Thursday, June 25, 2009

Spelling disaster

I feel dirty.

Not in an erotic way. This isn't that kind of blog. Nor is this a personal hygiene issue, except perhaps in a moral sense. I feel a crawling of the skin, an itching of the scalp, but I don't think a long hot shower is going to help.

What's causing this revulsion is the sense that I find myself agreeing with the Daily Mail. The UK government has issued new guidance on how schoolkids should be taught to spell. No longer will they learn "i before e except after c", because "there are too many exceptions", it seems.

This advice comes from a report named, apparently without a trace of irony, "Understanding English Spelling", by one Masha Bell. "Children are having to fill their heads with this rubbish - because spelling is rubbish," the author is quoted as saying. Proof, if proof were needed, that here is a person who is remarkably unqualified to write a report called "Understanding English Spelling", much less have that report adopted as official guidance for schools

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I can't spell. It's a simple, if sad, fact of life: almost no-one can spell. I'm pretty sure I'm in the top 1% of English spellers, but it still happens, from time to time, that I suddenly learn I've been spelling a word wrongly for years. Quite ordinary words, like "weird" or "diarrhoea". I've no doubt there are still at least a handful of words that I routinely misspell.

And yet I take spelling very seriously. I believe in it.

The spelling of a word carries far more information than just its dictionary-listed meaning. It tells us, if we know what to look for, where the word comes from, what philosophical and intellectual baggage it carries. Most importantly, it shows something about how the word relates to other words, both in English and in other languages. A secretary, for instance, is one who keeps secrets. A library is a place (the '-ary' suffix) for books (French 'libres'). If I spelled these words the way people in my part of the world spoke them (secatry, lybrie), I'd never have made those connections.

This is one of the problems with spelling reform. It's the same problem as with every other kind of reform. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin said it best: "Everything is connected to everything else."

When Mr Webster decided that the Americans needed their own spelling to separate them from the British, he ran into this problem straight away. "Center" may look more natural than "centre", but on the other hand, it means you need a whole new rule - "drop the penultimate e" - to form words like "central" and "centrifuge". American English is no easier to spell than British or International English: it's just different.

That's why I don't believe people who argue that spelling reform would improve school performance. Anyone who believes that, I reckon, just hasn't given it enough thought.

(Pop quiz: What can spelling tell us about the key difference between "thought" and "consideration", or "meditation", or any other word ending with "-tion"?)

There is one other argument for spelling reform, but it's one that is never stated, because it's so self-evidently a thing of utmost evil. It's the argument that reform will make everything written Before, harder to read.

Why would anyone want to do that? I can think of three reasons, which would be supported - equally covertly - by three equally unholy special interests.

First, it reinforces the divide between "elite" and popular culture, making it harder to bridge that gap. Thus creating work for sociologists, opportunities for class warriors and petty demagogues.

Second, it creates a New Culture for a New Britain, divorced from everything that has gone before. We get to rewrite everything, shrugging off any contradiction based on un-PC older sources. This appeals to the social-engineering wing of the radical left.

Third, it's a publishing opportunity. All those older works, hundreds of thousands of books, that can optionally be updated. And, of course, renewed copyrights on everything from Shakespeare to Dylan Thomas! When publishers hear of spelling reform, it's all they can do to keep the drool inside their mouths.

[Answer to pop quiz: "thought" is an Anglo-Saxon word (the silent "-gh-" is a dead giveaway), coming from a direct, plain-speaking culture. "-tion" words come from Latin, whose speakers were much more given to studying the art of speaking. When someone uses a "-tion" word, they're not saying what they think, they're thinking about what they say. It's an important difference.]

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Vicarious road rage

Some days I don't know which is worse: Auckland's demented road rules, its drivers, or its journalism.

This offensive piece from yesterday's Herald tells the plaintive story of a motorist complaining about being ticketed for an illegal left turn. He points to the "Turn left" sign that appears just a few metres before the very clear "No left turn" sign that he defied.

What the Herald doesn't mention is what I realised the moment I saw the photograph, what is obvious to any honest person on the road, and what the journalist could've learned with three minutes of research: that the "Turn left" sign applies to a completely different lane.

See, I know that junction. I used to take it on a daily basis. At busy times, there's often a very long queue of motorists trying to get onto the motorway. And there exists the option for antisocial scumbuckets to save themselves a good seven minutes or so by zipping straight past that queue in the sparsely-populated lanes reserved for people heading to Newmarket, then making that clearly-illegal left turn. Google Streetview gives a fairer impression of the road:

And that's what this git is complaining about being pulled up for. He vows to fight a $150 fine. And he expects sympathy from us, the public, in his righteous struggle.

(Do you think everyone else on the road is just queuing up for fun, because they've nothing better to do with their time? Do you enjoy cutting into the proper lane at the last possible moment? What would you do to get home ten minutes earlier? Would you cut off an ear? How about an eye? You could wear a cool eyepatch over it and make up some tacky story about a terrifying hostage rescue, so that no-one need know it's part of a Faustian bargain to save you from missing the start of Shortland Street. No? Then why are you so happy to maim your own soul like that? Don't you feel it twitching inside you, gasping, dying a little more, every time you brag about shaving another 40 seconds off your commute? Or has it already shrivelled to a leathery, walnut husk, like that of an estate agent or a newspaper columnist? Do you feel a smug, sick pleasure in knowing that right-thinking drivers around you fantasise about dragging you screaming from your cosy driver's seat, kicking you brutally in the stomach, and leaving you by the side of the road to choke in a pool of your own blood and vomit? Or would you secretly welcome it as a blessed release? The Jerry Springer team would like to hear from you.)

I'd like to see him appeal the fine. Really I would. Then I'd like to see the court order that his car be crushed in front of his eyes, without giving him time to take his personal effects out first. This is the kind of crime we really need to clamp down on: the kind that is not motivated by anger, but engenders it; the kind not driven by fear or hate or lust or any natural human emotion, but by cold, rational selfishness.

Friday, June 19, 2009

It makes a feller proud...

This is the most warming news story that the cockles of my h. have seen in a long while. It seems that two sailors from HMS Manchester stole a life-sized plastic statue of Ronald McDonald and threw it into the harbour of Valparaiso, Chile.

Frankly, the only way I could be more pleased would be to learn that they'd attached a stolen policeman's helmet to it, before heaving it into the water.

But my swelling of national pride is subdued by the information that these good tars were caught, arraigned before the beak and fined an amount that the BBC describes as "£350" - although it seems more likely to me that the judge would have levied a sum in Chilean pesos. Back in the day, I would have hoped that two of the Senior Service should have been able to evade capture for a simple sculpture-napping.

Still, it's nice to know that British sailors are still trained to take the initiative, to correctly identify and neutralise the symbols of an enemy power in a neutral port, without sparking a major international incident. It makes one feel that one's taxes (which yes, one is still paying in the UK) aren't completely wasted.

Thanks to El Reg for the tip.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Can someone please smack Sue Bradford?

The referendum has taken a lot of flak.

Go figure. Spending $9 million on answering a meaningless question, where both main parties have promised to ignore the outcome whatever it is? It's hard to characterise it as an optimal use of public money.

Not that the supporters aren't putting a brave face on it. "Whether or not smacking is a good thing, any law that dictates how parents discipline their children is an intolerable incursion on individual liberty and a big leap towards a totalitarian state." Thus one True Believer commenting at the New Zealand Herald.

Sue Bradford, sponsor of the original law that has caused all the fuss, has responded with another idiotic idea: that the Clerk of the House (the legal advisor to Parliament, who referees these things) should ensure that any referendum question be "not ambiguous, complex, leading or misleading".

In other words: it's not enough that 10% of the entire country feels strongly enough to sign a petition - now they've got to get the wording past an arbitrary authority who might, for all we know, be a government stooge.

This is typical of Ms Bradford's way of thinking. She's an old-school authoritarian, convinced to the very core of her being that She Knows Best what's right for us all. That's how we got here in the first place.

Here's a better idea: change the law so that the people who sign a referendum petition have to pay for it themselves. It'd come to about $30 each, which is within the reach of just about anyone who really feels strongly about the subject. Let the signatories show some commitment to their cause. If they feel strongly enough about a meaningless question to waste their money on it, who are we to stop them? It's only our money that we should have a veto over.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

When politicians agree

"People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices." - Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

Last week, the blogosphere tells me, the US Congress voted overwhelmingly for a new policy to oppose any global climate change treaty that "weakens the IP rights of American companies".

Actually it's worse than that. The Secretary of State is mandated to ensure that "the protection in foreign countries of the intellectual property rights of United States persons in other countries is a significant component of United States foreign policy". And "in consultation with the Director General of the United States and Foreign Commercial Service and other agencies as appropriate, ... ensure that adequate resources are available at diplomatic missions in any country that is identified" as failing to do enough to enforce US IP rights against its own citizens.

What prompted this piece of turf-staking was the suggestion that green technologies should be shared as much as possible. No sooner had the US Energy Secretary, the painfully naïve Steven Chu, suggested that this might be a desirable aim, than bloggers, analysts and other headline-grabbers were talking excitedly of compulsory licensing, seizure or outright abolition of patents on low-carbon technology. Couldn't have that.

What's going on here, I think, is an illustration of the US political class's determination to extend as long and as far as possible the delusion that "intellectual property" is a real thing, as genuine and palpable as actual land. Anything that threatens that perception, anything that hints at the truth of just how fragile and indefensible IP really is, needs to be met, or better yet pre-empted, with prompt and decisive action.

Why? Why is Congress, so conflicted and lukewarm about everything from the budget to immigration, so red-hot and united on this single issue?

I think there are two reasons. The first is obvious: money. Industries that are heavily invested in IP pay fortunes in direct bribes and lobbying to Congress, and that's just the visible totals.

The second reason is more sinister. "Intellectual property" is the new frontier, the realm in which the young and the dispossessed are now encouraged to make their fortunes. Otherwise, they might start asking questions on the lines of "shouldn't we have some real land?" It's a way for the rich to "offer" the poor the prospect of "owning property", without the threat that this "property" might be subtracted from their own possessions. The cost of "intellectual property" is a regressive tax: it's shared more or less equally by all of us, rich and poor alike.

And so far, we're all falling for it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Lies and the lying liars who ask them

I'm not sure how it happened, but there's a referendum coming up.

See - about three years ago, a very stupid Green MP named Sue Bradford sponsored, pushed and nagged through a law saying that "reasonable correction" should no longer be a defence for parents accused of assaulting their children. The "anti-smacking bill", as it swiftly became known, coincided with a great deal of publicity about the shocking rates of child abuse in this country. And eventually it passed, in the teeth of furious opposition from conservatives of all stripes.

But it's only now that we're learning just how determined that opposition was. Someone, somewhere, has collected the requisite number of signatures - which is an impressive feat, because it takes some 10% of the total electorate - to force a referendum on the question "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

I'd like to propose: "Should New Zealand taxpayers' money be wasted on non-binding referenda with loaded and dishonest questions?"

Friday, June 12, 2009

A case study in character assassination

Last week I wrote about the Mysterious Fall of Richard Worth, a cabinet minister thrown to the sharks without so much as a twinge of regret, for causes unnamed.

As I confidently predicted then, those causes emerged in short enough order: sexual harrassment.

Now the media's attention has switched firmly to the Woman, one Neelam Choudary. Her husband, we hear, is awaiting sentencing for immigration fraud. Most remarkably, she tried to stand as a Labour candidate at the last election. Now opposition leader Phil Goff is being portrayed as her cynical puppet-master, the diabolical-yet-bumbling mastermind behind a KGB-like honey trap.

In other words, the smear campaign has shifted into high gear.

I understand how the media (including blogs) works. I can quite see why they're running with the story as they are. But standing back a little from the pack, there are two questions that still bother me.

One: despite the rapid demolition of the only prosecution witness, no-one - not even NotPC, or the insanely right-wing WhaleOil (now leading calls for Phil Goff's political lynching), is suggesting Worth be rehabilitated. As I said last week, prime minister John Key was pretty thorough about burning the boats when the story began to break. Although now it seems as if Worth's crime is less to do with abuse, more stupidity, that is just as bad in the eyes of the right wing.

In other words: Worth's party is successfully attacking Worth's attackers, without giving any impression of defending Worth. That's quite impressive, and I think it's Key's decisive butchery last week that makes it possible.

Two: the burning question of last week's announcement remains unanswered. Why didn't Key tell us then what Worth had done wrong? Did he foresee how the story would unfold? Is he even helping to engineer it?

Exhibit - what are we up to now, F? - the relatively moderate Kiwiblog says that Goff "tried to turn it into a political circus by insisting he attend any meeting with the PM as her 'support person'". How, I wonder, does it know that, unless through some contact with Key's office?

Well played, sir. I am impressed.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Libertarians" is an anagram of "rats rain bile"

I used to have some sympathy with libertarians. I thought we might stand shoulder-to-shoulder against state intrusion into private lives. We agree that laws are made for the people, that the role of government should be limited.

But I didn't allow for one thing: the libertarian movement is governed by fundamentalists, who rule with an ironically iron fist. "Pragmatism" is a dirty word to them, along with "compromise" and "consensus". You can see the fruits of this wingnuttery over at the excellent Libertarianz blog, Not PC.

Most recently, these loons have been ranting about local governments' tendency to blow ratepayers' money on stupid pet projects. The current local government minister, Rodney "Quasimodo" Hide, wants councils to hold a binding referendum before they do any such thing - itself as dumb an idea as I've heard in a month of by-election politics. But, fume the wingnuts, "just because a majority votes to attack the wallets of a minority, it still doesn’t make it right".

(That, of course, is an all-purpose argument against any taxation of any kind anywhere ever. It'd make sense coming from an avowed anarchist, but from people who pretend to be joining in the democratic process, it seems a little odd.)

The loons have their own prescription to curb local government extravagance. "Anything here you'd object to?", they ask, listing their 12-point reform plan.

Well, since you ask...
  • Eliminate the ability of non-ratepayers to vote in all local body elections;
  • Reintroduce non-resident ratepayer vote;
  • W00t, just what our neighbourhood needs - a new disenfranchised underclass! Seriously, isn't that what we've all been craving since 1867 - reintroduce the wealth qualification to vote?

  • An immediate and permanent cap on the ratings levels of councils at existing monetary levels;
  • Seems libertarians are not immune to the visceral appeal of the "myth of stability".

  • Require that the 25% of councils each year that tax ratepayers at the highest level per ratepayer be required to reduce rates to the level of the lowest council;
  • Why only those councils? Surely all councils should be required to reduce rates to the lowest level. Because obviously the best way to decide a local area's needs is to assume they're the same as those of a completely unrelated area.
    Seems now you're not so much the spiritual descendents of the Dissenters as the spiritual descendents of Roderick Spode.

  • Require the abolition of all general rates differentials (e.g. higher rates for commercial properties vs. residential), with the current lowest general rating category applying across the board;
  • Eliminate targeted rates in favour of direct user charges;
  • Oh sure, because Ayn Rand forbid a democratic body of some sort should be able to influence the economic flavour or form of an area. That's just distorting the free market, right?

  • Eliminate local authority petrol and diesel tax;
  • Erm - what? Of all the things you've listed, this is the closest yet to a truly voluntary tax. You don't have to fill up your car in the council area - after all, the whole point of a car is that it's - well - mobile.

  • Immediately prohibit all councils entering into any new commercial or non-commercial venture of any kind, and require that all existing trading activities of councils (including roads) be transferred to Local Authority Trading Enterprises;
  • Yeah, because nothing guarantees "efficiency" better than setting up a whole new body every time you want to hold a raffle.

  • Prohibit ratepayer funding for any activities of any Local Authority Trading Enterprise;
  • Does this come back to the general opposition to any kind of taxes at all? I just wish you'd come out and say so honestly, then we can have that debate on its own merits.

  • Prohibit new council borrowing. Existing debt repayments will only be able to be made from existing revenue sources, including privatisation;
  • What "existing revenue sources"? If councils aren't allowed to trade, and they're not allowed to tax, then what exactly are they supposed to do with their existing debt? Go into liquidation?

  • Prohibit councils making bylaws that interfere with individual freedoms and private property rights;
  • So let's get this straight... If I don't want my neighbour to build a 15-storey block on his section, I should damn' well have the guts to drum up my own militia and remove him by force, not run whining to some kind of "local authority"? Yeah, that's a country I want to live in.

  • Require that all councils when acting under their statutory obligations under the Resource Management Act, fully respect all private property rights;
  • Translation: when enforcing the law of the land, make sure you don't stop me from doing whatever the hell I want.

The World's Smallest Political Quiz, which you guys link to, correctly pegs me as a liberal, leaning towards the libertarian cause. But I'm here to tell you, if this is your idea of sensible policy making, I'll side with big-government statists against you any day of the week.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Soylent chicken

Just when I'm once again trying to defend British restaurant cuisine, this story had to break. Seems that some food manufacturers inject processed pork or beef proteins into chicken sold to restaurants, to increase the water content and therefore the weight.

British Jews, Hindus and Muslims are upset, and understandably so.

Dutch chicken

What I can't quite understand is why no other country seems to be taking much notice. The fraud is perpetrated by Dutch, German and Spanish manufacturers - do these companies sell chicken only to Britain? The European Commission has been bought off, and won't support banning the addition of mammal protein to poultry; but surely the Muslim communities in places like France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands should be just as indignant? And yet, as far as I can make out from Google, those countries' media have yet to mention the story.

I'm not a member of any of these religious groups, but even so I feel a shudder of revulsion at the idea of "denatured mammalian protein" added to chicken. (They say it's beef or pork, but how can they be sure it's not rat, or human for that matter? Would it matter more if it were?)

It's hard to refute the argument that cheap chicken means processed, factory-made chicken - just check the price of "free-range, organic" chicken meat in your local supermarket. But which is more important: cheap food, or truth in labelling?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Contempt of court

Since you're not in New Zealand, you've probably never heard of David Bain. He's very big just now.

Depending who you listen to, Bain is either the unluckiest man in the country, or a mass murderer. Both terms in their most literal meaning. There is no middle ground.

The facts as we know them: at 7:09 on the morning of 20 June 1994, David Bain - then aged 22 - called the police, from his home in Dunedin, to report that his family were all dead. Police arrived to find that his mother, father, two younger sisters and young brother had been killed with a hunting rifle. Most of the victims were still in their rooms, but the father, Robin, who slept in a caravan in the garden, was in the lounge.

Beyond that point, the facts get more murky. If you want to know the ins and outs of the evidence you can Google it for yourself; suffice it to say here that the Bains were not a happy family. Incest, bullying and fear seem to have been the prevailing ethics. The crown says that David killed his own family before going out on his paper round to establish an alibi. The defence says that Robin killed the family, then shot himself and, deliberately or not, framed David.

In May/June 1995, David Bain was convicted of the murders and sentenced to life imprisonment. Over the next ten years, he steadily protested his innocence, and bits of evidence slowly dripped out that tended to support him. In 2007, the Privy Council ruled that evidence was strong enough to justify at least a retrial.

Right now, the jury is deliberating that retrial. Since they're sequestered - isolated from the media - it seems we're finally allowed to say out loud whether we think he dunnit or not.

Me, I'm not going to take advantage of that license. There's twelve people in Christchurch who have sat through three months of this stuff full-time. They know more about it than I do. I've done jury service; it's nothing if not intensive: for the duration of the trial, you really get to concentrate.

And yet, lots of ordinary people feel qualified to second-guess the jury.

It doesn't help that anyone with a decent professional job isn't expected to do jury service; they will invariably plead that they're too "indispensible" to give up their time. (The alternative is to face uncomfortable questions from their boss as to why they're not indispensible. To say nothing of a significant loss of income.) So it follows - to those people, at least - that juries are staffed exclusively by housewives, dossers, students and sundry other losers.

And believing that, who can trust them?

I really don't care much about the Bain case. But in general, on the whole, I'm for law. And I think that for the law to fulfil its primary purpose - to protect us all from vigilantes - it would be a great step forward if jury service were made compulsory: universal and unexcusable.

Update: It's taken the jury about a day to decide that Bain is not guilty, apparently. The judge told them to come to a unanimous verdict, and that's it. Evidently they don't think the prosecution did enough to prove its case.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Pacific survivalism

Just when we'd pretty much forgotten about swine flu, the government is urging us to panic - sorry, I should have spelled that "prepare" - all over again. "Swine flu will hit us hard", apparently.

As vague, existential threats go, swine flu is pretty mild. All we're supposed to do is stock up on preserved foods ("three to five days") and paracetemol. The idea being that nobody should have to die just because they can't get to the shops for a few days.

I like this kind of fearmongering. The prescribed precautions are cheap, and not too hard. More importantly, they scale: everyone can do this, without actually causing the end of civilisation as we know it. Contrast that with full-blown survivalism, which traditionally involves lots of land plus a robust attitude to trespassers.

In New Zealand, most of us can imagine electricity, and water, failing. We can imagine police, medical and fire services not being available. We can imagine a world with no food in the shops and no petrol in the pumps, at least temporarily. What we really can't imagine is the world of the traditional demented survivalist fantasy: where civilisation breaks down, and we have to stand alone against armed gangs and crazed marauders.

This kind of scenario always assumes that the protagonist stands alone. And hey, it could happen. I'm no more immune to heroic fantasy than the next guy. But it could also be a self-fulfilling fantasy. For me, when that disaster strikes, I'd rather be working with my neighbours than against them.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Scandal obscura

Once again, New Zealand's government is racked by scandal. And once again, I can't help but feel there's something missing.

Richard Worth, interior minister, resigned this morning. He is also being investigated by the police, although it's not entirely clear that the two events are connected. But the strangest thing is the Prime Minister's position. Says John Key: "If he hadn't resigned, I would have sacked him. [...] His conduct does not befit a minister. I will not have him in my Cabinet. I have lost confidence in him as a minister."

Strong stuff. As far as I can make out, Worth is Mostly Harmless. Key has previously defended him from accusations and insinuations ranging from abusing his position to promote a company in which he had an interest, to visiting a crime victim when he was acquainted with their attacker, to "acting inappropriately" towards women, a charge so vague it's meaningless.

But now he's being investigated by the police, and the PM has hurled him overboard, and is now paddling as fast as he can to put clear blue water between them.

So what's Worth done to deserve this treatment?

Nobody's saying. The police won't say, which is right and proper. Worth says it's "for personal reasons", which implies that he's quite confident of his ability to do his job from jail if necessary, but thinks it might cut into his family time. Key says "He advised me of some private matters in respect of which he felt it appropriate that he should resign as a minister" - but he won't say what those "private matters" are.

Which is just plain stupid.

When the worst dirt you could previously dig up on the man was that he once visited a stranger in hospital, but now, out of a clear blue sky, he's committed an offence so heinous that you're prepared to hurl him into the ravine and set fire to the rope - really, it behoves you to tell us what that offence was.

Addendum: Some facts have leaked out now. "Leaked" being the operative word - Worth himself, and the PM, are still doing their speak-no-evil act. But apparently it involves an Auckland-based businesswoman and "offers of political positions [on boards] with the underlying sense that Dr Worth was interested in the woman, shall I say, romantically."

That quote comes from the leader of the opposition, so it's far from authoritative... but if the government won't make its own announcements, we have to go by what we do get.

Celebrity v talent

It's been a bad couple of weeks in reality TV. Well, arguably it's been a bad ten years, but the last fortnight or so has given us two big-time, internationally-reported upsets.

First there was American Idol. Searching Google News for 'American Idol upset' gives 1,167 results in the past month. The front runner lost in the final vote, and at least 1,167 journalists worldwide have written about how surprised they are.

Then came Susan Boyle's breakdown on Britain's Got Talent. Ms Boyle blows Adam Lambert clean out of the media, with a phenomenal 29.846 news mentions worldwide in the past month. (Numbers correct at time of writing, but likely to go up for the next week or so.)

Were these results fair? Did partisans engage in dirty tricks? How much of the vote reflected telegenic cuteness, rather than actual talent? Were the votes actually counted, or did the organisers just make up the totals? Did people vote more than once? (In fact, Idol actively encourages this.)

Who cares?

Talent shows have nothing to do with talent. Look at Kelly Clarkson, first winner of American Idol: the girl has about as much talent as it takes most of us to cook our own dinner; she's a pedestrian singer and an atrocious songwriter, penning lyrics that would shame a '50s teenybopper. She's not famous because people buy her records; people buy her records because she's famous. Because she won American Idol.

That's what these shows are about. Not finding talent, but creating celebrity.

See, the problem with really talented people is that they have better things to do than bare their lives to fan magazines. Practising, rehearsing, reading, learning, dreaming, planning... being talented is a lot of work. But celebrities, now - if your sales depend on your fame, rather than vice-versa, then there is literally nothing more important to your career than keeping your face in the public eye. So instead of "entertainment journalists" having to chase and stalk and court and flatter them, these McCelebrities can be relied on to pretty much throw themselves in front of any camera they can find.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The spinning of greed

This can't be good. The Musicians' Union is taking issue with the British National Party raising money by selling albums on its website.

For the benefit of my non-British readers: the BNP is a nasty organisation, unabashedly xenophobic and racist. British musicians are mostly, to a greater or lesser degree, bleeding-heart lefties. It's hardly surprising that the musicians take exception to their music being used to finance their enemies.

But apparently they can't stop it. Some idiot sold the publication rights to their songs, and now the BNP's merchandising arm, Excalibur, is putting them on compilation albums.

I'm reminded of Krusty the Klown: "They drove a dump truck of money up to my house! What was I supposed to do? I'm not made of stone!"

You sold the rights, losers. You could've negotiated contracts that left you in control of how your music could be sold and by whom - but that wouldn't have paid so well, would it?

So look at it this way. You made money by selling rights that the BNP is now exploiting. There's nothing to stop you now spending that money to campaign against the BNP. Unless, of course, you've already spent it keeping your teenagers in Ferraris, in which case that was your decision and I hope it went well for you.

You've also got two things the BNP doesn't have: talent, and a fan base. If you can't convert that into more solid votes than the less-than-5% the BNP routinely scoops, you're not trying.

But that's not what the Musicians' Union wants. What it wants is yet another extension to copyright law that would give musicians control over their own music, even if they've already sold it.

That's "moral rights", and in fact they already exist in British copyright law. Musicians have the right to object to "derogatory treatment" of their work, and if they really cared, they could try to make an argument that selling songs under a BNP-affiliated brand name amounted to "derogatory treatment". The courts may or may not support that interpretation, but we won't know until someone tries.

What the Musicians' Union seems to have in mind, however, is more. More rights to be given retroactively to artists who seem to be suffering from "seller's remorse". The Musicians' Union has a long track record of asking for contracts to be unilaterally rewritten in their favour. Last year it was extended copyright terms for sound recordings -- an argument for which there is no coherent case either economically or morally. This year, apparently, it's back to "control".

Let's not allow the BNP case to become a wedge whereby yet more rights get taken away from us, the consumers. Let the musicians use the rights they have, before complaining about those they haven't.

Bankers of the world could learn from the musicians. Here are wealthy people who have actually won public support for campaigns that amount to no more than "we deserve more money!" See, it can be done...