Saturday, June 27, 2015

On Delisting

So the BBC has published a list of all its articles that have been delisted by Google - meaning, articles that people have paid* Google to keep out of web searches.

Publishing these links is an excellent thing to do, as it allows us to take a punt at guessing who requests delisting and why.  As you might expect, most of the delistings relate to court proceedings and criminal offences.

Whenever this topic arises, it's the subject of loud and long lamentation, and for good reason in many cases.  That's quite justified in instances where articles are delisted because they reference

1) People who have committed serious crimes 

Quite a few of these articles relate to terrible crimes, and I think it's fair for people to be concerned about this.  I'm not particularly pleased to see that e.g. rapists could have all mention of their crimes effectively expunged from the record by simply forking over a bit of cash to Google, and you can probably imagine how that ability is very useful for various bad people and organisations.

Note here that I'm assuming that it's the perpetrator or one of his/her relations that has asked for the article to be delisted, rather than the victim.  The latter seems less likely, but it's hardly impossible.

There are far more examples of delisted articles involving  

2) People who have committed minor crimes 

I'm a lot less worried about this.  I have no problem with the idea of people who e.g. get drunk and get into a fight being able to sweep the matter under the carpet.  All of us are human and we can all be terrible shits to each other and make awful errors, and I don't think it's wise or just to keep people on the hook for this in perpetuity.

By "on the hook", I mean the likelihood that any Google search for your name is likely to return an article about you e.g. shoplifting or getting busted for minor drug possession when you were a teenager.  If you've been tried, sentenced and have paid for a minor offence, it seems a bit harsh to me that any future employer, partner or aquaintance is only a web search away from hearing all about it.**

And it's worth noting here the unequal nature of Google searches for individuals, too.  If your name is e.g. "John Smith", "Ann Brown" or "Muhammad Ali", people will most likely have to upend the entire internet to find any online material that references you, rather than the million other "John Smiths" in the UK.   If you're called Trevor Jigglytits De Souza, then a lot of the daft/unpleasant things that you've unwisely said or done will be instantly available.  

Obviously, this level of forgiveness doesn't apply to all crimes and indiscretions, in all situations - I can imagine why a company might want to know if a potential employee isn't mentioning his previous embezzlement convictions, to pick a random example - but it remains a less concerning issue than serious offenders expunging their records.

Another category of delisting relates to

3) People who have said or done embarrassing things 

Quite a few of the delisted articles are about people who have gone missing, for whatever reason.  I can imagine why people might not want the first thing that people can learn about them to be that they did a sudden Stephen Fry act and buggered off to Belgium in the huff for a fortnight in 2004.

There's also a lot of seemingly innocuous articles about TV shows and the like, and I'd suggest that it's not the article itself that somebody wants rid of, but one of the comments underneath it.  Again, if your name is Fuckface McGhee the Third and you once spent a drunken evening typing overwrought comments about e.g. Him Off Big Brother, then your boozy ramblings are likely to be the first thing that people will find on the internet relating to you.

Once more, my sympathy doesn't apply in all cases.  If you're running as an MP and have previously announced that you think Hitler had a point, it's probably in the public interest for that fact to remain on your record.

Nonetheless, I think it's important that we draw a distinction between people who have, on the one hand, made tits of themselves in public, and certain multinational corporations who have accidentally poisoned several thousand Indians to death.  One of these issues is a bit more serious than the other, and it's wrong-headed to treat them both as if they were the same thing.

My generation is lucky in that we're the last that grew up in relative obscurity.  There are, thankfully, no photos of me with that horrible haircut in 1996 floating around the internet, nor are there any snaps of me passed out pissed around a toilet bowl, and there's no public record of that night that I went off on one and made an utter exhibition of myself in that pub in Dundee.  This is a bit of a blessing, and it's not one that people who go out and make arses of themselves this evening will be able to count upon.

It's also fortunate for me that the internet really went big when I was in my early twenties, as anyone who has ever found an example of their angst-ridden teenage poetry at the back of a drawer will attest.  It's a lot easier to put an old bit of paper in the bin than it is to delete it from somebody else's Facebook account, isn't it?

Anyway, none of this should be read as saying that there's no problem with Google offering a delisting service.  There are many reasons why this should be seen as A Bad Thing, helping nasty people and organisations to shuck off the consequences of their own nastiness.

Nonetheless, it doesn't hurt to look at the issue with just a little bit of compassion and human empathy, I think.

*I'm just assuming that you have to pay for a delisting here, but I may be wrong.

**Enthusiastic law 'n' order types tend to disagree on this point but in my experience, even the most unforgiving of hardline justice types suddenly changes their tune on the matter when it's them or their family member that's been arrested for shoving a traffic warden or some such. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Whatocracy

Q:  If the army of Madeupistan overthrew its elected government, machine-gunned hundreds of protesters in the streets, hurled its opponents into prison and issued mass death warrants, would the UK Government a) denounce the army or b) welcome its leader to Downing Street for tea and biscuits?

A:  It depends on whether the leader of Madeupistan is our bastard, or theirs.

This question is prompted by the leader in yesterday's Times - the full text of it is in comments below, since it's paywalled on their website.

It's a barnstormer of an article really, filled with compensatory coughs and mumbles about human rights and democracy, while in fact pushing precisely the kind of self-important Realpolitik that made Dr Kissinger the beloved figure that he is today.

And to a certain extent, this is fine - I can entirely get down with sentiments like "(we) need to work with the political order as it exists in the Arab world and not as (we) wish it to be", since this is exactly the kind of thing that I've been saying about e.g. Iraq and Syria for years*.  It's hilariously obvious that this form of peace, love and understanding is extended only to allied nations of course, but let's accept that statement as a mild outbreak of common sense for now.

Nonetheless, let's also note that the main message of the piece is - let's suck up to this particular blood-soaked killer, because he can give us lots of things that we want.  This, to put it mildly, is not the message that either the Times or many of the nation's titans of morality in foreign policy typically push.

Let me pluck out a few sentences, just for pointing-and-booing purposes:

"There is no more apt time for David Cameron to press Mr Sisi to respect human rights than in a meeting, face to face.  It is essential that the prime minister do so, lest reformers in Egypt and the wider Arab world infer that they are on their own".

Now, I can think of a few reasons why "reformers in Egypt and the wider Arab world infer that they are on their own" - the recent UK-Egypt investment figures alone suggest that we're entirely happy as a nation for the Egyptian military to crush democratic movements in perpetuity, I think.  The fact that our major political figures have made next to no attempt to restrain the Egyptian dictatorship sends a far stronger message than anything that Cameron is likely to say.

Nor do I believe that a Cameron-Sisi photo-op, with all of the diplomatic kissy-face and joint statements on common interests and co-operation that such things entail, is going to convince "Arab reformers" that the prime minister is just hurting like a motherfucker for their trampled rights.

"If Britain does not have a strategic relationship with Mr Sisi, it will forgo any opportunity to put pressure on him to restore democracy".  

You'll notice that this too departs from the paper's traditional attitude towards engagement with despotic regimes.  The pretence that Sisi might have a passing interest in "restoring democracy", or that David Cameron might put him in a chokehold until he develops one, strikes me as fairly insulting to the public's intelligence. 

Other highlights include boos and hisses for the elected government that Sisi deposed and is now having executed:

"...He unquestionably (deposed an elected leader) with immense popular support against a regime that had abused its authority and driven Egypt close to collapse."

Now, Ayatollah Khomeini's insane medieval revolution overthrew a nasty regime, but you'll seldom hear similar citations of its immense popularity, nor criticisms of the Shah's democratic failings, and for good reason.

We can also note that e.g. Bad Vladimir Putin is very popular indeed domestically, but you don't often hear it said in Times editorials, and you'll never hear that fact used as justification for positive engagement.  Hugo Chavez's party have won election after election for more than a decade in Venezuela, but their proven popularity doesn't discourage the Times from regularly addressing them as if they were a political amalgamation of the great train robbers and the Khmer Rouge. 

"Mohammed Morsi, or the Muslim Brotherhood, won a narrow victory in presidential elections...  (he) should have negotiated a compromise or called fresh elections.  Amid discontent and huge protests, Mr Sisi and the army deposed a plainly failing government...  Large sections of Egyptian society believe that Mr Sisi has preserved the country from civil war and theocratic oppression". 

...Which is an idiosyncratic take on the concept of democracy, and one that would have interesting results if it were applied more broadly around the globe: God help any political party that has the temerity to "win a narrow victory", for example.  I also look forward to the Times' take on future anti-government protestors in the UK and elsewhere, since it tends to treat anyone who so much as waves a placard at Westminster like they're the blackshirts reborn.

Anyway, you get the gist.  I raise this mainly to note - yet again - the bizarre situation whereby any minor celebrity or unknown political activist who so much as sneezes in the direction of unpleasant foreign autocrats or political movements can expect to be pilloried now and for all time for it, but it's perfectly fine and even sensible for the President of the United States to publicly blow the King of Saudi Arabia's corpse.  

We might think of this as the Tony Blair principle - that is, it's actually laudible for Tony Blair to hug Colonel Gaddafi, but any other human being caught making a favourable comment about the mad colonel's haircut will have the offending quote splashed all over any article that mentions their name forever more, including in their eventual obituary.

Well, I know that I have a bit of an obsession with bitching at the Times, but I'd say there's an important distinction to be made here.  Whenever, say, a minor Guardian writer makes some horrifying statement along the lines of "Any final negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians is probably going to have to involve Hamas, since they're a major combatant party", the wails and screams of terror and outrage shake your windows and rattle your walls for weeks...

...But the Guardian and all who sail in her are, at best, speaking on behalf of the nation's cultural elite and for the dying rump of middle class British socialism.

The Times, on the other hand, is effectively the UK's ruling class addressing itself.  If it has a purpose, its role is to clarify and reinforce the views of the government of the day.  If it has any criticism of government policy, it'll always be restricted to encouraging the Prime Minister to just keep doing whatever he's doing, to either a slightly greater or lesser extent.

I'd say that Sisi and his lieutenants are considerably worse human beings than any of the bogeymen who traditionally bedevil the nightmares of Times writers - Chavez, Gerry Adams, Che Guevara and so on.  And here's the nation's paper of record, wagging a finger at us for daring to consider the possibility of giving the Egyptian dictator the cold shoulder.  You can take that as the official position of the British Government, because it is**.

But as with our nation's relationship with Saudi Arabia, you'll wait a long, long time for any of this to provoke the kind of enraged condemnations that we generally reserve for comedians and authors who are incautious enough to use an overwrought metaphor or to back the wrong boycott.

----

*Although unlike the Times, I've been saying it to discourage further idiotic bombing campaigns and occupations.  

**Again, the simplest solution here isn't so much for Cameron to give Sisi the bum's rush, although I wouldn't weep if he did.  

The easiest and most honest tactic would be for statesmen to drop all pretence that their foreign policies are motivated by morality, human rights or love of democracy, and to admit once and for all that they're moved instead by ignoble expediency at best and rampant, cynical greed at worst.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

More Dispatches From The Trenches Of The Free Speech War

Is it necessary to once again address our Nick and his many manias?  Well, probably not, but I suppose that that's never stopped me before.

This week, the purported topic is Tony Blair's desire to criminalise Holocaust-denial, with swipes at David Cameron's policies on anti-extremism, although as ever it's largely about how much Nick doesn't like students, unnamed liberals and anonymous leftists. Thus, do we end up with the bizarre assertion that Tony's desire to drop the legal banhammer on motherfuckers means that he has now become similar to "the average British or American university".  

Now, we might note that students don't often imprison people that they disagree with; that there's a non-trivial difference between jailing people and just disinviting them from your organised chinwag, and that there's something of a power-and-influence gap between said students, and Tony and his pals.  I myself am somewhat more concerned about David Cameron's thoughts on free speech, than I am about what a nebulous shower of non-specific citizens think about it, since the former has the ability to act upon his threats, and the latter don't.

Sharp-eyed observers will also note that Tony's ASBO-pumping, banning-and-jailing behaviour peaked in roughly 2006 while he was Prime Minister of the nation, which suggests that even if we assume that there's a similarity, it'd be the students who are becoming more like Tony, rather than the other way around*.

And perhaps it's only me, but I also get the feeling that Nick's trying to say that Tony's behaviour is new and in some way unexpected, much like it was back when Nick was previously astounded to discover that Tony is willing to turn a blind eye to tyranny, if it's in his interest to do so.  It's unfortunate because, if Nick hadn't found Tony's behaviour so surprising, he might have noticed that this is hardly the first time that Blair has taken a position at a supposedly progressive organisation, and then used it to push for dafter and more authoritarian policies**.

Anyway, Nick is correct on the broad strokes, and hilariously off-target in the fine detail, as is so often the case.  I suppose that I could go into greater detail on stuff like this:

(Governments) will not let you defend the values of Charlie Hebdo and the shoppers at the Hypercacher at the same time and for the same reasons. You must betray one or the other.

...By noting that Nick has not actually been hauled off to the Gulag for defending anyone's values, and neither have any of his pals.  Until the day dawns when there's a reasonable prospect of Nick being clapped in irons for saying that he doesn't much like the Islamists, we could probably dial down the hyperbole a tad. 

And it's worth noting that while Nick is busy portraying himself as a kind of blobby Cassandra, Scotland is literally jailing idiots for singing offensive songs, seemingly without Nick or his pals noticing.  Were I to do as Nick does, I'd use this as an excuse to claim that Nick and his middle-class, metropolitan liberal pals do not defend free speech in their own country because they are obsessed with attacking convenient targets that do not challenge their smug certainties, and so on.  Since I try not to be a prick unnecessarily however, I won't make a big song and dance about it.

So let's just note once more that Nick's Free-Speech-Hooray!  Drastic-Clampdowns-Boo! stance is correct, and ask yet again - exactly how helpful is it that our most prominent free speech campaigners can't say bluntly that we shouldn't criminalise hateful rhetoric, without also stuffing their statements with irrelevant burble aimed at all of the unnamed badthinkers whom they've always hated anyway?

If Nick's keen to attract support for a key democratic principle that's under attack, maybe it'd be more effective to focus on the people leading the assault, rather than muddying the issue up by bleating about how much you dislike some people who are very much like you, but a bit less pissy about everything.


*Another example of these hilariously arse-over-tit priorities from the World of Decency this week - a Martian who knew nothing at all of human ways and read this HP Sauce post, would have to conclude that Tariq Aziz, Saddam's former deputy prime minister, was primarily a terrible person because he was mates with George Galloway. 

**I suspect that this framing is necessary due to Nick's former endorsement of Tony's idiotic wars, which he addresses in his piece with only the following statement: 

Blair’s recommendation that Holocaust-denial become a crime duly produced the expected mixture of “how dare he even speak after Iraq” reactions.

...Which is certainly an odd way of putting it, implying as it does that an instinctive dislike of people who bomb, invade and occupy other countries is some kind of frightful prejudice. Yes, it truly is terrible that a man can't even make war on other nations for no sane reason, without people holding it against him. 

Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Call Of The Wild, Wild Wasteland

In this temple
As in the hearts of the people
For whom he saved the Union
The memory of Abraham Lincoln
Is enshrined forever.

With Fallout 4 on the way, I've been giving some thought to apocalyptic fiction generally and to why 2008's Fallout 3 worked so effectively and proved to be so popular.

Fallout is a post-apocalyptic role-playing game set in the aftermath of a devastating global nuclear war.  It isn't our world, but rather a version in which all of the fantasies of fifties sci-fi came true.  Popular culture stagnated in roughly 1953, like a version of Marty McFly's parents' Hill Valley but with nuclear-powered cars, zap-guns and robot servants.  For over a century America remains an Eisenhower-era, sci-fi consumer paradise amidst escalating Cold War paranoia and repression, until an inevitable nuclear exchange with China finally destroys civilisation.  The action begins in the radioactive wreckage.

In the first two games, the Great War was pretty much only the backdrop for wickedly humorous, misanthropic Westerns in which the player roams the Wasteland splattering giant mutated insects and aiding or annihilating settlers.  The franchise was bought out by a new development company in the 2000s and their game, Fallout 3, drew on the mythology of this blasted world to create a story with genuine pathos - a violent land filled with aching sadness and nostalgia for a vanished era and a sincere elegy to America itself, delivered from the midst of America's ruin.*

The Great War is central to the action - how could it not be, in the world that it created? - and the game is rich in Cold War imagery and analogy.  This is interesting because the game tackles head-on the contradictions of the Cold War-era United States and mutually-assured destruction, with China and Russia staying mostly off-page.

The vanished America of Fallout 3 was a beacon and rallying cry for freedom, and a globe-straddling, cynical empire with the capacity to extinguish all life on Earth, and it was both of these things at the same time.  The world is a nuclear-blasted wasteland not just in spite of the great patriotic quest for liberty, justice and the American Way, but probably as the direct result of it

The player is then invited to choose which idealised myth of America will win out in the Wasteland, for good or ill.  Will it be the America of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the lofty ideals promoted in their rhetoric, or the paranoid one of Joe McCarthy, Douglas MacArthur and freedom maintained by force of arms, meaning nuclear brinkmanship?  Like the real America, neither version is what it claims to be and both may well contain the seeds of their own destruction, but the ramifications of this choice for the future of the Wasteland will be enormous.

Practically, this plays out by various factions explicitly drawing on the imagery and ideals of their destroyed Utopia to help them construct a new world.  A fascistic remnant of the American military evokes  revolutionary war-era propaganda by broadcasting a series of "Presidential addresses", delivered in the chummy manner of Roosevelt's fireside chats.  Escaped slaves look to Abraham Lincoln for inspiration, trying to restore the statue in the Lincoln Memorial as a symbol to give hope to all those held in bondage.

There are cranky libertarian farmsteaders, plucky settlers scratching a living from the radioactive dirt and technologically-obsessed military orders, all of them threatened by the feral humans, insane battle robots and mutated monsters spawned by the old world.  The final shot of the game is the statue of Thomas Jefferson in his memorial as a symbol either of humanity's quest for freedom and a better existence or as the harbinger of destruction, depending on how you choose to play.

It's a crapsack world, but hope remains that a better one can be built.  America may be gone but remnants of the glory that was America endure and may yet destroy the few who survived its fall, or even succeed against all the odds.

It's hope that separates Fallout from many other takes on the apocalypse.  When 2000 AD's writers take a serious stab at imagining what it would be like to live in Mega-City One, they have Joe Dredd himself categorically state that This Is Not America but rather an endless dictatorship, and that any hope for another way of life is futile.  The democratic United States is gone forever, a ruinous and despised experiment, never to be repeated.

The player's own selfish actions in The Last of Us demonstrate why humanity will never recover from the viral outbreak that all but destroyed it.  In the zombie-plagued Georgia of The Walking Dead all glimmers of optimism or redemption are illusory, only heightening the horror of the protagonists' inevitable violent demise.  The few notes of hope in 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale are to be found in post-scripts analysing the regimes that terrorised their characters, using the past tense.  The dystopian America of Escape From New York is so vicious that it probably deserves extinction.

The apocalyptic fiction that I like is always essentially a love letter to the present.  Children of Men ends with the laughter of kids at play, the very thing that's so pointedly absent throughout the movie, while faith and human decency are right at the heart of The Road, a story that is on the surface all about despair and atrocity**. 

And that's what Fallout 3 did so well.  In order to really humanise America and its mythology in video game form, it was necessary to destroy America.  In the wrecked cities and abandoned homes, in the children's toys and rusting consumer goods and the fifties soundtrack lie the hopes and dreams of a nation, starkly juxtaposed with the destruction that this civilisation brought upon itself...  And yet life endures, striving to create something better than this horror.  Despair, longing and optimism saturate the Wasteland and lend a kind of nobility to many of its inhabitants. 

Or, to summarise all of this in a short sentence - Fallout 4 is going to rock, dude.


*This isn't easy to do, when all of the player interactions are clunky, the graphics are painfully lo-res, the colour pallete is a muddy mixture of greys and browns and all of the characters and creatures are weirdly stiff and robotic.  It's also true that many fans of the original Fallout games absolutely hated Fallout 3, for reasons too various to go into here.  Suffice to say that many video game fans don't agree with my opinion on why Fallout 3 succeeded and that this post will cause hoots of derision, if it attracts their attention.

**I've long suspected that the hardship of existence in this type of fiction makes it easier for viewers/readers to sympathise with the characters but if it was that easy to pull off, there wouldn't be quite so many failed attempts.