Shock! Horror! because German finance minister Peer Steinbrück has been a bit unpleasant to Switzerland. That this is noteworthy just shows up the unbearable dullness of German politics. I keep on peeking enviously over at France, where politics is all about strutting and squabbling and preening – always immature, but generally entertaining.

Squatted dreamscape

This essay by Zadie Smith is a delight to read. It’s about Pygmalion and Obama and Smith herself, about how people trim their speech and their actions to finesse multiple group identities, and how that is not always a bad thing. She pulls together some more examples — do we need more? — of how supremely articulate the President is, and how he is able to capture the speech of different groups. From his memoir, she picks up on this phrase:

“Even as that spell was broken,” he writes, “and the worlds that they thought they’d left behind reclaimed each of them, I occupied the place where their dreams had been.”

To occupy a dream, to exist in a dreamed space (conjured by both father and mother), is surely a quite different thing from simply inheriting a dream. It’s more interesting.

I love this idea of ‘occupied’ dreams. It suggests re-purposing, the ability to take advantage of soemthing. It’s a novel way of looking at how we inhabit and twist our parents’ and our societies’ expectations, find a way of being ourselves within the ideological framework of our upbringing. I’d go beyond occupation: what we’re doing is squatting dreams.

Sunday Times, c. 1995

I’ve lately been reading Nick Davies’

Flat Earth News

, an excellent book-length attack on the dire state of British journalism. Grimly informative for the most part, it does turn up a few headslappingly ridiculous events. Like the aftermath of when a protest group called the ‘Lesbian Avengers’ invaded the Sunday Times offices:

Ellis, formerly of the Sun, was managing editor responsible for news and he really didn’t like what the lesbian avengers had done, so he put his head together with a couple of other executives and decided that what was needed here was a bit of infiltration: they would put an undercover reporter in among these women and expose their evil ways. And no sooner was the idea agreed than the reporter was chosen. Ciaran Byrne would go in undercover. This was an odd choice because Ciaran Byrne was a trainee with little experience of reporting and none at all of working undercover, which is always demanding and sometimes dangerous. Furthermore, Ciaran Byrne is a man. That caused a little trouble.

Byrne didn’t want to do it. The women would spot him immediately, as soon as he started to speak, he complained. No problem, said the executives: they’d get him a voice coach to teach him to sound likme a woman. And they would get a clothing coach to teach him to dress like a woman. Byrne protested that he still wouldn’t look like a woman. But that wast he point, explained the executives: ‘They’re all so bloody ugly, they look like men!”

‘Course, by picking up and propagating the most ridiculous passage in the book, despite the story not existing anywhere else on the internet, I’m doing exactly what Davies gets justifiably grumpy at the press for. Mea maxima culpa.

People ask us why we don’t use fly spray. Well, where’s the sport in that?

Via Liberal Conspiracy comes news of an anti-mosquito laser gun. Granted, it’s the kind of hilarious story that could only be the product of some very skilled PR, but it’s just too fun to pass over. As LC say:

It’s a LASER BEAM that locates, targets and shoots down individual mosquitoes. There is nothing in that that isn’t cool.

And the very serious professional zoologists in my office have all agreed it has to look like an individual robot gun that spins on a dome-shaped turret, saying ‘target acquired’ in a little robot voice. Because what would be the point otherwise?

Meanwhile, I couldn’t pass over the topic without a link to the obvious Monty Python skit:

Prayers to San Precario

One of the really spot-on things to come over the past decade from the European left, and Mayday protesters in particular, was their focus on ‘precarity’ – the trend of work to move from big corporations towards agencies, and freelancers, and short-term contracts. Acclaimed by many, with some justification*, as liberating workers from grey Fordist hierarchies, it is now leaving them high and dry without any security. Which, of course, was totally predictable – but it’s noteworthy that people did predict it, and devote their energies to campaigning around it**.

It’s a safe bet that precarious work – ranging from short-term contracts, through various degrees of informality, through to the outright illegal – is going to continue expanding across the economy in the next couple of years. There’s a strong argument that this is good and progressive, with informal work providing at least some safety net for the unemployed. Even the Wall Street Journal has been describing the informal economy as “

one of the last safe havens in a darkening financial climate


Considerably more interesting, though, are the stories being collected by Robert Neuwirth. Neuwrith is one of desperately few people with a genuinely global outlook, and responsible for the excellent squatter city blog (and book). He’s now turning his attention to the informal economy.

Maybe it’s taking things to far to talk about informal work as being the poor’s best response to the collapse of capitalism, and to ask governments to find ways of accommodating the legally grey. Still, I prefer it to the usual assumption that the world’s poor should grow up to be obedient salarymen, and I have no doubt that Neuwrith will come out with a more nuanced version at some time in the future.

* I write all this as somebody self-employed, with minimal job security and few fallback plans, earning considerably less than I did when fully employed. I wouldn’t want it any other way, however tough things get through this recesssion. On the other hand, I can be relatively relaxed about all this because being a skilled worker my options are somewhat more appealing.

** Yes, this is me saying nice things about Hardt and Negri. Pay attention, it doesn’t happen often

there’s seditious libel, too

Apparently in addition to civil defamation laws (libel and slander), Britain has something called ‘criminal defamation’. This is a Bad Thing:

Proof of truth is a full defence to a civil defamation claim. The reason for this is fairly obvious: one should not be able to protect a reputation one does not deserve. Absurdly, those charged with criminal defamation must not only prove the truth of their statements, but also that publication was for the public benefit.

The law isn’t used much, and doesn’t get much attention. But according to Richard Ingrams, himself once charged with criminal defamation, it is “quite frequently used to prosecute people who wrote defamatory letters to the police, though such cases seldom received any publicity.”

Besides, rarely-used bad laws are in some respects worse than always-used bad laws, in that they give the authorities more powers to attack people they don’t like.

Now Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat MP, is trying to abolish the law, via an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill which will be voted on on Monday. Given the minimal coverage (just Ingrams and a letter in The Times), and the fct that it’s being pushed by a single backbencher, I wouldn’t have held much hope for it getting anywhere. Except, Evan Harris was instrumental in getting rid of Blasphemous Libel last year.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of much I can do to support Harris’ amendment, given that the vote is on Monday and I live in the wrong country. Hence, writing about it here, in the vague hope that one of you will know more about me than the law (not a high bar), or have some idea what to do about it.


Here is a nice, if oddly-titled, list of likely consequences of the recession:

5: Glory days for evangelicals

. Bad times are boon times for evangelical churches. Economist David Beckworth of Texas State University has crunched U.S. church attendance numbers and found that congregation growth at evangelical churches jumped 50 percent during each recession between 1968 and 2004.

[which I suppose means that the evangelical churches are


growing, recession or not
Maybe if the atheists sang more…]

Also, the weather seems to be marking the alleged start of Spring tomorrow, by carefully looking warmer than it is. I keep on opening the window, regretting it, then doing the same two hours later. I’ll never learn.

oh, and New Mexico has just abolished the death penalty


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