Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Don't be absurd

We can't do that in the Health Service. It doesn't involve spending any money:

Simply opening windows and doors could help prevent the airborne spread of germs inside hospitals, medical researchers now report.

Airborne contagions can prove deadly, with tuberculosis alone killing 1.8 million people worldwide annually.

The greatest risk for outbreaks of airborne contagions perhaps lies in hospitals, which concentrate infected patients and potential victims in close indoor quarters.
Mechanically ventilated negative-pressure respiratory isolation rooms are expensive to install and maintain, "and if they're not maintained properly, they go downhill quickly," Escombe said.

Escombe and his colleagues found that natural ventilation from just opening windows and doors could replace air in rooms more than twice as quickly as mechanical negative-pressure ventilation systems.

"Natural ventilation can offer enormous rates of air exchange for relatively little cost," he told LiveScience.

US strike on Iran imminent

How do I know?

France has ruled it out:

Repeating France's stance that the use of force against Iran is not an option, French Foreign Ministry's spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said at a regular press conference that the international communities' efforts to solve the issue should be within the frame of Chapter 7, Article 41 of the U.N. Charter, which does not mention of the use of force.
It's worked well so far, JB.


Thousands of cars have broken down in SE England after being "Sold suspect petrol". Shit happens. But what is the name of the petrol wholesaler, the wholesaler of hydrocarbon fuel?



Oh dear. UKIP aren't quite there yet if this is to be believed:

Mr Biggs was told by Ukip's South Dorset Constituency Association that he could not be a full candidate in view of his registered disability.

Association chairman Vicki Sharp offered instead to allow him to stand as a "paper candidate", a phrase used to refer to a token candidate who is not expected to win.
I hung out for a while, a few years ago, on the unofficial UKIP forum trying to get an idea whether they might be a credible party. The strange mix of radical greens and Tories was not what I expected. Nor was the relaxed attitude to a rancid old Mosleyite, an anti-Semitic cartoonist of Third-Reichian proportions.

I decided they weren't.

UPDATE: Mr Biggs seems to be a bit of a twat:
Jack Biggs's email to Ukip



I have been special Forces. I am a very good friend but a very bad enemy. If you stay on track, ignoring me, but trying to unseat my UKIP minded daughter I will take the story for the Echo, ref you do not want disabled candidates for UKIP. This is not a threat but a promise.

This anti disability bit by UKIP will also probably go National in the press.
It did.

Too quiet...

The mainstream media has, in one corner at least, noticed the lessening of violence in Baghdad that has followed Bush's "surge" but, from reading Time magazine, you'd almost think that was a bad thing:

The silence is eerie. After opening the U.S. Army's first combat outpost (COP) in Baghdad last month the men of Charlie Company, 2-12 Cavalry, had gotten used to gunfights raging nearby, the crack of bullets passing overhead, and the explosion of rocket-propelled grenades. After all, this was Ghazaliyah, where Sunni insurgents and Shi'a militiamen have battled each other, the Iraqi army and police, and the Americans for months.

In the past week, though, the men have been unnerved by absence of the sounds of war. "It's been quiet — really, really, quiet," said Sgt. Sergej Michaud, 24. Michaud has cropped his dark hair nearly to the scalp, and he has a tattoo of a helmeted skull on his left forearm with TANKER printed below. Like many other soldiers at the COP he relishes the chance to drive towards gunfire and separate the combatants in Iraq's sectarian war. That was routine for his platoon until a few days ago, when the violence suddenly dropped almost to nothing. One soldier said he used to doze off at night by imagining the gunfire was the sound of rain on a tin roof. Now the nights are virtually silent. That's unusual for any Baghdad neighborhood, and eerie for a notoriously violent place like Ghazaliyah. Gunfights with insurgents and militiamen worry Sgt. Michaud less than figuring out where those enemies have gone. "I have no idea," he said. "It's kind of scary. It's kind of scary."
As I pointed out a few days ago, the "surge" has started well. A few stats:
murders in Baghdad are down 70%, attacks are down 80%, Mahdi Army chief Moqtada al-Sadr has reportedly made off for Iran, and many Baghdadis who had fled the violence now feel it's safe enough to return. The strategy that Congress is busy denouncing is proving to be our best hope for victory.
Try googling "bush surge doomed" to see how insane the reportage has become.


Who do you think owns this house?

The 4,000-square-foot house is a model of environmental rectitude.

Geothermal heat pumps located in a central closet circulate water through pipes buried 300 feet deep in the ground where the temperature is a constant 67 degrees; the water heats the house in the winter and cools it in the summer. Systems such as the one in this "eco-friendly" dwelling use about 25% of the electricity that traditional heating and cooling systems utilize.

A 25,000-gallon underground cistern collects rainwater gathered from roof runs; wastewater from sinks, toilets and showers goes into underground purifying tanks and is also funneled into the cistern. The water from the cistern is used to irrigate the landscaping surrounding the four-bedroom home. Plants and flowers native to the high prairie area blend the structure into the surrounding ecosystem.
George W. Bush. Which makes it bad, right?
Yes, the same George W. who believes arsenic and drinking water might not be such a bad combo, the same man who reneged on his campaign promise to lower carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, the same man who is doing everything in his power to fling open the Alaskan Natural Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

How does the President reconcile an eco-friendly abode for his own family with his persistent stand against anything that smacks of an environmentally friendly agenda for the nation as a whole? The answer to that perplexing question is a real mystery.

Perhaps sound ecological practices are only for those who can afford them: as a self-proclaimed strict constructionist of the U.S. Constitution, Bush must be aware that clean air and clean water are not guaranteed in that glorious document. Perhaps in Bush's Brave New Corporate World, clean natural resources are merely commodities in a free-market economy: if you can pay for them, fine; if not, tough. The rest of us will just have to put up with more toxic dumps and more public lands being turned over to logging, mining and oil companies.

Reading further about Al Gore's huge energy needs, the response made by Al Gore's spokeswoman Kalee Krider (krazy name, krazy gal), shows he has been sorely traduced:
"Every family has a different carbon footprint," said Kalee Krider, a spokeswoman for Gore. The Gores' 10,000-square-foot house on Lynnwood Boulevard has a large one.
They use compact fluorescent light bulbs and are in the midst of a renovation project that includes having solar panels installed on their home to reduce fossil fuel consumption, she said.

Their car? A Lexis hybrid SUV.

"They, of course, also do the carbon emissions offset," she said.

That means figuring out how much carbon is emitted from home power use, and vehicle and plane travel, then paying for projects that will offset that with use of renewable energy, such as solar power.

Gore helped found Generation Investment Management, through which he and others pay for offsets.
As the Anchoress points out, this means Gore is using a lot of alternative energy rather than cutting back, as he would have everyone else do, and in fact as Bush seems to have done in Crawford. But it's OK - Gore can afford the offsets.

Or, as they are increasingly being called, carbon indulgences. (Yes, that's a link to George Monbiot's website. Seems he and the Goreacle need to synchronise songsheets.)

UPDATE: Even better, if you're rich and in the movies you don't even need to buy your indulgences:
This year's Oscar goodie bag contained gift certificates representing 100,000 pounds of greenhouse gas reductions from TerraPass, which describes itself as a "carbon offset retailer." The 100,000 pounds "are enough to balance out an average year in the life of an Academy Award presenter," a press release from TerraPass asserts
Via Libertas

Clare comment

Via David T at Harry's Place, a Cambridge don called Arif Ahmed has commented on the Clareification row as follows:

Dear Madam,

The fact that mocking somebody's beliefs is liable to cause him offence is no reason to refrain from it if the beliefs in question are nothing but a tissue of superstition and prejudice. But that is exactly what Islam is. I do not know the guest editor of Clareification. But I hope that he and other Cambridge students are aware that some senior members of this University (including me) regard the satirizinf of religion as commendable; indeed in the present atmosphere I think it is practically obligatory. He has done nothing wrong, and I am ashamed of those of my colleagues who have chosen to condemn his actions.

Best Wishes, etc.


How to relax your coloured students

In Concord, California:

A high school divided students by ethnicity for separate pep talks on boosting test scores, featuring jazz music for black students...
Lenny Bruce used to do a skit called "How to relax your colored friends at parties", which featured ice-breaking lines like:
"That Bojangles. Christ, could he tap dance!"
Bruce pretended to be a redneck construction boss making uncomfortable small talk with a black man he finds himself standing next to at a party. At one point, he asks whether his new friend is hungry. "I'm sure they've got some watermelon, or fried chicken, or something...". I guess he could have made sure the black man was feeling relaxed by putting on some jazz while he went to look.
Principal Bev Hansen said she held the divided student assemblies this year and last year to avoid one ethnic group harassing another based on test scores, arguing that the state has long reported test results based on race.

"In this country, race is a very uncomfortable topic, and it's time we got over it," Hansen said.
... by introducing segregation and half-century old racial stereotypes to the classroom.

Gore fights back

Following reports that his high domestic electricity bill makes him a hypocrite, The Tennessean reports that his bill is so high because he pays a premium for green power:

Gore purchased 108 blocks of "green power" for each of the past three months, according to a summary of the bills.

That's a total of $432 a month Gore paid extra for solar or other renewable energy sources.
Gore buys his power from the Nashville Electricity Service (NES), whose website explains the benefits of switching to green power:
Two blocks of green power each month for a year = 480 lbs. of recycled aluminum (15,322 cans!) or 1,766 lbs of newspaper
In what way are these things equivalent? It's still only February, but we might have a winner for the Bogus Statistic of the Year.

And if you stood them all end to end, would 15,322 cans reach to the moon and back?

Via Open Market.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Ban the burger

Prince Charles dislikes McDonald's:

The Prince spoke as he and the Duchess of Cornwall visited a diabetes centre in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, and watched children packing healthy lunch boxes to encourage awareness of the disease.

As nutritionist Nadine Tayara told him they tried to discourage children from eating fast food, he retorted: “Have you got anywhere with McDonald’s, have you tried getting it banned? That’s the key.”
It's true you get some shady characters there:
His own sons were fans of the hamburger restaurant and often taken there by their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

Prince Harry was recently pictured feasting on a hamburger, provenance unknown, while taking a break from an army training exercise.

And though it is unlikely Prince Charles has ever entered a McDonald’s, his mother, the Queen, gave tacit support to the chain by officially visiting a McDonald’s restaurant for the first time in Cheshire in 1998, although she did not sample its menu.
I'd suggest the Prince might care to visit a McDonald's in a poor part of a city, to watch parents giving their kids an amazingly cheap treat, sitting them on toadstool seats and playing with the stuff they get in the kids' meals at a price eben someone on the dole can afford once in a blue moon. But that would be beside the point.

Which is that this is the most illiberal thing I have ever heard anyone outside the Labour Party say. People can go where they like. It's up to him to persuade, not ban. And, in fairness, he's been doing an effective job there:
Ironically, it was down to Prince Charles, reportedly, that the chain introduced organic milk after one senior McDonald’s employee was invited to his Highgrove home and toured his Home Farm.

An inconvenient electricity bill

Via The Drudge Report, we learn of Al Gore's modest carbon-neutral lifestyle:

The Tennessee Center for Policy Research, an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization, issued a press release late Monday:

Last night, Al Gore’s global-warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, collected an Oscar for best documentary feature, but the Tennessee Center for Policy Research has found that Gore deserves a gold statue for hypocrisy.

Gore’s mansion, [20-room, eight-bathroom] located in the posh Belle Meade area of Nashville, consumes more electricity every month than the average American household uses in an entire year, according to the Nashville Electric Service (NES).

In his documentary, the former Vice President calls on Americans to conserve energy by reducing electricity consumption at home.

The average household in America consumes 10,656 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year, according to the Department of Energy. In 2006, Gore devoured nearly 221,000 kWh—more than 20 times the national average.

Last August alone, Gore burned through 22,619 kWh—guzzling more than twice the electricity in one month than an average American family uses in an entire year. As a result of his energy consumption, Gore’s average monthly electric bill topped $1,359.

Since the release of An Inconvenient Truth, Gore’s energy consumption has increased from an average of 16,200 kWh per month in 2005, to 18,400 kWh per month in 2006.

UPDATE: Gore fights back in his local newspaper.

An inconvenient investment

Via J F Beck, I see a summary of the green energy investment world. After a very strong year or two, problems are developing:

Some solar-energy companies have slid because of their inability to turn a profit even as demand increases. Marlboro, Massachusetts-based Evergreen Solar Inc. said this month that its fourth-quarter loss was $5.5 million, wider than a year ago, as revenue almost tripled. The stock had the biggest decline in seven months after the results were announced.

Alternative energy ``is all the rage,'' said Stuart Schweitzer, New York-based global strategist at JPMorgan Asset Management, which oversees about $1 trillion. ``That does not mean that as an investor you'll be able to make money.''
And it could get worse:
D.E. Shaw & Co., Tudor Investment Corp., Citadel Investment Group LLC, Caxton Associates LLC, SAC Capital Advisors LLC and Pequot Capital Management Inc. reduced their stakes in solar- power and ethanol producers in the fourth quarter, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The hedge funds manage about $86 billion.

``As an investment play,'' global warming is ``a bubble'' and ``social short-term craze,'' said Ken Fisher, who oversees $35 billion as chairman of Fisher Investments Inc. in Woodside, California.

Anyone looking for corroboration of that assessment may find it in the so-called short selling of U.S. alternative-energy stocks last month, which climbed 45 times faster than the average for Standard & Poor's 500 Index members.

Humanitarian Affairs

Reuters UK reports today that the International Criminal Court has named two suspects accused of committing war crimes in the Darfur region of Sudan:

Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked pre-trial judges to issue summonses for Ahmed Haroun, state minister of interior during the height of the Darfur conflict, and militia commander Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-al-Rahman, also known as Ali Kushayb.

Haroun is currently Sudan's state humanitarian affairs minister

Browne confirms Iranian involvement in attacks on UK troops

An interesting question from Michael Gove yesterday:

Michael Gove: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he has made of the extent of Iranian involvement in the internal affairs of neighbouring states where British armed forces are deployed; and if he will make a statement. [122601]

Des Browne: Iran's behaviour in support of terrorist groups in the region continues to be a cause for concern.

Support from within Iran, including by the Quds Force, goes to groups who are attacking our forces and fuels the sectarian violence in Iraq. In our assessment some of the improvised explosive devices that are being used against our forces use technology that originates from Iran.

The Government of Iraq has made it clear that it will not tolerate Iranian activity that undermines the prospects for a secure, stable and democratic Iraq.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Kifaya - Enough

Like several other bloggers with an interest in the Middle East, I received an comment/email a couple of days ago from someone who called himself Ahmad:

Hello, could you help me promote this freedom video as much as you can, if you agree to its contents, of course. It’s about Egypt’s real nature and the accelerating imprisonment of freedom fighters in general, and bloggers like Kareem and many others under severe threats from the Egyptian Government.
Kifaya - Arabic for "Enough" - is an Egyptian movement for democratic reform that until recently focused almost entirely on President Mubarak. "You brutalised us, you imprisoned us..." the song in the video goes. It is dedicated to Ayman Nour, an Egyptian opposition leader who was imprisoned in 2005.

Since the 2006 Israeli/Hezbollah war, Kifaya has become more anti-Israeli and anti-American, angered by the fact that the US government did not call for an unconditional ceasefire. They are also opposed to the Broader Middle East Initiative, which is an American-led plan for the region that Kifaya calls an attempt to "recast the chart and fate of the Arab region and people". While most of Kifaya's manifesto concerns Egypt, it also refers to "The Zionist devastation daily wreaked on the Palestinian people bordering on a holocaust". They call for an end to the American "occupation" of Iraq.

So of course I have mixed feelings. I am a strong supporter of the Iraq "occupation" and I am ashamed and disgusted by any democrat who sets themselves against Israel - the only country in the region with a proper democracy and free society. A Kafiya activist would be quite safe living in Israel; the safety of an Israeli in Cairo would be less sure.

Kifaya is also supported by the Muslim Brotherhood - not least because they find themselves under assault from the Mubarak regime, but also because they see it as a means to an end that is not considered ideal by every Kifaya activist.

Of course, this raises the question, or problem, one always faces when dealing with democracy movements in the Middle East, and indeed elsewhere: you don't always agree with them. Last month, I copied in full a post by an Egyptian blogger that gave his perspective on the past few years. I don't agree with everything he said, but then by definition that is going to be mutual.

There is also a more practical concern, which I will put in the words of this same Egyptian blogger, Nah·det Masr:
I feel better with Mubarak on top, I fear that any switch will either be bloddy or dark. I hope the transition will be smooth and to a like-minded ruler. I don't mind him being a dictator, I prefer to have the small freedoms we have right now, to the medievel rule of islamists who would be supported by the illiterate masses.
I think I'd feel the same if I were Egyptian, though I'm not certain. I'm glad I find it hard to try to imagine how I'd feel if I were in that situation, and I want to keep it that way. Equally, I'd like Nah·det Masr's children to have the same difficulty I have in imagining what it is like to be caught between the rock of authoritarianism and the hard place that is religious insanity.

If people gain freedom and democracy, they are not necessarily going to agree with me about everything, or indeed anything. There were pretty deep fissures between free and democratic nations during the build up to the Iraq invasion, with French Fries being re-named Freedom Fries in New York. That's how it works. People disagree. We have found a way to have those disagreements without killing anyone: no democratic nations have ever gone to war with one another.

The transition that many Islamic countries face between where they are now and where they will be in the future - free and democratic - will be a troubled one and some may have a period of clerical rule, as is the case with Iran right now. I'm neither relaxed nor fatalistic about that, just observing that it may well be the case.

It's very hard to drag oneself away from the sense that we have a duty to solve the problems of the Middle East to realise how humiliating and infuriating it must be for people who live there to see foreigners planning how to redraw their lives. If you are Egyptian, you can look back on a history of extraordinary accomplishment - pyramids when my ancestors were wearing animal skins, the golden age of Islamic science when my ancestors were freezing in castles and discussing whether witches would float - then Ottoman occupation, European colonisation, indigenous dictatorship, underachievement and humiliation.

How do we now come to meet over coffee, to talk about each other with honesty, admiration, agreement, solidarity, disagreement, anger but - above all - liking? That is a question we have to answer as individuals, not collectively. Anything else is a cop out; this isn't something we can delegate.

The video is powerful. I'm glad to post it here.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The power of the web

Writers as formidably intelligent as Oliver Kamm and Jeremy Stangroom must be aware that, when they criticise blogging, the fact that they are both bloggers is a potential source of irony. Perhaps, as writers with other, more traditional, outlets they feel validated as commentators in a way that those who merely blog are not.

Stangroom (blog - Butterflies and Wheels) took part in an online debate with Chris Bertram (blog - Crooked Timber) at The Philosopher's Magazine website, whereas Kamm (blog) - who links to this TPM exchange - has written three posts denigrating different aspects not just of blogging, but also of the web (which he calls the "internet") more generally. His posts can be found, in chronological order, here, here and here.

Stangford's case is essentially that blogs encourage "groupthink":

Blogging breeds entrenched positions; there is no editorial requirement for balance.
If you read the Guardian newspaper, you'll find that most of the time it pursues what it sees – erroneously – as being a liberal-left agenda. But just occasionally it'll throw up a surprise; it'll print something which departs from its editorial line. But you can read Crooked Timber, or The Leiter Reports, or Normblog, or Conservative Commentary, and, on particular issues, you'll never be surprised; you'll know, in advance, the line which will be taken.
and the quote Kamm echoes:
My argument is that when a whole medium is characterised by entrenched positions then you tend to get heat not light.
Given the enormous difference in daily output between The Guardian and the average blog, in the numbers of contributors and the resources committed, the suggestion that it is only "occasionally" that The Guardian throws up a surprise is telling, and damning. This is not the point Stangford was trying to make, but it is true: readers of The Guardian seek, and find, entrenched positions that match their own preconceptions - just like readers of blogs (often the same people). Moreover, from what I have seen, many people use aggregators (readers) to assemble a more eclectic and contradictory reading list than would ever have been found in the pages of one given newspaper, or indeed in the totality of available newsprint. There are no barriers, either of subject or geography, in the blogosphere. Thus, in the real world where people actually read more than one blog, greater, not lesser, variety is both possible and commonplace.

In Kamm's first piece, he argues that:
So far from being "democratic and egalitarian", the proliferation of political blogs narrows the range of opinion presented in the public square, to the extent that blogs are taken seriously as an intermediary for debate.
The supposed conversation that blogging gives rise to is more like an echo chamber. When it's then diverted towards particular targets, the consequences are horrifying. Ms Alibhai-Brown referred in her comments [during a discussion about blogging] to the overwhelmingly abusive character of the emails she receives from her journalism. You can see further evidence on the Guardian's "Comment is Free" site, where the aim of drawing readers into a conversation has clearly not been realised.
But surely it is possible that this aim has been realised, and we're seeing the truth about the polarisation of political culture that already existed, but lacked this particular channel through which it could be made public. The divisions made visible through opposing demonstrations and the strikes and strike-breaking of the 1970s, the venom of feminists, socialists and Young Tories, were at least as strong as the divisions made visible through blog comments. In fact, the most politically polarised period of my lifetime was Mrs Thatcher's administration. Much heat, and precious little light, was apparent at that time and we did not need the web to see it. There was little magisterial and mutually respectful debate.

Kamm concludes:
Blogging is a fact of political life, and we have to get used to it. But deliberative democracy doesn't work that way.
I'm afraid that, in reality, blogs reflect exactly the way democracy works, now and in the past. F.E. Smith might have used the more elegant English of his day, but was no less caustic than most political bloggers. Most people have deeply entrenched views and are not interested in questioning them. They frequently claim moral superiority for their opinions and will not, on that ground alone, open their minds to change; nor will they seek, or hear if they encounter, opposing viewpoints. And it has ever been so.

In his second piece, Kamm points to the almost lunatic figure of Michael Meacher, who has become a 9/11 conspiracy theorist:
When he showed his sources, they turned out to be print-outs from crank conspiracist web sites and nothing else; nor was this conspiracy theory the only one whose merits he presented.
One of the reasons I am sceptical of the Internet [he means the web] (and hostile to blogging) as a conduit for information and argument is that its errors are not independent; it is the ideal medium for the propagation of malign falsehood couched with bogus authority in pseudoscientific language.
This is by way of contrast to the traditional media which, according to a study he quotes, benefits from:
"an entrenched professional community that systematically 'repairs' its hegemonic journalistic paradigm by discrediting rogue journalists and rogue media conduits as anomalies"
This is not sustainable as an argument - although (from the second of those links) it's reassuring that The Independent believes the culture of the Pirwi people of Mexico to be so. In fact, though not all bloggers observe this, it has become good blog practice to point out your own mistakes prominently if they have been made known to you. Open, and even moderated, comments sections permit opposing arguments to be put in a way that was entirely alien to more traditional media until very recently, and that as a consequence of the influence of the web in general and of blogging in particular.

This argument is really one in favour of a sort of self-perpetuating academy - The Fourth Estate - correcting itself in its own time and in its own way, with the rest of the world entirely excluded even from an observation of the process. It is an argument for the hegemony of received opinion.

And, as Kamm himself points out with his example of the "Who was the real Shakespeare" lunacy, conspiracy theories predate the internet. I am not aware of any reason to imagine they have become more prominent in the past decade or so.

However, the suggestion that the web has permitted more unusual, fringe ideas to be propogated directly contradicts the earlier assertion that blogs have "narrowed" debate.

Kamm's third piece was an attack on Wikipedia. This contained a breathtaking piece of arrogance:
there is a disproportionate stress on pop culture and technology to the exclusion of genuine fields of knowledge
Kamm's field is not technology: as I have - deliberately pedantically - pointed out, he does not understand the distinction between the internet - a network of computer networks (internetwork) that can be used for all kinds of things, email, gopher, ssh, telnet and so on - and the web, which is one of those technologies that can, but need not necessarily, use the internet for transport. Wikipedia is an excellent source of information for technological and scientific subjects, but Kamm quotes a former editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, who wrote:
truth – whatever definition of that word you may subscribe to – is not democratically determined. And another is that talent, whether for soccer or for exposition, is not equally distributed across the population
Leaving aside this writer's obvious vested interest in the previous order, and acknowledging Kamm's examples of egregious error in Wikipedia articles with a political aspect, we can look to the journal Nature for an assessment of Wikipedia, and a comparison with the Britannica, that has the merit of having actually been researched:
In the study, entries were chosen from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica on a broad range of scientific disciplines and sent to a relevant expert for peer review. Each reviewer examined the entry on a single subject from the two encyclopaedias; they were not told which article came from which encyclopaedia. A total of 42 usable reviews were returned out of 50 sent out, and were then examined by Nature's news team.

Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.
The most notable part of this is the error count from Britannica. Taking a single point of reference for a subject is always inadvisable. Wikipedia is an experiment. The internet was not designed with the web in mind; the web was not designed with Wikipedia in mind. We are seeing technology evolve, in all three cases. But never has more information been available for so many, and Mr Kamm is in danger of sounding like someone who fears the invention of the printing press.

There is, however, a genuine problem with these electronic data systems: they are like the wall in Animal Farm. Electronic resources can be altered. The BBC is notorious for "stealth edits", whereby once an error (invariably giving a predictable and erroneous slant to a news story) has been pointed out by others (often bloggers), they edit rather than update the online article, so that so far as anyone encountering the page in the future is concerned it has always said what it says now. Professor Ross Anderson of Cambridge University has been almost a lone voice in pointing out these dangers:
Since about the middle of 2000, there has been an explosion of interest in peer-to-peer networking - the business of building useful systems out of large numbers of intermittently connected machines, with virtual infrastructures that are tailored to the application. One of the seminal papers in the field was The Eternity Service, which I presented at Pragocrypt 96. I had been alarmed by the Scientologists' success at closing down the penet remailer in Finland, and had been personally threatened by bank lawyers who wanted to suppress knowledge of the vulnerabilities of ATM systems (see here for a later incident). This taught me that electronic publications can be easy for the rich and the ruthless to suppress. They are usually kept on just a few servers, whose owners can be sued or coerced. To me, this seemed uncomfortably like books in the Dark Ages: the modern era only started once the printing press enabled seditious thoughts to be spread too widely to ban. The Eternity Service was conceived as a means of putting electronic documents as far outwith the censor's grasp as possible. (The concern that motivated me has since materialised; a UK court judgment has found that a newspaper's online archives can be altered by order of a court to remove a libel.)
(My emphasis) This means that a court has seen fit to order not that something published was libellous, but rather that it never was published at all, and the record has been changed to show that. Winston Smith, in 1984, had a more laborious task when it came to altering the past. Offending newspapers had to be reprinted.

I highlighted the following in the preceding quote:
the modern era only started once the printing press enabled seditious thoughts to be spread too widely to ban
The printing presses also produced, for example, the anti-Catholic pamphlets that caused such mischief in the seventeenth century. There are obvious parallels for these pamphlets today, in the form og blogs, forums and websites, and they are indeed spreading mischief.

But the enabling power that saw the start of the modern world that I, Kamm and Stangroom value so highly is there too. Governments - and clerics - are even less able to suppress information than they were even twenty years ago. And in that, there is more cause for optimism than pessimism.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


No Jason Robinson for England's match against Ireland this afternoon, but Wilkinson is fit. Ireland must be favourites, despite their poor performance against France. But here's hoping for an upset.

And here's hoping for an upset in France too. Anyone who came to know rugby during the 1970s should have an affection for Welsh rugby and their win in Paris during their Grand Slam a couple of years ago was a modern classic. Do it again, lads.

UPDATE - Congratulations, Ireland. And well done with the rugby.


I've had a soft spot for Will Hutton ever since I read The State We're In, which explained why Britain should learn from the social contracts that operated in Japanese and German capitalism. As the piles of books stood cooling by the printing presses, the economies of Japan and Germany promptly collapsed. You might call it the Hutton Effect.

Matthew Sinclair formulates another theory, Sinclair's Law of Bad Guardian Articles:

Can we call it Sinclair's Law that all bad Guardian articles will eventually make a shameless statement of envy?
An excellent fisk of a braindead Hutton article.


Given the fondness in the Muslim world for conspiracy theories, I'm surprised the idea that the Iraqi invasion was a plot by Bushitler to provoke a regional Sunni/Shia war hasn't gained more currency. But the real Sandmonkey has been tracking developments:

My fellow egyptians, you will so be psychologicaly prepped for a war with Iran by the end of this year, it's not even funny.
Sandmonkey ain't no conspiracy theorist. There is a real risk of this, as Saudi Arabia grows increasingly concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions, and considers sending its own troops into Iraq, where they would inevitably come into conflict with Iranian proxies.

It's a worrying thought, but an interesting one at the same time. A Saudi-led invasion of Iran wouldn't arouse the same sorts of emotions as an American-led invasion. It might just be that the freedom of the Iranian people will be a development of the Iraqi invasion that was entirely unforeseen four or five years ago.

Or was it?

Drawing a line

This is a good idea:

About 30,000 Afghans rallied at what was once a Taliban execution center in Kabul on Friday to press President Hamid Karzai to approve a blanket amnesty for 25 years of war crimes.

Karzai on Thursday said he needed legal advice before making any decision over the bill, which has already been approved by both houses of parliament. His foreign minister has said it can't be done, due to international agreements to punish those responsible for such crimes.
Most of the [entirely peaceful] rally's participants were supporters of the Mujahideen groups that fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan until 1992, but then fell into a bitter and bloody power struggle after victory.

More than a million people died during the Soviet backed rule and Western funded opposition, and tens of thousands more died during the civil war that followed.
Human rights groups have demanded war crimes trials as the only way to bring peace and reconciliation, but Mujahideen groups say the amnesty bill is aimed at uniting Afghans after 30 years of war
Let's get this straight. Mujahideen groups who fought each other in a terrible civil war came together peacefully to ask for an amnesty that would allow them all to put the past behind them and move on, and their biggest obstacles are "international agreements" and "human rights groups".

I'm with the Mujahideen on this one.

The snip that guards

It's hard to see what justification there could be for any further delay in making male circumcision the norm:

The Kenyan and Ugandan trials replicate the landmark findings of the South African study, known as the South African Orange Farm study, which was the first randomised controlled trial to show a greater than 50 per cent protective benefit of male circumcision.

The Kenyan trial involved 2,784 young men from Kisimu who were randomly assigned to circumcision (1,391) and non-circumcision groups (1,393). The researchers followed their progress for 2 years and then compared the results from the two groups.

Their analysis suggested there was a 53 to 60 per cent reduction in risk of getting HIV in those men who were circumcised compared with those who were not. The second improved figure was obtained when they took out the men who did not complete the trial and the men who were already HIV positive at the start.

The Ugandan trial involved 4,996 uncircumcised, HIV-negative men aged from 15 to 49 years living in Rakai, who were also randomly assigned to circumcision (2,474) and non-circumcision (2,522) groups. The risk reduction results were very similar to the Kenyan trial.

Both trials, which were sponsored by the US National Institutes of Health, were stopped early because the results were so definitive.

Scientists suggest that circumcision is effective in preventing the spread of HIV because cells inside the foreskin are an ideal breeding ground for the virus and allow it be passed on in sexual intercourse.
But some people still object. Perhaps we need some kind of foreskin Nuremberg


J.F. Beck made an interesting comparison recently. There had been an outcry over claims that:

[A book called] Grand Canyon: A Different View [was] being sold at the park. The book is, you see, a collection of essays written from a creationist perspective; and if there's anything guaranteed to rile committed lefties, it's creationism.
Well, creationism riles this particular right wing libertarian. But Beck went on to quote New Scientist:
The Grand Canyon was formed a few thousand years ago by Noah's flood, and not a few million years ago by geological forces, right? So says a glossy book still on sale in Grand Canyon National Park, despite scientists' protests.
and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility:
“In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is ‘no comment.’”
It turned out that this was a misrepresentation of the truth:
If asked the age of the Grand Canyon, our rangers use the following answer.

The principal consensus among geologists is that the Colorado River basin has developed in the past 40 million years and that the Grand Canyon itself is probably less than five to six million years old. The result of all this erosion is one of the most complete geologic columns on the planet.

The major geologic exposures in Grand Canyon range in age from the 2 billion year old Vishnu Schist at the bottom of the Inner Gorge to the 230 million year old Kaibab Limestone on the Rim.
However, Beck pointed out the curious lack of outcry over this statement from the official official Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park website:
We, the traditional land owners of Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park, are direct descendants of the beings who created our lands during the Tjukurpa (Creation Time). We have always been here.
Why is religious drivel acceptable from Australian Aboriginies, but not from American Christians? This question has been cast into sharp relief this week when it was reported that:
Britain's national collection of human remains - a unique information source on man's origins - could soon be broken up after a decision to return the bones of 17 Aboriginals in the collection to Tasmania.

The Natural History Museum in London announced yesterday that it has decided to set a precedent by giving the remains to a Tasmanian Aboriginal group which intends to cremate them in a funeral ceremony.
Professor Stringer said that destroying the material means that the bones will never be available for further study when new forensic techniques are invented. "Who would have thought a few decades ago that we would be able to get DNA from Neanderthal bone?" he said.

Professor Robert Foley, a human evolution expert at Cambridge University, said: "There is no doubt that if these remains are destroyed, our knowledge of our humanity will be diminished."
A battle is being fought over whether or not samples can be taken first for later DNA analysis. What is the justification for the Aboriginal campaign to prevent this from happening?
"When an Aboriginal person dies we have to carry out a traditional ceremony that reunites the spirit with the body, and they are settled back to earth in peaceful form," Mansell says. "Where that's been disturbed through grave robbing, the obligation is on us to settle those spirits once again through ceremony. If there are photographs taken or DNA testing of their remains, then the spirit is broken up and cannot be reunited with the body."


Sound advice from Kentucky State Police spokesman Barry Meadows:

Program your dealers into your phone.
He was speaking after
the arrest of a western Kentucky teacher who is accused of trying to buy pot from a state trooper
She sent text messages to the wrong number.

Roundup - that school veils controversy

Links collated by the evergreen Butterflies and Wheels.

After a judge rejected a call for a judicial review by the lawyers of a girl who had been refused permission to wear a niqab - full face veil - in school, the headteacher explained why she had forbidden the garment:

She said her girls' school, in Buckinghamshire, promoted equality between men and women.

And she feared other Muslim girls would come under pressure to wear the niqab if it became part of school uniform.
Just over a week later:
An Islamic fundamentalist shot and killed a female Pakistani minister ... because of her refusal to wear a Muslim veil.
“He killed her because she was not observing the Islamic code of dress. She was also campaigning for emancipation of women,” Nazir Ahmad, a police officer, said.

Mrs Usman, 35, was wearing the shalwar kameez adopted by many professional women in Pakistan, but did not cover her head. She was airlifted to Lahore after the attack, and died in hospital.
Three days later, we read that:
Schools will be urged today to allow Muslim girls to wear headscarves for all lessons to promote better integration of Muslim pupils into the state sector.

The call comes in a detailed 72-page document compiled by the Muslim Council of Britain in an attempt to bridge the cultural gap with other pupils in state schools.

Gore blimey

Al Gore spearheaded China's communist revolution

Via The Reference Frame.

Spaced out

As Mark Steyn has pointed out recently:

... to the media and much of the political class throughout the Western world, almost by definition there can be no good news from Iraq: the Bush surge in Baghdad is bound to fail, the Blair handover in the south is bound to fail, and therefore Howard's support for both or either or vice-versa is deluded. In strict numbers, London has been reducing - or "redeploying" or "withdrawing" - forces since 2003, when 46,000 British troops were holding down the southern third of Iraq single-handed.

Within a year, it was a fifth of that, and this latest drawdown is significant only because of the opportunity it affords Bush-bashers (and Howard-bashers) for some political sport. The southern provinces are as stabilised as they're likely to get under any regime short of multi-decade colonialisation.
The recently announced British troop withdrawals are a sign of success. The whole idea was to topple Saddam, hand over to a democratic Iraqi government, then leave. The process hasn't been easy, but in most of Iraq it has been working.

Baghdad has been a lot more problematic, though. Bush's answer is to increase troop numbers and crackdown on violence. This process began a couple of weeks ago and has had some success. Although most of the mainstream media ignored it, by last weekend the level of violence there had fallen by 80%. But you have to go to an Iraqi blogger to read a translation of an Arabic news service to learn this. The improvement was so marked that, as the terrorists fled:
Brigadier Qasim Ata, an authorized Baghdad Operation spokesman, told al-Sabah that for the 3rd day in a row dozens of displaced families are returning to their homes. 35 families returned in Madain, 7 in hay al-I’ilam and small numbers of families in various districts of Baghdad.

Later reports in the local media indicate that the total number of families that returned home is as high as 130 families across the city, including several families in the, until recently, hopelessly violent district of Hay al-Adl.
Of course, terrorist atrocities had not completely ended:
... the terrorists committed another crime against civilians by detonating two bombs in a market area.

Although soldiers and policemen are filling the streets, the terrorists are too coward to face the troops and choose to massacre unarmed civilians instead. What are they trying to prove with these cowardly acts? They can’t defeat the troops, so they attack civilians to discredit the security plan. But I don’t think such attacks can change the course of events on the long term; the Baghdad plan is a strategic effort that will go on for months, and time doesn’t seem to be on the terrorists’ side right now.
These atrocities were given main-headline prominence by the same news organisations that seemed unable to find space for the encouraging downturn of the previous week.

Both things are true - higher troop levels in Baghdad led to a downturn in violence; terrorist attacks continued at a lower frequency. Of course, aware that the only kind of contest they can win is the media battle, terrorists are going to be desperate to launch attacks that might cause the troop build up to falter. We know that. The value of the "surge" strategy will become clearer over in the months to come but first signs are promising.

You wouldn't know this, though, from the mainstream media.


Some people might think this isn't really Art, but just some pinko twat with an I/V drip of my tax money making a one dimensional political statement:

Performance artist Mark McGowan kicked off his bid to crawl for 72 hours across Manhattan dressed as the president, offering the opportunity to kick his backside.

The controversial artist from London began his odyssey from New York's Lincoln Centre wearing a rubber
George Bush mask, a business suit, knee pads, work gloves and a sign stuck to his cushioned posterior reading simply: "Kick My Ass".
But they would be wrong:
... he insisted his work was no publicity stunt but art: "It's definitely an art form. A lot of the things I do are a bit silly but they always have a political edge to them."
After all those decades of undergraduate agonising, at last we have a viable definition of "Art" - a silly thing with a political edge.

McGowan said he does not have any particular political stance on the Republican president, who has seen his approval ratings plunge in the face of an unpopular war in

McGowan made his name in Britain with a series of controversial acts including a performance called "Dead Soldier" where he dressed up in army fatigues and lay in the streets for a week.
No particular political stance. Just anti-Iraq and, er... anti-Iraq.

McGowan's lack of self-awareness has worked well in this instance, though. He doesn't seem to realise that he is giving people the chance to kick the ass of... some pinko twat with an I/V drip of my tax money making a one dimensional political statement.

Pass the hobnails, Vera.

Hat tip: Michelle Malkin

Friday, February 23, 2007

Closed University

Via Daniel Finkelstein

Watch the bit where the camera pans over the students, and look at who is sitting at the back.

The envy of the world

Dr Crippen:

If she had private health insurance, the cardiologist would follow her up. If she was the Queen, the cardiologist would follow her up. If she was Tony Blair, the cardiologist would follow her up. But she does not have private health insurance.She is not the Queen. She is not Tony Blair. She is an elderly widow, living on a small pension.

It is not the cardiologist's fault. He is under orders and anyway, even if he were not, he no longer has a team of experienced junior doctors working under him.

For this poor lady, the top-tier of the health service is closed. The government and the PCTs are closing down out-patient follow up for the poor.

Possible typo

From The Telegraph:

A blanket ban on alcohol advertising is the only way to combat the British binge drinking culture, according to one of the country's leading authoritarian twats.


I just did.

S&M in space

I think I once blundered across the web site:

NASA guidelines allows astronauts deal with suicidal or out-of-control crewmates by binding them with duct tape, tying them down with bungee cord and administering drugs if necessary.

Quote of the day

From Fox News:

The lawyer for a former Baptist church leader who had spoken out against homosexuality said Thursday the minister has a constitutional right to solicit sex from an undercover policeman.

You don't get me

I knew a Sun printer once. Well, I didn't actually know him. I 'phoned a cab for him twice. In 1983 I drank occasionally in a pub on Brixton Hill in London where the Landlord kept a cab firm's card behind the bar, with the address of the Sun's print works - pre-Wapping - pencilled on the back. He'd hand it to one of the drinkers when the time came, and give them a ten pence piece for the payphone. The Sun printer needed to get to work, but couldn't use the 'phone himself. He was too drunk. To call a cab. To get to work.

The Wapping link above refers delicately to

poor industrial relations – the so-called "Spanish practices" had put limits on the owners that they considered intolerable
The Landlord was less circumspect. The printer would be OK at work because he had a bed there and could sleep it off during his shift. A senior Union member (print unions were called "Chapels", for some reason), he had the privilege of sleeping during his shift, or perhaps I should say "their shifts"... according to the Landlord, he clocked in under two names and received two pay packets.

Years after the Wapping dispute, the print union leader, Brenda Dean, said something like "maybe we went a bit too far". I can't be more precise or link to it because, for some strange reason, I can't find a link to the quote.

Another thing I can't find any links for is the notorious light-fingeredness of the London Dockers. In the 1970s, this was so commonplace a fact that Johnny Speight - a lifelong Labour voter - could use it as a sight gag in the TV sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. Speight's father had been a docker and the writer knew the environment well. Alf Garnett, the main character, worked in the docks in the earlier episodes and as scenes unfolded, in passing and in the background he and his colleagues would open crates, steal drink and food for their lunches, stuff whisky bottles into bags.

If you search the internet, you'll find lots of pieces about noble workers, the plight of the day labourer, containerisation leading to the demise of the London docks, but nothing about the endemic theft that had led to desirable cargoes - like whisky - being routed elsewhere long before the closures. In the 1970s, it was commonly alleged that up to 25% of some shipments had been stolen. When the docks closed, an epidemic of armed robbery spread out from the Thames waterfronts, from Bermondsey to Woolwich.

But no reference to any of this has made it into the internet age.

The Unions have become romanticised as they have faded. At the height of their powers, in the 1960s and 1970s, films like I'm All Right Jack and songs like You don't get me, I'm part of the Union reflected popular anger and contempt for the self-interested and amoral unions, but today a generation of left wing academics have whitewashed their memory.

Today, the only part of the economy that is heavily unionised is the public sector and, having held to ransom a compliant Labour government, this now enjoys higher average pay than the private sector, and vastly better pensions, holidays and job security. The private sector, of course, pays for this - pays for benefits it cannot enjoy itself.

What would the Tolpuddle Martyrs - who worked in the private sector - have thought?

The definition of Chutzpah

Blair warns of Conservative "misrule".

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Kill the witch!

Nah·det Masr summarises reaction to Kareem's jail sentence in the comments section of Al Aribiya News:

95% of the comments support the sentence, some are even saying that this is not harsh enough, and one or two are proposing that he should be killed for blasphemy!!!
In the comments to this post, Masr responds to someone by saying:
I feel better with Mubarak on top, I fear that any switch will either be bloddy or dark. I hope the transition will be smooth and to a like-minded ruler. I don't mind him being a dictator, I prefer to have the small freedoms we have right now, to the medievel rule of islamists who would be supported by the illiterate masses.
That chimes with my earlier comment:
Mubarek is one of the most pro-Western Middle Eastern leaders, and suffers some domestic problems as a result. Even the law prohibiting insulting the head of State needs to be seen in the context of his islamic problem - Egypt is the origin of the Muslim Brotherhood.
What a situation to be in.

Those of us who feel a strong affection for the Arab world need to redouble our efforts to support our friends out there right now. It's a difficult time.


As soon as you update your blog, you get a little rush of visitors from the random "next blog" link at the top of the page of other blogspot residents.

So hello to the readers of and

Google search terms of the week

I'd like to welcome the readers who have found this blog by searching for:

punching myself perforated intestine


female crucifixion

(the latter doesn't even seem to return a link to this site...)

Not me, guv

Er... they don't actually read blogs at the Telegraph, it seems. Not even when a blogger is the subject of the piece:

[Abdul Kareem's] convictions resulting from the views published on his weblog, sandmonkey...
The Sandmonkey is an entirely unrelated Egyptian blog.

Shame. They might learn something.

Update: The real Sandmonkey explains the case over at Pajamas Media

Kareem's post

Further to this post, and via the Pub Philosopher and Harry's Place, the following is the text of one of Kareem's most controversial posts.

The Danish Cartoons protests led to the far more widespread publication of the cartoons than would otherwise have been the case, and millions of people saw them who would not have done so had there not been protests, threats and rioting.

So let it be with Kareem:

The Naked Truth of Islam As I Saw It In Maharam Bey Riots

The Muslims have taken the mask off to show their true hateful face, and they have shown the world that they are at the top of their brutality, inhumanity, and thievery.
They have clearly shown their worst features and have shown that in dealing with others they are not governed by any moral codes.

From what I have seen yesterday of the events at Maharram Beh, which were quite shameful, and have shown me more facts that they have tried to cover over the centuries.

They have indicated that Islam is a religion of peace and forgiveness, but their true face has been uncovered to show barbarism and thievery and fanaticism and not acknowledging others, and attempting to remove them from existence.

Some may think that the actions of the Moslems does not represent Islam and has no relationship with the teachings of Islam that was brought by Mohamed 14 centuries ago, but the truth is that their actions is not different from the Islamic teachings in its original form when it has urged people to deny others and hate them and kill them and take their property, things that they know well but they try to deceive people by falsely defending the teachings of Islam by extremists and they are hiding from the truth and they prefer living a lie.

I have seen with my own eyes the thugs as they break into our Christian brothers’ stores after the whole area of Maharram Beh was completely out of control of the government authorities, and I saw them as they ransack the contents of the store right and left, amidst cheering and shouting extremist Islamic slogans, and I saw them stealing the money from inside the drawers of the cash registers and splitting it among themselves as if it is justified by being owned by what they call the infidels and the worshippers of the cross.

I saw them break into a liquor store owned by a Coptic merchant Labib Lotfy and I saw them smash everything they can get their dirty hands on, including the refrigerator and the scale and the boxes and liquor bottles. I saw some of them stealing liquor bottles so they can get drunk after a hard day’s work against the Coptic infidels.

It is worth mentioning that although some people may think that this Christian-owned liquor store was particularly targeted because the owner is selling the forbidden alcoholic beverages that is forbidden in Islam, but another liquor store in front of the Christian-owned store happens to be owned by a Moslem merchant, and none of the thugs dared to attack, as they did with the Christian-owned store. Now you can see the hateful sectarian actions.

What the Moslems did yesterday in a very vulgar and criminal and horrible way proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that they don’t acknowledge others or their rights of existence or their rights to live with the freedom of expression and also consider them less than them, and these actions should be fought and exterminated for is it right to leave these horrible human beings to do what they want and kill, destroy, steal, and burn??!!

The Islamic teachings that was brought by Mohammed 14 centuries ago should be faced with courage and boldness, we should expose and show its faults and warn humanity of its dangers. We should, even though we are different –look with reason to these teachings that urges people, human beings, to become monsters that don’t know anything in life except killing and looting and plundering and raping and pillaging.

We should stand courageously and boldly against these teachings that became a plague on humanity and is not supported except by extremists like bin Laden and al Zarqawi and al Zawaheeri and the thugs that assaulted our Coptic brothers and burned their homes and stole their properties, and tried to assault their religious men and destroy their churches.

We should take off the religious and sectarian gown and look at matters in a more humane way. We should hold trials to all the acts of terrorism and extremism, that our Islamic history have kept their names and their criminal actions starting with Mohamed ibn Abdullah and his company of murderers like Khalid ibn el Waled and Omar ibn el Khattab and Saad ibn Abbi Waqqas and Moiizah Bin Shaabah and Samra bin Gandab and the kings of Beni Ummaya and Beni al Abbass and al Osman, and ending with the Moslem criminals of the modern day that became more famous than movie stars and singers.
We should show the world the truth of these criminals that unfortunately have become role models for our youth and our children and our women. We should expose their false teachings and show the world that they are a big danger that should be exterminated and removed from its roots.

Before you put on trial the people that are responsible for the crimes that occurred on Black Friday in Maharram Beh, you should first put on trial the dirty teachings that caused them to go on a rampage of stealing and plundering and looting.. put Islam on trial and sentence it and its symbols with a figurative execution so that you can be sure that what happened yesterday will never be repeated again.

For as long as Islam exists on this planet all your efforts to end wars and disputes and upheavals will fail because Islam’s dirty finger will be found behind every catastrophic event to humanity.

Free Kareem

In December 2006, the Committee to Protect Journalists produced their annual report on the imprisonment of journalists worldwide. The number had risen from 125 in 2005 to 134 on Dec 1st last year. They also broke down their figures by medium, as is shown by this pie chart:

The report states:

Print reporters, editors, and photographers continue to make up the largest professional category, with 67 cases in 2006, but Internet journalists are a growing segment of the census and now constitute the second largest category, with 49 cases. The number of imprisoned journalists whose work appeared primarily on the Web, via e-mail, or in another electronic form has increased each year since CPJ recorded the first jailed Internet writer in its 1997 census. The 2006 figure is the highest number of Internet journalists CPJ has ever tallied in its annual survey. The roster of jailed Internet journalists includes China’s “citizen” reporters, the independent Cuban writers who file reports for overseas Web sites, and the U.S. video blogger Joshua Wolf who refused to hand over footage to a grand jury.

“We’re at a crucial juncture in the fight for press freedom because authoritarian states have made the Internet a major front in their effort to control information,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said.
I have been posting about the Egyptian blogger Abdul Kareem since last November, hoping that increased international exposure might help his case. It hasn't; today he was sentenced to four years imprisonment.

Kareem was charged with:

  • Spreading data and malicious rumors that disrupt public security

  • Defaming the President of Egypt

  • Incitement to overthrow the regime upon hatred and contempt

  • Incitement to hate "Islam" and breach of the public peace standards

  • Highlighting inappropriate aspects that harm the reputation of Egypt and spreading them to the public
I wrote last year to the Egyptian Ministry of Justice last year, pleading Kareem's case but received no reply. It is no doubt worth mailing the following to register protest:
Egyptian Ambassador to the UK: HE Mr Gehad Refaat Madi:

UK Government: Dr Kim Howells, FCO:

Egyptian Government:

The main problem, though, seems to be the fact that Egypts legal code permits, as the BBC reports, convictions for "insulting Islam" and "insulting Mr Mubarek".

In September 2005 Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference addressed a Plenary Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly and said:
the Muslim World finds itself still exposed to numerous injustices, violation of rights and campaigns of defamation. Many people in the Muslim World are still deprived of their rights to self-determination or living under foreign occupation as is the cases in Palestine and Kashmir.

At the same time, we are fully aware of the fact that the OIC Member states should do more in the process of implementation of the Millennium Development Goals. I would like to emphasize that campaigns of defamation are still waged – and have even intensified – against Muslims and Islam itself; the growing phenomenon of Islamophobia is the best example of this trend. Human rights of Muslims, particularly in the long established democracies, have become subject to violation. Worse still, the rule has in many instances become that the Muslim is guilty until proved innocent.

We hope that the idea of transforming the present office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to a Human Rights Council will help upholding these rights.

In the face of this situation, we in the OIC are making every effort to deal with this reality in the interest of global harmony, concord, and peace. The leaders of the Muslim World will hold an Extraordinary Summit in Makkah to examine the situation
The result of this meeting in Mecca (Makkah) was a call for the draft resolution establishing the Human Rights Council to include:
a reference to "actions against religions, prophets and beliefs" and to state that "defamation of religions and prophets is inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression."
In March 2006, while I was organising the March for Free Expression in London, I was informed by an intermediary that the OIC was trying hard to defuse the Danish Cartoons crisis. Their work behind the scenes, especially the pressure they put on a particular Pakistani cleric, was, I was told, one reason why there was no counter-demonstration that day in London - an important point if the March were to be allowed to go ahead at all because there would have been very real public order concerns had several thousand Muslim demonstrators turned up to confront a cartoon-waving crowd of free speech advocates. In the event, a handful of teenagers from Al Ghurabaa were gently ushered away by the police.

I formed the impression then that the OIC is less of a unamimous bloc than the uncompromising messages delivered to the UN suggests; it includes, after all, several countries that prohibit extreme Islamic dress that is lawful in Britain. But their messages in 2005 and 2006 were uncompromising. Palestine and Kashmir are simply places where Muslims are being wronged. The entire world must submit to Islamic sensitivities about the manner in which their religion is discussed. Many European politicians have paid lip service to these ideas, including the 2005/6 Foreign Secretary of the U.K. Jack "Last" Straw, who condemned the Danish cartoonists but not those threatening their lives.

Abdul Kareem deserves our support for several reasons. He is a young, opinionated human rights activist with a line in very forthright condemnation of religious excesses. He considers Islam to be fundamentally problematic, not just capable of being distorted by a "tiny minority of extremists", as the appeasing mantra has it. But, most selfishly for we who live in non-Islamic countries, his case is an indication of what we can expect here if the current trend continues.

Those who take it upon themselves to comment, not least in the New Media, about these issues must know that the threats and pressures on Western commentators, journalists and artists will continue. The above is one of the controversial Danish cartoons. So is this:

In the light of subsequent events, it is impossible to suggest reasonably that these were anything other than extremely pertinent and prescient political and social comment - satire of the very first order. They have been condemned as "bad" and "unfunny" so many times I can't be bothered to post links. On the Channel 4 Despatches programme last year, Jon Snow described them as ranging from Mohammed in an identity parade to Mohammed in a bomb-turban. The above two do not fall on that continuum. Nor does this one:

And this next is one of the best comments I have ever seen on the strict Saudi/Iranian attitude to women:

Jon Snow has undoubtedly seen these cartoons and must therefore be considered to be a liar. He heads up one of the flagship British news organisations. We cannot depend on him to alert the public to the problems that the legacy of the Enlightenment faces. As Oliver Kamm recently wrote:
The dominant conflict of the last century was not between left and right. It was between open societies and competing absolutisms. In its most enduring form—the cold war—the protagonists were not progressives and reactionaries but different legatees of the Enlightenment: those of Jefferson and Rousseau, respectively. What comes next is less convoluted, because one side in the conflict of our age is explicit in its aims. Critical inquiry, freedom of conscience and the separation of civil and religious authority are the target of a violent theocratic fanaticism born and sustained in the middle east.

That movement’s apocalyptic language is so far outside the conventions of western debate that many are tempted to rationalise its demands as rhetorical code for something else: a plea for the Palestinians; a cry for global justice. But the ideology is atavistic. It is part of modernity only in the sense that its adherents harness technology to millenarian ends. The most potent conflict in the international order—one that makes urgent the task of countering nuclear proliferation—is thus between the Enlightenment and those who seek its repeal.

Within the western democracies, heightened political disagreement is likely and desirable. But this is not about left vs right either. The strangest political phenomenon of our time is a convergence of isolationisms: nativism on the right, allied to identity politics and anti-Americanism on the left. Against such an adversary, liberalism will, I hope, become more militant in its own defence.
But militancy requires action. What can we do for Abdul Kareem, and thereby - it must be said - for ourselves? I have been asking this question privately of several Middle-Eastern bloggers recently, but have had no answers I have felt held the key.

There is a Free Kareem campaign, but I linked to it and signed its petition last year, before Kareem's conviction, and I don't hold out much hope. It would actually be improper for there to be political intervention in the Egyptian, or any other, legal process. What is needed is a change of Egypt's laws. So, far from the sort of bovine reception that the OIC's attempt to strangle free expression received a year ago, we need to take the fight to them - campaigning for the repeal of their apostasy and religious censorship laws. After all, it is they who have set the precedent for an export of values in this area.

In short, we should add to the truth of this next cartoon:

Islam has an image problem which is of its own making; this would be alleviated by a being-relegated-to-the-private-sphere-of-an-individual's-life problem. But we have to be intelligent in the way we approach this. Egypt is a large net recipient of foreign aid. It's easy to think that aid should be made conditional of legal reform, but the difficulties of this approach are obvious. Saudi aid money, anyone? Mubarek is one of the most pro-Western Middle Eastern leaders, and suffers some domestic problems as a result. Even the law prohibiting insulting the head of State needs to be seen in the context of his islamic problem - Egypt is the origin of the Muslim Brotherhood. Foreign intervention that sought to change Egypt's domestic laws would be unlikely to be productive.

We must start with ourselves. Firstly, by being "militant", as Oliver Kamm put it, in the cause of freedom of expression in this country. We need legal, consitiutional protection for the right everybody has to say what they think in the way they want to express it. The Mafia code of violent reaction to perceived insults needs to be suppressed by law and by speech and example from those in public life. This needs to become an issue that affects the way people vote.

This post is long enough as it is, and I'm going to truncate it now. But I was reading something about the Suffragettes recently, and realised that the right to speak freely is as fundamental, and as fundamental to democracy, as women's suffrage. It's worth bearing in mind that our contemporary paralysis has allowed venal professional politicians to undermine the principle of universal suffrage such that it did not last even a century; in the 2006 British General Election, thousands of postal votes were taken from women in traditional Muslim households and filled in by men.

But the initial campaign for women's suffrage worked and so we do have a precedent, an example of the kind of campaign that might succeed, and a vital current problem. And by succeeding at home, by giving a platform to the voices like Kareem's that have hitherto gone largely unheard, by setting an example and at the same time offering the hand of friendship and of solidarity to Middle Eastern reformers, democrats and sceptics, we can help them to bring about change in their own countries.

Only then, will Kareem be free not just of incarceration, but also to blog again.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The soaring cost of private healthcare

Healthcare costs in America are rising, according to a Fox News report headed Health Costs Soon May Be 1/5 of Individuals' Expenses. A forthcoming publication from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services states this will soon account for one fifth of all consumer spending.

At first glance, that sound terrible - the cost of a single commodity - health care - is going up. Not so:

Consumers are spending more on the latest treatments, despite their rising costs. For example, federal officials cite a significant increase in the use of imaging to detect blockages or other diseases.
So it's not a single commodity, it's lots of different treatments, the total number of which is increasing. If the cost of imaging is rising, that makes it like, well, pretty much everything else. We don't have negative inflation. But we do have stupidly negative headlines. The report continues:
Income will also play a significant role in the greater health spending. Historically, when income rises 1 percent, health expenditures go up about 1.5 percent, officials said.

"What that indicates is a desire to purchase good health," said John Poisal, deputy director of the government's National Health Statistics Group.

Dr. Mark McClellan, an analyst who used to oversee the Medicare and Medicaid programs, said greater spending on health care has its benefits. People are not having heart attacks because they're taking medicine that lowers their blood pressure and cholesterol. They're surviving cancer because of more frequent exams and new treatments.

"Greater health care spending is having a tremendous impact on the length and quality of people's lives," he said.
Worth the money, then.

Phrase of the day

Cognitive whiplash


This is good news:

A 12-year-old schoolgirl has failed in an attempted legal challenge to her school's ban on a full-face veil.
Hat tip: Kes (by email)

Rummy gin

A story from Uganda:

At least 22 people have died and nine more have been hospitalized after drinking illegal, homemade gin, a health official said Wednesday.

A 1-liter bottle of the illicit gin sells for US$0.40 (euro.30) and is popular among poor Ugandans because it is cheap and extremely strong. The ingredients are often unknown.
Ring any bells?
If it is not pure drugs that kill, but impure drugs and the mixture of drugs, then the myth of the heroin overdose can be dangerous. If users had a guaranteed pure supply of heroin which they relied on, there would be little more likelihood of toxic doses than occur with narcotics administered in a hospital.

But when people take whatever they can off the street, they have no way of knowing how the drug is adulterated. And when they decide to augment heroin's effects, possibly because they do not want to take too much heroin, they may place themselves in the greatest danger.

Iranian archaeology

As an example of what might be lost if the Iranian government presses ahead with its plan to obliterate pre-Islamic remains in Fars, it has today been reported that:

A 5,000-year-old golden artificial eye that once stared out mesmerisingly from the face of a female soothsayer or priestess in ancient Persia has been unearthed by Iranian and Italian archaeologists.

The eyeball — the earliest artificial eye found — would have transfixed those who saw it, convincing them that the woman — thought to have been strikingly tall — had occult powers and could see into the future, archaeologists said.

Clare College MoToons row

I seem to be referring to Steve, the Pub Philosopher, a lot recently, but with good reason. Among other things, he has been keeping an eye on the row in Cambridge that followed the publication of what has been described as "Islamophobic" content in a student newspaper.

His latest update is here.

Iranian academics decry Holocaust denial

A group of Iranian academics have written an open letter to Norman Geras. It ends:

We, the signatories of this letter, are of the opinion that such "conferences", more than anything, harm the academic image of the Iranian universities. We believe that conferences like this do not help the cause of the Palestinian people and only provide pretexts for the warmongers in the region. We are of the opinion that holding a conference in Tehran in support of the denial of the Holocaust has perpetuated an immoral stance that seriously endangers the culture of peace and the peaceful cohabitation of human beings.

Sussed out

Steve, the Pub Philosopher, has written a thoughtful analysis of the legacy of the rioting of 1981 in Brixton and Toxteth, and its consequences twenty five years later.

The 'sus' laws were abolished in 1981 after the riots in Brixton, Toxteth and elsewhere. However, the received wisdom is that the changes to the law and policing methods brought about by these riots were, on the whole, a Good Thing. The BBC's coverage of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the disturbances was typically on-message.
The 1981 riots, then, are mostly presented in a positive light. They caused us to root out prejudice in the police force, to understand and tackle racism in the wider society and to spend government money on alleviating the problems faced by black communities, or so the story goes.
But perhaps there is another story behind the Brixton riots and their aftermath - that of the capitulation of the state and the criminal justice system in the face of a determined attack.
Twenty years later, the sons and daughters of those who rioted in the eighties are shooting at each other. Two decades of sensitive policing have allowed a generation of black youths to graduate from cannabis and machetes to crack and machine-guns.
Today's gun crime among black teenagers has been allowed to happen because, as well as emasculating teachers in schools, the Conservative government surrendered control of the streets to gangs of rioters.
The "sus" law was:
the informal name for a stop-and-search law that permitted a police officer to act on suspicion, or `sus', alone. The law was widely believed to have been abused by the Metropolitan Police to harass young black men.
I moved to Brixton in 1983, maybe 18 months after the riots had made it notorious. Burnt-out houses could still be seen on Railton Road - the "Front Line" - but a large area of one side of the street had been bulldozed to leave an area of waste ground next to a small row of shops. After 10:30pm, when the pubs shut, groups of young and middle-aged black men would start to congregate there when the weather permitted. Cars would pull up, the boots would be opened and sugar cane produced and split open with machetes. Joints were smoked openly, and you could walk down there, be ushered up a side alley, and buy weed. The biggest risk came from police cars that were often parked a little way up the road. They wouldn't arrest black people but if you were white, you were at risk.

Cannabis does not induce violent behaviour - whatever excuses people might try to use when accused of crimes. The atmosphere in Railton Road was friendly and relaxed. One night, I was helping a printing company just a few doors along from this patch of waste ground run through a rush job for me and between 10:00pm and perhaps two in the morning, when we finished, I didn't see another white face. But I saw lots of black ones - smiling, coming in to chat, offering cans of Red Stripe lager and tokes on joints. It was one of the most pleasant evenings I can remember.

The early 1980s were when cannabis went mainstream. Phrases like "wacky baccy" entered the language as the white working class embraced the drug. At the summer fairs - there were loads of mini-Glastonburies all over the West Country and the Midlands - the police stayed offsite and people could walk around smoking joints, sit at mobile food and drink stalls rolling joints, all with absolutely no need for concealment.

One afternoon in 1986, I sat in a back room somewhere in Glasgow, rolling joints and chatting to two uniformed policemen who were swigging scotch from a flask. As one detective told me around that time, they only arrested someone for cannabis if they had been irritated by them. Once, when a serious crime squad searched a house and found cannabis, they left half so the person who lived there could "have a puff when you get out".

If a policeman had stopped every plumber's van and searched it, I reckon they'd have had a 10% hit rate for cannabis possession. But stopping a Rastafarian on Acre Lane in Brixton offered close to 100% certainty. Setting aside the fact - and it is a fact - that the police were overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly racist, what were they supposed to do when the "sus" laws were introduced?

But let's just look for a moment at this racism. I knew the man who was the model for the main character in the movie For Queen and Country. He had joined the Parachute Regiment, served in the Falkland War, then returned to London to look for work. In the movie, he became a bodyguard to a drug dealer. Why? In real life, he became a fireman - his sister joined the police. One evening he was walking through the car park of the - very well maintained, schoolteacher-filled - flats where he lived in Deptford, carrying a video recorder. A police car stopped, the occupants didn't believe the video was his and called for backup. Thrown in the back of a van with two policemen sitting on his back, his respiration was restricted and he nearly died. He received something like £20,000 compensation.

That didn't help my neighbour in some industrial units; an immensely courteous family man who owned a business fixing sound systems, he was stopped randomly walking down Brixton Hill twice during the year I was there. I walked down that street frequently and no police car ever so much as slowed down. Can you guess what colour he was?

I remember having a long and at times heated conversation with a group of detectives in a strip club in Hackney, just as the Stephen Lawrence affair was kicking off. They swore blind they were not racist. But when I had arrived and said I'd been able to park nearby because I'd found a street without any yellow lines, one of them had said "That's 'cos the blacks have nicked them all".

So, let's rewind back to 1981. A law had been introduced that permitted - indeed, required - the police to stop people they suspected of carrying drugs. It was absolutely true that a large proportion of the black residents of some parts of the country were very likely to be doing just that and so the police stopped, searched and arrested a lot of young black people for something that not even the police thought was bad.

When you have immigration, you get the whole immigrant. We saw that with the Yardies, we're seeing it now with Muslim migration, we saw it in the 1980s with Cypriot armed robbers. It's one reason why immigration should be controlled, so that assimilation has a chance to operate.

I can remember listening on the radio to an election campaign speech from Jamaica in the 1970s. While the Prime Ministerial candidate spoke, I'm pretty sure it was Michael Manley, gunfire could be heard in the background. His bodyguards were having a gunfight with supporters of his opponent at the door of the hall. Many of the people being arrested under the sus laws came from a political culture in which violence was commonplace.

What on earth did people expect to happen? The riots were caused by a collision between bad laws and people with a tradition of political violence (rather like the English a couple of centuries ago). And then, as Steve rightly points out, there was a capitulaton to violence and the surrender of the streets, the consequences of which we're still facing.

The answer to this is simple. Don't make bad laws. Make as few laws as possible. Don't attempt to prohibit the consensual recreational activities of adults. Restrict the criminal law to the protection of the person and of property from non-consensual violence (if I ask you to smash up my car, that shouldn't be a crime; if you do it against my wishes it should be).

Then enforce the law that is left with rigour, energy, determination and without fear or favour.

The events of 1981 broke all these principles, and we are continuing to suffer the consequences.

There has also been a complete withdrawal of discilpline for children. As Steve pointed out in an earlier post:
The rapper Black Twang was interviewed on Radio 4 yesterday. [link] He argued that the government should return power to parents and teachers and let them discipline children. They should, he said, be able to smack children without getting a visit from the police or social services. Local pastor Ben Okechukwa had a similar message. [link] He too said that teachers should be given more power to discipline pupils and he warned that most teenagers know more about their rights than adults do. While they may show a total disregard for the law, they also know how to use the law to protect themselves from teachers and the police.

No group of people is suffering them as severely as black inner-city dwellers. It certainly doesn't affect the middle class "liberals" who have been celebrating the 1981 riots, but then, as I have pointed out in an earlier post, this never stops them causing terrible social harm in the interests of making themselves feel admirable, stooping down from on high to grasp the little hands of the poor, and black.

Caught between the hammer of the conservative "drug war" and the anvil of liberal self-satisfaction and interventionism, we're going to see things get worse.

Roll on the libertarian century.