The song remains the same

I’d heard from some folks that the new centralised distribution system at my former work had been, frankly, a bit of a dog’s breakfast, with a tendency to be unreliable on both general stock and special customer orders (none of which surprised me, I recall a centralised system when the company was part of WH Smith’s years back and it too was a bloody mess of a thing), which has, understandably, exasperated staff (and worried publishers), who spoke about it in the Bookseller journal, which is the main trade periodical of the British book trade. So Waterstone’s apparently moved to ensure staff couldn’t access the Bookseller online, which has had the unfortunate outcome of meaning the story now becomes about a large bookseller gagging staff again when they have anything critical to say.

Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it? In fact the Guardian article name-checks me and my disturbing experience almost five years ago in the coverage of this new story. Again the same large bookseller appears to be condoning censorship, which, regardless of what you think of the rights or wrongs of the original story in the Bookseller, shows some very poor judgement on behalf of senior management, who should have anticipated that the act of gagging staff and blocking access to the main book trade journal in response to negative criticism would then create a second story which reflects badly on them. Some folks never learn…

British Olympic Association climbs down on censorship claim

There had been worries recently that the contract British athletes being included in the national team for the Bejing Olympics had been reworded to censor what those athletes may say publicly about the dire state of human rights or politics in the host nation China. The BOA has now apparently clarified this position saying that while it is normal Olympic practise to inform competing athletes that they cannot use the Games as a political platform neither is the BOA in the business of trying to censor what its athletes speak about – they can talk to journalists, answer questions and so on, just not decide to use their position at the Games to stage a protest or demonstration, something which comes from the International Olympic rules. The British Athletes Commission seems to accept this adding that it is the sport which is paramount and that they are going to compete, not to demonstrate.

Which is fair enough, as far as it goes, since that is indeed what they are supposed to do. But I can’t help but wonder if the Games weren’t being held in a nation with an appalling record in human rights abuses, lack of civil liberties, environmental pillaging and few freedoms then this wouldn’t be an issue to begin with. Part of the argument for having the Games there though is that somehow it will magically make the Chinese government more accountable, allowing more freedoms and liberties – the same argument is used by giant corporations like Google and Microsoft for working with the Chinese government, then self-censoring to suit that totalitarian regime and even, allegedly, giving access to web records to track down and silence those bloggers who post opinions considered ‘dissident’. Yay for the spread of freedom by example!!!

Its an old refrain of capitalism that it promotes freedom because those are the circumstances it flourishes best in and where political argument fails to persuade those in power money and successful business might. But that’s an experiment we’re still waiting to see a definitive result on – there may be some more freedoms in China today but equally there are a lot of repressive measures, so the jury is well out on how successfully the market and giving them the Games has worked – it may have helped a bit, but it certainly hasn’t transformed the country to a land of freedom. On the Olympians front though, if an athlete does feel very strongly that an international coming together of nations shouldn’t be staged in a country where the regime denies basic freedoms, liberties and human rights then perhaps they should consider if they should take part in the Games being held there?

Because I doubt the Games will magically make things better – we’re talking about a regime, after all, who when visiting London criticised their UK government hosts for ‘allowing’ people to protest their visit, that’s the attitude they have – they think democratic countries should muzzle free speech critical of them. So I am left wondering if athletics organisations saying that the staging of the Games in China will somehow help improve that country’s lamentable record is less wishful thinking than a fig leaf to their own conscience to justify going there – honest I am not just going because I want to take part in the Olympics regardless, I really believe being there will help the people of China. Honest. Okay, perhaps that is pretty cynical, but I find it is hard not to be cynical about the whole thing. (source: the BBC)

Creationist whackos get science teacher fired

Yup, once more the intellectually feeble throwbacks who constantly espouse ‘intelligent design’ (which is basically the utterly discredited Creationism dressed up in laughably bad science clothes) have made a move to decrease the IQ of the world a bit more: they used a flimsy excuse to get a science education officer in Texas fired. Christine Castillo Comer’s crime? She forwarded an email as an FYI which she had received from one science educational professional to some interested groups about a talk by an author in the area, an author who has looked into the fake ‘science’ these Intelligent Design wankers keep trying to sneak into school curriculums while also trying to have evolutionary teaching curtailed (no, they haven’t realised the 19th century is over).

Her boss’s boss dropped her in it claiming simply forwarding this message was tantamount to the education board endorsing it, which is ridiculous since she didn’t express an opinion, simply passed on details of a scientific talk to science professionals. Besides which anyone who works for a government department or large corporation knows full well their emails are usually issued under a ‘the ideas expressed in this email do not necessarily promote the ideals of the blankety blank department’. Interestingly enough this boss is a political appointee – a Bush-loving one. And the head of the board openly endorses Creationist nonsense and talks yet hangs out one of his science professionals for simply passing on details of a talk involving scientific matters to other scientific professionals.

Sadly this sort of attack on actually using our brains to logically interpret massive amounts of careful scientific date amassed over many decades by many people from paleontologists to genetic researchers is not confined to a few religious crackpots in Jesusland (as Richard Morgan terms the Texas area in his recent novel Black Man) since there have been attempts to push this nonsense in schools in the UK too. This really does infuriate me – NPR has a radio interview with Christine on their site and the whole thing stinks of a political-religious set-up for these right wing fundamentalist eejits to shove someone out the way so they can then install a new person who will agree with their retarded ideology. And if you are a Creationist don’t bother explaining to me why your view point is valid, because it just isn’t. You’re entitled to hold your view but please feck off and don’t inflict it on others much less try to infect schoolkids with your idiocy. If you believe this crap you are an anti-intellectual moron brain-washed by fundamentalists who like using their religion as a way to gain more control over people and what they can say or think – and that’s the nub of it, these idiots don’t just believe this fairy tale nonsense themselves, they demand it be taught to the rest of us. Thankfully the few attempts here have been laughed at in much the same way as trying to each that the Earth is flat would be, but these idiots keep trying… (link via Boing Boing)

Iran outraged shocker!

In a move which surprised many those laid-back lovers of multiple viewpoints and open debate that are the wacky guys in the Iranian government/religious police (hard to tell them apart) have been deeply offended by something. This time not newspaper cartoons from neighbouring Saudi, not the film and comic of 300 (and before that Alexander) or the film and comic of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or… okay you get the point, they are a bunch of whining twonks who declare everything they dislike is deeply offensive to their nation and obviously the Prophet, blessings be upon his name and all of Islam (which naturally they feel entitled to talk on behalf of all). What are the daft smeggers upset about now?

Well Salman Rushdie was awarded a knighthood in the Queen’s birthday honours list (sadly there was no such honour for me), which the Iranians claim is a deliberate attempt to insult them and Islam because Rushdie wrote the Satanic Verses several years ago. You may remember good ol’e Krazy Khomeini, that laugh-a-minute mullah with a twinkle in his eye and a song in his heart declaring a fatwah against it and offering a huge reward to any of the Faithful who murdered one of the most respected novelists in the world for insulting Islam in a work of fiction which he hadn’t actually read.

Oddly they don’t mention how insulting it is to all civilised people to burn books and threaten the life of writers you haven’t even bothered to read; as a devout follower of the church of freedom of speech and a disciple of the Tower of Books I find their attitude highly insulting to my beliefs and I declare literary jihad on their infidel arses. Of course, our form of literary fundementalism is more civilised – we don’t place death sentences on their heads, we want to capture them, tie them to a chair and force them to read books. That will teach the bastards.

 

Happy fourth birthday, Woolamaloo!

Yes, friends, today marks the fourth anniversary of the Woolamaloo Gazette, the blog they couldn’t hang, a blog with a mouth too big to shut (a mouth so big it still spews out words even when having its own foot in said mouth, which happens on occassion). Well, the fourth anniversary of this incarnation, for although the 7th of April 2003 saw the commencement of the Woolamaloo blog, the Gazette goes back to the early 90s, the name a homage to the University of Woolamaloo from Monty Python (also a track by Jean Michel Jarre and a real place in Australia). I’ve always been outspoken and an opinionated bugger (commenting on my firing a couple of years back Neil Gaiman commented he thought I was opinionated, but in the good way, which I took as a huge compliment and a real morale boost when I really needed it), right back to school where I spent years on the Academy’s debating team (nope, didn’t win them all, but I won a lot more than I lost) and when I was introduced to email in the 90s at college the opinionated bugger met Communications Technology and saw that It Was Good.

In ’91 only a few faculties had email and the web didn’t exist – it was the internet, mostly text, lots of discussion forums which I signed up for, mostly chatting to folks in other universities round the globe, debating, discussing, chatting, swapping jokes. Very soon I was sending out emails of spoof newspaper articles to friends, lampooning public figures, trends and satirising the hell out of stories in the news that were bugging me. To my surprise people liked them; in fact some folks who weren’t receiving them asked to be added to the list, others already on the list were forwarding it to their friends – my first taste of the interconnected nature of the net came when a friend told me she had forwarded it to her friend, who forwarded it to her husband in the US Air Force (there is nowhere the subversive Woolamaloo cannot go!) who forwarded it to a bunch of friends on more bases round the world.

By the 2000s I was still doing the Woolamaloo emails, but my good mate Ariel, then a fellow bookseller (I think we first got in touch when he was editing the Guide to SF for a certain book supermarket who we don’t mention here these days, but this was back when it was still a real bookstore and professional booksellers like us were encouraged to work on literature guides like this). Ariel kept saying I should do them in blog form, especially since the blog would allow me to do other things too as the fancy struck me. Some other friends were blogging by then, so with Ariel’s help (thanks, mate) we set up the new blog and a new era in cheeky and opinionated nonsense began in April 2003 with me having a go at the war in Iraq and pastiching the SARs outbreak that was the End Of The World plague in vogue at that time (later I would post that for a laugh I would stand next to Asian tourists in the shop and pretend to sneeze while SARs was going about, just to watch their startled reaction. At my firing they even brought that up and asked, do you think that is funny, what would a customer reading that think? Yes, I did think it was mildly amusing, it was what we advanced beings with A Sense Of Humour call A Joke. They didn’t, but since they ended up being publically humiliated for what they did I’d say I came out on top there).

I found I loved the blog form – I did indeed still post pastiches of news stories (or sometimes just a rant I needed to get out), but other things leaked in – unsurprisingly discussing books and authors and movies (at this point I was submitting a ton of reviews to the Alien Online, edited by Ariel), but I was adding in poetry, photographs, life in Edinburgh and, well, just everything really – life, love, cats, chocolate and whisky; the fun stuff and the stuff that hurt like hell. And work. Work got mentioned a few times (relatively few compared to the amount of other stuff and far outweighed by the amount pushing books and authors and reading events) and the worse the job became as the company turned into a Professional Retailer rather than a Bookseller (and struggled with sales and profits and higher staff turnover at the same time – connected?) and they seemed unwilling to listen to the opinions of experienced staff the blog became a place to let off a little steam. Several years later they suddenly pretended to be grossly offended at this and fired me (it would later turn out that senior management had known about it long before this and weren’t bothered – in fact they asked me to help set up a brand new branch from scratch. Later they would suddenly ‘discover’ it – well, I suspect a certain vindictive person did – and it was used against me.)

Of course, by firing me they removed any obligation I had to be relatively quiet on the subject; Cory Doctorow and the Boing Boing guys picked up on it and splattered it all over the web, as did the online journals while Ariel and my fellow reviewers on the Alien Online organised support – the mainstream media picked it up from there and within a couple of days the Guardian and Scotsman had me posing for photographs for an article (right outside the old bookstore, much to the amusement of some of the staff who hadn’t been told much of what had happened) and a rapid snowball effect took place that utterly surprised me – four radio spots in one day at one point, asked to do interviews for radio shows in Ireland and New York, enquiries from journalists in France, Norway, Italy, Germany, clippings of the story being sent by folks from as far afield as Chile and Australia, it was simply amazing. I think the fact that a bookstore, which has always professed to stand for freedom of speech (without which there is no booktrade) would try to gag a staff member this way really infuriated a lot of folks. I still get approached by media types from time to time even now.

The amount of emails I had from people all over was a huge morale boost when I was seriously down and a reminder, again, of how connected web users are on a global scale (and again, thanks to everyone who took time to write to me offering support and also emailing their disgust to the Bookstore Which Shall Not Be Named, I really can’t tell you just how much the support of so many folks, mostly total stranger, meant to me when I really needed it). That was something my former employers didn’t realise, they thought they were the Big Company and they could do what they wanted to One Little Guy; boy did that blow up in their faces (and deservedly so). Amazingly some companies continue to repeat this mistake, still not cottoned on to the interconnected nature of the web.

Another front was opened up when some of the many writers I had worked with over the years also came to my defence, publically damning the former employers for their actions and pointing out just how much work I had done to promote books over the years. Highly embarrassing to be the biggest bookstore in the nation and find some of the bestselling authors in the country decrying you in public (Richard Morgan’s incredibly eloquent open letter, Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks and others writing letters to the press, Charlie Stross standing up for me on his blog and more). I’ve spent years promoting good writers and books and I can’t tell you how good it felt to realise that a lot of those authors remembered that support and were willing to step forward to help me when I needed it; so much support from friends and strangers had the oddest effect, it made you feel ten feet tall and at the same time so damned humble that people would do this for you.

It had a happy ending though – the appeal hearing, ironically held in the new branch I had helped to create (as I gleefully pointed out), turned out in my favour. They still didn’t like me mentioning work on the blog but agreed they had rather over-reacted. By this time FPI had read about all of this and I’d been approached by them because they wanted someone to work on their online business who would also be into the books and graphic novels they were selling, rather than just treating it as a job. And in the supreme irony I pitched the idea of a blog for the company to compliment the major webstore and they liked it; now the FPI blog has grown far bigger, gets hits from round the world and I still get to promote good books, graphic novels and authors (thanks, Kenny!) from interviewing big names to helping push the new small press guys (who in turn mention us and so that interconnected thing all still goes round and we all win from it). And I’m still blogging on the Woolamaloo as well; blogging for personal reasons and blogging at work too (god, but that still makes me giggle after all that happened, that part of my job is running a blog) and no intention of stopping (I should probably say thanks to Former Employers because their short-sighted attack turned a little-heard of site into one read by far, far more folks, so well done! I award you the Shot Yourself In The Foot Award!). Another nice spin off is my union, the RBA, a smaller union, got some good publicity (well deserved) from this and picked up a raft of new members on the back of it (actually they told me they go someone in touch the very night I posted links to them on the blog).

I intend to go on being a cheeky and irreverent bugger and the Woolamaloo is an intrinsic part of that; a friend who is heavily into Second Life was asking why I didn’t join him there. I pointed out that the blog (and Flog and Flickr) were already a second life for me and I can’t imagine not doing it. So yes, I fully intend to go on lampooning hypocritical public figures, pastiching events, talking about good books, quoting poetry when I feel like it and, well, basically talking about whatever the hell I want to, when I want to, because it is my (and every other person’s) right to damned well do just that and winning that case makes me feel like doing it all the more. So happy anniversary to my sometimes troubled child, the Woolamaloo Gazette, the blog they couldn’t hang.

McJob

McDonald’s, probably one of the firm’s most often satirised (and with good reason I think) has stuck its corporate foot in its greasy mouth once again, demanding that the term ‘McJob‘ is removed from dictionaries such as the world-famous Oxford English Dictionary because it is derogatory and inaccurate. Obviously it isn’t enough for McD’s to use its corporate muscle on business practises, on farmers round the world, on protestors and others, it now wants to exert a measure of control over language. The OED and other dictionaries incorporate some modern phrases and colloquialisms when they become common in everyday speech for a decent period of time, hence why phrases like ‘McJob’ are included or ‘switch’ also gets included not only as a description of a debit card but also a verb, since the name of the car has become the verb to describe the action, “I’ll switch that, please.”

Launching this attempt is amazingly ill-advised – for starters it now raises the profile of the phrase the a far higher level than before, which rather defeats the purpose right away (that’s like firing someone because their blog allegedly brought the company into disrepute, thus launching the story into the world media and a far vaster audience – big companies seem utterly clueless about handling their image). The second is that by showing little understanding – or even a certain level of humour – over this McDonald’s has confirmed that the popular satirical image of them held by many critics (including me) is that they are an awful, monolithic, homogenous corporate entity that strictly enforces their ideology on staff but attempts to do so on the public. I suspect most people will more than likely side with a respected and loved institution of knowledge like the OED over Mickey D’s anyday of the week, although I also suspect most folks will be bemused at the whole thing and wondering why McD’s decided to make a mountain out a molehill that most folks never thought twice about before (way to go McDonald’s PR folks, you are really good at your jobs!).

Personally I haven’t been into one of this god-awful company’s dreadful eateries since the mid 80s. Long before I turned veggie and had nothing to eat there (I believe that’s different now, but back then it wasn’t) I stopped going to this lot because during Mayfest in Glasgow in the 80s there was a play by a small indy theatre group which satirised the fast food business. No company was named or identified, it was simply a play about life as a worker in a fast food joint, but McDonald’s threatened this tiny troupe with legal action because, as the world’s most successful fast food stuff-yer-gob emporiums they argued audiences would assume it was about them. I think had it gone to court they would have been laughed out since they had no grounds (they were never identified, no company was) and also because of a little thing called freedom of speech, but the small indy theatre group didn’t have a crew of high priced lawyers like McD’s and couldn’t afford to contest it – the play was pulled before the festival. It was a shameless and despicable bit of big biz bullying and I’ve never eaten in their stores (I refuse to call them restaurants) since then and never will. What I’ve learned over the years since in newspaper reports and books like Fast Food Nation have confirmed to me that they are not a business I’d ever give my money to and this latest pathetic attempt to control image adds to that feeling. Unfortunately masses of people will happily stuff themselves and their kids with their food several times a week, so they probably aren’t too bothered about me boycotting them for the last 20 years.