Wednesday, 31 October 2007

We can solve this with SCIENCE!

It's fairly common nowadays to hear people complaining about the deteriorating standards of science in our society. We're constantly told that the numbers of students taking science subjects at university are dropping, that society favours people who use their gut feelings rather than evidence (that would be truthiness), and that this is caused by Christianity's dislike of rationality. (Incidentally, if that's true, I'd like to know why scientists vastly outnumbered arts and humanities students in my university's Christian Union.)

Amongst all this doom and gloom, it would be easy to assume that there will be no scientists anywhere in our society in just a few years, and that we'll turn into a society of yokels. This would be a pretty daft thing to assume, however. For a start, numbers of science graduates in the US have actually increased in recent years; moreover, even though students are more likely to be turning away from the traditional sciences now than they were a few years ago (see this BBC article for the figures), the numbers of students going to university at all are constantly and dramatically rising, meaning that we're still going to have considerably more scientists in this country than, say, ten years ago.

Possibly even more importantly, though, the attitude towards science that's seen in the media has been constantly improving recently. I think this can best be shown through the medium of US crime dramas.

(What? I happen to like US crime dramas.)

The example that springs to mind immediately is CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Whereas crimes were once solved on TV by maverick detectives who threatened suspects, shot their way out of trouble and drove fast cars, CSI has introduced a format in which the slightly nerdy characters back at the lab take centre stage and save the day. Indeed, characters who get too emotionally involved in the case frequently get reprimanded, not because it goes against the usual way of doing things, but because it doesn't help. The show doesn't portray its geeky characters half-heartedly, either - Gil Grissom, the CSI team's figurehead, is a hardcore nerd, into insect life cycles and other bizarrely obscure subject areas.

Grissom is a very likeable character, not only because he gets the job done well, but also because he clearly loves what he does and is very passionate about it. CSI very rarely goes deeply into the personal lives of its characters, mainly because we simply don't need to see them - we see enough of them at work to know what they're like as people, and to make the audience root for them. It's a similar story in more recent series Numb3rs.

I'd like to take this moment to point out quite how much I hate the mixing of letters and digits in the middle of a word. I tend to pronounce Numb3rs as "Numbthrers" in protest. Regardless, the show itself is very entertaining, and this is largely due to Charlie, the central character. Charlie is a mathematician, frequently consulted by the FBI on cases where mathematical analysis is necessary. It's proper maths, too (as much of it as I can recognise, anyway), and as long as the audience can overlook the frankly staggering number of cases that happen to involve mathematical analysis, it's accessible and entertaining.

The rest of the show is good too - Megan, the team's resident psychologist, holds up her end of the science admirably, and the other characters see the use of science as a useful tool, rather than belittling it as nerdy. Charlie and Megan, like Grissom, are passionate and clearly intelligent scientists, who have fully-developed personalities and make their specialities look both useful and - dare I say it - cool.

I can't point to definite figures proving that these shows, and others like them, have increased public appreciation of science, although this article from the BBC certainly suggests that this might well be the case. I think it is likely, though, that science is seen by the average person as having a much higher status than we're sometimes led to believe - and that the predicted collapse of all reason and thought is not going to happen after all.

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Sunday, 28 October 2007

Picture of the Week: #43

I've just watched the original Star Wars movie again, so I don't think there's any point in pretending that I'm not in full-on geek mode. (Although I will risk the nerd wrath by saying that Star Wars really isn't as good as it's made out to be. Mark Hamill could only have been more wooden if he was made of chipboard.) Geek mode is an interesting phenomenon, which can be manifested in a number of ways. See above photo for an example.

The idea behind the photo's not mine (I got it from this Flickr image pool), but I think it's quite a cool effect. Is it obvious that I've been spending a lot of time indoors recently?

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Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Are snarky blog comments the online equivalent, do you think?

WARNING: I accept no responsibility if you go off and draw on someone's wall, then get prosecuted for it, OK? Nothing in this post should be taken as an endorsement of committing criminal damage, and you're on your own if you're daft enough to do so. Now that's out of the way, on we go with the post.

London may be an incredible city, right up there among the greatest cities on the world - and yet, I really can't get very excited about it. The vast majority of times I've been there, I've actually been going somewhere else entirely (the bizarre British transport network means you more or less have to go through or around London if you're going anywhere at all), and I don't have much desire to go there any more often.

One of the major reasons why I dislike London is the view I get when I go there. The train I have to catch comes in to Liverpool Street Station, and the last mile or so of track before the train gets there is surrounded by some of the most impressively ugly and run-down buildings I think I've ever seen. There is one bonus, though; the brick walls of the railway cutting are always covered in graffiti.

Graffiti is something that I find endlessly fascinating. I have no idea what the motivation for it might be; perhaps people want to leave their mark in some way, to make sure that people know they were there, or maybe it's just a destructive urge. Regardless of the reasons for its production, graffiti is certainly very noticeable, so we might as well pay attention to it. I've ended up classifying it into a number of handy categories.

  1. Destructive Graffiti
    Graffiti that defaces something underneath, as opposed to being placed in a blank space. This can sometimes be motivated by humour rather than a simple urge to cause damage; scratching out letters on signs comes under this classification, and frequently it makes me think that the only thing wrong with it is a lack of a sense of humour. (If it was actually funny to change "Swimming Pool" to "Swim-in- Poo-" then I'd be behind it all the way. This is how it's done.) If it is actually purely destructive - scrawling "Gaz woz ere" across a piece of art, for example - then it's pointless and shouldn't be encouraged at all.

  2. Tagging Graffiti
    One step above simple destruction, but still not very interesting, we have the scrawls that you'll see on walls everywhere, telling anyone who's remotely interested that someone called Barry, or possibly a street gang called B3, passed that way at some point in the near past. Why any of us would want to know this is unclear. Generally, this type of graffiti consists of nothing more than a name or a couple of letters, with no decoration and a single line of a single colour. I have absolutely no problem with people being prosecuted for criminal damage if they're caught doing this, although I'd prefer it if the charge was "devastating lack of taste".

  3. Message Graffiti
    Theoretically better than tagging, this type of graffiti involves people writing a slogan or an attempt at humour on the tempting blank surface before them. It's better than the previously-mentioned types to the extent that there is some point in it, some thought behind it; however, the problem with it is that the point is frequently remarkably stupid. There is no point whatsoever in writing "Troops Out Of Iraq" or, worse, drawing an Anarchist symbol on a wall. The intention behind the graffiti may be admirable (although that's doubtful in the case of the Anarchists), but no-one is going to be convinced one way or the other by seeing your scrawl. If anything, they're going to be turned off the message. Comedy sometimes works better, but again, only if it's actually funny. To be more precise, Good Morning Lemmings is acceptable. Bill Stickers Is Innocent is acceptable. Pretty much anything related to genitalia and bodily functions...not so much.

  4. Arty Graffiti
    The only type of vandalism that I really like is when the graffiti artist took the time to make something that looks good. Oddly, this can take place even when the theme of the graffiti falls under one of the above categories - some great street art is nothing more than a tag, just executed very skilfully. The large, colourful bits of 3D-looking writing that you'll find in many underpasses are particularly good, and there's plenty of examples of great wall art here, as well. (Don't be put off by the URL...)

I find it very sad that some people, especially those in authority, don't share my views on artistic graffiti. Only today it was reported by the BBC that the town council in Tower Hamlets is going to paint over some of Banksy's great stencil work, calling it an "eyesore". I think this case is particularly sad, as Banksy is one of those graffiti artists who can get away with doing humour and politics in his work, because it's just so well executed - see this painting on Israel's West Bank wall, for example.

Whether graffiti is seen as art to be celebrated, harmless fun to be ignored or dangerous vandalism to be clamped down upon, it's very clear that it's going to continue. And I'm going to keep an eye out for it and keep appreciating it whenever I'm forced to go back into London.

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Sunday, 21 October 2007

Picture of the Week: #42

In order to allay any fears that you may have - no, I have not bought a sniper rifle, and no, you are not going to see more photos like this, just with crosshairs and some important political figure under them. Honest.

The reason that this photo looks as though it was taken through a scope is quite simple - it was taken through a scope. A spotting scope in this case, though, which happens to be the perfect accessory if you're going to take up digiscoping, the practice of taking photographs of whatever you're looking at in your telescope.

Contrary to what you may have heard, small telescopes have more uses than simply in voyeurism and political espionage. They're also very useful for birdwatching, amateur astronomy and general looking at nature, none of which I do on a very regular basis, but all of which are kind of fun. So, given the opportunity of sticking a digital camera against the eyepiece, I'm going to do it and see what happens. I think it adds some good qualities to the image. Now all I need to do is find something slightly more interesting to photograph. I hear Menzies Campbell is off on a round of pub golf in Swansea tonight...

Step 1: Combine photography with politically-slanted libel
Step 2: ???
Step 3: Profit!

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Friday, 19 October 2007

It's very important to give this kind of geek something to do. Bad things happen otherwise.

For some reason, the market for video games appears to be filled with people who don't actually want the games that they've bought. No, what they wanted was something nearly the same as their purchase, but not quite. Welcome to the world of game modding.

According to some sources, the earliest mod was a Castle Wolfenstein chop job called Castle Smurfenstein. Quite why the author of this game felt the need to replace Nazis with Smurfs is unclear, although I suppose the Second World War would have been over rather faster if all we'd had to do was assassinate Papa Smurf. Anyway, since then barely a game has been produced that hasn't been modified extensively by its purchasers. Even console games haven't escaped, thanks to gadgets like the Action Replay, allowing gamers to modify the system memory's contents.

The difference between using an Action Replay and modding a PC game is fairly simple - an Action Replay can only modify things that are currently in the game, whereas a PC mod can introduce entirely new things. That said, sometimes Action Replays can be used to discover things that the developers put into the game but subsequently didn't use, to the embarrassment of the game's distributors; Rockstar's revelation that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas contained an unfinished sexual mini-game (the so-called "Hot Coffee" feature) is one obvious example. (Incidentally, the outcry over that issue strikes me as very odd - the whole game requires you to kill, maim and steal from various other people, but it's unacceptable to show simulated consensual sex on-screen?)

Obviously, then, PC mods are the most flexible type, and some people have seriously gone to town on changing their games to look like they wanted. Developers, for their part, have responded in a remarkably positive way. All of the fairly recent games in the Microsoft Flight Simulator series have had an open structure explicitly designed for users to make and fly their own planes; some of the Jedi Knight series, among many others, have options in the main menu for importing mods; and then, of course, we have the Half-Life games.

Half-Life and its sequels, easily some of the most popular and critically acclaimed games ever made, are also built on well-documented engines that make it very easy for other developers to make entirely new games on top of the old ones. The classic success story here is Counter-Strike, a mod for Half-Life that was so incredibly successful, Valve (the original publishers of Half-Life) ended up bundling it with Half-Life itself. Other mods have had similar successes - Garry's Mod, built on top of Half-Life 2, is such a useful tool that it's now being sold commercially. (And it's been used for some awesome bits of fan art, too, notably the webcomic Concerned.)

As you'd expect, the open-source community has got in on the action too, as people have created open-source remakes of brilliant games like Liero. (Many of you are now saying "I've never played Liero." To you, I can only say: Your youth was not complete.) Gusanos is one such remake, and of course it has also been modded extensively. Any game that, casting you as a homicidal intelligent worm trying to kill all your opponents, also provides you with a ninja rope, a lightsaber, and the ability to shoot lightning, must be worth playing.

Ahh, wonderful.

Now that we've established quite how awesome the concept of modding really is, take a moment to wonder why it's not present to the same extent in other software. Programs like Microsoft Word do accept "add-ins"; Windows Media Player can have extra visualisations and information processors; and yet, there's very little widespread use of these functions. The only program that comes to mind with an equivalent level of extensibility is Firefox, and that's open source, so it's much more to be expected. Perhaps software publishers are afraid that they'll lose custom if they don't have control over their products; however, gamers aren't avoiding new games in favour of mods. Rather, they're enjoying them even more.

It's entirely possible that the effect of not allowing full modding is to drive customers to completely different products. Music fans who want lots of functionality (such as full Ogg Vorbis support) don't try to mod Windows Media Player, they download Winamp; customers dissatisfied with Office download OpenOffice. And, of course, there's Linux - arguably, the closed nature of Windows has been a spur for developers to look elsewhere if they want the best performance from their programs. Whether that's true or not, it's definitely something to think about.

In the meantime, I'm off to fly an X-Wing through the middle of Tower Bridge.

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Tuesday, 16 October 2007

I can only assume that the next one's going to be "The Even Greaterer Storm, No Really"

It's Blog Action Day today, which should mean that I post about environmental issues and then donate today's blog earnings to an environmental charity. The second part of that's going to be tricky, as my earnings on this blog are exactly equal to the costs - nil, in other words.

Luckily, though, I was going to post on something environmentally-related anyway, as yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the Great Storm of 1987. Because Britain has such a strange climate (unpleasant on average, but very rarely so dangerous as to be noticeable), the Great Storm is still remembered as the most interesting thing that the weather's done around here for about half a century. It certainly had a major impact on my two-year-old self; my earliest memory is of being taken down towards the village in a pushchair, only to see an enormous tree blocking the path. This, of course, means that my episodic memory is 20 years old today. How's that for a geeky psychological anniversary?

Even if we as a country do make a big thing of it (the US's eastern seaboard gets hit with storms at least the size of the Great Storm most years), the effect that the storm had was pretty impressive. 15 million trees are said to have been knocked down, the insurance payout came to £2 billion, and 23 people were killed. Less destructive but still dramatic effects include building damage - some people remember seeing tiles being lifted from roofs and spinning off into the street. For a country as densely populated as the UK, it's no surprise that so many people were affected; nor is it surprising, in a country so deeply obsessed with the weather, that we're still talking about it 20 years on.

At this point, I think it's probably better if I shut up and let the dulcet tones of the BBC News take over. This clip cuts off fairly abruptly before the end of the report, but we do get the opportunity to see the absolutely surreal sight of a gigantic ferry sitting awkwardly on the beach. Let's hope it's a nice long time before this kind of thing happens again.

Copyright owned by the BBC, so this isn't covered by my CC licence.

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Sunday, 14 October 2007

Picture of the Week: #41

Yes, I know it's only been a couple of weeks since I last posted a sunset photo. Yes, I know I've posted a view from my back garden before (PotW #15, in case you were wondering). I don't care, I think this looks pretty. It was taken just after a heavy downpour, which left tiny twinkling droplets on the end of every twig, shimmering in the light. Not surprisingly, my photo doesn't really do it justice. We are getting properly into autumn, now, though, and this is usually very good for photography. Hopefully non-sunset service will be resumed shortly.

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Wednesday, 10 October 2007

But before I kill you, Mr. Bond, let me show you this comprehensive Powerpoint presentation on my complete evil plan

SPOILER WARNING: There will be fairly shameless spoilers throughout this post - specifically, for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (hereafter referred to as "CSI Vegas", or possibly "CSI - you know, the good one"), CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, Alias and The Bourne Ultimatum. If this is a problem...well, sorry!

It's not like I really need an excuse to be rude about CSI: Miami, but I'm afraid that sometimes you see something that makes it imperative to do so. The episode last night was just atrocious - so bad, in fact, that it made me take a mental step backwards just so that I could try to work out exactly why it's so bad.

For a start, there's the plot points. The episode started with a Cuban immigrant running up a beach, in a sequence that seemed to take at least three weeks, before accidentally stepping on a landmine and dying horribly. It turned out at the end of the episode that said landmine had been planted by a baseball pitcher, who knew that the immigrant was a very good pitcher and who might have replaced him on his team.

Now, even putting aside the fact that killing someone who might take your job is something of an overreaction (why not just give them food poisoning or something?), planting a landmine is an appalling way to kill someone, not only from the point of view of humanity but also in a practical sense. The murderer's train of thought must have gone something like this.

"Right...this guy is going to be competing for my job. So I'm likely to be in close contact with him over the next few weeks...I can find out where he lives...I can find out his personal habits...I can work out when he's most vulnerable and commit the perfect crime.

Ahh, screw it, I'll plant a bunch of mines somewhere on the beach he'll probably have to run along at some indeterminate point."

Added to the wooden acting, the attempts to do special effects way beyond the show's budget (one episode involved a tsunami hitting Miami. They filmed it with about two seconds of bargain basement CGI and a bunch of people who were conveniently locked in a bank vault going "ooh, look at the tsunami") and the cast of characters who clearly loathe each other, and you have a recipe for a fairly poor piece of light entertainment. But then you add Horatio to the mix.

Oh dear, Horatio.

David Caruso's portrayal of Lt. Horatio Caine is, very possibly, the most irritating performance in the history of TV acting. Caine overreacts to suspects, often practically threatening them with death, talks to kids in a manner that goes right through "creepy" and borders on "my eyes my eyes I need to scrub out my eyes", repeats the name of the person he's talking to at least three times in every conversation, comes up with "affectionate" (read: also annoying) names for his team members, and is apparently biologically incapable of looking straight at anyone. Seriously, if he bends his head any further over to the right, or twists it to look out into the middle distance any further to his left, he's going to do some serious damage.

Oh, and make up your mind - sunglasses on or sunglasses off? Not a difficult choice!

The funny thing is that several of these problems are present, to some extent at least, in the other CSI shows. In one of the earlier seasons of CSI Vegas, there was an absolute peach of a ridiculous plot; a girl was killed entirely accidentally when she dropped a rubbish bin down a chute, went outside to fetch it, and was leaning into the skip under the chute's outlet when a car hit the skip and crushed her to death - this plot, already stupid enough, was surrounded with thefts, security camera sabotage, mercy dashes to the hospital and all manner of pointless details.

Or there's the intensely annoying British pathologist in CSI: NY, whose sole function is apparently to look pretty but cold and speak in clipped tones about her relationship angst. Stupid plots aren't any stranger to CSI: NY either, with one recent episode involving Mac and Stella having to fight their way through a bunch of IRA terrorists in a blatant ripoff clever homage to Die Hard.

So why are these other shows entertaining, when Miami is capable of producing violent reactions like...well, this one? I think it's probably because, even though they do use lazy plotting and annoying characterisation, a certain amount can be forgiven because of several other factors. CSI Vegas possesses characters who, despite some conflict, clearly love their jobs and are good at them. Add interesting quirks, such as Gil's surprising interest in the most outlandish topics (whether it's related to male Victorian corsets or bondage - no, really), and Sara's latent major problems, and you get a bunch of people who you actually want to find out more about, even if there's some daft aspects to the show.

CSI: NY has similar saving graces, in the shape of an unreasonably beautiful cast and some hilariously weird lines. Any show that includes lines like "so, we're looking for a one-legged woman wearing high heels who possesses sweet kung-fu skills" definitely gets to invoke the Rule of Funny. Let's also not forget that this is the show that actually does good pre-credits lines. Mac's priceless "Anybody got a spatula?" (on visiting a crime scene where the victim was crushed to death) can cover over a multitude of sins.

So is it possible to have TV programmes or movies that don't have to drag themselves back up out of irritation, because they're already superb? Well, there are already some that manage not to fall into the most egregious problems. I was pleasantly surprised, for example, to see an episode of Alias where the writers had clearly been reading the Evil Overlord List. Sydney, in this episode, has been trapped in a small room by two gun-wielding police officers. In a startling break from usual Hollywood-style police conduct, one immediately radios in and tells his superiors what he's about to do; he and his colleague then take up positions such that even if one of them gets knocked down, the other will have a clear shot.

Needless to say, given that she's the main character, Sydney does manage to defeat the police officers, leaving the viewers with the feeling that she managed this because she was better than they were, not because they were unaccountably stupid. A very similar thing happens in The Bourne Ultimatum - throughout the film, the CIA bring the best technology and agents to bear on Jason Bourne. The only reason they don't defeat him is that, once again, he's just better than them. In fact, this could well be why the entire film is so good. Because there's no reliance on overdone tropes, like the villain conveniently running out of ammunition at just the right moment (see pretty much every action movie ever made), the audience gets an impression of consistency with reality.

Of course, what they've actually got is consistency with Hollywood reality, as Bourne is still superhumanly good at what he does. The fact that the audience doesn't feel cheated, though, must produce a very good impression. Now, if only more writers would actually try to carry this off, we'd have a lot more decent TV and films.

Of course, if we did have decent entertainment we'd never get anything done.

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Monday, 8 October 2007

Picture of the Week: #40

Only slightly late this time...shortly after I complained that Harvest doesn't have much meaning any more, a friend of the family went and provided us with a huge basket of apples from their fruit trees. This joins the vast pile of fruit in our house, provided by another gracious benefactor.

It's definitely a good idea to try and grow your own food, even if we no longer have to Dig For Britain - apart from anything else, it's difficult to argue against getting given free food. Especially when it's an inanimate object such as a tree doing the giving. Apart from the financial benefits, and the health ones, it's also great therapy for megalomaniacs. Seriously, how else are you going to live out your crazed power-trip fantasies, other than standing out in your garden howling "Even the trees bow down to my mastery! TREMBLE, O EARTH, for I have dominion over you!"

OK...maybe that's just me...

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Friday, 5 October 2007

Unrealistic Life Ambitions #1: Truth In Cinema

Looking at this blog's traffic stats, it would appear that quite a few of my visitors are getting here by searching for the phrase "unrealistic ambitions", or something similar. This gets them to this post from a few months back, which actually has absolutely nothing to do with ambitions, unrealistic or otherwise. Worse, the post title shows up on Google, suggesting that I actually did come up with 153 unrealistic ambitions. This, I imagine, would lead to some disappointment on the part of visitors who really wanted to know about my thwarted intentions for my life.

Well. This is one problem that I will be able to resolve right now, as I introduce Unrealistic Life Ambitions, my new occasional series. (When I say "occasional", I'm not kidding - don't expect these to turn up with any more regularity than Uncle Phil Making Arithmetic Fun.) There are many things that I'd like to do at some point in my life. Some of these are reasonably achievable (getting a job, eternal happiness, and so on), whereas others are verging on the impossible. It's that "verging" that is just keeping them from the realm of "castles in the air".

The first Ambition is one that I've had ever since I first bought a "Medium" size tub of popcorn at the cinema. "Medium", for those who don't know, is the only accurate sizing term that cinema popcorn salesmen use, and that's only because it's a completely relative term. Their "small" tubs are large enough for most of your lower arm, and the "large" ones...well, I suspect that they had a grain bushel somewhere in their ancestry. They really do contain more popcorn than anyone could reasonably be expected to eat - I'm confidently expecting the first "I got fat because the salesman offered to super size me" lawsuit to hit Odeon any day now.

And yet, these sizes are a little disappointing. The whole point of going to the cinema is to escape your actual life and swap it for that of the actors on the screen. Or for that of the enormous killer robots blowing things up. Either's good. And in that case, you don't want any part of the experience to be remotely normal. You want the most surreal experience that you can get, so that you're as disconnected from your real life as possible. How is it going to be satisfying for customers to enter these cavernous, loud, dark rooms, to see entirely unbelievable things happen on the giant screen in front of them, and then to be brought back to earth with the realisation that the tub of corn-derived polystyrene in front of them is of a size that, with a little effort, they could have put together at home?

Well, no more. My unrealistic life ambition to solve this problem is simple: acquire a cinema chain for the sole purpose of serving the "large" size of popcorn in oil drums. When the customers can take up temporary residence inside their snack servings, we will know that we have finally restored the requisite level of surreality to the movie-going experience.

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Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Picture of the Week: #39

[created during week running from 24/09 to 30/09]

I can't quite believe that it's taken me this long to catch up with myself on the Picture of the Week front - for goodness' sake, I was only gone for about a month in the summer, and now it's taken me over twice that to get back up to date. And to top it all off, I managed to not only fail to take any photos last week, I also managed to fail to make any kind of graphical creative work whatsoever. This is more than a little bit poor.

However, I have tried to redeem myself, by tonight producing the above artwork which shows, in a graphical form, something creative that I did do last week. In this case, it's a piece of music that I made. I'm by no means a great musician, but I have to say that playing around with technology to make music is just brilliant fun. (The Start menu on my laptop has 13 applications in a folder called "Music and CD Utilities", for reference - this includes 2 conversion codecs/utilities, 2 CD rippers/burners, 2 audio editors, 2 MIDI sequencers, 2 drum machines and a tone generator. I am nothing if not thorough.) Having the kind of patient temperament that lets me run through the same piece of music again and again, trying out subtly different effects and EQs, certainly also helps.

In this case, the music was built up from the daringly-named "Rock Song", an electric guitar-only track that one of my friends posted on his Myspace page. Within a couple of days, I'd got hold of the MP3, and had added bass and drums before mixing the whole thing and returning the finished product. If you want to know what it sounded like...well, I don't really have any way of showing you precisely, but you can look at the above picture (you'll certainly need to click it to see the full view) for a good idea of it. (Helpfully, I've included subtitles for the hard of hearing.) I hope you enjoy it. Normal Picture of the Week service should resume this Sunday.

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Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Makes a little honest bribery look positively Utopian by comparison, doesn't it?

Despite a certain level of background cynicism in my general outlook, I do usually try to see the best in people. Specifically, it's a pretty bad idea to go along with the whole "everyone's in it for the money, especially the politicians" cliché, for a number of reasons: not only is it damaging to the democratic process and the political wellbeing of the country in general, it also fosters a suspicious attitude that will make you less trusting of everyone, feeding back into the paranoia that seems to be so pervasive at the moment. Not to mention the fact that even for a cliché, it's startlingly unoriginal.

However, it sometimes seems like the world is absolutely determined to prove me wrong. On a number of levels, corruption is not just tolerated, but practically encouraged. And we're not talking about former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa here. While obviously we can't excuse corruption in places like Zimbabwe, it is at least easier to understand in countries with crippling poverty and a war-torn recent history. No, we're talking about the countries that we're used to, the supposed paragons of virtue and defenders of democracy.

(Quick disclaimer - the examples I'm going to point to are all from the USA. I doubt that this is because the US is more corrupt than anyone else - it's just that online news sources are overwhelmingly US-centric. If you're willing to do some digging, I bet you'll find similar stories in most Western countries.)

On the personal and institutional level, we have the fine and upstanding Cops Writing Cops. The description of the site on Boing Boing summarises it succintly as "a site where cops (of various flavors) name and shame other police officers who have the temerity to issue tickets to their 'brother' police officers when said 'brothers' break the law," but that doesn't tell you the level of deception and bad feeling present here. The site is nominally aimed at police who penalise other police officers for things which a non-police officer would get away with. Frankly, that's not a bad idea - surely we should hold our law enforcers to a high standard of accountability? In any case, that aim is entirely subverted by the forums, where it becomes clear that many contributors are of the opinion that police officers shouldn't be given penalties for any traffic offence. In one particularly unpleasant post, a contributor (himself an officer) claims that he has deliberately never penalised another officer for driving while drunk.

I don't think I need spell out that this is an appalling breach of public trust. If this kind of behaviour is widespread, and if we accept obvious and endemic corruption in the police force, it's only a short trip to a force unaccountable to anyone. And we have a term for police like that - it's "secret police".

If some of the police are bad, that's nothing to some of the politicians. I present, for your possible amusement (but more likely for your jaw-dropping amazement), the antics of the Texas State Legislature.

If the actual behaviour of the politicians wasn't bad enough (and it's shockingly bad), there's also the attitude of the legislature as a whole to take into account. Despite the fact that these people aren't supposed just to be protecting democracy, but actually its main manifestation, and despite the fact that their actions are clearly detrimental to each other's agendas, they seem to be shrugging it off as some fact of life that isn't worth dealing with. The complex and expensive system that we have in place to ensure that the will of the people gets carried out is turned into a competition to see who can press buttons the fastest while everyone else is out of the room.

Sadly, that's not the highest level at which we find this kind of corruption. In fact, we see it at the highest possible level - international relations, in the form of the "Blackwater incident". Blackwater, if you didn't know, is an American private security firm currently employed in Iraq to provide security for US citizens. "Security firm", in this case, is really something of a euphemism, as the term "private army" or "paramilitary mercenary organisation" would probably be better. In essence, the US government has realised that having the world's largest military isn't much good if you've already deployed them all over the world. The problem - which, if we're honest, has really been present throughout history since the very first mercenary - is that paying heavily-armed people to kill other people isn't a great idea if you want to keep control over who they kill. Or keep any kind of control at all, come to that.

Inevitably, things got out of hand. The Blackwater employees allegedly embarked on a 20-minute shooting spree that left countless Iraqi civilians dead. If this had been the only problem that has surfaced with Blackwater, it would have been tragic enough - the fact that other incidents have occurred, such as a Blackwater guard drunkenly murdering one of the Iraqi Vice-President's own guards, brings it to the level of "so why are they in Iraq, again?"

On the bright side, the US has started to ask the same question, and has started an investigation. On the downside...the first Congressional report was written by a Blackwater employee. And let's not forget that many of the firm's top employees came from positions linked with the current US administration. They know that there's nothing anyone can do about it, short of Congressional action, and even that's not guaranteed to work. It's a free ride all the way to the bank, and people are dying in the meantime. Welcome to democracy, Western-style.

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