Thursday, 30 April 2009

WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE

This week has all been a bit surreal. After weekend of pure excess, I arrived home on Monday afternoon to be chopped in the gob by a global pandemic. That's right kids, it's that time of year again. Unfortunately for those of us cynical enough to think this is all a massive case of Bluetongue (remember that? Is it still around? Who cares?) it turns out that this health threat is actually very real, and could possibly claim thousands of lives across the globe. There goes my pseudo-optimistic summery glow.

The problem with Swine Flu, (or Influenza Virus A subtype H1N1 if you want to get technical) is that by it's very nature it has managed to mutate into a virus that Human bodies can't properly fight off. This is what the 'flu virus does generally, and these viruses are generally very good at what they do. The Spanish Flu in 1918-1919 claimed millions of lives, and affected up to 1 billion people worldwide - that's half the world's population at the time. This new strain of Swine Flu is a descendant of the deadly Spanish Flu, and because it has already begun killing people in Mexico and the USA, there is a certain degree of panic in the air. Could this be the next big pandemic?

According to Dr Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Sceince and voice of sense extraordinaire, there is a genuine risk of this being the case. The media have, of course, gone to town with the idea that we all might DIE SUDDENLY AND SCARILY IN A WORLDWIDE EPIDEMIC OF AN INFECTION WE DON'T KNOW VERY MUCH ABOUT, but rather than do as he has been asked by many in the industry and become a sort-of pundit for the rubbishing of the disease, he's accepting that there is a real risk. In his latest blog entry, Parmageddon, he speaks of the media as being treated like "the boy who cried wolf". Sadly, he's right. We've heard of SARS, Bird Flu, Bluetongue, malaria epidemics and the resurgence of Foot and Mouth. As a people, we're desensitised and cynical when it comes to life-threatening epidemics. It's a dangerous situation to be in.

I realise that Swine Flu has no relation to the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2004 here n the UK, but I'm using it as my way of understanding the devastation - this is the only epidemic I have ever witnessed first-hand in my lifetime. Living in rural Scotland when the outbreak started, we all took the warnings with a pinch of salt. Then the panic arrived, and farmers began slaughtering their cattle in order to somehow stem the flow of the disease. Piles of burning animal carcasses, closed off routes to the nearest villages, walking through sheep dip to get to the shops - it was scary and unpleasant, and it actually happened, despite all of the village's gossiping naysayers. I'm a little bit worried about this flu pandemic. I was already scared of the world - now I'm terrified that if I go outside I'll somehow be infected by a mutant virus and die before the end of the week.

What we all need to remember is that although this virus can (and has) kill(ed), it is still only the flu. Loads of people get better from the flu. It doesn't cause your eyes to swell and burst gooily out of your head, nor does it turn your blood to Tizer, and as far as I'm aware, you stay roughly the same proportions, with no inside-out digestive system side-effects. If you do get the infection, you'll be retching, vomming, shivering, feverish and possibly hallucinating (if you're lucky) but you won't turn into glue or end up with a cardboard skeleton. If the government continues to stockpile Tamiflu and all those other nice tasty anti-viral drugs, we should all be ok. Breathe. It might be alright. However, I'm somewhat more concerned about the virus that's bound to strut on the scene in a decade or so, turning its leather jacket's lapels up like a cocky arsehole with its Ray Bans glinting in the post-apocalyptic sunlight as it scans the area it's about to decimate; because it knows - it knows - it is now resistant to those stockpiled drugs because of the big Piggy Pox outbreak of 2009.

Happy nightmares.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Shock as beauty pageant contestant has ill-informed opinon

In these illuminated times we live in, people are merited on their mental abilities as well as their perfectly manicured, symmetrical faces. This is why in recent years the much scoffed-at "Miss World" pageant has updated its competition to include more thought-provoking questions, to enable contestants to show off their well-rounded education and interesting views on the world and its intricacies. Instead of the usual "What would you do if you ruled the world?” they add a bit of politics in there to make it interesting.

Carrie Prejean, California's hopeful for the crown glittered her way on to the stage in the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino, Las Vegas, with a Disney dress and a raspberry smile; met with polite applause and garish set decorations. She nervously waited for her difficult question.

Well known blogger and general gossip tit Perez Hilton took up a mic and asked whether the rest of the USA should follow Vermont's lead and legalise same sex marriages across the whole country. A fair and interesting question. Carrie Prejean took a second to compose herself, and then raising her heavily-highlit eyebrows explained how she thought it was great how people could choose who they were with in America, but in all honesty, she was brought up to believe that marriage was something that only men and women should share.

Awkward silence and redneck cheering ensues.

The thing about this bleak incident in modern culture is that people were actually surprised that a woman who utilises her looks as a way of winning awards managed shove her foot so spectacularly down her throat when faced with a somewhat challenging moral question. Did they really expect a coherent and well-informed answer? Perhaps I'm being too harsh on the poor girl, after all, she was only meant to be winning a prize for being eye candy. They asked her to give her opinion, and she did exactly that - unfortunately for her she hadn't really given much thought into it up until that point. I wonder what it's like for people who spend their lives thinking they feel strongly about a subject without really looking into the reasons why at all. All I ever seem to do is constantly re-evaluate my hastily-drawn opinions, mainly because of crippling self-doubt, but also because I seem to needlessly judge people on a regular basis. It must be quite a freedom to have, to just be able to draw up an opinion and then stick to it, deflecting all outside input to the contrary like a de-ionised Mr Sheen dust barrier.

Ms Prejean is now being lambasted by gay activists around the country, and hailed as the voice of sense by right-wing groups in America. Because, of course, the misguided opinions of an eerily moulded airhead would hold some sort of sway on public views on homosexuality, wouldn't it? Why not hold her up as the voice of reason? She's somebody everyone can relate to - 5'10", blonde hair, size 2 (American) and earns her money by modelling and attending events simply because she is Miss California. She's definitely the type of person you'd look to for your political standpoints.

Living in a free society, she’s entitled to her opinion. We all are. It makes sense that Carrie Prejean would see marriage as a man/woman sort of affair – she strikes me as the Disney princess type, and when was the last time you saw the strikingly effeminate cartoon prince run off with the ruggedly handsome male lead? Some people live sheltered lives, and some people live their lives in denial, and some, bless ‘em, are too stupid to realise that they don’t have any opinions of their own. What we definitely shouldn’t be doing however, is sending hate mail or letters of support to this woman. Freedom of speech is a right we’re still fighting for, and even if it is getting utilised by brainless wigstands live on air, this doesn’t mean our own views are being trampled on. It just means the stupid ones are getting more airtime, but when has that ever not been the case? I thought I'd sign off this exceprt of strained impartiality with the peerless Bill O'Reilly's stance on the subject. Enjoy.



I just thought it was vaguely ironic that close up she looked more like a tranny than any man in makeup I’ve ever seen.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

The Increased Pressure Phase

Attention grasp
Walling
Facial Hold
Facial Slap
Cramped Confinement
Wall Standing
Sleep Deprivation
Food Deprivation
Insects
Waterboarding

It’s probable that until the legendary act of “waterboarding” was mentioned, none of these phrases actually meant anything. This is, of course, a list of alleged torture techniques used by the CIA during the Bush presidential years to interrogate terrorists (or “terrorists” depending on what day it was, and who had been captured). Although they aren’t alleged techniques anymore, because according to previously top secret memos from the time show that since August 2001, John Rizzo and the US justice department decided it was about time they strode ahead and implemented the “Increased Pressure Phase” all over some suspected Al-Qaida ass.

My personal favourite is the dubious inclusion of “Insects”, which until more research has been carried out, seems quite amusing. Did they show the terrorists some ants? “Here, what do you make of these?” Or were detainees made to dress up as beetles and play in a hastily-put-together guitar band tribute act to entertain the guards? Perhaps flies were set free into the prisoners’ cells to make annoying buzzing sounds all night while they tried to get to sleep after a hard day of prison brutality. Banging repeatedly against the flickering neon striplights; I’m surprised nobody went mad in there.


What this method of torture actually consists of is a little more gruesome than this – according to Time magazine, head Al-Qaida honcho Abu Zubaydah was placed in a confinement box along with a number of insects. An apt form of torture considering his phobias of insects, especially those which can sting. In a memo recently made public by President Jesus Obama, the Department of Justice accept the reasonings for the torture methods, and give the go-ahead. Here is the memo, as printed in Time.

"You [the CIA] would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us [the Department of Justice] that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him. You would, however, place a harmless insect in the box. You have orally informed us that you would in fact place a harmless insect such as a caterpillar in the box with him." Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee who was responsible for reviewing the techniques and deciding their relevance and/or levels of inhumanity, went on to explain; "an individual placed in a box, even an individual with a fear of insects, would not reasonably feel threatened with severe physical pain or suffering if a caterpillar was placed in the box," adding that interrogation staff should not imply that the imposter insect "would produce death or severe pain."

I’m sure we can all rest easily knowing that those working for the Information Obtaining and Secret-Gathering Management team (a fictitious title, a real job) took these guidelines on board and let loose the friendliest bug they could find. I can hear the screams and giggles now from the interrogation suite, as the caterpillar dawdles placidly across the captive’s toes. Barbaric.

Depending on what you read and where you read it, these techniques were signed off as acceptable and implemented on as many as 14 people [UK Guardian] (because yes, they are people, as well as being suspected terrorists. I like to constantly remind people that the key word here is “suspected”. Even in cases where a person had been detained under fairly good reason, I still feel slightly unsure that using torture to gain information is going to create a better press for the West in the countries where these dissolutioned individuals hail from.) or were used on an unknown number of suspects and some techniques were abandoned or disregarded [Time] (According to Time, the insect torture was not used in the end, possibly due to it being ridiculous).

Thankfully Guantanamo Bay was shut down along with thousands of other small businesses at the start of the year, ending some of the more farcical aspects of our free and just society. It would appear that Moneygeddon has achieved something useful, at least.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Troy Faid Live @ Hyde Park Cinema, 27/03/09

Cosied up among the velvety cinema seats at this special little album launch, the group of patiently waiting audience members shuffle up to accommodate the smokers as they step quietly in from the chilly outdoors. Troy Faid has a substantial following in his hometown of Leeds, and tonight the turnout was far from disappointing. Seated comfortably with glasses of complimentary wine, the murmuring faces look up at the stage where tonight's compere exclaims his love for Faid's supporting musician, Elizabeth Nygaard. "We're half an hour late in starting," he apologises, but nobody seems to mind.

Elizabeth Nygaard commands a room's attention the only way a voice like hers can. Plucking her guitar strings angelically, she sings sweetly of stormy emotions and falling in love. Her cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" shows off her razor sharp voice to its full potential by being both sparse and beautiful in equal measure. Some songs might lack a little lyrical depth, but in “Majesty”, a newer addition to the set list, she sings dryly of an emotionally-damaging relationship, showing a definite progression in her style.

A quick ten minute break sees the enthusiastic host take to the stage again to assure the crowd that Troy will be playing for us very soon, and urges everybody to buy his newly-completed album “Last Week’s Tune”. Recorded in a church on Cardigan Road and showing the bluesy charm he’s so good as pulling off, it really is worth getting excited about. He steps out in front of the audience behind his guitar, and despite sporting a newly-shaved head and a smart suit, he looks shy - awkward almost. “I got told to speak more when I’m up here,” he says. “So I’m talking.”

Watching him play, it’s easy to see where Troy’s appeal comes from. His eclectic mix of old blues stylings and his own strong grasp of the music he clearly loves instantly engages the listener. On the cinema stage his introverted presence changes dramatically once his guitar begins to ring out around the room, and through every intricately detailed song his mannerisms became more relaxed. It’s rare to enjoy somebody’s performance as equally as the songs they play, but it’s also rare to see somebody play so intently merely because they enjoy doing it so much. The audience are treated to songs from the new album, but part-way through Troy strides purposefully offstage to sit behind an old over-strung piano. Jazz-blues that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1940s speakeasy playfully fills the room, showing that perhaps Troy might not like to chat between songs, but he certainly likes to have a laugh with his music.

At the end of the show, Troy and his compere make one final ad-break, and the audience begins to file out, suitably impressed. Impressed not just with the choice of venue, or of the skill of the musicians, but of the immense love and enthusiasm both artists had for their work, and the raw talents that they were sharing. Troy deserves to sell every single one of those albums, and Leeds deserves to hear them. He is undoubtedly a local talent to be immensely proud of.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Student Media Awards 2009

If there's something every media student needs in their lives, it's another chance to be arrogant and competitive. We all need a kick up the backside sometimes, and the yearly Guardian/Sky News/NME Student Media Awards seems to develop a person's desire to kick their fellow aspiring writers into the gutter more roundedly than anything else I've ever come across. Even I, a self-deprecating trainwreck of a person, suddenly believes that there's more than a slight chance of the prize becoming mine. I'd willingly shove my peers into traffic to gain experience at the Guardian - that must be the hack in me.

It's the shiver of realisation that the things you want might not be so out of reach after all that drives me. This might be a completely misguided view of the world - after all, if it was so easy to become a writer, why doesn't everyone who says backhandedly that they want to write actually manage to do it? - but for some reason it seems like there's a very small ridge between wanting it and actually getting it. It's all about who you know, right? So get to know people. Is it really that hard?

Well, yes, in a word. But let's not let that deter us. Contacts come in time, so I've been told. Yes, I have friends who have already managed to write for the NME and have various important "people" in various places of interest but does this worry me? Probably not enough. How did they manage it? God knows, I certainly have no idea, but it probably helps that they're able to talk to strangers with apparent ease, the bloody bastards. Still, my poor delusioned brain won't take "can't" for an answer, and forces me into flights of fancy where I have my own real life desk and get to write features and articles of actual importance and interest to somebody else and get paid for it. It's a dangerous dream, and one that has been greatly exacerbated by working for a well-known pub chain. It's soothing to phase out the John Smiths and broken glass and cackling hen parties with thoughts of a nice clean office and a weekly column. The vacant blissful smile on my face further alienates me from my fellow workers too, which saves me from any awkward small talk-type scenarios. Everyone's a winner.

So, this competition then. I'm in two minds about it. On the one hand, it's not a means to an end. The winner gets £650 and a week's work experience at the Guardian. They also get feedback on their articles from the judges, who are actually quite terrifying (For example, if you were up for "Student Reporter of the Year" you'd get Alan Rusbridger and Jon Snow amongst others) but after that week's up, you'd be That Guy Who Won That Thing - you'd need to do something good or it'd be a waste. That's a lot of pressure. Plus, you'd look like a bit of a swot. All in all though, it's an amazing opportunity that would look so fantastic on your CV that prospective employers might have to restrain themselves throughout your interview to stop themselves from ripping your clothes off then and there.

On the other hand, I'm a coward. There are many other reasons I could give for not entering this competition, most importantly the note in the T&Cs of the competition that states "All work entered must have been published/broadcast in student media during the academic year September 2008 to June 2009" - meaning that Leeds Trinity students are ever so slightly screwed; our newspaper sucks so badly that it now has a staff of about five. We aren't like Leeds Uni (she whines pathetically), we don't have the resources or the funding or the talent. Plus, I already walked out on that newspaper dramatically, I can't just crawl back in for the sake of a competition. My hero got to where he is today by not graduating a media course and fluking his way to semi-fame by pretending to be bleeding-edge by means of a website. A competition seems too lame somehow. I'm clearly a coward. These aren't good enough reasons not to do it. Suck it up, grow a pair, and get the fuck on with it. Harsh words are needed. Get right out of the bed.

Still, as soon as I've finished talking myself out of it, the shiver comes back. It's an unusual feeling, I'd never had real aspirations until I started my second year of my Journalism degree. I hope that thousands of like-minded media students take up this opportunity, no matter how little they believe in their chances of winning. We need to start somewhere. It's a step up from hiding behind a blog, and it's getting your work out somewhere were somebody else can read it. How bloody terrifying. But how exciting, and I am going to enter, just as soon as my tutor emails me back about the student publication thing...

Friday, 10 April 2009

Individual Interchangeable Individuals

Tattoos have been used to brand people as a member of a certain group for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and the art of skin inking is still becoming more and more popular in mainstream culture. Whether you were a sailor adding a Pacific Ocean swallow to your arm, or a gang member proving your allegiances, these permanent scars meant something - that you were part of a counter-culture that was inherently important to you.

These days of course, it's much more common to hear of somebody to get a tattoo to express their individuality. At least in Leeds that's the case, I don't know of many pirates around here showing their seafaring credentials with Indian ink (although I'd love to be proven wrong). An individual tattoo is becoming very difficult to achieve however, as I suspect has been the case for many years now. Ever since tattoos were deemed acceptable in everyday normal-people society round about the 1970s mark, their popularity has boomed, causing the world to be flooded with Koi Carp-ed biceps and forgettable lower-back tribal designs. If there's one thing that offends my eyes, it's a bad tattoo. It isn't the person who has the tattoo's fault that their "artist" couldn't draw dolphins (but oh god, please tell me why you'd want a dolphin tattoo anyway), but they'll have to live wearing the lopsided water-mammal-freak branded upon their person until they see fit to remove it or get a nicer tattoo to cover it. Until they do, the world will blame them personally for the bad tattoo. It's a curse.

Designing your own tattoo is, in my opinion, the only reason you should get one. Unless you have a clear image in your mind of exactly what it is you want scratched into your skin for life, what is the point of committing yourself to it? I'm sick of seeing identikit people with interchangeable tattoos. A star? How original! I bet it describes your personality! Knuckledusters? Wow, you're really saying something about society and your place in it!

Thankfully, yet another counter-culture has staggered blinkingly out of it's darkened bedroom and into the limelight; the embracing of the inner Geek. It's (apparently) been cool to be a nerd for a while now, what with brogues and cardigans being in fashion and every man and his dog going out to Game Station to buy a second hand SNES and everything. This geekiness has found it's own way to express itself when forced to wear everyday work shirts, and it is the nerd tattoo.



(Image courtesy of art tattoo designs)

We've all seen the head/body tattoo (if not, here it is, although you should probably install Stumble on your computer pretty soon, you're missing out on a lot of important procrastination hours) but nerdy tattoos don't just stop at HTML. Oh no. If you look for long enough you can come across some amazing examples of downtrodden nerd-culture preserved forever in sometimes amazingly artistic examples of tattoo craft work. Reserve the word "lame" for use elsewhere, I don't take too kindly to it.



(Picture courtesy of my lovely friend Steven, who makes music and likes computer games and 8-Bit everything.)

Geek tattoos can take many forms, from the pixellated videogame character as modelled by Steven, to the elaborate UV confections which are now becoming far more commonplace now that all health risk fears have pretty much been put to bed. The idea of a UV tattoo excites me. The very fact that a person could have a secret full-length sleeve tattoo that nobody can see in broad daylight is damn futuristic. I'd definitely get a robot arm. Imagine showing that to your grandkids.

Take hold of your inner geek and give it a big bloody hug. You might not want to go the whole hog and get an arm-length fractal design just like what I want so badly, but for god's sake, the next time you get the urge to change your appearance forever, at least try and do it in an original way. Nobody believes that you're trying to be "individual" when you get a butterfly tattooed on your arse cheek.

Here's that fractal design I was on about by the way. I couldn't resist. Don't you just love fractals?



(Image courtesy of Stickywhippet)

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Riot!

"They were met by derision from City workers, who waved £10 notes from their offices at marchers on the streets below" (Daily Mail, 02/04/09) - why violence in protest only undermines your message. (Can I just say in a completely nonobjective way - what a bunch of smug arsehole bastards. I hope they all bloody well lose their jobs.)

The exclamation mark in the title was completely spurious - there was nothing about yesterday's G20 protests that was lighthearted enough to demand one. On reading today's Guardian, it would appear that not only was the hope that these huge protests could remain peaceful was a naive one, but a dangerous one too. As well as unnecessary violence on the streets, a man believed to be in his fourties collapsed and died as the protests turned to violent semi-riots. (Read the full story here.)


(Picture from guardian.co.uk)

Public emotion has been running high for a while now, and really, who can blame us for being angry? Early pictures of the protests that were being published on the Internet showed fists in the air, defiant placards, and smoke bombs. People with megaphones were shouting for change, and police were standing by with truncheons and shields. It looked like a high-profile music festival, albeit with a slightly more volatile crowd. People were furious, but in an orderly fashion, and most even looked like they were having quite a lot of fun.

Skip to today then, with video footage of the marches later on in the day. People grew tired of singing and dancing. The police started to look a bit more oppressive after 4 hours of protest. People started lashing out.

Normally, I'd be all for a bit of cosmetic violence. Not the real stuff, no blood, broken bones or missiles. Just a bit of a crowd rush or some clashing, after all, you don't want your protest to be completely ignored. Who listens to peace these days? But this time, violence was not the answer. Disillusioned, underpowered people were gathered in the streets to try and get those in power to listen to them, and when it was clear that not only were they being ignored but the protection of the police was turning into something a little more sinister, they didn't back into a corner. Blood started getting in people's eyes.

Things turning ugly only served to show to reactionary middle England (ahem, the Daily Mail) that protesters (or "anarchists" as the paper described them) simply don't know what they're talking about. In another Daily Mail article, descriptions of the protesters' actions show a real disdain for any person acting anti-establishment. The truth is, violence only gets people ignored. The only thing it invoked was retaliation from a fed-up police force. Video content from the Guardian.com shows protesters being beaten back from barricades, some bleeding from head wounds, one man claiming to have had a tooth knocked out. Protesters on the other side of town were being held in the Bank tube station square, to stop yet more people from joining the crowd and causing more chaos.

Eventually a minority of the crowd broke the windows of the Royal bank of Scotland building and ransacked the place, further deteriorating the peaceful message of the protest.

People are feeling betrayed by the banks and by the government. People want change. The tragedy is that protesting like this might feel incredibly empowering at the time, but it really won't change anything. The G20 summit continued unphased by the thousands of people marching for change, and as stories unfold today detailing Michelle Obama's choice of outfit and who sat next to who at the Jamie Oliver banquet, it's becoming all too horribly clear that perhaps even rioting isn't going to get our voices heard. We have to think of another way. But what have we got left to try?
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