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Working poverty: beyond the breadline August 23, 2009

Posted by Rhian E Jones in Politics.
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As the recession continues to bite, commentators continue to scrap over which of us bears the most impressive teeth marks: part-time and temporary female workers, those stuck in Britain’s post-industrial wastelands, or the Eighties-redux ‘lost generation’? The media’s preoccupation with the recession’s impact on unemployment, rather than the wage cuts, increased workloads and greater insecurity heaped upon those still in work, has been reflected in the response of both main parties. Labour in particular have ramped up their championing of paid work as panacea, chivvying the jobless into employment in an increasingly bloody-minded fashion with no apparent concern for what awaits us there. This Stakhanovite drum-beating is at odds with the reality of both poverty and work in modern Britain.

Under Labour, the National Minimum Wage has had a positive effect on the gender pay gap and, together with Working Tax Credits, has significantly raised the incomes of millions of working households. However, the problems of working poverty persist and are only increasing under current conditions. A trawl through IPPR research shows that almost six in ten poor UK households have someone at work, more than ten percent up on a decade ago. In 2006, more than one-fifth of all UK workers were paid £6.67 an hour, equivalent to 60 per cent of full-time median earnings. Handwringing over increased unemployment obscures that section of the population who cannot sufficiently stretch their wages to cover their cost of living, and who endure conditions which can be as stressful and soul-destroying as the full-time search for a job. The modern worker is subject not merely to financial hardship but also to insecurity, long hours, low pay, exploitation and sexual and racial harassment. The TUC’s Commission on Vulnerable Employment reports that over two million people endure “intolerably poor” working lives. As UK unions have been systematically defanged, so protection from increasingly unscrupulous employment practices has been undermined or disregarded. In addition, any party which aims at the emancipation of labour must recognise that material security, and the space and energy it grants us, is a cornerstone of creative and intellectual fulfillment. An insidious effect of working poverty, and the relentless, low-level grinding routine which accompanies it, is its theft of mental as well as physical resources.

Concentrating on driving us into work at any cost, Labour ignores that work is not a guaranteed escape from poverty. There has been little debate on what would constitute a fair wage, or what combination of regulation and support should be available to workers and employers. In politics and media, the issues of low pay, bad conditions, and the many inadequacies of Tax Credits and other attempts to tinker with the basic injustice of wages which fail to keep pace with the cost of living, are overshadowed by issues surrounding the jobless or those in long-term receipt of benefits. While the latter group are sensationalised and demonised, the working poor are almost entirely absent from the arena of debate, and too busy or exhausted to shoulder our way into the spotlight.

This is a situation in which resentment is effortlessly bred, and in which it is easy to lose sight of what unites us. The Labour Party was founded on a desire to prioritise the needs and interests of workers, and, in today’s neo-Victorian socio-economic landscape, these ideals are once again glaringly relevant. Labour must accept that a job is currently not enough to secure a reasonable standard of living, nor is it a safeguard against exploitation, stress and insecurity. Government policies on wages, taxes, credits and benefits must acknowledge the existence of working poverty, identify the problems inherent in employment alongside those of unemployment, and devote a similar amount of resources to tackling them. When the working poor are able to live rather than existing, Labour will have succeeded not only in regaining the support of a core demographic, but also in making employment an appealing prospect in itself rather than a dead-end into which it is obliged to force us under threat of destitution.

The Blind Commissioner: twenty-five years of police, press and popular protest June 18, 2009

Posted by Rhian E Jones in Politics.
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The coverage of April’s G20 protests has been marked by an unprecedented level of public acknowledgement of unprovoked police violence, not only towards the uninvolved Ian Tomlinson but also towards peaceful protestors at the Bishopsgate climate camp. Press reports and online discussion forums have been awash with buzzwords like ‘kettling’, as well as displaying outrage, shock or sheer bafflement at the death at police hands of an unarmed and unthreatening individual. An exacerbating factor in this indigation has been the initial media coverage, which painted those present as violent anarchists and repeated false police claims that their efforts to help Tomlinson had been hampered by missile-throwing protestors. For many, the death of Tomlinson has involved a shattering of faith in police ability to protect citizens and maintain order, and in the media’s readiness to report their conduct objectively.

But police brutality during public disturbances is nothing new, and neither is the tendency of mainstream media outlets to repeat uncritically police claims of provocation or antagonism by demonstrators. Tales of disproportionate and unprovoked violence against participants have circulated around every major industrial, environmentalist, economic and anti-capitalist demonstration of the past thirty years. Such claims, even when backed by eyewitness accounts and amateur recorded footage, have struggled to be heard over media and government insistence on eulogising police conduct, and it is this that is perhaps the most novel aspect of coverage of the G20 protests.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, an event which saw an extraordinary and now largely-forgotten level of government-sanctioned violence by police against a large section of the populace. The material and emotional investment in the strike by miners and their supporters led to highly-charged confrontations with police on picket lines up and down the country. The use against strikers of riot shields, truncheons and police horses and dogs became commonplace; restrictions were placed on freedom of movement as miners travelling to solidarity pickets were stopped en route and turned back or arrested. The mass picket of Orgreave coking plant in June 1984 saw, for the first time in Britain, the use of Police Support Units carrying not the normal full length protective shield used to guard against missiles, but short shields that could be used aggressively in conjunction with batons. These units acted as ‘snatch squads’, following charges of the crowd by mounted police and beating or arresting individuals – a tactic developed for use in riots by colonial police forces in Hong Kong.

Press and television coverage of such clashes was almost uniformly hostile to the strikers. When broadcasting footage of Orgreave, the BBC, incredibly, transposed the sequence of events, making it appear that police cavalry charges had been a defensive response to antagonism by stone-throwing pickets rather than an act of aggression. Only in 1991 did the BBC issue an apology for this, claiming that its action footage had been ‘inadvertently reversed’.

The tactics used in the Miners’ Strike were also in evidence during the mass protests in 1990 at the imposition of the Poll Tax. On 31 March a march and rally involving 200,000 people degenerated into some of the worst rioting seen in central London as a result of police ineptitude and overreaction. Following the rally, riot police attempted to clear Whitehall of marchers, despite both their retreat and advance being blocked by further lines of police. As scuffles broke out and members of the public became caught up with demonstrators, mounted police charged protestors and riot vans were driven into the crowd. Nearly 5,000 people, mostly civilians, were injured. Media coverage of the protest ignored the extent of police aggression and instead followed police and government leads in blaming the violence on anarchist elements – a claim disproved the following year by a police inquiry. At the trials of arrested demonstrators, police video itself was influential in acquitting many defendants, suggesting that police had fabricated or inflated charges and confirming doubts about policing styles developed during the 1980s.

As the ideology and operation of protest adapted to a changed political arena after the end of the Cold War, policing evolved towards a policy of containment and suppression. The ‘kettling’ technique used outside the Bank of England at G20 was used against participants in London anti-capitalist demonstrations as early as 1999. At May Day protests in 2001, police corralled 3,000 people, including uninvolved bystanders, in Oxford Circus for 8 hours. Those inside the cordon were denied access to food, water, medicine and toilet facilities and had their details and images recorded before being released. This tactic has since been used at several demonstrations to control, subdue and gain personal information about protesters, despite police having the extraordinarily limited power simply to stop and search in anticipation of violence. 

The significance of G20, then, lies not in the policing of the demonstration itself, but in the channels available for its reporting and consequent public awareness. G20 was notable for the amount of press and amateur reporters participating in and observing the protests, as well as interested civilians armed with cameras and mobile phones. One of the latter, a New York businessman, provided the video of the police assault of Tomlinson shown on the Guardian‘s website.

It is this broadened and democratised arena of reporting that has made the greatest difference to coverage of police at protests. The initial press opprobium directed at bottle-throwing anarchists altered swiftly and dramatically under the weight of contradictory evidence, producing an extraordinary consensus of opinion on the Tomlinson case from across the political spectrum. The variety and sheer number of observers, as well as their access to media outlets such as YouTube, has enabled the public presentation of an ‘insider’ view of police actions, increasing the power of protestors to expose previously unknown or disputed police practices and to challenge subsequent press denials or misrepresentation. Despite the tragedy of Tomlinson’s death, G20 may yet provide an opportunity to unite public opinion in favour of greater police accountability and media transparency.

The police: force or service? June 18, 2009

Posted by Rhian E Jones in Politics, Scepticism.
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In the UK, the existence of a police force is symbiotically entwined with the growth of industrial capitalism, and one cannot be analysed without reference to the other. Put simply, the spur for the formation of the modern police force in the early nineteenth century was the desire to protect the property of corporations and private individuals. Prior to its establishment, local and national authorities had recourse to troops, local militias and government informants in their attempts to combat crime, riot and disorder. This system was unable to cope with the effects of social and economic changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, which also marked the country’s transformation into a primarily capitalist economy. Calls were made for improving law and order as traditional communities broke down and formerly feudal or migrant agricultural workers settled in large numbers around the new industrialising and urbanising centres. In these areas, growing social division between employers and employed, poor living and working conditions, and the appropriation of common land by private owners, generated widespread protest and unrest, petty crime, industrial sabotage, and nascent union activity. The mass return of soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars, who were largely homeless, unemployed and often disabled by injuries, exacerbated civil disorder. The newly-created entrepreneurial and industrial capitalist class, anxious to defend their property, lacked the traditional feudal system upon which the landed gentry relied for protection. This was the backdrop to the founding of the UK’s first uniformed and paid police forces, charged with protecting the new suburban districts, industrial sites, mines and railways, and enforcing order in increasingly anarchic and divided communities.

As Home Secretary in Wellington’s government, Robert Peel sponsored the first successful bill creating a bureaucratic police force in England. Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1829, at first applying only to London. The idea of an organised and uniformed police force faced significant resistance in and outside Parliament, with a majority of citizens viewing constables as an infringement on English social and political life. Steps were accordingly taken to differentiate the police from the tool of autocratic oppression employed by contemporary European states: notably, it was emphasised that their primary objective was to be the prevention and detection of crime, and that the authority of the English constable derived from three official sources: the crown, the law, and the consent and co-operation of the citizenry. The police’s increasing acceptance led to the peculiarly British prevailing view of the non-threatening ‘bobby’ perpetuated in fact and fiction.

The uneasy relationship between police and society is perhaps encapsulated by the dichotomy of force/service. Despite an emphasis on the concept of ‘service’ and the protection of the public from criminals, the police have historically constituted a force, based on both their function as an agency of social control and their nature as armed, uniformed citizens authorised to coerce. A materialist analysis of the police’s role reveals it as one not of protecting public safety but of safeguarding the workings of the capitalist system. The preventive tactics of the early Metropolitan police were accompanied by their explicit use against politically-motivated disorder, with, for example, their pitched battles with Chartist demonstrators in Birmingham and London proving their ability to deal with major disorders and street riots. The 1839 Royal Commission on Constabulary Forces, which recommended a national police force with the Metropolitan Police as the controlling power, initially saw the new police as a means of executing the widely-resisted New Poor Law. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the state has continued to authorise the use of the police to oppose industrial action and public protest.

The publicity given to and debate over the role of the police in April’s G20 protests has been useful in making more obvious the previously hidden aspects of the police’s function in protecting the interests of capital. This debate has however been carried out within a liberal framework which does not question the role of the police as an institution or the state’s self-granted ‘monopoly of violence’. Criticism of police operations, tactics, and behaviour, when adequately addressed, can only serve to reinforce the image of the police as the legitimate protectors of property and enforcers of law and order. The death of Ian Tomlinson and violence towards other protestors should instead be analysed as expected and logical extensions of the role of those forces of the state that exist to regulate and control the status quo.

Game Review: Braid May 18, 2009

Posted by Frank Snow in Criticism and Reviews, Games, Games as Art, Platformers.
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One of the more encouraging things that the relative rise of independent games developers over the last few years has shown is that it is still possible for small teams on a low budget to produce games of startling originality and quality. A particularly good example of these is Braid, a 2D puzzle platform game in which the player controls the protagonist, the philosophical Tim, through a series of lush, beautiful worlds as he searches for the enigmatic Princess.

The key to Braid’s depth and originality is that each of these worlds forms a thought-experiment that asks: “what if the world worked differently?”  Each world has a particular mechanic that drives this question: for example, the first mechanic (which persists throughout the game) is that time can be reversed at any point, without penalty.  Death is no longer a punishment, rather an opportunity to learn from your mistakes.  In another world, time works more like an intricate machine in which if Tim moves to the right, time moves forward, and if he moves to the left it moves backward.

Braid

Part of what is so wonderful about Braid is the delight in discovering how each world works, and how that affects your interaction with it.  All the puzzles are beautifully crafted, requiring careful lateral thinking.  Whilst they may initially seem hard, it’s usually because you haven’t quite got your head around them, and the sheer joy of solving the puzzles, of everything clicking into place, is more than worth the effort.  Several times, I found myself whooping with delight as I latched on to the solution.  All the puzzles are derived directly from the game mechanic, with no arbitrary impositions on the player.  In all but a few cases, there is no penalty for getting the puzzle wrong.  Even then, the penalty is still a function of the game mechanic, although it is frustrating to have to re-start a level when in the rest of the game that that is never necessary.

Complementing the game’s clever, original design are gorgeous artwork and dreamlike music.  The artwork gives the game a lush, painterly style, and makes excellent use of parallax scrolling and particle effects to imbue the worlds of Braid with rich, deep visuals.  The music adds to this to create a wonderful sense of place.  The music that plays in Tim’s house (the hub from which each world is accessed) creates a wonderful sense of the comfort of the home and of dreamlike, slightly melancholy contemplation.

This melancholy is woven throughout the story, told in books that can be read before entering each world.  This takes the form of real-world metaphors for each reality-bending mechanic. It is an interesting idea which is hampered by prose that does not match the high quality of the rest of Braid and a sense of disconnection from the game itself.  Whilst this is good in the sense that players who are just in it for the fantastic gameplay are not burdened by the story, there is still the sense that it could have been woven into the gameplay more fluidly.

There are hints of what this closer connection could be at various moments in Braid; for example, the sudden realisation that being able to control time by moving across the screen means that some things are always out of reach, and some people and interactions will always be left behind, unknown and unexplored. It is in these moments the game suddenly pulls you in, prompting an emotional engagement that drives home the ideas behind it far better than the story.  The best of these is the final sequence, which created a strong emotional response of the kind that I would not previously have thought possible in a platform game.  I don’t want to spoil it by going into to much detail, but I will say that what I felt was surprisingly engaging, and beautifully explored Tim’s character and his quest in ways that the prose just hadn’t managed. When this happens, it raises the game to new heights.  It is a pity that it isn’t more prevalent through out, as it could have smoothed out some of the formality of the game both in terms of the story and its somewhat rigid gameplay structure.

I have a tendency to feel a bit like I’m participating in a cliché when I start banging the “games are art” drum, but with Braid, it’s something that’s hard to ignore.  The way it speaks to the human condition, even in something as basic as its puzzle mechanics, demonstrates new ways that art can be experienced.  While the medium is in many ways still finding its feet, games like Braid show us the beauty it is capable of conveying.

A Conspicuously Quiet Foghorn April 6, 2009

Posted by Frank Snow in Atheism and Religion.
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I’ve been noticing an irritating trend lately.  It concerns the appearance of a not inconsiderable number of pearl-clutchingly dismissive articles laying into the perceived horrors of the “New Atheism” and why it’s a waste of time/morally wrong/will bring society to collapse/oh god won’t somebody please think of the children.

A good example of this from Madeleine Bunting appeared today: Real debates about faith are drowned by the New Atheists’ foghorn voices.

It begins with a rather choice comment, which bemoans the imminent collapse of British Christianity and then speculates:

One can only presume that the New Atheists are organising a fabulous party to celebrate. Richard Dawkins could stump up for the crates of champagne out of his sumptuous royalties from The God Delusion.

I’m getting really fucking sick of this.  This article comes at the end of a long line of comment, all of which basically comes together to say that these people are deeply unsettled by the idea that atheists have managed to carve out some space in the public discourse, and actually have a voice these days.  This is because the “New Atheists” are horrible brutes who always say mean things, holler at us from the sides of buses, and generally ruin everything by having an opinion and daring to express it.

After reading the article, I found myself imagining Madeleine Bunting as a person who never really goes out much these days, just sits in her living room, playing with finger puppets and howling with indignation when one of them says something nasty about religion.

I am particularly annoyed because it is this kind of straw-man building that is used to argue against a coherent atheist voice.  Accusations such as “shrill” and “strident” are thrown around, and the mysterious and sinister cabal of “New Atheists” are said to have “foghorn voices”.

This is a particularly irritating and absurd claim that goes a long way to demonstrating Bunting’s prejudices on the matter.  Atheists do not have “foghorn voices”.  Religious discussion still dominates in the public discourse, with religious authorities and “community leaders” being consulted on all manner of topics, sometimes regardless of whether or not they are actually qualified to comment.  Atheism has a comparatively smaller voice, and yet, whenever an atheist speaks out over something or dares to write a book suggesting that gods might not be real after all, suddenly they’re horrible jerks.

It is a particularly distasteful equivocation because it equates “having a voice that can be heard” with “having an overbearing, dominant voice that serves only to spew bile over the faithful”, the result of which seems to be the implication that atheists should not have this voice because people of apparently extremely delicate sensibilities will be upset.

I have no time for that.

There is almost certainly no god.  That is how I feel on the matter.  And I will not allow anyone to try to silence me by trying to claim that by saying it in a clear voice that I am indulging in some kind of contemptuous certainty that blasts its opinions shrilly into the night.

I will put up with claims that I am amoral, missing out on true happiness, or lacking in a way of discovering wonder and beauty in the universe, because I know that those claims are wrong.  What I will not put up with is an attempt to silence me or others like me by indulging in this straw-man denunciation of the “New Atheists”.  They are a spectre, a monster under the bed that has been created to frighten people into believing that atheists are strident bullies, and it ought to be put to rest.

Independent “Filmmaker” in Propagandistic Bullshit Shocker! February 22, 2009

Posted by Frank Snow in Games.
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So here we have a trailer for a documentary film entitled Spencer Halpin’s Moral Kombat, a film apparently tackling the subject of violence in video games. However, (at least according to the trailer), what we actually have is a steaming, sensationalist turd of a rhetoric piece spouting anti-gaming nonsense.

Now, a lot could be said about why this trailer doesn’t know what the fuck it’s talking about, but there are a few standout points for me. The first of which is that they actually interviewed lawyer and anti-games activist Jack Thompson. If you’re not sure who that is, he’s one of the first few interviewees, the man with the tiny face that talks about Cain and Abel as if it actually happened. Ol’ Jack is rather renowned in video-gaming circles for being an incoherent vomit-puddle of a man who understands the medium he’s campaigning against about as much as an amoeba understands String Theory. He was once banned from practicing law in Alabama for acting like a petulant child in court. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a balanced viewpoint, but no film about video gaming that wants one can have Jack Thompson anywhere near it. He’s an insane, narrow-minded conservative throwback, and the only things bigger than his head (although not his face) are the massive blinkers he insists on wearing.

The second point being the claim (by apparent association) that video games were essentially responsible for the attacks on the WTC, because Flight Simulators were used to train the men who piloted the jets into the towers. Flight Sims are not, never were and never will be video games. They’re exactly what it says on the tin: fucking simulators. The entire point of them is that they teach you how to fly aircraft. You might as well move to ban flight instructors as well, because they’d do an even better job of teaching you how to fly. Video games on the other hand, violent or otherwise, set out to entertain, and therefore do no better a job of teaching how to commit acts of extreme violence than do films or novels.

And I have no idea who said it, but: “we are who we are pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” What a crock of pathetic, unquestioned nonsense rhetoric bullshit. Does that mean that Christian Bale is a murderous psychopathic businessman, or that Cate Blanchett is a telepathic Elf-Queen? I wonder if the person that said that ever listens to any of the stream of mephitic sewage tumbling from his mouth. At least now it’s on record, so if he ever wakes up from the intellectual slumber he’s tumbled into he might one day hear those words and realise what a tosser he once was.

Now, whilst it’s probably obvious what my opinions are at this point, I really am all for a fair and balanced inquiry into what the cultural impact of violent video games truly is. But if this is the quality of discourse that we can expect on the matter, then I for one welcome the day when all we do for entertainment is listen to the gentle, grey hum of the fridge. At least then there will be no chance of being exposed to this documentary.

“The problem with Occam’s Razor is that you can’t actually cut someone with it.” February 22, 2009

Posted by Frank Snow in Scepticism.
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I have an issue with conspiracy theories. The issue is not so much that they exist (that would seem to be an inevitability, especially in the age of the internet), but that I have repeatedly seen otherwise intelligent, rational people become completely drawn into these theories without ever apparently noticing the faulty logic and massive confirmation bias required to sustain such ideas.

I can see the initial attraction that some of these ideas hold. They form a gateway to a world full of mystery and intrigue, where covert Government agents fly the disguised Roswell spacecraft into the twin towers whilst Illuminati Reptilians fuck JFK to death on the set of the faked Moon landings. Or something. While it may seem more exciting to live in a real-world version of Deus Ex, the problem is that there is no significant quantity of reliable evidence that can back these claims up.

Which is not to say that there are no such things as conspiracies. They happen all the time, but the key point to note is that they are all relatively simple as far as the relationship between effort and payoff goes; Guy Fawkes and his companions plotting to blow up the Houses of Parliament, industry executives paying experts to mislead the public about the nature of their product, or even a group of friends planning a surprise birthday party. What is clear in each of these examples is that there is an obvious and simple motivation for engaging in the conspiracy, a clear and not overly complicated solution for achieving an outcome, and a reasonable amount to gain from success.

If you take a popular modern conspiracy theory (9/11 Truth, or faked moon landings for example), you will tend to find that these things are conspicuously absent. Why the US Government would wish to stage a “controlled demolition” of an important landmark and economic centre, killing thousands of citizens in the process, is unclear. Their supposed methods for achieving this, and the various ways in which they are supposed have “covered up”* this attack are convoluted and bewildering. It could reasonably be said that what they gained from all this was a pretext upon which they could invade Iraq, but given that it seems fairly obvious that they were already going to invade anyway, and the flimsiness of the pretext upon which they did eventually invade, it seems a fairly outrageous suggestion that they would go to such confusing lengths to do it, including attacking their own military headquarters in the process (I’d have thought it fairly important to have an intact, functioning military HQ if you’re planning military action). Add to all this the constant shifting of goalposts and absurd requirements for the evidence that would convince them that the accepted version of events is closest to the truth – take, for example, the refusal to accept photographs of debris outside the Pentagon as containing aircraft parts, despite, well, obviously containing aircraft parts.

What this all boils down to, is that none of these conspiracy theories are actually proper, functioning theories. A decent theory takes all the available empirical evidence and unifies it into a well thought-out explanation. Whereas your average conspiracy theory will take the issue and tear into it, raising question after question after question that requires explanation. Their version of events then seems to be taken as a de facto answer to these questions, without actually having any evidence to back it up.

Now, I’m not saying that the standard explanation of events should be unquestioningly accepted, but it is important to go where the facts lead you. Having an open mind is a virtue, but it shouldn’t be so open that your brain falls out.

* Although it can hardly be considered an effective “cover-up” if a fourteen year-old with a YouTube account and a webcam is able to “expose” it.

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