Friday, 30 November 2007

It's Just Not Good Enough

"I confirm that it is Home Office policy to remove political dissidents to Uzbekistan"
- Response to a letter to the Home Office by MP Bob Marshall-Andrews regarding Jahongir Sidikov, reported by Craig Murray.
Well, the relieving news that Thursday brought regarding this horrifying situation was that Sidikov's deportation has been "postponed". It is may be that Marshall-Andrews' efforts1 in his capacity as an MP were what brought this about. A Tuesday evening report by the one mainstream media outlet to put their heads above the parapet on this case - Channel 42 - may also have played a part.

Whatever it is that persuaded the Home Office to back off from delivering Sidikov into the hands of the Uzbek security services on Wednesday, it does not look as though an actual reversal of the astonishing policy move to start deporting dissidents to Uzbekistan is on the Government's agenda. It has to be asked: Do they not know what goes on there? Or do they just not give a fuck?

Craig Murray1 points to the pressure on the Government to appear 'tough' on asylum seekers which emanates from certain quarters of the media:
"But she [the case judge] was merely indicative of the general mindset of the "Fast-track", a disgraceful device by which the government seeks to curry favour with the tabloids by increasing deportation numbers...Boosting New Labour with focus groups infinitely outweighs the torture to death of the odd dissident."
It is clear what the stakes are who those who fall foul of this particularly inhuman efficiency drive. I had hoped in the beginning that this was all a big mistake, borne of bureaucratic officials who do not know any better treating this man's life as just another set of documents to be filed away.

On the back of the information provided by the Home Office to Bob Marshall-Andrews, and considering also the Government's treatment of a separate group of asylum seekers* who are at serious risk of torture and execution3, that hope now seems somewhat naive.

In both cases, it appeared at first that they were careless. Now it seems that they just could not care less. What an awful observation to make about those in charge of this supposed beacon of civilisation.


1. http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2007/11/a_chance_to_fig.html
2. http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/politics/international_politics/deportation+fears+for+uzbek+man/1107647
3. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article2211281.ece

*There is I'm pleased to say a separate bloggers' campaign to urge the Government to give the Iraqi interpreters who worked for the British army asylum and save them from the militias.
Read more: Dan Hardie.
Watch Tim Ireland's video 'The plight of Iraqi interpreters (explained with post-it notes)' here.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Biometrics Are Not A Panacea For Data Loss

Reproduced from Blogzilla, blog of Internet expert and former directory of Privacy International Dr Ian Brown (in my opinion the most under-rated British blog). Just look at the signatories on this:

Mr Andrew Dismore MP
Chair, Joint Committee on Human Rights
Committee Office
House of Commons
7 Millbank
London SW1P 3JA

cc: Committee members; David Smith, Deputy Information Commissioner

26 November 2007

Dear Mr Dismore,

The government, in response to the recent HMRC Child Benefit data breach, has asserted that personal information on the proposed National Identity Register (NIR) will be 'biometrically secured':

"The key thing about identity cards is, of course, that information is protected by personal biometric information. The problem at present is that, because we do not have that protection, information is much more vulnerable than it should be." - The Chancellor, Hansard Column 1106, 20/11/07

"What we must ensure is that identity fraud is avoided, and the way to avoid identity fraud is to say that for passport information we will have the biometric support that is necessary, so that people can feel confident that their identity is protected." - The Prime Minister, Hansard Column 1181, 21/11/07


These assertions are based on a fairy-tale view of the capabilities of the technology, and in addition, only deal with one aspect of the problems that this type of data breach causes.

Ministers assert that people's information will be 'protected' because it will be much harder for someone to pass themselves off as another individual if a biometric check is made. This presupposes that:

(a) the entire population can be successfully biometrically enrolled onto the National Identity Register, and successfully matched on every occasion thereafter - which is highly unlikely, given the performance of biometrics across mass populations generally and especially their poor performance in the only, relatively small-scale, trial to date (UKPS enrolment trial, 2004). Groups found to have particular problems with biometric checks include the elderly, the disabled and some ethnic groups such as Asian women;

(b) biometrics are 'unforgeable' - which is demonstrably untrue. Biometric systems have been compromised by 'spoofing' and other means on numerous occasions and, as the technology develops, techniques for subverting the systems evolve too;

(c) every ID check will be authenticated by a live biometric check against the biometric stored on the NIR or at the very least against the biometric stored on the chip on the ID card which is itself verified against the NIR. [N.B. This would represent a huge leap in the cost of the scheme which at present proposes only to check biometrics for 'high value' transactions. The network of secure biometric readers alone (each far more complex and expensive than, e.g. a Chip & PIN card reader) would add billions to the cost of rollout and maintenance.]

Even if, in this fairy-tale land, it came to pass that (a) (b) and (c) were true after all (which we consider most unlikely), the proposed roll-out of the National Identity Scheme would mean that this level of 'protection' would not - on the Home Office's own highly optimistic projections - be extended to the entire population before the end of the next decade (i.e. 2020) at the earliest.

Furthermore, biometric checks at the time of usage do not of themselves make any difference whatsoever to the possibility of the type of disaster that has just occurred at HMRC. This type of data leakage, which occurs regularly across Government, will continue to occur until there is a radical change in the culture both of system designer and system users. The safety, security and privacy of personal data has to become the primary requirement in the design, implementation, operation and auditing of systems of this kind.

The inclusion of biometric data in one's NIR record would make such a record even more valuable to fraudsters and thieves as it would - if leaked or stolen - provide the 'key' to all uses of that individual's biometrics (e.g. accessing personal or business information on a laptop, biometric access to bank accounts, etc.) for the rest of his or her life. Once lost, it would be impossible to issue a person with new fingerprints. One cannot change one's fingers as one can a bank account.

However, this concentration on citizens 'verifying' their identity when making transactions is only one issue amongst many when considering the leakage of personal data. Large-scale losses of personal data can have consequences well beyond an increase in identity fraud. For example, they could be potentially fatal to individuals such as the directors of Huntingdon Life Sciences, victims of domestic violence or former Northern Ireland ministers.

It is therefore our strongest recommendation that further development of a National Identity Register or National Identity Scheme (including biometric visas and ePassports) should be suspended until such time that research and development work has established beyond reasonable doubt that these are capable of operating securely, effectively and economically on the scale envisaged.

Government systems have so far paid little attention to privacy. Last week's events have very significant implications indeed for future government information systems development.

We would be pleased to clarify any of these points or provide further information if useful to the Committee.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Ross Anderson
Dr Richard Clayton
University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory

Dr Ian Brown
Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Dr Brian Gladman
Ministry of Defence and NATO (retired)

Professor Angela Sasse
University College London Department of Computer Science

Martyn Thomas CBE FREng

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Sidikov: Deportation Rescheduled for Tomorrow

From Craig Murray's latest post:

Firstly, and most importantly, Wednesday 28 November has now been set as the date for Jahongir Sidikov's deportation. The Home Office have received an impressive number of representations, including a united one from effectively all of Uzbekistan's opposition and human rights groups. We now need a further push to try to save this man's life.
It is seriously disheartening that despite this, and the efforts of what being realistic is a small proportion of active political bloggers (listed here and here), publicity has been very sparse. There has been nothing in the mainstream media whatsoever, not even on Comment is Free which I find very surprising.

This is an appalling and surely noteworthy case that would set a seriously worrying precedent should deportation go ahead. I find it extremely difficult to believe - it would require incompetence and dereliction of duty on an extraordinary scale - that all involved in this case are ignorant of the facts regarding Uzbekistan's record of torture and execution of political and human rights activists as reported by numerous independent sources (summarised here). The alternative, however, hardly bears thinking about.

UPDATE 28/11 1320: At last a breakthrough on mainstream media! More4 News report on Sidikov's case.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Hate To Say It

Should offence caused and potential threat to public order be sufficient to deny people with repulsive views their right to free speech, provided they do not break the law?

It is at least safe to say that tonight's Free Speech Forum at the Oxford Union debating society has caused quite a bit of controversy. From the multiple discussions on the subject at Comment is Free1,2 and elsewhere3,4, to the UAF5 protesters currently gathering outside the venue [as I write, 30 of them have now pushed their way into the venue and are staging a sit-down protest that has postponed the 'debate'], the issue of freedom of speech has once again shown its ability to polarise and confound.

We already do not have absolute freedom of speech in this country. Restrictions on speech include slander, incitement to violence, and now the encouragement of terrorism6. There is not the expectation that Nick Griffin (BNP leader) and David Irving (history author infamous for Holocaust denial*) will contravene these laws this evening.

But do the above laws go far enough? Unite Against Fascism, organisers of tonight's demonstration7 against the invitation of the two, cite the "violence and intimidation"5 that the likes of Griffin and Irving bring in their wake. OUSU, Oxford University's student union, also voted to oppose the invitation.

The views of Griffin and Irving are transparently hateful, bigoted and ignorant, and there is little question that they have the potential to inflame bigotry and hate in others. The question is, should this be enough for them to be restrained from exercising their right to free speech, with the proviso that they obey British law as it currently stands, whether that be by 'no platform' policies or sit-down protesters?

That is by no means an easy question to answer. One counter-argument to UAF's that is to my mind clearly worthy of consideration was well put by commenter Scott Free at Harry's Place4 in response to Peter Tatchell's pro-'no platform' article, in which he paraphrases part of Tatchell's argument as follows:

"Let’s go back in history. It is possible that if there had been no free speech for [Karl Marx] and the [Communist] Party in Germany during the early 1920s – if their meetings and marches had been stopped – they may not have grown in strength and influence. Denying them an opportunity to propagandise, gain respectability and enter the political mainstream might have thwarted their rise to power. This may have prevented the [Communists] from assuming the government of [Russia]. Without [Lenin] in power, the [Ukranian Genocide] and World War Two may not have happened. Tens of millions of lives may have been saved if the free speech of [Communists] had been suppressed early on.

This is, of course, historical speculation. We don’t know for sure. But it is plausible that “no platform” for [Communists] in the 1920s could have prevented the horrors the [Communists] later perpetrated. On these grounds, I would argue that it would have been justified to deny the [Communist] Party freedom of speech."

Still sound like a good idea?- Scott Free9

Some might say in response to this "Er, yes!". Just as many might be mortally offended by the suggestion of denying advocates of far-left ideologies freedom of speech on this basis.

Similar arguments could be made regarding some of the more extreme religious ideologies, and perhaps extreme anti-religious ideologies too. Some environmentalists might argue that scepticism regarding climate change (tellingly, referred to as 'denialism') is a harmful idea that should be suppressed. Less extreme (but still hateful) forms of Nick Griffin's racist anti-immigration ideology are propagated by pundits in mainstream newspapers. Should they too be censored? Basically, once you begin to restrict the propagation of ideas based on a perception or supposition of harm or offence caused, outside of law, where does it end?

Do we really want to go down that road? Within the law, the principles of liberty and freedom of expression should be upheld.

1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2217014,00.html
2. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/brian_klug/2007/11/oxford_in_wonderland.html
3. http://blog.prospectblogs.com/2007/11/26/free-speech-for-some/
4. http://hurryupharry.bloghouse.net/archives/2007/11/26/do_fascists_have_a_right_to_free_speech.php
5. http://www.uaf.org.uk/news.asp?choice=71123
6. http://www.england-legislation.hmso.gov.uk/acts/acts2006/ukpga_20060011_en_2#pt1-pb1-l1g1
7. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/oxfordshire/7113984.stm
8. http://zoo.ousu.org/main/news/ousu-council-votes-to-oppose-nick-griffin-and-david-irving
9. http://hurryupharry.bloghouse.net/archives/2007/11/26/do_fascists_have_a_right_to_free_speech.php (Comments, 26/11/07, 8:40)

* Irving sued US historian Deborah Lipstadt for libel in the UK for calling him a Holocaust denier in her book on the subject. The judge ruled against Irving and found Lipstadt's claims against him to be "substantially true"
.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Substantial Grounds: Update

Further to the evidence from a variety of human rights groups and other concerned parties of torture and repression in Uzbekistan, a new statement has been put out by Human Rights Watch, making urgent recommendations in response to a UN report1.

Hat-tips: andy cyan at Craig Murray's blog (18:03, 24/11); b at Craig Murray's blog (15:56, 25/11).

"In a highly critical assessment made public today (Friday), the committee concluded that torture and ill-treatment remain “widespread” in Uzbekistan and continue to occur with “impunity.”"
"The 10 independent experts making up the [UN Committee against Torture] panel noted a range of concerns about...numerous, ongoing, and consistent allegations concerning routine use of torture...committed by law enforcement and investigative personnel, or with their instigation or consent."
A fortnight ago, an asylum court ruled against Jahongir Sidikov in a fast-track deportation hearing2. They 'didn't believe' there is a genuine threat to the political activist's life in Uzbekistan, and they 'didn't believe' that he will be subject to torture and human rights abuses3.

Therefore, they denied the conclusions of the UN Committee against Torture, The US Department of State, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Craig Murray (ex-UK ambassador to Uzbekistan), and also the leader of the banned opposition party (ERK) of which Sidikov is a member, Muhammad Salih4 - They said his letter was not genuine3.

In Murray's words4, "they got it disastrously wrong".

1. http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/11/23/uzbeki17406.htm
2. http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2007/11/jahongir_sidiko.html (Craig Murray, Comments 25/11, 22:39)
3. http://freecommonwealth.blogspot.com/2007/11/jahongir-sidikovs-story.html
4. http://www.muhammadsalih.info/englishms/index1.htm

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Substantial Grounds

Why it is illegal under international law (and of course utterly morally wrong) for the UK to deport dissidents such as Jahongir Sidikov to Uzbekistan.

The UK is a state party1,2 of the UN Convention Against Torture3, Article 3 of which states that:

1. No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

2. For the purpose of determining whether there are such grounds, the competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.

Craig Murray, ex British Ambassador to Uzbekistan resigned from the Foreign Office in February 2005 over Western support for the brutal dictatorship of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan4. Prior to that he was removed from his post as Ambassador following the leaking of a memo that stated that Uzbek security services abuse prisoners, to extract often dubious information, or even to kill.5
"We are selling our souls for dross" - Craig Murray5
Craig Murray is not the only human rights campaigner raising the issue of torture in Uzbekistan.

Amnesty International's 2005 report on Uzbekistan6 stated that "Evidence reportedly obtained under torture was routinely admitted in court and there was no presumption of innocence" and that the death penalty, including "secret executions" is continuing on a large scale.

Human Rights Watch released a 92-page report entitled 'Nowhere to Turn: Torture and Ill-treatment in Uzbekistan' (PDF) earlier this month7. In it, it is stated that "torture remains a serious problem" (under 'The Scope of Torture'). Surat Ikramov of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders is quoted in the report as follows:
“Everyone who comes in [to talk to me] says there is torture. In fact, I do not remember a single case where someone was held in detention and not tortured.”
Human Rights Watch describe common methods of torture to include: "Beatings with truncheons and bottles filled with water, electric shock, asphyxiation with plastic bags and gas masks, sexual humiliation, and threats of physical harm to relatives.". In 2002, two religious prisoners, Muzafar Avazov and Husnidin Alimov were tortured to death8. In 2005, human rights activist Elena Urlaeva was committed to a psychiatric institution and forcibly drugged for distributing anti-Karimov material9.

Repression of human rights activists and dissidents is reported by Human Rights Watch to have worsened significantly since the 2005 Andijan massacre, in which hundreds of unarmed protesters were killed by Uzbek security forces in the city of Andijan in Eastern Uzbekistan10.

Finally, the US Department of State reported on Human Rights in Uzbekistan in 200611,12, and found that:
"Security forces routinely tortured, beat, and otherwise mistreated detainees under interrogation to obtain confessions or incriminating information."Section 1(c) of this United States Government report describes several instances of torture in detail, including two human rights activists, Azam Farmonov and Alisher Karamatov, who were reportedly:
"...[Subjected] to torture and abuse during pretrial detention before their June 15 conviction (see section 4), including dropping them onto concrete floors, forcing needles under their fingernails, suffocating them with gas masks, and burning their skin with lighted cigarettes." - US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor12

Once again, it is illegal under International Law to expel or return a person to a state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

If the above does not constitute substantial grounds, what the hell does?

Jahongir Sidikov must stay in Britain.

1. http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2007/11/save_jahongir_s.html
2. http://www.ohchr.org/english/bodies/ratification/9.htm
3. http://www.ohchr.org/english/law/cat.htm
4. http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2005/04/was_craig_murra.html
5. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3732488.stm
6. http://web.amnesty.org/report2005/uzb-summary-eng
7. http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/11/07/uzbeki17229.htm
8. http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article3943.htm (Horrific images)
9. http://www.bloggerheads.com/archives/2005/10/elena_urlaeva.asp
10. http://hrw.org/campaigns/andijan/
11. http://freecommonwealth.blogspot.com/2007/11/save-jahongir-sidikov-no-deportations.html
12. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2006/78848.htm

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Jahongir Sidikov: List of Supporters

Bloggers,

Remember back in September, when the threat of libel action from Alisher Usmanov, Uzbek tycoon and would-be buyer of Arsenal F.C led Fasthosts to take down the blogs of Craig Murray, Tim Ireland, Boris Johnson and several others? Remember how over 300 of you came together to spread the word and defend our freedom?

Now, as I write, there's another man who is at serious risk from the powers that be in Uzbekistan. His name is Jahongir Sidikov, and he is a dissident, a member of the banned opposition party Erk. He has lived in the UK since 1999. Full details of what has happened to him since can be read here. Suffice to say he is now in a detention cell at Heathrow airport after a failed attempt to deport him to Uzbekistan yesterday (21/11/07).

If the British authorities succeed in forcing him onto a plane to Uzbekistan, there is a very high likelihood that he will be tortured there. He may be executed. This deportation is therefore illegal under the UN Convention Against Torture (article 3) which states that no-one should be expelled or extradited to a state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture. Human Rights Watch's most recent report on Uzbekistan indicates that torture is completely endemic in the Uzbek justice system (PDF).

I implore you to speak out in this case and spread the word about what our Government is knowingly prepared to allow to happen to this man. The media is strangely silent.

Just imagine, for a minute, what it would be like to be put on a plane, knowing that when you reach your destination you won't be heading for your hotel or friend's house - you'll be dragged off to a torture chamber. Blog this, write to your MP, contact whoever you know who might be able to help. Each of us is only a small voice, but together we will make them sit up and listen when we say this is wrong.

"To sit in a condemned cell awaiting a relatively quick death must be awful.

But to await the kind of things the Uzbek security services will do to you - and to be awaiting them in England - is unthinkable." - Craig Murray

Here as was done by Justin McKeating and Tim Ireland in response to the Usmanov incident, I will list all the bloggers who have posted in support of Jahongir Sidikov and link to the pertinent post(s):
Craig Murray1,2,3,4,5,6,7; Areopagitica1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8; Obsolete1,2,3; Turbulent Cleric1,2,3,4,5,6; Postman Patel1,2; Beeston Quakers; kllrchrd1,2,3; Kathz Blog1,2,3,4,5; Crimes & Corruption; My Whine in Silence; Signs of the Times; Bloggerheads1,2; Chris Paul:Labour of Love; Politics in the Zeros1,2,3; Jailhouse Lawyer; Surreptitious Evil; Ten Percent; John Angliss; Geoff Coupe; Ordovicius; The Sideshow; A Splendid Duck-billed Platypus; Neon Bubble; Quaker fencer1,2; Crooks and Liars; Liberal England; Global Voices Online; Toblog; Zeropointnine; Bartholomew's Notes on Religion...
UPDATED: 8/12 11:00PM

Finally, here is a sample letter for you to send to your MP (use the website WriteToThem):

Dear MP,

I am writing to express my concern regarding an urgent human rights matter.

An attempt was made yesterday to deport to Uzbekistan a member of an opposition political party in that country, Jahongir Sidikov. This deportation has been fast-tracked by the Home Office (Home Office ref. – S2185191) and approved by the FCO, despite serious concerns regarding the human rights record of the Uzbek regime.

Craig Murray (ex British ambassador to Uzbekistan) and Human Rights Watch believe there is a very high likelihood that Sidikov will be tortured, and that he may perhaps even be executed on return to Uzbekistan. Hence, that the deportation is illegal under Article 3 of the UN Convention Against Torture. Read more: http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/

I hope that you will be prepared to raise this man's case and do whatever you can to prevent the deportation.

Yours sincerely,
YOUR NAME


Areopagitica provides an alternative letter to the same effect here.

Jahongir Sidikov

Via Craig Murray (ex British ambassador to Uzbekistan), this really is beyond belief.

The Home Office plans (in fact they tried yesterday) to forcibly deport Jahongir Sidikov, a member of a banned opposition political party, to Uzbekistan.

He remains in Heathrow having offered passive resistance to deportation yesterday. If they succeed in forcing him onto a plane to Tashkent there is a high likelihood he will be tortured there. Perhaps he will be executed - the death penalty is still in use there. The Uzbek regime has one of the worst human rights records and torture and ill-treatment in custody was described by Human Rights Watch as "widespread"1 last year.

The deportation is in breach of the UN Convention on Torture, Article 3 of which states that no State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

More: Craig Murray - Britain Institutes Death Penalty Save Jahongir Sidikov A Low Point

1 http://hrw.org/campaigns/uzbekistan/portraits_0407.pdf(Page 4, PDF)

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Have They No Shame?

The loss of 25 million people's personal data by HM Revenue & Customs after it was dumped onto CDs and sent unrecorded to another Department demonstrates a shocking disregard for data security and privacy. The Chancellor is reported to have used this momentous blunder to justify the introduction of Identity Cards.

The proclamation that "without the protection of the [ID] scheme, information was more vulnerable than it should be."1 was made in response to strong questioning on the subject by Shadow Chancellor George Osborne.

Darling's basis for this statement appears to be the proposed use in the ID database of biometric data2:

"The key thing with ID cards is that information is protected by personal biometric information," said Darling. "The problem is we do not have that protection [on the lost HMRC information]. ID cards match up biometric information with information held — there would be a biometric lock with the ID cards system."
This quote has mystified anti-ID campaigners and political opponents alike, for how a "biometric lock" (whatever that is) would have prevented the sort of data loss that has occurred with the Child Benefit database is unclear. As Phil Booth of NO2ID pointed out2, the use of biometric data as a key would only truly safeguard personal data if every use of that data were "every use of a person's data, including transfers between government departments, [were] authorised by that person physically providing their fingerprint"!

Hardly likely. And we the people who if the Government get their way on this will be forced onto the National Identity Register have absolutely no reason to be confident that the data on that database will be treated with much more care than that on the Child Benefit database. Even the least concerned about personal privacy have good reason to be worried. If the database that went missing in the past six weeks represents a gold-line for fraudsters and identity thieves, the National Identity Register will represent the absolute mother lode.

Why? As explained by anti-ID campaigner Trevor Mendham in his explanatorily-titled article 'Single Point of Failure'3:

"Today, if someone steals/fakes your credit card they can spend money as you. If they steal/fake your work ID they can enter your office as you. If they steal/fake your gym/club membership card or whatever they can interact socially as you.

If they fake your National Identity Card they will be able to do all that - and more. ID Cards are a skeleton key to your identity. Instead of faking many pieces of identity, the criminal/terrorist only needs to fake one thing." (bolding mine)

American 'security guru' Bruce Schneier4 makes the same point in his essay opposing the introduction of a US equivalent 'A National ID Card Wouldn't Make Us Safer'5, in which he says "There are security benefits in having a variety of different ID documents. A single national ID is an exceedingly valuable document, and accordingly there's greater incentive to forge it".

'Ah, but biometrics will stop that being a problem', the ID advocates will almost inevitably say. Perhaps they should think again. Biometrics such as fingerprints have a non-zero failure rate and can pose difficulties for individuals with skin problems or damage6. There is also concern that they too can be forged. Commercial fingerprint scanners have been experimentally shown to be fooled by artificial fingerprints and even a photocopy of a fingerprint7,8!

Darling and his supporters on this issue are either ignorant of the critical technical problems with what he is saying...or they know, and hope the electorate don't realise. Whichever is the case, in the face of such a catastrophic failure of data security, have they no shame?

1. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7104147.stm
2.
http://news.zdnet.co.uk/security/0,1000000189,39290953,00.htm
3.
http://www.trevor-mendham.com/civil-liberties/identity-cards/spof.html
4.
http://www.schneier.com/index.html
5.
http://www.schneier.com/essay-034.html
6.
http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~rja14/Papers/SE-13.pdf (Pages 910)
7.
http://www.no2id.net/news/newsblog/?p=457
8.
http://kwc.org/mythbusters/2006/08/episode_59_crimes_and_mythdeme.html

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

The Data-loss State

It's the latest scandal to hit our Government: The loss of personal data on 25 million child benefit claimants by HM Revenue & Customs, including National Insurance numbers and in some cases bank details.1

The proximate cause of the "catastrophic failure" was the sending of two compact discs containing the data to another Government department, unrecorded, using a courier service. The buck stopped with the chairman of HM R&C's board, Paul Gray, who has resigned.

The question to ask, though is whether real lessons will be learnt from what has happened here? As highlighted by Vince Cable, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats1, it must surely represent a crisis of confidence in the security of Government-held data.

Will this, possibly the worst incident of data loss so far prompt a rethink of the Government's drive to accumulate and centralise more, and more private personal data, in grand initiatives such as the National Identity Register, NHS Spine2 and Childrens' Database3?

NO2ID4 today called for "an immediate halt to the development of the National Identity Scheme and related ‘identity management’ initiatives until a full and independent audit of all personal information held on government systems has been conducted".

What has happened certainly betrays the hollowness of the repeated assurances they and other concerned groups and individuals have been given regarding data privacy and security. The Government would do well to heed their call.

More: NO2ID press release
More: ARCH (against the Children's Databases) press release

1. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7103566.stm
2.
http://www.connectingforhealth.nhs.uk/systemsandservices/spine
3.
http://www.databasemasterclass.blogspot.com/
4.
http://www.no2id.net/news/pressRelease/release.php?name=HMRC_privacy_meltdown

Monday, 19 November 2007

Vicious Cycle

It seems like the start of a bad joke - What do you call a man who simulates sex with his bicycle?

If you're his defence counsel, it seems the answer is "a sad little man"1.
If you're the court sheriff, a "cycle-sexualist"2.

The man was in his locked room in a hostel in Ayrshire, Scotland "naked from the waist down" and accompanied by the bike when cleaners knocked and then gained entry using a master key. Despite the fact he was by all accounts on his own in his own room, he was charged with 'sexual breach of the peace' and (upon pleading guilty*) put on probation and on the Sex Offenders' Register for three years!

As this article3 at BBC News indicates, the aforementioned court decision has caused something of an uproar on online debate forums and blogs, with obvious concerns regarding privacy, state interference in sex lives and the misuse of the SOR being highlighted.

What fewer people who have been have read of this shocking but isolated injustice this week may be aware of is that a new law, part of a bill currently on its way through Parliament as I write, threatens to criminalise many more people for what they do behind closed doors.

Sections 64-67 of the Criminal Justice & Immigration bill4, nicknamed the 'Dangerous Pictures Act' by opponents5, provides for the creation of a new offence of 'Possession of extreme pornographic images', punishable by up to 3 years imprisonment and placement upon the Sex Offenders' Register. 'Extreme pornographic images', under the Bill, are images which appear to depict violence in a sexual context. As Frank Fisher alluded to on Comment is Free last month6, the legislation threatens to make a criminal offence the possession of practically any BDSM imagery, as well as recontextualised images from a host of mainstream films.

Surely such far-reaching legislation as this, threatening as it does to make thousands of people criminals for possessing imagery that was until the point of the Bill's enactment completely legal and will continue to be legal in most countries of the world, must be based on some very convincing evidence that, in at least a significant minority of cases, it can be harmful.

Well, no. In fact, as cited in a letter signed by 40 academics7 cited by the anti-censorship lobby group Backlash UK (the primary organisation campaigning against this law), the evidence assessment used by the proposers of the law to back it is "one-sided" and "ignores the considerable research tradition" into the sort of material that backers of the bill propose to make illegal. One of those, Martin Salter MP, at one point in the debate8 on the second reading of the Bill betrayed his prejudices against the BDSM community:

"I have received opposition...from groups claiming to represent the bondage, domination and sado-masochistic communities. I have learned that they organise themselves into munch clubs—I do not want to go any further into that...If people want to do weird things to each other they still can, but I say, "Don't put it on the internet.""
There is in fact some evidence that pornography is linked to a decrease in sexual violence9. As for bicycle sex - I don't think anyone's actually deigned to find out.

More on the campaign against the 'Dangerous Pictures Act': Backlash-UK

1. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/matt_seaton/2007/11/a_good_ride.html
2. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/glasgow_and_west/7095134.stm
3. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/glasgow_and_west/7098116.stm
4. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmbills/001/2008001.pdf (PDF)
5. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/simon_jenkins/article2702727.ece
6. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/frank_fisher/2007/10/all_the_fun_of_the_fear.html
7. http://www.backlash-uk.org.uk/acad_statement.html
8. http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debate/?id=2007-10-08a.111.3
9. http://strange_stuff.blogspot.com/2006/08/more-porn.html

*Hardly surprising given the attitude of his defence counsel. As Matt Seaton on Comment is Free1 puts it,
"Who needs friends when you have a lawyer"?

Saturday, 17 November 2007

What Are We Blogging For?

What does Paulie of Never Trust a Hippy have in common with Neil Clark? Both have expounded this week on the perceived failings of the 'blogosphere' as it stands.

Clark calls for a "blogging revolution" in his latest article at Guardian Comment is Free. He complains that there aren't enough 'working class' bloggers. He claims that those who did not share his view that Iraqis who aided US and British forces should be abandoned to their fate rather than given asylum1 were following a "party line" and subject to a "three-line whip". And he proclaims that the blogosphere will only have 'come of age' "When there are ten times more blog posts on the way working people are being screwed by privatised utility companies, on the decline of NHS dentistry and the scandalous level of state pensions as there are on Israel/Palestine and the need for an "interventionist" foreign policy".

In a series of posts at his own blog and at group blog Drink Soaked Trotskyite Popinjays for War (DSTPfW)2, Paulie expresses his disdain for a subset of bloggers he refers to as 'bloggertarians', his main criticisms of whom are that they are too uncompromisingly critical of politicians, don't know enough about history, swear too much, and are generally "negativist"3. 'Negativist' is Paulie's preferred term of abuse for people he doesn't agree with. In Paulie's view it is "a sin" to be a 'negativist'4. This being a debate that is taking place on a lefty blog, a request for clarification on what it is that is so bad about "negativism" produces a link to an argument from nine months ago that when read doesn't actually bear much comparison to the subjects of the current excoriations!

To both of these arguments, I have this response. Both Clark and Paulie have, it seems to me, missed the point of blogging. Overlooked what it is that makes the 'blogosphere' so wonderfully different from other forms of media, political or otherwise. That is, anyone can do it.

To be a blogger, you don't have to pass a test or get through an interview. You aren't bound by an editorial policy or a party line*. Different people have different motivations for putting fingers to keyboard - Some blogs are intended to promulgate gossip, some to agitate for social change, some to showcase a writer's abilities, some as a substitute for writing angry missives to the newspaper.

So to complain that the demographic make-up of the blogosphere isn't how you would like it (Clark), or that free individuals aren't following your particular rules for conducting a debate in their own space (Paulie) by way of some arbitrary 'code of conduct' or 'voluntary code'5 which precisely because of the nature of the internet (Google 'Streisand effect' sometime) could never work, is rather fatuous.

The idea that we are all in this blogging thing together with a common purpose and a shared aim is, to be blunt, something so daft that only a socialist (and a puffed-up one at that) could come up with it. Of course, you are just as free to say what you want about other people's blogs as I am about what you have posted on yours this week. The difference is, Paulie, you are evidently7 uncomfortable with that freedom. I, and the ones you call 'bloggertarians', are not.

1. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/neil_clark/2007/08/keep_these_quislings_out.html
2. http://drinksoakedtrotsforwar.com/2007/11/07/defining-bloggertarian/
3. http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com/search/label/Negativism
4. http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com/2007/11/bloggertarians-update.html#c3476447098673156699
5. http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com/2007/02/clarifying-negativism.html
6. http://disillusionedandbored.blogspot.com/2006/11/voluntary-code-free-zone.html
7. http://www.chickyog.net/2006/12/06/that-blogging-code-of-conduct-again#comment-24634
8. http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com/2007/11/ignore-fundis.html
9. http://neuearbeitmachtfrei.blogspot.com/2007/09/tory-defector-judith-symes.html
10. http://www.longrider.co.uk/blog/2007/03/12/brown-and-cameron-fight-to-set-the-green-agenda-special-reports-guardian-unlimited-politics/

* The concept of non-party political continues to elude Paulie in his latest post8, in which he claims that "the Tories must be starting to get worried about it's bloggertarians" despite it having repeatedly been pointed out that those he applies the term to typically do not associate with the Conservative party and in fact often regard them just as much a part of the hated 'political classes' as New Labour9,10.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

1 Team: 50,000 Owners

It is perhaps to be the sternest test yet of the wisdom of online crowds. Can the 50,000+ people who paid £35 to co-own and co-manage a football club do better than the traditional board & manager arrangement?

MyFootballClub, a venture set up by a former sports journalist, has raised a club purchase fund of £1,375,000 and agreed in principle to buy Blue Square Premier (formerly Football Conference) club Ebbsfleet United F.C. If this goes through, the co-owners will be able to vote on team selection, tactics and transfers.

As might be expected, there is some indignation from 'real fans' of the club, which recently renamed from Gravesend & Northfleet and has an average home attendance of less than 1,0001, mainly concerned with the fact that no preference has been given to them over the multitudes who paid in without even knowing which club they were going to become involved with - Many signed up hoping that a higher-profile side such as Leeds United2 would be bought.

Is having 50,000 fans run your club really so different from having a rich person or a few rich people do so? Overall I see MyFootballClub as representing a very positive development for football. It's untried and could fail, and due to the vastly increased costs and risks involved it probably isn't feasible at the higher levels of the league. However, if it is shown to work, I expect to see a few more lower-league clubs follow in the footsteps of Ebbsfleet United in the not-so-distant future!

1. http://ebbsfleetunited.co.uk/eufc/index.php?option=com_wrapper&Itemid=154
2. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/6914775.stm

Monday, 12 November 2007

FAS 157

"The risk of a worldwide banking crisis – one that is particularly damaging to mortgages, private equity, hedge funds and the banks themselves – is higher than it was a month ago, and the storm is rising." - William Rees-Mogg1

I got onto this through reading an article at PJC Journal. Alongside some frankly rather nutty-sounding stuff from one Hal Lindsey2 (US Christian-right author of 'Satan is Alive & Well on Planet Earth'3 among other books), there is (via another blog4), a link to an interesting comment piece in today's Times.

Entitled 'Why FAS 157 strikes dread into bankers', the article explains that new US accounting standards introduced to regulate the valuation of banks' assets, which come into force on November 15th5 "could have disastrous, though unintended, consequences". A layman as far as high finance goes, jargon like 'level-three assets' is as unfamiliar to me as the regulations themselves.

Well-known as he is for his intelligent postings on the subject of economics, perhaps Tim Worstall can enlighten me. His post on the Trading Floor blog at The Business magazine explains:

"Essentially, it's an attempt to make the books of banks actually reflect their true value. [With FAS 157] instead of [assets] being worth whatever the bank said they're worth, there has to be at least some attempt at listing them at their possible sale price." - Tim Worstall

All does appear well and good on the surface - Surely greater transparency is a good thing. Unfortunately, the consequences of the enforcement of 'Fair Value Measurements'5, in terms of the revaluation of bank assets are threatening to bring about a further credit squeeze, potentially increasing the severity of the lending crisis that has already hit in the US6 and precipitated the Northern Rock crisis7 here in the UK.

As banks are made to come clean about their chronic over-valuation of these "artificial"1 assets (the current valuation system has been described by one senior banker as "mark to make believe"8), it looks likely that ordinary people will suffer as a result of the ensuing economic slump - Rees-Mogg predicts a worsening of conditions for first-time buyers and a downturn in stock markets.
1. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/william_rees_mogg/article2852547.ece
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hal_Lindsey
3. http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=26162
4. http://dailysalty.blogspot.com/2007/11/why-fas-157-strikes-dread-into-bankers.html
5. http://news.cpamerica.org/cerini/channels/vp2.asp?a=2122
6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subprime_mortgage_financial_crisis
7.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6994099.stm
8. http://www.cfo.com/article.cfm/10097878?f=home_featured

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Bloggertarians!

It's not exactly news that free-market libertarians and socialists do not usually get along swimmingly. But at least in the UK blogosphere each side has tended to stick to its own, firing only the occasional verbal salvo at those peculiar types at the opposite end of the political spectrum*

Not this week. And it's the lefties at Drink Soaked Trotskyite Popinjays for War that have gone on the offensive. Paulie, whose main blog can be found at Never Trust a Hippy and whose linked post of 5 November began the skirmish, has targeted two of the individualist right's best-known blogs, infamous for their creative swearing and hatred of all politicians - Devil's Kitchen and Mr Eugenides, along with that tenacious defender of civil liberties who was such a good source for Select Privacy posts, Longrider.

I'm not about to strip down and jump in the mudbath with them, but I'm certainly going to keep watching with interest - this has potential! Highlights of the battle so far include Paulie's imitation of a typical DK post1, including the unforgettable "OK, you jackmanape's scourings of a lock-hospital piss-pot" and his getting personal while completely missing the point of a writing style2 "You should get some sort of help. Going off on these tantrums can’t be doing you any good.".

Hak Mao delights in calling opponents "political illiterates"3,4 which perhaps illustrates better than anything else this past week why the far left blogosphere struggles to gain a "remotely similar audience share"5 to those representing other political schools of thought including libertarianism.

The idea of learning from successful bloggers and attempting to interest potential readers outside the memberships and ex-memberships of the various far-left parties seems to be lost on a lot of the earnest, worthy lefty bloggers. Now, a lefty equivalent of the Devil's Kitchen with posts about Fremantle Trust6, BAE Systems7 and Manchester Mental Health & Social Care Trust8 that contain a liberal sprinking of four letter words and finish up with a lurid description of untimely death involving sharpened cockroaches9 might be taking things a little far...

...But distasteful as some of DK's more colourful rantings can be, it's clear (I hope) that it is hyperbole for effect. It is equally clear that it works! For a blog that only began in January 2005 and is a one-man effort that is almost entirely non-party political (only a small fraction of posts are primarily about UKIP) to be voted #6 political blog in the country10 is an inarguably impressive achievement.

It's probably worth mentioning at this point that one of the few bloggers I have met and had a pint with away from the keyboard is indeed Chris Mounsey11, the man behind the Devil's mask, and I found him to be a fine and amiable guy. Somewhat opinionated, yes (but then what political blogger isn't); firm in his (very real) libertarian convictions; but not the sort of foul-mouthed oaf you might assume from a cursory glance at the blog - which is exactly what 'Paulie' appears to have done.


10. http://iaindale.blogspot.com/2007/09/top-500-political-blogs-in-uk-voted-for.html
11. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/04/20/nblog20.xml

* This debate is somewhat more entrenched in the US, where free-market libertarians and 'objectivists' are much more numerous, especially online.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

On The Defensive

A recent post on the newly set up lefty 'superblog' Liberal Conspiracy reintroduces a bone of contention that has occupied some of the UK's most prominent bloggers for some time - Are tactics used by certain right-wing bloggers unacceptable?

For the uninitiated, the practices decried by the likes of Justin McKeating (of Chicken Yoghurt) and Tim Ireland (of Bloggerheads) include 'sock puppetry'1 (the use by a single individual of more than one online identity in the same context), 'astroturfing'2 (the deliberate and false creation of an impression of public opinion) and the selective deletion of comments3. These are seen as being damaging to this new and growing medium.

"But the credibility of all weblogs is undermined when the self-proclaimed 'leading' political bloggers cannot conduct themselves with integrity...We can and we must do better than this, or every scrap of potential is going to be pissed away." - Tim Ireland3

However, in attempting to hold their fellow bloggers to standards that no-one has agreed to, the likes of McKeating and Ireland risk being seen as high-handed and self-righteous - descriptors that vocal leftists in general struggle to shake off at the best of times4. Tim Ireland is a blogger whose tenaciousness in his attempt at 'raising blogging standards' have extended to the construction of a venomous spoof of one opponent's blog5 and frequently involves himself in other bloggers' battles6,7 in his effort to clean up political blogging.

Right or wrong on the specifics he talks about, it should hardly come as a surprise to McKeating that a blogger who writes about little else but other bloggers' faults and failings finds himself described as "obsessive"8, an "E-stalker"9 and "an insufferably pompous blowhard"10.

From the point of view of this sidelines observer, Liberal Conspiracy would be much better off concentrating on advocating the ideas and issues of the liberal left, rather than becoming involved in this sort of tabloid tawdriness.

More: Dizzy Thinks

1. http://www.bloggerheads.com/archives/2007/08/more_tory_sockp.asp
2. http://www.bloggerheads.com/archives/2007/01/briefing_astro-turfers.asp
3. http://www.bloggerheads.com/archives/2007/11/ellee_seymour_little_miss_conduct.asp
4. http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/2007/11/06/we-need-our-own-space/#comment-85
5. http://www.bloggerheads.com/guido_fawkes/
6. http://www.bloggerheads.com/archives/2007/11/nadine_dorries_iain_dale.asp
7. http://www.bloggerheads.com/archives/2007/10/little_boys_in.asp
8. http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/2007/11/09/a-good-clean-fight/#comment-498
9. http://www.order-order.com/2007/01/no-comment.html#c116903209074436899
10. http://timworstall.typepad.com/timworstall/2007/01/bloggerheads_an.html#comments
(17/01/07, 16:44)

Friday, 9 November 2007

Eco Chamber

Climate campaigners continually repeat that global warming is a threat, that scientific opinion is near-unanimous and that immediate action is needed, but many view them as alarmist doomsayers - and that's hardly surprising.

Why is it hardly surprising?

1 Because the people responsible for spreading this message constantly overstate their case in the belief that it will galvanise people to respond. Hurricanes1,2, droughts2, floods3 and fires2 have been linked to climate change by environmentalists. Of course, these things have happened throughout human history and probably before - but now they are the stimulus for the latest push towards green legislation and taxation. The statement made by climate scientist Stephen Schneider3 in 1996 is telling:

"We need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have."

2 Because the attitude of many environmentalists towards people who are not quite convinced of the 'dangers of global warming' leaves a lot to be desired. The most telling example is the branding of such as "deniers" or "denialists". This Independent column4 by Johann Hari uses the word ten times, while fellow environ-gelist George Monbiot was at least until quite recently a regular user of the term5. In case it isn't obvious, the repugnant connotations of this expression are made clear by one of the most alarmist greens of all, Mark Lynas (author of 'Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet')6:
"I put this in a similar moral category to Holocaust denial – except that this time the Holocaust is yet to come, and we still have time to avoid it. Those who try to ensure we don’t will one day have to answer for their crimes."
3 Because a lot of people suspect that a lot of green activism is a cover for authoritarian, leftist and/or socialist ideas. The expression "watermelon" (meaning someone who is 'green on the outside and red in the middle') has gained currency among right-wingers to refer to such politically-motivated environmentalists8. You don't have to spend much time reading Comment is Free comments threads to observe that there is some truth in this assertion. These responses to a typical George Monbiot column9 there are by no means exceptional:
"What we need is a political revolution or convulsion, similar to the mass revolts europe has gone through periodically since the French Revolution." - writeon (30/10/07, 07:50)
"Revolution is all that's left. And in the case of selfish, stupid arseholes like RogerInTheUSA, the more violent the better, if only pour encourager les autres. (Oh and Jeremy Clarkson too, while we're at it.) History shows that revolution works, that it brings about paradigm shift - and paradigm shift is the only way we're going to get off the road to perdition that we're currently accelerating down." - rockinred (08:31, 30/10/07)
"...As the need increases you will see more revolutions positively affecting social structure. I think that both writeon and rockinred were right to point out the need for a revolutionary change in our current mind-set and political system." - LesterJones (16:14, 30/10/07)

What I am highlighting here is not so much that greens are adopting socialist ideas in response to the threats posed by climate change, but that left-wing activists are taking advantage of the environmentalists' concerns to advocate the agenda they were interested in advocating all along. This is not a new thing - Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace who left the organisation in 198610 was quoted on an popular US science show 'Penn & Teller: Bullshit!' entitled 'Environmental Hysteria' that:

"The environmental movement was basically hijacked by political and social activists who came in and very cleverly learned how to use green rhetoric and green language to cloak agendas that actually have more to do with anti-corporatism, anti-globalization, anti-business, and very little to do with science or ecology...I realized that the movement I had started was being taken over by politicos and that they were using it for fundraising purposes."
So in the face of the exaggeration, the hectoring and the politically-motivated misdirection provided by the environmentalists, alongside the natural human desire to avoid or put off making uncomfortable changes, is it any surprise that, right or wrong, they are largely preaching to the converted - and among the unconverted face considerable and increasingly vocal opposition?


1. http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0912-32.htm (Al Gore)
2. http://www.johannhari.com/archive/article.php?id=1201
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Schneider
4. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/derek_wall/2007/08/wheres_the_deluge_of_coverage.html
5. http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/johann_hari/article2183809.ece
6. http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2006/09/19/the-smoke-behind-the-deniers-fire-3/
7. http://www.marklynas.org/2006/5/19/climate-denial-ads-to-air-on-us-national-television
8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eco-socialism
9. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2201594,00.html
10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Moore_(environmentalist)

R.E.M - 'Life's Rich Pageant'

The second of my reviews of albums of the past is the fourth album by highly successful American rock band R.E.M. In contrast to the previous one, I am of course familiar with this band but not previously with this particular album which is from before they attained significant commercial success.

This album certainly starts with a bang in the form of the upbeat melodic rocker 'Begin The Begin'. From then on it is something of a mixed bag; some tracks hint at the band's later standing, while others are somewhat pedestrian.

Two tracks with environmental lyrical themes, 'Cuyahoga' and 'Fall On Me' belong in the former category, and the politically- and socially-conscious songwriting is one aspect of R.E.M's music that marks them out from other bands of the same genre. However alongside the thoughtful themes is a pinch of creative playfulness, particularly the digression of 'Underneath The Bunker'.

The second half of the album contains two strong pop songs, 'I Believe' and 'Superman'. The former in particular is a rollicking singalong that was alongside the opener the standout track on first listen of the album. 'Swan Swan H' is an above average mid-paced soft rock track with some rather cryptic lyrics and 'Just A Touch' is exuberant, busy-sounding power pop.

There are three not so good tracks on here, though. 'Flowers of Guatemala' tries for atmospheric but becomes a little irritating because of the languid vocals - I imagine Stipe staring at his shoes droning this. 'Hyena' and 'What If We Give It Away' are rather forgettable and are clearly album tracks.

Overall, I'll give this a 6.

RIP: 'I Believe', 'Begin The Begin', 'Cuyahoga'
SKIP: 'Hyena', 'What If We Give It Away', 'Flowers of Guatemala'

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Conspiracy Theory

The latest addition to the British blogosphere was unveiled yesterday. I couldn't find anywhere whether the date (November 5, Guy Fawkes Day) was chosen deliberately, but it seems kind of appropriate for a 'super-blog' entitled Liberal Conspiracy.

It is edited by Sunny Hundal of Pickled Politics, has over 20 listed contributors including most of the best known left-liberal bloggers (e.g. Dave Osler, Justin McKeating, Kerron Cross etc). The blog is described as a "forum and resource for those who see themselves on the liberal-left", the aims of the 'liberal-left' are described as "social justice, equality, eradicating poverty etc", and the comments policy is described as "very militant".

The British leftist blogging community certainly needs a kick up the backside to begin to compete effectively with its right-wing counterpart. Time will tell if this will provide it...

The list of contributors to Liberal Conspiracy can be found here.
The descriptions of the blog and its aims can be found here.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Technical Notes

Just a couple of technical notes for you, the reader (and to remind me, the blogger)

1. The Blogroll
The blogroll is aimed to be a pretty comprehensive guide to the British blogosphere once it is completed with the invaluable help of the directory at the back of Iain Dale's 'Guide To Political Blogging 2007-08'. However, this takes time so it will be done gradually. You may have noticed that your blog is in the wrong category, e.g. StroppyBlog was in the Labour bloggers category instead of with the socialists. That's because in the beginning I made two categories based on Dale's Top 100 lists, headed Labour and Conservative - the more precise categorisation was a later addition, and I haven't got to recategorising most of the blogs on the list yet. If you really would like your blog categorised before I would get to it otherwise, drop me a note. Which leads me to...

2. The e-mail address
One commenter noted that I don't have an e-mail address on my blog that you can send comments and messages to. I did this deliberately because my last blog SELECT Privacy began to attract a lot of spam to the posted e-mail account once it began to be listed on search engines. I have now set up a dedicated e-mail account for the blog that is different to the one I actually use to update it, so feel free to e-mail me at questionthatblog@gmail.com if you have any comments or queries. (Of course, if it's related to a particular post I'd prefer you to comment there on the blog, and maybe a discussion will get going (especially if you post something a bit more erudite than "Twat!"!))

3. The commenting system
When I set up the blog in the beginning I chose to turn off anonymous commenting. This is not because I have strong feelings against anonymity (since this is, after all, a pseudonymous blog that would be rather daft I'm sure you agree), but because there's little more annoying than reading 50-post long comment threads after articles on other blogs in which every other commenter is 'Anonymous', making it just about impossible to follow the discussion. Just register a name on gmail, its free and you can call yourself mcavitycatsfleas@gmail.com or similar and give us all a smile when you comment rather than being boring old anonymous.
If people out there feel really strongly about this and don't want to register to comment on this post, drop me an e-mail at the address in 2.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Dangerous Drinking

The nights are drawing in. Christmas is coming. And as every year the cascade of shock horror headlines about 'Britain's Booze Culture' and such-like is just getting started.

Today's Independent On Sunday cover, headed Britain's Deadly Cocktail, announced a '40% rise in just one year in under-age drinkers receiving treatment'1. Two weeks ago, a public health authority-sponsored report produced headlines after claiming that 'more people drink to hazardous levels in affluent areas than in poorer ones'2. The Daily Telegraph also reported a rise in emergency admissions to hospital caused by binge drinking last month3.

There is justified concern among civil libertarians that reports such as these will be used to justify a vicious Government crackdown on drinking, closing pubs and hiking up prices. There was particular outrage in response to public health minister Dawn Primarolo's quoted declaration4 in relation to the NWPHO report that "everyday drinkers...have drunk too much for too long. This has to change".

Emily Hill of the pro-liberty group Spiked Online wrote in a responding article published on Guardian Comment is Free of the "government...puritanical mania for making things 'socially unacceptable'". Libertarian blogger Devil's Kitchen (in a typically obscenity-filled post) that it threatened to represent an unacceptable interference into individual freedom of choice: "What business is it of the state's if I drink like a fish? As long as I turn up for work and pay my taxes which pay for any amenities that I might use, it is none of your business".

The consequences to individuals and to society of the abuse of alcohol are tremendous, however. It isn't something that is invented by Government spokespeople and BBC reporters in order to make people feel guilty/soften them up for higher taxation/piss them off. I have been spending quite a lot of my internet time recently reading 'service blogs'. That is, blogs by people working in the front-line public services describing the day-to-day reality of their jobs.

This is from the latest post on Paramedic's Diary, dated Friday 2 November7. Most of the author's posts contain at least one anecdote similar to this:
"The police, a motorbike responder (MRU) and myself were all called to a ‘20 year-old male, unconscious on a bus’. A hundred per cent of these calls, in my experience, have turned out to be nothing more than a sleeping drunk...the person may have a serious medical problem and I can’t dispute that but, statistically, the only real problem they have is alcohol."
This is from a recent post on The Policeman's Blog8:
"A frightening number of people drink a frightening amount of booze, and it pretty much keeps the police in work."
This is from ambulance E.M.T blog Random Acts of Reality9
"Let my paperwork speak for itself.

'Patient found asleep in the street, smells heavily of alcohol. Pupils large and sluggish, nystagmus. No obvious physical injury. On waking refused to allow me to take observations. Told me to "Fuck off", which is apparently the only English he speaks. Unable to get details of patient. Acting aggressive.
On arrival at hospital patient attempted to hit me, told me to "fuck off" again and left the ambulance and walked off.'

Sadly, not an unusual job."


These quotes are a representative sample. All are from the past month, and I could select a similar three from any month you care to name. The contents of these blogs paint a dismal picture of the misery, hurt and expense that is incurred by addicted or irresponsible individuals, by the people who have to pick up after them, and by innocent third parties, as a result of alcohol abuse.

No-one, at least no-one rational, is suggesting that the Government ban alcohol. It wasn't exactly a success last time a Western nation tried that10. Besides, more importantly, moderate social drinking is a pleasurable part of life for millions of people who never end up having to be taken to hospital, swearing at police officers or causing road accidents as a result. As for health, studies suggesting that a moderate intake of alcohol may be associated with longer life11 and that red wine in particular is associated with decreased risk of heart disease12.

Dawn Primarolo's comments were counterproductive, and I dare say she deserved some of the scorn that was heaped on her after the story broke.

The whole story (headlined by the Times 'Hazardous drinking, the middle class vice' and by the Telegraph 'Middle class are biggest abusers of alcohol') was reported in a somewhat misleading way by the newspapers4,13. Although "hazardous drinking" was found to occur more in affluent areas than poorer ones, "harmful drinking", a more serious category consisting of people drinking more than 50 units per week, is over-represented in the most deprived areas. Additionally, the definition of "hazardous drinking" is somewhat arbitrary14.

The vast majority of the social harm described previously is the result of alcohol abuse, alcoholism and underage drinking, not adults drinking a few pints in the pub or relaxing at home in front of the TV with a couple of glasses of wine. For the public health minister to use the contents of this report to tell such people that they have to reduce their drinking is so misguided one does have to wonder what the underlying agenda might be.

A general increase in alcohol taxation such as that which is being campaigned for by the NWPHO would do little to reduce problem drinking, and would anger a lot of taxpayers who just want to unwind after a hard day's/week's work - just as making cigarettes cost £5 for a pack of 20 hasn't significantly reduced smoking levels. Britain's alcohol abuse problem is a social problem that as the IoS report shows starts young, and needs social solutions - not economic wheezes.


1. http://news.independent.co.uk/health/article3127405.ece
2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/10/16/ndrinkers116.xml
3. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/10/15/nbinge115.xml
4. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article2666587.ece
5. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/emily_hill/2007/10/drink_drivel.html
6. http://devilskitchen.me.uk/2007/10/totalitarian-britain.html
7. http://theparamedicsdiary.blogspot.com/2007/11/dancing-queen.html
8. http://coppersblog.blogspot.com/2007/10/one-for-road.html
9. http://randomreality.blogware.com/blog/_archives/2007/10/29/3320183.html
10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prohibition_in_the_United_States
11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=16203503&dopt=Citation
12. http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146%2Fannurev.nutr.20.1.561
13. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/10/16/ndrinkers116.xml
14. http://timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/food_and_drink/article2697975.ece