Author Archives: Hammer

Acknowledge the Fact of the Union

Guardian Front Page 27-07-12

The front page of the Guardian on the 27th of July is a page with an interesting contrast. It is dominated by a half-page picture of Jennifer Saunders and Jonna Lumley in the guise of Patsy and Eddie from Ab Fab with the Olympic torch and a gushing article by Jonathan Freedland, extolling joys of being British, discussing how the Olympics will bring Britain together as a nation and suggesting that hosting the cream of the world’s athletes will show us the place of Britain in the modern world.

Towards the bottom of the article is a rather chilling piece, overshadowed by the glitz and the glamour of the Olympics, but potentially far more important as the regards the future of Britain:  the announcement by three Irish Republican paramilitary groups that they are forming a new IRA and plan to increase the now sporadic terrorist attacks in Ireland. An account, later in the paper, of how the message was delievered to the press – on a country road, in the dark, miles from Derry – makes chilling reading after so much positive work has been done thanks to the Good Friday Agreement.

It is not difficult to see why previously isolated groups in Ireland feel the need to come together, despite their seemingly disparate aims. The Real IRA, vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs and the handful of smaller post-Provisional IRA have sat and watched for several years as first the Brown and then the Cameron Government promoted an agenda which emphasised Britishness, culminating in the joint celebration of the Diamond Jubilee and London 2012.

Both the Jubilee and the Olympics have been positive events for the UK as a whole. While the Jubilee is partially responsible for the continued negative growth of the British economy, it has resulted in investment in a number of communities in the UK, the creation of new forests and given a lot of people an enjoyable day off work. Likewise, the Olympics has helped to sustain jobs in construction and engineering in London, should increase tourism to the city and will leave a legacy of new sports facilities, albeit a legacy concentrated in the south of England.

However, those living in the UK have repeatedly been told that these events are about Britain.

This ia a problem because a large number of those living in Britain do not identify as being British. This include Scots and Welsh who don’t believe in the independence of their home nations, a large number of those living in Northern Ireland, a significant and growing percentage of those living in England, some migrants and descendants of migrants and foreign nationals living in the UK, such as Edinburgh’s large North American population.

There is plenty of evidence which backs this assertion up, including this datablog article from the Guardian, which gives a simple visual oversight indicating that an overwhelming majority of those living in Scotland, Wales and Nothern Ireland regard themselves as being Scottish, Welsh or Irish rather then British. Even in England, it’s about 50-50 between those who identify as English and those who identify as British. Surveys carried out by IPSOS-Mori and YouGov regularly show that a majority of Scots consider themselves Scottish rather then British, with a growing trend in England for English to identify as English.

In Scotland, England and Wales, being called British if you don’t regard yourself as being British just leads to an insulted look and a quick correction from some, while others brush it off (although they probably won’t sing God Save The Queen). In these three nations, civic nationalism has prospered, creating inclusive nationalist movements like the SNP and Plaid Cymru. That said, overt “Brit-ification” of major events can still lead to a feeling of alienation.

In Northern Ireland, nationalism is a different beast. The conflict spans generations and combines religion with nationalism. It’s less then twenty years since parts of Ireland were still active warzones, peace walls are still in place throughout the country and marching seasons remain a flash-point for violence. Being called British or being told you are British is a deadly insult to many in Ireland. Yet, with royal visits to both Northern Ireland and the Republic and the visit of the Olympic torch to Derry (or Londonderry as the BBC repeatedly referred to it), with the blanket coverage of the Jubilee and the London Olympics, with the glorification of the British military following the conflicts in Afganistan and Iraq, that is what Irish Republicans are repeatedly being told.

This over promotion of British-ness, rather then acknowledging the strengths and uniquenesses of the component nations may well be a contributing factor in the decision of these Republican groups in Northern Ireland to coalesce. Northern Ireland does have other problems – high unemployment, the need for considerable investment in housing, scars from the Troubles – which will have contributed to this move. It could also be that the remains of the militant Republican movement have become so small individually that they need to band together for strength, especially if they feel the need to use intimidation tactics.

There is no point in continuing with behaviour which at best causes discomfort to a hefty slice of the UK population and at worst antagonises a significant minority. Instead, we should all acknowledge the strengths and uniquenesses of the components of the UK, acknowledge the fact that the UK is four nations united by two acts of union and act like a modern, inclusive country. Making reference to Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland will not lead to the dissolution of the UK, but it will lead to a better, more cohesive society.


The Great FPS Grift

I blame Call of Duty. I think a lot of other people do as well.

Don’t get me wrong, I own copies of a lot of first-person shooters, including Call of Duty 1, 3, 4:MW, World at War and Black Ops and I’ve played all of the entries in the CoD series other then 2. I’ve enjoyed playing all of them, although the plots in nearly all of them are utterly forgettable. Other then a few exceptional scenes, the series as a whole is reasonably inoffensive, with considerably broader appeal then games such as Manhunt .

Since Call of Duty 4 came out in 2007, they have also been multiplayer juggernauts, regularly featuring as the most played games on Xbox Live and Playstation Network. This, in turn, has led to a yearly schedule for new releases, allowing game publishers to continue to profit through the introduction of new features and new multiplayer modes, and more recently online passes which mean that a person buying a second-hand copy of the game must pay an additional fee before being able to play their game online.

Last year, not long before the launch of CoD: Modern Warfare 3, Activision finally announced the holy grail of long-tail charges: Call of Duty Elite. Serving partially as a subscription model for additional downloadable maps, Call of Duty Elite and the competing Battlefield 3 Premium service are based on an additional $50 payment, on top of the $60 RRP of their respective games. Both offer subscribers early access to new maps, new ways to monitor their in-game stats, limited perks (additional weapons, different uniforms, clan levelling etc)  and variety of fluff, from videos about the game hosted by a former US marine to online copies of strategy guides.

The FPS genre has become a race to see how much money can generated from any one game. With Call of Duty Elite and Battlefield 3 Premium opening the door to these sales methods, I’m worried that similar things will be introduced into RPGs and fighting games, likely under the guise of an alternative to the ‘free-to-play’ model.

Gouging players through additional services sold in addition to the already expensive game is not a sustainable economic model. While it can increase player investment in a particular game, it creates a two-tier player base, freezing out casual players who don’t pony up for the extra guns and gizmos. It also risks harming future sales, when heavily invested players continue to play an older game instead of moving on to a newer – this can be seen with CoD: Modern Warfare 2 remaining one of the most played Xbox titles despite the release of not one but two successor games.

If the major publishing houses genuinely want to get more money out of people for their games, they should be looking at reducing the prices of their games and selling more of them. They should also ensure they are giving a feature-rich product, bug-free product that consumers are willing to pay for.

Video Games & Mental Illness

Every two to three months, someone manages to come up with evidence which links video games with negative health effects, be they mental or physical. It’s so predictable that you could set your calendar by it. The resultant outcry is equally predictable, with sensationalist tabloids (usually The Sun and the The Daily Mail) making ill-informed arguments about the evils of gaming while many gamers respond with equally ill-informed comments about how journalists don’t understand them and how they’ve never seen any negative effects personally.

I have to confess that the rubbish printed by the tabloids doesn’t bother me that much. After all, an occasional story in which a tabloid news paper is wrong about the cause of  medical conditions is a drop in the ocean compared to the list of things which they’ll happily claim will cause cancer. The fact that gamers (and games industry lobbying groups) are so quick to deny that games have any negative effect at all disturbs me more. After all, very few activities if taken to extremes, even if only by a few individuals, cause absolutely no negative effects.

Take for example a recent study by Douglas Gentile. Professor Gentile has a PhD in Developmental Psychology and heads up Iowa State University’s Media Research Lab. He has spent more than 30 years studying media and psychology and has a list of peer-reviewed articles as long as my arm. One of his latest studies is a paper based on a survey of nearly 1,200 American youths which shows that a small, but significant number of the surveyed youths (specifically 8% of those surveyed) have pathological symptoms which may be characterised as addiction. The paper can be found on Gentile’s personal website, here and in the Journal of American Academy of Paediatrics.

A quick glance at it reveals some interesting tipbits. For example, depending on the way that the results are interpreted, up to 20% of the respondents may be characterised as having pathological symptoms of addiction, although since some of these symptoms are comparatively minor (missing chores, planning to play games in advance) and that this larger figure includes individuals who answered “sometimes” as well as “yes” to the questions.

More interesting is the percentage who answered yes to what I’d view as as the more serious symptoms. 2% of respondents said they had stolen video games or money to pay for video games. Questions on whether or not respondents became bored and restless when attempting to cut down on the amount they played and whether or not respondents had unsuccessfully attempted to cut down on the time they played for also received a positive response from 2% of those surveyed. These statistics are largely meaningless individually however, as one or two potential symptoms on their own is not indicative of addiction.

What is important, rather then merely interesting are the conclusions which Professor Gentile comes to in the closing paragraphs of the paper. Firstly, he notes that there are limits on the survey and study due to the methodology. Secondly, he notes that considerable further study is needed in the area of the long-term effects of video games on individuals and that his study only serves as a basis for further research. Finally, he notes that this study does suggest that there is a high possibility of there being mental health issues related to high levels of video game use in a small number of individuals.

For video games journalists, industry bodies such as the Entertainment Software Association and the moronic commentators on CVG to contend that this report is “flawed” or indeed, completely wrong, demonstrates an astonishing ignorance of academic process and genuine, albeit small, risk posed by video games to a minority of people. It is important to recognise that such risks do exist, so that those at risk can receive support they need. It doesn’t mean that the game-playing experience of the majority needs to be affected though.

Day 92 – Two Days, Two Issues

I’ve had two completely unrelated issues on my mind for the past few days: China and domestic abuse.

My meditations on China largely come from a meeting between a group of Parliament assistants and Ambassador Song Zhe. The meeting was arranged by a Chinese-born assistant to a European People’s Party MEP in order to foster a greater understanding in China-European dealings.

I went to this meeting because my main source of information regarding politics within China is the Economist, supplemented by occasional articles in the Guardian and the Herald on high-profile Chinese citizens who have been placed under arrest or executed by the regime. The picture built up by these sources is not necessarily the most balanced, ignoring, for example, how the controlled economy deals with the overwhelming poverty in areas of China.

The meeting, as it turned out was terribly balanced either.  The Ambassador made a twenty-minute presentation on how China and the EU could work together in the 21st Century, highlighting various cultural similarities and differences. This was actually quite educational, and I learnt a few things I didn’t know about Chinese culture. Unfortunately it was also very much a party line. I’ve read propaganda from the Soviet Union and from Nazi Germany which struck a similar tone.

Following the presentation, the floor was opened to questions. Given the enormity of China’s human rights violations, I suspect no-one will be surprised that this was one of the main issues raised. Several specific cases were referred to, with the Ambassador largely stonewalling on them. It was interesting hearing him attempt to justify the human rights violations as being down to differences in perceptions of human rights in China and the West. I don’t buy the idea that exercising freedom of speech endangers the rights or quality of life of others in China. In fact it would seem to be the opposite of what freedom of speech results in.

After the Ambassador left, one of his staff opened up a lot more. He talked at length about his negative experiences growing up during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and certainly seemed to indicate that China is liberalising slowly (something which would seem to harmonise with my reading in the Economist and diplomatic trends over the past decade). One point which he made which has stuck with me was that the Chinese people remember Mao too well and they don’t want another violent upheaval. The phrase he used was “evolution, not revolution”. I can sympathise with that sentiment given historical precedent in China, Russia and Iran.

I wouldn’t say I view China particularly favourably. I dislike the CCP’s environmental policy, their nuclear policy, their attitude towards human rights, their continuation of the cult of Mao and I’m very nervous about the rate of Chinese resource consumption and European reliance on Chinese imports. I can certainly see room for working with China to deal with these issues in a mutually beneficial way while building up a stronger European export market.

As regards domestic abuse, this something I’ve been doing some research and writing on the past few days. One of the things which came up was a recently launched campaign by Scottish Women’s Aids, simply called Stop. I’ve signed up to their pledge to help stop the abuse of women, as have Alyn and my manager. I also signed up to the White Ribbon Campaign, which is a male-orientated campaign to end domestic abuse against women.

This is an issue which I have very strong feelings on. There is no excuse for the fact that one-in-five women in Scotland will experience domestic abuse of some time during their lives. Sign up to the campaigns, raise awareness and remember that domestic abuse can be perpetrated against everyone, not just women (although they are the main victims).

Day 90 – An Early (and Unpleasant) Start

It’s 1:13AM local, and I just got off the phone with the police.

This is part of a progression of events.

Around about 9:30PM, I heard some shouting and a smash. The flat next to me and both flats upstairs have kids, so shouting and the odd thump isn’t unusual. It’s actually kind of reassuring.

About 10:30PM, I nipped out to the shop across the road. I noticed that the glass door to the lobby had been smashed from the inside out. The lift door has also been jammed open on the ground floor. I tweeted, worrying about whether I should call the police or not. I decided not, thinking the vandal either wouldn’t be back or would have calmed down.

Around about 1AM, as I was drifting off to sleep, I noticed some thumping. I didn’t give it much thought until about it had gone on for about ten minutes or so. Then I noticed there was also a smashing sound. After sticking my head out the window, noticing a car that might be a police car (they aren’t as garish in Belgium as they are in Scotland) and thinking about going downstairs to investigate, I called the police.

For reference, the EU-wide emergency number is 112. If you phone this in Belgium, it puts you through to the ambulance line. 110 is the police number here. I presume 111 gets you the fire brigade. Also useful to know is the fact that the emergency operators in Belgium speak fluent English, although you might need to repeat “Parle vu Anglais” a few times before they realise.

After I’d given him the details, the operator informed me that there was a car at the scene with a second car on the way. There had also been other reports of a domestic dispute. Since then, the thumping has stopped, but the lift has been going up and down a lot and there was the sound of a child crying coming from upstairs. As of 1:30AM, the police cars have gone. It’s all rather horrible.

Of course, I’m now wired on adrenalin. I did send a text to my manager saying that I might be late in tomorrow. I think being up till 1:30AM due to a police incident might be a reasonable excuse in this case.

Last time I had a night like this was about four years ago when a couple where having a violent domestic in the car-park beside my flat in Maryhill. It was equally horrible, possibly even worse. I just hope the poor woman in that case got good support and got rid of the fellow ASAP.

I am glad to say that this doesn’t reflect my experience in Brussels overall. It’s just the sort of event which happens all too frequently all over the world. The sort of thing which really needs to be stopped, and can be stopped if people act with more sense and maturity.

Anyway, I had better try and get some sleep.

Day 89 – St. Andrew’s Day in Brussels

Many national days are acknowledged in Brussels. Since I’ve been working in the Parliament, special dishes have featured in the canteen menus for Spanish, Romanian, Latvian, Polish, Maltan and Lithuanian holidays. Lobbying groups, MEP social clubs and Member State Representations also arrange events for days of national importance.

Unfortunately, there’s a bit of internal politics which prevents the acknowledgement of St. Andrew’s Day in the Parliament: if one devolved nation is recognised, then all devolved nations must be recognised. So there was no haggis, neeps and tatties to be had today. C’est la Vie.

Of course, that’s no excuse for not expressing a bit of national pride.

Day 87 – No Snow Here!

From reports on Twitter, Scotland is grinding to a halt due to snow. Being of hardy Cairngorm stock, I tend to take my sassenach friends’ tales of snow with a pince of salt. The media are, of course, useless when it comes to snow, defaulting to a bizarre “shocked and awed” response to an annual event.

Still, not my problem, because today is a stunning day in Brussels.

Day 85 – Countdown to the Homecoming

It’s less then three weeks until I return to Scotland on the 16th of December. I have to admit, I already have my first night at home planned out.

  • A long bath to wash off the residue of Brussels’ hard water.
  • An Indian take-away, because you just can’t get a good Indian or Pakistani meal in Belgium.
  • Some West Wing, starting with the fantastic Season 1 episode “Mr. Willis of Ohio“.
  • Playing some Xbox games with my flatmate.

These are just a few of the pleasures I’ve particularly missed while being in Belgium.

Unfortunately, it’ll be back to reality with a bump on the 17th, since I’ve yet to find gainful employment.

Day 84 – Some Days, You Can Change The World

One of the things I’ve learnt in the past few months is that actually being at the centre of politics is much more frustrating then being on the fringes. The problem is that the closer to the centre you are, the greater understanding you gain and the more you see the problems which prevent action on a given issue.

To give an example: a while ago, I was reading the Economist in the pub after work one day. The main story was about poverty levels, education and the rich-poor divide in India. It made me very angry. I thought, well what can I do about this where I am just now? The answer, of course, is not much. EU-India trade relations are under negotiation, but in many ways these are the domain of Council and not easily influenced. There is also the small issue that the EU can’t interfere in India’s domestic affairs. India is, after all, a democratic state, a strong military and economic power and in many ways a well governed. For the EU to attempt to dictate policy to India would  be a slight to them, a slight to their sovereignty and likely to set diplomatic relations back.

Indian domestic problems are an extreme example of how you can feel powerless and frustrated when you should be doing something. There have been plenty of other times when I’ve felt the same in the past few months due to letters, goings on in the news or even just walking past a beggar on the street.

The flip-side are the days when you feel like you can change the world. Today was one of those days. Unfortunately, I can’t explain why because it’s related to a constituency letter and is thus confidential. In the greater scheme of things, it’s a small matter, but it’s one which is very much within the scope of the EU. I’m intending to do everything I can to get the powers who be to notice this issue and deal with it in the legislation planned for 2011 (where it fits nicely in with some similar trade and commerce issues).

The days like this are brilliant. They are the days you know you are doing the right thing and genuinely helping people. I had a similar feeling after I spent two days researching the oil moratorium for Alyn, in an effort to ensure that it didn’t pass and have a grave impact on Scotland.  Unfortunately, for me, they are less frequent then I’d like. There are a lot of obstacles in politics.

I can understand why people do this job though. When you know you are doing the right thing, and doing all you can to achieve it, it feels utterly fantastic!