Monthly Archives: May 2011

If it weren’t for you meddling kids

Governments love sheep. They adore compliant leggy clouds of wool flocking after them for a sniff of fresh grass. They like to funnel them through the dip for a fungicidal top-up, and wave a pair of clippers at them for a nice shear now and then. And they love to sell them off to Tesco, pocket the cash, and feast on their minty legs.

It’s an old joke: teaching is great, apart from all the students. System administration would be a breeze if not for those damned users. And government would be easy without those pesky citizens demanding rights and freedoms.

Last week’s G8 and eG8 meetings should get us worried. Do not be fooled: the rhetoric about freedom and innovation and unlimited rice pudding is simply designed to give us the warm’n’fuzzies. Yes, we’re supposed to think, they get it. The net is safe! Hooray! Baa! Baa!

The truth is far more sinister. It’s a classic “I love you, but…”. The net is full of lawlessness, of copyright infringement, the governments say, and they want to do something about it.

And again, don’t be fooled. “Copyright” is a trigger word: it polarises, it rehearses the same old arguments from both camps, it focuses the debate on one, narrow aspect. It ensures that big media, the copyright barons, are on the government’s side. It brings out the Cliff Richardses, claiming imminent destitution while dabbing eyes with local Caribbean onions.

Who could deny these artists a living wage? emotes a minister, justifying stricter net regulation on the basis of copyright infringement before nipping off to rip a CD onto an iPod, an act still considered infringement in English law despite now two government-commissioned reports recommending legalisation.

Governments are slow to increase freedoms and quick to reduce them.

But, as I said, don’t be fooled. The copyright thing is a diversion: the government calling “come by” to the media and entertainment sheepdogs and leaving a trail of goodies to distract the noisier lambs.

And it’s not about injunctions, super, hyper or otherwise – though that’s another convenient shiny thing to blind everyone with. Here are two incontrovertible facts:

  • Humans are social animals and love to gossip, even if that’s not what they think they’re doing.
  • Twitter is the most efficient gossip-distribution mechanism yet invented by man.

It thus follows that Twitter radiates gossip around the globe faster than any lawyer can stop it.

But you know what Twitter gossip isn’t? It isn’t doorstepping the people gossiped about. It isn’t rummaging through their bins. It isn’t intercepting their phone messages. It isn’t papping them on the beach and tutting at some tiny variation from this week’s idea of perfection on pages one, two and thirteen. It isn’t publishing lurid details of their private lives on trumped-up notions of public interest.

Privacy invasion and harassment by the redtops – and not just the redtops – is much worse than Twitter gossip for those invaded and harassed: but the government doesn’t legislate about that.

Twitter spreads gossip, some of it true, some of it false, just like email does, and the telephone, and the larynx. And guess what: we already have laws about the false stuff. We already have judges struggling to understand social networking, refusing to recognise tweeted jokes borne of frustration but plainly not menacing.

Twitter is communication, like any other form – but faster and with a global audience. It’s many-to-many, not one-to-one or one-to-many. (And, lest I be accused of undue Twitophilia, so is Facebook.)

This is why G8 governments want to regulate it. This is why they are afraid of it. It is no coincidence that governments have recently woken up to the possibilities of many-to-many. They’ve seen it help to disrupt north Africa and the Middle East all year, and drag them into a civil war none of them want to be a part of but all of them know they must be, thanks to what none of them want to admit: oil. Governments all think: could we be next? What would it take to bring down a western government? It might be on the verge of happening in Greece or Spain.

Governments fear nothing more than their own citizens rising up against them.

This latest shepherding tactic about privacy and copyright is a front, a sleight-of-hand, an attempt to outflank those sheep who sense the approaching knives. I suspect G8 governments believe, like the Romanian communist leaders of the 1980s who ordered the population to hand over their typewriters as they made it easier to disseminate subversive material, that by asserting control over the means of communication they can preserve control over the populace.

Western governments are lumbering beasts but they’re not daft enough to believe they could simply switch off internet and mobile phone services if the people start making too much of a noise, as happened in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Such an act would only be counterproductive were it even possible, and they’d have to take over the TV stations too. They want subtler control, like mandatory filters. Don’t like this Twitter account? Filter it out. Hashtag chatter a bit near the mark? Filter it out. All “for legal reasons” or for the “protection of children”. It’s all possible: China does it.

But the USA has the first amendment! Free speech! Yes, and that’s a qualified privilege. You can still be prosecuted for crying “fire” in a crowded theatre, or for what someone decides is treasonous speech. Some US legislators and judges believe that linking to a page that contains links to copyright-infringing material should itself be a criminal act. And it seems you can be arrested for dancing at the Jefferson Memorial.

There is nothing to stop a determined government, with a supine or bought legislature, from enacting laws that restrict our freedoms on the internet. There is nothing to stop them: except the people.

I realise it’s easy to see spooks lurking behind every bush, to see malignancy and conspiracy where there is none. Yet history shows that good intentions wither and weather, like rivulets of erosion in the majesty of the Sphinx. RIPA surveillance powers, used to monitor dog fouling. Anti-terrorism laws, used to harass and detain photographers. Laws about “improper use of a public electronic telecommunications network,” used to interpret as “menacing” an obvious joke on Twitter by a frustrated flyer eager to see his girlfriend, and ruining his life in the process.

Governments and their officers, whether deliberately or not, tend to overreach. Powers once taken are hard to let go. Our ancestors fought for our freedoms; they are entrusted to us by our descendants. We hand over those freedoms at our peril.

Or perhaps you believe what the governments say: that regulating the internet is necessary to protect blah, blah, blah. I offer these questions:

  • The internet must be regulated by government, but the press is allowed to regulate itself. Why do you think that is?
  • Do you trust this government? Yes? How about the government after next?

Baa! Baa!

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Spurs are on their way to Wembley

“Do you want me to call it off?” Mum stood framed in the bathroom doorway, hands on hips, looking down at me sprawling in pain.

“No! I’ll be fine!” My bladder had screamed full all the way home from school and was busy wreaking its revenge. I wasn’t going to let it deter me: it was Thursday 14 May 1981, and I had a ticket for the FA Cup final replay between my team, Tottenham, and Manchester City. I’d been to plenty of football matches – I had a season ticket – but never a match this important. Never Wembley.

And how could I face my school friends the next day if, after bragging that I was going, I then stayed at home – because of a bladder strain. That choice would haunt me forever. Nothing short of a detached limb would stop me going.

I wasn’t going alone, of course. My cousin Mark, altogether more worldly-wise at 18 or so, also had a ticket – and a car. It wouldn’t be our first trip together: we’d gone to London a few years before, just the two of us I think, to see 2001 at the cinema. No, not the original release; it might have been the tenth anniversary, though – 1978. I’d have been nine, he fifteen. Hmm, surely not? Possibly. Times were different then, all flares and hair and grainy film.

We drove to Wembley, or thereabouts. I have no memory of the walk along Wembley Way with the gathering thousands, or of the queue, or of the hunt for the correct stairwell, or of the steep climb to our seats – oh, perhaps I do. It seemed near-vertical back there, vertiginously deep in the top corner of the Royal Box side, not far from the left goal line from the usual TV perspective.

It was a tense match. Spurs took the lead early, never a good sign, with City levelling only a few minutes later in the goal nearest us. Five minutes into the second half they went ahead through a penalty. The supporters around me – all Tottenham fans – became nervous. After 70 minutes Spurs equalised: jumping, screaming, relief. Twenty minutes to find a winner.

Six minutes later, it happened. The finest goal I’ve ever witnessed in person. Ricky Villa, substituted in the drawn match the previous Saturday, took the ball deep into the penalty area past one defender, two, jinking left and right, and fired a shot—

I’ve never seen, heard or felt anything like it. Fifty thousand people simultaneously screaming, exploding in joy, hugging, bouncing. Astonishment, disbelief.

And then the interminable wait. Fourteen minutes, plus injury time. Just keep the ball. Just. Keep. The. Ball.

At the final whistle we could breathe again. The celebrations began. From our vantage point we couldn’t see the team climb the 39 steps to the Royal Box, nor could we see Steve Perryman lift the trophy; we simply cheered when everyone else did. We cheered as, presumably, each player in turn held the cup aloft. We were drunk on cheers.

I’m not sure how we got home without Mark crashing the car. Sober, but still drunk. A high I’ve never forgotten and know I can never recreate.

Football’s a game played by overpaid, often unlikeable twats; owned by oligarchs; run by idiots; watched by thugs and bigots. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s played by sublime craftsmen at the top of their trade, and watched by passionate, loyal fans who experience the greatest highs and deepest lows with friends and strangers on the terraces across the country. But it’s still owned by oligarchs and run by idiots.

Cup Final day is not what it once was, even ignoring the rosifying memory lens. This year it’s not even the final match of the season. It’s lost in the Premier League and Champions League cash-chase, another victim of the sport’s insatiable greed. The loss of the FA Cup’s prestige arguably began when money begat exclusive TV deals. Once, the FA Cup Final was the only live domestic football match on TV, and the build-up began on both main channels at dawn with Cup Final Pro-Celebrity Eggy Soldiers or some such; now the single terrestrial broadcaster has no work to do. No romance to talk up. No semi-literate panel to parade. No Moore v Coleman/Motty contest to hype (Coleman, obv.).

All we have is the game, yet another live game in a season of yet another live games. Eagerly awaited by the teams and the fans, and the obsessives, but few others. Of course I’m only saying all this because the year ends in one and by rights that means Spurs should have been there, dammit.

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With malice a Thor fought

Aussie soaps were not originally a well-rubbed waypoint on the cobbled road to celebrity. Nobody from The Sullivans ever wore spandex over dubiously inflated muscles in a Marvel franchise, not even 1977’s The Amazing Spider-Man. All that has changed. Chris Hemsworth can, curiously, trace his casting as Norse totty Thor back to cigar’n’braces soap-enabler Michael Grade or his eighties vicinity, and the unexpectedly world-changing decision to buy Neighbours for BBC Daytime. For Neighbours begat Kylie, Jason, Guy, Alan and a few others, and let loose Home and Away on the UK, which spawned Hemsworth.

From Summer Bay and World of Cliché to Kirk’s dad and now Asgard, in but a few short tumultuous years. It’s like casting Adam ‘Ian Beale’ Woodyatt as one of the X-Men. Iceman, Phoenix, Wolverine, Black Pudding.

Thor has a tricky path to take: part action-adventure, part Norse Mythology 101, it needs to introduce a non-comic-gobbling crowd to a pantheon of “actual” gods it might remember only vaguely from school discussions about days of the week, and also deliver a coherent plot that isn’t something cheesily related like an apocalyptic Battle For Thursday.

The story is by Mark Protosevich and Babylon 5 overlord J. Michael Straczynski, with a three-author screenplay that suggests development Helheim. The film takes place bang in the middle of the Marvel universe (movie franchise edition), with noob-tolerant, fanboy-wetting references to S.H.I.E.L.D. and Tony Stark. But fanboys beware: movie Thor’s not comics Thor. Of course you know that already, you’re a fanboy; you probably already wrote a capped green exclamated thesis on the matter. Less foamy Thor-comic fans will be happy that certain aspects of the comics are preserved (though not all).

Some of the early scenes in Asgard feel draggy at the time: I thought they were trying and failing to be quick expositional backgrounders, but they turned out to be plot. Asgard itself is beautifully realised by director Kenneth Branagh (I know, right?). Kirby loved a wide galactic smear and that’s what we see, with a world full of godly fixtures and fittings and implausible furniture. No pixel is left unbuffed. The Midgard Earth scenes are a great counterpoint, a dreary dustbowl of diners and utterly ungodlike fatsos.

The main human characters are nothing to Bifröst home about. Natalie Portman plays the standard scientist/love interest role; no Oscar noms here. She has a sassy wisecracking girly sidekick and a weathered, Viking-like colleague with whom to enter and exit sundry scrapes. All very comic-like, in fact.

Aside from eight-packing Thor and his massive weapon Mjolnir, gods include but are not limited to dad Odin, portrayed by barely not-Welsh Anthony Hopkins, and brother Loki, played by Michael Sheen Loki-likey Tom Hiddleston. Other deities are available.

Hemsworth scrubs up well. Seekers of flesh will perk up for one brief scene and instantly divide into mary and contrary camps. I’m on the mary side: he’s overly muscled for my tastes. But I still wød.

As you might expect, there’s nothing to stop further films with at least some of the same cast. Indeed I see The Avengers (no, not Steed et al) is in production for 2012 – presumably drawing together the various strands from several Marvel movies. I confess a low-grade squee at this: different movies, different characters, one consistent(ish) universe. It all makes the constantly rebooting Batman and Superman franchises look like dinothors.

Yeah, sorry about that one.

Avaragado’s rating: one tub of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey

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