Friday, 10 December 2010

When Politicians Lie ...

... police pay the price ...

... as a new generation learns that British democracy isn't working.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Guess Who's Hosting World Press Freedom Day

From BoingBoing
China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, USA - some of the nations whose governments are most heavy handed in their political censorship of the internet. All have constitutions which, as I understand it, guarantee freedom of speech, yet all strongly attack those who embarrass the state.

China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, by and large, confine the bulk of their censorship to within their own state borders. The USA is trying, with some success so far, to censor the rest of the world as well. Death threats, threats of imprisonment, allegations of terrorist activity which would be laughable if they weren't so dangerous, government to government coercion - to which Australia has simply rolled over (at least initially), and Switzerland and Sweden appear to have been, at the very least, heavily influenced - and government to private industry coercion: Visa & Mastercard (who happily work with the Ku Klux Klan and its allies), PayPal, Amazon, and so on. It is remarkable how much effective control the US government actually has over the functioning of the internet.

So who has recently announced that they are to host Unesco's World Press Freedom day, 2011? The USA, of course. The writer of their press release appears to have a fine sense of irony:
"The theme for next year's commemoration will be 21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers. The United States places technology and innovation at the forefront of its diplomatic and development efforts. New media has empowered citizens around the world to report on their circumstances, express opinions on world events, and exchange information in environments sometimes hostile to such exercises of individuals' right to freedom of expression. At the same time, we are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information. We mark events such as World Press Freedom Day in the context of our enduring commitment to support and expand press freedom and the free flow of information in this digital age."
As this Guardian news blog put it: "Shameless. You really could not make it up."

To end on a lighter note, the best joke of the week so far - thanks again to the Guardian Newspaper's blog - comes from Ben Yarrow's Twitter account (with a hat tip to @janinegibson):
Freedom of Speech - priceless. For everything else, there's MasterCard.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

I Wish I'd Written That

'The God Who Wastes Nothing', on Be Free Mama

Or, at least, I wish I could write that well about things that matter.

Rob Bell is an American speaker/preacher who is best known for his Noomas - short (10 to 14 minutes), punchy, real-life DVDs, which aim to "explore our world from a perspective of Jesus". More recently he has also done a series of speaking tours where he goes to the opposite extreme of speaking for around 2 hours; with the talk at one of the tour locations being filmed and released on DVD. His latest such film is called Drops Like Stars, which explores "the endlessly complex relationship between suffering and creativity". (Bell has never been one to avoid tricky issues). I've seen the DVD, but Stephanie Moors saw him live, in Tempe last February. And blogged about a part of it. I can't see an excerpt from the post that I can sensibly take out to include here, so I just suggest you read the whole thing; it's not long.

The odd thing about this, is that Be Free Mama looks like a blog about pregnancy and young children. I've been there done that, carry the scars (never let them tell you that the woman has the hardest part of childbirth :) ). I don't have any desire to relive the experience vicariously, thank you very much. So, if I hadn't stepped into the blog in the middle, as it were, I'd never have paid any attention to it. Yet, once I put some time time and effort in properly looking, I found it full of poetry: meditative, spiritual and earthed.

When I first started blogging, it seemed to be easy to find good blogs all over the internet (back when it had a capital 'I'). Now it seems much, much harder (not an original thought). Facebook is fashionable now, of course, but for me it is far too instant, no time for reflection, for thought, for exploration of new and interesting ideas. Lots of bloggers I really liked have stopped blogging, others have said everything once, and are changing their style to avoid repeating themselves.

Of course, it may be that back then blogging was new to me, so I spent more time exploring. Most blogs have sidebars with other blogs of interest; although it does take time to explore the web they form. But the biggest source of useful links, I think, used to be comments. A thoughtful comment on a blog I'm reading, with a link to the commenter's blog, is a reason to follow that link and explore further. Yet, there don't seem to be so many comments on posts now, and those there are tend to be in small close-knit groups. It's as though the internet, once so exciting as it opened up the world, is fragmenting into like-minded groups blogging into their own tight neighbourhoods.

Or maybe I'm just getting old.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, Part 1

Spoiler alert - if you haven't read the book and haven't seen the film yet, don't read the following, just go and see the film. If you haven't read any of the books or seen any of the films, then this film on its own might be somewhat confusing. Read the books first, then see this film.

From the opening scenes you can tell this film is going to take a different approach. The first six Harry Potter films had a serious case of 'quart into a pint pot' (more like 'gallon ...' for a couple). For the final book, though, they have chosen to split it into two parts; it makes a big difference.

Right near the beginning there is a marvellously poignant piece of visual imagery: Hermione uses her magic to make her parents forget all about her (for their safety), and the film shows family photographs with Hermione's picture slowly being faded out of each. Time is taken with each of the main characters to establish that loss and isolation are going to be big themes.

There are still action sequences, of course, and there is humour, and there is an intense three-way relationship at the heart of the film. But the backdrop is that the bad guys are winning, and Harry, Ron & Hermione are on their own.

At the start of the film the three have the Order of the Phoenix to help them. Then Hedwig dies, then Mad-Eye Moody. Then the Ministry of Magic falls, and the Weasleys' home is invaded. After that Harry, Hermione and Ron are alone: on the run, seeking out Voldemort's Horcruxes in the slight hope that once they're all destroyed he can be beaten. But they don't know where they are and, when they do find one, they don't even know how to destroy it. Instead the Horcrux in their possession just drags them down further.

Eventually even Ron goes away, leaving just Harry and Hermione wandering around various scenic but bleak parts of the UK. There is one beautiful scene: as the two reach rock bottom, Hermione is listening sadly to music on the radio, then Harry takes the Horcux off her for a moment and they dance together, in their tent in the middle of nowhere.

But the wandering isn't totally vain. Eventually they begin to find out about the 'deathly hallows': a cloak of invisibility, a stone of resurrection and an unbeatable wand. They also realise, through Harry's dream connection, that Voldement is seeking the wand. They are too busy running, though, to do anything about it. Nevertheless, Dumbledore's legacy leads Ron back to the others, so they are three again; part of the loss is restored - especially as in the process they retrieve a sword which is able to destroy the Horcux. But then they are captured. Dobbie the house elf is able to free them, but is killed as they escape. Harry buries Dobbie, then the film ends with Voldemort finding the unbeatable wand and revelling in its power.

In the book, Dumbledore is a central thread: his backstory, Harry's feelings of doubt and alienation, and the teenage Dumbledore's relationship with the dark wizard Grindelwald. None of this is in the film. On one level this makes a lot of sense, as it probably wouldn't have transferred well anyway (and I'm not at all convinced by Michael Gambon as Dumbledore anyway); on another level, though, it means you lose the 'dark night of the soul' element of Harry's wanderings, leaving a shallower result. Nevertheless, given the size of the book, I think this was a reasonable thread to leave out.

There are a couple of disappointing scenes later on in the film, as things start to move again. There is a very ominous, even scarey, scene in the book where Harry and Hermione walk into a trap baited by a dead Bathilda Bagshot in Godric's Hollow. In the film the scene is run-of-mill, with little tension, even when the trap is sprung - just a standard wand battle and escape.

Similarly, in the book the aftermath of Dobby's death is a deeply moving passage where Harry buries his body and magically carves a tombstone honouring Dobby, 'a free house elf'. In the film, Harry buries the body in sand and then the movie rushes on to show the final scene of Voldemort getting the wand. For my daughter, and I'm sure many others, Dobby's death was the saddest moment in the film, yet little was made of it. In a film lasting 146 minutes, would it have been so hard to spend an extra moment mourning the heroic Dobby?

That said, this remains an enjoyable film to watch. It's also very obviously only half the story, and I'm looking forward to the finale next spring.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

To Thine Own Self Be True?

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

So says Polonius to his son in Act I of Hamlet.  Nutsy quoted it recently in her blog, Miss Gracie, and it got me thinking (hat tip or something to Easy here too).

"Be true to myself" - which self? The self-ish, self-indulgent self who just wants an excuse to do things its own way? The idealistic, possibly even priggish, self who wants to help make the world a better place, whatever the cost?

Down the sidebar of this blog, under 'About Me', I call myself a "child of God: created in His image, fallen, redeemed, struggling, looking forward to renewal" - lots of selfs, not all of which I can be true to at the same time. For me, the self I really want to be true to is the one I believe I was made to be. Not the messed-up, twisted, distorted image that I have become, but the restored, renewed self that I originally should have been and, God-willing, one day will be. The sidebar continues, "weary of empty religion," surely any religion is empty which doesn't encourage and support us in being true to the best we can be, rather than just what we are now; the people we were made to be, not just souls overly shaped by the world in which we live.

A few months before he died, Johnny Cash recorded a cover of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt:-

I find it painful watching; Cash seems to have been a man who really epitomised truth, in all its painful honesty. YouTube also has a part of documentary featuring the Hurt video and interviews with friends and family. This is excellent, I think, but do watch the straight Cash video above first:-

Monday, 15 November 2010

Repost: Fake Computer Support Scam

I posted this on Blog City back in March 2010, but the BBC have just caught up with an article on the subject, so clearly the scam is still active:-
"Internet users are being warned about cold callers who offer to fix viruses but then install software to steal personal information. Campaign group Get Safe Online said a quarter of people it had questioned had received such calls, many suspected to have been from organised crime gangs. Some gangs, employing up to 400 people, are known to set up their own call centres to target people en masse."
The original post:

I had a scary phone call this morning, from a lady with a heavy Indian accent telling me that I was infected with Internet viruses and trojans and that Microsoft had asked them to contact me to sort it out. She claimed to be from a company called TechIsOnline. After a bit of discussion she passed me onto a supervisor who got me to look in my Event Log for warnings and errors. There were some (there nearly always are) so he told me about 'polymorphic viruses' which my antivirus program can't spot. Then he got me to look in the Windows prefetch folder (a standard bit of Windows) and told me these were viruses (they aren't), and he got me to type in 'inf corrupted system files' - this would normally do a search returning lots of files (as it happens I have that sort of search turned off), which presumably he would also have told me were viruses. Eventually he realised I was a computer techie and the phone mysteriously cut off. It was obvious by then that they were trying to talk me into giving them my credit card details and installing a program from them onto my PC (or possibly the other way round).

All in all it was quite a scary spiel, and I can well see how normally sensible people might get sucked in.
There is a good write-up on the scam at -  - which suggests there is an upsurge in these calls:-
Since I first reported on this on Jan 18th 2009, this one page has had over 24,000 views and 261 comments, and recently there's been a huge surge in the amount of calls received. I'm getting two or 3 people leaving comments every day now, and over the last week, the page views have surged to close to 400 PER DAY and easily accounts for the most viewed page on my blog by far.
Which suggests that Comantra or Supportonclick or Logmein123 or whoever they are calling themselves this week, are increasing their activity.
The scary language used is very similar to a pop-up you get on some websites trying to bounce you into installing a 'virus checker' which tells you falsely that you are infected then wants to charge you $50 to 'remove' the infections (ie stop falsely reporting them).This is apparently a massively lucrative scam - not only do they get the $50, they also get all your credit card details plus they get to install anything they like on your PC (currently this is commonly some form of password stealing program). Given this online success I suppose it's no surprise someone is trying the same scam over the telephone.

This seems to be a worldwide scam - there are many reports from the US on the web, as well as the UK and further afield - so wherever you are, take care. This is one of those cons where, if you thought about it you wouldn't dream of giving credit card details and/or access to your PC to someone who rings out of the blue, but under the pressure of a scary spiel people do ... and then wonder afterwards, when it is too late.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

25 Years!

Once upon a time ...
Last month BlackLin and I celebrated our silver wedding anniversary. The weekend before the actual date we had a family celebration: roughly a million in-laws plus my brother and step-mother (NOT the fairy-tale sort, I should point out). My step-mother came over from Ireland, and gave my brother a lift down from Nottingham, so we really appreciated them coming (as we did the outlaws, of course). Since there were lots of kids, we went to the Travellers' Rest in Lower Caversham, who are family friendly and do meals that everyone can eat, and had a really enjoyable evening.

The anniversary itself we stayed in with a Thai take-away, from the Prince of Wales, and watched a film. Then the weekend after we went for a night in the hotel we stayed at for the first night of our honeymoon (now called The Great House, in Sonning). They did us a super room - actually a mini-suite of rooms - which was really good; it would have been pleasant to stay for longer.

Older, if not wiser.
All in all, a wonderful , if exhausting, week. Actually, it was a bit too exhausting really, because the Sunday before the anniversary I was wrecked from the family celebration so I didn't go to church, and they'd very kindly got us some flowers and a present - a bit sad that only BlackLin was there to receive them.

Afterwards, I got Photoshop out and did composites for those who came: a mix of photos from the wedding itself with photos from the celebration, personalised for the recipient, in a simple frame. I was rather pleased with the way they all came out, so I hope they enjoyed them.

Looking at the old photos is a bit sombre though, in some ways. My Mum, Dad and grandmother were all at the wedding, and obviously very prominent in the photos, but have since died. Actually, I'm now older than my Mum was when she went, which feels a bit weird. But there's also a photo of several of the friends who came to the reception, so many of whom we have lost touch with over the years. It's also thought-provoking how many marriages haven't lasted; something of a salutary reminder that we are celebrating good fortune as much as anything else.

Another, less happy, celebration this month is that it is now fifteen years since I got the 'flu bug that mutated into CFS (aka ME over here, or CFIDS in the US). I was last team leader standing on a large development project that had been decimated when a particularly virulent outbreak of 'flu swept through the office. I thought I had successfully fought the bug off for long enough for the earliest victims to start returning before succumbing myself. What I didn't then realise is that the early symptoms of 'flu are actually a side-effect of the body's defenses, so actually all I'd done was suppress my first line of resistance. In many ways that had been a really draining and exhausting year, so my defenses weren't that brilliant to start with. I spent several weeks expecting to go back to work in a couple of days, as 'flu turned into 'post-flu malaise'. Then I spent several months expecting to go back 'in a week or so', as it turned into post-viral fatigue (with hindsight I can see just how scrambled my brains were at the time, because I really wasn't well enough, nor recovering fast enough, to have any realistic prospect of staying out of bed all day, never mind working).

These days the CFS is stable, as long as I don't push it too hard. Of course I do, including over the anniversary period last month - it generally means I take a hit for several weeks or months, but sometimes that is worth it.

I'm wandering off topic a bit, so it's time to go. I do wish you and yours a blessed time over the run-up to Christmas (not to mention Thanksgiving in some foreign climes). If there's one thing musing over an anniversary reminds me of, it's that people matter more than things. Not a particularly original thought, but it does give me the opportunity to describe it as sententious (I've been reading a lot of Brother Cadfael books recently).

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Coffee, Cupcakes & A Glass Of Beer


Whether you have just stumbled across this blog, or have come over from my old blog on Blog City, I'm pleased to see you. I was thinking what to do for my first post here (yesterday's Israel/Palestine entry was just copied over as a test), and I thought, "What would I want to share with a visitor to a new home? Coffee would be good, and why not bake some cakes - 'fairy cakes' in the UK, 'cupcakes' in the rest of the world - and, if the sun's over the yardarm, maybe even a cool (but not cold) glass of beer."

Let's start with a mug of Good African Coffee's Rukoki Gold. I enjoy a good cup of coffee, but don't see why my enjoyment should be based on the exploitation of some poor farmer. I appreciate having the ability to feed, clothe and educate my family, and reckon s/he should be able to do the same for his/hers, so for many years I have drunk fair trade coffees. A few months ago, I came across Good African Coffee, which is an African owned coffee producer where the 'added-value' processing is also done in Africa. To quote one of their taglines, "Africa needs trade not aid". It's also really good coffee.

Fairy cakes are really easy to make, and home made ones just taste so much better than shop-bought. Simply cream 4oz castor sugar with 4oz butter (100g of each will do nicely instead), and beat in 2 eggs, a little at a time. Then fold in 4oz (or 100g) self raising flour using a metal spoon. Two-thirds fill 12 to 16 paper cake cases with the resulting mixture and bake in an oven at 190C (375F) for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown. You can throw in sultanas, or currants, or cherries, or cocoa powder, or whatever for variation (before cooking!), and can decorate the top with icing or whatever to make them look even prettier (after cooking). The only problem being that hot cakes taste so much better than cold (hence "selling like ..."), so you might have to make some more for your visitors, if you aren't so good at resisting temptation.

If I've been able to get hold of some Traquair House Ale, and I'm feeling really hospitable, you could be in for a treat. They brew it up in the Scottish Borders (oddly enough at Traquair House). They don't brew very much each year, and the vast majority of what they do brew is, I'm told, exported. If you can get hold of it, though, it's sheer nectar. It's strong, ABV 7.2%, but beautifully balanced with an enormously rich flavour.

And while we eat and drink, we can chat. Why not tell me what you like as a food or drink treat? The comment box is free and waiting.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Two-State Solution? Who Are They Kidding?

According to the BBC (who say their data comes from the OCHA), Israel now fully controls 62% of the West Bank; of the remaining 38% more than half is under Israeli security control. There are 149 authorised Israeli settlements in the West bank, and 100 'unauthorised outposts' - all illegal under international law. The population of the West Bank is 2.4 million Palestinians and 500,000 Jewish/Israeli settlers. It looks to me as though this data comes from the OHCA's report The Humanitarian Impact On Palestinians Of Israeli Settlements and Other Infrastructure In The West Bank (large pdf file), published in 2007. If so, and if I read the report correctly, then the BBC have their figures the wrong way around: Israel directly controls over 38% of the West bank and has security control over more than half of the remaining 62%. Although Israeli settlements have grown significantly since 2007, so these figures will be underestimates.

Meanwhile in Washington, Ramallah and Jerusalem negotiators make a lot of fuss about the supposed partial settlement freeze coming to an end.

Just for clarity, here is the introduction to Annex I of the OCHA report:

Under international law, Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), including East Jerusalem, are illegal. The illegality of Israeli settlements has been recognised by the international community including through resolutions of the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly, the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

A key part of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is its appropriation of water resources, where Israeli settlers get the lions' share. For example, from the Western Aquifier, which lies under both Israel and the West bank, of the 362 million cubic metres pa pumped, just 22 mcm pa is for Palestinian use, the remaining 340 mcm pa is reserved for Israeli use. Water supplies to Palestinian towns are largely controlled by Mekorot, an Israeli firm which prioritises Israeli customers when water supplies are short.

The facts on the ground in Israel and Palestine are clear: Israel has no interest in a two-state solution, all it wants to do is to pressure more and more Palestinians into leaving their homes, whilst extending its settler presence throughout all the land it wants to appropriate. To anyone familiar with the history of apartheid in South Africa the strategy is all too plain.

A two-state solution which included a viable Palestinian state once looked a workable approach to the Israel/Palestine problem. Now it has been overtaken by events, and it is time to move toward a single state solution which is non-racist and fully democratic. Then all sides can have their capital in Jerusalem.