2005

This bloke in The Observer and Drink-soaked Trotskyite Popinjays for WAR both argue that a politicised form of Islam, which they call Islamism, is the new facism. They’re both careful to differentiate this from the views of the majority of Muslims in this country, but scornful of the excuses made for Islamism by their fellow left-wingers. I find them pretty convincing.

It’d be easy (especially for me) to say something like Richard Dawkins said after 9/11, blaming revealed religion for terrorism. Certainly, people who believe they’re going to heaven will be more prepared to die for a cause, and I cannot understand those whose human conscience takes second place to ancient writings or religious leaders, but the fact is that as yet, there’s no Black Ops division of CICCU blowing up atheists. Something else is going on. I wish I knew what it was, but the mentality of people who would blow themselves and others to bits for God is more alien to me than it ever was.

That said, after all this, I’m more sympathetic to tornewuff‘s quest to make the world a better place by doing away with religion (which you’ll need to join cantabrigiensis to read about, but anyone can do that), but that’s a long game, not a helpful suggestion for what to do now.

It seems it’s time to bring out an old classic, which I feel we will be seeing a few examples of in the coming weeks. So: Why the Bombings Mean That We Must Support My Politics.

My London friends have all checked in. Some of them might have trouble getting home, but all are safe and sound. Like many people here on LJ, I am proud of the reaction of our emergency services and of the sanity of the reporting by the BBC.

More when I’ve decided which of my policies you should now support…

Those two postings of theferrett‘s which I mentioned previously (you remember: this one and this later one) have produced uproar in the comments, with everyone accusing everyone else of being sexist and belittling rape. No doubt LJ Drama will be on the case soon. Anyway, in my previous posting, I said that theferret‘s opinion was probably a common male one without actually saying what my opinion of those articles was. So now I think I’ll stick my neck out…

This comment points out just what it is about theferrett‘s “I’d do ya” thing that doesn’t sit well with me: not that it is bad to admit that someone is sexually attractive, but that to be quite so blunt about it is unsubtle and reductionist (and, if that weren’t bad enough, unlikely to work). It’s common for people who don’t socialise well to wish that the whole business was less complicated, and even to say things like “why can’t everyone just be totally honest with each other from the outset?” (I’ve been there myself), but the indirection in courtship exists to allow both sides to negotiate without presuming more of the other person than they’re prepared to give. Even if you do just want sex, being totally blunt about it presumes too much.

As for dress, I think theferrett is right to say that a well-dressed woman shouldn’t be surprised if men look at her, but I’m not sure where to draw the line in what an admirer might do next: I’ve got very little history of hitting on total strangers, so as I said to lisekit in this thread, I don’t really know what the etiquette of it is. I reckon saying “nice arse” to a stranger is again assuming too much, on the other hand, I can’t see the harm in telling someone they look nice in a less blunt way. It may be that very popular women get tired of this happening to them all the time, but if we assume that both men and women want to get together, and that on the whole women still expect men to approach them, some unwanted attention is an inevitable side effect of this. But then, I’m not the one getting the unwelcome approaches, so I don’t know how common this is. I expect I’ll find out when I post this 🙂

Where I don’t agree with theferrett is when he says that he can’t blame men for repeated attempts in the face of total lack of interest from women. I’m not talking about getting to know someone and taking things slow here, and I don’t think he is either, but rather continual pestering of someone who’s said she’s not interested. His defence of this sort of behaviour is that there are some women on whom this pestering works. My response is that they’re not the sort of women you want to be anywhere near. Yes, those women should not behave in that way, since it encourages men not to accept that no means no, but neither should the men continue to chase after being told not to.

Finally, the people who seem to be LJ’s leading feminists (or at least, LJ’s most vocal feminists) do an appalling job of furthering their cause, even when they’re in the right. I’m assuming that they wish to bring other people to their cause, to evangelise, as it were, so that in time society will change. My experience with how Christians are taught to evangelise suggests that calling people names and refusing to discuss things with them except within carefully prescribed limits won’t win people to your side. If you want to change the world, you must unfortunately deal with large numbers of people you consider to be idiots without losing your temper.

Chiark is a Unix box on which a large number of Cambridge geeks have accounts (I’m not one of them, as it happens, but I know some of them by name and a few of them by sight). It runs some local newsgroups, which are only accessible to people with accounts. They’ve recently added a journals newsgroup, to which some people are publishing their LJs (it’s a one way street at the moment, by the sounds of it: entries and comments go from LJ to the newsgroup, but not vice-versa). This has caused some excitement on my friends and friends-of-friends lists. Of particular note are atriec‘s posting on what LJ’s are for, emperor‘s own views (I’m not sure why Chiark is “cabal” there, but it’s the same thing being discussed), and mobbsy‘s comparison of LJ and newsgroups. There are a couple of coupled problems here: LJ’s interface is not useful for having discussions (as opposed to simply pontificating) and some people don’t actually want to have discussions anyway.

LJ’s limitations do annoy me. As I said to livredor recently, I’m here for the people, not the interface. Compared to sites like Google or Flickr, LJ hasn’t done very well at making its stuff accessible by computer programs which might do useful things with it, such as re-presenting it in a way which is easier to to read, remembering what I’ve already seen and alerting me to new stuff, and so on. OK, so there’s RSS, but that’s no good for comments. OpenID is a step in the right direction, but largely solves the opposite problem, namely letting non-LJers put their stuff here. The client protocol is, again, designed to let people put stuff on LJ, not to take it out. LJ explicitly says that they don’t like screen scraping (that is, programs which extract information from the LJ pages which are designed to be read by humans) as lots of programs doing this will request lots of pages very rapidly and put more strain on their server more than they’d like.

LJ slowly getting better as a discussion forum, but the pace of change is slow. Tags are useful, OpenID is pretty cool, but on the whole LJ’s developers also seem to spend a lot of time on making it look pretty (a worthy goal, since newsgroups are pretty ugly by comparison, but probably not worth all that much time from the developers, who could just provide the users with the tools to do it themselves). That’s probably down to their target audience, I suppose: a few refreshes of the random journal link shows that LJ is largely populated by teenage girls (and by Russians, for some reason). See also the large number of people saying “actually, we want more user icons, not this OpenID thing” on the OpenID announcement.

There’s also the question of what a LiveJournal is for. livredor‘s posting on manners on LJ made the point that nobody is very sure what the etiquette is for making comments on other people’s postings. Having been brought up on newsgroups, I assume that anything I can see and which has comments enabled is fair game, although in deference to the fact that I’m entering someone’s personal space, I’ll usually introduce myself before diving in. But I suppose I could still end up horribly offending someone. It’s possible that most LJ users don’t want to have long discussions on their journals, in which case LJ would be wasting their time by making that easier, and I should just find somewhere better suited to that, which supports OpenID.

What would be the ideal, for me? The distribution system of Usenet (the network of servers which provides access to the public newsgroups) means that you can’t really recall postings once you’ve made them, and also makes it hard to make the equivalent of friends-only postings (you could do it, but it’d be hard to conceal the fact that you’d at least made a posting that someone else couldn’t see). So, I don’t object to LiveJournal’s centralisation in itself, because it helps me keep control (and now OpenID means I can entrust non-LJ people with my friends-only stuff, if I want). On the other hand, the interface sucks when you want to follow a discussion.

I’d like to see more machine readable stuff (especially comments) and a better API for clients to use to pull out comments and so on. I suppose I’d really like to see LJ run an NNTP (newsgroup) server which wouldn’t distribute stuff, but which would allow the same restricted amount of HTML that LJ itself does. A journal would be a group, an article would start a new thread, and the comments would be followups. Stuff that you weren’t meant to see just wouldn’t show up in the group, because you’d need to log in to the server to see it. I like this idea, although I can’t really see LJ implementing it. Maybe we should start a meme to campaign for it? We could call ourselves the Campaign for Real News.

From my Bloglines feeds, I give you a bunch of links I’ve been meaning to write about.

Where America is going, and the next generation of leaders who will take it there. Scared yet?

I also came across Private Warriors, a documentary on the use of mercenaries (excuse me, private military contractors) in Iraq. On PBS’s site, you can watch the documentary and also read background material.

theferret gets into an interesting discussion of the intentions behind the way women dress. Interesting for what I think is a common male perspective. I can see his point, but with the caveat that all this straightforwardness would be fine in an ideal world where all men are bright enough to realise when their attentions are not welcome (dealing with the non-ideal world in which we live is the subject of his followup article). This comment seemed a pretty sensible response from a woman.

And so to bed.

In recognition of her recent elevation, S will now be known as Dr S. While on the way in to town to celebrate this the other night, we saw an unusual busker:
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It’s a good way of drawing attention to yourself, although it’s probably a bit hot and smelly, and I wasn’t too sure about the acoustics. He was singing an Oasis song, but we gave him some money anyway. There also seemed to be any number of hen parties out on Riverside last night. Never thought of Cambridge as a hen party destination before.

Last night, the BBC screened Parting of the Ways, the final episode in the new series of Doctor Who. <lj-cut text=”Cut for spoilers”>I liked it for the spectacle of lots and lots of Daleks doing their thing. I also liked the way future humans (as personified by Captain Jack) have turned into the Culture and are happily unrestrained in their affections (the loony Christians who were protesting about Jerry Springer must be absolutely steaming). Alas, the plot made no sense.

The current fad for deus ex machina endings is getting a bit tired, especially after Boom Town (arguably, that might be seen setting the stage for the latest one, I suppose). If all the TARDIS’s can do that, why did the Time Lords ever feel remotely threatened by the Daleks? Rose as Time Goddess made it look a bit too like Buffy for me (the earlier Rose/TARDIS effects were more like Lyta Alexander in Babylon 5), though if it had been written by Joss Whedon, Jack would have stayed dead, and the episode would have been better for it. Possibly the BBC would get more complaints from parents of kids who were distraught about dead Jack than they will about a gay kiss on Saturday night “family” TV.

Nobody explained why the massive TARDIS energy didn’t kill Rose as well as the Doctor. “Bad Wolf” turned out to be a meaningless phrase which might just as well have been “Arthritic Hamster”. And the bit about opening the TARDIS console with a recovery truck was just silly.

But there were lots of Daleks, and everyone lived happily every after (except the ones who Rose didn’t resurrect). Did I mention that there were lots of Daleks?

Charlie Stross (known as autopope in these parts) has released his latest novel, Accelerando, on his website. I’ve been reading it on and off all weekend. My opinions might be skewed by that peculiar disassociation which sets in when you’re reading about the Singularity at 3 am in the middle of a heatwave, but I rather liked it. I found the earlier, near future, chapters more fun than the software iiiin spaaace stuff. The bits about cats were always good. The software iiin spaaace parts reminded me of Greg Egan’s Diaspora, though Stross’s characters aren’t as clinical as Egan’s, which makes them more bearable.

The book shows signs of an SF writing singularity, whereby books become incomprehensible to people from primitive cultures where they don’t know what slashdot is (perhaps a better description would be “unsullied”, rather than “primitive”, in that case). I’m not quite sure what someone who hadn’t spent most of their life in geekdom would make of it. Perhaps someone who meets that description could read it and tell me?

In any case, it’s a wonderfully exuberant book, and worth a read.

After much prodding, LiveJournal has finally introduced tags, a way of categorising entries and of retrieving entries which have a particular tag. I’ve spent an entertaining hour going back through my old entries and tagging them. So, for example, you can see all my posts on religion or all the posts where I mention what I’ve been up to lately (I’ve nicked livredor‘s “quotidian” tag to describe my daily life). Hopefully they’ll do something similar to Flickr and allow you to search other people’s journals for particular tags, or get a feed which displays all posts with a particular tag.

Speaking of what I’ve been up to lately, I had an excellent time at S’s Graduation Dinner the other night (although the name is a misnomer as they’ve not graduated yet). It was at St John’s, who produced some of the best food I’ve had at a Cambridge college. My favourite photo is this one, as the Three Musketeers seem to be enjoying themselves.

Adam Kay and Suman Biswas, medics themselves, have joined to form Amateur Transplants, a beat combo. They are reminiscent of Flanders and Swann or Tom Lehrer, but with gratuitous use of the word “fuck”. You might have heard their seminal London Underground a while back, but it turns out there’s a whole album, entitled Fitness to Practice. Our favourites are Paracetamoxyfrusebendroneomycin and Snippets, for the excellent parodies of Coldplay’s Yellow and Phil Collins’s Against All Odds. Some MP3s are here, but sadly, physical copies of the entire album seem to have sold out. They should charge to download the remaining MP3s or something: it’s for charidee.

S and I want to go on holiday somewhere scenic, not too hot during the summer (anything over the high 20s in Celsius is too hot, in my book), and not monumentally expensive. Any suggestions?

A couple of videos: Herding cats on the Range, and a hilariously cynical presentation on the biology of vampires by an unscrupulous drug company.

The vampires presentation comes from Peter Watts, a science fiction author who used to be a marine biologist. His books seem to be set in a dystopian future where environmental disasters have finally caught up with us. The descriptions on his site made me think of John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, which scared the willies out of me when I read it as a teenager. The earlier books seem to be out of print, but Watts says that he’ll be making them available on the website, Cory Doctorow style, real soon now. Should be interesting.

Moral reforms and deteriorations are moved by large forces, and they are mostly caused by reactions from the habits of a preceding period. Backwards and forwards swings the great pendulum, and its alternations are not determined by a few distinguished folk clinging to the end of it. — Sir Charles Petrie, The Victorians

This weekend, I’ve watched Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and skimmed through Melanie Phillips‘s All Must Have Prizes.

Gosford Park is an entertaining comedy/murder mystery set in an English country house, with a cast of just about every British actor you’ve ever heard of. The film is set in the 1930s, when the country houses in England had already begun their decline, and is interesting for its accurate portrayal of the relations between the servant and landed classes at the time. It’s a little long, but is gorgeously filmed. Recommended.

The title of All Must Have Prizes comes from the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland, who, after a nonsensical running race in which the participants stopped and started as they pleased, declared that “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”.

Phillips’s burden is the decline of the educational system in the UK, which she places in the context of a wider moral decline. Phillips herself is quite a character. During her career as a journalist and columnist, she’s made the transition from newspapers traditionally associated with the political left to the Daily Mail, a nasty right-wing tabloid. But fear not, for the book was first published in 1996, before this transition, and, on the subject of the decline in educational standards, she’s right.

What strikes me as odd is that employers and university teachers (or indeed, anyone who has looked at old O-level papers) know that GCSEs and A-levels have been reducing their content for years, and yet apparently nobody is allowed to say so because it would devalue the work put in by the children taking the exams. Unfortunately, the time spent on work isn’t necessarily proportional to how much a child learns, especially with the amount of make-work kids are given (things like project work, making posters, and often coursework fall into that category).

Phillips places the blame for this on a politicised educational establishment in the Department of Education and in teacher training colleges, who are more interested in making ideological points than in preparing children for work or university. As the title of the book suggests, she believes that their main errors are to insist that children should direct their own learning, that they should not be given work which they may see as hard or boring, and most of all, that they should never be allowed to think they have failed at anything. This leads to everyone being equally mediocre, like in that Kurt Vonnegut story.

But Mom broke up with Brad; she didn’t like craftsmen, she said, because they were too much like actual Victorians, always spouting all kinds of crap about how one thing was better than another thing, which eventually lead, she explained, to the belief that some people were better than others. — Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age.

The later, and more controversial, chapters of the book link the decline in educational standards to a wider decline, characterised by an emphasis on rights rather than responsibilities and a lack of respect for authority. Phillips is especially concerned with the decline in conventional family life: while she does not make the mistake of saying that parental divorce always leads to delinquent children, she does argue that it makes such delinquency more likely. Phillips thinks of herself as a left-wing liberal, and pins the blame for shirking of responsibility on Margaret Thatcher’s “me generation”, pointing out that the name “Conservative Party” is a misnomer for an administration which was in fact dedicated to making sweeping changes.

It’s here that I part company with Phillips to some extent. She seems to have moved further to the right these days: on her website, she makes it clear that, for example, she does not approve of the Government’s moves to allow civil partnerships for homosexuals, despite the fact that people who wish to form such partnerships presumably wish to express commitment and responsibility, two of the things which she sees as lacking in modern Britain. Similarly, she laments the decline of the Church of England but doesn’t quite have to the courage to say that she supports religion as a source of social cohesion: if not, then why lament its decline? Phillips teeters on the edge of the faith-based community, somewhat worryingly for her readers in the reality-based one.

On her wider point, though, I find myself agreeing with her. As I’ve said before, people without a culture which makes value judgements are mightily screwed. The current backlash against chavs and suchlike is a reflection of a wider culture which is running out of patience (oddly enough, this entry from epsilon_moo appeared while I was composing mine). Almost everyone on my friends-of-friends list who lives in London appears to have been mugged or burgled at least once. Meanwhile the Government invests in the white elephant of identity cards (Phillips’s prediction that without corrective action we risk tribalism or facism seems quite prescient for 1996) and promises to make more laws which will not be enforced.

In many ways we are better off than we were in the days of Gosford Park, when the rich few lived like, well, gentry, and the lower classes were humble and Knew Their Place, and I know that Greek or Roman bloke also said that the youth of his day had no respect, but these days, talk of Stephenson’s phyles and burbclaves is also looking prescient (the Londoner I know who hasn’t been burgled lives behind a gate and a security guard). So, are we doomed?