Sunday, 29 November 2009


One of the interesting things to become apparent recently is that quite a large number of people live in an alternate universe where there is one law for the famous and another for ordinary people.

Roman Polanski raped a thirteen year old girl. That his victim was underage at the time exacerbates the crime, but had she been twenty-two year old, it would remain a crime. It remains a crime even thirty-two years later. There are no excuses or mitigating circumstances.

Now that the Swiss authorities have done the right thing and arrested him, a huge number of people from this alternate reality have stumbled into ours and said some rather ridiculous things. The common undercurrent is an indignation that such a virtuoso of cinema would be subjected to something as common as arrest, and a weird paranoia that Polanski is somehow being "singled out" for being famous. It's true that the trajectory of his case has been affected by his fame - but only in the sense that a non-famous criminal doesn't get to escape to France, remaining untouched by the authorities there.

Rape, when committed by someone sufficiently famous, is apparently a mere faux pas, and to arrest Polanski for it impinges on his tremendous dignity as an artist. But there is no way his dignity could be damaged by his arrest, because he already threw it away when he forced himself on Samantha Geimer.

One common apologist tactic is to ignore the fact that the sex was clearly non-consensual and concentrate on the Geimer's age at the time, and to then argue that a charge of pedophilia is unfounded, as Geimer wasn't really a child. But this is beside the point. Let me reiterate: Polanski raped her.

As for the people why cry "hasn't he suffered enough" - the Boston Globe hits the nail on the head, writing: "By reminding us that he lived through the Holocaust and his wife’s 1969 murder, Polanski’s apologists insult other survivors. Being a victim of genocide or violence needn’t engender and never excuses more violence".

Polanski currently remains under detention in Switzerland, though he has just been granted bail. Given that the last time he was granted bail he ran away to France, this sounds less than sensible, though he is being fitted with an electronic tracking bracelet to prevent this from happening again.

What can you do? Well, for starters, don't listen to the apologists, and don't let them spout their garbage unchallenged. If you are a fan of Woody Allen, Whoopi Goldberg, Pedro Almodovar, Wes Anderson, Natalie Portman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Darren Aronofsky, Diane von Furstenberg, Julian Schnabel, Martin Scorsese, Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal or Penelope Cruz (etc) - you may want to reconsider your fandom. Or send them a letter expressing your disappointment.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Top 10 green living myths

With environmental concerns becoming more mainstream, a number of corporations and special interests have cropped up to provide "solutions" that ultimately only benefit their bottom line, but not the planet. They are pushing the recent public fixation on carbon emissions to the exclusion of other issues, like overfishing, deforestation, ocean acidification, and environmental poisons. This has created a whole category of low-carbon products that can be sold to consumers eager to make a difference, as well as potentially creating a very lucrative market in carbon credits. It's much easier and more profitable than, say, not overfishing the oceans or not abusing fertiliser.

Hence, this Guardian blog entry is absolutely worth reading, as it tells you how to actually reduce your environmental impact instead of just wasting your time and money on greenwashed products.

It doesn't only contain tips on what to do, but also lists a number of actions that are ineffective or counterproductive. For example, buying a more efficient car when your old car still works is a very bad idea, since the impact of manufacturing a new car is tremendous. Equally, "green electricity" appears to be something close to a scam, and you'd be much better off just running big appliances overnight.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

I don't talk to children: Is fear of sexual predators reinforcing gender roles?

I've been reading "There's a good girl" by Marianne Grabrucker, in which she describes her attempts to raise her daughter in a sane way free from gender stereotypes, and the difficulties she faces.

One of the recurring themes, especially at the start of the book, is that men ignore children. When a child sits down next to a woman on the train, the woman will often engage it in conversation, and the parent present will look on approvingly. On the other hand, a man will simply pretend the child is not there at all.

If he's forced to interact with it, he will do so very distantly, in a condescending voice and a minimum of words. To quote Grabrucker:

"So a man is apparently permitted to ignore someone; he is in control of the situation and decides who he will talk to and when. When he does address children, he adopts the tone he will later often use with women."

(page 34f)

Now, the fun thing about examining societal attitudes is that you can just look into yourself to figure them out. A thought experiment with an imagined situation can yield quite surprising results.

In my case, I have realised that I just don't talk to children!

For example, let's say I'm over at some friends', who have a little girl. They're busy making dinner. I have offered to help them, but there is nothing for me to do. The little girl is bored, and bothering her parents.

I could go and entertain the kid - ask her to show me her toys, tell her a story, chase her around - do something to get her out of her parents' way so they can cook in peace.

If the parents ask me to, I will happily do this. I like children. But I would never take the initiative: talking to or touching a child who isn't family feels like a huge transgression to me. So unless prompted, I just stand in the doorway and chat.

A woman, on the other hand, would be expected to entertain the child. Women are supposed to help others out, and to take care of children. Men are not expected to do the former, and are societally prohibited from doing the latter.

Another scenario: A little boy is running across a big park, and falls flat on his face, right next to me. He starts crying. I stand rooted to the spot and wait for his mother to run across the park to pick him up and make sure he's OK. I behave like that because interacting with a kid I don't know at all feels like an impossible transgression.

The same kind of attitude also extends to women, if to a lesser degree:

About two years ago, on the bus home, I noticed this young women and her kid come onto the bus, carrying a bunch of plastic bags. The little girl was pretty hyperactive and kept zooming around the bus, despite being repeatedly told off by her mother. Eventually, I noticed that the mother was crying. I had another look at the (translucent) bags, and noticed that they were haphazardly stuffed with lots of clothes and personal things.

I might have jumped to conclusions there, but to me this looked very much like the two had just been thrown out of wherever they had been living. For all I knew, they didn't have anywhere to go.

So of course, I did nothing.

What should I have done? Gone up to the woman, and asked "Pardon me, it looks like you've just been turfed out on the street. Do you need help carrying your bags? Would you like a cup of tea? Do you need somewhere to sleep? We have a sofa."

But I'm a pretty tall guy who's dressed mostly in black. The last thing she needed at that point (turfed out or not) was having to deal with a random stranger, trying to figure out whether he could be trusted. If I had been with my girlfriend we might have done something, but alone, I worried I would just look too threatening.

The whole encounter left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable with myself.

So a few months ago, when I was cycling down the road, I noticed a young woman sitting slumped on the verge, crying. As such things go, any number of cars and pedestrians had passed her already without taking notice. I cycled past her too, but twenty metres down the road, I remembered my previous experience and turned around.

She was not in a happy place, though she refused to tell me any details. In the end - and after consulting with my girlfriend over the phone - I called an ambulance and let them take care of her.

I'm not telling this story to trumpet my own credentials as a Samaritan, but to point out that it took quite a lot of mental effort on my part to override my conditioning to ignore her as well.


When I ask myself why I don't interact with children - or women in distress - the reason that comes to mind most readily is that as a man, I'm a potential child molester and rapist.

Of course I want to scoop up that kid and make sure he's all right. But I don't want to panic his mother as she sees a strange man touching her child. If I were female, I think I would appear much less threatening, and this wouldn't be a problem.

But the mind readily makes up rationalisations, so I don't know if that's the real reason for my behaviour. I may well be just following the rules society has instilled in me and justifying it after the fact.

The moral panic about child molestation is mostly misdirected. Most such transgressions happen within the circle of family and friends. Your dear uncle Bobby is much more likely to interfere with your child than a random stranger on the street. So is your aunt Susan. And even a stereotypical crazed child-rapist would be unlikely to grab your child in broad daylight and run off with it, cackling.

The idea of men as potential child molesters does seem to be a popular one - I've heard it as the received wisdom that there are nearly no male primary school teachers because all it takes is a single accusation of molestation to end their career. I don't know if that's true, but the attitude does certainly exist. But is it, again, a rationalisation of traditional gender roles?

Certainly the worry about child molestation has resulted in some strange things: parents get in trouble for taking photographs of their children taking a bath, and in one case, they are banned from the playground. The justification for such insanity?

"Sadly, in today's climate, you can't have adults walking around unchecked in a children's playground."

So there you go. This is why I don't talk to children, don't smile at them, don't comfort them if they're hurt. And what does that teach them? That taking care of children is women's work.

What am I going to do about it? I will try to push at that boundary a little, at least. Smile at little kids on the street. Offer to entertain my friends' children. What else? Suggestions are very welcome.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Carter-Ruck back down

The Guardian reports that Trafigura's legal firm, Carter-Ruck, has abandoned its attempt to gag the Guardian's parliamentary reporting.

The question was asked by MP Paul Farrelly, and went as follows:

"To ask the Secretary of State for Justice what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura."

Which underlines what kind of scum Trafigura and Carter-Ruck are.

Guardian gagged from reporting UK parliament; bye-bye press freedoms?

The Guardian has been prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds which appear to call into question privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights.

 — The Guardian, "Guardian gagged from reporting parliament", 2009-10-13

I was going to do some work this morning, but urgent news has interfered. Today, the Guardian reports that they have been banned from reporting on a question asked in Parliament. This contravenes the Bill of Rights and basic human rights of freedom of the press and free speech, and is particularly ludicrous given that the question is on public record, and can be found on parliament's website.

Despite the fact that I perfectly well know the reasons behind the ban and what they're trying to hide, I cannot put them here on this page - the legal situation appears to be unpleasant and hairy in the extreme, thanks again to UK libel law. However, I very much encourage you to read the article, and to conduct your own research from thereon. I'm sure you'll be able to find what you're looking for with some digging...

Interestingly, BBC News is completely silent on the topic. Hopefully that's because they're scared of legal action, not because they don't care about civil liberties. Anyway, I would very much appreciate it if you could give them a nudge by sending them a message asking them to cover the Guardian gag.

Furthermore, please write to your MPs and ask them to bring up this issue in parliament.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

More Willkür?

Burning cars are a regular occurrence in Berlin.

Ever since the G8 protests, cars all over the city keep being set aflame - in the first seven months of 2007, some 143 of them. Unsurprisingly, the police and the city government are under a lot of pressure to do something about this - the destruction of property is immense, and burning cars are dangerous. [1]

In the early morning of the 18th May, a Berlin police patrol noticed a person hiding between parked cars, and went to investigate. On exiting their car, they saw that a nearby car had been set on fire. They rushed to extinguish the flames and lost sight of the person. Given that that person was likely the arsonist, they went looking for him or her.

A few blocks away they saw a young woman, entering a 24-hour shop. She, Alexandra R, looked like the person they had glimpsed earlier, so they followed her in. When she saw the police, she started shouting at them to leave her alone. They took her in on suspicion of arson. Berlin police opened a case against her, but let her go home on Monday afternoon, having decided that she was not an urgent suspect.

The next day, the case was in the newspapers: they called her an arsonist, a car-hater, a "hate-burner". [2] Alexandra R is a leftist activist who organises demonstrations and has been known to throw stones at them. She is the kind of person, the newspapers said, who sets cars on fire.

The pressure from the newspapers and the opposition parties was powerful: the next day, Alexandra was arrested again and detained [3] on suspicion of arson. Two months later, on the 27th July, a judge ruled that she could be released on bail, but then the state prosecutor intervened, now stating that there was a risk of re-offence.

Alexandra has been under detention for more than four months now, and has lost her apprenticeship place as a result of this. At the time of this writing, the case has just gone to trial and so far, its outcome is uncertain, as there is an absence of hard evidence. [4]

Needless to say, I don't think setting cars on fire is a good and righteous thing to do.

What it boils down to, though, is that if you live in Berlin, and have the wrong politics and the wrong friends, you can end up being locked up for months for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because it's perfectly possible that she was not that person the police saw. Equally, it is possible that she set that car on fire. But it's not proven. And maybe Berlin police have locked up an innocent for months, for political reasons, because they want to be seen to be doing something.

If she is convicted of arson, her sentence will be one to ten years of prison. The difference being that this sentence will be meted out on someone the legal system has found guilty. The current detention - four months of being locked up so far - is being inflicted on someone who should be presumed innocent.

The state prosecutor claims that if released she would flee. Others point out that she made no move to do so when she was first released, despite fully knowing that she would end up in court. Equally, the likelihood of her setting cars on fire when she's already under bail on suspicion of arson is probably rather low.

Since this case has firmly entered the realms of politics and opinion, I would like to invite you to write to the state prosecutor. You don't have to agree with setting cars on fire - I don't. You don't have to agree with her politics - I don't, by and large. All you need is an unwillingness to let the state lock up someone because it's politically convenient.

So what I've done, and what I would like you to also do, is send an email or letter to the state prosecutor, stating the following things:
  • I make no claims as to Alexandra R's guilt or innocence - this isn't about whether she did it, it's about how she has been treated while a suspect.
  • I am disturbed by her being denied bail despite the unlikelihood of flight or reoffence.
  • I feel that she has been singled out for harsher treatment because of her political associations and because of media pressure.
  • She should presumed innocent until sentenced, and yet has been in prison for four months.
  • The state prosecution should apologise to her, and in case she is convicted, should lobby for the time already served in detention to be subtracted from the sentence.

Staatsanwaltschaft Berlin
Turmstrasse 91
10559 Berlin


Main Sources (all in German):
[1] According to the chief of Berlin's Landeskriminalamt.
[2] Die kranke Welt der Hassbrennerin, Berliner Kurier
[3] Put into Untersuchungshaft, which is not quite the same thing as detention in the UK or US.
[4] Ein Feuerschein, eine dunkle Figur, Der Tagesspiegel
[5] Linke Gruppe besetzt Wahlkreisbüro von Ströbele,

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Shopping as a "patriotic duty"

Lately, the media have been discussing the idea that the public needs to do more shopping to prop up the economy. Some have even framed it in terms of there being a "duty to shop". Meanwhile, the UK government has been lowering interest rates, which ends up punishing people who haven't been living above their means, while bailing out the ones who have.

Anyone with even a passing interest in ecological issues knows that the current rate of consumption is simply impossible to sustain, much less increase. The earth is of a finite size, so eventually we will run out of things. We might quibble about when that's going to happen, but it will, and it will likely happen within your lifetime.

Still, the idea that the economy would - god forbid - shrink - is discussed in apocalyptic terms.

I understand that without some heavy adjustments in society, a shrinking economy means that people lose their jobs. But perhaps modern technology (and the UK's convenient position atop a giant pyramid of exploitation, I mean, trade) has made working forty hours a week an unnecessary burden? Theoretically, we could simply all agree to work less, be a little poorer, and have more free time. In this free time we could discover that there are ways of enjoying ourselves that don't cost as much.

For example, board games. I'm a great fan of board games, and play them fairly regularly. If you look at them from a cost/benefit point of view, they're amazing. An expensive board game may cost 25 pounds, but will provide hundreds of hours of entertainment to several people. However, people don't play board games because they think they're for children, or for nerds, or they're outdated.

Partly, this is due to conspicuous consumption, that tendency of people to consume goods and services to show off their wealth and success. Playing a board game doesn't require you to be rich, successful or popular, so it's an unpopular pastime for that reason.

To some degree, I think, this is human nature - people instinctively want to enhance their social status. But societies can differ in what things define your social status, and theoretically, those things could be something less environmentally disastrous.

But anyone who sells anything has a vested interest in equating its consumption with social standing. Hence, advertising consists of a thousand daily voices telling you to buy things. But there are next to no voices telling you not to.

Another vested interest is the limitation of public facilities. Anything that's freely available to everyone - benches, public toilets, public television, public anything - is in competition with its private counterpart - coffee shops, toilets that charge you, private television, etc. (Yes, benches and public toilets compete with coffee shops. How many times have you had a cup of tea because you needed the loo and a sit down, rather than because you wanted the tea?)

Finally, I have to bring up the argument that money does not make you happy. This is a phrase that many people secretly disbelieve, but I think it's quite accurate. Unsurprisingly, there has been quite a lot of research in that direction, and what it generally says is this: people who are actually poor (by the standards of their society) are less happy than others. But for everyone else, there is no correlation between wealth and happiness. [1] [2]

At this point you may have dismissed this post. After all, none of this is new. You've been told to turn off your TV, go outside, stop buying pointless things, et cetera et cetera. You've been told more times than you can remember.

That doesn't mean it's not true, though, now is it?

People have this crazy idea that once something's no longer fashionable, it's no longer true. Criticisms of consumerism haven't stopped being true just because people came up with them a while ago. Just because they're no longer "trendy" doesn't mean they're not valid.

I think that's pretty much what happened to environmentalism in the 90s - it was considered such an 80s thing to worry about that the public just largely forgot about it. Instead we had the dot-com boom to occupy us. Next, terrorism grabbed the headlines. And now it's 2009, and unsurprisingly, the environmental problems haven't gone away by themselves.

So what can you do? Understand that a lot of people are putting a lot of effort into making you believe you must constantly spend money to be happy and entertained. Distrust these impulses and consider the alternatives.

If you're interested in reading more about such things, I can recommend the book Growth Fetish, which makes most of the points I make above but in more detail.

[1] Clive Hamilton - "Growth Fetish", chapter 2.

[2] Or alternatively, Hamilton's sources, which I admittedly haven't read:

Steve Dodds, "Economic growth and human well-being", in Mark Diesendorf and Clive Hamilton (eds), "Human Ecology, Human Economy: Ideas for an Ecologically Sustainable Future", Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997.

Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, "Happiness and Economics", Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2002.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Trafigura: An Opinion Piece. Opinion! No facts here!

As I have previously mentioned, UK libel law is quite unusual in that it essentially places the burden of proof onto the accused rather than the accuser. Also, the defence costs, even if the defence is successful, have to be carried by the accused, and the costs can easily be half a million pounds. This leaves most organisations and individuals with no choice other than not to contest the suit and having to retract their statements.

On a completely unrelated note, have a series of links to some interesting - but potentially libellous and untrue - news articles about oil trading company Trafigura:
In my personal opinion...

Wait, am I allowed to have an opinion on this?

I'm not entirely certain. I was under the impression that people were generally allowed to have an opinion, but recent events have somewhat dented that idea.

So you're just going to have to form your own. But then you must keep it to yourself, or at least not mention it within sight or earshot of Trafigura's lawyers...

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Quick Link: How to Organise a Demonstration

I thought readers here might be interested in Carrie Supple's article for The F-Word: How to organise a demonstration:
In this case study, Carrie Supple explains how she and Louise Morris organised a protest to support Sudanese journalist Lubna Hussein - and how you can use the same techniques to organise a demo for your campaign too.

Monday, 14 September 2009

A famous face

Zarkonnen's description of the purpose of this blog is that it is a place to practically make the world a little better. I am hoping that posting this here will help something be done about the focus of my post today, TV chef James Martin.

In an article in The Mail on Sunday motoring section he describes how endangering cyclists by "skimming" them and implies he causes them to either crash or certainly come near. I know that it can be challenging for some people to understand the appeal of cycling, but in the UK as in almost all countries cyclists have equal rights on the road and are much more vulnerable road users.

The article itself does not fall foul of the guidelines set out by the Press Complaints Commission, even though he explicitly describes breaking the law and endangering others, but for this reason I feel that complaints against this article should be sent to the BBC. As his main employer he is a representitive of the corporation on TV and in this article puts himself and the BBC into disrepute.

The letter example below is taken from the Bike Radar forums, but can be adjusted and sent to the BBC complaints department. It isn't their fault that his article was published, but I don't want a public body that I help to fund to keep such a person on their payroll.

I wish to formally complain about the comments made by the presenter James Martin in a column in the Daily Mail newspaper. Whilst I recognise that this is beyond the control of the BBC the presenter is one the public faces of the corporation and receives funding from licence payers.
James Martin specifically admits to causing cyclists distress and possible injury by his actions. The admissions, if substantiated, could well result in prosecution for Inconsiderate Driving, Driving Without Due Care And Attention or even Common Assault. The behaviour of James Martin as described in his column are not those which I have come to expect from the BBC. I would be grateful if you could explore the admissions and recontact me with the results of your findings. The article can be found below.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Bluefin Update

As stated in my last post, the fate of bluefin tuna is currently being discussed in the European Union's political machinery. When I was writing the last post, the European Commission were about to decide on whether to back the addition of bluefin to CITES, which would make the tuna a protected species and outlaw trade in its meat - giving stocks a chance to recover after years of mis-management.

The EC have now decided to back the application to CITES, which is excellent news. However, according to Reuters, "[...] the EU will not fully commit until its 27 member countries have been consulted on September 21 or before new scientific data emerges in November".

The problem with waiting until November is that the application deadline to CITES is on 14 October! Hence, waiting for the new data, while it may sound reasonable on the surface, is pretty much a delaying tactic aimed at preventing the CITES application from going through this year. I'm really not sure what extra scientific data would be needed - bluefin tuna is clearly being fished to extinction, and the current stock management is clearly ineffectual.

Which means that it's now more important than ever to write to your MEPs and tell them to support the immediate addition of bluefin to CITES Appendix I. You can use this letter as a guide, but it's better if you use your own words. The earlier post also contains more background information.

Using WriteToThem is really quick and straightforward, and even a quick (if polite line) is far better than nothing.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Save bluefin tuna

The bluefin tuna is a magificent fish - huge, fast, beautiful, even able to generate its own body heat, not something fish can usually do.

Photo by adalau, CC-licensed

It's also very tasty and very sought after - and about to go extinct due to overfishing. According to marine scientists and conservation organisations [1], bluefin tuna stocks have collapsed. Without careful management of the remaining stocks, the fish will soon be gone entirely.

Unfortunately, the "International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas", supposedly in charge of protecting the fish, has been setting quotas far above safe levels. [2] For example, in November 2009, they were advised by their own scientists that the quota should not exceed 15 000 tonnes - so they set it to 22 000. Add to that the huge illegal catch made possible by lax enforcement, and the actual amount of fish extracted from the sea ends up as 50 000 to 60 000 tonnes. [3]

ICCAT's ineffectual quotas are not enough to save the fish. Hence, the European Commission is mulling a proposal made by Monaco to add bluefin tuna to Appendix I of CITES, which would temporarily ban all international trade in it. This would allow the stocks to recover, especially because it would also curb illegal fishing. Illegally caught tuna can be easily passed off as its legal counterpart right now, but this would no longer work with the ban in place.[4]

However, a number of other countries, especially Malta, who has large tuna fisheries, are trying to stop this ban. And the fisheries commissioner, Joe Borg, says that he wishes to wait for an update from ICCAT before doing anything - by which point the deadline for CITES applications will have (conveniently?) passed. [5]

In short, this is a great big mess of European bureaucracy and horse-trading - but according to the Independent, the vote will be sometime next week. And if it goes the wrong way, it may well doom bluefin tuna.

And you don't need to be a, er, fish-hugger to want to save bluefin - if nothing else, it is a very tasty fish, and its extinction will impoverish our dinner table.

Hence, I would like to appeal to you to quickly write to some of the main players in this thing and ask them to ensure that the ban does go through. To this end, I have collected addresses and some prepared letters. However, if possible, amend or reword the letters in your own words.

An announcement is expected on Wednesday 9 September [6], so you will have to hurry.

So what can you do?

Write to:Write something like this:

Dear NAME,

It has come to my attention that the European Commission is considering an application to add bluefin tuna to Appendix I of CITES, which would declare it an endangered species and outlaw international trade in it.

Bluefin tuna is a popular food fish that has been brought to the brink of extinction by years of overfishing. It is my belief that the current measures to protect it are grossly inadequate, with ICCAT regularly setting quotas far above scientific recommendations. This is compounded by illegal fishing.

Of course, a ban on its trade may cause disruption to European fisheries, but so will its extinction!

I would ask you to do whatever is in your power to ensure that bluefin tuna is added to the list of endangered species. We no longer have the luxury to wait and see.

I look forward to hearing from you on this important matter.

Yours Sincerely,

your name here

[1] Bluefin Tuna in Atlantic Nearing Extinction, Conservation Group Says, National Geographic
[2] Managed to death, The Economist
[3] The Sushi Wars: Can the Bluefin Tuna Be Saved? Time
[4] Showdown looms for tuna in Brussels, WWF
[5] Political infighting threatens survival of the bluefin tuna, The Independent
[6] EU mulls ban on tuna as stocks near collapse,

That sickly smell

I use a software package called Poser 7 to make character portraits for the game I'm developing. I bought it about a year ago, having played around with the demo briefly.

I also have a copy of Poser 3 floating around, and in some respects, the program's quality is much improved: the monochrome-terracotta skin of the Poser 3 figure models has been replaced by a much more believable texture, and the rendering engine has been upgraded to a proper ray-tracer.

But there are certain issues. A lot of the newer systems integrate very badly into the program's core functionality. For example, while I can edit the shape and colour of a figure's face, the changed colour does not get applied to the rest of the body, making the feature semi-useless.

Adding clothes is hit-and-miss, with a lot of the pre-supplied clothes 3D models being impossible to fit onto the figures properly: the figure's flesh often extends further out than the cloth, leaving random patches of nakedness. In one case this is even visible in the thumbnail picture of that clothes model.

But the most distressing thing about the program is the amount of sexism that it manages to contain:

By default, Poser 7 comes with a male and a female figure (3D model) called "Simon" and "Sydney" respectively. Simon comes in two major variations: naked, and clothed in jeans and T-shirt. Sydney comes in one variation only: naked.

Let me repeat that: the male figure gets a version with clothes on by default. The female one doesn't. Of course, in both cases, the naked figures can then be clothed by adding clothes to them, but why this asymmetry? What if I just want a quick 3D render of a clothed woman? I can do it if it's a man.

This ridiculousness is compounded by some other things:

Simon comes without genitals by default. This is perhaps not so surprising. Sydney doesn't have nipples by default. The figure's breasts are just nipple-less flesh-coloured domes. You have to load in an alternate texture to get the nipples. So here we have sexism intermixing with a tiring shame about the human body.

The default set of clothes models supplied with the program is rather interesting as well. Simon's and Sydney's wardrobes are similar in some parts (tennis shoes, sandals, jeans) - but while Simon has a suit, Sydney has a form-fitting leather jacket and high-heeled leather boots. The two tops in Sydney's wardrobe are an incredibly tight fit as well. In short, Simon can dress casual or business, Sydney can dress casual-sexy or leather-sexy.

Then there's the websites you can buy more figure models at, which heavily feature scantily clad women along with invitations to, er, buy them...

I don't think I will.

To be frank, I don't have any suggestions for you here beyond boycotting software that has that sickly smell of sexism about it - but I am badgering the distributors of Poser, trying to get some sort of statement out of them. If that happens, I will post it here.

Saturday, 22 August 2009


Crossposted at my personal blog.

On my way to work, I cycle past a gym called Greens. It's a Health and Fitness Club, in fact, or perhaps even more of a lifestyle centre, complete with "stylish, fully licensed bar and brasserie" and "luxurious health and beauty salon".

Outside the car park, on the corner of a main road where hundreds of people must see them every day, Greens have two large advertisements. The posters, which are changed regularly, used to be the size of the ones in bus stops. They recently replaced the old boards with two enormous ones, nearly ten feet tall and each completely covered with a new ad.

The images below are representative of the Greens advertising style. The new ad in question featured the bum of a woman in bright pink shorts, and if I remember correctly, the model was actually pointing her finger directly at her rump. The caption read, "Does my bum look big in this?"

These ads present the female body - usually divested of its head or any other indication that it belongs to an individual person - in a purely passive, sexual way. Even the two women who seem to have been exercising, one with a Swiss ball and the other with boxing gloves, are posed to be coy, inviting, sexually receptive. This is the only image of female beauty that is possible in the Greens advert. Additionally, this is a beauty only attainable by women who have the means to buy a membership to this expensive and luxurious health club and the leisure time to spend many hours working out there.

Greens offer many classes (in aerobics and so on) and talk about health benefits on their website. I'm sure you could get fit there, but according to their advertising the primary reason for women to join is to conform to this sexualised, exclusive and unrealistic notion of beauty. For the men? Either they don't need to be advertised to, or Greens is counting on the timeworn idea that a few shots of tits and ass will lead them wherever the advertiser wants.

I say, "if I remember correctly," because I came back past Greens yesterday to find that the posters had been pulled down and the graffiti above sprayed on one of the boards: Every body is beautiful.

I was overjoyed to see this - activism for body acceptance and against this unrealistic beauty standard, in my very own neighbourhood. I have been annoyed with these ads - which are put up in several other places around the area too - since I started noticing them, almost as much for the bad puns they sport as for their representation of female beauty (they never feature men). I'd never really moved on from annoyance to anger or determination to act, though. I think part of my pleasure in seeing this graffiti is because it's a reminder that kicking against these images, which dominate our public spaces without our consent, is possible and has an effect.

I wonder who wrote this? I'd like to meet them.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Useful Resource: the Bad Science Activism Forum

I've been pointed to a very helpful resource for activism and complaint-making (thanks, Suzy!). The forum at the Bad Science website, run by Guardian science writer Ben Goldacre, has an Activism board. As well as how-tos for making complaints to several regulatory bodies, the board has many threads with suggested actions to take, encouragement and discussion on blogging and writing to fix things. The topics are of course skewed towards "bad science" (a selection from the front page of threads includes discussion of detox, vaccination and the British Chiropractic Association vs. Simon Singh) but the advice could be used in any area.

The board is admittedly UK-centric. How-to guides (stickied at the top of the page) include:

Women, men, games, cleavage

Beyond my friends' journals, the two kinds of blogs I mostly read are ones about programming and ones about politics. Typically, their content does not overlap, but the other day there was a rare exception: Both Coding Horror and Sociological Images pointed out the hilarious-yet-depressing evolution of the ads for a browser-based game called "Evony".

Starting out with a fairly generic man-in-armor-with-sword, the ad switched to showing a series of women with increasingly more cleavage - until the final ad, which is literally just cleavage. Any mention of what kind of game this is supposed to advertise has long fallen by the wayside. If I had to take a guess from the way the ad looks, I would go for strip poker, not a "Civilization"-esque empire building game.

The makers of the ads probably noticed a correlation between the amount of cleavage and the proportion of viewers who clicked on the ad - but in the process, they have outed themselves as troglodytes.

(In case you would like to see confirmation that these ads are indeed out on the web, as of the time of this writing, going to is likely to do the trick.)

Sadly, they are hardly alone. Large chunks of the video game industry understand themselves as a hetero-men-only club. The line between game mags and lad mags is frequently quite blurred, for example at, who have a "Babe of the day" section. Then there are the ubiquitous "Booth Babes" found at trade shows, a tradition of scantily clad women to be ogled by the (assumedly) all-male crowds. The few games which actually feature female main characters often treat them as mostly eye candy. And on the rare occasions where this isn't the case, certain people complain and wield photoshop.

Still, there are games developers out there who remember that women are people, not eye candy. Spiderweb Games is pretty good on that score. And then there's PopCap Games' Plants vs Zombies, who decided to have their own special take on the Evony ads:

  • Vote with your wallet. Don't play or buy games with sexist content or advertising - or at least consider the alternatives. There are plenty of online empire-building games that don't feel the need to insult their potential customers with the assumption they'll be swayed by boobies. If you like building things, you might also like FreeCiv - and you can typically buy a copy of Sim City 2000 or Alpha Centauri for a pittance.

  • Write Angry Letters: To game mags that think casual sexism is OK, to game developers who think the same, and to websites who allow said ads to be run.

For example, I sent the following letter to LiveJournal:

Dear LiveJournal team,

I have noticed that you are showing ads for the web-based game "Evony" on your site. From their cleavage-centric appearance one would guess that they advertise porn, or perhaps strip poker, though apparently they advertise a strategy game.

Certainly, the ad's creators feel the need to insult their potential customers by assuming that the sight of breasts will make us play their game. Given that (according to your stats) some 55.3% of your readership is female, and given that the majority of your male readership (myself included) probably doesn't want to be subjected to these ads either, do you really think it's appropriate to run them?

As you may be aware, there has been quite a backlash against these ads in a number of online communities, and your display of them does taint you by association. Livejournal hosts a large number of different communities, many of whom will feel less than welcome as long as you are showing these ads.

I certainly don't feel welcome.

I look forward to hearing from you on this important matter.

I encourage you to send a similar letter, perhaps based on this one - but be sure to make it different enough so that it doesn't look to them as if someone just pasted the same thing a dozen times using different names.

Equally, I encourage you to send a letter to Evony. Now, given that they are still running these ads, it's likely that they are rubbing their little hands with glee at all the publicity the Internet outrage has produced. Try to make it clear to them that insulting their potential customers isn't going to work in the long run.

But if you only send one letter, go for the LJ one, or a letter to another site that's showing the ads. I think we have more of a chance shaming them into not showing the ads than Evony, who have already outed themselves as slimebags.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Directory Enquired?

So here is my first Not Powerless post, unfortunately not in the same vein as the majority of posts here but pretty important nonetheless. A new directory enquiries service, run by the start up company Connectivity is to begin service soon, providing people the opportunity to find other people's private and business mobile numbers for a small charge.

The reason this is going here, rather than being relegated to the bottom of the pile is the privacy issue it brings up. When I subscribed to my land line phone BT gave me the chance to make it ex-directory straight away. When I signed my last mobile contract it wasn't an option as no one was expecting to hand over these numbers to a private enterprise. Connectivity have threatened legal action against mobile operators who don't give their databases over, but unlike BT who let you opt-in when you join, this service will treat you as "opt out", making it the customers job to remove their number. My provider, T-Mobile, still haven't reacted to this and only provide the option to add your number to the general directory, rather than remove it completely.

Which means only thing to do to protect our own privacy is to remove it HERE. The site is down at the moment, but will hopefully be up and accepting peoples requests to be removed soon. I consider my mobile number to be private - I give it out where I want but have taken all other means to have it removed from unwanted spam et. cetera. (Such as HERE - the Telephone Preference Service) In an age where "cyber-bullying", spam, and nuisance calls make up a massive part of traffic, surely adding a new way to do so is a questionable idea.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Simon Singh vs the BCA

"If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market."

 — Simon Singh

In a Guardian opinion column on the 19th April, respected science writer Simon Singh wrote about chiropractic, a type of alternative treatment involving the manipulation of the spine. Chiropractic is usually applied to help with back problems, but some practitioners also claim it can be used to deal with various children's ailments such as colic.

Singh pointed out that there is no evidence for its effectiveness even for back problems, much less for colic, and that the treatment was rather more dangerous than people believe, potentially leading to serious spinal problems or even, in at least one case, death.

The British Chiropractic Association was less than pleased about this and promptly sued Singh for libel. This may sound a bit silly, but has actually turned out to be quite a serious problem. It turns out that English libel laws are notoriously unbalanced: libel cases take huge amounts of money to fight, and the burden of proof lies, strangely, on the accused.

Furthermore, if the libel case is won, the judgement can be enforced in other jurisdictions, leading to something called "libel tourism" where people all over the world are being sued for libel in the UK. All it takes is "publication" in the UK, which can be as little as a few people reading a web page.

Rather than back down and retract his statements, as most people would have had to do, Singh decided to rely on his comfortable financial resources (and hard-headedness) and fight the case. Things haven't gone that well so far on the legal front, though, with a preliminary ruling stating that Singh's article was a "fact" article rather than an "opinion" one, which is a bit strange given it was published in the Guardian's opinion section. (The Guardian has since decided to withdraw the column due to the threat of the aforementioned legal costs.)

But the BCA's actions, and the widespread realisation of just how unfair and frequently abused British libel laws are, has spawned a number of interesting campaigns:

Sense about Science have started a campaign and petition called "Keep libel laws out of science" stating that current UK libel laws are damaging free discourse and scientific discussion.

And one blogger at Adventures in Nonsense found some 500 chiropractors claiming to treat colic and reported them to their local Trading Standards office. (The Trading Standards Agency has ruled that chiropractors may not claim to treat colic.)

I have only scratched the surface of a messy but fascinating dispute. I definitely encourage you to read more about it.

If things go badly, we will end up with a precedent enabling all kinds of snake-oil salesmen to silence their critics. But if things go well, there is a real chance of reforms that will protect critics and scientists from being silenced by powerful organisations.

So what can you do?

  • Sign the "Keep libel laws out of science" petition.

  • Sign this government petition asking for libel law reform.

  • If you have one, write to your MP asking them to support libel law reform.

  • Help with this campaign by looking up your local chiropractors and fact-checking their claims: Do they pretend to have academic titles they don't actually hold? Do they claim to cure colic? (The Advertising Standards Agency says they're not allowed to.)

  • If you're into that kind of thing, there is also a Facebook group.

  • Spread the word - blog about it, tweet about it, bring it up in conversation.

Finally, given that the amount of bloggage produced on this is quite huge, and that I have understandably not read all of it, if you have any further suggestions on what to do, please leave a comment and I'll incorporate it.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Guerrilla Gardening

Life in modern Britain is often described as a series of dissociations. People have become estranged from public spaces, which have become the preserve of private business, of crime or of state surveillance supposedly in response to that crime. They have lost connection with their communities and with the origins of their food.

I can't offer a panacea that will fix all of these problems, but I have found a way to work against them: guerrilla gardening.

Guerrilla gardening takes place all over the world, and gardeners see their work in many lights: purely as art, or to press for reconsideration of land rights; to build communities and reclaim public space for the public; for the effect of beauty, humour or surprise; to provide fresh food for local people or even work towards self-sufficiency; or sometimes as part of a larger protest. At the London May Day protests in 2000, for example, Reclaim the Streets "repurposed [Parliament Square] as a gardening area, with rockeries, a village pond and tress and plants."

This afternoon, I met up with the Cambridge Guerrilla Gardeners group, who state on their Facebook group:
We want to make Cambridge beautiful (and maybe even vegetable producing). We're always looking for new people to help out and new places to plant things - join up or get in touch : )
A small corner of land by a busy intersection of roads, otherwise neglected and ignored, is now a beautifully haphazard collection of foxgloves, roses, onions, cabbages, swedes and poppies: it's a certain improvement.

For information and inspiration on guerrilla gardening, Guerilla is essential. Local groups abound and can be found by a quick web search. All you really need to get started with this grubby, hopeful movement, though, is a few seeds and a forgotten patch of dirt somewhere in your local area.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Rape crisis crisis followup

I have been in contact with Yvonne Traynor, director of the Croydon rape crisis centre currently forced with closure due to Boris Johnson reneging on his promise of funding. According to her, they are currently in negotiation with the major's office, so let's hope some good will come of that.

Meanwhile, others have set up a campaign called Boris Keep Your Promise aimed at saving the centre. They had a charity event on the 4th which I sadly did not find out about in time, but I will get in touch with them and keep you posted on further activities. Alternatively, you can get in touch with them directly by email or Facebook.

The consultation to decide the funding closes on 20th July. Please write an email or letter to the Major and (politely but firmly) remind him to keep his promise. You can use this one I sent, though I urge you to paraphrase or edit it significantly, as a set of identical emails is just going to be ignored:

Dear Mr Johnson,

I have recently been made aware that you have failed to provide funding for London rape crisis centres. You specifically promised to fund them in your election manifesto. As you are no doubt aware, this means that the only London centre may well have to close.

This is a shameful state of affairs. It is not what you promised, it is not what your supporters signed up for. I urge you to correct this at once and provide the centre with the funding you promised.

I look forward to hearing from you on this important matter.

Your sincerely,

your name here

Friday, 5 June 2009

Un-freedom of Information

What kind of a country passes a law that has no purpose other than to empower its leader to suppress evidence of the torture it inflicted on people? Read the language of the bill; it doesn't even hide the fact that its only objective is to empower the President to conceal evidence of war crimes.

 — Glenn Greenwald

The ACLU is currently trying to get the US government to release certain photographs allegedly depicting abuse of Guantanamo Bay detainees.

President Obama initially supported the release of the photographs, but has now changed his position, citing national security concerns. Which is perhaps questionable but within the provisions of how the Freedom of Information Act works.

But not content with this, the Senate has now voted to introduce new law, the "Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act of 2009". The law allows the Secretary of Defence to quash the disclosure of any photographs of US detainees taken between 9/11 and January 2009. It effectively guts the FOIA when it comes to photographs of US prisoners.

Why are those photographs so important? Simply put, if photographs of torture become public, then the torturers' crimes become visible and provable - and preventable. Make no mistake - waterboarding is torture, waterboarding was used at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, and there are plenty of suggestions that even worse happened.

The law was tacked onto the end of a spending bill, which so far has failed to pass the House of Representatives, thanks to a number of Democrats refusing to vote for it. Of course, said representatives are now being put under pressure to support their bill.

What can you do? Well, it obviously helps to be a US citizen for this one.
Even if you're not, please spread the word about this by social-bookmarking, linking to, or forwarding this blog post or this article.

If you are a US citizen, you can do the following:

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Voting Reform

At the moment, you can hardly go to BBC News without seeing another story about an MP standing down. With parliament being so denuded by the expenses row, the need for reform of some sort is clear.

One direly needed reform is the replacement of the current system for electing MPs. Currently, MPs are elected by pre-defined constituencies through first-past-the-post voting. Unfortunately, first-past-the-post tends to seriously pervert democracy thanks to something called Duverger's law.

Duverger's Law states that a first-past-the-post elections will almost invariably result in a system where only two parties have any significant political clout. This is largely due to people having to tactically vote for candidates they don't like but have a better chance of winning than their real favourite.

In the extreme, this can lead to the absurd situation where there is a third party that would be preferred by the majority of voters, but nevertheless fails to be voted into power. Voters know that unless everyone magically switches to the new party in the same election, the vote will be split and some truly undesirable party will win instead. Meanwhile, the established parties have little incentive to serve the people effectively, as only a truly titanic public discontent could permanently keep them out of the running.

Unfortunately, whenever the topic of alternate voting systems crops up, certain people will start scaremongering about the dangers of such "untested" systems. But in reality, it's hardly the case that everyone is using majority voting.

In Switzerland, for example, the National Council is elected using a somewhat complex but largely effective system of proportional representation: people vote for individual candidates, whose party affiliations determine the number of seats each party gets. Within each party bloc, the candidates with the most votes get seats. For example, if you vote for candidate A of party X, A may not get a seat, but you've at least helped someone else from party X get a seat, instead of indirectly helping party Y.

In Ireland, elections use single transferable vote, which is another system that ensures you can vote for a less popular candidate without wasting your vote. In STV, you simply rank the candidates you like in the order you'd most see them elected. If your first choice can't get a seat, your vote is transferred to your second choice, and so on.

In both systems, you can safely vote for the person you prefer without fear that you're actually propelling their opposite into office. Single transferrable vote would be the most preferable, since it allows people to vote for any combination of individual candidates, and avoids giving undue power to political parties.

The introduction of a new voting system could also coincide with the abolishment of constituencies. But if that's not palatable, STV works just fine for electing a single representative. (In that case it's usually called instant-runoff voting.)

The only real problem with introducing a new voting system is the potential for voter confusion, as unfortunately happened in Scotland in 2007, when the introduction of STV caused a significant number of people to incorrectly fill in their ballot paper. But much of the blame can be laid on organisational mistakes and people plain failing to read the instructions, and the confusion has died down since.

In England, there were serious attempts to introduce STV in both 1884 and 1917, but they ultimately came to nothing due to a lack of support from the political establishment. [1]

To be frank, this is hardly surprising. It's not in the interest of those who have been propelled into power by the current voting system to change anything about it. Any change is likely to decrease their chances of being re-elected. And such established politicians can simply claim that any voting system that is not the current one, no matter its obvious benefits, no matter how well it works in other countries - is unsafe.

But right now, with UK politics in the state it is, we might stand a chance. What can you do?

  • Join the Electoral Reform Society, who are campaigning for the introduction of STV in the UK.

  • If you have one, write to your MP, asking them to bring up and support voting reform in the commons.

  • If you have a vote, please use it. Yes, the current system isn't amazing, but if you don't vote, the crazies' votes will count for more.

[1] Nina Barzachka - "Explaining Electoral System Change: The Adoption of Proportional Representation in Belgium and Its Rejection in Great Britain", p 28-31, University of Virginia, 2007

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Urgent: Forcible Removal of Sima Valand

Sima Valand, an Indian woman who entered the UK legally with her husband in 2006, is due to be forcibly removed from the country at some point today, Wednesday 20th May. What did she do to merit this? After enduring 15 years of physical and sexual abuse from her husband and his family in India, in 2008 she suffered a horrific rape at his hands. Sima found the amazing courage to report him to the police and he was convicted and sentenced to a long prison sentence.

Even while living in the UK, Sima has received many threats of assault and murder from her husband's family. She applied to the government for asylum as it is clear that, should she return to India, she will be in danger. Sima was brought up in Sudan and has few relatives of her own in India now. Nonetheless, the UK government thinks it is acceptable to return her to the country. She was supposed to be forcibly removed on the 8th of May; this was postponed, for a reason not publicised, till today, the 20th.

Please write to Steve Ridgeway, the CEO of Virgin Air, who are supposed to carry Sima Valand back to India, to ask him not to take her. Writing to Jacqui Smith, Secretary of State for the Home Office, is also very helpful. Details:

You can help keep Sima in the UK by:

1) Emailing/Faxing Steve Ridgeway, Chief Executive Officer Virgin Atlantic Airways and urge him not to carry out the forced removal of Sima Valand.

You can copy, amend or write your own version using this model letter.

Please be sure to include all the following details: “Sima Valand, Indian national, due to be forcibly removed from the UK on Wednesday 20th May 2009. Full flight details are being withheld from publicly circulated documents for Sima’s protection”.


Fax: 01293 444124 / +44 1293 444124 if you are faxing from outside the UK

2) Please send urgent faxes/emails immediately to Rt. Hon Jacqui Smith, MP, Secretary of State for the Home Office, requesting that the removal order is lifted and that Sima Valand is released from detention.

Please use this model letter or write your own version. If you do so, please remember to include HO ref: A1374200

Fax: 020 8760 3132 / + 44 20 8760 3132 if you are faxing from outside UK

“CIT - Treat Official” <>

More details on Sima Valand's case are available at the F-Word blog, here and here.

Saturday, 16 May 2009


Dear Dell,

I was very glad to see your new Della website. My wife has just bought one of your computers and can now keep track of her weight so much more easily!

I was wondering, though: I have a black neighbour, when are you going to make a website for people like him?


- David Stark

PS Oh no, wait. Let me rephrase that: WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING? Your "Della" website is a nauseating, patronising, sexist mess. Please stop insulting your potential customers with this garbage.

So Dell have recently opened a new sub-site called "Della" aimed at women in the most offensive way possible. Bereft of any technical information about their hardware, or indeed any information at all, the site instead includes "Tech Tips" about keeping track of your weight...

Unsurprisingly, most people aren't too happy about this - and indeed Dell have already backtracked a little - the most offensively stupid "Tech Tips" (like keeping track of your weight) are now gone from the site.

But the site itself is still up. It's perhaps unsurprising that Dell wanted a more "feminine" way to present itself to its customers, given the amusing "masculinity" of the main Dell site - with phrases like "engineered for maximum performance and scalability" and "HP and IMB should be very afraid". But a computer is a computer is a computer. There are no "girl computers" and "boy computers". And Dell doesn't seem to get that.

So what can you do?

In this case, it's very straightforward: go to the Della website, click on the little "Feedback" link at the bottom right, and leave them a message. Tell them that you're offended by their troglodyte sexism, mention that you're not going to buy a computer from such an unpleasant company, and tell them to shut that site down.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Rape crisis crisis

"Victims are not normally strong enough to tie themselves to the railings outside Downing Street, shouting 'this has happened and I don't have any help'. Survivors of sexual abuse don't want people to know what happened to them. They won't be marching to Whitehall."

 — Yvonne Traynor, chief executive of the south London branch of Rape Crisis

Back when he was campaigning to become Mayor of London, one of Boris Johnson's campaign promises was to increase funding for rape crisis centres in London. At that time, there was only one such centre in London - woefully inadequate for a city of more than seven million. Johnson stated his intention to provide £744 000 to set up an additional four centres.

Unfortunately, once elected, he proceeded to renege on his promise, and in fact provided no funding at all. As a result, the single centre is now facing closure.

To give you an idea of the disastrous impact this will have, in 2008, the centre helped some 320 women who had been raped. In the year 2003/04, the total number of rapes recorded by police in England and Wales was 13 354. [1] A back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the fact that London contains one seventh of the population of England and Wales yields about 1700 rapes per year in London.

And the one rape crisis centre that's trying to deal with this all is closing, thanks to Boris Johnson's complete lack of interest. Not that he's alone - thanks to funding cuts lack of enthusiasm from all corners, the number of centres has massively decreased in the last two decades. Instead, the government makes up its own domestic/sexual violence policies without bothering to consult anyone who knows anything about the topic.

What can you do about it?

I'm also contacting some other people who have written about this topic, and will do a followup post on what I learn.


Sunday, 26 April 2009


"We seek to ... strengthen the tradition of the diamond engagement ring — to make it a psychological necessity capable of competing successfully at the retail level with utility goods and services..."

Diamond wedding and engagement rings are evil.

At best, they are an absurd expense for a piece of inert glitter required by social norms. They mean that for many couples, the first act of their wedded life is to go into massive debt. Add to that the diamond engagement ring and the lavish wedding, and you have yourself a ball-and-chain that will outlast any enjoyment you might gain from the stone.

At worst, they are blood diamonds, the cause of wars, of genocide, of relentless exploitation.

One thing is certain: diamond rings are a pretty new invention. They were popularised in the early 20th century by a massive advertising campaign run by the the de Beers cartel, which just happens to control the majority of the diamond trade.

What is a diamond? It's a pretty stone, but a really expensive one, and one that only means "I love you" because people think its absence means "I don't". With diamonds as the social norm in many countries, marriage is like a game of chicken - neither partner can broach the subject of not getting a diamond ring, because to do so would sound like less than total commitment.

So what do I propose? Giving couples a moment of clarity. Get both of them at once, and show them just why a diamond ring is a ball and chain, a vote for evil, a defeat of individuality in the face of advertising. Give them a chain of reasoning at the end of which is a different ring. And hopefully, before they quite know what they've done, they've told each other that they're at least considering having a different ring. Point out to them that a diamond does not mean love, but defeat in the face of the everyday horror of the world. Show them that that accursed stone has no place at a wedding.

How and where to do this? One place could be outside of wedding shows. There is a whole industry of wedding-related companies, and they periodically put on a kind of trade shows for people to look at their dresses and services and whatnot. Stand outside and hand out flyers. Talk to people. Stand inside if they let you. Don't break the law - there's no need to.

You might say that what I propose is an intrusion into what is supposed to be two peoples' Happiest Day Of Their Lives. But: you're doing this at a wedding show. Marriage is big business, and in the face of a hundred people telling the happy couple to spend, consume and conform as much as they can, a single voice of dissent can only be a good thing.

Of course, someone will say that we must keep on buying diamonds because some people's jobs depend on it. But if there was a factory that killed babies, someone would say that we must keep on buying tinned baby to support the factory workers. According to that logic, we are not allowed to stop buying any product.

How convenient.

Friday, 17 April 2009


"Google Street View is allowed to show any details of our cities on the world wide web. But a father and his son are not allowed to take pictures of famous London landmarks."

 — Klaus Matzka (from this Guardian article)

"Willkür" (?), like "kindergarten" and "angst", is one of those German words that have no real English counterpart. Unlike kindergarten and angst, it's not been adopted into English - but it really should be.

In a legal sense, willkür means a state or a state's authorities making arbitrary decisions not founded in law. While human beings are generally accorded free will and the right to arbitrarily decide what they want to do, the whole point of a modern state is that it functions according to rules. Under willkür, agents of the state make and enforce decisions they have no right to make or enforce.

As I keep on insisting to anyone who will listen, it's almost more important to have clear and consistent laws than to have fair ones. Consistent, known laws mean that you can tell when you are crossing the boundary from the legal to the illegal. They mean that you don't have to worry about inadvertently breaking the law.

Badly written, vague laws make that boundary fuzzy, and willkür thrives in these fuzzy boundaries. If people don't know if they are on the right side of the law, they can be manipulated and intimidated through their worries that they may be breaking it.

And the authorities - the police and courts - often don't quite know themselves. Laws are enforced inconsistently and whether you get punished for your actions depends not as much on the law but on chance and the mood and personal opinions of the authorities you come into contact with.

In the UK, there have recently been a lot of cases where police or security guards were under the impression they had the power to stop people from taking photographs in public spaces. Some photographers complained, but I imagine the majority meekly handed over their memory cards.

There is no law against taking photographs as such - though section 45 of the Terrorism Act 2000 does allow constables to "seize and retain an article [...] which he reasonably suspects is intended to be used in connection with terrorism". Of course, what reasonable suspicion entails is another question. Is taking a photograph of a shopping mall or train station a suspicious activity? Is trainspotting hereby outlawed?

Certainly, there is no such thing as "camera licence", which is what a police officer recently demanded of a photographer in Ipswich, according to the BBC.

Given the impression that a law exists that allows police to arbitrarily stop people from taking photographs for no stated reason, many people will err on the side of caution and hand over their cameras or memory cards, even to a security guard.

People end up conforming to an unofficial rule - "do not take photographs in public" - made up and enforced by a scattering of overzealous police. A minority enforcing their will on the vast majority through the respectability of an uniform, bypassing any democratic process.

Section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008 takes this further:

"A person commits an offence who elicits or attempts to elicit information about an individual who is or has been [...] a constable, which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism..."

The upshot of this, as mentioned in various places, is that taking a photograph of a police officer may now be illegal. Sometimes. Sometimes not. Depends on whether the police and courts decide that a given photograph is "of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism".

This section is a prime example of the kind of badly written law that enables willkür. I understand that the law was created to shield police from people taking photographs of them and using the pictures to incite others to attack them. That is a valid concern, as police have been targeted by groups like (recently) the CIRA.

But it's a completely unnecessary law. It already is illegal to incite others to assault a person, be they a policeman or not. I'm really not sure why parliament felt the need to enact such a superfluous law, except as a way to be seen doing something about national security.

But this unnecessary law does potentially lend itself to abuse: given its vagueness it could be used to quash pictures of, for example, police beating up someone. I don't think this was the intent of the law, nor that it is certain to be abused in that way, but the potential is there. Even if the government had no intention of using the law like that, they have enabled all kinds of people with their own agendas to do so.

There are other recently enacted laws, many with a worthwhile intent at the core, that are so fuzzy they can easily be abused. I won't go into them now to keep this article at a sane length, but may visit them in another post.

To summarise, these kinds of laws force people to live in a perpetual state of uncertainty - am I breaking the law by taking this picture, waving this placard, giving away this flyer, standing in this spot? Many, in response, will be unwilling to do anything that might possibly be illegal - out of fear that they might encounter a vindictive policeman followed by an unsympathetic judge, and be punished for something a hundred others do in broad daylight, unmolested.

And so, ordinary civil courage is suffocated. And if people are too scared of the capriciousness of law to make themselves heard, true democracy will die without us even quite noticing.

So what can you do about this? Don't be intimidated. Know your rights. Keep on taking photographs. But just in case, back up your memory card as often as possible.