Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Saxual Frustration

Really I ought to compose some kind of long screed about how ridiculous the Swedish Pirate Bay case is, but actually I can't think of anything I didn't already say in the cartoon I did earlier this evening.

In other news, last week I finally took my aunt's old alto sax, which I have been fooling with for the last year and which bits keep mysteriously falling off of, to the shop, and was told that it's basically a write-off, owing to age and having been crap to start with (there is little love for the 1970's Mexican Conn Shooting Star among sax experts, apparently). Thanks to the rather wonderful Arts Council Take It Away scheme, I have managed to get hold of a shiny* new Trevor James Revolution II alto and am slowly in the process of realising that sax addiction is a very real and underappreciated social problem. I am trying not to think about tenors. Or baritones. Or, God forbid, basses. First I need to learn the alto properly. This will involve being able to play for more than two hours without my lower lip turning to jelly and rendering me incapable of performing. Ow.

In other other news, I saw Daren Callow playing at the River Bar on Friday night, and he was, as ever, excellent., though sadly this time around there was none of the loop pedal loveliness we got last time I saw him at the Montague Arms. Also on the bill was this guy DiceJar, who manages to create the aura of an invisible heavy metal band around him when he sings and plays with an acoustic, only in a thoroughly excellent manner.

* NB - Mine is not actually shiny, as I got the matt finish one, so most of it is in fact not shiny at all. I had wanted a normal gold lacquer one but it was more expensive and didn't come with a free stand; the guy in the shop offered me an equal priced black one with black keywork but it didn't seem to play as well - for what little I know about it - and more importantly I really don't want a 'ooh look at me' funny colour sax until I can actually play the thing properly. As I said to the bloke in the shop, if I get a job in a heavy metal band I'll come back to him. Mind you it was lovely to look at.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Goldacre, Barnett, and the Death of Authority

Ben Goldacre's spat with Jeni Barnett and LBC cuts directly to the heart of one of the major things that is wrong with the world - for me if not for everyone - the death of authority through its abuse by those in power.

To summarise the spat, if you are one of the three remaining people with an internet connection and a grasp of English who has not yet heard about it, Goldacre called Jeni Barnett out for talking a lot of dangerous nonsense about the MMR vaccine on her LBC radio show, and included a long audio excerpt from the show to prove his point. Rather than responding in the sensible way, accepting that Barnett and LBC were guilty of spreading life-threateningly stupid misinformation, and apologising or something, LBC instead threatened Goldacre with legal action and forced him to take the excerpt - the evidence which proved his claim - down. Thoughtful and intelligent people all over the internet went slightly bezerk over this, with numerous repostings of the audio, including on Wikileaks, and a collective effort to transcribe what was actually said, all of which is neatly summarised in Goldacre's follow-up post.

Goldacre is absolutely in the right. There is no evidence that there is anything wrong with the MMR vaccine. There is however plenty of evidence to show that people's increasing unwillingness to have their children vaccinated has led to a resurgence of measles, which can kill. So by casting doubt on the safety of the vaccine, Barnett and other media scaremongerers have quite possibly contributed to the future death of some child from measles. This is to say the least grossly irresponsible. Further, LBC's response - to try and silence him with legal action - was catastrophically counterproductive and would have been even more irresponsible had it actually had a cat's chance in hell of working. But this very response is itself part of the overall problem with authority.

LBC are a radio station. This puts them in a position of power and effective authority - including the power to broadcast or not broadcast what they choose. Barnett's defence - to the extent that she has one - is that no-one really knows either way whether or not MMR vaccines are dangerous, and presumably this too is the line that LBC are taking. By taking this line on the radio, Barnett was invoking her own authority - as a big shot broadcaster on radio - in such a way as to potentially cause some listeners to agree with her and not have their children vaccinated. Clearly, Barnett took this line as a result of her inability to understand authority of a different kind - the authority that comes with the scientific method. As a man who has made a career from championing the authority of science over the authority of media, this was an obvious barn-door type target for Goldacre, and the spat wrote itself from there.

The problem is that different kinds of authority get conflated. It is hard for many people to distinguish between the kind of authority that should be questioned (media, politics, the law) and the kind (science) that should - after careful reflection - largely just be accepted. There were no WMDs in Iraq. But the earth is not flat.

Goldacre's aside on the law is pretty revealing:

It’s been interesting to learn about the law from a dozen or so passing lawyers who have popped up to comment. Basically, there is no clear answer on whether posting 44 minutes of foolishness for discussion is legal or not, and the only way to find out is to go to court. Now, given that lawyers are expensive, and the loser is probably liable for the winner’s legal fees, it strikes to me that a company like Global Radio worth over half a billion pounds has a bit of an advantage in this situation, since losing, for me, would mean losing, well, I don’t actually have anything to lose.

My point is, without being too Billy Bragg about it all: this is a law that apparently works a bit better for wealthy people.

I think it is reasonable to find this frustrating. In medicine we have protocols: we try to lay out very clearly and simply how something works, what the likely outcomes are, the best moves, and so on. I don’t see why this would be difficult in law. Doctors and academics have been bending over backwards to make their work readily accessible and understandable to people outside the profession for many years, with considerable success. Lawyers, meanwhile, with the assistance of judges and those who make laws, seem sometimes to make their money out of obfuscation, out of the uncertainties and continent-sized grey areas. To me that’s not just unhealthy, it also feels eerily unfamiliar, to come across an industry where so many key players seem to have a paradoxical interest in making things not work.

It is hardly a new idea that the entire legal profession seems to be built on obfuscation and on structuring things for those in positions of power such that the desired outcome is forced through regardless of irrelevancies such as facts or justice. So why indeed should anyone trust the law when it behaves this way as standard? Yet the authority of the law is very real in physical terms and adds up to actual fines or prison sentences for those on the wrong end of it. Goldacre knew he was in the right morally but was also right to take the excerpt down after the legal threat, as it could well have cost him a huge sum of money had he lost a court case over it.

There was another example very recently, when Home Secretary Jacqui Smith criticised Professor David Nutt for trivialising the dangers of ecstasy. The truth of the matter is clearly stated in the BBC report: Nutt, writing in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, had said, "Drug harm can be equal to harms in other parts of life. There is not much difference between horse-riding and ecstasy." The report goes on to give figures which clearly demonstrate Nutt's point: horse-riding accounts for 100 deaths every year, while ecstasy causes only 30. Why then is there not a huge government campaign to stamp out this dangerous trend of horse-riding? Of course, Ecstasy is a drug and drugs are wrong mmkay as we all know, so long as they are not special drugs that are not really drugs, like alcohol or caffeine. The fact that hundred of thousands of people take E - and other drugs - on a regular basis and are fine does not deter the politicians' determination to wage their unwinnable and destructive War on Drugs; facts and science can all be damned if they get in the way of this predetermined policy. No wonder then that hardly anyone has the remotest trust left in politicians.

Or anyone, really. We are lied to by those in authority on a regular and daily basis. Ludicrously incorrect claims are routinely made in order to fuel political positions, especially in the Middle East, where the entire Iraq war was waged on the basis of false claims about WMDs, where both Palestinians and Zionists tell themselves heavily edited versions of history in order to justify their own present political views, and where certain Iranians continue to maintain that Iran, uniquely among world populations, does not contain any gay people. More generally, advertising bombards us daily with highly questionable suggestions about what products we do or do not need, and the whole current economic crisis resulted from the entire global finance industry telling itself and the rest of us a bunch of lies about what did and did not constitute an acceptable risk. Add into the mix a few mendacious scientists like Hwang Woo-Suk who are actually guilty of telling lies in the same of science, and it is easy to see why people are increasingly wary of trusting anyone in any position of authority ever says on any subject.

For people like Jeni Barnett, who are obviously not all that bright, it is clearly too much to ask for her to be capable of distinguishing between trustworthy and untrustworthy authority; yet her position of power as a broadcaster means she can spread life-threateningly stupid ideas across London safe in the knowledge that her employers will defend her to the hilt. For mendacious politicians like Jacqui Smith, it is to her clear advantage that there is no authority anywhere, for this leaves her free to cherry-pick the conclusions she wishes to come to and construct the arguments behind them later; with no real authority anwhere she can always defend against any attack without having to worry about facts or details. The entirety of the legal profession finds all of this obfuscation and lack of clarity or authority highly lucrative; advertising would of course be dead if it were not allowed to mislead people.

As for the rest of us, we must as usual work it out for ourselves as best we can. And there is a ray of hope, culturally. It's something to do with the screen you are looking at and the fact that people like Ben Goldacre - whose authority is built on trust that has been built up over time and is thoroughly deserved - are only a click away. It's a very new ray of hope in the grand scheme of things. Let's hope it lasts.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Various Items

Item - Tonight I was lucky enough to play at Vashti And Friends at the Hideaway in Tufnell Park, one of those rare lovely gigs where everything is completely laid back and relaxed, the music is all good, you don't want to drink more beers than you have money in your pocket to pay for, and you get to play everything - something you've rehearsed with a friend, something of your own, and something completely random you were just asked to do the night before. This was good.

Item - I am feeling quite strange right now.

Item - I got to have Tom Fry playing bass with me on 'Drinking On My Own' tonight. Since he absolutely has to be one of the best bass players around at the moment, this was just great. As a bassist of sorts myself, with a big enough head to think I am not all that bad on it really, I am horribly, horribly picky about bassists, so to have someone I would happily pay to teach me bass doing the job was a fine fine thing. Plus Gemma Fuller was there with her trumpet, so I didn't have to make silly noises in lieu of an actual proper solo on the solo verse. Another win.

Item - No, really. Strange. I'm not sure what it's all about.

Item - Life among the London Underground buskers is more than a bit odd at the moment. One of our number committed suicide not so long ago and another one, I hear, was recently rushed to hospital following a heart attack suffered just after playing a pitch, where he remains. The fact that TfL's recent management of the scheme is nothing short of disastrous (banning us from selling CDs just before Christmas, making us pay to phone in and book pitches for no obviously clear reason, attempting to stop us from sharing pitch cancellations among ourselves on an ad hoc basis, etc) is surely coincidental. But it's not good right now for the buskers. There were a few buskers at the gig tonight as it happens. Alcohol was drunk, and a few tears were shed at emotional moments. I'm not going into detail. Things will and must improve, but until they do. Fuck. I don't bloody know.

Item - You see? This is what I am talking about.

Item - Well, maybe not. I was going to link to all kinds of interesting things on the internet that I have seen recently, but you have probably seen them already, and if you haven't, you probably will, if that is the kind of thing you like to do. And if not, there's little point me linking them here, since you won't be bothered either way. I'm not talking about that video of the stoat, nor of the one about the cat on the piano. But whatever I am talking about I can't really remember anyway, so it probably doesn't matter.

Item - Posting this here means I don't post it anywhere else. This, my friends, is what your own blog is for.

Item - That's probably enough items for now.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Vie De Merde

I told you I was an insomniac.

Ok. Firstly, this blog is currently hideous to look at. I know. I must do something about this, just as soon as I wake up and think - yes - today I will sit there and wrestle with blogger.com style CSS until the word 'hideous' no longer applies. If you came here for design loveliness I fear you will be disappointed.

Via MeFi we learn of fmylife.com, but it's so much better and funnier somehow in the original French over at viedemerde.fr. Article (in English) about it from spiegel.de.

Eg - Aujourd'hui, mon copain a créé un nouvel album photo sur Facebook intitulé : "Ma chérie et moi". Il s'agit de soixante photos de lui et de... sa guitare. VDM.

Awesome and not quite translatable. The best thing about it for me, as an only sort-of French speaker, is that each vignette is really really short, so even if I don't understand something on the first read there simply aren't that many words to look up each time and completely sideways from the original purpose it's actually a fantastic resource for learning bits of French, especially slang and such, that you really won't otherwise pick up without living among French speakers. Dear Internet - merci.

In other news, I discovered today that some software I wrote seven years ago and completely forgot about is being distributed (or has been) with Damn Small Linux. Now that would be fine if the code in question was actually functional or fit for purpose or what have you - a heads-up email from the DSL people would have been nice but not essential - but actually the code is a complete pile of shit and I'm really embarrassed.

Here's the thing.

About seven years ago I had a brainstorm one night, me and my shiny new C++ book, and I spent a few hours playing around with the FLTK library writing a desktop GUI calculator, which I pompously called flminicalc. I got as far as realising that actually such things are not as trivial as they first seem - you need a proper arbitrary precision maths library for a start and it turns out there are other even more arcane progamming issues to solve, mainly to do with FLTK, which is probably great once you have your head wrapped around it but which is not something that someone mainly used to writing Perl rather than C++ can grasp in a single night. Like a damn fool I uploaded a tarball to my old site - what the hell was I thinking - and basically forgot about the whole thing until this afternoon, when I received a bug report from a DSL user.

I'm not surprised. Without an arbitrary precision maths library it's really easy to make it do funky things by just mashing on a key. Numbers like 123456790 are too big for it. Calculations like 1512000 / 2132 are beyond it - too many digits. It was a programming exercise and nothing more, and I had naively hoped that giving it a version number of 0.0.1 would make this clear to anyone. In any case, dc provides everything I need from a Linux desktop calculator thingy so there is no itch to scratch here, just hubris.

Apparently no-one at DSL tested it much before including it in their distro, which is a real shame, as DSL is otherwise a really excellent minimal Linux distribution which I have used in the past to make old laptops useful again. I can see why a cursory look might have made it seem attractive - the binary is indeed tiny - but it doesn't actually do the job, and the two facts are not unrelated. I had a brief look this afternoon to see if there were any quick fixes but couldn't find any - making this thing useful will require far more effort than I am prepared to put in right now - integrating a proper maths library will basically mean a complete rewrite and in any case it is not something I have a personal need for, so it isn't going to happen any time soon.

The moral of the story is this - do not release software which would embarrass you if someone else started distributing it under the mistaken impression that it is actually useful.


Oh, and here's a video of Hadar and me playing at The Troubadour last year.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ranty McRantypants Lets It All Out

Ok. I really have to actually start using this thing now. Enough is enough is enough.

I keep wanting to rant inappropriately in other places and the internal voice which says 'Don't Do This Get Your Own Fucking Blog' keeps being answered by another saying 'But You've Got One You Just Haven't Posted In Six Months', to say nothing of the other voice which says 'Apart From That Other One Where You Only Post In Some Weird Cartoon Persona Which Jesus Christ Am I Actually Like That NOOOO' at which point I start gibbering wildly and have to be comforted with nicotine, then forget all about it. Only the rants, they keep building up and they won't go away.

I had wanted to keep this blog all nice and neat, full of pithy little essays about this or that aspect of the happy-go-lucky life of a London busker but that was a complete non-starter. I must have been taking the pith. What was I thinking?

And there's a lot to rant about today.

Firstly, thank you very bloody much, Radio 4's Today programme, for inviting some dick on your show this morning to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Buddy Holly's death by saying how they didn't think he was actually that good and left him a bit cold. Everyone is of course entitled to their opinion but there is a time and a place and this was absolutely not it. To be fair, Today is not something that anyone in their right mind turns to for music criticism but this was particularly unwarranted and basically embarrassing to listen to, and the jokey asides about having brought whoever it was on just to 'spit in church' only made it worse. I have a good mind to get my green felt tip pen out and write to them longhand just to show how annoyed I am.

Next. I have just (yesterday or so) finished reading Charles Stross' excellent Accelerando and wish to have words with his editor. For all that I may have slightly taken the piss in a recent cartoon tooltip - and I am not the only one to have wondered if the first section was automatically generated by some arcane mashup of Slashdot, Wired and the Dada engine, I ultimately thought the book was great, utterly compulsive reading, so densely packed with ideas as to leave this reader positively dizzy, in between Wikipedia lookups - Stross takes no prisoners with his erudition and why should he - and though the end was satisfying I was left wanting to read more. However, there is one ugly blemish which runs through the writing, which is the dialogue of the character Annette. She is French, we learn, which does not explain why she speaks English like Yoda. While Stross, who knows so much about maths, science, cosmology, computing, technology in general, and singularity theory in particular, can arguably be forgiven for this lapse - it is not easy to accurately depict the grammatical quirks of a French speaker in English - this kind of thing is precisely what editors are supposed to be for. And Stross' editor let him down badly on this one. I have several French friends whose English is not so good and none of them talk like Yoda. There are grammatical quirks that slip over from French to English but Yodaisms are not one of them.

What else. Oh yes, the busking thing. I have not been busking much lately owing to an arm injury, from which I have now recovered, but in the meantime, various highly unpleasant changes have taken place in terms of the way in which TfL are managing the busking scheme. Owing to ongoing negotiations I am not going to go into detail right now but here's a taster of the New Rules - officially we are now forbidden from selling CDs while we busk and while we are allowed to distribute business cards on request we are not allowed to put them out for people to pick up while we play. To understand why this is shit you need to know that few buskers are just buskers. We are mainly professional musicians who busk because though it is not the best paid gig in town it is a paid gig if you can make it pay. Under the previous regime many buskers supplemented their busking income by CD sales and by further work garnered via random contacts picking up a business card, so this leaves all of us pretty stuffed. And suffice it to say that this is not the worst of the recent changes to the scheme, which has left many of us wondering just how much longer the whole thing is viable - and a few of us wondering if the whole idea isn't exactly that - to discourage us from doing it in the first place.

There's other stuff too, probably, but I forget.