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I blame the scapegoats, p.24

I blame the scapegoats, page 24

 

I blame the scapegoats
 


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  Spam is the small-ads section of the global village newspaper. And yesterday Yahoo predicted that soon it will overtake the number of normal e-mails flying around cyberspace. Just as the small ads of a local rag reveal what its readership is really thinking about (Answer: Sex and Money), so the mosl common junk e-mail messages offer hard-core pornography and confidential money transfers out of Nigeria. It's hard to know which is more depressing, the baseness of human nature that this reveals or the stupidity of all the greedy people who fall for these scams. 'Wow, what a fantastic offer! I transfer $200 to this overseas bank account and they pay off all my credit card debts! I can't see how this could possibly go wrong!' If I want to spend hundreds of pounds for absolutely nothing in return, I'll stick to holistic healing, thank you very much.

  Of course the problem of unsolicited mail is nothing new. When the Penny Post started in 1840, masked highwaymen would hold up the mail coach and go through all the letters to see what goodies they might steal. 'Ha-harrr! What do we have here, Black Bess? Hmm, offers to apply for a new type of credit card and forty-seven Boden catalogues. Damn!' And now, in the twenty-first century, electronic mail involves so many hours' sorting through all the junk that frankly you'd be better off popping that letter into a pillar box. Computer programmes have been designed to randomly mix letters and numbers which are then combined with Internet Service Providers. For example, there's bound to be a [email protected]; in fact, I think this was the very first e-mail account ever set up. And then Bill just sat at his computer for a few weeks feeling vaguely disappointed every time he checked his e-mails.

  It's estimated that spam currently costs businesses £9 billion a year, although I can never quite understand how they work these figures out. The presumption is that if people weren't wasting their time deleting e-mails, they'd be hard at work increasing company profits. In fact, they'd only be wasting their time with some other mindless computer diversion, like playing Minesweeper or entering their own name on Google and then being slightly indignant that there are lots of other David Smiths around the world.

  However, not content with being at war with drugs and terrorism, America has now declared war on spam as well. Last month the state of Virginia (home of AOL) outlawed the sending of unsolicited e-mails, making it a Class 6 felony carrying a five-year prison term (or ten years for anyone who on hearing the word 'spam' starts to recite the Monty Python sketch). The new law also gives the state the right to seize the assets of these companies, which is how the Governor explained all those boxes of Viagra that his secretary found in the filing cabinet. There remains the slight problem that the internet is no respecter of national borders or regional laws, but if those Russian gangsters did ever decide to move to Virginia and go public about their business practices they could be in serious trouble. Opponents claim that this law is in breach of America's sacred First Amendment, 'Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to send out thousands of e-mails an hour offering live web-cams of group sex featuring pre-op transsexuals.' But other US states and EU governments look set to follow and then they will tell all the computer users of the world about their new legal rights and these new protections. And we'll see this historic message in our in-box and think, 'Well, that looks dodgy, I'm deleting that one for starters . . .'

  Life on Mars?

  6 June 2003

  'Cinque . . . vier . . . tres . . . two . . . un! Nous avons eine lift-off!' Agreeing the language for the countdown of the European Mars Express was always going to require a degree of compromise. During the research period they realized that the rocket would actually be too heavy to get off the ground unless they got rid of that manual printed in all thirty-seven European dialects. But in the end this week's launch was a magnificent example of European co-operation and every country agreed on one thing: that it was their own scientists who had made the greatest contribution to this success. What's more, this milestone shows that Europe now rivals the United States when it comes to space exploration. 'The idea that European rocket technology is not as advanced as the Americans' is a patronizing slur,' said the chief scientist as he stood the rocket up in the giant milk bottle before lighting the blue touchpaper with his little glowing joss stick. Then as Beagle 2 roared away into the night sky, TV science correspondents ended their reports by wondering if we would finally discover the answer to that age-old question, 'Is there life on Mars?' And back in the studio the editor shouted, 'Okay - and cue track 3, side one of Hunky Dory by David Bowie!'

  For centuries mankind has been fascinated by the possibility that life might exist on our neighbouring planet. 'Earth and Mars exchanged material in the early days when life was forming on Earth,' said Mark Adler of the US space agency this week. 'Was Mars part of our past? Maybe we are the Martians!' he added, at which point people edged away from him nervously, trying not to make eye-contact. There was a surge of speculation about life on the red planet in the 1950s, mostly involving low-budget black-and-white films with wobbly sets, papier mache masks and thinly veiled allegories of the threat of communism. Then the first unmanned craft landed on Mars in the 1970s, an era which set the standard for the technology and the scientists' fashion sense. But when Beagle 2 touches down in six months' time the search for evidence of life will begin in earnest. A special robot has been programmed to roam around the planet turning over rocks and then going all squeamish when lots of little creepy-crawlies scurry away. If the European space probe does in fact discover some form of life on the planet, then Mars is expected to join the European Union in 2006. 'Take me to your leader!' the Martians will say and we'll have to explain that there is no overall leader as such, nor any formal constitution as yet, but greater economic and legal harmonization has been achieved outside a federal framework. Of course, any life forms that may be discovered are not expected to be very intelligent, but to have the IQ.of an amoeba or someone who sends off money for a genuine piece of Martian space rock as advertised on the internet.

  This ought to be a mission to inspire our imaginations, but there are plenty of us on the left who are instinctively cynical about any sort of technological breakthrough. And this because, underneath it all, there's a vague suspicion that all science is somehow a bit right wing. That everything from double Physics on Thursday afternoons to man landing on the moon is the sort of nerdy boys' stuff that ought to be automatically sneered at by any self-respecting old leftie. Never mind that science has brought us the cure to countless diseases and clean water and warm homes and laser-jet printers that work almost 50 per cent of the time; the bottom line is that the kids who wanted chemistry sets for Christmas were not the ones wearing 'Rock Against Racism' badges or going on the CND marches; indeed they could probably only see nuclear explosions as a fascinating cosmic phenomenon. So for generations on the British left there has been a lazy hostility to any major scientific achievement, whether it was cloning a sheep or keeping Margaret Thatcher's hair fixed in place.

  'What are they going to Mars for? They should give that money to the health service!' we say.

  'But this project is being paid for by business sponsorship . . .'

  'Oh, typical! They're even privatizing space now!'

  But we should fight our cynicism about the motives for this mission; we should not use space exploration as another stick with which to beat our governments. I for one look forward to the day the probe begins to burrow beneath the surface of our neighbouring planet, seeing what lies beneath those far-off Martian rocks and craters. In any case, they've looked everywhere else for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and this is the last place left.

  United Nations Closing Down Sale

  13 June 2003

  Hans Blix had never planned to be a United Nations weapons inspector. But when he filled out one of those multiple-choice questionnaires at school, ticking off all his interests and qualifications, that's just what came out of the computer. His sister got 'nurse', his brother got 'engine driver
' and Hans got 'United Nations weapons inspector'. That'll teach him just to tick all the boxes at random as a joke.

  Hans Blix is stepping down from his controversial post at the UN, but just before he packs away his souvenir Baghdad shaky snow scene he has broken with the usual niceties of diplomatic language to attack the current US administration. Claiming that he was smeared by 'bastards' within the Pentagon, he added that there are hawks within the Bush regime who would like to see the United Nations 'sink into the East River'. 'I believe that there were consistent efforts to undermine me,' he told reporters, as Donald Rumsfeld stood behind him tapping his forehead and miming that Hans had gone completely gaga.

  Hans's leaving card is already being passed around the Pentagon and one or two of the comments certainly reveal a slight hostility towards the retiring diplomat. 'Sorry you are leaving the United Nations, Hans. THAT'S IF YOU CAN FIND THE GODDAM DOOR TO YOUR OFFICE!!' or 'Hope you like your present, Hans, though I expect you'll get a bigger one from your buddy Saddam.'

  Since he first went out to Iraq with his Observer's Book of Weapons of Mass Destruction Hans Blix found himself to be a target for both sides in the dispute. Republican hawks felt that Blix was not doing his job properly because he failed to exaggerate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. If they'd had their way he would have gone into the Baghdad marketplace urging reporters to wear helmets and protective clothing before they approached the fruit and vegetable stall. 'Look at this - a weapon of mass destruction cunningly disguised as a grapefruit. Plus anthrax cluster bombs in the shape of bananas. And look at these blackcurrants; if thrown at someone with sufficient force these could ruin a perfectly good white shirt.'

  Meanwhile the Iraqi government said that Blix was 'a homosexual who went to Washington every two weeks to receive his instructions'. This is of course completely untrue. His office was in New York. Blix says that he used to laugh off all these various smears when he told his wife about them, but constant attacks can get to you eventually.

  'Darling, did you find the TV remote control?'

  'LISTEN, I HAVEN'T FOUND IT YET, ALL RIGHT!!' he snapped. 'It's not under the sofa cushions or behind the telly. I think it may have been destroyed or buried in the desert somewhere.'

  With only a few weeks before he steps down, the United Nations has just set up a committee to organize Hans's leaving party and they are expected to publish a preliminary 500,000-word feasibility study in 2009. Bush is looking forward to Blix's retirement because he is planning to combine the event with a surprise leaving party for the rest of the UN staff as well.

  'Leaving party? I didn't know we were leaving?'

  'That's the surprise!' says George.

  For 2003 is the year that the United Nations died. The most revealing thing about Blix's interview is his assertion that the Bush administration saw the UN as an alien power. There is no place for the UN in Dubya's new world order and henceforth the United Nations will be bypassed or disregarded. To get a sense of the crisis you only have to look at the last debate in that famous chamber: Motion 762/a - 'Is the United Nations being ignored?' Well, what does the American representative have to say about this?

  'Er, he's not here, Mr Chair - he said he had some shopping to do.'

  'Oh. All right, what about the British delegate?'

  'Er, well, he's not here either. I think he's carrying the shopping . . .'

  The last few remaining delegates never heard any of this anyway; they were trying to surpass their high scores on 'Snake' on their mobile phones.

  With the UN being ignored to death, Dubya's secret plan will have worked and the organization will be formally wound up. Hundreds of unemployed translators will be cast onto the streets of New York, saying, 'Excuse me, can you spare some change please? Excusez-moi, avez vous de la monnaie? Scusi, posso avere dei soldi per favore?' And brash posters will be slapped all over the historic building that offered the world so much hope in 1945. 'United Nations - Closing Down Sale! Everything must go! International law, global security and US accountability! We've gone crazy! Third World aid - slashed! Development programmes, going fast! Hurry, hurry, hurry! It's the biggest sell-out in history!'

  Open all hours

  20 June 2003

  A few months back a subcommittee of MPs was given the important job of researching the effects of twenty-four-hour drinking. Pretty soon it became apparent that they'd slightly misunderstood their brief, as they staggered back into the Culture Secretary's office singing 'Dancing Queen' by Abba and trying not to giggle when Tessa got all cross.

  'I tell you what, Tess, you're a fit bird. No, seriously, if I wasn't already married, you and me . . . Hang on, I think I'm going to be sick.'

  'You were supposed to be taking evidence. Didn't you talk to anyone?'

  'Actually yeah, we talked to this bloke Brian in the Rose and Crown, and he reckoned that Hitler, right, well Hitler was working for MI5 all along. Have you got any beers in the fridge?'

  Yesterday the Licensing Bill progressed to the House of Lords and very soon public houses will be able to stay open all hours of the day and night. Pubs will introduce the 'Breakfast Special': a can of Tuborg Extra Strong Lager in a brown paper bag for anyone with missing teeth and a gash on their forehead. No longer when the film ends at 10.55pm will you feel the urge to climb over that film buff who sits there watching all six minutes of credits.

  The concern had been that the old hours brought problems of drunkenness and violence on the street at a particular time in the evening, but now this will be able to continue all night long. The bill also tightens up a loophole which had made it legal for under-eighteens to still buy alcohol on planes, which had often meant that there was none left for the pilot. The Licensing Bill is a pre-emptive step to stop all-out war breaking out between drinkers and bar staff at twenty past eleven. For years tension has been building as publicans adopted a new policy of 'shock and awe chucking-out time'. At one second past the legal drinking-up period, relaxed drinkers witnessed all the candles suddenly being extinguished and 4000-watt blinding arc lights being activated as all doors were wedged wide open and an arctic wind machine was turned on. Any hope of a last sip of your beer slipped away as weapons of mass disinfectant were sprayed over all the tables.

  But this new bill should not just limit itself to the hours that bars are open; it should include a wrhole raft of reforms to Britain's public houses. Apart from the obviously annoying things like unfunny new pub names and tellies left permanently on in the corner of the bar, we should also demand the banning of novelty signs on the toilet doors saying 'Sires' and 'Wenches'. No more Motown's Greatest Hits endlessly played on a tape loop and the abolition of the abbreviation 'n' instead of 'and' on pub menus. I always get a strange look from bar staff when I make a point of asking for the chicken pie AND chips, please. And names of British beers also need reforming; for some reason they always evoke Tolkein, the war and pre-decimal currency: 'Olde Baggins Bulldog Stout', 'Dragon's 80 Shilling Spitfire Ale', 'Olde Imperial Beardy Bitter', 'Big Fat Boring Bastard Ale'.

  Of course, an increase in pub bores could well be the disastrous unforeseen consequence of this legislation. If we are going to have more drinking, publicans should be given the right to stop serving people when they have got too boring. In fact, it should be illegal to be 'drunk and uninteresting in a public place'. Police should be given powers to do random bore tests.

  'Excuse me, sir, I saw you come out of that pub and you are talking very loudly. Can you say something into this machine please?'

  'No, listen, like, Sir Alf Ramsey, right, he would have put Beckham up front, alongside Geoff Hurst. . .' An offence like this could result in a six-month court order, banning the offender from talking about the Kennedy assassination, classic cars or the greatest all-time England XI.

  We have an immature attitude to drink in this country which needs urgent attention. People will describe their Saturday nights with the phrase, 'It was hilarious, we got completely pissed!' which I would pr
opose is a highly subjective analysis. People drink to get drunk, and then make complete idiots of themselves. Not that this would ever have happened in the Palace of Westminster, of course, the one place where the bars were always open all hours. I suppose those bars will be closing earlier now that the Commons finishes at a civilized hour. And suddenly MPs are voting to have twenty-four-hour drinking in the pubs outside. Ah, now it all makes perfect sense.

  Going for a song

  27 June 2003

  When the worldwide web first began to take off, no one had quite anticipated the degree to which this new resource would be used by millions of very sad men to access such appalling and depressing material.

  When their family were all tucked up in bed, these middle-aged anoraks would furtively log on to the internet and then nervously click on the file entitled 'Phil Collins' Greatest Hits'. 'Can people at the other end tell my identity?' they fretted as they downloaded 'Lyin' Eyes' by The Eagles. 'What happens if I have to take my computer into PC World to be repaired - will they be able to tell that I've been accessing sites featuring the music of Gary Glitter?'

  The swapping of music files on the internet has become so commonplace that this week the record industry announced it is going to sue individuals who download pirated tracks. It is a terrifying threat that has put fear into music lovers around the world: 'I know there are hundreds of millions of you and you're all impossible to identify, but you'd better watch out because one of you is going to get a lawsuit.'

 
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