Not Saussure

May 31, 2007

Making the world a better place…

Filed under: Blair, hubris — notsaussure @ 7:46 pm

The BBC, today:

Tony Blair has used a keynote speech in South Africa to say there is a “moral obligation” to use political action “to make the world better”.Mr Blair, who promised more training for African peacekeeping forces and continued aid to the region, defended his interventionist foreign policy.

Mr Blair, writing in The Sunday Times this week,of his ‘interventionist foreign policy’:

tell me exactly what they feel angry about. We remove two utterly brutal and dictatorial regimes [in Afghanistan and Iraq]; we replace them with a United Nations-supervised democratic process and the Muslims in both countries get the chance to vote, which incidentally they take in very large numbers. And the only reason it is difficult still is because other Muslims are using terrorism to try to destroy the fledgling democracy and, in doing so, are killing fellow Muslims.What’s more, British troops are risking their lives trying to prevent the killing. Why should anyone feel angry about us?

Our son of a bitch….

Filed under: civil liberties, Politics, press — notsaussure @ 12:03 am

Via Matt at An Insomniac,the depressing, though perhaps unexpected, spectacle of a huge assembly of Guardian readers queueing up in Talk is Cheap Comment is Free to endorse censorship and the shutting down of TV stations by Hugo Chavez, criticism of whom is apparently now punishable by 30 months in prison. One of the few dissenting voices notes,

Chavez may be a son of a bitch but he’s the liberals’ son of a bitch.

My favourite, though, is someone who quotes Article 57 of the Venezuelan constitution, apparently protecting freedom of speech, and asking

Can you now state the law that protects freedom of speech in the UK or USA for example?

Someone else helpfully draws his attention to

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievance.”

I thought of pointing to Article 125 of the Soviet Constitution of 1936

ARTICLE 125. In conformity with the interests of the working people, and in order to strengthen the socialist system, the citizens of the U.S.S.R. are guaranteed by law:

1. freedom of speech;
2. freedom of the press;
3. freedom of assembly, including the holding of mass meetings;
4. freedom of street processions and demonstrations.

but I don’t think CiF readers do irony too well.

There may be a case for shutting down these stations, or, at least, not renewing their terrestrial broadcasting licences — I don’t know; Venezuela’s recently had an attempted coup, so maybe we shouldn’t expect things to work the way we’d like them to — but I do know that ‘Chavez is getting up George Bush’s nose something dreadful, so pretty much anything he does must be OK’, which is just abot the level of most of the CiF comments, isn’t a particularly convincing one.

May 30, 2007

Mr Tul Bahadur Pun VC (Gurkha Rifles)

Filed under: Uncategorized — notsaussure @ 7:37 pm

Via Mr Eugenides:

Dear All

My firm is acting for Mr Tul Bahadur Pun VC (Gurkha Rifles).

We are pulling out all the stops to correct the outrage directed toward this 84 year-old man. However, we could not do this without you all. I am personally trying to read several forums at once, but it is impossible to post on them all. I have asked my friends at ARRSERs (The Army Rumour Service), who are already signed up on your forums, to kindly post this and to thank you for all for what you are doing for my client.

The British public are personally, individually, and collectively, repaying the debt this man (one of the “Bravest of the Brave”) is owed by our country.

This is coming from the bottom up. You, the public are leading the politicians and civil servants, and you are the ones righting the wrong which is being done in our name.

My client is fully aware of all the support you have given him. I soon hope you will soon see a photo from him, which he wanted us to send back to the UK, to say that he knows you, the British public, are on his side (even though he is very ill, he got out of bed to make sure that you good people knew that he felt you all “had his back”).

Please support our campaign. Petition and email us at: www.vchero.co.uk. All email will go in front of the Immigration Judge considering this case. However, you must bombard your MP and the Government (particularly the Asylum & Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne) about the continuing snub to the Gurkhas who have fought and spilt blood for our country. Rejecting a VC is, sadly, only the icing on their very ugly cake!

Many, many thanks.

Kind regards

Kieran O’Rourke
Howe & Co Solicitors
Ealing, London

www.vchero.co.uk

There is also a petition on the Downing Street website asking the government

to immediately and retrospectively give all Gurkha servicemen and their immediate families past and present british citizenship

It presently has about 10,750 signatures.

Politics, Religion (and some recommended light reading)

Filed under: Books, Politics, Religion — notsaussure @ 6:40 pm

Apologies for not posting yesterday; I was sitting in my new satin pajamas engrossed in John Connolly’s latest noir thriller, The Unquiet, and very good it is, too. He’s back on form, I think, after The Black Angel, which I thought overdid the supernatural elements, rather. He’s at his best, to my mind, when you’re never completely sure whether they’re actually supposed actually to exist or are a suspicion — no more than that — in the mind of the first person narrator, Maine Private Eye Charlie Parker, haunted as he is both by the murder of his first wife and child and by the dark areas of his soul — and those of others — he keeps on discovering as he plies his trade as investigator of particularly nasty cases.

If you’ve not come across Mr Connolly, and you like noir thrillers, you’re in for a treat. I’d suggest starting with the first of the series,Every Dead Thing, and reading them in sequence.

Then, having finished The Unquiet, I started his other new book, The Book of Lost Things, which is a delightful, though still very dark, riff on some well-known (and some not-so-well-known) children’s fairy tales. It explores the same sort of territory as did some of the late Angela Carter’s re-workings of Grimm.

Anyway, back today. When I haven’t been reading John Connolly, I’ve been thinking about a very interestig discussion over at Stumbling And Mumbling, where Chris Dillow considers — and finds himself in broad agreement with — Johan Hari’s worries about Gordon Brown’s Social Christianity; says Hari:

I think faith is a dangerous form of bad thinking – it is believing something, without evidence or reason to back it up….Yet at the same time, when there are so many Murdochian pressures on a British Prime Minister dragging them to the right, pressing him to fellate the rich, isn’t it good to have a countervailing pressure to help the poor – even a superstitious one? If religion drives Brown’s best instincts and whittles down his worst, should we still condemn it?

I can’t, I fear, resist noting that whatever Johan Hari relies upon is clearly even worse than faith, since it leads him to believe things not only without evidence but despite evidence; he’s under the impression that ‘Jesus said to follow “every jot and tittle” of the psychotic Old Testament,’ which, quite simply, He didn’t, at least not if accurately reported by Matthew 5:18; He there refers to the Ten Commandments, and in the context of explaining that the Sermon on the Mount isn’t a replacement for them but, in fact, is a summary of them and an extension of their implications.

Anyway, Mr Hari’s inability to verify his sources aside, Chris argues that Hari is right in that religious arguments play, or should play, no part in politics; says Chris, (more…)

May 28, 2007

Self-congratulation

Filed under: Uncategorized — notsaussure @ 6:29 pm

I’ve just discovered I’ve won, by a whisker, the Third Annual Satin Pajama Award for best new weblog. Not sure what to say, other than many thanks to everyone who voted for me, congratulations to the other winners and commiserations to everyone else.

Johnny Billericay won best UK weblog, Slugger O’ Toole best political weblog (many thanks to everyone who voted for me in that, too), Mick Fealty, founder of Slugger O’ Toole, won the lifetime achievement award, and Petite Anglaise won the best European weblog category.

Check out the other winners, and also the other finalists. I’ve discovered some great new blogs there (by which I also mean, of course, well-established ones I didn’t know about)

Thanks again, all.

CRB checks (and DNA)

Filed under: civil liberties — notsaussure @ 3:38 pm

Back in January I mentioned a friend of mine who discovered she’d been the victim of a mistake by the CRB. She does voluntary work with a play group organised through her church and they finally got round to insisting all volunteers had a CRB check.

Rather to her surprise, she discovered she’d been convicted back in the 1980s for Taking a Vehicle Without the Owner’s Consent, Excess Alcohol and No Insurance, which she was sure she’d have remembered if it had happened. Then, which really annoyed her, the following day a snotty and sanctimonious letter arrived from the national organisers of this children’s group suggesting they weren’t really sure she was suitable.

Simple enough mistake, it seemed. Same (rather unusual) first name and, similarly rather unusual, surname as her maiden name (she was, at the time of the offence, using her married name), though different middle name and about 10 years’ age difference.

Anyway, I said I’d post again to say how she got on. I saw her the other day and it’s, at last, resolved — 5 months later. This involved her arranging to be fingerprinted at her local police station, which apparently took several weeks to set up. Not quite sure why this was, though it may have been that they had to find an old ink roller and pad fingerprint kit (and someone who knew how to use it, I suppose) of the sort used a the time of the original offence, rather than use the digital equipment now in use, to make the comparison easier.

That, I think, took a couple of months, and now she’s only just been told, not that they’re sorry they made a mistake but that they can’t find the original file so they can’t actually prove it was her. Which seems somewhat grudging to me — no apology, and it took quite a bit of pushing from her to get Thames Valley (her local police area) to tell the CRB people to issue a new, clean, certificate rather than for her (or the charity, rather) to reapply.

She’s not at all happy about this, and who can blame her? What particularly irritates her, as she said, is that throughout she’s been telling them that the Excess Alcohol conviction would have led to an automatic driving ban, so here’s her licence and why didn’t they ask the DVLA if it had ever been suspended? Since the DVLA would — one hopes — confirm it hadn’t, nor ever had any endorsements on it, that would, surely, prove it wasn’t her who had been convicted. Not interested, though.

This reminded me of another case of mistaken identity, when some time ago another friend’s son, whose DNA is on the Police Database because he was convicted for common assault (punch-up between him and another drunk 18-year-old late one Saturday night) found himself hauled in for questioning in connection with a burglary, which he’d certainly had nothing to do with. They’d found DNA evidence at the scene of the break-in, though, and it seemed to match his.

He was sure he hadn’t done it, and had, in fact, been at work at the time of the burglary, so they ran a more detailed analysis and, sure enough, it wasn’t his DNA at all. Apparently the way it works is that they do an initial, quick and cheap, comparison, in the hope that whoever they get the match for will, on being confronted with the forensic evidence, realise the game’s up and confess. They only bother with the more detailed, time-consuming and expensive tests if, despite the apparent evidence, he’s still adamant he’s innocent.

The full implications of this become horribly clear when I read Philip Johnston in today’s Telegraph. After discussing the reasons we’ve apparently got

the world’s largest DNA database, half as large again as the rest of the European Union put together. It represents more than five per cent of the population, compared with just over one per cent in the rest of the EU and 0.5 per cent in America

— not only do we keep DNA from people like my friend’s son,

convicted criminals, [but this ] was extended to people who were tried but acquitted, then to people who were charged but never tried and then, last year, to people who were arrested but never charged

and now they’re talking about retaining samples from suspects, witnesses, people whose DNA has been taken for elimination purposes and, if John Reid gets his way, taking and retaining DNA for people committing ‘non-recordable offences’ like dropping litter and speeding (I can’t see it happening for speeding, since it would upset too many people, but who knows?).

Well, if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear, or so we’re told. Other, I suppose, than someone making a mistake or a sample getting contaminated or even, as happened with my friend’s son, being hauled in and questioned at quite some length by detectives who’re convinced they have what appears, prima facie, to be pretty good evidence against you.

But it’s worse than that. We’ve apparently recently signed up to something called The Prum Treaty. Mr Johnston explains,

This is an agreement to share criminal data across the EU, including DNA.Since Britain has by the far the largest DNA database in Europe, how this treaty operates is of great importance to those whose profiles are retained. Other EU police forces will have access to the UK database on a “hit, no hit” basis. In other words, the British authorities will inform their counterparts in, say, France whether a profile they have forwarded is retained on the British system.

If it is, what would the police in France think?

Let us imagine they are investigating the rape of a girl at a campsite and they take the DNA of all men staying there. Would they not be suspicious of a person whose DNA shows a positive match on the UK’s criminal database, since their own does not have a million innocent people on it?

So you may have nothing to hide but if, like our correspondent now on the criminal database for being beaten up by someone who ran into his car, there may be something to fear. Who knows what would happen to him were he considered a suspect in a serious crime while on holiday abroad on the sole grounds that his DNA was a “hit” on the UK system?

Google, privacy and a techie note

Filed under: civil liberties, Internet — notsaussure @ 11:25 am

Via Archrights and Longrider, a Financial Times story from last week about

Google’s ambition to maximise the personal information it holds on users is so great that the search engine envisages a day when it can tell people what jobs to take and how they might spend their days off.

Longrider is quite sanguine about this development, as is the FT editorial; the service is an optional one, they both argue, and if you don’t feel the need to ask Google for suggestions about what to do next weekend or what job you should take, then there’s no need to sign up for it.

Fair enough, though the FT does add the — to my mind, necessary — caveat that

The underlying principle must be informed consent. This means that information should be used only for the purpose for which it was gathered. In general, this should mean that it is not handed over to another organisation without the user’s express say-so. Even if this stance cannot always be maintained – for example, if a government demands information at the time of a security crackdown – then the risk that the data may be passed on in certain circumstances must be made explicit.

I’m always slightly suspicious of data mining for pretty much the same reasons as is the FT. There’s a surprising amount that can be deduced about you from things like supermarket loyalty cards — I’ve worked for a company, albeit on another project, that helps build the software that analyses such data for the supermarkets’ marketing departments, so I know a bit about this — and you’d be astonished both at how accurate the predictions turn out to be, at least based on take-up of personalised offers and vouchers issued on the basis of analysis of your purchasing habits, and you’d also be astonished at the third parties to whom this information is sometimes sold, and what they can do with it.

I mean, if you were a life insurance company wanting to offer the most competitive rates, wouldn’t you be interested in finding out as much as you can about the eating, smoking and drinking habits of a potential customer? I’m not sure if anyone does that — I’d be a bit surprised, though, if an individual supermarket’s marketing department and its financial services department (if it has one) don’t share information. And certainly HM Revenue & Customs have the power — which they use — to check on people’s spending; if you’re a self-employed painter and decorator who’s being a bit remiss with your VAT, I really wouldn’t advise using a loyalty card at one of the big DIY stores, for example.

Anyway, as I say, I’m a bit distrustful of data retention on principle, and this extends to data retained by search engines. People will recall, no doubt, the embarrassment caused to both AOL and its customers — rather more embarrassing for the customers, I think — when, last August,

AOL’s publication of the search histories of more than 650,000 of its users […] yielded more than just one of the year’s bigger privacy scandals.The 21 million search queries also have exposed an innumerable number of life stories ranging from the mundane to the illicit and bizarre.

While users weren’t identified by name, they were given unique user numbers, so, for example, you can find out that

Based on the number of local searches, AOL user 1515830 appears to be a resident of Ohio’s Mahoning County.

and I’m willing to bet that, when she was conducting various searches on March 9 of last year, AOL user 1515830 didn’t expect them to be made public and was justifiably furious when they were (read the CNET story and see if you don’t agree).

For a bit of light relief, turn to the explanations of some of his Google searches the inestimable Jon Swift thought it necessary to provide when he discovered in January 2006 that Google

fighting a subpoena from the Bush Administration to turn over its data on searches in order to defend the Internet Child Protection Act. Of course, I support whatever the Bush Administration thinks it needs to do to protect children from the Internet and think Google should surrender this data immediately. However, I was looking at the record of Google searches I have done and am worried that there might be some misunderstandings when these searches are seen out of context. So in case Google does lose its case, I would like to take this opportunity to explain some of the searches I did so that no one in the Justice Department gets the wrong idea. As you can see there are innocent explanations for all of them

My worries about this sort of thing were hardly assuaged when I read in today’s Register that

Google has faced down one European probe into what it does with people’s personal information, only to be challenged with another.Last October, privacy watchdogs in Norway, which is not part of the European Union but has identical data protection laws, asked Google to justify why it retains people’s search histories for up to two years. Google refused to co-operate.

Now the Article 29 Working Party, which advises the Justice Directorate of the EC, has asked Google to bring its business practices into line with European data protection law so that it gives due respect to people’s privacy.

The article continues,

The Register understands that Google has been the cause of anxiety among members of the A29 Working Party for some years. Their members, who include representatives of national EU privacy watchdogs, are not pleased about how long it keeps information. The Norwegians were also concerned that Google might be using its data stores to create profiles of people’s lives. This was one question Google refused to answer.Leif Aanensen, deputy director general of the Norwegian Office of the Data Inspectorate, told The Register that it had effectively put its Google probe on ice after the data giant refused to accept that it came under Norwegian jurisdiction.

“We are not satisfied,” he said. “We didn’t get the proper answers.”

“Our main issue was their data retention policy and the use of the data they stored. We asked them what they were doing with the personal data – are you creating profiles – they didn’t answer,” he said.

Anyway, if, like me, you are a bit concerned about this sort of thing, you might like to know there’s a Firefox add-on called TrackMeNot. As the project’s home page explains, along with a lot of rather disturbing background about what the US government is doing, or trying to do, with search engine queries,

TrackMeNot runs in Firefox as a low-priority background process that periodically issues randomized search-queries to popular search engines, e.g., AOL, Yahoo!, Google, and MSN. It hides users’ actual search trails in a cloud of ‘ghost’ queries, significantly increasing the difficulty of aggregating such data into accurate or identifying user profiles.

May 27, 2007

Blair, civil liberties and the rights of suspects

Filed under: Blair, civil liberties, nemesis — notsaussure @ 3:17 pm

Mr Blair seems determined to leave office, perhaps as an ironic tribute to the Viking who will succeed him, with a positively Wagnerian bonfire of civil liberties.

Where to start? His article in today’s Sunday Times is perhaps a good place, since it’s pretty breath-taking in what it reveals about the way our PM’s mind works. He wants, he says, to ‘clear away some of the absurd criticism of the police and security service over the three individuals who absconded.’ That’s a bit of a half-truth, I think, because the criticism hasn’t, as far as I know, been particularly aimed at them; it’s been directed at his Home Secretary. ‘Why,’ people have wanted to know, ‘is the Home Secretary forever blustering on, whenever anything goes wrong, about how he needs more and more power?’ (I think there’s a Star Trek joke there, somewhere). Could it not be, one wonders, that the man’s not particularly competent at using the ones he’s already got? Or could it even be that there’s a deeper problem?

In any event, Mr Blair’s answer is the usual one: it’s everyone’s fault but ours. In this case, the culprits are, of course, those infernal civil libertarians in general and the judiciary in particular. Mr Blair explains, (more…)

May 26, 2007

October Bank Holiday

Filed under: Uncategorized — notsaussure @ 5:45 pm

I’m with Tim Worstall on this one. The TUC’s idea for an extra Bank Holiday at the end of October is brilliant.

Where I differ with Tim, though, is over the exact date. He wants October 21st. However, I think October 25th would be even better. We could still have the same parade route Tim suggests.

Rachel North needs our help

Filed under: Uncategorized — notsaussure @ 12:49 am

As people may know, for over a year now, blogger and July 7 Inquiry campaigner Rachel North has been subjected to an unending stream of abusive emails and completely bizarre attacks, including utterly preposterous malicious complaints to the police from a woman she’s never met, Felicity Jane Lowde. This goes well beyond the sort of trolling and flaming that many of us are used to and can shrug off; it’s truly sickening and frightening stuff. For some samples, see here and here. Lowde has conducted a deliberate and long-lasting campaign to destroy Rachel’s personal and professional life with nasty and damaging attacks on her and her family.

Rachel tried politely asking her to stop, then tried ignoring it and eventually took the matter to the police. Lowde was charged with harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, bailed on conditions that she broke, was re-arrested and re-bailed. She promptly broke those conditions, too, and went on the run. She remained in touch with her lawyers, though, and continued to blog about the affair, in increasingly bizarre terms.

Lowde was well aware of her trial date, set for February of this year and then put back until April 2nd. She did not attend court, despite her boasts only a day or so previously about what a famous victory she was about to achieve — by showing the court the entire contents of her blog, apparently — and how Rachel, several other bloggers to whom she’s taken against and police officers would all end up in prison as a result.

The trial proceeded in her absence, as she had been warned it would if she did not attend without reasonable excuse, and she was convicted. A bench warrant was issued for her arrest. When she’s eventually arrested, she’ll be sentenced and have the opportunity to appeal, within days, against both conviction and sentence to a bench comprising a crown court judge and two magistrates.

In the meantime, however, she is still at large and is obsessively bombarding Rachel with emails of such vitriol and frequency that Rachel — who, as we know, is a woman of great courage and determination, is now frightened — not least because Lowde has discovered her home address.

Rachel has asked bloggers to help the police capture this convicted criminal who almost certainly needs psychiatric help and most definitely needs getting out of Rachel’s life. Lowde is thought to be living rough in London, where she is using internet cafes to continue to harass Rachel. She sometimes, though, seems briefly to return to Oxford, where her home was before she went on the run. There are further details, including an old (10 year old) photo of her, on Rachel’s blog.

Rachel writes,

If you see her – she is believed to be using internet cafes in London and periodically travelling to Oxford – please do not approach her.

Do not respond to her blog.

Instead, please immediately call your local police or CrimeStoppers on 0800 555 111 with a description of her and her location, (grab a pic on your mobile if you can) , and say that you have a sighting of Felicity Jane Lowde, convicted stalker/harasser – who is wanted for arrest and sentencing.

As Rachel says,

Remember, stalking and harassment are crimes, and she was found guilty under the ten-year-old 1997 Protection From Harassment Act. Voluntary or imposed internet use regulation codes do not work with someone like Lowde. Therefore I say that the best way to protect free speech and blogging from the damage done to it by people like Felicity Lowde is to use the internet for good purposes. We do not need to be regulated, we can look after ourselves and our own, and we can self-regulate. Here is an opportunity to help the police bring a woman who brings blogging into disrepute, to justice, and to do so safely and legally.

Please do not do anything that could jeopardise her arrest and sentencing. Please do not respond to her or anything she says. Please just help the police do their job of bringing her to justice.

This is nothing to do with freedom of speech. It’s to do with helping the police to enforce the judgment of the court on someone convicted of harassment, a crime against the person just as much as is a physical assault.

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