Speaking in tongues

English speakers are notoriously bad at speaking any other languages. When travelling, we tend to treat anyone’s inability to understand what we are saying as a form of deafness, so we just speak English very LOUDLY.

I’ve even come across an American variant of this, which involves the assumption that anything said in English will be understood just as long as you don’t use any contractions: so saying “I will not” will get you understood where “I won’t” won’t.

I’ve just (accidentally) discovered a BBC site that could singlehandedly end the international muteness of the English speaker.

It is wonderful. It covers a dozen languages well enough to take you quickly to a reasonable level of practical fluency. It also gives you key phrases for 36 other languages. It is entertaining and easy to use.

More BBC website genius. I stand in awe of the BBC for producing this. It’s free. It’s as useful as most commercial courses and probably a good bit more effective than any language lessons most people had in school. (If they had language lessons… I believe these are becoming the educational equivalent of an endangered species. like any non-utilitarian subject in British universities, now I come to think of it.)

Wouldn’t this be a good resource for schools? Imagine if English-speaking people left school with a useful smattering of a dozen languages rather than our present incapacity to even say “Hola!” on Spanish holidays.

As an aside, the print Guardian gave out little booklets with a few phrases in the world’s fastest-growing languages. No rival to the BBC’s mastery in the area but they did offer a few unique joys, such as the gestures. These were illustrated with drawings that made you think of the non-existent cartoon “Family Guy Does Russian.”

Suitable tale for Hallowe’en

According to the BBC

Five women were paraded naked, beaten and forced to eat human excrement by villagers after being branded as witches in India’s Jharkhand state.
Local police said the victims were Muslim widows who had been labelled as witches by a local cleric. (from the BBC)

This poses an interesting question. Does Islam have “witches?” Are they mentioned in the Koran? (I have no idea. I am too idle to googleit even)

The BBC has a video but I’m such a wuss that the warning that it contains disturbing footage was enough to stop me playing it. The video has understandably outraged people in India.

According to more links on that BBC page, witch persecution is not uncommon in India today. For instance, the BBC story “Witch family killed” reported the deaths of four people, who were stoned and buried alive in June 2008.

More than 500 people have been killed in Assam – and half as many in neighbouring West Bengal – in the past few years because their neighbours thought they were witches.
A study on these killings by a Bengal police officer, Asit Baran Choudhury, suggests that most of those accused of practising witchcraft and then killed are “isolated families” with some landed property.
He says most of those killed are widows.
“Powerful people in the community target them to acquire the land,” says the study. (from the BBC, 12 June 2008)

These horrific tales don’t need commenting on. It’s blindingly obvious what’s going on here. I could refer you to the mountains of anthropological literature about persecution of “witches”. The European witch trials were so similar in terms of targetting widows and grabbing property. But any mention of “anthropology” or “history” places this sort of madness in a conceptual realm that’s outside our own experience – in the distant past or in some “superstitious” alien society that is nothing like the modern world (Ha.)

In any case, I tend to assume that most readers are halfway sane so I won’t do this to death. Feel free to work up your own outrage. I’m getting a bit tired at expressing outrage at things so WRONG that they defy any sense of innate human decency. And I choose not to go down that road, as a matter of principle.

How monumentally convenient for someone who is jealous of another’s good fortune to make up insane accusations and convince the gullible that they are true.

Welcome to Minority Report

On the BBC

Bus CCTV could predict assaults
The system would monitor suspicious behaviour on buses
CCTV security systems could soon spot an assault on a bus before it happens, according to a major research project.(from the BBC)

🙂

OK, admittedly, this is what is more often known as “vapourware” than a fully-working Minority Report system.

Although much of the work is currently at the theoretical stage, the team from the university’s newly-founded Centre for Secure Information Technologies predict that within five years their software will be able to profile people as they board a bus. (from the BBC)

I bet they haven’t even bred the mutants for the tank yet.

“Profile” bus passengers troublemakers? Through CCTV? With software that does exactly what a bus driver thinking “I don’t like the look of him” would do?

Leaping to conclusions on the basis of appearance and movements?

I can do that for free. I try to stop myself doing it because I believe the more accurate word is “stereotyping,” rather than “profiling,” but then, I’m only human…..

Oh right, that was why Minority Report seemed such a good choice of title. 😀

Rumble about the Jungle

How easily does extreme right-wing discourse slip into the way the media frames the world? Answer: Very easily.

The BBC website has a report on the argument by the Refugee Council that the UK should take some responsibility to grant asylum for vulnerable residents – children -of the squatter camp at Calais.

They are talking about children. Children who are living in a squatter camp. I think that qualifies as a humanitarian issue. Surely all our media hysteria about risks to children should also apply here?

But, in the interests of “balance”, presumably, the BBC gives at least an equal space to the views of Migration Watch, who carefully seek to redefine this issue to ignore the “children” bit. After a load of unchallenged nonsense such as an assertion that 80% of people who say the word “asylum” are admitted to the UK, their spokesman says

“You have to look at the system as a whole, you can’t just say there are vulnerable children” (from the BBC)

Now, I’m already on semiotic alert by the BBC’s description of this squatter camp as

the camp known as “the jungle”

And lo, there is a sidebar with links to previous BBC articles about this camp.

SEE ALSO
UK turns down ‘jungle migrants’ 18 Sep 09 | Europe
France to close migrant ‘jungle’ 16 Sep 09 | Europe
Migrant squalor in Calais ‘jungle’ 02 Jul 09 | UK
UN to help advise Calais refugees 01 Jul 09 | UK

Was a decision taken in early July to use the “jungle” word? Hmm, does that mean that it’s full of Africans? Yes, I believe it does. Jungle is a pretty loaded word. It arrives carrying echoes of the racist ideas that supported colonialism. That’s why we now say “rainforest”.

I don’t have a problem with calling the “rainforest” the “jungle”. However, I do have serious problems with the BBC calling a refugee camp a “jungle,” given that I don’t believe that trees and parrots are over-represented in the Calais camp.

And what is MigrationWatch? Surely that must be an organisation with equal credibility to the Refugee Council, given that it’s accorded equal billing by the BBC? Well, maybe it’s just me but I rather think not.

Its website says that

We are an independent, voluntary, non political body which is concerned about the present scale of immigration into the UK.

Let’s say “concerned” is putting it mildly. The word “rabid” would probably fill the bill better. Here are the first 3 of what they call “key facts”:

Net immigration has quadrupled since 1997 to 237,000 a year.
A migrant now arrives nearly every minute.
We must build a new home every six minutes for new migrants.

They have a press page where they record their appearances in the media: (When I say “their” I am not convinced that “they” exist far beyond their spokestwat, but that may be wishful thinking)

Bear with me while I paste in their media triumphs over the past couple of years. Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph are the favoured platforms – until the BBC started to see their glorious leader as a spokesman:

Migrant housing figures, Letter in The Daily Telegraph 25 July, 2009
25-Jul-2009
Turks increasingly turn to Islamic extremism: Al Qaeda’s reliance on Arabs is altering as recruits from Turkey and Turkic-speaking areas of Central Asia form a recent wave of trainees, experts (sic) say.
By Sebastian Rotella Los Angeles Times – 20-Jul-2009
At last, the truth about immigration and council house queue jumping
By Andrew Green The Daily Mail, London – 30-Jun-2009
Statisticians are right to publish and be damned By Sir Andrew Green,
The Times – 12-Feb-2009
We must create a culture of solidarity, not offer amnesties
Editorial from The Catholic Herald 28-Nov-2008
How many more people can our small island take? As population heads towards 70 million has the penny dropped for Labour? by Sir Andrew Green The Daily Mail – 19-Nov-2008
Devastating demolition of the case for mass immigration by Sir Andrew Green, Chairman of Migration Watch UK, The Daily Mail – 01-Apr-2008
Immigration is making matters worst (sic) Letter by Sir Andrew Green
The Surrey Advertiser – 07-Dec-2007
Hold back the immigrant flood By Sir Andrew Green,
The Sunday Times – 04-Nov-2007
‘We must act now to cut immigrant numbers’ Commentary by Sir Andrew Green, The Daily Telegraph – 24-Oct-2007

Plus this “1 Sep 2009 … Sir Andrew Green was interviewed on the Today Programme at 8.35 this morning about the asylum seekers’ camp near Calais”

Who is Sir Andrew Green and why are his views so much more worthy of media attention than, say, mine? A Guardian profile from 2005 says his friends are unanimous that he’s not a a racist. Oh, well, that must be OK, then.

Apparently, he can’t be a racist, because he was British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia…….

The portrait that emerges from those who know Sir Andrew is of a shy, private individual, “a right old Tory, Daily Telegraph reader”, and also a “very religious” man who held regular evangelical meetings at the British embassy in Riyadh. (from the Guardian, 4 Nov 2005)

A very religious man. LOL Regular evangelical sessions.. Double LOL. Why am I not surprised that this right-wing figurehead for an ugly ideology is also an “evangelical Christian”? Indeed, “suffer the little children” may have become his new watchword, if we consider his Calais stance.

Just to show exactly how “unracist” the former ambassador is:

The row offered Sir Andrew an opportunity to renew his argument on the BBC’s Today programme, when he said: “We have no problem with immigration from Poland, which is valuable to all sides.” (from the Guardian, 4 Nov 2005)

So Eastern Europeans are OK?

But. almost all the migration to the UK that makes up the numbers that Migration Watch presents (e.g UK supposedly needs to build a house every 6 minutes for migrants) is from EC countries. This apparently doesn’t worry “Migration Watch”.

Shouldn’t they call it “Non-white Migration Watch” and have done with it, then? Clearly not, because even the BBC would then have problems presenting Sir Andrew Green’s views on its main pages, in the name of balance.

Oh Emm Gee !1!

OMG! Have you heard? The president of AMERICA has an opinion…. ZOMG!!!!!!111

Seriously. It must be the slowest news day ever. Obviously the media has hit saturation point with war, famine, plague and pestilence so now we have a headline news bulletin which revolves around the President of the USA expressing an opinion about someone.

What the fuck has the world come to for this to be news? Even the BBC has shamed itself by covering it. To death.

In a nutshell, Kanye West was a jack ass and interrupted an award winners speech.  Yeah, big deal. I could just about see that being the news item but the reality is people act like self-centred idiots day in, day out. The fact that some one famous is self-centred is hardly news. Following this frankly uninteresting incident, President Obabma was holding a conversation about it off air, but some ABC staff recorded it and felt the need to post twitter messages about it. Following it becoming “news” ABC have apologised to CNBC and the POTUS and have removed the twitter posts. Obviously this has done nothing to reduce the global spread and the wonders of the interweb mean we can all listen to the President of the USA calling Kanye West a “jack ass.”

Is this really how low our society has sunk? Is the President’s personal opinion about someone’s behaviour genuinely newsworthy? What impact does this have on anyone’s life?

If pushed, I am sure you could easily find in excess of 50% of the worlds population who would call Kanye West a “jack ass” even prior to his MTV awards behaviour. Is that news worthy? If not, why not?

The only thing I can think of is that the worlds news agencies are so overwhelmed by the onslaught from Web 2.0 crap applications that anything which has even a passing reference to them becomes news based solely on its perceived ability to appeal to the yoof market. It is shameful, and certainly goes a long way to explaining why “old media” feels it is under threat from the new media…

Shame on every news outlet that carried this story. Even a cat up the tree would have been more newsworthy.

Tories try to spoil the Wire

My Wire fan-status already took a knock when the Guardian started running a Wire-fan reading group and most of the posters seemed to be prats. But to find the Tories using the Wire, just to steal its perceived credibility for a soundbite, is making me gag.

The BBC website headline says

Parts of Britain ‘like The Wire’

I assumed that was a subject-verb-object construction, meaning “There are parts of Britain where people like the Wire.” Which is bound to be true but a bit of a strange news headline.

But it turned out they meant:

Parts of Britain (are) ‘like The Wire’

Even that is fair enough. After all, it’s a drama that’s deliberately meant to suspend disbelief through “realism” ffs. Bits of it feel “true” to me, “true” in terms of my experience of the world and of the ways people act. I don’t assume that makes it literally “true,” in a documentary sense. No one who’s ever watched a tv series before would assume it’s a literally “true” representation of life in Baltimore, let alone any UK city.

The Conservatives have compared parts of the UK to The Wire, a US television show which portrays inner-city drugs and violence.
In a speech, shadow home secretary Chris Grayling argued that the UK was suffering the same culture of gangs and street violence found in the US.
He said Labour had failed to ensure law and order was preserved in the poorest parts of the country. ..
Mr Grayling repeated his charge that poorer communities in the UK have been let down by Labour, saying: “The Wire has become a byword for urban deprivation and societal breakdown in modern America.”
He said: “When The Wire comes to Britain’s streets, it is the poor who suffer most. It is the poor who are the ones who have borne the brunt of the surge in violence under this government.

It’s pretty obvious at this point that Chris Grayling hasn’t really ever watched the Wire.

Because, if he had, he’d have noticed that the crimes aren’t just at street level.The economy, the political world and the media don’t exactly emerge unscathed.

Crocodile tears for the “poor” seem to be the Tories’ new election strategy. For instance, they claim that the poor are being let down.

Oh yes, “let down by rising crime” is the claim. I think that misinterpreting & manipulating crime figures is called “juking the stats” in the Wire. So you’d think that a Wire-o-phile like the shadow Tory Home secretary would have the grace to blush when he does it. (Seeing as all crime figures show falling rates)

OK, the Tories aren’t the BNP – which is also trying to corner the market in populist concern for the class-formerly-known-as-working (before the last Tory governments hammered it into the ground.) But they bear a pretty monstrous responsibility for the disaffection and poverty of so many neighbourhoods, where many people never found work since the 1980s. (Don’t make me repeat the list of Tory crimes against “no-such-thing-as-society”, because I will rant for hours.)

So it’s doubly sickening to see them both using the consequences of their own actions as a stick with which to beat the government and dragging the good name of the Wire into it.

Still, it’s all in the game, I suppose…..

Justice, mercy or revenge

Today’s news has been pretty much filled with items about the decision to allow Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man jailed for blowing up a US airliner over Lockerbie in 1988, to go home to die. al-Megrahi is suffering from terminal cancer and, according to some reports at least, has about three months to live. It is probably unsurprising that this release has generated a lot of vox pop about what an “outrage” it is that he be allowed home to die. One of the terms of his release is that al-Megrahi dropped his series of appeals against his conviction, saving the UK taxpayer a large amount of money; however I can only assume that he still thinks he is innocent (or at least has a chance of being found innocent) but no longer had the will to fight this.

In the UK a life sentence doesn’t actually mean you are expected to die in jail. The criminal justice system is, in theory at least, based upon the principles of removing an offender from society as long as they present a danger to society, while providing correctional education to allow them to reintegrate to society upon release.

Equally, in the UK (and the US I am fairly sure) there are frequent cases where a prisoner is released from jail on compassionate grounds. There is nothing specifically unusual about this case.

The biggest difference here is that this is a person who has killed Americans. As a result, President Obama felt the urge to pressurise the “Scottish Government” (hmm) to change its mind about al-Megrahi’s release. President Obamba is not alone in this, almost every US politician has tried to convince the Scottish Justice Minister to change his mind. The UK radio and TV news is running headlines about how this has “all been ignored” – as if the requests of US politicians should carry some weight in this matter. I notice that previously the US government fell over itself to listen to pleas from UK politicians about the treatment of Gary McKinnon… Or not.

All this is only mildly interesting. I notice with more interest, and a lot of amusement, that the same parts of the British media objecting to this were crying for the release of the convicted Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs. Obviously there are differences, Biggs is unrepentant, proud of his crime and white so the objections of Jack Mill‘s son went largely ignored.

Unusually for a missive from WhyDontYou Towers, I have no real opinion one way or another over the treatment and final disposal of al-Megrahi other than to wish there was some actual justice and consistency in the UK Criminal Justice system. Justice is not about revenge. Fair treatment includes compassion. Nothing that happens to al-Megrahi will bring back the dead or turn the clock back to before the murders. If justice is allowed to become revenge, then Al Qaeda can give up, we’ve destroyed western society ourselves. There can be no doubt that al-Megrahi showed his victims no compassion, but so what? Do two wrongs make a right? Does anyone honestly think al-Megrahi remains a danger to society? The news is showing traumatic footage of the night Pan Am Flight 103 went down – what can this do other than inflame people about the decision, which I think is at least consistent with the UK criminal justice policy.

As is always the case, the BBC is an example of the odd responses. There is the frequently wrong idea that those who are emotionally entangled can give a just and reasoned opinion – the BBC website has an entire page devoted to “Reaction – Lockerbie Bomber Set Free.” Show the effects of emotional involvement, the sister of a victim understandably says:

I don’t know how you show compassion to someone who has shown no remorse for what he has done and as Mr MacAskill praised the justice system and the investigation and the trial, how do you then show this person compassion? It’s just utterly despicable. I think he should have died in prison. Why should he be returned to Libya? That’s not what we were promised. We were always told he would serve out his full sentence in Scotland.

It is understandable, but wrong. I cant begin to imagine the suffering this person has undergone, but that is not grounds for a policy decision. This is why in the Dark Ages we moved away from blood feuds and instituted a system of courts and laws.  While she may not, yet, see it, the only way to show compassion is in situations like this. There is no compassion in being nice to nice people you like. Compassion involves doing what is right even when you dont want to.

The inherently evil David Cameron gives us a sign of the Criminal Justice system we can look forward to if the Tories come to power:

This man was convicted of murdering 270 people, he showed no compassion to them, they weren’t allowed to go home and die with their relatives in their own bed and I think this is a very bad decision

Ah, an eye for an eye eh? Does the body count matter? If he had killed just one, would he be objecting? Is the only reason to keep him in jail the fact that 270 families were torn apart rather than one or two? I suspect that if you are a grieving family member, the pain is not reduced simply because no one else died.

The Scottish Labour Leader has shown a tendency towards fluid politics that is characteristic of the Labour Party in general:

While one can have sympathy for the family of a gravely ill prisoner, on balance, our duty is to honour and respect the victims of Lockerbie and have compassion for them. The SNP’s handling of this case has let down Scotland

Yes, have compassion for the victims. Making someone suffer because not doing so would upset the families is not compassionate. It is pretty much a cowardly response.

Annoyingly for a committed Atheist, the Reverend Ian Galloway (Church of Scotland) says what is, IMHO, the right thing:

We are defined as a nation by how we treat those who have chosen to hurt us. Do we choose mercy even when they did not chose mercy? This was not about whether one man was guilty or innocent. Nor is it about whether he had a right to mercy but whether we as a nation, despite the continuing pain of many, are willing to be merciful. I understand the deep anger and grief that still grips the souls of the victims’ families and I respect their views, but to them, I would say justice is not lost in acting in mercy. Instead our deepest humanity is expressed for the better. To choose mercy is the tough choice and today our nation met that challenge.

Infuriatingly I cant help but agree with everything he has said here.

If you want to read some genuinely insane arguments on this matter have a look at the BBC “Have Your Say” Pages. Here the hatred really flows. The whole of Europe is called “Cowardly” because the Scottish National Party stood up to American pressure. The irony is amusing, if the ranting is disturbing.

It saddens me that people are still suffering to such an extent about this. Their suffering will not be changed by this persons release, nor would their suffering end if he had died in jail. That political figures in both countries are making so much capital out of this is an example of how craven politics really is. When I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with a Church of Scotland Reverend, its time to lie down.