandal, under a pall of suspected corruption. And the man who is ultimately in charge is Boris Johnson.

I’ll just say that again so it can sink in. Boris Johnson.

What we are seeing is an extraordinary historic opportunity. Social media and fancy phones were not really necessary, it almost crystallised out of the air. A truly vast number of petty thieves, shoplifters, and many who until now have never been tempted by crime had one single thought. If they all did it at once, they could steal… they could steal… They could steal London.

The whole thing. It’ll be gone by Thursday.


Murdoch’s Evidence – 1

20th Century Fox logo designed by Rocky Longo ...

Time for a little liveblogging I think… Just watching the UK parliament’s select committee hearing (video feed) into the phone hacking affair. The Murdochs will be on later, though at the moment it’s Sir Paul Stevenson, the freshly-resigned head of London’s Metropolitan police.

First though, I want to remark on the fact that more than one News International journalist I’ve heard seems to be of the opinion that if you take any money from Rupert Murdoch – even appear in a 20th Century Fox film – then you are fair game. He has the right to do with you as he pleases. It’s as if they think they work for Satan.

Paul Stevenson is a funny bird, wearing what looks like the Dalek Prime version of police uniform, yet unworldly and even slightly fumbling in manner. Hard to imagine him as the top policeman of all London.

He says that he was satisfied with the Metropolitan Police’s original phone hacking investigation, which found no wrongdoing; sufficiently satisfied that he saw no problem with ten of the Met’s media staff being former News Of The World employees. Yet he also states that the never knew the actual parameters of that investigation.

He says he’s resigning because he’s a leader.


How Compromised Were The Police?

The Headquarters of London's Metropolitan Police

I have to admit, the resignation of the head of London’s police was not the next move I expected. He accepted no responsibility for the stunningly suspicious web of relations between papers and police however, but only claimed that media coverage around these events would be too distracting while he was trying to oversee policing for the Olympics.

The Olympics. A world-class excuse for a world-class scandal. Does he think the media will be less curious about his successor? His own second in command was more deeply implicated than himself.

Rebekah Brooks’ arrest of course comes as less of a surprise, though one hopes she is not made the scapegoat for a what appears to be a long-established cosiness between News International and the Metropolitan Police. You can easily imagine how they’ve grown close over the years; maybe Scotland Yard giving Wapping the odd tip-off, maybe the papers spiking the odd story that didn’t reflect well on the Boys in Blue. Such a relationship must be nearly inevitable when people work side-by-side, investigating the same events in the same city. They may even be useful in the solving of crime at times. But the risk of corruption is obvious and enormous.

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