Blind Cyclists Union
National Infrastructure Plan B ?

Nothing is more natural than that a nation, after having assured itself that an enterprise will benefit the community, should have it executed by means of a general assessment. But I lose patience, I confess, when I hear this economic blunder advanced in support of such a project: “Besides, it will be a means of creating labor for the workmen.”

The State opens a road, builds a palace, straightens a street, cuts a canal, and so gives work to certain workmen—this is what is seen: but it deprives certain other workmen of work—and this is what is not seen.

The road is begun. A thousand workmen come every morning, leave every evening, and take their wages—this is certain. If the road had not been decreed, if the supplies had not been voted, these good people would have had neither work nor salary there; this also is certain.

But is this all? Does not the operation, as a whole, contain something else? At the moment when Mr. Dupin pronounces the emphatic words, “The Assembly has adopted,” do the millions descend miraculously on a moonbeam into the coffers of Misters Fould and Bineau? In order that the evolution may be complete, as it is said, must not the State organize the receipts as well as the expenditure? Must it not set its tax-gatherers and taxpayers to work, the former to gather and the latter to pay?

Study the question, now, in both its elements. While you state the destination given by the State to the millions voted, do not neglect to state also the destination which the taxpayer would have given, but cannot now give, to the same. Then you will understand that a public enterprise is a coin with two sides. Upon one is engraved a laborer at work, with this device, that which is seen; on the other is a laborer out of work, with the device, that which is not seen.

Claude Frédéric Bastiat, ‘That which is seen and that which is not seen’, 1850.

#OccupyLSX - It’s not the lobbying, dumbasses

So the Occupy crowd come up with with what even the Graun goes over the top a bit in declaring ‘an agenda’. The camp’n’dancers themselves more modestly refer to it as “Initial statement of Corporations Policy Group ratified by Occupy London’s General Assembly” which raises expectations much less. Just as well really.  The occupy-ers have apparently been criticised (so says the Graun) for taking so long to come up with anything, but it takes time to start with the premis that ‘capitalism, man, it’s bad, yeah ?’ and come up with any actual coherent arguments.  Marx spent years at it and still did an appalling job.

For the most part the preamble is the usual mishmash of Chomksyite anti corporate psycho-babble (what happened to you Noam ? I bloody loved you when you were the man for language development), which when couched in less hysterical terms I might find my self much in agreement with.  Unsurprisingly for the current ‘radical’ political climate, this all contains the implicit assumption that the state is best placed to decide how money should be spent, along with the rookie mistake of anthropomorphising corporations - buying into the convenient legal fiction that a corporate is an actual entity, essentially.  Chomsky is partly to blame for this, which is sad, because he should damn well know better.

Anyway, whatever, corporatism is bad yes, collecting more tax is not the way to fix that, no.  But that’s not what caught my eye, and it’s far better dealt with elsewhere. No, it was this bit (their emphasis) :

Corporate lobbying subverts our democracy. Last year corporations spent £2 billion influencing the British government. We believe exploitative corporate lobbying has no place in a democratic society. Legislation to ensure full and public transparency of all corporate lobbying activities must be put in place. This should be overseen by a credible and independent body, directly accountable to the people.

This is a smorgasbord of misconceptions, each built upon the other.  No, corporate lobbying does not, in fact, subvert our democracy.  The effectiveness of corporate lobbying of politicians is a symptom of the fact that we don’t have any.   If we had anything remotely approaching an actual democracy, rather then the vastly cut down version of representative democracy that we do have, corporations would be lobbying the demos.  It is the concentration of power that is the disease, lobbying is only one of the symptoms.

Then again, if we did truly have a democracy, surely those who operate and work for corporations are just as entitled to a voice as anyone else ?  That’s kind of what democracy is for, surely ?  Perhaps that’s where “we believe exploitative corporate lobbying has no place in a democratic society” comes from ?  This is ambiguos, are we to take it that all corporate lobbying is exploitative or that that only exploitative corporate lobbying is to be verboten ?  Enquiring minds need to know.  Because if it’s the latter, the question arises over who, precisely, and by what measure, is to decide what qualifies as exploitative ?

There’s also this focus on corporations.  Perhaps this is understandable, since this is the statement from the Corporations Policy Group, but it isn’t just corporations that lobby politicians.  So do a variety of ‘NGOs’ from consumer associations and charities through to activist groups and trade unions. And me, on occasion, along with everyone else who ever writes to their MP or puts their name to a Downing Street e-petition.

It’s the last bit though that is just so naive it makes me ache for my innocent youth. 

Legislation to ensure full and public transparency of all corporate lobbying activities must be put in place. This should be overseen by a credible and independent body, directly accountable to the people.

That sounds great.  Except for two or three things. Transparency is a good thing, there is no argument about that conceptually.  However, the idea that enforcing transparency on the lobbying process will in any way be restorative (or creative) of democracy rests upon two equally naive assumptions. First, it requires that you assume that the politicians have some sense of shame about engaging with lobbyists.  This might seem as though it should be axiomatic when you’re sitting in the middle of a protest camp, but it really isn’t.  The assumption is that politicians somehow believe that treating with lobbyists is wrong, and they will stop it if you can see them.  They don’t, and they won’t.

Secondly, it requires that both politicians and lobbyists are honest and will play by the rules. They aren’t, and they won’t.  ”Ah ha!” I hear you cry, “but you see, that’s where the transparency comes in, isn’t it ?”.  No.  Where the transparency comes in is in fooling you that you can see the levers of power, when in fact they are being manipulated under the table where you can’t see them. And as far as a credible, accountable body, the fact that this issue exists at all, due to the inability to hold government to account, should be a big clue as to the likely efficacy of such an endeavour.

I don’t say that more transparency is not welcome, but it is no panacea.  the only way to stop those levers from being manipulated is to remove them.

Sad to say, that for an organisation that claims to be radical, and which claims in one of its press releases that its aim is

 to challenge social and economic injustice in the global fight for real democracy

there seems to have been very little thought put into what ‘real democracy’ might look like, other than ‘like what we have now but with more taxes and less rich people’, nor to address the central democratic injustice, that of the huge power wielded by the state over the masses.  Or, if there has been, it hasn’t been communicated very well, as ever, I stand to be corrected.

Dehumanising the public sector - cui bono ? (h/t @henrypath)

Some might be surprised to find that I broadly agree with this. Don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of lefty baiting as much as the next swivel eyed libertarian blogger, but there is something discomforting in the constant repetition of what @henrypath quite rightly identifies as a ‘trope’.

The basic argument is two pronged, the first part, as stated above is that the public sector isn’t productive and/or doesn’t create wealth.  When it is aired, it is also usually accompanied by the assertion that public sector employees don’t really pay taxes. 

The reason that this qualifies as a trope is that it starts from a reasonable - almost irrefutable - premis, but the conclusion that is drawn, as stated, requires one to have some very specific definitions of the precise words used.  Lets take a look at the basic premis first, for which we’ll turn to Claude Frederic Bastiat (‘That which is seen and that which is not seen’, Bastiat Collection, Mises Institute, pp25, pdf)

A hundred thousand men, costing the taxpayers a hundred million of money, live and bring to the purveyors as much as a hundred million can supply. This is that which is seen.

But, a hundred million taken from the pockets of the taxpayers, ceases to maintain these taxpayers and their purveyors, as far as a hundred million reaches. This is that which is not seen. Now make your calculations. Add it all up, and tell me what profit there is for the masses?

What indeed. That really is the important question.  I doubt that it is a controversial assertion that the public sector as a whole is a net consumer of tax revenue. This is, of course, what leads to the accompanying assertion that public sector workers don’t pay tax, which I’ll return to in a moment.

The question, then, in economic rather than ideological terms, is : what does the public sector subsequently do with the tax revenue it consumes ?  The simple assertion that everything the public sector does is non productive or non wealth creating relies very heavily on precisely how we define those particular terms.  A quick and easy litmus test is the following - which of those things that the public sector does would we not wish to have at all if there were no such thing as the public sector ?  Would we wish to be without, say, healthcare ?  Education ? Some form of justice system ?  Would we, in the absence of the public sector, expect or desire private actors to provide the same goods or services ?

Ideologically speaking, one may or may not be in favour of having the state involved in the provision and/or financing of these things, or have some particular view as to the desirable extent of such, but this is a completely separate matter than whether the things in themselves have any intrinsic value.  Leaving aside arguments about public or social goods that I don’t really have the economic chops to get into, it is practically axiomatic across the political spectrum that education is a precursor to wealth generation, for instance.

Quickly back to the ‘not tax payers’ argument, this is really quite insidious, not least because it appears to proceed from a particularly unpleasant premis which is that those who pay no tax should somehow have less ‘rights’ than those who do.  People who wield this particular argument seem to have differing opinions on precisely which rights ought to be curtailed, up to and including the right to hold and express an opinion.

It is true, as Bastiat pointed out centuries ago, that the public sector is a net consumer of tax revenue, yes.  And of course, the argument proceeds from this to say that therefore the salaries of those who work in it, derived as they are from those tax revenues, cannot through their taxation provide an increase in that revenue.  This is true, as far as it goes, but it’s pretty meaningless.  If I were to engage a private tutor, for example, they would be a net consumer of the monies I was paying to them.  They’d be unlikely to give me any of it back at all, in fact.  It’s a category mistake, really, to identify the individual public sector worker with the state.  All the more unforgivable, in fact, as this argument is usually levelled by people who lean (or claim to lean)  more towards individualism than collectivism.

An individual performs some labour for which they are paid, HMRC takes away some of the money they were paid, under threat of force.  Just the same as everyone else.  If that individual goes to work in the private sector or the public sector, the same happens, there is no change. As the verificationists would have it, there is no difference that doesn’t make a difference, and being employed by any particular entity makes precisely bugger all difference to this process.

I don’t like the arguments as put forward, as I have explained above at tedious length, because they are dehumanising, and nothing good ever starts that way. The people who work in the public sector are just that, people, and they damn well deserve to be treated as such.  

Now for the other end of the stick.  There is much muttering going on around and about the internet that these are somehow ‘propaganda’.  I doubt it somehow, it’s probably just people being dicks.  Not exactly uncommon on the internet.  Mea most certainly culpa maxima. That aside, hearing the people who would defend the public sector and the unions arguing that any propaganda directed against them is evil makes me laugh until I hurt. Anyone who’d like to see what propaganda looks like can click on the big protest image above and have a look at some of the signs being lofted by the participants in the last set of public sector union strikes.  If it is indeed true that propaganda is bad, then why is it (and why has it historically been) such a a favoured tool of the political left ?

I’ll leave the last word to M. Bastiat

All I say is—if you wish to create an office, prove its utility. Show that its value to John Q. Citizen, by the services which it performs for him, is equal to what it costs him.

But, apart from this intrinsic utility, do not bring forward as an argument the benefit that it confers upon the official, his family, and his providers; do not assert that it encourages labor.

That Linux installation nostalgia, every time is like the first time

And not in a good way, either. Waaaaaay back in about 1994 (ish?) I installed my first ever Linux distro, Slackware, on a horrible beige 386SX with 4MB of RAM and a 256MB hard drive. It was fucking difficult.  And it took ages.  And I had to back everything up on to QIC tape which took hours, and the noise, holy fuck the terrible, terrible noise! Like someone grinding up a cat. For about 4 hours. And then the learning curve kicked in. I could find my way around a SunOS box at that point, but I’d never installed anything but DOS and Windows, so the learning curve was steep, the Slack install process in those days being only just a weeny bit more user friendly than, say, a truck full of hungry rottweilers. Enough to make it doable, but only just.  It took days, and by days I mean straight 24 hour days with no sleep, and it never really worked quite right.

Fast forward to the present day, some seventeen years later, and here I am again, umpteen generations of hardware and loki knows how many Linux distros and death march installs later, doing it again.  And y’know what’s changed ? Not very much.  Not regarding the installation anyway.  Now before I get to bitching proper, let me point out that I don’t actually mind this, or I wouldn’t, but for one thing.

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So, the god-king says to the baboon and/or ibis headed deity…

"Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.

You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”




Apparently from Plato’s ‘Phaedrus' (that's 'dialogue', for those of us who didn't write the wikipedia article), but vouchsafed unto me by Andrew Robinson's 'Lost Languages. The enigma of the world’s undeciphered scripts’, oooh, get me, etc, and I just thought, well, you know, as it happens I don’t have any pictures of ibises, but I do have a very moody looking baboon that would just go with that. As you do. The actual baboon is, if I recall correctly through the alcoholic haze, in the Big British Museum Of Stuff We Looted From Johnny Foreigner And Never Had The Decency To Return.  It might, in fact, be the same one which appears on the wikipedia page for Thoth/Teuth.  In any case, you can see it’s winky, which I think is what’s important in pictures of monkeys, statuary or otherwise.

Bank Of Ideas : The creatures outside looked from pig to man

From the minutes of the General Assembly of the glorious occupying forces currently annexing the UBS building in Hackney.

If people want to stay over night (sleep-overs) they need (1) to be part of a working group (2) They need to have an on-going task that warrants their stay. There will be ‘monitors’ to make sure sleep-overs are not abusing the space. Individuals that stay over and are found to not be working will be given one warning before being asked to leave.

"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

Guess Animal Farm is no longer on the GCSE English curriculum, then ?

Big Gay Al’s Cryptogeek Fun Time Link Love In

There seems have been something of recent revival of interest in Bletchley Park and it’s best known denizen Alan Turing.  The Beeb showed a Timewatch special on Bletchley back in October (sadly no longer available via iPlayer, but available to watch here, legality unknown but dubious, caveat lector) and Channel 4 this week aired the surprisingly watchable ‘docudrama’ Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker, available on 4oD at the time of writing.  There is also talk of a Hollywood biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Turing.

The C4 docu-thing was interesting in that it took pains - and rightly so - to draw attention to the fact that Turing was gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide and, as a result, was prosecuted and - along with many other men - chemically castrated by the British state for the heinous ‘crime’ of liking a bit of cock. A particularly cruel irony given the amount of effort he had put into fighting the fascists abroad.

Prosecuted, in fact, using a law that had been on the statute books in one form or another since 1533 and wasn’t repealed until, variously, 1967 (England and Wales), 1980 (Scotland), 1982 (Northern Ireland), 1983 (Guernsey), 1990 (Jersey) and 1992 (Isle of Man). To this day the state still differentiates legally between individuals on the basis of whatever gender floats one’s boat, with even Blair’s ‘progressive’ Labour government choking on the idea of removing the distinction.

The history of this kind of bullshit is a useful, if chilling, indicator of just how deeply rooted a pernicious streak of social conservatism is in the British political and state machinery, whatever colour of tie it happens to be wearing at any given moment.  It should also server as a warning that whenever anyone in, or seeking to be in or otherwise to influence, government starts yakking on about ‘social reform’ or ‘morals’ or things of that nature, they are about to overstep the mark by a country mile.  A state that has only the kinds of powers required to intervene when violence or fraud is initiated simply can not persecute people - any people - in this manner.

Anyway, enough with that, on with the Cryptogeek Fun Time Link Love In! These are about Bletchley park, Crypto and Turing, and get geekier as we go further down.

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Drug legalisation debate : two elephants in the room, which is itself a circus tent. Full of clowns.

I say ‘debate’, because, for once, it seems that we may actually be approaching a point in time where there is at least some political acknowledgement that there may be something to debate. I say ‘political’, because in this, as in so many things, the demos is really waiting for the politicians to catch up.  I’ve yakked on at tedious length about why they avoid this issue like an amorous leper previously, so I’ll spare the repetition.

Recent remarks made by former (and aren’t they always former) MI5 Chief and cross bench peer Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller about decriminalisation - as reported somewhat wrong headed, because decriminlisation of users is no solution to the problem of the criminal monopoly on recreational production and supply, but I doubt  someone could climb the greasy pole of the UK’s secret police without being aware of the distinction -  and by Baroness Meacher, suggest that there is increasing pressure within the political bubble to bring this to the fore. Albeit that that pressure is coming from the most undemocratic of British institutions, the House of Lords, oh the irony.

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The Turner prize 2011 - still as controversially ‘meh’ as ever

Still mighty queues for entrance

Warning : post contains pretentious wankery about art. Proceed at your own risk.

Every year when the Turner prize comes around I wonder “is this going to be the year when I’ve spent enough time skulking around galleries half cut to appreciate all the entries ?”.

Every year, the answer is stil “no, apparently not”. Then again, that’s kind of the point. The very nature of the Turner prize is to foster controversy and debate, that’s practically what it’s for. Unfortunately, as even the Prize’s organisers at the Tate recognise, the nature of the debate is usually focussed around the single question “is this art”.

I don’t like this particular debate for a number of reasons, the first of which is that since it ends up being the same debate every year, for the last twenty years or so, the point is becoming somewhat laboured.  You aren’t going to convince the people who resoundingly answer “no!” by simply repeating the question over and over again.

Secondly, on a personal subjective note, I answered the general form of this particular philosophical question to my own satisfaction some time ago, and the first general form of the answer is “if someone says it is”.  

In terms of art theory and/or philiosophy of course, the likes of Marcel Duchamp or John Dewey would argue that by asking the question and receiving the answer both asker and the answerer have have participated along with the artist in the creation of the art, Dewey in fact makes the stronger claim that it’s only a work of art when someone is looking at it.  But that’s by the by, I had no idea who either of those people were when I formulated my own ideas about the answer to the eternal “is it art” question.  I was just very drunk.

The second general form of the answer is ‘Mu’, meaning essentially, in that this context, that such categorical thinking is a delusion. Given the definition of art as “it is if someone says so”, taking this, if you will, to be axiomatic,  then the very question is profoundly irrelevant.

Leaving aside such wankery, the question “is x art?” is in many ways the wrong kind of question.  It’s very exclusionary. It places the questioner - and certainly the questioner who answers in the negative - opposed to the art, the artist, and to that nebulous creature ‘the art establishment’.  If we taks the answer to the question as given, then the only question that ever becomes relevant when we seek to engage with a piece of art is “do I like it ?”, which is a much more inclusive frame of reference, recognising, as it does, everyone’s right to have an opinion.

While both questions, “is it art ?” and “do I like it ?”, however they are answered by those who ask them of themselves can richly reward such introspection if one simply asks further of oneself “why ?”, I tend to feel that the answers to the latter are more interesting. Especially when people are drunk.  The keen reader will by now have noted my predilection for combining art appreciation and philosophy with drinking and/or other forms of psychoactive substance use, and indeed, this is certainly something I would heartily recommend.

Oh, the actual art ? Well, in some sense this is subsidiary, in some sense it is really the whole process of the Turner prize itself that is the exhibit with which the participants are being asked to engage, but basically this year it consisted of, in the order I viewed them : something that I totally didn’t get that involved something that looked like surrealist kitchen furniture, a video installation that totally failed to engage me in any way but seemed to be having a hypnotic effect on many of the other people who were looking at it, a big pile of paper and bath bombs that reminded me of some of the more rushed exhibits one sees at Fine Art MA shows, and some paintings done in humbrol enamel that I quite liked the first time I saw them earlier in the year, though I was unable to grok them in their fullness due to the deadly ‘trip up the visitor’ invisible ankle height barriers installed to stop people touching them.

Interested parties are well advised to view them for themselves, due to the entirely subjective nature of the experience.

Though if you do go in person, be prepared to queue, the Baltic has never been so busy, so, while I personally still find many of the entries a bit ‘meh’, and the point somewhat laboured, it’s clear that the Turner prize is still achieving what it is setting out to do, engaging people in asking those two questions and reflecting on the answers, apparently in large numbers.

On a lighter note, this is the first year that the exhibition has been held outside London, and as such it is also the furst year when all Guardian coverage of it that I’ve seen of it so far has been relegated to the Graun’s hideously patronising “Northerner blog”. Dog fuckers.

Fifteen reasons why the word ‘anarchist’ has increasingly become synonymous with the word ‘arsehole’

Some anarchists, who possibly aren’t arseholes.

There’s more than fifteen, really, but lets start with these, spewed into twitter by ‘anarchist’ @AKblackandred.  In fairness, not all of them are utterly vile, so I’ve highlighted my favourites.

Before I move on, a point-by-point explanation of just exactly why scabbing is a bad thing. Pay close attention if afflicted by liberalism.

1) A strike is the withdrawal of labour with the aim of stopping production. Breaking a strike, by definition, undermines that aim.

2) It is in the striking workers’ interests to get as many people to strike as possible. A lot of time is spent campaigning to this end.

3) A picket line is the final point of persuasion, where strikers hope to turn people away from work on the day of the strike itself.

4) It is in the bosses’ interests to get as many people to scab as possible. A lot of time is spent campaigning to this end.

5) Mainly,this means propaganda aimed at the workers. But it can also mean drafting in people from outside specifically to break the strike.

6) In the past, the police and armed forces have been used to open picket lines for scabs. Strikers have been shot and killed in the past.

7) At the same time, the strikers were putting everything on the line. Those who didn’t stand with them were seen as betrayers.

8) Further, it is often the case that those who scab still get the benefit if a strike is won but with no sacrifice. Increasing animosity.

9) Communities and families have been divided, not by the term scab, but by a minority refusing to stand with their fellows in solidarity.

10) Today, the anti-union laws have crippled unions, broken down solidarity and substantively weakened the working class.

11) As such, it is more important than ever that we rebuild the bonds of solidarity and relearn our power as a class.

12) We cannot do that by forgetting that those who cross picket lines act only in the interests of the bosses and undermine the strikers.

13) We cannot do that by pretending that choosing not to strike is somehow being neutral, not taking sides in a dispute.

14) We cannot do that by forgetting that we are fighting a class war, and that our conditions worsen because the bosses are winning.

15) So, if you cross a picket line and break a scab, you’re betraying your fellow workers. You are a scab. Fucking deal with it.

I’ll get the patronising ad-hom out of the way first, and wonder if our Phil is old enough, or grew up in the right kind of places, to have witnessed the visceral reality of this kind of dehumanising, totalitarian, collectivist horribleness. I’m old enough, just, to remember the word scab being daubed on people’s houses. And to remember  the threats, physical intimidation and violent coercion by the ‘workers’ movements against those workers - and their wives and children -  who had the temerity to disagree with them.  Maybe, maybe not. The sort of flippancy deployed here makes me think probably not, but I’ve sat in enough working men’s clubs to know that there are those who are still proud of their role in that, so you can never tell.

As to the rest of it, well, I certainly can’t claim to be an expert on the collectivist strains of anarchism, but even allowing for my patchy knowledge and the likely oversimplification of the relevant Wikipedia entry, they share - or ought to - a dislike for authority and coercion in human relations.  It seems odd therefore that one who claims such a political affiliation should seek to be able to chose on anther’s behalf the ‘class’ to which that other belongs and to then to define whether that other has betrayed the implied values that he ascribes to that class.

Not much fucking respect for people’s autonomy there, is there really ? That’s the problem with the more militant forms of collectivism right there, of course, you don’t get to chose whether you’re a member of the collective or not, but the normative standards of the collective will be applied to you, and if you fail to follow them you can be held up to have ‘betrayed’ them.

This sits badly with the kinds of rhetoric that seek to pit the ‘workers’ against the ‘bosses’ in that it is essentially both authoritarian and coercive in nature, the collective becomes ‘the boss’.  The state in miniature effectively. An odd position, perhaps, for a movement that claims, by almost all accounts, to be set resolutely against state authority and hierarchy of any kind.

Then again, there is the continuing dissonance in the presence of anarchist voices amongst the chorus of those insisting that the state - which they claim to disdain - should do more.

Now officially contains extra blind !!!

Minor Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy character Hotblack Desiato (guitar keyboard player of Disaster Area, the loudest band in the universe) is delightfully described by wizard of weird Douglas Adams as spending a year dead for tax reasons. Quite a neat hack, really.

Tax avoidance, being the bête noire of the occupying classes, has become something of an aspirational activity to those of us who tend to take umbrage at being hectored by paradoxically over educated and yet ill informed youths with a canvas fetish.

And so it was, that with a less heavy heart than would ordinarily have been the case, after scoring a pretty (but not unusually) shitty 6/90 on the Snellen visual acuity scale, I finally allowed an ophthalmologist to certify me as ‘severely visually impaired’ and register this fact with my local authority. 

This is something that I have traditionally avoided for a variety of reasons, first and foremost being the registration requirement, one can never be sure when the English will renew their occasional whimsical dalliance with eugenics, for a start, and then there’s social services’ proddy noses to consider.  However, as a belligerently cynical veterean of a decade of corporate doublespeak currently enjoying reasonably stable life circumstances, the SS are much less of a bothersome spectre than they once were.

There’s also been a change in nomenclature, pre 2005, I would have been registered simply as ‘blind’.  Which I’m not.  This may seem like a fairly petty matter of semantics to the uninitiated, but it turns out not to be in real life, take this particularly ugly example.

A blind man was punched and kicked unconcious because his attacker didn’t believe he couldn’t see.

Paul Metters has been blind since birth, needs a white stick and has had a guide dog for more than 20 years.

But was targeted in an unprovoked attack as he enjoyed a pint.

The 47-year-old said his attacker, who remains at large, attacked him in a pub toilet. “He kept saying that I’m not really blind,” he said.

Sadly, this sort of shit is not as unusual as you might think.  If you’re going to label yourself as being ‘blind’, you better be prepared to convincingly bump into shit and fail to respond to any visual stimulus at all or some random fucked up knuckle dragger is going to start beating on you to impress upon his bimbo girlfriend what a sensitive type he is. I have seen this, ironically, with my own eyes.

Even people with a sufficient complement of brain cells not to drool on themselves, and who therefore really ought to know better - and disability activists, somewhat understandable given the apparently unambiguous meaning of the word, can tend towards this kind of ‘you’re pretending to be disabled! You awful fiend!’ attitude.  

And then of course there’s that word. Previously, practically, registration was an important threshold.  Application forms for jobs routinely carried the question “are you registered as disabled ?” for instance. And psychologically speaking, even more so.  Do I wish to be - officially - labelled, pigeonholed, regarded as a member of a class defined for me by someone else ? Nice to have the choice, of course, those with visible physical disabilities are not so lucky.  

Things are slightly different now, at this point being certified in this way still means that you are automatically legally classed as being disabled under the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act, but then again, you would be in any case, given the breadth of the definition. Registration or no, the choice of whether the legal system regards an individual as disabled no longer rests with them. The DDA is canonical.

"Well," I hear you cry, "that’s all very well, if a bit self interested and whiny, but you started off with a reference to Hitchhiker’s and tax avoidance, what happened to that ?".

Indeed I did, indeed I did, and so we get to the relevant part, because after all that complaining, there obviously must be some advantage to being so registered. And indeed there is.  Ladies and gentleman I give you the hitherto unknown to me “Blind Person’s Allowance”, courtesy of Her most excellent Majesty’s finest Revenue Collectors 

If you’re certified blind and are on a local authority register of blind persons, or if you live in Scotland or Northern Ireland and are unable to perform any work for which eyesight is essential, you can claim Blind Person’s Allowance. If you can’t use up some or all of your allowance you may be able to transfer it.

Yup, being CVI’d raises my personal tax allowance to the tune of (currently, 2011/12) £1,980 on top of the basic personal allowance. That is to say that, within the letter and spirit of the law, I am now able to avoid paying the better part of two grand a year in tax.

Thus if I ever have the grinding misfortune to speak to with any tax avaricious ’occupy’-ers, I can happily tell them I am currently blind for tax purposes.  Not quite in the same league as Hotblack Desiato, but the best I could arrange at short notice.

RIP John McCarthy

Sad to see the obituary today of legendary computer scientist Professor John McCarthy, one of the founding pioneers of the field of Artificial Intelligence (indeed, he is credited with the coining of the term) and a contributor to many other areas of CS.

While many geeks will remember him primarily for his career in CS, his personal web page on the sustainability of human technological progress, of which he was a tireless advocate, are well worth a read.

Here’s a quick taster

Many people, including many scientists, mistakenly believe that human progress, in the form it has taken in the last few hundred years, is unsustainable. The sustainabililty page and its subsidiaries attempt to summarize the scientific basis for technological optimism. There is also a section discussing related ideological phenomena and the advocacy politics to which ideologies have given rise.

MEP wants to fit a black box recorder to your PCs, phones. For the children.

Some brief background, I first came across this story in my slashdot email this morning. The slashdot story is based on a piece on a website called activepolitic, which itself seems to be based on a spotty Google translation of a piece on Swedish site ‘europapotrlaen.se’.

The key assertion in all these pieces is that Italian MEP Tiziano Motti is currently proposing a scheme to the EU parliament by which everything a citizen of an EU state does online is authenticated, monitored and logged by means of a ‘black box’ system to be installed on every internet connected device.

Worth pointing out at this stage that I’ve been unable to find any mention of this via the Europa website (your Gateway to the European Union!), Motti’s European Parliament listing page, or even his own website. So I’m not quite clear yet on whether this is something that has been scheduled for debate, is intended to be scheduled for debate, or is/has been put before the parliament in one of the many and various ways that such things can come to pass, but I do intend to find out and will post an update if I can clear things up a little.

However, I was able to contact Marcin de Kaminski, one of the sources mentioned in the activepolitics piece, who very helpfully supplied this google docs link to the text of the proposal authored by Motti.

It makes for chilling reading, and as such I’m not going to extract from it too heavily, it really is something which needs to be appreciated - if that’s the correct term for the feeling of crawling horror that will steal over you as you read it - in its totality.

The document provides at least some background context as to what Motti is doing

Recognising the limits of the current technological instruments, Hon. Motti commissioned a feasibility study for the implementation of a model to make the issue of paedo-pornographic material on the web instantly traceable, through the identification of the connected users, and to monitor the uploading of illegal contents.

So presumably what we’re seeing is the result of this feasibility study.  

Motti, in describing his intentions, is keen to let you know that this project (his emphasis)

does not in any way aim to create a digital “Big Brother”, on the contrary it is designed principally to re-establish the necessary monitoring and control of the digital world within a safe and standardised, democratically shared environment which is based on the principles of equity, reliability, neutrality, the protection of human rights and fundamental liberties, and which is not used for improper purposes

He then goes on to outline a system for which the term “Big Brother” is hardly a sufficiently derogatory description. As one might expect, it starts with having to unambiguously identify yourself before going online.  In this case you will cryptographically authenticate yourself with a ‘Guarantor’. The guarantor is a fundamental element of this model of control, and is what is known in cryptography terms as a ‘Trusted Third Party’ or ‘TTP’.

In Motti’s model, this TTP will be 

a non-profit, non-governmental organisation which acts as a “super-partes witness”

The two other ‘stakeholders’ who will be party to this and all other online transactions being the user and what the document describes as “the investigative agencies in charge of fighting crime” (henceforth abbreviated as LEA for Law Enforcement Agencies)

[ If you’re of a certain age and inclination, this will no doubt conjure up memories of the US NSA’s rather poorly received ’clipper chip' initiative. This is worse. ]

Once you’ve authenticated your identity to the guarantor, the ‘black box’ software will record everything you do online, every page you visit, every search you make, every file you download, everything you post to Facebook, every conversation you have in an online chat room or forum. It will cryptographically sign these logs, encrypt them and send them to the guarantor.

As part of this process, the key used to encipher the logs will be split into three parts using an algorithm known as ‘Shamir’s Secret Sharing Scheme’ or ‘SSSS’.  One part is retained by the user, one part goes to the guarantor and one to the LEA.

As any crypto geek - or indeed anyone who reads the linked wikipedia article - can tell you, when a key is split in this way, you only need two parts of it in order to reassemble the whole thing. This is presumably what Motti means when he suggests that this system is democratic, that is the ‘vote’ of the LEA and the TTP is enough to open up your logs and have a look whether you agree or not.

In summary then, this system requires you to prove your identity and then continuously log everything you do online with a third party, said logs being accessible without any consent on your part.  This process is unashamedly referred to throughout the document as ‘evidence gathering’.

This would be voluntary. At first. Except where it wouldn’t be …

In an initial phase it is suggested to introduce the Logbox system on a voluntary basis against incentives (e.g. fiscal, economic, insurance, legal, etc.), except in some of the more sensitive cases such as financial transactions, relations with the public administration, processing of information in compliance with European or national legislation concerning privacy, web surfing by minors and so on.

In the medium term, the system should become a standard, and web surfing should be inhibited by any device that is not compatible with the LogBox infrastructure and which has not authenticated its transactions with the Guarantor (not the ISP or other non-neutral subjects).

But all that - of course - is by no means the limit of Motti’s ambitions. The document contains a chilling indication of the scope of his vision. 

Later the system could also, where suitably integrated with event management and intrusion detection systems, contribute to the implementation of a capillary, reliable early warning system to fight illegal activities, assuming a pro-active role in the defence of the Internet as a whole and of the single nodes that it comprises.

Which sounds awfully like Motti would like all of this to tie in with a real time monitoring system.

The justification for this rests upon the two now tediously familiar pillars of child protection and the ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ principle. The first of these, as I never tire of pointing out, was a favourite rhetorical tool of one A Hitler, the second has been debunked repeatedly, but let’s look at a single real world example.

On the 25th of January 2009, it was legal in the UK to possess an image of consenting adults participating in certain forms of sadomasochistic sex acts. Not to everyone’s taste, but legal.

On the 26th of January 2009, section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 came into force, and it was not. What a difference a day makes. In this case, the difference between ‘nothing to hide’ and ‘three years in prison’.

Motti describes his proposed system as a

Copernican revolution in the method of monitoring and logging

Those are not the words that I would choose, but then again, recall that Motti considers that a system which identifies, monitors and records your every action, for your own good “does not in any way aim to create a digital ‘Big Brother’”.

Tis the season to be jolly with @blindcyclists winter dumplings

You will need (serves two seasonally affective people) : 

The onset of winter (usually, this recipe is embargoed until November)

300g (approx) of some kind of mince, I like lamb mince for this, but it’s seriously fatty. Nom nom. You can use beef or even quorn mince if you like. I’m told (constantly!) that 300g is probably too much for two people, so you may wish adjust for calorific preferences.

Onions.

Carrots.

Self raising flower.

Suet. I like the beef variety, veggie options are available.

Your preferred variant of gravy powder or equivalent.

Oven (preheat it to about 180, or whatever you generally set your oven to when it says ‘200 degrees’ on food labelling)

Hob.

First, make the dumplings, I’ll save that bit for last, because they are the tastiest part. Then do the fairly humdrum things that follow to make the mince part :

Chop your onions to the desired granularity, I like them quite fine, some likes em chunky. Similarly, I prefer to use red onions, but if you like the bite, just use white.

Optionally, cut up a chille really, really fine. This worls best when it’s really, really horrid outside and adds some extra punch.

Sweat the onions (and maybe the chille) for a couple of minutes in a big pan, ideally something flat bottomed, but whatever you have handy really.

Bung in the mince and brown it off, making sure to stir the onions and (possibly chille in thoroughly)

While this is happening (or beforehand, if you’re a slow veg chopper) top, tail and peel the carrots and cut them up. I like to do this crosswise, so the results are round sections of carrot, but I doubt the shape has much effect on the tasty outcome.

Boil up some water and make a fairly thin gravy like liquid out of your choice of gravy precursor.

Unless you have some reason not to, e.g. you don’t like it or are allergic to it, add a decent few gloops of Worcester sauce at this point, the more the merrier as far as I’m concerned, but it’s not to everyone’s taste.

Pour the results on your mince’n’onions’n’maybe chille concotion, add the carrots and let it all simmer for a bit, then add the dumplings.

Dumplings, ah, wondrous things.  For two people, start with about 100g of flour and 70g of suet. Traditional recipes (and the one on the suet box) say you should mix 100/50, which is actually right, but most likely you’ll bugger up the adding water part and your mixture will get too sloppy, at which point you’ll need to add more flour. You can’t add more suet at that point, so we over provision at the start. If you’re really confident of getting this right first time, just go withy 100g flour, 50g suet.

Chuck the flour and suet in a big mixing bowl, and at this point, forget what your mum or gran said when you asked and go crazy! Add some salt and ground black pepper (if you like pepper) and chuck and chuck in a handful of your favourite herb. Basil is a good fit, but they’re your dumplings, sex ‘em up the way you like.

Now slowly add water and stir until the mixture feels like it will be easy to shape, it wants to be firm, but not sloppy. This is the point where you usually go to far with the water and have to add more flour. This is fine, and to some extent desirable, because having floury outsides makes the dumpling mixture less sticky.

Now, before you stick your hands in the mixture, get a plate or similar easy to clean surface large enough to lay your dumplings on and stick a goodly amount of flour down on it, you may want to keep a hand dumpling-mix free during this bit so that you can use the clean one to add more flour, this stuff is sticky!

Now, you’ll want to grab roughly four (per two person serving) handfuls of gloopy dumpling mix, slap ‘em on the plate, roll ‘em in the flour and shape into an aesthetically pleasing shape with a fairly large surface area, something along the lines of a bar of soap, but whatever takes your fancy.

Take a little oil and brush the tops, this helps the dumplings to brown later.

Now, do your mince part, decant from the pan into some kind of oven tray and plop the dumplings in, push them down a bit (though they’ll sink more later).

Stick the whole lot in the oven and cook until the tops of the dumplings are brown and crunchy.  This is similar to cooking roast potatoes in that you are their slave, depending on how your oven is feeling, the time window between ‘tasty, brown and crunchy’ and ‘someone call the fire brigade’ may be short, so keep your eye on them. As a rough guide, around 40 minutes. For extra tastyness, you can baste a bit of the juice over the top of the dumplings while they’re cooking, which will make them browner and even more delicous!

Once the dumplings are crispy on top, bung the whole lot on some plates and nom nom nom nom nom!

And there you go, Mince’n’dumplings your mum will hate, your granny would have disowned your for, but you will love! Enjoy!

The Intergenerational Foundation - replaced by a python script

So, ‘charity’ The Intergenerational Foundation would like to indulge in a bit of nudging. Specifically, nudging old folk out of their homes because they’re ‘under occupied’.

Longrider does an excellent job of pointing out the iron authoritarianism lurking beneath their velvet words, so I won’t repeat too much here. I’ll pull a few choice bits of their website so you can the idea, and I think after that we might as well demolish there argument completely.

Of one of their advisory board, they say 

Angus Hanton, an economist and entrepreneur, became interested in the problems of intergenerational equity several years ago.  A baby boomer with teenage children, he has enjoyed many of the unearned advantages of belonging to this cohort.

"Unearned" ? Get that ? An entrepreneur who thinks his success is unearned. Well, if he is this Angus Hanton, formerly of UK internet domain name quango Nominet,  self described ‘domainer' (one who buys juicy looking domain names and then squeezes the highest possible price out of people whose business or charity is unfortunate enough to be similarly named)  and currently manager of prolific domain squatter girraffe.co.uk, who offer domain names you might like at prices (as quoted to me personally) as reasonable as about ten grand, he might even be right.  But then again, if he feels that shitty about it, he could just give it all away, couldn't he ?

Other such luminaries include Shiv Malik and Ed Howker. The reader is left to draw their own conclusions.

What the IF wants is this

The Intergenerational Foundation (IF) has been established to promote fairness between generations. We believe that each generation should pay its own way, which is not happening at present.

Leaving that ‘not happening’ argument to one side for a moment, here’s an interesting thing.

 To examine how much inequality you would get even in a perfectly equal society, I whipped up a simple Python script to compute wealth distribution in a society where every person works for the exact same salary (this should be enough equality for anybody, yes?) of which he saves the exact same amount. For a 5% annual interest rate, the five wealth quintiles controlled 2, 7, 15, 28, and 47 percent of total wealth, respectively. For 10%, these quintiles controlled 0, 4, 10, 25 and 60 percent of wealth

i.e. even if you make everything, absolutely everything, completely equal over a person’s lifetime, people who are older will still have more wealth, because they will have been accumulating it for a longer time. 

Well golly gee, what a surprise.

So the Intergenerational Foundation can just fuck right off. We can happily replace them with a short python script which will be less whiny and not nearly as hateful.