27 October 2006

Hal's Friday Evening Blog Review #5 - Roosevelt Dave

Here we are at Friday again - been a goddamn tough week at work this time, and I've barely got the energy to do this, especially as I'm trying to pack to go on holiday tonight (of which more later) - but I think I'd give Roosevelt Dave a shot.

I thought this guy might be an FDR-type American liberal, just like Ronnie Reagan was back in the 40s (after he got turned down by the Communist Party for being too stupid, but before he became a mad dog right-wing loon). But nope - he is a teacher from Michigan with a ready supply of parables, musings and "homespun mid-western philosophy" (which is a great phrase which I'd love to claim as my own, except I've lifted it from Tony Benn, who used the phrase to describe Gerald Ford's inaugural presidential address in a diary entry from 1974. Never mind...) For instance, I like this one:

Where are your Cheerios?

Remember to look for the Cheerios. A while back my family and I were attending church service. A few rows ahead of us sat another family we knew with their two young boys. As good parents they had the kids flanked on each side of them for better volume and behavior control. The youngest of the two had his lap full with things to keep him occupied, including a small bag of cheerios. [they weren't that good parents then - giving their kid a load of sweets in church - maybe that's the way they do things in the States though, I dunno?] Part way in to the sermon the little boy spilled his back sending the cheerios spilling onto the ground directly behind and under his chair. As any one would do, you treasure those cheerios and make a plan to go in after them (like a soldier going in after the wounded man). Oblivious to the spilled cheerios the mother simply notices all the squirming and riggling [sic] the little boy is attempting to get into position for the retrevial [sic] process... The boy became more fixated on those cheerios and torn between listening to his mother or suffering the consequences of disobaying [sic] tand [sic] getting the prized stash...

How many times do we not see the spilled cheerios in our own lives?
Many, I'm sure. And how many times do we encounter teachers that can't spell very well? Probably too many.

There are so far only four posts but he's only been up and running for nine days so that ain't too bad. As with some of the previous reviews I will check back in a few weeks' time to see if any progress has been made... and I may leave a comment informing the guy that in the UK, Cheerios are a breakfast cereal.

By the way, I checked back on Ethics and Morals for America's Future, the first ever Friday evening blog review, and found that the author had done nothing aside from elongating his initial blog post to an incredible 3,320 words. And I thought some of the posts on here were too long... clearly some people just haven't got the hang of this blog gig yet.

24 October 2006

Blair's Vulcan moment

Slight comedy on the BBC website yesterday... they always have a lead news headline on their front page with a little thumbnail picture next to it. Anyway, for a few hours yesterday the headline was:

"We'll hold Iraq nerve", says Blair.

and the thumbnail (I've magnified it a bit) was:

Is someone at the Beeb "havin' a laff"? That looks very much like a nerve pinch to me. I thought it was John Redwood who was into this stuff...

Al DeRaan on the difficulties of understanding the "Drum Map Manager" in Sonar 5.0...

giroscope is pleased to present the first post by electronic musician and general nerdy type Al DeRaan. Al has a fast PC, approx £800 worth of sequencers and software synths, some tasty hardware to boot, and still can't get a f***ing drum beat going yet...

He is also Barney Ruddle operating under a psedonym. Well, would you buy a track by somebody called Barney Ruddle? (OK, so you may not be buying any tracks any more due to inventive use of P2P etc, but keep it to y'self for the time being until what Roger Waters once called the "great economic collapse" happens.) I guess Barney could have cut it as a folk singer, but that's not really my bag at the moment.

Al DeRaan first surfaced a couple of weeks bag on this blog, as an idea Hal Berstram had for a character in a remake of Star Wars as a pub-based soap opera, along the lines of Eastenders. A site under a name something like starwarsdownthepub.com will be set up soon (maybe over the Xmas break), with members of the public collaboratively reworking bits of the script, moving slowly towards a filmable screenplay. But in the meantime, Al sounded like a good name for a techno artist :-0

So as usual, the will to create is there, and in the new giroscope studio, the equipment is certainly there: cetered round an Athlon 64 PC with various softare whizzbangs on it, e.g.

  • Sonar 5
  • Reaktor 5
  • FM7
  • Battery 2
  • Rebirth 2.0
There is also hardware aplenty in the studio:

  • Yamaha AN1X
  • Novation Super Bass Station
  • Korg MS10 (this is just bloody weird equipment - have a look at Synth Site for more info)

So with all this kit, why have no Al DeRaan tracks appeared on the blogosphere yet? Two main reasons. (1) is lack of time, which I won't talk about because we all suffer from it, and so it's not that interesting. Unless I win the lottery or my wife suddenly gets a City job and I can retire (UNLIKELY!) I will have to keep struggling to find strange moments to record. As well as the tunes having to compete with doing other 'creative activity' like this blog, for example.

(2) - more interestingly - is that some of the equipment is so damn hard to use. It's the sequencer, Sonar, that is pissing me off most at the moment. I'm sure most of you music makers out there use Cubase and I might have ended up doing that as well, had I not tried it in 1998, decided it was cack, and gone with what was then Cakewalk Professional instead. (Much of my current musical existence seems to owe a lot to decisions made in 1998 as this was when I first got my shit together for a working studio system. It was a good time to be churning out choonz on the edge of Clapham; more of that another time, perhaps.)

Anyway, most of Sonar is not that much changed from its predecessor program, Cakewalk, but they do throw in some new features with each new release, and they are mostly incomprehensible. For instance, it has taken me 10 months to work out how to use the "drum map". For the techies among you (and anyboy else will have probably stopped reading by now!) this is a virtual MIDI port which allows you to construct a "kit" of drums that can involve as many different instruments as you want, both hardware and software, all controlled from the same track on Sonar and all appearing as one set of drums to the user. Firing up the drum map also allows you to access the 'drum grid' rather than the 'piano roll' view of the track you are currently working on. This is quite important if you want your drums to have names like "Hard Kick", "909 Snare", "606 clave" etc, rather than "G#1", "A1", "A#1" etc. Which is useful when composing. Or would have been if I had been able to use the bloody thing: I spent about 3 months trying to get it to work properly!

I eventually sussed out that you have to route the MIDI track for the Battery drum synth (that's the program I use) through to the drum map rather than the drum output itself. Previously I had set up another MIDI track and routed it to the drum map but I think that caused some kind of conflict and it didn't work. It was only by a combination of sheer fluke and some advice in an article in the excellent Sound on Sound magazine that I was able to sort this out.

Meanwhile, by the time you've got all the equipment up and running, you've lost any inspiration you might have had to write a track in the first place. Being a folk singer called Barney Ruddle might have been the easiest option... but anyway, if I do get some tracks together and can work out how to post mp3s to the blog, then I'll let you all hear them. Careful with the speakers though as there is bound to be sub-bass! (or "fat bass" as invented by Renegade Soundwave... anybody remember them?)

23 October 2006

"Torchwood" - kind of a cross between Quatermass and Hollyoaks

I watched the first episode of the new BBC sci-fi series, Torchwood, on BBC3 last night. Plus a bit of the 2nd episode (until I felt knackered and had to go to bed. Wuss. I recorded it, though.)

It's billed as a Doctor Who spin-off but the whole vibe is very different. Captain Jack Harkness (the guy who was in some of the episodes of the 1st series of the new Doctor Who when Chris Ecclestone was in it, and was then in an extremely crap programme called The Sound of Musicals which only my wife liked) is the lead. He runs this special institute (called Torchwood) which operates outside the law (even outside the standard "outside the law" agencies, if you see what I mean) and investigates extraterrestrial phenomena (of which there are a lot running around Cardiff, where the series is set. Well, that guy from the Manic Street Preachers never was found...)

The first episode revolves around a policewoman called Gwen who accidentally stumbles on the Torchwood goings-on, and then finds herself part of the operation due to an unexpected staff vacancy. The second episode revolves around her first day in the job, where a gaseous alien lifeform which inhabits a human host and lives on 'orgasmic energy' is accidentally released. In fact sex was pretty high on the agenda all through the one and a half episodes I saw. Also, almost no-one on the cast was over 35 years old, and a high proportion were under 30. Furthermore, they seemed to spend most of their time in nightclubs. This is pretty much the standard BBC3 show format and it may be that to get a broadcast slot the producer (Russell T Davies, who also does Dr Who) has to sign a contract saying he'll put a quota of this stuff in every week. Anyway it might get a bit repetitive seeing all these beautiful people after a while - as with Lost, for example...

That's not to say Torchwood is bad though. It's pretty silly for sure but then it's a rare sci-fi series that isn't. And some of the humour was good. The scene where the guy thinks that an alien is a guy in a rubber suit - and then gets his head bitten off - had me laughing for about 125 seconds. Potentially it could recapture that peculiarly British sense of scientific investigation of the unknown - I'm thinking Quatermass, or the early John Pertwee episodes of the original Dr Who. But there's also quite a bit of Hollyoaks or similar 'youth soaps' in there - it's obvious the BBC is gunning for the 20-something audience with this one.

Anyway I dare say I will watch the whole series - Sunday at 9pm is a good time slot for me. Even if it isn't I can bung them on the old DVD recorder and then watch them at Christmas along with the backlog of David Tennant Dr Who epiosdes that I haven't got round to watching yet. Plus I'm hoping that someone will buy me the 2nd series of Battlestar Galactica as the 1st, which I got for Xmas last year, was quite simply a live killer, and I'm hungry for more. I'm really caught in two minds with all this sci-fi TV stuff though. Half of me thinks it's a golden era and there's more good stuff coming out than there's ever ben. The rest of me thinks that we're just being sold umpteen variations on pre-packaged plots with the entire cast profile carefully handpicked to maximise the 'viewing demographic' - there is big money at stake, and as with films, spontaneity has gone out of the window. In fact it's worse than with films as at least it's theoretically possible for someone to put a one-off, totally uncommercial film together on a shoestring budget; but TV series are just that - series - and dozens of episodes have to be made and the same set has to be re-used again and again and you can't alienate too much of your demographic, and you can't show certain stuff before the watershed, but after the watershed you must have a lot of sex and people saying "fuck" if you want to get on BBC3 or More4, and... and... I've lost it completely. But anyway, there is a lot of good TV around, but it's all product at the end of the day if you see what I mean. Fodder for the DVD players... anybody splashed out for Blu-Ray yet?

22 October 2006

Bush's latest on Iraq: "adaptation" means "withdrawal"

Interesting new line on Iraq by George Bush at the weekend: he's saying that "military tactics in Iraq will keep changing to deal with insurgents".

Well, if they define "changing tactics" as "getting the hell out", then that's kind of accurate.

There seems no chance that the situation in Iraq will get any better under the current occupation by US and UK forces, and that means hundreds of Iraqis, and dozens of soldiers, dying every week in bombings, militia killings, and hell knows what else. Even the hard-core neo-cons in the Bush administration (and Tony Blair) have now realised this is a no-win situation. The main priority now for Bush, after almost four years of telling America how well the Iraq situation was 'progressing', is to begin propogating the notion that getting out is the obvious thing to do, and nobody but a yahoo lunatic would believe otherwise.

The reason this attempt to brainwash the US public (plus as much of the rest of the world as wants to know) has to take place of course that Bush, Cheney et al have spent the last four years saying the opposite. So the US Government is now fighting its own propaganda... and for the Republicans the stakes are high. Not for Bush personally, as his second term is already a complete bust. Iraq has paralysed his administration the same way Watergate paralysed Nixon. But on the current US polling evidence the Republicans may lose both the House of Representatives and the Senate in the mid-term elections in a couple of weeks. Even if just one of them fell to the Democrats, and the situation was maintained in the 2008 elections, that would make it very difficult for an imcoming Republican president to get any legislation through. Which is not good news for the US Right... many of whom will be mighty pissed off with Dubya, for probably giving the biggest boost to the left in US politics since Watergate (so many parallels... but that, and the 2008 Presidential race, will have to wait until a later post. Or probably, several later posts.)

So I will expect to see an increasing number of stories from people inside the US administration, and allies here, saying that 'tactics are changing' in Iraq, 'there is a new game plan', etc, etc... Meanwhile there will be an increasing clamour of voices outside the administration saying that the US and UK should get out. The Bush administration would be quite prepared to 'plant' these, except that they don't actually need to in most cases... for the last 3 years there have been a huge number of people saying we should get out. It's just that now, the Bush administration agrees with them. Although it can't say so in so many words - yet.

20 October 2006

Hal's Friday evening blog Review #4 - Black Sun Over A Blue Sky

With the previous 3 Friday Evening Blog Reviews, you'll have pretty much worked out the blog contents from the title. Not so here. I clicked on this one out of the several on the 'most recently posted' Blogger window as I genuinely did not know what to expect. It was the only title with any intrigue to it. My only possible reference points were Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" and the Space 1999 episode "Black Sun"... neither of which were much help in the event.
Black Sun Over A Blue Sky is, to quote the author, Julien, who lives in Nice, "a blog about music and gay politics and black magick, because without these things we are nothing." And maybe Julien is right about that. My knowledge of gay politics is sketchy but I am a quick learner. I particularly liked the post about the Freddy Mercury action figure...

Please Freddy Mercury have mercy on us.
I would never like to be a worshipped-18inch-gay-figure.

For expertise on 'black magick' (as opposed to seven-foot tall blood-drinking reptiles) you will have to look elsewhere, as the verdict on me from a good friend back in 1994, that "[I] don't know a thing about tarot", still stands, and my ignorance extends to pretty much everything with the vaguest whiff of the occult. (I do own a copy of the I Ching, but then it once said in Doctor Who that that was "random samplings to reflect the broad material flow of the universe", so that doesn't count.)

I do know a little about music, and this guy's tastes are interesting and informative, for example:

  • a review of Pagan Muzik, a collection of 17 locked grooves on vinyl.
  • Musings on the tortured genius that is Scott Walker.
  • possibly the internet's first gay guide to Iron Maiden. (He likes Killers best followed by Seventh Son of a Seventh Son... both good choices. And I should know as I picked up a job lot of Maiden albums on vinyl very cheaply in 2002. Thanks Emma!
In addition to the above there is a lot of very pseudy stuff that I couldn't get my head round (though it may make sense to many of you out there, in which case, good luck to ya), but in summary, to quote Jarman's Wittgenstein, "this is a very pleasant pineapple".

19 October 2006

And so ends "Extras" (and Mitchell/Webb look)

Episode 6 of Extras featured an absolute star turn by Robert Lindsay, and Ricky Gervais and Jonathan Ross being, well, Ricky Gervais and Jonathan Ross. Nothing from When The Whistle Blows this time and maybe that's just as well. And only 2 instances of the catchphrase "Are you 'avin a laff?" which I've now perfected myself so I don't need it on the telly no more anyway.

I won't say anything about the person we might call the "special special guest" in this episode as I don't want to spoil it for any of ya that haven't seen it. Shaun Williamson (spelt his name wrong last month - sorry Barry) and Stephen Merchant (the agent) are still the best things in this. In fact I think the agent could have his own spin-off series and it might actually be an even better programme - a Frasier for the 2010s.

It'sExtras has been a very good series so I don't want to feel the boot in, but my main criticism is that it didn't quite have the legs to be a classic over all six episodes (unlike the first series). There simply weren't that many situations that Gervais could put Andy Millman in and still keep it fresh without completely fracturing the suspension of disbelief. I think if it hadn't been scheduled just before That Mitchell & Webb Look it would have been the highlight of the autumn comedy season, but I fell off my chair watching Mitchell & Webb a good deal more than I did Extras. That Mitchell and webb Look is very traditional sketch-based comedy for the most part, but the sketches were so good that the format was largely irrelevant. My personal favourite, Numberwang (which became Wordwang in the final episode) was a brillinatly accurate parody of how fucking stupid all these daytime game shows really are. All it was missing was Noel Edmonds to come on halfway through and it would have been perfect. (I'm building myself up to a post on Deal or No Deal at some point soon, but I need to make sure I am in perfect 100% health first, as the sheer amount of spleen I am going to vent at this piece of s*** will take a lot out of me at my (relatively) advanced age...) As it was, they did manage to get Gyles Brandreth on one week and he was fantastic.

Anyway it was a superb effort and I will be investigating their radio show from a couple of years back, the imaginatively titled That Mitchell & Webb Sound, when I get some spare cash to spend on a CD or two. I should also put in a good word for Lead Balloon on BBC Four; I saw a bit of the latest episode last night but I wasn't paying massive attention as I was writing this bloody thing. But it looked pretty good and Jack Dee is intrinsically hilarious for some bizarre reason. A bit like Saxondale but without the roadie jokes and references to 1970s prog rockers. Which is a shame...

Images from the Britannia Hotel, Manchester

Now that I've finally got a Bluetooth dongle for my PC I have been able to upload a couple of photos from the Britannia Hotel in Manchester, that rather duff place I stayed at for the Labour Party Conference. I'm using a Nokia 6230i which only has a 1.3 megapixel camera built in, and the lighting was not good, so the quality is very grainy... but that's part of the charm I guess.

First up we have a possible remake of The Shining...

... or perhaps the hotel in that video game which Pingu plays in the last episode of Nathan Barley. The one where he is Andrew Marr trapped in a hotel in Brighton during the Labour Party Conference where something has gone very wrong... great scene, that.

Secondly we have a photo taken looking down the maginficent central staircase looking down onto the chandelier. It was too dimly lit for the normal light setting, so I tried 'night' mode instead, which left it looking something like Dante's Inferno...

Quite duff really, but perhaps an interesting experiment in lo-fi art. Apparently next year's Labour Party Conference is in Bournemouth, where the hotels are better but the town is one big snooze... it'll be tempting to do a John Lennon and stay in bed for the duration. If I start growing my beard now I can even look the part.

18 October 2006

Colchester 4...

...Sheffield Wednesday 0!!!

What the f***!?

Sorry this isn't a coherent review but I'm speechless. Colchester have only won or lost by 1 goal all season up to now... you'll have to read the match report here if you want more!

PLEASE can the U's NOT get promoted though? They will get their arse kicked in the Premiership!!

Still on the religious tip... the 25% solution

Continuing the recent religious theme, Hal Berstram wades into the stormy waters of "faith schools."

Earlier in the week it emerged that the Government is drawing up plans to encourage new faith schools to take 25% of pupils from other backgrounds.

This is a very wishy-washy and flawed requirement because: (a) the law will only apply to new faith schools, not existing ones; and (b) it will be up to the local authority whether to enforce the rules or not. However, it is better than having no policy on this at all.

The Education Bill is currently passing through the Lords, and Lord (formerly Kenneth) Baker tabled a very sensible amendment which would have required faith schools to take a minimum of 25% of pupils from other faiths, or no faith. Baker withdrew it when Andrew Adonis came up with the watered down 25% rule. This is a typical example of the growing trend for New Labour ministers, particularly Blairites, to behave more like Tories than the real Tories.

Predictably, the Catholic Church has come out doing a creditable impression of John Reid, snarling and gnashing its teeth against any attempt to reduce its ability to use taxpayers' money to engage in religious discrimination. Catholic Education Service director Oona Stannard said on Monday, "[the role of Catholic schools] should not be compromised by a requirement to implement social engineering through externally imposed admissions quotas". But on the other hand, it's fair enough for the schools to implement social engineering through internally imposed admissions quotas, of course. Democratic control of state school admissions is obviously the first step towards the fascist state, and pardon me for speaking out of turn! What a daft atheist I must be.

As you may have guessed I am no fan whatsoever of faith schools. The Human Rights Act makes it impossible to get rid of them (not to mention the fact that they do have substantial support amongst a certain section of the electorate), but if we have to have them, a beefed-up version of the 25% requirement, applied to all of them, would at least ensure some diversity. Even if the 25% rule does not come into force, it ought to be possible for a parent of a kid who fails to get into a faith school because he/she is not of the correct faith to challenge the decision in the European Court of Human Rights. As such a denial of a place at the school on faith grounds amounts to obvious legal discrimination, all we are really waiting for is a test case of this kind, and the current admissions policies of all faith schools who exclude kids of other faiths would surely be declared illegal. It's just down to whether any parent has the finances, and the determination, to do this. Maybe it's time to start a fighting fund for a test case via Pledgebank or a similar vehicle. Has anyone got a school-age kid they'd like to use as a political football? Go on, you know you want to...

17 October 2006

Religious expression stories have become the new "loony left" newspaper filler

Remember 20 years ago, when every tabloid newspaper contained some story of a Labour council (especially Camden, Brent, Lambeth etc.)'s 'loony left' excesses - "baa baa green sheep", "council bans 'white coffee'", etc? It was the standard "column filler" of the day, and was probably a factor in the Tory domination of what one might call the "giro" years. They were tough days, of media distortion, fabrication, the poor quality colour reproduction of Eddie Shah's Today, and newsprint that came off on your hands.

Back in the present, it's clear that stories about various aspects of religious expression - or lack of it - have become the new column filler, and the public just can't get enough of them. I've decided to round up a couple of the most recent ones in one go, to save time. First up we have the story of the Muslim primary school teaching assistant in Dewsbury who has been suspended for wearing a face veil in the classroom, on the grounds that the kids cannot understand what she is saying. The teaching assitant has said she will remove the veil but not if there is a male teacher present in the room.

The case is currently with an employment tribunal and I would imagine the teaching assistant has a reasonably good chance. It seems surprising that putting a very thin piece of fabric in front of one's mouth woud make it impossible to hear what one was saying. I think the only grounds on which she might lose is if the tribunal rules that the kids need to be able to see her lips to understand her. Anyway, we will wait and see on that one. Much more extraordinary than the case itself has been the intervention by communities minister Phil Woolas, who accused the assistant of sexual discrimination and said she should be sacked as "she's put herself in a position where she can't do her job." This is one of the most crazy statements I have heard in a long while. On this basis, presumably we should prosecute all parents who choose to send their kids to a single sex school, as they're guilty of sexual discrimination? Tony Blair has now predictably waded into the debate saying that the full face veil is a "mark of separation" and backing the school authorities in Dewsbury. It is most amusing that the prime minister, who makes such a big thing of his religious beliefs, should be speaking out against religious freedom of expression in this way. Unless, of course, he's in favour of Christian, but not Muslim, freedom of expression?

Which brings us on to our second story of religious expression denied - the British Airways check-in worker who has been suspended for wearing a cross necklace. For the first - and hopefully the only - time in my life I find myself in agreement with Ann Widdecombe, who has urged a boycott of BA on this issue. Why the hell should someone have to take off a religious symbol just because their employer says so? BA says the cross has to be worn under the uniform - but WHY?

I'm coming at this issue as an atheist who believes that perhaps the most astute religious commentator we have in this country at the moment is Richard Dawkins. But I also believe that there is no good reason for regulations on how to dress in the workplace to stifle free religious expression. Down with authoritarianism at work! I'm tempted to wear a 3 foot long gold cross wearing 20 kilos to work as a gesture of sympathy. And if anyone tries to take it off me, then watch out... come and 'ave a go if you think you're 'ard enough.

14 October 2006

General Sir Richard Dannatt - putting the boot in or oiling the spin machine?

Yesterday, before I got distracted by a Japanese cooking blog and yet more lunacy from Sion Simon, I'd intended to post an analysis of the interesting comments by the head of the British army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, on the Iraq situation. My initial reaction was that this was an extraordinary intervention by a man who had just decided to go for Tony Blair's jugular and damn the consequences. I can't remember any previous instance of a top-ranking officer going on the record to criticise Iraq - or any other government policy for that matter - in such a direct and frank way. How far would Sir Richard go? Overnight I harboured fleeing thoughts that we might wake up to some kind of Thai-style military coup. I'm sure the stock market would have risen in response to the possibility of never having to have any of those pesky destabilising, uncertainty-inducing elections for several years...

But this morning my train of thought was very different. Blair's strategy in interviews has been to say that he agrees with "every word" the General has said, and meanwhile Sir Richard has been backtracking, stressing that "there is not a piece of paper between [his position] and the Government." This is just plain wrong if we take both Sir Richard's speech and Tony Blair's previous pronouncements on Iraq at face value: for example, Sir Richard explicitly said he thinks the presence of British troops in Iraq "exacerbates the difficulties we are facing around the world", whereas Blair has repeatedly said he sees no link between the Iraq situation and the terrorist threat to the UK and to Britons abroad.

But what about if the General has actually been sent out as a media outrider, to float the possibility of disengagement and withdrawal from Iraq as a supposedly politically neutral public servant? Is the real strategy to bring 'respectable' public opinion around to the idea of a quick exit - on the grounds that the Government will find it easier to change policy if the head of the Army has laid the groundwork first? I guess, in the end, it comes down to who we think is really pulling the strings here. But with the Bush adminstration in crisis, urgent need for troop reinforcements in Afghanistan, and the Iraq situation seemingly intractable, it may be that Blair has simply had enough - or, that other senior figures in the government have told him his defence of current Iraw policy is untenable, given that he's going to be out within months anyway. It is just possible that this weekend could mark the start of a shift from Blair and other ministers saying "we'll stay as long as it takes to get the job done" to "we'll stay only as long as is strictly necessary as the troops are exacerbating the situation"... which could easily become a very quick pull-out. Anyway, it will be very interesting to see how this one develops.

13 October 2006

"Edgy and unconventional"??

A lot of titles for recent posts have ended in question marks, which is all Sion Simon's fault. He went from looking like this:

to looking like this:

to spoof Dave Cameron on Youtube (as explained yesterday), and has collected a lot of flak from myriad Tories, several MPs on his own side (Stephen Pound said that "British politics has just sunk to a new low") and most independent observers, including myself, put the boot in HARD.

Simon now says he's sorry if his attempt to be "edgy and unconventional" offended.


His normal hairstyle is pretty "unconventional", but that's about all you can say about the guy apart from that. (My friend Chris Brooke has a similar haircut, but Chris hasn't done a Cameron spoof video in a baseball cap yet (but why not, Chris? Everyone else seems to be doing it.) Apparently the latest issue of Private Eye has a good report on just how duff Simon is and when I actually have enough time to take my copy out of the shrinkwrap it was delivered in, I'll have a look.

Sadly, Simon has removed the spoof from Youtube now. Still on the good ol' BBC, though.

There was another Cameron spoof done by fellow Labour MP Tom Watson (below), who looks a lot less like Cameron than Simon does, and his spoof seems to go on for about 4 times as long. I couldn't face viewing more than about 10 seconds but have a look and see what you think. Where will it end?

(I'm very pleased to have worked out how to post into the blog from Youtube, by the way... I must try not to overuse this facility or we'll just end up with something that's a technologically advanced version of "Tarrant on TV" or that Clive James programme from the 1980s.)

Hal's Friday evening blog review #3 - Koyo Cooking

Hal Berstram manifestly fails to find the right encoding schema to read an interesting blog...

A rest from the usual political/religious mayhem for both of you readers at the end of a tough week for all three of us.

I was intrigued by "Koyo Cooking", initially due to some very nice looking pictures of food on the blog. Interestingly, the blogger lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Unfortunately, I have tried every encoding setting for Unicode, Japanese characters, and indeed other south-east-Asian encodings and I can't get anything to display from this site other than the following text:


Curry Rice

?The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth
?The Economics Growth Debate.
Jurnal [sic] of Environmental Economics and Management, 14(4), Dec, 1987


890 mile (432 km)
Buy Local Food For Sustainable Development

Supermarkets accused over organic foods
Gurdian [sic]


More than Excellent!
Certainly I must agree with that description of sushi - can be a bit pricey though. Especially when you walk into Yo! Sushi and half an hour later there's a pile of little plates with coloured rims next to you, and you can't walk...

Anyway I will check out that 1987 journal article sometime. Even if I could get the page to display properly, assuming it's in Japanese I wouldn't be able to read it, but looks like a good scene anyway. The Guardian story mentioned is an important one which I was going to feature on the blog last week but it was one of the several dozen things I forgot to do - basically the supermarkets have been trying to lower the standards for organic food so they can produce it more cheaply, and fleece the unsuspecting consumer, who thinks they are still buying top-notch nosh. The standard corporate skullduggery - full story on the Guardian website.

Anyway, if anyone does manage to translate the recipes on this blog and they seem nice, do let me know!

12 October 2006


What if Steve Webb MP had a webcam site?

"Who's the more foolish - the fool, or the fool who follows him?"

I really do find the original Star Wars movie (aka Episode IV) an extraordinary source of choice quotes. (Another favourite is "bring 'em on! I'd prefer a straight fight to all this snoopin' around", which I often use when frustrated by the subtle strategies the Red/Green movement is forced to use in the battle against Corporate Power.)

But that, as with so many things, is "by the bye"... dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to witness the Initial Fool, Dave Cameron, who recently launched the bonesplittingly awfully named "Webcameron", an attempt to present all his speeches, interviews and just walking round his house talking waffle, with what the BBC have called a "vaguely YouTube-style interface". This is a misguided attempt to look "hip" and "street" whilst trying to connect to a "yoof" audience who are probably never going to look at this site anyway. But time will tell... maybe this will be the hottest ticket on the web within 6 days.

The Fool Following The Fool is Labour MP Sion Simon, who has put a Cameron spoof video on YouTube. "And why not?" you may think. After all, Webcameron may be Dave's biggest own goal since "hug-a-hoodie", and Labour haven't really managed a king-sized hit on the Camster since their "Chameleon Dave" effort back in the spring.

So what's the problem?

Well, the two things Sion-as-Dave wants to get across in this video are:

  1. Dave is "just like you."
  2. He wants to give/lend/sell you his wife and kids.
Now, as far as I can see, the conclusion to be drawn from these two statements in combination is:

3. You (the great British public) are someone who wants to take/borrow/buy kids, partners and other family members from Dave, or, by extension, other members of the Great British Public and...

So far, I've found a lot of rubbish on Webcameron, but nothing to suggest that David Cameron encourages prostitution or child trafficking, or that he thinks great swathes of the web-literate British public do either. As satire goes, this is so way-over-the-top that it becomes simply irrelevant to anything happening today in politics.

The one thing I will give Simon credit for is that he does look a bit like Cameron when he ties his hair back (you can see his normal look here) and he has the right build for the job too. If the Tories do win next time and he loses his seat (which is likely if the best Labour can do is stuff like this) he might be able to pay the bills by becoming a Cameron impersonator.

But what a missed opportunity, what a complete failure to meet an open goal. Almost any half wit could have concocted a fairly amusing spoof lampooning the pomposity, vacuity and sheer mediocrity of Webcameron. (Even a bunch of quarter-wit UKIP suppporters almost managed to do it with webcameron.info, although not quite.) Instead Sion Simon has made himself look bloody stupid whilst ensuring that Cameron is receiving much louder and more vigorous backing from the Tories than was the case after last week's conference in Bournemouth. So to answer Ben Kenobi's original question - it's the latter!

10 October 2006

Tying up a loose end from last week

Whilst spending far too long going on about the incompetence of the police in Bournemouth last week, I forgot to mention one of the more interesting Tory speeches - a fringe effort by Shadow Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox.
"Foxy", as some like to call him, was Hal Berstram's preferred candidate for the Tory leadership last year, running on the basis of a fiercely nationalistic, indeed borderline reactionary, programme (his speech to the 2005 conference was a breastbeating classic, still available here.)
Sadly Liam did not make the cut, and Dave Cameron has taken the boys and girls in blue in a very different direction, retaining only vestiges of Foxian flagwaving (for example, pulling the Tory MEPs out of the centre-right grouping at Strasbourg.)

But with the defence brief, Foxy is able to continue to wrap himself in the Union Jack. This virtually guarantees a commitment to waste £25 billion (or whatever it is) on the replacement for Trident - although he's doing nothing more than copying Labour in saying that.

But the good Doctor's warnings about Russia are more interesting, and if accurate, highlight some rather disturbing facts about the world's second most powerful capitalist quasi-dictatorship (after the US of course). A 25% increase in defence spending in one year is pretty heavy stuff (unless, of course, inflation is running at 25% and it's measured in nominal terms - I must have a look at the data on that), and it sounds like the Russians are ordering more nukes with some of that money.

Of course, Russian military spending is still dwarfed by the US; and the idea that a firm commitment by Britain to replace Trident, or not, will make a difference to this is laughable. But Fox is right to highlight the fact that the Russian military build-up has gone almost unnoticed by the Western media. And the continuing interest of the gigantic Gazprom corporation in buying UK gas operators like Centrica and British Gas may mean that the Russian invasion arrives in a somewhat less direct manner than Liam is warning of.

In the meantime, Hal Berstram working of a remake of the Hendrix classic "Foxy Lady" using excerpts from some of Dr Fox's best speeches interspersed with a narrative about his impending sex change. And there may be a bit of Natalie Imbruglia in there as well - although that's very old news now. Actually I'm probably more likely to model the new version on The Cure's cover of Foxy Lady on Three Imaginary Boys - always liked the idea of a cover of a cover...

08 October 2006

Respect going out from the sports desk to...

...U's boss Geraint Williams, who was named Championship (i.e. Division Two) manager of the month this week. A staggering achievement given the start of the season, when Colchester lost 4 in a row and looked like contenders for the coveted "Worst Team In Any Division, Ever" award. This is a little known award which is judged by the guy who used to be in Eastenders - not Nick Berry, but the bloke who was in it during the 1990s and was a similar hearthrob for the televisually challenged - and then went on to a truly bizarre BBC series called Crime Traveller. What the BBC did not tell the fans about that series was that the time-travel technology was actually real, and this guy (I've just looked up his name - Michael French) - is actually a bona fide "time agent", originally from several centuries into our future. French has - in his timeline - already presented the award, we think at some point between being in Crime Traveller and returning to make the latest series of Holby City, but of course since there are no historical records (yet) of the Worst Team In Any Division, EVER (WTIADE) being awarded, we can deduce that the award lies sometime in our future... in other words, there is a team, in a future season, who will perform even worse than Sunderland did in 2005/06.

Anyway, French is known to enjoy winding up badly-performing football managers by inviting them out for a drink to discuss a "celebrity appearance" at the club for "fundraising purposes." At some point during the conversation, the possibility - merely the possibility - of a WTIADE award is mentioned. It's a matter of meta-historical fact that French has been responsible for an average of one and a half English or Scottish league 'sudden resignations' every year for the last decade or so. Managers simply cut and run rather than face the humiliation of being the Worst Manager Of All Time (WMOAT).

The technology does not yet exist to determine when in the future French will strike "for real", although several contenders for Dragon's Den are working on it. In the meantime, managers and club staff - especially those with several recent consecutive defeats under their belt - should be very wary of taking any calls from this man...

- particularly if he offers you a "time bung". But we won't get into that here. So take care - and I do mean, "take care". Love, Hal.

06 October 2006

Hal's Friday evening blog review #2: Green Manifesto

Hal Berstram takes a second bite at the gooseberry after a fortnight's layoff

I'm trying to turn this Friday evening random blog review into a regular slot. Obviously Friday evening is not the most obvious time to be trawling through the random feed on the blogger.com frontpage trying to find interesting things, but due to being completely knackered out by my job and by commuting into London almost every weekday, I find that surprisingly often, sitting in front of the computer on a Friday night amounts to a good idea. Sad, that.

Anyway, after reviewing a superb comedy blog (sort of) last time, I now bring you an excellent political blog from the US - with page decor very similar to giroscope. It's called The Green Manifesto, but goes a lot wider than environmentalism - a really useful collection of various news stories and analysis of US politics and foreign policy from a radical progressive perspective. For example, in today's post, 'Greenstigator' lays down a salvo of outrage at the f***ers who are running his country, particularly their treatment of elected leaders in certain South American countres (e.g. Bolivia, Venezuela etc.) as terrorists. Previous posts looking at rigged voting machines, the government's assault on civil liberties, and the extraordinary story of how a bandana decorated in peace signs was deemed offensive in Missouri are all essential reading.

The other great thing about it is that Greenstigator lives in Portland, Oregon - a place I have a special affection for as it's where Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole calls Agent Chester Desmond from at the very start of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, one of my favourite films of all time (possibly the favourite.) Which is a ludicrous thing to get excited about, I know, but there you are.

Anyway do check the site out if you're into Red/Green politics. It's stuff like this that gives me hope that the US may one day fall back into the hands of the "good guys", rather than what Hunter S Thompson called "these cheap greedy killers controlling America today". I will be leaving a comment on The Green Manifesto to let the guy know that he is a class act.

Ronnie Corbett is a Star

Episode 4 of Extras last night, and after a slow start the series is getting better and better. Having Chris Martin perform a Coldplay song in the middle of an episode of When the Whistle Blows is strangely reminiscent of when bands like Motorhead and Madness used to perform in the living room in episodes of The Young Ones. The show-stealing performance this week, though, was Ronnie Corbett's. I won't give away what happens in case you haven't seen it, but it isn't what you might expect from Ronnie; and that's why it's brilliant.

Now if only I can persuade a relative to buy me the DVD of Sorry...

03 October 2006

Things to do in Bournemouth when the police have got you where they want you

Had a bit of a farcical time at the Conservative conference in Bournemouth. For one thing, the hotel I'd been booked into was so far from the conference zone that I needed a supply of Kendal mint cake and some hiking boots just to make it to a hotel near the zone to see the Policy Exchange fringe meeting with George Osborne on the Sunday night - that's the meeting where he made the infamous "autistic" remark about Gordon Brown. Osborne was playing it very safe, smooth and centrist at that event - totally dismissive of tax cuts and indeed responding to almost all suggestions for tax reform from the audience by saying "it's an interesting idea but we're still looking at it and we can't make any decisions yet." This was his response time after time: on transferable tax allowances, bringing back mortgage tax relief, council tax reform, and so on. The only concrete proposal he voiced all night was a commitment to abolish regional assemblies.

And if Osborne was smooth, David Cameron's opening speech a couple of hours earlier was almost frictionless. I expected him to glide off the podium at any moment. There were some amicable but safe stand-up comedy lines and delegates laughed in the right places; even at his worst joke, which was that Tony Blair had sent him a letter saying, "Dear Pot, Yours sincerely, Kettle." Uh? But seriously, Cameron was brilliant. Just in terms of creating a mood, making the party feel good even though he has sorted out maybe five percent of his policy platform for the next election, at a generous estimate. The guy made even Tony Blair look stilted in terms of his delivery (although he still has a little way to go to be as smooth as Bill Clinton next week. But Bill is a man of experience...)

I think there is actually more to the Cameron strategy than most people on the Left (or indeed the Right) have picked up on. In speeches, Dave is now close to being a politics-free zone. People have accused him of apeing Tony Blair and New Labour but the approach is subtly different. In 1994, Blair deliberately took up positions that were very close to the Tories on a few key areas where Labour had experienced persistent electoral damage - defence, taxation, and (initially) public spending) to neutralise Tory attacks. Blair claimed to be moving 'beyond left and right' but in fact he was just moving between left and right - into the dead centre (although of course he eventually overshot and just ended up on the Right anyway.) What Cameron is trying to do is what Blair claimed he was doing, but Cameron is much more close to actually doing it - moving the Conservative party away from some key elements of political debate altogether, and by doing that he hopes he will be able to attract people who didn't vote in previous elections. As there are rather a lot of these (almost 40% of eligible voters at the last election) the plan may work - but will any of these people be bothered? And are they even in the hallowed "centre ground" that Cameron and Osborne keep talking about?

Also, Cameron has enough suss to hold on to a few hard-right positions as long as they're popular, and to shore up the key vote. Hence MPs are openly allowed to advocate leaving the EU and he has pulled the Tory MEPs out of the centre-right European People's Party bloc in Strasbourg. No doubt we will see a commitment to abolish inheritance tax closer to the next election too. All in all it's a new kind of opportunist twaddle which, when you look at it closely, has about as much coherence as the lyrics Jon Anderson used to write for Yes. But it stands a significant chance at the next election, if: (a) they can get some of the 'non-political' people to vote Conservative, (b) they can grab some of the "I voted for Tony Blair because he was a way to carry on voting Conservative without voting for Major/Hague/Duncan Smith" vote, (c)
the core Tory vote doesn't bugger off to the UK Independence Party/BNP/etc. In the meantime, they have done out the Bournemouth conference centre very nicely, and the new logo looks very good.

Oh yes - I meant to tell you what else happened to me in Bournemouth. Well I couldn't get into the Monday morning fringe event I was meant to be going to, because it was in the secure conference zone and Dorset police hadn't processed my fringe pass in time! Still, I wasn't alone - Bournemouth Pavilion was filling up with disgruntled activists. Apparently even some pretty big names couldn't get in (Zac Goldsmith was rumoured to be one of the excluded, although he certainly wasn't there when I was.) So for all I know the pass is still waiting for me in the late accreditation office, 2 days after I needed it. Not sure whose fault this is - the Tories or the Dorset police - nor do I care, much. But to look on the bright side of this rather demeaning experience, at least it gave me some training in what to expect when ID cards are introduced in this country...

Prognosis - "Johnno"

A couple of days later than intended, but before giroscope gets on to the Tory conference I had to round off the fall-out from the Labour conference by saying a few words on the leadership chances of Alan Johnson, who I think is the only serious contender to Gordon Brown for the job.

That's not to say I think "Johnno" stands a good chance at this stage. Brown may have been a bit flat and uninspiring at Conference but he wasn't useless, and he still has a huge power base in the party. So if Tony Blair were to step down tomorrow it would be an incredible risk for Johnson to throw his hat into the ring, and he would have a lot of ground to make up. Johnno's Conference speech was good but stuck fairly rigidly to his education portfolio and wasn't an obvious grab for the leadership, unlike John Reid, who really was trying to whip the assembled hordes into a frenzy.

Anyone standing for the leadership needs 44 nominations from fellow Labour MPs. Brown will secure this easily from anyone who wants to be a minister in the new government. The hard-left candidate, John McDonnell, will also easily get 44 nominations. Beyond that there is room for probably only one candidate on an anti-Brown platform - which might be a "Blairite" platform but might be something else entirely. So who will that candidate be?

Let's discount Alan Milburn, who no-one takes seriously apart from himself and the three or so other people who regularly read Progress. Dr John Reid appears to be in the strongest position at the moment but what is this really based on? He offers a policy stance somewhere around the region of what Dr Liam Fox was offering in the Tory party leadership contest last year (what is it about these doctors?) - flag waving, pompous gibberish and a grab for the BNP white working class vote. The Tories did not fall for this sub- Norman Tebbit guff last year and Labour is even less likely to fall for it next year. If Reid does stand, then he will get stomped by Brown, and rightly so.

I think that if he can get a campaign up and running at the right time, Alan Johnson has the edge on any other anti-Brown candidate, for several reasons. First, he does not have to run as the "Blairite" candidate - in fact, it would be suicidal to do so. That doesn't mean he wouldn't get votes from Blairites, but the message must be party unity on a new platform - "neither Blair nor Brown", to coin a phrase. Milburn and Reid are in their own way setting themselves up as "uber-Blairites" - but Blairism (if there is such a thing) is going to look very tired when Tony eventually quits, and there will be a hunger for something new. I don't see how Gordon Brown, as the architect of huge swathes of government policy for the past decade, can deliver something new - whereas Alan Johnson can.

Second, I think Johnson will play better with the electorate than Brown. He looks more comfortable on TV, is a more relaxed interviewee, and seems more approachable. He is from the John Major school of likeable poliitican, which seems a ludicrous compliment, given what eventually happened to Major, but his election win in 1992 was probably the most remarkable win in post-war British politics. You are unlikely to find George Osborne saying that Alan Johnson is "autistic" (more on this in a later post.)

Finally, Johnson has a union background, which may help in the union section of the electoral college for the leadership. Following John Smith's 1993 reforms, trade union members now cast their votes individually for leader, rather than the old block vote system. Many of these trade unionists will not be Labour activists, or even Labour voters, and thus they may be less tied in to the whole Gordon Brown mythology than the Labour party membership will be.

All this is highly speculative and depends on two crucial condition. One is that Johnno puts a credible campaign together when the time comes. This, at least, is in his hands. (I could put an absolute killer campaign together for him, but he is unlikely to ask me to... but Alan, if you are reading this, do get in touch asap, if only to correct any factual errors.) The other prerequisite is that Gordon Brown's credibility deteriorates, for whatever reason, over the next few months. This is anybody's guess and will depend on a whole range of factors including the degree of infighting in the party, the performance of the economy, Labour's opinion poll showing, continuing problems with Gordon's hairstyle and weight, and many other things.

But anyway that's enough of Labour for a little while... now we turn our attention to the PR love-in that is the Conservative conference in Bournemouth. Coming soon...