Category Archives: Diary

Things that happen to me, or things I do

We’re not a Christian nation and those who say we are are mistaken and dangerous

A lot of hoo-hah this Easter about David Cameron’s comments that the UK is a Christian country. A group of scientists and writers wrote an angry letter to the Telegraph calling this divisive.

Personally I think Cameron was trolling us—saying something deliberately controversial in order to provoke the liberal left. The European elections are looming, and I would be willing to bet that precisely the sort of people who are drifting from the Conservative Party to UKIP are the sort of people for whom the whole ‘we are a Christian nation’ schtick would resonate. Its a faux culture war in order to shore up the base. Continue reading

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OwnCloud, an open source alternative to DropBox

My previous two posts were about the angst of privileged middle classes. I wrote first about the middle class habit of moving into the catchment area for good schools. Then I excused our tendency to maintain a less-than ethical existence. Untrained eyes could be forgiven for mistaking my motives in writing these posts. Am I not simply trying to assuage my own guilt at doing precisely those things?

Not so. I feel far less guilty about my complicity in all those middle-class clichés than perhaps I should. Rather, both posts were digressions of this one, in which I shall briefly discuss the ethics of Internet apps.

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Invincible

Over the weekend I went to see Invincble at the Orange Tree in Richmond, a new play by Torben Betts.  Its the kind of theatre I prefer: intimiate scenes in-the-round, teasing apart something relevant about contemporary life.

This one centres on an upper middle-class couple, Oliver and Emily, with a tragedy in their past and an warped sense of social responsibility.  They have chosen to live among ‘ordinary’ people in the North of England.  Rather than live in a middle-class ghetto and contribute to the extortionate London housing bubble, they profess a desire to improve this community.  Emily plans to become a school governor and says she is setting up an Amnesty group and an artists’ collective. Continue reading

The Chain of Life

In the Daily Telegraph, Tom Chivers lovingly traces his son’s family tree, back through grandparents, to distant ancestors, to the origins of life. Its a nice, secular take on the beauty of creation.

Happy four billionth birthday, son.

The piece puts me in the mind of the opening to W. Somerset Maugham’s short story ‘Virtue‘, which traces the origins of a good cigar, a plate of oysters, a cut of lamb.

For these are animals and there is something that inspires awe in the thought that since the surface of the earth became capable of supporting life from generation to generation for millions upon millions of years creatures have come into existence to end at last upon a plate of crushed ice or silver grill. It may be that a sluggish fancy cannot grasp the dreadful solemnity of eating an oyster and evolution has taught us that the bivalve has through the ages kept itself to itself in a manner that inevitably alienates sympathy. There is an aloofness in it that is offensive to the aspiring spirit of man and a self complacency that is obnoxious to its vanity. But I do not know how anyone can look upon a lamb cutlet without thoughts too deep for tears : here man himself has taken a hand and the history of the race is bound up with the tender morsel on your plate.

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Discrediting Assange

Andrew O’Hagan’s London Review of Books essay on the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is quite something. Hired to ghostwrite Assange’s autobiography, O’Hagan spent many months with the hacker while he was on bail and living in a country house in Norfolk. The essay describes Julian Assange’s erratic, selfish and sometimes delusional personality that caused the book project to wither.

I’ve heard some people call the essay ‘a hatchet job’ but it is more subtle than that. The piece seethes and scathes, but I don’t detect a sneer or anything to suggest that it seeks to pull Julian Assange down a peg.

Rather, its a literary catharsis. O’Hagan is a man squeezed between the exasperating Assange and the bolshy publisher Jamie Byng, a position he clearly finds deeply uncomfortable. The story reads as incredibly sincere, which also makes it credible and compelling.

There’s no doubt that O’Hagan’s essay zips up the body bag on Assange’s already brutalised reputation. His protagonist (for, by the end, Assange has become a character, a ‘cipher’) is unquestionably the author of his own downfall. Nevertheless, there remains a certain unease in the fact that this essay has been published in the same week as some more damning revelations about the practices of GCHQ.

Writing on First Look Media’s Interceptor blog, Glenn Greenwald (the journalist who took receipt of Edward Snowden’s cache of NSA documents) exposes the paychological techniques deployed by our the security services. His article is titled ‘How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations’ and presents leaked GCHQ slides that describe the techniques used by JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group). The group allegedly deploys techniques developed by behavioural scientists to break up political groups that they perceive to be a threat to national security. They use agents provocateurs, False Flag operations, and even ruin business and personal relationships through the hacking of social media and e-mail accounts. ‘Honey Traps’ are also mentioned.

Its impossible to know which, if any, of these techniques have been used against Wikileaks and Julian Assange, but I don’t think it would be particularly outlandish or paranoid to imagine that the group have been the target of this sort of action. I don’t know how the public, and targets of such covert government attacks, can counter the misinformation… But I do know that Assange’s chaotic response, and his decision to avoid the chance to clear his name, is not the way to go about it.

Protect whistleblowers to protect the leaks

If O’Hagan’s account is to be believed (and the hours of tape recordings lends weight to his account) then Julian Assange is actually quite careless with the sensitive data he handles. In an op-ed in the Independent, my colleague Mile Harris points out that this is a reason to protect and encourage whistleblowers. Far better that those who handle leaked information treat it with care. By aggressively prosecuting the act of whistleblowing, we ensure that future leakers are likely to be in the Assange mould—unreliable and careless.

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#Britawards vs #BBCFolkAwards

How to describe the particular type of nausea induced by last might’s Brit Awards? It was not so much the music itself – bands like Bastille and Rudimental are producing catchy, modern pop, and I loved the choreography in Bruno Mars’ performance of ‘Treasure’. Rather, it was everything else about the event itself: The arrogant, cursory acceptance speech by Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner; Harry Styles’ joke “what did we win” when he arrived late on stage to collect an award; and presenter James Corden’s constant references to people taking cocaine in the loos. The entire programme seemed to be channelling a drug bore, who thinks he is being the life of the party when in fact he is rambling and obnoxious.
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Google’s Sochi Rainbow Doodle is Not All That

My social media stream is full of people praising Google for taking a ‘brave’ stand against the Russian state.  Why?  Well, today’s Google Doodle is a rainbow themed Winter Olympics Graphic.

The Russian Government has recently passed blasphemy laws and other measures that restrict freedom of expression.  They have also passed a ‘gay propaganda’ law which bans discussion of homosexuality around minors – an attack on the already embattled homosexual community in Russia.
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Is this the birth of the British Tea Party?

In recent years, America has been blighted by the rise of an extreme and uncompromising strain of political conservatism.  ‘Tea Party’ groups attack moderates within the Republican party, forcing primary challenges on incumbent senators and congressmen who either have liberal leanings, or who are otherwise willing to co-operate with Democrats in Congress and the White House.  The result has been a legislative impasse, with the Republicans disengaging from the process of government by consensus.  Earlier this year they almost broke the US economy (and by extension, the world economy) due to bloody minded intransigence.

Thank goodness we do not have that sort of nonsense happening over here, eh?

I worry that the deselection of Tim Yeo MP from his seat in South Suffolk might signal the beginnings of the ‘teapartification’ of British politics, too.  Yeo is a senior and respected Conservative MP, chair of the Energy and Climate Committee.  And yety his local Conservative Association has deselected him as their candidate for the next General Election.  Speaking to BBC Radio yesterday evening, Yeo pointed out that he was a strong believer in climate change and voted for the Same Sex Marriage laws, socially liberal positions that angered the few hundred members of the South Suffolk Conservative Association.  These opinions appear to have cost him his seat. Continue reading

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Jail Verse: Poems from Kondengui Prison

The latest act of literary campaigning from English PEN is to publish Jail Verse: Poems from Kondengui Prison by Enoh Meyomesse.

Enoh has been an opposition activist in Cameroon for decades. In 2012 he stood in the presidential elections against authoritarian strong-man Paul Biya. Soon after he was arrested for apparently trying to organise a coup. The authorities later dropped that accusation, and instead manufactured trumped up charges of robbery.  There were no witnesses to this alleged crime, yet he was convicted anyway.  PEN International consider the conviction and imprisonment to be a violation of Enoh Meyomesse’s right to freedom of expression.

While in prison, Enoh was able to write and publish Poème Carcéral, a collection of poetry.  We at PEN put a call out to our members for volunteer translators, and managed to get the book translated into English.  This month I designed a cover graphic, and published the book as a print-on-demand paperback, available from Lulu.com.  E-book versions (both ePub and Kindle) are also available for download.

I am particularly pleased that we were able to publish the book under a creative commons licence.  Enoh Meyomesse is in prison and this publication is intended to give him a voice once more.  The creative commons licence encourages further translation, remixing and performance of the poems, amplifying what once was censored.

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Modern Transcripts with SayIt

Readers of this blog will know how irritated I get with the quality of parliamentary and government papers online.  Transcripts and other documentation are frequently uploaded as PDFs, as if the only thing a researcher or campaigner plans to do with the document is print it.  The online version of the Houses of Parliament Hansard still retains references to columns and pages, and linking to excerpts of text is a laborious process.

For more on this, read my rant: The mess under the bonnet of the Houses of Parliament website.

So imagine my delight to see the launch of Say It, a new tool from MySociety.  It provides a tool to put transcripts of debates, court cases, and official inquiries online.  The tool has been launched with a searchable, linkable version of the Leveson Inquiry sessions.

It is this sort of thing that empowers grassroots campaigns and catalyses democracy.  And by ‘democracy’, I don’t just mean voting, but the idea that citizens make the decisions together.

SayIt dovetails nicely with a project I have been tinkering with in my spare time – converting the text of the four volume Leveson Report into HTML, (though I confess I almost had a heart attack when I saw the link to the MySociety tool – I thought that my efforts had been duplicated!)