Sunday, 31 August 2008

Security

In case somebody still feels that only some paranoid person affected by perhaps too many years spent in a former communist (or any) totalitarian society can consider the current UK realities abnormal... well, there were further good but depressing stories.

Stories, again, on freedom vs. security... The fact that the London underground refurbishment is marked by posters that list as first improvement on the list the increased number of CCTV cameras is, on its own, understandable considering what happened in those tunnels and on those station platforms not so long ago.

But adding to the list from the darker side of this all-encompassing so-called war on terror, there are again stories about photographers and police force acting in the name of that 'war'.

The latest two incidents that made the press in this very free society (?) are, this time, marked by certain overtones that come from abuse of power. But it shows how the vague and open to interpretation 'Terrorism Act' can be used for even covering up human frailties of police officers.

In once case, a person took a picture of an illegally parked car with his mobile phone. The car happened to be an unmarked, undercover police car. Of course, the fact that it could well have had a genuine reason to park at random, is not the point here. The points is that somewhat unexpectedly, the person taking the picture was arrested under the Terror Act 2000... The mental leap is not so difficult to anyone that has followed what this country has become over just the last 2-3 years.

The other story was even nastier, and this time it was about plain and simple abuse of power, resorting to pull the Terror Act magic rabbit out of a police officer hat, to cover up the fact that the police has ignored basic traffic regulations for absolutely no reason (no, they were not chasing some baddie...).

A person spotted a police van that ignored the no-entry sign on the street, reversed up a one-way street simply to get to a chip shop. Proceeded to immortalise the event, but then he ended up being abused by the police, had his camera knocked to the ground, arrested, bundled into the van and finally held in police cells for five hours.

Of course this is still a free society. Of course we are trying to just make it safer. Of course there is nothing to remind one of autocratic use of any legislation for whatever purpose, especially when that legislation is deliberately so open to interpretation that can cover anything anybody feels like applying it to. All in the name of building a safer world...

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Quantity

Edging on to less dark topics, it is interesting to see how quantity is eminently linked in the media (and in the vast majority of minds) with greatness. Complexities, subtleties, inter-connections are all lost in a world where everything can be collapsed into an easy and clear equation. Quantity automatically means quality... or so it seems.

I like Phelps. Yep, genetics does play a huge role in what he does, but then again, so does in many other sports. Yep, it's amazing he beat Mark Spitz's record number of medals at the Olympics.

But...

It is one thing to say he's won astonishing number of medals at the Olympics... and an entirely different thing to say he is the greatest Olympian.

To be a great Olympian means slightly more- and I just wonder, how many huge names in the history of modern Olympic Games could be worthy of that title. But to compare something so subtle & complex is difficult.

We can't talk about Olympic spirit very easily, when nowadays instead of stopping all wars, some just overrun with tanks other countries on the day of the opening ceremony... and others 'just' carry on killing each other.

We can't talk about history of Olympic Games, as few people know any history nowadays... or care about any history. In a world where 18 year olds have no idea of a major event that occurred in their year of birth, an event that re-shaped Europe, how can one talk about any history? Or any history meaning anything?

We can't talk about anything so complex in a dumbed down society where the only remaining solid mean of comparing anything is by now purely quantitative.

We can't talk about spirit in general, when the very meaning of the word is becoming unknown to most.

Can't really talk about greatness as a concept truly grasped by many, while fascist dictators can be voted among greatest figures of X country even in the 21st century.

And we can't talk about greatness in any depth, as it is purely modelled after Hollywood movie characters and dubious 5-minute-lifespan celebrities, or made-up and meaningless 'Greatest 100 ...something... of all time' charts.

So... yes, perhaps, in this world, in these minds, Phelps can be the greatest Olympic athlete simply due to him having accumulated the most medals.

Anything else, talking or debating or thinking about anything else, would be just too... fuzzy and complex... and increasingly meaningless in a world gradually devoid of morality, spirituality and ah yes, true human greatness.

Again, I like Phelps and admire his achievement. And yes, why would he not be the greatest Olympian. But for that, I personally still need much more than a numerical and very simple equation.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Informant society

In a free society so fundamentally riddled with deep paranoia as the one in today's UK is, it is hardly surprising that a recent report showed more than 80% of school children feel that the CCTV cameras are there to watch them, rather than purely provide security.

And as an old joke says, the paranoid is the one that knows something...

What could be a more tragicomic confirmation of this saying than news on something that puts British society well on track to become an informant society. The motivations in this increasingly paranoid and orwellian society are different from the ones in the former Easter Block, but the essence is becoming identical.

As The Register reported, a recent landmark ruling by the High Court takes the UK one step closer to becoming an “informant society” along the lines of the former East Germany or Soviet Union.

An example was "the case of deputy head, John Pinnington, who was fired from his job when an enhanced criminal record background (CRB) check turned up allegations of abuse made against him. He took his case to judicial review, arguing that the allegations were seriously flawed, were unsubstantiated, and that the police should only include them in a CRB check where there were some grounds to believe they might be true.

This view was rejected, as Lord Justice Richards ruled that there was nothing unlawful about the actions of the Police force in passing on allegations. And future employers 'should be aware' of the accusations, however weak and unreliable they are."

It also reports, that "police investigated and took no further action, and that at least one set of allegations was based on the controversial 'facilitated communication' method of eliciting statements from children too damaged, otherwise, to speak on their own behalf. On any objective scale of evidence, they belong in the category labelled 'weak'."

For those who have seen the real experts on this in action, in the 50s-60s-70s-80s in the Eastern Block, doesn't this sound familiar?

If you just change the names & context, the entire case sounds like a straightforward case of informants' unsubstantiated allegations leading to one's life being ruined and being 'guilty until you prove yourself innocent'.

Yep, again, democracy and freedom in action, 2008, Great Britain.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

New heights

Switching to the UK a bit, there are certainly new heights reached in terms of individual freedom and rights to privacy.

If I say, they introduced (again) something which is violating every conceivable human rights and fundamental freedom issues linked to a hi-tech service, what would be the best bet as to what triggered this?

In case one doesn't guess the by now obvious, yes, it is... the so-called Terrorism Act. Under this fantastic Holy Grail of manipulative politics, once more, the British society and its fundamental liberties take a beating.

Never mind the overzealous, self-consciously paranoia-inducing poster campaigns about watching out for 'suspiciously acting photographers' and other such (scary but absurdly tragicomic) dross.

No, this is a proper, genuine tour de force in the realm of true stalinism, again applied in the 'interest' of the dubious (but all-encompassing) 'war on terror'.

The measure concerns internet service providers and local councils. They can now have access to anybody's private emails, and service providers need to store them for a lengthy period.

Who will access this information and for what real use, nobody knows nor can know. One side-effect is that internet providers may increase their prices, as they have to battle with the unwelcome task of storing huge amounts of data for a long while, for every single client of theirs.

Yes, sorry, in case somebody doubts this, this IS in the UK and this is happening here in 2008.

Philip K. Dick, you must be spinning in your grave. You see, one can never be paranoid enough. Not in this historic and proud citadel of democracy...

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Education, education, education

Ah yes.

A certain mantra that, ironically and amazingly, sounds familiar to both those that lived under Ceausescu's regime and Tony Blair's reign.

Both 'leaders' have used this ostinato-like repetitive magic phrase to talk about how important education is. While one demented dictator and his entourage looked at education for augmenting the utter brainwashing of their people, the other 'leader' (now peace envoy for the Middle East... after bombing parts of that very part of the map to the ground...) looked at education as something to raise from a certain high to even more celestial heights.

Ah yes.

Ironically, the education system both in my former home has raised, sorry, wrong word, let's use management speak, aligned itself to those heights.

Apart from the amazing corruption that marked (well, branded) the baccalaureates in Romania this year (this topic would take us into the field of unimaginable Romanian corruption across every possible layer of society, so let's avoid that- especially as we touched on extensively in this blog), those final high-school 'trials' and tribulations for pupils have been an exercise in futility.

Even in high-schools as the legendary Bolyai Farkas Lyceum in Tirgu Mures (well, Marosvasarhely if we use its proper name), the baccalaureates were marked by quite astounding levels (of lack of) knowledge and certainly stratospheric heights of ignorance.

With the few exceptions, the dominating trend there and in the country is that, well, there is no point in putting in any effort - everything can be either arranged, agreed, ignored, survived... After all, in this world, knowing about literature or history is totally useless ballast. It matters much more that one knows how to hack a PC to fix some Microsoft lunacy, or even more importantly, how to earn money in ANY way - legal or illegal.

So, as we talked about, Romanian education has not gone backwards, it evolved to the same level of ignorance as (and I only know this one too close) British education has been at for many years.

Again, we have not met certain targets in SATs but GCSEs are as usual, amazing - more and more students pass with a tirade of A's and A+'s... while even basic general knowledge has gone down to zero.

In the end, it all works out. Not that I am some ultra-paranoid conspiracy theorist, but come on guys- if you manage to establish a society where even human decency and basic manners are a matter of pure luxury, where basic general knowledge is absent, you prepare a wonderful ground for ... well, for once, selling anything to anybody.

I watch with great amusement (and frustration) how the myriad of utterly useless products can be marketed and sold in their millions, simply because there is a tiny minority of people left that can spot the basic and fundamental contradictions with basic and fundamental biology, chemistry, physics...

We need utterly dumb but arrogant people with top marks. We need them to sell billions of amazingly useless and often downright dangerous or just plain deceiving products.

We also need that small minority that has the brains and have gone to proper schools and have passed proper tests with proper marks, so that they can develop those products :-)

So, at least in one area, Romania has truly reached the levels of 'Western' culture...

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Olympics, communism, deja-vu

Interesting, how some things in communist regimes, no matter how liberal they wish to look, are common across many decades and many thousands of miles that may separate them.

"When the International Olympic Committee first visited Beijing, the Chinese authorities even had the grass painted green to impress their guests."

Well, deja-vu. Interesting act that I recall from my childhood under Ceausescu, when the trees and grass were spray painted to look fresh green, fresh vegetables were laid out on fields to look like there was a rich crop and apples have been tied back on their branches with wire... Some things are universal, at least in the communist universe.

Beijing said people enjoyed a "range of freedoms". Could you define the range please?

But also, it said (and again, word by word, resonates with Ceausescu and many former dictators' reactions, when poked by the international community on those few occasions when that very community decided to poke rather than close eyes & ears due to other interests): "We resolutely oppose any words or actions which interfere in the internal affairs of another country in the name of issues such as human rights and religion."

They are touchy, poor things. And I always knew that communist regime officials are very sensitive indeed...

So is the desperate drive that goes way beyond 'normal' organising efforts. China has spent billions on the 'facade' alone.

But after all, when a sports event is not a sports event, but an again desperate act of showing supremacy (ideological, political, economic or all combined in this case) to the rest of the world, what can one expect?

I am looking forward to the opening ceremony. On TV, of course.

Somehow I hope the coverage will graciously avoid the countless, truly countless, uniformed soldiers that wear so archetypal communist totalitarian army uniforms that I at least feel strong nausea coming up even if I just look at stills.

Friday, 1 August 2008

...and back

Back again to UK, after a (never long enough) holiday spent in what was still my home 13 years ago.

It's been another trip of wonderful, hilarious, depressing, uplifting and frustrating moments... while other moments were straight out of Kafka and Camus...

As some comments said, Romania is a state of controversies... and it is in a state of deep controversy on many issues.

While Brussels is criticising vehemently the way in which the Romanian Parliament is slowing down and stalling anti-corruption measures against senators and sundry, there are still much publicised anti-corruption helplines that seem to reflect some genuine willingness of dealing with this even at street level... How real(istic) the impact of such wide initiatives can be, well, it's been illustrated and questioned in previous postings.

Let's look at basics, where the argument 'only 18 years passed since the Revolution' don't quite hold. For instance, the introduction of the new currency (which cut 4 zeroes off the old amounts in old currency) still has not truly happened.

Yes, it is the only official currency, but can a country say it has a new currency when even city centre shops in large cities can not give (this is not exception, it's the norm) small change? Simply because there still aren't enough coins made to supply shops and people in general...

Again, as reported last summer and winter, I've collected a huge handful of chewing gums, C vitamin pills, instant coffee sachets... all given to me as change in many shops in many cities... Even sums of tens of RON (New Lei) are often a problem, as I found out with amazement in a huge supermarket...

Romania still builds fancy facades and bright red shiny roofs to show off ideological, economical, political measures and changes, while the foundation and structural resistance walls are absent many years after the roofs were floated above the ground with great PR exercises - PR exercises toward the EU and also internal audience about to go to general elections...

The issue of the national currency and the absolutely absurd & basic shortcomings around it is just one of the good examples.

I also caught, unfortunately, the huge chaos around the newly published lists of subsidised drugs. Innumerable sick & elderly people, including pharmacy staff, were thrown into absolute disarray and surreal chaos, due to the Government issuing multiple mutually contradicting lists and until the dust settled, nobody knew what medication to sell at what price to whom...

While huge corruption cases are battled out even in the Parliament, it is blatantly obvious that the Romanian circles of power (not just political power) have absolute ZERO care for the basics that affect millions of people.

Yes, in many countries those circles are equally disconnected from reality, but maybe not as corrupt and usually there is some negative feedback mechanism. In Romania, anybody can get away with anything as long as he/she is connected to the right people. Not that one is surprised these things have not changed, but one wonders: how come among all the talk about redressing some of the truly jungle capitalist and mega-corrupt phenomena, these are getting worse by the minute?

It is still a country of contradictions... of deep paradoxes... and while huge advances are made (the education system aligned itself to the 'West' by having now the very same problems, the health system virtually collapsed exactly as the NHS suffers of fundamental issues that only get better in skewed statistics and not in the real life, in comparison with other EU countries, attitudes have aligned themselves to the previously so much admired, but now indiscriminately imitated, 'West' etc.), the basics have not evolved since 1989.