Levy & Counsell podcast 2: Special Edition

Levy and Counsell show logoJudith and I discuss current events in Israel for Ricochet.com.

The sound is better all round this time, though it’s clear I’m going to have to work on being a bit slicker. It’s possibly a good thing that I talk slowly out of a fear of saying something stupid. To quote one of our listners typing into the live chat during the broadcast:

“I find Damian’s voice reassuring because he always sounds unsure of himself when stating facts.”


Rulers and Riders

To try out my exciting multiple-choice plugin, test your knowledge of 18th-century British Prime Ministers and contemporary British competitive horseriders by guessing which of the two categories each of the following named individuals falls into.

Prime Minister or Equestrian?

You'll be presented with half-a-dozen names. You have to decide whether each is the name of an eighteenth-century British Prime Minister or a contemporary competitive horseman. At the end of the quiz your performance will be scored. Good luck!

Congratulations - you have completed Prime Minister or Equestrian?.

You scored %%SCORE%% out of %%TOTAL%%.

Your performance has been rated as %%RATING%%

Your answers are highlighted below.
Shaded items are complete.

The first Levy & Counsell podcast at Ricochet.com

Oh the irony. My contribution to the first (test) Levy & Counsell podcast as token friendly Lefty at online US conservative community Ricochet.com was marred by technical problems. Even I find it hard to follow the thread as I listen to this because my audio breaks up and I speak even more slowly and haltingly than I needed to to be understood. Entire Presidential terms elapse in the gaps between my words. But, no doubt thanks to Judith’s fluency and clarity, Ricochet liked it enough that we will return in two weeks with another.


portraits of Judith Levy and Damian Counsell

In this episode, it was inevitable that we would discuss the result of the US Presidential election, me from a statistical point-of-view and my old friend Judith Levy from Israel’s perspective.

There’s a special offer on now, so get yourself a Ricochet subscription and sign up for our podcast!

Dancing about architecture

There is a small, ugly overlap between the kind of people who complain about reduced state funding for the arts and education in the UK and the kind of people who excuse the burning of books, advocate the closure of places of learning, attack performances of classical music, and disrupt debates in bookshops.

Outside this foetid sliver of life’s great Venn diagram, there are people like Eve Garrard. I recommend all of this post of hers at Norm’s place.

Nothing is timeless

I often grumble here that there’s no such thing as “timeless greatness” in art. Everything from subject matter to structure to execution to meaning depends on the circumstances that prevailed when a work was made. Indeed, if a work is published into another set of circumstances, it can escape its creator’s intentions completely, even without significant time having passed since it was first enjoyed. A piece that started as a private contemplation can mutate into a commentary on a catastrophic event that was unknown during its completion but that dominated the world of its release.

Today, I noticed two not-new commentaries on the way in which the format of music, the way a listener experiences it, defines both the way composers and musicians make music and the way audiences think of it after it has been made.

The first was The Birth Of 33⅓, a (too short) extract of the upcoming book 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story in Slate magazine, illustrated with (too small) photos of people like Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, and Aretha Franklin looking impossibly cool in recording studios.

My Fair Lady cast recording

My Fair Lady cast recording

You can read it like you would watch an episode of Mad Men, raising one of your eyebrows aloft using only the power of hindsight:

No less interested than Columbia in finding a solution to the problems in playing long-form musical pieces on 78s, RCA had developed a rapid record changer, which would allow listeners to stack a large number of records around oversized spindles above the turntable. The records, which played at 45 rpm, would then quickly and automatically drop to the turntable in ordered succession, creating a virtually uninterrupted flow of music. The goal was the same as that of CBS’s microgroove LP; RCA simply pursued it with a different technology. Now, rather than switch to Columbia’s long-play technology, RCA would fight.

The second was this recording of a design/architecture radio show from earlier this year, in turn quoting a brilliant snippet from recording of a talk by composer Jon Brion. In it, amongst other things, Brion explains why covers of Led Zeppelin are unsatisfying. He tries to impress upon his audience the important distinction between a song and a performance, he does this well: by performing snippets of songs.

If you are normally afraid of podcasts because the lack the concision and searchability of all the other stuff you graze on on the Net, then don’t be; if you’re a music geek, every second of this one is worth savouring—up until the show’s outro, obviously:


While I’m on the subject of ideologues ignoring facts, this thread over at the Website of the obnoxious Local Schools Network is both informative and entertaining, unlike the article that started it.

One of Andrew Old‘s contributions late in the debate says much of what I think about most quack educationalists in two paragraphs:

And now we are back to the usual situation where you are quoting opinion rather than evidence and hoping that if you keep doing it fast enough, and without answering direct questions, you can confuse matters enough for people to think there is some kind of controversy over the evidence, rather than simply between those who believe in empirical research and those who ignore it.

I know that people with pseudo-scientific beliefs do this a lot, but you must know that there are enough people looking at threads like this who know the actual evidence base and will point out that no amount of TES opinion pieces or Eurydice’s casual dismissal of the evidence, can actually change the facts.

Mistaken Identity

Tom Doran on why capitalism—I think he means free enterprise—has liberated working-class women:

When the average voter looks at Tesco, they do not see a sinister corporate megalith, raping and pillaging their way of life. Rather they see that keeping their family fed and clothed is now that much cheaper and easier. Moreover, they don’t believe this because they’ve been brainwashed into false consciousness by consumerist propaganda. They believe it because it’s true, which brings me back to the washing machine.

This single invention liberated countless millions from needless drudgery. Now take a look around you. When I do, I can see an electric light, a Dyson vacuum cleaner, a laptop computer, a blow-heater and a mobile phone. In all likelihood, you are also surrounded by a similar array of man-made objects. Each one represents the endpoint of a long process of winnowing, pruning and perfecting, driven entirely by the market. Even where government investment can get an idea off the ground, it still takes the forces of supply and demand to drive prices down and put once-miraculous developments within anyone’s grasp. Taken cumulatively, the fruits of capitalism have produced an improvement in quality of life that was once unimaginable.

This essential truth does not oblige those of us on the left to become uncritical free market fundamentalists. On the contrary: for all its genius, capitalism will continue by its very nature to have victims and losers, and they aren’t going to get any sympathy from the right (as the current government makes abundantly clear). Labour can and should be proud of the welfare state it did so much to bring into being. But we are obliged to recognise the facts. Namely that, for most voters, especially Labour’s core vote, the market is not a cold tyrant or a cruel exploiter. It is a liberator, perhaps the greatest in history.

Meanwhile, Yvette Cooper—she’s the Labour Party’s Shadow Home Secretary, remember?—has managed to get a sympathetic front-page spread today from the Guardian for a laundry bag of identity politics and lies.

Women over 50 are bearing the brunt of the government’s economic policies while often trying to cope with the increasing burden of caring for relatives, according to research carried out by the Labour party.

Since the coalition came to power in May 2010, unemployment among women aged 50-64 has seen a huge 31% increase to 142,000, compared with an overall increase in all unemployed people over 16 of 4.2% to 2.6m, according to Office for National Statistics figures.

In an interview with the Guardian on women’s issues before Saturday’s party conference, Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said the generation of women who fought for equal pay, improvements in childcare and maternity leave were being caught in a bind between caring for elderly parents and grandchildren at the same time as suffering from outdated workplace practices. “A toxic combination of sexism and ageism is causing problems for this generation,” she said.

Women as a whole have lost more jobs than men since 2010 (an estimated 11% increase) but women over 50 in particular have been hit hardest by the big cuts in local authority budgets.

The claims in that piece don’t stand up even to a casual fisking by (Economist journalist) Daniel Knowles:

The unemployment rate for middle-aged women is about 4%. For young men, about 20%.

Since 2010, unemployment for women aged 50-64 has increased from 3.5 to 3.9%. That’s not 31%.

I calculate it as a 17% increase in total, or an 11% increase in the rate. Guardian stats are wrong.

As a Labourite Sean Lynch points out on Twitter:

She’d have been better highlighting the 34.7% increase in over 50s women unemployed for over a year than making figures up.

This is the mystery. When the facts are on your side—or on the side of your own special interest group—and there’s no need to cook the books, why exaggerate?

Oh, here are some other statistics:

Estimated 2010 UK General Election Turnout by women aged over 55: 73%

Estimated 2010 UK General Election Turnout by men aged under 25: 50%

Emeritus Professor Of Political Thought explains Muslim Rage

There’s a letter in today’s Economist about the murder of the US Ambassador to Libya by fundamentalist extremists that encapsulates the rich blend of bigotry, ignorance, non sequitur, crude generalization, snobbery, and sheer, gobsmacking stupidity in which the thought processes of fashionable over-educated opinion stew. It also gives me an opportunity to try out my new word highlighting plugin, to guide your eyes to the peaks of this particular molehill of idiocy:

SIR – The full-blown invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq ignored the Muslim mindset, which sees military defeat as a religious affront. Hence the reaction is uncompromising, and in those countries the West certainly has not won. Sensibilities are tinder dry, waiting to be exploited by any perceived insult by insignificant Westerners. Hillary Clinton’s recent remarks suggest she understands this, as, I suspect, does Barack Obama.

The West avoided outright war with communist states for 40 years because they understood, more or less, each other’s mindset. Let us hope that electoral politics, based on the naiveties of the ill-informed Western masses, does not override the need for this understanding, and for patience, in the present situation.

Antony Black
Emeritus professor in the history of political thought
University of Dundee

I’m sure The Economist published this letter, not because its letters editor was impressed by Black’s pretentious self-description, but because its content is entirely self-fisking, the puffed-up epistolary equivalent of MP Andrew Mitchell’s words to a policeman yesterday evening: lumping millions of different people from different countries and cultures together in great homogeneous rhetorical blocs, connecting distinct and distant events like a griped-up infant thrashing crayon lines across paper, reducing the emotions of multitudes to cliché, and, as always, seeing their behaviour as nothing more than a response to “ours”—it doesn’t even mention the already-known, coolly planned, and conspicuously political nature of the attack, the apologetic response of the Libyan government and of many other non-“tinder dry” Libyans, or the local rivalries known to be involved.

It was probably read out loud in the Economist offices to laughter audible storeys below in St James’s Street. I’m also sure that it’s because I am a member of the naive, ill-informed Western masses, that I also think it’s risible tosh.

Meanwhile, in the real world, actual individual Libyans show their lack of patience and understanding of the extremist thugs in their midst by storming their headquarters. Oh, the naivety!

BENGHAZI, Libya – Tens of thousands of Libyans marched to the gates of one of the country’s strongest armed Islamic extremist groups Friday, demanding it disband, as the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans sparked a public backlash against militias that run rampant in the country and defy the country’s new, post-Moammar Gadhafi leadership.

For many Libyans, last week’s attack on the U.S. Consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi was the last straw with one of the biggest problems Libya has faced since Gadhafi’s ouster and death around a year ago – the multiple mini-armies that with their arsenals of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades are stronger than the regular armed forces and police.

The militias, a legacy of the rag-tag popular forces that fought Gadhafi’s regime, tout themselves as protectors of Libya’s revolution, providing security where police cannot. But many say they act like gangs, detaining and intimidating rivals and carrying out killings. Militias made up of Islamic radicals are notorious for attacks on Muslims who don’t abide by their hardline ideology. Officials and witnesses say fighters from one Islamic militia, Ansar al-Shariah, led the Sept. 11 attack on the Benghazi consulate.

Those Nick Clegg apology YouTube remixes in full

In a fit of shameless Google-baiting, I collect here some of the YouTube remixes of Nick Clegg’s Party Political Broadcast apology for his and his party’s breaking of their tuition fees “pledge”.

The Original


The Poke's AutoTune version


The Simon Bates “Our Tune” dub


The “honest subtitles” overlay


If you know of any more, bung ’em in the comments and I’ll embed them.

Parliamentary Microphone Geekery

Yesterday evening, I went a-googling for details about the microphones they use at the despatch boxes in the House of Commons because they fascinate me.

They’re AKG D222s, which I used to covet in the 90s. They’re odd dynamic mics: Unlike most others, they don’t make your voice sound bassier as you move your mouth get closer to top—they are said not to exhibit a proximity effect because bass sounds are handled by a capsule in bottom end and mixed in with the treble picked up at the other, closer-to-your-mouth end.

Apparently they were chosen for Parliament because of this unusual proximity behaviour, their resistance to “popping“, and because they are famously reliable—the design dates from the 1960s.

So now you know.


Mitt Romney is a US Republican Presidential candidate who has chosen a Right-wing running mate. All right-thinking people here know therefore that he wants to rape female college students and force them to have their babies so they can be child labour in one of his corporations’ asset-stripped factories. Or, if UK observers fancy themselves as a little more sophisticated, he is a religious nutter who, because he is a machine politician, will trim his pre-election views to catch whatever psephological winds are blowing.

In nice prose, ex-non-admirer Andrew Ferguson at The Weekly Standard—so not a right-thinking person, but a Right-thinking person—explains how his reading a biography of Romney written by people who liked him even less overwhelmed his own personal antipathy:

Now that he’s officially the Republican nominee for president and has an excellent chance of becoming the most powerful man in the world, I feel free to admit, in the full knowledge that nobody cares, that I never liked Mitt Romney. My distaste for him isn’t merely personal or political but also petty and superficial. There’s the breathless, Eddie Attaboy delivery, that half-smile of pitying condescension in debates or interviews when someone disagrees with him, the Ken doll mannerisms, his wanton use of the word “gosh”—the whole Romney package has been nails on a blackboard to me.

The Romneys present a picture of an American family that popular culture has been trying to undo since—well, since An American Family, the 1973 PBS documentary that exposed the typical household as a cauldron of resentment and infidelity.

And now, here, 40 years later, it’s as though it all never happened: a happy American family, led by a baby boomer with no sense of irony! Romney is the sophisticate’s nightmare.

[M]y slowly softening opinion went instantly to goo when The Real Romney unfolded an account of his endless kindnesses—unbidden, unsung, and utterly gratuitous. “It seems that everyone who has known him has a tale of his altruism,” the authors write.

Romney’s oldest son Tagg once made the same point to the radio host Hugh Hewitt. “He was constantly doing things like that and never telling anyone about them,” Tagg said. “He doesn’t want to tell people about them, but he wanted us to see him. He would let the kids see it because he wanted it to rub off on us.”

To this touching kindness and fatherly wisdom, The Real Romney adds other traits that will continue to grate—he’s a know-it-all and likely to remain so, and his relationship to political principle has always been tenuous. Which makes him a, uh, politician. But now I suspect he’s also something else, a creature rarely found in the highest reaches of American politics: a good guy.

I think it’s probably a good thing that both the main Presidential candidates are, by most accounts, good guys.

Carly Death Rae Jepsen

I have spoken of my love for Sound On Sound before. It’s a popular music magazine that’s about music. It cares for more about excellence than coolness. If you enjoy the mocking of naked emperors, its demo review pages are especially fun. Sadly, I had to save money a few months back when my subscription came up for renewal; these days, I just cop a sneaky read when I’m in a tolerant newsagent’s.

This month, it has an interview with David “Rave” Ogilvie, who mixed Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, a pop masterpiece that I’m not ashamed to say I am obsessed with. Producer Ogilvie‘s revelations about his work on the track and his work in general are a delight for music geeks: “One of my biggest influences was Neil Young”.

For bonus laughs, check out Andy Rehfeldt’s metal version of Call Me Maybe:

[Thanks to the talented Helen Arney for introducing me to Rehfeldt’s inspired work. Do browse his YouTube channel.]

Lessons For Us All

I recommend you read all of this Martin In The Margins post: Taliban tactics in Tower Hamlets:

I’m not sure why I’ve been so affected by the story of Gary Smith, the east London RE teacher who was assaulted by four Islamic extremists because they disapproved of him teaching religion to Muslim girls. Perhaps it was the sheer ferocity of the attack, in which a Stanley knife, an iron rod and a block of cement were used, and which left Smith with a fractured skull and a permanently scarred face.

Then again, perhaps this event stood out because of its striking similarity with another story that I read this week—about the murder by the Taliban of an Afghan headmaster, simply because he had the effrontery to teach girls in his school. The two accounts had much in common: there was the same warped sense of religious self-righteousness, the same absolute denial of equal rights to women and girls, the same murderous violence in the name of religion. Suddenly those Daily Mail scare stories about the “London Taliban” didn’t seem so off the wall.

Finally, I suppose I was left perplexed about what would—and should—be the response of liberals to this kind of incident. I imagine if there’d been an attack of similar ferocity by four EDL or BNP thugs, against a local imam or mosque instructor, say, then we would have seen (quite rightly) liberals and anti-racists mobilising and marching through the area in solidarity. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I don’t think we’ve seen anything of the kind in support of Gary Smith. Where is the outcry from the teaching unions against this assault on one of their number, simply for doing his job? Has anyone planned a march through Tower Hamlets in support of freedom of expression or the educational rights of young women?

[I have removed Martin’s links to the Daily Mail and the Guardian from the quoted text because I have a policy of not sending traffic to the Websites of either of those rags, in part because of their mutually complementary racisms.]

Three Four B Movies Worth Checking Out

A good B movie is great fun. The format is officially dead, but the label lives; and now people use it to refer to a genre film (usually horror or science fiction/fantasy) with a small promotional spend as much as they use it to describe one with a low budget. If a non-blockbuster non-cult non-art-house non-sequel tests like a turkey, it won’t be sold so aggressively to prospective spectators and the cast will be less keen to make their contribution to its marketing, so it’ll end up on the B movie ghetto by default.

B movies are more than merely entertaining ways for multi-millionaires to hide some of their capital gains away from government revenue services. There are artistic freedoms that come with embracing B-moviehood. When it’s deliberately produced to a price, a production can decide in advance to take risks that blockbusters can’t, it can aim itself more directly at connoisseurs of its niche; plus, as a viewer, your expectations are so much lower that you are more likely to enjoy the results. This is also a segment of the business in which British filmmakers have often prospered, for a while at least.

Of course, even when we aren’t talking about straight-to-video releases, there are plenty of bad contemporary B movies—for example, the oeuvre of the infamously tax efficient Uwe “Worst Director In The World” Boll. This is one reason why, when I drop a B into my disc drive and I enjoy the ride despite myself, it’s as satisfying as eating a well made burger. In no particular order, here are three 21st-century “B”s that I have enjoyed on DVD over the past few months.

Pandorum [made in 2009 for $33m] was subsidized by German regional and national film funds and there was a substantial British contribution to its production, but its one genuine star and overall feel is American. Amongst the harsh criticism at Rotten Tomatoes, many reviewers complain that it’s derivative. Yes, the film takes your money in return for science fiction (and horror) old rope—it seems to be aimed at fans of the genre(s)—but what impressed me about it was that these frayed strands were woven into something original and, ultimately, surprising.

Reign Of Fire [made in 2002 for $60m] is a borderline B movie, almost not qualifying because it stars two bona fide Hollywood A-listers (Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale), but it’s a film that cost less than $100 m, is set in Britain, and tries to tell an anachronistic tale of a world taken over by dragons—thereby combining science fiction, fantasy, and horror—with something like grit. Indeed, I was shocked that Sean Bean didn’t appear in it. Fortunately, keeping it real didn’t mean keeping out exhilarating action sequences.

The budget of the cheapest of these three, Skyline [made in 2010], $10.5m was so low it’s hard to believe. You can see the joins at times, but the CGI is stunning. Shame about the plot, yes; but the concept is solid, namely: “This ain’t your grandpa’s alien invasion.” If you were to look for a antecedent from the B movie golden age that summed up its mood, then you’d describe it as more a schlock-horror Invasion of the Bodysnatchers than a whizz-bang War Of the Worlds.

UPDATE [27May11]: Tim Almond suggests I add Crank [made in 2006 for $12m]. Good idea. I haven’t seen it recently, but it fits the bill perfectly: cheap, daft, fun. The plot has negligible respect for physics or physiology—its sequel even less—but it is occasionally hilarious and always impossible to be bored by: dirty, potty-mouthed, violent, extreme slapstick engineered for the adolescent males who were officially forbidden from watching it in the cinema to rent on DVD.

Animals Or Savages?

Some commentators who have opinionated about the recent murders in Afghanistan, murders supposedly committed “in response to” a US pastor’s burning a copy of the Koran, have resorted to what I ironically call “good racism”. Bad racism is what unemployed people living on council housing estates display when they blame their being unemployed on immigrants. Good racism is what people in desirable jobs express when, for example, they prefer to hire better-off non-whites over worse-off whites for other desirable jobs or, in this case, when people in the West treat people in the East as though they were too primitive to be capable of moral discrimination1.

A friend on the Right, Claire Berlinski, wrote aptly about this today, just as I found myself engaged in an increasingly surreal dispute on Twitter with a representative of The Democratic Society. If the person responsible for The Democratic Society’s Twitter output is who I think it is, he isn’t a member of a tiny pseudo-Leftist sect like the Socialist Workers Party, but a man whom I engaged in what-seemed-sane conversation in a pub after a Labour Party Conference fringe meeting a couple of years ago. Our bite-sized debate today was triggered by this gobsmacking tweet from him:

7 people dead because of the actions of one western bigot - lessons for us about why multiculturalism and respect matter.

7 people dead because of the actions of one western bigot - lessons for us about why multiculturalism and respect matter.

Sometimes I think the only way to make this kind of poison unacceptable in educated middle-class circles is to keep pointing at it and pointing out how poisonous it is until you lose all your educated middle-class friends. You can visit our respective Twitter pages to browse the rest of PootBlog‘s debate with demsoc. I left the discussion because I was lost for words. I had hoped he would think better of his original remark and delete it, but, instead, the subsequent attempts to explain it spiralled on, like the words of a man on a bus trying to justify an “I’m not racist, but…” outburst.

I wanted to give its author the chance to delete the tweet because, if he isn’t already embarrassed by it already, one day he will be; so I waited some hours before taking a snapshot of it here for future generations to gaze upon in head-shaking wonder as one might at a clip of The Black And White Minstrel Show.

Perhaps its author will be round later to object to being taken at his own words, like this guy did back in 2006. Follow the trackback link at the bottom of the comments below that PooterGeek post to enjoy the full glory of the subsequent thread, the finest of the examples here of people ranting at me for misrepresenting them by quoting their own words and linking back to their original context.

That last link reminds me that one of the most common accusations aimed at the authors, signatories, and supporters of the Euston Manifesto was that we had erected “straw men” to rail against; that the bizarre, illiberal, irrational, racist drivel that had been spilling from the lips of self-proclaimed Leftists since the turn of the century was a figment of our imaginations, or vanishingly rare, or restricted to the output of an extremist minority. This was absurd for at least two reasons:

  1. The manifesto’s original signatories had accumulated a vast, linked, documentary corpus of examples of exactly this kind of nonsense—from supposedly respectable, mainstream sources—a corpus so vast that critics (sometimes the same people) accused us of being obsessed with such stuff.
  2. Even as one group of our critics accused us of making this stuff up, other critics actually generated still more of it in a response to the manifesto itself.

Five years on, the drivel continues to spill out:

The UN’s chief envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, blamed Friday’s violence in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif on the Florida pastor who burnt the Koran on 20 March.

“I don’t think we should be blaming any Afghan,” Mr de Mistura said. “We should be blaming the person who produced the news – the one who burned the Koran. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from offending culture, religion, traditions.”

No, that is exactly what freedom of speech means. Freedom to say only that which fundamentalists deem inoffensive and respectful—or suffer bloody consequences—is no freedom at all. It’s the shroud that imprisoned us in the darkest of the Dark Ages.

  1. There’s more good racism and good sexism here []

Chuka Umunna on slavery

Chuka Umunna in The Voice on the question of a UK government apology for slave trade:

African slavery and colonialism are not simply remnants of the past – they helped lay the foundations for the successful modern Britain of today. The effects of slavery are still felt in our communities – many cite the matriarchal nature of our families, with a high preponderance of absent fathers, as an example. In this light, an apology is long overdue, whatever the legal argument.

Chuka Umunna’s assistant on the question of unpaid interns in Umunna’s own office:

As a former employment law solicitor, Chuka is well aware of the legal context in this area. However, for the avoidance of doubt, I can confirm that our office does not use interns in the same way that we do full staff members and interns are under no obligation to work. Our office uses the guidelines established by Internocracy.

If I may refer to the wording of our office’s advertisement on W4AMP website: “as this is a voluntary position these requirements are flexible and those with restricted availability are also welcome to apply.”

I hope this provides clarification.

On Rescuing Fallen Women

I spent my first two terms at university up to my naked wrists in a woman’s corpse. This was A Good Thing For Humankind. This week, one of the top BBC News stories has been the outrage at a woman demonstrating a sex toy in front of a university psychology class. This was An Act Of Depravity. Is the World ever going to grow the fuck up about sex?

Natasha Burge writes about doomed efforts to outlaw sex work:

Trafficking is a very real problem that we should clearly be working to stop, but it does not only or even predominantly pertain to sexual slavery. Unfortunately, the plight of trafficking victims is largely ignored if the story is deemed insufficiently ‘sexy’. Recently, 500 Indian workers brought to the U.S. to work in shipyards after Hurricane Katrina are suing Signal International and other entities on charges of human trafficking. The workers have alleged that they were brought to the country under a false premise, subject to deplorable living conditions and threats of violence. All these allegations add up to human trafficking, and yet no one is suggesting that shipyard work be abolished.

I’ve never been to a prostitute and don’t intend to; but, as with dissecting dead people, it’s important not to let personal aesthetic discomfort trump basic humanity. Criminalizing sex work kills women (and men) as surely as criminalizing abortion. And arguments about a woman’s ownership of her own body are even more relevant to sex work.

Right- and Left-wingers who campaign to ban sex work are reduced to making up statistics and ignoring the epidemiology because their crusading isn’t about soberly weighing the aggregate wellbeing of humankind; it’s about squeamishness and striking ideological poses.

[Thanks to Gaby C for the link.]

The Alternative Vote System: So Simple That An Attempt To Write A Simple Description Of It Leads To A Complicated Debate

Tom Freeman questions one of the criticisms aimed against the Alternative Vote system (AV), which, in a referendum in May, citizens will be voting to adopt or reject in, er, preference to First Past The Post (FPTP) in UK elections. The criticism in question is that AV is too complicated and/or voters don’t/won’t understand how it works.

I am opposed to the adoption of AV. One of the main reasons I am opposed is that most of the people who will use it (including many of those who support its introduction) don’t understand the system; whereas nearly everyone on Earth understands FPTP. Call me “a conservative Right-winger who hates any form of change”, but I think that it is fundamental to the legitimacy of a democratic system that its voters know what their votes mean. Read the comments on Tom’s post to see how successful Tom has been in showing that AV is easy to understand.

Bush Was Right

This would be a good day to quote and laugh at some of the many racist articles written over the past few years that warned us not to “inflame the Arab Street”, that rhetorical mass of undifferentiated savages that “we” created by interfering in the Noble Civilizations of the region with our Imperialist Adventures, and the articles that warned us not to “impose our Western values” on the people of Middle East.

But it is a better day to quote and nod at the words of George W. Bush:

Perhaps the most helpful change we can make is to change in our own thinking. In the West, there’s been a certain skepticism about the capacity or even the desire of Middle Eastern peoples for self-government. We’re told that Islam is somehow inconsistent with a democratic culture. Yet more than half of the world’s Muslims are today contributing citizens in democratic societies. It is suggested that the poor, in their daily struggles, care little for self-government. Yet the poor, especially, need the power of democracy to defend themselves against corrupt elites.

Peoples of the Middle East share a high civilization, a religion of personal responsibility, and a need for freedom as deep as our own. It is not realism to suppose that one-fifth of humanity is unsuited to liberty; it is pessimism and condescension, and we should have none of it.

We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East. Your nation and mine, in the past, have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. Longstanding ties often led us to overlook the faults of local elites. Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time, while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold.

As recent history has shown, we cannot turn a blind eye to oppression just because the oppression is not in our own backyard. No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims, and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found.

I originally quoted and linked to this speech back in 2003. Thank you to Squander for reminding me to do so again.

A Face-Saving Exercise

The BBC reports:

A former soldier who was jailed for refusing to fight in Afghanistan has handed back a medal in protest at Britain’s involvement in the war.

“There’s a real up-swell of awareness now among military families and among the military, and among the people in this country, that this conflict is, has kind of turned into a face-saving exercise and that’s why it’s being dragged out.

“This is a majority opinion, 70% of people in this country want withdrawal, whatever their background, that’s across the board whatever their politics are, because this is an expensive, messy, gory face-saving exercise and that’s quite clear to people.”

He’s right about one thing. It didn’t start that way and that wasn’t the stated intention, but a face-saving exercise is, amongst other things, what military intervention in Afghanistan has turned into.

Cross In Box

Continuing the theme of suffrage, if you were unfortunate (and nerdy) enough to listen to Today In Parliament yesterday evening, you will have been treated to our law-makers displaying the sort of ignorance of the basics of the law and of European institutions that makes you embarrassed to be a British citizen as they debated the right of prisoners to vote. Carl Gardner at Head Of Legal summarizes the state-of-play for those of us without legal training.

The Not Vote

The always-interesting marketing guru Seth Godin wisely alerts citizens of democracies who fail to exercise their franchise because they claim to hate politicians to an important fact they have probably overlooked: many politicians want them not to vote:

Political TV advertising is designed to do only one thing: suppress the turnout of the opponent’s supporters. If the TV ads can turn you off enough not to vote (“they’re all bums”) then their strategy has succeeded.

That’s not true, but it is insightful; though my main disagreement with the rest of his blog post is that, as I have often said to political nihilists visiting PooterGeek, if you really do hate all the options available to you, then spoiling your ballot paper is a valid protest that must be recognized by the state. That is, if you don’t like the choices offered to you, then make sure that the signal you send to your fellow citizens is that you don’t like the choices offered to you; don’t allow them to assume that you are pretty much happy with the way things are. If you can’t be bothered to do that, then keep your whining to yourself; not only am I deaf to your objections, they don’t deserve to be heard.

Fighting The Good Fight

Spam—email spam, link spam, splogs, social media spam—is evil. I waste too much of my time dealing with it. It was inevitable that this Wired article about a new search engine would intrigue me:

[T]here’s a new search engine in town that’s got a fresh approach to weed out the ever-proliferating junk and spam sites polluting search results.

It’s no mean feat — it’s taken 3 years, some $25 million in venture capital, and a gamble that there’s enough people who care about good search to make its model of curated results work.

And Blekko does works, thanks to a little thing called slash tags.

Basically slash tags tell Blekko to limit your search to a human curated category of websites — a custom search. So say you want to find good resources for learning about arrays in PHP? Type “arrays /php.” Need a good pumpkin pie recipe. Yup, you guessed it – append the /recipes slash tag.

What happens is that an editor or set of editors decide what sites return good results in that particular category, and blekko only searches those sites when you include a slashtag in your query.

Why is such a thing necessary?

Well, according to CEO and co-founder Rick Skrenta, it’s because the web is filling up with spam and low-rent webpages from content farms like Demand Media, saying the web now has 100 billion urls, most created by bots.

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