13 days to go   (31.8.10)

Today's training: Buxton then Blackley = 100km @ 25.5km/h. Niggles: Drivers.

Anthony Weiner excoriates Republicans in House   (31.8.10)


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14 days to go   (31.8.10)

Not long now till I ride London to Paris. Will document my final days of training here. Yesterday did the Buxton thing and then another ride out to Styal. 112km @ 26.5 km/h. Niggles: Snapped a bolt in my bike frame due to being a n00b. Screw extractor is my next frontier.

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Tyranny in Russia   (31.8.10)

Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin gives an... interesting... perspective on the right to peaceful protest:

Speaking while driving a Lada on a road trip over the weekend in Russia's far east, Putin said Russians needed to get permission before they could take to the streets.

He explained: "You've got it? Go and march. If not, you don't have the right. Go to a rally without permission and you get a whack on the bonce. It's that simple."

Putin said the demonstrators invited the western media along and "poured red paint on their heads" to give the Kremlin a bad name. He said that in London demonstrators who protested without permission also got a "whack on the nut".

The prima facie similarity with "London" is a red herring. Ol' Vlad would claim it's me wot painted it red guv and giv me a whack on me bonce. But as we saw in the UK recently with rallies in Bradford, what determines the justice of an activity is not whether one has permission for it, but instead whether the reasons for the granting or refusing of permission are themselves just. Indeed, our very ability to identify discordance between law and justice shows that we have a concept of justice independent of a concept of law. Law can be unjust; permission can be unjustly withheld.

On a much smaller scale, Putin's "analogy" with London reminds me of some discussions we had in the college last year when disagreeing over how student activities should be restricted. When in a position of power it is easy to convince yourself that all the restrictions you impose are benevolent ones, because they accord with your own concept of good, or, less flatteringly, because they are expedient for your own ends. Perhaps this tendency is to be found more in human nature than in political ideology; authoritarian creep, after all, seems to infect governments of all hues. What an open society offers — and what it could offer to Russians — is a statutory system that upholds legal limitations on the kind of restrictions any government can authorise. The right to peaceful protest is a core expression of such an open society, and, for all the assaults that New Labour launched upon it, it is such a society that London still stands for and Moscow still opposes.

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Bad Miliband   (29.8.10)

David Miliband plays the fool in today's Independent:

"The facts are that bad things were done by the Americans after 2002 and they didn't tell anyone else," Mr Miliband said. "Slowly the pieces of the jigsaw were put together and when they were put together the British government acted."

"Bad things" is a painfully facile echo of George Dubya's insistence all those years ago that the Gitmo detainees are "bad men". I'm not sure anyone in Britain will be foolish enough to buy Miliband's or Labour's feigned naivety on this issue, though. The suggestion that the British government were not sufficiently aware of what the U.S. was up to regarding detainee rendition, etc., somewhat beggars belief. Yet so much the more does it beggar belief that the suggestion could be true, since to have demonstrated such ineptitude would be a damning indictment of Labour's foreign policy record. Slow to put the "jigsaw" together? Foreign policy is not a boxing-day pastime, and I don't for a minute believe that it ever was for Labour.

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Bradford   (27.8.10)

Some good little interviews ahead of the protests in Bradford tomorrow. Adequate to demonstrate that the English Defence League is full of idiotic bigots and racists. But idiocy, bigotry and racism are not crimes; neither should they be. Riot and incitement, however, are.


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Veiled Victorians   (27.8.10)

Lap dancing? A practice governed by coercion and misogyny, according to moral conservatives and so-called feminists. Of course, not according to the evidence, but moral conservatives and so-called feminists (by which I mean those conservatives who think they are feminists but are actually Victorian throwbacks) aren't usually too concerned by evidence.

But I post it here for the perspective it can provide on The Veil: To Ban Or Not To Ban? Lap-dancing as a practice is in many ways a similar issue. Each practice — veil-wearing and lap-dancing — is seen by those at both "ends" of the cultural spectrum as intrinsically demeaning to women; each practice is often erroneously imagined to be coerced; each practice is seen as misogynistic; each practice is purported to gnaw at society's "moral fabric", etc. And yet we legally permit lap-dancing, not to refute or endorse any of these moral objections, but because we believe there is a more important moral principle at stake: that persons (women and men) have a right to exclusive discretion over how they dispose of their own bodies in actions that are non-harmful to others, even if the choices that result are, by general consensus, deemed morally wrong.

As I've said before, if there is evidence of coercion in specific instances of these practices, it is the coercion that should be dealt with by the law; but a blanket ban on either lap-dancing or veil-wearing would itself be a sexist and rights-violating restriction on the choices of women. Hence why "feminists" who advocate such bans are (not-so-)secret Victorian throwbacks.

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Libera-tory   (27.8.10)

The wing of the Liberal Democrat membership devoted to breast-beating about "collusion" in a Tory government might like to reconsider the value of having liberal MPs in government, even a Conservative-majority coalition government. Would it have been possible for liberals such as Vince Cable to exert this kind of policy pressure on Conservative excesses under any other post-electoral settlement? I can't see how, myself.

Cable told the Financial Times: "It's very clear from the figures that the increase in recorded immigration has nothing to do with the number of non-EU work permits issued; they actually declined.

"I've full confidence that my colleagues understand the need for immigration control measures that support business recovery and economic growth."

Cable's comments follow a statement he made last month on a trip to India, when he said: "It's no great secret that in my department and me personally, we want to see an open economy, and as liberal an immigration policy as it's possible to have."

As Nick Clegg said recently,

I think many people felt that a coalition government by definition would be some sort of insipid mush. Actually, what we are finding out after after 100 days we are being accused of doing exactly the reverse, which is doing things too quickly, too fast, too radical, too reforming.

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Progressive Cuts   (25.8.10)

Yvette Cooper's back!

The Institute for Fiscal Studies finds that

Once all of the benefit cuts are considered, the tax and benefit changes announced in the emergency Budget are clearly regressive as, on average, they hit the poorest households more than those in the upper middle of the income distribution in cash, let alone percentage, terms.

I think there's a problem with this understanding of "regressive". I don't dispute the IFS's observation that poorest households are hit hardest. The problem is that in almost any budget, the poorest are going to be hit hardest, whether positively or negatively. A rise in VAT or alcohol duty will hit the poorest hardest, just as a cut in the same will benefit the poorest the most. The implication that a measure is regressive simply because it hits the poorest hardest cannot, I think, be upheld. It would mean that any reduction in benefit payments under any circumstances would be "regressive", regardless of the merits of the benefits that are being cut. If a certain level of benefit payments is excessive and therefore unjust, it can't be "regressive" to cut them.

So much for the general principle. It doesn't mean that the IFS are wrong on this occasion; I don't know the details of the budget, so I venture no opinion here. But for the IFS to prove their "regressive" claim, they need to demonstrate not only the impact of the cuts, but also that a moral entitlement is being breached.

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Community and commitments   (24.8.10)

In one of my antipapist rants a while back, I laid into Benny's claim to "the rights of institutions". In the context of his discussion of how we manage diverse cultural commitments in a single system of justice, Andrew Shorten articulates this confusion much more carefully:

The problem here [...] comes about because of a mistaken focus upon cultural communities and not commitments. Community might be the source of some of our commitments, and even our most deeply held attachments, but communities do not motivate practices, commitments do, and a valid justification (or overriding reason) for tolerant restraint (i.e. non-interference in controversial cultural practices) will not follow from a respect for memberships per se, but from an understanding of the importance of such commitments for specific (and not necessarily all) members.

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Kershaw back   (24.8.10)


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BA back down   (24.8.10)

Congratulations to Mirko Fischer for successfully smashing one vial from Britain's enormous stockpile of intergenerational poison.

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Dust for brains   (23.8.10)

Speaking of simple humanity — while air-brained Republicans are banging on about the "Ground Zero Mosque" (which is, as it turns out, neither at Ground Zero, nor a mosque), they are voting down a bill in the House of Representatives that would provide healthcare to thousands of first responders sickened by toxic dust while attending to the World Trade Centre attacks.

You tell me who is insulting the victims of 9/11.

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Pakistan floods   (23.8.10)

Louis-George Arsenault of the UN Children's Fund says of the Pakistan floods:

Right now, our level of needs in terms of funding is huge compared to what we've been receiving, even though this is the largest, by far, humanitarian crisis we've seen in decades.

The suspicion must be that this slow response is down to Pakistan's current situation in international politics. But donation in these circumstances is not a political decision; it is a matter of simple humanity. As Rabbi Yochanan taught,

To leave men without food is a fault that no circumstance attenuates; the distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary does not apply here.

People can donate easily by texting "GIVE" to 70707. The message donates £5 to the DEC via your mobile phone bill.

The Illusionist   (22.8.10)

Went to see Sylvain Chomet's new animated film The Illusionist last night. It's the follow-up to his 2003 Les Triplettes de Belleville, a brilliant black comedy about the kidnap of a defeated cyclist from Le Tour de France by the French Mafia. Chomet's unique style seemed to me even more refined and accomplished in The Illusionist, with the movements and interactions of every character overflowing with both comic accuracy and tearjerking honesty. The film realizes a previously unmade screenplay written by Jacques Tati; a contrast with the fantastical Triplettes de Belleville, Tati's down-to-earth story of everyday human generosity and frailty finds its perfect storyteller in Chomet, truly a master of hand-drawn animation.


PhD is wank   (21.8.10)

This is the illustrated guide to a PhD. (I thought it just looked like a relief of the penis. Oh well, much the same thing I suppose.) (via)


A point of awesomeness nearly escaped me. See that post I just wrote a minute ago about "John Bangs"? The guy who made this thing is "Matt Might".

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Bang bang, I shot u down, bang bang   (21.8.10)

Today's award for Talking Complete Bollocks goes to John Bangs (great name though!):

John Bangs, former head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said he strongly suspected that there was a single unofficial list of banned subjects. "The list is built on the assumption that these subjects are easier than others and not academic enough," he said. "This is just another sign of the Russell Group using a filter to stop people they don't want from getting into their universities. They have no concern about fairness. They should be far more transparent. If they have this list, let them publish it and show us the evidence that these subjects are easier."

Hmm... "a filter to stop people they don't want". That sounds like a selection process to me! Does Mr Bangs think universities should not select their students? What's all this UCAS sheBANG then? (See what I did there?) And as for "subjects [that] are [...] not academic enough"... chortle chortle bang bang. The last time I looked, the universities in the Russell Group were academic institutions. They are searching for students who are not only academically able, but academically excellent. It is self-evident that the supposed subjects on this supposed list are indeed less academically demanding — which is not to say, as Mr Bangs insinuates, that they are "easier". So what's wrong with the Russell Group disfavouring them? If we're not going to allow universities to conduct a meaningful selection process (and "meaningful" entails "stop[ping] people they don't want"), we might as well just sack the principle of educational attainment and dish out university places by raffle.

Now, for his last point. "They should be more transparent." Exactly how transparent? Should they collate and publish the reasons they turned down every application they rejected? They've no need to, anyway, since cursory examination of a random few of the Russell Group's member websites reveals, um, quite a bit of transparency, actually:


For many Cambridge courses prior knowledge of certain subjects is required, and all Colleges will expect such subjects to be passed, normally with at least an A grade at A level or equivalent. Some courses (eg Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Law, Philosophy) don’t require you to have studied the subject before, although you will be expected to have read enough about the subject to know what it will entail.

When assessing applicants for all courses we consider not only the individual A level (or equivalent) subjects being offered but also the combination of these. We generally prefer applicants to have taken certain subjects or subject combinations because we believe that they’re more likely to provide you with an effective preparation for study at the University of Cambridge. [...]

If you haven’t yet decided on a course, advice about the most appropriate A level subject combinations to maximise your choice at Cambridge is available[.]


1.1 - The University of Bristol aims to:
* maintain the high academic standards for which it is known;
* create a student body that is balanced and diverse in terms of background and experience, with all the educational and cultural benefits that this brings;
* recruit students who will engage with and contribute to the intellectual and cultural vitality of the University community.

1.2 - The University will achieve these aims by:
* encouraging applications from all those with the motivation and academic
ability to thrive at Bristol, whatever their background;
* assessing each application carefully and fairly;
* offering places to applicants who have the potential to do well at Bristol. [...]

7.7 - Departments/Schools may set minimum entry requirements and may insist on specified performance in a particular subject at GCSE, A level or other examination. They must declare what weight, if any, they will give to qualifications in areas such as General Studies. The Undergraduate Admissions Office provides advice on acceptable non-A level equivalents. An offer to a candidate without a recognised qualification requires the prior approval of the Undergraduate Dean of the Faculty.


The University of Manchester is dedicated to providing superb higher education to outstanding students from all backgrounds. We are committed to a fair and transparent admissions system to identify and attract the very best students to Manchester.

The University accepts a wide range of qualifications. The information on this page provides an overview of the general entry requirements for our undergraduate courses.

In addition, you should check out the specific entry requirements for the course you are interested in. Every course has a dedicated web page containing entry requirements as well as other useful information. [...]

Acceptable combinations will vary from one programme of study to another. For some degree programmes, compulsory subject requirements may also apply.

Oh, sack it, I'm bored. Check out the rest yourself. Seems to me they're doing a bang up job of transparency, so bang goes that argument too. I wouldn't normally be so unkind (oh, she LIES too!) but this is beyond the pale. Had enough of banging on about this now. Bang bang, the bitch is dead.

<Columbo> Just one more thing. If it's true, as Andy Gardner of Career Guidance says, that "Children in state schools are disadvantaged," it is not by the Russell Group universities' admissions criteria. They can only select from the students who apply with the credentials they present. Rather, such disadvantage would stem from a lack of diversity within the state education sector, and a lack of mobility between the state and private sectors. And which organisation is it that has so long championed one-size-fits-all lowest-common-denominator "comprehensive" education (what a misnomer that is!)? And when Labour annexed the private sector by removing the assisted places scheme in 1997 — thereby cutting access for the poor to the country's top schools — which organisation is it that rejoiced? Oh yes, it's the National Union of Teachers! BANG! </Columbo>

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Peaking   (21.8.10)

What do you do when you wake up at 4am with a muscle in your leg that won't stop twitching? Cycle 120km before lunch, that's what. It's a beautiful day in Manchester, the first proper sunshine for about six weeks...1 always windy up the top of Long Hill though. I'm peaking in two months.

1 Il pleure dans mon coeur


More Mosque   (21.8.10)

Rupert Cornwell writes about the "great mosque debate" in today's Independent:

Both Obama and Reid would have done better to repeat the sentiments of New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, the most eloquent defender of the project in its envisaged site – on the grounds of both freedom of religion and freedom of property.

"We would be untrue to the best part of ourselves, and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans," Bloomberg has said, "if we said 'no' to a mosque in Lower Manhattan."

That, incidentally, is also a defining difference between the open society of the US, and the intolerant Wahhabites in Riyadh.

(more, more)

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From War to Law   (20.8.10)

I commend to your attention From War to Law, Liberty's 141-page "Response to the Coalition Government's Review of Counter-Terrorism and Security Powers 2010". Liberty were invited to contribute to the review by the home secretary; let's hope that contribution is now heard and heeded.

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ACLU on Ground Zero Mosque   (20.8.10)

The American Civil Liberties Union issues a statement on the "Ground Zero Mosque":

[...] Americans must ensure that our political leaders know that discrimination is a losing proposition and that adherence to the Constitution is not optional. We must not let those who seek to undermine our nation succeed by forcing us to betray our most fundamental American liberties.

And Suzanne Ito of the ACLU comments:

In the face of all this controversy, Americans' commitment to religious liberty must remain unshakeable. If we sacrifice this right for political expediency and allow discrimination, we all lose.


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Bradford left, right and centre   (20.8.10)

The home secretary Theresa May faced a difficult decision when banning tomorrow's planned marches by the English Defence League and by Unite Against Fascism. Did she make a good decision? The answer will probably be determined by how things pan out in Bradford tomorrow, and how the situation changes in the coming months. The EDL will cry foul at this restriction, but static demonstrations will go ahead tomorrow all the same. UAF will, ironically, probably claim it is a victory: it's a good indication of just how deeply their "anti-fascism" runs when they endorse the state-sanctioned repression of political expression. Sounds a bit like fascism to me.

Both groups would do well to remember that the right to peaceful protest is indeed a qualified right. One of the ways in which it is qualified is by an assessment of the risk of public disorder or violence, and if it is on the basis of such an assessment that the home secretary has made her decision today, the decision is legitimate. However, one consideration by which the right to peaceful protest should not be qualified is convenience to the government or political mainstream. One can only hope that today's decision does not establish a precedent for how this administration will deal with political movements that dissent from the majority. The EDL are a legal political organisation and, however misguided their agenda, should have the same access to public space as any other legal political organisation.

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Afghan fishin'   (20.8.10)

Susie Linfield writes at Dissent Magazine:

But it is bad faith of the worst sort to argue that withdrawal would somehow help the women of Afghanistan; or would rescue them from lives of almost unimaginable pariahdom, misery, poverty, physical pain, poor health, ignorance, and degradation; or would not take away even the minimal gains that have been made. Equally bad, I think, is the pretense that a "deal" with the Taliban won't somehow come at women's (and children's) expense. Let's at least call barbarism by its right name — which is just what the Time photograph did.

Hear, hear. (via)

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Hear the good news   (19.8.10)

The adoption agency Catholic Care has lost its case at the High Court. The charity had argued that it should be exempt from the provisions of the Equality Act as amended in 2010, and thus be allowed an exceptional licence to discriminate against gay couples seeking to adopt children. In making this ruling, the court has upheld the principle that personal conscience should not have the last word in matters of public duty, but rather that the law should. Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion pertains to a person's convictions, not to the discharge of his duties as a public servant acting under the auspices of the state. Hear the good news.

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Winter Means Testing   (18.8.10)

Suppose you are a government minister in an imaginary country; let's call it Little Britain. You are in charge of deciding to whom benefit payments are made, and you have a budget of £100. There are ten pensioners in Little Britain. Six of them have enough money to pay their bills comfortably without government assistance. Four do not. Is it a more just (or "fair") use of your budgetary resources to give £10 to each pensioner, regardless of wealth, or to make payments only to the four who cannot afford their bills?

It's not the most demanding thought experiment, but it's one that seems to have baffled Labour's Yvette Cooper, who parrots on as if it's still 2005:

Winter fuel payments help many pensioners across the country. David Cameron has promised time and again that the Tories would protect them.

But today we hear the work and pensions secretary is planning to cut this support that so many pensioners depend on. This is a shocking betrayal of pensioners.

The issue here is not the "betrayal of pensioners" but rather the justice and affordability of a universal entitlement to certain benefits. Paying benefits to people who don't need them is a wreckless and unjust waste of public money.

Although the government has ruled it out, the answer is probably means-testing. I understand people's objections, but here it might be the lesser evil; after all, assessing people's wealth would hardly be more intrusive than existing income tax returns. Unlike income tax, it would also be unintrusive on those who choose not to submit a claim to receive the allowance. The government would do better to ignore parrots like Cooper, publicly commit to keeping the winter fuel payment for the poorest, but introduce means-testing to make sure the richer cannot claim it.

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Sex Offenders Soon To Start High School   (18.8.10)

It is a strange country that thinks 17-year-olds are not responsible enough to make their own decisions about drinking alcohol, but is happy that 10-year-olds are sufficiently worldly-wise to sign the Sex Offenders' Register. That country is Britain.

The two boys' convictions for attempted rape remain unsafe, in spite of their unsuccessful appeal. They are unsafe first because of the material facts of the case: you tell me how a court presented with this evidence can come to a guilty verdict. But, second and more seriously, they are unsafe simply because of the boys' ages. Sentencing, Judge Sanders said, "I do not accept that what happened was a game but I do accept that you did not realise how serious what you were doing was." Moral accountability presupposes moral agency. If it is Judge Sanders' opinion that the boys did not understand the moral qualities of their actions, then there are good grounds for arguing that they are also not morally accountable for those actions. If that is the case, no criminal prosecution should ever have been brought.

Ages of majority are irrationally scattered in English law: there is a generic age of criminal responsibility of 10; an age of consent of 16; a generic age of majority at 18. England and Wales has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the developed world, but the real problem is that the law makes no discrimination between different offences. For example, understanding when one is committing a sexual assault is more complex than understanding when one is committing a murder, so — in a system that assumes greater age equals greater moral agency — it makes sense to attach different ages of criminal responsibility to each offence.

New Zealand has a sensible compromise, which establishes a generic age of criminal responsibility at age 14, but makes exception for murder and manslaughter, offences which can be prosecuted from age 10. In New Zealand those boys would never have been tried, and would not now be on the Sex Offenders' Register. The world would be a better place for that fact.

(While we're about it, we could scrap the age of consent, too.)

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The "Ground Zero Mosque"   (17.8.10)

Hendrik Hertzberg writes sagely in the New Yorker on the subject of the "Ground Zero mosque". Having duly noted that the planned mosque isn't actually at Ground Zero but is, in fact, two blocks away and part of a larger mixed-use complex, he continues:

Defending the [Anti-Defamation League]’s position, its national director, Abraham H. Foxman, reflexively likened the families — the anti-Park51 ones, that is — to Holocaust survivors: "Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would characterize as irrational or bigoted." No doubt. But, as a guide to public policy, anguish is hardly better than bigotry. Nor is it an entitlement to abandon rationality itself.

As Hertzberg says, Foxman is right that grieving families are entitled to take "irrational or bigoted" positions, though Foxman is wrong to imply that it is their special "anguish" that entitles them to it. Everyone is entitled, legally speaking, to take irrational or bigoted positions. The manifest anguish of these families simply provides others with a basis on which to excuse or understand the irrationality. It is not, however, a reason per se to endorse bigotry with public policy; indeed, in a liberal concept of law, I don't think it is ever possible to find such a reason.

Barack Obama hit the nail on the head when he addressed a recent dinner at the White House marking the beginning of Ramadan:

We must all recognise and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan, Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground. But let me be clear, as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country.

That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.

Foxman implies that victims (and in this case, victims' families) should have a privileged voice in the delivery of justice. A liberal concept of law opposes this principle absolutely, because it is really a recipe for injustice: punishments and restrictions determined, not by an impartial and impersonal legal code under which all citizens are treated equally, but rather by the arbitrary whims and often excessive demands of individuals who, however understandably, are often driven all the same by irrationality and bigotry.

If concerned American Christians are in search of a hypothetical analogy here, try this one. Suppose that a group of extremist "Christian" gunmen massacre a number of abortion doctors at a clinic in downtown Manhattan. Ten years later, the episcopal church submits plans to open a new church building down the street. Is there any justice to be found in blocking the new church? I think not. The mosque should go ahead.

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Human rights, take them or leave them   (15.8.10)

Norm lays into James Fergusson:

This week's Priyamvada Gopal Award for Talking about the Situation of Afghan Women goes to James Fergusson. We 'have no right to be shrill', he says. That's shrill about – oh, you know - the brutal public flogging and killing of a pregnant woman, and the cutting off of another woman's nose. Well, stuff my mouth with cottage cheese, why don't you, before I should say anything immoderate about barbarities of this order.

If human rights do what they say on the tin — ie, refer to rights or absolute entitlements — then we should be as shrill as we can for as long as we can possibly manage each and every day until such rights are secured the world over. Fergusson would do well to inspect the logic of his convictions.


Crisis flash   (14.8.10)

"Flash road bikes definitely look like a midlife crisis."



Progression   (14.8.10)

See that satan pollarding a tree,
That geometric man straightening a road:
Surely such passions are perverse and odd
That violate windows and set the north wind free.

No doubt tomorrow the world will be too straight.
Five hundred miles an hour will churn our dreams
Like surprised whales, when we lie a dead weight
In an ignorant sleep, and things will be what they seem.

— Francis Scarfe, from "Progression" (1940)


Custard Creams Crumble   (10.8.10)

I enjoyed the Torygraph's phrase "ever more indulgent cookies". It's laced with an endearing moral regret. I wonder if they gave Conrad Black custard creams in prison?

Duty of boycott   (8.8.10)

On the subject of sport and politics, I just remembered that in 2008 Jonathan Quong posted an excellent defence of a duty in justice to boycott events (in this case, the Beijing Olympics) associated with rights-violating regimes. (I posted rather less eloquently on the same topic at the time, and revisited similar issues during and after this year's World Cup.)

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Breakthrough   (7.8.10)

Last night I experienced my first breakthrough about phenomenology to occur in a dream (that I can recall). I take this as evidence that spending several drunken hours on the dancefloor at Cruz 101, then falling asleep on the sofa in front of Eddie Izzard's "Dress to Kill" on at full volume, are valid research strategies.

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Anti-Snooping Victory   (6.8.10)

We at Liberty are pleased to announce victory in the school mum snooping case:

This week a tribunal ruled in favour of a family placed under covert surveillance by their local council to determine whether they were indeed living in the catchment area for the school that they had applied for a place at.

Liberty brought the case to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal on behalf of Jenny Paton. The Tribunal ruled Poole Borough Council’s use of these powers unlawful, and found that it breached the family’s right to privacy under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. Find out more about this right and others in the Act at

The Council used surveillance powers given to it by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 or RIPA. RIPA governs the use of various surveillance techniques by public bodies. It allows local councils to follow people around in public, film them and listen into their conversations in the street – all without external authorisation. More about RIPA

The Coalition Government has pledged to review the use of RIPA by local authorities as part of their Counter Terror Review. Liberty has long argued that RIPA powers need to be better supervised and restricted to the fight against terrorism and serious crime. We are responding to this review – find out more here

You, too, can get involved in the fight to uphold civil liberties and human rights in Britain.

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Possible and Permissible   (6.8.10)

I am frequently surprised how outrageous comments — usually from the police — are readily accepted as common sense. A case in point: today Assistant Chief Constable Sharon Rowe is quoted as saying:

If there was a terrorist incident we'd use every bit of technology possible to solve that crime.

The outrageous word here is, of course, "possible". If she really means what she said, then the Assistant Chief Constable has just publicly advocated the use of any available technology so long as it aids in "solv[ing] that crime." Logically, that includes the use of technology for torture, the use of biological weaponry, the use of electric shock therapy... you name it. These are all caught under the phrase "every bit of technology possible".

Now, people will object that what I am saying is pure pedantry; because even if this is what she said, it could be that it is not what she means. Fair enough, people make these mistakes all the time. In the past couple of weeks David Cameron has been castigated for similar slips of the tongue, such as his mistaken public claim that Iran has a nuclear weapon. But here, Sharon Rowe's poor choice of word means that she is, albeit inadvertently, advocating a model of totalitarian policing of which even the Revolutionary Guards would be proud. So why does this kind of statement go largely unchallenged?

What I believe Sharon Rowe probably means to say is:

If there was a terrorist incident we'd use every bit of technology permissible to solve that crime.

If this is what she means, she begs the question "what use of technology should be permissible in a liberal society?" This returns us to the initial disagreement about the CCTV regime in Birmingham; and the public reaction against the levels and styles of surveillance in that city is precisely based on a feeling that, for whatever reason, such levels and styles of surveillance should not be permissible in a liberal society.

What this logically mandates is the exact opposite of what Sharon Rowe actually said. It means that we must be morally committed to the idea that, if there was a terrorist incident, we would categorically not use every piece of technology possible to solve that crime, but that we would rather use only those pieces of technology that are permissible within a liberal concept of law.

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How it feels to write a PhD   (5.8.10)

XKCD 731

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David Clark enters race   (5.8.10)

Pleased to see that David Clark, my old boss at Selwyn College, has officially begun his campaign to be the next Labour candidate in the Dunedin North constituency. I found David to be an inspiring yet level-headed leader, of exceptionally sound judgement, and with a CV that a man twice his age would envy. Personally, I just envy the new glasses.

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Airport Rage   (4.8.10)

David Mellor, you GO gurl! Why isn't David Davis home secretary? Oh yeah, too many principles. I remember now.


Frostrupped   (3.8.10)

Jesus Christ, is all of Mariella Frostrup's advice as bad as this? I'm not quite clear what her credentials as an agony aunt are. Perhaps people who write to Mariella Frostrup thinking that she can solve their problems deserve all the advice she can give. Could all the world's worries be expressed in units of Frostrup? Each unit will dissolve in 100 words of platitudinous rubbish. I'm glad that this person's problem with his/her grandma has, in any case, been Frostrupped. No doubt it'll make all the difference.


Journalistic brutalism   (2.8.10)

This "report" is pretty bad, but it shows how racially divided French society is. First, the reasons why the report is bad. 1) Certain important information is omitted which could either excuse or incriminate the police. We are told that the group is being tackled because they had set up a camp outside flats from which individuals in the group had been evicted. Whether or not the police response was appropriate would depend on how long the camp had been there; whether it was arguably a form of protest or a source of nuisance; whether the group had previously been warned to move on, and so forth. None of this information is provided. 2) When the reporter, Stephanie Holmes, interviews the campaigner Jean-Baptiste Eyraud, he condemns police methods, saying, according to the interpreter: "I didn't think such a level of brutality was possible". The level on the French is turned down too much, so I have no way of knowing if this is a good translation. Eyraud could be right that the police acted brutally. But in my judgement, the images that are presented in the report do not support this claim. Certainly, the police are being pretty forceful in those shots; but then again, they are entitled under the law to be forceful in the right circumstances. "Brutality" implies gratuitious violence, which is illegal, and evidence of which is not presented. Nevertheless, Holmes does not challenge Eyraud's analysis. 3) Holmes goes on to say that "campaigners are far from satisfied" by the police's defence of their actions, before cutting back to M. Eyraud for some more of his interview. Could she not find any other campaigners to corroborate this claim? 4) She concludes with pure editorialising: "these disturbing pictures may return to haunt [M. Sarkozy]". Advice to Stephanie Holmes: before reading out your report, strip out all adjectives and adverbs that are not essential to the sense of your text.

So it's a fairly terrible report. But that's not to say that the slant of Holmes and her solitary campaigner doesn't draw attention to something correct; for what these images demonstrate to me is just how racially divided and touchy French society is. When I arrived in Toulouse last month, I was struck by the Algerians and Tunisians living in ghettos; on the city's streets, they are shunned by the white French. France has long tried to maintain a dogmatic national identity that is profoundly intolerant of cultural difference, the latest evidence of which is the ban on wearing the veil in public places, passed a couple of weeks ago. These scenes show the persistent failure of a strong top-down nationalism that does not take enough account of the real differences such an identity must span. The British model is not perfect; we all know that multiculturalism raises problems of its own. But the truth is probably that there is no perfect answer, because the disenfranchised and overentitled tend to see cultural or racial difference as a legitimate arena for conflict. What I do know is that, thanks to a broader and more multicultural outlook, we do not witness scenes like these on Britain's streets. That is something this country should be proud of.

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Obey   (2.8.10)

The Rules.

It never gets easier, you just go faster. To put it another way, per Greg Henderson: "Training is like fighting with a gorilla. You don’t stop when you’re tired. You stop when the gorilla is tired."

(Thx DC)


Fat government   (1.8.10)

Ruth Sunderland writes:

Ministers are taking far too much interest in our bodies and should not be trying to shame us into being thin. Fat is not a moralists' issue, and calories are not the only thing that counts.

Amen to that.

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Newfred is where Andrew Wilshere blogs about
politics, religion, human rights, music, and photography