Sunday, December 10, 2006

Internet censorship

Dear Frank Dobson,

It is common knowledge that China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea operate Internet censorship. Should we add United Kingdom to the list? Since 2004, Britain has quietly - very quietly - been incorporating a layer of comprehensive web censorship into its technical infrastructure,

"The decision by Britain's largest high-speed internet provider will lead to the first mass censorship of the web attempted in a Western democracy." - The Observer, Sunday June 6, 2004

Led by BT (the largest Internet-access/service provider, or 'ISP') with the full support of the Labour Government, the 'Cleanfeed' system can accurately ban a website, a web page, even a specific image which it - at the sole discretion of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) - deems illegal. The government is enthusiastic to expand the system to every ISP:

"the biggest ISPs (who between them provide over 90% of domestic broadband connections) are either currently blocking or have plans to by the end of 2006" - the IWF (

I don't wish illegal websites to be available: but we are fast moving towards a comprehensive system capable of banning from UK citizens, with fine-granularity, any content arbitrarily deemed inappropriate. While I applaud any move toward protecting children online, the current process is undemocratic.

BT, nor any ISP association, the IWF nor the government publish formal information on the Cleanfeed system itself, how it operates, within what constraints or to whom it is accountable. The list of banned sites is kept strictly secret. There is no independent check on the statistics generated by BT that claim to show the scale of the problem and effectiveness opposing it. ISPs that implement Cleanfeed are under no obligation to inform their users - and most do not. There appears a serious lack of democratic checks and balances.

I met Sir Christopher Meyer recently. He voiced an impassioned defense of the self-regulation that the PCC provides for the Press. In the PCC, judgments are made by a Commission, who are required to be independent and register their interests. The IWF, by contrast, assures us that:

"Our Internet Content Analysts who make up our 'hotline' team undergo comprehensive police and in-house training on all aspects of assessing and tracing internet content." (

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

In the case of an appeal (detail below), apparently the 'management of the IWF' decides. The final port of call for a resolution is the Police. Not a judge: the Police. I hope the phrase 'Separation of Powers' might set alarm bells ringing here..

Even if we accept that some level of national filtering is desirable to remove the worst offenders, this particular system was undemocratic in creation - and more seriously is deeply undemocratic in operation.

My worry is that first this system targets the child pornographers, but I'm not a pornographer. Next it will go after websites 'glorifying terrorism' - but I'm not a terrorist. When it comes after those critical of religion or the freedom to cause offense, Mr. Dobson: who will speak for me?

Labour has already banned spontaneous protest outside the Houses of Parliament/Trafalgar Square and is pushing for 90-day no-evidence detention. While serious infringements of civil liberty, these pale in comparison to the potential ramifications of this. Freedom of information and expression, at the foundation of our society, is under threat.

I hope you will review the serious lack of democratic credentials of this embryonic, comprehensive internet censorship programme - and recommend to Parliament greater involvement and a correction of direction, before it is too late.


Observer article quoted available online at:,6903,1232422,00.html

IWF Complaints and Appeals Procedure
"Any person or organisation that feels that a URL has been included on the CAI list incorrectly, can appeal. If, on receipt of a complaint, the relevant URL is subsequently found not to contain potentially illegal images, then the URL will be removed from the database. If, however, in the expert opinion of the management at the IWF, the content is still potentially illegal under UK law, then the URL will remain on the list. The complainant can then make further representations in which case the matter will be referred to the NCS POLIT (National Crime Squads Paedophile Online Investigation Team) who will further review the URL concerned and make their judgement. The police judgement is final." -

Pastor Martin Niemöller's original 'First they came..' poem:

Evidence of Government support for Cleanfeed: John Reid wrote the foreword to a related proposal by the NCH Children's charity:

Links correct as of 10th December 2006.

Monday, December 04, 2006

World population: 24 billion

I read today that there are more chickens than there are humans. I thought "really"?! And actually, the world population of chickens in 2003 was 24 billion. So officially maybe 4 chickens for each of the 6 billion living humans on the planet.

There'll be many species greater in number than humans.. but you'd expect them to be smaller than chickens??

Wikipedia states that eggs in shops are likely to be fertilized - but other expert sources disagree. Bit of a chicken and egg situation here..

Wikipedia on Eggs
Wikipedia on Chickens

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Climate Change

The IPPR Event today featured Rt. Hon. Charles Clarke MP and Lord Anthony Giddens, alongside the New Economics Foundation. Much discussion revolved around the recent 'Stern report' - a report on the environment by an economist. This point was emphasised further by both Clarke and Giddens: that green issues can hopefully be rescued from the Greens - who they deem too often anti-progress and dogmatic.

Clarke was in favour of green taxes, but only as part of a new 'social contract'. This is the idea that citizens must take up their full responsibilities, but on the basis of certain promises from the State. For example the State might improve public transport, but then expect people to give up their cars. Or it might ring-fence revenue from green taxes to fund green projects. I think this is a useful concept here.

I still feel though that all three speakers might be missing the point. All started with the premise that the Stern report shows conclusively that climate change is happening; that something must be done and that it will make a difference. Whether true or not (I'm yet to read it), the point is that the general public is not convinced. Can you blame them? Scientists assured us bird-flu would wipe us all out a couple of years ago. Before that, BSE was not transmittable to humans. And then it was. Occasionally they say asteroids are about to hit.

Maybe we've only avoided each of those by a whisker and in no small part thanks to the scientists. But the public perception is that they were just wrong. Until that changes, Clarke and Giddens may be arranging deckchairs on the titantic?

The Stern Report

Info and audio from IPPR here.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Protecting religion

"A document ... was said to have been prepared by the Met's assistant commissioner, Tarique Ghaffur, who has previously advocated banning flag burning. The proposal also admitted that that a new law outlawing religious hatred, which was passed in February but has yet to be implemented, may prove useless.

"Virtually all activity by protesters could constitute insulting or abusive language, behavior or banners towards particular religions, but would fall outside the remit of inciting religious hatred," it said."

Read the law, Mr. Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police! It is there not there to prevent incitement of hatred towards religion in general or toward a specific religion (though many hoped it would). It is there solely to protect the individual from attacks on the basis of their religion. Quite rightly (and thanks to the House of Lords).

So the law on religious hatred is not 'useless': it is doing exactly what it set out to do - and all it should aim to do.

When offense becomes an offence

One of my friends bought me a book: 'Freedom of Expression is No Offence'. I thought "Why is that even a debate? There's no law against saying things other people find offensive, surely?".

It appears I was optimistic. Things took a step in the wrong direction in the last couple of days, with the police approaching the Attorney General for the right to ban offensive remarks during protests.

Banning the statement of opinions that might cause offence?? And enabling the Police to decide when something is sufficiently offensive??

While I have the utmost respect for the police, I am certain they are not the people to defend civil liberties, protect democracy or defend other freedoms. That's the job of the politicians, on behalf of the citizens. The Police have become increasingly powerful in an - I'm ashamed to say - Labour administration. Remember the idea of a 90-day detention rule?

Back to causing offense. Understand: I'm not in favour of 'Kill those who insult Islam' placards. But that's not wrong because it causes offense: it's wrong because it incites violence, that being a criminal offence.

Let's leave aside causing unintentional offense. I reserve the right to cause intentional offense to anybody I deem deserves it. If somebody says to me "The moon is made of cheese", I should say to them "The moon is a rock.". Perhaps they are offended by my lack of respect for their view. I don't care. They are wrong and I am right.

By the same token, I must allow someone to say to me "You are homosexual. So I hate you". I'll argue against the opinion of course; but I'll disagree with what they say while defending to death their right to say it. (What I could not permit is for their opinion to influence whether they employed me or saved me from a fire or protected me from violence).

It's a constant surprise to me how the lessons learnt over centuries are so consistently ignored by those in power.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A good innings?

If you know me you might guess that this, despite the Ashes beginning tonight, is not a post about cricket (because I don't like it*) - but about death. How long can one reasonably expect to be around?

I think most people at 7 years old, at 16 or even at 26 blithely assume that they'll at least make it to 65. The state charges you for a pension, so most people must get there, right?

Around 25% don't. That's a big number, huh? Specifically: on mortality rates in 1980, the chance of a newborn boy e.g. me getting to 65 were 74%. The good news is that the figure has now risen to 84%. Women fare better overall, living 4-5 years longer than guys. Interestingly, the gender-gap is narrowing.

But still. I have a 1 in 7 chance of not getting to 65.

I was playing roulette the other day. I thought I'd be safe, betting on red mostly. Ah.. green zero might come up once in a while. Maybe I'd see it once that night? Four times it came up. Once when I'd bet half my cash on red. The odds on zero are 1 in 37.

At least life expectancy for men has increased by 4 years in just the last 20. That's pretty stunning?

A final thought. You ever have those days where you want to sell everything you own and put it all on red?

Watch a guy from London try it.

Stats taken from the Office of National Statistics. Roulette info from Wikipedia.

(*I love it)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Fair trade MDMA?

The latest police anti-drugs initiative points out to middle-class users that the supply of their additives is unavoidably linked to death and brutality back in the places they come from. The argument is that these organic banana-purchasing, fair trade coffee-drinking people are then hypocrites for taking these tarnished substances up their noses at the weekend. Kirsty Wark asked of Pete Doherty if he'd ever considered the human harm his drug-taking supports. (He hadn't.)

But let's analyse the argument.

If consumers in the market had the choice to buy their Class As from ethical suppliers, I should think they would. The reason they don't have that choice is because they are highly illegal. And whose fault is that? It's the government(s) and the police themselves. The argument of the police is self-defeating.

I suspect that the sourcing of coffee, tobacco and even legal drugs causes similar pain in their origin countries. Does the NHS have an ethical drugs-sourcing policy; should one refuse the opium from the nurse until she finds an accredited supplier?

There are many good arguments against the use of illegal drugs. This isn't one of them.

(A related story on NHS inethical sourcing of surgical equipment is here.)

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Secrets of Television Production #214

From Martha Kearney:
"Tonight I am presenting both halves of Newsnight. That should prevent the technical problem I encountered the other week.

Kirsty was down the Review end and I was rounding up the papers. At the end I was supposed to make a quick getaway so the director can get a certain kind of wide shot. But the floor manager forgot to warn me so I was still attached to the desk with the microphone cable. She came running over and shouted to take cover on the floor. So there I lay while Kirsty read her introduction, praying that I was not appearing on national television, flat out on the studio floor."


An Athenian City-state for the world?

There's a startling piece of analysis on BBC today titled "Web 'fuelling crisis in politics'". Startlingly accurate, I mean - and it's not often one gets that..

Since arriving in London it's amazed me the number of clever, well-informed and hard-working people working in politics. I was kinda hoping to arrive and blow all the cobwebs away with my brilliance - but I've been humbled by the sharp wits and honesty of spirit already here! However, that is not the broader perception.

I've only realised it by attending the wonderful IPPR events, the LSE and others such as GALHA, where I've met MPs like George Galloway or Jack McConnell (First Minister of Scotland), intellectuals like Christopher Higgens and Richard Dawkins, policy advisers and journalists. If I'd have stayed in either the online bubble or even the Manchester one - I'm not sure I'd have made the step towards the understanding that - actually - politics is not full of self-serving, stupid or uncaring snobs that secretly hire rent-boys.

Mr. Taylor is perceptive in identifying that perhaps the Internet will lead to wider and deeper popular involvement in the decisions for our country. I wonder.. can the Internet make an Athenian City-state of the whole world?

He's right to point out that this means citizens 'growing up'. If the 'end of deference' is the 'right', the 'responsibility' must be to provide constructive criticism and ideas - not childish hissyfits of the kind promoted by popular media.

While citizens grow beyond their infantile habits, the government - and politics in general - must do more to demonstrate it's true colours; to show everyone what I've learnt only via physical attendance of its mechanics.

At the end of the article, there's something of an explanation for the clarity of thought: he's ex-head of IPPR! Damn them and their bright ideas.

(I hope the criticism of blogs as negative and unconstructive don't apply to this post!)

Here's a further post on the City-state idea that's worth a quick read.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Press Complaints Commission

Today's LSE lecture was from Sir Christopher Meyer. He's the top man at the Press Complaints Commission and was there to discuss censorship and regulation, specifically about the press. The British press is 'self-regulating' and Sir Christopher made a solid defence of this. It was clear that Ofcom wouldn't want to take on its role - but less clear if this was the right strategic decision. The overall point appeared to be that it isn't broke, so it doesn't need fixing. I'm happy to accept that for the moment. The PCC seems to do a solid job?

Monday, November 06, 2006


Is it complete coincidence that the Iraqi ex-dictator has finally sentenced at the precise moment the Republicans need a final push in the current US Elections?

Or have I just become cynical??

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Fidel Castro, by George Galloway

Galloway launched his new biography of Fidel Castro today at an event hosted by the flagship Foyles branch on Charing Cross Road. First talking of his admiration for what he sees as a highly intelligent and courageous man, Galloway praised the Cuban revolution and its resilience against the American embargo.

After the talk about the book and some interesting personal insights into Castro's personality and achievements, there was a lively Q&A session with the 50-odd audience. I grabbed the book and had it signed while talking to Mr. George about the Cuba Solidarity Campaign of which I'm a member.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Jack McConnell

The Rt. Hon Jack McConnell MSP visited the British Academy (just off The Mall) in London today. He was mostly talking about the great constitutional changes that have occurred in Scotland over the last few years, the success of those - and how foolish it would be to attempt further constitutional upheavel as desired by the Nationalists (pushing for an independent Scotland) when so much good work is already in progress by the newly empowered Scottish Parliament.

With a focus on the variance Scotland has taken to England on education - and the real successes of those policies - Mr. McConnell emphasised the importance of education as the most significant way to promote social mobility.

Monday, October 16, 2006

President José Manuel Barroso

At the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House, as it likes to be called) in St James's Square today, José Manuel Barroso gave his keynote speech as President of the European Commission.

He outlined that the EU - and more generally Europe - needs a new raison d'etre. Whereas peace was the guiding principle of the original founders - achieved through combining the coal and steel industries of France and Germany to economically prevent war - this needs now supplementing with a new ambitious goal for the 21st century, said Barroso. That goal, simply put, is to enable Europe to prosper in a globalized world.

It was a powerful, timely speech, delivered with more panache than you might expect.

Transcript from 'Hugo Young Lecture - Seeing through the Hallucinations: Britain and Europe in the 21st century' available free at the Liberal Democrat European Group. Other info at the Chatham House website.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

How hung?

I was with the assistant editor of The Times, Andrew Pierce, yesterday. We were in Soho House for a talk he was giving about - well no-one was quite sure until he gave it (least of all him, I suspect..)

It was actually a fascinating insight into the kind of thing journalists deal with every day. An incisive analysis of the recent Bush/Blair spat - and then of the relative chances of Labour, the Conservative and (even) the LibDems at the next General Election.

But what for what will happen in an election post-Blair? Andrew said 'put your money on a hung parliament'. So I did, at Betfair.

The odds at the moment are 2.38 - 1 for hung, 3.05 - 1 for Tory and 3.75 for a Labour victory. This makes interesting reading! I have, by the way, the utmost regard for Betfair for predicting political outcomes. As a metric it is almost never wrong in it's analysis of the situation to-date in terms of what will actually happen! I feel what people qualified enough to have an opinion yet also prepared to put cold hard cash toward that outcome is useful. It's a neat way of aligning their incentives toward their best, honest prediction. Once collated, the result is useful!

While I was at this event I also met a journalist who works on 'Hard Talk' for News 24 - and the owner of the 'Outlet' website (where I'm looking for a room at the moment, as it happens).

Andrew's off to be assistant ed. of The Telegraph next.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Le Friday Night Fever

Last Friday afternoon, I hopped on a Eurostar and arrived at a little 2* Hotel in the Bastille area of Paris, around 6pm. After a bit of food and some social skating, our little group from London set off to the start-point of the Paris Friday Night Skate, which is the magnificent Montparnasse building, around 5km away. Three police vans marked the start of the skate with sirens blasting as they headed off to shut down the roads ahead. Five Police motorbikes followed - then the yellow-vested marshals. My group were around the middle as we set off through the wide avenues of night-time Paris (start time is 10pm). The 'Friday Night Fever' had begun and we were on it: a 25-30km skate over 3 hours..

Here's the route we followed:

The 'banks of the Seine' was the theme for this week's route. We went down and up the tunnels, past many of the landmarks - which I'd never seen before, this being my first trip to Paris.. left and right, all around! There were thousands of skaters, snaking round the streets in a huge procession. Too many to count. Two ambulances followed the skate - and we were assured by our tour leader that people have died in the attempt..

It didn't kill me, but I must admit I struggled near the end! As we rounded the corners after 2 and a half hours - around 12.30am - other skaters were streaming past me on all sides. I nearly got to the point of no-return.. I seriously considered giving up on a group-skate, for the first time (I've done around 7 now).

But then I only bought my skates and started learning how to use them around 10 weeks ago. So this was easily the fastest, furthest skate of my life. And for some reason I'd decided to swap my high-performance wheels for little 'disco' ones. These look immensely pretty! But the power for the 3 LEDS in each of 8 wheels comes from yours truly (which is at least an environmentally-friendly energy-source). They're smaller than normal - and softer too. All of which adds up to an around 50% decrease in speed - or rather increase in required effort! And of course the only person that can't experience their beauty.. is me!

I soldiered on with my funky wheels. I kept telling myself that when I decide to do something, it gets done. And it did get done. Montparnasse came back into view, I found some energy and tricked back to the finish line =:)

Not everyone made it. At least 4 in our group quit at some point - and this is within a group serious enough to spend a few hundred quid going on a foreign skate weekend.

After a 1 AM Capuccino and some water, we skated the half-hour back to the hotel through the empty streets.

The rest of the weekend?

The next day we had a Skate lesson on the steps of Trocadero, overlooking the Eiffel Tower. I wasn't quite able to match the skillz of the French boys - who were wowing the crowds by going down steps. Backwards. Including jumping over their laid-down buddy 5 steps down. To finish, one of them pulled a 'Dead or Alive' style handstand before flipping back onto his skates.. I promised myself I could do that too, with a little training?!

After learning London's topography this way, I reckon it's the best way to quickly get to know a city..

I didn't use the Paris Metro once during the whole weekend, except to get to and from the Eurostar. I only took my skates off for a couple of hours on Sunday - during which time I checked out Rodin's Garden ('the Thinker') and met up with my flatmates who, bizarrely, happened to be in Paris by complete coincidence that exact weekend 'of all the bars in all the world..'

So Paris was an intense, wonderful experience. The people were genuine, friendly and welcoming their own French little way =;) I can't wait to go back..

But then there's the other Friday skates to try yet.. in Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona, Geneva, San Francisco, Tokyo..

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Truth > offensiveness?

On CokeZero ads being complained about.. (from Ad industry press)
Another, with the strap "Girlfriends without a five-year plan", sparked complaints that it was offensive because it implied that all women want to do is settle down.
How is that offensive?? Who on Earth has the time and inclination to take offense at that?

Draw the Prophet with a bomb as a head - ok that's offensive.

"You started it"
"No I did not start it"
"Yes you did, you invaded Poland" - that's offensive.

The problem with all the above.. is that they're all true. Sometimes the truth is offensive. It still needs saying sometimes..

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


FilmFour is relaunching on Freeview with a 'Fifty films to see before you die' countdown. Good work Channel 4!

I always liked FilmFour with it's jaunty-angle art-housey films. Speaking of which 'Thank you for Smoking' looks good at the moment.

Here's the 10-4 on the 50 films, including the full list.

Some ones I recommend:

  • 2001 - A Space Odyssey
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Breakfast Club, The
  • City of God
  • Donnie Darko
  • Fight Club
  • Pulp Fiction
  • The Shawshank Redemption
I bought 'Summer Storm' on DVD yesterday (more info from IMDB) - quite excited about that. Sounds a bit like 'Beautiful Thing-on-sea' =:)

I bought that from Asda online ?? It was the cheapest, according to a quick Froogle. So well done Asda for finally remembering about the Internet.

My 'Top 20 films ever' list.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Did you lose the Vietnam war?

I watched How Vietnam Was Lost on BBC's Storyville last night. A fascinating and well-told story of student riots and botched battle plans. But a question was nagging away at me the entire time: only one side 'lost', so why was it titled that way.. What's wrong with 'How Vietnam Was Won'? I don't think it's pedantic to point this out: whose side are 'we' deemed to be on?

It was South Vietnam - backed by America and South Korea that - by most accounts, lost to North Vietnam - backed by Russia and China. So there's an assumption that the viewer is on the side of those who lost. I'm not American, so how did I lose? I expect Britain was on America's side.. and I'm British - but I don't think that means we could 'lose' this war. And even then - I'm not British to 1960s' Britain, I'm British to 'now' Britain.

The documentary was an American import, I found out afterwards. But isn't that too subtle to broadcast without a caveat? And for a programme that was largely critical of the American decisions of the day, couldn't they see things more from the Vietnamese point of view: they didn't lose the war..

Did you lose the Vietnam war?

Radio Times blurb: "How Vietnam Was Lost. Based on David Maraniss's book 'They Marched into Sunlight', a documentary telling the story of two seemingly unconnected events in October 1967 that changed the course of the Vietnam War. Whilst a US battalion unwittingly marched into a Viet Cong ambush which killed 61 young men - half a world away, angry students at the University of Wisconsin were protesting the presence of Dow Chemical recruiters on campus."

Monday, June 19, 2006

Capitalism is dead


Our Capitalist society is going downhill fast I'm telling you. Searched for half an hour on eBay and found nothing! I don't want designer ones I just want cheap and tacky ones I can break - cuz I'm only going to sit on them anyway.

No doubt Peter Mandelson's enforced a new Euro embargo on plastic frivolities.

At this rate I'm going to have visit some 'trendy' London 'market' and pay with those funny metal tokens with that mythical woman on the side.


Fix it someone.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

You just lost the game

RULE 1: You are playing The Game.

RULE 2: Whenever you think about The Game, you lose.

RULE 3: Loss must be announced

By posting this, I've clearly just lost a point (and complied with Rule 3). However, for every person that reads this, I gain a point and you lose a point (Rule 2). Therefore I am better at The Game than you. I'm winning!


(Thank you for participating in my study of Meme theory)

The Euston Manifesto

Today, I have mostly been signing Manifestos.

"The Euston Manifesto is a declaration of principles and beliefs supporting universal human rights, and opposing discrimination and tyranny. It was published online on April 13, 2006 by a collection of academics, bloggers and journalists on the British left." - Wikipedia

Read 'The Euston Manifesto' at their website

After a couple of weeks of careful deliberation, I've now signed the Euston Manifesto with the following comment:
"The Manifesto is a timely, thoughtful and suitably strong statement of many of my personal beliefs. I agree with every part of it (while I think some parts more important than others). Two particular aspects merit mention:

Clause 10 is crucial: People should not accept offensive regimes with 'what right do we have to tell them what to do?'. This is a misinterpretation of (otherwise laudable) pluralism and tolerance. I hope the Manifesto will help people to realise this.

Clause 13 follows: we must retain our right to criticize bad ideas e.g. totalitarianism. This includes those within religion e.g. teaching children the Earth is 6000 years old. Such beliefs should not be protected by law. They need to defend themselves in the battle of ideas just like others.

Finally: I'd like the Manifesto to include more detail on reform of the United Nations, ideally a desire to gain a global, democratic assembly.

I hope the Manifesto goes far!"

One of the 'listed' signers is Sami Zubaida, who 1) wrote the enlightening chapter on Islamism on last year's Level 3 OU course (in 'Making the International') 2) Is Professor of Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck College, where my philosophy society meets.

Friday, May 26, 2006

When I met.. Christopher Hitchens

I sat adrift of the right of Christopher Hitchens at today's lunch-time talk at the IPPR, there to discuss Thomas Paine's 'Rights of Man', the American revolution and secularisation.

Hitchens credits Paine's work with influencing the Constitution, a key document of the American revolution (1763-1789). That itself influenced the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the 'Rights of Man' can be understood as a defence of that. It seems to have much relevance today, for other countries (Hitchens is a UK ex-pat) and in terms of the general conception of universal human rights. Are there really basic rights that all are entitled to purely by virtue of their humanity? What are the responsibilities that follow from those rights? Do (other) animals have rights? What of our arbitary restriction of rights to the living? It's a short-coming of democracy: future generations are unable to vote on issues that affect them, while the dead leave a legacy that they don't have to personally experience. We had little time, between munching on sandwiches, for these questions - but some of my thoughts are below.

It's interesting that Hitchen's acknowledges that Paine's "self-evident truths" are only such because we deem them to be. They're as good as any 'God-given' rights and can be respected to the same degree, but nevertheless remain socially-constructed, socially-sanctioned. This is an enlightened view, going beyond 'Human rights are innate, unalienable, obvious' to say 'These aren't intrinsic characteristics - but they ought to be treated as such'. The American revolution, Hitchens proposes, is the only one still continuing. The Russian communist revolution was crushed - and the Chinese one slowly becomes capitalism without much fuss. Let's continue the American revolution, Hitchens seems to be saying, and take it global. America leading the world broadly supports my view that the UK remains on Democracy version 1.0, while the US benefits from the improvements in version 2.0.

A single, clear statement of what the British stand for would be helpful. Hitchens is part of a pressure group called Charter 88 that fights for such a thing in the UK. The Human Rights Act is the closest thing we have at the moment - but that is itself under worryingly constant attack.

Not just the State suffers from a close association with the Church. In equal measure, the Church may choose to avoid such association to protect itself. This, Hitchens proposes, is the insight of the American founders - that religion can flourish better by leaving citizens free to believe without interference (or support) of any kind. It's an important time to re-assert the principle of secularism: 'The Pope is fornicating with the emporer', as Hitchens quoted Dante.

I kept my questions to myself this session, though had the opportunity arisen I would ask on Faith schools: where moral values and collective identity can be sourced, if not religion. The lack of secular alternative to this useful purpose served by religious practices is a key concern - and the subject of recent debate in the New Humanist magazine. I'd like education to be separated from religion, so that you wouldn't need a signature from the local priest to get your kids into the best local school - but daily 'worship' (legally compulsory) does serve a necessary (if slightly misguided) purpose. Hitchen's only comment in this area was that at least religion in education serves to mass-produce athiests - were there no association, people might actually grow up into believers!

I talked with Caspar Melville, editor of the New Humanist, afterwards. This mostly consisted of 'I'm a subscriber' and 'do you remember that email chat we had about the Danish cartoons and Shad Thames?'. I also briefly talked with Paul (Clough), the IPPR Finance Director and Ruth Eldridge (IPPR Events Officer) about routes into this kind of work.

Related links:

Charter 88 for a British Bill of Rights

Hitchen's book 'Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: a biography'

Wikipedia on Hitchens

Hitchens was voted number 5 top World intellectual in a (unscientific) poll run by Foreign Policy / Prospect magazines. They were:
  1. Noam Chomsky linguistics expert and critic of US foreign policy
  2. Umberto Eco writer and academic
  3. Richard Dawkins Oxford professor of public understanding of science
  4. Vaclav Havel playwright and leader of Czech velvet revolution
  5. Christopher Hitchens journalist, author, pro-Iraq war polemicist

- The Guardian

(Noam Chomsky did a lecture at Manchester University a short while ago but I couldn't make it)

New Humanist magazine

Dante (Alighieri) wrote 'The Divine Comedy', which isn't the band - and had something to do with an Inferno.

Wettest Week of the Week

Citiskate have renamed 'National In-line Skating Week' to 'National In-line Skating Wet'; their latest email was titled 'Will we EVER skate again?'


Last week gets my official 'Wettest Week of the Week' award, awarded weekly on a week-by-week basis!

Update 27th May: News is that this is officially the wettest May since 1984. In celebration, the first drought order was issued today.


The average Wikipedian

"The average Wikipedian on English Wikipedia (1) is male, (2) is technically-inclined, (3) is formally educated, (4) speaks the English language to an extent, (5) is White, (6) is aged in their twenties, thirties or forties, (7) is from a predominantly Christian country, (8) is from an industrialized nation, (9) is heterosexual, and (10) is more inclined toward intellectual pursuits than toward practical skills or physical labor."

9 out of 10 ain't bad?

"Viewpoints of individuals who are focused on other projects, e.g. their work or life, will tend to be underrepresented."

Damn those time-consuming projects!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Eurovision rocks!

Amen the unstoppable mummy, Enary the manipulative valkyrie, Kalma the biker-zombie and Kita the alien manbeast?

It must be LORDI and the AROCKALYPSE!

I give a hearty 'douze point' to Finland for their brilliant, subversive entry to Eurovision. 'Douze point' to Europe too, for collectively voting this piece their favourite song of the evening - and by a country-mile, with a record breaking 292 points!

Eurovision rocks!

The UK entry wasn't too bad either. Didn't get huge points, but a fair attempt.

There is actually a band called 'Arockalypse now':


Thursday, May 18, 2006

Thought for the day

“Human beings, those at least who reflect on their situation in this world, may be divided into three kinds. The first kind includes all who maintain that there is nothing beyond the prison walls, and that the prison itself could be transformed into a paradise under an improved system of heating and lighting and with a more equitable distribution of floor space and the products of the kitchen garden.

To the second kind belong those who from chance glimpses, from leaves and scents blown over the walls, and landscapes seen in dreams, have formed an idea of another world, happy and unconfined, into which they hope one day to be liberated, but when they do not know, and under what conditions they rather apprehend than are able clearly to define.

The third kind, which in temperament bears some resemblance to the first, takes over the hints and glimpses of the second, constructs out of them a detailed account of the world beyond the prison walls, its system of government and its immigration laws, and on the strength of this special knowledge, of unique value if correct, claims a general jurisdiction over the conduct and the thoughts of the prison inmates-a claim which is naturally disputed by the first kind, for whom the prison is a self-contained and self-dependent phenomenon.”
- Hugh Kingsmill (an English writer)

From the 'Pub philosophy' group, Philosophy For All

Monday, May 15, 2006

What pension crises?

So what's with this pension crises?

Stories like this:

..claim that because more of us will be older, without new young people to support us, there will be some sort of government financial meltdown.

All the facts show that young people tend to be better educated and better qualified than older, due to e.g. spread of best-practise teaching, interactive whiteboards, more of them going to University, the availability of Wikipedia. Better qualified people get paid more. People who get paid more produce higher tax revenues per person.

So why can't we have a smaller number of people contributing enough to support a larger number of old people?

I've not done the maths so I don't know how realistic the idea is - but there's enough truth in it to make it worthy of mention in the debate. Yet it never is. Why?

Similarly 'ooh Europe has a problem because its population is shrinking relative to other regions' - but if it's the most powerful and has the best ideas.. who cares about numbers?

Both theories make the mistake of assuming people are of equal economic or cultural value. Generally, younger > older.

Friday, May 12, 2006

12 year old babies

Inspiration for this post is
I note how the girl 'fell pregnant', rather than 'got pregnant' (in the headline at least).

It's structure vs agency in that the blame in the article is laid at the door of a lack of education provided by the local authorities (structure), rather than the girl herself or her parents (agency).

Can we blame a girl for 'enjoying being pregnant', when as a society we still encourage it as 'the point' for women? In her head I expect she's fulfilled her socially-constructed role.

My evidence is: We give 4-year old girls little baby-buggies to push along. And 'self-wetting' dolls to put in them. And little 'cook for the family' sets from Tomy. In this way girls are socially conditioned to see their role as having babies.

Boys get WWF wrestling dolls (man they were so cool, PILEDRIVVERRRRRRtakethatSidtheSnake) and machine-guns. They are socially conditioned to become homicidal maniacs.

And as adults, there's all the TV programmes about 'what, you're 35 and haven't had babies yet??' and the female glossy mags..

Our society (and almost all societies) is structured to encourage, promote and condition women to have kids. There are tax benefits and paid time off work. Women may be free to take or leave it, but the structural compulsion remains.

I worry about democracy. If we stick with one person one vote, yet it's only the stupid people that have babies while the smart people have many less (which is the case) - what kind of a society are we headed towards?

I'm not suggesting we control/influence population growth (though I forsee things going that way). I suggest we need a system better than democracy - or rather an evolution of it.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Alan Turing's Ways

Some research I did on Alan Turing (just for fun, he's an important guy) - and connections to me:
  • He was born in Paddington, London. His Blue Plaque is on Warrington Crescent, a 2 minute walk from my flat, where the Warrington Hotel is. That's one of my locals!
  • He fell in love with a boy, Christopher Morcom, at public school - but he died of tuberculosis in their final year, leaving Turing heartbroken.
  • He was a marathon runner. Just 11 minutes short of the time that won the (contemporary) 1948 Olympics.
  • He worked on the Manchester Mark 1 - one of the world's first modern computers - but mostly on software.
  • Alan Turing is sat on a bench in Sackville park, Manchester. You can go sit next to him. I've sat there! (It's a bronze statue) Notably, this park is both in the heart of the gay village and near the University of Manchester, site of the Manchester Mark 1.
  • Part of the Manchester inner ring-road is the Alan Turing Way.
  • He was fascinated by fibonacci sequences (as am I). Particularly in plants. Fibonacci himself was more interested in rabbit reproduction! Earlier work on this mathematical discovery was done by Jainists, amongst others. (
  • Bertrand Russell was an early influence on Turing. However, he argued with Wittgenstein, at Cambridge, about the importance of mathematics in understanding the world. Broadly, Turing was for, Wittgenstein. was against. I spent last weekend in Cambridge =:)
  • Aged 40, he was arrested for gross indecency: "While working at Cambridge, Turing would often take walks in the less reputable parts of town. On Oxford Street in 1951, Turing came upon a 19 year old street urchin called Arnold Murray. The boy was clearly starving, so Turing invited him to lunch at a nearby restaurant. Soon, Arnold was making trips to Turing's apartment at Cambridge and staying the night." ( (Some accounts place this event in Manchester. Both have an 'Oxford Street')
  • He was forced by the medical professionals of the time, to undergo 'hormone therapy'. He was injected with oestrogen for a year, to 'control his lust'. This is a warning against medical knowledge being confused with social!
  • He lost his GCHQ clearance as a result of his criminal conviction, despite getting an OBE for his work on cryptography that helped win the war (Enigma).
  • He committed suicide aged just 42 (2 years after his arrest). He ate an apple laced with cyanide.
  • Some say this choice of method was a homage to his favourite film 'Snow White' by Disney (lol - how camp??).
  • Some say the Apple computer logo (picture it) is a homage to Turing.
  • The sequel to '2001: A Space Odyssey', called '2010: Odyssey Two', features the man who invented/programmed HAL9000. He works in a completely barren cubicle, bar a single photograph of Alan Turing.
Mostly from - but edited for your convenience.