Monday, 28 March 2011

The power of nightmares - Iran and Egypt

I've been re-watching Adam Curtis' documentary from 2005, "The power of nightmares". It really is superb stuff. I just want to jot down some observations, and am not giving them any structure to speak of.

It's interesting how both Iran and Egypt during the late 70s had "modernising" leaders (Sadat and the last Shah) who had strong links to the West, were considered corrupt by many of their people. They were great friends. One was deposed in 1979, then died. The other (Sadat) was of course shot, in 1981.

Their situations were slightly different, of course. The Shah didn't have enough support from the Shi'a clergy in his country, which became an Islamist state. He introduced women's suffrage in Iran - and look where things are now in that regard.

Adam Curtis focuses much on Ayman al-Zawahiri a good deal. al-Zawahiri was an Islamist who hoped to replicate the same revolution in his own country, he was part of the movement containing the cell that assassinated Sadat.

Sadat had moved first and imprisoned many from the movement before his death. The revolution al-Zawahiri was hoping for didn't happen, the streets stayed calm and the regime stayed in place. Sadat's right hand man Hosni Mubarak took charge and ruled from 1981 till a few weeks ago. On the other hand, no one Egyptian really turned up to Sadat's funeral either (plenty of ex-US presidents and other western leaders showed up, by contrast)

Al-Zawahiri, it seems used to follow the logic that if a muslim didn't follow his views, they were not proper muslims, and could therefore justifiably be killed. The documentary states that, indeed, he thought this killing would be a noble one. In his later Al-Qaeda days he claimed did not kill "innocents" though of course what his definition of "innocents" might have been could be open to subtle changes...

I read recently (can't remember the source, sorry - so a pinch of salt needed with this) that in this new Arab Spring, it would be bad for the West if Egypt and Iran were friends and allies now, but apparently that is far from being the case.

BBC Gender Politics bias

K sooner or later someone is going to tell me I'm imagining the BBC's anti-male gender politics bias. I invite them to look at todays BBC website main page and it's link to the business page. The main page has a feature on two only slightly related topics: "Why do men cat-call" and "Women in the workplace" (oh also a link to a page on "second-wave feminism")

I know there are some people who will seriously contend that these 2 topics are directly related, indeed many people think they have been abducted by little green men in flying saucers who conducted 10 year experiments on them. However, speeding swiftly back to planet earth (on our faster-than-light UFO) and reality I'd like to list some of the topics on the BBC Business News "Women in the workplace" sub-page today.

To their scant credit, the website editors have included the

Gender 'irrelevant in business'

story. This is so they can claim they have added an opposing point of view when in fact their world view is horribly skewed. Here are some of the other stories

I once started making a list of biassed BBC website pages, with dates, but i got bored of the depressing job. They seemed to leap on every bit of research they could find that made women look morally and intellectually superior to men, credulously swallowing every word. "Women better than men in business", "Women smarter decision makers" etcetc

The problem with people wanting to encourage women in business is that they need to be aware of the possibility that they are creating an imbalance the other way around, whereas in fact they aren't aware of anything (except their perceived cause)

The fact that this feature exists at all is in my view evidence of the strong but very questionable political bias in the news section of the BBC website - I don't know if it comes from the same editorial team as the Today programme on Radio 4, or if the website follows their lead.

UPDATE: By 12:30 the same day these pressing gender issues have been replaced on the BBC front page by the super-vacuous Anna Chapman 

I believe the correct thing to say here is ROFL. Maybe the feminists are balanced out by the lads in the BBC after all :)

Sunday, 27 March 2011


I was going to be rude about Laurie Penny and 98% of all journos, but I want to instead focus on Radio 4 and the hard time I often give them, and say some nice things about them for a change.

I won't go as far as to call the channel a "national treasure" as I believe they recently called themselves rather self-congratulatingly. My problems with the channel stem from the preponderance of the following programs

  • "Today"
  • PM at bloody 5pm (all the news coverage really: every hour, on the hour, and full of the sweet and smelly stuff)
  • Woman's Hour (sorry but I can't listen to any more of Jenni Murray or any of her guests*)
  • "Thinking allowed" (ffs)
  • one or two others
But I have to sing the praises of some of the drama they present: A superb radio adaptation of I Claudius - rivalling the 1976 TV version starring Derek Jacobi, it really was that good - many of the things that end up on Radio 7, the Professor Challenger stories now being aired, and this wonderful program on unsung Inventors called "Genius Unrecognised"

Beautiful stuff :) have a listen!

* there was a good program a year or two back with the mandolin player Alison Stephens (who has since sadly died). Which was so good I was tempted to start listening a few more times, arrghh.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Winston Churchill

There's a rather wonderful program on Radio 4 (the radio channel I usually complain about the most :)) called "Churchill's other lives", showing the different enthusiasms of Churchill's life: Painting, Films, Horses (?), Money etcetc.

We all know about his role as a war leader. He was unapologetically proud of Britain's imperial history and (I imagine) must have believed in the rightness of our culture, as he saw it. Not a good start for UK lefty-liberals in 2011, whose creed starts with the wrongness of Empire and seems to proceed all the way to saying that the English are therefore more evil than anyone else. 

I'll write separately on that, except to point out firstly that people can persuade themselves of the moral virtues of anything (look at Empire-builders or lefty liberals), but also something that seems to stand out about the man. His humanity.

For all his naivety and Conservatism, he had more than his fair share of personal courage, believing himself destined by fate for great things. He seemed assured that bullets (in the hail of battle) were unlikely to bring him such a prosaic death before he had done his life's work. The lucky chance that kept him alive must have strengthened his self-belief all the more in this regard. I think this sense of destiny - and the vision he had of a "Great" Britain, must have been at the core of him (he doesn't seem to have been deeply religious)

I've heard criticisms, & negative views. These generally came from various lefty friends who wanted to denigrate him for reasons of their own political alignment, and have always been rather petty. I don't think I've yet heard anything about him that fundamentally soured my opinion of the man. I don't share his world view, but I still think that as a national hero (for the second half of the last century) he wasn't at all a bad choice.

Stories are very important to us. They are nearly always oversimplified (and sometimes purely fantastic or fictitious) versions of events. As historical scholarship perhaps they will not do. So if that discipline were done properly it might kill heroes and myths forever. But the power of stories to motivate people, the power of myth to give people belief, can't be forgotten. Exactly that belief is what makes us capable of amazing things.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Why I am for anonymous comment on newspaper sites

Times journalist David Aaronovich tweeted earlier today asking for comment on the following:

"Can anyone think of a reason why commenters on newspaper sites should be allowed to be anonymous, or use pseudonyms?"

He currently seems firmly of the opinion that comment should be 'attributable'. I disagree strongly with this and want to set out as concisely as I can why.

It boils down to 2 basic reasons: I don't believe the reasons I hear against anonymous commenting, and b) there are several reasons why I can see it's a good thing

Points against anonymity (I will respond to any others given) with my answers in bold:

  1. “…If you want to say it, put your name next to it.” But WHY??? We haven't been given a reason
  2. "It makes abuses easier as in the Guardian comments on Belle du Jour": The case of what was said about Belle du Jour was horrible, but the real culprit was the Guardian for not acting quickly when Dr Magnanti sent numerous complaints and requests for the offensive comment to be removed. Also see my point below re: free speech.
  3. "It adds a measure of quality to the discussion": good point - look at Youtube. I suggest that the best answer to this issue is good (but sparing) moderation, not a measure that is as likely to curtail good comment as much as bad.
  4. "I can't think of a reason for anonymity": Terrible argument. Just because you can't imagine a situation where it would be useful doesn't mean there isn't one (this error in logic crops up all over the place!). Secondly, the burden of proof is on those against anonymity in my opinion. They have to tell us why it's a bad thing.
  5. "The internet is not as anonymous as you think it is": (good luck finding info about me from a dynamic IP address then:) This is a problem, but not a reason to make it less private
Points in favour of anonymity: 
  1. It promotes free speech. This way everything is out in the open, including the crazy stuff. By far the healthiest way of dealing with it.
  2. There are several good reasons why, if one did have to give ones true identity out, it might stop one from saying what one thought and knew:
    • Someone's job may be put into jeopardy precisely because they are in a position to know more about a subject than others on the comment page. Their input may be crucial to people's understanding of an issue - and may be morally more important
    • One's own personal circumstances may stop one from commenting, eg on health, money, or relationship matters that one wants to keep private. This has happened to me several times - there is NO reason why people need to know all about my life, but I still have much to say on certain topics.  
  3. Personal threats routinely happen on the web to those who express their views 
  4. Precisely the lack of privacy we already suffer from. People's private data is misused on the web enough. We need to protect people from this.
  5. Conversely, people can fake identities if they wish. Most users will often just see the users name and assume it is true
  6. People must be able to judge on WHAT IS SAID in a debate, not the person saying it. Ad Hominems fly about more than any other kind of false argument and are useless in assessing an issue. This is crucial.
Statistics/research bias:

Aaronovich said to me "what about a piece of research done - you'd want to know the interests of the people doing it"?  True but really it is the research that stands up or fails: Is the denominator big enough? Are the conclusions valid? Could there be confounding factors that haven't been accounted for? Have participants been asked leading questions?  Usually bad research sticks out like a sore thumb to those who are practised in assessing it. 

One of the sticking points with statistics is this: Is there any chance the numbers could have been tampered with? Do we need to repeat the research? In this case then yes, knowledge of the interests of those doing the research IS useful, but I suggest this is not relevant to the argument over comment anonymity. In this case we have to assume that anyone may be biassed, but we have to judge the arguments on their own merit.

If someone is offering eg: statistics on a comments page, we're right to be wary of them if the source of the statistics is unknown. 

Parallels with historical research

Similarly historians routinely look at an authors opinions/interests when assessing his/her journal articles. As if History has conducted in the same way as politics. I can only say that if you don't have much evidence, then your conclusions are that much the less valid.

Good debate needs to be as close as possible to Mathematical proof or a jury's "reasonable doubt" - and as far as possible from bickering historians arguing over scant evidence that is entirely inconclusive, as happens all to often in that discipline, in my view.

Monday, 21 March 2011

BBC Radio 7 >> BBC Radio 4 Extra

I'm rather worried about the pending image-change for my favourite radio station in the UK.  BBC Radio 7 is full of the most marvellous drama and readings. The comedy I personally find boring most of the time, but here's just a small sample of the programmes that I've enjoyed, off the top of my head:

The "Falco" stories dramatised with Anton Lesser in the main role, superb!
"The tenderness of Wolves" an adaptation of a recent novel,
"Professor Challenger" stories by Conan Doyle,
A selection of Somerset Maugham's stories,
"Doctor Finlay's black bag",
A life of Colonel Toosey (WW2 general portrayed in Bridge over the river Kwai)
The rather confusing, but very entertaining Paul Temple mysteries
A reading of Ian Fleming's "Casino Royale",
the Father Baldi stories,
A dramatisation of "Fatherland" by Robert Harris.

I could go on and on. These programmes (and others) kept me sane during 2 very stressful stays in hospital. I'm hoping the high quality content will continue but the name change - if it's necessary at all - is rather ominous. BBC Radio 4 comes across as way too opinionated politically and rather too keen on "educating" us.*

* In our time does manage to educate very well, as does More or less. Other programmes suffer from the editorial slant of those in charge of R4

Tuesday, 1 March 2011


Completely despondent today. Why? God knows. A mixture of watching Micro men (see above), thinking about a certain person (see above)

Also listening to Primal Scream - Come together - I imagine she danced to this as a young thing, but that is purely my invention, I'm making history up. It's the first time I've listened to it properly, missed out on it entirely when I was that age - too busy doing whatever the BLOODY HELL it was I did with those years. I never used to dance - particularly to this stuff. Now I think it's wonderful

(actually some good memories round then. But I was a repressed, frightened kid. And I let it blight my life then and perhaps I still do)

Got a bit of a test of character later this week, too. Can't see a good day happening for a little while. I don't expect this mood to last - in fact why the hell am I talking about it? The point of this blog is the rest of the world!

Everyone seems bad-tempered in the rest of the world, though. Ridiculous. My theory is that weather conditions mean that everyone in a city wakes up with the same headache on the same day and goes through everything in a bad mood. I do wonder what's set me off this last week. Had one amazing day then 7 pieces of nonsense masquerading as "days" and not deserving the title