Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Can we stop this government now? I want to get off!

Lib Dem voters aren't too keen on the VAT rise it would seem and are regretting the way they voted as a result.

How is this possibly news? Or even sensible research? Who is keen on the VAT rise? (Apart from Alexander/Cameron/Clegg/Osborne?)

Bloody hell Lib Dem members, it's not the rise in VAT you should be getting your knickers in a twist over... it's the way your mate Clegg is changing the whole political underpinnings of your party that are the problem.

Him and his new buddies have just given us a budget that hits the poor six times more than the rest. It's knocked some of the most sensible and useful initiatives on the head, like the frankly wonderful Future Jobs Fund, cut University places, oh and if you have more than one baby and you're not married then there will be some nice little tax related penalties for you... (assuming you have a job and are paying tax).

That is what you should be getting upset about. It should be making you so angry that you cry, giving you sleepless nights and forcing you to drink (not affected by tax increases - they missed a trick there).

Because you see, when you're told that the Lib Dems have injected some fairness into the budget, they're not lying to you. It's just they use the Tory definition of fairness now (it's not the kind of fairness that is concerned with inequality and injustice, it's the kind of fairness that keeps the rich OK and barely affected and screws the undeserving poor [1]). This isn't a coalition government, it's a Tory government with a few trophy try hard ministers to keep the intellectual liberals up in their ivory towers.

The solution? I waver on this every day. In the absence of being able to run away, today's plan is

(a) Join the Labour Party
(b) Vote in Ed Miliband [2]
(c) Get on with sorting this fucking mess out (probably via Big Society - i.e. do for free what Cameron can't be arsed to pay for anymore)
(d) Have another drink and wait for the results of the comprehensive spending review which will no doubt screw us over even more.

[1] The more I look at the budget, the more I conclude that they could have saved a whole load of trouble for themselves by just rounding up all the 'poor' people and shooting them.

[2] Yes, Ed is my candidate of choice, it's the beer belly. It makes him seem some how more real... although I did like this of David's.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

More World Cup...

5:49 Watching with the Australian family. So the only people in the country who know less about this than me.

6:00 Granny: "He kicked it out on the full. Is he allowed to do that?"

11:45 Did you know that Schweinsteiger translates as "pig mounter"?

19:45 Because the country doesn't hate John Terry enough...

31:50 At this rate we're never going to be able to lose on penalties.

37:00 Or maybe we will.

38:30 Mum: "Even I can get upset about that."

Half time: It does strike me that we have been on the right side of the odd dodgy line call in World Cup games against Germany.

57:00 Does Steven Gerard think he gets three points for scoring outside the box or something?

66:00 Well that's that.

69:40 Or that is.

76:34 Grandpa does the sensible thing and falls asleep.

79:28 On the plus side, my sister's getting married next weekend, and now won't have to compete with this bunch of prima donnas for everyone's attention.

90:00 Maybe if Rob's got the time he could put together some sort of international football return on investment index. It'd be a very telling measure of the failure here.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Waiting for Israel

Melanie Philips on what the McChrystal/Rolling Stone thing tells us:

For my money, the most alarming thing about the Rolling Stone piece is the perception of the troops on the ground that they are being forced to hold back in order 'not to upset Afghan civilians’ – and as a result are losing not just their comrades but the war itself...

For what the article has confirmed is that the American prosecution of the Afghanistan war is flawed, chaotic, and incompetent and will hit the buffers unless someone gets a grip. And that means fighting this war as if it really is a war and not a ‘nation-building’ exercise; and saying unequivocally that America is there for as long as it takes because, however awful and bloody this conflict is, the alternative – a jihadi-boosting defeat for the west and the Talebanisation of Pakistan – is infinitely worse.

Not on the face of it the sharpest bit of reasoning.

But let's not be too hasty. There could be more to this that meets the eye. Like the soliloquy of a syphilitic grotesque fool in some sort of ostentatiously avant garde Shakespeare production, Mel's rambling little diatribe may conceal profound truths behind a veil of simple-mindedness.

"But Petie," you say, "she doesn't make any bloody sense! 'We need to get a bit more blasé about civilian casualties in Afghanistan so as to make sure the Taliban don't take over Pakistan?' There's not even the most cursory gesture towards cause and effect going on there."

Well maybe. But can you blame that on Melanie? Because make no mistake folks, this is a mad war. From that article:

For the general, it was a crash course in Beltway politics – a battle that pitted him against experienced Washington insiders like Vice President Biden, who argued that a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan would plunge America into a military quagmire without weakening international terrorist networks. "The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people," says Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended West Point with McChrystal. "The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense."

In the end, however, McChrystal got almost exactly what he wanted. On December 1st, in a speech at West Point, the president laid out all the reasons why fighting the war in Afghanistan is a bad idea: It's expensive; we're in an economic crisis; a decade-long commitment would sap American power; Al Qaeda has shifted its base of operations to Pakistan. Then, without ever using the words "victory" or "win," Obama announced that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, almost as many as McChrystal had requested.

See. No-one actually believes that America can win the thing. In fact, no-one even really knows what winning would mean. I went to a talk about why we should be in Afghanistan by Ivan Lewis, then minister-for-bullshit-rationales-for-the-Government's-Middle-Eastern-adventures, who told me with a straight face that we were in Afghanistan because 70% of terrorist attacks in the West had substantial links to Afghanistan or Pakistan,[1] then pretty much conceded that even if you turned Afghanistan into the most dreamy Westernised-democratic-freedom-loving-drug-free-libertopia known to man, the terrorists would just move somewhere else, before asking me - I shit you not - "But what would you do?" So no-one knows what we're doing there. They'd just be embarassed to admit that it was all for nothing after everyone got so pumped about it and that many people killed. Someone could lose their job, y'know.

There's a sort of crazy logic going to it, but it has nothing to do with stopping terrorism. Now you could meticulously trace how all the perverse incentives and fragile egos have joined together to get us into this mess. But Mel does something else; I might say, if I was that sort of wanker, something braver: like a caged animal protesting against the bars of insanity that hold it captive, she smears the pages of the right-wing tabloids with her writings in an unceasing dirty protest against the madness of modern war.

Far-fetched? Maybe, but at least the whole Mel-postmodern-performance-artist explanation does at least make more sense of explaining Mel's rightward tack than this sort of sorry drivel.

Or she could just be throwing more fodder to the folks who want to fuck up all the Muslims in lieu of getting a library card and a satisfying sex life.

[1] I will always regret not demanding that he declare war on France, because wasn't it true that 70% of terrorist attacks were planned in Pakistan or Afghanistan or France?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Clarke's Court Closure Consultation

The Ministry of Justice has announced that it is considering closing 103 magistrates' courts in England and Wales. Magistrates Courts deal with around 95% of all criminal cases in England and Wales, i.e. most criminal cases. There are a huge number of cases coming through these courts. Here are some ideas as to how to reduce the number of cases coming through the courts:
(a) reduce the eye-watering number of acts deemed crimes in England and Wales;
(b) raise the age of criminal responsibility to, say, 14;
(c) roll out some progressive alternatives to the court process, such as Restorative Justice and maybe aim this particularly at youths;
(d) impose measures aimed at closing the gap between the rich and poor (it's an oldie but a goodie).
I could go on, but I won't, because the fact is these ideas are hardly new, but no one with any power to do anything seems to listen. Whatever measure you go for, what is obvious is that there will continue to be large numbers of criminal cases coming through the courts until something along the lines of the above is done.

So, what to do first? Reduce the number of cases coming through the courts or reduce the number of courts? Clearly, Ken likes to put the cart before the horse.

It is true that some courts are smaller than others and some get more cases coming through them than others. However, I suspect that this is largely to do with poor direction of traffic. After all, many Magistrates Courts are, on the contrary, regularly over-listed. It is fair to say that a reasonable number of trials unfortunately do not go ahead as planned due to last minute problems such as witnesses not turning up, prosecution papers not being ready, important documents mysteriously materialising out of nowhere which should have been served months earlier, defendants going awol, or indeed guilty pleas being entered on the day of trial due to last minute negotiations. Not all of these are avoidable. However, they are all unpredictable and do not necessarily warrant rabid over-listing.

For example, I recently witnessed one court which had 5 trials listed to go ahead on the same day at the same time. There was only time to hear one. One case therefore proceeded as planned. All of the witnesses in the other 4 cases, as well as the respective defendants had to be told that their cases would have to be heard on another day. Whilst the CPS prosecutor was still utilised for the case which proceeded, the 4 respective defence solicitors for the cases which did not go ahead were obviously not required. They were being paid out of the legal aid pot, so there were 4 wasted fees paid out. The remaining 4 cases will be heard on a different date, so no money has been saved and, on the contrary, a great deal has been squandered.

Ultimately, the closure of 103 Magistrates' Courts is a crap idea at the moment because: (1) it comes before the necessary substantial reduction in cases coming through the courts [Footnote 1]; and (2) it could over-centralise justice and provide for a move away from local justice.

[1] These sorts of "cart before the horse" government initiatives abound in the world of Criminal Justice. For example, Labour's wild increase in sentences of imprisonment (number and length) before doing anything about the overcrowded prisons.

World Cup Liveblog

3:00 - Presumably everyone does this. The twist in my case, of course, is that I know fuck all about it. In fact the main reason I'm blogging this is that BBC News 24 are making it impossible to avoid. In a weird Big Brother "watch twats watching telly on your telly" moment they're showing me people watching the game all over the country. Kellogg's head office in Manchester looks like its full of wacky characters.

3:05 Strikes me that I must be the only person in the country who doesn't know who more than half these people are. I recognise James, Rooney, Terry etc. but who the fuck is James Milner?

3:07 Apparently the ref's famous for not giving England players cards.

3:09 Even I can see that Wayne Rooney is pretty bloody good at this.

3:13 Am I the only one who thinks that Frank Lampard looks like famous Jesus impersonator Jim Caviezel?

3:14 Google says I'm not.

3:22 Defoe scores, right after the commentator gives a load of statistics about how Defoe never scores when he starts with Rooney.

3:24 The replay shows him pulling a Garth Brooks-style "I'm pumped!" jump in as he does it. Clever.

27.30 - My more football savvy fiancée points out that I should probably do it in terms of minutes and seconds, thus introducing a huge dilemma about whether I take that from when I start typing, or when I finish.

29.35 News just in. God actually doesn't love a trier.

30.40 The f says that this is just Slovenia playing badly. I think I'm meant to explain the off-side rule now, but might fuck it up.

33.02 "You can't do anything useful unless you've got a player or the ball in front of you."

34.00 The goalie does not count as a player for this definition.

37.00 Commentator: "It is England, don't forget." I'm unclear about the significance of this.

38.00 George Osborne's nefarious "Take your jobs while you're busy watching the World Cup" plan may yet work.

42:00 Those vuvuzela's are getting pretty annoying. In all the creative excuses being made for England's shit first two games, did anyone try claiming that Wayne Rooney had mellisophobia?

Half time: Everyone's sounding very triumphalist all of a sudden. What's the betting that England still find a way to screw the pooch?

The US-Algeria game should be set to Benny Hill music.

Ah, apparently Milner was the guy who did the cross. So now I know.

46.02: Was quite worried there until I realised they'd changed halves.

47: Glen Johnson fucked some guy up in the first half and got away with it, then got elbowed in the face and got a yellow card for his troubles. So I think this ref just likes violence, more than England players.

58.00 This is all pretty exciting. I can see why people watch it.

67.15 No Benny Hill for David James. He seems to be hearing the Matrix soundtrack.

78.12 My lady friend informs me that "They're just dicking around now." I'm inclined to agree.

93.00 Well, that's that.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A little bit of pre budget sentimentality...

Last week was refugee week and went largely undocumented by IL authors. So, in retrospect, I would like to share two stories that will mark this one for me.

I commented in an earlier post about the difficulties facing Refugee Migrant Justice. I'm afraid eating my hat will not be required, as predicted, the LSC didn't budge at all and last week, refugee week, RMJ went into administration.
This is a tragedy.
I may disagree with some of the approaches that RMJ have taken. However, their presence will be a huge miss. Hundreds of asylum seekers will have their cases negatively affected as a result. Many people have not given up and continue campaigning (including an Early Day Motion from Caroline Lucas MP). The sad reality may be that MoJ will let this organisation die. This won't be the last player, big or small to end up like this. The next 24 months will be the worst the UK voluntary sector has ever seen. And the UK as a country and the people within it will be worse off as a result.

Which makes it all the more important when we are inspired. Which is exactly what I am by a gentleman by the name of Alan Brice. Alan is probably the hardest working person I have ever come across. He makes me look lazy. Over the years, I have known him dedicate amazing amounts of time and energy to the benefit of a huge number of people. In addition to his work, as Centre Manager for the Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture in the North East, Alan is undertaking a bike ride across the UK to raise funds for the same organisation. His capacity to care about the welfare of his clients and others like them is something which I have the greatest respect for.

We don't know what life will be like tomorrow, after the budget is unveiled. It is perhaps not so melodramatic to suggest that there are dark days ahead. As the RMJs of the world begin to disappear, I am sure that the Alan's of this world are going to be needed all the more.

Monday, June 14, 2010

"I guess we're not leaving, right?"

The New York Times reports on Afghanistan's newly discovered hoards of rare metals:

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

Obviously this is going to put a rather different light on the occupation.

The interesting question, as Charlie Stross points out, is how newly discovered all this mineral wealth actually is:

Or were they, perchance, identified as possibilities by earth resources satellite overflights at some point in the 1990s, but written off as unexploitable due to lack of access?

I'm not sure we even have to suppose that far. According to the article, quite a few people new about this beforehand:

In 2004, American geologists, sent to Afghanistan as part of a broader reconstruction effort, stumbled across an intriguing series of old charts and data at the library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul that hinted at major mineral deposits in the country. They soon learned that the data had been collected by Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but cast aside when the Soviets withdrew in 1989.

During the chaos of the 1990s, when Afghanistan was mired in civil war and later ruled by the Taliban, a small group of Afghan geologists protected the charts by taking them home, and returned them to the Geological Survey’s library only after the American invasion and the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.

So it could be earth resources satellites, or it could be good old-fashioned treasure maps. Anyway, it'd be interesting to know:

1) What happened to all those Soviet mining experts and Afghan geologists? Because if I had maps that could lead people to fantastic wealth, and was living in either Russia or Afghanistn during the 90s, I would find my thoughts turning inexorably towards mining industry executives, midnight meetings, and big suitcases full of cash.

2) Who commissioned the geological survey part of the "broader reconstruction effort"?

3) Is there a link between 1 and 2?

Having said all that, I'm sceptical about whether this would have actually been a serious reason for going in. My guess is that the Lithium probably started out as a nice bonus: then Bolivia elected Morales in 2006, US investment in Bolivia started looking less secure, and we started hearing more talk about "staying the course" in Afghanistan.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

What can we learn from the BP oil spill?

Thanks to Blood and Treasure, Americans have learned that British right wing media pundits aren't to far behind their American cousins in terms of the prized ability to hold two contradictory views at the same time:

Insane Britons believe that it is outrageous for Obama to identify a company as British when it chooses to dissociate itself from this country. They therefore think that the Prime Minister should stand up for this entirely multinational entity because it is “Britain’s flagship company”, to quote our most reliably insane newspaper.

You can see his point. Surely if you're worried about the Yanks turning this into an anti-British thing, Cameron's line should be: "Nothing to do with us, guv. Try Tony Hayward for war crimes for all I care."

Still, the fact that Melanie Philips has trouble finishing a thought is hardly news here in Britain. My own bit of take-home wisdom is just that being a pension fund manager looks like a pretty cushy job. Until a few weks ago, I thought it was this stressful, professional finance thing where you had to do loads of corporate analysis and political risk assessment and hedging and shit like that. But apparently you can just buy a whole load of stock in a company that regularly causes environmental catastrophes, hope that no-one ever sues it into the ground, then head off to the pub. When can I start?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The end of child detention...

... in the UK at least.

One of the biggest worries when the Coalition government announced they would end the detention of children, was how policies would be developed to provide alternatives.

So, Damien Green must be trying to rival Liam Byrne and Phil Woolas, neither of whom were known for their respect of any kind of human rights during their tenures of the post, with this latest piece of crowd pleasing policy: send the children back to Afghanistan instead. AKA the worst idea I have heard in ages.

Children, that us. Unaccompanied minors are those that travel ALONE, without their parents. And now they'll be sent home. To a place where they are alone. Oh, and Daily Mail readers (not that any of you will be found here, but you never know) it's costing £4milllion.

I doubt we'll be hearing the cry of "Kabul prisons for British children..."

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Legal aid shenanigans (1)

Charity Refugee and Migrant Justice are making a big fuss today about how the structure of legal aid means that they might close [1].

I'm a bit perplexed about what they are doing here for three reasons.

[A] Legal aid contracts have not yet been announced, so at the moment, they don't know what level of service they are contracted to provide from October... seems a strange time to go public on this...

[B] This structure has been in place for years. RMJ actually had it slighter better than most NFPs by being allowed a longer period of transition.

[C] Every other NFP legal aid provider I know is in the same situation! Why have they gone it alone on this one? Why not get some of the other big (and small) providers on board to add some weight to this, rather than coming across like it's only them who have the problem here.

Competition in the NFP legal sector is a concerning thing. These big organisations are more than happy to expand into cities and bid as rivals to take contracts from local providers who have been delivering well for years. Yet they lack the professionalism and the foresight to recognise that working together might have achieved more for the sector and for the people they all want to work to help than this kind of individual approach. I do not understand why they are going it alone on this one.

And, if the LSC budge on this, I'll eat my hat [2].

[1] For those not in the know, legal aid funding changed a few years back, so that rather than being paid on a monthly basis as work is done, they now pay providers only at the end of a case. For cases that might span months and years, this presented a significant challenge for the Not for Profit legal sector.

[2] The odds of (a) more blog posts appearing on here re Legal Aid and (b) me making this kind of daft statement again in the next few weeks are really not worth betting against.

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