Thursday, December 29, 2005

Torture and the UK 

Craig Murray, our former Ambassador to Uzbekistan, has published e-mails he sent and received while in office on the subject of the UK making use of evidence gained through torture. Our government appears to be trying to prevent these from becoming known so just in case UK based sites have to remove the evidence here is a link to an US site which is carrying the texts.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Inter-Dependence Day - a project for us all? 

ID is a superb initiative from the Open University, the New Economics Foundation and others. It involves a communications, debate and research. It aims to rethink jaded debates about sustainable development, globalization and environmental change. It aims to stimulate compassion, care, curiosity and creativity.

This looks like a real public resource developing and we LibDems should be plugged into these debates. For more details see the ID website.

Would it be helpful to build up a LibDem ‘Interdependence Day’ support group? To draw on the material and perhaps even contribute? If so I might be of some use, living as I do a mile from the OU Campus in MK. Have a look at the site and see what you think.

Incidentally I suspect the Tory Group on Globalisation (Bob Geldoff official mascot) is quietly planning to latch on to this ID effort to co-opt any attractive themes. All the more reason to get involved.

The official ID site intro says this:

Demands to save the planet from environmental catastrophe, or to act on
poverty are often daunting in scale, distant from daily life. But there is good
news: there are acts of compassion, care, curiosity, and creativity that are
already part of everyday life, and modes of communication that are already
helping these ordinary acts to span great distances. The project brings together
researchers, communications and the public in a dialogue about the potential for
rethinking social practices, policy ideas and technologies to change the world
for the better.

The Interdependence Day project (ID) makes space for all of us to consider new ways of debating and acting on issues around environment, development and globalization.

What? ID is a communications, debate and research project. It aims to rethink jaded debates about sustainable development, globalization and environmental change. The project will provoke debate and experimentation amongst both specialists and the public through an integrated body of activities comprising:

ID Day July 2006: An annual public event comprising of a bundle interactive workshops; well-known speakers, and public debates on key challenges
1 Commissioning of art works and research
2 Publication of an ID report and linked features articles
3 Broadcast and web explorations of the theme

The project binds together interpretation, new knowledge and public participation with the goal of feeding fresh ideas back into policy debate. We start from a series of questions:
1 How can our affluent society respond to the fact that by 2050 we will need 3 planets to support our lifestyle? OR: How do we avoid going to hell in a shopping basket?
2 Why is there so little cultural depth’ to responses to environmental change and development problems?
3 Can thinking about interdependence help us to overcome the conflict between our pursuit of pleasure and our pursuit of justice and environmental security; between our desires to consume, and our knowledge of environmental impacts?

Where? Our aim for the public events is to work within (and in partnership with) some of the cultural institutions of the Exhibition Road area (eg. Natural History,
V &A, Science museums and Royal Geographical Society).

Back in 1851 the Great Exhibition tried to capture and represent the world.
We believe that the Exhibition Road institutions that grew out of that event are
an ideal location to take another critical look at the way the world is, tracing
interdependencies between the natural and social world, and between north and
south. We plan to engage wider publics through performance, internet, print,
broadcast and mobile phone projects.

Sounds more interesting by the minute...

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Monday, December 26, 2005

Babies and energy 

The Birth Themes of Christmas interacted with new books to remind me that a new born baby weighs about 3kg. Using Einstein's e=mc2 formula that means the baby embodies the same amount of energy as Hurricane Katherine raging for an hour at full force. It would take a major electrical power station a year to generate that amount of energy and if the parents had to pay for this it would cost them up to a thousand million pounds give or take the odd million.

And the rocks at the summit of Mount Everest are marine limestone, laid down below the surface of a lost sea and driven into the skies by massive tectonic collisions.

So much to wonder at and surprise us in our world, one way or another. Even politics takes a back seat...

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Linksmų Kalėdų 

Yes, merry Christmas, in Lithuanian. The big day in Lithuanian tradition is actually Christmas Eve Night, where there is a big family meal that starts when the first stars are seen shining brightly. The table is covered with hay and a white cloth laid on this. A place is laid for family members who have died. The meal is supposed to have 13 dishes, many of them fish, including a traditional grain and honey porridge.

At the end of the meal everyone goes up to each other person in turn, breaks a wafer with them, hugs, and sincerely asks forgiveness for any hurts or wrong done in the year.

The hay from the table is supposed to be fed to the animals in the morning so that they are included in the festivities. As for presents, well nowadays Kalėdų Senėlis (Old Man Christmas) is part of the mix and leaves a bag beside the main door. But he does require children to work for their presents by singing, or saying poems.

Anyway I wish you all Linksmų Kalėdų and ask your forgiveness for any hurts or slights I may have given over this year.


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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Three bits of reading for our futures 

Stimulated by the posting in the Appollo Project blog asking for suggestions on what LibDems should be reading at this time to build up an understanding of Liberalism. Well, three more suggestions.

1 Life, and How to Survive It
2 At Home In The universe
3 An Intimate History of Humanity

Firstly, a pop psychology book, ‘Life, And How To Survive It’ by John Cleese (yes him) and Robin Skinner. A look at what it means to have various levels of mental well-being. It is a very funny book, as well as a good overview of one approach to a psychology of life.

One theme that can be teased from this book is that Liberal Democrats have some advantages, as our political approach is conductive to encouraging good mental health! It is in our interest to encourage good mental health in our supporters as well as amongst activist and LibDem office-holders. Mind you, anyone can probably name at least one LibDem who refutes the suggestion that we have a particular talent in this, so it is not infallible.

It is also possible to reach the conclusion from this book that some of our opponents have an interest in encouraging lower levels of mental well-being in the country generally as this encourages harmful and illiberal attitudes. Do read it, and see what you think.

Secondly, a book by Stuart Kauffman 'At Home In The Universe'

Basically deals with self-organising systems, our increasing understanding of how stable complex systems can emerge and sustain themselves from simple beginnings and without having to follow planning targets set by a central governing system. Concepts covered include self-organisation, ‘Emergence’ in the systemic sense, and the importance of both individual and collective actions. Order and breakdown are very close together in this emerging worldview.

This includes the origin of life, chemical reactions, social organisations and the rise and fall of civilisations.

The arguments presented here have some clear and important implications for Liberals trying to establish firm justifications for decentralised procedures without falling into the old trap of free-market ideological incantations.

Thirdly, one of the important books in my life ‘An Intimate History of Humanity’ by Theodore Zeldin. Some hate it, but for me it shows through the snippets of many peoples stories something of what it can mean to be richly human. If you read nothing else read the last few paragraphs about the founding of the Emmaus movement and the importance of truly meeting other people openly and as equals. Because there lies the roots of Hope, and Hope is the most radical think in all humanity.

Happy reading to anyone following up these suggestions – I would be interested in any reactions to these books.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

Spying spying everywhere 

A great row in the USA over security service eavesdropping on US citizens. We are quite closely entangled with this in the UK, however. The current US dismay is about spying on US citizens when they are in the USA, using long-established mass surveillance technologies. US citizens abroad like foreigners have been subject to this surveillance for decades…
The UK is a vital part of this global US operation. The electronic eavesdropping stations based in Britain at GCHQ Cheltenham, at Morwenstowe in Cornwall and at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire collect phone calls, electronic mail messages and possibly now mobile messages and texts and use data mining techniques to sift through this. Look at the web for discussions of the ECHELON surveillance system.

This provide intelligence that is routinely shared with US agencies. In return UK intelligence services get a lot of intelligence data passed on from other US sources. This actually gives the UK a LOT more world intelligence coverage than it could pay for itself.

Going right back to the Bletchley Park days in WWII there have been very close relationships between Britain's Secret Intelligence Services and US Services. There are for example regular staff exchanges between services like the UK’s GCHQ and the US National Intelligence Service. Key UK intelligence staff in short spend a significant part of their careers working in US installations under US security clearances and supervision. As to how I know this for a fact I can't tell you so you will have to accept or reject this statement as it is presented here as you see fit. (But I am NOT a former or actual intelligence operative!).

The corollary is that the UK itself is vulnerable to potential blackmail from the US under threat of losing this unique boost to our world status and profile. As well as this, there is a capacity for the US to get commercially confidential information and accumulate information on political individuals in the UK which may or may not be abused if such a capacity does exist.

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Saturday, December 17, 2005

working together for victory 

I found strength this week in the President’s Symbol Of Office. Or rather, from a quote from it. A copy of the Areopagitica (by John Milton) is presented to each LibDem President on taking office. And amongst other things the book talks about how dictatorships can delude themselves over the supposed weaknesses of democratic debate:

“The adversary again applauds, and waits the hour: when they have branched
themselves out, saith he, small enough into parties and partitions, then will be our time. Fool! he sees not the firm root, out of which we all grow, though into branches: nor will beware until he see our small divided maniples cutting through at every angle of his ill-united and unwieldy brigade.

And that we are to hope better of all these supposed sects and schisms, and that we
shall not need that solicitude, honest perhaps, though over-timorous, of them that vex in this behalf, but shall laugh in the end at those malicious applauders of our

So this comfort we can take, who perhaps are inclined to “fret, and out of (our) own weakness are in agony, lest these divisions and subdivisions will undo us.”

Let us look ahead to the next stage of the Policy Review process, which includes the one-day conference in London in January, sure now to be billed by the eager press with its showbusiness values as a ‘new crunch day for Kennedy’?

Well we can all accept the discipline of tending not only our branches but our firm root, and take on the discipline of actually listening to what each of us are saying rather than queuing up impatiently to have our own say. Concentrate on learning and building rather than on jockeying (or blogging, or briefing) for positions. Recognise that we are humans with human frailties, strengths and weaknesses, and we have to draw on the strengths that come with our weaknesses (as well perhaps as guarding against the weaknesses that are a consequence of our strengths).

So two final thoughts for our review process. One more from Aeopagitica:

"Behold now this vast city: a city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty,
encompassed and surrounded with his protection; the shop of war hath not there
more anvils and hammers waking, to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed justice in defence of beleaguered truth, than there be pens and heads there,
sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas
wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching
Reformation: others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement."
Let us look therefore, as Milton said to a “lively and cheerful presage of our happy success and victory.”

And the second, if you will pardon it, from the ‘Advices and Queries’ of the Religious Society of Friends (The Quakers) (amended slightly to remove explicitly religious invocations). This may not quite what we can always manage in a General Election campaign (especially the hurtful criticism bit) but as a guide for internal Party debate and growth it may well be helpful.

"Each of us has a particular experience… and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Testing out fail-safe Britain 

The big bang in Hemel Hempstead throws up a lot of questions. One of them is whether we do have fail-safe resources for our supply chain in Britain, a point I raised earlier with the correct definition of fail-safe.

If the M1 is closed for any appreciable time all those thousands of lorries carrying food in just-in-time delivery operations to supermarkets will have to find alternative routes. A second accident or even a non-accidential event could jam things up in all sorts of senses.

LibDems have quite rightly campaigned on the food-miles issue already but I think we do need to look at the security aspects as well. Real security includes building up robust and adabtable structures for our life-support systems and I don't think we as a country have paid enough attention to this. It is a hell of a lot more central to our ability to combat terrorism than prosecuting people for reading the names of recent war dead at the Whitehall Cenotaph.

Latest ( 2200h Sunday 11th) is that the M1 is open in both directions but may need to be closed again as the firefighting operation moves from containment to active supression of the blaze.

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Saturday, December 10, 2005

Shanwei Massacre 

All sorts of reports circulating on the killings in and near Shanwei City, Guangdong Province, China. The reaction of my Hong Kong friend is that this is the biggest known state killing in China since the Tienanmen massacre.

She says pictures are circulating of women kowtowing to lines of armed police begging for their husband's bodies. But these are probably already cremated and disposed of in secret. Pictures of dead peasants with bullet wounds being hidden by their families. Desperate officials offering money for the bodies to hide the true death toll.

I don't know whether this incident includes Taishi village.

For an outline of the press coverage of the event, illustrating the wide spread of estimates on the dead. see this compiliation of different press reports in the excellent EastSouthWestNorth. Basically western media talk about tear gas being fired into crowds and one or two dead. Chinese net sources talk about troops machine-gunning crowds and deaths at least in the dozens.

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Friday, December 09, 2005

Localism, the Dachshund and the Extra Cow 

Good stuff on localism from Kennedy in his speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research (as widely unreported in the Cameron-obsessed press). We do need to translate this into key policies and even more important perhaps into clear visions to guide ourselves in choosing these. I’d like to suggest a couple of metaphors to help build up that vision.

As the famous jingle goes:

There was a dachshund once so long
It hadn’t any notion
How long it took to notify
Its tail of its emotions.
And so it happened while its eyes
Were filled with woe and sadness
Its little tail went wagging on
Because of previous gladness.

That is the story of centralism, detailed national targets, rigid state (and indeed big private corporation) plans and all one-size-fits-all notions whether of the traditional Left or the traditional Right. Liberals recognise that we need enterprises and organisations capable of responding quickly and accurately to real needs – and above all capable of recognising each of us as individuals not as components to be manipulated.

The Extra Cow brings us to the tragedy of the commons. (and I don’t mean Parliament). If there is a common pasture enough for ten cows and ten families each with one cow have grazing rights, the best overall strategy is to keep it at one cow per family. However if one family puts on an extra cow it will get less from each cow but more overall at the cost of less for each of the other families. So each family puts on an extra cow – result misery.

This is the story of ‘suboptimisation’ of local departments in an enterprise, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Fee Markets treated as a religious imperative, parochialism and Nimbyism. (and I know the argument that The Extra Cow is a merchantilist metaphor refuted by Adam Smith. I disagree and will argue this later if needs be). Liberals recognise that we each have to take responsibility for our own actions and not expect others to pick up the bill; and that part of humanity’s strength is our capacity to build up institutions that bring greater benefits for more people than we can by strict selfishness.

Every enterprise includes this unspoken imperative – to include within its accounts what is profitable to its operations, to recognise and control the inescapable costs, and to pass on whatever costs it can to be carried by others. Example of passing on costs: spewing out unfiltered smoke from your factory instead of paying to clean it up, leaving the costs to the community or others. Another example: letting some schools recruit the most able (or if not so able most tractable) students and making others carry the cost of ‘dealing with’ the remainder.

Parochialism is when local action says hang the costs we cling to local benefits the costs to others being what they may. Localism must be different – encouraging and sustaining enterprises and organisations close enough to peoples lives to avoid the fate of the dachshund, while taking on board the need to deal with the wider costs without indulging in pass-the-parcel acts.
To translate ideas like this into actions we need concepts such as ‘Requisite Variety’. That takes me into my specialist field of Soft Systemic Analysis, so I will stop this post here before it gets too long.

I do believe we as Liberals have some very powerful ideas and tools to hand (including realistic market policies) but we need to be clear on what these tools are and not get seduced by Market Romantics.

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Whispering Fears 

We have been hit by a classic Urban Panic Whisper in MK. Versions of this go back a century or more through several wars and other troubles, featuring Germans, various Irish and people with sinister east European accents. Our outbreak centers on an alleged incident where a shop assistant helps an arabic (or in some versions undefinably 'islamic') looking man by running after him to give him the wallet he left behind. By way of thanks he tells her 'for your safety stay away from Central Milton Keynes on the 11th'. Of course nobody can now locate any such real live assistant as the source but panicky e-mails are flying and Thames Valley Police have had to issue a statement that they have 'no intelligence whatever' to suggest a terrorist attack on that date.

In some previous outbreaks my sinister east European accent would probably have made this an uncomfortable week to shop. No prizes for guessing who may be made to feel uncomfortable by fearful glances this week.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Tories, urine sample flasks and siderodromophobia 

So how will Cameron deal with the packaging and content of the Tories?

On content he clearly hopes to show breaks with the past. As an example people who travel by train still remember Mrs Thatchers apparent siderodromophobia (allegedly the word for neurotic fear of train travel) and so still associate the Tories with these out of touch attitudes. Policy chages Cameron, may believe, will give a sense of a real world involved in his policies and thus a break with the past.

But it is in the field of really basic aversions that things become interesting.

Psychological tests show that peope will not drink fruit juice stored in urine sample bottles even if they like the juice and know that the bottles are completely sterile and previous unused. A persistant (possibly urban legend) is that some US hospitals cut down pilferage from their catering stores by holding juices in such bottles...

Now one Tory theme over the last year or so is that voters actually quite like Tory policies they just recoil when they realise they are in fact promoted by the Tories. The argument is in effect that the Tory label at this moment equals 'urine sample bottle' in voters' minds, raising a feeling of unease and revulsion, and makes their pencils hesitate in the polling booth.

So a vigorous rebottling effort might actually have some effect. We shall see.

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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Coercion and sex trafficking 

Be in no doubt that the new human traffickers, staffing brothels in the UK with women from east Europe (and indeed elsewhere), are a dangerous lot. I had a KGB colonel watching over me during Lithuania’s break with the USSR (when I ran computer message links with the Baltics resistance) but never really felt in personal danger here in the UK. However, when I organised contacts between witnesses to human trafficking through Lithuania and Danish TV journalists investigating the story it was very clear that everyone involved could be subject to a routine lethal contract, let us say.

Some of the women discovered in the recent well-publicised raids on UK brothels are Lithuanians forcibly trafficked from Lithuania. This hits me in two of my emotional homes. There is an European convention on human trafficking that I mentioned in a previous post. This would give some protection to women in these circumstances. Neither the UK nor Lithuania has yet signed as at today’s date. (Check current status here) Get a move on.

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

AIDS, Climate, Energy and the Enlightenment 

The great International dance of consequences. Today, ketvirtadienis 2005 metai gruodžio 1 dienos, is Pasaulinė AIDS diena. A reminder that here and in countries that write the date in ways that make most Britons eyes water, people around the world face the local consequences of common global problems and what we do locally can have a huge impact on other people.

Take for example the fight against AIDS in Africa. This may be compromised because the USA ties its (quite large) contribution to anti-AIDS work to a commitment to oppose abortion, to ban condoms and to ban anti-drugs strategies such as needle exchanges. The European Union is concerned about this. Congratulations to LibDEm MP Andrew George who said: "In reality, people have sex ... much as conservative evangelists in the US might prefer that they didn't.”
This US financed worldview has an impact in east Europe where people inspired by the same view on needle exchanges are accusing US Billionaire Geore Soros of being a front for the Columbian Drugs Mafia because he funds local anti-AIDS schemes that utilise needle exchanges for addicts. This is part of the US Fundamentalist effort to export its politics of faith-based fear to Europe.

AIDS and drug usage continue to be a problem for some people in New Orleans, still shattered after the recent Hurricane. Now, the increase in major hurricanes hitting the USA is linked to the warming by (30% since 1992) of the Subtropical Recirculation Current in the central Atlantic which makes a huge amount of extra energy available for tropical storms. Meanwhile the Gulf Stream has cooled by 30% in the same time. This brings the possibility of much colder climatic conditions for Britain, which has implications for our current decisions on energy supplies and consumption, to name but one.

Yesterday Lord May gave his farewell address as President of the Royal Society. He made a passionate defence of the values of science against the kind of dogmatism distorting policies in the USA (and indeed elsewhere).

Amongst other things he said:

What are these values? They are tolerance of diversity, respect for individual liberty of conscience, and above all recognition that an ugly fact trumps a beautiful theory or a cherished belief. All ideas should be open to questioning, and the merit of ideas should be assessed on the strength of the evidence that supports them and not on the credentials or affiliations of the individuals proposing them. It is not a recipe for a comfortable life, but it is demonstrably a powerful engine for understanding how the world actually works and for applying this understanding.

Actually this would be quite good as part of a definition of Liberalism, if we are still looking for one, and if we are willing to live up to this demanding standard.

So today, Thursday 1 December 2005, we have a lot to think about on World AIDS Day… trying to accept how the world actually works, and applying this standard of Liberalism and integrity.

I am starting by making the Guardian Christmas Appeal on AIDS in Africa and the Independent appeal for the survivors of the Pakistan earthquake my seasonal charities. As for climatic change, its back to working to make Milton Keynes a carbon-neutral city. FOCUS anyone?

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