The Samovar

The Pigeon Conspiracy
October 26, 2006, 5:14 am
Filed under: Frivolity

BBC news is reporting a pelican eating a pigeon.

How is that a pigeon? It’s quite clearly a coot. Why are the BBC lying to us? What is the basis of the great pigeon conspiracy? Are they trying to airbrush the coot out of history? Are they trying to start a war between pigeonkind and pelicankind? We need to know!


The conspiracy goes deeper. Flickr user James Bunton posts pictures of a pelican eating a pigeon dated NOVEMBER 1ST 2005!!!

And what do we see in the foreground here? A pigeon. QUITE SAFE!!

And what do we see here if not a PELICAN EYEING UP SOME COOTS!?!

Image crappification on wordpress
October 25, 2006, 4:13 am
Filed under: WordPress

Whenever I upload a custom header picture for this blog, wordpress seems to crappify it. It takes a perfectly good image and does some nasty stuff to it and then it looks rubbish.

I feign ignorance, but I know what it’s doing. It’s taking the picture I upload and resampling it as a JPEG file whose size is 10kb. Is there any way round this? Does this happen for every theme or just the Kubrick one? Why does it resample it even if I upload a nicely tweaked JPEG file which is under 10kb? (It actually managed to increase the file size and make it look worse.)

Search terms
October 24, 2006, 2:37 am
Filed under: Internet, Search Terms

I’ve just noticed that WordPress allows you to see where people are coming to your site from, and what search terms they used to get them here. I decided to post a few of the best. If funny ones keep turning up I might make this a semi-regular feature.

  • do anarchist believe in a god – this person must have been really committed because my blog doesn’t come up in the first 15 pages of Google with this search
  •  spells to stop noisy neighbours – I’m on page 3 talking about ASBOs
  • what does samovars mean and a little later a followup, samovar how to use – sadly I didn’t provide anything helpful on either of these questions

Review: Anarchist Bookfair
October 23, 2006, 12:55 am
Filed under: Activism, Anarchism, Civil Liberties, Economics, Environment, Politics

Yesterday I went to the anarchist bookfair in London. It was quite an interesting event.

General impressions

Although I call myself an anarchist, I had never been to any anarchist event before, so it was interesting to see the sort of people who turned up to it. There was a healthy mix: what you might call lifestyle anarchists in various costumes; political activists, either tightly or loosely affiliated to anarchism; intellectual types; young people, including quite a few children; old people; etc. Dreadlocks and mohicans were the haircut of choice. One thing that was quite noticeable was that almost everyone was white. I think that probably bears thinking about. The contrast with Holloway Road, where it was held, was striking. But then again, the contrast with Waitrose supermarket which was next door was probably even more striking.

I went to two talks. One by Michael Albert of ZNet talking about parecon, which was pretty good. I’d heard pretty much everything he said about this before from reading articles of his online, but the discussion afterwards was quite interesting. I’m glad that he was talking about it because I think it’s a really important idea that deserves to be better known, particularly in the UK. The other was by someone who it turns out is some mainstream psychologist, talking about how politicians use our fear to manipulate us. Potentially interesting topic but she didn’t say anything that wasn’t obvious, and it was very, very slow. I left halfway through.


I went to two discussion groups. The first one was organised by the London Anarchist Forum, and was on the subject of anarchism and environmentalism. There were lots of interesting ideas, but nothing groundbreaking. We talked a little about whether or not anarchists should cooperate with mainstream political parties, or even the Green party, on this issue. The major arguments against were that (a) it isn’t effective because when parties gain power they usually sell out and don’t do all the good things they said they were going to do, and (b) that if you have capitalism you can’t solve environmental problems and so you can’t really work with any group that basically approves of capitalism. We didn’t spend enough time on the topic to deal with it thoroughly. I was going to say that working within a political party can help to achieve modest victories, and was going to raise the question of whether or not it is worth expending a lot of effort to achieve modest environmental victories. I did say that because the problem of the environment is so pressing and so potentially catastrophic we couldn’t afford to be so idealistic about how we approached it. I think that we need to do everything we can to address environmental problems using whatever approach might work, even if it means organising together with people whose views we fundamentally disagree with. After this, we spent some time talking about particular things you might do. To me, most of these seemed like quite small symbolic gestures, but I haven’t really made my mind up about this sort of thing in general.

The second discussion I went to was about ID cards. This discussion actually worried me deeply. Not because of the subject matter which I already knew all about and I’m already very worried about it, but the ignorance of the participants. A lot of people seemed to be concerned about things which were irrelevant or factually inaccurate. For example, one man was worried about what an iris scan might potentially reveal about you. Even if you could tell things about people from an image of their iris (which is dubious), this is not an issue because biometric scans don’t keep a copy of the image of your iris, only an electronic signature of it from which it isn’t possible to recover the original image. There seemed to be very little realisation that the real problem with the UK ID card proposals is not the card itself but the database that goes with it and the fundamental change that entails in the relationship between the individual and the state.

I also thought that the suggestions people were making were strategically very unsound. There was a lot of focus on the card itself, the cost of it, fears about iris scanning technology, etc. It seems obvious to me that if you base your campaign against something on things that are not fundamental to it, you’re bound to be caught out later on. As far as I was concerned, my main conclusion from this discussion was that a lot of effort needs to be made to educate activists about exactly what the problem is with the ID card proposals. Unfortunately, we ran out of time so I didn’t get a chance to make the point that it ought to be linked to protests against other repressive measures such as anti-terrorism legislation because they are both manifestations of the same problem.


As well as the talks and discussions, they also had stalls for selling books or for individual groups to promote themselves. I spent a very short time wandering around these, but I was quite tired after about 5 hours of talks and discussions, and the rooms were incredibly hot and crowded so I left pretty quickly. I think next year they need to allocate more space for this part of the bookfair, and maybe they even need a larger venue.

I also think they could profitably spread it over two days. There were a lot of discussions and talks that I couldn’t go to because they clashed with others. Maybe this is just inevitable but I think this could easily have been a two day event. I missed out on two discussions about terrorism, the state and prisons, and one on immigration and border controls. If I had the energy, I would have gone to the discussion about whether or not the concept of class war was still a useful one.

Overall, the actual ideas of anarchism were not much discussed, but I don’t think that’s actually a bad thing. I think that most things that need to be done don’t actually need the concepts and ideas of anarchism, but that if people drift towards it when organising or discussing things with anarchists then that is fine.

Question about public money going to private companies
October 22, 2006, 11:10 pm
Filed under: Economics, Politics

I was thinking today – what percentage of public expenditure becomes profit for private companies? Who are the main beneficiaries and how much money in total does it come to?

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Discussion point: who are the biggest shits?
October 18, 2006, 6:17 pm
Filed under: Politics

The government or the press?

On the one hand, the government lies, misleads, is full of corrupt and often stupid individuals. On the other hand, the press distorts the facts, oversimplifies, inflates stupid and easy stories whilst burying important, difficult ones. Neither of them are representative of the real interests of society because they are both peopled by a privileged elite, and are dependent for their success on the patronage of the wealthy (through donations, influence or advertising). It’s a shitty choice, but one of the two must be worse?

Some things to consider:

  • Which group is on average stupider?
  • Which group is more corrupt?
  • Which group is more subservient to wealth?
  • Which group is responsible for more lies/distortions?
  • Which group has a worse effect on society?

Political activism – what to do?
October 6, 2006, 1:27 am
Filed under: Activism, Politics

At some point in the next few months I will probably be going to live in a new place (quite possibly Edinburgh) and start on a new job which is very different from what I have been doing for the last 8 years of my life. (I’m hopefully going to go into the world of computational / theoretical neuroscience, after having been a mathematician.) I have been quite annoyed at myself for a number of years for failing to engage in anything politically, and I plan to change my political habits along with my academic ones as part of this new life. I’m pleased with my level of understanding and analysis of political issues, but I don’t really do anything other than complain about it. In a large part this is due to inertia and laziness (which is my own problem), but it’s also to do with the fact that no particular political activity that I could be involved in feels very worth doing to me.

So my question is – any suggestions for what I could do?

I feel like a lot of groups and campaigns put an enormous amount of effort into things which ultimately don’t do very much. I’m not criticising them at all here. I don’t know what they could be doing better, but I do feel a sense of futility about it all.

Let’s take the example of civil liberties – an issue I really get worked up about. What could I do about this? At the moment, I do my best to explain the problems I see to everyone I know (and the readers of this blog and forums I participate in), and this hopefully has some small effect on them and possibly people they pass this on to. So far so good. I think I’ve achieved here the absolute minimum duty incumbent upon me as a politically aware person, but not much more.

The No2ID group a while ago had a demonstration in London against ID cards. Great! I think they’re a bad idea too. Now a hundred people or so turned up to it, what does this achieve? If a march with millions of people against the war in Iraq had so little effect, what is a few hundred going to do? Obviously nothing directly, but perhaps it has some very small effect on the people who went on it (who meet each other and perhaps get involved more), and the passers by who interacted with the marchers. This latter would have been more or less effective depending on the attitudes of the passers by and the eloquence of the people on the march. I didn’t go on it, so I don’t know how much of this took place. So: total amount achieved, almost nothing as far as I can tell.

So anyway perhaps you can see where I’m going with this. I know it’s a bad attitude, and one ought to do one’s civic duty and participate in the political process, but it’s very difficult to motivate yourself when you know that nothing you do will have an effect.

About the only view I can console myself with is an article that Michael Albert of ZNet wrote a while ago (I couldn’t find the article to link to it I’m afraid). He agreed that the prospects for actually achieving anything positive at the moment are very slim, but that activism was important anyway because it contributes to building up a base of people who are politically aware and able to take a critical attitude towards government, media, etc. At some point in the future, all this work may become critical. Oddly, although that sounds so much more speculative and unreal than the day to day work of many political groups, to me it seems more realistic. Am I right? Is this all that we can hope for at the moment? If so, it suggests that the most important thing I can do is to take a wide interest in as many issues as possible and try to engage as many people as I can in politics, rather than focussing on one particular group or campaign and pouring all my effort into it. In practice this is what I do in a very small scale (people I know and people I argue with on the internet), but perhaps there are avenues to do this more systematically.


Manifesto: Civil Liberties
October 5, 2006, 4:40 am
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Manifesto, Politics

I don’t think I’m able to really do the subject of civil liberties and why they are so important justice. So instead I’m just going to throw out a few particular observations about the subject that concern me.

I think it’s important to fight hard to retain and even expand our civil liberties because they are difficult to gain and easy to lose. In illiberal times, it is easy to see them slip away in years, and they may take decades to regain. It may seem that each individual new right lost, or each new power the government gives to itself is insignificant, but they all contribute and reinforce each other. We all know the poem by Martin Niemoller,

 When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

(quoted with links from wikipedia, so no guarantees as to accuracy)

I think there is a danger that a similar thing is happening in Western democracies today, but much subtler and slower. Most directly, they are ‘coming for’ many innocent people, largely Muslims, on accusations of terrorism. People can be locked up and harassed without trials and on the basis of secret evidence. Less straightforwardly, the government is giving itself all sorts of new powers to spy on us, and taking away our rights to privacy (it is now an offence punishable by up to two years in prison to refuse to decrypt an encrypted message).

Our governments assume they have a right to rule us, and so for them it seems straightforward that they must give themselves new powers and take away our rights so that they can do so more efficiently. But it is incredibly important to the life of democracy that this is not so! They rule at our sufferance. It is their privilege to rule, not their right. Every time we fight to retain a right or stop them from giving themself a new power, however trivial, we are asserting our support for democracy.

Some people express surprise at my vehemence in support of rights which apparently only help the criminals, sometimes even going so far as to use the old “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” line. I believe this to be false for two reasons. Firstly, our governments have shown in the past and the present that they are willing to use their powers in dubious ways. The Labour party member Walter Wolfgang was forcibly removed from a Labour party conference and detained under Anti-Terrorism legislation for heckling. The government has shown that they are willing to be devious and underhanded (for example, deporting people in the middle of the night without telling their families or lawyers so that they have no chance to appeal), so why should we trust them with enormous new powers?

It’s true that they’re nothing like dictatorships or really repressive governments, but this is no reason to let them off their bad behaviour as it stands. Perhaps more importantly, all future governments will inherit the powers that our governments give to themselves, and how can we guarantee that these governments will use them responsibly, even if we think our current governments are doing so? The proposed ID card system might seem like it would be the least of your worries if a truly tyrannical government came to power, but the ID card system in Rwanda helped facilitate the massacres there (and indeed some have even argued that without the ID system the massacres could not have taken place).

More US madness
October 5, 2006, 4:06 am
Filed under: Politics

They seem to be making a big effort this week, with new software being developed by universities with enormous government funding to monitor potentially threatening opinion of the US worldwide (hat tip to Richard Warburton), and new legislation to make it easier to violate the constitution (hat tip to Zhou Fang).

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What is torture?
October 3, 2006, 5:46 pm
Filed under: Politics, Terrorism, Torture

The US Congress has passed the Military Commissions Act, effectively legalising torture. Their technique is basically to redefine what they are doing as not-torture, a time honoured technique of repressive governments. (The Strijdom government who created Apartheid in South Africa pulled off the trick by basically getting a whole lot of stooge judges to reinterpet “you may not disenfranchise all the black people” to mean “you may disenfrachise them”.)

Much of the discussion of this Act focusses on the nitty gritty details of their definitions of torture, and what they mean. For example, about whether or not “waterboarding” counts as torture. This discussion is very important, particularly in highlighting what it is exactly they propose to do in the most graphic way possible, so that people understand it. But, it seems to me that a crucial point has been missed. However you define torture, if you are allowed to do something to someone that makes them give up their most cherished secrets against their will and their strongest beliefs, then you must be doing something so horrible to them that the pain involved is worse than going against everything you believe. This level of pain must be considered torture.

In other words, if “interrogation techniques” are to be effective, they must count as torture. If they weren’t torture, they wouldn’t work.

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