Friday, 30 May 2008

The Contempt-o-tron

IMAGE: spEak You're bRanes

The Blarxists have been falling over themselves to cheer the development of the twat-o-tron, a piece of code that 'simulates' blog comments.

The site hosting the comment generator, spEak You're bRanes (yes, really) has been making fun of comments posted on the BBC website's Have Your Say blog for over a year.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that - indeed the dry humour of the site's commentary on some of the excerpts it showcases can be rather funny.

The comments generated by the 'twat-o-tron' combine xenophobic rants with attacks on 'political correctness' and the 'nanny state' and criticism of environmentalism. Hence, my discomfort with the praise being lavished on this. It not only brands holders of a wide range of viewpoints "twats", it implicity equates anti-authoritarians and people uncomfortable with environmentalists' agenda with BNP supporters. It seems the Blarxists don't see the problem with this.

As regular readers of Question That will have noticed, I can't stand the nanny state, particularly when the nannying is imposed by the EU. I think political correctness (though I prefer Fabian Tassano's alternative 'ideological correctness', the former having become conflated with xenophobia) is at best unfortunate and at worst Orwellian, and have a deep suspicion of the motives of many environmentalists. I am, however, a long way from being a BNP supporter. The Blarxists, like the people responsible for the 'twat-o-tron', don't differentiate - You're either with them or against them.

Blarxists like Paulie, Will and Peter Ryley display unabashed contempt for the people addressing contrary opinions to their own. This has been observed several times before, and is showing no sign of abating. In today's post, Paulie links the 'twat-o-tron' to Roger Thornhill's (currently dormant) blog, associating one of the most prominent libertarian bloggers with Speak You're Branes' computer-generated ranting. It seems Paulie really can't tell the difference. And, I'm glad to say, this idiocy is surely going to be the downfall of his ilk.

Because, like it or not, the comments on Have Your Say, Comment is Free etc are not written by computer code*, they are written by real people who have a vote in elections. The left are, as has been much lamented in the likes of the Guardian, seen as out of touch with ordinary people. Recent performances at the ballot box by the parties of the socialist left have been, frankly, pathetic.

Could there be a connection between this contempt shown by left-wing bloggers for the voter, and said poor performances?

* Well, apart from the comments that wags are copy-pasting in from the 'twat-o-tron', that is!

Thursday, 29 May 2008

How About A Life Without Nanny?


While attempting to find out just how EU-influenced the current wave of paternalistic anti-smoking measures under consideration by New Labour is, I came across this.

The above image forms part of a poster for an EC-funded event: HELP - for a life without tobacco - to mark World No Tobacco Day, an event organised by the World Health Organisation.

The website on which I found this, the EUROPA Public Health site, has this to say about smoking:

"In order to curb this [smoking] epidemic, the European Community is actively developing a comprehensive tobacco control policy, which is characterised by a four-stage approach: 1. Legislative measures are the backbone of the Community's present and future tobacco control activities"
In other words, the EU, in connection with the WHO, is set on campaigning against smoking. The WHO even has a 'Tobacco Control Database', which
"provide[s] a standardized and reliable tracking and assessment of the tobacco-related situation within and across countries, and disseminate this information to policy- and decision-makers, staff of tobacco prevention and control programmes..."
A commenter on a post over at Devil's Kitchen on the Government's consideration of yet more swingeing anti-smoking measures, Chris Snowdon, proposed that the cretinous proposals are an attempt to meet a target agreed with the EU and WHO of a 21% smoking rate by 2010.

This is clearly a Department of Health target, and there are clearly more bureaucrats dedicated to pushing anti-smoking propaganda at the EU and the WHO than you could shake an, er, cigarette at.

The idea that people might prefer to be left alone to live their lives as they see fit seems to have escaped these target-setters.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Nottingham Arrests: Demonstration Tomorrow

IMAGE: Free Hicham Yezza blog

A demonstration is to take place at Nottingham University tomorrow afternoon in defence of academic freedom and in protest at the arrest and detention for six days of a student and a clerk at the university under the Terrorism Act.

The student, Rizwaan Sabir and the clerk, Hicham Yezza, were arrested two weeks ago after downloading an Al-Qaeda training manual that was freely available from a US Government website for research purposes.

Sabir reports being told by police following his arrest that the manual is "an illegal document which shouldn't be used for research purposes". In protest at the disproportionate actions of University authorities and the police, students and academics are to give a public reading of the material at the campus.

This demonstration is given added importance because of the serious threat to the liberty of the second man, Hicham Yezza. Yezza was re-arrested on unspecified immigration charges and is threatened with deportation to Algeria - after 13 years studying and working in the UK - as early as next Sunday (1 June).

A petition (DOC) has been distributed calling on the University to acknowledge the disproportionate response (the arrests were precipitated by University authorities), to take steps to ensure respect for freedom of expression, and to lobby for the release of Hicham Yezza.

A separate online petition has been set up by the campaign to free Hicham Yezza, calling on the Home Office to halt his rushed deportation to Algeria and give him a chance to make his case before a court of law.

More information: Free Hicham Yezza campaign blog

Monday, 26 May 2008

Any Way You Look At It, You Lose

The news that 'carbon rationing' could be back on the political agenda has been met with a furious response on the blogs.

The proposal has been slammed as representing a "bureacratic surveillance nightmare", for the absurd cost estimates (seriously, they make Boris Johnson's bus costings look pessimistic), and for generally being "batshit insane".

The MPs pushing for the introduction of 'personal carbon credits' acknowledge that "members of the public are likely to be opposed to the move" . Presumably because they will entail unprecedented Government snooping, cost billions of pounds of taxpayer's money, and are generally a stupendously bad idea.

Mark Wadsworth asks:

"Do politicians expect people to vote for them, and in exchange be forced into this sort of bureaucratic surveillance nightmare? (What happens if you fill up you car and realise you've forgotten your card?) Well, clearly politicians do think that we'll still vote for them, and we probably will - that's the frightening bit."
Well, unless they are much stupider than even the most cynical blogger credits them for, the answer has to be no. New Labour are already deeply unpopular with the electorate, and attempting to introduce such policies would surely only deepen that antipathy and make it even more likely than it is already that they will be voted out at the next General Election.

The Environmental Audit Committee, which put forward the proposals at the weekend, is chaired not by Hilary Benn or some New Labour back-bencher, but by a Conservative MP - Tim Yeo. The EAC consists of 16 MPs: 9 from the Labour party; 5 Tories; and 2 from the Liberal Democrats.

So, even if David Cameron were to become PM at the next election, it would be no surprise at all if the EAC were to carry on with this crazy scheme as though nothing had changed - which in reality it won't have.

Although politicians and commentators like to make out that there are deeper differences between the three main parties than the colour of the candidates' rosettes, the current preponderance of cross-party committees and "joint strategies" like this betrays the truth of the matter.

All three parties are thoroughly authoritarian and paternalistic, and all three parties are beholden to corporate interests and to the European Union. This is but one example of the contempt the political class that currently dominates Westminster has for the people. It's certainly not going to be the last. There has to be a better way.

Video Of The Week (21)

Video of the Week 19/05 - 25/05: Fox News: Knock Off Obama

In a discussion about Hillary's gaffe regarding the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Fox News contributor Liz Trotta first 'confused' Barack Obama and Osama Bin Laden on air, then joked that both should be assassinated.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

University Clerk Threatened With Deportation

IMAGE: Nottingham University

Hicham Yezza, one of two men arrested under the Terrorism Act at Nottingham University and then released last week, has been threatened with deportation to Algeria as early as next Sunday.

The two were arrested after the second man, Rizwaan Sabir, a politics grad student, downloaded an edited Al-Qaeda training manual from a US Government website (PDF). He then asked Yezza to print the manual for him.

Once it became clear that Sabir, who was researching Islamic terrorism for his dissertation, had a legitimate academic interest in the material, Yezza and Sabir were released without charge.

Until, that is, Yezza was re-arrested under charges relating to his immigration status and moved to an immigration detention centre, amid claims of visa irregularities.

This despite the fact that he has been resident in the UK for 13 years, undertook undergraduate and postgraduate study here, and is now an employee of Nottingham University.

There may or may not be truth to the allegations of irregularities, but the speed at which the Home Office are attempting to remove Hicham Yezza from the UK without a proper hearing is suggestive of an attempt by the authorities to cover for official incompetence.

"It seems to me that this is a clumsy response under anti-terrorism legislation to the incident at Nottingham University. I can see no reason for an emergency deportation other than to cover the embarrassment of police and intelligence services." - Alan Simpson MP

If he is deported, there are concerns that Yezza could face groundless charges and may even be subjected to torture in Algeria.

An online campaign and Facebook group have been set up to support Hicham Yezza - calling for him to at least be given time to prepare his case and a proper hearing. There will also be a demonstration at Nottingham University on Wednesday.

More: Areopagitica; Ten Percent; The Cutting Edge; Beeston Quakers

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Sometimes You Have To Call A Cult A Cult

IMAGE: via Enturbulation Forums

One 16-year old protester, in combination with the City of London Police, has unleashed a new round of bad publicity for the Church of Scientology (CoS) - by calling a cult a cult.

The decision to serve 'EpicNoseGuy', who took part in the fourth London Project Chanology protest against the CoS on May 10th, with a court summons for displaying the sign shown in the image above has led to unprecedented UK mainstream media coverage of Anonymous' cause.

Along with articles in the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail and on the BBC website, the incident has led Guardian columnist Marina Hyde to write an incisive comment article on the campaign against the CoS.

In the piece, which was published in today's paper, Hyde lashes the cult, pointing out the 'kookiness' of the Scientology belief system, in which "the intergalactic alien tyrant Xenu exiled manifold individuals to Earth in special craft - which looked exactly like DC-8s...", and raising questions about the relationship between the 'Scientology community' and City of London police:

"Two years ago, at the opening of the Scientologists' new £24m church, London's fourth most senior policeman made a speech praising them as a "force for good ... raising the spiritual wealth of society". Later that year, a freedom of information request revealed that City of London police had accepted thousands of pounds of gifts and hospitality from the church, including attending a charity dinner hosted by Tom Cruise." - Marina Hyde

The Crown Prosecution Service apparently determined after one day's consideration that it was "not in the public interest" to take 16-year old EpicNoseGuy to court over the sign.

Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that the Church of Scientology fits several of the dictionary definitions of a "cult", that as the families of Shawn Lonsdale and Lisa McPherson among others will attest it is dangerous, and that it was (as ENG explained to the City of London police) described as "sinister" and as "a cult" by Justice Latey in a London court in 1984...

Perhaps this had something to do with the interest in the case of the mainstream media, and of civil liberties campaign group Liberty - whose director, Shami Chakrabarti, described the prosecution as "barmy"...

Perhaps this had something to do with the renewed questions that would have been asked about the relationships between the City of London police (who served the summons in the first place) and the Church of Scientology, as revealed by a Freedom of Information request in 2006...

...Or perhaps it was all three?

The fifth London protest against the practices of the Church of Scientology, named Operation Sea Arrrgh, will take place on Saturday 14 June.

Bruce Charlton: Heretic

An article published in the Times Higher Education asserting that the reason for the over-representation of higher social classes at top universities is down to IQ difference has provoked a predictable response from politicians and left-wing activists.

Bruce Charlton, a Reader of Evolutionary Psychiatry at Newcastle University, wrote that the uneven class patterns seen in elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge are "a natural outcome of meritocracy", citing research which suggests that there is a difference of approximately one standard deviation in average IQ between the highest occupational social class* and the lowest.

Prof. Charlton's article does not argue that the IQ difference is due to inheritance rather than environmental factors, only that said difference exists and explains inequality in university admissions. Despite this, some critics have attempted to rebut it by insinuating that he does:

"It should come as little surprise that people who enjoy a more privileged upbringing have a better start in life...It is up to all of us to ensure that not having access to the social and educational benefits that money provides is not a barrier to achieving one's full potential."" -
Sally Hunt, UCU General Secretary

Others give the impression of a straightforward knee-jerk reaction to the mere suggestion that admissions inequality might be due to anything other than prejudice. Gemma Tumelty of the NUS complains that Charlton is "wrong-headed, irresponsible and insulting", and Bill Rammell MP that the arguments "had a definite tone of 'people should know their place'".

The words 'ideologically incorrect' spring to mind. For decades now, scientists and thinkers whose arguments contradict an egalitarian political agenda have been denounced**, as Charlton has this week, by critics motivated not by the desire for scientific truth, but by their interests in promoting that agenda.

In this case, that is the likes of Hunt and Tumelty, who rather than engaging with the arguments made have instead attacked them as though heretical - which, in a way, they are - and misrepresented them in the process.

* Highest occupational social class (SC), defined as "mainly professional and senior managerial workers such as professors, doctors and bank managers"; lowest occupational social class defined as "unskilled workers". From here.

** For many more examples and background, I recommend Chapter 6 of 'The Blank Slate' by Steven Pinker, entitled "Political Scientists".

Friday, 23 May 2008

MPs Expenses: Freedom of Information Campaign Bears Fruit

After a long court battle, expense details of 14 MPs including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron will be released today.

The Freedom of Information requests were made by campaigner Heather Brooke (of Your Right To Know) along with journalists from the Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph.

It has been estimated that the lost three-year fight by to keep the expenses and second home details secret has cost the taxpayer between £100,000 and £200,000 - money spent, as the text of the judgement makes clear, fighting against the public interest:

"15. We have no doubt that the public interest is at stake. We are not here dealing with idle gossip, or public curiosity about what in truth are trivialities. The expenditure of public money through the payment of MPs' salaries and allowances is a matter of direct and reasonable interest to taxpayers. They are obliged to pay their taxes at whatever level and on whatever basis the legislature may decide, in part at least to fund the legislative process..." -
Lord Justice Latham & Mr Justice Blake

Heather Brooke's victory here is a genuinely great achievement, and hopefully one that will set a precedent leading to greater openness, and consequentially reduced corruption and frivolous use of taxpayers' money. She is now calling for a fully transparent system of publicisation of expenses, whereby all claims will be published online for any citizen to see:
"ALL MPs must provide receipts for ALL expenses and make those receipts public. If they are such cheapskates as to claim £1.20 from the public purse then they should be prepared to justify that to the taxpayer." - Heather Brooke

Freedom of Information Resources:
  • Heather Brooke's book 'Your Right to Know' is a 'citizen's guide' to making a Freedom of Information request in the UK, including template letters.

  • The UK Freedom of Information Blog provides updates on UK FOI-related developments.

  • Spy Blog FOIA Tracker provides details of the success or otherwise of selected Freedom of Information requests. Spy Blog also offer to submit FOIA requests on your behalf if you wish to stay anonymous.

  • similarly provides a "journalist resource" containing links to information revealed through FOIA requests.

  • WhatDoTheyKnow is a new MySociety initiative, aimed at making it easier to make Freedom of Information requests.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Plumbing The Depths

Voters in Crewe & Nantwich go to the by-election polls after one of the most unseemly campaigns in recent memory.

And as John Harris put it in the Guardian last week, in this campaign it is Labour who have shown themselves to be deserving of the 'nasty party' tag.

The 'Tory Boy Timpson' leaflet was perhaps the lowest point. Combining personal attack politics with appeals to anti-foreigner sentiment, it caused some party members to question Labour's tactics in the campaign.

It was backed up by a stunt described by Daniel Finkelstein as "stupider than the chicken", in which two young men dressed up as 'toffs' in a top hat and tails were sent to follow the Tory candidate around.

It was later established that not only was one of the two 'toffs' educated at a £9,000 a year private school, but also that the Labour candidate (despite describing herself as "just a single, unemployed mother of five fighting for a job") is, unlike Tory candidate Timpson, listed in Burke's Peerage & Gentry and (like Timpson) owns a farmhouse.

The 'Tory Boy Timpson' leaflet was followed up by another lowest common denominator attack, this one an appeal to fear of crime (despite the relatively low crime-rate in the constituency) that would not look out of place adorning a far-right party's campaign material.

The imagery is violent and, combined with the tenor of Dunwoody's associated statement (entitled 'Get the Yobs'), clearly panders to suspicion of and hostility to young people. Dunwoody promises that police will "harass yobs, and get in their faces" - in other words, oppress young people who have committed no crime.

So, in order to try and win in Crewe & Nantwich, Labour have tried (rather hypocritical) class warfare, appealing to anti-foreigner sentiment, and whipping up fear of crime and of young people. Could they plumb any further depths?

IN-TEXT IMAGES: Via Guido Fawkes

Stupid Quote of the Day

From here:

"Tackling children's addiction to tobacco is rightly a top priority for this government. A lifetime addicted to tobacco is a death sentence." - Dr Andrew Buist, BMA

...And a lifetime not addicted to tobacco is what exactly?

Monday, 19 May 2008

Video Of The Week (20)

Video of the Week: 12/05-18/05: Leto Svet

Eurovision time is here again - the first 'semi-final' for Saturday's Contest is tomorrow. This peculiar offering from Estonia's Kreisiraadio (Crazy Radio) competes in Tuesday's pre-contest, and is my pick of this year's songs.

'Leto Svet' (Summer light) is sung in a combination of Finnish, German and bad Serbian. The song is clearly intended to be humorous, but it seems likely that the humour will be lost on pretty much anyone not from Estonia - in other words, 100% of the people that will be voting for it (or not as the case may be)!

UPDATE (21/05): Hi to all of the Estonian visitors who have come to Question That as a result of this post. I am disappointed that Leto Svet was unfortunately knocked out of the Eurovision Song Contest at the semi-final stage on Tuesday evening!

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Spending Other People's Money

IMAGE: Peter Stubbs

The Daily Telegraph today launched a new campaign, Waste Watch, to highlight some particularly flagrant examples of waste of taxpayer's money by Government departments and public services.

A couple of the examples aren't particularly impressive - an investigation into a police authority member who wrote "I will not be responsible for my actions if I manage to get hold of these out of control yobs." does not seem to me to be disproportionate.

But others are all-too-familiar examples of Government spending other people's money on other people*. In particular...

Unlike some of the other recent logo-related cock-ups that have provoked much amusement on the blogs this year, there doesn't seem to be anything egregiously wrong with Huntingdonshire District Council's logo.

At the same time, it's hardly a masterpiece - Yet it cost the council taxpayer an obscene amount of money. According to the Cambridge News, £29,000 paid for a design agency to design the logo, carry out consultations and produce some guidelines for its use. Would anyone not spending other people's money on other people consider spending £29,000 on a logo?

Does anyone else reckon that if they'd simply held a competition among art & design students (a little bit like this one, I guess - they do get it right once in a while) and had the councillors vote on the entries they could have saved a hefty chunk of that £29,000, and finished up with a logo at least as good as the one pictured above?

The Daily Telegraph joins Burning Our Money and the Taxpayers Alliance in monitoring Government waste.

* Milton Friedman:
"...Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get. And that’s government."

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Diktatwatch: I'd Rather Be A PCSO

"Reduce police paperwork" - It's a policy change that has been promised so often it's becoming a political cliche. But is the form-filling situation getting better or worse?

What do you think?

As The Plastic Fuzz -a PCSO* blogger - explains, the "paper-based workload" faced by police officers is:

"getting so bad in some parts that Police officers are contemplating becoming a PCSO and take a pay cut, just so they can get back out on the beat."
Police Community Support Officers were, as PCSO Bloggs puts it, introduced to perform some of the time-consuming tasks that previously police officers had to do, and allow the latter to get out on the beat.

Instead, both PCSOs and police officers are spending more time filling in forms than ever before:
"What concerns me even more is that we (PCSOs), are now having to do more forms ourselves. We now have stats in place for the number of FPNs, PNDs, Stop and Account forms, Intelligence Reports we do. We are having to copy council officers, probation officers and unusual ‘squad’ officers in to every email or action we take. We are having to justify what we do in a day, results we expect to achieve and analysing results we actually achieve."

If the paperwork situation is this bad for PCSO Bloggs, one has to wonder how much worse it must be for the actual Officers, such that taking a pay cut and becoming a PCSO is actually preferable in terms of getting to do what Mr Average would call "policing"!

The conclusion of PCSO Bloggs' post says it better than I could:
"We also have to fill in a document, daily, to explain (for some Home Office evaluation) exactly what we did in that day and how long spent doing it.

I’m filling in a useless forms, apparently designed to try and see what it is that we are doing that we end up spending so much time in the office filling in forms.

Are they taking the piss?"
(bolding mine)

Yes. Yes, they are.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

The Community Stasi

A guidance document put out this week by Hazel Blears' Department of Communities has laid out plans for community "tension monitoring", entailing snooping on neighbours and political activists, restrictions on the media, and large-scale data sharing.

All of this in the name of 'community cohesion', one of New Labour's latest buzzphrases (defined in the document (PDF) as "what must happen in all communities to enable different groups of people to get on well together"*) and clearly the latest justification for ratcheting up the surveillance of individuals yet another notch.

As the excellent Spy Blog explains, the crux of the snooping proposals is contained in section 37 of the 'Guidance'. This calls on local authorities to establish a "multi-agency tension monitoring group" incorporating a long list of public sector groups plus representatives from other sectors.

These would collect and share 'qualitative community intelligence', including data on complaints about neighbours and 'political extremism'. That includes 'low levels of trust in local politicians'. Of course, 'political extremism' means whatever the people doing the data-gathering want it to mean (as Spy Blog suggests: "Anybody who disagrees with the Labour government ?").

Do not laugh. This is how totalitarianism starts off - by gradually painting its opponents as extremists, only over time the definition of "extremists" shifts, until suddenly you are an "extremist", simply for questioning the received wisdom - for being 'ideologically incorrect', if you like.

Fabian Tassano wrote his essay 'Surviving in a Mediocracy' at the end of last year. He saw what was coming, and this paragraph from that polemic came immediately to mind as I read the 'Guidance':

"It should be obvious by now, to anyone who cares, that the principle of free speech is being gradually eroded in the West. Either by straightforward ditching, or — more subtly — by redefining it in ways designed to legitimise the prohibition of ideologically incorrect viewpoints." - Fabian Tassano
Like almost every such measure that this Government have brought in, it is wrapped in a shibboleth, but you don't have to look too far to realise how flimsy that rationale for monitoring and collecting data on potential political opponents is.

You only have to look as far as Cheshire, in fact, to see the Labour party itself throwing caution to the wind on 'community cohesion' in the pursuit of a few more votes in a by-election.

IMAGE: Adapted from Guido Fawkes

No, your eyes do not deceive you. That really is the very same political party that came up with the sinister 'Guidance', whipping up anti-foreigner sentiment in Crewe.

"One wonders what the more shrill aspects of the party's campaign will do for Crewe's community relations - but there again, it's doubtful that such thoughts are troubling many Labour high-ups." - John Harris, Guardian

Perhaps the organisers of Tamsin Dunwoody's campaign should be the first to be added to the database of contributors to 'community tension' in that neck of the woods!

Finally, for anyone preparing to shoot back with the argument that 'if it will prevent crime then the spying is justified', here's an apt quote for you to digest:

"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." - Benjamin Franklin

Hat-tip: Patrick Vessey

* I could barely believe I'd just read this. Can the authors of these documents (aimed, surely, at local authority managers, politicians and journalists) really not do plain English without sounding like they're talking to a slow seven year old?

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

HFEA: In The Name Of The Father

The Human Fertilization & Embryology Bill currently going through the House of Commons is one of the most controversial in some time. Both Labour and Tory MPs are to be given free votes on particular amendments to the Bill or to the passing of the Bill as a whole.

One of these amendments, a bid to limit legal abortions to 20 weeks gestation rather than the current 24 weeks, has been given a great deal of coverage and generated a lot of comment. This, however, is not the subject of today's post.

Almost as contentious are proposals relating to the provision of IVF treatment to lesbian couples. The Bill as it stands will remove the requirement for a 'father figure' to be part of the upbringing of such a child. The Conservatives have proposed an amendment to restore said requirement. If passed, the amendment will, as lesbian activist Jane Czyzselska puts it, force lesbian couples to seek unregulated services. It will also introduce a conflict with sexual orientation equality regulations.

The issue has sparked some intense debate at Comment is Free. It is an issue upon which some libertarians, such as well-known commentator MrPikeBishop (Frank Fisher), consider what others would describe as prejudiced legislation to be justified:

"I have no proof, but I believe it to be so. With four kids I think I'm well placed to see that children benefit from the influence of a male and a female, and ideally that's their mum and their dad. While there will be children raised outside this norm that will do well, and those within it who will do badly, I believe that for the majority, it is the best background.

But hey, let's continue the grand experiment of screwing over generations of children with no real though for where we might be heading, taking no notice of the chaos around us that *surely* can't have anything to do with our marvelous lust for individual happiness, equality and all that guff eh?"
- MrPikeBishop

In response, I suggested that for a libertarian, this surely represented an unwarranted interference in individual freedom. Of course, as one commenter pointed out, the legislation relates to a service provided by government (in the form of the NHS) in the first place. This is a tangled web indeed.

As is often the case, neither side of the debate presents a particularly appealing argument. Too often, the pro (in favour of the Government's wording of the Bill) side resorts to slinging casual accusations of homophobia or general prejudice. Too often, the anti-side has given us little other than the moralistic preaching that, with some justification, is intrinsic to the Conservative stereotype.

After pushing aside the crap, both sides are making some good points. However, leaving the payment issue aside, if there's any one contribution that swings the debate towards one side it is this one, from the amusingly named 'dialaview' arguing in favour of the Government proposals:
"That two women could not raise a child as successfully as a man and a woman is patent horse-shit.

Millions of children were raised by women after World War One and a generation of children was created that had enough gumption to beat the Nazis (who would have solved this problem by gassing potential gay parents anyway). Then, extended families would take on the burden of raising the child.

Sadly, after 10 years of a 'Labour' government, what dictates a child's potential success now is not the gender of its parents, or who they have sex with, but how much money they earn. A lesbian who can afford thousands of pounds of IVF will be able to giver her child a decent education in comfortable surroundings.

I think IVF is pretty narcissistic considering the number of children that need fostering and adopting in the world, but what is good for the heterosexual goose and gander is good for the gay goose and goose, or gander and gander."
- dialaview

Monday, 12 May 2008

Three 'Policy Challenges'

In my guest-blogging capacity over at the Devil's Kitchen, I wrote a rather opinionated post about a new publication (PDF) put out earlier in the month by a centre-left think-tank, the Social Market Foundation.

This document details three areas in which, supposedly, only "climate change deniers" and "extreme libertarians"(!) dispute that individuals should change their behaviour*. Unsurprisingly, the authors recommend that Government should aim to bring about such behavioural change through interventionist policy.

Those three areas are climate change (duh), obesity, and increasing savings.

Climate change, as regular readers of QT and/or the Kitchen are probably aware, is the authoritarian's best friend.
Never mind that the great global warming debate is far from being settled one way or the other**.
Never mind that the Stern Report, which the SMF document cites as backing for their proposal that intervention is needed***, actually indicates that CO2 taxation should if anything be reduced.
And certainly never mind that the Government is calling on individuals to change their behaviour in the name of climate change while at the same time going ahead with the building of a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

As for obesity, the advocates of interventionism don't seem to sure whether they're advancing an argument based on 'protecting individuals from themselves' or 'protecting society from irresponsible individuals'. I consider the first to represent indefensible paternalism, so let's instead take a closer look at the second...

Now, it is true to say that increased levels of obesity bear a significant cost to the NHS. However, as Daniel Engber (science writer for Slate magazine) points out, it is also true that obese people have shorter lifespans. This observation may fall into the category of 'ideologically incorrect' to point out. However, if advocates of interventionist policy persist in advancing cost-based arguments for those policies, they should be prepared to have same rebutted. Since this isn't taken into account when scare statistics such as "obesity costs the nation more than £3 billion a year" are produced, all of these statistics should be taken with a pinch of salt (but not too much!)

Finally, savings. "...People are not saving enough for an adequate income in retirement and the state will be unable to afford to support them at the living standards to which they are accustomed"+. Surely this is a clear case in which interventionism, in the form of automatic enrolment in a suitable pension scheme, is to the benefit of all.

The Government, in the Pensions Bill introduced last autumn, has proposed automatic enrolment in a pension scheme to which employers must contribute for all employees earning more than a (low) threshold. However, the proposals do provide the employee with the choice to opt-out of the pension, meaning that the scheme is not actually compulsory, but instead relies on inertia to achieve its desired aim of increasing levels of saving for retirement.

It's not as though this proposal is without its attendant problems. It has been predicted that employers who take on a lot of short-term and/or part-time workers, particularly in the leisure and retail sectors, will be affected by the administrative costs associated with the 'personal accounts' provided for by the Bill. At the same time, this proposal cannot reasonably be said to represent unacceptable coercion.

* Page 17, 'Creatures of Habit? The Art of Behavioural Change'
** The SMF document's only source other than the Stern Report is an Ipsos MORI survey measuring "public awareness" of climate change that found 82% of respondents to be "concerned". Er, so, I guess all this interventionism isn't needed, then.
*** Page 16, '
Creatures of Habit? The Art of Behavioural Change'
+ Page 15, 'Creatures of Habit? The Art of Behavioural Change'

Video of the Week (19)

Video of the Week 05/05-11/05: Santogold - 'L.E.S. Artistes'

Time for a week off from politics on Video of the Week this time around. Here's the best new music video I've seen in quite a while.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Google vs Feed Aggregators?

For a blogger, it is pretty important to be able to read other people's blogs.

At the moment, EU Referendum looks like this.
Mr Eugenides looks like this, and
A Very Public Sociologist looks like this.

What have these blogs got in common? Well, they're all on Google Blogs/Blogger/Blogspot. For some reason, blogs that are hosted on Google but don't use a blogspot domain name (like this one) don't seem to be affected.

From a quick search on (what else) Google, I discover from the Blogger Help Group that since yesterday morning this problem has affected several blog surfers, and that it is an intentional policy.

"In order to keep Blogger and Blog*Spot running healthy, we're blocking IPs that appear to be making abusive, automatic requests.
If you are seeing a 403 message, your computer may be making requests without your knowledge, or you may be on a network or behind a proxy that is making these requests."

- Blogger Employee

I've checked it out and I'm pretty confident that I don't have any malware on my computer, and I firmly deny writing any bots to automatically search Google. So my guess is that the culprit is my Feed Aggregator, which has most of the blogs on my blogroll on it and has been set to automatically update when each blogger puts up a new post.

So, is Google against feed aggregators (I hope not), or is this a temporary hitch (I hope so)? If you are a reader of blogs and you have experienced this problem, do you use a feed aggregator?

What A Surprise

On the front page of the Observer today, half-way through an article about the 'collapse' in Gordon Brown's public standing, comes the truly shocking revelation that Imelda Walsh, human resources director of our second biggest supermarket chain, has recommended to the Government that around 2.6 million mothers should "gain the right to demand flexible working hours".

Well, knock me down with a feather. If it isn't the directives issued from on high, it's our own Sainsbury's Government coming up with ever more innovative ways to shaft small businesses.

The flexible working plans were originally mooted in the Queen's Speech in November last year, and Walsh was selected to undertake the review by cabinet minister John Hutton shortly afterwards. The plans were criticised at that time by the Federation of Small Businesses

"The government needs to recognise that the reality in a business is that the employees need to be at work to enable the firm to make money, pay their wages and grow to employ others. The employer must continue to have the final say in granting flexible working to ensure that the business does not suffer." - John Wright, FSB Chairman
Small businesses suffer disproportionately from such legislation, of course, because due to their small size it is so much more difficult for them to cover for employees taking advantage of 'flexible working'. It has nothing to do with exploitation, and everything to do with sheer practicality.

It is surely common sense that a business - particularly one with constrained 'trading hours' such as a retailer or an entertainment venue - with few employees and narrow profit margins will find coping with demands for flexibility far more difficult than will a large corporate competitor.

By constantly pushing for changes to labour laws that will inevitably harm small businesses to a much greater degree than large-scale employers, both the European Union and New Labour are contributing to the corporate domination of our society.

Whether that be deliberate, or a consequence of putting ideology ahead of critical thinking about the real-world consequences of legislation, one can't be sure.

Either way, though, the effect will be the same - More hardship for small-scale employers, and more 'Closing Down' signs outside Britain's small shops and venues.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Here Come The Marcabians

The Fourth or Fifth Fleet of the Marcab Confederacy will invade cities across the world tomorrow, in the form of thousands of masked minions controlled via the internet by evil psychiatrists.

Think I've fallen off my rocker? Think again.

That is how the head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, is reported by long-time anti-CoS activist Gregg Hagglund to have explained the development of the worldwide Anonymous protest against the organisation's practices - The fourth iteration of which is taking place on May 10.

Because although there's plenty about Scientology (such as the above) that can only be described as utterly absurd*, there are serious reasons why the level of opposition that Anonymous are currently providing the Church of Scientology is justified.

Although they don't think much of the description, Scientology certainly fits the definition of a cult. It is an organisation that has turned taking advantage both psychologically and financially of vulnerable people into an art form. An organisation described by a UK High Court judge in 1984 as "corrupt, sinister and dangerous".

The May round of protests is aimed at highlighting the policy of 'Fair Game', originally described by Scientology's founder L Ron Hubbard in 1967 as follows (a 'Suppressive Person' is an opponent of Scientology):

"A Suppressive Person or Group becomes 'Fair Game'. By Fair Game is meant, without right for self, possessions or position, and no Scientologist may be brought before a Committee of Evidence or punished for any action taken against a Suppressive Person or Group during the period that person or group is 'fair game'." - Hubbard, Introduction to Scientology Ethics (1967)
The CoS claims that 'Fair Game' was cancelled forty years ago. However, there are reports of critics of Scientology being "fair gamed" throughout this period and to the present day.

The London protests take place tomorrow (Saturday May 10) from 11am to 1:30pm at the Scientology Centre at Queen Victoria Street (near Blackfriars) and from 2pm to 5:30pm at the Dianetics Centre on Tottenham Court Road (near Goodge Street).
Most of the protesters will be wearing a mask (usually the signature 'V For Vendetta' mask). Many will be wearing the Marcab Confederacy outfit: A black suit accompanied by a black fedora hat.

* This South Park episode, 'Trapped In The Closet', believe it or not, provides an accurate outline of the belief system at the core of Scientology. For a Scientologist to gain the 'knowledge' supplied in this episode, they would have to pay the Co$ thousands of pounds.

Diktatwatch: Why Don't You Ask Them?

Not, perhaps, the most scandalous Diktatwatch I'll showcase on here, but an illustration of the degree to which public service management disregards the concerns of the people who actually do the job.

Ever wondered how new Metropolitan Police uniforms are designed? Well, apparently the task falls to students at the London College of Fashion. Winning designs included trousers with adjustable waistband, and a cape!

As policeman blogger Totally Un-PC puts it:

Why indeed.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Elephant Spotting

The EU Referendum blog has an insightful post about the role of bloggers in exposing the influence of the EU on British Government policy - Something the media, even those papers often derided by pro-EU commentators as Euro-phobic, are often failing to pick up on.

In this case, it is the Third Postal Services directive (directive 2008/06/EC (PDF)) that is the elephant. This directive provides for all postal services in the EU to be opened to competition by December 2010, requiring "legal monopolies" on postal services to be abolished by the end of that month.

Despite this, (via Tim Worstall) articles in the British press on the opening up of the UK postal market to competition have uniformly failed to mention the influence of the directive. Articles in the Telegraph, Guardian, Times, Independent, Daily Express, Sun, Mirror and, yes Polly, even the Daily Mail all ignored the role of the EU.

EU Referendum finish up their excoriation of the mainstream media by declaring that "[the blogs] will have to carry more of the load in future". If this showing is anything to go by, they're definitely right on that score.

Resources for Elephant Spotters:

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Lisbon Treaty: Legal Challenge To Go Ahead

IMAGE: Daily Telegraph

Stuart Wheeler (above), the founder of the spread betting firm IG Group, has won the right to challenge the Government in the High Court over the Lisbon Treaty.

"Mr Wheeler claims that the British public is entitled to vote on the Lisbon treaty because, he says, it is virtually identical to the constitution on which a referendum was promised."
He's right, of course - Senior figures including Margot Wallstrom, Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Angela Merkel have all admitted as much.

The hearing has been scheduled for 9 June, just 3 days before the Irish vote on the treaty.

The Lisbon Treaty issue has fallen off the political radar somewhat in recent weeks. Let's hope this puts it right back on the agenda where it belongs, and at the very least makes Gordon Brown squirm once more as the electorate is reminded of his betrayal of their trust (PDF, see pg41-42) on further EU integration.

If Stuart Wheeler wins in his court bid, the Government may even be made to honour that manifesto promise, and give the people of Britain a referendum on the Treaty!


Monday, 5 May 2008

Video Of The Week (18)

Video of the Week 28/04 - 04/05: Water Torture

Amnesty International describe this ad-agency produced video as 'the film the CIA doesn't want you to see'. It will be shown at cinemas from next week.

Hari: No More No Platforms

Of the left-wing columnists who get a regular bashing here and on other libertarian blogs, I've always rated Johann Hari as probably the best of them - In fact I'd go so far as to say that the sensible columns outweigh the occasional clunker.

Besides, anyone who so enrages the pro-Iraq war so-called 'Decents'*, as Hari has since his March 2006 article in which he reversed and apologished for his initial support for the invasion, has to have something going for them.

Today's Johann Hari piece in the Independent, dealing with the burning question of just why so many people voted for the BNP as to give them a seat on the London assembly, is a great illustration of that. He rises above the shrillness and faux-amazement of other commentators on the elections to ask the pertinent question: Why is the BNP vote rising?

As I and others predicted two months ago, so Hari discovered as he canvassed for the election. When he asked one "fiftysomething white woman" why she planned to vote BNP, he reports receiving the following priceless response:

"I just want to tell politicians to fuck off."

Yes, much of the increase in the BNP vote on Thursday wasn't the 'bigot vote', but the protest vote - Often ex-Labour voters who no longer feel their party represents them, and recognise that neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats stand for anything much different. The far left has been unable to become sufficiently organised in time to mount a serious challenge for their votes, the Left List and Respect receiving a laughable 0.92% and 2.43% of the List vote respectively. It is not difficult, then, to guess why 'disenfranchised' voters fall for the BNP's come-ons.

The BNP have, as I discussed in a pre-election post on the subject, done their best to hide their extremism and give themselves a veneer of respectability. As Johann Hari describes in today's column, the "no platform" approach doesn't help. It gives the BNP justification for painting themselves as victims of 'censorship' and 'political correctness', and perhaps more importantly prevents them from letting their true colours show.
"The way to discredit the BNP is for people to hear what they say. No more no platforms: take them on. Read out their pro-Hitler quotes. Watch them implode."
Richard Barnbrook's slurred speech upon winning his London Assembly seat is a case in point. Even on the white-supremacist Stormfront forums it was described as an "embarrassment" and "cringe worthy". The BNP's new GLA member looks quite prepared to make a fool of himself:

Let the public see and hear, over the next four years, just how disastrous a representative Barnbrook is - and how much worse the candidates lower down the BNP list must, by extension, have been.

* Don't bother commenting on the linked blog - Its autocratic, Christopher Hitchens-loving administrator will delete any comments that go against its 'Decent Left' line, replacing them with his own brand of snideness.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Who Will Hold Boris Accountable?

IMAGE: Newsbiscuit, via Liberal England

Despite the misgivings of the likes of Neil Harding, Boris Johnson won Thursday's London Mayoral Election in a democratic vote.

At the same time, it is almost certain that the media, in particular the Evening Standard, played a significant part in convincing Londoners that Ken Livingstone presided over a corrupt adminstration, was a friend of extremists and a supporter of dictators. Throughout the run-up to the election, barely a day went by in which the Standard didn't carry at least one article or opinion-piece attacking Livingstone.

As DonaldS writes on Liberal Conspiracy, the Evening Standard gave Boris "almost unqualified support". Standard reporter Andrew Gilligan explained that he was "not working to get a Tory elected [but] to get Ken unelected". Of course, the inevitable result of the latter made the distinction rather meaningless.

Over the past six months, London's only paid-for newspaper clearly went beyond keeping the Mayor accountable into actively campaigning against his re-election and, as election day neared increasingly making clear its support for Boris:

"Honesty and competence are the overriding issues in tomorrow's mayoral election. Democracy cannot properly function if our elected representatives have not proved themselves to be the guardians of integrity. Ken Livingstone has comprehensively failed that test. Londoners should vote for change and make Boris Johnson Mayor." - Evening Standard, 30/04/08
That the Standard, a right-wing tabloid owned by the same company (Associated Newspapers) as the Daily Mail, threw its weight behind the Tory candidate's campaign is not exactly headline news. And, despite the complaints of left leaning commentators like Peter Wilby, it is not required to be impartial, any more than the Daily Mirror or Independent.

What should, I consider, reasonably be expected of a newspaper in the position that the Evening Standard is in is that it hold the elected Mayor, his administration team, and the Tory-controlled London Assembly up to scrutiny. On the basis of the one-sidedness of its pre-election coverage, there has to be some doubt as to the paper's preparedness to do so.

In the absence of a competing, Boris-opposing London newspaper with any sort of circulation, who will take up the task of making sure that Boris makes at least a passable attempt at living up to his manifesto commitments - from the outlandish headline-grabbers, such as the introduction of a new generation of Routemasters, to the relatively mundane? Perhaps, that is where the blog comes into its own.

Although their bid to prevent the Tory's election was unsuccessful, the Stop Boris campaign showed what can be done. Essentially a one-man campaign run from a single " room", Stop Boris attracted around 4,000 readers and considerable praise in the seven weeks running up until the election. However, the anonymous Mr. Stop Boris has (not unreasonably) declined to take it up...

UPDATE (05/05): It would appear that someone, namely Birkbeck politics student Naadir Jeewa (who blogs at Random Variable), has already stepped up to the plate by setting up Boris Watch.

Friday, 2 May 2008

If Voting Changed Anything...

"Look, Bubbles, if you press the red button the blue light goes off. And if you press the blue button the red light goes off. That's politics, boy. You're clever now. That's why people fought and died. That's why we have further education and enlightened deliberations with the self and others. To be fuzzy little fifty-fifty pundit chimps. Yes, you are. Yeees you are." UrbanOspreys, Comment Is Free
"...But in acting in this cartel like manner, Labour and the Conservatives surely merit reference to the Office of Fair Trading. What they are doing is closing down the debate before it can even be had." - Dave Osler
The local elections of 2008 are all over bar the shouting, and the verdict is in. Labour are out of favour; the Tories are in. The finger is pointed at Gordon Brown, in particular the 10p tax rate blunder. But how many people really believe that the Conservatives would actually do a better job? Is the reality not rather more that we have a case of "we've had enough of that lot, they've had 11 years, how about giving the other lot a go".

It is perhaps an irony that the most high-profile victim of the nation-wide swing to the Tories, Ken Livingstone, entitled a 1987 autobiographical book 'If Voting Changed Anything They'd Abolish It'. But that doesn't make the underlying sentiment any less apt to the reality of British politics in 2008.

The faces, and the colours of the rosettes, may change from red to blue. Approaches to some areas of policy may differ slightly. But, underneath, the differences between these two parties are few. So few, in fact, that the development of a 'joint strategy' involving thinktanks linked to Gordon Brown and Iain Duncan Smith has barely raised eyebrows. It is just yet another indication of the convergence of the two parties into, as I put it in a previous post along similar lines, an "amorphous mass".

How come British politics is in such a state?

If there's one word that defines both parties, it is not "socialist" or "social democratic", but corporatist. Both take in millions of pounds worth of donations from corporations, tycoons and financiers. Inevitably, this pays its way in terms of considerable influence over party policy. Only occasionally, as in the case of the controversial exemption of Formula One from a tobacco sponsorship ban following a £1 million donation by Bernie Ecclestone to the Labour party, does it make the news.

The magnitude of the role that corporate lobbyists play in buying favoritism in US politics is infamous. There was even, in 2003, a US TV show centred around the world of 'K Street' (where the largest D.C lobbying firms have their headquarters). Although things aren't quite that bad on this side of the Atlantic yet, it is clear that the interests of Government (and opposition) and those of the corporations are about as closely intertwined here.

And, despite the fact that Britain has had a nominally 'Labour' Government for the past 11 years, costly follies like the PFI schemes and the NPfIT project have blurred the distinctions between state and big business more than ever before.