Saturday, December 31, 2005

Those pesky journalists!

Lord "Charlie" Falconer, Secretary of State at the Department for Constitutional Affairs and Speaker of the House of Lords, is having an ominous whine about the UK's recent Freedom of Information Act:

The vast majority of requests under the FoI Act have been for key information about issues, especially local issues, which have a real impact on people's lives. Inevitably, a small minority have not been so responsible. Asking about the number of windows at the Department for Education and Skills, or the amount of money departments spend on toilet paper, diverts energy from answering worthwhile requests.

So we are looking now at the operation of the act to ensure that its central purpose is being honoured. Freedom of information is about giving power to the people, not about declaring open season for the wilder fevers of journalistic wish-lists.

In my own experience of the FOIA, the Home Office is still to answer a request from May. And the government is no doubt embarrassed that MPs have used the act to discover delicious tidbits like Jack Straw arranging a taxpayer-funded tutorial on the Civil Service for his son attended by the Cabinet Secretary, Home Office Permanent Secretary and the Prime Minister's adviser on foreign policy.

In a Pythonesque twist, even the Information Commissioner is resistant to releasing information:

The UK watchdog charged with ensuring that public bodies obey the new Freedom of Information Act already has a huge backlog of appeals that will take years to clear. An even greater surprise is that these figures, along with early decisions, were withheld and were only made public after filing an FOI request.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Jimmy Wales on the future of the media

The Times has an interesting interview with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, on how the media will evolve to work alongside blogs, wikis and the other tools of Web 2.0:

"What we will see is a set of hybrid models with an increasing amount of citizen participation in the gathering of news and in feedback and in reporting and analysing the news. And at the same time, we’ll have professional organisations managing the process – basically being the core framework."

Citizen journalist is a horrible phrase. I much prefer the bloggertariat or bloggerati ;)

America's climate blitzkrieg

Action man in jeepAt this halfway point, Simon Schama is not too keen on the Noughties:

The decade when coral reefs turned pallid and died; when Alaskan caribou butted their heads against pipelines; when what seemed like a marginal rise in oceanic temperatures translated into hurricanes that ate entire shorelines, was also the decade of the Hummer. Just as Paul Fussell identified the Jeep - light, speedy and tough - as the symbol of the war that America wanted to fight in the 1940s, so the Hummer will forever get remembered as the Supersize emblem of imperial hubris in the noughties: comical in its swaggering, pseudo-military fantasy; obese sheet-metal in denial; the self-dooming guzzler to end all guzzlers; blitzkrieg at the shopping mall - while the real thing - Humvees with teenagers in uniform - get taken out by rocket-propelled grenades in Falluja.

Is Galileo CAP in space?

First Galileo test satellite launches in KazahkstanIs the European Space Agency's just-launched Galileo a good use of €3.6 billion? Or could some European contribution to the US Global Positioning System and a treaty undertaking to make the military high-resolution service permanently available, perhaps through NATO, have been arranged at a fraction of the cost?

The world could most likely have waited four more years for the GPS upgrade due in 2012 that will bring it up to the service level of Galileo available at the earliest in 2008. But French national pride was at stake, so a few billion euros here and there were never going to make much difference.

Bliar overtakes Churchill

Never before has so little been owed to so few by so many. Talk about political giants and pygmies...

TONY BLAIR has overtaken Sir Winston Churchill for length of service as Prime Minister and will take his place in the top ten longest-serving British parliamentary leaders of all time tomorrow.

Mr Blair seized Churchill’s record of eight years and 240 days, amassed during two stints in Downing Street, on Tuesday.

The Labour leader will become the second longest-serving Prime Minister of the past 100 years when he passes Asquith’s eight years and 244 days’ continuous service on the last day of the year.

While Mr Blair is unlikely to knock Sir Robert Walpole from his place as Britain’s most enduring PM, having announced that he will not contest the next election, he may yet be tempted to push for one final record — beating the 11 years 209 days that Margaret Thatcher led the country between 1979 and 1990.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

More stormy weather

Snow and big waves in Whitley Bay this week. The local crazy surfers must have been loving the 8-feet waves along at Tynemouth.

The UK surfing championships are held here every October, although you would be risking organ failure even with a drysuit at this time of year in the North Sea. This kind of thing is much more fun in Australia...

Mambo Italiano

Been to two great Italian restaurants in the last couple of days. Pizzeria Francesca in Jesmond is definitely Newcastle's best restaurant: queue up while drinking the great wine, then choose from a huge range of fantastic pizza and pasta, all at unbelievable prices. Mikul and Shalean (above) agree! And Trattoria Mondello in Goodge St reminds me how lucky I am to live around the corner from the mini-Little-Italy of London: lovely Sicilian food and wine. Both places were happy to make my own random choice of food rather than stick to the menu, which is always a good sign.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

What is Brown waiting for?

Why haven't Gordon Brown's plans for putsch yet come to shove?

Brown has always thought regicide both fails to reward the assassin (witness Michael Heseltine), and brings disaster to the regicidal party (witness the Tories from 1990 until a month ago). That, rather than lack of nerve, is why he has kept his dagger sheathed. So say his friends, at any rate. But in 2006 this logic will come under severe strain. For carrying on, with no change at the top, is exacting its own cost. Blair is struggling to deliver his programme - from incapacity benefit to identity cards - because his authority is waning. When John Prescott, and a variety of lesser mortals, feel free to sound off against the PM, you know that fear of the boss, a vital ingredient of power, is seeping away.

Here's hoping the palace coup comes ASAP. Along with the dumping of much of Blair's programme, including slashing incapacity benefit and introducing ID cards. Michael Portillo certainly thinks Brown will drop the latter.

Happy Kwanzaa!

I hope Freewayblogger won't mind me using his card to wish y'all a Happy Kwanzaa... Here's to an impeachilicious New Year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

NSA data mining is tip of the iceberg

The NSA is under extreme pressure for its illegal analysis of databases concerning Americans' telecommunications activities. But they aren't the only ones relentlessly mining databases of personal information in the US, despite the 2004 shutdown of Iran-contra criminal John Poindexter's Total Information Awareness programme:

according to a 2004 General Accounting Office report, the Bush administration and the Pentagon continued to rely heavily on data-mining techniques. "Our survey of 128 federal departments and agencies on their use of data mining," the report said, "shows that 52 agencies are using or are planning to use data mining. These departments and agencies reported 199 data-mining efforts, of which 68 are planned and 131 are operational." Of these uses, the report continued, "the Department of Defense reported the largest number of efforts."

Ross Anderson has some interesting questions about the situation in the UK (with some partial answers from me), where GCHQ is no doubt undertaking similar activities. Douwe Korff and I wrote an extensive report for the Information Commissioner in 2003 about these technologies and how law enforcement agencies should be regulated in their use.

Let it snow

It finally feels like winter, with snowfall across the east of England and temperatures of -5C forecast for Friday. I haven't really ventured out today in Newcastle. The Guardian has a nice collection of snow photos; the picture on the left by Yan Cowles is from Stoke Newington in London. Now I just need to get to a ski resort to make proper use of it :)

Monday, December 26, 2005

Mickey Mouse beats cruise missiles every time

Anatole Kaletsky thinks that the rollercoaster of events during 2005 point to one main conclusion:

The unravelling of the Bush Administration, which started immediately after the President’s re-election, came as no surprise to those of us who found Mr Bush an absurdly implausible leader and were expecting open warfare to break out within the Republican Party’s strange coalition of economic liberals, social conservatives and trigger-happy militarists. This early in-fighting in Washington is not necessarily bad news for the American Right or good news for the Democrats. The various Republican factions have plenty of time to let off steam and settle on a plausible candidate by 2008. But the rapid decay of the Bush presidency has broad significance for it could inspire a profound reassessment of America’s global hegemony and its role in the world. After 9/11, and especially after the easy invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, America has been widely believed to dominate the world because of its unchallengeable military power. But this year’s events in Iraq and Washington have shown this assessment to be simply wrong.

It is America's economic and cultural power that have enabled it to continue to dominate the world — perhaps something that (and I hesitate to give the content industry cartel ideas) is yet to enter the debate over intellectual property law in the US.

Brown makes overture to Blairites

Gordon Brown must feel that his position as Crown Prince of the Labour party is weakening. His "friends" are making a transparent attempt to keep Blairite ministers like Charles Clarke and John Reid on side for his accession:

There would also be senior roles for Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, the Industry Secretary, John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary, and David Miliband, the Communities Minister. All are seen as committed modernisers but Mr Brown is known to accept that to win for the fourth time for Labour in 2009-10 he must convince the British people that his party’s reforms of the public services are continuing.

David Cameron's strategy to portray himself as the "heir to Blair" and Brown as an old-school socialist who is blocking attempts at reform are obviously paying dividends...

Off with their heads!

William Rees-Mogg has dug up a fascinating pamphlet from the earliest days of The Times, reporting the execution of Marie Antoinette:

Reading it, one is struck, as were contemporary observers, by the calm and dignified manner in which Marie Antoinette defended herself at her trial, knowing her situation to be hopeless. Her husband, Louis XVI, had already been executed after a similar trial. As John Walter writes in his preface: “She astonished those who assumed to themselves the office of Judges by her presence of mind; she exposed the contradictions of the evidence and the artful interrogations of her prosecutors with great ingenuity and clearness; she replied with firmness and dignity, and heard her sentence without emotion.”

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Blogging for freedom

The EFF has a great campaign for bloggers' rights in the US, but things are a little more serious in Iran. The government has been cracking down on dissent, with over 20 bloggers arrested since 2003, and sentences such as 14 years in prison or 124 lashes handed out:

For a reader from the West, the blogs offer a vision of Iran, far from the chanting crowds, hidden women and ranting mullahs of popular imagery. As much as President Ahmadinejad may seek to turn back the clock and battle “Westoxification”, at the blog level this is a modern country. “My blog is a blank page,” writes one young Iranian blogger. “Sometimes I stretch out on this page in the nude . . . now and again I hide behind it. Occasionally I dance on it.” That may not sound like a call to arms, but in a country where the music is dying it may be the harbinger of revolution.

The Economist surveys evolution

Interesting survey in the Christmas Economist on human evolution, full of fascinating factoids such as that 1/200 men in the world today are descended from the prodigiously sexual Genghis Khan. Another nugget from an article on the evolution of intelligence:

sexual selection does provide a satisfying explanation for such otherwise perplexing activities as painting, carving, singing and dancing. On the surface, all of these things look like useless dissipations of energy. All, however, serve to demonstrate physical and mental prowess in ways that are easy to see and hard to fake—precisely the properties, in fact, that are characteristic of sexually selected features. Indeed, a little introspection may suggest to the reader that he or she has, from time to time, done some of these things to show off to a desirable sexual partner.

Of course, we all know who set evolution in train...

Saturday, December 24, 2005

King Tony's reign comes to a close

Matthew Parris writes:

Mr Blair’s reign is coming to an end. He has lost his future, lost his army and lost his grip. My colleague Peter Riddell reports the Prime Minister’s remarkably “determined” frame of mind. But determined on what — what that is achievable? I saw an old man on Victoria Street this week pushing a shopping trolley full of tattered plastic bags. He too had a most determined expression on his face.

Soon our delusional PM will be gone. And a solid successor is ready. Why then is there so little buzz of hopeful expectation among Labour MPs awaiting the long-delayed arrival of Mr Brown? Because, deep in its collective gut, the suspicion gnaws new Labour that for England the answer to a new Conservative Leader is not a grumpy old stick-in-the-mud from Scotland.

But who is the answer? Parris suggests one of David Miliband, Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn, Jack Straw, John Reid or Margaret Beckett. Beckett has done a good job at the recent climate change conference in Montreal, but she is really a 70s socialist throwback who would have no chance at winning over middle England. John Reid is an even grumpier, stick-in-the-mud version of Gordon Brown. Jack Straw is a "political pygmy" (© Sir Christopher Meyer), Alan Johnson a non-entity, and David Miliband is even more unctuous than Blair.

It's tricky to plan a succession when, as Geoffrey Wheatcroft reports, "A very senior former personage in the Labour leadership was heard to say recently that in the past eight years, Blair apart, there had been only three people of any real ability in the cabinet. He meant Robin Cook, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown, of whom one is dead, one is in exile and one isn't on speaking terms with Blair."

Friday, December 23, 2005

Blairs are Islamophobes of the Year

The Islamic Human Rights Commission has announced the results of their Islamophobia Awards 2005. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, winner of the UK "award", is in esteemed company: Vladimir Putin, John Howard and George Bush win the other regional awards. His prize: eight golden bullets. Sir Ian is joined by his namesake; the winner of the special prize for Islamophobe of the Year is our dear Prime Minister.

Music company faces bankruptcy after copyright fight

A classical music company faces a crippling legal bill after losing a legal case on the ownership of copyright in the edited version of an edited music score originally composed for Louis XIV. The artistes involved are horrified that a mere music scholar should be claiming copyright in his edition:
The composer John Rutter wrote of the case that "copyright was not designed to reward scholarship but creativity". Peter Phillips, director of the Tallis Scholars, and a leading editor of music, said: "All the music I perform has to be edited, or we couldn't read it. But copyright should be there, as Rutter said, to reward creativity, not scholarship or diligence. How much an editor did or did not write should never be asked and judged upon during a million-pound lawsuit involving a small and innovative recording company."

How quickly rightholders rush to criticise copyright law when it has an outcome that is not to their taste.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Flying Spaghetti Monster cometh!

Wired News has an exclusive interview with the Flying Spaghetti Monster's representative on earth, Bobby Henderson, on the forthcoming FSM Bible:

The book is necessary so that people see how much hard evidence supports the existence of the FSM. You can make a pretty strong argument for His existence. Especially if you use the same sort of reasoning the [Intelligent Design] people do: specious reasoning and circular logic.

Hoarders! Pirates! Arrrrrr!

The recording industry is looking to steal another good English word for its Newspeak collection. Those of us with digital music collections are now apparently "hoarders".

PR flunkies NPD are being paid by the recording cartel to deliver this message via a "study". In one of the best demonstrations yet of that old statistical chestnut, that correlation does not equal causation, NPD claims that "More than two out of three U.S. households with Internet access had a least one digital music file on their computer while more than half had at least 50 songs". Quick! Disconnect the Internet!

(Thanks, Alex)

Übercon whacks Bush

When überconservatives like Ronald Reagan's associate deputy attorney general Bruce Fein make comments like this, you know that Shrub is in trouble:

President Bush presents a clear and present danger to the rule of law. He cannot be trusted to conduct the war against global terrorism with a decent respect for civil liberties and checks against executive abuses. Congress should swiftly enact a code that would require Mr. Bush to obtain legislative consent for every counterterrorism measure that would materially impair individual freedoms.

Here's hoping that the US Congress gives Americans a generous set of constitutional presents for Christmas: appointing a Special Prosecutor to investigate Shrub; setting up a joint Congressional Committee of Inquiry; and enacting the law that Fein suggests. Otherwise we can expect continued contempt for the Constitution and the United States of America from its President.

...there are no checks on NSA errors or abuses, the hallmark of a rule of law as opposed to a rule of men. Truth and accuracy are the first casualties of war. President Bush assured the world Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 invasion. He was wrong. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Americans of Japanese ancestry were security threats to justify interning them in concentration camps during World War II. He was wrong. President Lyndon Johnson maintained communists masterminded and funded the massive Vietnam War protests in the United States. He was wrong. To paraphrase President Ronald Reagan's remark to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, President Bush can be trusted in wartime, but only with independent verification.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Bush attempts anti-Constitution coup d'etat

It's now becoming clear what President Shrub has really been up to since September 11 2001.

Compliant legal poodles have given classified opinions that he has unlimited power to take actions to win the endless "War on Terror", regardless of what the US Constitution and Congress have to say. This is the basis on which he has authorised torture, domestic surveillance by the Army, the abolition of habeus corpus, warrantless surveillance of Americans — and who knows what else.

His Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito are no-doubt prepared to overturn judicial decisions from the Nixon era that make clear that the Commander-in-Chief does not have unlimited power to "do it my way", and that the Constitution is more than "a goddamned piece of paper". They surely also had long discussions with the Shrub administration over their reaction to any impeachment attempt by the Democrats:

Prof. Christopher Pyle: ...the President admitted that he personally ordered the National Security Agency to violate a federal statute. Now, he has no Constitutional authority to do that. The Constitution says he must take care that all laws be faithfully executed, not just the ones he likes... the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is the exclusive law governing these international intercepts, and he violated it anyway. And the law also says that any person who violates that law is guilty of a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. By the plain meaning of the law, the President is a criminal.

How can Republicans and Democrats who believe in a republic of laws prevent this outrageous attempt at an anti-Constitutional coup d'etat and put Shrub where he belongs, in jail? And how far are we from the abuses of the 1960s that ultimately led to American withdrawal from Vietnam and the impeachment of Nixon?

Prof. Pyle: In the 1960s, Army intelligence had 1,500 plainclothes agents watching every demonstration of 20 people or more throughout the United States. They had a giant warehouse in Baltimore, Maryland, full of information on the law-abiding activities of American citizens, protest politics, mainly. I learned about this while I was in the Army, just before I was discharged, and I wrote about it after I was discharged, and then investigated it for two congressional committees: Senator Ervin’s Committee on Constitutional Rights and Senator Church’s Select Committee on Intelligence. As a result of those investigations, the entire U.S. Army Intelligence Command was abolished and all of its files were burned.

Bruce Schneier warns that this could be the end, not the beginning, of a descent into US dictatorship:

The result is that the president's wartime powers, with its armies, battles, victories, and congressional declarations, now extend to the rhetorical "War on Terror": a war with no fronts, no boundaries, no opposing army, and -- most ominously -- no knowable "victory." Investigations, arrests and trials are not tools of war. But according to the Yoo memo, the president can define war however he chooses, and remain "at war" for as long as he chooses.

This is indefinite dictatorial power. And I don't use that term lightly; the very definition of a dictatorship is a system that puts a ruler above the law. In the weeks after 9/11, while America and the world were grieving, Bush built a legal rationale for a dictatorship. Then he immediately started using it to avoid the law.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Pennsylvania banishes Intelligent Design

A Pennsylvania judge has found firmly against a local school board that required the teaching of "Intelligent Design" in biology lessons. The "Rev" Pat Robertson will doubtless have some hellfire to rain down on the citizens of Dover. Judge John Jones found:
"It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

"We find that the secular purposes claimed by the board amount to a pretext for the board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom."

Legal downloads grow 400%

Good news for the recording industry:
A spokesman for the [British Phonographic Industry] said that the number of tracks legally downloaded during the year had topped 24m compared with 5.7m the previous year. The mass popularity of devices such as the iPod and the growing number of homes with high speed broadband connections, together with a strong push by record labels to widen the choice of songs available legally, have contributed to the growth.
Shame that it's been spun in The Guardian into "Music industry failing to halt illegal downloads".

Monday, December 19, 2005

Security via fear

Join the Jesus' General campaign! Ignorance is strength... freedom is slavery... etc. etc.

Bush has come out fighting on the unwarranted surveillance of Americans he has ordered to be conducted by the National Security Agency. In a pathetic and transparent attempt to divert attention from the illegal and unconstitutional nature of his order, he said: "The fact that we're discussing this programme is helping the enemy".

But then what would you expect from a President who told Republican Congressmen earlier this month: “I don’t give a goddamn. I’m the President and the Commander-in-Chief. Do it my way.” And as someone who has sworn to faithfully uphold the Constitution of the United States: “Stop throwing the Constitution in my face. It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!”

More gardening

Mark Henderson criticises John Le Carré's plot for The Constant Gardner:

It might at first seem plausible that a company would seek to cut costs by pushing a trial on deprived and ill-educated people who do not not ask questions of free medicine. But if selling in a Western market was the ultimate goal, this would be a stupid way to design a trial. Its aim would be to test safety and efficacy, which means limiting confounding factors that might offer alternative explanations for changes in a subject’s health. Testing on a population with high rates of HIV, malnutrition and other serious medical problems would make it very difficult to achieve useful results.

Nonetheless, Wired reports that there are serious ethical concerns over drug trials being run by Big Pharma in India:

Shantha Biotech failed to obtain proper consent from patients while testing a drug meant to treat heart attacks. Biocon tested a genetically modified form of insulin without the proper approval from the Drug Controller General of India or the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee.

In another incident, Sun Pharmaceuticals convinced doctors to prescribe Letrozole, a breast cancer drug, to more than 400 women as a fertility treatment in a covert clinical trial -- and used the results to promote the drug for the unapproved use.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Studying totalitarianism in the land of the free

Mao's Little Red BookThis is beyond parody:
A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's tome on Communism called "The Little Red Book..."
The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand's class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents' home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security

The student certainly got a more first-hand experience of totalitarianism than he expected. With items like this in the news, it isn't surprising that the Senate has just refused to renew key snooping provisions in the Patriot Act. The FBI's ability to demand personal records like library loan requests without any judicial oversight is one of the most invasive aspects of the act.

UPDATE: It seems the student involved made the whole story up. If only the same were true about the other news items that caused the US Congress to refuse renewal of key Patriot Act provisions beyond five weeks.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Bush breaking US law on surveillance

Bush has been breaking US law by authorising unwarranted surveillance on US citizens by the National Security Agency:
the law forbids warrantless surveillance of US citizens, and it provides procedures to be followed in emergencies that do not leave enough time for federal agents to get a warrant. If the NY Times report is correct, the government did not follow these procedures. It therefore acted illegally.

Bush's order is arguably unconstitutional as well: it seems to violate the fourth amendment, and it certainly violates the requirement (Article II, sec. 3) that the President "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed."

Closing the analogue "hole"

Those DRM-obsessed jokers in Congress are trying their luck again:
The government is proposing that devices (consumer electronics, computers, software) manufactured after a certain date respond to a copy-protection signal or watermark in a digital video stream, and pass along that signal when converting the video to analog. The same goes for analog video streams, to pass on the protection to the digital video outputs.

The technology Congress is proposing (VEIL) is derived from one that originated with assorted interactive Batman toys that allowed the toys to respond to Batman television shows or videos. How cool—at least for toys.

So, essentially, the government wants your future TV, TiVo, computer, cell phone, Final Cut Pro, (input your favorite analog signal viewing / converting device here) to respond to the Bat Signal.

If only the content industry would concentrate on developing business models that served their customers, rather than screwing them via generous political donations.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Bush accepts McCain torture amendment

Finally, Bush has realised what horrific damage the torture scandal is doing to the reputation of the US, and is accepting John McCain's Defence Bill amendment banning "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment by any US personnel anywhere in the world. This is a rather more productive step than neocon frothings over "old Europe":
European anger has been matched by annoyance in the US, reviving prejudices of the old "warriors versus wimps" variety. "Europe," complained a columnist in the conservative Washington Times, "is in the throes of one of those fits of anti-American hysteria that seems to seize the Old Continent with predictable regularity. Any shadow of a rumour, any smidgeon of information that, if true, could reflect badly on the United States, sells newspapers in Europe like hotcakes and tends to warm people's hearts with the thought that at least they are not like Americans."

Thursday, December 15, 2005

GOP-mart: we'll sell anything

Jesus' General has a new sponsor!

Fafnir vs Condi

Fafblog has an exclusive interview with Condoleeza Rice. Best quote:
by subjecting these high-profile non-targets to not-torture in nonexistent secret prisons, you can bet we'll stop a lot of pretend terror. But Europe doesn't seem to appreciate our non-efforts to protect them.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Tories are doomed

Peter Hitchens is scathing about the state of the two main UK political parties. This applies equally in the EU, where the Parliament has just passed the worst possible version of the data retention directive.

Labour and the Tories are like a pair of corpses, stiff with rigor mortis, propping each other up. They no longer represent the true divisions in British society, which is why Labour can win only 22% of the popular vote, and the Tories a mere 20%. It is astonishing to think that neither of the major parties opposed the Iraq war; that neither resists the introduction of civil partnerships, devolution or the Northern Ireland peace process; that neither advocates withdrawal from the EU, a return to selective education or the reintroduction of the death penalty. Every important issue is left undebated and unexamined while the frontbenches quibble over trivia. Had it not been for pressure and ridicule from conservative journalists, the Tory party would even now support identity cards and all the accompanying repressive rubbish pursued in the name of the "war on terror".

The word that sums up the Cameron Tories is vacancy - a great sky-blue-pink gap where the government's adversary ought to be, an emptiness deliberately created so as to offend nobody but the thoughtful and independent of mind.

Interesting point on democratic choices available to Daily Mail readers, but just to quibble slightly: is anyone out there with an IQ over 80 against civil partnerships, devolution, the Northern Ireland peace process, UK membership of the EU, equitable schooling and abolition of the death penalty?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Good news from TRIPS

Unusual I know... IPKat reports that the WTO has agreed an amendment to the TRIPS agreement to facilitate access to essential medicines in countries suffering a health emergency that do not have the facilities to manufacture pharmaceuticals locally under a compulsory patent licence:
1. The obligations of an exporting Member under Article 31(f) shall not apply with respect to the grant by it of a compulsory licence to the extent necessary for the purposes of production of a pharmaceutical product(s) and its export to an eligible importing Member(s) in accordance with the terms set out in paragraph 2 of the Annex to this Agreement...

Corporate welfare dwarfs profits

Astonishing statistic from George Monbiot:
In his book Perverse Subsidies, published in 2001, Professor Norman Myers estimates that when you add the direct payments US corporations receive to the wider costs they oblige society to carry, you come up with a figure of $2.6 trillion, or roughly five times as much as the profits they make. As well as the $362bn the OECD countries were paying for farming when his book was published (or rather, as we have seen, for activities masquerading as farming) they were shelling out about $71bn on fossil fuels and nuclear power and a staggering $1.1 trillion on road transport. Worldwide, governments pay companies $25bn a year to destroy the Earth's fisheries, and $14bn to wreck our forests.
Echoes the results of the investigation by Greg Palast of the energy industry and corporate influence more generally.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Constant Gardner

Went to see this film starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz last night. It paints a vivid portrait of Kenya and Sudan, full of startling colours and sounds alongside appalling squalour and brutality — from Africans and Europeans.

The portrait that the film paints of the UK Diplomatic Service and the global pharmaceutical industry is not a pretty one. You can well imagine the Foreign Office's focus on trade leading to some ethically dubious decisions, and with author John Le Carré's years of diplomatic experience his portrayal of amoral ministers and conniving embassy staff does not seem entirely fanciful. The use of Africans as expendable subjects in drug trials sounds horrific, but is based on documented evidence.

Big Pharma's worldwide drive for stronger patent law has had an equally devastating effect on the lives of those in the developing world. As Le Carré notes in a postscript to the film:

Nobody in this story, and no outfit or corporation, thank God, is based upon an actual person or outfit in the real world. But I can tell you this; as my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realise that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

America sinks to the moral level of Saddam

Henry Porter writes on the consequences of "extraordinary rendition":
We affirm and protect civilisation by behaving within its constraints, not by shipping blindfolded men into dungeons where they are plugged into the electricity supply. If only the Prime Minister had thought for a few moments before rising in the House of Commons last week to support renditions, he might have recalled that on that very day the court listening to the trial of Saddam Hussein heard evidence from women who claimed to have been tortured by the dictator's secret police.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The flights of the torturers

Planespotters are to thank for documenting the stopovers in Europe of CIA flights carrying prisoners to torture camps:
At Shannon airport Tim Hourigan uses a scanner that allows him to see what air traffic control sees, and he, and other activists, religiously note down the numbers of landing planes. Then, using a combination of Federal Airport Authority Records and planespotting websites, they can track the movements of intelligence planes across the world. "It is a tedious job looking through hundreds of pictures of planes," says Mr Hourigan, who is not a planespotting enthusiast. "But it allows you to confirm and expose the activities of the CIA and our own government."
Liberty has asked 11 chief constables to investigate stopovers in Britain, as the CIA may be breaking UK and international law. The government is still denying all knowledge, whilst opposing an amendment to the Civil Aviation bill in the Lords that would ban the use of UK airports and airspace by CIA torture flights.

US torture is nothing new

Naomi Klein reviews a new book on the decades-long evolution of current US torture practices:
According to declassified training manuals, [School Of the Americas] students - military and police officers from across the hemisphere - were instructed in many of the same "coercive interrogation" techniques that have since gone to Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib: early morning capture to maximise shock, immediate hooding and blindfolding, forced nudity, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, sleep and food "manipulation", humiliation, extreme temperatures, isolation, stress positions - and worse. In 1996 President Clinton's Intelligence Oversight Board admitted that US-produced training materials condoned "execution of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion and false imprisonment".
The US has a long way to go to remove this stain on its good name.

The unbearable lightness of Cameron

Janice Turner has another take on the Tory's new wonder-boy:
there’s his cycling, a key lightness motif, always implying a cheerful insouciance about time, dignity, hairstyle and, in the capital at least, mortality itself. Boris Johnson is a feckless traffic-weaver and, as prince of lightness, is Britain’s most popular Conservative.
Bloomsbury's multiplying cycle lanes are another reason I disagree with Simon Jenkin's pessimism about the area :) London is so much easier and more fun to get around by bike!

The force is strong with this one

Matthew Parris writes that David Cameron is in the right place at the right time to capture a changing public mood, and that Tony Blair squandered this advantage early in his reign:
At his touch, second-rate mediamen gained the reputations of Rasputins; grubby image-peddling was elevated to knowledge of the high mysteries of spin; and hack pollsters acquired the status of priests of the Inner Temple. Half-baked philosophising as shallow as it was banal was accorded capital letters — “the Third Way” — and the world whispered of Mr Blair’s wondrous ability to “triangulate”. Swift, thou should’st be living at this hour.
So that's Alistair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, Philip Gould and Anthony Giddens told! I'm certainly not a fan of Giddens, whose speeches in the Lords have been polished but vacuous — as many of his new colleagues have pointed out.


Cory Doctorow points out these 42 downloadable jaw-dropping propoganda tracks from Joseph Goebbels:
Charlie and His Orchestra was led by Karl Schwendler, an English speaking German who broadcast Nazi-themed swing and big-band hits every night on the medium-wave and short-wave bands throughout the 1930s to Canada, the US and Britain.

Bush 'Flat Wrong' on Kyoto

Glad to see former President Clinton is putting further pressure on the Bush administration over US participation in climate change accords:
"There's no longer any serious doubt that climate change is real, accelerating and caused by human activities," said Clinton, whose address was interrupted repeatedly by enthusiastic applause. "We are uncertain about how deep and the time of arrival of the consequences, but we are quite clear they will not be good."
It seems that other nations at the Montreal meeting are doing the sensible thing and ignoring the US, rather than trying to agree something vague and meaningless that can get US approval.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Lifestyles may lead to loss of treatment

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has recommended that NHS patients should not be given treatments whose effectiveness will be compromised by unhealthy lifestyle choices. Smokers and binge drinkers might be denied a heart transplant, or the obese hip and knee replacements:
NICE and its advisory bodies should avoid denying care to patients with conditions that are, or may be, self-inflicted (in part or in whole). If, however, self-inflicted cause(s) of the condition influence the clinical or cost effectiveness of the use of an intervention, it may be appropriate to take this into account

Some MPs are unfortunately trying to score some cheap points over this.
Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrats' health spokesman, said: "There is no excuse for cash-strapped hospitals denying treatment to people whose lifestyle they disapprove of. Treatment decisions involving people's lifestyle should be based on clinical reasons, not grounds of cost."

It seems entirely reasonable to me that expensive treatments should not be given to patients who continue to damage their own health and significantly reduce the chances of the treatment working. And NICE agrees:
For both legal and bioethical reasons those undertaking technology appraisals and developing clinical guidelines must take account of economic considerations

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Lords rule: no torture evidence in our courts

A resounding ruling from the House of Lords appellate committee, which has banned the government from using evidence obtained from sources such as the US, Egypt and Afghanistan where torture has been used:
Lord Carswell: ... The duty not to countenance the use of torture by admission of evidence in judicial proceedings must be regarded as paramount and to allow its admission would shock the conscience, abuse or degrade the proceedings and involve the state in moral defilement.
How shameful that a government filled with lawyers, including the Prime Minister, who is also married to a leading human rights lawyer, needs any reminding of this.

EU to review European copyright law

The European Commission has just announced a review of the EU's complex set of directives related to copyright. Apparently, "(p)riority will be given to maximise synergies, minimise overlaps and redundancies, and increase the clarity and consistency of Community rules". "Reform of Copyright levies applied to equipment and media used for private copying" and "Review of term, in particular, term for sound recordings" are included in the review.

Could this possibly have anything to do with the music industry's push to extend the UK term of mechanical copyright from 50 to 95 years? In blatant disregard of the non-existent incentive effects of retrospective extension of intellectual property rights?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Condi "clarifies" US torture policy

Glad to see Condi has removed one of the legalistic loopholes being used by the US to justify torture by its staff working overseas:
Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, appeared to announce a shift in America's policy on the interrogation of terrorist suspects today when she said that US interrogators were barred from using cruel or degrading practices wherever in the world they were.

The Bush administration has previously insisted that the ban on cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment under the UN Convention against Torture did not apply to Americans working overseas.

Now we just need to see "torture" (as in "The United States does not condone torture") being used in its English sense, rather than the neocon definition of pain approaching but not equivalent to organ failure. And hope that Tony Blair will start making this distinction, rather than employing the same legalistic diversions as at today's Prime Minister's Questions:
The Prime Minister: ... I have drawn a very clear distinction on any suggestion that there can be any use of, or condoning the use of, torture. That is completely unacceptable on any basis. In respect of the allegations of so-called torture facilities or detention facilities across Europe, I have to say to my hon. Friend that I really know nothing about them at all—I only know that there are not any such here. If he reads the very clear statement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday, I think that he will find that it is consistent with all that I have said.

Will Cameron be a neocon in "compassionate Conservative" clothing?

While David Cameron has emphasised his caring, sharing side during his Tory leadership campaign, some of his public policy positions look worryingly Dubya-like:
Cameron too is surrounded by ideological neoconservatives, his campaign manager and shadow chancellor George Osborne chief among them. Cameron strongly backed the Iraq war while his allies, Michael Gove and Ed Vaizey, last month founded the Henry Jackson Society, named after the late US senator who is the patron saint of neoconservatism.
Simon Jenkins doesn't think policy is hugely important at this point:
Substance will come in time. For the present, Cameron's team has digested Philip Gould's advice to Blair in opposition: fight in the centre ground for that is where the enemy must be engaged. Hence the vague talk of social justice, urban renewal and "society, not state". But avoid specifics. Take the cue from Classic FM's manic incantation, "Just relax". Make the voters trust you, believe in you, share your faith. Do not hit them with 12 things wrong with the economy. Show vision in general, not policy in particular. Winning elections these days is an evangelical, quasi-religious exercise.
As long as all of this emoting doesn't distract Cameron from vital battles such as on ID cards, which need fighting now...

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Cheney is voice of God

Yet another exclusive from The Onion that explains a very great deal:
WASHINGTON, DC—Telephone logs recorded by the National Security Agency and obtained by Congress as part of an ongoing investigation suggest that the vice president may have used the Oval Office intercom system to address President Bush at crucial moments, giving categorical directives in a voice the president believed to be that of God.

Soderbergh on digital film distribution

Steven Soderbergh has directed some great films, like Traffic and sex, lies and videotape. His latest effort is being released simultaneously in cinemas and on DVD and cable TV.
When the changeover from film to digital happens in theaters in five or 10 years, you're going to see name filmmakers self-distributing. Another thing that really excites me: I'd like to do multiple versions of the same film. I often do very radical cuts of my own films just to experiment, shake things up, and see if anything comes of it. I think it would be really interesting to have a movie out in release and then, just a few weeks later say, "Here's version 2.0, recut, rescored." The other version is still out there - people can see either or both.
It would be even better released under a Creative Commons licence so that other people could also contribute their own versions. Soderbergh is keen on this type of remix:
I have ideas like that - video mash-ups. Some of them I've done privately. But there's no way for them to be seen legally. I wish we could come up with a system that allowed someone to do a Grey Album without having to pay millions of dollars for music rights. A system in which rights holders share profits of a new piece of work and people can access it without breaking the law.

I worked with some colleagues during the Nineties on a system to help secure digital film distribution. We were obviously way ahead of it happening in reality :)

LSE hordes on drunken rampage

The sight of 100 fancy-dressed LSE drunkards rampaging through Kings' College on Friday must have been quite worrying. It was scary enough seeing them in the bar that evening!
Howard Davies, director of the LSE, has warned the culprits will be dealt with "appropriately" - CCTV footage is being examined to identify those involved - and the LSE students' union has promised to cover the cost of repairs at King's. Damage is being assessed, but staff at King's estimate it could run to £30,000.

Toleration of bilge

As Zoe Williams writes, it does seem rather un-Christian for the Queen to refuse a mention of Prince Charles' new wife in Church prayers for the royal family:
I had this argument once with someone who said tolerating ambiguity was the sign of a civilised society. It shut me up for a bit. But here, as in so many cases, ambiguity is just another word for bilge. Tolerating bilge is the sign of a lazy society. They're skating along on the carapace of our sloth, this family. I'm sure that's not what the divine right of kings was supposed to be about.

Condi denies torture. Nice try


Condoleeza Rice's statement on claims that the US has transported prisoners to be tortured in foreign states and in secret prison camps is the height of sophistry.

It sickens me that the US administration, which claims to lead the world in human rights, is quibbling over legalisms with far greater consequence than President Clinton's manoeuvres over oral sex with Monica Lewinsky.

Ms Rice claims that near-drowning of terrorist suspects, or the causing of pain near but not equivalent to organ failure, is not torture.

If our Prime Minister is to prevent any further damage to the UK's global reputation and safety against future terrorist attacks, he must utterly repudiate such claims.

Dr Ian Brown
London WC1

Monday, December 05, 2005

Data retention directive steams ahead

The EU Council and the two largest political groupings (Socialists and Conservatives) in the European Parliament have come to a sleazy compromise that could see a barely-altered Data Retention Directive pushed through on 13 December. The FFII describes the consequences:
"Imagine a world in which the state follows everything you do. A world where computers watch every step you make. A world in which privacy is dead and the machines can track down every dissident in minutes. A world ruled by unelected agencies, working hand-in-hand with powerful commercial interests. A world in which citizens have no rights except to consume. Science fiction? The Age of the Machines? No, this is Europe, coming to you in 2006."
EDRI and Privacy International have launched a last-ditch letter-writing campaign to MEPs to call on them to reject this surveillance nightmare. You can sign on here.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Gordon Brown fights on over farm subsidies

Glad to see that the Chancellor isn't as craven as Tony Blair over the issue of agricultural subsidies in the EU:
Brown pointedly declined to endorse the budget deal announced by Tony Blair yesterday. Instead he called for action on farm subsidies at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in Hong Kong later this month.
Wouldn't it be nice if the French government would pay more than lip service to the reduction of poverty in the developing world?

Condi to Europe: shut up on torture

Condoleeza Rice is coming to tell the EU it should stop worrying its little head over secret CIA torture camps in Poland and Romania:
Diplomats said that Ms Rice, who arrives in Germany on Monday and meets Chancellor Angela Merkel the next day, is not expected to reveal information – as formally requested by the European Union last week – but to defend the US need to obtain intelligence.
Der Spiegel has an extraordinary graphic showing CIA use of European air bases for their "rendition" of prisoners between torture camps and torture states. The EU cannot start its proceedings against Poland and Romania soon enough.

Meanwhile, does this UN investigator's report on torture in China sound familiar?
Mr. Nowak said that "obtaining confessions" and fighting "deviant behavior" continued to be central goals of China's criminal justice system. The police and prison guards are pushed to extract admissions of guilt and are rarely punished for using electric shock, sleep deprivation and submersion in water or sewage, among other techniques the Commission on Human Rights considers torture, to obtain them, he said.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Rebuilding Bloomsbury

Simon Jenkins has some radical plans for my neighbourhood:
If I were UCL I would stage a flat-out takeover bid for the University of London's £85m of property assets. I would review every activity on the Bloomsbury campus and plan Europe's premier academic township. Down would come the Senate House and the Institute of Education. Montague Place, Malet Street and Woburn Square would be redesigned as quadrangles, streets and piazzas. Hidden churches, museums, gardens and townhouses would be brought to light. I would find somewhere to recreate a Brick Lane.
UCL doesn't need encouragement for power grabs! I like some of Jenkins' ideas, although I think Senate House does have an art deco charm. But Bloomsbury is already a beautiful area in which to live, filled with leafy squares and Georgian terraces and with a fascinating history.

The letter that saved ICANN

Kieren McCarthy has unearthed the full letter from Condoleeza Rice to Jack Straw asking the EU to change its position on Internet governance:
The history of the Internet’s extraordinary growth and adaptation , based on private-sector innovation and investment, offers compelling arguments against burdening the network with a new intergovernmental structure for oversight. It also suggests that a new intergovernmental structure would most likely become an obstacle to global Internet access for all our citizens. It is in this spirit that we ask the European Union to reconsider its new position on Internet governance and work together with us to bring the benefits of the Information Society to all.
Condi for President! (Not least for helping to "build the European caricature of the new president as toxic troglodyte".)

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Safeguards in pervasive computing

I went to the second SWAMI expert workshop in Brussels on Tuesday. This EU project "aims to identify and analyse the social, economic, legal, technological and ethical issues related to identity, privacy and security in the forecasted but not yet deployed Ambient Intelligence (AmI) environment." (AmI is also called pervasive/ubiquitous computing and relies on the deployment throughout the physical environment of sensors and tracking devices such as RFID tags).

SWAMI have produced an interesting set of four "dark scenarios" that imagine how a future AmI world could look if proper privacy and security safeguards are not put in place at an early stage. We spent the day discussing these scenarios and potential technical, legal and organisational safeguards.

The project will be producing a final set of recommendations and presenting all of this work at a conference in Brussels next March.

Mac anime T-shirts

Wired News points out these T-shirts featuring incredibly cute baby-anime renditions of Mac fans and builders. See a Buddha-like Steve Jobs floating on a cloud with an iMac! Admire the cartoon iPod fanatics! Gasp at Jobs and Wozniak's facial hair!

Lords amend Religious Hatred bill

Timothy Garton Ash writes about a short film from Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the treatment of women in some Islamic societies, which has lead to death threats:
This right to free speech, which is to an open society what oxygen is to human life, is under direct threat from people whose position is very simple: if you say that, we will kill you. And not just in the case of Islam. Remember that violent protests and death threats from extremists in Britain's Sikh community forced the playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti into hiding, and her play Behzti off the stage in Birmingham.
Ali was inspired as a student by the works of John Stuart Mill and Karl Popper and their Enlightenment values. Ash reports that the Lords have now significantly amended the Religious Hatred bill to protect free speech and the right to criticise religious ideas in the UK:
These amendments, in the formulation of which Lester played a significant part, do three things to make a bad bill somewhat less bad. They confine the offence to genuinely "threatening", rather than merely "abusive" or "insulting", words or behaviour. They require that the prosecution proves clear intent to stir up religious hatred. Above all, they introduce a "protection of freedom of expression" clause that reads: "Nothing in this part shall be read or given effect in a way that prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system."
The Government now needs to decide whether to make the most of a bad piece of legislation and accept these amendments. Or even better, withdraw the bill -- but don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Open Rights Group is go!

Open Rights Group held its first public event last night, to get together campaigners on digital rights from around the country to discuss priorities and opportunities to work together. Coincidentally the 1001st person pledged to join ORG and support its activities with £5 a month. If you think privacy, fair use of copyrighted works and free speech online are values worth fighting for, then sign up here!

Photo: suave City boy and ORG Company Secretary James Cronin celebrates with ninja-blogger and Executive Director Suw Charman.