Thursday, November 30, 2006

Turbulence in the Pacific 

It looks alas as if there is a military coup in Fiji.

Couple this with the unsavoury goings-on in Tonga where the ruling elite is facing the anger of the fellow-citizens they call 'dirt-eaters'.

This suggests interesting times in some Commonwealth countries. Hat tip to Idiot/Savant in New Zealand for keeping on top of these events.

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Focussing on rain, wind and flood 

Let’s FOCUS on high winds (and indeed floods).

You may have noticed some excitement in the press about tornadoes in Britain. Well, this is not exactly news – I remember startling some visitors from Kansas way back in the 1970’s by telling them that the UK had more tornadoes per year than their home area did. There was a tornado in Milton Keynes in the early 19990’s that damaged the roof of my son’s school and there have now been serious waterspouts off Brighton two years in succession.

Not just Global Warming to blame – as TORRO (The UK Tornado and Storm Research Organisation) makes clear. We have been at risk a long time.

What we do lack is good information on the ground. So if a ‘freak wind’ blows up in your area you can report it to TORRO so it is added to their database. Just an extension of good FOCUS campaigning, really.

Actually we can do the same with floods. Thanks to the privatisation of the Water Industry in the dog days of Thatcher, a mass of local information on flood incidents was lost. If you do get a flood in your area your FOCUS team can get valuable data by taking photos of the maximum flood level. Offer copies to your local planning department and the Environmental Agency .This kind of evidence could be crucial for certain kinds of planning decisions….

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Slavery and modern testimonies 

Not apologies, not perhaps even celebration, but learning and dedication.

The bicentenary of the abolition of the Slave Trade has already provoked comments in one or two places. The questions of apology and celebration will not go away.

For me, this is a matter of learning what people did in the past faced with a horrendous situation and drawing strength to face parallel challenges now and in the future. If we fail to learn and draw strength we will need to apologise for our own evils.

Take one example – the central place of the Atlantic Slave System in transforming life in Europe. New products moved from being a luxury to being central to new ways of living. Coffee, tea and chocolate (themselves often slave-produced) are all bitter products and were literally sweetened into palatability by the new availability of cheap sugar from slave plantations.

The consumption of these products allowed for new public social arrangements, with the coffee houses in particular acting as a kind of Internet for the late 17th and the 18th centuries. These provided the structure on which experiments in free discussion and free commercial arrangements could take place. This ferment was not limited to the traditional elites – working people, nonconforming groups, entrepreneurs outside the merchantilist monopolies, all had their own corners of consumption and exchange. It was in this ferment of changes that Liberal ideas began to take hold. And this ferment was commercially underpinned by slave-produced global trade items facilitaing new social arrangements.

It was not just a few who benefited.

It is to the credit of those people that many living with the sweet benefits of those times at last became aware of the contradiction and moved to oppose the evil. But they benefited hugely for many many years.

Is there a parallel today? Well the INTERNET and the podcasts and the mobile phone systems that exite our political actions, to say nothing of the Playstations of our expectant offspring, need their equivalent of sugar – certain rare metals essential for electronic components. By far the largest source of the minerals for these is the eastern Congo. An example is Coltan. And the vicious fight over control of these mineral resources is the major factor wrecking that country.

Just to show this is not an exclusively ‘lefty agonising’ concern, take a look at this analysis in the Daily Telegraph.

One of Britain's closest allies in Africa is stoking the flames of anarchy in the Democratic Republic of Congo by arming brutal militias in return for gold and mineral wealth.
Uganda invaded its giant neighbour in 1998, helping to start Congo's civil war. This
has escalated to become the bloodiest conflict seen anywhere in the world since 1945. Some 3.9 million people have died, according to one survey, with most succumbing to war-induced starvation and disease.
Cursed by its mineral wealth, Congo has always been eyed by predatory foreign powers. The evidence suggests that Ugandan meddling is still costing lives inside its anarchic neighbour.

So – our modern INTERNET, our current IT-fueled economic system, our new ways of acting socially and politically, depend on crucial supplies provided by a system of human misery in a far off country. Are we prepared to accept the logic of this, and take action to correct it a great deal faster than our predecessors did in respect of the Slave System which underpinned the sweetness in their own lives and societies?

Quakers have the concept of a 'testimony' - which is not a form of words, or a creed, or a convenent rhetoric like an 'apology'. A testimony is a recognition of certain claims on an individual and a response to these claims through that individuals own actions and initiatives.
No apology for slavery perhaps, but a testimony to the reality of those times by a refusal to live with parallel evils today. What should we do as a living testimony to reject the slave heritage in our history?

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Dutch political roundabout 

The Nederlands election results do not seem to be good for the LI Parties there – D66 and the VVD both of which were in the outgoing coalition for a number of years - D66 left some time before the election however.

With 150 seats up for grabs in total:
VVD took 22 seats (loss of 6)
D66 took 3 seats ( loss of 3)

A party (PVDV) headed by an ex-VVD figure fighting on a strongly anti-immigrant platform took 9 seats, up from nil. The Pym Fortuyn heritage ‘woe-alas-the-Moslems-are-here’ party was however totally wiped out losing all outgoing 8 seats.

Biggest gainer is the Socialist Party (which has never been part of a Government I believe) which gained 17 seats to total 26, almost overtaking the traditional Labour Party.

An analysis of all this with complete figures is on European Tribune – the characterisations on Eurortib of VVD (”the scary party”) and of D66 is not necessarily friendly. Further analysis on these results in “A Fistful of Euros”. Do we have comments on these trends from our European Liberal contacts and activists?

Oddity of the day must be the winning of two seats by the PvDD (Partij voor de Dieren) the first Animal Rights party to gain representation in an European parliament (or anywhere???)

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Not banking on it.... 

So we may see the end of free banking for current account holders who retain a credit balance –if the current (pun intended) plans of the Directline bank are a model for the industry.

There is perhaps a parochial political consequence – for all of us who have been or may become election agents. The standard advice has been for each agent to open a bank account separate from our personal accounts and also from the local party accounts, solely to conduct the business of an election. This suggests possibly thousands of ‘dormant’ accounts out there held by LibDems and others. At £10 a month fees per account this is money that adds up. Over to ALDC for advice?

The consequences for small voluntary organisations if this plan is extended to them will be troubling…

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

White Poppies and Red 

I notice a fair amount of angst about White Poppies in LibDem blogs. Seems as if some people thing these are in some way ‘defamatory’ about people who fought in wars.

As someone whose UK Grandfather fought in both world wars, whose Lithuanian Grandfather fought in the Tsars Army in the Great War and in Lithuania’s Army in the War of Independence, and who’s father won the Military Cross at Arnhem, I just don’t see it that way.

Just a quick note here though to show some of the additional dimensions the White Poppy helps commemorate.

In the early stages of the Great War (aka WW1) Conscientious Objectors were fairly brutally treated. When conscription was introduced group of them were transported to France into the front line area and informed that they were now in a combat zone and if they still refused to serve they would be shot as deserters.

The colonel in charge was ordered to confront each of the Objectors in turn with this ultimatum.

The first objector told him. So be it; do your duty and I will do mine. There are tens of thousands of young men out there in the lines dying because they believe they are doing the right thing. I can do no less than them.

A frozen silence. The Colonel took a step backwards and saluted the Objector, then left the room. He then informed his superiors he would refuse to carry out the orders for the executions, explaining why. His superiors backed him up and the executions did not take place.

The White Poppy, alongside the Red Poppy, for me does honour not only to those who had the courage to refuse to fight when they believed it wrong, but also to the decency and integrity of soldiers.

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Cracked pavements to Capitol Hill 

One interesting sidebar on the recent US Elections is the election of Bernie Saunders as the Independent US Senator for Vermont. Robert the Bruce’s spider has nothing on his persistence as his political history summarised here shows. From pavement-stone community agitator to the Senate, and without bothering with membership of either of the so-called U.S. Political parties…Community Politics anyone?

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Real 9-11 

Ninth of November, a date that has a certain status in history.

9 November 1989 was the day the Berlin Wall fell and the whole rickety illusion of Communist Europe just came apart at all seams. This popularised the term shicksalstag (day of fate) in Germany..

A kind of cleansing for the previous odious associations of the date - 9 November 1938 being the occasion of the 'November Pogrom' in Germany, otherwise know sometimes controversially as "Reichskristallnacht" (Reich Crystall Night).

The Nazi choice of this date was probably made easier by the coincidence (?) that 9 November 1918 was the date when the Kaiser abdicated, (or to be more accurate his abdication was announced before he had agreed to abdicate) and the proclamation of the Weimar Republic, clearing the way for the Armstice on 11 November. This was of course a central part of the Dolchstosslegende (Stab In The Back Legend) that helped fuel the Nazi movement.

And 9 November 1923 was the occasion of the Beer-Hall Putsch, Hitlers' farcical failed attempt to seize power that got him leisure time in prison to write Mein Kampf.

Elsewhere 9 November 1799 was better known in France at the relevant time as 18 Brumaire de l'An VIII under the Revoultionary Calendar - the date of Napoleon's Coup d'Etat against the Directoire Government.

So as we write the date is its proper format 9-11 (9 November) has quite a bite to it, as distinct from the US version where 9-11 means September 9th...

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Humble thoughts on computer systems and implementing the Green Tax agenda 

The government’s hapless record on actually implementing complex IT schemes has a number of lessons for us all – and we need to take these on board as we move into our Green Taxes agenda. Because getting Big Ideas to work is a hard slog with a bad track record.

Here is the warning sign for the implementation of the Software to support the National ID card gamble: much of it will not be rigorously tested before the scheme goes live.

And that is an official government announcement. Professional IT developers (those who are not being paid to produce this software anyway) are rather dismissive of the rationale for this. Silicon-com has the story and some blogging response…

Of course the Government is quite right that it is impossible to foresee every future glitch. And as a well-known djykstraism says:

Program testing can be a very effective way to show the presence of bugs, but is hopelessly inadequate for showing their absence.

But any new system needs a way of learning and adapting to experience and a failsafe structure to limit damage if things go wrong. Failsafe does not mean guaranteed failure proof . It means that if there is a malfunction e the system defaults into the safest state possible compatible with the existence of that malfunction.

With Green Taxes we are promoting a really big idea. We need to accept that big ideas can come up with big and unexpected consequences and try to build really good learning systems into our implementation procedures. A proper response to markets is one such discipline but there may well be need for others. We should be asking questions of ourselves as we push these ideas. Enthusiastic and enquiring humility may be needed so that we learn and where necessary accept the need for changes in our proposals.

Otherwise we may find ourselves on slippery slopes that rather resemble New Labour dogmatisms on ID Cards, the NHS Information Systems, the CSA Computers and the Passport Office uproars. .

To end with another quote from Dijkstra, speaking on the computer

It has already taught us a few lessons, and the one I have chosen to stress in this talk is the following. We shall do a much better programming job, provided that we
approach the task with a full appreciation of its tremendous difficulty,
provided that we stick to modest and elegant programming languages, provided
that we respect the intrinsic limitations of the human mind and approach the task as Very Humble Programmers.

The Green Taxes approach is too important not to be approached with humility.

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