Dogs, pygmies, sharks; songs, cards and churches. Some stories

Here’s a selection of unrelated articles from the past several months.

A man’s best foe: Why the US turned to Hitler’s hounds
A piece about the trade in working dogs from central Europe to the United States, includes snarling action from an industrial estate in Slovakia and claims of super dogs with titanium teeth. (Commissioned by the Sunday Times Magazine. And killed.)

A polyphonic spree in Africa
Some fascinating stuff coming from the Congo Basin, via the Pitt Rivers Museum. The amazing polyphonic singing of the Bayaka pygmies, captured by Louis Sarno on a horde of tapes unearthed in Oxford. (From The Times)

Sharks by the pool
Reported from the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure in the Bahamas, looking back on ten years of the poker boom. Includes Chris Moneymaker in a pirate uniform. (Appeared in The Independent.)

Kosice 2013: A year of culture, construction and legacy-building
A close look at the reconstruction of the eastern Slovak town of Kosice ahead of its residency as the 2013 European Capital of Culture. (From Spectacular Slovakia.)

Monte Carlo or bust: tycoon’s £850,000 gamble
A piece about the enormous cash game that went on in Monaco, where one of Britain’s top hedge fund managers lost more than €1m. This version has the dreadful reference to Casino Royale removed. (It was put in by a sub when it ran in The Times.)

The Sacred Islands
I also wrote a travel guide to Malta and Gozo — well, its pilgrimage sites, of which there are hundreds.

Sharks by the pool…contd.

The last 200 or so words of my piece in the Independent about the PCA were cut for space reasons. Read the original article, then…

Executives are now playing a waiting game with US lawmakers. While regulation for online poker appears inevitable—there are simply too many potential tax dollars to pass up—there is no firm indication as to how long laws will take to be passed, most likely on a state-by-state level. The major land-based casino chains will almost certainly also launch online poker clients to compete for the starved American market. While they hone their software, the existing operators are seeking new areas to initiate a second poker boom.

Real money poker on mobile devices is already possible, while the phenomenal success of Zynga Poker, which has a reported 38 million players on its “play money” games on Facebook, suggests a surprisingly healthy appetite among casual poker fans.

The so-called BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China are also the focus of intense marketing efforts, with the sharks of Eastern Europe no doubt sharpening their teeth following Danchev’s remarkable PCA victory, the first major title heading to Bulgaria.

The penultimate night of the PCA boasted a lavish 10th birthday party for the event, featuring fireworks, free-flowing booze and excited conversations about a possible regulated future. In an inadvertent metaphor for the industry that apparently keeps on giving, Chris Moneymaker was dressed as a pirate dispensing booty to the winners of a resort-wide treasure hunt.

I wanna be rejected

A lot has been forced out of fashion in journalism over the years: boozy lunches, lavish expense accounts and staff jobs, among them. But working as a freelance today, there’s one thing I really wish would make a comeback: the rejection letter, which has these days been replaced by icy silence.

The memoirs of old-school journalists invariably contain that glossy photographic insert of them on the campaign trail, or traipsing across North Africa, or ducking beneath mortar shells in some war-torn district. But they also usually feature photographs of type-written epistles, with letterhead from magazines like Good Housekeeping, Connoisseur, Playboy or Harper’s above what is usually only a single paragraph. It contains a variation of “it doesn’t fit our editorial needs”, “we’re going to have to pass” or “thanks for your interest and good luck with placing it elsewhere”.

Journalists publishing memoirs with glossy photographic inserts have all had a good degree of success in their careers, and they display these rejection slips with pride. Continual rejection is a crucial part of the learning process; what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and all that.

These days, however, the way to reject a pitch is simply not to reply to it, to allow the proposal to slip gradually down the email inbox until it can be deleted in a bulk clear out. Speaking as someone who composes pitches regularly, sends them off and then nervously anticipates a response, I feel qualified to say that it was better in the old days. Much better. Everyone knew where they stood.

It is not the romance of a type-written letter one pines for, it’s more the certain knowledge that the avenue with that magazine is closed. One can then begin pondering re-wording, fine-tuning and pitching elsewhere – otherwise known as getting on with things.

I suppose there’s also a matter of manners, but I’m not so high-minded as to require an acknowledgment to satisfy lofty ideals of decency. Rather I need an acknowledgment to stop me wondering whether I sent the pitch to the right address, to stop me sending it again or phoning up an editor, all no doubt equally as exasperating to the person on the receiving end.

It is this simple: flat and frank rejection does not offend. Editors, please do it more often. Even one brusque line is infinitely preferable to the drift of tumbleweed through cyberspace. “Thanks for your pitch. Unfortunately it’s not for us.” That would be absolutely fine. It’s easier now than it has ever been. Just hit reply and copy/paste something like that. No one needs to lick any stamps.

No freelancer believes they have a divine right to be published – and I’d wager (knots of self-doubt that we are) that most pitches are propelled by hope rather than expectation. We are willing to accept rejection as an occupational hazard and do not demand in depth feedback or even explanation.

We do, however, most likely think our story is good, which is why we are submitting it for potential publication. We don’t want you to do us a favour by publishing it; we think it will make your magazine better. No doubt we are often way, way off in this belief and no doubt often our pitches are poorly written, have dreadfully misjudged your target readership, have arrived when you are right on deadline or when you have literally no budget at all for freelancers. We apologise for the intrusion and we understand you are frantically busy, cash-strapped and sick to death of press releases, spam and pitches that are worse than either.

But don’t just get tacit on us. It’s not enough. We know you too care about making your publication good – and one day we might absolutely nail the story. We may come to you with the scoop that wins prizes and is optioned for a film. Or we might not, because we’ve taken it to the editor we know will give us the time of day, even if only to tell us to get lost.

Just because I wanted to write something about Limmy

Limmy’s Show! returns tonight, and I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about a comedy series. Limmy is operating in a completely different sphere to pretty much anyone else at the moment; as cookdandbombd tweeted this morning, he is “the most exciting and original British comic since Chris Morris”.

Thing is, although the series is invariably outstanding – the Dee Dee Yoker sketch is possibly the best six minutes of comedy I can remember seeing for years – it’s everything else about Brian Limond that makes him so captivating. He does not so much “share” his creative process via social media as reveal its every working, and it is not so much a creative process as it is his life.

The comparison with Morris actually could not be more stark. While Morris goes to great lengths to stay out of the public eye, giving few interviews and minimal promotion as he sets about his task, Limmy photographs himself in bed and posts it on Twitter. He takes pictures of his walks through the park, around art galleries, in his house and on set. He suddenly assumes mundane characters’ guises and becomes them for an afternoon; he turns on his webcam late at night to spill hours-long rants to anyone listening.

These are greeted by excited whispers around forums. “Limmy’s on!” people squeal before tuning in for who knows what. One is reminded at times of the John Cleese comment about Peter Cook, that to write a five-minute comedy sketch would take Cook precisely five minutes. Limond is similar; his stream of conscious is that of a genius. Even his facial expressions carry enormous emotion. He’s not a great actor by any traditional measure, but his best characters – Dee Dee and Jacqueline McCafferty, but also the guy in the brown jacket who just stands in the street and points things out – are not only fully rounded but genuinely profound.

I am unaware of any other performer who inhabits what they do so wholly. In recent interviews Limond says that there is exaggeration and embellishment to the Limmy of Twitter, etc., but this is an artist who is “on” for longer than anyone else. There are clearly personal elements in there, plus a playwright’s eye for detail and care for characterisation. But mostly there just seems to be a creative brain that is never at rest, addicted even, and fending off boredom only through production.

I have only been following Limmy on Twitter for about a year, and not since he released a series of his show. I’m now intrigued to see how much of what he tweets off the cuff makes it to the screen, and how these ideas develop. There’s a good chance that almost none will be familiar, and that what he puts out on the webcam or on Twitter is just overspill.

It’s a frighteningly fertile imagination. The guy is among the very best.

Khat fight: Round Two

I’ve been hearing recently that the latest ACMD report into the use of khat in the UK is due to be published imminently, and that the Council is likely to recommend nothing different from its previous investigations. In 2005 it concluded that “on the basis of the evidence, the Council recommends that khat is not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971” – ie, that it finds no reason to ban the substance in this country. It seems the same conclusion has been reached after new scrutiny.

These are only whispers and we’ll need to wait for the report to see if they are confirmed. But we’ll also need to wait to learn what the Government intends to do with its new recommendations, because the same whisperers are expecting the report to be ignored. They think the Home Secretary will ban khat regardless.

The Tories made a rod for their own backs when they made a commitment in opposition to ban khat, and when I was writing about the subject a few months ago, there was a certain air of resignation among those who support keeping it legal, even as a regulated commodity. Regulation is by far and away the best approach to take, but it would also be costly. Banning, on the other hand, appeases the vocal opposition groups with what will be perceived as minimal collateral damage.

I am not certain where this would leave the ACMD if its recommendations can be overlooked so freely, but khat would occupy a very small niche on the list of banned substances, one whose harms and effects have been examined numerous times by agencies across the world, almost always declared unproblematic, and then banned anyway. Even the World Health Organisation does not consider khat (in its unrefined form) to be a controlled narcotic, even though the United States (among others) still justify its ban with reference to the WHO. It also seems wildly counter-intuitive that the campaigns to legalise marijuana appear to be gaining traction while khat – even more benign than pot – is to be outlawed.

Of course, if khat does make its way on to the list of controlled substances, there will be no coming back. The minority that chews khat on a regular basis will never be organised enough, nor have sufficient resources, to campaign for its legality. It will therefore languish much like it does in the United States and Canada, prompting very occasional arrests, small fines and a whole lot of nuisance for police and customs officers*.

Some kind of black market in khat is also inevitable, and that will drive up prices for a product of much reduced potency. The problem user – of which there certainly are some – will sink into a much greater malaise and likely end up in prison, albeit not necessarily for khat-related offences. Unless prohibition brings with it a huge investment in outreach programs, specifically to Somalis, and a commitment to finding workable alternatives to the mafrishes, then there’s a pretty high chance that these chewers will turn to booze or other drugs. It is also certain to propagate a perception of persecution among Somalis, which will be very difficult to overcome.

This could be extremely dangerous. The worst-case scenario has been spelled out by numerous people I have spoken to: dissatisfaction and resentment towards Britain by young Somalis, fuelled by this sense of persecution, would mean a sudden swell of willing young recruits for Somalia’s nefarious organisations. It is one of the bitterest ironies among observers of the current debate that the anti-khat lobbies are alleging links to al-Shabaab now, whereas it is significantly more likely that the organisations will only enter the marketplace when it no longer also involves HMRC, international banks and official observers.

I made reference to this in the Independent piece, but there really is a massive project currently under way at HMRC to render entirely transparent the trade channels among khat growers, importers and sellers. Something like two years of work will be thrown away if khat is made illegal, and these routes will become desperately murky. Even more than that, the government risks alienating an enormous number of Somalis, most of whom are currently huge anglophiles. I have rarely heard such passionate love for Britain as I did in the mafrishes, where the chewers cherished a society that allowed them to indulge their mostly harmless pastime without intervention, something that they can do almost nowhere else in the world.

One of the most alarming aspects of the push to prohibit khat is the apparent failure to learn the lessons of the past. Neil Carrier of the African Studies Centre at Oxford (a man who knows about as much about khat as anyone in the world) co-authored a fascinating 2009 article entitled “Khat in Colonial Kenya: A History of Prohibition and Control“. As the title suggests, the article takes a look at the case of Kenya in the 1930-50s, where the government was encouraged to prohibit khat, largely on the basis of flimsy evidence and one zealous, evangelical campaigner.

The article is not available online, but I can outline the basics. Anyone who follows the debate about khat in the UK of 2012 will see some startling parallels.

Khat was typically chewed in Kenya in any area close enough to the farms to receive delivery of fresh bundles at a time when transportation was more primitive than it is today. It was particularly popular in the Northern Frontier District (NFD), a diverse region that was home to several different communities. But it didn’t take very long for the colonial officials, relatively recent immigrants, to grow to regard khat with suspicion – in particular one distinguished British officer named Gerald Reece (who would go on to be governor of Somaliland). According to Carrier (and his co-author Dave Anderson), in Reece’s opinion “the social harms of khat chewing made the Alien Somali [another immigrant group] indolent and lessened their value as colonial servants in the armed forces and police. The ‘Alien Somali’ of Isiolo were already ‘lost’ to khat, Reece contended, and he now sought to protect the bulk of the NFD’s indigenous population from the same fate.”

There were at least three formal attempts to outlaw khat between about 1935 and 1953, each taking a slightly different approach to the issue and each making slightly different concessions, allowing, for instance, khat to be used as a component of traditional rites, then by certain geographic groups, then by known “addicts”, etc. It was originally only prohibited under a bylaw (where there was “little appetite for its enforcement”); then under wider-reaching legislation. At every step of the way, it proved exceptionally difficult to receive the support of medics or advisory councils for prohibition. Whenever anyone went searching for convincing evidence of khat’s harms, they found none. Indeed a High Court overturned one ban on the basis that “there was no evidence that khat was a drug”. Another medic stated that “it was no more harmful than tea, coffee, tobacco or gin”.

Reece, however, was both influential and enthusiastic. “Reece’s personal antipathy to khat and khat consumers, and his tireless lobbying, catalysed the move to control and prohibition in Kenya,” Carrier and Anderson write. In 1945 he was boosted by an edition of the East African Medical Journal, which appeared to support his views. However it became clear that many of the experts cited in the reports had got their “evidence” from Reece himself. One botanist wrote a piece condemning khat while admiting that “he had no clear understanding of its pharmacological effects”. Another surgeon reported that he had treated a patient for “khat poisoning” and that the patient had died as a result of swallowing the stems (usually only chewed and then discarded after the sap has been withdrawn). It was, in short, pretty hokey.

At every step of the way, and under each version of the prohibition law, black markets thrived. In 1940, khat was “sold clandestinely in coffee shops…with the price climbing from between 11 and 20 cents to 50 cents a bundle”. Another attempt at a ban in 1947 allowed for only permit holders to sell khat, but the permits were abused and it became impossible to determine these legitimate khat consumers and sellers. Furthermore “the ordinance in effect displaced indigenous traders” but “Somali, Asian, and coastal Arab traders moved in to replace them”.

The problem was such that “by 1949, exasperated officials were unified in the opinion that the ordinance was a dismal failure”. But they tried again, unsuccessfully, only to conclude by 1953 that “a decade of legislation designed to curb khat use in Kenya only succeeded in producing unworkable ordinances of little benefit to anyone but smugglers.”

Things then became much more economically oriented and “ironically, it was the focus on the control and prohibition of khat from the mid-1940s that brought to light the full commercial potential of the crop.” The local governments realised they could rake in the taxes and beat the black marketeers if they regulated and ran the khat trade themselves. So they did, and it worked for 60-odd years.

Kenya of the 1940s is not the United Kingdom of 2012. But so much of the khat debate is exactly the same.

We have a single, fervent campaigner (Abukar Awale**, who is charismatic and charming and has the ear of every reporter and politician); we have the lack of firm medical evidence accompanied by an awful lot of unsubstantiated links to various problems and even deaths***. We have an advisory council conducting repeated surveys into khat use, invariably concluding that there is no cause for a ban. And then we (probably) have a government that will prohibit regardless, in what is claimed to be a bid to “save” a vulnerable minority from themselves.

It is no stretch at all to believe we will also end up with smuggling, a black market, sharp price increases and significantly more trouble than anyone in the government seems to be predicting. After that, one can only hope that inevitable mess is not too destructive.

*In Canada, apparently, khat is the source of nothing but aggravation for officials at sea- and airports, who are obliged to seize shipments, process enormous amounts of paperwork and then almost never prosecute anybody. Customs officials have told sources of mine that they consider khat’s prohibition to be utterly pointless, and one suspects the same would be the case in the UK, especially in a couple of years after the initial sweep of obvious targets has been completed.
**I met Awale while reporting the Independent piece, and it can’t be overstated how pleasant, and how committed to his cause, he is. He is always available to reporters and is extremely eloquent; his handshake is warm and he is a delight to talk to. I had heard all kinds of horror stories about him from people who knew him from his chewing days, but even if they were ever true, they are not true now. However, it does seem quite clear that he has become one of those campaigners whose has become utterly consumed by his cause. Awale was once a problem khat user – one of a relatively small percentage of chewers who develop all the symptoms of an addiction. And his zealous crusade against khat now bears all the hallmarks of someone who has replaced one dependence with its polar opposite.
***I have heard that traces of khat were recently found in the body of a driver who died in a car crash and that it is therefore being suggested that he was under the influence. Similarly, there are more and more reports linking khat with cirrhosis of the liver.

On Paul Dacre, Leveson and ID cards. Broadly: no

I’ll admit, without too much pride, that I spent the first few months of the phone-hacking scandal burying my head in the sand in the hope it would all go away. After a long session of hand-wringing and navel-gazing about the industry at Columbia, I couldn’t bear all this agonised scrutiny of the press.

Moreover, as the rumours became allegations, accusation and horrifying fact, I found I was as much dismayed by the nauseous piety and crowing of some of the interlocutors as I was by the methods of the guilty. The door policy of the ivory tower became sickening lax, and the smugness — couldn’t they see how self-defeating it all was? — was suffocating. I realised I’d better keep my mouth shut, particularly if I ever wanted to write for the Guardian again.

We’re now deep into the Leveson inquiry, of course, and for the most part I’ve found the questioning inside the courtroom to be tolerably direct. It’s been supercilious and accusatory in tone — as all cross examination tends to be — but at least Leveson and the QCs have genuinely sought answers to the questions they have been posing, and have in the main allowed witnesses to talk, whatever their presumed guilt.

The commentators still refuse to climb down from their high horses, though, and now we seem to be at the stage of suggesting “solutions” even before the professionals have published their conclusions. That nausea is beginning to sweep over me once more, as people like Paul Dacre — Paul Dacre! — begin calling for ID cards for journalists, a national register and all manner of other measures that would not actually make a jot of difference.

All these notions are nonsense — and I say that as someone who would presumably not have much trouble getting a card and onto the list. (Those insufferable ethics workshops at Columbia have to be worth something.) Even aside from the practicalities of tightening accreditation, which will be all but impossible in the digital era, I can’t think of anything that has happened during the scandal that would not have happened with the suggested new measures in place.

All of the implicated individuals would have had a press pass, even within the parameters now being set out. Similarly, all have now been tacitly “struck off” a register, even if such a thing doesn’t formally exist. It’s probably too extreme to draw a Harold Shipman comparison here, but what the hell: he got away with his unspeakable acts while still on the medical register, and presumably he would not have worked again once they were exposed, whether or not he was actually struck off. Abuses of guidelines are always possible; it is naive to think any other way.

A more stringent process of accreditation for things like parliamentary briefings, sporting events, celebrity launches and press conferences is also simply redundant. You have to be accredited for those things already, and none of the stories under investigation now were birthed at any of those formal gatherings. All this would do is give more power to PRs to vet the press attending their events, and allow them to force journalists to sign even more ludicrous release forms in return for access. This is then placing a free press at the beck and call of the people it is attempting to report on, which is of course the tail wagging the dog.

I have as many issues as the next trained hack with citizen journalism and the predominance of unregulated bloggers and tweeters, but none of the proposed “solutions” to the problems of the press will result in any changes here. Bloggers, tweeters and citizen journalists are already operating independently of any authorised body or publication, so what difference would it make if we made their nonofficial status official?

It’s actually kind of risky. Firstly, some of the more unscrupulous citizen press could cite their marginalisation as reason to be even less concerned by journalistic ethics. Second, press operating within the tightened guidelines could be scooped left, right and centre. But worse it could actually fuel enmity between the carded and the card-less when the only clear way forward is for newspaper journalists to respect bloggers more, and vice versa. (I think I agree with pretty much everything Joanna Geary writes here, even if the second line of Mike Rawlins’ first quote – “Often we’re told it’s because ‘we can’t be trusted’, which seems a bit rich seeing what’s going on in the news industry at the moment.” – is a bit of unnecessary sniping.)

What is most galling of all about the investigation phase of this whole debacle is that we’re essentially spending hours and hours discussing the merits of simple common sense and decency. Is breaking the law bad? Of course it is. Is it wrong to invade privacy merely for titillation? Yes. Is lying wrong? Well, what did your mother say?

We don’t need a new code of practice, nor days of intense examination, to remind us of things we have all been taught since childhood.

In Blair Jenkins’ measured piece for the Journalism Foundation, he suggests that Leveson’s report should begin “a process of renewal and of innovation, because both are required”. I tend to disagree that innovation is necessary. What we actually need are people prepared to be decent human beings, and for them to apply simple common sense — values that are as old as society.

However I fear the preparedness of journalists to be decent and sensible is not contingent on carrying a card, writing a blog nor having signed a piece of paper.

Five stories (more to come)

I don’t write blog posts very often, and it can seem as though I write published copy even less frequently. But that’s not entirely true. It’s just that most of it goes behind paywalls or is too unimportant to promote.

I can’t guarantee that this little batch of stories really avoids the latter pitfall. But I’ve copied them over here to at least let them swerve the former. Here are five features. It’s somewhat alarming that I finished three of them by raising metaphorical drinks. I shall have to work on endings it seems.

Poker’s luck problem
A look at the International Federation of Poker and the advent of the duplicate game.

The Thirsty Bear self-pour pub
London’s first boozer where the patrons are also the barmen.

Book Review: Search for the Perfect Pub
A couple of beer writers try to channel George Orwell.

In praise of Hank Williams
Lush, loser, lothario, legend. A hat-tip to the country great.

Wayne Hemingway: From market trader to market leader
The article is a shill for a product he was launching, but I liked Wayne Hemingway all the same

Why Gaddafi should not have been “executed”

A few years ago, I was working for a national daily during the spate of videoed beheadings of Westerners in the Middle East. Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg were among the first to suffer such a horrific end, then Eugene Armstrong, Jack Hensley and Ken Bigley followed, the latter drawing much of the focus of his native British press.

Our chief revise sub at the paper would send around wry reminders of house style during major news events, and on this occasion he had cause to point us to the definition of the word “execution”. Our entry ran: “An execution is a judicial killing after due process of law” and he cautioned — as if it needed to be pointed out — that none of these victims had had a trial. These were not executions; they were murders.

That didn’t stop our online news editor that day leading our homepage with: “Ken Bigley executed in Iraq”, and although that example was quickly hassled down by pedants, I remember walking past some Evening Standard headline banners bearing, simply, “BIGLEY EXECUTED”. Tut, tut.

Today we still get this wrong. As the military, politicians and journalists begin rummaging through the evidence to determine the truth of what happened to Muammar Gaddafi in Sirte yesterday, some newspapers are running with the “Gaddafi executed” line. But whatever happened to him, he wasn’t executed. He was either a war casualty or a murder victim. Neither are the same as execution.

It’s important, I think, that we get our language correct at times like this, especially when the subject of execution has been in the news so much this year. Part of what made the death of Troy Davis so chilling was that he was executed according to the true definition of the word. He really did die after a trial and an appeals process, and that is why there was such outrage at a legal system that can permit it. “It’s state-sanctioned murder,” sounded the rallying cry about Davis’s death, as if “execution” was too clean a word to describe what happened to him.

Davis and Gaddafi are massively different. There’s no question over Gaddafi’s guilt and few tears will be shed at his demise. He clearly got what was coming, and it is also convenient that he is dead, if only to avoid another courtroom pantomime such as that of Saddam, or even Slobodan Milosevic. (Or what will eventually happen with Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.)

But picking the correct word remains important. Here’s something I wrote on very similar themes about five years ago (forgive the slight repetition):

The ongoing debate over semantics in Iraq – is it unrest, civil war or just plain anarchy? – reminds us that the words of war are not chosen arbitrarily; they can be as loaded as an assassin’s gun.

The style guide of “The Times” of London, for example, advises caution over use of the word “execution,” particularly to describe killings carried out by insurgents, often videotaped and then posted in their grainy horror on the Internet. “An execution is a judicial killing after due process of law,” it says, precisely what these grisly beheadings are not.

Insurgents themselves bear particular scrutiny: they had been tearing through the streets of Baghdad for at least a year before I found courage enough to admit that I didn’t really know what an “insurgent” was. I got the general idea, of course, but hadn’t heard the term – at least not until they began punctuating every news report in the western media.

A colleague, a former foreign editor of a major British daily, forgave my ignorance and confessed he didn’t really know the specifics either. He merely confirmed that the term had only recently entered the newsman’s lexicon with such regularity, adding that in conflicts past, they used “guerilla” and it seemed to mean the same thing.

That, however, was only half right. Websters defines “insurgent” as “a person who rises in revolt against civil authority or an established government.” A “guerilla,” on the other hand, is “a member of an independent band engaged in predatory excursions in wartime.”

The difference is crucial, particularly in post-Saddam Iraq, where the ramshackle bunch of politicians and puppets initially installed as a government did not immediately exude much authority. These interim rulers seemed lucky to survive long enough to draft the evening’s dinner menu, much less the country’s constitution. But as long as it was insurgents trying to kill them, and not guerillas, they were, by implication, a “civil authority” or an “established government.” Furthermore, by the same implication, the war was over.

It was a cunning linguistic trick. As long it was defined as an insurgency, the lawless uprising in Iraq actually assisted in giving the government the validity the puppet-masters in Washington sought. It seems likely that “insurgent” deliberately peppered Pentagon press briefings immediately after the toppling of Saddam until it was convincingly installed as the moniker-du-jour of this particular brand of violence.

And it worked.

“The New York Times” published articles containing both “insurgent” and “Iraq” a total of 31 times in the three years prior to the invasion on March 20, 2001. Most of these mentions referred to rumours that the administration was toying with the idea of training insurgent forces to dislodge Saddam. Other articles described insurgent movements in Colombia or Kyrgyzstan and made only tangential reference to Iraq.

In the years after the invasion, however, there was a renaissance for insurgents, both in flesh and in print. Between March 2003 and March 2004, there were 268 articles in the “Times” that contained the same two words; 1,281 mentions from March 2004-05; and 933 in the following 12 months, to March 2006. While the contrast underlines the strength of Saddam’s iron fist in beating back sectarian violence, it also confirms the rise to prominence of the new term – and all it entails.

So much, then, for the liberal bias of the media. News editors unanimously embraced the politically-laced term even as they sometimes provocatively referred to the coalition forces in Iraq as an occupation. Indeed, the Coalition Provisional Authority installed in Iraq from April 2003 until June 2004 (i.e., the year after President Bush gave his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech) was frequently referred to as an “occupational authority,” yet editors took their liberal thumbs off the scales to describe the insurgency.

They might instead have used another common term, defined in Websters as: “An organized underground movement of a conquered country made up of groups of fighters engaged in sabotage and secret operations to thwart, waylay, and otherwise wear down occupation forces and often also in punishing collaborators among fellow countrymen.”

That word is “resistance” and, purely by definition, it provides a much snugger fit to describe the tactics of the militants in Iraq than “insurgency.” However, it also gives weight to the argument that the coalition forces were an occupation, just like the Nazis coursing through France in the Second World War. Implicitly likening Bush’s freedom fighters to the Third Reich was, presumably, a step too far for even those at the top of Bill O’Reilly’s liberal hitlist.

“Resistance,” as a result, might be a word now stranded in time; it connotes a noble uprising against a tyrannous power and is forever draped in a gray macintosh and beret, drifting through the streets of Paris in a plume of Gitanes smoke. An insurgency, by contrast, stands among a line of police recruits in a crowded marketplace with crude explosives strapped to its midriff.

However they are defined in a dictionary – and whichever is the most accurate for a given example – “resistance” has positive implications and “insurgent” negative, despite what we know about each. The chaos in Iraq is clearly orchestrated with a high level of intelligence and planning, under the noses of the most powerful armed forces ever assembled. It is far from a rag-tag rabble of psychopaths. Meanwhile, the tactics of French resistance of the 1940s were considerably more brutal than force-feeding strong coffee and stale croissants. Some of the torture scenes in Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army Of Shadows” are not too far removed from the gruesome downloads available to the online sadist today.

When activists in the former Yugoslavia began their campaign to overthrow the dictator Slobodan Milosevic, they chose the name “Otpor” meaning “resistance”. Milosevic was, without question, an established (if despised) authority, but history has judged the Butcher of Balkans and there is no clamour for Otpor to be retrospectively rebranded. Milosevic was bad, Otpor good and yet by definition alone it was an insurgency rather than a resistance.

Whoever was responsible for the success of the term “insurgent” (and it might be the same people responsible for the success of the insurgents themselves, i.e. the Bush administration) might even enlist the help of their old friends with respect to the civil war effort. Defined as “a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country,” a civil war necessitates participants who can be classed as “citizens” to exist.

Do insurgents qualify?

The player in the big blind writes an article

Colson Whitehead, a Pulitzer Prize shortlisted author, wrote a piece about playing the World Series of Poker. It’s interesting the way it has been received by the poker media, ie, it has barely been received at all.

Poker media doesn’t tend to like writers entering its domain from outside, especially not when they write about the game to a highly professional standard. With a couple of exceptions, you only get props while writing about poker if you hang around for years and peddle the same old tosh, whether or not it’s incisive. (And it won’t be.)

Whitehead’s piece is not perfect, but it’s on the money in a number of passages. He makes a few rookie blunders, including his assumption that he is “one of the most unqualified players in the history of the Big Game”. This is just one of those faux-modest cliches peddled by all writers when they first get a commission to play, and there will always be less experienced people at the big one.

But especially in the first segment of his four-part essay, when he’s going through “training” at the low-stakes tables in Atlantic City, Whitehead manages quickly to nail some poker types more deftly than many who have tried for years. He generalises by being specific, which is the only way generalising should be done.

“Big Mitch” is “a potbellied endomorph in fabric-softened khaki shorts and polo shirt, a middle-aged white guy here with his wife (who was off dropping chips on the roulette felt according to her patented system), equipped with a mortgage, a decent job, and disposable income.”

Big Mitch is a type you see a lot, but is infrequently portrayed so well. The inoffensive and grounded poker player is way more prevalent than the sketchy downtrodden folk who dominate most other self-referential takes on the “real” poker scene. Of course Whitehead has a glimpse at the more seemy side too, notably “Methy Mike” a type about which he writes: “Iggy Pop takes a look at these guys and says, ‘Wow, he’s really let himself go.'”

“Robotron” represents the internet generation, and there’s a lot familiar about the “quiet 60-something lady with bright red hair, the follicles of which it was perhaps possible to count.” Whitehead says he liked her, but they’re not all as pleasant. He has not met that witch in the Palms.

Still, I liked all these observations. Whitehead is a real novelist and finds what’s interesting about the folk in front of him. He rarely sneers, which is also a refreshing change.

Perversely, the more Whitehead learns about poker, and the deeper his explorations take him, the less his writing shines. He is a much keener observer from the outside than when he actually joins in; it’s as though one can’t help but be infected by poker’s predictable blandness and the desire to place oneself front and centre.

“The Main Event at the World Series of Poker ran seven days, each one a 12-hour series of jungle skirmishes with predators who wanted to rip your bones out of your skin,” Whitehead writes. But although the opening fact is accurate, the final judgment is wrong. That’s just what people wish poker was like, but it isn’t like that at all.

It is perhaps counter-intuitive, but the WSOP is almost completely lacking in truly personal skirmishes. I’d be amazed if anyone looked at Whitehead during his entire stay at the tables and “wanted to rip…bones out of [his] skin”. Instead, the battle is just to get noticed, and all the ignoring can get one down. Ones heart can be racing, ones perception heightened and ones sense of being the centre of the melee can be overwhelming. But no one actually gives a shit about you. They would probably quite like your chips to be in their stack, but largely they are indifferent. That’s hard to take.

There’s nothing much more anonymous than being a poker player at the World Series Main Event, and the disconnect between experienced and perceived importance can be massively disheartening. (It’s one of the reasons, I think, why Twitter is so overused at poker tournaments. All these no marks continue to tweet their chip count when absolutely no one gives a stuff.)

Whitehead’s total account for Grantland runs to more than 18,000 highly personal, largely engaging, all believable words, but I can’t remember seeing his name mentioned in a single report from the tournament floor. The closest an individual really comes to jungle skirmish at the WSOP is if they regard themselves as a solitary tendril to be hacked aside on a mostly directionless quest through undergrowth. It’s not even the adventurer with the sharpest teeth or the biggest machete who usually prospers. It will be the one who lucked into finding the clearest path.

Of course, one way you can be more anonymous than a player at the World Series of Poker is to be a reporter there. This goes some way to explaining the ludicrous obsession among people in the poker media with turning the camera onto themselves. In no other pursuit is the press pack so permanently engaged in the attempt to plant themselves into the story, and this year there’s even been a series of photo shoots “featuring” poker reporters. Hmmm. I’m not sure what the intended audience is here. Doesn’t Facebook already allow one to stare and point at photos of ones friends? The appeal can’t go much further than that.

The problem is that most poker reporters are incapable of regarding their subject with anything more than contempt. They are incapable of finding an angle, mainly because all corners are routinely cut and then smoothed. This makes their job boring; they become tiny cogs in a huge wheel and no one has any interest in them as people. It’s a reciprocal arrangement, though. Why should anyone care about a “member of the poker media” if the reporter isn’t even interested enough to report on someone beyond calling them: “The player in the big blind.” It’s all about taking a damn interest.

Reporting, if it’s done at all properly, is about focusing on the subject you are assigned to cover and, well, covering it in full. But despite a room containing literally thousands of personal stories crying out to be told, the accepted technique of poker reporting is usually little more than: “A player wins x number of chips from another player as a result of these random cards being distributed among them.” When that’s done, it’s off to Twitter to upload pictures of my dinner or, the Holy Grail, to re-tweet someone who tweeted that they liked something I wrote about myself.

This abhorrent “The player in the big blind” versus “The player on the button” technique for poker reporting is institutionalised. It is the accepted way to do this thing. And it stinks. The result for the reader is that for the most part there’s nothing more interesting to learn than if you dealt a few cards out on your own kitchen table and saw which empty chair would have won. Then, by the time the tournament reaches the stage where the pots are big and the action significant, no one is any the wiser about the players. The “known” faces will likely have perished and although the field is small enough for names to have been learned, they now mean nothing. The opportunity to report on the journey has passed.

Whitehead, then, has told an authentic poker story. It’s long, it’s detailed and it’s primarily about himself. And almost no one bothered to read it.

Only a normal day

It’s only a normal day, but here’s how it went. I began by watching Pointless on the iPlayer, which remains the king of daytime quiz shows and today had the added bonus of none of the first four contestants being able to name a single U2 song. It was a clean sweep of wrong answers; a first for the show, I believe. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer question.

Then I read some more of Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not A Gadget”, which I would be raving about loudly if it wouldn’t place me so far behind the curve. (It came out more than a year ago, so I’m probably the last person to find out about it.) However, his eloquent insistence that human individuality must never be sacrificed at the altar of technological “progression” is to be savoured, and he ticks a new box on every page.

It’s the kind of book, like all the best fiction, to which I tend to respond: “That’s exactly what I think, but could never have expressed it so well.” I was quite knocked sideways early on with his dismissal of the Wiki mentality: “When they [developers of digital technology] design an internet service that is edited by a vast anonymous crowd, they are suggesting that a random crowd of humans is an organism with a legitimate point of view.”

Later on, I loved his commentary on the counter-intutive way in pseudonymity is encouraged in cyberspace. “An endless series of gambits backed by gigantic investments encouraged young people entering the online world for the first time to create standardized presences on sites like Facebook. Commercial interests promoted the widespread adoption of standardized designs like the blog, and these designs encouraged pseudonymity in at least some aspects of their designs, such as the comments, instead of the proud extroversion that characterized the first wave of web culture. // Instead of people being treated as the sources of their own creativity, commercial aggregation and abstraction sites presented anonymized fragments of creativity as products that might have fallen from the sky or been dug up from the ground, obscuring the true sources.”

I’m not certain if my distaste for anonymity necessarily follows Lanier’s argumental thrust (ie, that anonymity/pseudonymity permits cowardly and/or ill conceived and poorly considered opinions to get an airing), but I’m always going to latch on to anyone admitting disappointment at that kind of thing.

I pushed on to read Colson Whitehead’s second World Series of Poker write-ups (more thoughts on that to follow) and then transcribed my interview with Keith McSpurren from Cover It Live for a CNN piece I’m writing next week. McSpurren was excellent. He is someone who has understood social media and made a splash in that field, but he also has ideas that can exist alongside proper journalism, proper thought and proper individuality. He is interested in group opinion, but doesn’t seem to allow it to lead an agenda. He seems to like hearing voices and testing moods, even if he finally wants to make money from them.

Then I strayed out onto the streets of Camberwell, well aware when I left the house that I still had a bus ticket in my back pocket which promised a Big Mac and fries for £1.99. I didn’t want a Big Mac and fries – I needed, specifically, a newspaper, some dish-clothes and some ground coffee – but sure enough I felt peckish and channeled Daniel Kitson. “Fuck it, I’m having a Big Mac,” I thought.

McDonalds was bedlam (it’s the first day of school summer holidays, I think) but I got my “food” and spent an extra few minutes finding a quiet table at the back. I unfolded my newspaper and sat in relative contentment with the Indy Arts and Books supplement. And then the poor kid on the table next to me threw up.

Yeah, that’ll put a damper on it.