26 August 2009

RIP Senator Ted Kennedy

I've just read the news.

Note that if Ted had lived in the UK like Stephen Hawking there'd be queues of Republicans (and Daniel Hannan) round the block at Fox News just to say "there you go, Ted Kennedy is dead because of the NHS".

My main knowledge of Ted Kennedy is somewhat out of date, really: in a lot of Hunter S Thompson's 1970s work (particularly the superb Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72) he's portrayed as a president-in-waiting, just waiting for the right year to make his move.

Of course, that year never came. 1980 was the closest he got, but he was trying to take on a Democratic incumbent - Jimmy Carter - and trying to unseat an incumbent 'from within' is extremely hard. Perhaps if Carter had lost to Ford in 1976, things would have been very different in '80 and Kennedy would have made it to the White House, and we'd never have had 'Reaganomics' and therefore avoided the collapse of the economy in 2008; it's a fascinating thought.

The Kennedy dynasty is looking somewhat depleted in the US these days; I'd suggest drafting in violinist Nigel Kennedy to make up the numbers a bit. But God forbid, not Radio 2's Sarah Kennedy - that's all the Americans need. Stick with Rush Limbaugh - he has a tiny brain, but at least it's somewhere in there.

Dunno what happens in the US Senate now: do they have a by-election in Massachusets? I have no clue.

25 August 2009

Thinking about what Labour's line on the Tories should be

Avid readers will notice that this blog has drifted away from politics over the last few weeks, to more serious fare like zombies and cricket. Partly because the Labour party is on such a colossal downer at the moment that it is hard to think about the political situation for an extended period of time, and partly because a battery recharge in the summer is always a good idea.

It's been several months since I met anyone who thought that Labour could actually win the next election, and the latest ICM poll from the Guardian reinforces this view. 16 points down with only about 9 months to go until the election campaign must start - it ain't looking great. The Tories ahead as the party most trusted on the economy, the NHS, education. The NHS result suggests - at least for the moment - that Dave Cameron has managed to neutralise the extreme right anti-NHS rhetoric from some of his own MPs and MEPs, particularly the ludicrous Fox News rentamouth Daniel Hannan.

Labour will probably be able to claw back some of that 16-point deficit by making effective, substantiated attacks on whether the Tories can be trusted with key national institutions like health and the NHS. Daniel Hannan should be on Labour campaigning posters at the earliest opportunity - the guy is a national treasure; thank you Dan, for being so willing to talk bollocks at every opportunity. On education, Labour has made a lot of mistakes - the academies programme, obsessing with testing and support for faith schools among them. And it hasn't managed to get much credit for huge increases in spending. But shadow education secretary Michael Gove is an absolute open goal; an extreme right wing neo-con who would like nothing more than to dismantle the state system and have all the working class kids on council estates herded into boot camps. Again, he should be on Labour campaigning posters next year. And towering over all of these, on the economy George Osborne is the least convincing shadow chancellor of all time. Hopelessly addicted to soundbites, incapable of a coherent critique of government policy, and hiding an stunningly right-wing cuts agenda behind a 'progressive' facade.

In other words, the Tories are vulnerable on all three of the areas that the electorate is most interested in: the economy, health and education. However, so far the Labour critique of the Tories has been an unfocused assault on Tory 'cuts'. This is ineffective for two reasons: (a) the public finances deficit is so large that most people think cuts are necessary (and without big increases in taxation in the long run they are necessary), and (b) Labour is planning to cut almost as much as the Tories if re-elected (have a look at the public spending projections in the last budget!) Likewise, there has been rather unfocused attacks on the Tories' personal circumstances - for example the disastrous 'Tory toffs' accusation at the Crewe by-election last year. All pretty irrelevant to the main issues.

The best Labour strategy has to start with drawing 'clear red water' between themselves and the Tories - pledging to maintain spending on the majority of essential services while pushing up tax on the rich and closing tax haven loopholes (as the Obama adminstration is planning to do) to pay for it. The spending plans in Budget 09 should be ripped up and redrawn. There needs to be a clear articulation of the fact that spending cuts have a massive negative impact on poor households - as work by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has pointed out. Where cuts are made, they should be in useless expenditure that we can well do without (replacing Trident, ID cards, etc.)

The attacks on the Conservatives should largely bypass Cameron - he's fairly popular and is the least weak link in the Tory chain. Instead, the idea that Danniel Hannan represents the 'real' or 'underlying' Conservative stance on the NHS should be ruthlessly propagated, along with critiques of Michael Gove's neo-conservatism (the idea being that the Americans managed to get rid of these f***ers, so why the hell should we have them here?) and the incompetence of George Osborne. The idea should be that Cameron isn't a bad guy, and quite moderate but that he is the prisoner of an extremist and unreformed party. This isn't a particularly hard idea to sell, as it's basically true - the number of 'progressives' in the Tory top brass can be counted on the fingers of one (slightly deformed) hand.

Granted, all this is still a tough wicket to bat on - particularly on the economy, where the electorate would be very justified in saying, "hold on - you guys are saying the Tories are incompetent, but you've just presided over the worst recession in 70 years just after proclaiming that 'boom and bust' had been abolished!" That's a very difficult point to answer, particularly as - as I see it anyhow - a lot of the (rather tepid) enthusiasm for the Tories reflects a desire to punish Labour as much as anything else. And I can understand that. Between them, Blair and Brown have been responsible for more b.s., distortion and obfuscation than any previous PM/Chancellor team. Even the hardcore garbage peddled by Thatcher and Howe at the height of monetarism didn't compare with the sheer professionalism of the Nu Labor spin machine... and if the next election draws the line under a very sorry and shameful period for the Labour Party, then perhaps so much the better.

My prediction then, is that a concerted and effective campaign against the Tories could close the gap between the two parties to maybe 8 to 10 points, but this is still enough for a working Conservative majority. They will probably end up with a majority of between 50 and 100 once the impact of boundary changes is taken into account. And then the real work begins... which is to rebuild the Labour party as a radical modern party with effective leadership, ready to sweep into power (given the right circumstances) in 2015. It will be an interesting 5 years - and I am looking forward to that more than to the dying cinders of this Labour govt. More on the prospects for Labour post-election in a bit.

23 August 2009

winners

Jeez Mick, I'd never have predicted this.

It just shows you what the guys can do when the weather holds long enough for them to do their thing.

Makes you wonder why we bother fielding a national football team when we have a sport we can (sometimes) win at?

Right, back to serious posts next week.

21 August 2009

Another digression: proof that Dan Brown is shite

I love the 'silly season' in the news. Today Oxfam have said that Dan Brown novels are being brought in to their bookshops in greater quantities than any other author.

My title is slightly misleading: this isn't really any proof that Dan Brown is crap at all, partly because he is one of the biggest selling authors of the last decade - so one would expect his books to be hitting the charity shops in huge quantities even if people were only averagely likely to get rid of them.

Brown is also the second most purchased author at Oxfam, so he seems to be quite popular for charity shop browsers. Maybe there is a whole subculture of people that spend their time buying Dan Brown books at Oxfam, reading them and then giving them back to Oxfam again.

None of the statistics alter the fact that Dan Brown is total cack, though. Here is a potted summary of all his plots (they are completely interchangeable):

Prologue
A brilliant scientist/theologian/singing bus conductor is tortured by the 'bad guy' and reveals a terrible secret just before dying horribly.

Main book
The hero (a thinly disguised rip-off of Indiana Jones) visits the scene of the murder and uncovers the first in a series of clues that will lead him to foil the bad guy's plan to destroy the US Defence Department/ Catholic Church/ Sainsbury plc/Supertramp (delete as applicable). He is aided in this mission by a beautiful female scientist of some exotic (i.e. non-American) heritage.

The denouement where the bad guy gets his comeuppance takes place at some suitably grandstanding location (Sydney Opera House/Stonehenge/Corley Services on the M6).

The hero finally gets to have some sex with said beautiful female scientist (I guess this idea was nicked from James Bond).

And that's it. I read The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons and started reading Digital Fortress (couldn't finish it because it was too crap). It's hard to understand why Brown is a best-seller given that his books have essentially no redeeming features beyond the fact you can read one in about 2 hours.

Even the so-called interesting idea from The Da Vinci Code - that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had kids - is stolen from a load of esoteric religious research from the 1970s and 80s.

My wife tells me that The Last Testament by Sam Bourne (a pseudonym for the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland) is a much better effort than anything Brown ever wrote, made all the more amusing by the fact that Freedland isn't really taking this stuff seriously: he's just using it to cross-subsidise much more interesting work, in the same way that George Clooney plays the occasional lame Hollywood blockbuster work to subsidise projects like Good Night & Good Luck. Of course it may be that Dan Brown is a brilliant physicist, comedian or stamp collector who needs the revenue from writing high-selling trash to fund his other activities.

But I doubt it.

19 August 2009

A digression: Zombies

Apologies for low frequency of posting at the moment - I've been taking a few days off to recharge the batteries after a hectic month.

One thing I've been doing is reading the first three volumes of 'The Walking Dead', a series of graphic novels which a friend lent me a month or so back. If you liked any of the George A Romero movies, you'll like this. A classic!

By a strange coincidence, the papers and news websites this week reported on a simulation of a zombie outbreak by scientists at the University of Ottawa. The paper is available here and is a good read. Best line: "This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first mathematical analysis of an outbreak of zombie infection."

12 August 2009

Quakers: a force for good in the world

My thoughts on religion continue to evolve at a steady rate. About 4 years ago I was converted from a wishy-washy sit-on-the-fence agnosticism to hardcore atheism by Richard Dawkins's Channel 4 documentary Root of All Evil? (His book The God Delusion makes similar arguments). I enjoyed the documentary and the book and for several years my stance was basically similar to Dawkins - religion was a piece of shit as far as I was concerned, a brainwashing exercise.

But I've recently been moving away from that view for two main reasons. One is that there is a viciousness and nastiness about the attacks on religious people by some of the hardcore atheists which strikes me as OTT and unnecessary. Dawkins isn't the worst offender here, although sometimes he does go on a bit of a rant: I'm thinking more of Christopher Hitchens, who seems to be on a mission to insult anyone with any religious sensibility whatsoever. When I see that kind of shit going down, it makes me think: do I really want to be in the tent with these guys? Can't we have a bit of tolerance and humility for a change?

The other thing is that there is a left-wing radical side to religion which has been under-reported and under-explored in the media in recent years. They have been preoccupied with Islamic extremists and the reactionary drift of the Catholic Church under Pope Benedict, and I can understand that to some extent - although in both cases the people under discussion are wildly unrepresentative of their respective religions.

But we have heard almost nothing about the Quakers in recent times - and so the revelation that they had decided to perform marriage ceremonies for gay couples was a welcome surprise. (The Guardian covered it in a very nice editorial last week.) At a time when all we seem to hear from Christian representatives is condemnation of gay people (from the Catholics and evangelicals) or hand-wringing equivocation (from the Anglicans), it is really great to see a religious denomination which does not spend all its time picking on the minority, but instead is trying to do some good in the world.

I experienced something of Quaker hospitality first hand in Leicester last month when I went to a meeting for a work project I'm involved with at the Friends Meeting House there. It was a very warm and welcoming atmosphere - a bit like a convalescent home (and I mean that as a compliment rather than an insult). I think I may investigate the Religious Society of Friends further.

BTW, in terms of the issue which religious belief is supposed to centre on - the existence or non-existence of God - my view at the moment is that I really couldn't give a stuff about it. By which I mean that I'm not so much an agnostic as someone who just isn't interested in the question at all. It makes no difference to me either way in my current state of mind. For me, the social significance of religion or non-religion is all-important - and I'm attracted to the Quakers because they seem to be about a positive and caring attitude toward people rather than constantly looking to berate other people for doing 'wrong' things or having the 'wrong' beliefs, which is where hardcore religion and hardcore atheism alike seem to fall down. I've simply got better things to do than play that game anymore.

Health care reform: an object lesson in why 'bipartisanship' is balls

Great amusement has come to the Berstram household these last couple of days from the right-wing Investors' Business Daily, whose comment on Barack Obama's attempted health care reform was as follows:

The controlling of medical costs in countries such as Britain through rationing, and the health consequences thereof, are legendary. The stories of people dying on a waiting list or being denied altogether read like a horror script … People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.
Moving rhetoric, were it not of course for the fact that Stephen Hawking has lived in the UK all his life. Never let it be said that the US right doesn't get its facts straight before it posted.

In any case it's laughable that US conservatives criticise the NHS as a health care system based on "rationing" when any health care system - in fact any delivery system for any commodity which costs more than zero to produce - is rationed. In the US rationing is by the insurance premia that people are willing or able to pay, combined with the decisions of healthcare company executives as to which treatments get provided and which don't. The NHS - and most other publicly financed healthcare systems - just happen to be a lot more efficient at providing a certain quantity of care for a given amount of funding than does the US system. The US system is very good at inflating costs and giving out large payments to health executives.

It's also very good at spending customers' health insurance premiums on lobbying efforts to stave off reforms. If anyone doubted that Obama and the Democrats have a serious fight on their hands, one look at the healthcare debate will dispel those doubts. Democrats are being called Nazis (laughable coming from people who supported the Bush administration); gangs of thugs are being rounded up to shout down pro-reform politicians at town hall meetings; and complete falsehoods (like the 'Hawking would be a dead man in the UK' claim) are being trotted out by hacks like Rush Limbaugh and the complete staff of Fox News every day of the week.

This should convince Obama, if he needed any convincing following a bruising first 6 months in office, that he needs to come out fighting after the August holiday and tell the cheap Nazi punks who make up the Republican party (bar the one or two Senate moderates that he needs to push his legislation through) to go fuck themselves. If he doesn't manage to do that, he runs the risk of ending up like the two previous Democrat presidents - Clinton and Carter - both of whom were condemned to ineffectuality after a dreadful first two years in office.

The main thing to realise is that the President is in a situation where his opponents are fighting like hell with every weapon at their disposal to maintain America as the corporate fascist state that Bush, Cheney, Palin and their friends and backers have slogged long and hard over the last 30 years creating - and they don't want to give an inch of it back to the working people of America. These fuckers are prepared to lie, cheat and kill to get what they want - and they are extremely powerful. The problem, when faced with a backlash like that, is that America may get worse before it gets better.

10 August 2009

Scamiflu?

Some interesting research published today by scientists at Oxford University who have surveyed seven research studies on the effectiveness of Tamiflu and/or Relenza (the main antiviral flu drugs) and found that Tamiflu reduced the length of time children displayed symptoms by one day on average, but increased the likelihood of vomiting.

Obviously there's no miracle cure for swine flu (otherwise we wouldn't need to develop a vaccine so quickly) but the results from this drug that the government is relying on so much do seem to be pretty crap. Could it be that the whole Tamiflu schtick is a result of lobbying by pharmaceuticals giant Roche, who are making a tidy packet from sales of the drug? More investigation is warranted.

(Disclaimer: I haven't read the Oxford study itself - I've only seen the coverage on C4 News and some of the broadsheets - so I've no idea whether the story was accurately reported. Since reading Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" I've become extremely suspicious of even the so-called 'quality' media's reports on science stories - and I was already fairly suspicious to start off with. I hope Ben covers this story on his blog so we can get deeper investigation.)

09 August 2009

05 August 2009

Another loss that will make many of us very happy

Last month it was Ryanair losing money; this month it's News Corp (formerly News International). A £2bn loss.

Yay! Every crunch has a silver lining. To paraphrase what the late, great Steven Wells said in the NME (about Rush, I think) in 1989: don't subscribe to Sky, don't buy the Murdoch press, and make the bastard poor. He deserves it.

Hal's myspace page has the right idea. I'm on myspace, but only to subvert the f***ers.

(p.s. do not take the 'interests' and 'details' sections too seriously...)




No way are the Barclays and HSBC results good news

More on this next week when I've got a bit more time, but just to say: Richard Murphy is absolutely right on the Barclays and HSBC results. Their results for bank lending to the personal and company sector were absymal (due to huge debt write-offs) - they made all their money on investment banking. Effectively they were making money by participating in the kind of financial gambling which brought about the current economic collapse in the first place.

And they're able to do it with impunity because they know governments will bail them out if they crash again. We should've nationalised the bastards when we had the chance. Never mind... a job for the next Labour government (hopefully 2015-ish).

A nice summary in the Guardian of how investment banking operations make money. Note that very little of it relates to activities which actually increase output in the real economy of goods and services - it's really about redistributing resources from one economic agent to another rather than creating new resources.

02 August 2009

The Gary McKinnon tragedy exposes the lunacy of the US's war on terror

I haven't blogged about the Gary McKinnon case before, and I almost certainly should have done. Most of you will probably be familiar with the essential facts of the case; if not, I recommend the excellent article by Jon Ronson on the Guardian website.

Basically McKinnon is due to be extradited to the US to face a possible 60 years in prison for hacking into the US defence department computers - including the Pentagon network. As far as the US government is concerned, McKinnon is a terrorist who needs to be locked up as a threat to national security.

And if McKinnon really had intended to bring down the US government - planning something similar to 9/11, for example - I'd be inclined to say 'fair enough'.

But there's a small problem. Gary McKinnon is a UFO obsessive with Asperger's syndrome (an autistic spectrum disorder) who was hacking into the US network to search for information which he thought the US government was hiding about UFO propulsion systems. He had no intention of causing any harm to the US at all - he would have argued that his actions were in the public interest. (And if the information had really existed, he'd surely have been right).

He didn't find the information - presumably because it didn't exist. But what he did do was to expose a supposedly secure US military computer network as wide open to hackers. Ronson says, 'He wrote a script that searched for network administrators who'd been too lazy to change their user names from "user name" and their passwords from "password"'.

In a sane world, the US Defense Department would have said "it's a fair cop, guv", thanked McKinnon for exposing huge holes in their security arrangements, and maybe offered him a job as a cyber-security expert.

But unfortunately we - and Gary McKinnon - don't live in a sane world. We live in a world where governments go after easy targets in the name of "national security" to con the public into believing they are safe. And McKinnon is a sacrifice to that end.

As things stand, the US government is totally within its rights to demand the extradition of Gary McKinnon, and the UK government has to comply under the terms of the UK-to-US extradition agreement. It seems unlikely that the UK government will provoke a major diplomatic incident by refusing to extradite McKinnon. But there are alternative courses of action.

One option would be for McKinnon to flee the UK to another country which doesn't have an extradition treaty with the US. All the EU countries seem to have one, but Ukraine, for example, doesn't. It would be worth finding some sympathetic Ukrainians who would be prepared to take the poor guy in. Life as a Ukrainian might take some adjustment for Gary, but given that the alternative is rotting in an American jail for half a century, Eastern Europe begins to look quite attractive.

Another option would be for a part of the UK to make a unilateral declaration of independence. The Isle of Wight has had a movement for UDI for some time, usually with the rationale of making it into a tax haven like Jersey or the Isle of Man. Becoming a protectorate for people like McKinnon seems a more worthwhile reason to secede from the UK somehow.

But something radical needs to be done, otherwise a guy whose only real crime was to take The X Files a bit too seriously will be spending up to 60 years in prison. And if you think that's fair, then there really is something wrong with you.

Could disaster for Labour be followed by an even greater disaster?

Not a very well phrased title for this post but the Telegraph has got me scared:

"Secret plan for Lord Mandelson to return to Commons in safe Labour seat"

If this story is to be believed (and that's a big "if"), Blairite MPs are hatching a plot for the Prince of Darkness himself to renounce his peerage and get the nomination to succeed Hilary Armstrong in the North-West Durham constituency and then make a bid for the Labour Party leadership after the election.

If this happened, I think it would be the end of the Labour Party. Full stop. Who the hell is going to vote for Mandelson? Tony Blair as a surrogate Tory made some sense in terms of electoral strategy when the real Tories were in disarray but now that they are back in business with Dave Cameron, Mandelson is largely surplus to requirements.

A Mandelson leadership would probably split the party, with the left going off to form a new party (Labour in all but name) with Mandelson left with a Blairite rump (Labour in nothing except the name). I think it would also mean a generation of Tory governments.

Which may be the real objective... because really, the Blairites were Tories all along.