Monday, May 9, 2016

Shooting into the sun (not all that bad)

Some of you may already have seen my video about the city of Darmstadt. Just to make something clear before I start: I simply did not have time to see the Woog (if you live in Darmstadt, you’ll know what that is); the Rosenhöhe would have been, I would guess, not at its best at this time of year; and to the guy who said he could have fixed me up with a visit to the European Space Operations Center if only he’d known in advance I was to be in Darmstadt — many thanks, and the sentiment is more than appreciated (because that would have been seriously cool), but this is why I really want to find a way to be able to do this as my real job instead of squeezing it into my free time.

Still, since some of you seem to interested in the nuts and bolts of videomaking — a skill I’m still more or less learning by doing — I thought it would be good to start talking some behind-the-scenes stuff. Today: what happens when you have to shoot into the sun.

Here’s a still straight from the camera: it’s a shot of the main building of the Technical University.

It doesn’t look too good, does it? Here’s why: it was a gloriously sunny day, and this shot was taken almost directly into the sun. The entire façade is in fact in shadow; to try to compensate, I set the camera’s white balance to “cloudy”, which at least made the colours less blue. That didn’t help much beyond that: everything looks flat and washed out. You can also see that there is some dust on the camera lens, which I should have cleaned first, but there was nothing I could do about that post-production.

It took me the whole day to cover as much of Darmstadt as I could; returning later when the sun was in a different position wasn’t an option. So I had to tweak it in the video editor as best I could.

First of all, with the colours all washed out, I slightly increased the saturation. This makes the colours more vibrant, less grey, but if you overdo it, the result can look artificial and ugly. My video editor allows me to set the saturation anywhere between -100 (no colour at all) to +100 (LSD trip), and I took it to +36:

The difference is barely noticeable, but it is there. There’s slightly more colour now, but it still looks washed out: there aren’t enough dark tones. So I next increased the contrast, to 73 on a scale of 0 to 100:

This gives me much more contrast between shadows and highlights, but now the bright parts of the image are too bright. If I simply reduce the brightness, the image would go all murky; so instead, I reach for a useful tool called selective brightness. I can choose whether I want to adjust the highlights, the midtones or the shadows. My problem here is that the bright areas are too bright, so I select highlights and set them to -41 brightness. This darkens the bright areas of the image but leaves the rest untouched:

And there you have it. The sky still looks white instead of the bright blue it actually was — I can’t fix that — but I think the whole image looks much better now. At least it looks like it did to me when I was standing in front of it.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Was Hitler a Zionist?

Of all the questions you expect to have to deal with in the course of a lifetime, the question about whether Hitler was a Zionist is not one. Hitler and his cronies, as we all know, were responsible for the deaths of six million Jews, while countless others were forcibly deported or forced to flee. Surely Hitler is the very opposite of a Zionist, committed as he was to the complete destruction of “the Jews”. Why, then, am I wasting time even addressing the question?

Because of British politics, that’s why. Honestly, the more I hear about what’s going on there, the more convinced I am that I left just in time.

Those of you who have been keeping an eye on British politics, or are living in Britain at the moment, will know the story I’m talking about. For the benefit of everyone else, here’s a brief recap.

For some time now, accusations have been growing that many members of the left-of-centre Labour Party, currently in opposition, have been making antisemitic statements, and that the party leadership has failed to do anything about it. Most of the alleged antisemitic statements have been coming from the left wing of the party, and this has caused a rift with the party’s own right wing.

The Labour left has responded to these allegations by pointing out that criticism of the state of Israel is not the same as antisemitism, and that playing the antisemitism card is just a way of silencing debate.

So this argument rages on for a bit, which is an unedifying spectacle and very unhelpful to the Labour Party as a whole, as it is distracting it from the very important job of opposing the Conservative government. A government which seems to be in the process of dismantling the UK and handing it over to Russian oligarchs, so now is really not the time to be squabbling about contentious political opinions about the Middle East.

During this row, it emerged that a few years ago, Labour Member of Parliament Naseem “Naz” Shah had shared on Facebook a post suggesting that the solution to the conflict in the Middle East was to deport Israeli Jews and relocate them to the US, something which to my mind goes beyond criticizing the policies of the government of Israel. After her rather unconvincing argument that she didn’t endorse the views in the post (which raises the question of why she shared it), she was suspended by a Labour Party increasingly under pressure to show they won’t tolerate antisemitism in their ranks.

There’s a valid debate to be had over what actually constitutes antisemitism; and it’s not easy, because there are very few nations in the world that so neatly correspond to adherence to a particular religion. It’s not always easy to tell the difference, but — and I offer this as a piece of advice to anyone intent on stepping into this particular minefield — if your statement includes the phrase “the Jews”, there’s a high chance it’s antisemitic.

All of this was bad enough, before veteran Labour politician and former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone waded into the debate with all the sensitivity of Godzilla and stated in a radio interview that:

...when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism — this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.

At the end of a madcap day that saw him hounded by the press, an irate colleague and a dog, Livingstone was also suspended from the party. But he continues to insist that everything he said was historically true citing Lenni Brenner’s book Zionism in the Age of Dictators in his defence.

So, what’s this all about? Hitler a Zionist?

On the 25th August 1933, Germany, now under Nazi rule, signed the Ha’avara Agreement with Zionist Jews, to facilitate the resettlement of Jews to Palestine. So, Brenner and Livingstone were right?

Not without an ulterior motive.

Not so fast. We’re talking about Germany under Hitler. Hitler also put his signature to a document promising Britain that he wasn’t going to start a war, later commenting that he simply thought he’d give the British Prime Minister his autograph. Anyone who thinks Hitler wanted at that point in history to be nice to “the Jews” clearly hasn’t heard of Mein Kampf, Hitler’s autobiography and propaganda tract written well before he came to power, in which he said:

...the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.


The black-haired Jewish youth lies in wait for hours on end, satanically glaring at and spying on the unsuspicious girl whom he plans to seduce, adulterating her blood and removing her from the bosom of her own people. The Jew uses every possible means to undermine the racial foundations of a subjugated people.

and, most famously:

Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: “by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

That was written years before 1933. Let there be no mistake: Hitler had no sympathy with the Zionist cause, or with the Jewish people. His regime had already started with its program of oppressing German Jews, who wanted out not because they had ideas about booting Muslims out of Palestine, but because the atmosphere in Germany was becoming more hostile.

This is the problem, incidentally, with ascribing certain views to Hitler. Put simply, Hitler is not a man whose word you can trust. This same “Zionist” Hitler is quoted as saying, “The peoples of Islam will always be closer to us than, for example, France,” although that quote is rather doubtful. But whatever he says or even does, you have to bear in mind the possibility that there is an ulterior motive at work.

So what could Hitler possibily have gained from the Ha’avara Agreement?

Well, first of all, and most importantly, he wanted Jews to leave Germany. That was basically it: he didn’t particularly care where they went or what happened to them, just so long as they weren’t in Germany any more. Hitler “supported” Zionism not because he agreed with its aims, but rather in the hope that it would solve one of his problems. The great advantage would be that by concentrating all the Jews in one small part of Palestine, it would be easier to control them and prevent them from becoming a threat.

The other problem he had was the Anti-Nazi boycott, in which several countries boycotted German goods in response to the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor, and Germans in response boycotted Jewish businesses. And the Ha’avara Agreement provided a way around that.

It worked like this: Jews who wanted to emigrate to Palestine would temporarily give up all their possessions, and pay £1000 (a lot of money in those days) to the Ha’avara Company. This money would then be used to buy German goods, which the emigrants would take with them to the Yishuv community in Palestine and then, basically, sell.

There’s a much more detailed discussion of the agreement, its aims and its effects, in this PDF document; but essentially, Hitler “supported Zionism” only insofar as it was a handy way to further his obsession with ridding Germany of “the Jewish problem” once and for all.

On a related subject, Livingstone also claimed that in 1935, the Nazi government passed a law banning the flying of any flag except the swastika and the Zionist flag. In fact, if you read German, the text of the Imperial Flag Act of 1935 is online and says nothing about the Zionist flag. It also says nothing about banning anything: it simply states that the “imperial colours” are black, white and red, and that the swastika was to be the official imperial, national and trade flag.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The least surprising revelation of all

The thing that most amuses me about the Panama scandal is that so many people act as if they’re surprised by it. For as long as I can remember, politicians and celebrities and businessmen have been avoiding/dodging/evading tax. It’s sort of the wallpaper of public life: hideous, and it really needs to go, but it’s quite simply there.

So some anonymous whistleblower sends a vast pile of data to a newspaper, and the collective response is: “My goodness me, all those politicians who’ve been enriching themselves at our expense — they’ve been enriching themselves at our expense!” This, of course, is swiftly followed by, “Throw them out!”

At least in some countries. Yesterday, one of my students wanted to know why the British were making such a huge fuss about it. Germans aren’t too bothered, she said. Probably; but then the German economy is doing reasonably well, while in Britain, a group of rich people in government have been telling the populace for years now that they need to tighten their belts.

So, yes: “David Cameron must go!” chant the protestors, because he has personally benefitted from his father’s tax-avoiding activities, although he may not actually have broken the law. But then, this is a moral, rather than a legal, issue. But then again, I don’t think these are people who originally supported David Cameron, and have now had an unwelcome epiphany: they’re people who were violently opposed to the Conservative government anyhow, and these latest not-particularly-surprising revelations are a good reason to voice their opinions.

Also, I wonder if they have thought through their demands. According to some of the placards they were waving, they seem to think that Cameron resigning is the same as the Conservative Party being forced out of Parliament. If so, they’re in for a shock: it would just mean a new, and probably considerably less popular, Conservative Prime Minister. If we’re very unlucky, it could be George Osborne, a man who has managed to hold on to his job of Chancellor of the Exchequer — Britain’s finance minister, basically — despite the fact that just about everything he does or says is deeply unpopular not only with the general population, but with the whole of his own party.

Another interesting thing is that people seem to think this is just a Conservative Party Thing. Well, so far, apart from David Cameron (indirectly), a grand total of three former British MPs are caught up in this particular scandal, and they are all Conservatives. But of course, as massive as this leak is, it only involves one company operating in one tax haven, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the tip of the iceberg. And just for the record, it’s not as if people who describe themselves as socialists are immune from this kind of behaviour.

I am, though, quite convinced that the current leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has the moral high ground on this one. Jeremy Corbyn, for those who don’t know, is a politician way out on the left wing of the Labour Party who, after 30 years on the backbenches quietly rebelling, was unexpectedly and dramatically voted leader of the party, and therefore also Leader of the Opposition.

Unfortunately, Corbyn hasn’t been doing his job very well. His job, incidentally, is to hold the government to account and pick holes in government policy. He’s quite useless at that: for all that his supporters keep telling me that he “destroys the government” every week at Prime Minister’s Questions, a look through the Hansard, the official record of parliamentary business, reveals that he just politely asks question after question, and never really challenges the answers he gets.

Of course, this scandal has actually succeeded in making Cameron’s approval rating drop below that of Corbyn, so it turns out that the opposition didn’t really need to do much opposing. And really, absolutely nobody believes Jeremy Corbyn has fifty million hidden away in a trust fund in the Cayman Islands. I mean, just look at the man. Say what you like, his probity is not in question.

So, amid all the fashionable bash-the-rich grassroots politics that are going on at the moment, do I think Corbyn would make a better Prime Minister than Cameron?

I think that question’s moot. I don’t think either of them are good Prime Minister material. Corbyn, because as a former rebel he won’t be able to unite the party behind him, and also because his policies seem to have just woken up from a forty-year coma. And Cameron, not for the reasons it’s currently fashionable to bash him for — he’s rich, he once almost certainly didn’t put part of his anatomy anywhere near a dead pig’s snout but it’s too good a story to risk fact-checking, and his late father did some questionable financial jiggery-pokery to make the family richer than it had a right to be — but because he has so far been an appalling Prime Minister, and has far too much faith in his even more appalling Chancellor.

Fifteen years after I left the UK I lost my right to vote there, which is a great relief because it means that whatever happens from now on, it’s not my fault. It also means I don’t have to choose between the Disaster Party, the Dithering Party, the Non-Existent Party, the Screaming Xenophobe Party, and Russell bloody Brand.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Turkish President tries to censor accusations of censorship

It seems to be Idiots’ Month right now. There’s the man who thought the best way to be reunited with his ex-wife would be to hijack a plane while wearing a fake suicide vest. There’s the politician attempting to get “down with the kids” by communicating with them “on the Twitters”. There’s the woman who climbed to the summit of Britain’s highest mountain wearing shorts. And there’s Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

For a long time, Erdoğan has been accused of an increasingly autocratic style of rule. A glance at his Wikipedia page is quite sobering, especially the sub-headings in the “Controversies” section: Accusations of antisemitism; Politicisation of the judiciary; Media intimidation and censorship; Electoral fraud; Political polarisation; Mehmet Aksoy lawsuit (in which the President ordered the destruction of a sculpture that called for reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia); Crackdown on Academics for Peace.

Quick! Ban this photo!

Now, one of the things that has annoyed and frustrated Turkey for some time now has been that the country doesn’t seem to be eligible to join the EU. Something about Cyprus and “human rights”, apparently. Erdoğan is the latest in a long line of Turkish leaders trying to convince the EU to let his country in.

Earlier this month, some headway seemed to have been made, insofar as Germany had started saying that maybe, if Turkey gets its act together, there may be a case for allowing Turkey in. You’d think, therefore, that Erdoğan might be doing his homework on what European values are.

A few days later, a satirical German TV show called Extra 3 criticized some of the excesses of Erdoğan’s government in the form of a song with accompanying video (activate the “CC” icon for English subtitles). Sung to the tune of an old Nena hit called Irgendwie, irgendwo, irgendwann, it made reference to allegations of oppression of the Kurds, the use of violence to counter peaceful demonstrations and the highly controversial new presidential palace illegally built in a nature reserve. But it also prominently mentioned government interference in press freedoms, with lines like these:
Bei Pressefreiheit kriegt er ’nen Hals,
drum braucht er viele Schals.
Ein Journalist, der was verfasst,
das Erdoğan nicht passt,
ist morgen schon im Knast.
Press freedom makes his neck bulge,
which is why he needs lots of scarves.
A journalist who writes something
that Erdoğan doesn’t like
will be in jail by next morning.
(“Getting a neck” or “getting something in the throat” is a German idiom that means being roused to anger.)

Now, Erdoğan naturally wishes to repudiate those claims. He’s not a totalitarian dictator, of course not — whatever gave us that idea? When he was Mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, he managed to solve a lot of the city’s problems with traffic congestion, pollution and crumbling infrastructure. Sure, he was then forced to relinquish his post after his party was shut down on the grounds that it was pushing a fundamentalist Islamic agenda which was at odds with the Turkish constitution, but hey — since when was that ever an issue?

So Erdoğan, anxious to preserve his image as totally not an enemy of press freedom, summoned the German Ambassador and basically demanded that the German authorities ban the video and prevent its distribution.

You have to think about this one to let the full irony sink in here. Turkey wants to join the EU. Turkey has almost won over Germany to the point that Germany’s response to the Turkish authorities storming the offices of a newspaper were fairly muted and cautious.

That might have worked (for Turkey) as long as it remained an internal Turkish affair. When, though, Turkey insists that Germany must suspend a key section of its own constitution just because the President feels insulted, things are unlikely to go quite as smoothly. Members of all the parties in the Bundestag — including many who have themselves been at the receiving end of Extra 3’s skewering wit — have spoken out against the not-dictator’s attitude. The official government response has simply been to state that the Ambassador lectured Turkey on the importance of a free press; but I suspect this whole incident has cost Turkey — and especially Erdoğan — quite a few valuable sympathy points.

Extra 3, meanwhile, as well as naming him “Employee of the Month”, has posted a cartoon showing Erdoğan pointing a fire extinguisher at a laptop and saying, “Either you remove that video, or I delete the internet!”

Sunday, March 27, 2016

I have a problem with Rick Lax

A few days ago, I wrote a post in which I mentioned the British magician Paul Daniels, who had recently died. Like many people for whom Daniels was a part of growing up, I have been spending a bit too much time on the net, reading up on him and watching some of his routines on YouTube. And from there, the internet being what it is, I have been learning more than is healthy about conjuring in general, and also discovering some other fantastic acts. How can it be that I have, until now, remained ignorant of the existence of Penn and Teller?

Yes, this is what the internet is for.

Pick a card. Any card.

But to every silver lining there is a cloud, and so it was inevitable that I should also stumble across the grinning face of somebody who rejoices in the name of Rick Lax. I’m tempted to say his name sounds like a cure for constipation, but with a name like mine it’s probably wise not to milk that line too much.

It seems he’s making a big splash on Facebook right now. His page has over a million likes and a very impressive number of video views, which he is stridently proud of. I think perhaps if his ego wasn’t on display everywhere I wouldn’t pay him much attention. But let’s put that aside for the moment and consider Rick Lax, the magician.

The first of his videos I saw consisted of a mind-reading act. Think of a US state, take the last letter in that state’s name and hit “Like” to “lock in” your answer. Here’s a bunch of letters, some red, some white, some blue. Look for the letter you’re thinking of. It’s red, isn’t it?

It’s not hard to see how that one’s done. Yes, you could have chosen any one of 50 states, but if you take the last letters of those states, that only accounts for about half the alphabet. There are, by my reckoning, twenty states that end in the letter “A”.

It was one of those sub-par tricks that have been popping up on Facebook in recent years. It wasn’t even particularly well done: there were a few mistakes, including the “G” being the wrong colour, to the disappointment of the good citizens of Wyoming. I’d have moved on from there and not given it another thought, were it not for the fact that something, something, was nagging at me.

I think it was the blatant begging for “Likes”. You’re supposed to hit “Like” when you’ve watched the video and liked it. If you’re going to put pressure on people to “like” it halfway through, before the trick is even complete, you’re not really in a position to accuse Criss Angel of buying followers. Although at that point I didn’t know about his proud claim to be “America’s most popular”, the way the video screamed “Like me! Share me! Feed my craving for adulation!” irked me enough to want to find out more.

The problem I have with him is that I don’t know what to make of him. Fraud? Self-deprecating genius? Troll? I seriously have no idea.

Try this. Start with your age. Now add 5. Now subtract your age. You’re left with 5, am I right?

I can tell you’re not impressed. But this is seriously the level of all the mind-reading tricks of his that I have seen. When I was at school, we had similar mind-reading tricks that basically involved simple arithmetic, but at least you had to understand powers of two and algebra to figure out how they worked.

Think I’m exaggerating here? This is seriously one of his tricks (pay attention to steps 1 and 6):
  1. Think of your age.
  2. Add 3.
  3. Subtract 5.
  4. Add 7.
  5. Push “Like” to, you know, “lock in your answer”.
  6. Subtract your age.
  7. Add 5.
  8. Multiply by 2.
  9. Add 1.
  10. The answer is 21.
It seems to fool a very large number of people. Mr Lax himself warns people not to put any “spoilers” in the comments. Spoilers? This is elementary school stuff.

He also does some close-up table-top practical illusions, and they’re okay. They’re cheap tricks you can pick up at a store, and I later discovered why he was using them. They work, and will entertain your friends, but they’re not at the standard that would justify being called “mind-bending”. Pushing a coin “through” a sheet of latex? It’s not immediately obvious how that one’s done, but neither is it particularly amazing.

Digging deeper, I discovered that he works for a company that makes these tricks: he in fact designs them. Which is where my problem with him starts, because it makes sense of at least those videos. He’s demonstrating his own designs. All magicians have to start somewhere, and in any event as a way of enlivening a dinner party, they’re just the ticket; there’s a need for this sort of product, and that’s what he’s selling. I sort of wish he was a bit more honest about the fact, but perhaps that’s just how he does his marketing. All good.

Or not.

Because as I started poking around, I found that he seemed to be something quite big in the world of conjuring. He has, it seems, worked for David Copperfield. But he’s also given interviews and written articles all over the place; and in at least some of them he makes a plea for originality (and manages to imply that he counts himself as one of the 1% of truly original illusionists).

Originality is not, on the evidence I’ve so far seen, his greatest strength. Perhaps his most visually impressive trick is the one where he pushes a knife into his finger (although it's a pity that the fake blood looks like the thin dribble of ketchup you get when you forget to shake the bottle). Great stuff, but his claim to originality wears a little thin given that this is basically just a scaled-down version of the “X-sword” illusion created by somebody called Adam Steinfeld about twenty years ago. (Did I mention I’d recently been reading up on conjuring?)

But then, he did appear on a Penn and Teller show called Fool Us, in which magicians perform tricks in the hope that Penn and Teller would be unable to work out how it was done. Lax succeeded in fooling the duo with a card trick.

He’s good with a theatre audience, that’s for sure. But what of the trick?

Well, it seems impressive to me. It foxed Penn and Teller, or so it seems. This is miles away from the extraordinarily lame think-of-a-number stuff he serves up on Facebook. This, finally, is a man I could imagine working for David Copperfield.

And then you disappear down the rabbit-hole of internet forums of amateur magicians and afficionados complaining that the trick wasn’t that impressive, and that they could think of ways it could very easily be done. That may be beginners’ bravado (“Ooh, I could do that!”), but the accusation that Penn and Teller are in fact rewarding acts they liked as opposed to acts that actually outwitted them is hard to dismiss. Be that as it may, it is, undeniably, a good and highly polished routine, entertaining and, to those of us who aren’t magicians, baffling. Well, he says he was once thrown out of a casino for card-counting, so it could have been a memory feat, but still a very impressive one.

And there you have it: the two sides of Rick Lax. There’s the lame, attention-seeking, egotistical purveyor of cheap tricks taking advantage of the inexperienced and gullible to feed his ego; and then there’s the accomplished, charismatic performer who leaves the professionals (if not the I-know-it-all you-can’t-teach-me-anything beginners) scratching their heads.

There’s only one way I can make sense of this. One of the things he does is write about deceptive techniques used in places like Las Vegas, and how not to fall victim to them. Why not? Other magicians, like James Randi, Derren Brown and even Paul Daniels, have warned people against charlatans who use the same techniques they do, but in order to deceive and defraud rather than for entertainment. Maybe Rick Lax’s Facebook page is part of some sort of social experiment for his next book?

Friday, March 25, 2016

When a celebrity dies

This post is going to land me in a lot of trouble. I am going to be accused of heartlessness and insensitivity. Inevitably I’ll be told “if you don’t like it, ignore it,” which raises the question: how can I know to ignore something if I ignore it? People will explain that they need to express their “grief”, and I shouldn’t be trying to stop them.

Yet another celebrity has died. This time, it’s Garry Shandling.

Well, that’s sad. Not that I had any particular fondness for the man or even paid much attention to his work, but no man is an island and all that. I expect he was a great influence on the latest generation of comedians, to whom he has now passed the baton. It’s up to them now.

Last week it was Paul Daniels. If you’re not British, you may be asking: “Paul who?” Paul Daniels, a British magician who was instrumental in bringing conjuring acts to the mainstream. When he started his showbiz career, magicians were men in top hats and capes who came on stage accompanied by a smiling assistant and mystical music, and silently performed trick after routine trick to dutiful applause. Daniels was one of a new breed of acts who looked to add something extra — for him, it was humour, comedy and occasionally even slapstick — to make it interesting and fun, and also engaged the audience, inspiring the modern trend for close-up magic. Look him up on YouTube: this is the raw stuff out of which the likes of Derren Brown cut their cloth.

There was a time in the 80s when Paul Daniels was constantly on British TV (as well as a magician he was a quiz show host), so he was a big part of my childhood. He died last week, aged 77. Well, that’s sad. But his legacy lives on.

The “outpouring of grief”, though, that’s what gets me. In the sense that it irritates me greatly. All over social media, people fall over themselves to express their grief and shock at the passing away of somebody they may possibly have met once in their lives, and hadn’t even thought about for many years. It’s not just Shandling and Daniels, but the whole lot of them: actors, singers, writers, even record producers that few people had ever heard of until they died, but had something to do with the Beatles and therefore it is a great and profound shock.

And always the same, tired old clichés. “I have no words” (yes you do, you just used four of them). “A legend” (almost certainly not). “Oh, no” (what, did you just lose a bet or something?). “Gutted”, “devastated”, “numb with shock” — no, you’re not, because five minutes later you shared yet another lame Trump meme and commented “This is hilarious.”

And sometimes the sentiments are patently ridiculous. The number of people who were “shocked” at the death of Paul Daniels was quite remarkable, given that just one month previously all the British news media reported that he’d been diagnosed with a fatal and inoperable brain tumour. “Shocking” is the one thing Daniels’s death wasn’t, since we were all expecting it. On the contrary, it was quite merciful: his family said his tumour was preventing him from processing new information, so he didn’t know he was dying. He watched some TV, ate some ice-cream, fell asleep and then didn’t wake up. I’ll tell you one thing: that’s how I want to go.

And all this is from people who never actually knew him. Perhaps once they’d been “a volunteer from the audience”, or maybe they have his autograph or a selfie with him. They never knew the man, not really. Half of them might not have liked him much if they did know him: he had, for example, some pretty trenchant views on homelessness and taxation that a lot of people found unsavoury. He also boasted that, for example, without him there would be no David Copperfield, which is quite a claim. Whether it’s true or not, it’s not something I want him to be banging on about for half an hour in the pub.

If this is how people react to the expected death of somebody they never knew, one wonders how they might react to the sudden death of a near relative.

And then there are the woeful posts, tweets and so on about how so many awesome celebrities are dying at the moment. Unthinkingly, people take to the internet to broadcast their belief that God is just being mean and taking all the popular people, leaving us all down here bereft of their wit, genius, musical ability, or whatever qualities they were deemed to have.

Well, first of all, barely a week goes by without some celebrity somewhere dying. It’s what all celebrities do sooner or later. It’s what all of us do sooner or later. You’re going to have to face up to that one.

Second, the phonograph was invented in 1877, since when we have had the ability to record performances more or less permanently. We still have access to all these celebrities’ work, and in most cases those celebrities had stopped producing new material. In some cases — James Dean springs to mind — very promising careers are cut short. But in most, the deceased already has their best work behind them.

And third, as I hinted above, if they’re any good, their legacy will live on in the next generation. People who were inspired by them will add their own ingredients to the mix and keep that legacy alive. The good ones will do so creatively, and become the next great “legends” of their time, with fresh approaches and new ideas to keep everything moving along, making life interesting and adding to the great store of everything that is good and fun. Nothing is being taken away.

When somebody famous dies, it’s reported in the media. There’s no need for everybody to also splash it all over their social media feeds with insincere expressions of the kinds of emotion that the deceased’s immediate family may be feeling. And it is insincere, because you don’t really feel those emotions.

Ah, but how could I possibly know you don’t really feel those emotions? Because if you did, you wouldn’t be shouting them out to the bottomless void that is the internet. You would be contacting the family, expressing your condolences to them and asking if there’s anything you can do. And don’t forget, if I can see your “grief-stricken” posts, I can probably see the rest of your social media feed, and I can see all the goofy selfies you posted that day, the Russian dashcam video you shared and the fact that you’re “ecstatic” about your team’s ability to carry a ball over a line more times than the other team.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Security theatre

Once again, the news is dominated by a terrorist attack, this time in Brussels. At the time of writing, something like two dozen people are reported to have died in what seem like coordinated attacks on an airport and a metro station (a death toll which is likely to rise, as death tolls usually do). Once again, as the dust settles on scenes of what can certainly be called mass murder, thoughts turn to how vulnerable we all are, and how we can protect ourselves.

It’s a natural — and, to be honest, perfectly sane — reaction. It’s a shocking thing to have happen, and all the more shocking now that modern technology means that minutes after the event, we can see uncensored pictures and videos of the desolation and the walking wounded, bringing an even greater sense of immediacy to it all. It is, of course, likely perfectly true that this is exactly “what the terrorists want”, although by now we should probably recognise that pointing this out every time isn’t very helpful.

The problem, I think, is that security theatre will be stepped up, because the focus of the attacks was an airport.

“Security theatre” is basically the phrase used to describe security measures that are put in place not because they actually work, but because they make people believe they are safe. After 9/11, airport security was stepped up to quite ludicrous levels, and there is no evidence that this has prevented, or even could prevent, a single terrorist attack. In fact, the security measures don’t even appear to work, and attacks have continued. The real security goes on behind the scenes: detective work, surveillance and intelligence, that kind of thing. It’s when these methods fail that attacks can take place.

The obvious flaw in the airport security we currently have is this: even if it prevents people from taking bombs onto place, it doesn’t prevent bombings — as we have now seen. If they can’t bomb planes, they’ll bomb terminals.

I’ve long speculated about this. If I were a terrorist intent on dying for my cause, I’d go to an airport with my explosives and a boarding pass (which can very easily be faked, by the way). It would be a major airport at a busy time, and I’d get into the queue for security, which is usually a crush because airports weren’t built with this kind of security in mind. And in the middle of that crowd, I’d detonate my bomb. I suspect the casualty list would be extremely high: typically, these queues are trapped in narrow areas, hampered by the sheer number of people, the X-ray machines and those barriers they use to make the queues snake around so they can pack as many people into a tight space as possible. I could certain shut down the whole terminal, probably for a long time.

Of course, detonating a bomb almost anywhere in an airport would be extremely effective.

So, it’s probably natural to want to put security at the entrance to the terminal itself. But that doesn't solve the problem: it simply moves it elsewhere. Because then you’d just have crowds of people waiting for security outside the terminal instead of inside it, so that’s where a terrorist would do the bombing.

Or not. A terrorist could, instead, attack something else. On this occasion, they did attack the Brussels metro as well — why assume they wouldn’t? In the 7/7 bombings in London, 56 people died and over 700 were injured when bombers attacked three underground stations and a bus. Much more recently, several people were killed in a suicide bombing attack in Istanbul. Ankara saw over 100 people die last year, another 30 last month (including one German tourist from a neighbouring village to mine) and nearly 40 just a few days ago. And I’m sure we could all reel off a list of equally devastating terrorist attacks that had nothing to do with airports, starting with the Paris attacks last year that killed over 100.

The thing is, airport security isn’t doing anything; and increased airport security will also do nothing. The terrorists will simply target other things: metro and railway stations, shopping malls, night clubs, busy plazas, markets, you name it. What are we to do, put security checkpoints on every street corner?

This isn’t how to fight terrorism. It may be seen as a quick way to calm the nerves of terrified citizens, but that only works until the next attack. What’s actually needed is proper, competent behind-the-scenes intelligence work that actually targets the right people (mass surveillance of all our communications is another distraction, but that’s an entirely different subject). That’s where the resources need to be directed, not pointless security theatre.