September 21, 2010

Student Challenges Degree Classification In Court (!?!)

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-11376021

The BBC reports that a student has made a legal challenge to his degree classification as “better supervision” would have resulted in a better grade.

Anyone know the statute of limitations on this sort of thing, because I reckon a few more years and I can appeal/sue over my A Level Art grade which were clearly only that bad because the world wasn’t yet ready for my amazing artistic vision.

Worth a try, eh?


September 20, 2010

Secular Schools – Logical

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/sep/18/secularist-manifesto-secularism

I read something I liked today – Evan Harris’s secularist manifesto in the Guardian was reasonable and reasoned, boiling down to the logical argument that the more secular a state, the more religious freedom there is as no religion has a more favoured position than any other.

religion flow
A interesting graphic from brin.ac.uk, a Manchester University affiliated site about religion in the UK.

Not everyone liked the manifesto, and a quick trip into the loony bin, aka the comments section, showed this to be the case. Some of the theists (and a tiny number of atheists) demonstrated an inability to read and assumed this to be an atheist manifesto, ignoring the fact that atheism and secularism are not the same thing, no matter how loudly one shrieks that they are.

One of the dissenting comments took exception with points 2 and 3 which combined could be taken to argue that there should be no state run religious schools. When another commenter piped up that they felt this was reasonable as no state school would advocate communism or Tory-ism in the way that religion can be espoused in state schools the original dissenter on this issue insisted that it was their right to have their children taught in a school which taught exclusively or mostly about a single religion, or which strongly presented one religion as more “right” than others.

Choice is education is a big issue, one which Labour got very obsessive over and which the coalition seem even more concerned about if their proposed free school idea is anything to go by. But in the case of religious schools it’s an impractical red herring. The commenter’s mistake was to assume that all religious schools are equal. This is most definitely not the case.

I went to a Catholic state school. In fact, I went to a very very good Catholic state school, the sort which pumps out great results and which attracts middle class parents from miles around, resulting in them herding the family into church on a Sunday in order to convince the local priest to back their case for their child to go there, despite the fact they don’t know their stations of the cross or who the Immaculate Conception was (the latter is almost uniformly identified incorrectly by people I’ve met). But my Catholic state school was not like others.

I’ve heard the stories. The ones from other people who went to other Catholic state schools. The one about the class who were shown a video of an abortion in order to scare them off. The one about the people who were told homosexuals would burn in hell. The ones with the scary nuns as teachers and the intimidating priests who would come in to visit. The ones where sex before marriage was a massive crime, and teachers were sacked for affairs.


Karate nun was not in evidence at any of the above schools. Sadly.

Yet in my school the extent of the Catholicism was that we didn’t learn about contraception in biology and general studies classes, and the time our beloved biology teacher prefaced the (National Curriculum mandated) lessons on evolution with a weary “Right, I’ve been told to tell you all that this is just a theory and there are other possible explanations for how the world came into being… (pause) Right, now that’s over with, this is what happened.”

Which version is Catholic? Which version would please our irate Guardian commenter? My Catholic school was the only one for miles and miles, the catchment radius stretching from Frodsham to Crewe, north to Knutsford and south almost as far as Tarporley. That’s a large area, I lived ten miles away and wasn’t anywhere near the furthest commuter. If you were a hardcore, no abortion, no homosexuality, fire and brimstone Catholic and the only school in the area is one like mine – Catholic sure, but liberal in the extreme for one – would you be happy with an institution you’d probably see as wishy-washy?

Surely, faced with dilemmas like this, it makes more sense even for religious people to have secular schools run by a secular state as at least they will then know exactly what form of their religion their kids are being taught? I’m no fan of religious extremism, quite the opposite, but religious state schools don’t really offer religious people much choice at all, and could in theory lead to their children developing a totally different view of their religion to their parents.

Of course one can argue that all subjects are, by necessity, restricted in their scope, my awesome biology teacher didn’t teach me the entirety of biological studies in my time there. But that’s not a valid comparison in this case – the argument for religious state schools is akin to arguing for a school which only teaches plant biology, and not animal biology. Just boring experiments involving sprouting cress rather than dissecting something red and wobbly which apparently used to belong to a cow (or sheep if you’re in a post-BSE Cheshire).


Cress.

In a secularist society religion is a personal thing, and the state and schools have no place advocating any particular brand over any others. To do so will only create dissatisfaction anyway.

However I’m quite glad we didn’t get the abortion video. The squeamish reaction of my class to dissecting a heart was bad enough, I fear that video might have sent several 15 year olds over the edge completely.


August 25, 2010

A Bad Week To Be A Cat

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-coventry-warwickshire-11068063

It can’t have escaped most people’s attention that, with floods ruining Pakistan, drug war tearing Mexico apart, and the government slicing services left, right and centre (but mostly left), the most important development in Britain this week has been… a woman putting a cat in a bin.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-coventry-warwickshire-11068063

It would be extremely easy to see this and react in one of two ways:
1) Get irate and angry at the terrible treatment the cat has received, and question the woman’s motivation and sanity.
2) Get irate and angry at the utterly trivial nature of the story, one which has blatantly only made it to the newsdesks because there is CCTV footage whilst other, arguably more horrific attacks on animals pass as small stories in local news.

Both reactions involve emotional responses, the first is disgust that anyone could do that to a cat, and second is disgust at the all-powerful meme in the press of ‘silly season’ – the summer months in which serious news is bumped from the pages to make way for stories of cats in bins (and if serious things still happen, ignore them).

In this case I do feel a little of both reactions, but there’s something else which bothers me more about this story.

Below is a link to a youtube clip of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Newswipe’ program. In it a forensic psychiatrist discusses how media coverage of mass shootings leads to copycats thanks to the media’s portrayal of the infamy, fame and outrage such actions can cause.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8rMYyegT5Y

You don’t have to ven cast your mind far back to think of the last time criminal behaviour earned someone in this country a strange ‘heroic’ status – there aren’t many cases where a jealous misogynist like Raoul Moat can get to be a hero by murdering and maiming innocent people, but the media coverage somehow managed to make him so in the eyes of some.

And the relevance to the cat?

Put it like this, I expect a lot more cats will find themselves in bins over the next few weeks. It’s likely few will be caught on CCTV, it’s likely not all the cats will be rescued as in this case, and it’s likely that almost none of those cats would have been put in bins if this story hadn’t been in the press.

You can bemoan the mentalities of those who do this until you are blue in the face, but it does not change the fact that, at this moment in time, we live in a society where there are no universally accepted ways to treat animals. Sure, there are laws, but to think these are all obeyed, or considered necessary by 100% of the population, is naive. Even amongst those who were outraged at the cat in the bin there will be some who think it ok to eat meat and some who don’t.

So all that this has done is to ensure more cats will probably suffer cruelty in this silly season, for no obvious gain other than some hits on websites and some newspapers sold on the back of something which is quite categorically not news.

Sorry, cats.


May 11, 2010

A Guide To Being 'Unelected'

One of the most commonly repeated phrases from the election, and some time before, is that Gordon Brown should not be prime minister because he was “unelected”. It’s a curious thing hat this mantra has been repeated so much that hardly anyone seems to question it, when even a cursory glance at the substance of the argument causes it to fall down, at least in our current system.

First and foremost, the most obvious rebuff is that most people in the UK did not vote for Tony Blair. If you lived in Sedgefield in 1997, 2001 and 2005, and voted Labour, then yes, you voted for Tony Blair. But this covers only a relatively small number of people. Reports, possibly apocryphal but undeniably believable, suggest that voters this time around were confused as to why their ballots did not have Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s names on them. The leadership debates may have contributed to this cult of personality, they have certainly done nothing to show people the reality of their vote – that it is not for the men on the podium unless you live in Kirkcaldy, Witney or Sheffield.

As this is the most obvious and common counter argument, it has frequently been addressed, mostly by people saying “Well yes, I know I was voting for a candidate called James Plaskitt/Fiona Bruce/John Leech, but I knew by voting for them I would be registering support for Brown/Cameron/Clegg”. This is only sort of true because it assumes that Brown, Cameron and Clegg will win their own seats. Whilst it is normal for the party leader to be found in a safe seat, one where you would assume they would get in, this is not guaranteed.

Peter Robinson anyone?


IRIS!

Those who voted for the Democratic Unionist Party may well use the above argument that they knew who they were voting for, but it makes no difference – the DUP will either be lead by a genuinely unelected leader, or it will have to find a leader from the MPs it does have, someone who will be ‘unelected’ by the logic applied to Brown. It is unlikely this will ever happen to the Big Three of politics in Westminster, but this represents a shot across the bows of those who stick to the ‘unelected’ theory.

Moving on from Robinson, a common feature of the British electorate is that it remains remarkably impervious to its own history. The way the rants about Brown being ‘unelected’ come across, you would think he is a terrible precedent, a man dangerously breaking rules which have existed for years, an exception.

He is not.

Not even close.

Here follows a brief history lesson, of the sort that does not get taught in schools because it represents the sort of hot potato that governments are not too keen on having taught, rather like proportional representation or the number of Brits who live abroad (i.e. as immigrants).

There have been 20 prime ministers to begin their terms since 1900. There have also been 29 elections. As a quick quiz question, how many of these 20 prime ministers were like Brown, first becoming prime minister due to a change of party leadership between elections, rather than coming to power by winning an election?

Here is a picture of a campaign poster from the 1923 election whilst you come up with your answers. I wish campaign posters were more like this these days:

And the answer is… 13 out of 20.

Yes, 13. 65%.

Now there are caveats. Two of these were Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George who took over war coalitions in WWI and WWII. Popular choices, both would have been elected anyway, and at a time when an election was unthinkable they represented the flexibility of politics and ability of the parties to work together to protect and help the people.

Three of the remain eleven called elections immediately after taking power. These were Henry Campbell-Bannerman (Liberal), Stanley Baldwin (Conservative) and Anthony Eden (Conservative).


“I’m Anthony Eden, and I ain’t afraid of elections (although I am afraid of Egyptians)”.

The remaining eight ruled on regardless. That is one PM more than the number who won elections from opposition to become PM. The eight were:
Arthur Balfour (Conservative, succeeded his uncle Robert Cecil, hence the phrase “Bob’s your uncle”)
Herbert Asquith (Liberal)
Neville Chamberlain (Conservative, almost called an election but bottled it, rather like Brown)
Harold MacMillan (Conservative)
Alec Douglas-Home (Conservative)
Jim Callaghan (Labour)
John Major (Conservative)
Gordon Brown (Labour)

The seven to take power from opposition were:
Andrew Bonar-Law (Conservative)
Ramsey MacDonald (Labour, and with election posters like the above, can you blame people?)
Clement Atlee (Labour)
Edward Heath (Conservative)
Harold Wilson (Labour)
Margaret Thatcher (Conservative)
Tony Blair (Labour)

Now obviously some of these were elected, re-elected, or took over as leader between elections after their first term as PM (Wilson). This survey looks solely at those on their first terms.


Bob’s your uncle. Literally.

The most surreal thing about Brown is that it is not like this covers only older PMs, John Major arrived ‘unelected’ in 1990, just twenty years ago. Even I vaguely recall this happening and I was only just starting primary school at the time.

If people want to complain about ‘unelected’ PMs, they need to understand that it is a part of the electoral system in this country, and that the alternative, a directly elected PM, is a rare thing. Funnily enough, a lot of those complaining Brown is ‘unelected’ have no such problem with the actual head of state, Elizabeth II, being unelected.

I am not saying I agree with the system as it is. However I do think that throwing the ‘unelected’ label around without awareness of the history of ‘unelected’ PMs, without thinking through the implications of a Peter Robinson situation, and without understanding how the electoral system in this country works, is lazy.


March 19, 2010

My MUST (Manchester United Supporters' Trust) Letter To Football's Powers That Be

Dear Sir,

“Sport is part of every man and woman’s heritage and its absence can never be compensated for.” Pierre de Coubertin.

My club, Manchester United, along with Liverpool, Portsmouth, Chester, Wimbledon, and many more, are either being killed or have been killed by the actions of those who seek only their own personal profit from something which is more important than that.

I work for a local organisation which benefits greatly from its associations with Manchester United, but I feel the Glazers represent everything that is the opposite to what we, and our links to United, stand for.

Sport is about more than plain economics, it was founded on principles higher than the mere acquisition of money.

If this sounds idealised then asked yourself how much money you would need to pay 76,000 people in order to persuade them to travel to a patch of earth and sing for 90 minutes – Manchester United inspire 76,000 people to pay for the privilege of gathering in a tiny spot in a north western English city to sing for 90 minutes. This isn’t idealism, this is real.

We need to rectify a system which is tearing the heart out of clubs and communities. We need more regulation, and an end to the vultures who think nothing of crippling institutions.

If you think, as I do, that football (and sport in general) is special, then act now.

Thank you.

Sent as part of MUST’s continuing campaign to get rid of our leeches.


February 05, 2010

Astrophysics And Football

List of things in the solar system which support Manchester City

1. Blue Moon

Despite being blue, Neptune is wuite clearly a Chelsea fan. The glory hunting, johnny-come-lately.

List of things in the solar system which support Manchester United

1. Jupiter’s big red spot

2. Mars, the red planet

3. Pluto, the new red(ish) planet(ish)

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8499660.stm

Your move City. :P


January 21, 2010

David Cameron's Ambitions

Writing about web page http://www.andybarefoot.com/politics/cameron.php

(This website is superb, make you own airbrushed Cameron confection! Hours of fun.)

Please tell me I am not the only person who cannot look at those scary Tory posters without humming a catchy Elvis tune?

He doesn’t want to stop at Prime Minister! He wants to be king!!!


January 11, 2010

The Irrelevant Mr Choudary

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were allowed to choose who we are to be angry at?

It seems like a strange thing to say, but the recent shebang about Anjem Choudray and his Islam4UK organisation proposing a march in Wootton Bassett, has got me wondering if the people of Britain can even be bothered to decide who they want to get angry at any more.

Some context. I don’t really like what Choudary stands for, he’s anti-freedom (explicitly) and seems to belong to a twattishly sexist, homophobic and intolerant branch of his faith (as exists in all). However in all the media storm I have yet to find any estimate of the size of his organisation beyond claims in the Telegraph that he said there would be “500” people taking part in his march. The general rule with marches which do go ahead is to take the number of people the organisers say are present, add it to the number the police say are present, and divide it by two. In other words, no one is capable of guessing the attendances of such things. If Choudary really did have 500 members at his disposal I would have been surprised.


Choudary indicates how many friends he has.

Or rather I would have been had this not been blown out of all proportion by the media. This isn’t a lesson in how to combat extremists, it’s a lesson in how the media is now explicitly telling us what to get hysterical about.

Islam4UK are a tiny bunch of nobodies.

This very pertinent fact appears to have been lost in the media’s willful creation of a storm out of nothing. Under legislation in place for twenty four years, all marches must be applied for a pre-approved before they can go ahead. This takes into account safety concerns, of which a march such as the one proposed would involve. Controversial marches do take place, the English Defence League have held several recently, but a smaller town like Wootton Bassett might be less likely to approve one than a larger, better equipped place like Birmingham. The march was very unlikely to have ever taken place. Choudary for one knew this and has practically admitted he did it for the attention, not hoping to actually hold the march.

And the result? Hysteria.

There are Facebook groups with thousands and thousands of members protesting this. There’s a selection of officials, from parliament down to Wootton Bassett’s council expressing their outrage. There’s a group who were ambitiously claiming to be able to round up 500 people, who have achieved immense publicity. And there’s the media who are responsible for all this.


A newspaper, being hysterical.

Unpopular marches happen all the time in the UK. In fact if you were a Northern Irish Catholic watching this you might wonder what all the fuss was about – the annual routine of Orange Order (and other) parades around NI has long enraged the Catholic population, but in recent years the furore has died down, partially through the efforts of the Parades Commission to prevent the marches going through contentious areas, like Drumcree, and partially because the situation has improved in NI. Improved, but not resolved. In the last week a PSNI officer was seriously hurt in a car bomb attack. Whilst this isn’t explicitly linked to the parades, it’s a symptom of the same underlying problem. In the worst times in Northern Ireland the funerals of those involved weren’t just subject to marches on the same streets, they were physically attacked with bombs and guns.

There are a lot of people in this country who hold views I find repellent. Some might even march for them. In the last decade I’ve turned my nose up at the pro-fox hunting banners of the Countryside Alliance, the borderline racism of the English Defence League, the antagonistic flashes of Orange in NI. But they went ahead. They went ahead because freedom of speech, as long as it doesn’t target people, is valued here. Choudary has done some nasty things which amount to violating this privilege (if the stories of sending letters to soldiers’ families are true), but at the same time he has a right to say stupid things. And so I don’t blame him for doing so. I blame the media for making a mountain out of a molehill. Choudary is a nasty little goblin, but that’s all he is. Getting worked up about him is playing into his hands.

We’d do a lot more damage to him if we simply ignored him.

Also, have a look at this widely unreported protest by the British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD). Surely the reason it wasn’t widely reported was the cold weather and not the fact that Muslims walking around saying “Free speech will dominate the world” and “Secular democracy for the United Kingdom” isn’t scary?


December 28, 2009

Music Resolution 2009 – Doves/Super Furry Animals, Manchester Central, 18th December

Join me and my New Year’s Resolution to go to at least one gig every month of 2009.

Yey! Did it! One musical resolution kept even if it was by the skin of my teeth sometimes. And what a good way to end the whole shebang, with a homecoming (ish) gig by one of the most underrated bands of the decade – Doves. Not just a homecoming, but an over-the-top, bells and whistles extravaganza, featuring big screens and multiple cameras, suggesting that it might just be possible to relive this experience again. Surely this will be coming out as a live DVD?

If not it’ll be a wasted opportunity, that’s for sure. It’s really saying something that the Super Furry Animals were outdone in the props and tricks department. With a relatively short half hour slot, there wasn’t time for the full range of SFA tricks, but they did kick off ‘Slow Life’ with a man in a John Lennon mask waving signs reading “Applause” and “Woah” at the audience who, to their credit, applauded and woahed on request. It was mostly bigger hits on display, and they still possess the almighty cathartic tune which is ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’ – a track which never seems to lack relevance, sadly.

And so to the main attraction – a band who seemed more delighted and overwhelmed than perhaps any other I have eve encountered live. The three Doves – Jimi, Andy and Jez – all grew up in one of Manchester’s many commuter (i.e. bitch) towns, and headlining the 10,000 capacity venue that they stubbornly refer to by its old (i.e. proper) name of GMEX, clearly meant a hell of a lot to them. Thus they cracked out a wide ranging and excellently chosen set.

Tracks like ‘Jetsteams’ and ‘Kingdom Of Rust’ from their latest albums sounded as familiar as the older stuff, and were just well received. The latter, the band’s self described “country song” even inspired a moshpit which surprised Jez into comment. Then there was ‘Black And White Town’ – a song which perfectly captures living in those satellite bitch towns. Few songs sum up my own teenage years so effortlessly. A beered up, enthusiastic Mancunian crowd is one of the most exciting you can find yourself in, and fortunately Doves don’t seem to attract the total dickheads which the more laddish likes of Oasis and The Courtneers attract.

Certainly those laddish bands would never even consider enlisting the London Bulgarian Choir, whose presence gave soaring harmonies to the already utterly wonderful likes of ‘The Cedar Room’ and the usually instrumental ‘Firesuite’ which sounded quite simply epic. Leaving the choir to perform in he gap between the main set and the encore was a masterstroke as they held the audience’s attention through their interweaving harmonies and the sheer passion of their performance.

And exactly the same could be said of Doves themselves. They’ve not quite achieved the break through that fellow (almost) Mancs Elbow managed last year, but it doesn’t matter – on home terrain they rule like kings, and it was an excellent show, one which has reignited my love for them (a love which has lapsed a little recently) and which demonstrates that bands who care, about their music and about their fans, can sometimes get what they deserve.


December 20, 2009

Songs Of 2009 – A Playlist

http://open.spotify.com/user/hollyzone2/playlist/2r6V7dnDKcqOIkROSuB5Mf

I can’t be arsed to rank them, so this is a playlist comprising of the songs in a reasonably coherent order. On track per artist. To my eternal shame I actually really enjoyed not one, but two Black Eyed Peas songs this year. Sorry.

- Lady Gaga – ‘Poker Face’ (just shading ‘Bad Romance’)
- Black Eyed Peas – ‘Meet Me Halfway’ (despite having some of the worst rapping I have heard from them, and that’s saying something – ‘Boom Boom Pow’ was also enjoyable)
- Shakira – ‘She Wolf’ (howling in pop songs, brilliant)
- Florence And The Machine – ‘Drumming Song’
- Marina And The Diamonds – ‘Mowgli’s Road’
- Dizze Rascal – ‘Bonkers’
- Deadmau5 ft Rob Swire – ‘Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff’
- Royksopp ft Karin Dreijer Andersson – ‘This Must Be It’
- Little Boots – ‘Remedy’ (would have been number one most of the year if Girls Aloud had released it)
- La Roux – ‘Tigerlily’ (cannot work out why this wasn’t released as a single)
- Peaches – ‘I Feel Cream’
- Kap Bambino – ‘Dead Lazers’
- Fever Ray – ‘Dry And Dusty’
- The Juan MacLean – ‘The Simple Life’
- Au Revoir Simone – ‘All Or Nothing’
- Miike Snow – ‘Silvia’
- Yeah Yeah Yeahs – ‘Zero’ (dancefloor tune of the year)
- Ladyhawke – ‘Magic’ (cheating perhaps as this was on her 2008 album, but it was released as a single this year, and might just be my favourite song)
- Passion Pit – ‘Eyes As Candles’
- Muse – ‘Undisclosed Desires’
- Doves – ‘Jetstream’
- Patrick Wolf – ‘Oblivion’ (there are few songs which wouldn’t be improved by copying this one and including Tilda Swinton giving the singer a bollocking)
- Franz Ferdinand – ‘Lucid Dreams’
- The Phantom Band – ‘The Howling’
- Empire Of The Sun – ‘We Are The People’
- The Big Pink – ‘Dominos’ (it probably helps I don’t watch too much TV as I believe this has been hideously overplayed on adverts)
- Metric – ‘Gimme Sympathy’
- The xx – ‘Intro’ (never has an intro been so brilliant, and I include ‘CV’ from Robyn’s last album in that)
- Bat For Lashes – ‘Pearl’s Dream’
- The Cribs – ‘We Share The Same Skies’ (aka Match Of The Day 2’s goals song)
- Cymbals Eat Guitars – ’...And The Hazy Sea’
- Manic Street Preachers – ‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’ (surely the song title of the year?)
- Brand New – ‘At The Bottom’
- Future Of The Left – ‘Arming Eritrea’
- Mono – ‘The Battle To Heaven’


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