Archive for April, 2013

Goodbye GoodReads, Hello LibraryThing

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

I like to keep a record of the books I’ve read, and like millions of others, have found online communities to be a good way of doing this.

In recent years, I’ve used two of these – GoodReads and LibraryThing.

I recently began using GoodReads more because it, unlike LibraryThing, had an app for my phone and tablet.

But a couple of weeks ago, Amazon bought GoodReads — a good business move on their part.

Now they can sell even more books to people, and to people who we know enjoy reading.

I don’t boycott Amazon, despite all the terrible things they do, but if I have a choice, I take it.

I just closed down my GoodReads account and have moved everything over to LibraryThing.

North Korea: The British Left struggles to cope

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

This article appeared in Solidarity.  Please feel free to add your comments there.


Socialist Worker last week reported on the escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula – but in topsy-turvy world of the fast-decaying SWP, it denounced “imperialist war-mongering against North Korea” which “threatened to bring the region to the brink of nuclear war.”

Allow me to make one or two small corrections.

First, it is not “the region” alone which faces the risk of nuclear war. North Korea’s Taepodong-2 ballistic missiles have a reported range of 6,000 km. That puts Alaska, the northern bits of Australia, the entire Pacific ocean, all of China, most of Russia and the Indian sub-continent all within range.

Second (and how shall I put this delicately?), comrades, the North Korean regime, peace-loving though I am certain you believe it to be, is not entirely innocent here. Perhaps in some tiny way, it might be responsible for at least some of the tensions.

Of course I don’t expect the SWP to take my word for this. So let’s call upon Fidel Castro to back me up.

According to the Morning Star, the former Cuban dictator urged “North Korea to restrain itself for the good of mankind.” Castro also reportedly said that a war could affect “more than 70 per cent” of the world’s population and said the current flare-up was the “one of the gravest risks of nuclear war,” since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis – a subject on which he is considered something of an authority. (He did allow the Soviet Union to place ballistic missiles with nuclear weapons on Cuban soil.)

The Stalinists at the Morning Star may be slightly more clued in than the ex-Trotskyists at Socialist Worker (there is something ironic in that) but they’re not entirely living on the same planet as the rest of us either.

In their one editorial so far on the subject, the only criticism they make of North Korea is that “the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang recently rewrote the Marxist maxim that the working class plays the leading role in the construction of socialism to ascribe this role to the armed forces”.

That’s an odd sentence in so many ways, not least of which is the assumption that the totalitarian rulers of North Korea know or care about who plays “the leading role” in the construction of socialism, a project which they are not remotely interested in. Whatever it is that they are building with the help of hundreds of thousands of slave labourers, it is most certainly not socialism.

It’s not surprising that the Morning Star has mixed feelings about North Korea – after all, it inherits the Stalinist legacy of full support for any country, no matter how dictatorial and ruthless, so long as it confronts “imperialism”.

Why Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, continues to bankroll this awful newspaper is beyond belief. But it may perhaps have something to do with the fact that the union’s chief of staff has been a leading figure in the British CP for some time and a decade ago publicly expressed his full support for the North Korean regime, saying “Our Party has already made its basic position of solidarity with Peoples Korea clear.”

Socialist Worker and the Morning Star are struggling with the Korean crisis, but for socialists it is actually not very complicated.

It could be summed up in just six words – “no to war, no to dictatorship”.

No to war – meaning that North Korea must cease its threats and return to negotiations based on UN resolutions.

And no to dictatorship – meaning, down with the Kim regime, and for a united, democratic and socialist Korea.

Unions and campaigners – time for an honest conversation?

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Unicode, Drupal, PHP, MySQL: A love story (not)

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

I have been trying to do something fairly simple: I wanted to write a web page that could render well on a small screen (like a mobile phone) and which would display content from the IUF website.  How hard could this be?

Well, it shouldn’t have been hard.

The content on the IUF site, which is handled by a content management system called Drupal, is stored in a MySQL database.  The characters are encoded as Unicode (UTF-8) — because that’s what you need to do when you have multilingual content on your site, and the IUF site works in Arabic, Chinese, Russian and many other non-Latin languages.

So it should have been fairly simple to write a few lines of code in the widely-used PHP programming language to read news headlines from the IUF’s database and show them on screen.

Except that it was showing gibberish every time there was an accented character.

I posted a message calling for help on the Drupal forums.  (Not a big response there.)  I wrote to three very smart friends who understand these things and they all had good ideas, and pointed me in different directions, but to no avail.  Nothing was working.  One suggested that I give up.  I nearly did give up.

And then I decided to search again, and found this page where a programmer named “HoboTraveler” (I’m guessing that’s not his real name) encountered a similar problem on January 21st, 2008, more than five years ago.  He writes asking for help, gets loads of tips, tries a million things, nearly gives up, and then, dozens of comments later, he solves the problem.

He writes:

I think I got it to work with multiple databases!

I’ve inserted the line:

mysql_query(‘SET NAMES utf8’);

just after the mysql_connect() and it seems to work.

So I thought, what the hell, I’ll try that.  I tried everything else.  And “HoboTraveler”, whoever you are, you made my day.

Lesson of the story: sometimes life is hard.  And thank God for Google.

Hollywood Homophobia: A side effect of economic crisis

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.  Please post any comments there.


Four years ago, the stars of the successful BBC comedy series “Gavin and Stacey” made the mistake of starring in an abysmal comedy known as “Lesbian Vampire Killers”.

The movie was quickly forgotten, but I was reminded of it recently when I saw the latest – and last – film by acclaimed American director Steven Soderbergh, “Side Effects”.

Soderbergh’s film could easily have been given a similar title, even though it was not in any sense a comedy.

But the theme of homicidal lesbians is central to the plot, and the film absolutely reeks of homophobia.

Not everyone will have seen it that way, of course.

When I first heard about the film, a reviewer talked about it revolving around a conspiracy in which the pharmaceutical industry played a key role.

The film’s tagline was “one pill can change your life”.

The story seems at first to be about the side effects of a new anti-depressant which may – or may not – have contributed to a young woman (played by Rooney Mara) murdering her husband (Channing Tatum), who has just returned home after a few years in jail.

Jude Law plays the psychiatrist who prescribes the medication, and later becomes a kind of amateur detective, determined to figure out what really happened.

So far, so good. What follows contains spoilers, so if you really want to see the film and don’t want to know how it turns out, stop reading.

It turns out that the pharmaceutical company isn’t a protagonist in the story, it’s done nothing particularly wrong, and it doesn’t even seem that the young woman took the pills.

It’s not the “one pill” that changed her life, or ended the life of her unfortunate husband.

It was the fact that she had a lesbian relationship with her psychiatrist, who treated her for depression when her husband was taken away by the FBI.

The psychiatrist, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, would not have been out of place in “Lesbian Vampire Killers”.

It is only at the end of the film that Mara’s character confesses to Jude Law her motivation for killing the unfortunate Tatum.

She first became depressed when her bourgeois lifestyle ended suddenly as the FBI descended on a garden party to arrest Tatum on charges of insider trading.

Zeta-Jones seduced her vulnerable, and much younger, patient, and the two conspired – as lesbians do, apparently – to murder Tatum when he got home from prison.

Their relationship was kept a secret from everyone.

And their motivation wasn’t just love (or lust). There was some scheme to make a fortune by linking a pharmaceutical company to the crime, thereby driving its share price down and reaping millions on the stock market.

Near the very end of the film, Mara and Zeta-Jones meet up and embrace, discussing where the money has been stashed – though at this point Mara has betrayed her lover, and is wearing a wire.

Some viewers and critics didn’t see any of this as homophobic, but others certainly did.

If there were loads of films made by Hollywood A-listers in which the lead characters were lesbians, “Side Effects” would just be one forgettable movie in which the women were not very nice.

But how many Hollywood films with budgets of over $30 million feature a lesbian couple at the centre of the story? Very few, I imagine.

And the linking of forbidden love to murder is quite explicit in “Side Effects”.

It may not be obvious to British audiences, or even to the British leads in the film, but America is a deeply homophobic country which lags behind much of the world on issues like gay marriage or gays serving in the military.

Homophobia is explicitly used by the right in America, including even mainstream politicians like Mitt Romney. Where right-wing policies such as austerity or tax breaks for the very rich became unpopular, homophobia – like racism – becomes quite useful for the right.

It differs from most forms of bigotry in that it’s still quite acceptable, it seems, to incorporate homophobic elements in a mainstream film. It would be hard (though not impossible) to do the same with more traditional prejudices, such as hatred of Blacks or Jews.

There was an uproar in America when Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” implied that torture was an important part of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Right-wing politicians like John McCain led the charge on that one, and it’s one of the reasons Bigelow’s film couldn’t be named “Best Picture” at the Oscars.

No one expects McCain, Romney and politicians like them to speak out against the homophobia in “Side Effects” – but one wonders why the left, in America and elsewhere, hasn’t been more outspoken in taking on this vile, bigoted film.