Sunday, February 26, 2006

pride (in the name of cash)

Kembrew McLeod's book Freedom of Expression®: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity (love that circled R!) details an interesting cultural difference between black and white ideas of creative authorship.

By today's legal standards, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a copyright criminal. So were blues musicians, jazz musicians and other African Americans who treated words and melodies as communal wealth, not private property.

In the post-internet world, newly created works have to stand on their own as wholly original, untainted by earlier works. This was not the case with oral cultures. Oral tradition was central to African-American culture in part because laws forbade slaves from learning to read or write. During and after slavery, African American folk preachers gained stature in their community by merging words and ideas in their sermons with those of older, more established preachers. "In this context," argues scholar Keith Miller, "striking originality might have seemed self-centered or otherwise suspect."

While growing up, Martin Luther King Jr. absorbed this tradition, hearing religious themes and metaphors that originated during slavery. Two sermons King surely heard as a child, "The Eagle Stirs Her Nest" and "Dry Bones in the Valley," date back to the end of slavery and continue to be heard in black churches today. Earlier black folk preachers worked from the assumption that language is created by everyone and that it should not be considered private property. Like many who straddle two cultures, King created a hybrid system that integrated the Western print tradition of academia with African oral culture.

This reminded me of what The KLF observed in their book The Manual (How To Have A Number One The Easy Way), about how genuinely original black figures have been conned by the laws of copyright;

Gangsters of the groove from Bo Diddley on down believe they have been ripped off, not only by the business but by all the artists that have followed on from them. This is because the copyright laws that have grown over the past one hundred years have all been developed by whites of European descent, and these laws state that fifty per cent of the copyright of any song should be for the lyrics, the other fifty per cent for the top line (sung) melody; groove doesn't even get a look in.

If the copyright laws had been in the hands of blacks of African descent, at least eighty per cent would have gone to the creators of the groove, the remainder split between the lyrics and the melody. If perchance your are reading this and you are both black and a lawyer, make a name for yourself. Right the wrongs.

Similarly, when bebop jazz musicians take the chords from an old standard and go on a 20 minute improvisation displaying breathtaking originality and creativity, it's the writer of the original song who gets the royalty, as if it was just being robotically read from sheet-music.

It seems that Martin Luther King's work has been criticised by those who see words and ideas in the white-culture possessive model, whereas King knowingly mixed and matched in the tradition of what he'd grown up in.

So it comes as a shock to find out that when USA Today marked the 30th anniversary of the I Have A Dream speech, the King estate sued for infringement of copyright. Around the same time, King's son Dexter met with custodian's of Elvis Presley's estate and learned how to emulate the grave-robbing profiteering Elvis' people do so well.

Skin? Eyes? It's the colour of your money they're interested in. Kembrew tells of a textbook for teaching political communication that had to omit I Have A Dream because of the prohibitive price demanded by the King estate.

It's not about protecting Dr King's integrity, as Kembrew explains;

I'll never forget the bolt of anger I felt when I first saw the Cingular cell-phone commercial that digitally doctored footage of King delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech. As the camera pans across the Washington Mall, the entire crowd has been erased, and King is speaking to no one. "Before you can inspire," went the voice-over, "you must first connect." I'd like to connect my foot to whoever's ass approved this commercial. It would be inspiring...

As a little experiment, I sent the King estate an e-mail inquiry about reprinting four sentences from "I Have a Dream" in a scholarly book. A few weeks later I received a contract in the mail from Writers House LLC, which licenses King's copyrights. The only way I could reprint those four sentences was to hand over two hundred dollars and adhere to nine other restrictive contractual stipulations. "I have a dream that one day ... my heirs will shill my image in cell-phone ads and charge scholars fifty dollars a sentence to reprint this speech." Inspiring.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

credit where it's due

It's reported in the US that because teenage sexual abstinence campaigns put such pressure on kids to avoid vaginal sex, an abstinence-pledged teenage girl is six times more likely to perform oral sex. This tallies with Salt Lake City's place in rock legend as the world capital of groupie blow jobs due to all those Mormons valiantly holding on to their virginity.

When abstinence pledgers do get round to vaginal sex they are a third less likely to use contraceptives because, as a Columbia University study says, they're not 'prepared for an experience that they promised to forego'. Which has the knock-on knock-up effect of a greater level of teenage pregnancy, the very opposite of what it purports to encourage.

And as George Monbiot's pointed out, it's the poor and the women that suffer for it.

Teenage pregnancies are overwhelmingly concentrated at the bottom of the social scale: the teenage daughters of unskilled manual labourers are ten times as likely to become pregnant as middle-class girls. According to the United Nations agency Unicef, women born into poverty are twice as likely to stay that way if they have their children too soon. They are more likely to be unemployed, to suffer from depression and to become dependent on alcohol or drugs.

Monbiot documents Bush's adherance to abstinence whaever its actual effect:

When his cherished abstinence programmes failed to reduce the teenage birthrate, he instructed the US Centers for Disease Control to stop gathering data. He also forced them to drop their project identifying the sex education programmes which work, after they found that none of the successful ones were “abstinence-only”. Bush should also hope that we don’t look too closely at his record as governor of Texas. He spent $10m on abstinence campaigns there, with the result that Texas has the 4th-highest rate of HIV infection in the Union, and the slowest decline of any state in the birthrate among 15-17 year-olds.

If they're so willing to damn their own people for being poor and/or female, it's not surprising the American government care even less about those abroad. One of the first things the Bush adminstration did was to issue the 'global gag' order, cutting funding to international agencies that offer support to women seeking abortion.

"We are facing a disaster," says David Adriance, a Nairobi health care worker with EngenderHealth, a US-based organisation that provides reproductive health care services for the world's poorest women. "We have the largest cohort of young people that the world has ever known. These kids are hitting reproductive age and we have nothing in place for them. No sex education. No contraception. Few services."

Preventing unwanted pregnancy and unwanted parenthood is not only empowering to the women directly affected, it has a role in helping those who are yet to be born. Once the decline of oil production produces economic collapse, we're going to have tremendous problems feeding the current population.

By the middle of the century there will be 40% more people than today, and climate change will have done away with a significant portion of our ability to produce food. We need less people fighting for the available resources, not more. Surely the best place to start with population control is those who aren't here yet and aren't wanted.

But a lack of contraceptive and abortion information and availability generates greater numbers of unwanted pregnancies. With the global gag, many women have to go for unsafe abortions outside of proper medical circumstances. According to a horrifying report by the International Planned Parenthood Federation, 19 million women will have unsafe abortions this year of whom 70,000 will die agonising appalling deaths. That's 200 a day.

Despite its importance, all this is old news. The reason I'm bringing it up is to give some credit where it's due. The IPFF report was produced at the behest of the UK government's Department for International Development. A department more used to forcing privatisation of essential services in poor countries, and a government more used to following the American lead have surprised me. In the light of the report, a fund called the Global Safe Abortion Programme is being set up specifically to replace the money lost from the Bush 'global gag'. The founder donor is the UK government's DfID.

It's only £3m - we spend a third of that amount every year just keeping Cabinet ministers (and the odd ex-minister) in limosines - but to the hundreds of thousands of women it helps, it will be invaluable.

Furthermore, on a political level it bodes well. As a donation to an anti-US cause from such a US ass-kisser, it makes it easy for any other prosepctive donor country to step forward.

I'm always sceptical when the government does something I wholeheartedly approve of, I always get the feeling I've been hoodwinked. Have I missed something?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

carry on drinking

The Independent prides itself on thoughtful, inventive, intelligent writing.

But like all newspapers, that goes right out the window between Christmas and New Year as all writers, staff and indeed readers are too preoccupied and squiffy to care.

So it was that, several years back, Nicholas Barber turned in a festive season column that was just a drinking game based around Carry On Films.

You will need:
· A video of a Carry On film - or preferably several, so you can swap between them during the game.

· Your own Carry On cocktail. Ideally, it should be saucy and fruity, and should contain plums, peaches, big melons and a nice pear. If there’s a cherry, be sure to pop it first. Whatever you make it with, be sure that it goes down readily and easily. Don’t just have a bit. Mine’s a large one. Oh, and it should preferably be cripplingly alcoholic. The game can, however be played using other intoxicants, though it works better with substances that have a more or less instant debilitating effect.

Instructions: Printed below is a numbered list of more or less everything that happens in a Carry On film. Randomly distribute the numbered events among your guests, so that everyone is assigned a number of Carry On incidents. Put on a video. Every time one of the listed events happens on the screen, the person(s) with the appropriate number must take a swig of the cocktail, or a toot of whatever else they’re having. You’ll notice that, after about half an hour’s play, the films start to seem really funny.

You must take a hit any time that…
1. Sid James gets his hands on a woman.
2. A woman other than Hattie Jacques or Joan Sims is angry with Sid James.
3. A potential snog is interrupted.
4. Hattie Jacques tries to seduce Kenneth Williams.
5. Kenneth Williams says ‘Stop messin’ about!’.
6. Kenneth Williams says ‘Oooh!’.
7. Frankie Howerd says ‘Oooh!’.
8. Anyone says ‘Phwooar’.
9. Anyone says ‘Saucy!’.
10. Anyone says the words ‘carry on’.
11. Anyone says ‘matron’.
12. Hattie Jacques scolds someone.
13. Joan Sims scolds someone.
14. Barbara Windsor giggles.
15. Sid James cackles.
16. Kenneth Williams guffaws toothily.
17. Jim Dale rips off a woman’s clothing.
18. Jim Dale destroys property.
19. Jim Dale falls over.
20. A character is addressed by the actor’s first name.

And you must have a hit whenever you hear...
21. A ‘boing’ sound-effect.
22. A honking sound-effect.
23. A joke about trade unions.
24. A toilet joke.
25. A breast innuendo.
26. A bottom innuendo.
27. A penis innuendo.
28. A reference to defecation.
29. A character’s name which is a pun.

You must take a further hit any time you see…
30. A man’s underwear.
31. A woman’s underwear. (Two hits if it’s Barbara Windsor’s)
32. A naked man.
33. A naked woman.
34. A visual joke featuring a phallic symbol.
35. A speeded-up segment of film.

And any time when there is a scene in which…
36. A future sitcom/light entertainment star appears (not one of the main Carry On team).
37. A future soap/drama star appears (not one of the main Carry On team).
38. Bernard Bresslaw is dressed as a member of an ethnic minority.
39. A man gets dressed up as a woman.
40. A woman gets dressed up as a man.

Finally, all player must take a hit every time you hear the euphemism 'it'.

Bottoms up!

As the game works better if you swap between films every few minutes, it's probably better done on VHS (which holds its exact stopping point) than DVD (which at best offers you skip to the chapter start).

However, last week The Sun gave away a free Carry On DVD every day. Six movies for about 2 quid.

Those who wanted the DVDs but were too embarrassed to buy The Sun found they could appear more intelligent and refined by hiding it inside a copy of Hot Coerced Underage Bestial Babes Go Anal magazine.

Monday, February 13, 2006

la lucha continúa más lejos

Another email from my friend who's been translating at the World Social Forum in Venezuela:

in the last days of the forum i finally made it to the f.s.l. ("forum social libertario" – the alternative/libertarian social forum)… the official social forum was amazing, but i noticed some sharp political differences, for example when i pointed out that it was a bit wierd to be declaring that "another world is possible" from a room in the hilton hotel, where dark skinned cleaning ladies came every morning to make our beds and clean the bathroom. i found no one who agreed with me and was met instead with comments like "what, you mean in your ideal world there wouldn't be cleaning ladies!?" (duh?) so it was quite a relief to be back among people who share my world view a bit more.

the f.s.l. was small, and completely autonomous from the forum itself. there were people there from most of latin america. i missed the good talks, but the final day was a working together to produce a "libertarian communique" from the forum. it was interesting to be in the discussions, which explicitely criticised the emerging (and longer standing, e.g. castro en cuba) revolutionary movements for their personality cults and militarism. they have prodced some interesting texts that we are going to translate to english and they'll be posted on the f.s.l. website.

in the discussions there were quite a few older revolutionaries, in their 50s or older, mostly men, who dominated the meeting, talking about cuba, militarism and the personality cults, and there were young anarchos, students and activists in their mid-twenties, who brought different political ideas to the discussion. one colombian student said that there should be a clear statement against patriarchy. several of the older men showed that they had no idea what the word meant... another said that animal rights should be mentioned in the statement. he was loudly shouted down by a united block of older men (who didn't seem to agree on much, but were firmly together in that animal rights should not go in the statement) in all, the generation gap was quite stark!

more fun then writing statements, we made some actions too. with some friends from brazil, colombia and venezuela we went to with spay cans and stencils to alter the social forum banners so they read: "sin armas, sin estado, otro mundo es posible" (without guns, without the state, another world is possible). a tiny action, but it was good to make even a symbolic act against the number of guns and military that permeated the forum.

back in the real world of the social forum, chavez himself spoke at the caracas poliedro, and we watched it on t.v.... the man is a rock star! apparently he speaks to the nation a couple of times per week and maybe twice a month, when there is something important to talk about, it is compulsory viewing, with all channels showing the chavez speech... he has his own t.v. show too - "alo presidente", in the style of a chat show and throughout the streets of the forum they were selling revolutionary mercandise - chavez, che guevara and bolivar on caps, bags, flags and t-shirts. but the funniest were the dolls, a 45cm plastic chavez in military uniform, and when you push his back he makes a political speech (!!)

but despite the funniness and spectacularity of it all, i was still impressed by the speech he made. it was long (i think nearly two hours)he spoke in a really friendly, conversational style, and he sang (!) (i put the words and translation of song at end of text) and said a lot of stuff that surprised me, about the importance of grassroots social movements, autonomy, and diversity, about the new movements that came from a diversity of struggles worldwide (he specifically mentioned the anti-globalisation movements of seattle and cancun). he said he would arrest and imprison the "gringos" from multinationals who come to steal the resources of latin america. and he talked about ecology, saving the planet, learning from the ways of indigenous peoples, and finding the "peace of the butterfly" before we exterminate
ourselves as a species...

he also specifically thanked the volunteer interpreters among the list of participants who made the forum possible :o)))

and he criticised the social forum, saying that it was only his opinion, and it was for the forum, in its autonomy and diversity to consider, but that he felt it was a problem that the forum did not draw conclusions. "this is serious" he said "we are not here to waste time"...

i was instinctively very cynical, for example, in one speech he spoke of building oil lines from venezuela to the tip of patagonia and using venezuelas oil to industrialise south america and kick out the imperialist invaders. this, in almost the same breath as he talked of the finding the peace of the butterfly. and the thrust, and closing shot of the speech was quoting che guevara, "socialismo, o muerte!" (socialism, or death!). one venezuelan friend pointed out at his point that, at best, the average venezuelan would mobilise for "socialism and life" but maybe not even that...

however, even in my cynicism, i could not help but be moved, most of all by a president, head of state, making a speech that chimed so closely with my anti-state politics. even in the worst case scenario, that it is only rhetoric, it still shows a remarkable shift in the political framework, that the rhetoric of the anti-capitalist movement has permeated to such a high level... it made me think: this is serious, we are not wasting time.

back to the grassroots, the following day i was interpreting for a talk on preserving women’s wisdom. it was run by indigenous women from guatemala and ecuador, who made an altar of flowers, leaves and fruits in the middle of the stage and lit a small fire with sacred wood. they conducted a purification ritual, whilst talking about the massacres in guatemala and the project of preserving the ancient wisdom of the indigenous creation myths and sacred plants. that was another one that we were passing the mike back and forth as the other dried their tears! and at the end they called everyone down to the stage to be purified by the smoke from the fire (as the security guards for the theatre twitched and muttered about the fire alarms ;o)

here are the words to the song chavez sang. it was written by the venezeulan singer songwriter Ali Primera, who died fighting in el salvador.

al verde que yo le canto
es el color de tus maizales
no al verde de las bainas
de matanzas tropicales
los que fueron a vietnam
a quemar sus arrozales
y hoy andan por esas tierras
como andar por sus corrales
dale salvadoreno (dale!)
que no hay pajaro pequeno (dale!)
que despues de alzar al vuelo
se detenga en su volar

the green that i sing to you
is the colour of your maize fields
not the green of the gun sheaths
of the tropical massacres
of those that went to vietnam
to burn their rice fields
and now walk across these lands
like they were walking their corals
go salvadorean (go!)
because there are no small birds (go!)
that once they launch themselves to fly
can be stopped in their flight

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

how i stalked my girlfriend

Astonishing article by Ben Goldacre in The Guardian:

How I stalked my girlfriend

For the past week I've been tracking my girlfriend through her mobile phone. I can see exactly where she is, at any time of day or night, within 150 yards, as long as her phone is on. It has been very interesting to find out about her day. Now I'm going to tell you how I did it.

First, though, I ought to point out, that my girlfriend is a journalist, that I had her permission ("in principle ...") and that this was all in the name of science, bagging a Pulitzer and paying the school fees. You have nothing to worry about, or at least not from me.

But back to business. First I had to get hold of her phone. It wasn't difficult. We live together and she has no reason not to trust me, so she often leaves it lying around. And, after all, I only needed it for five minutes.

I unplugged her phone and took it upstairs to register it on a website I had been told about. It looks as if the service is mainly for tracking stock and staff movements: the Guardian, rather sensibly, doesn't want me to tell you any more than that. I ticked the website's terms and conditions without reading them, put in my debit card details, and bought 25 GSM Credits for £5 plus vat.

Almost immediately, my girlfriend's phone vibrated with a new text message. "Ben Goldacre has requested to add you to their Buddy List! To accept, simply reply to this message with 'LOCATE'". I sent the requested reply. The phone vibrated again. A second text arrived: "WARNING: [this service] allows other people to know where you are. For your own safety make sure that you know who is locating you." I deleted both these text messages.

On the website, I see the familiar number in my list of "GSM devices" and I click "locate". A map appears of the area in which we live, with a person-shaped blob in the middle, roughly 100 yards from our home. The phone doesn't go off at all. There is no trace of what I'm doing on her phone. I can't quite believe my eyes: I knew that the police could do this, and telecommunications companies, but not any old random person with five minutes access to someone else's phone. I can't find anything in her mobile that could possibly let her know that I'm checking her location. As devious systems go, it's foolproof. I set up the website to track her at regular intervals, take a snapshot of her whereabouts automatically, every half hour, and plot her path on the map, so that I can view it at my leisure. It felt, I have to say, exceedingly wrong.

By the time my better half got home, I was so childishly over-excited that I managed to keep all of this secret for precisely 30 seconds. And to my disappointment, she wasn't even slightly freaked out. I don't know if that says good or bad things about our relationship and I wouldn't want you to come away thinking it's all a bit "Mr & Mrs Smith" around here. Having said that, we came up with at least five new uses for this technology between us in a few minutes, all far more sinister than anything I had managed to concoct on my own.

And that, for me, was the clincher. Your mobile phone company could make money from selling information about your location to the companies that offer this service. If you have any reason to suspect that your phone might have been out of your sight, even for five minutes, and there is anyone who might want to track you: call your phone company and ask it to find out if there is a trace on your phone. Anybody could be watching you. It could be me.

As a little unintentional comic relief presumably caused by a system registering the subject of the piece rather than the content, at the end of the article is a list of 'useful links';

Useful links
Hutchison 3G
Virgin Mobile

Monday, February 06, 2006

the heritage of the great war

There's an excellent Dutch based website, The Heritage of The Great War, that's just reproduced an article of mine about remembrance. (The piece started life as a blog post and was slightly refined into an article that got published on Head Heritage).

I think one of the reasons the Great War is so fascinating is its status as the first historical event involving vast numbers of people who were all basically literate. Thus, we were able to get the perspective from ordinary people, we can identify with it more and feel an emotional impact that's harder to glean from tales of times before that.

I mean, most earlier historical events are portrayed as power games among ruling elites. When Henry VIII decapitated assorted spouses, how much did it affect the average peasant living in Northumbria? What difference would it have made to you or me if we were alive then?

This removal and abstraction vanished as literacy spread and allowed people to tell their own story. It accelerated as mass media documentation was invented to capture the stories of everyone literate or otherwise and - most important for big impact on a species with sight as the primary sense - gave photographic records to all who wanted to see them.

Also, it was the first time industrialisation had been applied to warfare, and that blundering into horror has the same sort of attraction as the sinking of the Titanic.

The Heritage of The Great War deliberately takes the people's perspective as opposed to the power-play one, and so I find it very absorbing and am really rather flattered that they've stuck one of my things on there.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

plane truth

An article in the Times by Camilla Cavendish makes some good, if occasionally unthought-through, points on aviation:

If Gordon Brown taxed aircraft fuel at the same rate as petrol for cars, he would raise a cool £9 billion for the Exchequer. But the Chancellor, who is merciless towards the most piddling tax evaders, will not bust Britain’s biggest tax avoidance scam.

Compare this with how much is poured into tackling benefit fraud, which costs the Exchequer an estimated £5bn a year (of which £1.5bn is effectively recouped in unclaimed benefits)

He smiles on airlines that pay no VAT, fuel duty or climate-change levy. He wants a new runway at Heathrow and is funding a study to help BAA to get over the pollution hurdles...

a new justification is now doing the rounds in Whitehall: “flight poverty”. This is the grinding hardship that could befall people if — horrors — their return trip to Malaga started to reflect anything like its real cost in terms of pollution and global warming. Wow. Paying more to get plastered in Prague hardly ranks with Beveridge’s five great social evils.

Why is a Labour Government flapping about “flight poverty”, when it could be fighting real poverty? Nine billion pounds — a figure calculated by the former Treasury adviser Brendon Sewill and widely accepted — is serious cash that Government could target at the most needy, not waste in bribes to people used to cheap holidays. Ryanair’s revenues last year apparently included almost two million flights that were booked by passengers who never showed up...

While flying to Australia and back generates about the same CO2 emissions per person as heating, lighting and cooking in an average house for a year, it creates at least three times as much climate damage, according to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution....

The Government itself admits that aviation emissions could amount to about a quarter of the UK’s total contribution to global warming in 25 years’ time, as other industries clean up their act.

This presumes most airlines will still be in business and able to offer cheap flights. The price of oil and the impossibility of producing any other usable source of aviation fuel will trounce any prospect of that.

Between 1990 and 2003 greenhouse gas emissions from British industry fell in line with the Government’s Kyoto targets. But greenhouse gas emissions from air transport rose by more than 85 per cent, according to the Office for National Statistics. Yet ministers are still actively promoting huge growth in air travel, from 200 million passengers a year to 470 million a year in 25 years’ time, by promoting airport expansion.

This is because transport is exempt from Kyoto, a piece of shit treaty that amounts to a suicide note from the human race. It should have a single clause; 'We could have saved ourselves from extinction, but we were too fucking cheap'.

No matter that about 70 per cent of travellers to Heathrow are transfer passengers, many never setting foot on UK soil: they are all potential customers for BAA’s hungry monopoly. No matter that those who live around airports are locked into homes blighted by noise and pollution. Their disadvantage apparently cannot compare with that of those who might be deprived of a cut-price trip.

This cannot go on. But the reality check will come from an unexpected source. In 2008 an EU directive will come into force that will set tight new limits on nitrous oxide emissions, limits that are almost bound to be exceeded in the Heathrow area by any new runway. The Government is well aware of this: it has a team of seven civil servants in the Department for Transport beavering away to find solutions.

One option, incredibly, is to reduce car emissions by sinking part of the M4 into a £2 billion tunnel. Another is to knock down 7,000 homes. If the EU law is trying to stop people being choked by fumes, then move them! Anything, it seems, is better than daring to face the reality that the cheap flight boom must end. One wonders how much longer ministers can stick their heads in the sand.

The lobbying skills of the air industry make Tesco look tinpot. It has convinced ministers that emissions trading is the way forward. Yet this will have negligible effect on global warming compared with what the Department for Transport’s computer model shows would happen if air travel paid the same rate of tax as car travel. That simple calculation suggests that air travel growth would slow to 2 per cent a year, and that no new runways would be needed. This is not emasculating business; it is fair, realistic and responsible.

But as she's said earlier, aviation emissions are simply unsustainable. We cannot afford any growth in aviation. Passenger holiday aviation now is simply inexcusable.

Will the newly green Tories be prepared to stand up to the air industry, or will they merely tilt at windmills?

No prizes offered there. Are you listening, Zac Goldsmith?

Their green policies will be flights of fancy unless they get a grip on this. A policy that started by trying to please voters will not be complete until it taxes them.

And what do we think we'll get from a party that - even in the midst of its 'let's all be touchy-feely' rebrand - is saying there's too much of a corporate 'tax burden' in the UK, and a need for less associated 'legislation, regulation and bureaucracy'?