Improving trust in blogs

There is a very interesting story in the New York Times about the alleged bombing plot; it’s been linked to lots, including by Bruce Schneier – it is available here. Well, except if you’re based in the UK. The NYT are using something like GeoIP to track requests and filtering out pageviews from the United Kingdom as the material contained within the article may prejudice the upcoming trial of the suspects who have so far been charged. It’s certainly an interesting article, and can be found through various ways (anonymising proxies, for example, or by finding a website that is syndicating the content without a location filter).

Now I could share this with the rest of you and post direct links to the material, or even reproduce it here, but it would certainly raise thorny issues, morally and legally; I could theoretically be liable for a contempt of court charge, if it were deemed likely that it would reach a potential juror and influence them; the NYT’s lawyers certainly thought it a possibility with them, and it could well be with some of the bigger blogs. And of course it’s not just I who faces this issue but every other blogger out there, and it’s not just this case but many others too. In the past, where media outlets were large and few in number this is not an issue but in the internet and blogging age it becomes hard to track infringements and even harder to prove it might prejudice a trial.

This is the sort of stick with which the mainstream media love to beat the blogosphere with; to at least allay some of these fears, some sort of self-regulation would be an important first line of defence against making sure such slips do not occur. I’m not the only blogger to realise this of course, and there have been a few attempts to produce some sort of blogging code of conduct, but as you’d expect, there are a variety of standards, and there does not seem to me to be much of a collective effort to adhere to a common standard. What’s needed is some sort of minimum set of principles we could all agree on; given how much freedom of speech has been vigorously defended in the UK blogosphere lately, I’m sure the respect for a fair trial can also be appreciated. Some sort of simple hallmark of quality to blog by, with a pleasing little “FairBlog” logo you can easily slap on to your sidebar, to mark yourself as an ethical blogger, would be beneficial; given a large enough take-up, it perhaps would help in improving blogs’ low standing in the public’s trust at the moment. Anyone else agree?

Rise of the spineless fuckwits

“…And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance, and depression. […] How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror.”

– ‘V’, “V for Vendetta” (film version)

So it begins. Some might say it is a victory for the terrorists, but in actual fact it’s a victory for spineless fuckwits. It is they who run the country now:

“It became apparent that the reason that some of the people didn’t board the plane was because somebody had overheard the gentlemen in question speaking – I think it was Arabic.”

And how the fuck would you know what language it was? You’ve just spent two weeks in Malaga: you probably didn’t utter a word of Spanish the entire time you were there. Oh, the irony: British tourists, to whom nearly all the definition of being multilingual is being able to speak English slow-ly and LOUDLY, are now suddenly experts in all things linguistic. And even if it was Arabic, rather than Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu or Welsh – so what? A quarter of a billion people speak it, for fuck’s sake. Even the most stupid amongst you sheep must realise that they’re not all terrorists?

We like to think that racist attacks on the innocent are a thing of the past, but we’re now at the stage where it is the reviled behaviour not of a thuggish minority, but the norm willingly accepted by the majority. It’s just as well that airlines have now banned silverware and inflammable materials, else I’m sure the numbskulls would have fashioned pitchforks and flaming torches given the chance. And if you think the spineless fuckwits aren’t really a menace, then bear this in mind – they’re more than happy to recruit children:

“Our daughter noticed a couple of guys that were perhaps acting a bit strange. They went to the front of the queue, went to the back of the queue, and then they went and sat down by themselves.”

Remind you of anything? Perhaps:

“D?you know what that little girl of mine did last Saturday, when her troop was on a hike out Berkhamsted way? She got two other girls to go with her, slipped off from the hike, and spent the whole afternoon following a strange man. They kept on his tail for two hours, right through the woods, and then, when they got into Amersham, handed him over to the patrols.”

“What did they do that for?” said Winston, somewhat taken aback. Parsons went on triumphantly:

“My kid made sure he was some kind of enemy agent?might have been dropped by parachute, for instance. But here?s the point, old boy. What do you think put her on to him in the first place? She spotted he was wearing a funny kind of shoes?said she?d never seen anyone wearing shoes like that before. So the chances were he was a foreigner. Pretty smart for a nipper of seven, eh?”

– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

I hope that the two poor guys who got caught up in this horrible episode get suitably compensated, preferably enough to hurt Monarch Airlines (slogan: “we pander to racist paranoia”) into adopting a “don’t listen to spineless fuckwits” policy. I hope that anyone (if there was anyone) on the flight who was brave enough to defend these two men against the mob is suitably recognised and applauded. And I hope that the cowardly, paranoid mob, all too willing to lap up the ugly racist lie that all brown people are threats to their safety, and use it as an excuse to vent their fears and hatred at innocent people, suffer a fiery yet ironic death just fuck off, and leave the reasonable amongst us to live in peace.

A miserable storm in a teacup

I think the Danish cartoons episode has made everyone a little too jumpy over freedom of speech, and a little unclear as to what really counts as repression. Take the latest furore over Inigo Wilson. For those who haven’t heard, Wilson is a contributor to the Conservative Home blog (not an official Conservative publication but it has close ties); in a post made a couple of weeks ago, he wrote a “lefty lexicon” rant which was about as funny as root canal surgery. The shining highlight of it was his indiscriminate labelling of all Palestinians as:

“Archetype ‘victims’ no matter how many teenagers they murder in bars and fast food outlets. Never responsible for anything they do – or done in their name – because of ‘root causes’ or ‘legitimate grievances’.”

At the top of the post he mentions quite proudly that “manages community affairs for a large telecoms company”; it didn’t take more than the most cursory of Googling to find the company in question is Orange, and after complaints by some British Muslims he has now been duly suspended pending an investigation. Cue blogosphere furore.

Given the way his defenders are carrying on, you’d think that his opponents were bombing his house, or burning cardboard effigies of mobile telephones in the streets, instead of quietly writing emails of complaint (perhaps they’re just pissed off that British Muslims failed to live up to stereotypes this time round). The fact is that Wilson was either brave, or stupid, depending how you look at it, to use his real name and associate himself with his employers in a post in which he deliberately set out to be crass and offend; he didn’t mention Orange’s name directly but with his name on so many Orange press releases, he must have known it was a trivially easy thing to find out. By doing so, he managed to not just muddy Orange’s reputation, but more importantly cast serious aspersions about his ability to conduct his job; if you’re employing a community relations officer then you must be confident that he is going to treat all members of the community equally and fairly, without prejudice.

If Wilson had worked for Orange as a network engineer or systems analyst or call-centre operative or cleaner then his job would have been far more secure, and would have probably attracted far fewer complaints. But he’s in one where you have to be far more responsible about what you say and how you treat people, if you want to stay in it. Ironic really, given how much he and many others on the right so easily condemn others on their alleged lack of responsibility.

The whole affair really is a miserable storm in a teacup – as far as I know, Wilson hasn’t had his site taken down, nor has he been arrested, thrown in jail and/or had his testicles electrocuted for what he has said; nor has he been forced to go into hiding, or flee the country altogether, as those who truly have been persecuted for their words have. A distinction has to be made between genuine repression of free thought and speech by states, and companies worrying about an employee’s ability to perform his job relating to customers. And remember – he hasn’t even lost his job; his suspension (on full pay, one presumes) pending an inquiry is pretty much standard procedure in these affairs.

So don’t cry for Inigo Wilson; he has merely had to learn about blogging and what you disclose about yourself the hard way. He’s certainly no John Band or Girl With a One Track Mind, both of whom made a clear effort to keep their blogging and real-world personae apart, and had it breached by someone else against their wishes. If you really care, then quietly switch to Vodafone or O2 and save your words of support for those who really are being fucked over for what they write, such as these guys.

The origin of specious quotes

Justin gives John Reid’s recent anti-terror speech a good going-over. I have very little to add, except to question one part of the speech:

Charles Darwin wrote ?it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change?. That is why we need to see national security in a new context and all of us ? politicians, businesses, lawyers and citizens need to evolve our thinking for the 21st century.

To me, there’s something ever so slightly dodgy-looking about that claim; the language and tone used just don’t seem to fit in with Darwin’s style of writing, it doesn’t fit with my (limited) knowledge of Darwin’s own beliefs, and it’s a little too similar to the whole “blessed are the changemakers” spiel that managerialists in corporate and political culture love to preach. Moreover, there is a logical fallacy contained within – species don’t survive by changing, as by changing they become new species. So did Darwin actually say it?

While a quick Googling seems to agree with Reid, when it comes down to it, no-one can find where the quote came from. WikiQuote lists it as “attributed” but with no citation; the contributors to this discussion thread can’t find it either. So, to Project Gutenberg and a delve in the section labelled “Authors – D“. And I can’t find any trace of it there, not in Origin of Species, nor The Descent of Man or The Voyage of the Beagle. Instead, what Darwin has to say on strength seems to be the opposite of how Reid quotes him. From Origin of Species:

Finally, it may not be a logical deduction, but to my imagination it is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as the young cuckoo ejecting its foster-brothers, ants making slaves, the larvae of ichneumonidae feeding within the live bodies of caterpillars, not as specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law leading to the advancement of all organic beings–namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.

While in The Descent of Man:

Just as man can improve the breeds of his game-cocks by the selection of those birds which are victorious in the cockpit, so it appears that the strongest and most vigorous males, or those provided with the best weapons, have prevailed under nature, and have led to the improvement of the natural breed or species.

I’m fairly sure that Darwin made no such remarks on responsiveness to change (if he has and you can prove it by providing a primary source, then a shiny new ten pound note is yours – that’s how sure I am). It’s quite nicely ironic really; Reid recites a fake Darwin quote in an attempt to make his blueprint for society buzzword-friendly, and much more palatable and 21st century. But in reality, Darwin’s reflections on brute force winning supreme every time are much closer to Reid’s idea of success, and his vision of the future; one where state power is allowed to run with as few checks as possible, while privacy, freedoms and fairness are willingly and continually traded in exchange for a false sense of security.

Having doubts

It’s been quite hard to be sure about anything to do with the recent terror alerts. After all, the unfortunate tendency of the intelligence services and police to continually identify false positives, such as the shootings of Jean Charles de Menezes and Mohammed Abdul Kahar, does not immediately inspire confidence in their claims. Meanwhile, the mainstream press have often been complicit in feeding on whatever bone their source in the Met throws them (remember the terrifying “chemical vest” and “poison gas” stories after Forest Gate?), regardless of its veracity. But this is not to say I don’t believe that this was a genuine terrorist plot; merely that I am not totally convinced one way or the other; I am still waiting for more evidence to corroborate the security services’ claims.

However, I am fairly sure that our political leaders were at least utterly convinced that there was a clear and present danger, if only because the Blair government lives in fear of the wrath of the air industry; Gordon Brown has refused to increase air passenger duty; New Labour is more than happy to rubber-stamp unchecked growth in airport building and exempts the aviation industry from VAT and taxes fuel at a much lower rate than that of cars. For the government to introduce measures which, in the short term will cost one of its favourite industries millions of pounds, and in the long term possibly make their product less desirable through highly inconvenient security measures (the complaints have begun), without a genuine belief that lives were imminently at stake, would be highly contradictory.

So the belief is genuine, at the very least. However, there is still no smoking gun; most crucially – no explosives have been found. It has now been 72 hours since the first alert and the initial raids, but as I write no explosive devices have been found, nor any bomb factories or bomb-making equipment. So instead we’re left to the press’s best guess. According to what you read the bombs were made from nitroglycerine. Or TATP. Or nitromethane. Or kerosene and ammonium nitrate. They would consist of one chemical smuggled on, being undetectable by sniffer dogs. Either that, or it would be made from two or more “benign” chemicals that would be mixed together on the plane; the bomb would be detonated by a lighter or matches smuggled on board. Or a jerry-rigged iPod. Or a mobile phone. This would be either set on a timer, or alternatively triggered manually by a suicide bomber.

See what I mean about it being hard to be sure of anything? And all the while, a nagging question is forming at the back of my head: “Where are the explosives?” The plotters must have been close to completion for such a massive alert to be called, yet nothing has yet been found. Perhaps you think I’m being unfair, belittling the security services for going too slowly in what is a difficult investigation. For comparison though, the July 7th investigators, hampered by the lack of any live suspects or human intelligence, took five days to find the premises in which the bombs had been made, raiding them on July 12th. No two circumstances are the same so it wouldn’t be fair to judge yet, but there’s certainly a case for us to start to ask questions.

Given the information environment we now live in, perhaps it’s natural that the blogosphere is the first with scepticism -and I am not the only one to have doubts. Is it the fault of a mainstream press, over-keen to print page upon page of scaremongering and speculation with little established fact, and creating a vacuum in the process? Or is it that a government so keen to hype up terror threats that “boy cried wolf” syndrome has now irreversibly set in? Or is the blogosphere too cynical for its own good, too caught up in paranoia and mistrust of authority to believe anything it is told?

I’m not sure which situation I would prefer – to find out that we’re in denial and we came perilously close to mass murder conducted by a sophisticated conspiracy, or that our government and security services don’t have a clue about whether such threats exist, let alone who or where they are. But the question “where are the explosives?” still needs to be asked, even if, or perhaps especially if, the answer is something we might not like. So let’s keep asking it.

Oh no. The Daily Mail have discovered Well, they only use it to link to their own stories, but you can still use it to find out what’s on Middle England’s mind: popular tags include “health”, “celebrity” and “showbiz”, although sadly “asylumseekers” and “scroungers” have not yet made an appearance.

Still, it provides a neat summary of what is in the paper without having to read or even pay for the damn thing. Some select items from the past few days:

Yeah, I’m finally back. Got about a million Bloglines posts to run through first though. And I need to tidy up this site a bit. Bloggage will be quite slow