The Samovar

Ineffective and paranoid (but I had a nice holiday)

One of the things about the paranoid security measures involved in international travel is how unreasonable and obviously ineffective they are. These new measures only burden the ordinary passenger, they would be pretty ineffective against someone who had malicious intent (as Bruce Schneier keeps going on about). I had my own experiences of this recently, but before I get to that, here is a picture of the view from my hotel window from last weekend:


The first incident was taking the Eurostar from Paris to London. When I arrived at the station I realised I’d forgotten my passport, but I thought it was worth trying to get on the train anyway. You have to pass through two separate passport controls at Gare du Nord in Paris – the French controls and the British ones. The French control didn’t really care, he just told me that it would be illegal for me to come back into France without my passport and waved me on. The British were a bit more paranoid, and after a few minutes of argument, they decided to test my Britishness by asking me questions about where I lived: what is the name of the pub on such-and-such street, etc. Fortunately for me, despite answering that question wrongly, I obviously said it with enough confidence that they were convinced I knew what I was talking about. Moral of the story: if you’re white and can bluff well you can get through security without a passport.


The second incident was travelling to Israel for a conference. Before they let me on the plane, I was questioned by Israeli security for 45 minutes. They noticed that I have a Jewish surname so they started off by asking if I was Jewish and if I had any Jewish family. Intrusive questioning continued, they asked me about why I was only carrying a small rucksack, why I was going for such a short time, who invited me to the conference, what theoretical neuroscience was, … Before they let me on the plane, they got me to log on to my email and show them the invitation to the conference.

Everyone at the conference was pretty surprised at this treatment, but on the way back I met someone at the airport in the departure lounge – he came up to me and said “I just got the 45 minute treatment. They made me do a 10 minute presentation on the talks we heard at the conference!” What if he’d been asleep during them?!

Anyway, after being questioned, they swabbed my bag meticulously and used their “Ionscan” to test for explosives. Very sensible you might think, except that having done that they slapped a ‘checked’ sticker on it and let me wander through the main terminal before checking in. D’oh!

Anyway, here’s a picture of the Golan Heights which you could see from the Technion university:


And the Bahá’í gardens:


Israel is actually a very nice place and I would have been entirely happy to be there if it weren’t for their government and relationship with the Palestinians. As it was, I felt a little uncomfortable, especially about the fact that the people around me would all have been in the army and might even have killed Palestinians.

Still, I’m not going to complain too much – they took me to two excellent restaurants in Haifa after all. 😉

Il y avait un manifestation

There are lots of interesting political things going on at the moment that I don’t have time to write about. In the UK, the government has lost, and probably had stolen, a copy of the records of 25m people (everyone in a family with a child aged 16 or under). There was also a very interesting looking report into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes that I may yet write about if I get the chance.

Here in Paris meanwhile, the transport unions and the students of many universities (not mine) are on strike. The issue for the transport workers is the regimes speciaux whereby transport workers have to work 2.5 years less than other workers before they can retire (37.5 instead of 40).


Much of the discussion seems to revolve around the fact that this measure was introduced because the labour involved used to be much more onerous, but is no longer thanks to mechanisation. Personally, I think that’s not really the point. Sure, if society were organised along rational lines in the public interest, there would be no justification for it. But, that’s not the society we live in. We live in a capitalist, class based society in which different groups fight to keep what they have. The wealthier classes fight a quieter battle, by appealing directly to governments and media, or by moving their capital overseas. The poorer classes don’t have this access or any capital to move, so they use strikes. To be against strike actions to retain or gain privileges is in effect just siding with the wealthy.

It might be said though that the competition here is between the transport workers and other workers, not between transport workers and the rich. But, that’s where the principle of solidarity comes in. The idea is that other workers support the transport workers when they are fighting their battle, and in turn the transport workers support those workers when they fight theirs.


The rail strike is apparently costing €400m /day, and the regimes speciaux cost €5bn/year (government figures), so 12.5 strike days is equivalent to 1 year of regimes speciaux. A reasonable compromise suggests itself. Why does the government not offer a pay rise of a total amount say €2-3bn/year. They would then be saving €2-3bn/year (which means losing the equivalent of 5-7.5 strike days compared to the situation if they could get rid of the regimes speciaux completely), and the transport workers would probably go for it, because for most people earnings now count for much more than earnings some 20 years down the line. I suspect the answer is that this isn’t really about saving €5bn/year at all, but really a strategy to weaken and divide the unions.

The pictures are of the manifestation that was going down my road today (some 300-700,000 people apparently).


Macaroons: a visual ode
November 10, 2007, 11:07 pm
Filed under: Frivolity | Tags:

In tribute to this site, I present an ode to the humble Paris macaroon (click for the full size version):


Aaargh! What do you say?
November 10, 2007, 6:31 pm
Filed under: Politics

Someone just posted this on a web forum I follow:

Just recently a convicted serial rapist was stopped from being sent back to his own country after serving his prison term as it would breach his right to a family life under the Human Rights Act as decided by the Judge involved.
A victim of one of the rapists many rapes was clearly upset and went on TV and said what about the right of the victims to a family life as the rapist had damaged many families?
Now normally one would imagine judges and lawyers who are involved in cases aren’t liable to be sued if someone who they defend/let off harms someone after but since the Human Rights Act is now often seen as the Human Wrongs Act as only seems to protect criminals and the circumstances have now changed so much in favour of rapists, etc should lawers and judges now be liable if say the serial rapist rapes again in this country?

What the hell do you say in response to something like that? I rather unhelpfully fired off an angry, sarcastic and slightly abusive response. Obviously that’s what NOT to do. But what can you say to a question like that? Suggestions?

Left Liberalism, and compulsory education

Sunny Hundal has an excellent new project, the Liberal Conspiracy. The idea, in brief, is to provide a hub of activity for liberal left bloggers. Recently, the right has been much better at organising this sort of thing than the left, and hopefully this project will change that. They have a whole range of some of the best bloggers on the left. Many of them were already on my blogroll, but there are some names that are new to me, so it should be interesting to see what gets posted there.

To me, the benefit of this sort of project is that it potentially provides a non-combative space in which to develop liberal left ideas. A community of people all thinking along roughly the same lines can analyse and criticise each others ideas in a constructive manner, rather than channelling all their effort into defending these ideas against their opponents on the right. This allows the debate to move beyond defending our basic principles, and instead looking at the deeper consequences and applications of these principles.

I hope that this is exactly how the site will develop, but there is one issue of basic principle that needs to be cleared up right from the start, which is the precise meaning of liberal in the name. This contentious point has become one of the site’s central first debates, with Lib Dem bloggers (and right wingers) claiming that the site is just Left and not Liberal. The best statement I have read on this issue so far is Chris Dillow’s manifesto explaining why he is joining the Conspiracy:

The left, following Rawls, gives greater weight to its impact upon the worst-off than does the right. And this is one reason why leftism and liberalism go together. One reason why I oppose infringements of civil liberties – drug laws, control orders or stop & search powers – is that these bear most heavily upon the poor and powerless.

Inequalities of wealth and power – those between bosses and workers – often rest upon an anti-Hayekian faith that hierarchical management is feasible. It’s not. I’m a liberal because I think top-down management fails in government. I’m a left liberal because I think it fails in companies too.

It’s not just states that limit freedom. Bosses do too. It’s not good enough to argue, as the right does, that market forces will solve this problem; they don’t always grind fine enough.


For freedom to really matter – and to win popular support – it must be more than the absence of state coercion. It must imply the opportunity to positively control one’s life, to make something of it.

This last paragraph to me seems crucial to understanding what it is to be a liberal leftist rather than a liberal. Those of us on the liberal left might co-operate with the liberal right on opposing New Labour’s constant attacks on civil liberties, but it is only an alliance of necessity, because the right’s notion of freedom is too restricted.

That’s not to say that all those on the liberal left agree in particular circumstances about what is or isn’t liberal. The first debate to kick off on the site has explored this issue. Mike Ion wrote a guest post arguing that new plans to raise the school leaving age to 18 are a good idea. Amongst others, Chris Dillow responded (here and here) that it wasn’t a good idea. One of his reasons, shared by some of the commenters on the original post, is that it is illiberal. But, as I argued on all three posts, it ain’t necessarily so.

Straightforwardly, it seems illiberal because it is a restriction on a previously existing freedom: kids could choose to continue at school or not. But, if staying at school has an associated financial penalty, then having it be non-compulsory means there is a (financial) pressure to leave school and earn money, even though the long term effect of this might be to limit their freedom quite substantially. This piece of research seems to indicate that financial concerns do indeed play a considerable role in deciding whether or not kids continue at school after 16: after the government introduced the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA, a £10-30 per week incentive to stay at school), the number staying on after 16 increased by 4.6%, and the number still in education a year later was 6.4% higher than before. And that’s just what you get for the tiny sum of £30/week (tiny compared to what you could earn working). So, it might be the case that by making education compulsory to the age of 18, you are actually increasing liberty by taking away a financial pressure that strongly influences the choice. It’s not obvious that it is more free this way – because it might be that compared to the number who feel compelled to leave school by financial considerations, more would want to leave school even if they were paid as much to stay at school as they could earn outside school – but it’s not a foregone conclusion that it is illiberal. Opinion can and does rightly vary within the community of left liberals on this issue.

This was a good debate to kick off the Liberal Conspiracy site, because it has helped to clarify the relevant meaning of liberalism, and exemplified how a constructive critical discussion can take place amongst people who all consider themselves liberal leftists.

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Thai curry
November 4, 2007, 11:53 pm
Filed under: Consumption, Cooking, Food, Recipes | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Today I finally got round to visiting Paris’ chinatown. It has taken me an inexcusably long time given that it’s only about 10 minutes walk from me, but my excuse is I’ve been busy. Didn’t take any photos, but here’s one from


Anyway, the good news is that this means I can now very easily buy the somewhat difficult to find ingredients for making a good Thai curry (recipe below).  I’m coming to the conclusion that one of the best ways to buy prawns is raw and frozen, in large boxes from Chinese supermarkets (at a very low price). Whenever I’ve done this in the past, they’ve invariably been really good quality, and today was no exception. Frozen prawns have a bad reputation, but perhaps that’s based on prawns frozen after being cooked, or ones that have been frozen, defrosted at the supermarket and sold to you looking as if they were fresh?

The recipe

This is how I make it, any thoughts?

  • Thai curry paste – you can make your own, but I never quite feel it’s worth the effort when there are quite decent ones available. I really should have a go some day though, it’s not that difficult. For the one I use, about 1 large teaspoon per person seems about right.
  • Coconut milk, about 200 ml per person (half a tin).
  • Garlic, chopped.
  • Some vegetables. I used mini-aubergines (I find the Thai green aubergines a little bitter for my tastes) and red pepper.
  • Some meat or fish (optional). I used prawns today. If using meat, chop it into bitesize pieces.
  • Fish sauce, to taste.
  • Lime leaves, finely chopped. These can be a killer to get hold of. Your best bet is in the frozen foods section of a Chinese supermarket. I used to live near a Thai supermarket that had them fresh, but apparently it’s no longer legal to import them unfrozen into the EU. I use about 2 leaves per person.
  • Thai basil, ripped or roughly chopped. The name is a bit confusing, as what one shop calls Thai basil another may call holy basil and a third may call sweet basil. The one I mean has an aniseedy smell to it. About 10-20 leaves per person.
  • Groundnut oil

Heat some groundnut oil in a wok or saucepan until the oil is hot but not smoking. Add the garlic and stir until it begins to colour. Put in the curry paste, and cook it, stirring, for a minute or two. Add the coconut milk and bring it to a boil. If you’re using meat or fish other than prawns (which only take a couple of minutes to cook), add them now. Add the fish sauce and a little water depending on how thick you want the sauce. It’s actually quite nice to put quite a lot of water in and turn the Thai curry into more of a soup, and eat it the Thai way (with a bowl of rice which you pick up with your spoon and dip into the soup). Add the vegetables and or prawns in an order which means they’ll be cooked by the time your rice is cooked. It only take about 6-7 minutes for chicken or about 2-3 minutes for prawns. Finally, a minute before the end, put in the lime leaves and basil.

Make sure not to attempt to eat with chopsticks (a common faux pas in Thai restaurants is to ask for chopsticks).