Aug 272014
 
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It’s been a weird summer.  Horrible things happening in the world out there; the grist of mainstream and – now – social media too.  Just because you love cat gifs doesn’t mean you don’t see execution gifs …

Beautiful things happening within our family, as vacation time works its magic and makes us speak to each other so wondrously.

But then outwith our nuclear family, other things happening.  Childhood has a long reach; what hurt us as kids … well … it continues to work its invisible sadnesses.

Weave them almost, in painfully mysterious ways.

I’m glad it’s all over, mind; glad my wife and children will shortly have a better base to operate from.

That’s all most of us need; even yearn for.  Somewhere, anywhere, in which to be proud of oneself; to be proud of oneself and one’s forebears.


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Aug 112014
 
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A few months ago I was happy to sit with a short clever summary of the essence of privacy by Cory Doctorow (this is not to say he was happy to sit with it too – just to say I found it shiny enough not to need to pursue the matter further):

This needed to be said, and I’ve never seen it said better:

You should care about privacy because privacy isn’t secrecy. I know what you do in the toilet, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to close the door when you go in the stall.

Today, however, this tweet came my way:

How do we define #privacy? Is privacy the ability to control with whom information gets shared? -@JulieBrillFTC #FOCAS14

This also seems a good approach, certainly at first sight anyhow.

But yesterday, Evgeny Morozov had already worried us thus:

The privacy debate, incapacitated by misplaced pragmatism, defines privacy as individual control over information flows. This treats users as if they exist in a world free of data-hungry insurance companies, banks, advertisers or government nudgers. Can we continue feigning such innocence?

He goes on to suggest:

A robust privacy debate should ask who needs our data and why, while proposing institutional arrangements for resisting the path offered by Silicon Valley. [...]

And:

[...] The intellectual ping pong over privacy between corporate counsels and legal academics moonlighting as radicals always avoids the most basic question: why build the “private spaces” celebrated by Mr Zuckerberg if our freedom to behave there as we wish – and not as companies or states nudge us to – is so limited?

This, of course, widens the issue immensely: it can even lead us to question the fundamentals of the corporate manifestation of capitalism which dominates 21st century life.  This morning I asked the following question:

The question we should be asking ourselves of 21st century revolution (oh,all right – “disruption”, if you prefer) runs as follows: >>

<< Is there enough spare resource in the world for people to create parallel spaces – or must the dispossessed dispossess the rich? >>

<< Answering this question will determine whether the revolution (oh, all right – “disruption”) is going to be humanely manageable or not.

Whilst the Zuckerbergs of the world (oh, all right – Facebook itself …) recommend (that is to say, like!!!) us to squabble over the crumbs and dregs that fall from their privacy tables, Morozov seems to be asserting that we should be much more ambitious.

Which brings me to the point of this post, after four hundred introductory words!

When we think about privacy, why not think as we do when we think about bullying?  Why not have a multi-polar definition in much the same way?  An example.  I wrote this paragraph quite a bit ago now on the subject under discussion, and related matters:

The problem with being accused of racism is surely one of point of view.  Let us take what I would argue is an analogous act of aggression.  As far as I understand it (please correct me if I am wrong), bullying is defined in labour legislation as depending on the perception of the victim not the oppressor.  If someone simply feels they have been bullied, this is enough justification in itself for an investigation of some kind to need to be carried out – whether the alleged oppressor intended to bully or not, this does not affect the significance of the event.

I then go on to apply the concept and approach to racism – an application you can read more about by reading the post in question, if you wish.  But for the purposes of today’s post, I would apply it further to the subject of privacy.  And it leads me to propose: let not there be one definition of something which invades a privacy or someone who feels invaded.  Let, instead, that definition be a matter of point of view of those who feel the invasion.

To go back to Doctorow’s shiny conceptualisation: some of us don’t care if the door of the toilet is open; others greatly treasure their intimacy; and to others, the carelessness about such privacy is quite objectionable.  As I point out towards the end of the post on bullying:

So it is that the racist, as well as the bully I’m sure we have all experienced, manages with an incredible precision to occupy simultaneously two miserable and quite contradictory positions in society: that of victim and oppressor both.

Yet we should not allow the horrible things such people succeed in doing to provoke a similar hatred or reaction in ourselves – for just as surely as the cruelty they exhibit to others is a sign of a brutalising upbringing, so our response to their resulting brutality can only serve to define how uncivilising was ours.

There are two ways of dealing with racism and bullying: a) outright rejection and a terrible shunning or b) a generous engagement and a never-ending instinct to education.

I know which process I would prefer to be a part of.  Have you considered which one most closely resembles your own?

If the envelope of what we should be allowed to consider privacy must include the right to define how far in our own particular cases – and, what’s more, at any particular and variable time – it must be able to place and extend its boundaries, the state will have to be far more fleet-of-foot if it is not to fall into the trap of behaving like the racists and bullies who throughout our shared histories have dominated accepted opinion with bald prejudice.

For in a sense, not asking someone where they see the limits of their own privacy reaching (or only asking them once but not repeatedly) (or not asking them with the education, politeness and cautious kindness a desire to both civilise and be civilised has to encompass) is to do what racists and bullies do constantly: take a personal point of view – that of the bully or racist – and impose it unquestioningly on the emotions and intellect of another.  No permission requested; all assumptions of every right to do so placed upfront; the complete and assumed disregarding of the need for dialogue and communication with the other party.

If it’s not racist for me, it’s not racist for you either; if it’s not bullying for me, it’s not bullying for you either; and if reading your emails and your text messages, listening to your phonecalls and Skype conversations and forming an opinion of your attitudes and being from your metadata (not to mention watching and sharing your sexual activity laughingly alongside others I work with) isn’t something I’d consider an invasion of privacy for me, it’s not something you should consider an invasion of privacy for you either.

But that’s because just like racists and bullies before me, I’m now doing exactly the same with privacy.  Perhaps we need to coin a new term: how does “privacist” suit the moment?

*

I tell you what: if the same people who in Britain have just sanctioned the long-term retention of citizens’ Internet data used the same process, behaviours and attitudes to define bullying and racism, to defining the envelopes of what governments with such a freer hand could now do to the governed, there’d be a hue and cry like no other heard in history.

Except that


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Aug 092014
 
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Just received this email from Amazon on the subject of e-books.  In itself, it’s a novel and a half, but makes for fascinating reading:

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read).  A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures.  And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com

Please consider including these points:

– We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
– Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
– Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
– Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at www.readersunited.com

So my question is as per the title of this blogpost: “Are e-books the revolution paperbacks once were?”

I’m not a real expert in the matter, but one thought does come to mind: whilst I love the Kindle infrastructure and the upsides it’s added to the cross-device reading experience, alongside things such as its lending-library facility (a really cool idea and implementation), paperbacks, once purchased, could be re-bought and resold second-hand, handed on, passed on and shared for as long as one wanted.  I’m not sure that Kindle’s e-books have all these options – nor would work as a business model if they were ever added in the future.

Anyhow.  Despite the above caveats, I am sympathetic to what seems to be the general thrust of Amazon’s argument – at least, at the time of writing this post.  So what do you think?  Any other immediate reactions?  Any responses?  Do you care either way?

:-)


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Aug 082014
 
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Dan Hodges suggests the following:

There’s only one thing worse then the US being the world’s policeman. And that’s the US not being the world’s policeman.

I’d take issue with the use of the monolithic singular (no state, however useful, is ever that monolithic – nor should be in a modern liberal democracy) and the exclusive gender – policeman (though my linguistic side understands why he’s felt obliged to use the idiomatic phrase this way).  But more importantly, I’d take issue with stuff he’s written previously on quite separate subjects.  This, for example:

Unfortunately, that’s just about all they came up with. Ed Miliband will say: “Clearly the next Labour government will face massive fiscal challenges, including having to cut spending.” But that’s just one of those tick-box phrases he likes to sneak into his tick-box speeches. He has this little throwaway line about cuts, but if anyone actually asks him what cuts he’s contemplating he refuses to answer. That’s because he doesn’t really mean it, and he secretly wants everyone to know he doesn’t really mean it.

Now, I don’t necessarily take issue with the ideas Hodges sardonically communicates – apart from anything else, he does sardonic very well.  But when coupled with today’s tweet, I do object to the underlying assumption that 40,000 Iraqis on the point of being butchered can be policed and rescued – should be policed and rescued – by Big Government and the Big State when the very same Big State and Government must not – is unable to – continue its historically ameliorating business at home in the UK and US.

Especially when the plans of some of Hodges’ fellow travellers seem to include brutal cuts to the aforementioned public sector which will lead to a drop in headcount of forty percent:

The biggest cull of public sector jobs for at least 50 years will see vulnerable parts of the state endure reductions in headcount of up to 40%, Britain’s leading tax and spending thinktank said today.

A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the reductions planned as part of the coalition’s deficit reduction programme would hit the poorest parts of Britain hardest, and warned they would prove “challenging” for those parts of government bearing the brunt of austerity.

Piling misery upon misery for the most unprotected in our societies.

So let’s try and be a little bit more coherent, shall we?  If Big Government and the Big State are still cool enough ideas to save the developing world from encroaching dictatorship and the cruelty of the backward (though I suspect the motives behind such strategies have more to do with a Western self-interest of wanting to keep political contamination well at bay in distant dirty countries, quite a la Ebola, than a truly pure perception of right and wrong), let us also accept that we in the West – ordinary people who live in Europe, North America, the Antipodes etc – have the very same right to be treated, by our own Big States and Governments, in the humanitarian way those currently suffering in Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Israel also merit and clearly deserve.


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Aug 062014
 
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There have been stories this morning on how over a billion unique user name/password combinations for over 400,000 websites have been stolen by cybercriminals.  Everyone’s being rather cagey – to date – about the issue as far as I can see: no lists of the websites (a lot of info to process, admittedly), though perhaps these would in any case be counterproductive if published.  What we can surely conclude is that the user name/password system more generally is just about broken.

Which brings me to another couple of thoughts: thoughts I shall proceed to leave you with.

Why does Facebook use https?  It’s a colander of data – there’s just about no one of importance it won’t reveal content to: from security services to advertisers to social scientists … well, it doesn’t half make you wonder if the https strategy is little more than a marketing ploy.  Make us feel we’re in safe techie-hands, even as our data is splurged and spread around to increase shareholder satisfaction.

And as Google becomes the de facto scourer of emailed child porn (no problem with the idea itself, but tremendous issues with the privacy and constitutional implications of this implementation in particular), I do wonder whether we shouldn’t forget about security altogether.  What’s next to be rolled out?  A pop-up notification which warns you when you express adulterous thoughts – or perhaps a knock at the front door if you suggest in desperation, not literally of course, you’d like to kill someone for everything they’ve done to you?

In truth, all of this can only lead to two places: firstly, the death of irony, sarcasm and – more widely – the homely habit of telling jokes, as fear of being misunderstood replaces the freedom to speak one’s mind; secondly, a progressive rewriting of the Ten Commandments of ancient times, where the crimes pursued are those which most justify a dragnet surveillance approach, and the God who oversees their application are the Google & Co (but, hey, let’s be honest here: it’s Google we mean) already mentioned.

After all, it’s faintly conceivable for those in the know that – all along – Google has been a contraction of “God + ogle” …


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Aug 022014
 
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I’ve been struggling (as I imagine all of us not trained in the history in question have been struggling) to understand the dynamics of the current conflict in Gaza.  It’s not just from my failure to comprehend how people can be party to so much cruelty, but also from the point of view of how particularly the British and US governments can simultaneously condemn in public and – apparently – support in private such violence.

And so I stumble across a piece of data which, if true, explains at least half of that equation: the US currently tolerates an annual mortality rate by gunshot wounds – suicide and murder both – of 30,000 of its citizens.

That’s almost a hundred a day.

In fact, at least according to this .pdf, the figure can be occasionally even more alarming:

“That is the thing I just can’t understand.  On September 11, 2001, three thousand people died.  And ten times that amount of people die every year in the United States from firearms.  That question comes into my head a lot. Believe me. ”

Hardly surprising, then (perhaps, more accurately, I should say “sadly unsurprising”), that statistics such as these (from the previous Gaza War) and opinions such as these (from only yesterday) can emerge from such an icy cauldron of experience and perceptions:

An Israeli newspaper appeared to attempt to avert a backlash on Friday evening, when it removed a post entitled ‘When Genocide is Permissible’ from its website less than a minute after it was uploaded.

The article in question apparently having been written by a blogger based in the US.

To its credit, the Times of Israel later reacted in the following way:

A spokeswoman from The Times of Israel  has since condemned the blog as “damnable and ignorant”.

She told The Independent: “The blog post, which was both damnable and ignorant, was uploaded by a blogger. It was removed by the Times of Israel for breaching our editorial guidelines. The blog has been discontinued.”

Never mind the Gaza Strip.  This is clearly (even if differently in certain fundamental detail) a case of the #NewWorldStrip: a zone of violence where poverty of thought outstrips the humanity we are all capable of.

The cost, in fact, of violent freedoms.  And the cancer continues to spread.


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Aug 012014
 
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We live in horrible online public spaces – even as our private lives may contain in equal and respectful parts the beauty, sadness, love and fear, natural and appropriate to the curiosity that is this planetary existence of ours.

So whilst I’m having a wonderful time at home with family and friends, with good food and drink, with affection and humanity and everything that relates to being a good human, every time I sign on to my Twitter and Facebook accounts, speckling (inevitably it would seem) the thoughtful and even inspiring in a way that reminds one all too soon of a flock of malevolent birds – or maybe even a Petri dish of bacterial growth – I see the awful things that are happening out there, and – then – wonder, at a loss for better or more useful words, simply “Bloody bloody hell!”.

Meanwhile, Israel proceeds to bomb Gaza furiously, and Hamas proceeds to fire rockets just as hatefully … and I read reports of Israeli snipers repeating the terror of the Balkans in the 1990s … and children die and women bleed and men are corralled in that part of humanity that only deserves partial dismay when their deaths are duly reported because, as men, they are (perhaps) somehow more to blame for this tragedy (even as they are entirely innocent too – even those who belong to duly constituted armies) … and so we realise to what extent our natural shorthand in the face of complex situations has disintegrated into a moral idiocy of revolting proportions: an idiocy which assigns no virtue to any position held by anyone still able to effect anything, never mind those of us who look on from afar.

Yes.  We move very quickly from cautiously prejudging the world around us – in order to be able to understand it better and in time – to forming layers of prejudice around those other occasional, and ultimately immensely damaging, prejudgements which emerge from a dark and painfully reactive emotion.  Like cancerous oysters surrounded by and embedded in a blandly clever rhetoric, we erect upon foundations of cack-handed and half-baked thinking entire strategies of self-justification – a self-justification which allows us to acquire any number of permanent badges of courage, and continue to wear them whatever the implications or circumstances.

Prejudging the world is a necessary summary of what happens around us.  We do it all the time.  We look at a person’s face and then draw conclusions and, if the conclusions are fortunate, we continue the conversation, adapt our initial impression and come to a fairer, more accurate, understanding of what we are engaging with.

But in extreme conditions – conditions such as the Balkans, now Gaza, a fairly unreported Syria, a confusingly reported Ukraine, a whole host of depressing moments and conflicts – there is no time to do anything more than rapidly, and often cruelly, form a prejudice out of a prejudgement.  That person’s face is behind a rifle crosshair; that uniform signals “enemy”; and so the dynamics of civil conflict kick in like the destruction of a RORO vessel: the seeping of water into one side of a craft suddenly becomes a gush of slippery liquid knocking sideways and upside down all opportunity for stability – or, even, in the case of all-out war, all embarrassed chance of a gingerly outstretched seeking of dialogue.

Dialogue.

Dialogue.

Dialogue.

Without dialogue, we are not human.  This is why our political class now is inhumane.  The most it ever achieves these days is a pasty-faced process of heavily circumscribed “listening”: no obligation to take any notice; no requirement to register the results publicly; no inclination to do more than spin the opinions of the many into the poverty of thought of the very powerful few.  But true dialogue, a true exchange of positions, a true equality of hierarchy, a peer-to-peer set of relationships if you like … of this we have none; of this no government – nor, indeed, authority of any note – cares to believe in and sustain.

And now I read in the Guardian that (the bold is mine):

Antisemitic hate crime rose by more than a third in the first six months of the year and spiked to a five-year high in July, figures show.

The Community Security Trust, which records attacks on the Jewish community in the UK, found there had been a 36% rise in antisemitic incidents, including violent crime and vandalism, to 304 between January and June. This was followed by 130 incidents in July alone, which coincided with the Israeli military offensive in Gaza.

The story goes on to describe the fear the community, also innocent, is experiencing as the ghosts of European anti-Semitism begin to rise from the graves of the millions who died at its hands.  Florid language, yes … OK.  Maybe it is.  But the situation is both fearful and ever-present.  For anti-Semitism is an oyster of permanence, buried but not crushed, hidden but not bowed.

As I said in my previous post:

But if I were the [Israelis], and prone to giving unbidden advice (I don’t generally, so forgive me this one time), long-term I’d fear far more a resurgence of European anti-Semitism than a cack-handed post-war anti-solution of a relationship with the Palestinians.

And if you think this is beyond all bounds of realistic possibility, just contemplate the following scenario: an underground of neo-Nazis, for decades unable to convince a wider population that its prejudices relating to the Jews in Europe were anything but prejudices, suddenly, and in a highly social-networked way, grabs hold of a complex and miserably visceral situation which most Europeans can only protest about.  Imagine what could be done with such an emotionally explosive situation – a situation which lends itself so easily to the prejudgement I was talking about above.

(A gentle by-the-by on the way too, if you will: compare and contrast, if you do remember anything, what happened in the Balkans – much closer to our European homes.  Compare the urgency with which people took to the streets to defend and protect the innocent.  Compare what was done to Sarajevo’s plural community.  Compare how level killing-fields were not to be permitted.  Compare how everything was kept isolated for so very long, whilst Europe failed to decide how to deal – once more – with a home-made genocide; a genocide on its doorstep.)

I used to argue the following: “It doesn’t matter where the opinion comes from – judge instead the intrinsic value of the words in question.”  I’m not so sanguine now.  Words have a history; phrases form out of the prejudgements in question; and prejudice comes from borrowed points of view, often violently bolted together.  We cannot isolate from the mouths of those who speak, or the fingers of those who write or type, the words that issue forth.

Words can be bullets – fired by snipers of clever and accurate intent – just as easily as any piece of deadly lead.

And whilst the Israelis are committing serious offences against humanity, there is a trail of complicity and criminality on many sides which makes the acts of war being carried out in the world today little more or less than a cultural DNA we all share.

The damaged genes we all carry – and sometimes exhibit in our families and personal environments, as well as on world stages – have also made the body politic and social what it is in these terrible moments.

So as we try to unravel where it went wrong, the only easy prejudgement that doesn’t fall into the prejudice we should always try and resist is to say the innocent bear no single nationality at all – as do neither the culpable.

For what I fear most, of course, is if this democratically-elected Israeli government – in the confusion of easy latterday socially-networked prejudice – succeeded in convincing a significant number of Europeans that an excuse to “hate the Israelis” (the codification process going on would be clear, I think) was actually a reason.

The pain, for me, with Spanish Jewish blood in my family, would be overwhelming.  That a determined 21st century government, through its actions one unhappy summer (whether imposed from without or initiated forcefully from within), managed to unravel everything good Europeans – both Jewish and otherwise – had worked for decades to remove from our sociopolitical and cultural agendas … and what’s more, this government was Israeli … and what’s more, its direct supporter was US … well, the irony with respect to those who truly saved the 20th century from oppressive European dictatorship would never be stronger.

I no longer know what to think.

And even so, this doesn’t stop me from thinking.  As yet, does it you?


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Jul 292014
 
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I love Us vs Th3m.  Consistently focussed on what’s web-interesting; occasionally rude in the nicest possible way; of late, perfectly innovative as anything on the Internet needs to be to have the right to demand our attention.

This piece, for example, on sinister-font usage is fabulous.  (And if you want a better gander at Portmeirion itself, I’ve got a few photos I took one glorious day we spent there.)  But whilst stories about evil typescripts may feed our playful paranoias, the fronts of the battles for other hearts and minds are being fought vigorously – maybe violently too – on the very same web.  And the battles being carried out are anything but playful – or benign.

Bob has a piece which – at least in my perception – carefully follows up an idea I saw tweeted the other day.  I think it went something along the lines of: “Criticism of Israel might not be a result of anti-Semitism, but it could quite easily lead to more anti-Semitism.”  Who bears the responsibility is complex, for me that is, but the reality is clear: in the scurry to condemn and criticise, the even-handedness of traditional mainstream journalism, of any journalism in the event, gets lost in the horror that reaches our screens.  The genocides of other decades have quietly been swept under the carpets of non-attention – meanwhile, that which is visible has us reaching for ancient prejudice.  The terrible outbreak of Ebola in Africa at the moment is one such example: whilst those who were dying were Africans themselves, the story has lain suppurating with little attention for months.  Now important aid workers of other nationalities are dying, suddenly the media empires decide it is time to let on, and so stories are getting published asking whether the disease could reach our shores.

Nothing like self-interest to provoke a wider interest.  (Now keep a pin in that idea – we’ll come back to it.)

I’ve also seen posted on various mainstream media the details of a public-relations document of US origin which the Israeli government spokespeople are apparently following “slickly” to the letter.  One of the issues raised is the “apartheid” the Israelis are pursuing: the assumption that Jews and Palestinians can never live together, nor must be allowed to.  As the term “apartheid” is anathema to the US body politic (quite rightly so, too – especially with the history of their own Civil Rights’ Movement to the fore), it would appear Israeli spokespeople are trained to sidestep the issue with methods of clever distraction.

As if no other government practised such reprehensible procedures.

In truth, the real apartheid going on here is that which separates history from the present.  And as history is such an interpreted medium of communication, the possibility – even when given the space it deserves – of confusion, disagreement and violent riposte was never higher than a latterday world of educated voters, operating equally sharply – and rhetorically (myself included) – in a socially-networked set of environments where the smart turn of phrase beats the sorry reality just about hands down every time.  As Bob’s piece shows us, “even” the mainstream media is manifestly not a Jewish conspiracy – but don’t let that get in the way of a rapidly retweeted gobbet of prejudice.

*

There is one more story, though, I’d like to focus on – before I finish this post: the new King of Spain has decided that members of the Spanish royal family must no longer have anything to do with the private sector.  In a sense, this is a curious move: after all, over the past few decades, the overriding political meme has been “public sector bad, private sector good”.  Why, then, all of a sudden, do the Spanish decide to swim (sunfully!) in the opposite direction?  They have, of course, had their own fair share of political, financial and social scandals, as the El País piece clearly shows us.  And in a sense, this is just another example of a kind of apartheid – a separating of two allegedly incompatible ways of being.

Is it good?  Should we criticise it?  Is it time for a sorry pendulum to swing back?  What exactly is going on here?  What part precisely has this suddenly resistible – yet once all-conquering – private sector got to be ashamed of?

*

One final concept to toss into the marmite, as a continuation of  the previous.  Maybe we could argue that at the root of all our conflicts right now, there is excessive blame being placed on people and cultures and a weak appreciation of the political, economic and social inefficiencies that the private-sector profit motive is delivering over a whole raft of human endeavours.  From the fronts of war to the apparently necessary financial apartheid of certain royal houses to the forgetfulness that so many of us exhibit with respect to history, it seems jolly obvious that compassion is being forgotten in the race to the lowest common bottom line.

And in all the conflicts I mention, compassion – alongside its kindly companions, forgiveness and redemption – shines through via its utter political and commercial absence.

So, where I would suggest that the Israelis may be going terribly wrong – these Israelis who manifestly fear a renewal of anti-Semitic dynamics, evidenced specifically in their asserting of an absolute control over their post-World War II homeland – is in assuming (I assume they assume, from their actions) that they have little to fear from the historical prejudices of Europe.  As I said the other day, anti-Semitism in Europe is in our cultural DNA.  And if they’re not careful with history – or with people and places from what we continue to hope were other times – then the fronts which begin to open up will become far more osmotic, widespread and difficult to understand (or, indeed, “tame”) than is currently the case.

Perhaps this is what the Israelis are looking to achieve.  It would certainly explain a lot.  Living in a permanent state of violent conflict is not good for the mindsets of anyone.  To bring this forcefully home to the rest of us would clearly be a plan: a good plan … well, I really don’t know – but a plan all the same, it could be.

But if I were them, and prone to giving unbidden advice (I don’t generally, so forgive me this one time), long-term I’d fear far more a resurgence of European anti-Semitism than a cack-handed post-war anti-solution of a relationship with the Palestinians.

In the light of 20th century history, anyway.

Wouldn’t you?

:-(


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Jul 252014
 
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Here’s a batshit insane story, to quote from one of my Twitter acquaintances, Adrian Short:

Batshit insane Tory MP David Tredinnick wants more astrology in healthcare: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-28464009 …

And here’s the story he links to:

A Conservative MP has spoken of his belief in astrology and his desire to incorporate it into medicine.

David Tredinnick said he had spent 20 years studying astrology and healthcare and was convinced it could work.

The MP for Bosworth, a member of the health committee and the science and technology committee, said he was not afraid of ridicule or abuse.

The MP in question goes on to describe astrology as something with a “proven track record”.  Proven, I suppose, as much as Tory economics has shown itself able to serve the nation equitably.

But Short makes a follow-up comment which really does interest me:

Which makes me wonder how we regulate negligence and misconduct in medical astrology.

Considering that so much of what the public-sector NHS is now carrying out is under the immediate control and management of private-sector companies, and considering that clinical negligence has been taken out of scope of Legal Aid provision, you might very well ask the same question of traditional non-batshit-insane medicine: without emanation of the state, without Legal Aid, effectively you have a system built not only to enable wide-ranging freedoms for medical corporations to do as they wish but also for MPs like David Tredinnick – and the similarly curious – to bring to our GP surgeries such prejudice-based treatments.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d suggest that it was all part of a whole.  Instead, I’ll simply remind us that battles must be fought by those most affected.  And we are now clearly those most affected by all this prejudice.


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Jul 232014
 
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I started thinking about the subject of journalism this morning, via a tweet from the always excellent Rob Manuel.  As often happens with what he sends round the ether, you smile, learn and continue to think once his thought passes you by.  This was the tweet in question:

Jon Snow has started doing gonzo journalism. http://blogs.channel4.com/snowblog/people-gaza-gracious-hospitable-condemned/24236 …

And this was the Jon Snow post he linked to.

And this is what he meant (I assume) by “gonzo journalism”:

Gonzo journalism is a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative. The word “gonzo” is believed to be first used in 1970 to describe an article by Hunter S. Thompson, who later popularized the style. It is an energetic first-person participatory writing style in which the author is a protagonist, and it draws its power from a combination of both social critique and self-satire.[1] It has since been applied to other subjective artistic endeavors.

Gonzo journalism involves an approach to accuracy through the reporting of personal experiences and emotions, as compared to traditional journalism, which favors a detached style and relies on facts or quotations that can be verified by third parties. Gonzo journalism disregards the strictly edited product favored by newspaper media and strives for a more personal approach; the personality of a piece is equally as important as the event the piece is on. Use of sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, and profanity is common.

I was reminded at the time, and thought this post was going to be mainly about that experience, of something that happened to me when I applied to go on the El País journalism course over a decade ago.  I passed the first stage, but failed on writing about how I saw journalism developing, feeling as I did that opinion needed to come in from the cold.  Later, on these pages, instead of demanding more hollowed-out opinion, I called it a need for more voices.

And so, as a result of Rob’s gonzo comment, I thought I might write something discursive and uncontroversial.

However, this afternoon – in the hervidor that is the self-same Twitter – a battle over journalistic probity between Owen Jones and James Bloodworth produced along the way this tweet from Max Shanly:

@J_Bloodworth @OwenJones84 Because all too often James you focus on the negative and ignore the positive.

Now whilst I’m pretty sure that at the moment of its sending, James’ tweeted reply suggested that journalism’s job consisted in focussing on the negative, as anything which focussed on the positive was the activity of the propagandist (ie Owen Jones), I’m darned if I can now find the phrase I’m sure he tweeted (and which I’m equally sure I also favourited).  And, to be honest, I can’t see any reason for him to be ashamed of the idea – certainly not enough to delete it from the web (if, indeed, that is what he did – in a world of subtle censorship and filtering, one can now never be sure exactly what one did see).  In part, I didn’t get onto the El País journalism course precisely because I wasn’t as rigorous as James clearly prefers to be.  Rigour of such a kind, even if unpopular, is hardly something to make one feel professionally disgraced.

Yet the position and its counterpoint are both worth pursuing.  Where we find ourselves in conditions as extreme as Gaza, perhaps gonzo journalism – the journalism of emotion, I mean – is the only reasonable, that is to say, the only moderately democratic, reaction and way forward.  The carefully weighed-up, predigested and moderated journalism of traditional media contains within itself a lot of information which is not communicated.  As a result, a journalistic elite, a hierarchy of power and centralised command and control, is inevitably erected over the readerships and viewers various – precisely because only the negative is worthy of being told.  The shit is encouraged to hit the fan – and so the journalists themselves become the fans of the shit.

It may be, then, that to focus on the positive could be the job of some propagandists, but to wallow in the negative as James (I think) seemed to want to – apart from anything else, in order to avoid any accusations of propagandism – is equally extreme; equally self-interested; equally falsifying of the reality we all experience.

The alternative could be the multiple voices of direct emotion that traditional journalism forcefully resists like a schizophrenic’s medication similarly aims to.  Voices which may multiply uncontrollably – but which may also serve to understand a mad world better.

For as I said a couple of years ago in my piece linked to above:

By allowing those most knowledgeable about such corrupting influences to speak from the heart instead of the pocket, from their own most private voices instead of their borrowed and acquired public positions, the darkness that has fallen over one of the pillars of our democracy may ultimately be cast aside.


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Jul 192014
 
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This evening I tweeted two connected posts.  I’ve been finding it impossible to comment on three significant news items recently: Gaza, Ukraine and Syria.  So I tweeted these two connected posts as some – perhaps insubstantial – attempt on my part to say, at a distance, some of what I was feeling.

The first post described an exhibition on the subject of a small percentage of children rescued from Nazi concentration camps and whisked off to the Lake District to recover.  It concluded with the following observation:

The healing quality of the surroundings the children found themselves in on arriving in the Lake District itself was heavily, and quite rightly, underlined.

The second described the importance of managing environment, using the example of bumblebees as an analogy for our own frailties – especially at the hands of this dreadful Coalition government:

Bumblebees need holes in walls to find a habitat.  I learnt that whilst in the Lake District yesterday at the Peter Rabbit garden outside the Beatrix Potter Attraction, Windermere.  It seems, for me right now, to describe perfectly what the Coalition’s economics is doing to us.

The people who do the things they are doing to us work in the urban landscape that is the metropolis of London.  When they escape to their country retreats, it is out of privilege they escape: for them, the countryside is just as much a good to be bought and sold as a future on the futures market.  When they plan to detonate, dismantle and destroy the complex ecosystem that is English society, they do not care to worry about those of us who are like bumblebees: those of us who need, in amongst the impervious concrete constructs, habitat-generating holes in Lakeland stone-style walls.

The shock and awe of Osborneconomics is an urban construct: the constructors and developers who remake the faces of our cities every twenty years do not care about complexities, preservation or the conservation of the existing.

Yesterday, visiting Windermere and Bowness showed me – reminded me – that change needs to be managed not imposed; but managed in the sense of appreciating and dealing with its impact on real environments and not in the sense of that managerialist approach which involves brainwashing workforces, voters and affected populations into meek and materialist submission.

Meanwhile, a BBC feature on how extreme isolation warps the mind usefully came my way this evening.  If you’re in the UK I’m not sure that the link I’m going to give you will be accessible – if they know what they’re doing, a redirect will kick in; if not, do try and search it – it’s worth your time.  Anyhow.  Here’s the link I’ve got and a flavour of what it says:

We all want to be alone from time to time, to escape the demands of our colleagues or the hassle of crowds. But not alone alone. For most people, prolonged social isolation is all bad, particularly mentally. We know this not only from reports by people like Shourd who have experienced it first-hand, but also from psychological experiments on the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation, some of which had to be called off due to the extreme and bizarre reactions of those involved. Why does the mind unravel so spectacularly when we’re truly on our own, and is there any way to stop it?

What, then, am I saying with these three pieces I quote from above?  Or what am I trying to say?  Conflict, especially violent conflict, especially violent conflict in the absence of the dynamics of consensus, is not primarily because of the money merchants who distribute the machines of death; is not primarily because of the flags and religions which shear people away from each other; is not even because of land which should belong to one or another.  Conflict, especially violent conflict, is a matter – ultimately – of language.  And in this sense, it is due to a traumatic failure of language.

Language doesn’t really work very well at the best of times.  Our vocabulary is highly individual, carrying a baggage of memories and experiences no one else shares.  It’s a miracle that any overlap of meaning exists at all – at least to the extent that we may communicate enough not to be permanently at each other’s throats.  So it’s hardly surprising that in the more extreme environments we see this month – Gaza, Ukraine and Syria – it should be possible to read phrases tossed out on social networks along the lines of “Today I saw a man putting pieces of his son into a shopping-bag”; hardly surprising, I would argue, even as it is clearly distressingly disturbing.

No.  I’m not looking to relativise very different situations.  I’m not looking to avoid taking ownership for my opinions either.  Although it is true that I feel I don’t have the knowledge to decide which side is right – even that I don’t think I have the right to make that judgement.  And, in fact, I think that maybe this is the wider nub of the problem: geopolitical behaviours of a cruelly managerialist bent have taken over long ago from local knowledge and understanding.  Brains and ideas bods swoop in at the drop of an emergency hat (or not as the case may be – Syria perhaps a terrible case in point).  We’re forever assuming greater forces will pull out their bloodied rabbits and solve, by some multi-polar magic, the creaking faults of latterday international relations.  And when I say we, I mean all of us who have ever – all of us who will ever – find ourselves in the midst of some violent conflict or another.  Not just the onlookers who balefully observe via the web, social networks, mainstream TV and so forth.

In truth, few people in such environments are entirely in charge of their destinies, of what they do or say, of how they react to events – or, indeed, how they can manage history’s march.  If we still find it so difficult to work out who messed us up in a sequence of banking crises in 2008 for goodness sake, how can we decide right now who to usefully blame when a democratic state and a half-baked national solution start firing rockets at each other; when a government and “rebel” opposition of geopolitically sustained violence lead to the destruction of a passenger plane, the spiriting away of bloating human remains and the vanishing into thin air of surface-to-air missile batteries and black boxes various; or when a war-torn society destroys streets, town centres, cities and communities where people once used to live their lives in peace if not in our prized liberal freedoms?

“Usefully blame?” you ask.  “And what do you mean by that?”  Well, again, there’s the nub of the issue.  “Stop the War!” perhaps.  Or maybe not.  Maybe, far better, “Stop War!”

There’s a difference.

At least for me.

I wonder if it exists for you too.


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Jul 162014
 
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I just tweeted in rather ironic tone the following:

Plaything of cybercriminal, paedophile, govt – even social-network users for goodness sake! – the web’s breaking up like a rusting old car.

I’d just read this, where under current legislation (significantly, no need for #DRIP here), but with new process and procedure, forty-five police forces have managed to coordinate their efforts and capture 660 suspected paedophiles.  I presume mainly online paedophiles (ie paedophiles who use online tools to commit crimes), and do wonder if in the future this won’t lead to another digital divide opening up: that where law enforcement concentrates on arresting a far larger proportion of those who operate online than it will do with respect to those who operate more carefully behind closed doors – and in that far more difficult-to-profile real (or, indeed, historical) world.

I am also minded to wonder how many hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of damaged adults are now hiding within their very private selves the consequences of historical child abuse.  Some would argue that the web augments the activity: I would suggest (with no professional background or figures to boast of, mind) that child abuse is probably a pretty steady statement of intent in most societies, and if less than a year’s concerted effort yields 660 arrestees in the UK, how many more criminals in how many other years have, at all levels in society, avoided the same fate?

I don’t, of course, suggest they’ve historically avoided detection.  I do suggest they’ve historically avoided prosecution.

Meanwhile, this story popped up a little late in my timeline this afternoon:

 Former Labour shadow minster Diane Abbott said her party’s leadership had been hoodwinked into supporting the legislation.

“I believe – I hate to say this because they are all nice people – that those on the opposition front bench have been rolled,” she said.

“All ministers had to do was to raise in front of them the spectre of being an irresponsible opposition, and that children will die if they do not vote for the bill on this timetable, and they succumbed.”

And yet, I would remind you, we have the news already mentioned that, under current legislation, 660 suspected paedophiles can be tracked down and captured.  So why the urgency for making the extra-legal behaviours of the past decades entirely legal law right now?

The problem for me with the surveillance state we’re getting is that it mimics very closely long-running debates of a very technical nature between closed source and open source software licence regimes.  In the former, we trust that one company knows what it needs to know, and will be able to protect us in a timely fashion from any and every cyberattack.  In the latter, when it works at its best, we make the knowledge available to everyone, so that any clever corruption of good intentions can be anticipated, resolved and removed from the system as quickly as possible.

The million eyes which – when they work as they should – work to a common cause.

The dynamics are very similar in the case of child abuse and the passing of #DRIP: allow the relatively few eyes of the security services total access to information, trust they will do with it what they should (we never get paedophile police officers, after all!) and assume that the only criminals acting out there belong to the levels of society who won’t get the right to see the intelligence about each other – or perhaps, more worryingly, won’t get to doublecheck the intelligence about their “betters”.

What we’re getting, then, is the undue exertion of power.  What we need is something different.  If the worldwide web and the Internet it runs on was a real-world chain of, say, toddlers’ playgroups or young children’s schools, and we suddenly and analogously proposed changing the ground rules as savagely as has been demanded (for example, installing CCTV in all children’s environments; recording every word spoken; registering for years the acts of every carer and parent), all of us would find outrage within our reach.  We would see it as abuse (even as it claimed to look to prevent its taking place); we would perceive it, at the very least, as a supremely uncoordinated act of change management; and we would realise how anti-democratic it was all shaping up to be.

Instead, to paraphrase Diane Abbott, we’re all on the point of allowing ourselves to be rolled.

The web and the wider Internet are, indeed, oxidising into uselessness.  There’s still time to rescue them, I’m sure.  But it’ll require a mighty change of mentality and mindsets from us all: from the voters; from the parents; from our MPs who still claim to represent us; from our leaders and from the led together – from anyone, in fact, who cares about democracy.

For that’s what the #DRIP process really stands for.  Unintentionally, perhaps.  In reality, all the same.

democracy | rest in peace


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Jul 102014
 
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I thought I’d be as formal in my post’s title as possible today.  As of yesterday, I have an official complaint lodged with NHS England about procedure and process at our local pharmacy.  This comes on the back of an error committed last year by the pharmacy I used to use.

I’ve had epilepsy for most of my life, though with a gap of about ten years in my thirties where I didn’t require medication.  Last year, a Chester pharmacy dispensed a number of 300 mg Epilim tablets instead of the normal 500 mg I take.  The size was very similar; the colour identical; the blister pack had only a slight difference in hue on one side.  For a couple of days, I took them without realising – though fortunately no side-effects were felt.  I complained to the pharmacy’s head office, received the corresponding apology and on my following visit for my next prescription it was explained to me how procedures were being changed to avoid a repeat of the issue.

Actually, that next prescription also included a pair of 300 mg tablets.  I was on holiday by then but on my return, I notified both the pharmacy (they didn’t believe me, I’m afraid) and the manufacturer, with the suggestion that, in the future, the two sizes of tablets be differentiated better physically.  The manufacturer took down all kinds of personal details over the phone (all the medication I took; all my conditions; name, address, telephone etc.), and I’ve heard absolutely nothing from them since then.

Meanwhile, as a result of what had happened – and after a long prescription issued by the surgery due to computer problems last summer – I decided to change the pharmacy I went to.

Surprise, surprise – for the first time in my life, I was given a generic sodium valproate, stomach-resistant I think it was called (or maybe gastro-resistant – I can’t remember exactly); clearly, however, not the controlled-release branded Epilim I was accustomed to.  I thought nothing more of this as I assumed it was part of a drive to reduce costs by using generic equivalents.

Last week, a member of my family was issued with a double prescription to cover the summer holidays they were shortly going away on.  Only three of the four bottles were available; the young woman at the pharmacy said she’d order a fourth and it’d be ready at the beginning of this week.  We both went in on Tuesday to pick up our prescriptions, in my case me having phoned first to doublecheck that everything was ready.

Sadly, it wasn’t – and so this is my anecdotal evidence accumulating that not all is right in English pharmacies.  From one big national chain to another, problems with procedures and process have arisen again: this time, only half my prescription was ready, and when I got home, I realised only about ninety percent of that half.  In my relative’s case, the fourth bottle hadn’t been ordered; there was no record of anyone having requested such an order; and neither was there any record of any prescription having being issued since April.

We agreed to return yesterday, which we did – only to find, after phoning once more in the morning to doublecheck everything would be ready (they said it would be), that whilst the second half of my prescription had been readied, the first half’s missing component hadn’t arrived (or hadn’t been ordered) (or had been lost) (and we’re talking only twelve tablets here – twelve damn tablets!).  The manager wasn’t there that day, so in the end to calm the justifiably rising hackles of my relative, I asked for a contact number to complain and then phoned NHS England and registered my dissatisfaction.  (Amongst other things in this complaint, I mentioned the fact that on no occasion had either myself or my relative been given an IOU receipt for part-prescriptions not dispensed.  In our experience, this is what other pharmacies do everywhere.  On reflection, we found it most surprising.  One more procedural issue to add to the weary mix.)

Let it be clear, and just to reiterate: my NHS England complaint was all couched in terms of procedures and process, of course; all the time saying I understood the pressures the people in question were currently working under – especially with the backdrop of a savage cutting behind the scenes by this Coalition government of frontline NHS services.

Anyhow.  Today, Thursday, we went back to the same pharmacy.  I entered alone, and spoke to the congenial young manager.  He was honest, took ownership and explained a dire financial background.  I said I appreciated the situation – and accepted his apologies.  I did query one thing: the previous day, to a person who said he was filling in, I had seen the generic sodium valproate I had been given for my previous prescription, and I’d asked him why I couldn’t just have twelve tablets of generic equivalent to complete what was missing.  He went and had a look, came back shortly and said abruptly: “There are no generic equivalents.”

I mentioned this incident today to the manager, who took the information onboard but was unable to explain anything further at the time.  When we got back home, there was a voicemail waiting for me on the landline.  It asked me to phone him about the “generic sodium valproate”, and so I did immediately.

It then transpired that I’d actually been on the wrong epilepsy medication for two months.  The doses had been correct but the delivery technology was different: ie the generic wasn’t given in a controlled-release way.  The manager was most apologetic and didn’t minimise how serious the consequences could’ve been.  I began to feel sorry for him.  I didn’t want to pile further misery onto the original circumstances – especially as I knew an official complaint was already being processed with NHS England.  But I did suggest that perhaps it wasn’t now just a question of procedures and process: that the person who made the mistake needed urgent feedback and coaching at the very minimum.

I have to say, however, I shall have no compunctions about being more assertive about my medication in the future.  If anything changes, I shall question it most firmly.  And I shall check every blister pack I used to blithely take – but, blithely anyway, will do so no more.

A couple of final thoughts: firstly, to err is human, and errors happen.  But the reason we have national corporate chains is so they can learn from mistakes and transmit organically-acquired knowhow – in a timely, accurate and lifesaving fashion – to all their staff and employees, through appropriate induction training, as well as on-the-job and continuous learning programmes.  (That’s the value they’re supposed to add.  That’s the reason we tolerate such huge profit margins.)

I’m not sure that this has been the case here, though – nor on the previous occasion I experienced either.

Secondly, in times of radical change – and whether you agree with the motives behind a particular change or not – everyone can surely agree to accept that managing such flux is a paramount responsibility, especially when we’re dealing with the lives of people who depend on medication to keep chronic illness at bay and ensure that they remain safe, happy, independent and productive.

And again, the anecdotal evidence I lay before you today doesn’t really convince me that this has necessarily happened.

Finally, my relative didn’t get the fourth bottle they were looking for.  Not the make in question.  They had, instead, to settle for something else.  The reason for the preference?  Once more, a method of delivery: a translucent bottle makes controlling how much is left much easier, as does a dropper which allows for better control of the medication.

So.  Unnecessarily unhappy patients, staff, companies and institutions.  A sad – and potentially dangerous – set of situations all around.

At least in these anecdotal cases I put before you this evening.  At least in my own personal experience.

Anyone else – maybe who works on the coalface – who knows whether this is either par for an increasingly depressing course or, alternatively, exceptions which unfairly disprove a rule?


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Jul 082014
 
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I got it mostly wrong in my previous post when I said that people may be sending missives to Google, in order to get links removed from its listings when my name – miljenko williams – is searched.  Usefully, the always kindly Paul Bernal tweeted me a number of clarifications, which – as is my wont – simply make me think of more questions.

To summarise what Paul has said to me this evening (please correct me if I am wrong) in two easy-to-understand points:

  1. Google slaps the phrase “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. Learn more” at the bottom not only of my search results but Paul’s and almost everyone else’s because – according to its algorithms, listings or other opaque critera – we are not public figures.
  2. If, for example, you search a famous singer – paul mccartney, say – no such message appears at the bottom of the screen.  This is precisely because he is a public figure.  Only ordinary people have a right to be forgotten; the paul mccartneys of this world do not (though I did read yesterday that he and other famous people were, as we speak and write, getting Google to rub out Street View images of their mansions various).

So if this is as clear to me as it is to you, why do I find myself asking more questions?  Well, judge for yourself – here are those questions I’m asking as a result:

  1. When is a person not a public figure?  I can understand, for the reasons I gave yesterday about my own professional trajectory, why Google would judge me not to be a public figure – but what about someone like Paul Bernal, so involved in and committed to modern digital rights at both a personal and institutional level?  I mean, how is it possible Google judges that under the recent EU legislation he still has a right to be forgotten?  He has written, spoken, published and debated in so many public spaces that it really begs the question: what do you have to do to become a public figure?  What does being a public figure mean?  What, in fact, are its criteria actually aiming to define?
  2. Is there not something quite pernicious in this defining of what a public versus a private figure is?  And doesn’t it seem to indicate that for a long time now Google’s been using certain assumptions to define whom people more generally would prefer to find on the web and whom they wouldn’t?  Assumptions, I assume, which could be quite questionable for many of us.  So what am I saying?  That a real downside of Google’s application of EU principles on the right for private figures to be forgotten is that it can be used to reinforce the power the eagerly public have over the rest of us.  Sure, it’s important we can regain our privacy if we should want to – but what if the already powerful and politically galvanised, implicated and cleverly controlling look to use, in the future, the related right not to be forgotten (for alongside the right to be forgotten must exist its opposite) to push ordinary people out of public spaces all over again – returning, as a result, the body politic, public discourse and ordinary participation in political communication and activity back to the 19th century of hierarchical elites?

Yes.  Essentially what I’m suggesting – to develop the argument a little more – is that whilst Europe has been looking to recover a sensible take on online identity and ordinary people’s control over the same, the consequence of its cack-handed absence of a due consultation process on the matter is that public figures who wish to remove unpleasant truths from the worldwide web’s historical account can return themselves unreasonably to the domain of private figures – especially where their legal resources permit this to happen.  But this isn’t the only – and rather obvious – consequence.  The other dangerous possibility – particularly for democracy and its future health – is that those figures Google already judges to be public will become more public, more powerful and more able to influence our societies as time goes by.

And all because Google refuses, in cahoots with well-meaning legislation, to hide their activities – even as the rest of us scurry, understandably, to recover our rabbit-in-the-headlights anonymity.

The already famous will become proportionately more so.

The already relatively private (people like you and me), looking to recover a semblance of 20th century intimacy, will become increasingly – and simultaneously – irrelevant.

As the old adage goes: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity!”  In the world where Google exerts an absolute control over whether one is visible or not, this could well become even truer than it was in the past.

So.  Tonight I have some questions for those who know about these things, to take away and mull over and contemplate their implications:

  1. In order to become visible on the web, as a figure defined by Google as public, what degree, level or quality of achievement or notoriety will be required in order to remain resultingly visible?
  2. Who will define such criteria, what ideology or ideologies will be used to define them and how transparent and democratic will the process of definition be?
  3. How will Google measure the right to visibility (even as Europe tries to measure the right to be invisible) when comparing, for example, “notorious” celebrities with “deserving” scientific researchers, authors or philosophers of tryingly challenging discourse?
  4. Who or what will ultimately decide who has the right to be read, listened to, watched and observed on this supposedly even-handed worldwide web?

The answers to these and other questions will define the future in two ways:

  1. It may lead to a reassertion of traditional modes of hierarchical representation in our civilisation and societies – in plain language, posh elites telling the plebs what they can do, think and say!
  2. It may lead to a continuing development of a more decentralised and distributed democracy – in plain language, ordinary people telling the elites to bugger off!

For if we get the next year or so as wrong as we’ve got the past month, I do fear it’ll be the ineffective, inefficient and finally lazy former at the terrible expense of what would surely be a far more constructive latter.


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Jul 072014
 
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Liberal society has always faced us with that partnership that is rights and obligations.  That is to say, no right can imply an absence of a corresponding obligation.  Recently, we’ve been hearing a lot about “the right to be forgotten” – today bringing us this story from the Guardian for example, with stuff like this:

Following the ruling, Google has implemented a system where individuals can make a legally binding statement, requesting particular links be removed from searches on their name. The web pages with the information remain.

The newspaper goes on to report:

But the Guardian has now established from sources familiar with Google’s process that “queries that involve the name and other terms will also have the same effect” of hiding the pages complained about. “It wouldn’t make sense if you could simply add an extra term and negate the restriction,” the source said. [...]

Getting to be a bit of a weird and trying situation, isn’t it?

It gets weirder and more trying in my case.  If you search my name – miljenko williams – you’ll get a message from Google at the bottom of the search which says: “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. Learn more”.  Meanwhile, if you separately search the name of this blog – 21stcenturyfix.org.uk – no sign of this message is to be found.  It’s clearly not a standard message which gets pasted at the end of any and every search request.

So what’s going on here then?  Why may certain references to my name have been removed – especially as I (promise!) haven’t asked Google to do so myself?  Who might have done?  And for what reason might they have done it?  (And if references to my name, why not references to my blog?  Surely blogs are more likely to encounter censorship than people’s individual lives and happenings.)

Back to our liberal partnership of rights and obligations: if we truly want to maintain such a society (there is of course, in latterday political behaviours, the growing feeling that we’re losing the desire to do so), we can’t sustain that there should be a “right to be forgotten” without a corresponding “obligation to be remembered”.  And as child abuse stories overwhelm the establishment, political life and mainstream media, this “obligation to be remembered” becomes evermore important.

But before I finish today, I would like to add one more concept to the mix: not just the obligation to be remembered – also the right!  Yes.  I’d like to assert the possibility that someone may prefer not to have their online identity munched away at the edges.

Listen: if someone has been firing off missives to Google, asking them to remove links which my name throws up from their listings, I would really like to know on what authority.  What’s more, I’d really like to know why they’re bothered in the first place.  I’m a smalltime blogger, rarely getting more than forty hits a day; a smalltime language trainer, getting by as best he can; an excellent proofreader, but again hardly bigtime; and a wannabe editor (for longer than I can remember), who once could’ve had a great future ahead of him.  Something bigger I may achieve some day – but hardly at the expense of anyone I’ve ever had dealings with, surely.

Oh yes.  There’s a process whereby notifying Google of one’s desire to be forgotten leads to links being removed.  But what if a data subject doesn’t want to be forgotten?  What if they would like to recover an even-handed online profile?  What if they don’t want to have their history digitally – and what’s more, opaquely – mashed up and minced as would seem is beginning to happen?

What, dear Googlers and the European Union both, is the procedure going to be when someone like me actually wants to exert the right to be remembered?


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Jul 052014
 
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I wrote this some time ago:

Snowden isn’t the first person governments have refused to value sufficiently, because those who do the valuing are less brainy.

Nor will he be the last.

And so this is why it’s time we should begin to complain, demonstrate and act in the strongest terms.

Not because war is immoral.  Not because invading privacy is wrong.  Not because punishing the poor for the evidence-free consequences of the rich is an unnatural and unacceptable turning over of justice and law.

No.  Why we should begin to complain, demonstrate and act in those strongest terms I mention is because these second-rate behaviours are bloody inefficient!  Bloody inefficient – and, ultimately, dangerous for the very survival of our species.

As an empire on the planet, all of a sudden we are in retreat.

Is that really what we wanted; really what we needed; really what we expected of the century?

Meanwhile, an ultra-rich businessperson with considerable self-awareness writes this:

But the problem isn’t that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.

And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won’t last.

If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.

It’s well put; there’s a lot more behind the link above; and I strongly suggest that for the benefit and understanding of the rest of us, who live outside these “gated bubble worlds”, that you go ahead and read it all.

When you have, I’ll conclude my post for today.

*

Thinking on the analogies the ultra-rich businessperson in question uses, we feel – almost smell – the furious physicality of what’s being suggested: the French revolution; the inequality; feudal times; in particular, of course, the pitchforks themselves.

And when he says “You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising [...]“, we maybe can see with a clearer perspective what’s been happening in the first case my post today mentions: that of Snowden.  When we think about revolution, we think about swords, muskets, those blessed pitchforks and puddles of scrappy bloody battle.  But what if the aforementioned miscreant of secret information – a thought leader for many, I shouldn’t be surprised – is the template for future human pitchforking activity?

Such individuals wouldn’t form a revolution out of the traditional tools of Bolshevik uprising.  After all, we already have one of the most efficient police states in history – and all this under what is really a rather shady cloak of democracy (a cloak only ever hides).  Yet, even so, even now, it still obeys certain legal minimums as we attempt – despite ourselves – to maintain a semblance of free speech.

So a third option exists, quite apart from full-blown police state or bloody uprising: being as the battleground of tyranny in Western society is not so much one of physical imposition but of intellectual and constitutional code (requiring intelligence far more than brute force or revolutionary brawn to function correctly), what if we propose instead to understand the encroaching future of “not if, but when” in terms of the potential for a broad expansion of virtual pitchforks – pitchforks which may one day serve to destroy those at the top of the hierarchies encouraging all this grossly unsustainable inequality?

Virtual pitchforks?  How so?  Snowden is arguably one of the first to show the dangers for current hierarchies.  And when I say “current hierarchies”, I include all of us who benefit as well as all of us who suffer.  Just imagine such a future: a veritable coordinated swarm of puncturing points of action on a body politic, unable to sustain itself in the light of both present misdeeds and unravelling past practice.

Thus the surveillance state we now live in.  The terrorism from without exists, that is true.  And we shouldn’t underestimate its malevolence.  But the surveillance state which aims to protect the massive majority from the minute minority is a double-edged sword if there ever was one.

Or maybe, just maybe, that’s a double-edged provoker of pitchforks, the like of which we’ve never seen before.


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