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Arthur C. Clarke… March 19, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Was any man more blessed in the music and images for his send-off? On Channel4 News they announced Arthur C. Clarke’s departure with the iconic clip, the swelling strings of Thus Spoke Zarathustra above the image of Sun Earth and Moon from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Well, if there’s an afterlife chances are he knows everything worth knowing now. He died at the age of 90. It’s a funny thing. He is one of those who achieved iconic status in a time when the international media was on the cusp of maturing, one of those people, one thinks of Carl Sagan, and Patrick Moore to a lesser extent, who were able to popularise science in a way which made them stars with near global reputations, and yet they were also clearly grounded in science and engineering. To some degree these were the tribunes of the space age, and their names are inextricably linked with it. And there are oddities too, because through the Kubrick connection there was a link not merely into popular culture but into some of the more idiosyncratic aspects of that culture (although one suspects that was as much a surprise to Kubrick as Clarke). It was their shared vision in 2001 that was to be the template for what many of us supposed the future would look like. That it hasn’t turned out quite like that has been… a … disappointment, but I don’t blame them.

Clarke, it is perhaps not widely known, was very much a political and social liberal and humanist, perhaps best expressed in his fiction in the sub-plot in 2010 about US/USSR confrontation. Indeed there’s a fascinating story in his biography about how a heated argument between him and a group including Robert Heinlein and Edward Teller in the 1980s saw him leaving the meeting, his internationalism as nothing against their boosterism of the Strategic Defence Initiative (Star Wars). He thought, rightly, that SDI was destabilising, and even his profound attachment to manned space flight was insufficient to convince him otherwise.

As to the writing? Well, I still think his early novels hold up extremely well, from a Fall of Moondust onwards… that said they are a trifle pedestrian. His mid period novels from the 1970s such as Rendezvous with Rama to the Fountains of Paradise are perhaps his best positing a reasonably plausible future development in space, but towards the end the novels became increasingly episodic with shorter and shorter chapters. That said he also collaborated on various novels, and while the successors to Rama with Gentry Lee always seemed bloated his more recent series with the excellent Stephen Baxter are strong – if flawed – works. In some ways his short stories are more interesting, ideas based and concise and with a surprising amount of humour.

A good and decent human being who always retained the burr of his original Somerset accent. He’ll be missed.

And as Starkadder of these parts noted on P.ie it’s not been a good time recently for Science Fiction or Fantasy, for Terry Pratchett has been diagnosed with a premature form of Alzheimers’ disease. Pratchett is a remarkable writer whose work is much more complex and thoughtful than his chosen genre might seem to indicate. There is something utterly admirable about his determination to continue much as before.

A little help from Jonathan Powell for the devolution of policing in Northern Ireland… how very convenient… or maybe not considering his latest remarks about Bloody Sunday… March 19, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, The North, Ulster.
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I noted the other day that “Perhaps not coincidentally we’re now also being treated to the memoirs of Jonathan Powell”. The latest revelations on the Powell front came yesterday with the news that:

Powell reveals in his memoirs that 10 years later the DUP established its own secret channel to Sinn Féin when Paisley’s party won the elections to the Northern Ireland assembly of 2003. The channel was kept secret because the DUP refused to meet Sinn Féin at the time on the grounds that the IRA was still active. Powell says: “They [the DUP] were no different from the British government at the time of John Major or Margaret Thatcher saying they never had contacts with the IRA – but actually [they were] doing so as well. It did play an important role in making possible that extraordinary meeting between Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. They had never met, they had never spoken until they sat down for that photo-opportunity in March 2007. If you hadn’t had that back channel building confidence over time, it would have been difficult.”

How convenient that this should appear, legitimised by the former Prime Ministers advisor no less, just at the point that Sinn Féin appear to be suggesting that the PIRA Army Council will disband in the case that the DUP are willing to see policing devolved to the Assembly.

Is this an instance where pressure is now being put on the DUP, perhaps even implicitly pointing to the idea that further revelations might follow along the same lines from other sources if they don’t play ball? How very interesting.

On the other hand, reading this mornings Guardian perhaps a certain parity of … well, something or another creeps in, because we are told regarding the Bloody Sunday Inquiry that:

The inquiry cost the taxpayer around £200m that could have been spent on other things. It has still not reported as of the time of writing. And it has failed to give satisfaction to either side. The nadir for me was when Martin McGuinness said to me in a private conversation some years later that he didn’t know why we had done it: he thought an apology would have been quite sufficient. The aim had been to demonstrate to nationalists and republicans that we were even-handed and that the British government no longer had anything to hide. It had that impact in the short term. But we repented at leisure.

Accurate? Who knows. Helpful? Perhaps not.

The Mills/McCartney case… the perception and reality of wealth and super-wealth March 19, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Social Policy, Society.
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I’m not much of a fan of celebrity or human interest news stories. They seem a bit dull really, or conversely they deal in a level of tragedy that frankly I don’t need to engage with. So a lot of what we see in the media passes me by. The Shannon Matthews story is a case in point. It’s hard to see a way through such instances which don’t end terribly. And even though she herself has survived the experience it appears that the the long term outcome may be far from optimal. And so it is with the Heather Mills and Paul McCartney news story. What do we really learn from such things? Pretty much nothing we didn’t know already. Human nature is of varying degrees of goodness and awfulness. People in relationships do unusual or stupid things. The media loves a good story and most people will look on vicariously. To me it is similar to an excessive interest in – say – murders or serial killers. There is a point at which the other is unknowable or simply uninteresting, the motivations for an act, however horrific, often either beyond comprehension or counterintuitively banal. None of this is to deny the fertile ground in general political discourse which incorporates both celebrity and human interest. But then, perhaps because it doesn’t deal with the extremes of human behaviour in quite the same way it is fundamentally more interesting because the supposed distance between voter and politician is actually much less than that between viewer and celeb.

But that said the Mills McCartney case is interesting for a number of other issues. Firstly there are the sums of money being bandied about.

The judgment revealed Mills demanded £125m from McCartney because he “dictated” what she could do during their marriage and she had sacrificed her “lucrative career”.

In fact she received a rather less stellar £24m. And yet consider that. £24 million. It is a figure of near indescribable enormity. For me to currently make anything near on my current salary it would take well over a thousand years.

McCartney thought that £15 million was more reasonable. I don’t know. That’s still a sum beyond reckoning. Actually so is £1 million.

Part of Mills argument was that McCartney had not the £400 million he stated, but instead twice that figure. £800 million. Okay, he wrote ‘Yesterday’, but that seems a trifle excessive, doesn’t it?

And here is where it gets more interesting because the rationale presented by the judge as to why he awarded £24 m is in a sense a rationale for one of the underpinnings of our society, which is the distinctions and disparities of wealth and income.

Consider the following from the McCartney Divorce Judgement available as a PDF from the Guardian website.

The judge stated that:

11. The major factual issues as to the history of their relationship that I must determine
are these. First, at the time the parties met, was the wife a wealthy and independent

person? This is linked to the third issue. Second, did the parties cohabit from March
2000 or from the date of the marriage? The relevance of this issue is to the length of
their relationship and to the further issue of “marital acquest”. Third, did the husband
constrict the wife’s career after cohabitation (whether at March 2000 or June 2002)?
This is relevant to the issue of “compensation” for an allegedly lost or restricted
career of the wife.
12. I shall also have to determine issues of fact concerning the husband’s and the wife’s
assets, the wife’s proposed income needs, the wife’s expenditure between October
2006 and December 2007, and the wife’s earning capacity.

And there you have it. A formulation to determine what one partner should give to another when a relationship disintegrates (and although this case and others like it have a crucial gender dynamic as time progresses we will doubtless see the opposite dynamic in play). It depends on previously existing wealth on the part of the partner seeking the funds. The length of the relationship between the two. The nature of the relationship and how that impacted on earning power. And finally… finally… ‘proposed income needs’.

This last is fascinating, because what precisely is an ‘income need’.

The judgement relates that Mills made a case that she was she was wealthy and independent by the time she met the husband in the middle of 1999.

This was argued by pointing to a ‘penthouse flat in Piccadilly’, a ‘property in Brighton’, a rented ‘5 bedroom barn in Hampshire’ (and there is surely some pathos in the accompanying point that ‘I had maintained a London apartment and a country property since 1992‘), a ‘Green Mercedes, a Saab, and then a Rover… my own driver, Trevor…’… and so on. These accoutrements of a certain sort of lifestyle were taken as read to indicate that she was wealthy and independent. Was she? That’s an interesting question in itself.

Because, in fairness to her claim, by contrast with my own lifestyle (and let’s park that term ‘lifestyle’ for a moment) she was as rich as Croesus. Maybe more so. And yet tellingly the judgement argues that:

28. I have to say I cannot accept the wife’s case that she was wealthy and independent by
the time she met the husband in the middle of 1999. Her problem stems from the lack
of any documentary evidence to support her case as to the level of her earnings. I do
not doubt her commitment to charitable causes. She is passionate about them,
particularly those that involve working for, and with, amputees. The DVDs shown to
me in court amply bear that out. I do not doubt that she modelled successfully and
was a public speaker. But the investigation in this case of her assets and earnings as
at 1999 when the parties met do not bear out her case.

Okay…

According to him her ‘penthouse flat in Denman Street [the shame!] was… sold for £385,000 in 2001 after the property market had risen substantially’. She ‘did not in 1999 own the property in Brighton… until March 2000 when she gave up her property near Hampshire’. Her turnover between 1999 and 2002 varied from between £42,000 and £112,000 per annum. Turnover is an interesting concept, but she clearly got by. And what we’re really talking about here is lifestyle, as distinct necessarily from wealth. By any standards Heather Mills had from an external perspective (and in her own purported self-perception) a reasonable lifestyle.

Still, this led to a judgement that:

36. I find that the wife’s case as to her wealth in 1999 to be wholly exaggerated. The
assertion that she was a wealthy person in 1999 is, of course, the first step in her
overall case that her career, which in 1999 she says was one producing rich financial
rewards, was thereafter blighted by the husband during their relationship. It is
therefore connected to the issue of “compensation”.

This is as nothing compared to the framework used to consider the nature of their relationship…

Upon marriage their relationship did indeed change and became a committed
relationship, as described by the husband in evidence and in his letter to the wife of 5
June 2002. They drew up plans for and constructed their matrimonial home at the
Cabin. They had a child. The loan was discharged. From April 2003 the wife
received an annual allowance of £360,000 payable quarterly. He made cash gifts to
her of £250,000 in December 2002 and again in December 2003. The husband made
a will to include the wife.

Note how the relationship is defined as ‘committed’ almost by the web of tangible material or financial issues that appear. Whatever non-material elements, which admittedly are difficult to determine in the cold light of a court, existed are beyond the bounds of this analysis.

Heather Mills argued that:

“Even after we were married I continued to use my own money
to live. Paul repeatedly told me that he would make sure that I
was financially secure, should my money run out. My income
stream and my savings did start to run out drastically. I was no
longer able to support my standard of living as I had
substantially reduced my workload in order to spend time with
Paul and to support him and his children emotionally. My
ability to earn the same level of income I had been earning
diminished once my relationship with Paul became serious.
Countless lucrative business opportunities were made to me
once Paul and I married. Sadly, Paul advised against 99% of
all of them.

However the judge argued that:

66. I have already referred to the wife’s tax return for the tax years 1999 – 2002. I shall
now set out the gross turnover and net profit for the tax years ending on 5 April 2003
– 2006 inclusive. The figures are respectively, £658,000 and £541,500; £41,266 and
£6,340; £53,657 and £21,669; and £128,000 and £92,500. By way of explanation the
substantial figures for the year ending 5 April 2003 are in respect of a modelling
contract with INC in respect of clothes from which earned the wife about $1m. The
figures for 2004 must take account of the wife’s pregnancy and Beatrice’s birth.
67. The wife was therefore constrained to accept that, if the overall period 1999 to 2006 is
considered solely looking at her tax returns, her income improved during the
relationship with the husband.

Now, let’s consider McCartney’s finances.

106. After the wife and the husband separated, the husband instructed Ernst and Young
LLP to value his business assets at two dates, namely at the date of marriage and at
the date of separation. Mr Alan Wallis, a director of Ernst and Young prepared a
report of 14 September 2006. This report was exhibited to the husband’s Form E of
27 September 2006. The husband’s business assets comprise the share capital of
MPL Communications Ltd, the share capital of MPL Communications Inc together
with their subsidiaries, the equity share capital of MacSolo Ltd, shares in Apple Corps
Ltd and other related companies, and certain income streams received by the husband
directly. Having conducted an exhaustive enquiry Mr Wallis valued the husband’s
business interests as at 11 June 2002 and 28 April 2006 at £242,900,000 and
£240,900,000 respectively. At paragraph 1.26 of his report he said that between 2002
and 2006 the overall value of his total business assets had increased by £1.9m and,
had the dollar not weakened between the valuation dates the overall value of the
assets would have increased by £24.5m.
107. I now turn to the husband’s Form E which lists his assets, liabilities and income.
108. His real property holdings were put at £33,979,000 according to professional
valuations. He held £15,159,000 in bank accounts in the UK and USA. His
investments were valued at £34,319,000. He was owed a total of £3,687,000. He
held £6000 in cash. Paintings which he had painted, works of art, musical
instruments, jewellery, furniture, house contents, motor vehicles and horses were
valued professionally at £32,269,000.
109. He disclosed tax liabilities of £9,615,000. He put in as the value of his business
interests Mr Wallis’ valuation of £240,920,000. His pension assets were valued at
£36,288,000. Accordingly he disclosed total net assets of £387,012,000. He
disclosed his total net income for the next 12 months at £5,357,000.

It’s hard to know what to say about that. It’s certainly worth a fair few copies of ‘Mull of Kintyre’. But there is more:

172. For 10 months of the near 4 year marriage the husband was touring. This entailed
first class international travel, first class hotels, and internal private flights. The
husband and wife went on expensive and sometimes exotic holidays. They lived well.
They often flew by private jet and /or helicopter. They always flew first class if
flying with a commercial airline. The wife had an allowance of £360,000 p.a. The
husband paid all the major bills. But that said, their lifestyle in their homes,
particularly in England, was comparatively simple. The Cabin was a very modest
property. They largely stayed in and did not eat out. They enjoyed riding and yoga.
There was no round the clock security. The security in Sussex was provided by the
farm workers. There was no live-in staff. The parties did not spend their time on
yachts or, in the memorable phrase of the celebrated economist, Prof. J.K.Galbraith,
on “conspicuous consumption”. They spent time in New York and at 11, Pintail, a
modest holiday home. They never visited the Scottish properties.
173. I am satisfied that the wife has expected, and unreasonably, that such a lifestyle would
not only continue but was her entitlement. She did not moderate her spending after
separation. I entirely accept that when a marriage breaks down, the maelstrom of a
broken relationship may well envelop both spouses and make it very difficult for them
to re-order their lives, particularly financial. But I have no doubt that in the wife’s
mindset, there was an element that she was going to spend (in the 15 month period) in
order thereby to hope to prove that a budget in excess of £3m p.a. put forward in her
Form E in September 2006 was justifiable.

Conspicuous consumption? Well, perhaps not. Unless one considers private jet/helicopter, first class air travel and a £360,000 annual allowance ‘consumption’ of a conspicuous enough sort. That – and the the international tours. Oh yeah, and spending time in the UK and in New York. But other than that not a hint of conspicuous consumption. Well, there are the exotic and ‘expensive’ holidays. I guess they might be a trifle conspicuous.

But it’s a bit like living on top of an iceberg knowing that there’s an awful lot more beneath one and it’s not about to tip over. No-one in all this is going to go hungry. No one is going to suffer serious mental anguish or fear at the thought of financial difficulties.

Let us consider the needs of Heather Mills (and let’s not consider those of Paul McCartney since with £400m in the bank it’s hardly going to make a dint one way or another).

206. The wife’s budget is in the total figure of £3.25m p.a. The wife has stuck to that in
her Form E, her open offers, her oral and written evidence and in her submissions to
me. In her open offers she agreed to accept a lump sum of £50m. But this
“concession” (as it was expressed to me) graphically illustrates the sheer
unreasonableness of the demand for £3.25m p.a. From the very first open offer on
behalf of the wife on 22 December 2006 the needs of the wife and Beatrice have been
put at £3.25m p.a. which after the application of capitalisation through a Duxbury
calculation would entail a payment of £99,480,000. To that is to be added (I quote
from the wife’s former solicitors’ letter of 22 December 2006) “a significant monetary
value on the compensation, contribution and conduct elements of our client’s claim
(running into millions of pounds).” The letter continued: “… However, in the
interests of bringing matters to an expedient close, and avoiding the escalating costs
being incurred by both parties, our client will accept a lump sum of £50 million, in
full and final settlement of all her claims”.

211. I shall now analyse the wife’s budget.
212. It is based on a number of matters. She claims for seven fully staffed properties with
full-time housekeepers in the annual sum of £645,000. She claims holiday
expenditure of £499,000 p.a. (including private and helicopter flights of £185,000),
£125,000 p.a. for her clothes, £30,000 p.a. for equestrian activities (she no longer
rides), £39,000 p.a. for wine (she does not drink alcohol), £43,000 p.a. for a driver,
£20,000 p.a. for a carer, and professional fees of £190,000 p.a. All these items Mr
Mostyn submits are theoretically recognised heads of expenditure but “extraordinarily
exaggerated”.
213. He, next, submits that the following items are not only hugely exaggerated but also
impermissible in principle. They are £542,000 p.a. for security, £627,000 p.a. for
charitable donations, £73,000 p.a. for the cost of business staff and £39,000 p.a. for
helicopter hospital flights.

228. Charity expenditure at an annual rate of £627,000 includes airfares of £180,000 for
commercial flights, £120,000 for helicopter flights, and £192,000 for private flights. I
accept that the wife is very committed to charities and their causes but the degree of
such proposed expenditure is, I am sorry to have to say, ridiculous. However I do
propose to allow in what I shall assess as her income needs (generously interpreted) a
modest sum for carrying out her charitable activities and making donations to charity.
If she wishes to make further donations over and above that sum then she can do that
from her earnings.

229. Holidays are put into her budget at £499,000 which is made up of accommodation at
£242,000, helicopter flights at £35,000, commercial flights at £72,000 and private
flights at £150,000. I accept the wife’s evidence that she has always since the age of
25 flown first class and that when she and Beatrice fly they should go first class. The
husband accepted this in his evidence. But the figures given are much, much too high
in every respect.

230. These items in her budget which I have touched upon above, illustrate generally
speaking, how unreasonable (even generously interpreted) are the claimed needs of
the wife. In the absence of any sensible proposal by the wife as to her income needs I
must do the best I can on the material I have. If the wife feels aggrieved about what I
propose she only has herself to blame. If, as she has done, a litigant flagrantly overeggs
the pudding and thus deprives the court of any sensible assistance, then he or she
is likely to find that the court takes a robust view and drastically prunes the proposed
budget.

His own assessment is that:

231. In my judgment a sum of £150,000 for not only holidays but also when in the UK (not
on holiday) dining out, entertaining, and other interests, is appropriate.
232. As to the costs of maintaining Pean’s Wood, a London property (£2.5m), and Angel’s
Rest I propose to allow £100,000. Mr Hobbs estimated that the cost of running
Pean’s Wood was £50,100 p.a. and a London property at £23,250. I propose to allow
the wife £100,000 for all 3 properties.
233. As for staff costs (housekeepers/gardener and nanny) Mr Hobbs came to a figure of
£78,832. I shall allow £60,000 because Mr Hobbs has included a nanny for Beatrice
at £20,308 which the husband will pay separately.
234. As to personal expenses the husband (through Mr Hobbs) has proposed £104,040 p.a.
which includes a figure of £38,520 for health costs (chiropractor, surgery etc). It does
not include any amount for a personal trainer which, given the wife’s emphasis on
healthy living, fitness, and her disability, in my judgment, ought to be included.
However I do not consider she needs a full time personal trainer. Doing the best I
can, under personal expenses, I consider it fair to allow £120,000.
235. As to transport, the wife owns two cars, a Porsche Carrera convertible and a Mercedes
4×4. The running costs of both cars I put at £25,000 p.a.
236. It has been suggested, through Mr Hobbs, that food, wine and flowers should be put in
at £20,280. In this connection the wife made much of the very large bills for flowers
that were run up during the marriage. That may be. But, in my judgment, that is and
unsure guide. In any event she in her evidence recognised that the bill for flowers
during the marriage was much too high as to what is needed in the future. I shall
allow £30,000 p.a. for food, wine and flowers.
237. I shall also allow £50,000 p.a. for professional fees.
238. I shall, exceptionally, include a figure of £50,000 p.a. to enable the wife to carry out
charitable activities and to make charitable donations. In my judgment this is
warranted in the particular circumstances of this case. Whatever else may be said
about the wife, her devotion to her charities is very impressive. Over many years, and
in particular during the marriage, the wife was very generous in her charitable giving
and did much work on behalf of her selected charities. She very much wants to
continue along this path. The husband, too, was, and continues to be, generous to
charities. I do not think therefore that he can legitimately complain if the wife’s
budget includes such a sum.
239. The total of that expenditure is £585,000 p.a. which I propose to round up to £600,000
p.a.

It’s fascinating to read the following…

240. In my judgment this will allow the wife to adapt to a standard of living that she could
expect as a self-sufficient woman. In my judgment after a short marriage to a very
wealthy man it is unfair to expect that she should continue to live at the same “rate” as
during the marriage. Such an expectation is completely unrealistic.

And therefore this leads us to…

321. Thus reflecting all the factors and looking at the matter broadly it seems to me to be
appropriate to take a figure mid way between £11m and £17m. All in all, in my
judgment the fair capitalisation figure for the wife’s income needs is the figure of
£14m. In addition she needs £2.5m to buy a London property.
322. Accordingly, I shall order that the husband will pay to the wife on or after decree nisi
a lump sum of £16.5m. This then means that she will exit the marriage with property
and funds of £24.3m. Thus, in my judgment, the sharing principle, on the assumption
that such may arguably be applicable here, is subsumed within her needs and indeed
in the total figure with which she exits the marriage.

Now I could wonder at these sums. The way in which expenditure is rounded up £15,000 in 239 for expenditure and so on. Sure, they almost make Bertie Ahern’s recent defence of his own wage increases seem – well, if not quite reasonable certainly within the bounds of sanity. But I might also wonder at the sort of society, which can oversee the massive disparities of income and expenditure, between the average industrial wage and the sorts of figures being thrown around here.

And remember, all this was couched within terms such as “But that said, their lifestyle in their homes, particularly in England, was comparatively simple.”

By what measure are the expenditures above considered ‘comparatively simple’? They’re surely anything but. McCartney – to his credit – sent his children to state schools. But that is where it ends. After that enter a life of complete detachment and dislocation from anything experienced by most of us.

As telling are the differences in the reality of Heather Mills finances prior to marriage and her perception as to what they should appear like in order to paint a picture of a ‘wealthy and independent’ woman. The house in the country. The city penthouse. The cars. And yet although, on paper she had some of these she was not deemed wealthy and independent in court. Where is the line in the sand which one must cross? And where then the further line that to move across is to join the super-wealthy? What precisely does independence mean in this context? The need never to work again – perhaps? And here all becomes relative because the judgement is extremely vague about how all these figures are arrived at. How could it be otherwise. There is no clear societal view on such matters, no consensus as to when so much is too much and how to deal with massive disparities.

And this is, unsurprisingly, implicitly legitimised by the state itself. How else to interpret ‘proposed income needs’ determined by a court? And those needs are so wildly divergent, so beyond check (and in this I’m not blaming the individual judge) that it is hard to see any logic or rationale in them. This is conspicuous consumption, this is wealth beyond dreams of avarice, this is a society which – to my mind – has become on a fundamental level near-unhinged. And that this is made evident in this tale of woe amongst means that perhaps I should be paying the human interest and celebrity stories a little bit more attention in future.

All the fluff about Mills and her motivation, or about McCartney and his, is irrelevant. That’s a human and personal tragedy – of sorts – and therefore in many respects opaque to serious analysis. But, for the rest… that is profoundly disturbing – something close to a disgraceful reflection upon this society.

Animal Crackers March 18, 2008

Posted by smiffy in Environmentalism, Libertarianism, Media and Journalism, Pseudo-Science, Revolutionary Communist Party.
20 comments

(This began as a comment in response to Worldbystorm’s musing about the attitude of the Spiked crowd to animals, but became a little unwieldy, so it gets its own post).

Animals – their welfare and their rights – is one of the key issues that recurs again and again with the Revolutionary Communist Party group, but doesn’t seem to generate the same debate as their more high-profile, or controversial, preoccupations.  An article by Brendan O’Neill on the old favourites – the environment, child protection or liberal elitism – may generate hundreds of responses on Comment is Free, but discussions around animals don’t tend to receive the same kind of intense level of interest.  However, as Worldbystorm rightly points out, it’s something that they are fascinated with, and keep coming back to.  For that reason, I thought it might be interesting to take a sample of the articles on Spiked about animals, and see how they reflect many of the tropes of a typical RCP article.

For clarification, I’m using the term Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) to refer to the entire range of writers and personalities associated with what might mostly broadly be called Furedi and chums.  This includes Living Marxism/LM, Spiked, the Institute of Ideas, the Manifesto Club, Sense about Science and all the rest.  I’m assuming that readers will already be aware of the background of the network and of the links between the different groups (both the overtly Furedian ones and the front organisations).  Those interested in finding out more might usefully start with the Sourcewatch article on the LM group and following the links – in particular the piece entitled “Strange Bedfellows” from The Ecologist.

I admit, of course, that treating all of these individuals as a single collective is something of a blunt instrument.  Different writers will adopt different styles and different approaches, depending on their audience, the medium they’re using and their particular interests.  However, on many issues – in particular in relation to animals – there does appear to be a single, unwavering line common to all.

With those disclaimers in hand, let’s look at some of the rhetorical tactics of the RCP’ers.

1: “The real reason they oppose it …”.

Take, for example, the 2006 Spiked article “Stop weeping over whaling“, by Helene Guldberg.  In it, the author tries to demonstrate that anti-whaling sentiment is actually motivated by cultural imperialism and anti-Japanese bigotry.  Or, to be specific, the author asserts that as the case and doesn’t provide any evidence in support of the claim.  The entire article is a mismash of various logical fallacies and indicates a deliberate unwillingness to even to begin to engage with the substantial anti-whaling arguments.

We see this again and again with the RCP’ers.  Rather than address the actual arguments of those they oppose, they prefer to speculate wildly about the motivations of others.  We see it over and over with the debate on climate change.  Those who highlight, for example, the impact of increased air travel, fuelled by low-cost carriers, on the environment are doing so not from any concern about global warming, but because they are liberal elite killjoys who want to prevent ‘ordinary people’ (always a loaded phrase) from enjoying themselves.

This tendency is perhaps best exemplified in the large red banner currently across the front page of Spiked linked to their ongoing campaign: Beijing 2008 – Challenging China-bashing.  To believe the RCP’ers, there is a huge upsurge of racist, anti-China feeling sweeping the land: a latter-day version of the ‘Yellow Peril’.  Concerned about the consequences of continued Chinese economic growth reliant to the burning of fossil fuels?  Racist anti-China bashing!  Alarmed at what you saw about infant abduction stemming from the one-child policy on the recent Channel 4 documentary China’s Stolen Children? Patronising anti-China bashing!  Don’t like what you’re seeing on the news about the occupation of Tibet and the violent crackdown on protestors?  You’re both self-loathing and imperialist (a rather contradictory combination, some might think.  Don’t worry, though.  Brendan O’Neill is large; he contains multitudes).  Of course, one might question why a group supposedly so concerned with individual freedom would consistently ignore China’s appalling human rights record, but that would no doubt make one an anti-China basher, a liberal elitist and a scaremonger about the Yellow Peril.

In all cases the motivations of those opposed to the RCP worldview is called into question; the actual arguments they make seldom are.  One wonders why.

2: That’s how it is!

In this particular manoeuvre, the RCP’er will make a particular assertion in order to refute a position he or she disagrees with, but will proceed as if their assertion is already universally accepted, when it’s actually the very point at issue.  “Begging the question”, to put it another way.

Take the 2006 article ‘A Great Aping of Human Rights’.  In it, Josie Appleton writes about a proposed Spanish parliamentary resolution in support of the objectives of the Great Ape Project, that is to extend the protection of certain fundamental rightsto the Great Apes.  Josie Appleton, unsurprisingly, is against this.  She argues that:

The Great Ape Project emerged out of disillusionment with human beings and human values, and effectively looks to apes to provide a new moral compass. Great apes are cast as wise and knowing figures that can help to renew a corrupted human civilisation.

Unfortunately, however, this isn’t true as anyone who had read collection of essays in The Great Ape Project (which Appleton cites in her footnotes) would know.  The argument is, essentially, that there is no moral justification for limiting basic rights to humans and preventing their extension to non-human animals which share certain intellectual attributes with humans.  This, of course, isn’t a particularly mainstream opinion and is far from non-contentious.  However,  Appleton argues as if this point, central to the argument, has already been refuted without bothering to do so.  It’s the long-winded equivalent of Mick Hume’s ‘Animals Count? No they don’t‘ piece (thesis: Animals Matter; antithesis: No they don’t; synthesis: They just don’t! Shut up!).

To see the same approach in a non-animal context, look at Jennie Bristow’s 2007 article ‘Abortion: stop hiding behind the science‘.  In it, Bristow argues that, contrary to the argument of anti-abortionists, greater scientific understanding of foetal development doesn’t impact of the moral case in favour of access to abortion and that this case should be restated.  She writes:

But when it comes to the principle of abortion, science can tell us no more than it ever has. Women who need abortions should be able to have them: some people agree with this, and others do not. Scientific evidence, however sound it may be, will never tell us what society should do about abortion.

This happens to be a position I’d agree with myself, and I believe that the moral case for the right to choose should be restated.  However, nowhere in Bristow’s piece does she do that.  She simply asserts that women should be able to access abortion services, without ever explaining why this should be the case.

3: Infantile Contrarianism

Occasionally, one finds oneself agreeing with an RCP’er (don’t worry – remember the old saying about the stopped clock).  Other times, one disagrees but accepts the sincerity of their arguments.  All too often though, pieces like ‘In defence of fur‘ are published, which can’t possibly be genuine.

No doubt Josie Appleton either likes the feel and look of fur, or doesn’t really care about it one way or the other, but the article itself reads like a heavy-handed and obvious attempt to appear controversial.  Take that, conventional wisdom!  Have at you, bien-pensants!  The RCP is on the job, demolishing the ivory towers of the elite, undermining what you think you know and totally blowing your mind!

Except, they’re not, of course.  There’s little more tiring than a self-conscious controversialist.  These pieces are, invariably, attempts to appear radical by mindlessly opposing what’s seen as the consensus view on some issue or other without really thinking through the basis for the position.  Kneejerk first, argument later.  Which often leaves the writer clutching desperately for something – anything – to support the view they’ve adopted.  Who could read Josie Appleton’s defence of the use of fur

Just as a butterfly is never aware of the beautiful patterns on its wings, so a mink will wear its soft coat until death without ever appreciating it. For the mink, fur is just something that it carries around in the battle to survive, like claws or teeth.

By being made into a fur coat, that mink’s pelt is raised into something higher, just as a tree made into a violin is raised, or a cow made into a sumptuous steak is raised. A raw material becomes part of the human world; fur isn’t just on the back of an animal scratching around for food, but is instead worked on and admired as art. Indeed, it is only really by becoming a coat that a mink’s life can be said to have had any purpose at all.

without feeling at least a little embarrassed for her?

For more of this ‘I hate you Daddy’ defiance of mainstream thinking, see all of Brendan O’Neill’s output.

4: If it’s global warming, how come it’s cold today?

Climate change isn’t a tactic of the RCP per se.  The various articles the Furedists produce on the subject employ the full range of rhetorical tropes, including those highlighted above.  However, given that it’s such a key issue for them, as well as such an important issue more generally, it merits specific consideration on its own.

It’s rare to see an RCP’er deny the reality of man-made climate change outright; rather, as we see in the Polar Bear article that WbS highlighted early, they prefer to muddy the waters, to cast doubt on the accuracy of the available evidence and malign the motivations of those trying to tackle the problem.  In this case, the attempt is made to highlight a report pointing to possible flaws in forecasting methodology used in predicting the impact of climate change on the bears, with the underlying implication that all evidence for climate change is similarly flawed.  The authors of the article – Armstrong, Green and Soon (a professor of marketing, a research fellow in business and finance and an astrophysicist respectively) – are favourites of the RCP, two of them having previously made similar points about forecasting in the IPCC report, covered by Brendan O’Neill here.

To be fair, it’s possible that there may be some truth in the suggestion that the forecasting methology employed in various climate studies is flawed.  And it’s difficult for the lay-reader to determine the plausibility of this.  However, when viewed in the context of a wider and consistent campaign by the RCP against those who argue that climate change is occuring, and needs to be tackled, it’s reasonable that one should caution against taking anything published on the site on the subject with a pinch of salt.

What makes the RCP’s attitude towards the climate change question so fascinating, as well as confusing, is the fact that in some ways it runs completely contrary to their stated philosophy on some many other issues.  Look at the review of Damian Thompson’s Counterknowledge to see this tension at its most pronounced.  While it attempts to support the primacy of rational enquiry over superstition and pseudo-science, it has to pull back at the end and, essentially, say ‘except for environmentalism’.

Also interesting is the RCP group Sense about Science, which describes itself in the following terms:

Sense About Science is an independent charitable trust promoting good science and evidence in public debates. We do this by promoting respect for evidence and by urging scientists to engage actively with a wide range of groups, particularly when debates are controversial or difficult.

We work with scientists to

  • respond to inaccuracies in public claims about science, medicine, and technology
  • promote the benefits of scientific research to the public
  • help those who need expert help contact scientists about issues of importance
  • brief non-specialists on scientific developments and practices

One might imagine that a group of this kind might have something to say on the issue of climate change, possibly the most important ‘scientific’ issue facing the global community, and one on which a certain amount of scientific knowledge on the part of the public would be, at the very least, desirable.  Unfortunately, while the group is ready to launch  any number of press releases denouncing homeopathy, anti-GM protests or the collected works of Gillian McKeith, all they have produced on the question of climate change is a short document on the complexity of forecasting.

On this, as on so many other issues, it’s difficult to know what their motivation is.  It’s tempting to simply suggest that they’re insincere, and that they have a vested financial interest in pushing the positions they’re taking.  Certainly, the links between the RCP (et al) and various large corporations has previously been highlighted.  Perhaps even odder is the suggestion that they actually do believe all this, with what can only be described as a quasi-religious fervour.  There’s a blind faith at play in the perfectability of humanity and of scientific progress that borders on the fanatical.  One can see this in the Little Atoms interview with Brendan O’Neill of last November.  After a long diatribe treading very familiar ground on the perfidy of environmentalism, the presenters finally ask Brendan what, precisely, he would do to combat Climate Change.  His response – he didn’t care; science would look after it (indeed, to suggest that this might be a little naive displays nothing but the questioner’s contempt for mankind’s potential). 

Perhaps it would be a little cruel to view the RCP as the post-Marxist equivalent of the Heaven’s Gate cult, waiting for Frank Furedi’s instruction to cut off their sex organs and meet him behind the comet.  Certainly, at their most extreme they recall some of the more extreme groups in Ken McLeod’s Fall Revolution novels.

Who knows, though: they might be right.  And come the Singularity who’ll be first against the wall?

Calling the DUP’s bluff… the IRA Army Council may disband? And more on the Peace Process… March 18, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, The North.
3 comments

According to the Guardian :

The IRA will disband its army council as part of a deal to secure the devolution of policing in Northern Ireland, a senior republican has suggested.

Pat Doherty, vice-president of Sinn Féin, said he thought that all of the outstanding issues between unionists and republicans – including the disbanding of the IRA army council – could be resolved.

Devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland is supposed to be completed by May. But the Democratic Unionists and the Ulster Unionists are resisting that deadline, saying that more time needs to be allowed to build up public confidence.

Which get us to the crux of the matter.

Both parties have called for the IRA’s army council to be disbanded before the devolved administration takes control of policing and justice.

A problem? Well, seemingly not, for…

In an interview with the Guardian, Doherty suggested that the IRA would disband its army council as part of an overall settlement of this issue.

“I have no doubt, given all of the issues that we have resolved from the very beginning, all of the issues that you may have thought were insurmountable, … on the British side … the unionist side and the republican side, if we are serious about moving this whole process forward … then we can deal with any issue,” Doherty said.

Doherty said he thought the republicans and the DUP were both serious about taking the process forward.

And then says much the same thing again.

“If you look at any of what were perceived as insurmountable issues some time back, all of them were resolved. I have no doubt that issues can be resolved if there is dialogue.”

In a process which has been so heavily choreographed it is difficult to tell whether this is yet another pre-arranged step or whether this time Republicans are throwing some meat out to mute the baying of the DUP. Because surely this step has to be the most meaningless of any taken thus far. We’re moving into semi-theological territory. The inner council of an organisation which has, if the reports are to be taken at face value from the Independent Monitoring Commission, essentially suspended operations, which is locked into power-sharing, which voted to work with the PSNI.

And yet, who knows what resonances this might have beyond the specific issue. Does it add or reduce the legitimacy of other groups with self-described Army Councils? Does it strengthen or weaken the position of Sinn Féin to cast loose the ties and substance of another organisation? How does this play on the ground. For those of us with longish memories from a WP background the image of local residents in estates up and down the country calling on the supposed muscle that accompanied the WP, but was (honestly) never evident on that level, to deal with drug dealers and such like is still fresh. The disappointment when it was clear that marches might indeed take place but that they would be supported by the community rather than a group with a certain set of initials was evident. It’s a small thing, and one would presume Sinn Féin are aware of that. Probably more than most since they seemed to use the WP template (particularly as regards community politics) as both inspiration and cautionary tale. And in so doing have made steps forward and backwards – which only goes to prove that no two situations are exactly the same. But even so, the residual power and authority that comes from such ‘connections’ is not to be underestimated. There is of course another fact which is that Sinn Féin can be more overt about its former connections, that an entire generation of its political strength were entirely open about their part in the events of the past three or four decades and this too has a substance that the WP (and I’m obviously talking here about the South in particular) didn’t – in the main – have.

Perhaps not coincidentally we’re now also being treated to the memoirs of Jonathan Powell. Which weirdly describes a sort of opposite dynamic to the one above where the Army Council is apparently being sent a P45 (It’s in the post… probably). For we learn that:

Tony Blair offered to take the unprecedented step of holding secret masked meetings with the IRA leadership as he fought to save the Northern Ireland peace process from collapse over the contentious issue of illegal weapons, a senior aide reveals today.

In a sign of the extraordinary lengths the former prime minister was prepared to go to during his decade-long quest for a settlement, he tried repeatedly to meet the IRA’s eight-strong Army Council to persuade them to disarm and sign up to the peace deal.

Now that’s a meeting I’d have liked to have taken place. What would they have talked about? How many familiar faces would be sitting around the table? Still, I wonder is the following correct?

The revelation that Blair was prepared to become the first leader of a major country to meet a proscribed terrorist organisation – at the urging of Bill Clinton soon after he left the White House in 2001 – comes in a new book by Jonathan Powell, the former No 10 chief of staff, serialised in the Guardian this week.

Powell, who told the Guardian on Saturday that the west should now talk to al-Qaida, tells the paper today: “Tony was always convinced of the powers of persuasion that he had to win people over. About three or four times he suggested to Gerry Adams that he should meet the IRA Army Council. Adams said ‘well I’m not really sure about that’. One time he said ‘yes, maybe’, but then it came to nothing.”

And why the reticence? Well, okay, perhaps such reticence was for obvious reasons. And meanwhile, al-Qaida? Surely the world has wobbled a bit on its axis this weekend.

Asked how the meetings would have been conducted, Powell says of the IRA leaders: “I suppose they could have worn masks.”

The disclosure that Blair wanted to woo the leadership of the terrorist organisation that came close to assassinating his two immediate predecessors as prime minister is the most dramatic illustration to date of the former prime minister’s determination to bring republicans in from the cold.

Most interesting, referring back to choreography are the following points ‘also revealed’:

· Blair offered a secret deal to Adams during the 1998 Good Friday agreement to release IRA prisoners after one year. In public Blair only offered to release them after two years.

The rather more mundane revelation that:

· Powell held a series of secret meetings with the Sinn Féin leaders Martin McGuinness and Adams, often being driven around by republicans on lengthy detours to republican safe houses in the predominantly Catholic Derry to avoid detection.

Er…okay then. The more interesting again… and who is to say this won’t have those who consider the whole thing to be a sham in a fervour of excitement…

· Blair redrafted an IRA statement at Chequers in the presence of Adams in 2003 and Powell regularly drafted Sinn Féin statements.

· Blair was prepared to have a showdown with the British army over its initial refusal to remove watchtowers from the strongly republican South Armagh. The head of the army in Northern Ireland threatened to resign, though an agreement was eventually reached.

· The identity of the key IRA leader who decided republicans should disarm. Powell declares there would have been no peace deal without the agreement of Brian Keenan, described by Powell as “the biggest single threat to the British state” when he ran the IRA’s British bombing campaign.

The less surprising… nay, bloody obvious point that…

· Adams and McGuinness told Powell and Blair on several occasions that the IRA needed to hold on to its arms because they were under threat from the dissident Real IRA.

And also:

Powell admits to the Guardian today that Blair lavished attention on Sinn Féin for the simple reason that it had direct influence over people who controlled weapons. “Seamus Mallon’s [the former deputy leader of the SDLP] complaint is that we talked to Sinn Féin because they had the guns. My answer to that is: yes and your point is?

Which is – of course – why the wailing and gnashing of teeth from those who know better about how the ‘extremes’ prevailed is so irritating (and we saw Ed Moloney riffing on this at the launch of his book on Paisley last week when he decried the success of SF and the DUP). Well, yes, but their tactical positions have shifted substantially from the extremities whatever about the strategic goals they retain.

And then there are other issues…

Powell writes that after the first Downing Street meeting with Sinn Féin, Adams approached Blair for a private word to underline his commitment to the process, but also his determination to become the first republican leader in Irish history to avoid a major split.

Powell wrote: “Adams … said to Tony that he could of course split the movement any time we wanted him to, but that his aim was to carry them all along, and that he was at them persuading every day.”

The remarks persuaded Blair that Adams was serious and that he would accept a deal that fell short of Irish unity. This paved the way for 10 years of bumpy negotiations in which Powell often embarked on secret missions to meet the republican leadership.

Powell gives a vivid account of how he was summoned by McGuinness to Derry in November 1998 as the government tried to persuade the IRA to decommission its arms. Powell wrote: “When I got to Derry I stood apprehensively outside the Trinity hotel waiting for someone to recognise me. Two seedy-looking men came up and said: ‘Martin sent us,’ then ushered me into a waiting car.”

Powell said it was right to make concessions to Sinn Féin. “We certainly believed there was every chance that the IRA might go back to violence, just as they had with the Canary Wharf bomb [in 1996].”

‘seedy’ he says. Those Derry Republicans – eh? What on earth would it have been like in a parallel universe in a struggle with say PD? How would his sensibilities have survived the likes of McCann? But getting back to the main point, the issue of concessions is so fraught that I’m interested to see what more is revealed, or if anything of any other significance will appear.

Still, let’s see what the DUP says, and then perhaps we’ll have a better idea about choreography…

The Left Archive: “Fianna Fail and the IRA” (from the Official Republican Movement) c. 1972? March 17, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Left Online Document Archive, Official Sinn Féin.
23 comments

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ff.pdf

Now here is an historic document, and one you’ll find, should you be interested, in the National Library (Books and Periodicals Ir Ir 300 ).

It covers a lot of ground as regards the relationship between Fianna Fáil and various incarnations of the IRA. And predictably that relationship is painted – broadly speaking – in an unfavourable light. But it is in the late 1960s that it coms into sharp focus. Here the charge is that elements within Fianna Fáil attempted a ‘take-over’ of the Civil Rights movement in the North, and the Citizens Defence Committees, and in doing so assisted in the birth of the Provisional IRA.

A lot depends in this analysis of whether one can offer any credence to the idea that various parties within the government were clued up enough to act so decisively strategically as regards the IRA. I’m sceptical, but open-minded, on that point. Sceptical if only because it seems to reify the influence of the named Ministers to a seemingly implausible degree on a section within the IRA during a time of massive confusion. And it also serves to increase and exaggerate the influence of SF and the IRA to a perhaps incredible level. Sure, there were those within the state apparatus who saw a Marxist oriented IRA as a threat to social order, but surely that was lower on the list of priorities than other issues… Furthermore, even if true, this cannot ignore the structural issues which led to the split in the IRA and Sinn Féin which long predated any interventions from outside.

Or indeed a complete sincerity on the part of many both within and outside Fianna Fáil during the period who thought they were facing some sort of apocalypse north of the border. The rather cynical spin that the document puts on it may in some respects be accurate, but it is far from the full story. But then, in fairness, by the time this was published (c. 1972) the Officials had seen a shift away from them in terms of support and influence in a manner which in some respects must have seemed all but inexplicable for they with a Marxist programme were the future, were they not?

And incidentally, this version of a muscular ‘nationalist’ interventionism on the part of FF and others is interesting in itself, because it surely marks the only serious effort on that part since Michael Collins sent material north to the IRA during the Civil War. One might make ones own assessment of the efficacy or otherwise of such interventions, and indeed the cheerleading in this instance of certain sections on the further left who eschew all foreign entanglements.

Incidentally, one wonders whether this sort of attitude to Fianna Fáil was instrumental in the curious sight of generation after generation of former Sinn Féin members (or their political formations) ultimately dealing with Fine Gael to gain a measure of state power. From MacBride onwards we see a pattern emerge. Was this in some respects a response to the executions during the Emergency, a deep rooted sense of ‘betrayal’ by those who were seen as Republicans or was it simply the result of political competition within a small polity where the larger party was in an hegemonic position?

Anyhow, surely a moot question – until the next time Sinn Féin or split thereof does the deal!

A final couple of thoughts on this matter. The previous evolution of the IRA is presented in relatively uncritical terms and the ‘Republican’ thrust is taken as given. But then, how could it be otherwise when a core element – in addition to the new leftwards shift – of the legitimacy of those involved in this SF was based on their credentials in previous episodes of activity. The quality of this is quite poor, particularly when compared and contrasted with other material from Official Republicanism. But then, perhaps, despite the copious quotes from Goulding et al this was meant to be a little bit at arms length. No harm then in not having a place of publication. A sort of samizdat from the Officials – as it were. Telling.

The oxygen of publicity: Four BBC employees caught in Garda swoop on paramilitary activity in Donegal March 17, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
2 comments

Sort of an entertaining story on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day.

For we learn that:

Four men arrested as part of a Garda investigation into paramilitary activity in Co Donegal last night are understood to be BBC journalists.

The men, who are being held at three separate Garda stations in Donegal, were working on a BBC Northern Ireland current affairs investigation.

This may prove a bit of an embarrassment, although for who is an interesting question. I imagine that the journalists will be let go rapidly. A link to the International Herald Tribune (http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/03/16/europe/EU-GEN-Britain-Ireland-BBC.php) on Slugger O’Toole (http://sluggerotoole.com/index.php/weblog/comments/bbc-journalists-among-11-held-by-gardai-in-donegal/) suggests there may be a connection with dissident Republican activity.

The BBC said the arrests took place in County Donegal, a favored haunt of the Irish Republican Army and its dissident offshoots because it borders Northern Ireland.

The province’s dissent rebel groups in have been courting media attention in recent months. In November, the Real IRA, one of the most prominent splinter groups, released a video through a local TV station showing two masked men firing weapons.

It was the first public propaganda exercise by the group, which was responsible for the 1998 Omagh bombing, the single deadliest attack in decades of bloodshed over the British territory.

Which raises the thought that, if true (and it’s early days yet on this story so who knows who was involved, and wow, if it were another more ‘mainstream’ group this would certainly be a bad bad time politically for them to be caught in anything untoward), don’t they ever learn? And then rapidly the follow-on, no thankfuly, apparently not. Because while paramilitary groups have always had something of a symbiotic relationship with the media – and hence Thatcher’s less than original point about the oxygen of publicity, on a deeper level there has been an awareness shading to complicity on the part of such groups as they attempt to put their message out. I mean complicity in the sense that paradoxically for supposedly covert undertakings the necessity to air their views and activities is core to their project. They need the media and clearly will take bizarre risks to access it. And so we are treated to photo-ops and suchlike if only to remind us that they haven’t … erm… gone away… in the sense that they seem to have dipped into the wonderful world of the media as a superior form of struggle.

Problem is from their perspective that, as we already know, such groups appear to have been massively infiltrated from the word go and unable to maintain viable levels of internal security. So a meeting with the media is hardly the wisest course of action if only because it might (as it apparently has here) entail a concentration of people at a single location. Yet this basic fact appears to have slipped their minds. Curious. Slipshod, self-defeating and pointless. The established pattern repeats.

Vantage Point: Not so much a softer gentler imperialism in cinema, as WTF is going on here? March 16, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture.
2 comments

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Saw Vantage Point this weekend. And what a strange movie it is. First up, I’m a sucker for that Bourne Identity, Spooks, 24, yada yada yada intelligence and security operative based television and cinema genre. I have preferences. Hence the Bourne trilogy is, for my money, worth viewing on a broad range of levels not least due to its arguably entirely subversive approach to genre (and political) tropes. And this despite a long held feeling that Matt Damon was a lightweight prior to these (although watching Dogma again recently I found him more interesting than I had remembered).

As with any successful film it can be guaranteed that more will follow in its wake. And so Vantage Point attempts to take the Bourne template and marry the temporal and visual trickery of 24 and Lost (which is itself tipping towards the thriller genre faster than some might like in the current season – while retaining a foot in both the fantasy and science fiction camps) to it.

Which leaves the inevitable question. Does it work? The answer is… No, no it doesn’t.

What we get is based around an assassination attempt upon a US President at an historic meeting of world leaders in Salamanca (the location is almost worth seeing the film for – except it’s not Salamanca, it’s Mexico City, which is a pity on more than one level) engaged in dealing with the War on Terror. As the President steps up to the podium in a square of the city he is shot. Soon after there is an explosion. And the trick? We see the same time period again and again from various vantage points. His security detail. An American tourist. A Spanish detective. A television network crew. ‘International’ terrorists. As each iteration emerges we learn a little more of the puzzle, but nothing comes together until close to the end.

Sounds interesting? Well, to some.

And on the formal level it almost works. There were some groans in the cinema on the fourth (or was it sixth?) run through, but broadly speaking it was held together well enough that interest didn’t flag. Much.

Unfortunately some of that interest was concentrated on entirely the wrong things.

For example, the acting. A risible script and ‘unusual’ – ahem – direction, saw Matthew Fox perhaps wisely taking a rather muted role, had Sigourney Weaver present a performance of such wooden quality that it would make the Alien appear to be a warm and personable character (let’s not talk about the TV reporter on the ground who reveals that ‘some of the people here don’t like us’ as she goes off message to the consternation of her bosses in a sequence of toe-curling lack of realism) while the usually reliable Forest Whitaker does us no favours as the humane American abroad ludicrously awestruck by a (sightly) different culture. Like, it’s not as if there are no Spanish cultural influences on the American continents, is it? Or that the thing was actually filmed in Mexico City because of said influences. Throw in a near-revolting sub-plot about the love-struck detective and a suspicious paramour so that whenever they spoke (with English sub-titles – good, nice to see that in mainstream US entertainments) Spanish-inflected strings swelled in the background to indicate their tortured relationship and we see a slide towards Hollywood kitsch of near epic proportions. But this is as nothing compared with a further subplot concerning a Spanish kid that is (almost) literally sickly sweet. Factor in a friendship, of sorts, between the US President (William Hurt) and a former bodyguard (Dennis Quaid) who had issues, not to mention post-traumatic stress disorder, having thrown himself in front of a previous assassins bullet and you begin to get the picture.

And then… and then… there is the political angle. Now, in fairness, the heart is almost in the right place. The President, at a particular moment is keen that the US shouldn’t squander international ‘sympathy’ when pressed by aides to bomb terrorist camps in a ‘friendly Arab nation’. Indeed he staunchly resists the plea’s to use force instead of nuance. But whether this is open mindedness or simple political calculation is not fully addressed. The antagonists are left – mercifully – nebulous as regards their identity, aims and motivations. Islamists? Well probably. All we know is that they’re part of the WOT and said WOT will ‘never end’ as one of them imparts in his dying breath. Comforting to know… But, in this confection such issues are somewhat secondary to the action. And action packed it certainly is.

Bombs blast. Shots ring out. Cars crash. Men run (and it is men, overwhelmingly). Spanish kid is put in harms way. More cars crash. Hotels explode. Spanish kid is removed from harms way. Special Forces men run a bit more. Spanish kid is put back in harms way. It’s sort of like 24 compressed into twenty minutes or so. Again and again and again. And there is, to be fair, a visceral pleasure in its pace and energy. It almost, from time to time, seems like a reasonable simulacra of an intelligent movie. But then one stops to think and it doesn’t.

Because loose strings there are aplenty. One would not wish such an inept security detail for anyone let alone the US President. One would think that there might be some level of protection for a world leader, any world leader, standing at a podium. One might suppose that there would be preparations for the sort of eventualities that we see here. One would be entirely wrong in those assumptions. In its own muddle-headed way it proceeds along the lines that if something can go wrong, well heck, it will go wrong.

I loath the term imperialist, but really, the thrust of the movie was -as noted by one of those I saw it with – that any cost to save the US President was worth it, up to and including the wholesale trashing of Salamanca (and its people) itself. And although it attempts to emulate the grit of the Bourne movies, it doesn’t quite get there. It is dirty, grubby, dusty and the aftermath of a bomb blast is well handled in all its gruesome detail, but there is a continual sense that this is a patina thrown across the characters and scenery to serve a greater purpose rather than the organic outcome of the events on screen.

And this leaves a paradox because in its ineffable not goodness, and believe me it’s not good, it somehow manages nonetheless to be quite entertaining. Not great. Oh no, nowhere near great But interesting. A sort of genre exercise that fails and comprehensively, yet retains enough residual effort to be worth a look. I think the Guardian got it about right when they noted:

There is a bit of a Groundhog Day feel before the surprises kick in, but this is serviceable entertainment, and how refreshing to see a commercial movie that tries something structurally and procedurally different.

And that’s an oddity too, because it is rather refreshing. Perhaps it’s the backdrop of the city. I’d certainly go to Mexico (or even Salamanca) based on the look of it. Or just that it’s trying. And then there is the near certainty that there will be another genre exercise sooner or later that will try another twist. Bring it on…

Orbital and sub-orbital… the distinction makes all the difference and it’s not just a question of private enterprise versus government… March 15, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Science.
17 comments

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As you’ll probably know, I’m a regular reader of Prospect magazine. But, I’ve got to take issue with the current issue, or rather one column, Lab Report. This covers science related topics. Anyhow, science writer Philip Ball, proposes under the heading Nasa bows to the market that

Privately funded research and development has driven scientific advances in many fields. But some of the most costly areas of science, such as high-energy physics and space exploration, lack obvious commercial potential and have traditionally relied on the public purse. For space, that looks set to change. Billionaires can buy their way on to the International Space Station (ISS), which now looks like an expensive advertising hoarding, disowned by scientists and prey to publicity stunts like the $1m delivery of a Pizza Hut pizza in 2001.

Trueish. Not all scientists have disowned the ISS. No matter. He continues:

Yet bigger things are afoot. In 2004 SpaceShipOne skimmed the ionosphere to win the $10m Ansari X prize offered for the first privately funded manned spaceflight. The ship was built by Scaled Composites, an American company headed by entrepreneur Burt Rutan. Scaled Composites was not the only contender for the prize, but it has beaten the competition to win the backing of Richard Branson, who wants Rutan to supply the spacecraft that will launch his Virgin Galactic space tourism business in 2009. Branson has announced the design of SpaceShipTwo and its launch vehicle WhiteKnightTwo, the next stage in development of a spacecraft that will take passengers to the stars…And Branson says the flights will be up for hire for launching satellites too.

Perhaps. Perhaps. He continues further…

The commercial prospects have stimulated an engineering inventiveness that exposes the antiquated design and shabby management of Nasa’s space shuttles, arguably a classic example of the inefficiencies that free marketeers decry in state-funded enterprises. Nasa seems to tacitly accept this. Aware that its planned replacement for the shuttle, the Orion spacecraft, won’t be ready until at least 2015—leaving the ISS wholly dependent on Russian rockets—it is contracting out a stopgap solution to private companies. This is part of a Nasa programme to, in its own words, “encourage, support and stimulate the development of a commercial market for space transportation.”

Ah. Now we encounter a problem. Two things. Firstly, and I say this with considerable respect for Rutan and Scaled Composites, we’re simply not comparing like with like if the proposition is that SpaceShipOne or Two are the equivalent of the space shuttle. Firstly, SpaceShipTwo will, at best (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceshipTwo), only able to heft 6 passengers and two crew 68 miles above the Earth on a sub-orbital flight that lasts some two and a half hours. That’s it. There’s no shame in that, it provides at least some publicity for spaceflight. But it is merely dipping toes in the water.

The space shuttle – by contrast – can carry 5 to 7 crew members and can actually reach orbit, carrying 50,000 lb (22,700 kg). It can remain in orbit for days on end. It is, and it’s worth noting this, specifically designed for scientific experimentation (let’s ignore, shall we, the military potential).

And to argue that it is in some sense ‘an antiquated design’ shown up by the ‘engineering inventiveness’ of SpaceShipTwo is to completely misunderstand, or misrepresent the two. It’s like comparing a LearJet and a 747. Two entirely different aircraft with two entirely different purposes. Moreover, it simply doesn’t tell us anything as regards some dubious comparison of ‘free market’ endeavour and ‘state-funded enterprises’. Rutan isn’t out to do science. He’s out to make money from passengers. $200,000 per passenger as it happens. No shame there either. But still not like and like.

SpaceShipOne and Two simply don’t represent, as some would suggest, a massive step forward. They are more like a consolidation, of previous smaller steps, steps achieved by NASA and the Soviets in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And an indication of how little progress has been made. To blame ‘state enterprise’ for this is wide of the mark. I think it is more accurate to see this as a general lack of societal will to push forward in this area.

As regards Orion, which to my mind is a sensible step if one wants to get back to the Moon, which is one of the stated objectives, well that too is really just a reboot of the original Apollo missions, albeit on a wider scale. Having followed the space programme for almost four decades now I’m becoming more sceptical of how this is going to pan out.

But as regards science and engineering it is the poor old Space Shuttle ,with the characteristics of spaceship and aircraft, still flying decades after it was introduced which represents the truly innovative step forward. Not sub-orbitals, however interesting they may be, nor the glorified Apollo capsules of Orion.

And curiously the argument is undercut entirely by the final paragraph where we are told.

But in late January the US Government Accountability Office authorised a contract severance with one of Nasa’s commercial partners, Rocketplane Kistler, after targets were not met.

So much for our brave free market future. And further…

The replacement will be announced very soon. There’s no sign that Nasa has been talking to Branson, but it could do worse.

No, it would be entirely pointless if one wishes to have a serious orbital space programme.

Politics.ie, 1 million points of light…The dollar falls. Subscribe to US magazines…subscribe! And in passing just why have sp!ked got it in for the Polar Bear? March 14, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture.
27 comments

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One million points of light
One billion dollar Vision Thing

Well, no perhaps not… that was the Sisters of Mercy in their final not so great phase – quoting Bush the Elder, as it happens…

But at least some points of life for it would appear that scattered refugees from Politics.ie are spreading out to stake out territory of their own on the internet… Latest as noted here by EvotingMachine is this.

Y’know, if it were me I’d be racing to get P.ie up and running before something else achieves critical mass. Sure, P.ie has first mover advantage and it isn’t going anywhere, but even so…

As regards subscriptions. For remarkably little money you can get a years subscription to various magazines and periodicals. US magazines tend to be cheaper anyhow than Irish or UK ones, presumably due to economies of scale in their production.

Of course, as with any financial decision, if the market dips lower still, then perhaps there won’t be any magazines. And one guy on Channel 4 News suggested alarmingly that this is the worst credit crisis since the immediate post-War period. Second World War, that is. Now, while some may take comfort in that, it’s worth reflecting on the numbers of ordinary people, employed and not, who are already being burned by this.

Meanwhile… clicking in at lunchtime to the long unvisited Sp!ked website (by me, but perhaps not mbari 😉 ) what should I read on my bookmarked list of “Animals” articles (don’t ask) but an article from last August by Brendan O’Neill under the provocative subhead…

The extinction of the Yangtze dolphin is a small price to pay for the transformation of the river into a source of work and energy for millions of people.

Well, yes, Brendan… when you put it that way…

Meanwhile on the same list of articles it’s intriguing to see that Sp!ked appears to really have it in for the Polar bear…

Decimation of the polar bear: bearfaced lies?
A leading expert in forecasting tells spiked that research into the impact of climate change on polar bears has been shockingly shoddy.

and…

The bear necessities of climate change politics
A photo of two polar bears seemingly stranded on an ice floe has come to symbolise man’s destruction of nature. But is it all that it seems?

Still, if people aren’t entirely sure what they’re getting at this might help…

‘Animals are less valuable than human beings’
Leading researcher John Martin tells Helene Guldberg why it is morally justifiable to cause heart attacks in rats – and why he isn’t scared of animal rights extremists.

can you make it any clearer?

Stop weeping over whaling
The attack on Japan for continuing to hunt whales is cultural imperialism dressed up in PC lingo.

Okay… here’s one for those of us who haven’t yet quite got the message:

Animals count?
No they don’t

I look at that photograph of the Polar Bear above and ponder on the thought that the great ursine is shambling along the margin of some ice floe blissfully unaware that across the gulf of sea, minds that are to our minds (and his) as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic and sort of libertarian but of kind of not, regard this bear with antagonistic eyes, and slowly and surely draw their plans against him…

Ahem.

Meanwhile on their sp!ked issues page there’s no end of fun to be had. From ‘A guide to subversive parenting’ to ‘Australia’… the fun never ends. Hmmm… ‘Australia’ they say…Well. If the bear is ripe for getting it in the neck one wonders what our Antipodean friends have done… I really must check that out when I get a moment…


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