Jun 2007

Lord Goldsmith: The biggest balls in Britain?

Usually when those in power do something contemptible, my reaction is to feel contempt. I suspect I’m like most people in that regard. I’m the first to admit that it’s not a particularly nice emotion to be feeling. All the same, so long as the Irish government turns a blind eye to extraordinary rendition or Dubya Bush announces that his plan for Iraq is to (via PDF) ‘make it more like Israel’ (that’s like “bring it on” times a thousand, right? It can only be a deliberate attempt to piss off the insurgents) then it’s not like we’ve got much of a choice about how to feel.

That said, occasionally you’ll hear or read something so incredibly contemptible, so off-the-scale ludicrous, that you’re forced to just step back and admire the blatant arrogance and cheek of it. And like Bill Hicks discussing the police officers who — under oath — insisted they used the minimum force required to restrain Rodney King, today I am forced to wonder at the sheer size of Lord Goldsmith’s balls.

Seriously. They must be bloody massive.

Lord Goldsmith, for those who don’t know (or have already repressed the memory) was Tony Blair’s Attorney General. He was the chief legal advisor to the UK government for the best part of six years; appointed in 2001 and serving for the entire duration of the Iraq War to date. He’s just been replaced in Gordon Brown’s cabinet reshuffle by Baroness Scotland about whom I know sod-all except that — as with Goldsmith — her willingness to use an aristocratic title makes her an anachronism more suited to a museum than a government office.

Now, there’s no doubt in my mind that Lord Goldsmith’s role during the past few years has essentially been to try and convince anyone who’ll listen that New Labour’s participation in the outright destruction of a sovereign nation — I’m talking about Iraq here, not the UK — and murder of between 2 and 3 percent of the population, is completely legal and above-board. Whenever Tony Blair did something that should rightly land him in a cell in The Hague, Lord Goldsmith popped up and said it was completely legal and above-board. There’s a P.R. agent in the novel I’m writing. His name is Henry Stone and it’s his job to spin the actions of a rich psychopath so that they appear completely legal and above-board. He’s a bit part, not a significant character, but the consequences of his actions have serious ramifications and permit said psychopath to continue his nastiness. In the language of psychology we would describe Henry Stone as “an enabler”.

Anyways, Lord Goldsmith is no longer in a position to enable New Labour to run amok (though I suspect Baroness Scotland has been chosen for her ability to do the same). So, on the day he left office, he clearly decided it was time to let us all know what a massive pair of balls he’s got on him. He called…

for an investigation into how illegal torture techniques came to be used by British soldiers in Iraq. He said it was a matter of grave concern that techniques such as sleep deprivation, hooding and stress positions were deployed against suspects held by UK forces.

Hang on a second; hasn’t he been in a position to order an inquiry into this for the past few years? He’s been the chief legal advisor to the government since 2001 and he waits until he no longer holds that position before mentioning this concern of his? Seriously, is this a joke? And if not, why hasn’t this man been lynched yet, big balls or no big balls?

Ah, but wait a second. Lord Goldsmith goes on to say:

“These techniques were outlawed on a cross-party basis in 1972. We have to seek why anyone thought these were permissible techniques. I think there needs to be an inquiry…
[But] Lord Goldsmith told the parliamentary committee that he was only aware such interrogation techniques were being used after Baha Musa, an Iraqi hotel receptionist, died in British custody.

Well, fair enough then. I’m hardly going to criticise the guy for not launching an inquiry into something he was unaware was happening. Arguably someone in his position should have been informed about the activity of British troops, but if he wasn’t then he can hardly be blamed for failing to act on information he didn’t have. So yeah, fair enough.

Except no! Not “fair enough”. Not even a little bit “fair enough”! You see, The Guardian article reminds anyone who didn’t know that:

Mr Musa, 26, had been detained under suspicion of being an insurgent. He died in Basra in September 2003. Seven members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, which is now the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, faced the most expensive court martial in British history, but all were eventually acquitted. One soldier, Corporal Donald Payne, 35, became the first British serviceman to admit a war crime, that of treating Iraqi prisoners inhumanely, and was jailed for a year.

September 2003? That’s almost four years ago. Lord Goldsmith’s mitigation for not calling for an inquiry sooner is that he only found out about the situation four years ago.

As I say… what balls!

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jun 2007

Biofuels: Genocide with a greenwash

Today the Financial Times reports that BP has begun to significantly invest in biofuel technology, and this week alone has signed two deals to fund biofuel projects…

BP is to invest at least £32m in a joint venture with D1 Oils, the quoted UK based alternative fuels company, to develop the inedible oilseed Jatropha as a biodiesel.

The move is the latest escalation of BP’s move into alternative fuels, following its $400m investment in a joint bioethanol plant with Associated British Foods and DuPont announced earlier this week.

Meanwhile Grain, an organisation representing poor farmers in developing countries, has devoted the entirety of the latest issue of their journal, Seedling, to savagely lambasting the biofuel industry and exposing the extreme destruction it’s causing. The issue can be downloaded (3.4MB PDF) and I urge anyone with an interest in this subject to do so. The editorial opens as follows…

We are devoting almost all of this edition to a single topic — the rapid expansion of biofuels across much of the globe. In the process of gathering material from colleagues and social movements around the world, we have discovered that the stampede into biofuels is causing enormous environmental and social damage, much more than we realised earlier. Precious ecosystems are being destroyed and hundreds of thousands of indigenous and peasant communities are being thrown off their land. We believe that the prefix bio, which comes from the Greek word for “life”, is entirely inappropriate for such anti-life devastation. So, following the lead of non-governmental organisations and social movements in Latin America, we shall not be talking about biofuels and green energy. Agrofuels is a much better term, we believe, to express what is really happening: agribusiness producing fuel from plants to sustain a wasteful, destructive and unjust global economy.

We begin with an introductory article that, among other things, looks at the mind-boggling numbers that are being bandied around: the Indian government is talking of planting 14 million hectares of land with jatropha; the Inter-American Development Bank says that Brazil has 120 million hectares that could be cultivated with agrofuel crops; and an agrofuel lobby is speaking of 379 million hectares being available in 15 African countries. We are talking about expropriation on an unprecedented scale.

But you don’t need to take the word of Grain. After all, they’re an organisation with the radical agenda of “promot[ing] the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people’s control over genetic resources and local knowledge”. Instead ask the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. They report that “basic food prices for poor countries are being pushed up by competition for land from biofuels” (BBC article). And this is an industry that’s only just getting going! It is absolutely imperative that it doesn’t get much further. Because if the plan is to replace any liquid fossil-fuel shortfall created by a peak in oil production with agrofuels (and certainly that seems to be BP’s plan), then it will almost certainly result in one of the most devastating famines in history. Millions will die. Because wealthy car owners in the USA, UK, Ireland or Japan are able, and willing, to pay more for a tank of jatropha-seed-oil than a Malawian or Ethiopian can afford to pay for a loaf of bread.

And it’s not even as if a switch to agrofuels would help address that other looming crisis — climate change. It will just make that situation worse too.

UPDATE: For lots more info, check out Biofuelwatch (http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/)

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jun 2007

None more Ironic

Mr Priamikov said the area was one of breathtaking natural beauty. It was much drier, colder and quieter than the western Arctic, he added. “I’ve been there many times. It’s an oasis for marine life,” he said. Asked whether it would be feasible to drill for oil, he said: “Yes”.

The shelf was 200 metres deep and oil and gas would be easy to extract, especially with ice melting because of global warming, he said.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jun 2007

The UK public smoking ban

In less than a week (July 1st 2007), England and Wales will follow the lead of Scotland, Ireland and a whole host of other places in banning tobacco-smoking in enclosed public places. Neil Clark has a piece in today’s Comment Is Free — Liberal England: Going Up in Smoke (also reproduced on his blog) — which attacks this ban as illiberal. He goes as far as to state that “the first country to introduce bans on smoking in public was the Third Reich” and asks:

Isn’t it sad that 60 years after playing a decisive role in the defeat of the Nazis and their loathsome, intolerant ideology, Britain, in its illiberal attitude towards smoking and smokers, is now aping them?

All very dramatic, I think you’ll agree. Albeit inaccurate. But what sort of journalist lets accuracy get in the way of a good turn of phrase? In fact, tobacco has been periodically banned outright and subject to numerous restrictions on where it can and can’t be consumed ever since it arrived in Europe. As far back as 1590, tobacco was the subject of a public ban. Then, in the 1670s, around the same time as England was trying to stamp out the practice of tobacco smoking by levying massive taxation on a weed “lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse”, there were areas of central Europe where the sale and distribution of tobacco was punishable by death.

But it’s not Neil’s factual inaccuracies that I want to address. Indeed it’s not so much what the piece says in attacking the ban, as what it fails to say, that really interests me. By painting the ban as an example of Big Oppressive Government Vs. The Little Guy, the article succeeds in framing the issue in completely spurious terms and fails to mention — even once — the actual reasons why the ban is being introduced.

Protecting The Little Guy

I think it’s now fairly uncontroversial to state that, whether or not your lips physically make contact with the cigarette, inhaling tobacco smoke carries long-term health risks. Indeed, if you were to ask any GP in the country, I feel certain you would be informed that avoiding second-hand smoke was highly advisable. This means — and here we have the crux of the matter, blithely overlooked by Neil Clark — that if you’re a bar-worker, you are forced into a choice: you can ignore the best medical advice we have, or you can lose your pay-cheque.

There is no liberal case whatsoever for the ban; if you support it you may be many things, but please, don’t have the audacity to call yourself a liberal. The argument for restricting smoking in public on account of the possible health risks caused by passive smoking is an argument for having separate smoking areas in pubs, cafes and restaurants and not for a blanket ban, which will encompass even private clubs where members have assented to a pro-smoking policy.

It seems that living in “a liberal society” means insisting that the — largely minimum-wage-earning — service sector must inhale Mr. Clark’s tobacco smoke or find another job.

But of course it means nothing of the sort. Despite the imperious insistence that supporters of the ban shouldn’t call themselves “liberal”, I find myself in exactly that position. I support the ban, and I am a liberal. My liberalism — unlike, it seems, that of others — doesn’t stretch to damaging the health of the waiters, bartenders and cleaners who have no choice (assuming they want to keep the job that’s feeding and housing them) but to share my space… yes, even in those “private clubs where members have assented to a pro-smoking policy”. Or do the members of these clubs do the cleaning and serving too?

But what if the staff assent to a pro-smoking policy too? Well, in theory that’s all well and good but it ignores the fact that the employer-employee relationship is a power-relationship. Like it or not, there would be plenty of unscrupulous pub and café owners willing to put pressure on their staff to sign a “smoking waiver”, perhaps in the knowledge that there are few other jobs in the local area, and plenty of unemployed smokers willing to fill the position. Neil Clark — and the others who, in the name of liberalism, propose exemptions — are proposing a society where an employer, when hiring, may discriminate in favour of those applicants willing to sign a document waiving their right to a working environment free of unnecessary health risks (a right under British law for decades, incidentally)…

Section 2(2)(e) of the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) places a specific duty on the employer in respect of employees to provide and maintain a safe working environment which is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe, without risks to health and adequate as regards facilities and arrangements for their welfare at work.

It seems to me that employers; merely by allowing, let alone “requiring”, employees to work in a smoke-filled environment are already breaking the law. By enforcing a workplace smoking ban, the government is merely enforcing existing legislation designed, very specifically, to protect the powerless from the powerful.

It’s like when I read columnists or bloggers opposing rises in petrol duty or car tax by claiming that “it’ll hit the poorest the most”. All the while ignoring the fact that the poorest 20% of the population don’t actually own cars and would be far better served by a high car tax that directly reduced the cost of public transport. Similarly, those opposed to the workplace smoking ban who claim to be the powerless victims of government action, are conveniently overlooking the fact that the ban is aimed precisely at preventing them imposing their damaging smoke on people whose power to avoid that smoke is severely curtailed.

9 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jun 2007

All change! New Labour still in charge!

So he’s gone. I half-expected the world to feel a little bit lighter today… less shabby. But then I saw Gordon Brown’s celebratory wave and read his Let the work of change begin sound-bite. I looked closer at the photograph… “Haaaang on”, I thought to myself, “isn’t that the bloke that’s been sat behind Blair — smiling and applauding — at every important policy announcement for the past ten years?”

“It bloody well is, y’know!”

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Jun 2007

Windows Genuine Advantage Killed My PC

Unless you actually know a bit about, and are interested in, the inner-workings of a Windows PC then this post will be dull and obscure at best. If, on the other hand, you’ve ever assembled a PC from bare components or have perhaps manually tweaked your registry and had a vague idea of what you were doing at the time, then this post may interest you and will — at the very least — offer the opportunity of a prize.

With regards to getting back to some kind of semi-regular blogging… hopefully that’ll happen soon. I’ve been away, and then I was busy, and even when I’ve been neither; I’ve really not felt like I’ve had much to say. I can’t guarantee any of that will change much, but here’s hoping.

A Prize!

I know. How exciting, eh? A prize! Here’s the run-down; I’ve got an unfathomable Windows problem that’s proved immune to three days of diagnostics and reinstalls. If you can offer a solution that actually works then you shall win either (a) A CD of your choice off amazon [within reason — Tg24, though a groovy choice, would probably be a bit of a cheeky request, even if you do save me the hassle and expense of having to buy a new computer]; OR (b) A double-CD of the finest music ever recorded as compiled by yours truly [a far superior prize I think you’ll agree].

All well and good. But what of the problem? Well, it’s a weird one and no mistake. A long story with more than one red-herring-shaped dead-end…

The problem

It all started a few days ago when I received an email from A. She’s the only person I know who actually uses PGP on a regular basis and as always her email had that familiar chunk of seemingly-random text that is her PGP signature. I don’t use PGP, but I did have it installed and I do have a PGP key (which is now atrociously out-of-date, filled with old email addresses I suspect). I’m a big fan of the idea of routine email encryption, but it’s such a faff and nobody else does it, so I tend not to bother with it.

Nonetheless, it was late and I had some free time, so I downloaded the latest version of the PGP client purely out of curiousity. See what new bells and whistles they’d added. I ran the installer and that’s when the problems began. However, I caution any seeker of the prize that the whole PGP thing is almost certainly a red-herring. It just happened to be what I was doing when the actual fault occurred. See, although I can’t recall for sure, it’s very possible that Windows XP did a scheduled update just prior to all this.

Anyways, Windows just hung during the install for PGP. I could move the mouse cursor around the screen, but clicking things elicited no response. And the keyboard was also unresponsive. Even Ctrl-Alt-Del didn’t work. After waiting a very long time, I hit the reset button on the PC and it rebooted. I decided against trying to reinstall PGP and instead fired up a browser to check something online. I clicked through a couple of pages and suddenly the PC hung again. Exactly the same as before. No response from anything I did, though I could still move the cursor.

And this continued to happen. No matter what I did, after every boot the PC just hung after about 30 seconds. I was furious with PGP (almost certainly unjustifiably). Thankfully I could boot into Safe Mode, so I quickly backed-up all my data (I’ve not lost anything but time to this problem… yet) and spent a while using a different computer to google for solutions to this hypothetical “PGP install bug”. Nothing I did seemed to work and I eventually settled on a Windows reinstall as the least frustrating option.

I’d just backed up everything, so I fired up my Windows XP Original CD (all hologrammed and everything), repartitioned and reformatted my hard-drive and reinstalled Windows. At this point, a quick rundown of my PC:

CPU: AMD 64 3500+
MOBO: Gigabyte GA-K8NXP-9 (Chipset: nVidia NFORCE4 Ultra)
RAM: 2 x 1024MB PC3200
GRAPHICS: NVidia GeForce 6800
SOUND: Creative Soundblaster Audigy Platinum
PLUS: 250GB WD hard-drive, NEC CD/DVD burner, Dell 20” widescreen monitor

So yeah, I installed Windows XP Professional on the PC. I then installed a bunch of other stuff (avoiding PGP obviously) but very quickly the same problem occurred, and once again I could only use my PC for 30 or 40 seconds before it became unresponsive. Hell, that’s not even long enough to start up some Adobe software.

This confused me. It meant that clearly PGP had sod all to do with the problem (unless it can cast a malign influence from beyond a reformat). So I resinstalled Windows. Again. And this time in the full knowledge that it would only last a few minutes as I had no idea what stage in the process the problem arose. And this is what happened (note: Between each install I played a hand of Spider Solitaire to check that the system wasn’t hanging)…

– Windows XP Professional (from original CD).
– Service Pack 2 (from backup DVD — used it plenty of times before, no reason to suspect it’s a problem).
– Motherboard Drivers (from OEM CD — been fine for years).
– Graphics Drivers (from backup DVD — recently downloaded from nVidia, fine for at least a month)
– Soundcard Drivers (from backup DVD — downloaded from Creative, fine for several months)

Then I activated Windows online which went without a hitch.

No problems so far. I could play Spider Solitaire, fire up Internet Explorer and read the news, and play the sample music in the preinstalled version of Media Player. All hunky-dory. Then however, I found the step that caused the problem…

I connected to Windows Update.

And it broke my computer. First a couple of ActiveX controls got installed, then Microsoft Installer 3.1, an Update for XP (KB898461) and the Windows Genuine Advantage Tool. They downloaded, installed, forced a reboot and suddenly my PC was hanging every 30 seconds once more.

One thing that occurs to me is that the Windows Genuine Advantage Tool might be misidentifying my copy of Windows as being dodgy (despite it being 100% legit). But surely it’d pop up a message letting me know and not just hang the computer within a minute of reboot. Also, I can boot into Safe Mode and it doesn’t hang. Surely if Windows was supposed to be crashing due to some anti-piracy measure gone wrong, then it wouldn’t let me boot into Safe Mode either, right?

So this time I’ve reinstalled Windows, plus SP2 and the various drivers, but have switched off Automatic Updates and am avoiding the Windows Update site / app. I’ve reinstalled Firefox and Thunderbird (plus a bunch of add-ins) and have also installed MS Office 2003 (though obviously haven’t run the updater on that either as it’s all tied into the same Microsoft Update system). All without a hitch.

However, I then downloaded and tried to install Windows Media Player 11. Because I did this using Firefox, it couldn’t force me through the usual Windows Genuine Advantage ActiveX process. Instead it runs through a separate Windows Genuine Advantage process at the beginning of the installation process. When it was doing this though, Windows again hung and became unresponsive. Thankfully this didn’t result in a crash after each reboot, but I’m obviously staying well clear of any attempt by Microsoft to “verify” my copy of Windows. It is a Genuine copy. I paid through the nose for it soon after it was released but it seems like every time I connect to an MS website they try to torpedo my PC.

All of which presents problems… I suspect that not regularly updating Windows and Office with security patches is a recipe for disaster. I’m really not sure what to do about that (and no, I can’t switch to Linux… too much of the software I use is Windows only). Plus I’ve always been a fan of Windows Media Player… an app often overshadowed by its rivals. Now I’ll have to find something else to do the job as any attempt to update or patch Media Player could bugger up my system. Same goes for Outlook.

I don’t know for certain that shoddy Microsoft code (maybe a recent update to the Windows Genuine Advantage Tool clashes with the drivers for the Creative Audigy Platinum or something?) is at the root of this problem. But it’s certainly the most likely culprit. As for how to claim the prize… just let me know what’s going on and how I can sort it out (start patching Windows again and not worry about my PC becoming unusable as a result and requiring a complete rebuild).

Any ideas? Or perhaps just a similar tale of woe?

17 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements