Friday, 23 January 2015

Mark of disrespect

Westminster Abbey's flag has been flying half-mast as a "mark of respect" for the late King Abdullah...

Let's put, for a brief moment, aside any specifics of particular religions, religious institutions, international politics and, oh yes, very recent outbursts of pro-freedom rhetoric in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre... as many of those who came out in favour of freedom of speech are now commemorating the late Saudi king...

Let us just be, plainly and simply (idealistically?), humans for that moment.

King Abdullah has presided over, and enforced, a brutal regime of torture, barbaric murder as a means of oppression of any free thought.., and of women.

When one says brutal or barbaric, one is using that plain and simple human(e) dictionary. It really doesn't matter what ideology or cultural/social context one may attempt to use in an attempt to defend what has been going on in Saudi Arabia.

The "fighters" funded and/or sent by the regime to various all-too-well-known areas on the map have established both Al-Qaida and ISIS.

Oh, and that minor aspect... Raif Badawi, the victim of the most recent outrage, was condemned to 1000 lashes for having written some thoughts on his blog.

Westminster Abbey, no need to elaborate on what it represents and the power of the symbolism, decided to pay its respects to the Saudi king.

It is one of the rare moments when the possibilities of English language (and one's own, infinitely more limited, capabilities) fail to describe this act...

Personally, I am deeply outraged that on the 25th anniversary of Ceausescu's death, a person paraded up and down on the very avenue situated right in front of that Abbey by the powers of the time, was not remembered by them.

Although I understand that, in comparison, Ceausescu (or his indirect mentor, Stalin) was an incomparably smaller figure compared to the late King Abdullah...  so it is unrealistic to expect Westminster Abbey to mark its respect for such minor characters, too.

And yes, this is sarcasm... but mostly disgust of some immeasurable order. 

Saturday, 17 January 2015

The Untouchables (pardon: The Unmockables)

The vast number of articles on the necessity to introduce blasphemy laws (as magical wands that protect us against any aberrations like the extremists' actions in Paris) are increasing - and they have, in unison, the same fundamental failure in logic.

One key (partial) fact quoted by many is that Finland, rated No.1 in terms of press freedom, has a blasphemy law.

A slight problem with tendentiously applied partial truths: that law has been only applied three times in the last 70 years. In all three cases, there wasn't a "straightforward" case of blasphemy... and it concerned issues that spread into other areas of (even criminal) law. 

Hence the law merely exists, but it is basically a de facto dead letter, in spite of formal attempts to repeal it have failed so far. Clearly, emotions vs. reason, personal sensitivities vs. objectivity are difficult to balance. Nothing new here. 

Let us not get into the debate on why religious views, institutions, doctrine would be immune to criticism, mockery, etc. Granting them special status is plain wrong, as any objective and logical person would conclude - simply because their special status will be, by definition, at the detriment of others... and it is just a veiled totalitarian censorship.

Instead, let's just look at cold facts. Let's reproduce here the facts found by the 2010 report from Freedom House, which studied seven countries where the blasphemy laws are being actually applied:
  • Governments have abused blasphemy laws to silence the political opposition, government critics, and other dissidents.
  • Individuals have fabricated charges of blasphemy against others in their communities to settle petty disputes.
  • Religious extremists have exploited blasphemy laws to justify attacks on religious minorities, thereby fostering an environment of intolerance where discrimination is effectively condoned by the state.
  • Religious institutions, often with official or unofficial government backing, have used blasphemy laws to impose the state-sanctioned interpretations of religious doctrine on members of minority sects that are deemed deviant or heretical.
Let's then hope that magically, this time round the invention and enforcement of blasphemy laws, as a knee-jerk reaction that in some minds holds the answer to all the fundamental multi-cultural issues again revealed by the Charlie Hebdo massacre, will solve what they are after without any of the above issues... which, in every single studied country, have surfaced as side-effects.

I happen to come from a society that knew a bit about censorship... and still, media there is advocating the adoption of such laws. 

Vox populi seems to be, this time, too, based on short-term memory and selective amnesia.





Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Powertrip for... freedom

With a speed that surpassed several times the W. Bush administration's post-9/11 expediency in demanding more powers for the intelligence and security agencies, David Cameron has firmly demanded the same...

The logic, coming from the same PM who at the start of his first term has vowed and indeed proceeded to undo many of the former Tony Blair regime's attacks on civil liberties, on privacy and even basic human rights, is the same as ever...

More information means, in the familiar thought process, more security... more protection against potential extremist attacks. We heard this before, numerous times, and this time, too the press is mostly writing about the correct side of equation...

It is obvious, as it was underlined countless times by press, by security experts, by ISPs etc., that the gathering and analysis of the vast amounts of data about potential suspects (or isolating the latter in the ocean of communications stored by ISPs) presents huge technical and analytical problems. These lead to vast human resourcing problems, as MI5 has reported that on average twenty people are needed for a single suspect's surveillance...

What is slightly irritating however: so far the tiny detail about the past cases where there was significant and relevant information in the security forces' possession is not mentioned...

What I am referring to is the series of events ranging from 9/11 itself to Lee Rigby's murder to the perpetrators of the Paris attacks. In the case of all of these events, there were copious amounts of information on the perpetrators, but the various security forces in possession of that information either deemed the suspects harmless, or concluded that there was no risk, or failed to act at all.

Under Cameron's new tirade, that included even a demand to ban certain messaging apps (!), more information will somehow turn this so far statistically frankly ludicrously disturbing trend.

Stalinist snooping of private communication will somehow make the security forces more able to reach the right conclusions and act in time...

As a senior MI5 official stated today, don't give them more information, Mr. Cameron... give them more funding! So far the key problem was not in the realm of what amount and what kind of personal information they held about potential suspects or the public in general...

Only the mentioned speed with which Cameron has reacted in this way is more worrying than the content of his speeches. Before any analysis, any calming of spirits, any lucid investigation of British threat levels could take place, the first and blatantly exploitative emotion-centred reaction from the British Government is that of a resurrection of worst excesses of the Tony Blair regime... and more.

Congratulations again on this exercise in rational thought and, oh yes, democratic freedoms. After all, the latter is what is supposedly being protected by the proposed measures... 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Caricatures of freedom

The number of printed and online articles debating the contents of Charlie Hebdo issues has skyrocketed in the last few days - not only in Romania, but also in the more "Western" media.

A number of points one finds remarkable...:

  • First of all, the debate on the level of "good taste" and "decency" in the Charlie Hebdo cartoons is forgetting the fundamental fact that any definition of good taste and decency is strictly connected to social, historic and cultural context. As soon as anyone, as many so-called journalists did, debates whether the content of Charlie Hebdo was violating some limit of decency or taste inevitably ends up in logical self-contradictions. A major Romanian media figure, Ion Plesu even suggested that self-censorship would have been the answer to avoiding the massacre...
  • This then leads us to the frankly outrageous journalism that insinuates that the content in Charlie Hebdo was directly responsible for what happened. The, again fundamental, failure in this is that anybody insulted in any way by any publication has numerous proportional means to respond... and none of those means include machine guns.
  • Such articles have avoided two minor details consistently (if, for a brief moment, we do look at the content-related twisted logic followed by these journalists and bloggers): firstly, Charlie Hebdo attacked myriad other faiths, communities, minorities... not just Islam. Secondly, as not just the Koran, but also major muslim personalities have underlined in last few days, the terrorists placed themselves in direct contradiction with the Koran and Islam.
  • The discussion about Charlie Hebdo content vs. the massacre seen as a response to that content (one article in Romanian press even stated that this was "to be expected"!) is tantamount to misinformation of the worst kind. It is beyond irrelevant noise... People lacking the knowledge on the current, very difficult, French context, on the ISIS vs. Al-Qaeda PR campaign rivalry, on the fundamentals of Islam, are dragged into a debate that is completely avoiding the central issues. Judging from the myriad online comments, such articles have indeed successfully diverted attention from the real problems.
So then... the real issues... One does not always easily resort to quotes of Sam Harris, but so many luminaries (from Karl Popper to Levy-Strauss) have essentially led to the point one is about to quote: the only problems with islamic fundamentalism are... the fundamentals of Islam.

Sure, it needs to be revisited and taught in a way that it doesn't radicalise... the same way that Christianity and Judaism has gone through revisiting, toning down, and even reformation. This is not about whatever Charlie Hebdo published and whether that in some deranged minds triggered something. Latter has nothing to do with Islam, as many more lucid articles have stated repeatedly - not just now, but also in the aftermath of many other atrocities.

Many articles stating that what happened had nothing to do with Islam are partly correct in their polemic. However, if one deludes oneself by ignoring the glaring fact that only a specific radicalised element is committing these atrocities, then that is a truly harmful delusion.

If one does accept that there is an issue with this specific radicalisation, then one hits one key problem: that there is no central, hierarchic authority in Islam... Apart from numerous isolated voices again stating their outrage and muslim apologetics endlessly repeating again that Islam is a peaceful religion, there is no practical possibility of conveying that message. 

Also, one has to agree in face of facts with certain philosophers who have pointed out that mechanical apologetics are actually causing a huge amount of harm... by not facing the facts of the very text they are talking about and not proposing an honest admission that there is a problem  that needs to be addressed.

Until there is no possibility of revisiting and toning down the most dangerous sections of the scripture that have always been the key means for radicalisation (by literal, or even more tendentiously re-interpreted use of those passages), one will endlessly debate what "triggered" certain radicalised elements of Islam... and will forever fill internet bandwidth with empty discussions on limits of "decency" in published content that has to avoid "triggering" such elements' reactions...

Debates on certain publications' decency in the context of freedom of expression, and how this freedom needs to be self-regulated (or, as some even proposed from a society that should know better after decades of stalinist suppression of such freedoms, even to be regulated by the state), remain therefore very sorry caricatures of freedom.


Saturday, 8 October 2011

Transfer...

Somewhat less pensative times, as most of the time and energy is now transferred towards establishing an internet presence for Aquasport.

So the blog is coming along nicely, of course the crux of it will be continuous flow of content. Let's see how that goes.

But it's building up here ... and let's hope there'll be plenty of successes, too, to report there.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

From zero to gold & silver

During the current build-up to the 2012 London Olympics, one finds it impossible not to resonate with (or even seek out) stories on emerging sport talents whose future promises to be bright - if not necessarily by, but certainly beyond, 2012.

Recently I had the opportunity to closely witness the unusual story of a youth water polo team in a remote corner of Europe... A story about a start from absolute zero, resurrecting a sport after twenty-odd years of complete destruction, fighting local financial and administrative difficulties, and achieving in just two years something remarkable. Their recent past and present revealed a number of aspects that transcend geographical specifics and started to transcend also the material aspects of the equation that faced the coach & the kids when they started out.

Their career, in the club called Aquasport, started merely two years ago in the town of Targu Mures, in Transylvania, Romania. The sport had a hugely successful past in the city up until the 1989 Revolution. After the changes, the last 20-odd years have been marked by a total destruction of the sport, one could witness the former training bases fallen into total (and literal) ruin due to lack of interest & investment from the new circles of power who were and are disconnected with the pre-1990 history of the city.

Most of the internationally noted talent emigrated or given up completely any hope of keeping the sport alive in that city. Nothing is more symbolic of the last two decades than the disintegrating ruins of the 50m outdoors pool, which was once the place of two daily training sessions and countless matches during the summer months (see photo report here). Whilst there are several outdoors and indoors pools in the town, their owners for decades refused to allow the necessary training access to the new facilities.

However, a former international water polo player turned coach, Csaba Gagyi, returned from abroad and established a youth water polo club called Aquasport, attempting the impossible: bringing back from literally zero the once hugely popular and successful sport. The road was extremely bumpy to say the least, lack of funding was just a part of their problems, as the lack of support from new administration was in a way hitting them even harder.

For example, gaining access to one of the many indoors pools from autumn to spring has proven to be impossible in the past - and was only solved very recently by an amicable offer from the local University sports association. Access to an outdoors pool in the mornings and evenings was gained after much effort, attracting eventually the good will of the city’s Mayor. Donations were received from here and there, so they could buy equipment and fund their travel to competitions. A youth water polo club in Oradea, a city where the lethal discontinuity of the sport didn’t occur, offered help with what we could call an exchange program, training together, visiting their facilities and gaining match experience.

The real story then is what they achieved under these circumstances with the twenty-odd teenagers who joined the club. In just two years, the players born in 1995 and 1996 have managed to bring home in August 2011 the prestigious Turbo Cup from Szentes, Hungary, having won every match in this major Olympic Hopes water polo tournament that gathered more than fifty teams from around the world. The little ones, born in 1997-1998, reached 4th place in their age group, which was also a huge achievement for the young club.

Right after this, in early September they brought home a silver medal from Slovenski Waterpolo international tournament, only being beaten 11-12 in the final, when played against the mighty Honved Budapest's youth team.

It will be probably very hard for the lads to get used to everyday school routine after such a summer. One thing they will have to do certainly is getting up again at 5AM every morning, so that they can train before school starts. However, following the story emerging in what was my hometown many years ago, having witnessed the total destruction of that sport in the period 1990-2009, I have to share some of the thrill.

Whilst I follow the Olympics build-up that is filled with optimism and fuels dreams (or at least nostalgia) in any person of any age, it occurs to me that one day I might return to that city and watch amazing water polo being played again, as I remember watching it every summer of my childhood and adolescence. However, this is just a purely personal note.

Going back to that pre- and post-2012 context, having seen such stories as the one above, I firmly believe that whilst it is very important to discuss the tangible and material issues surrounding sports facilities, funding, discovery of local talent, the selfless ambition and determination in all involved parties remains a key ingredient even in a very material world - especially when faced with intimidating obstacles and initially debilitating ignorance on a seemingly impossible journey.

Their gradually emerging Facebook page is here.

So one can only say, best of luck to them and hopefully with their continuous recent successes, they will attract enough attention from officialdom to ensure their smooth training and access to all the needed facilities.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Feedback loops

The furore around the phone hacking scandal that engulfed the Murdoch empire continues relentlessly in the UK. Certainly, it's the biggest media scandal of recent decades.

However, whilst revelations about senior police officials, media, former and current Government officials continue, whilst top resignations go on and on (today even the head of the Press Complaints Commission exited), one has to reflect on another aspect of this whole mess.

The very fact that Rupert Murdoch was worshiped for decades in the UK, to such an extent that top politicians lined up to gain access to him, purely shows that his media empire, and media in general, had huge power that could make or break top personalities and their futures. It could create and destroy votes, could alter the course of British politics.

How it got to that stage, that's another story. The fact remains, that Murdoch ended up pretty much running the show on occasion, or at least key acts of some shows, as all the new facts revealed. Ultimately, we, the readers and consumers of his media empire created this power.

Considering the media in Romania, it leads to yet another reflection.

Yes, that media has some power - but usually it makes rather than breaks politicians. It can manipulate fantastically successfully, as even recent non-political hysteria around the Fukushima story showed. It can create votes via that manipulation, but we are yet to see the Romanian media breaking a top politician.

It may publish some shocking facts on shocking corruption, but even when there is real-time footage about some despicable character, what really are the negative tangible effects? There are none.

At most, the National Department for Anti-corruption picks something up. But usually they bow to political pressures (as recently showed, mafiosi robbing the country blind to the count of few billion euros could make this department investigate a senator about some tens of thousands of euros of alleged 'commerce of interest and influence'). Or they uncover things that are far from being triggered by media investigations.

The fact remains, yes, there was extremely powerful positive feedback loop between Murdoch's empire and British politics & business circles. But there was also a mighty negative feedback loop there. Hence the primordial fear that British power figures had and tried to stay in Murdoch's good books.

That negative feedback loop simply does not exist in Romania. There is free press, and press that can be used for political manipulation - but we are yet to see that power (good or bad) that some other countries have witnessed when confronted with certain media moguls.