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Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

This blog has been defunct for over two years, since just before I came back to the UK from Japan. In that time I’ve lucked into a job with a media firm, moved to London despite my reservations, got a better job title, moved from the West to the East End, got another job title, worked some interesting projects, fallen in like with London, and just now got picked up for a job in a major game studio to manage content and write.

I’ve just finally sent off a TV pilot to my now-ex-boss. It’s something I’ve been working on for way too long, and I’m king of hoping I can just shelve it and finally move on to something else. I’ve got a script for a kids’ book, written in the pub in a state of abject disbelief. I’m working on an interactive argument in the closed Varytale beta.

I’ve learned a hell of a lot: in the media production trade, and in knowing where I want to end up, off in the distance. And the other day I caught myself asking myself – does the future seem nearer, now that I know roughly what I want and how to get there? Which seems more distant – a dream life you’re just waiting to happen to you, or a dream life you know you’re going to have to work for?

But working is normal life for me – everything else is just leisure. I don’t generally work for the weekend, and god knows I spend enough weekends working. Work’s not the space of my life I rent out to someone else – except on the most boring of projects. That’s why I’m so lucky to have had a decent job the last two years, where the gigs were interesting and there was space for me to work on my own projects. Now I’m walking away from that job, hopefully another step towards getting myself to a place where I get to think and write all day. Where there’s no longer any boundary between job-work and my-work.

So in that spirit I’m going to start writing here again, and try to get some personal branding up in this piece. It’s been a hard enough road to get a big games company to hire someone internal for a content role – to help make the cake, instead of just icing it. Getting known for writing interactive experiences isn’t exactly a carefully-hewn career path.

I don’t know whether I’ll keep posting on this blog – I certainly look back on some of those posts from when I was in Japan with some embarrassment. I’ll at least try to keep my sentence clause-count down in future. I was talking to a friend yesterday about looking back on your past self. It’s an odd feeling to know your 17-year-old-self would be kind of relieved to see your settled, reasoned life now. Because of course it’s a huge betrayal, a monumental compromise, that you no longer felt things so raw as you once did. But even compromise has to be worked at, and that’s something you don’t seem to understand when you’re a kid. You have to work at it every day.

Everything has a meaning or nothing has. To put it another way, one could say that art is without noise.

– Roland Barthes, Image… Music… Text…

That’s quoted in Gaiman/Mckean’s Signal to Noise, which is about compromise unto death, and film as an inherently compromised artform. (And was written by a prolific and highly effective collaboration, part fusion and part fight for atttention). Now, I believe games can be art. But because of the way they’re typically made, the sheer number of people involved and generally speaking the absence of a dictatorial figure, in some ways they are the noisiest of media, most prone to flaws and disappointments despite themselves.

Every aspect of a game is meaningful to someone involved in it, whether it’s the low-pixel area of the Skybox put by a coder to save memory, or the absence of a save point insisted on by the designer to keep it ‘Hardcore’. Or the shoddy dialogue written in Crunch at four in the morning. Now I’m planning to join that noise, and to try to help work it. We’ll see how that goes. At least I’m still not short of uncertainty, or ridiculously high hopes. 17-year-old is still hanging on somewhere.

like that and more so


		
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phillipeTwo interesting cases in honourable press mendacity.

1. The Daily Beast’s tempestuously appealing nympho-con Meghan McCain (yes, that one) argues that the Sanford sex scandal shouldn’t be enough to ruin a promising politician’s career

2. The revelation that the NYT and the Wikipedia executive purposefully suppressed news of reporter David Rohde’s kidnapping by the Taliban for seven months. Both cast interesting light on all my previous talk of news fragmentation, and the end of message control, especially in relation to Prince Harry’s secret military service in Afghanistan.

[Let me say now that what’s missing from the previous times I’ve written about Harry’s service is the acknowledgment that press silence could have saved the scion’s life, and almost certainly didsave the lives of soldiers around him.]

Meghan McCain first: a man who could have been president has been destroyed. Newsweek’s Ick Watch [and thousands of others] have copies of the emails sent to a mistress in Argentina by Sanford. I cite Ick Watch (and I’m not linking to it) because reading them does make your stomach turn a little: not in the grimy vein of Joyce’s letters to Nora Barnacle; because they are extremely intimate, thoughtful and slightly defeated love letters. Search if you must but frankly it’s none of our business precisely what he wrote, even if you believe that what he does in his spare time is our business.

Alternatively, read them and take a minute to consider what kind of a modern president would have written such cliche-defying personal confessions.

cake sniper diesel sweeties

Image from dieselsweeties.

Grasshoppers and bees

Meghan McCain, then. [Beast gave her the headline “Forgive Mark Sanford”, which doesn’t make much sense given her argument.] She argues in a balanced way something which I’ve always put in cruder terms:

“I don’t know if it’s the fact that I am younger, or that just have a more open-minded view of politicians and sex, but it’s of very little concern to me who elected officials sleep with.” via Daily Beast

The counterargument hinged, and always will, upon some connexion between personal morals and the capacity to rule a state. The way I’ve stated a similar opinion to Ms. McCain’s in the past, in case you’re interested, is “I honestly don’t care if they have a [willing] harem out back of the White House, so long as they’re a competent statesman”.

But then in the past I’ve spouted other such gems as “politicians almost always have more in common with other politicians of any party or philosophy than they do with you and me”. Hunter S. Thomspon would tell us that these are people for whom power is already better than sex, and that this is what has driven them to the top. Frankly, what goes on in the secret swimming pool concerns me much less than pretty much any other aspect of any politician’s personal life.

The other argument, of course, is that infidelity compromises a politician, whether through a) the machinations of robo-soviet Deceptasluts [see yesterday’s post on Transformers 2] or b) through simple tabloid vulnerability.

The former may seem obsolete but may actually be more difficult to deal with: never mind the buzzsheets, maybe what Americans should worry about regarding the Sanford affair is not that the Senator had a sordid affair with a foreign national, but that he had an apparently very committed, devoted affair with a foreign national.

As for the latter argument against political droit de seigneur, Ms. McCain along with many others points out that the logic of the argument is is circular as well as hypocritical. If nobody cared then nobody would care, and so on. The press stimulates outrage, then announces a duty to inform outrage, then stimulates outrage, etcetera.

“WHY,” politicians the world over must scream into their pillows, “why can Berlusconi get away with it and we can’t? Even Sarko gets to have a little bitta-bitta on his funky somethin’, and his constituents greet it with frank congratulations at his short-guy chutzpah. Journalists don’t wonder aloud whether Carla Bruni might be a Bulgarian spy, and even if she was they’d still come flocking to her, pantalons akimbo!”

Of course, it’s not particularly tempting to suggest suppressing this kind of news, even in order to give the public a bit of self-respect and probably grant politicians a little more time in their day. After all, the attempt to suppress these stories is what gives these storiesthem prurient fury in the first place. Newspapers certainly aren’t going to let go of their more-or-less even chance to ruin any politician they really want to, in some sort of crusade for more meta morals.

American politicians will have to wait till the American public stops taking things so seriously, which will be a while. Of course, in Britain we take fewer things less seriously than our politicians, which comes with a different set of problems. Sordid revelations of a sex scandal are more likely to have a disarmingly humanising effect on the public’s perception of a politician, especialy if they turn out to make a habit of sex while wearing a Chelsea FC shirt.

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Incendiary or bigot

David Rohde next: chatter on Tweetmeme ran the gamut from wholehearted endorsement to tentative endorsement of the NYT and especially Wikipedia’s decision to suppress news of the reporter’s capture in order to downplay his value as part of a negotiation strategy.This involved Wikipedia in a long campaign of sustained deletes against a anonymous contributor in Florida, who was determined t make the news public and who may or may not now wear a tinfoil hat.

First, unrestrained applause must go to Rhodes and his translator Tahir Ludin for their bravery and sacrifice. Reading about this amazing business has made me reconsider my phrasing, if not necessarily my argument, on the numerous times I’ve talked about Prince Harry in Afghanistan. Whatever you think about Harry having a “right to serve” in a combat area, the British Army decided to send him. And having been told that, you, a major press editor, understand that you would put him and others in danger if you publish the story.

It can be argued that publishing all kinds of news puts people in danger, especially these days in Iran. It can be argued that Harry’s presence itself put the men around him in danger. But those decisions are already made and you, the news publisher, only have the option of publishing the Harry story or sliding it down a crack in the sofa cushions.

I certainly won’t dispute the rightness of the NYT’s decision. No doubt it was easier to convince other news outlets because a fellow journalist was in trouble, and because the Gray Lady would be able to make any other outlet which broke the story look boorish.

The Wikipedia argument is a bit more interesting: who are Wikipedia execs to say whether a Wikipedia article may cost a man his life? TechCruch are fully behind the decision, distancing themself from prim-hysterical “information wants to be free” arguments, while Mashable raise the issue of suppression being anti-wiki and then more or less dismiss it, given that lives were at stake.

I suppose what I want to say is that I have oversimplified. In the past I talked about the Harry thing in terms of media, not people’s lives. Of course, plenty of other people were going to talk about bravery and suchlike. But I also took the Harry thing as the straw which was going to break the back of institutional media. Today we’ve seen yet another straw, one which will contribute to the slow fragmentation of the camel’s back, if you’ll forgive the unfortunately straitened metaphor.

What I should have said is that sooner or later it would be impossible to keep stories like these under wraps, for however good a reason. In the meantime I want to see the inevitable movie adaptation include the character of the Florida-based anonymous Wikipedia editor, posting and posting against a Wikioppressor, convinced that he is right and that being right is all you need.

Man is in love and loves what vanishes,

What more is there to say? The country round

None dared admit, if such thought were his,

Incendiary or bigot could be found

To burn that stump on the Acropolis

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So, imagine:

You’re the guy JJ Abrams comes to and says “we’re going to make a new Star Trek”.

And you say No!                                        No.

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No.

No. no. no. why? no.

And he says “wait, hear me out,  it’s not what you think. It’s not just an extended episode of Next Gen. It’s a pseudo-definitive prequel!”

And you say NOOOO. No. no.

No. no. no no. Stop. No.

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And then he makes you the guy who has to write the damn thing, and make sure it isn’t an unwatchable piece of filmwork. And you have to get paid a huge amount of money, and go on the witness protection program, and take your inspiration from fanfiction in order to write the plot of a film which auto-retcons itself out of canon, and then you see it made and see Zachary Quinto cast as Spock.

I can think of far worse jobs.

X-Men 2006 character list deadpool movie

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I twittered a while back about how it’s not necessarily the desire to experiment, or even god help us the desire to update beloved properties that irritates their fans so much.

It’s not just that it’s a Star Trek movie, nor even that it’s a prequel, though that does take some chutzpah. No, it’s the fact that it’s not Star Trek: Verb Adjective. It’s supposed to be the Star Trek. It’s pretending to be definitive. You can’t call it Transformers: Thought Experiment or GI Joe: What If? because then normal people wouldn’t go see it. Apparently.

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Similarly the trailer for Guy Ritchie’s Guy Ritchie: Sherlock Holmes by Guy Ritchie. [Embedding disabled by request] You can’t call it Sherlock Holmes: The case of the hypermasculine reimagining, because then it wouldn’t fit on a billboard, and 18-30s would get bored saying the title before they finished their sentence, and it wouldn’t be deliciously presumptuous and naughty.

Now, I’ve been told by people whose opinion I respect that Ritchie’s new drug-sniffing dog-bashing Holmes is evil, and wrong. And admittedly after several watchings the trailer gets old and you see that it probably isn’t going to be very good. But not on principle. I went to see Star Trek with a friend who knew very little about Star Trek, being exclusively a Voyager fan. (Hmm. Maybe my parents are right, and I do automatically limit my friend groups to people above a certain threshold of nerdiness.)

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We were in, bliss of blisses, a completely empty theatre so we could make fun of it just enough, and we both walked out having enjoyed it about the same amount, which was quite a lot. I was quite glad I briefed her on the Kobayashi Maru while we were biking over, though it would have been an interesting litmus test if I hadn’t, as I think that bit would have made little sense if you didn’t know what it was all about.

The bit with the Kobayashi Maroo [come on, guys, Japanese pronunciation please] was the closest the movie got to a concession to the fans, since it was hard to follow if you were a non-fan. As geeky archetypes go, Kobayashi Maru is both a shibboleth and a means of feeling exclusive. It’s like Mornington Crescent: you’re either in the know, or you’re not.

superkiss superman lois lane kiss

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Now, I should point out that my nerdly understanding stems from nerd anthropology. I may well have seen fewer episodes of Star Trek than the friend I went with. I certainly remember few enough. I realised only recently that it was actually always my mum’s decision that we watched Next Generation with tea after school: she exerted so little preference pressure but it always happened. Same with Farscape and later, more transparently, SG-1. I don’t think even she could have thought of herself as someone who could be a sci-fi fan, and it fact it may be the glorious @betterthemask who finally brings out that side of my mum in time to become a boxset obsessive when she retires.

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truffleshuffle300fm2No, I actually prefer to read Fans! and to read Wikipedia articles about comic books and TV shows, more than I actually enjoy watching or reading the things themselves. I love being able to dip into incredibly hard-wrought expertise, feel the obsessive passion that drives it through the opaque, wry reserve of Wikipedia house style.

You can literally hear the shouts of exultation and the hours of devotion that go into the restrained superlative of Wikipedia pages on James T. Kirk or Rand al’Thor or, for that matter, Michael Jordan. That stuff is like crack to me. I take an interest, because I’m interested in obsessives and in characters with intricate backstories. Whereas my friend who loves Voyager cannot call herself a Star Trek fan.

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From the Youtube comments on the Star Trek trailer:

Alturiste (2 days ago)           Reply    Spam

Section 31

So, because I’m a fan of only 2 of the 5 other series and because I perhaps haven’t read as many Trek books as you, that makes me a “lesser fan”? What you seem to want do to is impose your own preferences on everyone else. THAT is contradictory to the spirit of Trek.

Don’t make yourself out to be “better” by doing a Nazi-like imposition of your values on other people. If you didn’t like the movie, we can agree to disagree, fine. But don’t demean people who don’t share your taste.

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What I loved about the Abrams Star Trek was that it was clever, satisfying, and that with relatively little contrivance it made itself into a grinning, joyful piece of fan fiction. It mocked its own pretensions of being authoratative, it reveled in slash, it happened in an alt-universe.

Of course, time traveling is cheating. But thank god they didn’t make too much of a meal of it, and thank god it wasn’t the other two much worse premises in the fan fiction trifecta: mind control and fucking Q.

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Don’t let the trailer fool you, it is of course Spock’s story. The Kirk of what will come to be known as Star Trek [2009] disqualifies himself early on as a piece of Gladwell-esque psychological thought-experimentation.

He’s barely there at the movie’s centre to begin with, poor chap, and then we discover that he’s only an idea of what might have been?

greedo shot first

Of course it’s not going to please people. Like chess, bemani or amateur dramatics, Star Trek doesn’t drive sane people mad: it keeps mad people able to interact with the world in a normal, if narrow way. It may be that my friend is unwilling to refer to herself as a trekker (see, I know the right terminology) because trekkers themselves have made it such an all-or-nothing thing.

Extremist fans, figures of easy media pantomiming, have made Star Trek seem like an impenetrable, no-love-for-casuals world. As fans will, their stories are dominated by searches for their own authenticity, claims to definitiveness. Janeway is Satan. DS9 is rubbish. The original series alone is pure. The Abrams Star Trek credits had a “Vulcan and Romulan Language Consultant”, for goodness’ sake.

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(They also had a team of five “Inferno Artists”. How I would love to be able to put that on my passport. Speaking of which: Klingons are conspicuously completely absent from the new film: perhaps they realised that fandom defines itself by its villains, and that they could never modern-gloss klingons to look anything but ridiculous.

I want to see a word-for-word adaptation of Larry Niven’s Ringworld. That’s what I want.)

darth vader whistler's mother

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Another friend of mine was very happy to see Terminator 4, and ambivalent on Transformers 2, but utterly opposed to seeing Star Trek. Not because it was a dumb action movie; it was a dumb action movie with pointy ears. Never mind that Terminator is based on a painfully dated pair of superbly clever but inaccessible action movies (and a regrettable, forgettable third movie).

Those films had Arnie, which makes them acceptable popcorn fodder. If I’d banged on and on about how the first two movies were smart and interesting, I would probably have made the fourth film seem less like a fun night out at the movies. Not because my friend is a moron (she isn’t) but because now-gen blockbuster remakes come with a context and a reputation which they cannot escape, and which determines their branding.

Consumers have remarkably sensitive ideas of context for films: a mere six-month trailer campaign can completely buzz a movie, so what did you think forty years of very grounded, personal pre-jusdgment would do?

The producers of the ’09 Star Trek can strip down the uniforms and cut out the Klingons, but they can’t make it not to boldly go, and so wisely didn’t try.

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Transformers is also difficult because it’s obviously a “known quantity”, but can probably be pigeonholed into “idiot 80’s kids’ stuff revival”, and hence is not completely worthless since X-Men worked. And the Transformers have been subject to brilliant and, more importantly, thorough re-imagining.

The Transformers are barely there in their first film: they are essentially talking firearms. It’s hard to believe that in the comics they’re there in fully realised personality: in one comic there’s an entire pastiche of the detective genre played out exclusively by transforming robots.

This same friend of mine would probably find the idea of a GI Joe movie nothing but comical and interesting, but would never in a million years go to see an Action Man or, worse, a Stretch Armstrong movie. It’s all context. It fascinates me that she didn’t put LOTR in the same vein, nor the new Star Wars trilogy:

“yeah, well, the nerds when we were kids didn’t like Star Wars”, she said. Her reason for not wanting to see Star Trek was the image in her mind of two nerdy trekkies from her school days. One is pretty much normal now. The other, she says, is well weird.

Whoever marketed LOTR and, even better, X-men, deserved a medal for steering their properties out of the waters of fan exclusivity, of fringe. And god help whoever was at the helm of NCC-1701 Marketing, for having to sell a property that has always sustained itself by nicheing itself.

Marketing! damage report!

She cannae’ take no moore, Cap’n!

Simon Pegg probably helped. God damn it that they couldn’t find a Scottish actor, but he probably sold more seats than any other actor in the film. (Winona Ryder was in it and neither of us noticed, and Eric Bana is very good but unrecogniseable.)

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I’m increasingly losing patience for the idea of picking whether a film is good or bad. Especially using plot holes or general “plausibility” as a measure. It’s the most obvious means by which people who decide not to like a movie can justify themselves, and yet it’s so easily turned off. You just decide to like the movie. It’s not hard.

I would have to watch Star Trek another time and think very hard in order to decide whether or not it was a good film. And it doesn’t really matter to me anymore. Blockbusters are becoming harder and harder to judge; enjoyment is colliding with the sheer skill of screenwriters in adapting crackpot ideas. Some are obvious clangers: Terminator 4, by report. That, I would actually watch again, in order to determine what was bad about it.

But I know that I enjoyed Star Trek, that it was easy to enjoy, that the pacing was a little uneven, but no more. And I still enjoyed it. I know that it stretched the imagination a bit in order to get Star Fleet cadets on the bridge and in command time after time.  But I also know that the older-officer-incapacitated-so-cadet-has-to-take-charge scenario is the bread and butter of Star Trek metafiction novels.  So I can enjoy it at that level, too.

The desire for a film to be better should, I think, always involve an idea of how you would have made it better. For fans, anyway. Maybe it’s a sign that I’ll never have my dream scriptwriting job, that right now I can’t think of a better way to have done Star Trek, given the challenge of doing Star Trek.

Also, John Cho is fucking awesome as Sulu. Roll on Hollywood finally recognising the quantity of Asian talent in its midst.

away party

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nedroid-dk14

Apologies for the hiatus, a twitter obsession and a couple of weeks back in the UK got in the way. Mea Culpa.

Twitter: Beating that horse till it shines.

Twitter: Beating that horse like it’s going out of style.

I was thinking today about the informal lunches at the reuters Institute for Journalism which I went to in my last Uni year. I was invariably the youngest there by ten years and never understood why no other undergrads went and spent forty minutes eating free sandwiches and thinking up one half-intelligent question like I did.

During one discussion an American wire journalist, after being eagerly pressed on the subject, admitted that she knew of a story about one of the ’08 Democratic candidates that was being sat on by agencies, and that would probably come out after the nomination. At another one the speaker, a regrettably unedited Mail on Sunday columnist, mentioned with the air of a soused conjuror that he knew a big story involving one of the Royals, which would come out in the next four to six months.

It seems likely (so far) that the American story was Edwards’ affair, which barely lasted two tittilated news cycles after being masterfully massaged in between two bigger stories. The Royal one, it’s obvious in hindsight, was Prince Harry’s service in Afghanistan which I’ve written about repeatedly and with which I began my bloody thesis (which I am going to take out and bury when I get back to the UK).

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The first time I realised what the stories had been it felt weird, that I’d been sat so close to someone who had such a secret, like I’d walked by someone with a curse or a gleam upon them. It wasn’t just the secret, but the fact that they had taken the soldierly decision to respect their bosses’ decisions to hold the story, and trusted in their fellow professionals worldwide to make the same decision and not to seek to profit individually. Until Drudge kicked that in the paint; then all bets were off.

I’ve been interested in this notion of political secret-keeping since: it has arguments either way in terms of profitability and especially in terms of where journalists’ Duty lies.

But a while ago I said, with a confidence I don’t think is totally unreasonable, that those arguments are moot. Nothing the size of the Harry story could ever be sat on again, and governments would know it. Put simply, journalists simply wouldn’t trust each other, or at least not their lusty, Self-Promotion Generation citizen journo colleagues, one of whom, sooner or later, is going to get invited into the Clubroom.

In a sense, secrets being so difficult to keep nowadays might make things simpler all round, and a story today may reflect that: I twittered this Beast article on US General Anthony Zinni’s remarks on “The end of war as we know it”.

The General focused on preparing the armed forces for a future of largely non-military activities as part of long-term occupations of failed states. Intervention in failed states has been the norm of NATO warfare since the early nineties, but the American armed forces are probably least optimized for it:

“When we touch something, we own it,” Zinni said, taking Colin Powell’s quote, ‘When we break something, we own it,’ one step further. “And when we own it, we can’t help rebuilding it in our own image. That’s the American way. But we’re not good at it and we can’t afford it.” –via Phillip Knightley

What has this to do with Prince Harry, media, or eating townspeople for that matter? Nothing much. But the subtext of Zinni’s comments was to begin the process of preparing Americans for wars with no victory scenario, for Forever Wars, an effort I find strangely heartening.

I’ve been reading William Safire’s superb book on the Nixon Administration, Before the Fall, and Safire’s disappointed, relentlessly even-handed admiration will carry you along with it, especially in his description of Nixon’s attempts to extricate the country from Vietnam “with Honor” and without the expected victory.

The Kissinger negotiations to end the war with the VC leadership were conducted under neurotic secrecy, an atmosphere which Safire sees as an early stage of the Watergate mentality. That need for secrecy involves a paradox: when negotiating with totalitarian regimes it’s best to assume they are reading the major newspapers your citizens publish. But you believe the regime to be ideologically too torpid to see the free policy discussion in your press as anything but a sign of weakness in the executive.

Therefore you have to stonewall or kill stories about the negotiations to make it look like you can run a tight ship, in order to deal with people who wouldn’t respect the captain of a pleasure cruise. Meanwhile of course you feel they, the enemy, reading your morning papers over your shoulder, in which thousands of column inches decry you as a warmonger who is making no effort to arrest the war and is pursuing an illusory victory.

Safire fairly points out that even if the negotiations with the VC had been made public it probably wouldn’t have stopped counterculture’s growth and self-determination as a besieging force around the White House.

But it may have stalled the cycle whereby the Nixon administration believed it needed to conceal the fact of negotiations from its own people in order to retain bargaining credibility with practiced propagandists, when at the same time it regularly publicly characterised its own outspoken press not by their obvious, easily-understood animosity to the President but with the far more serious, inaccurate and patently impotent charge of unpatriotism.

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So what business do I have talking about all this? The North Vietnamese leadership in the early ’70s probably had plenty of reasons to wish the negotiations kept secret on their end, which the American delegation had an obligation to respect.  But it’s where the Administration routinely mistook the need for confidentiality for disloyalty and pro-Communism among the press that their logic failed them, coloured by an outrage at being Shown Up in front of the Enemy. Branding their outspoken opponents as ‘unpatriotic’ undermined the ideal the government were supposed to be fighting for, and undermined their own propaganda in Vietnam by forgetting to respect America’s own freedom. The Nixon administration looked like a bitter, impotent Totalitarian regime instead of a capable, negotiated Democratic regime.

vietnam iraq propaganda poster

And that, tortuously, gets us back to Gen. Zinni and UK media, my actual, albeit self-appointed, expertise. As a preamble to his discussion of future war Zinni confidently asserted

“that there had already been backroom talks between the U.S. and the Taliban—“like Kissinger’s with the North Vietnamese”—and predicted that these would lead to formal negotiations by the end of the year.”

I had mixed reactions on first reading: if they are ‘backroom talks’, then surely mentioning them is bad, right? With his easy confidence of a settlement “with Honour”, is the General going off the reservation to reassure Americans while jeopardising American attempts to build a bargaining position with the Taliban?

I thought about fugitive terrorists in caves in North West Pakistan unfolding their New York Times and gaining- in Nixon’s acrid phrase- “aid and comfort” from the speculation of a General and the press responding to an obvious public need for any hope of a settlement.

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But then I remembered that terrorist cells are hardly likely to get their news from print. They will get it online, where it would be difficult to miss the hopes of thousands for unilateral withdrawal, the hopes of different thousands for more destruction. The hopes of millions for peace. Online, where it would be difficult for any government or military to suppress months of press rumours about backroom negotiations with the Taliban.

Maybe, just maybe, what Gen. Zinni’s comments show, if not a moment of dementia, is the beginnings of an easing of message control at all levels of American government. An institutional understanding that the modern newsreader is better equipped than she has ever been to doubt what she reads, to research elsewhere, to follow up with in depth reading, and theoretically, to make her own decision and communicate it to others.

Of course, when we’re talking about terrorists’ reading habits, it would be foolish to ignore the opposite argument: that some, if not all readers, presented with the wealth of varying testimony and speculation online, will self-polarise by only consuming news which confirms their opinions. cf. the growth of the Huffington Post.

Ah yes, the Sunstein Argument once again (who I will also one day bury).

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And after all, maybe the story about the Democratic candidate hasn’t even come out yet, and it’s huge and is going to destroy the government when it does. Maybe I entirely mistake the capacity of the government and press institutions to keep secrets.

But at least now we know, and governments should also know, that having one of your citizens call your Chief Executive a monkey or a nigger or a fascist on the internet is nothing to be ashamed of. That the enemies you’re trying to impress will every day read the two “sides” of your press call each other butchers and traitors, and present the same story in exactly opposite ways, and still nobody gets strung up for any of it. And the government still doesn’t fall. And sooner or later, that will come to see your country’s greatest asset as a strength, not a weakness.

And finally, those enemies will be finding it harder and harder to keep secrets from their people and to suppress even simple discussion online. Not only will they sympathise with your inability to keep secrets from your own people, they will hopefully come to admire it.

The internet makes a lot of things moot, and in doing so it can make things a lot simpler. By sheer weight of greed and numbers the keeping of ‘public secrets’ is moot. And the issue of whether you appear to be in command of discourse in your country is moot, in the sense that it only matters to totalitarians and the obsolete.

Here’s hoping.

the added advantage of being true

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Endorsionists

Photo post finally up at If it has a name know it.

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I would have loved to build up a portfolio of examples of Indian advertising, which is simultaneously more primitive and more advanced than anywhere else. The wit, the sex, the ubiquitous dead-eyed celebrity endorsionists, the absolute clarity of impulse; it all walks the line between maternally iron-clad prelapsarian filial values and sexual endorsement.

It may be the most advanced in the world, in terms of biological imperative

so to speak.

Incidentally, two superb books I read while I was there were Amruta Patil’s Kari and Ambarish Satwik’s Perineum: Nether Parts of Empire, neither of which can be too highly recommended. I’d hesitate to describe Kari as my discovery of indigenous Indian comic writing, as I think its near-unique use of image and word isn’t representative of a particularly Indian style but of an eclectic talent. It’s claustrophobic, densely sexual bed-time reading for copywriters, right at the edge of Indian modernit: Kari herself is like an angry, newly- sexually- disenfrachised superhero.

satwik1849_full_kari

Perineum could only have been written by a surgeon, and a Delhi one at that: it’s got a livid, twitching yet placid intelligence that’s only Indian. It’s essentially a collection of fictitious documents rather than a short-story collection, which is what drew me to it in the first place: a series of exercises in imitated style: formal and phatic, clinical and cruel, from every angle of the colonial equation and from every stage of conquest, and every morsel has an erogenous relish for the anatomical and a polyglotted ear for endlessly reinventive English, the kind you sometimes catch at the edge of Rushdie.

I was reading Fury on my flight back and enjoying it before I left it on the plane; and restraining myself from thinking terms like over-literate. I.e. I was stopping myself both from criticising the Rushdie of Fury’s vocal tic of constant referencing, and from trying to Uncle-Tom him with a puritannical preference for the alien, invented Indian English of Perineum.

Authenticity and its pursuit was already a perceptible undertow in this holiday: bought authenticity, pained-for authenticity, briefly-but-memorably interrogative authenticity. Doing hotels and travelling with ‘locals’, it was a great comfort to the ego of a former backpacker scum to observe Indian people with no particularly reverent sense of their country’s paradoxes, its disparities or its uncommodifiable Realness. An Indian can travel 200 miles within the country and be a foreigner in terms of language and tradition; he can hop over a wall and be in a different world in terms of economy and mores.

cat and girl bought authenticity

gaijin is still better than gweilo

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A place you’ll probably never go

Who’da thunk it? The Obama election has borne unexpected fruit: the rebirth of the ironic commercial.

Could this have run three months ago? To a public whose appetite was not yet salted by bass tones of wry, knowing polity? A public not yet used to having its base impulses gently ribbed then warmly embraced, Scranton-style? A public not yet confirmed in being suckers of a different stripe? Never mind Peoria, the new index of American consensus is a place you’ll probably never go.

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fists of irony

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ascension

eurionsvgOpen Letter to the Man, supplementary: the project to convince my local magazine employer to build a free forum. I’ve been spending time reading the legal contracts used by webhosting companies, particularly Bluehost. Now, if anyone has any advice or horror stories about choosing one hoster over another then I’d love to hear it, but I’ve spent far too long reading glowing endorsements on what turned out to be shell review sites to believe any host is going to be perfect. I’d settle for perfectly well-meaning, but it’s in the nature of legalese that these companies have already prepared themselves for abuses not yet thought of, and in doing so retain the kind of powers that would give the average Free Culture reader an aneurism.

Below is an extract from the ToA used by Bluehost, which seems to be fairly standard. The terms may be altered at any time without notice, and use or continued use of any of the company’s services constitutes aquiescence to the terms. Maybe it’s a mark of my generation that I found the inclusion of profanity surprising. It’s a very specific kind of freebooter ignorance: I can scroll through linear miles of images of truly awful things without batting an eyelid but I balk at the notion that someone might seriously try to limit the distribution of such things through their hardware and under their questionable legal “jurisdiction”.

Feel free to skim.

12. Child Pornography. The use of the Services to store, post, display, transmit, advertise or otherwise make available child pornography is prohibited. BlueHost.Com is required by law to, and will, notify law enforcement agencies when it becomes aware of the presence of child pornography on, or being transmitted through, the Services.

13. Other Illegal Activities. The use of the Services to engage in any activity that is determined by BlueHost.Com, in its sole and absolute discretion, to be illegal is prohibited. Such illegal activities include, but are not limited to, storing, posting, displaying, transmitting or otherwise making available ponzi or pyramid schemes, fraudulently charging credit cards or displaying credit card information of third parties without their consent, and failure to comply with applicable on-line privacy laws. BlueHost.Com will cooperate fully with appropriate law enforcement agencies in connection with any and all illegal activities occurring on or through the Services.

14. Obscene, Defamatory, Abusive or Threatening Language. Use of the Services to store, post, transmit, display or otherwise make available obscene, defamatory, harassing, abusive or threatening language is prohibited.

The whole hosting edifice works because no-one seriously expects hosts to ever really act upon the caveat emptor they supply. The companies are just covering their backs in case of the advent of an iPatriot Act, and leaving themselves room to exercise a common sense policy in the case of extreme misuse of the format. At least it’s an American company, and as such has a notion of the broadly positive terms of Fair Use, which legally empowers a common-sense approach that’s often assumed to also be enshrined in British Law, which of course it isn’t.

[Two sides to googling “fair use”: hundreds of Fat Boy Slim album torrents “defending Fair Use”, and the story of the star of his first album cover who sued for unlicensed use of image. The court ruled that because he was smiling in the picture, he had wanted to have his picture taken, thus constituting fair use. Thanks to Japanman.]

slim

An assumed ‘common-sense’ pseudopolicy, such as it is, is communicated in the Bluehost contract  where specific, severe abuses such as child abuse imagery or copyright infringement are referred to in earlier clauses, while the more catch-all terms like “profane material” come in later, shorter clauses impling a generalised right to refuse. Though it’s always the short clauses you have to watch out for.

Of course, if you don’t like it, you can buy your own server. Or don’t, and stay in a backwater, certain that you’re aware of every foreign or polluting current which enters your pond, and handle it as you see fit. My generation has been forced to concede that being aware of something, being able to speak its language, discuss it, even fictionalise it, does not necessarily convert you, make you an advocate, make you tainted by it.

Yet at the same time everyone familiar with the internet has seen the same natural cycle countless times: where any decent forum will eventually become more dimwitted and drama-ridden as more and more unknown entities arrive and start ‘fluencing the tone, till everyone good leaves. It’s even happening to the Achewood assetbar, long the preserve of intelligent yet weirdly uncritical enthusiasts. No matter how good it is, it’s only a few trolls away from degenerating into flaming rubbishness.

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One of the lesser-known Livejournal Wars came around the middle of last year when thousands of people woke up to find their groups and pages banned.  At the request of Warriors for Innocence Livejournal had instituted a new policy aimed at cracking down on “paedophiles and their sympathisers”, groups and individuals using it to trade “sexually abusive images and ideas”.

The policy, however, was to ban every account which listed keywords like rape and paedophilia in its interests or registered a high number of hits on those words, resulting in the banning of several rape support groups and numerous fiction and fanfic-writing and trading communities. Livejournal, vast hive of self-absorbed drama that it is, erupted in outrage and the parent company pressed the ‘back’ button a few days later, going back through each banned site individually to verify its use.

To paraphrase Jay-Z: when you argue with fools from a distance people can’t tell who is who. But though it’s easy to make fun of Livejournal’s squalling mass, its users were rightly enraged that short-sighted policy had lumped thousands of them in with a tiny minority of genuine mis-users. Such is the potential of censorship. We trust whoever arbitrates it to share our sense of decency. Or we don’t, of course.

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I’m trying to set up a local forum for English-speaking foreigners in Japan, because we have enough of a name in our city to try to get most of the local online gaijin conversation happening under our banner. I’ve talked to my boss a lot about the need for a clearly laid out moderation policy.

He’s already more or less vetoed the idea of having a Japanese language forum at the same domain, in part because he doesn’t want conversations he can’t understand perfectly happening in his backyard. He also vetoed the idea because he has doubts whether he’d find a native Japanese speaker with the same notions of ‘moderation’ as us, or who’d express them in the untranslatable subtleties of forum-speak in a way he or I would agree with or even recognise.

Though I don’t agree with everything he says, Will Hutton has shown that braving accusations of neo-yellow-perilism can pay off. Japan is a very foreign place, not least in its often mystifying, even clandestine politics and its confusion of earnest Western-style Okinawa hippies, disconsolate consumerist teenagers, radicals of every stripe.

Once when I was just entering my teens I asked my Dad whether China and Japan weren’t, basically, the same, and he told me why not in some detail. A couple of years later I opined that America was pretty much like Britain, only more so. “No,” my Dad said. “America is the most foreign place I’ve ever been”, which at the time included Japan, Europe, Scandanavia and much of the Middle East.

itchstudios-psyker

I started this blog to ask which seemed more distant, Japan or five years in the future? I’m pretty sure I have an answer, though not a very satisfactory one. Nothing will ever really be as foreign as the future, particularly when it comes to communications. But then, communication technology’s influence on the future is so unpredictable and so alien because that influence will increasingly be determined by people who ‘we’ in many ways do not understand.

The internet has exposed its values to people, making everything available free and without judgement. But that doesn’t mean that people are infected on exposure: you aren’t tainted, but you aren’t converted to a warts-and-all freedom-loving shareista. On English blogs the talk is always about forwards or backwards: whether the net will grow wild or be potted. But the real direction will be determined by people whose forums we can’t read or participate in. The truth is, right now the future is just as foreign as everyone else is.

ichi go ichi e

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PS. the thumbnail image I use for technology posts is the so-called EURion constellation, which features prominently in the floral decorations on Japanese banknotes. I would scan in a version to show, but, you know.

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