30 06 2009

I plan this to be a really quick post as early morning starts necessitate early nights. Anyway, I enjoy Wimbledon. I enjoy everything about the tournament, its ethos, its nature, its drama. It still seems, in a modern world, so quintessentially English. There is tradition and history to the tournament which will never be lost, even as the nation looks for scant signs of any future winners. Yes, there is Murray (who, incidentally, I’m not convinced will win this year after the gruelling match last night), there is also 15 year old Laura Robson, but she is still many years away from her peak (probably, in all reality, another decade), but very few others who could seriously contemplate threatening.

Anyway, this is not what I wished to comment upon. My main gripe is with the question of equal prize money. For two years now men and women have walked away with equal money dependent upon where they finish in the tournament. I’m a little uncomfortable with this for the simple reason that women play less. Women’s matches, if they go to the full length, will last three sets. Mens though, have the potential to go two sets longer than this (which, at roughly 40 minutes a set means, potentially, an extra hour and twenty minutes playing time). If we throw in the simplistic notion that the mens draw is more competitive than the womens (dominated again this year by the Williams sisters – don’t bank against it being another Williams final) then there is, I feel, a strong argument for questioning this equal pay packet.

Perhaps there is a more fundamental question here, should women play a best-of-five rather than best-of-three? Or should men play best-of-three, not best-of-five? Either way, I feel more comfortable with agreeing about the equal pay for equal time notion. I am not meaning to be controversial here, and am aware of the still not inconsiderable discrepancies in the workplace between men and women. However, I think it is taking things too far for equality to be demanded when the load is not the same. It is not the players fault that they only have to play three sets maximum rather than five, but however the cake is cut, they play less time (at the very least one set less) and so, in my opinion, should be paid accordingly. It is not simply enough to suggest that men and women deserve equal pay, regardless of the load. That sort of thinking is dangerously naive and simplistic, and perhaps does more to alienate than accomodate.


The World’s New Superhero…?

25 06 2009

Perhaps the post should have been entitled “Can the Internet Save the World?”. But the above sounds better. Anyway, it’s an interesting question, which perhaps should be expanded to include ‘technology’.

I ask this bearing in mind Gordon Brown’s recent comments about Rwanda. It is an entirely debatable issue of course, but it is an interesting starting point. Would the Rwandan atrocities have happened had Twitter, YouTube, Facebook et al been in their pomp at the time? I think they probably would have, except that the world would have been much more aware of what was happening at the time. Fergal Keane’s writing about the subject was, for me, a brief glimpse into the events of the massacres. It’s well worth hunting down his book “Season of Blood” and giving it a read. It’s pretty harrowing in parts, but worth it. However, they have largely escaped media attention, and indeed, analysis. Perhaps, given how far the internet reaches into the lives of millions of people, if not billions, a crude youtube video of some of the events would have brought home the atrocity of the Hutu actions.

But what would the reaction have been? Perhaps the same as that towards the video of Neda Agha-Soltan that is now doing the rounds. I am not going to provide a link simply because it is there to be found, if you can bring yourself to watch the last thirty seconds of an innocent womans life. It’s not a comfortable watch. I find it is made worse because it is obviously in a foreign language. For me it increases the sense of helplessness I feel just watching it. Anyway, the point was that it has, despite some comments, been largely ignored. The Independent had a small article on the story on page 18, a page after it had declared that Silvio Berlusconi was like Teflon, with nothing sticking to him. Ok, so a story about Italian elections is important, but more attention should have been paid to the face of a cause that Neda has now become, at least in my opinion.

I’m not sure why there has not been more coverage than this, but I suspect there is something to do with uncomfortability floating around somewhere. By which I mean, it is not easy viewing for the public, despite it’s presence on the internet. The version of the video I saw had had 131,123 viewings in little over three days. Yet people will not know about Neda, who she was, or what she has come to stand for, despite this internet presence.

So I return to the original point, does Brown have a point when he says that the internet has made foreign policy very different now? Again, I’m not convinced. Yes, things such as this will be put online. But that’s just a by-product of the events. People in Iran know about the power of the internet, yet there are still disturbing scenes pouring out of the country on a daily basis. It has done nothing to stop the problems, it simply has made it more accessible to the rest of the world. The internet will not stop violence, it will not stop murders, or indeed, genocide. All it can do is to make them more internationally condemnable.

Condensed Blogging…

18 06 2009

In other news, the Cowfield will now be available on Twitter. This is for two reasons, firstly, I was curious about it. Despite my reservations with it, I thought I might test it out anyway.

Secondly, it provides me with an opportunity to write my smaller thoughts on any given news. Thoughts that do not warrant a full blog, but I would still like to throw out there…

Simply search for www.twitter.com/thecowfield.

Mobile Interference…

18 06 2009

So some smart alec has sat down to ponder their next entrepreneurial move. The person, or people, in question came up with the brainbox idea that we need a mobile phone directory. After all, so the logic must go, we have a landline telephone book, and therefore will gladly welcome a mobile directory. Apparently.

The company, operating from 118800.co.uk, has bought the numbers from different companies and collated them all into ‘the database’. If ever you have filled in a form asking for a contact number, you could well be in this system. Without your knowledge. Unless, of course, you are already aware of this and are (a) happy with it, or (b) have deregistered. Except that even if you have deregistered, it will take four weeks for your name and number to be removed from the database. So you’ll still be searchable for this period.

It is not that the idea is simply unneccessary which is the problem. By which I mean that if I want people to call me then I will give them my number. After all, there is a reason I haven’t given it to people who do not have it. Of course it is a point, but that’s not my main gripe.

Nor is the main problem that you have to opt out, rather than opt in to the system. I don’t feel I should have to opt out of a system I was not even aware I was part of. Again, this is a problem, but it is not my main concern.

My main concern is that the company have done this a little behind the back of the public, assuming that people who have put their numbers in for something else will be happy to be part of the system (which is of course completely disjointed thinking). Perhaps a consultation, or even some form of media coverage before this was running would have helped matters. As far as I’ve been aware, there has been neither. The creators of this have worked on one massive assumption, namely that people will welcome such as thing. I’m not sure that they will.

There was one particularly interesting case cited on the radio today. One woman (she remained anonymous) who had rung in admitted she had genuine concerns for her daughter from her former husband. The man was known to be stalker-ish, a criminal, and a threat to the child. The court orders apparently proved as much. By making this facility available, it has given the man a route back into the child’s life. He can now find his daughters mobile number and, using deceptive methods, much more easily gain access to her once again. Now call me old fashioned, but surely the court orders are there for a reason?

I’m really unsure, and slightly uneasy about the whole thing. Pranking people has suddenly become a whole lot easier. Imagine receiving a call from 118800 saying you had a call from a friend, accepting it, only to find it is someone else who has rung up to, in effect, bully you. There is no way of blocking who can call you and who can’t. The only option therefore is to opt out. Obviously in four weeks time, but you can last that long suffering at the hands of someone, or some group of people, can’t you?

And so, I’ve now opted out. If perhaps I was aware I was on the system before it launched then my own misgivings would have been quelled somewhat. If you want my mobile number, perhaps you could try the very old-fashioned method of just asking?

The Relevance of It All…

15 06 2009

Last Saturday was the final meeting of my MA class for this year. This time next year I will be in the midst of writing a dissertation on some element of the First World War. Naturally therefore, I have spent some time thinking about what topic I will do this on. Whilst thinking about this, I somehow stumbled upon the thought of discussing the relevance of the war to a modern society. I’m not entirely sure that this would make a disseration though, so have decided to scribble some thoughts down here.

So, is the First World War still relevant to society in the Twenty-First century? Obviously there can be no simple answer to this. It would depend entirely upon what criteria you judge it upon. And indeed, how you determine ‘relevance’.

It was the dicussion about the recent death of the first swine-flu victim which led me down this road. A lot has been made of this death, and the potential threat of swine-flu, although, as has been pointed out, ‘normal’ flu kills a fair few people yearly, and there is no media coverage of this. The Spanish-flu in 1918 spread worldwide killed anywhere between 40 and 100 million people, depending on what you read. That’s quite a lot of people. At its peak, roughly one-third of the world had the flu. So, could lessons learnt in 1918 help people appreciate the scale of the current situation? I’m not so sure, simply because the nature of the media is different now. It is a 24 hour thing, with access from papers, television and internet to anything, anytime. There needs to be something to fill this insatiable appetite for news, and, at the moment, that is swine-flu. If there is something there, the news will use it. They have to, simply to stay afloat. Experiences of the soldiers in the war of the spanish-flu vary, but, generally, the troops seemed to have suffered badly from the flu, due to a variety of things, of which malnourishment was certainly one. Indeed, some have argued that this helped the allied cause, and proved to be the tipping point. I’m very much not convinced by this argument as it ignores all the rest of the stuff that was going on at the time (ie Britain finally developing a decent arms system, sorting out the logistics, and Germany shooting her bolt too early in 1918), but that this has been argued at all shows the impact the Spanish-flu had in 1918.

Experiences of the flu tend not to vary over time. Either you get ill, suffer for a period of time, and then get better; or you get ill, suffer for a period of time and then die. The only experience we will really know about is the former. Solutions to the illness have developed, medicine has progressed (although it should never be assumed that the medical care in WW1 was poor, certainly for the British, it wasn’t). People learnt from the lessons of 1918. They learned how to deal with large scale pandemics. So much so that come 2009 we know the need to have a standing stock of vaccine for such outbreaks.

However, does this make the experience of 1918 relevant to today’s society? Possibly, although it would be easier to argue the other side. How can you really compare a nation coming out of the industrial revolution threatened by other countries around her to Britain today, in the midst of a digital era, moving away from her industrial past, and threatened by countries on the other side of the world? There is call to say that a comparison is impossible. However, I’m inclined to disagree. Pre-war Britain was not this unified harmony that was abruptly shattered by a war started in the east. Far from it, at least half the population were concerned with the suffrage, and a percentage of that were demonstrating their concerns through violent activity. There was some unrest in the waning, although not yet dead, industries which had for so long provided Britain with a platform in the world. Compare that to 2009 and the collapsing British car industy and the impact that this is having on the world car market. People in Britain are concerned with the political system and how it is working. It might not be the top-hats of 1914, but there is a distinct alienation of the politicians from the people in 2009.

However, this is but a digression from the original question. Does the war still have a relevance to today’s digitised society? Flu aside, I think there is cause to think that it does. As bands such as Franz Ferdinand and the Kaiser Chiefs (although their name was taken from a South African football team, this is evidence of the stretch of empires and the lasting memory of the Kaiser) march their way up and down the pop charts, this is evidence that the war has a wider ranging impact upon society than perhaps first realised. There is further musical evidence too, take the well-played Christmas song “Stop the Cavalry”, deliberately a critique of war, but holding further historical connotations. The most famous line “I wish I was at home for Christmas”, can be read in light of the famous thought of Kitcheners volunteers presuming the war would be over by Christmas. Even the title of the song has implications relating to the First World War, with the use of the cavalry in an industrialised war being one of the main bones of contention amongst historians. The misinformed suggestion that Douglas Haig was intent on using the cavalry at every opportunity appears evident is one which the main detractors of the war manfully stick to. Even the video for the song has Jona Lewie appearing in khaki as if on the front line. There is obvious connection to the famously “futile” war that remains today.

Blackadder perhaps has much to do with this. You can barely escape the sitcom in any discussion of the war. Most take it as read that Curtis and Elton were playing with the truth of the war, and whilst there was ‘artistic licence’, there was also a sense of reality to the plight of Captain Blackadder and crew. Rowan Atkinson’s titular character is an obvious critique of what a Captain was, or at least, the perception of what a Captain was. Obviously at odds with the concept of war, he has obviously been promoted earlier than he should have been, and it is only the men around him which make him appear good enough to lead. There are other comparisons too, General Melchett is the archetypal “donkey” general: mad, traditional, and out of touch with the reality of the situation. Even the representation of Haig is of him ‘playing soldier’ with plastic characters and a dustpan, indicative of his apparent scant regard for human life. The fact that he was a devout religious man perhaps detracts slightly from that particular myth. Naturally, it gets left out of the detractors thoughts.

There are other forms of entertainment derived from the war, various films in recent times have played upon a continuing fascination with the conflict. This is obviously part of a larger whole however, with war films as a genre growing in number. Indeed, in comparison to later conflicts, the First World War has got away without the ‘Hollywood’ treatment which has perhaps ruined public knowledge of the Second World War.

Moving away from entertainment, the war still resonates with the public at least once a year. I have, in the past, complained about a startling naivity in relation to the war, and the acts of remembrance that are performed every year on 11 November. However, there is clearly a large part of society which understands the significance of the emblematic poppy, and appreciates its pre-WW2 origins. The acts of remembrance still centre on WW1, which then encompasses the following conflicts.

The reason for this is simple enough to explain, WW1 was the first global war, and the first on the path towards total war. It was the original conflict for the industrial age. For this reason alone it will always have a certain resonance. However, whether this is enough to claim that it still bears relevance to today’s society is less clear.

There are other things which must inevitably must be considered (I haven’t mentioned the role of books, or indeed the middle east conflicts which could easily be claimed to be a product of the First World War), but this was only intended to be a few notes on the issue. Obviously there is plenty more to say, but I am not going to go into them now. Perhaps in the future. It is, for the time being, sufficient to suggest that the First World War is a remarkable period of history which perhaps shaped the course of the entire 20th Century, and indeed, the early period of the 21st.

On the right track…

15 06 2009

Hopefully, in one of my rare afternoons off, I will be able to do a bit of blogging, largely to make up for what I haven’t been doing recently. Later on today I will try to post something (hopefully) a bit more thought provoking, but for now I wish to discuss this matter. This will only be a short post simply because there isn’t much I can say about it, other than I agree that it is about time the British rail network was re-evaluated.

There has become an acceptance of the train lines. They run where they run. If one doesn’t pass close to you then you journey to the nearest station, however close that may be. Living out in the countryside, I’m aware of the importance of public transport to local communities, and have been from a young age (catching the local public bus to school every morning means you quickly learn how much of a problem it can be when it is running late, or indeed, not running at all).

There are areas of the country which are not served by the railways. For a society which is, apparently, trying to cut down on the number of cars on the road, surely developing a more substantial train network should be a priority (although making sure that the one that’s already in place works well is also worth worrying about!). Of course, there is a cost/benefit analysis to be conducted (much as Beeching did back in the 60’s), but it should be done again now, as communities have developed from what they were fifty years ago. A once small settlement may have exploded in size in the decades since then, likewise, another place may have shrunk. Whatever the circumstances, it is clear that a revision of the networks should be conducted. This is a joint problem, for government (local and national) as well as rail service providers and Network Rail. The authors of the report have a refreshingly sensible approach to the issue to. They recognise that this will take time, and are not trying to force an issue as much as stimulate discussion on the matter. They have done their homework, and have brought the issue to the fore with a series of sensibly restricted suggestions. I’m optimistic that these ideas will be carried forward, and something more substantial will come of it.

Naturally there are problems to overcome, building rail lines through housing estates, or wildlife protection areas are just two such issues. However these will inevitably be solved in the course of informed, intelligent discussion on the matter. It seems such a refreshing thing to hear in modern society, realistic intelligence. Long may it continue.

As a postscript, if you have downloaded Spotify, search for “sounds of steam locomotives” and brace yourself for a thoroughly exhilarating musical experience. It’s not worth going into how I know about this.

Platforms and Fightbacks…

9 06 2009

As the dust begins to settle following a pretty poor set of European election results for all the major parties (The Conservatives only gained 1%, and the Lib Dems were down 1.2%), the focus has fallen on the quite frankly ugly/evil mug of Nick Griffin. The Independent has it splattered across it’s front page today, coupled with the caption “A Dark Cloud Over British Politics“. I’m not sure what it is, but his face alone indicates someone who is just that bit evil (maybe that’s just me?). Anyway, so the question becomes what to do about the BNP?

At least, that’s what it should become. Again, maybe it is just me, but I feel I am seeing more about who is to blame for the BNP’s rise, rather than what can be done to stop it. Some blame Labour for losing the most seats in places where the BNP were successful, others blame politics more generally for failing to engage with the voters. The thing is, the one group who are not blamed, but should shoulder the responsibility for encouraging a racist/homophobic party to the fore, are simply the electorate. Those who put a simple black cross into the box next to the BNP last Thursday deserve to be labelled as the ignorant racist idiots who allowed themselves to get swept away in the sensationalist yarns spun by Griffin et al.

However, the vote shows me two things. The first is that the PR system of democracy is a flawed one, as I commented a couple of weeks ago. Griffin would have been nowhere near the limelight save for the system. He won less votes than in 2004, but because Labour did so badly, he didn’t need to worry.

The second thing is that a no-platform policy to these extremist prats is just not a viable option. I found myself agreeing with Glenda Jackson’s summation of the whole thing in the Indy today. She wrote,

At least the way ahead is clear. The days of arguing whether we should confront or ignore the BNP are over. We won’t confront them. We will tear into them. We will highlight and expose their agenda of prejudice and bigotry and division.

It sounds like something from a bad film, but the point is clear. Let us (by which I mean intelligent, educated folk regardless of politics) have a platform with these people, let us demonstrate why they are racist, homophobic, simple minded folk who have no clear idea about the way British society is now constructed, let us consign them to history along with other extremist groups. Let us show you why this party does not represent everything that Britain now stands for. It is not about nationalism, but multi-nationalism.

The very worst thing that we can do is have a no platform policy against them. It is clear that there are a few pockets in Britain who swallow the BNP’s empty rhetoric with all the hunger of a malnourished dog. Forcing the BNP underground through the no-platform approach would serve to make them martyrs to a cause. They would gain more from being ostracised by society than simply allowed into rational debate. Even Griffin must know, deep down, he has nothing. He is gambling with a two and five, hoping something falls his way. At the moment, the cards seem to be falling for him, expenses, recession, falling political confidence. All aid his cause (and he still didn’t do that well at the European elections). Yet to salvage these problems would leave him raising the stakes with nothing. It is the job of the main parties, as well as the likes of the Greens and UKIP to begin to sort these problems out. Faith needs to be restored. That’s the simple bit that most already know.

The question of how is infinitely harder. Perhaps it has to be the grassroots levels, perhaps it has to be the folks in the street knocking on doors, talking to people. Perhaps it has to be at the top, with Cameron, Brown and Clegg leading by strong example, setting the tone for others to follow. It was only today that Jeremy Vine was talking about how the ‘green shoots of recovery’ are beginning to sprout in the economy. Perhaps the only thing that the system needs is time itself. Let the wounds heal and let politics begin to speak for itself again through it’s actions and consequences.

The main thing that does need to change though is that people need to feel a connection with their MP. People need to know their elected MP will fight their cause in Parliament. At the moment, they don’t, hence why they are looking for other options. Or indeed, why they are not voting in the first place. To some, politics is just men in suits aye-ing and nay-ing to various issues. To others it is a tool designed to impeed the person on the street. Levels of crazy bureaucracy, red tape, and silly laws all do not help. Politics is something that the public need to get reacquainted to. The consequence of them not is the grizzled mug of Griffin plastered across a few more front pages.