Archive for July, 2007

Hypothetical pissed-off Buddhists

24 July 2007

This is simultaneously hilarious and frightening:

Council officials have asked a chef to change the “provocative” name of his new Chinese restaurant after he called it the Fat Buddha. Durham City Council wrote to co-owner Eddie Fung saying the name was contrary to the city’s reputation as “a place of respect for religious beliefs”. But Mr Fung, who is a Buddhist, says the name will stand as no-one has been offended by it.
[...]
Tracey Ingle, the council’s head of cultural services, said she stood by the original comments she had made in the letter. [...] The letter to the restaurant said: “I have to say, in my view, the name is provocative. To use the name of a major religion’s deity in your restaurant brand runs contrary to this city’s reputation as a place of equality and respect for other’s views and religious beliefs.”

Hilarious, because even a highly westernised half-Chinese boy such as myself knows, the fat buddha (or more usually, the laughing buddha) is a recurring motif in Chinese cultures and countless restaurants, shops, houses and places of worship have him with his enormous belly, cheery laugh and enormous earlobes that I found terrifying as a small child. He is not The Buddha (aka Siddartha Gautama) but rather a buddha (usually called Budai) in one way at least, whose form is the personification of the jolly fat man (cf. Father Christmas in Western culture) and his presence is a sign of wealth, happiness and prosperity – for good luck, you rub his belly. In short, he is a rather positive figure and there is nothing pejorative associated with the term at all.

The letter goes on:1

“The generic descriptive adjective of “fat” is not in itself a derogatory term when applied generally [..] the name implies an Eastern offer [...] as it is associated with a religion that grew from Asian countries [...] It does not, however, offer vegetarian cuisine solely nor does it refer to Buddhist belief systems. The name is provocative.”

For starters there are various misassumptions and uneducated assertions in the letter: As well as the confusion outlined above, the Buddha here is asserted as being a “deity” – the perceived divinity of the Buddha varies according to which strand of the faith you believe in, with many Buddhists regarding him as a human, not a supernatural being – and that Buddhists adhere to a solely vegetarian diet, which they most certainly do not.2 Given this is from Durham City Council’s head of cultural services (who has a blog that’s even less regularly updated than this one) it’s a pretty shocking ignorance of the diversity of belief within one of the world’s major faiths; what makes it frightening is the wilfulness to boil down “what is a Buddhist?” down to such simplistic terms in order to make a point which they feel terribly compelled to make.

Within this story lies the real evil of political correctness – not the sentiment behind it (I’m sure Tracey Ingle meant well, in her own way) – but by being so zealous in their duty to create a world totally free of offence rather than one of general mutual respect. The question over whether something is “offensive” is only ever satisfactorily answered by assuming the role of the most easily-offended, i.e. the most fundamentalist and generally pissed-off. Tracey Ingle’s hypothetical pissed-off Buddhists, miserable militant vegetarian deity-worshippers with nothing better to do than be outraged at such blasphemy, don’t really exist, but the politically correct are still fearful of this fictional construct. Ironically, this attitude has underpinning it a certain set of patronising and ugly assumptions about the intelligence and peacefulness of people of faiths and races other than their own (vis. the same softly-softly approach that assumes all Muslims will turn into Rushdie-burning fanatics at the slightest provocation) that share more than a passing resemblance to the intolerance and racism they are so avowedly trying to fight.

1 Ugh, I linked to the Daily Mail. Feel unclean.
2 IANAB: I Am Not A Buddhist, although many of my family are at least nominally so. I don’t claim to be an expert on the faith by any means and I am not willing to get into a theological argument over this quite complex subject – but by and large I am right.


I’m ur Facebook, using ur mom’s maiden name

23 July 2007

Another day, another Facebook/MySpace security scare story:

People who use social networking sites are putting themselves at risk of identity theft, a credit information group has warned.

Members of sites such as MySpace, Bebo, Facebook and Friends Reunited may be revealing too much personal information online.

Criminals could use these details to steal someone’s identity and apply for credit and benefits in their name, according to credit information group Equifax.

So far no-one has actually showed that “identity thieves” have actually used social networking sites for such purposes, but that can be forgiven, they could just be cautious. And it’s true that the kind of information that could be used to gain access to sensitive data is put on these websites. What is objectionable is how this is somehow being spun as a flaw or fault in Facebook/MySpace when the truth is the total opposite: it is a flaw of the protocols banks and other institutions currently use.

The “security measure” of using your postcode, date of birth, hometown or mother’s maiden name to confirm your identity is and always has been a false one, a means of security theatre rather than proper protection, as none of these “private” details are either secret or revocable. Even if social network sites did not exist, it wouldn’t take much effort to wheedle out this kind of semi-private information from people (cold calling pretending to be from a polling organisation, or someone in the street with a fake petition, for example – wouldn’t work all the time but it could work enough). And if your date of birth or postcode is compromised, you cannot do anything to change it to re-establish the security of your account.

The answer to this security problem is not that people should be careful about giving this sort of information out, but that we need to come up with better means of authentication. Systems that allow you to choose your own password are more secure than ones that force it upon you – even if people will more often than not choose the obvious. But to do this would mean that banks, credit card firms and utlility companies have to reform their own security protocols and make the effort educate their customers on how to choose more secure means of authenticating themselves, and that’s much harder (and more expensive) than a scaremongering press release pointing the finger at somebody else.


Harry Potter and the baffled geek

17 July 2007

I’ve read bits of the books, and not been that engaged by the prose. I’ve skimmed the plot summaries and character bios on Wikipedia (and boy, there are a lot of ‘em), and not found them particularly interesting or novel. Nope, I just can’t do it, no matter how hard I’ve tried: I’ve never really got into Harry Potter. This may come as a surprise to some; in fact, it did. Let me tell you a brief story. The other day at a dinner party while talking to someone, she remarked “I bet you love Harry Potter”.

I replied “Well no. I might be a computer geek but I have very little time for any kind of magic or old-fashioned fantasy. It’s just not my cup of tea”.

“Oh really? I thought you would have been a massive fan – what do you read instead?” she replied.

I said “I’m much more into science fiction – reflections on our contemporary selves – imperfect worlds, dystopias, the whole cyberpunk genre.”

“Well,” she said, “that’s pretty predictable, isn’t it?”

If you’re a geek, you just can’t win, it seems.

Anyway, back to Potter. For years I have been bewildered at the success of Potter by adults in the country. I am not that snobby about it – in my view it’s better than people reading the clich?-ridden, predictable, poorly-researched and tiresome bilge by the likes Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown, or the never-ending deluge of chick lit and SAS memoirs. And I’m not even bothered about the enormous money-making juggernaut behind it – it’s the same for all popular entertainment, even if it’s taken to new lengths with these books. This message is currently on the Popbitch messageboard:

Evening all. M’learned friends ask can we have *no* Harry Potter spoliers posted on the site please. There’s a load of injunctions out to stop the plot being revealed. I know the book’s out there, but that’s someone else’s problem. Link to it if you must, but don’t write about it here. Thankyouplease.

But still, it’s mystifying; what is it about this children’s book that really gets adults avidly reading it? Is it simply because we’re lazier these days and they’re easier to read? While not in the bad writing stakes of the aforementioned authors, JK Rowling’s prose is still commonly regarded as pretty simplistic. Is it because, tired and weary of our increasingly cynical and urban lives, we now crave escapism and fantasy?

I don’t think so, at least not greatly. If either was the case, then why has Potter taken to the fore, rather than, say, graphic novels or more “adult” fantasy or sci-fi? Why do I get, comparatively, more odd looks on a train for reading Watchmen (which was written for adults) than I would for Potter? Why are we even reading more at all, instead of watching more television or movies? Instead, both are declining while Potter is a billion-pound industry.

The best hypothesis I read on the Potter phenomenon commented on how JK Rowling draws on and amalgamates a variety of common tropes in British children’s fiction – the public school larks and japes of Enid Blyton and later Jill Murphy; the orphaned or otherwise outcast child, who is secretly talented, so prevalent in Roald Dahl’s work; the fantasy and wonder of Diana Wynne Jones or Susan Cooper. The result is a patchwork, an amalgam, something which Rowling has attracted further criticism for. Couple that with the popularity of the book amongst people in their 30s and 20s, the generations lured away from books by television and video games respectively, and there might also be a guilt effect going on – trying to reclaim a childhood love of books that never existed in the first place; a mishmash of classics people are dimly aware of, reclaimed via Potter.

Incidentally, it’s interesting to compare with that with the tension going in the opposite direction – the resurrection of old TV series popular with children in the past such as Transformers and Doctor Who. And there’s a “retro game renaissance” on as well, for those of us pining for the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog or Sam & Max. I wonder if the demographics for each coincide or complement each other – I have no idea to be honest but it’s an interesting thing to look at.

Finally, there’s the big question: If Potter represents the childhood literature we never read, what happens after the final Potter is released and we have no more? Do Potter readers progress onto something more (dare I say the word) mature? After their flourishing takeup of children’s/young adolescent’s literature, do the adult readers grow up slightly, and start reading the books they never have read as an adult? Will they stay where they are, but spread their wings and read more of the same, for ever and ever? Or will it simply spell the end of yet another trend and we take up something else we never did as children but we feel we were meant to, like play conkers or BMX bike-riding?


Fighting Unnecessary Censorship, ‘Kay?

16 July 2007

I love swearing. I have done as much as I can remember. I’m not sure why, I just do. And it always annoys me when I see certain “offending” letters in words obliterated by the presence of asterisks – I am an adult and should be able to deal with the words undiluted in a serious newspaper or magazine. On an episode of Sesame Street, maybe not so, but for anything written for adults by adults, we shouldn’t be so squeamish. Anyway, I was overjoyed when David over at Ironic Sans produced an Uncensor The Internet Greasemonkey script that removes such silly bowdlerisations, checking for certain regular expressions for censored words, and replacing them with the real thing.

Alas, I’ve found the script can be just a little too zealous at times. Take the current BBC News front page, which features a story about Gordon Ramsay‘s celebrity suckup/belittling of kitchen juniors fest, The F Word. The rest of the world sees it as:

Ramsay pre-Greasemonkey

Whereas, with Uncensor The Internet running, I get the very different:

Ramsay post-Greasemonkey

The terrible thing is, I’m not sure what’s better. After all, the very title of the programme is all a bit “tee hee, naughty word” and Carry On about the whole affair, smirking behind innuendo. To call the programme Fuck outright would, at least, get rid of that nonsense and allow us to move on and away from the schoolyard. And better still, once we call a television show Fuck, well it’s only one step away from getting the show we would all really like to see on the TV schedules, complete with uncensored title, at long last.


Fear and loathing in Abbey Mills

12 July 2007

As many people (especially those in East London are aware), there is a proposal to build the London Markaz, the so-called “Mega Mosque”1 at Abbey Mills, near West Ham tube station. Even though we’re not even at the stage where planning permission has been sought, let alone a public enquiry, the proposed 12,000-capacity mosque has attracted a rather popular petition opposing it on the Number 10 website. But hang on, what’s this in the petition’s description?

We the Christian population of this great country England would like the proposed plan to build a Mega Mosque in East London Scrapped. This will only cause terrible violence and suffering and more money should go into the NHS.

[Emphasis mine]

The statement I have put in bold is a troubling one. There’s not even a sop to “community cohesion” or “inclusion” – instead it’s straight into the fear and violence line, straight away. Proper Enoch Powell territory, this – blood will be spilled, they vow. I’m just surprised they didn’t squeeze in a “clash of civilisations” mention as well.

The statement has one of two inferences. The first is that visitors to and worshippers at the mosque (i.e. Muslims) are, all other things being equal, somehow more predisposed to perpetrating violence and suffering than those who are not. The other, more menacing one, is that its a veiled threat of violence and suffering against those who will be attending it. The first is ugly simple-minded racism of the most banal and casual kind, the second a near-incitement to violence. Either way it’s not very pretty.

I live only a couple of miles from the proposed mosque’s site (unlike many of those who have signed the petition, I’d wager). And ironically, I don’t actually support its construction either. To be honest, I’m not that keen on the construction of any large religious buildings – if they’re promising us everything we could possibly want in the next life, why do they have to take up so much space in this one? Quite apart from my own atheism, I believe in as much space as possible being as accessible to the population as a whole as possible.

I do know for a fact, though, that the site north and west of West Ham tube station, for want of a better word, is a shithole, a combination of derelict land and outdated underused industrial buildings, and in dire need of redevelopment. Using the space as a venue for local arts and culture (for those of all faiths, or no faith at all), with libraries, theatres, museums etc., or as an urban nature reserve, or the site of a new school or college, or indeed anything other than yet more overpriced yuppie housing, that would improve the local social fabric and complement the enormous Olympic park being built up the road, would do more to enrich local life, I feel.

But I cannot even begin to consider putting my name upon a petition against the mosque with a negative, hateful and menacing statement behind it. While they propagate the fear that the mere construction of a building lead to violence and suffering, the reality is that shrilly preaching “your sort are the wrong kind and bound to stir it up” is the far more likely incitement to violence. And while there is brow-beating about the NHS needing more money, the mosque isn’t actually being funded in any way by the public purse. Ironically however, the Number 10 petition site hosting this petty statement of hate is, and I find it quite distasteful that a publicly-funded facility is being used in this way.

I’ve sent an email to the Number 10 petitions team (not sure if MySociety run it day-to-day or if someone in the Number 10 is responsible) asking for, at the very least, a more neutral and less inciteful wording to the statement. I’ll keep you posted on any response I get.

1 A pedantic point, this, but the term “Mega Mosque” is strictly inaccurate, as it will not hold anywhere near a million people, but only of the order of ten thousand. A better term would be a “Myria Mosque” as myria- is the metric prefix for ten thousand. Of course, Daily Mail types should really be using the Imperial system, shouldn’t they?


Safe From Harm

3 July 2007

Ok, jokes aside, I’d like to cast a more serious eye over Friday’s and Saturday’s attacks. We are told, by the leader of The Times, no less, that it was a:

Lucky escape for London

This weekend could have been very different. Instead of relief at the narrow escape London had in the early hours of Friday, we would have been mourning the death and destruction bombers had brought to the capital. And perhaps Glasgow airport too.

Well, were we lucky? How close were we to carnage and 200-foot fireballs and mass annihilation? Well, thanks to the laws of physics, not very much:

Yes, it could have been a real horror. Only, the device could not have detonated. Not under any circumstances. You see, the terrorist wannabe clown who built it left out a crucial element: an oxidiser. The device was pure pre-teen boy fantasy.

“We’ll heat up these propane cylinders with burning petrol, and they’ll go off like bombs”, boys the world over have remarked with glee. They don’t realise that air is a poor oxidiser, and the only “explosion” they will get is when gas pressure inside the cylinders is great enough to burst them. Then the propane will ignite, and a nice fireball will blossom. A fireball, not an explosion.

Oh, the Piccadilly fireball would have blown the car’s windows out, and popped its doors open, and sent various bits like mirrors and so forth into the air at velocities possibly fatal to people nearby. It would have looked really cool, that’s for sure. But an explosive event…a detonation? Not in a million years. Sorry lads: you failed car bombing 101; you did not attend a single lecture; you did not even open the textbook.

If you prefer your analysis slightly more sober, then the security analysts at Stratfor come to a similar conclusion:

The devices were incendiary, not explosive, meaning they were capable of causing intense flames, but little concussive force. Though a firebomb can be dangerous to people and damaging to structures in the immediate vicinity, it is less likely to damage buildings or cause casualties than a blast caused by high explosives. Although gasoline vapors can cause a powerful explosion, it is difficult to create a viable improvised fuel-air explosive device.

And indeed on top of the laws of physics, we can also thank the laws of health and safety, which mean that propane tanks don’t vent when subject to a few seconds’ flame, nor do cars suddenly set alight and explode if you light some burning petrol underneath them. No doubt the likes of Jeremy Clarkson will be applauding our legislators and our European counterparts for such foresight. I’ll even stray into pure speculation briefly – one of the reasons why this tactic may work better in Iraq (which everyone says is the inspiration for this latest attack) is that the cars and gas tanks there are older and less well-maintained and thus more flammable than the ones here. Maybe I’m wrong on that front, though.

Anyway, moving away from the means to the end they wished to achieve. To be sure, they were in one way, intended to be highly destructive and to cause a great loss of life. Yet it wasn’t even the execution that was botched, but destined to fail from the very start; the very intent of the bombs was what caused it to fail in the first place. Some words from Jamie K:

Something odd has happened to the al-Qaeda and affiliates’ decision making loop at least out on the fringes of its area of activity. Up to the 7/7 attacks you could see a pattern emerging; mass casualty events on or utilising transport and communications networks, undertaken through established methods ? highjackings , for instance? and using tried and tested forms of explosive.

Now the attacks themselves seem to combine the ludicrously apocalyptic with the ridiculously amateurish and the targeting strategy either makes no sense from a warfighting point of view (the Ministry of Sound) or is impossibly ambitious (ten airliners blown up simultaneously).

(Admittedly these were made before the Glasgow attack, which was at least aimed at an airport, but even then they chose the relatively soft target of a departure lounge rather than a key piece of infrastructure)

Over at Bruce Schneier’s excellent blog, there has been much talk of the past of “movie plot threats” (e.g.). Two years ago, he claimed “Terrorists Don’t Do Movie Plots” but since then he’s changed his tune a little, in the aptly-timed “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot“, dicussing a recent non-plot to blow up JFK Airport:

The alleged plan, to blow up JFK’s fuel tanks and a small segment of the 40-mile petroleum pipeline that supplies the airport, was ridiculous. The fuel tanks are thick-walled, making them hard to damage. The airport tanks are separated from the pipelines by cutoff valves, so even if a fire broke out at the tanks, it would not back up into the pipelines. And the pipeline couldn’t blow up in any case, since there’s no oxygen to aid combustion. Not that the terrorists ever got to the stage — or demonstrated that they could get there — where they actually obtained explosives. Or even a current map of the airport’s infrastructure.

But read what Russell Defreitas, the lead terrorist, had to say: “Anytime you hit Kennedy, it is the most hurtful thing to the United States. To hit John F. Kennedy, wow…. They love JFK — he’s like the man. If you hit that, the whole country will be in mourning. It’s like you can kill the man twice.”

If these are the terrorists we’re fighting, we’ve got a pretty incompetent enemy.

The doolally idiocy has now spread to the other side; now the terrorists, no doubt given succour by how scaremongering politicians and journalists who portray them as the greatest threat to humanity, are now all too happy to fall for the lie, to be seduced by a dream of victory through Hollywood-style spectaculars and the bad movie physics that go along with them.1 So much for backwards medievalism, instead they are all too happy to be inspired by Western narratives; as John Gray has on occasion discussed, the acts that al-Qaeda perpetrate today are thoroughly modern in both their outlook and execution.

It’s our version of The Onion’s “After 5 Years In U.S., Terrorist Cell Too Complacent To Carry Out Attack” – except rather than complacency in decadence and laziness, the bombers are complacent in their ignorance of even the most basic scientific and physical principles, coupled with delusions of their own efficacy. This is a particularly stark reflection of modern Britain, worth a thousand hand-wringing pieces on dumbing down by journalists barely capable of stringing a sentence together themselves.

Of course, there may be other factors at hand here; the Stratfor article also notes how the British government have tightened the controls on other means of creating explosives meaning they have had to resort to ever-more improbable means (“liquid bombs” on airliners etc.). There’s even been the odd question that it might have involved an agent provocateur – here’s Jamie K again:

I can?t help thinking as well that counter-terrorism operations usually involve infiltration at decision making levels and to maintain the credibility of the infiltrator it then becomes necessary to permit certain terrorist actions to take place. Given al-Qaeda?s liking for mass casualty attacks, that raises certain difficulties. But you could square that circle by promoting attacks which by their very nature you know won?t succeed.

I won’t go there, interesting as it is and given past governments’ records on infiltrating terrorist organisations (and current concerns that some terrorism cases in the US may have involved entrapment) not absolutely implausible.

Instead, I’ll finish by reflecting on the sober and quiet reaction of the new Prime Minister and Cabinet to the attacks. There’s no John Reid or David Blunkett getting hysterical about the threat, no insecure Tony Blair hell-bent on showing his strength by coming up with rushed, absurd new laws. Instead there is a quiet resolve to get the job done without panicking the population unnecessarily, and by God it’s refreshing. I don’t think removing the climate of fear will simply remove the threat of terrorism, and it is definitely not a task that the Government alone is responsible for, but every effort to detoxify the air of needless fear which pollutes the debate and emboldens terrorists is a good one, and one that makes me feel, well, a little bit safer.

1 As a footnote – the other day, after watching the appalling Cliffhanger with Sylvester Stallone and John Lithgow, which features a slowly-descending helicopter suddenly bursting into flame the second it makes contact with the ground – Tom and I have tried to think up the most ridiculous “thing blowing up when you shoot it” scenario a film could do. Our current best effort so far is a ten-ton lorry carrying a load of fire extinguishers; if you can do better, then send it in.


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