Monday, 23 November 2009

Joint Enterprise (Another Misguided Policy)

Minutes after finishing the previous post I saw a BBC Panorama show on the subject of "joint enterprise", a piece of UK legislation that covers persons who were present at a crime (especially a murder) and did not leave or attempt to do anything to stop it. Apparently, this is being heavily used in the UK to scoop up gang members that may (or as some cases maybe, may even not) have been present when a crime was committed. Some of them, quite plausibly innocent of anything but fear of being hurt themselves, even if only by their fellow gang members, have been sentenced to life imprisonment, with no chance of parole for 15 years.

What I want to point out here is that my previous post has absolutely nothing to do with this kind of "crime". On this, I take the side of quite a few senior judges and police officers in the UK, in thinking the law is either wrong, or it is being applied in a too heavy handed a fashion. While I can clearly see how it may be politically dangerous to push for more leniency when violent crimes (especially murder) are concerned, I also firmly believe that the current state of affairs is wrong.

How so?

Well, maybe you were lucky enough, or have lead a sheltered enough life not to notice, but there are times in life when standing up to your peers, especially if they're "friends" is much more frightening and the idea debilitating, than an attempt to stop them from doing something stupid. Especially when, and I am not trying to defend indefensible here, quite a few of these crimes, especially murders are not, in fact, what the perpetrators intended in the first place. Gang violence has a bad habit of getting out of hand. A weird look, leads to a ball being thrown in the wrong way, a slap on the face, and so on. Indefensible, but extremely difficult to spot, and to spot, before it really gets out of hand.

So, do not take my previous post as a blanket call for harsh time sentences. Every sentence has to be commensurate to the crime. And standing by, scared stiff, and sacred of your friends, too, while they beat some poor person into (a very dead) pulp, needs to be differentiated from active involvement or enticement. Joint enterprise legislation does have its place and uses, but it seems it's got out of hand so that moral majority, and the victims can have their satisfaction.

Let's either get rid of the bad law, if it really is bad, or let's apply it fairly, and not to appease anyone. After all, remember where the policy of appeasement has led to...

Life Is Life (Or So It Should Be)

Again, this is not about that famous 80s song. Neither it is about that not so famous, but so much better in my opinion, cover by Laibach. So what is it about then?

Life sentence. In the United Kingdom in particular.

Why? Mostly because it is pointless, or at least their label is.

How so?

Simple, life (sentence) in the UK does not mean a person will be in jail for the rest of their days (unless they manage to get out by a merciful act of state, or by being found innocent). Currently, a "life" sentence is meted out with the caveat "to serve no less than N years". And you'd think it means that a person is not eligible for parole before serving those "N" years. Sadly, that's not what happens in reality.

In reality, the "life" sentence described above really is a sentence to "N" years in prison. I am yet to learn of a person who wasn't released from their "life" sentence early (i.e. not in a coffin).

Now, you know I am no fan of capital punishment. I've written about it here, too. But for some crimes, in absence of capital punishment, the only correct sentence is life, no parole. Ever. Complete removal of an individual from human society, mostly for the protection of latter. With some "life" sentences in the UK recently having a really laughable "minimum term" (isn't minimum term for life, death?) I wonder if robbery may not be a worse crime.

So, where I put my voice squarely behind "abolish capital punishment", I also put it very squarely behind the call for "life means life".

Opera, And Why It Is All Wrong

Those who know me should be well aware of my, almost pathological, hate of opera (no, not the Opera browser, I've nothing against that excellent piece of engineering).

Asked why, I usually take the easy way out, and say I have, an almost physiological, difficulty enduring high pitched voices and sounds. This, being true enough, is hardly the whole truth. After all, I will happily endure a classical (non-vocal) piece with very high pitched violin parts, indeed.

So, what is the truth behind my hate of opera?

Well, the "hate" bit is, in all honesty, mostly due to the high pitched voices. I do truly shiver when I hear them. But, and this is much more important, in opera they are also pointless (unlike, for example, violins in
Mozart violin concerto, for example Violin Concerto No. 5 (Turkish) -- my favourite; get them all here).

But why pointless, and aren't many other
art forms equally "pointless"?

Not to me, they aren't, and here's why opera is:

I see art in general, and song and dance in particular, as human activity that derives directly from a person's mood, feelings, and desire to either share them with the world, or just express them as a way of relieving them (if bad) or enhancing them (if good). So far so good, but why opera isn't and a piano concerto is?

Well, to be perfectly honest, piano concertos, at least the ones accompanied by an elaborate orchestral arrangement aren't very natural either. But they still tend to sound fairly close to what a person in a certain mood would be able to come up with on their own, or with some help from a bunch of friends. Even if most classical pieces are extremely elaborate and intricate feats of both composing and performance, in vast majority the underlying simplicity of emotion, and original crudeness of a lone attempt of reaching out to the world are still apparent.

Opera, on the other hand, much like a lot of pointless pieces of atonal "modern" classical music is really an abomination. A normal person may well sing when happy or sad, but never ever in such an artificially exaggerated manner so typical of most operas. Not to mention the added pretense of a plot and drama, both rudely and nonsensically interrupted only for the singer to produce something no sane and healthy human, happy or sad, could produce. Choral singing is at least honest in it's detachment from any clear purpose (its origin in religious rites notwithstanding). In terms of honesty, and relevance to a common person, even the worst of the worst rubbish modern music beats opera hands down. People can identify with rubbish much more readily. After all it's probably not far removed from their own attempts in the shower.

I must say here, if you go to opera to admire vocal feats of singers, in much the same way as you would admire an
Olympic athlete you can never equal, then this does not apply to you -- your attendance and enjoyment are fully justified. I, on the other hand, enjoy art only inasmuch as it presents me with something I can identify with, something I might attempt myself as an outlet for my thoughts and feelings. And no, I do not believe for an instant that there's a person who'd strive to equal opera singers in order to sing their joy or grief. What a normal person attempts, and wants to do, really, is very, very far removed. And they know it. And you know it. It's just that you may not want to admit it.

Oh, and there's probably a
masochist, deriving pleasure from the pain of the strain opera imposes on him, and the fact he'd never be able to acquire the skill. But I'm not a masochist.

Are you?

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Belle de Jour

Earlier today, BBC published an article about the famous call girl cum blogger cum writer cum celebrity.

This is what I had to say about the article after I first read it:

What a strained and muddled article!

The author seems to be unable to decide if the good doctor is really good or bad, if the oldest profession is really as bad as he wants (us) to believe.
Yes the good doctor was a prostitute, a high class one, apparently. Yes, there are prostitutes who are nowhere nearly so successful or happy about what they do. Yes, there are those unfortunate ones that are forced into it and exploited by ruthless pimps.

But, is horse racing bad because a few fix the races (it IS always bad for the horses)? Is the football bad because some cheat? Is marriage a bad thing just because there are arranged marriages, or worse, marriages which (wo)men enter out of pure greed, and desire for money and status? How is this last thing different from prostitution?

The matter is too complex to make a call in a mere article. Unfortunately, the above does not seem to be a particularly good stab at it, either.

Could do better, try again.

And the good doctor was at least her own boss, and is continuing to call her own shots. What does it matter if she created software or slept with men for money? I bet that people with "honest" jobs at least sometimes feel like the prostitutes have had it good.

I've no idea if BBC will publish my comment, and frankly I don't care that much. It's really a shame that a reputable news and opinion outlet like BBC can allow such a muddled piece to come out. It really, really strains to cast a light on prostitution to make it not an "honest" job. It even repeats the "honest" word quite a few times, and most of them gratuitously. It is obvious that with the material available the author could not really build a good case.

But is there a good case for prostitution not being an "honest" job?

As you can see from my short comment above, I don't believe there is. Yes, it can be spoiled by criminal acts and other similar horrors, but then pretty much any other profession can. Anyone can get on the other side of both law and morals. Prostitution is not special for it, and it is not criminal, immoral, or in any other way bad per se. In many ways it is a more honest job than many, and if you want to include human activities involving sex, I have know a good few marriages who would have been much more honest affairs if both parties admitted to be in it just for material gain and/or sex received/given for it.

So, if you can't build a good case against prostitution just refuse writing about it with a set goal. Otherwise you, the writer, have just prostituted yourself, giving something you don't particularly feel about away for the gain of your hourly rate or salary.

In the final analysis, we're either all prostitutes in what we do for money, or none of us are. And that includes the prostitutes that sell their bodies and sex for money.

The Future Is Bright -- The Future Is In the Cloud

A few days ago Google finally announced the long awaited Google Chrome OS. The reactions were various, from essentially negative, to cautiously positive. In my opinion, for whatever it's worth, the announcement marks a tipping point in how we use both the Internet and our computers. However, I do not believe that Chrome OS, as it is right now, is a true representation of that sea change I see on the horizon.

So, what is it that I see?

For one, I do believe that the future of how we use the computers and Internet is in The Cloud. Eventually, all our data and the processing of it will be delegated to some distributed storage and computational facility we connect to via some sort of communications channel. I believe that to be inevitable. Eventually.

Eventually, we will be using very light and thin (both in the physical and computational sense) clients as our window into our own, and data others make available. Chrome OS is a taster of what that might be like. It is nowhere ready for prime time. We really need to be able to have MS Office (no, not linking to them) experience available through a browser to say that we got where Chrome OS wants to take us.

But, for all its failings and imperfections, Chrome OS is a visionary product that will hopefully lead the way to where we really should have been already (Microsoft, I'm looking at you). Whether we want Google to be the keeper of all our data, and the tools to process them is almost beside the point. I guess ideally I'd want to farm this out in a randomly distributed way to several companies, each of which being capable to take over, in an instant, from whichever other one fails or I decide to abandon.

When will this all happen? I don't know. I hope soon.

Will it ever happen? I am positive it will.

We just need to be patient, and give credit where credit is due.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Death Penalty - Never Right

As yet another execution in the United States draws near, discussions about the rights and wrongs of death penalty have been revived. All sorts of nuanced arguments and points of view have been proffered and bandied around. Even I was tempted to indulge in some good old Internet forum exchanges. In the end I didn't. Why? Mostly because I don't really have anything to discuss. My views on the matter can be summed up like this:

Death penalty is never rigth.

This I can also support by several arguments.

Death penalty is irreversible. Even if there was not ample evidence of
overturned convictions there can never be an absolute certainty that a death penalty will never result in an innocent person being killed. So why run the risk at all? For those who may want to argue that a certain number of miscarriages of justice are not a problem - I've seen them likened to traffic accidents, for example - those should consider the suffering of an innocent person on a death row. Can there be any worse cruel and unusual punishment than to await certain death as a punishment for something you know, in your heart of hearts, you have not done?

Death penalty is a deterrent. This one sounds very plausible, to be entirely honest. Unfortunately, when you examine this argument more closely it is fatally flawed (pun intended). Seeing as death is the ultimate punishment, one would expect that if it was threatened for various crimes, those crimes would eventually cease to be committed. I mean, knowing that getting caught will lead to the very end of your life should be reason enough to refrain from whatever it is you planned to do. And yet, even if death penalty existed since the dawn of civilisation, the crimes for which it is meted out are still with us. Not much of a deterrent then!

Death penalty is revenge, delegated. This is something I can even understand, sort of. It is a very human and natural reaction of a victim (or rather, victim's kin) to want to avenge the crime. There were times, and societies, where the
families took this kind of revenge onto themselves. That, unfortunately, tended not to work so well, as these tended to get out of hand, and never really finish. Not to mention that they usually went beyond the perpetrator themselves, and spread onto their families, too. Modern death penalty may be seen as feud redux, with the state stepping in to avenge the victim in lieu of the family so as the vicious circle is not started. But, I would argue that the victim is blinded by a personal loss, and their wish for revenge should be treated in similar way in which murder in the state of diminished responsibility is, and the latter does not attract a death penalty, at least not in the civilised countries. Finally, in all other cases we seem to be very much against the like-for-like revenge in our legal system. Surely you do not expect the state to break a jaw of someone for you after they are convicted of committing an act of actual bodily harm, with and especially without intent. So why kill someone then?

Death penalty removes the danger of re-offending. This one is most certainly true, at face value. The problem here is that this is not the only way of preventing someone from re-offending. And no, I do not mean cutting off their arms either. Generally, where a death penalty would be considered, I'd always go for
life imprisonment, even at risk of being accused of wishing for cruel and unusual punishment myself. How so? Well, there's this thing with humans where we tend to value our freedom more than anything else. So, in a sense, life imprisonment should satisfy the ones wanting revenge much more than a death penalty. After all, we only ever die once, and in modern times the death penalty is (presumed) painless, while with life imprisonment the victim can enjoy their revenge every single day, until the prisoner dies of natural causes - and some of those can be quite painful, too. Also, in cases where innocence is eventually established we can all have that warm, fuzzy feeling of being able to say sorry, and not just feel sorry for killing an innocent person.

There's probably more things that can be said against the death penalty, but the above three are my favourites, and I believe more than enough to make me certain death penalty can never be right. If you need more data you should not miss the brilliant web site of
Death Penalty Information Center. Just make sure you can stomach some horrible facts you can find there.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Two Languages Divided...

First conundrum: a form asks for "country of birth".

Let me see, what is it they really want to know? When I was born, long
42 years ago, I was born in the city of Belgrade, Socialist Republic of Serbia, then part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Therefore, I was born in Yugoslavia, haven't I? Much more often than not, this is what I put in forms that express an interest in the fact. But, somewhere in the back of my mind, I know that they probably want to know where to go if they want to ask about me now. If I wanted to be helpful I should have written just Serbia in the box (or on the dotted line, if the form was a paper one). Still, even if the transition was gradual - from SFRY, to FRY (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), to SER'MO (Serbia and Montenegro), finally to Serbia - I still can't get myself to feel as if my birthplace is (was) not just Yugoslavia.

Second conundrum: a dotted line asks for "native language".

Colloquially, I should say "
Serbian". But forms are serious business, and usually ask for more serious and formal answers. So, let me see, what was the name of the language I studied in primary and high school as my "native" language. Why, of course, it was Serbo-Croatian. But that was again almost a quarter of a century ago! And what if the form really wants to know what is the official language of the place I was born? We're back to Serbian in that case, but that feels wrong, somehow incomplete. I can read and understand spoken Croatian. If pushed, and with just a bit of practice I'm sure I could speak, and certainly write passably. Not to mention that I have successfully mastered both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, and official Serbian is nowadays limited (I'd even say constrained) by using just the latter. Cheekily, I tend to fill in just Serbian in the end. This little trick allows me to list Croatian (and, for that matter, Bosnian and Montenegrin, too) as "foreign" languages.

And here's finally what I really wanted to tell you about. I already griped about it in a previous post. It bothers me on a personal level, but worries me more on a national one.

While I may have had a school subject that went by the name of "
Serbo-Croatian language and literature", to quote its full name, in reality what we were required to master was just the part before the hyphen. We were only required to be able to read all the Croatian authors with exactly the same, implied!, proficiency as the Serbian ones. Also, if a foreign book was on the curriculum, it didn't matter if we chose to read it in Serbian or Croatian translations. This was especially true in high school where the reading list was just that, a list of titles to be read during any given school year. In primary school we could (or rather, our parents could) opt for an official edition of reading materials. Still, Croatian authors abounded, and were never "translated". It was such a natural setup that I had almost a physical reaction to typing "translated" in the previous sentence, even if I had carefully restrained it by a set of quotes.

And this is exactly the point I (think I) want to make. In the olden days of
SFRY, Croatian was never a "foreign" language (for that matter, there wasn't even a murmur of Bosnian and Montenegrin). Even Slovenian and Macedonian, being Slavic languages, and Slovenians and Macedonians being Yugoslavs, were not considered fully foreign. But that is a different topic altogether. I want to get back to the Serbo-Croatian, as I think there's a very good argument this once truly was a single language with two variants.

It is that "was" that is bothering me, really.

This is especially so as differences between the two are considerably smaller than the differences between some Croatian
dialects! There are also regions in Serbia where the colloquial, spoken Serbian is way beyond my ability of comprehension. These are, of course, matters for linguists to discuss and earn PhDs over. Personally, I don't care about what's what in terms of the science of linguistics. I am, however, deeply personally concerned about the losses I, and other Serbian and Croatian speakers are experiencing, and which are getting worse by the day. Let me explain.

In the olden days of
SFRY, and the Serbo-Croatian moniker, we were all very much exposed to each other's language variants. You didn't even need school reading lists including Croatian authors to experience Croatian language in all its glory (and I do like it's sound and form). There was TV, with both entertainment, educational, and news programmes available to watch. And people did watch the other's programmes. Where Belgrade TV led the bunch with never surpassed educational programmes for kids of all ages, Zagreb TV shone with entertainment, both for the whole family on Sunday afternoons, and early evenings (who doesn't remember Kviskoteka quizzes! PS Can you believe it's not on Wikipedia!?), as well as late nights (where family may choose to watch in different rooms). Both had brilliant dramas and series, too. Even Bosnian TV (Sarajevo) chipped in with some marvels ("Bosnian" language being much, much closer to Croatian, with a few twists and quirks). Finally, news stands and book shops stocked books, both original and translations, in both "languages" indiscriminately. And this was still in the good old times when even Serbian translators knew what they were doing so one did not have to seek originals to truly enjoy a (truly) foreign book.

With all this, it is no wonder that it was practically impossible to claim you couldn't understand Croatian, either word or phrase. If you were to ask me now, I couldn't tell you which foreign book I read in which of the two languages. I don't think I even noticed in those days. I just read them, and enjoyed.

But now, things are a-changing. For the worse, in my, never so humble, opinion. I first realised this a few years ago when my sister-in-law came with a question about a Croatian word she didn't understand. It turned out the word was for "a week" ("
tjedan" or "sedmica" in Croatian, if you need to know, "nedelja" or "sedmica" in Serbian), a calendar week. You'd be hard pressed to come up with a more basic word, and she had no idea what it meant. Why? Simple. She never heard it or saw it written. She's 23 (she was probably 18 at the time). When she started school Croatia was a different, properly foreign country. An "enemy" country, too. Where did she have an opportunity to be exposed to Croatian? Nowhere, of course! Did she even feel she lost something? Of course, not. And understandably so. If you're not aware of something you can't miss it, can you?

This particular loss can be fairly easily corrected once a person is aware of the fact, and how really easy it is to get that little knowledge of Serbian (Croatian, for the other lot). Luckily, now there is cable TV in Serbia (and Croatia, of course; consider me writing about both from now on), and I've also seen quite a few magazines on the news stands (even if they mostly seem to be women's glossies).

So, apparently, for a willing person, there is no real problem.

Or is there?

I firmly believe there is, and a pretty serious one. I believe (linguists: please hold your fire) that in cases of languages as similar as Croatian and Serbian there is a threshold of mutual exposure and intertwining. If the two are above certain level, it takes practically no effort to keep abreast of the other's changes (and all languages change, all of the time). Below that level, however, keeping abreast requires considerable effort, and worse, a conscious one. The exposure is just insufficient for seamless absorbing all the new stuff. Worst of all, once set in motion, this process of divergence tends to pick up pace very easily and quickly. The languages may never (or at least not in any human noticeable time) become totally mutually foreign, maybe not even to the extent that, say, Macedonian differs from Serbian (and it does, a lot), but it fairly quickly becomes difficult, sometimes impossible to have such cosy intermingling I described above. And if that is not a great loss, then shoot me! I mean, it is something we had, it didn't cost a thing, and now we're losing it, possibly forever.

Stupid, just stupid.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the stupidest thing of all: if asked, I bet most of both Croatians and Serbians will tell you that they do not see a problem. It doesn't even matter if I (or you) believe the split-up of
SFRY was stupid or not (I do think it was stupid). This has nothing to do with sovereignty. This has all to do with limiting (or not) one's intellectual horizons. And if one so easily passes on adding one more language to one's intellectual war chest, then there's little more I can tell one (or many):

Stupid, just stupid.

Obituary: Claude Lévi-Strauss

The great ones are slowly, but surely, fading away.

Of course, new ones will come. They always do. But, most of them I will not know about. It takes time to achieve greatness. And, once achieved it may not be recognised until later. Sometimes much later.

Could it be then that Claude Lévi-Strauss deliberately, and in a calculated way, set out to live to be 100? Or did he just want to add one more feather to an already richly decorated cap? Does it matter at all? Still, it would have been cool if he held on for another week, and scored a 101!

Obituaries usually include many salient facts and opinions about the sadly deceased. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Claude Lévi-Strauss's life and work is deeply insufficient for me to even try. Luckily, others, much more capable than me, have bravely set out to do just this. On my part, suffice it to say that his were the works that originally made me interested in, and acquainted with the great, and important, science of anthropology. In the end, and for whatever little it's worth, I may not have agreed, at least not completely, with some of what he said and believed, but that neither diminishes him, nor does it elevate me. However, one thing I do find defining about Claude Lévi-Strauss is that in the very first book of his I read I recognised that the author must be a major force in his field. And remember, at the time I was only just discovering anthropology, and have not previously heard of Claude Lévi-Strauss. It just happened that his book, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (in Serbian translation), was available in my grandparents' library.

So, I am going to stop now, and point you to his biography, and one short obituary. I will also urge you to read at least some of what he wrote. You do not need to be an anthropologist. I know I'm not, and I still love the science, and how Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote about it.

Go now, and see for yourself how a 100 years can be put to good use.

I intend to produce short obituaries for other people that meant something to me at some point in my life. All will have the title in the form of "Obituary:
" so you can easily find them (and skip over them if you want). I will also tag them with "obituary". Be warned.

Painted Into A Corner

I have painted myself into a nice little corner.

After just over eight years of living in
Britain, and roughly twice as much after I started ramping down my Serbian reading and writing, I have now found myself almost unable to do both, or at least the latter.

Don't get me wrong, I still posses all the skills required. It is just that when I think something needs writing down, what comes out naturally is in
English, not Serbian. As far as reading is concerned, what little I read in Serbian is news and current affairs analyses. Probably twice a year I grab a book that proves worth reading past the first dozen pages (my acid test -- apologies to slow ramping writers). This is, of course, the main reason for finding it hard to write in Serbian. When it comes to English literature (or more precisely, literature in English) I tend to devour roughly a book every week. With the addition of everyday life use (work, TV, etc) it is no wonder English phrases come to mind much more easily.

I still wouldn't say my
Serbian has deteriorated. It's more of a case of the conveyor belt responsible for dragging words and phrases from the deepest recesses of my mind to my tongue and fingertips has got rusty and creaky. Sometimes it doesn't even want to start rolling. Most times it runs slower than the English one. It also feels that its access to some of the vaults holding the finery is spotty at best.

But what is to be done?

It is not that I deliberately want to forget my native language. Not by a long shot that isn't the case, even if, being
British as well, I can now claim English as my "second", rather than a "foreign" language. And just see what I've just done there. English is my second language. It always will be, even if it eventually surpasses Serbian as my language of choice or, more importantly, the language I am proficient in.

Shall I force myself to write in
Serbian more than I do now? That'd be easy, seeing as I barely write an odd e-mail in Serbian. I'll probably have to, and for the following reasons:

Serbian (and Croatian; here when I say Serbian, I mean both, or Serbo-Croatian if you want) literary output in the past 20 years has been both less prolific and of lesser quality than would meet my needs. There's just not enough new material that is to my taste.

Serbian (but, interestingly, not Croatian) translations from other languages have been frankly disastrous. Pretty much every book I grabbed that has been translated from English was a pile of excrement, and a smoking one at that. The problem doesn't seem to be that translators do not know enough English. It is their Serbian, their native language, that is shamefully poor. And having seen a good few of such massacred books, now I refrain even from translations from other languages. Once bitten, twice shy, as they say here (or, bitten by a snake, afraid of the lizard, as they say there).

With the view of the two points above, and especially since there's always going to be much more reading to be done in
English, I guess I'll have to start writing in Serbian more. Much more. Look, I chose to write this in English, for Pete's sake!

I'll let you know how it goes. I may even write a few of these in
Serbian. Mix it up a little. Maybe translate a few entries. Maybe start translating them all? I'll see.

Stay tuned.

An interesting topic for some other time: I have noticed my understanding of
Croatian is, ever so slowly, deteriorating, too. It won't go away, but it used to be way better. I've a few words to say on that topic also.