Archive for April, 2007

A technological question…

… that others who know a bit more than me may be able to answer.

In the last few days my computer’s developed a propensity for switching itself off at random. No warning, no nothing, just off. I’ve checked the connections, they seem fine and it gives no warning it’s about to go – the machine doesn’t seem like its overheating and nothing starts slowing down.

Although the machine itself is getting close to 3 years, and was quite advanced when built by a friend (who, sadly, I’ve lost contact with) it had a complete makeover last summer, Windows was reinstalled and the latest gizmos downloaded. It had a spring clean a couple of months ago, and I’m due to give it another in a bit. But I’m not entirely sure that’ll work.

Any suggestions. I’m a bit baffled by this one.

Mrs Mangle would be turning in her grave. If she wasn’t fictional

At the risk of sounding like a Daily Mail reader, I’m outraged. How dare the BBC let this sort of thing happen. There should be some kind of national law requiring them to keep Neighbours on just after the lunchtime news and Newsround.

I don’t care that ITV or Five might buy it. Karl Kennedy wouldn’t want it, and neither do I. Like Formula One, it won’t be the same with adverts for starters and Channel 5 would probably turn it into a porn film.

First Moira Stewart. Then Neighbours. I’m a passionate advocate of the Beeb, but they don’t make things easy for me to like them.

UPDATE: It seems Matthew also things this is NOT OPTIMUM.

Alan Ball

It’s always a bit odd when somebody quite famous dies unexpectedly. It’s even more shocking if it was a celebrity you’ve got a lot of time for. So to hear Alan Ball had left this world behind this morning was a bit of a shock, like the football equivalent of John Peel if you will.

Jamie K and Simon Hattenstone remember his less than successful periods, and it may be fair to say that my club, Exeter City, weren’t the best side in the league under his management.

But, to somebody who was just becoming an impressionable young teenager at the time, Alan Ball’s written his place in Grecian folklore. He kept us in the old third division, he signed Ronnie Jepson and he had a real passion for the game. As one supporter I interview today said, his abiding memory of Bally would be the wee lad throwing his trademark flat cap on the ground when things weren’t quite going his way.

But there are two things he’ll be really remembered for at City, Exeter. The first is doing the double over Plymouth Argyle. That’s an achievement very few other managers have ever reached (and aren’t likely to reach for a good while yet). Depressing as it is, we don’t get to gloat over the Greens very often. That was one of the few periods in our history.

The second, to me, is just as important, perhaps more so. We had a nippy little young winger called Martin ‘Buster’ Phillips break into our first team. When Alan Ball took over as manager of Manchester City he signed Exeter’s teenage wunderkid for a cool half a million.

Now Buster was a very good player for City, make no mistake. But whether he was worth that much is highly debatable, and he certainly never reached the 10 million pound transfer fee Alan Ball predicted.

But there’s more to this than just another manager paying over the odds for a lower league player. City were going through one of their all too familiar financial crises at the time, and Bally was aware of this. By convincing Francis Lee to shell out the cash, he effectively saved the Grecians from going under. At the time that was our 1990s ball number 64 moment [1].

For those two memories alone, Alan Ball deserves to be honoured. No doubt one of those forms will be in the same of something pre-kick off in our final match of the season against Southport on Saturday. With a bumper crowd expected, it’ll be hair on the back of your neck time.

He might not have been the greatest Stoke, Man City or Pompey manager ever, but take a look on this thread on the unofficial Exeter forums to see just how much the man will be missed in one UK city.

[1] When Tony Cascarino pulled our number out of the hat to meet Manchester United at Old Trafford a couple of seasons ago.

Watch Star Wars, steal a spaceship

It had to happen eventually: somebody makes a link between campus killer Cho Seung-Hui and violent films, in this case Oldboy and John Woo movies.

I’ve seen Oldboy. It’s a film I’d recommend, but you’ll need a strong stomach. When I came out of the cinema my first reaction was that I’d seen an excellent film, not let’s shoot a lot of people.

In my film collection I’ve got the following movies which depict fairly graphic violence, or have a strong killing theme: Memento, Goodfellas, The Godfather trilogy, Heathers, Audition, Lady Vengeance, Amores Perros, and Taxi Driver. I’ll also throw in Dogville, which is quite unpleasant in places, and The Searchers, Day of the Jackal and The Talented Mr. Ripley because of their amoral protagonists. Funnily enough, I’ve not felt the urge to shoot anybody yet. [1]

If, and this is a big if, anybody was inspired to commit murder by a film or reenact parts of Oldboy, they’ve clearly got serious mental health issues. Funnily enough, that’s one thing most people are agreed on about Cho.

That doesn’t stop some people from trying, chief among them one of the most idiotic pieces I’ve read from Stephen Hunter in the Washington Post, which is deserving of a good fisking.

He gets off to a great start:

So the movies seem like a propitious place to start, given the photographs in the package Cho sent to NBC News in his now infamous posthumous statement of principles. Thus “Oldboy” must feature prominently in the discussion, even if no one has yet confirmed that Cho saw it

Excellent. So, you’ve no idea if the killer saw the film, but that’s not going to stop you writing an article on it. As Ordo points out, Dr. Dre’s carried out a similar pose.

On the surface, it seems a natural fit, at least in the way it can be presumed that Cho’s hyper-fervid brain worked. It’s a Korean story — he would have passed on the subtitles and listened to it in his native language — of unjust persecution and bloody revenge

Ah that’s why. Cho was Korean, the film’s Korean. A natural link. Just as Foster’s markets itself as an Australian lager, therefore all Australians drink Foster’s. And because there’s violence, there must be a link.

A narcissist with a persecution complex would identify with its plot: A man named Oh Dae Su is simply snatched off the streets and made to endure 20 years in a cell without explanation. Released to the rubble of a life interrupted, he begins a quest to understand and achieve vengeance, which he finally does with a great spurt of violence, most of it employed with a hammer in extreme close quarters

I’m sure there are hundreds of narcissists with persecution complexes watching that film going, “That’s me, that is.”

But there are problems as well. For one, “Oldboy” wasn’t a gun picture. The only gun in it is a derringer that figures in the denouement. It’s a movie about the bone-shattering force of hammers on limbs and skulls and the physical exhaustion of fighting. Its violence, though pervasive, is never beautiful or graceful. The violence is never idealized; you cannot look at it and be seduced by it. The capacity of a movie to enthrall, then gull, and finally seduce is not deployed. For that we must turn to other sources

Hang on, you’ve just said Cho could identify perfectly with Oldboy. Now you’ve just contradicted yourself and said he wouldn’t be seduced by it.

Many of Cho’s pictures — 11 out of 43 — featured guns. And when I looked at them, another name struck me as far more relevant than Park Chan Wook. That’s John Woo.

Woo, the Hong Kong director now working in the United States (“Face/Off” was one of his most successful films), almost redefined the action genre with a series of Hong Kong gangster movies made in the late ’80s and early ’90s, starring the Chinese actor Chow Yun-Fat and virtually every Beretta ever shipped to the Far East. As with the Park movie, it is not certain that Cho saw Woo’s films, though any kid taken by violent popular culture in the past 15 or 20 years almost certainly would have, on DVD, alone in the dark, in his bedroom or downstairs after the family’s gone to bed

Oh good Lord. Again, no idea if he’s seen John Woo films but on the basis that everybody else has, allegedly, it’s ok to assume Cho has. And, to be honest, John Woo isn’t the only director who uses guns excessively. But again, because he’s Asian, the link is obviously evident.

They’re not family fare; they’re dreamy, angry adolescent fare. They were gun-crazed ballets, full of whirling imagery, grace, masculine power and a strange but perhaps not irrelevant religiosity. They were close to outlaw works of art: They celebrated violence even as they aesthetized it, streamlined it and made it seem fabulous fun. Their possible influence on Cho can be clearly seen in 11 of the photos that feature handguns.

So only angry adolescents can enjoy John Woo films. Funny, I’ve seen Face/Off a few times, most recently a year ago. I quite enjoyed it again.

Note also we have a possible influence that can clearly be seen. I despair, I honestly do.

Woo pioneered postures with guns not seen in movies until that time (discounting cornball pre-World War II westerns). He was the first modern filmmaker (though there was Don Siegel’s “Madigan” of 1968) to embrace the stylistic advantages of putting a gun in both hands of his hero, which became almost his signature. So when you see any of the famous photos of Cho with his arms outstretched and a gun in each hand, you cannot help but think, if you’ve seen any of them, of the Hong Kong gangster movies and the super-cool Chow.

But it goes even further than the resemblance between the photos of the blasphemy and the movies of the ’80s. In at least three regards, Cho’s activities so closely reflect the Woo oeuvre that it seems somewhat fair to conclude that in his last moments, before he blew his brains out, he was shooting a John Woo movie in his head.

Right, so far you’ve built your argument on suppositions and your own conclusions, which naturally is convincing evidence that he was imagining he was in a John Woo film. Because you said so. And unless Stephen Hunter was actually there, which its fair to assume he wasn’t, how the hell does he know it looked like a John Woo film. It may have more closely resembled a Martin Scorsese feature.

First is the peculiar nature of the gun violence. Cho, it seems, wasn’t a sniper, a marksman. He wasn’t shooting carefully, at a distance. He wasn’t, one can assume, aiming. He was shooting very much like Chow in the Woo pictures, with a gun in each hand, as witnesses state, up close, very fast. Woo saw gunfights in musical terms: His primary conceit was the shootout as dance number, with great attention paid to choreography, the movement of both actors within the frame. He loved to send his shooters flying through the air in surprising ways, far more poetically than in any real-life scenario. He frequently diverted to slow motion and he specialized in shooting not merely to kill, but to riddle — his shooters often blast their opponents five and six times. Perhaps all that was at play in Cho’s mind as well.

So, you’re a stressed out person with mental problems about to go on a killing spree. Naturally, you’ll be thinking how can I make this look like a musical as you pull the trigger. Now I’m no expert, but if I had two guns in my hand and was a bit stressed chances are I’d be firing them very fast as well.

Second is the nature of the guns themselves. Cho’s choice of weapons may well have been based on movie influences. The first and most famous was the Glock 19. This is the mid-size Glock, not the smallest for deep concealment (in pockets or under shirts), not the largest for maximum firepower, but basically a service automatic for undercover men who can carry guns comfortably in holsters, with a 15-shot magazine. The Glock, of course, is ubiquitous in popular culture as the firearm of choice of both the police and the bad guys, but it doesn’t figure much, if at all, in the works of Woo, which were made before the Glock really took over. But the Beretta is about $200 more expensive than a Glock, and when Cho went to the Roanoke gun store, he may well have found it beyond his budget. Both guns fire 9mm cartridges; at the receiving end, the impact is the same.

His second gun is clearly another budget choice, a .22-caliber pistol that sells for about $300 and most closely replicates the plasticized aesthetic of the modern service pistol, the Glock, the Beretta or the Sig Sauer. It’s a Walther P22 — its design derived from a larger Walther 9mm service pistol, called a P99 — a gun that looks more powerful than it is (it’s still extremely lethal). Perhaps he chose it to resemble Chow in the photos he knew he would be taking of himself.

And no other film ever uses a Walther. Bond mentions them a lot.

There are other weird handgun concordances in the work of Woo and the frenzy of Cho. For example, many have noted the peculiarity of the young man’s careful removal of the serial numbers from the two pistols. What was the point of that? The point may be found in “The Killer,” Woo’s greatest movie, where the hero Jeffrey Chow (Chow Yun-Fat) is handed guns by his best friend before going off on a terrible job that will result in tragedy for all: “They’re clean guns. No serial numbers. Untraceable.” When he ground off the serial numbers, Cho may have been turning himself into Jeffrey Chow.

Err, again, there’s any number of reasons why he could have ground the serial numbers off.

Then there’s the issue of the two guns, one for each hand. Cho could certainly have done as much damage with the single Glock, given how quickly one can learn (and you strongly suspect he practiced) to reload them proficiently. That answer comes from Woo’s 1992 “Hard-Boiled,” or rather it is codified there, while evident in all the gangster pictures: “Give a guy a gun, he thinks he’s Superman. Give him two and he thinks he’s God.”

Or maybe he just wanted to shoot as many people as possible?

The third weird Woo vibration echoing through the Cho madness is thematic. “The Killer,” for example, is almost lush with religious themes, as it tells a story of redemption through sacrifice. In the film, Jeffrey Chow has accidentally blinded a singer in an assassination. Consumed with guilt, he becomes her guardian and sets out to raise money to get her a restorative operation, which compels him to take on yet crazier and less survivable jobs. In a wild finish, he and a police officer, who’s become his only ally, engage in a massive gunfight against evil gangsters in a church, through which, like symbols of Christian grace, doves flap majestically. Jeffrey Chow dies, saving the singer’s life, and the money he’s secured restores her vision. Many critics noted Jeffrey Chow’s initials — J.C. — and that he is frequently seen in Christlike postures of the sort Cho later affected in at least one of his photos.

I’m sorry, exactly where did Cho blind a singer then save her sight? I know plenty of people with the initials JC. And, frankly, it’s not as if there aren’t hundreds of Christ-like images in other films and art.

“The Killer” also features an intellectual posture that might have been extremely attractive to Cho’s mental state. In it, the killer is presented as both hero and victim, rather than villain. His difference from other men, his moral nature, is repeatedly stressed. “He’s no ordinary assassin,” a cop says almost lovingly about him. “Fate controls everything,” the killer muses, seeing himself as a puppet reacting to the larger forces beyond his control. “I always save the last bullet either for myself or my enemy.”

And that’s a theme that’s clearly never been used in any other film. Ever.

These similarities between fact and fiction, of course, raise striking issues that all creative artists — but especially those who deal in stories that offer visceral violence as part of their pleasure principle — must deal with. Woo built engines of excitement and stimulation that pleased millions and made him a wealthy, internationally known man. Yet now, all these years later, a young man might have used them as the vessel of his rage and alienation, taken the icon of the movie gun and moved from the intimacy of the DVD player and the arena of his imagination to the public arena, and there reenacted the ritual. This time the carnage is for real.

Yes, because I’m sure John Woo was hoping, secretly, that one day somebody would chose to reenact his films. And despite the use of the word might here, Hunter accepts this all as fact. What an utter load of bollocks.

I’ve heard other psychiatrists saying Cho rationalised his thinking by fitting what he believed to justify his actions.

Funnily enough, Stephen Hunter’s got an argument where he takes his conclusion then fits everything else in around it to justify that conclusion.

[1] By far my favourite film in my collection is Amelie, though.

Anything you say may be taken down and quoted

Adam has an interesting post on the media’s efforts to contact friends, family and survivors of the Virginia massacre [1]. BBC journo Robin Hamman then follows on with a personal account of the dilemmas of using the internet to contact students at the university.

I’m not sure if this is definitely the first big scale event where journalists attempt to utilize first-hand blogger experiences but it certainly isn’t the last, I’m sure.

Several months ago student Gavin Britton was found dead in Exeter after a night out. This was a big issue both locally and in Gavin’s hometown, and it made a few lines in several national papers.

What was interesting was the speed with which several journalists found his Myspace site, then liberally lifted from both his profile and the tributes left by his friends [2].

For the journalist, such information must seem like a boon. It’s a quick and easy way of getting what you need about the person and translating into copy.

Two aspects are striking here. The first is accuracy. I’ve always been taught, and held the view, that while the internet is an incredibly useful tool it’s not particularly reliable or accurate and there’s no substitute for verifying the information yourself.

As Chris White points out, there was considerable outrage from Gavin’s friends after an article from the Basingstoke Gazette portrayed Gavin as a fast living, heavy drinking teenager. The comments, both on Myspace and the paper’s website, suggest that Gavin was no difference than any other teenager. If the journalist had contacted one of Gavin’s friends there were had been more balance in the article, I think.

This leads onto the second point. Given the large number of blogs online, it’s almost inevitable journalists will pick up on some posts by those close to the action, as it were. In the past I’ve used technorati and delicious to pick up a couple of, admittedly small and localised, stories and have several blogs in my RSS feeds purely as story sources. It’s something any web-savvy journalist should be doing.

But when it comes to contacting the bloggers, is there an etiquette or a ‘right’ way to go about things? Not all bloggers are media savvy and chances are many will be surprised a journalist’s stumbled onto their site. It’s often easy to forget what you post can, and often is, read by anyone. Your blog may, 99.9% of the time, be of interest or understood by close friends. But maybe there’s one time you write about something of national interest and with the right words in the post, bam, suddenly it’s top of the search engine hitlist.

Perhaps this isn’t such an issue as long as the topic isn’t an emotive one. Sadly, it all too often is.

With any death, be it Gavin’s or the 32 students and staff at Virginia, feelings will be running high, emotions all over the place. The blogger may be writing as therapy, still coming to terms with his or her feelings when there’s suddenly a whole host of very persistent journalists clamouring for an interview. It’s probably not going to help that person’s feelings.

The journalist, on the other hand, is just doing their job: trying to tell the news and get decent reaction or even knowledge from those on the ground. In the quest to be first, or to get that exclusive interview, occasionally humanity goes out the window.

But it’s difficult to say exactly what, if any, is the best way to contact the blogger. I’d favour a private email, but even then how do you begin to write it so you don’t sound like exactly all the other journalists? How do you convince the blogger your intentions are genuine, that you’ll tell the story in a mature, sensible manner, without sensationalising it [3], that you’re acting as the fourth estate and their story deserves a wider audience without sounding like, well, a complete arsehole?

There’s no definite way, or right answer. But it would be better for all concerned if one was found. Livejournal, blogger, facebook and Myspace are just starting to become a key part of journalistic research. More bloggers or ‘ordinary’ members of the public will get contacted by journalists looking for a quote or further information.

The more often this happens, and the more often journalists either harass the blogger or lift words without permission or take them utterly out of context, the less likely the internet community is likely to co-operate in the future. There’s a good chance that the media could well and truly shoot themselves in the foot and alienate a vast, intelligent resource in their desire to move the story on or find a new angle.

While, say Tim Worstall, probably wouldn’t be too upset if a reporter contacted him out of the blue to do a quick piece on a unique bit of economic commentary he’s done on government policy [4], a less high profile blogger isn’t likely to react so favourably.

On a quick tangent, copyright would also seem to be an issue that’s not been discussed. Sticking with Tim as our example, he uses a creative commons deed when it comes to his blog. I suspect the majority of bloggers haven’t even thought about copyright [5] but as its up on the net anyway can access it, and very quickly utilise their Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V commands on their keyboards [6].

Copyright is one area of media law I’m not massively au fait with. Would a blogger, or even a Myspace user have any cause to recompense if a journalist lifted from their blog? In the case of the latter, would News International technically own the copyright? And would it even be worth their while to pursue the reporter, legally?

Robin writes about the ethical internal dilemma he faced contacting one of the students who’d written about the Virginia massacres. It’s a dilemma many more journalists are going to be facing as the media continues to wake up to the power and breadth of blogging.

[1] Via Martin Stabe

[2] Journalists did something similar with the Myspace site of one of the people arrested, then later released over the Ipswich prostitute murders.

[3] It should be impossible to sensationalise such events, given that the basics are pretty darn sensational in the first place, but many media organisations still seem to manage it.

[4] Although I’d imagine he’d be pretty annoyed if his blog post was just lifted wholescale without any accreditation.

[5] Note to self: I really must get something similar for this blog. Not that for a moment I’d imagine anyone would be massively keen to publish my inane ramblings.

[6] And there’s no doubt his goes on. Matt, who works in publishing, has told me about the time a manuscript carrying no small resemblance to a short story he’d posted online landed on his desk.

Burning books

Normally, I’m reasonably pro-EU but having just read Devil Kitchen’s thorough deconstruction of the EU’s efforts on their proposals for combating racism and xenophobia.

It’s the classic case of something with good intentions throwing up more, potentially sinister, problems.

Unity puts it best when he says:

“The suggestion that the Holocaust was a lie is one of such manifest absurdity that the very last thing we should be doing is trying to ban people from expressing such opinions. Since when did it become the job of governments to try prevent people from making complete and utter arses of themselves and telling the world that they’re a bunch of fascist, Jew-hating, nut-jobs. If anything we should be encouraging them speak up, simply because it makes it stupidly easy to identify and ridicule the scumbag.”

DK has a full roundup of opinion, which includes a fairly diverse range of bloggers from all across the political spectrum who all seem to agree on the central tenet of the problem. It’s a rare time when you’ll get Unity, Devil’s Kitchen, Chris Dillow, Iain Dale and Tim Worstall all agreeing on the same topic, broadly.

Anything I’ve got to say would simply parrot what others have said, so I’ll just point you in the direction of the humble Devil and let you click around.

Mental, innit: the bleeding heart liberal’s obvious response

If you’re innocent, you have nothing to fear. Unless you’re mental unwell, in which case you’ll be locked up.

The government’s mental health bill, currently being debated in Parliament, makes me nervous. Very nervous indeed. In it you’re suddenly dispensing with the idea that someone is innocent until proved guilty, not to mention several basic human rights. Is this even compatible with human rights law?

I can see, and appreciate, what the government are trying to do here. It’s a tricky area: if someone appears to have a genuine and very real capacity to inflict harm or death on others then there’s also an argument for keeping them locked away, safe from hurting us or themselves. It’s a very utilitarian argument.

But two objections immediately spring out. The first is the thin end of the wedge argument. Who decides when somebody is a risk, and at what stage they can be locked up? Once you lock a few up, what’s the prevent some bright spark from deciding the policy is working well, so the remit can be extended. No, too dangerous for my liking.

Secondly, the individual may pose a serious threat. But, supposing they were allowed to remain free and never carried that threat of violence through? You’re depriving that person of their liberty.

A quick tangent. There are social factors which would suggest certain families or individuals are more likely to turn to crime or drugs than others. What, at a basic level, is the difference between locking up these people, or people with mental illnesses? After all, these families or individuals more disposed to crime could easily be removed, and a generation of career criminals, who would cause society endless problems, could be avoided. Should we lock these up as well? Or how about the wreckless driver who r is known to use their mobile phone while driving, or is simply a bad driver. These, it could be argued, are more likely to cause death by dangerous driving? Should they be locked up or have their licence revoked to avoid the risk of this happening? Again, what’s the difference between the two?

These are unusual, uncommon crimes. It’s not every day a psychopath attacks a family with a hammer, say. There is the argument that one is too much but unless you’ve got an authority who are prepared to take control and risk manage to such a high degree, people will slip through the system [1]. And even if the controls are tight, if one again slips through, there will be further calls, fresh legislation in response, the system tightens up and more liberty is deprived.

I live with somebody who happens to be working on issues surrounding preventative measures for mental health at the moment. I also know somebody who works in this area. I’ve spoken to both of them today – they’re both against it.

Ok, so they aren’t representative of the whole medical body but at least they’re able to speak with some amount of authority on the topic. They’ve both emphasised early treatments or better systems in place to spot those whose mental health is likely to reach this stage [2]. But, as one of them said, the problem with this is it’s difficult to quantify if its been successfully or not. Those who are successfully spotted and treated early on generally don’t go on to kill somebody, so there’s no bar by which you can judge a success rate or not. And with a government that places emphasis on targets and figures, it’s very difficult to see how this fits in with their vision.

[1] And this isn’t wishing to belittle, or be insensitive to those who’ve lost loved ones in cases that government’s trying to avoid.

[2] And yes, I’m well aware this is a massive generalisation, but I really haven’t got time to write further. I’m due somewhere in about 20 minutes.


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