Archive for November, 2008

Europeana crashes

Britain has a consistently appalling record when it comes to managing major IT projects. According to the Department of Work and Pensions, seven out of 10 government IT projects fail and since 2000, the UK has wasted more than £2 billion on failed projects.

With such a shameful track record, it is good to know that when it comes to thorough incompetence, our European brothers are not far behind. This weekend saw the launch – and crash – of  Europe’s first digital museum and library.

Europeana, which houses thousands of digital records of items representing Europe’s cultural history, reported up to 13 million hits per hour – three times the maximum level expected by the European Commission. Within hours of the site going online, it had between 3,000 and 4,000 users accessing information at the same time.

The Commission said: “This massive interest slowed down the service so much that after having already doubled server capacity, the Europeana management and the Commission had to temporarily take down the site.”

The site will be re-launched in mid-December after its server’s capacity has been increased. Let’s hope everyone’s lost interest by then so Europeana can descend into quiet obscurity like most EU initiatives.

Virtual reality

A 19-year-old committed suicide live on the internet while being egged-on by watchers, the Times reported on Friday.

Abraha Biggs, a teenager from Broward County, Florida, took an overdose of pills while broadcasting from his webcam on watched by 1,500 viewers.

Biggs had told chatroom users that he was planning to kill himself, but to begin with no one took his threats seriously and several people even accused him of acting. It was only after he had not moved for several hours that viewers contacted the police.

On another bodybuilding forum he posted a suicide note that read: “”I am an a@#hole. I have let everyone down and I feel as though I will never change or never improve. I am in love with a girl and I know that I am not good enough for her.

“Please forgive me all for taking my own life so early. I tried so hard to fight against this strong battle. I have reached out for help so many times, and yet I believe, I was turned away because of the things I did, that it is a punishment I am willing to take, for I know that being who I am has only brought myself and others pain.”

In a statement outside their home, his father, a maths professor, said: “It’s unimaginable. I don’t want to watch what’s out there.There seems to be a lack of control as to what people put on the internet.”

Last year, a British father-of-two killed himself while streaming on the Paltalk website. Kevin Whitrick, 42, was the first British ‘online suicide’ after he hung himself while being watched and goaded by more than 100 people on the internet.

According to media reports at the time, one chatter urged him:

“Go on, jump! I’m waiting. Look at him wriggling – he can’t even kill himself properly!”

Another source was quoted as saying: “We couldn’t believe he was doing it – it was surreal.”

These incidents are part of a growing trend of online suicides. According to one charity which works to prevent suicide, there have been at least 17 deaths in the UK since 2001 which involved chatrooms or sites which give advice on suicide methods.

Earlier this year 17 young people committed suicide in Bridgend, South Wales. Many argued this spate of deaths was down to the influence of social networking sites which romanticised death.

Bridgend MP Madeleine Moon said: “The worrying part about internet sites is it is a virtual world – it isn’t a real world. The things that happen there don’t necessarily demonstrate the consequences.”
A Home Office survey of UK households in 2008 found that nearly 16.5 million households – 65 per cent of the population – had internet at home, up eight per cent on 2007.

Another survey in 2007 found that people between 15 and 25 were 25 per cent more likely to be online than other age groups and spent 24 per cent more time on the internet than the average user.

The internet has fast become an integral part of most British teenagers’ lives but what impact this will have on current and future generations remains largely unknown. The number of internet suicides has risen dramatically in recent years. Yet why and how internet communities are influencing young people remains an unsolved mystery.

The government has responded by threatening tighter controls on “harmful and distasteful” suicide sites, as well as erecting barriers at well-known “jump points” and setting up “suicide patrols” to watch over sites. But in a country where street violence has claimed the lives of 23 teenagers this year in the capital alone, this sounds like little more than virtual insanity.

A war of words: Islam in the press

Today I went to a conference about Islamophobia in the British media. Run by Media Workers Against the War, ‘Under Siege: Islam, war and the media’ examined the biased treatment of Islam by in mainstream reporting, why this is and how it can be changed.

Addressing the conference Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the NUJ, railed against the prejudice of the British press and the policies of a government that tells us “the price of peace at home is a bloody war and the price of peace abroad is the curtailment of our civil liberties”.

He said: “The media has too often failed to ask the questions we need to ask if we are to make decisions as informed citizens. Such poor journalism is a recipe for driving people to extremes.”

A survey found that 91 per cent of coverage of Islam in the national press since 2001 has been negative, with more than 4,000 stories written since 9/11. Another found that 35 cent of the language used was alarmist. The most common nouns to be associated with Muslims were: extremism, suicide bombers, militancy, radicalism.

Islamophobia is rife throughout the British media, but nowhere more obviously than in the Daily Star. In the past month they have run four incendiary stories against Muslims, including: ‘Poppies banned in terror hotspots: Muslim snub to forces’, ‘Vile preacher insults our poppies’ and ‘Muslim nutters still preaching hate on our streets.’

Yet a more pervasive form has also made its way into the liberal discourse of the broadsheets. The Times, bastion of the British press, ran an article on how terrorists were using child pornography to pass messages on the internet.

As one comment put it: “This makes as much sense as to hide some crack in a bag of marijuana.”

In the UK media, ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ have become bywords for religious extremism and evil. From the moment that George Bush announced his War on Terror, words have become political tools used to demonise Muslim communities.

Louise Christian, an outspoken human rights lawyer who has represented Guantanamo bay detainees, said: “Words are important things – words are what journalists do”.

“The reaction to 9/11 changed language,” she said. “When [politicians] use the language of war against terror [they] invalidate the protection of international human rights legislation”.

Those captured in Afghanistan and Iraq, held under ‘enemy competence’, are denied the protection of the Geneva convention. There are 270 people held in Guantanamo bay, yet only 16 of these are ‘high-level’ detainees and 90 per cent have no evidence to support their detention.

Muslims have been silenced in the mainstream media, made into a scapegoat for a never ending war of ideologies. Yet in a world where jobs are scarce and scruples scarcer, journalists will do anything for a front page. The more pressure they face, the harder it is for journalists to fight prejudice and the more that minorities will lose their voices.

Speaking at the conference today, Peter Oborne, Daily Mail columnist and author of Muslims under siege, said: “I believe in truth – that’s why I became a journalist. “I remain proud of being British and proud of our traditions, but that tradition in being flouted.”

Fireworks in the house

It is rare to see genuine emotion slash through the protocol and buffonery of PMQs but today Cameron almost lost his rag, and rightly so.

Brown has been riding the wave of popularity surrounding his handling of the financial crisis for the past few weeks. Today was a stark reminder of his utter inability to handle any issues that stray into the messy arena of of the human and how Labour has failed those it has pledged to protect.

What this problem will mean for the Labour party, which Emily Thornberry smugly described as “back in the game” yesterday, only time will tell. But to me, this is evidence enough that the failings of this administration cannot be measured on the balance sheets.

Protecting the victims of domestic violence

Last night a cabinet minister accused Britain’s most senior judge of defending “our own version of honour killings” as the government clashed with the Law Lords over reforms to the law on murder.

Harriet Harman, the Minister for Equalities, said that the government would not bow to pressure from the judiciary to preserve the age-old law of provocation, despite coming under criticism from Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the Senior Law Lord.

“This defence is our own version of honour killings and we are going to outlaw it,” Harman said in an interview with The Observer.

“We have had the discussion, we have had the debate, and we have decided and are not going to bow to judicial protests. I am determined that women should understand that we won’t brook any excuses for domestic violence.”

Defence by provocation is frequently used by men who have murdered their wives, claiming they acted under provocation from infidelity or verbal aggravation. If it can be proved that someone has been “provoked to lose his self-control”, then the charge is downgraded from murder to manslaughter.

This form of defence is deeply problematic. Not only does it transfer blame from the killer to the victim, making it offensive toward the loved-ones of the dead, but because it only applies to murders that happen under the “red mist” of anger it intrinsically favours men and discriminates against the primary victims of domestic abuse: women and children.

On average one in four women in the UK will suffer domestic abuse in their lifetime and two women are killed by a current or former partner every week. More shocking still, some criminologists estimate that domestic violence is up to 140 per cent higher than government statistics suggest.

Successful prosecutions for domestic violence rose from 46 per cent in December 2003 to 65 per cent in 2006/7. However, many forms of emotional and psychological abuse are not classified as crimes, although their effects can be as devastating and permanent as any physical scar: 64 per cent of women who have been the victims of domestic abuse experience post-traumatic stress disorder, 48 per cent have depression, and 18 per cent attempt or commit suicide.

Defence by provocation takes no account of the lasting psychological trauma suffered by thousands of victims of domestic violence every day. Because women and children are physically weaker than men, murders committed by victims tend to be premeditated and therefore subject to the full might of the law.

I do not believe that defence by provocation should be outlawed. It is important to acknowledge mitigating circumstances in every case to ensure that justice is served and the sword does not outweigh the scales. Nonetheless, domestic violence remains one of the most complex subjects in Britain today, with most victims suffering 35 assaults before they talk to the police.

If this is to change, the taboo must be tackled and we as a people must be more aware of the deafening silence that surrounds violence behind closed doors.

The Da! say Duh

Anyone looking for a way to weather the credit crunch should take a leaf out of the book of the Da! collective – a troop of raggle-taggle anarchists and artists who have taken over a £6m town-house in Mayfair, all in the name of art.

The group have staked their claim to the empty property, hanging a black anarchists’ flag from the first-floor balcony. Inside, many of the 30 bedrooms have been transformed into slap-dash art installations, including, according to the Guardian:

“One room is full of tree branches while another hosts a pink baby bath above which dangle test tubes filled with capers.”

The things people do in the name of art…

The future’s brown

On Tuesday night, as I stared disbelievingly at the TV through tired eyes, America voted in a man who has already become the voice of a generation.

Obama has won the race for the Presidency by making himself a symbol of hope for the future. The dark years of the Bush administration have been left behind and a new dawn has come for the American people – or so we dare to hope.

Despite the gloom of recession there is an inescapable optimism in the air. Obama has promised to “change the world”; his slogan, “Yes we can”, has fired the imagination of the American people and his oratory, intelligence and charisma have captured hearts and minds across the globe.

On the Daily Show on Wednesday night, Clarence Jones, the speech writer of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, said that Obama’s win heralded the advent of a “multiracial society in which people are ‘judged on the content of their character not the colour of their skin.'”

The son of the black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, Obama embodies the complexities of America’s chequered history. Yet it is his mixed background that has allowed him to escape the legacy of slavery and racial stereotypes that continue to plague race-relations in the US today.

“At various stages in the campaign,” he said in his speech in Philidelphia, “some commentators have deemed me either “too black” or ‘not black enough.’”

“The issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.”

Tonight, Thursday evening, Professor Jennifer Hochschild, chair of African-American Studies as Harvard University, gave the 22nd Sir Robert Birley Memorial Lecture at City University on ‘The Shifting Politics of Multiracialism ‘Mark One or More’: Barack Obama and the American Racial Order’.

While the arrival of the first African-American president has been hailed as historic, Hochschild believes that traditional racial boundaries have been eroding for the last 30 years.

A poll in September 2007 found that 79 per cent of Americans approve of marriage between blacks and whites and 63 per cent thought that more Americans thinking of themselves as multiracial was a good thing.

Obama has not only managed to transcend racial boundaries, but overstep them altogether. In 2007 the New York Times ran an article with the headline A biracial candidate walks his own fine line. In 2008, another headline ran: When ‘the man’ is one of us. In a 2008 poll, most people asked said that Obama was neither “white or black, he’s a little of both”.

It will take more than a single figurehead to heal the wounds that run so deep in America. Obama’s election is the culmination of the hopes and fears of a people longing for change and to shape their own future. Yet the situation looks increasingly dire – half a million Americans have lost their jobs in the past two months – and many are worried that soon all our high hopes will come crashing to the ground.

In an interview with the Times earlier this month, the geneticist Steve Jones said: “History is made in bed, but nowadays the beds are getting closer together. The future’s brown”. Obama is living proof that the world is getting smaller and, hopefully, better.

November 2008

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