24 November 2006

Aliens in my Virtual Suitcase

Al DeRaan takes time out from twiddling knobs to bring us an update on his progress to techno nirvana...

Having overcome various technical difficulties, I'm now in a position where, given the time (and time is the big constraint), I should now be able to produce some fairly kickin' electronic music. In terms of wanting to be original and not duplicate anything else that's going on in the scene at the moment, I've noticed that the decline in output of Peter Namlook's Fax record label over the last few years opens up a big space for experimentation.

Namlook is not exactly a household name (unless you live in my household), so it's worth a slight history lesson. As the 1990s dawned, jazz-rock musician Peter Kulhmann was finding no particular success with his band Romantic Warrior (by bizarre coincidence, named after an album mentioned in my previous post), so he disbanded the group, reversed his surname to Namlook, started his own record label based in Frankfurt and named after the fax number of the office he had there, and began releasing dance 12 inch singles. Although Namlook could do trance with the best of them, his real passion was ambient music, and the release of the first Fax CD "Silence", a brilliant collaboration with the DJ Dr. Atmo in 1992, saw the beginning of an extraordinary electronic odyssey. Between 1993 and 1996 - the peak of his recording activity - Namlook released approximately 70 albums, some solo and some collaborations. It's a rate of output almost unmatched by any modern recording artist to my knowledge. The entire output is catalogued on the Fax review site www.2350.org, which seems to be kept more up to date than the official label site.

For someone with my meagre student resources in the mid-1990s it was impossible to keep up with this rate of releases, and many of the early CDs were very limited editions (500 or 1000) and sold out quickly (although Rising High records, the ambient/trance label, did issue some of the most well known Namlook efforts on a wider release, as well as several compilations - all now deleted, but iTunes have now issued the entire Fax back catalogue as downloads...)

One series of CDs on Fax records that was always hard to find was Namlook's solo improvisational records, titled simply "Namlook", "Namlook II" etc. I have a few of these. Undoubtedly the weirdest - and in my opinion the best - of these was Namlook III, also known as "Aliens in My Suitcase". Most people I have played this CD to think it is complete shite - that's usually the sign of a good record, in my experience. I will post an excerpt on the Dilate website to whet your appetite in due course, but briefly, the record consists of a drum machine and a synthesiser. And that's it.

Sounds most unpromising - even more so, given that the drum machine is a Roland TR-606, which isn't even one of the 'classic' models. So how come this is the best experimental electronic album ever made?

Because the synth is the EMS Synthi-AKS, that's why. (Plus the fact that Namlook is to synth programming what Heston Blumenthal is to cooking - i.e. a crazy perfectionist.)

The Synthi-AKS is one of the earliest portable synthesisers ever made - I think it came out about 1971 or thereabouts. I've never seen one in the flesh, but there's a lot of info available on the net - check Sound on Sound, for example. It's a very odd looking piece of equipment - check out the photo:

The genius of the design lies in the fact that due to a 'matrix' programming system (that's the 16x16 block of holes on the lower right of the front panel) you can create any signal path you want. There are various oscillators, filters, a spring reverb unit, and a lot of other weird stuff in there. Unfortunately (or in fact, fortunately) the original units did not stay in tune very well which made it very difficult to use this synth for Chicory Tip-style cheezy 'Moog' sounds. This meant however that people were forced to use it for some of the weirdest sound effects and general sonic destruction around at the time. The BBC Radiophonic workshop even had a f*** off BIG version which filled a whole room and was used for a lot of BBC sci-fi incidental music (including Doctor Who) in the early seventies.

Great stuff, but what's the relevance to today's electronic musicians? Well, you might be lucky enough to own one of these little critters - almost unbelievably, the original company, EMS, has a website, and are still making the things - although they cost £1600. If you see one on Ebay they are also going for that kind of silly money. So I thought the Synthi-AKS was out of my reach bar a lottery win, until I discovered Native Instruments' very fine Reaktor software. Reaktor deserves a post of its own, and I will do at some point, but basically it is a piece of software that enables you to make your own synths. Unless you've got a couple of weeks on your hands and a degree in acoustics this isn't an easy task, but fortunately when you buy the software you also get access to the entire library of instruments created by other users. And one of these, called Synth-In-A-Case, is a virtual recreation of the Synthi, with a few bells and whistles added on. The screenshot looks great:

and the thing sounds bloody amazing. Crazy, but amazing. And, at €399, cheap compared with the hardware version; plus you get all the other Reaktor synths - hundreds of them - as well! Anyway, it's solved a lot of my creative block for producing electronic music which is as out-there as they come, and, time permitting, I will be posting the first fruits of this endeavour as MP3 files to the Dilate website under the artist name "Being and Bricoleur". A name which I'd like to explain here but I've already gone on far too long so it'll have to wait... lock up yer speaker cones.

Hal's Friday Evening Blog Review #8 - Greeting Card Verses

The quality of the blog I've chosen to review takes a distinct dip this week, which I'm sorry about, but I haven't been feeling too well today and I needed something very undemanding to look it.

Anyway, Greeting Card Verses reads like the kind of poems you used to get in gatefold sleeves of 70s rock bands - particularly jazz-rock fusion bands, who I guess were more susceptible to this kind of thing. Check out the inner sleeves of Return to Forever's Romantic Warrior or Where Have I Known You Before, Santana's Caravanserai or the Mahavishnu Orchestra's Between Nothingness and Eternity for good examples of this (I dunno if the CD sleeves all have the accompanying poems on them though, as my copies of the above are the original 70s releases, on this strange black shiny stuff they used to encode music on in the 20th century... I think it's called "Vine Ale", kind of a cross between beer and wine. Or something.)

Anyhow, if putting this kind of whacked out, hippy-dippy musings on record sleeves starts to come back into fashion then "Lanx" (the blogger) might be in luck. I don't think that's very likely, (1) because the cheesy-listening side of 70s rock - Supertramp, Leo Sayer etc. - is much more in fashion these days than jazz-rock; (2) the way downloads are taking over, there aren't going to be any record sleeves in a few years. But that's still Lanx's best shot, as I can't see lines like:

Time is not fluid because it is an applied concept.
We should move outside the calendar measures
Embrace that which the mind would measure…

making it into your local branch of Clinton's or Paperchase any time soon. I could go on for a very long time about the different poems here, but you'd probably kick your screen in, so I'll leave you with this excerpt from the post on 19th November which seems to be about Tony Blair...

You have become unto a wraith
Shadowing your former great self
Outside of the penumbra of joy
Yet we sit still in its enigmatic light
Knowing the only true path is love

David Cameron should use that at the next Prime Minister's Questions!

23 November 2006

Doomwatch - yet another Torchwood ancestor

Barney climbs further up the British sci-fi family tree...

I've watched a couple more episodes of Torchwood over the last few weeks, and my initial opinion that it's good, but not great, hasn't really altered. I've recorded all the episodes and will watch them back over my extended long Christmas break - if I get time in between watching the several episodes of Doctor Who I didn't watch first time round, the twenty or so films I've recorded over the year (mostly off the recently Freeviewed FilmFour) and god knows what else.

In the meantime BBC4's Sci Fi Britannia series continues and this week the focus in on Doomwatch, which is in many ways a more immediate ancestor to Torchwood along with Quatermass, which I mentioned in a previous post. OK, so the theme is environmentalism and the corruption and dirty deeds of big business and the government rather than extraterrestrials or the paranormal, and in some ways it's closer to the X Files - at least, the X Files episodes that don't deal with extraterrestrials or the paranormal. But it does look amazingly ahead of its time. Doomwatch is a highly flawed series - the investigative team (particularly the leader, a guy who looks a bit like a teddy boy gone to seed) are arrogant f***ers who seem to credit the public with about as much intelligence as Matthew Taylor does (see previous post), and whose idea of the good society seems to be a dictatorship where everything is hosed down with disinfectant every 90 seconds. The guys are also unbelievably sexist, even for the early seventies (which does lead to a lot of dialogue about sex, which is another link to Torchwood.) But still very interesting, as I knew very little about the series at all, let alone that it had been so popular. .. roll on next week's feature.

Taylor on bloggers: losing the plot... big time.

Based on some of his recent postings, I was too harsh on the Guido Fawkes blog a few weeks back. The Fawkster came up trumps last week when he tracked down a little-reported speech by Number 10 Chief of Political Strategy Matthew Taylor to an e-democracy conference. Taylor lanched into a paranoid tirade against

blogs which are, generally speaking, hostile and... basically see their job as every day exposing how venal, stupid, mendacious politicians are.

To which the obvious response is: as so many of our politicians spend their time doing venal, stupid and mendacious things, wouldn't bloggers be liars if they didn't expose this?

Taylor implicates the media as well, which is apparently a "conspiracy to maintain the population in a perpetual state of self-righteous rage." [I always thought that was the role that the British transport system was designed to play, but I guess it's good to have the media as backup in case the trains do run on time.]

But the real enemy is the bloggers, who are apparently encouraging citizens to participate in "a shrill discourse of demands" and adding to the "growing, incommensurate nature of the demands being made on government." Apparently the public doesn't understand the "trade-offs" that have to be made by politicians.

Whose fault is that, Mr Taylor? Bloggers didn't write the 2005 Labour Manifesto; you did. I didn't find a whole lot of information about the difficult trade-offs facing the public in there. Just an avalanche of promises to be all things to all people; and a set of policies which, when they existed, were virtually interchangeable with what was on offer from the Tories and the Lib Dems. Peter Oborne exposed this brilliantly during the election campaign with his documentary Why Politicians Can't Tell the Truth.

If politicians and their advisers treat the public like laboratory rats, a good proportion of the public will comply with the experiment through deference, ignorance or apathy. If blogs, or even some sections of the media, are reducing the proportion of lab rats among the public , then that is surely damn good news. If we are not extremely demanding of our politicians, they are likely to run the system for their benefit, not ours. Matthew Taylor appears to have contempt for the public, thinly disguised as a swipe at the commentators.

The quote that made me laugh most was that the "net-head" culture was rooted in libertarianism and anti-establishment attitudes. Newsflash for Mr Taylor: not all critics of the regime are libertarians!! Not by a f***ing long stretch. And when the establishment starts doing something right, I'll gladly support it. Which may be about to begin now you have left the building and moved to the Royal Society of Arts...

Fawkes came through with another interesting post today on the bizarre new Tory "Sort It" campaign on debt. "The product of a coke-crazed ad exec's inspired idea thought up after lunch in Soho" - great line. I was beginning to really like the blog. Then I read the comments on his post about the Women2Win reception at Millbank tonight and reality reasserted itself... is there just one sad misogynist wanker pretending to be all these Tories making comment posts, or are there really about 20 of them?

20 November 2006

Friedman's limited legacy

Nobel Prize winning economist and Thatcher-Reagan pin-up Milton Friedman died last week aged 94, and has attracted a generous range of tributes from the usual right-wing suspects as well as many on the centre and left who simply don't understand his real legacy, such as it was. One of the most wrong-headed assessments comes from the supposed economic genius, Gordon Brown:

He had a major influence on post-war economic policy not least in establishing the importance of credibility in monetary policy making.

Utter and complete balls. Friedman did make a vital contribution to consumption theory in economics - the permanent income hypothesis - and he provided a powerful counterargument against the idea that there was a trade-off between unemployment and inflation, popular in the 1960s but destroyed in the "stagflation" of the 1970s.

But his recommended macroeconomic policy framework - monetarism - was tried in both the US and the UK in the early 1980s and proved to be a total disaster. Friedman thought that to stop inflation, all the government had to do is to make sure that the money supply grew by a constant percentage rate per year. In the event, empirical studies during the 1980s showed that there was very little relation between the growth rates "narrow money" (notes and coins in circulation), "broad money" (bank balances, building society accounts etc.) and the inflation rate. Moreover, the monetarist cover story was used by Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe to justify a policy of severe conventional deflation by whacking interest rates up to ridiculous levels in the early 1980s, which certainly killed off inflation, but killed off huge swathes of the economy as well, as unemployment rose to over 3 million. It was an insane experiment which it took Britain years to recover from. Nowadays monetarism is hardly ever mentioned, except occasionally by Simon Heffer - but then he probably still uses pound notes when he goes shopping.

With the death of monetarism, Friedman's legacy today is pretty severely limited (and has been for at least 20 years), so don't believe the hype. As Larry Elliott notes in a perceptive article in today's Guardian, central banks today use monetary policy in a way that is much more Keynesian than monetarist. At the same time, the "big government" which Friedman railed against in books like Free to Choose is alive, well and on the rampage, both in Europe and the US. George Dubya Bush's debt-ridden, pork-barrelling balloon of an administration is very little like what Friedman's followers in the "Chicago School" of right-wing economics would have you believe is the optimal model for human affairs. But then maybe, as with monetarism, this 'small government' guff always was a cover story and the real truth was much more Orwellian in nature? Who knows...

Orwell on BBC4, Porter on More4: strange juxtaposition

Bizarre coincidence on TV tonight: More4 had a good documentary by Observer journalist Henry Porter on the surveillance society and the sheer amount of information which is collected on us every day of our lives, mostly without us even knowing. The signal began to break up about halfway through (we have continual problems with signal break-up on the multiplex which includes More4, Channel 4, all ITV channels etc - because we don't have a wideband aerial yet.) So I was forced to switch channels to BBC4 when a documentary on dystopian futures in British Sci-Fi was being shown. The work being discussed at precisely the same time was George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. It's at times like these that there seems to be a bizarre bleed-through from fantasy to reality... time to get over to Infowars!

17 November 2006

Hal's Friday Evening Blog Review #7 - Life of an I.T. Grunt

Delving further into the techno-geek territory hestaked out last week, Hal at last uncovers a blog we can laugh with, not just at:

Life of an I.T. Grunt
appears to have kicked off on 27th September with the following statement:

I have a lot of thoughts on how application development should be done. Almost 15 years in the business, and I am now at a point where I have a vision of what it takes to build applications "right". I have also seen a lot of garbage in this business -- this is where I expose it. I may even name names

A very noble and worthwhile aim, which the blogger in question manages to fulfill admirably over posts with great titles such as "Get Off The Skyline Before You Piss Off The Bozo", "The Return of the Bozo IT Manager", "When A Programmer Drops A Grenade In Your Lap", "Did That Geek Hack My Hard Drive?", and several more. "Tunnel Rat", as he calls himself, goes against blogging convention with long posts which are more like short stories than anything else. Sometimes you get a great paragraph, like:

I was wading through the alimentary canal of TCTSRN [The Company That Shall Remain Nameless]. This is where all the shit came from. All the extracts, downloads, uploads, everything. All of it living in hundreds of 5,000 line files. Procedural. Hacked. Undocumented. I felt like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, going through the dossier of Colonel Kurtz. Bewildered. Floating up the river on a secret mission to Cambodia.

Sometimes it's just a classic one-line putdown, like:

“What would you say if I asked you to shove this Logitech G7 Laser Mouse up your ass?” I asked as I held up my mouse.

Be warned, there is some tech-speak in this, and not everyone will be able to get down with the whole thing... which makes it more amusing, if anything. This really is good quality stuff and I hope the guy packages up the whole thing and makes a book of it when he has enough material to do that, as it really is high quality. Going from strength to strength on these blog reviews now!

15 November 2006

Webcameron Revisited

I've been itching to revisit Youtube to see if any further material has been generated, sane or otherwise, in the wake of Sion Simon's awful Webcameron spoof. (Sion has deleted his original post, but thank f*** for piracy: you can see it here, here, or in post-modern "let's Youtube a TV picture of something that's already been on Youtube" style here.

There have been several new spoofs and responses to Sion's effort, responses to the responses, and general nutters who might be talking about something to do with the whole thing but it is very hard to know for sure. I'm bringing you only the best of them here (or the worst, depending on how you look at it.)

First off, I like this one - is it another MP? Surely not. Particularly good are (a) the way the guy looks at the computer screen, constantly to the right of the camera, all the way through; (b) the way he looks like he's reading out an email someone just sent him, (c) keeping calm through all the swear words. Can't really agree with the view this guy expresses though - surely it's because the 'comrades' have got a sense of humour that they didn't like Simon's spoof, because it... er... wasn't funny?

Secondly we have this quixotic effort from a Scottish woman who seems to be pitching her stand-up comedy (or rather, lean-on-the-worktop comedy) somewhere between Billy Connolly and the Krankies. I ain't been to the Edinburgh Festival for about 10 years (shame on me) but if 'Southside Late' is still on, this is the kind of material you used to get there. It's probably best after a few pints.

Finally, and probably weirdest of all, Santa Claus does Webcameron. Complete with "Marvin the Paranoid Android" voice. This one is actually reasonably funny, although there's only really about 60 seconds of material there - it's just that the guy speaks... very.... s..l..o..w..l..y. But I guess Santa might do that if he's 700 years old. (As might Cameron.)

Probably diminishing returns are setting in now (or maybe they were there from the start), but it's fascinating the way content begats content on Youtube... maybe Tony Blair's last winter in office will be the "Winter of Content". Sorry, that really is bad.

Flyweight Dave gets blown away... what about Heavyweight Gordon?

Another year, another Queen's Speech. "My Government..." (not, of course, your Government, despite the fact that several of us did vote for it) delivered in the usual ludicrously affected upper-class accent. (At home the Queen probably speaks like John Major or something.)

More interesting than the stackful of bills presented (which the devil will be in the detail of in most cases anyway) was Tony Blair's boxing analogies when faced with Dave Cameron across the despatch box. Blair says the next election will be a "flyweight versus a heavyweight" and:
"However much [Cameron] dances around the ring beforehand he will come in reach of a big clunking fist and, you know what, he'll be out on his feet, carried out of the ring,"

Whilst John Reid might think he fits the description of a heavyweight, that's as close to an endorsement of Gordon Brown as you're likely to hear from Tony. And this looks like the strategy for the Brown premiership: the man of experience vs yet another ephemeral Tory leader.

The only snag is, of course, that if Gordon's too much of a heavyweight he might just fall through the floor...

14 November 2006

Ken vs. the 4x4s - I LIKE IT!!!

Rockin' on with Ken Livingstone. His trip to Venezuela may have backfired when Hugo Chavez said he was too busy campaigning to meet up, but Da Mayor has now announced plans to raise the congestion charge to £25 a day from 2009 for the highest polluting cars - which includes all the 4x4 "Chelsea Tractors" - and to end the 90% exemption for residents in the charging zone (which extends westwards into Chelsea next year). It's a glorious double whammy which will no doubt have the toffs up in arms, maybe even getting out of their 4x4s to take to the streets. Bring 'em on!! They are weedy and will go down. Even Jeremy Clarkson. He's a big man but he's out of condition. And with us, it's a full time job.

A couple of years ago a woman from Greenpeace with a clipboard stopped me on Piccadilly and asked me what my opinion of 4x4s was. I said, "we need to bazooka them off the road." She looked a bit taken aback, and I remember worrying it was a bit of an extreme thing to say. Now I realise I was just ahead of my time!

MI5, Blair, Brown... anyone else want to tell us we're in danger?

A sequence of warnings last weekend about the ever-present (indeed, ever-increasing) homegrown terror threat, and how we're all going to need to hunker down, be very careful and vigilant, and while we're at it, it would be nice if those silly MPs who were worried about old-fashioned things like civil liberties could make sure they get in there and vote for 90 days' detention of terror suspects this time?

First out of the trap was Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, head of MI5, who claimed in a major speech on Friday:
  • there are around 200 terrorist 'groupings or networks' operating in the UK, involving over 1,600 individuals.
  • "More and more people are moving from passive sympathy towards active terrorism through being radicalised or indoctrinated by friends, families, in organised training events here and overseas, by images on television, through chat rooms and websites on the internet."
  • there are around 30 plots to 'kill people' or 'damage the economy', often with 'links back to al-Qaeda in Pakistan'.
  • By 2008 MI5 will be twice the size it was at the time of 9/11.
How much of this is true? Certainly the last part. The rest may well be, although we'd be none the wiser if it were complete hogwash, of course. But my purpose in this post is not to take issue with MI5 specifically, but to point out that Dame Eliza's intervention is the first kick in a carefully orchestrated ball game, the culmination of which will be a sustained and concerted effort by the government to introduce the 90 days detention of terror suspects, which it failed to do last year. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have both chimed in on message with support for the MI5 statement and reassurances to the public that terror is the top policy priority. Even John Prescott got in on the act yesterday. No doubt, the MI5 speech will also be used as further ammunution to boost public support for the introduction of ID cards.

Hasn't it dawned on the government that we'd be a lot more likely to trust politicians who tell us it's necessary to trade civil liberties for safety from terrorism if it wasn't so obvious that key spokespeople from the police, the armed forces and now the security services were being hamfistedly pressed into force to try to sway gullible MPs into voting for yet more draconian measures? Why can't we have an honest debate about how large the terrorist threat is, and what policies to counteract it might actually work? As Dan Ashcroft lamented in Nathan Barley, the idiots really are winning.

13 November 2006

"Sci-Fi Britannia": Another BBC4 bullseye

Barney keeps it real with the invaders from outer space coming through the TV:

Arrived home with the best intentions to do some reading for work as I have a mountain of paperwork to hide in at the moment, but ended up watching pretty much all of the opening night of BBC4's "Sci-Fi Britannia" season. There was the first half of the Dr Who story Spearhead from Space with Jon Pertwee, which I have on DVD, but I watched anyway... Then the first episode of the BBC's 1981 version of Day of the Triffids, which scared the hell out of me as a kid all those years back: I wasn't sure whether it would be any good in retrospect but the first episode was a classic. No CGI, fancy camerawork, four-to-the-floor dance music soundtrack, or twenty-somethings getting off with each other: just the actor John Duttine, two eye bandages, a hospital bed, a tape recorder and flashbacks. And the triffids: even they looked pretty good. Then there was a very interesting documentary about British science fiction writing from H.G. Wells through to Arthur C. Clarke with the emphasis on the way aliens are characterised in British sci-fi. Now I'm watching this year's remake of A for Andromeda, which is slow-paced as hell, but maybe that's the idea. All good stuff for Monday night sci-fi buffs - which is just as well, as there was very little else of interest on the box apart from a swathe of news programmes concentrating on the fifth anniversary of the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and how it's been pretty much downhill all the way for British foreign policy since then...

Actually, looking at this A For Andromeda programme again, vast amounts of the programme seem to consist of close-ups of a spinning glitter ball. It's amazing what one can get away with in the name of atmospherics! And there's a guy with a dreadful moustache/designer stubble combo. Well maybe that bit was true to the original 1960s dramatisation but I've never seen it so I dunno. Anyway I will be following this season with great interest - about half of everything I watch is BBC4 at the moment and I'd go so far as to say it justifies the licence fee pretty much by itself (well that plus Torchwood...)

11 November 2006

Hal's Friday Evening Blog Review #6 - What A Waste Of Bandwidth!

...Not my one-line review of tonight's featured blog - that's just what it's called. This is the kind of thing you want to come home to if you love the computers you work with, you code hard at the office all week, you've had a few Friday evening beers in a bar that wasn't too crowded... you might have pumped a tenner or so into the quiz machine, you almost fell asleep on the train home and missed your stop, and you just want to read about Linux, people controlling robots wirelessly with Sony PSPs, a Star Wars version of The Last Supper, a graphical representation of pi, and other examples the kind of nerdy stuff featured by Slashdot et al.

This floats my boat to an extent although I'm only an ersatz nerd really - I like building PCs (but that's not very hard really) and the odd bit of Perl coding once in a while, and I have Linux as a dual-boot on my PC but I don't use it very much at the moment. My wife describes me as the "uber-nerd" but that's just because she sees the ever-expanding piles of SCART leads behind the TV, for the VCR, DVD, DVD recorder, Freeview box, etc. etc. and wonders where it's going to end. Plus we had speakers wired for 5.1 in our previous house and proper full-size speakers as well, not the satellite ones that look like baby intercoms used to in the 7os. That kind of set-up certainly rakes it in for the people who make speaker wire, but I found the overall effect rather artificial, and I'm not convinced for music listening that it's any huge advance on the 70s quadrophonic systems. (For films it makes a bit more sense but once you've heard the subwoofer rumble and heard the helicopter tracking round the room at the start of Apocalypse Now, you think: wow. And that's as good as it gets.)

But we are getting into hi-fi/home theatre buff territory rather than straight nerd-talk here, which is great, but deserves a full post of its own (doesn't almost everything?) Also, I realise I haven't talked much about the blog itself. But that's always a risk after a couple of beers. Anyway, it's good if you like that sort of thing - and I'm sure more of you like it than you admit to!

09 November 2006

Will the 'blue dogs' count?

One potential source of worry for Democrat supporters in the US and indeed those of us with an interest in ending neo-conservative domination of American politics is that the new Democrats in the House and the Senate are a very mixed bag. A very crude characterisation is that the north-east and western coastal states have tended to elect 'liberal' (which in UK politics speak means centre-left) Democrats, whereas the mid-west and the South have tended to elect conservative Democrats who are pretty much indistinguishable from the conservative Republicans who were willing parts of the Bush coalition in 2000, but have since got totally pissed off with him over Iraq, out-of-control government spending and general incompetence. For example, the narrow winner in the Senate contest in Virginia, Jim Webb, is, according to Newsnight (which I'm watching at the moment) a lifelong Republican and 'gun nut' who only switched over to the Democrats because he opposed the Iraq war.

The term 'blue dog' has been coined for members of this Conservative... (sorry, got to break off for a couple of seconds because Tony Benn has just come on Newsnight. Total genius as always. He is to British politics what Charlie Watts is to drumming. Sorry for the interruption but you can't be disrespectful when DA MAN comes around.) ....of this Conservative Democrat bloc.

I like 'Blue Dog', partly because it reminds me of Martin Amis's near classic novel Yellow Dog, but also because it reminds me of a very strange web site from the primitive net-days of the mid 1990s. I was lucky enough to find my copy of the first(!) edition of the Rough Guide to The Internet, published in November 1995. The guide has about 100 pages of URLs for websites on all kinds of topics in it and it would be a fascinating exercise to find out how many of them still exist, 11 years later. A casual glance suggests not many! But anyway, in the "Weird" section, alongside such forgotten classics as Mrs Silk's Cross Dressing Magazine and Strawberry Poptart Flame Thrower, was a site called Blue Dog Can Count.

The original web address was http://hp8.ini.cmu.edu:5550/bdf.html but good luck finding anything there now. I never tried it at the time unfortunately because it was back in the days when any page with graphics on it took about half an hour to load (ah... dial-up!) but according to the Rough Guide, you could "give the blue dog an equation and hear her bark the answer". Maybe US voters will be able to do the same with some of their newly empowered 'Blue Dog' Democrat representatives? I'm really, really hoping that a conservative Democrat who is in on the joke will set up a rallying site called "Blue Dogs Can Count". Do let me know if you hear any senators or congressmen barking, or indeed using any equations...

YES! They got the Senate as well... (hopefully)

Well, the news from the USA just gets better and better. Democrat James Webb (pity it isn't Jimmy Webb, who wrote "By the Time I get to Phoenix" - at least I assume it isn't?) was leading Republican George Allen by around 7,000 votes with almost all the votes counted, and Allen's conceded, on the grounds that he's too far behind Webb for a recount to make a difference to the result.

This means that the Senate is split 49-49 between the Democrats and Republicans, plus 2 Independents who are (according to the media pundits) likely to vote with the Democrats. One of these is Vermont senator Bernie Sanders who describes himself as a 'democratic socialist' - which reminded me of Blenau Gwent's independent Labour MP Dai Davies. The other is Joe Lieberman, who ran as an independent in Connecticut and beat official Democrat candidate Ned Lamont, who beat him in the primary for the Democratic candidacy on an anti-war ticket.

While Sanders looks a safe bet, I would not be completely surprised if Lieberman ended up voting with the Republicans on some of the key issues, as many of his policy positions seem indistinguishable from the Republicans. He's not alone in this of course - many of the Democrats in both houses of Congress look and feel very similar to the Republicans. But as an Independent, Lieberman may be easier to turn over to the 'dark side', to use a Star Wars analogy. Brown envelopes, or whatever the equivalent currency is used in American politics, may be flying around Capitol Hill like frisbees by January... it's gonna be very interesting, especially after the complete stasis of American politics over the last 2 years. There is also a bigger factor at work, which needs its own post... coming up.

The strange case of the mystery broadband outage

Newly appointed science correspondent Hal Berstram investigates the cause of a three-hour ADSL line failure in an ordinary Essex village...

Better call the Torchwood people, someone's playing silly buggers with the lines round here.

There was no giroscope post last night as the broadband failed to work for about 3 hours, which happened to coincide with the time I had free to use the computer in between watching various rubbish on TV and eating dinner. The modem diagnostics just showed an "ADSL synchronization failure". On the modem itself, the ADSL light just kept blinking on and off six times in a row, then going off for a couple of seconds, then doing six blinks again. The modem is quite a cheap ethernet one, and doesn't even have wireless capability, but it's been very reliable for the last 3 and a half years. I've attached a shot below as I think the green lights look quite cool at low resolution:

By 11pm the whole thing was back up and running again but by then I was too knackered to blog, for sure.

Has anybody else suffered this kind of weird temporary outage? My supplier is BT, who are expensive but have been completely reliable up to now.

08 November 2006

And some more good results - (2)

Seth heads west a few thousand miles...

Anyone who has not spent the last 18 hours down a big hole (but if you have, I hope it was fun down there) will know by know that in the US, the Democrats have taken the House of Representatives and quite possibly the Senate as well. And Donald Rumsfeld is going to have a lot more time to compose existentialist poetry now, as he's been fired.

It's all great news and I was quietly hopeful that the very strong polling data for the Democrats would be borne out by the result, which seems to have pretty much happened. I was a bit worried by the narrowing of the poll lead a few days ago, which had echos of Labour 1992 about it, but the combination of Iraq and various Republican scandals too numerous to list here seems to have done the trick.

In the giroscope office, Hal Berstram was chomping at the bit to be allowed to make an online prediction on the blog - he has fond memories of his psephological analysis in the 2005 general election campaign, which sounded very convicing - but unfortunately he was out by 12 seats as he overestimated the strength of the Tory vote (perhaps surprisingly). Barney and I had to remind Hal that on doctor's orders he is debarred from political commentary for the foreseeable future and thus limited to the sports desk plus a carefully monitored level of religious speculation. As some consolation I have agreed that he can double as "science officer" and bought him a Scientific American subscription. Hal was most pleased, as you can see below...

Many commentators will point out, rightly, that these results are only the beginnings of a resurgence in the Democrats' fortunes in US politics. And there is much that could go wrong for them between now and the 2008 Presidential Election. For example, they still don't really have a strong alternative position on foreign policy beyond simply pulling out of Iraq as quickly as possible. They may become preoccupied with a congressional assault on George Bush, possibly even attempting to impeach him, when it would be much better to pretty much ignore him as he's a total lame duck anyway. Even if the Democratic Congress makes all the right moves, their candidate could still be crap (this is what happened to the Republicans in 1996 with Dole, for example). But even given all the notes of caution that will be sounding, this is still a good day for America. Imagine how much worse it would have been if the Republicans hadn't lost control, even after all the shit that has gone down... it's a creaky, weird and bought-and-sold kind of democracy they have over there (just as ours is here), but it's not completely dysfunctional. "Thank God", as they would say.

And some more good results - (1)

Hal heads south a few kilometres...

You will not find a hell of a lot of coverage of The Other Essex Football League Team on giroscope. However I must say a big well done to TOEFLT for beating Corporate Football Mark 1 1-0 in the League Cup last night. It was a goal from Freddy Eastwood (a relative of Clint? He should have gone up to Ferguson and said "Go Ahead Punk"... etc. Actually that sounds more like something that Corporate Football Mark 2's manager would do.) Full details in the match report.

Corporate Football Mark 2 are still in the cup, having killed off Aston Villa 4-0 tonight. Never mind... maybe TOEFLT will be able to take them out too. I sure hope so.

06 November 2006

ID cards - Blair tries a different tack. Same result

Tony Blair today tried a slightly different tack on trying to justify ID cards. After bitterly contesting the argument over how much they are going to cost, and largely failing to win anybody over at all (OK, in the current political climate it was always going to be difficult...), he is now insisting the measure is about "modernity not civil liberties."

Presumably the implication of this is that civil liberties are not compatible with the modern world? A refreshingly honest assertion from Tony, anyway.

Blair's also arguing that although the costs may be big, the benefits will be bigger. He went on to say:

I don't think, in the debate so far, that we have even begun to explore the benefits that we will see in, say, ten years time.

The Home Office will apparently be publishing an "Action Plan" in December after they have "done the math" on this. Presumably this will be after John Reid has spent a quick 2 months sorting the department out?

The whole thing smacks of a cocktail of desperation and arrogance. Meanwhile, the number of people on the DNA database continues to grow, past 3 million now... and you, too, could join the fun. All yhou have to do is be arrested... and you don't even have to have committed a crime! The police will take your details free of charge. It's such a good deal, why doesn't Blair suggest that we all troop down to the cop shop and have our DNA swabs taken? Or could we include the info as a DIY kit with the 2011 Census? (I'm sure a leading New Labour politician will suggest it soon... where's Alan Milburn when you need him?)

Henry Porter in the Observer has Blair and Reid bang to rights on the assault on civil liberties. Porter writes essentially the same column every week, but that doesn't stop it being totally right every time. It's like when Status Quo remade the same single about 20 times in the early-to-mid 70s: every one a winner. I thoroughly recommend Porter, along with NO2ID, as guides for the perplexed.

That's not to say there isn't a debate to be had about whether we want a national DNA database, or ID cards, for that matter. It's just that, as usual, we don't get any kind of debate worth the name. We get what the good Agent Mulder called "B.S. and double talk" just before he slugged Skinner in the last episode of the 2nd series of The X Files (still my favourite, I think.) Whilst the David Icke fantasy of "a micro-chipped population linked to a global computer" is over the top for the moment, stuff like Alex Jones's Infowars site becomes more believable by the nanosecond...

05 November 2006

Dismember, dismember, the 5thnovember...

Hal's regular Friday evening blog review fell by the wayside this week due to his being on holiday, so it's left to Seth to step into the bonfire with a special "themed" review...

'Guido Fawkes' has been making a big splash over the last year or so with his Blog of Plots, Rumours and Conspiracy. It was voted the best political commentary weblog of the year in the Backbencher's political weblog awards.

All I can say is... if this is the best political commentary weblog of the past year, please show me the worst one.

It's not all bad... the 'Propeller-Head Wonk Watch' section has a very nice picture of a monkey with a hard-hat on it. But for the most part this is a mixture of very insular Westminster village gossip and right wing (or more precisely, anti-left wing) politics which I have seen done better elsewhere.

Case in point: a recent post criticising Zac Goldsmith's Ecologist magazine for criticising ex-Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson, who criticised the Stern report on climate change as, among other things, a "battery of essentially spurious statistics based on theoretical models and conjectural worst cases." (Sounds a bit like the justification for Lawson's [and Geoffrey Howe's] 1980s monetarist policies which helped put the 'giro' in giroscope, but we'll let that pass...) Guido reckons he's got this green lark sussed:

Scratch the surface of even the most harmless cuddly Green and you find an agenda which is a totalitarian and based on "Gaia" mysticism cloaking an essentially anti-human tendency which values "Gaia" as more important than humanity.

Funny that... I thought the Greens were trying to save the planet (and the humans on it), rather than multinational corporate power, which, to use a crude but accurate phrase, puts "profits before people"? And if reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change means tough government action, and if you want to mislabel that 'totalitarian', then go right ahead, mate. And I have to say that there is very little 'mysticism', Gaia or otherwise, in the thought processes of the environmentalists I know... just an appreciation of scientific evidence, and the realisation that, unless we act very quickly, we are f***ed. A realisation that, under David Cameron's leadership, is now spreading though the Conservative party... leaving Guido Fawkes and chums as the only people still trying to deny reality.

One thing you can say in defence of the Guido Fawkes blog is that it does get a lot of comments. Unfortunately, many (not all!) of the contributors make Guido look like Noam Chomsky in terms of sheer asininity. Some of them are just plain nasty, too: for example, on a recent post where Guido featured the story that Madeleine Bunting had left Demos, one of the comments was:

I like the look of Madeline. Unlike other ladies at the Guardian, I'd like to give her a good Bunting.

Now I'm no particular fan of Madeleine Bunting's work but she (and indeed any of the other women mentioned in the blog from time to time) deserves a damn sight better than to have a bunch of right-wing morons making sexist remarks about her. Some will no doubt defend this kind of shite on the grounds that the whole thing is only meant to be "a bit of a laugh". But that's just it. The site is only a bit of a laugh. Whereas given its status as political commentary blog of the year, you'd expect it to be a fucking riot. Or at least a source of incisive conservative thought. Instead, it seems to be where Westminster lobby hacks go to jack off when the alcohol poisons their last remaining braincells. Come on the hard right, you know you can do better than this... even Iain Duncan Smith's novel was a better read.

04 November 2006

A week away... back to some good results

Barney back in after fleeing the south for the heady pints of the North...

Hello all and hope you've had a good week. Just returned from (mostly) sunny Yorkshire. We were staying near Pickering, on the southern edge of the Yorkshire Moors National Park, which was extremely satisfactory. The beer always confuses me and the rest of the Giroscope crew, though... because the pubs up there use a 'sparkler' to aerate it when it's pumped, it gets a head, a bit like what you'd get if you were served John Smith's Extra Smooth or some such nonsense. But fortunately it tastes damn good. I'll give a full review of pubs we went to etc. tomorrow when there's more time.

For now, it's just time to note two damned fine football results:

Colchester 3 Cardiff 1
- three points against the league leaders! The U's are 9th in the table, which is ridiculously high, but the results keep coming...

Watford 2 Middlesborough 0 - at last the boys in yellow get a win! Great stuff.

There's been a lot of political action over the week as well (when is there not?) culminating in the huge climate change march today in London, but again, more on that from Seth tomorrow...