Monday, January 23

Irony and Politics

The more cynical readers of this blog might ask what the difference is. Bear with me while I take the usual rambling tour and pull things together at the end. This post and the title has been prompted by the recent weeks news and antics from our Political “Masters”, the media and the contrasts and inevitable ironies thrown up thereby. The word “irony” will figure a lot in this post.

The hoo-ha over prostitution and how to stamp this out has occupied the attention of the media and politicians. Apparently they are proposing to quasi- legalise this occupation by allowing more than one prostitute to work from the one premises with the help of a “maid” to act as doorkeeper, backup in case of assault and to …. “clear up” and do other maid type duties I suppose. However in contrast to this, it is proposed to have a zero tolerance to kerb crawling and any man caught doing this will be prosecuted to the full and naming and shaming will be used to deter this practice. I’m not sure about the rest of the country but the results of the madcap policies of the left wing, right on council in Newcastle (who hate cars) means traffic engineers are employed to deliberately hinder traffic flow. The traffic moves so slowly at any time of the day and night that it will be difficult to distinguish between a kerb crawler and normal traffic flow. Massive arrests of the entire working male population of Newcastle on any particular day might be on the cards. THAT will get the buggers out of their cars and onto public transport! It is even proposed that any man who hires a prostitute who has been smuggled into the country by people traffickers and forced into prostitution should be charged with rape.

I was based in Germany for a while and had the opportunity to observe the way legalised prostitution works. (Before anyone asks, I’m too stingy to spend my cash on “Ladies of negotiable affections” as Terry Pratchett so eloquently puts it. The solution to such frustration lies in my own hands - so to speak - at no cost at all. You are dealing with someone who wakes up in the middle of the night to check if he’s lost any sleep). It is considered just a profession like any other and licensed as such. The girls must obtain a Yellow Card from the Police and have a medical check up once a week. If you are unhappy with any aspect of the transaction, then complain to the Police. They will investigate your complaint and treat this like any other complaint. Equally, the girls have the protection of the law and pay tax etc. just like an ordinary occupation.

However with the usual fudge and non-committal approach which typifies this Government, they will neither plumb for one thing or another. So prostitution is sort of legal (or at least tolerated) but paying for sex is not … Their justification is that cutting off the demand will cause this “problem” to wither away. I somehow don’t think this will be the case. Instead it has left the prostitutes open to abuse from people trafficking and organised crime gangs such as the Albanians who are ruthless, vicious and without scruples who will doubtless take advantage of this new environment to increase prostitution and increase the misery. They (the prostitutes) don’t have the protection of the Law as they cannot report such abuses without incurring prosecution. I can easily imagine the Police refusing to take any action unless a list of their clients is provided. Easy prosecutions for them …

What the gangs will do with the money is easy enough to guess at. It will be used to fund more organised crime (they certainly believe in free enterprise, a lack of Government restraint and reinvesting profits back into their own businesses) which will result in more misery for everyone. They only care for themselves and their profits, not the welfare of the communities they operate in. So expect more of the same.

Contrast this with the reaction to the reclassification of cannabis back to a higher class of drug. “Fungus” Clarke admits that all the studies state that cannabis is harmful and isn’t as innocuous as claimed. However instead of reclassifying the drug he will rely on telling the users how harmful it is and somehow hope that the users will give up. Just like the spectacularly successful education campaign about the harm of smoking, I suppose. Instead, he will concentrate on drug dealers, not the end users or the “demand” end, and everything will be fine and dandy.

So what works for ending prostitution doesn’t work for drug use, apparently.

Let me put my usual logic to this. Feel free to put your own figures in and work through the concept. Suppose there are in my area 1000 drug addicts. Suppose they pay £1 per “fix” then a drug dealer will pull at least £1000 a day from these addicts (assuming one fix a day). If the Police arrest the dealer there will still be 1000 addicts that require their fix. Cue the replacement drug dealer who now wishes to charge £5 a fix – it is more dangerous for the dealer so he wants more money and the addicts don’t have an alternative supply. Arrest THAT dealer. Repeat the cycle until it becomes potentially lucrative enough to tempt someone intelligent enough and ruthless enough to make a decent go of it. Say £100 a fix? The dealer will be taking £100,000 A DAY (less the cost of the drugs, of course) Or in annual terms, £36.5 Million a year. Not bad as it’s tax-free and you don’t have to pay the usual NI Contributions, provide for maternity leave costs etc. It makes any investment in government bonds or stashing the cash in a Building Society account look a bit pedestrian. Deduct the cost of the drugs from source, of course, but it is still a lot of cash.

Where will the money come from? I suppose that the addicts will resort to crime to fund the habit. Who cares if Grannies are mugged, houses burgled or cars broken into or hijacked with their owners. Crime wave anyone?

Which brings me to the case of Tom ap Rhys Price, the lawyer who was mugged of everything he had of value then was stabbed to death. The assailants were unusually described as “Black” and young. What is the betting that they are drug addicts stealing to fund their habit. The delicious irony is that in court (IF they are caught and convicted – it is debatable if this will happen) a lawyer will plead that they are somehow not to blame. If, as I suspect, they are addicts, the lawyer will plead that they were under the influence of drugs and therefore not responsible. Don’t get me wrong on this. I think that his death is a tragedy and a rope necktie for his murderers is singularly appropriate. But the decisions of the Home Secretary and our political masters will directly fuel this type of crime. It is ironic that Lawyers by cleverly exploiting the letter of the law and Judges by creatively interpreting the law allows this type of scum free to roam the streets. Which, in turn, results in a lawyer being murdered. Somehow I can’t shake the sneaking feeling that things are somehow linked.

Of course, what is needed is Identity cards, everyone in the country to be put on a DNA database and even more surveillance. Don’t worry! The Politicians assure us that everything is safe in their capable hands and that the safeguards they are dreaming up will be watertight, so trust them.

Good old Ruth Kelly is, as usual, on the grill over her allowing paedophiles to teach. Only 88 such cases have been admitted to so really it isn’t a problem. Anyway, everyone is entitled to a mistake and to be rehabilitated so provided they promise not to repeat the offence, all is OK. Besides the List 99 is being administered far more rigorously now.

Except the man in charge, one Mr Vincent Barron, has been caught with thousands of pictures of adults having sex with children on his computer, allegedly. The Police are investigating and he has been suspended from his job. But we can have absolute confidence that the system is being administered correctly. It is inconceivable that such a person would not scrupulously investigate each and every case that crosses his desk. Or would he “report” someone known to him and debar them from working?

So we can have the utmost confidence in Identity and DNA databases which will be administered in an equally competent fashion. And there will be a full and open public debate about the proposed systems and they won’t be implemented without the full support of the public.

Except there is a database of DNA already which doesn’t just contain the samples of criminals. At least 24,000 children who have fallen into the hands of the Police for whatever reason have been fingerprinted, photographed and had DNA samples taken BEFORE the Police interviewed them. Mistaken Identity or being a witness to an incident resulted in the addition to the database. It makes any debate on the subject a bit redundant.

As a “for example”, if a woman is raped, then the Police will take her DNA and the DNA of her husband or boyfriend “to eliminate them from the enquiry”. And the DNA is there for all time, guilty or not. Under existing legislation, the Police can take a DNA sample without giving a reason or whether or not this is justified. And don’t forget, under the latest Criminal Justice Bill, the number of offences which can result in arrest has been massively expanded. Drop a sweet wrapper? Caught not wearing a seatbelt? Arrest and DNA sample taken.

In fact Britain has the largest DNA database in the world and it is 10 times the size of the United States Database at over 3 million or fully 5% of the population. But we are assured that it is an essential tool in the fight against crime. I would have thought it is a tool in the detection of a crime already committed (provided arson isn’t used by criminals to destroy any DNA evidence, of course) and not that essential at that. But I’m a bit critical of loose phraseology. Cynics might claim that the whole point of this is to make the life of the Police much easier and having everyone listed like a car registration number for easier identification is a key step. How about compulsory bar codes tattooed onto everyones foreheads? Seems sensible to me ...

But is this the action or behaviour of a free and democratic society, where the subjects are merely chattels of the State and counted and treated as such? Note I did not classify them as citizens – citizens have rights under law. Subjects are “subject” to the law and have whatever rights the State allows them and which can be removed at any time. Of course, every Police officer or Police Station cannot be expected to have a DNA tester on them. Besides it takes a while to extract a sample of DNA, process it and obtain a result that can be matched against the database so they will “need” a separate system which is more human readable. Such as Identity Cards based on biometrics, as a “for example”.

Of course, the system is being touted by our Political Masters as being foolproof and essential for the prevention of crime and terrorism - sorry - I meant the prevention of identity theft. Note how it has been downgraded although after the bombings in London it was being claimed it was equally essential for anti terrorism and security purposes.

I'd be lulled into this state of mind except for the fact real experts are raising questions and doubts already about the accuracy, reliability and costs of both systems.

The Identity card fiasco (and I’ll bet a £1 to a pinch of pigshit that it WILL be a fiasco) is easy to predict. I’ll bet a Mars bar to anyone who can name me a Government Computer Project that has actually done what it set out to do, was delivered on time and within cost. OK – this is a bit harsh. I offer the same prize to anyone who can name one that remotely did what it was supposed to do and came in at less than twice the cost and timeframe stated. Half a Mars bar to anyone who can do the same for one at 3 times the cost etc. However I believe that this is the wrong approach. I don’t object to it on the grounds of cost – as untenable as it will turn out to be – but on the whole concept at all. This simply should NOT be done in a nominally free society. Reliability will be a problem too. If it is 99.9% accurate (an unfeasibly high estimate – I’d settle for 80%) then at least 60,000 people would have faulty ID cards. That’s a LOT of people who are non people due to their cards not matching them. Civil Liberties are at stake here, people. And it isn’t a Liberty that once lost will be regained until the next dark age.

As for the much vaunted DNA database, Professor Sir Alec Jeffries (the person who “invented” DNA profiling 20 years ago) is saying that it isn’t 100% accurate if used like this. Apparently he originally put the odds as 1 to 37 million of having a match so close that it could not be distinguished apart. If we take the population of Britain as 60 million then potentially there are almost 2 people in the country with matching DNA. It is claimed in the Daily Mail of Saturday 21st January that 80% of people have a DNA “twin” sufficiently close in match to be indistinguishable. I’d be inclined to believe this simply because populations are relatively static over long periods and I mean centuries in this case. Over a long period, a pool of DNA may possibly build up which has sufficient similarities that a better than 1 in 37 million match could be possible in various regions of the country. I recall a TV programme by Magnus Magnusson a few years ago that tried to trace the Viking descendants in Britain by DNA. If this Viking trait and DNA can persist in the population for a thousand years, then large areas of the country could generate sufficiently close matches to be unreliable. I’m thinking of places such as Scotland which has, in the past, had limited immigration and has had a population which hasn’t had an influx of people since before the Romans. Yorkshire and Cornwall spring to mind too.

Factor in the vast numbers of samples likely to be going through the labs and the potential for contamination (either accidentally or deliberately) or other mix ups and it is dangerous to rely solely on this method of identification. Mistakes such as this have already happened – one report I read stated that a man suffering from advanced Parkinsons disease, who could not drive and barely dress himself was matched via DNA, arrested and spent 4 months in jail. The crime (burglary, incidentally) happened 200 miles away from his home and any sensible person observing his condition would conclude that it was impossible for him to have committed the crime. But it is 100% accurate according to the Politicians and Police and he was convicted and sentenced on that basis. And of course, we can implicitly trust our Government to set up processes and checks to ensure it is absolutely reliable. Just like the “List 99” process … Feel free to add your own examples to supplement my reasoning.

But trust the Government. They have assured us that all will be well. Honest.

But there is a more sinister side to this. I recall a Science Fiction story years ago called “Caught in the Organ Draft” by Robert Silverberg. In this story, transplant technology has reached a stage where swapping a heart or whatever is as easy or reliable as swapping a new engine into a car. Of course new organs are needed so the Government “drafts” healthy young people to “donate” organs – purely for the good of society, of course. Naturally the older, wiser and more experienced people should be kept alive rather than allow all that hard earned knowledge and experience to die. You can read it on line (it’s quite short – only 13 pages of well spaced A4) at this link:-

http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/classics/classics_archive/silverberg3/silverberg31.html

You want to bet that if the scenario outlined in the story is feasible that the death penalty won’t be introduced? And with a database of DNA to make matching of organs easy, what will be the penalty for minor crimes? If you think this is mad, do you think the “Great” politicians such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mugabe, Napoleon or Saint Tone of Sedgefield would pass up an opportunity to extend their benign policies a while longer? You won’t be hung by the neck until dead (far too wasteful) but become property of the state.

I said Irony was the theme of this posting. The ultimate irony is that we are repeatedly told we live in a free and democratic society but in reality, in Britain today, we are more controlled and monitored than any other society in history – including the Soviet Union at the height of its power. You recall the Lawyer I mentioned earlier? A throwaway remark in one news story stated that his stolen travel pass WAS USED AT A PARTICULAR TUBE STATION AT A PARTICULAR TIME by the murderer and he was caught on CCTV. The State is already monitoring us in fine detail without us knowing or thinking about it. And the “freedoms” we enjoy now are rapidly disappearing down the toilet.

As I said in a previous post, the Gestapo ran Europe with a manual card index system. Just think what results they could have achieved with the technology the State has at its disposal now.

Thursday, January 5

Northumberland

Over the Christmas break Sonia and I went to visit one of her friends who runs a bed and breakfast in Berwickshire near the Cheviot. It is a nice run out and takes you through a variety of Nothumberlands varied scenery. To give you some idea of what I mean, pick up a paperback book in your left hand and turn your hand until your knuckles are uppermost. You are now looking at an approximate map of Northumberland. The upper right corner and top edge is the Firth of Forth and Edinburgh would be at the top left corner. Your knuckles are the Pennines and your little finger and knuckle is the Cheviot and the Cheviot Hills. Your fingers are the hills either side of the valleys The main rivers are – from North to South - the Tweed (which forms part of the border between Scotland and England) the Aln, the Coquet, the Wansbeck – from old Norse meaning "Swans Beck" or stream – and the Tyne.

The bit between your fingertips and the edge of the book represents the relatively flat coastal plain where the major routes (road and rail) are located and most of the major towns (including Newcastle). This is good farmland and arable farming and cattle rearing are the mainstay of the economy.

We drove from Sonias’ house, up the A1 (along the western edge of the coastal plain) and then cross country towards the Cheviot. For the "book-in-the-hand" map users, we drove from the first joint of the index finger towards the knuckle of the little finger (who says I don’t know the place like the back of my hand??) so we were crossing the river valleys and the more exposed moors in a constant up and down rollercoaster of a drive. The moors are austere with their thin soil and underlying grey granite rocks poking through here and there. The dead bracken supplies a splash of mellowed old gold to contrast against the purples, greens and browns of the rest of the scene and provides an ever changing vista. The light in Northumberland is different to anywhere else – it has a clarity and brilliance which beams over the landscape and as it is constantly changing, provides an endless variation of scenery, even if you are travelling slowly or on foot. The curlew is the symbol of the Northumberland National Park and its plaintive cry is the sound of the moors. If you like birds then Northumberland is an ornithologists paradise.

The valleys are often quite heavily wooded so you drive through tunnels of trees. It needs care when driving in the winter as the Sun doesn’t penetrate to the more sheltered spots and frost, wet mouldy leaves and ice can remain for long periods and occasionally never dry out or thaw for days on end. But where the view opens up and the sun plays over the trees and fields, the colours and shapes of the trees present excellent photographic opportunities. Even when it is chucking it down with rain, it’s still picturesque.

In the summer, the twisting roads make for a motorcyclists playground – the traffic is generally light to non existent (at least away from the main routes) and as Northumberland is a big county and sparsely populated, a good ride out is easily achieved. Beware though! As I said, the county is big, the population small and the County Councils budget for road signs is smaller again. So when you see a chevron indicating a sharp turn, they mean it! It makes me drive and ride like a wuss when down south - they seem to put such chevrons everywhere even when the bends are quite gentle. Soft southerners, I suppose.

The consequences of not taking notice of the warnings can be lethal – many of my favourite rides are over some lonely and rugged roads. If you crash (car or motorcycle, doesn’t matter) you may not be found for days. Don’t believe me? One of my friends is an aircraft fanatic and he flies a microlight over the moors looking for World War 2 crash sites. He has found a few which had not been touched for the last 60 years, complete with guns, ammunition and the bodies of the crew. He has letters from the U.S. Air Force thanking him for finding the crash sites and the chance to recover the remains of the aircrew. They return the remains back to the States for burial and it allows the families to lay to rest their dead. How you can "lose" a polished aluminium Flying Fortress is no real wonder. Vast areas of the moors are pretty much the same as they were at the end of the last ice age – deep peat bogs, purple heather and brooding hills with streams everywhere. The aircraft are quickly swallowed up and it takes a practised eye like Johns to detect them.

There are probably more castles in Northumberland than any 5 other counties. From Celtic hill forts through to Norman Motte and Bailey sites to full blown late medieval concentric castles. If you are interested in fortifications, you will be able to study every type including bastles and pele towers. These last two are fortified farmhouses built to protect the people from the Rievers – the tribal families on both sides of the border who engaged in cattle rustling, brigandry, murder, feuding and other assorted activities to keep themselves amused before the invention of TV. Looking at the bastles and pele towers from the point of view of a modern soldier they are still pretty strongly built and easy to defend. Only artillery or antitank weapons would make much of a dent in them. Local stories and legends abound about the Rievers and the various fortified dwellings. If you are interested in narrative poetry, some of the tales make for gripping reading. Most of them are in the Northumbrian dialect which will make it difficult for anyone who isn’t a northerner to understand. 96% of the Northumbrian dialect is based on Old Norse, Saxon and Celtic languages, not the French based language of the remainder of England. As you may guess, I’m interested in the local history and castles. I’ve visited most of them take the opportunity to examine any I find at every opportunity. Even if it is persistently raining and wet.

Sonias friend and her husband are good people and we spent a happy afternoon chatting, discussing books, setting the world to rights, looking at the birds in the garden (3 greater spotted woodpeckers, chaffinches, robins, pheasants, and various tits and dunnocks) and watching the buzzards with binoculars over the distant hills. The cushets (wood pigeons) didn’t like the buzzards but they were in no danger. There are far too many rabbits for the buzzards to bother chasing them.

Driving back through the dark, the night was clear and the stars were out in force. The Orion nebula was clearly visible even to my eyes – it’s not something a city dweller like me sees without the use of binoculars at least.

Sets you up for the week it does! But don't tell anyone - let the tourists howl up the A1 to Scotland and leave Northumberland to the discerning and the motorcyclists.