Thumbs Out

Yesterday (at time of writing) I went hitchhiking for the first time, for reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that covering around 100 miles in the back seats of strangers’ cars was both a surprisingly fun and eye-opening experience, and one that has made me far more inclined to pick up a hitchhiker in future. And so, in recognition of this event and in solidarity of those with outstretched thumbs across the land, I thought I’d dedicate a post to this strangest and most inventive of transport solutions.

Hitchhiking is an American invention, and when one considers the the very nature of hitchhiking in a historical context it becomes easier to see why. For hundreds and thousands of years of human civilisation, the main method of transport (other than walking) was the horse, and since horses a) didn’t travel much faster than humans could walk most of the time and b) don’t usually have space for two, standing by the side of the road with one’s thumb out was unlikely to solicit a faster passage than using one’s own two feet. The only people capable of offering lifts would be merchants with carts, and although they doubtless would have offered lifts from time to time, it would be a rare and abnormally trusting merchant who would let an unknown stranger travel with them on what was usually a journey of several days, or at least hours at a minimum. Thus, hitchhiking in its current form could not develop until the development and widespread use of a mode of transport fast enough to allow a hitcher to travel large distances in a quite short space of time (much more than they could walk), too fast for them to approach by simply asking the driver as they trotted past, and with enough space that an empty seat was a regular occurrence. The car, in other words, and the first place where cars caught on in a big way was the USA.

America first fell in love with the car during the economic boom of the 1920s, during which cars such as the Model T Ford sold in their thousands and thousands- whilst cars were a rare luxury in Europe, in America they became a far more ubiquitous. However, this didn’t mean they were a car ‘for everyone’; ’20s America was a place of huge economic disparity*, with abject poverty being especially common amongst the black and (rapidly growing) immigrant community. This only got worse as the 1930s rolled around and America plunged into the Great Depression- huge sectors of the lower middle and upper working class collapsed into poverty and homelessness, far from any position in which they could afford a car of their own. And so, hitchhiking became increasingly common practice; America had the crucial ingredients of a society becoming increasingly built around the car yet a population not rich enough to universally own them, so the practice of essentially ‘borrowing’ transport from strangers made an awful lot of sense.

From its American origins, hitchhiking (along with widespread use of cars) spread to Europe and eventually across the whole world. However, its popularity has fluctuated heavily with both the passage of time and across continents. Hitchhiking in Britain blossomed during the post-war years among students: as the socialist reforms of the first labour government began to rejig the country’s social structure, the number of people from poorer backgrounds going to university grew. For many students, hitchhiking was the only practical mode of transport: few could afford their own car (Britain hadn’t taken social equality quite that far yet) and the train network was expensive, unreliable and impractical for many. However, from the mid-1970s onwards hitching began to slowly decline in Britain and America, although it remained common practice until the late 1980s: the introduction of the young person’s railcard made train travel a much more feasible option for many, and the increasing prosperity of the western world over these few decades made it increasingly feasible for students or their families to organise car travel on their own. Perhaps partly due to this reduction in the number of students in the hitchhiker population (and thus increasing the relative proportion of dodgy folk among their number), and definitely thanks to a couple of well-publicised murder cases around this time, public trust in hitchhikers began to steadily decline and the whole activity began to take on a decidedly shady appearance in the public eye: risky for both halves of the equation and advised against for safety reasons. As the population of students unable to afford/acquire their own transport home shrank still further, hitching almost died off completely, becoming almost solely the reserve of Eastern European migrant workers (who have a public image problem of their own that has done nothing to redress the shady public perception of hitchhiking). Elsewhere in Europe, however, the practice is more common, and it is currently beginning to enjoy a tentative renaissance (from ‘all but dead’ to merely ‘very uncommon’) in Britain as a) former hitchers have begun to bemoan the loss of such a once-beloved practice and b) students have started hitching as a charitable/competitive event.

Like so many other things, hitchhiking is by its nature along neither good nor bad- at its best it is just people helping each other out & getting some conversation in the bargain, and at its worst is plain dangerous for both parties. Whether it ends up being the former or the latter is, in the end, merely the luck of the draw regarding the practitioners on both sides of the exchange. Since so many hitchers have reported completely safe and uneventful trips, I guess, on balance, that shows we aren’t such an awful bunch after all.

*It’s worth noting that, although the poverty is infinitely less widespread, in terms of the sheer magnitude of the gap between rich and poor our society today is far more unequal than the 20s ever was.

Hope and Obama

Before I start writing this post, a brief disclaimer; I am not American, do not live there and do not have extensive first-hand experience of the political situation over there. This post is inspired entirely from stuff I’ve seen other people talk about online and a few bits of joining the dots from me, but if anyone feels I’ve gone wildly off-target please drop me a line in the comments. OK? Good, let’s get started.

The ascendency of Barack Hussein Obama to the Presidency of the USA in 2009 was among the most significant events in recent history. Not only did he become the first black person to sit in the Oval office, he put the Democrats back in power (representing a fairly major shift in direction for the country after eight years under George Bush Jnr.) and manage to put his party in control of Congress too, the first time any Democrat leader had been in that position for quite some time. With bold claims regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which had been… talking points  during Bush’s time in charge, and big plans regarding the US healthcare system, this had all the hallmarks of a presidency dedicated to making change happen. Indeed, change was the key buzzword during Obama’s campaign; change for the punishing effects of US society on its young and poor, change for the recession-hit economy, and even change for the type of person in the White House (Bush had frequently been portrayed, rather unjustly for a man of notoriously quick wit, as stupid and socially incapable by satirists and left-leaning commentators, whilst even the right would find it hard to deny Obama’s natural charisma and intelligent, upright bearing) were all promised to voters, and it was a dream many took with them to the polling stations.

One of the key demographics the Democrats targeted and benefited from with this ‘pro-change’ style campaign was the youth vote; early twenty-somethings or even late teens, many of whom were voting in their first elections, who had grown up both physically and politically during the Bush administration and railed against his management of everything from the economy to the welfare system with all the ardour and uncluttered train of thought of young people everywhere. I should know: living through the period as a young person in a left-leaning family getting my news via the liberally-inclined BBC (and watching too much satirical comedy), one could hardly escape the idea that Bush was an absolute moron who know nothing about running his country. And this was whilst getting daily first-hand experience of what a left-wing government was like in Britain- I can imagine that to a young American with a similar outlook and position at the time, surrounded by right-leaning sentiment on all sides, the prospect of a Democratic president dedicated to change would have seemed like a shining beacon of hope for a brighter future. Indeed, the apparent importance of the youth vote to Obama’s success was illustrated during his 2012 re-election: when the news broke that Microsoft were planning on releasing a new Halo videogame on election day, conspiracy theorists had a wonderful time suggesting that Microsoft were embroiled in a great Republican plot to distract the youth vote by having them play Halo all day instead, thus meaning they couldn’t vote Democrat*.

Now, let us fast forward to the 2012 election. Obama won, but narrowly- and given he was up against a candidate whose comments that he ‘didn’t care about the very poor’ and thought that the windows in passenger aircraft should be able to be opened were very widely circulated and mocked, the result was far too close for comfort (even if, despite what some pundits and conservative commentators would have had you believe, all the pre-election statistics indicated a fairly safe Democrat victory). Whilst the airwaves weren’t exactly awash with anti-Obama messages, it wasn’t hard to find disillusionment and cynicism regarding his first term in office. For me, the whole thing was summed up by the attitudes of Jeph Jacques, the cartoonist behind the webcomic ‘Questionable Content’; reading through his back catalogue, he frequently had to restrain himself from verbalising his Obama-fandom in the comments below his comics during the 2008 election, but come election season in 2012 he chose to publish this. That comic pretty much sums it up: a whole generation had been promised change, and change had refused to come on a sufficiently large scale. The youthful optimism of his rise to power was replaced by something more akin to the weariness Obama himself displayed during the first live TV debate, and whilst I’m sure many of these somewhat disillusioned voters still voted Democrat (I mean, he still won, and preliminary statistics suggest voter turnout actually rose in 2012 compared to 2008), the prevailing mood seemed to be one less of optimism than of ‘better him than Romney’.

Exactly what was to blame for the lack of the promised change is a matter of debate; apologists may point to the difficulties had getting such radical (by American standards) health reforms and similar through a decidedly moderate congress, followed by the difficulties had trying to get anything through when congress became Republican-controlled, whilst the more cynical or pro-Republican would probably make some statement referring to the corporate-sponsored nature of the Democratic party/American political system or suggest that President Obama simply isn’t quite as good a politician/person (depending on the extent of your cynicism) as he came across as in 2008. Whatever the answer, the practical upshot has been quite interesting, as it has allowed one to watch as an entire generation discovered cynicism for the first time. All these hopes and dreams of some brave new vision for America went steaming face first into the bitter reality of the world and of politics, and the dream slowly fell apart. I am not old enough to definitively say that this is a pattern that has repeated itself down the ages, but nonetheless I found the whole escapade fascinating in a semi-morbid way, and I will be intrigued to see if/when it happens again.

Damn, I’m really going for conclusion-less posts at the moment…

*Interestingly, this kind of tactic has, so the story goes, been deliberately used in the past to achieve precisely the opposite effect. When Boris Yeltsin attempted to get re-elected as Russian president in 1996, voting day was designated a public holiday. Unfortunately, it was soon realised that many urban Russians, Yeltsin’s main voter base, were going to take this as a cue for a long weekend in the country (presumably hunting bears or whatever else Russians do in their second home in Siberia) rather than to go and vote, so Yeltsin went to the makers of telenovela (a kind of South American soap opera) called Tropikanka that was massively popular in the country and got them to make three brand-new episodes to be aired on election day. This kept the city dwellers at home, since many country spots didn’t have TV access, and meant they were around to go and vote. Yeltsin duly won, with 54.4% of the vote.

Zero Dark Thirty

Well, I did say I wanted to make film reviewing more of a regular thing…

The story of Zero Dark Thirty’s production is a both maddeningly frustrating and ever so slightly hilarious one; the original concept, about an intelligence officer’s incessant, bordering on obsessive, quest to try and find Osama bin Laden was first brought up some time around 2010, and the screenplay was finished in the spring of 2011. The film’s centrepiece was the Battle for Tora Bora, which took place in late 2001; American and allied forces had been on the ground for just a few weeks before the Taliban government and political system was in total disarray. Al-Qaeda were on the run, and some quarters thought the war would be pretty much over within a few months, apart from a few troops left over to smoothen the new government’s coming into power (yeah, that really worked out well). All the intelligence (and it was good too) pointed to bin Laden’s hiding in the mountains of Tora Bora, near the Pakistani border, and after a fierce bombing campaign the net was tightening. However, allied Pakistani and Afghan militia (who some believe were on the Al-Qaeda side) requested for a ceasefire so that some dead & wounded might be evacuated and prisoners taken; a move reluctantly accepted by the Americans, who then had to sit back as countless Al-Qaeda troops, including bin Laden, fled the scene.

Where was I? Oh yes, Zero Dark Thirty.

This was originally planned to be the central event of the film, but just as filming was about to commence the news broke that Bin Laden had, in fact, been killed which, whilst it did at least allow the filmmakers to produce a ‘happy’ ending, required that the whole script be torn up and rewritten. However, despite this, the tone and themes of the film have managed to remain true to this original morally ambiguous, chaotic story, despite  including no footage of any events prior to 2003. We still have the story of the long, confused and tortured quest of the small team of CIA operatives whose sole job it was to find and kill bin Laden, and it honestly doesn’t feel like the story would have felt much different were it to end with bin Laden still alive. And tortured is the word; much has been made of the film’s depiction of torture, some deploring the fact that it is shown to get vital information and arguing that the film ‘glorifies’ it, whilst others point out the way that the key information that finally revealed bin Laden’s location was found after the newly-inaugurated President Obama closed down the ‘detainee’ program. Personally, I think it’s depicted… appropriately. This is a very, very real film, telling a real story about real events and the work of real people, even if specifics aren’t the gospel truth (I mean, there’s only so much the CIA are going to be willing to tell the world), and nobody can deny that prisoners were tortured during the first few years of the war. Or, indeed, that the practice almost certainly did give the CIA information. If anything, that’s the point of the torture debate; it’s awful, but it works, and which side of the debate you fall on really depends on whether the latter is worth the former. In any case, it is certainly revealing that the film chooses to open with a torture scene, revealing the kind of pulls-no-punches intent that comes to define it.

There are the depictions of the chaos of the intelligence process, the web of indistinguishable truths and lies, the hopes pinned on half-leads, all amid plenty of timely reminders of just what is at stake; the attacks, both the big ones that everyone’s heard of and can relate to and the littler ones that hide away in the corners of the media reporting that manage to mean so, so much more to our chosen characters. Of particular note is the final attack on bin Laden’s compound, in one of the least ‘Hollywood’ and most painstakingly accurate portrayals of a military operation ever put onto the big screen. It also manages to come across as totally non-judgemental; torture, terrorism and even the killing of one of western culture’s biggest hate figures of the last decade are presented in exactly the same deadpan fashion. In another film, neutrality over contentious issues can come across as a weak cop-out; here it only adds to the realism.

The most obvious comparison to Zero Dark Thirty is The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous ultra-realistic story about the War on Terror, and it is a pretty fair comparison to say that what The Hurt Locker was to soldiers, Zero Dark Thirty is to intelligence. However, whilst The Hurt Locker was very much about its characters  and their internal struggles, with the events of the film acting more as background than anything else, Zero Dark Thirty is instead dedicated to its events (to say ‘story’ would rather overplay the interconnectedness and coherence of the whole business). Many characters are reduced to devices, people who do stuff that the film is talking about, and many of the acting performances are… unchallenging; nothing against the actors concerned, just to say that this is very much Bigelow’s film rather than her characters. The shining exception is Jessica Chastain as our central character of Maya, who manages to depict her character’s sheer drive and unflinching determination with outstanding aplomb: as well as showing her human side (in its brief appearances) in both touching and elegant fashion.

For all these reasons and more, I can wholeheartedly recommend Zero Dark Thirty as something people should try and see if they can; what I cannot do, however, is to really enjoy it. This isn’t because it isn’t fun, for lots of great films aren’t, but because it doesn’t really stir any great emotions within me, despite asking its fair share of moral questions about war. Maybe its because I tend to be very analytical over such matters, but I’m inclined to feel that the film has actually taken its neutrality and frankness of delivery a little too far. By having no really identifiable, consistent, empathetic characters beyond Maya, our emotional investment in the film is entirely dependent on our emotional investment in the subject matter, and by presenting it in such a neutral matter it fails to really do so in people without a strong existing opinion on it. I have heard this film described as a Rorschach test for people’s opinions on the war and the techniques used in it; maybe my response to this film just reveals that I don’t really have many.

Air Warfare Today

My last post summarised the ins and outs of the missile weaponry used by most modern air forces today, and the impact that this had on fighter technology with the development of the interceptor and fighter-bomber as separate classes. This technology was flashy and rose to prominence during the Korean war, but the powers-that-be still used large bomber aircraft during that conflict and were convinced that carpet bombing was the most effective strategy for a large-scale land campaign. And who knows; if WWIII ever ends up happening, maybe that sheer scale of destruction will once again be called for.

However, this tactic was not universally appreciated. As world warfare descended ever more into world politics and scheming, several countries began to adopt the fighter-bomber as their principle strike aircraft. A good example is Israel, long-time allies of the US, who used American fighter-bombers early on during the 1970s Middle East conflict to take out the air bases of their Soviet-backed Arab neighbours, giving them air superiority in the region that proved very valuable in the years to come as that conflict escalated. These fighters were valuable to such countries, who could not afford the cost of a large-scale bombing campaign; faster, precision guided destruction made far better fiscal sense and annoyed the neighbours less when they were parked on their doorstep (unless your government happened to be quite as gung-ho as Israel’s). Throughout the 1960s, this realisation of the value of fighter aircraft lead to further developments in their design; ground-assault weapons, in the form of air-to-surface missiles and laser-guided bombs, began to be standard equipment on board fighter aircraft once their value as principle strike weapons was realised and demand for them to perform as such increased.  Furthermore, as wars were fought and planes were brought down, it was also realised that dogfighting was not in fact a dead art when one’s opponents (ie the Soviet Union and her friends) also had good hardware, so maneouvreability was once again reinstated as a design priority. Both of these advances were greatly aided by the rapid advancements in the electronics of the age, which quickly found their way into avionics; the electronic systems used by aircraft for navigation, monitoring, and (nowadays) help flying the aircraft, among other things.

It was also at this time that aircraft began experimenting with the idea of VTOL: Vertical Take Off and Landing. This was an advantageous property for an aircraft to have since it limited the space it needed for its take off and landing, allowing it to land in a wider range of environments where there wasn’t a convenient long stretch of bare tarmac. It was also particularly useful for aircraft carriers, which had been shown during WW2’s battle of Midway to be incredibly useful military tools, since any space not used for runway could be used to carry more precious aircraft. Many approaches were tried, including some ‘tail-sitting’ aircraft that mounted onto a vertical wall, but the only one to achieve mainstream success was the British Harrier, with two rotatable engine vents that could be aimed downwards for vertical takeoff. These offered the Harrier another trick- it was the only aircraft with a reverse gear. A skilled pilot could, if being tailed by a hostile, face his vents forward so his engines were pushing him in the opposite direction to his direction of travel, causing him to rapidly slow down and for his opponent to suddenly find himself with an enemy behind him eyeing up a shot. This isn’t especially relevant, I just think it’s really cool.

However, the event that was to fundamentally change late 20th century air warfare like no other was the Vietnam war; possibly the USA’s biggest ever military mistake. The war itself was chaotic on almost every level, with soldiers being accused of everything from torture to drug abuse, and by the mid 1960s it had already been going on, on and off, for over a decade years. The American public was rapidly becoming disillusioned with the war in general, as the hippy movement began to lift off, but in August 1964 the USS Maddox allegedly fired at a couple of torpedo boats that were following it through the Gulf of Tonkin. I say allegedly, because there is much speculation as to the identity of the vessels themselves; as then-president Lyndon B. Johnson said, “those sailors out there may have been shooting at flying fish”. In any case, the outcome was the important bit; when (now known to be false) reports came in two days later of a second attack in the area, Congress backed Johnson in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which basically gave the President the power to do what he liked in South-East Asia without making the war official (which would have meant consulting the UN). This resulted in a heavy escalation of the war both on the ground and in the air, but possibly the most significant side-effect was ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, which authorised a massive-scale bombing campaign to be launched on the Communist North Vietnam. The Air Force Chief of Staff at the time, Curtis LeMay, had been calling for such a saturation bombing campaign for a while by then, and said “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age”.

Operation Rolling Thunder ended up dropping, mainly via B-52 bombers, a million tonnes of bombs across North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail (used to supply the militant NLF, aka Viet Cong, operating in South Vietnam) across neighbouring Cambodia and Laos, in possibly the worst piece of foreign politics ever attempted by a US government- and that’s saying something. Not only did opinion of the war, both at home and abroad, take a large turn for the worse, but the bombing campaign itself was a failure; the Communist support for the NLF did not come from any physical infrastructure, but from an underground system that could not be targeted by a carpet bombing campaign. As such, NLF support along the Ho Chi Minh continued throughout Rolling Thunder, and after three years the whole business was called off as a very expensive failure. The shortcomings of the purpose-built bomber as a concept had been highlighted in painful detail for all the world to see; but two other aircraft used in Vietnam showed the way forward. The F-111 had variable geometry wings, meaning they could change their shape depending on the speed the aircraft was going. This meant it performed well at a wide variety of airspeeds, both super- and sub-sonic (see my post regarding supersonic flight for the ins and outs of this), and whilst the F-111 never had the performance to utilise them properly (since it was turboprop, rather than purely jet powered) the McDonnell F-4 Phantom did; the Phantom claimed more kills than any other fighter aircraft during Vietnam, and was (almost entirely accidentally) the first multi-role aircraft, operating both as the all-weather interceptor it was designed to be and the strike bomber its long range and large payload capacity allowed it to be.

The key advantage of multi-role aircraft is financial; in an age where the massive wars of the 20th century are slowly fading into the past (ha, ha) and defence budgets are growing ever-slimmer, it makes much more sense to own two or three aircraft that can each do five things very well than 15 that can only do one each to a superlative degree of perfection. This also makes an air force more flexible and able to respond faster; if an aircraft is ready for anything, then it alone is sufficient to cover a whole host of potential situations. Modern day aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon take this a stage further; rather than being able to be set up differently to perform multiple different roles, they try to have a single setup that can perform any role (or, at least, that any ‘specialised’ setup also allows for other scenarios and necessities should the need arise). Whilst the degree of unspecialisation of the hardware does leave multirole aircraft vulnerable to more specialised variations if the concept is taken too far, the advantages of multirole capabilities in a modern air force existing with the modern political landscape are both obvious and pressing. Pursuit and refinement of this capability has been the key challenge facing aircraft designers over the last 20 to 30 years, but there have been two new technologies that have made their way into the field. The first of these is built-in aerodynamic instability (or ‘relaxed stability’), which has been made possible by the invention of ‘fly-by-wire’ controls, by which the joystick controls electronic systems that then tell the various components to move, rather than being mechanically connected to them. Relaxed stability basically means that, left to its own devices, an aircraft will oscillate from side to side or even crash by uncontrollable sideslipping rather than maintain level flight, but makes the aircraft more responsive and maneouvrable. To ensure that the aircraft concerned do not crash all the time, computer systems generally monitor the pitch and yaw of the aircraft and make the tiny corrections necessary to keep the aircraft flying straight. It is an oft-quoted fact that if the 70 computer systems on a Eurofighter Typhoon that do this were to crash, the aircraft would quite literally fall out of the sky.

The other innovation to hit the airframe market in recent years has been the concept of stealth, taking one of two forms. Firstly we consider the general design of modern fighters, carefully designed to minimise their radar cross-section and make them less visible to enemy radar. They also tend to shroud their engine exhausts so they aren’t visually visible from a distance. Then, we consider specialist designs such as the famous American Lockheed Nighthawk, whose strange triangular design covered in angled, black sheets of material are designed to scatter and absorb radar and make them ‘invisible’, especially at night. This design was, incidentally, one of the first to be unflyably unstable when in flight, and required a fly-by-wire control system that was revolutionary for that time.

Perhaps the best example of how far air warfare has come over the last century is to be found in the first Gulf War, during 1991. At night, Nighthawk stealth bombers would cross into Hussein-held territory to drop their bombs, invisible to Hussein’s radar and anti-aircraft systems, but unlike wars of old they didn’t just drop and hope at their targets. Instead, they were able to target bunkers and other such fortified military installations with just one bomb; a bomb that they could aim at and drop straight down a ventilation shaft. Whilst flying at 600 miles an hour.

The Price of Freedom

First of all, apologies for missing my post on Wednesday, and apologies in advance for missing one on Wednesday; I’ve had a lot of stuff to do over the past week and will be away during the next one. Ah well, on with the post…

We in the west set a lot of store by democracy; in America especially you will hardly be hard-pressed to find someone willing to defend their ‘rights’ and freedom to the hilt, regardless of how dumb you think that particular right is. Every time a government attempts to ban or restrict some substance or activity, vast waves of protesters will take to the streets/TV/internet that their right or ability to do X or Y is being restricted in direct contradiction to every document from the Magna Carta to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

However, if we were permitted to be totally free (the ‘Altair’ end of the Order of Assassins/Knights Templar spectrum), with no laws restricting our activity, then we would quickly descend into an anarchic society. Murder, rape and theft would go unpunished as the minority of the evil-minded quickly became the majority by simple need. Various models of a system of anarchy, including mine predict an eventual return to an ordered society of laws and structure, and we can all agree that serious crimes are Bad Things that probably are worth restricting, even if it requires us to restrict our ‘freedom’ to a certain degree. Clearly, freedom is not worth such crimes, and thus we have laws.

In fact, most of our legal system can be counted as a direct result of the law-setter in question asking ‘what is freedom worth?’. If the law is in place to restrict an activity, then freedom is counted as not being worth this activity for either moral, financial or practical reasons (or a combination of the three), whilst other, more unrestricted, activities, freedom is considered worth allowing. And, perhaps more interestingly, a vast majority of political debate can be essentially boiled down to two people’s different opinions concerning what price we are prepared to pay for freedom.

Take, as a simple example, the British government’s recent ‘pastie tax’, levied on hot baked goods. This was partly an attempt to bring in some much-needed cash for the government in their efforts to cut the deficit, but also has some  degree of a health motivation. Such food is frequently sold cheaply from fast food retailers and the like, meaning it is an easy source of hot, tasty food for the poorer or lazier sections of society; but their fat content is not kind to the waistline and an overconsumption of such foods has been linked to ‘the national obesity epidemic’ that everyone gets so worked up about. This obesity problem is a major source of concern to the NHS, and thus the government who pay for it, since in the long term it causes a dramatic upsurge in the number of diabetes cases. This is an expensive problem to combat and presents a major health hazard for the country as a whole, and the government (or at least George Osborne, whose annual statement the tax first appeared in) decided that this dual cost is not worth the freedom to enjoy such a snack so cheaply. This, as with all vaguely new and interesting decisions in a rather dull report concerning how poor the country is, was debated aggressively in the media, with the healthy eating people and economists broadly speaking backing the idea (or complaining that there was not enough done/government is stifling growth/insert predictable complaint about economy here) whilst others criticised the plan as just another example of the Tories targeting the lower rungs of society who most frequently enjoy a cheap meal from these sources. To these people, today’s world is an expensive and difficult one to live in, and the ability to have a hot, greasy, tasty meal for a price that they could easily budget for in the long run is a freedom well worth whatever obesity problems it is causing. Such fundamental differences of opinion, particularly concerning taxation policy, are the irreconcilable forces that mean two political opponents will frequently find it impossible to back down.

In some other cases, the two participants of an argument will agree that freedom isn’t worth cost X, but will disagree on the mechanism for restricting said cost. The debate concerning the legalisation of drugs is one such example, for whilst part of the debate centres around a difference of opinion as to whether the freedom to get stoned is worth the cost of a country full of stoners and the consequences thereof (don’t believe anyone who tells you marijuana is a harmless drug; it isn’t, although the degree of harm it causes is generally the cause behind such debate), another cause of disagreement concerns the problems of the drugs war. Opium is the biggest source of income for the Taliban (and a very large one for Afghanistan as a whole), whilst the gangs and cartels who operate the Latin American drugs trade have been directly linked to human trafficking, prostitution and other atrocities during the ongoing drugs wars with their local government. This is a particular problem in Mexico, where since the government’s announcement of the ‘war on drugs’ there have been over 47,000 drugs-related murders. Everyone agrees that this is a Bad Thing, but a difference of opinion arises when considering which course of action would prove the most successful at combating the problem; the ‘legalise’ faction say that to legalise drugs would be to force the small-time criminals out of business as the well-policed official channels of trade took over, where sourcing and supply is performed by businessmen held accountable for their actions. At the very least, they suggest, it could do us good to lessen the sentencing of drug offenders and try to encourage quitters rather than just clamp people in jail, as this allows us to discourage people more easily and get to know more about the problem. This approach is implemented to an extent in Europe (especially the Netherlands), whilst the more stringent laws of the United States (states such as Colorado excepted) take the opposite line; they say that to relax drug restrictions simply encourages use, gives more trade to the cartels and only increases their power. Whether they are right or not is very much up for debate since the alternative hasn’t really been tried on a large scale, particularly in America; but the growing movement to look for an alternative solution to the problem, combined with the statement from former presidents of Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia that ‘the war on drugs has failed’ means that we may soon see how the other approach ends up. For the record, I remain undecided on the issue- the stats from the Netherlands tell me that drug use will increase with decriminalisation, which I don’t especially like the prospect of (that stuff’s not for me, and I’m not entirely sure why it should be for anyone else either), but it strikes me that this approach may reap dividends when it comes to combating the secondary problems caused by the drug wars. A friend who is kind of into this business (and, incidentally, comes firmly down on the ‘legalise’ side) recommends the YouTube film ‘Breaking The Taboo’, which you may want to watch if this kind of thing interests you.

…OK, that one slightly got away from me, but the discussion got kind of interesting. The key message here, really, is one of self-examination. Take a look at your political views, your outlook on life in general, and then ask yourself: to me, what is freedom worth?

“The most honest three and a half minutes in television history”

OK, I know this should have been put up on Wednesday, but I wanted to get this one right. Anyway…

This video appeared on my Facebook feed a few days ago, and I have been unable to get it out of my head since. It is, I am told, the opening scene of a new HBO series (The Newsroom), and since HBO’s most famous product, Game of Thrones, is famously the most pirated TV show on earth, I hope they won’t mind me borrowing another three minute snippet too much.

OK, watched it? Good, now I can begin to get my thoughts off my chest.

This video is many things; to me, it is quite possibly one of the most poignant and beautiful, and in many ways is the best summary of greatness ever put to film. It is inspiring, it is blunt, it is great television. It is not, however, “The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER…” as claimed in its title; there are a lot of things I disagree with in it. For one thing, I’m not entirely sure on our protagonist’s reasons for saying ‘liberals lose’. If anything, the last century of our existence can be viewed as one long series of victories for liberal ideology; women have been given the vote, homosexuality has been decriminalised, racism has steadily been dying out, gender equality is advancing year by year and only the other day the British government legalised gay marriage. His viewpoint may have something to do with features of American politics that I’m missing, particularly his reference to the NEA (an organisation which I do not really understand), but even so. I’m basically happy with the next few seconds; I’ll agree that claiming to be the best country in the world based solely on rights and freedoms is not something that holds water in our modern, highly democratic world. Freedom of speech, information, press and so on are, to most eyes, prerequisites to any country wishing to have any claim to true greatness these days, rather than the scale against which such activities are judged. Not entirely sure why he’s putting so much emphasis on the idea of a free Australia and Belgium, but hey ho.

Now, blatant insults of intelligence directed towards the questioner aside, we then start to quote statistics- always a good foundation point to start from in any political discussion. I’ll presume all his statistics are correct, so plus points there, but I’m surprised that he apparently didn’t notice that one key area America does lead the world in is size of economy; China is still, much to its chagrin, in second place on that front. However, I will always stand up for the viewpoint that economy does not equal greatness, so I reckon his point still stands.

Next, we move on to insulting 20 year old college students, not too far off my own personal social demographic; as such, this is a generation I feel I can speak on with some confidence. This is, probably the biggest problem I have with anything said during this little clip; no justification is offered as to why this group is the “WORST PERIOD GENERATION PERIOD EVER PERIOD”. Plenty of reasons for this opinion have been suggested in the past by other commentators, and these may or may not be true; but making assumptions and insults about a person based solely on their date of manufacture is hardly the most noble of activities. In any case, in the age of the internet and mass media, a lot of the world’s problems, with the younger generation in particular, get somewhat exaggerated… but no Views here, bad Ix.

And here we come to the meat of the video, the long, passionate soliloquy containing all the message and poignancy of the video with suitably beautiful backing music. But, what he comes out with could still be argued back against by an equally vitriolic critic; no time frame of when America genuinely was ‘the greatest country in the world’ is ever given. Earlier, he attempted to justify non-greatness by way of statistics, but his choice of language in his ‘we sure as hell used to be great’ passage appears to hark back to the days of Revolutionary-era and Lincoln-era America, when America was lead by the ‘great men’ he refers to. But if we look at these periods of time, the statistics don’t add up anywhere near as well; America didn’t become the world-dominating superpower with the stated ‘world’s greatest economy’ it is today until after making a bucket load of money from the two World Wars (America only became, in the words of then President Calvin Coolidge, ‘the richest country in the history of the world’, during the 1920s). Back in the periods where American heroes were born, America was a relatively poor country, consisting of vast expanses of wilderness, hardline Christian motivation, an unflinching belief in democracy, and an obsession the American spirit of ‘rugged individualism’ that never really manifested itself into any super-economy until it became able to loan everyone vast sums of money to pay off war debts. And that’s not all; he makes mention of ‘making war for moral reasons’, but of the dozens of wars America has fought only two are popularly thought of as being morally motivated. These were the American War of Independence, which was declared less for moral reasons and more because the Americans didn’t like being taxed, and the American Civil War, which ended with the southern states being legally allowed to pass the ‘Jim Crow laws’ that limited black rights until the 1960s; here they hardly ‘passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons’. Basically, there is no period of history in which his justifications for why America was once’the greatest country in the world’ actually stand up at once.

But this, to me, is the point of what he’s getting at; during his soliloquy, a historical period of greatness is never defined so much as a model and hope for greatness is presented.. Despite all his earlier quoting of statistics and ‘evidence’, they are not what makes a country great. Money, and the power that comes with it, are not defining features of greatness, but just stuff that makes doing great things possible. The soliloquy, intentionally or not, aligns itself with the Socratic idea of justice; that a just society is one in which every person concerns himself with doing their own, ideally suited, work, and does not concern himself with trying to be a busybody and doing someone else’s job for them. Exactly how he arrives at this conclusion is somewhat complex; Plato’s Republic gives the full discourse. This idea is applied to political parties during the soliloquy; defining ourselves by our political stance is a self-destructive idea, meaning all our political system ever does is bicker at itself rather than just concentrating on making the country a better place. Also mentioned is the idea of ‘beating our chest’, the kind of arrogant self-importance that further prevents us from seeking to do good in this world, and the equally destructive concept of belittling intelligence that prevents us from making the world a better, more righteous place, full of the artistic and technological breakthroughs that make our world so awesome to bring in. For, as he says so eloquently, what really makes a country great is to be right. To be just, to be fair, to mean and above all to stand for something. To not be obsessed about ourselves, or other people’s business; to have rightness and morality as the priority for the country as a whole. To lay down sacrifices and be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good, to back our promises and ideals and to care, above all else, simply for what is right.

You know what, he put it better than I ever could analyse. I’m just going to straight up quote him:

“We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons, we waged wars on poverty not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbours, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men- we aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and we didn’t scare so easy.”

Maybe his words don’t quite match the history; it honestly doesn’t matter. The message of that passage embodies everything that defines greatness, ideas of morality and justice and doing good by the world. That statement is not harking back to some mythical past, but a statement of hope and ambition for the future. That is beauty embodied. That is greatness.

The Hairy Ones

My last post on the subject of music history covered the relatively short timespan between around 1950 and 1965, leaving off at about the time The Beatles began leading the ‘British Invasion’ of American music culture. This invasion was a confluence of a whole host of factors; a fresh generation of youths wishing to identify with something new as ‘theirs’ and different to their parents, a British music scene that had been influenced by the American one without being so ingratiated into it as to snub their ability to innovate and make a good sound, and the fact that said generation of youngsters were the first to grow up around guitar music and thus the first to learn to play them and other genre-defining instruments en masse. Plus, some seriously good musicians in there. However, the British invasion was only the first of a multi-part wave of insane musical experimentation and innovation, flooding the market with new ideas and spawning, in the space of less than a decade, almost every genre to exist today. And for the cause of much of part two, we must backtrack a little to 1955.

Y’see, after the Second World War Japan, the dominant East Asian power, had surrendered unconditionally to the Allies and there was no dominant force in the region. This created something of a power vacuum in the area, with a host of new governments trying to rise from the post-war chaos and establish themselves as such a power. Many of these new nations, including those of China, Cambodia, North Korea and North Vietnam, were Communist states, and therefore were a serious concern to the western world. The US in particular, as a fiercely capitalist power, were deeply worried by the prospect of the whole of South East Asia, according to communist theory, just amalgamating into another great communist superpower and landing them with next to zero chance of triumphing in their ‘battle against communism’ against the already hugely powerful Soviet Union. As such, they were hell-bent on preserving every ounce of capitalist democracy they could in the area, and were prepared to defend such governments with as much force as necessary. In 1950 they had already started a war in Korea to prevent the communist north’s invasion of the democratic south, with the practical upshot (after China joined in) of re establishing the border pretty much exactly where it had been to start with and creating a state of war that, officially, has yet to end. In 1955, a similar situation was developing in Vietnam, and President Dwight D Eisenhower once again sent in the army.

Cut to ten years later, and the war was still going on. Once a crusade against the onward-marching forces of communism, the war had just dragged on and on with its only tangible result being a steady stream of dead and injured servicemen fighting a war many, especially the young who had not grown up with the degree of Commie-hating their parents had, now considered futile and stupid. Also related to ‘the Red Scare’ was the government’s allowing of capitalist corporations to run haywire, vamping up their marketing and the consumer-saturation of America. This might have lead to a 15 year long economic boom, but again many of the younger generation were getting sick of it all. All of this, combined with a natural teenage predisposition to do exactly what their parents don’t want them to, lead to a new, reactionary counter-culture that provided an impetus for a whole wave of musical experimentation; hippies.

The hippie movement (the word is, strangely, derived from ‘hipster’) was centred around pacifism, freedom of love and sex (hence ‘make love not war’), an appreciation of the home made and the natural rather than the plastic and capitalist, and drug use. The movement exists to this day, but it was most prevalent in the late 60s when a craze took the American youth by storm. They protested on a huge variety of issues, ranging from booing returning soldiers and more general anti-war stuff (hippies were also dubbed ‘flower children’ for their practice of giving flowers to police officers at such demonstrations) to demonstrations on the banning of LSD or ‘acid’, one of their more commonly used drugs. This movement of wired, eco-centric vegetarians didn’t connect well with the relatively fresh, clean tones of rock & roll and The Beatles, and inspired new music based around their psychedelic and their ‘appreciation’ of drug use. It was in this vein that The Beatles recorded Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and why Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin rose to fame in a new genre known as ‘acid rock’ (named after the drug from which most of the lyrics were ‘inspired’). Characterised by long, confusing and hideously difficult solos (I’m looking at you Hendrix), this was the prominent genre on show at the infamous Woodstock festival of 1969, featuring Hendrix, Joplin, The Who, The Grateful Dead & Carlos Santana among other things. Woodstock was the high point of the hippie movement, with over half a million fans attending to smoke, listen to the music, skinny dip and make love in and around the lake and generally by as hippie as possible.

Hippie culture went downhill post-Woodstock; public outcry following the Altamont Free Concert close to San Francisco (where Hell’s Angels provided security and shot a concert-goer during The Rolling Stones’ set for brandishing a gun) coincided with ‘the hippie generation’ mostly growing up. The movement still exists today, and it legacy in terms of public attitudes to sexual freedom, pacifism and general tolerance (hippies were big on civil rights and respect for the LGBT community) is certainly considerable. But their contribution to the musical world is almost as massive; acid rock was a key driving force behind the development of the genres of folk rock (think Noah and the Whale) and heavy metal (who borrowed from Hendrix’s style of heavy guitar playing). Most importantly, music being as big a part as it was of hippie culture definitively established that the practice of everyone, even the lowliest, ‘commonest’ people, buying, listening to, sharing and most importantly making music themselves was here to stay.

The story of hippies covers just one of the music families spawned out of the late 60s. The wave of kids growing up with guitars and the idea that they can make their own music, can be the next big thing, with no preconceived ideas, resulted in a myriad of different styles and genres that form the roots of every style of modern rock music. This period was known as ‘the golden age of rock’ for a reason; before pop was big, before hip-hop, before rap, decades before dubstep, before even punk rock (born in the early seventies and disliked by many serious music nerds for being unimaginative and stupid), rock music ruled and rock music blossomed.

You could argue that this, then, marks the story of rock, and that the rest of the tale is just one long spiral downwards- that once the golden age ended, everything is just a nice depressing story. Well, I certainly don’t like to think of that as true (if only because I would rather not have a mindset to make me stop listening to music),  but even if it was, there is a hell of a lot of stuff left in this story. Over? Not for another post or two…