The Mac at 25

Today the Apple Macintosh is 25 years old — quite something for the only _other_ personal computer to survive in the face of the IBM PC/ MS DOS / Windows onslaught, that saw off the Sinclair computers, the Amiga, the Atari, the Amstrad, the Sharp, the PET, and all the other that were dancing around and still going strong back in 1984.

I didn’t see my first Mac until 1990, and I was instantly smitten. Heavily used by the graphic design industry, I saw one first at a printer’s. With a 21″ screen (greyscale, in those days), and a smooth, effortless interface, it was a world away from the clunky DOS, GEM, Desqview and Windows that I was used to. While we were busy endlessly playing with IRQs and base-addresses on our PCs to make them work with a Novell network, Mac users could simply plug their machines together via LocalTalk, and have instant networking. Of course, Mac users didn’t necessarily endear themselves to the rest of us: when a printer’s boy turned up one day in our office with some leaflets, looked round, and said ‘I bet you wish you had a Mac’, I did feel like throttling him.

Nonetheless, after having spent far too long geekily trying to make various hardware combinations work under Windows, I took the plunge in 1996 and bought a second-hand Mac II ci, for about £60. A year later, we got a 4400 — a much derided machine that served us well, and is still connected to our home network, although never switched on. I persuaded my employers to buy the same machine, before progressing, at work and at home, through the G3, the G4 cube, various PowerBooks, the G5, the flat-screen iMac, and now endlessly on into the world of Intel powered machines.

I still use Windows, mind you, though generally via Remote Desktop. Having been spoiled by the sleek, consistent, and crash-proof OS X interface, I find Windows almost infinitely clunky and unreliable. This is not really Microsoft’s fault. Running Office and Windows on a PC, it runs great. It’s just when you start loading up the drivers and supplied software for various odd bits of hardware — DVD robots, printers, label makers, ID Card makers, scanners, and so on — they all start clamouring for attention, with their inconsistent and buggy interfaces, and the Windows experience starts, once again, to remind me of trying to run Desqview 286 along with Windows 3 and GEM under Novell Netware ELS I: never a winner.

For people who want to have the right to be different, and do things their way, the Mac still offers what it did all the way back in 1984, when Ridley Scott’s iconic commercial presented it as a cry for freedom.

Why Gordon Brown’s strategy is all wrong

Earlier this week Gordon Brown returned from vacation and announced that Labour would win the next general election. A much braver, more accurate and more strategic announcement would have been to say that Labour would not win the next election, and would be taking advantage of the next two years to complete its programme and deliver the promises it made in 1997. Simply put, Gordon Brown is pursuing the bankrupt strategy of attempting to win an election that he is certain to lose, rather than using the freedom that this gives to do the unpopular things which his party was elected for in the first place.

Tony Blair (or was it Alistair Campbell) famously said at the 1997 election victory: “The next general election campaign starts tomorrow.” Clearly this strategy worked for him in terms of giving Labour an unprecedented two, and then three terms of office. But it also tied his hands about what he could actually accomplish in the time. As Charles Kennedy pointed out a little later, New Labour had a massive majority, but appeared to have the ambition of a government leading a hung parliament.

People (even people who liked him) criticised Blair for being all spin and no substance. Many thought this was a surface thing, based around the way Campbell controlled the cabinet press office. In fact, it was the very heart of Blair’s approach — to maximise the length of Labour’s administration, at the expense of its depth.

Brown needs to recognise — publicly as well as privately — that the next election is as good as lost. Even if he somehow clings on to power, he will not have the majority which he does now, which, despite the many rebellionnettes, is still sufficient to push through many much needed programmes. In fact, such a strategy is Brown’s only real hope of an outright victory: if he pursues an ambitious and confident programme, he may find that the public turns to be behind him.

So what should Brown be doing? Three things — first, dismantle cumbersome but failed Labour experiments (but keeping, of course, the things which did work). Second, introduce a long-needed simplification and reduction of legislation. New Labour has been creating new crimes as if law was going out of fashion. They need to turn the clock back. Third, complete the reorganisation of the House of Commons and House of Lords which they have been fitfully working on, and abandoning whenever it became difficult, and settle once and for all the question of either regional assemblies or an English parliament.

None of these things are uniquely New Labour’s fault. The public sector is full of the remnants of failed experiments by many governments. Legislation has been increasing for more than fifty years. The reorganisation of the House of Lords has been rumbling on for almost a century. But these would be landmark changes that would potentially leave Gordon Brown better remembered than Tony Blair.

At the time, John Major, who faced the same unwinnable future, was one of Britain’s most derided prime ministers. Today, with the Northern Ireland peace process now complete, and a slew of medals for British Olympians, people are taking another look. Brown resembles Major far more than Blair ever resembled Thatcher. He needs now not merely to resemble, but also to emulate, if he is to be any more than a blip on British history.

Why Gordon Brown should watch Doctor Who

Did you see this week’s Doctor Who? You didn’t? You’re wondering what the fictional Time Lord has to offer the Prime Minister? (If you’re reading this and are saying, Gordon Who?, then you have some other catching up to do). Actually, this week’s episode didn’t really feature Doctor Who at all. It’s about what would have happened if the various calamities averted by the man in the TARDIS, generally on Christmas Day, hadn’t been averted after all. For the first twenty minutes it’s diverting entertainment, of the ‘very good, but we have seen this kind of episode before’ kind. But then it changes. Crisis hits Britain. The family of Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble are billeted in Leeds (“I am not living in Leeds”), along with two other families including some Italians. It’s hard times, but they’re sure to pull through. Except, after a while, the soldiers take away the Italians to the labour camps, as England is now for the English (the French have previously closed the borders). Just when we’re wondering if we’re actually watching this on family TV, we have an emotional farewell, with Bernard Cribbins in tears, reminding us that “that’s what they called it the last time”. And then we see the Italian family being driven away in an open topped truck, the wife burying her head in the husband’s shoulder as they both weep.

Doctor Who not really your thing? Then perhaps you remember seeing the first two episodes of the fifth series of Spooks, when Harry Pearce and someone unnervingly like Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti are imprisoned under a ‘temporary detention order’.

How do these award winning dramas connect with the rather more lacklustre Gordon Brown? In this: both present a picture of Britain after a few shocks have caused people to put far too much hope and trust in their leaders, and the leaders have responded by rescinding traditional British freedoms for the greater good.

Clearly, a series of invasions by aliens are unlikely to be on the horizon, and even the MI-6 (as script writers still insist on calling SIS) plot which triggers the Spooks episode is pure fiction, notwithstanding what we now know about Harold Wilson’s fears when he was in office.

But the great historical example of this, to which all such fiction alludes, which still looms like a spectre over all debates over freedom, that is, the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, was neither triggered by aliens nor by the machinations of sinister and secret government agents. It was triggered by the Wall Street Crash, the Great Depression, and the willingness of ordinary people to sacrifice traditional freedoms for the sake of a supposedly better world.

Gordon Brown has just put through the most wholesale reduction of liberties since the establishment of the Magna Carta. It is unlike anything in the English speaking world. More chilling was its reception by the public. Most people, according to polls, backed Gordon Brown. One man on a vox pop suggested that Brown should go further: “anyone who commits a crime should be kept in prison, until they are either sentenced, or not sentenced”. In other polls, we learn that most people are dissatisfied with the legal system, and want more powers for police and the courts to deal with the criminals swiftly.

Perhaps this all sounds like liberal hand wringing. But, in law, Gordon Brown has created a situation where people may be imprisoned without the intervention of the courts in a situation far short of a genuine emergency. In the six cases that the existing (and equally malign) 28 day legislation has been used, half of the people were never charged. That is to say, no evidence was acquired either before or during their detention that provided a reasonable case for prosecution. But if there was no evidence before their detention, on what basis were they detained in the first place?

In Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change has pulled out of the elections, ostensibly because they will not be ‘free and fair’, though we all knew that they would not be free and fair anyway, but, in reality, most probably because they recognised that violence and killing would increase until Mugabe was confident of victory, and even if Morgan Tsvangirai was victorious, there would be no reason to believe that Mugabe would step aside. But Mugabe has nothing like the legal power to fix the election which Gordon Brown has just given himself. Under the 42 day rule, Mugabe could have had virtually the whole of the MDC rounded up on suspicion of terrorism. He has more or less accused them all of terrorism anyway, he merely lacks a law that would give him the powers he wants.

Of course Gordon Brown would never do such a thing. But, when Lord Carrington negotiated the creation of Zimbabwe in 1980 out of the civil war in Rhodesia, nobody ever thought Robert Mugabe would do such a thing. The whole world watched the ‘miracle of Rhodesia’. The world watched again when the office of prime minister was abolished in 1987 in favour of an executive president.

Clearly, in a world of better organised criminals and better organised terrorists, we need a legislative framework which enables police and the security service to function effectively. But, at the moment, as a nation we are sleep walking into a future where our basic freedoms have been abolished in order to protect them. Can we be so blind? Or is it that most of us feel unthreatened, because we know that only Muslims, and extremists at that (or their family and friends) are liable to be targeted? What about when that is extended to Eastern Europeans? And what to Jews? And then trade-unionists? Then evangelical Christians? Political opponents of the government of the day?

In the words of Martin Niemöller, protestant pastor who died in a Nazi concentration camp:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

If twentieth century history has a lesson, then it is this: when tyranny comes, it does not come as an onslaught, but little by little, as one freedom after another is eroded.

Have Tibet protesters gone too far?

Here’s an unpopular thought: how far should Free Tibet protesters be allowed to go? Should they, for example, have the right to clamp down on free speech in order to prevent their case being challenged?

Don’t get me wrong here. I believe Tibet ought to be free, and I believe that China should face up to world opinion. But that is not a blank cheque for protesters.

Here’s the story. According to PR Week, “Any PR agency that works for the Chinese government runs the risk of demonstrations outside its offices, campaigners have warned”. Apparently the Free Tibet Campaign has issued a warning, saying “Any PR agency that is trying to assist China in its twisted distortion of the truth would be potentially exposing itself to our protests outside its offices”.

If this really is true, and if this really what they meant, then I think that the Free Tibet Campaign has established that it is really not so different from the Chinese government it opposes. I sincerely hope that this is not what they meant.

In a free society, everyone must have the freedom to make their case to the media, to other people, and to opinion formers. Hiring a PR agency to help you make that case is legal, and it should remain so. There are lots of people, organisations and groups out there that I don’t agree with. But, in a free society, I must defend their right to make their case. As soon as I decide that one case is too heinous to be presented, then I have moved from being a free-speaker in a free-society, to a totalitarian advocating that only views which chime with my own should be expressed.

Twenty or so years ago, everybody thought that Robert Mugabe was marvellous, for the peaceful transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. Events have shown that Mugabe was never interested in justice and fairness, but only in the promotion of his own interests and those of his own followers. This is by total contrast with the work of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

I hope that China eventually gets the message that freeing Tibet is in its own interests — and, even more, that ceasing to support atrocities in Sudan is a must-do if it is to play a full role in the international community. But I hope also that the Free Tibet Campaign learns that making threats against free speech is neither helpful to their cause, nor appropriate to the society in which we, here in Britain, live.

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