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Silvio Berlusconi's return to government suffered a setback yesterday when the former sultan of Italy was found guilty of paying for sex with an underaged prostitute and using his office to cover it up. The latter charge relates to an incident when the prostitute in question, Karima el-Mahroug or “Ruby the heart-stealer”, was arrested for theft, and Berlusconi called Milan's chief of police to get her off, saying that she was the daughter of the President of Egypt, and charging her with theft would have caused an international diplomatic incident. Berlusconi was sentenced to seven years in prison (which he will not serve, as Italy does not jail those aged over 70) and banned for life from holding public office. Berlusconi maintains his innocence, claiming (a) that he gave el-Mahroug money out of the goodness of his heart to get her off the streets, (b) that he sincerely believed that she was Hosni Mubarak's daughter (presumably reduced to theft and prostitution on the streets of Milan for some reason), and (c) that the charges were the result of an ongoing Communist conspiracy to destroy him and Italy.
The typical thing for il cavaliere, as he is known, to do would have been to get his allies in parliament to table a law retroactively legalising bunga-bunga parties, dropping the age of consent for prostitutes and changing the technical definitions of corruption in a way that would not apply to acting prime ministers; his party, the right-wing-populist People Of Liberty (PdL), is part of the governing coalition, and could in theory threaten to bring down the government if such a bill is not passed. Now, though, that may be harder to pull off, as the other parties are vehemently opposed to Berlusconi and everything that he stands for, and the accompanying assumption of such a tactic—that after a snap election, PdL would be better poised to govern in its own right or choose more pliant coalition partners to share power and its benefits with—might not stand if its leader is a convicted criminal.
The worst may be yet to come for Berlusconi, though; by the end of the year, Italy's supreme court will issue the final ruling in a tax fraud case concerning him.
Prince Charles, the future head of state of the UK, has been giving his subjects the benefit of his wisdom again; this time, he has used his royal powers to have medical advice critical of homeopathy removed from the NHS Choices website, or rather diluted to homeopathic proportions, where nothing of substance remains:
Homeopathy, which involves the use of remedies so heavily diluted with water that they no longer contain any active substance, is "rubbish", said chief medical officer Sally Davies in January to the House of Commons science and technology committee. She added that she was "perpetually surprised" that homeopathy was available in some places on the NHS.
But the government's NHS Choices website, which is intended to offer evidence-based information and advice to the public on treatments, does not reflect her view. A draft page that spelled out the scientific implausibility of homeopathic remedies was neutered by Department of Health officials. It is now uncritical, with just links to reports on the lack of evidence.
Mattin's original draft said: "There is no good quality clinical evidence to show that homeopathy is more successful than placebo in the treatment of any condition … Furthermore, if the principles of homeopathy were true it would violate all the existing theories of science that we make use of today; not just our theory of medicine, but also chemistry, biology and physics."I dread to think of the counter-enlightenment Charles III will drag the UK towards when he ultimately becomes king. It is clear that the existing firewalls between Britain's (ostensibly decorative) monarchy and its democratic government are insufficient to contain his meddling even now.
A report to an inquiry in Victoria has estimated that at least one in every 20 Catholic priests in the state is a child sex abuser, with the real figure being likely to be more like one in 15.
He suggested that, though the Church tried to "fudge the figures" by including other church workers, Catholic priests offended at a much higher rate than other men. If the general male population now over 65 offended at the same rate, there would be 65,614 men living in Australia who had been convicted of child sex abuse — very far from the case.The report, by Professor Des Cahill, also condemned the Catholic Church's institutional culture as “verging on the pathological”, and called for reforms to be externally imposed, including allowing married clergy.
"Bishops are caught between canon law and civil law, and Rome has put a lot of pressure on bishops to make sure canon law and the rights of priests are being observed, but canon law has nothing to say about the rights of child victims," he said. The Melbourne Response — the internal protocol used by the Melbourne archdiocese — was designed to protect the image and reputation of the church and to contain financial liability, and had to be changed. "The church is incapable of reform, so the state will have to do it," he said.Meanwhile, the Vatican is slightly closer to canonising the last emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Karl von Habsburg.
And an Italian court has jailed seven scientists for manslaughter for failing to predict the L'Aquila earthquake of 2009, after they stated that minor tremors recorded before the earthquake were “normal”. The sentence has attracted widespread condemnation.
And so the occupation of London begins:
Driving around London on the first day of what might be termed a ‘roads lockdown’ gave me an excellent impression of that it might be like to live in a once-proud city that had suddenly come under the heel of a foreign invader, or perhaps some home-grown unelected, unaccountable political elite that had chosen to arrogate such power unto itself that ordinary citizens were no longer able to use the roads that they have bought and paid for with their taxes.As well as demanding Soviet-style ZIL lanes (sorry, “Games lanes”) for the Olympic elite (dubbed, in sinisterly Orwellian fashion, the “Games Family”), inflicting considerable congestion and inconvenience on the little people who merely have to live and work in the occupied city, the occupying forces seem none too happy with London's tradition of street art, and have vowed to sanitise the city, making it a clean blank canvas for advertising:
This attack on one of contemporary London's most renowned traditions reveals how deeply uncomfortable the cultural relationship between this city and the Olympics really is. An event that is all about massive finance, colossal scale, hyper-organisation and culture delivered from above is being superimposed on a capital that happens to be best at improvisation, dirty realism, punk aesthetics and low art. It's like Versailles versus the sans-culottes. And this time Versailles is determined to win.
This city has never been about absolutist grandeur or spectacular architectural spaces. The total control of Rome by the popes, that produced Bernini's staggering colonnades that encircle the piazza of St. Peter's, or the absolute ancient regime followed by Napoleonic imperium that gave Paris the Louvre, had no equivalent in London when it was growing in the 18th century into a world city. Instead of state projects, the look of London was defined by competing commercial enterprises. The posh end of the market that created beauties like the Adam brothers' Adelphi Terrace competed with a low, scabrous, popular culture.The Olympic Occupation hasn't (yet) extended to censorship of the internet (though undoubtedly the IOC are working on the provisions for the next passing of the poisoned chalice), so protest and criticism continues online. Banksy's website has a few photographs of pieces with an anti-Olympic theme (though their location is not known; they could well be in Bristol or Berlin or somewhere). And then there's Lodnon 2102 Oimplycs.
In Russia, rank hath privilege, and not even the laws of the road apply equally to everyone. Russia's elite are issued with migalki, roof-mounted car sirens which render them exempt from road rules, originally intended for the Party officials on whom the future of the USSR depended. Stripped of its connection to the security of the State, the system of migalki has since devolved into a self-justifying badge of status for the wealthy, powerful and well-connected, a signifier that one matters in a way that the bydlo (the common horde, literally "cattle") who have to obey road laws don't:
And then she got to thinking: what the fuck. Why are these people even here, in her city? Why not impose an entry fee to Moscow -- say, $200. "Then we'll have beautiful people driving around in beautiful cars, not collective farmers in their farting wrecks, or office schmucks in their miserable Passats," she mused. "And anyway: let these office drones take the metro to their kunstkameras, or, even better, have them go somewhere far away. Maybe Kolyma" -- the remote site of some of the most notorious Soviet-era gulags. "Let them pan for gold. That way, we'd at least get some use out of their pointless existence."There are now some 970 official migalki in circulation (and, unofficially, nearly double that number).
Who has them? Some of the president's advisors, some big businessmen who get them through connections. Who else? The deputy head of the Federal Customs Agency, who recently turned his siren on one weekday morning to speed to the dry cleaner's. Filmmaker Mikhalkov, ostensibly because he was the head of the Defense Ministry's Public Council. (When a journalist called him to ask why a film director would need a siren, Mikhalkov responded with a tirade so explicit, so bleep-worthy, that it firmly established him as Russia's leading artistic light.) Even more bizarrely, so does this woman, who called in to a Moscow radio station in January to complain that no one pays attention to her migalka:
The plebes, Tatyana complained, were not behaving. They did not respect the law, and the law mandates a strict split between them and people like Tatyana who have drivers and cars with migalki, people who reside in gated communities where nectar is drunk and the only law is the one that separates them from the plebes outside.The plebes, though, are fighting back, using phone cameras to record the elite's arrogance. Which does little to change the system, but is starting to stoke debate over whether this is a reasonable way to organise a society:
But, this being Russia, the point is not changing the status quo -- the cushy, legally extrajudicial privileges of the elite -- but changing the way the status quo is perceived. In the last year, various unheard-of lawmakers have "taken up the issue" of migalki and VIP contempt for traffic laws more generally, first last April (to no effect), then in February (to no effect), then again in May (to no effect). Otherwise, not much has changed. Just a month after the second legislative push, someone posted a cell-phone video of three ambulances, sirens on, waiting for a VIP cortege to pass through Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a major artery leading from the Kremlin to the city's elite suburbs.(Hmmm; a society with a class hierarchy cast in stone, where rank hath privilege and the convenience of those at the top outweighs the very lives of those beneath them, and where the law's very purpose is to entrench this inequality. Much in the way that Somalia can be seen as a physical manifestation of the pipe-dreams of Libertarians and anarcho-capitalists as embodied in reality, this could perhaps be seen as the real-world manifestation of the neo-feudal utopias those Conservatives who denounce the Enlightenment yearn for.)
A few recent studies demonstrating the power of cultural transmission of values and attitudes over surprisingly long stretches of time: firstly, a set of surveys in central and eastern Europe has shown that trust in government officials is higher and corruption is lower in areas formerly governed by the Habsburg Empire, whose bureaucracy was considered to be more honest and competent than elsewhere in Europe at the time; the phenomenon has lasted from the end of World War 1 to the present day, surviving the redrawing of borders and different types of regimes, and to this day, levels of trust and corruption differ within the borders of countries between formerly Habsburg and, say, Ottoman or Russian-ruled areas.
On a darker note, another study in Germany has found that towns in which Jews were massacred during the Black Plague were more likely to support the Nazis and participated more enthusiastically in the Holocaust, some six centuries later.
Prison administrators in China have found a new use for prison labour: putting inmates to work in multiplayer video games, generating in-game gold, which is then sold online for real money:
Liu says he was one of scores of prisoners forced to play online games to build up credits that prison guards would then trade for real money. The 54-year-old, a former prison guard who was jailed for three years in 2004 for "illegally petitioning" the central government about corruption in his hometown, reckons the operation was even more lucrative than the physical labour that prisoners were also forced to do.
"Prison bosses make more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour," Liu told the Guardian. "There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. I heard them say they could earn 5,000-6,000rmb [£470-570] a day. We didn't see any of the money. The computers were never turned off."
The latest bounty from Wikileaks: an exposé of the Saudi royal welfare system, a system of government finely tuned for meeting certain criteria (i.e., keeping an ever-expanding ruling class in caviar and luxury cars, and maximising the number of palaces per capita; they even have palace-building grants). Alas, even the generous stipends bestowed upon Saudi princelings sometimes fall short when it comes to maintaining a lifestyle worthy of one of such stature, but the beauty of living in the top tier of an absolute monarchy is that there's always more for the taking:
Then there was the apparently common practice for royals to borrow money from commercial banks and simply not repay their loans. As a result, the 12 commercial banks in the country were "generally leary of lending to royals."
Another popular money-making scheme saw some "greedy princes" expropriate land from commoners. "Generally, the intent is to resell quickly at huge markup to the government for an upcoming project." By the mid-1990s, a government program to grant land to commoners had dwindled. "Against this backdrop, royal land scams increasingly have become a point of public contention."
The confiscation of land extends to businesses as well, the cable notes. A prominent and wealthy Saudi businessman told the embassy that one reason rich Saudis keep so much money outside the country was to lessen the risk of 'royal expropriation.'"Meanwhile, in Equatorial Guinea, an oil-rich West African country most of whose children don't live to their fifth birthday, it emerges that the son of the President had commissioned the world's second most expensive yacht, costing $380m, or three times the country's combined health and education budgets.
And in Belgium, Prince Laurent has incurred the wrath of the parliament (does Belgium have a parliament now?) for attempting to fly business-class whilst only having an economy-class ticket. The prince and his wife were asked to move back to cattle class, and apparently kicked up a disgraceful tantrum for being treated like commoners, refusing to pay for drinks.
It's somewhat heartening to see that Belgium, whilst nominally being a monarchy, is a Northern European "bicycle monarchy", in which rank hath little if any privilege, and monarchy is tolerated as a constitutional eccentricity and little more; certainly, it doesn't entitle one to demanding free travel benefits from local airlines, and any princeling who thinks otherwise won't get treated any differently than a drunken footballer would. I wonder what would happen in the UK if, say, some minor baronet occupied a first-class seat on a train or aeroplane without the appropriate ticket. Would they be told to move on as Prince Laurent was, or would the (privatised, of course, as per Anglocapitalist values) carrier swallow the cost or invoice the public purse?
It has emerged that the British government transferred nearly £2 million from Britain's foreign aid budget to pay for the Papal visit last year, on top of £3.7m from the environmental budget. This is presumably in line with the Conservative Party's platform (also shared by New Labour) that religion is a good in itself, from which it would follow that promoting religious organisations such as the Catholic Church increases the total amount of good in the world, and is thus a legitimate use of funds which would otherwise be spent feeding the hungry or eradicating diseases. Not surprisingly, this view is not shared unanimously:
[British Humanist Association] Head of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips commented, ‘Millions and millions from the public purse has been used to foot the cost of the Pope’s visit to the UK, with much of that diverted from crucial funds, including from foreign aid designated to help some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. It is irrational and wrong for government to say that the money was paid to recognise the work that the Catholic Church does overseas as an NGO – questionable in itself – when the money was used to fund the state visit. Most people, including Christians, did not think that the British taxpayer should pay for the Pope’s visit in the first place, and many will be astonished to see the detrimental impact that this illegitimate use of public funds has already made.’(Disclaimer: I am a member of the British Humanist Association, and recommend this organisation to anyone concerned about religious privilege in the UK (of which there is a considerable amount, from Bishops in the House of Lords to faith schools teaching Creationism in science classes with the blessing of the political establishment).) Or, in the words of another atheist:
(via BHA) Share
Sabotage is suspected in North Korea as a train packed with luxury goods for the God-Emperor-in-waiting has derailed near the Chinese border:
Open Radio for North Korea, a non-profit station which often cites sources in the North, said the train, laden with presents including televisions and watches, came off the rails near North Korea's border with China on 11 December.
"The tracks and rail beds are so old it is possible there was decay in the wood or nails that secured the tracks could have been dislodged, but the extent of damage to the tracks, and the timing of the incident, points to a chance that someone intentionally damaged the tracks," the source said.Chances are someone will be executed for this, after making a full confession, even if it is only the result of decaying infrastructure.
Greece's economic crisis has highlighted the fact that the Greek taxation system leaks like a sieve, with tax evasion being almost a point of honour. Now, under pressure from the northern European economies paying to bail them out, the Greek tax authorities are uncovering the depth of the problem:
In the wealthy, northern suburbs of this city, where summer temperatures often hit the high 90s, just 324 residents checked the box on their tax returns admitting that they owned pools. So tax investigators studied satellite photos of the area — a sprawling collection of expensive villas tucked behind tall gates — and came back with a decidedly different number: 16,974 pools.
Various studies have concluded that Greece’s shadow economy represented 20 to 30 percent of its gross domestic product. Friedrich Schneider, the chairman of the economics department at Johannes Kepler University of Linz, studies Europe’s shadow economies; he said that Greece’s was at 25 percent last year and estimated that it would rise to 25.2 percent in 2010. For comparison, the United States’ was put at 7.8 percent.The Greek government has introduced laws stepping up tax enforcement and eliminating loopholes; whether they're strong enough to survive the entrenched culture of bribery in Greece remains to be seen.
The Independent's Johann Hari has a lot of things to say about the late Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (better known as the "Queen Mother"), none of them complimentary:
By the time she died, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was treating the British Treasury – our tax money – as her personal piggy bank, with her bills running way beyond the millions she was allotted every year. Even the ultra-Tory Chancellor Norman Lamont complained that "she far exceeds her Civil List and the Treasury gets very het up about it". She used the money to pay for 83 full-time staff, including four footmen, two pages, three chauffeurs (what do they do, split her into three parts for transportation?), a private secretary, an orderly, a housekeeper, five housemaids... the list goes on and on. She even insisted that it was a legitimate use of public funds to maintain a full-time "Ascot office", whose job was to do nothing but keep a register of members of the Royal Enclosure and send them entry vouchers.And soaking the British taxpayer for her luxurious lifestyle isn't the worst of the dear old Queen Mum's shortcomings, not by a long shot. She was, according to Hari, a despicable bigot on many levels, from her obsession with "bloodlines" as an indicator of worthiness (which, to be granted, could be expected of an aristocrat of her time) to her fondness for the political far right (she, Hari claims, supported the appeasement of the Nazis because of her dislike for Jews, and the brutal white-supremacist government of Rhodesia, because she was "not fond of black folk"), and her well-documented contempt for the lower orders of society (in this case, lower being anything beneath the high aristocracy). Which doesn't stop the revisionist whitewash of her image, casting her as a symbol of Britain's grandeur and national pride.
The defenders of Elizabeth were left claiming that her drunken inactivity was itself an achievement. WF Deedes, the late Daily Telegraph columnist and editor, claimed: "In an increasingly earnest world, she teaches us all how to have fun, that life should not be all about learning, earning and resting. In a world where we have all become workaholics, there she is... grinning at racehorses. Bless her heart." He was in favour of the dole after all, provided it was worth £3m and went to one single aristocrat.
William Shawcross has won the favour of his fellow monarchists by taking this curdled life and presenting it as the best of British. It's the single most unpatriotic claim I've ever heard. If you don't think Britain can do better – far better – than this nasty leech and her stunted family, then you don't deserve to live in this Sceptred Isle.
All is not well in the Philippines; the country has been facing a shortage of imported books after corrupt customs officers decided to make some money by demanding extra import duties, in contravention of the Florence Agreement of 1952, an international treaty holding books to be duty free. The customs officials argue, with the chutzpah typical of corrupt petty officials across the world, that the Florence Agreement is invalid, applying either only to school textbooks or books used in book publishing, and that the rest of the world has been doing it wrong all along:
"For 50 years, everyone has misinterpreted the treaty and now you alone have interpreted it correctly?" she was asked.
"Yes," she told the stunned booksellers.
The writer David Torrey Peters, who once spent a year in Cameroon (which is even more corrupt than the Philippines), wrote of being pulled out of a taxi by a policeman who demanded that he produce his immunization card. David did this, but the cop told him that he was missing an AIDS vaccination. When David told the man that there was no such thing as an AIDS vaccine, the policeman was indignant.
"You think just because there isn't an AIDS vaccine I can't arrest you for not having one?"The booksellers caved in, paying the illegal levy, as well as inflated "storage fees" for the detained books, and the customs department congratulated itself on having cracked down on this unfettered and untaxed trade in books.
In today's big surprise: apparently the Chinese government censored local broadcasts of Obama's inaugural address, excising mentions of America facing down communism and condemnation of regimes that silence dissent.
Meanwhile, Patrick Farley (of the excellent E-Sheep Comics) has written up a summary of the Bush era: All Circus, No Bread:
Trying to explain what was wrong with the Bush Era feels like trying to vomit up a cannonball. I don't think my jaw can stretch that wide.
Seriously, where does one even begin? Abu Ghraib? Ahmed Chalabi? Mission Accomplished? The "Battle of Iraq?" Valerie Plame? No-bid contracts? The billions of dollars the Pentagon can't account for, and apparently never will? The Department of Justice firings? The blue Iraqi flag? The staged press conference? The fake Thanksgiving turkey? Terry Schiavo? Freedom Fries?
All my life I've heard Baby Boomers bitching about Nixon, even after he was dead. I used to wish they'd just GET OVER IT, but now I understand their bitterness. It wasn't what Nixon did that infuriated them so much. It's what he got away with. Nixon was nudged out of office by a momentary gust of public disfavor over a botched burglary attempt -- not, say, a Congressional investigation into the bombing of Cambodia. There was never a thorough reckoning of the misdeeds of Nixon's White House, just as there will probably never be a full accounting of the perversions and swindles of Bush's presidency. To the majority of Americans, Bush will be that guy who invaded Iraq and wrecked the economy.And US liberal cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has his own farewell salute to Bush and cronies:
The Age has obtained letters between the ultraconservative Exclusive Brethren sect and former Prime Minister John Howard, revealing more about the closeness of the Brethren's relationship to the reins of power, and the Howard government's collusion with them:
The letters show Mr Howard met two Brethren leaders in his Sydney office on the day New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark referred sect members to police because they hired private detectives to tail her and her husband, and spread rumours that her husband was gay.
"The attention of the public needs to be diverted from matters such as the Iraq war, the supposed ill-treatment of Iraq prisoners and other contentious issues," they wrote. They also suggested a massive project to transport water via aqueducts using funding from the sale of Telstra and the issue of bonds.
The Brethren runs a lucrative network of pump supply companies but spokesman Tony McCorkell said yesterday this was irrelevant to the water proposal. Brethren members were "concerned about good environmental policy", he said.
Galloway has said that ‘the disappearance of the Soviet Union was the biggest catastrophe of my life.’ To Saddam Hussein, he said, ‘I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability. And I want you to know that we are with you until victory, until victory, until Jerusalem!’ We know that Galloway signed a petition demanding the release of Saddam’s number-two Tariq Aziz, with whom Galloway once danced in a North African nightclub. The Iraqi ‘resistance’, jihadis who kill civilians, socialists and aid workers, is ‘defending all the Arabs, and they are defending all the people of the world from American hegemony.’ When trade unionists broke down in tears at their recollections of torture under Ba’athists, Galloway sneered that their visible emotion was ‘a party trick’. He called Iraqi trade union leader Abdullah Muhsin an ‘Iraqi Quisling’. He said of the Syrian dictator that ‘Syria is lucky to have Bashar al-Assad as her President.’ We know that he described Hamas as a ‘Palestinian national resistance movement, analogous to the organisations fighting for freedom in Kashmir,’ and said at a London antiwar rally that ‘I AM HERE to glorify the Lebanese resistance, Hezbollah, and I AM HERE to glorify the resistance leader, Hassan Nasrallah.’ He has also said that ‘in poor third world countries like Pakistan, politics is too important to be left to petty squabbling politicians… only the armed forces can really be counted on to hold such a country together.’
Galloway’s Respect party was an alliance between the SWP and conservative Muslims. To keep its new friends on board, the party threw out its commitments to secularism, female equality and gay rights, which SWP leader Lindsey German dismissed as a ‘shibboleth.’ That is Galloway’s legacy, if nothing else: he has brought the communalism of the BNP into left-wing politics, and brought religious reaction into left-wing politics.
A Sunday Times piece on the decline of Britain's railways, whose services have been deteriorating and costs rising, the difference going to the shareholders of private operators:
The new ticket price from Bristol to London with what is, by common consent (and by most of the official indicators) Britain’s worst train company, is £137. At which price you could take a family of five to Budapest and back, although not with First Great Western. Again, this seems better value if you take into account the fact that you might well have to get off the train at Chippenham and travel by bus for a bit; two modes of transport for the price of one, you see. They think of everything for you.
I asked the eminent transport journalist Christian Wolmar what he made of Muir’s suggestion that increased fares would lead to improved services. “It’s just complete and utter crap,” he replied. “The money is going to the train operating companies, full stop.” How much is invested in improving rail services is, in any case, decided in advance by the rail regulator. Muir is being disingenuous. At the least.
Here’s a few more fares to gape at in wonderment: Plymouth to London with First Great Western – £196. That’s three times the cost of the usual return air ticket, and of course it takes almost four times as long by train. London to Manchester on Virgin Trains – £219. Fly instead and it will set you back about £80. And incidentally, those are the old prices, without the “A happy Christmas to all our benighted customers” fare increases.The author lays the blame at the feet of John Major's Conservative government, and its privatisation of British Rail (which, as maligned as it had been, was apparently much more efficient than today's system), a move driven more by neoliberal ideology and Tory antipathy to public transportation than practical concerns, though New Labour, who have presided over the decline of Britain's railways, get some of the blame:
It is either depressing or hilarious, take your pick, to mull over the fact that the privatised rail network soaks up almost three times as much taxpayers’ money in subsidies than did that much maligned, publicly owned corporation, British Rail. And the sad truth is that in those final years British Rail really was “getting there”.
You might expect of the Conservative party an instinctive affection for that most insular and individualistic form of transport, the motor car. Labour, though, has its ideological roots in public transport – and yet in the 10 years since Tony Blair took office, rail fares have been allowed to rise by 46% (not counting the latest rise), while the cost of travelling by car has risen by only 26%, according to figures from the Department for Transport. In other words, Labour has made it even more attractive to travel by car and less attractive to travel by train.
Again, the train companies will tell you that more people are travelling by rail than at any time since the 1950s. Well, up to a point. But they’re travelling short distances by rail (especially within central London, which recently got its first effectively nationalised route, the North London line). For the longer trips, people are turning to the planes, or sticking with the comfort of their cars.Or course, the idea of renationalising Britain's railways is absolutely out of the question, because that would be socialism, which is discredited, and it has been proven that free markets always achieve the best of all possible outcomes. So, whoever wins the next election, we can expect more of the same: underinvestment, price rises, and Britons paying for a service that costs considerably more and delivers less than on the continent, and choosing to fly over any distance further than London to Birmingham.
As the US braces itself for another bitterly contested Presidential election, computer-crime experts are warning that it's only a matter of time before botnets, phishing and DOS attacks are used to nobble campaigns or disenfranchise voters:
Dirty tricks are not new. On US election day in 2002, the lines of a "get-out-the-voters" phone campaign sponsored by the New Hampshire Democratic Party were clogged by prank calls. In the 2006 election, 14000 Latino voters in Orange County, California, received letters telling them it was illegal for immigrants to vote.
Calls could even be made using a botnet. This would make tracing the perpetrator even harder, because calls wouldn't come from a central location. What's more, the number of calls that can be made is practically limitless.
Internet calls might also be made to voters to sow misinformation, says Christopher Soghoian at Indiana University in Bloomington. "Anonymous voter suppression is going to become a reality."
Recently, the International Standards Organisation has been looking into the question of defining a standard for document file formats; Microsoft has been pushing aggressively to get its OOXML format (basically an XML-based update of its proprietary Word/Excel/Office formats, and arguably designed to protect Microsoft's virtual monopoly on standard office software) certified as a standard. Despite their best efforts (which some have claimed included bribing delegates to vote for them and stacking the ballot), their push has been unsuccessful. Now, someone from Electronic Frontiers Finland has crunched the numbers and found a correlation between countries' propensity to vote for OOXML and their perceived level of corruption, as ranked by Transparency International. Funny, that.
Lawrence Lessig, one of the leading figures of the fight against intellectual-property absolutism and the expansion of copyright laws into a new system of corporate feudalism, is moving on from that fight to a bigger one (which encompasses similar issues): the fight against a pervasive corruption of our legislative processes, to the point where corporate money buys bad laws:
Think, for example, about term extension. From a public policy perspective, the question of extending existing copyright terms is, as Milton Friedman put it, a "no brainer." As the Gowers Commission concluded in Britain, a government should never extend an existing copyright term. No public regarding justification could justify the extraordinary deadweight loss that such extensions impose.
Yet governments continue to push ahead with this idiot idea -- both Britain and Japan for example are considering extending existing terms. Why?
The answer is a kind of corruption of the political process. Or better, a "corruption" of the political process. I don't mean corruption in the simple sense of bribery. I mean "corruption" in the sense that the system is so queered by the influence of money that it can't even get an issue as simple and clear as term extension right. Politicians are starved for the resources concentrated interests can provide. In the US, listening to money is the only way to secure reelection. And so an economy of influence bends public policy away from sense, always to dollars.
WIRED News has an article on the Kafkaesque world of US "terrorist watch lists". If your name (or some approximation thereof; which is why it can suck to have a common Arabic name) appears on them, you can be detained for interrogation should you attempt to board a flight in the US, or denied credit. You are not entitled to any explanation and have no right to recourse, and the very existence of some of these watchlists, or how many there are, is not officially acknowledged. Which, as you can imagine, lends itself to abuse:
Despite that, last month constitutional scholar Walter F. Murphy, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Princeton University, found himself unable to check in curbside at a New Mexico airport. A check-in clerk with American Airlines told him it was because he was on a "terrorist watch list," Murphy says.
"One of them, I don't remember which one, asked me, 'Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying for that,'" recalls Murphy. "I said, 'No, but I did give a speech criticizing George Bush,' and he said, 'That will do it.'"
While there are almost no American citizens on the OFAC list, it is routinely used during home purchases, credit checks and even apartment rentals, and has caused people with common Latino and Muslim names to be denied mortgages for having a name that only vaguely resembles a name on the list, according to a recent report (.pdf) from the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.
Have you ever wondered where all the money from European nationals' VAT goes? Well, some of it is spent on buying up surplus wine and distilling it into fuel and disinfectant, to prevent a glut that would drive wine prices down and paralyse the roadways of Europe with roadblocks of indignant French winemakers:
The Commission's announcement that it would spend €131 million to distil 430 million bottles of French wine and 371 million bottles of Italian wine into fuel was met with protests by French wine growers, who demanded that European taxpayers should buy 1.1 billion bottles of their produce.
(Quake in terror at that fearsome sense of entitlement. C'est tres formidable!)
Such "crisis distillations" are becoming increasingly common, with the commission spending about €500 million last year turning wine into petrol, and viticulturists now producing wine knowing that it will never be drunk. Nearly a quarter of all Spanish wine now ends up being used for industrial purposes.Much of the problem comes down to competition from wines from places like Australia and Chile, which are produced using more modern, mechanised techniques and are consequently cheaper and more consistent in quality. (Apparently, making wine in France is 50 times more labour-intensive than doing so in Australia.) The French winemakers are, understandably, having trouble competing with this, which faces them with a choice: make sacrifices and ruthlessly streamline to better compete or whine and demand that the government protects them. Of course, in fine dirigiste tradition, they chose the latter. Good thing that the former eastern-bloc nations have joined the EU, expanding its tax base to pay for all that wine.
(I wonder how much the price of oil would have to rise for turning surplus wine into fuel to become economically viable as a replacement.)
Christian missionaries working as part of the tsunami relief effort in India have ignited outrage after allegedly refusing to give aid to people who did not convert:
Jubilant at seeing the relief trucks loaded with food, clothes and the much-needed medicines the villagers, many of who have not had a square meal in days, were shocked when the nuns asked them to convert before distributing biscuits and water.
Which is another reason that, when I donate to a charity, I avoid religious charities. If I give money to a cause, I want that money to be used to help those in need, not to finance some religion's marketing campaign. Mind you, in the tsunami relief effort, funds were pooled between charities and parcelled out, with specific charities specialising on specific tasks. If the relief supplies being used as Jesus' Loss Leaders in this instance were paid for from these pooled funds, there should be a full inquiry, and action taken to ensure that such abuses of funds do not take place again.
In the Ukraine, cars with certain number plates are exempt from road laws. These are normally given to the ruling elite (naturally) and police, though they can be yours for a price:
KM gives you total immunity, EO works only in the east and 777 looks cool but doesn't really mean anything.
This reminds me of the situation in the Soviet Union, where, apparently, the Communist Party nomenklatura had a wealth of privileges, including special reserved lanes on the motorways, a special phone system (which worked better than the one the ordinary plebs got) and even a private underground railway in Moscow.
Queensland is a sort of Australian equivalent of Texas or Arkansas or Mississippi or some such place; a state renowned for its rednecks, corrupt police and religious sects too far gone for any other state. And this story brings together the last two elements.
A "devious and perverted" police officer has been gaoled for conning members of a Christian sect into bizarre sexual acts. After telling the group that they would become undercover operatives, he instructed them to cut off their pubic hair and take photographs of themselves naked, saying that such actions were mandatory before becoming police informants. (He also attempted to extort $5000 from a young couple with a false confession of underaged sex, though that may well be standard Queensland police operating procedure). (via Anthony)
A sex education group in the U.S. claims it is being targeted with punitive audits by the Bush administration for its advocacy of comprehensive sex education, as opposed to the "abstinence-only" programmes pushed by the Whitehouse. Advocates for Youth have been audited three times in the past year; meanwhile, comparable pro-abstinence groups have been left alone. (via rotten.com)
How to rig an election using the voting machines popular in the U.S. (and often manufactured by Republican-controlled companies). Apparently the things are riddled with back doors, allowing well-placed officials to make strategic adjustments and cover their tracks seamlessly. You'd think that if democracy was taken at all seriously, they'd ensure that the voting machines were open-source and open to scrutiny by any concerned members of the public.
The street finds its own uses for things; those camera-equipped mobile phones, for example, are ideal for vote-rigging, as the Italian Mafia have discovered:
Here's the idea: you promise a voter 50 euros (31 pounds) to cast their ballot for your candidate, send them into the booth with a 3G phone, they send a picture via the phone proving that they have voted as instructed and then they get the cash.
(via bOING bOING)
A thought-provoking essay on the decline of the idea of democracy in the US and McWorld:
There are plenty of signs of our democratic dysfunction, beginning with the fact that we're sending a bunch of generals and corporate executives - professionally groomed to honor anti-democratic procedures - to do the job. Then there is the most elitist media in American history demonstrating its love for democratic debate by blacklisting voices of dissent before and during the Iraq invasion, turning its airwaves over to spooks and military brass, and embedding itself without a hint of skepticism in the administration's agitprop.
'Customer' and 'consumer' were not the only words being used to change the nature of citizenship. David Kemmis, the mayor of Missoula, MT, pointed out that the word 'taxpayer' now "regularly holds the place which in a true democracy would be occupied by 'citizen.' Taxpayers bear a dual relationship to government, neither half of which has anything at all to do with democracy. Taxpayers pay tribute to the government and they receive services from it. So does every subject of a totalitarian regime. What taxpayers do not do, and what people who call themselves taxpayers have long since stopped even imagining themselves doing, is governing."
And more on the recording industry's systematic defrauding of artists, with Moses "Confessions of a Record Producer" Avalon's reports from recording industry hearings in the US: (via bOING bOING)
1) By contract, artists are prohibited from showing royalty statements to third parties. Normally this would not include their managers, lawyers, consultants, or others who could aid them in getting paid, but apparently this is not necessarily the case. Senator Kevin Murray, leading the initiative for artists' rights, claimed the that Cary Sherman, Chief Counsel for the RIAA himself, said to him in an interview, that RIAA members (the major labels) would sue any artist that broke ranks and shared information with the Committee. This claim was rejected by Sherman but supported by others in the room. Don Henley, among them, outwardly dared his record company to sue him for bringing royalty statements to the hearing. He presented his most recent royalty statement for "Hell Freezes Over," which showed the panel that even though his contract called for a no more than a 10% "reserve" on sales of records shipped, Universal Music had held back more than that for eleven pay periods (roughly under three years) and that, even though his contract calls for no free goods in Europe, they had deducted $87,000 in free goods charges to Europe.
And these mafiosi are the highly moral figures who want to put anti-copying chips in our computers and MP3 players?
Stranger than fiction: Ambulance crews in the Polish city of Lodz have been deliberately letting patients die, in return for kickbacks from funeral companies. In some cases the ambulance crews even hastened the deaths of their charges by administering muscle relaxants. In return, the funeral homes paid the ambulance crews over US$300 for each stiff sent their way.
Surprise, surprise: Australia's federal government rides to the rescue of beleaguered multinational media cartels, vowing to lift the onerous cross-ownership and foreign-media-ownership restrictions they have been struggling under, within a few months. Rupert and Kerry will be happy.
A new crime wave is sweeping through affluent parts of Sydney; ultra-wealthy socialites are mutilating and poisoning trees in order to ensure uninterrupted views of the harbour from their palatial residences. The offenders are unconcerned about being caught, as the maximum fines are dwarfed by increases in property values thus gained, thus making illegal tree-poisoning a sensible investment.
Am I glad I don't live in Sydney: Meanwhile, civil liberties have been suspended, as Sydney is turned into Disneyland for the Olympics, replete with totalitarian restrictions designed to maximise the sponsors' profits. (Or so these lefties are saying anyway; though in this case I'd probably believe them.)
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has the power to disqualify athletes who "promote a political or religious message" and requires them to sign an agreement prohibiting them from "recording their thoughts" of their Games experiences, which according to the IOC would amount to "an athlete acting as a journalist." The rule, which covers athletes' personal web sites, is an attempt to ensure that athletes do not scoop official broadcasters. Any breach will constitute grounds for expulsion from the event.
It is illegal for residents living within a five-kilometre radius of an Olympic venue to allow cars to be parked on their property, with any breach punishable by a $15,000 fine. Parking in Olympic-designated zones incurs a $348 fine, five times the current penalty, and those attempting to travel in special Olympic traffic lanes on Sydney roads will be fined $2,200.
(Somewhat reminiscent of the special lanes on Soviet motorways that were reserved for Communist Party apparatchiks.)
Welfare workers have complained that treatment of the homeless by security guards "borders on harassment". The guards, however, are taking their lead from the state government, which has offered the homeless a "choice" of staying in an overcrowded city hostel or being transported to a tent encampment in one of Sydney's outer suburbs
(Brazilian-style shanty towns, here we come; perhaps we should borrow more of the Brazilian solution and just cull the homeless like feral kangaroos?)
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