Category Archives: freedom

Rocket Science vs the Real World

I’ve been listening to the story of the comet mission with mild interest, and mild bemusement.  Slightly surprised the comet has sufficient gravity to put a satellite into (presumably very slow) orbit around it or to land a craft.

Anyway, my past life working at ESA was completely unrelated to any of this, and I’m observing this story as a member of the general public.  Like the rest of the world I can watch with awe the engineering triumph of getting to the comet.  I can get mildly excited by the cliffhanger story of whether the landing would be successful.  I can take a layman’s interest in scientific results from the mission.

I can even learn a lesson from it: if sending a scientific vehicle into space where it might end up in persistent shadow, the marginal extra cost (and, I imagine, weight) of equipping it with nuclear power is probably well spent.  A technology that’s been standard in submarines since about 1950 is, after all, not exactly rocket science!

But it seems I’ve completely missed the real point of this mission.  Indeed, I never even heard of it until it became top “news” story (in my defence, not having a telly I never even saw him).  Who cares about a stupendous engineering feat and any scientific insights we might get, when some errant scientist appears on telly wearing a politically-incorrect shirt?  Obviously that’s all that really matters: else why should it provoke such a storm in the meeja, and why should the scientist (like Galileo before him) be pushed into a grovelling apology to the Inquisition of his time?

BTW, anyone know where I could get a shirt like that?  Wonder if it was given to him by a woman, as my three most outrageous shirts were?

Talking of the sartorial police, it’s not just the Strict Taliban wing of feminism that’s in the ascendant.  In another recent story, the so-called Naked Rambler Stephen Gough has lost an appeal against being locked up.  Whilst I have no wish to see Mr Gough doing his thing, I hope the powers-that-be who’ve arrested and locked him up over the years are not so hypocritical as to apply double-standards to other cultures, for example by criticising Saudi or Taliban dress codes for women.  If (as I do) you support a woman’s right to dress as she chooses, how can you not support extending the same rights to Mr Gough?  Or to a scientist who must’ve missed the Thought Police element of his media training?

Moglen vs History

King Canute famously failed to prevent the tide coming in.  I can’t help wondering if Eben Moglen is setting himself on a similarly futile course, when he calls for decentralisation of our information infrastructure.

The subject of Moglen’s opening keynote at FOSDEM was liberty, and how technology can work for or against it.  He spoke of current and recent topical events, from Wikileaks to the role of the ‘net in Egypt’s (so-far) peaceful revolution.  And of how technology can serve those who might threaten freedom: how much sensitive information could a heavy-handed government pick up from something as simple as a legal action on Facebook.  How Data Protection in Europe has merely served to outsource handling of personal data to countries like the US with no such protection of privacy.

His call to developers was to build decentralised networks, where we can publish, communicate, interact as we do on the ‘net without submitting all our data to any centralised database that might become the focus of malign attention.   Examples of tasks he spoke of ranged from Facebook-style networking to building a citizens cellphone network from $20 base stations in people’s homes.  Tasks which are at least technically feasible to prototype and develop.

Listening to this, my reaction was that he’s battling against history here.  History on the ‘net has shown different media and channels becoming more, not less, centralised.  The once-popular Usenet medium for public discussion has given way to web-based fora: a wholly inferior medium for the task, and one for which I must admit my small measure of guilt (though it seemed like an interesting thing to implement in 1995).  IRC discussion remains popular amongst geeks, but elsewhere there came chatrooms, and now we even have Twitter making a grab for that space.  Every time, the geek medium gives way to an inferior one because the latter gets the mindshare.  Non-technical journalists will routinely invite us to ‘tweet’ them, or mention a web forum relevant to a topic under discussion, so the public learn of these media.  Meanwhile the old, decentralised, shared, and in both these cases altogether superior, media are relegated to enclaves of geekdom (or, in the case of much of usenet, to wastelands of spam and other abuse).  My suggestion to him was, you need to concentrate your efforts not so much on legislators, but on communicators.  Journalists in mainstream media!

OK, ‘net history is short.  Why should a campaigner for freedom not call for trends to be reversed?

A wider perspective tells us that the online centralisation trends of which I have written are merely examples of similar trends backed by far more history.  The most striking parallel in English history is the Enclosure of the Commons.  The absurd valuations given to some websites (headed by Facebook) tell us a new aristocracy is profiting from enclosing an online commons, albeit an ephemeral and transient one.

And I plead guilty to hosting my blog at another aristocrat of web-land, WordPress.  Yep, my rantings are centralised as a matter of simple convenience.

Book burning

A nasty nutcase is convicted of terrorist offences.  His teenage son is convicted of possessing a book called the Anarchists Cookbook, available openly from Amazon.  And the judge says all copies of the book in the UK should be destroyed (link).

OK, if a man has been manufacturing ricin and intends using it to kill, then he needs to be locked up.  But the son is another story: he may have been complicit in a crime, but if so he should be put on trial for that.  Not for mere possession of a book!  His conviction is a grim reminder of how far we’ve slid into totalitarianism.

Perhaps someone should remind the powers-that-be that within living memory we were at total war with Nazi Germany, yet there were no restrictions on owning or reading Mein Kampf.  Once upon a time, Britain stood for freedom!

Davis for Freedom!

Shadow home secretary David Davis has resigned, and will fight a by-election.

I’m not sure I agree 100% with the catalyst, which is an incremental change and probably largely symbolic (people will work around whatever the system notionally is). But that’s not really the point. What really matters is our rapid slide towards an Orwellian society – the next generation police state. If Davis is taking a stand on that, then he has my full support.

Davis’s own record is very significant here. He’s no liberal. Quite the opposite: he’s a hard tory from a tough background, commonly spoken of as right-wing, and (under normal circumstances, at least) no friend of the “civil liberties” brigade. So for him to take a stand is really significant[1].

Dear Mr Davis, please use your position and reputation well, to highlight all aspects of the rapid advance of the Thought Police into our lives, as well as the slower and more limited encroachment of more traditional totalitarian measures such as six weeks detention without charge. A platform for someone like Naomi Klein on primetime TV, for instance? OK, I expect that may not be quite your taste, but you get the point.

I fear this is an uphill struggle, and it will take a great national trauma to shock us back into valuing freedom. Pastor Niemoller’s fame was, after all, posthumous.  Nevertheless, kudos to Davis for trying.

[1] I can really see where he’s coming from here, because I’ve taken a similar path myself: I had little time for things done in the name of ‘civil liberties’ or ‘human rights’ until The Liar’s fascist government started to attack our more basic freedoms.

Free speech, please

As in other countries, there’s a xenophobic fringe to politics in the UK. We have two well-known parties: the “British National Party”, and the “UK Independence Party”. The former is working-class and is routinely denounced as racist thugs in the mainstream press; the latter is middle-class, and gets – broadly speaking – a good press.

[aside: Interesting that they both focus on an uneasy union of four nations as the subject of their allegiance. In the UK today, Scotland and Wales each has their own nationalist parties and some measure of independence, and Northern Ireland presents an ongoing problem, yet the xenophobic fringe parties bundle them together with England in their vision of a nation]

[aside2: There are elements of similar xenophobia in the main parties but, reassuringly, when William Hague’s Tories made it a major part of their platform, they went down to their biggest ever election defeat]

Anyway, back to the story. Radio 4 just had a discussion about Free Speech vs protecting peoples sensibilities. Among the witnesses questioned were the BNP leader Nick Griffin, so unusually we (the public) had the opportunity to hear from that party, as opposed to the usual filtered reporting of them. He argued strongly for free speech, and came across as hugely more reasonable than the frenzied portrayal of a demonic party we usually get.

And therein lies one strong reason why we need free speech. If Griffin and his party are reasonable people, then why do the media generally deny them a platform? And if they are demonic thugs, let’s hear them and they’ll surely condemn themselves from their own mouths. My best guess is that they fall somewhere between those descriptions, but that’s not a judgement I can make based only on secondhand media reports.

Religions thrive on repression: they become a focus for justified resentment and anger. The bible is full of epic stories; the seeds of christianity grew under persecution in Rome; Islamic extremism today is fed by monstrous injustices and blatent double-standards in the Middle East. If we repress the BNP, they too may thrive on it.

The R4 debate had another interesting contributor: a catholic lady writer whose name escapes me but who (like Griffin) has been attacked for highly controversial views. Of course, the catholic church is traditionally a bastion of intolerance, yet she too made a favourable impression on me, arguing in favour of free speech. The only speaker who conformed to stereotype was a 1970s-style anti-fascist whose knee-jerk reaction was that anything the BNP say should automatically be outlawed.

The sad thing is the speed with which our freedom is being taken away, attacked on the dual fronts of Security and Political Correctness, both massively abused. Freedom of speech has been much eroded, not only on the dubious fringes inhabited (allegedly) by the BNP, but also in such cases as Brian Haw, the peace protestor whose extraordinary persecution must be deeply disturbing to any Brit who would prefer not to live in a totalitarian state (whether you agree with him or not is, of course, immaterial). At the same time, they’re rapidly eroding the legal protection we formerly took for granted against political imprisonment. Add a quarter of a century to Orwell’s famous dystopia, and you have it.